Thursday, 24 December 2009

Cinderella and Goldilocks do lunch

Our writing group tries to set a group task each week. Last week, in the festive spirit, the task was an imaginary conversation between two fairy tale characters.

Scene, a self service restaurant somewhere in Hollywood.

Scene a large self-service cafeteria in Hollywood.

There must be a place to sit somewhere – Cinderella glanced around the crowded room clutching a tray in one hand and her handbag in another. Weaving though the tables she spied a single woman sitting alone with her back to everyone.

‘I think I know that hair’ she thought. As she approached, a large, almost bear-like, man rose to block her way and then hesitated

‘Oh Cinders I didn’t recognise you with the head scarf.’ He moved aside and she slid into the empty seat. The girl opposite raised her head, flicking the golden blond hair out of her eyes.

‘I see you’re up to five now’ said Cinderella pointing at five boiled eggs sitting in a row of eggcups in front of Goldilocks.

‘It’s hard to get it just right.’

‘Are you seeing anyone about it?’

‘About what?’

About the OCD darling - you know it’s getting worse. I mean it used to be three bowls of porridge and such like, and now you’re up to five.’

‘Well what’s wrong with five – your prince Charming has five.’

‘No he doesn’t love, you’re confusing him with prince Charles, and anyway I’m sure that’s an urban myth. There’s always daft stories going around about Charles. Having five eggs to be sure of getting one just right is as daft as that story about his valet having to put his toothbrush handle to the right because he’s right handed. Honestly you can’t believe every thing you hear. You really do need to see someone - Hollywood is full of very good shrinks – you should get one.’

‘Don’t go on at me, it’s been a bad day.’

‘The bears giving trouble again?’

‘You don’t know the half of it. It’s all the hangers on as well. A vet and a handler for each bear and they have to have a rest about every half hour. A plain old actress can work all day, but the bears have to have their rest.

‘The little one is the worst – they grow so fast so we have to keep training a new baby bear. It’s ridiculous. They grow almost full size in a year and they only have babies in the spring. Before the end of May they’re too young to learn anything and then before you know they’re too big. By September it’s hopeless, and we have to wait till next year. How can a girl maintain her reputation on four months work a year.’

‘Funny isn’t it’ said Cinderella ‘you always hear about actors resting – I didn’t know bears did it too.’

Goldilocks ignored her.

‘Then there’s the furniture. The chairs have to be made of steel about an inch thick or they collapse when father bear sits on them. I caught my toe on his chair last week and almost lost a foot. The beds are beyond belief – OK it’s a good enough line “this beds too hard” - sounds charming and all that. “This bed is armour plated steel” doesn’t have the same ring but it’s a bloody sight nearer the truth.’

‘Are you going to eat the other eggs?’

‘No, the one at that end is too soft and the others are too hard. If you want one fire away.’

‘I think I’ll have the hard one – it’ll go well with my soup.’

‘I don’t know how you can eat leftovers the way you do – doesn’t anything upset you?’

‘It was my wicked stepmother; I had to learn to put up with anything, I’d have starved otherwise.’

For a second Goldilocks self-centred world was punctured

‘Sorry, I forgot – I didn’t think.’

‘Don’t fret love - it came in handy at the end didn’t it.’


‘Have you ever thought what a coach made out of pumpkin smells like? Especially an old one left in the back of the pantry since Halloween. Chuck in footmen made from mice and rats for horses and I reckon anyone else would have passed out before they got anywhere near the ball.’

Goldilocks smiled and relaxed. ‘You’re a survivor kid, you always were. Anyway it’s nice to see you – I didn’t know you were in town. What do you think of my new body guard?’

‘He looks like a bear.’

Goldilocks almost fell off the chair laughing. ‘He does – you’re right! I can’t get away from them can I? I never realised. His name’s Barry – He’ll have to be Barry the Bear.’ She glanced behind her at the massive bulk , but Barry was scanning the room for possible trouble and didn’t notice.

She turned back to Cinderella. ‘Are you working? Is that why you’re in town?’

‘Doing voice-overs and scripts, there’s not much call for princesses right now.’

‘Is Sleeping Beauty grabbing your trade?’

‘Her – no way - it’s a little known side effect of that stuff the evil fairy gave her – when you wake up, you age twice as fast as before. She’s on her third face-lift already. She lives on potions and make up. She’s on so much botox that the prince daren’t kiss her in case he gets paralysed.’

Goldilocks swept her famous hair off her face and grinned at Cinderella. ‘You do make a gorgeous princess when you put your mind to it. Why do you wear that headscarf all the time – you look like a wicked old hag.’

‘I picked up that look from my stepsisters – it’s a killer isn’t it. I just don’t like being recognised – having to sign all those autographs and stuff. I’d never get any work done.’ She eased the scarf off her head and shook loose her jet-black hair.

Goldilocks watched it settle with an expert eye.

‘You should try some of this stuff I’ve just started marketing. I make more from hair product commercials that anything else these days.’

Cinderella nodded ‘Marketing? Is that what you call it. It’s always been your think hasn’t it – promotion. I always said you should have franchised the porridge.’

‘Oh yeah – and have to share it with the bears – no way. Anyway franchising can be a mugs game. Did you hear about Jack?’

Cinderella shook her head.

‘He ran out of magic beans so got some wheeze going with Genetic Engineering – you know, like GM beans. Trouble is they grew too fast. They had to film at night because they couldn’t get the right shots in one day and by the next day the beanstalk was out of sight – cost a fortune in overtime and lights and what have you.

Next thing you know the whole thing has grown so fast it’s too weak to hold itself up and it all collapses. The giant was crushed under it before they’d even got his castle built – he’s in a wheelchair, and they’ve got to rewrite the whole script – had to bring in more writers.

They’re playing safe now but anyone can tell the new beanstalk is concrete and plastic, and they’re so far over budget that Jack may never work in this town again.’

Cinderella took another egg and finished her soup. ‘That’s why I keep the other side of the camera.’

‘I don’t know why you have to work at all’

‘Oh yeah – fairy princess with prince Charming – happily ever after, and all that.’ Cinderella put her spoon down. ‘Have you any idea what the upkeep on a castle comes to these days. I’m doing some great stuff on those bed commercials – you know, all that princess and the pea stuff. This new memory foam remembers where the pea is and moulds around it, even I can’t tell where it is.’

‘That’s cool did you write the script for it?’

‘Yup, and directed it.’

‘You’re getting to be a regular movie mogul. Have you heard about the mess the golden goose woman got into?’

Cinderella rolled her eyes, grinning mischievously as she eyed the last egg.

‘You’re going to tell me aren’t you?’

Goldilocks leaned closer across the table. ‘It’s the recession, isn’t it. You know all those adverts on the box “send us your old gold and we’ll send you money.” Well the golden egg bit has always been a bit of a hoax anyway – I mean there’s hardly any actual gold in the eggshell, but it was always good for fooling peasants. Trouble is they aren’t so many peasants these days so the old woman thought. “What about sending the eggs to these gold people?” Seemed like a smart idea, so she packs up a bunch of golden goose eggs in these special envelopes the Cash-4-Gold people sent her, and mailed them off. She’s in England, don’t forget, and they have a post strike. Can you imagine what half a dozen broken goose eggs are like after a couple of weeks stuck in the post?’

Cinderella sat holding her face for half a minute not daring to look at Goldilocks and desperately trying to hold down the giggles.

Eventually she said ‘you and me are doing OK really, compared to all these other folk. At least we’re working and out of trouble – I mean look what happened to Red Riding Hood.’

Goldilocks eyes widened. ‘I hadn’t heard, what’s she doing now?’

‘Just about keeping out of jail. Wolves are an endangered species and talking wolves that can imitate your grandmother are almost impossible to find. She has this one on a long-term contract but he’s getting older all the time, and his teeth are falling out. It’s costing her a fortune in dental work to keep poor Wolfie looking the least bit fearsome.

‘Then there’s the woodcutter. He can’t chop down trees because of global warming and there’s no wild wolves left, so he has to hang out with Red as well.

‘To make matters worse the wolf has got used to sleeping in a bed – he’s spent so much time pretending to be Granny, so now he has to sleep in bed at night – won’t go on the floor – has to have it in his contract. You can imagine the sort of thing that happens, they come back to a hotel after a gig and all fall asleep and the next thing you know, room service turn up. I mean it’s a bloody funny ménage-a-trois, Red Riding Hood, a woodcutter and a wolf in bed together, but people do talk. She only got away with it so far because no one knows whether to shop her for bigamy or to the animal rights people.’

Cinderella stopped as a deep-throated chuckle came out of Goldilocks. A few other diners looked around.

‘Keep quiet, people are looking – we’ll be recognised and we’ll have fans mobbing us.’

‘I know, I know. Don’t worry – my bear Barry will keep them away.’

She glanced behind her again. ‘Poor Red - it’s not as though she has Granny any more, the first wolf did for her – I hear that Red has to play both parts just to keep the show on the road.’

Goldilocks swept the eggshells together. ‘You’ve eaten four eggs’ she said.

‘I know, it comes from my starving upbringing,’ said Cinderella. ‘I can’t stop myself from eating free food.’

‘Poor you. What script are you working on?’ She paused ‘you’re always so mysterious, part of managing your image I suppose. Hey you’re not doing that movie that’s working on a closed set down the road – no one knows what it is – is that yours?’

‘No way! You haven’t heard? It’s called Pussy in Boots with the main character called Dick – I ask you – whatever next. Not my thing at all.’

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Another major revision

At last, or maybe at least, I’ve finished another major revision of the book. All the comments people have made, all the post-it notes, and the reminders written to myself in the middle of the night, or on trains, are all dealt with; the chapters are all in the right order, the pages are numbered, and I’ve mailed a copy to myself, so there is a back up in the sky wherever Google keeps such things.

And I feel sick. Is this a migraine, or some new anxiety syndrome, or just another phase in the life of a novel? Of course it’s not finished, I know only too well that I’ll read it again in a day or so and have to correct some clunky phrase, or typo that has been hiding in plain sight since the first draft, or maybe worse still a character referring to something that doesn’t happen until two more chapters. After that I have to find an agent or a publisher, or preferably both - maybe that’s why I feel sick.

I am getting to the point where I simply don’t understand the book trade. I listened to Mariella Fostrup on the radio and she had the usual mix of writers and publishers expressing various forms of optimism. Why does she never have an agent on her programme, or at least not when I listen?

Part of the discussion covered the issue of advances; apparently they are getting smaller and smaller, the smallest being zero. Sums of five hundred or a thousand were suggested as increasingly common. Where will that lead? Publishers started economising years back by shedding editorial staff who then became agents. Back in those days when advances were in the thousands and agents got a percentage of those advances you can see how it worked.

After that publishers further reduced their risks by saying that they would only take submissions from agents (see their web sites if you don’t believe me). Now they are economising even further by cutting down on advances. That presumably will make agents more risk averse, so they will only take clients that can still secure an advance that keeps the agent in business. That in turn will reduce the number of writers who can do it for a living.

In one sense you could argue that in the long term it does nothing, roughly the same number of books will be sold, assuming that the population still wants to buy and read books (let’s not get into e-books and all that for the moment). So in the end writer’s income and agent’s fees will be the same, but the timing will be different. Writers will need other income to keep the wolf from the door until royalties eventually turn up and agents too will have to rely on long term sales to get their cut rather than a slice of the advance.

Selling a book and persuading the publisher to come up with a big advance is obviously one of the key tasks that an agent uniquely does. Writing a good book that sells well over a longer term is what the writer does. So we end up with a position where the role of the agent, is seriously undermined at the same time as publishers are saying that they are essential.

I really do think it is time that Mariella started interviewing agents on a regular basis so that we can see what they are making of this. We could be running towards a situation where the whole book trade is dependent upon an endangered species. Will agents start asking for up-front fees from writers I wonder? Maybe we could do it like book advances. If I fantasise for a moment that I might get £5000 as an advance for my book; I’d be happy to pay an agent £500 to represent me and have them earn out the advance, the same way an author earns out their advance.

I guess a more complete picture of the industry should look at the pre publication costs of the authors. They can be considerable, apart from keeping alive, paying mortgages and all that we should factor in the creative writing courses, the consultant’s reports and of course the funds that go to companies like Lulu or Authorhouse who make their money out of writers that can’t find agents or other publishers. I wonder which is the biggest market, selling to writers or selling to readers?

Perhaps it’s better not to speculate and just write another book – that’s where the fun lies, after all.

Oh - if anyone wants to read it drop me an email.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Why do broadcasters encourage drunkenness?

Am I especially sensitive or is it the case that far too often when someone has something to celebrate there will be a reporter or an interviewer asking what he or she plans to drink, or what he or she did actually drink? Furthermore if they say they don’t drink then interviewer will probably challenge this, and say, “Well surely you’ll have a glass or two with such a lot to celebrate”. I know I mostly hear this on the BBC, but to be fair I mostly listen to the BBC so they may be no worse at it than anyone else.

The paradigm is that celebration means drink. I checked the definition of celebration in five online dictionaries and none mention alcohol.

In the interest of balance I acknowledge that there are other places where the assumption seems to be that thanks will be given to a God, though which one may depend where you are. I’ve noticed, for instance, American athletes who win something often thank God, so obviously a different paradigm is at work there. (None of the dictionaries mention Gods either).

What bothers me is that UK broadcasters seem far too often to link celebration with alcohol, and as long as they do, it makes it harder to tackle the problem that we in the UK clearly have with drink.

So here for all the UK broadcasters, is a possible new-year’s resolution.

“I promise to embrace the new decade with new ways of celebrating.”

Here are some suggestions for different questions to ask.

Who did you phone or what text message did you send?

What new clothes will you buy?

Where will you go to celebrate?

How soon will your life be back to normal?

Monday, 7 December 2009

TAVI and Tavi Gevinson

About six months ago I spent some time looking up information about TAVI Short for Transcatheter Aortic Valve Implantation; that is a technique for repairing the valve that lies between the heart and the main blood vessel out of it, the aorta. The valve stops blood running back into the heart at the end of its pumping action, so your blood pressure doesn’t drop when the heart has finished one beat and fills up again for the next beat.

Obviously everyone needs that valve to work OK, so techniques to repair damaged ones are important. They also need to be effective and when new ones are invented we need to be sure that they don’t cost a lot more for no greater improvement. That was why I was looking up TAVI.

I got distracted because I found Tavi Gevinson’s blog (

Tavi is a thirteen-year-old girl in Chicago (actually one of my more favourite towns in the US – I was once offered a job there). She has an amazing eye for fashion and a precocious talent at photographing herself and making web pages.

If you have nothing better to do for a few minutes have a look at her site, though you may find you take more than a few minutes. Keep saying to yourself – this girl is thirteen. How on earth can anyone get that savvy at that age?

There is a wonderful difference between art and science. Trying to decide whether TAVI is a treatment that the NHS should invest in will take a lot of work from health economists, epidemiologists and cardiologists. At the moment the NHS has done about 600 of these procedures but how it is paid for is different in every region. I reckon the debate will go on for some while.

On the other hand looking at what Tavi Gevinson does and deciding that it is brilliantly creative takes a few seconds. Maybe that’s why I’ve become more interested in art since I retired.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Anish Kapoor

I have to admit that I sometimes laugh at art exhibitions. I shouldn’t do it really, after all art is a serious business and the stuff I laugh at isn’t supposed to be funny. Mark Rothko makes me giggle, you know the huge black on dark grey deck chair canvas that he has in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It just kills me that he managed to convince people to part with massive amount of money to buy it. I tend to smirk at Tracey Emin too, for much the same reason. You have to admire the sheer nerve that goes into putting some of those awful drawings in front of the public.

Yesterday I almost laughed out loud at the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Royal Academy but for a different set of reasons. Some of it just made me feel great. I think it was Nicholas Serota who said art lifts the spirit and mine was certainly higher when I came out. There are some very original pieces – by which I mean that you are unlikely to see anything like it anywhere else. Even if you don’t have my warped sense of humour you may laugh. When you first come into the exhibition there is a notice saying that the exhibits are fragile – do not touch. The first piece is you come to is a massive thing made of sheet iron about fifteen feet high and thirty or forty feet long. If that is fragile then everything I’ve ever learned about the physical world is wrong.

OK joke over, some of the pieces are fragile and maybe finger marks on the sheets of iron are not part of the plan. Then there is a massive block of wax, which is hardly fragile either. It runs on railway lines and goes to and fro between three galleries. It leaves a trail that is now about 25 centimetres deep. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay long enough to see it move very far, well hardly at all really. There is something majestic about it; it’s long enough that when you stand at one end you get that feeling that the tracks go on forever, just like a real railway. The massive amount of deep red wax is spectacular too, especially the way chunks of it have got splattered about in places that I bet it’s going to be hard to clean off. Set against the pristine white walls and gold encrusted architraves of the Royal Academy big splodges of red wax do lighten the tone somewhat.

Then there is the room full of concrete things. Actually it looks like big piles of clay, piles a yard high. He obviously used some sort of extrusion device, so each heap is made of stuff like spaghetti only as thick as your wrist. Each pile is a sort of sculptural shape, like a giant ant heap or some such. They are all different shapes and all of them look as though they didn’t turn out quite right – collapsed bits here and there, and very inexact forms. There are so many packed into the room that it is hard to walk between the pieces to get across the room – but remember they are supposed to be fragile – so mind how you go.

That room made me laugh as well, but it also made me want to take up sculpture again. Somehow there seems to be an adventure in that room. There is a spirit that needs to break new ground, break rules, laugh at the world and show it something new. How can piles of extruded concrete do that? I have no idea, but I want to do it too.

Another room has smaller pieces in shapes and colours. Simple shapes that a child might have made out of papier-mache, but covered in stark primary pigments that achieve an astonishing depth of colour.

There are lots of mirrors too, bent ones, so that the crowd are sometimes upside down, or weirdly distorted. In some places the walls are bent as well. Clever stuff, bend the people with mirrors and then bend the walls for real – you have to laugh. The bendiest piece of all is in fibre-glass, the opening is a huge flattened funnel, that could be lips, leading to a convoluted tube that looks like writhing intestines - inviting lips, that lead into a twisted reality, don’t they all.

Kapoor is not like other artists, he seems to have disconnected himself from the materials. He does this in many ways - mirrors showing things that aren’t true, for instance; or the way he uses colour, deep red wax to hold the railway tracks – who would have thought of that? Railways are all about stone and rock, carved out of mountains, spanning across plains, flying over bridges of concrete and steel. They are steeped in dirt and power, speed and strength. Blood red wax is just something else, there’s no way that you can avoid seeing transport differently now.

Once the shape of something has been freed from everything it is attached to in your brain, it becomes something of itself, something new, holding it’s own in the world, taking it’s place as a shape, as a form rather than a thing. We have become so used as humans to naming things, and keeping them in their place. Kapoor must be a genius to somehow be able to turn everything loose.

I think that is the deep inspiration in this exhibition, freedom – found where you least expect it.

If you haven’t seen it you should go – it closes 11 December.