SQL Sequels


I applied for what looked like a dream job recently. Down in Dorset, about ten miles from a town I visit every couple of months, a place I know and love, where I have friends and people to say hello to in the street. I’ve been going there since school trips, back when we didn’t so much find dinosaur fossils as dodge them lumbering up out of the primeval ocean. Kidding – we just chatted with old Tom Hardy and gave him some plot ideas. Turned out he only ever used one of them, really.

Not Your Heart Away

Immediately after A Levels I’d bizarrely got into the habit of working and banged-out 82,000 words that became A Day For Pyjamas. Half our lives away I wrote a sequel to it, Not Your Heart Away, which got some nice reviews on Amazon and won a BBC award when I re-wrote it as a screenplay. Another one (Janni Schenck, a story about a nice orphan kid who loves Swing music and just happened to be in the Hitler Youth) was based on fact; that one was entered for Cannes with the Maison des Scenaristes, back in 2017.  I wrote some stand-up performance spoken word and performed them a bit, but got tired of the don’t-get-paid local stand-up circuit. So yes, stories. I can do that. Gizzajob, as we used to say.

I’d also spent two decades analysing business information, from going around the world listening to people to poring over data tables with my lucky ruler (metal, triangular, I think they’re really something to do with woodwork, but hey) to reading hundreds of pages of interview transcripts and spreadsheet print-outs and finding the tiny clues that open-up markets. Which I did more than once. So yes, I can do data. What do you need?

What the committee decided they needed, after a blistering presentation that I could feel in the soles of my feet had rocked everyone’s socks off, was someone who can do that and was a ‘data expert’ at SQL and Python and Tableau. I can do that too, but those are computer programmes. I’ve nothing against computer programmes. I’ve designed and got written two apps myself, one to track HTML 404 errors, the other to compare and assess casualty data. Is that tech enough?

Apparently not. But they’re still two different skills. One you can learn in a month. Sit me or let’s be honest, pretty much anyone down in front of a PC and an online learning course and you’ve got a competent machine-minder. They won’t necessarily know anything about the data they’re interrogating and most of them won’t worry their pretty little heads over the fact that using data this way is akin to regression modelling; it’s great if you know for certain the future is going to be exactly like the past. Which is a pretty massively flawed assumption in lots of areas of life, not least the national economy after Brexit.

You can’t learn to tell stories convincingly and well to an audience of one or a couple of hundred, online, on TV, at conferences or anywhere else, in a month.  Like any performance, it’s an iterative thing. You get better at it the more you do it. You learn from your mistakes. You might even integrate them into the performance to get a reaction to work back to from the people you’re telling the story to. It’s a two-way thing. It’s adaptive. It’s interpretive. And whatever you do it, however much you call it ‘science’ data crunching isn’t, any more than  power loom operators were weavers. It’s reductive, it’s literally codified; it’s not even about understanding numbers and their relationships. Just learning how to get a machine to tell you ‘how many.’ Never how, and don’t even ask why.



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He never touched my dicky

We watched Withnail and I today in class. I meant it to be a full visual equivalent of a textual analysis, but I’m not convinced it worked as an exercise. The key points (‘Bring us the finest wines known to humanity/Are you the farmer?/Flowers – tarts! Prostitutes for the bees!/We’ve gone on holiday by mistake/I called him a ponce and now I’m calling you one./I’ve only had a few ales…“) might have had me stuffing a scarf in my mouth to stop from screaming with laughter, but it wasn’t laughter shared with my group, for once. Maybe it escaped them. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Maybe – frighteningly –  it’s an age thing.

When I wasn’t laughing I was smiling in memory. The scene where the ludicrous Uncle Monty visits the cottage in pursuit of the narrator, gulled by Withnail into thinking he’s on a promise always reminds me fondly of a place and a person I used to go to a lot, down in Dorset. A house full of good food, happy disorder and it has to be said, lots and lots of wine. But more importantly, sunshine and words tumbling out of all of us, ideas and jokes and stories and the easy, so easy obligation to entertain, above all else, whatever else we could contribute. Say anything, so long as it was entertaining and not hurtful or unkind. Withnail, for me, is a love song to that time, a place rediscovered sometimes when I visit and always happily recalled.

Before that, we ran through Mr Wu. Now ok, a Chinese friend of mine hates this song. Intensely. Not for any casual racism, because there isn’t any in it. Mr Wu scorching George’s best shirt isn’t anything to do with him being Chinese and everything to do with him being in luuuurve, a condition which apparently smote Mr Formby quite regularly.

And the joke, apart from the irritating little cod-Chinese musical coda that’s been used ever since The Mikado, and for all I know before that? As usual, George used innocuous words you could happily say to your granny. It was the words he didn’t use that made the joke.

Now Mr. Wu, he’s got a naughty eye that flickers, you ought to see it wobble when he’s ironing ladies’ blouses.

He does the same again when he mentions that Mr Wu has a laundry kind of tricky, he’ll starch my shirts and collars but he’ll never touch my waistcoat. To get that one you probably need to know that stiff, starched formal waistcoats to wear with a dinner suit used to be called dickies. But once you do you can’t listen to the song without laughing. I can’t anyway. 

Should I be giving my kids a thorough grounding in 1930s smut, the kind of thing that had my mother foaming at the mouth? Given that five Formby songs taught one class 127 new words once, I think so. We’ll see tomorrow.

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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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No Batteries Required

It all started in a pub. You know that thing when you have that one drink too many to stop talking and everything you say is brilliant and witty and just so incredibly fascinating you can’t help wondering why anyone bothers saying anything else ever again?

That’s what happened to me in a pub in Framlingham in about November, I think. That’s how I ended-up writing a radio play. Wouldn’t it be funny, no, wouldn’t it be just so incredibly amusingly funny, no listen, if a bankrupt chicken farmer tried to kidnap Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall because he blames him for the battery chicken ban? Yes, thank-you, I will. Not driving, after all. It’s because of the you know, the battery chicken cage ban in January 2012. And DEFRA having to set-up a special squad because lots of farmers couldn’t be bothered to obey the law and the police didn’t think they ought to upset farmers who don’t reckon laws apply to them anyway, if the way farm vehicles are driven around here is anything to go by.

So maybe also the Prime Minister is visiting Hugh to make him Minister of Food, just the way he was supposed to be thinking of making the Honourable Kirstie Allsopp a Minister a few years back. Jolly fine gal. Right sort of background to run a democracy. The idea about the Prime Ministerial tattoo that shows up on thermal imaging rifle sights was mine though.

I got stuck with it while I was finishing Not Your Heart Away and got back to it yesterday. It’s odd. I’ve had problems writing things for years, never able to quite get down to it. That’s still a problem but when I do it just flows nowadays. It’s the sitting down to it that’s the issue. I had to change HF-W’s name, obviously, but that was pretty much the hardest part.

So it’s done, edited, a friend who is firm but fair is checking it to see if it makes her laugh (first bit has so far, only problem being that wasn’t the funny bit) and then it’s being broadcast in Suffolk and it’s also going off to the BBC.

Let’s see what happens.


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Meaning and memory

The curse of Not Your Heart Away has claimed another victim. So far I’ve had three ‘but that was my life’ comments,  one utterly heart-broken female version of Ben mourning a 30-year spiritual tryst, two people in tears, one who won’t talk to me at all, four ‘I know who this is’ comments and one some of the above so won’t review it publicly.

I wrote the book to begin with as something of an orgy of nostalgia. I’d gone down to Dorset to see my oldest friend and we sat up until silly o’clock drinking and talking until eventually, as these things do, the talk got around to whatever happened to whoever.

We ran through the catalogue of shipping container entrepreneurs, fatal motorcycle and combine harvester crash victims (we’re both from the West Country and it is not funny), eye-wateringly successful lawyers, the happy, the sad and the dead. On the way home, just like Ben I stopped the car and got out to have a look at a huge house where someone I used to know lived. When I got back all the stories from those times poured out. I’d tried to write something for decades but it just didn’t come out right. Not this time. This time it was like a dam breaking.

But I do need to clarify some things, I think. Ben and Poppy and Liz and Claire are all fictional characters. They were based on real people. The way Liz speaks is exactly the way my friend in Dorset speaks, but Liz is a made-up character. I’ve never pressed knees with my friend on a sofa in Finsbury Park and I doubt she’d want to, apart from anything else.

Poppy was based on a happy, lovely, artistic girl I knew when I was 18 and 19, who was hugely, madly, deeply into Art and Drama and Life. Just thinking about all of her hope still makes me smile. We went to the cinema together but that was as close to real life as Poppy got. The rest of her was totally made-up. She smiled a lot as I remember and although when Poppy spoke I remembered someone else’s voice I thought of that smile and Poppy’s words came out slightly differently.

Claire, ah. Well, Claire. There was this girl I couldn’t talk to. We actually did go to the theatre once, and a picnic, but she had a boyfriend and I had a girlfriend and there were exams and and and. Never happened. But all I had to do to write Claire was think of the memory of a voice and the character was there, complete, right down to the skin-tight Levi’s.

Am I Ben? No. I heard Ben’s voice when I was writing him. Like any first-person narrator he was a version of me, but a fictional version. I was just as stumbling and idiotic and unable to listen to what people told me. I thought I was just as poetic as Ben and probably more so.

Just for the record, to clarify, all of the things that happened in the book happened to someone, at some time. They aren’t very extraordinary things, after all. But all of those things did not happen to the four people those characters were based on, or within that time-span. Some of the things in the book happened to totally different people. Some happened years later. Some of the incidents in the story I most enjoyed writing never happened at all.

So apologies, everyone who’s said ‘I know who this is about.’ You don’t. It’s about a ghost, many ghosts in fact. The ghosts of youth and hope, the ghost of tomorrow, a ghost that like Joseph of Aramathea’s staff in Ben’s hands, never quite flourished and grew. Because it couldn’t. Because as Ben said, they’re denied the wholeness of the living. Because we all grow up. The lucky ones, anyway. And maybe Ben was right after all. Maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s true, so long as you believe it is.


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