The bluish haze of cigarette smoke and insufficient light given off by the candles tucked away in the wine bar’s numerous nooks and crannies are forming an evil coalition to make it near impossible for me to decipher what it is exactly I’m eating. Apparently it’s called tapas, but in the 21 years leading up to this point in my life, nothing has prepared me for such a culinary concept. To my unsophisticated eyes it looks like we’re dining on leftovers. Before now exotic to me would have meant ordering the Hawaiian at Pizza Hut. I wash down something gristly with a big gulp of nasty red wine. I know I shouldn’t drink so fast, but I’m nervous. My stomach has tied itself into a knot so tight it would give Houdini trouble. It’s January 1994 and I find myself hopelessly out of my depth at a table with two advertising industry legends and a small group of junior wannabes like myself. The two admen steer the conversation from obscure European photographers to classical Greek literature to Renaissance art before somehow tying them all up in a fancy bow of unfathomable words. They may as well be speaking a foreign language – and often they do – thinking nothing of dropping French colloquialisms into an already incomprehensible sentence. Apart from to chuck wine down my neck, I’ve sensibly been keeping my mouth firmly shut. Then during a rare lull, one of the legends peers over his Andy Warhol glasses at me and asks, “So what do you read?” I get the feeling that ‘books’ isn’t quite the answer he’s looking for. Suddenly it feels like I’ve been plonked into one of those smoky late night arts debates you see on BBC2. All eyes are on me. My sphincter has tightened to the point it’s in danger of creating a black hole and sucking me into oblivion, which at this precise moment perhaps wouldn’t be such a bad thing. “I quite like James Herbert,” I say, before adding (and to this day I don’t know why) “And some of the stories you get in Readers Digest are alright.” “Hmmm,” sniffs the Warhol lookalike, sucking ponderously on a cigarette, “Hmmm.” He gives me a rather theatrically quizzical look and turns his attention on someone else. The spotlight moves further up the table leaving me in the dark fringes. I can feel my cheeks twitching and the blood rushing noisily through the veins in my temples. Everything becomes a bit fuzzy for a while, until I notice that like me, Mr Warhol–lite is no longer involved in the conversation, and without really thinking I ask him, “Is there a book you could recommend I read?” Leaning back in his chair he fixes me with a very long hard look, “Have you ever read any Martin Amis?” “No,” I reply. And then he turns his whole body towards me, and smiles, “Why don’t you try Dead Babies by Martin Amis, that’s a good place to start.”
That weekend I read Dead Babies. And then after Dead Babies I read Money and then Success, and from Martin Amis I moved onto Will Self and this led me to American authors like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, John Updike and John Steinbeck, Henry Miller and Richard Yates, and Californian writers, Charles Bukowski and John Fante. Whenever a writer referenced another I would seek them out. The Americans pointed me back in the direction of Europe and Camus and Hamsun. George Orwell, Patrick Hamilton, Christopher Isherwood and Alan Silitoe brought me full circle to Britain. For the last 15 years I’ve been on a joyous never-ending journey through literature. An amazing journey that all started because I was curious and asked a question. I hope I never stop being curious and asking questions.