Afterword to the novel Rule of Night published by Pomona 2003
Even after publishing over 20 novels, I still have only a hazy notion of where the idea for any particular book comes from. Rule of Night is the exception: I know exactly when and where the first spark of inspiration struck me from out of the blue.
It was one Saturday afternoon in the early seventies. There I was, on the terraces at Spotland, a keen Rochdale supporter - though from a distance of 30 years I can't remember who we were playing that day. This was the dawn of the skinhead era, when a new breed of hooligan roamed the streets. You could spot him coming a mile off: shaven skull, braces on display (usually red) as a fashion accessory, jeans cut off below the knee and menacing Doc Marten bovver-boots. Thank goodness he stood out, because it gave you time to cross the road out of harm's way. Even at the Dale, with crowds of around 2000, there was the occasional flare-up, usually involving skinheads. You'd see a sudden surge behind the goal, some pushing and shoving, and fists would start flying. (I'm almost certain this was in the days before the fans were segregated but wouldn't swear to it.)
Anyway, on the afternoon in question, the police waded into the crowd, grabbed this Dale yobbo and frog-marched him past the main stand and up the players' tunnel to the jeers, obscene catcalls and flying spittle of the home fans. I can see the lad now, arm locked up his back, bent over nearly double by two coppers, glaring at the crowd with a mixture of hate and sullen bravado. Not a pretty sight. The spectators were were just as scary: having worked themselves up into a mad frothing fury, they didn't see a human being any more; what they saw was an animal, or an alien creature from another planet. All their collective fear was flung at this lad. They wanted him punished, and hard, because he damn well deserved everything he got.
And I remember vividly the sense of bafflement that went through my mind. As a writer I'm supposed to have a sense - intuition, empathy - for what drives people to act the way they do. But with this lad I hadn't a clue. He was fifteen or sixteen. He had a mum and a dad. He had mates, possibly a girlfriend, maybe even a job. In other words he was no different in all the basic essentials from the crowd baying for his blood. Myself I didn't feel much sympathy for him - he was a nasty piece of work you wouldn't want to meet on a dark night - but I was curious to know what went on inside that shaven skull. How did he view the world? What made him laugh and cry, happy and sad? In other words, what made him tick? To satisfy my own curiosity I decided to write the book that would become Rule of Night.
One Big Mistake.
Over the following weeks and months I got to know several groups of teenage lads (not all of them skinheads) and their girlfriends. From the start I was completely open and honest with them: I told them I was gathering material for a book, a work of fiction. Anything they told me, any secret they revealed, was in strict confidence. They didn't object, in fact quite the reverse. I think they felt flattered that someone was prepared to take an interest in them and ask their opinions.
I made one big mistake though. I took along a tape-recorder to the first pub session, and we all know what happens when people realise they're being recorded: they clam up or become wooden and self-conscious. I had to leave the tape-recorder behind and rely on memory to scribble down the evening's conversation after I got home - often after midnight, with three or four pints of John Willie Lees sloshing inside me.
When the novel came out, a friend of mine, Ed Teague, held a launch party at his bookshop on Yorkshire Street. Kenny Seddon, the main character in the book, ends up in Buckley Hall, in those days a youth detention centre, today a women's prison, so Ed had the idea of inviting along members of the probation service. As we sipped wine and nibbled cheese, two or three probation officers confided privately to me that they could positively identify the real person that the fictional Kenny was based on. Each name they gave me was different. It proved to me that the character I had invented must have come pretty close to the truth. Because Kenny Seddon didn't exist in reality; he was more a product of the imagination than based on anyone I met in the pub.
The Ashfield Valley estate, which features prominently in the novel, was
flattened in the late 'eighties. It wasn't called the Alcatraz of the North
for nothing. Even when new, at the time Kenny Seddon's family lived there,
these grey anonymous concrete blocks struck a chill to the heart. The book
opens with "If you get caught in here God help you lousy scum" which
wasn't my invention. It was scrawled on a wall at the bottom of a stinking
As for Buckley Hall, which the Home Office kindly gave me a tour of while I was researching the book, I was told years later that they had half-a-dozen copies of Rule of Night in the library. The book was popular with the teenage inmates, apparently, most of whom never read anything more demanding than page three of the Sun and possibly the racing results. So popular in fact that all the copies got nicked - which, when you come to think of it, is just about the most flattering compliment an author can receive for his work. What I like to think of as literary criticism in action.
© Trevor Hoyle 2008