It was my first day of work at the British Gas call centre. I’d got the job through an agency and wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. Rumour had it that the seats had sensors on them so they knew when you weren’t at your desk. This was all put into an algorithm for the team leaders to check you’d spent enough time in front of your computer screen, headset on, actually working. There was to be no hiding out in the toilet.
We were having our mass inductions. A Team Leader called Darren (I think) strode confidently into the room. He was around five foot six with a thin body and hollow cheeks. He bulked out his frame with an over-sized suit and power shoulders. He was enthusiastic as he introduced himself and told us where the fire exits were in case the building caught fire during the induction.
‘Ok guys,’ he said. ‘I want you to imagine you’re on the phone to a customer and they think there’s a gas leak. What do you do?’
He looked around the room for raised hands. You fool Darren, I thought; none of us are here to participate. We’re taking this crappy job to get money and do smallest amount of work possible. We’re not going to play your stupid games. But to my surprise, hands were going up. Darren nodded to one.
‘Open the windows.’
‘Good. Great answer. Yes, open the window. That way, if there’s any gas it can be let out through the windows. What else?’
‘Don’t turn on the lights.’
‘Yes! Really good. Does anyone know why you shouldn’t switch the lights on?’
‘Because it can cause a spark,’ said several voices around the room.
I was horrified. Why was everyone trying? It was as if they wanted to do a good job.
Of course the reason for this, as I discovered some years later, was because they were good people and I was a twat.
‘Brilliant!’ said Darren. ‘Great stuff. Yes, turning on a light switch can cause a spark that can ignite any leaking gas. Ok. Maybe it’s best to have a break at this point.’
We’d literally been having our induction for about fifteen minutes. Over hot drinks people talked and started the process of getting to know one another. I stewed in a corner. I hated this. I didn’t want to be here. I’d only got a job because, about a week previous, my mother in her exasperation at my not working had called me a Fat Lazy Ginger Slug. Just think about that for a second. A Fat, Lazy, Ginger Slug. From a mother to a son. A slug! Have you seen those things?! But it worked. That very same day I was back in the job market and The Novel was on pause.
In fairness, The Novel was really just a phrase I used to spend every day eating cream of tomato soup and watching Spongebob Squarepants. But surely this, being told the stuff about gas leaks I’d been taught in school at the age of eight, was a bridge too far. I had a Batchelor of Science degree in geography from Swansea University – did they not realise this?
Break over it was back to work. I can’t remember the second part of the morning but at lunch I trekked across Cardiff city centre to Waterstones and saw on one of the tables a book called Northern Lights by an author called Philip Pullman. You should never judge a book by its cover but this cover, with a golden compass-like instrument surrounded by weird symbols, drew me in. I paid for the book and took it to the rooftop café of the David Morgan department store.
Don’t bother looking for it; it’s not there anymore. It’s now a TK Maxx – quite a fall from grace for a prestige boutique store that once employed none other than Michael Aspel.
But I used to go there a lot, to the top floor, where you could hide away and look out across the Hayes, at all the people rushing around.
I bought myself a tea and sat down with my new book. And was immediately transported. The very first sentence had a strange new word in it that piqued my mind: dæmon. I didn’t know what this was, other than Lyra had one and its name was Pantalaimon. I had no clue that the idea of a soul existing as the form of an animal outside one’s body would give me, later, some of the most moving moments I’ve ever read in books. I was hooked by the meeting that takes place in that opening in a re-imagined Victorian Oxford, by the the talk of a mysterious element called Dust that had supposedly been discovered by the mysterious Lord Asriel during an expedition to the North and how, through this Dust, he’d found a city that existed in another dimension. I sat there and read and the time ticked by until it was time to go back to British Gas. But I didn’t want to go back to British Gas. I wanted to stay here and keep reading. Dramatically, I told myself this was a watershed moment. I was going to choose a job or a book – a career, or something else. And of course there was the added frisson of a wrathful mother thrown into the mix.
I chose the book.
I read all afternoon and took the train into town until the end of the week, pretending to go to work, when in fact I was going to the rooftop café to read Northern Lights and then, after that, The Subtle Knife. I was completely in love with these books. They were so rich and dense, but such page-turners as well. After I finished The Amber Spyglass, the last in the trilogy, I was devastated. But I knew what had to be done. I needed to write my own epic trilogy of YA fiction. And so began a two year period of The Beginning of all Things, the story of a mysterious group of figures who could alter the laws of physics to stop evil from penetrating and overwhelming the world. Unfortunately, it was rubbish. But I did feel that I cut my teeth writing that book (I only completed one of the three).
In the meantime I kept an eye on what Philip Pullman wrote, devoured Lyra’s Oxford and had tears in my eyes at one sentence in Once Upon A Time in the North relating to Lee Scorseby’s gun. About five years ago (I think, it could be a little longer, or a little shorter), I couldn’t sleep and found myself trawling in the depths of the night the forums of Philip Pullman’s official website, which he used to post on from time to time. And I came across an entry mentioning something called The Book of Dust. I kept searching. The Book of Dust, like Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North, seemed to be a companion piece to the His Dark Materials trilogy. But this book was going to be much bigger than the other two companion pieces. It was, I learned, a major project. That the title contained the word Dust made me really excited. The theory of Dust was, for me, one of the most compelling things about the original books. I was overjoyed and became, as I am wont to do, obsessed with this new book. I Googled it at least every month but nothing seemed to be happening. About a year later there was another nugget of information: Pullman had said that he was now spending all his time on the novel. I knew his technique. Every day he goes to his shed (actually, he no longer goes to his shed as he’s moved) and writes three pages longhand in his notepad. That’s his day’s work. Sometimes he writes them quickly, sometimes it takes him nearly twenty-four hours. But every day he writes three pages.
Pullman was on Twitter and every few months I Tweeted him: Can you tell us about the progress of the Book of Dust? And occasionally he would. The answer was always the same. “Today it is three pages longer than it was yesterday.” So I knew this book was going to be huge. I often thought of it, growing by three pages a day, for many years. It would be over a thousand pages. This was music to my ears. But still no news. It was only this year, 2017, that news of The Book of Dust broke in the mainstream. And it was no longer one book but three! I could not wait. Because David Morgan’s closed in 2005 I knew I would be unable to relive the ceremony of beginning this new trilogy in the rooftop café so I interviewed new venues. The winner was the Costa Coffee on Park Place, opposite Cardiff University’s Main Building. It was a red brick Victorian building with warm décor that reminded me of the Dark Materials world. Added to this, it had opened around Christmas time, the time I first read Northern Lights. Bear in mind I started planning reading Book of Dust there around 2012. I know it’s quite pathetic but these small rituals are what I live for. Last month, the Costa on Park Place closed. The building is to be demolished. So I won’t be reading the novel there. For some reason, this really distressed me for a good few weeks. But eventually I moved on and started thinking of alternatives. My new frontrunner is Café Zest in Howells – another old world department store, in a hidden corner on the second floor where you can disappear into the city. The book has been out for three days now. I ordered a signed copy from WHSmith and the orders have been messed up so I haven’t even got mine yet. I’ve picked up copies in Tesco and Asda and have managed to restrain myself from reading more than a few lines but from the opening paragraph I already know the world of the originals is still right there. I’m copyediting a new book at the moment so have made the decision to not start The Book of Dust (or La Belle Sauvage as this instalment is called) until I’m finished because I want to give it my full attention. I’ve waited the best part of a decade; a few more days won’t hurt.
Those original books have become something more to me, just as a song helps crystallise important moments in a life, so these books did the same for me. They came along at a time when my journey could have taken a completely different direction had I not bought Northern Lights and returned to British Gas. Not a better life, or a worse life, but a different one. Perhaps beyond the Dust that universe is playing out right now.