Monday, 19 November 2012

The Golden Age

'AGE is an issue of mind over matter. if you don't mind, it doesn't matter.' Mark Twain said that and he knew a thing or two.

So, I'm talking to this reporter and her killer question? It's this: How old are you? Apparently it's what the readers like to know.

Is it? Really? 

It's about the least important thing about anyone isn't it? And in the context of my books the reporter is probably really wondering how I - a man of middle years - can hope to write convincingly about a nineteen year old boy.

And the answer is because I stayed nnnnnnnineteen longer than anyone I know. Far longer than the solitary year that most people get. Up to about the age of 12/13 I progressed through the days much like everyone else. But I got stuck in early adolescence for several years until suddenly a girl happened and I rejoined my peers at 19. And I stayed 19 through college, through my many years of answering the phone and photo-copying and all the various other deadening facets of assistanting. I stayed 19 through the birth of my first child, through my journalism training, through my first teaching gigs and my first book. I was 19 pretty much up until I'd finished writing Life! Death! Prizes! And by that time I was into the period you humans call your forties. 

Finishing that book seemed to push me on  a little, and I was able to move forward to my current age. Which is 29.

Yes, I'm 29 and I think I may very well stay here for quite a while. I like it here. It seems okay. I can run, jump, skip. I can take risks. I can still leap into things - but I just might look at how far the drop is first. 

See - as someone must have said - the tragedy of getting old is not that we age, it's that we stay so young. Many - most - older people are trapped in a body becoming unfamiliar to them. A body that is becoming the wrong body. Fuck  Wallace and his pitiful Wrong Trousers, most of us have the Wrong Legs, the Wrong Head and the Wrong Bits are getting Wronger. 

We had to do Thomas Hardy at A level and I remember these lines resonated with me 'I look into my glass/And view my wasting skin/And say 'would God it had come to pass/My heart had shrunk as thin...'
Something like that anyway (I'm not being so middle-aged as to check). Now my old English teacher, the inspirational Mr Jones, is not around to ask - but I think Tom Hardy is saying that we don't get old. Our skin gets lined and muscles begin to sag, we begin to ache in the places where we used to play - but still we are surprised when we catch ourselves in the mirror. Shocked even. 'Who is that old fucker staring at me?' we wonder. 'That strange looking geezer. The bloke who, now I come to look a little closer, looks scarily like my dad. What does he want with me?'

But one of the great things about writing is that you can be whoever you want to be. You can still fall in love with any guitar, any bass drum, any girl. The space-time continuum has all the meaning it was meant to have, ie no meaning at all. It is a piece of fiction itself. A scary fairy story to frighten us into buying pensions and insurance. A scam.

Don't ask me how old I am. Because the honest answer is I don't know. Just at the minute 29 seems to suit me fine, and I think I'll rest up here for a while. And in my head the guys at the top of this blog page are still guys I know, not ghosts. I could still go hang out with them at any time.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Adrian Barnes

THE world has had a rough night. No one has slept. From China to Chelsea, India to Indiana, Austria to Australia, from sea to restless, insomniac sea - the whole world has been laying awake counting the hours till morning. And that's just day one of a global phenomenon that moves very quickly from a 'well, that was weird.' to full-blown psychosis. Imagine it: a sleepless world, a world without rest. That's going to be a world all fucked up big style in short order. And, actually, you don't have to imagine it, because Canadian writer Adrian Barnes already has in his terrific debut novel Nod.

This is a book with explosive narrative propulsion. Nod is not for the squeamish - not being able to sleep turns the mildest people into monsters (ask any parent of tiny sleepless babies)-  but it is also a book with huge heart as well as linguistic daring. The hero, Paul, is a one of the few Sleepers in this new world (a fact he very quickly learns to keep quiet) and is also a professional lover of words and everything from the title on resonates at a variety of levels (Nod - for instance, is the land where Cain fled after he was expelled for killing his brother). Of course Nod is a metaphor for the way the frenzied activity of mankind is mostly pointless, and often dangerous - but it's also a damn fine terrifying helter-skelter of a modern horror story. The sort of thing John Wyndham might appreciate, or HG Wells. And Adrian is coming over from British Columbia to promote Nod (a book I fully expect to cause stonking hard-ons in Hollywood film studios - it has 'potential blockbuster movie' written all over it) - and I asked him a few questions... And he is, I think you'll agree, a thoughtful, intelligent bloke. Now go and buy his book.

Can we have your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words, please? (not 49, not 51...)

First poem, in grade one: "A mother's a mother/Skinny or fat/She shouts loud and long/All through the day/But I like her that way". Got a reaction and thought 'hmm'. From there it was Dr. Seuss then comic books then sci fi then punk rock then Dante then Dickens then NOD.

Where did the story for NOD come from? (are you an insomniac for example?)

Yes, I'm something of an amateur insomniac, which has given me time to reflect and consider how insomnia may well be the defining metaphor of our era and not just my own life. 

In what senses is Nod a Canadian book do you think?

I think Nod contains a trust in nature that's very Canadian. The problems in the book are all 'First World' as the kids say, and fairly universal, but the solutions are all out there waiting in the woods. Canadians love nature and even rely on it as a corrective to civilization. That confidence in nature stops Nod from going completely over the edge in terms of despair. I have a thousand kilometres of unbroken forest right behind my house. It's got my back.  

Nod possesses huge narrative propulsion, and it's also graphically violent at times. Did you surprise yourself in writing these scenes?

No. I pretty much just inhabit what I write and don't think about it too much, if that makes sense. I didn't realize Nod was so intense until others read the ms and said so. Odd because I've never written violently before and have no plans to do so again...but it is about an apocalypse, so no one can say it's gratuitous!

The hero of Nod loves words - indeed, he is a professional explorer of forgotten and ancient words. How far do you share his fascination?

On an amateur level. I teach English and will often stop a class for fifteen minutes and talk about the etymology of 'okay' or 'cool'. In the same way that metaphor adds depth to words, so too--I think--does knowing their histories.

What's the next project?

I've recently begun working on a comic novel titled "Dickensian" which is about a sort of post-modern uber-hipster who finds his life slowly transformed into a Dickensian orgy of the emotions.  

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire and why?

I admire people with the guts to tell the truth and not gussy life up too much. Most of my heroes were musicians when I was younger: John Lennon, Morrissey, Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, even Paul Weller. Those who dug right through the bullshit around fame, which is a form of mental illness for most famous people--and for society as a whole. In a literary sense that translates into George Orwell, GB Shaw, Noam Chomsky, and Socrates. In a personal sense, my father's mother and my mother's father as well as both my parents, who've always striven to be honest people.

Anyone you despise? (and why?)

No one. I can't despise because I'm too despicable to be qualified. Ask Jesus or Buddha, maybe!

World getting better or worse?

Both. On the one hand, I judge society by how it treats the marginalized--and on that front we're way ahead of the Middle Ages: gay people can now often live freely and in some places openly; people with mental and physical challenges are increasingly welcomed into society; women are now, at least in our part of the world, mostly masters of their own fates. That's progress. On the other hand, our governments and corporations are nightmares and we're headed for a big fall unless--and I can't in good conscience put it another way--there's a revolution.

Tell me something I don't know...

Two things. 1. For every year a coke dealer gets sentenced to in the US a crack dealer gets 100 years. Yes, 100. 2. Barack Obama defines as 'enemy combatant' anyone within drone strike range of the 'terrorists' he unilaterally sentences to death each morning over coffee. That includes many, many women and children.

Nod is published by Bluemoose tomorrow (october 31)

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Taxi for Emmerdale

I NEARLY laid down my life for Emmerdale. It's unlikely, absurd even - and entirely true. just a few weeks into my - very short - stint as a storyliner for the show (which is celebrating it's ruby anniversary with a live show even as I type!). I was mugged on my way to Leeds station. Two lads after my laptop, on which were copies of all the new storylines. If I lost them to these hooded weasels we would have to do them all again and the prospect was a horrific one. Clearly I wasn't going to go through all that again, so I shouted, I roared, I kicked out and most of all I kept a stubborn grip on the strap of my lap top bag.

I'm no hero. I'm not tough. But a middle-aged man needs very little excuse to go nuclear these days. Over 40, it needs almost nothing to send us off into a scary, volcanic murderous rage. Losing your glasses can do it, a dodgy mobile signal can do it, never mind a kid laying his ferrety fingers on your Lenovo. And in any case I think these boys were probably junkies and, as we well know, heroin is not a performing enhancing drug. Not for street fighting anyway - if you are recording A Kind of Blue or Exile On Main Street, it seem to work rather better.

So, the fight was a short one. And they ran off to ring their probation officers or whatever, to complain that the nasty shouty man wouldn't do the decent thing. And left me to have palpitations about how it could have turned out. A stanley knife in the guts, the family turning off the life support with me locked in by own body, and unable to tell them that I was still alive... and then the grave-stone. Here lies the grave of Stephen May... Died So The Sugdens and The Dingles might live.

Except that you don't know who the Sugdens and the Dingles are do you? Or, if you do, it's a distant folk memory like the way people who have no conscious knowledge of George Formby still somehow know the words to 'Leaning On a Lamp Post' or 'When I'm Cleaning Windows'.

During my time on Emmerdale I rarely met actual fans of the show (and I include the cast and crew here). In fact I rarely met anyone who admitted to watching it. I used to hear 'My mum watches it.' or, most hurtfully of all, I once got 'My Nan used to watch it.'

Which, to be fair, was more than I did. I can admit it now. But don't tell anyone.  The whole time I worked on Emmerdale I didn't watch a single episode. Not all the way through. I couldn't actually bear to. So it wasn't much wonder that my storylines weren't much cop. Amusing things for the old people to do with chutney, that was what I found myself tasked with. This is the TV soap equivalent of being made to clean the toilets with a toothbrush. Punishment detail.

But there was one storyline I - sort of - came up with. A big one. Now, it's possible that other people will claim this didn't happen. That I am suffering from false memory syndrome. That they came up with this story. They have their truth, and this is mine (to coin a phrase) and bear in mind the adage about success having many fathers while failure is an orphan. And it's true that in soap storyline writing you are often working in groups so the contribution of one individual is hard to measure. Except in this case. Because in the case of the Paddy\Chas story the authorship is - to my mind anyway - completely clear. It came from a Hebden Bridge taxi driver.

Now because you don't know who the fuck Paddy and Chas are (you're now singing When I'm cleaning windows and playing air ukulele) I'll tell you. Paddy Kirk (brilliantly played by Dominic Brunt. It is a strange fact that some of the actors on Emmerdale are amazing. Dom, Mark Charnock -the guy who plays Marlon and - especially - the guy who played Eli Dingle, whose name I forget.  And Jane Cox who plays Ma Dingle. All superb actors.) Paddy Kirk is the village vet. An amiable, good-hearted, permanently flustered oaf. Unlucky in love and a bit of a buffoon. Chas is the village vamp. A tart with a heart (Chas is short for Chastity. Ho and, indeed, ho.) Chas has chequered sexual history. The streets of Emmerdale are littered with the hearts she's broken... Nevertheless she walks in hope that one day her dark prince will come along. Someone who can tame her...

Anyway, one night on my way home from a hard day on chutney duty, I took a cab. I mentioned what I did and the taxi driver went into paroxysms of joy. She WAS a fan. She LOVED the show. In fact she loved it so much she knew what should happen... And what should happen was that Paddy - amiable idiot that he is should get entangled with Chas.

'Really?' I said

'Yes, really.' She said. And went on.  She told how Chas, fragile after her the wreckage of her latest doomed romance, will - one desperately lonely night - bestow on her favours on Paddy. And the scales will fall from her eyes and she'll see the honest virtues of Paddy are far better than the dubious charms of the self-absorbed shits she's been falling for up to now... Plain, good-hearted, sturdy yeoman Paddy he's the man. Paddy - sure his heart will be broken if he falls for Chas - resists. But she is determined. She woos and wins him and finally convinces Paddy that she's serious. That she loves him Goddamit. That the self-absorbed shits are a thing of the past, that it's only good-hearted vets for her from now on. Paddy has never been so happy. Except that... Chas can't help herself and, having reeled Paddy in, finds she still has a thing for Carl - the bad boy haulage company owner and her former partner. She has a for old times sake fling with Carl. And breaks Paddy's heart.

And which point she realises that it really IS Paddy she loves and has to work to win him back a second time and of course he's doubly watchful, doubly resistant... It's like one of those 19th century French novels. Like something out of Zola or Flaubert. And genius... And she succeeds 'And then they're an item for a long time' concludes the tax driver.

So the next morning I'm in to those offices on the Kirkstall Road and I'm saying 'You know what should happen? Paddy and.... Chas should happen.'

And they're all scoffing  'Really? Paddy and Chas... '

And I'm all 'Yes really...' And I begin to explain, just as the Hebden taxi driver explained it all to me. I was the girl with the golden straw, she was Rumpelstiltskin - and she didn't even want my first born daughter in return.

And that my friends is the story of how Paddy and Chas came to be. Other people will claim the credit, other people will tell you that it wasn't like that... but we - you and I - we know the truth...

Like we all know the rot set in when they stopped calling it Emmerdale Farm...

The First episode of Emmerdale Farm was broadcast Oct 16 1972. The same year Ziggy Stardust came out... 


Monday, 1 October 2012

Some sympathy please for Jeremy Forrest

So Jeremy Forrest is guilty of child abduction. He's got five and a half years. Juries are generally sensible and I haven't been following the court reports that closely - but here's something I wrote about it when the story first broke back in October...

A TEACHER I know asked her Year Ten class 'So what do you think of this Jeremy Forrest thing? You know the maths teacher guy who ran off to France with a student?' The response was instant and predictable.

'He's a paedo, miss!'

'He should be castrated, miss!'

And then she asked them if any of them had ever had crushes on teachers. After a pause, about eight raised their hands. My friend the teacher twitched an eye-brow. There was laughter, and another eight hands went up. Sixteen out of a class of 25 fifteen year olds. Makes you think.

And of course, this Jeremy Forrest, this man, this maths teacher, has stepped over a line. He has - whether consciously or not - abused the power relationship between student and faculty.More specifically, he has, in the words of another friend of mine, 'been a complete twit.'

But desire, love, makes twits of us all. Makes complete fucking arses of us all. Who hasn't made a dick of themselves because of desire? Who doesn't, even now, suddenly feel a hot rush of shame at the thought of something we did or said to the wrong person because love - or what we thought was love - had seized the driving wheel of our psyche.

Here's a sum - the average maths teacher teaches twenty classes a week. Most groups he will see three or four times in that week, so he's working with 100 different kids each year. In a ten year teaching career that is a thousand different pupils. In that time it would be staggering if a young, handsome, personable, clever teacher didn't collect a fair few admirers. Some of them passionate, some of them wily, several of them very beautiful and very smart themselves. No surprise that maybe with some of them he makes a real live adult connection. No surprise that feelings grow, especially if he's hired by the parents to give extra maths tuition. Especially if the school apparently turns a blind eye when he sits holding hands with the girl on the way back from a school trip to the States.

And of course, he shouldn't act on these feelings. Of course he should be responsible. And if he can't control himself,  he should be sacked, no question. But should he be in jail? Should he be branded a paedo? Should he be on the sex offenders register for life?

Interesting that he ran away to France, where the age of consent is fifteen. Where, in fact, he has committed no crime and where he and the student could, if they chose, live together openly and have children and lead an entirely respectable life. In five years time Monsieur and Madame Forrest could be on the PTA committee of their own kids' ecole.

I guess that won't happen though. I guess that he'll be destroyed and the relationship will fall apart pretty quickly - it almost certainly would have done anyway, but what relationship could withstand the pressure this one is getting now?

And I'm willing to bet that in ten years time Jeremy Forrest will still be avoiding the eyes of strangers, fearful that he'll be attacked as a nonce, while in another part of the world, over a few bottles of chilled Pinot Grigio, the girl might well  be telling this amazing story of how she once  ran off with her maths teacher. And after she's told it, most of her audience will chime in with stories of how they themselves once kissed their teacher, or almost did, or wanted to.

And, just in case, you were wondering, I was a teacher for ten years. And, no, nothing like this happened to me. Not really. But then I was already 30 when I became a teacher. And teenagers - with their rubbish music and their dodgy fashions and unformed opinions never really did it for me - but it is an occupational hazard and silly not to acknowledge that every now and again in a long career you might meet a sixth former for whom - if you weren't their teacher - you might have made an idiot of yourself over.

Women as well as men by the way. Just this week I had a conversation with another ex-colleague who told of a kid who had a crush on her, who was, in the end, expelled for various idiocies. 'And thank God he was.' she said. 'Because everyone in the staff room knew he had a  crush on me - and they all joked about it - but what they didn't know, was that I had one on him. He was 14.'

And my former colleague is the best teacher I've ever met.

Anyway, if you want to read more you should look at my novel TAG -- because one of the slightly annoying things about this whole Jeremy Forrest thing is that the two of them seem to have lifted chunks of my book to inform their escape plan...


Thursday, 27 September 2012

Why I will never self-publish

A time-slip story. It is 1962 and in a studios in London a band are auditioning for Decca records. It is The Beatles, a combo popular in Liverpool and in Hamburg but unknown nearly everywhere else (though bizarrely, they have just done a one off gig in Stroud). This audition does not go well. The band are disconsolate until somebody (probably Paul - it would be Paul) says 'Never mind, guys. Let's put it out ourselves.'

And so they do. Because this is my story and not a true story, my version of the 1962 Beatles are able to convene around a lap-top in Paul's bedroom and record their first album. No George Martin producing and with Pete Best on drums. It's a more or less faithful rendition of their live set, only not as good because they don't yet know much about capturing sound in the studio. Also Pete Best is very, ah, limited as a drummer so the time-keeping is erratic.

But the album comes out, their friends and family all love it. Fans buy it at gigs and it sits there in this strange 1960s internet I've just invented, available to everyone to download at will. Which is a shame, because all four members of the Beatles will have cause to regret rushing out their first album. A producer called George Martin hears it and decides he'll pass on what sounds to him like just another rough and ready beat group. Eventually Paul gets a day job in PR, George goes back to the electricians apprenticeship. Pete gets that civil service post working in a Liverpool job centre, where he regularly sees John. Because John is actually unemployable and so is always in the Job Centre.

And now back in the real world... the thing is, the Beatles needed rejection in order to get good. It was as vital to their development as the hours spent playing to drunken sailors as the warm up acts for the strippers in Hamburg. And even when they were ready for greatness they needed the special midwifery of a producer, plus the distribution of EMI, the PR guy, Brian Epstein.They needed a team of people that loved them, would fight for them and would also challenge them. They needed talent yes, but they also needed resilience.

Knock-backs are part of the process. Who was it said 'if you don't get rejections, it just means you're not trying hard enough'. Someone smart anyway.

We, of course are unluckier than the Beatles. We are unlucky because we live in a place where it is possible to have a rejection free artistic life. Because it's emphatically not a good thing. Musicians, writers, we can - if the knockbacks get too bruising - just stick our stuff out there. We can skip the whole tedious business of rewriting, reworking, redrafting, reshaping, arguing about plot decisions and character. We don't need agents or editors. we don't even need copy-editors - who wants to argue about commas, when they could be having fun, fun, fun. We can do it all ourselves and put it up on the internet and sell our work for 10p. Because anyway what is the point of trying to get published the old-fashioned way, everyone knows the traditional publishers only want nubile women or their mates from Oxbridge don't they?

Well, no. The rest of us, can with talent, luck and perseverance can still get proper deals. And I say that as a balding, greying middle-aged man living in the North who only ever went to Cambridge to see my dad, who was a porter in one of the colleges there.

Publishers often get it wrong. Maybe they even usually get it wrong, but at least you know the gateway was tough to get through. For a book to arrive in a bookshop it has been pretty thoroughly road-tested and interrogated. As a reader I find that comforting, even if it's annoying as a writer.

And if your book is too edgy for the mainstream? Well, there are dozens of eager indies putting out good stuff. And making a success of it. Sandstone, And Other Stories, Cargo, Bluemoose, Peepal Tree, Tindal Street, Cinnamon... and those just the ones I've thought of off the top of my head this second. And they accept unagented manuscripts too.

And the other thing that puts me off self-publishing? It's the zealots who advocate it. They are so angry. It's like publishing is a girl who inexplicably rejects their advances while blatantly flirting with some less worthy bloke from down the road. She likes someone else. Get over it. Maybe she'll see your worth another day after the pointless affair with the lesser writer burns itself out.

And it's not like the self publishing ebook authors are at the vanguard of some youthful revolution, because you know who really values the printed artefact? Young people that's who. In a world where anything can be 'published' on the net, then it has no real value. But if someone has invested time and money in making a real Thing, and then that Thing is transported from printers, to warehouse, to shop. Where people have browsed and chosen your Thing over all the other shiny Things they could buy. Well, that is really worth something...

So if you're considering self-publishing on the internet or anywhere else I would say wait. Ask yourself if you are really a skilled enough editor, copy-editor, publicist, designer and marketeer to do it all yourself. And even if the answer to those questions is yes. Then still wait, because maybe you are The Beatles in early 1962. Maybe you are just not quite ready. You need to get rid of the inner Pete Best that is holding you back. And you need to find your George Martin. Of course you can BUY the services of editors, designers, marketeers etc but actually that's my other big beef with the self-publishing industry...

Self-publishing, indie publishing whatever you call it, is one of those things that sounds democratic but is actually anything but. Is the opposite of that. It sounds like it is one of those games anyone can play but actually the indie authors who are most visible are generally the ones with the deepest pockets. If you're skint how will you afford all the help you need to publish properly? If indie publishing were ever to become the norm (and it won't) then how will the marginalised voices ever find a way to be heard?

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Ben Myers - some good words from the bloke up the road

IPSWICH is not really a small town. 120,000 people I'd guess... And I lived there for six years and guess how many writers I knew? Well done Sir, Madam...that's right. None. Not a single one. And I moved North to a small wet town in the Pennines and I suddenly couldn't move for writers. They were in the co-op, the grocers, the pubs (obviously). They were in the bun shops, the newsagents, the camping suppliers and the Spar. Hebden Bridge is the kind of place where, after you've chatted about rain and flooded cellars, conversation moves naturally onto the perfidy of publishers, the stupidity of TV producers, the strange tastes of readers.

It can get a bit claustrophobic. And living where all the writers live is expensive (I've blogged about this before, but I'll say it again - if you want house prices in your town to go up invite in the writers, the artists, the poets - they create the vibe that your lawyers and your TV bigwigs will pay big money for) so I moved again. Only a mile and a half down the road to Mytholmroyd.

Hebden Bridge is the town that passed the 11plus and went to grammar school, where it customised its uniform a bit (tie half-way down the shirt, nothing too outrageous) and got into whey-faced guitar music and got a shaggy indie-kid haircut. Mytholmroyd went to the comp and got into Sabbath and cider. Hebden Bridge reads The Guardian. Mytholmroyd reads The Mirror. And before anyone gets too irate on Royd's behalf, I prefer The Mirror.

Mytholmroyd is chippy and cross about the way Hebden slouches about  thinking the world owes it a living. Mythoymroyd is a grafter. Royd is not for hippies. No one makes knitted yoghurt gags about Mytholmroyd. Royd is cheaper.

And yet, still I can't escape the writers. Ben Myers for example. He lives up my road. He lives ten doors away. I walk past his house twice a day walking my boy, Herbie, to school. He walks past my house twice a day with his dog, Cliff.

(And I know what you're thinking. The boy has a dog's name. The dog has a bloke's name. I think it too).

And we're both on the short-list of this ludicrous award thing The Guardian's Not The Booker. You got short-listed by a public vote (though that makes it sound much more simple than it was - people had to write 100 word reviews of their chosen book and post them on the Guardian book blog in order for the vote to count. Imagine if grown-up elections were held this way. If you had to write a 100 words in praise of Ed Miliband in order to change the govt... it's no way to get a high turn out...) And Ben's book PIG IRON topped the poll.  

Despite his living ten doors away, I've only met Ben twice and both of those times were in the last couple of weeks. After the Not The Booker shortlist was announced we thought we should meet, so he came round for a brew... and we met again a few days ago when we found ourselves looking for a tearful kids lost toy plane in the park (fret not boys and girls - we found it).

He's good company. Serious and thoughtful about his work and committed. He writes, he walks, he thinks. Reads, listens to music, watches films. That's pretty much it. Doesn't drink or smoke, commits himself to refining his vision and expressing it. He's impressively dedicated and the work is muscular, powerful and original.

His first book - the provocative BOOK OF FUCK - was written at speed when he was 24. His second - RICHARD - caused something of a bruising fuss when it came out, being the imagined story of Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers - a figure the hard-core fans think they own.

PIG IRON tells the story of a John-John Wisdom a bare-knuckle fighter from the North-East's traveller community, and is making waves far beyond The Guardian...

Anyway, in my relentless search for writers' stories, I walked the 50 yards to his house and asked him some questions. But maybe you should read this extract of the book first.

Or this review:

And now read this:

Hello Ben, can you write your autobiography for me in exactly 50 words (not 51, not 49 - EXACTLY 50)?

Just before I became a teenager I wanted to be boxer. Then my grandfather killed himself. Then I was seriously ill in hospital for a long time. Then I decided I wanted to be a writer and have been trying to become one ever since. I write every single day.

Why should we read Pig Iron?

Should seems like a strong word, but I think reading any book is better than doing lots of things. Like golf, for example. Or waddling around one of the newly sprouted edge-of-town malls. There’s a bit in the book that has made some people cry. Another bit has made someone regurgitate.

What research did you do?

I spent many years researching travelling culture through books, articles, documentaries, films, conversations. I actually researched the subject long before I decided to write a novel with a gypsy narrator. It was just anthropological interest, I suppose. I’m also a nature boy and spend a lot of time walking or running outdoors. I probably do a few miles every day so that informs the descriptions of landscape. On a more practically level I did a lot of research about boxing and illegal fighting techniques in order to accurately write about violence in a way that is hopefully convincing, sickening and repulsive. Because violence is.

How do you feel your writing has changed since The Book of Fuck came out in 2004?

It has changed a lot. I feel like my writing has got infinitely darker, more pared down, more economical. I think it has more meaning. Somewhere along the way – probably about five or six years ago – I finally stopped emulating my literary influences and began to really think about finding a voice I could call my own. I embarked upon a new regime. I don’t drink or smoke or take drugs (all of which I have some experience of); I don’t have a TV that works and I gave up on newspapers. Instead I sit down and I write. I’m only just starting to get there. Also I only write about life and death now.

You co-founded a movement - the New Brutalists - how serious was this? And how would you define New Brutalism?

Brutalism was a call-to-arms. It was – and is – a small group of like-minded people, all born in the mid/late 1970s, all from various towns in the north, banding together out of a shared sense of frustration  and anger at a mainstream literary world that had rejected our heroes and were now rejecting us. Our main output was first and foremost poetry. Many of our influences came from cinema, visual art and music – particularly the energy and minimalism of punk and post-punk. There was no bitterness there though – just energy and optimism.

Your last book - Richard - was a kind of imagined autobiography of Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers. What attracted you to his story?

Richey Edwards came from a background – a world – comparable to my own.  Similar background, similar era, similar tastes. He came from ordinariness and became a rock star. I come from ordinariness and ended up writing about such rock stars at Melody Maker and other publications. I was less interested in the rock star aspect of the story though, and keener to explore the theme of the mental disintegration of a young man. I’ve seen a lot of mental disintegration in young men – and women.

I wanted to get behind the smokescreen of music press mythology – though may have ended up contributing to it instead. Many of the influences on the book were the very same writers Edwards cited as influences upon him in the first place: Camus, Sartre, Hamsun. Sylvia Plath. Bret Easton Ellis. Existentialist / nihilist fiction.

How did readers, Manic Street Preachers fans, his family and his bandmates respond to the novel?

It seemed to illicit all sorts of responses from all sorts of people. From the glowing to the hateful. The most damning appraisals came from those who had never read it. There was a lot of anger. The most positive feedback came from readers who had no interest in iconoclastic rock writing and instead read it as a contemporary novel grounded in reality.

You write for music magazines. When I was young this was THE dream job. What are the best/worst things about it?

The best: freedom and free things. Just being able to write. I’ve been able to see the world thanks to music magazine and met so many interesting people along the way. I went through a phase in my early twenties of simultaneously living in a squat in London and staying in hotels in Hollywood. That was good. The worst: the money. Music journalism pays less now than when I started 15 years ago. The irregularity of work. The lack of standard benefits (sick pay, pensions). But how cares about money. If you can live on a mid-four figure salary per annum and don’t mind receiving death threats from over-inflated, pompous ego-heads who spank planks for a living then this is the job for you!

Who, in life or writing - do you most admire?

I like Werner Herzog and Iggy Pop. I tend to admire people who commit to a singular vision. Original people. Francis Bacon, Crass, Sun Ra or the face that Gloria Swanson pulls at the end of Sunset Boulevard.

In writing it’s often particular books rather than people, though I keep coming back to Ted Lewis, Richard Brautigan, Cormac McCarthy, Italo Clavino, John Fante, Daniel Defoe, Derek Raymond, Mikhail Bulgakov, John Rechy, David Vann, Roger Deakin. Pat Barker’s early novels. Some Charles Bukowksi. I like some crime writing, nature writing, a lot of the kitchen sink / angry young man novels. I watch a lot of films. There’s a group of people in Newcastle called the Amber Film Collective; I like their output. At the moment I’m watching lots of obscure English films from the 70s too. I like the feel of them. The autumnal colours, the odd sound effects and the tension.

How come you ended up in the this little patch of West Yorkshire and how long will you stay do you think?

I think I wanted to experience ‘rain’ in all its many varieties. I’ve moved five times in five years so I intend on staying here for quite some time. Long enough to be covered in algae and harbour a disliking for people in Lancashire anyway.

What's next?

I’ve been working on two novels since Pig Iron and they’re nearly finished. Together they form a loose trilogy of sorts – thematically-speaking anyway. Though each novel is a stand-alone work, they are each set in a different rural corner of Northern England. The rural England you rarely see on television or read about in your Sunday supplements. Each concern characters who exist on the fringes of society. Alongside  Pig Iron they explore ideas such as identity, landscape, moral corruption, violence, crime, familial legacy, deviance, farming, survival – but also beauty and escape too.

 Pig Iron is published by Bluemoose and available everywhere...

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Lazerzone Incident

The boys are nervous, keyed up. It's going to be a shitstorm, they know that. But this is what they've trained for. They've thought about nothing else for days. They feel the comforting heft of their weapons, shift and wriggle under the body armour. I'm with them. And I'm armed and body-armoured too, but I'm not really one of them. I'm a newbie, a rookie, new to the soldier's life. likely to hold them up, slow them down. A liability who could cost lives. But I'm determined not to let the squad down.

We see our opponents and I want to laugh, even as my heart sinks...

I should reassure you here. I'm not embedded on a mission with Our Boys in Helmud. I'm actually with Our Boys in Huddersfield. I'm at Lazerzone for my youngest's ninth birthday party. I'm just about tolerated in his team of eight eager little commandos and we've just watched the health and safety talk presented by a Saturday Kid so bored or hungover or doped up, that I kept thinking he was going to nod out before he reached the bit about what to do if the fire alarm sound...

Oh yes, our opponents. They troop in to the pre-battle  holding area and they are eight little boys, as nervously excited as our lads are. They are even accompanied by an old codger - the equivalent of me. No doubt he is also dad of the birthday boy, tolerated more than properly included in the platoon. I catch his eye, we both do resigned little shrugs.

Because there is one difference between his squad and mine. They are all Asian. And my kid's team? They all look like Stormtroopers, they could hardly be more Aryan. Pale-eyed blondes the lot of them. Except for Herbie who is a red-head.

So the enemy here could be pint-sized Pathans. Trainee Taliban. And the old guy with them in white fully turbanned up with an impressive beard.

I'm not entirely comfortable with the notion of waging War against Asians. Even in fun. I had Iraqi lodgers during the first Gulf War and that was hard as night after night we all watched planes take off to hurl fire and metal onto their family and friends. And ever since we've seen too many pictures of dead babies, houses turned to rubble, kids with bandaged stumps. Bodies blown apart in Karachi, Kabul, London. It's all been too horrible and this game in Huddersfield suddenly feels kinda grotesque.

Maybe all war games are grotesque. Maybe we should stop our boys doing it. Then again I grew up killing hundreds of imaginary Germans on a daily basis. and once me and my cousin Kevin spent a whole week re-enacting the fall of Saigon. I once played the Confederates when we had the American civil war taking place in the fields behind my house in Curlew Crescent.. And yet I love Germany and the Germans now (and not just because they've been buying my book).   I'd be keen to go to Viet Nam. And I have no urge to buy myself a couple of slaves.

And yet this impending battle in Huddersfield lazerzone  does make me a little queasy. And this feeling is not in any way dispelled by going into the battle arena itself.

It is a church.

Yep. The interior designer of Laserzone has decided that  these wargames should take place in a replica church complete with pulpit, font and stained glass window. What we are about to enact here is a heated skirmish from a 21st century version of the Crusades.

And what you want to know is whether I do, in fact, join in. Of course I do. The boys on both sides are oblivious to the resonances of the set up. White or brown, they are all just little boys having fun pretending to shoot people, the way little boys have done for generations. And in any case the guy with the turban shoots me in the back within a minute of the battle commencing. He doesn't seem to agonise over the politics of lazerquest quite as much as I do.

I get into the game so much that I launch a solo assault on the enemy stronghold Colonel H Jones, only to picked off by a self-assured young brave who says. 'Goodbye, old man.' before firing the fatal shot. It's a cool line, one I applaud even as I make the decision to hunt him down in the next game.

And tomorrow our wee man is ten and we're going back to Lazerzone for his tenth birthday. Can't wait to see who our opponents are this time. The children of bankers maybe. Prep school kids. That would be much better. My boy's  little gang though, they won't care. They'll zap whoever you stick in front of them. And they'll do it anywhere. Church. kindergarten. shopping Mall. School. University. And I don't think many of them will grow up to be mass murderers or war criminals.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Wake Up Happy Every Day - An extract

This is the first page or two of the first draft of the next novel, Wake Up Happy Every Day due to be published by Bloomsbury in 2014.

Not a single word of this may survive the editing, redrafting, and reshaping process. Or some of it may turn up, but in different parts of the book. It could even turn out to be the very last page. Everything is up for grabs. Maybe the book won't even appear, or if it does it might have a new title. This extract , if it does survive, will almost certainly be shorter, crack along faster.

But this is where we are now... This is the demo version...

There will, of course, by typos and crimes against grammar...

Wake Up Happy Every Day
I am in San Francisco. In Russian Hill. In a house that once belonged to Fanny Osborn-Stevenson, widow of Robert Louis. I am drinking 50 year old malt and sitting in in a fine leather arm-chair. There is the smoky crackle of vintage blues in the background. On vinyl. Bessie Smith. Good booze, good blues and nothing to do tomorrow. This is all anyone needs to be happy. Only I can't really concentrate because Russell is talking.

'I'm giving it all up, mate. Getting out while I can.'

Russell is turning his back on everything. Not the money, obviously. Just the work. Just the life. He's fifty tomorrow after all, he's worked long enough - now is the time for adventure, travel. He's going to see everything. He's going to Marrakesh, Ulan Bator, Spitzbergen. He's going to Easter Island, Dahomey, Kaliningrad. The Antarctic if he can. He's going to Everywhere and then he's going to Anywhere.

And he's not just going to see these places oh no - he's going to develop relationships with them. He's going to get under their skin. He's going to pull them apart to see how they work. Maybe he'll write about them. Proper books too. Not just bloody blogs.
And then he's going where they don't even have Starbucks. Where he can't be emailed or poked or skyped or dream-tabbed or sat-phoned. Places where the long needy arms of Thread friends can't tap him on the shoulder to suggest he like something they've done, made, seen. Or, worse, like things their kids have done, made, seen. He's going where he's beyond the reach of what's trending.

I wonder if there even are such places any more, but Russell's too intoxicated by his plan to listen.

Maybe he'll help set up schools, hospitals, Maybe he'll adopt a few kids. Bright kids. Kids who can talk. Kids who can walk properly. I let it go, don't say anything.

On and on he goes, while Bessie struggles to make herself heard. He says that, then again, maybe he won't help the street kids of South Sudan or wherever. Maybe he'll - at last - just have fun. See what happens. He's going to be open to whatever comes along. He's going to have the gap year he'd denied himself at eighteen. The gratification he'd deferred then he's going to have now with compound interest. From now on he is going to have a gap life. Fifty, says Russell, is not the new forty. Fuck that. Fifty, says Russell, is the new nineteen. A time when the world is full of limitless possibility.

His eyes are blazing. This is his renaissance. He is leaving behind the crocodile swamps of commerce. He's liquidated all his interests and he names the figure he's got for them. The numbers make my eyes sting. Make my skin itch. It's a staggering sum.

Turns out Russell is richer than the Queen, richer than Madonna. Zuckerberg rich. Biblically rich. Richer. What a waste. What a terrible, terrible waste.

I close my eyes. Listen to the music stretching its fingers out from the all the ghosts of the great depression: from the soup kitchens, from all the brothers sparing dimes. Listen up fellas, Bessie Smith wants a little more sugar in her bowl. The minx.

And then Russell feels the need to tell me why he can afford to do this gap life thing and I can't. And so the very last words he says to me, like so many other words over the years, are about success, failure and the line between them.

People say it's a fine line, like the one between love and hate. Russell, bless him, has never seen it like this. For Russell it's always been more of unnavigable ocean. His continent of hard-won achievement on one side – all fifteen million dollar houses once owned by the widows of famous wordsmiths on one side, and the scrubby, barely inhabitable landscape of my failure on the other. It's a subject he finds endlessly fascinating. One he can to return to again and again, always finding something new to say.

And now, on this last night, he says, 'Thing is, Nicky-boy, I know that it is partly genetic. And it might be a little bit environment but mainly – mainly - ' here he wags a stiff finger for emphasis. 'It simply has to be character. I have it. Sarah has it. You don't.'

He says that, or something very like it, and then he goes to one of the six luxury bathrooms recently restored by architect Joe Farrell and Landmark builders.

Russell's view is that he's done better because he is better. I've done crap because I am crap. And, truthfully, I don't mind this sort of talk. Not really. I can't be arsed to even pretend to mind. I'm used to it. It's an old old routine, easily bearable. It's not like I even really listen any more. Sarah gets annoyed about it, but I don't. And Sarah, my beautiful, loyal, kind-hearted life-partner, is upstairs. As is my funny-faced newish daughter. Where is Russell's loyal, kind-hearted life-partner? Where is Russell's funny-faced newish daughter?
Exactomundo, my friend. They are nowhere.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

GHOST WRITING - Megan Taylor ponders the correct amount of liquid eyeliner

FIVE years, three novels. That's pretty good going for a literary novelist and when you factor in motherhood, studying and more than the average amount of domestic turbulence - then it's hugely impressive. But it's what Megan Taylor has managed. (If you want to dig around for what I mean by 'domestic turbulence' - then you'll find no joy here. Do your own dirty work.)

So she's a grafter. And the books themselves are intriguing, gripping and provocative by turns. The first  How We Were Lost, a dark coming-of-age story, was published by Flame Books in 2007 after placing second in the Yeovil Prize. In 2009, she was awarded an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University, where she’d started her second novel, The Dawning. This literary thriller about a family pushed to breaking point, was published by Weathervane Press in 2010.

I met her on the MMU residential where she proved that while the books might be dark, she herself has the  gift of lighting up a room full of strangers. The knack of putting the awkward and the shy at ease. This is rare enough talent anyway, and vanishingly so for novelists who tend to be awkward as a breed... 

Megan’s latest book, The Lives of Ghosts (also Weathervane, 2012), plays with ideas of inheritance and motherhood, and the haunting power of memories that refuse to be suppressed. Megan currently lives in Nottingham, with her two children and is (of course) working on her fourth novel. And I asked her some stuff, and I think the answers reveal the enthuiasm with which this chronicler of ghosts embraces the real world with in all its messy glory.

Megan can you give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words (not 49, not 51)

Born 1973, in Greenwich (still love the park). Had my son at twenty-three. Years of odd jobs, studying and writing around the edges. Daughter arrived 2001 and moved to Nottingham when I was thirty. Embarked on a creative writing MA. First novel published 2007, second 2010, and now my Ghosts!

Why should I read The Lives of Ghosts?

Because everyone loves a ghost(ish) story. Or they ought to. And because it would make me very happy.

How does this book compare with your first two?

It’s more deliberately suspence-y and structure-wise, quite different. I got to play with dual timelines, which was fun. And although I remain overjoyed about having How We Were Lost and The Dawning out there, I’m extra-proud of this one (shhh, don’t tell the first two)

Cyril Connelly once described the pram in the hall as the 'enemy of promise'... what is your experience of being a writer who is also a mother?

For me, it was the opposite. From baby years on, writing only became more precious. It was a sanctuary away from the domestics and routines. Selfishly, it was just mine. In a way, it had to become more focused too, as, especially early on, it was about making the most of snatched time.

What kind of world will we be in when your kids hit adulthood?

Well, my son is almost sixteen, so since it’s not too far off I should imagine it’ll be pretty similar. Aside from the flying cars and silver hats and emerging lizard-men of course.

What are your hopes and fears for your own future?

The usual, I suspect - happiness and health to everyone I love, no more losses for as long as possible. To keep writing and having adventures. And to maybe even have some more books out there...

If there was one thing you could tell your fifteen year old self what would it be?

Don’t worry about it love, it will all be ok.


Perhaps you should reconsider the sheer quantity of that liquid eyeliner?

Who, in life or writing, do you most admire and why?

In writing, too many. The writers who I loved in my teens, and still do, who broke open other worlds for me (Katherine Mansfield, Joyce Carol Oates, Helen Dunmore, Chandler, Salinger, Carver...more). There really is no possible way for me to list the authors I admire, I’ll only miss someone out, but I’ve recently discovered the amazing-ness of Rupert Thomson. I’m currently immersed in a love affair with John Updike too, because even when he’s flawed (and sometimes especially when he’s flawed) he is beautiful.

In life, my kids. For being so brilliant. And putting up with me.

And anyone you despise and why?

There are certain politicians...but I think that’s more despair and fatigue than despising. I don’t think I do despising.

And finally... tell me something I don't know...

But surely you know everything Mr May?

Except perhaps...did you know that you must never bath a chinchilla? If they get wet, their fur is so thick that it might rot and grow fungus and fall off (you can feed them after midnight though. Allegedly.)

Friday, 27 April 2012

Floats like a butterfly stings like Ernest Hemingway... Sophie Coulombeau

Sophie Coulombeau signs some books

WHEN I was 27 I was mostly off my face. Yes, I had a five year old kid. Yes, I had a degree. Sort of. And yes, I was working - kind of  But mostly I was out of it. Or planning to be out of it very soon. Novelist Sophie Coulombeau is making much better use of her time. She's a sort of warrior academic of the kind the Spartans might have been proud of. She's got a first from Oxford, she's doing a doctorate on the eighteenth century... and she relaxes by boxing (and eating cheese).

And now she's a published novelist with celebrity literary fans like Philip Pullman and Sophie Hannah.

She wrote her first novel - Rites -  extraordinarily quickly for a competition the Yorkshire publishers Route were running to find the Best Young Yorkshire Novelist (young meant under 30). I was on the judging panel along with five others and to be honest it was an easy choice. There can't have been so little debate on a literary judging panel since the panel met in the Mermaid to give the Upstart Crow Award for Most Promising New Playwright to a young William Shakespeare. Rites was a unaminous choice. And you're going to hear a lot more from her.
It's a great book. Four fourteen year olds decide to lose their virginity together and it doesn't go to plan. Things spiral out of control in a way the participants couldn't have expected and certainly don't desire. Fiona Shaw (another fan) puts it well: ‘Rites is a powerful read that has you questioning the wisdom of any adult and the innocence of any child. The story Coulombeau tells is an everyman tale of desire, friendship and betrayal. Behind it is a mind that takes nothing at face value: not love, not desire and not the violence that we are capable of doing to one another.’

Hello Sophie - can you give me your autobiography in 50 words exactly (not 49, not 51...)

Born in London. Grew up in Manchester. Twenties a long, messy ménage a trois with books & politics: undergrad at Oxford, work for a pollster, Masters in Philadelphia, tinkering with justice system in London, fighting organized crime in Brussels, PhD in York. Now 27, live in York, researching & writing.

Why should I read Rites?

Because Philip Pullman likes it, and he’s amazing. Also because it will hopefully make you think; about belief, trust, love, friendship, culpability, forgiveness and the unreliability of memory. And everyone should think about those things.

How far is this novel based on personal experience?

Not as much as you might expect. It is, on the one hand, very much about the particular kind of Anglo-Irish Catholic community where I grew up, and about some of the psychological effects growing up in that kind of community can have on people. But none of the characters are me. I definitely wasn’t as resourceful and precocious as my four teenage protagonists. I spent most of my time in my bedroom reading Tintin and Asterix, and wondering why my life wasn’t more exciting.

You’re a PhD student. How did your studies help inform the writing of Rites?

I think it’s true to say that my academic practice makes my creative style a lot more controlled, precise and well-researched than it used to be. When you’re used to watching word count like a hawk and footnoting every fact, you don’t suffer sloppy writing gladly. But in terms of subject matter, this book is rather unrelated to my research, which addresses the relationship between naming and identity in late eighteenth-century fiction. This may not be the case with my second novel, which I’m currently writing...

How long did you spend writing the book and were there moments where you felt like giving up?

I wrote the first few chapters of the book in a couple of weeks in the spring last year. Then I sent them in to a competition run by Route Publishing to find a young author under 30. And when I heard I’d made the shortlist, I had to write the rest of the first draft in rather a hurry. So I didn’t really have much time to reflect on my own inadequacies, at least until I’d finished the thing and sent it off. I think there’s a lot to be said for lighting a fire under your own arse; over-thinking is the aspiring writer’s worst enemy.

What has the reaction been from family and friends?

They’re all really supportive and excited about reading it, which is great. My favourite thing is that a few friends have written to me saying that the knowledge that I can get a book published – a real person who they know, who’s completely normal (and by implication, totally uncool) – has spurred them on to really get to grips with writing their own. Because if I can do it, anyone can. I think that’s lovely, in a knockabout sort of way. Writing needs that sort of demystification.

Any events lined up?

Surprisingly, yes, even though the book isn’t out yet. I’m speaking in a New Novelists panel at the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival on 2nd July with Selma Dabbagh, Suzy Joinson, Peter Salmon and Ros Barber. I hope you haven't forgotten that you're chairing it... I’m also talking in a similar panel at the York Festival of Ideas on June 23rd, with Kathleen McMahon and Essie Fox. The thought of speaking at arts festivals is surreal, but I hope it’ll be a lot of fun.

Who in life or writing do you admire and why?

Life - I’m just going to be a massive stereotype and (truthfully) say my parents, because they support me through thick and thin even though I imagine I often baffle them. Academia – the University of York is stuffed to the gills with amazing thinkers, writers and innovators including John Barrell, my supervisor Harriet Guest and, until recently, the late and great Jane Moody. Writing – I admire a vast and diverse range of writers, but my top five (in no particular order) would be Frances Burney, Philip Larkin, David Mitchell, Julian Barnes and Philip Pullman. Oh, wait, and Angela Carter. It’ll have to be a top six.

How do you relax?

Eating cheese, drinking wine, painting bad pictures of celebrities who make me laugh, walks and pints with my friends, running and boxing (in the feeblest, most amateur way imaginable). I love to travel too, when I can afford it. Turkey and Cuba are next on the list, and I have a turbulent on/off affair with the USA.

What’s next for you?

Finishing my PhD in the next couple of years, and applying for jobs researching and teaching. I love working in academia – which despite the stereotypes is a dynamic, creative, fulfilling and often downright hilarious environment - and hope I can do so for a long time to come. I’ll be writing (and hopefully publishing) fiction too. I’ve just started my second book – a twisted take on the eighteenth-century epistolary novel, set on the eve of the French Revolution – and am also bouncing some ideas around for a play.

Tell me something I don't know...

When I was working at the European Commission, a friend and I noted over a beer that the English have no word to describe "pleasure in someone else's success" and the French have no term to denote "to get things done". And I was once told that I had no personal integrity. By Jeffrey Archer.

Rites is published by Route and is available from June 16 - though you can order it now. You can even order a signed copy. Or come and see her in person in Hebden Bridge.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Sugar Baby Love

It’s my birthday and it’s going to be a great night. By happy coincidence the most exciting new band of the year - Sigue Sigue Sputnik - are playing the Dancehall and that should be a riot (quite literally, judging by what happened at the previous night’s gig in Norwich). They feature former members of Generation X, how could they fail to be great? And not only that, but my best and oldest mate has travelled up to Essex from Brighton to help me celebrate.

It’s February 27 1986. I’m 22 years old (just) and stumbling my way through a Literature degree at Essex University. And I’m having a ball. To be honest I never really wanted to go to University, but now I’m here it’s like being a member of the aristocracy. I rise late, listen to some records, read some books, put on my monkey boots and ex-Bundeswehr shirt with the little German flag on the shoulder - get a girl to crimp my hair, and hit the bar for drinks around six. When the bar closes everyone goes dancing to records by The Smiths, or The Cure or New Order. It’s a beautiful dream of a life.

Only I’m about to wake up. Around 4pm my girlfriend – the University Women’s Officer no less (this is a big deal at Essex Uni in the 1980s. Like going out with a member of the politburo in Soviet Russia) will tell me that she’s having a baby..

I might be at University but I’m a slow learner, because this scenario is actually a repeat, a sequel.

Two years before, twenty minutes after returning from the inter-rail trip that filled the gap twixt school and uni, my girlfriend from home had told me the same thing. She’d even started the conversation in the same way.



‘I said congratulations. I’m pregnant.’

But Monica hadn’t go on to say she was keeping the baby. Instead she had explained that while I had been away exploring the fast food options in railway stations from Harwich to Thessalonika and back, she had been waiting, hoping, praying. And when those prayers hadn’t been answered, she had arranged visits to clinics -  and now I had to go and see her parents who wanted to check I was okay with the arrangements they had made. It was an excruciating conversation, but it only lasted ten minutes and it was the only one I ever really had about what her dad described as The Situation. There was tea, there was cake and there absolutely wasn’t recrimination. They didn’t even tell my parents. All done quietly, cleanly, tidily.

I had got away very, very lightly. I feel shame and embarrassment about my behaviour then, but I don’t feel guilt about the termination. And I really hope Mon doesn’t either. There will always be boys like my dumb teenage self – and that’s why it’s important we have strong pro-choice laws. So that idiot boys like me don’t ruin the lives of unlucky girls.

But I had got away too lightly. My memory of The Situation had quickly faded like a surreal dream I had once, lost in the giddy whirl of  SU bar booze and immature debates about the obvious need for a revolution.

And so now here I am in my bedroom on the swaying 16th floor of a tower-block named after a leading liberal economist (or philosopher, or political scientist – I was never very sure who these people were to be honest), feeling the cold sweat of a particularly painful attack of déjà vu.

This time there are no parents to quietly, cleanly, tidily arrange things. We’ve made our bed and we’ve got to lie on it.

Sigue Sigue Sputnik are bloody crap too.

But universities are strange places – or they were then. Places cocooned from some of the harshest weather of the real world. Yeah we’re going to have a baby that will be born just as we finish university, but that isn’t going to blight anything. It’s not as though we want proper jobs or careers in any case.

And we know that children aren’t easy exactly, but we’ll have help. This baby is going to be a community baby. A baby raised not just by two parents in the discredited nuclear model, but by a loose alliance of us and our most socialist friends.

Within weeks of our final year finishing however, most of the friends have gone. And it turns out they’re mostly doing proper jobs after all. They’re on teacher training courses, or doing social work, or working in local government. In a few cases they’re busy becoming lawyers, journalists, television execs.  No time for other peoples’ babies.

And of course, this was always going to be the case.

And now we’re living on an estate in an Essex dormitory town and wondering what the hell happens next. I’d love – love – to be able to say that I man up, rise to the challenge and find a way to support my new family. Alas, no.

Instead I somehow continue student life by other means while my partner uses the skills honed on the Student Union executive to get a job in the housing advice centre. And she turns out to be pretty good at it. Meanwhile I bumble along getting a series of jobs that involve filing, photocopying, answering the phone and watching youth club kids batter each other during games of uni-hoc. Not quite Mcjobs, maybe not even as useful as a job flipping burgers, but mindless and part-time.

My real life is still pretty much bargain booze and listening to records, though we do gradually join a crowd of other misfits and drop-outs who also have young babies.

And that is one thing I do learn during this period – that our instincts about everything being better if kids aren’t raised by the parents alone were absolutely right. You need places to go to drink tea and swap stories. And you need someone to change the music while you change the nappies or vice versa.

And I actually don’t think I’m a bad Dad. At least my daughter and I are still close. And there are I feel – hope – some advantages to having a young, reckless, thoughtless parent. You go wherever he goes for a start. You weave through traffic on the back of his bike and you get to hang out for hours minimally supervised while the adults talk about whatever it is they talk about. And you get to hear some great sounds.

And later, when it’s parents evening it means your young dad doesn’t embarrass you by being bald. And it means your parents aren’t quite so grey and tired looking as those of the other kids. No, instead they embarrass you in other, more inventive ways – with their cheap bangles and their ridiculous Krazy Kolored hair.

So life does its slow vandalism and the hair stops being Krazy Kolored. And H’s mum and I split up. And I get my call up papers. Because that’s what it’s like if you hit 31 with an English degree but without a proper job. It’s like being conscripted. You absolutely have to become a teacher. It’s all that’s left.

So I do that. And to my own surprise I’m pretty good at it I think and in a school I meet my current partner and then, blow me – fifteen years after that awkward conversation up on the 16th floor of a tower-block named after a Political Scientist (or Philosopher, or Economist) I come home from school and the conversation goes like this:



‘I said congratulations. I’m pregnant.’

Slow learner you see. Maybe the slowest learner you ever met. We have three children between us. I had one when we met. C also had one and now we have one together. We are a blended family and emblematic of modern Britain. Three kids each with a different surname and a very different skin tone.  One 25, one 18, one 9. They all get on. Sometimes they even bicker as if they are all eleven. They’re rarely all in the same place these days, but when they are it works somehow.

And now I write odd little novels about failure, under-achievement and the strange shapes families can take now. You can’t escape yourself however hard you try. However far you go. Once a slow learner, always a slow learner – but at the very least you won’t find me demonising teenage parents. In fact I tend to think young parents can make the best parents – even where the dad is an idiot. Young, old, bright, dim – we all muddle through with our fingers crossed.

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Golden Key or A Tale of Two Novels

I was at a thing once where the writer Hari Kunzru was doing a question and answer session with aspiring writers. Inevitably someone asked him How Did You Get Your Agent question. The one that is eventually asked at all such events. It's a bald, bold and rude question really isn't it?  Imagine someone asking How Did You Get Your Wife? It's the word 'get' -  which implies the use of trickery, plus some surprise on the part of the questioner that you managed it at all...

Anyway, at this thing Hari K leant forward and said 'Ah, I have the secret to getting an agent.' The atmosphere in the room changed perceptibly, became just that little more charged. 'Yes, I have the secret and I'm prepared to share it with you now...' Everyone in that room straightened up, then leant forward. Everyone was now fully engaged in a way they hadn't been earlier when he was reading from his novel.

'You do these three things...' dramatic pause. 'Step One,' he said, 'You write your book. Step two - you put it in an envelope and send it to an agent. Step three: you wait. And if they like it enough they'll sign you up.'

And that was it. His entire version of Three Steps to Heaven. The whole group sat back in their chairs with a collective exasperated sigh.

See, there's actually no Golden Key at all. No Magic Words. No tricks. No secret party where agents circulate waiting to pick the authors with the right clothes, the right hair, the right handshake, the right skin colour, or the right CV. There's no secret door in the wall.

Write your book. Send it off. Wait. It's all you can do.

Agents do eventually read everything. I would. No one wants to be Dick Rowe do they? You know Dick Rowe? The guy that turned down the Beatles in 1962 because 'Groups with guitars are on the way out.' (Dick Rowe did sign the Rolling Stones a year later so he redeemed himself a bit - but he only did that because George Harrison told him to.)

I have an agent. In fact I'm onto my second.

In 2005 after years of procrastination and prevarication I started a novel. I also started an MA in Novel-writing at Manchester Met University. Why MMU? Because they let you 'study' at home online and, crucially, they would only award you the degree if you actually finished your novel. Some MAs let you just do 40,000 words and so there are lots of writers with masters with half a novel in a draw (some of them teaching creative writing now themselves but that's a whole other post).

So I started my book thinking that if nothing else happened well, at least  I'd get my MA. A few weeks into the course, it all seemed to be going quite well. I was writing much faster than I thought I would, the feedback was good and so I thought I'd put what I had into an envelope and send it off to an agent. And then do the waiting thing.

How did I choose which agent? I just chose the biggest. I chose Camilla H at Curtis Brown. Curtis Brown because they were the biggest and Camilla H because I'd met her once for about fifteen seconds at Punk Rock Karaoke (Punk Rock Karaoke is also a whole other blog post). She was the only agent I had ever met.

I waited

But only for about two days because that's how long it took for Camilla to phone me and say yeah, it's great I'll send you a contract.

That, I now realise, is a very, very unusual How I Got My Agent story. And it was a very, very good day. If I'd known how unusual a How I Got My Agent story it was, it would have been an even better day.

However, don't worry, because that Good Day was followed by a lot of crap ones. I think there's a sum to be worked on, a proper algebraic equation to be done, but my very rough calculation is that for every Good Day in writing there are about twelve Very Bad Days.

It took a while to finish the book. Camilla read everything very closely and made some brilliant suggestions for redrafts and then she also put the book in an envelope and sent it off. And the 12 Bad Days duly followed. The days where we got the worst kind of rejections. You know the ones - the ones that go 'we love this... but can't publish it.' If even the people that love it won't publish it, where are you then?

And I was thinner skinned then, being a mere stripling of 41 and all. And so then teeny, tiny Cinnamon press came in and said they'd do it and I was so grateful. And I still am. Cinnamon took a chance when no one else would and 18 months later the book - TAG - came out. Tiny print run, invisible as far as shops were concerned, but a published book. And I worked hard. I appeared everywhere and anywhere in my attempts to win the world over one reader at a time. And the book won a prize. And that helped - but not as much as I thought it would.

People love that book. Not many people obviously, because not many people have even seen it, but people that have read it really love it. Which is odd, because I don't. There's so much wrong with it. I'd love to another go at redrafting it. And despite what some people say, books are not like children - you can always, always edit your book one more time. In fact you always should.

And I wrote another book. The book that became Life! Death! Prizes! the book that is officially out today.
I wrote it. I put it in an envelope and sent it off to my agent.

And she hated it.

Well, she never said she hated it, she's way too nice for that (Agents ARE nice you see. Or at least they're nicer than novelists. More interested in literature too. Writers are mostly obsessed with money and sales and prizelists and all that. Agents care less about all that) but I think she hated it. And after I rewrote it several times I think she still hated it. She certainly didn't want to send it out.

She did let one publisher see it however (A publisher who had wanted to do TAG but hadn't been high enough up the food chain then)  and to her frank astonishment that publisher seemed to go for it. There was a lunch, there was a tentative, informal, verbal deal sketched out - there was the phrase 'we just need to get it through sales and marketing.' Sales and Marketing wouldn't let it through. Of course they wouldn't. Sales and Marketing were having none of it. Of course S and M may have just been an excuse. A euphemism for 'Christ I've made a mistake. How do I get out of this?'

So that publisher passed and then, about a day later, my agent retired. I don't think the two events were related.

So to recap - yes, I got an agent very quickly but she hadn't been able to sell the book and now three years on I had no agent, a tiny, tiny publisher (because good old Cinnamon had agreed to publish Life! Death! Prizes! if no one else would.)

But because I felt I should, I put the book into an envelope sent to an agent and waited. This time I didn't send it to a big agency, no, instead I sent it to the only other agent I'd ever met: a bloke about my age whose politics and music taste seemed kind of in tune with mine. He liked punk and hated Tories basically and, in an uncertain world, these are eternal verities. Things you can rely on. If you meet someone and they like The Jam and hate the antics of the ruling class then there's a decent chance the're going to be okay. It's not an infallible rule but it works enough of the time.

Only he didn't reply.

Months went past and I assumed that he hated the book (after all he wouldn't be the first) until I got a phone call while I was on a train back from Hull. He loved it. He was going to put it on the desks of all major literary editors. this book deserved to be huge (I paraphrase - but he was very enthusiastic). So that was A Good Day. But I was 45 by now and older and wiser than the callow youth of 41. By now I was expecting the 12 days of misery that were bound to follow. Yeah, yeah - I thought. And I also thought I'm now going to have to put my arm around my agent. Comfort him as the rejections come in. And that seems a weird situation. Seems against nature somehow.

And we did get some rejections. yes, about 12 I think. And yes, they were of the 'I love it but..' variety. Some of them from the very same people who had said the very same thing about TAG. So I've learned that that 'I love it but...' translates as 'I don't love it.'

And then my agent rang.

'Bloomsbury want it.'


'Yes - they just need to get it past Sales and Marketing.'

Ah yes them. Those funny little twins. S and M. So clearly there was no real chance. If S and M were doing their job they'd see that a book set in a museum in small town Essex had no mass market appeal whatsoever. I relaxed.

Only S and her friend M did like it.

Fuck me. And they paid me an advance of XXXX for XX novels.

Yes, that's right. XXXX for XX novels. Unbelievable isn't it?

So then there was a year of arguing in a very civilised way with my editor (I lost most of the time. Thank Christ because I was nearly always wrong. I might still be wrong about the  few things where I insisted on getting my way. Except in the argument about the title. I won that one and I'm so so right about that) and now here we are Publication Day.

And what have we learned, all of us? If you're a writer just write cos that's the fun bit. Everything else is a kind of misery. Interesting misery but misery none the less. A kind of M if not S.

And actually quite often even the Fun Bit isn't all that fun. I was up at 5.30am today - like I always am - writing the new novel called, funnily enough, Wake Up Happy Everyday and how much did I get done?

Nothing. Nada. Sweet FA. I'm stuck frankly. It'll come but still, mornings like this with a full day of work ahead of you, you wonder what the point is. Writing can feel like a weird, twisted compulsion. It feels like a session in the gym that doesn't get you leaner or fitter. A session in the gym that does the opposite makes you older, greyer...

It feels like that because it is like that.

Still, Publication Day, huh? That's a Good Day. Has to be.  Just need to ready myself for the 12 Bad Days to come...