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Sunday, 11 December 2011

Harvey Nichols walk of shame ad

Someone just asked me if I’d seen the Harvey Nicols ‘Walk of Shame’ advert in which several curvy girls in skimpy dresses are seen heading home in the cold early morning, clearly having Had Sex. The filthy trollops. Followed by a tall, skinny model with perfect makeup and expensive dress, walking with confidence and getting an admiring glance from the milkman.
What a nasty little ad. The ‘ordinary’ women are shot in a voyeuristic way, in cold grey light, pulling down their skirts, shoulders hunched, looking vulnerable. You can practically feel the collective lips of middle England pursing into a giant cat’s bum. Sluts. Whereas the rich skinny girl is bathed in a golden light and is heading towards a posh mansion block. Never mind that she might have spent the previous evening banging the entire City of London from end to end, her makeup and hair are perfect.
Shame on Harvey Nichols.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Penguin and Self-Publishing

I haven’t blogged for a while because I’ve had tons of other work to do. Not that I’m moaning about it (she moans) but part of that work has been teaching creative writing, so I feel somewhat qualified to hold forth. Some people think creative writing can’t be taught at all, but I don’t agree. I think the craft of writing can be learned – viewpoint, voice, characterisation, the narrative arc all can be learned and improved upon. But learning technique won’t make an essentially mediocre writer into a good one. A good creative writing course will give you the tools to improve your writing but if you want to write professionally I think you need a basic zing about your writing – a feel for words, a sense for words. And the ability to work very hard. And accept constructive criticism.

But I’ve noticed that quite a few students seem to be far keener to get their work out there than they are to get their work to the highest standard. I followed a discussion once on the topic: why do you write? My favourite reply was a po-faced, ‘Because I have truths to tell’.

So when I read that Penguin have started a self-publishing service, I don’t think it will democratise publishing as so many yet unpublished writers argue, convinced that publishing is some sort of Masonic club. Instead it will persuade many writers to spend less time on making sure their work is of a high enough standard so that a traditional i.e. paying publisher will take a punt on it, and instead fork out to see their work in print. Not published – printed because the whole point of a book being published (traditional publisher) instead of printed (self-publishing) is the editorial input. Self-published writers often say that publishing their own work puts them in control as though having a copy editor fine comb your work to make it as good as it can be, and then marketed to sell as many copies as possible is some sort of artistic insult to the writer.

So in the spirit of putting off work research I browsed Authonomy, an online writers forum, where writers network and post their books, in the hope that enough people will read and review it, for the book to end up on the coveted Harper Collins editing list. Then the book is apparently read and given professional feedback although there’s been controversy over how useful this feedback is. The ultimate goal of course is for HC to offer the author a contract. The trouble with this is that it’s the self-publicists whose books rise to the top five that are then apparently sent to the HP editorial desk. And the only way of doing this is by being a consummate networker. Nothing wrong with that but not all writers are good at self-publicity – some are, but others are too busy staring out the window writing.

The other serious problem is that if the possibility of your book being read by a HC editor is down to support from your peers, very little feedback is actually honest and constructive so it’s worse than useless. I noticed page after page of glowing reviews for a book of poetry that the author wrote to ‘teach morals’. Unsurprisingly the poems were well intentioned but amateurish. So the writer then understandably thinks he has written a very good book and will be doubly confused and disappointed to meet as he inevitably will, with rejection.

If you go to the excellent Self-Publishing Review, you see book after book where Jane Smith stops reading after a few pages because the book is filled with the kind of errors that the writer should have frankly spent more time working on and ironing out before sending it out in public.

I have nothing against self-publishing but it means taking charge of the entire editorial and marketing process and being objective and clear eyed enough about your own work to ‘see’ it from their point of view. Not many writers can truly do this and see their writing as a product with the eagle eyed harshness it needs. I tell my students (and me too if I’m listening to myself) to go through the work, just like an editor looking for reasons to dump it. Not because editors are horrible people but they know what to look for. Also because that’s what happens in the real world.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Teaching at Wandsworth Prison

So I went to Wandsworth Prison yesterday. It wasn’t an impulse visit – I was doing a face to face tutorial which is part of the work at the Open University. Some tutors choose not to actually go to the prison to see their students – his previous tutor hadn’t even given him her name! ‘How did you sign off with your marking?’ I asked. ‘Your Tutor,’ she replied sounding oddly like an educational stalker. I wanted to meet my prisoner, especially as he had gained a distinction on the previous OU course he was doing. ‘Suicide was a recurring theme on his work,’ said his previous tutor.

So as I drove the car through lush, peaceful Wandsworth and turned into the road, I wasn’t surprised to see trees almost but not quite, obscuring high wire fences with bundles of razor wire looped at the top. The air smelled damp and fresh and there were people standing outside the visitor centre chatting. I went up the steps into the visitors area which reminded me of the post office where you go to collect your too big parcels. I handed over my driver licence, my mobile and my ipod. Then I went through a sliding door into another waiting area. A prison officer wandered through with a massive bunch of keys dangling from his waist. The sound of jangling keys is a constant backdrop in prison, just like the opening credits in Porridge. I sat and waited. Several people jangled through the waiting area, so used to the routine they didn’t even have to look down at their key bundles. They would reach for the right one without breaking their stride and step through into the looking glass world.

Then the door opened and in came the education officer, Siobhan*. We walked across a prison exercise yard – wide and bare, topped with razor wire. In the corner was an aviary full of loudly shrieking canaries – doing their bird. I asked her how long she’d been working in prison. She said she’d been doing it for ten years and loved it but like everything else, the prison service were experiencing huge cutbacks. ‘And the illiteracy rate is about 50%’ she sighed. ‘And now we have a for profit company bidding to take over the education programme.’ ‘Which company?’ I asked. ‘A building firm,’ said Siobhan stoically. I looked at her and she shrugged. Yes – what possible reason could a building company have to take over the education programme in prison – except to make money? I expressed naïve amazement. ‘Yes’ she said sadly. ‘A for profit company is bidding to educate prisoners.' We discussed the shockingly high illiteracy rate in prison - (nearly 50% of all prisoners have a reading age of an 11 year old) and how this is going to go up and up. And how the rate for reoffending drops from 90% to 10% (yes!) if the prisoner has a job to go to. And how can they have a job if they have the reading ability of a child of 11? And how will they learn to read if for-profit companies take over the education sector of a prison? As we talked Siobbhan was briskly opening gates. The clatter of keys mingled with the chorus of canaries. A couple of prisoners swept the yard. We walked past a well kept garden. ‘That’s for the visitors,’ said Niamh as we went through yet another locked door and into the education centre. Gloom swept over me.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. A faintly unwashed sour smell. My prisoner, a small Glaswegian, neat and brisk, shook my hand. He and I and Siobhan sat in an office. We talked easily for a couple of hours, going over any issues he had with the course. I read a very good piece he had typed out. It was funny and well written. There were no typos and not a single spelling mistake. We discussed ideas for one of his assignments. He wanted to write about loneliness. I congratulated him on getting a distinction from his previous course. He had a pallid prison look about him but was obviously highly intelligent and genial. I remembered his previous tutor telling me that much of his work with her had a suicide theme. And just as I was wondering whether this recurring theme would be insensitive to bring up, he said that he was particularly surprised to get a distinction. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because I was going through a sex offender treatment programme,’ he said. I nodded I think – my face didn’t change. I hope it didn’t suddenly register: ‘you Nonce!’

He said that he was getting out in December and was counting down the days. I thought of those who (knowing nothing about a treatment programme for sex offenders) like to say it’s a ‘soft option’ but I can’t imagine anything harder than facing your behaviour squarely. I liked him. I admired the effort it must have taken to get through a degree course. I thought of how manipulative sex offenders are too.

As I walked back across the yard with Siobhan she asked if he was any good and I said he was. She said that she was surprised – as ‘most sex offenders though intelligent have a very narrow emotional range.’ I considered this and we talked briefly about the treatment programme. ‘Do you think he’s cured?’ ‘No’ said Siobhan. ‘They’re never cured.’
I left the prison and just walked for a long time feeling glad to be able to walk where I wanted and look up at the richly hued trees.

The Evening Standard have started a campaign to Get London Reading and it involves donating a few hours of your time to help a struggling child to read.

*Not her real name

Monday, 24 October 2011

Where Jane Root thinks good ideas come from

There’s a very interesting piece by Jane Root (former head of BBC2) about where good ideas come from. It struck a chord because it’s both sincere and thoughtful and offers hope to anyone who has mulled, nurtured, developed and polished an idea. Ideas are not often Eureka moments but naggy scratchy murmurings that develop at their own pace, or suddenly go into hibernation, only to burst forth again at a later date.
I’ve had such an idea which rattled around in my head for a few years, before becoming an idea and then an idea for a series before it was unceremoniously dropped like a wasp infested pear. So I forgot about it. And now suddenly – someone is interested again, so I’ve dusted it off and am picking through it again. And ignoring Mr Paranoia on my shoulder who softly whispers: 'It's shite.'

The academic year at the Open University has started again too and I’ve been at pains to tell my students that in the words of F.Scott Fitzgerald, it’s good to get feedback 'but in the end you have to trust your own opinion.' Now I have to follow my own advice and I’ve only just realised how annoying it is.
Oh and I’m doing some prison teaching this year, so am off to brave the security requirements of Wandsworth Prison tomorrow morning. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Critical feedback is like wheatgrass. You know it's good for you but it still tastes like shit.

Critical feedback is like oral sex in that it’s better to receive than give. Some people are very good at gently pointing out the merits of your work, followed by a long list of what’s wrong with it, followed by something nicely positive that leaves you wanting to get on with it rather than kill yourself and go into a massive sulk. Others either offer a few blanditutes or occasionally rip your work to shreds, only pausing to say in a pained voice: I’m only being honest. I’ve been giving and receiving feedback for several years now. This is what I’ve learned:

Giving Feedback

At the moment I’m reading several manuscripts from would be children’s writers and it’s astonishing how few of them actually read what’s currently out there. How can you write for a particular genre if you don’t read from it?

I generally adopt the ‘shit sandwich’ technique – this is good, this is not so good and this is great. I also go through my feedback and remove any ‘demands’ I may have drafted. So no ‘do this or that’ but ‘I suggest’ or ‘perhaps you could try’. One of my writers usually responds to my suggestions that perhaps a heroic bunny might not appeal to the 8 – 11 age group by rephrasing my words in inverted commas. I don’t think it matters that a rabbit is not ‘appealing’ he says. Well I do and so will your reader. He also baulked at the idea of a title change just because it might ‘sell’ better. Such writers are the ones who bang on about editorial suggestions compromising their artistic integrity. To which one can only reply, ‘Grow the Fuck Up.’

Receiving Feedback

It’s all down to remembering that feedback is designed to make the writing better. It’s not a personal attack. Which is what I tell myself when my first draft is returned with copious notes and red pen. I suppose that’s why I get so irritated when would be professional writers get so arsey about my carefully phrased suggestions. How I wonder are they going to survive in a professional world where their baby is returned with stuff like: ‘Not Funny’ or WTF? Or I don’t believe it! – like Victor Meldrew. One writer in another group was so resistant to any kind of feedback other than grovelling that I finally asked her why she wanted to write in the first place. ‘Because I have great truths to tell’ she said. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t.

Red pen stings though. So I sit and sulk while my producer (as it happens) tells me how and why this or that doesn’t work. But while I’m sulking I write down what she says. Then I carry on sulking. Then I leave it and go back to the piece a few days later when the sulking has dropped to a more manageable level. I used to think everything I wrote was shite and if someone didn’t like it would flagellate myself thinking of course he’s right – I’m useless what am I thinking? I was perhaps too ready to hear something was rubbish. Now after the initial (silent) roar of Fuck off! What do you know!? I feel confident enough to take on board the detail of the criticism without hearing the criticism as a destructive attack on me.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Topshop creates an Avoid This Man tee shirt

There's nothing I like more than a mindless wander round Topshop, fingering the dresses, pursing my lips over the rubbish hemming and getting vertigo from the heels. But yesterday I noticed some tee shirts in the Top Man section. If you can't read them, the one on the left says: I'm so sorry but: You provoked me I was drunk I was having a bad day I hate you I didn't mean it I couldn't help it The one on the right says: New Girlfriend? What breed is she? There has been an outcry and already most of the stock has been removed. But what's really depressing is if you go to the Topman Facebook site and look at the comments left by customers, presumably most of whom are young men, the utter lack of empathy is terrifying. Anyone who protests is apparently a 'humourless feminist' - yeah yeah boys. Can't you think of something more original to say? And I wonder what is the fucking point of having tons of money spent on advertising campaigns to help teenagers understand what abuse really is, when you can buy a tee shirt that cheerfully excuses cracked ribs and comparing your girlfriend to a farmyard animal? I wonder if women went round wearing a tee shirt that read: From here I can tell you're a loser with an exceptionally small penis how funny they would find that? One good thing though. A man who wears a tee shirt printed with this kind of joke is the best warning to Stay Away I can think of. Because he might as well be wearing a tee shirt that reads: I am a controlling and abusive loser who will both abuse and blame you for it. Run like the wind!

Monday, 12 September 2011

Maggie Goes on a Diet: Never mind the message - look at the content.

There is a book out in October which is causing huge controversy – even more strange since it’s self published. The author is doing that authorial thing of protesting that he had no idea it would cause so much fuss – he only intended to educate children about healthy eating. That’s your first clue. A children’s author who sets out with A Message instead of wanting to write a great story is not going to write a good children’s book. Ok so the book is called Maggie Goes on a Diet and the reason many people are so cross with the author is because the clear message to young girls is that dieting is a good thing. And what with an explosion in eating disorders and an increasing unease that young girls are being sexualised too early, the idea that someone would bring out a book which shows that after Maggie goes on a diet her life is so much better (just like a diet ad in fact) is a bit offensive. What really surprises me though is not that a self published book about a child going on a diet is causing such a fuss, it’s that nobody seems to be objecting as to the actual quality of the book. Probably because it is self published and while there are honourable exceptions, a large proportion of self published children's books are shite. They are shite because they are aimed at the wrong age group, the artwork is amateur, the story is leaden, and there is a tiresome moral message. This one succeeds on all counts. The book is purportedly aimed at 6 – 8 years old but Maggie is fourteen. And the book is written in rhyme. How many teenagers do you know who read rhymes? Especially crudely illustrated ones? About a girl who is meant to be a teenager but has sticky up braids like Pippi Longstocking? Why is her hair sticking up? Is there some sort of Something About Mary thing going on? And as for the rhyme . . . . Maggie was teased just about every day at school She was called Fatty and Chubby and other names that were just as cru-el. Searching the refrigerator in the hopes she would feel better Eating lots of bread and cheeses including some cheddar. Really trips off the tongue eh? So yeah - blogging about it – I’m giving it publicity. But I also know that however much publicity this book gets – it’s not going to get taken up by what self-publishers call ‘mainstream’ publishers and what everyone else calls publishers. Not just because it's a horrible idea, badly executed. After all there are plenty of equally horrible celebrity biographies out there. But also because the author himself is no stranger to the Krispy Kremes so ultimately this book is about a fat middle aged man who writes bad books trying to shame little girls into dieting. Sending the wrong message to girls? I'll say.

Friday, 9 September 2011

I Love Researching the 70s

It’s so much more fun than work. I’m writing a play set in the seventies and as part of my doing anything to avoid writing the next draft research I’m looking at some of the terrifying public information films of the time. My God it was a scary time. Strikes, political dissent, and Donald Pleasance. You might not have heard of him but his voice struck terror into any child of the seventies. Here he is disguised as the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water ready to trap the show off or the fool. And if you escaped Donald Pleasance you might end up buried alive inside a disused fridge. That'll learn you. Managed to dodge death by white goods? You might like to nip to the shops in your car. But soft! You ladies going to the shops and the launderette, smarmed Jimmy Saville (well this was before feminism) might not have the same face in the evening as you started out with, in the morning. What do you mean Jimmy Saville – yes you with the Lady Gaga hair and face like a melted welly. Of course! Because the lady doesn’t Clunk Clink on a short visit to the shops she is thrown through the car window! Well that’ll learn you – Mrs. Or Boris Karloff as you’re now known. Ok so you've survived deep water, abandoned fridges and you’ve Clunk Clicked. But you’re still not safe. There is the lurking menace of Stranger Danger – an absolute obsession in the seventies. Never mind that over 90% of child abuse is carried out by someone who should be taking care of the child. I watched a two part film featuring a robotic voice saying Say No to Strangers about the danger of getting into a car with Duncan Preston before he was enshrined as a comedy star on Victoria Wood. I watched this film all the way through and it’s genuinely terrifying. The ten year old girl, Teresa is persuaded that if she gets into Duncan’s car, they’ll probably meet her mum on the way. And he has a kitten. (That old one. Nowadays a weirdo in the car would be more likely to say he was a record producer and could make Teresa the next Brittany Spears. Mind you – most record producers are perverts anyway). So Teresa gets into the car and two seconds later mum rushes up in her high heels and career woman haircut. But it's too late! Luckily a smart black girl (and I mention that because again, this being the seventies – rife with open racism and programmes like Love Thy Neighbour i.e. Oh My God There’s A Black Man Living Next Door) has noticed the car and gives a good description to the police. Meanwhile Teresa’s mum is sitting on the sofa next to her husband Bernard (Yosser Hughes) Hill. But they only send a WPC round to Teresa’s mum’s house. One WPC. She’s played by Brenda Blethyn but still. Where are the police out making door to door enquiries? Or the police helicopters? She could be dead or in hospital! weeps mum, in a curious reversal of possibilities. I thought the first twenty four hours after an abduction were crucial. The message seems to be that if you get into a car with a stranger, you’ll only get a bored WPC writing ‘Blue Car driven by pervert – probably’ who then pats mum on the shoulder and says, I’m sure she’ll turn up. You can almost see the thought bubble where she adds, in a body bag. Part One ends with a shot of Duncan’s car as the light fades. Teresa is clearly in the house with him. Argggh! Nightmares! But in part two the film wimps out completely. Teresa is back with mum and the whole issue of her assault is smoothed over. He tried to kiss me and when I said no he did this she sobs showing a bruise on her arm. Oh dearie me, says a now clearly bored Brenda Blethyn probably thinking, When is Mike Leigh going to rescue me from a life of playing bored WPC's in Public Information Films? The message seems to be, if you get into a stranger’s car you’re asking for it. A bruised arm that is. But what amazed me was the lack of mobilising police effort. I know it was an information film but one WPC? Maybe they were all out framing suspects or taking bribes – another defining aspect of the seventies. It's always been dangerous being a child but I've never believed all that stuff about how bad it was before education for all and antibiotics and all that guff. Us kids who grew up in the seventies know better. We had to contend with The Grim Reaper with Donald Pleasance, disused fridges, killer escalators and Duncan Preston offering to show us his kittens. Now get back to you safe little computer game you overprotected fatso. And I'll get back to work. Oooh lunchtime . . . . !

Friday, 26 August 2011

I hate the word Humorous

People usually inspire hatred in me. I make this point to illustrate that it’s not usually a word that makes me want to spit and throw something at the wall but that’s before I was reading a manuscript which features a synopsis which says – this issue is humorously tackled.

Neither concept is a good idea for a children's book. If you're going to have an issue in a children's book you'd better make sure it's as well hidden as a finely chopped onion in your onion hating child's spaghetti bolognaise. The other thing you don't need in a children's book or any book for that matter is the word HUMOROUS.

I hate the word humorous. It feels leaden, heavy, grannyish and most of all un-fucking-funny. This humorous tale always means ‘this tale is about as funny as being informed you have AIDS on the day your daughter announces she’s dropping out of school to live with the local heroin dealer.’

Go on - try it out:

Humorous pencils.

Humorous cards
You see? It doesn’t work. It's a smile that doesn't reach the eyes, a joke with no punchline, a tiresome anecdote told by someone who is oblivious to the strained smiles round the table. I have written a humorous story. No you haven’t. You have written a smug, bland, dreadful story.
Another word is hilarious. I’m not quite as vehement about it but it’s terribly overused. And like forcing rhubarb the word has a forced quality about it. And it's often used to push something that isn't very funny. ‘With hilarious consequences’ means I haven’t thought of them yet but they probably won’t be very funny.

Humorous is the worst though. The fustiest, crappest, leadenest worst. Cast it from the English language along with

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Michael Howard doesn't just have something of the night about him - he's a c**t. This morning on the Today programme it was reported that many of the non violent rioters were treated more roughly than had they committed the same offence alone. But because these courts have been set up to deal with the rioters, these first time offenders are being treated extremely harshly. Martin Nary then said he was worried that those youngsters on the fringes of the riot - those who had committed a non violent crime and had also expressed guilt, remorse and in many cases, the parents were involved and were just as shocked and determined that their child would not continue this behaviour; had these young people not being involved in the riots, the criminal justice system would give them a second chance. A boy during the riots, had stolen one pounds worth of chewing gum, his first ever crime and the desire for revenge and retribution had led to a swift conviction and criminal charges which would follow this boy through his life. Yes it was an offence but it was a very small and very petty one. Howard's response? 'I'm afraid they should have thought of those consequences before they engaged in those actions.' Pompous c**t.

I can't remember a similarly stern moral view expressed by Mr Howard when his fellow MPs were caught fiddling their expenses. Neither did Mr Howard propose that the bankers who waltzed off with millions of our money be sent to Broadmoor because according to him (remember?) 'prison works.'

And while I'm on the rant, I've just nipped to the shops to get some milk and saw the front cover of NOW magazine which 'celebrates' the '50 richest reality stars'. In the week in which we saw a furious explosion of greed, poverty, violence and despair, it seemed obscene to me to be celebrating someone like Imogen Thomas who is practically a millionaire for getting her tits out for lads mags or that perma bunch of twunts on The Only Way is Essex. I've nothing against them personally* but they represent a toxic, talentless part of our culture that offers wealth and attention in return for selling your soul and getting your pants off.

*Yes I do.

One in Four Women

Occasionally I get strange emails from companies who say things like: Hey Jane I really am like your blog and read it most times before going on to breathlessly inform me that they wish to offer me a great online opportunity to make $2000000000 a day without even trying!

Or I get further stuttering emails along the lines of I read your blog freelance mum and thought that because of your interests your blog would be perfect to promote our new range of crotchless pants/makeup/eco-seaweed necklaces. (?!)

Today however I was chatting with a friend about Red Flags in relationships and how I want to make sure that when The Girl is dating, I tell her all about them because if I'd known what they were it would have saved me a heap of bother. For example, if a man phones you ten times in one evening because he's worried about you he's not worried, he's trying to control you. Or if he sulks because you want to spend time with your girlfriends, no it's not because he cares it's because he wants to cut you off from your friends. And if within a very short space of time he's talking about marriage and babies, it's not true love it's (all together now) control. All teenagers should know the red flags. I only really opened my eyes and saw my ex-boyfriend for the mentalist he clearly was when I wanted to go out to dinner with a girlfriend and he started to tear his shirt off in the middle of the street, like the Incredible Hulk. Luckily we were in public. I say lucky for me because I started laughing and he wasn't pleased. But when he started sobbing and gripping my hair and saying it was only because he 'loved me' even I couldn't ignore the flashing red light above his head saying: 'RUN RUN RUN'.

So after this chat with friend, I get home and there's an email from a company asking me to blog or tweet about the launch of a new APP 1in4women experience domestic violence at least once in their life. It's the first time I've agreed to promote something but I'm not being paid and it's important.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Greed in Italy

So I’ve just returned from a week in Italy – Sienna, Lucca and Pisa since you ask and yes the weather was wonderful and yes, Italian men do sport brightly coloured trousers and ponytails without shame. I spent a lot of time shovelling pasta and ham so dark – no light could penetrate – into my mouth - while grabbing my dining companions and shouting: Oh my GOD you have to try this - hang on sorry, I've finished it. But in between my sweaty and piggy wanderings I noticed a few things.
Having been brought up a Catholic I find the gloomy theatricality of the religion both depressing and depressive – a constant attempt to romanticise misery. You only have to read about the lives of the saints as I did as a child to catch on pretty fast that the majority of female catholic saints were deeply disturbed young women or just barking mad. St Catherine of Sienna – anorexic who drank pus from the sores of a cancer patient. Yay! Let’s all copy that one girls. But – the churches in Italy are just staggeringly fabulous. Maybe their coolness and walls bursting with art are such a relief after the dazzling outdoor heat, but there is something so lush and loving about the curves and paint – it puts you under a spell. There’s no incense smell either – it’s more a soft orangey scent that permeates the churches. Signor Sheen probably but it’s deeply restful.

Italian families do this thing called the passeggiata which means they wander the streets in their best clothes taking up lots of room on the pavement and chattering. Then they all go out to eat and behold – the babies eat exactly the same food as the older family members. Not a breaded dinosaur shape in sight, just small children hovering up massive plates of pasta like tiny mop headed dust busters. The normality of this could also be down to the fact it’s illegal in Italy to serve deep fried food in school cafeterias.

So yes I loved Italy – even the Catholicism is sensuous and life affirming somehow. So coming back to this headline that girls as young as five are being treated for anorexia and are models to blame or celebrities or who is to blame – says the Daily Mail who love – oh how they love - to print pieces on why DO women hate their bodies? Gosh – I wonder too – and then you turn to the next page and it’s a picture of a woman who now looks older than she did thirty years ago. See? Isn’t that disgraceful? Next to the picture of the female celebrity with cellulite.
However, much as I’d love to see the DM go the way of the NoTW I sadly think that it comes down to us parents. All the distorted, airbrushed pictures of teeny tiny Cheryl Cole on her latest diet ‘to get Ashley back’ in the world are not going to have much of an effect if the child has a family life where food is not seen as The Enemy or has a massive amount of power – the power to make you feel shit because you ate A BISCUIT. This terrible mental illness seems to be a toxic stew of low self esteem, perfectionism, a desperate desire for some sort of control and a fundamental refusal to be an adult female because it seems so complicated and problematic with the curves and the flesh, blood sex and food.
And yet my own mother was on a diet for as long as I can remember. My sister and I would eat her wonderful homemade food while she picked on soups, shakes and on one occasion, what looked like a pile of twigs. She later said it was ‘The Cambridge Diet.’ And it worked for a while. As most diets do. Well wouldn’t anyone lose weight on a diet of twigs? She was reading something about Aktins when she had the accident that would kill her a few months later. So why didn’t my sister and I end up with food issues? Probably because we were both lucky enough to inherit a narrow frame, we ate very little processed food and we were both too greedy to diet anyway. And I mean greed in a good way. I loved the greed I saw in Italy – not the wretched tearing self hatred of being caught in a food compulsion, but proper licking bread wiping, dripping down the chin greed. Where you feel a teeny bit full after but a walk will sort that out and there’s a smile on your face. Really - that linguine with chilli prawns will stay in my heart forever.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Just once more . . . and some gossip

I was knocking up some chicken stock tonight. One of my favorite dishes is risotto - a simple lemon one and it helps if you've got great stock. Anyway as I bunged some onion and carrot onto the carcass - a series of rambled thought occured:

My mother lives on through her chicken stock
In lemony bones her essence is distilled.
And when I find a jar of her dark sticky marmalade
She is here
When irritation rises at The Girl just being her
And answering back because she's clever
She is here
I linger by the coco pops and hear: There's more nourishment in the box
My hair is hers - thick and lush on good days
Effing Mick Hucknell frizz bonnet on bad ones
She is there and there
And always here.

On another note altogether I heard on very good authority that two days ago, Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brookes were informed there was no room in The Ledbury or The River Cafe! To which the only mature response is well it can't be as bad as being arrested. And if Ms Brookes gets sent to jail? How will she cope without Frizz Ease?*

*Only girls will get this.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

I'm not Bikini Ready

In a few weeks I'm going away for a few days and not only am I not bikini ready (I wish there was a sarcasm ) - I'm leaving the inevitable wax to the last minute, to give those little strips something to get hold of. But in the meantime I'm faintly alarmed by the profusion of sprouting hair. There's even one lone hair that twirls in singular splendour just below my belly button, saying 'Here I am!' What's that all about? Is it a nasal hair that lost its direction? Or some dark reminder of what might eventually happen if I left my bikini line to go Amazon Forest? Should I even be wearing a bikini? According to one of those surveys - you know the ones that the gleefully pounce on, women of forty six and over feel invisible. Fortunately there have been a few swift comebacks to the soul destroying idea that women of a certain age should nip off for a cauliflower perm, and a nice pair of Mary Whitehouse specs. Unfortunately Christine Odone's smart response in The Telegraph featured - as an example of mature womanhood, Nancy Del Olio whose self confidence not only borders but crosses way way past the delusional.

I do love the way (and when I say love I mean hate) from March onwards, magazines, features and Lorraine Kelly et al start going on about being 'bikini ready' as though the entire female population intend to spend the next six months lolling about in a string two piece. Instead, if we're lucky we might get a few days off to lie by the sea or the pool and all we're ready for by then is a large gin.

I'm still bothered about that bloody single hair though. It mocks me with its single twirliness.

Monday, 11 July 2011

I got a message today from the lovely Gillian telling me in the nicest possible way to get orf my lazy arse and start writing again. So I am and thank you Gillian.

I then spent loads of time deliberating what to call my first post in nearly two months. In My Absence? Too pompous. What I've Been Doing? Well frankly who cares? No point in using the 'I've been soooo busy' line. We're all busy. So this is what's been happening.

I've finished teaching at the Open University for the year and am now supposed to be using the time productively to write a play for Radio 4. But something is stopping me. I think it's called Bone Idleness.

The Boy got through his first year of college and was so relieved he decided to buy a suit. I've no idea either.

It's been nearly a year since mum fell down the stairs and died - long enough for me not to choke up when I find old jars of her home made marmalade, and to think instead about her funny little habits. Like the way she would serve up rock hard avocado - I mean you could chip your teeth on them. 'Just let them ripen a bit,' I'd say but she'd have no truck with that. 'I'm writing to the supermarket to complain!' she'd announce like Boudicca, waving her slice of stone hard avocado like a sword. The thing is, she kept on buying rock hard avocados and she kept on writing to the supermarket to complain. Sometimes she got her money back and a whole load more of avocado.

She also wrote to the bank to complain about the location of the cash machine. 'The sunlight shines directly on it' she complained to the hapless spotty eighteen year old cashier. And after she died I found out that she was in the middle of what politicians call a 'frank and fearless' correspondence with Weatherspoons about their crap food. You'd think crap food at Weatherspoons would be a given but mum apparently wasn't taking their deep fried mushrooms lying down. She even put in her will that if we (her family) disobeyed her instructions and bought an expensive coffin she vowed to 'come back and haunt us.'

Dad is recovering from the nightmare revelation that if he wants a woman to continue to clean up and cook for him, he is going to have to pay her. I remember years ago reading Shirley Conran's Superwoman in which she said, if you want a good man grow your own. I wonder if it's a particularly Irish generational thing to have a grown man so utterly domestically incompetent. I know that mum infantilised dad but he went along with it. And even though he knows on one level that my sister and I work for a living and have better things to do than cook and clean for him - on another level that's all he really recognises women as doing. Which is very sad. But also incredibly annoying. When I left dad's house, hours later I would find endless missed calls from him. He was ringing to ask where the washing up liquid was. Or where I kept the milk (?) 'Ok dad - where would the milk be most likely to be? A - in the bathroom cabinet or B - in the fridge? 'Ok'. Five minutes later the phone rings again. 'Where did I leave my glasses?' It's thinking that the womb is a location device. It's not spending five minutes thinking about where the vacuum cleaner bags might be but immediately defaulting to the nearest person with a womb because she'll know. For his entire life dad has never had to consider anything domestic. So we've got hold of a company who are used to dealing with older people who will come and clean for dad and do small errands.

And I really don't want The Boy turning out anything like this. So he's got himself a job and by the end of this summer he's going to be cooking dinner a few days a week. That's The Boy, not dad. He'll be sitting in his chair shouting at the telly while the nice ladies from Home Instead vacuum round his feet. And then expect to be paid for it.

So now that dad has been sorted out, hopefully normal service will resume.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Sally Brampton: The Beginning

One of my favorite writers, Sally Brampton has set up a blog. She suffered badly from depression and wrote about it in a very approachable and practical way: Shoot the Damn Dog.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Role Models for Girls

A while ago I wrote a series for Radio 4 about girls comics. In the first episode which was about Girl comic and set in 1952, I learned that the comic editors wanted a story about a girl pilot. It was to be called Kitty Hawke and her All Girl Air Crew! Sounded fabulous, but their readers didn’t want girl pilots steering planes over mountainous ranges. So the story was changed to Angela the Air Hostess. Oh well. Twenty years later, the mighty Bunty magazine featured working class girls who had ambitions to go to grammar school – despite what their mean uncles and aunties had to say about it. ‘You’re getting ideas above your bleedin’ station!’ roared one particularly mean uncle to the plucky heroine who only wanted to wear the badge of St Plum in the Gob. My own favourite was Catch the Cat featuring a girl in occupied France who wore a very dodgy looking cat suit and went around foiling some seriously stupid Nazis. But scoff all you like – these were girls who did stuff. They didn’t just sit there looking pretty in between getting their kit off for men’s mags, crying on cue and occasionally beating up women in toilets did they Cheryl Cole? But hey – guess who The Girl wants to be when she grows up?

It’s hard to talk about this stuff without sounding all po-faced, but who has heard of Hermila Garcia Quinones? The female police chief of Meoqui, Mexico was gunned down on her way to work. A short while later another young girl, Marisol Valles called ‘the bravest woman in Mexico’ took the job. She was twenty! After several months and many more death threats she had to flee to the US, but who has heard of her? Let’s try someone else. Maria Bashir. When the Taliban banned girls from getting an education, she set up a school in her own living room and risked death every single day. Now she's the first female prosecutor in Afghanistan. I would imagine she’s got more to worry about than whether Heat will print a picture of her arse looking a bit fat.

I’ve just put an idea into Radio 4 for Women’s Hour, about Ida and Louise Cook. Never heard of them? Well, they were two ordinary young women in 1930s Wandsworth, who fell in love with opera, and saved up to travel across Europe to see their favourite opera stars. During this time they began to notice the persecution of the Jews. Meanwhile, to fund their operatic travels, Ida started writing for Mills & Boon. And the money she made enabled the sisters to provide sponsorship and a place to stay for some 29 desperate Jewish families. Ida and Louise smuggled these people out, under the noses of the border guards, priceless diamonds pinned to their scruffy cardies. They stayed in expensive hotels to show they had nothing to hide and once, Louise was chatted up by Joachim Von Ribbenthrop, Hitler's Foreign Minister. 'He thought I was just another admiring fool,'. They were named as Righteous Among the Nations in the sixties. I reckon the reason that nobody has really heard of these amazing sisters is because they were naturally self-effacing, from a time when women didn’t seek publicity for themselves but also because they weren’t particularly pretty. But if they had been – they would probably have gotten married and never had such extraordinary lives.

My producer doesn’t want to call it Ida and Louise because she thinks it recalls Thelma and Louise. But it’s stuck in my head and they were around before Thelma and Louise. And they don’t drive off a cliff at the end – they merely go back to Wandsworth.

So, I’m just saying that there’s room for Cheryl and that one from The Only Way is Essex, the models, the actresses and models, and other gorgeous girls who’ve got somewhere with their good looks. I’ve got no problem with that – just that they shouldn’t be the only role models for our daughters to look up to. After all, as Ida said once, ‘in the end, you are what you do.’

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Empowerment - that bloody word again

I really hate the word empowered. Like resting for actors, it’s a word that’s slipped its ken and is used as a stick to beat us. Any kind of dubious activity or product that involves the endless commoditisation of the female body – you just slap a variant of empowered on it and any protest reduces you to a hairy arsed feminist with no sense of humour. Pole dancing? So empowering. Playboy pencil cases for six year olds? Pre-teen empowerment. Abstinence only sex education for girls but not boys? No . . .not the swivel eyed lunacy of right wing fundamentalism, Nadine Dorries, but empowering girls.
Someone from a documentary company rang me the other day. BBC4 are exploring how ‘women see their bodies’ throughout all stages in life. 'It’s particularly relevant since the presenter has just had a baby so she’s talking to women – real women. And they would be interested in wondering how my attitudes to food and body image have affected The Girl. It would be quite (all together now!) empowering,' she says.
We have a little chat and of course it soon becomes apparent that what they really want is a woman who dislikes her body intensely, is obsessed with calorie counting and is passing this self loathing onto her daughter. How can that be empowering I ask? 'Because the woman would be aware of what she’s doing.' How marvellous.
I point out that a dinner lady at The Girl’s school told me that there’s a five year old girl who has to have her food separated on the plate. So peas can’t touch the potatoes which in turn have to be kept away from the chicken. An eating disorder in the making. At five. ‘Can you give me her number?’ the researcher asks, trying to keep the eagerness out of her voice. She is very disappointed when I tell her that I don’t have the number.
I put the phone down feeling depressed. Surely a better way would be to talk to women who don’t live their lives with the spectre of the scales looming – they are out there. Women who (whisper who dares) actually enjoy their food and who want their daughters to enjoy it too. Women who despite the billion pound industry which informs us that we are nothing without the impossibly sculpted waist, the fat free thighs, topped off by space hopper tits have actually managed to retain a sense of self. That would be really empowering.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Beetroot Ice Cream with Sweet Cheese

It had all been going so well. I was sitting in one of those restaurants where the food is so expensive that faces dramatically drain of colour when the bill is presented. But never mind – what’s handing over three months wages to eat small puddles of dribble and blobs? With my companion, a gourmand, bon viveur psychologist, film maker and even more greedy than me, we were nibbling our way through a twelve course taster menu at L’Enclume in The Lake District.
L’Enclume nestling in the small village of Cartmel means anvil and refers to the fact that the oldest part of the building is a thirteenth century blacksmith. You can tell it’s a genuine medieval construct because anyone over five foot one spends their time shouting, ‘Ow my head!’ every time they enter the building.
I’d tried taster menus with my companion before and he always frets about not getting enough to eat. He’s actually on a diet but it’s Atkins and amazingly – he’s losing weight. Whenever we go out to lunch ‘to discuss projects' ie for him to remind me that I’m supposed to be writing a script for him, just before we start gossiping, he smugly eschews chips. Instead he orders steaks with great blobs of sauce and creamed spinach. And no – there is no history of heart failure in his family. Although this may change when we are presented with the bill from here.
He reminds me of the taster menu at Sketch, another restaurant of hushed food-is-religion where we hmmd, hawed and oohed our way through small artful piles of canapés and blobs. All wonderful and while I didn’t rise from the table groaning in stuffed shame, I was full. Not enough for him though. ‘Let’s have the twelve course one’ he says slapping the menu down. Because it’s that sort of restaurant, the lovely waitress adjusts the pebbles on our table (pebbles? When did they become fashionable) and laughs as though he’s said something hilarious.
Then we wait. There’s no bread to snarf down while waiting. ‘They probably don’t want us to fill up on it’ I grumble. So we eavesdrop on the next table instead. There’s a truly appalling man who we think is having dinner with his wife, son and the son’s stunningly beautiful girlfriend. All we can hear is the man’s voice going on and on like a particularly loud and obnoxious mosquito. ‘I hear you have a degree in flirting and she has a degree in nagging,’ he says loudly, nodding at his wife. I sneak a peak. He’s wearing a well pressed (by his wife I bet) casual blue shirt and chinos. He also has a bad combover. Exactly the kind of man who would gratuitously insult and then accuse the person of not having a sense of humour. At that moment, the kitchen doors swing open and a young waitress glides towards us with our first course: carrot sacks with juniper fried cake with cress. Yeah I know. But it tastes amazing! Sort of carroty exploding sharpness with lemony stuff and a bit of cake. (AA Gill would probably do this better). It’s far too posh a restaurant to lick the plate so we use our fingers. Meanwhile Combover Man is blah blahing away to the Sommelier about his extensive knowledge of wine. The Sommelier has a fixed smile on his face. I do hope they spit in his food.
Our plates disappear and there’s a wait of about five minutes before the next course comes. It blurs a bit after a while. Tiny little words of art – Kohlrabi, millet pudding, brassica . . . . bread. Bread! We can mop up the plate with it. Just then our latest course arrives. It’s about number seven and I’m beginning to get slight taster fatigue. ‘Vintage potatoes in ash with a touch of wood sorrel,’ says the waitress with a perfectly straight face while we both look nervously down at our plates in surprise. I think I’ve scraped some of this off the walls of the garden shed.
Combover man is on his way out and surprise! – he’s short! He does however look very clean and pressed with polished shoes and manicured fingernails. His wife has a defeated look on her face and her clothes are crumpled. You have a degree in flirting and she has a degree in nagging. ‘She should have divorced him for saying that’ says my companion. He’s right but you leave someone the first time they insult you like that. But this latest insult is probably only one in a long long line of digs, comments and pokes that maybe she hardly hears. Why do you stay with someone like that? ‘Cheer up’ says my companion. ‘Yes he’s a cunt but maybe he’ll have a heart attack and die and leave his wife a fortune.’ It’s nice to be with someone who has a really positive outlook.
We are now at course twelve – pudding, bypassing a trayful of cheese the size of a bed because I’m full. ‘You have some’ I say to my companion who is looking longingly at a lump of stilton the size of a wardrobe. ‘No I’m fine’ he says and twitching, turns back to a beautifully presented nugget of sorbet pink and a glowing white blob of loveliness nestling next to it. ‘Beetroot ice cream and sweet cheese!’
My brain is telling me it’s raspberry sorbet and pannacotta. My mouth is telling me it’s an abomination. Feeling my face settling into an unbecoming sulk I put my spoon down and do a convincing impersonation of Lou in ‘Little Britain’. ‘Don’t like it.’
But despite not being able to eat the final course I realise to my slight surprise that I’m very full. Annoyingly the old maxim about the brain taking a good fifteen minutes to register fullness is true.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Working for Free part two

Thank you to the lovely Gillian for sending me this link. It's a flowchart designed by Jessica Hische and addresses all the bullshit reasons that cheapskate tossers would be employers throw at you, in order to persuade you to turn your brain inside out for free.

Writing for free - don't do it!

So here's the skinny. I hear about this new website which says they will pay its writers £20 an hour. Yes I know - it does sound like bollocks doesn't it? But the idea of a regular gig sounds nice so I send off some writing samples and forget about it. A few weeks later I receive an email. It tells me that they've had such a fantastic response they can't make up their minds! And so would I mind writing not one but two travel articles because it's going to be some sort of travel website. That way they can decide who they really want.

And what do they get? They get a whole load of free work is what they get.

Now I know it's difficult when you're starting out as a writer, but I feel I've paid my dues and if someone doesn't like the way I write, when I've supplied them with a few samples, then fair do. But I don't think it's arrogant to assume - hey I know I can write and I've written professionally so if you expect me to write two free articles then you can stick it.

I have an issue with any company expecting free work anyway. And it's often got nothing to do with their financial situation - everyone in the world wants your services as cheaply as possible. If you go to the NUJ site, they have a section where writers anonymously post how much they've been paid for writing in some very prestigious newspapers and magazines. The sheer shitness of some rates will amaze you! There is also a very good section on copyright. I am deeply embarrassed to admit that when I recently had a new commission from Radio 4 I didn't actually know about streaming rights (where the writer is paid extra for their play to be available as a download or on iPlayer). I didn't know! The average writer in the UK makes about £10K a year which is crap. So we should be paid properly. Remember how the entire Hollywood industry ground to a total halt when the writers went on strike a couple of years ago? They were accused of being greedy just for wanting a bigger slice of the downloading and internet rights. It's not greed to be properly paid for your efforts and if you accept a rubbish rate, you're driving down the price for everyone else.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Abridging and Actors

In my last post about abridging I wrote about the business of cutting a full length book down to five or ten episodes, each episode ending on a cliffhanger, and a good mix of prose and dialogue. Otherwise the poor actor is spouting And then . . . and then . . . and then, or (even worse) ‘So what did he say?’ ‘I don’t know’ ‘But surely you heard something?’ ‘No I didn’t’. A bad abridgement is like a plateful of gristly stew – hard for the listener to swallow and the poor actor choking on the words.
Of course like anything taking some skill, a real professional makes it look easy. Properly read, it’s like the actor is reading to one person – you. It turned out that Michael Maloney did the reading and he was astonishingly good. He made it sound so easy. There are several points of view in the book, and the central character is a woman. There are also many scenes where a whole host of police types have chewy conversations about murder. The actor has to subtly delineate between each voice but not in a silly high pitched way. A cock up costs studio time so the more seamless the reading, then the more the producer can get done in one take.
Michael Maloney does a lot of audio books and clearly he puts in some welly before he gets to the studio. He was brilliant and the whole book – all 22,500 words was in the can in one day. I also got to hear about a certain pop star whose management decided that pop star’s autobiography would sell much better if she read it herself! Oh what a good idea. Because how hard can it be to read a book eh? Especially one that you’ve ghosted written yourself – every word.
By the end of the first day, there were teeth marks in the recording booth from the sound engineer biting the table in frustration. The Producer resigned. It took six weeks to record twenty thousand words. Six weeks. Any profit that might have been made was swallowed up in the amount of studio time it took to record the book.
It’s not just pop stars with no experience of reading. Ever. Probably. It’s also about actors who show up, thinking it’s just reading a book. It’s not. It’s your brain working on about five different levels, elegantly pitching the line, eyes and brain scanning ahead for a bump in the road – pace, pause, knowing when to stop, knowing when a natural break occurs. All this going on at the same time. Getting the emphasis right. Subtle delineation between voices. We hear so much mockery of actors – some of it deserved – you know, actors blithering on about their political opinions – or the state of the world, that sometimes I forget there are some cracking actors out there who deserve every penny they get because they show up, on time, prepared, and they get on with it and do a brilliant job.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Oooh - posh face cream!

After my last post’s transgression into something approaching intellectual rigour – you’ll be pleased to hear I’m back at my usual level of blogdom today. I bought some face cream! Only it’s not just any old face cream – it’s Clinique Superdefense (the skin care industry pays no heed to grammar or spelling) SP25. According to the folded up leaflet in 159 languages, it ‘arms skin to fight the visible effect of emotional stress’. As long as you ‘partner Superdefense with Super Rescue Antioxidant Night Cream.’ So moisturiser by the Ministry of Defence. Except that would mean my night time slap removal and wash routine would end up costing me upwards of fifty quid! So this stuff is going to be ‘partnered’ with Boots face wash and like it.
‘That’ll be £34.90’ said the lady at the counter with rusty streaks down her face and demon eyebrows. I smiled and tried to look as though I do this kind of thing ie pay mad sums for a product where the main ingredient is water, every day.

Yeah but you bought it. Yes I did. Well doesn't it look like it works? All shiny and gleamy and sciencey?! And with the full expectation of looking younger than The Girl who just turned seven, I’ll keep you posted.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Subtle Art of Abridgement

I’ve written about this before but it seems that abridging a book is a bit like ghost-writing – a subtle, almost Machiavellian art form, of finding the absolute plot – the core of a book and getting rid of everything that is not utterly essential to the forward movement of that plot.
If your average book is 80,000 words, then an abridger’s job is to squeeze it down to about 10,000 words. So if it’s being done on Radio 4, that means 2,500 words per 15 minutes. I’ve just abridged a book by Hassan Nekker for BBC7 or 4Extra as it’s about to known. It’s called Woman with Birthmark, and is the jolly tale of a man who is found shot. Twice above the belt and twice in the balls. The police can’t find anyone who has a motive for this crime. Although the lover of one of the police team is convinced the shot in the balls means the killer is a woman. A few weeks later another supposedly blameless citizen is found murdered in exactly the same way. Could there be a serial killer on the loose?
Five half hour episodes, each at about 4,500 words.
So how, I hear you yawn, do you abridge a book from 80,000 to 22,500 (4,500 per episode x 5 - each episode is half an hour.) Well firstly I read the book a couple of times. Especially if it’s a crime novel the plot tends to be quite complicated, and if it’s a good crime novel it will be intricate and the solving of the crime will be down to many little links. This makes the job of abridging harder because if you pull a thread, to reduce the word count, it can end up with the whole plot collapsing like a pack of cards. Suppose the plot is advanced because a character earlier in the book remembers something vital, but you’ve already cut the chapter where that character first appears because it’s part of a conversation that doesn’t contribute anything to the plot. That’s what I mean. Do you put in a bit of that earlier conversation and cut something else? If so does that now have a knock on effect? ( It’s considered bad form to add your own words to the abridgement if it can possibly be avoided).
So I go through the book and cut extraneous romance and subplot. I then divide what’s left into five episodes and try to make sure each episode ends with a cliff-hanger moment. Then I start to do the serious cutting. It’s important that you don’t end up with this happens then this then this then this, an endless series of happenings, or great swathes of prose followed by great swathes of dialogue. Light and shade. Remember the tone of the book.
I then manage to get each episode down to 4,500 words as my producer asked. My producer then rings and says each episode read out loud comes in at 27 minutes so could I add another 150 words to each episode. I agree, then put down the phone and curse my producer before going back to the full manuscript and adding in 150 words, very carefully.
Anyway it’s done. It’s a subtle art because I have to keep the essence of the story and I think the essence of the tone too. And in this case, it’s mordant Danish humour and occasional flashes of black wit.
And no it’s not very well paid. Nothing you do on radio usually is. But it’s nice to hear an actor read out the words and know that you decided which words he or she should speak.
Woman with Birthmark is on BBC7 from May 7th

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

I'm Pregnant!

. . . and because I'm a celebrity my pregnancy is utterly fascinating and unlike any other book you may ever read about pregnancy and motherhood. Oh for fuck sake! Yet another celebrity is about to use pregnancy as a Marketing Device and write or pretend to write about her fascinating celebrity pregnancy.

I like Denise Van Outen. She seems like a woman's woman. But she's releasing a book in the next few days called Bumpalicious. It's 'much more than a pregnancy diary.' Right. It's a pregnancy diary with pictures! It should fit nicely onto the shelf next to Tess Daly's The Baby Diaries, (she was so emotional she threw cushions!) Myleene Van Klass's My Bump and Me (You will get bigger but don't worry!) and Jools Oliver's Minus Nine to One (Jamie's food made me sick!)

I don't know about the other two but Daly's book didn't sell. The DM with characteristic spite-disguised-as-concern said it might be because of her husband's unfortunate 'sexting' escapade which timed unhappily with publication. But - could the real reason have been that - women didn't want to buy yet another book about a highly paid celebrity blithering on about how 'ordinary' she is and throwing in a few references to farts or piles just to prove it, before skipping off to the Portland (which starts at £10K for a c-section.) You have nothing new to say and you don't say the unusual in an interesting or approachable way. So don't be surprised when despite your publicists paying about £40K to have your book displayed in Waterstones as 'bestseller' to see it in a few months, languishing in the remainders bin. The public are not quite as stupid as you think they are.

What are we going to have next? The Kerry Katona guide to parenting? Probably.

Let Me Spell That For You

So it's The Girl's birthday soon and she's setting about organising her party with the social fervour of Paris Hilton.

'Oliver has to come.'


'Because he's my boyfriend mummy!' Cue rolling eyes.

And that's where it starts. I say she has to invite more than one boy or poor Oliver is going to feel a bit strange. So she suggests Mattheus as well.

'That's Mattheus with a 'z'.' A Z?!!! Where? It reminds me of a line in Sex and the City where a beautiful but particularly dim model introduces herself to Carrie. 'My name is Shaw. The Y is silent.'

And the list of unspellable names went on.

Anders. 'Is is short for Andrew?' 'NO Mummy don't be silly.' (More eye rolling)
Aurania or Oranya. 'Is her surname Otang?' 'No mummy. I'm starting to get cross now.'

Tasmin. 'Do you mean Tamsin?' 'No I mean Tasmin.'
Ocean. 'Does she have a little brother called Puddle?' (Just the eye rolling now.)

I once wrote an article about people giving children slightly odd names to make them stand out. It's not a modern phenomena - the Puritans saddled their children with names like Be-Worthy and Repentance. But now, living in the individualistic culture that we do - many parents get Individual and Unique, confused with Barking Mad. And sometimes giving them a well known name but spelling it oddly - like Kaitlyn. There is an Institute of Naming Children Humanely who look at the business of giving children a bonkers name with stern disapproval. They say that
parents who choose names poorly create misleading labels for their children. These labels can cause their children to be mocked, stereotyped, or ostracized. Mocked, stereotyped, and ostracized children grow to become demented adults.
I'm not saying that any of my daughter's friends' names are demented but a few at least have a No - this is how you spell it vibe. And the IoNCH reckon that we say our names about a million times in a lifetime so the amount of time wasted saying, 'No you spell it K.A.I.T.L.Y.N' - adds up to about FIFTY wasted days which could be spent rollerblading, writing a novel or shopping.)

Maybe I'm just jealous. Perhaps if I were given a slightly mad but glamorous name like Ocean - I wouldn't have been the shy, introverted dweeb I was at school but a mysterious figure of depth. Like an Ocean in fact. Or maybe the way kids do - I'd have been called Wet or Sloppy (I wore glasses) or Sloppy Four Eyes.

Unusual names - what do you think? Do you grow into them or can they stunt you emotionally?

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

I hope I get run over by a bus

And not spend my final days in hospital if this report is anything to go by. I've often thought that it would be a pretty shitty way to end your life - in a hospital ward, your last ocular experience being the smell of hospital tapioca. My mother spent her last night deep in a coma, with the fire alarm going off every ten minutes.

Perhaps it would be better to be hit by a bus than to literally lie in your own shit, hungry, thirsty and afraid to ask for help. It sounds so melodramatic doesn't it - almost Dickensian. But apparently that's what's happening in some of our hospitals. And fair enough, none of us want to look at it too closely because that might be us in twenty, thirty, forty years time.

One memory. Going into hospital to see mum and smelling that terrible institutional food. Reminding me of school dinners. You know how supermarkets pump out a chemical smell that tickles you nose seductively and makes you think of fresh baked bread? Even though you're telling yourself it's a chemical - it still smells sexy. Well every single hospital I've ever been into has that horrible food smell. Is that a chemical?

I couldn't believe that it was possible a person could starve on an NHS ward. Well it was a hot afternoon and there were six beds on mum's ward. Lunchtime. We had asked and asked that mum was encouraged to eat. I watched as a tired, dead eyed orderly stopped off at mum's bed and said: 'Do you want lunch?' Mum said nothing - she was unable to speak apart from rattling off little fragments of speech from her memory. The orderly started to move on. I stopped him and took some food off the trolley. Later on the doctor told me that the orderly knew that all patients on that ward were to be encouraged to eat. I got very used to hearing what the policy was. Everyone knew what the policy was and could quote it verbatim. It didn't mean the policy was being carried out though. We asked dad to come in every day at lunchtime to make sure she had at least one proper meal. She had a chart which I kicked up a huge fuss about and asked for it to be filled in every day. Then I realised that filling in the chart didn't mean squat. One spoonful of weetabix and half a piece of toast. I wondered if it was all made up because mum was losing weight at terrifying speed.

In another corner of the ward an elderly man lay, eyes bright in a sunken face, mouth wide open like a baby bird. His (hideous) meal was lying untouched on his tray. Nobody was feeding him and he was unable to move or speak, much less sit up and feed himself. Sometimes I fed him. He ate hungrily. Then the orderly took the tray away. I can't remember anyone else coming to see him. But every day the orderly brought food and then took it away again. I spoke to a nurse. The policy is that the patients are encouraged to eat. One day his bed was empty.

Mum died shortly after too - she had lost half her body weight. And that was with dad coming into hospital every single day to feed her. What happened if you didn't have a relative to do that? That's how you can starve to death on an NHS ward.

Sorry this is so grim. Why do we treat the elderly so badly in this country?

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

About death

The Girl said yesterday: What happens if you're dead and it's your birthday?

My dad in conversation with his brother: 'Ould Jimmy'd dead. And he's dead. Is that right? She'd dead too? Ah shite. Oh and you know something else? Mr O'Reilly? Dead.' This jolly conversation continued for some time.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Without (self) promotion something terrible happens. Nothing!

So said P.T Barnum, the US showman. I was thinking about this after reading an article in Jezebel about self-promotion for girls (without being a jerk). Americans are generally much better at self-promotion anyway. Possibly because they only get a lousy nine days annual leave per year. I remember reading about how David Hassellhoff, after Baywatch and before American Idol, was in the UK trying to relaunch his career, and after appearing on a daytime chat show, he handed out copies of his CV to the audience with a note: Thank you for taking an interest in my career.


On the other hand, a very good friend of mine who happens to be married to a television producer, said that during a party, a girl they knew slightly presented her television showreel to her slightly pissed husband, asking if he would give her some feedback, there and then. Equally yuck.

Without delving into the whole Self Esteem thing, in Blighty we seem to pride ourselves on career self-deprecation to the point of not just hiding our light under a bushel but burying it fifty miles underground. That book you wrote? Well . . .you don't want to boast because mum said that men don't like bluestockings. That script? So she wrote a script but have you seen the state of her kitchen cupboards . . .tsk tsk! An Oscar?! It's in the downstairs toilet! I'm ashamed to admit that just after a series I'd written received a good review, I was with my producer and he enthusiastically mentioned the review to a third party. I went red and mumbled something about 'not doing that much and it was down to casting.' Embarrassing because all I had to do was say, 'Yes I'm very proud.' What was I scared of? A person I'd just met over lunch might think me big headed?


So many of us are freelance and we have to learn to get out there and promote our work, without pissing people off. It seems to boil down to a couple of rules.

1. Inform, don't brag. Say 'you've been interested in my work in the past so I thought you'd be interested in . . .'

2. Be clear about what you want in your own mind. 'I want a 10% raise. Here's why . . .'

3. Be low key. Facts and information rather than bluff and bravado.

4. Don't mix messages. Christmas and birthday cards which include work plugs are really irritating.

5. Use other people's words about you.

6. Be generous. Not in a creepy 'you scratch my back' way but if you get a tip off that you know could help someone else, do it. It takes a while but you do build up a bank of good will, especially if you don't expect an immediate return. This is very important with freelancing. I don't understand the attitude of there's only a finite amount of luck and goodwill to go round.

Oh and this good friend who is married to a television producer? She suggested keeping a Nice Things File. It sounds so simple and it is. You just write down every nice remark that anybody makes about your work, professional or friend. It's the equivalent of an electric blanket on a freezing night. Because I don't know about you but I often need a nudge to remember the kind words but all the nasty ones are burned into my memory.

Any other self promotion ideas?

*David Hasselhoff

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Cheers to Miriam O'Reilly.

The cult of the older women ie any woman over 35 is based on the 'well you would wouldn't you?' scenario, so what it really means is, do we still want to fuck her? I wonder if that's the secret measuring stick used by the BBC to justify their decision to replace ooh say Arlene Phillips with the blandoid Alesha Dixon who now sits between two desiccated old men, Bruce Forsythe and Len Goodman.

But anyway whether you 'would' or not, in a business where women are still valued primarily on their looks and 'fuckability' Miriam O'Reilly has won a landmark case and really really embarrassed all those short (they are) white, middle aged men who run the BBC. Miriam was let go from Countryfile but not before a series of ominous remarks were made about her wrinkles showing on high definition television. She was replaced by a younger woman, and (surprise!) all her ideas for further programmes which had been so enthusiastically received were suddenly dropped along with her. It would have taken a lot of courage to go to tribunal especially when it means making an enemy of a very powerful organisation.

Miriam interviewed me once, when she was standing in for Jenni Murray on Woman's Hour. I had just written a series about girls comics called 43 Years in the Third Form and we were talking about the wonderful old comics like Bunty and Jackie. When we'd finished recording we chatted more and she mentioned that she'd been brought up in Balbriggan, a once small suburb of Dublin, and where my dad was born. She told me that the nuns at her convent school placed little black lace mantillas on all the little girls heads as they went into church. Every little girl that is, but Miriam, who was made to wear a blue bobble hat. 'Why?' I asked. 'I never found out,' said Miriam, 'but my mum was the only mother who wore high heels and lipstick when she came to pick me up.' While I sat stunned at this example of contemptible cruelty, Miriam shrugged. 'At that point, I made up my mind to get out of there and come to England,' she said. Maybe a similar kind of grit has gotten her through the last fourteen months and to a resounding victory.

And one of the most interesting points raised by the tribunal is this:
The discrimination was not justified. The wish to appeal to a prime-time audience, including younger viewers, is a legitimate aim. However, we do not accept that it has been established that choosing younger presenters is required to appeal to such an audience

So the BBC (run by white, middle aged - short - that's very important - men) are obsessed with youth but their get-rid-of-the menopausal-old-bat-and-stick-a-pretty-face-in-there-instead formula doesn't get the audiences in. Julian Fellowes, the Oscar winning script writer, has said that television executives are 'obsessed with this mythical youth audience,' whereas the average age of the televison watcher is 52. Drama in particular is watched by older people, but ask any script writer and they will tell you the first words out of the executives' mouths will be: 'Can we cast young?' as though if you put a bunch of pretty people on screen, the audience won't notice the shoddy script. In fact what usually happens is give it enough of a push and the audience will tune in for one episode, but however young the cast - if it's rubbish they won't tune in for episode two or three or four.

Which reminds me. I haven't seen any of those ads for Build Your Own Set of Miniature Boer War Soldiers. Part One only £1.50 with part two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . .free! Or How to Stick Bits of Felt onto Stuff, part one only 0.75p with part two, three etc etc. Not one of these ads. So maybe this recession has a slight upside.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Fear + Hollywood + Money + Career =

Arrrghhhh! Will you look at the rubberised face of the utterly beautiful Nicole Kidman? I said that I'd had my forehead botoxed in my last post and what with oddly blank, expresssionless celebs, or Jocelyn Wildenstein horror stories, our perception of botox seems to be wrapped up in a toxic stew of vanity, fear of ageing, too much money and deluded notions of holding back time. And by the way, while everyone had a horror stricken laugh at the poor woman's face, let's not forget she did it in an attempt to keep her relationship together. But I don't think botox is any more madly induldgent than spending a fortune on some dubious face cream, and at least it works. Also I know it's not going to stop me ageing but I do feel loads better having a nicely smooth forehead that still moves, and leaving the rest of my face alone. The other thing my chatty botox doctor mentioned, apart from leaving the eyes alone unless they are very lined, was that the frozen face sydrome is also caused by having the bottom half of your face botoxed (around the nose, mouth and neck) instead of just a little in the upper area - frown lines, glabella (between the eyes) and a teeeny weeeny bit round the eyes themselves. Oh and it does hurt a bit. Like you're being attacked by a very pissed off (and persistent) bee. You can get an anaesthetic but apparently they're not very effective because of the problem of needle on bone. But don't go into one of those high street salons that offer any needle related products - you want someone who is very very experienced, and a properly qualified doctor or nurse. Botox may not be permanent but too much of the stuff or improperly injected, and you can look like a stroke victim for a couple of months. Applied by a professional and a nervous beauty therapist who's just done a weekend course is the difference between an artist wielding a brush, and a dog with its tail dipped in a paint pot.

Although having said that, I'm sure the surgeon who worked on La Kidman was not an orange faced teenage therapist, but she still ended up looking like she'd been dipped in formaldehyde.

As for those who exhort younger actresses to 'embrace their wrinkles' (Yes I'm talking to you Jane Fonda - no stranger to the scalpel yourself missy)- funny how the people who witter on about loving their wrinkles are always the ones who have both the choice and the funds to minimise them?

Friday, 7 January 2011

It's January . . . .it's raining . . . and The Girl is . . . .

. . . running round the house iPodded up, and tunelessly singing, Hey Hey You You! I wanna be your girlfriend! courtesy of Avril Lavigne. Avril wants to go out with this guy because his current girlfriend is like soooo whatever . . . and I was telling The Girl that 'like' shouldn't be used as a verb or when quoting someone or to approximate (He was like what are you doing and she was like none of your business and it turned out that he was like . . hairy). The Girl looked at me and I could see she was thinking: Like whatever.

First resolution. Try to communicate with fast growing daughter without sounding prissy or anything approximating a cat's bum mouth.

Second resolution. (This one is really embarrassing) Stop having imaginary conversations with people who have wronged me. Or even worse imaginary conversations about events that haven't happened yet. This is like a major waste of time.

Third resolution. One of the many crap things about getting older is your wrinkles start spreading like cracks on a windscreen. I've taken a stand against this, not by making friends with my wrinkles which is the sort of shit beauty editors come out with (and I should know - I worked in magazines) or buying ANYTHING from Space NK with phrases like science and beauty combined or vectin or NASA in the title. I'm still smarting from buying shampoo by Oribe at £35!!! Yes I am a fool. And even more so when I checked the ingredients online:

sodium laureth sulfate, TEA-lauryl sulfate, lauramidopropyl betaine, cocamide MEA, glyceryl cocoate and disodium laureth sulfosuccinate.

Then I checked the ingredients for Aussie Miracle Moist, my usual shampoo at £3.99 Hang on while I cut and paste:

Aqua, sodium laureth sulfate, TEA-lauryl sulfate, lauramidopropyl betaine, cocamide MEA, glyceryl cocoate and disodium laureth sulfosuccinate, Tetrasodium.
Aussie Miracle Moist has more water in it and something called Tetrasodium. Apart from that - same ingredients.

I'm still smarting in shame.

Anyway I massively digress. But the thing about wrinkles is they advance very slowwwwlly like Burnham Woods in Macbeth. Before you know it you're surrounded. So I had a Botox jab before Christmas. I'm sure some of you are raising your eyebrows in disapproval. (I wish I could). However, it was done properly by a trained doctor and not by an orange faced lady waving a needle about. And the doctor herself gave me some very sensible advice. Never get your eye wrinkles botoxed, she said, because it's ok to have a smooth forehead, but if you smile and your eyes don't crinkle up, it looks weird. Really weird.

Went home and Husband deliberately started a row just so he could piss himself laughing when I tried and failed to frown. Ah well. It's New Year and I'm better botoxed than detoxed.