Friday, October 30, 2015

My mother

Helen Willis

My mother died seven years ago today. It hit me hard.

“She is a procession no one can follow after
But be like a little dog following a brass band.”

George Barker

Today I find her in my brothers and sisters.

“What will survive of us is love.”

  Philip Larkin

The love she wrapped around us is the love we have for one another. Thank you, Ma.

Let’s hear it for love.

Our life is love and peace and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.

Isaac Penington, 1667

Thursday, October 29, 2015


Sometimes the only person you want to talk to isn’t there and never will be there. And the violet dawn and the wind-tossed auburn copper beech can’t compensate.

leaf 2

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Brain-fizz (spoiler alert)

I didn’t get much sleep at the London Screenwriting Festival – not because I was networking all night in the bar, but because my head was either fizzing with nerves, or going over and over what had happened during the day, and what people had said.

The Actors Table Read (ATR) was one thing that kept me awake. Delegates to the festival can apply to have a scene from their screenplay worked on for an hour by two actors and a director. I submitted a scene from near the end where Sol cones to Bakewell to tell Fran that all their things have been destroyed in a warehouse fire. And I was picked.

This is a tiny extract from the scene:

screenshot script

In the ATR, you get to spend an hour in a room with these guys and your script. The blurb on the website says that the director might not involve you in the read-through until half way through the session, and you mustn’t interrupt. My director involved me right from the start. What a sweetie!

The first time the actors read the parts, I was horrified. I hated the tone that “Sol” was using. He sounded cross and impatient, whereas in my head, Sol was being kind and solicitous. After every other read-through, the director consulted me and I tried to be restrained in what I said, and not a blabbermouth (which some people in the family think I am.)

The director was very sensitive to the piece and really got it, and by the end of the hour, the actors were reading the script exactly as it was in my head. It’s a sad scene, and they made me cry. Twice! Yes – there I was, crying at my own script.

The whole experience blew me away. Imagine how I’ll feel when I’m watching the whole series on the telly.

Hang on, we don’t have a telly. We’ll have to go and watch it at a friend’s house – a friend who has one of those humungous things, hanging on the wall like a picture.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015



One of the reasons I went to the London Screenwriting Festival (LSF) was to lure a TV executive into considering my screenplay.  The LSF has a dozen or so sessions when you can pitch your project, and you look at the list of who is in each session and then bid for the one containing the people you most want to meet. This means getting online at 12 noon precisely on the Saturday before the festival and picking a session before all the spaces have gone. I made it. Phew.

I’d never pitched before, and my phone pitch practice to the family-member-who-declines-to-be-named had not worked out too well, so I signed up for a Pitching workshop the morning before my session.  It was run by a brilliant teacher called Pilar Alessandra. It was ace: and it led to my rewriting my logline.

Ah, I haven’t told you about the logline, have I? A logline is a sentence (or two) that encapsulates the story you are telling in your screenplay. You lead your pitch with it. So… I wrote a novel which is 300+ pages long, and is now a TV serial screenplay that is 200 pages long, and I have to boil it down into a single sentence. THAT is what drove me nuts before I went to Colorado.

Now, after revision, it is this:

A couple on the brink of retirement fight over their radically conflicting dreams of the future, until the wife’s realisation that her husband has Asperger syndrome changes everything.


There were ten execs in my session and I wanted to speak to four of them. Have you ever been speed dating? No, neither have I, but the Pitchfest sessions are apparently just like that. You have five minutes with each executive, and then the bell rings and you get up and join the queue for the next person you want to talk to.

When I walked in the room, two of the four people in my sights were not in my sights i.e. they hadn’t turned up. So I decided to have a warm up by talking to an agent who wasn’t relevant to my quest. That was good. He was nice. It felt comfortable and his ideas were interesting.

Then I moved on to someone who was not interested in the slightest in what I had to offer. Tant pis pour lui.


And then I went for the man I wanted to talk to more than anyone else. I introduced myself, told him my story was partly based on personal experience and then delivered my logline. As soon as I’d finished, he plonked his business card on the table and asked if I’d got the first episode.

“Yes! It’s here! And would you like the book as well?”

Now, all I have to do is wait.

You are all crossing your fingers, aren’t you?

Monday, October 26, 2015

Wha’ happened?

I booked my place on the London Screenwriters Festival in January, but by the time October rolled around I was so nervous about going I was secretly hoping that a medical emergency would mean a rush to hospital and a cast-iron excuse for opting out. I thought everyone there would be young, hip and slick, and I’d feel like a granny from the sticks. (Which I am actually, but let’s not go into that.) 


I need not have worried: there were people of all ages and at every stage of screenwriting – novices to pros – and fashion was not on the agenda, except amongst the visiting actors. What’s more, everyone was so friendly that you could walk up to anyone and start to chat, without them giving you one of those funny looks that mean “Who is this woman?”

But this is what my dear, regular readers want to know, isn’t it? – did I get anyone interested in my screenplay? Yes. He asked for the first episode as soon as I’d finished the third sentence of my pitch. High five!

The festival was a three day event packed with teaching sessions on every stage of screenwriting, from first drafts to rewrites, from pitching to production, and every other stage between. There were also writers telling us about their journeys from their initial idea to the premiere. My favourites in this last category were Stephen Beresford who wrote Pride, and Paul King, the director and writer of Paddington.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about the scary Pitchfest.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Picture postcard

Having a wonderful time! I'll tell you all about it when I get home. Thanks for all your good vibes, they really came through. Woo-hoo!

Sunday, October 18, 2015


I shan’t be blogging much this coming week. I’m busy preparing my pitch for the London Screenwriters Festival at the end of the week. I’m hoping to persuade a TV executive that my adaptation of But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You can be next autumn’s most popular comedy drama. Wish me luck!

I’ll be blogging again as soon as I can.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Vulnerability, violence and me

I’ll start with the context, as it’s relevant. I’d had a long, draining afternoon at the hospital that had left me feeling tired and fragile, and the screening of Suffragette started at 8.40 p.m., a time when I’ve usually begun looking forward to getting into bed with a book. ( I get up very early.)
So there I was with my daughter Zoë, enjoying the whole experience – a night out with Zoë, her treat of a meal and then the cinema. The film was terrific: an important subject, powerfully told, evocative, beautifully shot, great acting, etc, etc. We got to the scene where a crowd of women is assembled outside parliament to hear Asquith’s decision on whether to change the law in their favour. He announces that it isn’t going to happen, and the women start shouting in protest, and a bunch of police rush into the crowd and start beating them up, (I think) with truncheons.
It was horrible and I shut my eyes, but I could hear the beating, the scuffles, the screams. Zoë saw my distress, and asked if I wanted to leave. She said it was fine: it was supposed to be my treat from her, my evening out. I didn’t want to spoil it for her, so I said no. But as the film progressed, I could see it was going to get nastier – we hadn’t even got the force feeding bit – so I changed my mind, and we left.
I was feeling vulnerable and tired, and if I’d been watching it on another day I’m sure I would have stayed.
But it did make me think again about how much I hate screen violence.  I’m the woman who got so upset at the pictures of the Gaza bombing last summer that I stopped Twitter showing me photographs. You might accuse me of being an ostrich, but I’m not. I read the news and I do my best to work for social justice and peace. I sign petitions, write to politicians, go on marches, and I boycott Israel. 
Suffragette has a 12A certificate, and the British Board of Film Classifications says it has “infrequent strong language, moderate violence, a scene of force feeding.”  I thought the violence was shocking – but I realise now that my reaction was a combination of my mental state at the time, and the shock of learning about Black Friday, when the police beat up the crowd.
I get completely caught up in stories told on screen. I am not a detached observer. It all feels real to me, which is why I steer clear of violent films. I didn’t go to see 12 Years a Slave for this reason: I don’t have to watch a film about slavery to know it was obscene. That film has a 15 certificate, and the British Board of Censors labels it thus - “Contains strong violence, injury detail, sex, nudity, and racist terms.”
Why is it OK for 15 year olds to watch strong violence? Why is it OK for 12 year olds to watch police beating up women?
A friend was bemoaning the fact that her book club always chooses books that are miserable or violent, as if a book can’t be literary or important if it doesn’t trade in violence and/or unhappiness. We got onto the Man Booker Prize and the fact that the winner is about gang violence in Jamaica, and that the bookies’ favourite, A Little Life, contains what the Guardian says are “the most awful accounts of child abuse, cruelty and self-harm that most people are likely to ever read.”
My friend wondered if people can’t feel anything if they read something milder. Is this how it is? Is the world so violent and are most people so desensitised to violence that it has to be omnipresent on screen and in books?
And why do I feel as though I am opening myself up to criticism if I complain about this? I increasingly feel out of step with modern culture.
I’m what the Eysenck Personality Inventory calls tender-minded, but I’m not a total wuss. I did read A Long Long Way, a harrowing and moving novel by Sebastian Barry about the First World War. I had to take a two week break in the middle, but I did go back and finish it. The writing was beautiful, and it’s an important topic.
Perhaps I have too vivid an imagination. I told you in an earlier post that when my younger grandson was 8 he was so upset by the Paddington film (which has a Parental Guidance certificate) that Zoë had to take him out of the cinema. He’d told Zoë that it was bad enough that the bear didn’t have a home, so they didn’t need a baddie as well. I asked him yesterday why he’d been so upset, and he said “Because the baddies wanted to skin the bear.” He feels stories in his heart. Me too.
And Suffragette? I’m really pleased this story of determination and sacrifice is at last being told in such a powerful way for a general audience. I know a lot about protest and the history of protest, but I didn’t know the facts about the brutality against the suffragettes. I shall order the DVD of the film, and watch it at home on a day when I’m feeling robust.
I have the vote. I am indebted to all the brave women who fought for it.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


I walked out of Suffragette this week. I couldn't take the police brutality. 
More on this tomorrow as I'm still processing it.

Monday, October 12, 2015


I have a deep vein thrombosis.

It doesn’t hurt. The treatment is two pills a day and a made-to-measure elastic popsock.

But last week I was throwing a tantrum because I’m not allowed to do anything that raises my heartrate. This includes cycling, brisk walking, and gardening – exactly the kinds of things I like to do on sunny autumn days. I had so much work planned for the garden. And hasn’t the weather been perfect for autumn gardening? Still, sunny, a little rain.

But the nurse’s instruction to do nothing but “potter” was for three weeks only, so why was I making such a fuss? Last week I was weeping down the phone at my saxophone teacher. It wasn’t just the infirmity, but the shock. So I really am mortal: it’s something I thought I always bore in mind. Apparently not. I need to get over my impatience and frustration and grow up. I need to be a stoic like my mother and my sisters.

On Saturday I read a cheerful piece by a journalist who is a tetraplegic after a riding accident, and it made me realise how little I have to complain about.

So I’m over it…which is why I can now confess it all to you, dear readers.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

postscript on grief

For those of you who were interested in yesterday’s post, you might want to read this article in today’s Guardian.

Friday, October 09, 2015

“Moving on” from grief

I just read Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. A difficult read for one who doesn’t know Ted Hughes’ Crow, but powerful and meaningful even so.  I want to share with you this brief extract because I have a feeling that someone out there needs to read it today:

“Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.”


Lux and me at fort funston

Thursday, October 08, 2015

This year’s favourites

It’s National Poetry Day today, so I decided to share with you the poems that have meant the most to me this year.

First, with kind permission of the poet, Mandy Coe:

Let’s Celebrate

the moments
where nothing happens.
The moments
that fill our lives.
Not the field bright with poppies, but
the times you walked, seeing
no leaves, no sky, only one foot
after another.
We are sleeping
(it’s not midnight and
there is no dream).
We enter a room – no one is in it.
We run a tap,
queue to buy a stamp.

These are the straw moments
that give substance
to our astonishments;
moments the homesick dream of;
the bereaved, the diagnosed.

Mandy Coe

and second, with kind permission of The Gallery Press, and the poet:

Everything is Going to be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

Derek Mahon


Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Who am I? Who are you?

Somewhere in the mucky recesses of our shed, amongst the half empty paint tins, the spare bathroom tiles and the cage the pet rat used to live in, there’s  my first novel. It was a dodgy first attempt, and isn’t fit to see the light of publication, but it had a theme that still interests me. In it, a woman murders a man who appears to be a stranger, and the rest of the novel is about a young journalist interviewing everyone who knew the woman in an attempt to find out why she did it.

When I wrote it I’d been wondering what people who know me would say about me, and whether there would be a consensus, or whether they’d all see me differently – Dave, my children, my children-in-law, my brothers and sisters (taken individually), my friends, neighbours, acquaintances, the people at my Quaker meeting, the lady at the Co-op checkout, the GP, etc etc, and you, dear readers.

Last week I had to write a 100 word bio of myself to go with an entry to a screenplay competition. I had to say when I started writing, why I wrote, and what I thought was my biggest writing achievement, all in 100 words. I spent a day and a half on this – which doesn’t exactly recommend me as a writer. At the end of the first day I showed it to Dave who said it was dreadful: it made me sound boring and (apparently) I’m not boring. He poked and prodded me with his suggestions and eventually I achieved 100 words that I was happy with: my words, not his.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, except to say that wouldn’t it be fascinating to get inside the heads of all the people who know us and to find out what they think of us?

This is me with my sister Jen. I’m the one with the glasses and the knobbly knees:

Sue(6) & Jen(4) 

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A couple of lists

I just heard Judi Dench’s brother reading Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day on Desert Island Discs, and it made me think of my pet peeves.

Pet peeves

1/ Actors declaiming poems

2/ Actors performing with dodgy foreign accents. e.g. Daphne in Frasier with her suspect Manchester accent. Why doesn’t the studio hire a person from the right country and the right region of that country? 3/ Novels that don’t use speech marks around dialogue

4/ Litter – and especially litter in beautiful countryside

5/ When a writer uses too many words

6/ The fact that so many prize-winning novels are miserable – hooray that Anne Tyler is on the Man Booker shortlist! Fingers crossed

7/ The cat coming in from the rain and climbing onto my newly washed bedcovers

8/ Woolshops that don’t sell wool – only synthetic fibres and cotton

9/ When people don’t do blind copies in circular emails, but expose your email address to every other person on the list

10/ Pillows with synthetic stuffing – not feathers

And here is a tiny unrepresentative and random selection of ten out of the millions of things that I love, that have just popped into my head right now:

1/ Children running happily into Quaker meeting towards the end

2/ Hugs

3/ My granddaughters meeting me at Denver airport

4/ Rosemary Mann’s photographs of Wensleydale

5/ Wensleydale

6/ The moon

7/ Eating my breakfast outside in the sunshine

8/ All of Isaac’s photographs (except the ones where you use Tiltshift, Isaac)


9/ Uniball microfibre pens

10/ Arriving home



Monday, October 05, 2015


I dreamed about Mary, my friend who died, my Anam Cara. I don't remember the dream, but I do remember the hug.

Me and Mary 1

Friday, October 02, 2015


Sally Howe in Plotting for Beginners liked Chatsworth Farm Shop. I have a love-hate relationship with it because of their response when I found a piece of grit in one of their veggie sausage rolls. The shop does, however, sell a wide range of free range meat, and as I try to restrict my carnivorous tendencies to animals that have had a happy life, and as the shop is just three miles away, I still go.
There are three kinds of customers: posh locals, tourists, and ordinary locals. So there I was on Wednesday, standing in the butchers section next to the ticket machine in my T-shirt, jeans and hoodie, holding my numbered ticket, waiting to get my free range Lincolnshire pork sausages, when a lady wearing lipstick, a blouse and cardigan and a structured hair-do, reached round me to get her ticket.
“I’m sorry!” I said, and smiled, apologising for obstructing her reach. 
She glared at me and said “It’s all right” in a tone that contained nothing. Cold and colourless. Nothing. Three words of which the tone was so weird and remarkable I am telling you about it now. Was there a hint of disdain in it? Maybe. Maybe not.
I wasn’t hurt, offended, or upset: I was just amazed, as an anthropologist is when she comes across a strange new type of behaviour.
It reminded me of that scene in Pretty Woman when Vivien (Julia Roberts) goes to the polo match with Edward (Richard Gere), and he introduces her to a couple, and afterwards Vivien says “You could freeze ice on his wife’s ass.”
And then I thought back to all the staff in the two Sheffield hospitals I have been in this week (three days this week thus far) and I compared. They were all warm, and they were all friendly. And what a difference that made to my lengthy, nervous visits. Not only are Sheffield NHS Hospitals proficient, professional and cutting edge, they are human.
You know that cheesy quote “If you meet someone without a smile, give them one of yours”?
I like it. And I love the NHS.