Genetically I am almost entirely Irish. The Blakes migrated to Lancashire in the 1830s from somewhere in Co Limerick, and subsequently tended to marry within the Lancashire-Irish community. Our family historian, my cousin Christa Mee, has found out that our great-great-grandfather John Blake, and his wife Bridget, were illiterate mill hands in the cotton industry – card-room workers according to the census – who, with no job security, had to continually shift location with their numerous children to stay in work. Their eldest child, also John, improved himself and transformed the family’s fortunes. Making his base in Accrington he designed and manufactured an ingenious water pump known as a hydram - the “Blake Ram”. This is a “self-acting” device that works by harnessing water hammer – the energy released when water flowing through a pipe is suddenly interrupted. As a water pump, powered entirely by water, the Ram is a brilliant piece of intermediate and renewable technology. Blakes made the Ram in Accrington until my father’s retirement in 1970.
My mother’s family was in business in Cork as distillers and brewers. Getting started in 1829 they were ruthless in the elimination of any competitors in the city, but they did make very good whiskey, gin and stout.
My parents met during World War II and I was born in Preston, Lancashire, in 1948, an early product of the post-war baby-boom. There is a school of thought that my generation have more reason to be happy and well-adjusted than other 20th century generations, having missed two world wars, benefited from the National Health Service, and entered our teens just in time for sex, drugs and rock n roll. I don’t know if all these things were equally beneficial, but I can tell you that on 21 July 1964 I saw my first live band, the Kinks, at the Queens Ballroom, Cleveleys. I was already half way into my teens but this was the moment my 1960s began.
I was then 7 years into a 10-year sentence at a Yorkshire public school. I remember every pimple on the nose of every master : some of them were kind, other specialised in cruelty, shading from time to time into sadism. Most were monks, who dressed in the black Benedictine habit, with hoods. They were referred to as "crows". The school is set in beautiful country. To the south lay the green Rye valley and to the north the gaunt, grim North Yorkshire Moors. Our life in winter was Spartan. We slept in vast barn-like dormitories and were always hungry.
But I had a pretty good education and in 1967 Jesus College, Cambridge was kind enough to give me a place to read English there. My director of studies was Professor Raymond Williams, a very well-known Marxist critic of the time. Among Raymond’s many books were Culture and Society and The Long Revolution, both of which left some sort of mark on my general outlook. I was a typical long-haired leftie student at the time.
I became a long-haired leftie schoolteacher after that at Woodberry Down Comprehensive School, in north London, where the staff in the 1970s was mostly, like me, young, enthusiastic and full of ideals. On the other hand many of those we taught, while undeniably young, were sadly lacking in enthusiasm for what we wanted to impart to them and I look back on a time of acute anxiety (when the going was hard), exhilaration (after a day had defied the odds) and, overall, total exhaustion. We were determined to teach a lot of literature, including poetry, and I remember that we all particularly enjoyed working with Penguin’s Voices anthologies, with their mixture of unexpected poems and evocative photography.
I left to do a postgraduate diploma in Social and Cultural Studies at Chelsea College, London University – very serious stuff (Unamuno, anyone?). My kind younger sister, with her awesome secretarial skills, typed a long essay I wrote on Hegel, which neither of us could understand. I completed a better one on Thomas Hardy, in which I wrote about him as an “observer of morality” which meant (I dimly remember) that he stood sceptically outside moral systems, while examining and testing them through his stories. I can see now that this is not too far a step from what a crime-writer does.
In the mid-1970s, possessed by wanderlust, I found myself teaching in Varna, Bulgaria, a hard-line Stalinist society dominated by material shortages and political propaganda. I lived an austere but interesting Le Carré-esque life of institutionalized paranoia, being shadowed, bugged and phone-tapped around the clock. The experience effectively cured me of any marxist fantasies. I then moved next door to Turkey, living and teaching for two years in Istanbul, a beautiful city. It has since occurred to me that in those years as an expatriate I accidentally put myself through a 2-part course in contemporary geopolitics: first the communist world and then the Islamic one.
Back in London I worked at Capital Radio. Independent commercial radio was still a relatively new phenomenon and the government had ensured that, by the terms of the broadcasting licence, a proportion of “community programmes” had to be made to dilute all the rock n roll, and that is where I found my niche. I worked alongside a really good broadcaster (unlike me), Maggie Norden. Later I got them to let me make make documentaries for the station, some of which were dramatised.
I left radio in 1986 to became a full-time writer, which I have been ever since. The everyday life of a writer is extremely humdrum, but you can see on this site a list of the books that I've squeezed out so far, with a picture of some of their covers and a few extracts.
Between 2008 and 2011 I was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Brunel University. My job was to act as a part-time consultant to students about essay writing, and had me dealing with many problems from the structure of a complex argument to the extermination of aberrant apostrophes.