Caretakers, spies, jockeys and journos – that’s what novelists are made of

'Hi-ho! Hi-ho! It's off to work we go!' Image: Pixabay

‘Hi-ho! Hi-ho! It’s off to work we go!’
Image: Pixabay

Ever fancied slipping into an alternate career?

Something out of the norm. Something different.

You could become a lion tamer – if there is such a thing anymore – or a gold prospector in South Africa. Maybe you’ve a yearning to dig up the tombs of the Pharoahs in the Valley of the Kings or hunt for new species of invertebrates in the sticky depths of the Amazon (The jungle, not the online retailer. No one should ever explore Amazon’s sticky depths.)

I have a few ideas for myself:

*Secret shopper at the world’s most glamorous 6 star hotels (warm locations only, please.)

*Professional ‘IT’ Girl (not entirely sure what and ‘IT’ Girl is – and at my age, I’d probably have to be the world’s first ‘IT’ Woman – but it seems to involve wearing designer clothes, posing for paparazzi and falling out of exclusive London nightclubs in the early hours, off your face but still looking totally gorgeous. I’ll give it a go.)

*Oh, and chocolate taster (Obvs.)

Of course, the sensible answer for my alternative career is author.  Although this might seem a switch for someone who goes home at the end of a working day smelling of eucalyptus leaves and mouldy water, moving from florist and previous ladies undergarment salesperson to writer isn’t that much of a stretch. Compare it to how some well-known literary names earned money before Lady Success came calling …

Ian Fleming, author of the rather successful Bond books was in Naval Intelligence during the Second World War. He was involved in the planning of Operation Goldeneye. Goldeneyes was also the name of his house in Jamaica. Now, where have I heard that word before

Before discovering The Discworld, Terry Pratchett started his career as a journalist on local newspapers (journalism being very popular with budding novelists) but became Press Officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board (a body that controlled the production and supply of electricity) for 7 years.

Dick Frances, author of 40 bestselling thrillers based around racecourses and horse training, was a steeplechase jockey who won over 350 races and rode for the Queen and the Queen Mother.

Charles Dickens was also a journalist as a young man but his first job at the age of 12 was pasting labels on jars in a blacking factory, something he was forced into when his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison.

J. K. Rowling, worked for Amnesty International, the Chamber of Commerce and in Portugal, teaching English as a foreign language before finding success with her Harry Potter books.

John Steinbeck, was an apprentice painter, fruit picker, caretaker and a construction worker at Madison Square Garden before he found success.

Stephen King was a caretaker in a high school whilst writing in his spare time. According to Writers’ Digest, this period of his life inspired the oh-so memorable opening scenes of Carrie.

But the final word goes to William Faulkner, who worked (by all accounts badly) as Post Master at the University of Mississippi. He displayed his mastery of the written word in his resignation note.

As long as I live under the capitalist system I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.

If you’re a budding author, what interesting past careers would you be able to include in your biog?


How to be an escape artist


Drape me with chains, secure me in handcuffs until they chaff, wrap yards of rope around me so I look like I’m wearing a hemp boob tube*. Tie me up, blindfold me, gag me – though I’d prefer a freshly laundered hanky, please, because I’m not keen on having a mouthful of your crusty old snot.

Now, I can feel you shifting uncomfortably in your seat, nervously eyeing the door, wondering if we’re straying into Fifty Shades territory here. Don’t fret, my dears. I don’t want you to spank me. That’s not my bag. I’m the kind of prude who feels embarrassed merely walking past an Ann Summers shop and have never so much as looked in the window at the flimsies, let alone crossed the threshold to buy any. Apart from the fact that I find the phrase ‘crotch-less’ about as sexy as eye surgery, I fear electrocution from the static build-up caused by the acres of polyester and nylon inside.

Anyhoo, I digress.

My call for bondage was merely to demonstrate a secret I’ve been hiding for years. You see, while on the surface I look like a writer-wannabe, a florist, middle-aged mum in a misshapen jumper and massive slippers, what I actually am is an ESCAPE ARTIST.

I remember using my skills on long coach journeys from Derbyshire to Victoria Station in London. This was back in the day when the National Express coach was not a reasonably priced convenient way to travel, but a cramped trial by bladder, a form of medieval torture transported to mid-twentieth century England – on wheels.

When my brother and I first started taking the trip regularly the coaches had no loos, they would merely make one fifteen minute stop at an outpost of Purgatory commonly called a Motorway Service Station. After locating the toilet and queueing, you were lucky to have the time to shake before a 100-metre dash across the carpark, skirt tucked in knickers, loo roll trailing from your shoes like pee-stained streamers.  It was that or risk desertion and having to start a new, feral life befriending the local foxes and scrumping chips from the bins.

Now, I was a kid with the weakest of bladders. A thimbleful of Kia-Ora would send me galloping for the nearest lavvy or bush. So when a moment of desperation struck and the nearest loo was still six junctions away, or when I was bored of watching the kids opposite sampling the contents of the ashtray. . .

I would vanish.

I would climb through the hatch in my head and I would wander. As a teenage girl my imagined journeys were usually set in the distant past and involved darkly handsome young men, often wearing breeches and riding boots, always windswept, sometimes standing on a moor.

These young men were very macho whilst still gorgeous in a John-Taylor-from-Duran-Duran sort of way. They’d have the kind of unhinged passion for me and the contents of my corset that as a woman of mature years would have me hoisting up my petticoats, legging it across said moors and barricading myself inside the nearest shepherd’s hut until the local constabulary had carted my beau away to somewhere small and padded.

Being an ESCAPE ARTIST has prevented me from going bonkers over the years, I’m sure, and I still do it now. What else is writing, but an escape into other worlds and other heads?

And along the way, I can explore different sides of myself. The repressed bitch, the brave adventurer, the self-confident go-getter. And even the me that rather enjoyed being hunted down by a deranged, tousle haired, horny man with amazing cheekbones who looked fabulous in jodhpurs.

*Boob tube: not the American meaning (a TV set) but the Brit one, in other words an elasticated top – or instrument of torture, as I prefer to think of it. It has no straps, but rows of very fine elastic as its only means of staying in place. You spend all your time yanking it skywards so as not to expose your puppies to the neighbours, and once you take it off, said breasts are tattooed with lines as if someone’s tried to push your chest through one of those wire egg-cutters you see advertised in magazine supplements.

Books in the Blood #3 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe


I’ve always loved fantasy.

I don’t just mean sword and sorcery, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. What I really love is when fantasy and reality weave together so you don’t know where the frozen fish aisle in Asda ends and the Yellow Brick Road to Oz begins.

I never wanted to read books based in the real world, unless they’re set at least a hundred years ago and everyone in it was wearing breeches or petticoats and either giggling behind fans or pooing in the street.

If you have the patience to stick with this thread – and I’ll endeavour to make it entertaining enough that you will – you’ll see what I yearned for most as a kid was ESCAPISM*. When I was young, the Berlin Wall was still up, the Cold War was still many degrees below zero and nuclear threat was very much a real and present danger.

I remember the delightful Protect and Survive pamphlet plopping through our letterbox, a piece of light reading that shared the comforting knowledge that you can make a bomb shelter from one of your interior doors. If I remember, you had to prop the door against the wall to form a prism-shaped cavity to hide in – wood panelling and gloss paint being renowned protection against a nuclear blast and subsequent fallout.

From Sting’s Russians, Frankie’s Two Tribes and Raymond Briggs’ wonderfully terrifying When the Wind Blows, nuclear Armageddon seeped into popular culture as a kind of morbid entertainment, there to distract us all from the horrors of jelly-bean shoes and Kajagoogoo. I was convinced I wouldn’t make it out of my teens before my hair and teeth were dropping out from radiation sickness whilst the Queen and Margaret Thatcher ate tinned peaches and played backgammon in their bunker under Whitehall.

The worst for me was Threads (think a typically pessimistic English version of The Day After), a TV programme based around a nuclear strike on Sheffield. The theory was that the Russians, overcome with jealousy over the northern town’s steel making heritage, wanted to finish off Sean Bean before he could wear a breastplate and cut through Orcs with his Yorkshire accent (I know, he killed them with his sword, not his accent, but he’s a talented guy, I bet he could if he tried).

Okay, you got me, the Russians in the film were supposedly aiming for a NATO base, not a young Sean Bean, but the fallout was the same. The programme showed Sheffield turned to a wasteland and the people of Buxton in Derbyshire (where I lived at the time) dying slowly, horribly, starving to death as bits of them rotted and fell off.

Is it any wonder I retreated into fantasy?

One book in the genre that I loved was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S.Lewis.

Filled with fauns, talking lions, Turkish delight and Ice Queens, it ticked every magical box for me. A wondrous Otherworld you can reach just by walking into a wardrobe? Check. A snow-covered landscape where it’s always winter but never Christmas? Check. Mythical creatures that serve afternoon tea and cake before crackling open fires? Check. It was every plump daydreamer’s idyll.

Years later, I’d feel cheated when I discovered Aslan and his journey from freedom fighter through self-sacrificial hero to resurrected figurehead was a way to teach the story of Christ to young children (I like my magic pagan) but you can’t deny the strength of Lewis’s imagination and his storytelling powers.

*Environmental catastrophe, austerity, religious extremism, global terrorism. . . Thank goodness for George R.R. Martin’s Westeros – a modern day Narnia and Great Escape.