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.’

Friday, 8 June 2007

Thin City

'Writers are more activity challenged than most, and the gym is a natural displacement activity for one's writing.'
If the National Health Service is so concerned about the country being in the middle of an ‘obesity crisis’ and keeps forcing its opinions on us about the importance of weight-control, why are there so many fat nurses?

And if Britain supposedly has one of the worst records for the consumption of junk food, which is a direct contributing factor to the ‘obesity crisis’, why does Trading Standards waste its time threatening Welsh butchers with legal action for ‘mislabelling’ their Dragon Sausages?

Neither of these issues make any sense to me, nor could I ever see them being plausible enough concepts to be explored even in the comically-heightened world of a situation comedy script, of which I assessed many whilst working at the BBC. Of course this never stopped aspiring writers submitting scripts which did contain largely implausible concepts, even though I would spend endless hours ordering against it during the many workshops at which I tutored.

A typical ‘implausible concept’ usually involves the sitcom set in a hotel where the lecherous manager is chasing after the blonde receptionist whilst a moronic teenager on work experience causes complete chaos. Meanwhile, everyone tries to deal with a surprise visit from the hotel inspector, usually with hilarious consequences. Next to this comes the sitcom set in a pub where the lecherous owner is chasing after the blonde barmaid whilst a moronic teenager on work experience causes complete chaos. Meanwhile, everyone tries to deal with a surprise visit from the brewery inspector (with hilarious consequences, etc.). Then there comes the sitcom set in a gymnasium where the lecherous fitness instructor... and so on.

The latter is naturally one of the more popular ideas submitted by writers as the nature of our art suggests that we are perhaps more ‘activity challenged’ than most, and the gym is a natural displacement activity for one’s writing where one can draw inspiration from a variety of characters. This of course is a complete and utter lie; in reality, writers who are ‘lost for words’ simply sit on the couch in front of the television set ‘for research purposes’ and eat biscuits. ‘Exercise’ therefore translates as one getting up from one’s desk and walking to the living room via the kitchen where one exercises one’s muscles by continuously lifting the biscuit tin.

Pink likes to point out on frequent occasions that, in her opinion, all writers (especially me) are too fat and lack significant exercise. Therefore it did not come as a surprise when I found a promotional voucher on the breakfast table the other day entitling me to a free fitness assessment at a local health centre. There was a Post-It note stuck to the voucher with ‘It will do you good’ scribbled on it in Pink’s handwriting. This was followed by specific orders to only go on a weekend so as not to ‘embarrass’ her in front of her boss, Jackson Muldoon, whom she works out with three times a week. This was further followed by a preference for me to consider going to an alternative gym altogether of which there was a list of qualifying centres on the back of the voucher. I was not to take this personally; it purely had to do with professional reputation (Pink’s, not mine).

Being an incredibly self-conscious person (as many writers are), I decided I should try to find some suitable attire in the wardrobe in order to make myself look ‘cool’ and blend in with the regular fitness fanatics. What I ended up with was a worn promotional T-shirt from Batman (the Tim Burton version, not the Christopher Nolan one), a pair of old trainers with one of the heels coming off, and a pair of baggy gym shorts that I’d kept from my school days which made me look like I’d just spent a long weekend with Billy Bunter or The Famous Five.

I arrived at the fitness centre and proudly presented my voucher to the receptionist who directed me to the changing room. I hasten to add that she did this in total silence with a distinct look of dubiousness on her face, as she scanned me slowly from head to toe in a very disturbing and sinister manner reminiscent of The Terminator. I was also disturbed to find that the changing room was of the communal kind with no individual cubicles, so it was some time before the place was empty of other people and I could steal an opportune moment to change into my Batclothes.

I felt more self-conscious than usual as I stepped out of the changing room amidst a full compliment of thin and muscular health fanatics and body builders. I noticed I was getting some rather strange looks as I walked across the gym to the front desk, at which sat a young blonde female fitness instructor in a grey tracksuit with ‘Jen’ stamped on her name badge. I introduced myself and, after pausing to consider my T-shirt, ‘Jen’ asked if Robin would be joining us. She laughed politely but I did not find it very funny and gave her my superhero death-stare.

The ‘assessment’, as it turned out, was more of a public exhibition of my general level of unfitness in full embarrassing view of everyone else who was much fitter than me. After being weighed, prodded, measured, prodded again, pinned and pinched, ‘Jen’ compared me with a chart which concluded that I was ‘moderately unfit’. Rubbing my new bruises, I told her that all she had to do was ask, but ‘Jen’ said it was necessary in order to work out a suitable ‘program’.

Next came the theory test. Question One: Was there anything I particularly liked doing in the gym? (This being the stupidest question I have ever been asked.) Answer: Yes — nothing, after which I calmly explained that I was there under duress as instructed by my suffering other. ‘Jen’ looked at me with a strange smile, ticked something on her clipboard, then moved onto Question Two: Was there anything I didn’t like doing in the gym? (This being the second stupidest question I’ve ever been asked.) Answer: Yes — everything. ‘Jen’ looked at me again, did not smile, and ticked something else.

After a few more increasingly stupid questions, I had to fill in a lifestyle questionnaire but became slightly confused when it asked me if I was a ‘healthy eater’. I ticked ‘Yes’ thinking that it was referring to the quantity of food I consume on a regular basis, rather than the quality. I kept quiet about this mistake. ‘Jen’ then introduced me to a formidable-looking exercise bike which looked like something out of Tron. I kicked myself for assuming that all one would need to do is climb on the bike and start peddling as I found myself faced with some kind of super computer with handlebars. What’s more, I had to attach a black plastic strap to myself which, according to ‘Jen’, would instruct the superbike when to make me peddle harder for no logical reason.

After suffering ten minutes (which seemed like ten hours) of an ever-increasing ‘difficulty level’ — i.e. having to constantly peddle harder for no logical reason — the numbers on the superbike’s control panel started to become very blurred and my head began to spin. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a hospital bed with a fat nurse looking over me. Next to her was a very sheepish-looking ‘Jen’ who, with one hand on her hip, waved her finger at me and said in a stern voice that I’d been ‘a very naughty boy’ for not telling her I had ‘dietary issues’.

She then gave me a letter which had my name entered in handwriting on a dotted line after the word ‘Dear’. It thanked me for attending my fitness assessment but wished to point out that, sadly, the company could not be held liable for any hospital treatment connected with non-declaration of medical conditions. The management took the health and wellbeing of their customers very seriously and, regrettably, I no longer qualified for membership at any of their fitness centres; but they thanked me once again for my interest.

The fat nurse took my blood pressure before confirming that I was still alive, making the point that gyms were for athletes and Kate Moss, and that I could forget about driving the Batmobile anywhere for the next few days until I’d fully recovered. The fat nurse departed with ‘Jen’ and I was left alone in nothing but my Billy Bunter Batclothes; so, as any good writer does, I started working through some new ideas in my head. Unfortunately, all I could come up with was a sitcom idea about a fat nurse who goes on a health drive and joins a gym where she leches after the fitness instructor (with hilarious consequences).

Friday, 1 June 2007

Crossing the Line

'Trains these days seem to have become other people's offices.'
It is not uncommon for me to lie awake in bed at night racking my brains as to why I should ever be interested in other people’s private business.

Subsequently, I wonder why the people whose private business it is should seemingly feel it important enough for me, a complete stranger, to be interested in it and therefore make it as public as possible without the opportunity of an opt-out.

The unfortunate state of today’s technology-ridden society apparently dictates that one must not leave home without possession of a surgically-attached mobile phone. And once one has left home, one must display the surgically-attached mobile phone as a fashion statement whilst broadcasting the intimate details of one’s career and social life to others. Ideally, this should happen whilst one is demonstrating a complete absence of spatial awareness - a prerequisite of which is to stop intermittently in the middle of the street for no logical reason other than to get in the way of others; or, alternatively, losing control of one’s car and ultimately creating a scenario involving additional unnecessary surgery (even for those who do not possess mobile phones).

Alexander Graham Bell has a lot to answer for.

Aside from the fact that some ‘experts’ feel that the glorious day will come when the mobile nation will be eliminated en masse by brain disintegration due to excessive radiation exposure (or at least lose an ear), I find that this is just another distraction I have to deal with which in no way helps my current state of writer’s block. Needless to say, my writing can in no way be inspired by personal experience when most of my personal experience involves witnessing mundane conversations by equally mundane individuals with mobile phones, usually on trains or in restaurants.

This week I found myself having to take a train journey from London Waterloo to a place called Ashtead. Ashtead is a small village between Epsom and Leatherhead and is sort of the twisted Surrey equivalent of Under Milk Wood. It is the kind of place where unfortunate people are born, live a comparatively dull life, then die wishing they’d moved to the glorious rat race of London which could’ve given them the excitement they’d been craving all their lives.

Alternatively, it’s the kind of place where unfortunate people decide to relocate to, live a comparatively dull life, realise they’ve made a terrible error of judgment, then die from deep depression wondering why they’d ever moved from the glorious rat race of London in the first place. Merciful death is usually the preferred option to the alternative of living the rest of their lives in poverty due to the extortionate council tax rates and lack of government-funded healthcare. But I digress, as the reason for the journey is irrelevant (much like the place itself).

I caught the 13:24 London Waterloo to Dorking train in good time. Trains these days seem to have become other people’s offices, the difference being that they move on wheels and have no door to keep a person’s business private. The journey to Ashtead is approximately forty minutes duration, though this can often seem a lifetime when Johnny Businessman decides to catch up with his phone calls in the seat behind you. Moving to another seat or carriage is futile as, more often than not, Johnny Businessman’s friend will be there, also speaking on the phone, or the place will be overrun by teenagers using their mobile phones for any number of bizarre functions which make irritating sounds (probably invented by Johnny Businessman).

I always make sure that I sit in a carriage and seat that gives me a full view of the digital clock readout on the platform. Like plot points in a well-structured screenplay, trains must come and go at their designated moments so that everything runs smoothly and falls together. With only two minutes to go, I pulled out my laptop to try and do some writing, quietly confident that I was going to be spared the usual nightmare of witnessing someone else’s affairs (professional or otherwise).

How wrong I was.

As the guard announced the train’s imminent departure over the internal tannoy system - a surprisingly good quality one as you could actually understand what he was saying - a bald South African man with a loud voice boarded the train. I know he had a loud voice because I could hear him talking on his mobile phone at the opposite end of the carriage from where I was sitting. It is at moments like these when sheer desperation kicks in and all you have to hang onto is the hope that the annoying passenger is not going to come and sit near you. Of course that’s exactly what happened with the sound of his voice getting louder and louder as he loomed upon me like some evil ‘thing’ with a ginormous bald head in a monster B-movie.

Bald Thing sat in the seat behind me. He was talking to Ebenezer about a meeting they’d had with their client last week which did not go very well. The client had not been very pleased with the F65s, but Ebenezer didn’t know what his problem was. Bald Thing insisted that something was clearly amiss with the supplier of the F65s, and it would be up to Geoff to sort them out and could Ebenezer send an email about it. Ebenezer asked him to clarify if it was he, Bald Thing, who wanted the email or should it go to Geoff as he was going on holiday (Geoff, not Ebenezer). It was Geoff. Bald Thing told Ebenezer to find out when Geoff’s holiday was as he would have to get the problem sorted before then or their client would go to ‘the other place’.

By now I had almost lost the will to live. I wished that I knew where ‘the other place’ was so that I could either go there myself or suggest it to Bald Thing and Ebenezer, and wondered if that was where Geoff was going for a holiday. I felt that desperate times called for desperate measures and decided to beat Bald Thing at his own game. Not having a mobile phone of my own, I used the next best weapon available to me: my trusty laptop.

Naturally, I had forgotten to charge it the night before so as soon as I switched it on it went into hibernation mode and switched itself off again. My plan to irritate Bald Thing by playing my 24 soundtrack at full volume in iTunes had failed. I envied my laptop as I put it back in my satchel, wishing that I, too, could go into hibernation whenever people like Bald Thing and Ebenezer had loud conversations about F65s.

My frustration deepened when Bald Thing told Ebenezer he was meeting someone at Dorking which is ten minutes further down the line from Ashtead. I would have to endure him and his mindless conversation all the way until my stop. I realised I had no option but to apply my last resort and move to another carriage.

Not wanting to give Bald Thing the satisfaction of knowing he’d driven a fellow passenger away, I took advantage of the blind spot created by his mobile phone and applied stealth tactics to make it through the connecting door. Unfortunately, it was one of those doors where the latch didn’t work properly and having remained firmly closed since the beginning of the journey it refused to do so now. The only way the door was going to remain closed was if I slammed it hard, but that would alert Bald Thing to my presence. I had no option but to leave the door swinging open and make a run for it. But, having previously been totally unaware of me during his conversation with Ebenezer, Bald Thing’s super-sense kicked in and he spotted me. He asked Ebenezer to ‘hang on a moment’ and, with an evil death-stare, Bald Thing asked me to shut the door. I will add that he kept jabbing his finger at his mobile phone when he said this, just to acknowledge the fact that he was having a conversation which my swinging-door antics had now disturbed.

Charles Robert Maturin did not have these problems when authoring Melmoth the Wanderer, the classic gothic novel I have been trying to adapt for nine months as a four-hour film but still have not managed to write beyond the first page (of which there are several versions). He should think himself lucky. In his day they had neither trains nor mobile phones; and Bald Thing and his servant Ebenezer probably weren’t even a glint in their creators’ eyes.