Monthly Archives: December 2009

The opening lines (and Happy Christmas)

One Christmas drink too many

One Christmas drink too many. (Thanks to savagechickens.com)

 Happy Christmas and a mellow new year from Belfast, which is where I am right now.

People sometimes ask me: If this blog is supposed to be at least partly about your book, where can I read some of it?

Fair question. The answer is here: Here. Now.

The most important lines in any story are the beginning. The stakes are high. Go wrong at the start, and that’s it. The reader has moved on before any emotional committment has formed. It’s easy to cut one’s losses before getting in too deep.

So – with trepidation – here are the opening lines of my book, Blackwatertown.

But first, here’s a little context to the story.  It’s set in rural Ireland, along the border,  in the mid 1950’s. The hero, Macken, is a police sergeant in the RUC, the then police force of Northern Ireland.

And so the story, Blackwatertown, begins – like this:

Sergeant Jolly Macken didn’t want to be a policeman anymore. He clenched his teeth, and sucked in through his nostrils the cool air of the Mourne foothills. The butt of his hand pressed down on the polished handle of the baton, not yet drawn. He hated his job. He hated the crowd pushing at his back and the string of men blocking the road ahead. All  of them waiting, impatient for his signal,  muttering his nickname. He  hated the verbal albatross that had been hung round his neck too. Jolly. Christ!

 The stoney slopes of fern and heather and gorse would usually lift his  heart. The open land a refuge from complication and regulation. He’d  feel the tension ebbing from his shoulders. The small smile that would  quietly creep over his face, unbidden and unwitnessed. If Macken believed in anything, it was that there was no better place, nor way, for a man to be at peace than by quiet water, with a rod and line.  Alone, but never lonely.

Today was different. Today he was only a hard-faced big man trapped inside a uniform. The Mourne mountain road he stood on was busy with intruders, eager for action. Stones bounced round his feet. The isolated serenity of this County Down emptiness had been shattered long before. But at this moment of decision, all the shouting and jeering, the drums and the flutes, seemed to fade to silence in Macken’s mind. The violence was about to begin – the striking out at head and body with stone and bar, baton and rifle butt. And he was going to be the one to start it.

That’s it. More to come in a while. But I would very much like your comments on the opening.

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Filed under My Writing

Red Cow

Click on the pic for more top design from Mexico.

This big red cow and other smooth Mexican export stamps by Rafael Davidson, come from Ranger Mike.

Avoid This Job: An alternative jobs website. But only if you’re really really desperate or sufficiently unusual. Hurry now. You may still be in with a chance for the pubic hair trimmer position.

How to beat up an alligator. Well, you just never know, do you? The information might come in handy.

Dotun Adebayo, MBE

And here’s a happy fella. It’s giant of the airwaves, BBC Radio 5 live’s Dotun Adebayo. I’m not a huge fan of these medals, but in your case, Dotun, I’ll make an exception. Check him out on the radio on Up All Night (with “The Mighty” Rhod Sharp) on 5 live or BBC London. Or read the books he publishes, including the iconic Yardie, at the X Press. Watch his internet TV channels at Colourtelly. Or live it up at his Lovers Rock club nights. The man is too impressive. But what you must remember above all else is this. If you ever meet him, be sure to ask him when the dental phone-in is. (He’ll be delighted to tell that it’s scheduled for two thirty. Geddit?) Then run.

Finally a list of rules to live by. Especially if you’re a young lady. Here’s a small sample to reassure you how vital these top tips are:

  • Don’t have any pity for flies and insects – kill them
  • Woolen undergarments are a most prolific source of mischief
  • You are safer in kissing a person with consumption than you are in wetting your finger to turn over the pages of a book

They may be 100 years old. But as relevant today as they were then.

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These are what you were looking for

from FickleInPink, the Dark SideI’m thinking of getting one of these gadgets. Any advice or lessons learned from people out there?

RIP Robert Degen: You put your left leg in… The man who wrote the Hokey Pokey is dead. (Or should that be the Hokey Cokey?)

Here’s a very capable communicator with a wealth of life experience who is looking for a job. He has an interesting blog too.

Think before you make a placard

And lots of fascinating stuff from the Uni Sociology Club at the University of Northern Iowa.

Like the top tip for making a placard: Think first.

A stun gun shaped like tampons – in case you’d be embarrassed to be discovered with a weapon in your handbag.   And how to make your eyes look bigger with LED eyelashes.

from Strange Maps

"Some squirrel nibbled the continent of South America on one of my pumpkins," reported Seth Masket. "It's freaking me out."

Finally, Strange Maps is the place to discover stains, bite marks, rust and clouds in the shape of countries, states and continents. It’s called Accidental Geography. Or more poshly –  cartocacoethes – which means the uncontrollable urge to see maps in everyday, non-cartography-related objects. However, Cacoethes is a Greek word used to express uncontrollable urge or desire, especially for something harmful. Strange Maps thinks seeing maps everywhere is harmless, if not downright beneficial. It prefers the friendlier term, cartococcygia, for the condition. Cartococcygia literally means maps built by cuckoos – analogous to nephelococcygia (a term for seeing shapes in clouds, from The Birds by Aristophanes , literally: clouds built by cuckoos).

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It’s hard to know when to stop

An EducationIt’s hard to know when to stop. Take the film An Education. I loved it till the final 90 seconds. I watched it this week at the National Film and Television School with the writer Nick Hornby, who wrote the screenplay,  and producers Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey. And they admit that the ending was a problem for them.

But first things first. The film is excellent. I recommend you go see it – preferably with your godmother, if you have one, or your exciting aunt.

That’s because it’s set in the swinging London of 1961. Think Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners. The hero is Jenny, convincingly played by Carey Mulligan. She’s a bright attractive 16-year-old, who’s bored with the dull routine of cello lessons, school, Latin homework and the prospect of a boring proper life to follow. The single possible glimmer of light is the possibility of getting in to Oxford to read English. But, as she puts it, this translates into, at best, working hard and being bored at school, then working hard at Oxford, then working hard and being bored as a teacher or civil servant.

Juliette Greco, pic from IonArts.blogspot.com

Juliette Greco, whom Jenny in An Education looks quite like, and wants to be.

Tucked away in her bedroom she reads Camus, listens to Juliette Greco and imagines running away to Paris to wear black, smoke, dance and never return.

Then one rainy day, Jenny and her cello are offered a lift at the bus stop by the attractive and sympathetic older man, David ( Peter Sarsgaard). He charms and amuses schoolgirl Jenny into his car and drives her home to her parents – the protective yet calculating and easily hoodwinked Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour.

From here on, Jenny is introduced to a glittering exciting world of art, sophistication and sharp practice. She sparkles at first, but then…

Well, that’s enough plot. The story is both moving and funny. Very funny.

As an aspiring writer, my favourite line is spoken by Jenny’s father. I can’t recall it verbatim, but it’s something along the lines of: “Knowing a famous writer is far better than being one. Knowing one shows that you’re connected.”

But there are so many good ones, especially from the lips of the glamorous but thick Helen, played by Rosamund Pike. (Ironically she really is an accomplished cellist and French speaker.)

Two main themes run through the film. Whether a traditional education (school, university) trumps the university of life. Or if either are appropriate. And whether or when you should tell the truth to friends, family or yourself – before someone gets hurt, or afterwards.

The real Jenny. Lynn Barber, author of An Education, at the time the film is set.

The film is based on an essay in Granta magazine written by the journalist Lynn Barber about her teenage years. If you’ve read the original piece, or the book, you’ll already know it’s a great story. But don’t presume you know how the film story goes – Jenny’s life does not exactly mirror Lynn’s.

According to the trio answering questions after the film showing – Nick Hornby, Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey – Lynn Barber was the ideal inspiration. Which means: She didn’t interfere. She read script drafts and only intervened to ensure the period details were accurate.

Lynn, having finally found a cigarette.

However, what I didn’t realise at the time, is that apparently there is something to which she objected. In her original essay, she called the older man who sweeps her up, Simon. In the film he’s called David. That’s the niggle. Her late husband was also called David. He was seriously ill and then died during the making of the film.  Lynn was not a 16-year-old schoolgirl at a bus stop when she first encountered the real David. They met later in her life. It’s understandable she’d prefer the rogue in the film to have some other name. I wonder why the film makers stuck with the name David.

But, getting back to my own quibble. In the final minute or so, the film switches to a voice over from Jenny to tie up the loose ends. What loose ends? I don’t like it. It falls flat. I found it neither uplifting nor thought-provoking nor even necessary.

It’s still an excellent film, but I was puzzled by the ending. (I’m being a little coy about the details because I don’t want to spoil things before you watch it yourself.) It turns out the film makers also wrestled with how to bring the tory to an end.

Nick Hornby

One alternative which was shown to a test audience, included a reunion/confrontation between Jenny and David. But the audience were not keen.  (Again, I don’t want to reveal why, exactly.) And the screenplay writer Nick Hornby feels that he never quite managed to nail that particular alternative ending to his own satisfaction either. He’s much happier with the voice over option.

He’s probably right. Having heard him describe the alternative, they’ve chosen the better option. The best option however would have been to cut the voice over completely. A shot of Jenny in her new environment, leading into the credits, would have been enough. We don’t need to be spoon fed.

You can see and judge for yourself. I love the film. Even the opening title sequence is clever. It’s just that, like many of us, the film makers found it hard to know when to stop.

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Filed under Film