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My Many Lives

From Dagenham van boy to published writer

Many Lives

I have lived many lives. I have had a school life, a record-shop life, a van-boy life, institutional lives working in a door factory, a behavioural unit and a school, a wandering life, a house-husband life, a counselling life and, eventually, a writing life.

I was born in Dagenham, East London, 1969. I don’t remember much of this, my earliest life, other than the whole world seemed coloured brown and orange and music was everywhere. Most of all, it seemed easy.

Three days after my seventh birthday – a birthday of jelly and ice cream, sandwiches piled on paper plates, bowls of Chipsticks, a huge trifle my nan made, and loads of other goodies – Elvis was found dead on the toilet. Not at my house, you understand. But dead, nonetheless.

I drifted through my school years in a downward trajectory, my days spent kicking a tennis ball around a playground and gazing out the classroom window. I left school at fifteen with a couple of ‘O’ Levels and no sense at all of my place in the world, stumbling into working at my dad’s office. But office life was not for me, and I left two years later with a profound sense of indifference and hope for what might be next.

What came next was three months in a record shop – pretty much the job of my dreams – a dream ended at the age of eighteen by my first epileptic seizure, brought on from contracting meningitis. The doctor advised me to stop taking the train – which was how I got to work – until my medication had been stabilised.

So that was the end of that.

My next ‘life’ was that of ‘van boy’ for a delivery company, ticking off another unqualified job I was eminently qualified for. This job taught me nothing other than I could do pretty much whatever I wanted, from playing football in the yard with repaired cameras wrapped in bubble wrap to putting ‘Sorry we missed you’ notes through doors without even knocking just so I could get home quick, and a million other scams. I once watched as a driver was dragged from the warehouse by police after they’d found his lockup in Harlow heaving with stolen washing machines, fridges and television sets.

After two years of early mornings and anarchy, the rumbling shutters of a door factory opened for me. The factory made the wooden rolling doors for the backs of lorries, something I didn’t know existed until then. My days there were mostly spent putting nuts and bolts and washers into small cardboard boxes, wrapping the boxes in brown tape and writing obscure numbers on with a black marker. One after another after another after another. The institutional monotony of factory life was at first a comfort from the free-form chaos of the delivery job, but after a time I began to feel subsumed by the system, an anonymous part of a large, noisy machine spitting out doors for lorries I would never see.

From one institution to another, I then became a support worker in a mental-health behavioural unit. On my first day I had a full jam jar hurled at me causing a dent in the wall just above my head. Such was the dangerous nature of the job that it was during this time I learned to trust and be trusted — a new experience for me. I still have friends from those days. The NHS eventually gave over the houses to a private company who swiftly moved the original residents out to different places around the country, replacing them with a more docile, less damaging cohort, in one of the most criminal acts of inhumanity I have ever witnessed. After this, I knew my time there was over.

I was twenty-seven years old and had no idea what I wanted from my life. I needed some space to work it all out. I spoke to my wife, who seemed disconcertingly, though predictably, unconcerned. A few months later I was on a ferry with a map of Europe and a rucksack stuffed with camping equipment travelling along the dotted line on the map to Denmark. I had no plan. I wasn’t doing the tourist routes. I just wandered. And for the first time in my adult life, I wrote. I wrote in a journal every day, my thoughts, my feelings, my burgeoning philosophies. I can definitively say this was the start of my writing life.

Within a year I became a dad. As it turned out, a house-husband dad. My days were spent changing nappies, watching inane kids’ telly, surviving on four hours sleep a night and still working twenty-two hours in the behavioural unit at weekends. I was permanently exhausted. Reading became a luxury and writing — well, who has time for that? Over the next few years, two more children followed, and they became my life. I love them dearly, but my life had once again become one of suffocating routine.

My dad ran a counselling agency and inspired me to train as a counsellor. The essays I had to write and the books I had to read reacquainted me with my love of words. I qualified and once a week saw clients whose stories were beyond belief. In their presence I experienced the true power of words — theirs and mine.

Coming back from Tesco one day, I heard a voice in my head. It was sweary and violent and nasty, and it sounded like a story. Within a few weeks of finishing the story, it was published. Within two years over twenty more were published, plus my first novel. I didn’t see myself as a writer, just someone who’d written some stuff.

The response to the book was phenomenal. I did a series of book signings in a dozen Waterstones in the East London area. I was asked around this time to create and teach a series of twenty-four workshops by an Arts Council project based in Barking and Dagenham.

Things were moving.

As the children became older, it was time to go back to working full-time. I found a job as a teaching assistant in a local school. The institutional life for me, once more. Much of my day was spent inspiring children to do the best, to be their best, to value their time at school. It was as if every child I spoke to was the seven-year-old me, staring out the window, wondering what he was doing there. And I began writing again. A sequel to the first book, then the remaining book in the trilogy. I had found myself.

Five years after I started at the school I applied for a post as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. One thing followed another and I left the school and became a full-time writer, running the workshops on the Arts Council project, working as an RLF Fellow and teaching creative-writing workshops to junior school children in several schools in East London. I was also asked to write a column for Writing Magazine — the biggest-selling writing magazine in the country. I was truly living the writing life. The dream I’d never really had, had come true. And that’s when I found out what the writing life truly is. My writing life, anyway…

Outside of the writing jobs I’ve mentioned, my writing life consists of washing, ironing, hoovering, cooking dinner, washing up and taking the dog for a walk — or at least contemplating these things. Contemplation – borne of isolation – takes up vast swathes of my time. Peppering the contemplation are worries I never had before. My nights are spent refreshing my online banking app, desperately waiting for payments to arrive for work I may have done weeks or months earlier so I can decide which bills to pay or put off. My entire income is dependent on short term contracts, with no holiday pay or sick pay. With a brain almost incapable of comprehending numbers I must sort out my own tax affairs. I worry what next year will bring. I worry my writing life is something simply frivolous and I should get a ‘proper’ job.

And these thoughts hurl me back to my days in the factory, all day putting nuts and bolts and washers in boxes and wrapping them with brown tape, then going home. Worry free. Job done. I knew when I was going to get paid and how much. It was not a writing life, but it was a life. A life without the constant creative pressure that threatens to overwhelm me.

I am back there. Sometimes.

My many lives are incorporated in the writer I have become. The chaos and structure of my earlier jobs – and my ability to see the value in both – reflect my approach to writing, although I must admit the chaos wins out almost every time. The depth of the characters I write I put down entirely to my work in the behavioural unit and my counselling experience. My need to write to inspire and connect comes directly from my experiences in school – both as a child and an adult – and my travelling life gave me a sense of who I was and who I could be. My writing is a continued exploration of that terrain.

In those times of doubt, I think of the incredibly fortunate position I find myself in — the opportunity to make a living through words I say and words I write.

And I pinch myself.

And I keep on going.

For now.

Ian Ayris is the author of three novels, two novellas, numerous magazine articles and upwards of forty short stories. He has a regular column in Writing Magazine — the best-selling writing magazine in the UK.

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