Tempus fugit, they say…. Time flies.
And it certainly does. Faster than I’d like to see, that’s for certain.
I’ve been thinking back a lot lately, and I think this nostalgic look back at my life really started a handful of months ago when out of a clear blue sky, I was asked to talk to a group of students undertaking the contemporary film module at the University of Lincoln. I was to talk specifically about film criticism. Self-doubt immediately reared its head, thinking I’d be instantly exposed as a fraud, especially as the group were studying for their Masters and could run rings around me in film theory. But I did what I always tend to do – agree and figure out the how and the what later. It’s a strategy that has served me well over the years. (As it turned out, this was no exception and I ended up doing five sessions with the students and found it to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.)
The first session was one of those times when I felt I might’ve bitten off more than I could possibly chew – but the first thing I was asked was “how did you get started?” And that’s what has been on my mind lately, because I realised that much as I loved writing essays at school, and I did some half-hearted attempts at writing some fiction in longhand in my late teens, the REAL beginning, was back in 1981 – forty years ago.
Forty years. That’s a hell of a long time. I was twenty-one years old. I was employed in an office job that wasn’t particularly stimulating or rewarding. I felt I wanted to do something that was more challenging. Something that wasn’t robotic grunt work involving filing. I couldn’t give up the job, obviously – it was a job for life that paid reasonably well, I wanted to add something that didn’t involve relentless tedium to my life. And that’s when I decided, having spent some of my summer holiday time redecorating my small bedroom, to add a small desk and a typewriter.
It was a blue Silver Reed Silverette II, a purchase which my no doubt well-meaning and practical minded parents questioned. Though I could’ve done without the “what can you write that anybody would ever want to read?” But my mind was made up. A desk was ordered and delivered – and so was the typewriter. My new pride and joy.
This is when I encountered problem #1. Back then, typing was a specialist skill – there were no home computers and people just weren’t used to keyboards. (Back then, we had a typing pool in the office, of trained typists.) So, I had to gradually learn my way around the keyboard using the “hunt and peck” method. And boy, was that gradual – because immediately after realising I couldn’t type, I hit the wall of stone that was problem #2.
You might have got the impression that this entire thing was done on an impulse and you’d be right. None of this was thought through at any level – not even superficially. (In fact, as I confessed to the film class students, none of my writing career has really been thought out or planned. It’s all been either an accident or a series of lucky coincidences. It certainly hasn’t been cleverly strategized, as problem #1 shows and problem #2 magnifies in epic proportions.)
So, problem #2 reared its ugly head. I’ll confess here and now what that problem was. Ready?
I had NO idea what I’d write about.
I’d bought a machine I didn’t know how to use properly and didn’t even know what I’d use it for. I just wanted to write. But I had nothing. Brain = empty.
I think I’d assumed that the mere act of sitting at my new desk with a new typewriter in front of me would somehow get the creative flow going. But the well was stricken with a drought.
Damn it – my parents were right. I had nothing. There really WAS absolutely nothing that I’d write that anybody would ever read – because I had nothing to write in the first place. (Trust me, that was a crushing realisation.)
Every so often during the months of July, August and September I’d look at the typewriter sitting there, mockingly gathering dust. I’d swear it was challenging me. But my notions of maybe writing some fiction (which is what I assumed I’d be doing) were disappearing fast. There was no back-up plan to the plan that didn’t exist in the first place. And so, I waited for something to occur to me to write but my brain was a ghost town.
Until October, when I met an old and influential friend.
I wish I could say that back in ’81, I had a writing mentor, but I didn’t. All I had was a fading little spark of a belief that I wanted to write. Something. Heck, ANYTHING. But what happened in October was literally a flashbulb above the head moment.
Let’s delve back a bit further to 1968. Summertime. School holidays. One early evening on a Saturday. I was eight, and along with everybody else I knew, I followed the pack and started taking an interest in football, which as I recall, replaced Batman as a school-wide craze. We chose our teams…but truth be told, it couldn’t hold my interest. Not even for a single half of a televised game. I preferred the previous craze and couldn’t understand why the other kids were leaving Batman behind. But on that summer evening, ITV had a screening of King Kong. And I was hooked. Football would forever be banished; I had discovered movies. Specifically, monster movies. THIS (along with Batman) was my calling. The not only watching of movies, but the thirst for knowledge of how they were made, the whole history of the industry. THAT’s where my obsession began.
Due to the way TV were screening films back in the day, no streaming (no internet) no home cinema, (even VHS was in its infancy and wouldn’t enter my life until the following year) – just what was shown on the three analogue TV stations – I wouldn’t see King Kong again for thirteen years, which brings us neatly back to 1981, and my rush home from work in time to catch a screening on BBC2.
Around halfway into the film, that lightning bolt I’d been waiting for struck. I was an avid reader of Starburst magazine (another element that would become a huge factor in my life and writing career – but much later), and had been since its first issue in late 1977. I loved the retro movie columns and the film reviews – why not write about FILMS?
It all sounds so simple and so obvious now, but back then, 21-year-old me thought it was such a radical idea. I had a stack of reference books and magazines that I was collecting with an obsessive zeal, so I could double check any facts that I needed to. Why not? And how appropriate that the film that had been my gateway to the drug of movies would reappear just when I needed it to and give me the jolt of inspiration to actually write something.
So, as soon as the film finished, upstairs I went to start tapping away at what would become my first ever film review. I learned very quickly the need for white-out liquid and those little tabs that you could type over your mistakes – of which there were PLENTY, believe me. But I got it done. One sheet, single spaced, one side.
Truly. It sucked. BUT – I had such a great time writing it. And King Kong was the first in a short season of monster movies they were showing early evening on Thursdays. Despite the overwhelming awfulness of my tone and its self-conscious tone, I wasn’t going to give up. Heck, I was just getting started. But looking back, I think I knew back then that I had a long, long journey ahead to improve. This was the first original thing I had written since leaving school and man, I was rusty. (Maybe rusty is being too generous – I was completely seized up) Not only was I having difficulty finding the keys, but the typos, and the fact that I didn’t have a “voice”. Let’s be honest, I didn’t even know I needed a “voice”. I hoped to emulate the stye of Starburst columnist the late John Brosnan – always my favourite. And I was light years away from that. But I made a decision to continue. I bought a ring binder, and a two-hole paper punch (along with a pack of those little reinforcing rings to stop the pages tearing away from the binder rings) and I kept that first review.
I didn’t like it, but I kept it in a blue ring binder and I still have it to this day. Why? Because back then, I figured I’d need a baseline. And that first halting, stumbling, clumsily written page would serve as my first (to my mind) “official” piece of writing – and it’d be what I needed to improve from. It’s important to remember where you started, where you came from. For one thing, it keeps you grounded. I’ve never shown anybody that review, and I doubt I ever will. But every so often I like to look back and see who I was back then.
I wasn’t who I’d stay, though.
The following week, the second film in the season was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms – a Ray Harryhausen film I hadn’t previously seen, and I thought I’d write a review of that, trying to build on what I had done the week before. Only this time I’d be a tiny bit less self-conscious and I found the whole process a lot easier, and I wrote half a page more. A whole page and a half. I felt I was on a roll.
By the time week three came around, I was as eager to get writing AFTER the film as I was to actually watch the film. The movie was Gorgo, again one I was seeing for the first time. (TV screenings of these movies were few and far between – we had to watch them when we could. I had read about them in my books but so many were unseen.) And this is the point where I started finding my voice, and a little more of “me” was creeping into what I was writing. Eventually, these reviews were as much a snapshot of me at the time I was writing them as they were about the films I was covering.
Over a few years, I filled two binders with my typed ramblings and eventually I even gave them a title of “A Fondness for Fantasy” Volumes 1&2 – which came from a quote from an interview with Ray Harryhausen in Starburst. It seemed appropriate. I was still far too self-conscious and scared of ridicule to show those early works to anybody, and I remain the only person who has ever read them. That’s NOT going to change. But now, forty years later, I’ve been published in magazines, I’m on radio shows, I have this website, and the podcast – it’s nice to go back and revisit that quirky kid who had no idea what to do with his new typewriter. He had no clue what an immense adventure he was starting, or where it would take him.
I like to imagine being able to go back in time to my bedroom and visit 21-year-old Robin as my 61-year-old self and tell him “Keep going kid, you have NO idea how far this will take you, the places you’ll go or the people you’ll meet and work alongside – but it’ll work out better than you ever hoped or dreamed”.
And looking me up and down, I think 21-year-old me would ask one question.
“What the HELL have you been eating”?
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