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Writer Nick Toczek reflects as he is honoured by University of Bradford

Nick receiving his award at the University of Bradford. Credit KM Images Ltd.
Nick receiving his award at the University of Bradford. Credit KM Images Ltd.

The first - and last - time writer Nick Toczek won an award was in 1975, when he ended up having one too many celebratory drinks with the late poet, Philip Larkin. 

Nick, 73, said: “He was getting his award as an established Yorkshire writer, I was getting mine as Yorkshire’s most promising new writer. I did get a friendly letter from Philip Larkin afterwards, which I treasure. 

"That encounter, along with a couple of embarrassing performances, taught me to stay sober when appearing in public!” 

Almost fifty years later, the poet, music journalist, musician and performer has been honoured with an Outstanding Contribution Award at the University of Bradford, a rather more sedate affair than that first award, but one which means just as much to the homegrown writer. 

Nick said: “I’ve never chased rewards. I don’t enter competitions, I don’t depend on approval from outside. This honour came completely out of the blue and, to be honest, my initial response was embarrassment. 

"I don’t think of myself as doing anything but a job. However, to get this award from the university - my local university - really means something, it’s about getting respect from an authority. 

“I see university as a place which imbues its students with self-confidence. You go away from university inspired by memorable encounters with lecturers and others who have influenced you. If, by accepting this award, I am able to inspire students to think about literature, even if that’s not what they’re focused on, and to feel more empowered, I’d be happy with that.” 

Nick at Birmingham University
Nick at Birmingham University

Punk and indie scene  

Born and raised in Shipley, Bradford, Nick is a prolific writer and events organiser, who has published more than sixty books, both for adults and for children, with around a million sales. In the early 1980s, he was a key figure in arranging punk and indie gigs across West Yorkshire. The after-parties always ended up at Nick’s house in Undercliffe. 

“We had 7,000 people staying over the course of seven years,” he said. “My wife, Gaynor, and I never locked the door during that time. The most we ever had in one night was 36 guests, all crammed into our four-bed terrace. 

“We would usually stop at Straws Bakery on Leeds Road, Bradford, on the way home from a gig. You would go around the back, about 2am, and this guy and his assistant would be working through the night and they just liked company. Anyone who called in would get discounted food and we would take away huge trays of pastries to feed everyone back at ours.” 

In 1986, he and fellow performer Wild Willi Beckett - frontman of the Bradford band Psycho Surgeons - set up the first alternative cabaret club in the north of England. Nick is also a columnist and reviewer for the UK music magazine, R’n’R, and has no intention of retiring. 

As a performance-poet and writer-in-schools, the dad-of-two has travelled the world, working in more than 40 countries and clocking up more than 5,000 educational visits to inspire the next generation. 

He recalls sessions such as one 15 years ago in Newcastle for pre-school children, whose grandparents had brought them along because they remembered Nick visiting them when they were at primary school. He said: “That was one of the the first times I realised how much you can influence people. 

“I suffer from this disease we call writing. I’ve done it every day since I was about eight, I am addicted, and that’s how I get better at it. I want to infect as many people as I can, inspire them to use language assuredly and exert their absolute right to self-expression.” 

'University set the scene' 

Such is his dedication to connecting with young people, Nick has become a self-taught magician and puppeteer. 

The grandad-of-two said: “If you’re working with children with special needs or low literacy or those who speak English as a second language, then visual elements really help. I started doing one magic trick and the kids asked for more. I can now do around 5,000 tricks. 

"It was the same with puppets. I worked with a group of children who had been abused so I took along a puppet so I could talk to the puppet rather than look directly at them. The children started off sitting at the back of the room and by the end, they were all around me, two of them clinging onto my legs. I just thought, ‘This is amazing.’” 

His own student experience, at the University of Birmingham, where he studied Industrial Metallurgy, provided fond memories and opportunities. `

He said: “My main reason for going to university was to work at being a writer and performer. University set the scene for the rest of my life.” 

There, he co-founded a poetry magazine and, after graduating, launched his own magazine, The Little Word Machine. Staying on in Birmingham, he co-founded Moseley Community Arts Festival and started touring with his music and poetry group, The Stereo Graffiti Show. 

He said: “Birmingham was where I found punk. I went to see one of The Clash’s first gigs in 1976, when there were about 20 people in the crowd. The next time I saw them, there were 2,000.” 

Nick Toczek today
Nick Toczek today

'Very lucky' 

With such a colourful history, it’s no wonder Nick has more than a few tales to tell. He particularly treasures the one in which he declined to interview Blondie, when they were just starting out, having objected to a racist remark from a member of the band they were supporting. “So, I was the first UK journalist to not interview Blondie,” he joked. 

Among his achievements - too numerous to list - is a two-year stint as W.H.Smith resident storyteller at Halifax’s children’s museum, Eureka!, from 1993, along with a BAFTA nomination for a short programme on writing poetry for Channel 4’s Education series in 2000. He also co-wrote the lyrics of the Babyshambles’ song Baddie’s Boogie with its frontman, Pete Doherty. 

“I’ve been very lucky to have had a very interesting life,” he said. “Being able to do what I love and never having to get a ‘proper job.’"

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