When I was at college in the early 70s, a friend of mine had a chat with me over a pint about his forthcoming marriage. Bryn and I had known each other for nearly three years, in which time we’d got drunk together, visited each other’s homes, gone trekking on the Gower Peninsular, played football together for the college.

“I wanted to explain to you why I’m getting married,” said Bryn.

His bride-to-be was his first real girlfriend. A lovely, pretty girl, from the next valley to his in the Rhondda.

“Why would you want to do that?” I said.

“I want you to know it’s because everyone else wants me to,” he said.

“Then you’re an idiot,” I said.

There was more but this exchange sums it up. And it marked a divergence in our lives. He went on to have kids and stay married to the same person, to be a strong part of their two families’ storylines; I didn’t. I don’t really know how he feels about that now. To say we no longer have anything in common isn’t necessarily true, however. But what we share is rooted in early adulthood, just before other people put serious pressure on us to shape our lives the way they think they should be.

What I think this story has to do with writing is that we writers need to be aware of the crucial turning points in our lives, and what they might cost us in terms of creativity.

Ancient bards, at least in myth, used to travel the country beholden to no one other than their next patron, just for a short time. I like to think their audiences greatly valued their otherness: that, unlike kings and peasants, they were free to tell stories that would excite, challenge, even offend. In reality, I suspect they were canny characters who would censor their material according to the vibe they detected in their hosts. But still, their art was not essentially compromised by domestic confinement.

Modern authors can suffer from the double-whammy of living a compromised life and having to write within an world that’s been internetted to death. How do you get hold of that otherness these days? Everyone’s watching the same films as you; reading the same books; listening to the same music; visiting the same chain shops on the high street, any high street; eating the same food; wearing the same brands; exchanging the same guff on Facebook.

In the past, if you didn’t go the route your family wanted you to go, you almost by default found yourself in strange new worlds. Now, those worlds are harder to find, and even when you do find them, there’s almost always a connection to everywhere/one else to link to.

For the writer, I think the answer may lie not so much in physically breaking away from the norm, but more in mentally sitting down with oneself and challenging one’s thought-routes towards a story. You have to be honest with yourself and admit that the pressure on you is to produce a story that’s easy to follow. Publishers like to say they look for stories that are ‘the same but different’, although what they really mean is ‘THE SAME but also a tiny, little, not too upsetting, bit different’. If you see that to be the direction of the idiot, then you need to tell yourself that you’re just going for different.

Before the world got connected, a lot of writers lived in different; and their challenge was to make it same enough that readers could get it. Now, we all live in same, so the challenge is to get different. The problem is, of course, that readers now not only live in same, they don’t really want to leave it; perhaps don’t even know what different feels like. So, the extra challenge of the writer is to provide different but in such a way that the reader wants to go there, even if they never actually will.

But it gets worse, because the writer is now expected to get on board the inter-same outside of his stories, as himself. He’s also surrounded by big hit movies and TV series that are fully of wonderful special effects in High Definition but populated by characters who wouldn’t be out of place in his local pub.

So, my friend met a crucial turning point in his same/different journey as a young guy of 21, facing a pretty clear choice. In one direction lay buying a small house, then a bigger one; visiting relatives; parents babysitting; putting kids through school . . . solidity, security and settlement. In the other was anything from squats to caravans to tents to igloos, with perhaps a string of strange, unpredictable and heart-breaking relationships; money, no-money; adventures, dangers, the bleakness of existence perhaps followed by a proving of the spirit . . . nothing predictable or dependable.

I believe these two directions have merged now for the most part, with the connected world approximating different but its risk hedged in by ultimate global familiarity. Which means the writer who wants to say something meaningful has to find a way to un-merge himself. I think that’s through challenge: to question every idea, story structure, character act and word he considers using. And if he does that, he may well decide there’s not much point in writing anything at all. But at least that decision lies in the direction of different.


I used to work with a guy who couldn’t stop posturing. If he asked you a question, his left eyebrow would rise like a caterpillar impersonating a tent. If he was thinking about something you’d said, his forehead would turn into a badly ploughed field, and his head would incline to one side earnestly. If he was in a pub chatting up a woman, he really would lean on one elbow against the bar and nod encouragingly like a man who is deeply in touch with his feminine side. He was great fun, too. Sometimes, he and I would spend the whole day conversing in rap, or hillbilly or stupid toff. Which of course is another kind of posturing.

He was also naturally creative. Once, he turned up at work on April 1st saying, “I heard you on Radio 4 last night. I didn’t realise you were a professor of Arthurian studies.” Noting the date, I suspected a wind up but decided to play along. “Yes,” I said, “it’s not something I’ve told many people.” So, if he was making it up, I’d neutralised the trick because he wouldn’t know for sure if it was actually true. However, he nodded thoughtfully then said, “I recorded it. Would you like to hear it?”

Now, this was interesting. It looked as if there might actually be a Professor Terry Edge. Even so, I expected him to declare that the tape was stuck or something, so was surprised when typical BBC music swelled out of the machine, followed by a well-intoned voice introducing first the programme, then Professor Terry Edge. This was great! – a total coincidence of names but I could just carry on pretending I was the professor and he’d believe it. It was credible, too, since he knew I was into the Arthur myths.

When the professor spoke, he actually did sound a bit like me, so I nodded along and said, “Thanks. I hadn’t actually heard this yet.” For the next five minutes or so the interviewer and the professor continued their somewhat erudite conversation until abruptly my colleague switched it off, grinning. “Thought I’d appeal to your ego and love of Arthur.”

I laughed. “You did that? It sounded totally genuine.” And it did. He could actually have been a BBC interviewer if he really wanted to be.

But here’s the thing: he wanted to be a writer. And he wrote lots of stuff. Well, lots of bits of stuff: hilarious one-liners, promising scenes, starts of stories . . . What he didn’t do was ever finish anything. He loved the moment, and the performance; loved being reactive. But all of that required a straight man: me, the world, the workshop.

A writer has be his own straight man. At various points in the creative process, he has to stop posturing and deliver the sceptical, cold, dull, boring inner Ernie Wise to his inner Eric Morecambe. For every, “This dialogue is great!” idea he has, he needs to challenge it with, “But it doesn’t work for that character in this story.” For every, “I’m brilliant!” he has to counter with, “Only if you make it believable, and that means cutting out that joke, that comment, that wonderful description that makes you cry every time you read it.”

The contradiction of being both one’s inner frying pan swinger and the face that gets panned can be too much for many naturally creative people like my work mate.

And actually, it’s worse than even being able to occupy both Party and Pooper roles within oneself: because Party has to win. Ultimately, Wise has to be fatally frying panned by Morecambe. The reader needs your creative side to prevail. Which is harder than it sounds because frankly the straight man gets all the best arguments. Not the best lines, but he’s the one who’s got the easier role, whatever Ernie supporters might tell you to the contrary. The creative has to counter-argue logic, rationality and scepticism, and come out the other side with the truth and beauty which will always be beyond the reach of the straight man, who will hate you forever when you do.



One time back in the 1980s, Johnny Shedbuilder and I were on our way to Nairobi, to spend a couple of days hiring a jeep and heading out for the game reserves. On the plane we read the Lonely Planet Guide to Kenya. It warned us about a scam that young Kenyans played on naive westerners when they got off the bus from the airport.

We’d also read about Cairo, too, where we’d stopped off for a few days en route. It had rightly prepared us for the wonderful and infuriating chaos of the crowded city, and the charm of the old parts where we went wandering and incongruously came across a full size table tennis table in a tumbledown alley. We played games with the kids there, then had tea in a small cafe before heading off for the pyramids where we were unsuccessful in unravelling the real reason they’d been built.

The guide had warned us not to drink anything with ice in it because the water it was made from could contain traces of sewage. But the small market stalls sold juices made from whole fruit crushed into ice, irresistible in the heat and dust. So we ignored or forgot about the warning.

We got off the bus in Cairo and a very nice young chap approached us. He was dressed in black jacket, white shirt, red tie, and looked studious. He was very apologetic, explaining that he’d like to talk to us because we were from England where he had an invitation to attend Reading University and would like some help in preparing for it. He was very convincing and we offered to buy him a cup of coffee and hear more about his situation. He led us to a cafe and while I noted the flicker of recognition in the owner’s eye, I didn’t pay it much attention.

Our new friend told us a most unhappy tale about how he’d studied hard to win a university place in England, and how much he would love to go there. But . . .

Well, let’s just say Shedders and I were on the verge of writing the fellow a cheque before we finally remembered the Lonely Planet’s warning. Almost everything they’d detailed had been reflected in the young guy’s tale. And yet we’d still almost been taken in.

A couple of days later, we drove our hired jeep to the outskirts of Nairobi where my ex-girlfriend was head teacher of a school. On the second night there, my stomach suddenly decided to impersonate Mount Vesuvius, erupting without warning in two opposite directions. All night, I evacuated painfully. My friend called out the school nurse who gave me medicine which did the job. God knows what would have happened if we’d been out in the middle of some huge game park.

Another warning ignored.

I also managed to suffer heatstroke on the same trip. And on my last night, after Shedders had already gone home, I was staying in a coastal hotel owned by my teacher friend’s friend but decided to visit another hotel a mile or so up the road, going by taxi. The guide book warned that westerners should stay in their hotels because they could be subject to various crimes in-between them, especially given the comparative poverty of the local people. But my hotel was dominated by British people I could always get plenty of back home, so I went to a hotel that was dominated by Germans and perhaps in a moment of universal insight, soon realised that they were just as boring as my lot.

The guide book warned that local women frequented the western hotels, looking for men who’d pay for sex. I indeed met one such woman in the bar and we spent the next few hours talking. I told her right at the outset that I didn’t want to have sex with her; that I was in love with my new girlfriend back in London. She seemed to understand and turned out to be a very interesting and intelligent woman. She told me that her day job was weaving but that the twenty pounds she could get for sex was more than a month’s pay.

At the end of the night, she called a taxi that I said I’d pay for, to take me back to my hotel and then to take her to her village. But the taxi stopped between the two hotels and my female friend demanded that I pay her twenty pounds, the taxi driver turning in his seat to fix me with a steely gaze. I said I didn’t want to have sex and wasn’t going to pay. Which in retrospect was probably not very clever. There was a long silence during which I guess she weighed up various balances; perhaps she even realised she’d made a mistake in not taking me at my word. Whatever, she nodded at the taxi driver who re-started the car and took me back to my hotel.

These stories aren’t in my book, ‘Subbuteo in My Soul’, which contains various other adventures Shedders and I got up to. I didn’t select them because they didn’t fit the purpose of that particular book. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that you need to have a wide range of material you can select from, not just take the first idea you come up with. This applies to fiction as much as to biography. Too much fiction reads like the author is using up every last scrap of his imagination. Huge multi-part series are probably to blame, at least in the Fantasy genre. And publishers don’t help, demanding that authors write in the same genre and use the same characters as far as possible.

It’s very easy as an author to end up like the host of an organised tour, where all the sights are worked out beforehand and the reader is going to feel totally catered for. However, it’s getting dysentery you remember; and nearly being robbed or offed on the east coast of Africa. Until in the end the reason every Fantasy story you write takes place in a medieval European type village where all the white locals drink ale from tankards and smoke long pipes and dandle wenches on their knees while the evil wizard in the woods cackles like Vincent Price and would come out as gay except you didn’t realise that was a good idea to boost your demographic until after the books have been published is because you no longer drink water unless it’s been sterilized or passed through a mountain at great expense.