Saturday, 21 August 2010

For Twoc's Sake - Tory Story

Taking Without the Owners Consent...

Every day I find myself struggling for metaphors to describe the new government and, in particular, their approach to the economy. I have - approriately enough - road-tested this one. And it seems to sort of fit. Not only are the govt acting (in economic terms) like pissed up rugby students on the mother of all stag nights, but it's like they've taken the keys to their Dad's Jag. Which is our car, actually. One that we saved up for but don't get to drive much with the price of fuel being what it is.

After 13 years of lessons, these Cherub-faced, polite-but-dims somehow fluked the test and now - with full Bullingdon rig under their 'ordinary middle class' clothes - they are speeding round the country lanes heedless of rules of the road or the damage they'll do when they hit something. Intoxicated by the thrill of getting their hands on the wheel at last, they're really pushing to see how fast this baby can go. Osborne is the key with hands on the wheel. But the whole vehicle is full of kids getting a notch harder every time he puts the pedal closer to the metal. 'Faster, Pussycat, Faster!' they yell from the back seat. There's a couple looking a bit green around the gills. These car-sick weaklings must be Liberals and they sight of their wan faces as they try to look like they're enjoying the trip, just provokes their more bullish mates. Taking the LibDems to places they don't want to go is part of the thrill of the joy-ride.

But it's not the main thing. The main thing is just being in charge of this beast. This Trillion dollar vehicle and just giving it all she can take. Whoop-Whoop!

Let's hope they run out of fuel before they hit someone. An economy is a lethal weapon, you know lads. You'll get fined, banned, you'll end up in jail if you keep driving like maniacs. Your insurance will go through the roof. (Only of course they're not insured are they? Joy-riders never are.)

But they're not listening. Like a lot of young male new drivers they think they know everything. They feel like James Bond, Michael Schumacher, Jensen Button. They don't see that they're coming over all Toad from Wind-in-the-willows. They are soooo turned on right now. If this was a film what would we call it. Tory Story? The only trouble is our two toy-sized leads just aren't loveable enough. Or life-like enough. And please God don't let there be any sequels.

It's going to end in tears. This car will be totalled wrapped around around a recession that they didn't see. 'It just ran out in front of me officer. I didn't have a chance.'

To which the only answer can be' just blow into this bag, sir... Properly.' And then maybe we'll get to take the license away for good this time.

And if no-one gets killed, if we do get away with it, our lasting memory might be the sight of some Liberal puking and claiming that he was somehow innocent. 'He told me he could drive... He told me I'd look cool, get girls...' And we can ban them too. In fact they should go to jail because it was the Liberals that nicked the keys from our study and handed them to 'Ozzy' Osbourne in the first place.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Call the cops - these crazies could do anything

It occurs to me what the new coalition most resembles. It's like having demented drunks in the house. Gate-crashers claiming to have been invited by 'Dave. You know, Dave.' and who are now rampaging through the house breaking things (glasses, vases, the NHS - things like that.) They're looking for more booze and snacks. Most of all though, they're looking for arguments all wild-eyed. And they need speaking to softly, because they could do anything! Anything at all.

This coalition have all the belligerent certainty of drunks. Drunks who moved beyond being amusing some time ago, but drunks that no-one dares fetch a cab for. They are terrifying because you know they have no boundaries... who knows what they might do next? You can't reason with them. They are way beyond that. And they have money and mad friends and they might come back and do you over good an proper if you stand up to them. And they claim to know your boss but, look, if this carries on we'll have to, like, do something. Because there's some valuable things in this house. And other things that have sentimental value... and, right, they've gone too far now... that's my wife... It's that kind of situation.

Of course I'm sure in the morning, when they've sobered up, they'll be ringing round apologising and promising to pay for the damage. They're probably pretty decent really. Just excited at getting that long awaited promotion. But for now they're just scary.

Friday, 9 July 2010

This town is sold out

One of the things I do is help programme the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival. last night there were three events. New writing in the theatre, Flamenco at the Trades Club and 'dead-pan comedian' Rich Hall at the Picturehouse. All sold out.

So in a town of 4000 people 800 were at arts events. 20% of the entire population. On a Thursday night. Of course a lot of those almost certainly came from out of town. Bringing their money with them. That's about £12000 in ticket spend plus all the drinks they bought, meals they had, babysitters they paid for... that's a decent amount of economic activity in one small town midweek. And there's this amount of activity going on for two weeks. that's a lot of lives altered in small ways, and a lot of businesses supported...

And the point I'm making in this none too subtle way, is that the arts matter. They matter in terms of quality of life, they matter for the things we learn and the way they change our relationship with the world around us. The way they shake up our world-view. And they matter financially and economically.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

How to solve the banking crisis

Talking with the most over-qualified man I know... Dr English (2 letters in front of his name - and 17 after not including brackets) and we wonder gently why amid all the talk of cuts and deficits, no-one mentions the obvious. Shouldn't we think about raising taxes?

1p on income tax for most of us - 2p for the rich - and the deficit more or less disappears. No cuts in services, no need to fork out for benefits, no repossessions. People tighten their belts (but not by an excruciating amount), some grumbling but no riots in the streets. And no need to steal the pensions of public servants.

Imagine this: Imagine saying to your bank ' yeah I know I agreed to pay £400 a month for 25 years, but I find that this is unaffordable. I'm going to pay £200 for 15 years. And oh, there's no guarantee I won't find that unaffordable too in a year or so.' You'd be on the streets, or in jail. And yet this is what the government (and the last one to be fair) feels it has a right to do. If private pensions are so rubbish, then THAT is the scandal, not that public ones are so good. Private companies are more effective at ripping off their employees.

Raise taxes and make private companies provide better pensions... it's another way to go. Not that anyone listens to me or Jim. Despite his 19 letters.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Take That and Party

It is almost exactly a year today since I was, briefly, mistaken for a member of Take That.

It's bizarre but true. I'm in Cardiff at a Literary Event. Only it's even more desperate than usual and so I escape from the dead embrace of the Bulgarian Chadonnay, the vulcanised chicken, and the whole decidedly glitz-free atmosphere of the very very functional function room of the St David's Hotel and repair to the bar. And it's here that I find Take That hobbing and nobbing with le tout South Wales. They're in town for a gig and only some particularly well-informed groupies (all of them Ladies of a Certain Age - that age being 37 and three kids roughly -) and us, the refugees from the Ministry of Literature, know they're here.

Now, the thing about TT is that everyone knows what fat Gary looks like. And most people know what sweet Mark looks like. But no-one is very sure about the the worker-bees, the drones. Howard? Jason? Could their own parents pick them out of a police line-up? The luckiest, most ordinary pop lottery winners since Andrew Ridgeley took the vacant chair next to George Micheal on the first day of year 7 back at Bushey High School.

And so when I find myself on a banquette next to Marky and Gaz I can see the faces of the Ladies of A Certain Age, those who lost their innocence to a soundtrack of Back For Good frown in puzzlement. 'Mark and Gary look Ok,' those frowns say 'But Lordy, the years haven't been very kind to Howard-or-Jason...'

It's a good night though... There's something about the presence of a boy band - even an elderly one, even one that perpetrated horrors like that cover of Could It Be Magic - that unleashes a rich hormonal soup into a room. This soup combined with alcohol, the lateness of the hour and the fact that those of us who'd been at the prize-giving next door have just sat through a crashingly worthy lecture on the Trinidadian literary diaspora delivered by Linton Kwesi Johnson in full on FE college lecturer mode when we just want to bitch and moan and do all the other things writers do at these things - all of this mean things get, er, unusual. There's nothing like being lectured by a former radical turned pillar of the establishment to make you feel you've earned a watermelon daiquiri.

And there's nothing like watermelon daiquiris all round to make things go a bit Cocksucker Blues. (Banned documentary about the Rolling Stones when they were in their Louis 14th period). Not the band. They stay gentlemen. And not me. I make my excuses and watch.

Friday, 16 April 2010

The Big Debate

In the end I went down the Hole for Ben's leaving drinks. Ben actually left the good old Arvon Foundation about four months ago, but people ahve kids and you know how long it can be to synchronise diaries. Good night though. Usual pattern we convened in the pub, and as soon as the music got unbearably loud and shit we crossed the bridge to the White Swan.

The white Swan is the very definition of a sad old gits pub.
It's great.

You can always get a seat - no matter how many of you there are - and you can always get served. plus they sell Bombadier which I feel nostalgic about because it's a Charlie Wells beer from my hometown.

And we drank and talked about books and I staggered the mile home at 12.30 and had to sleep in the attic (there was a cross note...)

And today Clegg seems to have been declared the victor in the big debate. Odds on a Lib-Dem govt have gone from 300/1 to 14/1. Which seems to be a bookie crying out - in his anguish and his pain - 'we have no chuffin idea what is going to happen! None at all.' Exciting times in a low-key way (because, like the nasty little attention-seeker from UKIP says (and rightly) in this instance) - 'it's not about a change of government - it's about a change of management.'

And tonight I'm off to see a boxing match...

Thursday, 15 April 2010

The Big TV Debate

And I won't be watching it. I don't have a TV. For the first time not having what my old dad used to call 'the google-box' is an inconvenience. I'll have to listen on the wireless, where no doubt I'll think G Brown is the winner. Gruff but honest and plain-speaking in a Badger from wind in the Willows kind of a way, while everyone else thinks he's a sweating grimacing weirdo and that the real winner is Smiley Nick or that Ordinary Middle-Class Etonian 'Dave'.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

quiet daze

From Mytholmroyd to Sauce in Hebden to meet the fabulous Joyce Branagh who is directing my short play Ven Y Va for the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival. Some good questions, and some even better suggestions and some stuff to mull over for a redraft.

She asked me what was at the heart of it. And I guess it's about when you begin to give up on heat passion and dance in your life. In a more simple way the play is about a very English couple who take up Argentinian Tango as a way of having a shared hobby that will maybe put some fizz back in their life together... Only maybe their attitude to dancing just reveals how different are the things they each want from a relationship...

The on to catch up with Mark Illis. And he bought me a posh butty in Squeeze and we spoke at length about many things: About a film we're writing together, about how great the Kings Lynn Literary Festival is, about what good odds you can get on Labour being the largest party come May 7, about the horror that is other peoples' children, about Eurodisney (he likes it. I don't) and all civilised intelligent, good-humoured stuff that doesn't mean very much.

Now to make a chilli, do a bit of writing and then pick my youngest child from school. Arts Festival meeting tonight, then a beer in a pub. Easy days. Too rare.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

everything i want

it occurs to me that I have everything i want, never mind everything i need...

last great book read : A lie about my father John Burnside
last great track i heard: Everybody's Got Something to hide except for me and my monkey The Beatles
last great thing i heard somebody say: the more you write, the less you die

Wednesday, 13 January 2010


What do you do when you can't make a living writing? You run workshops of course. And actually in some ways I prefer doing these to the actual writing. Sometimes writing, with all its frustrations and agonies, feels like a twisted compulsion. A perversion. Whereas my workshops? well there I'm meeting all sorts of people I wouldn't otherwise come into contact with, and I'm listening to their stories - plus we all improve together. We feel like a team. And I get to feel like the captain. Or the player-manager.

This doesn't mean that I'm the best player. Quite often I set exercises and have no idea how I would go about beginning the task, never mind completing it in fifteen minutes. And yet in both my regular workshops there are people who regularly pull magnificent and multi-hued literary rabbits from my tatty workshop hat.

I've just started up a new class and this is what we did for the first session:

1. Five minutes free writing beginning with the phrase 'I want...' I always start with free writing. The rule is that your pen must not stop moving. Whatever is in your hand should end up on the page without the critic on yourshoulder trying to get you to shape, organise or edit your work. We don't show these pieces to anyone. We dodn't use them. Each writer is free to throw them away and never look at them again. Alternatively, you might keep them ready to plunder for ideas when inspiration levels are low. Every time you do this exercise, something new or useful is thrown up. Even if you can't see it straight away. Every week we start with a different few words to set the group going, but this time I wanted to use I want because - wothout prying eyes but pushed for time and forced NOT to think, what people wrote would be the absolute unvarnished truth and something to hold in mind for the rest of the sessions...

2. It was a new group so I got everyone to write their autobiographies. Simple enough. Only they could only do it in 50 words. Exactly 50 words. Not 49. Not 51. Everything that is important about fiction writing is contained within this exercise. The strict word count forces writers to search for the exact precise word. Redrafting becomes essential as everyone strays over the word limit at first. Writers must also select and shape the raw material of their own life. Like a skilled stripper, revealing themselves in modest glimpses. These we did read out and have a laugh about. As usual this new group is a diverse crowd. Anglo-arabians, Canadian adventurers, Health Service managers, social workers and senior council officials, my friend Sarah who devises questions for TV quiz shows (the best job in the world. Can you believe they actually pay people to do that?), the retired, and the just starting out all mixed up together...

(An aside: sometimes as an alternative - I let people use as many words as they want but won't let them use the letter 'e'. It's hard. Like all good writing. And, again, trapped in a cage like this the imagination and the vocabulary are forced to work overtime...)

3. Next I got the group to write about their parents from a time before the writer was born. It could be a week before or years before. The parents could be together or apart. Maybe they hadn't even met yet. It could be first person or third person. It cover one incident or a period of time. The point was that we are all used to telling our parents stories, but usually from our perspective. We put ourselves at the centre of the world. It's an interesting discipline to try and be empathetic with our parents. To try for once to walk - if not a mile then at least a few steps - in their shoes. Again we are forced to weld imagination and speculation to a few hard facts.

And that we heard these and that was 90 minutes...

Feel free to steal these exercises... I'm sure I did...