Writing Life is

the website of Paul Dodgson


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Here you will find my blogs about writing and life.

By pauldodgson, Mar 23 2017 01:59PM

Sarah and I are sitting in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall waiting to meet Poppy, my daughter. It is 12.00 on 22nd March 2017, the day after my birthday. We have come to London to celebrate and last night we saw Laura Marling perform at The Roundhouse. It is the third time I have seen her live in the last year and every time, her songs leaves me with a feeling of joy that lasts for days. She is singing in my head right now.

A man walks past. He is a bit younger than me, has a guitar case on his back, a microphone stand in his hand and is pulling a battered suitcase on wheels. I look at him thinking he might be here for a gig, then I see his shabby brown coat and slightly haunted face and know he is a busker come for the loo.

Poppy arrives and we decide to go for a walk. Outside the Festival Hall facing the Thames we turn right. Crucially, we turn right.

We walk half a mile then explore some pop up shops, laughing at scarves and sculptures. Then it starts to rain so we head back up river in search of shelter. By the time we reach The National Theatre the rain is heavy and we are getting wet. It is a matinee afternoon and crowded but Sarah spots a free table in the cafe so we rush inside.

It is 13.15. I buy Poppy an egg mayonnaise sandwich. Sarah and I have coffee and share a brownie.

Poppy gives me a birthday present. She has made a hand painted calendar with a different picture for every month. We look at each one.

At 14.23 I take a call about a show I am working on later in the year. The call lasts 5 minutes.

At 14.32 we leave the National and turn left, walking along the Thames. The clouds are low and uniform grey but it has stopped raining. Laura Marling is still singing in my head.

As we pass under Charing Cross Bridge I see the busker again. He is still wearing his shabby overcoat and is standing on the wet paving stones singing to an empty space. He has his back to the river. Then a tourist comes up close and films him on a phone.

The busker is framed by the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Bridge in the background.

It is 14.40.

A few minutes later we are crossing the road near Waterloo. There is a commotion. It is noise, lights and disturbance. I turn and see a formation of police motorcycles pass at high speed, hurtling between stopped traffic, riders hunched over handlebars like they are racing.

They head upriver, towards Westminster Bridge.

By pauldodgson, Jul 8 2016 11:03AM

It happened on a train somewhere between Swindon and Chippenham early in the year 2000. I was returning from London and eavesdropping on a gang of well-groomed teenagers communicating in faux street talk. I had an idea.

At the time I was a producer for BBC Radio 4 and to survive meant selling your bodyweight in ideas for new shows so I was always waiting for light-bulb moments. They occurred very rarely, but that afternoon I had a vision for a whole series. Why not, I thought, get load of old people to rip the piss out of youth culture in a comedy show? Even the title came to me in the moment. Fogies. There would be two teams interrogating and interpreting ghetto talk, pop music and so forth. It would be hilarious. It would be cult listening. Old people would think it was funny and young people would think it was funny in an ironic way.

Then I had another idea. Why not get young Fogie-in-Chief, Boris Johnson to be the chair. It would be even more hilarious.

At the time Boris was the editor of The Spectator magazine and was making a spectacle of himself on numerous TV shows. His shambolic appearances on Have I Got New For You were so bad they were thought to be good.

Radio 4 decided Fogies was a good idea and commissioned the series. They even gave me broadcast dates, which is unheard of in the prestigious 18:30 comedy slot without lengthy negotiations and a pilot episode being made first.

At this point I hadn’t even asked Boris if he wanted to do it, so I wrote him a polite letter, describing a ‘new satirical comedy project,’ but leaving out the name of the programme.

A few days later I received a call from Ann Sindall, Boris’s formidable secretary and gatekeeper, summoning me to a meeting at The Spectator offices in SW1. I sat outside his office feeling like a schoolboy about to see the headmaster. When I was ushered in Boris stayed behind his desk under a portrait of himself. Maybe the desk was small, but Boris seemed larger than expected. Usually it’s the other way round with people you know off the TV, but Boris seemed bigger, blonder and even more bumbling. I felt as though he was standing at a fork in the road. When he looked one way he could see himself as Nicholas Parsons and the other way Winston Churchill. We didn’t exactly have a conversation, but I sort of told him the idea (pitch is perhaps too strong a word) and Boris sort of said yes.

So I booked the Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House for a string of recording dates. Then I turned on the radio one morning to discover Boris had been selected as the prospective candidate for Henley, replacing Michael Heseltine in the next election. My bosses at the BBC made it quite clear that I needed to get up to London pronto and make sure his parliamentary aspirations didn’t get in the way of our comedy show.

So first thing next morning I was back in front of the desk. I could tell right away Boris wanted out. He didn’t look me in the eye and had a sort of mumbled conversation with himself while I did the hard sell. But he couldn’t actually say no, so like a doorstep conservatory salesman I carried on talking. Eventually I said, ‘So, we’re still on then. Great.’ Boris didn’t disagree.

But without actually saying he didn’t want to do it anymore, Boris slowly withdrew from Fogies. First he told me he didn’t have time to travel to Broadcasting House for the recordings. No problem, I responded, we can do it upstairs in The Spectator dining room. Next, he didn’t have time to write a script. No problem, I said, I will write a draft and you can put it into your own words. Calls were not returned and messages went unanswered.

I felt like a captain steering his ship towards the rocks. I knew there was no way that this lack of engagement would sustain a whole series. I began to worry so much that I started losing sleep. Then one afternoon I was staring at my computer screen trying to write to my bosses admitting that Fogies was going to be a mighty cock-up when the most extraordinary thing happened. An email arrived from Radio 4 telling me that a new comedy series like this is never ever commissioned without a pilot being made first and that is what must happen. The transmission dates were cancelled. Just make a pilot episode they told me. I made prayer hands, looked up to the sky and said thank you.

On the day of the recording the team assembled in the garden of The Spectator. Among the participants were Grahame Garden, Edward Enfield and representing young people, Marcus Brigstocke. There was no sign of Boris. Eventually he lumbered into view clutching the script that he hadn’t yet read. Then he looked through it and decided it was fine as it was.

We all trooped upstairs to where a BBC engineer had set up recording equipment. It was supposed to be recorded in front of an audience made up from staff and friends of The Spectator. It became clear that wasn’t going to happen because nobody had been told the recording was going on. A colleague from the BBC was with me and I instructed the sound engineer to laugh out loud whenever possible. So there were three of us in the audience.

All things considered the show wasn’t too bad. Marcus was funny at undermining Boris and Grahame Garden knew exactly when to chip in with a witticism. But Boris dissociated himself from the script by reading it badly and saying, ‘it says here,’ when it came to a joke. There were only two of us laughing as the engineer, trained not to laugh out loud when the tape was rolling, couldn’t change the habit of a lifetime. It was never going to be a winner.

So it was no surprise when, a few weeks later, the news trickled down from Radio 4 HQ to say Fogies would not be going ahead as a series.

Eventually a letter arrived in the post from The Spectator. It looked as if it had been written on an old fashioned typewriter and consisted of one sentence. ‘I am sorry I was completely…’ At this point the typing stopped and the last word, ‘hopeless,’ was written by hand.

By pauldodgson, Mar 10 2015 12:16PM

I am sitting at a table in the Boston Tea Party, a café in the middle of Bristol. Outside, on this overcast morning, traffic rumbles up the steep hill in low gear, while inside the dark walls of the first floor salon there is a wash of muted conversation. In front of me are a coffee cup, notebooks and a computer atop an old wooden table. Without the electronics, when I am writing by hand, I can pretend I am a clerk in a Charles Dickens novel, but look up and this is the modern world: laptops, smartphones and tablets abound. Importantly, there is no music.

I can write freely here when I can’t write anywhere else. When I am at home I am too easily overwhelmed by looming piles of tasks undone, but here the murmur of other lives wraps me in an aural security blanket. I feel comfortably connected to the world, but disconnected enough to lose myself.

I have been coming here for a long time. I wrote much of my first commissioned play in this room in the summer of 1999, when I discovered that a latte would kick start my brain and give me half an hour of intense writing time, during which I could generate enough ideas to see me though the day. There were a few years when it became very busy and I migrated to another branch up the road, but then that got busy too, but by then, this café had taken over the offices above the shop next door, so I came back.

Of course the conditions are not always perfect. Sometimes there will be a meeting going on, led by someone lacking a volume control and it is impossible not to be dragged out of my reverie by indecipherable jargon. A visit to the loo means either packing everything up or trusting my hard drive to strangers. Then there are the storytellers. Just before Christmas, four men sat at a table next to me and one related the tale of the previous day, during which he had been out for a Sunday drive with a friend, was stopped by the police, breathalysed, arrested, driven far away to a police station, held in captivity then released without charge. The account was so vivid, and I felt so outraged, that for days afterwards I relayed the story to everyone I met.

When I received my first commission to create an episode of Eastenders, I hadn’t done enough writing to know how hard it would be and I decided to write the first draft on holiday with my parents and family in Dorset. We had rented a lovely cottage next to the sea with its own office. The plan was to write for a couple of hours every morning and the thing would be done by the end of the week. What could possibly go wrong? After breakfast I would saunter into the office, open the window and fire up the laptop. As I stared at the blank screen I would hear sounds from the beach and the holiday voices of my children playing in the garden. I had all the physical space I needed and couldn’t think of anything to say. After the holiday, during which I had become increasingly tense, I went back home and wrote the episode in a single night in the utility room, then was back here in the cafe early the next morning for corrections: Kat Slater shouting in my head as a couple on the next table tucked into a West Country Breakfast.

In December 2013 I rented a space in an office just down the road from the cafe. Three months after a painful break up I woke to another grey morning and decided I needed a more permanent base outside home. I looked on Gumtree and within half an hour was on my way to view a shared office. I took it and it was great: a spacious desk in a light room behind a converted Georgian house. There was endless coffee, table football and a few guys with a great sense of humour. It was like one of those jobs where you turn up and muck about all day, take the money and go home, except we were all self-employed so we didn’t get paid. Added to which, two of the guys worked in recruitment, so when they weren’t mucking about they were on the phone recruiting, which is a very noisy business. Or at least one of them was: the other had spent six months setting up a financial recruitment company, printing letterheads, building a website and so forth. As the time came to actually start on the job he became increasingly distracted, keeping up a running commentary as he shopped for trousers on the Internet, and collaring anyone who passed by and persuading them to play table football. He even set up a complicated league system and bought a giant trophy. So I found myself going there for the laughs and coming up here to work. Eventually the office had to go.

I just did the sums and worked out that as I have been here for an average of three days a week for forty-five weeks a year, then at today’s prices I have spent £8100 on coffee alone. But then I have probably written five plays and the lyrics to thirty songs, so perhaps it all works out in the end.

Now the lunchtime rush begins and the room starts to fill. The conversations are louder, for the first time there is pressure on space and it is time to go. I pack up and head for the reference library down the hill, which is a whole different experience. But that is a story for another day.

By pauldodgson, Dec 16 2014 09:42PM

I have ordered a book by a new author, Catrina Davies. It is a memoir and I have wanted to read it since I read a blog of hers about living in a shed near Land's End. I have been too busy to read for pleasure recently and have been saving this one up. The book, The Ribbons Are For Fearlessness, is her account of a journey to the very tip of northern Europe in an old van, a trip the writer funded by busking with a cello along the way. It is about love and loss and not always knowing what will happen next.

I decided to make the purchase from the one remaining family bookshop in this city, partly because I know that if I don't, and if everyone else doesn't, then the shop will close and independent bookshops will be history. All we will have left is the Internet and Waterstones. Also, I want to pay full price because it feels right that the author, who lives in a shed, should get a decent cut of the RRP. Then there is the boycott of Amazon because of their tax arrangements.

So, on a desolate winter's afternoon, under dark December skies, I head out of the house and across town toward the bookshop, a journey hindered by a toe infection that has stopped me running, keeps me off my bicycle and makes me walk with a pronounced limp.

I am freelance and things are a bit odd right now. Every year since 2007 I have written music and lyrics for Christmas theatre show, so this time of the year has been defined by deadlines, rising panic and increasing levels of excess as the insular world of luvviedom closes in. This time last year I was sitting in the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton listening to the sound of a thousand people a day (mostly) applauding my songs. This year I will mostly be in my sitting room. Freelance life is full of such contradictions but it does take a bit of getting used to. I have been busy though. In the last six months I have written four plays, made two radio series, taken my writing workshops all over this land and learned twenty songs to sing in my kitchen when I want to scare the cat.

Yesterday I travelled to Exeter to deliver a lecture, my last of 2014. Although I have plenty to be getting on with I can't help feeling as though everything has stopped. I don't have a commission to write anything and there is a strange sort of silence.

I know what happens next. There will be an initial onrush of creativity, when I seem to have a thousand ideas all at once. I have been so focused on getting the next thing done I have pushed the future away, so it will feel like standing underneath a waterfall of possibilities. The drenching will last for a couple of days until the clarity of vision freezes and shatters. Then it will seem as though I am looking at a million pieces of broken ice and trying to work out how to put them back together as they melt in front of my eyes. Then there will be a state of inertia that will continue until the next deadline kicks in and everything gets back to normal.

The trip to the bookshop is a task lowdown on the to-do list I have made to try to keep a sense of order and is infinitely more appealing than the tax return, VAT and invoicing that are higher up, but best avoided for as long as possible.

What with the limp, the gesture of support, the boycott and the crosstown journey on a dark December afternoon, I am expecting rather more of a reception at the bookshop than I actually receive. My mind, in its state of headrush, has lost sight of the fact that I'm making a single purchase of £8.99. I am expecting to be hoisted onto the shoulders of the salesperson and marched between the shelves, fed grapes and good red wine and hailed as the saviour of the book trade.

All that happens is I tap my passcode into the credit card machine, exchange a few pleasantries, watch as the book is put into a brown paper bag and go back out into the street.

Forty five minutes later I pass through my front door, make a cup of tea and sit down to read.

Two and a half hours later I am still there.

Sometimes I am so busy writing, talking about writing and just being busy that I forget what it is like to be swept up by a narrative, to experience someone else's life while being given the space to reflect on my own. It makes me realise why I got interested in this whole life-writing business in the first place, how our lives are a treasure house of stories if we can just unpack them, cast aside the irrelevancies and find the narrative. This beautifully told adventure of love, loss and grief makes me want to write my own stories. And it makes me want to stay on the sofa and find out what happens next in this one.

What actually happens next is I get an e-mail telling me that Radio 4 have accepted proposal for a play based on the Cornish folktale, The Mermaid of Zennor. They want it soon, so what I thought was silence, isn't a silence at all.

But I am too far away, heading for the midnight sun with a cello in the back of an old yellow van and I don't even notice the message has arrived.

By pauldodgson, Nov 4 2014 12:30PM

I am sitting in the café at Bristol Central library. I have just come down from the reference section to discover there has been a run on sandwiches and soup, so lunch is a flapjack and a cup of tea. I am wearing headphones and listening to BBC Radio 4 via my iPhone. There is a big row on The Archers as David and Ruth explain to the family the possibility of selling Brookfield farm. That’s appropriate, explains the announcer afterwards, as the Afternoon Drama is about home and what it means when you might lose it. Then the play begins and I hear my own words and my own voice in my ears while watching people smearing butter on teacakes. Then I close my eyes. This drama is very personal, telling the story of my childhood home and my mother getting older. I am in it too, playing myself in scenes and narrating the whole thing. It is better with my eyes closed.

I have had a lot of plays on the radio, but hearing them going out on air still gives me a thrill. I am listening to words I know intimately, words I have lingered over late at night, changed and changed back again. Then there was the recording; two days at the BBC in Cardiff with actors pretending to be my mum and dad. Right now, in my head, I am absolutely the centre of attention, but no-one else here knows or cares, which is much like being an only child, one of the themes of the play. Audience research tells me there are more than 800,000 listeners to the Afternoon Drama. That’s everyone at Glastonbury Festival nearly seven times over. Imagine all those people in one place. Yet in a country of over 64 million inhabitants, listeners are spread thinly among the population.

When my last play was broadcast I sat in the car by the Chew Valley Lake in North Somerset. I had my daughter with me and we both sat looking over the reed beds to the water and the Mendip Hills beyond. It felt like an occasion, something important, but I have another two theatre plays to deliver on Friday, which is why I am here, alone. I am certain that I am the only person listening to this play in the building right now. Everyone else is having meetings, reading books, drinking tea or keeping out of the rain. But here, between my ears, it feels like a first night as the play gathers pace and I know that there will be listeners spaced between the Scottish Highlands and The Scilly Isles. There might even be someone listening on the Internet in a far-flung corner of the world.

Then, forty-five minutes later it is over. There is no round of applause at the end, no standing ovation, not even the sensation of knowing you haven’t got it quite right as you observe a muted audience leaving a theatre. Instead, Moneybox begins on Radio 4. So I open my laptop, look at my phone and wait. At first there is nothing. Then I get a couple of jokey texts. Then friends start posting messages on Facebook. Then the emails start to arrive. There is something wonderful about this. Strangers so moved by what they have heard they look me up on the web, find an email address and actually write to say thank you. I have told an intimate story about myself and I get some lovely stories in return from listeners reminded of their own childhoods and homes. And the emails keep arriving, all evening and though the night too. And I know now there is at least one listener overseas. A lady thanked me for the play but said she had to listen to the end and that had made her very late for work… In New York City.

Home is available on iPlayer until 25th November.


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