I have been a writer most of my life. I started very young. When I went to boarding school at the age of 11, I wrote letters to anybody who would write back. At 14, I had a letter published in Football Monthly; at 17 I started a pirate school magazine, and around the same time wrote to the Daily Telegraph for advice on how to become a sports journalist. Something they said about having to hang around in pubs put me off: I had been raised to think of alcohol as a satanic brew. It took me some years to realise my mistake.

I went off into the world of work as an avid observer and note-taker. Despite performing reasonably well at school, I chose to drop out and do manual jobs for the next 15-20 years. I became adept at finding workplaces where interesting characters were employed.

As a factory hand, gardener, freight train guard and rural rat-catcher - the full list contains 40 or so jobs - I had ample time to catch up on the literature I hadn’t read at school, to listen to other people’s stories, and fill dozens of notebooks, capturing where I could their styles of speech.

I was 35 when I began studying for a degree in American Studies at Hull. I started taking classes in creative writing there, and at the University of New Mexico, where I spent a year of my course. In 1987 I sold my first article to the Times Higher Education Supplement, an account of the year in Albuquerque when I supported my young family by cleaning windows around town, and gardening on campus.

After graduating I did the MA course in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, my tutors being the late Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain. I spent the next several years pursuing an academic career, and writing. I produced two autobiographical novels (unsold, thank goodness), a lot of short stories (several of them published), and dozens of feature articles for broadsheet

newspapers and magazines as diverse as What Mortgage, Yours and the Times Literary Supplement - which yielded some handy income.

In 1993, just as the academic door closed in my face, I was offered the chance to research and write my first corporate history for Wm Jackson & Son plc of Hull. There followed a second for Edward Timm of Goole, flour-millers, another five-generation family firm, and a commission from B.P. Chemicals to write the story of their Saltend refinery. Out of these histories came two further books, based on collections of correspondence from the trenches during the Great War.

I assumed that company histories were now going to provide my bread-and-butter income. I was wrong. While I got several CEOs interested in the idea, I never managed to pin them down. In 1997 an old university friend, by now a television producer at BBC Bristol, offered me work writing voice-over commentaries for documentaries. I wrote over

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