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Bob's 2003


Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer

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Bob's 2002 Journal

Bob's 2001 Journal

Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer


by Bob G Ritchie



Sunday 5 January 2003

What better way to start this year's diary than by listening to Alan Bennett talking about diary-writing. Actually, the Queen Mother of Eng Lit - as someone once called him - sounds rather tired on Radio 4's Book Club. Asked by a member of the British Library audience if he'd always written his diary with publication in mind he denies it, claiming that most of what people write in diaries is unpublishable, nothing but tedious whingeing. Brings me up short. Am I guilty of that? Probably.

Monday 6 January 2003

First day back in the office. Phone message from The Writer's Handbook. Would I like to continue with my regular series of pieces for the 2004 edition, or would I like to contribute something different? With only one sample EastEnders script to my name, feel somewhat under-qualified to write piece on how to write for popular TV drama series, so decide to continue previous articles. But how nice to start the year with a commission. I make a new year's resolution: no tedious whingeing in this year's diary.

Surprised to see one of my own self-addressed envelopes in the accumulated post of the last two weeks. Even more surprised to find it doesn't fill me with instant gloom as once it might. Recognise it as one I sent out over 18 months ago with an outline of Makeover, my idea for a TV comedy drama series. The rejection letter apologises for the 'delay' in replying. I make no comment. No tedious whingeing in this year's diary.

Email from Paul Rose, a fellow would-be EE scriptwriter. Apparently the series editor who was supposed to read our scripts over Xmas failed to do so (can't say I blame her). And now she's on holiday for a month. Therefore no news on possible commission until mid-Feb earliest. In the afternoon I receive an almost identical email from the EE team, but explaining the delay by the needs of the 'production schedule'. I make no comment. No tedious whingeing in this year's diary.

In the evening there is another writer on Radio 4. Must be the week for writers. Playwright Nick Darke talks (or rather, tries to talk) about life after his stroke. Actually, his struggles to find the right word (smack, smoke, shoke, soak, shtroke!) are hilarious, mainly because he himself finds them so funny. Needless to say, he has exploited the experience shamelessly, as any writer would, by immediately starting work on a play about Mr Brain (who just lies around all day) and Mr Body (you're not doing your share, Mr Brain, I do all the work). Entertaining stuff.

But then suddenly, amid all this positive thinking, his wife admits she can no longer bring herself to watch an old video of Nick because he has changed so much. And she starts to cry. It occurs to me there is a subtext to this story which Nick would rather keep hidden.

Maybe he's also made a new year's resolution. No tedious whingeing in his diary.



Wednesday 15 January 2003

Prompted by renewal of commission from The Writer's Handbook to ask when their spin-off guides to writing drama and crime fiction will hit the bookshops. Must be some childish desire to see my name on as many back covers as possible. An exchange of emails tells me: May. Seems unnecessarily distant; I finished my chapters six months ago.

Never mind. Move on. In last email comes hint at two more possible spin-offs: travel writing and writing for children. Would I be interested in doing some interviews for them?

Ah, tricky. May not be the world's leading dramatist but I have written quite a few plays; similarly may not have completed a crime novel, but I am in the middle of one and do actually read them. Travel writing and children's books, on other hand, altogether different proposition. True, I did write a travel book once, Business or Pleasure (particularly proud of that title), based on my experiences of working in France and the Netherlands and doing business with the Japanese, of which I did a great deal in a former life. When I finished it I was convinced it was going to turn me into the next Bill Bryson. Unfortunately no publisher was prepared to run that risk.

When it comes to children's books, qualifications even more notable by their absence. Only daughter now twenty-five so haven't even glanced at one for over twelve years.

So about to modestly decline offer when recall Paul Theroux once wrote kid's book in between all his travel tomes. And doesn't he live in the Caribbean now? Email back immediately: OK.

It'll be tough, but somebody has to do it.

Tuesday 21 January 2003

Panicking that may have been bit hasty re travel/children's guides. Actually been going through bit of a writer's block since beginning of December. Apart from a few notes on a couple of old film ideas have written very little. Decide to consult The Writer's Block, Xmas present from daughter containing "786 ideas to jump-start your imagination". Wittily it's printed and bound in the form of a 3-inch cube (i.e. block - geddit?). Only hope that's not the best thing about it.

One is supposed to open it at random, so...

...I see a photo of two hands cupping a seedling in a ball of earth with the word 'fertility' on the facing page. Wait for inspiration to strike, but in vain. Conclude this coincidence is cruel joke by the gods, since fertility of ideas is exactly what I'm short of.

Flick to another page... be told that Frederick Forsyth recommends one should only write about what one knows. Oh, dear. Even worse. Are the gods reading my emails?

In desperation turn to introduction. Maybe I'm doing this wrong...

...ah, that's better. Ken Kesey thinks one should write about only what one doesn't know. A view supported by Annie Proulx, who opines that to write only about what one knows would be completely stultifying. How would one ever grow as a writer if one never explored unfamiliar territory?

Could be an important lesson for would-be travel writers. Followed the same advice myself two years ago when writing The Novel. I set it partly in America - though I've never been there - and made the first-person narrator a transsexual - and I've definitely never been there.

Monday 3 February 2003

Broadcast email from fellow-Talent finalist: one of his ideas for Doctors has been given the green light at last. Not only that, but his pilot script for a new sitcom has been taken up by a TV production company. And as if that were not enough annoyingly good news, a film script for what he knowledgeably calls a ‘rom com’ has reached the final cut of a US screenplay competition.

‘Anyone else got any news?’ he asks.

Am about to point out that after having all his earlier ideas rejected – like the rest of us – he was the one who dismissed Doctors as a pretty lousy drama series anyway, but stop myself in time. Remind myself am shortly to receive first commission from EastEnders so must rise above such petty jealousy.



Tuesday 4 February 2003

At last getting thoroughly stuck into murder mystery novel. (Can’t keep calling it that. Give it a name, for goodness’ sake. All right: ‘Conservation Area’. Because that’s where it all happens. Yes, I know, I’ll think of a better one.) First murder has been committed; body has been discovered; enter the police.

Which is when it gets difficult. First-hand experience of police fairly unpleasant, mainly dating from being on the wrong side of them during a misspent youth, so am reluctant to paint my detectives in the rosy colours of most fictional sleuths. Recent research hasn’t caused me to change my mind, either. So my detective is a foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking, racist ignoramus. Not exactly Inspector Morse, but then my man isn’t much of a detective.

Which reminds me of another problem: how to make the bodies stack up in the morgue without the detective looking like a complete incompetent. The usual answer seems to be to give the murderer almost superhuman powers of cunning, near invisibility, disguise and physical strength. Really, it’s a wonder any of them are caught. Can't say I think much of this, so my solution is to make my murders almost random. My murderer doesn’t continue to get away with it because he’s a psychotic genius, it’s more that he’s just, well, overlooked.

Which brings its own problem: motive. Can’t have him bumping people off just for the hell of it. What makes him turn to murder?

Wednesday 5 February 2003

8 am start. Have been thinking about the motive problem all night but still failed to come up with brilliant solution. Wearily turn on 7-year-old laptop – only to find screen remains unaccountably blank. Panic sets in. Beads of perspiration form on forehead. Is it getting warm in here? Stare stupidly at screen as it gradually dawns on me that without something to show me what I’m doing, can do nothing. Can’t even turn it off. Oh God, when did I do my last backup? How much work am I going to lose?

Take life in hands and turn it off by the power switch, i.e. crash it. Wait ten agonising seconds then turn it on again. Screen still blank. Phone service centre, only to be airily told that to repair a laptop screen would take two weeks minimum and cost at least £1000. ‘Frankly mate, you’d be better off buying a new machine altogether.’

Now, that could turn a man to murder.



Tuesday 11 February 2003

Could give gory chapter and verse about previous few days’ battle with computer from hell, but decide best for my sanity to draw veil. Must just try and forget. Suffice to say, managed in the end to save all my work and transfer same to shiny new laptop purchased at great expense from condescending but knowledgeable 12-year old at Computers-?-Us. Old computer, needless to say, now works perfectly.

Thursday 13 February 2003

My murder mystery Conservation Area progressing nicely. Feel, however, it would progress even more nicely if a bunch of programmers from Microsoft hadn’t decided they know more about grammar than I do. Getting very fed up with having every mistake I make underlined by a thick red line. Must work out a way of telling this machine I actually want sentences without subjects and verbs occasionally, or may have serious falling- out.

Have still not solved murder motive problem satisfactorily, but decide to continue regardless. Confident something will occur to me sooner or later. Recall Minette Waters was halfway through one of her novels before she’d even decided who the murderer was, never mind fixed on a motive.

Suspect this kind of ‘blind’ writing more widespread than the ‘how to’ books would have us believe. Joseph Heller once said he never knew what any of his novels were about until he’d written the first draft. Then he’d throw it away and start again. Vaguely recall reading that Scott Fitzgerald did the same thing with The Great Gatsby. Even Dickens, writing largely to magazine deadlines, made a lot of it up as he went along.

At the other end of the scale, James Thurber claimed he could write almost an entire piece in his head before committing a single word to paper, and when Henry Miller was asked how his latest book was coming on, he answered, ‘It’s finished. All I’ve got to do is write it down.’ Nothing, however, can top the writer whose 180,000-word synopsis was actually over a third longer than her finished novel.

Personal writing method somewhere between the two poles. Have written a synopsis, but it’s only about 20 pages long. And halfway down page one I’ve made such a major change to the plot I don’t use it anymore.

Wednesday 19 February 2003

Wrestling with knotty problem of whether to make a clue a genuine clue or a red herring, so take a break and turn on Classic FM to relax my brain. For some reason ears prick at the announcement, ‘And now here’s the weather forecast, courtesy of Kleenex’. Hardly a surprise, of course. Sponsorship lifeblood of commercial radio. Also becoming widespread on TV. Morse was sponsored by a beer. Most ITV dramas reach our living-rooms thanks to HSBC, most Channel 4 movies thanks to Stella Artois.

Then it occurs to me. Maybe publishers and authors are missing a trick here. Why shouldn’t novels be sponsored too?

Given Dalziel’s eating habits, Reginald Hill could probably get a lucrative deal with Macdonald's or any other fast-food chain. The US Department of Defense would no doubt be happy to sponsor anything by Tom Clancy – though, come to think of it, he does a pretty good job promoting their interests without being sponsored, so why should they? (I speak as someone who has never read a word he’s written.)

Nearer to home, Miss Marple always seems to round off a tricky case with a nice cup of tea, so just think how much more money Agatha Christie could have made if her books had been brought to us courtesy of Brooke Bond. A discreet ad for Alcoholics Anonymous wouldn’t look out of place in any of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels. And the manufacturers of Aga should get in touch with Joanna Trollope pdq.

Speaking for myself, I’m going to send an email to Seattle. Maybe I can live with the red-lining of my writing after all – if the price is right. Beneath my photo and the review extracts from the TLS and NY Review of Books,  I’d be happy for them to pay me for a plug: ‘Grammar courtesy of Microsoft’.



Saturday 1 March 2003

Apropos my musings on grammar, tune into radio programme on spelling, wittily entitled ‘I before E except after C’. Know this a subject dear to almost every English heart. Can already hear the rising of hackles, the sharpening of pencils, the tapping out of angry emails. When I was a member of my daughter’s primary school PTA, every other complaint from parents was about why their little darlings weren’t being set spelling tests every day "like when I was at school".

It’s not a serious programme, thankfully, spending a lot of time with the wonderful writer but endearingly hopeless speller Beryl Bainbridge. She confesses she always has problems with February – "I never know where to put the other r" – and worries over whether the plural of donkey is donkeys or donkies.

Another interviewee has a simple solution: everyone should simply spell the way they like. "If you think personnel is spelt with one n not two, then spell it that way." A ray of hope for the alphabetically challenged? Sorry, no. The trouble is, then the reader wouldn’t know if it was a misspelling of personnel or personal – or indeed (if the reader suspected the writer was a really bad speller) of aardvark.

Deep down – speller or non-speller – everyone has a sneaking suspicion that good spelling is at best the sign of a dullard, at worst the obsession of people with serious personality defects. Perhaps because so many of us were brought up on Winnie the Pooh: "He respects Owl, because you can’t help respecting anybody who can spell Tuesday, even if he doesn’t spell it right; but spelling isn’t everything. There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn’t count."

At heart we all want to see ourselves as free spirits. Shakespeare used different spellings of the same word, so why shouldn’t we? And didn’t some American once complain, "Chawcer was the wuss speller I know of"? Faced with these forces of lexicological anarchy, the editor of the OED has to fight a rearguard action, claiming – against all his listeners’ experience – that well over 95% of our words are actually spelt in a standard way. Even if true, this doesn’t sound like good news. That means roughly one word in every two lines of an average paperback isn’t.

Our free-speller thinks there’s a class element to our obsession with spelling, one of the many methods the wealthy use to keep the poor in their place. Maybe, but I know plenty of exceptions. Some of the worst spellers I know are highly educated people from impeccable backgrounds. Even the heroine of Shaw’s Pygmalion knows posh people are really no better than her: "I don’t want to talk grammar. I want to talk like a lady." Conversely, popular cowboy philosopher Will Rogers recognised the importance of spelling: "Nothing you can’t spell will ever work." Though what he probably said was "cain’t".

Which perhaps points to where the problem really lies: our confusion between spelling and speech, between words and our pronunciation of them. Dickens’s Sam Weller would no doubt agree. "’Do you spell it with a "V" or a "W"?’ inquired the judge. ‘That depends upon the taste and fancy of the speller, my Lord,’ replied Sam."

And apparently this is a peculiarly English characteristic. "They spell it Vinci and pronounce it Vinchy," Mark Twain wrote; "foreigners always spell better than they pronounce."

My own spelling black spot is words ending in ‘ise’ or ‘ize’, so when the programme is over I decide – after all these years – to consult Gowers’ Complete Plain Words on the matter. And I quote:

"There are some verbs which are never spelt with a z in this country. There are others for which many people, particularly if they have had a classical education, prefer a z; but the latest authorities incline to the view that in these cases s is permissible. This being so, the simplest course is to use an s in all cases, for that will never be wrong, whereas z sometimes will be."

For some reason I feel enormous relief. Our peculiar spelling is a reflection of the richness of the many influences on our language, and I would have it no other way. But it is comforting to know that usage and common sense occasionally prevail. To complete my research I look up the word ‘spell’ itself, to find it has no less than four distinct meanings. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky it doesn’t have four different spellings too.



Wednesday 12 March 2003

Scary dream featuring George Bush. He’s complaining about my spelling. Unless I start writing the American way I must go into exile or ‘face the consequences’. Wake in cold sweat. Shall resist, of course, but shan’t be surprised if from now on I find myself writing center, defense, tonite, panan for trousers, traveling with one el, and words ending in ize.

Sunday 16 March 2003

10 million viewers will this evening watch the final episode of Cold Feet. The writer Mike Bullen claims this is the last ‘ever’; he’s now concentrating on two 40-something series, perhaps hoping to keep hold of the same audience as they age along with him. In my experience viewers tend to identify with characters 10-15 years younger than themselves, so I suspect Cold Feet’s biggest fans are 50-year olds. 30-somethings prefer to watch programmes about people in their 20s, who in turn are too busy getting trashed to watch TV. I’m not sure what 60- and 70-somethings get up to, but in a couple of years’ time I’ll have firsthand knowledge.

I liked the initial one-off drama. But Bullen said later he had to wait years before the first series was commissioned, despite high viewing figures and a couple of prestigious awards. Have to admit I lost interest about halfway through the second series – the characters were beginning to get up my nose. I was plainly in a minority. Five whole series about will-they, won’t-they. The mind boggles. An interesting illustration of the way TV decision-makers think: they may be slow to recognise a winner, but when they do they work it till it drops.

Monday 17 March 2003

Have reached a point in Conservation Area where I must put myself in the mind of my murderer. Feel distinctly uneasy. Writers say they find sex the most difficult thing to write about. Personally, I find it a piece of cake compared with violence. Not that I lack the imagination. On the contrary. I try to think evil thoughts and they come, all too easily. I tell myself they are memories of research - articles about the Wests, the Yorkshire Ripper, interviews on Death Row - but it doesn’t feel very convincing. I’m the one who’s having these horrible thoughts. Innocent little me.

Tuesday 18 March 2003

Re my worries about having nasty thoughts, Catherine Pepinster goes a step further in the Indy and asks: should Polanski’s sexual assault of a 13-year old affect our appreciation of The Pianist? Apparently a bunch of people don’t want a man like him given an Academy award and to this end are publicising his transgressions on the Internet. Similarly, a group campaigned to have Eric Gill’s stations of the cross removed from Westminster Cathedral because Gill sexually abused his daughters.

This is a rocky road. One of the main problems with censorship is where you draw the line. Pepinster cites Vivaldi’s dodgy goings-on with convent girls and Caravaggio’s murderous past. Dickens was thoroughly unpleasant to his wife and Shelley treated women little better. Strauss might have been a Nazi sympathizer and Wagner probably would have been, had he been around at the time. I don’t want to diminish the nastiness of what Polanski did, but if they start banning works for what their creators did, eventually they may get around to you and me. And I don’t know about you, but I have plenty to hide.

Wednesday 19 March 2003

Following computer near-disaster few weeks ago, now dogged by more technological problems. Have installed shiny new printer/copier/scanner/fax all-in-one, only to have it inexplicably chew up my answerphone message and regurgitate it as a high-pitched whine over what sounds bizarrely like two men fighting over a parking space. Temporarily thrown back on resources of mobile phone.

Which rings.

"Hello, Bob. It’s Aamina from EastEnders. Remember me?"



Wednesday 19 March 2003 (cont’d)

Dinner out with partner.

Thursday 20 March 2003

Hung over.

Friday 21 March 2003

Dinner party with friends.

Saturday 22 March 2003

Hung over. Decide to give liver a rest. Cancel evening out. Watch TV instead.

Sunday 23 March 2003

EastEnders omnibus. Now I’ve been given my first commission, feels only right I should catch up on all the current storylines. Gosh, hasn’t Phil discovered Kate’s a policewoman yet? I knew that back in October.

Monday 24 March 2003

A flurry of emails delivers highly secret, password-protected story documents about my ‘month’. Which, because they start in the middle of August, don’t make much sense. Who are all these characters I’ve never heard of? Luckily the post delivers very fat envelope with previous two months’ stories. Spend the entire day reading, in between fending off desperate demands from my office landlady that I tell her if Anthony and Zoë are ever going to get together again. Ruin her day by revealing Anthony is leaving the series, which she could have found out for herself a few days ago simply by reading the papers.

Every visit to coffee machine now prolonged by excited occupants of other offices’ congratulations, usually followed by, "Of course, I don’t watch it", just in case I should run away with the idea I’m doing anything at all worthwhile. One woman, however, tells me she’s an enormous fan, wouldn’t miss a single episode and particular loves the day-to-day goings-on in The Square: "The shootings and car crashes and houses going up in flames are exciting, but they’re not the real reason for watching, are they?" Which makes me feel a whole lot better, because that’s what I think too.

Watch Oscars into the early hours, mainly to see how well – or badly – The Pianist does. Best Actor Adrien Brody, Best Adapted Screenplay Ronald Harwood, Best Director Roman Polanski. Yesss! Feel almost as pleased as if I’d written it.

Wednesday 26 March 2003

Planning meeting. First visit to Elstree since November. Can’t help walking a little taller when I give my name to the security guard on the gate and he replies, "EastEnders writer?"

Meet Laura, my new script editor, who shares an office with Aamina, to whom I grovellingly apologise yet again. At the end of her phone call last week – after I’d recovered from the shock of realising I’d soon be writing words that’ll be heard by millions – she casually dropped in, "And what about all these horrible things you’ve been saying about script editors?"

Seems she’d come across and was surprised to read the less than flattering things I’d apparently written about her and her profession. She let me get thoroughly tongue-tied while I made increasingly feeble excuses, then put me out my misery by laughing.

Taught me a lesson, though. No scoring easy points at the expense of others, especially when they’re people I like and who do a brilliant job.

Am I forgiven now, Aamina?

Planning meeting turns out to be fairly daunting affair. Almost thirty people (16-17 writers, 4 script editors, 4 producers, series editor, storyliners, etc, etc) crammed round one table, objective being to discuss the stories in our month, where they’ve been, where they’re going, and iron out any problems anyone might have with them. Relieved to see it’s chaired by a familiar face, Helena, our producer from the shadow scheme. I think I ask a question, but actually I am so excited to find myself among all these professionals, the meeting goes by in a bit of a blur.

Emerge two hours later into unseasonally warm sunshine. Is it my imagination or has the world shifted slightly in the last few days?



Monday 14 April 2003

The problem with helpful comments is that every scriptwriter knows they are absolutely essential, but no one likes getting them.

Return to office after enjoyable yet excessive birthday celebration to find five pages of single-spaced notes from Laura on first draft of my first EastEnders episode. Right away hangover starts to feel a lot worse.

Naively I’d assumed – no doubt like every first-time EE writer before me – that my first draft was so brilliant and entertaining I’d receive merely the politest suggestion that a comma or two was misplaced. Despite the fact I’d been told way back in October – and had had it drummed into me on every possible occasion since – that scripts typically go through five drafts and sometimes as many as nine. What did I think all those drafts were for: just changing ‘good heavens’ to ‘blimey’?

So, after Laura has given me a gentle but well-deserved ticking-off for feeling depressed (“If you feel like this after my comments, just wait til you get them from the producer and series editor.”), we get down to business. A lot of what we need to sort out is not so much my bad writing (though there’s enough of that too), more getting a clearer handle on the stories and the characters’ emotional journeys. Which is a difficult job when you’re talking about events that are going to happen over four months after the episode you’ve just watched.

I now realise the story documents, and even the commissioning meeting (when we hammered out the stories for my week in more detail) have taken me only so far. To really understand where everyone is and where they’re going I need to talk it over and over with the person who knows, i.e. the script editor, i.e. Laura. After more than an hour on the phone delving deep into Pauline’s real feelings about Martin and Little Mo’s touching devotion to Billy, I finally begin to understand the real meaning of the word collaboration.

Wednesday 16 April 2003

It’s funny how one’s bad writing is so much easier to spot after someone else has spotted it.

Can barely credit how pathetic my first draft is now I have the benefit of Laura’s perceptive comments. Of course, some are merely practical problems – like having a character suddenly appear after 15 minutes for a major scene without setting them up earlier, or having a confrontation between two characters that preempts something in a subsequent episode – but most focus on the importance of getting to the heart of what each scene is really about and making every single line count.

In effect, this means I’m going to have to rewrite almost everything. May be no bad thing. Having also had the benefit of a few days’ gap since I last read it, am seeing more horrors in my first draft than even Laura mentioned. How could I have been so satisfied with it?

Thursday 17 April 2003

Fat package arrives from Pan MacmillanOne of largest fiction and non-fiction book publishers in UK; includes imprints of Pan, Picador and Macmillan Children’s Books. Realise it must be advance copies of the two Writer’s Handbook spinoff guides I contributed to way back – when was it? – last summer. In cloud of EE euphoria had almost forgotten them. Tear open and quickly scan back covers for my name. Gratified to see it on the Guide to Writing for Stage and Screen. Obviously they didn’t have room for it on the Guide to Writing Crime Fiction.

Nonchalantly flick through to my chapters to see where they’ve been positioned, but end up reading them all the way through for no doubt the thirtieth time since I wrote them. Well, things always read better in print. Know these books are unlikely to be massive bestsellers, but still get a thrill from seeing my words in print.

Hardly dare think what I’m going to feel like when I hear them on TV.

Tuesday 22 April

After working every day of long Easter weekend am progressing well with second draft of EastEnders episode. I think. Actually it’s impossible to tell when it’s only me reading it.

Rapidly coming to conclusion this is probably the most difficult aspect of being a writer: how to criticise one’s own work. Plan to finish second draft by Thursday, then put it aside till Sunday in hope that gap of a few days will allow me to come upon it with requisite degree of disinterest. Meanwhile I try to bear in mind the advice from Samuel Johnson I quoted in my chapter of The Writer’s Handbook Guide to Writing for Stage and Screen (pardon the plug): ‘Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’

Wednesday 23 April 2003

3am. Wake with brilliant idea for merging two scenes. Surprised and delighted my mind so alert so early in the morning. Mentally plan in intricate detail resulting shift of affected actions to earlier in the episode, then drop back into contented coma. Hardly worries me at all that I am now dreaming brabout EastEnders.

9am. Open laptop to resume work, only to find cannot recall single word of brilliant 3 am idea. Even three cups of black coffee fail to kick relevant brain cells into life. Instead recall very old story about a not-very-successful comedian who used to dream that he was the funniest man alive. He decided to put a pencil and notepad by his bed, so that when he next dreamt of people in hysterics over his latest joke he would force himself to wake up and write the joke down. Sure enough, the next night he dreamt he was telling the funniest joke ever. So he woke himself up and scribbled the joke down, then went back to sleep. In the morning he looked at the notepad to see what he’d written. It was just one sentence: “I am a hammer.”


Sunday 27 April 2003

Just enough time for last pass through my second draft before emailing it to Laura hot from her hol in Seattle. Change the odd line here and there – hopefully for the better – but see no glaring horrors. Can’t decide whether this is good news or bad. Fiddle with it for two or three more hours, then with a muttered prayer to the great Tony Jordan in the sky, finally email it.

Tuesday 29 April 2003

Feel somewhat lost without my episode to get me up in the mornings, bereft even. Clean the office from top to bottom. Read War and Peace from cover to cover. Still only 10am. So in a mood of total desperation decide to do my tax return. Decide, furthermore, to embrace technology and do it on-line.

Spend three hours gathering invoices (not many of those), receipts, etc., and putting them in some sort of order. Add up all the relevant figures and come to the inevitable depressing conclusion: not only have I not earned very much, but on the little I have I am going to have to pay tax. With heavy fingers I connect to what some wag has called the Government Gateway, which for some reason makes me think of The Secret Garden, a land of permanent summer, in which tax inspectors gaily skip through sun-kissed meadows of cowslips and cornflowers, singing of love and scattering rebate cheques.

By the end of the day I have failed to file my tax return, but am the proud possessor of not only a 10-digit tax reference and a NI number (which alone would surely be enough to identify me uniquely), but also a new 12-digit User ID, a 10-digit Password and something called an Activation PIN.

Like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner find myself shouting at the screen, “I am not a number!”



Friday 2 May 2003

Leave home at crack of dawn for 9am Elstree meeting with Laura to discuss my second draft. She’s much less brutal with this one – because it’s much better, why else? – even so we talk for over two and a half hours. Mutual dissatisfaction homes in on a ‘fancy dress’ story I’ve invented for a character who wouldn’t normally be seen dead in anything so demeaning. We agree it’s got to go.

At the main gate, today’s autograph hunters are a bunch of 13- to 14-year old girls. As I drive out they eagerly lean towards the car, giggling and waving hopefully. "Hiya!" they call, despite knowing I’m not one of the stars they’ve been waiting for.

Feel I’ve gone up another rung of the ladder. It’s a lot better than the dismissive, "He’s no one" I got last time.

But buoyant mood soon ruined by 5-mile tailback on M25 and typical Friday afternoon jams around Oxford, with result I miss friend’s wedding and arrive only in time for reception. Luckily partner has explained delay on my behalf. With result complete strangers approach me with, "You’re the bloke who writes for EastEnders , aren’t you?"

After explaining for the tenth time why I can’t divulge what’s going to happen to Phil Mitchell and Kate, start to wish some of this vicarious fame would wear off. Escape by engaging the vicar in conversation. Surely she doesn’t watch it. " Ah, I’m glad I’ve got a chance to talk to you," she says. "I know this wonderful character who’d be perfect for EastEnders…"

Monday 12 May 2003

Cheery emails arrive from two fellow-shadow scheme writers. They’ve got their first episode commissions. I email back that I’m enormously pleased for them.

Of course I am.

Tuesday 13 May 2003

Once more to Elstree, this time to discuss my third draft. Have replaced my fancy dress episode with what I think is a first: an EastEnders version of the climax of The Taming of the Shrew. With a cunning feminist reversal, of course, in keeping with our PC times.

But this time I don’t even need Laura’s comments. As soon as we start discussing the relevant scene, I know it’s not going to work – despite the fact it’s just the sort of clever reference Alison Graham would latch onto in the Radio Times. Well, you have to think of these things.

Laura is in an excellent mood. This week’s episodes of EE have been script-edited by her and she’s pleased with the results. She’s particularly chuffed by the fact she and the writer managed to sneak a ‘bloody’ into one of Dot’s speeches. So chuffed, in fact, she wonders if I could get away with changing ‘load of nonsense’ in my script to ‘load of bollocks’. I tell her that’s how the phrase had started life six weeks ago, but that I had softened it in an uncharacteristic fit of self-censorship.

"Let’s go for it," she says. And we giggle like a couple of naughty school-kids scribbling rude words on the toilet walls.

Thursday 15 May 2003

I think I’ve finally arrived. An email from the EE story department. Would I please submit my story ideas. YESSSS!!

All right, it’s been sent to 42 other writers as well. But, NB, my name is not the last one on the list.

Friday 16 May 2003

After eight solid hours working on fourth draft, join queue of homeward bound commuters waiting in rain to cross the only road bridge that connects one side of town to the other. As always at this time of day, standing on the bridge is a familiar figure: a man of about 50, dressed only in trainers, red running shorts and a shirt that he long ago gave up trying to button over his naked paunch. The rain runs off his near-bald head but he doesn’t seem to mind. Waving a plastic water bottle for emphasis and making decisive but unfathomable gestures with his other hand he talks ceaselessly to himself. About what, who knows? He is a mass of ever-changing expressions – frowns, grins, anger, amazement – like an actor doing warm-up exercises for his face muscles. I’ve no idea what he’s feeling, but he doesn’t look unhappy.

When I was a child I used to be frightened of such people. Then when I was older I wanted to save them, or somehow change the world so that they would no longer be born. Now – a sign of maturity? – I’m just thankful he doesn’t have to spend his entire life locked up in some institution.

Not to mention the fact he’s given me a great story idea for EastEnders.



Monday 19 May 2003

The EastEnders tempo rises. At 9am deliver what is optimistically referred to in the schedule as the ‘final draft’, i.e. my fourth. My clever Taming of the Shrew spoof has gone, but I’ve managed to slip in a verse of Byron. Another first, surely?

Laura emails some suggested changes, almost by return, which I agree with and incorporate. Draft 5. Are we there yet?

Tuesday 20 May 2003

Fifth draft goes to Louise Berridge, executive producer, i.e. the big cheese. The theory is that hers is the final box to be ticked. Any changes she suggests should be minor by this stage.

I stop myself from biting my nails by working on some ideas for the EE story department. Idea 1. Walford council decide to erect a memorial to the Queen Mum and workmen start to dig up Albert Square for the foundations. Only to discover a body…

No. Have a vague feeling that’s been done before.

Wednesday 21 May 2003

A pleasant surprise. The editor of The Writer’s Handbook sends his outlines for two more spin-off books: travel writing and writing for children. Am I still on for doing some interviews? Well, yes, I think I am.

Reminds me I’ve heard nothing more about contributing to an upcoming writer’s summer school. Was decidedly modest about giving pronouncements to other would-be writers a few months ago, but now, with one EastEnders commission to my name, am ready to offer advice to anybody.

Well, maybe not. Late afternoon Laura emails to say Louise wants us to completely rework at least two of the main stories in my episode.

Actually, feel surprisingly un-depressed by the news. Am really enjoying all this rewriting. Don’t want to let go. Feel a bit like a mother reluctant to wave goodbye to her child attending first day at school.

Thursday 22 May 2003

10am. Elstree. Meeting with Laura to discuss Louise’s comments. Emerge three hours later with realisation I’m going to be working most of the Bank Holiday weekend.

No eager autograph hunters to boost my ego this time, but I do hold open a door for Wendy Richards. I know. Pathetic. But suitably embellished it’ll make a story for dinner parties.

Saturday 24 May 2003

Take a break from the tricky problem of what to do with Phil Mitchell’s baby daughter to go to Lord’s to watch the England cricket team demolish a decidedly inferior Zimbabwe. One of our party is a woman about to escape the rat-race to a farmhouse near Chartres. She announces she is going to write a book about it: "a sort of Bridget Jones meets Peter Mayle".

Can’t help feeling she’s missed at least two boats with that idea.

Monday 26 May 2003

Bank Holiday. Hah! What Bank Holiday? After working eight hours without a break, finally finish draft 6. Watch tonight’s EE to check the regular characters still look and sound the way I’ve portrayed them, then get an early night.

As any one of them might say, feel a bit knackered.

Tuesday 27 May 2003

9am. Email draft 6 to Laura.

Wednesday 28 May 2003

10am. Elstree. Discuss Laura’s comments on draft 6.

3pm. Start draft 7.

Thursday 29 May 2003

6pm. Finish draft 7. Well, almost.

Friday 30 May 2003

8.30am. Really finish draft 7.

9am. Email draft 7 to Laura.

1pm. Laura phones. The producer has read it: just a few tiny changes.

3pm. Finish incorporating tiny changes. Email amended draft to Laura.

4pm. Email from Laura: "Have a nice weekend!"



Sunday 1 June 2003

Spend all day honing my ideas for the forthcoming EastEnders story conference. Concentrate on three: a story about homosexuality and cultural divide; one about racism; and one about the most unlikely character getting the most unlikely religion. Hold out little hope of them being adopted, but think most important thing at this stage is to get my name out there.

Monday 2 June 2003

Read over story ideas. All three are frightfully PC, but it’s too late to change them now. Fact is, deep down, because the BBC is a public service and EE is pre-watershed, it is a very PC series. Some time ago the story dept came up with a new character: a black female doctor confined to a wheelchair. But even the writers drew the line at her.

In some ways the new family on The Square run the same risk. A mix of Goan and Portuguese ancestry, they are immediately mistaken for devout Muslims by half the locals and for Hindus by the other half. Cunning minds in the story dept, however, have given them the usual mix of soap problems to tackle: paternal tyranny, unsuitable love affairs, various addictions, etc. Not entirely surprisingly, there’s a critical analysis of them on Radio 4’s Front Row. Not entirely unfavourable either, which is perhaps more of a surprise.

Tuesday 3 June 2003

Drive to my 9am Elstree meeting with Laura, listening to Radio 1 for a change. And there they are again: the new family on Albert Square. Though admittedly the discussion isn’t conducted at quite the high intellectual level offered by Radio 4. Apparently R1 listeners are mainly interested in which of the Ferreira brothers is the most ‘fit’ (i.e. sexy).

For myself I watch tonight’s episode with more than casual curiosity. For the past couple of months – aided only by a page or so of biography – I’ve been putting words in the mouths of three of the Ferreiras without having had a single glimpse of them. Have I got them right? Their mannerisms? Their attitudes? Well, yes – forgive the immodesty – but I think I have.

Sorted. As Phil Mitchell would say.

Wednesday 4 June 2003

Email draft 8 to Laura.

Thursday 5 June 2003

Laura phones with a few more small changes. Producer, directors, schedulers, researchers, etc. are also still having their say, most of their comments designed to ensure everything I’ve written is consistent with every other episode and stays within the laws of the land, not to mention the laws of physics.

Friday 6 June 2003

Email draft 9 to Laura. To give myself a cheery little glow of Schadenfreude I email a couple of friends from last year’s EE Shadow Scheme, just starting on their own episodes. One admits he’s already had two 3am finishes and is still only on his first draft. I suggest he pace himself: he may have another eight in front of him.

Sunday 8 June 2003

Feels like the first genuine rest I’ve had from EE since mid-March, so read Michael Frayn’s Spies. Takes me at least 30 pages to get into the rhythm of prose again. So this is a novel. Once you get used to the leisurely pace and the single story line, they’re not bad, are they?

Monday 9 June 2003

Laura phones. Louise thinks one scene still needs tweaking. In half an hour I rewrite it six times, only to decide first rewrite works best, so email that.

Tuesday 10 June 2003

Laura phones. Out of habit I have my script in front of me, ready to make notes. But no! It’s the call I’ve been waiting for. Louise likes my rewritten scene. My script’s finally been approved! Sign-off! YESSSS!!!!

By now, of course, I feel as if everybody at BBC Elstree has had a hand in getting it to this stage. Six months ago I would have cut the arm off anyone who had the temerity to suggest a single change. Must be maturing, because I now realise I could never have written half as good a script without their help, particularly Laura’s.

Wednesday 11 June 2003

Celebrate yesterday’s good news with a meal at our local trendy Italian eaterie. Only to discover it full of camera crews from Meridian TV. Seems we’ve stumbled into the latest ‘reality’ show. A sound man holding a ten-foot long boom mike and a cameraman joined to him at the hip follow us to our table, where we’re presented with a ‘disclaimer’. Not sure exactly what we’re disclaiming – the possibility of being shown eating on TV, perhaps, or the possibility of being given inedible food – because the din from 300 excited diners prevents us hearing a word the manager’s saying. But we sign.

Actually the manager looks surprisingly pleased with life – well, I suppose he would with 300 wannabe TV extras occupying all his tables – considering the point of the evening is to film a man with no previous experience in the catering business take his place for the day. Mischievously my partner and I try to dream up ways in which we can make his ‘reality’ a bit more real: declaring loudly we’ve been waiting half an hour for our food and where the hell is it, perhaps; or screaming that the wine is disgusting and demanding our money back; or maybe just passing out in the middle of the room with salmonella poisoning.

But actually when he personally brings our starters, he seems such an obviously nice bloke we decide to go along with it all, despite having a mike and camera following our every move. And frankly it’s difficult to see what could go wrong. The waitresses plainly know what they’re doing and so, I presume, do the cooks.

In fact, it’s probably more a case of them telling him what to do rather than the other way round.

Not unlike, I realise, my experience on EastEnders.



Tuesday 17 June 2003

Realise EastEnders story conference must have come and gone without my receiving an invitation to attend. Oh, well. Maybe my suggestion that a middle-aged man should have an unrequited mixed-race gay passion for a man half his age was pushing it a bit.

By way of compensation, receive instead the official rehearsal script of my episode, together with my name at the very top of page one. Above – note, above – the names of the producer, director, editor, executive producer, series producer, script editor, series script editor, series story editor, make-up assistants, camera supervisor and second and third assistant directors. Sadly, cannot share moment with anyone, owing to fact page one also has ‘confidential’ printed all over it. But spend rest of day admiring all 99 pages lying weightily on my desk. Looks so much more professional now it’s in proper BBC script format. Not to mention longer.

Wednesday 18 June 2003

Further compensation for being left out of story conference arrives in form of invitation to attend a story workshop. Seems EE story department want to involve writers in story development process, but think it’d be a good idea if we had a bit of practice under the guidance of Tony Jordan first.

Fair enough. I’m up for that.

Friday 20 June 2003

Conservation Area causing me some problems. Have introduced all main characters now and laid a few clues and red herrings along the way. Murder has been committed and police have arrived, convinced it’s an open and shut case: they already know who did it. OK so far.

Trouble is, not sure I’ve identified my hero clearly enough. Along with most crime writers, I’m writing in the third person – as God – though from what I’ve read, they often imply first person narrative by writing almost exclusively from the point of view of their hero, only occasionally chucking in a scene he has no part in, just to get through a necessary plot turn or give the reader the illusion they’re ahead of the game.

Fear I might be being a little too God-like, allowing the reader to see almost everything except the actual murder. Fine as it goes, and it certainly makes developing the plot a lot easier, but how do I let the reader know who my hero is if he gets no more air-time than anyone else? Should I put him more centre-stage? Police play big role to begin with, but I don’t want reader running away with idea my obnoxious detective is the main player. (Though now I’ve really got into writing about his vile habits and his even viler opinions I’m beginning to warm to him. He may not be the hero of this novel, but he could be the star of the next…)

On other hand, may be worrying unduly. As story develops hero becomes more central – though like all good heroes, he’s a reluctant one – so could just continue and hope for the best.

Second major problem to do with size of canvas. Story takes place over period of ten years and involves almost an entire community – not to mention a few foreigners along the way. Fact is, I just love stories with epic sweep, casts of thousands, etc. When I pick up a crime novel I want to learn something about the world we live in, not just that the victim was bumped off because he’d sexually abused his daughter.

Nevertheless, having only just got past the murder, feel daunted by how much is still to come. Have I bitten off more than I can chew?

Wednesday 25 June 2003

Notes for EE story workshop arrive by email. Five writers and I have been allocated a character each, for which we’re expected to come up with story ideas. I’ve been given Derek, the 57-year old homosexual.

Maybe there’s mileage in that unrequited mixed-race love affair idea, after all.



Tuesday 1st July 2003

Big day. 10.30am to Elstree for EastEnders story workshop. I, four other writers and Tony Jordan sit in a large conference room – conveniently close to the BBC bar – and dream up increasingly bizarre travails through which to put our allocated characters. Tony remembers me from last year’s shadow scheme, which is flattering. Unfortunately he isn’t very excited by my suggestion of giving a 57-year old homosexual an unrequited mixed-race love affair, which is not so flattering.

Much more enthusiasm greets other ideas, particularly one involving a child dying of leukaemia. Tony is clearly delighted at the prospect of lots of heartrending bedside scenes and cheerfully accuses the originating writer of being ‘sick’. We learn later the writer also contributes to the daytime medical drama series Doctors, which probably explains it.

When we turn to the younger characters, ideas are hard to come by. Desperately we try to dream up stories involving ecstasy, clubs, raves, etc. Tony accuses us of not being very good at youth culture. I look round the table. Average age 40-45. Hardly surprising, really. I make a note to do some research with my 20-year old nephew, who moonlights as a DJ on Saturday nights.

At 3pm I sneak into the producer’s box in Studio A and watch some actual filming. This week and next they’re doing my ‘week’. With a bit of luck I may see some of my very own lines committed to video tape. Gazing at a bank of 20-odd monitors, surrounded by a small team of quietly efficient professionals, I watch with awe as actors and crew rattle through the scripts. Only two or three rehearsals for each scene, then they’re into recording. Two or three takes later, maybe a few reaction shots, and they’re onto the next scene. Amazing.

Finally I realise they’re about to start on one of mine. Have to resist a strong urge to spend the next 20 minutes hiding in the gents. Not sure what I’d rather do: watch the actors struggle through my hopeless dialogue, or imagine worse. Like them refusing to say the lines at all.
Needless to say, the scene goes smoothly. The director invents a bit of action for the actors to perform, about which I had been deliberately vague in my script (because I couldn’t think of anything interesting), and one of them changes a couple of words, but otherwise it emerges pretty much as I’d envisaged. Whether it’s any good is another matter. After nine drafts I can find no merit in it whatsoever.

Just as I’m getting in my car to leave for home, my mobile rings. It’s Kay, a new name to me. She’s putting together the next three or four weeks of episodes, scheduled to go out over Christmas and the New Year. I try to sound casual. "Oh yes?"

"I’d like to put you down for one of the episodes," she continues. "Are you free?"

Outside the studio gates the autograph hunters seem to be getting younger but more vociferous. A couple of 10-year olds shout and wave at me as I drive past. I hesitate, but then think, oh why not? I’ve just been given my second episode. I may not be one of the famous faces, but I am one of the people who put words in their mouths.
I wave back.

Thursday 14th July 2003

By chance tune in to Radio 4 programme on punctuation. Can hardly believe ears, but yes, it’s true. Punctuation.

Well, we’ve recently had a programme on spelling, and hardly a day goes by without some listener complaining about pronunciation, so suppose it was only a matter of time. Although seems a bit cart-before-horse, because – correct me if I’m wrong – don’t recall hearing a single programme about grammar. Nevertheless regard it as my duty to listen. After all, as no doubt many writers have already said a great deal more eloquently, punctuation marks are the roundabouts on the route through the road network of our words, and readers can all do with a little help negotiating them, can’t they?

I try, I really try. (Or should that comma have been a semi-colon?) But when the talk turns to an earnest discussion of the pros and cons of dashes over quotation marks to represent speech… Well, I’m sorry, I just lose the will to live.



Wednesday 16th July 2003

11am to Elstree – now spend half my life on the M25 – to attend commissioning meeting for next episode. This is when we writers tell the series producer and series editor how we envisage putting our episodes together. Unfortunately have still not quite got the hang of these affairs; when it comes to my turn hear myself veering off at all sorts of tangents, attempting to rewrite story lines and asking lots of irrelevant questions. Luckily, because am still a new boy, everyone is very patient, and in response I get a lot of useful background stuff on the stories I’ll be covering. But at meeting’s end I, alone of all the other writers, am asked to provide a scene-by-scene breakdown by the end of the week. Plainly still need my hand holding. Just hope no one’s thinking: omigod, we’ve given him a Christmas episode – have we done the right thing?

Friday 18th July 2003

Email scene breakdown to Lucy, my new script editor, with only an hour to spare. Probably the quickest I’ve ever written one. Two years ago, managed to knock one off in half a day for my Casualty entry for BBC Talent, but wasn’t being paid, so that doesn’t count.

Tuesday 22nd July 2003

Email first draft to Lucy. Four days. Now that’s quick.

Monday 28th July 2003

A sobering few days. So sobering, in fact, must apologise in advance for having – perhaps only temporarily – lost my sense of humour.

After successfully delivering first draft on Tuesday, felt free to enjoy four days of my other life: singing with a local choir. About 40 of us motored off to Wells to practise for concerts in the cathedral and the rival church St Cuthbert’s. Every two years we spend a few days in a different cathedral city – Exeter, Chichester, Norwich, Canterbury, etc. Alternate years we go abroad – Rome, Paris, Venice, Prague, etc. Highlight of our calendar.

Like most group trips of any kind, it’s a given that some kind of disaster should befall some poor individual: in Prague, someone’s money was stolen; in Venice someone’s room was flooded; in Exeter someone got lost. And so on. This year it was my turn.

An hour and a half before the concert on Saturday, my partner and I and another choir member were just ordering food at a nearby pub when I started to feel as if a thick belt had been put round my chest and was slowly being tightened. Within a minute or so the pain was too obvious to ignore and I was breaking out in a cold sweat. I wanted to keep taking deep breaths but couldn’t. My partner took one look at me and asked me what was wrong. I had to go outside – even though it was pouring with rain – the room was suddenly stifling.

Fifteen minutes later the pain hadn’t lessened. It felt as if a giant hand were squeezing the life out of me. My partner – a lecturer in nursing – phoned a cardiac expert friend of hers, who listened for a minute then told her to call an ambulance. Twenty minutes later I was flat on my back with an oxygen mask over my face, the nasty taste of aspirin and vaso-dilator in my mouth, a canular stuck in my wrist and about ten cables going from various parts of my body to an ECG machine while being raced through the rain-sodden Somerset countryside to Bath Royal United Hospital.

From then on it was like being in an episode of any medical series you care to name, except in real life, I’m happy to report, everyone knows what they’re doing. Actually, by about halfway through the journey, the pain had considerably lessened. And by the time we arrived at A&E I had no more than a vague memory of it. I was beginning to feel that strong sense of fraudulence many people have when they find themselves tended to by the massed forces of the health care system.

Luckily one of the questions the friendly paramedic needed to ask me during the journey was what I did for a living. When I told her one of the things I did was write for EastEnders, it was as if she’d suddenly discovered royalty. I was reminded of the ferryman’s line in Shakespeare in Love: “I had that Christopher Marlowe in the back of my boat once.” By the time I’d been peered at by most of the A&E nurses, even I was beginning to think I was someone important.

Now feeling perfectly OK and expecting to be given a quick nod and told to go home and not waste everyone’s time, I was surprised when I learnt I’d be having a couple of major tests and would have to stay there under observation at least until 8 the next morning. Fortunately my partner stayed til gone 11, then we both decided she should go back to the rest of the choir – who by then had performed the concert we had all been practising for – to reassure them I was still alive.

Then long hours of utter boredom and depression set in. I was wired up permanently so couldn’t get up to stretch my legs. All I could do was lie there and worry about whether this had been the first indication of more serious things to come. Even the other Saturday night patients failed to distract me. A young Glaswegian, when he finally awoke from his self-inflicted coma, complained he’d had trouble with his eyesight. “Yes,” agreed the staff nurse, “you were blind drunk.” A handsome young Rastafarian was surprised to learn he’d be there for a few days yet: he was suspected of a paracetamol overdose. An elderly woman was well enough to leave, but her daughter kept making excuse after excuse not to take her home. A smoker, his drip stand in tow, kept wandering up to the nurses asking if they would take him outside so he could have a fag. A young party girl had taken one pill too many and was wheeled in almost unconscious accompanied by her two sheepish-looking friends; in the morning – fit and well – she asked if she could now go back on her ‘usual medication’.

Perhaps if the circumstances had been different I might have had my notebook out. All good material for stories. But my enthusiasm for stories had deserted me. This was all a bit too close for comfort. Drama is all very entertaining when it’s safely in the pages of a book or on a screen. It’s not so much fun when it’s happening to you.



Tuesday 29th July 2003

Trip to GP. All clear. Am not going to die, at least not before I’ve finished my Xmas episode of EE. (see last week's extract) Unfortunately, as if mysterious, unexplained heart events aren’t enough to keep me awake at nights, teeth are now falling apart at alarming rate. Am I turning into The Portrait of Dorian Gray, punished for my life of immorality and debauchery?

Friday 1st August 2003

Lucy’s notes on my first draft arrive. They don’t bring on the suicidal depression Laura’s did to begin with, so congratulate myself on finally having developed the right kind of team spirit. Even so, looks as if I’m in for an almost complete rewrite.

Wednesday 6th August 2003

TodMonday 26 May 2003 I wave back.ay was to be a get-together for the few of the 2001 BBC Talent win ners who are still talking to each other. Unfortunately work/holiday commitments result in so many apologies for absence, we decide to postpone. Try to wring some deep significance out of this non-event – along the lines of writers preferring the company of their fictional creations to that of real people – but suspect it’s probably just a simple case of piss-ups and breweries.

Monday 11th August 2003

Email completed second draft to Lucy. It doesn’t sparkle yet, but it’s a considerable improvement on the first.

Tuesday 12th August 2003

To the theatre to see a Peter Hall production of Pinter’s Betrayal. An interesting structure: it starts when the central affair between a married woman and her husband’s best friend is over, then moves back in time until it ends with the start of the affair. Halfway through, I experience my own little bit of time travel: I realise I’ve seen it before.

Recall play caused quite a stir in NW1 when first put on. Why, I’m not sure. Perhaps a woman having an affair with her husband’s best friend raised eyebrows in the 70s, but somehow doubt it. It certainly doesn’t now. Perhaps it was originally meant as a Cold War metaphor, in which case it was a mistake updating it to 2003. Was a huge Pinter fan once, though mainly through films. The Birthday Party and The Caretaker were genuinely scary, and his scripts for Accident and The Servant caught that undercurrent of viciousness that flows through the British class system brilliantly.

Am struck by depressing thought. Is this the fate of all playwrights who shine brightly early on: eventually to have their work merely appear in increasingly unsatisfactory revivals?

Tuesday 19th August 2003

Have been reading a few film scripts, the latest being Robert Towne’s Chinatown, which, according to the author blurb, is ‘widely recognised as one of the greatest motion pictures of all time’. Well, it certainly won an Academy Award for best original screenplay in 1974, which must say something.

Besides being the writer of The Last Detail, Tequila Sunrise, Days of Thunder, The Firm

Fiction and non-fiction, plays, film.

TV rights, performance rights.

and Mission Impossible, Towne was also a rewriter on Bonnie and Clyde, Marathon Man and The Godfather. Unfortunately, even that kind of experience doesn’t seem to cut much ice with Hollywood producers. He was so upset by someone else’s rewrite of his script for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, that he replaced his own name on the credits by that of his dog. In true Hollywood fashion, the dog ended up with an Academy Award nomination.

As they say, only in America.

Wednesday 20th August 2003

Try not to pounce too eagerly on the day’s delivery from the newsagent, but can’t resist a childish thrill at sight of my name in next week’s Radio Times, albeit in very small print. ‘Tonight’s episode written by Bob Ritchie’. There are even a few paragraphs about my episode in the choice for the day and a still photograph of Wendy Richard and Ian Lavender. No mention of my Byron moment, unfortunately, but one can’t have everything.

Thursday 21st August 2003

Everyone seems very exercised by GCSE and A-level results at the moment. And when I say everyone I mean of course a few journalists. Only they, it seems, hold the view that the evident increase in the ability of teenagers to pass exams is a cause for alarm, but they are determined the rest of us should share it. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that in the subject of English at least, today’s children are much more sophisticated than, say, my generation were. When I was a teenager, we tended to believe what we read in newspapers and disbelieve what we read in novels. Today’s teenagers, on the other hand, tend to believe what they read in novels and disbelieve what they read in newspapers, which I think is a considerable advance.

Thursday 28th August 2003

At last. My first EastEnders episode.

Watch most of it from behind the sofa, but actually it’s not at all bad, though I say so myself. Very weird experience hearing my words coming out of a small box in the corner of the room. Try not to think about the 15 million other people hearing them at the same time.

About three seconds after my name appears on screen the phone starts ringing. An hour later, my head swelling with the praises of friends and relations, I start to feel a bit like Robert Towne’s dog.

Fame at last. Woof woof.



Tuesday 2nd September 2003

Having just delivered draft four of my second EastEnders episode, am enjoying unaccustomed day of leisure when phone rings. It’s Kay. Am I available for another episode?

Feel like saying, need you ask? But then struck by daunting thought. Haven’t actually finished second episode yet – is it wise to take on another? Evidently same thought occurs to Kay, but she reassures me. Only the next couple of weeks will overlap and they’ll give me a few extra days for the first draft if I need them.

OK then. If she’s confident I can do it, who am I to disagree?

Wednesday 3rd September 2003

Large files arrive by email. I love this bit: finding out what terrible traumas the story department have decided to put the characters through. Thrilled to see I’ve been given a Monday episode. Am probably imagining it, but suspect I’ve just climbed up the next rung of the ladder. With a bit of luck, in six months’ time I’ll be trusted with a Friday.

Friday 5th September 2003

Elstree. Spend the morning having my fourth draft chewed up and spat out. No less than four stories need to have more life injected into them, at least one of which will require a complete restructuring. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken on that third episode after all.

Afternoon: commissioning meeting for third episode. Requires rapid change of focus: major stories have become minor ones, background stories have moved centre stage, new ones have just got started, old ones have disappeared for good. Because my episode kicks off the week, I get to start the meeting. I fear another nerve-wracking experience, particularly after having my latest script put through the shredder, but actually it goes rather well. Most of my ideas meet with approval.

Afterwards drive past the usual group of autograph hunters in buoyant mood. My first episode’s just been transmitted, I’m in the middle of my second and I’ve just started a third. Can I consider myself a professional writer yet? Maybe. Maybe.

Tuesday 9th September 2003

Second long day buried in my second episode rewrite, so have little time even to check my emails. When I do, find one from the BBC reminding me about the Dennis Potter Award. Unfortunately, barely register the details, too focused am I on the BBC’s description of me as "a writer whose talent we esteem". Later the postman delivers a letter from Mal Young – the head of BBC drama series – thanking all EE cast, crew and writers for making it a good year at the latest TV awards ceremony. Drift into delightful fantasy of hearing my name announced to wildly cheering Oscars audience. Modestly start my acceptance speech: I’d like to thank my mother…

Thursday 11th September 2003

9am. The grim reality of writing to a deadline. Have been working non-stop since 7am yesterday – apart from four hours’ uneasy sleep haunted by dreams of being trapped on the set of the Vic and finding the beer pumps produce nothing but water. My eyes feel as if they’ve been peeled. But at least draft five is finished.

Friday 12th September 2003

A very nice young lady calls from the BBC to tell me, quite unprompted, that my fee has gone up.

For the first time in my life I realise I am actually earning from writing just about enough to live on. Can I consider myself a professional writer yet? Well, yes, at long last, I think I can.



Monday 22nd September 2003

Partner full of praise for Man Booker Prizewinner Life of Pi. Am disappointed to learn it’s not a layman’s history of Euclidean geometry, but intrigued to be told hero’s name is short for piscine. (Has everyone been mispronouncing it all this time, then? Or is it that Life of Pee would be an unlikely bestseller, except maybe among medical students?)

The choosing of names for characters is always a difficult job for writers – perhaps the most difficult. Writers always want names to somehow fit their characters, despite the fact that this rarely happens in real life. And to prove the latter, I do something I’ve always wanted to since getting ‘connected’ but up to now have been too modest to attempt: search for my own name on the internet.

In his novel Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut invents a word for groups of people who think they have – but in fact do not have – something in common. I can’t remember the word, but the example he gives is people who come from Utah. I realise as I gaze into this endless spiralling vortex of over 80,000 instances of the name Bob Ritchie that I am looking at another example.

Seems there is a Bob Ritchie who is a motorcyclist in the Isle of Man TT, another who sells walk-through ewe feeders, another who is a director of a shopping centre, and perhaps most bizarrely, a Bob Ritchie who, under his pseudonym Kid Rock, is the latest partner of pneumatic ex-Baywatch starlet Pamela Anderson.

Try to remember what point I was trying to prove, but fail.

Thursday 25th September 2003

Read in today’s Guardian that bestselling Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte is accused of plagiarising the film script Gypsy from fellow-author Juan Madrid. The story, which Reverte claims came to him 20 years ago but which Madrid claims is virtually identical to one he wrote in 1996, involves a gypsy flamenco protagonist emerging from prison after being framed by a foreign music producer, having his life wrecked by a cheating wife then miraculously saved by the love of a young flamenco beauty – in both scripts called Lola – the foreign baddies finally being dealt with by the sympathetic gypsy patriarch.

While not for one moment suggesting authors never plagiarise, see three major problems with this accusation.

  • One: why would any author bother to copy such an idiotic story?
  • Two: why would anyone as wealthy as Reverte bother to copy any story?
  • Three: why would any plagiariser with half a brain not change the name Lola?


Friday 26th September 2003

Just finishing Jed Mercurio’s Bodies, ‘the strongest fiction I have read all year’ according to the Standard, ‘one of the top five first novels of the year’ according to the Guardian, but actually a rather too informative picture of what goes on inside the mind of a junior hospital doctor. Having laughed myself sick at TV’s Cardiac Arrest – which he also wrote, but inexplicably under another name – I expected the same from this. Unfortunately not. Far too many ghastly injuries, lingering deaths and catastrophic mistakes compounded by exhaustion, drug-taking and joyless sex. As my father used to say when he discarded a book after 30 pages, ‘I get quite enough of that at home.’

Towards the end, however, there is an episode in which the hero is forced to treat not only an immigrant family burnt in a house fire but also the slightly injured man who deliberately caused the fire. Failing to shock the blackened corpse of a six-month-old baby back to life, Mercurio’s outraged hero finds himself about to inject a lethal dose of potassium into the fire-raiser.

Amazing how one scene can make a book.

I suppose doctors are in many ways the closest we have to people with power over life and death. Which probably explains why there are so many medical series on TV. The real people with powers akin to God’s, however, are writers. Only writers can create characters out of nothing. ‘When you’re stuck,’ as Raymond Chandler once advised, ‘have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.’

When it comes to giving names to their creations, however, even writers have their limits. Yann Martel may be able to name his hero after the French for swimming pool and get away with it, but no writer, no matter how many bestsellers he’s written, can make you believe all young Spanish flamenco dancers are called Lola.



Monday 29th September 2003

As if to illustrate my recent musings on writers’ God-like powers over life and death, tonight’s episode of EastEnders resurrects Den Watts. Hardly a surprise, of course, given his imminent reappearance has been trailed in every tabloid and TV magazine in the land for the last ten weeks. Even so, it’s caused some raised eyebrows, especially among those who claim never to watch it.

Main complaint seems to centre round the mere fact of his resurrection, as if it were somehow cheating to have him come back to life after having been so dramatically and apparently irreversibly killed off. I see no problem. It’s a common tactic on such occasions to leave a tiny loophole through which a character can if necessary crawl back into the limelight. After the conflagration that took away wife-beating Trevor, the body of arguably the Square’s nastiest character was mysteriously nowhere to be found. We should therefore be prepared for a possible reappearance in ten years’ time, just when terrified Little Mo is finally settling into contented domesticity.

In soapland, the disappearance and reappearance of characters is a necessary device. Mainly to cover actors’ extended theatre runs or film commitments, the inevitable transformation of child characters into teenagers, prolonged periods of sickness, or even the replacement – after a decent interval in which it is hoped the audience’s recollection of faces will become hazy – of one actor by another playing the same part. Admittedly, death and resurrection are rare. Long trips to Spain are usually enough.

Soaps are not alone. Shakespeare was certainly not above bringing the dead back to life, though usually, it has to be admitted, in the form of ghosts, e.g. Banquo and Hamlet's dad. And Conan Doyle famously resurrected Sherlock Holmes after the public clamoured for his return.

In horror movies it has become commonplace to resurrect the villains, not only for the inevitable sequels, but also within the length of a single film. Indeed, it seems essential that he (or she) should apparently be killed at least two or three times, just so he can scare the living daylights out of everyone a couple more times. Robot villains like the Terminator also take an unconscionably long time to die – only to be reborn for a sequel or two, albeit inexplicably as the hero.

Vampires, of course, ‘die’ every time the sun comes up, retreating to their coffins during the hours of daylight, condemned to be reborn at dusk until some kind soul puts them out of their misery with a stake through the heart. The Flying Dutchman, while an altogether nicer person, suffered the same curse of eternal life, condemned by the devil to roam the seas for ever, or at least until redeemed by the love of a good woman.

Perhaps the same fate is intended for Dirty Den.


Tuesday 30th September 2003

Totally unexpected phone call from the Talkback agency. Some months ago I contacted them on the recommendation of a fellow EE shadow scheme writer in the hope that being on the verge of receiving my first commission I would make a desirable addition to their list. Within a few days I heard the person I needed to talk to had just left on maternity leave. Story of my life.

However, she is now back. And wanting to read some of my scripts. Stunned by realisation an agent has actually phoned me unprompted – is this a world first? – I contemplate the piles of old drafts littering my office. What to send her?

Monday 6th October 2003

Second episode still not signed off, but we’re down to changing odd lines now, so the end is near. A good thing too, given filming starts in only two weeks.

Deliver second draft of third episode, after spending most of last four days on it. But before I can put my feet up, alarming email arrives from my script editor, who’s been on hol for the last week. Seems while she was away, higher powers decided to axe an entire story. Impact on some episodes huge, including mine. Six scenes deleted, just like that – including one of my favourites.

Consolation arrives in form of another letter from Mal Young. More congratulations to EE cast, crew and writers, this time for getting 17 million viewers for last Monday’s episode.

Nothing to do with me, of course, but I’m not telling.



Sunday 19th October 2003

OK, head on block time. Can hardly let week go by without giving my opinion on the nation’s 21 favourite novels. And in reverse order. Just like on TV.

So last of all, the ones I haven’t actually read. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: can't bring myself to read the original of a TV adaptation in which a man dresses up in a lion suit. Little Women: gather Louisa May Alcott was a Union nurse in the civil war and became involved in women’s suffrage and other reform movements, so applaud her presence. His Dark Materials: everyone raves about this, but think I’ll wait for the movie. To Kill a Mockingbird: surprisingly the only novel in the list to deal with racism – or maybe not so surprisingly. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: a few months ago I had a meal only half a mile away from where J K Rowling lives. I don’t suppose many people can say that.

Onto the ones I have read. 

At number 16 The Wind in the Willows. Can’t really remember this since reading it as a child, but do remember not liking it. Couldn’t get over the fact Grahame was writing about rats, moles and toads, animals I never warmed to. Looking back, have a sneaking suspicion he didn’t like them much either.

At 15 The Lord of the Rings. The original sword-and-sorcery novel from which a whole genre has sprung – a good enough reason to put it bottom of anyone’s list. Touting a dangerously simple view of good and evil, it’s a children’s book inexplicably regarded as an adult book, unlike Gulliver’s Travels, say, which is an adult book inexplicably regarded as a children’s book.

14 Nineteen Eighty-Four. The best of the scary political tracts from the middle third of the last century, but who on earth reads this sort of thing for pleasure now? Not to mention fact Orwell got almost everything wrong – unlike Brave New World – except maybe division of world into three major power blocs, which certainly looks likely.

13 to 9 Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Rebecca and Gone with the Wind. In no particular order. Oh dear, what am I doing? Just lumping these together will probably lose me half my readers, but honestly, aren’t they all just the same story? Silly woman seeks impossible combination of handsome brute and perfect gentleman – admittedly in different proportions. Could easily add Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Bridget Jones’ Diary too.

8 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. As above, but set in more attractive location.

7 Birdsong: quite decent First World War subterranean suffering yarn bracketed by unconvincing love stories. WWI done better in All Quiet on the Western Front and – more succinctly – by Wilfrid Owen, but marks for best sex scenes set in Belgium and underground grimness matched only by Zola’s Germinal.

6 War and Peace: sure someone once said, "War and Peace is the best Russian novel ever written – unfortunately". Amazed anyone except speed-readers enjoy wading through page after page of Tolstoy’s alter ego’s endless agonising self-doubt and the mystifying battle scenes, but all human life, as they say, is there. Well, all nineteenth-century upper-class Russian life, anyway.

5 The Catcher in the Rye. The first and best teenage-angst novel. The Bible for every disaffected youth since 1951. Admittedly Salinger’s hero is an upper middle-class East Coast elitist, but then, if you’re going to be a rebel you might as well be one in comfort.

4 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Unique in this list by being the only novel which started life as a successful radio serial, as opposed to the rest, which started life as novels then almost without exception were turned into successful TV dramas or films. Not sure what that proves, but any novel that attempts to understand absolutely everything must be high up anyone’s list, if only for its ambition.

3 Great Expectations. Another blockbuster from the pen of the man who brought you the 19th century! As a modern blurb-writer might put it. True enough. Our picture of the period would be merely black and white had Dickens not provided the colour. Face it, very few writers get their name turned into an adjective.

2 Winnie-the-Pooh. I’ve deliberately not read this again since I was a child, just in case as an adult I dislike it. It therefore remains the only book I remember loving without reservation.

1 Catch 22: I read this when I was 17 and it had just been published. I’ve probably read it three or four times since and regularly dip into it whenever I feel in danger of taking myself too seriously. It is impossible to say whether it has changed my life (as the cover of the paperback claimed it would), but it certainly changed the way I and millions of others of my generation view the world. After Catch-22 no one should have any problem understanding war, capitalism, religion, famine, violence, greed, inequality, the worthlessness of fast food, the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger or the awful state of Saturday night television. Joseph Heller has the explanation.

We all live in a madhouse and the patients are in charge.


Wednesday 29th October 2003

To Elstree to see filming of some of my second EastEnders episode. Script was finally signed off two weeks ago – after no less than twelve drafts – so makes a nice change having other people sweat over it. Bit bizarre watching night club scenes at nine in the morning – something the extras evidently find difficult to come to terms with as well. Despite being dressed in wild party clothes they resolutely fail to get in the mood until after the mid-morning chocolate biscuit delivery, when the sugar rush kicks in.

Try to appear blasé despite almost rubbing shoulders with Shane Richie, Adam Woodyatt, Hannah Waterman et al, but still feel stupidly star-struck. Outside the gate there are more than the usual number of teen and pre-teen autograph-hunters, presumably because it’s half-term. Despite my obvious anonymity they peer at me closely, just in case I might be famous in the future. And to oblige, I try to exude a bit of star quality. Waste of time. They and I know I should be on their side of the barrier asking for autographs too, not expecting to give them out.

Saturday 1st November 2003

To the Oxford Playhouse to see the National Theatre production of Humble Boy, a five-hander about a son and his mother coming to terms with his father’s death. It looks and sounds vaguely old-fashioned: two acts; a single set; a beginning, middle and end; even a star name in the form of the elegantly aged Hayley Mills. A reviewer detected echoes of Hamlet, but to me it feels more like Chekhov, teetering gently between tragedy and farce.

A few of the jokes are a bit contrived – the Hamlet’s uncle character is a bus company owner called Pie mainly, it seems, to work in a line about the Humble-Pies; and the mistaking of the father’s ashes for exotic soup seasoning seems pretty unlikely – but it’s worth the ticket price for the totally unexpected dippy neighbour’s rant against God, delivered by the actress who played Rodney Bewes’ wife Thelma in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? A view shared by the audience, who give her a spontaneous ovation.

The performance is sold out, though this shouldn’t necessarily give comfort to the author. In the interval I overhear a woman say to her companion, "Frankly, I’m only here to see Hayley Mills."


Sunday 2nd November 2003

Mind wanders to nation’s favourite read again. Occurs to me what a large number of children’s books are in the shortlist. Six out of twenty-one – seven if you count Little Women – and apparently more if the single author-single book rule hadn’t been hastily dreamt up to stop it being overrun by Harry Potter. Yes, I put Winnie-the-Pooh second, but I doubt whether I’d have even put it in the list if it hadn’t been there already. No doubt a large number of children voted, but suspect that’s not the complete explanation. Somewhere out there, there are grown-ups still reading and enjoying children’s books. It’s a worrying thought.

Monday 3rd November 2003

To cinema to see Spellbound, the rave US documentary about the national Spelling Bee competition. An utterly ruthless affair (one mistake and you’re out) this nationwide obsession turns otherwise caring, loving parents into heartless control freaks and their happy carefree children into friendless housebound orthographers.

Not that there aren’t priceless moments: the second-generation son of an Indian family struggling with ‘Darjeeling’; an almost certainly autistic kid discussing endlessly with himself the possible spellings of ‘banns’; and a previous winner – now an adult – admitting that far from opening up a whole new social world for him his success was regarded by most of his friends as, well, a bit odd.

It occurs to me that spelling, in its comforting certainty and its preoccupation with competitive accumulation ("how many words can you spell, then?"), like stamp-collecting, train-spotting and playing with Barbie dolls – indeed, like autograph-hunting, going to the theatre merely to see ageing child stars, enjoying stories about moles, witches, magicians and toy bears, and voting in TV favourite books programmes – is something that appeals to the childish mind.

Adults, however, should grow out of it.



Monday 10th November 2003

Very pleased with myself. Deliver draft six of third EastEnders episode four days ahead of schedule. Quietly confident. Crisis of major story change behind me. Feel sure nothing can go wrong now.


Tuesday 11th November 2003

Spend most of day in idleness and anticipation of long weekend in Venice, due to start tomorrow. Parkinson’s Law comes into play on such days: the one that asserts work expands to fill the time available. Rearrange books in alphabetical order of author. Then in alphabetical order of title. Then dust jackets in order of visible light spectrum. Pleasing effect, but with predictable result can no longer find anything.

Time passes.

Have almost forgotten goings-on in Walford when phone rings. My script editor. Can detect suppressed panic coming down the line almost before she opens her mouth. She wants to know if I’ve read the newspapers. No…


Thursday 13th November 2003

9am. An internet café on the Campo San Stefano. Not the best place to discover the main character in my episode has been completely removed. Or maybe it is. Suppose if I am to be forced to throw away eight or nine of my brilliant scenes I might as well get the bad news in the most beautiful city in the world as anywhere.

Seems the actor concerned may not be available much longer, so about three months’ worth of scripts are having to be rewritten to accommodate the possibility. Despite initial breaking out in cold sweat, realise I’m one of the fortunate ones. At least my script is still within the original schedule: earlier ones are actually on the point of being filmed. Now that’s pressure.

Spend rest of day in bit of a daze, lifted only when sat down by partner in front of plate of seafood and bottle of cold Prosecco. Even so, lie awake till early hours, head full of vague ideas for new scenes.


Friday 14th November 2003

9am. Internet café. Script editor emails suggested new scene breakdown, plus assurance I don’t need to deliver rewrite till end of next Wednesday. Weight lifts from shoulders. Aren’t script editors wonderful?


Monday 17th November 2003

7am. Start draft seven. Distinctly bleary-eyed after 1.30am arrival from Venice, but sure brain will kick into gear soon.

1pm. Progress painfully slow. Having trouble getting head round new story. Am I suffering from jet lag?

7pm. Decide to call it a day. Only done half what I’d hoped to, but head keeps dropping onto keyboard.


Tuesday 18th November 2003

7am. Definitely refreshed after decent night’s sleep. Determined to wrestle this story into shape or die in the attempt.

1pm. Excellent progress. New story’s not bad at all. In fact I love it.

6pm. Sorted.


Wednesday 19th November 2003

Spend morning re-reading and rewriting until feel can only make things worse if continue.

1pm. Email draft seven. Phew.

Now what shall I do?

I know. What if I arranged my books in chronological order…?



Saturday 22nd November 2003

It’s that time of year again, i.e. party time. Being in retirement from what one might call regular work these last 3-4 years, thought I was safe from office Xmas parties, but no. Find myself at local skittle alley enjoying night out with occupants of the other one-room offices in the 17th century ex-pub in which I have my own attic workplace. Many are solid EastEnders fans so I spend first hour deflecting questions about ‘the wedding’ and what disaster is going to befall whom over Christmas. Many of their guesses are surprisingly accurate, but I’ve learnt to assume an expressionless face on such occasions. Maybe I should take up poker.

A couple who do something in marketing  War and Peace confess their own literary ambitions. The woman is co-writing her first attempt at TV drpama with a friend. It seems to be going through a bad patch. I sympathise but am careful not to offer to read it. Know from bitter experience the request to ‘tell me honestly what you think’ usually means the opposite. The man, more happily, has already achieved his ambition. His history of the Lotus 72 Grand Prix racing car has just been published.

Modestly he’s quick to point out he doesn’t expect it to be a bestseller; nevertheless I promise to visit the local bookshop and order a copy. We writers must support each other when we can. Recall when I was 16 it was my ambition to be a racing driver. We spend the rest of the evening in nostalgic reminiscences of Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn, Graham Hill. Ah, what happy days, uncomplicated by the neurotic need to see one’s name in print.


Tuesday 25th November 2003

An astrophysicist friend comes to the pub and casually puts a carrier bag on the table. ‘What’s in that?’ we dutifully ask. ‘Oh, only my latest book,’ comes the modest reply.

We all pick it up, flick through it, admire his name on the cover. It’s a weighty academic tome about the composition of the large planets, so it won’t be on the shelves of the local Waterstone’s. No one gets much beyond the first few pages, the place where the mathematical formulae start to appear. Nice pictures though.


Thursday 27th November 2003

Yet more publishing success. Is everyone writing a book? My partner – a lecturer in nursing – receives complimentary copies of her latest, a handbook about intravenous therapy. This we do hope will be a bestseller, or at least enough of one to pay for a summer holiday or two. Personally I hope it will be read by every nurse in the country. When I was proof-reading it, became quite alarmed at all the things that could go wrong whenever anyone sticks a needle in me. Must remember always to ask the nurse before my veins are invaded in future, ‘Have you read Finlay on IV?’


Tuesday 2nd December 2003

My third episode goes white! (i.e. is approved, in EastEnders-speak) My script editor and I congratulate each other on what a brilliant job we’ve done, at last able to laugh – ha ha – about the two major story changes we had to contend with. Crisis? What crisis?


Thursday 4th December 2003

Official script of my third episode arrives. Heart still beats a little faster at sight of my name at the top of the first page – above everyone else’s, even the executive producer’s. Is that why I write, just to see my name in print? Is that why anyone writes? My office neighbours? My astrophysicist friend? My partner? Johnson said no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. Sadly, most writers must therefore be blockheads.

Suspect Alexander Pope was more accurate: ‘But those who cannot write, and those who can, / All rhyme, and scrawl, and scribble, to a man.’ Just so. It’s a compulsion, as innate as the urge to reproduce. In my experience the entire population is divided into two camps: those who have just written something, and those who would write something if only they could get around to it.

There may be people out there who have never written anything and have no intention of doing so, but I haven’t met them.



Sunday 7th December 2003

It’s that time of year again, i.e. when the Sunday papers are full of lists of favourite books of the year. There’s little consensus – no mention of the Booker prizewinner – though Monica Ali’s Brick Lane gets a few nods despite critics noting an Oxford-educated author must share few experiences with the inhabitants of such a place. Have none of them heard of the imagination? In ‘62 or ’63 nearly everyone listed Catch 22, but recall no such unanimity since. Have our tastes become more specialised, or has no truly outstanding work of fiction been published in the last forty years? Suspect the latter.

Fall to musing on the books that have accumulated on my own bedside table since January. My partner has been introducing me to books with a southern Africa connection, so I’ve consumed a couple of J M Coetzees. Disgrace was excellent; Life and Times of Michael K even better. But more enjoyable than both was the stage play Happy Natives, a jolly romp through white liberal misconceptions of the Rainbow Nation. Also enjoyed Ffyona Campbell’s On Foot through Africa, not so much for her achievement, but for her honesty in admitting how much the experience changed her. Now reading Don’t Lets go to the Dogs Tonight, a depressing account of a family attempting to make a living in a country in which it doesn’t belong.

Outside the dark continent I gave Michael Frayn’s Spies a go – mainly because his The Tin Men is one of the few novels that made me laugh out loud on the tube. Not even a chuckle in this one, however. What’s more, felt I’d read something similar in half a dozen other novels. Probably haven’t, but that’s little consolation.

Almost out of a sense of duty ploughed through Ian McEwan’s Atonement, but gave up after 100 pages. Life’s too short. Similarly Life of Pi. Could feel little sympathy for hero’s predicament: smacked too much of a literary device. Reminded me of Golding’s Pincher Martin which, though must have read it almost forty years ago, recall as being much scarier. A lot shorter, too.


Sunday 14th December 2003

Realise I’m going through a bad patch with novels. No longer sure why I read them. Way past the age when still believed they could change my life. And certainly way past the age when still believed they describe the world we live in. Lord of the Rings turns out to be the nation’s favourite read. Hope this is a reflection more of people’s taste in movies than of their taste in literature and an indication that more children must have mobile phones than we ever suspected.

Not that I object to the nation’s favourite piece of fiction being a children’s fairy tale. Most novels are, by and large, fantasies, wishful thinking on behalf of their authors, exercises in correcting the annoying tendency of life not to do what it should. But utterly depressed by the result nevertheless. Recall book’s popularity in the ‘60s was mainly down to the appeal of its fantastical aspects to a generation happily lost in a haze of marijuana. Suspect now, on the contrary, millions love it for the battle scenes and its simplistic George Bush view of the world as a fight to the death between goodies and baddies.


Truly, as with governments, we get the literature we deserve.

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© Bob G Ritchie 2000-2007