There’s this thing with writers and hats. Don’t ask me why. Warren Ellis wears one sometimes. Kim Newman certainly does. Dorothy Parker sure did. James Ellroy has several. Quite how this works, I’m not sure. But I’m a writer – I have a hat, too.
I deliberately didn’t take my fedora-style hat to the London Screenwriters’ Festival a few weeks ago, knowing that there’d be a surfeit of male writers with headgear, and I didn’t want to be mistaken for one. So, the hat is clearly something that marks me out as a potential writer – but I don’t want to be seen in that light when at an event where there are 700 or so of us.
That’s the kind of awkwardness you get used to with writers, akin to the Groucho Marx thing about not wanting to join any club that would have him as a member. A certain degree of wilful contrariness goes with the territory, along with coffee shops and notebooks. Oh, and bizarre tastes in music…
I remember a course I was on, where a group of writers got to make a short radio piece with input from seasoned radio writers, producers, and BBC technicians. One of the organisers, in a nice icebreaky way, asked what music we had brought with us. For the next 20 minutes, as we went round the table, I’m not sure there were more than a handful of reference points I was familiar with. Centuries-old Sardinian revenge songs. Post-industrial ballet scores. Cornish fishing ballads. 1940s jazz with the rhythm provided by a tap dancer.
It isn’t that we’d all decided to be wilfully obscure, just that writers tend to go off the beaten track in pursuit of whatever will inspire them to do their thing. And that can work in interesting ways. One of the people on the course was a French anthropologist turned filmmaker, who once lived with an Amazon tribe who communicated partly by whistling. So off the beaten track there were pumas living either side of it.
Anyway, that was ideal, since I was already interested in doing a piece on whistling, given its odd status as a form of communication that sits somewhere between intentional and unconscious. And the anthropologist just happened to have audio of the whistling Amazonians with him. Which became one of the threads in the piece I did, that you can check out.
All of which is to say that I view writing as a form of collage, at times. You have no idea when an incident from childhood, or something that happened in town the other day, will glom onto other stuff – newspaper articles, things on Facebook, half-remembered documentaries – to create something that ends up as a story.
Some of what I write is science fiction, but my understanding of science is lousy at best. Don’t come to me for stories featuring impeccably thought-through space drives and planets with ecosystems credible for a methane atmosphere. Thing being, I don’t need to understand that stuff to be inspired to create something that works best in a futuristic or otherworldly setting because that suits the story better than anything naturalistic.
I’ve had my fill of naturalism. Long ago, I wrote a short film about a young boxer on the eve of his first fight, and the issues it brought up with his father and friends. Decent, worthy stuff, that somehow we got to shoot on 35mm with Paul Barber (The Full Monty, Only Fools and Horses) as the dad, on his days off from filming 51st State – penance, perhaps. After that, I kept working with the same director on heartfelt tales about brothers falling out over a driving school one of them ran…and so depressingly on, getting nowhere with any of it and becoming more unhappy in the process.
Somewhere in there, I took a week out and came up with a berserk science fiction epic called Dadtown. It was big and weird and if it was filmable at all would need a budget in the low zillions. And I loved every daft minute I put into it. More than I had of anything for a long time.
Then? Stuff happened. Unpleasant stuff. Of which, maybe something another time.
That was all years ago. And now Dadtown is on its way to being a comic, because I found two people inspired by it a few months ago. Raben White and Jess Parry, the tremendously talented artist and colourist who have brought the story to life in ways that delight me every time I look at the pages, and are a joy to work with. And – hey – you’ll get to check out what we’re up to, soon enough.
Anyway, that’s my first column.
And I think it has a title now. Something to do with hats…