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.
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.
The 80s were a period of crisis for gay people – but emerging from the decade, the LGBT community would make huge leaps forward in the 90s and beyond. However, in 1989, an issue of Gay Times in my archives makes pretty sad reading.
For a start, the Conservative government had introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act which instructed local councils that they could not “promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. It would be illegal to present gay couples as an acceptable form of family life.
The repercussions of this legislation were very real – and intended. For years, Labour councils that had funded LGBT events, liaison officers and festivals had been crucified in the tabloids as being party of the “loony left”. Millennial readers may struggle to comprehend just how unacceptable it was to large swathes of British public opinion to tolerate gay relationships let alone fund anything to do with the LGBT community.
The Gay Times reported that the Scottish Homosexual Action Group was seeking a judicial review of a decision by Edinburgh District Council to no longer give financial support to open air lesbian and gay festival, Lark In The Park. A council spokesman agreed it had funded the event before but now couldn’t because of the change in the law. Section 28 had real and very sharp teeth.
Why were the Tories so hostile to LGBT people at this time? In the years leading up to Section 28, often referred to as Clause 28, the HIV/AIDS virus had hit gay people hard. Far from receiving sympathy, the tabloids and some very vocal politicians had portrayed the virus as a judgement on a “sick” “lifestyle”. It was referred to as a “gay plague” and in one survey in 1987, three quarters of the UK public stated they thought being homosexual was “always or mostly wrong”.
A “joke” published in The Sun newspaper went like this:
A gay man goes home to his parents and tells them he’s got good news and bad news. The bad news is I’m gay. The good news is I’ve got Aids.
To give you an indication of how bad attitudes were over AIDS on both sides of the Atlantic, a British man was deported from the United States when a small quantity of the drug zidovudine (AZT) and a business card from the Terrence Higgins Trust (an AIDS charity) were found on him by customs. Henry Wilson was held in a jail cell in Minnesota while on his way to San Francisco to take part in trials for a new anti-viral drug CD4.
As for Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister throughout the 80s, her supporters have argued in recent years that she liked certain gay men as individuals. But I’m afraid as a group, she kicked gay men in the teeth when they were already coping with friends and partners dying in their hands. When Section 28 was being repealed in 2003, Baroness Thatcher, as she had then become, sat next to Lady Young as she opposed the scrapping of this discriminatory legislation.
In better news back in the 80s, Denmark became the first country to legalise civil marriage for LGBT couples in 1989. But it was way ahead of the UK and most of the European Union at this time. If anything, the AIDS virus and a political move to the right had pushed LGBT rights backwards.
From memory, my first pocket calculator was given to me by Dad around 1977. Like the first mobile phones, it was a clunky bit of hardware. But it seemed magical. Not only could multiplication and division be done rapidly, there was no need for that dog eared log book to calculate cosines or my completely incomprehensible slide rule.
I hated maths. Always preferred arty subjects. But if I had to do maths – which I did to ‘O’ (ordinary) level – then I was going to use my calculator. Or so I thought. Because in the 70s, calculators were viewed as a form of cheating. So in spite of the march of technology, you still had to master the bloody slide rule.
Why? I mean, when I went to the local greengrocers, did the shopkeeper sit there with an abacus to work out my bill? No, there was a till. For the life of me, I couldn’t work out why I was denied the opportunity to take my Texas Instruments calculator into the exam room.
Unbelievably, this debate has rumbled on into the 21st century! There are still stringent conditions about the use of calculators in GCSEs with some papers prohibiting their use. Obviously using a calculator in your smartphone is not allowed as somebody might be texting you the exam answers from outside.
All that aside, calculators were so amazing in the late 70s and early 80s, that the German band Kraftwerk even wrote a song composed on them. I saw this gig at the Lyceum in London in 1981.
Back in 1979, the lawless and only recently financially bankrupt city of New York spawned a group of vigilante do-gooders called the Guardian Angels.
The idea was that these trained young individuals would ride the city’s subway system looking out for any wrongdoing. Like anybody else, they could make a citizen’s arrest.
At the time, this got quite a bit of publicity in the UK media. Then somebody got the bright idea to bring it over to London. I can say from the outset, Londoners didn’t like the Guardian Angels one bit.
You’d be on the tube and these guys in their T-shirts and berets would be standing at the end of the carriage like an ominous presence. It was too weird and alien for Britain and mercifully the whole thing petered out.