My roots are almost entirely Irish. The Blakes migrated to Lancashire in the 1830s from Drogheda, and subsequently married 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 Manchester 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 John improved himself and transformed the family’s fortunes. Based in Accrington he designed and manufactured an ingenious water pump known as a hydram, which became known as the 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 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 vividly remember the night of 21 July 1964 when I saw my first live band, the Kinks, at the Queens Ballroom, Cleveleys. This 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 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.
I went from there to read English at Jesus College, Cambridge where 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 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.
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, through the British Council, I found a job in Varna, Bulgaria, a hard-line Stalinist society dominated by material shortages and political propaganda. I was teaching students training to work in Bulgaria's nascent tourist industry. I lived rather an austere but interesting Le Carré-esque life of institutionalized paranoia. I was shadowed, bugged and phone-tapped around the clock, but made some very good friends. Later I moved next door to Istanbul, where life was considerably more beautiful. 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 a proportion of “community programmes” had to be made to dilute the pop, 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 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.