The Wensum

 

Early one Sunday afternoon in 2003 I came round in my study at the top of the house with the strong sensation that something was wrong.

The clock said 1.30. I knew I’d arrived at the desk before eight. But try as I might I could get no purchase on the previous few hours. They were a blank. I began looking through the work on the screen in search of evidence of the re-write I was working on. It soon became obvious there was nothing to find.

It had been an unusual year. The previous spring I’d reluctantly taken the train to London to attended a routine meeting – routine in the sense that as a provincial writer for radio and theatre my agent periodically ushered me into the offices of various television producers in the hope that it might lead to some work. These people would invariably admire this play or that and express a wish that more stage writers would consider the small screen before shaking my hand and waving me off back into obscurity.  What made this meeting different was that I walked out with commissions to write episodes for not one but two television series. In the space of a little under an hour my writing career had undergone a seismic shift.

In the next twelve months I wrote from a standing start a dozen 30’ episodes of a new soap, two hour long episodes of a returning series, a 60’ play for radio as well as adapting a novel for Radio 4. And as far as I could tell had survived relatively unscathed.

This particular week had begun with a phone call. A change in the storyline of the soap meant they needed three new episodes ready for recording in a week. I took the call on Monday and delivered the scripts on the Saturday. Sunday began with a request for some last minute rewrites. In the far from normal world of television scriptwriting this was all perfectly normal. So I made coffee, climbed the stairs, and settled down in front of the computer.

What happened next is something I’ve never been able to explain. Some four or five hours went missing from my life.  Unable to find any evidence of the rewrites I called my editor wondering how I was going to explain the lack of pages. But worryingly there was no need to explain. He sounded uncomfortable. Everything was fine he assured me. It was all taken care of.  My thinking was still a little muddy but I knew this was not the way the call should be going.  How could he know things had gone so badly awry? There was only one possibility. I took a deep breath and asked if we’d spoken during the morning. Don’t worry, he said. Just relax. A few moments later the phone rang again. This time it was the head of department telling me to get some rest and assuring me I still had a future with the company.

I later discovered that at some point during the morning my daughter had summoned me to help with her computer. I seemed strange she said, and kept asking her the date. As with the phone calls to my editor, I have no recollection of this conversation. While some automatic reflex seems to have kept me functioning I was absent from the transaction.

The house where I was working was on a new development built on the site of an old laundry on the banks of the River Wensum. In the days that followed I spent a good deal of time down by the water. On the face of it I was fine. But my sense of security had taken a blow. The ‘I’ that inhabited my life – something I’d thought of as fixed and unchanging – had been revealed to be precarious and mutable. With time on my hands I leant over the metal railings, stared at the river and tried to work out what to do next.

The Wensum rises in South Raynham in Norfolk. As spring arrives the waters clear and even in the heart of the city you can watch the shoots of water lilies  reach towards the surface drawn by the rise in temperature and the strengthening light. By June bright yellow flowers have colonised the margins. One day shortly after our arrival in the house I caught sight of something moving in the reeds – something which from the elevated position of the living room looked like the back of a big fish breaking the water.

Assuming this was some spawning activity – perhaps a carp depositing eggs in the shallows – I hurried down to take a look. What I saw shook me. It was as if the river was giving up its fish. Everywhere I looked dark green backs were crowding the water. Huge shoals of bream seemed to pave the water between the banks. The muscular forms of carp and chub shouldered their way to the margins. Pike, bemused by this plethora of aquatic life, cruised like missiles in the clear water. There was something biblical in this largesse, such a profusion of fish that it could only herald the advent of some great catastrophe.

This display of the bounty of the Wensum lasted for two or three days. Then the fish disappeared and the river returned to normal. It didn’t happen again in the 8 years we spent living on its banks. Something must have caused this extraordinary congregation – some change in the oxygen content of the water, perhaps contamination upstream, driving the fish before it as it worked its way down to the city. But if this were the case there were no casualties to speak of – at least none that I could see. The river had simply drawn back a veil to reveal this hidden teeming life. And then just as suddenly let it fall again.

There was no sign of the fish now as I watched the water slip by on its way to the city centre and its confluence with the River Yare. But it didn’t matter. In my current fractured state of mind there was something immensely reassuring in the river’s presence.

A good part of my formative years had been spent by the water. It began abruptly at the age of 12. Telling my parents I’d be back for tea I had cycled out into the country heading for the River Nene. Just downstream of the old bridge at Milton, I was offered a rod and began to catch bleak – a small surface feeding flash of silver so bent on suicide that they hurled themselves on my clumsily wielded hook. I was bewitched. Tea time came and went. The afternoon passed into evening and I still couldn’t tear myself away. Only when it was too dark to see the float did we abandon the river and cycle home.

My parents would become familiar with these moments sick with apprehension as their quiet inward child went missing on the water courses of the Nene. Before it was light I would leave the house and head for the broad reaches fronting the marshalling yards, the warm water outfall of the power station in River Lane, or the dangerous mill race at Orton. For me life began once I’d reached the water.

Part of this was easily explained by a growing obsession with catching fish. But it was more than that. In the slow-moving water, the promise that lay below the dark surface, there was a rhythm to my time by the river that perfectly matched my own internal geometry. Even on the days when the Nene seemed emptied of its fish the river remained the place I felt most myself.

In the days that followed my mental absence it struck me that despite my privileged position living on the banks of the Wensum I’d been wilfully blind to the river flowing past my window. It had lain out there beyond the glass, along with the manicured lawns, the flowerbeds and benches, just another element in the desirable landscape of contemporary city living.

But here, up close, there was something familiar and comforting in its waters. Perhaps it is impossible to to have spent so much time with the river during the impressionable years of  late adolescence without something of its magic entering your make-up. Or so it seemed to me then. Something which in the intervening years had disappeared under the demands of work and family life. Whatever the reason I stared into the green underwater calm in the shallows off Old Laundry Court and drank it in.

In time the crisis passed. Normal life resumed. But this glimpse of the healing power of the river would prove significant. Some years later the end of a 25 year marriage and a difficult period in my professional life left me left me feeling I’d lost the sense of my place in the world. I had no clear idea how to find my way back.

And then quite unexpectedly I found myself the owner of a small boat with a base in the extraordinary marshy landscape of the Upper Thurne…

Advertisements

Writing and Running

I taught myself to touch type as soon as I started taking writing seriously. My handwriting is largely illegible to other people and after a few days, when I’ve forgotten what I was saying, to me as well. Learning to type was straightforward. I didn’t like the look of the exercises in the typing guides so instead I found out which finger was supposed to operate which key on the typewriter and made sure that’s what I used. After a slow start things improved quickly.  Before too long I was able to type faster than I could write.

But sometimes speed isn’t the problem. If things aren’t going well writing faster isn’t going to help. Sometimes the words won’t come at all, sometimes they come easily but don’t seem to count. It’s at moments like this I tend to reach for my pen. To explain why I need to talk about running.

At school I was a sprinter. Fast over short distances, hopeless at anything over 200m. Sprinting is not a good idea when you’re middle aged and over-weight. So I’d largely discounted running as a way of keeping fit. Then I discovered Park Run – a free Saturday timed 5k run which happens in parks all over the country. It’s informal, friendly and beyond a pair of running shoes doesn’t require any special gear. You run with people of all shapes and sizes, some with dogs on leads, others trundling pushchairs or being dragged along by eight year olds. A couple of hundred people turn out on the cliffs in Gorleston. If you run it in nearby Norwich the pack can often be 500 strong. It isn’t a race, it’s simply a run against your own best time. Inevitably there is pressure to get faster and strive for that elusive PB. Initially I pushed myself a little harder each week  but as my times started to come down I began dreading the next run.  (No pain/No gain has always seemed trumped by No pain/No pain.) Clearly if I was going to run long term I needed a plan.

So instead of trying to run faster, I decided to concentrate on running more smoothly. At once things got better.  I started looking forward to pulling on my running shoes again, and strangely my times didn’t suffer. Something similar happens with writing.

When I pick up my pen I’m forced to slow down. Especially if I take care to form letters on the page properly instead of dropping straight into my usual scrawl.

If my hand slows down then my brain has to slow down too. Because that’s the way writing works. We don’t assemble words in head, sort them into sentences and then write them down.  Writing is like speech in that words are formed (as the linguists have it) at the point of utterance. When you start a sentence you don’t usually know how it’s going to end. You set out on a journey and trust your experience of language – it’s vocabulary, rhythm, and cadence –  will get you safely to where you want to go.  It’s  a creative act with a mechanical component – they physical act of transcription, hand and brain in sync. A good pen makes transcription like painting words onto the paper. It can introduce a meditative element, smoothing out the transcription process. It’s therapeutic. For me this slow, deliberate, hooking up of the writing arm to the writing brain has a way of removing obstacles. Of freeing me up.

There’s something else. Word processing can be undone by a couple of clicks. So there is no real need to commit yourself. If everything can be changed, why worry? But handwriting is indelible. It’s much harder to scatter words in an approximation of what you want to say and edit them into shape. (Though you will anyway.) Somehow with a pen in my hand the temptation to approximate disappears.  Don’t sketch, says the voice in my head,  get it said.

So when things aren’t going well this is what I tell myself.  I can write faster with a keyboard. But I can write better with a pen. Some days it’s even true.

Breydon Crowther

A script-in-in-hand performance of Breydon Crowther, our new musical opened the Great Yarmouth Arts Festival in June this year within sight of Breydon Water where the story is set.

We had hoped for funding from the Arts Council and after they’d turned us down twice we were left with a difficult decision.  We had a handful of songs, a community choir enthusiastic about the material, and a belief that we had a good story to tell. Actually, it wasn’t a difficult decision at all. Composer Chris Warner and I had a brief discussion which lasted all of two minutes and decided to carry on. Essentially, we were going to write an entire musical on spec.

We approached various funding bodies, Eastern Angles and The Broads Authority and managed to raise enough money to fund five actors for a week and a professional director in the shape of Tim Bell (currently touring with his one man show Dame Nature – The Magnificent Bearded Lady). Then we set to work.

The resulting performance went better than we dared hope. A full house with everyone on their feet at the final curtain. The representative from the Broads Authority left with a smile on his face.

Which was good news as they have just won a £2.6 million Heritage Lottery Grant for a project they’ve called Water, Mills and Marshes which is focussed on the exact geographical area where Crowther is set. They wanted some drama input as part of the delivery of this project and put this element out to tender. Eastern Angles put in a strong pitch with Crowther as its centrepiece and got the gig.

So it looks as if our original decision to go ahead without funding has been vindicated. Breydon Crowther will get a full production. The downside is that the project won’t be delivered until 2020, which is not the sort of deadline I like. And there will have to be a deadline because the show will have to be substantially re-written. The show will have to tour. Realistically this couldn’t happen with our orginal forces of 5 actors plus 15 singers and Chris on accordion.  The  new version will be for 5 actor/musicians and a set that can fit in the Eastern Angles van

‘Elf and safety for writers

Some recent research has suggested that sitting is as dangerous as smoking. (Smoking and sitting at the same time is clearly a bad idea.)  This comes as no surprise to most writers. Put two writers in a room and it won’t be long before the conversation turns to backpain.

On a building site there are invariably brightly coloured posters offering advice about hard hats and the importance of not standing under falling hammers.  This is my version for avoiding the hazards of life at the desk.

Obviously evolution has carefully designed us not to sit at desks. So the first thing my poster would say in big letters is THIS IS RIDICULOUS GO AND DO SOMETHING ELSE. This advice is likely to coincide with what friends and relatives have been telling you for years and is something you can safely ignore.

Sitting position. You don’t have to buy a £900 Herman Miller Aeron. But you do need to be able to sit with an open hip joint. That is, your hips should be higher than your knees.  A cheap foam sitting wedge will convert most dining chairs into a back-friendly work chair. This might seem a poor substitute for the all-embracing leather fantasy chair but see below.

Screen position. The top of your screen should be just below eye level. Adjust the font size so that the image comes to you. The resolution should allow you to sit back rather than hunch forward. Your elbows should be at 90 degrees, your wrists relaxed.  Notice this combination of seating and screen position is impossible to achieve with the laptop that everyone uses. Ideally you should plug your laptop in to an external screen, and probably an external keyboard. Or just yourself get a desktop.

Writing slopes. Even if most of what you do happens at the keyboard you will still need space to read scripts, scribble notes, and doodle. So get yourself a writing slope. The sort medieval monks used. Your back will thank you. You can pay proper money for these or you can knock one up out of blockboard. You might find they even encourage you to try using a pen.

Use a pen. All right, you don’t have to use a pen.  But when things aren’t going well I don’t know a better solution than turning away from the screen and picking up a pen. This also allows you to indulge your stationery fetish and your fountain pen fetish at the same time.

Standing. It worked for Philip Roth. Standing to write has a good pedigree. You can buy desks with adjustable heights or you do what I do and stand your writing slope on top of a chest of drawers.

Think movement rather than stillness. The big message here is that you should not be aiming for the perfectly supported position where there is no strain on the body. Because that means you are still and being still is a bad idea. You have to find a way of making your work practices dynamic. The body needs to move. Galen Cranz in a wonderful book called The Chair argues that your workspace should be thought of as a gym rather than somewhere you can support yourself in immobility. It should have a variety of places to work, sitting and standing as well as room to lie on the floor.  Lying on the floor, head slightly raised on a paperback, feet flat on the floor, knees pointing skyward is what you should do when you’ve ignored all of the above. It’s a life-saver.

Schedule breaks. At least every hour. Get up, walk around, take some deep breaths. A view is a bonus for any workplace. Let your eyes focus on the horizon instead of the screen. At low tide I can see seals on Scroby Sands. The seals aren’t essential but the view probably is.

All of this might seem obvious. But it’s easy to lose sight of when you’ve got a deadline looming.  A laptop in bed might work in the short term. But the thing about writing is it’s a long-term game.