William Nettleton is a fine name. Still a ‘Sir’ in front of it and it brings up images of a big game hunter in the 1800’s with an elephant gun nestled under one arm , smoking a pipe of suspicious looking native tobacco while pontificating on how long he can avoid returning to his wife and young child William the younger, back in Britain by pretending to be lost in the Serengeti.
Sir Willian Nettleton, who fathered a string of mix race bastards over the course of his fifteen years of being ‘lost’ on safari finally returned to Cape Town when the gin ran out. Died of consumption in 1837 on the journey back to Teesside, so never met his his own namesake who had been born a few weeks after he first left for Africa, That William was to be the great great great grandfather of the current Willam Nettleton who for some reason shortens his professional name to appear cooler and writes as Will Nett…
Occasionally Will Nett sends me blog posts , they tend to be entertaining, well received and deceptively intelligent reads… he normally does this when he has a new book coming out. If he has a new one out he hasn’t bothered to tell me this time. He has never claimed to be ‘lost’ in the Serengeti, he did once spend a very long time getting some cakes from a shop in Amsterdam though…
Another gimlet, please, Ivor.
“Where do you get story ideas from, Will?” is probably the second most frequently asked question of me when it comes to writing, the first being something along the lines of “Ere, you should write about me, mate….are you gonna’ write about me? I’ll tell you some stories.”
I get that a lot, usually while nursing a gimlet at the bar of [REDACTED], as I’m doing now, or out with friends when someone pointedly announces what I do for a living. Someone will be over to have a look at me, for the novelty value, and give me a prod. It’s always in a pub, and is almost always men. Then they’ll mention the names of a few local mobsters they used to knock around with, and I’ll politely tell them that I’m not short of material, and then, more firmly, to beat it.
The man beside me at the bar now is gearing up to tell me his story. I can see him preparing his introduction from the corner of my eye, as he gazes into his Tom Collins. The amount of Teesside biographies I’ve almost started work on over the last decade is long and dreadful; the lottery winner, the counterfeiter, the bandit pharmacist- don’t ask. Actually, the latter of those suggestions is still on my ‘in consideration’ pile but this shortened list highlights the variety and abundance of material I’m presented with, and begs the question: where does it come from?
“You’ve just got one of them faces that people want to tell things to,” a mate of mine said, “and a good ear,” as I described a recent encounter in a pub in Scarborough. A lone afternoon drinker made a bizarre comment about my t-shirt, and went on to explain in a surprisingly frank manner his knowledge of the 1970s UK adult entertainment scene. I was in his company for no more than 10 minutes, but in that time he managed to divulge all previous addresses, his entire employment history, and the contents of his DVD collection.
A few months earlier another perfect stranger, within moments of meeting me and with no knowledge of me being a writer, made a startling confession about how they managed to spend a quite obscene amount of money on something I’m not at liberty to reveal here.
Is it a northern thing? The natives, in North Yorkshire or Teesside, or wherever you think you live around that area, certainly aren’t backwards in coming forward.
The man beside me at the bar is a maths teachers, and looks like one; overworked, clinging to a perceived idea of former coolness- aren’t we all?- and at a loss as to what to do with himself over the weekend, which officially started around 7 minutes ago.
“If I’m gonna write your story,” I say to him, “you’re gonna do me some maths, first.”
I summon the barman, Ivor, to fetch me a napkin. I could write on the pad that I’m writing this on but it feels cooler to do it on a napkin, as if we’re planning a bank heist, even though I’m not in that game anymore.
“Local area,” I said, “population?”
“Erm, local area…Boro? Durham?” says Numbers, as I’ve now christened him in my head, because that’s what writers do when they meet someone for the first time. A character has to be projected onto them.
“Durham?” I said, “do you teach maths cos you failed geography? We’ll do Boro,” making a note of it on the napkin as Ivor fetches more drinks.
The maths teacher muses for a short time and settles on 150,000 for the approximate population.
It sounds right. My last estimate would have put it at over 140,000.
Ivor slides the ever-lengthening receipt for the drinks under my nose.
“Christ, Ivor!” I said, “did you fly Tom Collins himself in to make that?”
There are approximately 80,000 registered authors in the UK, that is, people who make a liveable wage, however meagre, from some form of writing, be it scripts, copywriting, books etc. I’ve knocked 10,000 off straight away to get it down to 70,000 authors of primarily books, even though it’s likely less.
“A nice round number that can be divided neatly,” the maths teacher said.
“Aye,” I said, “get ready to be happy. The number of books published in the UK annually is about 180,000.”
“Righto,” he said, “nice and round.”
Everyone has a book in them, it is often said, whether they think it worthy of a being written or not. In fact it is my belief that everyone has three stories in them; an adventure, a romance, and a tragedy, but for the purposes of this barstool blustering, we’ll say there’s just the one.
I now suppose that there are around 100 published authors, of at least one fully-formed book, in the Middlesbrough area. It’s probably more but I’m rounding down so I can be in the Century Club, and it’ll be easier to calculate statistics when I edit this at home without Numbers sitting beside me.
At the top end then, of these 100 authors- many of whom don’t write non-fiction- working on the stories of 150,000 people, translates to 1,500 stories per author. Whittle again, to remove the stories of people who are just plain uninteresting- that’s not to say they don’t have a story, but there isn’t a market for complications relating to your Auntie Jan’s wheelie bin collection dates- and we can get it to 1000 stories.
“You can take out maths teacher stories from that lot,” I said, jokingly, “so we’re down to, what, 999?”
That works out at 10 stories- let’s say books- per author, which is more than enough to go around, and I’ve already written five, which leaves me with five more to go.
“And mine,” the maths teacher said.
Disregard Numbers’ biography for the time being.
I reckon I’ve got 5 books left in me. I’m looking at my slate, now, and there’s 5 books on it. An already-announced novel, Hogweed; a biography of an associate who’s had as colourful a life as you could ever imagine; a travelogue on whatever’s left of mainland Europe and the UK; an unsolved Teesside murder- not that one- and my autobiography, which of course will be pretentiously described as a memoir.
I’m fully-booked then, until 2039, or thereabouts, so, I guess what I’m trying to say is stop telling me to write about you, and get writing yourself. There’s enough stories to go around. Besides, I need to spend more time with my drinks.
Another gimlet, please, Ivor. *No maths teachers were harmed during the writing of this article, although one was stuck for a substantial bar tab.