Wednesday, 2 December 2015


If writing an autobiography is 'a journey' then this post is an entry-level Satnav. I really loathe the term, it's over-used to the point of metaphor-fatigue, and from the mouths of Breakfast show guests, plugging some new CD, tends to suggest some mystical passage through a multi-coloured fantasy land of exotic plants, fabulous fruit trees and huge but friendly animals like lobotomised dinosaurs who pick the high fruit and give it to you from their gummy toothless mouths. A little OTT but you catch my drift. It's always said with a slightly faraway look in the eyes and a kind of profound knowing nod. Was the process always such unalloyed delight, or was the journey sometimes more like being stuck opposite IKEA in the Friday night rush hour on the North Circular? I think we know the answer.

Sometimes people make it a philosophical journey, often of self discovery, as the person treks through contemplation to insight and self awareness. Sometimes you have a little inkling that cannabis has had a small role.  Almost always the person feels bound to communicate their  newfound wisdom to whoever will listen, or doesn't have any option. I'm sure Peter Andre is a very nice person, but would you necessarily want to use his spiritual journey from Katie Price to Strictly Come Dancing as a guide for you own conduct?

Autobiography is a journey but one which is not directly from A to B. The B roads are very often more interesting than the main signposted routes, leading to territory which feels strange but then familiar as an image of the infant school playground drifts into your mind, the elderly babysitter or the first family car (and you are shocked to find that you remember not only its make and model, but its registration number: FON 700 - and that the family opposite had FON 699... and on, and on).  So the real journey of autobiography is not pre-ordained and linear, it is like a controlled explosion in slow motion, where things go off in every direction but also return to you on rewind, each with a bunch of new memories that have been tripped off. In retrospect you can see the paths you have followed, but at the time it is a spontaneous stream of consciousness. Alan Bennett once said that being a writer was like being a radio operator, sitting at your desk waiting for a message to come through. He cannot have meant writing autobiography, where the messages come through thick and fast, and the problem is to jot them down before they disappear again.

In emphasising the spontaneity and excitement of the process it is easy to forget the constraints you will work under as well: writing is a highly disciplined business, though perhaps I'm not the best person to be making the point. Aside from that there are issues to be resolved and decisions to be made, peculiar to your book, which will affect its shape, its professionalism, its readability, and maybe its sales. Here are a few of them:

I have made the point earlier that autobiography doesn't have a plot, something which drives novels and maintains the readers' interest. Don't be too wordy (trust me). Err on the conservative side as regards overall length. FESS was considerably more digestible for the cull of 30% of the wordage. 

Of course it is a serious work and you may deal with many serious issues. However that does not mean that it has to be done in a solemn manner, which will probably be puffed up and a bit pompous if you are not careful. Humour is permissible. My friend and mentor, Henri Tajfel, days away from dying of pancreatic cancer, asked his wife to buy him some toothpaste. "Just a small tube!" he added.
Most of us could not manage that wit in those circumstances, but the point is a good one: a light touch throughout is appreciated by the reader.

Your book is not supposed to be stand-up material. On the other hand, everyone likes to smirk, smile, titter, giggle or LOL.  Humour on the page is different from humour at Live at the Apollo. The principal difference is that the reader doesn't always know when s/he is supposed to laugh, whereas the audience at the gig is nudged by everybody else's response. Very subtle comic references or very heavy irony may escape the reader so it's wise to avoid them - or somehow flag them up. One thing which surprised me was that physical humour works quite well in print, perhaps because it's easier to visualise than more cerebral humour. In FESS despite all my attempts at verbal humour, word-play, double-entendres and puns, by far the most LOL-like reactions have from come the single instance of (literally) toilet humour (see FESS #60 A piece of my heart p.188)

OK, so you have got a reader: how do you keep them interested enough to read the whole book? Interest value is the supreme goal, and no-one can tell you how to make your life-story compellingly interesting without knowing the detail. But there are ways of making it incremental to maintain the reader's attention. Try to make sure that there is something on every page which is funny , fascinating, dramatic, graphic, cute, arresting, shocking, sad, embarrassing, anything at all which grabs the reader by the emotions, or the brain or the funny-bone, in that he or she says aha, haha, wow, lol or if you insist, OMG. This is easier to say than to practise and you won't hit the target every time, but it is worth trying to do.

Who you include in your autobiography is up to you: in a lifetime you have a lot of people to choose from. Your choice and how you portray them will be unique, and a result of your relationship with them, which is different from everybody else's, sometime radically so.  At worst it's a no-win situation: some people will be offended that you didn't include them; others will be offended that you did, because of how you depicted them. One response would be to say 'deal with it, I can write what I like about who I like (or don't like)', and accept that all autobiographers and biographers have this dilemma. However this doesn't quite cut it when confronted by an angry friend. Remember that the negative tends to have somewhat more impact and staying-power than the positive. The flip jibe in conversation takes on a very different aspect in print. You may well be held to account for these things long after publication: people have long memories for slights. On the positive side, autobiography gives a wonderful platform for the public appreciation of the great figures in your life, a premature eulogy, with the great advantage that the person concerned could hear how much you have loved and appreciated them.

There are  two chapters in FESS which are potentially libellous.
I agonised for months about whether they should go in. To not
include them for fear of legal action seemed craven and wrong.
But these things can ruin you financially and I had already
experienced that once in my life through divorce. In the end
I decided to put them in: I could always write a book about my
experiences in prison. The acid test was 'were they utterly true?'
to which the answer was 'yes'. However, true and provable may
be different matters. What tipped the balance was the conviction that there had been wrongdoing and injustice; that this had caused me distress and disadvantage and it should not be allowed to pass unnoticed. A rap over the knuckles should be the very minimum sentence. So 'Publish and be damned', but realise that you could be.

Thursday, 5 November 2015


Later in the blog I will discuss the issues of promoting and marketing your work. For now (and periodically through the blog) I would like to post some examples of 'adverts' for FESS that I posted on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, in the run-up to publication. Note that they all bear the website address where an interested reader can get much more background than could possibly be carried in an advert, together with all the contact and payment details which would similarly clutter up an ad.

If there is a common theme (other than the title and the web address) it is that the middle section always contains 'the hook' to engage the reader's attention and amuse or interest them. If engaged, (and particularly if they feel it might be reflect what the book is like) they may follow up and buy.

The overall design mimics the FESS cover, so there is a strong element of branding, and all the ads follow a similar template. It gives an instant recognition factor while also heightening awareness of FESS-related material on Facebook posts for example, or on Amazon.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015


When I wrote FESS I did it in a blaze of energy which came from the emotion generated by uncovering old memories: these were of events which I had not revisited for decades. And when that novelty lessened, there was the sheer pleasure of just getting my life down on paper (technically on screen, but let's not be pedantic).So it all came out in a rush though not chronologically, in the order that appears in the book. Tributaries started by different associations took me off in other directions - collateral benefit rather than damage. So by the end I wasn't entirely sure what I'd written, how much childhood, how much adulthood, how much sex, violence and rock'n'roll, how much boring but necessary dross - because actually there are enormous amounts of dross in our lives and some of it has to be included, or the book becomes just your Greatest Hits. And there should be some Greatest Misses as well, otherwise it's just a fake account of a charmed life, in which case why aren't you living in Hampstead with an Aston Martin outside your Georgian house? This is easy to say but, believe me, it's quite hard to pin up your humiliations for all to read. Frank Sinatra evidently had a troubled past, largely concealed; but his Mafia friendships became known and dogged him throughout his career. No-one is all good or bad and an autobiography should reflect both poles

                                                "Regrets, I've had a few   
                                                 But then again                
                                                 Too few to mention...." 


An autobiography which is just a PR job is pointless: nobody's that good, and so it would reek of falsehoods and have no credibilty. On the other hand you may have issues and experiences that are entirely personal and   private which the world does not have a right to know about, if you prefer that. It's only a personal view, but in FESS I have been scrupulously honest in what I have written about (with the exception of where I have, unknowingly, simply got things wrong), but also created no-go areas which I have deliberately not explored at all. For example, FESS has almost no coverage of my marriages and why they foundered. This does create a vacuum in the heart of the book, but I judged it to be unfair on my former partners - and even more so on the children. It was a sacrifice but a necessary one.

So when I had written most of it, I had a read-through to get an overview, to see whether it needed any reorganisation, extra bits or deletions, and to generally get a feel for how the whole thing would seem to a reader. I surprised myself with its diversity, the sheer number of topics I'd given some sort of coverage to, and wondered if it was just 'too much'. I started to note them down, and here they are in  A-Z form:

Andi O, arson, Bristol, Brown Clee Hill, beauty, criminals, CND, Davids, doctorate, dumped, East Enders, football, friendships, George Harrison, girls and women, Harvard, Israel, Jewishness, John Hurt, Kosovo, Lower East Side, masturbation, May 1968, murder, music, NYC, orphans, paedophilia, police, politics, PreRaphaelites, protest, racism, Romania, sex education (absence of), sadists, Shropshire, snogging, teachers, Special Branch, The Suit, Tottenham Hotspur, Udarnik, University of Westminster, vicissitudes of fortune, wasps, Xistentialism, yoghourt,  zero breathing, a.k.a.death.

It's nothing like a complete list, but even from this sample it's clear that there is no common theme they could be structured round.  Commonplace as it is, they just cannot be organised in any way other than chronologically. Some people liked the idea of making them completely random, but my Welsh influences insisted that they be very, very tidy.  Random presentation provides a nice element of surprise and variety but also brings some confusion through things happening in the 'wrong' order. Time's arrow probably hits the target.