BLOG 2019

MARCH

Brexit seems to dominate everything - it sucks the air out of where I am, leaving me breathless.

Some weeks ago, thinking we might indeed be leaving the EU on March 29th, I renewed my SNCF Rail Senior Card, as a kind of gesture of defiance. Or maybe optimism... It seems the only way to actually get hold of the new card is to extract it from a ticket vending machine in Paris so I made a trip out of it early in March, going to Paris then travelling on to Germany to visit a friend and back again via Paris. Alas, at the Gare du Nord, the reality hit. There was a "work to rule" by SNCF staff (which I gather continued for weeks afterwards) so I spent nearly three hours queuing at snail's pace through passport checks and security, before boarding the train after the one I was meant to get. I fear this was a foretaste of how it will be when if we become a visa-controlled nation outside the EU.

In the middle of the month I was asked to be guest of honour at the annual dinner of the Max Wall Society, which was a charming occasion - this was due to WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU, one of Max Wall's last acting roles. A short speech was required: I was nervous about it beforehand but apparently it went down all right.

The next day I was off to Belfast again as my play GIBRALTAR STRAIT has been given another week-long staging by Brassneck Theatre. I was asked again to share in the Q&A after the show.

Given the chance of a three week break from MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN, due to the director's absence abroad, I turned again to MY SONGS INSIDE: last month I'd pitched it to a director I happened to meet at a networking event. He liked the script a lot but we met to talk it over and he did have some useful thoughts about it. I wanted to see what might be done to address his comments; some improvements resulted but I remain doubtful whether I will ever find the interest and investment necessary for it ever to be filmed. The idea of re-working it for the theatre interests me though.

And then, as the month ended, reactions to the HADRIAN script indicate more work may be required. I'm wondering whether I can bear to return to it.

 

FEBRUARY

I was surprised to be contacted near the end of January by the Royal Literary Fund; they asked me to return to the fellowship I held last year at the Medway campus in Chatham. This was caused by illness befalling the person who was given the fellowship after me. I was there for six weeks, following the usual pattern of making myself available to help students for two days each week. I seem not to have mentioned the fellowship in my blog for last year. It might be thought (well, why would I?) that it has nothing directly to do with my main work. But in fact, it has a definite connection: it is well-paid work offered to large numbers of writers. It must in many cases be a vital means to keep going, given the general situation facing us scribes of declining rewards for what we do. In fact, the first one I got in 2003 was hugely valuable during a time when I was having little success in gaining work.

Doubts I expressed in my JANUARY blog as to whether we'd quite done the best we could on the MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN script proved to be right, and some good work has been done since. The script has now been approved by the producer and the next step will be to get some expert advice on budgeting and also some thoughts about casting. As everyone in the business knows, if you go looking for interest in, and possibly finance for, a project, the question is always "Who's in it?"

I watched THE FAVOURITE this month, which has been quite a hit. It strikes the right note for the current mood by being focused almost entirely on female characters and gets the word "romp" applied to it by reviewers which is always good. We are living through an extraordinary era of widespread contempt for those placed in charge of our lives: Trump over there and Brexit black comedies over here, so this portrayal of the rich and politically powerful being vile to each other and generally in a mess is just right.

Aside from that (though not such a big step) I've decided to talk about Brexit this month!

I've lived my life wanting and hoping that we can be both British and European, but the referendum has revealed that many millions of people living here don't feel that and don't want that. The turmoil we've lived through since has almost certainly been damaging to the film industry. The UK many years ago withdrew its cash from Eurimages, a EU-wide development fund. They gave it to the Film Council then a few years later shut that down... Brilliant. This move followed the usual pattern of being snotty towards the EU and wanting to be "in yet not at the same time." If Brexit happens (I've not given up hope) the opportunities for co-production and collaboration will get even worse than now.

I don't want to repeat here all the stuff remainers like me groan about. Rather, I'm thinking about how it affects me personally. As with many of us compelled to write, there isn't much of a gap between what is personal and what is our work. So what is this pain I feel? Why the sadness and sense of loss?

I read an interesting article recently in the London Review of Books by Nicholas Spice which gave me an insight. He talks about his fear of walls and borders. He admits to his anxiety about being trapped, to a love of being in transit. In other words he is, as he puts it so charmingly, a remainer who likes to be free to leave.

He makes the illuminating observation that for many people living in continental Europe, doing away with borders is immensely attractive. We can see this embodied in Angela Merkel, raised behind the border of East Germany; it was the root of her stunning refusal to close the borders to refugees, although this arguably destroyed her political career. Old people have a memory (and it's probably a folk-memory passed down to younger people) of being stopped and checked at borders, of being turned back, perhaps then as a consequence being doomed to capture, internment or even death.

For the British it is the opposite: it is a fear of invasion that lurks in their minds. Yes, it came close in WW2 (a war endlessly invoked in the UK) but we haven't been invaded for centuries, nor do people here have any idea what occupation by a foreign army feels like. But we now have the UK Border Force, staffed by people with paramilitary uniforms and a general air of cool appraisal, with cattle pens to control arrivals. This was one of the straws in the wind, dating from 2012. The following year we had the "Go Home Or Face Arrest" vans. This fear is combined weirdly with a sense of superiority. How else can we explain the decision by some Brits living full-time in Spain to vote Leave? One of these, interviewed recently, was confident that if the Brits are forced to quit Spain "their economy will collapse."

To step on a train in one country and step off it in another is a wonderful thing. The Eurostar trains are magic to me. It is remarkable that following the bombing of Madrid in 2004 (killing 193 and injuring 2000) Spain didn't close its borders. Of course they knew the terrorists were already living in Spain, as was the case with the attacks more recently in France, but it would have been an attractive option politically to assuage the grief following the attack. For the UK, it is a crucial tenet that bad people will arrive if you let them, so of course we insisted on an opt-out from the Schengen Area of visa-free travel even before there were any attacks. So that's why my passport is checked twice before boarding the Eurostar - once by the Brits (shall I be allowed to leave?) and the French (shall I be allowed in?) In other words they don't trust each other, isn't that the bottom line?

I'm aware it is the borders encircling the EU that are being closed, a brutal truth and a whole other issue. But for me, a screenwriter who has worked with directors and producers in France, Germany and Italy and who has set screenplays in those countries, it is the loss of "freedom of movement" that hurts most.

 

DEC 2018 / JAN 2019

Not much to talk about this time round...

Amongst the seasonal stuff in December - social gatherings and trips to see my children in the weeks leading up to Xmas - there was an important meeting. Tommaso Jandelli, producer of the MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN project, came over to see Charles Garrad and myself to talk over the latest draft, which has emerged from Charles' involvement in the project. He expressed himself happy, but my own feeling is that the script still isn't quite right, so I've been doing more work through January. It never ends!

And early in January, it was good to meet with Martin at the Cinema Museum; he has invited me to show TO THE LIGHTHOUSE there. I hope it will possible for it to be screened from a 16mm print. We agreed on May but keeping it flexible for now as to the date. Suzanne Bertish (who played the role of Lily Briscoe) is keen to join me for a Q&A, which is excellent, and we must try to fit round any commitments that might crop up for her as an actor.

A new project has been emerging for me this month as well. Only a possibility at this stage, brought to me by people who came to the screening of WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU. It's just great that a film from way back can in this way seed a new piece of work. It justifies my determination to get my earlier work back into view.

In respect of work seen, I'd like to comment on COLETTE. It was enjoyable and all done with great style (and expense!) but I came away from the cinema with a curious feeling about it. Although Keira Knightley is on the screen for almost all of it it doesn't feel quite her film. Without necessarily resorting to voice over, there needs to be a way to let an audience inside the main character, to feel we are getting her point of view, her weltanschauung to use that nice German portmanteau word. Maybe it's to do with the direction or maybe it was caused by such a forceful presence in Willy, the character playing opposite her (Dominic West) but for me that didn't happen. We stay outside her, looking at her.