HALLOWEEN AND LIGHTENING AND NOT A BEACH BOY IN SIGHT

I always had a distinct and clear view of how it would be when I finally made it to California.

I’d be driving, or would be being driven, along a freeway heading towards LA. From the car stereo, nice and suitably loud, would be the Beach Boys. Of course. It mattered not which track, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows, Surfin’ USA…. any track from the Beach Boys would work for such an occasion, right?

The Beach Boys. Completely useless in a rainstorm. Good songs though…

The sun of course, would be high and magnificent on the California skyline. My shades would be on. I’d wave to some people in a passing soft top Cadillac, they would wave back. Everything would be right with the world.

BAD MOON RISING

However, dreams and reality don’t always meet on the same street. When I actually did enter for California for the first time, the moon was somewhere behind a cloudy sky late on a Saturday evening of October 31st. We’d just had a rest stop and a distinct chill was in the air. More Creedance Clearwater Revival than Beach Boys.

I didn’t even know we’d crossed the border from Arizona until an official with just three fingers on one hand entered our bus to check none of us were carrying plants deemed incompatible to the native plants of the state.

And then we were off, due to hit Los Angeles around 3am where I would meet another bus for my destination of San Francisco. I was tired and slightly irritable after a bus drive that had begun seven hours earlier and had already involved a switch in Phoenix.

The guy sitting directly behind me wasn’t helping my mood. He hadn’t stop talking for the last couple of hours, regaling the girl next to him about his exploits in various bands. I had no idea whether these stories were impressing her because he wasn’t drawing in breath long enough for her to speak.

HAVE YOU EVER SEEN THE RAIN…

Around twenty minutes into the next leg of the journey rain started to beat onto the windows of the bus. Great, not only was the sun asleep, it was also raining. Where’s a Beach Boy when you needed one?

Still the guy kept talking. The rain was getting heavier. And now, from the slight rocking of the bus, the wind was also picking up.

My nerves were now getting frayed. I looked over to Lillian, the woman I’d been happily chatting to an hour earlier and she was, incredibly, fast asleep, her head on her coat acting as a makeshift pillow.

Then, from out in the distance, a streak of lightening like no streak of lightening I’d ever seen before, hit the desert floor.

I gripped the arm of my seat for dear life. The guy behind went noticeably quiet. This was serious.

The rain was now biblical, hitting the windshield of the bus with a such a force that it would have been no surprise if the glass smashed and the wind pulled the driver straight out into the night.

From out in the deep black nothingness of either side of the highway the lightening was putting on a show that felt orchestrated by the devil itself. The bus veered first one way then the other in the wind and visibility was down to nothing, the driver relying on little more than instinct as he gallantly continued his battle with the elements.

Would we get through this? If we veered off the highway, which seemed likely at any given moment, who would get to us out here, wherever here was?

I thought of home, of my family soundly asleep blissfully unaware on the other side of the Atlantic. I looked at my watch to calculate what time it was for them before I noticed the time it was for us. Twelve o’clock. Twelve o’clock on October 31st.

Midnight on Halloween.

“I don’t think we’re gonna make it.”

The guy behind repeated his declaration of our impending demise as we crept over into November. The driver had now been fighting to keep us on the road for at least half an hour. Could he keep up the fight?

Gradually, pretty much minute by minute, the rain began to ease. The wind dipped. Out in the unbreachable darkness lightening still reached out it’s stabbing fingers of fear but more sporadically now, and a little further off.

…COMING DOWN ON A SUNNIER DAY

Within fifteen minutes the storm was behind us, the road was clear and forgiving, the chatter in the bus began to build. But not from the self-anointed rock God behind me, his bluster had well and truly blown out.

By the time we reached Los Angeles bus station me and Lillian had a mad dash to meet our San Francisco connection. Within a couple of hours Lillian, who incredulously had slept through the whole nightmare evening, had disembarked at her home in Salinas.

I had originally been heading to ‘Frisco but decided I needed a little more of a calming destination and instead stopped off at beautiful Monterey, a town more Cornwall than California.

A week after my Halloween from hell I was flying eastwards across America and onwards to England, wondering if I could ever have the enthusiasm to listen to the Beach Boys again.

WHEN CONFIDENCE TAKES A ONE-WAY TICKET TO NOWHERE

Confidence, as most of us know, tends to come and go. And in my vast experience, it often comes and goes on a whim. Recently I’ve found it going on long holidays without me, far too often.

To be fair, it has taken a few knocks of late and as we all know, confidence can bruise easily.

When self-belief is low anything can be taken as a confirmation of your own inadequacy, such as forgetting to do something, feeling overwhelmed by everyday technology, or even a failure to park your car between two white lines (yes, we’ve all been there).

Off the cuff remarks from someone can be taken as a slight, and our head can slip into safe mode where every decision can be perceived as a risk. As a result of this we can tend to back away from things for the fear of failure, as self-doubt puts down it’s suitcase and takes residence in our everyday psyche.

The paradox is of course, that the more we back away, the further off we get to a solution. As Alfred Einstein once put it, ‘a person who has never made a mistake, has never tried anything new’.

Social media can exasperate the problem as we develop into beings who seek Likes and Shares and Re-tweets as confirmation of our own popularity or affirmation of our particular point of view. Failure to get what we determine to be sufficient support from cyber space can be construed as a snub on a par with being deliberately ignored in ‘real’ life.

ANOTHER REJECTION, ANOTHER SKIN

For a writer, or indeed actor, musician or one of a collection of others wishing to progress in a creative field, it’s necessary to develop several layers of thick skin – not easy for those of a naturally sensitive persuasion.

But these skins are only formed by taking hits, otherwise known as rejections. Each rejection comes as a small punch to the stomach, and can make you doubt whether to continue on in whatever ridiculously difficult creative profession you’ve chosen to pursue. They do say; though I’m yet to be convinced by the generality of this statement, that it’s those who keep getting up continually after rejections that ultimately prevail.

Trouble is, if you’re a long way down the road and have had to pick yourself up time and time again the probability is that you’re in love. In love with the process of it, the hope, even belief, that this time will be different. And you know what it’s like when you’re in love, common sense slips into a self-induced coma as we continually convince ourselves of an eventual happy ending. Sometimes it just isn’t going to happen.

That’s not to say however, that we should stop believing.

I was once told, by a BBC script executive in the pouring rain of the Media City concourse (we’d all been told to evacuate a nearby office due to a fire alarm) that a script I’d written didn’t make sense, and that the world I’d placed it in wasn’t believable.

I trudged home, soaked to the skin and devoid of any remaining belief in myself as a writer. But, with support from my family, I continued on. The script, in its same form, ending up getting a glowing review from Paul Ashton, then Head of New Writing at the BBC, got me a finalist placing in the Red Planet Prize and a subsequent meeting with the hugely successful Kudos Productions.

So, I do have a track record of being able to rise from the ashes. However, it’s true to say of late I’ve had significant dips in my own level of confidence, both creatively and in the real world.

To address this, as I must, it’s helpful to look at what has worked in the past.

BUILDING BACK A WALL OF BELIEF

In these current covid-ravaged times, self-confidence is at a premium for so many who have lost jobs, or are fighting tooth and nail to keep businesses afloat. And it’s not just self-confidence that can take a battering, it’s confidence in a future that can get better soon, or in a government that has got our backs.

The only control we have in such situations, is in the way we choose to react. How do we build our self-confidence again?

Maybe you have your own processes to get back on track?

Personally, I’m a great believer in marginal gains, taking one step at a time, no matter how small. It helps to stop seeing everything as do or die, learn to laugh at ourselves a little. This isn’t always easy, but it can help, as can a chat with someone we trust.

Don’t expect too much of yourself. Step back a little, if this is possible.

This will pass. By the same measurement that we can take any little thing as confirmation that everything we touch turns to dust, so should we take comfort and conviction in the things that we do well, no matter how small they may seem at the time.

And whatever we judge as failure or success, confidence or doubt, it’s good to remind ourselves that they are simply two sides of the same coin.

ABSOLUTELY EXAGGERATED AWESOME NIGHTMARES FOR THE SUPER EXCITED

The girl standing ahead of me recently in the post office was distraught. She turned to me and through her face mask told me the experience was a ‘nightmare’. Was it because of her face mask, I asked? Apparently not, though she admitted it didn’t help. The reason she was having a nightmare was because she had been waiting for nearly a quarter of an hour. Yes that’s right. A quarter of one hour.

A harmless post office queue? Or Armageddon?

Now I’ve had nightmares where I’m being attacked by a spider the size of a whale. I’ve had nightmares were nuclear warheads are about to hit my hometown, but I can honestly say I’ve never woke up in a cold sweat after dreaming of a fifteen minute queue for a book of first-class stamps.

TAKING EXCITEMENT TO A DIFFERENT LEVEL

Conversely, a couple of days earlier I’d attended a webinar where the administrator kept saying how super excited he was to be there. Super excited. I wondered what level of excitement you have to reach before you become super excited.

I’ve been excited at football matches when I become a 11-year-old again, I’ve been excited when tickets have dropped through my door for a gig or when I’m going on holiday. But did any of those qualify for super excitement?

I looked at his expression for a clue. He just smiled a lot. Maybe super excitement took you to a place of extreme serenity beyond screaming and hugging strangers (pre-covid of course. Now we’d just fist-pump till our knuckles bled).

Then I asked the administrator a question. It was just a simple question about song promotion on social media. He replied by saying my question was awesome. It was not awesome. It was merely a good, solid question. But this man, already at a level of excitement beyond my comprehension, considered my question to transport him to a state of awe.

Yes, he’s excited. But is he super excited??

Bless him. The guy just needs to get away from his laptop screen and look around him a little more to understand awesome. Look at pictures of the earth from space. The great pyramids of Giza. Victoria Falls. The surface of Mars. Then maybe re-evaluate my query about Facebook.

WHEN EXAGGERATION BECOMES THE NORM

But to be fair, he was just representing the general social propensity towards exaggeration. I pine for the days when answering ‘yes’ to a question was sufficient. Slowly it seems, ‘yes’ was phased out and replaced by ‘absolutely’. When, why and by whom was it decided that yes was not absolute enough?

Maybe it was the need to be really positive about almost everything, probably devised by political speech writers and spin-doctors, eager for us to live under a ‘blanket of transparency’ (not talking bullshit to you and me), where people no longer have problems, instead have the seemingly more digestible and manageable ‘challenges’.

Wars have been replaced by conflicts. Based on this WW2 could be gradually re-named in the history books as the Second World Conflict Challenge.

I’m exaggerating of course, but isn’t that what we do nowadays?

During the recent lockdown I’ve been told by more than one person that the inconvenience of social restrictions were like ‘being in a war’. Really? I would challenge anyone from the UK to say to someone from Syria whose family and home have been destroyed by constant bombing and have no recognisable social structure in place that having to wipe down a bag of Dorito’s was like being in a war.

WHAT WOULD WILLIAM SAY?

I tried to offload my irritation regarding everyday levels of exaggeration to my friend but she was too busy being ‘gutted’. Apparently Next online didn’t have the top she wanted in her size and the disappointment at this was the equivalent of having her internal organs laid bare and sliced into sections by a razor-sharp knife.

William Wallace

Scottish Knight William Wallace was, quite literally, gutted in August 1305. After being strung up to the point of near-death, his male parts were severed before later having his body cut into four separate parts. Now that is a whole different level of disappointment. I hope he was wearing a top in his size, just so he knew he looked good ahead of the most excruciatingly painful experience imaginable.

But all I can say for sure is that he wouldn’t be super-excited about the situation. Nope, not even close.

SONGS I’D SELL MY SOUL TO HAVE WRITTEN #1 -‘TEMPTED’ BY SQUEEZE

As a song-writer there are so many songs that inspire you, songs that make you love them for what there are but hate them for reminding you what you can never reach, that I could blog daily but never list sufficiently. But, and in no particular order (despite the obligatory numbering), I’ll give it the occasional go.

First out of the metaphorical hat, a song from the best song-writing duo to come out of London since Jagger-Richards. Yes, even better than Chas and Dave. I’m talking about Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook, the beating heart of Squeeze, and in particular, ‘Tempted’.

The song features, of course, that vocal by Paul Carrack, like warm toast on a winter’s morning; thick toast with oodles of butter on.

The soulful intro, setting it up nicely. The lyric starts, unromantic, practical:

‘I bought a toothbrush, some toothpaste, a flannel for my face’

What song starts with a shopping list? More to the point, what great song starts with a shopping list?

A hairbrush, pyjamas, new shoes and a case

Glenn Tilbrook, guitarist and composer with Squeeze, would have been well-practised at receiving lyrics from bandmate Chris Difford that didn’t fit the norm and making gold-dust from them; this would have been no different. A lyric stuffed with bare glimpses of images and places going by.

Passed the church and the steeple, the laundry on the hill

Difford wrote the lyric on the way to the airport, about to go on tour and all too familiar with the temptations that would bring. Who needs looks when you have an electric guitar and a clutch of hit singles?

The cover of East Side Story which includes ‘Tempted’

Tempted by the fruit of another

Tempted but the truth is discovered

A young man about to leave a love familiar, a young man with a screaming libido that drives him to do things he’ll know he’ll regret but is only a little keen to resist.

‘Your body gets much closer, I fumble for the clock

Alarmed by the seduction, I wish that it would stop

Then the regret, the blunt stab to kill off the sickening guilt from the airport’s duty free.

‘I bought a novel, some perfume, a fortune all for you

But it’s not my conscience, that hates to be untrue

Despite the song not even tickling the top 40 anywhere it slipped into almost every mixed tape I ever made and remains high in the musical consciousness of anyone around in 1981 who possessed even the merest sniff of good taste.

Quintessentially British, more specifically South London, the quality of Tilbrook and Difford songs transcend regional parameters. That said, ‘Tempted’ felt different.

It’s soul-tinged production from Elvis Costello and a voice such as Paul Carrack’s; surely inspired by the likes of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, give the song more of a universal reach which help explain why it has grown and reached further down the years. But then great songs have a habit of doing just that.

ZOOM AND THE DEAFENING RISE OF THE QUIET WRITER

I have recently completed a week-long online sitcom writing course where for one hour a day for five consecutive days, 30 comedy writers logged into Zoom and together, under the guidance of comedian and comedy-writer Bennett Arron, we came up with the premise of a sitcom.

As someone who has done more writing courses than Katie Price has had failed relationships, this one was definitely different from all the rest, and not just for the obvious reason that this course was done via my laptop screen.

Democracy Rules and No Ice please

With the mute button an essential of any online meetings with this many participants, what was lovely on this course was how much more democratic this made the experience. Everyone got to contribute, via the chat button, if that’s what they wanted to do. If they wanted to sit back and absorb, that was an option also. No-one felt the pressure to say something, anything, just to not feel left out.

And no dreaded ice-breaking routine, the initiation ceremony of every writing class. As a writer who still carries awful memories of having to move around a room with a playing card lifted to my forehead as part of a ‘getting-to-know-you’ process, the ice-breaker can be the writing equivalent of a dentist’s injection of novocaine into an exposed gum – yes you can see the point of it but if there’s a way of avoiding it then sign me up.

The Loud-Mouth on mute

What the mute button also does is nullify the power of the, how shall we put it, ‘mouthier’ writer . Almost every course, workshop or seminar I’ve attended, has had the presence of the writer who likes to dominate the room with opinions or questions that can break the flow of the poor tutors carefully planned lesson.

Many have read all the writing books and attended, at great expense, at least one of the major script-writing gurus seminars, subsequently screen-writing psychobabble is their second language. However, as I’ve witnessed many times, talking a good script and writing a good script, are two very different things. Just ask any of those script-writing gurus still without a screen writing credit.

Quiet in good company

In a recent blog, the great comedy writer Ken Levine tells how Neil Simon was very shy and ‘not great in a room’, and cites others who were fantastic in a room but ‘couldn’t write a decent draft to save their lives’. Writers, generally speaking (or usually not speaking), are an introverted breed who have to raise themselves above this natural inclination to walk into a room of other creatives. Or anyone, for that matter.

A few years ago I met by far the quietest writer I’ve known, who, like myself was one of those selected to be a shadow-writer on the Channel 4 comedy-series Shameless. So inhibited was he in meetings that he was, to all intents and purposes, anonymous. He found the meetings incredibly difficult and stressful, and contributed little; if anything, to them. On Twitter he described himself as a ‘socially awkward TV writer’.

But boy, could he write. Since then Mark Brotherhood has written for a host of shows including a later series of Shameless, Hollyoaks, Benidorm, became the lead writer on Sky One comedy-drama Mount Pleasant and is the writer/creator behind ITV’s recent series The Trouble With Maggie Cole. Zoom was made for the Mark Brotherhood’s of this world. I have no doubt he’ll be loving it.

So yes, for me Zoom courses are the way ahead for now at least, despite those instances when, via the chat button, you type in the comment you consider to be your most hilarious or insightful, only to watch it float away from the tutors gaze like a used condom in a fast flowing river.

Image by photographer Kristina Flour

ELTON JOHN AND MY BIG BAG OF BEAUTIFUL DREAMS

Dreams come in different shapes and sizes. And different packages. They can be private and low-key, they can be brash and bold. They can be sturdy and solid, they can be fluid or fragile. On one particular, crisp October day in North Audley Square in London, my dream came in a big red sports bag. I was 21, a fledgling songwriter and was about to have my first meeting with a music publisher – Elton John’s Rocket Records.

Contained in that sports bag was an envelope with a cassette of a song I’d written with my then songwriting partner Bob Mouat. God knows why I took a sports bag to house a cassette and a couple of sandwiches, maybe that was considered rock n’ roll chic at the time. If you’re willing to go with that rather unlikely explanation to replace the one I don’t have, we’ll go with that.

Impossibly early for my meeting, I’d been sitting on a park bench for over an hour. I was beyond nervous. Elton was the first artist I’d seen live and he and his lyricist Bernie Taupin were my main songwriting inspiration, so to have an appointment at his music publishers was spine-tingling, even if Elton and Bernie were oblivious of my existence and probably partying over in LA. None of that mattered. What did matter was that I was here, today, with my song.

Of course an essential element for any dream is how you envisage it panning out. This may have nothing to do with the eventual reality but that doesn’t matter at the start, you have to see it being glorious and exciting and everything you want it to be. I’d made this appointment weeks ago which gave me plenty of time to decide in my head how this was all going to work out.

How the Dream Meeting would unfold

I was going to play the song and the Publisher Man (the mists of time have left him nameless, so from now on Publisher Man is his new moniker) would nod approvingly, realising this could be a red letter day in his career. I’d be sitting here maintaining my cool; I knew the song was good.

Then the door would open and someone would step in. I presumed it would be another publisher but as I turned my head I would recognise the face. It was Elton.

He was dressed as casually as Elton John could dress at just gone 4 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, cutting a striking figure in feathered headdress and diamante suit. Publisher Man would acknowledge EJ (as in my head that’s how Elton would soon ask me to address him), and continue listening to the song.

EJ would ask who’s song was playing and Publisher Man would introduce us. EJ didn’t normally cover other people’s material but he would ask my permission to put the song on his soon to be recorded multi-platinum selling album. I’d answer casually that that I’d need to ask my songwriting partner but it shouldn’t be a problem. He’s then offer us a 3-year publishing deal and ask if I’d be willing to write some lyrics for him. I replied that I’d be happy to. At the same time I felt the warm, excited flow of urine trickle down my inside leg.

As he leaves the room he gives a respectful nod to my big red sports bag and the rest would be rock ‘n roll history.

How the Actual Meeting unravelled

Five minutes before the appointment I approached Rocket Records, sports bag in tow, and walked in. Either side of the receptionist desk with it’s huge Rocket logo hung various framed photo’s of Elton’s album covers, live photos and gold discs. My heartbeat quickened. I introduced myself to the receptionist informing her that I was there for my appointment with Publisher Man. She looked puzzled, then informed me that he wasn’t there.

In disbelief I explained how I’d phoned up two months before and made the appointment. She asked me if I’d written to confirm the appointment and I replied that I hadn’t as I’d taken the phone call as verbal confirmation of the meeting.

I asked if there was any other Publisher Person I could see and she explained they only had one other and he was out of the country. I was crestfallen, and she could see it. I told her that I’d travelled down from Liverpool for this one appointment. Her polite apology understandably failed to lift my spirits.

I turned and slowly walked out of Rocket Records, never to return. Elton didn’t ask me to refer to him as EJ and somehow his career stumbled onto multi-Grammy and Oscar successes, not to mention a Knighthood, without recording our song. Or using my lyrics.

The dream changes shape. Again. And Again..

I learned some important lessons from that rather naive first trip that rendered it more than just a useless and crushingly disappointing journey. First, always back up any appointment with a letter (this being the days before emails), and never go down with just one song and one meeting. We may never have hit the heights we originally aimed for but from then on we always got respect, we eventually got songs published and had many great experiences.

But some things don’t change; the constant and undying need for passion in that thing you love doing, for that fire to remain burning inside. Most importantly, knock-backs still serve a purpose if we are only big enough to learn from them, and adjust accordingly. Dreams are pliable, they can change shape when needed. Only submission to the disappointments can destroy them completely.

And if you allow disappointment to destroy your dream, then what else is left?