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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How Do You Write It?

I see this topic a lot on writing forums (fora? forii??) and I’ve been asked it a few times too. And I don’t know. I tried to write Not Your Heart Away a lot, but I didn’t know that was what I was trying to write. It wasn’t ready.

I wrote a shadow of it when I was eighteen, just after I finished A Levels and couldn’t stop working. If I’d started working earlier it might have helped. It took about a month and it was just under 50,000 words. It’s on Amazon as A Day For Pyjamas and one of these days I have to get down to doing something with it.

For an eighteen year old it was ok. I tried to get it published but I hadn’t a clue where to start. I walked up and down the Grays Inn Road with it one day knocking on doors and entirely surprisingly to me, got nowhere at all. I went to Smiths and got another publisher’s address out of the first book I saw. Pan liked it, took it home and read it one weekend or so they said, but pointed out quite reasonably that they were actually more into publishing stuff other publishers had already published, so they knew there was a market for them. This was also the time it might have become obvious to anyone a bit more self-aware that one of the steps in my cognitive process wasn’t fixed that securely. A Day For Pyjamas was a love story about a teenage boy who can’t steel himself to get the girl of his dreams, for reasons he can’t work out. From here, I can – I think he wanted to play safe and did it the worst way possible, because your heart doesn’t know what it means. But not the point. This is the book I took the publisher’s name from, in WH Smiths in Trowbridge, a long time ago, when I was looking for someone to help me bring this tender, angsty, teenage love story to paper:



There’s something not right in that thinking, isn’t there? So hard at the time to see quite what, though. Oddly, Pan thought it wasn’t quite their thing, not without more Panzerfaust rocket launchers in the text than I thought the sensitive, calf-eyed poet narrator could reasonably carry to school. Back in Walcot Nation, Bath Arts Workshop had a look at it and decided they’d publish it. Then their funding was axed. Then their building burned down when someone decided to get really into his roots and light a cooking fire. On a 250 year-old hardwood Georgian floor. No, not in the same room as. On.

After that I took it as a sign that A Day For Pyjamas was supposed to do what it did, go back in the drawer for years to be taken out and shown to a select audience as conclusive proof that I really was sensitive and artistic and you know, if they turned the lights down and sat on the sofa, no, over here with me, we could maybe read it together. That didn’t work out most of the time either. But the story was still smouldering at the back of my head. I’d get glimpses of it, the same kind of feeling you have when you go into a room looking for something and as soon as you’re there you can’t remember what it was you were looking for.

I could never put my finger on what it was the story was looking for. Maybe love. Or the past, but really none of those and more than them, both. Certainly both of those things got it written. Last August I drove down to see an old friend, someone I knew from the days the book was set. We sat up nearly all night, far too old to do this, far too old not to now, talking about old times and  all the “whatever happened to” stories. When I came home I stopped outside the house of someone I used to know. It’s in the book. It felt like thirty years before, even though I couldn’t get into the grounds and had forgotten or never really knew that this house actually had grounds. No-one ever talked about it. Not the girl who used to live there, certainly. I stood in the lane and a wave of I don’t know what seemed to flow down the lane towards me. Warmth. Happiness. Nervousness. The other word Ben in the book couldn’t bring himself to use, the one he couldn’t trust himself with. I spoke someone’s name from long ago.

I got in my car and drove away. When I sat down to write that week it didn’t stop. 111,000 words later it became Not Your Heart Away. It’s a memorial to the times when there was something you were just about to find, before you never quite found it, before it slipped out of your fingers into the shadows again.

So that’s how I wrote it. You have to feel it. But more than that, you have to sit down and do it. And the sitting down, facing up to having to do it, that’s the really hard part. Write the story in your heart. Everyone’s got one. All you have to do is listen to it.



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Not Your Heart Away – The Sequel

Brilliant news today. Another old friend I’ve just got back in touch with thanks to the wonders of Facebook has put me in touch with someone who’s pointing me at another film production company, so I’ve got to hack the Not Your Heart Away script down and pitch it again. Really exciting, even if I think I’m going to have to re-write it from scratch as opposed to converting the book format to film. Come on, it’s the first time I’ve done this, after all. Got to find an agent for the film as well as the book but apparently as it’s already written, not so much of an issue as with books.

And the second and possibly more but at least equally brilliant piece of today is that I think I’ve got the plot and the format for the sequel to Not Your Heart Away. I’ve been having a conceptual problem with it, which is a fancy way of stating the obvious. Which is that Ben’s first person eighteen year-old narrator self can only talk about things he’s seen or someone told him about, which is about right for an eighteen year old. The obvious snag is that given he doesn’t meet Claire again for years, how does he describe what happens to her in the 1980s? You see the problem?

But I think I’ve solved it, after some self-indulgent rambling on several people’s Facebook messages I co-opted to scribble some ideas down and get them clear in my head. Sorry about that. I really should have used a notebook, not your space.

The thing is, Claire’s still got things to say to me. I can hear her in my head, even more clearly after this weekend and the help I got walking around the city.

‘Come on. Let me tell them. Let me tell them and – and I’ll read you some poetry. Perhaps one evening. Would you like that?’

And as I would too, very much, I’ve got to start writing it now. But I’ve got to think of a title. The True Thorn maybe. Given that both Ben and Claire misunderstood what it is, was and will be.

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A Reunion

I’ve just got back from a university reunion, with people I haven’t seen since the 1980s. I ‘m coming to realise that whole real people have been born, grown-up, married, had children, bought houses and died in that time. It’s an odd feeling.

There were people there I’d known and lost touch with, others I’d only met once or only on Facebook. I walked around the places I used to walk, looking for someone I knew very well, but I never quite caught up with me, disappearing down those stone streets.

A lot of stuff had changed. Brilliant independent shops had become the kind of shops you could find anywhere else, another triumph for Chris Patten and the Tory government’s universal business rate that made it easy for the chains to ‘compete’ and offer ‘choice’ so long as it’s their choice and the competition is run according to their rules. And no patchouli oil. There was a time it was as if they’d sprayed the stuff out of crop-dusting aircraft over Milsom Street. Now there wasn’t a single shop in Walcot Nation that sold it. Not even ‘Appy Daze, the herbal high head-shop, where I had a chat in my Barbour with the white dreadlocked owner and we both bemoaned the fact that The Man had won, man. Heavy trip. Bummer. Maybe next month he’s going to have some essential oils, but the only essential oil we knew about back then was that funny green stuff you spread up the side of a Marlboro back in the days of Not Your Heart Away. Times, as they say, change. The past is another country. And besides, the wench is dead.

Bath was still beautiful. Those funny trees up on the hill, the ones you can see from the main street, Milsom Street, still look as if they’ve been painted on scenery flats in an amateur dramatic production. I got my first pint of decent beer, Wadworth’s 6X, in years after being exiled to the likes of Adnams and Tolly, away from the place I said out loud as I drove past Swindon was still ‘nearly home.’ But the first pub, the Saracen’s Head I went to was empty at noon on a Saturday. It used to be standing room only in the Sary and a sea of voices and cigarette smoke. The Hat And Feathers was shut until the evening and had become a steakhouse.

I still don’t know how I feel about that weekend. It’s left me thoughtful and calm, like the wonderful peaceful walk I had on Sunday morning with someone I’ve talked to on Facebook a lot but only ever met once before. It taught me something too. I’d foolishly said I’d bring some instruments to help out someone’s band. I said I’d play. Back when I’d just left Bath I wanted above pretty much everything to play sax in a band and gig in pubs. This last Sunday, I did for the first time. I was worried about it, but then we played for over two hours and while I missed some notes and messed-up others, so did everyone else and it was ok. It was more than ok.

Then a trip out to the airport and a picnic of bread and humous and water and blueberries in a damp layby discussing the fall of the Moorish civilisation as the rain gusted over rusty farm machinery dumped outside someone’s stone barn. It was as close to a perfect Sunday as I’ve got for years. It was being with people who are part of me. And new ones who feel like that too. Thank-you all. I needed that. Everyone does.

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A rather pleasant invitation

I like being invited to things. It makes me feel wanted. Today I was invited to do something extra nice, namely send the manuscript of Not Your Heart Away over to a literary agent. I’d sent things to them before, namely A Day For Pyjamas and I wondered if they’d like to have a look at A Day For Pyjamas on steroids.

They would. Now. All of it. Please send it by email today.

Which is rather flattering. I’m not saying which one in case it breaks the spell.

Just keep your fingers crossed for me, please.

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Golden Cap

I wrote this as one of many false starts that went before Not Your Heart Away last year. Not wanting to waste it I put this in for the Flash Fiction competition in the Bridport Literary Festival. I thought flash fiction was 500 words. That was tight. Once I’d written it I found out they only wanted 250. I’ll try a haiku next time.


golden cap


Golden Cap

‘I was not acting alone and I’m not being scapegoated,’ she said firmly into her iPhone.

‘It’s the wind. No, I can’t hear you properly either. Dorset. Satnav. A35 and turn left. No. I’m not there. Don’t know. Is this some sort of interrogation, Gideon? Because so far as I’m aware I’m not actually employed by you, am I?’

On this beach against this grey sliver of tarmac the low car was next to invisible this late in the day. The driver’s door opened like lips parting and she got out and stretched the road out of her long legs.

Four o’clock this afternoon and the pub at the end of this track looked as if it would never open again. She could hear the wind humming against the flanks of the car as she stood looking back along the beach towards Weymouth.

‘Next to a big yellow cliff, a stream and a pub. Yes. Like every other bloody thing right now it’s closed for business. Oh funny. Yes. Ha ha. Well take that as a definite, so far as you’re concerned. No sweeting. I don’t ever threaten. I do. As you know. It’s quicker.’
A long line of grey cloud coming in from the sea brought the taste of salt cold on her lips as the late winter sun caught the top of the sandy cliff.

‘So to cut through all your crap, despite my being the most productive dealer on what you choose to call your trading floor, one little sniff of how our syndicate shorted sterling in the paper your Mummy reads and my secure door pass doesn’t work any more. And I haven’t got a desk as of now. Really.’

She slowly recognised this place. Grandpy fished off the beach here. Dad left here. She knew just a few bucket and spade and ice-lolly summers here but here after all she was, like a bad penny and just four hundred thousand good pounds in the account and this ludicrously beautiful car that would attract every screwdriver-blade and sharp object within a half-mile. The car would have to go. Along with everything else.

‘No, really that is too kind, Gideon.’ She bit the words out of the air as she walked along the track away from the car and the main road.

The last of the sun flared along the cliff like bullion, once, twice and then the cloud came.

‘That’s my own Dorset Golden Cap, is it? Too funny. One point two million. And you’re asking me if that’s ok?’

She stood still and took the mobile from her ear. Folded her arms around her in the sudden deeper chill. She began to walk again down the little road, out across the grey sand towards the flat sea.

‘No.’ She spoke the word out loud. ‘No. It isn’t my golden cap. And it isn’t ok. It never, never was.’

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Another brilliant review on Goodreads

Just got a really nice review on Goodreads for Not Your Heart Away:


Thoroughly enjoyed Not Your Heart Away, found it a bit difficult at first to get into but then found I couldn’t stop reading it, fascinating story which you couldn’t wait to see what happened next, the ending was absolutely brilliant, completely different than how I expected it to be, a book definately worth reading, Carl Bennett has written Not Your Heart Away so that you get a real understanding of each character, you feel that you are with them totally in their thoughts and actions, a book I would certainly recommend reading.



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Magic Camels

Once upon a time when the world was young or at least I was, which always comes to much the same thing, Tom Robbins wrote a book called Still Life With Woodpecker.  Despite using lines like “I have a black belt in haiku” it’s not a profound book and when I read it I was thrown by the all-enveloping American-ness of the Hawaiian setting. I still haven’t been to Hawai but these days I imagine it as a hotter version of SoCal, which is good and bad.
Still Life With WoodpeckerBoy meets girl except he’s a non-specific revolutionary bomber (no, a nice one, you could say that back then, in the days when terrorism was sexy if you were an American and didn’t get to suffer the consequences and sex was still just about part of the revolution) and she’s a princess, a real one. That could happen. Ask Princess Margaret. He obsesses about her and adopts the role of spiritual mentor, or as we used to say, helps her get her head together – I still like that better – finding the extra in the ordinary, the fabulous wonder in the Camel packet.

It seems really very strange to think about it but there was a time when smoking was cool. No, really. Everyone did it. Or if not everyone, then certainly it was only odd people who didn’t. Like anything else, smoking had its strata, its layers, its classifications and social shortcuts and bonding rituals. In one of the few sensible things my mother ever said to me I was told if I had to smoke to make sure I smoked good cigarettes. For me, that meant Camels.

I liked the taste, although a lot of people didn’t, which was fabulously good because it meant ‘Slightly Strange & Exotic’ plus no-one else wanted your cigarettes, unless they too were one of the kamikaze elite. (Oh look it up, do I have to do everything?) But most of all, I liked the mystery. Other cigarettes had names. Some even had numbers, like Number 6 or 555, but I’d sooner have gone without than ever have one of either of those. In case anyone saw me, apart from anything else. But apart from Player’s, none of the other cigarettes had pictures on the packet. Players had a  little picture of Nottingham Castle on the inside of the packet and the sailor peering through the lifebelt. What was that about? You smoked them after what, being torpedoed on an Arctic convey 200 miles from Murmansk?

“Players, for when you know your ship is sinking?” I can’t see it working now.

Camel pack

But Camels didn’t have any old picture. Just look at the magnificence of it. Yes, I know. Sorry. I know you’re not supposed to say that about things that kill you unless they’re governments and especially your own, but it was true. Pyramids, like the ones on the dollar bill, there for reasons that were never made clear to me. Palm trees, which back when Not Your Heart Away was set, meant Maria Muldaur and Midnight At The Oasis. And the mysterious camel of course. He’s even mentioned in Bukowski’s Ham On Rye.

But we loved him for other reasons. He was how you could tell how into it girls were. It was all about how many naked women you could see on the packet.

The easiest one is in the back leg, facing you , her head tilted to her right, your left, her right hand on her hip. See her? OK. The next one is in the front leg, same pose but facing a little away from you. The third – and now we’re getting into it – is in the neck, stretched out like a figurehead, but a 1970s figurehead, her left arm raised, her hand behind her head. Baby!

The last two are a bit busy in the middle of the camel’s back. Girls who could see all five, well. If they couldn’t you just had to buy them more drinks until they could.

What other cigarette packet ever gave anyone a whole evening’s entertainment? If usually, nothing else.



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Why Not Your Heart Away?

From A Shropshire Lad:


When I was one-and-twenty I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas but not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies but keep your fancy free.”
But I was one-and-twenty, no use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty I heard him say again,
“The heart out of the bosom was never given in vain;
‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty and sold for endless rue.”
And I am two-and-twenty and oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

That’s why. Alfred doesn’t look the grooviest malchick who ever spacked out on cider in Wiltshire, but appearances can be deceptive.

I had never read the whole poem until a couple of months ago, long after I started the book. I’d heard the line ‘blue remembered hills’ the way lots of people sort-of almost have.

Dennis Potter wrote a play called that, about middle-aged men dressing up as schoolboys and playing in the woods, a affluent retirement dystopia that leans a little too heavily on Lord of the Flies transposed to Surrey with an element of Brian Rix farce thrown in to make it massively succesful, I would have thought.

What I like about A Shropshire Lad is something that some kind reviewers have said about Not Your Heart Away; underneath the sunny, bucolic forever trance of the memory of those hills there’s an unstated menace, something you can read as almost a dread of finding whatever it is you went there looking for.

A long time ago I went to see a magician, a shaman, a white witch, call it what you will. He told me one of the things I keep close to me: Be careful what you wish for, in case you get it.
Not original maybe; a homily that is at least as old as Icarus, who wanted to fly and like Ben, flew much too close to the sun.

But that, for me, is the thing hidden at the heart of the blue remembered hills, the heart of the poem. The heart of Not Your Heart Away too.


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