Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Big Snakes

My mate asked last night, (over sloe gin and Scrabble), if he could have my kids' hamster, after it died, to feed to his kids' snake. Blimey. Wasn't sure they'd be up for that, especially six year old Son. (Him of the forks and scorpions, below.) I could see him being unsettled and confused by it. Is this what happens to all dead creatures? What about aged relatives? Are they fed to a big snake when they die? No, not too sure about that. If we did it, we'd have to have a ceremonial burial, then follow it with a moonlit, Burke and Hare style exhumation. Take the corpse to the reptile. Midnight feast. Of course, worms, snakes, what's the difference in the end? Circle of life, etc. I told him I'd think about it. Drank some more gin.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


So Jerusalem was wonderful, not disappointing at all. Maybe a tiny bit overlong, in that final third, but basically I loved it. Traffic wardens, giants and Rooster Byron as a sort of ruined reincarnation of St George or King Arthur, funny and surprising and shot through with a deep thrum of melancholy, which is something I always respond well to, because life is shot through with a deep thrum of melancholy too, isn’t it? Along with joy, you’d hope, and surprises, and a forward-looking drive towards, you know, something. And a good sprinkling of contentment. But Jerusalem, yes, it wasn’t all about that central performance, but still, Mark Rylance was brilliant. I wasn’t sitting there admiring him, admiring the craft, I just believed it. Lovely stuff. Plus the Courtauld Gallery, and catching up with family and friends … all good. And I’m looking forward to Hugo in 3D. And Dr Who this year, from the look of the trailer, it looks pretty good, doesn’t it?
And, as a nice bonus, got home to find a review of The Last Word in The Guardian.

'A lobster quadrille of tentativeness' ... exactly what I was shooting for, obviously.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


Feeling better now. Been grappling with an episode, not getting it right (apparently), feeling frustrated and worried ... but now it's done, and satisfaction seems to be in the air, and look, it's December, Christmas has moved from a vague shape on the horizon right into view, a jaunty boat with colourful sails and a crew full of elves drunk on Baileys ... I'm going to give up that metaphor. What am I most looking forward to between now and Christmas? Going to London to see family and friends, and, especially, to see Jerusalem. It’s had fantastic reviews, Mark Rylance is supposed to be stunning, have I imagined it or did I see the phrase ‘once in a generation’ somewhere? So obviously, it’s likely to be disappointing. Maybe Rylance will be like Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York, over the top, mannered and frankly a bit panto. Maybe he’ll be bravura, like Anthony Sher swinging around on his crutches in Richard III, so you admire and enjoy it, but you aren’t fully engaged, don’t quite believe it. Maybe. Either way, I’m expecting slippage between anticipation and the event. Because I’m a bit of a gloomy git. I’m Paul Giamatti in Sideways (which I saw again a couple of days ago - fantastic), not Thomas Haden Church. But, but, but … still capable of taking pleasure from anticipation, from actual experience, and from memory, because it’s London, family and friends and a play, what’s not to like? And then it’s Christmas, more family, and food and drink and presents and Dr Who. Although Dr Who last year, that giant, floating shark, it was rubbish, wasn’t it?

Friday, October 21, 2011

I Hope It's Forks

My son’s thinking of an animal. So far I’ve managed to establish it has less than four legs.
OK, maybe he’s thinking of a snail. ‘Just one leg?’
‘It has three legs?’
‘No animal has three legs.’
‘This one does.’
We go back on forth on this for a while, but he’s insisting all the time that he's right. Finally, like he’s getting really frustrated with how dim I am, he’s shouting -
‘It has three legs! Three on each side!’
‘OK, we’re getting somewhere. So is it very small, like an ant?’
‘No, it’s very big.’
‘A very big animal with six legs?’
Turns out, eventually, it’s a scorpion. Which has eight legs. My son’s not too bothered about whether it’s an insect, an arachnid or indeed a mammal. He has a thoughtful look in his eyes now.
‘Which d’you think there’s more of in the world,’ he says. ‘Scorpions, or forks?’

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Lumb Bank

It’s an eighteenth century mill owner’s house on a long grassy terrace halfway down a valley outside Heptonstall, West Yorkshire. Across the valley you’ve got the hillside, covered with trees and heather, and then down in the valley it’s just seething with trees in every shade of green. Mill chimneys poking up out of the foliage, looking like they’ve always been there.

My Dad was there first, as a student, in the 80’s. I turned up in 1990, tutoring a Starting to Write course. 16 students, two tutors, living together from Monday to Saturday, workshops and one to one tutorials. I was there again the following year, tutoring a school, and then I lived there for three years, with my then girlfriend now wife, we were running the place as Centre Directors. The job wore us down in the end - being nice to people every week, it wears you out - but we never got tired of the place. I’ve been back many times over the years as a tutor and a guest reader, most recently last week, tutoring a lovely Starting to Write a Novel course with Patrick Neate. It’s one of my favourite places in the world.

Every room has memories, every corner of every room, layers of memories. When I’m there, I feel like trailing my hands along the walls, picking them up through touch, through smell, through the sound of pens on paper or dishes clattering in the kitchen or people talking somewhere. A reading silencing everyone; a room full of people laughing during a workshop; the party we had the night we got married, the room full of our closest friends; crossing the garden, heading back to the cottage after a reading, beneath a big sky, seeing shooting stars, a hedgehog, hearing the low white noise of the river. And standing there, by the low wall, looking out at the view, in every season, at every time of day and most times of night, just looking.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Twenty Questions

I’ve just done an interview on Steve May’s always intriguing blog.

20 questions about this and that. Zombies, The Last Word, Emmerdale, Angela Carter - the usual sorts of things I guess. Which makes me think I could do a whole blog entry on meeting famous people, because I have run into a few over the years. It would be about how rubbish I am at it. Angela was an exception, because it wasn’t a social meeting, it had a context, she was reading my stuff and criticising it. And then if I did meet her socially after that I felt like I knew her, and it was fine. It was very nice, in fact. Others though … just awkward. Embarrassed smiles, sidelong glances, blushes, tongue-tied responses. It sounds like a shy boy meeting a girl, doesn’t it? You have to pity famous people I guess, if they get that reaction very much. What are you supposed to do when faced by it? Still. I’m older now. I might be better at it if it happens again. Although I didn't do very well with William Boyd (July 09.) Maybe I'd be better just to avoid them ...

Monday, September 05, 2011

If ...

If I hadn't been ill I'd have gone to Manchester University instead of UCL. I wouldn't have met my future wife. I might not have entered the Time Out/Whitbread competition I stumbled on in my second year, so my first story wouldn't have been published. I wouldn't have had the editor of the LRB as a tutor, so my second story might not have been published there, nor my third which got into Fiction magazine because an agent saw my second in the LRB. I went to UEA partly because a mate who had a cricket match there picked up an application form for me, because of those three stories on my CV, and because of a good reference from another tutor, Dan Jacobson. Perhaps without all those factors I wouldn't have got there either. I wouldn't have written my first novel. Illness gave me a subject, a structure and a style for A CHINESE SUMMER. It gave me a bank of memories, impressions and sensations to draw on, and it gave me a mood-flavoured point of view which gave the novel it's voice.

It's like one of those episodes of Star Trek where they encounter a temporal anomaly, and find out how things might have been. I wonder about this life I didn't lead, those gaping holes it would have left. Would they have been filled by something I'd be equally sorry to lose? I doubt it, but then I would, wouldn't I?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Finished it. The last third is as good as anything he’s done, which is to say very good indeed. He habitually writes in short stories, linked short stories presented as novels, like my last book, TENDER. 1000 Autumns is essentially three novellas, the first weak, the second an improvement, and the third excellent. So, a qualified recommendation. But there’s a humanity underpinning his writing, a belief that honesty and kindness are the best options in human relationships, that I find very attractive. He's not interested in cheap, attention-grabbing tricks, melodrama introduced to make the plot work, or as an excuse for some purple prose, his stories are inventive and surprising, the ideas bubbling beneath them are always at least interesting, his language is beautiful and distinctive, his characters engaging and his research – which I was a bit snippy about below – unsurpassed. And they're about to start filming his masterpiece, CLOUD ATLAS, I believe. Films of books, that's a whole different discussion ...

Monday, August 22, 2011


Up on stage. Dragged up on stage by an unusual comedian at the Edinburgh Festival, in front of maybe 300 people, squinting into the dazzle, trying to smile, wondering what’s happening to my lips. It was embarrassing of course, but fun too, even while I was up there I was enjoying it, it was memorable. That was The Boy With The Tape on His Mouth, a man doing an hour’s show with his mouth taped up, using mime and physical comedy and the audience; child-like, playful, sophisticated, bit of Tati, one of my highlights. The other would be A Slow Air by David Harrower, lovely play at the Traverse, about family, a brother and a sister, estrangement, something I always seem to be looking at in my fiction, beguiling. And the wonderful story-telling of The Man Who Planted Trees, with the very funny dog puppet, the surprising and engaging kids’ show, Boxes and Bubblewrap, Michael Morpurgo doing his gentle, moving thing in Private Peaceful, and Neil Gaiman at the Book Festival, being pleasant and interesting, though I’d have liked to hear him read.

So that was a success. Daughter desperate to return next year. Son a little more luke-warm, a little less surprised by it all. Walking down the Royal Mile among tightrope walking jugglers, fire-eaters, strangely dressed performers accosting us to hand out fliers, he’s earnestly asking me, Who would win in a fight between Caligula and Blackbeard?

In other news, The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Z … a bit disappointing. I love David Mitchell, but I’m not enjoying this very much. Jacob de Z’s a bit dull, the thriller story of the second part’s an improvement but not very thrilling and with a predictable (inevitable?) twist. Just beginning the third part. When you admire the visuals on a Pixar film, you know there’s something wrong with the story. Here, I’m admiring the research.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


It’s poverty, it’s bad parenting, it’s police harassment, it’s failed education, it’s lack of aspiration, it’s lack of discipline, it’s the glamorisation of criminals, it’s adults spending too much time trying to be like cool kids instead of showing kids how to be like adults, it’s defining people by consumerism then denying them consumer goods, it’s straightforward greed, it’s gangs of criminals, it’s the cult of self-esteem, it’s lack of role models, it’s the closure of youth clubs, it’s all a bit depressing. Hard to imagine a way back from this. It would take enlightened, longterm work by politicians who weren't going to be influenced by unpopularity, looming elections or the Daily Mail, who were dedicated to perceptive, compassionate, hard-headed policies aimed at improving all the above. Like I say, hard to imagine.

Monday, August 08, 2011

A Different Life

So, after February 1982 (see below) there were about two years where my life was arranged by illness. Chemotherapy, knee replacement, physiotherapy, radical surgery. What does it mean, to be ill? It means being a step back, being passive while other people do things to you, and for you. Doctors and nurses clustered round me, prodding me, examining me, made me feel important. Or they left me alone, walked past, checked a chart without a word, made me feel neglected, ignored. Powerless, either way. I lay in my hospital bed and watched somebody die in the bed opposite, and I was sad and scared while watching it, but grateful to be there, to witness it. I lay there while friends and family visited. I lay there and craned my neck so that I could look out of a window at what was going on in the street outside. I sat in other people’s cars as they drove me to and from the hospital, and looked out at what was happening in the ordinary, breathing world. You’re behind a window a lot, or feel like you are, looking out at life going on elsewhere.

Once a friend called Robin drove me away on a morning when I couldn’t have chemo because my blood count wasn’t right. We drove up the hill out of the hospital, on a beautiful sunny morning, and he put Beethoven’s violin concerto on, and it felt like the world couldn’t be more perfect than this: being driven away from hospital by a friend, in sunlight, with the music playing, and not having chemo. Your values are rearranged when you’re ill. You’ve entered a different world with different rules and when you leave it – if you leave it – you’re changed.

That period has influenced everything since, has made me a different person. I’m more or less with Nietzche on this:

As far as concerns my own sickness, am I not infinitely more indebted to it than to my health? It is to my sickness that I owe a higher health.

OR: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

(I haven't read Nietzche, I heard the first quote in a lecture, and saw the second at the beginning of Conan the Barbarian. It seemed clever to me at the time, and apt, since I was in the midst of illness, but it’s become a cliché, and lost it’s power. Thanks, John Milius.)

I try not to be romantic about it. If I could keep the change but lose the experience, then I’d do it. But if I could only lose both the experience and the change in myself, then I’d most likely do that. And then I'd be an altogether different person, living a different life.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


READING – Just started Game of Thrones. Because I loved the TV series. Got 1000 Autumns of Jacob Wotsit lined up next. Because I think David Mitchell may be the most exciting and interesting living English novelist. I’m trying to remember what I finished before GofT. I can’t. I’m racking my brains (or am I wracking them?) and I genuinely can’t remember. Which is a bit scary.

WATCHING – The Killing box-set. The Danish one of course, not the American remake. Dour, slow and utterly absorbing. The Hour. Yes, it’s miscast, the two leads are at least ten years too young. And apparently it’s nothing like a newsroom, but I’m enjoying the story, the characters. I want to see where it takes me. Torchwood. Which is silly, which you expect but maybe it’s a bit too silly, so I may not stick with it. And Emmerdale, naturally, which is in a good moment, Aaron on trial, teetering on the brink of an abyss of guilt.

WRITING – New novel, The Last Word comes out August 17th. Yay! Available for pre-order on Amazon. Working on Victorian novel. Working on kids’ TV series idea. It’s at an early stage but there’s been a little bit of interest. Might it be possible to get some development money? We’ll see. Working on a stage play idea, a collaboration, possibly for Edinburgh next year. But that’s not going to happen is it? Surely not. But you never know, and working on it is fun. Playing with a film idea, a Gothicky, ghosty thing. And working on Emmerdale. (Of course.)

And meanwhile, lining up readings for The Last Word, at a library, a bookshop, also in Manchester. Maybe a launch. And the zombie film’s coming out next year.

And meanwhile, everything else continues, family, friends, texture, the getting from one place to another, the sleeping and not sleeping, the hopes and worries, the appalling news stories.

And meanwhile, this morning, Son was disappointed over spending his little savings on something he didn’t much like. His mood, his sad face, have affected my day more than any of the above.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Lake of Tears

Leavers’ Assembly. Last day of Year 6. Girls weeping, mums weeping, dad’s sniffling, boys looking a bit puzzled. You have to go with the cliché here, it’s irresistible - seems like last week, literally last week, Daughter was entering her big new Primary school with a crowd of other kids, gait awkward, legs stiff, because they were so very nervous. That was four years ago. Seems like only the week before I watched her toddling off holding her mum’s hand, and her little lunch-box, to infants’ school. That was seven years, maybe eight years ago. She didn’t even much enjoy school these past few months, got too big for it, wasn’t learning much, marking time before moving on. Makes no difference. A chunk of childhood is over, four years, more than a third of her life, and you can’t help it, nostalgia gets you, and maybe the worry about whether you enjoyed it enough, wrung enough out of it, appreciated it enough, valued it enough.

Time works its slippery business. You’ve got a pretty good grip on it as it plods along, hour by hour, day by day, then suddenly … woah, what was that? You’ve dropped it, spilt it on the floor, and there’s four years round your feet, finished, irreplaceable. So that’s it, it’s becoming a memory now. You remember that trip, that teacher, that time when we … It’s gone.

Monday, July 18, 2011

February 1982 (Part 2)

I was wearing a shirt with cufflinks. God knows why. I think it may very well be the one time in my life I’ve worn cuff-links. Maybe someone gave them to me. I was 18, probably thought they were sophisticated. Westminster Hospital. The doctor was a woman, and by now she had the results of the X-ray at Greenwich and the biopsy, so she had the definitive word, a sketch of the likely treatment, prognosis, all that. She was very firm that it was curable. Which made me think – for the first time? Surely not, but perhaps this was the first time it became articulated – it made me think it might not be curable. But my memory as usual skips around the dialogue, all the dramatic stuff, fixes on the embarrassing detail. She needed to take some blood. Just roll your sleeve up, she said. Then she sat and watched me as I fiddled with the unfamiliar cuff-links, with fingers that may have been shaking, wanting to tell her it’s not that I’m upset, although I am obviously, it’s just that I’m not used to these things, these cufflinks, these impossibly fiddly, utterly pointless bits of metal. How long? Probably only 30 seconds or so, but it felt like minutes. Is it even possible that she helped me? Perhaps I asked her, or perhaps she couldn’t bear to sit there any longer, watching. Anyway, the sleeve went up eventually. I imagine we both felt like cheering. Big events are written in capitals, they’re loud, they have exclamation marks. But it’s the small stuff, very often awkwardness, clumsiness, a mis-step, it's the ordinary texture of life that snags the emotions and hints at everything that lies beneath.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Saw a trailer for Before Dawn last night, the relationship drama with zombies I wrote, from a story by Dominic Brunt and Jo Mitchell. It’s looking good. Strange hybrid, first half a serious, hopefully emotional unpeeling of a troubled relationship; second half zombie holocaust. High production values, (top actors and crew, make-up by veterans of Harry Potter and Dr Who), tiny budget. It’s out next year. Made with a new camera, I’ve forgotten what it’s called, but it basically seems to mean anyone can make a film that looks like Hollywood product for bobbins. Sounds a bit like e-books, potentially revolutionising publishing by allowing anyone to get their books on Kindle, via Amazon. In both cases of course, publicity is still the key. It’s all very well having your film or book out there, but people have to know about it before they buy it.

And this morning, in the playground, I signed a tea-towel. I got Dom to sign it last night, and was asked to add my own signature. I’ve signed a few books in my time, but this was a first. It was an Emmerdale tea-towel, I should clarify, a raffle prize. Has my felt-tip scrawl really made it more desirable? I honestly doubt it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Inside and Outside

I remember a line in The Great Gatsby – actually, I don’t remember the line, I remember a version of it, without any of Fitzgerald’s swooning poetry and elegance – Nick Carraway’s at a party, and he says something about feeling that he’s ‘inside and outside simultaneously’. It doesn’t sound like much, but it struck me as a deliberate allusion to the writer’s position, experiencing something while at the same time observing that experience, storing it up, filing it away, for future reference, like the actor who checks the mirror when his mum’s died, to see what bereavement looks like. Which means that you’re busy observing it, but you’re also diluting it, making it less worthwhile, and less enjoyable, by standing with one foot outside it, as if you’re really not entirely sure you want to get involved, thank you very much.

Of course I was an awkward teenager when I first read GG, and it’s no coincidence that inside and outside simultaneously is also the position of the awkward teenager, trying to be confident, trying to be unselfconsciously in the moment, but a bit too uncomfortable in his skin, too shy and, well, too awkward, to wholly carry it off.

So what does that mean? All writers retain some element of the awkward teenager inside them? No, that’s clearly nonsense. Any sentence that begins ‘All writers …’ is probably pointless. Just bring it back to Fitzgerald, ‘inside and outside simultaneously’, which suggests that dilution I mentioned, an incompleteness, a less satisfying life, if you’re doing the ‘outside’ part properly, conscientiously. But does it have to be simultaneous? Maybe the secret is to have the full experience at the time, then remember it later, in tranquillity. Back to memory then, which more and more seems like a polite word for making things up …

Friday, July 01, 2011


I made a mess of my Cambridge entrance exam. I seem to remember in the practical criticism writing a lot about the punctuation in a poem. I felt I was in a hyper-perceptive state, and I spent a page or so writing about the placing of a particular full-stop. In retrospect, it was not a very charismatic full-stop, and I was probably hyper-nervous rather than hyper-perceptive. And then I made a mess of the interview as well. There were two interviews in fact, and I was waiting outside the first room with a boy from Radley who, it turned out, seemed to think his interview was at the same time as mine. I felt pretty smug about this. Radley had just had a TV series devoted to it, something that my school unaccountably had never quite managed. He was going to be very embarrassed when he found he’d made such an elementary mistake. He hadn’t. I ran out of the building, and around the quadrangle several times, like that sprinter in that scene from Chariots of Fire, opening doors and peering in more or less at random, and eventually I found the right building and the right room and I was only about ten minutes late. Unfortunately, I was breathless. He asked me about King Lear, something I was quite knowledgeable about at the time, but I couldn’t speak, all I could do was pant: ‘Justice ... flies to wanton ... any cause in nature ...?’

In retrospect of course, everything (except that full-stop) has its own shape and meaning, which you entirely miss at the time. My efforts, once I’d got decent A levels, were largely irrelevant. I applied for Cambridge, didn’t go there, had a place at Manchester, didn’t go there either. I finished up at University College London instead, which was a great place to be, but which I hadn’t even applied to.

Thursday, June 30, 2011


I had some odd teachers. I remember sneezing once, as I was leaving a class, and seeing the teacher wheel round and bellow ‘Who did that?’ I hesitantly put up my hand and he came slowly over to me, stood above me, and snarled ‘If you do that again I’ll make you dress and undress in front of the class six times.’ I remember my feelings moving slowly from fear to puzzlement. Dress and undress? Six times? Are you sure that’s what you meant to say? Many of them tended to fly into tempers very easily, as if they lived always on the edge of some nameless rage. You could watch the progression, if you’d said or done something you shouldn’t have. The pause as the teacher’s eyes slowly focus on you, the wounded look developing on his face, he seems to wince, his head sinks briefly into his hands as the enormity of your crime sinks in, the words start quietly, 'You think it’s funny ...’ He’s shaking his head, in all his years of teaching he’s seen nothing like you, and now the volume is rising, he’s working himself up, the colour is entering his cheeks, and you can see him taking a breath ready to roar. Some of them loved a little drama, the petty exercise of power.

Teachers at my school were subject to depression and suicide. Being fairly bright, and keeping a fairly low profile, I mostly got on with them. Looking back, I raise my eyebrows a little when I remember the odd one who had a tickling fight with me, an angel-faced eight year old, when I was in my gym kit. You wouldn’t get away with that these days, but I’m sure I enjoyed it, was flattered by the attention. My only problem was that, being scared of their tempers, I was too keen to please them, so for a couple of pre-O level years I would often copy the work of the boy sitting next to me who, by an alphabetical fluke, was the cleverest boy in the year. This would have been all right, but I was never very subtle about it, and we often seemed to get the same mark in tests, which was embarrassing. Happiest years of my life? No, not even close.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Working on a snappy and engaging blurb for the novel. (THE LAST WORD, out in August, may have previously mentioned.) Or, not a blurb exactly, something for Salt to show bookshop buyers, to persuade them to stock it. Trying to be intriguing, trying to develop interest without giving away the plot, trying to sound exciting without overdoing it – it’s not easy. This is what I went for …

Gloria, meet Stephen. He’s your dead brother’s best mate. He’s also a liar, and he doesn’t want to hand over your brother’s belongings. He’s got a hair collection, and he’s got somebody’s teeth hidden in a drawer. An inconvenient spider’s going to play a crucial part in your relationship. Oh yes, and someone – God knows who - is sending him letters claiming it’s his fault Max is dead.

Stephen, meet Gloria. She’s not good with people. She wants you to hand over all Max’s most precious stuff. She likes to steal things, she gate-crashes funerals, she’s going to force you to revisit some of the most painful moments in your life. And she doesn’t know who’s writing the weird letters you’re getting, but she agrees – she thinks it’s your fault her brother killed himself. Oh yes, and it’s down to her that you’re going to wind up in hospital, and all over the papers. Well, the Scarborough papers anyway. On the plus side – you might get to sleep with her.

You’re going to be together for one strange, eventful and occasionally horrifying week so … good luck. By the time it’s over, you’ll both know Max – and each other - a whole lot better. And the world will seem entirely different.

The world will seem entirely different. Cheesy? Possibly. Still, there you have it …

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Post Shorts

Shorts went well. Full houses, lots of laughs, mostly in the right places, applause, everything you could hope for really. And then a party afterwards, too much to drink. I left with a mate, some time after midnight, we found a guy standing outside saying ‘I don’t know where I am.’ Not one of our lot, a random guy with eyes focused a long, long way away. ‘You all right?’ A pause, as the words slowly penetrated. Then, ‘I don’t know where I am.’ ‘You’re in Hebden Bridge.’ He nodded slowly, like nodding too fast would be both difficult and dangerous. Then another pause. Then, ‘I don’t know where I am.’ We were wondering what to do. Did he need an ambulance? But then he ran off.

And so next year, next year … We need to debrief. We probably need to let a new bunch of writers do it. How would they get chosen? Don’t know, not really my problem. An anonymous competition type thing, I guess. But would I like to do it again? Yes, I would. Maybe I’ll do it in Manchester, if I get asked, where it goes on for two weeks, and the press turn up. Maybe …

Meanwhile other projects move forward. The Show of course, as ever, the kids’ TV idea, the radio play idea, this blog that I’m trying to do more frequently, where I’m trying to mix up memories and the present day, and the book. The Book. The Last Word, coming out in August.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Christmas 1981

I was working in Harrods at the time. A Christmas sales job, putting up temporary dressing rooms, unloading lorries, that sort of thing. All the boys from proper public schools were behind the counters, wearing suits they looked natural in. This is the winter of 81/82. I remember walking through early morning streets hushed by snow. Cars creeping gingerly by. My footsteps crunching and squeaking. Brakes moaning like whale-song on Beauchamp Place. Occasionally I worked Sundays, double-pay, and at seven in the morning the city was as I’d never seen it before, never imagined it, deserted and draped in white as if for some ceremony, some fantastic wedding. I’d lived in London all my life, but I got to know it better, walking in it, from Charing Cross, over Trafalgar Square, up Pall Mall and round the palace, to Hyde Park Corner, along Knightsbridge to Harrods’ discreet back entrance. Home via Picadilly, where brake-lights shone in the early evening darkness, to Leicester Square, to meet friends in The Imperial. Monopoly names, which had once been evocative but meaningless. Now I was walking along these streets like I belonged in them. And being handed real money, a hundred pounds or so, in a wad in a brown envelope each week.

I’m not sure what my plans were. Three months earning money, working evenings and weekends, and then going to Europe, and travelling on long train journeys to places I’d never been before. Then Manchester, English and American Literature, then God knows what. The Harrods job wasn’t even a bridge, it was a doorway, out of school, into some new, more adult version of life.

There was a bump on my knee. I noticed it one day, and couldn’t remember having knocked or twisted it. It didn’t go away or get any smaller, and ached a little. Once I knocked it when I was manoeuvring a heavy trolley, and it hurt like hell, sending a shiver of pain through my whole body. The doctor said it looked like water on the knee, or something called, I think, a ganglion, and booked me in for an X-ray a couple of weeks later. My mother, ex-nurse, informed by intuition or anxiety, arranged for one two days later at Greenwich Hospital.

Friday, June 24, 2011


That’s short plays, not trousers. Six writers, mostly TV, mostly unused to theatre, writing 15 minute plays for the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival. It happened for the first time last year, three nights, sold out, went down very well. Mine was set in a soap storyline office. This year mine’s set at the bottom of a cliff, after a nasty accident …

Hope it goes all right, I’ve got a great director and cast, but there’s been hardly any rehearsal time, availability problems, space problems. Tech yesterday, tensions running high, there was almost a fight – nothing to do with my merry little band – it was a thespian sort of fight, a lot of words and not much else. Eventually someone threw themselves between the combatants shouting ‘Leave it, he’s not worth it!’ and it all ended happily. Dress today, opens tonight. One of my actors leaves Wolverhampton at 5.30 to be in the theatre and on stage at 8.30. Let’s hope there’s no motorway pile-ups. It’s good though, good to sit in an audience and hear and see and feel their reactions to the piece line by line as it develops and unfolds. Telling a story, and seeing the response in someone’s face as they listen. Don’t get that with telly, don’t get that with books either, not unless you sit next to someone who’s reading it, watching their face intently, nudging them now and then to see if they’re enjoying it. Which isn’t really feasible.

This is what writing is – communication, Of course if the audience boo, or sit in stony silence, I might not be feeling so naively upbeat about it tomorrow.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

June 1997

I’m in a car with C, heading from Hebden Bridge down to Elstree, where they make EastEnders. C is an established, highly respected writer on the show, on his way to a commissioning meeting. I’m on my way to an interview. I’m a novelist, I’ve recently left five years of full-time employment (still the only years of full-time employment I’ve done in my life) and I’m intending to return to making a living from writing. I’m working on a new novel – at any given moment in my adult life, I’m working on a new novel – and I’m doing bits and bobs of teaching, but the new plan, the new Plan, is to try TV. So I’m on my way to Elstree.

C is driving. I read his storyline to him. He tells me about commissioning, what it involves, how the show works. We think about what they might ask me in the interview. I come up with a couple of criticisms of the show. Don’t do that, C says. Say it’s great, and tell them why it’s great. I sent them a calling card script, they seemed to like it, asked for another. Now they want to see me. I’ve written a couple of episodes of The Bill by this time, but I have to admit I’m more excited about this. I’ve watched Enders, off and on, for years. And it’s a chance – isn’t it? I’m not quite sure how these things work at this point – it seems like it’s a chance to get some regular, well paid TV work.

We have the interview. She talks about my script. She’s pretty negative about it, comically so. She’s not blessed with people skills. (A lot of TV people, perhaps a disproportionate number, aren’t blessed with people skills.) She isn’t wild about the main character, or the story, she likes the little characters, off to the side, having a chat about nothing very much. I tell her that’s what I like too. Not so much pushing the story from A to B to C, but the little things along the way, Tiffany and Bianca at the bar talking about men, the texture, the small stuff in between events. I think she likes that. Anyway, I get the job. C shows me round the Square. It’s the Square! It’s all very exciting, can’t quite believe I’m becoming a part - a small part, a tiny stitch - of the fabric of popular culture.

But these days, honestly, I much prefer Emmerdale.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

February 1982

I remember the sun shining. Walking across the heath, the long expanse of green criss-crossed by roads, the big sky above me. I took all that for granted, because I grew up with it. Then down the steep hill, Maze Hill I think, towards Greenwich Hospital where I received – can this be right? – the diagnosis. Odd that I can’t remember the particular moment when I was told. I think it was then, that day, that place, rather than with my GP, or at the Westminster or the Marsden, where I found myself later. I’d had an X-ray, they told me the result at Greenwich, sent me to Westminster for the biopsy.

I walked back up the steep hill, carrying this new information about myself, back towards the heath, and towards a moment I do remember well. It turns up at the beginning of my second novel, The Alchemist. Of course memory is unreliable, layered and patched by the stories we tell ourselves. I think I remember it well, but perhaps I don’t. Doesn’t matter, it’s solidly part of my history now. A woman was coming towards me, she was bulky and pasty-faced, she wore a denim jacket, and she looked like she was in the midst of an argument with someone. She glared at me, a scary fierceness to her, God knows what she might say or do, she shouted something into my face, and as I walked quickly past her, she turned and spat at my retreating back.

I don’t remember receiving the diagnosis. I don’t remember telling my mother when I got back. I remember the mad woman spitting at me, opening the door to a different future.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Making Stuff Up

Delighted for Jo Shapcott winning the Costa for Of Mutability, a collection that partly arises from and explores her experience of cancer. She’s called it ‘emotional autobiography’, less interested in what actually happened than in what it might mean. Most of the hordes of books on the subject are probably non-fiction memoirs, but I find the approach of fiction and poetry more interesting. People sometimes say they prefer non-fiction, because why should they read someone making stuff up when they can read what really happened. It’s an argument which reveals a basic misunderstanding of how stories work, and how writing in general works. Non-fiction is far from reliable about facts, let alone truth; fiction and poetry are excellent investigative instruments, looking beneath events, unpeeling emotions.

My first novel emerged from my experience of cancer. Like Jo, I was preoccupied by the different world you enter when you have a serious illness. The alienation, the stepping aside from the normal current of life. For me, it was bound up with the standard alienation of the angsty teenager, and the outside-looking-in feeling of the developing writer. And of course that experience was only one ingredient in the mysterious process of writing a novel, but it was an essential ingredient, a place to begin.