Regular readers will know of the unique, seemingly indefatigable and gloriously multi-talented US comic Lynn Ruth Miller, an occasional and much-admired contributor to this blog.
If not, type her name in this blog’s Search.
Multi-award-winning Lynn Ruth died of cancer yesterday afternoon in London. So it goes.
In 2019, she explained that she didn’t plan on being a stand-up comic.
She had a Masters degree in Journalism from Stanford University and said she had considered herself a writer, a newspaper columnist and ‘a TV lady’ (she had her own TV show on the US West Coast) but never in her wildest dreams thought she would become a comedian. She said: “I always came up with smart remarks that got me into trouble”.
Her friend Sarah-Louise Young has today posted this on Lynn Ruth’s Facebook page:
Our beloved Lynn Ruth passed away yesterday afternoon at St Joseph’s Hospice in London. She spent the last few weeks of her life there being wonderfully cared for, enjoying the garden and making new friends.
For those of us who knew she was ill, we had all hoped she would begin radiotherapy at Barts Hospital for her oesophageal cancer this week but in the end, sadly she was not well enough for treatment.
She was and will continue to be loved by hundreds of people and my heart goes out to each and every one of her friends and family. The outpouring of love online has been immense.
Whilst in the hospice she was only allowed six visitors and I know it pained her to have to turn people away. Her phone was never silent and she was busy making plans to gig, sing, write, paint, laugh, tell stories, drink Pinot Grigio, buy a puppy and travel the world right up to the end.
I had the great privilege of being with her in the last few days. Even though she was not fully conscious, I held her hand, told her how much she was loved and dabbed a little of her Miss Dior perfume behind her ears as I know she always liked to be sweet-scented. I also played her some music: Only A Paper Moon, Deep Purple (by jazz pianist Peter DeRose) and the songs she loved to sing from her own shows. Occasionally she would move her shoulder in time to the music and I like to think she could hear it and was dancing.
Any cards which had arrived in the last few days I read to her and I described the beautiful bouquet of flowers which arrived on Monday. They were put in a vase next to her bed.
One of her final requests was that her friends didn’t know she was dying. This was a very hard request to honour so I hope you will understand and respect why news of her reaching the end of her life was not made public.
She wanted to leave this world in privacy and with dignity. She knew that she was loved but she was tired and ready to go.
She had many, many offers of practical and emotional support from friends during her stay at Homerton hospital, when she was back home afterwards and in the final weeks in hospice, for which she was eternally grateful. Thank you to all of you.
She didn’t want a funeral and although she asked for her body to be left to science, in the end that was not possible. She will be cremated instead as per her instructions.
There will be a private memorial for close friends for which she made specific plans.
We will also be holding a public celebration on what would’ve been her 88th birthday in her honour. It will take place in the West End of London with the ticket proceeds going to charity. This will be live-streamed so all her international friends and family can attend.
I will post more information on both of these soon.
She had specific charitable causes she wanted to support: domestic abuse, hunger, education for marginalised groups and homelessness. I feel sure she would also be happy with people donating money to the hospice who could not have been more kind and caring in looking after our dear friend.
The world is a richer, more beautiful, mischievous and loving place because of Lynn Ruth. Her legacy lives on in each and every one of us whose life she touched.
JO: That’s the first one. It’s a book of funny verse – for up to 10 year olds – and it’s really good for small ones because it’s rhyming. Then A Squirrel’s Tailis a whole story rather than verse. A really lovely story about inclusivity and diversity about a squirrel born without his tail. And then Molly, Chip and The Chair is for slightly older children: when they’re moving on to reading adult-style books.
JOHN: Why’s it called Standing on Custard?
JO: The book has lots of useful facts. So one interesting fact is that you can actually stand on custard.
JO: You get two tins of Ambrosia, you put them on the floor and you stand on them. (LAUGHS) No… It’s called a non-Newtonian fluid. You have to make it with cornflour and lots of it. What a non-Newtonian fluid does is, instead of like most fluids and liquids, it becomes harder the more pressure, the more weight you put on it.
JOHN: The books are beautifully illustrated.
JO: My talented husband Philip Price.
JOHN: You gave up comedy for three years.
JO: I didn’t intend to. My last show – the last time we had a chat – was 2015 and that was my I Scream show and I’d written a book about that as well. It was about online dating.
“Most successful show… I was quite annoyed”
That was my most successful show so far and it was me as me. Before that, I had been doing character-based comedy. I was delighted that the one with me as me was the most successful. But also quite annoyed, because I had trained for many many years to be an actress. And the show I did as me was the most successful.
I think I just felt like I’d plateaued a bit: that I didn’t have much else to say. I had sort of fallen… not out of love with it because it was fantastic… but I felt that, if I were to come back with something else, it would have to be as good and I didn’t want to rush into the next thing. I had kind of had enough of the whole Edinburgh Fringe thing. I had done about six Edinburghs in a row by that point. Six shows up to 2015 and, in two of those years, I did two shows each year, which was ridiculous.
Initially, I thought I might take a year off. But, I got back to London from Edinburgh in the September and, in the October I met the man who is now my husband. It was ironic that whole I Scream book and show had been about my disastrous love life. Then, lo and behold…!
JOHN: So you were only doing comedy to cover gaps in your acting.
JO: I had always done acting and ads and whatever and, up until that point as well, I also had amortgage-paying job which most performers have – a horrible office job three days a week which was not playing to any of my strengths and just to pay the bills. I had started to feel quite unhappy there and I thought: You know what? It’s time to move on. So I did.
What I needed then was a revenue stream. So I thought: Actually, now I’ve met Phil, who is an artist… I had already written this book years and years ago for a friend’s daughter. And I said to Phil: “Do you think you’d be interested in doing the artwork for this book?”
So that was our first project. We have released a book a year, basically; we are just finishing off a new one.
JOHN: You said you needed a revenue stream – to make money – so you started writing books… That is not a way to make money!
JO: The books are really popular in Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, America. I sell them online and at a stall in Greenwich Market and I sell hundreds of them a month and we sell prints and artwork as well. I do a maximum of about three days there and it’s great because I can work it round castings – I just shot a commercial for IKEA in Italy for four days.
JOHN: And next Saturday (6th April), you are back on stage at the Museum of Comedy in London with a new show called Peculiar. Is it you as yourself or is it character comedy?
JO: It’s me again.
Jo Burke no longer screaming; just as creative
JOHN: A follow-up to I Scream?
JO: No, that’s why to have the space of three years between the two shows was good. I don’t really feel like that person I was any more. Straight after I Scream, I met Phil. I feel so far removed from that (previous) person and all of that angst and heartache and stuff. Everything changed. It was like a cathartic thing. I released the I Scream book and did that show then, all-of-a-sudden, the love of my life walked in the door.
JOHN: Is happiness good creatively, though? I heard Charles Aznavour interviewed and he was asked why he sang sad songs. He said they were more interesting because, when people are happy, there’s not a lot you can say. People are happy in the same way but, when people are sad, they are sad for all sorts of different. specific reasons.
JO: Yeah. Also happy people can be a bit annoying to be around sometimes. I spent a huge chunk of my life being single and being around happy couples and I know the annoyance of it. (LAUGHS) Nobody’s interested in you if you’re happy and I don’t really write when I’m happy. I have always written when I’m annoyed. When you are happy, it’s quite dull creatively, I think.
JOHN: So when you got happy it must have screwed-up your creativity for the last three years?
JO: No. I never stopped writing. I made notes all the time in those three years and I did the children’s books. The children’s books are a gentler… they’re still funny, but it’s a gentler humour and a different audience. But I still always had dark, evil thoughts that I would set aside for future shows.
So when I decided to do this new show, Peculiar, I started looking back through all my notes and maybe I had written the equivalent of a show a year anyway, so Peculiar is really the best of all of that.
“It’s a whole diatribe of things I find absurd and odd”
JOHN: What’s the elevator pitch for Peculiar? Is it angry?
JO: No, but it’s a whole diatribe of things I find absurd and odd from nail varnishes to medication to marriage to eBay.
JOHN: So observational comedy.
JO: Yes, but not really. It’s… Jo Burke calls out the absurdity surrounding our every day life. She shoots down the lazy marketing we are perpetually bombarded with, ridiculous products and Amazon reviews plus a fair few things in between.
JOHN: Last time we talked, you wanted to do a show about working class life.
JO: Well, that’s always a bugbear of mine. I’m always slightly peeved at the fact there are fewer and fewer working class voices. There are sketches I’ve written just for bizarre funny’s sake, but a good 90% of what I do is with a reason, a message behind it.
JOHN: To get your message out? But you’re not going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year.
JO: Part of the reason I’m doing Peculiar at the Brighton Fringe in May but I am not doing Edinburgh is that I priced it all out and I would love to go to Edinburgh – I absolutely love it – but, you know, I am still paying for the seven years I did before!
Why would I go to the Edinburgh Fringe? Because I love it. But that is not a good enough reason. It has not been a stepping stone for me so far and I can’t really afford to keep trying. I’m taking another tack now. I’m not really doing stand-up spots on other people’s gigs. It’s time-consuming and means travelling all aroundand I prefer doing my own shows.
I did consider doing a children’s show in Edinburgh. Standing on Custard would make an amazing children’s show but… Well, it’s all very well signing books and making children laugh but it’s a whole different ball game when you can make a whole room of adults laugh.
JOHN: The lure of the applause?
JO: I was missing the feel-good. Also, because everything is so politically dark and horrible at the moment, I think if you have a skill – to make kids or adults laugh – now is definitely the time to be doing it.
“Dowie was among the inaugural acts on Tony Wilson’s Factory Records label. In 1978 he contributed three comedic songs to the first Factory music release, A Factory Sample, along with Joy Division, The Durutti Column, and Cabaret Voltaire… As a director, he worked on Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation and Falling for a Dolphin, as well as directing shows by, among others, Neil Innes, Arthur Smith, Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden, Simon Munnery and the late Pete McCarthy… His children’s show Dogman, directed by Victor Spinetti, was described by the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker as the best show he had seen in Edinburgh that year. Dowie went on to write and perform Jesus – My Boy which was performed in London’s West End by Tom Conti.”
Basically, John Dowie has been about a bit and is unclassifiable but wildly creative.
“In the ‘70s, John Dowie invented Alternative Comedy. At the end of the ‘80s, he abandoned it. In the ‘90s, he sold all his possessions and set off to cycle around Europe indefinitely, meaning Dowie’s love of Landscapes and Life is matched only by his hilarious hatred of himself and others.”
Author Alan Moore adds: “This appallingly funny and delightfully miserable man delivers hard-won insights into the great cycle of life and love and death from the vantage point of a great cycle… I genuinely cannot recommend this cornucopia of middle-England majesty too highly.”
Alas, in our chat, I started off with good intentions, but, as I tend to, meandered…
DOWIE: This book my first prose work.
FLEMING: You did wonderful prose for the Sit-Down Comedy book.
DOWIE: That was a short story. This is my first full-length prose work aimed for the page rather than the stage.
FLEMING: So why now?
DOWIE: When you’re riding your bike in a quiet place – pootling along a country lane or whatever – your mind wanders and you enter strange thought patterns you don’t expect to enter and I like that and I thought: This would be a nice way to tell stories, just gently ambling along with twists and turns.
DOWIE: Is that the word?
FLEMING: I dunno.
DOWIE: Picking a risk, I think, is what you’re saying.
FLEMING: How has the book done?
An early John Dowie Virgin album by the young tearaway
DOWIE: Hard to tell, but I think it’s doing OK. It only came out in April. I check the Amazon sales figures approximately every 47 seconds. It started at around 45, then Julian Clary Tweeted about it and it went straight up to Number 3. It’s doing OK now. There has never been a massive demand for my work. The world has never beaten a path to my particular door. As long as it sells slowly but consistently, that’s fine.
FLEMING: Did you find it difficult to write?
DOWIE: It was for me. What I was more used to in writing verse or jokes was getting feedback from an audience. When you write prose for the page, you have not got that, so it is very difficult to judge.
FLEMING: What’s the difference between writing for poetry and prose?
DOWIE: No idea. I would not say I write poetry – I write verse.
FLEMING: What’s the difference between poetry and verse?
DOWIE: I think poetry takes more time to understand or is more difficult to understand.
FLEMING: So writing verse it dead easy, then.
DOWIE: Well, comparatively easy for me, because my stuff always rhymes. Use a rhyming pattern and you’ve got a way of telling a story.
FLEMING: So you see yourself as a writer of verse and…
DOWIE: Well, I only wrote it when the kids were little.
FLEMING: To distract them?
DOWIE: As a way of punishing them if they were not behaving well.
“Do you want me to read you one of my poems?”
“No! No! Please don’t do that to me, daddy!”
“You don’t have to stick to the same thing all the time…”
It was just a thing to do for a while. You don’t have to stick to the same thing all the time. Luckily, for me, this has never included doing mime. I did do a couple of mime sketches in my youth, but they weren’t real mime.
FLEMING: What sort of mime were they?
DOWIE: Well, it WAS doing things without words, but it wasn’t being a ‘mime artist’ and being balletic about it.
FLEMING: Mime artists seem to have disappeared. They call themselves ‘clowns’ now and go to Paris and come back and stare at people. I only ever saw David Bowie perform once…
FLEMING: I loved Tyrannosaurus Rex; not so keen on T Rex.
DOWIE: I’m a big Tyrannosaurus Rex fan.
FLEMING: Whatever happened to Steve Peregrin Took? (The other half of Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Marc Bolan.)
DOWIE: He choked on a cherry stone and died in a flat in Ladbroke Grove.
FLEMING: A great name, though.
DOWIE: He nicked it from Lord of the Rings. Peregrine Took (Pippin) is a character in Lord of the Rings. Steve was his own name.
FLEMING: Steve Jameson – Sol Bernstein – was very matey with Marc Bolan.
DOWIE: They went to the same school. Up Hackney/Stoke Newington way… Marc Bolan was a William Blake man.
Warlock of Love: “It’s very unlike anything else anyone’s ever written”
DOWIE: Well, I’ve got Marc Bolan’s book of poetry: The Warlock of Love. It’s very unlike anything else anyone’s ever written. That may be a good or a bad thing.
FLEMING: You have an affinity with William Blake?
DOWIE: Not a massive affinity other than he was a one-off.
FLEMING: He was a hallucinating drug addict.
DOWIE: Well, we’ve all been there. And we don’t necessarily know he was hallucinating. He might have been supernaturally gifted.
FLEMING: Now he has a plaque on a tower block in the middle of Soho.
DOWIE: Well, that’s what happens to poets, isn’t it? Plaques on buildings. I like his painting of the soul of a flea.
FLEMING: I don’t know that one.
DOWIE: There was a girl standing next to him and she said: “What are you doing William?” and he said: “I’m just sketching the ghost of that flea.”
FLEMING: Does it look like the soul or ghost of a flea?
William Blake’s soulful Ghost of a Flea
DOWIE: A big, tall, Devilish type figure.
FLEMING: Are you going back to comedy in any way?
DOWIE: Well, it hasn’t gone away. There’s lots of comedy in the book.
FLEMING: On stage, though?
DOWIE: What I don’t like about actual performances is that they hang over you all day. You are waiting for this bloody thing to happen in the evening and you can’t do anything until it’s over but then, when it’s over, all you wanna do is drink.
FLEMING: I think that might just be you.
DOWIE: No, it’s not just me.
FLEMING: Performing interrupts your drinking?
DOWIE: (LAUGHS) Most days I can start drinking when I get up. I don’t have to wait till half past bloody nine in the bloody evening.
FLEMING: Have you stopped drinking?
DOWIE: I drink a bit, but I try to keep it outside of working hours which is why (LAUGH) I’m not so keen on gigging.
FLEMING: You going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year?
John will be in North Berwick, near Edinburgh, during August
Despite the imminent start of the Edinburgh Fringe, non-comic creative endeavours continue in Edinburgh and elsewhere.
I have blogged about Jason Cook before. If he were turned into a pill, cocaine and speed would seem like sleeping tablets.
Despite being dyslexic, his fourth crime novel is about to be published. He has a new children’s book out. Pre-production goes ahead on a feature film. And he is involved in another feature film which is currently shooting in Scotland.
“You are an Associate Producer on this film that’s shooting in Edinburgh,” I said.
“Yes it’s not my film but I am supporting them. They’re an Indonesian film company. I’ve worked closely with the producer on other projects before in Oxford and London. This one is a love story about an Indonesian man and woman who fall in love in Scotland. We’re shooting iconic places around Edinburgh now – the first week of the Fringe – with a crew of 21 from Indonesia.”
“And you have a fourth novel coming out.”
“Yes. On August 12th. Cocaine: The Devil’s Dandruff, the fourth and final instalment of my quadrilogy about The Cookster, – a young boy gets sucked into the underworld and gets pushed around like a chess piece in an international smuggling ring.”
“The title of the film of the first book was going to be The Devil’s Dandruff,” I said.
“Yes. The first film will have a different name now. The working title is The Devil’s Dandruff.”
Jason’s children’s book – Rats In Space
“My head hurts,” I said. “Your children’s book Rats in Space. That’s a planned film, too.”
“Yes. We’ve just had an animatic done for the Rats in Space film – first draft drawings of the scenes. We’re working with King Bee Animations at Elstree Studios.”
“Are you appearing in the Indonesian film?” I asked.
“No,” I laughed, “It was rather overtaken by political events at the General Election. I had hoped that it might be my entrée into the glamorous world of well-paid porn – perhaps granddad porn – but sadly not. I am not an actor. Any tips?”
“When I was young,” he told me, “I fancied being an actor. I was at a nightclub and I was approached by an agent who told me: You’ve got the look we’re looking for. Would you mind coming down for an audition? I thought it would be interesting to be an actor.
“I went down to a dress rehearsal in Camden Town so the director could meet me and take some trial shots. I went through reception and into the office studio.
Jason – Could he have had a big ginger part in Hollywood?
“OK Jason, I was told, take your clothes off and we’ll get things ready for you. There was lots of clothing lying around. I wondered which costume I would be in. So I took my clothes off down to my pants and I was given a dressing gown. The director came through, shook my hand and said: Thanks for coming down. Come through and meet the crew and actresses.
“I thought: OK. Great. This is all good.
“You can take your robe off now, he told me, and your pants.
“I said: Sorry??
“We walked through curtains and there was a set with three naked girls on a bed and all the crew were there, including a woman spraying water on the girls.
“The director said: OK, you can get on the bed.
“To be honest, I was a bit nervous. I said: What sort of film is this?
“It’s a porn film, of course, said the director.
“I said: I didn’t know it was a porn film. I thought I was going to be an actor.
Determined Jason Cook did make it into the film industry
“You WILL be an actor, he said. You’re going to be the first ginger porn star and you’re going to be in Hollywood. It’s called Ginger Cocks Does Blondielocks. You will be the first ginger porn star and you’ll be absolutely massive in America. It’s the ginger porn version of Goldilocks & The Three Bears – Ginger Cocks Does Blondielocks.
“I came out thinking: Hang on, I want to be in the film industry, but not that way!”
I have never bothered with a smartphone before, but I got an Apple iPhone 4s yesterday because I think it might help me understand how to use Twitter (which I never have) and because it means I do not have to buy a new iPad to get 3G coverage – I can just tether my iPhone to my old non-3G, WiFi original Apple iPad.
I first bought a computer in 1989. It was an Amstrad. I bought my first Apple Mac in 1993. I have never bought a Windows PC.
A prime example of why is what happened to me in Ireland.
It was my first day working on a contract at the late Tara TV in Dublin; they had PCs using the then-new Windows 98 operating system. I was the last and only person in the office in the evening. When I had finished, I tried to shut down my computer. I could not find any way to do it. There was no on-screen button anywhere. Eventually, I had to phone a friend in England and ask how to switch off the system.
“You click the Start button,” she told me.
This seemed to me to epitomise Microsoft products.
In order to shut down the computer, you had to click the Start button.
It was the only way to do it.
You had to know the rules and follow them.
I once heard a Microsoft executive proudly say they had done market research into what people wanted in their computers and found that most of what people wanted but said they did not have was already in the Windows operating system.
He took this as an example of how good the system was. I took it as an example of how Byzantine the system was. People had no idea how to find or do anything.
The difference between Apple and Microsoft Windows products has always seemed to be that Windows works in a certain way and you have to follow the rules to do anything. Apple computers really are intuitive. If you want to do something, you think, “How would I do that?” and you can probably do it the way you think you can. But there may be five other ways to do the same thing, because different people think differently. Apple designs with the user in mind.
Setting up my new iPhone yesterday was simplicity itself, because everything appeared on screen logically, simply and in plain English, not in nerd-speak.
I think, when Apple design ‘ways to do things’, they do not think “We are creating a system here and then have to tell the user how to use it”… They seem to think, “If I were a user, what would I want to do to use the thing I am using?”
In that way, I think it is like writing.
People who sit down to write thinking “I want to say something. I have an empty page. What am I going to write on it?” may tend to write badly.
The trick is not to think “I am a writer writing this.” The trick is to think “I am a reader reading this as it appears word-by-word on the page.”
I think the best way to communicate (which is all writing is – or should be) is to think “If I read these words appearing on the page as I type, what are they telling me as the reader (not as the writer) and what will I need to know next?”
It is like writing an autobiography or a book on any subject. If you tell the reader absolutely everything you know in total detail you will clutter everything up with thoughts and facts, like Mr Casaubon in George Eliot’s brilliant Middlemarch. (Something I did not need to mention.)
Keep it simple. Keep it clear.
There used to be a television ad for a tinned fish supplier which had the selling line: IT’S THE FISH JOHN WEST REJECT THAT MAKE JOHN WEST THE BEST.
It is keeping an eye on what you exclude – even more than what you include – that makes a difference to the end product.
Good writing is created by a writer who looks at it from the viewpoint of the reader not the viewpoint of the author.
Good comedy is created by a comedian who looks at it from the viewpoint of the audience not the viewpoint of the comic.
Good computer operating systems and programs are created by nerds who look at them from the viewpoint of the user not the viewpoint of the nerd.
Jason currently has eight film projects at various stages of pre-production: all different genres ranging from animation to sci-fi and a true-life story based on his three autobiographical novels… and he is still looking for finance in the current bleak economic climate.
He has managed to keep the budget down to £2 million, which seems remarkably thrifty, given the plot but, despite having an enthusiastic letter from an ‘A’ list actor (my jaw dropped when I saw this name) he is still having problems raising the finance.
“There’s been lots of talk about David Cameron bringing finance to British independent films,” Jason told me, “but yet we’re still waiting for that to trickle down to people on the creative side. There are people out there with great ideas and great dreams, but the thing that’s lacking is the investment.
“I’m a working class lad from Borehamwood; I think if I was an Oxbridge graduate I would be more acceptable and respectable for investors. It is difficult coming from where I’ve come from. I have not mixed in the ‘right’ circles.
“I was a genuine lad who got involved in drugs, gun crime and gangsters from the age of twelve and was put in prison for my crimes – the first time for nine months. The second time I got four years and one day and I served two years and seven months.
“At that time, if the judge gave you four years, you would only serve half. This particular judge thought my crime was bad enough that I should serve longer. So he sentenced me to four years and one day, which meant I would have to serve two thirds. That’s fair enough. I did the crime, so I gotta pay the time.
“After coming out of prison twelve years ago, I got myself clean of drugs – because I was also an addict at that time – and I got away from all the crime people surrounding me and I went clean.
“I started to write about my experiences, which turned into my first book There’s No Room For Jugglers in My Circus, about where I grew up and how I got involved.
“I self-published the first book and self-publicised it because I was just a normal guy off the street who’d written a book. I had no backing. I wasn’t a sportsman. I wasn’t a glamour model who could get her boobs out. So I self-published that first one so I could start building recognition.
“I then wrote the second one The Gangster’s Runnerbecause of the good reviews. It’s about the people I was involved with and how I was used in the underworld as a drug runner and a drug enforcer and money collector. Ecstasy, coke and hash.
“And the third novel A Nice Little Earner is how everything ties up and we all go our own ways and it elaborates on the range of characters, from politicians to judges, solicitors, barristers to every level of society. All the way from the street-seller to the user. The up-market characters are based around real people. The details have been changed to protect everyone – to protect them and to protect myself from reprisals. But the books are a big insight into the underworld in London and across the world.
“I’m not glamorising crime; I’m not making it seem good; I’m showing the bare elements of drug addicts, a young lad being blinded by the lights and peer pressure, fast cars, fast money and I’m showing the real gritty parts of real life. All real.
“I’ve always been interested in films. From an early age, I was in Elstree Youth Theatre. I started working on film sets as an extra and became a runner. I want to create films people want to see. Partly for the money but a lot of it for the creative side. I think I can tell a good story.
“The irony is I’ve been clean from drugs and crime for twelve years now but, while everyone else is falling out of pubs, I can’t get into them because I’m still on PubWatch. I was arrested for drugs and put in prison. That’s OK. That’s fair. But, when I came out, I went into my local pubs and they told me I had been put on PubWatch so I was not allowed into any pubs any more for life. I never did drugs or did any crime in any pub and I had never had any trouble with any landlord, but I was put on PubWatch for life because I was involved in drugs in the local area and around London.
“I’m still being punished for my crimes twelve years later, after being rehabilitated…
“Perhaps I should jump on the bandwagon,” Jason laughs. “I should sue the Metropolitan Police and go to the European Court of Human Rights and claim my human rights have been infringed. Everyone else seems to be doing it.”
This morning, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme had a strange report on ‘Bibliotherapy’ and the psychologically-positive healing power of reading books. It sounded to me like Californian inmates had taken over the asylum and managed to confuse someone at the BBC into giving them an advertising slot.
I am all for reading and writing, of course, but I am not convinced it is a branch of medical science. Stroking furry animals is apparently psychologically comforting for hospital patients (if they don’t give you fleas or eat you). That sounds sensible, but it ain’t a new branch of medical science.
I recently blogged about being on the panel at a Storywarpevent in which telling “Other People’s Stories” was discussed. Afterwards, I got an e-mail from Simon Fox, who was in the audience.
“We’re working on this collaborative storywriting game called The Written World,” the e-mail said, “and it’s currently out to tender on Kickstarter.”
I know nothing about online games. When I bought an ancient Apple Mac at some point near the Dawn of Time it came with a demo version of Prince of Persia and I thought I’m not interested. I have better things to do with my life than try to achieve Level 53 in some virtual game.
I may have been wrong about the course my life would take.
But I went to have a chat with Simon Fox on a freezing cold day this week, in an attempt to upgrade myself to v22.214.171.124 in our brave new 21st century world where publishers and bookshops equate to passengers and the Titanic. His idea was far more interesting than Bibliotherapy, though it perhaps sounded a bit overly altruistic at first.
“We started developing The Written World about five years ago,” Simon told me, “and, in the meantime, I’ve become involved in Playlab London which is a company that focuses on games which do ‘good things’. That’s maybe a lofty flag, but we try to find games which involve some sort of action which can be objectively defined as good or which encourages people to behave in that way.”
But, I asked him, aren’t computer games just a trivial, mostly shoot-em-up way to waste time?
“Well, what excites me,” he says, “is that, if you play a game, you absolutely cannot avoid learning something. So, for someone like me who is interested in producing games that can concretely be shown to be doing good things…”
How can you angle it so it is ‘good’, though?
“Here in the UK,” says Simon, “one in six people have a literacy level lower than that expected of an 11-year-old. To me, that figure is shocking. Anything that gets people interacting with writing in a new way is good. It’s the experience that’s important.
“I think there’s something really interesting about what a game is. It’s the only piece of media that tries to make you achieve something by intentionally putting obstacles in your way. Games are as old as the human race.
“Games mostly used to be a thing where a group of people communed together over a set of rules. Then, with computers, they became one person dealing with a machine that handled the rules. Now we have come back to people getting together online and dealing with, essentially, a set of data.”
But all this involves developing the Written World idea further.
“That’s why we are running a Kickstarter campaign,” Simon told me. “We are a really small, young company which needs to put together enough cash to develop it more. Kickstarter is a way of getting your audience to pledge a little money to help you bring them better product.
“A big game like Battlefield is like the Hollywood of games. We’re just a small group of people. It’s a labour of love as much as anything and our costs are comparatively very low. We are looking to raise just $17,500 in total, which is about £12,000. It will cover our coding costs, our hosting costs. It will cover us to the point of getting the product to a group of people on the internet so they can use it for free and then we can develop it further.
“We are big believers in ‘agile development’ – you get your product to your audience and then you work with them to make it better. We have a set of tools for writers so they can create a story. Readers can then put a character together for themselves and come and experience someone else’s story. We boil the story down into a set of assets – characters, locations, story arcs and the beats of the story.
“We would love to see really prolific writers in our system getting to a point where they can package together stuff they’ve made and sell it to other users for a really small amount of money – 50p or whatever – just as a way to make cash back from helping other people have a really cool experience. We are both a game and a writing tool.
“We also want to see established properties entering our system in the same way – our huge dream would be for something like the Discworld series to live inside The Written World. At the moment, we are talking with publishers and directly with authors about ways that we might bring existing stories into it.”
So what about copyright in a finished product perhaps created by 714 or 500,000 people – a story which someone might want to make into a movie or novel in its own right?
“Our approach to this is to be as open as possible,” says Simon. “We want everything created by anyone to be available to the community to use and re-use and re-mix through the Creative Commons.”
So where would the company profits come from?
“For me, what’s exciting is not the money but seeing something get done. I would love it if this developed into a real platform for people to write collaboratively. In my mind’s eye I can see, in five years’ time, The Written World being somewhere that millions of stories have taken place and it has grown into this huge living thing just slowly built over time from all the stories people have been telling and there are different genres of stories intermingling with each other in a beautiful repository of collective literary achievement.
“And it would be fantastic if people were able to make some money for themselves by writing stories for and with each other. For me, that would be wonderful.
“We are using Kickstarter to get finance because, right now, it’s a tough landscape for funding out there. You set your target – for us, $17,500 – and you either reach it in the given time and get the money or you don’t reach it and get no money. Obviously, on top of that, there is our own time and money going into this as well. We just want extra money to get us to definitely the next milestone – definitely producing something that gets to people.”
A worthy idea and Kickstarter funding may be their breakthrough. Stranger things have happened.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, since 1991 I have been able to write books but have been unable to read printed books. Books on computer screens are another matter. So Simon Fox’s The Written World is for me. Bibliotherapy is clearly not.
At the weekend, crime writers P.D.James and Ruth Rendell were chatting to each other at the Soho Theatre in London. Someone (clearly not me) asked if they had any advice for a young person who wanted to write.
P.D.James wisely replied that it depends whether you want to be published more than you want to write.
It is possible to be published without being a good writer.
But, if you want to write, then you have to write and there is no real advice except possibly to read lots of well-written books – because reading badly-written books will only lead you on to writing badly-written books.
Personally, I have a feeling that taking writing courses may also lead people on to bad writing because they might start to think there are rules.
It is a bit like the view of the late comedian Malcolm Hardee, who had little time for jugglers because he saw juggling as a skill not a talent. If the average person practised eight hours per day, five days per week for two years, they could probably become a good juggler because it is a skill you can learn. But being a stand-up comic is a talent. If you are not funny, no amount of practice will ever make you truly, truly talented.
You can learn some stand-up comedy techniques from experience, but you cannot learn to be talented.
Same thing with creative writing.
There is no shame in that.
I am crap at science and foreign languages. But I can write a bit.
On the other hand, never say never.
RKO Pictures’ screen test report on Fred Astaire read: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.”
There are limits, though.
P.D.James and Ruth Rendell both said they were particularly drawn to crime fiction and have written little else.
A friend recently suggested I could make a lot of money by writing romantic fiction but I said I did not really think I could write it because my heart was not in the genre. I partly said this because someone I used to work with at Granada TV actually tried to write Mills & Boon type novels and gave up.
She told me she eventually realised that you can only write that type of fiction if you believe in it heart-and-soul and enjoy it yourself. A friend of hers did enjoy the genre and he did successfully write for Mills & Boon. She did not enjoy the genre wholeheartedly so was, in effect, writing pastiche not the real thing, which she did not want to do.
She wanted to write well in a particular genre, but that was not her genre, so she felt she could not write as well in that genre as she felt she could in others.
I once had a conversation with an editor at Random House over a book which was never written. He said something to the effect of:
I told him: “Well, I hope I don’t have a style. I just write in whatever style seems most appropriate.”
In the case of I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, it was Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography and it was written from tape recordings of chats with Malcolm, so I just had to make the words on the page seem as if they came from Malcolm’s mouth. You can’t just write down exactly what people say: people don’t talk in coherent sentences. So I had to reconstruct what he said in a way that made it seem like what he had said. Of course, they were the words he had said on the tapes, but re-arranged for print so that, over-all, it read like what he would have said. They were his rhythms and words re-arranged for print.
“In the case of Handstands in the Dark, that was Janey Godley’s autobiography and she wrote it herself. At the beginning, I cajoled and encouraged her and suggested how she should perhaps go about it but, by the end I was just doing simple sub-editing – occasional commas and paragraph manipulation. I never wrote the words or sentences myself.”
When I was at college, at the end of the course (or it might have been at the end of Year One, I can’t remember), we had to deliver a significant creative project of some kind. I chose to write a novel and it was shit. But it got it out of my system. I felt that, if I wrote another two shit novels, the fourth one would be quite good.
When I was a teenager, I had wanted to be a writer and had admired (I still do) George Orwell as a communicator of thoughts. He is not a novelist, but he is a great writer – Nineteen Eighty-Fourhas some very dodgy characterisation and writing (the heroine is badly-drawn and the love scenes are crap). But the ideas are wonderful. It is a below-par novel but a great book. And Orwell’s non-fiction Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War is a masterpiece.
George Orwell is a magnificent factual writer, though not a good novelist. But he is such a good writer, he transcends that – Nineteen Eighty-Four is a wonderful novel, even if he is not a good novelist.
It seemed to me that George Orwell had achieved his ability to write so well simply by writing a lot at the BBC and elsewhere. (For a period, he literally worked in Room 101 at BBC Broadcasting House.)
So, after college, I consciously looked for somewhere I would have to write a lot, quickly, under pressure, reasoning that I might be able to write anything about anything reasonably fluently.
And that was why I initially became a Promotion Scriptwriter, writing scripts for TV announcers and trailers every day and often under extreme time deadlines.
That did result – I think – who am I to truly know? – in my being able to write pretty much anything in any style under pressure. And, because I also interviewed people for magazines, I knew the difference between writing for the human voice in vision and out of vision; and writing for different types of print.
If you are writing for TV trailers and you have to make Benny Hill, a documentary on Auschwitz and an episode of Coronation Street seem like a sensible single evening’s entertainment entity, you have to know how to tape over the cracks to join things together.
So I think I can write in pretty much any style and make the result seem fairly fluent.
But romantic fiction is just beyond my limit. I would not do it well.
“How do you become a writer and what are the good subjects to write about?”
I told her: “The only way to become a writer is to write. It sounds silly, but it’s like juggling. The more you do it, the better you get.”
On the other hand, I can’t juggle, so what do I know about it?
Always beware of people who use similes about things they don’t know even the first thing about.
And who end sentences with prepositions.
I also told the 15 year old girl she had asked the wrong question.
“You don’t want to know what subjects to write about,” I told her. “You want to know who will buy and/or read the stuff you write. You don’t want to look at anything from the perspective of you writing something; you want to look from the perspective of someone reading what you write.”
That’s the only decent piece of advice I have about writing.
Never think of yourself as a writer.
The worst thing anyone can ever do is think of themself as ‘a writer’. If you do that, your mindset will be wrong. You will think, “How would a ‘real’ writer say this?” and you will copy the way you think a ‘real’ writer should write and it will be crap because you will descend into cliché.
Plenty of people write in the same way, but who wants to write like the lowest common denominator Fleet Street hack?
A famous actress with a great life story once talked to me about writing her autobiography. The most important thing, she said, was that she wanted to write it herself and for the book to be her own thoughts in her own voice. Eventually, the publisher persuaded her to have an experienced Fleet Street journalist ‘help’ her with the autobiography.
I picked up the published book in Tesco one day and looked at the first page. It read like any book serialisation in any tabloid Sunday newspaper. It was written in cliché Fleet Street sentences. It probably sold well because she was a famous actress, but not because it was well-written and not because she herself had written it.
In 2003, Random House commissioned unknown Scots comedienne Janey Godley to write her autobiography. She had gone into a meeting with an editor at their imprint Ebury Press with little hope of getting a book commissioned – nobody had ever heard of her – but, when the editor heard just a little of her life story, Random House virtually ripped her arms off to sign her up.
I was asked to actually edit the book which was published as Handstands in the Dark (a terrible title – it should have been called Good Godley! – but Ebury insisted). I had a meeting with Ebury after the contract was signed at which it was discussed what editing this book might involve, because Janey had never written anything for publication before.
It might involve doing nothing. It might involve tweaking. It might involve a lot of literary shepherding. It might involve writing the whole thing from scratch if it turned out Janey could not do it herself. They wanted to publish her story; she was staggeringly charismatic to talk to; but no-one knew if she could write for print.
As it turned out, she was a brilliant writer, though I had to give her advice in the first few weeks of the process. Of course, it might have been wrong advice – what do I know? – but I don’t think it was.
She used to send me stuff she had written almost every night. Because she was writing an autobiography, at first she delivered lots of facts.
This happened, that happened, then this happened, then…
This can wear the reader down and also it does not actually let the reader share the experience of what happened, which is the whole point of writing the thing. You can get bogged down in facts with no humanity. Writing is not about facts; it’s about emotions and thoughts. The facts, however interesting, are only the skeleton for the meat. People are interested in people, not facts.
I told Janey to find key incidents which epitomised the period or the emotions of what was happening to her at the time and then to describe those key incidents and emotions as vividly as she could.
“Write more about less,” I told her.
One way to make the incidents more vivid was to try to find any of her five senses that were key to the moment. A ‘key’ moment is literally that. It opens up a doorway to something. If she remembered an incident, what was the first thing she remembered inside herself? Which of her five senses was most vivid? Use that key sense of the moment and it opens up a whole emotional experience which readers can share.
When Marcel Proust wrote his autobiographical Remembrance of Things Past(which, of course, I have never read) he ended up writing seven volumes after drinking one spoonful of tea in which he had soaked a piece of madeleine cake. The taste triggered involuntary memories of his entire childhood – all the tiny details came flooding back to him.
He wrote: “The taste was of a little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings…my Aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea….Immediately the old grey house on the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and the entire town, with its people and houses, gardens, church, and surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being from my cup of tea.” Just seeing the madeleine had not brought back these memories. He needed to taste and smell it.
Describing what is seen or heard is obvious. Perhaps smell and taste come next. But touch is important too. If you describe the rough or smooth texture of something, the object becomes more alive.
You can write that you sat on a sofa. Or you can write that, as you sat on the cream sofa with its three dark brown coffee stains, your fingers ran over the rough-textured woollen blanket which Fred had half-thrown over its back that drunken night.
Of course, you don’t want too much of this – it could end up as bad as having endless adjectives in front of the noun. Who wants to read too many sentences about a noisy, black, frightened, one-eyed Shetland pony?
I told Janey that, if she remembered one key sensory detail of any incident, include it. So, in one sentence, she wrote:
“Three plain clothes detectives were standing around, their cold breath drifting up and turning white and blue in the flashing lights of the ambulance.”
I think that description is all-the-more vivid because Janey chooses to write “white and blue” instead of “blue and white”, but that would take a whole extra thousand words to discuss!
In another sentence, she writes:
“I ran up the stairway with one policeman behind me, my bloodied shoes sticking to the wooden stairs as I went.”
It is, of course, the fact that the bloodied soles of her shoes stick slightly on the wooden stairs which makes it so vivid.
Handstands in the Dark is not a book you forget easily. The rather stunned publisher at Ebury Press said details stayed with him vividly for days after reading it. And Janey wrote every word in it. I very carefully did not suggest words or phrases. Which can be a problem with publishers.
My experience is that people who can write do so. People who want to write but can’t write become publishers and then try to write through other people, often messing up writers’ text and downgrading it to cliché mulch. This, it should be said, did not happen with Janey’s book which Ebury were not allowed to see until the manuscript was completed and which went on to be both a Top Ten hardback and Top Ten paperback bestseller.
An extension of the truism that “those who can write do and those who can’t write become publishers” is that those who can’t write start courses teaching people how to write. That is not always true, but it often is,
The only way to learn how to write, as I told the 15 year old girl yesterday, is to write and write and write.
But don’t sit down with a black sheet of paper or computer screen and think you are creating the words that come out of you. Instead, turn it round 180 degrees and, as you write, think you are seeing the words appear for the first time and you are the reader not the writer. Put yourself in the position of someone who does not know what is coming next.
The first sentence should intrigue the reader into wanting to know what the next sentence is going to be. You want to hook the reader. So, imagining yourself as the reader, you know what has to be written to explain more about what is being said – what is needed to understand more about the argument or about the plot. But you don’t want to give the readers 100% of the information. You want to ‘hook’ or intrigue them into constantly wanting to know more.
Keep ‘em wanting more.
My template was George Orwell, who I think was a great communicator though a shit novelist.Nineteen Eighty-Fouris a wonderful book. But the human beings in it – particularly the heroine – are badly drawn. He was a journalist and writer of ideas – his non-fiction like Homage to Catalonia is masterful. Animal Farm, which is really a non-fiction book masquerading as a fictional story, is amazing. But he was not a good novelist.
I think layout is almost as important as what you write. Make sure it looks easy-to-read on the page. Vary the lengths and look of the paragraphs. Mix prose and quotes. Don’t have big impenetrable-looking chunks of text. Make it look easy to read and it will be easier to read.
My own big problem is I need deadlines to write anything. So I will just go off out to Tesco now.
I popped along to Elstree Film Studios for a chat with the indefatigable Jason Cook (not to be confused with the comedian of the same name, though I am sure he is also dynamic).
The Jason Cook I know is a former gangster’s runner turned author and film producer with more energy than the National Grid.
His production company The Way Forward Productions, based at Elstree Studios, has a slate of seven feature films in various stages of preparation. His sales agent says the first picked up quite a bit of interest at the recent Cannes Film Festival. It is The Devil’s Dandruff, based on Jason’s autobiographical novelThere’s No Room For Jugglers in My Circus (the first in his autobiographical trilogy of books).
My favourite Jason Cook project, though, is the animated Rats in Space.
It’s a great title and it’s currently looking for finance.
We found we were both equally bemused and amused by the fact that, with potential movie investors, a person’s sartorial impressiveness is often in inverse proportion to their financial ability. People who turn up to meetings unshaven in scruffy shirts and torn jeans often have shedloads of money to burn. People who arrive looking well-heeled in neat Armani suits and spotless shirts are often bullshitting.
Maybe it’s because people with a lot of money don’t need to impress anyone, so don’t care what people think of them.
Whereas conmen and shysters are meticulous in their clothing and manners because they need to impress people for the hustle to work.
Of course, some shabbily-dressed men are just shabbily-dressed men.