It’s hard to remember a time before I felt that writing was the best thing I could do with my life. It wasn’t a really decision, just knowing that words and books were where I felt at home. At first, I expected to write stories, because that’s what I read. I also expected that I would have a job, because earning my living as a writer seemed impossible. I was wrong on both counts. I did write some novels, plays and stories—enough to learn that I lacked the essential talent and imagination. I also saw that I didn’t have, and more importantly didn’t want to have the “splinter of ice in the heart of a writer” identified by Graham Greene. I also saw (it was hard to miss) how much my writing reflected my reading. My first novel owed everything to Richard Brautigan, my second, almost as much to Albert Camus and Pierre Christin; my songs to everyone from Shakespeare to Loudon Wainwright III. Imitation is probably an inevitable stage on the way to becoming a writer: emancipation is essential.
At the time—1981, in London—I was directing a theatre piece I’d devised. Someone pointed me towards a community printshop to get the posters printed. I spent a day learning to screen print and enjoyed myself immensely. Before I left, I’d applied for the job they were advertising. Within a month, the play was over and I’d become an apprentice community arts worker. It was not really a decision, just a recognition that community art was where I felt at home.
There was a lot to learn—about art, people, teaching, politics, cultural democracy and, of course, myself, and how I fitted into this world. For five years I barely wrote anything, too busy taking in new experiences and ideas. When I did start writing again, it was often about community art. But I’d also discovered other areas that fascinated me: history (which I’d somehow avoided at school), buildings, landscape and more. My first book came from there, not my work in community art. The English Castle (1993) took seven years to write because, in addition to researching the subject, I was finding my own voice. I wrote, re-wrote, edited, set aside, wrote again. Publication brought copy-editing, an invaluable experience that taught me more.
At about the same time, I was commissioned to update guidance for dance, music and literature animateurs published by the Community Dance and Mime Foundation. A series of loose-leaf guidance notes became a 250-page paperback book into which I poured more than a decade’s thinking and practical experience about community art. Since then, writing has been a large part of my work, research reports, talks and essays, creative work and, above all, writing about community art. Most of that work is published on Creative Commons terms and is available for download from these pages.