Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Twerp

Books

Old author article

Your first novel sticks to you forever. I thought I’d go to my grave being described as ‘The author of ‘Roofworld’. In fact, it was the fourth book I wrote but the first that came with expectations and a decent publicity budget. The book was about gangs on rooftops, but if I was rewriting it now, I suppose it would take place on the Shard.

It was a very difficult book to research as I couldn’t gain access to any tall buildings. The BT Tower had been the target of an IRA bomb and security was tight more than a decade later. After the novel appeared the Sunday Times got me access to the top of it; a great experience, but it came too late. I was disappointed to find that the rotating part was now a very suburban-looking cafeteria.

Initially the novel wasn’t as successful as the publisher hoped for – an ill-advised cinema campaign went wrong after a very expensive commercial was filmed, in which we fired a stuntman across Charing Cross Road on a cable in a rainstorm. I kept thinking, what if he gets hit by lightning? Will it damage the sales of the book? Wayne, the stuntman, used to be the guy who climbed up elevator cables bare-chested in commercials for ‘Sure’ deodorant, and went on to do stunt-work for James Bond, where I ran into him again.

Through no fault of ours, the finished ‘Roofworld’ commercial went out with the flop movie ‘The Fly 2’ – bad move. There was another problem; many readers didn’t know where to look for the book – was it SF? Horror? Crime? Satire even? Or just an adventure? At least the reviews were favourable. Critics started calling to take me out for a beer.

Readers have a residual, illogical idea that all writers they discover must be read forward from their debut novels in chronological order. In an old Hancock’s Half Hour, Tony Hancock is told ‘We thought you were at your peak five years ago. You were very funny in those days.’ That attitude still exists. It’s generally assumed that your first work must be your best. Books are read chronologically so that readers can understand the shape of your career. But as your writing becomes more refined you disappoint those readers who were simply enjoying your plainly-worded genre romps. And now here you are with your heavy themes and big ideas and strange new words and all they want is your early stuff. It’s you who changed, not them.

Thus it was with ‘Roofworld’. I went from a nobody to a name overnight, and it didn’t faze me because I was more concerned about my day job, running my own film marketing company. The book was sold to the USA and Europe and Russia and appeared in many different editions. I was photographed looking moody on the tops of tall buildings, like Batman. The above photo was taken in a tumbledown mock-Tudor house in Soho’s Old Compton Street that was shamefully pulled down.

The film option of ‘Roofworld’ was picked up by Paramount and passed through the hands of a dozen different directors, eventually existing in scores of script versions, but as a film it remained – and remains – in limbo.

I would have loved to rewrite the book using the Shard, but one of the things I discovered is that the method of travel used in the book (zipwire) is pretty lethal in practice; when we sent Wayne across the road on a cable he got up such velocity that it very nearly killed him.

I realised something when I finally got to a great height above the city that I hadn’t noticed at ground level; London’s on a considerable slope. It would have affected the logistics of the book. I still have great affection for the novel. When Rose jumped off a building, I jumped off too – out into a new career as a writer of genre-breaking fiction.

9 comments on “Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Twerp”

  1. Adam says:

    Roofworld was the first of your books that I read; I spotted it in Halesowen public library back in the late 80s as a teen, was intrigued by the blurb, and dived in. Great stuff!

    Thanks for copying the article from the long-defunct Face magazine, although I’m still not sure what the phrase ‘shy in a confident kind of way’ means..

  2. Jan says:

    Look Mr confident in a shy kind of way….it’s still your bestest book ever I reckon.

    Would make a great teen adventure book. Providing you didn’t encourage much barminess in the jumping off of high buildings, zip wiring off rooves kind of activity. All those kids who go up into high buildings and video themselves doing stunts don’t need much more encouragement.

    Did I ever tell you the story of my dad’s mates little lad who confidently (in a naive but misguided kinda way) jumped out of his bedroom window wearing his pyjamas and a pillowslip round his shoulders. The boy had been watching Batman The tv Adam West version all those years ago. Poor little fella broke his arm but could have been much worse I suppose.

  3. Chris Webb says:

    Can we take it from the title of this post that you suffer from the embarrassment of how you behaved, looked or thought when younger? I am sure it’s common enough to actually have a name. I saw a bloke earlier today wearing a really naff bright green anorak and suddenly remembered I had one similar about 30 years ago. Cringe.

    I once saw the reading-novels-in-order thing described as a form of OCD. I admit to being a sufferer but I often read series of novels with one character(s), B&M for example, and although they are stand alone there are often themes running from one to the next.

    The London slope is evident from Primrose Hill just north of Regent’s Park and Parliament Hill a few miles north at the southern end of Hampstead Heath. Same view, just different distances, and you get the impression of being at the top of a gradual incline.

  4. davem says:

    Still a good read

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    Woody Allen had a go at this in one of his movies; someone says to him ‘I used to enjoy your films when they were funny’.

  6. Ian Mason says:

    That picture, the way it’s staged, makes you look like one of the characters from an episode of The Saint, or the Avengers, or Danger Man. You know the sort, drips sarcasm and gets his lights punched out by Patrick McGoohan in the 2nd act, or – if he’s a really lucky fellow – by Mrs Gale or Mrs Peel.

  7. Janne Borgh says:

    I read it in the early nineties and was hooked. Being a “londonist” and a bit of an anglophile I always love your stories. When, in 2008, I worked for the London Metal Exchange as a consultant, I realized where I first came across the building in Leadenhall Street!

  8. Rob C says:

    I loved Roofworld and it’s introduction to the ‘other’ London, along with Rune and Spanky what other 80’s London books could you want?

    Even now it’s a good read.

    Hopefully it will get a TV mini-series, maybe C4 or the Beeb? And with modern CGI we can go back to dirty, smelly London in the early 80’s???

    Spanky? Please tell me there’s a film deal there?

  9. admin says:

    The story of the crashed almost-production of Spanky has been told many times (not least by director Guillermo del Toro). My work is usually deemed ‘too…’ for television. I’m not sure ‘too…’ what.

    And Peter, Tony Hancock topped Woody Allen, when Kenneth Williams tells him cheerfully, ‘We think you were at your peak five years ago.’

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