Short fiction inspired by the Damascene Helmet and Shield, in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. In this piece of writing I imagine a connection between a widow from the Great War and a “Persian”/Iranian warrior from 1750.
Mrs Wetherby’s sugar bowl sits, as sure as a cat, on the table.
The light glints amberish from the golden trim – real gold no less – in jigsaw lines around the rim. Mrs Wetherby is pleased with the sugar bowl. It was not a cheap purchase; her father was quick to remind her, but he’d bought it for her anyway. A guinea no less, from Perrin and Fletcher up in the part of town where they made such things. Perhaps in Mother’s absence it was an attempt to do what mothers do; buying homely things to make a home.
Mrs Wetherby’s sugar bowl is round and squat, with a lid which curves, and it matches nothing. She sometimes wonders if the rest of the set could still be found; cups, saucers and whatnot. Damascene the name of the set, it’s possible she could find a catalogue, find the maker, even go up town back to the store – but there’s more to life than sugar bowls, and pussycats, come to that and so the bowl remains alone.
She looks up the word Damascene in Father’s Cyclopedia when his things became hers. Relating to Arabia – a country. She thinks this sounds rather romantic. A beautiful colourplate catches the light – a lone warrior in 1750. Helmet and shield, iron-chiselled and inlaid with gold wire and adorned with a feather, apparently. Prayers scribed into the metal, for what good they’d have done. Lions and kings wrought around with vines and leaves like Mr Morris’s. At least he’ll have been with his pals, she thinks, he wouldn’t have been alone. Just a boy, she thinks. But then that’s what happens to boys isn’t it?
Scrutinising the sugar bowl, after tea with the priest, it seems to her that the pattern on her sugar bowl is not like a jigsaw – it’s a labyrinth with no escape – that trim around the rim. Like the legend of the minotaur – she can’t recall how it ended – not well, she presumes.
Mrs Wetherby lives alone. It hasn’t always been so but that’s life isn’t it, there’s no sense in dwelling on it. There had been a husband, and children. She may still even have a husband, somewhere in France, tending a vineyard and keeping a low profile. She wouldn’t be in the least surprised if this turned out to be the case, because that’s what he was like. The army hadn’t supposed this to be possible and instead surmised him to be dead, of course, like all the others.
After she’d buried the last of them it occurs to her that children learn the word sad but only adult human beings understand what it means. Terrifying and infinite in its depth, sadness. She recalls being a child, and, alone with her Grandmother the lady became morose then tearful and then oh heavens the aching sobs about how she was alone always so alone and no one could understand, no one. Only you, Mary, you’re the only one who understand don’t you? Mrs Wetherby had, as a child enjoyed picking flowers in posies for Grandmother, unlike her older sisters who found the old lady tiresome. Small kindness was repaid in these tears, this gift of sadness.
This continuity – if not exactly comfort permits Mrs Wetherby to know that this is what life is like. Wars and death, and sunlight on the rim of a sugar bowl, where it sits, cat-like on the table. This is what life is like.
The stuff I write for Fun Kids, along with some terrific other content from the station, is available on iTunes for free download as podcasts. We had a nice review from The Radio Times last week – all the shorts mentioned are features I’ve written. There are hundreds of them on iTunes – around a hundred of my Dennis and Gnasher shows alone.
“As well as its all-day schedule of programmes — from 6am to 9pm with chill-out music for the grown-ups through the night — Fun Kids radio has since 2009 also created podcasts, and lively, intelligent offerings they are too. Programme-length podcasts — 25 minutes to 40 minutes — include Fun Kids Science Weekly and Fun Kids Book Club.
And then there are lots of shorts — three to four minutes on subjects that range from Age of the Dinosaurs to Amazing Inventions. Podcasts of the Beano with Dennis the Menace and Gnasher are a big draw. “
I’m pleased that my chapter book for children, Professor Hallux and the Lalalas has finally made it into the world. It’s been a long journey and one which has taught me an awful lot about writing.
Yonks and yonks ago I devised the characters of Professor Hallux for Fun Kids. We wanted a character who could explain science and medical matters to our young listeners. Originally the boss suggested he could be a stereotypical dotty old professor but I suggested someone more like Doctor Who – younger, and more unhinged. I also added a sidekick pink robot Nurse Nanobot, who I’ve been changing to plain Nanobot over the years – a girlie sidekick is, after all, rather sexist, and that she’s a subordinate makes it worse. (In my defence I’ve invented a county shit ton of female science characters: Techno Mum, Amy Aviation, Marina Venturer, K-Mistry Chemistry Superhero to name a few).
So there he was, and I wrote dozens and dozens of scripts for him to explain all sorts of things from vaccinations to why we have belly buttons. I still do. He’s got his own YouTube channel where Fun Kids visualise the scripts and you can listen to lots of the episodes for free on iTunes (just do a search on Hallux).
Chickenshed Children’s Theatre even wrote a stage play based on the characters and it was staged in London. Attending with my sons and my parents was a very proud moment.
2008 came and so did NaNoWriMo. If you’re not aware of this, it’s a challenge to write 50,000 words in a month. I’ve done it three times in total and enjoyed the challenge. In that year I asked Fun Kids if I could use the characters of Hallux and Nanobot to write a longer story. They said that was fine so off I went. I wrote the book.
It sat on my hard drive for a couple of years because it’s a pain in the arse to sell children’s books to publishers at the best of times and I was more interested in my grown up projects. The e-book revolution started to gather pace and I began to toy with the idea of self-publishing. It just seemed to save so much time – (one agent sat on the Challah Tin for TWENTY MONTHS before rejecting it). I was fully aware that even with a book deal I was unlikely to become an instant millionaire, so didn’t care about missing out on advances or even worried about making money – this just seemed to cut through the crap and set the book free.
The company behind Fun Kids gamely agreed that I could publish it, with the appropriate acknowledgements, and even suggested they take it in house to publish it. I know some cool writers and Paige agreed to proof it for me in exchange for a bottle of wine. I was excited.
Insert tumbleweed here. The short version is that until comparatively recently it was a devilish job to figure out how to get an e-book uploaded which worked on all readers, and which looked nice and properly formatted and basically didn’t suck. Or to do all that without sticking pens in your own eyes out of frustration. A version limped into the world on Amazon but sadly it sucked because it wouldn’t display correctly in e-readers. It gained a one-star review based on the sucky formatting, which made me wince every time I saw it. Not unlike the formatting itself.
The existence of The Version Which Sucked was a constant source of disappointment for me but I’d tried to get e-books uploaded before and hadn’t been able to fathom it all out so its not like I could do any better.
Thankfully – did I mention I know some really cool writers? – and one of them had recently asked me to beta read his co-written book all about… how to publish an e-book. (He’s planning his own launch at the moment so I’ll write more about that when it’s out in the world).
It gave me the confidence to take back control back of the manuscript and in three days, using his beta version as my bible, whipped it into shape. I barely ate, I barely left my room and my confused children wondered if their mother had gone insane. And when dinner was going to be.
As the stars aligned and the book began to leap through the aggregator channels, I bought some ISBN numbers and created my own imprint. This means that I can publish more of my own books – or other people’s – with relative ease and bring them out into the world under the same umbrella.
The version online was deleted out of existence and the new, properly formatted version was uploaded. Luke, my writing wing-man of many years and a talented graphic designer put together wrap-around cover artwork and a paperback version will be available very soon – as I’m just working through the proof copy.
So I got there in the end and the sense of satisfaction is off the scale. As I said to a friend – “this is what happy feels like” – to know that I have produced a book and made it available to buy – and it’s a good book! I’m proud of it!
Professor Hallux and the Lalalas is available to buy at the following stores:
There is a funny viral video doing the rounds at the moment of a young boy cracking open a bottle he has found on the beach. Excitingly, it has a message inside. The message inside turns out to be from a pissed up coke-head and there’s a lovely moment where the kid says, dead-pan, “Beautiful” – “Not a treasure map”.
I expect this is an appalling comparison to make, but I think that video has something in common with a film I saw last week at the New York Film Festival. It’s called Kékszakállú, by Argentinian director Gaston Solniki. There is something moving about the everyday loss of innocence and transition to adulthood, and that’s what the film is about.
It starts slowly, with leisurely scenes of children and teens caught in private moments – hesitating at the brink of the diving board, or casting furtive glances at older peers. A teenage boy buttons his shirt the wrong way two times which I found particularly touching.
I enjoyed the film more as the pace picked up a little, and we began to get snatched narrative, combined with surreal touches. Kékszakállú means Bluebeard – a reference to the one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle, by Béla Bartók. The score punctuates the film although the reason for this reference is somewhat opaque to me. In the opera Bluebeard’s wife forces Bluebeard to open doors in his castle, which reveal his shameful secrets so perhaps it reflects the vulnerability of the young people as we observe their intimate moments.
There’s an ensemble of characters; the girl who confidently has her first flat share and prepares meals for her girlfriends, the girl working in a factory, and the rich and beautiful teenagers who have nothing much to do but arrange parties and steal kisses.
As the film progresses we begin to follow one girl in particular. Berated by her father for running up bills, she is pushed to leave the nest. The trouble is she has no idea what to be. She investigates studying at college but can’t choose a course, factory work bewilders her, and she’s out of step with the rich kids. She prangs her car and cries like a child, not knowing what to do. A young mother with a baby causes her to smile momentarily but the only real plan she harbours, of leaving the country on the ferry is met with stark advice from one of the few adults that she can’t. She just can’t. The ferry doesn’t go where she thinks it does.
The film is a cinematograph’s delight and very beautiful to watch. Every single scene is art – from the girl walking along the side of the building (as pictured above) to the factory turning out polystyrene, and the cyan and mint green swimming pools.
I feel the speed of my own children’s transition out of innocence and, whilst they appear largely unbothered, it induces in me a kind of temporal travel sickness and I worry for them. I suppose this is why I found the film oddly comforting. The conclusion of the film is uplifting and hopeful. I am reminded to be hopeful too.
Here’s some flash fiction inspired by my novel manuscript, and around the word “Perfect”.
We could do that she says and in a moment the wall is broken, or rather the wall isn’t broken immediately but three days later in JOE’S CABS, it breaks and they kiss. Except it doesn’t say JOE’S CABS because the C fell off so it says JOE’S ABS and Polish Joe the owner loudly complains that people will think he’s a bloodyfuck gym but by that point they have kissed and the whole issue of the signage is entirely irrelevant to them.
Paul and Zoe are now kissing whenever Joe’s back is turned. She with her hen’s bum hair and he sweaty. They grope and rut in the rank kitchen. She catches sight of herself reflected on a cupboard door and wonders about perfect worlds. Paul is not as clean as Joe.
Paul drives a minicab and Zoe does the phones. They’ve been circling for years. Years and years. Things could have been so different they agree, if that first day back in 1984 he’d been brave enough to flirt and she’d raised her eyes to meet his. Life isn’t perfect she observes and although he did A Level English and thinks it’s a cliché it sounds like the cleverest thing he ever heard.
Joe meanwhile has been preoccupied with a BROMLEY IN BLOOM local initiative, which necessitates the installation of large planters up and down the high street, filled with bizzy lizzies and pansies in paintbox colours. As a respected member of the Local Traders Association Joe is furious about this. Ostensibly this is because the fat squat tubs block the pavements for local mums with buggies but in reality it is because cupcake-making middle class women have been largely involved in the initiative and if that on its own was not enough, the silly bitches have made jolly bunting and (inexplicably) knitted things around the planters.
This makes him angry in ways that he doesn’t even know how to express in Polish.
He drinks too much whiskey later and gets belligerent in front of Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares – starting a fight just to win and not even over something relevant like mice droppings under the servery. Zoe lowers her eyes and goes to bed. He slides a hand around her later but she says life doesn’t work like that, turning her back. Joe wonders how it came to be like this as he ruminates in the bath, thoughts congealing in the cooling water as he touches himself at the memory of a girl he saw onetime in the Aldi. Her scent is still in his nose.
The next day he resolves to do better. There’s a pub quiz. I’ll buy you dinner before. Come on doll, we could do that suggests Joe. And they do. I’ll even buy you one of them cupcakes he joshes and she curls her lip then smiles. Paul and Zoe stop circling like sharks now they circle repelled mild with revulsion. The sign remains broken.
I’ve been part of the BFilm Micro Immersion programme since 24th February. That’s nearly 100 days. We are about to move into production of the ‘proof of concept’ film for Augumental, and so as we leave the baptism by fire learning stage, I have picked out the following 100 notes from a very fat book of scribbles.
- If you want to make money keep asking yourself, “who will watch this film?” That will determine the size of your audience.
- There is a part of Birmingham City Council called Film Birmingham who help filmmakers to close roads, find locations and crew.
- It’s pretty simple to register yourself with them and as a result you could be involved in even Hollywood movies like the Kingsman sequel which is currently shooting in Brum.
- Filming on or around the Canals is managed by the Canal & River Trust.
- The Girl With All The Gifts was shot in Birmingham. Peaky Blinders was not.
- Birmingham is often used to pass as London.
- If a tripod is used you’ll probably need a permit to film in public. Handheld is generally OK.
- Getting permits is pretty simple. The Council want movies to be made here.
- A film-making career is not generally expected to follow a clean trajectory. It really won’t.
- A few people have made a living from the Arts Council or other govt-backed funders but they are rare and any money will come with conditions. You’re cool with your outback film being set in Wales, right?
- Any funder may determine the genre, location or talent. Get your crowbar out, you’re going to need it.
- Funders can get cold feet and disappear right up to the point where you have started filming and have bills to pay on your Welsh Bush Survival Zombie Thriller.
- Your Welsh Bush Survival Zombie Thriller probably started off as a Romantic Comedy.
- You can upload your screenplay to Amazon Studios and they might buy it.
- If Amazon pick it up the option fee isn’t likely to be as high as the average (apparently more like $10,000 as opposed to $25,000 for 18 months).
- Amazon don’t seem to pick much up. But hey. Who does?
- The more independent you are the more control you have over your project.
- The more independent you are the less likely to are to be able to gain a wide audience for your project through the traditional routes.
- The more independent you are the less money you will make through the traditional routes.
- The more independent you are the less money you are likely to make full stop.
- The traditional routes suck like a Dyson.
- There are ways to make money and get a film seen by playing things the new way.
- The new way involves micro-budget innovations and making use of technological advances.
- Optimism is permitted when making film. So is enthusiasm. It helps.
- It still isn’t easy.
- Putting your movie where people can consume it, e.g. smartphones and download might just be smarter than putting your movie in a cinema and wondering why no one is coming to see it. Cinemas are struggling.
- If your movie has a distribution deal which includes cinema it could still clash with the must-see summer blockbuster and no one will come and see your movie.
- If your movie has a distribution deal which includes cinema it could be one showing at half past 2 on Wednesday not automatically three weeks in the evenings and no one will come and see your movie.
- Bad marketing can hinder cinematic release more than no marketing. Genre must be clearly communicated else no one will come and see your movie.
- You can make a potentially profitable movie about anything as long as it has a hook to hang the advertising on.
- To quote Bianca Del Rio “IT BEARS REPEATING” If you want to make money keep asking yourself “who will watch this film?” That will determine the size of your audience.
- This reminds me of some wisdom I received from Helen Cross, on novel writing. Consider your plot and ask yourself “what’s the point?”
- Some backers will require you to have raised some capital yourself – as much as 15-20%.
- Crowdfunding has changed the game with gaining funding for film with fewer strings attached.
- Nollywood (Nigerian cinema) is bigger than Hollywood, or even Bollywood come to that.
- You can still offset investment in film against tax. Not as much as in the olden days. Figuring it out will make your brain hurt but it will be worth the pain.
- The olden days sounded fucking bloatedly awesome to be honest. Scripts bought en mass on spec. Investors flinging money around.
- It’s a buyer’s market these days. But the market is always hungry for great ideas for content.
- Location can be a character in itself.
- Even documentaries can benefit from “the hero’s journey”.
- One page pitches are like book blurbs.
- Plot is the enemy of elevator pitching.
- When pitching don’t be coy about the gruesome aspects or precious about revealing the ending. They’ll need to know if it sucks or not.
- The pitch should reflect the genre. If it’s a comedy the pitch fucking better be funny.
- Be prepared for the question ,”what other scripts do you have?”
- Be prepared for the question, “what other ideas have you got?”
- Professional Readers look for Premise Characterization Dialogue and Storyline.
- Professional Readers mark scripts as Pass, Low Consider, Consider and Recommend.
- Those Recommended will move fast. These scripts are rare.
- Feature length scripts should be closer to 90 mins than 120 for the LA market.
- Factors to check off: Idea, Plot, Characterisation, Dialogue, Pace, Setting, Structure.
- Help your script not suck by ensuring it doesn’t contain shooting directions, crappy presentation, typos, lack of white space, on the nose dialogue.
- Producers are looking at theatre for proven storytelling writers and new actors.
- The aim is “Something never seen before but understood implicitly” – Matt Wilkinson.
- The British Film Council and IMDB Pro have lists of what is currently in production.
- Film makers need to consider distribution from the outset of the project.
- The most important festivals ate Toronto, Berlin, Venice, and of course Cannes.
- But don’t turn up to Cannes unless you have a finished movie.
- Chinese investors in particular, are ready to put money into films which reference their cultures.
- Moviehouse is a really vibrant movie sales & distribution/co-production/marketing company.
- Horror is generally a bigger genre market than anything else.
- Adaptation tip: Focus on the Magic (Mike Riddell).
- Adaptation tip: Focus on the Beginning Middle and End.
- If a theatre company is touring at the time of your shoot with a known name in the cast it might be worth seeing if there is the chance of a cameo or voice-over which will give marketing a massive boost.
- Found footage is a fucking ball-ache to write. As a screenwriter you don’t normally include a point of view.
- There is a movement for Frugal Film/ making movies with minimal tech and frequently no lighting effects.
- Dogme 95 are famous for this. I think they’re Danish. Light bulbs are SO 2012.
- You can be a cool cinematographer, deft but still fail at narrative *cough Field in England JUST MY OPINION.
- Then again 2001: A Space Odyssey had no narrative. That’s my sole exception because it’s so freaking beautiful.
- Good producers factor in 12 hours between shoots and ensure decent food.
- Good preparation means smooth shoots.
- Spend the most of your budget on actors. An exquisite script will be ruined by shit delivery.
- It is common to have your film optioned, unsold, then bundled and resold as a part of a library to distributors and you will never see a penny of those proceeds.
- Hollywood film-makers might appear insincere but there is an energy, optimism,and enthusiasm for film-making there which we lack in the UK.
- “American Movies are the movies of the world” – Andrew Prendergast, the Commercial Manager of Parkside Mediahouse.
- Birmingham has movie-capable studios at Parkside Mediahouse including a vast green screen studio.
- BCU film students get to use these facilities. Lucky bastards. I always thought BCU kicked ass.
- If you change one frame of the film you can reissue it. This can help if it flopped before but there’s a new opportunity.
- In your movie, referencing or including a known band, artist, community, popular sporting or social activity or anything with an existing following can create a ready made market.
- A distributor will take 40% of film profits plus expenses. Possibly more.
- Red Rock Entertainment & Goldfinch Entertainment are two respected investors of movies.
- Redbox are a company who distribute DVDs in vending machines in the US. They might buy your low budget movie.
- Every successful writer or producer normally has a bunch of total flops in their portfolio.
- Professional writers tend to bang scripts out quickly. If one flops there is another on the way.
- If you are struggling to find an ending for your script the chances are the plot started out too complex.
- Persistence frequently outweighs talent.
- WWE have a bunch of movies which solely exist to showcase their wrestlers. Writing to these specific briefs can result in commissions.
- Targeting your script to managers and agents who deal with similar things makes a lot of (obvious) sense.
- If you get a subscription to IMDB Pro you can mine into an actor or TV Series or Movie and discover their representation including addresses and emails etc.
- Even a straight to DVD movie can net the writer “high five figure” returns.
- Budgetary constraints are on a producers mind from the first line.
- Location scouting is fun.
- Remember to make detailed notes about the photos you take when location scouting including the addresses.
- Poring through google maps to find That Really Cool Metal Staircase again, is not fun.
- Location scouting can result in shop owners viewing you and your camera with extreme suspicion.
- Finding locations close to each other makes filming on a budget much easier.
- It’s often simpler and cheaper to use a real restaurant/bedroom/pub than mocking one up in a studio.
- On location shoots a base is needed in addition to the scene locations. Somewhere for people to wait, store equipment, eat, change, shelter from weather etc.
- Ask yourself. Who will watch your film? What is the audience?
…and 100: I also found out by working with a cohort which includes current undergraduates and recent graduates, that people young enough to be my children can be smarter than I am. I’m not saying I like this revelation but I like my new Bfilm Buddies and looking forward to the next phase of BFilm Micro.
Here’s what’s next – another public FREE MASTERCLASS on the 8th June with Faye Gilbert, acclaimed UK film*-maker. Contact BFilm Micro for tickets. Last time the event was a sell-out so get in quick.
This is a short I wrote last year. I think I was deleting old hotmail accounts and pondering my digital footprint.
Trading pieces of yourself to get through the day is nothing new if you ask me. You disagree? You never been polite to an asshole just to move a transaction on a little? Well if it wasn’t the case before, it is now, sure as shit. So I have to get rid of Martin Deepak.
The irritating problem I, and many others have is that that however hard you try, your profile – or your “name” (if you want to get all misty-eyed about it all), well, it congeals. It’s inevitable. There’s all the obvious stuff you can do, the sensible shtick, you know; change your lockins real regular, show up for work on time, eat healthy, keep your eyes steady when the pictures are flashing weird shit up. There’s no law against any of all that really and jeez man it’s hard. I don’t even know how I got all gummed up this time but Martin Deepak has to go. Sorry dude, thanks and all but whether it was too much java giving my health insurer the jitters or a stupid two-player game on the tram; who knows. I’m on the tram right now as it happens and keeping my eyes well and truly out of the window. Another slip-up and they won’t even let me off at the next stop and I’ll be on a one way ticket to the Pound.
The company already locked me out for once and for all. Should have known it was coming. For a tiny moment I thought they had a problem with their lockins or something. Yeah right. To be perfectly honest with you I haven’t been that careful.
There’s a great feeling you get when you Refresh your profile so even though I am about to be mugged for all the money in my account, I mean Martin’s account, I’m not too unhappy. It’s a chance to go in a shop too, because it’s about the only thing you can’t do online. Has to be legal and in person, see, with a real lawyer.
I go up to the wide counter which keeps the staff a clear arm’s-reach away, and there’s a young one there, black hair, blank face like all the kids these days. This lawyer is called Jenny Salter. She chants the waiver document and I sign, then she spins the menu screen round to me. I bet she hasn’t refreshed even one time, Jenny Salter. Probably a family name. She still isn’t really looking at me. I restrain myself from saying “enjoy being Jenny Salter whilst it lasts Jenny Salter”, and then I remember that I’m trading Martin in any minute now so it probably doesn’t matter anyway.
I run my arm over the counter, the chip registers and $400 appears on the screen. Man! That low? I can sense that Jenny Salter would laugh if it wouldn’t put a chink in her own profile value.
“Enjoy being Jenny Salter whilst it lasts Jenny Salter”, I snark. The figure changes to $399. Jenny winces politely.
“So Mr Deepak you want a Clean Profile? Prices have come down a lot. China’s had a fantastic harvest this year.”
Like I have that kind of money. And no, it isn’t that I don’t want a Chinese name, I’ve had at least three already. And no it isn’t the ethical aspect either before I break your heart with my humanity. I’ve just never seen the point of one of them unless you plan to run for the senate or want to work with kids or something. I clean floors for a living. It’s low risk. I just need to get through the company front door so I can get at my bucket, earn the money to buy my java and stare at pretty girls on the tram until that costs me another Profile Refresh.
I shake my head and she checks the exchange rate board.
“Alright then Mr Deepak, Baseline is $1000, you want to go for that?”
“I only got 399 bucks to spend.”
“Well we cannot guarantee any profiles under the baseline. You could be back in here tomorrow.”
“It’s irrelevant Jenny Salter. Martin Deepak has 399 bucks and that’s all; I’ll just take a lucky dip and put it through a double sweep would you? Please?”
The double sweep does a trial run of the new profile over all your accounts, social networks, places of employment and basically everywhere you appear under the old name. If the sweep is clear then the new profile should work for you. It’s called a double sweep because it runs the old you through at the same time as a comparison, so you can see where your lockins are currently failing. That’s as close as you ever get to finding out where and why you got gummed up.
She shrugs, pushes forward another waiver which I’m forced to sign with a signature I’ve hardly had time to perfect and then she directs my eye to the scrolling identities on the screen.
“Take your pick”, she says.
I go for Polonius Jefferson because it’s a fucking funny name. He’s $380 and with the $10 double sweep I establish that he’s been marginally better behaved than I have. No surprise that Martin’s purple marks were thanks to the usual overzealousness of Cityline’s Integrated Surveillance, but I am irritated that a red came from drinking a cold caffeinated beverage. I’d thought they were still OK. Anyway, pleased to meet you Polonius, I’m Polonius. Jenny Salter goes to fetch my complimentary snapback and thermal mug.
There’s a woman at the next counter and she’s causing something of a disturbance. They can’t read her chip and as the girl keeps telling the dummy in charge it is because she doesn’t have one. How do I know this? Well for starters she’s yelling and everyone can hear.
“I don’t have one so get your damn hands off me.”
She’s got papers though. Plenty of papers. Slim creamy coloured papers and stiff white ones. She’s pushed them over the menu now she’s smacked the dummy’s hand off her wrist. The papers fall on the floor and she snatches them possessively up like she’s dropped her poker hand and bangs them back into view.
“Look at my papers, everything’s there. You guys can buy a paper profile right?”
“Why do you not have a chip?”
“It isn’t actually a law to have a chip you know.”
The dummy purses her lips, cool and fake. I mean her demeanour – but her lips look pretty icy too, come to think about it. I’ll tell you another nice thing about Refreshing is that it takes a little while for everything to straighten out so I can have a good hard stare at those lips and there’s nothing she can do about it.
“Actually yes you do need an electronic chip, it is the law.”
“No it is not.”
“Yes I’m afraid it is the law. I’m sorry.”
The customer, this woman is so strung out now, it looks like she is getting ready to break a few laws for the hell of it. She’s not that old but everything about her looks tired enough and I for one would quite like to see a mom like that curse and maybe punch that little robot bitch. I can tell she is a mom because she’s dressed that way moms do. Ugly windcheater, big jeans and sneakers. They dress themselves like children.
“Can you please check with your supervisor?”
The dummy’s insistence and apparent belief appears to waver and she presses a button.
“Julian Brown, hi! It’s Rebecca Oakley. Yes good thank you. Can you confirm, it is actually the law to have a chip isn’t it?”
Julian Brown’s voice booms out so everyone can hear.
“Yes that is right. It’s because of the electoral roll, so you can vote.”
This woman laughs and it’s clear she’s better informed than Rebecca and Julian.
“That’s the biggest pile of bull I’ve ever heard. It has never been obligatory.”
“Well on a practical note we can’t upload a new profile to you if you don’t have a chip.”
This woman’s standing up now and I’m really hoping she’s gonna upload a punch to that fake bitches fake nose and she’s yelling proper loud now, “I told you before Rebecca Oakley I don’t want to buy I want to sell. Just give me the money and all on one of those goddamn… credit card things.”
Rebecca Oakley has had better days I can tell. I smile at the woman without a name.
I make it outside the same time as she does. She’s trying to use her cell and getting frustrated because it isn’t working any more. I smile again in that way you do when you kind of feel bad for someone. I hate those dummies too. Also this woman is much younger than I had thought and even though it is going to cost Polonius a few cents one way or another, I ask her if she wants a drink.
I choose a carrot juice, it comes with garnish and will look fantastic in the pictures. She goes for a beer. Not even one in a nice bottle. I move my glass away a little so her drink won’t be in my shots, or the bar shots come to that and she clearly doesn’t even realise there are cameras just about everywhere because she’s picking some crap out of her hair.
“Made such a mess of that. They took all my papers, you know. I thought they’d… I don’t know… copy them.”
“Nah, they have to ensure you’re overwritten, proper. They can’t leave you with anything to sell a second time. This really your first time?”
She’s nodding and then starts scratching at the label on the beer bottle with chewed fingernails and biting her own lip like consuming herself is gonna help her situation.
“I hope someone enjoys being me then. Damn! I only wanted to go one step back, change my name to what it was before… before I was married y’see? Erase the last miserable ten years and… start fresh.”
It’s making me nervous just watching her and I’m nervous about being nervous because I don’t have the budget for being an antsy fucker.
“Jeez, you sure are one anxious person. You need to calm down. So why didn’t you just buy a new name? Why walk out of there… blank?”
“What do you mean blank? I’ve got a name. I told you. Had it for twenty five years before I got married. Perfectly good name. I was selling Mrs Attie Evans. I wanted to go back to being Miss Attie Green”.
I have to laugh. She glares. I know that not everyone goes through their life changing profiles like they change their shorts but seriously she must have been living in an Amish community.
“You can’t go back. It’s like gasoline. Names get used up. If you don’t mind me asking, how are you going to manage now? You don’t have a profile at all.”
“I do have a name. Attie Green.”
“Nu –uh. Evans… Green… You just sold all of that. You just sold Attie, you’re not even Attie any more.”
I could have said You’re Anon but I happen to consider that to be offensive. Shit like that can happen to people for all sorts of reasons although it’s pretty disgusting her sitting there all anonymous when she must have a hundred thousand bucks on that chip card.
Oh man. Now she’s crying.
“Of course I’m Attie.” she says angrily, and quite loudly too.
She’s freaking me out now because talk like that is fraudulent and although technically she’s the perpetrator here, I’m collateral. Polinius got enough problems already, Polonius being me. Polonius doesn’t have another four hundred bucks to buy any more barely functional names right now. If Polonius gets caught aiding someone using a false identity or if Polonius ends up saying something crass to someone on the tram again with his hands not on show and it spreads over the net like the congealing cancer it is, Polinius is gonna be stuck buying a 20 dollar Avatar and joining the gaming bums begging by Central Station.
I lower my voice a little, hunkering down on the table although I’m gonna be tagged in here with her regardless.
“You were basically a Clean Sheet, right? They must have given you a lot of money for that. Just go back. You could buy any random name. The letters… the words of the name, they’re not important. It’s what goes with it.”
She smiles and nods. Drains her beer and stands.
“I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for the beer Polonius.”
She tosses me the chip card. I catch it.
I’m about to wave but the Cleaning Truck are pulling up next to her and then a female officer jumps out and comes alongside. She tries to twist her arm away but the officer has a baton and she uses it. Old Attie is fighting back, but they’ve got her in the van now. There’s blood on the pavement and I would have helped her, really I would. Actually what am I saying, of course I wouldn’t.
The chip card is legitimate and still warm from her hand. It’s gonna buy me a lot of transactions that chip card. I won’t even need to be polite. I could start fresh with money like that. But instead I think I’ll just go take a ride on the tram.
There is value in learning about the craft of writing, but I believe you should choose your educators wisely.
From one-day workshops to an MA, I’ve completed or participated in various writing events, courses and schemes; some I paid for, some were free, some free-for-all and some with entry based upon merit. I’ve had many great experiences and a few horrible ones. I’ve been inspired and I’ve been ripped-off, variously immersed, bored, encouraged and, (unintentionally I bloody hope) discouraged along the way.
Thus weathered, below are some questions to ask yourself, which might help you get the best value from opportunities to learn:
How much time will be needed? Really?
The better schemes I have seen tend to lay out a detailed schedule at the outset so that you can be crystal clear about the time investment required, whether it is, for example, one day of eight hours, or one hour a week for three years. Or whatever.
In the past I’ve not given reasonable consideration to the additional time factors; how much prep would be expected before or after, and basic stuff like how long will it take to get to the venue and back. If it is a regular thing and the venue is a long way away, a morning’s commitment can suddenly transmogrify into a whole day. What will have to give? Sanity? Best to find out in advance and not when you are on the M6 having a nervous breakdown. Every. Week. For. Three. Years.
How much will it cost? Really?
Obviously if the course or scheme has a fee then you’ll be able to see from the receipt. Other schemes are free and/or entry is based on merit. But free or not, there are still associated costs; work not done during that time, petrol, travel, accommodation, parking, childcare, learning materials and evening events and so forth. I am not suggesting you get a spreadsheet out every time but it is a relevant factor when considering value.
And be honest with yourself. If it is going to financially stretch you, you need to be absolutely sure that it is going to creatively stretch you, at the very least an equivalent amount (and how you figure that out is a creative challenge in itself).
Will the scheme/event unrelentingly be implying that they are doing you a massive favour?
In my opinion, the best schemes have a friendly, respectful, and collaborative feel to them. And that’s probably all I should say about that.
This could be more my failing to be honest; I struggle to maintain a grateful expression for more than about 25 minutes.
Is this a disguised opportunity for someone to flog their own book?
I’ve attended quite a few writer events which are just PR for books or collections and whilst I don’t begrudge anyone flogging a few tomes it is irritating when you were expecting a little more meat in the transaction. If they charged you on the door for the privilege then so much more the irritation.
There is a corollary here for panels made up of authors who know each other and who share in-jokes for so long that the only hurried question from the floor, squeezed in the last minute is from the batty superfan who’s travelled from Orkney to ask the keynote the crucial query, “WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS FROM?”
What will be required of you in the session – if anything?
You can go in expecting to be mentored and find it is more an opportunity to network. Or, perhaps you are expecting lots of social stuff and it’s exercises and being talked at. All of these things have worth, but when expectations aren’t met an opportunity can feel like poor value. Let’s break down the different types of session:
Networking – A great many schemes and groups seem solely concerned with placing people together to network – like some sort of literary Teddy Bear’s Picnic and the onus is on the participants to get on with it, to have a chat and a pot of teddy tea together.
For fundamentally antisocial types like myself this is frequently a bit excruciating and I would want to know in advance at the very least, so I can practice my winning smile and bone up on teddy small talk.
Mentoring – Whereby very important and accomplished teddies will help you become the teddy you always wanted to be. I personally really like schemes with mentoring. We all want help and this is damn straight help given. Mentoring rocks. With a caveat that the person mentoring should at least have a few more writerly experiences to draw upon than the participants. Else it’s pretty much just networking in a smaller room. With no buffet.
Doing – By this I mean the type of event or course where you undertake exercises, group work, writing challenges and basically putting your brain to work and being very active in the session. Brilliant if you want to hone your skills. Awful if you were hoping for something less formal and more sociable, and if you hadn’t brought a pen.
Lecturing – Where you are clear about the offering in advance this can be brilliant – hearing a favourite author opine on just about anything can be fascinating. An agent or publisher giving targeted advice about what’s hot and what isn’t would always have my pen scribbling away. However if you were expecting to be able to ask questions, or to interact more with other particpants or those leading the event, it can be disappointing if it is only one-way. Again, it’s about expectations.
Study – the academic pursuit of a considerable amount of new knowledge, for example a longer course and things like the MA programme. These can be utter bliss when you are immersed in a subject which fascinates you or that you need to get good at in order to progress.
It is worth having a think, however, about whether this really is information which will be of practical use- for example, learning about children’s publishing over a six 6 month period may be a great investment if you have several children’s books in draft form, but if your portfolio is all X Rated screenplays then it might be fun, but not be the best use of your time to progress your writing career.
Value or vanity?
Sometimes if entry to the scheme is merit-based and exclusive with only a few places, the opportunity can seem particularly mouthwatering – but stop and consider -is the merit really relevant to what you are working on? Is the exclusivity interesting? Can you justify the time and money it will cost? Will anyone else give a toss?
Be honest because you’ll have to see it through and it might be a high price for one line on your CV. It might be that it would be the perfect course – but just for someone else. No big deal – it just might mean your time is better served getting on with the business of writing.
Are you an opportunist or a masochist?
A connected – and cautionary tale to finish: The BBC recently offered a training opportunity for a Birmingham Writer in Residence. The lucky golden ticket winner would/will get to have input into scripts for various TV and Radio shows including Dr Who and The Archers. The Archers no less! Sounded tantalising. Well, mostly I was tempted because, let’s be honest once again, it sounded rather grand and impressive. I was all set to apply – and a few years back I would have in a flash – until I recalled one pertinent fact. One tiny fact which undermined the point of any application from me.
I really really really…. hate The Archers. And the only thing that bores me more than The Archers is Dr Who. So there you go. Or there I didn’t go.