Only one person will ever really break your heart. It’s probably something you should try to get out of the way early in life – like measles or chicken pox.
In 2004 I was 24 and my French girlfriend told me she was having it off with the branch secretary of the anarcho-syndicalist union. Previous break-ups had caused me to experience a level of sadness that at the time had seemed worthy of the term ‘heartbreak’, but at 24 I cried for longer than it is physically possible to cry. I cried until I was exhausted and hungry and completely emptied by a vortex of grief in excess of anything that evolution had anticipated. There was, I eventually decided, only one thing to do: from the furnace of my anguish I would forge the new century’s first great novel.
There were a number of obstacles between me and literary greatness. For a start, I was semi-literate at best. I knew nothing about writing and had previously demonstrated neither any interest in literature nor any facility with language. But somehow it didn’t occur to me that this might be a problem. I filled notebooks with scribbled accounts of my emotional torment. Sometimes I dabbled in verse, producing evocative couplets such as ‘You left me and left me empty/ there is only blackness behind these locked gates of this tragic cemetery.’
Another problem was that I had nowhere to live. Being a tortured genius, I had paid little attention to the pragmatics of the break-up, but it soon became apparent that friends and acquaintances were tiring of my demoralising presence on their couches. I hitched from town to town, inconveniencing new people at every stop, and in a Manchester pub I met a Sicilian who offered me his spare room. As we walked to view the property, I asked why he’d left his native land for rainy Manchester. “I came for the work,” he told me. “Oh yeah?” I asked. “What d’you do?” “I am unemployed,” he said.
I was unemployed, too, which meant that paying him rent was going to be difficult. It wasn’t technically his house – ultimately it was the council’s, but it had been sub-let so many times that I’m not sure we even knew the name of the registered tenant. Someone told me that she was living in a Barcelona squat, but by now she’s probably returned to England, purchased the house under a right-to-buy scheme, and sold it for a handsome profit.
The house was in Redbricks, Hulme, which a few years earlier had made headlines by self-organising England’s first community intranet. Redbricks had been set for demolition in the 1990s, but the fact nobody else wanted to live there had enabled an influx of punks, anarchists, ageing Hulme party addicts, and eco-warriors recently evicted from protest sites around Manchester Airport. The residents organised a community kitchen in the local Grants Arms pub. There was a ‘tat table’ where they exchanged children’s books, video cassettes, three-legged chairs and broken bicycles. They planted a community garden. Late one night, they painted a zebra crossing on the dual carriageway that separated the estate from the city centre. They organised parties in subways to reclaim public space from gangs and muggers. But radical Redbricks was in many ways a victim of its own success. Having regenerated the community, the tenants found it was easier to see off muggers than market forces.
Still, when I arrived Redbricks remained an exciting place to live. What role I played in demoralising the community isn’t clear, but even the cider punks in Spider Park grew weary of my tales of heartbreak. In the mid-noughties, many a Hulme house party ended prematurely when I threatened to read a poem. Worse, I was constantly cadging cigarettes and alcohol. While unemployment might have been de rigueur in Redbricks, it was hard for me to sign on since my housemates couldn’t remember the complex web of lies that enabled them to draw housing benefit. I applied for office work, dishwashing, cashiering, and security, but the only person who’d employ me was a Nigerian car-washer whom I met in the Afewe Pub.
When not cleaning cars (and every day it was hit and miss whether my boss decided we should work), I wandered around South Manchester. I walked for hours until I was completely lost, and all the time I searched for the words that would adequately convey my suffering in this cruel world. But one day, when I was out walking, I saw something that changed the direction of my literary oeuvre.
I passed a derelict tower block that was awaiting demolition. Its windows were smashed and its courtyard was half-reclaimed by nature. A security fence had been erected around its perimeter and to it were affixed ominous safety warnings. But when I looked up I saw, several floors overhead, a woman bottle-feeding a baby. Why would anyone take a baby into a derelict tower block? So I abandoned my literary explorations of heartache, and instead I built a crime thriller around this mystery – the mystery of The Secret Baby Room.
Soon after I commenced writing my thriller, I found more formal employment at the Central Coach Station on Chorlton Street. There I fell in love with a girl from the ticket office (who turned out to be much nicer than the ex who’d broken my heart). At first the new girlfriend patiently endured my awful prose, but once the honeymoon period ended she suggested I find some other suckers to inflict it on. And so, in 2006, I started a Creative Writing evening class.
My fellow writers – including the woman who wrote in eclectic genres but only about cats – said that my work was brilliant. But they said everyone’s work was brilliant, and I could tell that they didn’t much like mine. And then one week, because I’d been struggling with the novel, I brought something different – a semi-autobiographical tale of Scottish youths getting drunk and fighting. This time my peers reacted with genuine enthusiasm. The consensus was that I had ‘found my voice.’
And they were right. I abandoned my thriller and switched to writing thinly-veiled autobiography. These new stories followed the adventures of a young Scottish protagonist (me) who’s radicalised by the millennial anti-capitalist movement, only to be left dejected when he’s dumped by his French girlfriend. I combined them into a messy but exuberant first novel, Peace, Love & Petrol Bombs, which in time was published with moderate success. On the back of that, I received funding to study a Creative Writing PhD in Cheltenham, where I have lived ever since. The PhD produced an experimental second novel, The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub, which depending on your perspective is either ‘determinedly extraordinary’ (The Morning Star) or ‘totally unreadable’ (my neighbour Geoff).
And then I went back, back to Manchester, back to the tower block and the woman and the baby. I found my original opening chapters and re-read them with the benefit of having studied hundreds of novels and spent years teaching writing. They were awful – unsalvageable – but the plot still gripped me, and so I started again. I kept the title.
This book, The Secret Baby Room, will finally be published in July – it’s taken me slightly longer to finish it than it took the Achaeans to fight the Trojan War. I hope it’s worth the wait.
By D.D. Johnston
Main image of Manchester by Chris Payne
The Secret Baby Room by D.D. Johnston will be published by Barbican Press in July 2015. Available from Amazon here.