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Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer

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Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer


by Bob G Ritchie


Tuesday 27 December 2005

Working when everyone else is not. But needs must when tax has to be paid in less than a month. So find myself checking over a book on the philosophy of language.

Can’t help thinking the hope lurking behind this whole field of study is that eventually, if philosophers delve deeply enough, language will turn out to be as logical and consistent as mathematics. In fact, as writers know only too well, language is nowhere near as clear-cut. Language is more like a skip full of tens of thousands of different-sized nuts, bolts, screws, odd bits of metal, plastic and other material. Some of which, if put together in roughly the right way, could make something useful, like a lamp, or a piston, or a steering wheel. Given time, patience and skill, a lot of them could even be put together to make a car.

Unfortunately not every combination of bits and pieces, no matter how well they fit together, automatically produce a car, any more than any sequence of words, no matter how grammatically put together, automatically make sense. Yet philosophers seem to want it that way. Hence their overblown fascination with paradoxes. Like the liar paradox: a Cretan says, ‘All Cretans are liars.’ Or the Russell paradox: in a town in which the barber shaves all those who do not shave themselves, who shaves the barber?

I have no problem with this sort of thing. Makes the language more interesting if on occasion you can make apparent nonsense out of it. But philosophers seem to think that just because we can come up with statements that appear to be both true and false, the entire edifice of human reasoning must fall. Nonsense, of course. In fact, don’t know why I’m even bothering to think of such things. Must be depression brought on by looming tax deadline. As any writer knows, the Cretan was speaking ironically and Russell’s barber was bald.

Monday 2 January 2006

Pleased to see writers doing so well on celebrity version of University Challenge. They defeat newspeople easily, which only goes to show that those whose business is to find out the facts know less about the world than we who just make them up. Surprised to see Iain Banks as captain; thought he was a bit of a recluse. Turns out to be the star of the team too. Perhaps as a novelist he does more research than his fellow writers. Tony Marchant describes himself as a TV and theatre dramatist, Andrew Davies as an adapter of the classics, Jimmy McGovern, rather belligerently, as being ‘from Liverpool’ – as if the audience might be full of Boris Johnsons.

Wednesday 4 January 2006

Up pops Iain Banks again, this time on celebrity Mastermind. Humphreys asks him if he writes differently when there’s an M in his name (in his SF novels). No, says Banks, he uses exactly the same skills, tools and materials – but just like a carpenter, sometimes he produces a chair and sometimes he produces a table. Neat. And rather spookily like the analogy I used about language being a skip.

Thursday 5 January 2006

Wake with idea for brilliant new opening scene for TV thriller. Before breakfast tap bare bones into script. Now have no less than three brilliant pre-credit sequences, of which can only use one, or at most two. How is it that the more I work on this script, the further away I seem from finishing it? Now that is a paradox.



Saturday 14 January 2006


To my first ever gay commitment ceremony. One of the happy couple tries to convince me their life story is just the material to make a riveting Hollywood movie. Unfortunately am too sober to share her conviction, but am probably wrong; very few of my own ideas have ever seen the light of day. Still, as I think the Nobel Prizewinning chemist Linus Pauling once said, "The way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas." So mentally file it away, just in case.


Another guest says her 11-year-old daughter will never forgive her if she doesn’t come home with some tangible evidence she’s met an EastEnders writer: can’t I spare an old script? Despite having been crossed off the list over six months ago, still am asked what’s going to happen to Sharon and Phil: will they be allowed to find happiness at last? But unlike most, this fan seems genuinely interested in my experience. So I launch into the story of the ‘EE writer’s life’.


30 seconds later her eyes begin to glaze over. People don’t really want to know. They don’t want to hear that the exciting world on which they eavesdrop every other day is actually a fiction invented by people like me. And that the characters they are so fascinated by are just actors who mostly lead fairly ordinary lives. Reminds me of Eric Sykes talking on the South Bank Show last Sunday. Early in his career he asked the BBC if he could have a writer’s credit on the Frankie Howerd Show. No way, was the reply, didn’t he realise the audience thinks Frankie Howerd makes it all up as he goes along?


To stave off imminent depression, decide to get drunk. With happy result later manage to add rather good scene to thriller script.


Sunday 15 January 2006


Read Robert McCrum through a hangover about how e-books and e-readers will soon be taking over our literary lives. Another reason to ‘be very scared’, like amoral teenagers or Asian bird flu. Actually he claims that paradoxically we may be living in a Golden Age of publishing and that the printed book will probably remain part of our lives well into the foreseeable future. As he quotes Nicholson Baker, it’s a "beautifully browsable invention that needs no electricity and exists in a readable form no matter what happens."


Quite. Not to mention all those batteries. And the cost. And reliability. And thievability. Spill a cup of coffee on a book, accidentally step on it, even give it to the dog to chew for a few seconds and with a bit of straightening out it’s still perfectly readable. Try doing that to an e-reader. And what about when the screen suddenly goes blank? New screen? Sorry mate, they stopped making that model six months ago. Have you seen this? New one, just come in, only six hundred quid…


Friday 20 January 2006


End-of-working-week drinks with old friend. He asks me what I’m working on. Despite knowing it’s bad luck to answer, enough liquid has flowed across our table for me to feel relaxed about the superstition. Pitch the thriller. He likes it. Tell him about two other planned projects. He likes them too. Stroll home in buoyant mood. Add another good scene to script.


Sunday 22 January 2006


Six top TV writers chat in the pages of The Observer. The journalist asks them if a Golden Age of TV drama is imminent. Not another Golden Age? Do other people find this urge to rank our cultural experiences a bit bizarre, or is it just me? Maybe it’s a sign of the times. Maybe we’re living through a Golden Age of Golden Ages. Somehow doubt Marlowe ever sat round with Shakespeare in London ale houses saying, "Just think, Will, we’re living in a Golden Age of drama." "’Tis true, Chris. Care to name your top ten plays of all time?"

Andrew Davies brings the discussion down to earth. He warns that the honesty bar will never work with writers, and adds "I write better when I’m drunk."

Well, at least I’m not the only one.


Wednesday 1 February 2006

Half listen to radio discussion about what can thrust a book into the bestseller lists. An American academic has developed a software program which can predict a bestseller merely from its title. Having known quite a few programmers in my time, somehow doubt this. Other more reliable aids to success include movie tie-ins and literary prizes, though the latter are apparently not as helpful as might be supposed. Even less helpful is a good critical review. No. The only sure-fire way of pushing your sales into the stratosphere is to be recommended by Richard and Judy’s Book Club.

Make no comment. Who knows, I may need their seal of approval myself one day.

Sunday 5 February 2006

Observer claims we’re living in a Golden Age of cinema. This is getting silly. In space of a few days we’ve had a Golden Age of publishing and a Golden Age of TV drama. Now we’re in a Golden Age of movies. Mainly, it seems, on grounds that Academy Award nominations are going to less popular, more issue-led, movies than usual. Yeah, I guess people aren’t going to queue in their millions to see a story about two gay cowboys (though we all liked Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Not to mention all these great foreign language films like Caché and…er…well, like Caché.


So check my Halliwell’s to see if Oscars usually go to blockbusters like Lord of the Rings or to what one might call more thoughtful movies.


Well now. In 1945 it was The Lost Weekend (alcoholic writer – I can relate to that); 1947, Gentlemen’s Agreement (anti-semitism); 1948, Olivier’s Hamlet; 1949, All the King’s Men (political melodrama); 1950, All About Eve (Broadway bitchiness); 1954, On the Waterfront ("I coulda been a contender"); 1955, Marty; 1960, The Apartment; 1967, In the Heat of the Night; 1969, Midnight Cowboy; 1971, The French Connection; 1973, The Sting; 1975, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest; 1977, Annie Hall; 1979, Kramer vs Kramer; 1980, Ordinary People; 1983 Terms of Endearment; 1984, Amadeus; 1988 Rain Man; 1989, Driving Miss Daisy; 1992, Unforgiven; 1998, Shakespeare in Love; 1999, American Beauty; 2001, A Beautiful Mind.


So actually the Academy has always had a soft spot for smaller movies, especially if they happen to be about ‘outsiders’ – like alcoholics, Jews, actors, blacks, the poor, drug addicts, con-men, schizophrenics, divorcees, autistics, the old, killers, geniuses and gays. Maybe I should take up the offer to write my lesbian friends’ life story after all…


Wednesday 8 February 2006

Opening session of new creative writing class. Thought it was time I mingled more with other struggling scribblers. To be honest, part of me is hoping for a bit of Schadenfreude – I may be unsuccessful, but at least I’m not as totally pathetic as this lot. At same time, however – let’s be honest – hoping to plagiarise some new ideas, so maybe they shouldn’t be too pathetic.

We meet in a featureless grey building in a remote corner of a university campus – as one of us wittily suggests, The Writers' Block. Can’t decide if this is a good start or not.

Our leader – an earnest, middle-aged woman with hair scraped back like a ballerina’s – assures us that there have never been more opportunities for writers. (Then why aren’t we getting published? I can hear us all thinking.) "In fact," she continues with an encouraging smile, "I believe we’re living in a Golden Age …"


Wednesday 15 February 2006

At request of leader of our writing group, have spent last few days writing a story about a man who becomes a multi-millionaire from inventing a material for erasing writing in ink. Believe this has promising metaphorical potential but can’t quite think of a convincing conclusion. Over past week have discovered something about myself: find it almost impossible to write if I know I’m not going to be paid for it.

Fortunately at Writer’s Block find I’m not the one who has to read his story to the rest – cunningly our leader leaves us in the dark until the last minute, the theory being that the expectation of perhaps being chosen will better concentrate our minds. Instead we all have to listen to a bizarre story about a suicidal mass murderer coming back to earth as an angel. Even more bizarrely one of our band asks, "Is it meant to be for children?"

As we’re packing up I ask our leader – apropos our inaugural meeting – if she really thinks we’re living in a Golden Age for writers. "Oh yes," she beams. "Absolutely." Then proceeds to give me ten good reasons why. My intuition is that the point about Golden Ages is that they are always in the past – that it is a bit presumptuous of the present to give the title to itself – but find myself shamed into silence by her unquenchable enthusiasm. Walk home feeling like a miserable old git.


Friday 17 February 2006


Realise two anniversaries loom. In a month or so shall have been writing this diary for five years. Unfortunately have also been writing my TV thriller for nearly two. Remind myself Arthur Miller took ten years from original idea to final completion of The Crucible, but doesn’t make me feel any better.


Sunday 19 February 2006


Very pleased to see the Bafta for Best Picture not in the English Language (is that PC for Best Foreign Language Film?) go to The Beat My Heart Skipped. Almost as pleased by Best Original Screenplay going to Crash. So reassuring when prizes go to movies that are actually about something. A recognition also implied by one of the Brokeback Mountain prizewinners, who insists that the film isn’t just about gay cowboys: "It’s also about gay shepherds."


Moving Speech of the Evening award goes to David Puttnam accepting his Academy Fellowship. Who’d have thought a reference to The Sixth Sense could have an audience of film stars in tears?


Wednesday 22 February 2006


My turn to read my story to Writers Block. Least said the better.


Thursday 23 February 2006

A friend asks me if I’d like to join a "men-only" book club he’s setting up. Flattered by the invitation and still – despite yesterday’s experience of group behaviour – in the mood for joining things I say yes. At least it’ll be another excuse to get out from in front of this laptop. And a chance to rubbish other writers’ work.

Only later begin to have misgivings. Fact is, hardly read novels these days, so what books can I suggest? Catch-22? The Great Gatsby? The Good Beer Guide? And what’s with this "men-only"? Is he afraid if we admit women we’ll be forced to read Maeve Binchy and Joanna Trollope? Or perhaps he has in mind some kind of male bonding sessions where we sit in a circle beating our chests and generally reinforcing our threatened masculinity with the help of selected passages from Jack London’s Call of the Wild.

Friday 24 February 2006

Cannot get this Golden Age thing out of my head. Even start looking things up, a habit I generally abhor, since I regard the main task of a writer as being to make things up. In Penelope Houston’s 1963 book The Contemporary Cinema I discover that when Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or was first shown in Paris in 1930 the police had to be called in to clear the cinema, and that at the time of her writing, it was still probably too "explosive" for public screening. In my Brewer’s I read that Hesiod named five ages, of which the Golden was the oldest "when life was idyllic" and that in contrast the present-day, the Iron Age, is "an age of misery and crime when justice and piety have vanished."


Quite. Couldn’t have put it better myself.


Wednesday 1 March 2006

After last week’s drubbing, inclined not to go to tonight’s Writers Block. But remind myself my ordeal is over; now it’s someone else’s turn. Actually Jenny’s contribution is rather entertaining (fiftyish, with very smart laptop and a burning ambition "to make my children proud of me" – that’s her, not her contribution). This time the laughter is genuine rather than cruel.

Sunday 5 March 2006

See the makers of This Life have turned their attention to politics for their next twenty-somethings soap. A sort of Hollyoaks meets Yes, Minister punningly called Party Animals. Given its main protagonists are two brothers who work as political researchers, perhaps it should have been called This Isn’t Life. However, the producer reassures us, though "it’s definitely got political content, it’s as much about the young researchers and their relationships." Who, we are further reassured, are based on "some glamorous people … very interesting … it’s a sexy world." This I must see.

Is it just me, or is all TV gradually turning into soap opera? Even non-drama is turning into soap opera – Just the Two of Us, The X Factor, Fame Academy, Girl Cops, any programme fronted by Professor Winston. The writer of Life on Mars was on Front Row the other day. If ever there was a drama crying out for a beginning, a middle and an end, this was it. Policeman has crash, goes into coma and imagines himself back in the 70s, and then… Well, that’s it. There is no ‘then’. He just carries on imagining himself back in the 70s. Because the producer told the writer it wouldn’t happen unless they could get at least three series out of it.

So that’s another halfway decent idea turned into an increasingly desperate ‘continuing drama series’. Like Cold Feet, Dalziel and Pascoe, Waking the Dead, even, dare I say it, Shameless. Full of characters who have the most awful things happen to them, but as a result seem never to change. Well, they can’t, can they? Because they’ve got to be more or less the same characters when the next episode starts.

No doubt when I finally finish this TV thriller of mine and finally get it in front of a producer, I shall be asked – despite the fact that it ends with one major character dead and the rest severely traumatised – if I can make 12 more episodes out of it. This may be more like real life – which has a tendency to repeat itself and tediously go on and on – but who on earth wants TV to be like real life?

Monday 6 March 2006

See defence counsel for Dan Brown is claiming that some of the ideas in Baigent and Leigh’s book were not original, so they can hardly claim Brown pinched them from it. In particular, a man called Charles Davis proposed as long ago as 1971 that Jesus might have been married. I think I can beat that. In 1959 at the age of 14 I myself asked my RE teacher if Jesus ever got married. He said that was a very interesting question and promised to discuss it the following week, a promise he failed to keep, which in the light of the current copyright fuss now strikes me as pretty suspicious. His name wasn’t Davis, unfortunately, otherwise I think I might have a case. Though of course, he may have known a man called Davis, or Baigent, or Leigh, or even Brown…

The Oscar for Most Bizarre Explanation of Why a Film Got an Oscar goes to all the people who said Crash won Best Picture because it’s set in Los Angeles and most of the Academy members live in Los Angeles. Can’t imagine what they saw in Shakespeare in Love then. Actually, it’s a worrying trend, the trend to take films literally, at face value. The new Nicholas Cage film The Weather Man was apparently shown to a special gathering of weather people to see what they thought of it. And real policemen are always being asked what they think of TV cop shows.

Now I come to consider it, though, maybe there’s a rich seam to be tapped here. Gangsters could review The Sopranos, market traders EastEnders, undertakers Six Feet Under. Even Waiting for Godot could probably benefit from the opinions of a few tramps, while Prince Charles could correct all those annoying little mistakes in Hamlet. And if my thriller is ever shown on TV, no doubt a focus group of suicide bombers could be found to pass final critical judgment.



Sunday 12 March 2006

So TV channels are doomed. In ten years time, it seems, we’ll be picking and mixing our own programmes off the internet and watching them on handy pocket-sized roll-up high-definition screens where and when we like. Hints at this apocalyptic future came when BBC1’s primetime programme Davina received an all-time low viewing share of a mere 11.9%. Personally think this could more probably indicate a rise in viewer taste, but mustn’t be cynical.

Like all hi-tech horror stories, think this all a bit of a storm in a screensaver. Main side-effect will be an annoying increase in programme trailers, since soon no one will know what on earth is on the 5000 subscription channels available. A situation not unlike book publishing today. In fact, now I come to think of it, finding a decent programme to watch will soon be like visiting a branch of Waterstone’s, where we’ll wander like damned souls up and down virtual aisles labelled ‘autobiographies’, ‘self-help’, ‘gardening’, ‘cookery’, ‘celebrity autobiographies’, ‘celebrity self-help’, ‘celebrity gardening’, ‘celebrity cookery’, etc., to which cornucopia of viewing pleasure our only guides will be an increasingly overwhelmed band of critics. As a future series of Star Trek might put it, "It’s still rubbish TV, Jim, but not as we know it."

Wednesday 15 March 2006

It had to happen sooner or later. Only three hours until tonight’s meeting of Writers Block and I’m suffering from writer’s block. Unwisely convinced I could impress the group with something truly brilliant if only I took my time over it, I’ve been doing a great deal of what I like to call creative thinking. In fact fear I’ve been taking too literally Stephen Poliakoff’s advice to slow down, to take time for contemplation. Funny how contemplation can turn so easily into staring blankly into space.

Sunday 19 March 2006

Following Wayne Rooney’s megadeal for not writing his autobiography, people seem to be getting their knickers in a twist over the whole business of ghost-writing. Reminds me some years ago I worked with a man who claimed to be a ghost-writer for Leslie Charteris. Apparently his job was to turn the TV scripts of The Saint into novels, which Charteris then merely skim-edited for style. It was a relationship that suited both parties, though my colleague admitted he wasn’t paid much. Whether the readers noticed he never said.

Even more years back I shared a flat with a ghost-writer for a famous pools winner. Again, not very well-paid, but that was before the days of celebrity worship. The subject of the book ended up running a market stall and my flatmate ended up – well, I’ve no idea where he ended up. Probably in therapy, if the experiences of other ghost writers is anything to go by.

According to the Observer, long-serving ghost writer Jennie Erdal (15 years being Naim Attallah) spent the following year as ‘a recovering ghost’. Even after she wrote of her experiences in her own book, Attallah still seemed to believe he had written everything himself. It’s a lie nearly all ghosted subjects cling to. Why? Naomi Campbell doesn’t claim to make the clothes she models; Hillary Clinton doesn’t claim she can fix her own computer; Jordan doesn’t claim she did her own breast enhancement surgery. What is it about writing that makes celebrities such liars?

Probably because no one wants to admit they can’t do it. Everyone can write. How difficult can it be to knock off a book? Well, if after last week’s attack of writer’s block someone offered to turn my ideas into completed manuscripts, I’d be only too happy to give them half the credit. Being a writer, I know only too well how bloody difficult it really is.


Tuesday 28 March 2006

After spending last three months struggling to pay tax bill, at last some welcome financial news: unexpected royalties from BBC for foreign sales of past EastEnders episodes. Nowhere near enough to pay off the taxman, unfortunately, but as a particularly irritating advert has it, every little helps.

As if that were not enough sunshine for one day, also discover hidden in some old takeaway menus a book token for a not inconsiderable sum of money. A forgotten Christmas present, no doubt, and all the more welcome for being, like the BBC royalties, as unexpected as a laugh in an Ian McEwan novel. Immediately don all-black intellectual outdoor wear and stroll into town to browse the local Waterstones.

Two hours later still undecided. Such a long time since been in a bookshop with money in my pockets, forgotten how difficult it is to buy books. This is a serious decision. The books I choose now are going to be with me for a long time, possibly the rest of my life, glaring down at me from the bookcase, every day making me feel guilty for having given up on them after page 10. It’s one of the many advantages of the library: discover you’ve taken home yet another novel about the redeeming power of love and you can just take it back.

In the end use tried and tested method for tackling difficult decisions: slip into The Bookbinders Arms. An indeterminate amount of time later, all is clear. What I need is another reference book, something to sit alongside my OED, Brewer’s, Thesaurus, Chamber’s Biographical, Halliwell’s, three books of quotations, and 100 Great Detectives. Something I’ll still be consulting in twenty years’ time. And most important, something I’ll never feel the need to read from cover to cover.

Five minutes later emerge from bookshop with Oxford Companion to English Literature. At home immediately look up my own surname (doesn’t everybody do that?). Not in the expectation of finding myself, of course, but one never knows, maybe I have a famous relative. Unfortunately the only Ritchie listed is a Lady Ritchie, forgotten late nineteenth-century novelist, elder daughter of Thackeray and step-aunt of Virginia Woolf. Somehow doubt this will help my career, either genetically or by association.

Friday 31 March 2006

Occurs to me poor showing of surname in Eng Lit Companion need not spell end to advancement by ancestry. Why stick with what I’ve been given? As Shakespeare said, what’s in a name? Doris Lessing once used a false name when submitting a manuscript to her publisher. Unfortunately seem to remember the result was rejection. Or maybe that was what she wanted to demonstrate: that publishers prefer to rely on a famous name than the quality of the work. Which seems a bit of an own goal – but then I’m not famous.

Think in my case I’d be better off doing the opposite: replacing my unknown name by something with a subtly familiar ring to it. Depends of course on what sort of note I want to strike. So much hangs on that all-important first impression. An illustrious poetic pedigree could be hinted at with the name Bob Milton – though, publishers being busy people, perhaps something more obvious. Bob Bysshe Milton?

Feel subtlety definitely won’t cut it in the world of drama. Bob Wilde, Bob Bernard Shaw (a nice alliterative sound to it), Bob Miller, younger brother of the more famous Arthur. When it comes to my next novel, especially if it’s a thriller, sadly even Bob will probably have to go. Need something altogether more chunky, no-nonsense. Jack, Dick, Ed. The sort of man you can count on in a crisis.


In the matter of pseudonyms, difficult to beat Brian Ó Nualláin, whose anglicised name was Brian O’Nolan, but who preferred the pseudonym Flann O’Brien. Not content with that, he wrote his hilarious Irish Times column under the name Myles na gCopaleen. Even his first novel included a novel within a novel, written by someone called Dermot Trellis.


The main problem with choosing a name that hints at a writer who is not only more famous but also more skilled is that it reminds one’s readers how much less of a writer one is in comparison. Which is no doubt the mistake I’ve made in mentioning Flann O’Brien.



Sunday 9 April 2006

Discover I have something in common with the Queen: we’ve both had our photos taken by the Observer photographer Jane Bown. Intuitively feel there’s a story in this unexpected royal connection, but can’t quite formulate it.

Wednesday 12 April 2006

Last meeting of Writer’s Block before Easter break. Told off for having too many parentheses in my story about a man suffering from the delusion that he is royalty. Feel this a mite unfair owing to difficulty of expressing parenthesis when reading a story aloud. What may look perfectly fine on the page (as in this from Myles na gCopaleen (Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan)): "And I wish all this would stop, it’s (preying) on my mind, it has the heart wore out (of me) with worry.") is almost impossible to express in speech. One cannot mutter "open bracket," "close bracket" every three seconds. It completely spoils the flow.

Now I come to consider the matter, Shakespeare (and other dramatists) solve this problem by having passages in parenthesis spoken as an aside (or directly to the audience). For example, Hamlet’s five soliloquies are probably best regarded as five long parentheses, which (in the words of Sir Ernest Gowers (in the The Complete Plain Words 1948) "insert an illustration, explanation, definition, or additional piece of information of any sort."

In the case of Hamlet’s soliloquies they are probably all four, namely illustrations, explanations, definitions and additional pieces of information amounting to the fact that he cannot make up his mind about what to do with the knowledge that his uncle killed his father. (Which coincidentally is the problem faced by my own protagonist: what is he to do with the knowledge that he is royalty?)

Saturday 15 April 2006

On a brief holiday in Scotland find myself standing in a wood (not Birnam) with twenty assorted adults and children trying to dream up limericks in order to win Easter eggs. My wife tells her team, "We’ll never win; he’s a writer." The entirely predictable result of which is that all poetic creativity immediately deserts me. Instead find myself unable to stop wondering whether Edward Lear might have been related to King Lear.

Thursday 20 April 2006

Just to show how much less of a fine literary work it will be as a result, spend day rewriting royalty delusion story without parentheses. Discover in passing that one use of parenthesis is similar to a way in which teenageFriday 20 January 2006 girls use ‘like’ (didn’t someone recently come up with as many as seven completely different, like, meanings of the word ‘like’? (and since it’s also come up, what is it about the number 7? Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Basic Plots, that really horrible film Seven, to be in seventh Heaven, the Seven Sisters, the Seven Seas, the Seven Wonders of the World – according to my Brewer’s, "seven was a sacred number, composed of four and three" – no, I’m not going to read all that; he goes on for three pages (and where does the full stop go in parentheses? Inside?) Outside? (and while we’re on the subject, how did Joseph Heller keep track of his endless parentheses in Something Happened?))).

Where was I? (That’s the problem with parenthesis. As Gowers says, "It is not only the reader who may forget where he was when the parenthesis started. Sometimes even the writer does.")


Monday 1 May 2006

Spend grey bank holiday working on story for first Writer’s Block meeting of summer term. Inspired by upcoming (is ‘upcoming’ an Americanism? My OED has nothing to say one way or the other, except to define it as ‘forthcoming’. However, on looking up ‘forthcoming’, discover that has other meanings, e.g. as in "Support was forthcoming", or "She was not forthcoming about her past", in neither of which ‘upcoming’ could be substituted. Does that mean ’upcoming’ is OK? No idea, but it’s good enough for me.) Enough. Promised after recent ramblings on use of parenthesis never to use it again.

As I was about to say, inspired by upcoming release of film of The Da Vinci Code and my belated reading of Foucault’s Pendulum, decide to centre my story round the theme of conspiracy. If it works for Dan Brown and Umberto Eco, think I, it can work for me. My hero sees conspiracy round so many corners he is completely paranoid, a condition which seems to go hand-in-hand, and the setting is the US, a country whose citizens seem almost to have the monopoly on paranoia. (Recall after the first moon landing a US poll found that over a third of those questioned believed it was a government conspiracy. One respondent said, "I can’t get TV pictures from the next state, so how can I get them from the moon?") OK, that really is my last parenthesis.

Anyway, story follows well-worn path: odd things happen to hero; he becomes convinced he’s the victim of a conspiracy but can’t get anyone to believe him; eventually, of course, after much to-ing and fro-ing and increasingly desperate questioning of his sanity, he’s proved right. May not be entirely original, but it has a beginning, middle and end and includes all the requisite steps of The Hero’s Journey. How can it fail?

Wednesday 3 May 2006

First Writer’s Block meeting of summer term. Conspiracy story greeted by silence. Eventually, after prompting by leaderette, Carl – beard, writes absurdly complex SF stories – says, "It’s a bit predictable, isn’t it?" Evidently it’s the excuse they’ve all been waiting for. Before I can defend myself Gail – only 18 but already sees herself as the twenty-first century’s Jane Austen – chips in, "Actually I thought it was rather derivative." Then they’re all at it, giving me the benefit of their extremely unconstructive criticism. Wooden dialogue, no surprises, doesn’t come alive, unconvincing, blah blah.

What I don’t understand is how they all seem to have the same low opinion. Not one voice raised in appreciation. Luckily I’m not prone to paranoia, otherwise I might suspect a conspiracy.

Thursday 4 May 2006

The year’s hottest day. So far. Feel strong urge to sit in garden, laptop on table, glass of chilled white wine to hand. Ah, to idle in the sun while others suffer in stuffy offices or fume impotently in endless traffic jams. Isn’t this the main reason why I always wanted to be a writer?

Friday 5 May 2006

So there’s to be a TV quiz show about punctuation. Wonder if there’ll be a question about the correct use of parenthesis?


Sunday 7 May 2006

As yet another excuse for not getting on with my TV play, find myself reading the book reviews. Not because I have any intention of reading any of the books, much less buying them, but one must have something to say at dinner parties. No longer necessary to read books, just have to read about them.

Move on to the TV review. Reviewer spends a whole page discussing in detail merits of Lost, The Apprentice and 10 Years Younger Bikini Special, then dismisses Neil Biswas’s Bradford Riots in a paragraph. To my regret didn’t watch it, but certainly will if it’s repeated, if only to see for myself if it really was a "rather too earnest" drama that "never quite stacked up". Halfway through writing what may be thought of as an equally earnest piece of TV, somewhat depressed at the prospect of receiving similarly brief dismissal. Comfort myself by thought reviewer’s opinion merely predictable indifference of white London hack to plight of Asian northerners.

Try to break out of bad mood by thinking of my own answers to Ten Questions for…, a sort of potted literary profile of a random celebrity.

Question 1: Shakespeare or the Bible? As an atheist, the Bible. I’ve read Shakespeare.

2. Favourite book in translation? 100 Years of Solitude. But, who knows, maybe the Bible, after I’ve actually read it.

3. Most underrated writer? Tempted to write my own name, but how about David Lloyd? Heard of him? No? Well, until recently his work was enjoyed by tens of millions. He was one of the writers on Frasier.

4. Most overrated writer? Anyone who got a six-figure advance for their first novel in the last twenty years.

5. Favourite children’s book? The Land of Green Ginger.

6. Book by bedside? Time Out Barcelona.

7. Sexiest book? Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But then, I was only sixteen.

8. Best meal in literature? Oh, I’m bored with this.

Sunday 14 May 2006

To a rather splendid christening – or rather to the lunch that followed. Has me musing on the difficulty of choosing names for characters. Dickens roamed graveyards for unlikely names, a method with a decided advantage when it comes to libel: the dead can’t sue. Another writer – was it Graham Greene? – chose names so common everyone – and therefore no one – could be offended. For the Asian characters in my TV drama I’ve plundered the India and Pakistan cricket teams of the last thirty years. Let’s hope they don’t watch much TV.

Suspect, however, selecting names to avoid prosecution a fruitless exercise. My experience with friends and acquaintances is that willy-nilly they see themselves in the most unlikely characters. As Horace put it, ‘mutato nomine de te fabula narrator’ (change the name and it’s about you, that story).

Wednesday 17 May 2006

Speaking of prosecution, see Baigent and Leigh have applied to appeal against The Da Vinci Code plagiarism verdict. Oh dear. Only goes to show that people who find, like Alice, that they can believe six impossible things before breakfast should steer clear of the law. Or pretty soon, as Bleak House demonstrated, they will be believing seven or eight.


Tuesday 30 May 2006

Accidentally tune in to BBC Radio 4’s serialisation of the love letters of Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell. In my youth Russell was a particular hero of mine, so find myself listening with more than half an ear. But after only few minutes of desperate romantic tosh, realise this was a pretty one-sided business, with B doing his best to get her to leave her hubby but O doing her best to convince him of its impossibility while at the same time plainly not wanting to let him go.

Two questions (or paradoxes, as Russell may have preferred to call them) come to mind. First is what on earth he saw in her. This is a brilliant man who in a lifetime crammed with activity wrote a number of important works of maths and philosophy, founded a progressive school, championed unpopular social and political causes like pacifism, atheism and nuclear disarmament, delivered the first Reith lecture and was awarded the 1950 Nobel Laureate for Literature. While Lady Morrell, according to my Oxford Companion to English Literature, was famous for, well, throwing parties.

Second puzzle is why they signed themselves merely ‘B’ and ‘O’. Conventional reason: a show of intimacy and affection. Less charitable reason: feeble attempt at secrecy, to hide their names from others. Also perhaps to hide from themselves – far easier to take back your words if you sign them with a mere initial instead of your full name.

Suspect something very deep-seated going on here. Consult Frazer’s The Golden Bough to see if I’m right. And find page after page on the very subject. Among primitive people, it seems, personal names are often kept secret because they believe that "an enemy who knows your name has in it something which he can use magically to your detriment." In parts of Indonesia the belief is held that "if you write a man’s name down you can carry off his soul along with it." In many societies individuals keep their names secret, while in others they have two names, one sacred and secret, the other for common use. In some cultures, children are told that if they repeat their own names it will stunt their growth. So now we know why writers use pseudonyms.

Reminded of a story by Arthur C Clarke (or was it Asimov? or Borges?) about a group of Tibetan monks whose eternal task through the generations is to write down all the names of God. On completion of the task it is predicted the universe will come to an end, an end which, luckily for us, is a good way off because the names of God are, apparently, infinite. But then the monks are given a computer, and the task doesn’t seem quite so endless. The climax of the story comes when the computer generates the very last name and the monks’ task comes to a rather premature end. As the monks emerge from their monastery, no doubt flexing their cramped fingers, they gaze up at the night sky, where one by one the stars are going out…

Tuesday 6 June 2006

A good day for devil-worshippers, cabbalists, believers in the Da Vinci code and other loonies. 6/6/6 is, according to my Brewer’s, "a mystical number of unknown meaning" but described by St John as "the number of the beast". The most plausible interpretation seems to be that St John was referring to Neron Caesar, or perhaps to any one of a number of Roman emperors. But as Brewer’s points out, "almost any name in any language can be twisted into this number". In the past the number of the beast has been applied to Luther, Napoleon, Mohammed, even a Pope or two, so you can take your pick.

To celebrate the occasion the film world thinks today the perfect day for releasing The Omen remake. Admit I found the original quite scary – not because I thought for one moment that Damien was the Antichrist, but because the film captured that irrational fear all adults share: the fear that their children are monsters. Even skipping Cronus's swallowing of his own offspring to prevent them dethroning him, it’s a fear with a considerable pedigree, particularly in literature. Going back to my Ox Comp to Eng Lit (how useful that book is proving) I learn that "the juvenile book trade in England might be said to have had its beginnings in the anxiety of 17th-century protestants to rescue children from hell, or from Rome, [which] at the time were considered synonymous."

But plainly the belief that children are innately evil has spread beyond those merely with an interest in saving souls. Only have to read Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, or the story of the Babes in the Wood who, even from the grave, manage to visit terrible retribution on their wicked uncle, or Golding’s Lord of the Flies, John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, Susan Hill’s I’m the King of the Castle, the Ray Bradbury story about the spoilt children who lock their parents in what we would now call a virtual room full of hungry predatory animals, even Barbarella. No doubt about it, kids are bad news.

And as if to thrust home the message (pardon the pun) we now have the latest scare story: knife-wielding children. An article in last Sunday’s Observer – normally a sober, measured periodical – uses truly horrific language: "butchery", "slaughter", "chilling", "panic", "none of us is safe", concluding that "almost half a million children belong to law-breaking gangs" and that "laws designed to make youngsters good have…produced a generation of knife-toting mini-gangsters." Some of the terminology would not even be out of place in The Omen or The Da Vinci Code: "mantra", "dream", "holy grail", "demons".

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that if you take A as 1, B as 2, C as 3, etc, the word "children" translates to 3 8 9 12 4 18 5 14, which rearranged as (18-12) x 3 x (8 x 4+14-9), comes to 666, as any viewer of Countdown could demonstrate. So there we have it, our own children are the Antichrist.

And if we believe that, then pretty soon, like those Tibetan monks in the story, we shall find ourselves gazing up at the night sky watching the stars go out one by one.


Wednesday 14 June 2006

To London for a drink with the only two other BBC Talent finalists still in touch. Avoiding the temptation miserably to ponder the truth of Emerson’s words, "Talent alone cannot make a writer", we quickly move on to the more cheerful business of complaining how impossible it is to convince people in the industry of our genius. Truth to tell, though, we have all had some success. At least now we all have ‘credits’.

Talk revolves around our writing careers, such as they are. My two companions, considerably nearer the start of their working lives than the end – unlike me – are keen to become full-time writers as soon as possible. And it suddenly strikes me, not exactly with the force of a revelation but almost, that no longer share the same ambition. Maybe it’s a rationalisation of the year-long writer’s block have been suffering, but realise I no longer feel, well, driven.

Writing is, for the most part, enjoyable, especially when it’s going well. But it’s also lonely, of necessity, and the thought of spending the rest of my working life sitting alone in this room with only my laptop for company fills me with dread. Remember reading once that Colin Dexter worked every day at his ‘proper’ job, came home, wrote a page of his current Morse, then went down the pub. Now, that sounds more like it.

Thursday 15 June 2006

Churlish of me not to mention the football fever gripping the world, though can find few significant literary connections. Recall Melvyn Bragg naming the Rules of Association Football among his Ten British Books (or was it Twelve?) that Changed the World and can’t really argue with that. Even so, can think of no major football-themed work of fiction, unless you count Fever Pitch or My Night with Gary Lineker.

Attempts have been made by a few contemporary British hacks to raise the beautiful game’s literary profile, but none can outperform American sports writers like Grantland Rice, author of those immortal words, "For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, / He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game." A 1924 match between West Point and Notre Dame moved him to write, "Outlined against a blue-grey October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they were known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice." Blimey. But that’s American football, so doesn’t count.

Far better American writers have used the transatlantic version of rugby as a metaphor for life, like F. Scott Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise: "Life was a damned muddle…a football game with everyone off-side and the referee gotten rid of – everyone claiming the referee would have been on his side." Presumably he was happy that most literate Americans understood what was meant by off-side, something a British writer would never assume.

The comedian Dan Leno apparently saw the world as a football, with him clinging by his "teeth and toenails to the laces", while Anthony Burgess declared five days of the week were for labour, the seventh was the Lord’s and the sixth was for "football and spreading the word and punishing and suchlike", which may have been true in his youth, but now we have seven days a week of it, and almost all the year round.

Which leads me inevitably to Shakespeare, who, as always, says what we all think but can never quite find the right words: "If all the year were playing holidays, / To sport would be as tedious as to work". Just like writing then.


Monday 3 July 2006

Reading a book by Steven DeRosa about Hitchcock’s collaboration with the screenwriter John Michael Hayes. Not sure why I torture myself with these glimpses of the lives of the successful. Maybe it’s in the hope I’ll learn some trick or other, something that will suddenly catapult me into their ranks. Or maybe it’s the opposite, that I’ll realise what a foolish, unrewarding pursuit writing is and be cured of my naïve ambition once and for all. (Now why does my computer automatically stick two dots over the ‘i’ in ‘naïve’? There it goes again. How very annoying to be told how to write by Microsoft programmers.)

Where was I? Oh yes, John Michael Hayes. I suspect no one outside the business has even heard of him, but by the time he was in only his 30s, he had over 1500 radio scripts to his credit (yes, that’s one thousand five hundred) and was with some justification known as the fastest writer in Hollywood. According to DeRosa, when Hayes first started work at the Universal Studios writers’ building, a more seasoned colleague told him to slow down: "You’ve got to learn to stretch it out over thirteen weeks in order to get a decent salary."

Hitchcock heard some of his episodes for Suspense and The Adventures of Sam Spade and he ended up working with the director on four films: Rear Window, the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, To Catch A Thief and The Trouble With Harry, the first of which at least must be among Hitchcock’s best.

Interestingly (or maybe not), three of the films are based on novels, while the fourth is a remake of an earlier Hitchcock film, which probably says something about the screenwriting trade, but I’m not sure what. The Trouble With Harry is based on a novel by Jack Trevor Story, with whom I have a tenuous literary connection: when I was in my 20s we both had stories published in the same magazine. OK, it’s not much of a claim, but, well, one has to snatch fame where one can find it.

Actually, recall Story as one of my favourite writers then. Rather liked his dry, black humour. Now he doesn’t even rate a mention in my Ox Comp to Eng Lit. Come to that, neither does John Michael Hayes – nor does David Dodge or Cornell Woolrich, the original writers of To Catch A Thief and Rear Window. Which only goes to show that if you want to be a writer in order to become famous, don’t be naïve (thank you, Microsoft) and waste your time with the movies.

Wednesday 5 July 2006

Another writer from my youth pops up unexpectedly: Mary Renault, whose novels set in ancient Greece were a particular favourite of my father. The Ox Comp is a bit snooty about her, referring to her reading public as ‘middle-brow’. As a teenager I remember being thrilled by the descriptions of bull-leaping. The homosexuality running through the novels (only from BBC2 today do I learn that Ms Renault was a lesbian) completely passed me by. Evidently I grew up in a more innocent world.

Evidently so did Jack Trevor Story, I learn from further reading of DeRosa. Ensuring his own name was kept secret, Hitchcock bought the movie rights to Story’s novel for $11,000, for which he then charged the film production budget $78,000, a cool profit of $67,000. The novelist received $500. Some time later Story apparently wrote to Hitchcock asking for an increase in his fee so that he could at least afford to take his family to the premiere.

There’s no record that the director ever did increased it, but in 1977 Story told the Sunday Telegraph Hitchcock’s agents had asked him to sign over the Harry renewal rights in perpetuity and for no additional fee. Story replied, "I have no intention of maintaining Alfred Hitchcock in his old age." Which is encouraging news for all of us innocents. Even writers can learn.


Tuesday 18 July 2006

Seeking inspiration – alright, some decent ideas to plagiarise – pick up one of the many books by Chekhov littering the house. Admire his writing greatly, hence his escape from the recent ruthless literary spring-cleaning. And what a pleasant surprise to find something I haven’t read before: Life is Wonderful, an article published in what is described as the ‘humorous paper’ Oskolki in 1885. Which opens thus:

"Life is quite an unpleasant business, but it is not so very hard to make it wonderful. For which purpose it is not enough that you should win 200,000 roubles in a lottery, or receive the Order of the White Eagle, or marry a beautiful woman – all these blessings are transitory and are liable to become a habit. But to feel continuously happy, even in moments of distress and sorrow, the following is needed:

(a)to be satisfied with your present state; and

(b)to rejoice in the knowledge that things might have been much worse."

Indeed. At the time, the twenty-five-year-old Chekhov may have been earning, as stated in a footnote, only farthings for his contributions, but at least he could rejoice in the knowledge he could write such wonderful phrases as "all these blessings are transitory and are liable to become a habit". Just to read it makes me happy.

He then proceeds to give some specific cases. For example, when your relations visit you while you’re on holiday, be thankful they’re not the police. Or why not rejoice that at this moment you are not interviewing your creditors, or attempting to negotiate a fee with your editor? Or if you are unhappy with where you live – as nearly everybody is – be thankful you haven’t been deported to Siberia. Or if you already live in Siberia, to suggest a more contemporary example, be thankful you aren’t living in Beirut.

Thursday 21 July 2006

So depressed by own attempt at Chekhovian-style short story, tear it up in silent, sullen, impotent rage. Well, of course, it’s a file on my laptop, so I don’t actually tear it up – in a physical sense – but certainly hit the delete key with some force. Alright, yes, I know, I can restore it from the recycle bin if I change my mind. But the rage is real. Well, it was a moment ago.

Oh no, now I’m turning into a Chekhov character. Hand me my gun. I’m off to shoot a seagull in my cherry orchard.

Friday 22 July 2006

Very pleased to see Anthony Horovitz going from success to success. Writer of a series of children’s novels selling in their millions, he can now anticipate the certain triumph of the movie spinoff, today given a resounding 9 out of 10 by Richard and Judy’s teenage critics. For those who have never heard of him, you won’t find him in the Ox Comp to Eng Lit, but among other things he’s also responsible for far and away the best of the Sunday night easygoing cop dramas, Foyles War.

Thanks to partner, am introduced to the very latest new word to join the English language, foosh. Actually, it’s more of an acronym than a word, since it’s an invented medical term meaning to Fall On OutStretched Hand. Apparently it’s now used so widely in A&E departments around the country it’s even acquired a past tense, fooshed.

Now that’s the kind of detail could give my scripts the stamp of authenticity others lack. And perhaps give me the tiniest bit of the success enjoyed by Anthony Horovitz. And it’s just occurred to me – while I don’t want to make too much of the connection, of course – but Chekhov was a doctor.


Thursday 3 August 2006

Quietly coming to the boil on a hot Sicilian beach, feel naked, primitive, sucked into the elements. Is this an existential experience or only advance notice of global warming? Possibly the former, since strange coincidences occur while I read my first Italian crime novel, Involuntary Witness by Gianrico Carofiglio. The prime suspect is an African immigrant forced to sell trinkets sunbed to sunbed on a Bari beach; on glancing round I find the beach on which I am gently simmering dotted with African immigrants festooned with sunhats, beachballs, towels, jewellery, watches. Carofiglio’s hero remarks on a Bill Bryson book found in the shelves of a minor character’s apartment – just as I spot a Bill Bryson book being read by a nearby sun worshipper. Spooky, or merely an example of the ubiquity of Bill Bryson?

Although a lawyer rather than a tec, Carofiglio’s hero nevertheless shares his fashionable flaws with more familiar English-speaking righters of wrongs. But being a continental, his dissatisfaction with the world is altogether more existential (today’s word), as he contemplates the pointlessness of his life, wearily defends yet another criminal he knows to be guilty and has panic attacks in lifts. Redemption comes, predictably enough, in the shape of the love of a good woman and in his successful defence of the innocent immigrant.

Frustratingly, the one unpredictable thing about the book is Carofiglio’s refusal to name the real killer. Can’t see this kind of postmodernism going down well with English readers, so suspect Carofiglio won’t be gracing the bestseller lists yet awhile. On the other hand the book apparently spawned a hugely successful Italian TV series, so I could be wrong.

Consign Carofiglio to the hot sand and move smoothly onto a crime novel set in a wintry Norway. Immediately start to feel cooler.

Saturday 5 August 2006

Stuck in a Palermo airport departure lounge with a few hundred other dangerously red homebound Brits, finally decide to consult the guide book have been dutifully carrying round all week but have had neither the time nor inclination to open. Became resigned many years ago to fact am not a great forward planner when it comes to holidays. On few occasions when have made a sort of list of places I’d quite like to visit – or feel I ought to – when actually confronted with prospect of hot sweaty two-hour coach trip to some dusty ruin, have always found local beach or bar, or preferably both, much more enticing.

Alongside me, wife contentedly reads Laurie Lee. Am reminded of how he made his first journey to Spain without the aid of prior knowledge. "I was in a country of which I knew nothing. The names of Velasquez, Goya, El Greco, Lope de Vega, Juan de la Cruz were unknown to me; I’d never heard of the Cordovan Moors or the Catholic kings; nor of the Alhambra or the Escorial; or that Trafalgar was a Spanish Cape, Gibraltar a Spanish rock, or that it was from here that Columbus had sailed for America. My small country school... had provided me with nothing more tangible or useful about Spain than that Seville had a barber, and Barcelona, nuts.

"But," he adds, "I was innocent then of my ignorance, and so untroubled by it." Which is the state in which I also decide to remain. I close the guide book.

Wednesday 9 August 2006

With next term’s Writer’s Block in mind, start short story – a sort of ‘what I did on my holidays’. Unfortunately, halfway through the second paragraph, in the annoying manner of works over which I pretend I have creative control, plot veers off in entirely unexpected direction. Intending to write a simple but picaresque tale of amusing holiday incidents, instead find myself buried deep in momentous themes: the nature of home and belonging, the conflicting obligations to country and friends, even the purpose of life and what constitutes a ‘good’ death. Have obviously been reading too many existential crime novels.

With great effort of will, force myself to concentrate on plot and character. Can always delete the abstract nouns later.


Wednesday 16 August 2006

On checking back through diary discover it’s 14 months to the day since I wrote my last word for EastEnders. Hardly worth a note on the calendar, but decide to mark it by spending whole day on thriller. Feel sure will quickly run out of steam, or be interrupted, or find something more important to do, like the ironing or sharpening pencils.

Surprisingly, seven hours later (with only half hour lunch break) still going strong. In fact, going so well, reluctant to stop. Not actually added much dialogue, admittedly, but thanks to nerveless self-criticism have cut whole sequence of scenes from middle act and by clever insertion of additional scenes made third act much more coherent. A major character now has clear journey from start to finish (originally he didn’t even appear at the start) and a couple of minor characters have a lot more flesh.

Unfortunately, despite cuts, still can’t stop whole thing lengthening even more beyond intended two one-hour episodes. Never mind. End day in buoyant mood. Have I finally broken through writer’s block?

Wednesday 21 August 2006

No work for a week on thriller. What is the matter with me? Why can’t I do what I did a week ago every day? Cannot seem to get to the bottom of this problem. Have stopped trying to explain it to friends (and anyway they’ve stopped asking). Can’t explain it even to myself. Tell myself it’s not shortage of ideas. When I get down to it, they come. Trouble is, not sure if they’re good ideas. And it’s that uncertainty that freezes my fingers before they hit the keyboard.

Tuesday 5 September 2006

2 am. Wake suddenly with strange disturbing sensation in chest. Heart no longer beating in usual steady – if faint – rhythm. Instead seems to have taken on characteristics of simmering pot, bubbling and popping with alarming irregularity. Unbidden, the familiar cry from Casualty comes into my head: "He’s gone into VF! Get the de-fib!" Am I seconds away from my first (and last?) heart attack? Or am I (a final rational thought comes briefly to the surface of my swiftly ebbing life) just suffering from indigestion?

Manfully resist temptation to wake sleeping wife. Force self to remain calm. Take few deep breaths. Try to think of something else. No effect. Heart continues to gurgle and jiggle like a bag of burping mice. Can feel panic rising in throat. Am I about to die? This is so unfair. I haven’t published my first novel yet. I haven’t even finished that bloody thriller. What a waste. Why didn’t I get down to it when I had the chance? All those hours, weeks, months spent watching rubbish realitThe comedian Dan Leno apparently saw the world as a football, with him clinging by his y TV, reading implausible crime novels, eating, sleeping, drinking, staring at this computer screen. What did I do with my talent? What did I do with my life?

Feel unconsciousness creep relentlessly over me like a spreading black oil slick – just like that scene in The Maltese Falcon where Humphrey Bogart gets hit on the back of the head. But before slip irretrievably into coma, resolve if ever recover from this, will change my life. Will write every day. Will do a minimum number of words. Will set myself a timetable and stick to it. Yes, I will…


Tuesday 5 September 2006
 8 am. Wake refreshed. Lie in bed gazing contentedly at the sunlight squeezing through the curtains. Wasn’t there something I had to do today? Something…? Think hard. Concentrate. I’m sure…
 No. Nothing comes to mind. Whatever it was, it’s gone.
 Thursday 14 September 2006
 Rummaging around in some old poetry books – the things I do to put off writing – I discover – as if it needed to be discovered – that there’s nothing new under the sun. Rap – or something very like it – was around in England as far back as the fifteenth century. For example,
 Tell you I will,
 If that ye will
 A-while be still,
 Of a comely Jill
 That dwelt on a hill:
 She is somewhat sage
 And well worn in age:
 For her visage
 It would assuage
 A man’s courage.
 Or even in Latin,
 …Bibite multum:
 Ecce sepultum
 Sub pede stultum.
 Asinum et mulum.
 Per omnia Secula seculorum.
 Lines written about 500 years ago by John Skelton, satirist, tutor to the future Henry VIII, and possibly the world’s first rapper. Wicked, John. Totally bad.
 Saturday 16 September 2006
 So John Betjeman’s daughter has apologised to Slough for her father’s famous plea for “friendly” bombs to drop on it and for death to “swarm over”. Apparently he didn’t mean what he wrote.
 One hopes not. Even so, see this setting dangerous precedent. Suppose in fifty years’ time some offspring of Ricky Gervais will feel obliged to do the same. And while the residents are waiting for that, perhaps the OED should apologise – on behalf of all of us – for the following: “slough, noun, a swamp; figurative, a situation characterized by lack of progress or activity; noun, the dropping off of dead tissue from living flesh”. Or the descendants of John Bunyan for the Slough of Despond, according to the OED, “a deep boggy place in The Pilgrim’s Progress between the City of Destruction and the gate at the beginning of Christian’s journey”.
 But then why should Slough be singled out for restitution? Scotland, to pick a place at random, has had quite as many insults flung at it, by writers as famously grumpy as Samuel Johnson to those as famously nice as J M Barrie (“There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make”). Halfway through the century Edinburgh might expect some words of contrition from the descendants of Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin – though, given they still live there, perhaps, like Betjeman, they didn’t mean what they wrote. Unfortunately there is unlikely to be any apology from Anon for the “bloody Orkneys”.
 Perhaps English cities should also get in on the act. There may be money to be made, or at least publicity. Who outside the Thames Valley had even heard of Slough before Betjeman and Gervais put it on the map? Birmingham, for instance, might usefully kick up a stink to the members of the Jane Austen Society for their idol’s insensitive words, “One has no great hopes from Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound.” As Boris Johnson has discovered to his cost, it is better to write nothing about Liverpool.
 Even further afield, apologies are about due to Switzerland from anyone related to Orson Welles for his famous speech in The Third Man about cuckoo-clocks. Hemingway wasn’t much kinder when he used the same image to describe its architecture. And the lack of any confirmed descendants of Shakespeare shouldn’t prevent the Stratford-on-Avon town council from apologising on his behalf to Denmark for Hamlet, to Verona for Romeo and Juliet, to Venice for Othello and, well, The Merchant of Venice, or indeed to the whole of Yorkshire for Richard III. No doubt, like most writers, he didn’t mean what he wrote. '


Saturday 30 September 2006

Must have missed the competition, but learn today Peter Pan the Sequel (well, Peter Pan in Scarlet) by Geraldine McCaughrean (who modestly declares, "My other 140 books have not warranted – or have not attracted – large-scale PR". Or, hang on, does she rather immodestly mean they are quite brilliant enough to do without?) is to be published in a few days time. Though PP not a bad choice for a sequelizer – given he never grew up, the scope for even more sequels, at least in theory, is infinite – it has me thinking there must be more interesting characters for writers like me – who find it difficult to invent convincing characters of their own – to exploit.

Take the civilised Ralph and the rather less (or should that be more?) civilised Jack from Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Where are they now, I wonder? Both in their early 60s, perhaps Ralph looks back on an undistinguished career in the Lib Dems, while Jack – or Archbishop Jack, as he prefers to be known – calmly contemplates the hereafter, safe in the knowledge that following his Pauline conversion his place in heaven is assured. Interestingly, over the years, they have both entirely forgotten the death of Piggy and have become very good friends. After all, unlike Piggy, they did go to the same school, which is what really counts.

Catch 22’s Yossarian probably saw out the rest of the war in Canada before returning to the US as a lecturer in social studies. With two failed marriages and three troubled but eventually straightened out kids to his credit, he potters through his final years with his younger wife and dodgy prostate in upstate New York. Milo Minderbinder, in contrast, has risen to become director of a number of top 100 global conglomerates, cleverly getting out of Enron just before the scandal broke. He is rumoured to be the main money behind G W Bush and has made plans to have his brain kept alive after his death.

Or maybe I should concentrate closer to home. Living just down the road from where Tolkien and C S Lewis used to meet, I have a no doubt rather juvenile urge to bring Middle Earth and Narnia crashing together in a war to end all wars, a vast conflagration which not a single one of their nauseating little heroes survives.

Older novels seem unpromising for sequelizers. Austen, Eliot, Dickens, the Brontes et al tended to forestall speculation by giving their own synopses of their characters’ dull futures in a few brief closing pages. After all, who cares what happened to the Darcys, the Ferrers, the Wentworths, the Ladislaws, etc etc? They had money, they got married. The end.

Perhaps better pickings could be had with Shakespeare’s heroes – the few who managed to avoid death, that is. Who, for instance, would put money on a long and happy marriage for Petruchio and the apparently tamed Katharina? And how soon would it be before the wit of Benedick and Beatrice turned into sour sniping? Maybe the young Claudio and Hero would fare better, but any sequelizer worth his salt would doubt it.

Actually if I were seriously considering becoming a sequelizer, I’d go for the unliked and the villainous. Iago, I imagine, was far too wily to suffer at the hands of the executioner. He probably escaped to Sicily and founded a mafia family. And what happened after Caliban was left by Prospero to rot alone on his island? Some terrible vengeance, I’m sure. And how long was it before the forcibly Christianised and impoverished Shylock got back his money, his religion and his power over others? And how, if at all, was the pathetic Malvolio "reveng’d on the whole pack of you"? Now that might make an interesting sequel.

Sunday 1 October 2006

First day of the month, so an appropriate day to reorganise the files on this laptop. (Anything to avoid actual writing.) Four hours later, only halfway through the task. Keep coming across mysterious folders containing even more mysterious, half-forgotten filenames, which feel drawn to investigate. What, for example, is in a file called ‘time’? Open it to discover 100 words describing a story idea so bad can’t bring myself even to hint at it here.

Other rediscoveries, thankfully, not so dismaying. Enjoy reading a humorous little Christmas story so much, for a moment seriously consider sending it off somewhere. Must have been my James Thurber phase. Then remind myself of vow made to myself few weeks ago: no getting sidetracked by other projects until this TV thriller is done. Which no doubt explains why I’ve never really been tempted to write sequels. Can’t even finish off my own work, let alone someone else’s.


Friday 13 October 2006

To library to exchange mostly unread books for a new pile of books I shall also no doubt largely fail to read. Who was it suggested the ‘page 39’ rule for choosing books? Can’t remember, but have been trying it. With limited success. Page 39 in one book was blank, which should have told me something, but I got it out anyway. Page 40, when I finally struggled up to it, was, if anything, even less interesting.

Thankfully have at last reached age where no longer feel any imperative, moral or otherwise, to finish books am not enjoying. So have good news for those who still feel obliged to plough doggedly through some over-praised writer’s self-indulgent prose. Whatever it is that keeps you going – puritanical guilt, misplaced desire to get your money’s worth, fear of missing out on a possible genius, not having anything clever to say at the next dinner party – the feeling eventually passes. To close a book for good on page 10, or even better, on page 100, is a wonderfully liberating experience. A possible clue: always avoid books where the blurbs contain words like should or ought. As in "Anyone who cares about the state of the modern novel should read this book…"

And speaking of imperatives, find this in Jay NcInerney’s Model Behaviour: "It’s seldom difficult to know how one should behave. The Golden Rule, the Categorical Imperative, all that. The former has been revised, of course: Behave unto others as if they were about to become incredibly famous." Now there’s a book I have no trouble finishing, partly because it’s witty but mainly because it’s short.

Also appreciate his hero’s suggestion of using hotkeys as short-cut aids to speedy writing. His examples are designed for lifestyle magazine celebrity interviews – e.g. "’There’s nothing like being a parent to teach you what really matters in life. The fame, the money, the limos, you can keep it. I mean, being a father/mother is more important to me than any movie role could ever be’ (ALT + baby)" – but the technique could be applied even to most exalted forms of fiction. Novelists are busy people too.

Suspect have stumbled upon new surefire money-making scheme, like the first person to sell a model essay on the internet, but conscience baulks at last minute. Tell myself am not really that cynical.

Saturday 14 October 2006

See in a magazine a column about what’s in and what’s out in the world of fashion, or rather what’s going up and what’s going down (the words ‘in’ and ‘out’ are obviously going down). Light bulb flickers on. Could apply this to fiction. Nothing so obvious as the books themselves, of course. What’s fashionable and what’s not is there for everyone to see in the reviews.

No, this division of the must read from the mustn’t could be applied to the very nuts and bolts: the types of character we like, the plots we want to see them stumbling through, the most attractive settings, the most diverting themes. A really useful aid to the novelist who wants to be so absolutely up-to-date, where it’s at, in tune with the zeitgeist, in short, to have his finger so firmly on today’s pulse we can feel the literary heart of the nation beating through every one of his well-chosen words.

So, a few suggestions for today’s fashion-conscious novelist: going up, bipolarity, going down, autism; going up, cricket, going down, football; going up, grandmothers who do, going down, twentysomethings who can’t; going up, mass murder, going down, serial killers; going up, hard drinking, going down, hard drugs. And so on. Flattering blurbs will undoubtedly follow, full of those urgent imperatives: "Anyone who cares about the state of the modern novel should read this book…"


Wednesday 25 October 2006

To Tate Britain to see the Holbeins. Quite extraordinary. Being more interested in people than places, am much more a fan of portraiture than of landscape, so this definitely, as they say, my cup of tea. Many of the subjects quite young considering the high offices held by them. Also surprisingly modern in features. Surreptitiously examine living faces of the gawping throngs and can honestly see no essential difference. Strip away the clothes and bizarre hair styles and we have hardly changed in 500 years.

Which conveniently lends weight to my excuse for being here. To put faces to some of the characters in my TV drama.

Thursday 26 October 2006

Excellent day’s work on TV drama. With reproductions of Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, and The Ambassadors to inspire me, write seven pages before calling a reluctant halt. Ideas flowing so freely, feel on a definite high. Hardly dare say it, but with Holbein’s help, characters at last becoming firmly enough established in my mind, they are almost writing their own dialogue. (Whoops. Another keytop has fallen off my laptop. And left exposed a few very sharp pieces of metal, as I have just discovered. I wonder if blood can harm computers?)

Where was I? Well, judging by the number of scenes still to write, only about halfway. But feel undaunted, even enthusiastic. In fact, can hardly wait to get started again tomorrow.

Friday 27 October 2006

Sit down at laptop to discover right wrist strangely afflicted by annoying ache. Decide to ignore it. With result by lunchtime ache has become definite pain – which gives me a little stab every time I hit a keytop. Decide to abandon writing for the day.

Saturday 28 October 2006

Wake with hope wrist pain has disappeared. Unfortunately, if anything, seems to have got worse. Partner examines wrist, diagnoses repetitive strain injury and prescribes immobility for at least a week. Great. One day’s productive writing and I’m buggered.

Sunday 29 October 2006

Wake in middle of night with pain so unavoidable and so excruciating am seriously considering amputation. Slight relief can be gained only if I prop my arm straight up against the wall, like a child asking to be excused. Partner so alarmed she drives me to the local Minor Injuries Unit, where a bored doctor prods my wrist until tears start from my eyes and also diagnoses RSI – or possibly an infection – or possibly an aneurism – he’s not entirely sure. We plump for the first and I down the maximum dose of the strongest painkillers it’s possible to buy over the counter.

Sit impotently in front of my laptop. The Holbeins now look mockingly at me rather than inspiringly. It’s said that no matter how closely one examines his paintings, one can’t see his brush strokes, they’re so fine. Even so, I bet he never suffered from RSI.

Thursday 2 November 2006

Thanks to the power of modern pharmaceuticals, wrist pain has finally disappeared – over six days since it appeared. Unfortunately inspiration seems to have joined it. After an hour’s work and only one line of dialogue, decide once again to abandon writing for the day. Go down the pub instead – for a more enjoyable form of painkiller.

Friday 10 November 2006

See winner of Final Draft’s 2006 international film script competition is about a crew of trawlermen battling for survival against a monster they inadvertently haul up from the ocean’s ‘dark zone’. Firmly in tradition of Hollywood monster movies from King Kong to Alien, it will no doubt be seen – if it is ever seen – as a metaphor for the West’s battle against militant Islam. I, of course, know better. It’s much more likely to be a metaphor for the writer’s unending battle against the monster of RSI.

Saturday 11 November 2006

At last. At long last. A few productive days of actual writing. Thriller finally progressing – not spectacularly, but at least steadily. At the expense of paid work, unfortunately, but one can’t have everything. Seem to have reached the stage where the plot has its own momentum. All I need to give it is – in the words of a business acquaintance as he steered his latest enterprise to bankruptcy – the occasional touch on the tiller.


Saturday 11 November 2006

At last. At long last. A few productive days of actual writing. Thriller finally progressing – not spectacularly, but at least steadily. At the expense of paid work, unfortunately, but one can’t have everything. Seem to have reached the stage where the plot has its own momentum. All I need to give it is – in the words of a business acquaintance as he steered his latest enterprise to bankruptcy – the occasional touch on the tiller.

Actually it is a rather scary period, as well as being welcome. Sometimes feel as if the whole thing’s gathering too much speed, like a downhill lorry with its brakes failing. Characters keep wanting to say things I don’t want them to. They want to go off on tangents, like people in real life, talk about their childhood, their parents, what they had for breakfast. Plays hell with the back-stories I’ve spent months establishing, but must resist temptation to go back and change every scene just to suit their new-found independence.

Thankfully last month’s RSI has not reappeared, despite quite long hours at this keyboard. If I do notice the occasional subtle twinge in the wrist a quick slug of something alcoholic and a lie-down (or research, as I prefer to call it) in front of the afternoon movie usually do the trick.

Sunday 12 November 2006

As I half watch the cenotaph ceremony on TV, coincidentally find myself almost at the end of a splendid book, Forgotten Voices, a collection of transcripts of firsthand memories of WWII from the Imperial War Museum by Max Arthur. Reading it because want to know what people feel when they are in the middle of what we all probably think of as a black and white war, just as some of my characters feel in the middle of a black and white war on terrorism. Have fully expected to read nothing but gung-ho accounts of how we successfully slaughtered the Hun, etc – but in fact most have turned out to be sober, scary, sensitive and touching.

Like the memories of a 14-year-old telegraph boy. He is told to deliver ‘killed in action’ telegrams to neighbouring houses because it is thought neighbours are better at delivering bad news. Unfortunately everyone soon comes to recognise his uniform and wises up to his method. So on one particular occasion when he goes to knock on either side of a house,

"…the lady in question came out: ‘That’s for me, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘Yes,’ I said and she just fainted. She fell on the ground….What was I supposed to do? I was fourteen. I knew nothing. She hadn’t even opened the telegram. I managed to get another neighbour to come along and we pulled her into the house. The lady woke up and she and the neighbour opened the telegram. It was her husband – he’d been killed. I just stood there. I didn’t know what to do. When I got home that night, I told my mother and she cried as well."

Friday 24 November 2006

More steady progress on thriller. Have now got myself into tricky situation of trying to remember who knows what and who doesn’t know, who knows what but is wrong about what they know, who doesn’t know but soon will, who knows correctly but wishes they didn’t, who also knows but is pretending they don’t, and finally who thinks they know nothing, but in fact knows a great deal more than they think. Such is the nature of thrillers.

Trying hard to resist temptation to cover the office walls in charts and timelines – don’t want it to degenerate into anything too mechanical, like a Golden Age detective story. In many ways would like the final development to come as a surprise even to me. Which, now I come to think of it, it probably will.


Tuesday 28 November 2006

Am now fully paid-up member of the worldwide internet generation. Thanks to a small box with flashing green lights sitting in a corner of the next room am in instant (well, about 5megs, as I believe the jargon has it) communication with a universe of information. After less than a day’s enjoyment of this wonderful new window on the world suspect, however, ‘information’ may be the wrong word, implying as it does that it will actually inform. ‘Stuff’ is probably a more accurate description of, say, the temperature in Vladivostok, the price of oil in Dubai, David Beckham’s favourite colour, numerous opinions about animal rights and the war in Iraq, the England cricket score in Australia (ouch) and what somebody called gregorybottomdweller got up to with his friends last night.

None of this will help me become a better writer, of course. In fact, may make me a worse one, since instead of practicing my writing I shall now be spending much of my time surfing other people’s. (Such a lovely word, surfing – conjuring up an image of carefree youth speeding ceaselessly back and forth atop a vast restless sea of knowledge without the troublesome need of actually having to acquire any.)

All this technological wizardry was not made to work, hasten to add, without a great deal of sighing, cursing, weeping, hair-tearing and long baffling telephone conversations with a couple of charming programmers in India. "I am going to take control of your computer," programmer no. 1 said rather alarmingly, when he realised I wasn’t some grey-haired duffer who had forgotten to press the on button. Having spent most of my working life in the IT business, I even suggested an area in which he might concentrate his troubleshooting energies: namely (because the problem existed with both our computers) in the little box in the next room. No, he thought that highly unlikely.

Two hours later he wearily admitted defeat (possibly because it was by then probably close to midnight where he was sitting) and promised a call-back this morning. Which duly came. And judging by the more confident tones of programmer no. 2, suspect programmer no. 1 had wisely passed me and my baffling problem up the line. Impressively, within half an hour, programmer no. 2 had me connected. "What was the problem?" I asked. "There wasn’t a strong enough signal coming from your router," he answered, adding, rather condescendingly, "That’s the little box with the flashing green lights." You don’t say, I thought of saying, but didn’t.

Maybe I should go back to the IT business.

Wednesday 6 December 2006

Having good week on TV thriller. Writing four or five pages a day on average. Know that’s not as many as I could be writing, or indeed should be, but it’s four or five pages more than I’ve been achieving most days this year. Not sure exactly why, but think reason is have finally trained myself not to go back over scenes already written, but just to keep going doggedly on.

Have also trained myself not to waste too much time on what I grandly think of as my new research tool, i.e. my broadband internet connection. With dial-up I was never tempted to spend time looking things up. By the time the information had finally arrived, I’d usually forgotten why I’d wanted it. Now, after spending most mornings looking up old addresses and favourite holiday spots on Google Earth, reading reviews of films I’m never likely to see and trying to find out where I can download free classical music, I have finally tired of its, well, its ‘whizziness’.

Have attempted, rather halfheartedly, to work out a way in which I could use the technology in TV thriller, but can think of nothing convincing, or more importantly, interesting. Decide better to leave all that to dramas like CSI and Spooks. Though so far even in those shows I’ve not come across any dramatic breakdowns in communication at crucial climactic moments:

Character X: "Your signal’s breaking up! Not receiving you!"

Character Y: "Sorry. We’re having trouble with our whatdoyoucallit."

Character X: "Your what!?"

Character Y: "You know, that little box in the corner with the flashing green lights."


Wednesday 20 December 2006

Finish TV thriller.

I’ll just write that again. Finish TV thriller.

Well, when I say finish, what I mean is finish the first draft. And not exactly finish. More sort of come to more or less the end of the final scene, but with quite a few scenes still containing notes about what is to happen instead of actual living dialogue and a few just sort of tailing off in mid-sentence where I ran out of inspiration.

But a day for celebration nevertheless. Will now determinedly put whole thing aside till New Year at least, in no doubt vain hope will finally stop lying awake in the early hours worrying about what my hero has for breakfast and what colour shirts he prefers to wear. Will instead start research for next project: a stage play.

Saturday 23 December 2006

As part of research for stage play am reading autobiography of George Orwell. A strange man: an Old Etonian whose favourite occupation seems to have been living like a tramp. Rather unexpectedly discover a couple of odd coincidences. Some months ago recall writing about how among primitive people personal names are often kept secret. "An enemy who knows your name has in it something which he can use magically to your detriment", and "if you write a man’s name down you can carry off his soul along with it", according to Fraser’s The Golden Bough. Seems Eric Blair chose his nom de plume partly for the same reason: D J Taylor writes in Orwell, "If your name appeared in print, he claimed…it might allow an enemy to get hold of it and ‘work some kind of magic on it’."

Second coincidence rather more prosaic. Seems he briefly taught at a boys’ school in the town in Middlesex where I spent 12 years of my own boyhood. He described the school as a "foul place", so I count myself lucky I didn’t attend it. He thought the town "one of the most godforsaken places I have ever struck." Which sounds about right.

Decide to treat these coincidences as a good omen for the play. Or am I, like Orwell, starting to believe in magic?

Wednesday 27 December 2006

At a post-Xmas pre-New Year’s Eve drinks party in a remote part of Scotland (everyone arrives in 4 x 4s or wearing wellies) the hostess asks me, "Are you the chap who writes for one of those television soap operas?" "Well," I mumble, "er, not exactly…" "Oh, you must meet (name forgotten). He’s a producer with the BBC."

So this is networking, I think excitedly, as I’m propelled across the room by the elbow towards an innocent-looking man in a thick sweater just about to enjoy his first sip of warming mulled wine. Introductions performed I pitch straight in. (Why piss about? An opportunity like this may never come again.) "I hear you’re a producer for the BBC." "Yes. Why?" "I’m a writer. I’m in the middle of a thriller for TV." "Ah, sorry, can’t help you. I produce factual series, documentaries, that sort of thing." In that case, I just stop myself from answering, are you interested in a writer’s diary?

But it’s not a complete waste of time. He tells me about a couple of pieces of advice he recently had from the writer of Queer as Folk, Dr Who and Torchwood. The first one is excellent so I decide to keep it to myself. "The second…" His brow furrows. I wait with baited breath. "Sorry, I’ve forgotten it."

Friday 29 December 2006

Fittingly the year ends with a cold. Head feels full of mush, rather like for much of the year it was full of bad ideas for an unwritten script.. Never mind, 2007 is a new year, the Year of the Rewrite. And to give me a taste of what is to come, find the following remark from Emma Thompson in Raymond Frensham’s Screenwriting: "With Sense and Sensibility, when it came to having to do a major rewrite, and I’ve done several, there were tears, actual tears."

So that’s something to look forward to.

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© Bob G Ritchie 2000-2007