I look at the photograph, and the photograph looks back at me. Who is that boy? I know only because of the things I wrote in those years. I know the sixteen year old writer. But is that me? It seems impossible, when I think how I began. I grew up being told I was going to join the police, and in the summer of 1960 signed up as a cadet in the same force as my father. There wasn’t a lot of choice. I finished school at fifteen without any qualifications, and worked on the east coast fairgrounds and fish docks before moving with my family to an American nuclear base in the north of England. My father was the local police officer, in charge of seven villages and the personnel on the base. I worked on a factory farm, but in the end gave up and went for the interview with the police. The only alternative was the army: if you wanted to avoid national service, you could go on the trawlers, down the mines, or into the police. The police seemed the least depressing choice.
In the interview, I was told I had to get some minimal exams, so I signed up for a commercial course which included shorthand and typing. The idea was that I could use the shorthand for taking statements, and typing would always be useful. My idea was that I might be a journalist. I started attending the college in a nearby market town, and meeting youngsters on the American base. The base was home to three nuclear missiles. Several thousand USAF servicemen accompanied them, and civilian scientists from the Douglas Company working on the fuel programme.
The Americans brought their way of life with them. Giant finned cars bounced along the narrow country lanes. In the old hangars, you could play ten pin bowling all night, listen to juke box music and eat cheeseburgers. American servicemen in their light blue uniforms and silk shirts were everywhere, polite and easy-going as their jeans-wearing young wives. A friend lent me Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, because I had worked on the fish docks. I began reading Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, then Ginsberg, Lowell, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin. I went from reading nothing to reading everything I could lay my hands on. I saw the film of A View from the Bridge, and spent hours listening to Kind of Blue. Another friend introduced me to his uncle who taught sociology at Chicago. He knew Saul Bellow. He gave me a copy of The Adventures of Augie March. ‘I am an American’, I told all my friends. My father tore the novel up and threw it on a bonfire.
When a detachment of RAF personnel successfully launched a Thor missile at the very end of l959, several of the scientists decided to have a celebration. ‘It’s a boy,’ a tall, greying officer told me proudly. A boy meant that the launch had been successful. If it had failed, it would have been a girl. The bomb they dropped on Hiroshima was a boy. Another intense scientist from Ohio told me all about nuclear weapons. They got their power from nothing more complicated than an equation he assured me, awed by the simplicity of it all. ‘When a pound of uranium-235 is fissioned,’ he said, ‘the liberated mass within its atoms is multiplied by the speed of light squared.’ He asked me whether I could imagine travelling at 186,000 miles per second, squared. I told him my life felt like that most of the time.
But the college year ended. I had to sign the papers for the police. I was measured for a uniform and my hair was cropped to the scalp. The serge uniform scratched my neck and wrists. The shirt collars and studs nearly choked me. I started at police headquarters in the county town. In the first week, I was told to sit in the CID crime library and read as many of the blue report forms as I could get through. Detailed accounts of rapes, assaults, vicious fights and child abuse unravelled before me. I read about the school teacher from my old school who had gone to prison for two years for sexual assault. I knew most of the boys, had listened to their sneering accounts of his fumbling approaches. A girl who had been notorious at school for her sexual curiosity accused a man of rape, her wide-eyed innocence hilarious in the interviews. The charge was statutory rape and he went to prison for three years. The brutal murder of a little girl, with photographs and medical reports, made me physically sick.
At the end of three months, I was transferred to one of the divisional headquarters. In the early 1960s, they had no training programme, and didn’t know what to do with young cadets. We simply went on the job with the men, though we had no powers of arrest and no way of defending ourselves. I hated it, and they hated me. In my first week, I was sent with a female officer to tell a mother that her son had been killed on national service in Malaysia. I had no idea how I was supposed to react. The female officer told me to wait outside.
In the next six months, I attended three post mortems, two of them suicides. The first body I saw had been in a river for two weeks, and when the pathologist threw the green sheets back off the body, I fainted. The thing on the table looked like a white bloated slug. The next post mortem was on a farmer who had put a shotgun in his mouth and blown the back of his head off. The third was an old man who died, face down, on his bed. His body wasn’t discovered for weeks. When the ambulance men lifted him off the bed, the walls of his stomach collapsed. After the third attempt, the training inspector gave up. My report said I should be given a couple of years and then try again. To protect themselves, most policemen have to develop a thick skin and ritual scepticism about human motive which can be deeply damaging. It can easily become cynicism. I couldn’t do it. Nobody noticed, but I was clinically depressed for three years. Police forces don’t train cadets like this any more. But they did then.
And all this time, encouraged by friends and the teacher I’d known at the college, I was writing. I wrote because at the typewriter I could pretend I was living a different life. I read for much the same reason, working through much of world literature in those three years. It was the reading and the writing which helped me survive. In the end, I left because my two worlds collided. I felt as though I was living a nuclear explosion, the different bits of my life flying towards remote horizons. Friends of my own age on the camp thought I was insane. They couldn’t understand the relentless pressure my parents were putting on me. My father started calling me ‘Miss Nancy.’
The crisis came on a hot summer night when I was on patrol car duty. A wireless report came over, and we were sent to attend a suicide at a remote railway crossing. When we arrived, the ambulance men had already removed the body. A sergeant and a couple of officers were standing in the dark, drinking tea. As a self-defensive joke, the sergeant told me to go and ‘look for the eyes’. That sort of graveyard humour was very common, and necessary. I had heard it before. But this time it was too much for me.
I walked off into the dark. I left the police without even resigning. I moved down to London, rented a bedsitter in Kensington, and bought a better portable typewriter. After that, I knew I had to write, and I have never stopped. Writing was always the thing which saved me. Partly because of these early experiences, and a manic-depressive illness which had wreaked havoc in both my father’s and mother’s families, it was a precarious kind of survival. But even in a grim nineteenth century mental asylum, after years of mind-numbing medication and frightening experiences with ECT, I went on writing, crouched in an armchair, ignoring what was going on around me, but seeing it all.
I find sitting at a desk with a pen and blank sheet of paper one of the most profound experiences of my life, because I never know what is going to climb up from the cellars. I feel wretched when I can’t write, restless and uneasy, oppressed by some relentless burden, as if the boy of the early 1960s is crying out to be set free. I’m still writing, trying to save him from the eyes watching him from a deserted railway track.