Schmucks With Underwoods


“You do have copies of all this, right?”


The sea air of Dalian has done me good, but I wish the persistent downpours and thunderstorms would clear the gritty air here in the Jing. As it is, it’s just a bit of a grey hellhole right now. Even so, I set off under the clouds to say goodbye to a colleague that I’ve known all too briefly, someone who is soon to swap Beijing for St. Petersburg. We are both ‘frustrated writers’, so we figured that the most appropriate place to meet was a dingy coffee shop. It got our heads out of the rain and smog at least.

At the same time, my director friend back in England shared the rough-cut and a poster mock-up of the short horror film we wrote. Encouraging stuff!

It all made me pull the metaphorical digit from the metaphorical orifice and start archiving and organizing some old writing, something that yet another friend (soon to swap Kazakhstan for Egypt) has been nagging me to do since he saw me burning some old screenplays on a Northampton rooftop (see above quote!) It’s a more monumental task than I had hoped, scouring hard drives and iPads and email accounts for needle-like nuggets of corn in the giant haystack of absolute effluent that is the metaphor for my writing.

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My now-ex-colleague but still brother-at-arms left me with a stack of horror movies and science fiction episodes, knowing full well the struggle of finding anything to watch on China’s anemic imitation of Netflix. I have already devoured David Cronenberg’s pervert’s choice classics Videodrome and Naked Lunch (his hallucinatory palimpsest of William Burroughs’s great novel). The film version has its flaws,* but I dug all of the different machinery; the tools of the trade coming to life, eating each other, shape shifting; the idea that a writer works better with certain instruments than others. (I must admit, the typewriter that morphed into a weird dick-arse creature and slithered off into the night was probably my least favourite).

I also liked the scene where the guy’s buddies turned up and magically got his book published for him. It reminded me of a scene that I watched the other day in Spike Jonze’s Her, where the main character’s girlfriend edited all of his writing together into a coherent piece that gave the publisher a boner. It’s one of the reasons I finally decided to organize some of my own work: because that’s not gonna happen!! There is no Ginsberg or AI operating system that’s going to pull all my old incoherent writing together and tell me how great I am. Shit’s up to me.

I’m not actively looking to publish or produce anything right now, just gather it all together and take stock. See where I am. And see if I’m still a writer.


*(too many silly accents in Interzone. And old Robocop is a right bloody mumbler, isn’t he?)

Long Live the King


“This is very impressive, I think it’s actually the best temple we’ve seen so far.”
“Yes. Shall we take a selfie?”


I spent the summer of 2015 in Southeast Nowhere, Beijing, scratching my balls and watching Michael Bay movies. The following summer was spent sweating through housekeeping duties in a hostel in downtown Vancouver. This year, I figured it wouldn’t break the bank to have an actual fucking holiday.

I considered disappearing, Sean Flynn style, into deepest Cambodia. I considered going to a hotel in Saigon, putting The Doors on full blast and staring at the ceiling fan. Eventually I settled on swapping TsingTaos for Singhas on a five day urban break in Bangkok. The gf was keen to come with me, her first time away from mainland China.

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My knowledge of Thailand is limited. Like, ignorant limited. In fact pretty much my only experience of the country was Thai boxing and Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies. I’m not saying I was expecting tuk tuk chases that ended with someone jumping through an exploding ring of barbed wire, or someone lying under an idyllic waterfall making love to a fish, I’m just saying that I really know bugger all about Thailand.

 
First thing to do was make sure we had enough money for our stay. Make seriously sure. The Thai government has started doing random checks at airports to ensure that people can actually afford their stay, as a way of cracking down on broke-arse hipster twats coming over and begging in the streets for enough cash to continue their travels.

 
We flew from Bejing in the early afternoon. Customs and baggage claim took a little longer than I’d have liked, so it was about 9pm local time when we finally got to the hotel. We had an exquisite dinner at the restaurant next door, stocked up on supplies from one of Bangkok’s 3,648 7-Eleven stores, and then I raided the mini-bar for Singha number 1 before falling asleep.

 
Coincidentally, our first full day in the kingdom of elephants turned out to be the king of Thailand’s birthday: the perfect day to visit Wat Pho temple and The Grand Palace, along with absolutely every other fucker in the entire country. We had chicken noodle soup by the river, watching the festivities from a fairly peaceful distance before heading to Chinatown for a coffee and getting hit by a hella downpour.

 
We spent the next couple of days getting used to the Metro and the taxis and trying to learn the Thai for “are you fucking joking, mate? That’s too expensive.” (turns out that the syllables are unpronounceable and that most people speak English anyway).

 
The gf is open to the idea of urban drifting* so we did a fair amount of walking during our stay. We’ve seen a lot of temples. It’s been humbling to sit on the floor (soles pointed away from the Buddha, of course) and contemplate one’s place in the great web.

 
We went to check out of the hotel this morning only to find that July has 31 days (who knew) and that we’ve actually got one more night here in glorious Krung Thep.

 

Meanwhile, a friend in the U.K. has started shooting that short horror film that we wrote together. The cinematographer is my arty mate from the Kazakhstan trip, who’s soon trading Astana for Cairo**. In a way, I kind of wish I was shooting it with them. In another way, though, I wish them well and I’m in Thailand.

 
When I made my first stab at becoming a screenwriter a main inspiration was John Milius, writer of Apocalypse Now. While director Francis Ford Coppola was going insane in the jungle, dealing with typhoons and infidelity and heart attacks as well as Brando and Hopper sized egos, Milius was lazily writing the surfing epic Big Wednesday, spending his days sipping whisky on a Californian beach and his nights riding a dune buggy with a bare-breasted Margot Kidder, shooting the bulbs out of street lamps with an antique shotgun.

 
I always felt that the writer won.

 

 

I still do.


*at least with the safety net of Google Maps (a novelty for her)

**he’s shown me the rough cut of the Kazakh video we worked on, which is quite the mini-epic.

 

Pure Imagination


“There’s always gratification in self expression.” – John Horatio Malkovich


I recently watched a video of the brilliant writer Alan Moore being interviewed at the Odditorium. I’ve no idea what or where an ‘Odditorium’ is, but I do know that Alan Moore certainly belongs there.

I like Moore’s work very much. I like his ridiculously obsessive level of ‘quality control’ or ‘attention to detail’ or whatever it is that makes the great artists such control freaks. He once joked that if he was describing a glass of water in one of his scripts he would go so far as describing the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in it. For Show Pieces, the Lynchian film series that mixes the seemingly unrelated elements of sociopathic clowns, Northampton working men’s clubs, and Egyptian funerary practices, he wrote everything from dialogue and stage directions to songs, stand-up routines, and labels for imaginary products*. That level of control over a fictional universe is enviable (and almost certainly shows why he has disowned every film project adapted from any of his comic book work).

Speaking of which, I’m actually a lot more interested in Show Pieces and the other work that he is doing these days than I ever have been in most of his comic book writing. He may indeed be considered the best graphic novelist in the world (although that’s unfair to Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman at the very least), but I find Moore’s current prose,  film and spoken word work far more engaging than his ‘heyday’ superhero stuff.

In the interview, he moaned about young people not knowing who Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary are. With all due respect to Northampton’s bearded prophet-magus, this probably just shows that he hasn’t met the right young people. I refuse to believe, despite some decidedly compelling evidence, that every young millennial is a half-sharp twat. I’d still like to think that most millennials are waking up in a way that young people haven’t been awake for a long time, and that some of them are even beginning the long search for a fire exit to the 3D movie theatre. Whether or not they will find it in time is another adventure…

As well as watching interviews with Northampton-based worldbuilders, I’ve been reading a bunch of screenplays that I found online. Most recently I read The Men Who Stare at Goats, the script behind the knockabout war comedy based on a slightly darker book and a much darker true story about the American military flirting with hippie culture as a way of appealing to young men of the post-Vietnam era.

Today’s lack of counterculture was another thing Alan Moore complained about, but do we really have much of a culture to counter these days?!? Anger will always achieve more than apathy, but does unbridled rage make any more strategic sense than going misty eyed or carrying lambs and flowers into battle like the goat staring men?

Historically, screenplays are grouped with cereal packets, technical instruction manuals and 17th century medical textbooks at the bottom of the list of things that people read for pleasure. I won’t go into the old ‘are screenplays art?’ debate but I do think that, if written well (perhaps obsessively), they are at least an often under-appreciated form of writing.

It can be edifying to compare early drafts to the finished version of some favourite films.** There are also the great unmade scripts: The Island of Doctor Moreau (adapted by the writers of The Wild Bunch and Full Metal Jacket); Sandman (adapted by the writers of Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek); Neuromancer (adapted, for once, by the writer of Neuromancer). Films that you will never see anywhere but in your mind’s eye.

Screenwriting was always my own medium of choice. Despite the frustrations that come with it: Despite not feeling like a ‘real artist’. Despite directors/producers/other writers ‘reworking the material’, usually into turgid crap. Despite endless Skype calls answering questions like “but why does he stumble back, in awe? Wouldn’t it be a case of him jumping back, in shock?”**. Despite managing to upset aspiring producers by saying it’s perfectly alright for them not to ‘get’ the ending, but you’d rather find a producer who does than change it. Despite the drawers and drawers full of un-filmed work that people will tease you mercifully for: “was this written by a twelve year old?” (as if, at 23 and with your first attempt, you’re supposed to be the new frickin’ Shakespeare).

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A friend from England recently dug out an old horror script that we’d written together and has decided to film it (after rewriting it of course). It will be nice to see some ‘new’ work come to life, as always (even if the writing is only half mine, and even that half is not my best work). But I have yet to master the God-like level of control over my sporadic screenwriting that an artist has.

The Men Who Stare At Goats is not a great screenplay. It deals with a lot of the stuff I like: shamanism, counterculture elements, redemption stories. But it’s also a little preoccupied with Joseph Campbell and Star Wars references. I like my shamanism bubbling under the surface like an Alan Moore story, not smacking me in the forehead like a Dim Mak.

In a world that has lost its way, we need more people like Alan Moore (not people who copy his writing style or fashion sense, but people who do good, creative, uncompromising work). We need more artists, writers, journalists, performers. People who can see or do what others can’t and then try to explain some of those wyrd things to us.

When a world is undeniably fraying around the edges, the best coping mechanism is devoting time to something you love. Some people have the good fortune of being great at what they love, others just have to keep working at it and hope for the best. Ken Robinson, the educator and writer, calls this sweet spot ‘the element’; Joseph Campbell calls it ‘bliss’ (after a rough translation of ananda, one of the gateways to enlightenment in the Hindu Upanishads); I call it ‘the stuff you do when others have given you the courtesy of getting the fuck out of your face’.

FADE TO BLACK.


CODA:

But isn’t it frustrating?

Yes. It is. It’s frustrating to write short or long form scripts that you know are unlikely ever to see the light of day (for film, TV, web, or any other scripted media).

Yes. A script that isn’t filmed may as well not exist. Unlike an unpublished novel, one that can always be rediscovered and published years later, an unmade screenplay is just a map or a blueprint to a place that doesn’t exist or a building that was never constructed.

But as Vonnegut said in an earlier entry, “you will have created something”.


*One of which, Tunguska Vodka: This One Will Flatten You, could only be dreamt up by a demented alchemist like Mr. Moore.

**An epic puppet battle between John Malkovich and the devil may indeed have made great cinema, but it’s easy to see why it didn’t make it into the final draft.

**Yes, this was a real conversation.

Ten Rows of Teeth


“Characters you’ve created occasionally stop by to say hello, or try to hunt you down and eat you.” – Steven Hall


I sat in bed the other night, sipping a bottle of Nongfu Spring and reading over some old journals from my Vancouver days. Although I enjoyed that time in my life: sipping craft beer, strolling along the windy beach and exchanging ridiculously literal small talk with Canucks, I don’t actually miss Vancouver that much. Most of the travellers that I met there lamented the fact that they had moved to Canada to get on with their life but had just found themselves in the same dull routine they’d been trying to flee from: minimum wage jobs, drinking in the same bars, going to the movies to escape the crippling spiritual emptiness. It’s a lovely, beautiful city (albeit one punctured with many needle marks), it just never felt like home to me.

One of my favourite contemporary novels is The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall, a slipstream narrative that puts a fairly original spin on the old cliché about someone waking up with no memory of who they were the day before. The only clues that the protagonist has about his life are a breadcrumb trail of notes and packages that arrive, claiming to be from his past self, explaining that a predatory ‘conceptual fish’ has devoured his memories.

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In one of my journal entries, I wondered what would happen if I had woken up sans memories like the hero of RST (or Memento or Dark City or a dozen other stories); how would I feel about the guy from my past who writes down these little life notes? Would I like him? Would I understand his thought processes? What would I deduce about him just from the many pen scratches that he’s left behind in various colorful notebooks from hutong bookstores?

Well, the first thing I’d probably notice is that he complains a lot. Secondly, that he’s pretty bloody keen on writing. He’s lazy and procrastinatory, swimming in a sea of neuroses, but he enjoys life and makes quite a lot of strides towards his goals, sometimes doing breast stroke, sometimes doggy paddle. I don’t know what Amnesia Me would make of all this, but I kind of like the guy.

There was one thing I quite enjoyed about the lackluster TV adaptation of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 (and it is certainly not the way the date is written, nor is it the lead performance by People’s Choice nominee and surely-at-least-a-little-dead-inside James Franco). It was that whenever time traveller and very occasional actor James Franco tries to change anything in the past (usually with a sort of Shatner-esque dramatic flailing that many Americans often mistake for performance art), the past pushes back against him. Every time he tries to change something in the sixties, he is nearly run over or set on fire or shouted at*.

There’s one scene, if I remember correctly, where Empire-Award-nominated polymath James Franco is driving through the streets of Dallas searching for a lone gunman in a book depository,** shouting at no one in particular “We gotta be prepared, man! We’re going up against… The Past!” Then, BAM. Flat tire.

If I am ever likely to be assassinated, and somebody finds a magic cupboard that will send someone back with three years to adequately plan and execute a brilliant rescue attempt, please do not send the guy who failed to kill Tobey Maguire on three occasions.

In that Star Trek film I watched recently, the one when I had no voice but was still trying to swear at the telly for showing me a really long widescreen nineties TV episode about silly foreheads, the bad guy describes time as “the fire in which we all burn”.

Is the past really some kind of predator? One that swims around waiting to bite or burst into flames and ruin the day of Captain Picard or multiple-MTV-movie-award-nominee James Franco?

To be honest, I find the little packages from my past self kind of liberating. It’s fun to see what has changed in the year or almost-year since these journal entries, and what has stayed the same. It’s fun to see journeys taken and not taken, little predictions proven right or wrong. Hobos and junkies encountered and written about.

Maybe the past, or time in general, is against us or downright out to get us. But I rather doubt that it actually gives a shit about us. And I doubt we should give much of a shit about it. Except to occasionally read about it, see what we can learn from it, and then go shark hunting with a harpoon made of words.

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*Admittedly, the past doesn’t do all that much when he starts boning a Hitchcock blonde old enough to be his grandmother, but whatever.

**(this is a fantasy story after all)

Twenty Minutes into the Future

“Coming to you live and direct…”


Inspired by my recent virtual reality trip, I began a search for some decent science fiction and/or fantasy movies to watch; a search that almost instantly reached a nadir. I looked fruitlessly for David Cronenberg films on Chinese Netflix. I watched The Signal, a story that basically ‘borrowed’ from earlier (mostly nineties) sf movies, complete with Laurence Fishburne and plot-twist-you-saw-coming-from-at-least-as-far-back-as-1998. I then, with the deep sigh of someone who’d pretty much given up on life, watched Ghost Rider, a 120-minute phone call from the late Nicolas Cage. Yes, I’m aware that he’s not clinically dead.

Re-evaluating my life (and the life of science fiction cinema), I finally stumbled upon episodes of the 1980s cyberpunk series Max Headroom.

a few years ago, after shooting my final student film,* I turned to scriptwriting. For several intense months, I decided I’d be best suited to the kind of existence of that mad shut-in from Twin Peaks: the guy who just grows orchids and takes notes on other people’s lives and shouts at the people outside his constantly knocking door. Writing, despite the wisecracks and backbiting that I’m sure every would-be creative gets, became my full time job.

I spent my spare time watching and researching episodes of pretty much every science fiction and fantasy show I ever enjoyed as a kid, from nineties classics like Buffy and X Files to sixties oddities like Thunderbirds and The Avengers (McNee, not Marvel). I watched almost all of Star Trek: The Next Generation and far too much of eighties Doctor Who. I even sat through the inaugural episodes of Power Rangers, Reboot, Samurai Pizza Cats, and that really weird show where Ron Perlman lives in the sewer because Linda Hamilton won’t go out with him. I did, however, stay absolutely the hell away from both Space Precinct and Bill Shatner’s Tek War.

This was not idle viewing; this wasn’t even pleasurable. I took notes. I paid attention to each writing credit and I looked into each writer as much as I could, to see how they got started in scriptwriting. Some of these individual episodes stood the test of time. Others were about Japanese cats who delivered pizza.

It was a strange time.

Somehow Max Headroom passed me by. Set in a dystopian future ruled by television networks, the series is a spin-off of Channel Four’s bonkers chat show about celebrities being interviewed by a floating head (supposedly computer generated, but actually just a Canadian in a rubber mask).

I’ve seen enough TV to know that the original Channel Four pilot film is good. It’s shot by music video directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (who went on to make that awful ‘dark fairytale’ movie of Super Mario Bros**, but let’s not hold that against them). The pilot is good enough that it actually approaches brilliance in places: A smoky, neo noir vision of the very near future, a shoestring eighties Carpenter or Gilliam or maybe even Ridley Scott, brilliantly filmic (ironic for a story that revolves around a stolen and hella futuristic Betamax tape). Compared to the sort of garishly lit and costumed capering that Colin Baker was up to on the other channel at that time, this is almost modern art!

The always enjoyable American-born, Canadian-raised and British-trained Matt Frewer plays crusading journalist Edison Carter, determined to expose the secrets and lies of the oppressive networks, including a cover-up of the fact that a batch of new 3-second advertisements are so hyper-intense that they cause certain viewers to spontaneously combust! After an accident that his employers are keen to hush up, a computer whiz kid creates (for reasons that just about make sense) a computer generated version of Edison Carter’s head. This glitchy, sarcastic programme goes rogue and becomes the eponymous Max, named after the last thing that Carter saw before he lost consciousness: a barrier sign in a car park.

Edison’s British companion is played by Amanda Pays. The name may not be recognizable, but the face and hairdo may well be. She played Token British Girlfriend in a bunch of late eighties and early nineties stuff, having the great fortune of portraying Fox Mulder’s fawning, kinky, poorly-written ex crumpet in a mercifully brief X Files gig. You remember? The one who used to chortle haughtily over a strong cup of tea, say things like ‘naughty bugger’ and wistfully recall humping Duchovny atop Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s grave (presumably while he was turning in it). In fairness to Ms. Pays, her patchy performances are mostly down to other people’s piss poor writing.*** She would almost certainly be able to act her way out of a paper bag, assuming that the exit was clearly marked and someone had poked an Amanda Pays sized hole in it.

Two episodes in, the series (actually British, although it was shot specifically for an overseas audience) is about half as good as the film. Gone is the swearing, gore, Pythonesque humour, male nudity and pretty much all subtlety, presumably because American audiences don’t care for that sort of thing. There are nicer leather jackets and haircuts for the now-American cast, some poorly choreographed action sequences, a handful of racist and sexist jokes, and some intriguing near-future mullets. It’s watchable enough, but not quite the grounbreaking stuff I was hoping for.

Like a lot of sci-fi, this series is not only very slightly ahead of its time, it’s totally of its time: This is early MTV stuff. Shit couldn’t be more eighties if Cories Haim and Feldman turned up with a brick phone snorting a line of New Coke.

But, speaking as a dude sitting in a hazy neon metropolis at a time that a big American head is tweeting absolute gibberish, it’s kind of hard not to laugh.


*Tired of expending all of my energy trying to explain to teenage emos that no, picking up the wire that they’d left dangling in shot was not that difficult and yes, it actually did, cinematically, make quite a difference.

**A film that my Facebook friends will crucify me for taking a massive piss on, probably because they haven’t seen it since 1992. Seriously, I have shit out better mushroom kingdoms after a night of Yunnan hotpot!

***Has that X Files guy even been to England?

“Kvit Skrewing Awound!” (and other pearls of Austrian Wisdom)

Please, please read all quotes aloud in an ‘Arnie’ voice!


Last week a Facebook friend posted a short documentary film about the early years of one of my favorite Austrian philosophers: http://youtu.be/wJPRj19OU-w

As a kid growing up in the nineties, it was impossible to escape the mighty grip of VHS tapes featuring violent male heroes like Schwarzenegger and Van Damme, guys who proved that you don’t have to be able to act or string a sentence together (or even be American) to portray the quintessential All-American badass: blue-collar guys who won the day not through wit or intelligence or any other discernible life skill that careers advisors try to drum into people, but through rippling muscles and a huge arsenal of weapons that they are constitutionally entitled to. There were many sweaty, white, aggressively heterosexual heroes at that time, but nobody did it better than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There are many films that show us the tenets of Schwarzeneggerain philosophy: End of Days remains a particularly quotable favourite. He tells Rod Steiger’s priest “between your faith and my Glock nine millimeter, I’ll take the Glock!” He shows his respect for the hallowed institution of the Vatican by shooting a cardinal in the manner of the stigmata. When the cardinal professes that he’s not afraid to die, Arnie responds “Good. Because I’m not afraid to kill you!” And, if that isn’t all philosophical enough for you, he then goes on to loudly berate Satan (yes, the Satan), “you’re a fucking choir boy compared to me. A CHOIR BOY!” before blowing him away with a combination of grenade launcher and prayers to Jesus.

My number one piece of philosophical wisdom from The Austrian Oak, however, remains the exchange between him and a villain from another movie, a guy who keeps cloning his dead self for reasons that are never quite adequately explained. “You should clone yourself while you’re still alive,” advises Schwarzenegger. When the villain asks why, Arnie pops metaphorical cap into metaphorical ass by shouting “So you can GO FUCK YOURSELF!”

I like Arnold Shwarzenegger. I like him because whatever his faults as an ‘actor’ and (let me make this absolutely clear) philosopher, I think he’s led an amazing and inspiring life that has proved if there is such a thing as the ‘American Dream’, then it’s possible, with an industrial amount of hard work and self-belief, to grab a little slice of it.

Ānuò Shīwaxīngé is popular here (possibly because many young male Bejingers like watching stuff explode for absolutely no reason). Yonganli and Sanlitun are chock full of knock-off DVDs bearing his grisly visage, and I recently watched one where he spent the whole film stubbornly refusing to shoot Little Miss Sunshine, even making a valiant effort at bursting into tears at one point (imagining him, three takes in, breaking down and wailing “I can’t do it, I am not a girly-man!”, nearly brought tears to my own eyes).

Before watching the documentary film, though, I had no idea just how hard Schwarzenegger had struggled during his national service in Austria, surrounded by friends and family who told him he was crazy for wanting to be a bodybuilder, and having to go AWOL (and therefore suffer dire consequences) in order to enter a bodybuilding competition that he’d be too old to enter the following year. It was clearly a very tough decision for him, and if he’d refused to make it then his story would have ended very differently.

One of the reasons he was able to make the choice in the first place, is because he had a plan. A template. Someone to look up to: the bodybuilder and ‘actor’ Reg Park, who played the same role that Ānuò went on to play in his debut feature: Hercules. “It is possible,” said the young Schwarzenegger to himself, “Reg Park did it, right?”

Since watching the documentary several days ago I’ve started employing the practice of setting an alarm on my phone for one hour (I don’t believe that anyone is busy or lazy enough that they can’t find one single hour out of twenty-four). Don’t get excited, because I haven’t suddenly taken up power lifting, or even regular exercise! For that hour I focus on nothing other than the project I’ve been writing in my spare time (inspired also by the fact that November is National Novel Writing Month in the UK, the time that writers traditionally pull thumb from arse and get their latest magnum opus finished).

It’s nothing short of amazing to me, how many people use the word ‘impossible’, especially when other people are discussing a dream of theirs. Before Roger Bannister ran the one-minute mile, or Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, people said that was impossible. Nobody believed in electricity (electricity, for fuck’s sake!) until Benjamin Franklin burned the arse of his trousers in a thunderstorm**, or gravity until Isaac Newton was smacked in the head by it.

People don’t like other people rocking the boat, saying things like “I wonder if I can run a mile in under one minute,” I wonder if I can travel at the speed of sound”, “I wonder if I can tell Satan he’s a girly-man”.

Of course you can. “Reg Park did it, right?”

Can you imagine a world where Schwarzenegger said “everyone else is right. I’ll never be a bodybuilder. Better knuckle down and drive this tank.” The Terminator would have been played by OJ bloody Simpson! Yes, seriously.

When I started admitting to people that I wanted to be a writer, someone said to me “Come on! How many famous people do you know who come from Northampton?” Luckily, like any aspiring writer, I’d done my research. “I never said I want to be famous,” I replied. “I said I want to be a writer! But Matt Smith is pretty famous. He comes from Northampton. There’s Alan Moore. John Clare. H.E Bates. Even Errol Flynn did his repertory training here. Three of those famous people are writers.” “Alright, alright”, sighed my conversational companion, “go and fucking do it then!”

When I started telling people I was going to China for a year, a lot of people’s replies used words like “seriously?” and phrases like “Do you really want to go?” or “Are you looking forward to it?” All of these replies, like many other questions that people ask about other people’s dreams, are synonymous with “well, I wouldn’t do that, not in a million years!”

People seem to forget that I’m not asking them to (and that, quite frankly, I couldn’t give a tinker’s motherfuck what they do with themselves!)

I want to be a writer.

I’m going to China.

You can stay at home and watch Strictly Come Dancing or the new season of Doctor Who. Don’t fret!

Arnold Schwarzenegger is someone who shows us what can happen if you’re brave enough to put the effort in and hunt your dreams down with the AK47 of hard work and the RPG of determination. Not what will happen. For every Ānuò there’s a  Mike Katz, someone working just as hard who ends up relegated to the ‘also-ran’ section of bodybuilding history, but as a certain Austrian philosopher once said, “you can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets!”

Or, in simpler terms, “do it. Do it NOW!”


**There’s a Doctor Who story set in the early days of electric lighthouses, where an old-school lighthouse keeper only trusts oil lamps. “In the early days of oil,” says the Doctor, “he’d have said there’s notthing like a really big candle!” Everyone knows someone like that keeper, because the world is not exactly short of arsewipes.

Training Montage

“All in all not a bad guy – if looks, brains and personality don’t count.” – The Coen Brothers


Before coming to China I was, like pretty much everyone who is both creative and working class in the UK, on Jobseekers. I was in a difficult position, where I was under-qualified for most of the media positions I was applying for* and so overqualified for the other jobs that no one believed I was genuinely passionate about cleaning the toilets in Home Bargains (I actually find that cleaning is a pretty meditative experience. Some of my best ideas come to me while I’m ironing of doing the dishes, but that ain’t what Home Bargains want to hear, apparently). Luckily, my ‘careers coach’, probably a frustrated dreamer herself, could see that I was serious about my writing: sending scripts and stories to the right people and constantly applying for jobs. She was actually a fairly pleasant individual.**

One thing that they make you do after six months on the dole is a training regime to help you polish up CVs, ace difficult interviews and deal with the constant tedium of bitter defeat and crushing rejection. It’s actually not a bad idea for a struggling writer to do such a training regime! I met people who are still turning up as characters in my stories to this day, mostly as dickheads (“Finding a job is a full time job, isn’t it?” Well, no actually. In fact it’s literally the opposite, you daft bastard!)

The training included writing up mock application forms, acting out mock interviews and trying desperately not to mock any of the people delivering the training.

Once, when ‘brainstorming’ what we might ask potential interviewers, I came up with:

Me: What’s your company ethos?
Trainer: What’s that mean?
Me: Well, do you have a good ecological policy? Do you use sweatshop labour in Indonesia?
(This was shortly after the roof of a sweatshop building had collapsed and killed 1,130 people)
Trainer: Uh, okay. Good question. Maybe… try to get the job first?

Trainer: When is it appropriate to turn up for an interview in jeans and a t-shirt?
Me: When you work in the performing arts.
Trainer: Really?
Me: Yeah, if you turn up in a suit people think you’re well pretentious!
Trainer: Okay, well when else is it appropriate to turn up for an interview in jeans and a t-shirt?
Me: Media. Tech start ups. Construction, maybe.
Trainer: Okay, let’s move on.

One other aspect they covered was ‘personality’:

Trainer: Not everyone wants to be a fireman. Not everyone has the ability to work in a call center. Apply for the right job for your personality.

I don’t like personality tests. At university we had to make a ‘group documentary’, and our tutor had the idea of grouping us all by personality using the Myers Briggs test.The results were predictable: everyone absolutely hated the groups they were in. My group was made up of people who were all too imaginative/abstract/conceptual to agree on a documentary subject while being too warm/compassionate/introverted to do anything about it except slag each other off behind our backs. I eventually went out into Northampton town centre on my day off and shot my own documentary without the group. “Great,” beamed my film tutor, clapping his hands together, “that’s exactly what an INFP should do!”

The personality test that Job Centre Plus used is not as universally recognized as the Myers Briggs. They grouped us, like a scene written by Ricky Gervais, as ‘birds’.

Yes, that’s birds. I wish I was joking.

“You are a sparrow. Often quiet, you find it difficult to get what you want. You settle for the nest that you are given.”

“You are a cuckoo. Sometimes appearing manipulative…”

That sort of shit.

To what would have been my genuine surprise (had I given anything other than not a single shit), I was the only one on the training course who was an ‘eagle’.

“You are an individual with the ability to soar to great heights. The sort of bird who would happily devour every other bird in this room, shit them out of its arsehole and tell us that our test is a load of wank.”

It wasn’t all bad. One day they made us apply for several online jobs, just to be sure that we weren’t  taking their fifty pounds a week and scratching out balls with it. “Have you thought about jobs abroad?” said one of the trainers, “you seem like the kind of bloke who wouldn’t have a problem relocating.”


*I even went for an interview as social media writer for a school, and was so desperate to get back into the workforce that I ignored the fact they wanted someone with graphic design experience. “Are you,” asked a wise friend of mine with narrow eyes and gritted teeth, “sure about this?” “Yes,” I lied. “I’ll be fine right up until they ask me to design something!” This was indeed the case, and they were rather underwhelmed with the new ‘school logo’ that I drew them in MSPaint.

**The days that she wasn’t in, however, were sheer torture. I came very close to asking one hatchet-faced old bint, “Have you got any jobs here, love? I reckon I’d make a great patronizing cunt!”