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 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.


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.


*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!”

The Hero With a Thousand Problems

“Life is, like, 93 per cent luck and 12 per cent judgement. The other 3 or 4 per cent is just shitty maths.”

Most people who know me* know that if there’s one thing that floats my boat it’s narrative storytelling. I have long been interested in screenwriting theories and playwriting manuals and anything that seeks to distill stories into their alchemical constituents in a crucible of… unfinished metaphor. I recently got ridiculously excited when a kung fu master showed me a book he had written about martial arts moves that revolved around the agricultural cycle (“agricultural cycle?” I beamed. “Man, do you know how mythic that is?”)

I’ve attended seminars by filmmaking gurus who claimed to have 22-steps to a successful story, or 3-week formulas in which to script an Oscar-winning masterpiece. I’ve read shite-knows how many pages of that grumpy old American bastard who seems to think he’s changed the landscape of screenwriting with a single application of his own magical piss, despite the noticeable handicap of never actually having written a screenplay. (Yes, you know who you are. And, yes, you are not reading my blog and are off counting money somewhere. Congrats!)

Swindlers, all! Busy guffawing their way to the bank and twirling their mustache while I was still sitting with my feet up in a filthy garret scratching my ear with a pencil, struggling to finish so much as an alchemical metaphor.

Paramhansa Yogananda said in the opening line of his Autobiography of a Yogi that “the characteristic features of Indian culture have long been a search for… [the] disciple-guru relationship”. That characteristic has definitely spread to China, and many in the west have also begun the search (fruitful or otherwise) for some kind of ‘guru’, usually being pedaled easy answers by an American guy in sneakers who offers some free snake oil before pulling down trou and applying butter for the financial equivalent of Last Tango in Paris.

A true ‘guru’, though, is someone who’s willing to share knowledge with you for everyone’s favourite price: Sweet Fanny Adams. A valued mentor who will sit with you over a cup of tea that he’s paid for, a favourite author who will dispense advice after a reading in Waterstones, even a mathematician who will tell you that an in-depth knowledge of Game Theory will not actually help you become a better writer (or find a girlfriend). A fake ‘McGuru’ is anyone, especially someone in sneakers, who’s selling something. Even that old kung fu guy wanted 100 kuai for the book, which looked like he’d illustrated it with a paintbrush sticking out of his arse.

Uh, maybe next time, shī fu!

I love ‘graphic novels’ (which is a pretentious term for ‘comic book’ that pretentious people who like comic books came up with in order to avoid the fact they were reading comic books). One of my favorites is Logicomix, which is about the seemingly-snore-inducing but surprisingly exciting quest to discover the foundation of mathematics. I know as much about maths as I do about agricultural kung fu, but Logicomix explains this mind-bending concept extremely well to the average dumbass layman.

For those unfamiliar with the quest for the ‘foundation of mathematics’**, it was basically a bunch of uber-nerdy mathematicians such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig ‘laugh a minute’ Wittgenstein who were all trying to break maths down to its building blocks, or foundations. People were writing papers and books on this for years until a young upstart called Kurt Gödel came along with his classic page-turner On Formally Undecidable Propositions of “Principia Mathematica” and Related Systems, which proposed something called the ‘Incompleteness Theorem’. At the risk of simplifying all of this horribly, he was basically saying that some things are just unprovable, or that the reason nobody could find the foundations of mathematics was because there aren’t any. This comic book revelation, an event which ended the careers of several mathematicians, became a turning point in my own quest to find some magic storytelling formula, and a great motivator to simply sit down and get some writing done.

There is no magic formula. Life doesn’t unfold like the plot of a screenplay or novel or multilayered epic graphic novel. That’s how maths works. That’s how narrative storytelling works. And it’s how life works, too.

*(and I’m aware that ‘people who know me’ make up a significant proportion of readers of this blog. Just slightly under 101% at my last estimate.)

**(and I’m aware that it may indeed be the same amount of people as in the previous note, unless you’ve read the comic too!)

Origin Story

“Where the hell are we?”

“Geographically speaking, in the northern hemisphere. Socially, on the margins. And narratively, with some way to go.”

-The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

I’ve been writing a lot recently. I have ‘been a writer’ since at least the age of twelve. I’ve kept notebooks and journals for the last decade (most of them are gathering dust in a Bag For Life at my sister’s place in the UK), but I only decided I wanted to ‘be a writer’ four or five years ago. At the age of 27 I started to send some scripts and writing samples to various corners of the UK in the hope of turning pro.

I had some success. Within six months I had interest from the BBC Writers Room regarding a script I’d written for a potential children’s fantasy series. I nearly got an agent. I landed an internship as head writer on an exciting transmedia project. I script edited a so-far-unmade science fiction series for a very pleasant Belgian filmmaker. I worked with some wonderful actors and I even met, and spoke to at length, two of my favourite authors, both of whom proved that the caveat ‘never meet your heroes’ is bollocks

After that, though, something went slightly sour. I wasn’t making money as a writer. I was in a relationship that I didn’t want to be in. I wasn’t seeing enough of my friends because I was devoting myself to my writing in the way that a catholic nun devotes herself to her husband, Jesus. I spent a year writing an X-rated choose-your-own-adventure-style fantasy before realizing that it was a tangled mess of pseudo-narrative and dick jokes, then consigning it to the ‘better luck next rewrite’ drawer of my digital filing cabinet. I toyed with the idea of writing a mystical self-help parody called Everything You Know is Utter Monkey Spunk.

I was a bit of a mess. I had long hair and a big beard, which made me look like the cover of Gregory Macguire’s novel A Lion Among Men (which, ironically, was a perfectly inadequate way of describing myself at that time).

I started looking for a ‘real’ job, only to discover that I’d made myself virtually unemployable in the UK. I’d studied performing arts and digital filmmaking, only to discover that the ability to caper through a Commedia Dell’arte routine or talk at length about the French Nouvelle Vague is about as useful in the world of gainful employment as a paper boat is to a drowning man. I ended up on the dole, living in my sister’s attic, my confidence having taken a few gut punches. I spent most of my days lying in bed, reading self-help books or writing in notebooks.

I started searching for jobs abroad. I tried very hard to land a job in Carlsbad, California writing online content for the Transformers franchise. I even considered doing research by sitting through the film version staring 90s pop sensation Marky Mark, before wisely deciding against that. The job probably went to someone who actually gives a crap about giant metal things that can change into other, slightly less conspicuous metal things. The truth is, I just wanted to sip beers on a beach and write science fiction stories.

For the last few weeks I have been back on the writing, though. I have been lazily scripting a short horror film for a friend in England, and I have been slowly Transforming an old script of mine into what I’m pretty sure will be my first full-length novel. Part of my new-found productivity is to do with the simple fact that I earn a low wage and that there’s bugger all to do in Tongzhou except wander about whistling the theme tune to The Prisoner. Part of it is to do with some of the inspiring people I’ve met since coming to Beijing. Part of it is to do with the fact that I feel I’m starting to find a voice. Mostly, though, it’s down to me realizing that I still want to ‘be a writer’.

I enjoy teaching, and it was a particular joy to orchestrate my first graduating class with my Chinese co-teacher a few weeks ago. I also enjoy exploring Beijing, but the truth is that the feeling I get standing on the Great Wall or watching the sunset from the rooftop of a hutong bar is no different from the feeling I used to get sitting in a coffee shop in Northampton or a pub in Banbury with a Muji notebook and some coloured pens.

I have a lot of confidence in my writing that simply wasn’t there a couple of years ago. Maybe the writing has improved. Maybe my self-esteem has. I’m not sure. Either way, I have somehow ended up with about a third of a science fiction novel within the last eight weeks or so. It’s the most productive that I’ve ever been, and I hold out hope that it is, at the very least, publishable. Strangely, the novel keeps taking my mind away from Beijing and bringing back childhood memories: riding my mountain bike to the shopping mall, reading comic books about the death of Superman and shoplifting issues of Vampirella because I was too embarrassed to ask my mum for parental consent.

I was talking to a friend here the other day. I haven’t known him for that long, but like most of my friends, he is both trusting and trustworthy and he speaks his mind. “You know that your next story has to be an autobiography, don’t you?” He said. “You’ve got to tell some of these true stories of yours!” Then he took a sharp intake of breath and said “Trouble is, there’d be too much truth in it! I reckon you’d have a hard time publishing it, and you’d piss a lot of people off!” He’s probably right. On all counts.

Look at superhero stories, for example. I remember the death of Superman like it was yesterday. It was such a well-received story cycle that, ironically, it resurrected the fortunes of DC comics. But nobody ever buys the origin stories, do they?