I wrote In Southern Waters in the corner of my tiny living room in Perth Street, Lancaster. I shared the house with my eldest daughter, and my youngest daughter often came to stay with us, so I wrote it mostly at night when the kids were in bed.
When I first stared pootling around with stories in the mid eighhties, Paul Holland was the first character that I came up with, and I always think of him as the central character in ISW, mostly I suppose because of how the book evolved. In 1989 I started as a mature undergraduate at Lancaster University, and was lucky enough to get a place on the undergraduate Creative Writing program. Holland was the hero of about a third of the short stories that I wrote for the course, and was an incidental character in the novel I submitted as my coursework (a novel, incidentally, which will never see the light of day!). After graduating, I continued to work on the Holland stories, so much so that they kind of grew together and turned into a novel. This is not how you’re supposed to do it, and the most commonly voiced criticism of ISW is that it has no plot. You may think that if you like; I can’t possibly comment. But it does have themes – two at least. First, that our society is now essentially apolitical. And second, that those of us born after the war are lucky. And quite shortly after it was published, a film producer approached me to see if it might make television, (sadly, it didn’t, as you may have noticed.) He said to me, ‘You know what this book is about? The English Comic Novel.’ And, however monumentally pretentious it might sound, I agreed.
People ask me if I’m Blossom – I’m not really, though some of the facts of his life mirror mine. My Father thinks that he’s Blossom, which is not true either, though Blossom does use my Dad’s spectacularly unsuccessful system for betting on the dogs. Trapper and Mad Ricki are real, as it says in the information at the start of the book, but they are not fair portraits. Trapper is one of the nicest people I know, which is just as well, as he is my brother. Mad Ricki is the best guitarist I’ve ever heard my life, but he doesn’t get many gigs, because, although he is very intelligent, funny and sweet, he is genuinely a bit bonkers. I went to primary school with him and he is, I guess, one of my oldest friends. If you are very lucky, you might get to hear him play – he tours with Arthur Brown of ‘Fire’ fame, when Arthur can prise him away from his Osmonds records.
The only 100% entirely true story in the book is ‘The Gay Deciever’, as is perhaps obvious.
A note on the title: I never liked it. I had a great title. It was a french expression, like ‘cul-de-sac’, and it could mean both a collection of stories and a shared house. A little stoned one evening, it was an expression I heard on the radio, and I realised that it was the perfect title for the bookl. It was so perfect, and I was so triumphant at having tracked it down, that I didn’t bother to write it down.
Yes, that’s right. I was stoned, and I didn’t bother to write it down. And so, of course, I have never been able to remember it from that day to this. If any french scholars happen to know what this expression is, please put me out of my misery. ‘In Southern Waters’ was always my working title, and when I got published, I imagined a dedicated team of marketing experts who would take loads of cocaine and have a three day brainstorm and be able to help me think of something catchy. Imagine my disapointment, then, when, at our first meeting, my editor said she liked it. No cocaine, no three day brainstorm, and a novel which shares its title with a not terribly interesting book by The Duke of Edinburgh about the seabirds of the Southern Hemisphere.
It’s a tragedy, of course, because comedies end with a marriage, and tragedies with a death.