Questions of balance;Arts

30th July 1999 at 01:00
How do you become a writer? Storyteller James Campbell tells his own fantastic tale

When I visit a primary school, I always leave time for questions and the children usually come out with "How did you become a writer?" or "Where do you get your ideas?''.

The other week, I was asked three strange ones. "Do you ever get drunk?'' - to which I replied, "Yes. But I don't have a problem with it." Then: "Do you smoke?" I like to be honest, so I said: "Yes.'' The children simultaneously made disapproving noises. But the third question was: "Do you have any children of your own?'' I must have been a bit confused, because without thinking I said: "Not as far as I know.'' It went over their heads.

But the most frequent question is: "When did you start writing?'' I was seven. I was always interested in words. Fascinated. I would read toothpaste tubes. I would read street signs, train tickets, shoe sizes, everything. I would read every word on a box of breakfast cereal.

One Saturday morning, I was trying to disentangle the monosodium glutamate and magnesium content on a cornflake packet, when my mum made an announcement. She had obviously realised that there was some writerly instinct inside me, because she had thought of a way of stimulating my creativity and nurturing my burgeoning talent. Rollerskating lessons.

Now, I had never expressed any interest in rollerskating, never pleaded for the latest super skates. But Mum had decided, so we went to Peterborough Roller Rink. Rather than being put in the class for complete idiots with no balance, few motor skills and a tendency to burst into tears, I was put into what I think was the intermediate class.

Nonetheless, I put on borrowed skates, waved goodbye to Mum and her charge cards and tottered out into the rink.

We stood in the middle, surrounding the teacher. I can remember her now. A violently pink leotard. Neighbours were complaining, it was so pink. She had one of those Eighties hairdoes: white blonde explosion in a chemistry lab. "Right. Skate to that end!'' And off they go - a blur of skates and Adidas, zooming effortlessly across the expanse. Hovercraft on a tranquil sea. I, of course, am stationary, balancing like a drunken flamingo.

I take one step forwards. I fall over. As I lay on my back, the troupe of skaters come shooting past me to the other end of the rink. Backwards. By the time I've managed to stay up for three seconds, the group has shot back on one leg.

I spent the hour standing up and falling down, while 50 snotty kids in brand new tracksuits and abusive ankle warmers shot backwards and forwards. Fast, slow, spinning in circles, leaping across each other, diving through hoops of fire, soaring over alligators. I did not feel good. In fact, I cried. Silently. Barely able to breathe.

Eventually, the instructor noticed I was distressed. She swept up to me and skidded to a roller-wrenching halt - swiftly followed by her flock of starlings. She didn't ask if I was okay. She just stared. The kids linked hands and made a circle around me. Then, without a word from Miss Pink, they began to spin around me in a chain. Faster and faster until they seemed to blur into one another. I looked again. They were blurring into one another. Slowly, but quickening, they were fastening and sticking to each other. Their hands were melting. Their faces contorted - swapping eyes and hair, expressions frowned into another's smile. A pert look eased into another's manic grin. Faster and faster. Hotter and hotter until there was just a smoking ring of molten Adidas around me.

The teacher in pink stared at me. I looked through my tears into her eyes. They just stared. But then they did something very strange. They started to turn. Slowly at first like the flywheel of a steam engine limbering up. Then faster and faster. Her speckled irises spun into a polaroid of pale blue. "Stop doing that with your eyes!'' I screamed. And then her ears fell off. Two metal prongs emerged from her head and telescopically extended outwards, turned and extended again until they were either side of my head. I heard an electronic whirring and, before I could move, I felt cold steel inside my ears.

Then it felt like something was being altered in my head. My imagination ran through a pink landscape of tall mountains and deep valleys. I floated on a magic carpet through visible currents of air and span in circles like a bird. I tingled all over and my heart leapt. Then Miss Pink exploded.

I looked up to find that the children and instructor had gone. I was in the kitchen, the sun was warming my left ear and I was reading a packet of cornflakes. The word Thiamin seemed strangely important. It was then that I realised I was going to be a writer.

James Campbell can be contacted on 07979 550602

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