I always wore short pants. I don't know when I began to wear them. I was stubborn and stupid. I wore them in Summer and Winter. I even went sledging in them. I don't know what my parents were thinking. I don't know what I was thinking. All the way through primary school I wore them.
The primary school was called Our Lady of the Rosary and was a bus ride away in Dalton-in-Furness. We'd stand at the bottom of the Row and catch the bus, a red Ribble double-decker, the top deck of which would be battered by the low-lying branches to our noisy delight.
Mr Pool was the headmaster and our teacher was Mrs Classic. The building was a one story, flat-roofed, brown-stoned, sprawling bungalow with weird plastic skylights that efficiently collected the rainwater and routed it into the electrical system. It had two 'quiet rooms', purple carpeted where we'd hear stories, learn the guitar or nap.
We'd have assemblies in the big hall where we also played crab football when it rained. Here, we'd get more stories about Jesus. These were never from the Bible, but were like 'the further adventures of Jesus' with him walking on a beach or watching a football match, taken from a large funky book. We'd sing songs carefully drained of musical flavor and now and then a tall and scary bearded man would come in and shout at us about road safety. He told us that if we were stupid enough to climb walls and fall off and cave in one side of our heads, he'd come round to our houses and cave in the other side for being so bloody daft. He also told us about children playing in railway tunnels and being reduced to 'soup' by freight trains. He hinted darkly that he possessed photographs he wasn't permitted to show us.
We watched television in the big hall as well, educational programs like Words and Pictures and big 'historical events' such as the Pope's visit to England and the launch of the first Space Shuttle.
The arrival of the nit nurse was always looked forward to as an escape from class and the lovely way she'd touch your head.
Outside we ran around on the playground, reenacting Star Wars and having epic running battles of British Bulldogs and the like. A sporadic craze - yo-yos or cap rockets or top trumps - would come and overtake us and then as quickly disappear. We were only allowed on the large playing fields surrounding the school when the grass wasn't wet so we wouldn't trail mud in. Mr. Pool would walk out onto the turf to check for moisture as we waited on the edge of the playing ground, readying to cheer. He was like the Man from Del Monte, though he said 'no' more often.
At the bottom of hill, a banking rose up to the fence, ideal for dead man's fall or king of the castle games. It was here I earned my nickname Gnasher, by biting Andrew Bell's shoulder. It also garnered me a rulering. In state schools corporal punishment had been outlawed but an exception was made for religious schools like ours, in line with Jesus' teaching to 'Suffer the little children to come to me for a battering.' We got rulered on our palms for minor offences, on our knuckles for bad offences (biting Andrew Bell) and caned for really bad offences, like when I chucked a frog at a girl. I can't complain too much. Perhaps it made me the upright citizen I am today. I've not flung a frog in anger for yonks.
We ate our dinners in the canteen where we'd rush to our places and spit in our glasses to claim them. If we were feeling jaunty we'd spit in our mates' glasses as well. The food was all right though there was one time the dinner ladies ran out of ketchup and improvised something with tomato puree that turns my stomach even today when I recall it.
The dinner ladies would leave all the leftover food in enormous bins for the farmer and his pigs. It stank, but for some reason we all hung around this bit of the school. It was a good spot for a fight. I always fought Stuart Rhodes, incidentally (I hope incidentally) the only black kid in the school, and he always leathered me except one time when I got in a lucky blow to the solar plexus and he was at my mercy. Unfortunately no one was there to witness it and I've since come to the conclusion it probably didn't happen.
As school went on, first communion done and dusted, then our days became less about potato prints, glitter tubs and naps and more full of maths, spelling, comprehension cards and Richmond tests. It all got a bit gloomy and I began run to the end of the Row to catch the bus less eagerly. The first time I got proper mad at my mum was when she insisted I go back to school for the last lesson after a much needed trip to the orthodontist. I was livid and once out of sight crushed the banana she'd given me to placate my fury in my fist.
Secondary School loomed, a longer bus ride away (to Barrow-in-Furness), with homework, big kids who'd flush your head in the lavatory and school uniforms. Mum said she'd asked the Headmaster but the uniform rule was quite explicit on long trousers.
I suspect she hadn't asked at all, and I also suspect I was secretly pleased to be able to give up this foolish peccadillo at long last.
I was finally growing up. Though I would miss the quiet room. In fact, I still do.
I've always had two ambitions.
My first and most important one was to be a successful writer. I wanted to be a writer ever since I can remember. I used to write novelizations of comic books. I created a little magazine when I was in primary school and got the headmaster to run them off for me. This was the days before photocopying so it looked like something Thomas Paine might have got thrown in gaol for producing in 1810. Anyway, that's what I wanted to be. A writer.
My second ambition was to be a failed writer. For some reason there was a readily identifiable image of the failed writer. The garret suicide, the unappreciated genius, there are examples, though if truth be told they are in reality vanishingly rare. Thomas Chatterton gave the Romantics the image of the struggling misunderstood artist (and fraudster it has to be added). Shelley and Keats loved the image because they found it extremely difficult to get readers while they were alive. Shelley went on and on about the unacknowledged legislators and both poets used the image of the bird whose song is heard but is not seen: Shelley, the Skylark - flies too high to be spied by the naked eye and Keats uses the Nightingale, singing in the gloaming of the dusk.
More recently we've had John Kennedy Toole and John Williams, but their failure is about timing. No one could be a failed footballer, or a failed scientist in quite the same way. The manuscript that is discovered, the rarity exposed, years ahead of his or her time and that achingly pleasant feeling of being unable to compensate for what went wrong. These exceptions are rescued from their own bad luck by subsequent good luck, and there are the marginalized women and minority voices who are rescued from the oblivion of an academic history skewed in favor of the white and male.
The failed writer is in some ways doubly heroic. You do all the work a normal writer does but without the remuneration or fame. You salve your ego with the half remembered facts that the first Harry Potter got rejected dozens of times, and that F. Scott Fitzgerald wallpapered his room with rejection slips, blithely ignoring two salient facts - you haven't written Harry Potter, nor are you F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it doesn't matter. In the biography someone is bound to write long after you die, you can almost quote word for word the passage about the hungry years, the long wintry stretch of indifference, the vision that kept you going, even when that vision gets blurry and everyone begins to wonder if it isn't time you admitted something Mikhail Bulgakov knew: 'There are enough bad novels in the world'.
Ultimately, it doesn't really matter. I could no sooner give up writing than giving up talking to people, or giving up thinking about dinner when I've just eaten breakfast. It's as much a part of me as my pelvis. It is something I understood from the very beginning when I first realized I wanted to be a writer.
That's why I had a back up plan if all else failed.
Be a failed writer.
I'm happy to say that I'm succeeding at this.
I am currently working on two writing projects. One is an original screenplay and the other an old novel I'm completely rewriting, to the extent that it's becoming a different novel altogether. I also have another screenplay which I will probably be rewriting in the next month, although not drastically. Add to this I write at least one story every day for the satirical website I co-run. Sometimes two or three.
Stories are constantly running around my head. If I see something happen or I have a moment of anxiety, I immediately start thinking would this make a good start for a film/ a novel? Nothing is sacred. Car accidents, family crises, arguments and moments of tenderness. And nothing is too banal. Waiting rooms, supermarket aisles, car parks, washing machines, the way I butter my toast, a seagull killing a pigeon. I'm always on the look out for something I've never experienced before in a book, or on the screen. Not just raw material, raw raw material. And yet once I have it, I'm going to do my damnedest to cram it screaming its head off into some generic formula. I try not to, but the stories come like that. Life often happens generically.
Sometimes I have a situation like the current screenplay I'm working on. I won't go into specifics because it's still in progress and I don't want to talk it out until the first draft is done (I'm 60 pages into it). The situation, although not original, hasn't been done properly for about thirty years. I have a very strong first act. The second is going okay but in the middle of the second act I'm faced with several big choices. The screenplay could become a horror film, very easily. It could also follow a satirical strain, perhaps even mixed with horror. It could become straight drama, or there could be action elements. It could even be Science Fiction. Not all ideas are so promiscuous to generic possibilities but this one certainly is and so there is a menu of ideas waiting, a crossroads. I could - given time - write three different scripts and chances are, through rewriting, I probably will. All because I can see these patterns, running off the page in all directions.
Ray Kurzweil in How to Create a Mind describes the brain as a 'self-organizing hierarchy of pattern recognizers'. This single process, repeated millions of times, creates our ability to understand and operate in the world, it creates language and consciousness. And it's also a good way of thinking about stories. Most stories comes from the chaos of lived experience, the arbitrary and odd, but plot only emerges with the recognition of patterns, the imposition of patterns and the organisation of patterns. Stories have structure, turning points, denouements. Stories also strip out extraneous information, listening for the signal in the midst of the noise. To do that they often depopulate the world the better to see patterns: Notice how any given film always has far less people in any given situation. Bars are frequently deserted, roads are lonely and even crowd scenes employ a cast of extras who also seeming to wearing the same narrow palette of colors. Depopulation can be seen in the prevalence of coincidences in those Victorian novels and for that matter Soap Operas and classical Greek tragedy: 'She's my what?'
When in Casablanca, Rick says, 'Of all the the bars in all the world, she had to walk into mine', he's laying bare the mechanics of story. Yes, she HAD TO walk into yours. There was no alternative. It's a massive coincidence but if she'd walked into the Blue Parrot, or any other of the hundreds of bars of historical Casablanca (in the film there are only two) and left the next night, there's no story. And no one wants that.
Just because there's a pattern doesn't mean we reduce reality to something or simplistic. Patterns can be as complex and filigreed as life itself, as enigmatic and mysterious. And there's always the lingering doubt that the pattern isn't there at all. 'Yes, very like a camel,' we might say, gazing at the cloud, but is Hamlet just taking the piss? Whether we see a pattern, or whether we see confusion often depends on perspective and scale. At a macro- or microscopic level patterns might be much more obvious than at our naked eye scale, but then go further and everything becomes a cosmic soup or a Quantum playground.
So things might be chaotic but even randomness has a pattern. To tell if something is random and not fake random - a very important distinction when it comes to serial numbers and codes - there are tell tale patterns. Randomness for instance has a tendency to cluster. Heads, tails, heads, tails, heads, tails doesn't appear to be random. Heads, heads, tails, heads, tails, tails tails, heads does.
The story I am telling if it succeeds will end give reader/viewer an opportunity to see many patterns and not just the internal patterns of the story but those which exist between spectator and drama, art and lived experience. But there should also be the suspicion that the pattern is not really there at all. Like when we wake up at four o clock in the morning and there is a man sitting on the chair by the window watching us sleep. The brain has instantly recognized a possible pattern and has translated it into a perception, so we actually see the man. We blink and there is the heap of clothes on the chair we should have folded and put neatly away.
What a relief! It isn't a story. It's just stuff.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.