Disability is something I regularly write about. As a writer I write about the stuff I know. This is from a personal perspective as well as a professional one. I’ve spent most of my career working around the field of disability equality, plus I’ve had a hearing impairment all my life, albeit it wasn’t picked up until I was about 8 years old.
I recently got involved in a discussion with another writer about disability. They were using a blind librarian as the source of humour in a film script. The humour struck me as being somewhat 1980s, from a time when people laughed at disabled people not with them. We’ve made progress around racism, sexism, homophobia and other areas of diversity, there still seems to be a trend that disability is to ridicule. More often than not the people who construct this rule have no direct personal experience of disability, but still think that they can have a pop.
Years ago I worked for the BBC, as their disability adviser. Whilst my job started out being about employment it moved across into onscreen representation issues. Too often disability was, and still is, portrayed negatively, because the people who write for television and films have very little personal experience of the lives of disabled people. We’ve seen tremendous progress in recent years with disabled people being more prevalent on screen, but power in production and commissioning still rests with people who don’t get it.
I write about disability incidentally. I do this because most of the time that is exactly how it is with people I know. Other people may see us as one dimensional, but we are complex, and we can choose a range of labels to define who we are. I am, in no particular order, a football supporter, a walker, some one with a vast interest in current affairs, a cook, a writer, a disabled person and a Northerner. None of these individual labels define me, they come together as a great big pot of stew that is me. Plus, none of these things are sensational. I’m just struck that from time to time the rest of the world sensationalises the experience of disability. To quote George Bernard Shaw,’ it’s not the fact that it’s tightrope walking that is amazing, it’s the fact that its an elephant.’
The other thing is that I have worked with many people who I respect and who, even if I don’t always agree with everything the say, have spent their entire careers working for greater equality for disabled people. If I write about disability inappropriately, I undermine their efforts and their passion. I would never intentionally do that.
If you read my works, you’ll see how I draw upon my experiences. Mark Garvey, Kieran, and Reggie all reflect this in my different novels. Sometimes I will get stuff wrong, not everybody will agree with what I say, or even enjoy everything I write. I just hope you agree that I know, and that the authenticity shines through.
There is a problem when you write fiction about real places, everybody else owns them
Much of ‘Playing the Pools’ draws upon real places. The Halfway House, for example, is a real pub with its own clientele and history. Anybody who has ever wandered in for a cheeky pint will have their own perspective and feelings about the place. Writing science fiction is probably tons easier, very few of my readers will have been to the planet Grunighalli, and I suspect none have imbued a pint of green mars juice (it’s lethal!) in the Six Armed Gargoyle Tavern.
I got around this in the past by making pubs up. There is no pub called ‘The lost weekend’ in Birmingham, but it worked for Al & Mark, in ‘After Alyson’, and I think the city is the worse for not having a place like I described in the book. I prefer, however, to deal with real places. Most of ‘Snatched’ features hotels which I’ve stayed in and places that I’ve visited.
‘Playing the Pools’ is different though. For a start, you couldn’t make Tranmere Rovers up! I wish this wasn’t the case as I have lost count of the number of hours I have spent cursing and complaining about their performance only for them to redeem themselves. It is true love, all is forgiven and it is unconditional. Yet the book starts with the team in the 1960s. There is bound to be someone who decides that I’ve put the wrong player in the team for a particular fixture, that George Yardley was out injured for the match in question and the goal scorers were blah, blah, blah. If that’s what floats your boat then go for it. On the other hand, I suggest that you stay away from books that are, in the trade, called ‘fiction’. Whilst every effort is made to be as accurate as possible, you would hope readers are generous and allow poetic licence to intervene.
Mind you, I’m as bad. For years I couldn’t watch ‘No Surrender’, the otherwise excellent film by Alan Bleasdale, because he got the religious affiliations of the red and blue sides of Liverpool wrong. And don’t get me started on ‘Love Actually’. I’ve never taken the point up with Richard Curtis but, after that Christmas gig in the school, the Liam Neeson character says to his step-son, he knows a short-cut from Wandsworth to Heathrow. Seriously!? There is no short cut! I mean, he might have meant via Barnes rather than Hammersmith Bridge, but it’s not enough to gain any advantage. And right at that point the film lost credibility, because until then it had been perfectly feasible to imagine all the other nonsense being true. Ahem, well, I had to look sheepishly at the floor the first time I made this point to friends, but I know I’m right!
In a few weeks time, once ‘Playing the Pools’ is published, I will be curious to see if a tsunami of commentary is unleashed or if readers, instead, focus on the story and plot twists. Hopefully the latter, I’ll just have to stick my tin hat on and hope for the best!
Football is a recurring theme in my writing. I make no apologies for this. For many it is the glue that binds their identity with their community, and for me personally many life milestones have been marked by attendance at football matches. The night my Dad died I watched Tranmere, he supported us, and after his stroke I would dash home to deliver match reports. Going to the match fitted with this. Additionally, in the years I was away from Merseyside, visiting Prenton Park kept a link with the community I am from. I am proud of the fact that my club has done much to support local people during the COVID pandemic. Birkenhead is a area of high social deprivation, talk of levelling up is misleading, getting people’s head above the water would, for some, be a huge step forward.
Across the Mersey, our broader football family includes Liverpool and Everton supporters. I remember exactly where I was when I learnt of the disaster at Hillsborough on 15th April 1989. It was two days later, on a flight back from Madrid after a romantic weekend in the city. I picked up a paper that had been discarded by a flight attendant and saw, with horror, the media reports. Hillsborough is in Sheffield, I have family who live there and my brother-in-law is a lifelong Liverpool supporter. Panic rose as I wondered was he involved, were family or other friends caught up in the disaster. I remember the disgust at the lies being told about the behaviour of Liverpool supporters and how Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s official spokesperson, sought to discredit supporters in a way that was untrue and deliberately misleading.
Years have passed. The families of the 96 people who have lost their lives have suffered for over 30 years. Yesterday the case against retired Superintendent Donald Denton, retired Detective Chief Inspector Alan Foster and Peter Metcalf, a former solicitor for South Yorkshire police, was dismissed as ‘they had no case to answer’ . The stench is indescribable. It is the stench of ordinary people being abandoned by our legal system, accounting for the deaths and holding those responsible for their killings appears to be something that the legal system cannot be obliged to pursue.
This isn’t a problem unique to football, but it is something which should unify the football family. Going to a match shouldn’t involve risking your life, nor should it be that a generation passes without results being delivered.
The usual lip service has been paid. ‘No number of legal cases will bring the dead back’, etc. To me this seems to express a confusion. This is not about anything other than ‘justice’. At the moment ‘Justice for the 96’ seems a long way from being achieved. Those who have failed to deliver should be ashamed.
Somebody asked me the other day why I write about religion. I don’t. If I have a theme I write about it is faith, and often misguided faith.
In ‘After Alyson’, Mark Garvey places his faith in his ability to resolve his own problems, without addressing the fundamental dissatisfaction he has in life. In ‘Snatched’ Kieran places his faith in how his business model is infallible and therefore guarantees him success. Finally, Reggie Kellison places his faith in the goodwill of other people and Tranmere Rovers. Having spent a lifetime supporting Tranmere I know how misguided Reggie’s faith is, but it still doesn’t stop me being addicted to Rovers.
That’s the thing about faith. Despite evidence to the contrary we are guided by it. You might continually vote in a particular way because you believe the Party you vote for will deliver a land of milk and honey, but it never arrives. I was vegetarian for 20 years, this was a sort of faith but I wasn’t evangelical about it. I never screamed as people tucked into their steak, or walked down the aisle in Morrison’s bawling my eyes out as I passed the meat section. Perhaps this is evidence that vegetarianism wasn’t really a faith for me, it was an act of principle.
Sometimes faith does pay off. I always knew that I wanted to come back to living on the Wirral. I’ve been back two years now, and I love being here. Lockdown has meant London is inaccessible, but the desire to return has been totally absent. I have not suddenly become anti-London though. It’s one of the world’s greatest cities, far more diverse than New York, and less conventional than Paris. Berlin runs it close and Sydney also gives it a run for its money, but London still fascinates and repels in equal measure. By comparison life here on the ‘Paradise Peninsula’, a touch of Scouse irony there, delivers all that I want and the emotional tie is huge, not to mention the easy journey to Prenton Park. Faith sometimes pays off.
Where it doesn’t is as regards to reviewers. Prior to lockdown I was a regular cinema goer, but I never used to bother with reviews. Reviews rarely tell you anything other than the reviewer is trying to impress you, they’re often written by people who’s most creative output has been their last shopping list or latest missive on Twitter. I’ve come across a few lazy reviewers who clearly can’t be arsed to read something, so just decide to write their reviews based upon their own prejudices.
Now some people will tell you that they never read reviews. Us authors, I suspect, are different. Writing novels is a solitary process and feedback is extremely rare. It was lovely to get a message from Luke Francis, who read the audiobook of ‘Playing the Pools’, saying how much he enjoyed reading a book in his native accent. Most of the time though you sit in hyper space wondering how the world is reacting. A review is a connection. Connections, as we have learnt through lockdown, are an essential part of human existence. Yet, you lose your faith in the integrity of reviewers if it’s obvious they are simply not reading.
We’re back where I came in. Faith is the antidote to cynicism. It’s not religious, it’s often misguided, but never truly wasted. Just be careful who or what you put your faith in, and remember, the Wizard of Oz was just a weird fella pulling handles behind a curtain
In the UK we appear to be coming to the end of another lock-down. What seemed incredible 18 months ago is now everyday. I am pretty convinced that if your wrote COVID-19 as fiction in 2018, everybody would dismiss it as too outlandish and too daft to be true.
Some people have hated lock-down, others have taken a perverse pleasure in the isolation. I’m somewhere between the two. I haven’t used it to learn a new language or teach myself how to play trombone, nor have I gained tons of weight or taken to drinking a couple of bottles of vodka before lunch. For me it’s been altogether more mundane. I seem to live from meal to meal, and my cooking has got better, not that it could have got worse. I baked stuff, something I haven’t done since I was a teenager, and my banana loaf is now more popular than my novels. I wonder if I am in the wrong job, maybe I should retrain as a master baker? The instantaneous feedback you get with cooking is much more gratifying than writing, albeit people don’t spit my books out and leave them on the side of their plates. Or do they?
Launching a novel in lock-down has been strange. Everything is virtual. It feels like I am in space and planet earth is long way away. The main way of communicating with earthlings is via twitter, and you compete with people moaning about everything there (self-included!). Media interest seems focused on trying to persuade us that our Prime Minister is worthy of beatification, rather than the useless. bumbling buffoon that many of us take him for. Or the battles in the Royal Family and the health of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. I know, like me, you will all have danced a jig when he was released from hospital, I almost opened a fresh carton of cranberry juice in celebration. Thankfully, restraint is still a trait us Brits are great at.
Quite a few people, at the start of the pandemic, suggested that audiences wanted plays and books about the experience. I’m not convinced. Being reminded of the state we’re in and the things we’re confronting is a bit bleugh! I reckon there will be a trend towards escapism and fantasy. This has been a painful process and I doubt that people want to be reminded of that pain. Nothing I am currently working on is about COVID, although there is a screenplay I want to play with that sort of uses the pandemic as the impetus for the story.
Whatever your experience I hope you emerge from this strange period healthy, not too scarred and positive about your future. Whilst I hoped that COVID would result in a more compassionate society, I can’t help thinking that in the end not very much will have changed. Disappointing, but us humans are always predictably under-whelming.
God that was exhausting! And now the real work begins.
I tell you, it’s never ending. My fingers are really sore, been at my laptop every few hours tweeting out. I look knackered. How many ways are there to say ‘buy me!’? And then you have to wait for all the health checks aka reviews? Is it good enough, does the story work? Is it believable?
I suppose every author obsesses over the latest addition to their cannon of work. Writing novels is lonely, writing plays at least allows you to see how an audience, and how actors, deal with your work. The responses are more instantaneous, but longevity is shorter. By comparison novels are on a never ending show-reel. The characters don’t get offered better parts in other people’s books and they don’t have hissy fits with the director. Nor do they ask if they might do a particular scene differently because they want to try it ‘as if they’re Brando’.
The other difference is that the success of ‘Playing the Pools’ is out of my hands. I don’t mean that I will not do my best to promote the book, far from it. I can’t control what people make of it though. You just hope that enough people will get the point of it all, be entertained and recommend it to others. For me writing isn’t about numbers, its about the people who read or see what I’ve written enjoying my work.
The next challenge is what to write next. My personal slush pile grows by the day. Ideas I’ve started that work in my head but don’t seem to translate to the page. That and writing something new. I started playing around with an idea a couple of weeks ago only to realise that it was too close to something that I had already written. Deleted. I’m sure that’s the difference. I am pretty sure that women who have given birth don’t immediately decide to get down to it again the morning after the new arrival emerges. That’s writing though, a joyless taskmaster that haunts your waking hours and sometimes disturbs your sleep. ‘Oh, get over yourself Sindall! If you want joyless try working for Deliveroo for a day, or working in an ICU during COVID’. Bloody writers!
Buddhist call a period of uncertainty ‘living in the gap’. I think for the next month or so, aside to this blog, I am going to put writing to one side. The ideas will come and in the meantime if you do manage to get your hands on a copy of ‘Playing the Pools’ enjoy it.
I don’t mind being compared to other writers, but I sometimes worry that the comparisons are inaccurate.
When I first started writing I noticed that I would copy the style of what I had recently read. On one level this was great, read Geoffrey Archer, churn out cash – not that I ever did. More worryingly it meant that I was unable to find my true voice. This was concerning at the time.
I had a friend, years ago, who was a musician. He was always trying to churn out replica hits to whatever was around in the charts at the time. The problem for him was that by the time he had penned the ditty in question the circus had left town. I have decided that trying to appeal to an audience is self-defeating. This is akin to trying to write a top 10 chart hit. Some people have the craft to do this. Steve Harley wrote ‘Judy teen’ because there wasn’t a hit single on his first album. Impressive, but I think writers face a huge range of challenges if they try to go down this route. Another former acquaintance was a Jazz guitarist. Jazz guitar is, from my perspective, on a par with writing about your toenails. I am sure some people are interested, it just doesn’t float my boat. I can sort of appreciate the virtuoso, but that too me is the equivalent of chucking in big adjectives and Latin phrases, might impress some, but it doesn’t float my boat. For him though, Jazz was Art. I’ve never taken the same approach in respect of my writing
In the end I write to engage with my readers if to entertain an audience. That doesn’t mean I’m low brow. ‘After Alyson’ was, in part, an exploration of Mark Garvey’s inability to control his continuous desire, it drew on Buddhist teachings. Equally, Kieran, in ‘Snatched’ struggles with the moral conflicts of his job as a child trafficker. First and foremost though it’s about keeping my readers engaged. ‘Playing the Pools’ continues this trend. At its heart it is a simple tale of a heist and a man who longs for a better life. Concurrently, it addresses faith, loyalty & identity.
Whilst I have nowhere near the gifts, the writer who has had the strongest influence on me is Graham Greene. His stories are multi-layered and about people in conflicts. It seems quite hard to access his works now, few are in public libraries and finding titles on line is increasingly difficult. I suppose writers become unfashionable, with Greene I fail to understand why. Despite his themes influencing what I write about, I haven’t been aware of copying his style.
When you find your writer’s voice you find your style. ‘Playing the Pools’ has been compared to Roddy Doyle. Again, Doyle is a fantastic story teller, but the only real comparison I can detect is that we both write about ordinary lives that encounter difficult challenges. In the end I write as me, not as a ‘tribute act’ to others. All that matters is that readers engage and are left wanting a tiny bit more.
Waiting for your new novel to be published is a bit like the late stages of pregnancy. You know it’s coming, you’ve told people about it, but the little bugger still hasn’t shown their face.
It’s not like this is my first experience of ‘novel birth’. The two others were delivered by another publisher, but the process is pretty much the same. Months after you finish the energetic stuff, the actual writing, a little bundle of joy arrives on your doorstep. Unlike with babies, and if I’m honest I’m not sure why you can’t do this with them, other people get to have it and keep it on their bookshelves. Novels then develop a bit further and after a while they learn to talk, also known as getting reviews, and before you know it they have a life of their own.
Then the questions come. Are you trying for another? That’s quite intrusive really, I mean when your cousin turns up at your house with the new bambino you don’t look at her and immediately ask, is she planning to go through the whole process again? I mean, you might, but that’s probably why she always manages to spill red wine on your new carpet and scratches your car every time she parks nearby. The other question that people ask is ‘What’s it really about?’ I’m pretty sure that people never ask new parents this one. Nobody says, ‘Baby Jasper is lovely, but what does ‘Jasper’ mean in this context?’
‘Playing the Pools’ is, however, not a baby. It started life being called ‘First Divi’, as a play on words. First Dividend is the term that used to be applied to a big win on the pools, and on Merseyside a ‘Divvy’ is slang for ‘idiot’. The lovely people at my publishers thought that wasn’t appealing enough, so it’s now called ‘Playing the Pools’, and probably better for it.
As with all new born’s people will want to know what I want for it. A simple wish really, that people enjoy it as an entertaining and at times thought provoking read. Longer term, it would make a cracking film, but dreams of Stephen Graham & Jodie Comer playing the lead roles will have to remain just that, a bit like hoping your kid grows up to score a hat-trick for Tranmere in the Champions League final.
Soon attention will turn to the next project. COVID-19 has put paid to theatre audiences but I’m hoping that it won’t be long before ‘The Journey’ is seen by audiences. There is a new novel in gestation, but not much more than that at the moment, and a screenplay that I’ve started to write, but again, time will tell.
Until then I’ll just have to concentrate on getting the novel in front of as many readers as possible and hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.