The excitement of writing for a competition…

I enjoy writing for specific events or audiences, as there is a kind of precision and framework to be considered. It’s quite an interesting mental exercise when you have a word limit, or when you have to create something for a specific genre. I like writing newspaper or magazine articles, poems, speeches, plays, all of which mean a writer must consider the use of words and the requirements of an audience really carefully. I’ve written things from song lyrics to pantomimes, and I love the mental challenge of slelecting words and phrases that fit a specific framework. Of course, I enjoy writing novels best: I love the freedom of letting a character take over and run with an adventure. But that’s for another blog post.

Recenty, someone in a creative work-sharing group mentioned that they were enterng a writing competition. In competitions, you’re generally given a few specifics, a title, a word limit, but you have little knowledge about what the judges want, so you have to think outside the box and try to be a bit original. I’ve entered a few competitions and had placings: I’m one of those people who often come second, and that in itself is a source of great happiness. The competition we were discussing demanded no more than five hundred words, based on a theme of Hope, so I wrote something as an exercise, although I have no intention of using the piece for any other purpose than this blog.

Recently, in one of my zoom writing groups, we discussed the importance of strong opening and closing lines, so I decided I’d incorporate this into my piece. In a subsequent class, we were asked to consider the power of the weather on our writing, so I incorporated the weather too.

I decided that, in these lockdown times, it would be easy to write a piece about how much we all hope that the separation and the threat to everyone’s health, mental and physical, ends soon, and that we can emerge from this situation intact and all move forward; that we can somehow use the experiece to grow. So, instead of writing about that as a theme, I thought about choosing a completely different location, a different time, and I moved my story to Canada in the 1930s. I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it’s a metaphor…

This is my piece, below, entitled Hope. I have written exactly 500 words. I hope you enjoy it..

Hope

‘God must be having goose for tea tonight.’

She looked upwards as she walked on, huddled inside the thin coat. Snowflakes fell like fat feathers, large as a baby’s fist, tumbling from somewhere above, filling her eyes, blinding her. She couldn’t see the night sky for the whiteness of it all.

She trudged on. It was fifteen miles to Québec. She would be there by dawn. Her sister would take her in, as long as her husband didn’t mind. She’d be useful.

Her fingers tingled. She’d never owned a pair of gloves. She’d seen kid gloves once as a child; she’d been with her mother outside a store in Québec and an elegant lady had stepped from a car, wearing a fur stole and the softest gloves. She’d never been inside a car: she imagined it was like a house, but smaller and warmer. Her own house had never been warm.

She tramped through the hard-packed snow, cold water seeping through the holes in her boots and she shivered. Her hands flitted to her belly and she thought of the baby there, small as a button. She hoped he or she – it was a girl, she was sure – was warm enough beneath the folds of a thin coat, a thin dress, thin skin. It was for the child she had done it. When the baby was born, she would be better without a father.

Her feet were stamping some kind of rhythm as she lurched onwards, her hair wet and bedraggled, her face so cold her cheeks burned. The wind blasted snow in her face and she was buffeted by the blizzard, but she forced herself forward.

Ice crunched beneath her boots as she set her feet down sturdily, hoping she wouldn’t slip. In the darkness, the snow was luminous, a soft light. Her thoughts fled back to the freshly-fallen snow outside her cabin, banked high on either side, as she had rushed from the house. He had chased after her, shouting, swearing, stinking of sour-mash whisky. Then he had hit her, full in the face, and she had felt her nose pop. She had pushed him; he’d fallen backwards and hit hard ground, his neck cracking like a twig. The falling snow had covered him quickly as she watched, and she’d been glad to see his twisted angry expression disappear. She’d gone inside, wiped the blood from her face, collected her bundle of rags and the money behind the clock, and ran.

Now, her toes were numb and her legs felt like soft sponge. Beneath the coat, her flesh was ice. She stared up into the dropping snow, blinking, letting the wetness of it fill her eyes like tears for a moment, then she slogged forwards. The road in front of her bent to the left and wound on into shadows.

She pushed her head down, lumbered forwards into the whirling blizzard and prayed between chattering teeth, ‘God, save a bit of that roast goose for me.’

Lockdown, languages and me. (Warning: much failure, a little success…)

As a writer, I’m blessed with being able to work from home and I’m so lucky to have a job I enjoy, that I return to each day with energy and enthusiasm. Lockdown is a difficult time for everyone in their own way, but some people have real problems in managing to get by in these strange times. There are furloughed people, those who have no jobs, those who are missing people they haven’t seen for so long, and those who are medically compromised, and I whole-heartedly wish them the best.

Not long ago, I heard a celebrity recommend on TV that those who had no jobs or prospects during lockdown should take up a course or a hobby. I didn’t think he was being glib or facetious: I think it was a genuine attempt to turn a difficult situation into a positive one and to suggest that people spent the time they had on their hands trying to acquire new skills. I mentioned this to my daughter and she was immediately on the case, starting to learn Japanese, German and Irish.

So, to support her, I signed up for a few languages and I have to say, it is a daily source of total comedy.

My French is good but, on my phone, I couldn’t work out how to access the advanced level. Instead, I spent each day working through basics, hoping I could get to a level where I’d be able to stretch my skills. Then I discovered how to leap forwards and now I enjoy practising tenses I’d long forgotten and brushing up rusty pronunciation. So far, so good.

My Spanish isn’t bad; I managed to fly through the first few levels and eventually accessed the right questions for my skills. I’m recalling things I’d forgotten, although I’m having to translate the English from US to UK before I try the Spanish: I’m given words such as bathroom (which means toilet), purse (which is a handbag) and store (which translates as shop). These words threw me more than they should have at first. But now I’m fluent in US English too, which is perfect.

Then there was German. I can do basic German, ask for food, chat a bit, but I spent the first six lessons asking Ms. Merkel if she was the chancellor and Herr Schmitt if he was a lawyer. Then I had to ask Heidi Klum if she came from Sweden. After hours of this, I managed to switch my skills to a level where I was making mistakes. Now that was what I needed to do in order to improve: there was no point in getting everything right.

And then there was my decision to learn Romanian. I speak a few words of Romanian, not much… Te iubesc, Noroc, Țuică, Multimesc, that sort of thing. So, naïvely, I thought: rock and roll – what can go wrong? My daughter was steaming ahead with Irish and Japanese: surely I could manage a fairly easy romance language from Eastern Europe? Think again.

First of all, I kept getting everything wrong because I hadn’t uploaded the Romanian keyboard to my phone and couldn’t access letters such as ă and ţ. So everything I wrote in Romanian was a mistake. Once I’d accessed the ability to type in Romanian, I then encountered a problem with the definite article, which took me a week to work out. For example, a boy is un baiat, but the boy isbăiatul. A woman is o femeie but the woman is femeia. It took me ten mistakes to work that one out. Then there’s the exercise when a cross-sounding lady says something quickly and you have to write it down although you haven’t a clue what she’s just said. Then there are the sentences that you would just never ever say: ‘the goose, the chicken and the duck eat the sandwich and drink the water,’ for example which, for reference, is ‚gâsca, puiul și rața mănâncă sandvișul și beau apa’. It fills me full of happiness that one day I might be able to waltz into a shop in Constanța and say that line. (Constanța, by the way, is a beautiful place on the Black Sea – I recommend it highly!)

Then there is the awful sense of failure, which happens when you are steaming through the lesson, which lasts about ten minutes, you achieve 100% throughout until you arrive at the last two hard questions, then you fail abysmally and are greeted with a descending trumpet sound which would normally accompany Laurel and Hardy getting it wrong, and the words ‘You tried hard, but better luck next time…’ Why ever did I need learning languages in my life?

The answer is simple: it’s the chance to communicate, to learn, to improve, and when I get it right, it will be a great feeling. I dream of a time I can sit in a café in France or Spain and chat easily to the locals, or saunter into a biergarten in Munich and order something delicious. I may even one day be able to have a conversation with someone in Constanța about something that isn’t a farmyard animal and at least I can already ask for a sandwich and water.

And, of course, there’s always the chance that perhaps the next lesson will teach me the word for wine…

Imagine Five French Hens as a Hollywood film with this huge cast…!!

I love the way films and live theatre give us as an audience the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a story through the eyes of the characters we meet. It’s fascinating how a few lines on a page, a book or a script, can be turned into something visual and vibrant in front of our eyes. Several years ago, I was part of a cast performing Steel Magnolias on stage and I had a great time working on a lively script with strong, talented actors. I watched the film of the play out of interest, and it was great to see older female actors playing feisty roles, investigating the themes of family and friendship. I thought about how few films there are out there that cater for older actors as protagonists, especially women. Some of the most popular ones include Calendar Girls, The First Wives’ Club and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. There were a few more films with one or two older females in the cast, Philomena, On Golden Pond, but there aren’t many that show groups of women in their older years having fun and living life.

I often consider how my own novels would be cast as movies as the stories are often quite visual, they have colourful locations, and the characters are older women and men who enjoy life and have fun. Having seen Steel Magnolias on screen, I imagined that the eponymous characters of my novel Five French Hens came from an American city, not a small town in the UK, and that the five fun American women who visit Paris were played by Hollywood actors.

Imagine all those incredible older Hollywood superstars we could choose from. I’m thinking big here with my casting, and I mean really big. I haven’t held back on glamour, fame or talent. Nor have I held back on the characters’ energy, sass and big personalities. Imagine the frocks in the casino scene…. (Imagine them all together on set before filming starts!)

So, this is my imaginary, dream cast list:

Jen: Jen would be played by Sally Field, who was Forest Gump’s mum and the ex-wife in Mrs. Doubtfire as well as M’Lynn in Steel Magnolias. She’s a great choice as she has the ability to be both calm, strong and thoughtful, but also there is a sense of vulnerability and sensitivity. She would be enthusiastic and excited about her marriage to Eddie, but she would convey Jen’s doubts and the desperation not to be alone. Moreover, Jen is lively, popular but with the capacity to be quite secretive; Sally Field has the warmth and depth to make this character take the story forward.

Della: I’ve chosen Queen Latifah as Della. She would bring an energy and strength to the character: she would be playful and feisty in her marriage but caring and full of loyalty for her husband. Queen Latifah would steal a few scenes in Paris. I can imagine her in the final scenes too, when she comes home to her beloved Sylvester and everything isn’t as she expected.

Tess: I’d select Goldie Hawn to play Tess. She’s really good at comedy roles and I can imagine her in an awful marriage with Alan at the beginning of the film, and yet, once in Paris, she flourishes and becomes a party animal. Goldie Hawn would bring initial vulnerability to the role, later showing her strength and compassion.

Rose: I’d choose Brenda Fricker to play Rose. Initially hesitant and quite solitary, Rose is transformed into a leader and a trouper. She is talented, but her skills are wasted at home; Paris brings out the flamboyant best of Rose and I’d love to see Brenda play the final role on stage as Rose becomes Rose-On-Wye, accompanying Greta Manchester on the piano!

Pam: I’d choose Cher as Pam. She is strong, independent, feisty and nobody’s fool. Athletic and a leader, Pam is the one who knows her way around Paris well and supports the other four hens when they need it most, but she has her own secrets. Her external toughness hides her vulnerability and her shadowy past. After her great performance in Moonstruck, I can imagine Cher embodying this role so well.

Eddie: I’d select Robert Redford. He is dashing and dapper, so we can understand why Jen is so attracted to him. He is personable and persuasive too: Robert Redford has that sense of clean-cut honesty which might draw Jen in and impress her with his potential to be the perfect husband.

Vladimir: Robert De Niro. Enough said. Great actor. Full of the promise of a better match for Tess. Big hearted, generous, expansive. Nothing else to say except that he’d be perfect as Vladimir.

Alan: I’d cast Richard Dreyfus as Alan, Tess’s husband who’d rather play golf than spend time with her. Richard Dreyfus is talented and would have the ability to hint at Alan’s duality and untrustworthiness, cranking up his unpleasantness as the role progresses.

Daz: I was surprised how few really young Hollywood actors I knew: in the end, I chose Taron Egerton who is a versatile performer. He has a warm personality, is outgoing and has a sense of fun. He’s a strong character actor and he can sing too. Perfect.

There are lots of other roles that need consideration, from Elodie, the woman who fortells the Hens their futures, to the unfortunate Celia and the lovely Sylvester. I can’t think who’d be most ideal.

I’m sure there are lots more talented actors in their older years who’d be absolutely perfect to play The Hens. It’s great fun casting hypothetically and there are some wonderful names to be considered. Why not imagine yourself as director and, if you come up with a perfect cast, do let me know.

Short story

It’s rare that I write about myself. In my novels, characters and situations are imaginary. I rarely bring myself into what I write, although I include what I know and if I don’t, my ideas will be inspired by other people or based on research. Many of my older characters have something of the inspirational men and women I am privileged to know personally, and I rarely allow a character to behave in a certain way without thinking or asking ‘Could *** do that?’ or ‘How would ***** react?’

But here’s a rare thing – a story about an early experience of my own. I wrote it in response to an exercise in a writers’group andf I thought I’d share it. I was about three years old and I remember it vividly.

I hope you enjoy the short story. I haven’t found a title for it yet.

***********************************************************************

The damp stink of decay hangs in the air. Trees surround me, the tangle of spreading roots visible above the earth, and I stand close to a tall oak. I look up at a graze of light sky between boughs.

‘Stay there,’ my father says, his hands lost in the huge pockets of his coat.

He walks away and I do as I am told. My feet are firmly planted, but I don’t feel safe. I stare down at little wellingtons, wet mud squelching around them; at a few sodden twigs, skeletons of leaves. Empty acorns are scattered a few feet away. I watch the line of trees stretch as far as I can see and my father blends in: his coat is the same hard grey as the trunks, then he’s gone.

It’s cold, November. I know I have to stay where I am. A few leaves twirl down, dull orange, tumbling in the wind, spanned hands waving. I listen. The silence holds a breath and I wait. I gaze up again; branches interlocked, a canopy of foliage overhead, squeezing away the light.

I take a step forward and murmur ‘Daddy?’

 A twig snaps beneath my boot then there’s no sound. It’s quiet; then from somewhere in the distance, a wood pigeon coos, a low warning. I wonder if Death lives in the woods and if he is a man wrapped inside a tree, if he’s watching me now.

‘Daddy?’

I hunker close to a trunk, gnarled branches twisting up like knotty fingers, and put out my hand to touch the bark. It is rough, scratchy against my soft-pudding hands. There is a smell of rotting leaves, wet mulch, and I try not to breathe in too much.

A noise makes me jerk, a single crack like a whiplash, then there’s a fluttering of something falling from high, through leaves and twigs. I squeeze my eyes shut and try not to think. Another sound splits the air, exactly the same, a snap from a rifle, then the gentle tumbling.

I open my eyes and he’s striding towards me, feet soundless, tall in his grey coat. Then he’s here; he takes my hand.

‘Good girl.’

I notice my father’s coat hangs differently now; something else fills the inside pockets besides the barrel, something softer, still warm.

We walk back through the forest, with no sound but our feet snapping twigs and the sinking squelch of boots in mud.

My mother will be waiting at home: she’ll have everything ready, and then she’ll make supper.

My top five living-life-and-loving-it feel-good films

My novels have often been described as uplifting or feel-good, and I like this epithet very much. While I enjoy a good gothic tale or a thriller as much as anyone else, the idea that my stories entertain and make people feel positive about life is a great compliment.

Recently, I was sent a message on social media from someone who was feeling low: now we’re back in lockdown, the blues had set in and she was searching for films to watch on during the evening to lift her spirit. I recommended something and then wondered what else she might watch.

So I set myself the small task of putting together my top five feel good films to cheer people up. This was much more difficult that I thought it might be: my favourite film in the world, Everything is Illuminated, is uplifting but it also contains scenes of such pathos that I felt the need to re-examine my definition. So, if I mean by ‘feel-good films’ that they will make a person whose mood is low feel more positive about life, then I have to ensure that there is nothing at all in the film that will detract from that fuzzy sensation of warmth, benevolence and uplifting joy.

Let’s be clear: one or two films from the list below wouldn’t necessarily make the list of my top favourite films. I do like a thought-provoking movie, a film that makes me laugh or ones which are cleverly contrived or well-performed, but I’ve made a point of omitting anything that might not be universally perceived to be uplifting, so it’s goodbye for the time being to Inglourious Basterds, Withnail and I and Parasite.

So here goes with my top five:

Number 5. Rocketman

I didn’t expect to like this film. I’m not a great fan of Elton John’s music; Bohemian Rhapsody was just out and achieving great reviews; the musical theatre style of the film seemed an odd choice and the opening scene where Elton attends counselling in full regalia before the film whooshes back to his early life seemed a too-predictable beginning. However, the film really works: I watched the whole thing with an open mind and I loved it. Taron Egerton’s performance takes it to another level and it is an inspiring and moving film.

 Number 4. Mary and Max

This is a brilliant Australian stop-motion adult animated comedy-drama film written and directed by Adam Elliot. It is a beautiful story of the pen-pal relationship between two very different people, Mary Dinkle, a lonely eight-year-old living in Melbourne and Max Horovitz, a Jewish man who has Asperger’s syndrome and lives in New York. Their correspondence becomes an emotional lifeline for both characters and reveals the details of their unhappy existences. Superbly performed by Toni Collette, Barry Humphries and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Number 3.  The Intouchables

 This film is a French comedy-drama with a powerful rapport between the two main characters. Philippe is a wealthy quadriplegic who employs Driss, a man who has no interest in the role whatsoever, to be his caregiver and driver. It’s an interesting ‘buddy’ film which is funny and poignant. It has been labelled a heart-warming film; it has also been called condescending, and I can understand both responses: it does rely on some racial, social and cultural stereotypes. But it is watchable and, in its purest form, it shows that friendship, love and respect can be found in many places. It’s definitely a feel-good film.

 Number 2. The Commitments

I adore Roddy Doyle’s novels and Alan Parker’s films. The story is set in working-class Dublin in the 1980s, where young music enthusiast Jimmy Rabbit assembles a soul band called the Commitments. Poignant, well-acted and thought-provoking, this film is funny and heartfelt with some belting tunes, brilliantly performed. It takes the viewer on a musical journey full of laughs and yet it remains authentic and thought-provoking.

Number One. The Birdcage

Robin Williams is, as we know, a superb performer who gave the world so much joy with many roles, from Jakob the Liar to Dead Poets’ Society. In The Birdcage, he plays Armand, a gay nightclub owner who pretends to be a straight cultural attaché when his son brings home his fiancée and her traditional parents. Armand lists the help of various people to change his apartment and act out the deception with truly hilarious and heartwarming effect. Highly recommended – it will make you laugh out loud and fall in love with the characters. That’s perhaps, a true definition of feel-good.

If The Old Girls’ Network was a film, who would play the roles…?

Perhaps every writer dreams of seeing her or his work produced on film.  After all, great stories make good theatre and good television, or good movies. I love to imagine who’d play the major roles in my novels if they were made into films. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of casting and, whenever I’ve directed plays in the past, I was told I was quite good at selecting the right person for the role, both physically and in terms of the ‘energy’ they communicate to an audience.

There are two ways of getting the casting ‘right’: one is to select the obvious choice that ticks all the boxes for most people – think Tom Hardy as James Bond – or, alternatively, we can go with instinct and pick an actor who may not be everyone’s obvious first choice for that role but there is something essentially quirky about them that will make it work – think Heath Ledger as The Joker, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan or Robert Downey Junior as Chaplin. Instinct and essence are right up there and can often work better than predictability.

When I cast my novels as films, I’m dreaming beyond my wildest dreams, of course – should a TV director come knocking, it would be incredible to have access to a range of the most talented and famous actors, although I’ll gladly concede that there are thousands of brilliant actors out there who, although yet unheard of, are yet to make their name and if they are going to steal a scene, I’d love it to be a scene in one of my books.

Before I reveal my dream choice of cast for The Old Girls’ Network, I have to say that when I’m writing a book, I don’t start with famous actors’ faces or voices in my head. I don’t design a character in a story so that it can be played by a particular personality. Nor do I expect my chosen actors to match the character descriptions, age or background of the ones in my book: it’s the essence of the character I’m looking for, not the exact fit. You’ll see exactly what I mean.

The setting of the book is a Somerset village, and I’d need to create a community dynamic between all the villagers, both in terms of tensions and compatibility. So, let’s start with Barbara – she’s in her late seventies, starchy and difficult at first, but also vulnerable; she’s been hurt in the past and she steels herself against further complications in life by being austere. So, to play Barbara I’d go for the staccato voice, the vulnerable facial expressions and the strong character of Emma Thompson who, although she’s much younger than Barbara, is such a talented actor that she’d interpret perfectly the nuances between crotchety and kind; she’d have the subtext of each moment perfectly played out.

Pauline is a softer character but she’s no pushover; she is strong, independent and yet capable of loyalty and warmth. I’d choose Celia Imrie, whose comic background, poise and CV are impressive. Again, despite being ten years younger than Pauline, Celia would be the perfect actor to interpret her strength of character and her resilience while also showing her softer side.

Bisto is easy to cast and I have to say, I had several contenders for this role and changed my mind a few times. Small of frame, mischievous, intelligent but deeply wounded by his past, Bisto would be played by Colm Meaney who would demonstrate vulnerability, warmth and an ability to appeal to an audience through comedy and pathos. He’d be a heartbreaker.

To play Len Chatfield, the love-struck Romeo farmer who is often rendered speechless and awkward, I would select Bill Nighy. He’s a great comic actor and, although he often plays more verbose characters, I think he has exactly the right measure of pathos and warmth to make Len the audience’s darling. A Gabriel Oak character, Len is strong on the outside and gentle inside: Bill would be a perfect magnet for the audience’s sympathy.

Dizzy, the hairdresser whom Barbara says is named after a potato, would be played brilliantly by Amanda Lawrence, who is an ex-theatre student of mine and was in the film Suffragette several years ago. Check her out. Sparky, funny and adorable, she’d be ideal as Dizzy. Hugo, the man from the manor, would be Rhys Ifans, yes, really – he’d do a great job in a smart suit. Kostas the Greek hunk who cleans windows would be Baris Arduç, a Turkish TV presenter who fits the bill in terms of the physical ability to embody the role.

Jamie Bell would play Len’s son Gary: again, he doesn’t exactly match the physical type from the novel but he can blend a broodiness with a sadness that will make Gary not entirely unlikeable. Chrissie the vicar would be played by Helena Bonham Carter, who would bring a briskness and a bit of glamour to the character. Imagine her wanging that welly!

There are several other characters I would cast and, in my dream world, I’d want to use relatively unknown but up-and-coming actors to take all the other roles. The following are ex-students of mine who work in the industry. James Elston would play Andy; Pierre Roxon would play Fabian; Demelza Randall would take the role of Tilly Hardy, the author of raunchy romance novels. I’d like to stay loyal to actors I’ve worked with whom I know are super-talented and industrious.

Then again, just imagine if Hollywood called me with a huge budget and asked for a completely new setting: what if the whole book had to change location and Winsley Green became somewhere in downtown New York? Then I suppose I’d be auditioning De Niro for Bisto, Samuel L for Len, Streep for Pauline and Streisand for Barbara. Now that’s a whole new and very different fantasy!

About the Arts…

I have worked in schools where Drama, Music, Art , Dance, Writing, Media and Performance thrived. I used to teach theatre. I taught students between the ages of 11 and 18 usually but sometimes I would be invited into primary schools to help smaller children fall in love with Shakespeare, and once in a while I would lead workshops at universities teaching undergraduates about Brecht or Buchner or Bent. Once I went to Guangzhou to teach Hamlet and I worked with a jali on a performance in the Gambia.. I taught GCSE, A level, PGCE students. I directed plays, I wrote scripts, and most importantly I interacted with musicians, film makers, dancers, actors, writers, designers, artists and photographers as a normal part of my daily life. It made me very happy.

Occasionally, I worked in an environment where the arts were considered ‘less’ in some ways. I detected a feeling in some people that studying theatre (and other Arts subjects) was less important than studying mathematics, language, science; that learning about performance and theatre somehow matters less. I am not one for buying into division. I incorporated writing, language and science into theatre. 

The arrival of Coronavirus hasn’t changed our love of the arts: it hasn’t changed the importance of arts subjects. They are still fundamental to learning, to growth, to developing who we are as people. What has changed is our opportunity to share them together. The biggest change is in public accessibility to the arts and in the loss of jobs of those working in the industry.

I’m not sure everyone appreciates how important the arts are, both to individuals and to our personal growth as people. That’s understandable: we can’t all understand everything.  

But it’s important now that those people who make decisions about the future of the arts don’t simply offer a token sum. While the emergency funding package from the government is very welcome, for the cultural and social survival of the arts, we need to consider the importance of accessibility to anyone and everyone, not just to the select few.

That means that we all should have the opportunity to be surrounded by the arts from birth, to be immersed in the arts in schools. Then, throughout life, having access to the arts becomes something we all have a right to, and creative enjoyment becomes something we can choose for ourselves and experience as part of everyday life. It will make us all happier people.

In praise of libraries everywhere…

Remember the moment in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where she falls down the rabbit hole? Or the wardrobe door that opens to Narnia? Or Platform 9 ¾, leading to the Hogwarts’s Express? Or the Doors of Durin in Lord of the Rings? Literature is full of enchanted doors that take us to a secret place, a place full of mystery and magic, suspension of disbelief and wonder.

Now think of your local library, a simple door that opens and leads into a space loaded with books. There might be a staircase; shelves everywhere, all sections carefully labelled: mystery, crime, thrillers, romance, historical, classical.

It may be a huge library in a university or a city, a medium library in a school or a town or a small provincial library in a village, but each place is special. It holds the key to may secrets, many stories, many adventures.

In these days where our physical journeys may be limited, the wandering of our minds is still unrestricted. With a library card, we can set imagination free. A library has something – so many things – for everyone: stories in all sorts of genres, books we’ll hold and breathe in and love for ever and never forget.

A library is stacked with audio books, large print books, even my novels which are available in all formats: books that I hope are uplifting, funny, sometimes sad, sometimes philosophical, but always my stories insist that, whatever your years, life is there to be lived to the full.

So, why not call into your local library (I have several in Somerset) and push open the enchanted door?

I can promise you, there will be something magical behind it….

So, who is the best actor to play Lemmy in a biopic?

I often cast films in my imagination. If I read about a character in a book, an actor will come to mind and I think ‘he or she would be perfect for that role.’ Many times, I’ve considered actors who might be in films of my own novels: Brendan Gleeson and Julie Walters feature a lot when I’m hypothetically casting one of my books in my head, as do Colin Farrell, Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton. So, when I heard there was going to be a film about the late, great Lemmy Kilminster’s life, I immediately started wondering about who’d be the best actor to play the role of that incredible man.

I saw Lemmy performing with Motörhead in London not long before he passed away; he was quite static on stage but his indomitable spirit, his energy, his love of music that was so loud it made your eardrums buzz and his devil-may-care attitude were tangible. The actor who would play Lemmy on screen would need to do him justice; it would need to be someone who could embody his intelligence, his iconoclasm, his mischief and his rebellious streak. He would need to be magnetic, full of charisma.

I’m quite open-minded about actors who are cast as rock stars: they are actors first, so imitation and interpretation are everything – they don’t need to look exactly like the character they are playing.  Val Kilmer embodied Jim Morrison so well in The Doors. Rami Malek looked nothing like Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody but he managed to portray him with such panache and skill that the character was utterly credible. Taron Egerton was inspired in his performance in Rocket Man: I even conceded that I liked the music, although I’m no Elton John fan. So, for me, the actor who plays Lemmy doesn’t necessarily have to be a look-alike or a predictable choice as their talent comes first. So, here are some of my choices for the role of Lemmy.

The obvious ones:

Johnny Depp is a reasonably good choice to play Lemmy. He’s a musician, a rock star, an experienced actor; by his own admission, he understands the ravaging effects of an alcohol and drug-fuelled lifestyle. He’s a middle-aged sex symbol who can act. He could probably use a good role right now at this point in his career. It seems he ticks all the boxes to play Lemmy.

Robert Downey Junior. As above, probably.

Tom Hardy. He is possibly one of the most gifted actors on screen. He pulled off the roles of both Kray twins in one film; he rescued Venom from the depths of banality and he took the role of Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders to such heights that he managed to get away with a character that, in other circumstances, might have been perceived as a bit risky to say the least. He played Heathcliff with such passion that he achieved empathy where the character deserved no sympathy. He is a genius. Just imagine how he’d play Lemmy.

The less-obvious ones.

Benedict Cumberbatch. Not remotely like Lemmy, not in your wildest dreams. But he’s played everything from Hamlet to Dominic Cummings, so I wonder what he’d make of Motörhead’s front man? He could do it, certainly.

Russell Brand. Russell may be some people’s choice; he has the patter, the charisma, the confidence, the bravado to play Lemmy but he lacks Lemmy’s rawness and natural charm. Not for me.

Orlando Bloom. I was really surprised that, as the initial idea of Orlando Bloom as Lemmy made me burst out laughing, the choice really grew on me. Orlando has served his time playing undemanding roles of young, well-meaning fresh-faced heroes such as Legolas in Lord of the Rings, Paris in Troy and Will in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. It would be a challenge for him to take on the gritty role of Lemmy and I think he’d do it justice. I can imagine Mr. Kilminster chuckling over his bottle of Jack Daniels to think that he’d been portrayed by a man who once played the love interest of Keira Knightley, and an elf.

Jason Momoa. He’d be ‘superhero Lemmy’ in the animated version. A hilarious thought!

Joaquin Phoenix. After an incredible physical performance in Joker, Joaquin can do anything in my opinion. He’d make Lemmy leap from the screen.

Jared Leto. He is possibly my first choice to play Lemmy. Jared Leto is an incredibly versatile actor who would be able to show Lemmy’s progress from his early days in Hawkwind where he became a member because the bass player didn’t show up for a gig to his arrest for drug possession on the Canadian border, creating an empathic staging of Lemmy’s final days as Motörhead’s anarchist bassist and well-loved antihero.

Of course, it depends on the demands of the screenplay: will the film be a linear story of Lemmy’s life, or a glossy romanticised depiction of his early days as a young man whose youthful experiences were steeped in sex and drugs and rock and roll, or will we see the wistful older Lemmy reminiscing on his life as the speakers blast out the strains of such famous songs as No Remorse and Built for Speed.

Whoever is chosen for the role, I’d certainly watch the film. It will be very interesting to see how the director portrays Lemmy and I hope the film goes some way to do justice to a fascinating and unique musician who remains widely admired by so many people.

This leads me to reflect on similar films to come. We’ve had biopics about Freddie Mercury, Sid Vicious, Ray Charles, Billie Holliday, Edith Piaf. Now I’ve heard there will be a film about David Bowie’s life: I wonder who they’ll pick to play that role. And who would be a good choice to play Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Tom Petty, Marc Bolan, Kurt Cobain or Dolores O’Riordan? Are there roles here for established actors or could someone new cut their teeth on such a huge part? It is fascinating to speculate on casting and to look beyond the obvious choices.

Time to watch a series on TV?

I’m not someone who watches much television. I’m quite boring in that respect: whenever friends enthuse about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, I’ve no idea what they are talking about. Watching a popular series on TV is a great opening to conversation and I’m aware that sometimes I’m missing out on it. I tend to be too busy to sit in front of the gogglebox as I spend a lot of time by myself working in the evenings: besides, the cats and I have quickly realised the danger of tuning into programmes like Luther when we are by ourselves. How many nights have I checked under the bed and hoped no-one will pop down from the attic via a hole in  the ceiling?

But since my son arrived back from South America and came to stay with me during lockdown, (and since there has been no football to watch for several months,) we have spent more time in front of the TV beside a warm fire with a glass of something nice. Firstly, we binge-watched all five series of Peaky Blinders, which I really thought were excellent. I enjoyed it for so many reasons that I’d have to write a blog about it separately, but one of the greatest highlights was Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Alfie Solomons. Absolutely inspired timing and characterisation- no-one else could have got away with it!

Then we sat through a whole series of Life on Mars, which was ok. Conceptually, it wasn’t for me but my theatre background has made it quite easy for me to separate a programme into the various compartments to analyse, and although I wasn’t keen on the story line or crazy about some of the characters, I enjoyed the acting, particularly the hilarious role of Philip Glenister. 

Then my son suggested that we watch all three series of  Hannibal and I agreed we’d try that. Of course, I should’ve known – as a vegan, I’m hardly a prime target audience to enjoy a suspenseful bloodthirsty cookery programme in which human flesh is prepared with elegance and relish. But I thought I’d give it a go. The cast was impressive and the series came recommended by someone whose opinion I value.

I love the opportunity to watch something and be surprised by my own reaction. Of course, I need to qualify what I mean by ‘watch something’: I spent most of the first two series on the floor with my hands over my eyes calling out ‘Can I look yet?’ While I enjoyed the powerful acting, the brilliant script, the clever photography, the symbolism, I couldn’t watch most of the gore, and there was a lot of it. It was too shocking for someone as easily horrified as I am.

The third series was a little less gory and more psychologically-tense and I preferred it, but only for that reason. Hannibal is not a series I’d naturally gravitate towards, and that’s why I’m so keen to blog about it. As a group performance, the acting is sensational, particularly Mads Mikklesen as Hannibal. The photography is excellent, the scripting is incredible and the way the characters develop and blend in a tense unfolding of a complex and well-contrived story is really good. 

It’s an intelligently written and directed series that invites the viewer to think, to work things out: nothing is quite as it seems; the use of symbolism and semiotic or suggestion is impressive and, all together, I really enjoyed it. Well, not enjoyed. It’s not enjoyable because it is distasteful, uncomfortable and often simply revolting. But it’s clever, well put together and thoroughly satisfying intellectually and aesthetically.

I can’t quite believe how much I did enjoy it while, at the same time, I regularly almost stopped watching it because the violence was unbearable. But I persisted. Both compulsive and horrific, Hannibal wouldn’t be suitable for anyone unless they were sure they weren’t prone to nightmares. I had plenty of awful dreams as a result, but the programme was utterly powerful, and I (almost) watched it all. A great series for all the right reasons. Dreadful for one reason alone – it is really nauseating. But I’m so glad I sat through it to the end. I wish there had been a series four.

Now what’s next on my list of things I don’t usually watch?CSC_0561