Tales Willingly Told
(Or just “far too long” would probably cover it...)
June to November 2003
The story – or stories – of Ashley, Mary and Luke, three young people from the south of England whose interconnected lives and relationships are related over a fifteen-year period. Luke’s brother James and Mary are a couple, but Ashley loves James and Luke loves Mary... James gets Mary pregnant while they are still teenagers, and the fall-out from this continues to create ripples and influences the lives of the three of them through the course of the story.
Six foot two inches tall; thick, short dark brown hair that used to dangle around his head in head in a gorgeous mess when we came in from those PE lessons; a six pack to die for and all the charm, wit and sophistication of a bulldog. But what the hell did I care what he acted like? It was his body that mattered to me; a body I could barely take my eyes away from whenever that shirt came off.
Which was pretty difficult, as you can imagine, when you’re sixteen years old and still at school. Other guys don’t tend to like it if they realise you’re eyeing them up in the changing rooms, it doesn’t go down very well. So I had to be careful about it, subtle, cunning.
But fucking hell, what a body.
One of the many reasons I am proud to work for the BBC is because I think so much of what the Corporation has produced, for radio and television, down the years is superb. And there is no finer example of what the BBC does best when it is firing on all cylinders than the 1996 drama serial Our Friends in the North.
It tells the story of the lives of four friends from the north east of England over thirty years, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s. At its heart it’s the story of the relationship between a man and a woman; its writer Peter Flannery has also joked about it being a ten-hour drama about Labour Party housing policy. But it’s so much more than that. It’s the story of Britain in the late twentieth century, of the political battles between left and right, the changing of society and the lives, loves and friendships of four ordinary people, with the UK as their backdrop. It’s utterly superb, if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend you do, and it’s the sort of thing that justifies the licence fee on its own.
I first saw bits of it on its original run in 1996, and I was captivated by the characters and the story. I didn’t see it all until a repeat run, which I think was on Saturday nights the following year, but ever since I have adored it, have watched it again several times on DVD, and have always wanted to try and write something like it. I love stories of an epic scope and scale, which follow characters over a long time, and Tales Willingly Told was my attempt at that.
It’s just an ordinary, basic story of falling in love, not getting what you want out of life, frustration and misery and the hope of better things. I don’t recall exactly what set it off, but oddly I do remember the moment I suddenly knew what the story was, who the three main characters were and how it went – I was sitting watching the Canadian Grand Prix of 2003 on television when it happened. Perhaps it was a particularly dull race, although that would be unusual for Canada.
Anyway, I came up with the notion of telling the events of the story from the three different first-person perspectives of the three main characters, and it ended up being stupidly long. I think I’d made the mistake of thinking an epic timescale needed an epic word count, which of course need not necessarily be the case.
It was a stupid thing to try to write, really. 19-year-olds cannot write great long sagas of ordinary lives, because at that age you’ve barely lived yourself and hardly know anything. It took many years for Peter Flannery to get Our Friends in the North into its finished form – he’d lived, he’d been around, he’d done things.
I’d done bugger all, and was somehow trying to shape years of fictional lives out of that lack of experience.
It is too long. Far too long. I’m not sure if I ever will sit down and write my Our Friends-type work, but if I do I’ll try and make it a little more concise. One of the major problems with Tales is the fact that because it’s pretty much telling the same series of events from three different perspectives, once the reader gets to the third time around they’re probably pretty sick of it.
Plus, when it comes down to it, the story being told – from any of the three perspectives – is just... Boring. There was nothing to it other than tedious people living tedious lives. I thought I was trying to write some sort of gritty reality, but really it was just dull, and surely there can be few greater sins in writing a novel than that?
On the plus side, however, it was another step along my development as a writer in terms of how I prepared for writing a novel. It was the first novel – or the first one I finished, at any rate – where I actually sat down and wrote a lot of notes and plans, making sure I had the characters and the storyline straight before I was too deeply committed to the prose. Basically, knowing where I was going – which is always an advantage!
Looking back at my diaries of the time, I find – for I recorded such things very precisely in those days! – that I tried Tales on fourteen agents before I gave up on it. I think this description of the first reply I received from any of those agents probably shows that Tales got the response it deserved:
“I had my first reply from an agent today regarding Tales. I sent all the submissions off on Monday, and this first reply was just my letter in one of my SAEs with ‘not for us, better luck elsewhere’ scribbled at the bottom.”