Monday, 28 September 2009

Being in a Gangster Hip-Hop Movie

It couldn't have been a more English scene. Hampshire. Summer. Pouring rain. A cancelled family-and-friends cricket match, and everyone milling around a smallish house in that very British slightly damp, politely-aggrieved-with-the-weather way which talks about anything and everything else but the fact that you want The Bloody Sun To Shine so you can have the planned picnic. Oh yes. And it was Wimbledon Men's Final day. Of course it was.

So what I was not expecting in the least, as we were Just Making The Best Of It, was for my little cousin (who has now, 20 years later, just about got over being passed over as a bridesmaid for her younger sister) to say, quite casually: 'I'm making a hip-hop film in Birmingham. About gangs. I need extras for the chicken takeaway scene. Wanna come and be one?' Acting, let me tell you now, has never been my forte. I prefer to observe rather than be observed, and putting myself under the microscope of a stage has always seemed like a nightmare-come-true (the sort where I am wearing no clothes in public). But the Gazelle Girl is a keen actress, and anyway, I'd never been on a filmset, and it's a writer's moral duty to experience Life (with a capital L) in all its manifestations, just in case it is needed in some future project.

So, in October last year, we set off for Birmingham at an ungodly hour of the morning into the unknown territory of someone else's plot. We got lost of course. You always do, in Birmingham. But eventually we drove into a supermarket carpark filled with trailers and buses and whatnot (whatnot, thank God, included a catering van--I'd had no breakfast). The little cousin was efficiency personified, rushing around with a clipboard, organising people, and had little time to talk. Impressive, if a little scary in someone whose nappies you have changed. The Gazelle Girl, as a minor, had the shared use of a comfortable trailer stocked with unsuitable junk food and a napping couch. This was lucky, as she'd been to a party the night before and had had precisely 2 hours sleep. Grumpy was not the word, but the sniff of film fame (even as an anonymous extra) was just about enough to drag her out of bed. Having parked her, I grabbed a plate of delicious cholesterol-inducing eggs and bacon for camouflage and mingled with the crowd. There was a frazzled filmperson looking at her watch. I sneaked up behind her for a listen. Ah. The 'bling' hadn't arrived. Apparently for this film, the main character needed large amounts of bling--with real diamonds which had to be insured and guarded. Then, tyres screeching, the 'filmstars' arrived in a quick swagger of tilted baseball caps and banter and fizzing energy and whirled into 'wardrobe'. Little cousin had told me that these guys were the real deal--the film researchers had gone to Birmingham to get some insider knowledge, and had been so impressed by what they had seen that they decided to use the people they had talked to instead of trained actors. As far as I could see, it was a great call.

Then we were off, crammed into mini-buses, to the location. Lights! Camera! Action! Yep. They really do say that. What I hadn't realised was how long it was all going to take to make one 5 minute scene--and how fascinated I would be by the whole technical process. Briefly, the synopsis of 1 Day--The Movie reads like this. Angel is released from prison, and he wants to reclaim the £500k which his mate Flash was keeping safe for him. Now. Today. And Flash doesn't have it. So Flash has to race against the clock as he tries to cut a deal to get the money together while being pursued by a rival gang, the police, his 3 irate babymothers--and his granny. 'Our' scene was set in Angel's favourite chicken takeaway joint--just what he fancies on his return to life 'outside'.

So how did it pan out? We were arranged at the tables--just a bunch of ordinary punters having a sit down and a cuppa. But we needed props for the scene (where Flash sings 'Hate Me Hate You'). And the props for us extras (all that long day) would be a plate each of cold, congealed, unnaturally red-dyed deep fried chicken bits. Yum. A meal never eaten and best forgotten--except that the Gazelle Girl, a healthy eater at the best of times, never WILL forget it (I think it features in her nightmares).

First they filmed it from one end. Then they filmed it from the other end. There were several versions of this due to passing cars, buses, sirens, airplanes. Then they filmed it from above, and below, and outside. Every take necessitated fiddling about, moving lights, building scaffolding for cameras, testing, shouting at people to get out of shot, making sure the clapperboard was there, doing the close up bits, each separately, switching on the's a fine and precise art, this film-making. Sometime in the later afternoon, after we'd gone back to the carpark and had lunch in an old double decker bus revamped as a restaurant, I became aware of a problem as filming resumed in the takeaway. No one said anything. I don't think any of the other extras noticed. But 'Flash' and his co-actors were becoming increasingly edgy between takes and shooting angry sideways looks out of the windows at the petrol station over the road. There were cars parked there. Black, pimp-my-ride cars full of scary-looking staring guys with a uniform 'look' who just sat there and watched. I wondered quite seriously at that point if we were going to be sprayed with bullets. And we could have been. I learned afterwards that a rival gang had come to check out what was happening. It brought home to me that although we were making a film--a film with hip-hop songs in it--there was a more serious social undertone here--an undertone of the reality of what happens daily to young people here on Britain's streets. In the end, two huge security guards placed themselves in the entrance--and the cars drove off.

I talked to 'Flash' and 'Angel' and 'Evil' and their mates through the day. Nice guys who live lives very different from mine. Was I scared of them because they are part of gang culture? No. I wasn't. I liked them very much. And for me that was the best thing to come out of being involved, even in a small way, in the film. Often--more often than not-- we demonise and judge and label what we don't know, what is different from our own experience, because the unknown frightens us. This film is going to be quite controversial--let there be no doubt about that. It's already been compared to Boyz in The Hood and some will say it glamourises guns and gang culture--others that it reflects real street life as it is now for young black people. Bishop Derek Webley MBE, a long time anti-gun campaigner says, 'The film raises some real issues that should cause us to think and give some deep consideration as to what we are going to do about it," and you can find out more about the ongoing debate on those issues here. Or you can go and see the film when it comes out on 6th November and make your own mind up. For me--and the Gazelle Girl--it was an experience we wouldn't have missed for anything.

PS: If you're looking for me in the takeaway scene, I'm the no-makeup, tired-looking one in red and the Gazelle Girl is the pale and exhausted teenager beside me. Blink, and you'll miss us.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Why Countdown for Another Author's Book?

Yes. I have a countdown for Eoin Colfer's new book, And Another Thing on my blog (look to right of page). It has absolutely nothing to do with my own writing, Not a thing. So why would I do this? Well, the truth (the whole truth and nothing but the interplanetary truth) is, I've been a Douglas Adams/Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy fan for what seems like most of my life. That may not make much sense in the current context until you know that the wonderful Eoin, (pronounced Owen if you didn't know that already), was commissioned by Penguin Books some time ago to write Part 6 of 3 ie the next Hitchhiker's Guide book, which arrives in a solar system near you in October. Personally, having read the half which arrived on my doorstep via the Vogon Postal Service (Punishment for Mail Tampering:Disintegration), I can't wait for the next installment. It's brilliant--no word to use lightly, but it is. Eoin has captured the madness and the mayhem of the original books without compromising his own inimitable style. I've been an avid reader of Eoin's Artemis Fowl books since their first appearance, and so, for this new venture, though I'm sure he doesn't need it, I'd like to show my support by putting up a widget thingy for him. And anyway, it means that I can get away with writing stuff like: 'Brain the size of a planet, and all I do is mess about with a blog,' along with 'Don't Panic, Froods--and keep your towel handy in case of Vogons'.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Turning of New Leaves

Sometimes Facebook will throw up unexpected responses to things. A few days ago I was tidying (starting to tidy) my desk and surrounds, which have been--well let us say 'impeded'--by piles of detritus for a long while now. (Yes--I know the theory of Feng Shui and the blocked mind/creativity echoing the 'blocked' surroundings, and agree with it. That's why I started tidying.) I announced this development, and asked, in a throwaway line, 'Is this the sound of a new leaf turning?'. I wasn't really expecting replies--but I got them anyway, ranging from the mildly impertinent (yes, you know who you are) to the frankly existential. So, lovely Bookwitch and Stroppy Author I shall endeavour to answer the questions you asked me--it's an intellectual exercise of sorts, I suppose.

Firstly, asked the Witch, what kind of leaf is a new leaf as far as a tidying author is concerned? Is it the leaf of a tree (perhaps the kind of tree George Berkeley was thinking of for his theory of Subjective Idealism)? Or is it the paper leaf of a book? The former has always been in my mind's eye when thinking of the turning over of new leaves. If you've ever spent time watching and being with trees (as I have, often), it is clear that tree leaves both new and old are sensitive to circumstance of season, wind and weather. The willows I can see from my desk become more silver than grey when rain threatens. It's because the humidity in the air causes them to show their undersides more--to turn, in effect--and show a different face to the world. And of course, right now, at the beginning of autumn, the once new leaves are turning in another way, putting on a last brilliant burst of colour before they fall, making way for a new crop of green to turn up in the spring.

But as an author, I think that in this case I must abandon the tree leaves in their growing form and turn to the leaves which are made from their dead carcasses--the paper leaves my work is printed and written on. There is almost nothing so satisfying as a clean page, in my opinion. Nor anything so scary. To open a new notebook and start the notes for a fresh project is both pleasure and pain--the former because the start of a new book, the brimming over of ideas, the excitement is always a good place to be in, the latter because you know just how far there is to go before the last word is written. But before that even happens, for me at least, I have to have a tidy space around me--a metaphorical, yet satisfyingly physical new leaf turning-over (and placing into files) before the real work of writing starts. So, Witch, I hope that answers your question.

As for the Stroppy Author's question--that's much more complicated. She wanted to know what exactly IS the sound of a new leaf turning, and asked whether, perhaps, it was silent. Well, that's a much more philosophical kind of query--one I am perhaps not entirely qualified to answer. But I shall do my best.

The RHS at Hadlow Carr has just held an exhibition of what trees sound like from the inside. The rising sap, the wind in the branches, the roots moving through the earth. No, then, trees are in no way silent, and neither are their leaves, even on a still day. The smallest and slowest leaf turning on the calmest of days will still cause a small shift in the air for those with ears to hear. So no silence there.

The turning of page leaves can be quiet, certainly (unless you are that annoying thing, a serial page riffler and rustler)--but not silent, even in the hushed environs of a library. Even the sound of the newest of new clean pages has a small physical sound when turned over.

But what of those metaphorical new leaves I was talking about in my original status update? What do they sound like? For me, at the end of a bout of righteous tidying, they sound like bright trumpets summoning me to a feast of words, like a rushing, satisfying outpouring torrent of ideas, like the delicate, fragile bell-note of creation itself.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Keeping Silent

This post was first published on my blog at Red Room, where last week's blog topic was on the subject of 'Repentance'. It's one of their 'featured blogs' this week (for which I won an excellent sounding book--Diana Joseph's I'm Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing but True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother and Friend to Man & Dog) , so I thought my SCS readers might like to read my 'confession' too.

I'm wearing it now. My mother's aquamarine engagement ring. She gave it to me when my daughter was born, just as she gave me, on my son's birth, the amethyst ring my father presented her with on the occasion of my own. But you see, it's not really her engagement ring. It's the replacement. And what she doesn't know is the story behind that. How could she? I've never told her. And I never will. She doesn't use the internet now--at 84 she finds that speaking to people is more fun than emailing, and who could blame her for that. So she won't see it here. But for the first time I'm going to tell you what happened--go through the catharsis of confession and repentance.

I am five years old. The jewelbox stands open on the dressing table after last night's party. Shiny, exciting-looking, pretty baubles lie scattered and reflected in the Wellington mirror. I know that story already--how my cousin had become a duchess, long ago, and how this mirror had been hers. Its triple frame is topped by a pair of gilt carved eagles--some sign of a battle plunder history I do not yet understand. The ring catches my eye, and I stretch out a hand for it and put it on. It hangs on my small fat finger, the large stone heavy, unbalanced--slipping round to the palm side, where I clutch it firmly. It feels solid and grownup there, as if it belongs.

The day is full of sunny promise. Outside waits the new blue birthday swing, with the trapeze bar fitted above the swingseat, ready for acrobatic adventures. I have been to the circus the week before, and been entranced by the glittering costumes flying through the air. Today I too will be an acrobat, and now I even have my own glittering jewel to catch the light as I practise. It is hard to wriggle my little legs over the bar. Hard to find the courage to let go and hang there upside down. I can feel the blood rushing to my head, and down my arms to the tips of my fingers--little fat fingers which don't notice their shining cargo slipping off and falling into the grass. The magpie is chackering in its nest in the yew tree, calling to its mate. 'Treasure! Treasure!'

I never confessed. Never. Not then, in the face of all the eventual panicked grown-up searching (although I did creep furtively back to the swing and look for what I had stolen). Not when my father (who could ill afford it), bought a new ring, as near to the old one as he could find. Not when my father died and my mother and I were talking about anything and everything. Not even when the ring arrived in the maternity ward, in a pretty box with a loving message.

I just couldn't and just can't tell her. I was a child then, and I repent my careless child's action. But telling my mother now, after all these years, would cause more hurt to her than unburdening myself of the truth would to me. So I shall keep silent and see the burden of that silence as the price I must pay for my childhood 'crime'.

But the worst thing of all is this. I had the replacement ring valued for insurance purposes a little while ago. It's not an aquamarine at all. It's just pretty coloured glass. My father REALLY couldn't afford to replace the original. So, I'm sorry, Dad. I guess you had a burden of silence to bear too. At least, for both of us, it's a silence of love and protection. And I don't repent at all about that.

Friday, 11 September 2009

An Amazing Abecedenarian Alphabet - A's Part 2

The second part of my interesting A's is now here. And Chambers Online (who have an excellent wordy blog at ) and I are having nice conversations on Twitter, where they are following me, which is flattering. I hope you enjoy these delightful A's. There will be more eccentric offerings to come soon.

alcatras(n); name for large water birds including pelican, gannet, albatross, frigate-bird [Sp. Alcatraz]. So Alcatraz really translates as Pelican Prison?

alexia (n); loss of power to read. Not something I want to encounter - ever. Writer's/book lover's worst nightmare.

alforja (n):saddle-bag, baboon's cheek pouch [Sp]. Interesting lexical leap from one to the other. Now how shall I use it in current book?

allenarly (adv); solely, only (obsolete except in Scots law). But I want to revive it. "I allenarly had a wee glass, orfisher, honest. Hic!"

alnage (n); measurement by the ell: inspection of cloth [O.Fr aulne, ell]. A most English word. Should like to announce 'I am an aulnager,' and see what happens.

altrices (; birds whose young are hatched very immature & have to be fed in nest by parents. Won't be using in a picture book text, though! Don’t think ‘The altrices were being fed worms by the mummy bird’ would pass the editorial red pen.

alure n.(obs); a walk behind battlements.'Guinevere’s allure was obvious to Lancelot as he gazed down at her from Camelot's alure,' perhaps.

alveary n.; either an early dictionary of English, French, Greek & Latin, or a beehive. Take your pick. Prefer the ‘dictionary’ meaning myself—but then I am a confirmed lexiphile.

alvine adj.; of the belly. Has possilities...I ate too much, have been a swine and now I have a pain alvine. It’s hard to be poetic in tweets.

arnica n.; useful homeopathic remedy for bruising/shock Arnica Montana 200c Take every 15 mins (I put this in when I fell down the stairs—I know it’s out of alphabetical order).

amadou n,; tinder made from tree-growing fungi, also used as styptic. Useful to know next time you are in a forest & need to stop bleeding. Very Ray Mears sort of information.

ambages;windings, roundabout ways, delays. My writing is full of ambages--and they usually take me to interesting intellectual places.

ambivert n.; one neither introvert nor extrovert. Indicates a serial fence-sitter, wine-in-the middle-of-the-glass type person to me. Agree?

ames-ace ns.; lowest possible dice throw of double one, ill-luck, worthlessness. Now I understand all those refs in Georgette Heyer novels to this word.

amentum n.; catkin. But I shan't be raving on about the beauty of the pollen-dusted amentums next spring. Will stick to catkin, if you please.

amissible adj; liable to be lost. This applies to almost anything Daughter owns. Or Son, come to that. We are a family full of amissibility.

ammophilous adj; sand-loving. I am decidedly NOT ammophilous, hating the very thought of sand in summer sandwiches or anywhere. Blearghhh!

amort adj; spiritless, dejected. Much how I feel about going on a school supplies shopping trip to Milton Keynes, the Great Wen of Buckinghamshire.

amphigory n; nonsense-verse. My Twittered witter is internet litter, but don't think I'm bitter-I ain't no Ruth Pitter (a poet much fitter).

analects; collected literary fragments. What I have in my 'bottom drawer' of assorted book ideas, just-started novels, and related items.

analphabetic adj; ignorant of the alphabet, illiterate. I trust this does not describe me, as I am Alphabet Dictionary woman extraordinaire.

anamnesis n; the recalling to memory of things past. Very Proustian. A la recherche du temps perdu. Something I find hard to do short term, which is a little worrying at my age.

ancon, n; a breed of sheep with very short legs. Apparently. According to Chambers 20th Century. But do I believe them? (Of course I do! They are founts of ineffable arcane knowledge on all things ovine. Or so they tell me.)

anfractuous adj; winding, involved, circuitous. Like a shaggy dog story. Or the convoluted periods of, say, Dr Samuel Johnson.

angekkok n; Inuit sorcerer or shaman. Perfect and sumptuous word for a fantasy author—I shall use it at the first opportunity. (Chambers 20th Century Dictionary says 'Eskimo' but I prefer Inuit myself. They need to amend this—actually they probably have. After all, I am working from the last millenium’s version).

annicut n; dam (from the Tamil). Now I need to know how this became so much a part of Eng Lang that it got into the dictionary. How shall I find this out?

anoesis n; sensation or emotion not accompanied by understanding of it. Never quite get the ins and outs of pins-and-needles sensation myself.

anonyma (obs) n; showy woman of easy morals. Almost anyone in Heat mag, then? Great word—let’s bring it back at once. I want to see it in a newspaper article about, say, a Manhattan socialite madam.

ansate adj; having a handle. This morning's tea mug is ansate. Hmmn. Not sure it quite works, used like that.
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