In the car, on the hoof, in the boardroom – for years I lived a double life, working in the world of property-selling by day, writing books by night.
It meant that when most people were heading for the TV or a wine bar after a day’s work, I was pounding an elderly typewriter on the end of the dining table, with Mozart on the stereo and a framed photograph of a Victorian actor-manager called Sir John Martin Harvey in direct sightline on the wall – one of those soulful young men with black hair that needs cutting and an alluring line in dishevelled Edwardian evening dress. (Think Laurence Llewelyn Bowen after a night on the tiles). Over the years Sir John has assumed quite a number of incarnations in my books, in fact my brother always has to identify him in the cast of characters as a sort of compass point of reference. It gives him his bearings, he says, and then he can relax and read on.
Anyway, what with writing books, and what with Sir John and Mozart, I used to arrive at the office each morning, pink-eyed from lack of sleep, consequently earning a (wholly undeserved) reputation for leading a rather colourful private life. The writing, you see, was something I kept firmly in the dark. For one thing, the Chairman required complete allegiance from his employees, to an almost Faustian degree. (“Here’s your contract of employment, my dear, you’ll see that Clause Two forbids you to have a life outside the company, not that you’ll have time for one anyway…”)
And for another thing, it’s not easy to win clients’ confidence – or inspect their woodworm – if they know you spend your evenings raising the undead or wreaking vengeance on vampires. (This was my dark horror period, you understand).
Then I discovered I could actually write quite an amount during the normal course of a conventional working day. If I was asked by a client to find a house of “around the 13th century, with ten bedrooms, five reception, an inglenook where Lady Hamilton was seduced, an oak tree where Charles 11 hid from Cromwell, and a master bedroom where Elizabeth 1 and William Shakespeare slept, (although not necessarily together),” it sparked off an historical saga. If somebody’s great-uncle flashed at me when I was inspecting the downstairs loo, there was a sub-plot for a steamy bodice-ripper.
I used to dive back into the car and record the ideas on a small dictaphone before I forgot them. It’s my belief that many a good plot has been lost because the author fell asleep/reached the check-out in the supermarket/had to drive on when the traffic lights turned green. So I always keep a dictaphone to hand. If nothing else it makes for a rather outré accessory and you can always stick a Louis Vuitton label on it.
After a while I mastered the art of keeping these tapes separate from the official ones describing three bed semis or desirable building plots, although there may have been one or two that slipped through the net.
But actually, during those years I suspect I could have written the best fiction of all in the boardroom. A surprising amount of work can be done while the finance director’s presenting the quarterly reports: whole chapters can be re-sequenced between one set of extrapolated figures and the next, and during the Chairman’s summing-up any notes made on how the current murderer gets away with the third killing, can appear to be diligent, if sycophantic, aides-mémoire, immortalising the old boy’s pearls of wisdom.
In fact, there’s a strange feeling of what I can only call connection in writing the old-fashioned way – pen to paper. As if the contact with the page and the words on it creates a link between the mind and the story. Characters fashioned in biro.
But clearly the double life couldn’t go on indefinitely. I was beginning to feel the strain, and by that time the books were becoming more widely read. Deadlines had to be met. Also, (this was more important), the dining table was starting to show signs of giving up the ghost. Entertaining was quite difficult, since it was necessary for guests to burrow under piles of heavily annotated manuscript in order to find the pepper mill when they came to dinner. To compound the felony, the typewriter, with the rebellious abandon of old age, developed an amiable habit of creating a fantasy world of its own by switching, unprompted, to its in-built foreign print wheel, so that at the end of a chapter I found I had typed six pages in Cyrillic script without realising it.
So I stole furtively into the nearest office suppliers to make polite enquiries about the purchase of a new machine, only to be greeted with hilarity. Nobody used typewriters any longer, it seemed. Everyone used word processors. Indeed, said the (extremely young) salesman, speaking in the indulgent tone of one contemplating a lost culture, he did not really know where a typewriter might be bought any longer.
I stomped crossly along the street and into a large electrical shop with an exuberant line in advertising, and ended in contributing to Sir Alan Sugar’s empire by investing in one of his ‘idiot-proof’ computers. You remember them, perhaps? An all-in-one machine, quite reasonably priced, with a black and white monitor, a neat little keyboard and a clattery printer. It was a good move, (thank you, Sir Alan, may your shadow never grow bulkier or your apprentices deceive you), although when the machine was unpacked and spread out it looked as if I would have to buy a new dining table of the size known to the furniture retail trade as ‘small banquet’. Eventually, though, the printer was housed in the kitchen, which made for a perfectly acceptable arrangement as long as people remembered the cable was there and didn’t trip over it on the way to the washing machine. Entertaining at that period, dwindled to buffet suppers, served from the kitchen.
The redundancy, when it came in the ‘bust’ part of the ‘boom and bust’ era, was rather a relief. No more furtively scribbled plots on the back of budget reports. No more listening with rapt attention to the saga of a client’s battle against dry rot, or how the floor joists collapsed under granny on Christmas Eve, and at the same time trying to work out how the hero was going to escape from the arch-villain in Chapter Five. No more discussing how best to market an over-priced decaying Victorian mansion, with rising damp, a leaking roof, and the plans for a four-lane motorway through the back garden, while simultaneously wondering if five murders in two chapters was overdoing it. (I should say here, that I love houses – all houses. I love their memories and their histories and their atmospheres and their quirks. I just couldn’t cope any longer with selling them by day and writing books by night).
On the first day of self-employment, I toured the flat to see if there were any unused corners I had overlooked – somewhere that might be turned into a real study. The attic seemed a good possibility and conjured up pleasing images of romantic eighteenth century poets starving in garrets. I was all set to buy a skull as a paperweight when a practical-minded friend pointed out that at its highest point the attic was exactly four and a half feet deep. He was right; I went up there and measured. I would, he said kindly, have to work lying down, or in one of those peculiar and painful positions reminiscent of medieval torture cages. And had I given any thought to the lack of electricity up there? Well, no, I had not.
So, all right, the attic was a wash-out. How about re-vamping the airing cupboard. It’s a surprisingly large and deep airing cupboard in my flat and the re-siting of the water tanks was surely a mere triviality. They could go somewhere else – the attic, perhaps? I was quite keen on this idea, which might even provide a bit of offbeat publicity. ‘This is the author who writes her books in the airing cupboard.’ But then the thought of all the pipes that would have to remain in there, chugging and glugging away to themselves, was too sinister to contemplate. Also, an extremely large spider had been sighted in a corner of the airing cupboard last summer and never been successfully routed. I am the original spider-phobic and I would spend most of the working day looking nervously into corners. So the airing cupboard was a wash-out as well.
How about a corner of a bedroom? It would not be as romantic as a garret or as pleasantly eccentric as an airing cupboard, but it looked like a much better prospect. More comfortable and with electricity. And it was actually a very big corner indeed. With a lick of paint and the transferring of some bookshelves from the sitting room it might work rather well. The discarding of one or two wardrobes was of no account – people have too many clothes anyway. I bought a second stereo so that Mozart could be played, and knocked a few nails in the wall for Sir John to be within nodding distance. I even tracked down a couple more prints of him so he could be put on both sides of the computer. Stereophonic, so to speak. (In one photo, he’s portraying the all-time romantic anti-hero, Sydney Carton, in his own stage version of A Tale of Two Cities.)
But the real prize was when the same practical-minded friend who had vetoed the attic project, built a desk – actually a proper mahogany working desk, beautifully designed, deep enough to sprawl across during the agonies of Chapter Four block, and wide enough to strew floppy disks – later CDs and flash-drives – around. There are tailor-made slots for the computer tower and the printer, an inset green leather area which looks very posh indeed, (at least it did until red wine got spilt on it), and natty little drawers for pens and paper clips. He even had a little plaque made with the date and my name on it.
The Amstrad computer has long since been replaced, of course, and the dining table has been reclaimed for its proper purpose. People can come to dinner again without finding paper clips in the pudding or notes for Chapter Ten in the napkins.
The desk itself is strong enough to last for a couple of lifetimes and sturdy enough on which to write War and Peace ten times over. If I look to my left there’s a view of trees and fields through the window, and around dusk an owl emerges from the foliage of a large oak, surveys its realm in lordly fashion for a few moments, then silently glides across the sky. Lovely.
Best of all, I still have those twin inspirations at hand: Mozart on the stereo and Sir John Martin Harvey on the wall.