I can remember exactly where I was when I thought that one day I might like to make a living from writing.
I can also recall what happened to trigger the thought. It was the beginning of winter 1985. I was working alongside my old mate Burt on the cliff tops between Bridlington and Flamborough. We were digging trenches for sewage pipes, near to the appropriately named Sewerby. The wind was lashing over the North Sea, a mixture of snow and rain was wetting us through, we were ten foot down a trench and our hands were that cold they were sticking to the ceramic pipes that we were trying to connect together.
We had propped up an existing sewage main, but for some reason the support slipped and sewage started leaking out. I was cold, miserable, tired and gradually the contents of lavatories from the village started swirling around my feet. I looked round, Burt was standing there with a crow bar in his hand, hunched himself against the bitter cold and scowling. I think I muttered: “I’ve had enough of this Burt, I’m packing the building sites in!” He said: “What are you going to do for brass?” I said I didn’t know and he said: “Be a writer, you’re always telling people you can write, be a writer!”
I’d not really given thought to making money from writing, I liked to do it as a hobby and I had kept journals and diaries since I’d been a kid, but making money from it was a leap of the imagination that I couldn’t really make. Anyhow, Burt planted the seed and as they say ‘seeds don’t stay in the ground forever.’ For the time being there were leaky pipes to see to and a trench to back fill.
Next morning a weary landlord in an out of season guest house on Marshall Avenue shouted upstairs: “It’s half past six lads and your breakfast is ready if you want some.” Downstairs we found a plate with a lonesome sausage that had been fried in a blackened frying pan, a snotty egg and a mess of baked beans floating on a raft of Mother’s Pride toast. The salt pot was damp and wouldn’t work, there was no pepper in the pepper pot and there was a thin layer of grease on top of my beaker of tea.
We’d had a few pints of Tetley’s in the King’s Arms the night before and our breakfast passed in the kind of silence that you could have buttered, alongside the extra slice of toast that always comes triangular shaped in those chrome racks. I thought again about what Burt had said. I wondered if started writing, what would I write about? Would anybody be interested if for instance, I wrote about my journey across India and Pakistan a few years before? Could I write about my ancestors and how they came from the Midlands to dig coal at the turn of the last century? What about things I have observed, listened to and liked, would that be interesting enough?
The seeds were already germinating, albeit in a Bridlington winter when it was still dark at that time on a morning and cold enough for the windows in the room I slept in to be iced up on the inside.
It was a year or two before I made friends with Brian Lewis, who by that time had helped to set up the Yorkshire Art Circus on the premise that everybody has a story to tell.
He became a mentor to me and under his guidance I took my steps toward realising something that my building site mate Burt had first put in my mind. That’s all 25 years ago and more and I guess I’ve managed to make a bit of brass from doing something more interesting than digging holes, but the realisation that we all have stories to tell and that these are worth writing down has been a watchword ever since.
Never more so than just lately. I have been working on a book at a warehouse near the M62 in Whitwood. I have mentioned that I have done writing workshops at the learning centre at DHL Argos before. I have returned there this month to start work on a book of warehouse workers’ stories. In the space of six hours on an afternoon and night shift I met a man whose ancestors sailed out to America on the Mayflower, a woman whose passage into the world was assisted by Harold Shipman at Pontefract Infirmary, a man who was married in the same white wedding chapel as Katie Price and another young man from Poland who went to music college with Lech Walesa’s daughter.
That warehouse is full of stories, and it proves the adage, if ever it did need proving, that we all have a story to tell.