Tales from My Street: a Couple of Examples of Me as an Outsider/Insider/Outsider


A few years back, I spent a month getting up every day just before dawn and sitting with my back to a particular tree, out of the way in the corner of the park by the railway. I wasn’t meditating, exactly, but just trying to feel something about the dawn and the trees and the park before anyone else was up and about. One morning around five-thirty, a man and a dog entered at the far side of the park. It was a big black beast, and as the man bent to take off its lead he looked up and saw me in the distance. He hesitated, then unclipped the lead anyway. The dog rocketed straight for me barking loudly. My non-meditative meditation was shattered. The man strolled over and unhurriedly pulled the dog off me.

“Dogs are supposed to be on leads in this park,” I said, wiping slobber off my trousers and aware that my heart was pounding.

The man snarled. “What are you doing, sitting in a fecking park anyway?”

They left me to wonder about this strange situation. I figured that at one level what he really meant was, What are you doing in my fecking park. And perhaps at another, it was an example of the British people’s strange attitude towards their pets, that they will put them before people. After all, he saw me, thought about it and then unleashed his dog on me. And maybe another level still is people’s deep suspicion of anyone who isn’t doing what’s expected. Parks are for taking the dog for a walk in; putting the kids on slides, playing football, maybe shagging in the bushes. But everyone knows they’re not just for sitting in, especially at five fecking thirty in the morning.



I’ve been to parts of Britain where after one visit to the local pub, the landlord is calling you by name and pulling your usual pint before you even enter the building, and you’ve been invited to dinner with half the locals and your marriage arranged to the greengrocer’s daughter. However, in my London local, it took more than a year before anyone knew my name, despite the majority there being regulars. On the other hand – and this may explain something about the character of the area – no one ever intruded on my nightly routine of drinking while writing or reading. And gradually, I got to know Harry (‘H’), Alistair, Roy and the others. I knew I’d been accepted when I went to the bar for another pint and H, who has his own stool at its corner, said, “Look at ‘im, Tel, look at ‘im!” nodding in the direction of a stranger sitting by the door.

“What’s the matter with him, Harry?”

“He’s reading a bloody book.”

This was in the 1980s when certain activities or presences in a pub were regarded as strictly suspicious (and to an extent still are): drinking coffee; a woman on her own, not a prostitute; and, perhaps worst of all, anyone reading anything other than a newspaper or the list of ingredients on a packet of dry-roasted peanuts.

“But I’m reading, H.”

He looked at me incredulously. “Yeah, but you’re one of us.”


Tales from My Head and Street: Writing – What Comes Before the Bum in the Seat

It’s Monday. Ben and I are in the Mr Morris wine bar again.

“My students want me to talk about procrastination this week,” I say.

“Been putting it off?”

“Very funny. Basically, most of them have trouble just getting their bum in the chair and writing something. Got any ideas?”

“Maybe they should look at it like a business. I mean, if I don’t open the book shop at nine every morning, I’m not going to make any money.”

“Sounds like you don’t make any money anyway these days, what with Amazon bagging all your sales.”

“Fine, so tell your students that they don’t need to get up in the morning, or go to work, or even switch on their computers. If they wish hard enough, the writing fairies will deposit a novel at Random House with their name on it and they can just sit back and let the royalties come tumbling in.”

“If only.”

“The problem you have, Terry, is that you need to tell them that they can’t dodge the hard work and the sheer number of hours needed to produce a novel. At the end of which, there’s only the slightest chance in hell that a publisher will buy it from them; and even if they do, they aren’t going to make any money from it.”

“And you think that’s the reason for procrastination?”

He shrugs. “At least if you’re putting off failure, you haven’t actually failed yet.”

At which stage, I decide to change the subject, since he’s clearly still fretting about how publishers’ falling sales are threatening his livelihood.

I decide to get the views of someone not involved in the business.



So, now it’s Tuesday, and I’m in The Ladywell Tavern with Nige. We’re standing at the bar and I think I’ve hit the right moment. He’s just taken a large dunk of lager and can’t speak until it’s fully swallowed.

“What are builders like at putting off things they need to do?”

He finishes gulping and nods. “We’re experts,” he says. “We do it by prioritising and bullshitting. The two pillars of a successful one-man business.”

I sense that what he’s about to tell me won’t necessarily be useful for my group but I know from experience that I’m powerless to divert him once his mental masonry drill is spinning.

“Think about it, Tel. Jobs never turn up nice and consecutive; they always overlap. But you can’t tell the punters that. They want to know that you’re going to start tomorrow. So you do. Start, at least. But you might not actually finish until a lot later than they expect.”

“So, what do you tell the people you’ve made low priority?”

“Anything: you’re ill, someone’s roof collapsed in the baby’s bedroom, you broke your ankle playing footy. But make sure you don’t ever have more than two dead grandmothers though. That can be a bit of a giveaway.”

Then I remember something from several years back. We’d hired Nige to re-decorate our house. We were going on holiday for two weeks, the idea being he’d have it all finished by the time we returned. But when we came back, the house was exactly as we’d left it apart from a pair of rickety stepladders with a note attached to the effect Nige had been called away on urgent family business.

I tell him this. He has the decency to blush slightly, hiding it behind his lager glass.

“Shit,” he says, “I should remember that you should never tell anyone a builder’s secrets.”




So now I’m back home, sitting in my study with the lights off, looking at the trees out back with their leaves flitting silver in our neighbour’s irritating decking light that stays on all night.

I’ve talked to people in the street about priorities, and I’ve learned that builders can have more than two dead grandmothers, if they don’t use a calculator. But now I have to work out what priorities mean to me, in such a way I can put it to the group next week.

I find myself thinking about the system of SIMPLICITY-COMPLEXITY-SIMPLICITY, which can be applied to just about any human pursuit.

Take writing.

As a child, you love to write stories. You do it without thinking and you have some natural talent for it. Your parents love your stories. Your teacher gets you to read them out to the class. Hey – you decide to be a writer.

You write a novel. It’s sort of about your friends, doing the sort of stuff people really do. They have long conversations that are just how you’ve heard them. Something nags at the back of your mind about plot and purpose, but you ignore it. You have talent. Everyone’s told you so.

You send out your novel to some publishers and agents. You wait for the offers to flood in. But no one replies for a long time. And when they do, it’s just a standard rejection. You can’t believe it: have they actually read your book?

One editor writes a few comments in her rejection letter. She says that your writing shows promise but that you need to work on plot, show more than tell and learn to make every word count.

This, of course, can be a turning point for you. It probably won’t be; you’ll probably carry on writing, submitting, getting rejected and deciding that publishers know nothing, for some years to come. But let’s assume you get the point quickly. Under your burning indignation at the editor telling you your writing isn’t up to scratch, you have the uncomfortable feeling that she might be right.

What you then face are the complications and difficulties of a) having to learn a craft you thought you already knew but didn’t and, worse still, b) having to re-learn, to make conscious, the things that you’re naturally good at.

Many of course don’t want to go through this complexity stage. They fear it will destroy their natural talent. They may be right. But you aren’t likely to ever sell a story if you can’t structure one properly, and know when enough is enough.

And so you begin the long journey of learning the craft. Of complicating your talent. Of taking the risk you may smother it.

What will keep it alive, however, is passion, desire, love of what you do and discipline to learn and see it through.

Finally, you come out of the complexity, back into simplicity. Now, you can write free again, like you did to begin with. Only now, you’re throwing words on to a robust and instinctive structure, both at plot level and prose level. And when it works, the exhilaration is ten times greater than it was when you wrote as a child, because now you know what you’re doing. You’re not thinking about what you’re doing but if anyone asks you how you do it, you’ll be able to stop and think and explain in detail. And if they are still in their first simplicity stage, they will wonder how on earth you can produce anything creative when you’ve got all that going on in your head at the same time.

But I think there is another variation to this equation that writers need to bear in mind, which is:


Most writers tend to start with material that’s personal to them. Many never move on from there; some make a good living from it: magazine columnists, bloggers, etc. But if you’re going to be a good fiction writer, you have to learn to write from a non-personal standpoint.

You need to create your main character with detachment, and use the plot to torture him dispassionately. And if you can, you may build a very good career for yourself. You could write Thrillers, or Fantasy, or Romance, or Crime, or Literary, and the ability to take a non-personal view, to keep your own emotions, will be a big advantage.

But then . . .

Special writers go back into the personal. Only now they know how to use a little of it to maximum effect. Now, every character they write is built upon an aspect of themselves. Every scene is derived from an event in their own life. They know that using oneself is the key to injecting emotion into their work. Their own life is their story-telling base camp.

Now their work has character, quality, style . . . a specific resonance that readers will love, as opposed to simply liking a non-personal novel.

So perhaps the priorities for a writer who’s serious are not so much about making time to sit in the chair and write – even though that’s important – but are more to do with intention: first, to learn the craft and second, whether to aim for being a good writer or a special one.


Tales from My Street: Who Wants to be in a Story?

It’s very easy, of course, to see my street as packed with a convenient cast of characters I can steal at any time for writing purposes. Here we are, for example, on Saturday night in the Ladywell Tavern, celebrating Mandy’s birthday. Nige is for once on a proper chair at a proper table, and Tom and Kath are here too. Mandy (no. 3) is American, married to a stand-up comedian who is usually on tour. Around another ten of us have turned up. The tables are spread with different coloured stars, and there is bunting and balloons, and a three-piece jazz combo playing nearby.

As if reading my thoughts, Al (no. 18), says, “So, have you put me in a story yet, Tel?”

“Do something interesting and I might,” I say.

“My life isn’t that interesting,” he says, “but it’s enjoyable.”

“I enjoy my life, too. I think.”

He laughs. “Okay, so where did you go for your last holiday?”

“We spent four days on the Isle of Tiree and four on the Isle of Coll.”

“Come again.”

“Inner Hebrides; way up north. Takes a couple of days to get there; car to Oban, stopping one night on the way; then a four hour ferry ride to Tiree.”

“And what did you do there?” he says, smirking slightly since he can already guess the answer.

“Well, there are a couple of pubs, lots of empty beaches, some basking sharks and Tiree even has a Co-op.” I don’t bother telling him that I wrote a lot, too.

“There are three Co-ops within walking distance of here, Tel. Why would you want to spend half a week travelling to one near the North Pole?”

“Ah, but it’s so peaceful there,” I say. “Besides, we wanted to escape the Olympics.”

We’ve had similar conversations before. Al doesn’t understand why anyone would want to take their holidays in wet and windy UK rather than somewhere hot like the Caribbean, especially when it’s usually more expensive here.

“Why, because they don’t have TVs up there?”

“I know you’re kidding but it’s okay. And if you must know, it was sunny most days.”

“So, you did some sun bathing?”

“Well, I’m not really the beach-lying type – ”

“You don’t say.”

” – but it was too windy for sunbathing most of the time, anyway. And when it wasn’t windy, the midges got you.”

“But at least you missed the Olympics.”

“Not entirely. We went to this pub on Tiree which was packed with locals. They had a big screen on the wall showing the closing ceremony but with the sound turned off. All night, under the screen, accordion players went through loads of reels and folk songs.”

“And you prefer all that diddly-diddly-dee stuff to the Spice Girls? Come on: they were fantastic. Real performers.”

“Name one Spice Girls song,” I say.

“Um . . . Give Me, Give Me, Give Me, Lottsa Lottsa Dosh?”

I think about the Spice Girls and how difficult it is to see anything in their music with genuine passion, and without the straining sound of voices trying just a bit too hard to be marketable, to be names, brands, ‘icons’, to not cross the line into art that makes the audience work a bit to get it.

Maybe I have a subject for the next writing class. That the danger with writing is that the pressure of wanting to get published can, before you know it, steer you towards just enough. Just enough passion; just enough pain; just enough beauty.

My children’s publishers were always telling me to tone down what they called the ‘mystical’ elements in my fiction. My characters shouldn’t be so fascinated by chasing the meaning of life, they said, which of course has become a joke to the less mystically interested.

I did what they asked but maybe instead I should have gone even further into what at the time was my main passion.

The mystical as it appears in successful fiction is always just enough. Yoda nicks a bit of Carlos Castaneda for a short section in one out of six Star Wars films, and the rest of the time sticks to mangling his syntax to sound ‘wise’.

“Hey, Al,” I say, “do you think we’re luminous beings like Yoda says?”

He peers into my glass. “I’ll answer that if you tell me what you’ve been adding to your Guinness.”

Nige, who’s been listening, turns his chair round to join us. “So, give us a story,” he says to me, “about a Scottish island.”

I think for a moment. “A few years back, we were on the Isle of Harris, stayed in a little B&B which was also a croft run by this old couple. There wasn’t anywhere to eat out nearby, so we had a meal in the evening cooked by the Mrs. Nice cosy front room they let us have to ourselves, peat fire and so on.”

“Doesn’t sound like there are any bikinis coming,” says Al.

“Anyway,” I say. “It got to nine o’clock. I was reading a great book when the man comes in from the kitchen, clears his throat and says, ‘Well, you’ll be wanting to go to bed now’, and it definitely wasn’t a question. So for the first time since I was in short trousers I went to bed at nine o’clock.”

Nige looks genuinely shocked by this. Reflexively, his hand reaches out to grasp his lager glass, as if the ghost of an old Scots crofter man might suddenly take it away and tell him to go home to bed.

“In Grenada,” says Al, “we’re not even out for the night by nine.”

The next morning we’d woken to utter silence in the croft. Then, eating breakfast of porridge and honey and bacon; putting on our walking boots and heading up the mountain behind the house. To one side, a great sweeping expanse of pure sand and the blue black sea beyond. Snow fell, and then the sun came out, and there was a rainbow, and rain and the sun again; four seasons in one day; four variations on a theme of vast natural beauty.

The next night, we stayed at a hotel in Tarbet. In the evening, we went to a local bar, thinking we might find some live music. But the place was empty. The barman gave us directions to the community hall, suggesting we might take a look inside. We went there but the front door was closed and no sounds came from within. But then we spotted a slip of light at the bottom of the door and tentatively pushed it open.

Most of the village was inside, at that moment completely hushed. Even the man at the bar had the till permanently open so as not to make a noise. We went in just as a woman on the small stage at the far end began to sing, unaccompanied, in Gaelic. Her voice was both strong and gentle, as if she feeling her way around the shapes of the land outside, bringing back to the song hints of faeries and will o’wisps and the remembered dead.

Later, after her set, the local band turned the night into a ceilidh and soon people were on their feet, swinging each other around by the arms, moving smartly through the formal dance steps. Six year olds danced with seventy year olds; boys with women; girls with men; boys with boys . . . the fun was in the dance, not the brooding undercurrents that inform the largely crimped and narcissistic shuffling that passed for dance in my college days.

I don’t tell Al and Nige any of this. And I’m not sure where exactly the story is in all these memories. Somewhere between the mystical and the mundane, I guess, which is maybe the place a writer needs to choose to live. No one else will really understand why he’s never quite in one world or the other. But it doesn’t matter, as long as he produces the goods.

“Al,” I say, “I’ll put you in a story one day. But you might not recognise yourself.”

Nige says, “He’ll be happy as long as his missus doesn’t recognise him.”