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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A history

One of those days in England.
One of those days in England.


Every time I try to write this story it spins away from me. It started off simply enough. An old man in a pub was having an argument with a fat British skinhead and I heard the words ‘Nazi’ and ‘Hitler Youth’ and thought the old man was attacking the younger one for using the words. I was only half right. It’s happened before. He was, but only insofar as the old man resented being called a Nazi. He’d been in the Hitler Youth, like every other German boy of his age, because they were all conscripted on their thirteenth birthday. And it was great, he said. He really enjoyed it. They went on camps, they had big flags to fly and songs to sing and they lived in the golden summer in the open air and it was a dream come true in a time when most of the dreams had starved to death.

The elderly language teacher in Mr Norris Changes

I was fourteen when I saw these for sale in a shop in Carmarthen. I think they were £12. I didn't have £12.
I was fourteen when I saw these for sale in a shop in Carmarthen. I think they were £12. I didn’t have £12.

Trains wasn’t skeletal because he was on a diet. But these boys had food and campfires and singing and hope and even better, if you’re thirteen, pistols to shoot and grenades to throw. They even got a special knife, the blade inscribed with Blut und Ehre, blood and honour. Free.

On the last day of his war the SS came to his village and marched all of the Hitler Jungend up to a field where they scrubbed around in the grass until they found a hatchway that nobody in the village knew was there, opening up a bunker that held brand new machine guns and more grenades and steel helmets. They issued the boys all of this gleaming kit and told them to defend the village, the fatherland and their honour while they, the SS, had some urgent business to attend to in the opposite direction to the one the Americans were arriving from. In about an hour.

The SS left, the boys grabbed as many guns as they could and their schoolmaster, when he saw them, as the leader of their Hitler Youth troop beat them up, made them throw all the guns in the ditch and sent them home crying.

Every time I try to write it it gets jumbled up with other stories I’ve heard first hand from the same time, the stories that are spinning away now, with so few left to tell them.

I heard from an American pilot who at the same time, April 1945 had to walk back from a dance, 22 miles, because he’d missed his transport, out shagging in Ipswich and a mission to fly to Czechoslovakia the next day, eight hours there and back five miles high. I heard at second hand of a Wermacht surgeon who the same month decided enough was enough, and walked home to Bremen from Czechoslovakia to surrender to the British, who once they’d emptied his pockets told him as he lived literally around the corner to piss off home.

Except they didn’t empty his pockets completely. I’ve held in my own hands the field surgery kit that lived in his pocket for five years, the green cloth roll holding the small forceps, the massively thick suture needles thicker than the ones sail makers use, the curved and the straight scalpel, the little sharpening stone. They let him keep them. Or maybe he went home first and emptied his pockets there, before he went out to surrender. I’ll never know the answer to that now because of time.

It was the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day in 1994. I remember the Battle of Britain Flight Lancaster flying over my house. I remember a curious dream where I could see an armada of ships stretched out to England and the horizon as the dawn broke grey across the water and knowing more and more ships would come and I would die.

I drank a lot back then. Maybe that’s why this picture fascinates me. I found it on the web by accident, yet another cat picture, but for me it’s more than that.

It’s England. It’s summer, with friends and food and wine and a funny cat off doing the things that cats do while we laugh and talk to each other and drink and we’re not going to have to go and fight in any wars, ever, and the green hills hold us close while behind us, ignored and always there, there’s the war, waiting. The England of Kate Bush’s Lionheart. My England and yours, where it’s been  such a beautiful day and everything’s fine and yes, I  will have another glass of wine, thank-you, and maybe some cheese. This red, sorry, what were you saying?

The triangular things the cat jumps between are dragon’s teeth. That’s what they were called back then. They stop tanks. They’re too big to drive over and too solid to blow up quickly, which is why they’re still there.

I don’t know who these happily drunk girls were that afternoon nearly twenty years ago. I think that’s when it was because of the colours of the picture. Because this is my history too. I don’t know what happened to them or whether they’re still happy now. But I know the stop lines across England were peppered with these concrete blocks and pillboxes from East Anglia to Wales, to hold the German advance when the invasion came. They were in the fields where the rivers meet at Tellisford, where I used to fish when I was a boy. The past is a different country and besides so many wenches are dead now and the young men too who should have met them. But at the same time the past is still here, just behind your shoulder, the thing your cat’s jumping off. And while we have their stories, so are they.

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Lesser known facts

I’m trying to find out some things that have been forgotten, to help me with a story I’m trying to write. The address of a bakery in Bremen in 1945. The date the city was captured. I think that was May 5th, 1945, but I wasn’t there. The day a man in Czechoslovakia decided enough was enough and he was walking home, 700 kilometres, knowing at each step that if the Gestapo found him and checked his papers they wouldn’t bother with a blindfold and a last cigarette.

How do you make that decision? How do you decide that’s it, I’m gone? I’ve never been good at that and luckily my life hasn’t involved decisions as big as that. But I’d still like to find some of these things out. The web doesn’t always help, although it’s easier than it was before that was around. Some of the things you read there simply aren’t true, and some people seem to leave their brains off when they write things.

Were Germans in Hamburg in 1943 evacuated to America?

Where do you even start with that? Why do people hijack airplanes and fly them into the World Trade Centre? It’s the same sort of question. Just totally stupid and self-referential. Y’all’d sure have been all talkin’ Nazi iffen it hadn’t been fer us. And some of it’s just plain wrong.

The first shot of World War II in Europe was fired 20 years, 9 months, 19 days and 18 hours after the last shot of World War I was fired.  It was fired from the 13,000 ton German gunnery training battleship Schleswig Holstein.

Well, no. No it was not. I know this for a fact. The first shot of World War II in Europe was fired from a Webley & Scott revolver, in a Mayfair townhouse bedroom, before a ball, when a young British officer was shot. I know. Because he told me.

In one of my lives I’ve had a house in Stow on the Wold, exactly where and just at the end of the time when you might expect to find a still active officer-class survivor of World War II living there, even if he did only just survive. He lived next door to my old house next door to the huge old pub at the bottom of the square. I wish I’d kept it, but the past is another country and besides, the wench who used to call round occasionally may or may not be dead. It was quite a long time ago.

The Major, as he was when I knew him, was just a young subaltern in 1939 but his parents were stonking rich, certainly rich enough to have their own town house in Mayfair. They threw a ball specifically to celebrate their only son’s commission and he decided to celebrate by going with his chum to a decent tailor to collect their brand new dress uniforms for the ball. On their way home they collected the new pistols they were still allowed to buy for themselves in those days, as officers still did and being eighteen or so and there being no television, went to see a cowboy film before they went home to change. Dress uniforms in proper bags from the tailors and brand new heavy black pistols on their belts they went to see their film and got back to Mayfair in

A bullet nearly half an in ch across really messes-up a new dress uniform.
A bullet nearly half an in ch across really messes-up a new dress uniform.

plenty of time to bath and change and lace Brilliantine through their hair, chummed up together in the same bedroom in the innocent manner of the times. Both of them unloaded their identical pistols and tossed the bullets onto the eiderdown while they practised their quick draw in front of the mirror, in the style of Tom Mix and Jimmy Cagney.

My neighbour was the first to get bored. War had been declared and these weren’t toys after all and there was a ball to go to and the little band was warming up downstairs and despite all of this, they were both nominally on active service, so in case the Germans invaded Mayfair that night he re-loaded his revolver and laid it on the bed before he finished dressing in his new uniform and slipped his Sam Brown belt and shiny holster on.

As his chum did, as well, but being not very old, his chum decided to have one last try at clearing leather, as if the armed might of the Wermacht would be stopped in its tracks by a teenager with a pistol who was quick on the draw.

As if in a car crash, as if in a dream, my neighbour told me how although he could see what was happening he couldn’t say anything as his chum picked up the pistol he himself had just loaded, identical to his own except for the then-unfamiliar weight of the six bullets, aimed it at him and pulled the trigger. For fun. Because it was empty.

Except as happens with guns, it wasn’t. After the enormous noise had rolled around the room and the smoke started to clear he walked downstairs, down the huge main staircase, into the room they had been going to use as the ballroom and said “I believe I’ve been shot.”

He never took part in active service, or not outside England, anyway. And that was a true story. I wish I could remember his name but really, it doesn’t matter. What does is that the history books tell just a fraction of the story.

And sometimes, talking only about the very big things instead of the small ones, they’re not true at all.

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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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All of us

I’m starting to do some background research for the story School Lane, a true story about a man I met who was had been in the Hitler Youth and objected to being called a Nazi. hjgirls I wanted to find out more about German villages and the Eidelweiss Pirates so I turned, as you do for everything these days, to Google. All I wanted to do was find some pictures that would show me a German village, so I could imagine the mood of it in my head. Richard Curtis played one song over and over again when he was writing films, so I thought I could allow myself this one small indulgence. I don’t do this a lot. Honest, guv. It was just the once. For research. For this book and that. To see what was there. That’s the only reason I was looking at pictures like that, straight up, as they used to say on The Sweeney.

There were, as you might guess, a lot of photos of Aryan maidens. I presume they were, anyway. They put me in mind of a story I heard from a man who used to fly P51 Mustangs out of Leiston airfield in WWII.  After the war he got a job as a press photographer on a newspaper, back in the days when things in small American towns were much the same as they were in James Stewart’s film Harvey. I know this country. I drove around the MidWest in a Chevrolet. I didn’t watch attack ships on fire off the shoulder of  Orion, it’s true. But I did see Nancy-Jean practising on the football field with the squad in the rain, one Saturday morning in Indiana. That was a long time before anyone had the idea they didn’t want to be one, like Ms St Vincent. Still, she was 30 when she sang that and the other girls were getting a little embarrassed.


You need to focus
Still wanting to be a cheerleader.
Still wanting to be a cheerleader.

One day he had an assignment to go and photograph at some girls High School out in the nowheres for some sporting event or other back in the mists of time. All the girls lined up outdoors, some twenty or so cheerleaders asked to stand stiff and straight in the Florida sunshine. Being young girls they started fidgeting and chatting to each other and he couldn’t get exactly the picture he wanted. It was just turning into one of those days.

One of those nights.
One of those nights.

Eventually he had to ask the teacher if she could ask the girls to please stay still so he could just click the shutter and get the job done. Pleasant though it was looking at cheerleaders that fine morning he had other stuff to do. Certainly, the teacher said.

“Stand still girls, the photographer wants to focus.”

No-one ever owned up to being the cheerleader who said,  “What, all of us?”

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School Lane

In a scene from Not Your Heart Away Liz and Peter, Ben and Claire visited their very first grown-up restaurant on their own, in an imaginary Stratford on Avon in an imaginary time, based on imaginary people who bear absolutely no resemblance to the younger selves of a respected barrister, a local newspaper editor, me and a California schoolteacher whatsoever it is submitted m’lud, where their dinner was interrupted. For the idiot Ben, who constantly deluded himself that the sexual revolution meant that 18 year-old girls would do the asking (oh Ben, think how much more fun you could have had…) that dinner was one of a string of humiliations and disappointments that we look back on and describe as a good preparation for life before we turn away and silently curse the wall when no-one’s looking. Or maybe that’s just me.

For the old man with the accent who interrupted their dinner and apologised for spoiling it, the man who was indignant at being described as a Nazi just because he’d served in the Hitler Youth, it was something else. I’ve said before, I don’t think I have an awful lot of imagination. I listen to stories. I jumble them up and glue them together into another, bigger story, but  everything I’ve ever written happened to someone real. Just not usually one person, or one person at one time. Something I saw or heard or someone else’s story. That old man’s story for example.

hj1It happened one summer’s afternoon in Kings Langley, just outside Watford. I didn’t have much to do. We were either between jobs or more accurately part-way through one, where everything that could have been done had been done and now we had to wait until other people had done other things so more things could be done. We locked the doors and got our mobile phones and walked down through the fields, across the river, across the canal, over the footbridge over the M25 and up the hill to the pub at the top of Kings Langley, near the Rudolf Steiner school.

A short, thickset, shaven-headed man was having an argument with a much older, white-haired, aquiline-looking man with an accent. Look, I said wittily, that’s Rudolf Steiner. I know. It just pours out of me, doesn’t it? It hardly ever stops. But I was wrong. The old man’s story was much more interesting, because here he was, here and now, the way most of them aren’t now, because this was fifteen years ago and all flesh is grass.

The old man was furious at being called a Nazi, just because he’d been in the Hitler Youth. He was conscripted. He had had no choice. Every single German boy was conscripted into the Hitler Youth. No-one had ever heard of the Eidelweiss Pirates, or the few that had didn’t talk about them. I’ve since met an Army Major who had dinner with one of the survivors, but I only heard about the boys who skipped out of the Hitler Jugend a few years ago. The old man I met thought it was great. His eyes were shining as he remembered the songs and the campfires, the flags and bugles, the friendship and the pure fun of the big rallies in the woods. He wasn’t the boy who sang Tomorrow Belongs To Me at the end of Cabaret. He didn’t have to. Millions of people felt like that, before the guns began again.

He went to school in a little German village in the hills and one day in April 1945 the SS arrived in a big car. They took all the boys from the school up the lane to a field where they’d dug a bunker, where they handed out oily new machine guns and helmets and grenades and told the boys to defend their village and the Fatherland. The American invaders would arrive to spoil and loot within the hour. Meanwhile the SS felt they had pressing business to attend to the other side of the hill, in Switzerland. Can’t stop. Love to. See you soon. Oh actually, we won’t. Take care.

hj2The schoolmaster was as he usually was, the leader of this troop of Hitler Jugend. He marched them down to the playground and lined them up on parade to inspect them and their brand-new factory-fresh MP40s and Panzerfausts. Then he beat them senseless. He made them throw every last gun, grenade and bullet in the ditch then sent them home weeping. He saved all of their lives. As the old man said, when the Americans arrived standing in jeeps behind .50 calibre Brownings, a gun so powerful that that if you get one pointed at you there is nothing on a city street it will do you any good to hide behind, they would have shot everything and anything. ‘They looked like they would poop their pants,’ he said.

A friend’s father landed in Normandy on D-Day. He walked to Germany from there. He would never talk about the German he killed. He only talked sketchily about the German boy in uniform who tagged along with his regiment for food and company, after they’d checked his pockets thoroughly. He left two pictures, both of them young German boys in uniform, both way under 20. I don’t know which is which, or whether either of them are those two boys, nor what became of them.

Soon there will be no-one left to tell these stories. They will still tell them in other places, in future times. But the tellers won’t be people like us. We won’t understand. We’ll say oh, that’s what they do in these foreign places. They always have. It’s tribal, isn’t it? But we’ve done this too, not so long ago. That’s what School Lane is about. Now all I have to do is write it.

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