Wednesday 27 January 2016

Bursting The Westminster Bubble

Westminster Palace, the home of both the House of Commons and House of Lords, is in a shocking state of repair. It is estimated that it will take £3.5 billion to sort the place out and stop it falling down around the ears of the MPs, but only if they move out for 6 years.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

However, I’m all about turning frowns upside down and looking on the bright side. This enforced exile from the hallowed halls of Westminster should be seen as an opportunity. And that is why I have started a petition requesting that whilst Westminster Palace has the builders in, parliament goes on tour.

I think the whole shebang should decamp to somewhere else. I don’t care where; Dorset, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bradford, Swansea, Inverness or the Isle of Man. I just think it’s time that the Westminster Bubble floated somewhere else.

I want our out-of-touch, self-obsessed, insular politicians to experience a city that is less well funded than London. I want them to go somewhere with a different infrastructure, cultural landscape and way of life. I want our politicians to try and understand the day to day lives the people living and working outside London.

My fantasy would be for the whole lot of them to spend 6 years in a Travelodge, halfway up the M1 whilst they hold their debates in a conference room with limited wifi. I want to take away their subsidised bars and restaurants and let them get their queue for their lunches in a mini-Tesco or Subway. I want them to get to work on a crowded Abello train or a steamy bus on a rainy day.

It’s not going to happen, but let’s make them at least talk about it.

Please sign the petition and share it with your like-minded friends HERE. 

Thursday 7 January 2016

It's Just Lunch? It's just a rip-off.

Public Service Announcement: I am about to use this blog to have a protracted but hopefully amusing rant about It’s Just Lunch or IJL: an American dating agency now operating in the UK, in the hopes of saving other single people from wasting their time, money and energy like I did. . There is a little bit about writing, but not much. Feel free to give it a swerve. Also, all names have been changed to protect the innocent.

I needn’t tell you what a solitary life being a jobbing writer can be. All those weeks on end at your desk talking only to imaginary people while just about managing to maintain the very basic levels of personal hygiene. It’s bloody brilliant.

However, there are times when a writer’s mind turns to away from literary pursuits and on to matters of the heart (and groin). After months of writing about human interaction, I have been known to feel the need for a little human interaction myself. But, after a self-imposed writing exile, it’s a bit like when they introduce a new penguin to the penguin enclosure at the zoo. It takes a little while for the other penguins to get used to my strange smell and share their fish, Or something. And so, over the years, I have found the whole dating/finding a significant other a little bit problematic. It’s not that I mind being single but at my age you do begin to wonder whether you are ever going to see another person’s genitals ever again. By the time you’ve thrown your third pack of expired condoms away, you start to panic. I mean, the safest sex is no sex but I’m not that risk-averse.

In these moments of panic I usually resolve to take the bull by the horns. In all honesty, that usually means updating my Guardian Soulmates profile or re-joining OK Cupid again. I do it with hope in my heart and a fire in my loins, but after the third month of fending off blokes who want to talk about their ex-wives I begin to lose hope. Maybe I’m not very good at dating. Maybe I’m too picky, too desperate, too political, too flippant, and too gobby; but a penguin can’t change her feathers. And so, usually around the fourth crappy date I give it up as a bad job, delete my profile and put my romantic future back into the lap of the gods. The thing is, whilst I’ve written plenty of meet-cutes, I’ve yet to have one.

About 8 years ago, during one of my flurries of romantic desperation, I joined a dating agency called It’s Just Lunch. They were an American company but they’d set up an office (sold a franchise as it turned out) in Leeds. The company supposedly does what it says on the tin. They arrange a lunch date for you with a suitable match. IJL book the table; make sure the restaurant know you are on a blind date and that you are treated well. At the end of the date, if you are interested in each other you are supposed to exchange business cards and arrange a second date. If there hasn’t been a spark, then you are supposed to speak your personal and highly-trained ‘dating director’ who will use your feedback to find you your next and better match.

Well, that’s how it is supposed to work in theory.

So, for £200 IJL promised that Helen, my dating director would find me three handpicked men to meet my exacting standards.  I now realise that Helen had probably just bought the IJL franchise after seeing an ad online. I also suspect she had no experience whatsoever.

Still, there I was in her posh new office telling her what I looked for in a man apart from a pulse. I told her that I wasn’t comfortable with massive age-gaps; five years either side of my own age seemed reasonable. Someone employed but they didn’t need to be rich. Someone with left-leaning politics, perhaps with an interest in the arts and popular culture. Looks? Well, perhaps someone a little taller than me but being no oil painting myself, I wasn’t setting the bar too high. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

And so I went on my first date with Rafiq. We were supposed to be meeting for lunch, but he arrived straight from having had a burger, so he didn’t want to eat. As a self-identifying fat girl, I was too self-conscious to eat in front of him. So, just a drink? He didn’t drink. He also didn’t talk about politics (with women). He didn’t go to the theatre or read novels or watch TV much. He did, however, still live with his parents and his Nan. And that was because he was about 12 years my junior.

Two days later, Helen, my Dating Director rang for the feedback session. She was like Cilla Black on Blind Date, convinced that she’d be buying a wedding hat before long. I quickly disabused her of that notion. She promised that she would use my feedback to find me a true Prince Charming and she would be in touch.

The next time I heard from her was when a cheque and a note scribbled on a compliment slip arrived in the post. Instead of Prince Charming I received a partial refund. Apparently there was not a bloke in the whole of Leeds that met my criteria. Or maybe I didn’t meet theirs? It’s not a great boost to the ego to be told by someone who claims to be a great matchmaker that there is no-one out there for you. To be honest, it sort of confirms your deepest, darkest fears about yourself. I can’t remember what I spent the refund on. I hope it was something nice.

Eight years or so later, I had all but forgotten about It’s Just Lunch. However, they had not forgotten about me. I was on a train to Manchester when they first tried to call me. I hate sales calls at the best of time, but someone trying to give you the hard sell when you’re saying “Look, I’m going into a tunnel now. There really is no point… Hello? Hello? Oh fuck”. The woman was also calling from Florida, which didn’t improve the standard of communication. When she called back after the third tunnel I didn’t answer.

But the woman from Florida was persistent. Over the next couple of weeks she rang me repeatedly until finally she caught me on a Friday night; the start of another weekend where I had nothing to do and no-one to do it with. So, when she assured me that IJL was now a more streamlined business I listened. My ears may have pricked up when she told me of their fantastic success rate, customer satisfaction and great risk-free introductory offer. They were offering me 12 dates in 18 months or I would get my money back. However, she assured me that I wouldn’t need 12 dates. Their personalised, pinpoint-accurate matchmaking service would probably find me the man of my wildest dreams within three dates.

Yes! I know it was utter bullshit now. Of course I do. But at the time, I so desperately wanted it to be the truth that I gave her my credit card number. And signed a contract. I want to be completely frank in this account of events, but I can’t bring myself to tell you what I paid to re-join It’s Just Lunch. I’m too ashamed.

I was a bit annoyed that my first date was in London, but Nicky my new Dating Director asked me how far was too far to travel for the love of your life. Hard to argue against that one. Over the years, my wish list for a potential mate had not really changed. So, whilst my lunch with James at a very expensive hotel restaurant (£20 for a tiny salad!) was very pleasant, he wasn’t a good match for me. I wasn’t for him. He was a corporate lawyer in his fifties with a public-school education and was clearly looking for the same. Still, he was very polite and spent the requisite hour chatting with me over lettuce that must have been picked by vestal virgins from the Elysium fields to justify the price.

You can take the girl out of Yorkshire…

In amongst the dull small talk, James said something that should have rung an alarm for me. He told me he had done a little digging into IJL and whilst they claimed to have offices in London, Leeds and Dublin, he was pretty sure that everything was run from the call centre in Florida. His first IJL date had been with a woman from London. IJL had booked them a restaurant table in Wimbledon. However, when they met they realised that they were both from North London and had both spent over an hour travelling to the restaurant when they could have met somewhere local. James commented that IJL’s lack of local knowledge could be a bit of an issue. He was right.

When I gave my feedback on my date with James, I mentioned that I would prefer to date someone a little more local. Not just in Leeds, but perhaps in Manchester, York or Newcastle. Of course, to Florida-based Nicky these place names meant absolutely nothing. I tried to explain that it took me about three hours to get from my front door to a restaurant in Central London, not to mention the cost of train tickets or an overnight hotel stay if it was an evening date. Nicky tried to give me the whole ‘no distance too far to travel for true love’ bullshit again. I told her it wasn’t just about the distance and money, it was also the time out of my working day. I asked again, weren’t there any men in the North? Nicky told me they would look for someone nearer to home, but in the interim I would have to keep travelling to London. We came to an agreement that I would let her know when I would be in London and she would find me a date for that night.

About five months later, she finally managed to do that. I was down in London for a friend’s birthday party, so Nicky set me up with David for a Sunday Lunch date at a restaurant in Covent Garden. A restaurant that it turned out was actually closed on Sundays. So, I ended up standing outside for 30 minutes smiling at random strangers hoping that they might be David (IJL dates are blind dates, remember).

And one of them might have been. He might have caught sight of me and thought ‘fuck that’. I don’t know. Because Nicky could not give me explanation for how she had managed to book a table at a closed restaurant or why David hadn’t bothered to turn up. She could barely apologise for the humiliation or inconvenience. Indeed she seemed quite hurt that I was holding her responsible. She assured me that she would find out what happened to David.

Two months later and I hadn’t heard a thing. I sent an email asking for my money back. That seemingly got someone’s attention. Suddenly I had a new Dating Director; Tom. He assured me that my non-date was an aberration not to be repeated. I told him that getting stood up was one thing, but getting stood up 250 miles from home was quite another. He said he understood, but told me that most of the men they had available were in London and I would either have to accept the dates offered or forfeit my money.

I should have told him to fuck off right there and then. But, as I said, it was a shameful amount of money and I wasn’t prepared to spunk it on one dull lunch and a no-show. I told him to recommence the search for Mr Holdsworth.

I didn’t hear anything for another three months. In that time it appeared that Tom had moved on and I had my third dating director; Anita. She also assured me that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated and told me how she was committed to finding me happiness come hell or high water.

However, she had something delicate to discuss with me. She noticed that I had said I wasn’t interested in men who were more than five years older or younger than me. I replied that I thought it was a decent window. She wondered if she might be frank with me. What I needed to understand was that men just are not interested in women who are the same age or older than them. In her experience, men were really only interested in women who were at least 10 years younger. So, if perhaps if I could be a bit more flexible… I pointed out that a company who had promised me a perfect, tailor-made match shouldn’t really ask for flexibility or compromise. And, more importantly, did they ask the men to be flexible when it came to the age of their matches? Apparently not.

So, six months after my non-date with David, Anita sent me on my next date with Brian. At least this time the restaurant, an expensive West End steakhouse, was open. It was also busy. So, me sitting at a table nursing a glass of wine and not ordering any food did not go down very well. After an hour, I gave in and ordered an overpriced steak and chips. The ladies on the table next to me realised that I had been stood up and gave me their carafe of red wine. It was an okay steak.

Anita was apparently absolutely horrified that I had been let down. Still, perhaps Brian was dead in a ditch or had been kidnapped by ISIS. She promised to get to the bottom of it. She never did. Instead, she arranged another date with someone called Robert for the first week in January. This time she didn’t call to discuss a time or whether Robert met my criteria. She just emailed me the restaurant reservation just before Christmas. I emailed back asking for some details. She did not respond. However, I was not prepared to treat Robert in the way I had been treated by previous dates. So, I booked a train and hotel room and made my way down to London.

At least this time Anita did actually call to tell me that my date had backed out. However, I was already in London by that time having travelled on a non-refundable ticket and booked a non-refundable room. It had cost me another £200 to be stood for a third time.

Not a complete bust. At short notice I was able to spend the evening eating pretty decent tapas with one of my oldest, bestest friends – Sisters before misters.

Still, when I got back to my unnecessary hotel room (which had no kettle, surely illegal in the UK) I did what I should have done the first time I was stood up. I wrote to IJL to tell them to keep their fucking money and to never get in touch with me again. In the space of 18 months that shitty company has cost me fortune, wasted my time and sapped what little dating confidence I actually had. Last night I was left feeling hurt, angry and utterly stupid. So, I am doing the one thing that I know I’m good at; I’m writing about it,

And if it stops someone else handing over their hard-earned cash and their fragile hearts to this set of utter fucking con artistes, then that’s all to the good. I suspect their true business plan is similar to a gym. They sign you up promising that you’ll have a personal trainer who will design a personal fitness regime and motivate you to feel the burn until you’re thin and fabulous. In reality they just take your joining fee, show you how the treadmills work and then forget about you.

So, my love life is back in the lap of the Gods. Maybe that meet-cute is just around the corner?

Monday 4 January 2016

Promises, promises, promises.

There are two things I struggle to do during the festive period; dieting and writing. And for much the same reasons. There all those parties and distractions and drinking Baileys for breakfast; it increases the waistline not the word count. I rationalise it by telling myself that even if I were to bash out a pitch for every window I open on my advent calendar, there’d be no-one sober enough around to read it anyway. And so, after downing tools for the festive period, I am back with a few new words for the new term.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog called  10 New Year Resolutions Every Writer Should Break . This year I’m giving you the 5 New Year Writing Resolutions that I’m personally going to try and keep. Of course, it’s entirely up to you whether you join me in my virtuous pursuit of the higher literary ground. I also realise that it might be inviting my fellow writers to police my habits for the next twelve months. I’m not.

However, if you see me on a branch of Greggs after the second of January, you do have my permission to drag me out before I can purchase a Steak Bake.

1. Get my priorities straight.

It’s been a weird old year with lots of distractions including voluntary work, family upheaval and binge watching six seasons of Parenthood. I tried to establish Monday as my admin day when I would clear my to-do list, my inbox and my head so that I could get cracking with the actual writing Tuesday through Friday. The truth is, it’s not working (in both senses of the word).

Admin begets more admin. You reply to fifteen emails and you get fifteen back. So Admin Monday becomes Follow-up Tuesday becomes What Now? Wednesday becomes Leave Me Alone Thursday becomes Oh Fuck It Friday.

And now I’m wondering if I’ve got my priorities skew-whiff. My job is writing. Everything else - the talks, the meetings, the event organising – are not. That’s not to say I’ll be giving it all up. There is nothing I love more than being in a room with other writers. However, there’s a point when you start to feel like a fraud. When it feels like being a writer is your job, not actually knuckling down and doing the bloody work.

So, Admin Mondays are no more.

2. I will differentiate between writing that is not to my taste and bad writing.

One of the new phrases I added to my vocabulary this year was ‘Hot Take’. Because, you know, I’m so down with the kids and that. Do you want to see me twerk?

2015 was the Year of Rushing To Judgement whether it was about election poll numbers, pictures of alleged jihadists in the bath or how deep you should bow at the cenotaph. And I have not been immune to it. I have watched first episodes of shows and decided that a series was bobbins. Even though I know that writing opening episodes is a Herculean task. Conversely I have been swayed by other people's opinions on social media. I’ve watched series to the bitter end despite not really enjoying or understanding the show because everyone on Twitter was calling it the best thing since Breaking Bad/The Wire/Crossroads. But worst of all, I have dismissed shows as terrible or badly-written just because they weren’t to my taste.

It has to stop and for a good reason. We have a battle on our hands at the moment to save the BBC. And one of the most prevalent and irritating arguments against Auntie Beeb seems to be; Why should I pay my licence fee when I don’t like Strictly Come Dancing/Top Gear/University Challenge/That Awful Bloody Pop Music They Insist On Playing Morning, Noon and Night On Radio One?

It so easy to get dragged into playing a game of fantasy channel controller where you decide what your £145.50 a year should and shouldn't pay for. It’s a dangerous game that has already put 6Music and the Asian Network under threat and led to BBC Three moving online. It chips away at vulnerable services and content. The fact is  it doesn’t matter if your televisual diet consists purely of Wolf Hall and BBC Four documentaries about canal boats. It’s irrelevant if you only turn on the box to watch Mrs Brown’s Boys and Eastenders. The Wolf Hall mob pay for Eastenders and vice versa. It is a beautifully balanced and unique system. No wonder the politicians loath it.

So, I’m going to strive not to play their game any longer. I will respect the writers, producers, techies etc who work hard to get stuff up on screen and I will give it a fair crack of the whip; at least two episodes. And if I still don’t like it, then I’ll turn off the damn TV.

However, I still reserve the right to unpick, discuss and analyse – respectfully. I consider it part of my job as a writer. And perhaps the powerful person who skulks around social media ‘calling out’ writers who discuss other writers’ work could respect that? Flipping heck, love. We all Google ourselves to see what folk are saying about us, but we don’t advertise the fact.

3I will learn to talk confidently about money.

The Writers’ Guild is currently running a campaign called Free Is Not An Option. We want to talk frankly about the increasing amount of work that writers are being to be asked to do for free. And we’ve all done it. A pitch turns into a treatment which turns into a series bible which turns into a pilot script. And the longer this goes on, the harder it gets to mention the money.

Although, sometimes remuneration is dangled in front of writer like a carrot on a stick. I’ve lost count of the number of times that a development producer has told me that s/he is ‘trying to find some money’ for me. In the words of someone wiser than me; Do. Or do not. There is no try.

Bottom line? A company should have a proper budget for development not some ad-hoc arrangement based on goodwill and crossed fingers.

However, I am going to take more responsibility for the financial aspects of my career from now. I will discuss money in the first meeting. I will tell development bods that whilst I am very excited about working with them, I am also excited about paying my mortgage.

This is my job, not my hobby.

4. I will no longer stand for workplace bullying and bad work practices.

It’s another thing that most writers will encounter during their careers; the late notes, sudden story changes, the quick turnover on yet another draft and the subsequent cancelled arrangements/life. And it’s getting out of hand.

Look, all writers joke about procrastination and working up to the last second of a deadline. However, the reality is that a lot of writers have no choice but to write into the wee hours, over the weekend and whilst supposedly on holiday. It’s become so prevalent that producers and script editors are not even apologising for it any longer. It’s just assumed that a writer will take the punishment of contradictory notes, too many drafts and tight turnovers. There is now no point trying to explain that you are exhausted or on the verge of divorce or you’ve eaten nothing but take away for a week. Because if you do complain? Well, you’re a nightmare. You’re unprofessional. You can’t hack it.

Bullshit. If you are running a show where it is consistently necessary for your writers to write through the night or for weeks without a decent break, then YOU are being unprofessional. You are running a production that is badly scheduled and managed. You need to do your job better. Actually, it’s probably not just you that needs to do your job better. It’s a probably a whole roomful of producers sticking their oar in and gumming up the works.

The thing is, it’s the law of diminishing returns. With each rushed draft, the writer gets further and further away from what s/he wants to see on the screen. As the time ticks away, the dialogue gets more on the nose, the plot becomes leakier and the characters start doing stupid things. More damaging, with each massive rewrite a writer's confidence is eroded and that shows in tentative, run of the mill, risk-free scripts.

When it comes to scripts, you can have it fast or you can have it right. You can’t have both.

So, how to remedy this? Well, this year I’m going to do the following:-

*  I’m going to listen out for the tell-tale signs of bad working practises. If a schedule is described as ‘a bit tight’ that means it is impossible.

* If there isn’t a script schedule with deadlines for first drafts, second drafts and shooting scripts, I’m going to ask for one. And I’m going to ask why the production is not sticking to the schedule as significant dates sail by without comment.

* I’m going to ask who will be giving me notes and when. If the big boss (executive or commissioning producer) isn’t reading my script until the day before it shoots, that’s a potential problem. Because they could ask for big changes and I’ll have no option but to take them on board. If they have to have an input, then it needs to be early and often.

Let’s reject the narrative of the great exec coming down from the mountain with the essential note that will save the episode. It never happens like that. More often they insist on a change that screws up the rest of the episode and negates months of work. But they pay the wages, so no-one can say anything.

* For my part, I will inform the production of any holidays, family responsibilities or days when I will not be available. In the past I’ve kept schtum and hoped that I could slip away, worried that my having an actual life would be misinterpreted as a lack of commitment to the production. But let’s stop pretending that shows get better when they are turned into a competition to see who can work the most unsociable hours. They don’t.

5. Diversity, diversity, diversity.

I’ve been trying to improve the diversity of the characters I write for a long time. I’ve realised it’s about so much more than just sticking someone called Mohammed in a scene or making the doctor female. It’s all about listening, reading and educating myself. In fact, it’s about shutting the fuck up and letting other people tell me their stories before I start trying to write mine. I expect to be working on this for the rest of my career. But then I love a learning curve. I will do better.

And so, I embark upon 2016 with hope in my heart, fire in my belly and dangerous levels of caffeine in my bloodstream. I hope I get to shoot the breeze with a decent number of you along the way. Here’s to the lead in your pencil!