You are wrong about: The US Office (and company)

carrellPeople seem to enjoy shows like Parks and Recreation, the US Office, and Modern Family, and it’s quite possible that you enjoy these shows too. But you are very wrong to feel that way. Let me explain.

The DVD extras for the film This is Spinal Tap – which begat The Office which begat The US Office, Modern Family, Life is Short, and any number of similarly presented sitcoms that you are probably wrong about – include a sort of parallel dimension movie made up of scenes from the cutting room floor. It lasts over an hour, and it’s as funny as the actual film.

These scenes were left out of This is Spinal Tap not because they aren’t funny, but because they’re not authentic. Similarly, there are deleted scenes from The Office which Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais omitted expressly because they were too obvious, too joke-like, to fit tonally with a show purporting to be a documentary (it’s a shame the pair didn’t maintain this standard for Life is Short).

Conversely, every other mockumentary sitcom you can think of doesn’t even pretend to appear to try and be even vaguely authentic, often supplying questionable pretexts for the fictional film crews to be present and producing characters that behave in conspicuously unrealistic, broadly comic fashion, and conveniently explain their motivations, intentions, and references to camera in a way that it would be quite wrong of you to enjoy.

These explanations to camera are dirty shortcuts, just as pretty much every device arising from the choice to make a sitcom in the documentary style is a cheat, existing purely to make exposition easier to impart, dramatic irony easier to create, and to set up an endless succession of cheap gags that follow a single not-very-funny template.

Exposition: in the normal rules of drama, the story needs to be explained in the situation, by characters in conversation and events on the screen. When a writer has a character provide story information in an unnatural way they are rightly ridiculed for it. The Austin Powers movies feature a character – Basil Exposition – who exists specifically to send up this kind of narrative shortcut (while cunningly also allowing the writers to take it).

But now, somehow, we’ve allowed a breakaway faction of slovely hacks to circumvent the rules entirely and have their characters look you right in the fricking eyes, whenever they want, and tell you exactly what’s happening and/or exactly how they feel about it. You should deplore this practice, even though you probably don’t.

Modern mockumentaries are also stuffed with a certain kind of gag that works like this:

a) Character makes a claim.

b) Footage contradicts the claim.

For example:

a) John (to camera): “I’m very dignified.”

b) John is upside down in a dustbin.

Or they can work the other way around, e.g.:

a) John (to his wife): “Yes, honey, I got the rollerskates!”

b) John (being interviewed): “I did not get the rollerskates.”

This is the cheapest kind of joke imaginable, relying on a simple collision of statements in every case, and each moment of airtime a show like Modern Family or The US Office pads out with pulpy gags like these is a deplorable waste of your time. The fact that you think you’re enjoying them makes them all the more insidious.

But wait a minute, you might say (perhaps out of a misplaced desire to defend your taste), all of the shortcuts and cheats described above might just as easily appear in a well-made mockumentary like The Office and This is Spinal Tap. That’s true, but the difference is that, by scrupulously adhering to the restrictions they impose on themselves in making a show that purports to be a documentary, their writers also earn the right to enjoy the perks – the easy exposition, the flatpack dramatic irony, the easy gags. The writers of The Office and This is Spinal Tap respect you.

The writers of Modern Family et al, on the other hand, despise you, because they know that you are letting them get away with inferior workmanship.

Like drug addicts or compulsive gamblers, they secretly want to be confronted and put on a better path, and they hate you for blindly enabling their depraved, corrupting rampage.

They of all people know that you are utterly wrong to enjoy the absurd proposition they are presenting, and you owe it to them – and to yourself – to admit that you are wrong.

Fail quickly

I once heard a speaker at a conference boast that her company was set up to “fail quickly”, the idea being that it was ready to experiment with different approaches but didn’t allow itself to expend more time than necessary on strategies that clearly weren’t working.

Well nobody – NOBODY – can fail faster than me. I usually fail more or less instantly, and I have been known on occasion to fail in an enterprise before even embarking on it.

This cartoon is a solid example of a failure, and since I do all my cartoons very quickly- because my vital services as a wiper and tidier and shouter-at are generally needed elsewhere – it was a mercifully fast failure.

I had the idea while I was tidying up. Nothing encapsulates the experience of tidying a house while it has children in it better than this brilliant sight gag in The Simpsons, but an analogy came to me so I thought I’d put it down. Here.

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This cartoon is supposed to be getting across the idea that tidying up after children is like using chopsticks to pick up tiny objects more slowly than they are being emptied onto the ground. It’s frustrating, in other words.

The problem with this cartoon, which I appreciated the moment I had finished it, is that the man is using chopsticks to pick up rice, which naturally makes you think he’s going to eat it.

I briefly considered marbles, but decided that they would be too much trouble to draw, though evidently I also decided that rice was too difficult to draw clearly because I put ‘RICE’ on the side of the truck.

In hindsight it wouldn’t have been much trouble to draw little circles and write ‘MARBLES’ on the side of the truck, but judgement tends to suffer in the breakneck world of speed cartooning.

Plus I’m not very good at it.

 

 

 

Five unsuccessful News Thump pitches

I really like the spoof news website News Thump, and last week, in a spirit of playful experimentation, I decided to send in a few spec stories.

So far none has merited so much as a reply, as you would expect for fairly inept first attempts. Here they are. Feedback welcome, though I reserve the right to angrily challenge your observations.

 

7-year-old boy ignores dietary advice regarding sweeties

A 7-year-old boy from Sheffield, Yorkshire, has indicated that he plans to continue eating sweeties, despite warnings from dentists, doctors, and public health officials.

While it is widely accepted that sweeties taste nice, research has shown that they are significantly worse for you than cabbage, broccoli, green leafy stuff, and some kind of flavourless white fish.

When quizzed about his stance during a tense press conference in Sheffield, the boy claimed that he didn’t know. When prompted to elaborate on what it was that he didn’t know, he said he didn’t know.

Kissing your child on the lips is a sexual act, insists quiet man in park

After celebrity mother Victoria Beckham posted an Instagram picture to her 12.8m followers in which she can be seen kissing her daughter Harper on the lips, a quiet man in a park has insisted that the apparently innocent gesture was a sexual act.

“On the cheek is okay,” he said, without making eye contact with anybody, “but on the lips, for me, that’s… confusing.”

“I’m not a paedophile,” the man added, vigorously rubbing his thighs, “But I did find that picture of a child quite sexually arousing.”

No action has been taken against Mrs Beckham.

France overtakes the UK as world’s 5th most f*cked up country

In the wake of this week’s surprise terrorist attack in Nice, France has officially overtaken the UK to become with fifth most fucked up country.

As recently as Wednesday the UK’s standing on the Global Index of Fucked-Up Countries (GIFUC) appeared unassailable, bolstered by several weeks of political infighting and widespread racist stupidity, but the island nation was unable to fend off competition from its lavishly fucked up continental cousin, which has recently fallen victim to a series of spectacularly horrible atrocities.

A spokesman for the British Chamber of Commerce told reporters, “This is obviously a disappointing change in fortunes for our great nation, but we’re hopeful that the UK will reclaim its ranking after Article 50 is triggered and everything goes to shit.

“What’s more,” he continued. “We are relatively confident that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will trigger an international incident of inconceivably devastating magnitude in the near term.”

HBO cancels Game of Thrones S7, citing unrealistic competition from actual world events

HBO has cancelled its most popular show of all time, fantasy epic Game of Thrones, blaming insurmountable competition from things that are actually happening in the world.

In the last 24 hours alone a major terrorist attack has occurred in Nice, France, and the Turkish military has enacted a coup against President Erdoğan’s government, imposing a nationwide curfew, declaring martial law, and prompting executives at HBO to push all the paper off their desks and say, “oh come on!”

Game of Thrones was already under pressure this month following the UK’s surprise pre-weekend cliffhanger vote to leave the EU, the public assassination of British MP Jo Cox, the Orlando nightclub massacre, and Donald Trump.

The writers of Game of Thrones – which features fire-breathing dragons, giants, and an army of ice zombies – are said to have been growing increasingly frustrated with the relatively exacting standards of plausibility required to make the imaginary world of Westeros dramatically satisfying, and officially accepted on Friday night that there’s no point trying to compete with actual things that really happen.

Feared 50% decline in UK property market will set London house prices back to February 2016 levels

Property values in London could decline by as much as 50% in the wake of the UK’s surprise vote to leave the EU, almost entirely losing the value they have accrued since the start of the year, some guy has warned.

The current average cost of a house in London is £648,200.

As investors flee London’s uncertain property market, anxious home owners are for the first time facing the prospect of earning more in wages than they do from rampant house price inflation.

However, while average house prices have declined by 0.9% since the historic Brexit vote, in London and the South East they have continued to rise, albeit more slowly than is customary.

The average London house price at the time of writing is £655,500.

“I’m terrified,” said Florence Bottomley-Higgins, of Hackney. “We only moved here in December and our dreams of flipping this property are hanging by a thread.”

“At this rate our three children will be lucky to clear a million each when their father and I die,” she added through a veil of tears.

As of this writing, the average cost of a home in London is £661,150.

The scene that nearly ruined Cast Away

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Cast Away (2000) is a film about a relatively fat, engaged man who ends up stranded on a remote tropical island, makes friends with a volleyball, loses a lot of weight, and finally makes his way home on a raft only to discover that he’s no longer engaged, and in addition is no longer friends with a volleyball.

In some ways it’s a miracle that Cast Away manages to be entertaining and moving despite featuring only one actor (Tom Hanks) for most of its running time. At one point the character Tom Hanks is portraying (Chuck Nolan) suffers a total mental breakdown because a ball is too far away, and the scene in which this happens is devastating, rather than, as you might expect based on that description alone, funny and confusing. Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis know how to tell a story.

However, even though it’s great, Cast Away is almost undone by its three-minute long penultimate scene.

Before we get to that, let’s recap the main points of the film.

Chuck has been right through the shit, surviving a plane crash, a self-administered dental extraction, a suicide attempt, and then four years of solitude before setting out on a flimsy raft to face almost certain death on the Pacific. Somehow, despite his raft taking such a severe battering that an astonished whale actually surfaces to gawk at his predicament, he ends up being rescued by the crew of a liner and taken home.

Unfortunately, when he arrives home he discovers that his fiancee Kelly has left him for a dentist, having assumed that he was dead, or at least indefinitely unavailable. In the third to last scene he visits her at home to retrieve his old car. As he’s driving away she follows him out into the rain, calls him back, kisses him, tells him he’s the love of her life, gets into the passenger seat. But then she remembers that she has a kid with the dentist. Bummer. She gets out of the car. Bad luck Chuck.

The film begins and ends with a shot of the same crossroads. Down one road lives a sculptor, whose unopened parcel Chuck has been protecting for four years as an identity-sustaining symbol of his link to his old life of quotidian dependability. At the end of the film Chuck could take one of two roads – he could go to the sculptor’s house (romance) or he could carry on ahead (adventure). We don’t know which way he’s going to choose when the end credits arrive, and this is how it should be. An ambiguous ending is like a narrative party bag for the audience to take away and enjoy. It’s the storyteller entrusting the audience with end of the story.

But this pleasingly open-ended conclusion just makes the preceding, second to last scene all the more perplexing.

Immediately after Kelly steps out of Chuck’s car and goes back into her house, we find him at his friend Stan’s house by the fire, wrapped in a towel and nursing a stiff drink, looking more like an ordeal survivor than at any point so far. This is a nice enough touch that conveys the impact of his loss.

But every line that comes out of Chuck’s mouth for the next three minutes is utter garbage of one kind or another.

Here’s a clip (I can’t include the whole thing for copyright reasons, but you can see in this excerpt that even Tom Hanks struggles to deliver his lines like a human):

Full transcript: We both had done the math (sic). Kelly added it all up, knew she had to let me go. I added it up, knew that I had lost her, because I was never going to get off that island. I was going to die there. Totally alone. Maybe I was going to get sick, or injured.

The only choice I had, the only control, was when and how and where it was going to happen. So I made a rope, and I went up to the summit to hang myself. I had to test it, you know. Of course. You know me. And the weight of the log snapped the limb of the tree. I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over nothing.

That’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing, even though there was no reason to hope, and all my logic said that I would never see this place again.

So that’s what I did. I stayed alive, I kept breathing, and one day that logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in, gave me a sail. And now here I am. I’m back, in Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass. And I’ve lost her all over again.

I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly, but I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island.

And I know what I have to do now. Keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?

The first maxim you are likely to hear when you take even the remotest interest in creative writing is “show, don’t tell.” Storytelling guru Robert Mckee elaborated colourfully on this maxim when he urged writers to use subtext. “If the story you’re telling, is the story you’re telling, you’re in deep shit.”

Though Chuck’s monologue contains a corny metaphor about tides, it’s completely without subtext. He’s simply telling his friend how he feels about the things that have happened to him, describing to the audience in the process events that they’ve already witnessed, and feelings that they are perfectly capable of inferring for themselves. He even describes – in detail – what’s happening in real time: “And now here I am. I’m back, in Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass.”.

Yes Chuck, we know.

“I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly.”

NO. FUCKING. SHIT.

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It’s a conspicuously awful bit of dialogue that presumably exists as a sort of recap, to make sure the stupid, stupid audience fully understands what has taken place before the film ends. Stan doesn’t even have a line – he sits dumbly, only present so that Chuck isn’t delivering the monologue to himself or, worse, thinking it in his head, like Captain Picard.

So could the scene have been cut? I’ve done a quick edit to see how it would look.

The change in mood is quite jarring, so here it is again with a long blackout.

Not perfect, but better.

I expect the ending does need a scene there to smooth the transition between rainy night-time heartbreak and sun-drenched hope. Maybe something neutral and functional, about his employment or financial status, or the trip he’s about to embark on. Whatever you might come up with, it would be an improvement on the three minutes of absolute dross that currently threaten to sabotage Cast Away in its final moments.

 

How to construct an animal-based insult

SCN_0006On Christmas Day 2015 somebody on Twitter called George Osborne a #wankpuffin and everybody loved it. Prior to that, everybody loved it when another person on Twitter called an unfortunate Mail on Sunday journalist a “lobotomised shitlark“, and when Groundskeeper Willie called the people of France “surrender monkeys.”

Combining animals with other words to create comical insults is clearly a viable strategy. But if you head out into the streets tonight hoping to burn some fools with a few sick word+animal combos, you’ll quickly come unstuck. Combining animals and words is a science, and also an art. Natural talent helps, but if you’re not prepared to put in the long hours of practice and study then you might as well give up now because you will simply never be able to insult anybody adequately using an impromptu word+animal combo.

Let’s see how it works by trying a few out.

Example 1: “Jonas give the waiter your order you flaming bum-capybara”

It’s a bad, bad miss. The main problem here is that the name of the animal is too long. The best insults are usually the pithiest, and by combining a word with an animal name you’re already up against it syllable-wise. As a rule of thumb, I recommend choosing animals with no more than two syllables in their names.

On top of that, there’s a very real risk that your victim won’t know what a capybara is.

Also avoid: “snot-ocelot”, “flange-octopus”, and “cum-porcupine.”

Example 2: “Hey Jennifer no offence but I think you’re a vacillating arse-tortoise”

It’s another miss, for a couple of reasons. The first is that tortoise is a little bit too hard to say. Is it “tortOYSE”? Or is it “tortTUSS”? It’s hardly “croissant”, but the momentary hesitation is enough to send the reader spinning away from the joke like a hapless astronaut. And the combination just doesn’t roll off the tongue, which failing it has in common with “turd-turtle” – an insult you almost certainly have never heard before.

The second is that the tortoise is already associated with the human trait of slowness, which could prove fatally distracting in your split-second window of opportunity to land a successful animal+word combo (“is Phil saying I’m a laggard?”). For that reason you should avoid: pig (fat person), cow (fat and lazy woman), gannet (greedy person), lemming (suicidal), worm (turd).

Example 3: “Yo, Patrice, you’re a shit-leopard”

We’re getting closer, but this insult could still seriously backfire. The problem is that the leopard is simply too elegant and dangerous to be a viable insult. Calling somebody a leopard is tantamount to giving them a compliment.

Also avoid: “crap-tiger”, “sludge-cobra”, and, especially, “fuck-wolf”

Example 4: “Phillip get over here you turd-baboon”

In most cases this would be a solid burn. It rolls off the tongue, and doesn’t violate any of the rules established above. But it’s not perfect, if only for the rather technical reason that it contains more words than it needs to. You see, “baboon” is already funny, as demonstrated in the following hypothetical example: “Neil stop eating those cashews you baboon.” Brevity being the soul of wit, it’s axiomatically better not to call somebody a “turd-baboon” when “baboon” on its own will do.

There is a caveat to this rule, however, and that is the fact that 16 years ago somebody called me a “flange-baboon” and it was pretty funny. Oh well. As George Orwell wrote, “break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous”.

Example 5: “Steven that’s my yoghurt you levitating jizz-pike”

This is a relatively juicy zinger, but it has one major failing: a pike is an animal, but it’s also a weapon. If what you’re after is an insult that contains multiple possible meanings, like a Bob Dylan lyric, then by all means go with something like “pike”, but I guarantee that you’ll be wasting your time. Nobody is going to analyse your verbiage, and the only likely impact of the dual meaning will be to confuse your audience/victim and dilute the joke.

Also avoid: “tit”, or “cock”, or “hare” (spoken).

Example 6: “Gregory you didn’t press record you pulsating cum-squid”

Bingo. You could call someone a “pulsating cum-squid”.

The only reason you might not is that it just doesn’t suit your victim as much as another word+animal. The best animal insults draw on animals that in some way evoke the victim. “Surrender monkeys” is funny because we picture monkeys screeching and scrambling away from the surprise German advance. Wankpuffin is funny because in the picture that inspired it George Osborne is standing in a weird, stiff, intuitively puffin-like way. I can’t help you pick exactly the right word+animal for friends and loved ones, but here are some examples applied to people in the public eye.

Jeremy Clarkson = towering gas-donkey

David Cameron = gleaming pork-sponge

Justin Bieber = mewling fart-sparrow

Adolf Hitler = incandescent bum-kitten

A revolutionary new approach

If you want to be really cutting edge with your insults, you can discard the word+ part altogether and just insult people by calling them an animal. This approach will only suit talented offence-givers because it contains so many pitfalls.

We’ve already seen how certain animals have in-built associations with particular traits, but on top of that the human brain will naturally search for a rationale behind your choices. For example, if you say, “Penelope stop I don’t even like fudge you giraffe” the tendency among the onlookers whose disdain you are seeking to invoke will be to wonder whether Penelope has a long neck.

Take a moment to survey the animal kingdom in your mind and you’ll realise that a huge proportion of animals (woodpecker, hummingbird, dolphin, etc) have a prominent trait that renders them almost useless in the arena of freestyle surrealist* offence-giving.

Naturally funny animals are also out, because there’s simply no sport in calling someone a dingo, a mongoose, or a kakapo.

This leaves you with animals like the barn owl, the salmon, and the tree frog.

Good luck!

* Of course, your basic animal-based insults needn’t be surreal. You may for instance enjoy calling Wayne Rooney a bison.

How to make orange and ginger marmalade

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When I took my daughter to see the film Paddington, we had to leave early because she was afraid of Nicole Kidman. If my daughter had any sense, she would have insisted on leaving long before Nicole Kidman shows up. She would have run screaming from the cinema during the opening scene, when Paddington slides down a chute into a cauldron of boiling marmalade. He spends the rest of the film in remarkably good health, given that he effectively napalmed himself.

Making your own marmalade may seem like an unsufferable middle class softy trait, but it’s actually very risky, like an Indiana Jones adventure or an assault on one of the many death stars. Happily, it culminates in an elevated version of marmalade that makes the stuff on the shelves in Tesco look like garbage, and the people who buy it like utter imbeciles.

This recipe is adapted from Delia Smith’s – I’ve taken the sweetness down a bit, and added ginger.

Cooking time: 4-5 hours probably

Ingredients

900g Seville oranges (about 6 or 7)

2.25 litres of water

1 lemon

1.7kg granulated sugar

1 piece of fresh ginger (I don’t know how much exactly – just a bit. One stalk, or lump, or whatever it’s called. A tumour of ginger. You know how fresh ginger comes in knobbly lumps? One of those. The bigger you get, the more gingery it will make your marmalade. I don’t know – do what you want. But don’t forget to peel it.)

6 or 7 pieces of crystallised ginger in syrup

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Method

Cut the oranges and the lemon in half and juice them into a big pan, using a sieve to collect all the pips and mush. Put all the pips and mush onto a muslin.

Cut the peels in half again, and then chop them as finely as you like. Finely chopped peel gives less texture but also less trouble, whereas thick peel can be a nuisance to spread – particularly if your marmalade has a loose set.

You might want to examine your hands for cuts at this point, as the skins of six oranges and a lemon contain citric acid, and if you have any skin abrasions you’re basically inviting every molecule of that burning acid to a pain party on your nerve endings.

Finely chop the crystallised and fresh ginger and put them in the pan. You can grate the ginger if you like, but it’s quite a fibrous root and grating it leaves you with intact fibres, which look like hairs. They don’t affect the flavour at all, but whenever you serve your marmalade to anybody you’ll feel obliged to warn them that they may discover objects that look like hairs, even though they definitely aren’t – although, if you’re really honest, any given hair-like object that the recipient of your marmalade discovers COULD technically be a hair. You can’t rule it out – it’s not like you wore a hairnet or anything. I would just chop the ginger and avoid the subject of hairs altogether.

Make a little bindle out of the mush and pip-filled muslin and suspend it in the pan. You can do this by tying it to a wooden spoon and resting the spoon across the top of the pan, but I prefer to thread the end of the muslin through the handle of the pan I use, making sure that there are no stray flaps of fabric anywhere near the flame. Your pan might not have a handle though. You’ll figure it out.

Pour the water into the pan, bring it all to a gentle boil, and simmer until the peel goes soft. It takes 2-3 hours, depending on how thickly you cut it (and how soft you want it). I find the best way to test it is to scoop out a bit of peel and cut it with the edge of a spoon. If it cuts easily all the way through, bingo.

Once the peel is soft, take out the bindle and rest it on a plate. At this point you are at a fork in the road. In front of you is a ball of boiling mush, and you need to squeeze the pectin out of it. You can either leave the muslin to cool and squeeze it safely and comfortably a few hours later, or you can follow my example and impatiently compress the red hot muslin for a millisecond at a time and then drop it and silently scream in pain, over and over again, pausing occasionally to dab the tears from your eyes, until you’ve scraped off all of the cloudy orange mush that extrudes through the weave of the muslin and dumped it in the pan.

After running your hand under the cold tap and quietly weeping for 15 minutes or so, weigh out the sugar and pour that into the pan, stirring until the marmalade is clear. At this point you might want to review your safety protocols, because the substance in your pan will not only burn you but it will also stick to you, like a flaming blanket of terrible glue. Evacuate the kitchen area, ensuring that no children or cats are within 50 metres of the hob.

Crank the heat up to maximum, and when the marmalade starts to boil set a timer for 15 minutes.

Pop a saucer in the freezer.

And now the most important bit of all. When the timer goes off, take out the saucer and spoon a bit of marmalade onto it. When the marmalade has cooled, nudge it with the tip of a teaspoon. If it wrinkles, take the marmalade off the boil. If it doesn’t, try again in five minutes.

Ah, but what is a wrinkle? Not much is the answer. You want to take your marmalade off the boil at about the point that it forms a sort of half-hearted mucous globule when pushed. It needs to be the next point on the spectrum along from liquid. If its consistency even vaguely resembles that of the marmalades you can buy in shops, you’ve gone too far and might as well throw your afternoon’s work down the toilet or feed it to a pig.

You may think you want it to resemble marmalade from shops, but a) marmalade from shops tends to be too firm, and you’re just too ignorant to realise it at the moment, and b) it’s eventually going to set more firmly than it does on the saucer. The important thing is to hold your nerve and take it off the boil before it looks ready.

Pour it into jars, giving it a stir to prevent the peel from drifting to the top.

And then, well, just look at it. Look at it there. See how smug it is, judging you as it glows in those fancy Kilner jars (£1.75 from Ikea).

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A very old writing exercise called Fireworks

One of the things I want to use this blog for is to give me a useful, mildly discipline-encouraging destination for the fiction that I want to get back into writing. But I haven’t done any yet, I’m just going to dump something old up here as a sort of marker.

I wrote this in 2002, for a creative writing module at university. I quite liked it at the time, and I still mostly like it, though – as I generally find with prose I wrote when I was much younger – it also makes me cringe.

In the spirit of transparency, however, I won’t touch it. Maybe I’ll pop a revised version on here one day.

Fireworks

I look up; there’s a corrugated awning over the platform, covered with specks of moss and twigs that I can only just make out through the translucent plastic. Sparrows patter against it, then flutter away into the trees across the track, then, after a while, flutter back.

“What time’s the train, again?” he says.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“Ten o’ clock. Five past. Look at the board.” I watch him go. He walks half way to the wall where the board is mounted, then stops and comes back. He looks at his watch.

“It’s quarter-to now,” he says. “Fifteen minutes to decide.”

“I’ve decided.”

A breeze passes through the station, ruffling his hair. He plunges his hands into the pockets of his mangy suede jacket. I can remember when he bought the jacket, at Marie Curie, or Oxfam. Or maybe I bought it, and gave it to him – it was on the hook by my front door for a while. I was glad to get rid of it. I can’t remember who bought the jacket; only choosing it; rubbing the thick musty suede between my finger and thumb.

“Where are you staying, again?” he asks.

“I don’t know.”

“On her floor, do you think?”

“She’ll let me share the bed.”

“A single bed? I thought you hated that. I thought you said you couldn’t sleep.”

“I’ll have to put up with it,” I say. “And anyway, Jacquie and I share a single bed.”

He sits down on the cold concrete and crosses his legs. He doesn’t speak for over a minute, and I wonder whether I will ever hear him speak again. Of course I will. I try to remember his last word to me. ‘Bed’?, ‘Her’?, ‘Sleep’? The yellow digits on the clock flap forward.

“What’ll I tell Jacquie?” he says.

“Whatever you want.”

“She always knew you’d do this, sooner or later.”

Something is bearing down on me – misgivings, remorse, I don’t know. I feel like I’m being crushed; that my ribs are going to snap. Soon I’ll be in London, surrounded by high buildings, looking up at a strip of white sky. I’ll work in a sandwich shop, and get drunk with her when I can, and wake up parched and dejected. But when I step off the train today and see her standing on the platform with a blue scarf wrapped around her neck and her hair heaped upon the blue scarf, it’ll be like drinking water when faint with thirst, and I’ll feel my head fizzing like a sparkler on bonfire night.

I have to sit down.

“You okay?”

“My chest is sore.” I rub my chest with the palm of my hand.

Through the bare trees across the track I can just make out the yellow and blue of the Jobcentre, and I feel a tiny, habitual satisfaction because it’s Saturday of the second week – only two days till I next sign on. Till I would have been signing on. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about this: I won’t tramp up Berwick high street at nine in the morning any more, chatting with my queue friends. Nor will I bomb down Ravensdowne hill on my bike at seven o’ clock to play pool at the Salmon. I pinch my brow. Jacquie will lie on the couch and watch TV, not moving, like she did when her mother moved out. I look across at him.

“Is that my jacket?”

I can tell he is affronted. “I don’t know,” he says. “Do you want it back or something?”

“No! For fuck’s sake! I was just asking.”

“It’s mine. You picked it, I bought it. You had a leather one.”

“Okay fine, I was just asking.” I sigh heavily, and run my hands through my hair and down the back of my head. The seconds flap onwards. I feel like my torso is in a vice.

So I stand up.

“Fuck it. Let’s go.”

“Where?”

“The White Horse.”

He laughs. The grip on my chest slackens.

I have £70 in my wallet that I was going to spend on the ticket. I had saved up. I sign on this Monday. I’ll buy Jacquie a box of chocolates from the newsagent, and spend the rest in The White Horse tonight, The Salmon tomorrow, and in the Co-op on Sunday; on a bumper bacon and egg-mayonnaise bloomer, so big that I have to eat it in two goes.

*

I once woke up with my head against an aeroplane window, looking out over Hong Kong, a hostess’s voice murmuring over the intercom. It was midnight, and against the black landscape Hong Kong glittered with colour; pink, blue, orange, green, red, like spilled fairylights, in stacks and swirls, over high billboards, around tall buildings, and in white clusters across the ground. Still bleary, I took the city for a firework display, and expected the lights to scatter and fade.

When they clung to the darkness I felt elation – awe. I could barely breathe. I pressed my face against the glass and shut out everything else until the moment we landed, and as I held my mother’s hand through the arrival hall I framed this half-dream, as if sewing it into fabric.

Lady Edith is an evil supervillain whose terrible crimes go unpunished

lady-crawley
Lady Edith – evil supervillain

The Downton Abbey finale definitely had too many happy endings.

(Obviously, spoilers follow.)

In some cases the happy endings were hard won. Who could begrudge Anna and Bates a little bit of good luck at last, albeit in the utterly life-ruining form of a baby? And what could possibly be wrong with Molesley climbing another rung up the ladder in his new career as an educator? And if Daisy wants to hang out at Mr Mason’s farmhouse with Andy and Mrs Patmore then I have no objections personally.

Other happy endings were less convincing. For instance, how is Carson going to be an elder statesman to Thomas when Carson himself declared this arrangement to be unworkable and is a noted bigot who has hated Thomas for years? And how the hell did hapless old Lord Merton manage to go from definitely dying in the opinion of two reputable doctors to not dying after all?

Personally I’d have preferred him to die, even though he seemed like a nice guy. It would have added an emotional dimension, allowing us to feel at once glad that he got away from his horrible children and into the arms of Isobel Grey, but sad that he’s definitely going to die quite soon. It’s fine for characters to gain something, but it’s more dramatically satisfying when they pay for it by losing something else.

Lady Mary’s happy ending sabotaged the dramatic logic of the storyline preceding it. To recap, her beloved first husband Matthew died in a car crash, leaving her a vulnerable young widow. Having considered various suitors, she settles on the only man who matches her in terms of intellect and temperament. But there’s a problem – he races motor cars for a living. His unfortunate profession makes sense dramatically, crystallising Lady Mary’s general reluctance to open up into a specific phobia. “Love is about taking risks,” Tom tells her. He might have gone on to say, “For example, there’s a relatively high probability that the second great love of your life will die in a car crash, just like your first one!”

By choosing to marry Henry Talbot, Lady Mary accepts the risks entailed by falling in love. But then Henry decides not to be a racing car driver any more, rendering her difficult and highly symbolic choice completely meaningless. At least poor old Lord Merton loses all his dough.

But one happy ending – the happiest, the showpiece ending – was not merely unconvincing, nor only dramatically illogical, though it was both of these things in its own way. No. The wedding of Lady Edith to Lord Pelham was nothing short of a full category-A travesty, because – stay with me – Lady Edith is an evil supervillain, and she deserved to be punished.

Here are some of the people that Lady Edith screwed over.

1) Lady Mary, when she writes a letter to the Turkish Embassy to inform them of Lady Mary’s fling with Kemal Pamuk, inviting great scandal upon the Crawley dynasty. Tellingly, this act destroys a potential justification for her prevarications over her own scandal later on: one might argue that her child-related vacillations reflected her desire to protect the reputations of her blameless relatives, but her spiteful letter to the Turkish Embassy proves that she doesn’t actually give much of a shit about that sort of thing.

2) Ethel the housemaid, who has an illegitimate child by a soldier during the great war and is summarily dismissed and ostracised, as was the fashion at the time. In the end, Ethel is forced to give her child up. Despite the fact that this incident foreshadows Lady Edith’s own predicament several years later, Lady Edith exhibits no sympathy, turning the other cheek SIMPLY BECAUSE ETHEL IS POOR (mitigating factors include: Lady Edith not knowing that she would later have an illegitimate child; Lady Edith possibly not knowing about the whole pregnancy thing anyway – who remembers these things?)

3) Michael Gregson, who was warned away from Lady Edith by the unimpeachable Matthew Crawley but who nevertheless chose to proceed with his long term plan to marry Lady Edith, even though this meant moving to Germany and ultimately being murdered by proto-Nazis. If only Lady Edith had allowed him to get on with his life.

4) The Hitlers. This is the name I’m giving to the couple in Switzerland who Aunt Rosamund lined up to adopt Lady Edith’s baby, because, remember, Adolf Hitler had not yet risen to power and – quite rightly – brought the name “Hitler” into disrepute in the 1920s, when Lady Edith’s abortive adoption caper took place. Let’s call them Hans and Astrid, a tragically sterile couple who finally thought their longed-for child was coming home, only to have it cruelly snatched away by the capricious Lady Edith, whose name is mud in the Hitler household.

5) The Drews. Oh god. The poor, poor Drews. We’ll need to go through this mess step by step.

Step 1. Incapable of going through with the adoption she had previously committed to for the benefit of herself, her family, and presumably in some small way her child, she decides instead to secretly conceal the infant with a tenant farmer who owes his livelihood to the Crawleys, so that she can keep her offspring close. She does not provide child support payments.

Step 2. Because Lady Edith lacks character, she finds herself unable to resist visiting the Drews with tedious frequency, despite the distress this causes Mrs Farmer Drew, who by this point naturally loves Lady Edith’s mystery child as much as she loves her own.

Step 3. Lady Edith has had enough, and so she marches into Mrs Farmer Drew’s house and takes the child while Mrs Farmer Drew literally has a mental breakdown in front of her. Lady Edith expresses no remorse at this or any other time, simply marching out the door with her bemused child while Aunt Rosamund shrugs sheepishly.

Step 4: A little while later, Mrs Farmer Drew, now totally insane with grief, abducts the child and takes her home. “They’ll have to go,” Lady Edith remarks, in effect condemning a poor farmer and his family to penury. Incredibly, Farmer Drew actually volunteers to leave before he can be evicted, and while Lord Grantham practically prostrates himself with gratitude Lady Edith is nowhere to be seen, suggesting that she has approximately the same attitude towards the impotent poor as a first world war general, exploiting and discarding them like animals. Her treatment of the Drews is the pinnacle of her career as an evil supervillain.

For a moment it looked like she might have paid the price. At the end of the last season she was single again, having been discovered in her deception of Bertie Pelham. She was sad, and it was right that she was sad, because she deserves to be sad. She had the child, she had the support of her relatives and friends, she had a scandal-free existence, and she even had a plum job and a swanky London flat (both inherited, naturally). And all this despite destroying one family and at the very least discombobulating another one in Switzerland. Surely it was only right that she forfeited SOMETHING. But no.

When I think of Lady Edith’s wedding, I like to imagine Mrs Farmer Drew looking on in her rags, peering from behind a hedge (aka her bed) and reflecting on what an incredibly unsatisfactory place the universe can be.

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