I decided to become a writer after reading Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The year was 1990, and I was in rehab trying to kick my addiction to cocaine. It was the first novel I had read since leaving school, bought on the recommendation of a very persuasive second-hand bookseller, and long before I had finished it I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
The desire to write was so strong with me it felt like a sickness. The only problem was I didn’t know what to write about. I had no stories. When I mentioned this to one of the women working at the rehab, a bookworm on whom I had a crush, she suggested I mine my experiences of growing up on the mean streets of east London. I was deeply unsure about this, unsure about the wisdom of digging up what I was so keen to keep buried, but from a desperate need to get something down on paper, I began writing what eventually became Toy Soldiers.
Around the same time I enrolled on a creative writing course at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. It had been suggested to me that I might benefit from being around other budding writers, and I didn’t think it could hurt to meet Hanif Kureishi, our tutor. In those days his was one of the brightest stars in the literary firmament – he had just published The Buddha of Suburbia – and I somehow got it into my head that he and I would become friends and that he would assist me in getting my career off the ground. Incredibly, this is precisely what happened, since when my motto has been: never underestimate the power of wishful thinking.
For six years, between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one, I read absolutely nothing. Books and I were strangers to one another. I couldn’t name an author or point you in the direction of a bookshop. I scarcely knew where to find my local library. The literary world seemed so far removed from my own as to be in a distant galaxy. No one I knew read books. There were no books in my house. As for writing, the only time I ever did that was when I had to compose letters on behalf of my semi-literate mother.
I absolutely loathed this task, seeing it as a gross imposition on my already limited free time, for whilst my mates were in the street playing football, pretending to be Glenn Hoddle or Liam ‘Chippy’ Brady, I’d be stuck indoors taking dictation. I found it deeply depressing to hear Mum droning on about her troubles – many of them concerning my wayward behaviour – to our relatives back in Jamaica.
Worse, I was always obliged to read out these depressing missives so that Mum could judge whether or not her thick patois had been adequately translated into standard English. Sometimes she found the letters to be too polished, the language a little too sophisticated, and she would ask me to tone them down a bit. This invariably set my teeth on edge, and if I eventually did the rewrite it was only after a lot of grumbling. Only lately have I come to realise that these were my first lessons in good penmanship: reading aloud, listening for discordant notes, redrafting. Unwittingly, Mum was preparing me for my future career.
I vividly recall my first impressions of Hanif Kureishi. I walked into the spacious rehearsal room on the first floor of the Riverside Studios to find him slouched on a chair, foot on knee, sipping a bottle of beer. Here, I thought, was a poseur par excellence. I took an immediate liking to him.
For our first exercise, he told us to describe, in no more than two hundred words, something we did on a regular basis, preferably daily. The scintillating activities ranged from making the bed, to feeding the cat, to greeting the postman.
I remember one woman wrote earnestly about opening her curtains in the morning, and after she’d finished reading, the rest of us fell about laughing. Not with her, but at her. Her mistake was in trying to be too poetic, too lyrical. At the start of her piece, in a fit of alliteration, she described her curtains as long, light, lacy, and lilac. She was crushed by our reaction and never seen again.
For what it’s worth, I wrote about waiting for a bus, adding lots of detail about the other people waiting at the stop with me, about what was going around us, and about the uplifting moment when a long-delayed bus is finally spotted on the horizon. My classmates gave it a cool reception, but I didn’t give a shit: it was my first effort, written in haste, about nothing very much. Besides, it was Kureishi’s opinion that mattered, and he was very encouraging indeed. He said I had an observant eye and a talent for concision. A few months later he would say something similar about an embryonic version of Toy Soldiers.
At rehab I found that I had a lot of time on my hands, and I decided I would use it to plug the massive gaps in my reading. I was very methodical in my approach. I joined my local library, and frittered away my fortnightly sickness benefit on used paperbacks.
Poetry and short stories were out. As my chosen form, I was only interested in the novel. I began by tackling the canons of England, France, Russia, and America, then broadened my studies to include those of Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, and South America. I read like a man possessed, and at one point was getting through as many as four or five novels a month. I read everywhere: on the tube, on the bus, in my local park, in bed, on the loo, in the bath, even, to the annoyance of my housemates, at the dinner table.
I came to appreciate the beauty and power of a well-written novel, and after finishing one would sit turning it over in my hand, reading the blurb, the author biog, the reviews, delaying that moment when I would have to put it down and move on with my life. And all the while I was buying more and more of the things. Soon my tiny room came to resemble a second-hand book repository, with paperbacks piled here, there, and everywhere.
It gave me great pleasure to see my collection growing, and I would fantasise about all the new titles yet to be added. And the more books I bought, the happier I felt. Looking back, I can see that I had simply replaced one addiction for another, cocaine for reading; but where the one had almost killed me, the other was doing nothing so bad as expanding my mind, feeding my imagination.
Of course I was not only reading for enjoyment, but also as a means of becoming a better writer. In an effort to learn from the ‘professionals’, I set about deconstructing whole texts, making detailed notes as I went along, determined that I should know the difference between good and bad writing, between art and reportage. To be able to distinguish one from the other is not as straightforward as it may sound.
I was in rehab for little over a year, and in that time I read a great many bad books – but logic told me it was the only path to becoming a discerning reader. To get at the honey, one is obliged to handle the comb. Even so, when I think about the hours I wasted ploughing through books that are scarcely worth the paper they’re written on, I could weep from regret.
These days I’m much more choosy over what I consume. I rarely, if ever, sample anything new. I don’t mean to sound dismissive, but when you’ve been let down so many times you become understandably wary. To avoid disappointment, I tend to stick to a few old favourites. Of these, Shiva Naipaul’s Fireflies is by far the most well thumbed.
It took me ten years, off and on, to finish Toy Soldiers. The book went through so many drafts I believe I stopped counting after five. Between what I initially intended to write and what ended up being published there’s a whole world of difference. This, of course, is true of all books. It’s part of the writing process, and can be so exasperating. You conceive a thing, you write it in your mind, it’s a masterwork – but try to get your original vision down on paper and you end up chasing shadows.
I’m never completely satisfied with anything I write, and for Toy Soldiers would certainly never dream of making any great literary claims. Whenever I read it – I can’t resist dipping into it from time to time – I notice nothing but flaws. Always I’m reminded of its difficult birth. Ill equipped for the mammoth task I had set myself, I struggled with everything: the form, the language, the length. I was a brazen mimic: now Hemingway, now Achebe, now Borges.
No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make the damned thing stand up. Again and again it came crashing down around my ears, and each time I’d begin the painstaking process of reconstruction. My housemates often commended me for sticking at it, but what they were putting down to dogged determination, owed more, in fact, to obsession and even to masochism.
The truth was I felt trapped. I could neither take pleasure in what I was doing nor give it up. And yet I’ll always be grateful for the experience, for this was undoubtedly my ‘apprenticeship’, the period in which I discovered exactly what it means to be a writer, and the lessons I learned have stood me in good stead ever since. However, if I had known at the outset what I found out subsequently, if I had known just how difficult writing can be, the chances are I might not have started at all.
After one twelve-week term the writing class ended for good. I was bereft. Thursday evenings would never be the same again. But I was not about to let our esteemed tutor ride off into the sunset and out of my life. As we stood having farewell drinks in the Riverside’s crowded bar, I asked Kureishi if he’d been interested in reading an excerpt from my novel-in-progress.
To my surprise, he rewarded my effrontery not with a polite refusal, but with his phone number and address. I felt guilty for putting him on the spot in so public a fashion, for being so grasping, but the feeling quickly passed. I’ve never been one to let my conscience get in the way of my ambition.
Months after I had sent him the material Kureishi finally got back to me. His letter, which naturally I’ve kept, reads:
I read the material and was impressed. You write very well indeed; sharp, economical, to the point, with no decorative bullshit. The book needs developing, though. You need to open it out, give us more stories of life in the rehab, add more characters. And we need more of a sense of Gabriel’s life before he left Hackney. The whole thing needs to be bigger. Keep working at it. Do that and you could have something very strong on your hands. In the meantime, I’ve sent the manuscript to Walter Donohue at Faber. He used to work at the Riverside, and encouraged me a lot when I first started writing. Give him a call. And let me know how things are progressing. All the best.
Over the next few months I had numerous meetings with both Donohue and Kureishi. They effectively held my hand as I undertook extensive revision on the book. I couldn’t believe my luck. No aspiring writer could ask for more. Strange as it may sound, at no stage did I believe that Faber would publish, but I kept at the revisions nonetheless, partly from a desire to finish, and partly because it gave me an excuse to keep in contact with Kureishi.
By this stage I had left rehab and was living in a flat share, revelling, I must admit, in the image of the struggling, impoverished writer. I was signing on and doing odd jobs, and working on my novel whenever I could find the time. And then one I day I stopped. I had been working on the book for almost four years and just fell out of love with it.
This was a terrifying moment, for whilst the urge to write was as strong as ever, I was faced with the prospect of having to find a fresh subject. Whatever I eventually came up with, I knew one thing for certain: I would not write another novel, not for a while anyway. I had grown tired of the form, and wanted to experiment with others.
For a time I churned out short stories, then I wrote some truly awful poetry. After that I tried my hand at screenplays, but these were so derivative, looked and sounded like so many of my favourite films, that I soon gave up. Finally I turned to plays, and found that I liked writing dialogue. To get feedback on my pieces, I decided to join the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre. I enjoyed my time there enormously. For the first time in my life I had discovered writers with ambition to match, and in some cases outstrip, my own.
Alas, after two years at the Young People’s Theatre I came to the realisation that I wasn’t cut out to be a playwright. I enjoyed the writing, but hated the collaborative process involved in getting the work from the page to the stage. It was a case of too many cooks. In any case, I felt I owed it to myself to resume writing my abandoned novel, especially since Kureishi was continuing to show faith in me. And so I threw myself into the work with renewed vigour, determined not only to finish, but also to see the book published. It would take me another five years to achieve that goal.