Goodbye to all that. (And to them.....)

Yesterday morning at 6am one of the most draconian anti-smoking laws in the world came into force here in Scotland, a wee country that has more experience than most of the appalling effects of tobacco on public health. There have been a great many whinging articles from addicts, not least David Hockney, who may be a superb artist, but is a poor advertisement for the effects of a lifelong tobacco habit on the brain cells. Personally speaking, I'm delighted. One of my favourite cafes (good coffee in pleasant surroundings at an affordable price) has suddenly become unpolluted. My husband, who has a genuine allergy to cigarette smoke, can go to the pub again. And yesterday a young friend said "won't it be nice to be able to go out clubbing without having to wash everything when you get home!"
Interestingly enough, it seems to be the older generation who are doing the lion's share of the moaning. The kids don't seem all that bothered. But maybe it's because the oldies have been addicted for longer. Sadly, you get to an age when all the chickens start to come home to roost at once. You notice that people who used to be good looking have taken on that wrinkly, kippered appearance. It would be nice if that was the only problem, but I know dozens of people who have been killed by their smoking, people I loved and admired, people I miss with the added ache of knowing that since so many of them came from essentially long lived stock, they would probably still be here now, if it wasn't for the bloody fags.
One slightly bizarre side effect of the legislation has been to ban all cigarettes (even herbal alternatives) from the stage. Wormwood, my play about Chernobyl,has a character who smokes, and yes, it's part of the plot. There has also been a fair bit of moaning about "censorship" from people who should know better. However the consensus among younger actors and directors seems to be that since we are in the business of creating illusions, sometimes of a very extreme sort, (nuclear reactors in melt-down for instance) managing to convey the idea of somebody smoking should be a piece of cake!

The People's Friend

My copy of the People's Friend arrived today, with the first part of The Curiosity Cabinet which has been abridged for the magazine in a number episodes.
There is a wonderful two page illustration, with all the characters: Alys, Donal (very handsome) Manus (not so handsome) and Henrietta. It has a real period feel and it reminds me of those magazines I used to look at in the doctor's waiting room when I was a little girl. (I was an asthmatic child, and spent rather a lot of my time in doctors' waiting rooms.) In fact it took me straight back to those days with an astonishing vividness of touch, taste and smell. And I wished that my dear late mum could have been around to share the moment. Magic.
Incidentally, I wonder if anyone else is terminally bored by some of today's waiting room offerings. And is it a sign of encroaching middle age that I invariably find myself asking for Country Living or Homes and Gardens in the hairdresser's, instead of Hello which everyone else seems to be fighting over?
Anyway, I digress. The mag arrived from the book publisher, Polygon, with an unsigned compliments slip. I don't think the People's Friend sits very well with their image of themselves as publishers of cutting edge crime fiction, and reprints of Scottish classics, but I am delirious, and if it sells some more copies of the novel, I will be even more pleased. There was just something about the juxtaposition of this fabulously traditional magazine, and the meaningfully silent compliments slip that made me roar with laughter. I am so sick of literary snobbery. If I can write something that a Whitbread prizewinning poet, whose work I admire, finds to be a "powerful novel about love and obligation" which at the same time appeals to the vast readership of People's Friend (and believe me, it is vast) then I feel I might just be doing something worthwhile. I spent as much time honing every last bit of The Curiosity Cabinet as - in a previous incarnation - I would have spent on a poem. Then spent much too long feeling apologetic about it because it's a love story. But everything about it was meant. Considered. Sometimes, when people talk to me or email me, I find that they have tapped into that intention. But if they simply think it's a good read, about real people, with a modicum of emotional truth, then that's fine by me.
All this reminded me about the worst thing anyone ever said about the book, long before it was shortlisted for a prize, praised by a poet and thus found a (slightly embarrassed) publisher. This was a comment by a jaundiced male agent, (of which more in a future post about "Finding an Agent") who wrote to me to the effect that it was merely a "library" novel, aimed only at "housewives", thus managing to insult not just me, but stay-at-home mums, libraries, Andrew Carnegie and all. As a friend of mine is fond of saying "It would bust you, wouldn't it?"

Getting Stuff Out There

Stuart Hepburn,whose screen credits include Taggart, Monarch of the Glen, Rebus and a dramatisation of Quite Ugly one Morning, delivered a brilliant lecture on scriptwriting, and writing for television, at the Ayr Campus of Paisley University, earlier this week. He managed to be both inspiring, and realistic in that he told it like it is to a group of students, among whom were many aspiring writers. People always assume that once you have had one success, everything will be easy after that. It couldn't be further from the truth. Most writing careers are an uneasy and messy switchback of rejection followed by success followed by rejection. Even hugely distinguished and popular writers can suddenly fall out of favour for no very obvious reason. But for those of us wrestling with the middle ground, every step forward, every acceptance, or successful production, or publication, seems to be followed inevitably by a whole clutch of knock-backs. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it and it is probably the single most depressing thing about a writing career.
Stuart managed to convey this cheerfully, and without recrimination, although he did make us laugh in the process. He recommended a book I am always telling creative writing students about - Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman, a wise and wonderful book full of anecdotes and insights, and genuinely useful to aspiring writers everywhere. And if even the writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid can be denied access to one of his own premieres, because he isn't on the guest list, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Stuart gave many excellent pieces of advice among which were: get your work out there because it's not doing any good sitting at the bottom of a drawer, grasp every opportunity that comes your way and finally, be nice to people, because not only will it make you feel good about yourself, but you never know when the Third Assistant Director on a project is going to turn up somewhere else as the Head of Drama!
Grasping opportunities, and getting your work out there, I sometimes think, are what make the difference between comparative success and absolute lack of it. Well, that and realising that if you wait until you have "time" to write, you will never write anything. Aspiring writers are surprisingly diffident about their own skills, and consequently run away from opportunities. We find excuses, because we're scared. And we all have unsatisfactory stuff lying around in drawers - I have plenty of it myself - but it's like the lottery. Small as your chances are, if you don't buy a ticket, you're never going to win. If you don't send your work out, once you feel that it is as good as you can make it, you are never going to get feedback on it.
If you are writing only for your own pleasure it doesn't matter. But if you have ambitions to be published or produced, you have to be amazingly proactive.
So don't file things away and forget about them. Send them out into the world and make them work for you. As Stuart suggested, this doesn't have to be in the more formal world of theatre/publishing etc. You can do it for yourself. Get together with like-minded friends, amateur actors, local theatre groups, develop your script and "do the show right here". Write a blog. If you have the capability, make yourself a website. Think laterally. Search out literary or poetry or drama competitions of which there are many, and submit your work to these. (You will often get feedback which can be useful). Join a club. Submit your stories and poems, not just to the big players, who will be inundated with work, but to the smaller magazines who won't. They won't pay much, if anything, but you will start to build up a body of published or produced work. In other words, as with any product, it's no earthly use complaining about your lack of sales if you aren't prepared to work at
getting your stuff out there!

Wuthering Heights

I've always been unashamedly obsessed by this book. When I was a little girl (named for the heroine, of course) my mother and father trundled me across Haworth Moors in my push chair, to see the old ruined farmhouse called Top Withins, which was believed to be the inspiration behind the name and the situation, if not the actual building. Mum was something of a romantic. Why else would she have married a dark and handsome Pole, who kissed her hand when they first met. Mind you, dad was no Heathcliff. He was much too kind for that.
I liked Jane Eyre well enough, but I was passionate about Wuthering Heights, with its mad, bad and dangerous pair of lovers. Actually, there is nothing romantic about the book at all. It is a whirlwind of thwarted passion, the single minded passion of youth, and it has a deeply disturbing vein of intense (and intensely rural) cruelty running through it just as the descriptions of the brightly burning fire at the heart of the farmhouse run through the heart of the novel.
But really, I adore all of it, find that my friends fall neatly into those who love it and those who loathe it, and return to it again and again. This weekend, I see that the excellent Sally Wainwright (of Sparkhouse fame) has written a radio play about a possible source of inspiration behind the book: a forbidden love affair between Emily and a local weaver's son. He died young, and she wrote Wuthering Heights. Women's Hour had a slightly outraged academic quibbling with Sarah Fermi's research which inspired the play, but it seems feasible enough to me (and of course completely unprovable, either way.)
"But she wouldn't had had anything to do with a weaver" said Emily's biographer. "They were from completely different stations in life."
Which is, of course, exactly the point. From time immemorial, people have been forming inadvisable relationships. Such things are the stuff of a million works of literature, film and theatre, Wuthering Heights included. I, for one, and speaking as someone who has also written her own obsessive homage to Wuthering Heights (this time with a Scottish setting) will be listening with interest.

The Earth According to Google

Our son came home last weekend, and downloaded Google Earth for me. This was a big mistake. The sheer magical joy of being able to fly around the world and home in on familiar and unfamiliar places in great detail is compellingly and completely addictive. Arguably, the places you know well are even more intriguing than foreign lands, for the simple reason that looking down on anything from above like this adds a strange glamour to it all. I found the site of the house where I lived when I was a little girl in Leeds - now an area of major development, like so many old industrial areas that are about to become highly desirable. Suddenly, I could see exactly how it sat in relation to everything else round about it. Curiously, it brought back all kinds of memories and made me feel quite emotional. I could have looked at it for hours. I've always loved maps, but this goes one better. Obviously on a roll, my son then went on to show me Google Video. Soon I was enthusing over the Beatles singing Revolution.
"So who's that then?" he said.
"John Lennon. It's John Lennon. And it's wonderful... Go away. I want to see what else I can find!"
He sighed and went back to his maths.
This is displacement activity of the very highest order. I can't recommend it highly enough. Just don't expect to get anything done in the meantime, that's all.

Soap Opera

Why would anyone use such a gloriously varied, universally popular and participatory art as soap opera in a perjorative sense? Except maybe the Beeb who, when River City was in development, allegedly insisted on everyone referring to it as a "continuing drama" lest anyone should imagine that what they were creating was a soap!
In 1982 one Dorothy Hobson conducted a fascinating study into the relationship between Crossroads and its viewers. This is extensively reported in John Carey's iconoclastic "What Good Are the Arts?" (Buy it, read it and rejoice, Faber and Faber, 2005) He says "Taste is so bound up with self esteem, particularly among devotees of high art, that a sense of superiority to those with 'lower tastes' is almost impossible to relinquish without the risk of identity crisis."
Hobson researched audience response to the soap and found - unsurprisingly - that its viewers had a high level of critical awareness and that the soap was essentially a "popular art with communal participation which provoked a straightforward clash of cultures." The critics hated it purely because it offended their own cultural values.
Not so very long ago there was a scene in Corrie (My soap of choice) in which Emily, Audrey, Norris, Rita and - I think - Fred, sat around a dining table eating Sunday lunch and talking. It was a scene of such breathtaking skill (any playwright will tell you that dining tables can be death to drama) that I watched it in gobsmacked envy of the team that had created it. Each of these characters had his or her own densely woven back story. Each of them had a complex relationship with the others. And for all of them, something was also happening right now. Every character was being played by a fine actor, using a script to die for, with inspired direction that placed every member of the audience firmly at the table with them.
Not only that but they were all older characters, and yet they weren't being treated as figures of fun, or also-rans, but as real, three dimensional people, central to the drama. In short it was a dazzling tour de force.
Once upon a time, when a wandering poet arrived in a small Highland or Island community he would be asked "Do you know anything of the Fianna?" When the reply was in the affirmative, he would be invited to a village gathering to relate the next episode in the popular soap that was the story of Finn MacCumhaill,his warriors and their strong, dauntless women. So what is the difference between this ancient craving for story, and the animated discussions about the latest episode of this or that soap in the pub or the canteen? And why should one be intrinsically more valuable, or more culturally significant than the other?
The answer is, of course, that it isn't. But don't tell the elitists that. The shock to their self image might be disastrous. I often think they they are like the exclusive religious sect in the old joke - you know, the one where St Peter lets the newcomer climb up the ladder to peer quietly over the high wall of their heavenly enclosure because "they think they are the only ones in here!"