It's an interesting question – who are your role models? And who were your role models while you were growing up? We got onto discussing it at a work lunch while talking about the typical things potential employers ask you when you're going for a new job. It's probably something you've sat down and thought about yourself, the night before a big interview. What did you say? And did you actually mean it? Or was it just a calculated comment - something you thought sounded good, would help you get the job?
Some of us at lunch found it easy to pick people out. There were the obvious current ones – Barack and Michelle Obama, Nelson Mandella – and the obligatory joke ones – Jordan, Kerry Katona and Belen Esetvan.
Me, I find it almost impossible to see famous people or celebs as role models. At first I thought it was the job I do that's made me feel jaded towards these so called 'stars'. But If I think back, long before my days of celeb news journalism, I never looked up to these kinds of people and emulated them. Sure there are a lot of people in the public eye that do great work for charity, are leaders in their fields, are inspirational in many ways. But none of them speak directly to me. None have made me get off my arse and say "wow, I want to be like you".
As one of our team pointed out, if you're in a minority, you need role models like this because often, you don't have much else to go off. She was the only black person in her Uni, for example. But I didn't have that issue.
“But you must have had someone you looked up to while you were growing up?” I was asked.
So I thought long and hard about it. Yes there was someone - my big brother Mike.
I have two brothers. I love them both of course, but it was Mike – ten years older than me – who became my hero.
He taught me it's OK to be different, good in fact to take your own road in this life. Break away and go somewhere both literally and figuratively far away from your everyday existence.
My earliest memories of my brother are of him painting. Doing his A Level art projects. Making huge clay heads and explosions of colour, which, if I was lucky, he would let me help him name. And painting his dungeons and dragons figures. Orcs, dragons and elves. I could sit and watch him for hours. He would tell me stories about ghosts and monsters to scare me, and sometimes he succeeded. But I didn't mind. I knew then he wasn't like other brothers.
He left home to train to become a priest when I was about eight years old, but realising that wasn't for him went to Liverpool to do a Fine Art and Theology degree – becoming the first person in our family ever to go to University. From that moment on he became almost like a mythical creature to me. I would look forward to when he would come home, bringing tales from Uni and occasionally friends or maybe even a girlfriend. Other worldly creatures who were vegetarians and spoke with strange accents. He would recommend me books – as he still does today – and I would devour each one. Everything from Tolkien to Stephen King and Richard Matheson – little gems that thrilled me because they told me what he liked, and it was all dark and interesting, and I liked it too.
One thing that really sticks in my mind was the time he picked me up from my guitar lesson after school. All of a sudden there was a commotion outside the school gates as the kids – and probably some of the parents too - crowded round to stare at the strange looking man with shoulder length orange hair, a manky looking jumper and jeans covered in paint and intricate drawings. Probably the sort of person you'd see every day in Eighties' London, but certainly not in Durham. At that point my ten-year-old self thought my brother was the coolest person in the world. Truth be known I still do.
He's a man of few words, never one to blather on about pointless crap. But when he does speak it's worth listening to. When he told me "Whatever you do, get out of Durham – go see the world" I took it as my gospel. And he led by example. Working in an orphanage in Romania, then after getting his PGSE qualification, going off to Africa to teach.
If I thought the stories from Uni were amazing, the ones from Africa made them look like a quiet night down the local boozer. I laughed so hard I thought my sides would split at one in particular – about one Christmas in Botswana. Him and his girlfriend had made a Christmas cake but a monkey came in through the window and pinched it. So Mike chased it around the room, screaming at it. He scared the poor monkey so much that it started pissing itself. But it didn’t let go of the cake. So there he was, running around his house, slipping on bits of cake and monkey piss, determined to catch the monkey. A lot different to any Christmas I’d ever had.
I wanted to be able to tell those kinds of stories. I wanted to travel. I wanted to be like my brother in so many ways. He is so creative – such a great artist. Like him I took A level art and my teacher quite unkindly told me I would never be as good as my brother. I was so angry at that I worked my arse off and managed to get an A, though I never had an ounce of the talent of my brother with a paintbrush.
Instead, words became my drawing materials. Writing is my creative outlet, and it’s something I’m damn lucky to be doing as a living today. But it might have been a completely different story if my brother and his girlfriend hadn’t let me live on the living room floor of their one-bedroom apartment in London after I dropped out of my ill chosen law degree. What if I hadn’t had that six months to sort my head out? If I’d gone back to Durham I doubt I’d be sitting here now, typing in my front room in Madrid. God knows where I’d be.
So thank you big bro. You paved the way for me to go and have adventures. Because of you, our folks weren't worried when I told them I was quitting London for Ibiza. Weren't surprised when I moved onto Barcelona and then swapped that for Madrid. And neither was I afraid, and never have I regretted anything I’ve done – and I’ve got you to thank me for that. I dance to the beat of my own drum but you gave me the confidence to find my own rhythm years ago.