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Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer

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Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer


by Bob G Ritchie



Friday 24th December 2004


Three hundred years ago William Congreve claimed to have written his first play "to amuse myself, in a slow recovery from a fit of sickness". Over the next two or three months I shall have the opportunity to discover if the same happy consequence is to be visited upon me.


Two weeks ago I fell downstairs and ruptured both knee-caps, with the result that I am now more or less confined to bed, with only my laptop and TV remote control for company. After the operation to stitch my tendons back on to my tibia, first thoughts were concern at how to break the news to my producer and script editor. I was, after all, supposed to be writing the second draft of my EastEnders episode, not lying flat on my back, legs encased in plaster, doped to the eyeballs with morphine.


Actually they took it rather well. After some pleasingly horrified reactions, they quickly decided that with filming due to start in only five weeks, it would be better for me to continue with the episode than for them to bring in another writer. Generously they gave me a five-day extension on my second draft delivery date. My surgeon breezily concurred, "Oh, you’re a writer; that’s alright then. You’ll feel awful for a week, but then you’ll be able to work the same as usual. Think yourself lucky you’re not a tap-dancer."


He was right. Morphine is wonderful stuff. After two or three days of living with the impression I was floating a foot above my bed, I felt well enough to make a start. And with nothing else to do, surely I would be productive. Unfortunately not. It is a common misapprehension that life in a hospital ward consists mainly of long stretches of idleness. In fact, if one is trying to work, it consists of a series of frequent interruptions: breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner; ward rounds; visitors; lengthy and undignified bed baths; the regular taking of blood pressure, temperature and oxygen uptake; and of course those intimate activities that somehow have to be performed in a room full of people separated by only a curtain.


And by this time word had got around about what I did for a living. So what would otherwise have been fleeting visits by the busy and efficient nursing staff often turned into lengthy monologues about what they felt was wrong with EastEnders and how it could be improved if only their story ideas were adopted. Occasionally I escaped into watching the TV that hung over my bed. But that felt too much like some metaphorical punishment: the crippled writer who has spent the last eighteen months helping to write popular TV now being forced to watch it: Celebrity Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Celebrity Weakest Link, The 100 Greatest TV Moments. Help! I’m a writer, get me out of here!


Friday 31st December 2004


A bizarre and terrible end to the year. Over Christmas I have lain here like some Roman nobleman, receiving visitors, eating and drinking my fill while working on and off at draft three of my EE episode – and all the time watching a biblical tragedy unfold on the TV.


The scale of the catastrophe seems almost too enormous to take in, so journalists quite rightly home in on individual stories: a girl with wounds going gangrenous for lack of treatment; a man searching hopelessly for his brother; four fishermen miraculously rescued after seven days adrift without water; a child who has lost every member of her family.


Confined to my bed, I feel I share a tiny bit of the helplessness of the survivors. What an unimportant activity writing suddenly seems to be. Shouldn’t I be doing something more useful? Well, perhaps not. There are plenty of aid workers out there doing the important stuff. I can still play my part by doing what I’m good at. People will need an escape from the ghastliness of this catastrophe. They will still need entertaining. As the lisping Mr Sleary says in Dickens’ Hard Times, "People mutht be amuthed."


Not that I think my task is merely to entertain. I may only write for a TV soap, but I take it seriously. To me it isn’t a trivial occupation to try to tell stories as truthfully as I can – to show how a man may be broken at his inability to accept the child of his wife’s rapist as his own; to show how a family will go to any lengths to hide its poverty; to show how, despite all their differences, a community can still pull together at a time of crisis.


For Christmas my partner Teresa gave me a volume of plays by Arthur Miller. In the introduction he writes: "My concept of the audience is of a public each member of which is carrying about with him what he thinks is an anxiety, or a hope, or a preoccupation which is his alone and isolates him from mankind; and in this respect at least the function of a play is to reveal him to himself so that he may touch others by virtue of the revelation of his mutuality with them. If only for this reason I regard the theater as a serious business, one that makes or should make man more human, which is to say, less alone."


With the whole world for once united in tragedy, compassion and generosity, it seems an entirely fitting note on which to start a new year.





Tuesday 11th January 2005


Seems the year is starting with a great many people taking offence. Christian fundamentalists are taking offence at Jerry Springer: the Opera – or rather, not so much at the opera, since it has already been performed without fuss in Edinburgh and London theatres, more at the fact that it is being broadcast on the BBC. In other words, by all means have an opera with lots of swearing and a fight between God and the Devil, but don’t let too many people see it. The predictable result is that far more viewers watch it than its creators could ever have hoped for.


More seriously, a few vociferous Sikhs have taken offence at Birmingham Rep’s Behzti – or rather, not at the play itself, only at where a lot of it is set. In other words, by all means have a play about the corruption of someone in a position of moral authority, but don’t set it where that moral authority is exercised. Unfortunately the theatre caved in and cancelled the play (fittingly the English title is Dishonour) and the writer, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, has been forced into hiding by threats.


Ms Bhatti, take courage. You will have the last laugh. Ultimately, as with Jerry Springer, the actions of your self-appointed censors will serve only to increase your audience.


Thursday 13th January 2005


Still largely confined to bed by my busted knees, I await creative inspiration in vain. After reading five Arthur Miller plays am cast into gloom at thought I shall never be a tenth as good a playwright, but by dint of sneaky plagiarism come up with clever idea for TV drama. Tap bare bones of it into ideas file, but brain can’t manage more. Seems not only leg muscles are wasting away.


Friday 14th January 2005


Take half hour out of busy leg exercise schedule to listen to Radio 4’s Ed Reardon’s Week, a comic take on the life of a struggling writer. Far be it from me to suggest where the writers Chris Douglas and Andrew Nickolds got the idea, but if you’re reading this, guys, I want my ten percent. The clincher was last week’s tirade against Ms Truss – just check my 2004 diary. You can’t plagiarise a plagiariser. I wrote the book.


Intrigued to see a bouyant Germaine Greer on Richard & Judy so soon after her departure from Big Brother (oh dear, what have I been reduced to watching?). Even more intrigued to see her on Late Night Review a few hours later. In the former she wears her moral outrage fairly lightly, but by 11pm it has become an altogether more serious affair. Can’t think why. BB in its usual form is an opportunity for unknowns to perform for the public and become briefly famous. Celebrity BB is an opportunity for fading celebrities to do the same. Germaine fits into neither category, so the only reason I can think of for her being on the show must have been to do research. In which case she missed the boat. BB has pretty well reached the end of the line. Only people confined to their sick-beds watch it now.


Maybe that’s the real reason she walked out.


Saturday 15th January 2005


A surviving relative of Dostoevsky has been so upset by the appearance of the famous writer’s face on a lottery ticket that his lawyers are suing the lottery company for ‘moral damages’. Though it’s common knowledge Dostoevsky was a serious gambling addict, the family don’t want people reminded. How out of step with the times. I’d have thought they’d be only too pleased to lend a bit of colour to a writer few people now read for pleasure. Like censorship, it’s the kind of publicity any contemporary writer would die for.


Monday 17th January 2005


Call from EastEnders. Seems my latest episode has finally been signed off. Little thanks to me. I’ve not seen it for over a week, when it was about to be put in front of the new executive producer. Unfortunately she didn’t like the stories much, so rather than have it go backwards and forwards for me to tinker with, they decided to do the necessary work in-house.


On the face of it, sounds a bit of a put-down, but know it’s not. Although mine is the name that appears at the top of the script, know that nearly all the names that follow make a contribution. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working on EE, it’s that writers can’t be precious.


So am I offended? No, I’m not.





Wednesday 26 January 2005


Must finish article for 2006 Writer’s Handbook, but can’t get down to it, despite deadline passing ten days ago. Must also finish terrorist TV thriller, crime novel and ten other projects, but consumed by dread at thought of having to string words together. No longer confined to bed by buggered knees, but still largely housebound. Obviously beginning to affect mind too now. Stare at laptop screen. Can’t think of a single thing to say.


My screensaver is a 3-dimensional rotating display of the words ‘Get on with it NOW!!!’ designed to prod me into activity should five minutes pass without my pressing a key. Far from being galvanised into creativity, I stare at the screen, mesmerised by the shiny revolving words, my mind slowly emptying. It occurs to me, in the way that stupid things occur to one when nothing else is occupying one’s mind, that maybe this is what goldfish are for, swimming slowly round and round their bowls, living screensavers, something people can watch when nothing else is going on in their lives.


Actually, daytime TV performs the function better, with its random succession of undemanding images allowing the mind to go comfortably blank. Surprising then that all the programmes seem to be about changing one’s life in various radical and definitely not undemanding ways: how to set up a business in Spain; how to find a new house; how to redecorate your old one; how to make money out of the junk lying around your attic; how to share your most private problems with millions and a woman called Trisha. All sandwiched between adverts about how to borrow money at criminal rates of interest and how to claim compensation for personal injuries (knees twinge tellingly at the last mentioned, but can’t honestly claim them to be anyone’s fault but my own). Feel tired just watching it all.


However, intrigued by a US import, Extreme Makeover. Reminds me of the TV drama I wrote four years ago and the idea I had about a fictional makeover team that didn’t just redecorate your house or replant your garden or give you a new wardrobe – it remade your entire life. Am I looking at yet another idea plagiarised from the pages of this diary? Maybe it’s time to contact my lawyer again.


Friday 28 January 2005


Since Wednesday have managed to add only one paragraph to Writer’s Handbook article. Have, however, read Nigel Slater’s Toast, the story of his childhood told through the food he ate – or more accurately, in the case of warm milk and fried eggs, the food he threw up. A very easy read, full of funny and touching moments, but ultimately rather depressing. Food, no matter how wonderful, is a poor substitute for love.


Monday 31 January 2005


In the afternoon to the local hospital to visit my physiotherapist, a diminutive young woman with a sweet, charming smile whose taste for torture would have alarmed even the Spanish Inquisition. Emerge thirty minutes later wracked with pain, almost unable to walk. Miraculously, an hour after I get home, feel wonderful. In fact feel so good decide to go for very first walk in the open air. Halfway round block have sudden alarming premonition of being knocked to the ground by cavorting school-kids and being unable to get up again, but manage to totter back home without incident.


Of such little triumphs are my days made up now. Add another paragraph to Writer’s Handbook article.


Wednesday 2 February 2005


At last! An afternoon play on Radio 4 that’s worth mentioning. By Samina Baig. Brilliant. I’ve no idea who she is nor what else she’s written, but she’s on my list. Such a welcome change from the usual whimsical dramas aimed at people in the autumn of their lives and the predictable detective stories aimed at invalids too bed-bound to reach the off switch.


Between that and Ready Steady Cook, add another paragraph to article for Writer’s Handbook. It’s just as Johnson said, "A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it."





Wednesday 9 February 2005


86-page planning document arrives from Elstree. Undoubtedly happy to be writing another episode; only hope I have more control over it than I had over last one. Largely confined to bed, felt all I could do for much of the time was simply accept the reams of notes that regularly arrived by email and do my best to obey them. With my brain befuddled by painkillers was in little position to argue.


Now short-lived exec producer has gone – after only four months in the job; surely a record – can finally reveal I was actually thrown off my last but one episode, somewhere around the sixth draft, I think, though my memory’s hazy. Apparently it was because the new people didn’t like the way I was telling my stories, but suspect it was really divine retribution for my Schadenfreude last year at hearing of another writer suffering the same fate. I wasn’t told immediately, of course. At a time when the start of filming was dangerously imminent, everything just went ominously quiet. At first simply enjoyed it as a welcome break, but when the strain of not knowing what the hell was going on proved too much and I finally phoned, I was told, sorry, you’ve been replaced.


Now, of course, with a new episode to write and some of the old guard back in charge, feel quite happy at being temporarily sacked by people who probably made a hash of everything else as well. Almost a badge of honour, in fact.


Friday 11 February 2005


A black day, no less so for being inevitable. Arthur Miller has died. I’m not easily moved to write this kind of thing, but a light has gone out. We live in a darker world.


Monday 14 February 2005


On close inspection of schedule, discover that despite vague rumours of a second story team being brought in to speed up planning process, deadlines are still depressingly tight. So, despite having heard nothing from either my script ed or my producer, decide to kick things off by delivering my scene breakdown. Script ed immediately emails an apology for not being available; he’s still trying to put his previous block of episodes to bed and they start filming next week. It’s the last block over which the old regime had creative control, so apparently a lot of work is still needed.


Between the lines it’s easy to read the cries of joy at the return of John Yorke and Tony Jordan. Infected by script ed’s good mood I foolishly promise to deliver my first draft by next Monday.


Monday 21 February 2005


First draft deadline comes and goes. Realise one of my stories has an intriguing parallel with Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Decide to use it in my climactic scene. Brecht in EastEnders: is this a first?


Thursday 24 February 2005


Finally deliver first draft. I’ve added something from Grease. Brecht and Grease. Now, that must be a first.


An hour or two later an email arrives from Tony Jordan, sent to all the writers, script eds and producers. It’s a bit of a pep talk, which is good, and contains a promise that schedules will be back to sensible levels by April, which is even better. Even more encouragingly it’s an outline of how the script process is going to work from now on. Seems there will be no more reams of notes arriving by email, no more scripts going to ten or eleven drafts, no more last-minute story changes, no more trying to second-guess the whims of exec producers. Discussions will be face-to-face or over the phone and writers will be trusted to produce a rehearsal script by about the third draft.


Feel like opening a bottle in celebration. Now know why I’ve heard so little from my script ed and producer. At last, the writers are back in charge.





Friday 4 March 2005


Hardly dare declare it in case the habit deserts me, but I seem to be reading books again. And enjoying them.


A couple of weeks ago, needing to exercise my repaired knees with a bit of light walking, I tottered up to the city library, returning an hour later with a clutch of SF novels. Not sure why I chose SF – perhaps because I read it a lot when I was young, more likely because I thought it wouldn’t be too taxing – but have to admit I’ve quite enjoyed renewing the acquaintance, albeit in a low-critical-threshold, what-will-they-think-of-next sort of way. Fact is, though, recall the SF of my youth as much more scary. Only now does it occur to me that that might have been due to the fact it was written at the height of the nuclear cold war. No one had much faith in the future then, let alone in the ability of science to make it any better.


Now, having passed through the cyberpunk phase, in which the future was seen as a rather dirty but exciting place, a bit like an endless rave, SF writers seem to be trying to make stories out of the impenetrable theories of quantum physics. The future is now seen as a place (insofar as words like ‘place’ still have meaning) in which almost anything is possible: time travel, skipping between infinite numbers of possible universes, genetic manipulation, you name it. The previously outlandish paraphernalia of faster-than-light travel, force fields and ‘beam me up Scotty’ transporters is now simply taken for granted.


Can’t help feeling a law of diminishing returns setting in here. If nearly everything is possible, where's the jeopardy? Where's the tension? Am reminded of something I read once about the rules of farce: the writer is allowed only one unlikely or irrational event, then the rest of the story must develop logically; the writer can’t just keep inventing bizarre occurrences. It should be a rule for SF writers too. How can we be expected to believe the hero is genuinely in peril if we suspect that at the beginning of the next chapter he will simply slip through a worm-hole into another universe or disguise himself as an armchair with the aid of his handy appearance modulator?


Saturday 5 March 2005


Article in today’s Financial Times magazine by Gillian Slovo, who was invited by Tricycle Theatre to help research and write a play about Britain’s Guantanamo detainees. Despite enduring much hounding by the press, most of the protagonists were willing to cooperate, apart from Kathleen Mubanga, whose brother had been arrested in Zambia.


But at the end of the article, Slovo writes, "the last word must go to Kathleen Mubanga. Having seen the play, she wrote to say that we had changed her and her family’s life... she had begun to understand that she was not alone: that, contrary to what she had previously believed, not only our team, but also the audiences who kept coming to the theatre, did want to know. They did care about what was happening." Reminds me of the words of Arthur Miller I quoted at the end of last year’s diary: "…the theater [is] a serious business, one that makes or should make man more human, which is to say, less alone."


Monday 7 March 2005


This is supposed to be the day on which I deliver my second draft. But over a week has passed since I delivered draft one and still no notes. Delays like this play hell with the nerves. Every morning have been waking with dread at what the day may bring. Jump every time the phone rings. Keep telling myself delay is only because everyone including exec producer is reading it and that takes time, but still can’t help thinking major criticisms are in the offing, necessitating a complete rewrite at the very least.


In calmer moments wonder if my Brecht and Grease references will survive. Admit it’s unlikely: EastEnders conventions are many and rigid; the rules can rarely be broken. Maybe I should switch to writing SF. No rules there. Those guys can get away with anything.


Tuesday 8 March 2005


After spending two hours on phone with script ed, peruse resulting notes on first draft with surprising equanimity. Now I know the worst, tension of last few days slips away. Lots to do, of course, but not as much as on previous episodes. Surprisingly, Brecht reference liked. Firmly believe that just because the residents of Walford are uncouth and ill-educated, doesn’t mean their lives can’t have the dramatic depth of intellectual theatre. Maybe, as promised, the writer’s judgment is being trusted more, after all.





Monday 14 March 2005


Deliver second draft. Now really must get down to writing speech for forthcoming wedding to partner. Less than three weeks to go. Getting terrifyingly close. Unfortunately no bright ideas occur. Perhaps put off by bad precedent: the last time I wrote a wedding speech, Wendy Richard disliked it so much she adlibbed the entire thing.


Tuesday 15 March 2005


Take break from staring into space worrying about wedding speech by picking up Justin Cartwright’s Promise of Happiness, as recommended by Richard & Judy. Title, at least, seems particularly apt in light of forthcoming nuptials. It’s described as a ruthless portrait of a family in crisis, but actually it’s a rather old-fashioned novel about the comfortably-off, which could have been written fifty years ago or even a hundred. A son looks for happiness in wealth, one of his sisters in drugs, the other sister in art; the mother tries to find it in Rick Stein recipes, while the father would be happy if only the youth of today didn’t say ‘like’ every three words.


Dump Cartwright after thirty pages. Instead pick up a Wallander crime novel by Swedish writer Henning Mankell. Starts with a woman being shot merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, then stuffed down a well. Her husband and children, stalwarts of their church and community, are devastated. Now that’s what I call a family in crisis.


Friday 18 March 2005


Hour and a half on phone to script ed discussing second draft. General opinion on Elstree second floor is that a Vic knees-up previously agreed to be a jolly romp would be more interesting if it were a disaster. React in the way I usually do when confronted by new ideas enthusiastically proposed: I agree. Despite large amount of rewriting required.


Monday 21 March 2005


Script ed phones with comments on second draft from exec producer. She doesn’t want the Vic knees-up turned into a disaster; she prefers it to remain a jolly romp. Spend rest of day changing the instruction ‘scowls’ back into the instruction ‘smiles’.


Wednesday 23 March 2005


Deliver third draft. Turn with reluctance to problem of wedding speech. In desperation consult Internet – to discover hundreds of sites offering ready-made speeches to suit every occasion. Manfully resist temptation to lift one wholesale, but at least now know who I should thank and why.


While I’m at it, decide to check out Oscar-acceptances speeches. Well, you never know.


Thursday 24 March 2005


Lingering annoyance at having to rewrite rewrite finally dissipated by arrival of two fat cheques, one from MacMillan for contribution to 2006 Writer’s Handbook, other from BBC for repeats of last episode. As if that were not enough financial good news, partner also receives better-than-expected royalty statement on her latest nursing handbook. It’s the best sort of day for a writer. Sure even Stephen King likes receiving his royalty statements. Yes, writing can be fun, but it’s a lot more fun if you get paid for it.


Maybe that’s why I’m finding it so difficult to get down to this wedding speech.





Tuesday 29 March 2005


Five days to go to wedding and still making changes to current EE episode. Try not to panic. Producer assures me it’ll be approved before weekend. Yes, well, I’ve heard that before.


Wednesday 30 March 2005


Still making changes.


Thursday 31 March 2005


Phone rings. Still more changes? No. At last those magic words: it’s approved. Actually, despite the nail-biting finish – will I still be rewriting lines as I walk down the aisle? – this episode has been the most straightforward so far. No major story changes, no major structural alterations, no last-minute disappearance of key cast members; even Brecht is still there.


If only this wedding speech were as easy. By dint of ruthless cutting, have reduced number of thank-you’s to under thirty, but still reads like an Oscar-acceptance speech (or maybe I’ve just been copying the wrong model: I’d like to thank my agent, my editor… No, that sounds right). And as if it were not difficult enough, partner announces she can’t after all deliver her own speech of thanks for fear of bursting into tears, so would I please incorporate her sentiments among mine?


All writing skills instantly desert me.


Sunday 3 April 2005


I am now a happy married man. And a slightly hungover one. The world definitely feels different: sharper, brighter, fresher, almost at an angle. Sure greater literary talents than mine have written much on the subject, so try to find some well-chosen words to express the joy and optimism I feel. Unfortunately find mostly cynicism (along the lines of Billy Connolly’s "Marriage is a wonderful invention; but, then again, so is a bicycle repair kit.") and irony (along the lines of almost anything written by Jane Austen).


All writers, particularly novelists, seem fascinated by what precedes marriage: passion, courtship, unrequited love, parting, betrayal, reconciliation, even the happy event itself (except soap writers, who glory in making the event anything but happy). Few writers show much interest in what happens after – unless, of course, it is to show one or other partner having an affair, which in any case is more or less the same story but with fewer laughs.


Perhaps the appeal of courtship as a subject for the writer is the very fact that it ends so definitively; whereas the story of a marriage, if it is happy, may go on forever, while if it is unhappy, it will almost certainly be a depressing read. Maybe it is the sheer multiplicity of possible stories that open up once a couple have been brought together that is so daunting. In courtship, love drives the story to a single end. In marriage, love has to be driven, but no one’s quite sure where. As Byron put it, "All tragedies are finished by a death, / All comedies are ended by a marriage; / The future states of both are left to faith."


Speaking for myself, I definitely feel as if I am at the beginning of something, not at the end.





Tuesday 12 April 2005


A bit of a red-letter day. My first visit to Elstree since my fall last December. Strolling along the second floor I half expect people to come dashing out of offices full of greetings and cries of concern, but place is oddly quiet, almost deserted. As it happens am only here to watch some filming of my last episode; even so, thought I might bump into new exec producer and casually introduce myself.


A runner takes me to the right studio. (She’s only been here a month, but already knows her way round better than me.) Have timed my arrival so I can watch the scene in which a punch is thrown. It comes almost out of nowhere, so am intrigued to see how the director does it. Amazingly, however, when I take my seat in front of the bank of monitors, find the scene has already been done. They’re running ahead of schedule. Almost unheard of. Flatter self this is because script so brilliant, filming of it extraordinarily easy, but decide not to ask director for confirmation of this theory.


Remaining scenes go equally smoothly, despite involving the portrayal of high emotion by one of the Square’s more ‘difficult’ actors. In fact, she’s in an excellent mood and even cracks a joke. The director keeps accusing the producer of being asleep because he can’t get her on his intercom and soon everybody’s laughing like drains. Not quite the atmosphere I’d anticipated for my climactic heart-wrenching Brecht rip-off, but then, I remind myself, this is acting.


On way out, bump into Tony Jordan on his way in. He recognises me enough to shake my hand, though probably not enough to remember who I am. Never mind. At least th65%pp/pe series editor remembers me: she’s given me another episode.


Sunday 17 April 2005


Seems some clever people down the road at Oxford’s Sackler Library have at last worked out how to read 2,500-year old papyrus documents stolen (or ‘salvaged’ as the Independent on Sunday puts it) from the remains of the Graeco-Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus a century ago. Previously unseen writings by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other classical greats have already been discovered; those to be deciphered over the next ten years or so are expected to include works by Ovid and Aeschylus, not to mention the odd Christian gospel. All in all, quite a day for classicists.


Not quite sure how any complete works are going to be found, given that the total of five million words is divided among some 400,000 fragments (an average of only 12 words per fragment), but no doubt there’ll be some great lines. Personally, I’ll be more interested in the ‘lesser works’, what the IoS describes as the pulp fiction and sitcoms of the day. Actually, not sure the ancient Greeks went in for novels or bothered to record their sitcoms for posterity, but no doubt there were plenty of popular dramas along the lines of No Sex Please, We’re Athenians or Carry On Up The Parthenon.


The ability still to read 2,500-year old texts is, of course, a wonderful thing. Suspect, however, in another 2,500 years our descendants may be unable to read the great works of today – if, indeed, they read anything at all by then. Our printed books seem designed to last barely a lifetime, so we can forget them. Films decompose, videos fade, computer files, as we all know, self-destruct when least expected and CDs – well, who knows what will happen to CDs, they haven’t been around long enough. But it’s a fairly safe bet they won’t last either.


In fact, there is only one thing we can be absolutely certain we shall pass on to future generations. So if anyone can come up with a way of storing our greatest works of literature inside nuclear waste…


Thursday 21 April 2005


To Elstree for first commissioning meeting for five months. Feels it too. Almost forgotten what they’re for. Mood definitely more relaxed than I recall, though. In fact, producer and story editor apparently so happy with how we writers are tackling our episodes, they leave halfway through. Our script editor also has a slight demob air about him: he’s leaving next week to write his first episode for another drama series.


I do a quick mental check. That leaves only one script ed who’s been on EE longer than I have. I’m on my third exec producer and I must have seen a few writers disappear after only one episode. Well, well. I started the meeting feeling almost like a new boy again. I leave feeling more like an old hand.


Monday 25 April 2005


Put off rewriting my latest episode’s scene breakdown to watch repeat of the British Book Awards. Interesting how differently people make their acceptance speeches. Palin cracks a self-deprecating joke about being mistaken for Eric Idle halfway up Everest; Rankin is serious about the importance of writing; Gazza cries; William Hague sends his wife instead; Clinton videos his in; Hari Kunzru apologises to his girlfriend for telling her not to bother to come to such a "low-key" affair; the author of Cloud Atlas is "speechless" (hoho), but has a second chance when he wins another award so decides to thank his wife.


Sheila Hancock gets the biggest laugh by claiming to have a really good "loser face", because she’s had so much practice at the Oliviers and Baftas. And Emily Mortimer tells her dad at least ten times that she loves him, who in turn, despite being in a wheelchair, delivers easily the most articulate and heartfelt speech of the entire evening.





Thursday 5 May 2005


On BBC’s Culture Show Nick Hornby feels the need to defend his kind of writing. He says he aims to write in such a way that the glass is as clear as possible to enable readers to see the world beyond, whereas "Bookery" writers (writers who are shortlisted for the Booker) seem to want the reader to focus on the glass. By which he means that certain writers seem to worry more about the words than about what the words are saying. It’s a persuasive metaphor.


He also thinks literary awards like the Booker and the Whitbread belittle readers, because when they come to struggle through what are supposed to be the year’s ‘best’ books and give up, they think it’s something wrong with them, not the books. He now sees this kind of book as only another genre, like crime, romance, historical, etc.


Reminds me of something Iain Banks once said about these books not necessarily being the best, merely being the books that Oxbridge-educated literary reviewers like.


Is this literary relativism? If so, is it dangerous? As dangerous, say, as Pope Benedict’s enemy, moral relativism? Or is it to be welcomed? Hardly dare say I don’t really care one way or the other, but I’m afraid I don’t.


Sunday 8 May 2005


John Carey, Eng Lit prof at Oxford U, is about to publish a book called What Good Are the Arts?, so today’s Observer ups the ante by printing the potted answers from a few novelists, playwrights, artists, etc. This kind of thing is ideal fodder for Sunday supplements, offering wild generalisations from opinionated people who hardly need to be asked twice, just so that the rest of us can disagree vehemently while spluttering impotently into our cornflakes.


My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the answer is, very little. The Arts do not house us, clothe us or feed us. They do not help us reproduce (not directly, anyway), nor, on the evidence of the last few hundred years, teach us to be better behaved towards our fellows. Indeed, it is almost part of the definition of The Arts (like that of Sports) that they are useless. If they were not, they would be called by other names: like building, tailoring, or cooking.


Yet for all their uselessness, The Arts are practised by almost every person on the planet, from the moment he or she can scribble a mark on a piece of paper or gurgle a few words. It isn’t a question of whether The Arts matter. The Arts are inescapably part of all our lives, an urge as wired into our brains as the urge to eat. Goodness knows why, because they don’t, at least so far, seem to be doing us much good. Perhaps we have The Arts merely, as Mr Sleary says in Dickens’s Hard Times, because "people mutht be amuthed".





Tuesday 10 May 2005


By dint of working till nearly midnight and getting up at crack of dawn, manage to deliver first draft of latest EE episode on time. I only hope new script ed appreciates the blood, sweat and tears staining every page.


For some reason finding this one a real struggle, though can’t quite put my finger on the reason why. Maybe, after the surprisingly smooth progress of my last episode, am simply disappointed this one is plainly not going to be as easy. The five stories have little in common. Can’t even think of a theme to link two or three. On top of that, one of the main protagonists isn’t available for filming outside the studio. This means that whenever I want her to appear with any of the other main characters I have to move everything indoors. Very realistic.


Friday 13 May 2005


OK, this is beyond a joke. Now Channel 4 are pinching my ideas. Next year, The Play’s The Thing will stage a reality-style competition to find the country’s best amateur playwright. This time am definitely contacting my solicitor.


Tuesday 17 May 2005


To Elstree to meet my new script ed. She’s just come from Footballers’ Wives, so I’m actually more interested in finding out some juicy gossip than discussing my first draft. We get the main business out of the way in forty minutes, then I start quizzing her. Unfortunately all I learn is that whereas EE writers have to take into account all sorts of restrictions on actors’ availability before we can put pen to paper, on FW the script gets written first and the actors are simply told to turn up. Luxury.


In the corridor I bump into the only script ed left who was there when I started just over two years ago. She’s leaving at the end of the week to go to Family Affairs. Not entirely convinced this is a step up the ladder, but maybe the pay’s better. As I make my way back to the lift the offices seem full of unfamiliar faces. It’s a bizarre thought, but it occurs to me that we writers, for all our own high turnover, are the most constant factor in the whole enterprise. Which perhaps is as it should be.


And as if to confirm the notion, waiting for the lift is another writer, someone I’ve met on a couple of occasions. Like battered remnants of an expedition up the Amazon (it’s a jungle out there) we congratulate each other on having survived the recently departed regime. He’s on his 200th episode of Doctors (or something like that), but still finds time for the odd EastEnders. And now he’s been chosen to provide a sample script for the BBC’s forthcoming Writers’ Academy. He’s understandably nervous at the thought it will be checked over by people as exalted as the Controller of Continuing Drama Series, but I for one am deeply impressed.


Outside the gate two fans accost us. "Are you famous?" one asks. "Yes," we reply without a moment’s hesitation.


Friday 20 May 2005


Struggling with second draft. Finding it even more difficult than the first. Only one story needs really major work, so foolishly I’ve spent the last two days finding excuses to skive, convinced I had plenty of time left before next Tuesday’s deadline. Unfortunately, in the afternoon all my chickens come clucking home to roost. Script ed informs me schedulers cannot under any circumstances organise filming so that actors can appear in all my carefully crafted ten-character set-piece scenes in the Vic. Would I please rewrite them so that only two or three of the cast need to be filmed at any one time?


Late to bed with a sacrilegious thought running through my head: bet they don’t have this kind of problem on Footballers’ Wives.





Sunday 29 May 2005


A truly bizarre item in the Sunday Times property pages. Among the three ‘houses of the week’ is the small terraced cottage in which, up to ten months ago, Teresa and I lived. The only difference is that whereas when we occupied it, it was identified only by its number and street name, now it is called Morse Cottage.


Knew the current owners had put it back on market, but had no idea they were so desperate to boost its prospects as to try a bit of spurious literary association. True Colin Dexter’s first Morse novel was called Last Bus to Woodstock, and cottage is in Woodstock, but there the connection, such as it is, ends. If only they’d asked me what I did for a living, they could have called it – with more justification – something like EastEnders Rest. But maybe that wouldn’t have helped.


Decide to offer a prize to the person who comes up with the most tenuous literary association for their own house.


Tuesday 31 May 2005


Truly awful meeting to discuss second draft. Script ed even goes so far as to hide exec producer’s comments from me, so can’t see how damning they are. Only consolation – pathetic though it is – is to remind myself have been at draft 4 or 5 on previous episodes when required to rewrite so much, so cling onto that as a sign of improvement. It’s not until am doing battle with homeward-bound commuters on M25 that awful realisation dawns, despite four hours of detailed discussion, still have not faintest idea how to rewrite main story so it climaxes convincingly in a fight. And filming starts in three weeks.


Wednesday 1 June 2005


Paralysed by indecision, spend entire day putting off moment when must open laptop and start draft 3. With result already less than generous five-day deadline gradually threatens to turn into truly scary four-day deadline. Even so, am still not galvanised into activity. Recall de Quincey’s words: "If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination." Used to think this a fine example of satire. Now see nothing funny in it at all.


Thursday 2 June 2005


11am. Finally tap first word of draft 3 into laptop. Immediately delete it. This is torture. Gene Fowler described writing as the process of staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood appear on your forehead. Know exactly what he means.


Fortunately rescued from death by slow exsanguination by arrival of email from script ed. She and producer have been thinking about problem with main story and have come up with new approach. What do I think of it?


What do I think of it? I think it’s wonderful. In fact, I think it may very well save my life.


Monday 6 June 2005


Wake at 4am to find brain already working on final few scenes of draft 3. No! I need my sleep. Try desperately to conjure image of palm-fringed deserted beach, the warm Pacific gently supporting my floating body, the sun beating down… But instead problems of how to kick off the climactic fight in the Queen Vic insist on crowding in. How do fights start? For some reason can think only of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but feel instinctively the build-up to nuclear war is overdoing it a tad. All right, what about when my tiny niece pinches the toy belonging to her even tinier brother? No. Too inarticulate, even for EastEnders.

Unfortunately, the only argument that presents itself is the one that's surely going to happen when I finally deliver this sorry draft to my script ed. She: "Call yourself a writer? You’re rubbish." Me: "Well, those who can’t, become script editors." Screams. Hair-pulling. Tears. Yes, that sounds about right.





Monday 13 June 2005


Thanks to working all weekend, deliver draft four on time. Is it only my wife who has to suffer my absences just when she has free time, or is it a problem shared by the partners of all writers? Wonder if Anne Hathaway ever complained to William: "I don’t care if you are up against a deadline – it’s about time you spent a weekend at home with me and the children."


Comments come back before end of day. Not huge, but enough to keep me working into the night.


Tuesday 14 June 2005


Up at 5am to finish draft 5. Complete with ten minutes to spare. Press email button. Nothing happens. Or rather, something happens, but not the emailing of my script. For some reason, my computer decides to dial a completely different number from the one it usually dials. Stare at screen in appalled disbelief. Try again. Same thing happens. Feel sweat break out on brow. Tell myself to stay calm. Unfortunately don’t listen. Instead stab keys in blind panic. With result that two keytops fall off computer keyboard. With hollow laugh ask myself which is falling apart faster: my laptop or me?


Half hour later – and a year off my life – manage to send draft by copying it onto a CD, transferring it to partner’s computer and emailing it from there. Half hour later own laptop’s email works perfectly.


Wednesday 15 June 2005


8.30pm: comments from exec producer arrive via script ed. Fortunately nothing too major – even one or two words of praise – but detect slight note of weariness on script ed’s part. Feel I’ve not been at my best on this episode and suspect I’m not the only person who thinks so. Tell myself it’s because of having my main story messed around with, but deep down know it’s really due to simple lack of inspiration. Well, can’t be brilliant all the time.


Thursday 16 June 2005


Deliver final draft. Mutual congratulations and sighs of relief with script ed. After small celebratory glass, give it a leisurely read. Actually, it’s not that bad: tension, humour, passion, one or two touching moments and a fight. What more could one ask?


Monday 20 June 2005


Full of the aimlessness that always seems to arrive after finishing a script, find myself idly wondering about two memoirs recently read. Lucky Man by Michael J. Fox, and East End My Cradle by Willy Goldman. Feel a tenuous personal connection with Fox because I suffer from an illness which until recently was sometimes misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease. Though thankfully mine won’t kill me. Goldman, on the other hand, I knew nothing about until I picked up his book in the library while looking for background material on the East End.


Wonder why we read such books. Can hardly be called entertaining to read about a man tortured with twitches, or of people leading stunted, impoverished lives in the capital of one of the richest countries in the world. Perhaps we read them for reassurance – there but for the grace of God, go we – in which case, Fox might have called his book Lucky You.


Possibly in recognition of the need not to upset readers too much, both books, despite being published more than 60 years apart, are written with a slightly detached, whimsical irony – as if the authors are afraid we’ll be put off by too much honest fear and loathing. Feel this is part of a modern tradition in ‘confessional’ literature: an unspoken agreement between writers to seem to take readers into their deepest souls while in fact merely taking them to the level of a vaguely uncomfortable dinner party.


Don’t want to disparage Fox for having the bravery to tell his story – successful Hollywood brat gets fatal illness and becomes altogether nicer person – but can’t honestly say I was moved. Oddly, he shows his entirely justified outrage when he writes about other sufferers.


Goldman, writing in 1940 about growing up in the early part of the century, is less afraid to say what he feels. As a teenager he befriended a girl who was dying of TB, living with her mother in one damp little room. On the last night he saw her, "I walked round the streets a long time. I didn’t look at the people who passed me…. I wasn’t taking note of my direction, but every while I found myself back at the window. The light burned steadily all the time. When I returned for about the fifth time the window was dark; I felt it was like putting out the light of all life. I walked down the street in a blind fit of weeping."


Friday 24 June 2005


Learn from Radio 4 that Alexander McCall Smith’s mother spent her life writing a single book. Despite the steadily rising pile of handwritten ms, no one was ever allowed to read it. When she died she left instructions for it to be destroyed.


Have always understood writing as a method for sharing our thoughts and feelings with our fellows. Now know that some people also write merely to communicate with themselves.





Monday 4 July 2005


Hear the author of Flaubert's Parrot has turned his hand to Arthur Conan Doyle's championing of George Edalji (at least I think that's who it is - mind not at its best early Monday morning), a half-Indian solicitor who suffered racial prejudice, in its day Britain's own Dreyfus case.


Interviewed on BBC Radio 4, Julian Barnes mentions how writers were at the time highly regarded, their opinions listened to, their company sought by the politicians of the day. Now politicians want only to be seen with pop singers.


Depressing but unsurprising. Can think of few contemporary writers whose opinions on the issues of the day anyone would rush to consider. Arthur Miller is dead and Gore Vidal nearly so. Reminds me of a debate we used to have when I was younger. Would you rather be a writer in a country where you might be sent to jail for what you wrote, or would you rather live in freedom but have your work greeted with total indifference?


Tuesday 5 July 2005


On a brief break in Scotland, spy local newspaper hoarding: 'Aberfeldy playwright enjoys broadcast success'. Newsagent unfortunately shut, so can explore no further - but if you're reading this, Aberfeldy playwright, whoever you are, congratulations. And congratulations to the newspaper editor who thought it significant enough to run as a headline story.


Wednesday 6 July 2005


The first US print run for the next Harry Potter is a staggering 10.8m. This compares with print runs of 2,000 for the vast majority of novels. To use a topical metaphor on the day London wins the 2012 Olympics bid, this means that while ordinary writers are struggling to complete their first stride out of the blocks, JKR has already done twelve laps of the track.


As if to contradict my earlier remarks about men in power taking little notice of writers, the author of the scripts for Vicar of Dibley and Notting Hill appears on television standing shoulder to shoulder with Blair, Geldof and Bono as the Live 8 music fest concludes - though he says nothing and quickly slides from view as cameras focus on Sir Bob. So I was right; no one listens to writers.


The ex-lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, on the other hand, claims he has a mandate from 3 billion people to make poverty history. Which seems unduly modest: is there anyone on the globe who doesn't want to make poverty history? His less famous co-organiser, Midge Ure, hails the final Edinburgh concert a success, "once Bob had stopped the rain".


It's all beginning to sound alarmingly familiar. The mindbogglingly large numbers of followers, the magical powers, the childlike belief that problems can be solved by the mere wave of a wand. Yes, there's no doubt about it: Bob Geldof is Harry Potter.


Thursday 7 July 2005


Too worried about whereabouts of daughter and other London-based family and friends to think much about writing today. Thankfully, all safe.





Sunday 10 July 2005


Take it all back. Vow to make no more childish jokes at expense of Harry Potter. Learn from Sunday papers that far from corrupting morals of the nation’s children and turning their minds to mush, HP is in fact a craze welcomed by teachers throughout the English-speaking world. Unlike pokeomon (or however one spells it), game boys, skateboards and other childish obsessions, HP actually encourages children to read, concentrate and altogether behave more nicely. Maybe I should actually try to read one…


Yes, well, no need to go that far.


Monday 11 July 2005


Return from Scotland mini-break to find invitation to EastEnders summer party. Not sure if we’ll accept, but grateful to receive it anyway. When not actually writing an episode, always feel the need to be reassured am still on the list.


Tuesday 12 July 2005


Back to some gentle proof checking for local publisher. First book across my desk is about American dialects, a chapter on almost every state and ethnic group in the union. This is good news and bad news. Good news because am fascinated by English dialects, bad news because to proof check an interesting book takes twice as long as a dull book: keep having to stop to read intriguing paragraphs.


Still, it makes up for fact C4’s Big Brother no longer as interesting for a student of language now Saskia and Maxwell gone. An authority on such matters whose name escapes me talked on TV about how a linguistic virus entered the house and quickly infected most of the housemates. Within only a week or so they were all saying "at the end of the day". Within another week, Saskia had shortened it to "end of" and refined its meaning to be the final clincher in any argument, as in "You don’t know what you’re f…ing talking about. End of."


As housemates eagerly adopted this convenient terminator, began excitedly to think I was in at the birth of a new addition to the language. But once Saskia was evicted, use of this more forceful synonym for "enough said" declined. Perhaps the remaining housemates didn’t want to be associated with a loser.


Maxwell’s singular contribution to the language is "off the hook", meaning amazing, awesome, etc., as in "Look at that beautiful girl, she’s off the hook." Overheard it in the corner-shop this morning, so maybe it’s going to catch on, despite being accompanied by ironic laughter. On the other hand, it is very close to "off the peg", which has almost the opposite meaning, so I could be wrong.


In the Radio Times flavour-of-the-month Ricky Gervais hates himself for never missing Big Brother. "It’s demeaning, people going on television to show off, to show the world how good they are." John Humphrys rightly points out everyone who goes on the box is a bit of a show-off. Precisely. Granted this year’s housemates seem to be somewhat more childish than in previous years, their social skills so poorly developed that at times suspect some of them might be clinically autistic, but this isn’t real life. BB no more real than Emmerdale. It’s all play-acting. The only difference is the housemates do it without a script.


Suspect there may also be a class element at work here. Maybe if the house were filled with the articulate, the well-adjusted and the middle-class, people would be less dismissive. Within a week the housemates would agree cleaning, cooking and washing-up rotas, the men would set up male bonding weekends and the women coffee mornings and a neighbourhood watch. But let’s face it, people would no more tune in to watch that than they would read a novel about people who are unfailingly honest, hardworking and faithful.


Sunday 17 July 2005


In a box alongside an interview with Tom Stoppard, the new president of the London Library, I learn that the most borrowed author from the UK’s 4,200 public libraries between 2002 and 2004 was Jacqueline Wilson. And I have absolutely no idea who she is.


Have said it many times before, but it’ll bear repeating that I just love libraries, a love apparently shared by Tom S. He calls the LL an "existential fact of culture". The number of books kept in libraries has fallen, but that’s fine by me. How many new books are published each year: 100,000 plus? I’m all in favour of someone else thinning them out for me. With a city library only ten minutes walk away, see little point in keeping a huge personal collection of books, so now buy only those books can envisage still being useful or enjoyable in ten years’ time. So no novels.


Tom S declares philosophical questions occupy him more than any other kind and only two questions at that: "what is true, and what is good?" Hate to pick a fight with someone as eminent as the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but suspect what he actually meant to say was "what is truth, and what is goodness?" – otherwise all he’s doing is drawing up lists, e.g. love is good, marriage is good, money is good, drugs are good or maybe not; it’s true that life goes on, it’s true that God exists or maybe doesn’t, it’s true that we’re all going to die, etc, etc.


Come to think of it, that is what most writers do, particularly novelists. Another reason why I don’t buy novels. End of.





Monday 25 July 2005


Find myself proof-checking a book on performing Shakespeare. Hitherto thought there was little to be written on the subject. Growing up during the period when Sir Larry's limp-wristed mellifluousness was giving way to Finney's and Courtenay's provincial mateyness, always assumed there was only one rule about how to 'do Shakespeare': namely, we (the English) do it best.


Not true, of course. Recall rather bizarre English version of Midsummer Night's Dream in which stage was largely occupied by man-sized white balloons, like an episode of The Prisoner. Imaginative but silly. Shortly after, watched genuinely scary Dutch production of King Lear in which Gloucester's blindness was emphasised by the gradual lowering of a huge metal grid under which he stumbled bent double. And notwithstanding the famous interval-less Macbeth with Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren, by far the best version I've ever seen was Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.


Even North Americans - dare one say it? - probably make a decent fist of Shakespeare, though have to say can't recall having seen a single production. Suppose Kiss Me Kate doesn't count. Course, they do have their own Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario (did the name come first, or the festival, I wonder?) - which must count for something. Must face it, their accent is probably closer to sixteenth-century Warwickshire than our twenty-first-century BBC English is.


One of the lengthier passages in the book discusses the apparently age-old question, "If the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where is Hamlet?" Frankly had no idea this sort of thing occupied the minds of academics. No wonder universities are going through a bad patch.


Wednesday 3 August 2005


A feature article in the Guardian asks if Britain has lost its sense of humour. Perhaps an insensitive question to ask only four weeks after 7/7, but then we can't live our entire lives in a state of anxious readiness, no matter how much our government may want us to.


The argument comes on top of last Sunday's Observer worrying about the question of what constitutes 'being British'. Have lived long enough to know that this sort of national navel-gazing always comes along in the wake of 'threats to our national identity', and to know that within a few weeks we will go back to simply being British instead of agonising over what it means.


But among all the usual stuff about our wonderful NHS, our legendary sense of humour, our unique understanding of irony, our tolerance of other people's opinions (presumably an example of our irony), our welcoming of strangers (another example), our ability to make do, our inventiveness, our democratic institutions (alright, that's enough irony), what people mention most frequently is our language.


How ironic then (sorry) that we can't even claim that as our own. You only have to read David Crystal's The Stories of English (the clue is in the plural).


Yes, we gave the world English (after the world had given us the makings of it), but ever since then the world has been messing around with it and giving it back. Like Americans, Australians and Indians, to name only three populations who have their own ideas about 'our' language.


It's one of the strengths of English, of course, that it can absorb all these changes and become constantly enriched by them. Yet for as long as there's been a language to call English, people have been trying to freeze it, stick it in a straitjacket, in that ghastly word 'standardize' it - because by so doing we British can claim it as ours alone, and all other versions as being beyond the pale, non-standard, foreign. Thank goodness then that it is a totally hopeless task. We can't even control the myriad of dialects, idioms and slang within our own borders. Our language is in a continual state of change. As is our nation as a whole. We can no more freeze our language (Chaucer's? Shakespeare's? the Queen's?) and call only that English, than we can freeze some arbitrary collection of characteristics and call it 'being British'. It would probably be easier to freeze the Thames. Yes, it could be done - but who would want to live in a country as cold as that?





Sunday 7 August 2005


Can’t let day pass without adding my own comments to those of Jason Cowley in today’s Observer on the state of the English novel (British novel? English-language novel?).


One of the depressing things about being 60, as I said to my daughter the other day when she was regaling me with another tale of youthful excess, is the feeling you’ve heard everything before. Hence first reaction to Cowley: I seem to have been reading articles about the parlous/healthy (delete whichever inapplicable) state of the novel for the last 40 years. Indeed have no doubt they’ve been appearing regularly ever since the publication of Moll Flanders.


Still, suppose Sunday cultural review sections have to be filled with something. The argument Cowley puts up in order to give himself something to knock down is that English novelists have failed to engage with the new ‘culture’ that now exists subsequent to the events of 9/11 and 7/7. In one, perhaps trivial, sense agree with him this plainly absurd, since novelists are, like the rest of the population, part of the post-9/11 culture simply be virtue of being alive in it, and unless they’ve been living in a cave for the last four years, their novels reflect that culture whether they like it or not, be they engaged in historical romance, science fiction, chick lit, kids books, or whatever.


Cowley, however, welcomes signs of a more meaningful involvement: McEwan’s demo-set Saturday, Ishiguro’s sci-fi scarer, Zadie Smith’s confused mixed-race characters. Will have to take his word for it for the time being, since haven’t actually read any of them yet. Have to say, though, find this argument unconvincing. Future generations may well find The Da Vinci Code’s ludicrous conspiracy paranoia more representative of today’s mood than the vague unease of McEwan’s neurosurgeon hero.


Come to think of it, the idea of a novelist ‘engaging’ with anything is a bit of an oxymoron. The very nature of his work requires him to keep as well away from real life as possible. Granted he may start with real life, but pretty soon he finds he has to tamper with it so as to make it fit the demands of his invented story and imagined characters. A novelist only engages with real life in order to tidy it up.


Cowley claims: "the novel…is as vital now in this time of profound political crisis as it has ever been – and continues…to be the principal artistic form of our times." Rubbish, of course. Can’t recall a single example of a novel being vital at any time of profound political crisis, whereas TV, as well as clearly being our times’ principal artistic form, undoubtedly is. Should never forget that novels, no matter how ‘engaged’, are primarily works of the imagination. Winston Smith living under a totalitarian regime in 1984 is not the same thing as a real person living under a real one.


Interestingly he skips over the one novel that deals with how a novelist really did engage with a key issue, not only of his day, but of ours too: Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George, which I seem to remember mentioning a few weeks ago. Arthur Conan Doyle taking up the case of racially-victimised George Edalji is a novelist engaging with the culture of his time, as was Zola taking up the case of Dreyfus, as was Solzhenitsyn being exiled from his own country. Writing a novel from the comfort of NW1 – while being an absolutely worthwhile thing to do – isn’t. Not really.


Monday 8 August 2005


Accept invitation to EastEnders summer party.


Sunday 14 August 2005


Don’t go to EastEnders summer party. Suspect it will be too much like all summer parties, full of screaming children, smelly hot dogs and bouncy castles. But that could just be me. Actually, real reason is fear that I may be shunned for my article in the 2006 Writer’s Handbook, about writing for a TV soap opera. Though I made sure it ended on an upbeat note, the rest of it could easily be misinterpreted as unflattering. Decide to keep a low profile just in case.





Monday 15 August 2005


Must apologise for implying a couple of weeks ago that Stratford, Ontario, is in the USA. Canada, forgive me.


Tuesday 23 August 2005


Sandwiched between checking books on epistemology and geology, TV thriller is actually going well. Feel vindicated by events post-7/7. Truth is turning out to be very like my fiction. Maybe, like Jason Cowley claimed a couple of weeks ago, it’s because I’m ‘engaging with the culture’. Unfortunately, seem to remember arguing that was all rubbish. Oh well, maybe he had a point.


Thursday 25 August 2005


Excellent day. New dining table arrived this morning. No, bear with me.


Having new dining table means old dining table can now be returned to its rightful place, namely my office, and I can finally stop attempting to work on rickety old desk which threatens to fall apart every time I hit a key on my laptop. So spend extremely satisfying afternoon throwing desk out of window, carefully installing new working surface, moving it an inch this way, an inch that, arranging printer, phone, desk lamp, cables to connect them, family photos, notebooks, pens, pencils in their ideal


positions, everything precisely to hand – then finally placing my laptop centre stage.


Sit back in chair and spend happy hour admiring wonderful new working environment.


I’m serious. Among all the ‘how to’ books have read on writing, recall only a couple mentioning the importance of the writer’s surroundings: Virginia Woolf and her room of one’s own and Celia Brayfield recommending the purchase of a good medical dictionary. Why this omission? Gardening books go on about the importance of having a good fork and spade, DIY books a decent drill and screwdriver; why shouldn’t writing books recommend a comfortable table and chair? You’re going to spend a lot of time using them. As Wordsworth said, "poetry takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity." But it’s very difficult to recollect in discomfort. How can you write a tender love scene if half your mind is on your sore bum?


For myself, feel writing quality will now make quantum leap. Morning sun gently warming laptop keyboard as it filters through bending, full-fruited apple tree branches, the merry sound of the neighbour’s delightful children splashing in their paddling pool wafting through the open window, mingling with the elegant curses of the sun-bronzed workmen building a loft conversion opposite… See, it’s happening already.


Monday 29 August 2005


Despite horrible things have said in past about novels, have become hooked on a particular writer’s murder mysteries. In fact, have become so hooked, am seriously considering attempting to adapt one for TV.


Have never even thought about adaptation before, so completely in dark as to how to proceed. Presume first step must be to get hold of TV rights – if someone hasn’t already beaten me to it – but have no idea how. Maybe should start with publisher.


Meanwhile find myself musing on many problems of adaptation – the first being sheer length. Can’t see anyone agreeing to more than a couple of hour-long episodes, which will mean cutting most of the 500-odd pages. Which will also mean cutting quite a few of the characters, or merging them somehow. Know enough about TV detectives to realise hero really only needs one sidekick to voice his thoughts to, not an entire department, but not sure how to reduce number of witnesses or victims. Can hardly merge the latter, no matter how intriguing it might be to have someone strangled, drowned and shot.


Wednesday 31 August 2005


Apparently there are now at least 200,000 (or is it 2 million?) on-line diaries – or blogs, as I gather they’re called. How do they know? Surely no one’s attempted to count them. Still, even that figure must pale beside the number of people who scribble their life stories down in actual paper diaries.


See no essential difference between an on-line diary and a hard-copy one. Vast majority of both read only by the people who write them. Mistake to think of putting something on-line as akin to publishing – more like putting a lonely hearts ad in your local paper, or trying to hide your paper diary in your bedroom. In either case the only readers you’ll get are precisely the people you don’t want: your friends or your mother.





Friday 9 September 2005


In Cape Town for belated honeymoon. Deliberately resisting temptation to do anything remotely like work, have discovered little about the South African writing scene. On the one occasion accidentally find myself in a bookshop, horrified to see cost of books substantially higher in real terms than in UK. No doubt this says something about the literary life of the nation, but decide not my place to articulate it.


Only other discovery is that internationally acclaimed SA novelist Andre Brink used to write for the hugely popular Afrikaans TV drama series 7 de Laan. Well I never. Wonder if soap experience is becoming a prerequisite for literary success.


Wednesday 14 September 2005


2am. Somewhere high above the Sahara. Can’t sleep. Turn in desperation to The Line of Beauty. Know I should like this kind of book, so have been struggling to get into it for the past four days. Still not beyond page 19. Keep finding myself getting angry at sentences like, "He went over to the much-neglected piano, its black lid the podium for various old art folios and a small bronze bust of Liszt – which seemed to give a rather pained glance at his sight-reading from the Mozart album on the stand." In current exhausted state, irrational


hatred focuses bizarrely on the word ‘rather’. Well, was it a pained glance or wasn’t it? Stop being so bloody prissy about it.


9am. Home. At last. Post contains a few welcome cheques, but more unwelcome bills. Unfortunately no desperate messages from Elstree wondering when I’ll be available for another episode. Have I been forgotten?


Thursday 15 September 2005


Wake refreshed after first decent night’s sleep in three days. Decide first task is to re-establish contact with potential employers. Call local publishers and receive gratifying news they’re glad I’m back, they’ve been overwhelmed with work and when can I start? Call BBC but succeed only in leaving message. Try not to think of this as an omen.


Hidden among all the spam, emails contain a couple of notes from fellow EastEnders writers. Seems there are rumours of changes afoot in the commissioning process – which on the face of it look like bad news for new boys like me. But since they are only rumours, decide to ignore them. For now.


Know I should get down to some writing, but feel disinclined to. Can’t decide which of many unfinished projects to tackle. While in SA, resolved to stop mucking about and set myself to write a minimum amount each day. Now the moment has arrived, however, am paralysed by indecision. Instead take Voltaire’s advice ("We must cultivate our garden") and visit our allotment. What pleasure is there in writing that can match the pleasure of eating a sweetcorn one has grown oneself?





Monday 26 September 2005


Now over three months since I finished my last episode of EE and still no response to my increasingly desperate messages. Know I’ve cried wolf before, but this really does feel like the sack. Rumours of new commissioning process also now fact. Result: only 70 episodes to be shared between 30-plus of we fringe writers. Time to start looking elsewhere, I think.


Wednesday 28 September 2005


Have finally been getting down to TV thriller. Unfortunately, have also realised a lot of it is rubbish. Fortunately, not all of it. Have raised minor character to level of major character. He’s a sympathetic chap, so have decided to kill him off in final reel. Nothing quite like a bit of blatant emotional manipulation to hammer home a message.


Have also jettisoned original scene breakdown, against all EE training and advice from all good screenwriting books. Found I was forcing my draft to fit the structure I’d mapped out on paper and it just wasn’t working. Now let each scene flow from the preceding one, with result whole thing seems both to have more pace and to be more convincing. Feel as if huge weight lifted from shoulders. Though still have overall ending in view, now letting characters decide how to get there, instead of forcing them to take the scenic route.


Wednesday 5 October 2005


To theatre to see revival of Simon Gray’s Otherwise Engaged starring Richard E Grant (Withnail and I) and Anthony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), among others. High hopes were not entirely dashed. Gray’s general misanthropy came across loud and clear, with no very likeable character in the entire cast. Wisely the director didn’t update it thirty years, or it would have made little sense. Who these days cares if people went to Oxford or Cambridge or neither, or who they slept with at their public school?


Come to think of it, public schooldays seem to figure disproportionately large in many English writers' work. The determination of Gray’s central figure to be left alone even reminds me of a character from Lindsay Anderson’s If, who, while all around him mayhem erupts, just wants to sit quietly smoking on the loo. "Oh for goodness sake," he mutters as his peace is interrupted. And plainly the best years of their lives were not just a fascinating subject in the ‘60s and ‘70s; just read Harry Potter.


Suppose should be unsurprised that those who attended these places should feel the need to chew over the experience. Must be pretty traumatic to be packed off to something like a correctional institution for the best part of one’s childhood. On the other hand, am considerably surprised by how much those of us who didn’t seem to want to hear about it. A simple case of Schadenfreude, perhaps, which after all probably explains why many people read anything.


As a fellow writer, found myself almost as interested by Gray’s programme notes as by the play itself. He wrote it very quickly while spending years on another play. He quotes from his diary (yes, he keeps a diary too), ‘There have been a few occasions when I’ve finished a play – there’s been a sort of click that goes right through me, a click of everything, with the last line written, falling into place, of everything being absolutely right, no, perfect is the word, of the play being perfect…’


Know what he means – though never really experienced it myself. The one play that came close, I was so confident of it I also wrote it very quickly – in four days, if memory serves. It was about three men and a car and it was rejected. So, more of a clunk than a click.





Monday 10 October 2005


Third anniversary of the start of my professional TV scriptwriting career. But with no new commission in nearly four months, question is, has it already ended?


Against all predictions, Man Booker prize goes to John Banville for The Sea. BBC2’s literary pundits try not to look too surprised and declare the jury has obviously gone for the ‘quality of the writing’. Someone quickly adds that the story is also ‘very good’, as if that were an unexpected bonus. A modest Banville looks somewhat surprised as he thanks his publisher and agent for sticking with him through ‘many unsaleable books’. Winningly, he tells his fellow finalists to stick around: sooner or later it’ll happen to them too.


Thursday 13 October 2005


A week for literary prizewinners. Harold Pinter has been awarded the $1.3m Nobel Prize for Literature, with the citation: "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms".


Find myself almost as happy as if I had won, much as I felt when The Pianist won three Oscars. Having grown up with his plays and films as a kind of permanent backdrop to my life, see his work as a running commentary on the State of the Nation, perhaps even the State of Mankind. So pleased am I, in fact, that I take the trouble to look up the Nobel Foundation website, where I find a rather bizarre telephone interview with a Swedish journalist:

Harold Pinter: Hello. Good morning.

Nobel Foundation: Good morning, good morning, Mr Pinter. Congratulations. I’m calling from the official website of the Nobel Foundation.

HP: Yes. Well, thank you very much.

NF: It’s fantastic news for us here; and I would like to hear what your thoughts were when you received the news.

HP: Well, I’ve ... I’ve been absolutely speechless. I am ... I’m overwhelmed by the news, very deeply moved by the news. But I can’t really articulate what I feel.

NF: You didn’t have any idea it could come your way, did you?

HP: No idea whatsoever! No. So I’m just bowled over.


NF: There’s so much to talk about. But I would like just to ask you what, in your career, you think has been the most important, what has the most ...

HP: I cannot answer ... I can’t answer these questions.

NF: No, I understand.

HP: There’s nothing more I can say, except that I am deeply moved; and, as I say, I have no words at the moment. I shall have words by the time I get to Stockholm.

NF: You will be coming to Stockholm?

HP: Oh, yes.

NF: Okay. Thank you, Sir.

HP: Okay?

NF: Thank you.

HP: Thank you very much.

NF: Thank you.

He could have written it himself.


Monday 17 October 2005


Struggling with TV thriller – despite inspiration of Pinter’s Nobel Prize. Feel I should be knocking off first draft at minimum rate of 10pp/day, but actually finding it difficult to do more than a couple of scenes. Know the problem is that I keep rewriting old scenes as I go along. But knowing it isn’t the same as being able to stop doing it.

Another problem is that real life keeps threatening. Government keeps coming up with proposed new measures to deal with the threat of terrorism – prosecuting people who praise acts of terrorism, locking suspects away for three months without trial, etc – and I keep thinking of clever ways in which I could incorporate them. All it would need is a complete rewrite.

Thrillers, I also rather belatedly realise, are not easy things to write. As the writer, I know everything – or I should – but I have to pretend that I don’t. On the other hand, I can’t write it so that it is completely impenetrable. Don’t want viewers becoming bored. So have to drop in the occasional hint at what’s really happening. But how to avoid those hints becoming a complete giveaway?On top of that, my thriller isn’t a whodunit, or even a willhegetawaywithit. It’s more of an isheorisnthe. Because no crime has been committed yet, people can only be incarcerated on suspicion. Which is the very problem the government is faced with. We are in the world of intending to commit a crime, the world of Minority Report, the world of pre-crime. Much as I am in the world of pre-finishing this script.





Friday 28 October 2005


Learn rather belatedly that EastEnders scooped best drama series at the National Television Awards. Can honestly, wholeheartedly and disinterestedly say they deserve it. I’ll go further: some of the writers, particularly Sarah Phelps and Tony Jordan, deserve Baftas. And while I’m on the subject, must thank all those I worked with during my time on the show – if any of them are reading this – particularly the script editors, those unsung heroes (well, mostly heroines) of TV drama, but all too often the subject of unwarranted criticism and butt of feeble jokes (I should know, I made a lot of them – for which I apologise). Actually I learned more in the last three years about writing TV drama than I learned in the previous thirty, and that’s pretty well entirely down to them. Perhaps there should be an award for editors. If the NTA ever decide to inaugurate one, call me: I can think of half a dozen deserving names right now.


Tuesday 1 November 2005


To the theatre to see Top Dogs, an award-winning Swiss play about the trauma of high-level redundancy. Actually a rather strange play, but with two or three memorable comic turns. Afterwards, we almost walk into three of the cast waiting for the London bus. Seized with an impulse to make someone’s day, I congratulate them for giving us such an enjoyable evening. Their faces immediately light up with dazzling smiles. I don’t know if it makes their day, but it certainly makes mine.


Saturday 5 November 2005


Excellent article in today’s Independent by Howard Jacobson about Andrew Davies’ TV adaptation of Dickens’s Bleak House. Should be pinned above every adapter’s desk. Am even prompted to pull the original off the rarely-accessed top shelf of my bookcase in order to see for myself.


50 pages later with barely a pause for breath I can report that HJ is right: Dickens is greatly diminished by this soap serialisation, and for all the reasons he cites. Even add a couple of my own. Where’s the humour gone? And how can you do Dickens without Dickens’ own voice? To pick a sentence or two almost at random: "Indeed he [Sir Leicester Dedlock] married her for love. A whisper still goes about, that she


had not even family; howbeit, Sir Leicester had so much family that perhaps he had enough, and could dispense with any more." Priceless. Or maybe we should be thankful for small mercies. Though I rate Andrew Davies as our best TV adapter, even he might have changed ‘howbeit’ to ‘whatever’.
In evening to cinema to see The Beat my Heart Skipped, a French re-make of the US film Fingers. Excellent, admirable, hugely enjoyable; the Independent’s reviewer says it reminds us why French cinema is such an essential antidote to Hollywood. The hero, a young speculator-cum-enforcer at the seedier end of the Paris property market, is suddenly seized with an urge to take up classical piano again after a gap of ten years; the film is about his struggle to escape his old life. Beauty v ugliness, music v noise, calm v frenzy, feminine v masculine, gentleness v violence, light v dark.
Of course, a film with Bach on the soundtrack has to do less to please me than a film without (even Boris Johnson on Desert Island Discs yesterday was unusually lost for words: "Well, Bach is the … he’s, well, he’s… Bach is the master, isn’t he?"). It doesn’t even have an actor so ham-fisted everyone can tell that the piano being pounded isn’t producing the music he’s hearing. The hero’s fingers are constantly alive, flexing nervously before a punch-up, twitching uncontrollably on tense knees, tapping


out a fugue on a bar top or repeating a difficult phrase on his teacher’s piano ("Again," she commands. "Again. Again."). They seem to be independently searching for the peace and rest he seeks for himself.


Maybe we are all at it. Maybe it is another explanation of why we need art, why we have the irresistible urge to produce music, paintings, stories, though they appear to do nothing useful. For brief moments they give us a kind of peace.





Tuesday 15 November 2005


Break from struggling with thriller to scribble down idea for future project. As always when think of brilliant new idea, can’t help fantasising this will be The Big One, the piece of work that will finally propel my name into lights. After all, haven’t I served my apprenticeship? Aren’t I surrounded by a huge pile of old scripts, evidence of an unspectacular but steady learning curve?


Coincidentally hear an early novella by Truman Capote has just been published. Opinion seems divided on the merits of letting the world see what he apparently preferred to leave to gather dust in his bottom drawer. On the other hand, had he really wished his juvenilia not to be read then surely he would have destroyed it – rather like Brahms destroyed all the compositions he regarded as sub-standard and Richard Burton’s wife made a bonfire of much of her husband’s writing in order to save his posthumous reputation.


Unfortunately most writers (and their wives) are poor judges of their own work. Passionate youthful stuff may well turn out to be the high point of a writer’s career; there’s no rule that says we get better as we get older.


Am reminded of something Simon Gray wrote in his programme notes for Otherwise Engaged: "[In 1970] Michael Codron had produced, Harold Pinter had directed, Alan Bates had starred in my play Butley and here the four of us were again [five years later], all of us of an age – somewhere between our mid-thirties and our early forties – and no doubt in our prime, though we all probably assumed that our prime was really just around the corner, there for the taking when the time was right." Yes, that’s what we all think, that our prime is just around the corner; that our next play will be our best; that all our struggle, our immature early work, has been inexorably leading up to just this; we have learnt all our lessons; this time we will say exactly what we want to say in the very best way possible. This time we will get it right.


Seems despite the success of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Capote had similar thoughts. Towards the end of his life he embarked on his great American novel, the transatlantic equivalent of Proust’s massive work. The result? He died before he could finish it. Another example is the French crime writer Leo Malet who determined to write a crime story set in each Paris arrondissement, but managed only 15 before he too died.


The lesson is clear. I’d better not think this new idea will be the one for which I’m remembered; it may never get written. So should I look forward to being in my prime? Probably not. For all I know, I may be in it already.


Wednesday 23 November 2005


Seems the actor Richard Griffiths caused a minor stir when he stopped a performance of Heroes to order a woman out of the auditorium whose mobile phone had gone off for the third time. Maybe we’ve all become rather careless about how we should behave in front of live drama. After all, we can talk through a TV programme, chat, rustle sweet papers and loudly gargle Coke in the cinema and scream our way through football matches and pop concerts, so what’s so special about the theatre?


Perhaps we should take lessons from the Germans. My father was fond of telling the story that when he went to Bayreuth to see some Wagner production, a member of the audience died halfway through Act I. Not a whisper interrupted the performance. Only when the interval arrived was the corpse allowed to be removed.


Well, maybe that’s going too far. Anyway my father probably invented the story. But my grandmother – a formidable lady – was almost as unforgiving. If anyone in an audience of which she was a part so much as coughed, she would round on them and shout very clearly, "Shut up!" From then on, the offender would prefer to choke than let out another sound, no matter how sick they were. How she would react to mobile phones ringing I shudder to think. But come back anyway, grandma, we need you.


Thursday 24 November 2005


Everyone seems to be getting very hot under the collar about plagiarism.


Speaking as someone who has openly lifted some of the plot of a John Le Carre novel for my current thriller, I can hardly claim the moral high ground. But then it is my intention partly to point out how we are drifting into a similar kind of Cold War to the one that provided the background to the first 35 years of my life. So if no one spots the telltale signs I shall be more disappointed than relieved.


Doubtless in academic and educational circles, plagiarism is a serious business, or so academics and teachers keep telling me. But when it comes to the creative arts, well, the best recommendation seems to be to do it openly and often – which, now I come to think about it, I regularly do in this very column. And why not? Goes to show how hard I work. As the American writer William Mizner put it, "If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research."





Sunday 4 December 2005


What’s in a name? To paraphrase Shakespeare, not much. At Wednesday’s BIFAs (a sort of alternative BAFTAs) an award-winning scriptwriter apparently made a point of praising another, one Martin Hardy. Martin Hardy, however, turned out to be an invented name put on a largely improvised script after the original writer took his name off. Oddly, the writer doing all the praising was that same original writer. (Reminds me of Robert Towne, who was so angered by the rewriting of his script for Greystoke that he put his dog’s name on the credits – the dog went on to be nominated for an Academy Award.)


Why anyone would take the trouble to praise the work of a writer who doesn’t exist is a mystery. Though conversely I can certainly understand using an invented character to praise a real writer, particularly oneself. I’m not sure if Joe Orton’s alter ego ever overtly praised any of his plays, but I seem to remember him firing off letters to the press complaining about how disgusting they were, which probably had the same effect.


Also in today’s paper is an obituary for the creator of Henry Root, first and best of the ‘Dear Sir’ ridiculers of the self-important. Reminds me of someone I worked with many years ago, who wrote similar letters to the high and mighty. His aim, however, was not to bring them low, but to hope they would enter into the spirit of the thing. A letter to Birds Eye politely asked whether, since he wanted to be cryogenically frozen after his death but couldn’t afford to have it done properly, they would mind accommodating him? Not at all, came the reply, so long as he didn’t mind being stored alongside the frozen peas.


Writing under a nom de plume has an honourable tradition – though we use a foreign word for it to show our faint disapproval. Only have to look at George Eliot, John Le Carre and Andy McNab. In Catch 22, the hero Yossarian censors his men’s letters even to the extent of censoring their names, replacing them with Washington Irving, or, to alleviate the tedium, occasionally with Irving Washington, a switcheroo one can perform with a lot of American names.


On the Internet false names proliferate. Indeed, they’re encouraged. A TV programme about how to use eBay actually recommended creating a false identity for oneself. That way no one can get hold of your real email address, personal details, credit card, etc. Hang on, using a pseudonym is one thing, but isn’t that illegal?


And speaking of the Internet, see a book has just been published about the 300,000-odd UK blogs, many of which are no doubt written under noms de plume. Seems one of the commonest starting-points for any blog is the rubbishing or otherwise of a newspaper article. So what? Half the stories in any newspaper are based on articles in all the other newspapers. And here we have a newspaper article about a book about internet diaries commenting on newspaper articles. End of, as Big Brother contestant Saskia might have said.


Course, using a real person’s name as a pen-name could spell trouble. Or indeed, finding that your real name is the same as someone else’s. To feed on yet more fodder from the press, I see that Catherine Mayer in today’s Observer is complaining about being mistaken for a Lady Catherine Meyer. She should be so lucky. Actors have a register to deal with this problem: if a wannabe actor finds that he shares his name with an established actor, he must either wait for his namesake to die, or change his name. No such register exists for writers, yet there seem to be no armies of Charles Dickens’s cashing in, not even a Chas Dickens or a Charles F Dickens Jr.


Though now come to think of it, did see a few days ago that an episode of some TV drama series was written by a couple of Minghellas. I’m sure this isn’t a case of a well-chosen pseudonym; more likely evidence of a talented family. Have often wished that the same happy accident of birth befell me. Unfortunately am not, as far as am aware, related to Madonna’s film director hubby – but if anyone should choose to believe I am, I may take my time denying it.


Wednesday 7 December 2005


On walk into town pass intimidating slogan painted on wall: ‘What are you doing?’ Like a portrait whose eyes follow one round a room, feels as if it were written for me alone. Indeed, somehow feels even more threatening than if it had been more specific: about global warming? about cruelty to animals? about your tax return? I’m doing everything I should be, honestly.


As slip by as unobtrusively as possible, ponder unusual use of underline to add emphasis. Had first word been underlined, would sound rather like schoolmaster finding child smoking behind bike shed. Second word emphasis would sound like weary wife discovering husband had electrocuted himself after trying to change lightbulb. Last word emphasis would be least scary. ‘What are you doing ?’ Well, I’m walking along this pavement, actually.


Once safely out of range, decide probably isn’t aimed at me anyway. Must be that other bloke with my name. Or as Groucho Marx once put it: "Groucho isn’t my real name; I’m breaking it in for a friend."


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© Bob G Ritchie 2000-2007