I didn’t start writing fiction until I was twenty-three. I’d only started reading, seriously, four years earlier. Growing up, stories came from two primary sources: my grandad who told me about his life in the army and on the streets of Glasgow and my mother who told me every detail about her life.
I got two creative writing lessons for free: all stories are about family and we tell stories to feel less alone.
I was obsessed with film as a teenager and had written screenplays then. I also had been a stand-up comedian in my early twenties performing my own material. Fiction writing was instantly different. It gave me a hard fought for pleasure and it rankled me with its mysteries (mysteries I struggle with every day and mysteries I do not understand).
The first short story I wrote was about a retired stockbroker in a nursing home. After that I wrote two novels dealing with people who had disposable incomes, people who weren’t worried about the cost of the food in their shopping basket or the temperature on their thermostat. While the writing of these books was time spent in craft, time developing my voice, the characters were people I neither knew nor understood. During this period, the only thing I wrote with any conviction was a short story concerning a gambling addicted minicab driver who spends New Year’s Eve afternoon in an amusement arcade before ringing in the New Year in a brothel. I felt good about this story because I knew this guy, both imaginatively and literally in the customers I served while tending at an amusement arcade. Why had I not done this earlier?
Why had I not written about a character from the working class, the class I am from and the class I live in, in a way which was honest, non self-deprecating and with sentiment? I think the answer is avoidance.
I come from a small family. That is an understatement. There were five of us: my parents, my paternal grandparents and myself. Christmas dinner could have been eaten in a phone box. In my family, I only saw a couple of books and cannot remember them being read. My father had some Sven Hassel books and a book on karate. My grandad had a collection of encyclopaedias which I thumbed through consistently when I wasn’t drawing or practising mimicking people. I didn’t have any books of my own except the small red Gideons New Testament and Psalms book I received when I was confirmed. I did have comics though. When I was twelve I wrote a seven thousand word story about a Japanese biker gang set in the future (based wholesale on the stories in the Manga Mania magazines).
I remember presenting it to my teacher who said she’d read it. She hadn’t. As an adult, I can understand why when the other children in the class came to her with vastly shorter pieces.
I knew we were working class. It came about in the pride I saw in my family when talking about their jobs, their work, and what they could do with their money.
I also saw the consequences of being in jobs they didn’t like. The disappointment that they had to leave their family for shift work, that they’d struggle to take me caravanning that year and the pain of feeling that you should be doing better.
When my father was made redundant from a job of soldering circuit boards, we used to go to the library, not for the books but because it was warm and we couldn’t afford the heating at home. I joke with a mate now how I used to open the cupboards in the kitchen and it would look like I’d opened up a newspaper as black and white labelled packages were everywhere: Kwik Save own brand value goods. To go with the broken biscuits you’d have some council juice: tap water.
It was after my father died when I was fourteen that books started to creep in. My mother, in her grief, became an alcoholic. I went back to school a week after my father died, stayed for a couple of months and when it became clear no one was at home I didn’t go back to school for most of the next year. On one of the last times I went, someone in the year below me was reading A Clockwork Orange. I asked to borrow it and I still have it.
When I first read it, it made no sense: the words made no sense, the time made no sense, but I was hooked by the energy.
And so the screenplays I wrote reflected that, about modern day gangs who had my Catholic guilt, but nothing else.
And while the lives of those around me were falling to bits, including my own, writing was a way to escape. There was nothing about the people I knew, nothing about lives affected by alcoholism and loss of love and loss of ability.
And this carried on all the way up until that story of the gambler on New Year’s Eve.
Today you could argue I’m making up for lost time. I wrote a short story collection where all the characters are working class. My first novel (the one I’d actually put my name to) concerns something we don’t talk about much: the educated working class. My second novel finds me writing about my family. I’ve had a few stories published and was nominated for The RA and Pin Drop Short Story Award2016. I’ve sent my work to agents, but have yet to be taken on. I will continue to send work. I do not know whether my class, or the stories I tell of them, is a barrier or not. I do not let that define me. I go on my own ethic of whether I am working hard enough, or not.
CHRIS SIMPSON grew up in Bracknell and Slough. He has worked as a waiter, a cinema projectionist, a shoe salesman, an attendant in an amusement arcade, hiring out construction and demolition tools, a pasty seller, a caretaker for a primary school, a teaching assistant and a tutor. He was a collaborator on a sketch show and has performed as a stand-up comedian.
He received a First in Creative Writing at BA level from Birkbeck University.
In 2016 he was nominated for the Royal Academy and Pin Drop Short Story Award 2016.
While living in Moscow he completed his first novel, “The Infinite Ache”. He now lives in London and is at work on his second, a horror-crime novel, “The Healer”.
“Part-Time Happiness” is his first collection comprising of seven short stories bookended by two novellas (currently unpublished).
You can find him on Instagram: @writerblokewrites