Month: November 2007

The last refuge of the complex

I’ve been rediscovering simple pleasures lately – cottage pie, watching films in bed (thanks to my new free TV/video), sober conversation (that is to say, conversation while sober), mopping, good coffee, reading and of course writing.

I think there’s also a lot to be said about simple pleasures, but writ large. Things like Richard’s decision to watch the Breakfast Club for his birthday, but to hire a whole leather cinema to do it. Or the fact that in a few weeks I’m going to be a Christmas party with a Christmas treasure hunt. Across London. Or that I’m toying with the idea of ‘celebrating’ my birthday next week by going bowling at that upscale Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes place.

And, following on from my Cottage Pie for one triumph, I’m also quite keen to take an afternoon to try making the ultimate fish pie that Heston Blumenthal made last week on In Search of Perfection. Langoustines, no less. (I might wait ’til I go home for Christmas for that one. I’m a little short on Langoustines here, but they’re the sort of thing my hotelier parents have in the freezer).

But my big, big want for the beginning of next year is to have my first holiday in ten years (weekend breaks are not holidays, despite what I told myself). And I think I want to do something with the simple pleasure of travelling by rail. Specifically I think I want to get an Amtrak railpass thing and visit as much of the US as I conceivably can without getting on to a plane.

You see, I’m quite au fait with the edges of the US but I’ve never done the middle bit. The bit between the two shining seas. And that’s a bit sad, given that I really do love the country.

And the best thing about taking the train is that, not only do you get to actually see where you’re travelling through – and get off to explore it whenever you please – but it only costs about £230 for a whole month of travel. Take that, Jet Blue. A laptop, a digital camera and a high tolerance for DVT and I’m all set for the perfect simple pleasure, writ large. I’ll even do the old journo’s trick of blagging a commission or two to write about the journey. With a bit of luck, and the weak dollar, it could end up being a near-freebie.


The only slight hitch in my plan is that Amtrak trains don’t go to Las Vegas – where I really want to go, above almost anywhere else apart from Los Angeles. Amtrak used to share the old Union Pacific Railroad lines, but stopped ten years ago. Lucky flights from San Fransisco are less than £50 return, really.

I’ll say again, score.

So yes, here’s to more simple pleasures. Like self-indulgent-to-the-point-of-digital-masturbation blog posts that don’t even attempt to speak to a bigger point.

Aaaah. That’s the spot.

Do do do do do-be-do do

Last night was Richard Moross’ 30th birthday and in an inspired move, he hired the Soho Hotel’s screening room for a private showing of The Breakfast Club – a film I’ve seen the beginning of a dozen times, but never the ending. And, oh boy was it good, even more so in the leathered comfort of the Soho.

Afterwards, over Champagne (another inspired more – thank you Richard), a few of us got to talking about what film we’d show for our 30th birthday. A popular choice – perhaps unsurprisingly, given what we’d just watched – was St. Elmo’s Fire. Another favourite was The Breakfast Club’s (I guess) sister-flick, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I couldn’t decide.

Part of me wanted to fuck with people and force them to sit through something awful like Gigli. Just to see how they’d reconcile having to stick around because it was my birthday with having to leave because their brains were being raped. Another part of me wanted to put on something I personally would love, because it’s Aaron Sorkin, but that there’s a risk half the room would hate: A Few Good Men.

In the end, I settled on Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, which was fresh in my mind from mentioning it here the other day. It’s funny, there are guns for the boys and emotional bits (and, I suppose, Redford) for the girls and it’s an undeniable classic. It’s also far enough away from The Breakfast Club to make me look original.

Ferris Bueller would be great too, though.


Speaking of that last one, I’ve just finished reading ‘My Boring Ass Life’, the book of the blog of Kevin Smith. It’s over-long, sure (there are only so many pages you can read about a man having a shit), but interesting and touching and revealing as well.

My favourite bit comes right at the end with Smith doing a Q&A for Google in Santa Monica and he’s asked what video game he would like to see turned into a movie.

His answer?


(Although he wouldn’t know who he could get to play the lead)


The movie!

I’m 30 in two years and ten days time. Which, I reckon gives him more than enough time to cast and produce it in time for the screening.

And more than enough time for me to get the damn in-game music out of my head.

Nobody listened to the psychiatrist

Today marked the official start of Operation Write Like A Mother.

I’m pretty much researched out now, and I’ve got a nice wall full of structural Post-It notes. All that remains now is to commit some 60,000 words to paper between now and 2nd January. Just north of 1500 publishable words a day. What could possibly go wrong?

Actually, what nearly went wrong is that, until three days ago, I had no idea what the ending was going to be. In writing, as in love, endings are hard. Really hard.

As I may have mentioned a few times before, I’m reading a lot of William Goldman at the moment. In Which Lie Did I Tell he claims that he’s only ever written one really good ending, and that was the end of Butch Cassidy. I believe him. The ending of All The President’s Men, for example, stands out for me as one of the worst of all time. The screenplay was written at a time when everyone knew the story of Watergate inside out, so Goldman decided to stop the film halfway through the book. Pre- impeachment, pre-conclusion. The audience could fill in the rest themselves.

The only problem is that today, for me, it gives the same feeling as the end of Monty Python and The Holy Grail (ironically, one of the best endings). Bang. Click. What the fuck happened there? Watergate is not part of our brain in the same way it was in 1976 so the ending leaves the 2007 viewer feeling short-changed and confused.

Now, if this blog achieves anything, it’s to illustrate that I’m not a hundredth of the writer that Goldman is. So if he can’t write endings, what chance do I have? And to make it harder, my book is (like All The President’s Men, but a mite less dramatic) an actual true story. And one that – in many ways – hasn’t ended yet. For weeks I’ve been trying to create an artificial ending – like an artificial lagoon, or some kind of conclusion dam. Jesus, the wordcount is the very least of my problems – without a natural ending, I’m screwed.

But then earlier in the week, as I was pacing back and forward in Maggie’s kitchen, telling a quite different story, it hit me. Like it does in films where something innocuous said by a minor character – “tuna always brings me out in hives” – helps the hero to solve the murder – “hives… of… course…”. Just like that.

What hit me was the reason I need to stop worrying and love the lack of a definite ending to the story. If this sounds trite and cryptic (it does) then it’s only because I haven’t written the fucker yet – but what hit me was that by not having a final ending or a conclusion to the story, I actually do.

Yes, endings (in writing as in love) are hard. But that’s only because – and it annoys me that this obvious truth only just occurred to me – they don’t actually exist. Not really.

Writing a true story, the best I can do is to look back at everything that’s happened so far, decide at what point the biggest lesson was learnt, make sure the reader agrees, and then get the hell out of Dodge as quickly as possible.

And having realised that, I can suddenly make out the shape of my lagoon in the distance. I can set a course and hope to hell I reach it before 2nd January.

Now here’s a funny twist that could only really happen in blogging where there’s no editing and no re-writing (or at least there’s shouldn’t be). As I’m writing this, something is nagging in my head. Something familiar. And I’ve just worked out what it is.

I wish I’d read Goldman more carefully the first time because, perhaps without meaning to, he provides a lesson to anyone trying to find an ending for an ongoing true story. Here it is in Adventures in the Screen Trade, when Goldman talks about a great work of fiction: Psycho…

“For me perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Psycho is this: I don’t know of another major film that has as atrocious, as boring – as in all ways wrong – an ending… the music is blasting away and we have the fight intercut with Vera’s hysteria and these shots of “Mother,: her skull changing in front of us as the light bulb in the ceiling swings and swings. Fabulous. It’s sure as hell a high spot, and I’m willing to bet it’s the last thing most of us remember clearly, but it’s not the ending. The ending is seven full minutes away… And five of those seven minutes are taken up with one of the great snooze scenes, where the local shrink comes in and delivers this antagonizingly primitive course in Freud… Nobody listened to the psychiatrist.”

Nobody listened to the psychiatrist.

Five words that every single author of books about themselves should write on a Post-It note and stick above their desk.

The return of the word count counter

Word counts are not necessarily a good way to track progress. They encourage churning out words, rather than actually writing them. Which kind of worked for the Second Life book, but not so much for this one.

But nonetheless, the fact that – with a target of 1500 words a day – I’ve just saved a document that’s some 2500 words heavier than it was this time yesterday pleases me no end. I’ve just read them back (fatal, by the way) and they’re actually not at all bad. A good day, and one that makes me feel a bit better about writing off Friday with surfing and Die Hard.

Now, a few hours of sleep before trecking in to town. I have some errands to run and I need to buy Richard a birthday present. He’s 30, so I can’t get away with just a card, but I’m absolutely shit at present shopping.

I once bought an ex-girlfriend a cushion, an alarm clock and a vibrating duck for her birthday and – to this day – I honestly don’t know why she didn’t like them. I tried really hard.

Richard – if you’re reading this – what the hell do you need?

Fuck it – I’ll figure it out in the morning.

Night night.

Cliched self-indulgent blog post

Well, I fell spectacularly off the ‘not drinking this month’ wagon last night. I may not have started ’til 10 but by four AM, by God was I there. And to think it was all going so well.

As a result today I’ve mainly been sleeping, eating and dicking about on the web. Drinking really is ghastly, isn’t it? A total and complete waste of both time and money.

Ruth has suggested I write off the rest of the night and watch Zoolander, but that just reminds me of the thing I got drunk last night to forget.

Ah well. Channel Four News then dinner, I think.

Thanking you (ess ay)

America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.

Oscar Wilde

So here it is, happy Thanksgiving.

There’s very little in my life – all of our lives, I suppose, but at the moment it feels like particularly mine – that isn’t affected one way or another by Americans. And, appropriately, Thanksgiving is the ‘holiday’ that makes me feel happy for all the good American things, and sad for all the less good ones.

So, a brief Thanksgiving thank you to the ten best American things that I can think of off the top of my head (in no particular order)…

1) American women. They don’t do things by halves in America; it’s all about the extremes. Take Manhatten (Staten Island too) – spend some time there and you’ll find every woman is apparently either totally single or totally married. Boyfriends are too – you know – mushy middle. And it’s not just New York. American women (and I’ve been out with the odd one or two, so please know I speak from experience) are without doubt the most loving, hating, funny, lunatic, balanced, psychotic, professional, flighty, essential distractions you will ever meet. There is no feeling on earth when you find a good one, and no feeling on earth when it ends. It’s no accidence there’s a song called ‘I wish they all could be Californian’ and about a zillion called ‘American Girls’, and yet no iTunes results for ‘I wish they could all come from Croydon’ or ‘Welsh Girls’. Quite a few results on Kazza for the latter, though.

2) Aaron Sorkin. Sorry, quite a jump there. But to anyone who says Americans don’t understand irony (or, rather that they do, but they don’t recognise it), I say watch any two minutes The West Wing, or Studio 60, or Sports Night. I’m using Sorkin as a figurehead here. See also Groening, MacFarlane, Trudeau etc etc etc.

3) American Journalism. They actually give a shit when journalists lie in America. Read that back. It actually matters in America. A made up quote is grounds for dismissal. A made up story is so dramatic that they made a film about you. Same goes for autobiographical books. Can you imagine that here? If every news outlet and every author faced the same scrutiny as the BBC? I did a round of interviews with US publications for the St. Martin’s Press edition of the Second Life book last year and two of the reporters called back to fact check. To fact check a puff interview with an author of a book on a fake world. I literally couldn’t make it up.

4) American Journalists. Thompson, Woodward, Bernstein, Wolfe, Mailer, Talese, Capote and on and on and on and on. Oh, and there are some decent ones working today too.

5) Fox News. News 24, as imagined by Stephen Colbert. 24-hours a day. It is impossible to be bored in a US hotel room.

6) US Hotels. And restaurants. And bars. Ice machines in every corner, barmen that talk to you and call you ‘buddy’, sandwiches the size of the moon, 24-hour everything, refills. Refills! If only they could make decent beer, but nowhere’s perfect.

7) The behavioural concept of ‘inappropriateness’. More fun to fuck with than a Playmate holding a can of Cool Whip.

8) Cool Whip.

9) The Dollar. Iconic, surrounded by cool sounding slang, and absolutely in the toilet. America may not quite be the land of the free, but if the greenback keeps heading south, it’s only a matter of time. iPod? I’ll take twelve.

10) Freedoms.

Nah, just messing with you. Everyone hates America for their freedoms.

10) The Constitution. A (literally) paper-thin barrier between freedom and the police state. And yet, like that joke paper you used to get, the bastard just won’t tear. By contrast, unwritten constitutions, like ours, consisting of hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper, all piled on top of each other, not particularly neatly and with no index and no plan look about as unstable as a pro-lifer on a unicycle. It’s a marvel of science.

That’s my ten. If I spent another ten minutes, I could probably come up with another list, and another, and another. I suppose the idea of Thanksgiving itself should probably be on there somewhere.

But, no, that’s it for this year.

Happy Thanksgiving, America, Americans and all who sail in them.

Nobody knows anything

“The easiest thing to do on earth is not write”

– William Goldman

In ten days’ time, this blog will celebrate its first birthday. A cake will be baked, streamers will be unfurled and all assembled will sing a little birthday song.

And then will come the customary ‘looking back’. How much has changed in the previous twelve months, how much older things are looking, how much we’ve learned. And then some idiot will trip over the buffet table and all of the sausage rolls will be ruined.

To prepare for the party, I’ve decided to have a bit of a spring clean of the blog. Change of colour scheme, updated the text a bit to make it clear it’s a personal blog, that kind of thing. I’m also making yet another public resolution to write stuff here more frequently.

Difference this time is that I might actually stick to it.

You see, the last time I managed to update daily was when we were writing the Second Life book. Weirdly, the more words I have to churn out for work, the more inspired I am to blog. And vice-versa. I think it’s a rising tide lifting all ships thing. Or work displacement. Or something.

Either way, I hope to God it works. The deadline for the Alienating Tail (not actual title) book is hurtling towards me and I still have a shit load to write. There’s too much to go in, and too many years of stuff to go back and revisit (tautology is a great way to churn through the word count, by the way) for it to be easy. But I’ll get there. I usually do with things like this. Inshallah.

Mindful of the above, I really need to turn down any other writing commitments until at least January. Which is obviously why, at dinner last night, I was asked if I’d be interested in having a crack at writing a TV script. And it’s why I nearly bit the hand off the person asking. I’m an idiot. But given who was asking (and the fact that she was buying dinner) I’d have been even more of an idiot to say no.

The fact that a) I have no real idea what a script even looks like, except what I’ve seen in William Goldman books b) I’ve never written a word of fiction before and c) I HAVE NEVER WRITTEN A WORD OF FICTION BEFORE didn’t seem to alarm anyone, which I fear has lulled me into a false sense of capability.

Fortunately, on hearing my panic, my friend Ruth, who has actually written a screenplay, sent me the following magic formula…

‘one page = one minute’

…which is brilliant in its simplicity. Armed with that, the rest will surely fall into place.

You know what, it’s going to be an interesting couple of months. I’m really quite excited which, given how the rest of my life is going at the moment, is something of a surprise.

No, not excited. That other thing.


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