Accidental Writing

Another post? I thought this blog had more or less been retired after 7 years of weirdness?

Oh, I see. You have a kid on the way so think there might be some mileage in stopping the freewheeling edgy political baiting and civic oddness and becoming a dadwriter, one of those males who once they get the proverbial pram in the hall suddenly can only write about babies, particularly their own baby, and how they didn’t know happiness before it appeared, etc.

No. I’m not going to to do that, the horror that is Tony Parsons casts a demonic shadow over that avenue. However, if any editors out there with a decent budget and a space in their pages for a loosely comic description of an old dad having all sorts of silliness over nappies, get in touch. Baby needs shoes, after all.

So why am I wasting your time today, when you could be usefully spending that time matching digital fruits into infinity, getting frustrated with Twitter or looking at pictures of sunsets on Facebook? Simple. I’m going to have a honk on my own trumpet.

You see, I’ve accidentally become a proper writer. I’ve been a (published) writer for around twenty years ago now, but exclusively in non-fiction. This always disappoints people when you tell them:

“You’re a writer then?


“Ooh, written many novels?”

“No , though I do have some fascinating 500 word features on the provision of public toilets”


The idea of a writer is that of a creator, someone who raises dust into characters, blowing life into them and steering their destinies. It’s always seemed to me a bit strange, scary almost. Non-fiction types work the other way round: you gather a huge chunk of stuff then chip away at it until you have something readable. So an hour long interview that spider-scrawls over 10 pages of my notepad can be condensed into a couple of snappy quotes.

Then I started meeting lots of fiction writers. I started working for the bid for Nottingham to become a UNESCO City of Literature, and suddenly, I’m surrounded by all these authors.

I’d like to say there is some defining trait about then – consumptive, absinthe swilling garret-dwellers, but no, they’re as wide a swathe of the population as is imaginable. Perhaps there is a little of the introvert in them all, but us non-fiction writers have to be, by trade, extroverts, so it’s probably not them, but me.

robinarseAnother character trait I have is stubbornness: if someone challenges me to something I tend to agree, leaping in with little thought. Last year this led, among other things, to dressing as a bee on the hottest day of the year and cycling round Beeston.

This was recently piqued by a writer I’ve become friends with over the past couple of years, Shreya Sen Handley. Originally from Kolkata, she moved here for love which turned to violence, and had to work her way from from him. She succeeded (and, like myself spent some time at Royal Mail en route) , now happily married to a great guy with two kids, a role as the Nottingham City of Literature Ambassador and a book deal with a major publisher. She started in feature writing, until being persuaded to turn her hand to fiction.

She challenged me to do the same. I demurred initially, as I was too busy and lacking the confidence. Then one evening, I was just about to turn the light out and sleep when a sudden urge to write came into my head. I put the kettle on, fired up my laptop and began typing.

Four hours later, four hours of throwing myself round the room trying to dislodge thoughts and words that were stuck in my head and not slipping via my fingers onto the screen, four hours of delving into memories long packed away, four hours which felt like months at times, minutes at others.

Four thousand words sat glowing back at me. I gave it a read through, a few corrections, then fell asleep at the keyboard. My first story written.

Then it got weird. I sent it to Shreya, not for approval, but to prove I could do it. I was very surprised where I’d gone with it: instead of the usual whimsy and glib silliness / ranting polemic of my non-fiction, I’d written an incredibly dark tale of violence and recrimination.

I was almost embarrassed by it: its visceral bite was alien. A story that dwells on a man being beaten to a pulp and left for dead  isn’t my usual thing. And here comes the irony: it was actually a thing that happened to me.

I won’t go into too much detail, but for two years in the nineties I lived in Portugal, on the Algarve. In such a mad, drunk environment as a holiday resort, violence was quite commonplace and visible. It wasn’t, therefore, much of a surprise then when it visited me. What was a shock was the level: I was left for dead, with a face more mush then features. I lost a lot of blood, nearly drowned and still am mildly paralysed down one side of my face.

It’s not been a huge secret, I’ve told the tale to friends before. What was odd however was to write it, to fictionalise it. Life has no true narrative other than the certain bookends of  birth and death; by applying one to my own experience was terrifying, and suddenly it stopped being a few abstract, untouchable memories and turned into something solid. A weird experience to see it happen to a character.

I was persuaded by Shreya to submit it to a publisher, which I. Nevertheless, after a spruce from my long-term friend and colleague on The Beestonian, Christian Fox, I packed it over to the editor of Transportation, an Australian publisher looking for submissions for a forthcoming book of international writing, and forgot about it.

A while later, an email appears from a guy called Sean Preston, Editor of Open Pen literary mag, which I’ve been a fan of for some time. Assuming it was something relating to my job at Nottingham City of Literature, I cautiously opened it, and found to my utter surprise my story had been selected for the Third Script, their latest anthology, and I’d be getting a fee. I’d be sitting among a fine mix of Iranian, Tasmanian and British writers. Proper writers. My jaw fell south. A rejection letter would have been fine, at least my existence would have been noted. But no. I’d become a writer, by accident.


3rdThe book is now published, and we’re going to launch it this Sunday. You’re welcome to come and join us. It will be at Rough Trade in town (near Broadway Cinema), and inaugurated by the screenwriter Billy Ivory, who wrote Common As Muck and Made in Dagenham, and we have a banquet of fine writers coming along to read excerpts from the collection. We also have one of my favourite bands, The Madeline Rust, coming along to open and close the event with an exclusive acoustic set. Starts at 5pm, and is free entry…though we’d be chuffed if you picked up a book.