I’m starting this new blog on an auspicious day. It was thirty years ago today that I arrived in England to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. Only the day before I had jacked in my job with the Maltese postal service and bought a one way ticket to Manchester. It was the cheapest ticket I could get, called a hop-on in those days, and you had to queue up outside the airline’s office in Valletta to get one. I’d camped outside the building for the night, just to make sure I got one.
Before going to the airport, I counted how much money I had. £48 after I’d paid commission for the exchange to sterling and bought myself breakfast! And I had a job in London for four weeks, directing a trilogy of plays at the Moonshine Community Arts Centre in Harlesden, north London. After that, who knows. I had no plans! Just an ambition to see my name in print.
In those days Malta had yet to join the EU, so I was allowed into the UK on a short term visa, renewable every six months. I could only work as a writer/director, could not claim benefits, and had to report at the Home Office in Croydon to prove I was living off my stated metiere if I wanted to renew for a further six months.
My plane landed at Manchester airport in the small hours of the morning. It was practically deserted, save for a few Mancunian tourists returning home from Maltese holiday resorts. The immigration officer was a smart blonde with a very kind face.
‘And what are you going to the do in the UK?’ she asked.
‘I’m going to be a writer.’
‘What are you going to write?’
‘Bestsellers,” I said.
She smiled, no doubt thinking: no chance! ‘Where are you going to live?’
‘I’m staying with friends in London.’
‘How are you getting there?’
‘Someone told me there’s a shuttle.’
‘The shuttle’s quite expensive,’ she laughed. ‘Why don’t you take the coach? It’s much cheaper.’
She closed the files on her desk. ‘I’m due a coffee break,’ she said. ‘I’ll show you to the coach station.’
It was an act of kindness I still remember to this very day! People back home had told me I’d be put on the return flight home the moment I let on I was trying to work in the UK. And deep down inside, I guess I was hoping that would happen, so I could go back to the rock with my head held high. Back home to my secure job at the ministry of postal services and telecommunications! Back to my friends, and back to writing in my spare time for pocket money. That was the bit that I couldn’t stomach. Back to writing in my spare time, doing another job I hated to earn a living! I wanted to be a proper writer, to compete with the big fish and see if I could go the distance. I didn’t mind how far down the food chain I’d be, and I was willing to pay the price.
The next years were very tough ones. I shared squats in London, rented rooms with broken windows and mattresses on the floor, subsisted on half-rotten fruit filched from rubbish bins outside corner shops, survived a racist attack on Shepherd’s Bush Green and had the door closed in my face more times than I had egg macmuffins in Macdonalds. But I never once thought about giving up!
The last thirty years have been an incredible journey. I consider myself very lucky. Not many people break into publishing, let alone ones who were born in other countries. I’ve made a lot of close friends in the UK, especially in Yorkshire where I live now, I’ve made myself a home, built myself a career in an industry I feel stupidly passionate about. Even my nationality has changed. I’m now proud to be a Briton – it sounds much better than the ‘resident alien’ tag I had before getting a British passport.
I often wish I had asked that immigration officer in Manchester her name: I would dedicate a book to her. I guess she must be retired by now. Who knows, she might even be living in Malta. A lot of people from Manchester retire there. Wherever you are, dear lady, I raise my breakfast cup to you. Thirty years ago today you put a stamp in my passport that would change my life forever: leave to stay for an indefinite period. Thank you!