During my early years, say eight to sixteen, I developed the two interests that have defined my inner man; music and reading.
My father being a big band fan I was raised on a diet of Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, etc., and so, on leaving school at sixteen with no question of any further education, I wanted to become a musician.
Of course I had to earn a living so this had to be my spare time pursuit. I’ve always been a quick learner and I tried various instruments, but then, through a combination of co-incidences, I settled on double bass. The main reason was that my mum’s tenant ran a band and needed a bass player, and the secondary one was that practising trombone, trumpet or saxophone upset everyone nearby, while the bass was acceptably quiet. Six weeks later, just seventeen, I was a regular member of a smashing little semi-pro swing band.
I played regularly in gradually elevating company until I joined another swinging little band alongside John Pearce, one of the best jazz pianists this country has ever produced. If you know about jazz and I tell you we were like Stan Getz with the Oscar Peterson Trio, you’ll get the idea. Under torture, I would probably concede we weren’t quite as good as that, but in trying for the summit we surely reached well above the tree line!
One thing led to another and one particularly boozy night I smashed into the back of a Humber Hawk sitting at the traffic lights with his hand brake on while I was doing fifty. That was a big old heavy car and he only moved three feet so you can tell it wasn’t very pretty. The car and the bass were irretrievably mangled, but I escaped relatively unscathed. It was almost on the doorstep of Whipps Cross Hospital at Leytonstone in East London and after a couple of days in there I was allowed to stagger off home.
Looking back, it’s a strange thing. I don’t mind admitting the smash scared me, and for years afterwards I flinched whenever someone’s brake lights came on in front of me; still do, really. That’s understandable, but the other effect was that, in my mind, I blamed the bass for the accident. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been playing bass. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been in the band. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been drunk, driving a long tired way home at three o’clock in the morning. So that’s clear then; it wasn’t my fault, it was the bass’s fault!
My love for the music never wavered, but the net result of that blame game was that I never actually played again. I went years not wanting to play, and by the time I thought seriously about starting again many other things had reared their heads in my life; two wives, (separately!), family, mortgage, business. And the thought of getting out on the road again as an older man with a bass in my arms was too daunting. The late nights, the younger guys, the inevitable boozing, the changing jazz styles; combined it was all too much.
The other strange mental thing was that the love never stopped until I had a brush with death again with a very serious heart condition. I died on the operating table in St Thomas’s Hospital and they couldn’t get my heart to start again. It took them an hour, and thank God they persevered. I don’t know why that should have affected anything mentally, but my love for the music simply faded away, and now, fifteen years later, it’s only a memory.
And then there’s the reading.
From the age of about eight I started reading books, and not children’s or even young adults stuff either, but proper books. True, it was things like Moby Dick, Jock of the Veldt, Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island; all good stuff of course, but hardly required reading for someone so young. I learned by having a dictionary alongside and looking up every word I didn’t know. I think I matured quickly during those early years anyway, as the friends I had were all older than me. I don’t seem to have had much of a normal childhood because I set off running to become an adult as soon as I could. (Now that I’m older it’s the opposite, I think I’m young for my age, but that’s another story!)
My love of reading has stayed with me, and if anything has strengthened with the years. There’ve been periods when I had so much going on that I didn’t have much time for reading, but the love is stronger than ever.
Because of this, from time to time I’ve tried to be a writer. Sometimes life took over and swamped everything, but since my early twenties I’ve tried to get stories and other stuff down on paper whenever I can. When you think of all the years since then my total of two novels, two novellas, and about twenty short stories doesn’t seem all that much, and even I can tell some of it’s not very good. Other than reading I’ve never had any sort of writing instruction, so it’s only in the last few years that I feel I’ve arrived at my style; a smooth easy read of stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Apart from friends and family, who are of course encouraging, no one’s read any of it so I don’t know if it’s any good or not.
Since joining blogspot I’ve learnt more about the sheer mechanics of writing, simply from reading stories and comments, and particularly some very helpful blogs, than I have in the whole rest of my life! Is it too late I ask myself? O.K., O.K., I know.
The way I work is not perhaps the best way to produce worthwhile stuff. My ‘method’ has been to lie in bed or sit on the loo or walk down the lane or stop eating in mid mouthful, or laze in the bath, and have an idea; just a basic idea, nothing more, and then to start at page 1. Having that small thought, often just an ending, I then allow the story to write itself to match the idea. I hope this doesn’t sound too pretentious, but I just want to write the story, not with any thought of getting it published anywhere, just write it down the way I would like to read it myself. I try to get the first draft to be as good and as smooth as I can, no shitty first draft for me, and then to edit off the rough edges.
Sometimes I look at something I’ve written and I think, “That’s pretty good, I don’t want to change a bloody word of that,” but then another time I look at the same thing and I think, “Oh, Christ, what’s the point?”