Thursday, 31 January 2008

Not Dead Yet

Things have been quiet on here recently. I was in Rome for a while and I have been busy with writing and other things.

The dog has been a bit wobbly for a couple of days and today she kept collapsing and was very confused. She'll be fifteen years old in two weeks time and I thought she must have had a stroke. I drove all the way to the Vet's in third gear, sobbing hysterically, thinking I was taking her to her death. Fortunately she hasn't had a stroke at all (they are quite rare in dogs, I have since found from searching on the internet). The vet diagnosed something else entirely (vestibular syndrome) which can be put right with a couple of shots of steroids. As my daughter pointed out, that's why they're vets and we're not.

I had been contemplating putting a 'bereaved' sign on my blog and shutting up shop for a while but as she's not dead yet, there's no excuse for not blogging. I'm going to get back to it.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Bush Theatre - Funding Cuts

The Arts Council has decided to cut40% of its funding to the Bush Theatre in London. The theatre has a free script reading service and champions new writing. It's a small venue, tickets are modestly priced but the shows it puts on are first class.

You can sign a petition here to try to persuade the Arts Council to change its mind about The Bush - apparently the figures it based its decision on are wrong, anyway. The petition needs to be signed before tomorrow, 15th Jan.

It might work. Last year Wandsworth Council changed its mind about charging a commercial rent and withdrawing funding to Battersea Arts Centre , following a campaign to make it see sense - indeed, I still get chatty emails from the Leader of Wandsworth Council after I (along with many others) wrote to him in support of the BAC.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

More Hopes and Dreams for 2008

When compiling my list of things from 2007, I realised that I hadn't tasted anything new and I hadn't stepped outside the UK at any point during last year. I even let my passport lapse in December - for financial rather than political reasons, and because I have Jessie. Until she dies, I won't be going abroad for any length of time. (That's not a complaint, by the way. I love that dog. And being confined to the UK has had the unexpected benefit of making me spend more time writing than I have in the past.)

A couple of years ago, I found myself in the peculiar position of having realised all my ambitions which were - to publish a novel, have a child and travel the world. (Having a child is, strictly, more of a hope than an ambition. But you know what I mean. Anyway I meant to do it before I was 25, which I achieved by a good margin.)

I wouldn't say I had reached the heady heights and indeed for all of my adult life I have been disgustingly poor - being rich never having been on the list. But still, without any goals, I felt directionless. So I came up with a new set of ambitions, one of which was to get a play produced and which, through a set of events which included good fortune and the loveliness and talent of all those involved, happened pretty much as soon as I had wished for it.

I remember, a few years ago, seeing a documentary about Geri Halliwell, in which she confided that she practiced a visualisation technique to make her dreams come true, which included imagining herself being friends with George Michael. And sure enough, during the course of the documentary, there she was with him in Battersea Dogs Home, selecting an abandoned shitzu to take home as a pet. To his credit, GM looked rather embarrassed to have been the focus of so much longing, never mind a documentary on the subject.

For 2008, who should be my George Michael? Who can I entice to be my friend using creative visualisation techniques? Why, Simon Callow, of course.

I spent many happy nights last year curled up in bed with his book Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu. How much happier would I be if I actually lived with Simon Callow? I've given it quite a bit of thought and, to achieve this, a master criminal would first have to transfer approximately £18,000,000 to my bank account in an untraceable transaction, meaning to remove it again almost immediately. But before he could do so, he would be shot and killed in an argument over a parking space, meaning that the funds - the profits from some unspecified victimless crime - would be mine.

Before distributing almost all of the money to the poor and needy, I would use some of it to buy a castle and invite Simon Callow to live there with me. Obviously, we would keep our domestic and intimate arrangements quite separate so he wouldn't be my boyfriend, exactly, but sometimes he would emerge from his wing of the castle and do acting ("do you mind, I just need to go over a few lines?") and tell theatrical anecdotes while I ate nectarines grown in the Victorian hothouse overlooking the outdoor pool and gazed at him adoringly.

Our castle would be conveniently located by the Thames, quite close to the South Bank Centre, with a view of the Houses of Parliament (pretty much where the old GLC building is, in fact - perhaps we could build a castle on top of that). Sometimes Nicholas Hytner would come round for tea and I would congratulate him on the £10 ticket offers and even suggest sponsoring them in future, if necessary, from some of the dirty money remaining in my bank account ('The Helen and Simon Ten Pound Ticket Season').

One day, as Simon and I sat in one of the crenellated turrets in our castle in the sunshine, fishing for salmon (taking care not to actually catch any, both of us fearful of harming the poor creatures) I would realise I had achieved a personal idyll.

"Oh Simon," I would say (or perhaps I would call him by some pet name, yet to be determined) "I'm so happy, I don't even feel like writing." And he would say "No, you must write. Because even though you say that Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu is one of the best books you have ever read and it made you fall in love with me and you haven't even read the two subsequent volumes yet - you are the better writer."

And then, reassured, I'd call up Kevin Spacey who'd come round and we'd all go outside and bounce on the over-sized trampoline near the walled garden and look up at the sky and laugh for sheer joy. And then I'd give Kevin some money to get the seats at the Old Vic ripped out and rebuilt so you can actually see the stage from the stalls.

And then I'd go indoors and start work on the lipogrammatic novel which, when published, will be the one to make my name.

If any of these things come true - the criminal cash, the castle in the sky, or the friendship with Simon Callow, I will be sure to tell you. Unless, in the course of writing my lipogrammatic novel, I should have resolved to do without the letter 'c'. In which case, it might prove rather difficult.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

List of Lovely Things

Here’s a list of lovely things from 2007. Some of the books, films etc had been around for a while but were new to me:

BT Vision Box – a machine that records the TV
Tim Crouch – My Arm and An Oak Tree
Subway by Vanishing Point
Secret Millionaire
The Wire by David Simon
Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu by Simon Callow
Masque of the Red Death Workshops at BAC
Royal Court Open Day in June
Rafe Spall in DC Moore's Alaska
Hugh Hughes, Story of a Rabbit
Sharon D. Clarke on Children in Need
Paris Review Interviews I & II
West End Whingers Blog
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers by Antonia Quirke
Tam Dean Burn in Venus as a Boy
Richard Thomson in Rebus McTaggart: Crime Warrior
Port Eliot Festival
David Hare, Anthony Horowitz, William Nicholson at Screenwriters Festival
Children of Men - Alfonso Cuaron’s film of PD James’s book
Spellbound – Jeffrey Blitz
London to Brighton – Paul Andrew Williams
All About My Mother at The Old Vic
The Ugly One at The Royal Court
The Graeae’s production of Blasted
Warhorse at The National
Shoot, Get Treasure, Repeat by Mark Ravenhill
Wonderful World of Dissocia by Anthony Neilson (read it, didn't see it)
Fiona Shaw & Deborah Warner talking about Happy Days at The National
Katie Mitchell talking about The Waves at The National
JK Rowling by Stuart Pearson Wright
, National Portrait Gallery
30 Rock
Hairspray the Musical
Jasmine tea that ‘flowers’ when you pour water on it
North Berwick
Francesca Whyte in Hagbane’s Doom
New babies: Charlie Cushion, Estelle Salansy, Florence Cook
Rachel’s pub, The Duchess in Battersea
Harry’s cartoons in The Guardian
Russell West selling out at every exhibition
Four star review in The Scotsman for The Psychic Detective
The Medical Foundation's Write to Life

Monday, 7 January 2008

Sugary Donuts

No doubt you have played that game at some point in your life when you tried to eat a sugary donut without licking your lips. It's much harder than you'd think, isn't it? We used to do it when we were 14 years old while sitting in the Wimpey in Dorchester, smoking fags ("I'm addicted") and making one cup of tea with two sugars last all afternoon. If you have tried it more recently and have found it quite easy not to lick the sugar off your lips, please don't disabuse me - in my experience life doesn't get any easier when you are grown up.

Writing a play is a bit like trying not to lick the sugar off your lips, when you're used to writing fiction. If you want to liven things up in fiction, you can describe something strange that you want to catch the reader's eye with. You pop in a simile. You juxtapose two images or two scenes - or multiple scenes - cutting back and forth between them to create tension or prolong a denouement. You can jump about in time and space. You use what in screenwriting would be called flashbacks ('he remembered the time when...') and close-ups. You can make an ironic quip in the narration, undercutting what has just been said. You can deliberately mask the location or even the identity of a speaker by simply not telling the reader where you are or who is speaking. You describe the interior life of the character. You can explain what is happening. There's a whole armoury of tricks you can use in fiction that you can't use so readily in a play, where the writing is very spare.

I think the thing I miss most is that there's no opportunity to be ironic about your characters - or none that I can see, short of writing a part for a narrator or chorus or (horror) a sort of post-modern writer character who pops up and cavorts about on stage to comment on the action. And there's no opportunity to be 'literary'. By which I mean, of course, not that a play is not literature, but that you can't possibly get away with having characters speak chunks of 'written' words laced with similes and high-flown observations. It has to appear to happen live on stage in front of you, as if the actors are making it up as they go along. Even though theatre is such an artificial medium, what happens in front of you has to seem emotionally 'real' and so, as a writer, you can't hide behind words or use them to distract, the way you can in fiction. You end up feeling like the servant of the words, not the master (or I did, anyway). It drove me absolutely mad last year until I cracked it over Christmas; finally, I'm in charge.

Curiously, I haven't felt so 'sugary donut' about writing screenplays. Possibly this is because I have been doing it wrong. But I think it is because you constantly cut from one scene to another, using a variety of locations, and you frequently draw the viewer's attention to images and sequences of action that help to tell the story. It's easy to create a fast pace and sense of excitement and (if you want it - and it seems that I do) create a sense of irony. There isn't the awful risk of boring everyone senseless that seems to hover about a play.

Ah well. I haven't looked at that first draft again since my initial joy at getting through it. It's like a nasty wound healing behind a bandage and I want to peek at it but I know I shouldn't. I'm going to leave it for a while and then write a few more drafts. And when it's finished, you know what? I think I'm going to try and write another one.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Perplex City, Midsomer Murders, Plumbing and other Triumphs

My fingernail is probably going to fall off because of the sulphuric acid. I touch type (65 wpm, I’m very proud of it) and this will make it very difficult to use the letters y u h j n or m. No doubt it will have an impact on my writing – but perhaps a lipogrammatic novel will be the one to make my name?

As plumbing problems go, a blocked kitchen drain is not as bad as the time, a few Christmases ago, when the cellar flooded three times with 2ft of water overnight, which I had to bail out with a bucket. The water had a not-unpleasant peppery smell (presumably because it was tainted with my own wee), and I might have got through it by imagining I was a pastoral heroine working in a field of radishes. But of course I didn’t see it like that at the time, wading about in the darkness all tired and angry, bucket in hand, instead of going out and enjoying myself at Christmas parties.

With the kitchen sink out of bounds this weekend, we had come up with a plan that would have involved eating off paper plates and washing any other dishes in the bath upstairs. But fortunately there’s no need. Kyle, Lauren’s boyfriend, has unblocked the drain by putting his hand up what we now know to be the gully. It was a sensational triumph and has brought us together as a family in a way that we first experienced when playing Perplex City in the summer of 2006 and have since achieved only by watching Midsomer Murders together and talking all the way through it.

Virginia Woolf

Yesterday I had hoped to embark on a new writing project while the first draft of my play ‘matures’ in a drawer for a couple of weeks. But it was not to be. Instead, I spent the whole day trying to clear a blockage in the drain outside our kitchen sink, first using caustic soda and then progressing to the strongest thing they had in the hardware shop, which contains sulphuric acid.

Readers who have stuck with me since the summer will remember how keenly I felt the loss of the sink drainer around that time. About a year ago the grill in the oven failed and I have been unable to repair it due to lack of funds. We have since become enthusiastic fryers of such things as bacon and sausages and I’m sure that this, combined with the temporary unguardedness of our kitchen plughole, means that I have only myself to blame for the problem with the drains.

The sulphuric acid didn’t seem to do the trick. I decanted most of the water from the drain using a small Tupperware container and fished around in there but the problem still isn’t solved. I honestly don’t know how the water is normally supposed to exit – I can’t find any sort of a hole, blocked or otherwise. Should it evaporate? Lauren says that one of the Cornish pebbles from our special ‘landscaped area’ nearby may have got stuck somewhere. How I wish, at times like this, that I had a boyfriend. Not so that I could ask him to unblock the drain; I’ve always been attracted to creative types, storytellers and drinkers, and none of them have ever been any good at DIY. But at least if I had a boyfriend, I would have someone else to blame.

I wore brand new rubber gloves for the task but the right forefinger must have had a microscopic hole in it because the nail on my right forefinger is now horribly discoloured. It looks like a serious nicotine stain, which brings to mind dear Virginia Woolf – as we know from watching The Hours, she was very fond of smoking rollies. I don’t suppose she spent valuable writing time unblocking the drains though, do you?

Friday, 4 January 2008

Antiques Roadshow

Finally, finally, I’ve got a first draft for that play I’ve been working on – the one I hoped to finish last year. It’s relatively unambitious, both in scale and content. It’s not very long. But it has taken me ages to get this far.

Regular readers will know that I like to refer to my dog Jessie every now and again, and indeed the process of writing this play brought to mind something that happened to Jessie in the garden once, while I looked on through the kitchen window, powerless to help: A piece of poo had somehow become entangled on the long fluffy hairs on her hind quarters. She couldn’t quite see what had happened but her slightly bewildered expression and peculiar shuffling gait betrayed that she knew that something was not right.

Now please don’t distress yourself – she remedied the situation, without my intervention, by walking around, as dignified as possible, until the poo dislodged and the natural order was restored. (The poo, for those of you interested in such things, was a small, firm object that left no trace of itself after the event and was not transferred to the soft furnishings in the house).

And so it was with this play – I had a plan, and all sorts of notes, and I’d got a rough draft down on paper. I had gone through all the motions - but something just didn’t feel right, you know?

However, I persevered. And now it’s at that lovely Antiques Roadshow stage where you suspect it’s probably just a comfortable piece of old junk but you are secretly hoping that someone will spring up and declare it a rare and valuable masterpiece – and you wouldn’t disbelieve them if they did.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008


Towards the end of 2006 when I was having one of those 'what shall I do with my life?' soul searches, prompted by my birthday, I decided to apply for a Writer's Residency for 2007. These, as I'm sure you know, seem to involve going and staying somewhere pleasant, with lodgings and living provided in return for organising a few workshops, interacting with the local community and doing a piece of writing while you are there.

I had rather hoped for somewhere warm and cheap but finally settled on applying for a residency in Orkney - the clinching words being 'pets allowed'. I love the sea-side and it looked like it would be a wild and exhilarating place to stay for a few months.

I imagined myself sitting in a little cottage by a fire engaged in wonderful new writing projects ("her finest work") fuelled by loneliness and whisky, interspersed with long, oxygenating walks with Jessie and frank and thought-provoking talks with colourful locals. I also thought there might be an opportunity to do some knitting. Or is that the Shetland Isles?

In the event, I didn't apply. Orkney? I'm crazily, madly, unequivocally in love with London. I practically hug the bus shelters when we get back off the motorway after even two days in the countryside. I love the museums, the art galleries, the theatres, the restaurants, the people - the lovely, weird, interesting, multi-ethnic, hard-working, fast-living people, none of whom are remotely interested in your business (as they are in small villages).

But the point is that I decided to spend 2007 as if I was in Orkney, so I could devote more time to writing. I behaved as if I was inaccessible while still popping out for sushi and a ten pound play at the National whenever I felt like it.

And it really worked. Normally, if someone rings me up and asks me to do something I don't really want to do, I acquiesce, feeling 'I'm only writing'. I should probably say 'I'm working'. But I don't have set hours and everyone knows what I'm up to. It's not like a proper job - it seems just as self-indulgent as saying 'I can't come out, I'm wanking'. Or, to be a little less crude about it, 'I'm day-dreaming'.

But all through 2007, if something came up that I felt I ought to do but didn't want to, I just thought, 'Well, I can't do it - I'm in Orkney'.

It was such a marvellous success that I'm going to be spending 2008 in Orkney as well.