16.08
Formative experiences

It’s strange how seemingly insubstantial moments can turn out to be significant points in a lifetime. For me, one of these came in the back of a Buick in the company of two elderly American women. I was eighteen at the time.

Another came fifteen years earlier. My earliest memory. I sat on a bumble bee on my toy tractor. I decided then and there I didn’t want to be a farmer. Too much pain in the arse.

A similar such moment came in 1967 when, for only a few fleeting seconds during an otherwise unremarkable outing on my bright red Raleigh boy’s bicycle, I realised that neither of my stabilisers were touching the ground. Even today, forty-seven years on, I can picture exactly where I was and remember precisely how I felt. It was an exhilarating sense of true independence. I might as well have been flying. My love of the bicycle can probably be pinpointed to that precise moment.

The Buick was a convertible. It was the first time in my life I had been in a car without a roof and, as a cyclist who likes to feel the elements when on the move, I was hooked. Even since then I have had a thing about soft-tops. I sometimes wonder what path my life might have taken had Ros not been driving a BMW convertible when we first got together.

On the very same journey, for some inexplicable reason (maybe it was something to do with the rush of air producing a certain headiness) I remember I also decided I wanted to be a writer.

The seed of my writing aspirations had been planted a few years earlier by JR Tolkein’s grandson, who happened to be Head of English at my school. He told me ‘I was a poet, but didn’t know it’. It seemed an improbable assessment, given that at the time I was known as ‘Baus’ by my friends. This was because my conversation then largely consisted of two words. ‘Oh Baus’. To try and make myself sound cool, i.e. common, I used to put my consonants through a mangled East Anglian accent, turning ‘Oh Balls’ from what could have been quite a posh exclamation into something much uglier. That the grandson of one of this country’s greatest ever writers could discern any literary merit in an adolescent of such limited vocabulary is still completely unfathomable. I did wonder if he perhaps mistook my agricultural grunts for a modern take on Shakespeare. (‘Oh Desdemona, dead Desdemona. Oh, oh, oh.’, ‘Oh Baus, fuck Baus, oh Baus’. I guess it’s possible. Gollum hardly spoke Queen’s English after all.) I certainly didn’t know I was a poet, still don’t, but part of me thought if someone with those genes thinks I can write, then maybe I can. The power of suggestion.

My desire to become a writer was perfectly encapsulated some years later in a 1995 advertisement in Rolling Stone magazine for an early IBM Thinkpad. The laptop was on a coffee table in an exquisite veranda. Dusk settled over the rolling countryside. The headline read ‘John Grisham’s pad’. This is exactly how I imagined the life of a successful writer to be – working independently in a beautiful place that happens to be your own country estate. This is what I wanted. I was sold. Not only was I determined to become a best selling author, but I also went out and bought my first Apple laptop. The power of advertising.

Nineteen years later, I may still be an Apple loyalist, but I realise that ad was selling an illusion. According to a recent survey, the average earnings of a professional writer is currently £11,000 per annum. £11,000! Per annum! That’s less than half a graduate starting salary. It’s below the minimum wage. And that’s the average. Take out JK Rowling and it probably plummets to less than we pay our ironing lady for two or three hours a week. This was not what I had in mind when I committed to become a writer. John Grisham’s pad would look altogether different if his total annual earnings were £11,000. It would be the view of a homeless man.

I find my enthusiasm to become a writer to be somewhat diminished if it doesn’t come with the guarantee of a 300 acre ranch. The other problem, unanticipated when formulating my life plan, is that the book is becoming extinct. I wanted to write a novel that made people laugh. My vision was that one day I would observe a stranger on the tube laughing over my book. I hadn’t thought this through properly. If I had, I would have realised that there is no way I would be anywhere near a tube if I had enough money for a 300 acre ranch. Furthermore had I had the foresight to envisage the digital age I would have known it would be impossible to know what the stranger was laughing at on his iPad.

But in a funny way my dreams have come true.

Sort of.

I’m writing. It may only be a blog to a very select audience rather than a best-selling novel, but it’s writing.

I own a soft top. It may only be a Smart car, but at least it’s topless.

I sometimes work on a laptop on the balcony of my place in Switzerland. I may not own any of what I can see, but it is still a spectacular view.

I cycle to work every day without stabilisers.

And I’m not a farmer.

    Gerald Miller
    2014-08-25 20:16:10
    "The two middle-aged (="older") women in the Buick? I was waiting for that to go somewhere. Oh well, I suppose this is not that kind of revelatory blog. I don't suppose you remember the year---of the Buick, that is. Grisham's 300 acres (could be 3000 for all I know) is in Charlottesville, Virginia. We passed through there last week and genuflected towards Monticello and the hilarious idea that all men are created equal, as opposed to the other end of life. That moment of freedom, when you lifted off and dropped your training wheels on the runway? That's exactly how I felt the first time my skis crested a learner's hill and kept on going. Thanks for bringing that one back."

    Andrew Denison
    2014-08-17 07:39:57
    "Good to see you achieving your dreams and still reaching for the stars. If you were in the back of that Buick, then maybe I was in the front. I have no recollection of either the two elderly American women, nor anything untoward happening between you and them. I would be delighted if you were to refresh my memory on either count."

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