you are tied to my heart with a rope, by Mendez Bolivar

 

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Imaginary Boyfriends. From the ’50s.

mendezMendez Bolivar is a fictional Beat Poet who I invented as part of a short story.  This is his fictional biography, as taken from a fictional book of his poetry which was a key item in the story.  Stories within stories within stories are fun.  It’s also fun to create characters who feel real. None of what follows is true.  The picture is a stock photo. Nevertheless Mendez feels entirely real to me.  I have quite the crush on him.

Whilst firmly established in the Latin American poetic tradition alongside poets such as Pablo Neruda and Juan Gelman, Mendez Bolivar is distinguished by his involvement in the US beat scene.

After growing up as an only child in Buenos Aires in the care of a “Tia” or aunt, (most likely no relation), he traveled alone to America in 1944, via Mexico, at the age of 16.  He found work as part of The Bracero Program which for a time welcomed Latin American immigrants to join the US War effort.

In 1949 his studies at The Reed College in San Francisco brought him into contact with Zen enthusiasts and beat poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg.  They, with others would go on to found Beatitude magazine to which Bolivar became a prolific contributor. He spoke little in public, appearing at live events only to hide in the shadows.  This reticence, perhaps in contrast to the more flamboyant characters on the San Francisco scene, and combined with his documented good looks served to make him irresistible to both sexes.  His most famous (and scandalous) conquest was the wealthy socialite and painter Hester Bettencourt.

His spoken English never matched the precision of his written word and it was frequently assumed that he was embarrassed by his thick accent. In the preface to Manzana however, Bolivar describes himself as merely “socially awkward, bordering on antisocial.” He relates an episode when he was persuaded by Snyder to experiment with LSD in an effort to “loosen him up.”  The experience was not successful and led to his subsequent criticism of artists who used mind altering substances as “weak.”  This served to ostracise him from many of his contemporaries, although the poem The Men suggests he had never felt accepted by the movement, who saw him merely an exotic novelty.

His style was that of the dispossessed outsider; existential questionings frequently took the form of gentle love poems; their accessibility undeniably a key factor in his growing following. Whilst he experimented with surreal and absurdist forms it is for these earlier works, collected in this volume, for which he is best known.

In later years, following his increasing involvement in the Black Arts Movement, Bolivar publicly criticised the adoption of Buddhism and Zen philosophies by the campus students and poets describing it as “juvenile”; this led to public spats with Ginsberg who countered that Bolivar’s poetic themes were “without exception infantile” and the poet was “anal retentive.”  Shortly afterwards Bolivar reverted to writing in Spanish, a decision he explained in New Yorker in 1970, in his last interview.

“As a young man, especially surrounded by these articulate American students my tongue felt like an obstacle.  The older I become its absence becomes the obstacle.  You could say perhaps, you see how it is, when everything is not.”

The success of these poems did not match his earlier work although still considered of high cultural importance.  The full archive of manuscripts and many of Bolivar’s personal effects are held by the Latin American Institute at Columbia University, following Bolivar’s bequest prior to his return to Argentina in 1971.  He intended to lend support to those resisting the encroaching Dirty War. Following the junta in 1972, like thousands of intellectual and liberal-thinkers, Mendez Bolivar became one of the disappeared. Despite the efforts over the next twenty years of many famous and influential aficionados, including Jorge Borges, and Alfonso García Robles, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace prize, no trace of Mendez Bolivar has ever been found.

His legacy continues to resonate; in the handwritten manuscript of Allen Ginsberg’s last poem Thing’s I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias) (1997), where the poet lists regrets, the words “Nor find Bolivar in literary Argentina,” can be discerned.

Looking forward…

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Library Shelves 2011“, an art installation by Jan Kilcoyne at The Eagle Gallery, Luton.

2016 started with drama.  Not the fun kind. My youngest son came out in shingles the same day as a 600 pound car bill arrived.  That was difficult to swerve. But hey.  We dance on.

A very long update on divers projects follows, which may be of limited interest to the passing reader, but the start of a new year is an opportunity to take stock.  So I’m taking stock. Bisto ahoy.

Radio Writing

Inevitably this sucks up most of my creative energy but hey, it pays the bills and we have fun. Last year I wrote all sorts for Fun Kids, from Physics to Pathology and our series about WW1 for the Heritage Lottery Fund.

We’ve already given some thought to the next series of Through a Child’s Eyes and last week I took a trip to Luton’s Wardown Park Museum to learn about the Home Counties’ involvement in Gallipoli – something perhaps we can work into the next installment.

There’s also a little chapter book coming soon, about Hallux & Nanobot, two of our favourite Fun Kids characters.  I wrote it ages ago, to be an e-book download for our young listeners, and it will (no really) – just as soon as we can figure out the stupid aggregation software which is making me want to poke my eyes out with pens.

The current project taking up the lion’s share of brain is a series for The National Gallery, introducing children to famous paintings and encouraging them to use their imaginations when viewing art. I was lucky enough to have a private tour of the Gallery with one of the curators, and have been translating all my notes of wonder into some fun educational pieces which will be broadcast on Fun Kids in the Spring.

Co-Working Space

This time last year I had just moved into my new shared office space and today I’ll be renewing the lease with Mel – Sally’s moving on which is a pity as I really enjoyed our chats and we had such a good laugh, but the set-up was always meant to be flexible.  Mel and I may carry on as a twosome or perhaps we’ll offer the free desk to someone else – let me know if you’re interested in taking it.  Such a beautiful space in a great creative environment. Reasonable terms. Plenty of hot beverage options.

The Challah Tin

My novel manuscript has been stripped down to a third of its size and is being reworked.  Dear God it is a slow process. The second draft is possibly similar to the difficult second album – after the euphoria of creating a complete piece comes the sinking realisation that you have to start all over again.

I am preparing another section for my next Writer’s Group meet in February and it will be terrifying, ahem I mean interesting to get more feedback.

Short Stories

I had resolved to write more of these in 2015 and I did write a few, achieving runner-up status two times in the Faber Quick Fic comp.  Bigger wins were elusive and the story below, “Cups” was a flash/short that didn’t get anywhere.  I can’t be bothered to enter it any more so I thought I’d just be lazy and put it up here. Entering comps is time-consuming.

Room 204

It’s been great to have the support and feedback of the cohort and the group energy is infectious.   I had another 121 with Jonathan Davidson at the end of last year when I talked about some of the frustrations of the previous few months.  One of the things I was able to talk about was a screenwriter’s networking event which was, essentially a scam in which I’d become enmeshed- something that left me feeling stupid and vulnerable.  To say it has knocked my confidence with pitching my screenplays is an understatement.

Collaboration

Luke and I met frequently across the year and spent time playing with our different projects, both having a try at novelising our existing scripts. Luke brought out his beautiful e-book and I was proud to write the foreword for it.  It’s a great collection and I urge you to buy it.

Whilst good fun, our novelisation experiments resulted in a few dead ends and Luke noted that I had reached some universal record for mentions of a dead dog.  Not my finest prose but I was inhabiting the mind of a Texan psychopath who just killed a dog and he really was thinking about that dead dog a lot.

Rubery International Book Award

I’m so very excited to be a Reader for the prize this year, a nice little job sifting entries for the judges.  I think that all kicks off in a month or two and I even get paid for reading. I am looking forward to getting stuck into the entries, and enjoying a fresh challenge.

Definitely more fun, as challenges go than coping with shingles and a car bill.

 

Cups.

cups“For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me; thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; – my cup runneth over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever: Psalm 23.”

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not about to stand here and tell you that I’m a Christian, and not just because I am a coward.  Which I am.  Coward? Yes, tick, sign me up.  Christian?  No.  Those words were on my grandmother’s back door is all.  How that got through the transport I’ll never know but I guess if she could get her six grandkids off a shitty planet on the last shuttle out, then smuggling a crappy old laminated prayer wouldn’t have presented Oma with much of  challenge.

She said it was a comfort, that Psalm; and it was to me too, but not in the same way. I always remember the lines “my cup runneth over.”  It sounds so joyful but it isn’t.  It really isn’t. When your heart is too full it hurts doesn’t it?  Want too much or feel too much and it will rise up into your throat and choke you to death. Contemplating overflowing cups makes me certain that joy doesn’t really exist.  It’s imaginary as our dreams of home.  And that’s comforting because realists live longer on Titan.

I was thinking about these words because there was this new guy at the factory and he wasn’t just overflowing into the room – he exploded.  Like a firework let off in a garage.  A garage with a real thin metal door so every time it collides it makes the room reverberate and sends everyone screaming covering their ears and eyes.  But in a good way I guess.  He made me smile a lot.

I watched him put on a show, and then another.  Next day same thing.  He drew quite the crowd and I pushed to the front, drinking him in but never quite joining the game.  I’m not technically allowed in that room you see. Even watching was making me nervous.

At times his movements were so frenetic he became exhausted.  He’d sit quietly for a while but it always seemed like the fuse was lighting itself again.  Like those novelty candles.  You’d think they’d gone out but the spark would be flickering back on and then the joke was on us, and he’d goad us to join in, harder and faster each time.  I didn’t know what to think but I bought him a beer one time.

“I can’t stop.  Even if I wanted,” he admitted, “Which I don’t” he added, looking at me directly.  “Why don’t you join in?”

So I told him about Oma’s prayer.

Now normally telling a stranger about some religious thing you still have in your house might be reckless.  No, scrub that.  It’s more than reckless.  They’d come and separate you from the things you love, peeling hooked fingers apart, slamming possessions in boxes and clawing the core out of all your days before they incarcerate you – with no hope of release.   Well, they would say, you chose this – you chose it.  This is what you wanted right?  You were prepared to risk this were you not?  Seen it too many times.

So I tried to explain, “the line I like the best is my cup runneth over;  it’s about joy see? Or it’s meant to be.  That’s what everyone thinks.  But if you let yourself feel too much  it is a waste.”

He looks at me and gets it but laughs.

“Don’t you think that’s kind of comforting?”

“So what?  I should pour less in?  Not remotely comforting no.”

The kid swigs his beer and looks at me with contempt.  Maybe he doesn’t get it.  I try again.

“Look High IQ.  Being an adult on this crappy promentary requires almost superhuman levels of self-control and I know you will learn it.  You’ve told everyone how smart you are.”

“You are stupid and silly miss.”

“I’m not stupid or silly you little bastard.”

“Yes you are.  You haven’t thought it through at all.  You’ve fitted that horrible verse to your horrible life to make yourself feel better.”

I think of Oma and how safe she kept us and want to punch him.  I grab his arm as he stands to leave, “All I can think of is the stories of prisoners forced to drink until they burst – if it’s runnething overing then….. stop pouring the damn stuff in.”

“No!” He shouts.

“Yes!  So what’s your solution then, Genius?”

“Get a bigger cup.” He shrugs.

He blows his fingers in a kiss to me and is out the open door.  Bam. Gone in a gunpowder moment.

Why I Love Cringe Comedies.

winceYears ago my other half took me to see the first Harry Potter movie.  It wasn’t until we arrived at the cinema that he said actually Harry Potter sold out so he’d opted for us to see Black Hawk Down instead.  Consequently I was treated to a two-hour panic attack and spent the duration of the movie cursing, with my eyes closed, fingers wedged in my ears so I couldn’t see or hear the violence.

This was not unlike an incident a few years later, involving the Pepsi Max “Big One” Rollercoaster at Blackpool, (LOOK at it for Christ’s sake – I mean LOOK at it!) where I stupidly agreed to go on the ride despite being terrified by moderately high escalators and shunning dodgems because they make my glasses fall off.  It was a hen-do holiday with a crowd I didn’t know so well, so it is likely that drunkenness politeness took over where sanity should have intervened.

The Big One incident resulted in my neck being in spasms of pain for two clear weeks, not from the ride itself, but from my own efforts to will my neck to ingest my own head past my eyeballs, lest I see the awful awful heights to which I was being thrown.  I detest Pepsi to this day, and looking at a bottle of it makes me feel vertiginous.

I tell you this to show how I’m a gentle soul. I don’t like violence.  Or plummeting.  I prefer my entertainment NOT to be visceral.  I had a very interesting conversation a few months back with a client from the US. Our meeting was at a gallery and we were discussing art, as you do; he was of the opinion that pieces which prompted a pure visceral reaction were in fact lazy; relying on instincts of disgust or fear to do the work.  I think he had a point.

There is however an area where my stomach is strong.  Stronger than many.

Yeah.

I am BRILLIANT and I mean BRILLIANT at watching cringe comedies.

You know, the nasty comedies where terrible things happen to or at the hands of terrible people?  My eyes are wide open, my smile hungry.  I soak them up where weaker men wince and skip out of the room squeaking, “HOW CAN YOU WATCH THIS?  IT IS EXCRUTIATING.”

I love an unloveable antihero.  I adore a vile antagonist.  I revel in social cues being missed, or subverted and embarrassment descending, especially when the characters are completely oblivious, or when they just don’t give a fuckity bye.  I love scripts full of spite where the dialogue painfully exposes personal shortcomings or the fragility of social constructs.

And the reason?  It’s not that I love spitefulness or cruelty or stupidity.  I am not a psychopath or any kind of social sadist (although I do take that mild pleasure when someone overtakes you then gets stuck at the traffic lights in front of you – that’s normal right?).

I think it is because they are cerebral as opposed to visceral. Through the use of humour, black comedies permit us to acknowledge the fact that bad behaviour, or merely being a bit of an idiot is part of our human condition. As Steve Coogan sagely opined as the character of Tommy Saxondale, “We’re all a bit of a dick, nothing to be afraid of.”  That’s a minor aspect however.  The characters are not people to whom we wish to aspire.  Twats abound in life – this is fact.  Cringe comedies perhaps offer us the chance to stare at these grotesques, then feel reassured and safe in our abhorrence.

So at this time of love, light and goodwill to all men, (not to mention TV countdowns) here’s a bracing run down of five of the best vintage cringe comedies from UK TV.  N.B. these clips contain bad language and may be offensive or upsetting – and none are “safe for work” except, appropriately the one about work – The Office. 

5. Alan Partridge

Fictitious TV and radio presenter who is obliviously gauche and rude to guests, colleagues, members of the public, girlfriends, children etc.  He also suffers from eczema which results in his pillow resembling a flapjack and has a “rather whiffy” skin complaint on his feet.  What’s not to like?

Best Quote:  “DAN DAN DAN DAN.”

4. The Office

The series which showcases the exquisite ongoing humiliation suffusing the world of work and the endless tension of having to maintain professionalism whilst accepting petty authority from petty authoritarians.  Child-like Brent’s attention-seeking is enabled by this parched dynamic.

BEST QUOTE: “I’ve sort of fused Flashdance with MC Hammer shit.”

3. Peep Show

A weird friendship characterised by inner dialogues, unpleasant behaviour and lying. Tawdry disappointment infuses every scene.  Pure extentialism.  In this pivotal scene they must conceal the remains of a dog which Jeremy accidentally killed.  It’s pretty damn cringy.

BEST QUOTE: “Why did I put her in the bag?  I should have thrown her like a discus.”

2. Nighty Night

This insane TV series followed Jill; essentially she’s a psychopath who is intent on stealing her neighbour’s husband and having his baby. Julia Davis at her beautiful nasty best.  In this clip she tries to artificially inseminate herself by gatecrashing Don’s vasectomy.

BEST QUOTE: “Do you want a bit of Mash with that Jill?”

1. The Thick of It

Textbook satirical black comedy.  So accurate it may as well be a documentary.  And Malcolm Tucker.  He’s Horrible.  Brilliantly horrible.  Too many insults from which to choose so have a selection.

BEST QUOTE: “Who was it that did your media training, Myra Hindley? It’s terrible! All these hands all over the place. You were like a sweaty octopus trying to unhook a bra. It was like watching John Leslie at work.”

 

And on that happy note, I shall wish you a great 2016 and say F*kity Bye for now!

Instagram a pack of lies? You should see my Little Black Book from 1989.

littleblackbookEssena O’Neill, a teen online celebrity has this month quit Instagram saying that social media is not real life.  I think it isn’t uncommon for young people, (or old ones) to use fantasies to gain or mould a sense of self. We should chill out about this, and also trust teenagers to navigate their worlds.

I was 14 in 1989 and I didn’t have Instagram.  I did, however, own a Little Black Address Book.  Maybe I bought it from WH Smiths, from the display of stiff glossy address books, probably tempted by the skinny pencil and ribbon tucked inside the tiny spine. You tend to spend a lot of time in WH Smiths when you’re 14 and the internet doesn’t exist.  They didn’t even need to tout the discount chocolate back then.  You’d just go in and buy books, magazines and stationery. Maybe the Little Black Book came free with More, the slutty racy teen magazine of choice, in 1989.  That’s certainly possible.

It was such an exciting and, let’s be honest erotic item, this Little Black Book; just the idea of it!  A tiny glossy oracle, to be crammed with the phone numbers and addresses of all my friends, and more importantly, all the boys I knew. I am not sure if grown women then actually had Little Black Books or if it was a myth from films but it felt like the passport to popularity; reassuring evidence of my status and my identity.

After putting in my own address and phone number, and my Nan’s, my Aunty’s, and my German penpal’s (female), I realised with looming sadness that it was nothing but a passport into Awkward and evidence of my Lack of Friends.  I didn’t even really like my German penpal because she wrote in loopy cursive which was difficult to read.  The only boy whose address I actually knew was my brother, and he didn’t count because he was six.  I included him anyway.

So I did what any resourceful 14 year old would do and I went through the BT Phone Book and took stab at guessing the contact details for all the boys in my school to whom I harboured crushes.  I could work out their rough location in Stevenage based on the direction they walked to school coupled with surreptitious glances at the school register.

I did quite well at this early version of stalking, or at least I think I did, safe in the knowledge that these details would never ever be tested in the real world.  I added in some celebrity names too; Jason Bateman, Corey Feldman, Michael J Fox and the like, just to pad things out a bit.  My Little Black Book was, in the end, fat and full and hidden in my bedside cabinet where no one else would ever ever see it. Ever.

This brave work of fiction was the extent of social media for a 14 year old in 1989.  For years I thought it was a bit pitiful but now I see it in a new light. It was a comforting item at the time.

It isn’t uncommon for young people, (or old ones) to use fantasies to gain, or mould a sense of self. Many of these fantasies will be played out in public.  Concerns about the narcissistic “selfie generation” may gather pace but it also isn’t uncommon for adults to get their pants up their arse about such things. Mikhail Bakunin in 1838 wrote “Noise, empty chatter–this is the only result of the awful, senseless anarchy of minds which constitutes the main illness of our new generation – a generation that is abstract, illusory, and foreign to any reality.”

Instagram and Twitter are – let’s be clear – subject to a degree of distasteful commercialism. And, with their fluid real-life audience of millions, fantasy and reality can become turbo-charged.  Make-believe can become snared in heady affirmation, or hurtful mockery and it must become difficult for teenagers to figure out who the hell they are.

But conceptually these things are nothing new. Teenagers today will navigate their worlds, as we did, however vertiginous they may appear to a generation past.

And that Little Black Book?  I am not sure exactly where it ended up, the little work of fiction which defined me for a while (even if only to myself).  It was replaced by other constructs over the years, (most of which are still hidden in a drawer).  But here I am now, twenty five years on, pulling it out and talking about it on the internet. Sharing ourselves is nothing new and sharing constructs is nothing new either.

The Last Radio Kid.

Radio-On-Air-Large-HomeAn excerpt from some radio reminiscences; born in 1974 I was part of the last generation to grow up without a mobile phone or internet.  Radio was particularly important to us, and still is.

Actually working in radio stations as I went on to do in the 90s was frequently fun.  This was local radio: a strange world of larger-than-life DJs, magnified in their own self-importance by the adoration of the audiences.

The star turns often had seaside postcard showbizzy names left over from the 50s and 60s. Danny Dazmore was one DJ I remember particularly well.  He had been a Butlins Redcoat and was probably quite dishy as a younger man.  Now past sixty it was all wearing a bit thin but he still had a massive following; a bevy of ageing female fans would often loiter in reception to catch a glimpse of him. His real name he told me was Reginald Oakes. I liked Danny a great deal; he might have been a relic but he had a gift for telling an anecdote and was gentlemanly and generous.

My favourite anecdote was from his Butlins days about a club singer who was too big for his boots. Danny was the compere for the show, but after each obsequious introduction would try to distract the singer on stage in a series of outrageous ways.  His favoured method was by mooning from the wings with a “W” drawn in marker pen on each buttock.  This particular singer’s specialty was The Searchers’ Wow Wow Baby and Danny in the wings would bend over every time the lyric came up, his bum displaying the word.  It’s a story Danny would mime, cigar in mouth, although he kept his trousers up in the telling.

Phone-ins were another source of enormous fun for me in my early career.

Hard-core listeners to radio are often, to be frank, a little bit odd.  The boundaries of reality are rendered somewhat fluid when you have a disembodied voice urging you to get in touch. Now!  Phonelines are free!  The whole transaction is necessarily weird and this is something to which most radio stations are sensitive.  Generally due to the number of security doors between studio and street it rarely comes to anything more than some extremely odd mail.  As a more general happy consequence, regular super keen listeners can be relied upon to be encouraged to participate/take the bait for most phone-in topics and thus ensure a lively amount of programming.

The best fun, however was always when there were insufficient callers to a show and members of staff had to fake being members of the public.

Gifted with an ability to lie at will and a keen ambition to progress I was often enlisted to help by pretending to be a phone-in caller.   I was pretty young; my experience of life was fairly narrow but my imagination already flying ahead of me.

“We’re doing pregnancy cravings Nic – anything you like… three.. two… one…”

“Well of course no one believes me but I really did like fish and ice cream.”

“Actual fish?”

“Yes.  Cod with vanilla ice cream, it had to be the own brand one from Somerfield though.  Ice Cream I mean.”

Another time it was winter memories of Bristol.  At the time I hadn’t set foot in the city so I asked the DJ for a bit of help.

“What’s a big hill in Bristol?”

“I dunno… St Michaels Hill?… ok three.. two…  one…”

“We used to love sliding down St Michaels Hill on tea trays.  Dad was too stingy to buy us sleds.”

I don’t think I’d ever actually seen someone using a tea tray as a sled in fact but it sounded plausible enough.  I’d chat away to the random presenter about my imaginary dad and his imaginary tea trays sliding down a hill I’d never seen, grasping an imaginary childhood out of the air.  The stories, oddly, felt like they’d been there all the time and I could see how psychics and mediums believed their own hype.  My imagination which would become a leaping tiger was already a fairly lively cat and the lines between reality and imagination tended to happily blur.  My conjurings came to an abrupt end a couple of years later however and it was all thanks to a pensioner called Elsie.

Things became a little more complicated when it came to a love and relationship show  I wasn’t particularly coy and certainly not inexperienced but coming up with believable sex confessions was more of a challenge.

“Shall I say I can’t get enough sex?”

“Nah… we’ve done nymphos a million times, anyway it can’t be slutty.”

“What if… um I was an eighty year old woman who was still a virgin?”

The producers liked that.  It had a certain poignancy to it: a warmth.  So I faked being Elsie, an eighty year old lady, with a feisty edge who’d lived a full and satisfying life as a teacher and then working in the social services.  She enjoyed tennis, could still play a short game on the right surface, had always had a few good friends, but never married and she was sad about never having had relations.  I assumed a quiet voice as I channelled this fictitious senior citizen.  The presenter asked gentle questions about lost opportunities, we shared a joke or two; the presenter suggesting I try the lonely hearts advertisements in the paper, Elsie laughingly appalled at the prospect, saying she’d got a plumber from the local paper once and he’d made a mess of her kitchen so she wasn’t about to risk her heart or anything else the same way.  And so it went.  A sympathetic portrayal I felt and one which might just connect with a real listener.  Had I known just how resonantly it would connect with a particular listener I might have thought again.

I didn’t think too much about it after that, until the producer phoned.

“You’ve had some fan mail.”

I could hear laughter in the background.  It had a hysterical edge to it.

“What does it say?”

“It says… it says…”, he couldn’t finish the sentence as giggles crowded out his words.

“Why are you reading my mail anyway you bastard?”

“It’s not yours its Elsie’s.”

“Fuck you!”

“I’ll have to join a line”, again he dissolved into giggles.

“What?”

“Well darling “fuck you” is pretty much what 76 year old Don would like to do actually… and 68 year old Tony, and about fifteen other randy pensioners.”

I put the phone down, nauseous.  It rang again.

“Don would like to… what does that say Kate?  Kate – read it out… ‘initiate you into the pleasures of the flesh.. and delve’.  Is that delve?  Yeah DELVE into unimagined intimacies…  Gosh this paper is ever so creased, his hands must have been well sweaty.”

“Fuck you.”  I put the phone down again then lifted it off the hook.  Unfortunately in an open plan office with well-ordered telephone extensions the next phone along merely rang and my friend proffered the receiver to me.

“He says he can be ‘the rudder to steer you through the unchartered waters of passionate love’.

“Ugh!  I don’t want to have anything to do with Don’s rudder.  And fuck off.

I thought on this occasion perhaps even I had gone too far and from then on refused any requests to roleplay.  It had however, been fun whilst it lasted. They sent me the letters for Elsie in a jiffy bag which was bad enough but Don in particular was extremely persistent and continued to write for several months and every time a new letter arrived from my ancient suitor a cheer went up around the office.

In the end someone else had to lie on my behalf and claim Elsie’s death – momentarily saddened at this news, it was hard for me to remember that she wasn’t actually real.

The Martian: If only Watney was a Botanist. Oh. Hang on.

marsmars

I think it was Christopher Vogler who said that it isn’t enough for the protagonists in our stories to face peril.  They have to face the worst kind of peril possible for that specific person.  Added to which, in order for us as viewers, or readers to give a shit, the stakes have to be high.

A doting father, scared of heights?  They must rescue their child from the top of The Shard.  Greedy billionaire can’t stand bugs? His fortune is sinking under a load of bugs. No really.  It’s sinking now!  Strip off and get in there Moneybags!  Feel those wing cases brushing your face!  THE MONEY IS SLIPPING under the bugs!  Now!  Or all is lost!  HOW MUCH DO YOU WANT IT, HUH?  HUH?!

You get the idea.

If Moneybags didn’t care so much for money he’d just go home.  If he wasn’t scared of bugs he would jump instantly and the movie would be over in 45 minutes.

I am not saying these models are perfect, but tension is certainly interesting.

So Mark Watney, the protagonist of The Martian, stranded on Mars, will need a county shitload of science skills to survive.  There’s not much food so he might starve.  It’s quite a predicament, make no mistake.

BUT. The little bastard is a botanist.  Not just a keen gardener; a kick-ass NASA strength botanist who was botanisty enough to be trusted to terraform a planet.  Mentally tough enough to have tolerated the months in space to get to Mars.

He’s got this.

Sure there are problems.  Things explode.  Science bites back.  He deals with these issues in turn.  Aside from one or two dashboard punches he never looks like he’s losing the plot which is in part because the plot is never off the leash.

Watney lacks vulnerability.  This isn’t helped by the casting.

Matt Damon.  I love Matt Damon.  Possibly a little too much, especially in the scene where they show how skinny he’s got by having him sashay around, a little butt-naked.

Sorry where was I?

But you see Mark Watney in this movie – he’s just Matt Damon.  Beautiful Go-to Astronaut/Sci-Fi Renegade, fresh back from his mission to Interstellar (where he was a much more emotionally interesting character). He’s a solid capable sort.  They’ve included the humour of Watney, for example, his mining of the crew’s music collections to pass the time but even these cheesy disco tracks lose the OCD urgency they might have had; they become a peppy soundtrack, further diminishing the terror and darkness that this story needed.

Watney had nuances in the book, not so many vulnerabilities, but he had quirks that would have been nailed by casting an unknown.  It would have enhanced the feeling that maybe Watney has NOT got this. If Watney was in real danger of freaking the fuck out or not having the answers it would be so much more satisfying when he triumphed.

It doesn’t work that way in film-making so they cast the money.  He does it well.  Serves up the zingers.

Ridley Scott has created a visually gorgeous and deft movie. It is true to the strengths of the novel, but ultimately it exacerbates the weaknesses; not least with the casting.

Cue the disco music.

Pitch & Polish.

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Promotional image by Luke Fielding for Allen Road – our TV Pilot Script.

 

Luke and I have been working like crap to get the pilot script of Allen Road ready to be pimped at a pitching event in November.  It was meant to be a few weeks back but the organisers had a few issues and it was cancelled.  This was frustrating as I had booked a hotel room and gone to other expense and it did make me ruminate on the cost of promoting work, especially screenplay.

I don’t know that it is necessary to spend as much as I have along the way but I also know it is pointless sitting at home and fervently wishing your script appears on the telly all by itself.  Just a smattering of money thrown at projects includes:

  1. Competition entries – can be free or around 50 quid even, although you get feedback sometimes.  I had good feedback from Bluecat even though I didn’t place.
  2. Script Analysis – we paid around 120 quid for Allen Road to be analysed by Philip Shelley, a well respected script consultant for Channel 4 and as a result have some awesome quotations for the promotional stuff.  His feedback was very detailed.
  3. Cards – to hand out at events.
  4. One Page Pitch – this is basically a short synopsis but as Luke is a graphic designer by trade we tend to go all out on this – see above for some of the kick ass imagery we have put together.

It’s a balance – you need to make sure you are only spending what you can afford and target your investment rather than entering and going to everything.

Anyway.  Pitching my screenplay to LA like the fucking lunatic I am was a zillion times more complex and ten times more expensive.  So that’s some sort of comfort when I’m watching my bank account get hammered for the British stuff.

Next up, the Polish.  And you can say that like the country or the verb – both apply.  I was invited to join a writers’ group earlier this year run by Clare Morrall, the Booker shortlisted author as well as some other very experienced writers.  I was very much the newbie and even, entertainingly for me, possibly the youngest in the group (been a while since that happened).  It was an intense full-day’s worth of group analysis and it took me a week to get over it.

I submitted a chapter of The Challah Tin, one I thought was very evocative of the scenes set in the Polish village.  This included a version of the “bottle game” with amusing and unlikely pairings, (the busty 15 year old Magdalena with short fat 12 year old Roman, for example).  The group did like it, but I had masses of feedback including my old achilles heel of quite a few technical faults.

Other feedback was to slow the pace and immerse the reader more into the detail of these scenes. I enjoyed the rewrites in this respect; it’s such a cliche but the scenes do feel like they exist already and I have only to think about them and all the detail is there.  It is a comforting place.  Grammar improvements are not remotely comforting, however, and leave me drained and irritable.

In all it was bloody hard work but the chapter is better after the polishing – no two ways about it – and out of that meeting I was asked to be a Reader for the Rubery Book Award so I’m pleased with that.

I have been to various writerly groups over the years and they are very much like Forrest Gump’s box a chocs – you never know what you’re gonna get.  Some ask you to do exercises – especially writing prompts.  Others you take something you wrote and everyone does the praise sandwich on it.  Other times someone is just talking and you play on your phone until it’s time to get a drink and gossip.

I think I like the drinky gossipy types of groups the best.  Or perhaps I just like drinking and gossiping.

It’s the people that make the event anyway – I love meeting other writers and so will be looking forward to the Birmingham Literary Festival next month and recommend it to anyone who wants to talk writing.

Or just come and drink or gossip with me.

Choose Your Sausages Wisely.

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A career which involves writing can seem like the perfect fit, if you are an aspiring author.  In a talk I gave this weekend to the Stevenage Writers’ Group I outlined some of the pros and cons, including being realistic about “giving up the day job.”  Thank you to the group; it was a lovely laid-back session on a beautiful sunny day and I am grateful for the opportunity to spend some time in their stimulating and fun company.

Thank you for asking me to talk a bit about what I do.  My job is to write educational features and commercial scripts of all sorts, for a children’s radio station.  I get to invent characters sometimes.  Other times I use a client’s own characters and put words in their mouths.   So that’s my job.

My own writing ranges from TV pilot scripts, feature length screenplays in the science fiction genre, to a novel in progress.  Increasingly I like short form and have played with flash fiction too. I’ve had a few wins and awards but the amount of money I’ve generated from all this doesn’t quite stretch to four figures.  So I won’t be giving up the day job just yet.  In fact … I don’t see a time where I will.  And that’s OK. I hope I can explain why I feel this way.

Of course people do make money from their own writing, especially these days from e-book sales, but as you probably know the average working writer in the UK draws a salary from his or her writing of less than seven thousand pounds a year.

A good advance on a first novel might be 5,000UKP.  Afternoon drama for Radio 4 might be around the same although you would get repeat fees for that.   Screenplays are quite lucrative – get one of those optioned and you could be talking 30,000UKP or more.  Sadly however getting optioned is marginally more difficult than trying to learn Polish overnight.  Having attempted both I’ve had a little more success with the Polish thanks to a particularly grueling commission.

If you get that advance the carousel doesn’t stop.  Only two per cent of books published are bestsellers and over eighty per cent of books published in the UK sell less than five hundred copies. Make no mistake, even as a full-time author of nothing but your own works you will need to keep writing to maintain an income from your writing.

Even if an agent picks up your novel, you get an afternoon play and flog ten features to the Guardian it may still not be enough to live on.  To keep an income there will inevitably be a sausage machine aspect to your writing – which may be fine if you’re prolific.   Or really really like sausages.

For the rest of us, I think we have to be realistic and accept that only a few will ever “give up the day job”.  We will all have to work, as our books stories and poems take shape.  Some people will build houses, others do accounts, others will teach, some will do something totally different.  Maybe we do a combination of things.  We’ll all do a bit of everything, and do you know what?  That’s normal these days.  There’s even a name for this – it’s called having a portfolio career.  Bit of this, bit of that.

Some people might have careers like mine which involve writing and this can seem an appealing prospect –  and that’s what I’m going to talk briefly about next.

I make money from writing.  Enough to live on. Trouble is, it’s not my writing. I’m a commercial writer.  I write to order.  Journalists, technical authors and copywriters of all sorts fall into this category.  It can seem like an attractive career … but I’d urge caution.

I idiotically thought that being a commercial writer would be a heavenly job – the perfect fit in my portfolio – earning money whilst honing my craft.  Even if the topics, characters and plots… subjects… settings… style…  weren’t technically mine.  Even if I was writing about Jumbo Jets, Bread, um Quarries.  Beef.

It’s a good job.  Challenging.  Interesting.  But it isn’t a heavenly job most of the time.

My life is at times like an endless Nanowrimo with a set amount of words to get down every single day and the days stretch into the distance.  I’m shackled not just to the sausage machine but to the to the sausages in the sausage machine.  I mean, I like a sausage as much as the next girl but… you know.  Sausage overload.

There are however, no doubt about it, some good things about a career as a commercial writer f you write for yourself too.  So here are four benefits:

  1. You do make some quite good contacts

Working with magazines, or radio stations or newspapers or whatever – you may find a producer or an editor with whom you click, and who in the future you can ask to read a ms (athough I’d offer money for them to do this, as they will be busy people and not your mate) – and if they don’t utterly hate it maybe you can get a positive quotation to use in any subsequent approaches to agents.  Those quotations are apparently worth their weight in gold because they make it easier to market your book.

A slight downside is that the contacts as a jobbing copy hack are unlikely to be Will Self, and more likely be with the Nautical Effluence Alliance or the British Toilet Manufacturers.  I have brilliant contacts at some children’s comics.  They understand me.  Like me I hope.  They like the writing I’ve done for them.   Which is great.  Except all my personal work has themes around sex drugs and violence. I could ask them to read my novel, give me a quote…  but anxious about lawsuits they’d suddenly pretend they didn’t know me and start gently unfriending me on social media.

  1. You get really really good at starting to write. Which is the hardest bit.

You can’t claim writer’s block with a commercial deadline.  Or you can but they’ll find a better commercial writer who lies and says they never get blocked.  And it is absolutely possible to be blocked even if the subject matter is laid out for you in a detailed brief as you’ll know if you’ve plotted out your novel, deeply feel what you want to say…. You just… can’t say it.  It happens.

However, pushed by constant terror that they will get someone else in I have got fairly good at sitting down and starting to type.   After about two years of this like any muscle memory it began to get easier to start and this does translate over to my own writing.  Mostly.  Sometimes.

  1. It is quite a good way to “make money from writing.”

Which is always nice to be able to say to people.  But other than those people you have told… no one will ever know you wrote all these things.  Because they won’t have your name on them, they will have the client’s name.  And sometimes that’s a good thing when bafflingly inappropriate sound effects or horrible illustrations are thrust betwixt your crafted words.   Or when the brief changed so many times a neat piece of writing has globbed into something which looks like it was translated through four languages.

  1. It’s a brilliant way to cut down on your drinking in the week.

This is personal.  Writing pissed is BRILLIANT when you want to purge and exorcise your life onto the page or to carve and craft a sentence and throw it all down… speak from the heart…  When, however, you’re trying to accurately describe gravity in a way that an 8 year old will understand via the medium of a computer dog …. It’s not so good.   You need to keep a clear head for that shit.

The best thing about my day job is not that it involves writing.  The best thing is that it is I work with nice people, it is stimulating and most importantly quite flexible so that when the sausage machine is powered down for the night there’s still enough time and sanity left for me to pick up my own writing and get on with it.

It’s very unlikely that we as writers will be able to give up the day job.  I do think that as long as the day job is tolerable, and buys you the time to write then in my opinion it really doesn’t matter – and it doesn’t matter what it is you do.  We should look for something that buys you this time – and something that stimulates us – and if it isn’t in a writing sphere than that’s OK.