Careering down the years!


Here we are again! It is over two years since I last penned an entry to these pages. Re-reading it now, it’s like a peek into another life. So much has changed in that time and there is so much more to tell.

The Constant Feline

What I am doing now overlaps only slightly with what I was up to in January 2016. The only real constant is the cat. At that time, I was welcoming our new moggy resident – Bobby – another rescue cat to whom we have given a home.

I would like to say that he is appreciative of the caring environment we have given him but . . . he’s a cat and therefore he doesn’t give a toss! It goes with the territory!!

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Look at me, ma! Top of the world!!

So affectionate when he wants to be – sleeping most nights with his head resting on my shoulder, now and again pressing his wet nose against mine. During the day, he still wants to be near me but that involves him lying on the desk, between me and the keyboard, his head on my left arm, gently snoring. Not conducive to any creative endeavours – his or mine!

Any attempt to shift him prompts a backlash, red in tooth and claw. Almost like a different cat!! It’s goodbye, pussy cat – hello, spitting fury. My hands and forearms are a living, bleeding, scarred reminder of those episodes.

Anyway, enough of that . . . he’s clearly been damaged early in his life and there’s no changing his behaviour it would seem.

Retirement? Don’t make me laugh!

In the eyes of the State, I am retired. I gave up touring my TIE (theatre in education) company, Team Players, three years ago. It horrifies me how quickly the time has passed since then.

Editor’s note: It does! Get over it!

The thousands of shows I performed in, the hundreds of schools we visited, the dozens of wonderful actors I worked with . . . have all now blurred into a memory mix of excitement, pressure and laughter.

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Early mornings – whatever the weather!

Retirement from what I laughingly called ‘work’ – and trying to replace that pressure cooker with something equivalent – has been difficult.

Blowing my own trombone

I took up jazz trombone. I had lessons, practised hard, passed Grades 1 and 2.

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Grade 2 certificate. I got a Distinction in my Grade 1 but all you need is a pulse!

I still have the odd ‘toot’ but, still not being able to read music, it was simply taking up too much time. Time that I sorely needed to ‘do other things’!

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Trying to figure out all the dots and squiggles!

Scribbles and Giggles

I concentrated then on writing silly poetry for children. I filled a book with them and self-published it. I went into primary schools and used said book as a platform for poetry workshops.

Editor’s note: This man is a butterfly!

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Scribbles and Giggles – still available in the Amazon jungle!

Writing

And writing – always the default activity! In my last post, I mentioned writing a radio play.  This was eventually read by BBC Scotland.

Their response was very positive . . .

On A HANDCART TO OBLIVION – the characters and settings are very well realised. I felt that to focus on the position of women during the wartime period was a good and clever thing to do. They are so vulnerable to the charming but unscrupulous Arthur.  

I also think it’s a great local story and a tribute to those who died.’

However, I don’t think that I would have success in getting it commissioned by Radio 4 in the current climate.

And here’s why . . .

‘One thing I should start with is that with Tommies and Home Front on Radio 4, and marking 1914-18, it’s very unlikely to get any more WW1 or WW2 plays commissioned. This is from the R4 commissioning guidelines:

The First World War is off-limits – we have Tommies & Home Front. We are not interested in commissioning ANY dramas that cover the years from 1914-18 even if they have nothing to do with battles.

None! NONE!

With so much fighting on air the Second World War is also not a priority. That’s enough war, thank you Ed.’

So it was a case of ‘close, but no cigar!’ Given their effective embargo on commissioning any new dramas involving either of the World Wars, and the fact that the BBC is the ONLY market in town – for radio drama anyway – I have no choice but to put it on a shelf! And there it will stay, probably, for at least another two or three years.

The play is a crime drama set against the backdrop of a real event – the bombing of Wilkinsons’ lemonade factory in North Shields on the night of 3rd May 1941 by a lone German bomber. (Wilkinsons was established by my paternal great-grandfather, William Arthur Wilkinson, so it’s a family story).

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Wilkinsons’ lemonade factory, North Shields – the morning after the tragedy.

One of the four bombs dropped by that single raider fell through the roof of the three-storey building and detonated, taking all of the heavy bottling machinery down into the basement, which was in use as an air raid shelter. 107 people died, 42 of them under the age of 16. Whole families were wiped out and a community was devastated. It is reported to be the biggest loss of life incident caused by a single bomb during the war, outside of London.

There is a comprehensive website relating to the incident.

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Pontificating at the commemoration event in May 2016

I had wanted the play to be broadcast around the time of the tragedy’s 75th anniversary in May 2016. It was not to be. We did, however, hold a commemoration event in North Shields. It was a moving night, with some survivors present and even the reunion of members of some of the families. Many were hearing the story for the first time.

The Novel

Determined not to make a crisis out of a drama, I resolved to turn this 45 minute radio play into a novel. It couldn’t be that be difficult, could it? Well, yes actually!

I realised quite quickly that I would require a host of new characters, sub-plots, twists and turns, before I stood any chance of creating a written work of 80k plus words from the starting point of a 45 minute radio drama.

That requires more stamina than I possess. I am a quick results merchant and prefer immediacy and spontaneity and, guess what, I spotted other things that I wanted to get involved in.

Editor’s note: Short attention span!

RIP Dad

Before I had much of a chance to explore any of them though, my dad’s health started to suffer. Shortly after mam died some five years earlier, he had slid quite swiftly and inexorably into mental decline and spent the last three years of his life in permanent care.

He passed away in August 2016 from pneumonia. For a few months before that, his mental state had been stable at least. Gone were the outbursts and ‘bad behaviour. For much of the time, he was almost oblivious of our presence. ‘Sensible’ conversations were not really possible but – and we take blessings from this – he was happy in his own skin, smiling and singing.

He is sorely missed. Apart from sadness at his passing, I now suffer from the regret that I have since heard repeated by many. ‘Why didn’t I ask my dad/mam more about . . . ?’ He has told me bits and pieces over the years but as you are growing up, shrugging off the control imposed by parents and, let’s face it, ceasing to have any interest in their lives, they went into one ear and out of the other.

Hence, I am now seeking his wartime service records from the RAF and the Parachute Regiment. He was in both but, obviously, not at the same time!!

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Dad in his RAF uniform, circa 1941. The white cap band denotes that he is in training.

It also caused me to wonder how much my children know about MY life before they came into it. So another resolution is to make notes for their ultimate benefit and education . . . while I still have the necessary power of recall myself! Not everything will go in there, of course! Some things I will take to my grave!

The Journalist

I have always had an enquiring mind and am always desperate to dig beneath what I read. This can be obsessive, so the thought came that I might be good at journalism. (And I also liked the idea of wearing a black trilby with a ‘PRESS’ ticket stuck in the band!)

I took a Professional Freelance Journalism course, offered by the British College of Journalism. It involved twelve assignments – each one very different and with varied subject matter – and my tutor gave me feedback on each one. Distance learning obviously – all done by email.

I was really pleased with the feedback I got on all of the assignments apart, that is, from the last one. I had to rewrite and re-submit it. Too wordy – exceeding the stipulated word limit. (You probably won’t be surprised to hear that!)

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Tada!!

The course took me six months and I  found it very valuable. It taught me a lot – short words, short paragraphs, no big blocks of text, be active not passive, verbs better than nouns, no waffle etc etc. It has also made me realise that a lot of what we read in the Press today is lazy, sloppy, repetitive and badly expressed!

I have been researching many and varied topics. Nostalgia football ie crucial matches from 20 to 50 years ago (some of which I was at and still have the programmes!); non-league ie real, football (more of that later!); WW2 and WW1 stories. And anything else that sparks my interest. I am freelance so don’t have to follow the edict of an editor. I do, though, have to pitch, ie sell, before I earn anything.

I have about a dozen stories that I have started work on and they sit staring at me every day. I have one real ‘star’ that I must get out there in one form or another. I think it could make a screenplay but, again, it may come up against the perception that there is a public saturation point with ‘war stories’. No spoilers as I am jealously guarding it until I decide what my next move is!!

To date, I have had only one story published but that is more due to not getting my ducks in a row in certain pieces before I can pitch, rather than any rejection.

Editor’s note: Ducks in a row? Explain!

Street Theatre

And, in the midst of all this, the street theatre act that I am 50% of – Jean & Morag, Tea Ladies – is going from strength to strength. We are in our eighth year now and generally get a fair smattering of bookings across the ‘season’, from April to September, with a few over the Christmas period. This year, however, has started with a bang. We have already spent nine days working in Hull, last year’s City of Culture.

It has taken us by surprise but Hull is a quirky city with lots to see, and they seem to like us there. I suspect we may be back before too long. And then there will be the annual visits to Liverpool, Morecambe, South Shields and several more.

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Cavorting in Morecambe!

If we knew what the attraction of the act was, we would just bottle it and make a fortune! So many things take me by surprise these days that my eyebrows are permanently in a raised position!2017 flierPut simply, we make people smile, laugh and forget their worries. We are purveyors of fun and happiness! It’s craic and banter. A laugh and a tune, with the odd macaroon!

Editor’s note: Certifiably insane!

Live Interpretation

I am a firm believer that people come into your life at certain times, to take you to pastures new. One such person was Chris Cade, whom I met when Jean and Morag were strutting their stuff at Kirkleatham Hall in Redcar at a Victorian Christmas event. Chris was doing his iconic Scrooge and we got to chat to him in our rest breaks.

He told me all about Live Interpretation and Museum Theatre. That is to say, becoming a character at a museum to bring to life a certain aspect of what is on offer there. To stay in character and open up the audience to the world that is on display around them. It turns the static into active.

Chris has been doing it for years – with his characters going back centuries.

What he does is all about getting rid of the ‘fourth wall’ – that invisible barrier between actor and audience that is the staple of staged theatre. I have not worked with this ‘fourth wall’ for about two decades now so I am more than comfortable with its absence. I relish the inclusion of the audience in what I am portraying and their interaction with it. It’s what I did in 15 years of touring schools with Team Players and it’s what we do on the street with Jean and Morag.

It’s exciting and rewarding so I want to be a part of it! I have joined IMTAL – Europe, the international museum theatre alliance. I am looking forward to being involved in what they do and, to be honest, getting work under their auspices.

And, while I’m on the honesty kick, I am busy creating a website which encompasses all that I do. There will be link to this blog so I thought I had better get it up to date!! Next stop, the Jean & Morag blog!

Editor’s note: Give me a break!

The Story of George Cade

With my journalist hat on (a trilby, obviously!), I was delighted to find that Chris had a ‘story’ of his own. His dad, George Cade of Hull, was a follower of the Youth Peace movement and attended the Second World Youth Peace Congress in New York in August 1938. This was just a matter of weeks before Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich waving  his ‘piece of paper’, reporting that there would be ‘peace in our time’.

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George Cade shortly after his call-up in July 1940

That peace was soon to be shattered. Such was the tyranny that Britain and the world were facing in Hitler though, that George – and many of his fellow members of the peace movement – accepted his call-up papers in July 1940. Others became conscientious objectors. A fascinating tale of divided loyalties – country v conviction, almost! – with many interesting facets. Thank you, Chris.

And now for something completely different!

I attended my first football match at the tender age of ten. I was taken to Ayresome Park, Middlesbough. I don’t remember who the Boro were playing that day, nor the result, but I am fairly sure I will have seen the renowned Brian Clough play.

We moved from Teesside to South Shields a couple of years later and I went along with a lot of my school mates to see Sunderland play. I followed the club for a couple of decades – I even joined the London Branch of the Supporters’ Association – but at some point, I stopped watching football altogether. Too many other things stood in the way – high pressure job, family, children etc – and the changes in the game, especially after the advent of the Premier League in 1992, were not appealing.

My son twisted my arm last year to attend a few games at the Stadium of Light to see if I could rekindle any kind of interest. I didn’t. Then my attention was drawn to the revival in fortunes of non-league South Shields FC. This was the town of my birth and most of my education.

It was a fairy tale – exiled to play at Peterlee, 20 miles away, and just a few programme sales away from bankruptcy, the club’s plight was brought to the attention of Shields-born local businessman, Geoff Thompson. He rescued them and was able to return the club to Mariners Park in South Shields. Since then, the Mariners have secured two back to back promotions and won several trophies along the way – including the FA Vase at Wembley in May.

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Grandson Lewis, and me at Wembley – 21st May 2017.

They are currently top of the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League Division North and only wicked misfortune will prevent them from gaining a third promotion in as many seasons.

It’s real football. I thought it would be rough, crude and devoid of talent. How wrong can you be? It is devoid though, of all the things that turned me away from football. There are no preening prima donnas who care more for their latest hairstyle and tattoos, than the result of the game or the club that they play for!

Non-league football has a genuine connection with the fans, it’s more accessible AND it’s a darned sight cheaper.

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The spoils of victory – South Shields FC’s four trophies from last season, 2016/17

Football has ‘come home’ for me. Even though it’s now a 100 mile return trip to watch a home game, I do that regularly and even travel to away games, providing street theatre or other commitments don’t get in the way!

I even broadcast match reports on local hospital radio – Radio South Tyneside. I enjoy it immensely and am already thinking seriously about securing more regular work in that field. (Or rather – next to the field, hahaha!)

Watch. This. Space.

Photographic Modelling

Oh yes, how I could forget this? I started doing photo modelling in 2006. I don’t quite know how it all came about but I have been on the books of Tyne Tees Models since then. I have not done much though for the last few years – my last shoot was on 21st December 2015. I remember the date as it was my birthday.

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Skipton’s silver Saltburn surfer!

My first shoot was as a silver surfer (literally – see pic) for a Skipton Building Society ad campaign. It was on Saltburn beach – in January. Lovely day but temperature close to freezing!

I arrived in the Team Players’ transit. They gave me a wetsuit. (I must point out at this point that I can barely swim, never mind surf. I don’t mind being ‘beside’ the sea, I just don’t want to be in it!). They told me to put it on. It was January so the surf shop – a possible location for changing – was closed!

Stupidly, I got back behind the wheel of the van to change into said wetsuit. After about 20 minutes of a) getting out of the many layers of clothing I was wearing (barring one!), b) struggling into the wetsuit and c) trying to preserve my dignity, I got out of the van.

I was then informed that I had it on the wrong way round. The zip, it seems, goes to the back! The driver of a parked taxi thought it was hilarious. He took photographs!

So I went back to the van but this time, remembering that it was empty, chose to get into the back where I could actually stand up! It was pitch black, of course, but a damned sight easier to get out of the wetsuit – and back into it – than sitting behind the wheel.

The shoot went well but the tide was out. When it came to wetting my hair to make it look more like I had just done a few rip curls or barrelled a fat pipe, or whatever, I had to run halfway to Norway before I could dip my hand down and throw some salt water on my bonce.

They gave me a surfboard but, having watched Hawaii 5-0, even I knew how to carry it!

To be honest, I thought this work had all just about dried up but the agency got in touch a few weeks ago and asked me to get some up to date shots done.

So I did, and have sent them in. I am going to follow that up with a request for more work. As my dear old mam used to say “If you don’t ask, you don’t get!” I have always found this to be true!

Editor’s note: Poser!

And finally . . . 

Congratulations and thank you for reading this far!

All of the above is part of my mission to ‘put myself out there’ – again!! By that I mean, to secure gainful employment by using what I laughingly call my ‘talents’!! I refuse to be a ‘pensioner’ in carpet slippers and crimplene trousers, tending to my flower beds in the summer and watching daytime telly when the weather is inclement!

I cannot function unless I am working. It drives me on. And I like to earn money – especially as I’m a pensioner now!

Hell will have to freeze over before I utter the words “Bring me my slippers and where’s me cocoa?”

Given the current weather conditions though . . . who knows?

Get Thee Behind Me, Santa!

Christmas has been and gone!! In panto parlance, it is behind us!! Oh yes, it is!! Etbloodycetera!! And all should rejoice that it is so!!

I do like Christmas, really! Honest! But it sometimes seems to pack more punch and be more life-disturbing than Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank rolled into one! Any road up, enough of the festivities – they’re gone, the world comes out of its two-week hypnotic trance and starts spinning on its axis once more.

As I write – painfully and ponderously – I am in the fifth day of man-flu. Oh, yes, it exists! The God Google says so – see her findings below!!

Man Flu is a crippling and debilitating disorder indiscriminately striking down male members of the human species without warning. The illness is often referred to pejoratively by female members of the species who are in fact immune from the illness as man flu is now known to exclusively attack the XY chromosome carrier. If Man Flu is kind enough not to kill the infected party it will definitely leave him weak, sick, hurting everywhere and in dire need of TLC.

Medical professionals now also widely recognise that self diagnosis by the sufferer is the best means of identification as the symptoms of Man Flu are far more severe than the simple common cold which predominantly targets the XX chromosome holders (i.e. females). This goes some way to explain the cynicism some women display towards their male counterparts.

My wife does not agree! But what does she know – or care! Given the aforementioned, I am therefore struggling to ‘carpe annum’! But ‘carpe’ I must! ‘Scribe’ I must!!

Rejection

After the flurry of literary items I have sent off in the last few months, the first rejections have come in . . . but I am guessing, so I’ve heard, that this is par for the course! Three humorous children’s poems – Animals, Susie Is Sick Of The Seaside and The Day The Sun Slept In seem to have cut no mustard with a poetry competition in Writing magazine. No matter, two adult comic poems – We Want To Make A Baby and The House On The Hill – sent to them in a later competition may fare better!

And a short story The Visit is awaiting consideration elsewhere.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a reply to my ‘expression of interest’ in scripting The Fighting Bradfords stage play due to see the light of the day in September as part of Durham County’s Great War commemorations. They had a massive response, difficult to make a choice etc etc. And some nice words but no cigar!

This is always a case of ‘throw enough shit at the barn door and some of it is bound to stick’. Not that what I am sending them is excrement, mind you! (Or is it? I’m clearly biased!)

Pending

But the magnum opus, the biggie, the 45 minute radio play A Handcart To Oblivion is still well and truly in ‘no man’s land’! It went off to the BBC Writers Room drama submission ‘window’ back in September. An email just before Christmas reveals that over 3000 scripts were received and they have not yet reached a decision. Ho hum!! Given that there are no fewer than FOUR sifts for each script to go through and none of them have been rejected yet, it could be a while before I hear anything!

I am blowing hot and cold on this, to be honest! Even winning it at hefty odds of 3000:1 does not guarantee broadcast; it merely singles the writer out ‘for further development’!

So, I have formulated a Plan B. A friend of mine who worked in the Drama Department of BBC Scotland a few years ago and who has read my script, has offered to send it to them. She rang them and they want to see it. It’s been with them for about three weeks now and I have no fingernails left!! It’s not what you know, right?

This is a crime drama set against the backdrop of a true event – the bombing of Wilkinsons lemonade factory in North Shields on the night of 3rd May 1941 by a lone German bomber! (As most of you will know, Wilkinsons was established by my paternal great-grandfather, William Arthur Wilkinson, so it’s a family story).

One of the four bombs dropped by that single raider fell through the roof of the three-story building and detonated, taking all of the heavy bottling machinery down into the basement, which was in use as an air raid shelter. 107 people died, 42 of them under the age of 16. Whole families were wiped out and a community was devastated. It is reported to be the biggest loss of life incident caused by a single bomb during the war, outside of London.

Despite the scale of the event, little is known of it away from Tyneside. The raid was not part of a long, concentrated ‘blitz’ such as that experienced in major cities. Liverpool, for example, underwent exactly that in the previous week. Wartime censorship, of course, is responsible for the absence of any real profile for the event but, even allowing for that, little is known. In recent years, a website dedicated to the event –- was established and most that is now known resides there. I commend it to you should you wish to learn more! (North Shields 173, in case you’re wondering, was the telephone number of the factory).

www.northshields173.org

There’s also a Facebook page . . .

https://www.facebook.com/groups/northshields173/?fref=ts

A shout out for Peter Bolger here! He has single-handedly managed this incredible site for the last few years and it is – although I hate the word, it seems appropriate here! – awesome!! The definitive event archive!

Apart from the obvious personal kudos of actually getting my play on t’wireless, I am also keen to have it aired around the time of the 75th anniversary of the bombing in May 1941.

BUT . . . good news is that I have a second radio play in mind. Another WW2-based piece, it again centres on a true story but this one is not family based. Really keen to start on ‘t! Working title The Telegram.

Teardrops and Bottle Tops

. . . is the title of the commemorative event which will take place on the evening of Tuesday 3rd May 2016 – 75 years to the day that 107 lives were suddenly ended and many, many more were changed forever as a result of the raid.

It’s early days yet – exactly four months as I write this – but the evening will include dramatized readings of survivor and eye-witness reports (of which there are many on the 173 site), music (described later), Q&A, information about the family, the company, the community at the centre of the incident, a bit about ‘breweriana’ (Wilkinson bottleage to those not in the know!) and . . . (drum roll) it will be held in the East End Youth and Community Centre in George Street, North Shields. The significance of the venue is that the Centre and the house next door sit on the footprint of the factory. I am hoping that the evening will conclude with a short remembrance service on the street at the time that the bomb struck ie 11.45pm.

I don’t particularly subscribe to things paranormal but, according to a source who works at the Centre, there is ‘all sorts going on’ there – apparitions, unexplained noises etc. In view of the fact that most of 107 innocent souls died just a matter of a few feet below the floor of the Centre, it is perhaps not surprising! We may need to put extra chairs out!

It promises to be an informative and emotional evening! Despite the obvious fact that it is all about a tragedy, it will not be all doom and gloom. The aim is simply to highlight the event and to honour and remember those who suffered but there must be hope! Life goes on and, let’s face it, it DID!!

If there is the demand, I hope that there will be other similar events that week to support the anniversary evening.

For the title of the event, we owe a debt of gratitude to North Shields lad, Jim White, who composed and performed the song of the same name Teardrops and Bottle Tops. He has kindly agreed to come along, with fellow musicians, to perform it on the evening in question. Thanks Jim!

Here’s the link!

Any road up, as always, watch this space!!

And talking of music . . .

I’ve joined a band! I am now 3rd trombone – though, to be fair, there is no 2nd bone at the moment – in the KZA Big Band. It’s a ‘scratch band’ made up of pupils of Laird Andrew Kerensky, founder of the Middlesbrough Jazz & Blues Orchestra. Repertoire will be modern (Taylor Swift et al) with a ‘big band’ feel. We have saxes, trumpets, bones, drums, keyboard, guitar and our first gig is on 27th February in Darlington. As we are of varying ability, the original plan was to meet every Sunday night for a year and then start gigging – so let’s hope we gel fairly quickly as our first meet-up is not till a week tonight ie Sunday 10th January. I’m learning the pieces like mad but already have a few questions. Still, there’s safety in numbers, so I’m told!!

Welcome to our Bobby Dazzler!

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We lost our lovely black cat, Jack, last March after having him with us for thirteen years but we have now filled the cat-shaped hole in our house. So, welcome to Bobby, a rescue cat from SARA (Saltburn Animal Rescue). He’s black, like Jack, and very clingy at the moment, very friendly, very affectionate! We are trying to get used to having a cat in the house again and, as it is recommended we keep him indoors for 6-8 weeks before we let him ‘roam’, we are being very careful about doors and windows. He is only 9 months old so still a bit kitten and was found abandoned three months ago!! How can people do that? Unless he escaped from his then home and got lost – it happens! A lot of energy in the mornings, sprinting around the place like his tail’s on fire but the afternoons bring relative calm. As I write, he is flat out on the settee!

My original plan – it was initially to be a Christmas surprise for Sue – was to get two rescue cats and I got quite attached to Roger and Rodney in the rescue centre. They were older cats and haven’t been medically checked out yet and can’t use a cat flap etc so it just wasn’t practical for us, hence the switch to Bobby! One of the pair was still very withdrawn so it would have been a long process. The other was so affectionate, I was practically wearing him as a scarf, so eager was he to bond with me, hahaha!! Their back story was terrible – abandoned by a tenant in a remote country property who just abandoned them when he/she got evicted. They waited for weeks for their owner to return, scavenging for food etc. They were in a terrible state when the neighbours noticed their plight and called SARA in.

I do hope they have a better future. I have been so impressed by SARA that I have put my name down as a volunteer at Fox Rush Farm where they are based. I don’t mind what I do but ‘cat cuddling’ is an option – just to keep them in touch, literally, with human company! My ‘induction course’ is tomorrow!

TTFN xx

 

Too many words . . . too little time!

There is no better reminder to me of how quickly time passes than this blog. It seems like only yesterday that I posted the last one but, in fact, it’s almost two months!! I remember promising myself that I would leave no more than a month between each thrilling episode! Ha! So much for ‘notes to self’!!

Two months! Jeez! Tempus doesn’t ‘arf bloody fugit when you’re having fun . . . innit!

And fun I am indeed having! Since the last blog, I have submitted a radio drama script to the BBC Writers Room, five poems and a short story to various competitions and ‘expressed an interest’ in a commission for a Great War stage play. I have learned that nothing in the literary world happens quickly so I will not know the outcome of any of the aforementioned for weeks yet! But . . . no news is always good news! The trick is just to keep writing . . . keep the spit turning . . . the more ‘shit’ you throw at the barn door, the more will stick, etc etc! (Other inane clichés are available!)

The one that excites me most and, hopefully, I will find about sooner than all of the other submissions, is the Great War project. I read about it on New Writing North. Durham County Council need a writer for a brand new play they are commissioning. It will be part of the Council’s First World War Centenary commemorations and will explore the war from a County Durham perspective, both at home and on the frontline.

The inspiration for the play is the story of ‘The Fighting Bradfords’ – four brothers from the small village of Witton Park with an extraordinary record of military service during the war. The brothers collectively received two Victoria Crosses, a Distinguished Service Order and two Military Crosses. Three of them paid with their lives. The play will have its premiere in September 2016 at the Gala Theatre, Durham.

Having researched it, it is an incredible story! Sue and I spent a few days visiting World War 1 sites on the Western Front this summer. It was an emotional experience, to be sure, and this is a project I would dearly love to be involved with.

So I have sent them my ‘pitch in a letter’, my Writer’s CV (such as it is!), ten pages of script from a previous play and a one-page description of the treatment I would propose. The ‘script’ part of the submission, as I have explained to them, is an adaptation of my only submitted work thus far, ie my radio play about the Wilkinson factory bombing, currently sitting in a ‘virtual’ pile among 1000s of other submissions in the BBC Writers Room.

Fingers crossed! Nothing ventured, nothing gained! Gotta be in it, to win it! Watch this space! (Other inane clichés are available!)

Oh . . . and I also wrote great long poetic sagas on a weekly basis which I posted on the Archers Appreciation Facebook page. I kept it up for four weeks but then started to lose the will to live. Events in Ambridge – once the domain of the slowest form of human life – has recently taken on a headline-grabbing intensity, normally reserved for more ‘mainstream’ telly soaps like Tenders, Corrie or, shamefully, Emmerdale which, in its early days, was the Northern televisual equivalent of The Archers until the new producer used the device of a plane crash to wipe out most of the cast and end several of the prevailing storylines.

I hate to say it but The Archers is moving in that direction! The new producer has so far given us a flood of Biblical proportions, the death by plague of dozens of cattle, a villain of Victorian, Sir Jasper, magnitude and the disappearance of many previously familiar characters, followed by their return weeks later with a different voice, a changed personality and a new outlook on life that tramples to death all that they were before.

It’s too sensationalist by far; too many personifications of evil; too many dim-witted characters of the type that one screams at when they walk up the stairs in a haunted house horror movie! So I am taking a sabbatical . . . until the waters of the Am cease to become a torrent and allow me to dip my jaundiced toes back in without of fear of them being consumed by a shoal of piranha!

I am also writing a Bennett-style ‘talking head’ for the Saltburn Drama Festival next March. I met up recently with Marje Wilson. She is a good friend of ours and was in the cast for the first Team Players school science productions – The World of Science and The Magic of Science. Marje is a real old trouper, witnessed by the fact she performed two shows on her 70th birthday, way back in 2002! She braved early mornings, long days and long journeys, loading and unloading of the van in fair weather and foul and . . . sharing the cab of a Transit van with me and a mutual friend Martin Gibbons. We were the original A Team! I think she has only just forgiven me for making her wear an alien outfit, complete with facemask, in the World show! We then went on to play mother and son in a telly ad for geriatric chairs in which she got more lines than I did! But I forgive her for that!

Any road up, I’m rambling . . . again! Marje expressed a desire to do a ‘talking head’ and I heard myself saying “I’ll write you one, Marje”. So I am . . .

I won’t give too much away here because I haven’t actually finished it yet but it is basically an older lady reflecting on her wartime service in the SOE – the Special Operations Executive. There are tears and laughter as her memories come to the fore . . . culminating in a confession that the audience is the first to hear. Underwritten and enhanced by the mellifluous voice of Al Bowlly, it is a thought-provoking piece. I am enjoying the writing of it – always a good sign! – and it is entitled Love Is The Sweetest Thing. Bring tissues!

It was actually at a performance of Sue’s children’s play – The Spoils of War ­– where I met up with Marje again. Sue’s play was first aired at this year’s Saltburn Drama Festival and it won Best Youth Production and the Comedy Award. The Adjudicator was very complimentary of the play and the writing. It tells of the experience of five or six children in a war-torn Northern town. (It’s Leeds, but don’t tell anyone! Walls have ears!) Bombing raids, evacuation, broken families! Despite the grim backdrop, it brings out the infinite adaptability of children and the indomitability of the human spirit in adversity.

The Adjudicator also went on to say that he wanted to know what happened to the children at the end of the play so, encouraged and spurred on by that comment, Sue has just finished her children’s novel – Bombs and Bunting – which continues the story. It will be going off to a publisher next week. It’s a wonderfully poignant tale!

I think that’s all I have time for now, dear people! Sue and I are off to the wilds of the Tyne Valley tomorrow to do some workshops at one of my favourite schools . . . and then again on Wednesday!

Well . . . I see t’nights are cutting in, as they say in Northern climes. I don’t know about you but I hate it! Why are we constantly out of step with every other nation? Why does daytime suddenly draw to a close in the middle of the afternoon? I know what the reasons used to be but, I’m sorry, they are just no longer valid!

Seeya!

PS I am thinking now of lots of other things I wanted to say . . . but that will have to wait until next weekend! (Yeh, right!)

What’s occurring!

I cannot believe it’s eight weeks since the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate. I’m pleased to say I have spent almost all of that time writing. I use the word ‘almost’ as the summer always means street theatre which can blitz most weekends.

Jean and Morag, tea ladies of distinction!
Jean and Morag, tea ladies of distinction!

Then there are the regular 100 mile round trips to visit my 91 year old dad in his care home in Witherwack, Sunderland. (I love that name but I always think it should be in Liverpool! Try saying it – it’s impossible in anything but a Scouse accent!). And, of course, I have to sleep, eat, drink and perform the usual human bodily functions which, when you add it all up, can amount to fair bit! So, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not ‘almost’ – nowhere near it in fact – more like 50%. I’ll plump for 51% as that will give it a ‘majority holding’, which is good. A ‘controlling stake, in fact! (Stockbroking background coming out there!)

All as it should be then! I am officially retired now – as far as the DWP are concerned at least – and in receipt of a State Pension. For this, I am grateful to all of you out there who are paying National Insurance contributions and, in effect, contributing to my meagre stipend. Moreover (always loved that word!) I am also no longer subject to the tyranny of what is laughingly called ‘a daytime job’. Don’t give it up, they say, don’t they? Well . . . I have, despite the fact that when you are self-employed, as I have been for the last 25 years, there is no employer showing you the door and/or giving you a gold watch when you hit 65.

The option is there to continue until you peg it, shuffle off your mortal coil, become an ex-employee, bereft of life, push up the daisies, fall off the twig, kick the bucket, run down the curtain or join the bleedin’ choir invisible! I could have carried on until I had to be carried out of a school hall, clutching whatever organ, extremity or limb had finally given up the ghost . . . and unceremoniously stuffed into the back of a Transit with the rest of the scenery, props and costumes! I chose not to go down that road!

So I NEED the writing. The brain needs to function! The synapses need to snap back and forth! Or I will go insane!

Any road up, as they say in the Highways Department . . . the writing! When we left Harrogate, I thought I was just a couple of days away from finishing my radio play – 45 minutes for the 2.15pm daily slot on BBC R4. How wrong can you be? (This is the crime drama, by the way, set against the backdrop of the bombing of my great grandfather’s lemonade factory in North Shields in May 1941) One of the agents I pitched to at Harrogate said that she could also see it as the weekly BBC R4 serial – 5 episodes of 15 minutes. So I set about the conversion of the existing 45 minute radio play into a ‘sister’ play of 75 minutes in total but which also had to have ‘hooks’ every 15 minutes to make the listener want to listen to the next episode. As well as the hooks, it also needed an extra 30 minutes dialogue but at least that allowed me a bit more latitude and ‘colour’! Easier said than done but I think, a few weeks after the point where I thought I was almost finished, that I have now actually, genuinely, REALLY finished.

Factory ruin 01
Wilkinson’s Lemonade Factory – the morning    after the bombing.

I haven’t found it easy. It’s been hard graft up a steep learning curve! I have written and rewritten these scripts. I have bashed them and lashed them, pummelled them almost into their death throes, resurrected them and re-created them, deleted any extraneous words from the 45 minute version and then put them back in and expanded on them for the serial, 75 minute version but now . . . it is done! BBC R4 Drama have these submission windows and the one for drama – be it 45 minutes or serial – is now open until Friday 24th September. I am sending them the 45 minute version, with the comment that it also exists as a serial. I have moved away from the original working title of ‘Shelter’ to ‘A Handcart to Oblivion’. Fingers crossed!

Radio drama is a very exacting medium. You don’t have the luxury that a novelist has. You don’t have the visual imagery of TV or film. No florid, eloquent descriptions of what the characters are thinking, what they look like, where they are, their motivations, backstory, tastes in clothes, their music collection, their . . . anything! It all has to be delivered by the spoken word. Devices exist, of course, which can help to tell the story and fill in the background, like sound effects and the use of a narrator. They can help the writer to avoid lines like “Is that a smoking gun in your hand?” or “My word, what a glorious sunset and it’s only half past seven on a Thursday night”. Essentially, it’s all down to the dialogue, a good director who knows the story inside out and good actors. Radio actors are a cut above, in my opinion. They don’t have the nuances of facial expression, body language, close ups and the like. It’s all in the delivery of the words. A rare talent!

Next May sees the 75th anniversary of the factory bombing so my dream would be to have it accepted in time for it to be broadcast then.

Until I decide on my next magnum opus, I am sending some humorous (very original and side-splitting, if you want my honest opinion!) poems into a competition but that’s a slow burn. It closes on 13th October and it’s two months before you hear anything!

dad blog
Dad – as a Para, 1943

Dad has to be the subject of my next play. As I said earlier, he’s 91 and now, sadly, in the grip of Alzheimers. As well as serving in both the RAF and Parachute Regiment during the war, he finished his career in the Diplomatic Service. His first post was Moscow in 1974 at the height of the Cold War. This was followed by East Berlin and then on to less stressful and more ‘comfortable’ posts in Malaysia, Thailand, Chile, Jordan and Ghana.

Berlin embassy
British Embassy in East Berlin – 1970s

His first two postings are the ones that interest me. Before he lost his reason – which I am afraid is what Alzheimers means, in case anyone is not aware! – he would constantly say that he was not able to tell us a lot of things that occurred during his postings to Moscow and East Berlin because he was governed by the Official Secrets Act. He never actually used the words “ . . . or I would have to kill you”, but we got the drift!

Dad was employed by the Diplomatic Service for the last 13 years or so of his working life, spanning the period 1974 to 1987. Although a lowly Security Officer – or so he told me! – the post obviously carried greater responsibility when he was in Moscow and East Berlin. He would occasionally mention ‘The Friends’ and I know now that this is a reference to MI6. They would suddenly be in evidence ‘when they were needed’.

The whole scenario fascinates me, especially the fact that, once you have signed up to the Official Secrets Act, there is no release,as far as I can work out, other than death. A note from your mam just wouldn’t cut the mustard! So even in his present mental condition where strange tales are now the norm and recognisable English vocabulary has been extended to include dozens of new words that owe more to Stanley Unwin than Stanley Baldwin, he is prevented by law from telling what he learned while in the employ of Her Majesty’s Government.

And I suddenly got this image of dozens of old blokes, like dad, in care homes across the UK who, no longer inhibited by reason or fear by dint of their deteriorating mental condition, are singing like canaries! Sensitive information is kept under wraps for a long time – 100 years in some cases, I think – so there could be inherent risk for nations and individuals in these disclosures.

It would not be sufficient to conclude that what they are spouting would always be dismissed as the ramblings of old men. Inferences could be drawn by certain parties, careers could be at risk, lives at stake! So, imagine a team employed specifically by MI5 or MI6 – with arguments there as to whose responsibility it is – to ‘silence’ these guys.

Any road up, it’s an idea and needs a fair bit of research but it’s not too much of a stretch. Is it? Radio play again, I think.

Black comedy.

Probably . . .

TTFN

Harrogate . . . and beyond?

Okay, I qualify as ‘old’! I can be ‘peculier’! (That’s how Theakstons spell it!) I love ‘crime’ and ‘writing’ and ‘festivals’ so . . . the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is probably my perfect event. What am I talking about – probably? Tch!

IMG_0270We have just got back from this year’s event at the Old Swan in Harrogate. We met up with old friends – the dynamic duo of Kerry Richardson and Eileen Wharton, the calm and demure Jo Evans and Scott, the ebullient and ever present Kurt from Liechtenstein, and the always smiling David Penny. We made new friends – newbie Robert from Dumbarton, dour Frank from Glasgow, Keith and Karen Langham from Northumberland and mid-Atlantic PR lady, Lauren.

We consorted with, photo bombed and stalked after celebs from the dark, literary world of crime drama. Alcohol was invariably a feature!

IMG_0271The highlights for me were the Eddie Izzard/Mark Billingham and Lee Child/Rory Bremner panels and listening to the enigmatic powerhouse that is Paul Abbott.

IMG_0275Creative Thursday was an eye opener – tremendously informative and helpful. We learned a lot from those who know, those who have made a career out of writing for TV and radio, those who want US to know what THEY know! Big shout-out for Isabelle Grey, Gaby Chiappe, Kirsteen Cameron, Shelly Silas and Simon Brett. Many thanks! We’ve already booked for 2016 and hope to do Crime Fest in Bristol in May.

A successful pitch in Dragons’ Pen (thumbs up from all three Dragons – two agents and a BBC R4 drama producer) is making me feel as if I have almost arrived and, although that may seem a tad presumptive, ‘hutzpah’ is everything in this world! Unbelievable gall, you may think, but when Mark Billingham (yes, THE Mark Billingham!) tells you it was a great pitch and ‘you had them in 15 seconds’, then there is, I think, room to be quietly confident. (Quietly? Who am I kidding?) Bottom rung on the ladder but, hey, one small step for man etc!!

Quote of the weekend from new friend Keith Langham after being advised that it pays to put what you have written in a drawer for two weeks and then take it out again to restart .. . .

‘You will either think . . . ‘Did I write that shit?’ or ‘Did I write that? SHIT!!’

To rub shoulders with such literary illuminati as Val McDermid, Ann Cleeves, Mark Billingham, Lee Child, Belinda Bauer and many, many others was a joy!

We are back home now. Sad that the whole jamboree is behind us but fired up to get back onto the laptop and just . . . do it!! And our haul this year was:- 20 books, four pens, two bottles of wine, one bottle of Old Peculier, one box of chocolates and a partridge in a pear tree!

Tara for now!

 

Nursery slopes – and a steep learning curve!

I have now been actively writing since April. My first attempts were silly poems, mainly aimed at children or those with a leaning toward infantile humour! I have been doing that for years, so it seemed a logical starting block. These I will eventually develop into an anthology and tour primary schools with poetry sessions where I intend to sell the books. I still have many close contacts and friends from my 15 years of touring, and will be using these as a springboard before they move jobs – or die!

Then I really thought I should settle down in front of the laptop and write something serious, something with a tad more gravitas. Short story competitions beckoned and, apart, from the opportunity to learn the science of writing, it would give me the chance to tell a story from my own life. Creativity is a necessity, of course, but, shouted from the pages of the writing magazines that I was devouring came exhortations to plan, ‘show not tell’, ‘every word counts’ etc. Tools were therefore needed. Stories have to be crafted and built, not slung onto the page like incoherent jibber!

They also say ‘write what you know’, and what (or rather, whom) do I know better than my own family, my father especially? Dad is 91 now and, sadly, a victim of Alzheimers Disease, the same degenerative disease which took my dear mother 3 ½ years ago. It seems likely that dad started to succumb to this terrible affliction before mam was taken but he seemed able to ‘keep it all together’, visiting her almost every day whilst looking after himself and the home. This lasted for several years until the day that she left us. After that, his deterioration was dramatic. So, my first short story is about a particular incident that occurred just before we had no choice, for his own safety, to place him in care. In point of fact, by that stage, the Mental Health Act had come into play.

This situation is still ongoing. My story, I hope, reflects both the tragedy and the comedy that it generates on a daily basis. I never did enter it for a competition but still sits on my hard drive. Others have read it and given complimentary comments but, with all due respect to them, I am not yet confident enough to rely upon family and friends to give me an honest appraisal.

And so I moved on, still staying in the region of ‘what I know’. Family history once again but this time on a bigger stage.

On the night of May 3rd 1941, a lone German bomber dropped four bombs on North Shields. One bomb fell in the mud flats of the Tyne; a second hit a railway embankment; a third struck a house, killing the two occupants, and the fourth went through the roof of W A Wilkinson Ltd, Mineral Water Manufacturers, known locally simply as ‘the lemonade factory’. It was three storey building. The bomb exploded at ground floor level, bringing all the heavy bottling machinery crashing into the basement.

The basement of the factory was at the time being used as a public air raid shelter. Within its cramped confines that night were 192 people, of which 107 were killed. Most of them died immediately and others succumbed to their injuries in the days following. 42 of the victims were under the age of 16. Entire families were wiped out.

It proved to be the worst single bomb disaster outside of London during the war in terms of loss of life and yet, with war time censorship, Wilkinson’s was never named in contemporary press reporting of enemy raids and civilian casualties. Moreover, Wilkinson’s does not appear to have featured in the standard histories of the provincial Blitz, Home Front or Civil Defence.

William Arthur Wilkinson, the founder of the company, was my great grandfather and next year sees the 75th anniversary of the raid.

My first ‘magnum opus’ is not the account of the raid. For that, I would suggest nowhere better to find a factual account of the tragedy than the website www.northshields173.org. It has eye witness accounts from survivors, the background to the raid and much more. North Shields 173 was the telephone number of the factory. Rather, mine is the fictional tale of a crime set against the backdrop of the bombing. Although fiction, I have chosen to retain the Wilkinson name in all references to the factory and the business – unless I am subsequently advised to the contrary by those who know!

With the working title of ‘Shelter’, it is a one hour radio drama.

Wife and fellow writer, Sue, and I are going to the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate next week for the 5th time. This time we are attending the radio/TV drama workshops on Creative Thursday, the finale to which is Dragon’s Pen. Anyone brave or foolhardy enough to throw their hat into the ring or – in reality – put their name into that hat, can come up on stage and, in front of the assembled audience, pitch their idea to four industry professionals. Pitch limited to two minutes. If they like the pitch, they then ask to see the first 10 pages of script and then . . . to be honest, I’m not sure. Further deliberation and a meeting, I would imagine. It’s too good a marketing opportunity to miss, so, with 15 years of performance skills and stagecraft behind me (hahaha!), for better or worse, my name is in their hat! Even if I am not drawn out as one of the pitchers, the whole four days is a massive networking jamboree. Fingers crossed! You make your own luck, don’t they say?

Watch this space! I feel I am still on the nursery slopes but perhaps approaching base camp. Harrogate could require an oxygen mask!