Thirteen years ago, the first book I worked on – Beg, Steal or Borrow, the authorised biography of Babyshambles – was released, and my freelance writing career was set in motion. For the two years prior to that, I had the unbridled joy of balancing night work at a media monitoring firm and spending time with the nation’s hottest, most chaotic indie/rock band as they rode numerous waves of controversy, due in large part to the media obsession with frontman and vocalist, Mr Peter Doherty.
Anybody who has worked nights knows that few on that kind of shift pattern will find sleep easy to come by, and for me it was utterly torturous. Every flat and surrounding shop was renovated, and the resulting noise (I still shudder at the sound of a drill) was so bad that I tried sleeping in every room (including under a sink, curled up in a cupboard) and in an outside garage – all to no avail. Only as I neared the end of the book did I give up the night work to focus on the final chapters. I couldn’t have gone freelance before then because I wouldn’t have been able to survive financially, but in taking a gamble on my writing skills, I threw myself in at the deep end, and those first few years’ earnings were so poor that I could barely label them as earnings at all.
But, like many things in life, I found that by sticking with it, I continued to improve and demand more of myself. Rather than pouring in, work trickled in, before I was in a position I never expected to hold: to be so busy that I had to turn assignments down. In all probability, if I hadn’t gambled when I did, I’d probably still be working a more standard job (not that I believe night work can ever really be called that, for it betrays one’s body clock and leaves you with near-permanent jetlag from switching from nights to days: one week on, one week off); and while writing can be a difficult profession to make a consistently good living from, I wouldn’t swap it for another role.
As for the Babyshambles boys, I remain indebted to them for giving me the chance to write their story. There aren’t many instances in life when coming from a working class background goes in your favour, but Peter and co often hung with people from the wrong side of the tracks, and couldn’t possibly judge them for it. Despite the bedlam enveloping the band at the time, there was a warmth about them that I’ve found to be rare in life, their gigs could be utterly raucous, and their fans among the most passionate I’ve ever seen. The tales they told synced with the rock n’ roll cliches, but there was an underlying sensitivity about them that in many ways presented them as perfect complementarities.
Had it not been for my paid work, I would’ve been able to complete the book much quicker than the two years that it took for me to get it over the line (then again, if I hadn’t had the paid work, I wouldn’t have been able to write the book at all). I did all of the transcribing myself, which took an absolute age, but because of the sensitivity around the band, and especially Peter, I couldn’t outsource the job, as I didn’t know anybody who did that, and would’ve been too cautious of a leak (Peter was on the front pages of most newspapers at the time, and I didn’t want to risk fuelling the media’s preoccupation with him).
As with most books, there was a fair bit of material that never made it into the finished product. In fact, there was probably enough for a few more chapters, but they’ll never see the light of day now. My time with the band made me realise that so much of the stuff written about them, and one member in particular, was utter fabrication, while there was more than a grain of truth in other stories. It’s impossible for anybody outside of that circle to be able to separate fact, or part-fact, from fiction, which is why a book can help to clarify certain matters (though when people remember events differently, that process is far from clear, leaving readers to make up their own minds).
I suppose my message here is: if you get a chance to do something you desire, and you have belief in your abilities, then go for it. It might not have a happy ending (there were many times when I nearly bailed out), but persistence is key, especially in a profession as precarious as writing and, I’m pretty sure, the rest of the arts, where even the most in-demand protagonists endure quiet periods. So thanks, Peter, Adam, Drew and Mik for giving me the chance to strike out on my own, for having faith in an unpublished writer; and, ultimately, for giving me a platform to do what I love as a career.
(Beg, Steal or Borrow is still available to purchase online for anyone wishing to explore what Babyshambles brought to the music scene, and the pandemonium they engendered).