Occasionally people ask me which aspect of my writing I’m most proud of. Is it the flawless characterization? The wonderfully-observed descriptive passages? The dialogue that tangoes off the page? The plots, as artfully constructed as the Daedalian labyrinth? Or some alchemic combination of all the above?
Oddly enough, the stroke I remember with the greatest pride is one that passes most readers by. It occurs in my first published book, The Darkling. The Darkling was published in 1997 (in the same month as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as I like to remind people with a gloomy starward shaking of the fist), but was written some years earlier, and it was in 1992 that I had to face up to the tricky problem of what to call Jamie’s pet gecko.
Jamie was the younger brother of my heroine and narrator, Petra McCoy. His own part in the story is relatively minor, and that of his pet lizard smaller still, but it needed a name, and I knew that (given Jamie’s character) its name was likely to celebrate a Manchester United leftwinger. But which one? At the time, two young players were making headlines for United in that position, both alike in crossing and scoring power, both given to gecko-ish bursts of furious pace. One was Lee Sharpe, who had made the No. 11 shirt his own during the 1990-91 season, notably by scoring a hat-trick against Arsenal in the League Cup. At 21, Sharpe was a talented player who clearly had a long and illustrious career ahead of him. The other contender was even younger, but his coltish legs were bringing him up fast on the rails. This was the teenaged Ryan Giggs.
The choice mattered, because I wanted (as far as possible) to future-proof my book. Future-proofing is a perennial challenge for children’s writers, who generally try as hard as any Nivea ad to fight the signs of aging. Technology (Dial-up internet? Puhleeze!); clothes (Ray-Ban Aviators? Really?); bands and film stars (Kurt Cobain? River Phoenix? You’ve got to be kidding me!); and slang (Could I be any more 1990s?) – all are familiar adversaries. There are several ways around them, more or less effective. For many years children in books could be fitted out in blue jeans in the justified confidence that denim would always be in fashion – or at least not jarringly out. You could invent your own slang or song lyrics. Or you could take the route I did, and bet on longevity.
I almost called that gecko Sharpe instead of Giggs, I really did. Had I done so, perhaps Lee Sharpe’s career would have prospered. In the event, following this proof of my lack of faith it went into a fairly precipitous decline, hastened by illness and injury. Sharpe soon moved from Manchester United to Leeds, then on to Bradford, Grimsby and Exeter City before ending his playing career in 2003 at Grindavik in Iceland. Ryan Giggs, by contrast, has just won his twelfth Premier League title with United, and in 2011 is still a regular on the first team. At the end of January, he was voted the club's greatest ever player.
So, I’m very glad I named the gecko after Giggs, and think it reflects well on me both as a writer and as a pundit. On the other hand, I can’t help feeling more of a kinship with Lee Sharpe. Perhaps I should have named Jamie’s lizard Rowling, after all?