January 08, 2005

Poet days

Towards the end of 1997 I appeared as a guest on a couple of late-night sports programmes on TV, notably a show on Channel Four hosted by Danny Kelly. It's one of my Claims to Fame - along with my mention in Fever Pitch - not least because two of the other three guests on Mr Kelly's sofa were Sharron Davies and Bruce Grobbelaar.

I was on there to promote a book I had written, Moving The Goalposts. I think this was supposed to be the beginning of my brilliant career. I should have known better. The portents weren't that good. Not so much the Channel Five phone-in where only one person phoned in all programme, but the fact that, if I remember the chronology correctly, I was made redundant from my job the day after the book was published. It might have been the day before, come to think of it. It's not important. It wasn't even all that important at the time, or wouldn't have been had I managed to make any money from the book. I got a part-time job at a university library, which I liked very much, and I thought I would be able to sustain myself from that and from the proceeds of my writing. I was very wrong.

I had no idea how little you got paid for writing a book, or, put another way, how few copies most books manage to sell. My only previous experience was of being a contributor to a book called My Favourite Year, which I knew had sold tens of thousands of copies. I wasn't stupid, or so I thought. I didn't expect to sell tens of thousands. I did, perhaps, hope to sell a few thousand.

I didn't expect to make forty thousand pounds or something. But, having had an advance of £3250, and my only prior experience being that the advance was far from the only payment you received, I thought I might make ten thousand overall. Or even five thousand. Not enough to make it a full-time living or anything. But enough to make a start, enough to work part-time and write part-time, with perhaps some newspaper and magazine work happening, perhaps the advances becoming a bit larger each time, my reputation hopefully increasing, my readership increasing likewise. Moving into different areas (since although I used to write about football, it was never really football, as such, of which I was writing) . Attracting notice. Establishing a back catalogue. Becoming known.

How well-thought out it all was, and what nonsense it turned out to be. The book sold around five hundred copies, which appears to be about what hardbacks normally sell. I never saw another penny from it or, indeed, came within a thousand miles of doing so. The publishers never put out a paperback or anything. They gave me another contract - for less money - to write another book, but I was never able to start it, let alone finish it or have it published. I don't write about football any more. I don't really write about anything any more, this blog apart.

Had I known, I would, I think, have done things differently. I would have tried to increase my hours at the library as close to full-time as I could, and tried to write in my spare time - a perfectly viable thing to do provided you don't expect to write, say, more than one book every two years or so. That would have been all right. It would have been holiday money, luxury money, rather than my income as such. It would have been OK. I could still have written the occasional article for magazines rather than having to scrabble desperately for work as freelances have to do. Most of all, my expectations would have been very different. I would have known what was coming. I probably wouldn't have been so desperately disappointed. And a lot of things might have turned out very differently than they actually did.

What if, what if. It doesn't matter now, except to me, and then occasionally. But last night I was watching Newsnight Review on BBC2, with Kirsty Wark, Rosie Boycott and Tom Paulin. And I remembered that there was a fourth person on that sofa back in 1997, a bloke called Ian McMillan who had recently, in a somewhat original appointment, been made Poet in Residence at Barnsley Football Club. Last night they had a new and unfamiliar name on the panel and it wasn't until they introduced him, as the Poet in Residence at Barnsley Football Club that I realised who he was.

I don't know exactly what I thought. It's that bloke that I was on the telly with, I thought. And I suppose that, looking at it rationally, just because I was sitting on a sofa with Bruce Grobbelaar doesn't mean that I could ever have kept goal for Liverpool. So I don't know that I thought, that could have been me. I don't think I really thought anything as unlikely as that. But you can't think nothing. And I looked at him and I thought, it's funny how things turn out.


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