This was the first book that I’d done for children, (published April 2002) and I was commissioned to do it by my old editor at Orion, Christine Kidney. Christine left Orion to set up her own company, Watling Street, and she decided that her first six books were going to be a series of guidebooks to London for children. The books were to be in the tradition of the Horrible History series, as kids like nothing better than death, dirt, disease and horror. My title was to concentrate on underground London, which I took to include archaeology, as well as sewers, the Tube, deep level shelters, cemeteries and the Lost Rivers of London. I hadn’t lived in London for long, so writing the book was an ideal opportunity to explore the city. I included in the text places that kids might visit, though I sometimes regret urging them to poke about in the bushes on Hampstead Heath to look for the source of the Fleet River, as it is possible they might find other, less wholesome damp patches. ‘Writing to age’ was an interesting challenge (the book is for Key Stages 2 and 3, i.e. 8 to 13). The main thing I found about ‘writing to age’ is that ‘Crypts Caves and Tunnels’ is the least funny book that I’ve written, and also, in some ways, the darkest. I haven’t included an extract from it here because I felt that the tone isn’t right for this website.
My main motivation for writing it was, is, my dog-like devotion to Christine Kidney. You always have a special place in your heart for the editor who discovered you, and it was Christine who decided to go with my first book, ‘In Southern Waters’, in October 1998. I was living at the time with my elder daughter Esme in a two up two down in Lancaster. I had just turned forty, and I was recovering from a nervous breakdown. Esme had just turned eighteen, and was recovering from seeing her Dad lose it. She decided to get a flat with her boyf, which was a good thing, except that all the time she lived with me and stayed in full time education, she had been our milch cow. Without Esme, the housing benefit would stop, and the house would have to go. I decided that I would cope with my empty nest syndrome, and the loss of the house by becoming a full time hippie. My original plan was to buy a large old Iveco van that had been used by a motorbike team for race meetings. The front part was already adapted for living. and the rear, where the team had stored their bikes, was to be converted into a travelling second-hand bookshop. I would spend the summer going round the festivals, and, come winter, I thought I might drift across to Ireland, or maybe find a park-up somewhere in Wales. My Mum was thrilled.
‘You’re becoming a new-age traveller, with all your education!’ she said, which, in a way, I was.
But there were two major snags with this scheme. The first was that the big old van would need a lot of looking after, and I am to car maintenance what Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen is to Sumo wrestling. The second tiny snag was the fact that the van cost two and a half thousand pounds, and I had no money. Not a bean. None. Also, I was being sued for bankruptcy by the DSS, for money which I didn’t owe them. The CAB in Lancaster persuaded them that my assets were several thousand second-hand books and a Y reg Datsun Sunny, and that I was hardly worth pursuing through the courts. The book that I had written two years before did not enter anyone’s calculations. I thought that no one was going to buy it, but the rejection letters had given me hope that I might make some kind of a writer, and so I kept working on my new novel, which was called ‘Tidying Up’. I’ve written about this in my intro to ‘Dole Acre’.
I used to go for walks in the evening with my good friend Jeff Woodman, and one day he took me to a part of Lancaster that I’d never seen; the other side of the railway tracks, between a wood and some allotments, there was a tiny cottage, with a long range of stables and outbuildings and a couple of broken down caravans in the yard. Jeff told me that hippies often used this place as an unofficial park up. I approached the lady who owned the property, who agreed that I could park a caravan there, for five pounds a week. I borrowed a bit of cash from my parents (very embarrassing at 40), and looked through the Lancaster Guardian’s For sale columns. There, for 250 nicker, was an old four berth caravan that had been used and loved for countless family holidays, but which was now a wee bit superannuated. I bought it, installed a woodburning stove, and moved into the yard. To stay in touch with the world, I also bought a mobile phone, and a couple of days after I had started caravan life, my agent phoned, to say that Gollancz wanted to publish ‘In Southern Waters.’ I was blown away. I couldn’t stop crying for a week.
Christine Kidney was the editor who changed my life. She phoned me up to talk about what she felt needed doing to the manuscript to make it publishable; I ran a power line from the stable to my caravan, set up my venerable computer, and started to rewrite. When I had finished, Christine invited me to meet her in London. I put on my old suit and caught the train. Gollancz at the time was owned by Cassell, who were in the process of being taken over by Orion. Their offices were on The Strand, opposite Somerset House, and walking down The Strand to meet Christine for the first time, on a cold rainy day in December 1998 was the most exciting walk that I’ve ever taken. And there to meet me was my saviour; dazzlingly beautiful, open to the point of vulnerability, friendly, funny and… I could go on. We talked about the book, she took me to lunch, and it was like being in Fairyland. As any kind of artist, you hope for a break of some kind, but when it comes, it is always unexpected.
I lived in the caravan for almost two years, and the happiness of that time is, I hope, reflected in the happiness of ‘The Battle for Dole Acre’, my attempt at an Ealing comedy, which was written in the van. Christine moved from Gollancz to another Orion imprint, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, after the take-over, and she took me with her – ‘Dole Acre’ was published in July 2001. Three months before the book was released, Christine left Orion, and the book suffered in her absence. So did I. I had loved working with Christine, and when she asked me to do ‘Crypts Caves and Tunnels’, I jumped at the chance to work with her again.
Just before she left Orion, Christine said that she was going to commission some non-fiction books, and did I think that I could write about Victorian railway stations? This was the first germ for the idea that grew into ‘Parallel Lines’, so I owe her that, too. I’m very proud that she allowed me to dedicate it to her, and I hope that when she reads it, she still thinks that I was worth fetching in from the cold.