‘Good evening,’ I said. ‘Welcome to Brunswick House.’ I never usually said that. Too corny. But I was in a good mood and the last two customers – this was the final table of the evening – were mature white gays. I wasn’t sure if they were a couple, but you always want to flirt a bit, fan them, feed them grapes: a wronged queen will out-Karen any Karen any day. I went through the specials. ‘Still, sparkling or tap?’ ‘Glass of champagne?’ ‘Any dietaries?’ At this point, one of the men looked up and said: ‘You have the most wonderful speaking voice. Are you an actor?’ I rolled my eyes. People had made similar remarks in the past, but no one, as I told the man, who was in a position to help get my voice out there. ‘Maybe it’s your lucky day,’ he replied. (Actually, I don’t remember exactly what he said – it was 2014 – but we’re friends now, and this is the sort of thing he says.) ‘I’m an audiobook producer, and I think you should audition to read for us.’

Back in the 1990s, my Jehovah’s Witness congregation met every Thursday evening, to learn how to preach. (Annoyingly, this meant I couldn’t watch Top of the Pops until it was moved to Friday nights.) The first half of the Thursday meeting was called the Theocratic Ministry School, and comprised of four talks. Talk one (fifteen minutes) was given by an elder or senior ministerial servant and drew on material from a standard reference book. Talk two (five minutes) was a Bible reading with an introduction and conclusion and was delivered by a younger brother. Talk three (five minutes) was a conversation between two sisters, usually one young and one senior member of the congregation; either the younger woman would ask the older one about a practical or spiritual problem that the latter would help her resolve scripturally, or the senior member would demonstrate how to break the ice on the ministry doorstep. Talk four (five minutes) could be a combination of any of the above or something else altogether, and might be delivered to the audience by one relatively senior brother, or two relatively senior sisters might speak to each other. Women were not allowed to address the congregation in the way a man would.

The Theocratic Ministry School overseer was the most literate and attentive of the elders, although outside the Kingdom Hall he might be a window cleaner, school caretaker or vending machine salesman. He would keep a file on each speaking member of the congregation, marking them on tone, projection, modulation, pacing, volume, time management and structure. All this would be recorded on a speech counsel slip, so that the speaker’s progress could be monitored. I gave my first talk two at the age of nine, and as I grew older and more confident I was trusted with talk four. Once I even put up my hand to give talk three, but the overseer, reddening and sweating, cast his eyes back and forth for anyone but me; eventually a pair of sisters nodded at each other across the room and you could detect his relief at not having to upset the gender imbalance further. Usually applause was reserved for a young person giving their first talk, but even at seventeen I was being clapped off the platform.

At school I was in all the top sets with a West Brom fan, and sat next to him in French, geography, maths, music, science and English. It was in English that I remember being called out for not knowing anything about football. ‘What’s your favourite Premier League stadium name?’ he asked. ‘Anfield,’ I replied, which I stand by, perhaps because it sounds a bit like ‘anthem’ and anthems are sung there with a fervour unmatched anywhere outside a cathedral during mass. He was impressed by that. But then he asked me to name a Premier League team beginning with the letter C. My mind went blank. ‘Colchester United,’ I eventually blurted out. He laughed for about ten minutes. In PE he gave me a wide berth. Once, frozen with fear at the prospect of saving a free kick, I watched the flight of the wet, muddy ball all the way into my own face. On another occasion, playing outfield, the ball broke towards me when I was near the posts. I kicked it five metres one way, chased it and kicked it five metres the other, then struck it emphatically into the goal, my foot at shoulder height. There was no net so it dribbled sadly into the distance. I’d never scored before and wheeled away in triumph before I noticed that no one else was celebrating. I had scored the most egregious of own goals. You’re Black, you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, you can’t play football. Your life is over.

Between the summers of 1998 and 2001 – between leaving school and eventually, after resitting my A levels, going to university – I worked at McDonald’s in Coseley, near Wolverhampton. I was living with my maternal grandparents, who subscribed to Sky Sports, so I now had unlimited access to football if I wanted it. Neither of my parents are football fans. The only game I remember us watching at home was England v. Argentina in the 1998 World Cup – the match in which Michael Owen scored that goal and David Beckham was shown that effigy-birthing red card.

It was at McDonald’s that I was introduced to tactical discourse and talk of transfer windows; to the idea that a player being sold by a club for millions of pounds could be seen as liberating while we were flipping burgers for £3.25 an hour; to the difference between the way a team lines up on paper and the way they play together in practice. One day, while Aaliyah’s ‘Try Again’ played on the stereo, a colleague laughed as he walked past me and away from a conversation. ‘I wonder what Luis Enrique thinks of that!’ he said. I was ashamed that I didn’t know who Luis Enrique was. I now know that in 2000 Enrique was a current Barcelona and former Real Madrid player. That summer, Luis Figo of Barcelona had defected to Real Madrid. Sky Sports had made the European leagues accessible, and talking about them was fashionable. If nothing else, it showed that you had a dish on the front of your house or that you were free to spend lots of time in the pub watching foreign games and pulling women. Since all this mattered so much to my colleagues, I resolved to learn something about football, hoping that if I ingratiated myself to them, they wouldn’t expose me as gay.

The Enrique comment anointed Barcelona with a radical internationalist glamour. YouTube enabled me to watch many of their famous matches, from the Johan Cruyff-inspired 5-0 win over Real Madrid in 1974, to those from the era when his protégé Pep Guardiola was coach and the team played the best football the world has ever seen. In spite of its economic and sporting predicaments Barcelona remains, in the words of its motto, ‘més que un club – aligning itself with anti-fascist, anti-racist and inclusive politics.

My ‘audition’ for the audiobook producer actually made it into the world as part of the recording of Andrea Levy’s Six Stories and an Essay (2014). Levy read most of the book herself, but part of the titular essay is a monologue attributed to an older male Windrush immigrant, which I narrated. I listened back to it not long ago, mortified. I had been given the script on arrival and the producer immediately pressed play, prompting me to put on my best pan-Caribbean accent on the spot. It’s cringeworthy to start – like an Irish person trying to ‘do’ Jamaican – and only marginally less so by the end. But, to the producer’s ears at least, I passed.

By far the most difficult book I’ve had to narrate was Rainbow Milk by Mendez, for which I required extensive coaching. The opening section is again in the voice of a Windrush immigrant, this time based in the West Midlands, so the dialogue switches between a Jamaican patois soft enough to be widely comprehensible and the locals’ Black Country, written with a 1950s verisimilitude. Four further sections follow the journey of Jesse, a second-generation British-born Jamaican, from the West Midlands to London, where he works first as a waiter in a brasserie staffed by Portuguese, French and Italians, all of whose dialogue it made sense at the time to represent phonetically. He lives briefly in a hostel populated by – I keep thinking of that line in The Crown when Princess Margaret declares that Earl’s Court is full of ‘prostitutes and Aw-stralians’. Jesse becomes close to a Liverpudlian poet and, later, a Lebanese-French architect. But it’s not just about accents. My sentences owe as much to Timbaland beats as anything literary, and I found many of them exhausting to deliver.

Sometimes a throwaway comment directed at the right person can land you a gig, and when it became apparent to the producer that I was a queer Black person who knew a thing or two about sport, my niche was established. I still read the Guardian’s football coverage almost every day, especially when teams I admire are being praised, when teams I don’t like are being pilloried, or when a coach, player or tactical innovation is under scrutiny. Writing, I find myself channelling Barney Ronay (excitable, lyrical, camp) or Sid Lowe (mercurial, ominous, heavy). I catch myself reminding straight guys at the pub of the latest offside rules. Once, while living in an Earl’s Court hostel, I got into an argument with a beefy Aussie over something Arsenal-related and he blew up at me: ‘You’re an arrogant cunt!’ Whatever the issue was, I was right. Recently, one of my best straight friends tried to come for me when I said that Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ team (2003-04) got 90 points. He sat there and googled it in front of me and, well … Football is all about statistics. It’s fried chicken for my brain.

The first sporting biography I narrated was Ian Poulter’s No Limits (2014), and I recommend you read the book if you’re interested in Poulter or in golf because my performance, which I’ve not revisited, is marked for eternal damnation. I read in my own voice now, but back then I was encouraged to sound as close as possible to the author or dominant textual voice. For Poulter (who is from Hertfordshire), I affected a completely unrehearsed, dried-out, cod-Essex tenor from the jump and had to sustain it for three exhausting days in the studio. (I still make voice decisions on the spot. The clues are in the dialogue and don’t always come across in the initial speed-read.) When I was chosen by the author to narrate Ian Wright’s A Life in Football (2017), it seemed I was destined to become the voice of every notable Ian in modern sport (I’m yet to hear from Ian Botham’s publisher or Ian Thorpe’s). I was proud to voice Wright and still boast about it to guys down the pub when I’m feeling anxious and othered.

Often people ask: ‘Why can’t the writers do it?’ Well, for the same reason the real Erin Brockovich didn’t play herself in the movie; could never have brought herself to life on camera the way Julia Roberts did. Reading aloud is not the same as reading to oneself. Few people have or give themselves the opportunity to perform the full intention behind every word in a book, much less bring characters to life so that the listener can distinguish them consistently.

Last year I narrated Pelé’s My Autobiography – yes, I am the queer voice of the greatest footballer of the 20th century. This presented the challenge of voicing problematic and dated views, especially about women. I was being paid to say what was there, not to critique it; but, where I could, I inserted a self-deprecating inflection, leaving my tongue in the great man’s cheek. These days, I usually get a couple of weeks with the manuscript before recording, to check pronunciations, especially pertinent with, for example, Brazilian Portuguese, which can be a lawless dialect. Minor players (largely forgotten outside Brazil) have names for which it’s difficult to find a pronunciation guide without resorting to some AI-generated US-English whitewash. You can watch a whole YouTube video – sometimes of an hour or longer – only for the speaker to choke on the player’s name.

Syllable stresses that I’ve long taken for granted are frequently corrected by the producer (contribute or contribute?). You have to keep the energy up, the throat and sinuses clear, the mouth moist but not wet, clicky or sticky over the course of eight hours a day for at least three days, so you should avoid dairy, which produces mucus. You should read ahead so that you’re not pausing to move pages or scroll on an iPad screen (you should keep your nails, or at least that nail, trimmed). You should wear clothing that doesn’t swoosh every time you move, and it goes without saying that bangles, beads and dangly earrings must be removed. (There’s a funny moment in the Netflix film The Greatest Night in Pop, about the recording of ‘We Are the World,’ where Cyndi Lauper nails her gospel-inflected vocal time after time, but every take sounds like trainers in a tumble dryer due to her enormous drag earrings flying around and hitting the headphones.) I’ve still not mastered the science of eating enough in the morning that I won’t be starving by 10 a.m., but not so much that my digestive process is audible to the ultra-sensitive mic; cushions are provided to press against the abdomen, but some guts are louder than others.

Reading out loud keeps the core engaged and is metabolically efficient. (Even reading to oneself is a healthier option than watching TV, burning roughly ten calories an hour more.) However pulverisingly dull the book, you must not sound like it’s 4 p.m. on the final day of recording and you can’t wait to get out of there and start downing Negronis. (Vocalzone lozenges are a miracle salve for an overworked voice towards the end of a session.) You should vary the tone of every sentence. For non-fiction, I tend to drift towards a Clive Myrie BBC sound, warm, lyrical and slightly judgmental, with a hint of Fiona Bruce head-shaking. I sometimes worry that the subjects or their fans will find out who I am, and what I represent, and protest. Fans, for example, of the serial shagger Frank Worrell, the first Black West Indies cricket captain, whose biography I recently recorded.

The Society of Authors found in 2022 that the median annual income a UK-based writer makes from writing is £7000 – down 60 per cent, when adjusted for inflation, from a similar survey in 2006. I’ve outperformed those figures, fortunately, but navigating life as an author without a complete second novel or parental support in the age of £3.80 flat whites, I’m now back working a couple of shifts a week in a Margate restaurant. Every so often the owner introduces me to one of her friends as ‘a brilliant writer!’ as I scratch a blob of gravy from my apron. On one occasion it transpired that the friend had read my novel in hardback. She looked at me strangely, smiling with the bottom half of her face, yet screaming at me with the top half, evidently concerned for my mental health and social standing. I explained to her that a lot of things went right but a lot of things went wrong. I’m new in town with a flat to rent and bills to pay, and it is what it is. I console myself that I’m doing what needs to be done, but can’t escape the thought that writers should be paid more for what we do as event chairs, panellists, reviewers, scriptwriters, teachers and interviewers. The worst thing that you can say to a writer, actor, musician, or anyone who works in hospitality is, ‘Maybe you’ll meet someone!’ But perhaps, secretly, I’m waiting to be discovered again.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences