Friday, 28 September 2007

Toilet Enraged

It is an established fact that drinking lots of water (as recommended to everyone by the Nanny State) is bad for writers. The reasons are simple. Drinking lots of water increases the number of trips to the toilet. For writers this can be fatal, as it can destroy a line of thought, a roll of productive writing, or result in violent ejection from the ‘creative zone’.

Struggling writers such as myself do not have this problem. In fact, ‘problems’ such as these act more of an asset to finding displacement activities during extended periods of writer’s block when nothing is being produced. Therefore, I make a point of drinking lots of water throughout the day and wait for that heavenly moment when one finds it necessary to detach from the keyboard and head for the nearest convenience.

This does, however, introduce additional problems when one decides to work ‘in the field’ (i.e. a café), and it is therefore crucial to find locales which have good toiletry services. The branch of Starbucks in London’s St. Martin’s Lane is one such locale. It has a particularly good toilet – large, bright, clean, a pleasant scent. And if one has offspring, facilities are also provided to change its nappy.

It was here that I was happily reading my magazine the other day, sitting out my usual period of writer’s block, when ‘that moment’ arrived. Unfortunately, it happened in the peak period between three and four in the afternoon when the café and toilet are at their busiest. I left my comfortable armchair by the window, making sure to keep it ‘booked’ with my cardigan and current issue of The Oldie, and headed to the back of the café only to find that the toilet was engaged. I decided to wait for the current occupier to exit, but became rather uncomfortable when people started staring at me, including one old man who gave me positively sinister looks almost reaching the heights of Pink’s evil death stare. So I returned to my seat and decided to wait a few minutes.

In the meantime, a couple and their recently sprung infant had arrived on the nearby sofa along with a mass of infant survival equipment, and I became concerned that the peace would be unduly disturbed. Regular Electric Readers will recall that I am particularly unlucky regarding the mother-and-baby situation, but I was glad to see that everything seemed under control on this occasion and enough time had now passed for me to try the toilet again.

It was still engaged, but this time a woman was queuing to enter. It is an established fact that women take three times as long as men in the toilet, and half an hour later I was starting to feel the strain as I wriggled uncomfortably in my armchair. Using stealth tactics to monitor the surrounding area, I confirmed that no-one was planning to use the toilet, and was just about to get up when I heard a loud ‘thunk’.

I’m not sure what had happened, but when I looked round I saw two large mugs of café latte lying on their side with the café latte itself dispersed evenly over the table and floor. Meanwhile, the infant’s legs were flaying wildly in the air with Mum trying desperately to control them. Dad leapt to his feet and rushed headlong to the toilet. My plan was foiled. He returned moments later with a large roll of toilet paper and I felt it wiser to wait until he’d cleaned up the mess, flushed everything away, and replaced what was left of the toilet roll – just in case there wasn’t a spare!

With normality restored, I was just about to get up when there was another crisis at Infant Control. Mum gave Dad a strange look, then looked at the infant before disappearing with it into the toilet. By now I was absolutely busting and it was a good fifteen minutes before Mum and the infant returned. I raced to the toilet, locked the door, and was just about to do my bit when Pink rang on the mobile to ask if I’d remembered to buy some washing powder.

While I was trying to explain that it was a really bad time to be calling me, the handle on the door started shaking violently as though someone was trying to get in. I told Pink I’d call her back, opened the door, and was shocked to discover Mr. Strange standing there, smiling at me. Suddenly, all my feelings of having to relieve myself disappeared and I made a quick exit from the toilet back to my armchair.

By now, peak time at the café was over and I assessed the amount of time Mr. Strange needed in the toilet, allowing him a good twenty minutes. I didn’t notice him leave the café as I was reading The Oldie, but I returned cautiously to the toilet and looked around. There was no sign of Mr. Strange, no-one queuing, and – best of all – the toilet door was unlocked.

The door was unlocked, yes. Except the toilet wasn’t free. It was occupied. By Mr. Strange. And as I opened the door I got a full view of him sitting there, his trousers round his ankles, reading a magazine. And, as usual, he looked at me and smiled.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Technical Fault

Technical FaultThere are some people in this world who will tell you that if something gets broken it is always better to fix it yourself. There are other people who will tell you that they have learned from bitter experience that trying to fix it yourself only makes the situation ten times worse. Naturally, I fall into the latter category.

Our reliance on technology in this modern-day world means that we have lost the instinct to survive when something critical to our lives – a television set or electric toothbrush, for example – breaks down. We apparently live in a ‘throwaway society’ which advises us to ‘just buy a new one’ when the old one’s last legs finally give way, often increasing the size of our carbon footprint in the process.

Modern-day struggling writers like myself rely on technology – technology to write with, technology to format scripts with, technology to pass the time with when either of the previous two activities become monotonous, pointless or physically impossible. In days gone by, writers also relied on technology – but it was a much simpler case to replace a piece of broken chalk or blunted goose feather (depending on which age you lived in). And the only footprints they needed to worry about were the kind they’d simply get their servants to clean up afterwards.

These days, the personal computer can bring one’s writing practices to a complete standstill when it develops a fault. Either that, or it’s a useful excuse to avoid writing which sounds better than the usual ranting about writer’s block. During an unusually productive few hours the other day, my top-of-the-range MESH computer started making funny noises from somewhere deep within the bowels of its huge metal case. I had no idea what it was, except to say that the machine was noisier than usual.

Within seconds my concentration had been demolished, so I pulled out my original invoice with details about my on-site hardware repair warranty and found the number to call so I could get an engineer to come to the flat. MESH curiously-named Technical Support department is, in this context, an oxymoron. There are two reasons why this is the case:

1. They have limited technical expertise
2. They are not very supportive

The man who answered the phone didn’t speak very good English and the first thing he asked me was to tell him what the problem was. I explained that my computer was noisier than usual, and after he had rambled on at me without me understanding a word of what he was saying I gathered that he wanted me to turn the computer off and on again. I obeyed dutifully and the computer ended up being noisier than it was before.

I told Mr. Mesh that his solution hadn’t actually helped, nor was it very technical, so he said that he’d send me an address label to pack up my computer and send it back to the workshop. This is where I became very confused as I had paid for a service where repair technicians come out to your house. I explained to him that I had on-site warranty and he said he knew, but they would need to examine the computer in the workshop to find out what the problem is.

I fail to understand what MESH on-site warranty actually means and argued with Mr. Mesh that I’d paid for an insurance service which sends out engineers on-site. He said that they would only be able to send someone out if I could tell them what the specific problem was so ‘they could bring the right parts’.

Realising it was an argument I wasn’t going to win, I went out and bought five miles of bubblewrap and a roll of tape to pack up my computer. When I got home, I hoicked out the old vintage typewriter my mother once loaned me when I first told her I wanted to be a writer, only to discover that the ribbon needed replacing. Trying to find a shop which stocked a replacement is, of course, another story altogether...

Friday, 7 September 2007

Fare Play

Fare PlayThere appears to be an epidemic in modern-day life amongst people who try to take advantage of a given situation when the advantage being taken is not necessarily in everybody’s interest. The adverse result is that this kind of situation has a knock-on effect to people who have nothing to do with the situation in the first place.

Take, for example, the London Underground tube drivers who decided to go on strike (yet again!) this week. Usually, one would expect this to last for 24 hours. Unusually, this particular strike was planned for three days. No-one knows why the RMT union chose to strike, but it fell conveniently after a Bank Holiday weekend (as usual), timetabled around a rare period of sunny weather.

As a struggling writer, I work at home, so tube strikes affect me slightly less than your average man-on-the-street. Strictly speaking, this isn’t entirely accurate. It would be more truthful for me to say that, as a struggling writer, I attempt to work at home, fail dismally, so head out for some ‘me time’ and end up squeezing myself onto the only operational tube train in London along with everyone else. On reaching my destination, I try to work again, fail dismally again, and realise that I squeezed myself onto the only operational tube train in London for absolutely no reason. Thus, by the time I’ve got home I’m more fed up than I was before I left.

Tube strikes are a gold mine to some, and this includes taxi firms who see it as an opportunity to overcharge passengers in a way that the tube and rail companies haven’t dreamed of yet. The other day, Pink asked me to book her a cab to Stansted Airport from where she was flying to Majorca on a business trip with her boss, Jackson Muldoon. A relatively simple operation, I felt, but, being a struggling writer who tends to struggle with everything, it turned into a much more complicated saga.

The person who answered the phone at the taxi firm said that he would have to charge me a rate of fare-and-a-half ‘because of the tube strike’. I informed him that Pink’s trip had nothing to do with the tube strike as none of the lines actually went to Stansted Airport, but he just said it was the way things go and he had to make a living as much as the next man. I said that the next man probably wasn’t going to use his taxi firm either and promptly hung up to try somewhere else. But after several more phone calls to firms which either wanted to charge double fare or couldn’t accommodate Pink’s journey at all, I had no choice but to call back the Taxi Guy and grovel to him, much to his satisfaction.

The next morning, I helped Pink pack her suitcase while she put on her make-up. While I was doing so, the ‘phone rang. It was the Taxi Guy who said that ‘due to overwhelming demand’ he’d had to increase the rate to double-fare and did I still require a taxi. I protested at great length and asked him where he expected me to find a cheaper alternative half an hour before the pick-up time. But he just said that things were now ‘less flexible’ than they were when we’d spoken the day before and gave the speech about making a living again, so I had no choice but to concede. Forty-five minutes later, Pink was in a panic as the taxi still hadn’t arrived and told me that it was all my fault. I rang the Taxi Guy and he said that it would be at the flat in five minutes, and twenty minutes later it eventually turned up.

Pink told me to take her three suitcases downstairs, and when I carried them out to the taxi I was shocked to find that it was full of Swedish people, all of whom had several suitcases of their own. The taxi driver said there was no way he could fit all three in the car, but maybe he could squeeze in one. I questioned him about why my taxi was full of Swedish people and he just shrugged, saying that there was a tube strike and people had to make compromises. I repeated the whole rigmarole of how Stansted Airport was not on a tube line, but the taxi driver just shrugged again and told me to ‘blame the unions’.

At this point, Pink arrived and informed me that Jackson Muldoon was on his way to pick her up in his chauffeur-driven car, so she wouldn’t be needing the taxi after all. She apologised to the taxi driver who said that he’d have to charge his double-fare regardless, so Pink turned to me and ordered me to pay him. It is not wise to argue with Pink when she is in this kind of mood, so I just obeyed.

After I’d waved cheerio to the Swedish people, kissed Pink goodbye, and caught a glimpse of Jackson Muldoon through is tinted windows, I went back upstairs to attempt some writing. Naturally, I failed, so I was pleased to hear on the radio that the tube strike had been suspended after 24 hours and everything was back to normal. That is until next week, when the RMT union will decide whether they feel like another three days off - annoyingly coinciding with Pink’s return.

Friday, 31 August 2007

Chinese Twisters

Chinese Twisters

It occurred to me the other day that communication is the lifeblood of any society or relationship, and how fragile such a thing can be, especially if it breaks down. It subsequently occurred to me that ‘breakdown in communication’ is a phrase I remember preceding ‘with hilarious consequences’ in the covering letters for sitcom scripts I used to read for the BBC.

With so many forms of communication at our disposal these days – the internet, text, email, something called a ‘telephone’ – it’s no wonder that certain ‘hilarious consequences’ can inevitably arise during the course of one’s life. This is doubly assured when one considers that many people these days seem to have an inability to command the standard form of communication: everyday language. It is a potential disaster waiting to happen.

Whilst refusing to communicate with anyone through standard methods last week, an email arrived in my inbox from an Arthur Shipton who said he needed someone at short notice to come and speak at his writer’s workshop and I was ‘the natural choice’. Flattered, not least puzzled, I replied saying that I’d be glad to, and was even happier at the offer of a nominal £50 fee for time and expenses. I asked Arthur Shipton what exactly he wanted me to talk about and he replied with ‘the usual stuff’ but to make sure I gave priority to ‘the main thing’. I didn’t actually have a chance to find out what ‘the main thing’ was as my email connection decided to break down at that point, so all I could do was trundle off to the small repertory theatre the next day at my assigned slot time.

The theatre was already full with aspiring writers when I got there and Arthur Shipton was standing up on the stage talking to them about script format and what readers look for in a submission. I was a little perturbed by this as it’s a subject I class myself as an authority on, so had to quickly adjust my workshop plan. I waited until the break when Arthur Shipton came and greeted me and thanked me for ‘standing in’ at such short notice as the whole organisation of his workshop had been a ‘complete nightmare’. The phrase ‘standing in’ began to ring alarm bells with me, and everything suddenly became clear when the workshop resumed.

Arthur Shipton took me onto the stage and apologised to the aspiring writers that Ricky Gervais had turned out to be unavailable, but, luckily, I had been able to step in at the last moment and was someone who had ‘strong Gervaisian connections’. Completely confused by this point, I proceeded with my usual repertoire of script unit anecdotes, including things that resulted in hilarious consequences, and then moved onto more important issues such as characterisation.

It was only when I reached my using workshop mid-point of inviting the writers to ask questions that I realised there had been some kind of serious communication breakdown. Someone from the audience put up their hand and asked me why I had retired from writing if I had such strong connections. Naturally, I replied saying that I’d never actually been a professional writer in my life and it was what I was struggling to do now. Arthur Shipton then piped up and asked if I could talk about the interactive episode of The Office I was writing. You could have cut the silence with a knife - that is until I admitted in a very quiet voice that I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about.

It’s at awkward moments like this in a workshop when it is wise to call a break, and that’s exactly what Arthur Shipton did. I was getting rather nervous as he waited for me at the door to the foyer looking decidedly angry. He asked me to explain what was going on, but all I could say was that he’d obviously confused me with someone else. However, he clearly knew my name, which just added to the confusion. I asked him what he had been expecting me to talk about and he said that a friend of a friend had told him that they’d read somewhere on the internet that I was a ‘semi-retired scriptwriter’ who was writing an episode of The Office using the format of a blog.

I cautiously explained to him that I was a semi-retired script reader and had never written an episode of The Office in my life, and the friend of a friend had clearly got their facts wrong. Arthur Shipton was not very pleased and became quite abusive when I offered to talk about the trials and tribulations of writing pub-lunch reviews instead. So I thought better of asking for my nominal £50 fee and left the theatre wondering how and why these things keep happening to me.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Up and Down in London Town

'As I pressed the button for the ground floor, a woman ran out from the bar to catch the lift.'Lately, I have become rather aware, not least concerned, of how the direction of one’s life can be altered vastly by the choice of one’s decisions when taken lightly. By this I mean that if one makes a snap decision without thinking about it, one can bugger one’s self for a much longer period of time.

This theory therefore extends to the age-old question of why someone would consciously make a decision with the prior knowledge that the resulting consequences are likely to be ones they would normally do anything to avoid.

Some classic examples of decision-making which can result in potentially disastrous consequences include:

1. Whether one chooses to turn left or right
2. Whether one chooses to leave home with or without an umbrella
3. Whether one chooses to take the lift or stairs

It is the latter of these which came to the fore last week when I paid a visit to my favourite hotel bar, continuing my attempt at breaking an extended period of writer’s block. The exercise in itself was a disaster from the start as I had forgotten to charge my laptop the night before, so if I’d had anything to write (which I didn’t) I wouldn’t have been able to do so anyway. So instead I just sat next to the large window high above the London skyline, trying to take inspiration from the oncoming grey rain cloud, which only resulted in remembering that I’d decided to leave my umbrella at home.

Having finished my large Chicken Caesar Salad, I decided the view of London wasn’t inspiring me and so decided to leave by way of the ‘Express Lift’. Five minutes later, it had still not arrived, nor was there any sign of the two lifts either side of it, and there were now six of us waiting to descend. I was just about to consider taking the stairs when I heard a ‘ding’ and the doors of one of the slower lifts opened.

Unfortunately, the group of five people who arrived after me took it upon themselves to enter the lift before me, but not before they’d checked the indicator to see in which direction the lift was going, which I found rather curious as we were on the top floor. I considered squeezing myself in, but changed my mind at the last second and let the doors close.

Fed up with waiting, I was just about to descend the stairs when the ‘Express Lift’ finally made an appearance. I momentarily considered Pink’s recent comment about how all writers are overweight and should take the stairs more often, but the lift was too tempting and so I decided to take that instead and get my own back on the group of five people by reaching the ground floor before they did.

As I pressed the button for the ground floor, a woman ran out from the bar to catch the lift. She smiled at me as I held the door open and the two of us were soon going down. As we glided past Floor 12, Lift Woman looked at me and said that she didn't like lifts because they made her feel queasy due to the way they ‘go up and down and keep stopping’. I found this a rather curious thing to say, especially as she’d hurried to catch the lift, so I just smiled and said that we’d soon be on the ground floor.

It was at that point that I remembered I have yet to learn the lesson about not speaking unless absolutely necessary, because mere seconds after my comment about reaching the ground floor safely the lift shuddered to a grinding halt between Floors 9 and 10.

Lift Woman began to look decidedly nervous, but I reassured her that everything would be fine and pressed the alarm button – which, of course, didn’t work. I could hear the other two lifts either side of us going up and down quite happily, stopping at various floors and letting passengers in and out, and so took some comfort in the thought that someone would realise the ‘Express Lift’ was now stuck. Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to happen and Lift Woman started to perspire, repeating ‘it’s only a lift’ over and over again.

I tried the alarm again but it still did not work, so Lift Woman suggested I climb up into the shaft. When I asked her what that would actually achieve, apart from breaking my neck, she said she didn’t know but she’d seen Bruce Willis do it in Die Hard and at least she was coming up with ideas which was more than I was doing. I explained that I had no intention of pretending to be Bruce Willis, so Lift Woman decided to have a major panic attack and began pounding on the metal doors for help whilst screaming that we’d never be found alive in this ‘evil metal tomb’.

Trying to calm the situation, I took the initiative and called the hotel’s reception desk from my mobile phone and, after what seemed like an eternity, the lift began to move. But by now Lift Woman was huddled on the floor in a gibbering heap.

The doors finally opened to a reception area full of guests and a short fat man in a Concierge outfit holding a crow bar. Everyone seemed rather shocked to see Lift Woman slumped on the floor, and were even more shocked when she leapt to her feet and fled screaming across the reception area and out of the exit. I was given some very strange looks from the guests and reception staff who quite clearly were all contemplating a variety of sinister lift scenarios in their heads.

I realised it was pointless trying to explain what had happened, so I just thanked the Fat Concierge and walked out of the exit with everybody’s eyes burning into me, and didn’t stop until I’d put some distance between me and the hotel. Needless to say, thanks to Lift Woman I can probably never show my face there again.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Mind Your Language

books157Of all the problems I encounter in modern-day life as a struggling writer, perhaps the most significant is the language barrier England is currently experiencing as the population continues to expand with the ongoing arrival of our friends from overseas. Many people present unsubstantiated arguments that this is good for the country’s economy. Other people argue that it just puts additional strain on the already over-stretched health and education services.

Whether it’s good or bad for the country doesn’t take away the fact, though, that the most important criteria for foreign-speaking residents should be an ability to speak the national language, or at least have enough command of the language so that the natives understand them. Unfortunately, many of our guests have neither of these abilities, the knock-on effect being that I find it increasingly challenging to order my daily coffee.

It all started with a change in terminology. Whatever happened to small, medium and large? We now seem to have alternative definitions (depending on which café you visit) for perfectly acceptable words, with terms such as tall, which is the equivalent of small but, in reality, is actually large. Then we have grande, which I always associated with large, but apparently means medium or, if you’re an American, regular – a term I was brought up to associate with bowel movements. And then we have all manner of different words which all apparently mean large. I no longer order this particular size of coffee, primarily because none of the words associated with this size are remotely pronounceable in the English language.

Recently, I was avoiding the usual London crowds by taking the back streets when I began to feel rather peckish and so looked around for somewhere to sit down and eat. I found a café (the name of which will remain anonymous) which seemed to specialise in bagels, so decided to take a half-hour break within. On looking at the menu hanging on the wall above the counter, I saw that there was a full array of bagels and fillings on offer. Having always been rather partial to sausages, I chose the third filling on the list: Cumberland sausage with mustard.

A young girl was standing behind the counter looking at me, though didn’t actually say anything, and when I ordered my bagel she continued to look at me in silence without taking any kind of action. I repeated ‘Cumberland sausage with mustard’ in a louder voice which still did not seem to do the trick, and so ended up physically pointing to it on the menu above. This resulted in Bagel Girl smiling and nodding at me, but I felt it safer to repeat the order again anyway. After saying ‘Cumberland sausage’ a couple of times, she seemed to understand, and so I moved onto ‘with mustard’ (which took a few attempts but she understood in the end).

Having taken my food order, she then said the word ‘drink’ which I deciphered as her way of asking me if I required a beverage to wash down my bagel. I asked for a large latte, but she did not understand. I said ‘latte’ in a louder voice and tried to indicate ‘big’ with my hands, and Bagel Girl suddenly smiled and nodded.

The next thing I knew, she was putting two espressos on the counter in front of me. I said that I had not ordered two espressos, but made the mistake of saying it in English, so we went through the whole procedure again of me flapping my arms around with Bagel Girl looking at me blankly. I tried speaking in pidgin English and just said: ‘Espresso’ (whilst shaking my head) followed by ‘Latte’ (whilst nodding it). Bagel Girl apologised and removed the espressos, then disappeared behind the coffee machine only to reappear a few minutes later with not one but two lattes.

She smiled, clearly pleased with herself, and nodded her head. I did not smile, rather unpleased with her, and shook mine. I held up one finger to indicate how many drinks I actually wanted and Bagel Girl realised her mistake. So she removed the two lattes and promptly started making another one. I stopped her straight way and tried to point out in sign language that she did not actually have to take the two away and start again, but just remove one and leave the other. She did not really understand this complex mathematical equation, so I just took my latte and found a seat by the window.

I’d been reading my paper for about five minutes when I heard Bagel Girl shout ‘bagel’. Assuming my bagel was ready, I collected it from her and gave a polite smile. I wish I hadn’t, because when I got back to my table and unwrapped it, I found something vastly removed from my original order. It was a bagel, yes. It was even toasted. It had mustard, which I had ordered. But there was no Cumberland sausage. In fact, there was something else in place of the Cumberland sausage which I am still trying to fathom out the reasons for why anyone would want to eat it in a bagel. Inside my lovely toasted poppy-seed bagel was not a lovely big juicy Cumberland sausage but cranberry sauce... with mustard!

If our foreign friends are good for the economy, they certainly have a lot to answer for regarding bagel fillings.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Flour Power

Murphy’s Law – or ‘Sod’s Law’ to common people – is a global philosophy which states that if there is potential for something to go wrong, it will. It is a law which suggests many variations on this theme such as The other queue is always moving faster, The other man's grass is always greener and, as in my case, The other writer’s script is always better. One thing I am proud of, though, is that I am perhaps the only struggling writer alive today who has been involved in a serious scientific study to prove or disprove the existence of Murphy’s Law.

I recall my very first production assignment in BBC television way back in the early 1990s when I was a mere temporary secretary covering for people on holiday and sick leave. Having just left an isolated office in North Acton where I’d spent three days stuffing fact sheets into envelopes, I received a phone call informing me that my next assignment would be on the science documentary series, QED. Unfortunately, I arrived to discover that the Producer was expecting a highly experienced female Production Assistant but, due to a breakdown in communication, ended up with a hideously inexperienced male Secretary. This in itself proved the existence of Murphy’s Law: that if one had no production experience, one would be assigned to a job where production experience was a key necessity.

Before I’d even had a chance to confess, the Producer told me that his documentary would involve a scientific test of Murphy’s Law, involving expenses-paid filming trips to Newcastle and the United States of America. On hearing this, any thoughts I’d had about revealing my true identity dissolved, and I set about on a covert training mission with the aid of a book called How to Survive as a Production Assistant. Murphy’s Law was conceived by three people in the United States Air Force in 1949 whilst conducting experiments into G-force using rocket-propelled ‘sleds’, so the logic of our trip to the USA made sense. The logic of our trip to Newcastle, however, did not. My Producer assured me that it was where the best world experts on Murphy’s Law could be found and we would be going there to film an experiment to deduce whether bread really does fall butter-side down. I subsequently found out that Newcastle was also where he had a very old drinking companion who, by a staggering coincidence, was also the presenter of our documentary.

On arriving in Newcastle, my Producer gave me instructions to purchase 60 loaves of bread and 20 packets of butter and so I felt it safer to order these in advance by telephone. The supermarket manager I spoke to became very suspicious when I told her my plans for the bread and butter, and even more so when I revealed I was operating on behalf of the BBC, but eventually she agreed to the order. As our hire car had gone to Durham by mistake, and my Producer had gone on a pub crawl with his drinking companion, I had to take the Newcastle Metro into town to collect my loaves, which I found waiting for me in the warehouse, all neatly wrapped in white plastic bags. With no way to carry them back to the hotel, I had to bribe a taxi driver to help me who continuously stated that he’d had some passengers in his time but this really took the biscuit. Assuming that I spoke in Cockney rhyming slang because I was from London, he also kept making jokes about how I should’ve used my ‘loaf’ a bit more, and if I wasn’t careful I’d end up ‘brown bread’ from exhaustion. I found the taxi driver to be neither clever nor funny, and his driving wasn’t that great either.

The following day, we recruited ten enthusiastic students from Newcastle University to come with us to an isolated golf club where we forced them to engage in bread-buttering activities in front of our film camera. The idea was that they buttered a slice of bread, threw it in the air, analysed which side it landed on, and logged the result on a piece of paper. No-one except me seemed to recognise that people at the breakfast table don’t actually hurl their buttered toast four feet into the air, but generally knock it off the side of their plate, but I felt it safer not to comment. Meanwhile, the summer heat reached a scorching 92 degrees and all my butter melted. My only option was to speak kindly to the resident chef who rather reluctantly cleared out his entire stock of margarine so that the vital scientific experiment could continue. He demanded a credit on the finished programme. I lied and said he would get one.

With our bread-tossing statistics safely in the bag, we headed off for the USA the following week to interview the airforce trio involved in founding The Law. After losing our bag of film stock at LAX airport, and subsequently finding it again at the hire car centre where it had caused a security alert, we headed to Pasadena to film our first interview which was, thankfully, uneventful. Two days later we flew to El Paso, New Mexico, and spent an hour looking for the correct road to take us to Alamogordo. My Producer claimed that this was because the map had been printed back to front, but I eventually managed to prove him wrong and found a dirt track which, according to the map, would takes us to our destination. An hour later, driving through the middle of the desert, I was disturbed to find that we were on the perimeter of a missile range and there was no sign of civilisation, but eventually I was relieved to see Alamogordo on the horizon and we soon arrived at our hotel.

At breakfast the next morning, my Producer began to panic when there was no sign of our freelance camera crew. They were, in fact, sitting at the next table, and ten minutes later we all huddled into their van which looked like the Mystery Machine from Scooby Doo. The cameraman’s name was Arthur, but he liked to be called ‘Spanky’. I felt it safer not to ask why, particularly as he kept saying ‘We’re going to have some fun today’ at every available moment. Unaware that the subject of our next interview, a retired army colonel, had changed the location of the shoot from his living room to the Holloman Air Force Base without telling anyone, Hank (the sound recordist) hadn’t brought any batteries for his tape recorder as he was expecting to plug it into a wall socket. This naturally lead to a two hour delay while ‘Spanky’ drove us around Alamogordo in the Mystery Machine looking for the correct batteries.

After a completely futile hunt, we reverted back to the original plan and ended up at the colonel’s house where Don (the camera assistant) suddenly remembered that he had a dental appointment and disappeared. ‘Spanky’ set up the lights, but then a mysterious electrical hum invaded the tape recorder and he started hitting it with the back of his sandal. Two hours later, Hank realised it was dirty tape heads and, after cleaning them with some of the colonel’s Jack Daniels, we eventually got the full story of Murphy’s Law in the can.

The following Monday, I arrived back in the office to find a note from my Producer asking me to conduct an investigation into how cinema latecomers always decide to sit in the middle of a row, thus causing the most chaos when they arrive after the start of the film. I was proud to see the results of my experiment displayed as an animated graphic on the screen when the documentary was finally transmitted. Except I have a bit of a confession to make; a secret I’ve kept for all these years. I didn’t conduct the experiment at all. I faked the results on multiple photocopies of the National Film Theatre’s seating plan which I faxed to my Producer. A terrible thing to do, perhaps, when you think that I tricked the viewing public. But then I felt better after considering that all that had happened was that I’d unintentionally proved Murphy’s Law does exist without anyone knowing it. Because one aspect of The Law specifically states that whoever holds the gold makes the rules. Or, in this case, if the results of a Murphy’s Law experiment can be faked, they will be.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Street Charity

Some people say that charity begins at home. Other people, like me, wish it would stay there. This may seem like a rather controversial opinion to have. But these days it is impossible to walk down a London street without having your journey continuously interrupted by a multitude of curious people wanting to give something to you, wanting you to give something to them, or conducting pointless surveys aimed at determining why you decided to walk down that particular street in the first place. What once used to be a simple procedure has now turned into something along the lines of negotiating landmines in war-torn Iraq, except the landmines are constantly homing in on you like human Space Invaders.

Recently, I embarked on the traditionally simple task of walking from Trafalgar Square to Aldwych by way of The Strand. I refer to it as ‘simple’ because all one has to do is follow a single thoroughfare in a straight line for approximately ten minutes. Such a journey from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ should be relatively easy and free of incident. This was, however, far from the case. Before I had even reached Charing Cross Station I was intercepted by no fewer than four human Space Invaders armed with clipboards, all strategically positioned at various attack points on the path, leaving me no room to engage in an escape manoeuvre. With some expert precision footwork, I managed to negotiate round the first three Space Invaders, but then found myself in direct line with the fourth who was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with Hopping Mad! printed on it.

The Space Invader was collecting for a charity I had never heard of which had something to do with underprivileged kangaroos in the Australian outback. Why a Londoner such as myself should have any substantial interest in the welfare of kangaroos, I’ll never know. My first mistake was to engage in eye contact with the Space Invader who initiated ‘Intercept Mode’ and refused to let me pass. Apparently, I looked like a ‘kangaroo kind of guy’ and did I know that for every ten thousand domestic kittens born, one kangaroo dies, either by natural or unnatural causes. This lead to my second mistake of engaging in aural communication. I politely replied that I did not understand the connection between kittens and kangaroos other than the letter ‘K’, at which point the Space Invader told me to fill in one of her forms with my bank details and everything would be made clear from as little as £10 per month. I declined her offer and attempted to move off, but she blocked my passage and told me to ‘think of the kangaroos’. I took the blunt approach and replied that I had no interest in kangaroos and was allergic to cats, and walked off to the throng of her voice exclaiming that if it wasn’t the kangaroos today, it would be the kuala bears tomorrow, and what had cats ever done for the planet?

Emotionally exhausted by this encounter, I continued my journey but soon encountered my next obstacle: a man in dark glasses with a white stick collecting for the blind. Call me a cad, but one does have to take advantage of others’ disabilities sometimes, so I made a point of giving the Blind Man a wide berth and walked very quietly past him. I was therefore very surprised when he turned to me and said that there was no need to be so rude and just a polite shake of the head would have sufficed. Naturally, I asked how he knew I’d walked past him and he said that ‘visual impairment’ did not necessarily mean ‘completely sightless’, which is what I was for ignoring someone less fortunate than himself. I apologised politely and said that I did not give to charity on the street but instead supported two major charities close to my family: the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the British Heart Foundation. But he just said ‘big deal’ and boasted that he supported seven charities and managed to do it with blurred vision and a gammy leg. I realised there was nothing I could do to satisfy him, so I just ignored him and carried on towards Aldwych.

Much of my journey along The Strand was uneventful from then on, but in recent months a new menace has begun to invade London’s streets with the launch of not one but two free newspapers: London Lite and The London Paper, and the Street Hawkers employed to distribute them arrive in their thousands at around two o’clock in the afternoon. There is currently a gang war going on between the two papers, with Street Hawkers from each side trying to defeat the other by forcing as many papers as possible into the hands of the innocent general public (or dumping huge bundles into rubbish bins). An encounter with a Street Hawker can be guaranteed every few yards. Resistance is futile; avoidance is impossible. But just lately I have discovered that it is actually possible to contrive a situation where individual Street Hawkers on opposing sides end up eliminating each other, as much of the time you find them occupying the same point on the street in pairs.

I had nearly reached my destination when I came across a pair of opposing Street Hawkers who instantly blocked my path and tried to force their rival papers into my hands like their lives (and mine) depended on it. I paused, looked at each paper thoughtfully, and then asked them whose paper I should choose and why? Immediately, the Hawker holding The London Paper spouted that his paper was more ‘newsworthy’, to which the London Lite Hawker responded that his rival’s news wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, and his had the better print quality. This riled the Hawker holding The London Paper who began arguing that there was no point in having good print quality when the news that had been printed with it was merely lifted from his paper, but with the addition of thousands of spelling mistakes. And so, satisfied that I had initiated civil war, I continued on with the last leg of my journey to Aldwych, leaving the Street Hawkers to their own destructive devices, and considered that, on the whole, what Londoners really crave for on a daily basis is the urban national newspaper: Metro.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Rising Camp

'I found myself the subject of a watery problem recently when Pink ordered me to flatsit her friend’s tiny abode.'God knows, Noah had his problems. But at least he was given prior warning about The Great Flood and had the opportunity to build a huge boat which, I expect, is what the population of Tewkesbury wished they had at the moment as the rains seem to show no sign of ceasing and the water levels continue to rise.

And so it came to pass that I found myself the subject of a watery problem recently when Pink ordered me to flatsit her friend’s tiny abode in Willesden Green while she was away for a few days. To use the word ‘tiny’ is possibly rather generous. In order for there to be enough room to swing a cat, the cat would have to have disproportionately smaller limbs than normal, preferably no tail and, in an ideal world, no head or body either. Such are the pitfalls of extortionate rental prices in London. So I dutifully agreed to the job, in the hope that I could take advantage of the change of locale to get some writing done, free of the usual distractions. I had no instructions other than to keep an eye on the place but as I left home Pink called after me that her friend’s landlord could be a little ‘difficult’ – though she was sure I’d have no reason to contact him.

However, I did have a reason to contact him because when I arrived at the bedsit I found a dead mouse on the floor in the tiny kitchen. I think I fainted, because the next thing I remember I was lying on the floor with my head propped up against the sofabed, one leg sticking through the door to the kitchen, and the other wedged between the wardrobe and living room wall. Even more disturbing was that the dead mouse had now disappeared. I rang the landlord, Abdul, immediately and a lady answered the phone with, what I perceive to be, an over-friendly and less than professional manner. She asked me to ‘hold on just one second, love’ before returning to the phone several minutes later and saying, ‘Sorry darling.’ I explained who I was and what I was doing at the flat, and asked to speak to Abdul.

It turned out that it was Abdul himself who I had been speaking to and when I told him about the mouse he let out a high-pitched shrill which, I think, was supposed to be a laugh. He said there was nothing he could do as it was just ‘one of those things’ and a dead mouse was better than a live one. The fact that there had been a dead mouse on the kitchen floor when I arrived and that same dead mouse was now missing didn’t seem to concern him, but he said I should think myself lucky it wasn’t ‘the other thing’ when the previous tenant was last seen fleeing the bedsit in the dead of night, screaming hysterically, wearing nothing but a towel and fluffy slippers.

After my strange conversation with Abdul, I put ‘the other thing’ out of my head and decided to attempt some writing. Unfortunately, I made the foolish mistake of switching on the portable television set and becoming distracted by an episode of Murder She Wrote. This is puzzling really, because I have been unable to stand the sight of Angela Lansbury ever since my parents forced me to watch Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the nightmares from which are the reason I slept in a large cardboard box until I was fifteen. When it had finished, I switched on the news and watched continuous reportage about the current state of the flood crisis, and thanked my lucky stars I was not one of its victims. Unfortunately, I have yet to learn a lesson from bitter experience that I should never thank my lucky stars about anything, especially when I’m exposed to a situation which is potentially hazardous enough to necessitate the thanking of one’s lucky stars when one has managed to avoid it.

Having attempted to take a shower, I waited several seconds for the water to heat up, but it remained stone cold. I braved another call to Abdul who let out his high-pitched shrill again and said it was just ‘one of those things.’ He assured me that if I ran the water long enough it would eventually heat up, but after running the shower again for fifteen minutes, the water remained cold. I redialled Abdul’s number and asked if he could fix the problem, but he told me it was probably a simple case of all the hot water having been used up by the neighbours as it was a shared boiler, but I shouldn’t worry as it would reheat in a couple of hours. I was rather flabbergasted that I was sharing a boiler with some people I’d never met, and when I asked him why the bedsit didn’t have its own boiler he just said that you get what you pay for and hung up. I retired to the sofabed wondering how landlords were allowed to treat their tenants with such an apathetic manner, and if Abdul was currently enjoying the luxury of a hot shower.

I woke up the next morning to the sound of something resembling The Great Flood. Willesden Green was now in the grip of, what London Underground announcers call, ‘extreme weather conditions!’ However, it was worse than I thought because when I put my feet on the floor I found them immersed in three inches of water! The floor of the living room was completely swamped and I could see a steady flow of water pouring in under the front door. On top of that, the dead mouse had returned and was now bobbing around next to the coffee table. I felt like calling Abdul again but changed my mind as I expected he would just let out his high-pitched shrill and tell me it was another ‘one of those things.’ So I did my best to protect any furniture and valuables from getting soaked, and discarded the dead mouse down the toilet.

The rain didn’t last that long and I was pleased to find that the water in the living room began to reside. Even better, the hot water was now hot! I quickly took my chance to beat the neighbours and jumped into the shower. While I was in there, I thought I heard something moving around in the kitchen. My overactive writer’s mind immediately generated thoughts of an invasion of mice taking revenge for the undignified disposal of their furry friend. But on stepping out of the shower, I was absolutely horrified to discover a tall, skinny man in tight jeans and black vest who introduced himself as Abdul. You can imagine my reaction, especially when he looked me up and down and let out his high-pitched shrill. But he told me not to worry as he was just collecting the money from the electricity meter. Naked and in shock, I could only think to tell him about the flood, and as Abdul looked around at the residing water he said: ‘It’s just one of those things, Ducky,’ before mincing off with the meter money.

Naturally, I did not relay this part of the story to Pink as she is suspicious at the best of times. I never did find out how or why the dead mouse disappeared, but a couple of days after returning home the phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Pink’s friend. She was in an uncontrollable, hysterical panic after waking up next to a ‘giant rat’ asleep on her pillow and wanted to ask if anything like this had happened while I was there. But I just looked at Pink sleepily, let out a high-pitched shrill, and said that it was just ‘one of those things.’

Friday, 20 July 2007

Service Not Included

'The homeless guy on Hungerford Bridge makes a fortune by holding a piece of card with ‘Thank You’ written on it.'Tipping a waiter or waitress is one of those issues which seems to somehow divide entire nations through difference of opinion. Many people seem compelled to give a waiter extra money for doing his job of waiting on tables, yet no-one seems compelled to give a bus driver extra money for doing his job of driving the bus.

Similarly, no-one ever seems that keen to give struggling writers like myself extra money for struggling with their scripts, let alone putting up with the struggle of everyday life. Yet the homeless guy who sits on the steps of Hungerford Bridge seems to make an absolute fortune by simply holding a piece of card with Thank You written on it. Somewhere, somehow, I clearly took a wrong turn.

Tipping and tipping methods seem to go by a variety of curious names. The most common of these are:

1. Optional Service Charge: ‘We’re asking you to leave a tip by adding it to your bill’
2. Compulsory Service Charge: ‘We’re forcing you to leave a tip and have added it to your bill’
3. Service Not Included: ‘We’re neither asking nor forcing you to leave a tip, but could you really live with yourself if you didn’t add one to your bill?’

Pink and I have endless arguments about the morality of tipping. She will tip everyone from the bus driver to the homeless guy on Hungerford Bridge. I tip no-one, usually because I have no money left to tip with after paying the extortionate food and drinks bill which London establishments are so good at handing out. Pink has some kind of ‘special’ savings account which does not allow her to access her money for five years, so I usually end up paying for both of us.

The Slug and Lettuce in Canary Wharf’s Nash Court appears to have developed a new ‘stealth’ form of tipping by forcing its customers to use waitress service whether they like it or not. This naturally exploits the more weak-willed group of patrons who find it a nearly impossible task to refuse money to anyone who has brought a plate of chips to their table.

I went there with Pink last weekend where we decided to order a bottle of wine and, feeling a bit peckish, something from the food menu. I noticed that there were five waitresses milling around, but none of them seemed particularly interested in serving us, even though I was casually waving the menu at arms length and trying to make eye contact. However, they seemed to be having a jolly time discussing boys and clothes at the waitress station near the door.

Pink can be irritable at the best of times, even more so when she is on an empty stomach, so I decided to go to the bar and order our wine and food. However, the young chap behind the bar, after opening our wine, told me that food ordering was waitress-service only and I could not do so at the bar. I did not really understand the logic of this and relayed this too him, but he politely said he would send over a waitress.

On returning to our table, I kept an eye on the barman and noticed that, after ten minutes, he still had not spoken to a waitress, let alone sent one over. I began waving my menu again, as one waitress veered dangerously into the outskirts of customer territory, holding a cloth which she dragged limply over the corner of a table to try to look busy. But no sooner than she appeared, she was gone, and I was left waving my menu at nothing but oblivion.

Pink said that I should go back to the bar to try ordering again, and where was that ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy I’d been bragging about all this time. Feeling rather manly, I went back to the bar and tried ordering again, only to be told that I should speak to a waitress and that one would be sent over. I sat back down next to Pink and began the menu-waving routine again, but to no avail. By now, Pink was becoming borderline hysterical – it was the formula of alcohol without food which was causing it – and so I decided that enough was enough and I would confront the waitresses at their station.

Confronting five young waitresses talking about boys and clothes can be quite an intimidating experience, especially when you have interrupted their conversation at a critical moment causing them to glare at you with positively hostile tendencies. I asked if I could order some food, but one of them just said that she would ‘send someone over’. Not standing for this, I insisted that they take my order immediately and one young confused-looking waitress pulled out her notebook whilst the other four walked off to continue their conversation elsewhere.

I began relaying the order to the confused-looking waitress – a relatively simple affair, as there were only two menu items for her to remember – but she just looked at me blankly, poised with her pen and notebook, and kept nodding. I pointed to the menu and queried the actual size of a ‘baby’ Chicken Caesar Salad, but she just nodded again. Eventually, I realised that the confused-looking waitress looked confused because she seemingly did not speak a word of English and my ordering had been a complete waste of time. So I gave up, went back to the barman, and asked him to ‘send someone over’.

Myself and Pink finally got our meals. When we had finished, it took just as long – with much menu-waving – to get our bill. But when it finally did arrive, I noticed that it had Service Not Included printed at the bottom. So I just scribbled I Know under it, before not leaving a tip.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Royal Fail

'First Class mail now takes anything up to three days to reach its destination.'The United Kingdom postal service is a curious enigma. In days gone by, when postmen were real postmen, and people wrote to each other using the prehistoric ‘Pen Method’, one could guarantee that one’s letter sent by First Class post would arrive at its destination the following morning. Similarly, one could guarantee that a letter sent by Second Class post would arrive at its destination exactly two days later. Not only that, but postal deliveries were twice a day, regular as clockwork. The first would arrive before eight o’clock in the morning, the second delivery would appear around midday. And that’s how life was when we were young and innocent, postmen were happy chappies, and the government was content with a national non-privatised service.

Today, you have none of the guarantees you once had. ‘First Class’ mail now takes anything up to three days to reach its destination, intact or otherwise. ‘Second Class’ mail just arrives when it feels like it, either damaged in an apologetic plastic bag, or not at all. ‘Recorded Delivery’ is just what it says on the tin – a record that your item has been sent, and paying more for the privilege, but with no guarantee of delivery. And ‘Special Delivery’ isn’t that ‘special’ at all, now having seemingly replaced what used to be the old ‘First Class’ service, but costing a lot more. Thus, there is nothing particularly ‘royal’ about the Royal Mail these days, other than often turning out to be a right royal cock-up - usually when one has to rely upon it. Where most writers rely on the Royal Mail to distribute their latest commissioned works, struggling writers like myself generally rely on it to distribute prized possessions sold on eBay in order to subsidize a diminishing income.

During a particularly healthy turnover period recently, I found myself making the trip to my local Post Office branch in Canary Wharf. I was going there to ship off a parcel containing a pile of magazines I had never read, accumulated via monthly subscription over the course of ten years. Queuing at a Post Office is a strange phenomenon. Post Offices don’t just deal with your post anymore – they offer several other services completely unrelated to sending mail. Adverts for these services line the walls and writing benches which you can read and digest while you wait, and there’s even a free pocket magazine which explains everything about these extra goodies one can take advantage of.

Another thing you find dotted around the branch is something called a ‘thickness indicator’ which is a plastic board with several slots of different sizes cut out of it. Sending mail is not a simple operation anymore. Postage for items is no longer calculated merely by weight, but also by size, and these ‘thickness indicators’ are a way of confirming how much extra postage you are now paying, compared to how much less you paid when it was the old system. It is fascinating to watch customers using this guide, and I was rather intrigued to witness one customer sizing up her large packet against each slot before deciding that, yes, it was a parcel, not a letter. I’m convinced she had misinterpreted the sign instructing all customers to use the ‘thickness indicator’ and panicked that she may have been penalised if she had ignored the procedure.

Having queued for twenty minutes, and read my Post Office pocket magazine in its entirety, I reached the front of the queue only for two of the three attendants to close their counters and start talking to the remaining active attendant. I noticed the queue behind me was lengthening quite fast, and people were giving me one of those looks suggesting that it was my personal duty to hurry along the chatting attendants as I was the next in line. Why it should be my job to do this I do not know, but I decided to cough politely in the direction of the counters nonetheless. Naturally, this made no difference; but after two more polite coughs, a semi-loud throat-clearance, and a deep hawk which almost resulted in unintentional vomiting, the chatting attendants disappeared altogether and an electronic voice instructed me to go to ‘Position Four’.

I always make a point of being very specific about the service I require when I go to a Post Office. This, however, often turns out to be utterly pointless. After stating that I required delivery to the UK mainland and that the item was of no significant monetary value, the attendant looked at me blankly and asked if I was sending my parcel to the UK mainland and was the item of any significant monetary value. I just shook my head and, after weighing the parcel, the attendant analysed it against his ‘thickness indicator’ and confirmed to me that my item was a parcel and should be sent via the ‘Standard Parcels’ service. I considered at this stage that it would probably have been more practical for the attendant to analyse himself against the ‘thickness indicator’, or at least for the Post Office to introduce it to their interview and selection process for new staff.

So, having established that yes, my parcel was a parcel, I read out the delivery address to the attendant whilst he programmed it into his computer – only for him to then tell me that, according the computer, the address did not exist. I told him that it very much did exist as I had printed the address label directly from the buyer’s PayPal invoice page, and it was exactly as he had typed it. This made no difference to the attendant who said the buyer must have made a mistake as the computer did not recognise the address because there were ‘too many lines’. I asked the attendant if it would be simpler to write down the address with a pen and paper, but he said this would ‘not be possible’ as they did not ‘have the facilities’.

After finding a way to convince the computer that my buyer’s address did actually exist, the attendant stressed there was now no guarantee the parcel would be delivered. I paid the postage, and just as I was about to leave, the attendant asked me if I had a car. At first I thought he was going to suggest that it would be safer to drive my parcel to its destination in person, but he was, in fact, asking me if I wanted car insurance. I told him I did not have a car, so he asked me if I wanted home insurance instead. I asked him why the Post Office kept offering me things which were nothing to do with sending my parcel, but he just looked at me blankly. I then asked him if he could absolutely guarantee on behalf of the Post Office that I would receive car or home insurance, to which he replied ‘Yes’. Next, I asked him if he could absolutely guarantee on behalf of the Post Office that my buyer would receive his parcel safely. But he just looked at me blankly again and said ‘No’.

Friday, 6 July 2007

The Lives of Mothers

'Finding a writing location, free of distractions, is easier said than done.'It occurred to me the other day that the lives of writers overlap with the lives of estate agents in more ways than people imagine. Both must be skilled in the art of fiction in order to achieve the end result of a sale – one sells a script whereas the other sells some property. Dream worlds are created for their respective audiences through manipulation and ingenious use of the English language – a writer through the structure of words on a page, an estate agent through imaginative definitions of the word ‘compact’.

But perhaps the most common bond between the two is the concept of location, location, location. Just as it is important for one to buy a property in an ideal location for future resale value, it is important for one to write in the ideal location for there to be any vague hope of simply finishing one’s masterpiece in order to sell it in the first place. Like buying a house, finding an ideal writing location, free of distractions and annoying external forces, is easier said than done.

Removing one’s self from the home in order to write in an alternative location can help towards alleviating the problem of writer’s block, as a change of environment is always good for the creative juices. So I decided to go to one of my favourite cafés in central London in a vain attempt to develop an idea based on a very curious dream. I rarely have dreams worth remembering, but this one was particularly strange and involved finding myself at a Jubilee Line station called ‘The Middle of Nowhere’ where I met two middle-aged women. After waiting several hours for a train, we all agreed that if we instead walked along the main road ‘that way’ for half an hour, we’d reach El Paso. I’m not sure what El Paso was doing on the Jubilee Line, or why it appeared in my dream at all, as I have only been there once with the BBC in 1990 – but that’s another story.

My journey to the café was relatively uneventful and I even managed to find my favourite seat by the window when I got there. On this day, the place was empty and quiet – so I couldn’t hope for better conditions to concentrate on beating off the writer’s block once and for all, and settled down with my coffee and laptop ready to take the writing world by storm. Then I looked out of the window.

Every writer has their personal fears. Some have an excruciating fear of failure. Others have a fear of losing their creativity. I have a fear of mothers with newly-born offspring who launch a group invasion on the café where I am trying to work. It can be the most terrifying thing for one to witness a fleet of buggies approaching at speed under the ruthless control of a group of women, none of whom will ever stop for anything which dares cross their path. Individually, a mother with child is an innocent and harmless thing. Collectively, a group of mothers commanding a fleet of buggies is a nerve-shattering unstoppable force, like tanks rolling over the horizon of the Iraqi desert.

Such an event usually brings on one of my funny turns, and, when my head had cleared, the noisy squad had claimed their territory in the café, with strategically positioned buggies to barricade out enemy individuals who may have attempted to occupy the empty table in the corner. With Stage One complete, preparations were made for Stage Two: feeding the troops. In a single precision move, each mother synchronously exposed a breast and clamped her baby onto it. This was all executed in well under three seconds. Clearly, these mothers were a force to be reckoned with, and breast-feeding drills were obviously a huge part of their routine duties.

At this point, I recognised it was pointless me trying to do any writing, so my people-watching mode kicked in instead. I had to be careful though, as three mothers on the outer rim of the pack had obviously been trained as lookouts. I noticed they did not take part in the mass conversation about motherhood and baby clothes, but utilised their stealth tactics to move their heads from side to side, expertly scanning the immediate infiltration zone. I think breast-feeding is some kind of fuelling system for new mothers, because I noticed that the longer the babies fed, the louder and more excitable their mothers became.

The invasion lasted for pretty much most of the afternoon. A number of the mothers passed out from the group at various intervals, so the noise of the chit-chatter gradually lessened, and eventually the group dwindled from nine to only four. For the most part, the babies had been well behaved. I think they realised they were safe in the hands of such a formidable group. It was then that strange things began to happen.

Having spent several long minutes clamped to its mother’s chest, one baby was introduced to the wonders of a cheese and Marmite panini. Curious, as not only did the baby clearly not like the smell of the panini, it also did not have any teeth with which to eat it. However, orders are orders and, whether baby liked it or not, the panini would be eaten – mother would make sure of it, and she had the support of her three associates who began egging her on.

I found this behaviour to be completely inexplicable.

Next, one of the other mothers thought it would be highly amusing to attach giant clip-on strawberry earrings on her baby, which were bigger than its head. Baby clearly did not like this and began to cry. The other mothers then forced their own babies to look at the baby with the strawberry earrings, whilst commenting on how ‘cute’ she looked.

I found this behaviour to also be completely inexplicable.

Minutes later, one of the babies fell victim to the unfortunate escapades of its mother who decided to remove it from its buggy and bounce it up and down on her lap, whilst simultaneously making very odd ‘goo goo’ noises. Clearly panicked and distressed, the baby started screaming in fear, having previously been perfectly content to just sit in its buggy. This, naturally, set off a chain reaction of screaming babies who, in the space of five seconds, had gone from quiet contentment to noisy hysteria. And the screaming only became worse when their mothers decided to apply the same bouncing treatment to try and calm them down, whilst collectively making identical ‘goo goo’ noises.

Not only did I find this behaviour completely inexplicable, but largely illogical and borderline irrational.

And so the peace was finally shattered once and for all, and all hope was lost for me to finally defeat my writer’s block. I tried to make sense of what I had witnessed long and hard on my way home, and wondered whether the only solution to the writer’s block problem may involve Pink making strange ‘goo goo’ noises whilst bouncing me up and down on her knee. But then again, perhaps not.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Journey to the Centre of the Ear

There is an age-old philosophy which says that hearing is believing. Unfortunately, I’ve had sincere difficulty believing in anything much lately due to the fact that my ears have become blocked again, primarily because I live by the other age-old philosophy which says that whatever can be done tomorrow can be put off today. This inevitably leads me to fall victim to yet a third philosophy which says that whatever is partially blocked today will become fully blocked tomorrow. Thus, I find myself with a virtual complete loss of hearing, and with both ears and my creativity blocked, the thought of what could possibly become blocked next is too horrific to contemplate.

In theory, the problem of one should solve the problem of the other, because being unable to hear the world around me means that I am currently free of external distractions and can apply total concentration to my writing. Things are never that simple, though, and I generally spend all day pulling my earlobes to try and achieve the impossible feat of dislodging a tonne of wax buried deep inside my hearing system.

One has learned from bitter experience that when one is told to insert several drops of olive oil in one’s blocked ears prior to syringing, one must use the oil straight from its bottle and not from a hot frying pan. One has also learned from bitter experience that attempting D.I.Y. syringing of one’s ears using the shower results in nothing more than a drenched bathroom and no improvement in hearing. So it was with great discipline that I decided to execute my ear-clearance operation recently, starting with three days’ worth of (cold) olive oil insertion, before finishing off with a professional syringing service.

By ‘professional syringing’ I mean taking the extremely foolhardy approach of exposing my soul to the National Health Service, a recent addition to which has been ‘walk-in centres’. NHS walk-in centres have been designed to reduce the workload of your family doctor so that they can take more cigarette breaks and longer lunch hours. The idea is that, if you become ill, you only have to wait three hours rather than three weeks to have your ailment treated without the need to book an appointment. One must assume from the name of these places, however, that those with an inability to use their legs must ultimately be excluded from qualifying for treatment and find alternative therapy elsewhere.

After the nasty experience with olive oil during my last ear-blockage episode, I decided to seek out one of these new NHS walk-in centres to see if I could walk in and have my ears treated. I rang my local number and, after remaining on hold for nearly twenty-five minutes, was surprised to find two paramedics turn up at the front door who were asking if someone’s life was in danger. A nurse had answered my call but, having heard no voice at the other end, assumed I had lost consciousness, so had put a trace on the call and sent out an emergency ambulance. Feeling rather embarrassed, I tried to explain to the paramedics about my ear problem, but the bigger of the two just said that blocked ears were not life-threatening and it was timewasters like me who ended up costing valuable lives. I asked the paramedics if the local walk-in centre catered for such problems to which they said yes it did, but to forget about asking for a lift because they were not a taxi service.

The following day, I decided to leave home early to avoid the inevitable build-up of patients at the walk-in centre, but when I arrived at around 9.30 a.m. the strangest assortment of individuals you have ever seen was already spilling out of the main entrance. After queuing for about twenty minutes, I commented to a man with an eye patch in front of me that the queue hadn’t moved very fast. Eye Patch looked at me with his good eye, raised his visible eyebrow and told me that everyone was standing outside because the waiting room was full up, and I should just go to the front desk to register myself.

I fought my way through to the reception desk where I introduced myself to a round nurse with round glasses. She took one look at me and said that, unfortunately, they only dealt with ‘coughs, colds and flu and fings’ and could not help with conditions like mine, but she was sure my hair stylist could recommend a more suitable shampoo and conditioner. Rather annoyed, I explained why I was there and, after a moment’s pause, she nodded saying she recognised the voice as the practical joker who had been wasting the ambulance service’s time. She threw a clipboard at me and told me to fill out the form and wait to be called. When I asked how long I could expect to wait, she just asked me if I knew how long a piece of string was.

As luck would have it, I found a place to stand by a wall in full view of the door through which patients kept disappearing, never to be seen again. Bracing myself for a long wait, I pulled out the book I am reading called Journey to the Centre of the Earth by a writer called Jules Verne which is about three people who walk to the very core of the Earth by climbing down a volcano! However, I’m convinced the author failed to research her story properly. According to Ms. Verne, the interior of the planet Earth gets cooler, rather than hotter, the nearer you get to the core. Not having journeyed to the centre of the Earth myself, I am still educated enough to know that this simply is not the case, and thus removes any degree of plausibility from her narrative. Thus, the writer’s primary relationship with her audience is lost. But I digress.

About four hours later, someone began tugging at my sleeve and I looked up to see the round nurse pointing at the formidable door where an evil-looking thin nurse was standing waiting for me. As I walked towards the door, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone was staring at me as if they felt privileged for being the last group of people to ever see me alive. Nurse Evil closed the door behind me before I had a chance to change my mind and immediately ordered me down the small corridor into ‘Room 1’. Frightening Orwellian images flashed into my mind as I sat on a chair in the bare, clinical room. Whilst Nurse Evil looked at my form, I noticed a sign on the door which said: ‘This room contains oxygen.’ I tried to make a joke out of how this was a good thing, but Nurse Evil just glared at me and proceeded to relay a science lesson on the potential flammability of the pure oxygen tanks in the corner of the room.

Before I had a chance to say anything else, she ordered me to hold still so she could look inside my ears with her torch. After some uncomfortable rummaging around, she asked me if I’d been inserting olive oil. I told her I’d been using it for three days, at which point she nodded, put away her equipment, and said she was not legally obliged to treat me as I should’ve been inserting the olive oil for seven days. I got quite shirty, and asked her if she knew how long I’d been waiting outside the formidable door. But she just said it was peanuts compared to the time wasted by ambulance crews attending crank calls.

Feeling rather dejected, I left the walk-in centre and started the long walk home, still as deaf as ever. But I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that, somewhere out there, I could hear the faint laughter of hundreds of paramedics, satisfied with themselves for having scored a point against all the timewasters of the world…

Friday, 22 June 2007

Old Dogs Are Go!

'The importance of a good idea often becomes outweighed by the importance of a good displacement activity.'

There comes a time in one’s writing career when the importance of a good idea becomes unintentionally outweighed by the importance of a good displacement activity in order to avoid writing altogether. This usually occurs when one has been going through a period of writer's block, of which mine has now entered its ninth month.

Displacement activities come in many different forms. For most writers, daytime television is the usual cliché which they claim to be their last resort. The theory is that daytime television is so mind-numbingly bad, it is impossible to comprehend that anything you devise yourself as a writer could ever be worse. Thus, the script which you had previously thought was the complete pits, now, comparatively, seems like a work of genius and spurs you onwards and upwards to final draft.

Then there are writers like me, who seek out free and utterly irrelevant training courses on subjects they have no interest in whatsoever for the sole reason of ‘getting out of the house’. I find that such training courses while away the hours to an extent that, by the time you get home, you find there is no point in sitting down to do any writing as your evening’s television is about to start. And if boredom sets in during the training course itself, you can always jot down notes about your next script idea or, in my case, draw multiple linking circular shapes which gradually extend across the entire page of the notebook.

It strikes me that, during my time working for the BBC, I generally did everything in my power to avoid attending such training courses, of which you could guarantee you would be expected to attend at least three per annum. It strikes me even harder that, since leaving the BBC, I actually find myself now actively seeking out the kind of training courses I tried so hard to avoid.

Most training courses leave a lot to be desired. In my experience, many course trainers are either frustrated stand-up comedians, or don’t have the first clue about what they are supposed to be training people to do, thus resorting to segments of their ‘comedy’ routine instead, which only highlights the reasons why they are now attempting to forge a career in training courses.

One particular training course I was required to attend happened to involve a major new computerised costing system that everyone found themselves under corporate orders to learn, whether costing things was part of their job or not. I arrived for work one morning to find a set of joining instructions for a three-hour course on how to be a ‘Routine Purchaser’. When I rang the contact number to ask the ‘Training Advisor’ what I was actually being trained to do, he paused, laughed nervously and said he thought I would know, finally admitting that he didn’t actually know what I was being trained to do either. But he was sure everything would become clear ‘in the fullness of time’ because this was just ‘Stage One’. It was at this point that my mouth ran dry as I asked him how many ‘stages’ I could expect from all this. He laughed nervously again and said that there were seven stages in all, of which the second was three days long – but please would I not kill the messenger because he was new.

The following Monday, I arrived at the windowless conference room to find it half empty. At the front of the room stood two course trainers who looked like Jeff Tracey and Brains from Thunderbirds (and they even moved in the same way). Brains was sitting behind a desk in charge of the technology: a laptop and overhead projector which displayed the laptop screen on the wall behind him. Jeff Tracey stood next to him in front of a flip chart with their names written on it in red felt-tip pen. I questioned myself about the reason for using such primitive methods to identify themselves, considering the cutting-edge technology they had at their disposal. We then went through that excruciating period of pre-course small talk as Jeff Tracey kept walking backwards and forwards across the room for no apparent reason, smiling at everyone individually and continuously saying that we’ll be giving ‘the others’ a few more minutes.

When all the other aspiring Routine Purchasers had arrived, Jeff Tracey clapped his hands together and welcomed us to the course, whilst Brains pressed buttons on his laptop to give us written confirmation of everything Jeff Tracey said. The training course got off to a rolling start. Jeff Tracey explained that the purpose of the day’s session was to teach us how to buy things for the BBC and book cameramen and other ‘resources’ under the new costing system, and did any of us do that sort of thing. I noticed that his left leg started to shake erratically and he began to perspire when everyone shook their heads in silence. Nervously, Jeff Tracey said we needed to know how to do it anyway and not to blame him for us being told to come on the course because he had nothing to do with it, and we should contact our Training Advisors instead. He nodded to Brains who pressed a button which made a funny diagram appear on the wall to which Jeff Tracey told us not to be afraid of. It was a sort of flow chart with bizarre cartoons of unintelligible objects dotted around it, all linked by coloured lines to a strange Shrek-like being at the bottom with the word ‘You’ underneath it.

I think I fell asleep at some point, because when I woke up Jeff Tracey’s leg had stopped shaking and there was a cartoon of a woman with a shopping trolley on the wall. He was in the middle of talking about ‘purchase orders’ and how to do them. He asked in a very sincere voice if someone could suggest to him the kind of information that we would expect to include on a purchase order. Thinking it was a trick question, everyone stayed silent. So did Jeff Tracey. Meanwhile, Brains kept his finger poised over a button on his laptop, ready to launch one of the Thunderbirds. Taking a rather sarcastic tone, a middle-aged woman at the back of the room asked to be forgiven for stating the obvious but she would normally include the name of the item which was to be purchased. Jeff Tracey shot his finger at her and yelled: ‘Correct! We call that “the item”.’ Brains smiled and pressed his button with a satisfied nod and the word ‘Item’ appeared on the wall. ‘Anything else?’ asked Jeff Tracey, and someone else, with an equally sarcastic voice, suggested that we would probably need to include the price of the object. ‘Excellent!’, yelled Jeff Tracey, getting more excited by the second. ‘We call that “the price”.’ Brains eagerly pressed his button again and the word ‘Price’ appeared under ‘Item’.

I remember thinking at this point that I’d be having a much better time, and probably learning a lot more, if I was watching a genuine episode of Thunderbirds rather than participating first-hand in three hours’ worth of An Audience with Jeff Tracey and Brains. So I settled back in my chair, having resigned myself to my fate, and began drawing multiple interlinking circular shapes in my notebook.

I must have nodded off again because when I came round, the training course was just finishing. Jeff Tracey was making a joke out of the fact that if we thought today was bad, just wait until we were all together again on the mammoth three-day course in a few weeks time where we’d hopefully have better luck with the coffee. Nobody seemed to find this amusing except for Brains who made a happy face appear on the wall, and I noticed Jeff Tracey’s leg had begun to vibrate again. In order to dilute the tension, Brains suddenly stood up and asked us if we’d heard the one about the elephant who bumped into a naked man and said ‘How do you smell through that, then?’; but no-one laughed so he sat down again. Jeff Tracey finished off by handing out a feedback form on which I ticked ‘Unable to comment’ in response to each question.

I left the conference room none the wiser about how to use this new miracle costing system, and headed straight for my favourite tea bar - which, to my horror, I discovered had been converted into another windowless conference room. But I was even more horrified to discover a sign on the door telling me that it’s where I could look forward to having a fun-filled three days with Jeff Tracey and Brains several weeks later. I wonder if the personnel of International Rescue ever had to put up with such problems. Let’s face it - all they had to do was fly around rescuing people; a comparatively much simpler challenge than retaining one’s sanity for the duration of a BBC training course.

Friday, 15 June 2007

The F Word

'It is staggering to think that any aspiring writers ever manage to produce a script at all.'
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good idea must be in want of a pen. Another truth which has been universally acknowledged is that today’s aspiring scriptwriters no longer use pens, but instead spend most of their time worrying about electronic fonts, often to the point of brain implosion; and when it’s not the fonts they are worrying about, it’s the format in which the fonts should appear on the page, and the software with which the format should be created. It is therefore staggering to think that any of these writers ever manage to produce a script at all.

During my period as ‘script honcho’ in the BBC Comedy Development Unit, I perhaps received as many letters requesting details about the science of Fontology as I did actual scripts. And any scripts I did receive usually included a covering letter from the writers asking me to please excuse their choice of font, but it wasn’t specified in the Writers Guidelines or in my response to their subsequent enquiry, but thank you anyway for the additional copy of the guidelines. Writers Guidelines are so called because of the ingenious clue in the title, though it is obvious that a vast percentage of aspiring writers would prefer the more apt title of Writers Blueprints. I’m not sure if anyone ever got my in-joke of the document being photocopied on blue paper, but there are probably thousands of architects working on their first sitcom script who are positively thriving on it.

This evil colour-coded trick of the mind came back to haunt me one day when I opened a large brown envelope containing a pile of paper which looked like remnants from the set of Noel and the Amazing Technicolored Swap Shop. I accept that formatting a script correctly can be challenging for the uninitiated, but to type it entirely in uppercase letters, with no visible punctuation or paragraph spacing, and delineating the elements of the script with multiple brightly-coloured fonts, really does take the biscuit first thing on a Monday morning. I was glad to find a ‘key’ on the title page – I think character names were in red and dialogue was in blue; I know parenthetical instructions were in yellow.

When the kaleidoscopic spots had cleared from my eyes, I returned the script to the gentlemen in question with a copy of the Writers Guidelines and a polite request to avoid submitting multi-coloured scripts in future. Within 48 hours I received a snotty six-page reply stating that if it wasn’t for people like him the BBC would be out of business. I debated this at some length, and finally concluded that it would’ve been more accurate to say that if it was for people like him the BBC would be out of business – certainly in the area of sitcoms. After several more business analogies, the success of which all hinged on his creative skills and personality, Technicolored Writer signed off by demanding to know why I hadn’t remembered sending him the Writers Guidelines six months previously, and ordered me to revise them as nowhere did they say a script had to be ‘typed in black and white’.

Such is the life of a script honcho when one has a public service remit to read the unsolicited works of madmen.

Thus, it was a natural progression that my tutoring at various writing workshops took more of an angle on how to present and submit scripts, rather than how to write them – the theory being that an unknown scriptwriter must avoid giving an unknown script reader an easy excuse for returning their unknown script unread. Moral: Type the script in black and white. Naturally, I became renowned within ‘new writer’ circles on the subjects of fonts and formats, and for providing them with tools to become experts like myself. This lead to various appreciative feedback from past students with comments ranging from the straightforward: ‘Thank you’, to the more in depth: ‘I feel my writing has improved as a result of your workshops’, via the plainly bizarre: ‘Now there’s a guy who really knows where his fonts are.’

The person who came up with this phrase is a man called Dave Dillon. Dave Dillon – or ‘The D-Man’ as he insists on calling himself – is legendary amongst script honchos as being the aspiring writer who has been aspiring for the most number of years without actually coming up with an original idea. Being a cult television fanatic, he instead tries to ‘reimagine’ old television series, and prides himself on his complete collection of Chopper Squad episodes on black-market VHS tapes – which is primarily the reason he refuses to invest in a DVD player. Dave Dillon is also the only person I know who can argue endlessly the evils of the Courier New font and why its line spacing ‘cocks with the one-page-to-a-minute rule’ when typing in traditional screenplay format. He has yet to receive a verdict from Bill Gates after lobbying him for the full abolition of Courier New in Microsoft products and the reinstatement of the standard Courier font.

I came to ‘know’ Dave Dillon through his multiple script rejections, the reasons for which he always felt the need to discuss. The best-kept secret amongst script honchos when one can find nothing constructive to say about the ninety-sixth script one has received from the same writer is to send a letter which includes the stock phrase: ‘Unfortunately, the idea you have presented is too close to something we already have in development’ – along with a copy of the Writers Guidelines. This is the equivalent of being called into your Personnel department ‘for a little chat’ without an appointment when the company you work for is ‘downsizing’, and leaving with your P45. In writing terms, receiving this stock letter means that one more bad submission can leave you looking forward to receiving the other stock letter advising you to ‘rethink your approach’ before writing another script or, better still, refrain from writing another script ever again.

It had been some months since I’d sent such a letter to Dave Dillon, so I naturally assumed that he was either rethinking his approach or, preferably, had died. I was therefore most distressed to encounter him in person at a sitcom workshop one Wednesday evening where he proceeded to pitch a variety of new ideas at me, all ‘reimaginations’ of old television series from the past. His latest idea was a ‘sitcom spin-off’ of Chopper Squad, because it was a ‘unique idea never attempted before.’ When I explained that there were good reasons why it had never been attempted before, he reimagined a sitcom version of Whirlybirds instead, which would be ‘a sure winner’. And so it went on for the best part of two hours, leaving me little time for the Fontologists in the group, and wishing that Dave Dillon would reimagine himself into oblivion.

One piece of advice I remember offering at this particular workshop was that, in the event that a writer finds a script honcho who is willing to read their work personally, thus managing to avoid the standard ‘slush pile’, they should keep a relationship going with their new contact and follow them wherever they go, such as if they change jobs or join a new production company. Unfortunately, there are people out there like Dave Dillon who misinterpret advice such as this, and he proceeded to follow me home after the workshop and wherever I went thereafter, including constantly phoning me at the office ‘to keep the relationship going’. Luckily, when one is working for a large organisation such as the BBC, one has many resources at one’s disposal to dispense with one’s enemies, and a visit to Dave Dillon from the Internal Investigation Squad put an impromptu end to our ‘relationship’.

Many months later, a submission arrived with an ‘H.M. Prison’ emblem on the envelope. Inside was the most immaculately presented script you have ever seen - pages fastened, the correct font, perfectly formatted. It was written by someone called ‘Dez Dallas’ who suggested that it was high time the world had a ‘reimagined’ version of Porridge, a famous prison sitcom starring the late Ronnie Barker. Without hesitation, repetition or deviation, I stuffed the script in the enclosed return envelope and grabbed a copy of the emergency stock letter that all script honchos resort to when all is lost: ‘Thank you for sending me your script which has been duly considered. I am now returning it to you as, unfortunately, the idea you have presented is too close to something I don’t find interesting.’