I think my heart has rarely sunk so much as it did in my sixth form English class when we opened David Copperfield at page one and saw the chapter heading I am born. Well, that certainly explained the length of the bloody thing, but let’s face it, it’s not a start guaranteed to hook you. I was born in 1965 (without a caul, as it happens) but let’s fast-forward a bit, eh.
Early teen recollections put me in a dormitory village called Hethersett, about six miles outside the city of Norwich on the A11, the main road to London. The county of Norfolk extended pancake-like in all directions around me. Beautiful sunsets spilled across vast skies and endless fields, but not a lot of what you’d call scenery. Behind me was a tranquil rural upbringing and the upward arc of comfortable academic overachievement at schools my parents crucified themselves to put me through. I was pretty solitary by nature, buried in books and music most of the time, violently allergic to team games and mildly perplexed by the importance my few friends accorded to drinking beer and finding girlfriends.
It took about five years to change all that. Before I reached eighteen I’d discovered the local teenage staples of vodka (a good choice for someone who’d never acquired a liking for the basic taste of alcoholic drinks), dope (we were all so fucking cool back then!!!) and a gut churning first-love relationship that was going nowhere at terrifying, driverless velocity. I managed to totally screw up my first year at Queens’ College, Cambridge University as a result (of the relationship, not the chemicals) and next took a serious look around in the autumn of my second year. There I was, amid almost obscene quantities of privilege and opportunity, and I was pissing it all away. I had a ragbag of Part I paper grades in Modern Languages, a broken heart I was sure would never mend, and absolutely no idea what the next move in this game was supposed to be. If ever there was evidence that university places ought to be dependent on a three year stint out in the real world first, I was that evidence. The walking embodiment, the Platonic ideal, of misguided automatic undergraduatehood.
In the event, though, it all panned out happily. I shifted my studies to History with a political/philosophical slant, made some new friends and went back to the life of chemicals and (this time casual) sex I’d hit on so late in my teens. From then on, life at University was everything I could have wished, starting with the tiny fragments of time scraping by in my new studies demanded of me. And scraping by it was. I never really got over the fact that academic achievement was suddenly something requiring substantial effort, and recoiled out of the University world two years later with a very average degree and two rather naive re-discovered ambitions from my teens. I wanted to travel. And I wanted to be a writer.
Wanting, of course, is not getting, but my rather sheltered upbringing hadn’t taught me that, and nor had three years in an educational institution where middle aged women were paid to clean my room and make my bed on a daily basis. To put not too fine a point to it, I was spoilt. I drifted down to London, sucked in rather like Dr Watson at the beginning of A Study in Scarlet. Unlike Dr Watson, I had no plans to stay long; I was just going to save some money, do some writing and then set off round the world, paying my way with generous royalty cheques from my stellar career as a rising young novelist.
London sorted that one out. Whatever else you say about the place, good or bad, London will cut you down to size every single time. No other place I’ve been is so guaranteed to teach you the relative value of your place in the scheme of things. At home in Norfolk, even at Cambridge, my desire to be a writer had set me apart from the crowd. It was unusual enough to excite comment. It could get you laid. In London, trying to be a writer (or artist, or film director, or <insert dream job here>) was a depressingly common pastime. Everybody in London is writing a novel (or plans to, or knows someone who is, or works in publishing, or worst of all has done it and is already published). It isn’t big, it isn’t clever and it certainly won’t get you laid. And meanwhile, you have to scrape a living. About the only worthwhile thing I did in London that year was cultivate a taste for Thai and Japanese cuisine, Jack Daniels on ice and Islay single malts. None of which I could really afford.
It was time to leave.
Travel, then. This at least proved easy to set up. Thanks to the geopolitical serendipity of centuries of British Imperialism giving weary way to a rapidly mushrooming US sphere of influence, people need to speak English the world over. And for entirely understandable, though pedagogically quite flawed, reasons, it’s generally believed that the only real way to learn English is through lessons from native speakers. Add the globally uniform commercial instincts of the entrepreneurial class, a dash of smart marketing, and there you have it. The English Language Teaching (ELT) industry. Less than a year after deciding seriously I’d like to live and work abroad, I was in Istanbul, four whole weeks of International House training behind me, no experience to speak of, pulling down a bigger local salary than a hospital doctor. Market Forces, don’t you just love ‘em.
ELT was an accidental career for me (as I suspect it is for about ninety percent of its practitioners), and, accidentally, I stayed in it for fourteen years. Some vague stirrings of guilt about those Turkish hospital doctors made me take the trouble to learn my trade well. I read the literature, I joined the professional associations, I signed up for further training, in-service and out. London followed Istanbul, Madrid followed London, Glasgow followed Madrid. The wet behind the ears apprentice became an experienced teacher became a director of studies became a seasoned hardcore ELT pro became a teacher trainer. Salaries climbed. Cowboy schools gave way to half-way decent institutions gave way to professional establishments gave way eventually to a university post. I gave papers at conferences. I -
But wait a minute. Didn’t I want to be a writer?
Ah yes, that.
Well, see, while I was making a living teaching people to speak English, I was also writing it. On and off, furiously while on, idly and lazily while off. I wrote short stories. I wrote articles. I wrote a screenplay, and spent a year and a half of precious time trying to get it taken seriously by moviemakers. I wrote a novel. I wrote furious letters protesting asshole editorial pieces in magazines like Arena and Loaded. I got absolutely nothing published, and no-one made the movie.
In the plus column, I only ever wrote exactly what I wanted to.
Then I wrote Altered Carbon. Gollancz published it, Hollywood bought it, I gave up my day job.
Eight months. Just like that.
I’m still writing. It’ll take death or full body paralysis to stop me now.