Friday, 15 March 2013

Empty me a head by Jan Needle



A student who'll take anyone for a drink - my son Wilf


Writers block – choose your own position for the apostrophe – is a condition I’ve never suffered from. I started scrawling words on bits of paper almost before I could hold a pencil, and was speedy from the word go. When I went to Church Street Primary School, in Portsmouth (now called Charles Dickens, because he was born just down the road, not because he went there), it was quickly discovered that I could write things with my eyes closed, so to speak. I couldn’t do much else, admittedly. I couldn’t even pee very high up the wall in the lavatory, which was outside, of course, and in fact was the back wall of the rope-walk. I certainly couldn’t do sums or hold a cricket bat, or anything hard like that. But if you wanted words, I was your man.

It didn’t exactly get me into grammar school, which my parents knew was pretty damned important for a Portsmouth slum kid, but it helped. Part of the writing, you see, was the ability to make things up. When I went for my interview at Portsmouth Grammar School – having done extremely poorly in the entrance exam – they asked me first why I had managed to fill in so few pages, on any and every subject. Quick as a flash I had the answer. Poor handwriting, I opined, led to me worrying about legibility (I didn’t used that word, even aged eleven) which led inevitably to restricted output. Then they asked me what were a few of my favourite things, and I was away. I was a dreamer, an enthusiast, and I dreamed out loud enthusiastically for a good five minutes. None of them went to sleep.

Then the sixty four dollar question. What did I want to be when I grew up? Easy (and if I’ve blogged this before forgive me, I’ll sub it down a bit.) Mum and Dad had said I had to say I wanted to be a barrister, which in those days did not mean serving coffee at or below the minimum wage for a gang of multi-national crooks. They’d even tried to explain what a barrister did. And I tried. Several times the word almost got past my lips, then at last it gave up the struggle. I wanted to be the captain of an ocean-going tug, I said. Well, blurted, really. And they laughed with pleasure, and I got a place. And was a slightly less than spectacular academic failure until they kicked me out after two terms in the sixth form, when I became a reporter on the local paper.

No writers block there, either – no time. And then on to the nationals and the discovery of the north of England, which let me tell you is a far, far better place. Then on to getting three A levels aged 25, then university to study drama, advanced drinking, and Irish music. The department pubs were the Park (now demolished) and the Ducie, both in the heart of the Irish community, now largely Somalian. Of the many, many great musicians who played in them night after night, only Danny lasted until the last few years, and played a lonely fiddle on a Friday night even when the latest student intake didn’t know the difference between a jig, a reel or a slow air. They still bought him pints of Guinness, though. Good folk, students.
Captain Jan - a young man's dream...

While I studied drama I began to write it (essays being far too boring for my taste), then short stories and novels. And when I graduated I became a casual sub, which kept me in enough money to indulge my every whim. Good God, if I’ve had a wasted life, I’ve certainly had fun wasting it! I possibly nearly drank myself to death (you’ll note I said I studied advanced drinking; well, for a journalist, that’s some step change) and still raise a glass to the blessed Barbara Castle now and then. She brought in the breathalyzer, and I don’t drink and drive. Simple. Thanks, Babs.

So what am I mumbling about writers block for? Because February is the shortest month, and I’ve been to Poland, and to London, and up and down the country like a yoyo and (ah, poor thing), I’ve had a chest infection, a bad arm, and I’m not much closer to getting my second big thriller finally read through and go-aheaded (like that word? I just made it up) and now I’m immersed in Cally Phillips’s fascinating Brand Loyalty (she knows how to bribe: she sent me a free paperback, none of this Kindle nonsense. Although she did know I’d already paid Amazon for a copy.) Basically, I ran out of time.

Time to be sensible, that is.  I did have some photos I wanted to put up (me playing double bass in a Krakow restaurant for one, despite the fact I’ve never touched one in my life and never used a bow before. Polish musicians are just as nice as Irish ones!) and I think I had quite a good topic in mind. But I couldn’t access the pix, because I keep changing computers and getting lost, and then I found I couldn’t remember the topic anyway.

So here you are, then. If that’s writer’s block, then you’ve got me bang to rights – I’ve got it. Probably nearer writers diarrhoea some would say.

Ah me…

PS Thanks to eldest son Hugh, and to Anne, for taking me to Krakow, and to Auschwitz. An amazing present.







10 comments:

CallyPhillips said...

Thanks for the plug! BL was a belated birthday present for you Jan (and didn't know you had it on Kindle but hey,all mediums as valid) Do you think family and friends are trying to tell you something - taking you to Auschwitz, giving you dystopic fiction... anyway, your post made me cheer. I concur with you - writers block's for wimps. Just write eh? I'd love to read some of your drama output by the way!! Have just finished your Brecht book and got some good insight from it. All in all, you've had a VERY productive February my mate and I'm looking forward to getting those two thrillers OUT THERE - now I think I've worked out how we can get excerpts up for free! I am really becoming converted to your 'it's fun' way of seeing the world. Wot larks indeed. Take a rest today old Jan old chum. I've just been copyediting a book yesterday which has both a character called Jan and a decent bit of seafaring in the story. You're going to love it. Sometime around Xmas! (Not my work of course, DEAD forgotten author!) Life's just so busy there's no time for any kind of block really, is there? 8.30. time for work!

Dennis Hamley said...

Jan, I've probably got this quite wrong here, but by Ducie, do you mean Ducie Street in Manchester, which stretches east from Piccadilly station to an undefined end which I never reached? If so, did you drink at a pub incongruously called The Jolly Angler? And was there next door a weird little building which was once a brush factory and then, in my day, became the theatre of a drama outfit, The Unnamed Society, with which I acted when I taught in Stockport (You should have seen my Cook in Mother Courage, though the rotten old director never gave me a part in Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, which I still think is the greatest British play since the war, and made me work the lights instead, which nearly electrocuted me?) No? Ah well, sorry I spoke. A great, resonant post, Jan, which nobody but you could have written.

Jan Needle said...

One of the nice things about this blogspot is that it becomes a conversation site! Dennis first - the Ducies (I imagine; I've never bothered to check) appear to have been a prominent and powerful local family, and there are several pubs with Ducie in the name, plus roads, streets, and bridges. The Ducie Arms I did my studying in was, and is, in Devas Street, behind the University Theatre, where Contact performed my first commercial stage play. I say was, because it used to be an entirely Irish pub - during the building of the M62 Irish-speaking labourers drank there every night before falling into their local lodgings - and is now an Irish theme pub which doesn't even sell bottled Guinness. I prefer my Guinness from a bottle, but when I asked for one, they told me 'there isn't any call it.' I'm pretty sure I have drunk in the Jolly Angler, though. The Unnamed Society (great name!) passed me by. The sight of you playing Peter Piper is one I regret missing sorely. Musgrave is possibly the greatest British, etc, but Mother Courage is one of my world top five.

Now Cally. How can you say you're being converted to a life of fun (I know - you didn't say that, but what the hell?) then end up: '8.30. time for work!' At 8.30 I was sitting up in bed guzzling my second mug of instant and reading Brand Loyalty, by this excellent Scots writer that I know (but only virtually; must sort that out sometime.) And even that made my head hurt, to a certain extent. You are too intelligent, Ms Phillips. Too serious. Your head will explode, and what will George do then? It's a terrrific book, though - and I'm sure making me think so early in the morning must be good for me. So far it's got everything - including, as you promised, a Land Rover - and it's teetering on the verge of sex now, which I do like in a book! I've just looked at the top right screen. 10.18. See - you've kept me from my work. Might as well go back to bed and carry on with BL.
Tell me more about the sea story.It can't by Captain Jan, by Jan de Hartog, because that about ocean tugs. Talking of forgotten writers, no one reads him now. Mid 20th century he was huge, and Captain Jan is a masterpiece. Funny how it goes, innit?

CallyPhillips said...

It's too secret Jan. I can't tell you or I'd have to kill you. But all in good time. Catalogue will be out autumn this year or latest spring next. You need to check your emails to respond to my sorting out your thriller/download issue via weebly of a couple of days ago!
And yes, you call me on the FUN but that's the Scottish Presbyterian work ethic thingamy kicking in. Not that much WORK has been done today. Not writing work anyway. And now the slot has passed it's on to READING for the pm.
I enjoyed the Hamley/Needle Manc reminiscence though! I just imagined the pair of you in waste bins and boy Beckett never got it more right!? Well guys, the weekend starts here. jan, get eskimo nell working and we'll have a landrover convention. Ours isn't cleared to travel more than 20 miles from home though so you'll have to make all the running, or put nell on a boat and sail up the Banff (not sure the people of Buckie will welcome you with open arms though?!)
Dennis - downloaded masses of Gissing from Guthenberg for free. Which has to be a good thing. And I've not forgotten the scanning promise, just still can't understand the instructions!
Pip pip. Allez le weekend.

Dennis Hamley said...

Jan, when in 1959, having at last conceded that staying on, lazing around, occasionally scrawling a few words about GG and ending up as a world famous scholar and literary critic wasn't going to happen, I went for an interview at Bristol for a place to do a PGCE. I came back on the Bristolian, non-stop Temple Meads to Paddington, and the locomotive was a Castle class 4-6-0 named THE EARL OF DUCIE. I suppose the Great Western had run out of castles and was naming its engines after the people who lived in them. Thought you'd like to know. Cally, no hurry with the scanning. I might stick a few ghost stories together in an anthology first. Seems an easy thing to do. I haven't read Brand Loyalty yet because you insisted that it wasn't right and you were going to do it again. It's looking at me reproachfully now, though it's in a different bookcase from Gissing. But I will, I will. And I can't believe you don't understand the instructions. You understand everything. And, Jan, the same applies to telling me what's wrong with BSDG.

Jan Needle said...

Most pubs i've ever drunk in, numerically speaking, were called the Granby, or a variation. Apparently he was a top soldier who gave all his lads some money when the war was over and many of them started pubs. What a gent! Now I'm rushing off. a Woody Guthrie celebration in Edgworth. Let the larx continue!

CallyPhillips said...

Dennis, the one that needed correction (of punctuation etc) was Threads of Time (now done for ebook) Brand Loyalty stands as is. Though it's becoming an historical novel rather than a near future novel as we speak!
As for understanding - there are several huge gaps. Maths for example. Classical physics. Why the world isn't a nicer place... when to stop... the list goes on! And on

Reb MacRath said...

An eventful day: dropped by to read the daily blog...acquired a sly lesson in avoiding writer's block...learned a new word--'go-aheaded'...tuned into a lively forum on the post...and learned the name of a new beer, Jolly Angler. And that tickles me though I no longer drink.

Dennis Hamley said...

My trouble, Cally, is that I cannot read.

Jan Needle said...

better than not being able to write, hamley! so stop complaining...

and reb, surely jolly angler's a pub, not a brew. are you an american or something?