Was that true?

What comes out of your mouth can surprise you sometimes. I was in a classroom in Hackney Downs School in the spring of 1974 and I said to a class of tough London boys that I’d been teaching English to for some time: “Some of you can write better stories than I ever could.”

I heard myself say it; and although I went on with whatever great idea I had dreamed up to inspire and challenge them that day, a voice in my head asked: “Was that true? After all…, (it went on) “…you haven’t tried, have you? – not since you were a pupil yourself?”

The voice was right – I hadn’t. What’s more, I hadn’t done that much “creative writing” at Bootle Grammar School for Boys either. English syllabuses tend to be more interested in why other people’s writing is good. (I DID have a great English teacher though – Bill Bent, who I heard years later on Mastermind – but that’s another story…).

So that night, I did the homework I had set them: to write the best opening I could to the kind of story I liked best. It took me ages, which was interesting; but by the end of the evening a pyramid of light had briefly materialised in the middle of Hackney Downs, and inside it, in a brand new school uniform, was a boy who looked as though he might be eleven years old. He was clearly ready to start secondary school…

That fragment had “Chapter 1” written all over it.

Not long after that, I had another bright idea. I got a class in a circle and told each boy to think of something he thought would be interesting to find in a story. It could be a character or a place or a situation or an interesting object. The idea was that each boy would whisper what he had thought of into the ear of the boy on his right, who had to remember it.

The challenge was to weave a story round the circle. I would point at someone, and he would start to tell a story, weaving in what had been whispered to him. When he stopped, the boy to his left would carry on the story until he’d managed to work in whatever had been whispered to him; and so on, until a rambling epic tale, full of strange twists and turns, had reached full circle.

That was the plan, and I was in the circle as well. You shouldn’t ask any pupil to do anything you couldn’t do yourself, right…?

Well, they couldn’t do it. It was “too hard”. And there I was at the crossroads, with a decision to make. You could call it a defining moment. I had said it could be done. Was that true? There was only one way to find out.

“Right,” I said. “Here’s a scrap of paper each. Write on it what was whispered to you, fold it, and give it to me…” They all did that, and there I was with a handful of folded scraps of paper. Taking a deep breath I opened the first scrap. It said “Zaire for the World Cup.”

“In 1994…” I said, staring round the group with my most convincing face on, “Zaire were favourites for the World Cup. They’d first entered the competition in 1974, and of course no one gave them a chance; but since then football in Zaire had gone from strength to strength, and now it seemed that no one could beat them…”

Ice Warrior paperback cover compressedI unfolded the next scrap. It said “Iceland”.

“The World Cup that year was to be held in Iceland. Icelanders are very keen on sport, and they had all the stadia needed in and around Reykjavik – which, as everyone knows, is the capital of Iceland. The Icelandic team were second favourites in the competition: they had many world-class players and the home advantage. But everyone was wondering how the Zaire team would get on in a country as cold as Iceland. Zaire is a hot country. How would they be affected by the change in temperature…?”

I unfolded the next scrap. It said “A banana”…

On and on the story went: twisting and turning through football and witchcraft and match-fixing, unexplained deaths and apparent resurrections, until about half an hour later I’d worked in the last piece of paper and brought the story to an exhausted close. There had been no hesitations, and the class had listened in total silence all that time.

Then a boy in the circle put his hand up and said: “Was that true, Sir?”

During the next school holiday I wrote that story down one weekend. Over the next twelve months I finished the longer story about the boy in the pyramid, and another two stories that were similarly weird. Then I sent them to Penguin and they published them.

The collection was called The Ice Warrior and Other Stories. The editorial team liked the other stories, but the one they really loved was the one I had called “The Ice Warrior”: the one about the footballing wizard from Zaire with a devastatingly effective banana kick. “What an amazing story!” they said. “Where on earth did you get the idea from?”

So if you think you would like to write an amazing story, but you don’t know where to get the idea from,  download my free booklet from this website. It is modestly entitled: “Ideas for at least a Billion Stories”…

And while you’re at it, do check out what I’ve been writing for the last six years? Because instead of a collection of short stories, I’m still this side of the middle of a REALLY long one…!

Was that true? Every word…