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This is the Fierce Last Stand of all I Am: the story behind Fire Horses

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

A few months after my debut novel, Fire Horses, was published, a small literary magazine called “The View From Here” asked me to write how the book came about. This unflinching, but hopefully inspiring piece for wannabe authors, is the result.

Oh, the title: from The Smiths, of course…

“This is the Fierce Last Stand of all I Am”

View from Here Magazine

March 2009

One day last summer someone texted to say they’d just seen my novel in a bookshop. Leaving work early I tubed it to Camden and walked slowly into Waterstones. I’d fantasised about this moment for so many years that I wanted to savour every moment. There it was: “Fire Horses”. Holding it in my hands I closed my eyes in supplication.

It’s tempting now to look back over my life and see everything as part of some inevitable destiny. But until last year, even with a few short stories and poems published, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever have a full-length work of fiction accepted. All I had was an instinct, an excuse: if you fill your life with experience, you might have something to write about.

‘It was exciting, alone with the lightning...’

I wrote this rhyme as a ten-year-old only child, wandering the slopes and streets of what was then a grimy mill town to which mum had fled, leaving Manchester for a tumbledown wreck on the hills. For companionship I wrote poems and jokes, peppering my imagination with imaginary enemies; creating alternative realities to those bleak, Wuthering moors.

When mum re-married we moved to the backside of town and I became one of the park hoodies, drinking cider, taking drugs, fighting for kicks: young people haven’t changed as much in 25 years as the media like to pretend. At the comp where I’d learned to survive by acting stupid my English teacher asked if I’d ever considered writing for a living; I hadn’t, the very idea seemed bizarre.

Like a lot of disaffected people I started to like the idea of becoming a writer but I was deemed too disruptive to stay on at school. Having left home that same summer I was sleeping in cellars and on sofas, sharing damp rooms with friends. Unable to find work or sign on I turned more and more to crime and started to get into trouble with the law. Eventually I took to supplementing the pittance I got from a training scheme tending Sylvia Plath’s grave by nefarious means.

Fortunately by then I’d met Linda, a local mum who took me in as part of her family. When Linda moved to London she asked if I’d like to come: I didn’t have to think for long. I was 18 and wanted to see 20.

With Linda’s encouragement I fell into freelance journalism, documenting the dispossessed – the homeless, addicts, Kirk Brandon. In Belfast I interviewed the leader of the UDA shortly before he was assassinated then sold the piece to the Observer. Soon I was living in an Archway squat, wrote for the broadsheets and even presented a chunk of Channel 4’s Network 7 (not an experience I’d wish to repeat).

But I grew bored by the stories I wrote; my own life and times seemed more interesting. Sometimes it seemed I was undercover in my own life, not sure if I was researching the seamier side of life, or part of it. Abandoning journalism I eked out a living labouring, cleaning, and signing on (or as I saw it, my government grant).

As part of this instinct for experience I got into the burgeoning rave scene; as the Great Hurricane knocked out London I wandered round Soho on acid; I drank the pubs dry and travelled the world, searching for recognition, placidity, and love, bearing my hypocritical oath: embrace your contradictions.

Frankly, I was impossible.

My first attempt at a novel “proper” started as an excuse to the dole, a chat-up line, a way off the building site; and also perhaps as a way to bring a semblance of order to the chaos of my life (much of it my own creation). Unfortunately, the first publisher I approached was complimentary about my writing; and so it was that I was condemned to a lonely place.

Publication became a possibility, then an obsession. Rewrite after rewrite, manuscripts despatched with powerless hope and atheist prayer, then those dismal mornings, coming down from some chemical haven, slugging cheap wine to toast the sunrise, sobbing as I heard the melancholic sound of the postman wrestling with the flap...

I’d rage to anyone who’d listen that the world of publishing was closed to me, they wouldn’t let me in; my memoir would be titled “The Opposite of Nepotism”. But the fact was, my writing was too raw, too uneven; good in places but probably unpublishable. When I look at it now I thank Christ it wasn’t published: but that’s now.

An angry young man, but never hard, I got into numerous fights; as the Whitty’s x-ray department can confirm the bus shelter won every time. One night I turned up on the doorstep of two friends covered in blood; they suggested I go to college. I spent three years learning about better writers than I and left Uni with a degree, debt, and an agent.

My agent couldn’t sell my “thriller”, my debts spiralled and my bank accounts closed down; once again booze and drugs filled the void. One night I put my hand through a window and the police who’d come to arrest me whisked me to hospital for emergency surgery. Then Linda, who had given me so much love and encouraged my writing, got ill and died. She was 50.

At 33 I was too old and too weary to go off the rails yet again. Instead, with the support of my new wife, I got off the dole, neglected the drink (though not completely) and took a fresh look at my writing. Being published was the only way I could make any sense of my hallucinogenic life.

Instead of writing another thriller I returned to the novel I’d first drafted when Thatcher was still theoretically in charge. Drugs-and-dole novels set in the Eighties have become a genre now; but that was the world I wanted to portray, not in the “phoney-phonetic” style used by Irvine Welsh’s pale imitators, but using a poetic style I persist in calling “savage whimsy”.

Our daughter arrived, the rejections got sweeter, but still I couldn’t get a deal so I went back to Manchester to take an MA in novel writing and complete Fire Horses, the love of my life. Manchester was the perfect place. In the book, the protagonist, Joe Noone (geddit?) returns home to Manchester after many years away, to discover how much he and his home city have changed.

All those courses can really teach you is how to edit, but that was what I needed. That first morning, as we sat in a ring introducing ourselves, the tutor said chances were only one of us would get published. I knew it would be me.

I’m sure everyone felt the same...

When my son was born and 40 struck I was saying to anyone who’d listen that it didn’t matter anymore if I ever got published; all that mattered was that I kept writing. But inside, I was in utter despair. I’d started out writing to avoid getting a job, then worked my arse off for twenty years, and all, it now seemed, for nothing.

One afternoon I received an email:

Hi Mark, just wanted to let you know that Tom has now finished reading Fire Horses and, to my delight, agrees with me that it could well be right for us. So…just wanted to let you know that we’re still very interested and would like to have another meeting to discuss things with you if that’s OK.

On that strange afternoon when I heard my novel had been accepted I sat in my study, Linda’s photograph looking down. When I thought of those who’d hurt me I felt vindicated; when I thought of those I’d hurt, I felt sad. The two cancelled each other out: I just felt numb.

They might not believe me but I never set out to hurt anybody – except, sometimes, myself. Nevertheless, sometimes people got hurt. All the pain, selfishness, friendships forsaken and lovers forced out by my obsession; was it really worth it? As I sat there, I had to remind myself I had no choice. There was nothing else I’d ever wanted to do. So: now what?

As I sat in this lonely place, uncertain even how to feel, my baby son stuck his head round the door, grinned toothlessly, and crawled towards me making happy noises. I knew, then, it was time to let go: the fight was over. Opening my arms I stooped to pick up my beautiful boy, and smiled.

(View From Here 2009)


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