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  • Published: 1 November 2022
  • ISBN: 9781529151787
  • Imprint: Hutchinson Heinemann
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $49.99


Bono Autobiography: 40 Songs, One Story


“Anything strange or startling?” That’s how my da, Bob, opens our conversations. We’d meet in our “local” pub in Dalkey, Dublin. Finnegan’s is its own country with its own laws and customs. Time is said to change shape on crossing its door. I have experienced that. It’s a constitutional monarchy with Dan Finnegan the head of state, his sons effectively running the government with his eldest, Donal, the prime minister. Donal is 6ft 4in but, depending on the hour and the state of the state, can appear 6ft 7in. I would not want to mess with Donal Finnegan.

Dan Finnegan loved my da. They shared a love of opera and stage musicals, and Dan recognised when another prince was present, one who could actually sing. On the occasion when my father silenced the place by singing The Way We Were followed by The Black Hills of Dakota, Dan looked over at me with something like pity, and I imagined him speaking under his breath, “Think how far you’d have come if only you had your father’s voice.”

Sundays at midday used to be quiet in Finnegan’s. The dark oak and the blue flame over the gas-burning coal fire flickering in the corner. Not a “snug” in the literal sense of a closed-off area in an Irish pub, but it might as well have been. It drew us closer to each other, Bob and I.

“Anything strange or startling?”

The Catholic orders Bushmills Black Bush, a Protestant whiskey from County Antrim in the north of Ireland. We stare at each other. Talk around each other. Occasionally, we talk to each other. Bob is going through some personal stuff that he is here not to talk about. He is also not well. I didn’t know how not well.

I was also having a little scare. They caught something in my throat and wanted to biopsy it. It turned out to be nothing important, but it was a sobering experience. I was crossing the 40th-birthday threshold, the halfway mark of a good life, and, for the first time, noticing my mortality. And those of the people I loved. Like Michael Hutchence. Like my da.

Bob still played the hard man, but the pride was there. Like the smile on his face when he was waving his fist at me from the mixing desk in Houston on the Unforgettable Fire tour in 1985. I had turned the spotlight on him from the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen … appearing for the first time in these United States, more importantly, his first time in the Lone Star State of Texas … will you please welcome my father, Bob …” The sound of the crowd like a 747 taking off over his head. A sound the size of Texas. It was a big moment.

We were left on our own in the dressing room after the show. He reached out his hand to me, looking up with blood orange eyes. Could this be an even bigger moment, I thought to myself. Am I about to receive a compliment from my da?

“You’re very professional,” he said, very professionally.

Over time he’d become comfortable with his son being loved and loathed, which is the price of popularity in Ireland. He had his own friendships. He had the musical society. He had golf. He found it amusing that I’d done so well because it was Norman, my ambitious brother, the entrepreneur, who was always going to do well. And he thought it hilarious that I was throwing cash away as fast as I’d earn it. And that I kept making it.

“When are you going to get a real job?” he asks me with a wink. He still gives me a fiver for Christmas.

Are we becoming friends? At least we’re meeting. Talking. I turned the tables one Sunday in 1999.

“Anything strange or startling?” It’s the first time I’ve asked him his own question.

“I have cancer,” he deadpanned.

Huge boulders fall on your head just like that, from some unseen mountain when you’re not looking up. When you’re not looking anywhere. The change in someone else’s life will utterly transform yours, even though your life is not quite the point here. Is it? This is the moment when Bob Hewson describes his own situation as “the departure lounge”. I am not ready to give up on the man I’m just getting to know. I’m not ready to be orphaned. Is anybody? I don’t know if I was much help to Bob Hewson that day, though, self-reliant as he was, I doubt he was looking for help from me.

What is the relationship between sex and death? The instinct to proliferate our DNA is at its strongest when we fear the end of our line. A partner passes, a parent, a child, and the next thing you know your own body screams for life. Through Bob’s illness, my wife Ali and I opened two new chapters in the book of Bob: his first grandson, Elijah Bob Patricius Guggi Q, born in 1999, and his second, John Abraham, born in 2001.

During his last days, in the summer of 2001, we were touring Europe, and after shows I would fly home and be the night watchman at his hospital bed, sleeping in his room on a mattress the staff set up for me. Beaumont hospital was so close to Dublin airport that often I’d be sitting there in silence an hour and a half after the roar of an encore. Next morning, we would chat with our eyes or with words, depending on how sick he was. On these hospital night shifts, I drew him while he slept. It helped me to stay close to him, wriggly writing as prayer. To draw someone’s face, you really get to know them. It sounds uncomfortable, but it wasn’t.

When Norman arrived to take up his shift, Bob and I both knew everything would be OK. Even if it wasn’t. My brother was more helpful to my father in these dark, difficult days. Even had I been able to be there more, I don’t know if I was equipped for the messiness of somebody dying in front of me. Not as useful as my brother, full stop. Since I can remember, Norman had always fixed everything. Toys, train sets, bicycles, motorcycles, radios and tape recorders. Not this time.

Bob Hewson was a recording of many lives lived, and now we were losing the chance to access a library of information that might help us explain ourselves better. To listen for answers to so many questions. Questions about our mother. About long-ago family trips where the family hadn’t seemed to be the reason we were there. About the back pain that had Bob surly and disengaged. The guilt he held inside his singer’s head. About all the rage this appeared to raise in his younger son.

We would not press play any more. The right-hand reel was emptying and the tape set to flap about until someone finally pressed stop. Norman couldn’t fix this. But Norman was a constant; he made things better by being there.

When my da started slipping away, we were close enough friends for me not to feel abandoned, but there was always a hint of that in his independence. Patricide is what they call the son’s killing of the father, but what if, as my friend Jim Sheridan – film director and psychological genius – suggested, “the son, deep down, believes the father was responsible for the untimely death of his mother? It’s ridiculous of course, but emotions don’t have to make sense; they just have to make themselves known!”

Then that rage is a roar, all right. A rage that first fills up the lungs, then gives tempo to the pulse as blood begins to sprint through veins. A roar that can fill stadiums, fill thousands of hearts while emptying its own. A rage that will bully bullies and thump photographers who are just earning a crust by trying to steal one of your moments. A rage that can throw itself off balconies and into the arms of a crowd. A nuclear rage that can power a rock band or leave it in meltdown. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb we called an album a few years later.

Good question, Jim. I’ve spent a life trying to understand my own rage and if it’s possible trying to rewrite it. Some of it had to do with depending on other people, but some of it had to do with my father. Some of it is righteous, but some of it is volatile and extrusive.

After Bob passed away, Ali thought my agitation was getting worse and I was becoming a little more aggressive in my relations with people. Perhaps I could do with the cross-questioning of a therapist. I dodged that suggestion, but, perhaps unconsciously, I opted for another kind of inquisitor. I hadn’t anticipated, when I signed up for the Rolling Stone interview with its legendary editor and publisher, Jann Wenner, that I would be lying on the psychiatrist’s couch, but, heh, his interviews with Bob Dylan and John Lennon had changed me as much as some of their songs had.

Wenner dug deep into my relationship with my father. At the end of a few long sessions he surprised me with an insight that all my prayer and meditation had missed. “I think your father deserves an apology,” he scolded me. “Can you imagine this story from his perspective? Your father loses his wife and he’s left to bring up the two kids and one of them is charging in his direction, coming for him all guns blazing. One of them is going to take him out by achieving all the ambitions he was afraid to have.”

OK then …

Easter 2002. Ali and I visited the little chapel in Èze, France, a fishermen’s church with a hilltop view that has seen it all. From the baroque pulpit a lone arm sticks out of the wall holding a cross, and a fishing boat hangs from the ceiling. After the service – sometimes improved, I find, if you don’t speak the language that well – I returned to the pews on my own. I sat there and apologised to my father, Bob Hewson. I had forgiven him for his own crimes of passion, but I had never asked his forgiveness for mine.

I’ll never know if it was related to me asking for his forgiveness in that little chapel, but after my father died, something changed. I felt I got an extra couple of notes on my range; I felt I was becoming a real tenor as opposed to a pretend one. I could ring those high notes like a church bell, as I had never hit them before. It makes no scientific sense, of course, but I’ve heard it said that when somebody close dies, they leave you a kind of passing gift, some invisible will where you inherit a special blessing. Bob Hewson’s final gift to me was to enlarge the one he gave me long before. I was now a true tenor, no longer a baritone who only thought he was a tenor.

When Norman and I proudly carried Bob’s coffin out of the Church of the Assumption in Howth, the congregation of old friends and family were singing The Black Hills of Dakota. At the reception in the Marine hotel, a truck pulled up outside from County Antrim and offloaded 100 miniature bottles of Black Bush whiskey. At first I thought it was a promotion of some sort, but no, it was nothing other than a random act of kindness north to south, Prod to Catholic. The universe of Bob Hewson behaves like that.


Forming U2

“Drummer seeks musicians to form band.” How casually our destiny arrives. Quite a few wannabes had responded to Larry Mullen’s invitation on the school notice board, and now, classes out for the day, we were all packed in the oven that was Larry’s kitchen. How did we fit all the drums, the amps, and the apprentice rock stars into such a small room that first time we got together? Guitar and bass might have been squealing for attention with their amplifiers and distortion pedals making loud arguments for being there, but it was the drums that filled both physical and musical space.

On that first Wednesday after school it felt as if no one was in tune but Larry, who appeared quite at home around all this metallic chaos. Well, he was at home. It was his kitchen. Everything I still love about Larry’s playing was present then – the primal power of the tom-toms, the boot in the stomach of the kick drum, the snap and slap of the snare drum as it bounced off windows and walls. This indoor thunder, I thought, will bring the whole house down.

Soon I noticed another noise, an exterior one, the somewhat high-pitched sound of girls giggling and shouting outside the window. Larry already had a fanclub, and over the next hour he would offer us a lesson in the mystique of the rock star. He turned the garden hose on them.

Adam Clayton was there on bass. I couldn’t quite make out what he was playing, but he looked the part. David Evans, whom no one had yet named the Edge, had the coolest aura of anybody. He didn’t have to be in tune with anyone else, because he was in tune with himself. In the room briefly was our friend Neil McCormick’s brother, Ivan, Larry’s friend Peter Martin, who owned a pristine white Telecaster replica that looked as if it had just come from the shop window (he was happy enough to lend it to me, but was probably not so happy about my fingers bleeding all over it), and David Evans’s older brother, Dik, a well-known brainbox. Dik and Dave were so clever that they built an electric guitar from scratch. So clever that they used to try to blow each other up with chemistry experiments and, according to their nextdoor neighbour Shane Fogerty, did blow up the Evans garden shed one day. They had a reputation as weirdos – pleasant weirdos, but weirdos nonetheless.

Adam might have been the most fun at school, but he was the first person to be serious about our band. His posh accent and air of casual confidence got him off the hook for all kinds of unusual behaviour in 1970s Dublin. When he didn’t have the cash for his fare, he would offer the bus conductor a “cheque” – meaning his name and address on a blank piece of paper. Often he was thrown off anyway, but some drivers were so impressed by his creamy tones they let him take his free ride.

A natural entrepreneur, Adam organised our earliest shows and signed up Steve Averill, the singer of the infamous Irish punk band the Radiators from Space, to be our mentor and come up with a better name for our band than the Hype. Steve was a neighbour of Adam’s and Edge’s in Malahide and, despite the punk rock attitude, the nicest man on Dublin’s Northside. He would become critical in art directing the visual language we developed over decades, but he started the job just by being big brotherly to Adam and finding us our name.


There it is, a letter and a number, perfect to print large on a poster or a T-shirt. If I think about it as a spy plane, as in the U-2, I like it. But if I think about it as a bad pun, as in “you too”, I don’t. I don’t think I voted for it, but I certainly didn’t stop it. I’m one in four, and a real rock’n’roll band is not run by the singer. Led maybe, but not run. I definitely stopped the Flying Tigers, which was Steve’s second suggestion.


Live Aid

Wembley Stadium, July 1985. Live Aid. A gigantic moment in the life of U2. In the life of so many musicians. A transformation in how to think about pop music being of practical help in the world. For the record, I don’t think pop music has any obligation to be any more help than a three-minute rush of pure joy, an unexpected kiss of melody, a sung and swallowed capsule of truth-telling. Sweet- or sour-coated.

All that being said, there is also a history of music in service of the greater good, a magnificent testament to the ideals and steeliness of musicians like George Harrison organising a concert for Bangladesh. But never before had there been a gathering quite like Live Aid, raising money to support Ethiopians in another famine. A global audience, a stage on two continents, and an unprecedented superstar lineup that would ensure 16 hours of high ratings.

What are the odds of two anti-poverty campaigners being born a few miles from each other and both in rock’n’roll bands? The truth of it is that Bob Geldof opened the door and I walked through. He showed me, as an Irish person, that ideas get more authority the better they are described. We knew him first not as an activist but as lead singer in the Boomtown Rats, Southside posh boys pretending to be rough while we, the younger upstarts, were Northside rough boys pretending to be posh. Well, two of us were, anyway.

Bob Geldof was as gifted with words as any virtuoso offering their talents to the main stage on that day in London’s Wembley or Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium. He is Miles Davis, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and that is just in conversation. His is a genius of vocabulary and communication. The man could puke language and it remains eloquent. On screen and in print, Bob lets off language like a hand grenade, the more explosive the better. Jagged consonants break up the dull thud of vowels landing on some dumbfounded pundit.

“Fuck the address. Go to the phone number. Give us the money, there are people dying now, so give me the money.”

When I have occasionally tried to follow in the footsteps of his invective, I’ve usually ended up sounding childishly rebellious and inarticulate. A runt student at the foot of a colossus. But the real expletives, as Bob told anyone who tuned in to Live Aid, were the statistics of how many people were dying unnecessarily.

As for the show itself, influential though it was in the arc of our band, I confess that I find it excruciating to watch. It’s a little humbling that during one of the greatest moments of your life, you’re having a bad hair day. Now, some people would say that I’ve had a bad hair life, but when I am forced to look at footage of U2 playing Live Aid, there is only one thing that I can see. The mullet. All thoughts of altruism and of righteous anger, all the right reasons that we were there, all these flee my mind, and all I see is the ultimate bad hair day.



A deal with Apple

In October 2004, a month before our single Vertigo was released, Edge, our manager Paul McGuinness, [producer and record executive] Jimmy Iovine and I made a visit to Steve Jobs. We had a hunch that we thought might benefit both Apple and U2.

Steve lived with his wife, Laurene, and their three kids in a low-key Tudor-style house on a prosperous street in Palo Alto, California. Their Anglophilia also inspired a cottage garden full of wildflowers and stuff you could eat, with a gate opening yards from a front door he never locked.

Apple had a history of groundbreaking commercials, and their latest iPod spots were modern DayGlo pop art. This new song Vertigo, we suggested, was a perfect fit for one of those ads. If we could agree terms. There was a small complication in that our band doesn’t do commercials. Never had. A decision of principle with a price tag that was rising. Over quiche and green tea Steve explained that he was flattered but didn’t have the kind of budget that a band like ours would expect.

“Actually, Steve,” I said. “We don’t want cash. We just want to be in the iPod commercial.” Steve was thrown. The spots contained only the dancing silhouettes of music fans, their heads holding those iconic white earbuds, white arteries pumping the music from tiny MP3 players now called iPods.

“Maybe it’s time to shift the emphasis to artists as well as fans,” Edge added. “Don’t you think we’d look quite good in relief ?”

Steve, intrigued, said if that was the deal, he didn’t have to think twice, but he’d need to run it by the creative team.

“There’s one other thing,” added Paul McGuinness. “Although the band are not looking for cash, some Apple stock, even a symbolic amount, might be a courtesy.”

“Sorry,” said Steve. “That’s a dealbreaker.”


“Well,” I tentatively suggested. “How about our own iPod? A customised U2 iPod in black and red?”

Steve looked nonplussed. Apple, he said, is about white hardware. “You wouldn’t want a black one.” He thought for a moment. “I can show you what it would look like, but you will not like it.”

When, later, he showed the design to us, we loved it. So much that he’d ask Jony Ive, the company’s design genius, to look at it again, and OK, maybe even experiment with a red component on the device, too. To reflect our Atomic Bomb album cover.

The iPod was about to turn Apple from a medium-sized world-class hardware and software player into a global Godzilla. Paul would always rue losing the stock argument – not that Steve was ever going to discuss it – but, in truth, we were fortunate to ride the Apple wave through that period. The fantastically kinetic commercial brought the band to a younger audience and thousands of people bought the U2 iPod just because it wasn’t white. Apple was on a ride to infinity and beyond; we were just lucky to hitch a lift. You couldn’t buy a ticket.

“Free music?” asked Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, with a look of mild incredulity. “Are you talking about free music?”

Ten years had gone by since the Vertigo ads; we were in his office in Cupertino, California – Guy Oseary, our new manager, me, [Apple executives] Eddy Cue and Phil Schiller – and we’d just played the team some of our new Songs of Innocence album.

“You want to give this music away free? But the whole point of what we’re trying to do at Apple is to not give away music free. The point is to make sure musicians get paid.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t think we give it away free. I think you pay us for it, and then you give it away free, as a gift to people. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

Tim Cook raised an eyebrow. “You mean we pay for the album and then just distribute it?”

I said, “Yeah, like when Netflix buys the movie and gives it away to subscribers.”

Tim looked at me as if I was explaining the alphabet to an English professor. “But we’re not a subscription organisation.”

“Not yet,” I said. “Let ours be the first.”

Tim was not convinced. “There’s something not right about giving your art away for free,” he said. “And this is just to people who like U2?”

“Well,” I replied, “I think we should give it away to everybody. I mean, it’s their choice whether they want to listen to it.”

See what just happened? You might call it vaunting ambition. Or vaulting. Critics might accuse me of overreach. It is.

If just getting our music to people who like our music was the idea, that was a good idea. But if the idea was getting our music to people who might not have had a remote interest in our music, maybe there might be some pushback. But what was the worst that could happen? It would be like junk mail. Wouldn’t it? Like taking our bottle of milk and leaving it on the doorstep of every house in the neighbourhood.

Not. Quite. True.

On 9 September 2014, we didn’t just put our bottle of milk at the door but in every fridge in every house in town. In some cases we poured it on to the good people’s cornflakes. And some people like to pour their own milk. And others are lactose intolerant.

I take full responsibility. Not Guy O, not Edge, not Adam, not Larry, not Tim Cook, not Eddy Cue. I’d thought if we could just put our music within reach of people, they might choose to reach out toward it. Not quite. As one social media wisecracker put it, “Woke up this morning to find Bono in my kitchen, drinking my coffee, wearing my dressing gown, reading my paper.” Or, less kind, “The free U2 album is overpriced.” Mea culpa.

At first I thought this was just an internet squall. We were Santa Claus and we’d knocked a few bricks out as we went down the chimney with our bag of songs. But quite quickly we realised we’d bumped into a serious discussion about the access of big tech to our lives. The part of me that will always be punk rock thought this was exactly what the Clash would do. Subversive. But subversive is hard to claim when you’re working with a company that’s about to be the biggest on Earth.

For all the custard pies it brought Apple – who swiftly provided a way to delete the album – Tim Cook never blinked. “You talked us into an experiment,” he said. “We ran with it. It may not have worked, but we have to experiment, because the music business in its present form is not working for everyone.”

If you need any more clues as to why Steve Jobs picked Tim Cook to take on the leadership of Apple, this is one. Probably instinctively conservative, he was ready to try something different to solve a problem. When it went wrong, he was ready to take responsibility. And while he couldn’t fire the person who put the problem on his desk, it would have been all too easy to point the finger at me. We’d learned a lesson, but we’d have to be careful where we would tread for some time. It was not just a banana skin. It was a landmine.


Getting to know the Obamas

I’ve known Barack Obama since he was a senator. At first I found him a little guarded, but later understood it was just his manner. During his presidency, I came to know him a little more; became aware of a deeply ingrained integrity, saw the softness behind the seriousness. Listening with him to some early mixes of new U2 songs, I was taken by his intellectual curiosity as to how music was put together. More writer than politician, but not narcissistic like us songwriters, I noticed how profound was his commitment to his family, and theirs to him. Michelle was the definition of what the hip-hop entrepreneur Andre Harrell described as “lioness energy”. Protective of her family and their ideals in the extreme, she and Ali were always going to get on – neither willing to let her life be defined by her partner.

The Obamas’ was a soulful White House but more than that a rigorous and reasoned one. “No Drama Obama” was the West Wing trope.

Michelle and Barack Obama would leave office with a quiet dignity, the major controversy of their tenure the outrage they caused simply by arguing that all Americans deserved equal access to health care. The Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare”, would not be everything the 44th president wanted, but it would be transformative for so many lives, unless, of course, someone tried to destroy those freshly cemented foundations.

Did anyone appreciate quite what a loss the departure of the Obamas would be to the world? Our family, forgetting we were Irish, took it as a personal loss. At a last lunch at the White House with just the two of us, I got to thank him properly for following through on President Bush’s breakthrough Aids work. He would add an extra $50bn to Bush’s $18bn. Presidents normally want ownership of such expensive items. Writing the cheque to continue your predecessor’s legacy shouldn’t be extraordinary, but it is. He brushed off my thanks, but then the man who had a photograph of the Rumble in the Jungle hanging in his office (Ali standing over Foreman) landed one final, mortal blow.

44: “What’s the maximum number of terms you can run as the singer in U2, though? Ha-ha!”

Me: “Every new record is an election, I always say. Two crap albums and you’re out.”

There were eight of us in the private quarters of the president and first lady as their eight years were coming to an end. Because the kids were a little older, Michelle and Barack more frequently invited friends over for dinner. If I’d stuck to the cocktails, all would have been well, but I allowed myself a glass of wine with the meal. Or was it two?

Have I mentioned I like to drink wine? This comes with a warning. I am officially allergic to it. I am allergic to salicylates, allergic to salicylic acid, which is found in everything from fruit to aspirin to tomato sauce. Which is found in red wine and explains why a big night that includes pizza, red wine and an aspirin may mean my head will swell up and my eyes disappear. Ali says that I should take a hint, but instead I take an antihistamine. If I don’t, if I drink without the right medication, I can go right out. Sound asleep. Wherever. I’ve slept on car bonnets and in shop doorways. I once fell asleep on the lighting desk at a Sonic Youth gig. It doesn’t matter where I am. I could be in the White House.

Being precise, 44 does not drink like an Irish person; 44 likes a cocktail. If only I’d stuck to the cocktails.

As I started to fall asleep, I excused myself, and what happened next is a little blurry, but, according to Ali, it took about 10 minutes before the leader of the free world asked her, “Bono’s been gone a while. Is he OK?”

“Oh yes,” she said dismissively. “He’s probably gone for a sleep.”

“What do you mean? He’s gone for a sleep? Where?”

“Well, he normally finds a car, but I wouldn’t know where he’d be now. Don’t worry, it’s usually only 10 minutes. He’ll be back.”

“Hold on a second,” interrupted the president. “Hold, hold, hold on. You think he’s gone somewhere for a sleep?”

“Yes.” Then, sensing his concern, she said, “He didn’t sleep on the flight from Dublin. I’ll go and find him. Don’t worry about this, Mr President.”

She got up to go, but he followed her. “I have to see this. Where could he be?”

Ali said, “I haven’t a clue.”

The president replied, “He was asking me earlier about Lincoln’s speech, the Gettysburg Address.”

Good instinct. They walked into the Lincoln Bedroom, and there I was, out cold, head in the bosom of Abraham Lincoln, on his very bed. “Falling asleep in the comfort of our freedoms,” as I spun it afterward.

The president woke me up, and as I came around, I tried to laugh as hard as he and Ali. He doesn’t for a minute believe I have this allergy. He thinks Ali made this up to cover for me. He tells people he can drink me under the table. Rubbish. But he does make a strong martini.

Surrender Bono

Bono - artist, activist and the lead singer of Irish rock band U2 - has written a memoir; honest and irreverent, intimate and profound, Surrender is the story of the remarkable life he's lived, the challenges he's faced and the friends and family who have shaped and sustained him.

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