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.

Sunday, 1 November 2015


An autobiography is not a novel. It doesn't have a cast of characters who are playing out a plot from start to finish (obviously there are some characters, and there are some dramatic parts which may read like a novel, but it doesn't have the same narrative thrust). So it may be difficult to hold the reader's attention through many successive episodes which don't necessarily connect with the one before or the one after.

When I wrote FESS I tried to put a 'hook' on every page: something funny, sad, surprising, graphic, or just plain interesting that might go ping in the readers' minds and grab their attention, retain their interest, or just keep them awake. I didn't manage it in every case, but I think it's a good policy to implement if you can. Here is how one gag developed.

There is a section which describes a long and happy relationship with Shropshire, where we had the great good fortune to be able to rent a small and dilapidated cottage for next to nothing (see  FESS  #49:  To Gallop in Salop). As a very important part of my life it was a 'must' for inclusion in the book and it was a nostalgic pleasure to write. But maybe not to read: the potency of the scenery and the people might not work 'second hand' even though they were vivid and full of emotion for me. I started to search for things that would make it more graphic.

Shropshire is proper rural. Our part of it was as rural as it gets: open country, only two tiny villages in the vicinity, a clutch or two of houses, a sprinkling of people, many sheep and cows. So I wrote:

"In the area around the two hamlets in South Shropshire I came to know, farm animals definitely outnumbered humans"

Somewhere in there is quite a graphic image of the few people being submerged in a sea of sheep and cow. There was an implicit threat, which I had not meant to communicate, but clearly sensed by my eldest daughter in this shot (note: that is not our cottage)

In my head there was the notion that the cows might one day takeover. This would be an appalling prospect for any number of reasons, not least the disappearance of milk, beef and burgers from our diet. But given their numerical majority in the area, some kind of more inclusive democracy, maybe even bovine suffrage would perhaps be in order. That was the way I was thinking - well, possibly not thinking so much as freely-associating in a whimsical, even surreal way. (These kinds of flights of fantasy often become absurd, or lead nowhere, but occasionally they make bizarre connections which work and which you probably wouldn't have made in any other way. So the second formulation of the 'hook' was:

"In the area around the two hamlets in South Shropshire  I came to know, farm animals definitely outnumbered humans; and had they been given the vote, the first cow MP would have been returned to Westminster"

Maybe this was enough to convey this cow-dominated bucolic scene? No, the lily must be gilded. There was still something unformed, nagging at me, a natural connection that had to be made. Finally it came, just dropping into place like a piece of a well-worn jigsaw puzzle: I could make the point about Shropshire animal life I wanted to, and deliver a nasty sideswipe at my number one political bete-noire:

"In the area around the two hamlets in South Shropshire  I came to know, farm animals definitely outnumbered humans; and had they been given the vote, the first cow MP would have been returned to Westminster since Mrs Thatcher".

Not Mrs. Thatcher's time, Mrs Thatcher herself.

OK, maybe it's a gag which is not going to bring the house down at Live at the Apollo, but it works well enough to amuse and do what it's supposed to do: encourage the person to read on.

Saturday, 24 October 2015


  • to get an overview of your life and some perspective

  • to have a record of all the people, places and events you have known 

  • to excavate from memory countless experiences you have forgotten

  • to provide a legacy for your children, grandchildren and their children, a first-hand account of what it was like to live in your lifetime

  • to help historians understand this period

  • to understand yourself better, as a product of these times, and of the important people and events in your life.

  • to have the hugely enjoyable and compelling experience of remembering so much
          more than you expected, and re-creating a kind of mental video of your whole life


Friday, 23 October 2015


Thie vivid recollection of childhood fame in the MayDay pageant, prompted by opening a creased manila envelope in a box of family photographs, set a process in train: surely I must be able to remember something before the age of 7 (though in the photo I look more like 5; being short was a recurring theme in my life, until the age of 18, see FESS  #21 "Short Story"). Soon afterwards I recalled, with some horror, a scenario that unfolded when I was 4 and newly enrolled in a local nursery school. I needed to take a dump, which started as  a slight feeling that it would be a good idea but then very quickly became something that needed to be done as soon as possible. In the toilets, four boys stood around blocking my way to the stall. They delighted in refusing to move, preventing me from going in. The inevitable happened as I couldn't wait any longer. It was traumatic and humiliating, and probably the worst thing that had happened to me in my life to date. I suppose it was a novel kind of bullying; it was certainly a passive kind of aggression, when I would have much rather suffered the real thing. Some years later I read William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies' which many people found shocking, because of the cruelty and violence of the little boys to each other; I found it totally unsurprising.                                      

Sometimes there is a connection between memories which is not to do with their similarity or anything else except their nearness in time. A few months after the nursery school incident I went
into the Middlesex Hospital to have my tonsils out, a very common operation in those days. It was on my 5th birthday, unfortunately, but I had my presents brought in: one was a double-barreled pop-gun
which fired corks; the other a Dan Dare telescope (DD was the main man in the Eagle comic). The lens dropped out and I dropped out of my 'cot' trying to reach it on the hard marble floor, and landed on my head. I was knocked out for a while, but despite that being 60 years ago, I found that I'd retained a very clear image of the nurses staring down at me on the floor.

I suppose the pop-gun was a more successful present, laying the foundations for my successful career as a sniper and international assassin. You may remember that the investigating team were puzzled at finding so many corks at the site of the Bin Laden shooting. I'm saying nothing.

Thursday, 22 October 2015



                                                     This little boy sat down to write
                                                      'The story of my life'.
                                                      He was nine years old,
                                                       It was rather a short book.
                                                      Actually just a page.

    60 years later this man's autobiography is
    225 pages long, and is called FESS. The
    difference between the boy's page and
    the man's book is a lifetime's experience.
    This blog is a taster. If you read it and decide
    to write your own version, it will be one of
    the great experiences of your life: trust me.

I've gone through my life thinking that I had a 'bad memory': terrible problems with examination revision, never able to remember song lyrics, even confusing my two daughters' names from time to time. Being introduced to people at parties was a joke, their names were gone before the end of the sentence.

So you might think I wasn't ideal material for writing an autobiography. What would I write about if I couldn't recall anything? Wrong! When I came to do it, the almost miraculous part of the whole thing was the vast amount of material which came back to me, the clarity and vividness of the images and the very strong emotions that they conjured up.

How? Well I don't want to sound like one of those small ads in the papers: 'How to improve your memory in 7 easy lessons you can do at home, at $19.95 plus p&p'.  This is easier than that, and free. There isn't a formula, or a list of instructions.  Just start with one memory that you know you do have, as far back in your life as possible.

When you try and remember something there is often a block. Sometimes it feels like the effort of remembering is the block: you're sure the memory is there, you just can't retrieve it. So you give up, think of something else and then it pops into your head: like it was outside and waited till you were looking the other way to slip back in. So you did have it, but you didn't have the key to the library door, or a catalogue of the contents to locate that shelf on that aisle of the memory store.

The secret is association: thinking about things around the 'forgotten' memory, in a relaxed way, and sooner or later the answer appears. After that it's simple. Once you've started writing about a particular time or incident in your life, your mind will generate many, many associations without trying, whether it's people places or events: memorable people, important conversations, dramatic events, school friends, holidays, rows with parents, first partners, films and their stars, great music (play it, you'll love it and you'll remember who you were snogging the last time you heard it) and so on, to infinity. It's not a labour to remember your life this way it's a delight. And the words just roll out effortlessly, and it's hard stop them, for sleep.

You don't have to be a great writer; in fact, setting yourself up as
A Writer can be paralysing, and send your friends into convulsions.
I didn't set  out to write a book. All I did was write a few short pieces, some recollections of childhood, and put them up on Facebook and tumblr. The beauty of this is that you get instant feedback and when I found that people were really enthusiastic about the work I was encouraged to write more. When I had 25 of them I realised that I wanted to do something with it, and the  idea of an autobiography occurred to me - but not the really tedious kind that lists every possible detail of the person's life, rather an episodic one, just constructed around the good, bad, funny and merely interesting things which had happened in my life, which was what I had already been doing.I finished up with over 100 pieces, culled down to 70 on the advice of a publishing person. It was a great deal of hard work over a period of 15 months but probably the most enjoyable hard work I've ever done. Uncovering all those old memories, re-experiencing them, meeting up again with all those people: the whole thing was a blast, an undiluted pleasure from start to finish.

When I started to write FESS I thought it might work to look through some old photograph albums I had inherited from my parents. In a rather tired brown envelope I found a remarkable shot which became the icon for the very first piece I wrote. I'm pasting the piece in here just to give flavour of the book. It depicts me (the one with the dodgy legs) and Susan C, the May Queen (the one with almost white hair, finespun like candyfloss; I remember her skin was almost translucent, like an old lady or possibly an alien),


Where on earth, you may be wondering, did I cross paths with the diminutive songster from Minneapolis, the one with the moustache that was less visible than my grandmother’s? Well, it never happened: but I was Prince-for-a-day at St. James Infant School, Chase Road, Southgate.

I have virtually nil recall of my time at St. James. I do remember gathering bluebells with my parents, one weekend in a wood out in Hertfordshire, giving a huge bunch to my teacher, and then seeing them later that day in the staffroom waste bin. Hard to say whether this affected my subsequent attitude towards women or not. And I also remember the classrooms having very high windows so that you couldn’t see out, or others see in. But the main memory, the episode which haunts me to this day was a bizarre concatenation of patriotism, monarchism, pagan rites and Marxism-Leninism, when the school decided to mark May Day and the Queen’s coronation with a pageant.

It starred the May Queen, SC, who was the automatic choice because she was a beautiful little thing, delicate, pretty, modest, scrupulously well-behaved and therefore absolutely guaranteed not to say ‘oh shit’ if she dropped her posy. Let the Palmers Green and Southgate Gazette court correspondent complete the picture:  “The Queen was ably escorted by her gallant Prince, David Milner (7)”.  The accompanying picture (quite large and probably displacing several W.I. reports and the Mayor’s Musings, a page I always turned to first) showed Susan looking so stunning that it might have accelerated my adolescence, had I not been more interested in my Hornby OO-scale train set than torrid sex.  
If I had followed this order of priority through life it might have all turned out a lot better. Anyway, there she was, in her filmy fairylike dress, her hair garlanded with paper flowers, stepping out on the arm of this funny little fellow in white shoes, white socks, white shorts and shirt, plus a huge rosette on the chest, looking ever so much like a target for a firing squad. But why on earth was he wearing a satellite dish on either side of his head, in an eerie anticipation of today? Ears: they were his ears.
 The final touch of humiliation, the coup de grace, had been applied by my Mum. Tiring of wetting and coaxing his hair into a suitably regal style and running out of time she had improvised a solution to the fly-away bits. Of course, why didn’t we think of it before – a hair-grip! Assured that it wouldn’t show, and aware of a 7 year-old’s lack of sanctions, the condemned boy was marched off to the scaffold. I believe this was the only truly cruel thing my Mum ever did to me. In a way she was fortunate: today’s sensibilities would have dictated that the visible hair-grip on a boy constituted child abuse under any contemporary penal code. I’m sure nobody noticed. I’m sure it was just a trick of the light that it shone out of the PG&SG’s photograph like a beacon. One thing is certain, though: if there had been thunder and lightning, I would not be alive now to tell this tale.

Did I mention the speech? I had to give a speech. I was allowed to read it, which I did with all the passion of a second iteration of the football results. It was my first acquaintance with public speaking and I felt it went quite well, really. I had thought of a good beginning; I took a deep breath, gulped twice and squeaked “I have a dream……..” And I got a kind of mobile standing ovation at the end. There was a whisper of applause, then everybody rose to me and scampered off to get their cars from the little playground car park.  What a day.

About me

Professor of Social Psychology, who retired early in order to do something else: writing a novel, Black and Blue, (which has yet to find a publisher), and an autobiography, FESS which is self-published (Amazon ebooks or from In FESS I have found what I will be happy to do for the rest of my life: writing stuff. I have been married twice but have not yet found the key to this peculiar institution. I am still auditioning people for the role of 'my partner', but it may be that my age (102) is some kind of deterrent , as the tsunami of applicants has become more like a dripping tap. I may become bi-sexual in order to increase the target group. I have two creative, intelligent and beautiful daughters, and two stepsons, one of whom is a leading mountain biker and journalist, the other is a white rapper. Check my website: