Saturday, 31 July 2010

London Bus Rebuke

Since people are often rude on London Transport - particularly women on buses who are travelling with their children and don't seem to care about setting them a bad example - I have decided to dedicate my life to finding the perfect rebuke.

It needs to be unanswerable and so unsettling that the person addressed will spend the rest of their life worrying about it, and will never be rude to anyone again. They may start saying 'excuse me', 'thank you', 'pardon me,' 'would you like this seat?' or 'no, you go first' in a non-sarcastic way. I have some distant hope that the mothers among them might even refrain from beating or berating their male offspring in public for long enough to prevent those boys from developing a life-long loathing of women that translates itself into misogeny and domestic violence in later life. But let's not try to reach Mars before we have landed on the Moon.

The perfect bus rebuke must not include any reference to the offender's appearance or demeanour and should not attempt to teach her a lesson in manners. Rather, it should make her question her existence and fear for her future. It should be a curse of some kind. I'll let you know when it has been developed fully and I will probably give up writing altogether and set up a business selling bus rebukes.

Yesterday I travelled on two buses (the 137 and the 355) and on three Tube lines (Northern Line, Victoria Line and Central Line). I won't bother you with the reasons for my journeys. After three stops on the 137, two drunks boarded the bus and refused to pay. There was a ticket inspector on the bus so even if the driver had been prepared to let them have a free ride, the inspector couldn't.

Normally I find drunks amusing but these two were hardened street drinkers disinclined to exhibit the spirit of the Algonquin. They were white and they racially abused the driver and inspector who were both black: 'what's a darkie doing working for London Transport?' and 'you're not the king of the buses, n...' There was a lot of shouting from the drunks and it was clear that the bus wasn't going anywhere, so most of us got off and got on to the bus behind.

Some stayed, of course - regular commuters take pride in determining the correct moment to abandon a bus or Tube and never being tricked into doing it too soon. I, for one, would never get off a Tube train and seek an alternative route to my destination when instructed to do so by a platform announcer. If we have been waiting there for 5 minutes or less, it's usually the cue for the driver to switch the engine back on and proceed to the destination advertised on the front of the train in a timely manner.

Anyway, as we trooped aboard the second bus, it was clear that the driver was very put out about this. He got on to some sort of central control on his radio. 'He's transferred them all on to my bus,' he said petulantly. Meanwhile the drunks were furious that their audience was depleting and sought to bar passengers from departing the first bus. When that didn't work, they got off and headed our way.

A frightened teenage girl with an Eastern European accent implored the driver of the second bus to close the doors. 'Don't let them on! Don't let them on!' We watched as one of the drunks - the elder - wrestled with a woman passenger in the street. She was a sturdy woman of about my age with blonde hair and bare arms. It was a poor match and she was unquestionably the winner - but I expect she'll have some bruises come up today.

As the younger drunk headed our way, slowly, determinedly and racistly, I wondered why British zombie films are so crap - neither frightening nor funny - when a director has only to study the street drinkers in London as they attempt to board the buses that pass by the hostels where they live. As for milking a scene for dramatic effect - well, why not study the bus drivers?

We watched the elder drunk fighting with the woman. We listened to his mate questioning why on earth London Transport was allowing 'darkies' to work for them. The driver of the second bus - who was black himself - showed no inclination to protect his passengers or show solidarity with the driver in front. 'He's transferred them all to my bus,' he said again to the control room on his radio. He just couldn't get over it. Maybe he thought we deserved to be punched by drunks for swapping buses mid-journey.

'Shut the door!' shouted the frightened teenager. 'Shut the door!' shouted another passenger, a big, black man, maybe mid-thirties. He held his hands up. 'No,' he said to the drunks, 'you're not getting on. Not this one. No way.' Still, the drunks approached. Still, the driver refused to act. A nurse in uniform looked at her watch for the umpeenth time since this drama started to unfold (approx 4 mins had elapsed - but that's quite a long time in London when you're trying to get somewhere). Passengers started to twist round in their seats to see if there was another bus behind. We were all of us weighing up whether we should abandon this one and go back to the bus in front. I didn't think I could do it. The abandonment of the same method of public transport twice in one day represents a serious loss of face, especially if there's no snow and no prospect of building a snowman later on at home and uploading the photos to the BBC website.

'Shut the door!' said the male passenger again. Though he commanded like a king, neither drunk nor doors nor driver obeyed.

It wasn't until the fingertips of the younger drunk were doggy-paddling the air no more than an inch and a half (3.8 cm) from the bus that the driver closed the doors and we lurched off, just behind the first bus which was now drunk-free and therefore continuing its journey as planned.

Two stops later we reached Clapham Common tube, where most of us got off. The driver of the second bus made an announcement: 'We'll have to wait here for THREE MINUTES to regulate the service. The way he emphasised the delay showed his disdain for the lot of us. 'There's a bus in front,' he continued. 'You might want to board that.'

Yay! Payback. But as bus rebukes go, I consider it pretty tame. He can use that one whenever he likes because I shan't be wanting to appropriate it.

On the 355 on the way home, a woman was rude to me, reminding me that there was no time to be lost in honing my brilliant bus rebuke. I also need to invent a device which will compel able-bodied people to give up their seats for the elderly and the infirm, and pregnant women. I'm thinking that an invisible death ray would not be too extreme. I would also use it on people who drop litter. I wouldn't use it on people who are rude to me on buses - I want those people to live remorsefully and fearfully for the rest of their days.

When I open my knitting shop and detective agency (after I have finished writing my masterpiece for the theatre, Smith's Bleakly), I will also sell death rays and bus rebukes - and perhaps old-fashioned sweets by the quarter pound. It will be called something like Smith's Emporium of Knitting, Curses, Mystery-Solving, Rebukes, Death Rays and Licorice Cuttings. I expect it will become a meeting-place for vigilantes. I don't mind about that, so long as they wear colourful costumes and don't go after suspected terrorists, only litter-droppers and parents whose child-rearing techniques don't exactly match my own.

I'm researching premises on the banks of The Thames. I wonder if I can set up shop in the Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. That way it could be called Smith's Royal Emporium, etc. The building's a bit modern, though - not a great place for me to hang a hand-painted sign to advertise my services. Perhaps I should apply for offices in or near The Globe Theatre at Bankside. I have read all of two of Dominic Dromgoole's books so I feel I know him well enough now to write a personal letter explaining my case.

Please get in touch if you know of suitable premises for the Emporium, if you want to book tickets for Smith's Bleakly or if you want to join the vigilante group. I'm thinking that this will be a leaderless collection of costumed anarchists prepared to show their allegiance to each other by dismantling Stonehenge, removing it from its current location on the A303 where its presence has been an irritant for the last 3,500 years. ('Radiate your love to those in need the world over...' it says on the homepage of the website. I don't think so.)

There will be other intiation tasks which might, for example, include helping to dig a pit and bury Jessie when the time comes and organising a moving remembrance service; all the dog shit haiku I have ever written will be transcribed onto tiny scraps of paper and put into boats made out of Jessie's old blankets lit with candles and dropped from Albert Bridge to float down the Thames. After which, of course, I'll have to be zapped with a death ray of my own invention because of the littering element. I would want the TV networks to be hacked so that the service could be streamed live on all channels, the way it is in Dark Angel, which is one of my favourite TV programmes. If the death ray hasn't been invented yet and I live on after Jessie dies, perhaps we could call our group the Dog Angels, as a tribute to both.

Membership of the group and hierarchy within it will be determined by such factors as the flamboyance of the costumes and a willingness to mind the shop for me while I'm out solving mysteries, as well as an enthusiasm to read and discuss poetry about dog shit.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Amazon UK Kindle Store

I was interested to read today's announcement from Amazon that you can pre-order the next generation Kindle for £109 or £149 for dispatch on 27th August direct from Amazon.co.uk.

According to The Bookseller, the UK Kindle book store will also be launched on 27th August. For now I'm buying my ebooks from Amazon.com. I have been reading them on Kindle for PC, which (along with all the other Kindle apps) is free to download.

I love ebooks - they're cheaper than paperbacks and they're available instantly. And if you need to wear reading glasses, you can change the font on the Kindle and the Kindle apps so you can do without them. It's the future, man.

Now, if we could just get rid of VAT on ebooks...

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The Dog Particle

Today was a two shit day.

Yesterday, without the aid of the Large Hadron Collider, Jessie found the dog particle. I came downstairs to find one medium-sized shit exploded into infinitessimally small pieces ('massive scalar elementary particles') and scattered all over her blanket. If this leads to the discovery of time travel, I'll let you know. I expect it will be on the news anyway.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Wylie vs Random House

Perhaps inevitably, following the announcement that literary agent Andrew Wylie will publish ebook editions of his clients' backlists exclusively through Amazon for two years, you can now follow 'EvilWylie' and 'GoodRandomHouse' as they bicker about it on Twitter.

My favourite comments were on a forum for readers of ebooks which is also frequented by indie authors -mostly struggling writers who have taken the self-publishing route, though there are also published authors who are putting their backlists on Amazon to try to make a few quid from their out of print books.

One forum member wanted to know why Wylie's clients didn't just go ahead and put their own books up on Amazon in return for 70% of net receipts in the US and 35% elsewhere (which is the deal Amazon is offering to anyone who publishes a book for the kindle, so long as it is priced between $2.99 and $9.99, is not DRM-protected, offers text-to-speech facilities and is not listed at a lower price elsewhere). I love to think of Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis swapping tips about how to Photoshop ebook covers for their backlist with the intention of doing Wylie 'the Jackal' out of his 10%.

Another forum member (a writer) was puzzled by all this talk of authors' estates. 'I don't suppose they have estates. They probably just live hand-to-mouth like the rest of us.'

Meanwhile here is a lovely link to John Gall, VP & Art Director for Vintage and Anchor books, talking (back in 2008) on a Barnes & Noble video about how he comes up with the designs for authors' books. Salman and Martin, take note. Thanks to Ron Canepa for the link.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Eccentricity and Madness or Drunkenness

Last night I saw The New Factory of the Eccentric Actor's To Moscow... To Moscow... which was a life of Chekhov enacted by more than 40 actors and musicians at The Conway Hall. It was a promenade performance so we could sit, stand or lie where we wanted while the action took place around us. The company's unusual and inclusive brand of theatre made for a very enjoyable evening - we were even offered a shot of vodka and some blinis during the interval. I'll definitely be going along to whatever they do next.

The night before that I went with Lauren to see The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Young Vic. The acting was brilliant but I found it impossible to make up my mind about Martin McDonagh's play because there was a mentally disturbed (or possibly very drunk) woman in the audience who wouldn't allow the rest of us to concentrate on McDonagh's lines or the actors' performances. Instead, we had to be content with reacting to her reactions to them. She put out her tongue at the people around her, she clapped and jeered at almost every line - she was especially delighted when the daughter (Susan Lynch) tormented her elderly mother (Rosaleen Linehan) and she joined in, shouting 'Be quiet!' and 'You old witch!'. And then she disrupted David Ganly's monologue at the beginning of the second half which must have been especially galling for him as, during a trip to the ladies' toilet afterwards, Lauren established that his mother-in-law (a well-known actress herself) was in to see the show.

It's not the first time that I have been to the theatre and formed a stronger opinion about an audience member than I have about the play. Oddly enough, the last time was at the Young Vic, too. Never mind. Ultz's set was great: Lauren worked on it. One of her jobs was to make the cooker look dirty. Though she denied that she had drawn inspiration from the state of my kitchen, I must admit that I went over the surfaces with a J-cloth and the anti-bacterial spray when I got home. So it wasn't a totally wasted night.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind)

I love this. Thanks to Phil Jupitus for the link:



Ymerodraeth means Empire in Welsh.
The director, M J Delaney, is a 24 year old woman.

Perfect English Summer's Evening

Last night I went to the launch of Still Life, the new anthology of work from Write to Life, the group of exiled writers at The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture where I have been volunteering as a mentor for the last three years.

The sun shone as it always seems to do at these events and we had home-made food from around the world (I made a passion fruit cake), as well as readings and songs. The event was held in the garden at the Medical Foundation's London headquarters and was attended by representatives from The Economist and Random House (both corporate donors whose staff volunteer for the charity) as well as some of the private donors who support the charity's work. I understand that The Medical Foundation is unusual among large charities in the UK in that it is funded mostly by private individuals - I believe that the figure is something like 70%.

From there I went to a screening of the short film Origin by Danny Stack. Danny has a useful screenwriting blog here and he is one of the organisers of the Red Planet Prize. He comes into the category of 'people I love who I know through blogging.' I know you won't understand if you don't have a blog so don't worry about it. The film also features Alex Avery, a friend who I first met through cricket. He plays for an actors' team that another friend of mine plays for, and as you can imagine it's quite a stirring sight when they all walk onto the pitch in their whites, after which it's perfectly acceptable to turn away and ignore the 'action' to talk about something else until tea is served, so it's one of the few sports that I don't mind watching.

So yesterday was a perfect English summer's evening - a party in a garden hosted by writers who have endured unimaginable suffering, but who have found safety and a welcome here through a charity funded by individuals who are strangers to them and yet care enough about their welfare to make regular donations (on top of taxes) to help towards their rehabilitation. Then a party at Working Title to celebrate the launch of the first film by a writer/director who has invested an enormous amount of time and his own money to achieve his dream, and who was helped by a cast and crew who donated their time and worked for no other reward except creative satisfaction. And it was sunny and we had cake and talked about cricket.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Clapham Books

The winners of the competition to win a copy of Alison Wonderland or Being Light over at Love Clapham will be announced tomorrow, Friday 16th July.

If you haven't won a copy, they're available from local book shop Clapham Books on Clapham High Street. I popped in earlier today - it's a lovely place. When I bought a couple of books for a last-minute birthday present last time I was in, they actually wrapped the books for me and folded the left-over paper for me to take home. However I do sometimes wonder if it's difficult to keep order without a 'no more than two local authors in the shop at a time' rule, as the area is rife with them. Will Self, Toby Litt and Stella Duffy are among those who can be found perusing the books in the Clapham Books shop.

Meanwhile Alison Wonderland is featured over at The Indie Spotlight today if you want more background on my book.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Granta 111: La crotte te derange?

Yesterday I went to the launch of Granta 111 at the British Library. Elizabeth McCracken, Richard Russo, A L Kennedy and Salman Rushdie read from their work and then took part in a discussion led by John Freeman, the new American editor of Granta.

Though it ought to have been a treat to spend an evening in the company of such charming, talented writers, actually it felt like being whacked with a cement sack of reminders about the smallness of my literary achievements. No matter how many years I take off my wikipedia age, I will not make Granta's next list of best young authors under 40.

On the way home on the Tube, in between reading a Muriel Spark and wondering whether it would be self-indulgent to cry because my life seemed so insignificant, three things happened to distract me from my self pity.

First, as I got on at King's Cross I noticed two African boys sitting across the carriage from me, each with a large suitcase. Sitting between them was a woman who I took to be their mother. The boys looked excited, just like any other visitors to London of their age, which I would have put at about 12 and 14 - they were small compared to English boys but from their faces they didn't look like children. I knew they were from a French-speaking country because I heard one of the boys say 'manger'. At Oxford Circus or Green Park, the woman got off, abruptly. The boys didn't look back at her or wave, though she glanced in through the window at them as she walked along the platform. From the way she took leave of them, I realised she hadn't been the boys' mother - and that anyway there had been no family resemblance.

The boys didn't close the gap between themselves by moving up a seat so they could sit together, they didn't giggle or chatter as kids usually do when an adult leaves their company. Now that they were alone they seemed subdued. I wondered if I ought to intervene. Had they been abandoned by this woman in a foreign country? And if so, should I invite them to stay at my house with me? By the time we reached Victoria I still hadn't formulated a suitably friendly opening question in their native language - I had been toying with 'La crotte te derange?'. Victoria was where they got off.

The empty seat opposite me was taken by a black woman wearing a black suit and a black fascinator which, instead of looking jaunty or ridiculous, looked rather fetching. Though I habitally wear black because it's 'slimming', it occurred to me that I haven't often seen a black woman wearing all black clothes; there is usually some splash of colour. My travel companion didn't seem to notice me or mind me staring at her so I kept on doing it. She gently pressed the forefinger of her left hand under her left eyelid several times. If I suspect hayfever, I usually offer Benadryl, even to strangers - but then I saw that she was trying to stop herself from crying, and I knew that the reason she was wearing black was because she had been to a funeral.

I looked away from her and out onto the platform where I saw a middle-aged white woman in a flowery dress walking slowly with a white stick held out in front of her. I spend a lot of time ranking potential disabilities in order of how disastrous their effects might be on my life - I expect you're the same. I fear blindness the most.

Yesterday was a two shit day.

To Moscow... To Moscow...

Theatre company The New Factor of the Eccentric Actor are staging free promenade performances of the life of Anton Chekhov at Conway Hall in London, 21st-24th July. The shows are two hours long and as these are promenade performances, there are no seats for the audience.

There is a cast of 40, and musicians. And it's free!

Saturday, 10 July 2010

The Memory Man - Another Lovely Review

There's another lovely review for The Memory Man, this time from Natasha Tripney at Interval Drinks.

Helen Smith's The Memory Man... had an intriguing symmetry, was full of lovely lines and details and managed to remind me of many things that I've read and seen and enjoyed while also having its own distinctive voice.

Thanks again to the director, Gordon Murray, and to the cast, Suzanna Hamilton, Tricia Kelly, Gary Merry and Richard Trinder, for making this possible.

Perfect Saturday

Doughnut peaches and the new issue of Granta magazine.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Edinburgh Fringe Festival - View From the Stalls

I'm not going up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year but it's always worth reading the reviews and recommendations from View From the Stalls if you are going.

Here are their 'first picks' after looking through the programme for this year.

Kindle Author Q&A

I have just done a Q&A with writer/director David Wisehart over on the new Kindle Author blog.

Though David was the one interviewing me, I really ought to return the favour some time - after all, he is a screenwriter, the author of a play in verse, and producer of James Cameron's Titanic Explorer, three Simpsons video games, and an Anastasia computer game starring Meg Ryan for Fox Interactive.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Ghost Light, Joseph O'Connor

Last night I went to a reading by Joseph O'Connor for the launch of his new book, Ghost Light. I have been reading his work since Cowboys and Indians. He found international fame when Star of the Sea was selected for Richard and Judy's Book Club a few years ago. I would also recommend Desperadoes and The Salesman - but they're all good. If you haven't read any of his work then I would put him with Peter Carey - a gifted writer whose intelligent, funny, moving books on a wide range of subjects have something to say about what it means to be Irish (in Peter Carey's case, Australian), and beyond that what it means to be a human being, by drawing on personal experience and shared history to create literary masterpieces.

Last night's event was on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall so even before Suzi Feay introduced Joseph O'Connor, it seemed that it might be enough to sit and enjoy the blissfully beautiful view of the London Eye slowly turning and, behind that on the other side of the river, Big Ben catching the last of the summer sunlight.

I generally avoid talks by authors for fear that they will turn out to be shy, spiteful, awkward or pompous. The only other time I have made the pilgrimage was for Peter Carey at the National a few years ago, as I calculated that there was nothing he could possibly say that could put me off him, and even if he succeeded, I had read enough of his books up until that point that it wouldn't matter. Fortunately Peter Carey was charming and so, too, was Joseph O'Connor - as entertaining a storyteller in person as he is on the page. He has that talent (is it only Irish people who can do this?) of talking lyrically for several minutes at a time while keeping to the point, never being a bore, and discussing literature as if it's alive and relevant, not a dead thing.

My ticket was arranged by Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann, who is Joseph O'Connor's agent. In a piece of Twitter serendipity, I was sitting at my computer 'writing' when I happened to glance at Twitter and saw that Carole had a spare ticket and was willing to give it away. I had never met her before, though I have met her colleague Julian Friedmann a few times at various screenwriting events. It turns out that Carole gave my agent her start in publishing many years ago, though it seems scarcely credible that it could have been in the 1970s, as neither of them look old enough.

Last night was whatever is the opposite of a three shit day because in the space of a couple of hours at the South Bank I met Carole, my neighbour Paul from across the road who was off to see Tosca at the ENO, a picture editor from the Sunday Times whom I first met years ago at the Port Eliot Literary Festival at a strange and wonderful dinner in the main house, and of course Joseph O'Connor, who signed a copy of his book for me. I look forward to reading it. Thanks to Carole for the ticket.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Love Clapham

There's a lovely post on Love Clapham about my books. The site is also giving away one copy each of Alison Wonderland and Being Light.

Monday, 5 July 2010

A Three Shit Day

It's my dream to be a private detective - but without ever having to leave the house. There isn't much I'd like to achieve that could provoke me into leaving the house, actually. But if I'm to be a detective at home then the mysteries will have to find their way to me. That's where Jessie comes in - both as a side-kick and as provider of material for me to practice my detective skills on.

Each morning, since she has got too old to bother with appearances, she has started to leave me a series of 'clues' on her blanket - mashed, squashed, smeared and, occasionally, enigmatically whole and still warm. According to the rules of our game, I first have to try to decipher them, then throw them away. I also provide a world-weary first person narrative:

'Today was a three shit day.'

It's great fun. Unfortunately I don't know what it all means. I may have to start keeping records to try to determine whether these clues relate to past events or whether they foretell the future.

Working in the garden

I'm working in the garden today

Friday, 2 July 2010

Assassins at The Union Theatre

I saw Michael Strassen's production of Sondheim's Assassins at The Union Theatre last night. It's another brilliant show (MS also did Company at the same venue last year) with wonderful performances from an excellent cast, and there's music from an onstage band under the direction of MD Michael Bradley.

It's only £15, it's on until 24th July. Some nights are already sold out and both Lyn Gardner from The Guardian and Fiona Mountford from The Standard were in last night, so tickets are likely to sell out even faster once the reviews are out.

Cast includes Glyn Kerslake, Nick Holder and Leigh McDonald.

Five star review from The West End Whingers here.