Jeffrey Archer School of Writing Part 1: Write what you know about

A few days ago I took part in an online book club, where the guest of the day was none less than Jeffrey Archer, an author of some fame and renown, as well as a man followed by controversy, corruption and perjury scandals. Firstly, I would like to say what an unexpectedly warm breath of humanity Jeffrey proved to be. He was brilliantly entertaining throughout, his sense of comedy and situational humour was great, he came across as a skilled raconteur and conversationalist. He gave the book club host, who happened to be my son, a seemingly hard time, but after an initial shock of how abrupt Jeffrey was with my baby boy, who incidentally turned 27 on the day, I quickly realised that it was all done in the spirit of friendly banter in anticipation of fast approaching season of good will to all mankind.  

Jeffrey took questions from the audience for an hour, and did his best to answer them all at length, no matter how disjointed and random some of them were. Answering one of the questions, about the key to his literary success, he said, ‘write about what you know’. Nothing ground-breaking here, this piece of advice gets bandied about with such other pearls of writing wisdom as ‘make sure you do your research’ and ‘avoid dangling participles’ at every creative writing course in the land. And yet, somehow, for whatever reason, these cliched words sounded more profound to me than they would have done, had they not been spoken during my son’s book club, and had I not been, in fact, a great fan of Jeffrey’s storytelling for decades. The truth is, I read all his novels and short stories, some of them more than once. His books have accompanied me at many Mediterranean beaches over the years, so whatever the reason, the ‘write about what you know’ stayed with me, and I have been mulling over them since Thursday evening.  

It is easy for Jeffrey to follow his own advice and write about what he knows, because as far as I know, the things he knows read like a table of contents of a great novel, before he commits a single word to paper. He knows about being a long-term politician, winning an election to become an MP at an early age, becoming a deputy party chairman, being declared bankrupt, running for the post of the mayor of London, being a defendant in not one but two high profile trials, as well as working as an amateur auctioneer, and serving a long prison sentence.

What do I know about? An attempt to answer this question did not make for a comfortable journey of self-discovery. After some seriously intense navel gazing, head scratching and knuckle-cracking, I came to a painful realisation that, contrasted with Jeffrey’s capacious expertise, what I know about amounts to very little. What’s worse, none of it is of any significance or the slightest interest to anybody outside my closest family and friends, and even they tend to switch off half way through most of my stories, and then there are some stories which sound exciting to me and me alone, so I spare anybody else the agonising torture of listening to them.

Every time I think that I know quite a bit about something, I quickly discover there are people who know much more about it and in much more depth. Which means, the only thing I can safely say is that I know a little about a lot of things. I know a little about travelling, but much less than a lot of other people who know seriously huge amount about travelling. I know a little about film, but much less than a lot of people who know much more about film. I know a little about musical theatre, but, yep, you guessed it. There are people who can converse for hours about nuanced differences between Alfie Boe and John Owen-Jones performances as Jean Valjean, and which role was Lea Salonga most suited for during her career, and why, and this leaves me looking like an amateur, who likes to listen to a nicely delivered tune.

I know a few practical everyday things, which are not a good writing material. I know how to do gentle yoga, how to tidy the kitchen, soft-boil and egg, and how to ice-skate, none of them very well, mind you.

One thing I know quite a lot about, if I am not being unnecessarily modest, is court interpreting, and the intricacies of criminal and family law proceedings. The trouble is, I already wrote a book about it, and despite my best spamming efforts on Facebook and LinkedIn, it didn’t make a bestseller list and no movie deals were forthcoming, even though I still believe that Helena Bonham Carter would make the role of an intrepid Polish interpreter her best yet.  

The thing I know most about is children. My own children are the best thing that ever happened and keeps happening to me. Other people’s children are a different story, and on the whole they are greatly overrated. I also know that as soon as you give birth to three children, you will not have a dull moment for the rest of your life, or at the very least for the first twenty five years of their lives.

Impromptu conversations with teenagers are among life’s most precious moments, the perfect gems of absurdity and nonsense. Every parent goes through a multitude of such exchanges every week. This one took place about an hour ago.

– What are you watching?
– You don’t want to know. 
– I do want to know. 
– ‘Love hard’ 
– You were right, I didn’t want to know. 
– I did warn you, and now you know it, you cannot unknow it. Next time, take my word for it. 
– I’ll do my best.

This concludes part one of my Jeffrey Archer school of writing blog piece. I should probably check the copyrights issues with his agent before I come back with part two, so please do not hold your breath. I am a little concerned that what I am doing here might be akin to making the film, Being John Malkovich, without checking with John Malkovich, only on a such infinitesimally smaller scale as to become not comparable at all. 

It is what it is

Post-Brexit, post-pandemic public service interpreting offers a peeking Tom’s perspective on how the other half lives. In this case, the down in the dumps, half-forgotten half. Most GP consultations, most Universal Credit job coach interviews, PIP health assessments are still taking place over the phone.  A three way conversation with a telephone interpreter has never been a fully satisfactory way of conducting certain types of difficult conversations, such as mental health therapy sessions, or conveying unhappy medical news. Service providers, service users and interpreters alike, we all have long resigned ourselves to this unsatisfactory reality of how non English speakers access public services. ‘It is what it is’ has become our mantra. 

Today, I am assisting a homeless man who is speaking to a homeless charity, or rather the man is shouting and screaming his frustration down the phone towards his support worker who has called to check on him, because she is worrying about the state of his mental health. At the start of the conversation, she informed him in a monotone dispassionate voice, that she had completed  all the necessary data security training and all his details will be kept confidential unless, during the course of the conversation, he discloses something which would indicate that either he or somebody else is in immediate danger of harm, in which case confidentiality rules will no longer apply. 

The man interrupts, ‘Hello, hello? Can you stop sounding like a recording and start speaking to me? I don’t have much time, what do you want? What are you calling me for?’
 – Adam ( not his real name), we have received information that your mental health is a concern, and that you are being suicidal, is that true, are you having thoughts about ending your life? 

– You’ve received information? Wow! From whom? The CIA, the FBI? Do you have me followed? Have you got nothing better to do, I do not have time for this, I had to leave at 7am this morning, so I could get to the Park Place (not real name) soup kitchen by 11, before they stopped serving hot breakfast, and now I am on my way to Croydon (real place, but not the one he really said he was heading to), to use their free showers, I will then go to the Junction for dinner, and then back to the house. By the time I finish today, I will have walked for about 7 hours, because the place I am staying at now has nothing, nothing, nothing at all, I don’t even have a kettle to make coffee, today I had the first hot meal for 3 days, I have nothing, nothing, nothing. I was better off on the streets. In fact, I will return the keys today, and I am out of there. You can offer my bed to another of your projects. 

– Adam, we offered you a food voucher yesterday, but you refused to ..

– No! I am sorry, but I don’t want your food vouchers, I told you before, that stuff is inedible, send it to Afghanistan if you dare, I don’t want it. 

Adam then proceeded to reiterate that he was leaving the accommodation the next day, as he didn’t appreciate the way he was treated there, with nothing to sit on, no cupboard to put his belongings, no cooking facility, no food suitable for human consumption. His rant was erratic and inconsistent to my impartial ear, and it must have been a stuff of nonsense to his support worker. Adam sprinkled his monologue with unexpected eloquence and witticisms, even if they were not matched by logic or reason. Nothing positive could possibly come out of the conversation, but we carried on for close to an hour.   

Is any of this shocking? Not to me, not any more, not after interpreting a hundred similar conversations in the last six months or so. 

Whaligoe Steps Davy

Our Scottish staycation proved to be the gift that kept on giving. 

First, a word of advice. If you are planning a short break in Caithness, make sure it is just that; three days is plenty.
Due to my evident inability to grasp the basic rule of ensuring continuity of holiday accommodation, I initially managed to book three nights in Wick, followed by two nights of homelessness in Scottish wilderness, followed by a weekend in St. Andrews. After some frantic last minute messaging, came through for me, but we ended up with a couple of spare days on our hands in Wick. 

And that’s how we came across Whaligoe Steps. 365 of them, leading all the way to the sea. We spotted them buried deep down among various ‘Top 10 attractions near Wick’.
The steps were hardly going to pose a challenge to us, our calf muscles still bulging after our Ben Nevis climbing triumph less than a week before. 

Whaligoe Steps ended up as one of those memorable experiences that usually happen to other people. 
We parked the car nearby, crossed the A99 at our own risk, and set off looking for the steps. 

A man came out from his garden shed adorned with several sets of antlers and horse shoes, and asked us, ‘are you looking for the steps?’ He then gave us a once over and added, doubtfully,  ‘Do you feel fit enough?’ We grimaced in half-smile. He then kept talking to us for an uninterrupted fifteen minutes or more. He told us he had been working on the steps for the last 25 years. He went into his house, took out a poster size old photograph of the steps and proceeded to describe every single item along the route down to the sea. He introduced himself as Davy. He told us how the Whaligoe got its name. Goe means an inlet, and a dead whale washed up there once.  

He carried on. He told us a story about a group of generously sized Americans who visited a few years ago and how they struggled to climb back up. He didn’t seem to be aware that fat shaming was a bad thing to do. He told us about the time Billy Connelly came round and what a fun and easy going man he was. 
After a suitably long time, we let us go and do the steps. As we walked down, we recognised all the points Davy mentioned in his story. When we came back up, Davy was pottering around his shed again. He asked us how we liked the steps, and continued telling us details about how they had fallen into disrepair and how he and others have been fixing them over the years.

We were standing in the doorway of his house, and an unusually big spanner caught our attention. He noticed that and said that he had more interesting things to show us too. He pulled out an antique looking sword, which he said he’d found  in one of several local abandoned houses many years before.
We all had a go wielding the sword, with some larking around a Scottish flag added for good measure.

For his final trick, Davy offered any of us ‘a hundred pounds in cash’ if any of us managed to ride his bike for the full minute. We all followed him to the shed, and Davy wheeled out a bulky looking bike. Amelia, our ready for anything daughter, had a go a couple of times, but only lasted a couple of seconds each time. I am not sure what it was exactly, which made his bike unusable, but apparently the bike was totally counterintuitive to what we know about cycling, and as you think you will be turning right, the bike turns left and you fall off.

After that we said our goodbyes and were on our way. The Whaligoe Steps Davy is most definitely Caithness’ best kept secret. I don’t mind sharing it here.

The Class of Covid 2021

If I hear grade inflation one more time, I will not be held responsible for my actions.  

On Tuesday this week, I drove my older daughter to school, where she ripped open the envelope with her A-level results. Based on what she found in the envelope, she is likely to be labelled as having been awarded unfairly inflated grades. Except, she really wasn’t.

If it were up to me, I would have added an A star in Resilience, Endurance and Determination, and a Distinction in Keeping Her Shit Together to the three straight As she had achieved. 

Earlier this year, when the government announced that the official A-level and GCSE exams were to be cancelled and replaced by teachers’ assessments, my daughter took it in her stride. Her Sixth Form college was among thousands others which decided to place the bar at least as high as any external exam board would have.

Assessment after assessment followed, a piece of previously unscheduled coursework after another piece of previously unscheduled coursework, two sets of mock exams, in the form of pre-PPEs (pre-Pre Public Examinations) followed by PPEs. It was relentless. All this punctuated by periods of self-isolation for the whole year bubble, whenever one of the students tested positive. Key members of teaching staff got sick too, and were not available for weeks at a time. My daughter carried on, setting herself her own deadlines, weekly goals and assignments.

The (cancelled) external end of year exams were replaced by… internal end of year exams. These exams were identical to the pre-Covid ones in everything but the name and level of formality, with added ambiguity and uncertainty as to how exactly they were going to be marked and graded.

My daughter plodded on and persevered. Night after night, throughout autumn, winter, and spring, she was frequently the last one to switch off her lights. We hardly saw her during the weekends, when she was only emerging for food. She worked insanely hard. What’s equally impressive, through all of this, she kept her sense of humour and perspective. She recognised that the challenges she was facing were not the end of the world on the greater scale of things.

She deserves everything she found in that envelope. Also, huge respect for her teachers for recognising that.

On Thursday this week, I drove my younger daughter to school, where she ripped open the envelope with her GCSE results. Based on what she found in the envelope, she is likely to be labelled… I don’t flipping think so.

Age is just a number. Mine is a big one.

Today, I reached the age my Grandma was when she married her second husband. 

When my mum informed me about Grandma’s upcoming nuptials, I was horrified. The shock was so immense, I still clearly remember the moment. ‘Old people do not get married, marriage is for the young, everybody is going to laugh at her, everybody is going to laugh at all of us’, I sobbed, to my mum’s bemusement. I was seven at the time, and all I could think of was that Grandma was very old, which meant her getting married was beyond embarrassing, because she would die soon, which would make me sad, because I liked Grandma a lot, she made the best chicken soup ever, and she could speak French, which was like the best magic trick ever, but old people die, so I didn’t expect her to live much longer. 

As it happened, Grandma lived for another 35 years, and went to her bridge club as usual a couple of days before she died.

Still, I think I will avoid eye contact with seven year olds from now on, in case I catch them feeling sorry for me for being so very old, especially that there are a couple of things that tell me that I am, in fact, getting on a bit.

One example is my birthday date itself, 24/7. I remember the time when it was just that, a date, with no other meaning attached to it, because nothing was open and available 24/7. The world of my youth used to close for the night, and wake up afresh the next day. I know, right? 

And finally, I am one of the fewer and fewer people on this planet who can say that they were alive (only just, but still) when England won the World Cup. History doesn’t get much more ancient than this. 

It’s coming soon.

Please fold your flags neatly away, and store them safely. It’s coming home, it is just being delayed.

Thank you, the English team, for giving us two weeks of sheer unadulterated joy and happiness. Thank you for lifting the spirits and making us sing.

Today, we are heartbroken. Today is for if onlys and what ifs. Tomorrow, the countdown to 2022 begins.

We now have the best team in my footballing memory (which is older than any of the current players by the way). The team led by Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane deserves everything there is to win in football and they will get there.

Semi-finals in 2018, final this year, next year the trophy.

Hugs and kisses

I am a bit confused about some of the latest lockdown easing rules due to kick in from the 17th of May.

Hugs and kisses among friends and family members will be allowed, I get that. Those of us who feel passionately about their personal space must be thrilled by the way.

The guidelines further state that the above mentioned intimacy will not be allowed among strangers.

Why then, do I see news headlines herald ‘the return of casual sex’?

I might be rusty on the subject, but aren’t the majority of one night stands supposed to be happening with strangers? Or at the very most with Roger from accounts? Is the government now saying that it is once again fine to sleep around, provided we do it within firmly established friendship groups or (surely not?) among extended family members.

I would welcome more clarity on the subject. Asking for a friend, naturally.

Teenagers. Life’s best kept secret.

Just like rats, rottweilers and spiders, teenagers have long been the victims of the most undeservingly bad reputation.

When you actually live with them, you will find that if you look after them well, they become the source of your life’s most precious moments.

Their fresh, quick-witted humour is on tap.

Their impassioned rants about the unfairness of school make the biggest political zealots sound like amateurs.

Their outbursts of boundless joy about the smallest things are one of a kind.

In short, to use a trendy phrase, teenagers are brilliant for your mental health.

Below, to illustrate the issue for those of you who do not have one at home, a handful of this week’s gems from my bunch.

Friday afternoon, after an intense week of GCSE preparation, or rather, in the words of my Year 11 daughter, the preparation for the non-GCSEs, which are replacing the real GCSEs and are every bit as important as the real GCSEs but without the school having the decency to give us study leave for them because, of course they are not the real thing.

– I need to go outside, I need to feel the fresh air. 
– Good, idea, go now. 
– You can’t make me! 

– There is this boy at my school, he is proper British.
– What do you mean?
– I mean he eats ham and cheese sandwiches every day. 

– Ma, I’ve got abs, look, abs!
– Well done, must be all that walking you did yesterday. 
– I am going to eat some cream eggs now. Bye, abs! 

– Ma, I thought I might have ADHD, so I’ve downloaded a list of symptoms, but I couldn’t concentrate long enough to finish reading it.  

– Ma, I was offered to be on Holby City next Friday. But I said no, I got school. 
– What? School could manage without you for a day. 
– What?? And you tell me this now? 
– This could have been your big break. Who asked you? How? 
– I signed up to a company called Slick Casting. It is for extras. Anyway, I said no. 
– Next time somebody invites you to be on Holby City, Casualty, EastEnders or Line of Duty, you say yes, unless it’s your wedding day. 
– Hmm, I think this should take priority over wedding. Weddings are lame and common. So common. Think about it, what’s more interesting to say to someone, ‘This one time I got married’, or ‘This one time I was in EastEnders’? 


RIP Prince Philip

Yesterday, Britain was at its ceremonial best and the nation came together once again for a brief afternoon. I was glued to the TV for 5 hours and hardly noticed the time when it was all over. Every little detail was beautifully dignified, infinitely sad and just perfect.

The 3pm national minute silence stayed with me for the rest of the day.
The image of the Queen perched alone at the end of the pew, head bowed, will stay with the world for much longer. A lot has been said how small, stooped and alone she looked at that moment, and how it would have been better if one of her children had been able to sit next to her, if not for the current Covid restrictions. Then again, when you are a widow, sitting at the funeral of your husband of 73 years, you are going to be alone, no matter who sits next to you.

A lot of people only learnt what an extraordinary person the Duke of Edinburgh was after he died, through a slew of documentaries and televised interviews with his friends.
I heard so many people say, in the last eight days, ‘I didn’t know he was involved in x as well as y and z’.

A lot of people have humbly changed their mind about him too, and now feel a bit awkward about only having him down as a ‘cantankerous old sod’ (Duke’s own words) before.
The sense of loss lingers on, but life goes on, so in the words of the Duke’s famous motto, let’s get on with it, it’s a beautiful day out there.