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.