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…