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How Not To Start A Book

Friday, 7 November 2014

“Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” (James Joyce) 

That’s bullshit. I like writing. But I think it is true that to attempt to write a book you must be either slightly mad, or monstrously self confident, or laughably un-self-aware. (Is there even a difference?)

Several times during the process of The Sussex Devils I did experience moments of severe personal difficulty – shakes, nervous attacks and blackouts. But these had nothing to do with any literary mincing, the Joycean tortures of syntax and scansion: it was my own personal trauma. On occassion that was hell.

Well, why do it then? Have you ever felt driven towards an unknown destination, against reason, against all sense and logic? Like in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, when Richard Dreyfuss starts moulding the Devil’s Tower out of his mash? This was it.

After that first intense panic attack reading about the Reverend Baker and Derry Knight, I began to lead a double life. At the time I was a director of an ad agency in the West End. My daytimes were industrious and happy: I joked with producers and backslapped creatives. But at night I went subterranean, alone to the dead silence of the bunker, the studio beneath the warehouse on the Gray’s Inn Road. I was meant to be recording  music – but that seemed suddenly pointless. Instead, I jotted notes, sent requests to the archive departments of The Telegraph and The Times (1), trawled through old articles about Satanism and exorcism, copying and pasting articles from the web. It was lonely, spooky work.

I told no one what I was doing, not even my wife. After all – what was I doing? I didn’t know. Not writing a book.

Then one night in early November 2012, when digging in the archives for Derry Knight, I found a story that touched me so profoundly that I decided to set it all down, even though I thought that doing so might well drive me mad with rage and horror.

I should tell you that there was another woman involved. She gave me the motivation to write. Like all love affairs, the dynamic is hard to describe to outsiders. Superficially we had so little in common, her a working class girl and a dog lover. But still.

I never met her. She was murdered forty years ago, a girl who died without a face. Her name was Christine. When the man who killed her was found, there were pieces of her skin and hair fresh under his nails. He was naked, sobbing that he loved her, still covered in her blood. He told the police that it was, “the blood of Satan.”  He was her killer, but he was not her murderer.  

I did begin to “worry about myself”. I mean, in those TV shows with a troubled cop hunting down a serial killer, don’t the police always find an underground room, the pyscho's lair; piles of hard drives, photos taped to the wall, monomaniacal scrawlings, pentacles on the brickwork?

When they break down the door, the police chief always pauses for effect before saying, "Get the forensics boys down here right away." Then: "I want this piece of shit FOUND."

Yeah, this must be how it all starts, I thought grimly.

On one wall of the bunker was a thumbnail photograph, blown up from a newspaper report. Even considering the grainy resolution, it was not a glamorous shot. She was a chubby brunette with a cheap, shoulder-length haircut. I knew that at the time the picture was taken she was a young mother with five kids and that money was tight: it was not a pampered life. But she was grinning gamely, and she had great eyes – dark and bright.

I thought back to a moment I couldn't bear, of harsh white lights in darkness and voices speaking in tongues, merging and rising into a continual scream, like vast choirs of jet engines. She hadn’t slept that night or for many nights in those previous few weeks. She must have been tired. Thank God the kids were not at home. Did she scream too?

It was approaching midnight. I went upstairs to wash my face in the unforgiving neon light of the warehouse toilets. Three tailor’s dummies were now stood in the warehouse. These dummies were of the headless type; wire torsos covered in canvas, for hanging patterns. I didn’t like them. Every time I walked up the iron staircase they loomed above me in the warehouse. It took me some time to realise that they reminded me of…

“The horrors. Just the horrors,” I said when I passed them. Bloody ridiculous, I told myself. You don’t mind them in daylight. But at night the faceless dummies grinned at me.

I splashed icy water on my neck from the stainless steel industrial sink. In the cracked and dirty bathroom mirror, I stared at myself, wincing. I was definitely on the edge of another attack. You must stop this, I told myself. And yet I felt that I had a job to do, for her.

I passed back through the silent warehouse. Back down in the studio I sat at my computer and looked at the photograph of the smiling young mother. I felt inadequate and stupid. Oh Christine, I told her. You deserve a better biographer than me. No Booker Prize, I’m afraid. I am no author, not even the lowliest hack. Most likely only you and I will ever read these words.

She smiled encouragingly back at me, so I nodded and promised to do my best.  

I typed this.

The Sunday morning shift was generally an easy one in Wakefield police station and for PC Ian Walker the 6th October 1974 promised to be no different.

Holy crap, I thought. I'm “writing a book”. And then I began.

 

(1) There is a wide variation in the efficiency of the archive departments of British newspapers. Full marks go to the Guardian and Observer, who have a fully digitised archive stretching back decades. The TImes online archive is good, although text only. Some (such as The Mirror or The Express) are patchy, whilst others like the The Telegraph have no digital records of the 1980's at all. But a sweet girl at The Telegraph with a fifty-a-day voice found and photocopied all the stuff I needed, and sent it to me for free.

 

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Published
Publication date: October 2015
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