500 MILE WALKIES (1986)
I grew up at the eastern end of the south west coastline. When I discovered a cliff path stretched for 500 miles all the way round to North Devon, to walk it became a passion. I think I bored a lot of people at parties talking about how one day I would do it.
In 1982 that day came. I set out with the scabby mongrel dog who lived in our flat. I was unfit, had rubbish equipment, and little money. I just needed to get out of London.
It turned into a formative trip, not only starting me on a travel writing career, but also resurfacing four years later as my first book, and still the one Iím best known for. It was read out on the radio and various attempts have been made to turn it into a TV series. Theyíve never been able to cast Boogie.
Scaling Barnstable High Street.
A tricky section on day four.
DESTINATION LAPLAND (1987)
This trip was a bit of a hurry. Amazed at how well 500 Mile Walkies had done I was encouraged to head off again. This time I went by bicycle, simply heading north, trying to go in the opposite direction to the holiday traffic, just to see how far I could get.
Not very far. Lapland was the destination, although I never really looked like getting there. It took me all summer to get up to Newcastle. But it turned into a good wander, through the Midlands and the north of England, even though it rained for six weeks. The difference was that this time I knew I was going to write a book. With 500 Mile Walkies I didnít.
BOOGIE UP THE RIVER (1989)
This was a sequel to 500 Mile Walkies and was a wonderful trip, in a camping skiff, from London to the source of the Thames.
Boogie was with me again and he was no fun on a camping holiday. But this is the way to travel through a country, following a waterway, coming into towns through the back door. Most of the time I had no idea where I was. I was just following this meandering river until it got so thin I had to abandon the boat and walk to the source.
This was turned into a radio series, starring Tim Spall.
Me doing all the work while Boogie has a little lie-down
THE MISSING POSTMAN (1991)
I never thought Iíd write a novel and really this book is a collection of ideas, loosely knitted together into a narrative.
I was travelling in the US with Dick Fiddy in 1976, trying to find the house of a friend in Boulder, Colorado. A postman said heíd show us the way. My friend turned out to be away in Europe for the summer, but the postman offered to put us up.
He was a real dope head and the next 48 hours were a haze, but I recall he asked us where we were heading and we said the west coast. He told us to post a letter there and then heíd have to deliver it and he could give us a lift. This seemed like a sound idea at the time. (Actually, it might have been Dick that suggested it; I nicked most of my ideas from him.)
Anyway, it was a concept I never forgot and 15 years later it formed the basis of the story of The Missing Postman: a postman who is forced to retire, and so unhappy at the prospect that he steals his last bag of letters and sets off on a cycling odyssey around Britain, delivering the letters by hand. The summer I spent on the Destination Lapland trip provided most of the research.
It was a strange book. It didnít really finish, just stopped. But TV companies saw potential in it, and Gareth Neame at BBC Scotland commissioned a two parter. It was filmed in Dorset, Yorkshire and Arran, and went out at Easter 1997. James Bolam in the title role with Alison Steadman. Alan Dosser directed.
MY LIFE AS A CAR (1994)
Caroline Leddy produced the radio series of Boogie up the River, and we quickly followed that with My Life as a Car.
This is a favourite idea. We all have strong memories of the cars in our lives, from the Rover our parents had, to the beat up Vauxhall we lost our virginity in; the company car; the sports car; the ambulance that takes us to hospital with lights flashing. They all have stories to tell.
The series followed the life of Barry Heap, as he moved from vehicle to vehicle. John Rolf took over from Caroline to produce. Phil Daniels played the lead so well.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY SHAKESPEARE (1999)
A recurring theme in my fictional work is one of people struggling for things they think they want, only to discover that what makes them happy has been staring them in the face all the time. Basically Iíve been re-writing The Wizard of Oz all my life.
But Happy Birthday Shakespeare is a good vehicle for this. The vehicle being a tourist coach. Itís driven by Will Green who spends his evenings trapped in his rented flat overlooking the motorway, trying to raise his young family, and his days driving international tourists round Britain to picture postcard places, like Stratford on Avon and Beatrix Potter country. Heís desperate to step out of one life and into the other. Alice, the tour guide, seems to offer him a way out.
Poor sales again, but perfect for TV. Once more it went out over Easter. I thought I was writing cutting edge, subversive drama, but somehow I had become the go-to writer for Easter Sunday viewing.
Gareth Neame produced again, Nick Hurren directed. Neil Morrissey, Dervla Kerwan and Amanda Holden starred.
STATION JIM (2001)
This was a family film, and an interesting change for me, because it went out at Christmas rather than Easter.
Good fun: steam trains, a performing dog, chirpy stations porters, orphans, a beautiful governess with a past, a villain who wants to turn the orphanage into a hotel. Thereís even an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria. It went down very well.
Ann Scott produced. John Roberts did a good job directing. Charlie Creed Miles was brilliant as the hero. Thomas Sangster was the child. Hope he remembers me when he gets his Oscar.
THE DAY JOB (2005)
A memoir of my time as a gardener in north London in the 70ís and 80s. An account of the mornings spent criss-crossing Hampstead Heath going from one job to another, then heading to Hackney in the afternoons to work with Dick on scripts.
I enjoyed writing this, recalling the characters I gardened for - the old ladies and the incipient yuppies. And also the thrill of getting our first sketch on TV on Not the Nine Oíclock News.
THE MAN WHO LOST HIS HEAD (2007)
The premise for this came from Greenlit Productions. They wanted to make a TV comedy film around the repatriation of artefacts from British museums, and they wanted it made in New Zealand. This seemed very ambitious, but they managed to get funding, probably made easier when Martin Clunes agreed to be in it.
He played the bumbling Englishman abroad, the stuffy museum creator hopelessly out of his depth among the Maoris. It was fun to write and I had a fascinating trip out to New Zealand, staying in Maori communities in the very northern tip of the country. Never before has a research trip been so productive for me. Many people helped me out there and it was great to see a number of them turn up on the screen.
Some viewers complained parts of the plot werenít credible, but of course itís always the true bits in a story that no-one believes. It went out on the August bank holiday of 2007 and again in 2008. Terry Johnson directed.
THE UKE OF WALLINGTON (Due out May 2012)
Iíve always wanted to go on a rock ní roll tour. Only one thing has held me back: musical incompetence.
Then, on my 57th birthday, I was given a ukulele. Here was an instrument even I could play. Somehow I managed to get myself a gig in one of the most remote pubs in Britain, right up on Cape Wrath. All I had to do was get there.
And so the Uke of Wallington hit the road.
Over a summer I travelled on foot and by bus from Brighton to the North of Scotland, playing in open mics and festivals wherever I could. I played the Sandown Tap on the Isle of Wight where a blues band joined me on stage. The Swinging Arm in Birkenhead where I outnumbered the audience. Nicky Tams in Stirling while the bloke in the flat upstairs drilled his floorboards through my set.
It was a musical journey through Britain, the first rock n roll tour undertaken on public transport. By the time I reached Cape Wrath I was ready for the big time.