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Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer

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Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer


by Bob G Ritchie


Tuesday 2 January 2007

To cinema to see Stranger than Fiction, apparently an ironic post-modernist joke (the film, that is, not my going to see it). Actually strikes me more as an example of regression, familiar to philosophers, mathematicians and computer programmers. A character in the film gradually realises he is actually a character in another character’s novel-in-progress and naturally becomes quite upset, especially when he discovers the other character has decided he’s going to die.

Strange neither of them notice they are both characters in a movie, especially with the camera crew and production people following them around all the time – but maybe that would be too much post-modernism. Had a computer programmer written the film, no doubt the authoress would have discovered she was only a fictional creation (which of course she is, being in a film) not to mention the writer of the film too, and so on until eventually even the viewers, namely you and me, realise we are merely characters inside someone’s head. Which probably explains why not many scripts written by computer programmers get made into films.

At home find myself worrying about the term ‘post-modernism’ – how everyone seems to use it freely, yet when you try to grasp its meaning, it vanishes, like a handful of mist. Look it up in a couple of ref books, to discover that in literature it probably emerged in the early 1940s, or possibly the mid-1950s. My Oxford Companion to English Literature mentions "self-consciously deconstructed and self-reflexive narrators", which I suppose at least fits the movie.

And there’s another of those words: deconstruction. Even I’ve used it without really knowing what it means. The Ox Comp states, "on this view…meaning can never be fully ‘present’ in language, but is always deferred endlessly – as when one may look up a word in a dictionary, only to be given other words, and so on ad infinitum". Bit like regression then. At bottom of entry, as if to demonstrate this endless deferring, am told to "see also structuralism and post-structuralism", where among other things is mentioned New Historicism, which in turn is described as "part of a wider reaction" against such critical approaches as the New Criticism, which in turn mentions something even I recall from college days, the Intentional Fallacy, which if I remember correctly asserts that an author’s intentions are no basis on which to judge or even interpret a work. In which case the hero of Stranger than Fiction should have ignored what the author character was telling him to do and simply refused to die. Which, let’s face it, is what most fictional characters do anyway.

At which point decide to stop looking things up as fear I may be going through my own process of deconstruction.

Wednesday 3 January 2007

Research for new play going well. Cast of characters includes a few people who actually lived, so inevitably research will be major part of my effort. A first for me, since I prefer to make things up rather than look them up, especially after yesterday’s little exercise. (Though, now I come to think about it, with its undermining of historical and biographical genres, the play is really quite post-modern in approach.)

Must be careful to be as accurate as possible. All too conscious that if the play ever sees the footlights of an actual theatre any number of experts will pop up declaring "Oh, he wouldn’t have said that." Suspect the defence that they’re only characters in a play wouldn’t wash – though of course it might appeal to post-modernists. (Stop it, just stop it.)

Thursday 4 January 2007

With great effort of will have done no further work on TV thriller since 20 December. Unfortunately, as if mind insists on always being filled with useless ideas, this morning in that half-world between sleep and consciousness, when thoughts usually turn to Proust and sponge cakes, into my head pops a new ending for a radio play I wrote almost six years ago. Try to drift back to sleep in hope I’ll forget it, but it keeps nagging at me. In the end drag myself to my study and tap it into laptop. No doubt in another six years I’ll think of another ending.

Friday 5 January 2007

Catch Anthony Horovitz on Desert Island Discs, a writer I admire. Two things strike me: how he started to write because of extreme loneliness as a child; his desire purely to entertain; and his sheer love of the act of writing, so much so that he has to discipline himself to stop, to remind himself he has a family. Sorry, that’s three things. Four things: he doesn’t mention post-modernism once.

Wednesday 17 January 2007

Take break from stage play research to spend time trying to think of an actual plot. At the moment play exists only as four or five characters (three of whom lived) in a particular setting. Also have vague notion it will probably be a two-acter, the first set in the present-day, the second in the past – or perhaps the other way round, not sure yet. But feel research would have more focus if I could settle on a proper story.

Even to me this feels a bit of a wrong order in which to approach things. Surely one should have a story in mind before one starts anything? Maybe. Though have vague recollection of Georges Simenon explaining many years ago how he would sit in a café waiting for an interesting-looking person to pass by, then imagine how that person would behave in a particular situation. Elmore Leonard, I read once, starts his novels by throwing two or three wildly different characters together and imagining what happens – only on about page 120 does he start thinking about how he might tie up the plot.

Friday 19 January 2007

Finally settle on plot for stage play – well, almost. After writing half a dozen pages of notes and sitting staring out of the window at my apple tree for hours on end wondering if it will bear any fruit this year – the tree, that is, not my notes – find I have no less than three main story ideas. Each of which also includes a number of alternative beginnings, middles and ends. So from having no story at all three days ago I now have too many. And no doubt, when I come to start putting words in people’s mouths, I shall discard them all.

Saturday 20 January 2007

Put aside stage play. Start second draft of TV thriller. A rare exercise of discipline on my part, since I resolved not to touch it for a month and have not done so. Unfortunately when I give it a quick read through, the gap doesn’t seem to have leant it the distance I’d hope for. Still reads depressingly like my own work.

One encouraging discovery, however, is the large number of notes I made at various times over the past year or so, most of which I've completely forgotten. Most are minor, even sensible. Some, however, frighteningly radical. Like killing off a major character, or changing the age, sex, even colour of another. A few, now I come to try and act upon them, are incomprehensible. What on earth did I mean by the suggestion, ‘play with time’?

In rare mood of excitement open new file marked ‘draft 2’. First task: new opening sequence. Draft 1 didn’t firmly establish my hero’s name until page 10, so must correct that. Toy with various ways of hammering name into viewer’s consciousness (recall Midnight Cowboy’s opening scenes repeating hero’s name about 20 times, but feel unnecessary to go that far). Finally settle on scene that not only repeats hero’s name, but also hints at later important plot turn.

Monday 22 January 2007

Disaster, if minor one. Turn on TV to be informed about the goings-on in the world, only to discover a name in the news is exactly the same as that of my hero. Briefly think of hiding behind the words of Swift’s self-obituary: "Yet malice never was his aim; / He lashed the vice, but spared the name; / No individual could resent, / Where thousands equally were meant." Particularly since it took me so long to settle on it.

But then, I’m no Swift. And he didn’t have the benefit of Find and Replace. I change it.

Thursday 1 February 2007

After being forced to change name of hero (well, protagonist – one of his most notable characteristics is a lack of heroism) throughout draft two, feel irresistibly tempted to mess around with names of all the other characters. With result spend almost entire day flicking through phone directory, biographical dictionary and something called a Concise Dictionary of First Names with a photograph of two delightful babies on the cover, and generally fiddling about wasting time. This entirely the fault of my laptop and MS Word’s Find and Replace. If I were still using a typewriter – as I was until 20-odd years ago – would never even consider it.

Saturday 3 February 2007

In breaks from thriller, am reading biography of Ken Loach by Anthony Hayward.. Fascinating book for anyone interested in the unfashionable genre of ‘films with a message’. (Own view is that most worthwhile works of art contain a message of some sort, a theme, a point of view, an argument, a generalisation or two, else what is the point of them?) Also fascinating for its portrait of what people who can remember that far back like to think of as the Golden Age of TV Drama – by which they usually mean Cathy Come Home.

Am reminded he was also responsible for Kes – recently voted no. 7 in the BFI’s best films of 20th century – which was originally thought to have so little audience appeal it was released in only seven local cinemas because elsewhere it would probably need subtitles. Like to think we’ve come a long way since then, but somehow doubt it. While he’s lauded as a master of his art abroad, here Loach’s ‘message’ is thought too unpalatable. A case of a prophet being not without honour, save in his own country?

Thursday 8 February 2007

White hell, as someone on local radio puts it. Absurd hyperbole, of course, but struck by generally shared view that the sudden covering of everything by cold, slippery white stuff is at best a nuisance and at worst a threat to life, with the country grinding to a halt somewhere in between. Where are today’s poets of the weather, writers who welcome the extremes of our otherwise fairly benign climate to indulge in a bit of meteorological metaphor?

Or have we become so distant from it in our comfortable cars, our centrally heated homes and offices, we no longer know what weather actually feels like? Seem to remember Thomas Hardy (to pick a dead writer at random) forced his heroines regularly to tramp through snowstorms and across rain-lash’d moors – though he was reluctant to do so himself ("I need not go / Through sleet and snow / To where I know / She waits for me: / She will tarry there / Till I find it fair, / And have time to spare / From company").

A quick skim through a dictionary of quotations reveals at least 30 snow-related references, from Chaucer to Spender. But the last 50 years? It’s as if we all now live our lives at a constant 20 degrees C. No writer today would bother to follow in the footsteps of Housman’s Shropshire Lad: "About the woodlands I will go / To see the cherry hung with snow". Are you mad? It’s cold out there.

Course we occasionally get books like Snow Falling on Cedars and Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, but they’re set where snow is almost a permanent feature of the landscape so don’t really count. What we need is a Poet of the National Weather, a writer in residence at the Meteorological Office who can knock off an uplifting poem every day to round off the weather forecast, someone who can reconnect us with the childish delight in sledging, snowballs and snowmen, or with the more adult feelings of being cold, wet and miserable.

Wednesday 14 February 2007

Second day attempting to work at dining-room table, owing to long-overdue repainting of room in which I usually write. Have now lived in this house for two and a half years and only yesterday finally decided on a colour both stimulating and somehow calming. This turned out to be a complete waste of aesthetic effort because the local DIY superstore didn’t stock it. Unable to face a further two and a half years of indecision managed to chose another colour in less than five minutes. (Actually, sometimes think I would be happier if there were fewer colours in the world – which probably says things about me I’d prefer not to know. Birds, I once read in Scientific American, are able to distinguish many more colours than we primitively-sighted humans. No wonder they all behave as if they’re slightly mad.)

Where was I? Oh yes, at the dining-room table, which I admit is larger and less cluttered than my office table, but, oh, I don’t know, just doesn’t feel right. Books from the office, pictures, research material, unpaid bills, etc., are piled inaccessibly in the spare bedroom where the dust is gradually resettling on them. So for the next few days am without my handy reference books and inspirational works. Instead find myself staring at the fruit bowl. And rather like the fruit, already feel my imagination shrivelling. Never thought it meant so much to me, but yes, I need to be back in my own space.

Monday 19 February 2007

With relief move back into newly decorated office, now a pleasing but difficult-to-describe shade of green (on the can it’s called ‘breakfast room green’, which makes me wonder if there’s money to be made out of naming paint colours). Spend happy morning putting books back on shelves but in slightly different order in hope I might stumble across something interesting. Also take opportunity to shred old scripts, EastEnders commissioning documents, writer’s guidelines for shows I never got on, letters from the Inland Revenue and anything else beginning to turn yellow.

Finally everything in its place. Books to the left of me, books behind me, window to the right (from the top floor I can see Oxford’s spires but from here only our garden shed). On the walls hang a Modigliani print given to me by my daughter, a rather gloomy landscape I picked up in a junk shop and a print by Sam Toft showing a fat dog on a seafront looking at seagulls, entitled ‘Doris dreams of flight’, which at the time my wife gave it to me seemed an apt metaphor for my feelings about writing, i.e., an impossible dream.

Fitting neatly along the remaining wall with only three or four inches to spare is my glass-topped table, with the laptop on which I write every word centre stage, research notes and books for the TV drama in a pile on my right. Apart from a drink and photos of wife and daughter the table is otherwise clear and the wall in front of me blank. I don’t work well with distraction.

Beneath me is an ordinary kitchen wheelback chair, which creaks loudly when I so much as breathe and is so uncomfortable I have to shift my position every ten minutes. Despite that, I’ll probably never change it. I have this puritanical belief that to be too comfortable is bad for my soul, not to mention my back, and that moving around a lot stops me getting RSI again. Behind me the door leads out to the real world and the stairs down which I fell and ruptured both knees two years ago. I still feel nervous when I stand at the top – but that’s probably just another metaphor coming on.

Friday 22 February 2007

Stephen Moss in Guardian Unlimited

Not just for writers, but a must for anyone interested in books, this is quite simply one of the best places for keeping up with the literary world on the net.

writes about the latest search for Britain’s GLA (Greatest Living Author), prompted by the threat of a reader to kill herself if Martin Amis is described as such ever again. Readers of The Bookseller apparently think J K Rowling is Britain’s GLA (but why stop at Britain, probably the World’s if they were asked), followed by Terry Pratchett, which almost made me want to kill myself. But then, what do I know of The Bookseller’s readership? Maybe their average age is 14.

Despite Andrew MotionEnglish poet, novelist and biographer; Poet Laureate of United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009; during his laureateship founded the Poetry Archive, an online resource of poems and audio recordings of poets reading their own work asking the same question on the Arts Council website, Moss thinks this kind of ranking a ‘hazardous undertaking’, but ‘at worst harmless fun and at best might provoke us to consider what constitutes great writing’. Melvyn Bragg’s 12 Books that Changed the World includes only one work of fiction, Shakespeare’s first folio, predictably enough. But he’s dead and in any case only wrote plays, so doesn’t count.

An unspoken assumption seems to be that only a novelist can be a GLA, which would be bad news for Britain’s latest Nobel Laureate for Literature if he cared about such things, which I’m sure he doesn’t. My own opinion is that the popularity of these games illustrates a sad truth about contemporary fiction, namely that it is often more of a pleasure to write about than to read. Having said that, my choice for Britain’s GLA is another playwright, Arthur Miller (and I’m not alone – last week Paul Abbott chose to take Miller’s collected works with him onto a desert island). Yes, I do know Miller’s no longer living and wasn’t British, but really, when it comes to great authors, what does it matter?


Friday 2 March 2007


Can’t think what prompted it, but inexplicably find myself thinking of early ‘70s TV drama series Doomwatch. Yes, I know. But bear with me.


Notably it cast one of the then golden boys of the English stage, Robert Powell, as the obligatory maverick whizz-kid, until shockingly he was killed off at the end of the first season. Recall plots usually involved the accidental release of a lethal man-made virus into the world, created by a bunch of profit-hungry warmongers with little regard for the future of mankind. The Doomwatch team – a sort of semi-official troupe of scientific troubleshooters – would then try to contain the looming catastrophe and bring the wrongdoers to justice. In many ways the most realistic aspect of the series was that they rarely succeeded. The overall message was that, like Robert Powell’s character, we are all doomed.


Anyway. It occurs to me the time is exactly right for a resurrection. Because now we have two factors we didn’t have in the early ‘70s: a genuine impending disaster in the shape of global warming and convincing special effects in the shape of CGI. Forget The X-Files. Forget Primeval. Forget Doctor Who and Torchwood. Nothing but tongue-in-cheek sci-fi fantasy. Doomwatch was the real thing, and we need it now more than ever. So if any producer wants to launch Doomwatch II and needs a writer…


Tuesday 6 March 2007


The managers of a St Petersburg theatre are jamming mobile phone signals, so fed up have they become by the trilling interruptions from audiences. The blame apparently lies with the abolition of subsidised tickets. In the old days plays were listened to in grateful silence. Now only the wealthy and inconsiderate can afford to go.


Other interested theatres at the end of their tether have been told the equipment can be bought off the internet for a modest price. It silences all signals within 50 metres. Which makes me think it might be worth investigating on my own behalf. Is there a portable version?


Thursday 8 March 2007


Wake to find much of Oxford underwater. One of the hazards, I suppose, of living on what is effectively nothing more solid than a swamp. Faced with intractable plot problem in TV thriller’s second draft, decide to take an invigorating tramp along towpath to aerate mind and see for myself extent of watery influx.


Indeed, quite a bit of the path has disappeared, so have place pretty much to myself, save for a few frantically paddling ducks wondering why the landscape is rushing by at such an alarming rate. Seat myself on a bench, taking Stephen Poliakoff’s advice to writers to slow down, make time for contemplation. The sun’s shining, all I can hear is the river and the song of a nearby blackbird. Ah yes. Already it’s beginning to work on me. The solution to that plot problem is emerging. Another few minutes of peaceful…


I hear a voice. A very loud male voice, which seems to be speaking to itself. Immediately think of psychopaths and whether flooded river represents realistic means of escape. Psychopath comes into view. Well-dressed businessman evidently talking on mobile phone to colleague – on other side of the world, judging by the volume at which he evidently feels compelled to speak. That’s how I know he’ll shortly be running some figures round the carpark and that someone called Jones talks mainly out of his arse.


But what’s that to me? I press a button on my portable writer’s model mobile phone jammer and hey presto! Silence once again.


Friday 9 March 2007


Still intrigued by transformation of city’s meadows into lagoons, consult contour map of city to discover that rise of only three or four metres in river level would make large swathes of city permanently uninhabitable. Unlikely to happen in my lifetime, glad to say, but given future rise in sea-level, increased rainfall, higher temperatures, who knows? And if some unscrupulous person should decide to build his own flood defences further downriver, which in turn caused even more flooding upriver, and these floods became breeding-grounds for disease-carrying tropical insects, causing a rapidly spreading epidemic that the government was powerless to halt – well, we would have what yesterday’s mobile phone user would probably say was not a problem but an opportunity. Or, at the very least, a premise for an episode of Doomwatch II.


Thursday 15 March

More from the wacky world of theatre. Learn from the Guardian that police raided a Milan theatre to save a lobster from being bludgeoned to death on stage. Raid was carried out by three plainclothes carabinieri in the middle of the first-night performance, presumably one to rescue the lobster while the other two restrained the rest of the cast. Suspect most of the audience thought it was part of the production – as indeed it may have been.

Reminds me of a German experimental dramatist in the 1970s, who decapitated live chickens on stage. But since I can’t remember his name, perhaps both he and the lobster killer are merely victims of the old adage: never work with children or animals.

And onto the wacky world of business management books. Simon Hoggart praises a new book, The Halo Effect, by Phil Rosenzweig, which examines those companies claimed by previous bestselling business management books to possess the secrets of success. And surprise, he finds that only about a third of these companies are still doing well. In other words, these much-imitated secrets of success were pretty much no more than guesswork.

Findings like these would, one hopes, knock flat the house of cards that is management science and consign the associated books to recycling. But no. Putting the words ‘business management’ into produces more than 80,000 titles, parading gobbledygook phrases as if they actually mean something: business continuity management; service oriented architecture; customer relationship management; diversity management – and a truly surreal title: The Consultant’s Journey: a Dance of Work and Spirit. Really, you couldn’t make it up.

On second thoughts might write my own contribution to the genre. Must be money to be made. After all I was a director of a company for 15 years, and the fact that it wasn’t a particularly successful company plainly counts for little. I shall call it Change for the Sake of It.

Monday 19 March 2007

Finish reading Ransom by Jay McInerney, a rather brutal novel about an American learning a martial art in Kyoto. It was written in the 1980s and the most striking thing about it is that it shows. Went through my own love affair with all things Japanese round about the same time, but now find it difficult to remember what I found so fascinating. Simple explanation is that the country was fashionable then; everybody seemed to be writing about it. Now a novel set there just feels rather quaint, less contemporary even than one of Jane Austen’s.

Tuesday 20 March 2007

Wake to find an idea for a novel growing in my head. Since it’s early and I have no urgent reason for getting up, decide to lie awhile and see if the idea, as Hollywood likes to say, has legs. Half an hour later have almost entire plot worked out. As with all new ideas, become very excited at this point. Leap out of bed, into office and, even before breakfast, write a two-page outline on laptop almost without pause. The story just comes – which makes a welcome change.

Partner puts a sleepy head round the door. "What are you doing up so early?"

Usually take a superstitious view of revealing new ideas before I’ve had a chance to really explore them. When they come to nothing, as they usually do, admitting it is so embarrassing. But on this occasion, I don’t know… "I’ve just had this amazing idea for a novel…"

Partner raises her eyes to heaven. "Not another one. When are you going to finish that bloody play?"

Wednesday 21 March 2007

And yet more from the wacky world of theatre. Anthony Neilson thinks reason theatre attendances are decreasing is because plays have become boring, which apparently is the playwright’s cardinal sin. When he asks new writers (by which I assume he means unperformed writers) what their new play is about, they answer "racism" or "Iraq" or "George Bush", but then admit they’re stuck on page ten because they can’t think of a decent story.

Ignoring for now the obvious flaw in this argument – namely, that if people are staying away from the theatre now, it’s presumably because they don’t like the plays being put on now (excluding Neilson’s, presumably) rather than the plays of unperformed writers – to say too many plays are boring merely begs the question. (Can just imagine Royal Court directors clapping their foreheads in sudden realisation: "Of course, our plays are boring! That’s what we’ve been doing wrong!") Personally I find musicals utterly tedious, but Neilson loves a song or two. If we knew how to avoid boring people as confidently, say, as business management gurus knew the secrets of success we could all be rich. Perhaps, like the evidently more enthusiastic theatregoers of Italy (where 13m theatre tickets were sold in 2006 but only 9m football tickets), our audiences would be more entertained by the sight of a dying lobster.

Wednesday 29 March

Feel unusually grumpy today. Probably for no more reason than hearing the news that one of my fellow-scribblers on last year’s Writers Block has had her first novel accepted for publication. To be fair, her contribution was by far the most accomplished, so I suppose I shouldn’t begrudge her her success. She’s the fiftyish one who wanted to make her children proud. Force myself to send her a congratulatory email, but can’t bring myself to actually name her or her book here. Congratulations are one thing, free publicity is another.

Friday 31 March 2007

As if yesterday’s news wasn’t depressing enough, more cause for gloom arrives this morning in the shape of partner’s royalty statement – about twice the size of last year’s. "Well done," I tell her through a fixed smile. "Just don’t forget who’s the real writer in this house."

Saturday 31 March 2007

Am now seeing depressing news in the unlikeliest of places. Learn that a recent collection of poems contains no less than three on the same subject as that of the novel I dreamt up ten days ago. Are all my ideas destined to be copied?

Sunday 1 April 2007

And talking of copying ideas, see even the redesigned Home Office is not above such things. One of the teams within the new ‘research, information and communication’ unit will be called the Fiction Team. Its job will be to feed all new works of fiction into large computer programs looking for suspect keywords, coded messages and such like. To which end it will require publishers to email the files of all new novels, rather like the British Library requires copies of all printed works. This, as anyone knows who saw the film, is exactly what Robert Redford’s team (pseudonymously called the American Literary Historical Society) did in Three Days of the Condor. One can only hope life doesn’t copy art too faithfully: in the film all the team except Redford wind up dead.

Wednesday 4 April 2007

Confess to sympathetic friend (well, he was sympathetic to begin with) feelings of authorial inadequacy brought on by Writers Block colleague’s success and partner’s mounting royalty cheques. "You mustn’t let yourself be distracted," he urges, which is not really what I want to hear. I have in mind something more along the lines of what a brilliant writer I am and how one day the world will wake up to the fact.

"Set yourself a timetable," he continues, "and stick to it. You should do something like this writer Andrew O’Hagan I read about the other day. Every day he chalks his main priorities up on a blackboard."

Heart sinks. Despite desperately trying to think of something more life-affirming, mind immediately recalls previous twilit years of salaried employment, when my days were ruled by words like efficiency, time management, priority scheduling.

"Don’t worry," I reassure friend. "If I ever feel tempted to write a to-do list, I’ll know it’s time to give up writing altogether."

Friday 6 April 2007

Watch Capote on DVD. Some months after everyone else has seen it, but I make no apology. An excellent movie on just about every level. Particularly struck by Capote’s claim that he was inventing a new kind of writing: "the non-fiction novel". As a teenager with literary ambitions even then, recall the early 1960s Sunday critics being of the same opinion: In Cold Blood was a book that would change writing for ever.

It certainly changed Capote for ever. It made him the most famous American writer of his generation and for the remaining 20 years of his life he didn’t complete a single novel. I can relate to that.

Saturday 14 April 2007

At last a writer who not only admits to using a computer but openly flaunts the fact. In the Guardian Claire Tomalin apparently quite happy to have her writing desk photographed with its computer brazenly centre stage. There are even a couple of speakers, which suggest she probably downloads music rather than accompany her thought processes with her own lute playing. No handmade 19th century typewriter or "I always write my manuscripts with my great aunt’s original Parker then have a wonderful little woman in the village type them up for me." She also displays a disarming sense of writer’s guilt – about not throwing stuff away and sneaking off to write when she shouldn’t. That’s what I like to hear: a writer’s life is tough.

Further on, Graham Swift gets a rare pic in the paper. Confess have only read two of his novels, probably the least read: The Sweet Shop Owner and The Light of the Day. Both of which I kind of enjoyed but found a bit, I don’t know, inconsequential. But that’s probably me. On the other hand movie of Last Orders was quite brilliant. There’s a lot of stuff about the importance of London in his work, but confess to being distracted by his photo. What I don’t understand is why only a few years younger than me, he still has a great deal more hair. Life is so unfair.

Sunday 15 April 2007

To Southwold – a surprise birthday present from partner. Attractive little seaside town, despite being crowded with day-trippers. Idly expect to see some evidence of George Orwell, whose parents lived here for some years and which he used as a base for some of the 1920s and early ‘30s. But not a sign. Apparently he loathed the place, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Even so, feel local tradespeople missing a trick. Butcher could have sign in window: ‘four legs good, two legs bad’; radio/TV shop could be called ‘Big Brother’s’; newsagent could be called ‘Newspeak’; could even have a Tea Rooms 101, though on second thoughts that might not be too enticing.

Coincidence of the day occurs when turn on TV briefly before dinner to see few minutes of repeat of series about Italy. Almost immediately find ourselves being taken on tour of town that seems hideously familiar. It’s a brutal concrete hymn to Fascist architecture Mussolini had constructed on reclaimed marshes south of Rome and the setting for Family Friend, a wonderfully bizarre movie we watched only four days ago. As Harry Hill might say, what are the chances of that happening?

Monday 16 April 2007

To Dunwich and yet more literary connections. What with Graham Swift and London, Orwell and Southwold, and now Dunwich and M R James, theme of week seems to be writers and places. Had in mind James actually lived somewhere near, but it seems, like Orwell, it was his parents, who lived in Aldeburgh a little way down the coast. Even so, James set a lot of his ghost stories in East Anglia, though try as I might to impress partner with my knowledge, can’t remember which, if any, was set in Dunwich.

Reassuringly the place is fairly creepy, even in the middle of the day with the sun shining. Difficult to imagine this largely deserted shingle beach pretty much all that’s left of what was once a town that boasted as many as eighteen churches. I know this because I look it up when I get home. I also discover it was the American writer H P Lovecraft who used the name in the story The Dunwich Horror, but only for an entirely fictional Massachusetts town. Which only goes to show one shouldn’t associate a writer with a place too closely. Graham Swift aside, either they never lived there, or they just made it up.


Wednesday 2 May 2007


To London to meet some old friends from BBC Talent. Encouragingly all seem to be having some success – well, at least churning stuff out. I try to sound guilty when confessing I’ve written little since EastEnders, but in truth don’t feel it. Something seems to have changed in me over the last couple of years. I still enjoy writing and I still want to write. But – how to put it? – I no longer feel driven.


It reminds me that yesterday I bumped into a friend in the supermarket who eventually asked me – as most of my acquaintances eventually do – what I’m writing these days. "Not a lot," I admitted and, without really thinking about it, added, "I’m having too good a time living." It was only when I was back home that I started to consider if there were some truth in the offhand remark. Have I become too happy to be a writer?


Writing is a lonely activity, often depressing and invariably poorly rewarded. Johnson thought only a blockhead would write except for money. But many people do. Why? Is it loneliness and depression that drive them into writing, as if into therapy? Perhaps because it’s one of the few occupations that can actually exploit those feelings. The impulse to write, so Arthur Miller thought, "springs from an inner chaos crying for order". Sam Shepherd once said that the study of aloneness is still the central issue. Ten years ago I held down a highly-paid full-time job but still found the energy and determination to write hundreds of words every day. The question arises: was I merely being driven by unhappiness? Time to consult my old diaries.


And the first thing that strikes me – rather depressingly – is how obsessed I was with my health. Lack of sleep and an all-pervading sense of anxiety about nearly everything were the least of my worries. I was taking beta-blockers for a condition I’d had since I was eight years old; I was recording – for what reason I can’t remember, but on an almost daily basis and with gleeful disgust – my bowel movements; I was undergoing acupuncture treatment in the hope of cutting down on my drinking; I had a carcinoma on my arm (all right, it was non-malignant); migraines were probably too common for me to bother mentioning most of them, as, no doubt, were my hangovers. Finally I appeared to reach my lowest ebb: "This morning I awoke and sat on the side of the bed feeling too dizzy to stand up. Have I had my first stroke?" Evidently the only malady I had not got, like the narrator of Three Men in a Boat, was housemaid’s knee.


The second thing that stands out is how negative I was about other writers’ work – a sure sign of depression. For instance:


"…tedious, unrelieved, monotonous, but all very worthy. The man next to me fell asleep ten minutes into the first act. No variation in tone or pace, no drama - all in all a pretty mind-numbing evening, though no doubt I left the theatre a better person than I went in. As we finally struggled from our seats I overheard a woman say, ‘No I don’t think it was the acting...’"


Apparently I was also reliving my angst-ridden youth, re-watching films like Antonioni’s L’Avventura to reacquaint myself with alienation. Even dreaming about nuclear war, the terror that haunted forty-odd years of my life. Glad to say I’m no longer in the habit of recording my dreams. Fascinating surreality in the nighttime invariably becomes banal randomness in the light of day. Though admit occasionally they can act as one side of the negotiation Andrew Motion claims is involved in any kind of artistic creativity, that between the organising, structuring, rational part of the mind and the murky swamp out of which ideas occasionally emerge and which we must never attempt to clean up or understand.


Maybe I wrote this one down because I thought I might be able to turn it into a story. Reading it now it seems only to illustrate the mood I was in. But at least I was writing then, so perhaps I’ve found the answer to my question: to regain that unstoppable determination, to get back my high productivity, in a word, to feel driven again, I need to reinvent myself as an anxious, hypercritical, miserable hypochondriac.


Well, all this backward-looking introspection certainly seems to be helping: I’m a lot more depressed than I was before I started. Now all I have to do is wait for the urge to write to follow.


Thursday 10 May 2007


For some reason find myself musing on England and being English. Someone in the government thinks that when it comes to handouts, the least deserving English person should have precedence over the most impoverished immigrant, and someone else thinks no one should get anything until they can beg for it in perfect English. Such pronouncements wouldn’t normally rouse me to put fingers to keyboard – they’re just the usual background noise of dogs howling at the moon – no, what strikes me, rather belatedly, is that since this whole business of national identity is one of the themes of my nearly completed TV thriller, feel I should at least try to form some opinions on the subject. The Scots, Welsh and Irish have no trouble with the exercise; they need only define themselves as oppressed by the English. Unfortunately we English have no oppressors. We know we exist, indeed have a right to, but only, as it were, in a cloud of unknowing.


Fortunately, better writers have been here before me. So could, for instance, simply take Margaret Drabble’s word for it: "England’s not a bad country…It’s just a mean, cold, ugly, divided, tired, clapped-out, post-imperial, post-industrial slag-heap covered in polystyrene hamburger cartons." But that no longer seems entirely fair. What does she mean, cold?


Patriotism has always been out of fashion, of course, at least with writers – from Dryden ("Never was patriot yet, but was a fool") and Johnson ("Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel") to Shaw ("You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race") – but for at least as long, our politicians have reminded us where our true loyalty lies, as 1827 PM George Canning did when damning Jacobins: "the friend of every country but his own", a phrase which probably hovers on Tony Blair’s lips every time some Englishman objects to the Iraq war.


For many in England, perhaps even for most of us, Flanders and Swann had it about right: "The English, the English, the English are best." A sentiment shared, predictably enough, by Cecil Rhodes: "Ask any man what nationality he would prefer to be, and ninety-nine out of a hundred will tell you that they would prefer to be Englishmen," and Mr Podsnap in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend: "There is in the Englishman a combination of qualities, a modesty, an independence, a responsibility, a repose…" Well, your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman Englishman, as Defoe annoyingly reminds us.


But along with the knowledge that we are best goes certain responsibilities. In Charles Kingsley’s words, each of us likes to think of ourself as an "honest Englishman helping lame dogs over stiles." For, conveniently, "you never find an Englishman among the under-dogs," noted Evelyn Waugh. "Except in England, of course."


Which brings us to one of the central contradictions in the English character, that of being able to see instantly what is wrong in other nations – what Samuel Pepys unkindly referred to as "the absurd nature of Englishmen, that cannot forbear laughing and jeering at everything that looks strange" – while being completely unable to see what is wrong in our own. Though Matthew Arnold could see it: "that vast portion of the working class which, raw and half-developed, has long lain half-hidden amidst its poverty and squalor, and is now issuing from its hiding-place to assert an Englishman’s heaven-born privilege of doing as he likes… Philistinism! We have not the expression in English. Perhaps we have not the word because we have so much of the thing."


But about that we shall exercise what Carlyle called our "great talent for silence." The English – leaving aside our uncouth lower classes with their taste for Big Brother, hamburgers and doing as they like – believe that the problems of other nations would be solved if only their ruling classes were more like us; just as Blair believes for Iraq and Macaulay wished for India: "a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect".


The corollary of this is that the English are always right, which George Bernard Shaw, an embittered Irishman, was forced to admit: "How can what an Englishman believes be heresy? It is a contradiction in terms." A burdensome fact which has unfortunately taken its toll on the English character. We are, for instance, incapable of enjoying ourselves. The duc de Sully noted "the English take their pleasures sadly, after the fashion of their country", and George Mikes (an immigrant, but no matter) observed that while continental people have good food and sex, the English have good table manners and hot water bottles.


A good thing too. "To Americans," the poet Randall Jarrell wrote, "English manners are far more frightening than none at all." A P Herbert told us why, "We are not here for fun. There is no reference to fun in any Act of Parliament."


In fact, according to E M Forster, Englishmen aren’t really allowed to feel anything at all; fun, joy, anger, grief: "It is not that the Englishman can’t feel…he has been taught that feeling is bad form." Except when he’s drunk, he might have added. Then the English feel free to feel anything, say anything, do anything. It might even be said that to the English the freedom to drink is the perfect expression of the very concept of freedom. As the prelate William Connor Magee said when speaking on an 1872 Intoxicating Liquor Bill, "it would be better that England should be free than that England should be compulsorily sober."


Perhaps that’s what Katherine Mansfield had in mind when she wrote, "I hate the sort of licence the English give themselves…to spread over and flop and roll about." And didn’t some American woman writer once complain that Englishmen are always two gin and tonics below par?


Am beginning to recognise, however, that rather like a group of young Saturday night binge drinkers, a definition of Englishness is proving difficult to pin down. As Shaw wrote, "There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it." Even our language – to get back to writing for a moment – refuses to stand still long enough for us to clap it in irons, despite the efforts of people like Lynne Truss. Over six hundred years ago Chaucer had to admit that "ther is so gret diversite in Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge". We can even, as Lewis Carroll suggested in Through the Looking Glass, speak in French when we can’t think of the English for a thing.


So, to sum up, to be English is to adopt a style "familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious" (Johnson), to "do everything on principle", "never to be in the wrong" and "never to be fairly beaten" (Shaw). In other words, it is to be "that vain, ill-natured thing" (Defoe), "paralysed by fear" (D H Lawrence), and to live in a country "where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies" (Jane Austen). Which, coincidentally, is almost exactly the theme of my nearly completed TV thriller.

Thursday 31 May 2007

Have had young relative staying last few days. Miserable weather for most part so have had to resort to indoor activities. Which essentially means watching DVDs. Know I’m beginning to sound like a grumpy old man, but don’t children read any more?

Anyway today must drive to meet said relative’s mother for handover. Wonder idly if should stick one of those signs in car rear window: ‘Child on board’, or the even more nauseating ‘Small person on board’, as if that will somehow stop every other road user behaving like a lunatic within our vicinity. Because apparently there are a few around today. Manage to complete little more than half of motorway journey when meet end of what looks like a very long tailback. Unfortunately car radio not working so can’t find out whether we’re on the carriageway with the actual accident or on the opposite carriageway suffering what Americans inventively call a ‘gaper delay’ (just love that phrase).


Luckily, being near an exit and knowing the area a little, we are able to take lengthy but pretty diversion through stretch of home counties countryside. Indeed, at one point even find ourselves transported into the world of film and TV. "This looks vaguely familiar," says partner as we speed through impossibly pretty village. "Not surprising," I answer smugly, "It’s where they filmed Vicar of Dibley, Midsomer Murders and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Decide not to mention 1940s film Went the Day Well – don’t want to over-egg it. Well, it’s my job to know these things.

The village is quiet, pretty, completely unspoilt. You ought to visit it. It’s called Turville. Go on, as Americans might say, make their day.

Saturday 2 June 2007

As part of occasional but ongoing search for any thread of fame, no matter how slender, connecting to my name, discover my mother’s family name – and my middle name – not only that of famous Scottish clan, but also that given to class of Scottish hills, those between 2000 and 2499 feet. Everyone's heard of the Munros, those of 3000 feet and above. Next come the Corbetts. Then mine, the Grahams, named after the late Fiona Torbet (née Graham). Now all I have to do is think of a way of exploiting the connection.

Saturday 9 June 2007

Not normally given to whingeing about how other people use the English language – the more invention the better, say I. But sometimes even I have to point out when something is just plain wrong. New TV series coming called something like Saving Planet Earth; and today there’s a 2-page article in paper entitled 32 actions to save the planet. And no doubt many more like it. Compelled to point out it’s not the planet that needs saving. Whatever we do to it, it will still be here, and with plenty of life happily existing on its surface, long after we’ve died out. What we’re actually doing – or should be – is trying to stop the planet becoming inhospitable to us, i.e. saving ourselves.

Tuesday 5 June 2007

While indulging in a bit of therapeutic house tidying, discover a comic under bed recently occupied by visiting small relative. Reminds me that when I was a similar age there was a movement – of which my parents were enthusiastic participants – to ban US comics in UK because they were thought to encourage violence. It sets me off on a little mental trail. In the 1970s certain feminists tried to ban top shelf magazines (or something similar, my memory’s hazy and I can’t be bothered to look it up since I’m not a journalist and anyway this is only a diary). Malcolm Muggeridge wanted to ban Monty Python’s The Life of Brian; a woman called Mary Whitehouse wanted to ban nearly everything; Salman Rushdie had a fatwa issued against him for The Satanic Verses; a bunch of Sikhs succeeded in banning Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Bezhti and forced her into hiding. Even a UCL science professor recently had to remove his blog from the UCL servers because someone representing the wacky world of alternative therapy – which he regularly debunks – has persuaded UCL it is an inappropriate use of UCL’s facilities. So it’s not just writers of fiction.

And then, in one of those spooky coincidences I shall no doubt exaggerate when I next visit my local, I turn on the radio to hear Michael Horovitz complaining that he can no longer create convincing villains because he’s afraid of being censored by some nation or ethnic group. Which from the point of view of all those self-appointed guardians of our moral well-being is the ideal form of censorship: the kind we writers feel compelled to do to ourselves.


Saturday 16 June 2007

More from worrying world of censorship. See an Australian court has declared a newspaper restaurant review defamatory and therefore open to a claim for damages. Also learn, rather belatedly, that Northern Irish jurors were similarly moved to censoriousness earlier this year when they awarded £25K against the Irish News for a restaurant mauling. Confess to being more than a little dismayed by these rulings, though no doubt every country has the censorship it deserves. Where, to slip helplessly into cliché for a moment, will it all end?

When will the first playwright accuse a Michael Billington review of causing empty seats and demand recompense? Not soon, I suspect, since fisticuffs have hitherto been the preferred method of settling artistic disputes in the theatre. Luckily no one takes any notice of book reviews whatsoever, otherwise Jeffrey Archer’s sales would have plummeted long ago and he would be spending most of his time in court. Indeed, perhaps this could become a new, more reliable source of income for authors whose popularity is on the wane: find a bad review and sue.

The trouble with matters of taste is that they are, particularly in the case of restaurants, merely a matter of taste. Le gout des autres, and all that. As Voltaire put it when he likened English plays to English puddings: "nobody has any taste for them but themselves".

Coincidentally I write this having beside me the proofs of a forthcoming 600-odd page anthology on aesthetics. So from Aristotle, for example, I learn that in good drama every character must reveal a certain moral purpose; "such goodness is possible in every type of personage, even in a woman or a slave, though the one is perhaps an inferior, and the other a wholly worthless being."

Tolstoy was far less certain: "There is and can be no explanation of why one thing pleases one man and displeases another," though he eventually concluded that the one thing which distinguishes "real art from its counterfeit" is its "infectiousness". In which case, maybe it was fear of infection Edmund Burke was witnessing when he despaired that most people would prefer to watch a real hanging than "the most sublime and affecting tragedy we have."

Over two hundred years later the same argument is still being flogged like a dead horse. On Radio 4 two critics (or cultural commentators, as I believe they now prefer to be called) stumble along the well-worn rut of dumbing down. Only ten seconds pass before the first mention of Big Brother. One accuses the other of elitism. The other flings back the trump card of cultural relativism. Despite being an opponent of most censorship, am tempted to call for a ban on all critics – what are they for except to impose their taste on others, nothing more than cultural totalitarians? But acknowledge fruitless task. Critics have probably been around longer than the oldest profession – when the first human carved a pattern on a bone or painted an animal on a cave wall there was probably someone looking over his shoulder muttering, "yes, but what are you actually trying to say…?"

From which I come to the conclusion that good art is good art merely when someone tells us it is. The trouble is, as the philosopher David Hume put it, "among a thousand different opinions which different men may entertain of the same subject, there is one, and but one, that is just and true; and the only difficulty is to fix and ascertain it." Quite.

Tuesday 19 June 2007

Predictable fuss over Salman Rushdie becoming a Sir. Everyone, it seems, is now a literary critic. Being a republican I’m with Albert Finney and Michael Frayn on this, who refused theirs when offered. As a muslim commentator says on Newsnight, we should be concerning ourselves with the more important issues that divide us. Just one question: has anyone – pro or con – actually read The Satanic Verses?


Saturday 30 June 2007

Relieved to see the fuss over Salman R’s knighthood seems to have largely disappeared from the news. Whether the violent opinions generated by it have similarly dissipated is another matter, but perhaps the former will help bring about the latter. Sometimes controversies seem to be kept at boiling point simply because a few news editors decide they should be.

How much more entertaining to see a few pages devoted to Le Tour, the greatest – and surely the maddest – annual sporting event in the world. In its length, its pain, its sheer unremitting slog, it is clearly the sporting equivalent of writing a novel. And in his capacity for suffering and humiliation, his willingness to endure long, lonely hours in the saddle and his naivete in believing that one day he will be successful, rich and famous, the cyclist is clearly the sporting equivalent of the writer. We are brothers, united by our pain and our dreams.

Monday 2 July 2007

Against my better judgment find myself writing odd paragraphs of novel dreamt up some three months ago. Must be my creative subconscious pleading for a break from latest draft of TV drama. Often the way I approach a new project. Am not one for making a plan and sticking to it: first do research, then write an outline, then a first draft, then a second, etc. Have never been that organised, even during my years as a businessman (which probably explains why I wasn’t a very good one). Much prefer to come at things sideways, as it were, to chance upon details of my story as if by accident, to stalk my characters like a private eye, discovering odds and ends about them until I know as much as I need to. Or at least until they begin to bore me.

An incidental side effect of the process in this case is my belated discovery that the story is a tragedy. Which will do little for sales, I know, but one must go where the story leads. Not that I have anything against tragedy. As Joseph Addison wrote, "A perfect tragedy is the noblest production of human nature." But the tripwire lurking in that statement is the word "perfect". An imperfect tragedy can so easily become a farce.

Tuesday 3 July 2007

Finish reading Gerard Woodward’s A Curious Earth. (Another example of my disorganisation: I started with the final book in the trilogy.) An amusing and largely sympathetic portrait of a retired art teacher looking for love while being seriously hampered by his love of alcohol. With the idea of tragedy currently rattling around inside my head, suspect Woodward sees his hero as a tragic figure, particularly in view of his ultimate fate, but in the irritating way I have of rewriting other people’s novels in my head (well, it irritates me), I would have preferred a more upbeat ending. Hero, yes, but not sad and pathetic, rather defiant and unbowed. Needless to say, I shall ignore this advice when it comes to my own novel.

Wednesday 4 July 2007

In a late-night US TV drama notice well-worn but still effective device to heighten tension. Police cautiously approach door of apartment where serial killer is believed to be hiding. Cut to inside apartment where oblivious killer is preparing next murder. Knock sounds on door. Killer turns alarmed towards door. Cut to police standing back from door, guns ready. Cut to killer walking towards door. Killer opens door… And takes package from delivery boy. As police burst into entirely different apartment – to find it empty. Was it Hitchcock who did that first?

Thursday 5 July 2007

4.10am. Lie awake with hackneyed suspense device going round and round inside head. Hate this sort of thing happening when all I want to do is sleep. Half an hour later have worked out how I can use a similar trick in my own TV drama.

9.30am. Finish rewriting relevant scenes. Have now rewritten first ten pages so many times have lost count. Title page says draft 4 but it feels like draft 20. Have also discovered that, like the novel I keep distracting myself with, I am writing a tragedy. Or more accurately, since, like A Curious Earth, a tragedy only seems to become so by its ending, it will be when I’ve finished it. It will be even more of a tragedy if I don’t.


Monday 16 July 2007


Decide to write a short story. Have no real plot or characters in mind, just feel the urge. Start at 8.30, by 2.00 it’s finished. Shall put off reading it for a few days, so as yet have no idea if it’s any good. But at least it proves I can still finish something. Know I’m merely indulging in yet another displacement activity so as not to work on TV drama, but can no longer be bothered to stop myself.


Tuesday 17 July 2007


Against my better judgment, belatedly read about Alistair Campbell’s diary. Roy Hattersley comments: "Keeping a political diary of this sort is, by its nature, a disreputable activity. It is a conscious betrayal of confidences…" Does that go for all diaries that end up in the public domain, I wonder, whether published in print or online, or even discovered by your mother when she’s looking for your dirty socks?


Early on in my then amateur career as a writer I learnt – through circumstances I am unlikely ever to reveal – that unless you’re happy to let others read what you write, then it’s better not to write at all. There’s no such thing as writing for oneself. The very act of writing is a public act, no matter how securely you think you’ve hidden your revelations under the mattress or protected them with the most cunning password. Just wait until you have that near-fatal accident and realise your nearest and dearest are searching through all your papers and files while you lie helpless in a hospital bed unable to stop them.


Have a vague memory it was Raymond Carver who warned that if you want to be a writer, be prepared to lose your family. Though the experience of writing my first novel – a barely disguised slice of real life – seems to contradict this. The few people to whom I proudly showed the finished ms certainly recognised themselves, but in quite the wrong characters. The result was that they were flattered rather than offended, echoing Joyce Cary’s sentiment: "It is very pleasant to be written up, even by a writer."


Coincidentally another form of diary-making gets a bit of a knock today. Seems the provosts of the famous university down the road have been looking up students’ entries on Facebook to see if they’ve been up to anything against the university’s rules. And students being students, they have. And students being students, they just have to tell all their mates. Which effectively means, internet security being the oxymoron it is, telling the world.


The most obvious result of all this blogging is, as Hattersley rightly says, betrayal – of family, friends, colleagues, neighbours. Of course, this may have been what Alistair Campbell intended: getting his own back, as it were. Unfortunately, as Andrew Gilligan points out about Campbell’s career as a press secretary, "every intervention had the exact opposite effect from that which he intended". Which certainly seems to be the case with his diary – as with all diaries.


For all diarists’ unintended betrayal is not of others but of themselves, like the poor students bragging about their misbehaviour and like Campbell himself, who by all accounts (I admit I haven’t read the book and almost certainly won’t, but Andrew Gilligan and others have, which is good enough for me) reveals himself to be "a deeply unhappy man", even "a tragic figure", "depressed", "insecure", "aggressive", indeed "an odious, manure-mouthed bully" with "chronic vanity" and "disabling dishonesty".


For myself, after letting friends and family read my first novel, I rather depressingly saw that their inability to recognise themselves properly was less a reflection of their vanity, more a reflection of my shortcomings as a writer. Yes, I disguised them, but only so that I could more effectively reveal the truth about themselves. It’s a lesson to all writers, whether of fiction in the form of novels or of supposed fact in the form of diaries. We may think we are writing about others, but ultimately the only people we really expose are ourselves.


Saturday 21 July 2007

Just about to leave house for evening of entertainment when receive unexpected visit from policewoman, who strongly advises us to move everything that isn’t nailed down up to first floor, block off airbricks, sandbag doors and generally batten down hatches. The floods are coming. Duly alarmed, we cancel merry-making, instead hump furniture for the next hour. Later we stroll down to bulging river to see how the streets under more immediate threat are coping. To our surprise, many residents are lounging in deckchairs, drinking wine, laughing and joking as tons of water roar by inches from the top of the bank. Ah, the British in a crisis.

For myself I indulge my usual tendency to see such natural phenomena as messages intended for me alone. In this case the imminent flooding is obviously telling me to get on with the novel inspired by the previous inundation – time is running out.

Thursday 26 July 2007

Flood level, we are assured, only hours from its peak. Surrounding flood plains covered in water up to four or five feet, but still not a sign of it round our way. Party atmosphere near river now at slightly hysterical pitch, with at least five TV crews fighting for best view of possible bursting of banks. Experience frisson of fame when catch glimpse of own street on lunchtime news.

Indeed, international exposure soon follows. When we wade through flooded allotments to survey our dead and dying vegetable crop – blinking back the tears – a man takes photos of us while a woman with a notebook asks us questions. They have been sent to cover the story by their newspaper. Which is in Finland.

Saturday 28 July 2007

At party well away from stench left by retreating floodwaters tell suitably embellished story about Finnish journalists for tenth time. Even I’m getting bored.

Later buttonholed by academic who declares successful drama is all about confounding expectations. Example he gives is having one’s hero suddenly do something unheroic, like stealing money from a little old lady. Suspect this evidence of belief held by many academics that one need only study any human endeavour long enough and it will eventually reveal its essential ‘trick’. Because being a writer is regarded by many academics as a fairly trivial, undemanding activity, revealing the trick of it is a pretty easy task. Finally he confesses he would like to write a TV drama with me, which certainly confounds my expectations.

Thursday 2 August 2007

Surfing the net – as I increasingly find myself doing these days – come across article in New York Times about a crisis hitting US book clubs (the reading kind, that is, not the subscribing kind). In a nutshell: is listening to a book instead of reading it simply not done? When a librarian admitted to her book club she’d only listened to an actor reading the book choice instead of reading it herself, the news was greeted with ‘stunned silence’. An appalled fellow member – an art teacher – said it was as if she’d admitted to ‘painting by numbers’.

Across the country the controversy, it seems, rages. The ‘hardcore’ book clubbers accuse the listeners of ‘cheating’. Listeners tend to laugh it off, but confess to feeling ‘guilty’. One even feels like she’s ‘trying to cover up an affair’. Indeed, despite a cognitive neuroscientist declaring that as far as understanding goes, there’s little or no difference between reading something and listening to it, many non-readers keep their habit a secret, no doubt fearing the scorn of their more ‘virtuous’ fellow book-clubbers or even, in ‘hardcore’ clubs, expulsion into the wilderness.

Personally, I’m less concerned about readers who don’t read than about writers who don’t write. I mean those ‘writers’ who never dirty their hands with the honest toil of putting words onto paper, but merely talk into a dictaphone or ramble on at some poor shorthand-typist who must later do all the hard labour – like Barbara Cartland, I understand, did from a near horizontal position on her favourite chaise longue. Now be fair to us genuine hackers at the coal face, that’s not real writing, is it?

Monday 6 August 2007

A true tale from the mysterious world of call centres:

An Indian call centre worker was having trouble pronouncing an American customer’s surname. Eventually the customer said it didn’t matter because she was getting divorced. The call centre worker didn’t know what to say so just said he was sorry to hear that. The customer said there was no need for him to be sorry, she’d had a disastrous twelve-year marriage, but now she didn’t know what to do, she was on her own and had to start all over. So the call centre worker told her there were lots of things she could do, get a job, make new friends, move on with her life… Then it struck him: she was talking to someone she didn’t know, thousands of miles away, and it was 2 o’clock in the morning. She started laughing. And pretty soon they were both laughing. When she eventually put the phone down, I don’t know if he’d answered the question she’d originally called to ask, but she was certainly a lot happier.


Now given what most people think of call centres, that’s what I call confounding expectations.

Wednesday 22 August 2007

Scene: a London gastro-pub (a word that always makes me feel queasy, as if stomach pumping or even removal might be on the menu). Harriet’s friends are telling her off for making a fuss about the service, but she’s adamant.

‘"I didn’t get anything that I ordered from that idiot and I don’t see why I should put up with it."

"Well, where would we be if everybody behaved like that?" asked Lulu.

"France," said Harriet.'

Which, coincidentally, is where I am. And thanks to Alexei Sayle for the above quote from his The Weeping Women Hotel, which is doing its best to entertain me while the worst August weather since records began tumbles from the leaden skies outside our windows. It’s so bad and its effect so dire on the French tourist industry it now occupies lead slot on the TF1 news, accompanied by film of mad families huddled on grey gale-swept beaches staring miserably at 15-foot breakers crashing in off the Channel.

Partner and I open a bottle and embark on another round of French Scrabble, from which I have so far learned that there are fewer than ten French words that begin with W – and that most of those are English (by which I mean German). After I predictably lose again, we open another bottle and I insist we play in English, despite letters having French scores. Unfortunately lose that too. Game finally descends into Franglais, which I win easily. Feel this proves something about my inventive facility with words but by this stage am too tired and emotional to think what.

Friday 24 August 2007

Return to grey but dry England on Dieppe-Newhaven ferry, the ferry less travelled, as it were. Despite Newhaven port being a bit crummy, journey itself rather civilised compared with the cattle-truck experience of Calais-Dover or the space-age whizziness of Cherbourg-Poole. Glimpse passengers reading Will Self’s The Book of Dave and Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, a rather wild-haired woman engrossed in what is obviously her own diary, even someone ostentatiously displaying the latest issue of Scientific American MIND. This is clearly the well-read travellers’ crossing.

With four hours to kill, mind wanders over possible story – chance meeting on boat, which turns out to be not quite so accidental, a third figure whose presence may or may not be significant telling the narrator to confront a difficult experience…

Tuesday 28 August 2007

Find myself in newsagent flicking through copy of Scientific American MIND. Am I trying to see inside Friday’s fellow ferry passenger? Who knows? Who cares? Buy it. If there’s anything more enjoyable than thinking, it’s reading about thinking. Right away, article catches my eye: The Power of the Pen. Way back in 1994 a psychologist asked 100 recently sacked engineers to keep brief diaries. To the first group he gave no further instructions; the second group he asked merely to note their daily activities; the final group he asked to write down their deepest feelings about the loss of their job.

The result was that the final group were so much more successful than the others in finding subsequent jobs that the psychologist halted the experiment and told all the diarists to scribble down their most intimate feelings. So all those teenage diarists turn out to be right: it’s not just OK to write about feeling lonely and miserable, it’s positively beneficial. We should write about what we feel. It’s good for us. Let the words flow; don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Indeed, perhaps, like Alexei Sayle’s heroine Harriet, we should express our feelings out loud. If everyone did it, we might find ourselves in France.


Sunday 2 September 2007


More discoveries about the strange power of language from SciAm MIND. Have already briefly expounded my theory that all drama essentially revolves around dilemmas – to be or not to be, etc – but now find may have to do a bit of a rethink. Assumption behind theory has always been that when confronted by a difficult choice a character will always behave in a more or less understandable way; maybe well or badly, foolishly or sensibly, selfishly or altruistically, with his head or his heart, but certainly explicably.


Not, apparently, so. It seems inertia is a major factor when it comes to choices, even difficult ethical ones. In Belgium, for example, 98% of the population are registered organ donors; in the UK only 17% are. This doesn’t mean Belgians are more caring people than Brits, only that there they have an ‘opt-out’ system whereas here we have an ‘opt-in’. This kind of laziness could stop an episode of Casualty in its tracks.


Even supposing a character is sufficiently motivated to get off his arse and make a decision, chances are he will be influenced less by the nature of the choice than by the words in which it is expressed. For instance, far more people will choose a pack of mince labelled 75% lean than a pack labelled 25% fat, despite the fact the two packs are identical. Another example: Bush has gained considerable support among the US population for the abolition of what in the UK we call inheritance tax, despite the fact it’s paid by only a few very rich individuals. He got this support in part simply by renaming it a ‘death tax’.


To adapt how MIND puts it, all of this raises an interesting question: do the characters in a drama actually know what they want? When confronted with a dilemma, I imagine them rationally weighing up the alternatives, considering their beliefs, desires, ethical codes, just as Hamlet spends three hours doing. Unfortunately, it seems their deeply held values and preferences – if they have any at all – can be bent merely by words. They act, it seems, but someone else can pull their strings.


Having said all that, maybe all this proves is what better dramatists than me have known since Shakespeare, namely that words are all we have. Why, for instance, did he have Hamlet ask, "to be or not to be," instead of, say, "to live or not to live" or "to live or to die" or "to stick around or join the choir eternal"? Presumably because he knew, without the benefit of psychology researchers, that when it comes to dramatic dilemmas, it always matters what words we choose.


Wednesday 5 September 2007


Have been sent (not entirely sure why) extract from The Aesthetics of Smelly Art, an overview by a couple called Larry Shiner and Yulia Kriskovets, who write "in the hope of attracting other philosophers, as well as critics and curators, to consider this fascinating new area for reflection." After giving some examples of smelly art they examine "traditional objections to smell as a legitimate object of aesthetic attention," then discuss "the art status of olfactory artworks, closing with the complex issue of whether or in what sense perfume is art."


Well, as my mother was fond of saying, I never. Leaving aside the uncharitable question of what some people get paid for these days, it’s given me an idea. Yes, we’ve had Smell-o-Vision (films with accompanying smell scratch-cards), but no one, as far as I am aware, has come up with Smell-o-Fiction. You’re ahead of me, I’m sure, but to explain needlessly. In a smell-o-fiction novel certain pages, paragraphs, sentences or even individual words would be impregnated with an appropriate odor, so that when the reader gently rubs the highlighted area with a forefinger, a telling aroma would gently waft into their nose, thus enhancing the reading experience.


I appreciate this could be expensive for publishers, who as we know are struggling by on all too slender profit margins as it is. But online the technology would be simple and cheap. Each computer would in future be fitted with an Odor Card (as now they are fitted with graphics cards), containing the seven basic smells which in various combinations produce the entire range of different odors detectable by the human nose. In any downloadable piece of fiction certain words or phrases could then be marked as odor hyperlinks. Clicking on these would send the appropriate signal to your odor card (just as certain words in a Wikipedia entry, say, link to other entries) gently to release the exact combination of smells into your room or office.


To give an example, I am currently reading a rather good murder mystery set on the coast. But imagine how much more pleasure I could get from it if I were reading it online with the added benefit of an odor card. The initial description of the shoreline could really be brought to life with that distinctive aroma of seaweed and ozone; the bar where the locals meet could be set off with a background perfume of stale beer and chips; the fish market – well, one hardly needs to state the obvious – and when the victim’s three-weeks dead body is cut open in the morgue…


'Remember, you read it here first.'

Wednesday 19 September 2007

First day of new Writers Block term. Fifteen of us seated nervously round a U-shape of tables, all hopeful of becoming as critically acclaimed as Ian McEwan or as wealthy as JK Rowling. A few familiar faces, wearing that anxious, grey, lifeless pallor common to writers, programmers, accountants, lawyers and all the others who spend their lives shunning natural light, plus a few new ones looking not quite so ground down by years of rejection.

Our new leader – almost an exact replica of our previous leader, I’m depressed to see – asks us to introduce ourselves by giving our names, our occupations and what we hope to gain from the course. Feel even more depressed. Suspect in a previous life she may have been in marketing, or worse, customer relations. Know this is designed to make us feel more relaxed and help turn us into a jolly and supportive bunch, but actually we’re in ruthless competition. Each of us wants to succeed and the other fourteen to fail. Getting anything published is going to be difficult enough without a bunch of better writers sticking their oar in.

So after at least a third of the room have announced themselves as "retired" and shyly confessed, "I just want to get down on paper the novel I know I have in me", when it comes to my turn I can’t resist indulging in a bit of pathetic oneupmanship. "I’m an ex-writer for EastEnders." Expect at least a small sign of awe, but before anyone has time to be impressed, our leader chirpily remarks, "Well, I’m sure we won’t hold that against you."

Sunday 23 September 2007

Lie in bed hoping the novel I’m trying to read by someone whose name I can’t remember will send me to sleep. Novels increasingly seem a waste of time – and I don’t just mean since last Wednesday. As he became older my father spent less and less time reading novels, preferring to read travel books and write music, even teaching himself Greek in his late 60s. And didn’t Auberon Waugh give up reading novels at some point?

Not sure why they no longer seem worth the effort. Recall they figured largely in my youth. All those hours of fun with Franz Kafka and Joseph Heller. Which makes me think perhaps the need for stories is a juvenile urge, part of growing up. Once we are settled and hit middle age, we no longer need stories to tell us who we are and what we’re doing here. We’re too busy being who we are and doing it.

Tuesday 25 September 2007

Stagger downstairs at what feels like crack of dawn – to hear VS Naipaul talking on the radio about how he no longer reads any novelists for pleasure because they are merely saying the same things over and over. Seems I can’t get away from the subject. In a book I’m checking John Carey is quoted as stating that "literature does not make you a better person". On the other hand Martha Nussbaum believes the novel generates "potentially universalizable concrete prescriptions by bringing a general idea of human flourishing to bear on a concrete situation." Is that a headache coming on?

Wednesday 26 September 2007

Take afternoon off to see film of Atonement. So struck by last part, decide to look it up in book. To find, yet again, the very question (well, almost) that’s been occupying me all week: "What are novelists for?" The answer, according to McEwan (or rather according to his novelist heroine, which probably amounts to the same thing), is to make things right, to correct the mistakes of real life. Or, to put it slightly less charitably, to get one’s own back.

So when at this evening’s Writers Block our leader gives us a short story exercise for next week and suggests we use her as our central character, for once I know exactly what to write.


Wednesday 3 October 2007

Stories at this evening’s Writers Block predictably fawning and whimsical. "Lovely" seems to be the favourite comment from our leader. Unfortunately when I finish my short contribution a woman who always arrives clutching a cycling helmet tells me I’m being "spiteful". "It’s a work of fiction," I remind her. "How can it be spiteful?" Which may be a bit lame as an excuse but at least has the merit of a few centuries of use behind it.

Wednesday 10 October 2007

Insisting to partner am not sulking, decide to skip this week’s Writers Block. Instead to cinema to see And When Did You Last See Your Father? Which promises to be another exercise in a writer getting his own back, but in fact turns out to be a bit of an exercise in self-flagellation (in between the exercises in other kinds of self-abuse). Like Blake Morrison I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, though he’s five years younger and has a great deal more hair and my dad could only rise to a Ford Anglia rather than an Alvis convertible. But despite recognising, as we now say, where he’s coming from, find it difficult to relate to central character. In fact, find myself inexplicably becoming more annoyed and frustrated as film goes on. This should be a good film, but just isn’t.

Between bouts of boredom at the sedate pace, mind wanders onto question of who is ultimately responsible for the quality of a film. Writer, director, star? Or perhaps it’s the writer of, as Hollywood puts it, the original property. Or even, in the case of And When…, the person on whose life the original property is based. Can we blame Morrison’s unfortunate father for yet another embarrassment in his son’s life?

When I was growing up – since we’re on the subject – film criticism was firmly in the grip of the Cahiers du cinéma crowd and their ‘auteur’ theory. The director was the only person who counted; the creative vision was his (in those days, it was rarely hers) and his alone. Rubbish, of course, but so pervasive was this notion that it was only this year I discovered that François Truffaut, the great champion of the auteur theory, had the benefit of a scriptwriter on nearly every one of his films.

Unlike Truffaut, Japanese director Kurosawa was happy to state, "With a very good script, even a second-class director may make a first-class film. But with a bad script even a first-class director cannot make a really first-class film." Or as the star Dick Powell put it more succinctly, "Anyone can direct a film. Even I could do it." More recently, Peter Kosminsky (director of Warriors, The Project, etc) says, "Don't forget that it's only really about two things: script and actors. It's not about shots, it's not about the selection of lenses and where you put the lights. People don't go into the cinema or switch on their television to watch shots."

Now why did I have to look him up? Only to learn he’s just completed a two-part TV film which looks worryingly like the play I’ve been trying to write for the last three years. Can hardly complain – though of course I shall – ten similar films could have been written, made, shown, praised, rubbished and forgotten in the time I’ve wasted.

Thursday 11 October 2007

Congratulations to Doris Lessing on being awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. No doubt well deserved, though have to confess have only ever managed to finish one of her novels, The Grass is Singing. Attempted The Golden Notebook in my teens when my older sister brought it home from university, but gave up after only a few pages. There we are, back to growing up again. Is it too late – or too soon – to start writing my own autobiography?

Wednesday 17 October 2007

Atmosphere at this evening’s Writers Block decidedly tense. Or is it just my usual paranoia? When Leader asks for suggestions for subject for this week’s exercise I mention Doris Lessing. "Why don’t we write something based on our own lives?" Predictably classmates wait until Leader approves before agreeing. Even then, bike helmet lady can’t resist a humorous dig: "As long as Bob leaves out the part where he murdered his parents."

Thursday 18 October 2007

Wake before dawn with what feels like a hangover and the rewrite of a violent scene in TV drama playing itself out in my head. Have actually rewritten this drama only five or six times so far, but in my head at least a hundred, and usually at some unearthly hour of the morning. Today I seem to be rewriting because it occurs to me – rather late in the day, I know – that I don’t have a single sympathetic female character in the entire cast. Now, why’s that?

Lying in bed staring at the grey light beginning to appear in crack between curtains, veer between worrying this evidence of nasty streak of mysoginism and dogged certainty this merely way drama has panned out. On other hand, easy to correct. Decide before drifting back to uneasy sleep to do global edit on minor sympathetic character and change him to her.

Tuesday 23 October 2007

Finally get round to reading Monica Ali on the media-exaggerated protests surrounding the filming of Brick Lane. Excellent article, particularly on the issue of writers causing offence. "I fear it is taking us to a dangerous place, a marketplace of outrage at which more and more buyers and sellers are arriving … If the best we can say is how we feel about something, we turn from reason to a type of emotivism in which the frameworks for moral and political judgments collapse. … Offering rational argument constitutes no line of defence… If offence is felt, the artist has no recourse – this is how they made someone feel. My deepest fear is not that the outrage economy remains alien but that we enter it wholeheartedly. Whose voices will be loudest then?"


Until read this was considering offering an apology at tomorrow’s Writers Block to all those to whom I might inadvertently have caused offence. For what, I’m not entirely sure. But now I don’t think I shall. For all I know, an apology might cause offence to those I have yet to offend.


Wednesday 24 October 2007


Am now the darling of Writers Block – as I could have predicted after my sentimental piece on the untimely death of a pet cat loosely based on an incident from my childhood is read out to the class. Now it’s my turn to be the recipient of "That’s lovely" and "So moving" and "How beautiful". Even bike helmet lady can’t help wiping a tear from her eye. I bask in the adulation.


Actually my true feelings towards pets – particularly after I’ve inadvertently plunged my hand into one of the neighbour’s cat’s unwanted contributions to the soil surrounding our tomato plants – can be summed up more accurately in a line from this morning’s Frasier repeat: "I’m a humane person, but right now I could kick a kitten through a cooling fan." Of course, I may feel that way, but I’d think twice before writing it, even as a line for my least sympathetic female character. I wouldn’t want to offend anyone.

Tuesday 30 October 2007

To cinema to see Michael Clayton, with only limited expectations. (Unlike partner, who has high expectations of any opportunity for looking at George Clooney, even repeats of old ER episodes.) Emerge two hours later with that frustrating combination of elation at having seen an excellent movie and depression at the knowledge I shall never write anything half as good. Unexpectedly a film with lots of unfashionable themes: class, ambition, integrity. Plus the unforgettable sight of Tilda Swinton oozing corruption through her armpits. Plus Tom Wilkinson spectacularly losing it while still retaining wonderful verbal fluency; surely his finest hour (or did he do something similar in The Full Monty?). Clooney meanwhile displays handsome desperation throughout.

Walking home through city resolve to archive my thriller. Finally accept it’s going nowhere. Maybe without it weighing me down I’ll at last overcome two-year writing block.

Wednesday 31 October 2007

Evening’s meeting of Writer’s Block takes bizarre turn. Short rotund chap in early 20s sporting brave attempt at ponytail finally produces piece of prose fiction he’s been working on since beginning of term. Half hour later he’s stunned us into silence. I can hear us all thinking: what the hell was that about? "Thank you," says our leader. "Very…" We wait, but evidently she can’t think of an appropriate adjective. She turns to the rest of us with a hint of George Clooney desperation. "Any thoughts?"

Bike helmet lady ventures, "It doesn’t seem to have a great deal of narrative structure."

Ponytail man is outraged. "Narrative structure? This is the 21st century. I’m not interested in narrative structure. I’m trying to write serious literature."

Thursday 1 November 2007

Watch last episode of Britz. Decide to retrieve thriller from archive. One last rewrite.

Saturday 3 November 2007

In British Museum after being suitably overawed by Chinese terracotta army exhibition, find myself in museum shop wondering whether to buy a 6-inch high First Emperor General or an Elgin Marble chess set when come across various nicknacks modelled on the Rosetta Stone. A Rosetta Stone mousemat, for example, or a Rosetta Stone paperweight. Feel sure there’s a good joke to be made here about post-modern irony, but can’t for the moment think of one.

Sunday 4 November 2007

Watch Stephen Poliakoff’s Joe’s Palace. Decide to re-archive thriller.

Thursday 8 November 2007

Hear on radio a new profession has been established (or should that be discovered?): bibliotherapy. Which is practised by bibliotherapists. Initial happy thought is that the sickness I identified a couple of years ago – bibliophobia (fear of books) – has finally been recognised and that bibliotherapists provide the cure for which we have all been desperately searching. Sadly, no. We bibliophobes must continue to cope with our fear of the printed word as best we can. Bibliotherapy, it turns out, is nothing new. Only the name. It’s what we used to call ‘reading to people’.

"It’s very good for sick people to be read to," claims the representative of the bibliotherapy profession. "If we think they’re up to it, we even encourage them to write. It doesn’t matter what, of course. Just so long as they write something."

That’s all we need. More aspiring writers with no interest in narrative structure.

Friday 9 November 2007

Listen to BBC discussion about ‘correct English’, but with only half an ear – there’s a discussion on the BBC about correct English at least once a month. Tune in more closely when Michael Rosen points out there is no academy laying down the law about what is correct English; it is merely a collection of generally agreed conventions, which furthermore are changing all the time. But surely, protests the programme presenter, even he must have some particular bugbears. "Not a single one," says Rosen. "When I see potatoes with an apostrophe I just smile." Thank you, Michael. Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Saturday 10 November 2007

As usual check pic of writer’s room in Guardian. To find at last a room that reflects the kind of writing done in it. Russell Hoban (author of excellent dystopian novel Riddley Walker) occupies what could easily be an underground sanctuary in a post-apocalyptic world, crammed with tottering piles of old CDs, salvaged electrical goods, dog-eared maps tacked to walls as reminders of what once was. One day, all writers rooms will look like this.

Unlike the etching I find while surfing the British Museum website of Jonathan Swift in his study. Seated at a bureau, quill pen in one hand, weary head in the other, he is surrounded by books and various scientific and astronomical instruments. On the floor lie scattered a pack of playing cards, three dice and three broken swords. Finally and rather bizarrely, a boy stands on what looks like a cloud holding out to him a sealed letter – possibly containing Dryden’s putdown: "Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet."

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Reading with interest a classical historian’s comments on her brief period as a consultant on a TV toga-dram. When she suggested the drama show a particularly abhorrent (but authenticated) practice in order to illustrate an aspect of the ancient civilisation’s attitude to children, she was told, "Oh no, we couldn’t show that. We don’t want to make them look evil." Which certainly goes to show one shouldn’t depend on TV dramas for one’s history, but also illustrates the desire among those who put out historical TV drama that it have ‘relevance’. So much so that they play out all our favourite contemporary obsessions in pretty much the way they would in a contemporary drama, but with the actors dressed in funny costumes, standing under poor lighting in gloomy sets with little sanitation. Whereas, as this historian points out, the fascinating thing about those who lived in the past is not how similar they were to us, but how amazingly different.

Including, for example, their notions of evil. A concept which, in any case, we seem to have a great deal of difficulty in grasping. Arthur Miller made the point when writing about The Crucible, in which he made the character Danforth seem about to conceive of the truth and to at least listen to arguments counter to those of the prosecution. But, Miller wrote, "there is no such swerving in the [historical] record, and I think now…that I was wrong in mitigating the evil of this man and the judges he represents. … There was a sadism here that was breathtaking. … I think now that one of the hidden weaknesses of our whole approach to dramatic psychology is our inability to face this fact – to conceive, in effect, of Iago."

It makes me think – yet again – of how I might have misrepresented a couple of characters in my thriller, by trying to give them honorable, or at least understandable, motives for the unspeakable things they do. Maybe I should simply let them be bad, be who they are, do what they do.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

In Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, come across accidental insight into what makes a movie (or novel) popular. He relates how he is certain he dislikes Schindler’s List; his wife is equally certain he likes it. So he sits down to watch it again, this time with a close eye on his reactions. The truth is he thinks the movie is wonderful right up to the last two minutes, then he hates those last two minutes so much they cancel out his otherwise good opinion.

Do endings have that much disproportionate influence over our likes or dislikes? Apparently so. Can’t remember ever saying the best bit was the beginning, or the middle third, or that a book was ruined by pages 120-150. Yet we spend weeks honing the first chapter of our novel or the first ten pages of our script, because all the ‘how to’ books tell us they’re the only bits the publisher or producer ever reads. No wonder the publishing industry and Hollywood get it wrong more often than they get it right. We shouldn’t waste time on the beginning; just make sure the ending is good, because that’s the only bit that counts.

On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t. We should, it seems, be wary of success. For another insight Gilbert provides is that we are particularly bad about predicting the future, or more precisely, how we will feel about it when we get there. We think we know, but more often than not, we’re wrong. Why do aspiring writers want to write? Because we want to give up our jobs, because we want to be rich, because we want to be famous, because we have a burning need to entertain – lots of reasons, of course, but they all essentially boil down to one: we think it will make us happier. It is, after all, the reason we do most things. But how can we be sure it will make us happier? Well, suggests Gilbert, there’s one thing we could do, and that’s ask successful writers if it made them happier. And I think we all know the answer to that. Swift, to pick a successful writer at random and because I still have his portrait on screen, in his entire life was paid for only one work, Gulliver’s Travels, and composed his own, hardly encouraging, epitaph: "Where fierce indignation cannot further tear apart the heart."

Maybe we aspiring writers should spend more time reading psychology books. And be more careful what we wish for.


Saturday 1 December 2007


To the spanking new St Pancras International for research purposes. Have set a scene of thriller here, so need to check what I want to happen is physically possible. Happy to see it is, though whether permission would ever be given is another matter. Whether anyone ever commissions the thing is another even more remote matter.


Still, such a glorious day difficult to be downhearted. Decide to walk to Regents Park . Few hundred yards along Euston Road find myself passing huge bulk of British Library, recipient of every single UK publication since 1911, even the half-dozen issues of a mercifully shortlived magazine I edited in my early 20s. Briefly toy with going in and asking to see them, so they get moved from the ‘nil-use’ category to the ‘little-use’ category. No. Better to let them rot.


Reach Regents Park clutching current reading matter, Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which coincidentally seems to be about the importance of preserving stories, among other things. Brush with British Library reminds me there’s a character in the novel called Sonmi-451, which vaguely recall reading somewhere could be a friendly nod to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451, which in turn was apparently prompted by Bradbury’s love of libraries. Idly let these thoughts rattle round in head as I pass people strolling in the sunshine, kids playing football, animals pacing their cages in the zoo.


On top of Primrose Hill sit and look at London spread before me. How many of the millions down there would care much if the British Library and all its books disappeared tomorrow? With the world wide web, our iPods and our 5000 digital TV channels, are we closer to the book-burning world of Fahrenheit 451 than we care to admit? In Bradbury’s novel, hidden in the countryside rebel groups keep books alive by memorizing them, one book per person. The rebel fireman Montag is introduced around. "Meet War and Peace. Over there is Moby Dick." Would we book-lovers be dedicated enough to do the same?


Then it hits me: one modest but brilliant idea.


How to solve the storage problems of the British Library, establish universal literacy, preserve the nation’s culture, generate in everyone a sense of nationhood, make identity theft impossible, reduce crime, illegal immigration and the terrorist threat, provide a proper and improving purpose for the iPod, and elevate the quality of conversations at supermarket checkouts.


Forget ID cards. Forget biometric data, pin numbers, passwords on post-its stuck to the bottom of desk drawers. Any individual who requires ID must simply memorize a single unique publication from the British Library.


Whenever proof of identity is required, the individual hands over their unique publication (which must be carried at all times); the person who is seeking verification then flicks through the publication and asks a question at random. For example, if the individual has handed over Henry V, it might be, "How does Act III, Scene I start?" or if a guide book to Amsterdam , "What’s the best jazz venue?". On giving the correct answer ("Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more" and a place called Bimhuis, to save you the trouble of looking them up) the individual’s ID is confirmed and the transaction proceeds.


Of course, it will be the individual’s responsibility to keep their publication safe and in good condition (which will be required by someone else on the individual’s death) – thus saving the British Library the trouble and expense of doing so. So it would be wise for the individual to carry a facsimile for day-to-day use, particularly with rare and precious publications. Theft will be pointless, since all publications are in the public domain in any case. It will be difficult enough for a would-be identity thief to memorise his own publication, let alone someone else’s as well.


"What about the internet?" I hear you cry. Simple. For those who wish to perform transactions over the internet or by phone, it will be their responsibility to scan and download their publication to a central database, which can then be accessed by anyone with whom they wish to do business.


One of the many beauties of the scheme is the complete absence of coercion. People will soon realise they’d better get in quick or all the interesting books will be gone. Few will want to be stuck with a text in Old English or a volume on statistics. Of course, many will choose something short and sweet, like a children’s book, thinking it will be easier to remember; but then they’d have to spend the rest of their lives quoting Peter Rabbit at sniggering bank staff. Sadly, I suspect few people will go for the classics – too longwinded. But then, looking on the bright side, that goes for Harry Potter too. According to current library lending figures, car manuals will be in high demand.


Another happy byproduct will be serendipitous experiences at the supermarket. For example: "ID, please." "Certainly, here you are." "Oh, Autobiography of Berlioz. That’s a coincidence. Beethoven was in here a couple of days ago buying sausages for a barbecue. You ought to get together." And how much less irritating it will be knowing that the incessant tinny wheezing coming from your fellow bus passenger’s iPod isn’t some ghastly pop tune but actually a revision audio of Tom Paine’s Rights of Man?


Then there are the benefits to schools. Anyone, like me, who has become increasingly appalled by the steady erosion of educational standards in this country due to wishy-washy ‘child-centred’ teaching methods born in the 1960s will welcome the return to traditional learning by memorization. Literacy will, of necessity, become universal. Any child who hasn’t mastered his ID book by the time he leaves school must stay on until he does or simply become a non-person, in which case he won’t figure in the literacy statistics anyway.


I could go on. About how this will do away with silly ‘Britishness’ tests for would-be citizens; about how much more pleasant stop-and-give-me-your-ID operations will be for the police; about how it makes every single member of the population a living, practicing custodian of the nation’s culture. In fact, as an idea, I’d even go so far as to put it up there with Writer Star! and Smellofiction.

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© Bob G Ritchie 2000-2007