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The origin story

October 5, 2020

There aren’t many things I still have from when I was seven years old, but one thing I have held on to is the school notebook I was sent home with one day. It was blank, other than the first page on which my teacher had written this note to my mum.

And Mum did.

Here’s one of the stories in the book.

Yes, I think it’s safe to say I had quite the imagination. (Just how did the broom play the piano?) Given that she had to print, rather than write which would have been quicker, I honestly don’t know how Mum kept up with my dictation, but she did.

A spinster (as she would have been called then) teacher named Miss Finley knew before I did that all I wanted to be was a writer.

A few years later, having consumed every Nancy Drew mystery there was, I started writing mystery stories of my own. Alas, not a single one of these still exists. I can’t even attempt to recall a single plot nor do I remember the names of any of the characters, other than the heroine: Tracey Spencer. (And, yes, she was named Tracey because her mother was a big fan of Spencer Tracey.) I could sit happily for hours and hours writing these stories.

Whenever Mum and I went to visit her sister’s family (which we did a couple of times a year) I’d make a beeline for my aunt and uncle’s bedroom. Why? Because in one corner of the room Uncle Jim had set up a sort of home office with a desk and (yes!) a typewriter. It was a whole other world, a whole other experience, sitting at that desk and writing my Tracey Spencer stories on a typewriter. This was what proper writers used and using it made me feel exactly like that: a proper writer.

It was Uncle Jim’s idea. For my thirteenth birthday, instead of Nana and Grandad and the aunts and uncles sending small amounts of money in my cards, they should pool it all and use it to buy me a very special present.

No, this isn’t the actual one, but it was a typewriter very much like it – an old Underwood that weighed a ton. My very own typewriter! I’d never had a present before and I really don’t think I’ve had one since that meant quite as much to me as that typewriter.

I wish I could say I remember giving it a proper burial (as it were) but I don’t remember what happened to it. By the time I was ready to leave home I’d acquired a portable, which lived with me for many, many years. I do still remember how happy that old Underwood made me.

It was on that portable (very much like this one, although mine was yellow) that I wrote an early first draft of what would eventually become my novel Rum Do.

That first version, written in first person from Jessica’s point of view and ending after she chucks Louie out, was called A Cold Bedmate after a line in a Dorothy Parker poem. Louie Cohen, Howard Martin and Bill Sinclair were all created on that portable typewriter, sitting on the table in the lounge of my flat in Finchley Road. The idea for the novel had been ticking over in my brain for some time, which was one of many reasons I decided to take a generous redundancy package from the magazine where I’d been working. (Those were the days – when redundancy was a month’s pay for every year worked, rather than the week’s pay you’d be lucky to get today.)

I still remember how wonderful it was, getting up in the morning, making a cup of coffee and sitting down to write for hours every day, words flowing from the tips of my fingers, plot twists that surprised me even as I created them. (Howard’s having an affair with Elaine? Where the hell did that come from?)

Just as I can clearly remember how happy I was sitting here, exactly where I am right now, one winter in the late 1990s, writing from ten in the morning until ten at night (with pee and food breaks), inventing Tilly and Roger and the Ormond family and the plot for what would become Unethical Practices. Winters are made for writing.

To be honest, I wish I had no recollection of any of them – of the seven-year-old girl dictating wildly imaginative stories to her mother in their council flat; the adolescent writing mysteries on her new (second hand) typewriter; the teenager churning out angst-ridden poems and stories; the twenty-something young woman in London writing her first novel; the forty-something woman sitting here writing Unethical Practices; the fifty-something woman who decided to update and completely rewrite her first novel. I wish I could forget them all. They both taunt and haunt me.

Where did they go, all those females who needed nothing more than a keyboard and a blank piece of paper or screen to make them happy?

Another winter of short grey days and long nights approaches. What a happy prospect that would be if something inside me suddenly sprang back to life with the inspiration to pick up where I left off with Murky Waters or Adam’s Rub. If the power of Tilly, dormant for so long, returned to me.

It’s been so bloody long. The thought of winter approaching holds no appeal. It depresses the hell out of me.

From → Writing

  1. Donna permalink


  2. Flavio Galtieri permalink

    I hope Tilly returns. She deserves a sequel. My daughter also devoured every Nancy Drew book and is currently writing her second, albeit another political tome I will barely understand. There must be something about Ms.Drew…

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