Celtic Illumination, part 294, Evidently Chicken Town.
For someone who wasn’t planning on establishing a new career working with disabled people I was doing pretty well. In fact most aspects of my life were chugging along quite nicely. I had actually managed to achieve my seven hundred and fifty words per day and had finished my first novel. Now what I needed was a typewriter and I bought myself a second hand machine. This was not my first typewriter as I had borrowed one before. It was a tiny little manual portable typewriter but the person who lent me it kept asking for it back, not that he used it, but it honestly felt that his attitude was that, if I am a useless waste of space then I am not going to help you get on. And he was supposed to be family.
I remember that the person selling the machine lived about one mile away from me so with my two eldest boys we went for a wander. They were only asking for fifteen pounds for the machine so it was a bargain. I liked the look of the contraption as it appeared to be quite solid so I bought it there and then. I know, impulsive or what, tell me about it. I couldn’t believe how heavy the thing was and it nearly ripped the arms off me carrying it home, next time, I promised myself I would use the car or the Wobblie Waggon. I set the machine up on my desk. I had followed the Stephen King rule for writers, which is to have nothing more than a blank wall in front of you, no panoramic windows with views to excite the senses, or distract, just a blank wall.
There was such a satisfying thunk when you pressed a key, any key on the typewriter. It really was quite vicious and when you were in your groove and battering out word after word, the whole house would be shaking. It was brilliant. It was a great feeling to know that I could actually produce the amount of words required for a standard novel. The only problem was that I had written it in long hand and now had to set about typing the thing. To produce my seven hundred and fifty words per day now was much easier with the typewriter, but to convert the novel from long hand to typewritten was a real pain and as I had no training in typing it really was one fingered typing, with the tip of the tongue jammed firmly between tight lips.
My spirits were given a lift as I had heard that I had been accepted on to a course with the Arvon Foundation. I was quite excited about it as it really was a golden opportunity. I had received some information about the course but didn’t really know anything about the two professional writers who would be facilitating the course. All I knew is that one was a novelist and one was a poet. Well, as far as I was concerned that was fifty percent of the course gone for me for I didn’t really have much time for poets. Yes, I liked the established and classic poets we had been brought up with and I was aware of some giants of our time like Seamus Heaney, or even the magnificent John Cooper Clarke, but most of the poets I knew wrote about flowers or God and really were of no relevance to me whatsoever.
I got some other correspondence too but from social workers. This time they had almost finalised the process for people in Northern Ireland who had been adopted and who wished to find out information about their birth parents. As you would expect from useless social workers and pen pushing civil servants they were not going to make it easy for anyone. They said that I would have to undergo a mandatory one and one half hour interview with a social worker to determine if I was mature enough to receive information about my birth mother. I am sure many of you will understand that steam was pouring from my ears. Not only was I angry that some underachieving social worker was going to assess me, to determine if I was mature enough, but that they were only going to release details of my mother.
As I had been told all my life my mother had died giving birth to me so what was the bloody point in that. Now, armed with my industrial electric typewriter I was able to fire off a decent amount of letters complaining and arguing with them and at the same time rally my Mensa friends to keep the pressure up on the cretins who were supposedly in charge of this fiasco. They were also offering three choices of location for the mandatory interview with the social worker. You could be interviewed in the town or city where you were born, where you now live or, to tell you the truth I forget the third option, all I was interested in was getting another face to face opportunity to tell a social worker what I thought about them.
I had also won a writing competition in Northern Ireland and had been invited over to receive my prize. It was only a couple of hundred pounds and although I was pleased at winning I didn’t really want to parade myself in front of people. I’m sure many people, would relish the chance of getting their mug in to the newspapers and media but I’m not sure why, I wasn’t interested in that side of things. I understood the need to promote yourself and your work but couldn’t really find the enthusiasm for it; the glam life wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong I wasn’t shy or a shrinking violet in any shape or form; in fact I had been approached by some men again. This time they wanted me to go away to a hotel with them, and they would pay me money if I accompanied them.
With all the reading and research I had completed I understood that the life of a writer was not just being confined to sitting at a desk staring at a blank wall. Apart from the different forms of writing there were so many other activities you could get involved in where you could earn money. You could teach writing, you could visit writing groups and give a talk about writing or you could, as I had now been asked, join the after dinner speaking circuit. A group of business men in the North West of England got together every month for a formal meal where they invited various after dinner speakers. Now it was my turn. I was lucky enough to know that there was a section in the Writers and Artists yearbook that would not only give me a few pointers but would set out the rates of pay and conditions that I should ask for.
At the time I was aware of famous people like Jennifer Saunders, an English comedienne, who was earning fifteen thousand pounds per engagement. One or two of those a year would do me, but as I was a new writer I was at the bottom of the pile, the lowest rung on the ladder, I would often say that I started at the bottom and liked it. I could only ask for two hundred and fifty pounds as a fee for the evening. Although, and thank you Writers and Artists Yearbook, I could also ask that I be picked up from my home and taken to the venue, be given a free meal and drink throughout the evening and then be taken back home, so it was a decent enough remuneration package for my first ever gig. Well; you would think so. I had been asked to give a forty five minute after dinner speech for which I would get a total package of just over three hundred pounds. Not bad for forty five minutes work and that’s what I thought.
It took me seven full working days to write the speech. This was not a situation where you would stand up and wing it for forty five minutes. They wanted to be entertained, they wanted jokes. So when you begin to see the preparation that goes in to it, then you can see that you really do have to work for your money. As the evening drew closer I have to admit that some nerves began to set in. This was going to be a part of my new life, my new career so I was going in head first, I hoped my experience of speaking to large groups in the air force would stand me in good stead, but I knew that in the air force I had only spoken to groups of fifty people on average, now I was to be faced with five hundred people who were paying for the privilege.
I was quite surprised at myself as I walked in to the hotel, a medium sized country hotel in a local village. I asked for an orange juice. I was nervous and I could drink anything I wanted for free, but I knew that I was there as a professional and so decided to act like one, for once in my life at least. I was seated at the head table and throughout the meal threw my eye around the room. I could feel the nerves building and my mouth really was quite dry when I was introduced and invited to stand. I started to speak, regulating my voice and compensating for my accent. I found myself almost splitting in two. I had learned my speech well and almost delivered it automatically but at the same time I found myself scanning the faces in the room.
When I knew a punch line was coming I would quickly scan the room and if I noticed a person who didn’t react or smile or laugh I found myself focusing on that person and delivering the next portion to them, so that they would now laugh and so I continued, realising that I was controlling the room. It was a great feeling and I loved the applause. I wasn’t expecting the forty five minute question and answer session afterwards, but took it on the chin. Later in the bar, holding a glass of decent single malt whisky, I accepted the envelope of used bank notes and squirreled it away in my jacket pocket. I had really enjoyed the evening, the long seven days preparation had all been worth it, just for the experience alone, but I wasn’t convinced that the ratio of remuneration to input was worth it when I was approached by a man. This time he wanted me to give an after dinner speech to a group he was a member of in Warrington. I gave him my telephone number so that we could finalise the arrangement and then I began to realise that all the hard work had already been done, suddenly the ratio of input versus remuneration was turning very much in my favour.