On Using Wright’s ‘Shaun of the Dead’

On Using Wright’s ‘Shaun of the Dead’ 

I loved, love and will always love Edgar Wright’s 2004 genre-smashing rom-zom-com ‘Shaun of the Dead’.  I was just getting going as a writer and had set my sights on a novel. It was to be a grand adventure that combined all of the things I loved: rom-coms, zombies and scifi. An old creative writing tutor once told me never to borrow but to always steal! ‘Shaun of the Dead’ was ripe for plunder. 

So the film became the benchmark for my first book, the genre-smashing ‘Suspended’. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to share a review I received: 

‘Imagine being 14 and thinking to yourself how can I put every single action genre in a book? Well AW has come seriously close to achieving this childhood dream and with great success. 
The story begins at a slow but intriguing pace with an air of humour and wit. However, within a couple of chapters seatbelts become a necessity as the book is injected with a strong dose of adrenalin and is force fed a gut full of movie action moments. Unlike most action movies the plot is far from tired and boring; it has so many twist and turns that it may even surpass an episode of ‘Lost’. 
The rollercoaster ride of a book has it all; horror, sci-fi ,action, love, comedy and it all moves along at a relentless pace so much so you will not want to put it down. Highly recommended.’ 

Amazon reviewer

A little self-indulgent, I know, but bear with me; I see this review as a direct result of the inspiration that I took from Wright’s film. So, how does a film inspire a book? 

Firstly, the claustrophobia. ‘Shaun of the Dead’ has limited settings: the flats, the streets and, of course, the Winchester. No matter how often they switch between these settings there is always a sense that they’re limited, trapped, caught in a triangle, lost in confusion and unable to escape. They are suspended (see what I did there?) in their bubble. In my book, I created my own triangle: Hull to the north, the village of Never on Humber to the south and the Humber Bridge to the west. The characters bounce between these locations, trapped and never fully sure of what will happen next. 

Secondly, the useless-becomes-useful male lead. Shaun, in a ridiculous epiphany, drags Liz, his ex-girlfriend, and her friends from the safety of her flat, endangering all in the process. He’s not deliberately dangerous, just a guy on the edge of losing his youthfulness, staring at his thirties and stuck in a dead-end job in a TV shop; a schmuck in love with no idea how to get love in return. At its simplest, he has no idea how to be a grown up. Look a little closer and he’s a man struggling with his masculinity, a man who, by any standards, is a loser looking for a win. The early scene when he tries to take charge of the other employees in the shop is a great example. Enter James, a man in his early thirties, both parents dead, all alone except for a dog and no idea how to be in the world. He walks the dog because he knows he should, a knowledge the dog, Tilda, shares. 

Thirdly, the rom-com of the rom-zom-com. During a dog walk, Barbara drops back into James’s life and he and Tilda instantly feel more real, more alive, just like Shaun had done before Liz split up with him. Faced with a zombie apocalypse, Shaun knows that the only reason to survive is to have a life worth living. James understands this too, even before he realises the world is about to end. So, the first half of the book is James trying to get ready for a date night with Barbara. He falls in with old school friends who run their own business, a ragtag crew of builders, plumbers and electricians, good guys and bad guys, and all of them there to build James back into a real boy. 

And finally, the zom. Much of the film’s charm comes at the beginning when Shaun and Ed (‘Suspended’ has its own Eddie, a physically similar but otherwise completely different character) don’t realise what’s going on. In ‘Suspended’ I make it clear that there is something rotten in Humberside. James and Barbara have no idea but plenty of charm until they’re faced with the crawling limbs, monstrous composites and alien-controlled dogs that gate crash their date night. As they start to realise the zom-nature of the situation, I take my old tutor’s advice and steal a line from the film itself. One of the monstrous composites, three torsos, half a dozen legs and arms, loses one of the latter; it falls off as it climbs the ladder to the top of James’s (you’ll have to read the book to see how fabulous James’s house is). Later in the book the same creature is climbing the Humber Bridge. ‘Ooo, it’s got an arm off!’ someone shouts. 

On Using Wright’s ‘Shaun of the Dead’

On Using Duffy’s ‘Tall’

Happy New Year. As with everything else it begins with a blank page. I have a bad habit of filling January the first’s page with promises, vague detailed determinations that hang over me for a month like understudies to Dickens’ ghosts and finally fade in February with barely a whimper, the moral of their story forgotten or fried.  

In my defence, it’s the wrong time to make new promises; the beginning of January is the end of fun and comfort. The length of winter stretches before us, cold and callous, testing our determinations – it’s all so very peak bleak. And so we fail, we fall, we sink into the tantalising almost-snow of a frozen few weeks and we wait for Easter, promises of betterment dropped in favour of the promise of chocolate. 

This year, my sure-to-fail promise is the same as every year: to write more and to write with more discipline and create more writing that I can share. It (probably) won’t last. To give myself a better chance, however, I’m beginning a new series: ‘On Using…’ I’ll be looking at the inspirations a writer (that will be me) might use to kick start and continue their writing. 

First up is a poem. If you haven’t read Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Tall’, from her ‘Feminine Gospels’ collection, then click here. It is, as with everything Duffy does, a cracker. Poetry is an excellent source of inspiration; personas and voices are laid out for us, windows of understanding and empathy for situations and responses we may never experience ourselves, and all waiting to be used by the struggling writer.  

In ‘Tall’, Duffy creates a female persona grown tall, prominent in her adult life. I’ll be honest: I had not read this poem before I created my character, Stella, she who kills zombies, but years after her inception Duffy’s poem has helped me to maintain my work on the ‘Stella the Zombie Killer’ series (I’m just getting going with Volume Five). Stella’s primary influence was Joss Whedon’s Buffy, she who slays vampires, but not Buffy the high school student. Stella is an adult, a prominent woman in what would have been a beautiful new world ruined by a zombie apocalypse. Her prominence was assured by her success in the Cynosure Games, a new extreme sport in which the players are biomechanically enhanced (Stella, like Buffy, is stronger and faster than everyone else), and after the dead rose, survivors looked to her. They saw her as tall. In Duffy’s ‘Tall’ she describes her persona’s first meeting: 

‘Somebody whooped. She stooped 
Hands on both knees 
 
And stared at his scared face 
The red heart tattooed on his small chest. He turned 
And fled like a boy’ 

A prominent woman, a powerful woman, scares people. That’s something I want to continue to explore in my Stella series. For a male writer, trying to present the response of a powerful woman to the pressures of being a saviour can be tricky. Whedon’s TV show provides only so much inspiration until it starts to be a retelling of the same stories. For a male hero, it’s enough to save, to keep people physically safe, but for women the expectation becomes so much more: the lucky few who fall under Stella’s protection expect more of her, some even demand it. The female hero becomes responsible for wellbeing, compassion, nursing, mothering, love and sex. And if she doesn’t provide these things, fear and mistrust follow. How does a woman respond to this? 

In my books I can have her kill some more zombies, take on an angel (zombie cyborgs from that beautiful new world that was ruined) or fight with the survivors who want to use her for her power and influence. But it always comes back to the central idea that she feels the pressure placed on her by others, either deliberately or in some mistaken expression of love and loyalty. In Duffy’s poem, the persona ‘needed a turret’ and she hides there ‘at the edge of town’. Just like Stella’s gift shop in the Victoria and Albert. And just like Stella, the persona is beset by ‘pilgrims’. She is forced to retreat. Just like Stella, the ‘stars trembled’ as she grew taller and taller. Power is something that we expect to find in certain packages, in certain people. Neither Duffy’s persona nor Stella fit with these prejudices. Duffy’s poem and my books try to explore how prejudice is maintained and altered. 

As I continue to write Stella’s story, I use Duffy’s persona to guide me. Towards the end of the poem Duffy shows us the inevitable:  

‘Taller 
Was colder, aloner, no wiser. What could she see 
Up there? She told them what kind of weather 
Was heading their way’ 

Stella’s story will continue to be one of loneliness. She will grow ‘colder’, not seem to grow ‘wiser’ and she will be ‘aloner’.  And yet, she will continue to watch, warn and protect. Duffy’s poem, like all inspiration, helps me to form my own ideas, guides me in my writing. Maybe she’ll even give me that kick start to remember my promises and dedications. See you next week (or month or year…). 

On Using Duffy’s ‘Tall’

Second Draft Blues

To fight lethargy and despondency like you’re in the final level of a Resident Evil game; the timer’s counting down, the monster’s chasing you, you’ve no more med kits and you’re down to your last three bullets and bombs. Focus: take that thing down, disarm the doomsday device and settle back for the final cut scene.

Or not. Consider, instead, relaxing into lethargy, letting yourself drift Homer-like into duvet dreamland, asleep at the wheel, friendly angels holding you aloft and guiding you home.

But Homer’s not a good role model.

I’m in the second draft blues. I’m the second-draft writer glaring darkly, jealously at the first-draft writer. Gone is the cavalier energy of the first draft, the anything-goes-just-get-to-the-word-count sprint to the daily finish line, arms held aloft, sweating in triumph, and end-of-game boss dead at their feet. Now it’s cavalier to puritan roundhead, the embarrassed, cringing re-reading and correcting, of rehashing and redrafting, of re-plotting and re-characterising.

The second draft is more that simply finding errors and typos, although there are plenty of those. In my latest I’ve gone for present tense, something I’ve not bothered with before, and so much of my slog is changing ‘was’ to ‘is’, swapping ‘ed’ for ‘ing’ in my participles and more ‘says’ for ‘said’ than running zombies in a Romero remake. On top of that there are the usual typos and errors that can be corrected easily enough – as long as they’re spotted. Many of mine are only found if I read out loud, which gets me funny looks from the kids. They already think I must be mad ‘working’ in the holidays, so telling them I’m redoing work I’ve already done only raises their expectations of insanity. ‘Just do it right first time,’ they say. ‘If only,’ I reply. ‘But this bit is just as important as the first draft.’ ‘Sounds boring.’ They’re right; it’s boring and it’s frustrating, but it’s manageable, unlike the dread of what the second draft is really for: making it all make some kind of sense.

That headlong rush through the first draft leaves a choppy wake, characters and plot-threads floundering, drowning. Even worse, that plodding, imponderable prose. And as a part-time writer there are a lot of months between beginning and ending a first draft; September to July in my most recent effort, and so things get forgotten. In my latest I’ve gone for a multi-perspective narrative around a terrorist event. There are characters that I’d forgotten about (who the hell are you? Oh, you died.); characters whose names have changed, causing a panic as the second-draft writer wonders who they are; some characters are in June and others in August (the whole story takes place in a 20-hour period); characters whom I had thought were carefully crafted individuals are cliched clones; even a character very important to the ending who that idiot first-draft writer killed off at the halfway point; and each character’s story had a different number of terrorist explosions even though they all witness the same events. Much of my drafting notes have been trying to keep track of things blowing up and stopping my brain from suffering an equally unknown number of explosions. Some hair may have been lost.

Even worse are the moments I remember. The days when the keyboard was on fire with burning prose and everything was right with the world. Superb similes and settings, marvellous metaphors, perfect pathos, brilliant bathos, exquisite exposition, cracking characterisation and amazing allegory. All dust on the re-read, every word’s death throes grating and loud like shoe-horned alliteration.  The second-draft writer glares at the first-draft writer, their past dead self, eyes up a grave made for dancing and cries into their two left feet.

The second-draft writer is Ripley at the end of ‘Alien’, creeping through the decks and corridors of the Nostromo, self-destruct all set to burn it all. The second-draft writer makes it to the escape pod only to find that the monster has joined them. Slip into the space suit. Blow the hatch, settle into a hibernation pod, just a cat for company, and drift away into the deep black, hoping to be rescued.

And when life returns and things are almost normal, almost human, something taps at the second-draft writer’s window, and all those faces hover, waiting to be let back in. And, of course, the second-draft writer opens the window.

Second Draft Blues

On writing rituals in lock-down

After a barren start to 2020 I’ve found a new ritual and had a great couple of months’ writing. It feels good, not least because since September 2019 I’ve gone back to fulltime work after six happy years with a day off in the week to write. I got a job (I’m a teacher) closer to home and so the commute time was going to be writing time. I would lose nothing and gain a few pounds (money, not weight. Although the dinners at my new place are making up the latter – so much custard!). That time slot, seven to eight, the hour I had spent in my car with Radio 4, John Humphreys’ old fashioned values (misogyny and casual racism, tempered by Sarah Montague), sports bulletins and Thought for the Day. Not so much to miss, I thought, and yet I struggled for months to fill it with writing.

But lock-down has pushed everything back an hour. Now, I get up at twenty to seven, chase the kids off on their paper rounds, make coffee, and I’m in front of the computer by quarter past seven, half a cup of too-cool coffee next to me. And I write. I write for an hour, a fresh coffee at ten to eight, usually about 400 to 500 words into the session – yes, I’ve ritualised it; the second cup must last until quarter past eight.

Why do we do that? Put those boundaries up, settle down inside like snails in our shells, let confidence grow, then creep out in the rain, only to be crushed by splashing, booted feet?

On these lockdown mornings I manage anything from 500 to 1200 words. I do it six times per week and I’m averaging 5000 words per week. That’s probably more than I averaged when I had my one day per week to write. Although from those halcyon days I feel like there are misty memories of five-figure weeks. Those times, so distant now that they feel somehow unreal, as if they never actually happened, memories from the mists of the mythical, a chimera of word counts.

Since lockdown I’ve been mostly working from home, mostly not starting my day job until 9am. Usually I would be out of the house by seven after dragging myself up at six am, drinking coffee, rushing around wolfing breakfast, chasing the eldest two boys out for their paper rounds and probably ironing a shirt because I just couldn’t be bothered to do it the night before.

Of course, it’s probable that this is some combination of the thrill of new ritual and the elation of first-draft word building, that joy in a steady word on word, line on line, paragraph on paragraph, and the pages build like the stone walls of a castle. That first-draft thrill is fleeting, a castle built in a swamp, but it’s something to savour. Or as Joe Simpson – to use a mountaineer metaphor –  put it in his fabulous ‘Touching the Void’ from way back in 1997,

‘I carried on, sweating now, the morning cold driven off. Head down, keep looking at your feet, swing, swing, hop, look at your feet, swing swing… all the way up a smooth 150 feet, no effort, no headache, feeling on top of the world.’

And just like a mountaineer halfway up, basecamp and the summit equally distant and delightful dots, I can press on or go back, either way, there’ll be no shame.

But we press on. Of course we do. What would be the point otherwise? What would stop us? For me it might be the impending change, the shattering of ritual: schools are readmitting year groups, just 25% at a time, but they’re still there, still needing, and those Zoom sessions will have to be met too. A return to manic mornings with every minute gone in a corn-flake flash, a freshly ironed shirt pulled on, teeth brushed, tie tied, boys booted and on the bike. The plan to write between seven and eight is back in the searchlight and then hiding again, like the escaping prisoner, as the expanding foam of teaching fills the gaps.

I’m hanging on that need for ritual. Later in his book, on that fateful, almost deadly descent, Simpson is left dangling by a rope above a crevasse, both he and his climbing partner helpless to alter the outcome.

‘I lolled on the rope, scarcely able to hold my head up. An awful weariness washed through me, and with it a fervent hope that this endless hanging would soon be over. There was no need for the torture. I wanted with all my heart for it to be finished.’

When a ritual breaks it’s like writing itself dies and the unfinished draft dangles, longing to be cut free, for it to be over.

That may happen or it may not. My one hour may remain or it may be halved. My 5000 words may remain or they may be halved or they may disappear altogether, just like the first months of 2020. I may never lose my dependence on ritual, and, hey, I’ve found a new ritual for the lockdown months, maybe I’ll find another for the easing.

On writing rituals in lock-down

Expanding foam and Dickens’ Twist-ing gift that keeps on giving or: how to get your students to read a ‘proper’ book all on their own

Sunday morning. I’m at home. I was supposed to be in Halifax for a comic-con pushing Stella’s post-apocalyptic tales, but Storm Jorge saw it postponed. That means I have time that I hadn’t planned for. A whole day with nothing to occupy me as I wasn’t supposed to be here. What to do, what to do…

I should write. I should grab that project, grab some zombies by their desiccated throats, and wrestle back the control and momentum that I’ve lost over the windy winter weeks.

Or read. Just for pleasure. My pile of Christmas presents remains untouched and there are lots of goodies in it. Plus, I’ve just bought a copy of Stephen Fry’s ‘Mythos’ and I’m quite giddy to get into it. Fry’s fabulous simile, ‘great ropes of semen trail in its wake like ribbons from a kite’, to describe Ouranos’s flung genitals (after his son, the titan Kronos, had cut them off with a scythe made by his mother, Gaia) did force me into a double take the morning after the night before when at Y10 parents’ evening I was recommending the book to all and assuring them it will raise their understanding of GCSE Literature texts and characters. Still, we’ll link all that brutal, bloody and spermicidal fury to Macbeth or Scrooge somehow, I’m sure…

But, I’m an English teacher and the best and worst part of the job is the expanding foam of our sources and stimulus. So, my gained Sunday is taken by the construction of an ‘Oliver Twist’ reading quiz.

This has been my Sunday routine for several weeks now and middle child commented this morning that if I simply didn’t bother I would be more popular with students and have more time for myself. Work less and get more, he said. It’s obvious to him. But I never could cheat.

And I’m not complaining. Expanding foam comes from a can with a button and nothing to force me to press it. I did press it, just before Christmas when I decided that Y9 would all be set nine weeks’ homework of six chapters per week of Dickens’ classic, running from January to March. It’s been a testing time, for them and for me.

How much is too much when it comes to reading? How much of a risk am I taking by setting so much and with such a demanding text? Musicals and repeated movies and TV shows have given Twist a reputation as easy entertainment, something familiar and accessible to all, but his 1837 novel is at times impenetrable for even the keenest of young readers brought up on Walliams and Rowling. And what about the not-so-keen, the dyslexics, the weaker readers and those with English as a second language?

It’s been a bumpy road. Great ropes of complaints and behaviour points for detentions trailing in the weekly reading quiz’s wake like the ribbons from a kite, if you like. At first the students simply refused and so I brought them it at break and read with them. We discovered together good practice and hints and tips to succeed. They began to help each other before, during and after the reading and the quiz. I gave them sweets for getting at least half the answers right. It’s amazing what they’ll do for a Maoam or a chocolate.

So, here are a few tips for helping students through a difficult text while still allowing the independence of reading it for themselves:

  • Read one chapter a week with them. If you’re brave enough, read in accents, bring the characters to life for them so that they can transfer the ‘voices’ to their own reading.
  • Youtube. Good old Youtube. Encourage them to find quality readings of the text. Let them listen instead of read. Do encourage them to follow along but do not do anything to turn them off accessing the words and the story in whatever way suits them.
  • For those who genuinely struggle, for whatever reason, let them read a summary of the story, preferably chapter by chapter, before they read. Knowing what’s going to happen allows them to focus on what they can gain from reading the language, and not having to figure out what’s going on allows them opportunities for understanding and appreciation, both vital for the difficult skill of evaluation.
  • Provide time and space to read at breaks, dinner times and after school. After all, you’ll probably have to read along with them to create your quiz, so why not do it all together?  Most won’t come. Some will only come once or twice. So what? You’ll still be reading.
  • Create lessons around what they have read. Let them realise that they already have control of the learning, how much time they have because so much of the lesson is not taken with simply trying to understand and allow them to bring questions about what they have read. It’s amazing how quickly they can understand the characterisation of Mr Bumble when they have spent time with the character rather than simply examined extracts.

And that’s that. Tomorrow I will quiz them on chapters 43 to 48 and then set them the final five chapters (they get a chapter’s respite for the final week!) for homework. From next week I’ll have to set them written homework again, and I’m hoping that they will complain, that they’ll regret not having another book to read, that they’ll ask me for another book, for a recommendation. Great ropes of hope etc.

‘Twist’ really is the gift that keeps on giving; the foam that has filled my Sundays has meant that I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting an old classic – it really is a delightful way to spend a Sunday morning – and I have a class of Y9s who now (some of them too-cool-for-school reluctantly) get to be proud of themselves on a weekly basis. So, how much of a risk did I take? It turns out, nothing. We can do this, their smiles say to me as they chew on their sweets.

 

Expanding foam and Dickens’ Twist-ing gift that keeps on giving or: how to get your students to read a ‘proper’ book all on their own

Carry on Throning?

For several years now I’ve thought that Game of Thrones has been a bit silly. I was an avid reader of the first two books and a habitual, even somnambulistic, reader of the rest. This seems a common problem with epic fantasy: a ripping yarn for two books and then the writer treads water for page after chapter after volume, seemingly intent on the idea that to create their own world and mythology, and have it accepted as ‘real’, they must include a level of banality that means we can identify with otherwise larger-than-life characters.

But there’s enough banality in my life already. Strapping chaps with six foot swords, nimble women with slashing blades, wizards with hands of fire, thieves with hearts of gold and hobbits with hairy feet are there to thrill. There’s not much thrill in treading water. The middle books of an epic series are like end-of-season-games in predictable sporting leagues, the Scottish Premier League of literature, if you will. In the case of the ‘Wheel of Time’ series, the author, Robert Jordan, even died after the tenth (the tenth!) book, which has led to George R R Martin, the author of the ‘Game of Thrones’ series, to receive death threats over his own literary lassitude. The ‘Wheel of Time’ series now runs to fourteen volumes, the most recent having been penned by Brandon Sanderson, an author equally as happy to take the scenic route.

For ‘Game of Thrones’ the scenic route has become its reason to be. The TV show, gorgeous as ever, ploughs manfully on through a roundabout tale of power-hungry folk involved in the great game. A bit like Monopoly at Christmas, the lead changes hands and players drop out, too drunk or too bored to continue, and the game becomes pointless as players are unable to move their pewter boot without owing someone else a fortune. Mortgages and properties are haggled over with an initial zeal that quickly fades as players wait for mums and dads to declare a winner and send one person away in a sulk. ‘Game of Thrones’ has embraced its banality, becoming Eastenders but with more fighting, flaying and fucking. And just like any soap it continues to the point of silliness as the deaths and marriages and affairs pile up like a King’s Landing mortuary.

In upping the bellicose ante to banality, the latest series of Game of Thrones has even managed to outstrip the novels for water-treading triviality with the ridiculous duo of Jaime and Bronn invading Dorne (for those of you who don’t the series or the books, don’t worry, it’ll be over soon – unlike the series or the books) to rescue the princess who is Jaime’s niece and daughter. It’s Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw as we Carry On Throning, the audience increasingly desensitised to the violence and rape and abuse.

And that’s where the silliness ought to stop, because the desensitising makes it not so silly anymore. Sansa Stark marries a bully and is bullied and raped on her wedding night while the one who makes the funny noises, perhaps played by Charles Hawtrey, is forced to watch. Arya Stark, a twelve year-old girl, washes corpses and tells of her kills. Daenerys, a thirteen year-old girl, is used and obsessed over by a series of very large, and much older, men.  Well, yeah. Can we have a funny Tyrion bit now, please?

When we carry on throning, the terror and violence become banal. The programme is a Carry On movie with increased misogyny and the addition of incest, violence and rape, torture and death. Characters are killed just to be killed, women are created just to be abused. This is what made the show the ‘Sopranos in Middle Earth’ and is arguably a more accurate reflection on our own world than we would care to admit. But when the filth and the fury become weekly entertainment for year after year, a generation of people growing up with this vision of fantasy violence and glamorous misogyny mean that any message it may have had is now lost.

A gory vista that slides past and leaves our own hands bloody but ignored, leads to message and thrill being lost in baths of blood as we continue with ‘event television’. The act of watching is enough in itself and most are happy to comment on their experience of the event and revel in its immediacy, but the effect of the product, the story, is ignored. It feels like we will carry on and on throning, demanding more and more blood and betrayal until there will be nothing left but a drunken dwarf and a sexualised girl at the centre of an apocalypse witnessed by its own zombies.

Fantasy shouldn’t be soap. Pease finish the story. Bring back the thrill and let us take it seriously.

Carry on Throning?

ONE FAMILY, NO WORK, TENS OF GENERATIONS OF HAND-OUTS!

Imagine a child born into a family that has never worked. And not only the child but generations of its ancestors have lived off the state, drawing benefits and expecting the rest of the community to accept this as the natural way of things. A community that displays increasingly low tolerance for those that need help. But this child will never have to do anything to earn its way in the world. Imagine the headlines the Daily Mail could write about such a child as it takes the hard-earned money of the country’s workers. This shirker will profit from us and never lift a finger.

And now imagine that the child is placed into a position of status and wealth on a global scale. It will be fawned over, deferred to, assured of its position above all others. It will do nothing to deserve its position, it will not have worked hard, it will not have been elected, it won’t even be chosen from a group of similar candidates. It will simply be.

All this in a country that sees itself as governed by the mother of all parliaments.

The thousands of other children born on the same day will be expected to work not shirk, and if they hold their hand out to ask for help or to ask for more they will be told to help themselves, to work harder to have more. They will be allowed aspirations, given a glimpse of what may be, just a glimpse, now you see it, now you don’t, but whatever they achieve they can’t ever have what that child has.

So make your own way and if you can’t, then, somehow, it will be your own fault because you didn’t work hard enough, because your parents weren’t quite right, because you didn’t know the right people, because you couldn’t afford to work for free. You weren’t born to a certain family in a certain society that accepts this as the way things should be for no reason other than archaic tradition, and so you will be cold and lonely and no one will listen if just one of you asks if it is fair, if it is just, if it is democratic.

One child will live their whole life at the end of the rainbow while thousands, millions of others will spend their lives in the rain and we will begrudge them an umbrella.

ONE FAMILY, NO WORK, TENS OF GENERATIONS OF HAND-OUTS!

The Write Fight

I had a nightmare last night. A zombie had a nibble of my hand and Officer Rick Grimes kindly lopped it off. The ensuing trouble didn’t come from fending off undead hordes with just one hand, it came on the toilet. Turns out wiping your backside with your left hand is pretty tricky. To those who know me the idea that my mind is in the toilet would not be surprising, but I still feel a bit disappointed. In a dream state I’d rather be brain bashing the walking dead than trying unsuccessfully to use my left hand in a potentially sticky situation.

Fantasy fighting is unrealistic for obvious reasons, the practicalities of injuries not the least. Rick Grimes has both of his hands in ‘The Walking Dead’ TV show but in the comic books – he lost his hand to the Governor. Has his disability held him back? Not a bit of it. He’s a one-handed death-dealing dervish, sucking zombies up and spiting them out like the bullets from his impressive handgun. But how does he deal with going to the loo? Especially out in the wild. I mean, just the balancing act must be a skill in itself, let alone the final polish.

Stories lose their magic when the reader considers the real basis of the fantasy. Take the movie ‘Cars’. Brilliantly animated, a simple and effective storyline, a few witty one-liners and some engaging characters. What’s not to like? Well, I can’t get past the fact that the world doesn’t work. In the film there’s a joke about hot leather seats. Who’s going to sit on them? As soon as that question’s in my head the whole world falls down. Who makes the cars? How do they build this world without opposable thumbs? ‘Toy Story’ meanwhile works on every level because it has the simplest answer: magic. The toys come alive when no one is around. I can get on board with that. And, nightmares aside, I’m happy that a one-handed man can survive and even flourish in a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested world; they after all much slower than him, and his buddies can keep watch while he has his extended behind-the-tree time.

Leaving believability aside for a moment, writing a fight is fun. Smashing skulls, kicking groins, punching faces, twirling swords, pumping guns, swinging clubs. Fun, fun, fun. Too much fun and easily over done. Less is very definitely more when it comes to the old rough and tumble. As an aside, Transformers movies seem to forget this and by the end of the movie itself everything is forgotten in a haze of metal-on-metal violence that was difficult to make sense of and even harder to see who was hitting who. The question of why was long forgotten, resting as it does in a sort of a plot pit, surfacing only when the robots are having a breather and Megan Fox’s arse is briefly covered.

Less is very definitely more – certainly when it comes to Fox’s shorts. I’d love to describe in detail the squashing of a zombie’s skull as I, one-handed, take a chair leg to it over and over again, beating it until the thwacks turn into thumps, turn into wet splats, like smacking red custard. Episodes of ‘The Walking Dead’, TV and comic book, always have at least one fight, but the writers carefully make sure that, while these fights punctuate the overall story, they rarely dominate. The discipline shown by Kirkman et al is impressive and inspiring for all of us wannabes.

So, how do I get my enjoyment? And for whose enjoyment is it? Mine or the reader’s? (The reader is an annoyance in writing. I know that that sounds a little harsh, and if any of my readers are out there, I love you really, but you’re a pain when it comes to enjoying myself.) Will the reader want more or less? They probably want less, but I want more!

Self indulgence is, however, like a deep puddle and a fast car, fun for the driver but not so much for the bus queue. For a writer, the temptation to cover the page in blood, to drive through that red puddle and splatter the reader in gore is strong. I resist. Mostly. Probably not as well Kirkman, but I do at least I try to resist. Violence, and particularly fast-paced action, is fun. It’s fun because it’s scary and somehow more real than the regular interactions of characters. These are the moments when Rick Grimes could die. These are the moments when the character’s story could end, even though the book is still thick in your right hand, so you know that it won’t. But even with that knowledge, the character’s weaknesses are exposed. The reader can feel scared for them. Superman will never lose a fight – unless someone brings kryptonite, Rick Grimes will never lose to a zombie – unless he’s only got one hand. Believable? Doesn’t matter. It’s the unrealism of the violence and the belief in the risk that makes it fun. A deep puddle of blood is not believable and is even desensitising, a few drops here and a few splats there, even if they eventually add up to a bath full, are infinitely more scary – and should contribute to a reader’s nightmares. One-handed toilet trips or not.

The Write Fight

Teasers

The new Star Wars trailer has got me excited. I’m trying not to be but I can’t help it. When I was young, very young, all I wanted to be was Han Solo and fly the Falcon and do the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs . Either that or a trucker in America, driving one of those big long-nose cabs across endless state roads and stopping off in greasy diners to eat burgers, have fights with other drivers and meet waitresses. These ambitions may have come from having only two films on video tape that were actually mine; ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Convoy’, both of which centred around men who perhaps didn’t quite know their place in the world. Or a galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars was important to me, even more than Rubber Duck and his lorry-based litany of loveable rogues, but I have been burned once already. Actually it’s thrice. I’m not going to talk about them because they’ve been talked about to death but those three films were the biggest disappointment of my life, bigger even than the day I realised I would never be Han Solo, never fly the Falcon, never drive a long-nose truck. And now we go again, waiting for the disappointment but daring to hope. This is, you might say, a new hope.

Childhood dreams are ace. My eldest is currently convinced that he’s going to be a professional footballer. And not just any old pro but a multimillionaire in the ranks of Chelsea. How do I tell a boy that he will almost certainly never be a professional footballer? No idea, so I let him dream and I tell him that whatever he hasn’t got he has got the will to dream. Am I setting him up for a life of disappointment? Are the cheering crowds at Stamford Bridge to be his unmet waitresses and desolate Kessel run? Yes.

But it’s a more realistic dream than mine. I tell him that if he plays football he will be a footballer. Kicking a ball is easier than driving a truck. It really is as simple as that. Of course, he wants more than simply to play and so football can be a source frustration and then dreams quickly turn to anger. (I didn’t mean to sound like Yoda there. His dreams, to anger, quickly they turn. (I did then.)) I suppose that regular visits to watch Conference football don’t do much to persuade him that football is a difficult game at the top. He sees grown men earn their living pumping the ball and running and kicking and mistiming and fouling and missing and generally looking as if they’re not quite good enough. Which, as I try to remind him, is is true and if it weren’t, they would be playing higher. In a game of margins, where players are almost but not quite fast enough, strong enough, skilful enough, it’s hard to judge what is good and what is bad. So why can’t I do it, he probably always thinks to himself and, often, asks out loud.

Dreams are ace. Reality is crap. So, do dreams do nothing more than allow us to measure the misery?

Possibly. How do I explain that to a child ? I don’t. The will to dream is living itself, the disappointment that comes with failed fantasies is the only way we know we’re alive. In the Red Dwarf novels by Grant Naylor, there is a game called ‘Better Than Life’ where players are submerged into a reality of their creation. It was so realistic and addictive that players would die as their real body withered while their virtual life thrived. The only way a player could know that he was alive was to leave the game, the dream, and face his/her own emaciated weakened body.

Why would you want to? In his ‘Better Than Life’, eldest is adored by thousands as he scores his 45th goal of the season to seal the Premier League title and in mine I’m flying the Falcon to a greasy diner, Princess Leia is serving coffee and Lando Calrissian is driving for a rival firm.

The new Star Wars movie may disappoint but for now I’ll allow myself to dream. One day eldest will have to wake up and face the fact that he will never be a professional footballer. One day. But not today.

Teasers

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How do we decide what is acceptable? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’d like to know the answer because some of the things we should see are censored and some that we perhaps shouldn’t aren’t. There are things that we see as harmful and things that we see as harmless. But for whom? There’s only one effective method: we consider the audience.

I’m a fan of Grimsby Town, one of the many former league clubs languishing in the Football Conference, or the Vanarama Conference as it is this season. Re-naming and rebranding is a thing at least as common outside the league as it is within. Since we’ve been down here, the fateful year was 2010, there have been three names/brands: Blue Square Bet Premier, Skrill Premier and now Vanarama Conference. I rather like the latest; it has a straightforward name that harks back to the League Cup’s simpler monikers, such as the Milk Cup or the Rumbelows Cup. Names that try to sell but at least I know what I’m being sold.

Blue Square is a gambling company and is part of the Rank group , which also covers Grosvenor Casinos and Mecca Bingo. The latter two are more profitable for Rank and the company is currently assessing whether or not Blue Square is worth hanging on to as it only managed £15.3m of profit in the six months to the end of 2012, just four months before the end of its sponsorship of the Football Conference. This is a knock to Rank’s profits. £15.3m is a knock. I suppose that this is not surprising when Grosvenor Casinos pulled in £25.4m and Mecca Bingo £22.5m.

Skrill is a money service business – a mode of financial shenanigans that sound something akin to Father Ted’s “That money was just resting in my account” – and quit its three year sponsorship within a year of starting. So, a money service business with a slightly dubious history – more than 50 complaints of fraudulent behaviour, poor customer service and deceptive selling practices – but nevertheless a large status in the finance industry. It was bought by CVC Capital Partners for 600 million Euros and is the only sanctioned digital wallet for the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement. Back to gambling again.

But have the Football Conference considered their audience? Of course they have. Young, male, less likely to see the problems in gambling. Have they taken any responsibility on behalf of their audience?

Outside of football, the decisions are just as odd. The app Clean Reader has caused quite a storm recently as some clean reading types decided to make it possible for readers to choose to censor their ebook purchases so that they wouldn’t be exposed to all manner of gratuities in an otherwise good read. I’m not sure just how much the word fuck can upset someone but it is something I consider when writing. In my first blog I remembered being told to ‘pull your finger out.’ I considered using the phrase ‘pull your fucking finger out.’ For a long time it was in the Word document, sitting there smugly not underlined in red (I honestly don’t know if Word already accepts the expletive or if I added it to dictionary long ago). My eye kept flicking back to the word and at first I appreciated the alliteration and added emphasis and determined to keep it. But before the post was finished I had deleted it. I felt that the gain simply wasn’t worth the loss.

I do agree that gratuitous swearing will detract from a piece of writing and, most of the time, I can’t help but think that if a writer has resorted to swearing then they simply couldn’t think of a better way of saying it. At least for non-fiction. But fiction doesn’t work like that.

There are lots of examples already of columnists exchanging famous passages of sweary bits for the new Clean Read versions, so I’m not adding my own words to that well-beaten path. My own characters have been known to have a bit of a swear, either casually or aggressively. Eddie Fiss in ‘Suspended’ reminds himself of his former relationship with the main character by referring to him as ‘Jimmy-fucking-Wynn’. This was deliberate and meant to emphasise the ironic choice of surname and the casual nature of Eddie’s swearing. Some readers have commented that the character swears a lot. When I disagree they are incredulous, but I invite them to count. No one ever has, but, I promise, it is very few. By making the character swear at opportune moments, either for comedy, tension or aggression, it makes the word stand out and seem so much more, heightening the moment and increasing the reader’s engagement. My favourite compliment for ‘Suspended’ has been from one reader who told me that he didn’t like that kind of book but he did like the characters and dialogue and that kept him going. Eddie’s swearing and the reaction I have had to it has meant box ticked and self-congratulatory pat on the back.

Swear words compared to gambling. Swear words compared to money transitions. I take my boys to watch Grimsby Town and they want to know what Blue Square and Skrill are. One I can sort of explain and another I’m struggling but both want to take your money with the ‘promise’ that they will make it more. My boys are young, male and less likely to see the problems with gambling. To them an easy £20 is a very attractive proposition when all they want is an Xbox game. Money is important and my kids are not properly aware of that yet, disposable as their income is. The idea of easy money is not realistic yet gambling makes it seem exciting and easy. And when their name is associated with their own football team, how can they help but look up to brands that only want to increase their awareness throughout childhood and into adulthood. Added to friendly professional cockney Ray Winston, comedy Camara moments in the shower, semi-naked poker playing ladies and David Ginola’s bookie-sponsored bid for the FIFA presidency, why wouldn’t everyone assume it was all so innocent?

Footballers are called upon to be positive role models and censor their behaviour. It’s time football considered its audience more responsibly and sorted out what it should censor.

(By the way, ‘Suspended’ has more than 95,000 words and contains just 66 fucks, 47 shits and four wankers. I reckon I can claim that that’s not gratuitous. But I suppose it might be in this post.)

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