I have never been what you might call an autobiographical writer, except in so far as we all are. Other lives, other worlds; that’s what I’m drawn to: Zimbabwe; the American Deep South; the Arctic Circle in the time of Elizabeth I; almost always I’ve written about places I’ve never been, at least before I started writing. Who’d be interested in my life? Imagining enormous characters in fascinating places, under terrific pressure; that has always been my escape from dullness.
If you ever visited the part of the Midlands where I grew up, or, I am tempted to say, ever met my family, you would understand why the blue touchpaper of my imagination constantly seeks other sparks. There are no fireworks in my life, nothing extreme. The part of Derbyshire I’m from is the least interesting part of that modestly interesting county. In fact, take away the beauty of the Peak District, subtract the multi-cultural, multi-racial cathedral city at its heart, and the stuff that’s left? That’s where I grew up. Plaster on top of that the Midlander’s baked-in reluctance to be the centre of attention, add a chapel culture in which the biggest sin possible is self-aggrandisement — and my own beginnings look the least likely place to find the tiniest nugget of literary gold.
Things have not changed much since. Half a life on, I am married to the same modestly interesting woman I married thirty-odd years ago (she is also from the Midlands). They have, she will tell you, been thirty very odd years, since I am even less interesting than she is, but still, there’s little to see here people, move along.
Other writers are not so unlucky, or, maybe, they get lucky as writers because they have been so unlucky in life.After years of struggling to sell her novels, a good friend of mine recently wrote a hit book – and a very good one – by rinsing her way through the dirty washing of her highly dysfunctional family. Relations with said family are now more mangled than ever, and several old schoolfriends have ceased contact altogether. Schooldays are particularly toxic, she tells me. Writing about your own schooldays seems simple, but she had forgotten, or chosen to ignore, they are also the schooldays of others. Most people, it transpires, prefer the sepia tones of nostalgia to the frightening jag of full-colour reality; tread carefully on my dreams, they say. We could say the same about memories.
But at least my friend had material to draw on, once her natural discretion had been quelled. What have I got?
‘Surely’, this same friend says over lunch as I bemoan the featureless landscape of my youth, ‘Surely your growing up wasn’t all so healthy?’
‘I don’t know about healthy’, I say, ‘it was just…normal.’
‘Normal. OK. Tell me about the house you grew up in.’
‘It was just a house. Practically derelict when we moved in.’
‘Er well, there was a garden, all at the front — the house was set back from the road behind a line of shops.’
‘Are you having the soup?’
‘Ok, well, working left to right, there is a bus stop — people used to throw chip papers over the wall into the garden. Then there’s our little gate and the path to the house, then a hairdresser’s, the café, and a butcher’s. Oh, and between the café and the butcher’s, the slaughterhouse.’
‘The slaughterhouse. They killed animals there. For the butcher’s shop.’
‘Did you watch that happening? The slaughtering?’
‘Watch it?!!! No, of course not — this is Derbyshire! The boring end! We heard it though. Outside, when we were playing in the garden. We heard the sheep, the pigs, sometimes a bull.’
‘The bleating, the bellowing of the bull. The snap of the stun gun, the click of the bolt gun, normal stuff. Afterwards we used to go and look at the carcasses, all butchered up. Sometimes, I got to make sausage.’
‘You think that’s normal?’ says my friend, now biting her lip. I recognise the writer’s twitch at once; that mental reaching-for-a-pencil. ‘You were playing in the garden and you heard all this stuff, saw all this stuff in the slaughterhouse — at how old?’
‘You call that normal?!’
There is a pause then, as there sometimes is when writers meet, a moment of balance and calm. And then she physically lunges for her – very physical – laptop.
‘You can’t have it’, I bellow, sounding not unlike the soon-to-be-slaughtered bull.
‘Not if you don’t write it’, she says.
She is invoking the age-old code of what passes for honour among writers. Write stuff down, goes the lore, put your name on it, and no other writer will call it theirs; reveal stuff over coffee without putting it on paper — that’s fair game.
‘OK, I’ll write it’, I say. ‘I SAID, I’LL WRITE IT. Log off!’
‘Alright’, she says. ‘Disgusting anyway. I’m having the quinoa.’
Since then, I have been spilling stories from the slaughterhouse garden like there’s no tomorrow. Only yesterday, I drew up a list of story titles:
Mum’s Slipper — Kids beware
Inky the dog and his sad demise
Pig’s trotters for tea!
When Louise started sleepwalking
Deborah’s fainting fits
Twiggy the tortoise runs away
The list illustrates what we know already; significance is in the eye of the writer — a modernist’s maxim, it’s true. The Ancient Greeks thought tragedy could only be written about rulers or gods because only they could fall the whole nine yards from lofty elevation to moral annihilation. Shakespeare seems to suggest the same, always sounding-off about kings and princes, people whose fate has obvious consequence for the rest of us. As I say, we modernists know better. Arthur Miller showed us years ago that Willy Loman’s fall is no less a tragedy because he’s an unremarkable salesman. In his own house, he’s a god. He falls, the kingdom fractures and the impact on those around is just as powerful as that of Creon or Lear on their dependants; the little man’s tragedy is earth-shattering. And since postmodernists aren’t really interested in story, we modernists have the field to ourselves.
Plus, here’s another thing: write about a small person’s life, and you can hardly help but elevate them. There’s something very humane in that.
I’m not saying having an abattoir for a playground as a child quite puts me in the tradition of grand tragedy, but undoubtedly it has shaped me — and not in ways you might think. Today, I am neither a vegetarian nor a psychopathic killer (though, of course, I would say that). I do have an abiding, and very un-zeitgeisty, respect for the craft of butchery, for the language of meat joints, and that is surely a product of my youth. I even like those aprons and tea towels that name the parts of a cow or a pig or a sheep. And I’ve huge respect for livestock farming more widely – the work of calving and husbandry – the hatch and match, as well as the despatch (as vicars like to say, hoping to make us chortle).
In the kitchen, I like cooking unfashionable cuts of meat for hours and hours, and try to discover in myself the skill my mother had of making countless, nourishing meals from a few simple ingredients, ingredients that were often, in Mum’s case, sourced from Bernard the butcher-slash-slaughterman next door.
As a writer, I am gradually learning to believe that even my very dull Midlands upbringing, and the profoundly ‘meh’ life it has spawned, might just contain something worth mining.
A week ago I was standing in my study with my-son-the-fantasy-writer; me, waving an arm at my desk and my books and my impressive collection of illustrated tea towels. ‘One day’, I say, ‘this will all be yours to write about. Trust me, you’ll be glad of this when you’re my age.’
‘Hmmm’, he says. ‘It’s not exactly dragons, is it?’