Friday, July 27, 2012

Sandy Glasser owns a cheese shop

The things you find online. This is my school photograph from thirty years ago and if you're now peering to see which one is me, imagine how I felt coming across it this week on Facebook. By accident.

I don't remember the day this was taken but I do very clearly, very physically remember this photograph: the copy I got then was a print in a brown cardboard sleeve. Seeing this shot online, that was my first reaction. Surprise came second, looking for me came third, I was hit first by the feel of that old print in my hands.

I do remember that on this day or one around it, the headmaster in the front row did some speech or other in which he said there was a song that summed up how we must all be feeling as we reached the end of our school days. He was a very hip headmaster so it was probably something like The Old Rugged Cross.

But I do recall turning to whoever was next to me and – in a display of contemporary pop music unusual for me at the time and unheard of since – whispering that he must mean Captain Sensible and Glad It's All Over.

Can't remember who I said it to. I look at this photo and I can name just ten and a half people. It wasn't a great school, I wasn't a great pupil, all it really did was knock a child's automatic respect for authority out of me. I remember my chemistry teacher spending a whole lesson on getting us to mark another class's homework. He stood at the top of the lab and said what the right answers were supposed to be while we were meant to tick or cross and report back the final score. I've no idea whose exercise book I marked, I don't remember now and I didn't care then, I just went straight to the end and gave the kid 10/10. What was that teacher going to do about it?

Another teacher did try something on: he worked hard to get me thrown out. I worked harder to stay in. I won. It was an entirely unwarranted move on his part, he was actually heading for a breakdown and was causing much damage to perhaps one kid per class year. But it was the first time I remember where I had to get really political, to think around and over someone playing the rules against me.

Oooh, it's all coming back. That politics did help me in journalism, I'll give the school that. But the last thing I remember about the place was how wrong the careers advice was. If I could figure out the name of the careers teacher who laughed in my face about my becoming a writer, I would not be above going back to him now. But I'm drawing a complete blank.

Blank on him, blank on all the teachers in that photo, blank on so many more people in there. I do remember who I fancied. I hadn't remembered quite how many there were. That's embarrassing now. I expect it was embarrassing then, too.

I only remember asking one woman out, I'm certain I didn't actually go with any one there. Nobody in that picture. Grief, I hope I'm right about that. Or at least, if I'm wrong, that she isn't reading this.

What are the odds, though? I sent a copy of this photo to one of maybe two and a half people in it that I still know. Jim McCarthy: second row of pupils from the back, right hand side of the photo, standing between Thingy and Er.

Jim is much better at remembering everyone, he really put me to shame there. But he also vocalised something I hadn't realised I was thinking: the fact that whether or not you can name any face in that shot, we ourselves are unrecognisable. Or rather, we are unrecognisable to ourselves. I look at me there and I'm alien. Lifetimes and worlds ago. I prefer the me of today to the me of then. I know that the me of then would be very happy with where I'd ended up so far, but I hope he would also have told me to bloody well get there faster than I did.

I hope so, but I'm guessing. I don't know that William Gallagher any better than I know Thingy, Er, and Whatsherface.

After I found me in that shot, after I found Jim, after I got bored trying to recognise many others, I did find Whatsherface, the woman I remember asking out. That was so strange: an instant, a picosecond before I found her, I thought of her and expected to feel – I don't know, rejected of course, probably daft. I did like her enough at the time that she would make me tongue-tied. If anyone in that shot remembers me as an eejit, well, hey, it's nice to be remembered and it's impressive that they remember me so accurately. She cannot remember me accurately because I was entirely a different kind of eejit in front of her. It's not really a difference that makes much difference, but it makes much difference to me.

Only, even if she knew me as eejit, it was also a pretty shallow kind of knowledge. She didn't know me well, I didn't know her well. It was a pretty temporary knowledge too: I am not the boy I was. Doubtlessly she's not the woman she was. So here's someone I didn't know then and I don't know now, but she's fixed in my head as the 17-year-old she was in that photo.

Lots of writers swear by the idea of creating the young character in their heads before begin writing. What music did they like, what posters did they have on their wall, who did they have a crush on, what was their best subject. I have always found this notion stupefying and believed it only an excuse to postpone writing. Ask me after I've done a script and I can probably answer all those questions immediately: I know the characters so well by then. But at the start, I've not a clue and I have never believed that it tells me anything.

I suspect now that I believe this because I unthinkingly knew of this schism between the me of then and the me of today. I get the whole nature vs nurture argument, I know you're thinking that the me of today was formed by the me back then, but it feels like I have several walls between the two of me.

I'm happy being this side of them all. But just for a moment, it was nice to peek back.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Spam is maps spelt backwards

I have this secret email account. Big, big secret. Even you don't know the address. I've never signed up to anywhere with it, I've never included it on a form, I have denied its very existence. But it's there. And spam finds it anyway.

Well, it does and it doesn't. It's a gmail account and I've been using it since 2004 solely as a writing archive. When I finish a piece or a good-sized chunk of it, I obviously save it and back up too but I also email it to myself. Specifically this: I email it from that secret account to that secret account.

If I email it from anywhere else, if you squirrel out the address and email it yourself, or if anyone tries to send it spam, I will never know. Well, I might figure out the one where it's me emailing. But the archive remains pristine and untouched by anything except writing attachments because everything else is immediately deleted. I don't see a bean of it, it's just toast straight away.

It's been great except that as it's a gmail account, when I wanted to join Google+ I thought I either had to reveal this address or make a new one. I made a new one. You can well believe how tedious it was having to repeatedly log out of one and into the other, to remember which was which and where you were. But then I found that even with my new gmail address, even with me on Google+, I was getting a lot of people inviting me to join the service – and they were inviting me by my Secret Address.

Hopefully I just wigged out some time in the last eight years and let this address slip but even if that's the case and it's not that Google was toying with me, the result was that I did not see one of these invitations. How could I? Instant toast.

Some people got annoyed with me never responding. This is how I found out. By then, though, the number of invitations to join and the idea of having to go through all of them saying I already had, I just skipped the lot. Haven't been back to Google+ since.

And I haven't looked in the toast bin since, either.

Until this week.

This week I've been doing a thing and a friend has been helping me out and somehow, somewhen, she got my Secret Email Address instead of my real one. I don't know why, she doesn't know why, it doesn't matter and she mentioned on Facebook that she'd emailed thisaway so I knew about it.

But nipping into my gmail trash to get her email, I think I've found where all human life is hiding.

So much spam. If you get spam all the time then you're shrugging at me now but my real address gets practically none. It gets so little that when one gets through, it's maddening. And here was a flood of the stuff to an address I believed no one had. There's plenty of evidence to say I must've given it out some time, but very intriguingly some of the spam has been sent to email addresses that are almost but not quite my secret one.

I forwarded my friend's email, then deleted everything in the trash and waited.

When I checked back the next morning, there were ninety new messages and together they told the story of a life. I've not edited these, I may have nudged the order on one or two and I've dropped a lot of duplicates. A lot of duplicates. But where spam used to be Viagra and Rolex watches and Nigerian bank fraud, now it's a story:

Supercharge and impress girls

Start a Relationship with Your Faith in Common – Find God’s Match for you

Buy a High School Diploma and University Degree NOW

Learn the skills that could let you be the first to see a baby

You have been selected to be on Deal or No Deal

Meet 40 plus Singles Near You. Browse profiles FREE!

Looking to cast a personal love spell?

Lose 20lbs quickly and safely

Compare and save on spy cameras

Get new windows

Injured? Get the compensation you deserve

William, do you need emergency cash?

View Photos of 50+ Singles in your City

An Ex Has Recently Searched for You

We all hate spam, but it's out there everyday, creating fiction. Or at least creating outlines for stories: spam can be a map of a character's entire life. I think the story you read just there is really mostly inside your head. But that means you wrote it, the spam outlined it, I just retyped the thing. I've gone off this whole idea now.

Friday, July 13, 2012

I swear

Actually, I don't. I just don't tend to swear. No reason. I'm not prudish. I don't object if you cuss your head off – oh! I suddenly, right this moment, remember an old friend stopping in a conversation to apologise to me for her swearing. And I remember most clearly that I hadn't a clue what she meant.

I'm not saying that I never swear. I have absolutely no doubt that if you searched every blog entry I've written here in the last few years, you would find the word 'fuck'. There it is. Right there. Look at me: I'm so nice I even saved you the search.

Maybe that's it, maybe I'm just so nice, maybe that's the whole thing. Though there is a fella who I bellowed at over the phone this week who would disagree. And a woman who called last night claiming that Microsoft had asked her to phone me about a severe problem with my Windows PC which I could fix by browsing to her malware-infested website, she heard the word 'bollocks' quite quickly.

There aren't many people I don't like, there aren't all that many things you can do that will bother me. There aren't many things that I'm not interested in. It's a happy life.

And it stinks for when you're trying to write realistic characters in drama.

I actually think this is the root of it all: I grew up in a polite family, yes, but I also grew up in front of the telly. Lou Grant never swore. Nor did Bob Hope. Actually, I blame Bob Hope films for how my accent became - well, it's not mid-Atlantic, but it's never been spot-on Brummie either.

(A quick aside? I just wrote a feature on the ten films that most shaped me and Angela guessed that the Road movies would be in there. They weren't, but they could so easily have been and all because of the  line in The Road to Morocco which goes "Like Webster's International Dictionary, we're Morocco-bound".)

The Road to Morocco was 1942. Seventy years ago. We are living in an age when something made seven decades ago can be seen an enjoyed pretty much exactly as it was when new. Yes, we now see it on iPads and it has become a snapshot of a culture and a time that it once just fitted into and reflected.

Howay. I am plainly destined to never write searing social justice horror movies that are as profane as they are profound. I'm okay with that.

But it makes me conscious that there are really three types of dialogue, not two. I used to think there was good and bad. Or call it believable and unbelievable. Realistic and not realistic.

I hope that if I write a line it is realistic, that an actor can say it, that it just works. It probably won't have swearing. Again, not from some deliberate avoidance, it just probably won't. But that does mean it's unrealistic.

So I'm writing dialogue that may be good and believable, but it isn't real.

Not to compare myself to these incredible writers, but this is a key part of the work of Alan Bennett, Harold Pinter, Alan Plater, Tom Stoppard – and Aaron Sorkin.

Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom has been praised for the verve and brilliance of its dialogue – and it's been slammed for its unbelievable dialogue. What I think both sides are missing is that it isn't real, it is extremely stylised writing and at its best, it's wonderful. Gigantic conversations happen in three lines, two of which have nothing to do with the subject at heart. People speak with passion and energy and it is uplifting.

I don't care that it isn't real, that none of us will ever meet a Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) character in real life.

I do mind very much that we have already met a Will McAvoy character in most of Aaron Sorkin's work before.

It ticked me off in Studio 60 when Matt (Matthew Perry) accidentally broke an office window because I'd seen Will Bailey (Joshua Malina) do it in The West Wing and Malina was in Sports Night when Dana (Felicity Huffman) did it there. Similarly, The Newsroom has McAvoy comically unable to remember a character's name; just as Jed Bartlett had problems with it, just as Sam Donovan did before him.

Things stop illuminating a character when they first have to shine a light through two or three other characters before them. Every writer reuses ideas or maybe even lines as they explore the same themes – though me, not so much – and sometimes it's a running gag for the audience to spot. (Watch an Alan Plater piece and you'll likely as not hear someone ponder whether they can make it to the Mexican border by nightfall.)

I think things don't have to be realistic in order to be realistic. Switching the light off with those preceding characters and looking just at The Newsroom's McAvoy, he talks in a way that perhaps you'd want to but none of us do. When it works, it's wonderful. But the price of it all is that sometimes it doesn't work.

If memory serves, there wasn't a moment in Sports Night when the dialogue didn't work. Definitely not in The West Wing. I remember Studio 60 having comedy sketches that weren't funny but otherwise, the characters all worked. But in The Newsroom, it does sometimes fail.

Martin Sheen has said many times that it took him a while to get Aaron Sorkin's lines and to deliver them right. Sam Waterson doesn't seem to have got there. Emily Mortimer often doesn't land the lines. These are terrific actors but they didn't pull this off. To just underline the difficulty, there was a minor character in the Newsroom pilot who tortured a line about people having a personal argument in front of him.

The Newsroom is delicate. It's making a similar mistake to Studio 60 in setting up rivalries but instantly pricking them apart. (In Studio 60, the big threat was from the network boss who could fire Amanda Peet's character but not only was she a star, his was a very binary threat. There are no degrees of firing: his only weapon was total removal of her from the show. It was never going to happen and we knew it immediately. Within a few episodes, he was changed to being a good guy with some nasty boss above him. Exactly the same problem, just a step removed. A few episodes later, the threat was pushed off another step to being the big bad nasty FCC. If the FCC is your series enemy, your goodies are weak too. In The Newsroom, the first news story was about the BP oil rig incident so we knew instantaneously that our heroes were right to be pursuing this story and their rivals were wrong – even stupid – not to. Instantaneously. The rivals have nothing so they aren't rivals.)

Aaron Sorkin says that during The West Wing, he wouldn't touch a subject unless they could make very good, very strong and conflicting arguments on both sides of a topic. That's stunningly hard to write but I believe there may never be any better drama than two people arguing where both of them are right. Swear or don't swear, I don't care, but when both sides of a contentious issue are articulate, passionate and right, who gives a damn whether they swear?

Friday, July 06, 2012

Mondegreen with envy

Whatever you do, there is someone in your field that you know is better than you can ever hope to be. The very fact that you're in the same field only means that you're even better able to appreciate the nuances of how tremendous they are and you aren't.

Writers get this the worst, I think, because I am a writer. But it is regretfully true that we can go look up myriad examples of especially fine writing at any moment. If you're struggling to write something, just read how vastly better someone else has already done that same idea. If you're a dentist, it's hard to examine the work of your heroes quite so readily, quite so quickly, and quite so without being arrested.

Whenever you do see brilliant work in your field, though, it is crippling. But the writing that is so good that it kills you is so good you don't mind being killed.

Usually this writing is a body of work like a complete book, an entire script, a full poem. I get one of my worst give-up-now-William moments from half a line of Calypso, a Suzanne Vega song.

I bring this up now because I found out that her next album has been delayed to August. [Update: some sources now say September.] It's the fourth of her acoustic re-working of her back catalogue. I mentioned this news on Facebook and Laura Cousins commented thisaway: "What I love about the acoustic versions is how it gives an insight into how the songs are written, and how very strong they are."

Quite so. Absolutely. But that insight, that clarity... How can I say this?

There's a line in Calypso, from Suzanne Vega's Solitude Standing album, which describes a relationship with someone and goes:

I tell of nights / Where I could taste salt / And hear skin

Many, many times now, those last three words have prevented me writing. Stopped me cold. Because I know I couldn't write that well.

It's one of those lines that is wrong, that doesn't actually make sense, and yet therefore is so right and actually makes so much more sense than the 'correct' line could. I've mentioned before that Dar Williams's line "I am the others" does this to me. Both of these lines use the wrong word and that's something I don't think I can do yet it's something that both these writers do so very powerfully.

I mean, she sings "and hear skin" and I can feel that relationship. You can touch skin, you can see it, you can smell it, but this is more. It's that special person who's just come in the room and set your heart going faster. The desire you can't express neither in the sense of comprehend nor – God forbid – telling them. Not yet. Not now. You'll scare them away. Better to be with them like this than risk losing them, losing everything. A hand, a wrist, an ankle and, yes, a breast, a thigh, all so shockingly real and vivid, all like lightbulbs under their clothes, not because of the body-part itself but because of whose body it is.

The tingle of their presence, the delicious pain of it, there is so much more to it than seeing or feeling or smelling. You can hear their skin: Suzanne Vega is right.


She didn't write that line.

I misheard that lyric from 1987 when it was first released on Solitude Standing to 2010 when an acoustic version came out on her Close Up Volume 2. Wherein it is obvious - and I've since checked too – that what she really sings is this:

I tell of nights / Where I could taste salt / On his skin

Mondegreen means a misheard lyric. (Did you know that? I only recently learnt it while watching an interview with Ian Rankin where he revealed his latest book title is such a misheard lyric.)

I have been mishearing a lyric for nigh on a quarter of a century. There are a thousand other reasons to admire and love Vega's work, but she didn't write this one.

So apparently I did.

I'm still trying to process this.


If you want to check for yourself, the lyric comes about 43 seconds into the 90-second preview of Calypso and the Solitude Standing album on iTunes here. And then it's clearer on the acoustic version from Close Up vol 2; comes about a minute into the 90-second preview on iTunes here.