My first published novel, Yatesy’s Rap, as I have written elsewhere, was eagerly seized upon by Puffin as a book which working-class teenagers might relate to. The same applied to a set of stories, Showdown, which Puffin also published in their new Puffin Plus series. But I had another book I wanted to write, a more autobiographical one, at once darker and more comic. This was The Big I Am, which the Bodley Head initially accepted alongside Yatesy’s Rap, before the mysterious outbreak of editor pregnancies which put paid to their plans. The Big I Am did not fit with the Puffin Plus remit, so they passed on it. In came Walker Books, and their unique and charismatic senior editor, Wendy Boase. Almost uniquely in my experience of children’s publishing, Wendy said what she thought, and in her gently insistent Australian brogue persuaded me to make some key changes to a novel which had (rightly) been described by another editor as ‘a curate’s egg of a piece’.
The Big I Am was the story of a misfit teenager, Geoffrey Stratfield Farmer, a would-be grammar school boy and future Conservative Prime Minister, all at sea in a comprehensive school, drawn into a life-changing relationship with femme fatale and intellectual rival Kim McConnell. It is a purgative experience, as the early cringeworthy Geoffrey learns “some hard lessons about life in general – and sex in particular” (thanks to a young Alan Durant for the excellent blurb). No holds are barred in this book for older teenagers. Both language and action are explicit, enough to shock the founder of Walker Books, Sebastian Walker, who was most unhappy to have the name of his publishing company associated with the novel. Wendy faced him down, a measure of her authority, and the book was published in hardback in 1988 as Geoffrey’s First.
I thought up the new title, but I was never really happy with it. The Big I Am had been perfect, but in the three or four years it was knocking around various editors’ desks, a cartoonist called Ralph Steadman chanced upon the same title for a book of cartoons about God. I suppose there is a possibility someone tipped him off about the excellent title, but it was probably just a coincidence.
The novel garnered some great reviews and fan mail from as far as Tasmania. I still regard it in many ways as my best book. Like most of my stories, the full concept only emerged in the process of writing it, and I remember so clearly the feeling that I was in a clown car, where bits might explode off in any direction, and I somehow had to keep it all together and bring it to a conclusion which was positive without being pat. The experience behind it came from the most tempestuous year of my life, my first year as a student, which ended with me abandoning a drama degree at Exeter University, being thrown out of home, and spending new year 1975 in a Southampton B&B. None of these actual events play any part in the story – that’s the alchemy of creative writing – but the character of Kim was, I believe, a fair reflection of the former child actor from ITV series The Flower of Gloster who had had such an impact on my young life. I had written the book I had needed to write and I’d made a good job of it, although it’s doubtful it would have been such an achievement without the intervention of one of children’s literature’s greatest editors.
Having said that, the book was not a big seller. Books for teens were in their relative infancy then, there were no army of bloggers to champion it, and no ready market waiting for it. The sex and violence were too explicit for the schools market, the main character was not someone most boys or girls would relate to, and it fell into that category of books that make a big impact on a small audience – as I saw from my fan mail.
Much later, I edited the book to emphasise its nature as a book set in the 80s, and republished it as an ebook called Snails and Lovers. Not many people have found this but I live in hope.