How I became a writer – a potted version.


You’re welcome to read this if you like
But I warn you before you do:
Some of it is less than the truth
And some is more than true.


I was born ages ago in Gillingham, Kent, England. My dad Ted was in the Royal Navy so my mother Margie spent a lot of her life bringing up my sisters and me. She was a talented painter, a patient and inventive cook, and a keen reader. She enjoyed reading to us and reciting reams of light verse that she knew by heart. She kept a wooden spoon in the kitchen drawer in case of mutiny but mostly relied on quiet, loving, common sense and regular feeding times to run the household. I never remember her going out. I can hardly believe it now, but she really did seem happy to sit and listen to the radio in the evenings (no telly till I was twelve) and knit and darn and sew.

When I was eight, my mum was left a house at Westbrook, near Margate on the south coast. My dad was serving for three years in Japan at the time, so when he came to his new home, I was sent with my sisters Ann and Jeannie to Margate station to meet him off the train and show him where he lived. Poor chap – fancy not knowing where you live. And I didn’t remember him at all. I thought he looked strict in his Lieutenant Commander’s uniform and I was alarmed by his rumbling voice that came from deep down in his shiny officer’s shoes.

It turned out that it was his job to take over from the wooden spoon if we children got too wild. It must have been hard for him to make sense of us, especially since he wasn’t much of a talker. Ann had big problems with him. He didn’t like her going out late or wearing lipstick and they were always shouting at each other. He was very surprised when Mum got pregnant and had Ellie, because he thought she was too old for that sort of thing. It was a shock for me, too. Writers are meant to display their brilliant sense of observation from an early age, but I never noticed that mum was growing bigger than the gas cooker, nor did it strike me as unusual that she spend such a lot of time in the mornings being sick into the sink.

It was lucky for us all that Eleanor Barbara Ruth Whybrow turned up, even though we kids were practically old enough to be her parents. (Well, Ann was, anyway) For the first two years Ellie screamed all night. After that, there was something sweet and cheery and witty about her that gradually melted Dad into someone slightly calmer and more relaxed. He evolved into something more like a rolled up newspaper or a fly-swat than a wooden spoon. Going to Hong Kong with him for a couple of years during his final posting to HMS Tamar was the most exciting thing that ever happened to our family and one day I may write about it. Maybe I already have, without realising it.

A lot of people who write books have nasty, dangerous, horrible things happen to them when they’re young. In that sense, I missed out. I was not one of the kids you used to read about every week in the Isle of Thanet Gazette who found bullets buried in the sand and tested them out by putting them into vices and hitting them with hammers. Pity in a way: I might have been more interesting with a few toes missing. Still, I did have some terrific friends and I was free to muck about with them on beaches and in woods, to go to the pictures, to go camping and to cycle wherever our legs and five gears could carry us. And as you grew up at the seaside, there were always interesting jobs to be done – selling tickets for deckchairs or ice cream candyfloss and toffee apples; hiring out pedalos; being a bus conductor with a ticket machine or helping in a bingo stall at Dreamland funfair.

I tried “going into business” before I decided to become an English teacher. Then I taught for a year in a mad little private school in West London where one of the teachers would cut your toenails in the staffroom on a Friday night if you were prepared to let him. Then I got myself a degree and trained to teach at the same time. That meant hanging out on the Kings Road in Chelsea when London was swinging and fab and had shops like Mary Quant and Granny Takes a Trip. You could wear yellow chequered trousers and grow your hair like some sort of untrained shrub and hardly anybody laughed.

Then I got on with the teaching. I loved it and found it satisfying, creative and fun… totally absorbing. You can lose yourself in sharing your enthusiasm for books and plays and poetry, and marvel at the capacity of children to say and do things in ways that never occurred to you. I loved producing plays and writing reviews and organising debates and editing magazines – I even enjoyed the marking and I did it all the time, even in my sleep, except in the holidays when I would write. (Not children’s books – but plays and poems and novels – terrible stuff.) For some reason, my wife, Ann, was prepared to forgive me for this and we brought up our wonderful girls, Suzannah and Lucy on never-enough money but with the limitless pride and happiness of the madly besotted.

In 1989, while I was running an English Department I began to think seriously about writing something for children. Then I started running a Sixth Form. Several years later I decided to re-invent myself as an author.

Oh, I did have a bit of excitement once, though nothing as good as flying a Spitfire to Crete or having your tonsils whipped out without an anaesthetic while you were sitting on your mum’s lap – which is what happened to Roald Dahl, apparently. When I was eight, I took to sporting my new cowboy outfit with twin guns in a Roy Rogers holster. I wandered down the road to the grass area above the cliffs. A strange boy came along and challenged me to a fight. We rolled about for a bit and then I became aware that he was going to push me over the cliff. I said, “Don’t!” but he did. I hit the promenade 30 feet below. I bust my guns but nothing else. I never saw the boy again.