WORDS have been a fascination all my life. I would haunt the library as a kid, and as we didn’t have a television until I was in my teens, I very much depended on books to fire my imagination. I was always good at spelling at school, and even achieved a good ‘O’ level pass at Latin because I appreciated how this ancient text had influenced so many of our present-day European languages.
Think about it – what kind of a world would it be without words? Especially English ones. Our language is spoken throughout the globe. Even in Japan you can find English translations alongside all public signage. Pop songs the world over sell best if they’re performed in English. Our language, our words, are essential for communication, and are familiar to the vast majority of the global population.
But I love it when I see words being used with humour – often in a commercial way. There’s a hairdressing salon not far from me with the name “Cutting Corners” – perfectly named as it sits on the corner of two streets. In a pub where I had a meal recently, I saw a sign on the wall that read “Despresso: the feeling you get when you’ve run out of coffee”.
Do you have a favourite comedian? Those professional punsters could not ply their trade without a talent for taking words and using them to great effect. Their vocabulary is necessarily economical, and is combined with careful pitch, enunciation and timing. But the choice of words is the most critical element.
As a writer I pay particular care to how I use words myself, and I love spotting the ways in which words make us laugh. I travel a lot, and it is always a delight when I see how the English language is unconsciously mis-spelt, sometimes to hilarious effect.
But my favourite was a guy in Central Park, New York, who sat in the shade on a bench reading a book with a suitcase propped beside him. His choice of words was grammatically correct, practical, honest – and humorous. He had a brown paper bag covering the retractable handle and a single dollar bill trapped in the zip. On the bag in plain view he had written the following: WHY LIE? I NEED A BEER.
Now that’s the last word in street humour.
“Action, not Words!” That’s a political quote, and at this unsettling time in the UK, perhaps just as relevant a mantra as it was in 1966 – when Ted Heath used it as the theme for his election manifesto. Those of us waiting to see what Boris Johnson might bring to the feast, may indeed hope that he can honour his spoken intentions with a practical result.
But here’s another version: “Life is words in action, literature is action in words.” That one came from a contemporary of mine, Turkish actor and playwright Tarik Gunersel. I like that one because it encourages me (as a writer) to ensure that the words I put on the page serve a purpose. By that, I mean that they drive the story forward, taking the reader on a path that leads to a satisfactory destination. I hate it when (as a reader) I find the plot of a novel to be wallowing in literary treacle as if the path I’ve taken is consumed by inches of sticky mud. Sometimes it happens simply because the writer wants to apply a richer description than the reader needs: “his craggy features, heavy brows, piercing eyes and Roman nose gave an impression of impatient senility in a way I found impossible to ignore in a teacher of classical studies”; “all about me were scattered the detritus of nature at its angriest – snapped twigs of elm and sycamore trees, copper and russet leaves both old and new carelessly swept into untidy hillocks several inches high”. This is self-indulgence from a writer that adds very little to help the narrative, and potentially smothers the interest that may previously have been piqued. (Those two “quotes” are my own invention, by the way!)
A writer has a similar job to do as a painter: to produce a work of art that allows us to focus on the subject inside the frame, rather than the frame itself.
So, when faced with writing Novel Number 2, what had I learned from Novel Number 1? (The Murder Tree)
In a nutshell, I’ve moved away from the restrictions of following the elements of a True Story. Both my previous projects have been largely governed by historical record. This time, like my play Rabbit-Chasing For Beginners, I have been free to use my imagination. While the events of The Murder Tree were centred around the City of Glasgow, this time I have featured places nearer to my present home in the Ribble Valley of Lancashire. Manchester (my place of birth) features strongly, as do London and Liverpool, Belfast and Northern Ireland. The plot is exponential, meaning I let it develop in its own way. Characters often influence a plot because of their personal motives and interests, and that has become the deciding factor for me in writing Sisters. The chapters are short, and the pace is quick. I want my readers to stay on a path that has many twists and turns – but it is all the more fun if there’s an ever-present risk of them taking a corner too fast…
Action? Yes – plenty. Words? Yes – but only the ones deemed necessary to complement the action!
HOW? WHY? WHAT? WHEN? Four perfectly reasonable questions. So here come some answers (but not necessarily in the same order).
My present writing project is called Sisters, and I am around two-thirds of the way through – so with tempus fugit-ing faster than I would like, I thought this Blog might be a useful opportunity to tell you a little more about it.
Okay – let’s start with HOW I came to write it:
My first novel The Murder Tree came about because I had a great idea for a story, but couldn’t find any other way of telling it. I learned some hard lessons turning from script-writing to prose, and I made any number of mistakes in the writing process. But I learned from those mistakes, and the number of sales of that book have at least proved to me that (with a promising debut) I did have a future as a writer. People liked it enough to ask me when there would be a second book. Thank you, people.
I almost started writing Sisters straight away, because I had an idea in my head that I felt would be suitable for my central character (Billie Vane) to get involved in. But something held me back. There was another project I felt had to be completed first: I wanted to tell my mum’s story about Australia. A Kangaroo In My Sideboard kept me busy for another couple of years. I have one more ambition to achieve in that area: to follow in my parents’ footsteps (and maybe track down The Sideboard). In March 2020 I expect to be able to tick that one off the bucket list.
Before that, I intend to publish Sisters.
So – WHAT is it about, and WHY did I want to write it?
Like The Murder Tree, this has a true story at the heart of it: the disaster of the Titanic. But it is not another re-hash of the tragedy that claimed so many lives. Those expecting dramatic re-enactments of survivors’ stories, or yet another conspiracy theory, will be disappointed. Ultimately, Sisters is about Politics – then and now.
We face some incredible events in British, American and European politics today – but that was equally the situation in 1911: Trouble in Ireland, trade disputes and political egos at odds with each other. Nothing has changed! So, I’ve linked the events just before the onset of War in Europe with those in 2016, immediately before the European Referendum. But Sisters begins in 1985, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, and when the wreck of Titanic was discovered. I’ve created a fictional member of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet who carries out her orders to ‘remove a threat’ and by doing so, avoid further trouble in Northern Ireland. The consequences of that action, plus the Minister’s paedophile activities, form the background to a plot where ‘National Security’ is ostensibly more important than accountability. Billie Vane takes up a challenge to research facts around Titanic and debunk anything else, but all is not what it seems. A document comes into his hands, describing events that led up to the sinking, and implicating present day political figures. Then he begins to realise why the body count is still rising…
As for the WHY – like Billie (and many others), I have been fascinated by the Titanic tragedy for many years, and I’ve read all manner of books about it. There are incredible claims made by some authors, including the popular one that Titanic was switched for her sister ship Olympic. I put as much credence in that one as I do in the claim that the moon landing was faked, but I do believe something was going on. There are too many unanswered questions about why certain people behaved as they did, even influencing the two public enquiries into the disaster. Oddly, I came up with my own theory – one that does answer all those questions, if it happens to be true. I felt Billie (and another strong female character) could get their teeth into that particular angle, and pre-supposing my own theory is correct, face the consequences from those still holding political power.
Paedophilia? We all know it goes on, and after the legacies of Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith, I’m convinced there have been many more acts of shameful abuse by past (and possibly present) political figures. It is their very position of power and influence that made it easy to abuse the system to their personal ends. So, while my Cabinet Minister Peter Gris is definitely fictional, and not based on any living person, he does represent a faction of powerful men I believe exist today. As Sisters will demonstrate, the abuse of power was just as self-evident in 1911.
Finally, I used to be a Civil Servant, and in my time I’ve had several occasions to hold members of the government to account, even a high-ranking policeman. Cynical I may be, but they do tell newbie authors to write from experience.
As for the WHEN, I still believe in Democracy in Britain, but I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to see it actually happen.
LIFE IS ABOUT EXPERIENCES. The more we accumulate, the more we shove into that store cupboard at the back of our brain, ready for retrieval at some future date. In 1969 I was sixteen years old, sitting my GCE ‘O’ Levels and itching to know more about the world out there. Or even beyond. The Americans had run a spectacular event on TV at Christmas by sending three astronauts to encircle the Moon, and I’d been so fixated by the experience that I’d ordered copies of four colour posters through a Sunday newspaper. On my bedroom wall were images of the giant Saturn V rocket blasting off from Cape Kennedy, the inside of the Command Module for Apollo 8, the capsule just after splashdown in the Pacific – and that famous ‘Earthrise’ taken above the surface of the Moon. I was an official space-nerd (although no-one used that terminology at the time).
By the end of June my exams were behind me, and in the first week of July I added another experience to my brain-cupboard: I helped out at the Open Golf Tournament at Royal Lytham, and saw Tony Jacklin achieve a historic victory in front of a home crowd. I had manned the scoreboard at the 18th hole and had a perfect viewpoint, proudly sharing it with Tony’s Dad. The summer holidays stretched ahead, but best of all: Man was about to fly to the Moon. And this time, he was going to land.
The Apollo 8 mission had me glued to our black and white set, watching Cliff Michelmore, James Burke and Patrick Moore in the BBC studio while they acted as intermediaries (or even interpreters) for those like me in the UK who didn’t really understand about CSM’s, pitch angles or burn reports. They used little models to demonstrate the actual activities of the spacecraft so far away, and in July they were at it again. By this time my own plastic model of a Saturn V rocket stood proudly on my bedroom dressing table.
When Apollo 11 blasted off on the Wednesday morning in Florida, it was half past two in the afternoon in the UK, and by the time Armstrong and Aldrin were preparing to descend to the Moon’s surface it was Sunday evening. Not a lot else on TV. Who’d want to watch it, anyway? Both ITV and BBC abandoned their normal schedules, so all three channels (yeah, just three!) were devoted to some aspect of the moon mission. But there was a problem ahead.
Normal TV switched off around midnight as there were legal restrictions at that time affecting the number of broadcasting hours. Hard to believe today, but in the fifties and sixties only religious programmes could be broadcast between 6 and 7 on Sunday evenings. That didn’t affect Apollo, but when James Burke announced that Armstrong wouldn’t be taking that famous first step until the early hours, it was a huge relief to hear that television coverage would continue later into the night.
Okay, so I’m sixteen years old, there’s no school tomorrow and I’m not a stroppy teenager. My Mum is all Apollo’d out by the time we watch the landing at 9.18pm GMT, so she goes off to bed and I make myself about as comfortable as I can between two armchairs in our front room. I set an alarm clock for 2am, ready for the continued TV coverage, and doze fitfully after taking a peek through the window at the live situation in the night sky. Nothing much to see.
My first all-nighter. I am both excited and sleepy. How is that possible? Determined to witness the Event of the Century, I have my Dad’s twin lens reflex camera at the ready, having listened avidly to the man on the telly who tells us the best setting to use to get a decent image off the flickering screen. I’ve got to do this. Something to show the grandkids. I was there!
The TV coverage goes on for over an hour – mainly re-runs of the landing and studio discussion with the Sky at Night man, eccentric but endearing Patrick Moore. The EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) is slightly later than expected, but all is well, and at 3.51am GMT Armstrong is at the top of his ladder and I am poised with my camera. Oh, if only they’d invented video recorders before this.
‘That’s one small step’ says Armstrong, and I’m in bits. History is being made, and I’m among the few million in the world hanging onto his every word, his every first footsteps. The grainy soil of this foreign world he’s walking on looks every bit as grainy on my TV set but I couldn’t care less. These images are coming live from the surface of the moon, a quarter of a million miles away. How good is that?
I probably doze off again at some point in the next three hours, but I’m there when Neil and Buzz read the commemorative plaque that will remain after they leave. I hear the telephone conversation with President Nixon in the White House, and I see the Stars and Stripes raised on the Moon. Does this make it American territory? James Burke says not. I hope he’s right.
It is something of a relief when the extra-terrestrial pioneers hop back into their tiny temporary home to get some rest, and so do I as the transmission comes to an end. Was it worth the discomfort of a sleepless night? Certainly. Because I was there.
Need to know:
I don’t just write fiction.