Ooooh... The bike accident that changed Kes Gray’s life
- Credit: Archant
Colchester’s Kes Gray has written a book with Mo Farah. Run round the universe, run on the spot, run out of puff, and do the Mobot...
The X-ray image drops into my email inbox just as he’d promised it would. Blimey. Kes Gray wasn’t kidding when he said the metal holding his pelvis together looks like a bicycle chain. Ironically, since it was a bike accident that put him in hospital for three weeks and in a wheelchair for nine.
The former Chelmsford schoolboy, born in 1960, had taken up cycling at the age of 51, when a mate challenged him to ride to Barcelona. “I didn’t even have a bike!”
But he got into it and became a passionate cyclist. His pals even hatched a crazy plan to tackle Mont Ventoux. Nearly 2,000m high and nicknamed the Beast of Provence, it’s gained worldwide notoriety as a feature in the Tour de France.
Two years ago, a week before they were due to fly to Nice, Kes and a couple of friends went hill training in Kent, cycling a route called the Kentish Killer...
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“We’d been cycling in heavy rain for about three hours and went down a little country lane,” he explains. “The guy in front of me said ‘We’re going to turn right’ and that’s all I remember. I don’t remember anything else, apart from waking up on the road.
“I’d braked and my wheels went sideways from underneath me. It happened so fast I didn’t even know it happened, and had no time to brace myself for the fall.” And still doesn’t know the exact reasons why. “I broke my pelvis in three places. I broke my ribs. I broke my collarbone. I hit the back of my head.
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“I ended up in hospital in Kent for three weeks – on morphine in the early days, in a wheelchair for nine weeks I think it was; then crutches.
“The surgeon told me that if I hadn’t had a helmet on, I probably would have died. I hit my head so hard I broke the back of the helmet.”
The father of three describes it, with understatement, as “a pretty major accident”.
“It was an enforced moment in my life when I went ‘Hmm. OK. What am I doing?’ Because it does make you realise how lucky you are to be able to do even the basic things.
“I decided at that point I was just going to have as much fun as I could, while I could. Because you don’t know what’s round the corner.
“I started writing picture books that were very silly, and they’ve become the most best-selling picture books I’ve ever written.”
We need some back-story.
In 2006, when we first met, Kes had just brought to an end his 20-year or so career in the advertising industry. He’d put his creative juices to use for big names such as Saatchi & Saatchi and McCann Erikson. Iconic work with which he’d been associated included The Carling Black Label “Dambusters” ad, where a German sentry turns goalkeeper to catch the bouncing bombs and avert disaster; the NSPCC’s Full Stop campaign (“Cruelty to children must stop. Full stop” was his line); and Prudential’s “We want to be together...”
There were other dreams. Kes had been an ad man for perhaps 10 years when he had his first attempt at writing children’s books. Elder son Elliott had been born, and dad wrote in the evenings and at weekends.
By 1997, he wanted to quit Saatchi & Saatchi and write full-time. But he was persuaded to take a sabbatical… during which he produced 14 potential books in a month. Getting a publisher took a bit longer, but he did it.
Eat Your Peas featured the enduring character of Daisy – a spirited little madam – won the overall prize at the 2001 Red House Children’s Book Awards, pipping Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
He eventually left Saatchi & Saatchi in about 2003 to write the Nelly the Monster Sitter series (longer fiction), went back into the industry, then quit almost-but-not-quite-for-good in 2006. (He’s freelanced occasionally.) Kes reckons he now has about 60 books to his name (Nuddy Ned, Quick Quack Quentin and more) but concedes he’s lost count. “They kind of add up without you realising.”
So, back in 2014, he sat in a wheelchair and decided it was time to have more fun. Oi Frog! is the picture book that signalled a change of focus. It’s a rhyming tale about a frog that discovers all animals have special places to sit: cats on mats, hares on chairs, lions on irons. “But this frog doesn’t want to sit on a log because it’s knobbly and you get splinters in your bottom.”
Kes had hit upon something people really liked. “The average sales of a picture book are probably 2,000-4,000 copies. Oi Frog! sold 150,000 in 18 months.”
So, soon, we’ll see follow-ups Oi Dog! and Oi Cat! “It’s simple” – and arguably silly – “but simple things often work best.”
The author admits that, when he became an ad man, what he most enjoyed was being as daft as he could be, creatively. “As I became more senior, the weight of responsibility became more onerous. I wasn’t allowed to be that person any more.” Re-evaluating his approach, post-bike accident, he vowed to go for what he wanted and to trust his instincts.
“The biggest legacy was I kind of simplified my life, really. There were lots of things I’d tried to do over the last 10 years, and put a lot of time and money into them. I love coming up with ideas.”
One of his first two books ever published was Who’s Poorly Too?, inspired by the time one of his sons was ill. It didn’t sell brilliantly, but it did arouse interest in many countries. “What that told me was no-one had written a ‘get well soon’ book.” Kes suspected there was mileage in it, secured the rights, “and went on this crazy adventure”.
He and wife Claire worked with an illustrator to create a series of poorly animal characters – all with a prescription from Nurse Nibbles the Mouse – and imported 12,500 toys from China. Kes himself took a suitcase of samples and knocked on the doors of potential sales outlets, and they even bought an ambulance that was customised with Nurse Nibbles on the side. The first department store to sell their Get Well Friends toys and books was Williams & Griffin in Colchester. But it was all a bit too much of a mountain to climb. Kes was really meant to be writing, Claire was an accountant with her own business, and neither had the time to push to establish the fledgling enterprise.
He’s learned you generally can’t bring ideas to fruition on your own. You need people with strengths to complement your own. “It’s a proper job for a team, and we didn’t have a team!” So Get Well Friends is one of the things eased into the background – ticking over but not demanding of their energies.
Kes admits he had his finger in too many pies. The only thing I’ve ever focused on is being the most unfocused person you’ll ever meet – although, possibly, not any more.” He even used to run the UK Carp Directory, an online archive of carp in Britain given names by anglers! (His son Elliott works in the carp industry.) Much like the toys, it’s been knocked on the head.
“I don’t do anything that isn’t children’s books anymore, and it’s been a bit of a relief, to be honest. Your head spins if you try doing too many things at the same time, and to be honest you end up doing none of it properly. You do just enough to make things tick over. Whereas now I focus, relentlessly, on ‘what’s my next book going to be?’”
Kes loved the ad industry, but now has much more creative freedom writing books. “I don’t have panels or committees looking at what I do, to decide if it’s right or wrong, generally. If I write something I really like, there’s a very good chance it will happen. That wasn’t always the case in advertising. And that was one of the reasons I left: because I felt my best work wasn’t always seeing the light of day.” In fact, he explains what finally prompted his departure from advertising in 2006. He’d actually left the agency he was working for on the Friday before I interviewed him.
“I did something I’d never done in my career. I stood up in a meeting with a client who I tried ever, ever so hard for. We were in a pre-production meeting and they turned down everything I was trying to get them to ‘buy’. The director really loved the casting, I loved the casting – I was the creative director at the time – and he (the client) just said to me ‘This is not for discussion.’ So I stood up, shook his hand, said goodbye. I walked out. I think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I just decided I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Kes was asked to apologise, couldn’t do that, and it prompted the move into full-time children’s authorship that was on the cards anyway.
Domestically, it also played a part in a downsizing. The couple had bought a big, derelict, millhouse at Witham in 1991, and restored it. Ten years ago this month, the family moved to a converted barn near Colchester. Children Elliott, Jack and Elsie are now aged 26, 23 and 15.
Today, Kes reckons he’s fitter than he’s ever been. Having previously given gyms a wide berth, he now goes to Yourzone Colchester four or five times a week and is back doing school visits. (www.kesgray.com if you want to get in touch!) “I’ve been told I’m almost certain to get arthritis in my hip, so I kind of think the more I exercise, the less chance I’ve got of getting that.”
Work-wise, things look hunky-dory. Daisy’s still there, now 22 books in and having made the leap from picture books to stories with chapters. About 1.7m Daisy books have been sold. “It is odd,” he grins. “I write them in the first person, so I am effectively an eight-year-old for most of my working day!”
Her classmate Jack Beechwhistle – “the most annoying boy in the school” – three months ago found fame of his own in his first chapter book, Jack Beechwhistle: Attack Of The Giant Slugs. They’ll be more, and they’ll explore his tough home life, too.
For a long time, Kes couldn’t write following his recovery. At the start, he could manage only one to three minutes before losing concentration and having to lie down. Things gradually returned to normal, though he did worry he might never again be able to write the same way. “But I’ve done some of my best books since then, so maybe that’s the key – a bang on the head!” He hasn’t been back on two wheels, though. “I’ve lost my bottle when it comes to cycling.” The bike, repaired, stands in the garage. “I’ve never been out on it. I don’t think I ever will. I couldn’t bear the thought of that happening again.”
Workwise, it’s dandy. Aardman Animations, the folk behind Wallace and Gromit, are interested in Daisy and Jack for a potential TV series. Not that he’s counting his Plasticine chickens. “There are no guarantees.” It’s an exciting thought, though. “Some of the other things I’ve done have been optioned for television and they haven’t happened.”
So, as he approaches his 56th birthday, life is pretty sunny. “I’m about as happy as I’ve ever been, I think. And as fired up, too”!
Let’s all do the Mobot!
Kes’s new book is a collaboration with British sporting hero Mo Farah – a bright, rhyming, picture book called Ready Steady Mo! that’s designed to encourage families to read and run together (best not at the same time, though!)
It was at Christmas that Kes was offered the co-authorship role. His answer? “Yes, yes yes!!!”
One of Mo’s agents is a big fan of Kes’s work. “I think that helped bring Mo into the fold.”
There followed (aptly) a burst of work to produce it, with ideas and views exchanged via the publisher, as the great Oregon-based middle-distance runner juggled story-writing with preparations for a rather big sporting date on the horizon.
“I’ve been told that my working drafts have been shared with Mo’s children too, so it’s been a wonderful all-round collaboration.”
With a bit of luck, Kes and Mo should actually meet later in the year – “once he’s got his breath back!” Kes quips.
He does know, though, that the Farah family are fans of his work.
“It’s nice, because I know his children read my books (before this joint project). I think his agent’s children read them as well. So I kind of had them on my side before I got the job! I like to think it helped…”
There’s certainly a pacy rhythm to the tale, with lines such as:
Run on the pavement
Run on the grass
Run in the playground
Perhaps not in class!
“My favourite verse is the last one: Run round the universe, run on the spot, run out of puff, and do the Mobot (the double Olympic champion’s victory jig). It’s so nice when an ending just falls into place!”
n Ready Steady Mo!, illustrated by Marta Kissi, is published by Hodder Children’s Books at £6.99