Tales from My Street: If I was You, I wouldn’t be Starting from Here

It’s a November Sunday morning and I’m sitting in the local park. The cool but bright sun flares gold on the autumn leaves of the plane trees. Kids play on the climbing frames nearby, and people walk their dogs, no doubt reminding themselves how impressive it is that the Mayor ordered the river to be diverted so it now winds through the middle of the park, meaning no more ad hoc football matches; instead we have an ‘ecology pond’ with a sign next to it showing all the wildlife you might see, but which the absence of David Attenborough peering through the bushes indicates is more likely to be wishful Lewisham Council thinking.

I’m sitting on a cold steel chair outside the little cafe, a mug of coffee next to my notebook, the top page of which is empty at the moment. I’m bothered by something to do with writing but not sure what exactly. Which is a familiar state to be in, similar to before I begin writing an actual story.

Something . . .

I can almost feel it, like trying to recall a dream upon waking, grabbing at wisps of scenes and feelings, forcing meaning back in to them, like blowing air into the lungs of a dying man.

I’m relieved when Ben unexpectedly appears, smiles and asks if I want company. I nod and he gets himself a coffee, sits.

“There can’t be much money,” he says, “in making notebooks for writers.”

“I think I’m thinking about how to start.”

“What, a story?”

“No, how to start being a writer.”

He squints into the sky, then yelps, lurches forward, grabs both hands around his mug to stop it flying, as a streak of hurtling dog bumps into him on its way to recover something its owner has just thrown.

“Sorry, mate,” says a man behind us. “I meant to chuck it the other way.”

The dog returns with a yellow plastic miniature rugby ball between its teeth, that squeaks. He drops it at the man’s feet, who picks it up and this time manages to throw it away from me and Ben.

“The problem is,” says Ben, “that very few writers choose where to start. The ones who get taken on by a publisher are dropped half way down the road before they’re even aware there are roads to be half way down. I have a theory . . . ”

The dog keeps running after that ball as if it’s the first time. I’m glad Ben has a theory.

“Back in the 70s,” he says, “when we opened our book shop, publishing was very different. Take children’s books – ”

I know he says this because I was/am a children’s author. And while I know what he’s going to start with at least, I’m happy to hear it – a story about stories, really.

“Publishers were smaller than today and the children’s department would be run by the senior editor. She’d decide which books to buy, commission an artist to do the cover then the book was sent out. No damn marketing men.”

“They didn’t need a sales team,” I say, “because they already had places that were guaranteed to buy enough books to keep the authors developing.”

“Yes, book shops and libraries,” he says. “Not huge sales, as you say, but it allowed the model to work, which back then was to discover good writers and give them several novels to find their audience. Then, extra sales were icing on the cake. But tasty icing, not the synthetic sugary shit publishers put out these days.”

I sip my coffee, noting I’m slightly tense, half-expecting a squeaking rugby ball to land in my lap when it and my bollocks will disappear into a nasty set of canine canines.

“Thing was,” he says, “those buyambienmed.com children’s editors only cared about quality, about good writing. So much so, they not only didn’t look for mass-market bestsellers, they actually banned them; at least the libraries did. Like Enid Blyton.”

“When I was at college in Swansea in the 70s,” I say, “I spent a few hours with a local librarian, and she told me about the Blyton ban. Said it was because the writing was so bad. She handed me a Famous Five book, opened it to a random page and told me to read a paragraph. It went something like, ‘Dick got in the boat and got out the oars. Anne got out the sandwiches and made sure that everyone got their fair share . . . ‘”

Ben smiles as if hearing a distant symphony. “I know what all the liberal idiots would say to that: it doesn’t matter, as long as children are reading. But it does matter. Blyton was too lazy to think of better words, so just used ‘got’ all the time. And that would subconsciously programme her readers into thinking that’s the way to use language.”

“You were going to talk about starting,” I remind him.

“I’m getting to that  . . . So two things changed: first, publishers amalgamated, got bought up by big multi-national companies who only saw books as products to be sold. Which meant they weren’t going to let a writer find her audience: either she sold right from the word go or she was out. Second, the new sales teams which had final say on acquisitions realised there was a Blyton-sized hole in the children’s market. But they didn’t know how to fill it. Children’s books weren’t segmented like adult literature: genre, literary, mass-market, etc. They were all pretty much in one block, left over from the days when it was all good quality so it didn’t matter how you marketed it.”

I know what’s coming next but let him say it.

“Then Harry Potter happened.” He laughs. “And you know the greatest irony of all? All those mass market sales meant nothing to small shops like me. The discounts we were offered were so small, I actually ended up buying Potter books off Amazon to sell in our shop; and then it was just to keep faith with our customers; we didn’t make any money on them.”

“Is that why you’re thinking of giving up?”

“No, I’m thinking of giving up because most of the books we sell are crap. Blame the publishing model. Anyway, what I’m saying is that writers think they’ve already started when they get that publishing deal, but in fact they haven’t. When that book comes out, it’s only the publisher who’s started.”

“Not sure you’d sell many copies of this if you put it in a how to write book.”

“Writers always underestimate the power of the commercial concerns who are hiring them. I’m telling you, it’s the publisher who’s started that writer, not the writer.”

“So, what can the serious writer do?”

“Make sure that he’s started, on his terms, before he sends anything out to publishers.”

“Or self-publish?”

“Maybe but then the publishers haven’t just brainwashed the writers, they’ve done it to the readers, too.”

“But why wouldn’t they want writers to really express themselves?”

“The same reason any corporation doesn’t really want its employees to express themselves: control.”

I know he’s right. But he isn’t finished. “The worst thing of all is that it isn’t the publishers’ control that’s the most damaging. It’s the control the author exerts over his own creativity, because he’s frightened of functioning without it.”

I think about the blank page of my notebook. I haven’t started it yet. But, Ben’s right: I actually started a long time ago; the question is, did I really choose where from?


Tales from My Street: Nige Creates a Whole New Genre


Nige and I are in the Ladywell Tavern. Because he hurt his back falling off a step ladder the other day, we’re actually sitting down at a table for once. It’s November, quite a way on from the 5th but there are still fizzes and cracks and flashes of fireworks outside. A log fire throbs cosily in the hearth. It’s not a quiz, music, open mic or art exhibition launch night so things are relatively quiet.

“This writing class of yours,” says Nige. “Are you taking on new members?”

I quickly raise my glass to my lips, buying a bit of thinking time, because generally speaking, there’s nothing worse than passing professional comment on one’s family or friends’ writing work.

“Er, who did you have in mind?” I say, still trying to buy time.

“J K fecking Rowling, who do you think?”

I mean, I’m sure he doesn’t lack the skills and intelligence to be a writer. It’s just that –

“You’ve never shown much interest before,” I say.

“That’s because I didn’t think there was any money in it. But I’ve been reading about these self-publishing dudes who’re making a fortune, and no greedy publishers or weasely agents to take a cut.”

“The vast majority of self-publishers actually don’t make much money, Nige.”

“That’s because they’re not thinking commercially enough. I’ve got an idea for a whole new genre: Sex-Fi.”

“I don’t – ”

“Look, what do Sci-Fi nerds most miss out on?”

I take another long swallow of my pint, letting him carry on with the obvious.

“Sex!” he says. “So, if you combine the two, you’re going to get millions of horny but hopeless boffins throwing their cash at you.”

“But sex isn’t exactly absent from Science Fiction already, you know.”

“Yeah, but it’s all so coy most of the time: Kirk pecks Uhura on the lips instead of giving her the ol’ warp drive at full thrust. So, the competition isn’t exactly stiff, is it? Ho ho. Anyway, I’ve been working on the blurby thing that goes on the back of the book. What do you think?”

He takes a sheet of folded A4 from his jacket pocket, smoothes it out and pushes it across the table to me. I read:


Starship Shaggers


Vas D. Eferens


In space no one can hear you come!


Donny Ozone signs on with the Salt Lake City Starship Mission to save alien souls. But he’s barely left the Solar System when he’s captured by a Pirate Propagation ship. To his eternal shame he’s hired out to do the one thing Earth men are good at: shagging!

After servicing the beautiful pirate leader, Vulvo Orificano, he becomes co-leader. Together, they build an empire based on sperm exchange.

Then Donny hears the Earth is under attack from a rival pirate gang.

Can he persuade Vulvo to help him save the Earth and become a Minister of souls once again?

Or is he doomed to spend his life seeding hot alien chicks who are more interested in his semen than his sermon?


“Well,” I say, “at least it seems to have a plot. Which puts it ahead of most of the books my writing group are working on.”

“And I’ve heard it said that writing a good blurb is harder than writing the book itself.”

“You’ll need a promotional website and a blog too,” I say. “And some sort of angle.”

“How about the fact I hate poetry?”

“Well, I’m not sure it’s wise to use negativity to – ”

“Have a read of this,” he says, passing me another sheet of paper.


I like to write them poems

Though I ain’t got much to say

But everyone else is at it

So I’ll write them anyway.


My life is pretty boring

Nearly all the time

But that sure won’t stop me

Putting it all in rhyme.


When one day I fall in love

And I hope it’ll be real soon

I’ll probably poemify that too

And get it to rhyme with moon.


My favourite flower of all

Must surely be the rose

It’s got symbolicy thorns

And rhymes with loads and loa(d)s.


I like to write them poems

They’re easier than novels

I can write them in the adverts

And never miss, um, hang on

… I can do it in my hovel?

I can write them in the adverts

They’re easier than novels …

No, wait a minute …

Okay, here we go –


I like to write them poems

They make my brain grov-el

For words but at least you don’t need

So many as for a nov-el.


I laugh. “That’s pretty good.”

“Yeah, but do you think I should join your fecking group?”

“Sure,” I say, knowing now that he won’t. “Come along next Wednesday. Bring a laptop or pad and pen, or in your case a dildo full of ink.”

The reason I know he won’t join the group is because Nige is too bright for the long haul of writing a novel, or even a short story. Writing requires a lot of boring discipline, application and regularity – stuff that wouldn’t be out of place in an insurance salesman.

The great challenge of being a writer is, therefore, on the one hand to develop dogged persistence while on the other to unleash passion to order.

“What time do you finish?” he says, mind already outside the mental classroom.

“In your case, about three pints before last orders,” I say.




Tales from Dingle, My Writing Head and My Street

We’re in a bar in Dingle, West Ireland. There’s a band playing, which is not of course unusual here, in a town where the main income is tourism – bars, Guinness, Fungi the Dingle Dolphin and Irish diddly-diddly music.

The band comprises fiddle, guitar, accordion and tin whistle. They are playing traditional songs and some Folk favourites like ‘Foggy Dew’. They’re good. They’re competent.

But . . .

Something doesn’t quite grip, or uplift, or go ‘oomph!’. Each player performs well enough and they interlock with each other efficiently.

But . . .

We move on to another bar, the Bridge House. It’s crowded and noisy, friendly. The barman seems to move slowly, yet he’s handling six or seven orders simultaneously. They’re trained to do this in Ireland, unlike in Britain where six or seven bar staff manage to avoid eye contact with their one customer, mainly by texting on their phones or swapping tips on looking cool.

A couple sees us look at the two musicians in the window seat and waves us into two empty stools next to them.

The guitarist is in his mid-thirties, long face, frizzy black hair, wearing faded jeans and a black T-shirt. The squeeze-box player is in her late twenties; blonde, also dressed casually. They’re talking about what to play next. Then she starts a run of notes that he picks up, putting together a chord sequence to provide the rhythm.

Then they’re off. The reel starts slow, as they normally do. His left hand seems to feel out the chord shapes as if giving form to some inner beat. She squeezes out runs of notes that glide on the surface tension of his chords. They hold each other’s gaze; smile; she throws back her head, rocking with the increasing pace of the piece.

It gets louder and faster and their sounds seem to push against each other, giving the music –

– something extra; more than the sum of its parts; a kind of natural transcendence, not in some nebulous, ‘spiritual’ way, but with the sheer joy of two people communicating with intent.

The first band we saw tonight were talking to each other. This band is having a conversation.




I decide to explore the notion of  ‘conversation’ where writing is concerned. I’m sure it’s something that could help the writers in my class, but I’m having trouble working out just how a writer can have a conversation with himself. At least, not without the neighbours sending in a shrink.

So here I am in number 32. Lucy’s house. She has one long room downstairs, airy, clean white walls, one or two paintings of landscapes; no clutter. Not really proper guru stuff but then I guess Lucy wouldn’t class herself as such anyway.

She’s in her early sixties, short grey hair, strong face, gaze that’s quietly watchful – not the full-on stare of the Hollywood guru, who sees-into-your-very-soul. Lucy isn’t even sure we have souls.

We’re sitting at her oak table, near the kitchen area, drinking tea out of Batman and Spiderman mugs. I wonder if she’s consciously mixing superhero belief systems. Outside the night-black rear windows, her apple trees sway gently in the breeze.

“I don’t know,” she says, after I’ve explained how I’m trying to work out what a conversation is for a writer. But then she nearly always says this. “Why’s it important to you?”

Lucy has studied with all sorts of teachers. She’s probably a Gurdjieffian at heart, but she knows a lot about Buddhism too; and can quote from most spiritual paths, including Lucasian (when the force is with her).

“Well, Mrs Yoda,” I say, “I feel that a problem maybe unique to writers is that we don’t get to have a conversation around our work, because there isn’t anyone else to talk to.”

“Don’t you talk to your readers?”

“Not really. I mean, they get a finished product that they may later comment on, which can be useful. But I’m talking more about a conversation that builds the work as it’s happening.”

She sips tea from the top of Batman’s head, thinking.

“Do you believe most writers don’t try hard enough?” she says.

“Yes, because most of the time, they don’t have anything to push against.”

“They show their work to other writers, though, don’t they?”

“Well, yes. Some use just one trusted reader friend; others put endless drafts through their writers’ group. But I’m not sure that’s a conversation.”

Then she does that irritating thing guru-ish types do, of turning the question back on me.

“So, what’s a conversation for you?” she says.

I watch the trees outside, and the mysterious night, and think about what actually happens during the writing process.

“It’s as if,” I say, “there’s all this treasure, just out of reach. You can get close to it, just a few inches away, by using existing maps and guides. But to actually get hold of it, you have to dig much deeper than you expected to, and you have to use tools no one has ever told you exist; and you have to close your mind to all the advice about ‘enough’s enough’. And keep on digging until you hit something solid.”

“Like real emotion?”

“Yes, but then you have the next step to negotiate and that’s to turn the treasure into something the rest of the world can use; and in the process you have to give it up.”

“So, the conversation isn’t actually between you and another person.”

“No. It’s between you and, well, the real you, I think.”

“You wouldn’t make much at the box office with a pirate movie based on that concept.”

“But that’s the point, isn’t it. That a writer’s treasure is always different to a reader’s.”

We stop the conversation. It isn’t finished but it doesn’t need to go any further. Emotional treasure, pirates of the Seven Cs (Creativity, Content, um, Cash, etc), conversations with one’s real self . . . it all needs mulching down into a usable feeling, rather than becoming a contrived analogy.

I stand, thank Lucy for the tea and say, “So what faith are you: Marvel or DC?”

“Oh, come on, Terry,” she says, “you should know by now that I’m a Dark Horse girl.”