NaNoWriMo – the magic 50k

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo this year, and it’s going pretty well. I’m now at 34k words now, and I’m feeling positive about it. It’s by far the longest thing I’ve written, including my self-published and about-to-be-published work (did I mention I got a book deal? I think I may have mentioned I got a book deal…) I’m liking my story, my characters, and I think it’s paced pretty well. I’ve been using the official website and finding its stats a great incentive, that’s really working for me. I like a chart, what can I say? Put a quantifiable score on something, and I engage. However, wordcounts, targets and scores aren’t the be all and end all. They’re a distant second place to The Story.

I also joined the NaNoWriMo Facebook group and to be honest, as the end of November looms, I’m starting to get a wee bit depressed by the number of posts I’m seeing where people are saying “I’ve reached the end of my story and I’m only at 40k, 45k, 46k… how do I make up the extra?” Even more depressingly, without any knowledge of that person’s project, people are chipping in with “Why don’t you take a side character and do this,” or “Why don’t you add more description” without any idea of how much is in there already. I even saw one person specifically suggest a writer go back and add descriptors for how people said things like (and this was her example) “she uttered with verbatim”.

Now, it may be that an extra scene could explore one of your characters better, or explain a plot development more clearly. It may well be that some extra description might add some much-needed flavour to a sequence. This is what editing’s for, it can be cutting, but it can be adding, where the story needs it.

But looking to add 5k words because you’re 5k short of an arbitrary target is not only unnecessary, it’s actually teaching the completely wrong lesson about writing. Maybe I’m taking this too seriously, I get that NaNoWriMo is a bit of fun for a lot of people. But I’m assuming that even the most casual of NaNoWriMoers are interested in producing the best story they can. The wordcount target is a great incentive, a fantastic tool to encourage writers, but it is arbitrary. There is no official definition of ‘novel’ when it comes to length. For instance, in sci-fi, a 40k word story is a novel under the rules for the Nebula awards.

Maybe your story could do with an extra scene or two, but maybe it’s actually where it needs to be to tell that story. Adding another 5k words to hit a target isn’t making a better story, or you a better writer. Your story should be as long as it needs to be to tell it well. That could be 50k, it could be 100k. It could equally be 30k. But you need to answer to the needs of your story, not the needs of your targets. If you’re paying too much attention to the latter, what you’re doing is not good writing.

I get that reaching the target for NaNoWriMo is a big deal. I’m certainly hoping to. I think the project is an awesome one, and it’s thrilling to be doing something that so many other people around the world are engaged in. The people behind NaNoWriMo have come up with a great set of tools and resources to encourage writers. But whether or not you hit that magic 50k is not what defines how good your work is. And even if this is your first time out, or you’re just doing it for fun, or the challenge, please don’t sell your work short just to hit a marker.

International Men’s Day

So tomorrow (19th November) is International Men’s Day, the day when Richard Herring spends his whole day trolling all the men who spent 8th March (International Women’s Day) going all P**rs M*rg*n and crying “Waaaaa, when’s International Men’s Day” online, by reminding them of their crying out for something that already exists, and asking them what they’re doing for it.

International Women’s Day is, in part, a day to put right the imbalance in the recognition of women’s achievements compared to men’s. So on the surface, you could be forgiven for thinking that to turn around and then insist men have one too is classic people-at-the-top behaviour, punching down because a cry for equality from a marginalised group is seen as taking something away from a dominant group who don’t like admitting their privilege, so they pretend that the calls for equality are just masking an attempt to oppress them. Us poor oppressed men, eh?

However, IMD is not about saying men are great. It’s about highlighting positive role models, and talking about values and responsibilities, as well as achievements – you can find out more on the official website. The aspect I want to highlight, which will come as no surprise if you’ve read my blog before, is the focus on men’s wellbeing. Men’s Mental Health is a passion of mine, being a long-term sufferer of clinical depression and anxiety. I’ve been talking about it for years and while it’s true that we are a lot more open about it than in the past, it still comes with a stigma for a lot of men. The message that it’s okay to talk about vulnerability, to own up to weakness, fear, stress, that’s a message that still needs promotion, because it’s still seen by some as un-masculine to be open about these things.

In 2019, there were 5,691 suicides registered in England and Wales. Approximately three quarters of them were men (this is from the Office of National Statistics). The highest age-specific suicide rate is for men between the ages of 45 and 49. I turn 45 this year, and while I can assure you that I don’t see that in my future, you can see why tackling this is a cause I want to get behind.

2020, meanwhile, has been a hugely difficult year for many of us. I’ve spent six months of it at home on furlough, before eventually being made redundant. And I’m one of the lucky ones – I secured a new job before my notice expired and, to be honest, with a natural tendency towards reclusiveness, lockdown wasn’t exactly a hard cross to bear. On top of which my wife carried on working, and I’d been in my job long enough that when redundancy did come, it came with a modest payoff, enough to tide me over while I found a new job. I count my blessings.

One of the ways I passed those six months at home was focusing on something I’d harbored ambitions for most of my life – writing. I dabble from time to time, sure, but with six months to kill and only so much gardening that needed doing, I embraced the laptop and finally started taking it seriously. I might never have this much free time again, and with job loss looming, there was never a better time to see once and for if I had it in me.

So I finally steeled myself for the one part of the process I’d always dreaded – putting my work in front of other people. I started by self-publishing, under the name Ray Adams, a sci-fi novella I’d been working on. I gave it a proper edit, got Sarah to proof-read it for me, and generally polished it up to a degree I’d never bothered to with anything I’d written before. I then bit the bullet and looked into Am*z*n’s self-publishing KDP program. (I know, I know, there’s a lot of issues with that company, and it wasn’t an easy decision, but at the same time the tools and market it provides for the self-publishing author are a big draw…)

So The Forcek Assignment by Ray Adams is now available for purchase, for kindle or in paperback, here. It’s a quick read, plenty of action, with a few spicy moral dilemmas thrown in. It follows a small-time ship’s captain dragged into the midst of a political conspiracy, and the pursuit of the mysterious entity pulling the strings from the shadows. I’m quite proud of it, and my dad liked it. If you like sci-fi, may I humbly suggest you buy it. And if you do, honest reviews on Goodreads or Am’zon would be appreciated. (The sequel’s out at the end of the year!)

Spurred on by that, I’ve also thrown myself into NaNoWriMo this year. This annual celebration of writing where keen amateurs such as myself pledge to write a 50k-word novel in a month is something I’ve started before a couple of times, only to peter out almost straight away. This year, I’m past the 30k mark and I’m pretty pleased with it so far. Pleased enough that I’m planning on making this available too at some point in 2021.

It’s not the only thing I’ve been working on, though. More in keeping with theme of International Men’s Day, bringing us back to where I started, and more personal to me, is Playtime’s Over. This is the story of a drowning man facing up to the consequences of his actions, and the choices he’s made, via a conversation, in his mind, with a manifestation of his subconscious. Heavy stuff, right? Except hopefully, it doesn’t read that way. It’s got, I think, a lightness of touch that saves it from pomposity. Certainly those folk that have read it so far have been very positive about it.

This one I am really proud of and as such, I took the bold (for me) step of approaching some people directly and asking them to read it. I want to thank them for doing so, especially Dan and Becky, who looked at it first. In Dan’s case, he read it before it was finished, and gave me the encouragement to continue with it. I should also thank Anna for her initial proofreading, and Dave, Jenny, Paul, Ben, Shontae and Stoo for their feedback.

The other person I showed it to was Henry, the owner of Norwich’s Book Hive. I knew Henry a little bit, as one of his customers, and he’s always been very genial, and helpful. So I thought, as a bookshop owner, maybe he’d have some thoughts or advice on what I should do next. I hadn’t approached him with the thought of him reading it, I didn’t want to presume, but he very graciously offered to anyway. Which led, and I still can’t quite believe I’m saying this, to him offering to work with me on it.

And publish it.

The Book Hive is also home to Propolis, and their slate next year (probably in the summer) will include Playtime’s Over by James Kinsley. The man who previously took a chance on Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, after it had been rejected by numerous other publishers, and saw it go on to secure awards and acclaim, took a look at my book and said “Yeah, I’ll give that a go.”

I have no words. Except, of course, I have quite a lot. I’m a writer now, see?

Not much else in the way of detail yet. We have a contract, of course, or I wouldn’t be saying anything, but we don’t have a publishing date yet, or even a cover design. We only decided on a title this week, and we’ve one final edit of the text to approve. But given the subject matter, International Men’s Day seemed the right time to let people know this is happening. You can rely on me to keep you up-to-date with any developments.

Keep your fingers crossed for me, then. And when next summer rolls around and you’re looking for something to read…

Why does it matter?

Like most of the world, I’ve spent the last week constantly refreshing news sites in the background of whatever else I was up to, for pretty much most of my waking day. It’s been a momentous week, one in which the viciously Nationalist atmosphere that’s been slowly creeping into Western culture seems to have hit its first, major stumbling block. Trump took his provocative agenda back to the US polls, and the US responded with a very close but nevertheless decisive ‘no thanks’. And so (recounts and evidence-free lawsuits aside), it looks like Joe Biden is going to be the 46th president of the United States.

So why have I (we) been paying so much attention to a presidential election in another country? There are, of course, a number of reasons. Trump’s has, for better or worse (worse, obvs), been a fascinating presidency. Larger than life; a cartoon character running the most powerful and influential country in the world. With his Twitter rants, his insane ego, his refusal to even look the word ‘statesmanlike’ up in a dictionary, Trump has dominated the news and public discourse like no one else. His entire strategy, if indeed it has been anything as well thought out as a ‘strategy’, has been to make everything about him. He has no narrative, no policy direction, that extends any further than his own self-promotion. From the beginning, he’s taken every opportunity to monetise the presidency, hosting political events at his own hotels and, of course, golf courses. Whether he’s plugging merchandise or selecting his own kids for senior roles, this has been the Trump Show, the ultimate reality tv binge-watch. One only has to look at how often he talked about ratings (the ratings for his pandemic briefings were through the roof, he delightedly claimed) to understand the peculiar lens through which he’s viewed the past four years.

It’s not, however, mere fascination that’s kept me glued to my phone for the past five days. This election does matter to all of us. The US prides itself on its position on the global stage, and for that reason it must expect those of us outside its electorate to have a vested interest in the outcome of its elections, at any time, let alone during this most divisive 2020 campaign. Boris Johnson is ‘Britain Trump’ according to POTUS (and jeebers, I don’t think his poor grasp of English has ever bothered me as much as this example – it’s ‘British Trump’, you moron), and the wave of discontent, Nationalism and distrust of foreigners is one that our own PM has been all too willing to ride. Unified by a lack of interest in the actual work of being a world leader, merely attracted to the glow of the title like a moth to a flame, Johnson has indeed been Trump’s mini-me, and our country is realistically in no position to judge the US. We’ve been engaged in a tennis-like exchange of ‘hold my beer’ since 2016, when both our countries voted to kick ourselves royally in the nuts in the name of being fed-up with the status quo.

It’s important, however, to look at that self-destructiveness and try and understand it. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist bigot, just as I know that not everyone who voted for Brexit is a racist bigot. Racist bigotry is a huge part of what makes Trump Trump, of what makes Johnson Johnson. It’s 100% of what makes Farage Farage. But the wave that followed them was a complex mix of like-minded bigotry and everyday people dissatisfied and feeling like nobody was looking out for them. They took the east coast, old, white, male billionaire’s ‘outsider’ narrative and bought it hook, line and sinker. They looked at that photograph of Farage and Trump stood in a gold elevator and thought there are the anti-establishment figures that speak for me. I still don’t get it, but I get it. This was never, for a lot of people, about brown people. It was about an inherent distrust in politics, and the opportunity to grasp at change.

But for a lot of other people, it was totally about brown people. And this is the problem. By tying their colours to that mast, Trump-voters helped create an atmosphere. An atmosphere of fear and blame. Rich folk telling poor folk that other poor folk were the cause of all their problems, a fixed part of our political narrative for the last hundred years. Whether it’s Jews, immigrants, dole-scroungers or Muslims, those at the top always found someone else at the bottom to point at. It’s the same old distraction, writ large. And the consequences for our communities have been as tragic as they always have. We’ve all seen the shaky camera footage, white people calling the police on black people for being in a park, or a fast food establishment. “This is Trump’s America now!” The president told four congresswomen of colour to go back to where they came from and nobody even blinked. Trump sowed division wherever he went. He spent the four years of his presidency on Twitter setting the example that it’s okay to be abusive, it’s perfectly acceptable to hold prejudices, to express them and to act on them. And those people that voted for him, even the huge number who did so for totally different reasons, enabled that.

There are those, I know, who were willing to look beyond that (or even pretend it didn’t happen) and focus on things like the economy, to say that his inability to conduct himself properly didn’t matter, it was what his administration achieved that mattered (like children in cages?). But I don’t agree. How we treat others matters. Whether it’s a US president telling his people that all Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers, or a British PM with a history of derogatory racial epithets in his newspaper columns, it is not alright to look past that. Deriders of political correctness will laugh at me, but it is important, vital that we learn how to treat each other right. That matters more than the economy. It’s our very nature that’s at stake here. And for all the talk of the disenfranchised voting for Trump out of some sort of kick against how they’ve felt marginalised, unheard – for those people to then embrace somebody who’s been so committed to marginalising others makes no sense. It’s essentially saying that for corners of society to be beaten down, oppressed, shit on, that’s fine. As long as it isn’t my corner. They tell us that we need to listen to them, to understand why they voted for Trump. And they’re right, we do. But so do they.

I don’t think Biden’s the great hope who’s going to turn this around. To be the oldest man to be voted to the presidency isn’t an inspiring tale, frankly, and he wouldn’t have been my pick for an election that essentially boiled down to be being between Trump and not-Trump. The nationalist, bitter atmosphere that Trump didn’t create, but nevertheless rode and encouraged, isn’t going to disappear over night. The job isn’t finished with Trump out of the White House and, with any luck, on his way to prison. The job starts here. We need Johnson out. We need Farage finally kicked into the sea. We need to dismantle our institutional racism, start listening to the disenfranchised and, most crucially, start doing something about the environment before all this stops mattering. We need to address the questions that led to the last four years of chaos and viciousness, but a vote for decency isn’t naivety. It’s an essential starting point, because until we learn to treat everyone in society well, we still haven’t bought into the idea of ‘society’.

The message is clear. The US embarked on a dangerous flirtation with fascism, but ultimately, this week, decided it wasn’t for them. The job now is to be clear about what the alternative is and make it work, for everyone.

Interesting Opportunities

2020 has been, undoubtedly, an interesting year. If you follow me on social media, what I’m about to share you may already know, but if you missed it, here’s this week’s news.

To start from the beginning, back in August, a friend contacted me about some photographs I’d posted on Instagram. I’d been messing about while on furlough, taking photographs and stitching them together in Insta’s layout app, to create images that looked like I was in the photo twice.

As I say, just a bit of fun (which I’ve previously referred to here), but it seemed to resonate, people found them quite striking. Then m’colleague Paula got in touch with me to say that I’d hit upon something that might make an interesting art project, and could open up some conversation on mental health and the experience of lockdown. And lo, The Split Project was born.

Then, things got even more fun. I got a message on Instagram from Monica from the How We Get By podcast. Monica is a remarkable young woman (and an absolute sweetheart) who in response to her own mental health issues and personal trauma, started a podcast from her bedroom in Scranton to talk to people about what they do to get by. Usually with people she knows, from her life, but she took saw The Split Project, was intrigued by the images and decided to reach out. She invited me onto her podcast and, given my two favourite subjects to talk about are (i) mental health and (ii) myself, I couldn’t resist saying yes.

The conversation was wide-ranging, very honest and, most importantly, a lot of fun. I’ve never thought of myself as any kind of MH advocate, so to be invited as a guest to talk about my experiences was incredibly gratifying. Monica’s podcast is very accessible, she’s a great interviewer, and a frank and honest woman. I’m a big a fan.

If you want to give it a listen, you can access the episode here (you can listen on Spotify, as well as a range of other podcast platforms).

As I said at the top, it’s been a bizarre year, but one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes the most interesting opportunities can arise out of adversity, and being open to these opportunities can turn out to be a lot of fun. Thanks Monica!

Trying to stay positive

Yesterday, my emotional reaction to my situation finally broke out. Ridiculously, I was in the garden looking at our tomatoes, and the realisation that it was the 1st September and none of our tomatoes had ripened made me suddenly feel as if I had failed at something. And in moments, everything else just came crashing over me and I started weeping, and couldn’t stop.

Having been on furlough for five months or so, and now being made redundant, it suddenly felt as if everything I’d been doing to keep focussed, stay positive and be productive was just me wasting time instead of facing my imminent unemployment and doing something about it. I felt as if I’d had my head in the sand, that I’d just been playing through my situation, treating it like a holiday. I felt stupid, and a fraud, and utterly useless. I felt, keenly, as if I had let my wife down. Everything that I’d been telling myself about our financial situation, and the time I had to resolve this issue, was just me avoiding the situation.

Now, I know that this is not the case. The truth is, we are financially in a position where we have a few months (at least until 2021) to work out where I, and we, go next. I have been applying for jobs. I have, critically, so far as my well-documented mental health history goes, got out of bed, got dressed and been productive every single day of the last five months. There’s been days, don’t get me wrong, where I’ve wanted nothing more than just to stay in bed and feel sorry for myself. But in five months, I’ve never given into that. And the fact that I’ve stayed on an even keel (mostly) is important, you could argue was my first priority. But the fact is that sooner or later, I was going to be swamped by these feelings. And yesterday was the day, it seems.

Perhaps not by chance, yesterday I also had a pre-arranged meeting with my vicar, just to catch up, and talk a bit about how I was doing having lost my job. So later that day, after the crash, I went up to church and saw him. We talked for about an hour and a half, about all sorts of things, my job, politics, theology, my mental health. I won’t go into details, but one of the things he advised when I told him of the crash I’d experienced that morning was to make a list of the things I had achieved over the summer. This should be encouraging, at least, but also help me focus on what’s worked for me, where I’ve found satisfaction, and therefore what I might want my life to look like in the future.

This is that list.

  • I have got out of bed, dressed and been productive every day.
  • I’ve been gardening, much more than previous years. Our garden looks as good as it ever has, and I’ve engaged with it more, connected with it more.
  • I have started sketching, in an effort to see if I can improve my limited artistic skills.
  • I’ve taken on the bulk of all the cleaning, shopping, cooking and other chores at home. My wife is still working, so I’ve been in full support mode, and its meant that our weekends have been our own, and we’ve been able to get on with some other projects.
  • I’ve been writing.
  • I’ve submitted a finished manuscript to three publishers.
  • I’ve self-published, via Amazon’s KDP, the first of my sci-fi trilogy, having proofed and edited it properly.
  • I’ve begun properly editing the sequel.
  • I’ve taken a whimsical idea I was messing about with and, with the encouragement of a colleague, turned it into an ongoing online art project, dealing with mental health.
  • I’ve been approached, off the back of this, by a podcaster in the US who’s invited me to participate in her MH podcast.
  • I’ve maintained a good solid relationship with my wife, given the unusual circumstances of us being together practically 24/7 for five months.
  • We’ve taken steps to improve our mortgage situation.
  • I’ve shopped for our neighbour, and made myself available to do so for a number of vulnerable people around us.
  • I’ve reconnected with my niece.
  • I’ve taken the most technical and fiddly part of my job and passed it over, successfully and remotely, to a colleague.
  • I’ve reset my passwords for all my many and varied online accounts.
  • I’ve started reading more about Feminism.
  • I’ve become more politically engaged.
  • I’ve tried to educate myself by attending some of the Green Party’s online events.
  • I’ve kept up a video diary recording my experience of furlough, anxiety attacks, disappointment, fear, and all.
  • I’ve dabbled in stop-motion filming.
  • I’ve written my most-read blog.
  • I’ve overcome my scepticism at this process, as I’ve seen how long this list has actually become.
  • I’ve been there for my parents when they’ve needed me, for shopping or helping my dad with a shed.
  • I’ve helped my brother overcome an anxiety issue with wearing a mask for work.
  • I’ve continued meditating, including using it as part of my personal worship during the time that churches weren’t open.

I hope I remember to look at this the next time I feel like shit.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Things are not going well for Boris Johnson. As the Conservatives slump in the polls, previously-loyal supporters of the PM are openly talking about how difficult it is for rank-and-file Tory MPs to defend Government policy to their constituents in the face of growing u-turns in the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now I will say, this has been an incredibly difficult period to be in charge of anything, from small businesses to national government. The world hasn’t faced anything like this for over 100 years, it would be unreasonable to expect there to be no mistakes in handling it. Some things the government has got right, and some it hasn’t. Furthermore, some of the things it’s got wrong have been forgiveable, some have not. I wouldn’t want to be in Johnson’s shoes for a moment. But the fact is that over 41,000 people have died in the UK from this disease and one has to wonder how many of them might have been saved if, for example, Johnson hadn’t scrapped the Cabinet pandemic committee six months before this crisis to focus on his beloved Brexit.

Johnson looks troubled. When we see him, that is. While A-level students faced a crisis recently, Johnson was notably absent from the public eye, on yet another holiday. He is not, it has to be said, that impressive when on public display. Whether he’s hiding in a fridge to avoid Piers Morgan (okay, yes, wouldn’t we all), or haranguing MPs to return to Parliament at the height of the pandemic because he performs better with an audience, Johnson’s public appearances appear to be being limited, and strictly controlled, seemingly because he’s, well, not very good at it.

Having avoided the public eye during the A-levels fiasco, he did charge back to the nearest camera to make known his opinion about the largely-engineered non-story of the BBC supposedly dropping Land of Hope and Glory from the Proms because of Black Lives Matter, his opinion being that we should stop being ashamed of our slave-owning history, because Rule Britannia, Brexit, Spitfires, bulldogs etc etc. Because playing to the crowd in the Culture Wars is more his forte than serious political decision making. Or, for that matter, taking responsibility for things. He even made the Trump-esque move of saying that “they” didn’t want him saying this; the London based old Etonion Conservative millionaire Prime Minister setting himself up as the anti-establishment figure he so rightly should be recognised as.

But if there is one consolation (and I repeat, over 41k dead), one small piece of solace that I can draw from this situation is that Johnson, having spent his entire career, and arguably his entire life, maneuvering for this job, is clearly not enjoying it even remotely. He’s taken over, as noted above, just in time for the worst public health crisis in over a century. The pandemic has kicked the seemingly unconquerable Brexit into the long grass, which is a real shame, as that’s what Johnson would much rather be talking about. The climactic political move that landed him at number 10 is now utterly overshadowed by all these people dying everywhere, and it just isn’t fair. Much like his equivalent across the Atlantic, Johnson never expected to have to do this much work and, as a result, he’s doing everything he can to avoid doing any. For Trump’s golf, read Johnson’s holidays. But where I’m still undecided as to whether Trump was even aiming for a win in that first election, or whether it was just a bid to improve his standing at NBC, there’s no question that Johnson really wanted this job, and has been gunning for it his whole career. In the end, however, I firmly believe that both Trump and Johnson had an idea of leadership that revolved around power, prestige, money (at least in Trump’s case) and swanning about having people carry out their every whim. What neither expected, and what landed on them like a ton of bricks with the Covid-19 pandemic, was a requirement for actual work. And now both the UK and the US have leaders who’d much rather be getting out of the office and on the golf course/beach than sitting at a desk having to do stuff.

So what’s the point of this piece, did I just sit down to slate Johnson? Well no, as easy as that would be (and it would be so, so, so easy), it’s not really on if that’s all I want to do. The point that I’m trying to make is about our motives for doing things. I’m still naive enough to believe that most politicians, of any persuasion, started their career out of a belief that they had something to give. Public office should be about duty, and about service. I’d defy even the most die-hard Trump supporter to claim, with a straight face, that Trump stood for election out of a desire to serve others. There is nothing about the man that suggests he has ever had a moment’s consideration for anyone else. And there is certainly a core of top, publicly-schooled, MPs who went into politics either out of a desire for power or, and maybe this is worse, because it seemed like a favourable alternative to getting a job.  But for most, on both sides of the aisle, I believe it was a case of looking at the world, wanting it to be better, and having an idea of how they could help achieve that. And Johnson’s all-too-apparent dissatisfaction with where he finds himself is a marked sign that that wasn’t in his thinking when he aimed for the top seat. Do things for the wrong reason, take on a role about serving others with the prime intention of serving yourself, and it’s not going to work out the way you want it to.

This is a lesson for all of us. As easy as it would be to point and laugh at this beleaguered, artfully-disheveled buffoon (so, so easy), we should be careful, because the lesson here is for all of us. We achieve more, and derive more satisfaction, when we do things for the right reason. There is happiness to be found in doing things for others, and one doesn’t have to watch Boris Johnson or Donald Trump for long to see the result of a life lived purely for oneself.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

On September 23rd 2011, I sent an email. This email was to a lovely lady called Penny, thanking her for her letter and confirming that on the 4th October I would report for duty at my new job as a Box Office Assistant at Norwich Theatre Royal. This marked the opening of what has been undoubtedly the happiest chapter of my working life.

In fact, that chapter had a prologue, it should be said. In August the previous year, I’d sent another email. This one was to a lovely lady called Vikki, confirming my attendance at an induction session to be a volunteer steward at Norwich Playhouse. I remain convinced that, in addition to my outstanding performance at my interview, this experience at the Playhouse was a major contributory factor to me getting the Box Office job.

The volunteering came about because I was on the skids after crashing out of my previous job at the Council (long story, told before). I thought the voluntary work would boost my self-esteem as well as looking, altogether now, “good on my CV”. Ten years of stewarding later… but I digress.

Back to Sept 2011, and my new job. This would turn out to be the turning point in what had been a sticky few years. Losing a job just as you’re buying a house is… a challenge. Yet it turned out, unbeknownst to me at the time, it wasn’t just a new job I’d landed, it was a new outlook, a fresh start, a cultural awakening, a new home and a new family. All in all, quite the package.

The friends I’ve made in the Box Office, and in the rest of the Theatre, have made this like no other work environment. Hannah, who started on the same day as me and was my training buddy, is still one of my closest friends, though she moved on from the Theatre years ago. I was with Nathan the night that Macaulay Culkin  was the most unexpected surprise guest at an Adam Green show at the Waterfront. I’ve rediscovered a love of table tennis thanks to Tim, and enjoyed a host of new boardgames with Cutlerrrr. Shared a love of Lego with Bear, comedians with Jason, books with Jane, films with Lisa (Lisa Lisa)… Chatted absolute shite with Chris…

When I got married, it was my Box Office brethren who tied balloons to my chair and gave us the most thoughtful wedding gift of a lovely, wooden Monopoly set, knowing my love of boardgames (compare that to the fountain pen my previous employers presented me with as a leaving gift). Nearly 1 in 5 of my Facebook friends are work friends (and it might even get to 1 in five if Andrew ever accepts my request…) And without throwing my lot in with this crowd, I would never have ended up going to Cardiff with Caz and Vikki to go on TV’s hardest quiz Only Connect. From Box Office, via a brief stint of admin in the exec office, to my current position in Marketing, I have been surrounded by good people. Lovely, caring, fun people who share a love of the Arts, and who have held me up and kept me going when my mental health problems have gotten hold of me. I’ve been managed by warm sympathetic managers, Penny, Kath, Jo, Mark, who have encouraged and nurtured me. I’ve felt safer, and happier, and more motivated in this environment than anywhere else I’ve worked, by far.

And aside from the people, to work in the Arts… To get to see world class opera and dance, often for free. To have seen productions from Matthew Bourne, Glyndebourne, the National Theatre, the ENO, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Richard Alston, Carlos Acosta… To have developed a love for ballet and opera I wouldn’t have thought was within me. This education, this flourishing of my soul, is a gift. A gift, furthermore, that I was paid to be part of. I should never have thought I could be so lucky.

All good things come to an end though. I haven’t worked since the end of March this year, for Pandemic-related reasons. Furloughed, and in limbo, we have now, alas, reached the end of that journey. The arts bailout that was so long in being announced, and has been even longer in actually materialising, has come too late for us. The furlough scheme is being wound up (for everyone at the same time, making no allowances for the yawning gulf between those companies who have been able to resume business and those that are still potentially months from being able to function normally again), and the Theatre can no longer keep over 50% of its staff sitting around doing nothing while there’s no income coming in.

That wonderful, restorative, life-affirming and life-changing journey that started back in September 2011 ends tomorrow with redundancy. These wonderful people who I hope I will still see again, though in all reality many of whom I may not, will no longer be my colleagues, though they will still be my friends. I don’t want to talk about the prospect of unemployment, as serious as that is for all of us, because this post isn’t intended to be about the loss of a job. It is about so much more than that. For me, at least, it’s the loss of a home, and the loss of a family. I never expected to find this once, so I would certainly be surprised if I was lucky enough to find it twice.

But I am eternally grateful that I did find it, and that I got to experience it for nearly nine years. You’ve changed me, for the better. And for that I thank each and every one of you for the part you’ve played in making this experience so wonderful. I wish all of you, those staying and those moving on, the very best for the future. I shall always look back on the time we shared together as one of the best I’ve ever had.

Cheers.

#teamntr4life

Black Art Matters

Over the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about race. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, just as I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering what my role is here. Be aware of my privilege, sure. I’m a white, hetero, middle-class man – I’m aware I tick all the boxes of life’s lottery, just as I’m aware that the fact that I experience hardships of my own doesn’t invalidate that privilege. I can listen, which seems super important, especially when white Americans tell me that their nationality means I should listen to them on this issue, even when what they’re saying doesn’t exactly chime with what I hear about the same issues from black Americans. I get the white saviour thing, I get the not filling up the Black Lives Matter hashtag with well-meaning black boxes that swamp actual needed information.

I do get slightly confused when I see some people saying that I should talk to black people about how I should react, and other people just as strongly saying I shouldn’t be relying on black people to tell me what to do. But that’s because expecting ‘black people’ to be some kind of homogeneous, single, agreeing entity is one thing I shouldn’t be doing.

Fact is, I’m a white middle-aged man from Norfolk, one of the least racially diverse places in England. It’s reasonable to expect that I can only deal with this badly wherever I step. So I figured, be me about it. What’s a thing that I do anyway, that I could do and make relevant to this?

A few weeks ago, as part of the relentless drive to find something to do to fill the long hours of lockdown, I posted a series of paintings on Facebook. One a day, in the style of those ‘I nominate…’ challenges, with a bit about why it was it important to me, where I’d seen it etc. Talking about the arts is a me thing. I work in a Theatre, I love museums, galleries, books… That’s my home turf. And it occured to me this week, looking back at the ten paintings I chose, there is a kind of a running theme, in so far as it seems like I really like art by white guys.

I don’t know much about black artists, or indeed any artists of colour. I could say that the conversation around art tends to stick to a known selection of (white) names, but then I’m ignorant enough to not even know if that’s true, really. It’s certainly not an excuse. It’s uncomfortable to realise that I would struggle to name more than a handful of artists of colour. Basquiat is one.

basquiat

And then there’s… Shit. This is not good.

I don’t know anything about, for example, Robert S. Duncanson, the 19th Century landscape painter.

duncanson

Son of a carpenter, grandson of a slave, Duncanson moved to Cincinnati to pursue a career in the fine arts, though he spent time in Canada and the UK during the civil war. His work gained international recognition, and he was the most successful  of the very small number of 19th Century black American landscape artists.

I know nothing about Amrita Sher-Gil, one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th Century.

Sher-Gil

Referred to sometimes as the Indian Frida Kahlo (I know who she is!), Sher-Gil’s work has been classified as National Art Treasures by the Indian government. Born in Hungary, before moving to India, she then traveled to Paris to study art at the age of 16. She tragically died, aged 28, just days before the opening of her first major solo show in Lahore, in 1941.

I know nothing about Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose mother was born a slave and escaped to the North via the Underground Railway…

tanner

… or the sculptor Edmonia Lewis, who in 1877 was taking commissions from people such as President Grant, but who by 1901 was living in London, out of favour and who disappeared from history…

lewis

… or about the photographer James Van Der Zee, leading figure of the Harlem Rennaissance…

van der zee

… or Faith Ringgold,the painter, writer, mixed media sculptor, performance artist and activist…

ringgold

… or Kara Walker, the painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker…

Walker

… or the Abstract Expressionist Norman Lewis

lewis

… I could go on.

There is so much I don’t know, and my ignorance isn’t confined to artists of colour. But I want to know more. There is, for me, few joys greater than finding a new artist whose work I can fall in love with. And let’s be honest, this rarely happens with a google image search. I want to see work in exhibitions, to get up close and appreciate the art on the scale at which it was intended.  Or at the very least, to see it on television, explained and put into context. Because it would be foolish to take the line that one shouldn’t see the colour of the artist, just as it’s foolish to say “I don’t see colour” in any discussion on race. All of us, black, white, man, woman, gay, straight, are shaped by who we are and where we’ve come from. Art is a product of who the artist is, the way they interpret life, the experiences they’ve had. And whilst those experiences continue to be informed by the colour of an artist’s skin, so will their art. So my wish would be for more of these names to be the names that get talked about, the work that people get excited about.

I don’t know much, so my role is to change that, at least. Celebrate, and value, the people of colour who contribute to the areas of life, the cultural areas I’m naturally interested in, to open myself up to a wider world. Because by enhancing and enriching my own experiences, I’ll naturally come to a place where the fact that I’m better informed, and better engaged, will make me a better ally. I’ll make clumsy mistakes along the way – this blog might be one of them. But I can’t ever give up.

World Theatre Day

Tha’s been a rum ol’ week, h’int’t.

It’s not ideal to be ‘celebrating’ World Theatre Day without a Theatre, but this week The Situation finally overtook us completely. Not only is our stage empty, but now so is our building. Those of us still working are doing it from home, in a variety of situations, navigating borrowed kit, new video-calling software and that damned Outlook web interface. And all the while facing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and outraged customers who (entirely understandably) want their money back for shows they’re not seeing, against a background of fear over their own prospects and employment during this time of national and global shutdown. Though to be fair, there are heartening messages of compassion and support from other customers, the understanding and love extended to us lifting us up from the gloom.

One of my colleagues remarked this week that one of the things she kept telling herself was that whatever we were facing, at least we weren’t on the frontlines of this. We’re not health workers, risking exposure to save lives where they can. We’re not supplying food to the housebound, or keeping an essential service going – today I leaned out of my window to thank both my milkman and my postman for their continued service, then went back to my laptop in my PJs. When it comes down to it, we only sell tickets to shows, yeah?

Well, yes and no. The show of support the nation has given the NHS and its staff this past week has been overwhelmingly necessary and deserved. They are truly making sacrifices the rest of us should be on our knees to thank them for (or maybe via the ballot box next GE…)

But to those of my colleagues tempted to wonder whether what we do even matters at a time like this, I would say this. There is an apocryphal tale about Churchill, criticised for spending money protecting the artworks of the capital during wartime, responding “Then what are we fighting for?”

Whilst this is almost certainly untrue, I do find inspiration in the idea. We are, as a species, storytellers. It’s how we define ourselves, how we explain ourselves, and question ourselves. It’s how we hold ourselves to account, and how we ease the burdens we carry. And those of us who work in the Arts may not be a vital part of the mechanism struggling to preserve our society, but we are a vital part of the society others are struggling to preserve. And when the sun rises, when the ghostlight is extinguished and once again we take the stage, that’s when it will be our turn to give what we can to enhance the lives of others. And meanwhile, the work we’re doing now is what will make that possible. So have at it, my friends and colleagues, because I believe, now more than ever, that the work we have to do, IS work that needs to be done.

Realism in art

I write this the day after the 2020 Oscars, where I’m delighted to see that the Best Picture Oscar did not go to 1917. Not that that film doesn’t haven’t have merit, and isn’t a masterpiece of technique. But I’ve seen four films at the cinema in 2020, and 1917 doesn’t even make my Top 3.

I’m not sure what the main driving force behind Mendes’ decision to simulate a single take was, but I’d lay money that the conversation would revolve around immersing the viewer in the story, making them feel as if they’re there. Chasing some notion of authenticity, or realism. But for me the film fails precisely because of that. It looks beautiful, no doubt – those night-time scenes in the town look astounding – and it is certainly an impressive technical achievement. But in terms of immersing the viewer in the story? Not at all. I spent most of the film (when I wasn’t battling motion sickness) being constantly aware of the technique, I was so aware of the Director as a presence that any hope of getting carried away in the story was lost. If you compare that to The Lighthouse (the best film I’ve seen this year), there you have a film that’s so much more gripping and immersive, despite being in black-and-white, and shot so stylistically it borders on the absurd. Because the style serves the narrative, it doesn’t detract from it. To grip your audience, you need to remember that cinema is a storytelling medium. Every year I cry at It’s A Wonderful Life, made nearly 80 years ago, and starring James Stewart, aged 38 at the time, playing a character who at one point is shown “going off to college”. And none of that matters because the film is magical, and connects.

One of the other talking points of films at the moment is the colourblind casting of The Personal History of David Copperfield, an amazingly joyful and entertaining film with a fantastic, multi-ethnic cast that though some usual suspects have made disparaging “Oh I didn’t realise David Copperfield was Indian…” type remarks, actually works for no other reason than Iannucci has cast brilliant actors. Dev Patel’s heritage and skin tone don’t matter in the slightest because he brings life to the role in the most delightful manner. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that his aunt is played by Tilda Swinton, because she too is excellent. It’s a delight of a film, which takes no effort on the audience to suspend their disbelief, because that’s what we do when we’re watching movies. Its when directors fall over themselves to ‘help’ us along that they usually stumble. Remember Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s facial prostheses in Looper? Supposedly because we wouldn’t buy him as a younger Bruce Willis, but resulting in most people watching the film with a voice in the back of their head constantly saying “What have they done to his face?” We know they’re actors, we know it’s a film, you don’t have to keep reminding us. Without the facework, most people would have spent half a second going “Oh, that’s that character when he’s young”, bought into it and never given it a second thought, because JGL is a great actor. Tellingly, in the seven years since Looper, it’s not a way of working that’s taken off.

There was a time in gaming journalism when it seemed like all anybody wanted to talk about was improvements in graphics, and how those improvements made games more immersive. But it’s nonsense, what makes a game immersive is gameplay. Every time. I could play MarioKart (the SNES version) for hours on end, totally immersed, and not because it looked real. And now if we’re not careful films could be making the same mistake. As technology improves, it’s natural people should want to play with it, and see what it can add to their filmmaking. But look at James Cameron’s Avatar. It was an amazing looking film, but also looked great in 2D, and watching it in 2D didn’t require wearing glasses that gave you a slight headache. But storywise? Oh, let’s just do Dances With Wolves in space, it’s the TECHNOLOGY that’s the selling point… And, ironically for a film that’s pushing the 3D envelope, it has one of the most two dimensional villains in movie history.

We’re a storytelling species, it’s how we relate to and pass on history, it’s what drives our art and our culture. Technique will never cover a deficit in content.

Art should pursue truth, but truth is not the same thing as realism. I’ve just finished watching the final episodes of Bojack Horseman, and what does it tell us that one of the most truthful shows about mental health and self-perception, not to mention one of the most emotionally hard-hitting and powerful pieces of tv ever made, is a cartoon about an alcoholic talking horse.