xxxviii

My mum, and no doubt a lot of her generation, were keen to see their children achieve in qualifications – to succeed in terms of recognisable and bankable entries on a CV – because the world we’re surrounded by isn’t run by people with time or inclination to figure out if you’re good enough for the purpose they require. They want to see straightforward proof.

So GCSEs, A-Levels, work experience, degree courses and professional qualifications. Jobs with salaries and contracts. Recognisable skills and desired attributes. Once these things were filled, other pursuits could come into consideration, other aspirations. But what was important that you had, as the phrase goes, “Something to fall back onto”.

Obviously it’s an approach which comes out of the concern, the care, the love that someone has for their child, their desire to see that child grow up sound and successful, to see them happy and avoid traumas, avoid unemployment and to ensure that if all else fails, they at least will have the capability to survive and go on with their lives.

But, personally, I remember being told that I could act in my spare time if I wanted, that if I wanted to be an actor it was a hard life, it didn’t matter how good you were, it was a lot of luck and there were some incredible actors out there who never earned a lot of money and had to do all sorts of other things to survive. All sensible advice. But not very inspiring.

Mainly, I remember being told that all those other things, those qualifications, were important so I would have something to fall back on. And as much as this too was sensible, all I feel it ever said to me was that I wasn’t good enough, that I’d amount to a hobbyist, that attempting to be an actor was a pursuit that would end in failure. That I would be a failure without all those pieces of paper to rely on.

I can’t remember now if I ever talked about writing with my mother. I did often talk about acting, and it was acting that I pursued far more through my teens – at school, out of school, finally at university. I wanted to be an actor incredibly badly, and I was good, though I recognise now that I don’t really have that special talent which would have made people sit up and notice. So, in honesty, the advice was sensible. It was sound.

Sensible and sound. Two increasingly boring words which plague me even now, when my better half has an idea that I cull with one swoop of my ‘sensible’ and ‘sound’ concerns and thoughts. But could we afford it? But could we afford it? But could we afford it? Is it too big for us? Is it too fanciful? All sensible, of course, but not a single moment of it human, honest, positive or alive. This sort of sense is dead, weak and reeks of fear.

That I’ve only recently even accepted myself the idea of being a writer, of pursuing the life of a writer, illustrates how deeply ingrained this sensible approach is inside me. And I don’t blame my parents for wanting to make sure I didn’t race off into an ill-thought career choice – which, as it happens, acting may well have been. If I’m brutally honest, however, I don’t believe that things would have been different had I talked about writing earlier.

Perhaps acting was an easier thing to propose, because I knew that it wasn’t my true aspiration, merely a form of it. Writing and acting for me at least share a lot of ground, and acting was far easier to pursue given the structure there is around it – school classes, after school clubs, societies… But having any ambition in acting cut down meant I was always unlikely to talk then about wanting to be a writer, in many ways an even harder pursuit.

My mum once bought me a very expensive, glorious set of Caran D’ache art pencils, a big tin slab of coloured pencils with a beautifully drawn tropical scene on the front. I loved the scene, loved that she’d bought them for me. But I was never meant to be an artist. I don’t have the eye or the hand, and that lovely gift never got the use it deserved. I feel a bit bad for that. But I wonder why she bought me a gift that clearly outclassed my ability.

Whether I always hid my writing like I hid my feelings in my diaries, learning a code so perfectly by heart that I could write and read entire passages without much thought, whether I hid writing that I did from a young age and on into my adolescence, I don’t know. Writing isn’t a showy process, unlike the plays and performances my friends, siblings and I put on for our parents.

It’s hard to expect my parents to have known that I wanted to be a writer when I didn’t appear to, or didn’t fully understand that desire myself, especially when I can’t ever remember talking about it as earnestly as I talked about acting. And yet I did talk about writing, about wanting to write, though as I now recall this I also remember that it was turned into a sensible conversation about what job (read: not A Writer) would suit that desire.

So I went to university and did English with Computing, having spent a year deciding that since I had been playing war games and video games for the last decade I would love to be a videogames journalist. That wasn’t exactly a sensible route, one with guaranteed success or even access, but I did get there, and it was very good for me – as well as being very bad for me in some ways. But I feel it separated me from the process I’ve been going through, that acceptance that I’m a writer, not a journalist. A writer, and I aspire to write.

Was that even a defiance? A response to the sensible advice? In 1990 I think I wanted to be a policeman – something I was considering again in 1998 if I didn’t get into university. I remember lots of school days at that age and before, lots of pranks and disappointments, lots of friends and fights. I remember the carpet in the middle classroom. The tree in the playground. I remember ‘Daleks’ being banned as a game at school because of accidents.

I remember a policeman coming to school, driving us around the playground in the car. I guess that’s where my policeman thing comes from. How tall he was. His car was so clean, and it driving around the playground changed the playground, made it smaller, brought the world into the school, made the school smaller. Later I wanted to be a detective, basically wanted to be Inspector Morse. But now I can see that car looping so clearly it must have left an impression.

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About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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