27 April 2011
When I got off that plane from South America in 2007 – the bit between my teeth – I’d calculated that writing a book might take a few months.
With hindsight, such naiveté was probably for the best.
I didn’t faff: visit your people, arrange your life, then get down to work. The first sniff that my calculations were wildly mistaken came when it took a week just to type-up my notes. By then life was crashing down.
That summer, when I thought I was going hard, I was really only skilling-up. There was a pause in mid-August for the last summer party at the old gaff, then the world crashed down some more. Witnessing an exchange between my mother and her eldest brother: two people who were bound together and yet whose relationship had utterly disintegrated. Decades of poison. Locked-down, dysfunctional, behaviour. Now it’s your problem. Good luck.
By September 2007, I was running as fast as I could. At the year’s end, shut-up in the shed, months of writing behind me, the book’s heart had taken shape. The fusion of the cerebral and the experiential. The top of the hill. From January 2008, I was only accelerating. By March, the prolonged lighting strike was upon me. The pivotal experience of my life. I’d read about those sorts of things happening to people, and there I was. By June, when I returned to London, the crucible moment was already behind me.
Not that this was apparent to anyone else.
The next bit – picking every hour out of a seven-day work cycle – was the slog. Back then, I never talked about the book except when responding to direct questions (‘Is it about science?’). When I was invited out for the weekend I’d make cryptic statements about ‘doing administration.’ Only my review team and direct co-workers could see what I was up to.
That slog phase concluded with the head-cracking madness of summer 2009. Zooming between my work desk, my writing desk, Liverpool Street Station and Mum’s deathbed. Then, when all that came to its end, the pressure intensified.
‘We need to get these things done, Peter.’
‘I’m nearly there. Please. Trust me. I just need a little more time.’
But the problems had been piling up for two years. There are only so many excuses one can make.
I only once came close to breaking. At the end of 2009, a maelstrom of other people’s tragedy and a ghastly catch-22 situation were upon me. One December morning, seething with fury and having not slept a wink, I came into work teetering on the edge. Claire Russell spotted it. Speaking words of wisdom and reason, she pulled me back. Fifty days later, the book was done. Then all those problems began to unravel.
There have been moments of inordinate frustration. All my key material was in place nearly three years ago. I’m gagging to get it into the world. However, I decided at the beginning to go for the stars, in a seamless and sexy delivery system, and I have the advantage of knowing what I want to do with my life. So I’ve kept telling myself: play the long game, don’t lose your head, don’t mess this up, you only get one chance.
Back during the first winter after returning to the UK, Mum, Dad and I went to visit Ruth and her family for Christmas. Late one night, when everyone else was in bed, Mum and I went for a walk. It was freezing. We meandered along the Beverley canal, arm in arm, wrapped up with scarves. That was just when it was all coming together in the shed. Following six months of solid round-the-clock work, my concept-articulation skills had improved to the point where I could do the very difficult thing that I was attempting to do.
I was talking about it. Mum was urging caution. That was sensible. But she couldn’t see what was happening in that shed. No one else could. But I could. I could see, at that point, that I was going to do it and that it was only a matter of time before I did.
And now I almost have.