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Why I became a writer

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

Whenever I give talks to children about my books they always ask who inspired me to be a writer. I don’t really think anyone did. I was playing complicated imaginary games inside my head before I could read, and as soon as I could write I filled many Woolworths notebooks with my wobbly printing. But if pressed, I say that E. Nesbit might well have been an inspiration. I loved her books as a child and treasured a biography about her when I was struggling to earn my living as a writer. It was a relief to know that she too had to resort to writing little magazine stories while nursing a crying baby at the start of her career. I admired her short hair, her Liberty dresses and her many silver bangles too, and her habit of having buns for tea every time she sold a story. A later, longer Nesbit biography informed me that Edith also had affairs with much younger men, lost her temper in spectacular fashion, and adopted a queenly manner, so I’m trying hard not to copy her too slavishly.

I’m lucky to live in the Sussex countryside, and love my village. We’ve entered into village life with enthusiasm. My partner was transfixed with joy when awarded two Firsts for her dahlias at the horticulturist society flower show, and our rescue terrier Jackson won the waggiest tail contest in the dog show. He loves it here too, as well he might. The pubs and tea shops welcome him and have been known to serve him a sausage on the house. We take him for many walks in the fields, up the hills and along by the river, but he particularly appreciates a trot along the esplanade at the nearby seaside. Two very elderly ladies take up their position on the same bench every day. When Jackson approaches, one delves in her bag and brings out a canister marked ‘Dog’. Jackson quivers with excitement, looks pleading, and is rewarded with a treat. Several, in fact. The ladies tell us he will only be allowed three in all — but neither they, nor Jackson, seem to be able to count. Perhaps when they are long departed and Trish and I are ancient we will take over their bench and become the community dog whisperers.


Last week, this week and next week too I am leading an itinerant life, travelling to various venues and staying overnight in hotels. I seem to have become pathetically frail now I’m old, unable to hoik heavy suitcases around. I feel like one of those Victorian china dolls in need of restringing — my inner elastics seem in danger of snapping, leaving limbs dangling uselessly and head lolling. I’m forced to travel with a very small overnight bag, which means I have a big problem. It’s not clothes. I generally go for one outfit on and the other packed in the bag, protected by bubble wrap which stops it getting crumpled, and if necessary I do some furtive laundering in the hotel bathroom. It’s books that are the bother. I hate the idea of reading electronically. I have to squint at a screen whenever I write. I need to hold a real book to relax and always pack at least two. I’m dying to read The Collected Letters of Shirley Jackson and The Turning Point by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, but they both weigh a ton. Luckily, Clare Chambers’s early novels have just been republished in paperback and tuck easily into my bag, so they’ll be entertaining substitutes.

I’m trying to listen to classical music as I flit around, as I’m doing a concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican this month. I shall be doing readings from various books accompanied by marvellous musical pieces that echo and illustrate the text. The aim is to introduce children to the delights of classical music — and I’m certainly learning a lot too. While I’m rehearsing in London, I hope to find time to revisit the fabulous Paula Rego exhibition at Tate Britain. It shows the power and pain of her amazing work, and you stagger out awestruck. I was lucky enough to be invited to her studio once. It was like stepping into one of her paintings. She was delightful, very funny and mischievous. It had been suggested that we might somehow collaborate together (I’m truly not making this up). ‘Ah yes, I like the idea,’ she said, eyes gleaming. ‘Let us do a work about incest!’ My books occasionally deal with gritty subjects, but sadly I thought that was a step too far.

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