PREFACE
My first two books both had prefaces, which I always thought were a help rather than a hindrance, an extending of the hand of friendship to the reader, a plain statement of intentions, an old-fashioned courtesy and a pleasantry, a putting on of the kettle and an arranging of a nice china plate of biscuits, and it wasn’t until a couple of people – my wife, in fact, and then my editor, and then my agent - said that they absolutely could not stand all that fuss and bother at the beginning of the books that I realised that maybe not everybody is as keen on a preface as I am. One man’s good manners, it seems, are another person’s feet up and elbows on the table.

Maybe it’s the prefaces that explain why no one bought my first two books at all. I imagine readers stumbling across a copy of The Truth About Babies (Granta Books, 2002) or Ring Road (Fourth Estate, 2004) in some out-of-the-way remainder bookshop - in Enniskillen, say, or in Basildon town centre, or, I don’t know, in Poughkeepsie or somewhere like that in America, somewhere in China even, or maybe a suburb in Brazil - and on their way to an appointment with the dentist, regretting the two-sugars in their cappuccino and the coffee-shop egg-mayonnaise sandwich they had for lunch, or waiting for their wife to finish the shopping on a Saturday afternoon and dreading going over to those people for dinner tonight, and feeling dull and disappointed with their lives and in need of some excitement and entertainment, and I imagine them ferreting around there in the remainder bookshop and picking up one of my books and opening it at the first few pages, at the preface, and reading the first few lines and thinking, ‘Huh’ and then thinking ‘Hmm’ and then thinking ‘No’, and putting the book straight back on the shelf.





I don’t know. Maybe I should just dump the prefaces. The trouble is, though, some things are hard to give up - smoking, for example, and wine, and coffee, tray-bakes, and beards - and also I suppose I believe there’s some virtue in trying to explain, just as there must be some virtue in recycling, and in growing your own vegetables and keeping fit, even if it’s hard sometimes to see the benefits.

I wrote all of my books for all of the usual reasons: for the money, for the sheer fun of it, to impress my friends and upset reviewers, to pacify my wife and family, to push on a little further towards the far distant horizon of truth and beauty, and because it seems I’m pretty much incapable of doing anything else. I used to try to teach, years ago, but I was always too easily distracted, too excitable and too nervous, and under the penetrating gaze of my students my carefully prepared lectures would somehow disintegrate into wild, mumbled discourses and apologies in which I would quickly give up on the subject in hand and start free-associating on a theme and, alas, stream-of-consciousness is not much valued and appreciated as a teaching method and shaggy-dog stories don’t count as scholarly publications. Once, during a dreaded Quality Assessment Exercise, I was filmed teaching a class, and then I was made to watch the film back and it was then, I think, that I realised that my future did not lie in academia, that my future was maybe in getting small cash payments in return for providing amusing amateur video footage for You’ve Been Framed-style tv shows.

These days, if anyone ever asks me what I do for a job - which they don’t, because I live in a small town where people know to mind their own business, but if they do then usually I reply that I’m a journalist, which just isn’t true, but which sounds good, or that I look after my children, which is true but which doesn’t sound so good and which is usually enough to kill off any further questions or conversation, particularly with men of my own age or older, who have mostly attained some kind of professional sheen and accomplishment by now, who have been to war maybe or made a lot of money, or both, or who can build stuff, and who have suits for all occasions and a pension plan, and who might know the state of the FTSE, and the Nikkei, and who have strong opinions on world issues and football but who wouldn’t know one end of a packet of frozen fish fingers from the other, or what time the learner pool is open on a weekday. The children are getting older though, and they’re all at school now and I reckon that after doing the regular daily chores and errands I have at least three daylight hours to myself to do with as I please, which is a lot, and which probably makes me at least a semi- or part-time professional in my chosen field, whether I like it not. But still I would never tell anyone that I was a writer, not because it’s a secret, but just because it sounds so daft – ‘Oooh’, I can hear my family and my friends and the great heavenly host of actual, real dead writers chorusing, ‘He says he’s a writer’.

I write because I read, and I read because I write, the two being pretty much inseparable in my mind, like an ingraft, or something ingrowing, like life and death, or verucas and swimming pools, or the inevitability of bouts of vomiting and diarrhoea in the reception year at school. I don’t know which came first, the reading or the writing, but I do know that I started reading because of libraries. I did not grow up in a house full of books: we had a family dictionary, and my dad had a biography of Winston Churchill, and a little Masonic pocket-book with a leather cover and red lettering inside, a book which we weren’t even supposed to know existed, but which we did - he kept it in his pyjama drawer next to the bed, which pretty much amounts to public display in a family home - and that was it, until I went to secondary school and my parents bought a copy of the Children’s Britannica from a door-to-door salesman, paid for in instalments, to help me and my sister with our homework. So it was not a bookish house, but that’s hardly unusual and it’s not as if I felt hard done by – when I was growing up I didn’t know anybody who had books in the house. Just about everyone I knew, though, did have a library ticket, and just like everybody used to belong to trade unions and wear flat caps and do National Service and smoke Player’s Weights and Navy Cut and smack their children, and beer was drunk in a pub from a glass with a handle, and you did the Pools, and had a few Premium Bonds, and there was no problem with anti-social behaviour, and all the food was good and fresh and local, and it was bliss in that dawn to be alive, well, everyone I knew went to the library with their library ticket once a week. At least, that’s what I remember, not my own childhood at all but a kind of composite red-brick and mahogany Carnegie Library childhood, made up of my own and other people’s memories and fantasies and imaginations.

My home-town library was not in fact made of red brick and mahogany, it was made of plasterboard, woodchip, and breeze blocks, and it was the size of a classroom: in fact it was a classroom. It was in what used to be called a ‘demountable’, a mobile classroom, in the grounds of my old school back home in Essex, behind the Budworth Hall and next to the car park. We used to go once a week to pick our books and the library used the old Browne issue system – you’d take your book to the desk and the librarian would remove the little ticket from the front pouch stuck inside the front cover and place it in the reader’s little orangey pouch, which were kept in alphabetical order in long wooden trays. There were no computers, no photocopiers, no free carrier bags, and you weren’t allowed to move up from the children’s section to the adult’s until you were twelve years old, by which time you could recite all of the Just William books by heart and would kill for a good John Le Carré or a Frederick Forsyth.

That library has long since been knocked down, along with the school, to make way for luxury townhouse apartments and a Tesco Metro, but I don’t think a week has gone by during the past thirty years when I haven’t made it to a library somewhere, somehow. I have been on holiday a few times, of course, but even then I tend to choose destinations with a good public library system: Iceland I quite like the sound of, and Sweden I imagine would be pretty good also. Last year we took the family to Donegal on holiday and it rained so much we ended up having a picnic lunch sheltering outside Bundoran library, which has ample car-parking space and good disabled access, and to mark the occasion we bought novelty Céad Míle Fáilte book marks for the children. A few years ago, on my one and only trip to New York, I ran out of money and had no credit cards or traveller’s cheques and so spent most of the rest of the holiday in New York Public Library, walking for miles every day to and from because I couldn’t afford the subway fares, and surviving on a ration of plain boiled bagels and coffee: it was probably the best holiday I’ve ever had.

Libraries are places where you go to invent and reinvent yourself, or maybe just to use the toilet, if they have toilet facilities, and to find out how other people have reinvented themselves, and what they’ve written on the walls, and the desks, and in the books; they’re a wonderful hiding place, but also a way back out into the world. All of my books have been written at home, or in garden-centre cafes, on trains, in buses, or in the car while waiting to pick up the children from school, but they’ve all started off in libraries, and in other books. I have a vague memory that when I wrote the first sentence of my book The Mobile Library, for example, I was responding to having just finished reading Ulysses, a book which I have been checking out of various libraries for a quarter of a century, along with Moby-Dick and biographies of dead famous people which I read and then immediately forget having read. But I could be wrong; I may just have made it up, and I’m in the car right now waiting for the school bell to ring, listening to the mighty Hugo Duncan playing country music on BBC Radio Ulster (‘Remember, your Uncle Hugo loves you!’), and brushing tray-bake crumbs from my beard, my little pile of library books next to me on the front passenger seat, so I’m afraid I don’t have any of my old notes or scraps of A4 – what you might laughingly call my manuscripts – to hand to be able to check.

The whole point of a library is that you don’t have to buy the books you read. You don’t have to undergo the agony of going into bookshops, those brightly-lit half-houses of the soul, and shelling out your hard-earned cash for something that in all likelihood is only going to be fit for the fire, and which you’re never going to read much past the first couple of chapters. The great truth and beauty of a public library is that you don’t own the books: they, briefly, own you. There’s probably a moral there, but if I pointed it out my editor, or my wife, or my agent would tell me not to talk such a lot of stuff and nonsense and just to get on and tell the story. So. You know now where I get my ideas; and no, honestly, the characters are not me; the places are imaginary; and if you happen to be borrowing any of my books from a library, please consider other readers and don’t write in the margins or fold down the corners or use bacon rashers as book marks; go and buy your own copy; available soon in a remainder bookshop near you.





 
The only good advice my first agent gave me: don’t staple manuscripts. Then he dropped me like a hot potato.



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