Writer’s blog, Week 49

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I know. It’s been a while. It’s been more than a while. A gentleman discerning enough to use an avatar of Mark E Smith asked me via the medium of social media the other day what had happened to my blog. He surmised, correctly, that I have been too busy to keep it up. The truth be told, this year has been one of working harder and earning less, a pattern clearly replicated across this whole stinking world. Although I’ve not been writing here, I’ve been writing. And although I’ve not been writing in the desired form of a script that has been made into a television programme, I have been scriptwriting. It used to be known as development hell, although it’s hardly a hell, as you do get paid a stipend to write a script, even if it never gets past the stage of being words on a screen. (Actually, I always print my scripts out to read them, as they don’t seem real until you are holding them in your hands. If they exist physically, you can pretend they’re being made into television.)

In the accompanying picture above (what would nowadays be called a “selfie”, although these were invented long before the camera-phone), I am sitting in a hotel room in Aberystwyth in Ceredigion, West Wales. The hotel is the Belle Vue and it’s right on the front. Here is the view from my window last night when we checked in at around 7.30pm after the five-hour, one-change train journey from London.

AberPM I love the sounds of waves crashing and seagulls cawing. Because I spent pretty much every summer holiday as a boy in North Wales, I feel very much at home in this country. I’ve spent more time in North and South Wales, though, and less in Mid-, and it’s my very first time in Aberystwyth. If you’ve been following the story, you’ll have probably guessed why I’m here. The groundbreaking Welsh/English detective noir Y Gwyll, or Hinterland, is set and shot in Aberystwyth. I am here, in a landscape you could not make up, in weather you’d usually have to put in afterwards, to effect what’s known in the trade as a “set visit”. That is, I’ve been invited to visit the set, which in this case, was an actual barn near a farm just outside Borth, where a temporary production base had been established under a gazebo.

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I did take some pictures of the filming of a scene involving Richard Harrington as DCI Tom Mathias, Mali Harries as DI Mared Rhys and another actor as a farmer, but these may be embargoed, as series two of Y Gwyll won’t be airing on S4C (in Welsh) and then BBC Wales (in English and Welsh) until autumn 2015. There’s a one-off special on S4C on New Year’s Day, which is intended to sate fans of the show in the interim. (If you haven’t seen it – and you really should – it’s a case-of-the-week crime-solver that has its own broader arc about Mathias’s past, so you can dip in and it will still work.) I’m sure you’re aware that the show’s trick – which it didn’t invent, but is rare – is to film every scene with dialogue twice, once in Welsh, once in English (and some Welsh, where applicable), thereby literally doubling the work of the cast and crew, but in the process doubling its marketability in an international TV market, something that’s clearly working for them, having sold it to Denmark, Holland, Belgium, the US and Canada (on Netflix) and countless others. Not bad for a show set in Aberystwyth.

On our windswept arrival last night, Tash from the PR company (in charge of delivering me to my destination) and I repaired to a bar and cafe – highly recommended locally – called Baravin. While the cast and crew are filming, some based in Aber, others in Borth, many of them far away from hearth and home, this magnificently sited venue seems to be a magnet. It faces out onto the seafront and serves artisan pizzas, draught beer and something called an “espresso Martini”, which sounded like a terrible idea at the beginning of the evening, but a good one at the end of it.

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At Baravin, we met Richard Harrington, Mali Harries (both of whom I appear to have known for years, or at least that’s the impression I got from the warm way they greeted me) and producers the voluble Ed Thomas and more quietly spoken Gethin Scourfield. We had a tremendous evening with all four. I didn’t take my dictaphone out, but we chatted about the show, and the way it’s produced, and it’s all “colour” for the feature I will write to coincide with transmission of series two in about ten months’ time. Our hosts provided plenty. Richard is dark and authoritative onscreen (if you’ve not seen Y Gwyll, you may remember him from Spooks), but in real life, he feels hewn from the same rock as his namesake Burton. An elemental figure, I of course blame him for talking me into an espresso Martini.

You sensed he was up for going after-hours, but the rest of us were knackered and opted for ending the evening when the bar did. (His co-star and producer/director were not even drinking.)

It being Wales, where the stars are visible in the sky, and a promenade, where the sea puts you to sleep, I slumbered hard, woken only once at 4am when two young women who had gone after-hours sang a modern pop song under my window from the pavement below. I could only admire them.

Aberstarlings

Tempted out for a pre-breakfast walk along the front to the pier this morning, I felt blessed to witness the murmuration of starlings, who shot out from under the Royal Pier and filled the sky. I don’t think my non-iPhone really captured the glory, but you can’t blame me for trying, presented with that. This may be a writer’s blog, but I’m painting a lot of this with pictures.

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One full English/Welsh inside me, and we were off to the set. This is me, pretending to be a vital cog in the Y Gwyll machine, sitting on a plastic chair under the gazebo, watching a monitor and wearing some headphones so that I can hear the Welsh and English words being said by the actors into the microphones. I am well wrapped up against the cold. It would have been pathetic of me to even admit to myself that I was feeling the cold, as I was only on set for half a day, and these dedicated professionals do it for twice that long, every day, for weeks on end.

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This photo depicts me and S4C Drama Commissioner Gwawr Martha Lloyd, whom I have met before, showing our frozen appreciation for the arrival of on-set catering in polystyrene boxes wrapped in tin foil and cling film. (For the record, I am holding two portions of main course and dessert, only one of which is for me.) After about five hours of being among the elements, it was the thought of getting into a warm car and being driven to a warm train station where a warm train awaited that was keeping me alive.

Ten hours on the train there and back, but 20 hours spent in the salty, reed-filled embrace of Aberystwyth and Borth, getting a boyhood Proustian rush from the Welsh signs, the stern, symmetrical, chapel-like Welsh houses and the sight of endless sheep. Ceredigion really is “Hinterland Country” now. If you know the first series, you will literally spot houses and bridges and garages you’ve seen on telly in real life. This is a show that, unlike so much geographically faked TV fiction, lives and breathes its authentic, living, breathing environments. Gethin and director Julian Jones let us accompany them on a location scouting trip to Borth where we trod infinite dunes and were almost literally run off private farmland after a wrong turn.

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An unusual day in a writer’s life, and a rewarding one, whose printed fruits exist only in the future.

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Counting crows

birdwatch

It’s not about numbers. Or totals. And it’s not a competition. But I do love the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. Each year, it invites anybody who’s interested in birds – and if you’re not interested in birds, you’re not interested in life – to spend an hour over a single weekend looking out of the window or standing in a park or outdoor space and tallying up how many bird species you see. If I had a young family, I know I’d involve them all in the fun. But it’s just as rewarding, and just as good for the soul, to do it on your own.

I must admit, I sometimes forget – and it’s shameful to say so – how peaceful, positive and soul-replenishing observing birds is. You don’t have to be a birdwatcher to watch birds, or a member of the RSPB to join in the Birdwatch. (Should you wish to support them, by joining or donating, it’s all explained here.) What’s fantastic about appreciating birds is that they’re all around us. You just have to notice them. Although I get a lot of pleasure from recognising common birds – and looking them up in reference books if I can’t recognise them, which is often – it’s not about showing off. The pleasure is essentially private. If you are lucky enough to have a partner or friend who shares your bird love, it’s even better. But the satisfaction comes from the nexus between you and the bird: it exists, and goes about its tweety business; you are lucky enough to observe it doing that.

I always want to pick the optimum hour for the Birdwatch, but every year, I feel like I’ve picked badly. I cased the view on Saturday so that I could plan my hour on the Sunday, and the sun was shining too brightly to comfortably see anything in the middle part of the day, so I put it off. Then it rained, which doesn’t necessarily mean the birds stay away, but again, it’s harder to see. I committed myself to 2pm-3pm, and decided to watch from an open bedroom window. (It’s always socially hazardous to sit with binoculars at a window, but it’s a risk those who watch birds have to take.)

Longtailedtit

The pickings were rather slim. I was delighted that a robin, a blackbird, a greenfinch and a pair of blue tits made appearances during my allotted hour. I had six feral pigeons, predictably, and some starlings, too. And one plump wood pigeon, the pigeon it’s OK to like. A finch came down, too fast for me to see, and took a sunflower seed from one of the bird feeders, but I could only see its tail through my binoculars, and wasn’t able to confidently identify it. It looked like a chaffinch, which is the least common of the finch family in the garden, but I didn’t want to wrongfoot the survey, so I had to let it go. The real star of the show was a long-tailed tit [above], a curiously exotic little bird which looks a bit like a lollipop, and usually descends in a group of four or five. Just one this time, but a real catch. It brightened up my otherwise fairly standard tally.

What was particularly lovely was hearing the birds before they alighted. I could hear sparrows, but not see them. (They seem to prefer the bushes in the front yards of the houses in the street, and the eaves, which they noisily colonise.) I certainly heard the long-tailed tit before clapping eyes on it. And the robin sat on a high branch of a neighbouring tree and sang its heart out for quite a considerable amount of time. Just watching a bird singing through the binoculars is a gift – seeing its beak open as it produces its high-pitched symphony.

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I don’t get out into the field as much as I’d like. This is a picture of me birding in Norfolk in 2008 (Cley Marshes, I believe), taken by my most excellent ornithological pal and bird guru Dave. He really knows his stuff. I do not think of myself as a birdwatcher, or twitcher, as that would be self-aggrandising. I am happy with bird lover, or bird enthusiast. If you saw my Secret Dancing one-man show in 2010, you’ll know the section about my Three Birding Ambitions. Those still stand.

Having rediscovered my own 2007 post about the pied wagtail – which is here if you didn’t click to it from Twitter the other day – and how universal its sentiments were then and are now, it’s good to reconnect with the natural world via the magical accessibility of British garden birds. I once accidentally lived in Surrey, and had a bigger garden, and the pickings were abundant, but you can see a pied wagtail on the asphalt of a car park, you don’t need to live in the woods.

Whatever #1

Here – elliptically illustrated by another nice photo I found from the good old days – is the first Whatever column I ever wrote for Word magazine. It’s about the craze for giveaway wallcharts that was, in October 2006 when I wrote it, sweeping Fleet Street. The specifics may be dated, but many of my worries at the time, and the protectionist warmth I felt for the printed word, seem entirely relevant, and depressingly prescient. I’m not going to reprint all my columns, by the way, but I thought, for old times’ sake, the first one would be OK.

WHATEVER by Andrew Collins [originally published in Word, issue dated December 2006]

Why are newspapers going to the wall?

Back in that faraway age we now call “the 90s”, the newspaper market was still divided along the following time-honoured lines: tabloids generated their revenue through copy sales, broadsheets through advertising. One traded in quantity, the other quality. One played bingo, the other didn’t.

But the times – and the Times – were a-changing. While circulation across the board had been in decline since the 80s, “pagination”, as they say in the print trade over a bun and a roll-up, was up. (Spinal injury units were backed up with paperboys disabled by the Sunday Times, up from 178 pages in 1984 to 362 in 1994. That’s a lot of unread articles about the lost tribes of the Amazon and Zandra Rhodes.)

It couldn’t go on like this. Hence, the great price war. In 1993, a master of the blunt instrument, Rupert Murdoch slashed the 25p cover price of the Sun to 20p (undercutting the Daily Mirror by 7p) and the Times down from 45p to 30p. When the Telegraph responded with a drop from 48p to 30p, the Times plummeted to 20p, and so it went.

Three years of this grubby huckstering only proved that editorial excellence is irrelevant; that most punters will take their news from the lowest bidder (the knockdown Times had doubled its circulation by 1997, the self-anointed TV Quick of Fleet Street). Meanwhile, aggregate newspaper circulation was only up by 0.4 per cent. In other words, for all the deckchair-rearrangement, tabloids and broadsheets were still basically chasing the same bunch of readers.

The Guardian, lest we forget, did not lower its price during the 93-97 conflict, and yet its circulation held steady, proving that some readers are more brand-loyal than others, even those to whom “brand” is a mucky word. Which is why, as a dogged loyalist – and occasional contributor – it pains me ideologically to see “my” paper reduced to giving away CDs and DVDs as free gifts. But since broadsheets went tabloid, creating one big no-man’s land in the newspaper war, there is no room for ideology.

I think we can all apocalyptically agree that these are the last days for traditional electronic software delivery formats. Thanks to their ubiquity in bagged-up national newspapers, silver discs are even more devalued than when AOL used to post them through your letterbox. And just in time, since we’ll all be downloading our music and films next week anyway. It’s the entertainment sector’s closing-down sale. Fact: if the Mirror are giving you Carry On Christmas for free, it’s either old stock or an incentive to buy further titles in a range of reissues, usually advertised off the page as part of the tie-in deal. There’s no such thing as a free Naked Lunch.

If you can put up with the cardboard sleeve and the fact that you’ll never be able to find it again, The Wild Geese is indeed yours to keep for nothing. And if you don’t normally buy the Mail but did so exclusively to add this geriatric war movie to your collection, your custom has been successfully bought.

The irony of this “sampling” exercise (ie. grab for new readers) is that demographic bets are always hedged by the choice of film. Thus, the Independent preaches to the choir by offering its captive metropolitan trendies Roberto Rosselini’s Francesco giullare di Dio; the Sunday Times sums up its readership with Howards End (middle-class aspirational), and Ring Of Bright Water the Mail (would join Countryside Alliance if actually lived in countryside).

Like the arms race, the Great Silver Rush won’t stop until one of them blinks. In May, the Guardian switched tactic, inspired by the “roughage effect” of all those teach-yourself language CDs in rival rags. Its educational wallcharts – birds, sharks, fungi – proved promotional gold: new, dirt-cheap to produce, and no need to bag.

So what if the posters looked a bit murky and were educationally flawed, thanks to being bought in from a Danish company, The Scandinavian Fishing Yearbook. Birds Of Sea And Shore lacked a lapwing, one of our most common waders, pictured a Scandinavian eider and showed the speckled female Pochard rather than the more distinct adult male, with its beautiful chestnut brown head and pale back and flanks. (By the time of the Guardian’s second batch, a pathetic disclaimer was added: “This is a selection of species and not a definitive collection. It may include species that are not or no longer indigenous to Britain.”)

But we birders quibble over detail when cash registers are ringing. The Guardian was the only “quality daily” to increase circulation in May. The wallcharts worked their blu-tack magic, shifting 130,000 extra copies during birds-sharks-fungi week. Scenting money, the Independent did a blatant copycat set: British Trees, The Human Body, A Guide To The Weather – no, really – and a “life size” human skeleton (whose completion depended on you getting all five – clever!). The Mail was next to go to the wall.

Do these wallcharts say anything profound about us as a nation? That learning is the new rock and roll? No. Parents collect them for kids who’d actually rather cheat their GCSE coursework off the Internet. They are simply the spoils of war. But do as I do, and keep buying them, because the actual print apocalypse is being rehearsed in London right now, with two new “freesheets” locked in battle, forcing the Evening Standard to lower its price to … nothing. They can’t *give* it away.

Editorial excellence will count for nothing in a world where the newspapers themselves are the free gifts. Make a wallchart out of that.

We salute you

It was with enormous personal pleasure, and not a little emotion, that I welcomed Edwyn Collins to 6 Music this morning, in my second week of filling in for Lauren Laverne (who, incidentally, gave birth to a baby which she has called Mack at close to 2am this morning, so big congrats). Edwyn was in to play a selection of tracks from his brand new album Losing Sleep, which can be listened to via the 6 Music website, if not today, then soon. The album is dressed, handsomely, in a wallpaper effect of Edwyn’s drawings of birds, which are exquisite enough, but all the more poignant as they have been – and continue to be – a major part of his rehabilitation.

It is well known that, in February 2005, Edwyn suffered two strokes, and subsequently a bout of MRSA in hospital, after which he was left paralysed and unable to speak. It was a horrible thing to happen to anyone, and the outpouring of support from his fans must have provided at least a wave of comfort, especially for Grace, Edwyn’s partner and manager, and their son William, who kept a hand on the internet rudder, and I think continues to run or oversee his father’s web operations. The whole thing was especially weird for me, as Edwyn had been a guest on my 6 Music show just two days before his collapse. He was a guest on Roundtable, and, despite complaining of nausea and vertigo – which he attributed to food poisoning – he was his usual, voluble, witty, eloquent self. Who knew that the next time I’d speak to him, five years later, he would still be recovering from that unusually cruel double blow. But, still alive. And not just still alive (the surgery he underwent was apparently pretty tricky), writing and performing. I’m sure there are other examples of this happening in terms of occupational and speech therapy, but it’s still astounding to think that while Edwyn has a lot of trouble speaking, he can sing like an angel – unchanged, in fact, from before the aneurysms. He walks with a stick, and his right hand is semi-frozen into a fist, but he music animates him and it’s a sight to behold. As well as a sound to behold.

Before 6 Music, Edwyn and I had met on many an occasion over the years, and got on very well. The first time I met him was in 1991, when he turned up at a Roddy Frame/Aztec Camera gig in Hamburg I had been sent to cover for the NME (in fact, it was Stuart’s feature, but he’d had to pull out at the last minute). Grace told me today, when I whipped out a print of this photograph, that Edwyn had been sent out to keep an eye on his pal Roddy, who was going through a “rock and roll” phase! Anyway, the pair of them formed an unofficial comedy double act, and kept me entertained long into the German night. I wish I still had the cassette.

Out of shot, because he was behaving like a misery that day, is Mick Jones of the Clash, who also guested with Roddy onstage (their song Good Morning Britain was a hit), but decided he didn’t want anything to do with the boy from the NME, and kept his distance. This only made me appreciate Edwyn and Roddy’s semi-paternal company even more. It was Tony Barratt who took this pic, by the way; I’ve had the print he kindly made me in my private collection ever since. (Will took the 6 Music shot.) It was great to be able to hand it to Edwyn, to stir up some memories, although I expect they are all the more powerful for him, as they are from his life pre-stroke. (I read in one article Edwyn’s illness described coyly as “a forced sabbatical”; I used this phrase while chatting to him on air today, and he butted in, bluntly: “I had a stroke.” He’s pragmatic about it, and I guess you have to be if you’re to claw your way back to working order and put it behind you.)

As expected, love poured in via Twitter and email and text for Edwyn, and the songs, personal of course albeit upbeat and rocking, hit the mark. I saw him play last year at the Edinburgh Festival, at the Assembly Hall, and it was moving and entertaining in equal measure – the sort of thing you never thought you’d see again during the darkest years. But something about Edwyn’s soul got him through. And those birds.

He’s off on tour. If you can, go and see him. What presence!

He kind of puts things into perspective. And I’m worried about a bit of dental work.