Category Archives: Writing

Lazy Sunday

Occasionally, it’s nice to wake up with nothing in particular planned for the day.  It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while, I have the luxury of not having to jump up out of bed the moment the alarm goes off and can instead laze under the duvet with a mug of coffee and a good book.

Lev Tolstoy in 1908

Lev Tolstoy in 1908

I recently decided to revisit War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy, which I first read when I was at university ie a fair few years ago!   It’s hard to imagine anyone publishing a novel of that length these days; I expect most modern editors would be itching to cut huge chunks out of the book.  There are whole chapters dedicated to relatively minor characters and pages and pages of Tolstoy’s philosophising about the nature of history and the role played by great men.   And yet taken together, all these things are an essential part of the whole.  They’re what make it feel real.

In the chapter I read last, Tolstoy describes how an officer, Prince Nezvitsky, is pinned up against the railings of a bridge as a whole company of soldiers swarm across it.   Although Nezvitsky is a completely minor character, Tolstoy nevertheless treats us to his thoughts about the river flowing around the piles of the bridge, snatches of conversation he half-hears, his feelings and anxieties about the battle ahead.

For a short while, the reader is plunged into Nezvitsky’s world, and can identify with him completely, so that we too are trapped on the bridge, can hear the water roaring below, mud spattering and shouts and sweat of the oncoming troops.  We too feel Nezvitsky’s relief when a fellow officer helps him break free.

This is what Tolstoy does so brilliantly – he creates an immersive world so full of the detail of actual lives that the reader cannot help but feel a part of it.   There’s something very visual, almost cinematic, about the way the whole panorama unfolds as before our eyes.

 War and Peace Film

What a novel allows, however, as film rarely can, is insight into the characters’ thoughts and feelings.   Tolstoy – by all accounts pig-headed and frequently insensitive in real life – nevertheless has an uncanny, almost magical knack for describing the deepest and darkest corners of the human heart.

He creates rich, complex, distinctive and very fallible characters, who cannot be other than the way they are.  Thus it makes perfect sense that Natasha Rostova, a younger member of a large boisterous family and the child of warmly generous, spendthrift parents, should be impetuous, passionate, unguarded and completely charming.   Or that Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a fabulously rich but distant father, should be insecure, clumsy, earnest, and shy.    Or that Prince Andrei, the motherless son of a pedantic and exacting father, should be arrogant and ambitious.

Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film of War and Peace

Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film of War and Peace

No doubt, many people find the sheer length War and Peace off-putting, but it isn’t a difficult book to read; Tolstoy’s style is wonderfully clear and accessible.   And knowing you’ll be spending a good few hours in the company of his wonderful characters only makes it seem better.

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Filed under Books, Russia, Screenwriting, Writing

Letting Go of Your Baby

Although it’s still only February a whole load of green shoots are beginning to poke through the earth, promising that spring will soon be here.  At this time of year, I begin to get really fed up with the cold and damp and start longing for the weather to warm up a bit.

Crocuses

Cheery crocuses and anemones are the first signs that things are changing.  However my favourite winter blossom belongs to the Christmas Box.  I love it not for its flowers, which are pretty plain and uninteresting, but for its fabulous perfume, which fills the air outside my front door at this time of year and always seems to promise wonderful warm days to come.

Other exciting things have been afoot, not least the filming of my short screenplay.  It’s a comedy – not a particularly sophisticated one, I have to admit – about a young photographer who finds himself saddled with the flat-mate from hell, and after being driven to his wits’ end, comes up with a very novel way to get rid of his tormentor.  It’s a situation many, many people can identify with, so I’m hoping that will give it some fairly universal appeal.

Not as fun as it looks

The process of the filming itself is a lot less glamorous than you might imagine and involves endless repetitions of the same lines and scenes from different angles and viewpoints.  As the writer, it’s quite hard to get a sense of how it will look once it’s finished.  It all seems very disjointed at this stage, but the director seems pleased with how it’s shaping up and clearly has his own plan for it.

While I was writing it, I had a very clear image in my head of what the characters were like, what the settings would be like and how it would all play out.  What is very clear as we make it, is that the director has a completely different mental image of the story and so do the actors.   And then you have to take account of what’s practically possible to film with the resources and locations we have.

Too many cooks

What will emerge will be a synthesis of all these things – our different thoughts and ideas about the story, modified by what we can actually get down on tape.   With any luck, a bit of magic will happen that will transform it from being a series of mental images existing only in the imaginations of those who’ve read the script into something richer and more interesting than any one of those involved had conceived of.

Screenwriting, more than any other form of writing, is a collaborative process; the articulation of a shared vision for the film is essential to bringing the project to life.  As the writer of a film, you have to be prepared to let your baby go, and let others get fully involved in shaping it and making it as much theirs as it ever was yours.  It can be hard at times and the annals of film-making are full of stories about writers who were no longer allowed to work on their own films.

Personally, I really enjoy that collaborative creative process.  I like the idea of making something that’s more than any one person could produce.  Yet as the writer, you also have the satisfaction of knowing it all started with you, and your idea.  Without that, there would have been nothing.

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Begin Again

It’s been a sombre start to the year, with the loss of the AirAsia plane on 28th December and the horrific news from Paris yesterday.   Somehow when the clock strikes midnight on the 31st December, there’s always the hope that the New Year will somehow magically usher in a change for the better, but of course that’s rarely the case.   In some ways, New Year is only an arbitrary marker in the endless continuum of time, and yet we seem to have a strong need to draw a line under the past at regular intervals and give ourselves permission to start afresh with renewed optimism and purpose.

A fresh start or same old, same old...?

A fresh start or same old, same old…?

I have to confess that I didn’t write as much as I would have liked last year – a few short stories and a few short screenplays is all I managed to get down.  Starting a new job in the summer didn’t help, and it’s taken me a while to adjust and still find time to write along with work and family commitments.   So I aim to be much more productive this year, and much more disciplined too.  I have plans for a new feature script, and am determined to try and complete it over the next few months.

One boost is that a director has taken on one of my short scripts – a comedy about a flat-share that goes wrong – and with any luck, it will be produced and filmed over the next couple of months too.  I have to say that the prospect of one of my stories actually appearing on screen – or at least youtube – is vastly exciting and it’s also encouraged me to think getting some of my other story ideas actually down on paper.   I have a whole list of them…

While I enjoy writing, especially when it’s going well, I find the whole marketing side of it really hard.  It goes against the grain to talk much about myself or my writing.  Part of me just wants it to be miraculously discovered, but of course without me actively trying to promote my work, this is about as likely as seeing a flock of pigs sailing overhead.

Deserving winner of the Costa newcomer award

Deserving winner of the Costa newcomer award

What sticks in the mind is a comment from the winner of the Costa Book award for best newcomer, Emma Healey, who said that she rarely spoke about her writing while she was working on her debut novel, ‘Elizabeth is Missing’, because it was kind of embarrassing admitting to being an aspiring writer.  I have every sympathy for such sentiments!   So I guess my main resolution for this year is to be more confident about myself as a writer, but to make sure I put in the hours too.  Wish me luck!

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When We Were Young

“I sigh that kiss you,
For I must own
That I shall miss you
When you are grown.”

That little rhyme by WB Yeats was brought sharply to mind as I was watching the infants’ nativity play at the local primary school where my children began their education, and where I am now a governor.  It’s all too easy to be overcome by nostalgia.  In a few short years, my adorable tots have been transformed from innocent little angels dressed in white pillowcases, with tinsel halos falling over their eyes into…teenagers!

Nursery NativityAs they have forgotten the words to Away in a Manger, they have learned every swear word in the book and developed a well-honed skill in delivering crushing put-downs to each other and their long-suffering parents. Instead of making gingerbread stars or sticking sparkly spangles on cardboard crowns, they now enjoy texting people they’ve only just parted with, instagramming embarrassing photos of themselves to all and sundry and watching X-rated TV shows on the family tablet when they’re supposed to be asleep in bed. How did this happen?

Amid the tantrums and exam angst (the daughter is doing ‘mocks’ as I write), it can be easy to overlook some of good things about living with teenagers. Without them, I’d be more intolerant, less well informed (particularly about music) and definitely more set in my ways. Every day, I’m getting a clearer picture of the mature adults they’ll soon be, and while yes, I miss the little children they once were, I’m also looking forward to what I hope will be a wonderful friendship between grown-ups just a few more years down the line.

Some of the conversations I’ve had with my teenagers recently have been amazing. The things they come out with are not only surprising but often profound and incredibly thought-provoking. It’s hard not to feel privileged to be able to share their thoughts and feelings as they learn about the world and their place in it. Politics, celebrity, freedom of information, the nature of justice, why slavery still exists… we’ve discussed all these things and many more over the past year. You name it – they have a view on it.

Periodic table of texting

While they like to parade a veneer of world-weary cynicism, not far below the surface, you’ll find a pair of idealists and dreamers, two young people full of potential who genuinely want to learn and make a difference in the world.  As I enter the middle stretch of life’s journey, I want to tell them to enjoy every moment, live life to the full, and not be afraid to reach for their dreams, while all of life’s choices are still open to them.  In sharing their hopes for the future, they remind me that, if I can borrow a little of their optimism and good faith, it’s not too late for my dreams to come true either.

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Filed under Children, Family, Teenagers, Writing

Head or Heart?

The observant among you may have noticed it’s been a while since I posted on this blog. This is because, like many others, we’ve been partaking of the annual mass migration from north to south in the hope of finding a bit of sun, meals we don’t have to cook ourselves and some quality family time together.

Somewhat eccentrically, we prefer to avoid airports and planes in favour of stuffing the family car with everything we could possibly need – and much that we don’t – and taking a leisurely drive through France towards Italy, where we have friends and relatives.

William the Conqueror's Castle, Falaise, Normandy.

William the Conqueror’s Castle, Falaise, Normandy.

Done properly, the travelling is as much a part of the holiday as the time we spend at our destination. We’ve got it down to a fine art; crossing the channel in the evening, spending the night in one of the picturesque towns in Northern France such as Falaise or Reims and then heading on south.

I enjoy the car journeys. I’m lucky because the spouse prefers to do the driving, so I can spend the time watching the countryside gradually change as I plot out story ideas in my head. On the way there, you have the anticipation of what’s to come; on the way back, the sense of eking out the time away just that little bit longer.

Amiens Cathedral

Amiens Cathedral

We’ve got into the habit of spending our last night away in Amiens, which has a stunning 13th century cathedral and an attractive river frontage lined with a plethora of bars and restaurants. A slap-up dinner is always a nice way to bring the holiday to a proper conclusion.

We spent quite a lot of the time away discussing the relative merits of France and Italy. I love them both for different reasons. Italy is warm and convivial – especially as we tend to spend much of the time with family. The food is incomparable and the landscape stunning.

Al Mare in Tuscany

‘Al Mare’ in Tuscany

However Italy these days has a run-down air about it and our friends complain about declining public services and the difficulty of finding work, especially for young people. France always feels slightly cooler and less welcoming, but just seems to work better, with excellent roads and the sense of things being well organised and generally better managed.

If I had to choose between the two, it would be a tough decision. My heart would always plump for Italy, but my head tells me that France would definitely be more ‘liveable.’

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Filed under Family, Friends, Screenwriting, Travel, Uncategorized, Writing

Lost and Found

There are few experiences as moving as standing in front of an object which is not only incredibly beautiful in its own right, but which was created, and has been admired, loved and handled over the centuries, by people we’ve only read about in history books.

A few days ago I finished reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and I’m still feeling completely blown away by it. The book, which deservedly won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, tells the story of Theo Decker, whose mother is killed in a bomb attack on a museum in New York, leaving him at the age of 13 completely bereft of parental love or guidance.  In the aftermath of the explosion, Theo takes with him a small painting, also called The Goldfinch, produced in 1654 by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

In the days following the attack, Theo is cared for by the parents of a school friend until his alcoholic, drug-addicted father turns up with a recently acquired girl-friend and carts him off to a new life in Las Vegas. There, wholly neglected by his remaining parent and forced to fend for himself, Theo befriends Boris, the son of Ukrainian immigrants.   Time passes and Theo is drawn into a world of drugs, fraud, gangsters and crime, but throughout he clings to the painting as the one object that connects him to his mother and his ‘real’ life with her.

Tartt’s genius has been to avoid any sort of sentimentality or mawkishness in depicting Theo and the psychological trauma he undergoes. Bereavement leaves him with a vast unfillable void at the centre of his life but it doesn’t change his essential character. It is very much implied that the chasm of destructive behaviour he plunges into was already inherent in his character before his mother died; what has changed is that there is no longer the loving guidance she would have provided to keep him on a better path.

Untethered from any sort of moral compass, Theo goes seriously off the rails. And yet throughout it all, the painting somehow continues to represent the possibility of something purer and truer. The Goldfinch isn’t a mere fictional device; the painting really exists. Tartt provides details of its story; its creator was himself killed in an explosion at a munitions factory in Delft along with most of his work and yet this small luminous treasure somehow miraculously survived.

Carel Fabritius - self-portrait

Carel Fabritius – self-portrait

At the heart of the book is an incredible sense of the potency of art and how certain objects fashioned by human hands and imagination become invested with a sort of extraordinary totemic magic as they pass through the centuries to reach our own time. When everything around us seems polluted and lost, art provides a life-line that enables us to reach beyond our own grubby reality to what is eternal and sublime.

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Looking damned good, Debbie!

Is it just me, of has it been a particularly lovely summer so far?

It’s been warm, with lots of sunshine but not too hot, and enough rain to keep the garden looking fresh. For me, that’s perfect. I don’t mind the odd shower, though perhaps not quite as violent as the one that deluged Glastonbury on Friday evening, causing the organisers to take the rare precautionary step of shutting off the power for an hour while the lightening flashed overhead.

Glastonbury - what summer was made for.

Glastonbury – what summer was made for.

Music festivals have become a big feature of the British summer scene. Along with the huge events like Glastonbury, Reading and Latitude, many places now have their own mini-festivals.   Even our little town has an annual music event at the end of June where local musicians can showcase their talents. There’s nothing like sitting in the evening sunshine with friends, quaffing pinot grigio by the pint and listening to a bit of live jazz.

One of the headline acts at Glastonbury this year was Blondie. When I was the age my kids are now, I used to adore Blondie. To me Debbie Harry seemed impossibly cool and sexy and I admired her beyond all reason. Every boy I knew fancied her rotten. So it was with a mix of curiosity and nostalgia that I sat down to watch their set on the TV on Friday evening.

Debbie Harry in her hey-day

Debbie Harry in her hey-day

Blondie have had a chequered career since their hey-day in the late 70s and early 80s. Their album Parallel Lines was the best-selling UK album in 1978.  Everyone had it. The follow up, Eat to the Beat, which featured ‘Atomic’ and ‘Union City Blue’ also did well.

But then things began to fall apart for them. Riven by internal wrangling and befuddled by drug addiction, by the mid-80s, the band had all but imploded. Then guitarist, Chris Stein, fell seriously ill from a little known auto-immune disease and Debbie gave up her music career to care for him full time.

Many years passed, but then, miraculously, little by little, they managed to reinvent themselves. What was abundantly evident at Glastonbury is that there is still a huge level of public affection for them. They were rock-and-roll superstars, most certainly, but ones that genuinely went through the mill of human suffering.

During the darkest days, they lost everything and went bankrupt. And yet through grace and perseverance, they’ve managed to overcome their difficulties and reinvent themselves. It was oddly moving seeing them making music once again, performing new tracks and many of the old standards in front of huge crowds.

Debbie, despite being within easy reach of 70, still looks amazing. She’s certainly had work done, but those chiselled cheekbones have clearly held her in good stead and her shock of blonde hair is as striking as ever.

Debbie at Glastonbury

Debbie at Glastonbury

Singing along to ‘Call Me’ and ‘Heart of Glass’ made me feel as if those far off teenage years, when my whole life was still ahead of me, were still somehow within my reach; for that I can only thank them.

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