I am not an autobiographical writer. Unlike the principal characters in my novels, I have never killed a husband, worked for a merchant bank, thrown a Molotov cocktail, or conceived a child by an unknown father.
I was the only child in my school without a Sheffield accent. We were brought up to speak the Queen’s English and chastised for any vowel-sound that might cause us to be mistaken for the plebs. At High Storrs Comprehensive I suffered from years of working class envy. At Clare College, Cambridge, I realised I was one of the plebs. I often found myself in the same room as soon-to-be-famous people, but I neglected to make any of them my friends. My director of studies once sent me a poison pen letter.
I returned to Sheffield and, like every other woman I knew, lived in terror of bumping into the Yorkshire Ripper. Some women carried kitchen knives, just in case, and were fined for possessing an offensive weapon. If I went out at night I took a frozen chicken in a plastic carrier. I used to practise swinging it, hoping I’d have the presence of mind to aim it where it would hurt. Peter Sutcliffe was arrested a mile from my house.
Blood feuds run in both sides of my family. My father loathed his father. My maternal grandfather disowned my Aunt Kathleen when she married a former member of the Waffen SS. The Waltons was compulsory family viewing, but when I answered the phone to a voice claiming to be “Uncle Jack”, my mother told me to hang up, shrieking “He’s not your uncle, he’s a mad old man.” He turned out to be married to Aunt Nesta – another surprise! She liked to choose random names from the telephone directory and ring them to ask “Can I have a grave in your graveyard?” But that’s another story.
My father did things which accrued, or lost, significant sums of money. My mother thought she was marrying the youngest bank manager in Barclays Dominion Colonial and Overseas, only to discover (after the small matter of a bounced cheque) that he was selling gas cookers door to door. At the age of twelve I refused to be driven to school in his Rolls Royce. When I was fifteen he went bankrupt and the fraud squad dropped round for a chat. (He was out. In Iraq. For the next five years. Amassing another fortune tax-free.) After Iraq came the new life in Toronto, the deal that couldn’t fail, and a penniless return home. At twenty-two, I was slipping him a tenner most weeks to keep him in cigarettes. I am afraid of large amounts of money. Not a phobia which impacts greatly on my life.
My first serious job was working for Bill Buford at Granta. We occupied the attic of an art gallery rent-free, as long as we looked at the paintings on our way to the loo. As a news reporter in Worksop, Sheffield and Birmingham, I covered the miners’ strike and the Handsworth riots and infiltrated Sandinista propaganda into BBC news bulletins. Moving to London, I freelanced for Woman’s Own and the New Statesman before landing a job with the newly-founded Chat magazine in an office round the corner from Harrods. My one-woman campaign to overthrow Margaret Thatcher caused the proprietors to refer to us as the “Knightsbridge lesbians”. Stints on the Murdoch-owned Today (since folded) and the North-West Times (ditto) followed. In 1988 I came to Scotland, where I discovered that the secret of winning awards is writing to please oneself.
the golden rules of interviewing
- celebrities are boring – there are many other interesting subjects out there
- press officers are the enemy of good journalism
- you can learn a lot from someone’s bathroom
- be as rude as you like in print: no one minds, as long as you take them seriously
the golden rules of being interviewed
- the pleasure of a journalist looking deep into your eyes and hanging on your every word should not be mistaken for love
- never read what they write about you
I also won awards for television-reviewing, despite giving away the ending of a Lynda la Plante six-parter before it was shown on screen. (My postbag was fairly venomous that week.) Attempts to break into television as a presenter were foiled by an inability to walk and talk simultaneously. For the past four years I have received regular threats from the TV licensing authority. I do not own a TV.
Anyone who tells you that being a writer is an exciting life is lying. It is a lonely job, and makes for limited conversation. Friends wonder what I do all day and why every horizontal surface in my home is smothered in dust. After so many months spent alone with the work-in-progress, publication is fraught with peril (see: the golden rules of being interviewed). Nevertheless, for me, happiness is living in two fictional worlds: the one I am currently reading, and the one I am writing. Depression is the state of being between books.