Had things gone to plan, my life would be very different now.
I’d not be living in a squalid, two-up two-down terraced house on the outskirts of a failed industrial town in the north of England. I would, right at this moment, be dressed in a tuxedo, pistol tucked away in my shoulder holster and snogging the face off a raven haired beauty queen as I piloted an elegant speed boat away from a scene of devastation with a micro SD card containing the plans to a foreign power’s new nuclear facility in my possession. But, alas, it wasn’t to be.
It turns out that I’m too tall to be a successful secret agent, I stand out like a sore thumb. I’m also far too pretty, I would draw too much attention oozing, as I do, raw sexuality and animal magnetism. It’s hard to fight off the baddies with one hand as your fighting off the ladies with a shitty stick in the other. Also, I’ve got Asthma, a gammy knee and a dicky heart.
And so I sit here, the most successful spy the world has never known, banging away at the keys on a laptop so old and in such disrepair that, just like my heart, it threatens to give up at any moment. C’est la vie.
My failed career in spying started early.
Either by coincidence or because my father was forever coming home with things that had survived, intact, a fall from the back of a lorry and selling them to our neighbours, one Christmas I received a gift that my friend from across the street also received. A spy kit.
I’d torn the wrapping off eagerly to get at it, already having a good idea what it was having seen half a dozen of them in the garage under a tarpaulin alongside some orange Decca turntables and a case of whiskey. My mother admonished me for being so eager and told me I should read the label to see who it was off. I knew who it was off, but I did as bid.
“Lot’s of love, Mum & Dad. X”. My mother had a vague understanding of apostrophe usage.
The spy kit contained many things that would be of use in a daring mission. There was a briefcase that fired little plastic bullets and contained a false bottom. Beneath the false bottom, upon which was printed an incredibly unconvincing picture of some neatly packed clothes, was a treasure trove of espionage equipment. A knife, the blade of which disappeared into its own hilt so you could, pretty convincingly as it turned out, pretend to stab your sister to death, a gun with a silencer to muffle the faint click it made when you pulled the plastic trigger, a pair of binoculars that made things appear ever so slightly closer and a little bit blurry, a camera that squirted water and an I.D. card to prove you were working for MI6 and make any prosecution if captured behind enemy lines a cake walk for the foreign powers. Even to my young eyes, I could see this was a particularly shit present.
There was, however, one other item that proved invaluable. A little, black, plastic box with a slide switch on the side and four slim mirrors on the front that, when the slide switch was slid, tilted, rather like a Louvre blind. By directing this at a source of light it could be used to signal and communicate using Morse code. There was even a handy, little card that had the key to the code printed on it. Had I been the only one to possess such a remarkable device this, too, would have been particularly shit. But no, my mate Paul had one, and Paul’s bedroom faced mine. Handily, between our two bedrooms there was a street lamp providing the light source required for covert conversations.
It being winter, as is generally the case around Christmas time, it was dark more than it was light and Paul and myself would spend many any hour sending messages back and forth. It would take an age to have a conversation, we both knew it would be far easier to open our windows and shout, but our way was far more fun.
Many years later, after watching Smokey and the Bandit, I discovered the delights of Citizen’s Band radio. Having talked my parents into buying me one for Christmas, wrapped in gaudy paper and with the obligatory “Lot’s of love, Mum and Dad. X” label, I would spend hours chatting to people for miles around. Invariably, I knew the people I was chatting to and had their phone numbers, but our way was much more fun.
Then came the internet, mobile phone and social networking. Now, finally, I can chat to people from all over the world, share thoughts and ideas, pictures and videos, without ever having to clap eyes on a single one of them. A wonderfully wide and eclectic selection of people are at my fingertips, I can share my ideas and listen to theirs, I can have long held beliefs challenged and changed by the words of people that I would never normally encounter and I can challenge and change theirs. Or just find myself blocked and called some nasty names. I could, of course, do exactly the same thing in person by getting out more, meeting and engaging with the wonderfully wide and eclectic selection of people that live lives like mine all around me, but I don’t. Although that way would be much more fun.
As is so often the case when I sit here puffing on my pipe and trying to get a vague point across using pretty words, I’ve digressed.
Apparently, rather than a secret agent, I’m a writer. I would never describe myself as such. I regularly get introduced to people as an author. I stare at my feet, embarrassed, thinking “no I’m not, I’m just…” but then I struggle to think what other word would describe what I do and can’t think of one. So, how can I be a writer if I can’t think of the right words to explain to people that I‘m not a writer? It’s quite a paradox.
I didn’t ever intend to be a writer. I certainly never believed I would be asked to sign a book I had written by a complete stranger, a person that knew me without me knowing them, but it happens now and is happening more and more frequently. People say they like my books and that embarrasses me. I keep thinking that, at some point, I’ll be found out, that someone will say “hang on, he’s not an author, he’s that lad from Salford, the one that never settled down and was never any good at anything”. I see a new review has been left for one of my books and my dicky heart skips a beat. I take hours to summon up the courage to take a look, convinced that the poor fool who parted with hard earned brass on one of my books will have said something along the lines of “this wasn’t written by an author, he’s taking the piss”, but, at least so far, that’s not happened. Yet.
Rather than being an author, I think I’m just a bloke that enjoys telling stories but that lacks the confidence to talk, so I write them down instead. I can’t help myself. Since my day’s of street-lamp powered Morse code I’ve had an almost constant urge to tell people things, to offer opinions, to share my thoughts. When I write them down, people can choose to not read them. If I’m boring someone, or if I offend them, they can choose to close the book, but I’ve already said it all. My words may remain unread, but never unshared. And that’s the important part.
What is the point of a thought or idea if it remains unspoken? Is it ever right to keep perfectly good words locked away inside out heads to wither and die? Shouldn’t all thoughts be shared?
There has been an awful lot of talk in the media lately about freedom of speech. It’s an important concept, one of the foundations of western democracy and can provide the catalyst for change. I fear change, but I have to admit change is good.
(Usually. Don’t get me started on energy saving light bulbs.)
A thought spoken, however vile it may sound to someone, didn’t exist any less and was no less vile before it was uttered. It was still there. Words float away on the ether once the mouth that spoke closes. We can’t help being offended, and by God it’s our right to be offended. In my case, it’s a very enjoyable right. I love to be offended, to have something to disagree with and to be given a chance to speak words of my own.
It’s very hard to be offensive. Impossible, really. No one, other than a professional comedian playing a part, is offensive because he or she wants to be offensive. To them, their opinions are perfectly reasonable and should be shared. And they’re right.
Be offended, by all means. Tell the offender why they’ve offended you. Offer your own opinion but then, once offered, bear in mind that you might have just offended them. You might see your words as perfectly reasonable, they may well be, but always remember that the offender felt exactly the same way about his words.
No matter how offensive words are, accept them, consider them, reason them out and respond to them. Words, even the shortest of words, are to be cherished.
My dad died many years ago, just before Christmas. I had children by that point, so we still celebrated it, gathered around the tree at my mum’s place. I was last to open my gift, I don’t remember what it was, but as ever I read the label before tearing at the paper.
“Lot’s of love, Mum. X”
Sometimes, it’s the lack of a word that can hurt the most.