Writer’s blog: Week 26, Saturday

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It’s been a while since I squeezed one of these in, but it seems opportune. I’m in Northampton for a couple of days at my folks’, but still working, still writing, still pitching. It’s Saturday. The photo above is misleading, for I am not in Glastonbury, nor wearing a fisherman’s hat. I really like this atmospheric shot; it was taken of me at dusk, along the main commercial thoroughfare to the Pyramid Stage by my brother-in-law Paul at Glastonbury 2009, which was my designated “mid-life crisis Glastonbury”. (You can read about it in excruciating detail here.) I loved every second of it. But I haven’t been since, and it’s conceivable that I’ll never go again, mainly because 2009 was so perfect in every way.

I’ve been thinking about it as I watch – or fast forward through – the Glastonbury 2013 coverage I’ve taped. (Hey, I have no interest in the Vaccines, or Rita Ora, or the latest wide-eyed BBC3 presenters being run in*, and I was ready for bed at 10.30 last night in any case.) I hadn’t been since 1995 when I went in 2009 so it was a special occasion, and uniquely family-oriented, in that I was convinced to go by my brother-in-law.

Though I am not at Glastonbury this year, due to media and social media saturation, I am acutely aware that the festival is ongoing, as I type. I do not wish I was there, in actuality, but I do sort of miss it somewhere in my bones. It’s somewhere you can go and get away with a hat, for a start. I hope everyone who is there is having an epic time. For fun, here’s a photo of me taken at Glastonbury 1990, my second ever Glastonbury, which was a filthy one, and the inaugural year of the festival’s dedicated Comedy Tent, where I spent the bulk of the long weekend. I loved that, too, although it had been too wet to realistically pitch our tent on arrival, so we slept in the car. I think I’m too old for that shit now.

AC1990Madchestertop

It’s refreshing to get away from the fabled “hustle and bustle” of London – as I am doing by hopping it to the parental pile in Northampton – although I watched an episode of the BBC2 series The Route Masters: Running London’s Roads on Wednesday, which was all about life on London’s night buses and ought to have been enough to put anyone off moving to the capital, but, oddly, made me miss the place, and glad that I live there.

I’ve been resident of London for 29 years (minus the three where I moved out to Reigate by mistake), and although as you get older you’re inexorably drawn to a less stressful environment, I do find it hard to imagine living away from the smoke. And The Route Masters was a deftly captured – and slyly cast – snapshot of what makes the city simultaneously terrifying and joyful, with all sorts using the nocturnal bus service, which, since the relaxation of the licensing laws, really is an all-night proposition. I loved the Muslim driver Zajad, born and bred in London, who recounted being told by a fire-and-brimstone passenger that they were all going to hell: “I told him, we’re not going to hell, we’re going to Ilford.” Priceless.

Route Masters1

When I lived in Streatham, in South West London – must have been late 90s – I was on the top deck of a bus, coming home late at night, and a stupid verbal misunderstanding between two male passengers led to one of them drawing a knife on the other. The man on whom the knife was drawn looked shocked and disappointed that it had come to this, and did not raise the aggression levels. It seemed a possibly idle threat, but when a young man is standing up pointing a knife at someone else, you tense up. Someone ran down the stairs and informed the driver, and he stopped the bus – handily, right outside a police station. Officers boarded the bus and escorted the knifeman off, with his large but friendly looking dog, as it happened. It was one of those ugly moments you experience in cities.

I watched half of Eye Spy on Thursday night on C4, the “moral dilemma” hidden-camera show “narrated by” Stephen Fry, although he makes an appearance too, as if to bind the format to him when frankly, he’s effectively just the voiceover artist, it’s not “his” programme. In it, situations are created that test the moral fibre of members of the public – £30,000 in cash left in a phone box, an actor playing a racist waiter in a small restaurant, a boy in a wheelchair at the bottom of some steps – and instead of these stunts being played out for our vicarious pleasure (except they are), they’re framed as a social experiment.

EyeSpy

In brief, you get to see how much citizens of this country use the phrase, “What the fuck?”, which is an awful lot. I question the social efficacy of the format, but it did monitor how much racist abuse from a waiter diners will put up with, and you couldn’t help but feel proud of the Londoner who was first to stand up to the actor playing the racist waiter. (They did the same “test” in a restaurant in Manchester and not a single diner said a word. This is not conclusive proof that people in Manchester will put up with more racism than those in London, as it is not proof of anything.)

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So, what have I been doing? Gathering my thoughts for a “corporate” next week. I’m hosting a series of Q&As at an “away day” for a large international media company, where various TV shows are previewed and their producers questioned before a large audience of delegates. I enjoy doing these gigs, as it means I get to meet executives from TV; people who make telly. These are the people I hope to be working with, and the reason I spend a lot of my time working for free – out of necessity – on pitches. I’ve been working on one today. At least the corporates help pay for the days when I’m not being recompensed for my time.

Next week’s busy, as I’m also interviewing Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright about their new film The World’s End for Radio Times. The weird part of that is, I’ve only seen the first half of the film, as the second half isn’t going to be finished until the day after the interview! This can’t be helped, as my deadline is Wednesday. I really liked the first 45 minutes, by the way, but then I was bound to: it’s Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright! Sometimes you can take a confident flyer. I am also meeting a producer about another scriptwriting project on the Friday, which is more unpaid work, but vital, as such connections lead to other connections, and writers exist in a permanent, cosmic join-the-dots puzzle, hoping to make those connections.

On a more paid note: yesterday, I delivered the second draft of a pilot sitcom script that’s in development with – I think it’s safe to say this – the BBC. That is, I delivered it – eg. emailed it – to the execs at the production company who are paying me to write it, and who will deliver it to the BBC, whose commissioning editor is paying them to pay me to write it. We all hope we will get paid some more money in order to write a lot more of it, with a view to actually making it into actual telly. So fingers crossed that the BBC will like it. I’ve certainly put a lot of time and effort into it, and so have my producers with their copious notes, and I really like the made-up characters I’ve invented and put into it. I could imagine writing five more stories for them, at least.

It’s good to see one’s family. While at my Mum and Dad’s, I get to see my brother, who lives about 40 minutes away in a less towny place, and his family, and dogs, and I get to see my sister, who lives five minutes away, and her family, and guinea pig. They’re good, my family.

I walked to the Weston Favell Shopping Centre this afternoon, for some fresh air and exercise, and I found it particularly hostile to pedestrians. It’s not clear which way you have to walk to get into it – and I speak as someone who lived in or near Weston Favell for the first 19 years of my life, and remember the mall when it first went up and was called the “Supacentre”. But it’s set behind a car park, a petrol garage, and a drive-thru McDonald’s, all of which rather suggest you ought really to pull yourself together and be in a car.

WFShoppingCentre

Ah! The official website gives directions only to people planning to “get here” by car or bus. There is no official pedestrian route to it. Well, there is, as I managed it somehow, but only by crossing lots of roads and going the long way round. (There’s a pretty scary looking “walkway” but this only works if you are walking from the direction of Standens Barn; I would have had to cross a road to get to it, which rather defeats the object.) When did Britain become America, and when did Northampton become LA?

Still, at least I’m not at Glastonbury!

JenLong*Incidentally, before I get back to work, I should add that I encountered, for the first time, a young presenter on BBC3’s Glastonbury coverage called Jen Long, whose energy and fluency and ability to hit her mark, in a field, were commendable. I thought she was great. I’ve looked her up and she’s on Radio 1 in the night, and she runs a fanzine, and she used to do Introducing on BBC Wales. I expect great things of her.

Day Two

You’re going to get bored of these Photo Booth application photos, yes you are. Day two: I’m in St Pancras station again, not because I love it, which I do, but because I had need to buy three cards from Paperchase. A birthday card for my recently married niece, a Mother’s Day card for my mum on April 3 and, with great sadness, a sympathy card for a friend whose mother has died. Probably best not to try and read anything too profound into the life of a card shop. Its job is simply to help us mark events. Needless to say, if you ever think that a card sent at the time of someone’s passing is merely a token, then you can’t have lost someone close to you: a card really means something in that horrible aftermath.

I saw a man collecting for charity in one of the overground stations I pass through this morning. He was dressed as Scooby Doo. He looked daft, but that’s the point, isn’t it? It seems that we will only give money to charity if someone does something daft. In the same tunnel between stations was a homeless man, sitting on the ground with his back against the wall and with a gorgeous black Labrador curled into a seemingly contented doughnut next to him, on a blanket. Two potentially deserving cases for our spare change, one dressed as a dog, the other with an actual dog for a companion. I am the type of person who’s statistically more likely to give money to a homeless person with a dog. I wish my change to go toward feeding the dog, but cannot specify this, without buying dog food and giving that to the man. I feel sorry for the dog when I should feel sorry for the man. I do feel sorry for the man, of course, but it’s the dog I feel most sorry for. This is not an easy thing to admit. We who have homes, and are thus in deep, deep debt to whoever gave us our mortgage, do not have “spare” change – how can we have? But we do have a home, albeit one that we mostly do not own.

Yesterday, I took the time to help a confused man who wished to get a Tube train to Alperton, which is far west up the Piccadilly Line. I couldn’t work out if he was foreign, or just confused, and he had a lot of teeth missing, so his hyperventilating voice was made less comprehensible by the whistling gaps. He called out to anyone who was passing as he had studied the Tube map and was still baffled by it. Was he in the right place? Was he on the right line? Was he going in the right direction? He seemed agitated. I traced my finger down the Tube map for him to show where he needed to go, and checked the indicator boards to see if the next train would take him up the correct tributary of the line. It did. He needed a lot of reassurance before he would let me go. I gave him that reassurance: he only needed to get on the next train and look out for his stop and he would not need to change trains. I’m guessing he was a visitor of some kind. Once I had deposited him on the platform and repeated, clearly, that he was in the right place, he seemed satisfied, and demanded, “Put it there, brother!” I shook his hand. I liked the phrase. It was straight out of an old Hollywood movie. My guess is that he would ask many more people if he was on the right train between King’s Cross and Alperton. I hope they were as patient with him. And I hope he found what he was looking for in Alperton.

I have written the extra scene for Mr Blue Sky. This is me having finished writing it, although it can’t be the British Library as you are not allowed to take photographs in the British Library and I do not break rules. It could be anywhere with some lights on the ceiling.

I am worried because I have two weekly commitments – Radio Times and 7 Day Sunday, the topical 5 Live comedy show – and in a neat, predictable, ordered week, I spend Wednesday afternoon at the Radio Times office, overseeing the main pages of the film section and writing my copy, and Thursday morning in the British Library writing topical gags for 7 Day Sunday (which has two more shows to run, with Al Murray in what used to be Chris Addison’s chair). However, with a radio show to do, 4-7pm, I will not be able to get to the Radio Times office, and that means my copy will have to be written off-site on Thursday morning, when I should be writing gags. This is called a knock-on effect. Due to the topical nature of the gags, and the time-sensitive nature of my Radio Times duties (the schedules close at 3.30 on a Weds afternoon, before which we cannot be sure which films will be showing on the terrestrial channels), their coexistence relies on careful balancing. How will I manage it all? Who knows? That’s why I woke up in a panic this morning. Panicking will not help. Clear thinking will.

Oh, by the way, as I go about my boring business, the country I live in is bombing another country again. I’m getting the same nauseous feeling in my stomach that I first experienced, I think, when America bombed Libya in 1986. Whenever a superpower – or this country – bombs a country in the Middle East or Africa, which are the main places they dare to bomb, I get uncomfortable. Regardless of the circumstance, it always feels like the flexing of military muscle and an advance of thinly veiled imperialism. (I know, this latter response puts me shoulder to shoulder with Colonel Gadaffi, but we are very different in many other respects.)

I guess the first time I felt this geopolitical/existential upset tummy was in 1982 when Margaret Thatcher sent her task force to the South Atlantic to win back the Falklands. Having been raised on war movies and Action Man, I think I had safely compartmentalised “war” as something that happened in the past, not in the present, and I didn’t like the way it felt to have British servicemen and women being sent halfway round the world to their potential deaths. (This was heightened by the rumour going round school that conscription would be next.) I found myself, in 1982, just quietly wishing it would all be over very quickly and they could all come home. It felt pretty surreal to see the front pages. I can’t pretend, aged 17, I was a big reader of newspapers – that came later – but you couldn’t avoid them, and my grandparents took the Sun, so I read that every Thursday when they came round. The irony is that my grandparents were not right wing, at least politically – my granddad was a shop steward! – but saw no irony in their choice of daily paper.

Frankly, since the 80s, this country seems to have constantly been on the verge of invading some country or other, or at least bombing the shit out of it and really trying very hard not to kill any civilians, honestly. No matter who’s in power, left or right, they seem to fall all too easily into the role of tank-riding warrior. Even the ultimate softy David Cameron – perhaps especially him, although he’s got the chest-beating Tony Blair to beat. It seems fanciful now to think that Harold Wilson, a Labour Prime Minister, actually stood firm in the 60s and refused to send British troops to help the US in Vietnam. I know he made excuses about needing the troops elsewhere, but the fact remains: Britain stayed out of it. If I was Prime Minister I would never invade any other country, or bomb them, or kill anybody, and I would just deploy the army to do displays and help the emergency services and provide technical assistance for films. This is why I will never be Prime Minister. Well, one of the reasons why. (As a side salad, the chapter I am currently reading in Andy Beckett’s When The Lights Went Out, his history of Britain in the 70s, concerns campus Marxism. The campus used to make Marxists of us all. Certainly pacifists. It didn’t for a while, but perhaps it does again now.)

I finished reading the big, long piece in the New Yorker about the BP oil spill. I found it fascinating and even-handed. Although the magazine takes an instinctively left-leaning stance on politics, it is really all about seeking the truth and checking the facts afterwards. Thus, Raffi Khatchadourian’s exhaustive, 24-page chronicle (which poses the question, “Were there any heroes in the BP oil disaster?”) is not necessarily a hatchet job on either British Petroleum, or the US government. If anything, it accuses the media – including some ill-informed single-issue bloggers – of oversimplifying the situation and fanning the flames of dissent between locally concerned Louisiana politicians and a huge oil company losing millions of dollars a day which it actually would rather not have been doing.

The real bone of contention comes towards to back end of the crisis, when BP started spraying “dispersant” over the layer of oil on the surface of the ocean, namely Corexit, formulated in the late 60s as an alternative to BP1002, an industrial detergent and degreaser which had been dumped into the Torrey Canyon slick off the coast of Cornwall and had “done more harm than good” to the surrounding environment. (In Beckett’s book, because everything joins up, he explains how the Torrey Canyon gave birth to the green movement in this country.)

Corexit certainly disperses oil, but its toxicity had not been fully tested when it was tipped into the sea, much to the concern of the Environmental Protection Agency. I found this passage alarming: “Scientists often test the toxicity of chemicals by pouring them into a tank filled with animals and seeing how many die after 96 hours.” Ouch! We learn from the conclusion to the piece that the bulk of the spilled oil was indeed dispersed and its particles pushed into the deep “midnight zone” of the ocean where it can be naturally consumed by microorganisms, and that species such as sea turtles seem to have escaped any lasting damage. I use the word “seem” advisedly. These things can take generations to truly disperse from the food chain. “Only” 5,600 seabirds were killed – compared to say, the 250,000 that died as a result of the Exxon Valdez spill – but because industrial fishing was restricted during the disaster, many fish populations have thrived. You’ll have to buy the magazine or subscribe digitally to read the full piece yourself, as they don’t give the big stuff away online. I was having a conversation with my neighbour the other day about the parlous state and damaging effects of the rolling news media; we agreed that the best time to read about something is after it’s finished, not while it’s happening.

I’m going to stop now and publish this half, otherwise it will be as long as a New Yorker piece. Off to 6 Music shortly.