Words have always fallen naturally on storyteller and author Richard O’Neill. Although he would never have imagined they would frame his whole career in such a powerfully robust way. Growing up in both nomadic and working-class communities in the North of England during the 1970s, he found that being able to write in terms of copying school work from the blackboard was favoured more than writing creatively. It was a pleasure for Darkus to listen and learn from the accomplished scribe.
O’Neill was astutely aware of a gender split: boys were encouraged to excel at sport and girls to be more academic. He remembers, “Creative writing and storytelling was not considered an acceptable interest or hobby for a boy back then. So it didn't have a great deal of relevance to my life, my family lived close by so there wasn't much need to write letters to relatives in other parts of the country as some children did.”
Although times have moved on somewhat, he still believes that there is a great deal of work to do around writing and being a writer for many children, particularly those from working-class backgrounds and especially the North. “I remember doing some school visits and popping into a pound shop for something after and seeing a pupil from one of the schools telling his mother in extremely shocked and excited tones, 'mam there's an author in the pound shop!' I don't think he could have been more shocked if he'd seen an alien.”
Sharing the slightly humorous notion, yet with a serious undertone, he thinks that most children believe authors are superstars who live in big houses in London or cottages in the countryside because that's what the media presents to them: “If they can not see someone who they consider to be like them being a writer then it will be much harder for them to even try to become one.” Richard divulges.
Having been brought up in a culture of storytelling and ballads and seeing some of the best English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh storytellers of their time, he felt a forcefull pull to the craft from being a child. “As an avid reader, I think I always wanted to emulate the authors who I loved (too many to list). As an entrepreneur running small businesses, I found the better your adverts and leaflets, the more customers you got and quickly understood the power of persuasive writing. With the advent of email, I found myself corresponding with relatives and friends all over the world, sharing my stories with them in written form. I never studied writing formally, although I've been studying it informally since I read my first book at 4 years old.”
The author understands the incredible difficulty in carving out a career in his industry, but, again, coming from a different background, being working-class or from an ethnic minority, and arriving in midlife makes things especially challenging, being based in the North yet another barrier. He continues, “Huge amounts of writers with potential and talent often give up on it as a career because it is just too difficult, you often need finances and contacts neither of which most aspiring writers have. That's why it took me until I was 44 years old to have my first play performed professionally on stage and BBC radio; I just happened by chance to meet someone who recommended me for a writing gig, which led to that. Imagine if I didn’t have that chance meeting, my writing might still be unpublished, and that's one of the things that drives me to keep tackling the inequality in the publishing world."
“I think we are all born storytellers, I just had more access to it than most, just as if you were born into a musical family, of course after that it's down to how much time you spend with something developing it, every artist every sportsperson who is really good at what they do is a hard worker. Storytelling to me is something I've had in my life for so long that it's second nature and a total passion. It's also about having fun!”
Taking on such a vital and rewarding task, Richard is of one the founders of Diverse Book Week and is currently aiming to make sure that every school and library has a diverse range of books to give young people a sense of acceptance, whilst retainig individuality. “I'm the writer in residence of two fabulous inner-city schools in Bradford, and I'm currently working on a commission for the independent theatre in Budapest, creating the storyline for a digital family drama.”
“Being made a National Literacy Hero six years ago was fun, as was having one of my plays performed at studio K in Budapest while I sat in the audience with the British ambassador watching it performed in Hungarian. A standout memory has to be watching a superb actor at the Soho Theatre in London perform my first play. There I was a 44 year old bloke with a play amongst those written by experienced playwrights, and it was not only holding its own but wowing the audience and getting the most amazing reviews.”
O’Neill performed his stories and read his books at the Hay festival: the largest and most respected literacy event worldwide, providing that warm, fuzzy glow of pride. He adds, “I'm really pleased that several new Traveller folk songs I've written are being sung by others, not only in this country but around the world. Wheels On My Feet will be used as the soundtrack for an interactive online drama.” Getting backing from the Society of Authors for his Romani detective novel was a milestone. “Every time I do something new that resonates with people, I still think to myself what would my folks think of their kid from County Durham being here doing this. I still have a child-like wonder about my writing in all the different formats, which I hope lasts forever.”
Starting from the premise that everyone likes a good story is his way in. Richard holds that we often sell literacy wrong as if it's only for certain people, and there is only one-way to do it. He claims, “That's why I encourage others to join in when we have our dialect days; you can be literate, still have a strong accent, and use your dialect, which contrary to the belief of some isn't slang. Dialect is most definitely language and a huge positive, something that gives more flavour to written and spoken word rather than less.”
“If all of the different generations can come together through story, then we can find common ground and ways forward in other things too.” He maintains it's vitally important for our communities to do this. “I have so much fun with family audiences and created the story, song, and dance Stottie Cake. As a result, it's just brilliant to see all ages jumping up and down and singing!'”
Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that age and life experience is beneficial, many organisations still have upper age limits, and if they don't, they can often favour younger artists. “They forget that many people like me don't come into the arts until later in life for a whole load of different reasons. Famously in 2017, the Turner prize scrapped its under 50 age restriction, but since then, I've seen little movement as the term emerging is still applied to young artists, using my example I was emerging at 44 years old."
O’Neill believes that there is much vital work to be done on tackling ageism; we are no where near a level playing field yet, so he has started a worthy campaign on social media called Arts Without Ageism. “I hope organisations, especially those who are receiving public money, will develop and share clear policies on tackling ageism, be proactive, and start reaching out to include supporting older artists in all of their programmes, especially their commissions. It's something I'm working with my union Equity on at the moment.”
Growing up in a traditional nomadic Romani family, a family that has roots going back over four hundred years in the North East, they were storytellers, woodcutters, woodcarvers, even puppeteers, knife sharpeners, horse breeders, and trainers. He recalls, “You would see us down on the quay on Sundays selling items and entertaining. There is a huge lack of ethnic diversity in the industry; that's why we get many terrible programmes and plays about Romani communities. The writers and makers have no real idea, and they can entrench negative stereotypes and all the problems that go with that. Most of my family are in the healthcare and education professions, but my plays are the only ones I'm aware of which feature those types of Romani characters.”
We move onto our imaginative soul considering the proudest moment in his career. “My most memorable thing for adults will always be a short piece called Fighting Man based on the real-life experience of one of my uncles, who was a boxer. It was the piece that showed I had promise; the piece that got me the gig that led to my first professionally performed play. I still look at it and remember writing it on an old computer as an email trying to explain to an academic about conflict resolution.”
“For children, it was my book based on a memory of seeing the pit ponies have a holiday in a field near Langley Park, which is named Pit Pony. I wanted to immortalise those brave little animals. This year the books were included in the empathy lab list, which celebrates books that encourage empathy. It is dedicated to my maternal Grandma and Grandad, proud North East pit people,” he gushes.
At the moment, he is particularly proud of his almost finished Romani Detective novel set in Tyneside and County Durham, the longest and challenging thing he’s ever set his mind to. “I want it to be the first book of its kind to get into the best sellers list! Which might seem like a stretch, but having your first play performed in the West end of London was a bigger one, and that happened.”
To end our enlightening in-depth mingle, Richard turns the table to discuss the things he reads for pleasure, escapism, and sheer delight. “My go-to is always Grapes of Wrath. The writing is sublime, and the story goes so deep into your heart that you can never forget it. It makes you go through a full range of emotions and serves as a reminder that anyone's life can change for the worse, and we should have compassion for those it happens to. I will read anything by Annie Prouxl and James Lee Burke; they tell stories about people, they know people, and you know a little more about yourself when you finish their books.”
The Romani Detective
He didn't get out of his seat, as an elder he didn't have to. He pointed to a chair on the other side of the fireplace and I sat down in it. I pointed to the tea pot and he nodded, I poured myself a cup of tea and sat back in my chair, as the elder it was a sign of respect for me to let him speak first. He was in a reflective mood as he looked at the fire as the gassy flames from the coal licked upwards over the fire back and up towards the chimney, 'never brought much good fightin has it?'
'It's part of us uncle' I replied.
'Aye that it is' he said nodding in agreement and taking a sip of his tea.
Article by Beverley Knight