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Biography
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This world of Imagination is the world of Eternity - William Blake
I was born in York in 1955. My paternal family was Scottish on both sides, though my father was brought up in Sunderland; my maternal family was Northumbrian, descended from the wild families of border reivers who used to raid both sides of the debatable border between England and Scotland. When I was two years old, my family moved to Reading, Berkshire, so I grew up a soft southerner. At school, I was always being told off for dreaming. Looking back, I can see it was annoying for my teachers that I preferred to think my own thoughts rather than listen to what they were saying. But I understood very early that the daydreaming part of my brain was more vital to me than the knowledge-storing part. Anyway, the things I wanted to know I seemed to know without trying; the things I did not want to know I could not learn if you paid me. Although I loved stories and poems, reading came slowly to me. My class had 50 children, and I was about the slowest. The teacher taught us from a reading scheme called Janet and John. You had to read each book aloud to her before going on to the next. The Janet and John books were written in a flat, featureless style. There was no hint in them of the world of imagination, or the world of eternity. I just could not see the point. Then the first pupils in my class finished the final book in the scheme. Suddenly, a bookcase appeared in the classroom, with real books, to which these lucky children had free access. Next time I had a chance to read to the teacher, I read all the way through the first Janet and John book. And the second. And the third. And the fourth. All the way to the end. And so the magical world of books was opened to me. From that time on, I always had my nose in a book. At bedtime, I would plead to just finish the page, and then read on, entranced, until forcibly stopped. There was always another page to finish. I began to read books from the adult section of the library. One, I remember, was a historical novel set in the Peninsular War, entitled The Flying Ensign (an ensign is a military flag, and also the rank of a junior officer in the British Army). I wrote a report on it for my teacher. She returned it with the word ensign crossed out and replaced by engine. My reading was voracious and random. Some books I read quickly and then forgot. Others somehow sank deep into my mind. One such was Sentimental Tommy by J. M. Barrie, the first book I ever read about a boy who lives in his imagination, as I did. An unremarkable book of adventure stories contained the haunting short story The Strange Ride of Morrowby Jukes by Rudyard Kipling, about a man trapped in the deadly sands of his own mind. And The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe showed me how the everyday world could be transformed by the imagination into the world of eternity. By the time I went to secondary school I was reading pretty much anything that took my fancy. I always carried a book with me to read in the five minutes between classes. As soon as I opened the pages, I was back in the spell, and I would never have noticed if a riot had broken out around me, which it sometimes did. When asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I could not reply. But I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to read. While studying English Language and Literature at Oxford University, I became interested in childrens literature, especially the work of modern writers such as Alan Garner, William Mayne, and Ursula K. Le Guin. I made a special study of their work in my Ph.D thesis on Myth and Folklore in Childrens Literature, and one chapter of this became the basis for my first book, A Fine Anger.
My headmaster at school once told my mother, Neil is myth mad. Much of my own work has its roots in my passion for myths and folktales, married to my love of poetry and words. In exploring that love and that passion, I have found a way to make my living by reading, and it is reading that has turned me into a writer. The life of every jobbing writer is a mixture of highs and lows, the rewarding and the surreal. I was lucky to scrape a living in my early career out of literary journalism, supplemented by all kinds of hack work, from writing recipes for Time Life to writing the commentary for a film about the remaking of the runway at Manchester Airport (which then won an award!). Out of a mixture of luck and laziness I have been able to avoid ever taking a proper job, though I have worked part-time in publishing, as editorial director of the book packager The Albion Press Ltd, and formerly as an advisory editor to Penguin Books, with responsibility for the Penguin Folklore Library. In recent years my interest in art since the Impressionists has also led to my becoming an accidental print dealer, with an internet-based gallery, Idbury Prints Ltd, and a blog, Adventures in the Print Trade. By and large I have been able to concentrate fully on the writing that interested me most. I have been almost uniquely lucky in being able to fashion a lifetime of work out of my great passions, storytelling and poetry. There is still a lot more to write. I have ideas for fiction, retellings, anthologies, and poems, and despite the cautionary example of Casaubon in Middlemarch am working on a hugely ambitious Key to all Mythologies. On a more domestic scale, I am also writing the history of the village where I live, once again using the transforming power of the imagination to move between the local and the universal.
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Sorry about the hard-to-read continuous text! When I find a way to stop question marks appearing at line and paragraph breaks I will be able to re-jig it.
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