Saturday, 31 January 2009

Why can’t I just be happy?

It’s a beautiful winter’s day outside the window. I watch the dog-walkers use the small alley cut-through to the park, and let their dogs off the lead a safe distance within to gambol joyfully in the pale sunshine. The nearby junior school lies deserted, its playground empty, the primary-coloured climbing frame shiny and solitary in the sun. A cat slinks belly-low along a neighbour’s fence, and two sparrows flap startled into the air from the bare branches of a tree.

I watch it all from behind clear glass, the central heating cushioning me from the pale sun and the cool breeze. I want to go outside but I have nowhere to go, not really, not at this time of day. This time of day is for shoppers, children with pocket money, people on a mission, people in a hurry. I have no mission, no hurry. I am nothing much.

I stare ahead, but am not really seeing anymore. My mind is where it always rests, back with the novel. My thoughts whir and skitter between paragraphs, while the words ‘get a job’ bubble up from the depths like noxious gases. Everything collides and is simultaneous – my characters, my finances, my future, my story, my fears, my dreams. Underpinning everything is the hum from the hoover being worked downstairs, and the radio set to old-time classics. My mum sings, and I enjoy her happiness, even as I feel stuck in time, and somewhere out there is another me on a mission in a hurry.

I wonder what she looks like, this other me. Taller, somehow. Graceful. She looks like she is someone as she goes about her day, a real person, not a shadow. She has nice hair. I wonder if I will ever be that girl. The way to being her is through this story, I think. So here I sit, and turn away from the pale sunshine. It’s not for me today.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Ok subconscious, I hear you

I had a dream last night in which I was incredibly busy colour coordinating my bathroom towel collection while everyone dashed and zoomed around me. Every so often friends would flit by on their way from Busy Job 1 to Worthy Life 2, and then they would leave and carry on, while I stayed behind contemplating towel formations.

I awoke in a cold sweat. Am I really just hiding away doing the equivalent of organising towels? Trying to kid myself that I am being worthy, when all I am doing is finding excuses to not join the real world yet again? Agh! Subconscious, stop it. I don’t need you beating me up from within, I do it perfectly well while I am awake.

And I’m not sure where this dream sprang from, as this week has so far been ok. I am still waiting to hear back from an enormously positive thing (send me good vibes, please!) that is book connected but isn’t agents / publishers yet. I shall tell you more on that as soon as I know, don’t dare say too much in case I somehow put it all in jeopardy. Whoop! And that is all I will say about that.

I also completed a long job application whatsit, found an interesting freelance thing that could be good if I get it, contacted a local magazine with an idea that they haven’t rejected outright (in my world this is positive), worked on the book, been for a long walk, played with the cats, and have stopped adding salt to every meal and drinking fizzy drinks. The body is now a temple. Shame about that tea-time cake though.

I also naughtily bought myself a white blouse with a ruffled neck line – it looks Edwardian and I love it. It was in a sale but was still thirty squids, which is thirty squids too many for me to spend, but I haven’t actually bought any clothes at all since November and I was starting to get twitchy. I still am desperately twitchy it has to be said – all shops are starting to get decked in a rosy glow. I might be writing about the 1940s (sort of) but I never realised I would be following the ‘make do and mend’ criteria.

I think I am a method writer anyway. I'm having my own austerity year, but please let me stop rationing soon!

Monday, 26 January 2009

People in museums

People in museums wear chunky-knit layers
People in museums trail children and clothes
People in museums prod buttons on displays
People in museums like dressing in mauve.

People in museums peer glumly at maps
People in museums wait in long queues
People in museums buy tea and cakes
People in museums chat in line for the loo’s.

People in museums sit wearily in corners
People in museums stare at dinosaur bones
People in museums buy pencils and postcards
Then bag up their memories and go back home.

Friday, 23 January 2009

DVD or Ditch? St Elmo’s Fire

I am trying to stream-line my video collection by donating it all to a charity shop, ignoring their groaning shelves already full of unwanted VHS tapes. But before I give the films away, I will re-watch what once caught my attention and see if it is worthy of an upgrade to DVD. So today’s review will be about the 1985 film, St Elmo’s Fire.

St Elmo’s Fire sounds like it should be good. It has all the right actors of the day, and it is a ‘coming-of-age’ film, at a time when it seemed that the genre could do no wrong. Yet why do I get vague memories that this will be a wasted two hours as I slide in the clunky tape?

I remember the problem fifteen minutes in. There are seven characters here, and it is hard to find a single one that I care about. Even worse, the music and direction of the film seems to suggest that I, the viewer, should be sympathetic to these characters, but this feels very inappropriate given the way the characters behave. Shoehorning manufactured compassion into a film does not excuse for poor script / direction, nor will it dupe viewers into suddenly thinking that the moronic character is a nice guy.

Let’s take Kirby (Emilio Estevez). He bumps into an older girl he loved at school and wants to date her, so far so normal. However, he does this by turning into the sort of stalker that would have any sane person reaching for 911. He displays disturbing behaviour; even following this woman to a snowbound cabin with her boyfriend, and what does the director want us to believe? Yes, that this is an endearing character trait – Kirby assaults the woman with a kiss, she falls slightly in love with him, and he roars off into the sunset redeemed and giggling to triumphant music. Sorry, but no, Mr Director. The character might be played by the best giggler in the 80s, but obsessive behaviour to the point of scary is not a turn on.

Or, let’s look at Billy (Rob Lowe). He sleeps around with all the girls, despite the fact he has a wife and very small baby. What a guy, huh? What a dude! He obviously loved college as he was a playboy with no responsibilities, and is still trying to lead that lifestyle, ignoring the fact that everything has changed. I can believe that - what I cannot believe is again, the director trying to manipulate me into being sympathetic at two very wrong times. One is when Billy misreads (deliberately) the signals given by his drunken friend Jules, and attempts to molest her outside the house he shares with his wife and baby. She fights him off, which is witnessed by his wife, and he is left on his own outside. Cue, unbelievingly, sympathetic music. The other time is that he continually questions a friend’s virginity, and gets her to sleep with him as a 'parting present' just before he leaves town forever. The director tries to portray this as a romantic scene, which doesn’t work at all. Again, like with Emilio playing Kirby, I think the director is carried away by having Rob Lowe play this character – yes, the actor’s good looking, but that doesn’t redeem the character from being a complete git.

The other characters are just as unlovable – you have Alec (Judd Nelson) who wants to get married but cheats on his girlfriend constantly, Jules (Demi Moore) who is so two-dimensional she disappears if she turns sideways, and Wendy (Mare Winningham) – a non-entity whose name I only found out just now looking at wikipedia. The only two characters I feel the slightest compassion for is Kevin (Andrew McCarthey) and Leslie (Ally Sheedy). Leslie is Alec’s long-suffering girlfriend who finds out about his affairs and instead takes up with his best mate, Kevin, who has been in unrequited love with her for years. At least these characters feel slightly believable, and are given, especially Kevin, a bit more depth so the actor can play around. The most annoying thing is that the majority of these actors are good – surely there must have been better scripts out there to showcase their ability? The only thing this film showcases is disastrous fashion – Ally Sheedy in particular gets to wear some shockers. As for Mare Winningham - most of the time she looks like she is dressed for pantomime; about to tell Cinderella she cannot go to the ball.

This film for me finally falls into the lowest common denominator for film-viewing, which is solely whether the totty is worth the two hours. Forget script, plot, everything – how good looking are the guys and can I watch it again with the sound down? (One of Brad Pitt’s films, The Mexican, is perfect sound down material). Judd Nelson is lovely, and Rob Lowe is undeniably pretty, but this is an ensemble cast and they share equal screen time with five others, so it’s not even good value sound down. No DVD upgrade for this film.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Tony Hart

As a child watching after school television, amidst all the mayhem of the Funhouse and the drama of Grange Hill, it was the calm creativity of Take Hart and Hart Beat that best held my attention.

I grew up fascinated by The Gallery, and would be inspired to new heights of crayon / glitter creations by the pictures sent in to be given their moment of glory on screen. My seven year old self could see instantly that I could draw trees better than ‘Lucy, age 8’ but how on earth did ‘Leon, age 7’, create that technically brilliant landscape? I still remember the picture I sent in – a beach scene with a cave and rock pools – but never saw it appear in the gallery. I wonder what happened to all the pictures – apparently the show could get 6,000 submissions a week. I bet crayola were happy.

Tony Hart had such a nice manner – he never spoke down to his young audience, and used his considerable artistic skills to fascinate and astound viewers. Blue Peter to some extent also showcased activity, but their finished ‘here’s one we made earlier’ product seemed a world apart from the starting kit of a slightly squashed toilet roll. Hart Beat, on the other hand, made more sense and appealed to my imagination. It made me want to draw.

It was sad news to hear Tony Hart has died, aged 83, and I hope he realised that he was a happy part of so many childhoods. Goodbye Tony, you inspired children to think creatively – I am sure your influence stretches far wider than you ever imagined. And in honour of his memory, I shall dig out my oil pastels and try to recreate that beach scene.

A few hours later... Click play on the clip below, and then scroll down - in my own way I made it into The Gallery after all!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Those Pesky Three Chapters

I finally plucked up courage to email my prologue and first three chapters over to my good friend C to get some feedback. This was the first time anyone had seen the new, revised, all-singing-and-dancing version, and I had to resist the temptation to call her every ten minutes to ask if she had read it yet. Oh the agony of not being able to pester!

There is nothing more interesting to me than someone else’s interpretation of my words. I want them to draw my characters – will they see them as I see them? Does our landscape match? Did I paint a good enough picture for everyone? I don’t expect perfect duplications, but I am curious how much readers will add and subtract for themselves. It’s an endless fascination, and I guess it comes most to the fore when books are translated to TV or film – did they cast the characters right? When it works it bloody works well, when it doesn’t – eek.

Friend C really liked it, which is great as she’s a lady that knows her own mind and wouldn’t shy of telling me if I was wasting my life, in the nicest possible sense. However, she did make a very interesting and valid point about my main character, an elderly female. I wanted her to sound like an ill-tempered old lady, at least in the beginning, and fab – that is exactly how she comes across. What I didn’t think about was why readers would wish to read on about an ill-tempered nasty old bat. She doesn’t actually stay that way, and a lot happens, but it is a very good point. It’s easily rectified – I can keep her acerbity yet allow a certain amount of compassion in how I portray her, which would actually improve matters anyway. It just means I still haven’t finished fiddling with chapters one to three! So this week it will be back to poking at those chapters with a long stick.

It just goes to show how important it is to get feedback from people you trust. I am the person standing inside as my novel plays on in 3D all around me - people reading it are coming from the outside in, and as such approach from a different vantage point. It is the sort of thing a good editor would spot, to be honest, but until those heady days, I'll surround myself with trustworthy souls, and a novel-poking stick.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Moments on a journey

The tube

I’ve always liked the way my reflection looks in the window of the tube as it rushes along the black tunnels. I like being indistinct, blurred, a shadow of a person looking back at me. I prefer this image than the all-seeing electric light, so easy to be critical under its harsh gaze. I like being the outsider looking in at the world. It makes me feel safe.

The wind

Why am I always the only one in the eye of a gale? Everyone else walks by sedately under their obedient umbrellas, their hair just so, their coats steady. I, meanwhile, battle my wilful umbrella from one side of the pavement to the other. It appears either determined to smack me in the face, turn inside out and rudely wave its underskirt in the street, or carry me off like Mary Poppins over the rooftops. ‘Let’s go fly a kite’ is all very well as long as I am not the kite. And my hair! Ye Gods – it wraps itself around my face like a scared child hanging onto its mothers legs while my coat acts as a rudderless sail, propelling me through the high street.


“I’ll just hop on the Northern line and come and meet you after work! I’m at Goodge Street -- Oh, I’m the wrong branch of the Northern line? -- Can I go to Bank and change? – Bugger – Hm, so go to Tottenham Court Road, change at St Paul’s and walk across the bridge? – Bit of a trek -- Ah, the Jubilee line? – Where from - Bond Street? – Sounds a plan! Bye!”

Tottenham Court Road should be called Tottenham Caught Road given the amount of times charity workers stopped me. Charities – please heed me. This tactic does not make people love you.


Seeing friends is like coming home to a house straight out of Disney. Lovely people – especially when they cry ‘bottle of red’ and plunge into the nearest pub, the slick pavement glistening with spilled yellow light as the door closes behind us.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

On Writing

I have just finished a good book called ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. It is part autobiography, part brilliant advice. It has inspired me to take a gleaming sharp hatchet to Chapter Two, it being too fat and bloated to run away.

And now my bloody hatchet is out and wildly swinging in all directions. Useless dialogue attribution, adverbs and extraneous sentences are all heading for the chop. Stephen King, I shall either thank you tremendously for this or howl at your feet as my novel turns into a postcard.

Finally I stand amidst the wreckage. Something has happened to the first 54 pages. They seem to be breathing on their own now. They sparkle and wink at me. I think they hopefully would do the same to you, too. It’s miles better, even objectively I can see that (and believe me, it could still be pants, its just now the Agent Provocateur of pants as opposed to Primark).

Stephen King's advice in his book has been a great help. Luckily I am not a big fan of the old adverb (she said firmly), as the whole idea is that the dialogue and preceeding action should tell the reader whether the sentence is said firmly, or not. I also much prefer to say 'said' (she shouts), so the dialogue attribution is generally okay, although there was one dodgy page when everyone cried, gasped, and whispered instead. Are the characters incapable of talking normally? Dearie me...

I remain amazed by the edit process. I feel like shouting 'CONSTANT VIGILANCE!' like JK Rowling's character Alastor Moody from 'Harry Potter'. But it is true - it's needed!

And Happy New Year!