Monday, 15 April 2013

Pride and prejudice By Jan Needle


Are you proud to be a writer? Is it something you readily admit to, or do you hide behind other things you do, or have done? And do you expect your children, and (the modern term) ‘loved ones’ to be proud of you – or even a bit boastful by proxy?

Let me tell you about one sunny afternoon when I was sitting on the upstairs lav, reading the paper. (Hard life, being a writer, we all know that!) In the yard below my son Hughie was talking to a friend. The conversation was desultory, in between bouts of kicking a ball about. I hear Ben, the friend, say – ‘Your dad’s a writer, isn’t he?’

Did a small, fond, smile of pleasure lick around my chops, I wonder? If it did, it was damn short-lived. For Hugh replied, without the smallest hesitation – ‘No, he’s not.’

Good God, I’ve bred up a literary critic! Damn and blast that bloody school!

Ben was not for turning.

‘Yes he is,’ he said. ‘One of his books is in the shop down the road. In the window’

A short pause.

‘That’s not him. That’s a different Jan Needle.’

‘You’re bonkers, you are, Hughie. Your dad writes books.’

‘No he doesn’t. End of.’ (Very modern child, see. He was at least twenty years early with that clichĂ©.)

‘All right then,’ says Ben. ‘What does he do, then?’

There was a long pause this time. Then Hugh said decisively: ‘He’s a professional snooker player.’

End of.

Fast forward a good few years, and my grandchildren, Issy and Fin, were asked if I could go to a school barn dance with them. Not much thought needed this time.

Eskimo Nell. Old, beloved, scrap...
‘Only if he dresses proper,’ said Isabella. ‘And doesn’t swear,’ Fin added. ‘Or dance,’ said Issy. ‘He’s got to promise, too. We know granddad.’

Some of their teachers, incidentally, have sometimes asked them if I might come to school and give a talk. Issy and Fin, I imagine, merely roll their eyes. God knows what they’ve told the staff about my personal habits, but I’ve never been invited. As I wasn’t when their mother was at the same school, and brother Hughie, and brother Dave.  There’s fame and fame, apparently.

With fame ruled out, then, what exactly is it for, to be a writer? I’ve been at it for a fair few years now, having first been published at the age of eight. Overall, I’d say it’s been a combination of drudgery and hope, with bursts of quite substantial dosh, short enough to prove how insubstantial earning dosh can be.


My track 3 weeks after first snow. 
Even swimming in the world of letters (to save me the trouble of thinking up a better description) has been an insubstantial thing. I never moved to London, being far too wedded to the glorious north of England, and was told by all and sundry that that alone would keep me poor, and blight any chance of making the most essential contacts, in novels, TV, radio and theatre. If anybody else is faced with the same decision, I’m pretty sure that advice, certainly in my case, was accurate.

Issy and Fin, buying drinks for granddad?
But I’ve got the north! (Where the weather's better, as you can see, and where half the top BBC people working in Salford refuse to come and live, whatever it says in their contracts.) So that’s that then. And strangely, since I went virtually virtual, I’ve made more and better 'literary' friendships than I did in the 'real' world. I’m not a joiner and I never have been, but maybe living in the ether made me feel the need to get out more.

AE was the start of it, so thanks for that, fellow members, and thank you, Sue Price, for inviting me. I quite quickly got fascinated by some other of the virtuals, and then got to meet some of them, half by accident. The doughty Dan Holloway, for example, in a dingy back street slammer (poetry, not penitentiary) in Manchester. Julia Jones in a dinghy, not at all dingy, and her wonderful Peter Duck. Dennis Hamley, who I’d actually met once before, the morning after Bob Marley’s death, when I was too hungover to really focus.

Then there’s the appalling bossyboots Cally Phillips, whose mental energy and grip and generosity give me a constant headache trying to keep up. We live hundreds of miles apart, and she’s guided me through the jungle of technology, and egged me on, and put me right, and shared thoughts and photos of Land Rovers and other essential props of a creative life, as well as competitive boasting about how much worse our weather’s been than each other’s. (There’s a grammatical construction I wouldn’t care to defend in a court of law!) (And another thing, my Land Rover's better than hers. Judge for yourself!)


She clearly wants to make me a better person. Fat chance. But it's culminated in her offering me a four-wheel drive Subaru – for free! – because she thinks I’d give it a good home.  A six or seven hundred mile round trip (even further in metric!) and the chance to pick her formidable brain and be peed on by her lovely Dude. (Note the capital letter. I don't mean George, he doesn't do that sort of thing. I hope.) I'm off up there in a week or two. As the grandkids would say, I can't wait! 


Cally's 'better' Landy.....hmmm
Fame at last! And without a pen in my hand...
So let’s face it, conversations by blog, and email, and twitter, and facebook are all very well, but think of this: Why don’t we break out? Let’s make the virtual real! Let’s kick around the growing idea among the AE brigade that maybe we could meet. Put faces to the blogs. Like each other. Even hate each other. (What happens if the Subaru breaks down halfway between Aberdeen and Manchester, for instance? An arm and a leg job, no danger…)

I was taken to Auschwitz for my birthday last month by my son Hugh, and that was a similar sort of break out. The camps were appalling, but Krakow was fantastic. And you meet such unexpected people. I realized at one point that Nick Griffin, yes, Nick Griffin, was sitting at a table in the sunshine just behind me, with two other people, talking earnestly in low voices. They looked almost normal, which is still distressing weeks afterwards. Only a short train ride from Auschwitz. Gee.

Then that night, in a nearby cafĂ©, I bought beers for three young musicians. Polish, two violins and a double bass, playing and singing folk songs. Bugger being virtual, let’s dive in! I ended up playing the double bass, by bow, while they played and sang and shouted out which string I had to hit. Making the virtually unbelievable happen. Because I’ve never touched a double bass in my life before, and never will again. It was wonderful.

So look out, Cally – here I come. And let’s develop the coffee idea, and the rest of it. At a pinch Julia and me, between us, have got enough boats to hold thirty people. Let’s sail across to Poland and start a band!

10 comments:

Kathleen Jones said...

I'm all for it Jan!

Bill Kirton said...

Sounds like a plan to me, Jan.

Chris Longmuir said...

I reckon I must be lucky, my ten year old grand daughter tells all and sundry that her granny writes books. Fancy having to live up to that? I was even asked to give a talk to her primary school! I did say, you do realize I don't write children's books and my books may not be suitable! It didn't change their minds. Oh, and I wrote a blog about it called 'What Scares a Crime Writer', and the favourite question they asked was 'How old are you?'

Susan Price said...

I've been asked, 'How old are you?' a lot in schools too, Chris! And also, 'How much money do you earn?' Both questions send a flurry through the teachers.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

My son seems to quite like me being a writer. But there was one 'interesting' occasion when a whole flurry of kids disembarked from the school bus clutching their 'Standard Grade' English exam papers in which the close reading question had involved a piece from the Scotsman by ME. I had no idea it was going to be there.(They don't have to tell you, nor do they have to pay you!) There was a gaggle of them at my door saying 'well what DID you really mean by this and this' and I had to tell them that I had no idea. It was about car boot sales as far as I remember. I was only glad my son was a year younger, since if he had been sitting the exam that year it might have been seriously disturbing for him to find his mum's name on the paper!

CallyPhillips said...

Ah Jan! I'm late to respond because I've been out (first chance since snowgate) driving in the Subaru - which I intend to make a full time habit until you come and wrest it off me! I can give you a money back guarantee that it won't break down - I've done 70k in it and today it passed 141414 miles on the odometer and it's NEVER broken down (apart from when it needed a new starter motor) so you are safe. And it's not MY Land Rover, it's George's 'dream come true car' for which I have sacrificed said Subaru - not once but twice - once to allow purchase of LR as a replacement 2nd car and twice to have a NEW LIFE in the soft south akin to a staged retirement with you and yours. But believe me folks - George is worth it! Without him and his support I wouldn't be either who, what or where I am today! (Believe me, I was MUCH worse 35 years ago before we met!)
Am I proud to be a writer? Not often. I'm proud of some of the things I've written and happy when I write something which actually achieves some decent change in a life or the world even on the smallest level (which is the one I impact on!) But the fame and fortune the aspiration and ego part of writing I hate. And the conclusion of all that? I leave you with the observation that (in case y'all haven't tried it) there are few feelings better in life than giving away something very precious to you (not people or pets I mean THINGS) The harder it is to let go, the better it feels when you've done it. Beats sky diving any day. And by May, the Subaru will have a good home, I will have let go of something precious- but will also have had the 'experience' of meeting Jan Needle - THE WRITER (ha ha) and more importantly the FRIEND I've made 'virtually' over the last 18 months.

Lynne Garner said...

I used to keep it quiet that I tried to make a living from writing. But now I think 'what they hell' if people know I write they may just pass my contact details on to someone I can work with.

I'm also up for an AE boat trip!

Jan Needle said...

Thank four comments. I,m in Durham on friends tablet. More wen I reach sivilliation

julia jones said...

Good homes for much loved old cars - crucial subject for monthly blogpost. My 250,000+ mile on the clock Volvo has gone to the piano tuner who uses it for banger racing. How I missed it today when I was trying to stuff the Skoda full of boat mattresses (though not necessarily enough for all of AE to come on holiday.)

Pauline Fisk said...

Is this the moment to confess I need acupuncture wrist bands to get across a duck pond? I hate this about myself because I'm sure I was meant for the open seas, but there seems to be something seriously amiss about my sense of balance. HOWEVER, I'd risk my all for the chance of an AE get-together! So far all I've had is a rainy day in Church Stretton with Sue Smith [but then she left AE] and a delightful but very quickly done & dusted railway station meeting with Dan Holloway over a cup of coffee.