I’m often asked why I decided to become an author? The answer I give is that I didn’t decide – it kind-of chose me. I didn’t engineer the situation. It happened by accident, and before I knew it I was attempting to fill 350 pages with words of varying quality. Then my first book was shortlisted for a campaigning journalism award and I headed into the future in a gold-plated Lada.

That was in 2007 and up until now I’ve believed that it all started there. But having just been asked to join a Facebook group relating to my time (1990/1991) on a post-graduate journalism course in Preston, Lancashire, I realise that the seeds were sown much further back than I realised. And this is why:

I left university in the summer of 1990 with the idea I’d be a newspaper journalist. I’d done a bit of work experience on a couple of local papers and had enjoyed the newsroom atmosphere. The informality, levity and liquid lunches mixed with periods of intensity suited me, I thought. So I applied for, and got on to, a post-graduate newspaper journalism course in Preston, the town I was born in, had gone to sixth form in and had worked in as a teenager.

I turned up on the first day, having commuted in from my parents’ house 10 miles away, armed with pen, notebook and typewriter. Yes, a manual typewriter, with a ribbon and everything, borrowed from my mum. This course had no computers which, even in the digital Ice Age of 1990, felt a little archaic. Nonetheless, we were told that from now on we were all trainee journalists and had to think, act and write like the local newspaper hacks we would become.

And, for me, that’s where the doubt started to creep in. I knew, deep down, that I wasn’t much of a local newspaper hack. It wasn’t snobbery by any means but try as I might, I couldn’t summon up interest in learning about local government, or knowing the right abbreviation for ‘Councillor’ (Cllr or Coun, depending on your paper’s house style). Small kitchen fires and large-cheque presentations bored me. I liked the law lectures, and was very appreciative of the fact that, finally, someone taught me something about grammar and punctuation. I learned shorthand (which I can still write, but don’t) and I discovered how to structure a news story so that the paper’s sub-editors could cut it from the bottom if necessary (‘”Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”).

Other than that, it just wasn’t happening. I used to go home on the train, wondering why I had so little enthusiasm for the news stories we were meant to gather for the course ‘newspaper’. Stuff about college funding. What happened during a night out at a dismal local club. Something on at the Guildhall….. My course colleagues seemed to eat up this stuff, chasing around Preston with pencils and pads. I simply made it all up as I went along, hoping that my increasingly implausible ‘news’ stories would slip under the radar. In truth, I preferred fiction to fact. Not great when you’re planning to be a journalist, though in hindsight I might have thrived at the News of the World.

To this day I’m not sure I even passed the course. The thing ended in the summer of ’91 in a flurry of disappearing lecturers and disappointing shorthand exam results. I certainly never went back to pick up any form of post-graduate certificate and given we were now in the middle of a nasty recession, there seemed little chance of getting a job on a local paper.

I spent the summer at HM Government’s leisure (as you could as a post-post grad in those sunny, far-off days) but I couldn’t stay on the dole forever. Gentle nudges from my parents propelled me in the direction of the job centre, and in the autumn of that year I picked up work in a catalogue company, processing orders. In Preston. With a fellow young reprobate, I would smoke dope during lunchbreaks and spend the afternoon hilariously misaddressing Christmas cards, wrapping paper, stocking fillers, etc. I remember once processing an order to 10 Downing Street. It’s perhaps no surprise that John and Norma Major seemed to like catalogue shopping. But it didn’t even cross my mind to sell this story to the nationals…it just shows how ‘natural’ a hack I was.

The catalogue company folded just before Christmas and I was back in the DHSS (again). I did some moody work with a local butcher I met in a pub, and was nearly electrocuted by a fridge that had been wired by a colour-blind electrician. Still, I learned how to make sausages and brought home my efforts for Christmas Day. They all exploded. On Boxing Day, I went round to a grim little terraced house, and sat with the bachelor butcher as he poured me drink after drink from a range of optics attached to his wall. In silence, we got hammered. It seemed an apt way to round off 1991.

The New Year brought nothing. I applied for a few newspaper jobs but heard no more. I was drinking, getting stoned and wandering the streets day and night, wondering where it had all gone wrong. Eventually, inevitably, I cracked up. I was lucky I had family around me; had I been in a dank squat in Depreston, I don’t know what would have happened.

What did happen was that I borrowed a hundred quid from my gran and went to New York to see a friend. At that stage I’d never even been on a plane, but tranq’d up on Valium and whiskey I made the flight from Manchester to JFK and arrived, open-mouthed, into the great switchback chaos of Manhattan island.

New York, I discovered, is an excellent place to have a nervous breakdown. You’re certainly not alone in your strangeness. After a few weeks and many adventures I realised that the world contained far more madness then I could ever wish to carry and as I headed home (in the company of a huge party of ultra-Orthodox Jews, praying and crying that our plane wouldn’t crash) I knew that somehow, everything would be OK-ish.

In the late spring of 1992 I made my mind up to be an antiques dealer, as you do when you’ve qualified (or otherwise) as a newspaper journalist. But then, unexpectedly (and because I knew someone who knew someone) I landed an interview with a weekly paper. I skimmed over the vagueness of my qualifications for the job and impressed them with my knowledge of the rules of cricket. They wanted some poor sap who would spend every Saturday of his life at a windswept northern playing field, watching shivering men in white, and so it was that I landed the position of trainee journalist. For the next five years I reported on small kitchen fires, large-cheque presentations, and cricket. I loved every day of it. Even the cricket.

The point is (finally!!) that if it hadn’t been for the uncertainty over my future and the slide this precipitated, I’d have never accepted the challenge of writing a book many years later. By then, I understood very well that lives, even successful ones, are all about treading carefully over and around pitfalls and cracks – and it is these cracks which interest me most as an author. When people fall into them many unexpected things happen – and not always for the worst, either. Even after almost two decades in journalism I was still no good as a foot-in-the-door hack, but what I did have was the ability to empathise, and to be able to shut up and listen when someone wanted to tell me something central to themselves. I knew what they were saying, because I’d been there too…

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brown ladyI’m a ghostwriter and not a ‘ghost writer’. I don’t write about ghosts, unless they’re the ghosts of people’s memories (which is a different thing altogether). But as it’s Hallowe’en, maybe I should share a ghost story. A true one too – because it happened to me.
The setting was an old farmhouse by a loch in Renfrewshire, Scotland, that provided B&B accommodation. I won’t say exactly where it is – my experience was in 1985 and while the place is still running as a B&B I doubt whether the owners are the sort to cope with ghosthunters. But I could be wrong…
We were due at a family wedding in Glasgow. I was sharing a room with my younger sister and older cousin. I’d just turned 18 and was desperate to fill my hollow legs with as much ‘heavy’ and Scotch chasers as I could down in two hours. I begged my cousin to let me come with him to the local boozer and he said ‘yes’. Sadly, I was an amateur drinker in those days and after a couple of pints of Tartan I was feeling decidedly green, so I came home early.
My sister was already out for the count in her bed when I tiptoe’d in through the door. I got changed and climbed into my single bed face down, the usual position. An hour or so later my cousin stumbled in and flopped on to his bunk. The man who would be ‘Best’ the following day was still fully clothed and within two minutes was snoring like a hog.
I lay awake, wondering whether to give him a shake in the full knowledge I’d be told to do one the minute he woke up. Soon, though, the tremors eased and he drifted into a deep sleep.
Lucky him. It was 1am, I was wide awake and we had a long, boozy day ahead. I turned this way and that, trying to nod off. Somewhere down the corridor, a latched door rattled in response to the wind whispering through a half-open window. Outside, a flock of geese flitted in a low murmur across the loch. In response my cousin farted noisily and my sister ground her teeth.
Then I felt someone place their hand gently on the back of my head. There was no grip of any sort, just a light touch. But it was a touch that remained, even as I turned my head quickly up from the pillow, expecting to see my sister or cousin standing there.
“John?” I said. “Marie? Is that you? What’re you doing?”
There was no answer. The two sleeping forms across the room didn’t stir for a second. I lay back down, a bit spooked but otherwise unconcerned. Maybe I was dreaming – though I knew I wasn’t.
I still couldn’t sleep. I stared into the darkness. My A Levels were in two months and I’d done no preparatory work. But I had written a couple of riffs on my guitar for our band, which was going to be massive, cancelling the need for qualifications of any sort. I’d never have to have a proper job and I’d buy my disgruntled parents a farmhouse like this one, and I’d have my own fishing lake, and…..
And then I became aware of a shape standing in front of the bedroom door. A form, recognisably human in that it had a head, shoulders and a body, but one without features or limbs. Like a chalk drawing on the air. I stared at it for what seemed minutes. The form remained stock still – staring but not staring.
“Hello,” I said. No reply.
My parents were sleeping in a room down the corridor. Maybe the figure was my dad getting up for a pee and losing his way?
“Dad? Is that you?”
Dad never lost his way anywhere, because my mum always supervised the map. So it couldn’t be him.
“Who is it?”
I could feel a weird electricity in the air. Almost smell it. The figure moved across the room, slowly, silently, and stopped at the end of my sister’s bed.
That was it. I scrabbled for the bedside lamp, reaching for the elusive switch just below the bulb and knocking over a glass of water in the process. On it went, waking up my cousin.
“Tom! What’re you doing, you pillock!? Put that f… light off!”
“Sorry,” I said, “I thought you were moving about…..”
“Well I wasn’t. So turn that bloody light off and go back to f…. sleep.”
I did both. And surprisingly calmly too, all things considered. In the morning I asked my dad if he’d wandered into the room. Of course he hadn’t. He’s a short, bald, cricket-loving, deep-sleeping Lancastrian, not a tall, ephemeral, milky-white wandering spirit. My mum caught the conversation and related it to the B&B landlady.
“Ach,” she said, “don’t be worrying about that. It’s nothing.” Then she smiled knowingly.
She was right. It was nothing. Nothing that I, in 30-plus years of wondering, could ever make sense of, anyway….

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Uluru,_helicopter_view,_cropped

I’m a big re-reader of most things, particularly cereal packets and shampoo bottle labels (depending where I’m sitting), and recently I decided to take another trip into Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 ‘classic’ The Songlines.

I first read this for a university module a couple of years after it came out. Aged 22, I was suitably dazzled by its post-modern mash-up of fact, fiction, storytelling, reflection, scholarly insight and travel book. Now, having just been to Australia for the first time (albeit to a Perth suburb more akin to Neighbours than anything approaching a dusty Outback settlement) I thought I might once again pick up on the ancient Aboriginal vibrations cited by Chatwin, and thereby find my way from Bristol to Bath without a satnav.

Sadly, this time around the book was a crock of shit, as the Aussies might say. The kaleidoscopic, encylopaedic sprawl that seemed to cast new light on a culture long since consigned by White Australia to the empty beer can of history was nothing more than an exercise in literary showing off. At best, it seemed dubious (not that that’s always a bad thing); at worst it was short-sighted, Eurocentric and – crime of crimes – it didn’t have much of a story.

There, I’ve said it. A book about the oldest stories known to man has, at its heart, little or no story-telling skill, no narrative structure. I didn’t want Dan Brown, for sure, but passing acquaintance with the classic three-act drama might have been just a bit helpful. In the 80s, such quaint notions were extremely unfashionable (and yes, maybe it’s my age) but today the desire for gripping stories, well-told and with characters we either love or hate, but are never indifferent to, is, I think, stronger than ever, especially in deeply uncertain times.

I’m not alone in this. Among the coterie of hip late 80s writers Martin Amis stood out as being particularly tricksy when it came to plot. Yet even he seems to have mellowed. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he had this to say about one of his best-known novels: “I was snooty at some radio event where people read your novel – it was London Fields – and then you take questions from them, and a lady said, ‘I’m sorry, but I struggled with it.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘I didn’t care about the characters.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m afraid you should really not be thinking about that. You should be thinking about what the author’s trying to do.’ But I think she was dead right.” It is the truth before which all matters of style melt away. “You have to give a shit.”’

You certainly do. Indifference to character is, in my book (so to speak), one of the greatest disappointments a reader is forced to bear. You HAVE to make your reader care about your cast. It’s no use hoping that three-quarters way through the book they’ll suddenly start to admire the curmudgeonly white middle-aged man spending his life watching Netflix. Yes, he can be this character right the way through the narrative but if he’s the one taking us into his world we have to care about it, and him. And when I say ‘care’ I don’t mean ‘empathise’. ‘The Sisters Brothers’, by Patrick DeWitt features two of the most despicable, unlovely and murderous people ever to walk the earth but because they’re so well drawn we can’t help but root for them – even if we do want them to die right from the beginning. The satirical German novel ‘Look Who’s Back’ (Timur Vermes, 2013) is another case in point – dammit, by the end of the book we’re actually cheering on Adolf Hitler!

Chatwin’s sound and fury is in sharp contrast to a much lower-key book I read late last year (and have re-read and re-re read). ‘Neither Dog Nor Wolf’, by American author Kent Nerburn, is also a road trip featuring Indigenous people (American Indians this time) and the author is again at the centre of the story. This time, however, the sense of the white man not just learning something, but being subsumed and even humiliated into considering a way of life that mixes patient understanding of the universe with deep and righteous anger, is quietly palpable the whole way through. By degrees, the book builds into a visceral climax which involves sacrifice (of sorts) and redemption too. Last year the book was made into a low-budget movie that reflects all the stillness, reflection and rawness of the paperback.

You don’t have to be gentle with your characters. You don’t have to like them. But you have to show them off, in all their dimensionality. Character drives plot, not the other way round. Characters act the way they do because of who they are, and how they react. Chatwin’s book is, if anything, too convenient. He had the ‘plot’ – he just needed a few stock characters to flesh it out. Hence its one-dimensional nature, and a lost chance to describe a way of thinking about existence few had heard of at the time.

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Diana-was-still-aliveI’m not a novelist (or a Royalist or, God save us, both) but I’m somewhat surprised there seems to be no new fiction recording or reflecting on the extraordinary events of late August/early September 1997. Yes, there was something dramatic happening with a Mercedes and a gilded couple in a tunnel in Paris, but I’ll be honest, at the time I was far more captivated by the death of 122-year-old Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, the oldest living person (still holding the record, 20 years on) who, at the age of 13, had met Vincent Van Gogh in a sweet shop and had (rightly) considered him an ugly drunk. I expect that in 100 years someone who once resided in Prestwich, Manchester, and had the misfortune of meeting Mark E.Smith in a local pub, may have the same opinion.

Poor Jeanne’s demise was always going to be trumped by the death of the Papers’ Princess. Funny how the more interesting narrative is overtaken by events. I think Mother Theresa died at the same time as Diana, and the latter was buried with her Rosary. Or something. Certainly, she was not seen dead in one of those sandals.

To me, there seems a missed opportunity in a novel set in the short time between Diana’s death and its public announcement. The hours (minutes, possibly) before the UK turned from a bastion of queue-tolerating, potato-rootling, umbrella-manufacturing nuggety stoicism into a flood of blubbering self-pity of Dambuster proportions. Because it really was that dramatic. At the time, I was working for the Portsmouth News, a paper best described as one ‘of record’ that rarely, if ever, ventured into celebrity car-crash stuff, metaphorical or otherwise. Yet, as I diligently carried out local newshounding amid the madness of that week I heard the words, ‘You lot killed Diana’ hurled several times in my direction.

‘Not me,’ I’d attempt to explain, ‘I was at a meeting of Emsworth Parish Council, listening to a three-hour debate on road-roar along the A27. I didn’t do it.”

Sadly, my pleas went unheeded and within days, I too was checking Books of Condolence and counting the average fall of tears within the south Hampshire catchment area. Someone from the paper (a features writer) was sent to The Funeral, and forever after, any piece by him was mockingly entitled by the News’s sub-editors as ‘The old man shuffled forwards…..’ referencing his fawning opening line about Earl Spencer from that sad Saturday in Westminster Abbey.

For whatever reason (and there are always more than one – truly, you could put the blame equally on a range of characters including Noel Gallagher, JK Rowling and Tony Blair, all active during that very odd, hot summer) Britain was never the same again. I didn’t watch the funeral for one reason – a fear of being contaminated by planet-threatening levels of nasal discharge. Instead, I went for a long walk and thought about donkeys. Don’t ask me why; it’s a long time ago now. But I think I made the right call.

Twenty years on, only the film ‘The Queen’ has addressed this tectonic shift in British social history. In 2017, wouldn’t we, couldn’t we have expected a ‘Midnight’s Children’ or a ‘Saturday’ equivalent? This strange hinterland of experience, shared (and shaped) by millions, seems to have been hijacked by the ‘Oh, wasn’t She lovely, though?’ beige brigade, who see no further than the most simplistic narrative. Let’s not forget, there were bigger issues going on at the time which even She acknowledged and supported. Do we care much about those now? Or are they seen as some kind of Legacy thing, frozen in time in the prism of Princessly perfection ,like no Disney film could ever quite capture?

I guess there’s occasion for more anniversaries. 25 years, 30 years, 40, 50, ad infinitum, until either Us stop caring about Them or Prince George is seen riding the streets of London on a bicycle, smoking legal weed on his way to work at Subway. And no-one knows or cares. Maybe that would be the best legacy of all.

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Man and typewriterSeptember 3, 2017

This is the first blog post in, umm, months (if not years), prompted by someone who said, ‘Why don’t you blog? You’re a writer, aren’t you?’

Well, I write books for a living, but I’m not always comfortable with the ‘W’ word even though I suppose it’s the most fitting description for the thing I do. This discomfort isn’t false modesty; just a way of protecting myself against my own bullshit.

As a ‘writer’ the idea of regular blogging fills me with a little bit of horror. I don’t particularly want to talk about what I do – I’m more interested in just doing it. Other people, however, seem interested in what I do, how I do it, and with whom. Fair enough. I’m often told I ‘must live an interesting life’. And generally it is interesting, even when you catch yourself staring into the fridge at a half-empty tub of cottage cheese and wonder what twists and turns of fortune brought you to this position, 30 years after you set out on this uncertain road.

So…..this year. The last 12 months have been interesting, for a variety of reasons (some not always welcome, I hasten to add). First, the good parts. I’ve been privileged to work, talk to or otherwise engage with some great people this year. And as ever, a complete mixture. Trevor from Somerset. Doug from Chesham. Robert from Wolverhampton. Roland from south London. Paul from Woking. Don from Detroit. Some extremely famous, most not, but all united under a common banner: they have things worth saying, things that you and I might like to read.

This work has taken me all over the place from sunny Surbiton to wet and windy Perth, Western Australia. I’ve played the part of a tart art critic on the radio. I’ve hung on for a dear life to a horse’s mane as it bolted through the Outback. I’ve learned to understand how a diagnosis of illness can turn a life upside down in under a minute. I’ve looked out of the window of my house, down a dark, silent street, and wondered what it must feel like to play music for an audience of 60,000 people.

What else? Well, I’ve finally left my garret (pleasant though it was) and now write in a rural-based office. ‘How do you concentrate?’ I’m asked. Easy. Whatever noise swirls around me is not my noise. If it doesn’t require my attention it doesn’t bother me. I’ve always been puzzled by writers who need absolute silence in which to work. The sort that also need an Apple Mac Book Pro, a Montblanc Pen and a leather-bound Aspinal journal before they can possibly put down a word. James Joyce needed ‘silence, exile and cunning’ to begin writing, but I’m quite happy amid the sights, sounds and smells of a chicken farm.

Not-so-good news….just about 12 months ago I had the unexpected displeasure of a client reneging on a promise to employ me for three years ahead, then refusing to pay what I am owed for writing his second book. The latter is a substantial sum (for me, not for him) and, given that UK writers earn an average of £11,000 a year, has caused me and my family real financial hardship and emotional stress like we’ve rarely experienced.

For the moment I’m not saying any more about this dispute as it is the subject of legal action. I decided to bring a claim against my former client because a) I can’t afford to write off such a substantial sum and b) because it is incumbent on all writers, however poorly-paid, to challenge those who would seek to exploit them financially. As I’m discovering, the justice system in the UK isn’t easy to negotiate (and certainly isn’t perfect) but there are ways for the individual to seek redress without having to involve money-swallowing lawyers. It’s not fun, and it’s far from ‘interesting’ but it is a necessity. The hearing is later this year, so watch this space…..

Finally, I’m planning to expand what I do into the teaching of creative writing. This is likely to be a low-key thing until I find my feet, and hopefully it will help me find my way back into the ‘creative’ part of my own writing, which tends to get neglected amidst the demands. Because that’s the other thing people tend to say: “When are you writing your own book?” OK, OK – I hear you!!

www.ukghostwriter.co.uk

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