I was asked a question this week. It was by a teenager from a school in north London. He asked, “Do you enjoy your job?”. Even though I was only silent for about 5 seconds before I gave him my honest and considered answer, in that 5 seconds there was an explosion of thoughts and memories in my mind that could almost fill a book. It was a genuine thought provoking moment which was not surprising really, because as with all questions from young people I seem to hear these days, it really stopped me in my tracks and made me think. They seem to possess the gift of asking really pertinent questions.
The day was Wednesday, the time was about 9.00pm and the location was a large, comfortable lounge in The Hurst writer’s retreat in Shropshire, containing 15 teenagers, two teachers, two authors, a documentary maker and cameraman and a representative of a leading charitable writing trust. Oh, and the country house and estate that we were all sitting in was the last home of legendary playwright, John Osborne of ‘Look Back In Anger’ fame, which was bequeathed on his passing by his wife to be used as a location to promote all things creative and writing. Yes, I’ve got a very different life these days!
The impact of this very different life is best highlighted by explaining how I came to be in that room, in that Shropshire writing retreat, being asked the thoughtful question by this London teenager in the first place.
Well, 10 years ago this year, my first book was published, and whilst I had no idea at the time, the book would alter the course of my life forever. The book was called “There’s Only Two Tony Cotteys” and was the autobiography of former Swansea City footballer and Glamorgan and Sussex cricketer, Tony Cottey. I wrote it while I worked full time for Swansea Council, part of a team that collected local taxation. Not exactly a glamorous background I must admit, and not really the career I would have chosen, but a combination of poor decisions made at school and a necessity of finding solid, risk free work on which to base the security of bringing up my family forced my hand. It was a job. And despite working with great people every day, was it an enjoyable job? Well, frankly, no.
In terms of this book that was to alter my life, well, If I may say, it’s a very funny read. That’s not down to me, mind, it’s just that the way that Tony had lived his life at the sharp edge of professional sport for 22 years, had inadvertently given me such a rich reservoir of humorous content for the book with which to tell the story of his life. I could hardly fail. Thankfully, the book was a success, and set into motion a long string of events that would directly lead me to jumping in my car last Wednesday afternoon to make the three hour drive to deepest Shropshire.
My speaking engagement was to give a reading from my latest novel, ‘Champion of Champions’ to a wonderful group of young people from London, who were attending a quite brilliant initiative called ‘Writing the Game’ that was organised by a creative partnership consisting of Comic Relief, Leyton Orient Football Club and the excellent Arvon Trust. About 15 teenagers from the George Mitchell School in London were invited to spend the week at The Hurst, this fantastically beautiful writer’s retreat in Shropshire near Clun. Once there, these teenagers would experience workshops and instructional sessions on creative writing linked to football, delivered by the excellent and multi talented authors and writers, Musa Okwonga and Bridget Minamore.
My involvement was straightforward. I was invited to give my reading and then conduct a Q and A with the young people, based around my book and my writing. Great. No problem at all. I was looking forward to it.
But I lie. There was a problem.
You see, because of my unorthodox journey into the literary world (as I mention above, I was writing more demands for Poll Tax than writing about the demands of sport when I began my first book!) I still struggle to view myself as an author. I think it’s baggage I will always carry, as a late entrant into this world I now inhabit. Yes, I know in the last 10 years I’ve now written five books and am halfway through writing my sixth, and have delivered countless writing workshops in schools that have, fortunately, been very well received. But since I decided to abandon my working career last September to become a writer full time, I still find it difficult to think of myself as anything other than a boy from Swansea who just got lucky and stumbled into writing books about the topic he had obsessed about his whole life, sport. But an author? No, other people who have had their books published are authors, not me.
Other people like Musa Okwonga, award winning author of the excellent ‘A Cultured Left Foot’ and ‘Will You Manage?”, football books out of the top literary drawer. I met Musa for the first time about an hour before I addressed the teenagers from the school. Talk about meeting your kindred spirit! I think it was probably about 35 seconds into our first conversation when, for some reason, I mentioned John Toshack. Musa’s eyes instantly lit up, as you’d expect from a writer who had written about the great football managers and what attributes had led them to succeed, “What a man!” he replied enthusiastically, I was thrilled by his positive response. Tosh was my hero growing up, and Musa – about 15 years my junior and a Londoner – knew all about him and I hadn’t expected that. Our friendship was cemented there and then.
I briefly told Musa my dilemma. Whilst I was happy to read from my book, which the good people at Arvon had thoughtfully displayed alongside Musa’s on the bookcase that welcomed visitors as they walked into The Hurst, I was just a little concerned as to whether me just reading from it would hit the spot with the intended audience. I explained to Musa that I know I’m hardly a David Walliams so was slightly concerned as to whether an unknown writer from Wales would make the required impact with the teenagers from London he’d been working with all week. I briefly told Musa my unconventional route into writing, and how I’d brought along several of the books I’d read as a teenager that I take into schools with me, to show young people the proof that it was reading that really turned me into a writer and transformed my life. I asked Musa if it would it be better if I spoke about them instead? Musa instantly said, “No way! Read your book, they’ll love to hear it…I’d love to hear it! But why not talk about your route to being an author too? They’ll love it and it will have impact!” Musa’s positivity and enthusiasm had an instant impact on me also. He removed any doubts I was having and made me really feel I belonged there that evening. I will be eternally grateful to him for that kind vote of confidence.
Energised, I did my talk, my reading and I loved it. I won’t bore you here with the story of my story or recount the chapter of ‘Champion of Champions’ that I read, suffice to say, Musa was spot on, and both were well received. He knew his audience.
But it was in the following Q and A that the impact of what I now earn my living doing, finally hit me and gave me my thoughtful moment.
“Do you enjoy your job?”
That was the short, pointed question one of these excellently behaved, polite and engaged young George Mitchell School pupils asked me. And in the five seconds I took to consider my answer, I knew it was going to be the easiest answer of the night to give. Do I enjoy my job?
Despite having left my home around two in the afternoon that day and wouldn’t return back to it until 1.00am in the morning, before being up early the next day to go straight into a Swansea Primary School by 8.30 to deliver two days of writing workshops, I realised in those five seconds that I no longer even have a job. I just happen to leave my house every day and do something that I love, something that I am so incredibly fortunate to be doing.
Doing research about the 1904 and 1908 Olympics for my next novel isn’t a job. Taking my iPad to my favourite coffee shop to sit down with a full fat cappuccino as I write down the fruits of my research into a readable format isn’t a job. And visiting young people in schools or writing retreats to talk to them about the importance reading or delivering to them challenging but enjoyable writing workshops based around sport isn’t a job – it’s an absolute delight and a privilege. It’s taken me 33 years, but I’ve been lucky enough to have finally found something that simply isn’t work, something that I truly love doing.
In the five seconds it took for all these thoughts to swirl around in my head, the answer I gave to the young man implored him and all of his classmates to do everything in their power to find a path where they may do the same…and to not waste the years like I did before I found my writing and changed the unfulfilling path I was on. It’s not easy, but if they commit to reading, if they commit to their schooling and trying to make the best out of every day, they will at the very least create the opportunity to do a job they love. And that’s a good position to be in. My questioner nodded in silent agreement. As did my new friend Musa.
I’ve absolutely no idea where this journey I’m on is going to take me next, to what school, to what project, to what book. But I know one thing, leaving my house, jumping in my car and driving to a writer’s retreat in Shropshire to speak to wonderful young people like the pupils of George Mitchell School and meeting inspirational people like Musa, Bridget and the staff of Arvon is not a job. It’s never going to be a job, it’s just an absolute delight. So, thank you all in that room at The Hurst on Wednesday for giving me yet another rich, enjoyable, memorable and rewarding experience.
I don’t think I’ll ever truly come to terms with being an “author” but if me tapping away on a keyboard continues to allow me the privilege of meeting great people like I did this Wednesday, well, it’s better than working, isn’t it?
(‘Champion of Champions’ is available here)