I have been feeling a little down for the last few days. Here, six and a half big hills away from the south Cornish coast, the weather feels like it’s been dishwater grey and soggy since a few days prior to forever, plus there’s the whole subtly nagging issue of the world being about to end, but I knew that wasn’t it. It took me a few days to realise that the cause of my small malaise was, oddly, also the cause of a recent feeling of elation: on Tuesday, I wrote the final sentence of my latest book. Even more excitingly, I’d also written 75,000 words of other sentences directly before it which seemed, at least to my mind, to link together and form what could arguably be described as “a narrative”. This had been one of most fulfilling creative experiences of my life, perhaps the most fulfilling. Surprising, informative, silly, zippy, trippy: the antithesis to everything I’d heard about the phenomenon of The Difficult Second Novel.
So what precisely is my problem? I think the root cause is to be found in the place I’ve dwelt for the last few months. I am going to call that place Nottinghamtopia. It’s a bit like the real Nottinghamshire of my 1980s childhood but also very much like no place that has ever previously existed. It only started to exist when I started my novel, which is called 1983, then began, solely by the process of writing then writing some more, to find out precisely what the novel would be about. I inevitably made it a nice place to be because writing a novel means spending a long time in a place in your head and I’m too much of a wimp to make that place a horrible place: it’s one of the reasons that, despite once winning a Shirley Jackson Horror Writing Award, I will never be an actual horror writer. In creating this place, I was fortunate to be able to draw on a huge amount of happy memories and to be able to verify them, via the photos my family took in the early 80s.
I was recently talking about childhood to a friend of a similar age to me, late 40s, and she told me she didn’t have any proper memories of her life before the age of 13. I was flabbergasted, because mine, especially from around 1982 onwards, when I turned seven, seem so vivid. I asked her if her family took many photos. “Not really,” she said. That is perhaps significant. These photos archived by my mum and dad have provided a restocking of my memory bank over the years. I have always had them, stored away in a trunk at their house, to get out and look at every few years, confirming that my mental images of where and how I grew up are not false. Yes, there was a man in our village who walked his cow along the road on a rope, as if it was a freakishly massive pet dog. Yes, my schoolfriends Benji Baptiste and Edward Ward were really good at pulling faces. Yes, my Italian mechanic relatives Carlo and Mario did wear blue dungarees and drive a Mini Moke to and from the beach from the garage they owned. Yes, we did go on family foraging expeditions to the wildflower meadow in Bog End, down the road from my uncle and aunt’s house. Yes, my mum did have a jumper with alpacas on it. Yes, when he grew a moustache, my dad did look strangely like an off-duty war photographer.
“Aren’t photographs amazing?” is a simplistic and boringly obvious thought but, while writing this book, I have been struck by the truth of it like never before. These pictures I have been gazing at depict a world almost as far away from us now as it is from the bombing of Pearl Harbour, but here it is, looking not entirely unlike it all happened on Instagram last week, with some tweaking from the Nashville filter. I have gone deep into these pictures from my parents’ archive, walked around in them, then stepped just out of the frame and discovered things lost to me for decades. I swing on the garden swing, watched by my nan, who is smoking one of her customary Embassy Number One Reds, the only colour for a lifelong supporter of Old Labour, and see the headstocks of the two collieries our house was sandwiched between: one closed, one about to close. I fly down a slide into a swimming pool at an Italian campsite then walk through the ancient village on the hill above it, slurping granita, contemplating my mortality properly for the first time as I look at the ancient residents of the jumbled houses: a basket weaver my dad will one day paint, a man in a wine shop who shouts enthusiastic words at me, none of which I understand except “bambino”. That dude making the basket will be 128 now, if he is still alive, which will not seem impossible, if you have been to that village.
Of the many disapproving, impossible-to-please voices that social media has regrettably planted in my head over the years – a voice that is probably not anyone’s voice in particular, but a result of all the voices who take to social media to condemn anything that’s not the flawless life that only exists within the parameters of the crutch of their oversimplified two-dimensional world – is the one that blanketly criticises nostalgia. It says “remembering the good old days” is synonymous only with championing a less inclusive Britain, with bigotry, with sexism, with giving up and accepting your best years are behind you, with a refusal to move forward artistically. Yet the world I swam around in while writing this book is an extremely multicultural one, a not very patriarchal one, one that’s centrally notable for its quality of forward momentum, one that has taken me to exciting new places. I originally thought this book would be more about my own 1983 and what I remembered about it. But soon it became about a very different 1983: a place I didn’t know I was travelling to when I set out. It’s this place, much more than the place in those photos, I’ve been missing so acutely over the last five days.
In her introduction to the 1985 Virago edition of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel The Wedding Group, Elizabeth Jane Howard states that “Like most good writers” Taylor “did not enjoy writing”. Am I weird for loving it so much? If so, that’s cool, because weird is where I’m most comfortable. Alternatively, perhaps it just means I’m not what Elizabeth Jane Howard would have considered a good writer. But that’s fine too. I’m not writing my books for the ghost of Elizabeth Jane Howard. I’m writing them for me. The reason I carry on doing it is not because I like creating pain for myself; it’s because being most deeply in the zone of them is one of the best feelings I know, a feeling that seems to develop another couple of layers with each successive book, especially when I’m writing fiction. Of course, I still have plenty of tricky moments. The bit where I’m holding so much of it all in my head that I feel like I need a second brain to concomitantly function as a normal human. The “I don’t know how I’m going to end this” terror that is always there, even though you have learned repeatedly that to worry about endings is counterproductive, as an ending will always organically present itself to you, if you’ve put enough hard work in en route to it. But by and large, the part I find unpleasurable is the non-writing: the bits where life stalls your momentum, the bits where the internet tries to con you into caring too much about what your writing looks like to people who won’t read it, the part-observed uninvestigated life of your work that you see digitally spewed back at you, the seemingly ever-increasing necessity of acting as an aftercare sales manager for something you wrote a year or more ago when in truth your creative mind has already moved on, as it always should and must. I learn from every book I write and something I learned the latest time around is this: pausing is overrated. Perhaps mainly because Villager, my previous book, was my first novel – the first example of the long form fiction I’d been waiting my whole life to write – I was guilty of spending too much time waiting around to see how it would take care of itself. Some people have deeply connected to it, and that has been very lovely. It’s part of the reason I do this but it’s not the main reason. The main reason is to be writing books all the time. It’s the reason I quit working in Tesco, 29 years ago. It’s the reason I quit journalism, eight years ago. It’s why, now 1983 is done, I am going to start writing another book very soon, much sooner than I did last time.
Will the next novel be as riotously fun for me as 1983? Maybe not, but I am salivating at the prospect of it already, especially as it is going to be so very different. 1983 is almost certainly my most feelgood book to date, in terms of ambience and plot, and that has no doubt contributed to the particular comedown I’ve experienced due to being snatched away from it. It bent my brain back while I was in it, made it twang in a satisfying way which I hope is reflected in the reading experience. Its themes are space travel, the funny parts of childhood that remain no less funny in adulthood, 1980s politics, cool lady teachers, education, alpacas and mining, but, as always seems to be the case with me, it’s about many other subjects as well. I initially pictured it as simpler than Villager. It is, and it isn’t. During the writing of it I passed through a few more interdimensional portals than anticipated.
It was during my time going through one of these portals – into an early 1980s inner city primary school in the East Midlands – that I learned some stuff about child self that probably had a significant hand in why I do what I do for a living and why I love it so much. I often think about how long I’ve had to wait to write precisely what I want to write, and how I’ve had certain struggles along the way that I almost certainly would not have had if I’d born in a different place to a different family background, but in another way I was very fortunate. You will be able glimpse this good fortune in the above photo, which was taken at my school, Claremont Primary, in 1982: a school a lot but not completely like the school in my book. Claremont was a normal school in a not very affluent area of a not very affluent city, not an officially “alternative” school, but one with a very inspiring headmistress, Jean Penchion, and a carefully chosen, equally inspiring selection of teachers working alongside her. No child was ever put down at Claremont. All of us were made to feel like we could do whatever we wanted to with our lives, however weird. Every teacher was given space and freedom to teach as they wanted. As my mum, who taught there, recently told me: “We nurtured the kids and we felt nurtured as teachers, too.” It was a building where work was turned into fun. Because, as anyone who knows anything knows, that’s when the most important learning gets done. I was moulded by that, at the most mouldable of ages. It has stayed part of me ever since, even after an apathetic comprehensive school’s best attempts to siphon it from my bloodstream. My latest book is a series of made-up events, but is also a tribute to the place, its teachers and its pupils: the playfulness it instilled in me, and all the things it never, for a moment, dissuaded me from believing I could become.
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