I came to writing via a long route which began with being born in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, and almost immediately being taken travelling by my parents. They used to bundle me into a well-padded drawer and load me into the back seat of the car, then head off to Switzerland or Russia. Each evening, they took the drawer out and carried it up to the hotel bedroom, and the next morning they carried it down again. This has left me with an attitude to life that can best be described as cheerful resignation combined with a desire to think outside the box.
Eventually we emigrated to Australia, driving there in a Volkswagen van through India, and much of my childhood was spent living a few minutes from the beach in Sydney. We then returned to Europe, backpacking through the Pacific islands and Southeast Asia.
After fitful attendance at various schools, I studied philosophy at the University of Essex. I became enthralled by the work of Martin Heidegger and embarked on a PhD, but some impulse led me to give this up and move to London, where I found work in a tea-bag factory. My job was to catch boxes of tea-bags spat at me by a machine, flip them on their sides, and push them in groups of six to the next person on the line. It was only for the first two hours that the machine spat faster than I could flip, but those two hours were a formative influence.
After this, I worked for several years in bookshops: Hatchards in Piccadilly, and Collet’s International in Charing Cross Road (the latter now long gone, alas). I did a postgraduate degree in Artificial Intelligence, then landed a job at the Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine. I spent ten fascinating years there as a cataloguer and curator of early printed books. It was while cataloguing that collection that I came across the fragments that started me off as a writer: odd medical cases, and a mysterious, angry pamphlet by a “Mrs Stewart”, which became the seed of my book The Smart. After that came The English Dane, then How to Live: a life of Montaigne, and At the Existentialist Cafe. Forthcoming in 2023 is Humanly Possible: 700 years of humanist freethinking, inquiry, and hope. (There’s more about all these on the Books pages.)
Since 2002, my main job has been writing, although I also worked part-time for the National Trust from 2008-2010, cataloguing book collections in historic properties around England. I taught Creative Writing at London’s City University and Oxford’s Kellogg College for some years.
Otherwise I live mostly in London, and enjoy the usual glamorous writer’s life: putting a comma in, taking it out, putting it back in again, and eventually deleting the whole sentence.
The drawing at the top is by the wonderful Brad Craft – follow his blog here.