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Tuesday, 2 July 2019

The sky-diving Elvis impersonator: or, that’s why I keep a journal.

I was collating income and expenditure figures for my year-end accounts. I could almost see the energy oozing out of my pores as I sank lower in my seat. It wasn’t long before I was speculating about the next paying proposition, and where it might come from.

Left field is the answer, of course. They always come from left field, as a random flip through my collected journals never fails to remind me.

My journals now stretch back 25 years. In that time I have published 25 books, written another dozen that await their moment, and over 200 TV scripts. I have read, assessed and written reports on 500 manuscripts, written a whole bunch of  miscellaneous articles, reviews and short stories… and still had those dry stretches that sent me out to work as a barman, a racecourse bookie, a lab assistant. And all the time I’ve been firing off enquiries, filling out applications for residencies and scholarships, presenting ideas to editors, publishers and entrepreneurs, drafting proposals for TV series, radio dramas, documentaries and corporate histories... as well as fielding enquiries from countless people who insist that the story of their amazing life will earn them millions and give me a fat percentage.

Yes. Well. Yesterday I flipped through a couple of months’ entries from around 2002-03. That brief span threw up all kinds of endeavours that I’d more or less forgotten – and reminded me how much energy I had in those days. Energy generated by desperation. Because conjuring up some kind of income, month in month out for 25 years, takes some doing.

The first thing I find is a record of protracted discussions with an outfit called RANY. I think it stands for Rural Arts North Yorkshire. The long and short of it is that I attend several meetings and draw up plans for a series of writing courses for old people in care, and their carers. Yes. Except that it’s all done on spec, and I will only be paid if the courses happen. Which they don’t.

At the same time there are ongoing talks with BBC Bristol: someone is making a film about their series Vets In Practice, for which I wrote the scripts. It will be shot in Birmingham, and I will be paid £250 for an interview. I remember that well: I blew it big time, letting slip, on camera, that I was not impressed by Christopher Timothy’s acting ability. Got the fee, but never made the final cut. They would, however, invite me to a tenth anniversary bash at Bristol a few weeks later.

There follows a flurry of correspondence with the travel editor at the Sunday Times. She has published a number of my pieces but is (a) cutting the fee, due to the Iraq War looming and (b) telling me that, although my writing is very much to her taste, I really need to write about the kind of places that an average ST reader would take his wife and kids for a fortnight’s holiday. Not ‘my wild camping adventures in the desolate wastes of western Arizona’. Later she would write and tell me, ‘If I were rich I would be your patron, but meanwhile…’

Next up I see an email coming in from the gal at Radio 4 who produced my play. Aha, she never emails to say we haven’t made it, so this must be good news.  It isn’t.  She is vexed, having been asked specifically to re-submit my idea about Willa Cather’s relationship with A E Housman, only to have it rejected.

While I am in that Radio 4 vein I chase up a maverick producer who likes my ideas and is considering several of them… but who will, a few pages later, tell me she’s resigning from the BBC because it is now run by timorous youths with no sense of history.

In September I go to jail. Preston, to be specific. I recall an unhealthily warm environment, a lot of pale green paint, everyone walking at a sluggish pace, as if sedated… and a long interview. I am applying for a post as a writer in residence and am turned down that very evening. They tell me they aren’t sure I know why I want the job. (It’s the money, stupid.)  I see their point, which is why I withdraw from another interview at H.M. Prison Lincoln the following week.

Between times I continue to write reports for The Literary Consultancy and teach by correspondence for the Open College of the Arts. Somehow I find time to go for an interview for a job as… an interviewer. Market research. And draw another blank.

Unsolicited emails trickle in: one from a woman who contacted me some months ago about one-to-one tuition; another from a woman who has drafted her life story. She wants me to take her 280,000-word ms and reduce it to 100,000. We agree fees and star work.

I apply to work as a Writing Support Tutor at York St John University, composing a ten-minute presentation on ‘Issues Arising From Student Writing’.  The interview, when it comes, starts badly and gets worse.  Among the questions they ask me is, ‘Do you feel happier working with groups or one to one?’ ‘One to one’ is clearly the wrong answer. They phone that evening to tell me so.   

Money drifts in from time to time: a cheque for £26 from Granada TV for sales to New Zealand of one of my old Emmerdale episodes.

Somewhere I read about an artist-in-residence post in the South Dakota Badlands, and spend an age drafting 3500 words on ‘My Love Affair with the Great Plains’.

I take the train down to the BBC party in Bristol. A director I have worked with throws her arms around me. ‘Alan! I’ve been meaning to email you!’ Another talks enthusiastically of the real prospect of some writing work - next year – without mentioning that he will retire three months later. Someone else tells me they’ll need a script writer for the Vets’ Christmas Special. My series producer is one of several people who bounce up and ask, ‘What are you working on now?’ Telling media folk that you’re actually on a dry run is never a good idea.

And then comes one of those out-of-the-blue queries. A partner at one of the world’s  largest accounting firms has seen one of my corporate histories and wants to talk. Soon. When so-and-so recovers from his heart attack. (I suspect he never did, and the project died with him.)

New manuscripts come in for appraisal. There’s a 298-pager on ‘my fifteen years living and working in Asia’ (for Asia, read Korea, Japan and occasional trips to Hong Kong and Australia).  I write a 4750ww report explaining at great length how to write stories from diaries and notes. (A clue: not by transcribing them.)

Now, here’s one of which I have no recollection whatsoever: a trip to Middlesbrough for a BBC get-together of wannabe northern writers. All I get from that is the realisation that I’ve probably had all the breaks the other attendees sought, but have failed to capitalise on them.

Now comes a sequence of phone calls with a 100-year-old grocery chain who have been keeping me interested for five long years in a possible history. Soon, they said. We’ll soon be making a firm decision. (They never did.)

Another random email, arriving a little after six one evening, comes from an agent who’s found me on the Society of Authors’ website. She’s looking for a biographer for a Holocaust survivor. Great excitement, which ultimately leads nowhere.

A former tutee writes, asking me to read and assess a short play he’s written. Sure thing. That’ll be £75.

Did all of this really happen in eight weeks? Well, that’s what the journal tells me. And I still find time to host a committee meeting for the OCA, notching up a £130 fee. This is where I offer the opinion that at £13 an assignment I can’t afford to give more than one hour to any piece of work. A certain poet disagrees, telling us that he likes to mull each poem over for a day or two before writing up his report.

Income, however small, is always welcome. I discover that Writer’s Forum owe me £80 from last June and bang out a repeat invoice. I send welcome letters to a couple of new students (at the agreed fee of £2.00 a time.)

Having heard that my radio  play is about to be repeated, I get all excited and call BBC Contracts at Bristol. The good feeling doesn’t last long. They remind me that my original contract was for two transmissions, meaning I get nothing for the repeat.

Two new mss drop through the letter-box. There’s a 270-pager on ‘My Life As Lady Purser With a Well Known Shipping Line’, and a second: ‘My Life of Hell With A Sick Mother, a Sick Aunt, An Ailing Grandmother, An Impotent Husband of Seventy-Eight and A Seven-Year-Old Who Screams All The Time – And By The Way My Mother’s Dog Was Sick Too And We Had to Put It Down’. Happy days, but another £400 or so in the bank.

I write to welcome three new OCA students, all Starters, and two of them inherited from a tutor who’s died (it’s an ill wind…). Another £6.00 on the monthly invoice. 

Out of the blue, a call from some guy from Scarborough, a stand-up comedian and sky-diving Elvis impersonator who wants a script-writer. We will meet in a pub next week. I will spend several weeks on this, penning a decent enough half-hour episode, and then he will go strangely silent.

I send off a travel piece about Oklahoma art galleries to the Daily Telegraph’s travel editor. He snaps it up. That’ll be about £350.

So that’s a slice of one journal. I am exhausted just reading it. One day I may have the energy to trawl through the whole lot, roughly 1,500,000 words. I wonder whether I’ll laugh or cry.

And the left field moment? Just after I’d started a winter’s work at the sugar-beet factory I heard that I’d been selected as Jack Kerouac Writer in Residence in Orlando Florida.
The Jack Kerouac House, behind the giant live oak 

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