The world does not owe me a living. I can’t cry in my beer and condemn those declining principles of my chosen profession and blame their dissolution for my own lack of fortune. The world changes; sometimes it improves, but unfortunately, in the main, it gets worse. What has happened to bring me to my current state of mind could have been avoided had I decided to abandon some of my own haplessly proclaimed paradigms. Therein lies the trouble with my fading generation: we always imagined that the behaviour and social interaction we grew up with would become the norm. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. Modern society takes its behavioural cue from those who lead the pack. Today that means the burgeoning rich, the celebrities and the vacuous pillars of fashion. They underpin humanity’s basest emotions; greed, ignorance and selfishness, and today’s social climate, rotting with inequality and gormless diversion, is replete with all these faults.
When I was a kid in junior school I had conflicting ideas about what I’d like to be when I grew up. I’d dismissed the notion that I could ever be a scientist or an astronaut as the mathematics gene was certainly never part of my make-up. For one short summer in 1952 I took an interest in sport. First it was golf (we lived at the time next to a golf course) and then, at my school, Wold Road Juniors in Hull, I volunteered to play in the junior football team. I soon realised what a huge mistake that was. I knew nothing about the rules of golf or football, nor was I prepared to learn. I had all the gear, thanks to my parents; decent boots, the school kit in green, hefty shin pads. I even had my own football. Then, in the first real match we played on a Saturday morning, I scored a goal; not for our team, but an own goal, which led to our opponents winning 3-nil. The nastiness this engendered in the school changing room sent me home in tearful dismay. I never played football again, and have hated the game (and most other sports) ever since. Cricket was a baffling mystery, and my one appearance behind the wicket in 1954 resulted in my being knocked unconscious with a bat by a diminutive over-zealous batsman. The scar this left on the back of my skull is still there.
But there was something else I could do better than anyone else at school. I could write. I got a genuine buzz when my compositions were selected by the teacher to pin on the wall. There was something thrilling and engrossing about the process of filling pages with your own words. I knew how it all worked because even from a young age I read a lot. Admitted, it was mainly comics like The Eagle, Lion and the loftier, public-school flavoured Wizard and Hotspur. I loved the stories, the corny dialogue; all Germans seemed to yell was ‘Achtung!’ and ‘Himmel!’ and Red Indians bit the dust shouting ‘Aieee!’. There were smaller comics, graphic A5 sized stories of brave commando raids where men throwing grenades said things such as ‘Crikey, Smiffy - this’ll teach the German swine!’.
During my coming-of-age years in the Merchant Navy, between 1959-65, I was a voracious reader of science fiction, horror and fantasy. Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley, Theodore Sturgeon, H. P. Lovecraft. I carried my tattered copy of Melville’s Moby-Dick from ship to ship.
I read history, became utterly
fascinated with 19th century America. I knew all about the Lakota
Sioux and the American Civil War. Then, in my 20s, after deciding that I too
would be a writer, I took the plunge and wrote something for our local paper,
The Hull Daily Mail. They printed two
features, even including my pen and ink sketches as illustrations. By my late
20s I’d made it onto radio, with regular appearances
on the BBC. Other
newspapers and magazines bought my efforts. My boyhood dreams appeared to be
coming true: I had seen my name in print and heard it on the radio and it felt
|H. P. Lovecraft|
But all this kitchen-table typing was a long way from the ultimate dream of writing full-time. That branch of creativity for a builder’s labourer (which I was back in the 70s) remained an exclusive club. I remember the resentful atmosphere I experienced at an NUJ meeting in Hull. Because he thought I showed ‘promise’, an editor, Anthony Bambridge at the Sunday Observer supported my application to join the Hull branch of the NUJ as a freelance on a six month probationary basis. I knew the gathered hacks of the Hull Daily Mail were far from happy with this untutored usurper trying to get into the profession by the back door. My membership lasted six months and ended. I knew that ‘proper’ writers wrote books. My next project was to write the history of the Hull to Withernsea railway line, which had been shut by Beeching in 1966. The helpful David St. John Thomas of the publishers David & Charles, after perusing my trial chapters, dismissed my prose as ‘too flowery’. I didn’t understand what he meant back then. But I do now.
|The kindly and communicative David St. John Thomas|
Dispirited, I was overcome with grim reality. What success I’d had seemed to be just a fluke. I had two children to provide for and bring up, so the typewriter gathered dust and I abandoned my muse. It wasn’t until the 1980s when I began writing reviews and small items for the music press, The New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Sounds and others, that the bug bit me again.
I felt I could do it. By 1994I was back on the radio, and even managed three major features for the New Statesman. My first book came out; a history of British Rhythm and Blues, and I had made some valuable contacts. In 1997 I was working as a travelling salesman for a major cartography company whilst supplementing my income with writing. As the writing time ate into my selling time, my employers had no choice but to fire me. I wasn’t performing well; my targets were missed. So in September 1997 my boss called me into the boardroom and, although I knew I was facing disaster and possible penury, he gave me a pleasant surprise. He agreed that I was a ‘good writer’ and that this was what I should be doing. So he agreed that I should end my employment that day, but that he would continue paying my salary for three months, and that I could keep the car for three months and the company fax machine and mobile phone. He said “Go home and start your writing career.” As an example of corporate munificence and understanding, I doubt it has been matched anywhere in British industry. That man’s name was Paul Treadwell, and without his understanding, artistic nature and generosity, I would have struggled to survive those first 12 weeks. But I did, because he gave me a breathing space, and as a writer, I have survived ever since.
And now, as I approach 74, after faltering attempts at various genres, with numerous magazine features and several published books to my name (and a new one out in a month’s time), the nature of the 21st century publishing and writing world has convinced me that the end has come. What interests an inquisitive writer with a penchant for research does not always interest publishers or their customers. Three decades ago there existed certain channels of communication between creative souls and those who provided their market. Those channels, which in many ways represented open minds and good manners, have been closed. After all my efforts to interest readers I only have one contact left, fortunately my editor at my current publisher, Constable & Robinson, who are now owned by Little, Brown Ltd., part of the huge Hachette Group. I have tried self-publishing with scant success. Without marketing, copy editors, bona fide proof reading and corporate support, self-publishing can only serve to seriously damage one’s reputation. It’s been fine for the four slim volumes of poetry I’ve issued, but anything more ambitious stands out as a badge of rank amateurism and therefore can be disastrous.
I’m tired of writing to editors with ideas and receiving no response, not even the courtesy of a dismissive, one-line e-mail. I’m weary of the massive efforts over the past five years trying to convince some TV producers and directors that I have valid ideas for a stunning documentary. In effect, I am disgusted by my sincere, well-mannered and repeated efforts to communicate with the writing world being ignored. Perhaps my meagre talent has run its course. Maybe my bank of ideas was nothing more than a Colt .45 revolver; six bullets in the chamber, all expended. Perhaps also my kind of writer is a creature of the past, a scribe of his time. Even the BBC, with whom I once enjoyed a good relationship, has also erected a wall around its commissioning editors. The only portal open these days to a writer is the ludicrously titled ‘BBC Writers Room’ which only accepts submissions for two short periods every year. Can one expect a critical rejection slip from such a source? Of course not. Those days of artistic interaction are long gone.
So like the unknown Bohemian painter in his attic, possessing no yardstick with which to measure his talent, I shall now put an end to the frustration and close the door. I count myself lucky that at least during my creative existence there have been people along the path who offered me a chance. I did get into print. I did broadcast, I even wrote for TV. I never expected fame, nor sought it, so the fact it remained elusive is of no consequence. I had a boyhood dream of becoming a writer and I fulfilled it. It’s been good, and evidence of my effort will remain on shelves long after I’m gone. So to all those who allowed that to happen, those decent souls who took the time to read, to listen and respond to communications, I raise my hat. My writing life is over, and I shall now devote what time I have left to music and gardening and the odd unpublished poem. At least those subjects do not require me to write to anyone, and what a blessed relief that will be.
Sitting outside the old British Embassy
in St. Petersburg 2005, dreaming of a
never t be made WW1 TV documentary.
THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF SUPERSTITION
is published on November 20 2016 by
Constable & Robinson / Little Brown, Ltd.