The Riddle of the Stains

Once up a time proper chaps and chapeseses spoke in RP, the BBC’s Received Pronunciation. Or we were supposed to, anyway. It was designed, created, invented even, when for the first time everyone in the country was being spoken to and could actually hear the words back in the 1920s and ’30s, when radio ruled. It wasn’t about snobbery, which is easy to assume now. It was about mass communication, a common pronunciation designed so that everybody could understand it, whatever their accent.

It doesn’t come from anywhere. That was the whole point. It blends aspects of lots of different accents into one. Like any other accent it became exaggerated for better or worse into the  strengled viles Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard used in Brief Encounter, which tragically, still does it for me. It was interesting at the university reunion last weekend to hear how many people were using it more or less, although none of us would have admitted it without water-boarding. Despite that, I tried to keep extreme accents out of Not Your Heart Away. Nobody’s commented on them yet, anyway.

I was talking to a friend about the general rubbishness of estate agents, the sort of conversation Celia and Trevor would have been quite at home with.

“Yes, I see thet.”

Splendid! The whole reason I was thinking about this at all was due to an estate agent, or rather remembering the way she spoke when I was selling a house once, back so long ago that you could actually (a) sell houses and (b) make a profit doing it! Rarely! It was true!

I’m not jaking!

Even then the estate agent woman was something of an anachronism. She didn’t just have a tartan skirt, but also a huge chrome safety pin for it, the sort of rig I’d never actually seen on anybody over six years old. She could safely have put a couple of decades onto thet.

The house was a bit of a wreck when I bought it. We moved the bathroom down a floor, put another one in upstairs, moved the kitchen from the middle floor to the ground floor, made a study and treated and re-stained the wooden beams in the kitchen, which is what I assumed the estate agent woman was talking about. She seemed keen.

“Rarely like the stains! Did you do them?”

Yes, I said, after I did the woodworming.

Rarely? You hed woodworm thar?

Lots of it. All fixed now. So of course the wood needed to be made to look good after that.

The woman looked at me to see if I was trying to be funny. She looked at the wall and the mullioned windows, the way the sunlight caught the mellow Cotswold ashlar masonry blocks and turned to me again.

Nay! The stains! 

Ah. Ok. The ones they dug out of a quarry a long time ago. No, they were already there. For the last 300 years and more.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye.


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The smell of freedom

Patchouli used to be the smell of the tribe. It’s a dark, earthy smell that’s hard to describe because it meant so many things. There’s a coldness to it too, along with the warm, fuzzy buzz it puts in your head, the feeling it puts in your heart that for once, just this once, we could have a revolution without blood on the streets.

Well we had a revolution. It was called Thatcherism. It wasn’t much to do with patchouli and there was blood.

I tried to get some patchouli in Bath two weekends ago, to fly the flag when I went to a university reunion. Bath didn’t have any which was odd where they may as well have crop-dusted the whole city with the stuff once upon a time. I got some patchouli massage oil in Body Shop a few years ago but that’s another story. It’s not the same.

That smell was how you recognised the tribe, a not-very-secret code. The police and Drugs Squad and Customs officers always assumed it meant you were in possession of a controlled substance. I got made to turn my bag and pockets out on the street in Bath when I was stopped by two plain clothes officers whose hep-to-the-jive antennae told them ‘if you’ve got patchouli then you’ve got dope,’ as Poppy said in Not Your Heart Away. Like any assumption, a lot of the time it was wrong. They’d have been better-off targeting people who drank milk. Some did, some didn’t. In itself, patchouli was nothing to do with it.


Head Shops

After ten days of being more oddly disturbed than usual after that weekend, remembering someone’s incredulity when I said I’d only used two aftershaves in the past ten years, I decided to fly the flag again. I went to buy some patchouli.

There aren’t those little head shops where I live in rural Suffolk, nowhere the whole shop stinks of the goatskin-soled knitted slippers that might keep your feet alternatively warm or might equally give you anthrax. Nowhere with brass bells on strings and a wall full of dried beans and joss sticks and Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics and tiny Chinese porcelain bowls. There probably aren’t any shops like that anywhere now. I remember when there were.

One of the all-time great albums. Click it and see.

There was a gallery and gift shop in Woodbridge that had a suspicious number of dangly things that might be mistaken for mobiles hanging from the ceiling when I went in yesterday. The blond woman who ran the shop was about my age. I hung back a bit while she was trying to sell some tourists a painting of the quay. After they’d decided they were really nice pictures but not quite nice enough today I asked if she might know anywhere that sold patchouli, for the first time in decades. She was out around the counter in seconds, eyes darting from side to side. Old habits. I might as well have asked if she had any king-size strawberry Rizlas and a lighter.

What seems to be the problem, officer?

“This shop used to be a chemist. People sometimes think – But no. We have some joss sticks. I might have some patchouli ones. Cinnamon. Amber.  No. No patchouli. Nobody’s asked for that for years. That used to be how you knew, when I was a teenager!’

It was. What it was we knew we didn’t really know. But we knew. We didn’t know where to find any, either of us. Maybe The Purple Shop in Ipswich, she said, but it sounded exactly like the mythical Purple Shop in both our heads, too good to be true and guaranteed if it actually did exist to be closed when you got there. Not worth the drive to find out. It won’t be there anyway. Maybe it’s our age.

You can still get that smell, now and then, if you try. It’s called an essential oil now, but it always was. I eventually got some in Holland & Barrett’s aromatherapy section. They said it would help me relax. When I got home I unscrewed the top and held it under my nose and was about as relaxed as if I was caught in an avalanche that hurled me straight back to the Walcot Nation in my mind, before the picture framers and bathroom galleries moved in. Somewhere very precious where we can all go only for a little while, with the right kind of nose and one sniff of patchouli.



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The shining plain

Into my heart an air that kills from yon far country blows. What are those blue remembered hills? What spires, what farms are those? That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain; The happy highways where I went and cannot come again.

Box Hill

I can’t really remember when or where I first heard Housman‘s A Shropshire Lad. That’s as it should be, indefinite, always there, underneath everything, the landscape in my heart.

The rest of the poem goes on a bit, but those lines come back to me again and again. I’m not from Shropshire and those lines weren’t written there either, whatever Claire thought in  Not Your Heart Away, if ‘thought’ isn’t too strong a word for her off-her-face recollections one evening in a mythical country pub.

The pub I described in the book really did exist once, making it a real land of lost content. It really was called the Red Lion – I’m not an imaginative writer. It was made of stone in a village that once used water from the nearby river on the very edge of the Mendips to power a mill that made broadcloth, the stuff (and it was properly called ‘stuff’) that made hunting pink riding coats and billiard table covers, wool that was teased out with teasles, hence the name, then cropped with eight-foot long shears worn around the waist then hammered flat over and again until it was dense, hard-wearing. It all ends in the beginning though, that story. The whole point of the mill was to provide power and once that walk starts it ends with the shearers replaced by machines, as Thomas Helliker, our local martyr found.

The Red Lion

But we didn’t know any of that in the Red Lion, not then. The only food they sold was crisps, Kit-Kats and Mars bars, the way country pubs always used to. Then peanuts came along and the rot set in. The next thing was the amazing thing, the Star Trek invasion. Somehow the Red Lion owner got hold of probably one of the first microwaves in the universe. It only cooked one thing, plastic-wrapped cheese and onion sandwiches that were microwaved in the bag. People used to watch it being done, the microwave machine behind the bar where everyone could see it. We made our own entertainment in those days.

Someone tried to organise a school reunion ten years ago and phoned the Red Lion to see if we could hold it where we’d spent so much of our school time, at least in the evenings and weekends. There was a big fireplace, a door at the front and another, the one everyone used, at the back leading into the car park that was more like a little wood than anywhere you’d leave your car now. It was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Nobody bothered anyone. You could have a conversation if you wanted one and be left alone if you didn’t. On Friday and Saturday nights it was literally wall-to-wall people in all three rooms of the pub. Cars were borrowed, crashed, had their rusting sills ripped off on the stones that bordered the grass, abandoned with the doors open and lights on and even sometimes parked normally in the car-park. Love affairs started, flourished, turned into disappointment or jealousy and ended in that pub. It’s possible that whole lives started there too, but that was nothing to do with me even if I did know exactly who was involved in that particular episode.

The Red Lion shut over a decade ago. There’s another pub called the Red Lion just over a mile away but it’s not the same. It never was. It just wasn’t the one you went to. Was it so good because of the place, or the people who went there? It’s something I’m asking myself more and more these days. And more and more I’m thinking the land of lost content is a place in your heart, not anywhere you can find on a map.

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Along With Anne of Green Gables

I never read Anne of Green Gables. I remember seeing it on TV but about the only salient details that stand out now, rooting through the dusty attic of memories of black and white children’s entertainment seem to be old-fashioned clothes, shrubbery and the words “Ant Murilla” repeated about 500 times per episode. Why I’m wondering about this at all is because my dedicated manuscript editor emailed me to say she’d just had email from

AOGNothing unusual there. What was, was the suggestion from Amazon that Not Your Heart Away is in their opinion, “similar.” Not ‘if you like this book you might like these,” but outright ‘similar books.’ So I thought I’d better have a look and see what Anne of Green Gables was all about. I  had a quick look on Wikipedia to see what happened to Anne. She was orphaned, spent much of her childhood in orphanages and then gets sent to rural Prince Edward Island after quite-old-in-those-days Mathew Cuthbert and Ant Murilla (sorry, I just can’t get that BBC Drama department Canadian accent out of my head) apply to adopt a boy orphan to help run their farm and get sent Anne instead. I’m not seeing it yet, frankly.

Anne is described as bright and quick, eager to please, talkative, and extremely imaginative. She has a pale face and freckles and red hair.

Not Liz with brown hair and not Claire with dark hair then. And neither of those two could be described as eager to please, or certainly not eager to please Ben, anyway.

As a child of imagination, Anne takes much joy in life and adapts quickly, thriving in the close-knit farming village. Her talkativeness initially drives the prim, duty-driven Marilla to distraction, although Matthew falls for her charm immediately. Anne says that they are ‘kindred spirits’.

True, Ben falls for Claire’s charms pretty much immediately, but then, it doesn’t take much to get his attention in that respect. Ask Poppy.

Not Your Green Gables

The book recounts Anne’s adventures in making a home: the country school where she quickly excels in her studies; her friendship with Diana Barry (her best or “bosom friend” as Anne fondly calls her); her budding literary ambitions; and her rivalry with a classmate who teases her about her red hair. For that he earns her instant hatred, although he apologizes many times. As time passes, Anne realizes she no longer hates Gilbert but cannot bring herself to admit it. However, by the end of the book they become friends.

Not Your Heart Away is set in the countryside, admittedly, but there is a distinct lack of attention to school-work. Rejection, friendship and love, yes. It’s got that in common. Liz and Ben, well that’s another story, a much deeper one than the one he wanted to share about Claire. Whether those two were ever really friends is debatable. Bosoms feature quite prominently in Ben’s worldview, too.

The book also follows Anne’s adventures in quiet, old-fashioned Avonlea. Episodes include accidentally getting someone drunk. 

I’m starting to see similarities here, although there is nothing accidental about any of the characters getting drunk. I suspect Poppy and Claire at least were quite a bit more drunk than Anne of Green Gables got, at least at that age. I certainly hope so, anyway.

At sixteen, Anne goes to Queen’s Academy to earn a teaching license. She obtains her license in one year instead of the usual two and wins the Avery Scholarship for the top student in English. Her attainment of this scholarship would allow her to pursue a B.A. degree on the mainland in Nova Scotia.

Bizzarely, someone who partly inspired the character of Claire recently got her own teaching licence, according to Facebook. Whether or not she won the Top Student award I’m uncertain about.

Near the end of the book, Matthew dies after learning that all of his and Marilla’s money has been lost. Out of devotion to Marilla and Green Gables, Anne gives up the Avery Scholarship to stay at home and help Marilla, whose eyesight is diminishing. She plans to teach and return to Green Gables on weekends.

I’m not spoiling the plot by saying nobody dies of a heart attack in Not Your Heart Away, although the play on the title might have been fun to do. Next time, maybe. Nobody starts going blind, although Liz would certainly argue Ben might as well be when it comes to anything Claire ever does. Deaf, too. Lots of money is lost though, and without a homesteading land grant available for over a thousand years in Wiltshire, Claire’s family have to make some tough decisions about where they are going to live. Her parents seem to have got a little confused about who they were living with too, particularly at weekends.

In an act of friendship, Gilbert Blythe gives up his teaching position at the Avonlea School to work at White Sands School instead. Anne can teach in Avonlea and stay at Green Gables all through the week. After this kind act, Anne and Gilbert’s friendship is cemented, and Anne looks forward to the next “bend in the road.”

Most people who knew Ben were convinced that the next bend in the road would be the last one they ever saw if they were in the same car and he was driving. Nobody got taught anything, least of all Ben. Work was just a tiny cloud on the far horizon in the land of lost content that was the summer of Not Your Heart Away.

But Anne of Green Gables does have some similarities. It’s got if not haunted bedrooms and a girl haunted by her future, at least haunted woods. It’s set in the middle of a rural nowhere, but with the same juxtaposition of the big world outside and the twining beauty of the trees and fields all around. Anne’s house is based on a very real house too, one that is now a tourist attraction rather than a spa for Olympic athletes, which is what happened to Claire’s house.

So, distinctly hmmmm, Amazon. I just hope Not Your Heart Away gets translated into 36 languages and made into three films and a TV series as well. It’s just that if it’s going to be on at tea-time I think the drinking, spliffing, attempted drink-driving and consensual clothes adjusting in parks is going to have to go.


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Stranger than fiction

Stranger than comedy, anyway.

I was sitting in a pub at the end of last year talking with a man known in the foodie community as The Sausage King, but not a name I felt I could ask for him by in The Crown.

You know something about food, he said. How about doing something on my radio show?

I was trying to distance myself from food a bit which some recent photos show might be a good idea. So I suggested I did something else.


I don’t know. Er, how about a celebrity chef gets kidnapped by a bankrupt battery chicken farmer and made to recant publicly after he’s campaigned for free-range hens? I’ll call it No Batteries Required.

Ok, do it, he said. Darn.

After stopping and starting a bit I did it. Predictably the chicken farmer gets arrested so I had a defence solicitor and a police sergeant review it to make sure at least the procedures were believable. I just had email from one of them today. “How did you know about the whatever? You’re not supposed to know that.”

Without spoiling the story, the whatever was put in because it was the most ridiculous thing I could think of in the circumstances. I didn’t know about it. It’s almost as ludicrous as the chicken tattoo. But I so hope the Prime Minister really does have that tattooed on him where people can’t see it.

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Low Tone

Back in 1995 I got a saxophone for Christmas. I thought it was a shotgun.

It was an easy mistake to make, the kind that could happen to anyone. We’d gone down to a flat we’d got hold of in Lyme Regis and while it was all French Lieutenant’s Woman it was freezing and bleak and apart from walking there wasn’t a huge amount to do. When I brought the bags in from the car I thought the heavy square box was a cased 12-bore, which was unexpected but then, so was a saxophone.

I’d wanted to play one for years but got slightly beyond the age when you can tap on garage doors and ask the teenagers practising if you can jam with them. No thanks to Jimmy Saville, but as Louis Jordan used to sing, you cain’t get that no more. 

I was about thirteen when I bought my first LP, the original RCA Victor Glenn Miller recordings from 1943/44. Nobody liked that, then. Older people who knew it from the first time around didn’t seem to listen to it, but maybe they’d heard about enough of it already. I still can’t see how that’s possible. People my age weren’t into it then. It’s nice to know that one or two are now. It wasn’t just me.

I don’t know what it is about that sound. It wasn’t so much Tex Beneke who arguably had as much to with establisahing how the band sounded as Glenn Miller did himself or Charlie Parker or even, as we learned, them Duke boys’s big city uncle, Bill Clinton. It was all of it, the wrap-around warmth of the sound. That would have been something I could have done with, back then. It was reassuring, somehow, the reassurance helped by the distance between then and now, because you can’t hear that Big Band sound in England, something like Moonlight Serenade without realising why all those Americans were here, bringing the tunes with them. Close your eyes to that music and you can still see the Fortresses and Liberators slowly waltzing through the sky, the quick step as the bomb loads drop away, the dainty pirouettes of the fighters boring through the formation, the innocent wisp of smoke from first an engine, then a fuselage and then the pyre of twelve men dropping through five miles of sky. It was an odd childhood. We were haunted by the War. Nobody talked about it. It was so big nobody had to. My school was full of kids with names from two thousand miles away whose parents hardly ever spoke about how they got there. Every toy-shop window had the plastic 1:72 scale Airfix memorials to the jeeps and tanks and planes and boats lots of our fathers knew much too well back when they were just ten years older than we were, looking through the glass from the street.

Learn to play the saxophone

But it was still good music. It was what I wanted to play. And later, when I heard it, I wanted to play Louis Jordan and the Motels and Dexy’s Midnight Runners and of course, of course Kid Creole and the Coconuts and Springsteen and Steely Dan and Cole Porter. I liked that honeyed sound. I liked the seduction of it all. Who wouldn’t? When I was on summer camp one year in Wisconsin I used to take a friend’s uncle’s sax out into the woods and learn how to make sounds with it and by the end of camp I could run through some of the easier Glenn Miller tunes from the memorial library in my head as well as have a stab at the solo in the Motel’s Total Control. There was someone I really, really wanted to play that to. One day, maybe.

Learning to read music would have helped and it still would, but until then I just have to play just what I feel, in the absence of a more formal, structured approach. I know I should. I will. But I’ve got stuff to do first. You know how it is. I’ve got to listen to Deacon Blue – no, the real one, the one Deacon Blue got their name from – a lot before I go back to Every Good Boy Deserves Favour on the stave. That’s the song I want at my funeral. How cool would that be?

The Spring I got my sax I had four top front crowns done. I spent nearly two hours getting my teeth ground off. The dentist told me it wouldn’t hurt and he was right, but he warned me it would probably do stuff to my head, stuff you couldn’t see. He was right about that too. He’d told me to bring a CD in. He forgot to say bring a CD that is going to take your attention for a long time but one you don’t mind never listening to again. It was Mozart. I haven’t been able to listen to it ever since. After that I was more than a little wary of biting hard on anything for months, even though my brand new Terminator-style replicant teeth would have happily bitten straight through the mouthpiece and looked darned good while they did it. Even so, I didn’t want to play sax for a long time.

Me and Teresa, sax and voice

Once I’d had a dream of living in Camden and playing in pub bands. That was a dream that might have happened if I’d (a) had a saxophone then and more importantly (b) done anything at all about it. Just recently someone was getting a band together, a reunion of a band they’d had at university. I said I’d play. I’d never, ever played in public before and up to the night before I was still wondering if anyone I was with would ever talk to me again if I said I wasn’t going to do it. But I did it, thanks to some wonderful support. It taught me something I wish I’d learned a long, long time ago, even if I do still remember how that music used to make me smile. Friends don’t care if you mess up. They care a lot more if you don’t do what you can.

When I got back home after that weekend I’ve tried to get an hour a day practising, accompanying those old tunes, the really old ones and the ones that when I first heard them weren’t old at all. I looked up my Martin Handcraft on the web, using the matching serial numbers to find out when it was made. This particular Low Tone, so old they didn’t call them tenor saxes in those days, was made in the summer of 1924. I’ve cleaned it as well as practiced more with it. I’m going to get a decent brass mouthpiece because I think it deserves something a little better than the £9.99 piece of plastic I’ve been using and losing control of the reed on, after about half an hour. Odd to think of it being that old though. That same sax, all the way from Indiana, was around before every one of the musicians I’ve been talking about here. Any one of them could have played it. I don’t know how, or when it got to England. But I can make a story about it.



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The meaning of meaning

This has been a strange, unsettling week when I have made excuses to myself not to get down and do some real keep-going-till-you-can’t writing again, the kind I was doing around Christmas, finishing Not Your Heart Away.

Unsettling because of an unexpectedly wonderful weekend. I’d never gone to university reunions before and didn’t really want to go to this one, but I’d volunteered to bring instruments for a band that hadn’t played for 30 years and wanted to meet someone I’d talked to a lot on Facebook and who’d helped me a lot in that weird editing and re-writing time.

Writing what you know is the only kind of writing I’m much good at. I’m not imaginative. I can invent scenes and dialogue but as it’s confessions time I’m going to get this out in the open. I nick stuff. I steal things that happened to other people. I take things that don’t belong to me, pasts, incidents, histories, love affairs, car crashes, all kinds of things I’ve heard over the years. Then I jumble them up with other happenings and events to make a more-or-less believable whole. I think of someone’s voice and I can write dialogue for a character nothing to do with the real person I’m thinking of, then glue someone else’s past onto them and throw in something that happened to someone else as well. But I have to keep thinking of the real individual’s voices, or sometimes just the shape of their face, a different one for each character, or for me, anyway, it doesn’t work. Once I can remember their voice I know the kinds of things the character could say, or just couldn’t in a million years, not in that way. Someone asked me if I’d like to teach creative writing. I would, except I don’t think I’m actually very creative. I re-assemble memories. Maybe that counts. But it all got very confusing, sitting in bed in the small hours, on my own, re-creating memories of people I’d melded together in a very real place I ached to see again, a place that doesn’t exist although once it very much did, very much the way I wrote it.

When I was a boy we kept chickens. I remember when I was about two years old going to collect eggs and being told ‘Don’t run or you’ll drop the eggs, and they’re for Daddy’s tea.” Except I don’t. I don’t remember it really. It’s fake. It was repeated so many times I think all I remember is the memory of the memory, not the thing at all. I remember the chickens all in a coop, for example, but when I found some old photos by accident recently there they all were, loads more of them than I remember, surrounding me in a garden and no wire-mesh in sight.

Rutger Hauer. There you go girls. Don’t say I don’t do anything for you.

It reminded me of one of the clues Decker clung to to track down the replicants in Blade Runner. Super-realistic replicants, human-like robots had come back to the Earth they were banished from. They were so realistic that the only way to make sure they weren’t human was to test their empathy, something robots and most modern politicians don’t have and can’t fake, the most human condition. Having feelings for others who aren’t going to benefit you; helping people because they need help, not because they’re going to pay you.  Ridiculously old-fashioned, isn’t it? What sort of un-reconstructed sanitised-for-your-convenience Commie claptrap is that? It would never catch on now, after Thatcher and Blair.

The clue Decker picked up on was the thefts. Because the robots, Pris and Kowalski and Rutger Hauer were manufactured aged 25 or so, they had to make-up memories of their non-existent childhoods. They broke into houses and stole family photo albums so that they could learn a memory, so that they could say ‘look, that was our dog when I was six at the lake that summer.’ To be convincingly human they needed to learn the things humans forget.

I’d forgotten what Bath was like. It was never all brilliantly wonderful although like all nostalgia, it was better than it is now. But there was something wonderful about not so much remembering as simply being a part of a place, of knowing what was in that empty shop, hearing about someone else’s monumental getting-arrested bust-up, someone else’s propositioning as a routine part of a student job, while walking the very same street where I remember being screamed at by someone so young, so pretty, so upset a long time ago, so loud they woke the sleeping pigeons.

I’d forgotten how much I’d wanted to play in a band and never did until last week. I was so nervous about it I nearly didn’t go, or maybe I’d go and pretend to have food poisoning or some nonsense like that to get out of it because I knew I was going to mess it up. But then I had a talk with myself and so did other people and I did the human thing. I didn’t steal the photos, didn’t make up the memories. I just took a chance of falling flat on my face in public and because of that maybe, I didn’t.

All week I’ve been thinking perhaps I should have done that, the most foolish, self-indulgent thinking of all, wishing for another past. Maybe I should have learned to play the saxophone and played just what I feel, as Steely Dan used to sing. To be fair, I did my fair share of drinking scotch whisky all night long, but I think it takes a little more than that. And no use to think that and anyway, as I slowly realised, I pretty much did. Somewhere along the way obviously apart from some missed notes and a reed that just loses it after about half an hour from brand new and I don’t know why, obviously I did learn a bit. And because I never bothered to learn to read music then playing just what I feel is the only way I can play at all. I don’t drink as much now though, certainly not all night long. It gets in the way of the memory. And I came close enough to dying behind the wheel one New Year a long time gone not to want that particular exit.

The girl who sang said she felt like she was walking on air all week. I felt like we were all of us walking on sunshine. It’s still here.


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On Amazon

Another Nice Review

I must admit I found the first few pages of Not Your Heart Away a little hard going, but I have learnt that this does not always lead to a bad read. I persevered and I am glad that I did as this turned out to be a corker of a book with an unexpected ending that stirred up some wonderful memories of my youth. I identified with most of the characters and believe anyone who reads this book will also recognise people and situations from their past. I found after the first couple of chapters that I couldn’t wait to return to the book. The late seventies and eighties carefree days came flooding back, as did a number of awkward situations. I hope we get a follow up as I would love to see how the characters develop, especially Ben and Liz’s friendship. More please..

And no, I didn’t change a single word of that. You can see for yourself, along with all the other lovely reviews of Not Your Heart Away. Did I ask for the reviews? Yes, of course I did. Did I dictate them? No. Did I know all the people who wrote them? No to that too.

That’s what makes them particularly satisfying. Apart from the fact they’re all really nice reviews.

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Cutting down

And cut….

Writing a film script is nothing like writing a book. I put together what I thought was a film script for Not Your Heart Away in a month when I saw an advert on the BBC Writers Room website back in March.

It’s not just that most of the descriptions of things are redundant. In a book you can spend pages talking about a sunset, or a cup of coffee, but you know that when (obviously you have to think ‘when’ not ‘if’) you see them on the screen both of them put together will be under a minute, and how they look is none of your business as a writer. Same with clothes, same with cars, buildings – all of that atmosphere is pretty much down to the director. If you’ve got any doubts about that go and watch Bladerunner, then read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I’ve done a couple of TV scripts, but it’s a long stretch from half-hour subscription channel training programme to a full-length feature film so I did the only thing I could think of doing: put the whole book down as a film, then cut. And cut. And cut. The target is about 150 pages maximum. The first draft came in at about 320.

Luckily I only had to send the first ten pages to the BBC, but that was about as far as I thought it would go. A week later Cascade Pictures, true to their word, emailed to say that they’d capped the entries to 150 scripts. And mine was one they’d like me to go and pitch to them.

I thought exactly what you’d think: wind-up. But it wasn’t. I checked. You get ten minutes flat to sell them the idea from popcorn to Kia-ora drink. My first pitch and it went ok. The very first studio I ever pitched with my very first film-script didn’t option it. I know. How rubbish is that?

But the Amazon reviews are coming in for the book and people are talking about it, even arguing about it in some cases. I’d described the film as Four Weddings Meets The Others after I changed the ending; it’s much sadder, much spookier in the film. And got howls of outrage. Not about changing the ending, but because one of my pitch advisers thought it was much more The English Patient than Four Weddings.


But anyway. Cascade felt there was a gap in my narrative arc, but someone described what it doesn’t seem stretching it now to call ‘the property’ to someone else who thought maybe they could point it at another studio. Shouldn’t be a problem if the script’s finished. No promises, obviously.

So that’s my priority, aside from learning Spanish and getting a brass mouthpiece for my sax without any money. Hack another hundred pages off it. It’s going ok, but I can only do it in short bursts. Easy really.

So long as we can get Kristin Scott Thomas for Claire’s mum it’ll be fine.



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No habla Espanol

I’m just starting to learn Spanish. I like the sound of it. And I like the poetry and pathos of the contents page of my Teach Yourself Spanish book. It’s a whole romance of its own. But an odd choice of issues to learn to talk about in another language. It’s not supposed to be a book about adult relationships, surely. But this, just the contents page, this is a whole affair.


Saying someone’s name. Seeking clarification and help.

Asking people where they live and saying where you live. Asking for and giving telephone numbers.

Asking for a room in a hotel. Asking where something can be done.

Asking and saying how far away something is.

Ordering food and drinks. Saying what you prefer.

Saying what clothes you want, finding out how much things cost.

Changing money, giving your address.

Talking about yourself, describing your house and your neighbourhood, making comparisons.

Saying what your occupation is, how long you’ve been doing something.

Saying how often you do certain things.

Asking people what they like. Saying what you are going to do. Asking to speak to someone on the phone.

Talking about past events. Saying how long ago something took place. Talking about the weather.

Era muy pequena. Asking and giving reasons. Saying what someone was like.

Saying how you used to spend your time.

Ha sido una equivocacion. Passing on a message. Saying what you have done.

Expressing supposition and certainty. Expressing conditions.

Me encantaria. Making suggestions. Accepting and declining an invitation.

Le sirvo un poco mas? Expressing gratitude and pleasure.

Siga todo recto. Giving instructions.

Me duele la cabeza. Explaining what is wrong with you.

Saying what sort of person you are looking for. Expressing hope with regard to others. Expressing doubt.



I promise I haven’t made-up one single word of this. There’s an intriguing switch between the eternally youthful Leslie Phillips optimism at the beginning of the relationship to the jaded, je-ne-regrette-rien moue of the boulevardier by the end, if you’ll pardon my French.

So pausing only to say “I say, ding dong,’ I’d better get started.





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