Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Hyland Blog. Posts

Hung, Drawn and Cornered

I try not to be too overprotective as a father, but it’s a hard line to navigate. Needless to say, I want to keep my daughter, Jessica, as safe as possible, but I also want her to learn independence. It’s a tricky thing. I have memories of a school friend who developed a crippling fear of the colour yellow just from the sheer number of Post-It stickers his parents would leave around the house for him. I don’t want to be that parent.

Then a few weeks ago, I took Jessica to see the Crown Jewels. As we waited in the queue, she couldn’t hide her excitement at the prospect of seeing a real crown that belonged to a real queen – plus she’d been eating ice cream all day and had enough sugar in her to launch a satellite. The moment we got into the exhibit, she bounded through the eerily-lit halls, gazing at the crowns, the sceptres, and the diamond-encrusted swords, with a huge grin on her face.
They’re beautiful, aren’t they?’ I said.
She nodded.
As she gazed at a solid gold punch bowl, she paused a moment and turned back to me.
Daddy?’ she said.
Yes?’
What’s hung, drawn and quartered?’
I eyed her uneasily. A tour guide had been discussing Guy Fawkes’ execution as we’d waited outside, but I’d assumed that Jessica had been too caught up in her ice cream to notice.
Oh, it’s nothing,’ I replied. ‘It’s just, you know, it’s grown up stuff.’
She nodded again.
Do they draw them, like in a painting?’ she asked.
Yes. Hey, look at those diamonds, they’re amazing, huh?’
She eyed me carefully, a suspicious little smile creeping across her face. ‘Daddy!’
I swear, six-year olds are the world’s most efficient lie detectors – MI5 should install a soft-play area.
It’s what they used to do to criminals,’ I said. ‘A long time ago.’
What?’
They used to, you know…kill them.’
Then draw pictures of them?’
Jessie, sweetie, you’ve got a whole room full of crowns to look at.’
But I want to know what they did.’
When you’re older.’
Is it bad?’
And there’s no good answer to that. If I say no, then why aren’t I talking about it – but if I say yes, then she’s never going to let it go, and those three words ‘hung’, ‘drawn’, and ‘quartered’ are going to replace ‘I am Moana!’ as her new mantra. Either way, the technicalities of being disemboweled, beheaded, then dismembered weren’t part of any conversation I was going to have with her. I tried to come up with some middle-ground analogy. You know how we cut up your spaghetti before you eat it? But that sounded even worse. Was I being overprotective in not just telling her? It’s part of history, after all, and is thankfully long gone – but there’s the imagery of it, and all the questions that would no doubt follow. How do you introduce a blood-stained, medieval executioner into a world whose main driving force is Alvin and the Chipmunks?
No. I wouldn’t tell her.
I crouched down in front of her. ‘They used to ship criminals out to a tiny prison in the middle of the sea,’ I said. ‘No windows, they’d sit in the darkness for the rest of their lives with nothing to eat but pebbles and old newspaper.’
I figured that was nasty enough without going overboard. And she looked kind of sold, but in that vaguely uncertain way, like a customer staring at a used-car dealer.
But…but I don’t understand the name,’ she said. ‘What does it mean?’
It was the name of the ship that took them out there. The Hung Drawn and Quartered…it had black sails, and an owl that used to scratch the names of the prisoners into the ship’s hull with its claws.’
She eyed me very, very carefully, then nodded.
Yep. Sold. There you go – when in doubt, use an owl.
Even though the questions then came – where’s the prison, and how many people were there – I was much happier explaining these things away than trying to sprinkle sugar on severed heads and entrails.
And that was our day. Overprotective or not, Jessica saw the Crown Jewels, and I added the good ship Hung Drawn and Quartered to the same fictitious list as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
The parental adventure continues.

Gluten-free Weirdness

I’ve been gluten-free for about two years now. I’ve developed a mildly apocalyptic reaction to wheat, and I do my best to steer clear of it. Although it’s a definite physical reaction (I won’t bore you with the colourful details) it’s amazing the number of people who assume that I’m doing it because being gluten-free is in vogue at the moment – like I’ve jumped on some dietary bandwagon. Don’t be stupid. Being gluten-free isn’t a lifestyle choice – it’s a mess. I loved wheat. I loved donuts. Hamburgers. Cream cakes, Danish pastries, cinnamon swirls and chocolate gateau. But I can’t eat them any more, because I’ve been dragged against my will towards a healthy diet. It’s tragic. I always dreamed they’d find my body face down in a dessert cart.

Although my wife eats wheat, I don’t begrudge her the fact that she can pound down the occasional chocolate eclair, because she has her own dietary issues. She’s a vegetarian. I should probably add that she avoids meat not because she likes animals, but because she can’t stand them – she doesn’t want anything to do with the ‘furry little fuckers’. That said, more animals survive – my wife remains healthy – it’s probably the most positive dislike of living creatures I’ve ever witnessed. As for me? I love animals. I love meat. I don’t care what doctors and dieticians say about it. As far as I’m concerned, being a vegetarian doesn’t make you live longer, it just makes your life feel longer.

The ironic thing is, the one friend of ours who can eat whatever she likes, is the one who’s always trying out some new diet or other. It really irritates me. She’s slim and healthy – always has been – but insists on cooking the latest ‘neutrino-free’ recipe that appears in the Sunday supplements. She’s always cooking without carbs, or caffiene, or intelligent conversation, just because of the mumblings of some dietician in LA. Oh, you should try the Morgan Wilshire diet…a friend of mine lost three kilos in seven minutes.’  Yeah? Why don’t you try the Kim Jong Un diet – eat as much as you like, then just shoot any one who’s skinnier than you.

Anyhow, tomorrow I’m going on holiday for three weeks, and I’m taking a whole bunch of gluten-free food with me just in case they don’t have much of a selection out there in the land of the normal. And it’s really annoying my wife – it’s completely ruined her packing plans. My wife is super-fastidious about most things, but borderline insane when it comes to packing. She’s the kind who packs four days in advance – who pretty much renders a 3D, computer generated schematic of the bags before she gets started. She’s now got boxes of gluten-free pasta and cereal to throw into the equation. You see, even in something as relatively minor as this, gluten-free is an irritatingly poor lifestyle choice. It’s hard to travel. I mean, where would the great explorers have been? Roald Amundsen vomiting and farting his way across the South Pole because they forgot to pack the gluten-free husky burgers.

Then I’ve got the gluten-free meals on the plane journey to look forward to – which are the worst excuse for food-shaped matter ever conceived. Admittedly, plane food isn’t great at the best of times. I remember watching that movie, Alive, about the South American rugby team that crashes into the Andes – who got so hungry they ate the dead passengers. And then the in-flight meals. Adding gluten-free to this mix is just, I don’t know, it’s like Satan was bored or something. So please, when someone tells you that they’re gluten-free, don’t think that they’re following a trend, or even trying to be healthy. They’re gluten-free because their body has decided to be a complete bastard about things. So much so, in fact, that I’m tempted to feed bread to my body, just to piss it off for being so irritating.

Lousy Lunch

Jodie took a sip of frosted wheatgrass juice, then shook her head.
You wasted yourself,’ she said.
I eyed her a moment. Wasted?
You could have been a poet,’ she said.
I sighed wearily. After eleven years she was still going on about this?
I didn’t want to be a poet,’ I said.
Jesus, she hadn’t changed at all. In Jodie’s world, poets were at the top of the literary tree, followed in descending order by novelists, playwrites, journalists, copywriters, the guys who write instructions for shampoo bottles, and then television writers, of which I was one.
You just need to reach deep and pluck the strings,’ she said. ‘Don’t waste your talent, Alex. I know it’s in you. Give it a try.’
I glanced at the drinks menu. ‘Fine. I will.’
Now.’
What?’
She nodded toward the wintry trees in the park just outside the restaurant window. A few abandoned birds nests perched in the desolate branches.
Tell me about the trees,’ she said.
Jodie…’
The birds nests,’ she said. ‘What do they look like?’
I don’t know.’
Come on.’
Really, I don’t know.’
Speak from the heart!’
They look like bits of crap stuck in a toilet brush.’
No,’ she said – even though they did. She took a deep breath, then closed her eyes like she was summoning up a spirit. ‘They look like the frayed obsidian that binds promise to despair. Cracked outposts whispering Jehovah in the mist.’
Yeah, toilet brush. I’m going to get another drink, you want one?’
She didn’t.
I kept my eyes on the menu. I don’t why we’d decided to meet up again after all these years. Facebook putting old friends back in touch with each other. Yeah. Thanks.
The food arrived. A Polynesian wheatgrass bake, drizzled in apathy and served in its own shadow. It tasted like beige newspaper – but the art on the restaurant walls was imported from Guinea – so the place must have been good.
I was done talking poetry. I changed the subject. ‘So are you seeing anyone?’
She nodded. ‘Jake. He’s a poet.’
Fuck. Jodie and Jake. New from Mattel.
He’s a truly great writer,’ she said.
I didn’t like her implication.
He’s reciting at the Ballantine tonight. A beautiful piece that he wrote about Hiroshima. The passion in him, you should hear it.’
No, you’re right. Poetry, it’s going to save us all. They should air-lift him into combat zones.’
She laughed. ‘Say what you like, he doesn’t just sit around all day watching Bruce Willis movies. When he says he’s going to make the world a better place, he actually gets up and does something about it.’
So does Bruce.’
I went quiet and searched my plate for anything that looked vaguely appetizing. As I did, she started telling me about the novel that she was writing – a story about four Danish hairdressers who meet up in post-war Berlin to discuss agricultural relativism. There’s a great twist at the end apparently – it turns out that one of them had been using an outmoded definition of relativism, and she commits suicide on the bus home. I was right with her on that bus at that moment.
It was a long lunch. But it was great. I got home that afternoon and kissed my girlfriend like I’d just gotten out of jail. I grabbed a beer and put on Independence Day. And I’ll tell you, if aliens ever did invade earth, all we’d need to do is offer them wheatgrass – I’m pretty sure that’d get rid of them.

Marilyn

As imaginary girlfriends go, the one I probably had most trouble with was Marilyn Monroe. She just wouldn’t leave me alone. It’s a tricky situation – it’s very hard to tell a woman that she’s imaginary without making it sound like a rejection. So you have to tread carefully – it’s not you it’s me – literally.

Like most guys my age, Monroe was the Hollywood legend – a woman whose suicide sealed her in the tomb of the eternally beautiful. That said, I was never her biggest fan. I thought she was great, yeah – she was sexy and funny, and Some Like it Hot is one of my favourite films – but she never really captured me in that obsessive way that screen legends sometimes can. But then when I was in my early twenties I attended an auction that was raising money for the Arvon Foundation. The auction had been organized by a friend of mine, and was a sale of showbiz memorabilia. Michael Jackson had donated a sequinned trilby, Robby Krieger had donated a guitar from The Doors, and the Marilyn Monroe Estate had donated a green dress that had belonged to the star. The dress was far from sexy – I remember it looking rather plain and shapeless – but it was Marilyn’s and it was up for sale. Now, I was there with my girlfriend at the time, and even though she looked nothing like Marilyn Monroe, one of the press photographers who was covering the auction thought it would be a great idea to photograph her wearing the dress – which she agreed to do. They took her to one side, photographed her in the dress, and all was good. The auction was a success and the day ended well.

I didn’t really think much about it again until a few weeks later when I recounted the story to a friend of mine, Tony, who most definitely was a Marilyn Monroe fan.
He sprung to his feet. ‘You’re sleeping with a girl who’s been in Marilyn’s dress!’ he said. ‘That’s fucking incredible!’
Er…yeah. Is it?’ I wasn’t really sure. I thought that maybe you need to be a true fan to feel that way.
However, as I slept with my girlfriend that night I did find it a little bit strange. The image of her in that dress kept popping into my head – and I wasn’t sure that I entirely liked it. She’s been in Marilyn’s dress. Is this turning me on? My God, I think it might be. It was a weird evening for me, and I decided to block out the Marilyn image as best I could from then on.

Unfortunately, Tony’s appetite had been whetted now. A few months later he returned from New York with a large, flat white box under his arm.
You’re not going to believe what I got!’ he said. ‘The greatest piece of Monroe memorabilia ever!’
I eyed him curiously as he placed the box on the floor in front of me.
That scene form the Seven Year Itch?’ he said. ‘When she’s standing over the air vent and the dress blows up around her waist?’
I couldn’t believe it. ‘You got the dress?’
I got the air vent!’
He opened the box and produced a black steel grill. I stared in disbelief at him.
How much did you pay for that?’ I said.
Doesn’t matter,’ he replied.
Tony!’
It’s fine!
It’s a fucking vent!’
I know, I know, but wait.’
He slowly raised the vent above our heads and peered up through the gaps in the steel.
Ah….’ he said. ‘Just imagine.’
I stared up though the vent – and I have to say it wasn’t the proudest moment of my life. This poor woman – even as a ghost she can’t avoid stalkers. It’s terrible.

So I’m done with her. I’m sorry, Marilyn. I know it’s going to come as a bit of a shock, but it’s over. What? No, there’s no one else. It’s not about that, honestly. I don’t care what Cleopatra says, she’s a lying little bitch. I’ll see you later.

Amazing Millie and Northwind the Zombie

I’ve been trying to teach my six year old daughter, Jessica, the basics of story-telling. I sat her down and talked her through a very simple 3 act structure. This is the conversation we had (Jessie is in blue type). All the ideas were Jessica’s, and the dialogue is genuine.

Who’s our hero?
Amazing Millie.
Tell me about her.
She holds the world record for saving pets who have fallen into moon craters.
Anything else?
She has a best friend called Rosa who likes Michael Jackson.
What happens to make this day different?
They get a note from Northwind the zombie. It says, ‘Dear pirates, we really want to kill you. Love Northwind.’
Is Northwind our bad guy?
Yes. He’s a vegetarian zombie. He eats cabbages because they look like brains, but are much healthier for you.
He sounds nice for a zombie.
Not really, he has a wasp stuck in his heart.
Right. So what does he want?
He wants to kill them.
Millie and Rosa? Why?
Because he has a wasp stuck in his heart.
Maybe there could be another reason too?
No.
Are you sure? You said they’re pirates.
If I’m the one who’s writing this, then I’m the mind-master of it.
Fair enough. So Northwind attacks them. Does he hurt them?
He chases them around the ship. Millie falls over and hurts her leg.
Can she still escape?
No, she sprained it.
She’s brain dead!
No, she sprained it.
Okay, that’s better. Does he capture them?
Yes. He takes them to his castle where they can’t escape. There’s lava all around it. Lava with sharks swimming in it!
Sounds scary. So what happens next?
Millie and Rosa escape from the dungeon.
How do they do that?
Millie has a cupcake that she was saving for later.
Right. So…what, she bites it into the shape of a key to unlock the door?
Daddy! It would crumble into bits!
Yeah. Sorry. Of course.
They offer it to one of the guards outside. When he takes it, they run really quickly out of the dungeon.
Yeah, okay, that’s better. Then what happens?
Then they escape.
And? We need more things to happen to make it more complicated for them.
They’re looking for a magic emerald.
Okay, magic emerald, I like it. Is it in Northwind’s castle?
No, it’s on Jupiter.
That is complicated.
But Northwind has a spaceship in his castle.
Can I ask a question? If he just wants is to kill them, why hasn’t he done it?
Because he’s tired. He had to chase them around the ship, then carry them back to the castle.
But why did he carry them back? Why didn’t he just…you what, forget it. So do they get into the spaceship?
No, it’s bedtime and Northwind is sleeping beside it.
So they have to wait until the morning?
You can’t go to Jupiter in the morning. Space only comes out at night.
So they’ve got to do it now?
Yeah. Millie has another cupcake that she was…
No more cupcakes, we’ve done that. Something else.
Millie puts on her ballet shoes and tiptoes past Northwind.
She’s carries ballet shoes with her?
Sometimes.
Rosa too?
No. Millie carries her.
I thought Millie had sprained her ankle.
She’s fine! They get on the spaceship and fly to Jupiter. They get out and search for the emerald. And they find it…it’s as big as a rock.
You can’t really walk on Jupiter, it’s mostly clouds and gas.
They’ve got ballet shoes on.
Millie does.
She’s carrying Rosa.
And the emerald too?
I told you, she’s feeling better!
Okay. So then what happens.
They use the emerald’s magic power to take them home and destroy the castle.
We need one final challenge for them – something huge that make us think that Northwind might win.
Northwind keeps a pet monster on Jupiter.
Does it have ballet shoes too?
It flies! And it tries to eat them, but Millie uses the emerald to turn the monster nice.
Does Northwind die?
Yes. But he was asleep so it’s okay.
And Millie and Roza live happily ever after?
Yeah.
Great story. I like it.
Daddy?
Yeah?
Did you know that when you get older your skin gets more wrinkly. But your colouring in gets better.
True.

Amazing Millie and Northwind the Zombie has just been purchased by Dreamworks for 5.8 million dollars.

American Me

My blog is a little late this week as I’m in the process of finishing the edits to my novel, Black Violet. The novel is a thriller about a pickpocket from San Francisco named Michael Violet, who uses his talents as a thief to pursue the guys responsible for the death of his journalist brother – and finds himself forced into the role of hero whether he likes it or not. I came up with the story while I was working in America, and although I didn’t start writing it until I was back in London, I decided to keep the character as an American. Having written for US TV networks for a number of years, it wasn’t too hard to do – plus, writing it that way took me back to my youth.

I grew up in London on a diet of 1970s American TV – Starsky and Hutch, and The Six Million Dollar Man. I swear, up until the age of eight, I thought ‘let’s-get-the-hell-outta-here’ was one seven syllable verb that meant ‘to go’. American culture was something that happened on TV in my parents’ house in the evenings. I loved Shakespeare, but after a day at school analysing Richard III, a semi-robotic spaceman was a much needed addition to the House of York. Richard III may have had the poetry, the depth and the demons, but Steve Austin could run at 60mph. You can’t compete with that.

It wasn’t the smartest television, but it was hugely entertaining. Plus there was something honest about it – it was pretentious-free television. Is it fun? Is it exciting? Then, fuck it, let’s make it.
Not that that criteria should be all there is to TV production. If American networks tried making Shakespeare now, they’d probably screw it up – certainly under Donald Trump. They’d no doubt stick the words, ‘World’s Most Amazing’ at the beginning of every play title to make them more appealing. ‘World’s Most Amazing Midsummer Night’s Dreams. ‘When Venetian Merchants Go Bad.’ I can almost hear some network producer telling his writers that, ‘We need a better question than To be or not not to be. It’s multiple-choice, for Christ’s sake! Hamlet’s got a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right even if he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.’

But for the most part I found American TV a valuable education. Not just in terms of language, but in terms of story telling. American TV series had huge numbers of episodes that ran for years without getting boring. But the stories were pretty much the same. The episodes may have twisted and turned in different ways, but those turns invariably ended up with the same result – the hero saving the day – wow, huge surprise. So what was I actually watching? I was watching a character. I know it sounds obvious, but to a ten-year-old it was a revelation – that the path isn’t nearly as interesting as the person walking it.

So I’m editing my novel – it’s a great story with a compelling character, and I thank American TV for that. Shakespeare was a genius, but don’t underestimate the Glen Larsons and Quinn Martins of the world. Their output may have bordered on the cartoonish at times, so what? The Simpsons are yellow – the President is orange. To quote George Washington, ‘It is in truth and with heavy heart that I tell you I hates that rabbit.’

A Day at the Beach

Most people on the planet now live in cities. We’re most definitely turning into an urban species, and it makes me worry what we’re going to be like in a few centuries time – how our perspectives are going to change. My wife, for instance, has always lived in cities. Beyond our daughter, the only thing she cares about in life is parking. I swear, nothing else matters to her. She could climb Mount Everest, all she’d talk about is the parking space she got at the bottom, ‘You wouldn’t believe it, right outside Base Camp.’

My wife may be a fully paid-up urbanite, but I’ve always harboured dreams of living in the country and enjoying a more romantic, natural way of life. I tried to sell her on the idea, but I fell foul to her metropolitan outlook.
We could lose ourselves in the rolling green hills,’ I said. ‘The trees and the birdsong.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Birdsong! Can you remember one song they’ve sung? They’re all album tracks.’

So I gave up. Life in the city was tolerable, I guess, and I didn’t want to make a big a big deal about it. But then we went to the south coast earlier this year, and spent a day at the beach. And it was an awakening. Our six year old daughter splashed around in the sea, then beckoned us to join her. Now, my wife won’t swim unless she’s surrounded by concrete tiles and chlorine, so I got up on my own, and for the first time in years, I dived headlong into the glittering ocean from whence all life came. And the thing is, it’s shit – which is probably why we all crawled out of it in the first place. It’s freezing and filthy, and the stones hurt your feet. My daughter stuck her head under the water, and the salt made her feel sick. As I carried her back to the beach, a huge wave hit me and it was all I could do to remain standing. James Bond is complete crap – there’s no elegant way of emerging from an ocean. Or a sports car, for that matter.

We had lunch on the beach that afternoon – and it seemed like just another spear in the side for my pro-nature philosophy. My daughter asked me about the shrimp we were going to eat – how it was caught. I wasn’t exactly sure, but as I stared at the plate, it seemed to me that nature was idiotic – and that shrimp were proof of it. If you’re that small, that soft, and that tasty, you’d better learn how to swim at fifty miles an hour. But they’ve got these puny little legs and a soft shell that barely covers their body – that’s not a defence system, that’s a tease. In their next evolutionary cycle I bet they start sweating Thousand Island dressing.

I’d wanted the day to pan out differently, admittedly. I’d wanted the romance of nature to intoxicate the family, but it didn’t really happen. It was a nice day out, that’s all. We saw the sea and played in the sand. And the restaurant, ‘Little Old Jack’s’ was great – it was quaint and full of rustic character. I asked if Little Old Jack was a real guy, and the waiter told me that he was, and that he lived in New York. Oh, well – give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but teach him how to franchise a chain of fish restaurants, and he can do lunch for a lifetime. The clouds filled the sky above the restaurant, the wind picked up pace, and as we finished our coffee it started to rain. My daughter asked me what we were going to do without jackets or an umbrella. My wife then told her not worry, and glanced at the main door of the restaurant. Parked just outside, was our car. I have to say, it was a great spot.

The Great Escape

I’m fifty. At the moment, every guy I know seems to be having some kind of midlife crisis – trying to recapture their youth by buying a motorbike or a sports car. Everywhere I look it’s the same story. Mayflies live for twenty-four hours – at midday I bet they’re all hovering around Porsche dealerships. It’s an escape from reality, I know. But I can’t criticize, because it got me thinking about how much of my life has been devoted to escaping my own reality. A lot, is the answer. It’s no surprise that I ended up a novelist.

I grew up in the London suburb of Pinner – a monument to sedate semi-detached living. It’s not that I hated it there – I didn’t. It’s just as a kid there’s only so many brown Honda Civics you can see in one afternoon before you start building yourself a spaceship out of cereal boxes – before you start dreaming about escaping the herds of eighty-year-olds trudging toward the supermarket; that slow moving sea of tan jackets. I remember drawing a comic strip about The Incredible Hulk when I was a kid – but it was set when he was in his eighties – he’d get angry and turn beige. It was this seemingly colourless backdrop that I needed to extricate myself from, and I did my best to lose myself in any number of comics and fantasies.

Then in 1977 the ultimate escape route for me arrived. Star Wars. It was the closest thing I ever experienced to a spiritual awakening. I used to dream that I was a budding young Jedi fighting alongside the rebels – but even then, I found it hard to completely escape. I used to imagine that Han, Luke, Leia and I were captured by the Empire. The problem was, while Han and the others would be taken to the bustling heart of the Death Star, I’d be held in one of its suburbs – some residential area beside the laser towers populated by the Empire’s middle-management. An area with rusty fridges on the front lawns, and bits of dismantled TIE Fighters sitting in the garages. Where the local Stormtroopers were armed with broken bottles, because they’d all got drunk last night and ‘Gary left our laser blasters at the kebab shop, the silly cunt.’ This was my Star Wars fantasy. It’s a curious thing. I had imagination and a whole galaxy to play with, but I still found myself one Imperial Cruiser away from the local knitting shop. You just can’t escape yourself, I guess.

As I got a little older, responsibility came knocking at my door – a career, an apartment, bills. I decided to keep a journal documenting my journey into adulthood, and I did so for about a week before I read it and realized that I still had absolutely no interest in my own life at all. So I continued with the journal, replacing myself with a turbo-charged version of me – a guy who did all the same things I did, but did them really cool. His name was Alex, but unlike me who studied economics at UCL, he went to Oxford where he studied advanced awesomeness. Yeah, he was a dick, but I enjoyed reading about him. And so I kept writing, all the while waiting for myself to mature into my own life. But time just passed and it didn’t happen – even when I reached middle-age. I remember people telling me that middle-age is great because you find yourself – but it’s complete crap. It’s often said that ‘Life begins at forty’ – and it’s funny, the guy who came up with that just published his new theory about how the Pyramids were built by sparrows. It’s sweet, he drew little diagrams and everything.

And so there I was, living out a whole book’s worth of fiction. Getting older. Still into Star Wars, but with age having turned me to the grey side of the Force (which may not be destructive as the dark side, but is a hell of a lot more irritating, believe me). Then something happened that made me fall madly in love with my own life. I had a daughter. Jessica. I didn’t want to be anybody else now – me was good, because me got to hang out with her all the time.
Turns out I was just waiting to be a dad. Simple, really.
And that’s me – an irritable middle-aged father. Sound good? I don’t care.

Little Heroes

My first thriller is about to be published. I spent the best part of two years writing about a hero named Michael Violet, and it really put any notions I had about my own bravery into perspective. It’s hard to be heroic when you’re neurotic, and neurotic I most certainly am. From subtly chipped coffee cups to ‘What’s this red spot on my arm?’ my day-to-day is littered with micro-events that I magnify out of all proportion. And while conquering any fear is heroic to some degree, it’s not like anyone’s going to give me a medal for conquering mine. If I drink from a chipped coffee cup, about the best I can hope for is my brother telling me that, ‘Finally, you’re not being such a complete dick about everything.’

But it was flying that was the big one for me. I don’t know what happened – I reached my late twenties and suddenly the idea of being in two hundred tonnes of aluminium, thirty thousand feet in the air was just wrong – if God had intended man to fly, he would have made the ground further away. It’s not like I had a near miss or a bad flight or anything – it just hit me out of the blue. I’m not sure why, it might be age. When you’re young, you think life’s going to last forever – when you’re old, you hope it doesn’t – but when you’re stuck in the middle, you just get scared of stuff. Anyhow, I couldn’t travel, which was annoying enough, but then I got offered work in America, and I had to do something about it. So I signed up for a ‘Fear of Flying’ course. It turned out to be a horrifically entertaining day out.

I sat in a Heathrow hotel function room with another one-hundred-and-nineteen neurotics, all of us silent. Ahead us, eight hours of classes followed by the climax to the day – a forty minute flight around London. The first thing that surprised me was how many of us in the room were smiling – a surprise, at least, until I spoke to a few people and realized that it was nine in the morning and almost everyone here was already smashed out of their faces on Diazepam. A British Airways pilot then arrived and started giving the first lecture – the theory of aerodynamics. Everyone smiled – he was a nice man. As we learned how a wing shape causes air pressure differential, a guy in his fifties sitting next to me named Harvey started looking very uncomfortable. The pilot explained how easy it was for almost anything that adhered to the basic rules of aerodynamics to stay airborne, and Harvey got annoyed.
Harvey raised his hand. ‘What if you run out of fuel?’
The pilot smiled. ‘Don’t worry, passenger jets always carry more fuel than they need.’
‘What if they don’t? What if there’s been a mistake?’
‘Then they’ll just land at the nearest airport and refuel.’
‘What if there isn’t one nearby?’
‘Modern passenger jets can glide on zero fuel for over a hundred miles.’
‘But what if you’re over the pacific?’
The Pilot paused a moment and took deep breath. ‘If a plane is forced to ditch at sea, it tends to stay afloat. There’s electronic beacons, inflatable rafts, an entire range of safety measures.’
‘What if they’re all broken?’ said Harvey. ‘What if the plane sinks?’
‘Sinks?’
‘To the bottom of the ocean. Then explodes!’
The pilot sighed. ‘Well…then…you might die.’
‘A-ha!’ shouted Harvey. ‘You see!’
A point well made, I thought. I nodded at Harvey like we were long lost brothers.

At lunchtime no one ate anything – visions of Harvey floating past a burning aircraft engine had made the menu pretty much redundant. However, the rattle of tiny pill bottles filled the restaurant and soon we were all flying with confidence again. Psychology was the next class. A softly spoken therapist in his sixties told us all to close our eyes and picture that we were sitting on a plane – he was going to talk us through an imaginary take-off and landing. I don’t know what other people saw in their mind’s eye, but as I tried to imagine myself on a plane, all I could see were ostriches, emus and penguins – expert witnesses proving that even birds had begun to realize that flying was a really stupid thing to be doing. I heard the therapist’s calming voice. ‘Now look out of your window,’ he said. ‘As the plane tilts back on the runway…and slowly takes to the air.’ It was pointless. My imaginary plane had only been airborne for three seconds and had already suffered a massive mid air collision with a 747. I opened my eyes and looked around – only half the class were still in the room. The therapist gathered us all and we tried again. We all sat back down. I shut my eyes and tried to imagine my plane taking off once more. It was different this time – no mid air collision with a 747. This time it was an Airbus.

There were plenty of classes that day, but as we got closer to the flight finale they became lost in a mist of panic – I’m not sure I can remember what the final class was even about. What I do remember was a guy arriving at the hotel and telling us that the buses to take us to the airport were waiting outside. It was a seriously fucked-up moment. The plan was to just sit on the runway for an hour and get used to being in a plane. We were told that if any of us felt it was getting too much, we could just opt out – that they’d open the cabin door and we could leave. It was this freedom that got us all onto the plane – a small two-engine Airbus. We slowly filled it up from the rear seats forwards. Everyone wanted to sit at the back – I discovered the reason for this is that planes rarely reverse into cliff faces. We all sat there, and even bearing in mind the pills, I was surprised at how calm we were. What changed everything was when they closed the cabin door. Harvey started to cry, and they opened it again. This sequence of closing the door, tears, and opening the door, happened three times before Harvey finally accepted that he was going to die that afternoon and sat down near the front of the plane.

We taxied out onto the runway. A pilot stood in the cabin with a microphone, explaining every sound that we heard coming from the plane. We stopped for a moment and were told that we were just waiting for clearance from the tower. But there were a hundred-and-twenty neurotics on this plane, and every one of us was now waking up to the fact that this was a really bad idea. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God or Evolution, neither had decided to give us wings, and they’ve had four billion years to consider it. But it was too late – with a huge surge the plane accelerated. The engines – only two of them for Christ’s sake – grinded outside, and with the subtlest of dips, the plane took to the air. But it’s air. It’s just fucking air! Passengers burst into tears all around the cabin. The therapist grabbed the microphone and told us all to do our deep breathing exercises. But how the fuck was that going to help – unless I’m about to cough up a parachute, why bother? For two minutes no one could sit still, only a few of us could even open our eyes – all we could hear above the engines was Harvey whispering prayers into a soaked handkerchief.

Then a strange thing happened – the plane levelled out above the clouds. And it’s beautiful up there. Even those of us who’d flown before – we’d forgotten quite how beautiful. The mood changed. Outside the sky was blue and the plane felt almost at home there. We circled London, and before we even knew it, we’d landed. We didn’t crash, we didn’t explode, the plane hardly made a squeak without the pilot telling us it was going to happen before it did. And one by one, we all started to feel like heroes. And that was the moment that really stayed with me. The looks on our faces as we emerged from the plane – swaggering out of the cabin like we were invincible – like we were a herd of John McClanes emerging from the Nakatomi building, ‘That’s right, we lived through it, motherfucker. Now get me a shot of Bourbon. Just make the sure the glass isn’t chipped, that’s all.’