Back in the early 80s, the percentage of young people in Britain going to university was much lower than it is today. And there was often a much higher degree of hostility between local youth and those allegedly privileged sods on the campus up the road.
At Liverpool, the university was often referred to locally as the “hotel on the hill” – not helped that it was literally on a hill looking down, as it were, on the city below.
Regrettably, the wrath of the dispossessed did occasionally land on a student through know fault of their own. One favourite tactic was to ask a student the time, just to check if they had a non-“scouse” accent before connecting a fist with their rosy-cheeked face.
All of this was thoroughly reprehensible but a flavour of the time I fear. Here is the university newspaper reporting on one such incident.
If you’re stuck indoors with the Coronavirus lockdown – which of course I hope you are (but in good health) – you might be kicking around for something to do. So I’ve had a brainwave.
Why don’t I talk to you about how I wrote the biographies of boxer Errol Christie and the Specials vocalist Neville Staple. No Place To Hide and Original Rude Boy were both published by Aurum Press and Errol’s biography was put up for two national prizes. But it was a long slog to get there – and I’ll share that journey below.
With a bit of luck – you might feel emboldened to try your hand at a biography yourself. Maybe you know a personality from back in the day whose life story deserves to be spread far and wide. Let me help you do that!
I went through a very steep learning curve so here’s some of the lessons I learned about writing a biography and getting it into print. And I’m not charging for this. It’s free advice at no cost. I know – hard to believe eh?
Back in 2005, I took up boxing aged 42. Sort of mid-life crisis thing I suppose. Gym Box had just opened in Holborn, London and I noticed that their star trainer was Errol Christie. Now I remembered him from the early 1980s being a regular fighter on ITV’s Saturday night boxing programme.
So, with a little trepidation, I marched up to Errol and asked him to teach me how to box. Only after a year huffing and puffing in the ring did I discover he’d been trying to write his biography. He’d partnered with other people occasionally but had got nowhere.
To gain Errol’s confidence, I told him that firstly we’d have a strict plan of action. Note taking at lunch or in the early evening two or three times a week. A chapter delivered every month. The two of us would read it out loud together and he’d register the changes he wanted – which he did in disapproving growls normally!
From an early stage, I started to put together a submission for literary agents. To get your book ‘properly’ published, you still need an agent. No matter what you think of agents! To be taken seriously, you have to prepare a synopsis of your book; a breakdown of the chapters and a couple of sample chapters – ideally the first chapter should be one of them.
This will give you a clear plan of action – even if you wait a while before sending it out. Don’t start a book with a blank page. Have a structure in your head and an approach to the writing. Things will change as you go along but…..no blank page!
Don’t worry about the introduction to the book at the beginning of the writing process – that’s something you might even write at the very end when you have a clearer idea of the whole book. And don’t keep re-writing chapter one over and over as some authors do – push yourself forward to the next chapter instead of being mired in the first pages. This is a sign of insecurity you need to overcome.
With regards to the agent’s submission, be prepared to show some marketing flair at the outset. Agents want to see a minimum of 5,000 books sold in an ideal world. They often don’t reach that figure. Have an extra sheet where you identify your target audiences for sales; media that is likely to be interested in reviewing the book and your social media strategy.
If you think marketing is tawdry – you may struggle to get an agent. Half the battle is writing the book and the other half is getting anybody to buy it. And there is no ‘slow burn’ these days in publishing. If it doesn’t fly off the shelves straight away, bookstores won’t stock it.
With the writing process, I found the biggest struggle was to get the ‘voice’ right. Early drafts of chapters for Errol’s book were too raw for my agent. But I didn’t want to lose that street fighter way of expressing himself. It was a struggle to find a voice that captured Errol but also pleased the end reader.
Biographies aren’t literal transcriptions of what your subject says – they convey the essence of that person but it has to be a powerful and attractive read at the same time. I can’t describe exactly what happens when you get the voice right but all I can say is that when you do, the words tip out on to the page that much easier. Hope that makes sense!
Choosing the episodes in a person’s life is crucial. You need to magnify something that sums up what was going on in their teen years or twenties, etc.
An incident becomes something epic. With Neville Staple, I turned a fight between his rude boy mates and skinheads with Stanley knives in a public park into a ‘battle’ – almost something you’d expect to find in a history book!
I also immersed myself in the ‘sound system’ scene of the mid-70s to convey what Neville was up to with his mate Trevor Evans and Rex Griffiths. Loved writing that chapter because I knew nothing about the sound system scene but getting to understand the nitty-gritty of it meant I could give a real flavour of life for black youth in the mid-70s.
Relating your biographies to big events in the wider world is always powerful. With both Errol Christie and Neville Staple, I was able to draw in a mountain of 1970s cultural observations and then move to the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the impact that had on their lives.
People don’t exist in a vacuum and these lives weren’t experienced in isolation from politics and economics. Errol’s boxing career culminates in a horrible fight at Wembley revealing the racism and violence that were endemic at the time. Neville sings with The Specials as Britain explodes into rioting during the summer of 1981 – when youth unemployment had scaled appalling heights.
Finally, get a celebrity endorsement at the start if you can – or a relevant voice who your readers will respect. The BBC journalist Steve Bunce wrote the intro to the Errol Christie biography and then featured him on his radio programme. Pete Waterman wrote the intro to Neville’s book because aside from his 80s jangly pop incarnation – Pete briefly managed The Specials and more importantly, was a DJ and huge promoter of reggae in the 1970s.
I’ve done a totally different type of writing in recent years – political stuff and ghost authoring. But I’m limbering up for another biography – keep you posted! And good luck with your efforts!
The lockdown should unlock your creative juices!!!
I have a huge, towering stack of music papers from the 1980s in my study including the NME, Record Mirror, Sounds, Melody Maker, Smash Hits, Fab 208, etc, etc, etc. And in one edition of Fab 208, the editor had asked famous popstars of the day to draw themselves.
Most noteworthy for me was Dave Wakeling of The Beat who was the only pop star to depict himself in profile. The magazine noted that he feels strong about world problems.
The Beat were a very political combo and I had the honour of interviewing the late Ranking Roger for the biography I co-wrote of Neville Staple of The Specials.
From 1979, inflation doubled in the first year of the Thatcher administration from 10% to 22%. The recession that followed brought the rate down to 5% in 1980. At the same time, unemployment soared to a breathtaking three million – and that was the official figure.
For Thatcher, inflation was always a bigger priority than unemployment. This was unusual at the time because memories of the starving jobless in the 1930s still loomed large in Britain.
Whereas in Germany, memories of hyper-inflation chimed more with the Thatcher viewpoint. That’s not to say British people weren’t fed up with price rises in the 70s – but the spectre that haunted families more was the prospect of the breadwinner being out of work.
To combat inflation, Thatcher embraced an economic theory called “monetarism” that necessitated high interest rates, higher taxes (VAT doubled almost straight away) and sharp cuts in public spending. The result of what one politician dubbed “voodoo economics” was disastrous for millions of people between 1979 and 1981.
It didn’t even work very well as a theory. Inflation was brought under control by 1980 but the money supply continued to grow. So there were further spending cuts that led to calamitous falls in economic output and whole regions de-industrialised. Unsurprisingly – monetarism was dumped by 1984.
To get a clearer idea of Thatcher’s thinking on inflation, I found a 1974 speech made in Preston by Thatcher’s economic guru Keith Joseph. He made it very clear that inflation was regarded by the Tories as the main enemy and not the traditional bogey of unemployment.
In fact, he argued, governments had been so spooked by the Great Depression of the 1930s that they thought mass joblessness was always around the corner. So governments spent money and then tried to hold down pay with incomes policies – always unsuccessfully.
Keith Joseph’s words in 1974 make interesting reading given what was to happen in Thatcher’s first two years in power with unemployment leaping:
It is perhaps easy to understand; our post-war boom began under the shadow of the 1930s. We were haunted by the fear of long-term mass unemployment, the grim, hopeless dole queues and towns which died. So we talked ourselves into believing that these gaunt, tight-lipped men in caps and mufflers were round the corner, and tailored our policy to match these imaginary conditions. For imaginary is what they were.
“Inflation is caused by governments” – speech by Keith Joseph in 1974
Already by the mid-1970s, people were shocked by an unemployment level of 500,000. Joseph swept that aside. Public money should not be used to create jobs. And anyway, he went on, a significant percentage of the unemployed were shirkers and scroungers.
There are the drifters and hippies who draw “welfare” but engage in activities to earn money, legal or illegal. From time to time the Ministry carries out local checks, and suddenly the number of registered unemployed melts away. How many fraudulent unemployed there are at any given time can only be estimated, but they probably account for at least a tenth of the registered unemployed at normal times. We ought to do more about such people, but expanding demand will not turn them into honest men.
“Inflation is caused by governments” – speech by Keith Joseph in 1974
Forty years ago, attitudes towards LGBT people were majority unaccepting. Gay and lesbian rights activists were derided as part of the “loony left”. And for many LGBT people, the choice was either living in a social ghetto or staying firmly in the closet.
AIDS hadn’t come to prominence at the start of the decade but once awareness of the HIV virus increased, attitudes worsened. This was largely fuelled by tabloid newspaper headlines blaring “gay plague” and a lack of public education – at first.
Role models for LGBT people were in short supply. In popular entertainment, gay men were almost invariably effeminate or led tragic lives culminating in some grim death. The idea that gays and lesbians could lead mundane, suburban existences living peacefully with their neighbours was far off.
Homosexuality had been legalised back in 1967 but legal recognition didn’t mean social tolerance. Although cultural phenomenon like disco music in the 70s made gay people more visible and arguably confident, things appeared to go into reverse in the 1980s.
The worst expression of this was Section 28 of the Local Government Act in 1988 that included the provision that local authorities were not to “promote homosexuality”. This has now been abolished and nowadays similar legislation only pops up in Putin’s Russia and certain African countries renowned for their homophobia.
I recently discovered an old school exercise book from a subject called Civic Studies that was part of our curriculum around 15 years of age. We had to write out answers to a series of questions that went like this:
Q: Who supplies our electricity? A: The Central Electricity Generating Board
Q: Who runs the country’s mines? A: The National Coal Board
And so it went on. This was an economy that could be described more as state capitalist than socialist. Civil servants and professional managers and technocrats ran industries that successive government in the post-war period believed were essential to the national interest.
Both Conservative and Labour governments presided over publicly owned and managed industries. Two world wars had revealed the need for better run key industries. There was also a perception that the private sector had under-invested and poorly managed many of these assets in recent decades. British capitalism was deemed to have lost the drive and verve that had powered the Industrial Revolution.
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party was calling for rail and mail services to be re-nationalised during the 2019 general election. But go back forty years and it would amaze you to see what was under public control – though about to be privatised by the Thatcher government.
Take for example the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC). This was created by a Labour government in 1975 to ensure that the British public would have a stake in any North Sea oil licences and thereby derive a share of the profit from oil and gas exploration. This approach was very similar to what Norway did with the creation of Statoil – a government owned entity that delivered guaranteed pensions to the Norwegian population. It’s now part of a large multinational called Equinor but at the time of writing, the Norwegian state remains the largest shareholder.
The UK, however, went down a very different route. Thatcher created a rather mediocre private sector interest called Britoil that was snapped up by British Petroleum (BP). What’s now forgotten is that BP was a nationalised asset up until 1979 – having been created under a Conservative government in the early 1950s. The BP sell-off was huge and managed by the global investment firm Goldman Sachs.
British Airways (BA) was created by the government in 1974. The world’s favourite airline – as it likes to claim – was state owned and set up to take over the assets of British European Airways (BEA) and the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). This was a time when most national carriers were owned by governments in Europe. It wasn’t an early sell-off, only being privatised in 1987.
So, the “mixed economy” of state and private run companies was very different to the UK today. Ships were built by British Shipbuilders. Gas was supplied by the British Gas Corporation. Cars were made by British Leyland. And you boarded trains run by British Rail. All of these were privatised over a 20-year period from 1979. This dramatically changed the structure of British capitalism and made the idea of public ownership very alien to younger generations.
As I pointed out earlier, these nationalised interests were run by civil servants and professional managers. Relations between the boardroom and workforce could be every bit as fractious as the private sector. Indeed, some of the biggest strikes of the 1970s were in nationalised industries. And they were often taken into public ownership more out a dire need for reorganisation and urgent bail-out than any grand socialist design.
Such was the case with British Leyland, the car maker. It was created in 1968 by bolting together several auto companies in the hope of creating a British equivalent to General Motors of the United States – and saving troubled brands like Jaguar. But the company lacked a common purpose and the car designs were naff compared to what Ford and GM were producing. That said, I can remember plenty of people driving British Leyland cars in the 1970s. However – it was broken up and most of the brands are now in overseas hands.
During the economic recession of the early 1980s – coupled with a deliberate policy of “slimming down” state run assets for privatisation – there were mammoth job losses. Regardless of your political views, the impact on cities around the UK was seismic. And arguably the aftershocks are still being felt today.
British Steel saw 82,300 jobs shed between 1979 and 1983. The National Coal Board released 36,500 miners between 1978 and 1983 – with many more to go after the 1984/85 miners strike. British Shipbuilders made over 20,000 workers redundant between 1979 and 1982. British Airways also lost 20,000 staff in the same period. This changed the very nature of Britain by degrees from a manufacturing, blue-collar nation in the north and Midlands to communities with more white-collar jobs, “flexible” labour and persistent unemployment in the 1980s.
During the economic collapse between 1979 and 1983 overseen by Margaret Thatcher, many household name brands disappeared. In 1982, there were over 12,000 company liquidations – two and a half times more than 1979. Personal bankruptcies were also up about 60% over that period. So, what household names were destroyed at this time?
In the air industry, Laker Airways was grounded on 5 February, 1982. Sir Freddy Laker had been a well known face on TV pioneering the idea of cheap flights between London and New York. This was a time when the idea of going to the United States was a dream for most people. He launched the “Skytrain” in 1977 and introduced the idea of movies on flights – unheard of before then. Despite his entrepreneurial flair, he could not survive Maggie’s recession.
In the clothing sector, names such as Janet Reger (underwear), Morland (sheepskin), Libro (leisure wear) and Alligator (rainwear) went bust. In the retail sector, some big prestige brands closed their doors for the last time. This included Swan and Edgar, Timothy Whites, Dicky Dirts, Supasave and the ultra-chic Biba brand. In the world of shoes, it was goodbye to Norvic and Mr Henry.
The toy sector was completely decimated in the UK. Airfix came unstuck – a company that had provided us with model planes and historical figures to glue together throughout our childhood. The auto sector saw big cuts at the nationalised car maker British Leyland. But it was also cheerio to the iconic De Lorean and Hesketh motorbikes.
Even the world of sports wasn’t spared with Wolverhampton Wanderers football club and Hull City rugby league club facing the cliff edge at that time.