Thanks for taking time out to answer a few questions Kevin. So, you're a Mancunian?
Yes, I grew up on a council estate in Manchester in the 1950s. When I was about 13 though, my Dad changed his job and became a pub licensee, we then lived above pubs in various parts of the West Midlands. I had wonderful parents who encouraged me, my brother and my sister to develop our own talents. Once they realised my aptitude for reading and writing, they encouraged me - even though they themselves were not great readers. For birthdays and Christmas I would get books, often ones I had asked for and, when living in Manchester, was allowed to go to the city's Central Library on my own. They also bought me a portable typewriter, one of the best gifts I have ever received. Of course, growing up – particularly during my teenage years – I didn't realise how lucky I was.
I was an altar boy for several years in Manchester, and used to serve at Mass, not just on Sundays but also on weekdays and at weddings and funerals, and at one stage I even thought I might have had a vocation to be a Catholic priest.
However, as a child I was small, shy, introverted, and I was bullied a bit at school; I was considered to be weedy. I didn't really like school and failed my 11+, and when I left school at the age of sixteen, I did so without any exam passes. This was partly my own fault; I read and studied what I wanted, not what was required by the schools! But it probably wasn't helped by the bullying, nor by the fact that I went to several different schools because of my family moving about a bit.
Were there things growing up that still influence your writing now?
Yes. I believe that everything we experience influences everything we do and think later. Even though I may not be able to identify the influence of specific events, it is inevitable that those events have had an influence on me as a person, and therefore on my writing and I would highlight growing up gay in a Catholic working class environment as continuing to influence me. Although I left the Church for a while back in the 1990s, I returned, and it was like coming home after a long absence. Catholicism provided me with a moral framework, one that I took with me in the years I was a lapsed Catholic. My working class background was influential in me becoming a socialist, and my socialism reinforced the moral codes I got from my Catholicism. My sexuality helped me develop an awareness of difference and an understanding of what it feels like to be treated as inferior. All of this continues to influence my writing, though not necessarily in a simple linear way.
Can you remember writing down your first structured words at school?
No. I can remember enjoying reading and enjoying writing from a very, very young age, but I can't remember much about the process of learning.
So you had a real love of words though back then?
Oh yes! I loved words more than anything else. For me, words were the most important and powerful things in the world, and I still feel that way. One of the silliest of many silly cliches is “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Words are much more powerful than sticks or stones or knives or guns. Bulwer-Lytton's famous statement; “the pen is mightier than the sword” is more accurate (and similar statements are found in the Qu'ran, the Bible and in Ancient Greece). Words don't just describe things: words can create or change reality. Words can start wars and only words can end wars. In democracies, it is words that help us decide who to vote for, who governs us. Using pejorative words about people can damage those people and can affect the way we see such people. Words are so powerful they should be used with care and treated with respect. Bullies and bigots know exactly what they are doing when they use words to hurt others.
In my writing I attempt to find exactly the right word or phrase to create the images I am looking for. I spend a lot of time editing my work, in an attempt to achieve this. I don't always succeed, of course – not even the greatest of writers do, but I like to think I continue to get better at doing so. Some people have called me pedantic. If by that they mean I think it is important to find exactly the right word or phrase in any given situation, then I plead guilty!
Did you go to university?
Yes, but as a mature student. I left school without any exam passes and for several years worked in a variety of manual jobs in factories and behind bars. I found time to write, and always had pen, paper and book with me (as I still do). I got involved in politics and in trade unions. It was through political activity that I got to know a man who had been a factory worker but became a teacher. He had gone to night school to get the A levels necessary and then gone to university. We became close friends, and for a while I lived with him and his wife and children. He kept nagging away at me, telling me I was too intelligent to spend the rest of my life in unskilled dead end jobs. Eventually, he wore me down and I got my A levels and then applied for university. In those days it was a bit easier, in that all university students got maintenance grants and had their fees paid, and mature students got a slightly higher grant. That was 1976. I went to Warwick University, which offered places to lots of mature students, and studied Philosophy and Sociology. I got a 2.1 honours degree.
Is writing your full time job?
No. I've never earned enough to write full-time, though that is probably partly because I prioritised other things (including earning a living). I've always found time to write, but probably not enough time. Life got in the way, but now I'm now retired, and I spend most of my days writing.
Tell me about your very first writing engagement.
If by “first writing engagement” you mean either the first time I was published or performed, then that would be in a school magazine and then in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I had poetry published in a few small circulation magazines. I also read my poetry in public whenever and wherever I could. In 1971, along with some other members of Birmingham Poetry Centre, I appeared on BBC 2 reading poetry.
Tell me about the projects you are working on at the moment.
Although poetry was my first love, and I've had work published in various outlets over the years, some years ago I decided that my poetry was never going to be more than adequate, and my skills really lay in fiction and so, for the past five years, I have concentrated on prose, though I do write the occasional poem. I'm currently working on a novel. I don't want to give away too much about its plot, but I can say it takes place in 1970s in Birmingham and the Scottish Highlands, and tells the story of a close friendship between a young closetted gay man and a female prostitute. I am also currently regularly writing for two outlets and write monthly book reviews for the Highland magazine Am Bratach. I also write regularly for the Highland LGBT digital magazine UnDividingLines, which comes out twice a year. I have contributed fiction, poetry, reviews and essays and I have a regular column called Views From the Crowe's Nest where I can write what I want, within reason. For the next issue, I will be interviewing clergy from the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church (the Scottish arm of Anglicanism), in the light of both these denominations now agreeing their clergy can conduct same sex marriages. I will also be doing a feature on the problems faced by LGBT asylum seekers and refugees (sadly, many are sent back to their country of origin where they face persecution, because the Home Office refuses to accept they are gay or lesbian, and asks for proof), and this will include a short story exploring the issue. I will also be reviewing Peter Ackroyd's latest book Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day.
I am also busy as ever writing and submitting work to as many outlets as possible, sometimes successfully, a lot of the time not.
What really inspires you?
Inspiration is the easy bit. Everywhere I look, everything I hear, everything I experience; from the mundane to the exceptional are sources of inspiration. Anything from a line in a popular TV programme to watching birds quarrelling round our bird table, to major news item,s to dreams, to dinner table conversations: in fact, anything and everything. The real work begins when attempting to do something with that inspiration.
What is the process of transforming that initial moment of inspiration, or idea, into actual words on paper?
Hard work. The first thing I do is to try and find a way into the idea. Stories and poems don't come fully formed. Often my stories come out of 'what if' moments.
Do you have any particular writing location?
It used to be wherever my typewriter was. These days, I do most of my writing sat in front of my desktop computer, normally with music on. When we're on holiday, I sometimes use Simon's laptop. And I always have pen and paper with me, so I can note down any ideas or phrases that come to me.
What are your plans for the future?
In a sentence; to keep writing. I want to see more of my work published, but that can only happen by writing and by sending work off to various outlets. I want to continue to improve, continue to learn, continue to get better.
Name your three most favourite books and why?
This is the most difficult question you have asked. How can I condense all those wonderful books and writers, all those great novelists, poets, short story writers, essayists, philosophers into just three books. At least on Desert Island Discs, we get eight choices! Here goes:
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.
This is the easiest one: my favourite novel by my favourite novelist. Like much of Dickens, we see society from the wealthiest and most powerful to the poorest and most oppressed, in both urban and rural settings. The novel takes us into the depths of prison and the black heart of factory work. It takes us into the homes of the poor and the rich, into schools where discipline and the stiff upper lip are more important than education. It takes from the city to the coast. We see the way the most vulnerable are misused, abused and then discarded. We see the ways that families can come together and break up. The hypocrisy and savagery just below the surface veneer of civilisation is revealed on page after page. We read of wrong paths taken, sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately. We revel in the final exorcism of evil. I'm not saying Dickens is the greatest novelist ever, but he is the best one I have come across thus far.
Collected Poems (or Complete Poems) by William Blake.
Another great writer I came across when I was very young. The first of his poems I remember reading was The Tyger. I can't claim to have understood it when I first read it: what attracted me initially were the heavy foot-stomping rhythms and the atmosphere of awe and danger. They are among the most profound poetry ever written, examining in a few short words what philosophers, theologians, politicians and social reformers continue to argue about.
Mates by Tom Wakefield.
This deceptively simple novel tells of a love affair between two ordinary people - one a teacher, the other a wages clerk – from their first meeting in the 1954 to the death of one of them in 1981. What makes these two people different is they are both men. They met and fell in love doing National Service and afterwards set up home together, despite their love being a criminal offence. Mates was published in 1983, shortly before I came out. The novel spoke to me.
What does writing mean to you?
Writing provides meaning in my life. Some people sing or play an instrument. Some paint or draw. Some make things. Others find meaning in playing sport. I can't do any of these things but I can write, and it is writing that provides me with my feelings of self-worth. There is only one thing in my life more important than writing, and that is my relationship with Simon. The two go hand in hand. Since meeting Simon both the quantity and quality of my writing has improved out of all proportion. I can't imagine life without either.
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