Geoff Dyer: ‘I am what you might describe as chippy’

My first memory is one of overwhelming boredom. The never-ending afternoons of a lonely only child. Not a specific memory, but a feeling.

I am what you might describe as “chippy”. Touchy and defensive. It’s a horrible quality. I grew up in Cheltenham. I had a working-class childhood, though the town is synonymous with retired colonels, Jane Austen-esque. I didn’t really meet the sort of person we would now recognise as middle-class until I met my girlfriend when I was 17 or 18. I only realised she was retroactively. It wasn’t until I got to Oxford University that I had any understanding of the class system.

Social graces don’t come easy to me. I was grateful to go to Oxford. And I had a great time. But I was conscious that a lot of people I met had an ease and charm I didn’t have. They exhibited all of these qualities that there was no call for in the world I grew up in. What was important in that world was to be reliable, dependable, honest and hardworking – and my sense of the importance of those things hasn’t diminished at all. I learned another way, but it wasn’t instinctive. It helped that I was incredibly attracted to posh girls.

The most important skill a writer can have is curiosity. I’m curious about a lot of things. It’s always been a source of surprise to me that more people are not more curious about more things. Everything about the process of education leads you to further and further specialism. It’s why I had no desire to embark on a PhD after my degree. There were so many things that I was interested in, and it made sense to try to investigate as many of them as possible.

The dole shaped my life. Like so many people back in 1980, I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I left university, which was to sign on and get some more of this state-funded free time. It was the start of everything I’ve spent my life doing. I moved into a slum in Brixton with a bunch of other people who had been to Oxford. The safety net provided by the welfare state, and that whole culture of dole life, wasn’t just desirable, it was a completely respectable way to live. It was then that I really started to read.

I don’t think writer’s block exists. I go through phases of hating writing. I really do. Long phases, too. And I go through longer phases of feeling I’ve got nothing to say. But the idea of writer’s block has never rung true for me. This idea that you’re straining to get it out. I’ve thought, “Oh, that’s it, I’m finished,” then something comes along that makes me interested in stuff again.

If I could play music, I think I’d be truly happy. I’ve written about photography a lot. I love photography. But the reason I don’t take photos isn’t necessarily because I don’t think I could, but because I can’t be bothered. Music is different. It’s mysterious to me. I have no understanding of what major or minor means. It’s a language I can’t speak. My ideal of happiness would be sitting around with a bunch of people, somewhere in the world, maybe with no shared language at all, and making music together. I’ve never had that. I was always the kid at school who got lumbered with the triangle.