The literature to which I was exposed in my childhood and youth didn’t extend beyond The Beano, Shoot, Newcastle United match day programmes and Viz. I would have doled out Chinese burns and stolen the crayons of children who read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had any attended my school. Beatrix Potter? A.A. Milne? C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl? Versus a game of football with your mates? A fire to light in the woods? Pensioners’s doors to knock and scarper from (sorry about that, by the way)? No competition.
For most children growing up working class in Tyneside during the 70s there was a particular rigid cycle into which you were snared. It was a cocooned environment where you moved seamlessly from your local school to whatever heavy industry employed your forefathers, a world where you drank down the club with kith and kin and where you invariably married a local lass. In exchange for cradle-to-grave work and welfare my forefathers gave the sweat of their brows.
For better or worse, this simple but powerful model of social determinism was brutally smashed by the Thatcher government of the 80s. What emerged were people like me – educational refuseniks, fodder for the traditional industries which vanished in front of our eyes as we left school, wiping out our futures. Had I announced to my parents in the mid-80s that I was dropping out to be a novelist I’d have been kicked from pillar to post before being marched down to Blaydon dole office to apply for any low-skilled, pre-minimum wage job available.
The sight of an angry, desperate matriarch dragging her errant son into the Job Centre by his ear as he proclaimed “but mam, I’m a novelist” while the clerks sniggered behind their desks was one to avoid during my image conscious teenage years.
A spell in higher education recalibrated me to find a more productive niche in our new post industrial world and my career was back on track. I still wrote in my spare time, mainly articles for Newcastle United fanzines and a few stabs at writing novels which ended up in the bins of various agents in that there London.
Nevertheless, each rejection offered something in the learning process (I lied to myself). I tended to write stories which drew upon my areas of interest – sport, politics, current affairs, Indian take-aways, drinking, smoking and humour. Melding that lot into a ripping yarn wasn’t easy I can tell you, but I stuck to it, stoically refusing to embrace any other outside influences.
I’d had one novel published in late 2010 but then spent the following two years, when not being sidetracked by life’s fripperies such as family life and work, trying to work out what to write next. The Blood, Sweat and Beers epiphany occurred while painting the bathroom one bleak winter’s day. Byker Books was looking for manuscripts of quirky sporting novels. While mulling that over between lacklustre brush strokes, former athlete Steve Cram came on the radio to talk about his Marathon of the North. I reflected on my mid-life crisis, burgeoning beer belly and bad lifestyle choices. This marathon could cure all of these evils and provide an interesting story in the process. I had my idea for a book which would cover topics such as…sport, politics, current affairs, Indian take-aways, drinking, smoking and humour.
The brush strokes quickened.
I began running and writing. Not at the same time, obviously. I then experienced the law of unintended consequences. Men from Tyneside council estates are about as in touch with their sensitive sides as Dirty Harry Callahan. Gazing into the flickering laptop screen I was confronted with the uncomfortable realisation that I had to expose myself by talking about my past experiences in order to explain how they influenced the present. This was an oddly difficult thing to do. It wasn’t that I had any particularly deep-seated psychological hang-ups from my past to exorcise, quite the opposite. It was difficult simply because I was a male working class Geordie. Talking about one’s inner feelings publicly is akin to expressing your love of Sunderland AFC. We don’t do that sort of thing round here. If you met with your mates and began to raise issues of male angst you’d quickly end up drinking alone, before being burned out of your home and driven from your village by a pitchfork-wielding vigilante mob.
I contacted Byker Books with an outline of my idea and their reply, although non-committal, was encouraging. Or was that just to get rid of me? If it was their tactic it failed miserably. The editor was given regular updates on progress, both on my writing and running. This was mainly to let him know our tab-smoking, beer-swilling, take-away loving, long-distance running narrator hadn’t suffered a fatal coronary.
Once the idea for Blood, Sweat and Beers popped into my head the format pretty much worked itself out. My dubious lifestyle choices combined with my complete lack of will power saw an offbeat, ‘non-traditional’ running story emerging. A tension would build up around whether I would or wouldn’t actually finish the marathon course.
The book was published a few months ago as an e-book and managed to get to number one in the Running and Jogging chart.
Blood, Sweat and Beers may appear at first glance to be the haphazard musings of a middle-aged man, semi-structured around a marathon training regime. In reality I was hauling along a lifetime of socially determined lifestyle choices. Every cigarette smoked, pint drank, press up, sit up, kebab and phal curry ate and the reasons why I consumed them were transported with me on the course to influence my finishing time. Think of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance meets Leonard ‘Oz’ Osborne from Auf Wiedersehen Pet. Those influences may not have helped turn me into a Geordie Gazell but they ended up forming a half-decent story. Well that’s my opinion anyway, you’ll have to make your own mind up.
By Graham March
Blood, Sweat & Beers is available for only 99p for a limited time on your Kindle or Kindle app – click this LINK for details