I spent fifteen years telling myself I couldn’t do something. Which was stupid, because that always turns out to be true. To be accurate I spent thirteen years doing that and another two years thinking I had to do it but I didn’t know how. Then a year seriously thinking about how I was going to do it.

It was a story. The problem was it was true. The bigger problem was it happened in a Germany that has thankfully disappeared, which I knew next to nothing about. Not least as I didn’t speak German.

I didn’t want to be the sad bloke with shelves full of books with swastikas on the spine. Even after I learned they’re called hakencruzen. I read everything I could, buying books from boot-sales, second-hand shops, anywhere. What I didn’t want was military history. I needed to know how a village worked. What people had for breakfast in 1945. What the newspaper was called.

I had the story: I’d heard it first-hand. I needed the framework it happened in. And the reality of that wasn’t anything you’ve ever seen on TV. You think you know about it from the graphic violence of Saving Private Ryan or the extended buddy movie treatment of Band of Brothers. You don’t. Even Der Untergang doesn’t touch on what happened to ordinary people, the millions of people who just happened to be born at a place, at a time. Who could have been anybody. Who could have been you.

I hadn’t the first clue before I started this what had happened to ordinary people. I got my first clue talking to a German woman about her town. I’d asked her what’s it like?

Oh, quite new houses, like any other town in the north of Germany, she’d said. And the old town? Well, the RAF took care of the old town one night in late March 1945. Chiefly because they could. It shocked me. It still does. And before anyone jumps up and down screaming about the Blitz, yes. Awful. About 40,000 British people died from German bombing in the war. About 40,000 people died in three nights of bombing by the RAF in Hamburg. Something else they forgot to mention at my school, along with the whole idea of German resistance to Nazism which by its nature, was quite secretive and predictably and inevitably short-lived. It must have been exactly the same as in places like Syria now. “Why didn’t you fight it?” always comes up against “How?”

It must have been exactly the same as in places like Syria now. “Why didn’t you fight it?” always comes up against “How?” When the police take away everyone in the house next door, what are you going to do? Call the police? Maybe write to your MP? Fight them, the same way refugees are told they should, with sticks against rifles? And there’s always plenty more room on the truck. But some people stood up.

I turned it into a screenplay, Janni Schenk. One person refused to read it twice because it upset her so much the first time. It’s not graphic violence. The body count is very low and almost all of it happens out of shot. It’s a very simple story. Almost all of it is true.

An orphaned boy is betrayed by his country, his youth-group and his school-teacher before he saves his village from total destruction.

Except his youth-group was the Hitler Jugend. And the people about to destroy his village were the US Army. And for that reason alone I don’t think any film-maker outside Germany is going to touch it with gloves on. Certainly not an American film-maker. But let’s see. Maybe I’ll be wrong.

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Janni Schenck

It was a summer afternoon about 16 years ago and I had nothing much to do that wouldn’t wait. I walked across the fields, down the hill and over the canal and the little river, then up the hill the other side of the valley, to a pub nearly at the top, near the Rudolf Steiner school. An old man was in there, having a loud argument with a fat Enlighs skinhead.

I’d seen the old man before. The first time I noticed his white flowing hair and aquiline nose and said to my partner ‘Look, that’s Rudolf Steiner,” but she unsportingly didn’t laugh. He was getting louder this time. Then I heard the words “Hitler Youth,” which are not words you often hear in Home Counties pubs, even if there are fat skinheads there. I’d assumed it was the large, bald bloke. And I was wrong.

It was the old man who’d spoken about the Hitler Youth. They were great, he said. And he should know, because he was one. Or had been then. What had made him incandescent with anger was being called a Nazi. You had to join the Nazi Party, he shouted at the other man, who was probably not a skinhead really, just fat and bald with a London-diaspora voice. And sixteen million people had. But you didn’t get the choice about joining the Hitler Youth. You go a card on your thirteenth birthday, telling you that you were a member. Your choice what happened next.

I’ve always thought of him as Janni Schenck. I wrote his story.

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The (screen)play what I wrote

Once upon a time when the world was young and even I was younger too, people used  to like to stay in on a Saturday night. Not because they’d get mugged or stabbed, or they were worried about drink-driving or they didn’t have any money. They didn’t; only one person ever was in my town and that was when he opened his front door; they weren’t, very; and nobody did, in that order. The past is a different country. They did things differently there. It was great.

The thing I liked them doing differently was having things on TV that were clever, my own definition of cleverness defined as making words dance. I wanted to get down to the Rose & Crown or the Red Lion  as much as the next person who wanted to squeeze past Wendy Sedgewick. And no, nowhere else. Except the Lamb on a Monday night because there was what would now be open-mic, and although I didn’t, someone mistook me for someone who ran another club. That matters at 19 in a small Wiltshire town. In those days teens went to pubs.

Yes, I know it was illegal and all that blah. Everyone knew where everyone was and nobody ever got hurt, ever, so tell me the big deal about it. And I wanted to go. But I usually only went after I’d watched The Two Ronnies. Or Morecambe & Wise, both for the same reasons.

They, but in particular Ronnie Barker, made the words dance. Yes, a load of it was about suburban middle-aged dinner parties. Yes, a lot of the women were dressed in long, clingy evening gowns I’d never, ever seen anyone in Trowbridge slipping into, let alone out of. But the words. The words were the thing. And not like that moronic song that asked what are words worth. GEDDIT!!!!???? 

But hark, I might get to the point of this. I just wrote a screenplay. My first one won a BBC Writers Room competition (actually, as one says). I pitched it to Cascade and astonishingly the first time I pitched a script which was the first one I’d ever written, they didn’t go with it. Life is so unfair, as I didn’t bother to say as I went down Berwick Street and had an espresso at the Italian deli around the corner, same as I’d been meaning to for twenty-odd years. Anyway, after thinking about it for 15 years and fretting at it for two and boring a friend absolutely witless about it for a solid year, six weeks back with pneumonia I decided that I either got it written for another BBC script window deadline or I forgot about it for ever. Promise.

So I wrote it. A friend of a friend sent it to Film Suffolk, who seem quite taken with it. In fact, rather more than that. It needs some revision. A German resistance historian loves it. But what I don’t love is people saying “have you read Save The Cat?”

The answer is ‘not yet.’ Not because I think it’s bad – I haven’t read it so I don’t know. Because of this review, one of many.

This book is awesome and totally relevant to writing fiction! This book saved my plot! I had reached a stage in my MS where I had lost sight of what was actually happening. I was writing scenes but I couldn’t see where they would fit in the grand scheme of the story. By reading this book, I could easily see the bigger picture. I was able to put all my chapters into an order and look at the plot as a whole. So I would definitely advise reading it to help save your plot from the death spiral!

You don’t have to do the silly high voice when you say ‘Ahsome!!” but it will probably help. Like toadly. May I?

Don’t make a scene

I was writing scenes but I couldn’t see where they would fit.

Yep. OK. Let me stop you there. I know the reason for this. That’s because you don’t have what writers call “a story.”

I’m sorry to spring all these technical phrases on you like this, but bear with me. I know, because if you had a story you’d know the beginning, the middle and the end of it. Because you couldn’t think of a story that didn’t.

But you don’t really want a story, with that mindset. Instead you want a Paint-By-Numbers Hollywood millionaire kit. And you’ll find that right next to the unicorn horns, Aisle Three.

Right. I’m glad we’ve got that sorted. I’ll have a look at it, ok? I promise. But first, I want to think about the only thing that matters in a story. And that’s whether it’s there or not.

Would you sit and listen to it? Read it? Sit in a cinema and watch it? Because if not then you haven’t got a story and all you’re trying to do is get rich quick. So if you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.

Once upon a time when the world was young and I had more patience and couldn’t tell a story, then I’d have thought deconstruction was a toolkit that could help you build something too. Except as someone whose student grant went to a motorcycle shop one term, I knew something important.

I knew that understanding how a Norton 500 engine comes apart and what all the bits are called – even understanding completely what they do, or what they’re supposed to do – doesn’t mean you can get it back together again. A Norton 500 engine, in case you’re wondering, is something made of metal. A lot more tangible and solid than words.

And that’s a true story.

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Janni Schenck

About 17 years ago, 18 maybe, I walked into an almost empty pub where an old man and a fat skinhead were arguing, one summer’s afternoon. The words Hitler Youth were used, which even if it was Hertfordshire, isn’t the norm. That’s when it really kicked off. The old man was incandescent with rage.

HitlerYouthKnifeYes, he said, he’d been in the Hitler Youth. He was proud of it. What he was outraged about was being called a Nazi.

Like most people, I believed what I’d been told, pretty much without thinking. There were Nazis and there were Germans but they probably all knew about everything and We were Good and They were Bad and they were all in it together and if they didn’t like Hitler they’d have done something about it… All the usual sloppy, stupid, simplistic thinking that I have no excuse for, as I have none for the childish bullshit I’ve been told.

We are Good. They are Bad.  Forever and ever, Amen. It never matters who they are, not least because Their leader is invariably mad. Hussein. Bonaparte. The Kaiser. The Junta. Obviously goes without saying, Hitler. Mad, all of them. The fact that Churchill was drinking more than a bottle of brandy every day has and had no bearing on anything, ever. Because We Are Good.

I listened to the old man explain that you didn’t get a choice about joining the Hitler Youth. You were conscripted on your thirteenth birthday. You got a uniform, a knife, you went to camp and slept in tents, you did singing and marching and bonfires and at thirteen, very little boy got to shoot real pistols and throw real grenades. I remember being thirteen. I can remember how complete I would have felt, as a boy, doing those things.

And I listened to the old man explain how on the last day of his war, in April 1945, with the Americans due to arrive within the hour, the SS arrived instead. They took all of the children up into a field and rummaged around in the dirt until they found what they were looking for, a hatch to a bunker full of brand new guns. They kitted the kids out with steel helmets and grenades and bullets and machine guns and told them to defend the Fatherland and oh look, is that time, love to help but must dash, maybe next time. Do your best boys. And drove off toward the future, leaving the boys to deal with the past.

They met their schoolmaster coming up the lane as they were taking their weapons back to the village. In the old man’s words, he beat the shit out of them, made them throw all the guns in the ditch and sent them home. He saved all of their lives. The Americans arrived on time, within the hour, riding jeeps with machine guns mounted on top. He said they looked as if they were wetting themselves. They would have shot everybody.

I never knew the old man’s name. He might be dead by now. If he isn’t perhaps one day he will see the thing I’ve been working on, the story of that day. It has other people’s stories in it as well, other real lives. A story of a man who made one silly joke and was going to be shot for it when the partisans attacked and he found himself walking 700 kilometres home to Bremen. A story about the Swing Kids, the Heinies, the Eidelweiss Pirates, Hans Falada, Sophie Scholl, all the other people our inane propaganda wants to airbrush out of our reality, because they don’t fit our children’s story: we are good. They are bad.

Life doesn’t work like that. When we lose the truth we cheat ourselves. So this is for Janni Schenck. I don’t know the old man’s name. I never did. But whenever I think about this story, that’s the name that comes to me, through 70 years of lies.

Goodnight Janni. I’ve told your story now.


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Janni Schenck

I’ve been working on a story. It’s been in my head for two years, but that’s not true. It’s been in my head since I don’t know. 1997 or ’98 maybe, when I went into a pub one summer afternoon and found an old man arguing with a skinhead. The pub was close to a Rudolf Steiner school.

                What more could a 13 year-old boy want?


“Look!” I said wittily to the woman I was with, nodding at the white-haired, distinguished-looking old man. “It’s Rudolf Steiner.” She was kind enough to smile a little, but the afternoon got much stranger faster then. I heard the words “Hitler Youth” and thought I was witnessing a hate-crime. I thought the skinhead was saying how great the Hitler Youth were.

Then  I noticed he wasn’t a skinhead, really. Just one of the people who don’t seem to have any hair these days. I think it’s the food they eat. Whatever it was, he didn’t have any hair. But he didn’t have any bluebird of freedom tattoos either. And it wasn’t him saying how great the Hitler Youth were, but the aristocratic old man with white hair next to him. The skinhead who wasn’t called the old man a Nazi and that’s when it kicked off. The old man said at some volume that he wasn’t a Nazi, he was in the Hitler Youth. And, he said, it was great.

You got flags to wave, songs to sing, camp to go to, something to be a part of. And more than this, at thirteen you got to shoot a real pistol and throw real grenades. When I was a boy half his age at thirteen, or maybe a little older, a Dutch woman who lived at the end of our road told me about firing the Colt automatic. She said “It kicked like a mule.” She was loud and a bit fat and they’d built an extension on their house and seemed to own the local shop. I didn’t know she’d once been hungry. I didn’t know around 30,000 people in Holland starved to death.

A present from the Netherlands.
A present from the Netherlands, a long time ago.

She had an odd accent I thought, but it was just a Dutch accent told to a small boy in Wiltshire who hadn’t been anywhere apart from Somerset. I didn’t know so many things then. I didn’t know, for example, that if she’d been caught by the German occupying forces anywhere near what was obviously a pistol for the Resistance dropped into Holland then she would have been shot, but probably not before she’d been made to tell the names of everyone she knew who knew about the gun as well. The alternative scenario – Allied soldiers took her shooting with a pistol because that’s how you’d entertain a girl around twenty whose country you just liberated. Sure it is.

I didn’t know too that as the old man told anyone who would listen, every German boy was conscripted into the Hitler Youth at the age of thirteen. Exactly the same way that at eighteen, boys were conscripted into the army. And apart, presumably, from the freezing cold nights manning anti-aircraft guns waiting for the mile-long streams of RAF bombers, it was mostly fun. Apart from the last day of the war, when the Americans came to the village.

The SS turned up first, in a jeep of some kind. They told the boys they had to defend the Fatherland and kitted them out with brand-new guns and steel helmets and grenades from a bunker in a field, that nobody knew was there. Years later I heard that the best way to hide something is simply to dig a hole and put the thing into it, with a sign saying ‘MoD – Keep Out’. Or ‘Water Company.’ It works in countries where order is an important thing. The boys made their way down towards their village again and the SS realised they had an important appointment somewhere else more urgently, coincidentally on the way to Switzerland, and left. The schoolmaster in the little village met the boys on their way to fight the Americans. He was the head of the Hitler Youth.

He beat the boys up, made them throw all the guns in the ditch and sent them home. The Americans arrived about an hour later. The old man said they would have shot everyone in the village if there was any resistance.

It’s stuck in my head. It asks so many questions. And now I’ve written it. It’s called Janni Schenck.  It’s very nearly a true story. I can’t speak without gabbling. I’ve been ill and I’ve just slept for a couple of hours accidentally, fully dressed, instead of going out as I was going to do. But I’ve done it. I’ve got to buy some paper tomorrow and proof read it, because I can’t proof on-screen,  but tomorrow is another day. I’ve done it. And I didn’t think I could.


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But not quite yet

Some extraordinary things have been happening lately. I’ve noticed over the past few weeks that when everything looks particularly hopeless and awful, something good happens. The last couple of months haven’t exactly fit my life plan, but the past few days have seen some really rather good things happen.

About a month ago I stupidly managed to kill my iPhone by leaving it on the boot of the car then driving half an hour in the rain and leaving it in the rain overnight. It was no consolation proving I drive carefully. I missed a phone call I needed and had to go and buy a phone which although good, obviously isn’t an iPhone, and so it almost synchronises with my MacBook but not completely.

I lost touch with someone for reasons that were unclear to me at the time and also missed out on walking some dogs, as well as separately coming to the end of a work contract and not having a new one lined up. But two days ago the new phone rang very unexpectedly at 2 am and I spent the whole day yesterday walking with dogs, as I did again today, in the Suffolk countryside, as well as enjoying the company of someone I didn’t think I would be talking to again.

In a minor but important vein I made some really rather wonderful red pepper and sweet potato soup with herb dumplings and even if I did forget to put any baking soda in, it was an unexpectedly good supper.

A phone call this morning suggested a new work contract at more than double the fee for the last one, I was able to help someone, I got a six mile walk in today and just before throwing it in the bin when I checked the iPhone one last time after leaving it in a sealed plastic box with some rice and those gel sachets you get in new shoes, it started accepting a charge and after 20 minutes of being force fed electricity starting to reboot. Early days for that, but we’ll see.

I’ve been trying to start a new book and found through talking to someone that how it starts is obvious now.

I found the full text of the ‘For whom the bell tolls’ quote too. I first paid attention to it a long time ago, but I re-found it just recently. It’s here:


 It tolls for thee…

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it
tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as
that they who are about me and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me,
and I knowt. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions;
all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action
concerns me, for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head
too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a
man, that action concerns me. All mankind is of one author and is one volume;
when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into
a better language, and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several
translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war,
some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind
up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie
open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon
the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all;
but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.
There was a contention as far as a suit (in which piety and dignity, religion
and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to
prayers first in the morning; and it was determined that they should ring first
that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls
for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in
that application, that it might be ours as well as his whose indeed it is. The
bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet
from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who
casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a
comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any
occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of
himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a
piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of
thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am
involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee. . . .

John Donne, from Meditation 17


Maybe everything is connected. Today, although a lot of the afternoon was spent on my own rather than being involved in mankind except on Facebook, which probably isn’t what John Donne had in mind, I’m getting that feeling. Any man’s death diminishes me. And life is an odd and today a quietly happy and thankful thing.

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Nazi Jazz Rules

I found this on the web tonight, looking for something about Django Reinhardt. I have not altered anything at all in these ten rules. I’m still stunned that this was written.


170px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-2000-0110-500,_BDM,_GymnastikvorführungAt Most 10% Syncopation

  1. Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
  2. In this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;
  3. As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones, so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;
  4. So-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);
  5. Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
  6. Also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);
  7. The double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;
  8. Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;
  9. Musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);
  10. All light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.



Reich Gauleiter for the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia signed this day. Genießen Sie den Abend. Guten tag.

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The backstory

The screenplay of Not Your Heart Away went off to a proper, professional script-editor a few weeks ago. For flattering but still unknown reasons despite doing this all of a very long day for a living she wanted to have a look at my attempt at a screenplay to see if Ben’s longing for Claire’s jeans and their contents might be visualised in a format conducive to people paying £10 to eat popcorn in the dark.

Several people have said the beginning of the book is confusing. So did the script-doctor. Not because it was, in a Donnie Darko sense. (Come on, that whole film was confusing). But because unlike the book, you don’t get any time to explain things. You can’t say what a character thinks, unless he says it or sees it, so you can hear it or see it too. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but only if you know what you’re looking at. So the backstory needs filling in.

Where are we now?

Why is Claire where she is? I think that’s explained as the film unwinds, but why is Ben the way he is? And Liz? And Pete? And Poppy? Again, Poppy, being essentially anyone (yes, as in anyone would do, and if they’re funny and into Ben then so much the better, but let’s not kid ourselves about him. He might be the romantic lead but he’s not a romantic hero. He’s 19, for heaven’s sake. What were you expecting, Lord Byron in Levis?) she doesn’t need so much explanation, but the three main characters, they certainly do if we’re ever going to find out why they act like that.

Only one person reviewing the book has commented on Liz’s love for Ben, which I certainly intended to show when I wrote it but no-one has picked up on at all, save one of the most forthright reviewers. So even there, in book form, the backstory isn’t complete.

I’m finding the same with a new screenplay I’m trying to write, (School Lane) about a German boy who I met in a pub when he was an old man. Every time I start writing it I get the first scene down and then think: ‘that’s not the first scene. We need a first scene before the first scene, to see how they got there.’ That’s four times, so far and I don’t think it’s any nearer being the first scene yet.

Maybe that’s the secret. Start at the end and work backwards. Then at least I’ll know how it turns out.

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