I grew up in the mining village of Keresley, near Coventry. It’s not a place you would find in the tourist guidebooks. A gritty, unlovely place. Salt of the earth people, but if you used words of more than two syllables you were instantly suspected of homosexuality. Mining people tend to be proud and aggressive to defend what little they’ve hacked out for themselves. There is a famous Victorian cartoon from Punch in which two miners leaning on a gate are discussing a top-hatted toff who seems to have strayed into the neighbourhood. The caption runs as follows. First Miner: Who’s him? Second miner: Stranger. First miner: ‘eave half a brick at ‘im.
No change there then.
First miner: What’s him say? Second Miner: Big word. First miner: ‘eave half a brick at ‘im.
I have to say that this early training has made me very careful about using fancy language. I prefer a spare prose style.
I failed the sheep-gate Eleven Plus exams and went to a giant comprehensive school in Bedworth, Warwickshire. It must have done all right by me, because although an Eleven Plus failure was mine-fodder, I muddled through to college in Derby where I got a degree in Education and a teaching certificate. There I met some wonderful friends, some of whom I’m still in touch with. I also had some extraordinarily good lecturers, though I was too surly, arrogant and self-regarding to recognise or acknowledge it at the time. There are portions of English lectures I can recount almost word for word, twenty years on.
I was writing at this time. I kept long-winded diaries. Some years later on re-reading the diaries I was paralysed by a force of such intense embarrassment that a benign spirit climbed out of my body and burned all the diaries at the bottom of the garden.
Later I got a Masters Degree in modern English and American literature from Leicester University. There I met my wife Suzanne, a law student who can still tie me in knots in any argument. We agreed we would never have children. Suzanne practised Law and I worked for a youth organisation called the National Association of Youth Clubs. At the time the nation’s youth were rioting in the street and everything was going to hell in a handcart. I was interviewed by a vicar and three ladies wearing enormous hats with dead birds and fruit pinned to their headgear. They were not terribly clear what they wanted me to do. The job involved the empowerment of young people. I was instructed to “find out what young people wanted to do and help them do it”. The first group of young people I encountered were rolling a joint. It was terrible. The papers were coming apart, the stuff was spilling everywhere, so I showed then how to roll a secure and durable joint. This may have been the only useful thing I showed young people in my eight years with the organisation. At least the young people trusted me after that.
I quit this work and Sue and I got married and went to live on the Greek island of Lesbos, and then Crete, for a luminous year. I wanted to focus on writing. Sue was sick of dispensing matrimonial Law. The shack we lived in was called The House of Lost Dreams. Later, a critic said of my book of the same name that no-one would live in such a house. In Greece I wrote Dreamside, sent it off and it was published. A fairy-tale ending. My mother and father were staying with us on Crete when the news of the publishing deal came through. A defining moment.
With the proceeds Suzanne and I did some travelling in the middle-east. I was so astonished by the weight of Jerusalem during this time that My novel Requiem later emerged from my stay in the Old Town.
Back to England, to Leicester, trying to cut it as a professional writer and taking on various work to sustain it. Suzanne and I re-affirmed our disinterest in having children. I switched publishers, twice. One of the greatest things about being a writer is some of the extraordinary people with whom you come into contact. I still stammer when I meet authors whose work I read when I was a bigmouth knowall student.
One day while walking through the English countryside one May morning, Suzanne and I were trying to deal with the question of avoiding parenthood by default. That is to say, unless you make a decision yourselves, the time passes and the decision is made for you in the negative. Let your yes be yes and your no be no, Suzanne said, or something very like that. I was trying hard to think what I wanted. I genuinely didn’t know my own mind. I passed through a field gate and a giant hare started from the grass between my feet. From nowhere, it seemed, from between my legs. Instructor of Freya, spirit of fertility, the familiar hare. I confess now that I am so stupid and non-rational that I have to surrender to any clear message from Nature arriving with such supernatural force that even a person of reason and intelligence might feel obliged to take notice. Within a year my daughter Ella was born, and two years later, my son Joseph. And I am so passionately grateful to the hare.
These days, in addition to my own writing work I teach a couple of sessions of Writing to students at Nottingham Trent University. The students are terrific to work with. They seem so much more mature than I was in my student days. They also see writing as the life-affirming thing it should be, and are unaffected by pretentious literary notions. And they give me another working life outside of my stories. Because sometimes – sometimes – I want to get out of my head.