My roots are almost entirely Irish. My great-great-grandparents migrated to Lancashire in the 1830s from Drogheda and, as our family historian, my cousin Christa Mee, has found out, they worked as mill hands in the Manchester cotton industry – carding-room workers according to the census. With no job security, they had to move continually around the region with their numerous children. They were illiterate but their eldest child John, my great-grandfather, somehow got himself an education and became a prosperous engineer. Based in Accrington he designed and manufactured an ingenious water pump known as the hydram or "Blake Ram" – a “self-acting” device that works by harnessing water hammer, i.e. the energy released when water flowing through a pipe is suddenly interrupted. It is what we would now call a brilliant piece of intermediate and renewable technology, and is still made in Accrington.
My mother’s family was in business in Cork as distillers and brewers since the 19th century. They made very good whiskey, gin and stout.
I was born in Preston, Lancashire, in 1948, and so belong to a lucky generation that missed two world wars, benefited from the National Health Service, and entered their teens just in time for sex, drugs and rock n roll. Perhaps these things were not equally beneficial, but I do vividly remember the night of 21 July 1964 when I saw my first live band, the Kinks, at the Queens Ballroom, Cleveleys. It was the moment that my 1960s began.
I was at school in Yorkshire and can remember every pimple on the nose of every master. Most of these were monks, who dressed in the black habit of the Order of St Benedict. They were referred to informally as "crows". To the south of the school lay the green Rye valley and to the north the gaunt, grim North Yorkshire Moors: quite a contrast. Our life in winter was Spartan. We slept in vast barn-like dormitories and were always hungry.
I went from there to read English at Jesus College, Cambridge where my director of studies was Professor Raymond Williams, a well-known Marxist critic of the time. Among his many books were Culture and Society and The Long Revolution, both of which left some sort of mark on my general outlook.
I became a schoolteacher at a comprehensive school in north London, where the staff in the 1970s was mostly, like me, young, enthusiastic and full of ideals. In the English department we were determined to teach a lot of poetry, and we all particularly enjoyed working with Penguin’s Voices anthologies, with their mixture of unexpected poems and evocative photography. As a teaching generation we were blamed for being too permissive: I am unrepentant about the methods we used.
After a postgraduate diploma in Social and Cultural Studies at Chelsea College, London University – very serious stuff (Unamuno, anyone?) – I found a job in Varna, Bulgaria, a hard-line Stalinist society dominated by material shortages and political propaganda. I was teaching English to students intending to work in Bulgaria's nascent tourist industry. My life was austere but interesting. I was shadowed, bugged and phone-tapped around the clock, but made very good friends. Later I moved next door to teach in Istanbul, where life was more comfortable. In those years, as I can now see, I happened to put myself through a 2-part course in contemporary geo-politics: first in the communist world and then the Islamic one.
In London again, I worked at Capital Radio. In those days independent commercial radio stations were required to do some community programmes alongside their pop music output, and I worked alongside a really good broadcaster (unlike me), Maggie Norden. Later I made documentaries for the station, some of which were drama-docs.
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 my books, 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, with the job of assisting students with their essay writing.