Difficult second

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.

– George Orwell


I swear I’ve spent the last few weeks in a constant state of risk aversion, fretting that if I died or mangled myself I wouldn’t finish the new novel; and worse, that someone would come along and take it all the wrong way. To be honest I got so worked up about this I’ve now deleted all the writing I can find from 2011 backwards.

It’s a good feeling, then, to know you’ve finally hammered out a first draft. All told it’s taken about 18 months, and clocks in at 101,000 words – almost twice as long as THE FOLDED MAN, and well beyond where I’d originally pegged it. It’s more a companion than a direct sequel, and is probably the last thing I’ll set in Manchester for a while. (It doesn’t actually have a publisher yet, either.)

I could go on about how writing it felt like a bastard. That difficult second album. But in perspective, factoring in the hardships of our neighbours at home and fellow humans around the world, it was actually fine, maybe even frivolous. When you’re sitting there in your pants, unshowered, wallowing in the word-hole, binge-eating cheese and chocolate and cashew nuts, it’s easy to forget that writing will be first out the window when the end times come. And that a load of vitamin-D deficient, weak-limbed writers will be no good to anyone in the post-apocalyptic wastelands.

Still. I worked steadily and methodically, on buses and trains, in the gaps between the dayjob and sleep, until this weekend something crawled out into the light, shapeless and bending in all the wrong places, to croak: ‘Edit me. Please edit me.’

So that’s why I’ll be doing for the next month or so (unless I die sooner.) Then it’ll go to my first readers — always the worst bit — before Mr Agent and the wider world beyond (unless the feedback makes me kill myself).

First job

Before the Take That theme and Richard Hammond mateyness and ‘Market Street’ worthiness, our local Morrisons was a lot more like a warehouse. Under striplights it had the colour of old caravans, and the canteen was windowless.

I got a part-time job there at 16. I worked in the bakery for £2.38 an hour. I think my boss was called June. She was tiny, and she really loved Elvis. At the end of a Saturday shift she’d reduce all the sell-by cakes and buy them. ‘First dibs,’ she said.

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We walked under the M25 the other weekend. I didn’t even realise till we got to the other end of the canal, and a friend told me. We stopped here and took a few pictures — as usual I kicked myself for not having the DSLR. It was like finding some hidden cathedral. And it made me think of this:

I’m certain people in the future — long after the automobile has been forgotten — will regard them as enigmatic and mysterious monuments which attested to the high aesthetic standards of the people that built them, in the same way that we look back on the pyramids or the mausoleums in a huge Egyptian necropolis as things of great beauty — we’ve forgotten their original function. It’s all a matter of aesthetics. I think that highways for the most part are beautiful. 

– J. G. Ballard



Before they moved to France in the mid-90s, my grandparents lived in an old house in the Cotswolds. It was properly magic — packed with trinkets and bowing book shelves to the tops of its wonky corridors, its deepest corners. A bazaar of strange gems and rugs and books and videos and artefacts, and many of Gran’s still-life paintings.

Outside was a greenhouse that smelled so strongly of soil and tomatoes.

When you stayed, Gran would take god knows how many pillows and make a kind of nest on your bed. You’d clamber in and she’d read to you. She still tells a story of me being hysterical because Fantastic Mr Fox got his tail blasted off.

My grandparents are my favourite storytellers. They’ve always told the best anecdotes, myths, experiences. And I’ve always collected them. Their new house is still wallpapered with books. These shelves are in their library at the top of the house — their original Penguin section. It’s one of my favourite places in the world.

Tall things


Nearly there with draft one of the new thing. Being down south has made writing about Manchester a bit trickier this time round — instead of going out for walks like I used to, you’ve got to connect dots and streets and places with your mind-map (and a little help from Street View). It means when I’m up there I tend to take as many pictures as I can. A lot of them of tall things — cranes, chimneys, gantries, towers, the knackered old machinery you see as the train rolls into Piccadilly.

This is one: the Beetham from the Princess Road. I did a Big Issue in the North interview a couple of months ago and called this tower a 47-storey middle finger to the IRA. Don’t know if that’s really true at all, but until the new builds catch up it’s still a weird but brilliant tower to have dominating the skyline. It always reminds me of the Combine Citadel in Half-Life 2.