Friday, 30 May 2008

Bingeing on Theatre

I don't know if you have ever got drunk on Tequila but the hangover is usually so bad that you feel queasy all the next day, just at the mention of any kind of alcohol.

After bingeing* on theatre for the last year and a half, I felt much the same way at any mention of ever going to see another show. But yesterday I woke up and thought about going to see Hard Hearted Hannah at the Lyric and realised that the prospect made me feel cheerful, rather than queasy. The Factory's Hamlet at the King's Head on Sunday? Why not? Oxford Street at Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre? You know what, I'm so excited about that one, I've just interrupted writing this to book myself a ticket. I've got one but hurry if you want to go, too - tickets are only £8 and they're selling fast.

It has taken me three months to metabolise** the effects of that excrutiatingly bad play I saw in February - whereas after too much Tequila I'm usually up on my feet and ready to go again by six o'clock the next evening. Never mind. I've got a taste for theatre again and I'm ready to start gulping it down. That's got to be a good thing, hasn't it? At the very least, it keeps me away from the Tequila slammers, which means I have a clear head for writing the next day.

* Originally I wrote 'binging' but apparently that's unsuitable in case people think it rhymes with ringing, see comments below
** I swear by Milk Thistle to help avoid hangovers. If only someone could invent a similar over-the-counter remedy to ward off the effects of going to see a bad play.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Coming Home on the Ferry

Recently I have returned to writing prose after working on several scripts. Dramatic writing is something which I find quite difficult, like running in the sack race or the egg and spoon when you are used to running normally. I feel terribly hampered by only having (pretty much) dialogue and structure to play with, instead of all the flowery bits available to a writer of narrative fiction - and that if only I could put this egg down and strap on a few metaphors, I'd be able to go so much faster, and in much more style.

I realise I probably ought to be wary of saying such things, as I'm keen to continue writing scripts - and getting paid to write scripts - and I might do better to pretend it's all terribly easy and comes quite naturally to me. But writing fiction feels like bathing in warm water scented with rose petals after trying to make do with a cold sprinkle from the rusty showerhead of drama.

Have you ever taken the ferry between France and England? I used to do it quite often and after a few weeks abroad there's something comforting about seeing all the lumpy, potato-faced English people on deck with their cheerful ugliness and their packets of crisps and their bra straps and their sunburn. You've had a nice holiday but you're glad to be coming home.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Hooray for Hammocks

For a while, I allowed the magnificent gift of the hammock to lie undisturbed in its box in the hallway. This is because I did not want to spoil it by putting it outside and subjecting it to the sun and the rain.

But as any of you who have young female relatives with email accounts will know, you must live for the moment and not allow your fanciest underpants to remain unworn in your chest of drawers (there is an email to that effect that does the rounds every now and again, forwarded by the naive, the impressionable and the just plain nice among us - i.e. young female relatives) and so finally, finally, I put it up today - with help from Lauren.

Thanks to our friend, RT, for the hammock. I hope something good will come his way in return. As avid viewers of My Name is Earl, our family believes in karma and believes it will.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008


To the numerous people who have found this site since yesterday with the search term 'Alan Titchmarsh sideburns', I'd like to say welcome - and I'm glad I'm not the only one.

Proudly Brew

Yesterday I went into town for a meeting and had lunch in an office where there was a Starbucks concession onsite. Large mugs of lukewarm coffee were produced from a booth which had the words 'we proudly brew' printed on a sign above it in large letters. You what? You proudly brew? If arrested by an officer of the law, would whoever wrote that sign say 'I'll quietly come'? If living in a country village plagued by speeding drivers, would he or she (or they?) wish to erect signs saying 'Please carefully drive'?

Given the recent emergence of a new kind of job where women of a certain age point out the faults of the general public - Supernanny, Gillian McKeith, Diet Doctors, and now Sarah Ferguson - I'd love to create a role for myself where I go round pointing out minor alterations that could be made to improve the nonsensical logos, branding and advertising copy that assail us everywhere we go.

I'm not talking about grammatical mistakes so much as aesthetics - the 'five items or less' signs in the supermarkets, for example, those are put there to taunt the pedants and I have too much dignity to get involved.

And I'm not talking about scolding the general public over the way they speak, either - people can say what they want how they want, and good for them; language is evolving and all that. There's nothing wrong with a hand-written sign on a chalk board outside a small business showing a healthy appreciation for the humble apostrophe, either, however eccentrically placed.

But someone needs to give a kick up the arse to a company that can display a sign saying 'we proudly brew' and think it means something.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Beautiful Bows

I'll be starting work on a major writing project on 1st June so I've decided to try and finish off various bits and pieces of writing before then. This approach has been validated by a message I found in a fortune cookie yesterday which said 'time to tie up those loose ends into beautiful bows.'

Actually, I'm tying those loose ends into short stories. I know, I know - there's no market for them, no-one reads them, publishers won't touch them. Blah blah. Never mind. It's remarkably satisfying writing them because they can be as short as you like, and you can make a list and put ticks by the titles as you finish them, and then print them out and stack them up and shuffle the pages in a virtuous and industrious way. Short stories are the porcelain shepherdesses of the publishing world - beloved of their owners and somewhat frowned upon by sophisticates. You have a collection of WHAT? Never mind. Never mind.

I watched Gardeners' World yesterday (what does Alan Titchmarsh think he looks like with those sideburns? Midge Ure? Because he doesn't and someone needs to tell him so) and a gardener in Jamaica showed how he starts growing dozens of orchids at a time in glass bottles - with some plants taking about twenty years to reach maturity - and I'm thinking of those short stories as a similarly safe environment to store my little bits and pieces of ideas so I can go back to them and maybe grow them into something bigger and beautiful in due course. Not that I like orchids much. But you know what I mean.

I'm really looking forward to starting this next piece of writing. I fall asleep thinking about it, anticipating it the way I would anticipate a holiday to Australia.

Last night I thought how wonderful it would be to do nothing but write for weeks - maybe confined to a hotel room wearing a paper gown, sitting on a commode, with a supply of ginger biscuits, fresh water and lemon juice to hand (the latter to combat scurvy). But at my age I need to keep my hips and other joints moving, and anyway one of the most wonderful things about being a writer is that you only have to do 1000 words a day, or five pages if it's a screenplay, or five hours if you don't like counting words or pages - and after you've done that, you have the rest of the day to do whatever the hell you choose. True, I think most writers spend it doing more writing. But I like the idea that I can go to the National Portrait Gallery or Tooting Bec Lido if I want.

That's it for now. Back to the beautiful bows.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Theatrical Headache

Right. Enough about kindness and generosity. I saw a Brecht the other day which caused me to think it's OK to lecture people about that kind of thing, which of course it isn't. Sorry about that.

I saw so much theatre last year that this year I decided to take a break from it. The problem is that tickets are expensive and quality is variable and much of it isn't to my taste anyway. I decided on a new policy of only going to see shows that friends or family are involved in. That, of course, is problematic in its own way.

Lauren worked on the props for The Good Person of Szechuan at the Young Vic and so I went to see that. I liked everything about it - performances, design, props (of course) the fluid direction - everything except the play*. By which I mean the text - not David Harrower's version but Brecht's. It just seemed like a clumsy load of hectoring two-dimensional twaddle to me. Not my cup of tea at all. I think there comes a time in every writer's life when they feel they have to write something like that play - but it's usually when they are fourteen years old, in collaboration with their classmates, at the behest of their teacher. Gah.

There are lots of things on at the moment that I would like to see, and some things I've missed that I'm sorry about. I still might go and see Fram, which finishes in a couple of days' time. Everyone says it's overlong. But a play in verse with a shipwreck in the ice and Sian Thomas doing a turn? That is my cup of tea.

But you know how it is when you've got a terrible headache and even the tiniest bit of noise or a flickering light can make you feel considerably worse? I've got a theatrical headache. I'm worried that if I see even one more show I dislike, it will tip me over the edge and I will never be able to come back from it. I'm going to lie in a darkened room, theatrically speaking, until about September and then give it another go.

Writing a play, of course, is quite a different matter. That's the fun part. I had somehow lost sight of the fact that I started writing for the theatre as an excuse for not seeing so much of it. Having played my part as an audience member for so long, I thought I might try and take my turn as a writer. Every 'theatre-maker', as they are nowadays called, has said in every interview I have seen that they 'don't see much theatre' as they are 'too busy making it'. Yep. Right. I've been a bit slow to catch on but I've GOT IT NOW. Wink. Wink. Me too.

* Apparently everyone at the Young Vic is lovely. Reviews are good. Shows sold out. No offence intended to everyone who has worked so hard on it. (Except to Brecht, who can shove it up his arse.)

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Oddly Sportsman-like Spammers

On an entirely different note - I don't understand about spammers. Why do they spell so badly in the subject lines of their messages?

Is it to give you a chance to avoid them? If so, it seems oddly sportsman-like.

Or are they more like James Bond villains, telling you too much about themselves - in this case that they were poorly educated, in the case of a JB villain that they have planted a nuclear device that will wipe out humanity, and where and why - and inadvertently giving you the opportunity to get away?

Kindness, Electrical Currents, Olympic Flame

I have discovered the identity of the mysterious benefactor who sent the hammock to my house last Friday.

It was not, of course, any of the waifs and strays who I have helped over the years - the homeless, the heart-broken, the temporarily impecunious; people who I have fed and cheered up and housed and taken to parties and listened to for hours and hours on end. I bet you have some of those people in your life, too, and the sad fact is that they are permanently open mouths - they just keep on taking. It would never occur to any of them to do a single kind thing for another person because they are too busy bemoaning the difficulties in their own lives and trying to make the rest of the world make reparation for it.

No, the mystery hammock-giver was one of my generous friends, who is always doing kind things for me. The truth is that kind and generous people are just... kind and generous.

Even before I discovered the identity of my mystery benefactor, this act of kindness passed through me like an electrical current, causing me to have a soft fruit bush* sent in the post to other friends - also very kind and generous people who are always very good to me.

True, in financial terms, the fruit bush was less expensive than the hammock. But possibly electrical currents suffer some kind of attrition as they pass along? I don't know, I failed my Physics O level. If you prefer, you can think of Paulie in The Sopranos always palming a little off the top before passing the dough to or from Tony Soprano. Anyway, next time if I think about it I'll add something on.

In the past on this blog, I have described dog shit as the gift that goes on giving. And so it is - I am never disappointed when I go out in the garden to hunt for and collect it. But kindness is like the Olympic flame. Forget the Nazis, forget the Chinese secret police and other reasons to disapprove or avoid getting involved. If someone does something kind for you, pass it on.

I am feeling the love.


Thursday, 15 May 2008

A Marvellous and Wonderful Gift

A hammock arrived for me this morning, special delivery. No, I didn't order it. I don't know who did.

It is a marvellous and wonderful gift. As Lauren says, having a blog is like having a wishing well.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Yet More Good Fortune

I swear my luck has turned since receiving that £6.03 in the post the other day. I recently got another commission for a piece of writing. Yay!

There was a time when I would have spent all the money almost immediately: I need a hammock and a haircut, and it would be nice to have a trip to Hong Kong - not just because then all the things on my list would start with 'h'; I do have friends there.

But, I don't know when it happened - I've grown up. I'm going to use the money to pay some bills, maybe take the dog to the vet's for another steroid injection, and then just get stuck into the writing. Marvellous. Here's a poem on the subject:

A hammock, a hair
cut, a trip to Hong Kong;
In the old days I spent it -
but I had it all wrong.
Still, learning the hard way
Has been part of the fun.

(Notice how I avoided continuing with it and trying to get a rhyme with the word 'injection' by forcing an unnatural accent on the final syllable. Sometimes you just gotta walk away.)

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

What a Wonderful World

The lovely sunshine in London today reminds me of being 14 years old, when my friend Hannah and I would cycle to our friend Colette's house on sunny days. Colette's mother would make us homemade lemonade and pizzas from a recipe in a Winnie the Poo cookery book and we would sit about reading novels that belonged to Colette's older sisters and thinking ourselves very sophisticated because we were allowed to smoke in the house.

There was one particular day, Colette put Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World on the record player (obviously we didn't have ipods in those days) and I sat and read my way through a copy of D H Lawrence's The Virgin and the Gypsy belonging to one of the sisters and I thought - life doesn't get much better than this. And of course it doesn't, although sometimes you secretly expect it might. And indeed, if you're not careful and get pregnant by a gay man or go into debt or have to work in an office for a living, it can get quite a bit worse at times, which is a shame.

I managed to capture that same feeling of serenity a few years ago when I had a hammock in the garden here and used to lie in it for hours and think and read books. And I remembered it again last night when I sat on a bench in the garden in the sunshine and drank beer and read an article in the Times Literary Supplement about philosophy which I appreciated although I barely understood it.

I wish I still had the hammock. Unfortunately the wood on the stand rotted and it collapsed under me two summers ago in front of a man who had asked me to marry him but later changed his mind.

Was it Lucille Ball who said you should only regret the things you have done, not the things you haven't done? I don't have any regrets - and must remember to get out of the house more often, to give myself the chance to do something that I might regret - but I do sometimes mourn the loss of that hammock.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Since reading Danny Stack’s interesting post here, I have been meaning to write something about my path to becoming a writer which has been completely different in almost every way from his.

Whether you are a screenwriter or a novelist, you need to be able to tell stories and create characters. But if you’re a novelist, you can get away with being a gifted amateur – you don’t need any training, all you need are experiences and opinions, a way of convincing your reader that you – and they – have a slightly different way of seeing the world from other people. Rather than working hard, building a career incrementally, making contacts, amassing credits, going on courses, you simply keep the goal of getting published in mind and hurl yourself towards it, red-faced and shouting, waving your similes about with the demented self-belief of someone who thinks they have invented a sure-fire way of identifying the winning lottery numbers.

I have wanted to be a novelist since I was about eight years old. I had this idea that I would live an interesting life and then start writing when I was thirty. I was adamant that I didn’t want a ‘proper’ job because I was worried that if I earned decent money and did something I enjoyed, it might distract me from my true purpose. Obviously this is something I don’t feel quite so strongly about now that I am old, horribly in debt, trained for nothing, fit for nothing except writing.

Fortunately I have always been prepared to do other sorts of work for money, ever since I was ten years old. I have done everything from cleaning toilets to teaching English. I have worked as a clown and a magician’s assistant and as amanuensis to a famous art critic who wanted to finish the book he was writing in the three months before he died. I have sewed fancy dress clothes, made silver jewellery, dressed up as a bear and played party games, worked as a ‘bar girl’ in Hong Kong, worked in a cafe in Sydney, served in pubs in Weymouth and West Ham, and worked as a temp in offices both here and in Australia.

Working in an office is like being paid to be shut up in a coffin for eight hours or more – you learn nothing, you experience nothing, you don’t see the outside world; after a while you begin to wonder whether you are dead or alive.

The only jobs I have enjoyed are the ones where I have been paid in cash to do something that is finished once I have done it – the building or smashing kinds of jobs. I hate the sort of work where money is paid into your bank account in return for doing the same uninspiring tasks over and over for seven or eight hours a day. You go home with no feeling that your time spent doing them has made any difference to the world and you start to feel it would be much more convenient if the money was simply paid to your account as usual while you stayed at home and did something more interesting – which explains the popularity among office workers of ‘working from home’, and the increase in mysterious illnesses whose symptoms are fatigue and depression.

So anyway, I did have quite an interesting life – I had my daughter when I was young, travelled with her around the world, then I came back to London and started writing. Fortunately, I got published, but it’s quite a high-risk undertaking. Instead of becoming an author, I could simply have been another impoverished, poorly-educated single mother full of opinions and with only minimum-wage work to look forward to for the rest of my life. (Writing a novel actually brings in much less than the minimum wage unless you sell a million copies. But by way of compensation I have my name on an index card in the British Library and can go there to look myself up if I want to, like George Peppard at the New York Public Library in Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

I only recently considered how nice it might be to get work writing scripts, and then only because I had been commissioned to write one. Even more recently, I decided to try writing plays because I used to go to the theatre all the time and worried that I was ‘seeing’ and not ‘doing’: No-one ever had an obituary published in The Times because they were a keen theatre-goer. You have to fly solo over the Atlantic, invent the atom bomb or, failing that, at least write a couple of plays yourself.

That’s enough introspection. It’s a Bank Holiday and I shouldn’t be sitting around inside the house, writing and thinking, I should get out and do something interesting. I probably need a man and a drink – although not in that order; in my experience, it’s always better the other way around.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Sprinting and Ballet Dancing

I continually ponder the difference between writing scripts and writing novels. Both involve putting words on a sheet of paper but just as sprinting and ballet dancing both involve being good on your feet and yet are noticeably different from each other, so script-writing and writing fiction are quite dissimilar. I know, I know - this isn't news.

I hadn't posted on here for a while (except for the anti-Boris rants) because I have been writing fiction as well as working on a script. I realised this is because every thought I have that I might normally use to write something on here - every memory that surfaces, everything I notice that I could possibly describe, every joke, every idea about the way the world works - is relevant when I am writing fiction, and I note them down during the course of the day with the intention of putting them into the manuscript at some point. In other words I don't 'waste' them on the blog, I save them for what I'm working on.

I have only just noticed that I don't do that when I'm writing a script. (Possibly this is not very interesting to you but stick with me because I say something bitchy about another blogger in a bit - otherwise just skip to the next paragraph.) It seems to me to be very odd that I approach the two so differently. I've been trying to understand why over the past few days and can only say that when writing fiction, I seem to be writing about myself and my experiences (the main characters are usually versions of me), and when writing scripts I seem to be writing about 'other people' - and that one seems to be much easier to do than the other. Does that mean I've been doing one of them all wrong? And if so, which one? I have been paid to do both and been happy with work I've produced with both kinds of writing.

I read a lot of writers' blogs - they're honest, funny, entertaining, informative; sharing recent successes and current frustrations. However it's instructive to see what people reveal about themselves unintentionally. There is one blog in particular (there's no link from here, at the side or anywhere else) that I visit occasionally because the poor chap pontificates about what it means to be a writer despite an obvious lack of professional success. It seems from his blog that he hasn't yet sold a single script, which is no surprise as what he has to say on the subject is dull, crass and markedly unself-aware, with poor grammar and spelling. I dip into the blog every now and again because it's a helpful reminder that you should do your best not to present yourself as an arse on your own blog if you can possibly help it.

What I'm saying is I'm not sure what I may unintentionally be revealing by confessing my anxieties over my different approach to writing scripts and writing fiction and sincerely hope you don't come away with the idea that I have been doing it all wrong. I don't want your pity. Above all, I don't want you to think that I'm an arse.

On a final note, Far Away has a survey of writers' blogs here. She asks lots of interesting questions but does not address the issue of whether bloggers are ever worried that their readers might think them an arse.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

I'm a Celebrity...

The result of the London Mayoral election really surprised me. My daughter had warned that Boris might get in, explaining that there was a precedent for it: in Ali G - the Movie, the electorate vote for the fool. I hadn't seen the film and didn't take her warning seriously.

Perhaps democracy has been de-valued by the recent fashion for television programmes in which viewers get to vote for their favourites, and usually choose whoever is most likely to entertain. In the end, the vote for Mayor was no more serious than a vote on I'm a Celebrity - Biggins or Boris, who cares so long as it's funny?

I saw Brian Blessed on Have I Got News for You last night and that cheered me up. Is he to be our next mayor after Boris? Perhaps other parties will take heed and field gaffe-prone celebrities as candidates in future elections. Richard Madeley for Prime Minister, anyone? Mind you, anyone would be better than that unelected oaf Gordon Brown.

Years ago, a friend told me about friends of hers, young men in their twenties who used to go to Thailand for sex holidays, paying for underage prostitutes to be their 'girlfriends' for the week. Such activities still go on, of course. The thing that stuck with me about that particular story is that one of the lads mentioned having sex with a 14 year old girl one morning and, when his friend wandered into the bedroom, he let the friend 'have a go' on her - after all, she was paid for.

It's a revolting story, and I know that people who go on holidays and buy sex with child prostitutes have all sorts of bizarre justifications for it - that Thai women are somehow different from us and 'don't mind' and it 'helps the economy' and so on. In this case, the fact that he had paid for her services for the week seemed to somehow make it OK to pass the frightened young girl around.

Unfortunately whenever I think of how Tony Blair stepped down from power to let Gordon Brown 'have a go' at leading the country, I can't help thinking about that lad in the bedroom in Thailand letting his friend 'have a go' with the young girl he had paid to have sex with for the week. Although technically it seems the arrangement in both cases was legal, it doesn't make it right.

So now that people have had a chance to vote, Gordon Brown has got a whupping and we're stuck with Boris 'Biggins' Johnson for four years until Brian Blessed or whoever comes to power after that.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Saying I Love You

It turns out that saying 'I'm not sick of blogging' on a blog is the equivalent of saying 'I love you' in real life. As soon as you say it, you realise you're not so sure...

But enough about that. What a ghastly day for London. Can it be true that Boris Johnson is going to be our next Mayor? The results are not officially in but it looks that way. He seems like an intelligent, amusing man - the sort who would make an engaging dinner party companion. But I wouldn't trust him to go to the local shop for me to buy a pint of milk and a packet of ginger biscuits, never mind run London. Who on earth voted for him?

In the light of the recent distressing news from Austria, could he have garnered some kind of bizarre 'downstairs family' sympathy vote because of his cellar pallor? I can't think of any legitimate political reason why anyone would vote for someone who is so obviously such a fool, albeit an intelligent one.

It makes you wonder whether, in future, political parties will simply field amiable television personalities with no discernible policies as candidates, confident of getting votes from citizens who are determined to prove that democracy is wrong.