At noon on 29 April 2015, I was under the cathedral-like ceiling of the magnificent Waterstones building in Bradford, my phone ringing again and again.
I ignored it. I was a journalist for the city’s Telegraph & Argus, and was judging a children’s book review competition I had organised.
I can’t even remember my job title – it was assistant editor (something something). I had ignored the sage advice of an editor from aeons earlier – “Never take a job title with brackets in it” – and slid into a role involving admin, meetings, competitions, and lots and lots of dealings with the commercial side of newspapers, rather than editorial.
For that reason, I thought I was fireproof. Of course, I was wrong. When I finally answered my phone, I was told to get back to the office immediately. I imagined there was some huge breaking news story that required all hands on deck, something perhaps even of 9/11 proportions. Until the deputy editor said: “Don’t go to the newsroom, come to HR.”
The world of newspapers had seduced me when I was 14 and – don’t laugh – saw All The President’s Men on the TV. I would never be a Woodward or a Bernstein. But being a Barnett in the local press was enough for me. The height of my ambition was to work not for the Washington Post, but for my home town paper, the Wigan Evening Post.
This was a glamorous prospect after being educated in a working-class comprehensive school where the teachers did their best, but the major career paths were still the pit, the army and jail.
I eschewed university and, at 18, started a nine-month course by the National Council for the Training of Journalists at Lancashire Polytechnic in Preston (now UCLan). In May 1989, at 19, I started my first job, as a trainee reporter at the Chorley Guardian.
Over the next 26 years, I worked constantly in local newspapers in the north of England, including the Wigan Evening Post. In my 20s, journalism was my work, my social life and my found family, all wrapped up together.
I loved local journalism unconditionally, even when it treated me badly, with low pay, long hours and often unreasonable requests: five ‘“death knocks” (the journo term for contacting relatives of the deceased) in one day? Walking around Preston in a Dorothy Perkins skirt? I had developed a form of Stockholm syndrome. Local papers had kidnapped me from what most people would consider a normal life, yet I adored them for it.
Until the day I was told it was over. I stood outside the office, chain-smoking and cycling through an emotional roulette wheel. I was angry, because I worked hard and I was an award-winning journalist. I was devastated, as if a partner I had devoted myself to for more than a quarter of a century had suddenly told me they didn’t love me any more. I felt a crashing sense of impostor syndrome. Had I been fooling myself all these years? Was I not as good as I thought? Had I finally been found out? While everyone who worked in newspapers agreed the job was shit, we didn’t really mean it. I felt as if I had been kicked out of the best game in town.
But more than anything, I was terrified about the future. On one level, I had become institutionalised, while local newspapers were slimming down their staffing levels across the board. I was 45 – what was I going to do for the rest of my life?
On a more practical level, what was I going to do for the rest of the year? Although being assistant editor (something something) brought with it a relatively decent salary in local newspaper terms and my wife was working full-time, we had a mortgage and two small children. Also, my generally chaotic financial management, which meant we usually lurched from payday to payday, had come back to bite me on the arse with the unrelenting grip of a doberman.
My wife was more upbeat. “Now you can do what you’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “Go freelance. Work for the nationals. Do what you love: write.”
So I did. I worked for another month, drifting like a ghost around the newsroom, feeling like people were avoiding me, as though redundancy were contagious. I almost crumbled under the weight of self-doubt. I knew the decisions leading to my redundancy were financial ones, but still the thought remained: if I was any good, if anyone actually liked me, then surely someone would have fought to keep me in my job?
There was only one way to crawl out of that particular hole, and it was what my wife had told me to do: write.
So I finished work on the last Friday in May and sat down at the kitchen table on the first Monday in June and wrote. For the Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph, magazines, websites, the BBC, pretty much anyone who would take my words. It worked well. And I did love it. But that wasn’t the life-changing thing brought on by the day I was made redundant.
In January 2016, an editor at the book publisher Orion, Sam Eades, emailed me saying she had been following my freelance journalism career with interest. She especially liked the pieces I was writing for the (now defunct) website the Pool and wondered whether I could apply the tone and voice of those pieces to a novel.
Of course, I said yes. I went away and put together a proposal, about a curmudgeonly man who ends up on the first solo, one-way flight to Mars by a combination of accident and circumstance, and how his erroneous contact with a family in dire straits in Wigan brings redemption and triumph and leaves not a dry eye in the house. It was a weird, funny and sad little book When I had finished the final draft, I asked Sam: “Is this actually any good?” “I don’t know,” she said. “But I like it.”
Calling Major Tom sold to 12 foreign territories, became a word-of-mouth hit and racked up some good sales. It led to a new career writing commercial fiction. My fourth book for Orion, a darkish sort-of romcom called The Handover, was published in the UK this year and will appear in the US next year, along with a novel I have just written in the Alien franchise universe.
It is a terrible old cliche to say that redundancy was the best thing to happen to me, but I am an old-school hack at heart, so there it is.