On dead frogs and cheap gags

Earlier in January, I took part in a Creative Lab Workshop on comedy and sketch writing, organised by the very talented Blewbury Players. It was a fun evening and I had a good time chatting about my experiences as a BBC scriptwriter. Thank you Blewbury Players.

They very kindly asked me to make some introductory comments which I thought might be helpful to anyone thinking of venturing out into the crocodile-infested waters of comedy writing.

WHO AM I?

I’m Sue Clark and I’ve been a professional writer for more than 40 years. Over the years, I’ve been a journalist, PR writer, copywriter, guidebook writer and editor. Have I forgotten any? But these were only my day jobs. Always in the background was my first love – comedy.

HOW DID I GET INTO COMEDY WRITING?

I wrote some sketches and sent them to a radio producer. It was that simple. This was the 1980s and the producer was Jimmy Mulville, since co-founder of Hat Trick Productions and creator of Have I Got News For You, among many other hits. Jimmy invited me to call in for a chat if I ever happened to be in the area of Broadcasting House. So, of course, I made sure I was, the very next week.

From then on I attended weekly meetings in the famous, or infamous, Writers Room. This was an anonymous and grubby little room in 16 Langham Street, always strewn with fag-ends and paper cups of cold coffee. Writers of all shapes and sizes would shuffle in to be given topics to be funny about by that week’s producer. Exciting and terrifying at the same time. That led to writing for the weekly radio satirical shows Week Ending and The News Huddlines, and eventually to TV sketch writing on shows such as Three of a Kind and Alas Smith and Jones.

Sadly, 16 Langham has gone the way of Week Ending, swallowed up in the ghostly blue glow of New Broadcasting House. The Writers Room still exists, though it’s now online and there are no used coffee cups.

WHAT IS COMEDY?

Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. What is comedy? Analysing comedy, as someone – possibly Barry Cryer. It usually is – once said is like dissecting a frog. No-one laughs and the frog dies. I’m certainly not going to go where the God of Comedy Barry Cryer doesn’t go. Let’s just leave it at comedy is anything that makes you laugh, guffaw, snort or groan.

WHAT IS A SKETCH?

Having ducked the last question, I’m on safer ground when it comes to sketches. A sketch is the short story of the comedy world. It is to a full length drama or play, as a short story is to a novel.

Just like a short story, a sketch has to contain all the ingredients of a drama: characters, story, and setting, only in fewer words. Unlike a short story, a sketch also has to have something that makes you laugh. Not much to ask in only three minutes!

So no words can be wasted; every line must do its work. There’s no room for padding or diversions in a sketch. Stick to the point. Don’t be tempted to put everything you can think of in it. The humour will lose its focus. Oh and don’t forget a surprise twist or two. They are, after all, what usually trigger the laughter.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SKETCH AND NOVEL WRITING?

Length, obviously. A sketch is usually only a few minutes long and its purpose, plain and simple, is to make the audience laugh. Anything that doesn’t add to the laughter has to go.

A novel gives the writer room to expand, to wander down dark side alleys, or through flowery meadows, to add colourful details. But therein lies the danger for a comedy writer. As I learnt when writing my novel, you have to vet your jokes and exercise restraint. It is all-too tempting to go for the cheap gag but this is to be resisted. Just because it amuses you, the writer, that’s no reason to include it. Unless a joke illuminates a character, sets the mood, or moves the plot along in some way, it has to be cut. Though they may be fun to write, ill-chosen quips and misplaced funniness can derail a story and destroy the consistency of characters.

STRUCTURE OF A SKETCH

Sketches and jokes have the same structure as novels and dramas, just shorter. All follow Aristotle’s Three Act structure – says she, as if she knows what she’s talking about! Each act has its own defining moment and ends on a twist. It’s the twist that takes you through to the next act.

  • Act One is the Set Up – the status quo. Who is talking? Where are we? What is their relationship to each other? Get this done quickly. Then something happens.
  • Act Two is the Bit in the Middle. I hope I’m not being too technical here. The status quo is disrupted and something else, or several something else’s happen, as well as, hopefully, plenty of merriment.
  • Act Three is the Pay Off or Punch Line – the story is resolved in a satisfying manner with a cracking good joke, leaving the audience rolling around in their seats in delight.

LOGIC

A word of warning here. Your story has to make sense within the context of the world you have created. This can be as surreal and silly as you like but it still has to make internal sense. Would this character do or say that? Would this other character react in that way? If it doesn’t make sense, at least on a basic level, you’ll lose your audience and most likely your laughs too.

RULES

Having said all that, the only rule of comedy is there are no rules. Except when they exist to be broken.

Monty Python and Spike Milligan didn’t much bother with punch lines. Little Britain and The Fast Show did away with the element of surprise, relying instead on repeated jokes and catchphrases. Stuart Lee’s misanthropic rambles seem to have no shape or purpose, until of course you realise they do.

WHERE TO GET YOUR IDEAS?

  • Use the person you know best – yourself. Examine your weaknesses and exaggerate them. Writer/performers do this all the time. Basil Fawlty is John Cleese, with knobs on. The same is true of David Brent and Ricky Gervais, Richie Richard and Rik Mayall, and Bernard Black and Dylan Moran.
  • Read the news – particularly the small stories. They are a fund of inspiration. A quick look at recent headlines gave me: kangaroos can communicate with humans, squirrels attack people in Rego Park, New York, and Mum finds Jesus in a Brussel sprout.
  • Think of a set up. Make a list of words relevant to it. Even if you don’t use them they can spark a line of thought and, hey presto, a sketch is born.
  • Don’t go for the obvious. Try to think of situations that haven’t been done to death before. Unless, of course, familiarity is part of the gag.
  • Start from the punch line and work back. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the punch line comes first. You just have to provide the rest.
  • If an idea doesn’t come quickly, leave it and come back to it later. Laboured jokes aren’t funny.

HOW MANY KINDS OF JOKE ARE THERE?

Is it seven, nine, eleven, three or just one? The truth is, no-one knows how many kinds of jokes there are. Just as they don’t know why the number 42 is funnier than say 56. And why Douglas Adams chose it as the answer to the ultimate question in The Hitchhikers’ Guide. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go. Here’s my list of seven. You can probably think of others.

  1. The unexpected. Often comes as a list of three – Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation recently about Covid 19. Unpredictable, unavoidable and dangerous, Mr Johnson is ….
  2. The expected – a sideways comic look at something familiar – Mr Bean changing into his swimming trunks on the beach.
  3. Pomposity pricked – a pompous character gets their come-uppance. The basis of many a sitcom – Fawlty Towers and Keeping Up Appearances.
  4. Surreal jokes – Vic and Bob – inspired silliness, beautifully crafted and performed.
  5. Satire – topical gags based on the news.
  6. Repetition – repeated punchlines/catchphrases (Little Britain), or strings of one-liners (Tim Vine and Milton Jones). The humour of accumulation.
  7. Schadenfreude – the age-old banana skin and other physical jokes, often performed without the need for words.

HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR WRITING

  • Write with someone else. There’s a reason comedy writers often come in pairs. You need someone to bounce ideas off. Or as Dennis Norden so excellently put it: One to type. One to stare out of the window.
  • Watch/listen to sketch shows – Radio 4 Extra has many comedy shows, some old, some new, from Comedy Club to The Navy Lark and On the Hour. Radio 4 sketch and topical shows include The Now Show, Dead Ringers, John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme and The Pin.
  • Follow comedians. Gary Delaney dissects his jokes, showing his workings, on Twitter. Actor/comedian Julian Dutton puts his pilot scripts up on his website, and incidentally has written an entertaining book on silent comedy, called Keeping Quiet.
  • Read books that about comedy, though I have to warn you, Julian Dutton aside, they’re not always a barrel of laughs. And, as Barry Cryer would say, the frog still dies!
  • Read comic fiction – of which there seems to be a lot at the moment. Not only the old masters, PG Wodehouse and Tom Sharpe, but also new pretenders like Nina Stibbe, Gail Honeyman, Neil Gaiman, Richard Osman and many others. Oh yes, and I hear up-and-coming writer Sue Clark’s new one is funny too!

   

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Sad news to start the year

The New Year started for me with very sad news. The wonderful novelist Maureen Lee died on New Year’s Eve.

Maureen was a best-selling author, writing and publishing many short stories, and some 24 novels in her long life, including the enthralling family sagas set in and around her home city of Liverpool. In 2000, her book Dancing In The Dark was named novel of the year by the Romantic Novelists Association.

But she was more than that. She was my mentor and friend.

We ‘met’ some thirty years ago. Our first contact was via the pages of The Observer newspaper. She’d written a piece about the difficulty of balancing the life of a novelist with that of a wife and mother. I wrote a cheeky little reply which was printed in the following week’s Letters page.

Soon afterwards, Maureen got in touch. I never found out how she got my details! We corresponded and eventually met for lunch in London. We hit it off immediately. Thereafter we kept in touch and met for lunch every summer, until quite recently.

Maureen was always supportive of my writing, frank with advice, and generous with help. Although her works regularly appeared in the Sunday Times Bestsellers lists, she was never grand or puffed up. Having said that, she didn’t pull her punches if she didn’t like something! Her books featured strong female protagonists and Maureen herself, though modest about all she’d achieved, was certainly a strong woman. Her tribute in The Bookseller is well deserved.

It’s largely thanks to her that I persisted with Note to Boy and, eventually, got it published. When I was signed to Unbound, Maureen was one of the first to crowdfund it. She was also one of the first people I contacted when Note to Boy was eventually launched. I’d hoped to see her last summer to thank her properly but, thanks to Covid, it never happened. And now it never will.

RIP Maureen.

   

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Goodbye 2020. Welcome 2021, but only if you behave!

No need to state the obvious about the weirdness of the year. I’m going to take this chance to look back and find some positives and say some thank yous instead.

The biggest positive of 2020 for me, of course, is that Note to Boy was published. Yaay! Eloise and Bradley have been out ‘in the wild’ for five months and seem to be thriving. Certainly, reviews have been kind.

‘Comedy gold’, ‘brims with humour’, ‘wonderfully entertaining’ and even ‘genius’ are some of the generous comments received by this blushing author. It means a lot to know I’ve made some readers laugh and a few shed a little tear. Thank you, readers and reviewers. 

Here I must mention my publisher, Unbound. Throughout the many difficulties, they have been marvellous. It cannot have been easy to see my book through its final stages and into production and distribution during this strangest of summers. But they did it, and I shall be forever thankful that my launch wasn’t postponed, as so many were. Thank you, Unbound.

Let’s also hear it for the independent bookshops. Times have been hard for them but they’ve been a great support. Getting on for forty, from Bristol to Edinburgh, Bridport to Hampstead currently stock Note to Boy, and the list grows weekly. It’s also listed by bookshop.org, the new ethical way to buy books online. Thank you, all. 

People seem to have fallen in love with books again. The upsurge in the popularity of reading has been wonderful to behold and some compensation for the restrictions we’ve been enduring. Readers have not only been tackling the classics like Austen and Orwell, and weighty tomes like Tolstoy, Hugo and Dickens, but also turning to comedy, as we often do in times of stress.

Great to see comedic works such as Cold Comfort Farm, the Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones series, Nick Hornby and Nina Stibbe books and, of course, Richard Osman’s cosy crime debut, all enjoying success. Let’s hope humorous writing will get the industry recognition it deserves from now on.  

With time on their hands people have been writing too, turning the pandemic into a PENdemic. See what I did? Aside from hastily written celebrity books, there are bound to be some gems. I’m looking forward to reading some stimulating lockdown literature during the coming year. 

Another plus is, through necessity, I’m verging on becoming competent in various videoconferencing systems. If you want to be frozen just as you come to the punchline of a joke, or muted when you have something fascinating to add to the discussion, I’m your woman! 

Talking of which, the Note to Boy virtual book launch in July attracted more than fifty people and reached friends and supporters as far afield as the USA, Italy and Chipping Sodbury. A similar number signed up for an author talk I gave in early December to the Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster libraries, with one participant joining in from Riyadh. The international reach of virtual events is another big positive. I’m planning more for 2021. Thank you to those who work so hard to make them happen.

That’s it. I’ve run out of positives except to say, it’s been a funny old year and it’ll be a funny old Christmas but we keep on smiling, reading and writing. Merry Christmas to you all. 2021 will be better. Won’t it? Cheers. 

Love

Sue 

   

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The overnight success of Shuggie Bain

Did you hear that sound, the evening in October when Douglas Stuart was pronounced the winner of the prestigious 2020 Booker Prize for his novel, Shuggie Bain? Faint but insistent, that was the sound of hard-working, ever-hopeful, but so far unrecognised, writers up and down the land giving a little cheer. And that cheer said, yes! It is possible for a debut author to become an overnight success – as long as they’re prepared to work at it for years and years.

What a win it was! If you were in any doubt that this was a Big Thing, the presentation took place in the presence – albeit virtual – of the Duchess of Cornwall and President Obama. And, unlike last year, the judges’ decision was unanimous and speedy. They took only an hour to decide.

Though the verdict was fast, it was hardly a meteoric rise to fame for Douglas Stuart’s novel, which is based on his Glasgow childhood, growing up with poverty and addiction. Ten years in the writing, it was only picked up by Picador (all praise to them) after no less than thirty-two other publishers gave it the thumbs down.

To any writers – published or unpublished – the message is clear. If you hold your nerve, keep writing, keep trying, who knows, maybe in ten years’ time, it could be you bagging a Booker, while Camilla and Barack applaud from the sidelines?

 

 

 

 

   

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Help your local bookshop

What do authors David Nicholls, Marian Keyes, Matt Haig, Malorie Blackman and Adam Kay have in common? They are among the three hundred authors who’ve come together to help local bookshops during lockdown. Make that three-hundred and one. I’ve joined in.

Indie bookshops, like all bricks-and-mortar retailers, are having a hard time of it during Lockdown 2.0. The #SignForOurBookshops campaign aims to give them a helping hand. The idea, thought up by novelist Holly Bourne, is that readers who buy books from indie bookshops are rewarded with a signed bookplate from the author. Neat, eh?

If you buy a copy of Note to Boy from your local indie and contact me via Twitter or this website with proof of purchase and your address, a signed SFOB bookplate – designed by the the former children’s laureate, Chris Riddell – will be on its way to you. •••

I don’t expect to be sending out as many as the best-selling authors who are generously participating, but at least I can do my modest bit to keep local bookshops open and say ‘thank you’ to them for being so supportive of Note to Boy.

As Holly Bourne says, ‘SignForOurBookshops aims to entice locked-down customers away from the lure of a certain online retailer, by providing them with exclusive access to signed books, sold only through bookshops. It also hopes to be a thunderclap of support for bookshops, reminding people to support their local stores throughout lockdown.’

This campaign comes on the heels of the launch of another initiative, Bookshop.org, which is pitching itself as a socially conscious alternative to Amazon. Could it be that the book market is changing?

 

*** UK only, sorry. Campaign ends with the lockdown (fingers crossed!) on 2 December. 

   

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Some good news (for a change)

Writers have a dilemma when it comes to the big online retailers (you know who you are!). On the one hand we want to support independent bookshops; on the other, the e-behemoths are so dominant, we need them if we want to get our books in front of as many readers as possible.

A solution may be on hand. Bookshop.org, launched in the UK this very day, is on a mission to support the indies by offering an alternative way to buy books online. It’s being described as a ‘revolutionary moment in the history of bookselling’.

Independent bookshops are marvellous things to be cherished. There, often housed in quaint old buildings, you’ll find people who, like you, love books and are ready and willing to answer questions and offer reading suggestions. Visiting an indie is in every way a much richer experience than clicking a ‘buy-now’ button. They are a vital part of our culture and the beating heart of many a town centre.

In these difficult times, it’s more important than ever to champion local bookshops. Even though up and down the land they are now having to close their doors for at least a month, you can still help them by visiting Bookshop.org, the online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores and gives back to the book community.

Taking on the giants of e-retailing is a tall order. Whether Bookshop.org has the clout to make a difference, we’ll just have to wait and see. 

 

   

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Making the Grade – a short story

This is a piece I wrote recently for the excellent website, Memoirist, the home of literary, autobiographical writing. Hope you enjoy it.

Adolescence is a strange time, full of swagger and self doubt. I wanted to capture a little of that mood, as well as amuse, of course. 

Incidentally, the picture is of me. At eighteen. In Coventry. 

 

***

Everyone fancies the coach driver. But it’s me he’s staring at. I notice as soon as I clatter up the metal steps. You know how it is when you’re seventeen. Your antennae are constantly twitching, picking up signals, sending them out. Do you fancy me? Do I fancy you? The air fairly crackles with it.

He’s quite good-looking, the driver, if you’re into the Ray Davies type, which I am. He has thick, dark hair that curls over the collar of his blue uniform shirt, in a way that would give Dad apoplexy. But I note in passing that he’s also got an acne eruption and a peppering of dandruff. So I’m not that taken, not really.

I hear his seat creak and know he’s leaning out to watch me walk down the aisle to join my giggling mates. The back of my neck prickles and, playing to the audience, I sway my hips.

Soon I’m caught up with the loud girls in the back seat, drooling over pictures of David Warner, the dishy actor playing the ‘student prince’. In three hours’ time, we’ll be seeing him live on stage in Stratford-on-Avon doing Hamlet, and my antennae will be going bonkers.

I’ll be a student myself before long. I daydream the scene. Me, at an ancient college where the stone steps are worn down into hollows, discussing Shakespeare and John Donne with a group of serious, stooped young men a lot like David Warner. Some of them have striped university scarves twined round their necks. All of them hang on my every word. That is, as long as I get the grades.

The driver’s got the radio on. The Animals are singing, ‘We gotta get outta this place…If it’s the last thing we ever do! We gotta get out of this place…Cause girl there’s a better life for me and you!’ We sing along at the tops of our lungs. The aptness of the lyrics is not lost on me. June conducts, standing on a seat.

Miss Tyndall turns round. ‘I thought better of you, Susan.’ her frown says.

‘Just because I’m going to university,’ my steady gaze shoots back, ‘Doesn’t mean I can’t have fun’.

‘What’s up, Miss?’ Yvonne calls down the coach. ‘Don’t you like The Animals?’

‘Probably a Stones fan,’ June smirks behind her hand. ‘You know, can’t get no satisfaction.’ We roar.

The driver’s name is Graham, Yvonne tells me, shouting over the laughter. Don’t ask me how she knows. She nudges me. ‘Go on, talk to him.’

‘See his wedding ring?’ June sniggers, ‘He’ll know what to put where.’

We roar again and Yvonne whispers in my ear, ‘I triple-dare you.’

I tease up my hair, put on an extra slick of pink pearl lipstick, and stick up my hand. ‘Please Miss, I feel sick. Can I move to the front?’

I’m sitting in the single seat, so close to the driver, I can smell the nicotine on his fingers and catch the glint of the gold band on the hand gripping the steering wheel. He turns up the radio. Engelbert Humperdinck oozes out, ‘I have found a new love, dear…And I will always want her near. Her lips are warm, where yours are cold..Release me, darling, let me go.’

‘You like this one?’ he says to the windscreen.

I don’t. ‘I prefer classical’, I tell him.

‘Such as?’

I have to think. ‘The Swingle Singers.’

‘Meet us in The Swan at half-time, Luv, for a snakebite?’

David Warner doesn’t stand a chance after that. I see the flash of his blond hair under the lights and the scarf trailing across the stage. But the lanky prince’s words have no impact, his actions are a confusing blur. All I can think of is, ‘I’ve been asked out by a married man!’

We’re on our way home. I’m in the back seat again, watching raindrops chase each other down the steamed-up window glass. June tries to get another sing-song going but no-one joins in. Graham, I see, is hunched over the wheel, eyes on the road.

We’re nearly there when Miss Tyndall weaves her way towards me. ‘We need a list of where to drop people off,’ she says. ‘Get a piece of paper, there’s a good girl.’

‘‘Why me?’ I think as I scrabble in my schoolbag. I find an envelope from a postal book club I’ve just joined. I go up and down the aisle, poking girls awake, writing a list. Highworth. Cricklade. Blunsden. Stratton. Gorse Hill. When I go to hand it to her, Miss says, ‘Not me. Give it to the driver.’

Face on fire, I wobble to the front and drop the envelope in the tobacco tin put out for tips. Graham stares ahead. I say nothing.

***

It’s six weeks later, a Tuesday night and I’ve just come in from church youth club. I don’t go to the actual church. I’m an atheist or maybe an agnostic. I’m still weighing up the arguments but I like table-tennis. Mum and Dad are sat either side of the fireplace. The telly is off. It looks bad.

‘What’s up?’ I ask over the gas fire’s hiss, ‘Is granddad dead?’

Dad shakes his head, disgusted at my callousness.

‘You ask her,’ Mum shudders, eyes down, ‘I couldn’t bring meself.’

Dad clears his throat. ‘A woman come round earlier, while you was out. She said …’

‘For goodness’ sake, Bill!’ Mum looks up, eyes burning. ‘Have you been carrying on with a married man, our Susan?’

Dad holds up a dog-eared envelope. ‘His wife found this in his jacket pocket.’

It’s the book club envelope, with my name and address on the front.

‘He’s got two kiddies and another on the way,’ Mum sniffs, tears threatening.

‘Answer your mother,’ Dad snaps. ‘Have you?’

I smile. It’s easy to wind them up, too easy for someone like me, a bright girl with a bright future. Cambridge has been mentioned. But not by my parents.

‘As the Bard famously said,’ I reply, ‘that is the question.’

‘And what’s the ruddy answer?’

‘Mum, Dad,’ I say, looking from one to the other, ‘I’m disappointed in you. How could you think that I would have it off …’ Dad winces ‘…with a coach driver?’

Mum swallows, her mouth a line.

They look so solemn, I have to laugh. ‘When everyone knows,’ I say, throwing my arms out and twizzling round on the spot, ‘that I am destined for greater things.’

Dad kneels to turn off the fire. ‘Only, my girl,’ he grunts, ‘if you give over playing the fool and get them grades.’

I drop my arms and hear the flames dying one by one, each with little sigh.

I didn’t realise it then but with each little ‘pop’ a dream faded. I didn’t get the grades, nowhere near. I didn’t get to discuss the finer points of Hamlet at an ancient college with foot-worn stone steps. I didn’t get to do any of the things I imagined for myself as we rattled our way to Stratford-Upon-Avon. My punishment for playing the fool─ secretarial college in Coventry.

I should have met the coach driver in the Swan for that snakebite. I see that now. That, at least, would have been something.

   

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What’s Abingdon’s secret?

What is it about the seemingly quiet Oxfordshire market town of Abingdon? Not only is it a beautiful place to live – particularly in autumn – but it also punches way beyond its weight when it comes to creativity.

Off the top of my head, here’s a roll-call of people currently prominent in the arts and media who were born or educated in Abingdon. There may be others I’ve forgotten. Apologies, if so. 

Tom Hollander (actor), who effortlessly stole the show in the recent wonderful TV drama, Us. Also great in Rev.

David Mitchell (comedian, actor and writer), famous for Upstart Crow, Peep Show, and for being one half of Mitchell and Webb. Also king of comedy quizzes.

All five members of Radiohead (a popular music combo, m’lud) of Paranoid Android fame, and many others.

John Spiers (musician), member of the now disbanded folk band, Bellowhead

Tom Richards, (musician) saxophonist with Jamie Cullum’s band.

Michael Bartlett (playwright, film and TV screenwriter), creator of the award-winning Doctor Foster on TV, Olivier Award-winning play King Charles III and many others.

Paul Mayhew-Archer – TV comedy co-scriptwriter of The Vicar of Dibley and creator of many other bits of funniness, recent stand-up comedian and even more recent MBE.

Simon Mayhew-Archer – producer of the spot-on TV comedy spoof, This Country.

Kate Garraway (TV presenter) on Good Morning Britain.

Not a bad line-up for a town of just 36,000 people. But why? Are Abingdonians just naturally creative? Or is there something in the Thames water? 

And now me. Not that I am comparing myself with any of these hugely talented people – though maybe I am, just a little bit!

 

 

Rain, reading and reviewing

A week away in the rain has given me the chance to finish reading the books I had on the go.

I like to read outside my comfort zone, opening my mind and gaining new perspectives by exploring new genres. All right. I’ll come clean. I have a butterfly mind and read just about anything that catches my eye. A clever cover image, a witty tagline or a half-heard interview on Loose Ends, and I’m sold.

That’s how come my recent ‘to be read’ pile included a children’s book for all ages, some Irish noir, a dystopian comedy and a heavyweight historical fiction.

Incidentally, I always review indie books I read. I hope you do too. I figure the blockbusters can survive without the benefit of my two-penn’orth. I’ll keep these relatively short but if you want to read the full reviews, you can find them in the usual places.

Happy reading everyone!

Losing Arthur by Paul A Mendelson

A book about, and full of, imagination. Young Zack has only one friend in the world, Arthur. And he’s imaginary. And green. One day, Zack’s exasperated single mum posts Arthur to an imaginary address in Scotland. So begins Zack’s adventure. Like all the best so-called children’s books, it can read on several levels and by readers of any age.

Blackwatertown by Paul Waters

We’re in the 1950s in a drab Irish border town. Jolly Macken, is an RUC cop, new in town, and very much out of favour. This could be a dark tale. And indeed it does have its dark and disturbing moments but it is the humanity and occasional humour of the writing that sets it apart. And you’ll learn how to pronounce Aoife.

Purple People by Kate Bulpitt

Funny and relevant to our crazy times. In a near-future dystopian England, crims and the anti-social are dyed purple by the state to deter them from bad behaviour. A light-hearted read that should at all costs be kept away from politicians. Have fun guessing how the purpling is done.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

What everyone else has said. Heavy in both senses of the word. But so worth it. This is history imagined as it was lived, not as it is read about in history books. So good, I think I’ll have to read it again to appreciate all it offers.

Eloise and Count Arthur, a match made in hell?

Would Eloise Slaughter and Count Arthur Strong get on in real life? What if they – perish the thought – met up and became a couple?

The possibilities for word-mangling chaos would be never-ending. And imagine how much fun Eloise would have exploiting the title of countess, throwing her weight about in Costas and the dry cleaners.

But would it be a good idea? I took to pondering this weighty question recently (there being nothing much else going on in the world), after a generous reviewer described Eloise as ‘a malapropiste and name-dropper to rival Count Arthur Strong’.

This is not the first time the two muddled eccentrics have been compared to each other. I was bold enough to do so myself before Note to Boy was published, in a Twitter conversation with the Count himself. He observed at the time that Eloise sounded like ‘his kinda gal’. Sadly, romance never blossomed. They never had that first date.

I’ve been a fan of Count Arthur Strong since its Radio 4 days. I find the count’s brand of fuzzy wordplay and beautifully performed physicality irresistibly funny. Then the show moved to telly, and the wonderful Rory Kinnear (Black Mirror, Years and Years, Hamlet) became part of the regular cast as Michael the well-meaning but neurotic Everyman, and Graham Linehan (IT Crowd, Black Books, Father Ted) joined Steve Delaney on the scriptwriting team. My joy knew no bounds.

It’s a crying shame no Count Arthur misadventures have been available on TV to lighten our gloom during the madness of 2020. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch that memory man gag, as soon as the count puts on that red turban, I’m gone. 

I’ve seen Count Arthur Strong live only once: at the Oxford Literary Festival, when he shuffled in and immediately and expertly commanded the room and wrong-footed his interviewer. It was a treat to watch him lower the tone of that normally august event.

But on the whole, for all our sakes, I think it best he and Eloise never meet.