I was born in 1954 and grew up in the bandit country on the north-west frontier… of Wolverhampton. The Luftwaffe hadn’t taken the lead in town planning, not like in Coventry and Birmingham, so the council had to be responsible for their own devastation. In front of the town hall they replaced a market square, surrounded by ornate Victorian facades and walkways, with a Civic Centre whose design seemed to have been out-sourced behind the Iron Curtain. A large hole sat in the heart of town for a few years and when the builders eventually filled it up with plate glass and concrete, the old arcades were gone. In London or Brighton they would have given them a heritage colour paint job and paid someone to stand at the entrance in a top hat and brocade trimmed uniform.
Still, we lived further out; out in the building sites where everyone was being given the same buff-coloured council house bricks and metal window frames.
When we were kids we used to dig holes and light fires in lots of places; in gardens, behind lock-up garages, in the nettle-pocked scrubland around the Methodist church hall. Hidden from the main road, at Dunstall behind the old cinema, was a derelict mansion. No one bothered with security fences, or signs of dire warning back then. Mainly, we just kept away from the holes in the floorboards when we sneaked in. The canal ran close-by and we’d wander along the towpath and slide on shoe-soles down the sandy slopes under the bridge, our voices echoing from the high, blue-brick arches. Mom had taught me to swim after a little girl from a couple streets away drowned, so I was okay to play down by the water. At Aldersley, near the first of the locks that step up to the town, the ground was honeycombed with tunnels where houses used to stand. We would hide and talk in terracotta cellars, scrambling through debris and sitting on the remnants of collapsed walls.
Sometimes, we’d make arrows and tip them with wire that we flattened and sharpened between stones. Digging small holes and covering them with larger stones, we could stash our ammunition across potentially hostile territory, knowing, like squirrels searching for their hazelnuts in a hard winter, that memorising locations might be the difference between life and death.
Hallowe’en was swedes, not pumpkins; and life on the edge was knocking on doors and running off. Bonfire season brought potatoes stuffed into mattress springs and dropped into waning flames. Later, a stick hooked through a spring caught you a meal from the embers. Any potato with a thin layer of heat-softened flesh was a culinary triumph and if there’d been no rubber or nylon in the fire to taint its blackened skin that was a bonus. Danny Baker, in his autobiography, describes bonfire baked potatoes. It must have been something to do with the zeitgeist of the age, but Baker and his pals struggled to retrieve their spuds. They hadn’t used springs. Still, they were Cockneys, all flash talk but no ability to perceive and solve an engineering problem: not like Black Country boys.
Keeping warm was a pre-occupation not understood by those who have lived all their lives in the age of central heating. Waking on winter mornings your bedroom sat in the bitter beauty of a translucent light filtered through ice ferns frozen across the inside of your single-glazed windows. Most days the collision of glass and outside air spawned puddles of condensation that poured over the edge of sills and streamed across impervious lino tiles. Beyond the narrow bubble of the single coal fire’s heat, air and bedsheets held a cold with a cloying dampness that rooms with radiators never know. Houses were yellow-stained boxes of fumes that passed unnoticed because they were every-present. The coal fire’s smoke went up the chimney, but the haze from the forty filterless cigarettes a day that hung from adult lips was everywhere. The first sound I heard each morning came from my parents’ room; the scrape of a match, followed by a rasping cough as my dad sucked in the first tobacco-tinged air of the day. The last breath of the previous night had been drawn from a nub-end that he balanced on a bedside ashtray. Woodbine, Senior Service, Park Drive, the nicotine-packed decongestants of a pre-cancerous age. Adverts proclaimed the benefits of paraffin heaters as cheap and moveable sources of warmth, not mentioning the invisible smells. For us this was a brief folly soon thrown on the scrap man’s lorry after our own canary-in the-coalmine moment, courtesy of an asphyxiated budgie, stiff in the bottom of his cage.
Then, when I was nine, we moved and our new flat stood as an architectural statement, rising grey above the sea of beige bricks. Now we had it all; an all-electric, underfloor heated, high-rise flat – and the bronchitis that had been my constant winter companion seemed not to have a head for heights.
On the dark nights, after the last children’s programme had ended at ten to six, I would read and look out of my window. Being on the sixth floor gave me a sense of perspective. My first real, chosen-by-me book was The Tale of Troy, then Jennings and Derbyshire, The Silver Sword and Sherlock Holmes, Mary Renault and The Iliad… I didn’t know which ones were supposed to be clever, I just liked the fighting and the secret worlds of children. On Sundays, sitting in the club, while my dad played snooker, a man from the local shop would come into the bar selling newspapers from a bag. I’d buy the Valiant, and read about Captain Hurricane bashing those Squareheads, ripping open Tiger Tanks with his bare hands and the occasional grenade. Apparently, it would be a graphic novel today, but in those days it was just a comic, like The Beano but with fewer laughs and more random dead Germans. Still, the bastards hadn’t let us into their Common Market back then.
If the child is father to the man, then maybe that’s why I ended up writing a school history book on Ancient Greece. I didn’t want to. They made me do it. I was on a course for teachers and the tutor said, ‘You will write some passages for the children to read.’ It was a day out of work. So I wrote. I wrote about Victorian England and houses that reflected the income of their occupants. The lady tutor said, ‘These are very well-written.’ And that felt good, so I wrote some more without being told to. Our flat, and my nan’s on the floor below, was full of books. But you took books off shelves, it wasn’t my place to write them. I mean, I didn’t walk around Sainsbury’s saying to myself, ‘Why don’t I become a farmer?’
I’ve still got copies of the work the lady tutor liked back in 1981. I’d used personification and anthropomorphism, though I didn’t know that I had: I didn’t know what they were. Homer and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle must have smuggled them in when I wasn’t looking.