I had an uncle who was a writer and a dreamer. None of his poems or novels were published, none of his plays was ever performed. It didn’t matter to him and it didn’t matter to me. When I was a boy, I used to watch him at family parties, when he’d had a few drinks, when he’d take out a poem and start to read it to us. The thrill of it! I had uncle who was a writer! He was grown-up, intelligent, knowledgeable, but seemed very child-like too. I told him my dreams. ‘Brilliant!’ he said. ‘I have a nephew who’ll be a writer, too!’
I wanted to be many other things. I was drawn to the notions of wildernesses and frontiers. I wanted to be the silent fair-haired tramp who roamed through our town with a knapsack on his back. I’d watch him heading across the playing fields towards the hills beyond and I’d dream of following him beyond the hazy horizon.
I wanted to be an Arctic explorer, a tea-seller in the passes of the Himalayas, a shaman in Tibet, a lumberjack in the Canadian north. I was a Catholic boy. A monk once came to our school in search of boys with vocations. He had sunburned skin, blue eyes, tons of humour. He told us of his work in African villages of sub-Saharan Africa. Who would like to join us there? he asked. Me! I answered inside, but (thankfully!) I heard no call from God.
I wanted to be a deep-sea diver like Jacques Cousteau, to walk on the moon like Neil Armstrong. I wanted to meet a ghost and kill a vampire. I loved the circus and I wanted to be a tightrope walker. I wanted to be Houdini. I wanted to travel in the astral plane. I wanted to play for Newcastle United, to spray inch-perfect passes like Alan Suddick around St James Park. Sometimes it seemed I wanted to be everything. And my dad said I could be anything. ‘A tramp?’ I remember him saying one day. ‘Aye, you could be that, son. Just get your education first.’
Through it all, to be a writer was the thing I really wanted. I scribbled and wrote and stitched my pages into little home-made books. I grew up (did I? do any of us?). I got an education, a degree. I hitchhiked around Europe for three long summers. I kept on writing, knew I’d be lucky to make a living from it, so I became a teacher. Long holidays! Short days! Perfect for a writer! How wrong I was. For the first couple of years of that I was so exhausted that I hardly wrote at all. And to my amazement, I became fascinated by it, and found much to love in it.
I kept on writing, trying to balance my dreams and my writing with the need to earn a living. I started to have stories published. How proud my uncle would have been! A few years in, I sold everything I owned and joined a commune and wrote. The teenage me would have would have been so proud of me – and my dad as well, I thought. The hopeful child inside said everything would turn out well. The commune, like my small amount of money, lasted for a time. I went on writing, went back to teaching. I wrote in hope and expectation. I wanted big things to happen and I believed they might happen, but like my uncle, part of me didn’t really care. I was driven to write. Couldn’t do anything else but write. And I wrote for the simple love of it.
You never stop dreaming of course, just like you never really grow up. You have to try to stay young. You have to keep on dreaming. I still have unachievable dreams: that my silky midfield skills will help Newcastle to win the FA Cup at last; that I’ll travel in the astral plane; that I’ll be a shaman in Tibet. But some things I will achieve. I’ll spend a few weeks of travelling tramp-like in Northumberland. I’ll travel to the Himalayas. And I strive to keep on getting better as a writer, to be the best writer I can possibly be. I want to write the most beautiful brilliant funny heartbreaking book the world has ever known. I want to be grown up at last and I want to be a child again. I want to stay in this astonishing world. I want to live forever.
David Almond's latest book is The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, out now, published by Walker.