My Life and Welcome To It
It's 2016 now, but my story started on April Fool's Day 1957. I was born in the Victoria Maternity Hospital, Barnet, Hertfordshire on April Fool's Day 1957, thus becoming the only member of my family to come into the world outside London. (By about a mile) My father was a detective in the 'Met' - London's elite metropolitan police force. (Chief Det. Superintendant Brian B Kelly), and a former Army Commando, who had served in the Second World war. My mother's father was a JP and a special constable, and was 75 when she was born. (It is sobering to think that on his birthday there was still a French king ! When the First World War broke out he had a good excuse for not volunteering - as he was over 70 !) Too old for the war he had, however, seen action under Winston Churchhill - as a constable at the Seige of Sidney Street in 1911, the ill-fated mass call-up of London's police and the Scots Guards to deal with anarchists who had planned to blow up the king. Church hill, then Home Secretary, was widely seen as having over-reacted, and certainly looked a fool. Anyway - I've made my point. My father was a copper, and so was my grandfather. And these roots back into the early 20th century, and indeed into the 19th, were the basis for a lifetime's fascination with history.
I went to Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School, and Finchley Catholic Grammar School. We moved from a flat overlooking the North Circular to the leafy fields of Barnet in 1963. An obsession with books began in Barnet Library (just behind the church) and at the nearby W H Smith's - where I would stand reading books as there was no money to buy them. No one seemed to mind. I had plenty of time to read, my two much older brothers having left home, leaving me with an only child's childhood for most of the seventies'. I also began a life-time's love affair with Barnet Football Club - then the amateur games' very own West Ham: a club likely to score three, while letting in four. I could see from my bedroom the floodlights at the wonderfully named Underhill Stadium - a place surely conjured out of Bilbo Baggins's Shire. My two elder brothers had both gone North to university - Bob - emigrating to Canada after a degree at Sheffield - and John, to Leeds.
In 1975 I followed to Sheffield. I had always wanted to write - despite a spirited attempt by the career's officer who visited the school to get me to join the fire brigade. At Sheffield I joined the staff of Darts, the university newspaper. In the three years I was in Sheffield the paper took up more of my time than it should have done. I loved the city - then on the brink of a catastrophic economic decline which it kicked against stubbornly throughout the next decade, emerging in better shape than many of its sister industrial cities in the North. Compared to the bland, soft, suburbs of London "Steel City" offered a brutal but awesome landscape - dominated by the moors, and the factories of the Don Valley, which would occasionally catch your eye in the distance as furnace doors were opened and a blaze of fire broke up the grimy grey cityscape. Then there were the hills, a 1,000 foot high ring around the city centre, and the deep wooded valleys which spilt their fast-running streams into the Don - the original source of the city's power. On getting my degree - in geography - I tried - but narrowly failed - to get a job on the Sheffield Star.
I spent a year looking for a job - hampered by the national, provincial newspaper journalists strike. To earn money I worked at Stanley Tools, as a labourer and degreaser, an experience so memorably bad that I often recall it to cheer myself up - although it did give me an insight into what life had been like for the millions who had worked in Britain's gloomy factories in the decades since the war. After a few months on the shop floor there was no such thing - in later years - as a bad day at the office. However, some of the images seared on to my memory at Stanley's often reappear in the books. In 1979 I finally got a job in newspapers - on the Bedfordshire Times, where I spent five years as a local reporter - a fine preparation for writing the Philip Dryden mysteries. One of our distant competitors was the wonderfully names Royston Crow - a title I stole for Dryden's own paper. Five years on a local 'rag' is a rich introduction to how Britain works - and to every variety of story from - my favourite - a set of stolen false teeth, to the ugly copy-cat riots of the summer of 1983, which broke out after serious mob violence in Brixton and Toxteth. After qualifying with the NCTJ - the National Council for the Training of Journalists - I landed my reward, a job on The Yorkshire Evening Press, in York. I left as Deputy News Editor five years later having spent most of my time writing a column about local politics and social policy - mainly planning - entitled Kelly's Eye. In 1985 I took four months off work to go to Wolfson College, Cambridge, as a Press Fellow, writing a booklet on the new law designed to introduce freedom of information into local government, later published by the oil company BP, my sponsors at Cambridge. One day I'll use those three months to try and write a 'Golden Age' whodunnit - no doubt starting with the President's body being found in the Fellows' library.
It was a wrench to leave York, but it had to be done, otherwise I'd still be there. But I did leave with a really vivid sense of what it was like to live in a Medieval city. The city itself, within its walls, is breath-taking, with so many intricate layers of history laid one on another, as to resemble a Russian doll. I later tried to write a crime mystery novel based in the city with a forensic archaeologist as sleuth: it was pretty much a disaster, not for its flawed portrayal of York, but for it's unconvincing recreation of the life and work of a real 'history man' - a failure which helped convince em that I should write about what I knew - i.e. being a local newspaper reporter. But I enjoyed writing a book that had it's roots so obviously in the past - a thread which would figure strongly in all my books.
But I had to leave. I was 30 - an age where traditionally journalists think their last chance of making Fleet Street is upon them. 'Fleet Street' - that mythical club of national papers grouped around Ludgate and Holborn between the City of London and the West End - was slipping away for me. Then, in 1988 I got the chance to move to the Financial Times - then a paper owned by the same company which owned the Evening Press. I went South to be a sub-editor on the FT's growing International Edition. The FT's offices were right opposite St Paul's. I moved on to hold two reporting jobs. First as tax and accountancy correspondent. This was a job that gave me an enormous amount of satisfaction, tracking trans-Atlantic efforts - for example - to get companies to use the same 'financial language' when reporting to share holders. In 1987 I was voted Accountancy Journalist of the Year. The job also brought some stylish travel - to the US, and Europe. Later I tried writing a crime novel based on a sleuth who was a forensic accountant. I still hadn't learnt my lesson. While I'd spent five years talking to accountant's I didn't really know what they did behind closed doors - so a 'procedural', relying on intimate knowledge, was just impossible. Which was a shame because there was considerable interest from publishers - but I could only write 10,000 words before running out of steam. Then I became education correspondent. By this point I was married, and had a young daughter, so the job, covering schools, universities, and the politics of both, had a thrilling relevance.
In 1995 we decided to leave London. It was a complicated decision, but one which has paid handsome rewards. I'd been talking about writing a book for years. Midge Gillies, my wife, had begun her own career as a non-fiction writer after leaving financial journalism. My problem was getting started. So finally I did the right thing - I started writing a book based on what I knew - the life and work of a local newspaper journalist. Now all I needed was the all important place - not just a backdrop, but a landscape that would help power the characters, action and plot. I needed to look no further than out of the window. One of the influences which had brought us to the Fens was the books of Dorothy L Sayers - especially The Nine Tailors. I had the landscape I needed right on my doorstep - the dank, mysterious wilderness which is the "Black Fen".
I also had somewhere to write - the 6.45 out of King's Cross every night. The big upside was I always got a seat. So I bought a laptop and started the book that would become The Water Clock - the first of the Philip Dryden mysteries. As I always like to point out - it was very nice of WAGN Railways to make sure I had so much time to write the books. It was after the Hatfield train crash and even the express services weren't breaking 30mph. Penguin books published The Water Clock in 2001. Two years later I left the FT - with good memories, and in high spirits. Midge had by that time written two biographies - Marie Lloyd, the Music Hall star, and then Amy Johnson, the pioneer aviator - and Penguin were happy to build a five book series of Drydens. Our house, in the centre of the medieval cathedral city, was divided between 'his and her' offices on the top floor, out of which we would emerge at set times - like figures on a German Town Hall clock - to drink coffee or have lunch.
But writing at home became claustrophobic so - Midge's brilliant idea - I got an allotment and set up a decent shed, with heating, and windows, as the ideal "remote" office. We now have two series running, both published by Severn House, and available on Kindle. New editions are also appearing in translation in Italy and Japan. I also began seeking out friendly libraries where I could park my laptop for a few hours. I can be glimpsed at King's Lynn's wonderful Carnegie Library, the University Library at Cambridge, the Central Library at Cambridge, as well as branches at Soham, Chatteris, March, Huntingdon - and fo course, nearby Ely. In 2011 I won the New Angle Prize for literature - an award for works based in, or linked to, East Anglia. In 2012 I became a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, based at the University of Essex. Here I try and help students with their essays, dissertations, theses, and other writing, including creative writing. But that is just for two days a week. The rest of the time I'm working on the next book. This year - 2016 - we will see Death Ship published - the sixth in the Shaw & Valentine series. Next year - who knows ? It may be time to return to the world of Philip Dryden. In the meantime this year has also seen the publication of The Starlings - which contains my short story The Man Who Didn"t Breathe. The whole collection is worth reading.
Now. Back to work...
- Favourite film: The Right Stuff, based on the book by Tom Wolfe.
- Favourite book: Le Grand Meaunes by Alain Henri-Fournier.
- Favourite journey: John O Groats to Land's End by bicycle.
- Favourtie meal: anything on the beach at Wells-Next-The-Sea.
- Favourite TV series: The West Wing
- Favourite beer: Hobson's Choice, The Cambridge Brewery.
- Favourite mode of transport: train.
- Favourite item of clothing: fingerless gloves.
- Favourite pet: cat called Zebra
- Favourite walk: through the centre of King's Lynn.
- Favourite website: guardian.co.uk