Thursday, June 30, 2011


I had some odd teachers. I remember sneezing once, as I was leaving a class, and seeing the teacher wheel round and bellow ‘Who did that?’ I hesitantly put up my hand and he came slowly over to me, stood above me, and snarled ‘If you do that again I’ll make you dress and undress in front of the class six times.’ I remember my feelings moving slowly from fear to puzzlement. Dress and undress? Six times? Are you sure that’s what you meant to say? Many of them tended to fly into tempers very easily, as if they lived always on the edge of some nameless rage. You could watch the progression, if you’d said or done something you shouldn’t have. The pause as the teacher’s eyes slowly focus on you, the wounded look developing on his face, he seems to wince, his head sinks briefly into his hands as the enormity of your crime sinks in, the words start quietly, 'You think it’s funny ...’ He’s shaking his head, in all his years of teaching he’s seen nothing like you, and now the volume is rising, he’s working himself up, the colour is entering his cheeks, and you can see him taking a breath ready to roar. Some of them loved a little drama, the petty exercise of power.

Teachers at my school were subject to depression and suicide. Being fairly bright, and keeping a fairly low profile, I mostly got on with them. Looking back, I raise my eyebrows a little when I remember the odd one who had a tickling fight with me, an angel-faced eight year old, when I was in my gym kit. You wouldn’t get away with that these days, but I’m sure I enjoyed it, was flattered by the attention. My only problem was that, being scared of their tempers, I was too keen to please them, so for a couple of pre-O level years I would often copy the work of the boy sitting next to me who, by an alphabetical fluke, was the cleverest boy in the year. This would have been all right, but I was never very subtle about it, and we often seemed to get the same mark in tests, which was embarrassing. Happiest years of my life? No, not even close.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Working on a snappy and engaging blurb for the novel. (THE LAST WORD, out in August, may have previously mentioned.) Or, not a blurb exactly, something for Salt to show bookshop buyers, to persuade them to stock it. Trying to be intriguing, trying to develop interest without giving away the plot, trying to sound exciting without overdoing it – it’s not easy. This is what I went for …

Gloria, meet Stephen. He’s your dead brother’s best mate. He’s also a liar, and he doesn’t want to hand over your brother’s belongings. He’s got a hair collection, and he’s got somebody’s teeth hidden in a drawer. An inconvenient spider’s going to play a crucial part in your relationship. Oh yes, and someone – God knows who - is sending him letters claiming it’s his fault Max is dead.

Stephen, meet Gloria. She’s not good with people. She wants you to hand over all Max’s most precious stuff. She likes to steal things, she gate-crashes funerals, she’s going to force you to revisit some of the most painful moments in your life. And she doesn’t know who’s writing the weird letters you’re getting, but she agrees – she thinks it’s your fault her brother killed himself. Oh yes, and it’s down to her that you’re going to wind up in hospital, and all over the papers. Well, the Scarborough papers anyway. On the plus side – you might get to sleep with her.

You’re going to be together for one strange, eventful and occasionally horrifying week so … good luck. By the time it’s over, you’ll both know Max – and each other - a whole lot better. And the world will seem entirely different.

The world will seem entirely different. Cheesy? Possibly. Still, there you have it …

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Post Shorts

Shorts went well. Full houses, lots of laughs, mostly in the right places, applause, everything you could hope for really. And then a party afterwards, too much to drink. I left with a mate, some time after midnight, we found a guy standing outside saying ‘I don’t know where I am.’ Not one of our lot, a random guy with eyes focused a long, long way away. ‘You all right?’ A pause, as the words slowly penetrated. Then, ‘I don’t know where I am.’ ‘You’re in Hebden Bridge.’ He nodded slowly, like nodding too fast would be both difficult and dangerous. Then another pause. Then, ‘I don’t know where I am.’ We were wondering what to do. Did he need an ambulance? But then he ran off.

And so next year, next year … We need to debrief. We probably need to let a new bunch of writers do it. How would they get chosen? Don’t know, not really my problem. An anonymous competition type thing, I guess. But would I like to do it again? Yes, I would. Maybe I’ll do it in Manchester, if I get asked, where it goes on for two weeks, and the press turn up. Maybe …

Meanwhile other projects move forward. The Show of course, as ever, the kids’ TV idea, the radio play idea, this blog that I’m trying to do more frequently, where I’m trying to mix up memories and the present day, and the book. The Book. The Last Word, coming out in August.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Christmas 1981

I was working in Harrods at the time. A Christmas sales job, putting up temporary dressing rooms, unloading lorries, that sort of thing. All the boys from proper public schools were behind the counters, wearing suits they looked natural in. This is the winter of 81/82. I remember walking through early morning streets hushed by snow. Cars creeping gingerly by. My footsteps crunching and squeaking. Brakes moaning like whale-song on Beauchamp Place. Occasionally I worked Sundays, double-pay, and at seven in the morning the city was as I’d never seen it before, never imagined it, deserted and draped in white as if for some ceremony, some fantastic wedding. I’d lived in London all my life, but I got to know it better, walking in it, from Charing Cross, over Trafalgar Square, up Pall Mall and round the palace, to Hyde Park Corner, along Knightsbridge to Harrods’ discreet back entrance. Home via Picadilly, where brake-lights shone in the early evening darkness, to Leicester Square, to meet friends in The Imperial. Monopoly names, which had once been evocative but meaningless. Now I was walking along these streets like I belonged in them. And being handed real money, a hundred pounds or so, in a wad in a brown envelope each week.

I’m not sure what my plans were. Three months earning money, working evenings and weekends, and then going to Europe, and travelling on long train journeys to places I’d never been before. Then Manchester, English and American Literature, then God knows what. The Harrods job wasn’t even a bridge, it was a doorway, out of school, into some new, more adult version of life.

There was a bump on my knee. I noticed it one day, and couldn’t remember having knocked or twisted it. It didn’t go away or get any smaller, and ached a little. Once I knocked it when I was manoeuvring a heavy trolley, and it hurt like hell, sending a shiver of pain through my whole body. The doctor said it looked like water on the knee, or something called, I think, a ganglion, and booked me in for an X-ray a couple of weeks later. My mother, ex-nurse, informed by intuition or anxiety, arranged for one two days later at Greenwich Hospital.

Friday, June 24, 2011


That’s short plays, not trousers. Six writers, mostly TV, mostly unused to theatre, writing 15 minute plays for the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival. It happened for the first time last year, three nights, sold out, went down very well. Mine was set in a soap storyline office. This year mine’s set at the bottom of a cliff, after a nasty accident …

Hope it goes all right, I’ve got a great director and cast, but there’s been hardly any rehearsal time, availability problems, space problems. Tech yesterday, tensions running high, there was almost a fight – nothing to do with my merry little band – it was a thespian sort of fight, a lot of words and not much else. Eventually someone threw themselves between the combatants shouting ‘Leave it, he’s not worth it!’ and it all ended happily. Dress today, opens tonight. One of my actors leaves Wolverhampton at 5.30 to be in the theatre and on stage at 8.30. Let’s hope there’s no motorway pile-ups. It’s good though, good to sit in an audience and hear and see and feel their reactions to the piece line by line as it develops and unfolds. Telling a story, and seeing the response in someone’s face as they listen. Don’t get that with telly, don’t get that with books either, not unless you sit next to someone who’s reading it, watching their face intently, nudging them now and then to see if they’re enjoying it. Which isn’t really feasible.

This is what writing is – communication, Of course if the audience boo, or sit in stony silence, I might not be feeling so naively upbeat about it tomorrow.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

June 1997

I’m in a car with C, heading from Hebden Bridge down to Elstree, where they make EastEnders. C is an established, highly respected writer on the show, on his way to a commissioning meeting. I’m on my way to an interview. I’m a novelist, I’ve recently left five years of full-time employment (still the only years of full-time employment I’ve done in my life) and I’m intending to return to making a living from writing. I’m working on a new novel – at any given moment in my adult life, I’m working on a new novel – and I’m doing bits and bobs of teaching, but the new plan, the new Plan, is to try TV. So I’m on my way to Elstree.

C is driving. I read his storyline to him. He tells me about commissioning, what it involves, how the show works. We think about what they might ask me in the interview. I come up with a couple of criticisms of the show. Don’t do that, C says. Say it’s great, and tell them why it’s great. I sent them a calling card script, they seemed to like it, asked for another. Now they want to see me. I’ve written a couple of episodes of The Bill by this time, but I have to admit I’m more excited about this. I’ve watched Enders, off and on, for years. And it’s a chance – isn’t it? I’m not quite sure how these things work at this point – it seems like it’s a chance to get some regular, well paid TV work.

We have the interview. She talks about my script. She’s pretty negative about it, comically so. She’s not blessed with people skills. (A lot of TV people, perhaps a disproportionate number, aren’t blessed with people skills.) She isn’t wild about the main character, or the story, she likes the little characters, off to the side, having a chat about nothing very much. I tell her that’s what I like too. Not so much pushing the story from A to B to C, but the little things along the way, Tiffany and Bianca at the bar talking about men, the texture, the small stuff in between events. I think she likes that. Anyway, I get the job. C shows me round the Square. It’s the Square! It’s all very exciting, can’t quite believe I’m becoming a part - a small part, a tiny stitch - of the fabric of popular culture.

But these days, honestly, I much prefer Emmerdale.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

February 1982

I remember the sun shining. Walking across the heath, the long expanse of green criss-crossed by roads, the big sky above me. I took all that for granted, because I grew up with it. Then down the steep hill, Maze Hill I think, towards Greenwich Hospital where I received – can this be right? – the diagnosis. Odd that I can’t remember the particular moment when I was told. I think it was then, that day, that place, rather than with my GP, or at the Westminster or the Marsden, where I found myself later. I’d had an X-ray, they told me the result at Greenwich, sent me to Westminster for the biopsy.

I walked back up the steep hill, carrying this new information about myself, back towards the heath, and towards a moment I do remember well. It turns up at the beginning of my second novel, The Alchemist. Of course memory is unreliable, layered and patched by the stories we tell ourselves. I think I remember it well, but perhaps I don’t. Doesn’t matter, it’s solidly part of my history now. A woman was coming towards me, she was bulky and pasty-faced, she wore a denim jacket, and she looked like she was in the midst of an argument with someone. She glared at me, a scary fierceness to her, God knows what she might say or do, she shouted something into my face, and as I walked quickly past her, she turned and spat at my retreating back.

I don’t remember receiving the diagnosis. I don’t remember telling my mother when I got back. I remember the mad woman spitting at me, opening the door to a different future.