Thursday, 29 November 2007


Have you been to the Golden Compass website to check out your daemon yet? Mine's lovely (which, of course, is why I mention it). When I went to that Shamanic Dreaming workshop and had to 'meet' my animal guide, it was a tiger. So it must be true.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

WGA International Day of Solidarity

There's an International Day of Solidarity in support of the WGA writers' strike on 28th November. I'm a member of the Writers Guild of Great Britain and I'm up for it.

I went to demonstrate against the first Gulf War's Operation Desert Storm in 1991. I persuaded Lauren (then five) and her best friend Natasha (then six) to come along on the grounds that if it escalated into a Third World War, then their fathers might be conscripted to fight. Looking back on it now, that seems unduly manipulative, since Lauren's dad was gay and Natasha's dad was anti-authoritarian, and the two of them would probably have been way down the list, somewhere behind Buster Martin, who at 100 years old is now Britain's oldest working man.

Anyway, I got the children in the mood by tutoring them in the kind of songs we would be singing ('one two three four, we don't want another war' and so on) and by agreeing that they could wear make-up for the day. I know what you're thinking but I used to take them to tap and ballet classes in Covent Garden every Saturday and in that context, it kind of made sense at the time.

I was all fired up about it and off we went to Hyde Park in a state of high excitement, covered in lipstick, to join with the thousands and thousands of other people who had turned up for the same purpose. When we arrived, I could see that Lauren was disappointed - it turned out that she had thought that the demonstration was my idea and that we would be the only people there.

Natasha was disappointed for an entirely different reason: 'This isn't a very good war,' she said.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Lucy, Jon, The Rabbit Hole

The night before last I had a dream about Lucy Vee, in which I went to her home to admire her recently-completed extension. I told her about it and it turns out that Lucy has only recently consulted an architect about having an extension built. Imagine that! She and Jon Peacey were so impressed by my mystical powers that, in case I have the power to control extensions in dreams as well as foretell them, Jon asked me to dream about his neighbour’s extension and hurry it along a bit.

Jon very kindly arranged a lift home for me from the Cheltenham Screenwriters Festival one night last summer, after we had all been sitting around drinking Piers’s whisky, so I was only too happy to accept the task as a way of discharging my debt to him.

I had a restless night last night until at last I fell asleep and dreamed… well, it wasn’t about Jon’s neighbours. I dreamed that I had smuggled myself and my dog Jessie into a rehearsal for David Eldridge’s new play, which turned about to be a musical about the pope, entitled Joseph I. I had to leave early because the dog got thirsty and threatened to give us away but I’m sorry to report that there were no show tunes in the bit that I saw. David Eldridge is a serious playwright – you can read his blog here – so I was quite surprised that (in my dream) he had chosen to write a musical (directed in my dream by Richard Eyre, for those who are interested in such things). No doubt my mental health has been affected by reading The Whingers blog, which is currently awhirl with stories of Broadway musicals and meetings with Mel Brooks.

I did once do quite a lot of research about lucid dreaming – where you try to enter your own dreams and manipulate them and learn from what you see there. I went to two Shamanic Dreaming workshops – one had only one other participant, also called Helen. For a while I tried to put into practice what I had learnt but it’s time consuming and it fucks with your head. And it takes a kind of monastic discipline to do it properly, which I don’t have.

More recently, I have been learning about real world role playing games, where you follow a series of instructions to create a kind of theatre in which you are the star. As concepts, these are really thrilling. But the only problem I can see is that the weak link – in do-it-yourself theatre as in my dreams - would be me.

When I go to the theatre it’s for the acting; to watch others do what I cannot do myself. When it works, some kind of magical transformation takes place on stage which is thrilling and ephemeral and beautiful to watch. It’s hard to put into words but it’s as if two ancient and wise people from different troubled planets had come together and, by joining their hands for ninety minutes, created a hologram that shows you something you could never have imagined by yourself. When their hands break apart, it’s over, and even if they meet at the same theatre at the same time the next night, it will never be quite like that again. That’s what it’s like when it works. The rest of the time, it’s bollocks. The beautiful/bollocks ratio, for me, is about 50/50, although perhaps I don’t always choose carefully enough.

The trouble with creating experiential theatre/alternate reality games/role playing games (whatever you want to call them) is that by nature they are of course fake. Although there are extreme and expensive programmes like semagoediv, where you can arrange to be kidnapped, there are very few games currently around that could match the experience of giving birth, for example, where you star in your own horror film for 24 hours. Or even travelling abroad and stumbling alone through a foreign city late at night, unable to speak the language, swept along in some mad adventure by random strangers.

Once (this is real life, now, not a dream) I went to a party in Australia where everyone was in fancy dress, there were fire eaters, jugglers, stilt-walkers and (as I recall) poodles on bicycles performing on a high wire above us. I had taken half of one of those trippy Es which was playing havoc with my spatial awareness and making me laugh a lot. I went to the toilet and when I went to wash my hands afterwards and stare at my saucer eyes in the bank of mirrors above the wash basins in the middle of the room, something wasn’t right. I moved and the person in the mirror moved. We were the same but we looked different. Then I worked out that there was a gap in the bank of mirrors and the person in front of me was a transvestite repairing his make-up.

Still, the intrigue and excitement of real world adventure games is just around the corner as there are plenty of people working on devising the ultimate experience. (There's some sort of treasure hunt connected to Poe's Goldbug story as part of the Masque of the Red Death at the BAC, for example).

I wondered if I had found a rabbit hole last night when I got two mysterious communications on my mobile phone. One was a text claiming to be from a centre for adults with learning difficulties, the other was a long, chatty phone call from an elderly woman with a Caribbean accent. I had inadvertently invited both to my house for drinks to celebrate my birthday on Saturday. They were wrong numbers. Weren’t they?

Sunday, 18 November 2007

The Naming of the Shrew

I have always disliked my name. There is something unambitious about it. If you have a child and you call it Helen Smith you are effectively saying 'I'm sorry, I doubt you'll ever amount to anything.'

There are lots of us about. Any dentist or hairdresser or GP will have several Helen Smiths on their books. Most of us have the middle name of Louise. As middle names go, Louise is no more useful or decorative than a piece of limp lettuce slapped in a petrol station sandwich.

And if one of us Helen Smiths suddenly broke loose from the pack and somehow did something so extraordinary and exciting that she earned the right to be known by one name like Madonna, then would good would it do us? Helen just doesn't sit right. 'Who's that with Matthew Macfadyen?' 'Oh, it's "Helen"...'

It's such a leaden name. There is no sparkle to it. It rhymes with melon. When shouted from a distance, it sounds like 'hello', inviting ridicule every time you look up and smile at someone who - it turns out - wasn't calling you anyway.

Please don't try to refute my argument by mentioning Helen of Troy. I had enough of that from well-meaning adults when I was growing up. When you are a too-tall, skinny, plain-faced child with ginger curly hair, believe me, any mention of Helen of Troy will prove to be unhelpful, especially at school in front of a class full of bullies.

One of the many benefits to being a writer is that you can choose a nom de plume. Unfortunately, when my first book was published, I was going through a pious stage where I felt it would be wrong to reinvent myself and I should be true to who I am. Blah blah blah.

But I'm over that now. I'd like a more exotic name like... Jasmine Mulholland. Or Zadie Smith - although that's already taken. Every so often, I waste valuable time writing lists of the names of my favourite flowers to try to come up with a new name. But hyacinth, peony - they won't do, will they?

I don't actually want anything too pretty or girlish because I am neither. I'd like a name that suggests a wise-cracking female in a screwball comedy. Something like the Rosalind Russell character in His Girl Friday. But her name's Hildy (Hildegard). And that won't do.

I haven't yet found a name for myself that I like. I'm not sure why because I never have any problem coming up with names for characters in stories I write. Although admittedly, I tend to give the women characters ordinary names like mine, to try to point up the fact that women with ordinary names can be heroes, too.

So, for now, I'm stuck with Helen Smith. I mean no offence to my parents, incidentally. When I was a child I sometimes complained to my mother about my name and she told me it didn't matter because one day I would get married. It's hardly her fault that I should grow up to be so intractably opposed to the idea. Besides, she likes my name. And she still calls me Helen Louise when I do something naughty.

Which reminds me. Sorry about all the bad language in my earlier post.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Why I Hate the Theatre

I went to see The Brothers Size at the Young Vic this evening, following a recommendation from Natasha Tripney. Lyn Gardner also tipped it without even having seen it yet.

Three young actors use a mixture of text, song and physical theatre to tell the story of two brothers. It's 90 minutes long in an intimate theatre setting on raked seating which gives you a good view of the actors.

Was it really as good as Natasha said it would be? How the hell would I know? I had the misfortune to be sitting next to a selfish old cunt who loudly cleared his throat throughout the performance. I don't mean he cleared his throat a lot. I mean he did it every 7 to 20 seconds for 90 minutes. He was quiet as a mouse while we waited for the show to start but as soon as it did and we were trapped in our seats, off he went.

He favoured a four beat hemmm hemmm hemmm hemmm pattern but varied it so that you couldn't rely on it or block it out or get used to it. A one point he went for a 5 4 3 2 combo before settling on a series of two beat hemmm hemmms before finally returning to his old favourite, the four beats.

There was no interval and no handy intermission or breaks between scenes in which to remonstrate with him. No amount of staring (from me or anyone else - and plenty of us tried it) seemed to put him off. It's a small theatre and we were sitting practically on top of the actors, so I didn't want to get into a whispered argument with him for fear of disrupting the performance.
I don't know how the actors managed to keep going; the throat clearing was clearly audible to them during some of the quieter scenes. Do they do a special class at drama school on how to keep going in the face of persistent interference from the audience? They'd have needed all their training to get by tonight, god bless them.

It was impossible to follow the story. This is what I heard:
Hemmm hemmm hemmm. Brother.
Hemmm hemmm hemmm hemmm. Nigger.
Hemm Hemm.
Hemmm hemmm hemmm hemmm. Pussy.
Hemmm hemmm.

His wife was sitting between us. She was unperturbed by either his throat-clearing or my glaring and eventually she fell asleep and snored gently like an old dog: prrrrrrrr.

So then this is what I heard:
Hemmm hemmm hemmm hemmm Madagascar. Prrrrrrrr.
Hemmm hemmm hemmm hemmm. Nigger. Prrrrrrr.
Hemm hemm.

The wife woke up briefly and he even stopped clearing his throat when one of the brothers said to the other one: Say I fucked up. I fucked up. I fucked up. I fucked up. I fucked up. I fucked up. I fucked up. I fucked up. I fucked up. (About nine times, I think - very effective).

But then it was back to hemmm hemmm hemmm hemmm; like the coughing episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire but without the prize.

The bit where they (the actors) sang along to Otis Redding was lovely. The dream sequences looked interesting. I wish I could have enjoyed the rest of it.

Afterwards, I thought I should say something to the old man - tell him not to go to the theatre in future because he had spoiled my evening and musn't spoil it for others. Yes, obviously he was ill. But you can stay home and be ill. You don't have to go to the theatre and share it around.

I saw his party waiting for him to come out of the toilet after the show and I waited nearby to catch him and say something before he reached them. But he outsmarted me and went the other way and I missed him. Then I saw them all going out of the door and I followed them for a little way down the street. But... what would be the point? He couldn't NOT KNOW he was doing it. It was a choice he made. What could I possibly say that would make him make a different choice next time? Anyway arguing in the street is common.

I wasn't the only one who left the theatre in a fury, having missed most of the performance because of that old cunt. The man next to me said he also felt like he had wasted his evening. I should set up some kind of support group. For those affected by this evening's events, please call 0800 hem hem hem in confidence.

On nights like this (which happen surprisingly often when you go to the theatre), I vow never ever to go and see another play again. I think why can't they invent something that is like the theatre but you can watch it at home by yourself... and then remember that's what television is. That's what DVDs are for. TV is fucking wonderful and it's free. I'm watching The Wire on DVD at the moment and it's one of the best things ever. Hour after hour after hour after hour of brilliant acting and storytelling in your own living room and it costs a few pounds to rent from Amazon.

But then I have seen some wonderful, magical stuff at the theatre this year - An Oak Tree, My Arm, Subway, War Horse, All About My Mother, Venus as a Boy, Hairspray, Story of a Rabbit and so on. If I gave up going to the theatre, I'd risk missing out on something as good as any one of those next time.

One solution would be if you were allowed to take mace into the theatre so that if anyone nearby started to cough, you could spray them with it in a 'so you're in the mood for coughing, are you?' kind of a way. Cunts.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Beautiful Sunset

I'm still working on this play but I have been finding the process of writing it rather troublesome.

I can see what it should be like - there it is, shimmering away in the distance like one of those beautiful sunsets that you only see when you are on holiday; you can reach out and almost seem to touch it with your fingers but you can't gather it up in your arms and take it home - but I haven't quite worked out how to capture it. It doesn't have much action in it and I have been struggling with the tone.

It's supposed to be bad luck to talk about your work while it's still in progress and I think that's because it's no good expending valuable energy talking about it before you have earned the right to do so by finishing it. I could go further, and be more pretentious about it, by saying that when you come up with an idea for a book or a play or a film, you then try to bring it into being by writing it. Talking about it in any detail means that it then exists on some level and this thereby removes some of the artistic imperative to write it (although of course any financial incentive will remain).

Still, it's too late now, I have mentioned it loads of times on this blog ('this play' 'my play' burble burble burble) and I haven't even got a decent first draft. And so in the last week I have used a number of tried and tested methods to get past this point:

i) Ignoring It (The Elves and the Shoemaker Method).
And when I opened up the file on my computer a few days later, guess what? Yes, it turns out that elves are for shoemakers, not writers. The thing was in exactly the same state as it was when I left it.

ii) The Short-Cut.
Everything I write - no matter how portentously it starts out - always ends up as comedy. I therefore tried to save time by going straight for the jokes and ended up with page after page of uninvolving sarcastic remarks, like the worst kind of sitcom. Then I remembered that I've done this before and it always turns out the same way. For some reason the comedy and the lightness of touch only come when I am serious about what I'm trying to write. I don't mean that it is unintentionally funny. I mean that I have to care about it, and the characters and situations have to be real. The jokes and the funny lines come along right at the end of the process and if they work, it's because the characters seem to be saying them, not me.

iii) The Natural History Museum Trick.
I worked on something else for a bit - another project that's much nearer completion and just needs a bit of a polish. Someone had read it and liked it, and I like it too because it's nearly finished and makes sense. Working on it was like handing a squalling baby over to a babysitter for the day and going to hang out at the Natural History Museum with an eight year old child. You reassure yourself that one day the baby is going to grow up into a sentient being who is good company, knows the names of all the dinosaurs and will laugh at your jokes.

iv) Getting Very Drunk.
This doesn't work for me. Ever.

v) Sitting Down and Writing the Thing.
Marvellous. It always works, doesn't it? And every time I do it, I feel that I have made a clever discovery, as if it had never occurred to anyone else to complete a writing project by actually doing some writing.

Anyway, it's fine now. I've got Act I. Sort of. I've got the tone right. And I know where I'm going with the rest of it. Onwards...

Friday, 2 November 2007

Internet Chlamydia

Having been tagged with a meme (see earlier post) I'm supposed to tag five other people.

Is this a game? I hate games. When I was about nine or ten years old I read The Cross and The Switchblade and briefly became a Born Again Christian. I went off it when I realised the 'speaking in tongues' element was never going to work out for me (I had prayed fervently to be able to speak in French). That summer, still hopeful of a visit from the Holy Spirit, I went to a camp with other Christian children. The thing I remember most about it was that we played a game of rounders. For once in my life the bat connected with the ball and I hit the thing quite a long way. But some other Christian child - a sportier one than I - caught it and that was it, the whole team was out. Game over.

It turned out that being good at sport (hitting the ball) was potentially more awkward and embarrassing and damaging to the team than being bad at it (not hitting the ball). Who knew? It was a life lesson that I took to heart and have put into practice ever since by simply never joining in any kind of team activity if I can help it - or else by being really bad at it and retiring early.

Maybe it helps to think of the meme not as a game but - as Phil and Andrew suggest - a kind of internet chlamydia. On that basis, I'm tagging Piers, Jason, Danny, Potdoll and Lucy. The meme requires that they list five things about themselves that other people would think was lame but which they're really proud of.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Me me me

I've been tagged with a meme - which is a kind of internet chain mail and not, as I had thought when I read examples of them on other sites, a 'me, me' excuse to talk about oneself on a blog. I do enough of that anyway.

You're supposed to list five things about yourself that others might think lame but which you're proud of. I do plenty of lame things but I'm rightly ashamed of them. I like knitting and Midsomer Murders, I'm afraid of the dark, and I have tried to learn and failed to master several languages, including French, Portuguese, Cantonese, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Latin, Welsh and German.

As for five lame things that I'm proud of, well, these are the same old run of the mill things that everyone does (aren't they?) and therefore rather unenlightening but here goes:
  • I often sing to the dog, amending the words of pop songs so they appear to tell a little story about what's happening in her life.
  • I have never been able to get to grips with smoking dope.
  • I like writing poetry even though I know it's crap.
  • I always judge a book by the cover.
  • I am very sentimental and cry at the smallest things including, in the last few days, the words on my mother-in-law's headstone ('remember me as a sunny day'), a cartoon called Arashi no yoru ni and the sight of a lone swan waiting patiently at the side of a stream, unaware that the bloody carcass of its mate lay nearby, just the other side of a hedge. But I never cry in real life.
Thanks to the West End Whingers for the tag.