My Writing: A Brief History
Updated: Sep 1
The first thing I want to add to this blog is a summary of my lifelong relationship with the written word. People often ask me how I have come to write about such wildly varying subject matter. Hopefully this brief jaunt will explain it to some degree.
My mother was a teacher in Africa and she supported our reading from an early age. She would take my sister and I to the library to borrow books, and my father would find us Ladybird books on various subjects. I still have The Story of Science on my shelf.
I still recall the very first moment when I read something outside of home and school. It was just an advert on the side of a bus in town, but it was as though I had suddenly become able to decode something important about the world. It was thrilling. And that moment was really the start of my love affair with written language.
In school I came up with a way to radically improve my spelling. As English often fails to be intuitive in pronunciation, I realized that if you simply pronounce it in your mind the way it appears, you don’t get tripped up. For example, for ‘what’ I would think ‘w-hat’. And it worked a treat. I found myself getting top marks in spelling tests thereafter. And let’s face it, it was the only subject I took to. I got two As for my final grades in senior school, but not enough high grade passes in other subjects to go on to my choice of further education. I scraped onto a business and finance course and left after one half term, having experienced a cosmic implosion of disinterest.
The next few years saw the universe open up for me, though a career path remained untrodden. I went from metalhead to quasi-raver, and undertook a great deal of field research on consciousness expansion. I started playing in a band with friends, and working crappy jobs to pay for clubbing and assorted shenanigans at the weekends. It was a simpler, better time that most of us look back on with some warmth. The Cold War was over, and the uncorking of cultural and psychological tension found expression in a sustained burst of partying for my generation in particular.
I used to think of ’89-’93 as my lost years, but they were in fact a profoundly important chapter in my life. They helped me to live a fuller version of myself, and see life from many other angles. Resisting the societal pressure to conform offered me essential experience for what was to come later. And those days were funny as hell.
After a series of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll-related events, culminating in a mountaintop epiphany on Vancouver Island, I eventually found myself studying forestry. To be paid to hang out with trees seemed a no-brainer. I’d been doing it for free since childhood. And it could offer me a middle way between escaping regular society, and having a job. So I flew home and took a course which I am still somewhat surprised to have survived. There I met Mike, a guy who changed my life. I am delighted to have interviewed him for my book Wisdom: Now and Always.
Having completed the course, I realized that forestry might be too narrow a specialization, so I took a three-year course in horticulture. This merely allowed me to travel aimlessly, from one wildly dysfunctional relationship to the next. It was not what I hoped it would be, on several levels. I didn’t enjoy working for the rich, or on the council estates of South London. I got to observe the rich-poor divide up close, and it was chokingly ugly. And horticulture itself was an intellectual dead end for me.
After another long sequence of events, precipitated by going to St. Ives with Mike to experience the 1999 solar eclipse, I ended up moving to Ireland in 2001. I discovered that their approach to unemployment was to pay unemployed people to train in useful things. So I chose journalism. It was a seven-month crash course, held in Waterford.
Around that time, my writing career began with a short article in an Irish travel publication. I had met the editor on a course in Waterford, and she invited me to submit something relating to a recent trip to Brazil. I recall writing something evocative about the nightly capoeira ritual in Jericoacoara. I left out the utter madness of that trip, from start to finish. Being so heavily influenced by William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller, it was almost incumbent upon me to spill, to share as willingly and nakedly as they had. Perhaps it was my father’s abundance of caution in all things that stayed my hand. Or maybe the fact that none of what really happened was printable in a middle-class travel magazine.
The journalism course again felt too thin to build a career on, so I consulted a careers guidance counselor, who steered me towards an open Arts degree at University College Cork. Thinking I was going to go into international journalism, I took English and Spanish. For the other two courses I chose Geography and History. But in the first week we were given an Environmental Geography lecture by Dr. Colin Sage that changed the course of my life. It was presented as an A-Z of the types of environmental problems around the world, including deforestation, desertification and so on. From there I designed all my studies around becoming an environmentalist.
It turned out that my degree was bookended by Hunter S. Thompson. The entrance exam asked us to discuss our most recent reading material. Mine happened to be The Great Shark Hunt by Thompson. When I completed my degree, for the first time in three years I had five minutes to think my own thoughts. And at that moment, I finally submitted something to the university magazine. Tragically, it was an obituary for the recently deceased Hunter S. Thompson.
For a number of reasons I moved to Bristol, England after my degree and began volunteering at the Schumacher Society. The chairman, Herbert Girardet, offered me a job as a researcher for an NGO he had recently co-founded, called the World Future Council. He asked me to produce a publication featuring case studies of policy successes from around the world. They applied to issues like energy, waste, disarmament and so on. It was called Policies to Change the World. One of them was the German feed-in tariff. And in a meeting with Earthscan, Herbie persuaded the commissioning editor to publish a book on the subject. I still recall the effort of pure will to look calm as they agreed.
The book was called Feed-in Tariffs: Accelerating the Deployment of Renewable Energy. It essentially gave me an international profile overnight, and I became pretty much married to the subject for a number of years. That policy work took me around the world, and introduced me to some of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. I retain a deep love and respect for the activists of the world. I had colleagues on five continents tell me how influential the book was in their advocacy work. I think it sold less than 1,500 copies, but evidently they got to the right people. This is what makes books so special. They are objects of power. They are composed mainly of black shapes on white paper, yet they can change the world.
This gets into the mystical level of writing. We use language to encode ideas, visions, sensory experience, and others, with the capability, can decode them. William Burroughs wrote about the ‘word virus’, the idea that words spread and mutate like a virus. Language is proof positive of this. If someone from the middle ages were to be presented with this text, it would be largely indecipherable. In my English lectures at UCC, we had a fabulously stern, older female lecturer who would stare the lecture hall into silence. She talked about language as a living thing, always growing and evolving. She showed us words as organisms, subject to the processes of mutation, evolution and extinction. She said that in a century or two, British English and American English will have become separate species entirely. But the internet has if anything brought the sub-species closer together, and they interbreed continually. I now hear Americans use the word ‘bonkers’, which all but died out in Britain thirty years ago. I used to resent Americans for their spellings, like removing the letter u from words like labour. And for switching the e and r in words like centre/center. But, having sold over 70% of my books in the US, I have come to use American spelling conventions, and learned to appreciate the clarity that some of their adaptations offer.
Another thing that cannot be overlooked is the physicality of books. For some reason, when I got my first copy of my first book, I found myself knocking the cover against my forehead. Not unlike the wandering monks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I think it was actually a spontaneous ritual symbolizing the end of the creation process. Since print-on-demand publishing, you can amend and upload a new interior file any time, so it doesn’t have quite the same sense of finality, but it’s close. Finishing a book is a champagne moment, but it’s also relief. Working on a book, regardless of your approach, is real work. It demands focus, determination, emotional resilience and sheer willpower. The first book truly gave me the sweats as I felt entirely inadequate as a writer and researcher. There were at least a dozen people I knew that should have written it, but I assume they never had the time. Yet they all said that it was an important project and would be a useful tool.
In fact I was so insecure about my qualification for doing the work that I actually put myself through a year of postgrad study - while working stupid hours on my job. I had to get up every morning at 6 am to do two hours of study in philosophy of science and environmental ethics. At the end of that year I think my body had already begun to develop MS symptoms, and I did no more. But, that first course was perhaps the most important single course I ever took. I came to understand that facts are fiendish things, and are often as much a product of a single investigative event as they are a universal truth. So this helped loosen up my thinking about truth, which came in very handy when I began to research esoteric subjects later.
Then in 2009 I woke up one morning to find that my toes were numb. After six months of tests I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and before long went barreling into the dark night of the soul. And I thought of Burroughs. His crisis was accidentally shooting his wife dead in a Mexico City hotel room. Until then he had never truly written, but I recall him saying he had to write his way out of hell. I finally sat down to write fiction at that time, and published a collection of short stories. There was something truly liberating about it. Some of the stories were dark and visceral, but they were also about love and connection. The process took me both out of my life, and deep into my core.
To make up a story is to play God. You get to set the rules of that world, and decide who will live there and what they will think, do and value. What they will gain and lose. Where they will end up. For the most part. I discovered that you will begin to forge relationships with your characters. And they will do everything they can to manipulate you into giving them what they want. It’s a strange thing. There is almost a parental, father-knows-best attitude that then develops. It is as though you have to treat them as real people, not merely in the literary sense. But you have to have that extra layer of respect and consideration. But this is just a product of my nature. I imagine many writers would consider this foolish, and missing the point. But then isn’t that what gives us so much joy - the variety of characters and personalities that come to the same art forms and interpret them in their own way?
And then, at a certain point, my lifelong interest in the UFO subject was revived. Having had strange experiences throughout my life with various UFOs, ghosts, angels and even a formless presence when I was three, I had questions. And the books I read didn’t really answer them. So I wrote a novel, trying to stitch together the scraps that make up the fabric of the topic. And as part of that I talked with a therapist and researcher by the name of Barbara Lamb. Fortunately she was the type to make time for people, and we ended up deciding to co-author a study of ET-human hybrids: Meet the Hybrids. I learned so much, particularly from the raw honesty of those we interviewed, and the process was transformative. From there I wrote two more books on the general topic, taking it to the logical conclusion: interviewing the beings themselves, through a number of channelers.
Having satisfied my curiosity, I took time away from books and messed around with modular synthesizers and glass work. I did some cast glass sculptures, which was both fun and expensive in equal measure. Then I helped some friends publish their own books, and in so doing I discovered that there are now somewhat useful automated transcription facilities available. So as of 2020 I have found myself working on more studies. With a fair wind two new books will appear this side of Christmas. It feels great to be writing again. Having received a great deal of feedback concerning how useful my work has been, I am encouraged to continue. One person even told me it saved her life. While I take that with a pinch of salt, it is certainly thought-provoking.
But research and writing is also an expression of my essence, which is defined by the twin characteristics of curiosity and concern. This whole trip is incredibly interesting, but it’s also shocking and baffling, every single day. So I am endlessly fascinated by it, and feel a need to try to comprehend it more fully. If in so doing I can make some contribution towards more peace, equality, fairness and understanding in the world, that is enough for one life.