The art of the synopsis. (An implausible second novel; speculative fiction)

These are among the many things I’ve learnt on the Curtis Brown three month novel writing course: the synopsis is probably the thing authors dread the most; you need to have an idea for a second novel up your sleeve before you’ve even got the first one published and David Mitchell (who came to speak to us on the course) recommends daring to be different with speculative fiction. But how much can you expect readers to suspend their disbelief?

I will return in a later blog to more details of how the course has helped me but in the meantime, I’ve dashed out a synopsis for a second novel:

Once upon a time there was a school. It wasn’t a perfect school. Some pupils did better than others. It was rumoured that the people who ran the school made too much money. But they also built roads so that people in far flung areas could get to school. They said if everyone got an education the whole community would benefit. But some people didn’t like children coming in from Other Areas because they sometimes needed extra help and that cost money.
One boy (let’s call him Nigel), particularly didn’t like this. He said they’d all be better off if they tore the school down. He campaigned to have a vote on this. He said the pupils should have control. He said that the money that was spent on the school and the pupils from Other Areas could instead be spent on things they wanted to buy for themselves. This became known as the treat money. Nigel got one of the popular boys to help him. He was called Boris and the pupils liked him because he was always saying stupid things in class. Partly thanks to Boris, the idea gained popularity among some of the 33 pupils. Others said it would never happen and they laughed at Nigel.
An education expert (let’s call him Mark) was called in and asked for his opinion. He said: “If you tear the school down, my best guess is that it will have a negative impact on your education, you probably won’t enjoy much more control and you will be sitting in the ruins.”
One of Nigel’s friends (let’s call him Michael) said: “Pah! Experts! Pupils are fed up with experts!”
And anyway the children were pleased to have an opportunity to vote on something; they liked the idea of taking back control, although none of them remembered ever having had control in the first place because the school (like all schools, everywhere) had always been run by the teachers and governors.
At last their day came and they had a democratic vote and voted by a majority of 17:16 to tear the school down and Nigel said it was a victory for the ordinary pupils and: “by the way, ha ha, you’re not laughing now, are you?”
But the 16 losers felt sad about the school and there was even more shouting and arguing than there had been before the vote and everyone felt angry and bitter.
Meanwhile, Boris hadn’t really wanted to tear the school down, he’d just wanted to boost his popularity so he could be head boy. Michael said actually, he wanted to be head boy and he and Boris had a scrap about it. In the end it was decided that neither of them deserved to be head boy. The head girl pointed out there might not be a school to be head boy of.
Then, when the pupils asked for their treat money, the boy called Nigel admitted he didn’t know where the money for the treats was actually coming from (let’s call that A Lie). He decided, for reasons unrelated to his Lie, to stop going to school.
It turned out that tearing the school down would be a difficult process and it wouldn’t start immediately because specialist contractors (experts) would need to work out how best to do it to ensure everyone’s safety. They told people it might take up to two years. So in the mean time it was suggested that their education should continue as before.
After a month, the children who voted to ‘tear down’ said: “Hang on, the education expert said voting to tear the school down was a bad idea. But it hasn’t been that bad so far and we still know exactly the same amount of stuff as we knew before the vote. So our education hasn’t been affected. The education expert is a liar.”
The education expert took a deep breath, pinched the bridge of his nose and said through gritted teeth: “But you haven’t actually torn it down yet…”

And the children replied: “But still, Nigel said we’d be better off — we think he’s right!”

A leading literary agency offers six minute slots to aspiring writers. I bagged a slot – what did I achieve?

Discovery Day is a meet-the-agent/pitching opportunity with Curtis Brown and Conville & Walsh literary agents, at Foyles bookshop in London.

Is there any point? Am I wasting my time here? Worse, am I wasting the time of the agent I get assigned (SIX MINUTES ONLY) to pitch to?
I asked myself these questions as I sat in Foyles bookshop looking on in dismay at the long queue of people snaking up the stairs, along the landing and up the next flight of stairs. It felt insurmountable, like scaling a mountain and having to do so by climbing over lots of other people.
I had applied for a slot, spent several hours preparing for it, travelled for two and a half hours to be there … and now I realised I had only reached base camp.

How could I possibly make one single page of my novel stand out among all these people with all of their talent and novel ideas? May be I should just withdraw now? Head back home. I texted my husband from the hubbub of the Foyles cafe to report a sinking heart. I heard someone on the phone saying it’s like queuing for the X-Factor! My husband told me I was fantastic but between you and me, I think he may be biased. And also spectacularly ill-qualified as he works in recruitment and I haven’t even allowed him to read my manuscript.

But then I reminded myself that the event itself was free (aside from travel costs) and these opportunities are rare. At most literary events you have to pay for a one-to-one meeting with an agent or editor. Besides, I had a slot booked, so hopefully I would be seen if I joined the queue. I was assured of this by a lovely lady with a clipboard.
My pitch had been carefully considered after studying the recommendations on the Curtis Brown website. But would I remember everything I had to say and could I get all the most important points across in the 30 second time limit we had been told to stick to?

It is much easier to deliver a pitch on a high concept novel — one that can be summed up in a pithy sentence that gives the reader a strong impression of what to expect (‘something meets something’) than it is to talk about a character-driven novel like mine in a few sentences.

Mouth dry, heart pounding, I eventually took my seat.

The agent looked fairly young (since I hit 40 anyone under that age is ‘young’) and afterwards I discovered she works as an assistant to one of the senior agents. But she would of course have a much more informed view and be in a better position to judge my work than a well-read friend or family member.
Much to my relief she wasn’t sitting there with a stopwatch; this was not after all, some real life version of Just a Minute on which my future as a writer depended.
She loved the title, approved of my use of initials rather than my first name, (so as not to put off male readers) liked the tone I had evoked and the fact I’d introduced my protagonist immediately, liked the way I had set the scene and she understood the references in my pitch, to the 80s film genre it pays homage to.
And I was gratified that even though she had probably been there for hours and heard many, many pitches before mine that day, her faced registered what I hoped was genuine interest in and concern for the fate of my characters, even when my own countenance was a bit matter-of-fact (made so by my over familiarity with the story and nervous concern with imparting the key points).

When I relaxed and got talking about it, I realised how passionate I was about these characters I’d created and the effect they have on one another; the elements of the human condition I have tried to reveal through their interactions. As we talked I felt I was being taken seriously and this helped me breathe life into my characters.

She didn’t have a huge amount of criticism — other than “you could take a word out here and there — agents have a huge pile of manuscripts to get through and if you can help them cut through to the point of your story quickly then that’s a good thing” – which is worthwhile knowing. She said I should resubmit once I had finished my second draft. (See my previous blog below for my twitter pitch and submission story).

Of course I was initially delighted that it had gone well but then I managed to convince myself that this might have been because I’d told her that Jonny Geller, her CEO had already seen and liked an earlier version of it (not enough to offer representation but still, anxious to be taken seriously, I reeled off all his praise). Did this make her less likely to criticise? Or did she just not see the flaws another agent might see?
I suppose all writers are plagued by self doubt at times (even the successful, famous ones apparently), but the trick is not to let those doubts overwhelm you. Get professional feedback and use it to improve.

So was it worth it? Unequivocally, yes. I derived both confidence and encouragement from the experience and I’m grateful to Foyles and Curtis Brown for offering this opportunity. It made me realise that it’s all very well writing but to succeed you need to be able to sell your story by summing it up briefly and tantalisingly — because in a sea of aspiring novelists, if YOU can’t do this, how can you expect anyone else to?

Was this my one big chance of literary success? Would I blow it?

Aside from having written 65,000 words of my novel and what I thought was a reasonable attempt at a tweet, I wasn’t all that well prepared for #PitchCB (the once a month event where you can pitch your novel idea in a tweet and hope to be invited to submit). I hadn’t actually studied the Curtis Brown submission requirements in advance. This turned out to be the first 10,000 words but also a 3,000 word synopsis and an all-important covering letter.
I wasn’t expecting it to happen for me on my first attempt, not least because I am a rather bumbling Twitter user. When I pasted my pre-prepared tweet into the box, it turned out to be over the max 140 characters because I hadn’t taken into account the spaces. Gah! I had to re-write it on the hoof.

So my expectations were not great. In fact once I’d tweeted my pitch I went back to decorating my hallway, telling myself there was no point in continually checking only to be disappointed over and over again. I didn’t look at my twitter feed for several hours…. at which point I was confused and then excited and then convinced I must be mistaken but no I wasn’t: Jonny Geller CEO of Curtis Brown, one of the most influential people in the publishing industry (one of the 500 most influential people in the country according to The Sunday Times last week) had favourited my tweet!

I could not have been more excited if someone had told me I’d won approximately £100,000 – because where’s the achievement in that?

In case it helps anyone to tweak their own entry, the exact wording of my final pitch was:

1988. 6 pupils thrown together, trek home in a blizzard. When Rob falls for Gina everything changes but not in the way he thinks #PitchCB

(I think it hit the mark because it managed to set the scene while also hinting at conflict ahead).

I wasn’t sure what the deadline was (if any) to complete my submission and my tweet asking this question didn’t elicit a response so I hoped for the best and decided to start work on it the following Monday.
Why? Why would I not start immediately?
Because there are no circumstances under which you can cancel your 8-year-old’s birthday party, right? None. And of course I’d planned a party which required me to write a bloody script (for an adventure based on the series of Charlie Small books he’d been reading).
AND because I had carpet fitters arriving in two days and I hadn’t finished the decorating and I had waited TEN LONG YEARS to get the hideous stair carpets replaced. I knew if I cancelled the fitters at that point, they wouldn’t be able to fit me in until after Christmas.

So I held my nerve. It took me three days the following week, to write and polish my submission. And after I had submitted, I fell into a writerly pit of despair and considered taking to my bed clutching a bottle of gin. I felt completely deflated in the knowledge that this was my big chance and yet it was almost bound to be rejected. Jonny Geller, you see, is agent to the brilliant David Nicholls not to mention David Mitchell, John Le Carre and the estate of Ian Flemming.
Still, I rallied: the novel wasn’t actually finished and at least while I was in limbo I could continue to labour under the illusion that someone important may ask to read it.

I knew from the submission form that I’d get a phone call if it was good news and an email if it was a rejection. So when, about three weeks later, I saw an email in my inbox from CBCsubmissions, I knew straightaway it was a ‘no’. I considered not reading it at that point and coming back to it fortified later but my curiosity got the better of me.

I read it, feeling flat and despondent. A bit like a giant thumb had come down from the sky and squashed me.

But, here’s the thing. After some reflection I realised I was completely wrong to feel that way for three reasons:
1. It was my first (and so far only) query to an agent and nearly all successful authors have been through rejection many times before they get picked up. You can’t get downhearted after one query or you might as well not bother trying at all.
2. While he had highlighted what he felt the weaknesses were, he had also said that he was “really struck by the premise”, thought “the writing was strong” and that it had “a lot of potential”.
3. The criticism was all stuff that could be changed, edited, re-written without losing the overall story, the characters and the feel. I realised that if I took on board his advice I would in all probability end up writing a far better novel as a result.

So I left it alone for a couple of months to get some distance and since the new year, I’ve picked it up again and looked at it in a fresh light. There’s actually still a lot that I like in there and plenty I can salvage but I can also now see it from the point of view of a reader who wants the story to get going rather than getting bogged down in backstory.

Also, as it turns out, it was not necessarily my one and only big chance: I have just heard that I have a slot at the Foyles Discovery Day next month, run in conjunction with Curtis Brown and Conville & Wash — I’m going to get a six minute face-to-face with an agent. So I have a month to try and complete as much of the new draft as I can. And thanks to PitchCB and the invaluable feedback I received, I aim to have a far better novel to pitch.

50 Shades of Griege (Part 2)

Painting still to be finished but laptop at the ready.
Painting and writing: as multitasking goes I don’t recommend it.

(See previous blog for part 1)

Part 2
I got the tin of paint home, opened it and could see immediately that it had played a cruel trick on me and that it was clearly a muted shade of purple trying to pass itself off as grey. How is that even possible?

But I had told myself that the judge’s decision was final and no other purchasing would be entered into. What’s more, it was Friday — I had only that day to complete the task due to a very busy weekend, ahead of carpets being laid on the Monday. So I painted it on grimly, planning to point out to everyone who stepped over the threshold that although it might look a bit purply, if you squint a bit in the right lighting, it is in fact a very classy, understated shade of grey. Or I’d change the light bulbs. Or issue dark glasses. Or not ever invite anyone around again.

Mid-way through this process I remembered I’d decided I was going to tweet my novel idea to some agents that day. If you don’t use Twitter this will sound odd, I know. (Twitter is a foreign country: they do things differently there).
It’s a once a month opportunity called #PitchCB run by Curtis Brown, a famous literary agency, for authors who want to find an agent (which is all un-agented authors and there’s a lot of us out there). The idea is you pitch the premise for your novel in a tweet and if an agent ‘favourites’ it, you can submit the synopsis and the first 10,000 words to them personally.
I haven’t used Twitter since I stopped producing my magazine (because I’m trying to WRITE and not get distracted which is clearly working out really well for me since I was taking a break from PAINTING in order to send this one-off tweet). I was never very good at Twitter in the first place. However, I’d worked on the wording for the tweet before I started the re-decorating and I thought all I’d have to do was copy and paste it into a box with the relevant hashtag. Only, I was over the max character count because I am so useless at it that I hadn’t realised it should be 140 characters including the spaces. Doh!
So I rewrote it rather hastily and sent it (I don’t think you send a tweet but anyway…). Anyone following me on Twitter must have wondered what the hell it meant as I’d not tweeted for more than a year, but that’s ok — that’s my reaction to pretty much all tweets. I know it’s not cool to admit this but it just seems to me like an endless series of non-sequiturs.

Anyway, I went back to my painting, telling myself there was no point in checking or even thinking about it. Nothing would have happened anyway. It’d end up lost in the ether among the hundreds of other hopefuls tweeting their novels pitches that day. I’d just leave it and do a bit more painting.
I didn’t check until about two hours later and then had to blink and check and double check … and later that night – and later that week – I was still checking because my pitch had been favourited by none other than Jonny Geller, the CEO of Curtis Brown, one of the most influential people in the publishing industry. His client list includes one of my all-time favourite authors, David Nicholls, not to mention John Le Carre, David Mitchell, Tony Parsons… Nelson Mandela for heaven’s sake!
I probably reacted the way other people would react if they had just found out they’d won approximately £100,000. Or as my husband put it, when he heard my reaction: ‘I thought there was a rat in the kitchen or something!’
If I could have done, I’ve have downed paint brushes to work on my submission immediately but as I’ve already said, I had carpets being fitted on Monday and big family stuff going on all that weekend (there are NO circumstances under which you can cancel your eight year old’s birthday party, right? None).
So I went back to painting my walls purplish, now thinking I don’t care anymore because Jonny Geller has expressed an interest in my novel. For the (approx) five seconds it took him to read it and click the favourite button, MY NOVEL IDEA (as summed up in 140 characters) WAS HIS FAVOURITE.

After the weekend, I worked on it pretty much none stop for four days, writing a 3,000 word synopsis and going over the first 10,000 words forensically for any possible ways it could be improved. Finally, I submitted it and then immediately felt like falling into a deep, tortured, artistic pit of despair. Clearly nothing will come of it now. I know that I am facing almost inevitable rejection. Being able to write a 140 character tweet that someone likes, is in no way indicative of your promise as a novelist. Why on earth should it be?
How many submissions does he receive each week that he passes on? How many first-time novelists does he take on each year? (One? None?).
I had to restrain myself from taking to my bed clinging to a bottle of gin that evening.
Tomorrow I will pick myself up and carry on because I have to have hope and if there’s even the slimmest chance he will ask to see the rest of the story, I better bloody well have it ready. This period of uncertainty is forcing me to carry on and finish it, based on the flimsiest hope, the most precarious dream and for that alone, I must be grateful.
P.S. Oh, also now the paint is finished and dried it hardly looks purple at all. Honestly.

2015-10-09 09.08.10
My almost-finished, almost not-purple decorating job.

50 Shades of Greige (part 1)

Paint samples: the path to financial ruin (not to mention mental ruin).
Paint samples: the path to financial ruin (not to mention mental ruin).

(Before I start, let me just acknowledge (to save you from doing so) that my ‘problems’ are entirely first world and very middle class and therefore not real problems by most people’s standards. Sorry about that. Still, I suspect I’m not the only one to go through this…).

It’s all very 50 Shades of Grey in our house at the moment and I’m aching from contorting myself into positions I never thought I’d be able to achieve.

Before you get unwelcome visuals, let me explain.

We bought our house ten years ago and have reluctantly kept many of the original period features. These include moth-eaten turquoise carpets covering both sets of stairs and landings and wood grain effect MDF doors with scratched brass ‘period style’ lever handles which date back to the house’s origins (1994).
I have been itching to replace that wretched carpet in particular, since I first clapped eyes on it. (I was going to put a photo of it on but it would actually make you shudder). The thing is, I’d always laboured under the illusion that carpets were almost a once-in-a-lifetime purchase.
The house I grew up in was covered in bits of carpet cast-off by kindly benefactors or industrial floor coverings purloined from businesses that had closed down (with, in one case, the logo painted across it). It was disintegrating, threadbare and conveniently mud coloured (or as my mother put it ‘practical’ — you could walk around on it in your wellies and no one would notice). It took 20 years for her to decide she could afford to re-carpet and somehow I’ve carried with me the idea that carpets can’t be replaced willy nilly. They are something one should save for to get the best possible product or not bother at all.
However, I had a epiphany in Carpetright. I discovered that I could buy 100% wool carpets in a half price sale and pay them off over the next two years at 0%APR. (By which point the goddam moths will probably have demolished them, but still).

Carpetright: where I realised my dreams could come true.
Carpetright: where I realised my dreams could come true.

In a moment of reckless extravagance we bought a carpet.
Of course, one thing leads to another. There is no point putting new carpets down when everything around them needs painting.

Deep breath. So I think about phoning painters and decorators… think about the likely cost of that, then, because I’m currently working for myself and/or guiltily writing a novel, I decide I ought to do it myself.

Self delusion can lead you down many different paths. It can lead you to buy a large house with three floors you can barely afford the mortgage on and then fill it with lodgers for years, to cover costs. It can lead you to think you can paint the hall, stairs and landings in that house in one week before the carpet fitters are due. It can lead you to find yourself balanced precariously on a chair which is on top of a pile books, on the stairs as you try to reach a paintbrush into a corner that no one will ever notice apart from you. It can give you a right pain in the neck.
I won’t lie to you: I paid a tall friend to do some of the bits I couldn’t reach and had a little help from (eventually) my husband although to be honest after a night on the beers with his brothers, the paint fumes were preferable to being anywhere near him.
But there is a lot of woodwork. Acres of it. Although not enough, I note ruefully, to require using the vast tin of paint I bought in what was the first of a series of Paint Purchasing Blunders. Even by the time we have finished painting every conceivable surface in off-white satinwood, there will still be sufficient left over to repaint the entire Forth Road Bridge.
I’ve spent a small fortune on paint that I have subsequently discovered wasn’t what I was expecting it to be. That looked pale grey on the label, why does it look lavender now that I’ve had it mixed specially and bought £28 worth of the sodding stuff?

Not my own walls but you get the picture.
Not my own walls but you get the picture.

There are approximately three miles of bannisters (121 in total). Each one to be sanded, then wiped down then painted with two …errr no actually hang on, make that ONE coat of paint.
Only when I’d got to the bottom of the stairs did I notice that the off white satin wood looks blueish in the daylight by the front door. So although I’ve still got about 5 litres left I’ll have to buy ANOTHER tin for the hallway.
I’ve got blisters on my hands, paint on my ‘best’ jogging bottoms (an oxymoron I know but they are the expensive stylish type that you’re supposed to do yoga in and as I work from home they are my work clothes).
Then there’s the other colours I’ve had mixed — the one I thought was an uncontroversial off white but it looks pink in certain lights. It’ll have to stay like that because that’s the bit I paid someone else to do. And the endless bloody deliberations over the shade of grey I want for the panelling on the lower half of the walls.
The kids had started coming home from school asking me in trepidation if I’d chosen a paint colour yet and groaning when I reply ‘ummm… nearly.’

There are more than 50 Shades of Grey. None of them quite right...
There are more than 50 Shades of Grey out there. None of them look quite right on my walls…

The walls are daubed in 50 shades of greige none of them quite what I wanted. I wish I could wean myself off this palette but I can’t. It’s muted, versatile, classic.

As long as you find the right shade.

See what I mean?
See what I mean? (What colour is this?)

Added to the seemingly impossible task of finding a colour I like NOW, I am trying to envisage how I will feel about this colour scheme in five years. Or ten years. Or how the next home owners might feel about it in 20 years. I picture them laughing and shaking their heads at me in horror as they gleefully paint over it, in whatever will be fashionable in 2035.

As I daubed the latest colour sample on to my wall and stood looking at it from different angles with the overhead lights on and off, waiting to see what it would look like when it dried and when the light faded into evening, I thought ENOUGH! It’s Saturday night and I am actually watching paint dry!

As if to drive home the point that other people are having more fun, when I searched for an image to use in this blog, by typing in ‘painting while…’ ( I was thinking may be reading or writing), the first three most popular searches suggested were: painting ‘while high’, ‘while drunk’ and ‘while on acid’. So that’s what everyone else is getting up to.

With that in mind, I chose a colour more or less at random and recklessly went to the paint shop and had it mixed up. It was my final decision and that was that. It meant I could get back to doing more exciting things like ummm, writing while… high/drunk/on acid.
And I was fully intending to plaster it on with wild abandon until…

(To be continued…)

Last week I didn’t like UKIP but I was hazy on the details why. Then I researched this blog… (“and now for a little bit of politics, ladies and gentlemen…”)

There’s a distinct lack of passion in this election — post New-Labour, the main political parties have failed to distinguish themselves. The traditional party lines and policies have been blurred and voters are struggling to work out who stands for what and who they identify with. Many of them seem to be promising more or less the same thing. In the midst of that, it’s perhaps not surprising that UKIP have found both strong support in some quarters and stirred passionate disagreement from the liberal left. Farage now occupies that place in British politics which was previously occupied by Thatcher in the 80s, we’ve cast him in the role of Right Wing Baddie in the old Ben Elton way. But I won’t call Farage a Marmite figure because I like Marmite and it doesn’t do anyone one any harm.

Marmite_500g_450_tcm28-293449

Regarding BBC bias: while Farage has accused them of a liberal bias, the BBC received almost 1,200 complaints about its coverage of the 2014 European elections saying it was biased in favour of UKIP. Farage could hardly claim perceived bias damaged their election chances on that occasion as they effectively won the election. (Anyone who’s thinking they can’t be bothered to vote in the general election, but doesn’t like UKIP, take note).
It may well be that they are well-intentioned, that their proposals are reasonable and that their image problem with liberal voters is merely a failure to communicate that but to blame the BBC for this in the age of universal access to social media, an age when a previously unknown 25-year old You Tube vlogger (Zoella, pictured) can get 7 million subscribers on her channel (and 330 million views), is ridiculous. UKIP only has a membership of 40,000 and gets far more coverage on the BBC than Zoella does.

Zoella

I’m not saying she should get coverage but the point is she doesn’t need it.
If it’s positive media coverage UKIP wants, it now has the dubious honour of backing (to the tune of £1m), from Richard Desmond, owner of several porn channels as well as The Express, but that is unlikely to do its image with liberal voters any favours.

God knows there are problems with EU and the colossal amount of tax payers’ money that is squandered there and I’m not saying I’m ok with that. It needs to be addressed (as does tax avoidance by global corporations). But, if I had ever voted for UKIP, I’d expect them to be doing something about this wastage issue. Instead, UKIPs MEPs have the lowest attendance record of any party in the EU Parliament (they rank 76th out of 76). If they are trying to change things in Europe and stand up for the interests of Britain then I’m not sure how they are doing it? Meanwhile of course, I assume they are all happy to take their pay cheques and file their expenses claims…

However, having studied their policies more closely I don’t think that EVERYTHING they are proposing is terrible. One could argue that it’s hardly going to be is it, if they want people to vote for them? (A few random items I picked out: more money for social care of the elderly, after service care for army veterans – of course it’s right that we should properly care for people who have served their country; full protection of the Green Belt… can’t argue with that) but let’s face it, how many political parties of any persuasion actually deliver on all their pre-election promises? They all throw out juicy little enticements which sound like a good idea and which they hope will win them a bit of support but without any guarantee of being able to implement them. UKIP isn’t the only party doing this, obviously.

But here are the things that worry me:
Withdrawal from the EU: it is a massively complicated issue and I don’t pretend to understand all the pros and cons. Actually I’m not sure anyone really does. No one knows what the results of leaving Europe would be for Britain but I’m inclined to put my faith in research conducted by the pro-business think tank Open Europe which said leaving Europe could cost Britain £56bn off its GDP:

Open Europe: results of leaving the EU, as covered in The Week April 18, 2015.
Open Europe: results of leaving the EU, as covered in The Week April 18, 2015.

The EU accounts for almost half of British exports and CBI members overwhelmingly support staying in the EU. The idea that we’d be able, as UKIP claim, to negotiate a bespoke trade agreement between the UK and EU which would be mutually beneficial, seems a bit back-of-the-fag-packet to me.
Membership of the EU doesn’t cost as much as some people think – when you take into account the amount transferred back to the UK it costs us half a percent of our GDP or £130 per person. But how much would it cost the country to leave in terms of our exports market and global standing?

UKIP have proposed to introduce a five year ban on unskilled immigration to the country, (though it’s not specified in the manifesto, it is unclear if this would be implemented through the points system). I know of three separate businesses (agricultural, construction and furniture making) that have struggled to find native Brits willing to undertake the kind of (mostly unskilled) work they need people to do and who have found that Eastern European employees are incredibly hard working and reliable. (And on the need for housing, at one farm I know, their workers are living in well-equipped and maintained static caravans and are not demanding that new homes are built for them. I’m not saying that’s ideal but that’s the reality of their situation and they are just getting on with it). I believe our agricultural system, hospitality and the construction industries rely on such people and without them I suspect there’d be an awful lot of sick days and time taken up with efforts to recruit replacements which would cost these industries a lot of money. Some businesses would shrink or fail without these workers.

UKIP would also stop EU migrants from claiming benefits for five years. How much of a problem is this, really? Eurostats (the EU’s statistical agency) published figures in 2013 saying that 79% of migrants to the UK were in work.
A study by University College London showed that overall European immigrants contributed £9bn MORE in taxes than the public goods and services they received between 2001-2011. The native population paid £624bn LESS. In other words they are subsidising us. (Source: The In/Out Question, by Hugo Dixon).
Preventing immigrants from claiming benefits may well make no difference to their desire to come to the UK. After all, the lack of a welfare state hasn’t stopped migrant workers flooding into Dubai. And traffickers are hardly going to be telling their victims this before they board the boats.
A population growth of 9m has been mentioned. I’m not sure where that figure has come from but we have an ageing population and we need young workers to support it with tax revenue. The ageing population may also hold the key (admittedly only in part), to easing the housing crisis as older people living in homes that are too big for them begin to sell and downsize in the next 5-10 years.

UKIP wants to repeal the Human Rights Act and remove Britain from both the European Convention on Refugees and the European Convention on Human Rights. (And they wonder why they have an image problem). They say this is to be able to deport suspected terrorists but this seems a massively retrograde step and frankly I’m more terrified by the potential repercussions of this proposal.

According to their manifesto they would review “all legislation and regulations from the EU and remove those which are deemed to hamper British prosperity and competitiveness.”
WHAT? Really? Good luck with that. Imagine the resources involved in that mammoth task. How many countless hours of investigation, research, time and debate to look into every single piece of legislation and at what cost? They’d need to set up and staff an entire government dept to do it. (Have you ever seen Yes, Prime Minister?) What about legislation aimed at safety and wellbeing and human rights – do these concerns not override prosperity and competitiveness?  (They absolutely do in my book).
And if they are withdrawing from the EU anyway, why are they going to be bound by EU legislation?

In the context of the above points, it’s easy to see why the liberal left thinks their policies are motivated by xenophobia. The fact that on their website there’s a button which says: “Join Today. Become a member of the People’s Army” I find slightly sinister. Overall my belief is that UKIP fuels people’s fears by scaremongering and whether it intends this or not, its anti-immigration policies are bound to appeal to those prone to xenophobia. It doesn’t have a balanced view of Europe or immigration.

I’ve rambled on far too long. If you’ve read to the end let me know. I’d be interested to see how many people do! (Please let there be someone! Jus — are you still there???)

Do you remember… when it was ok for teachers to hit kids at school and for people to smoke in other people’s houses? 10 things we don’t miss about the 80s

Look, I love the 80s. I do. Some of my best friend(ship)s are from the 80s. The novel I’m working on (if it ever gets published) is set in 1988. Like many of us, I have a fondness for the decade in which I spent my teenage years. And I’m nostalgic for a bygone era — a time before constant screen-swiping, before we had to deal with automated voices telling us that our call is important to them or that there’s an unexpected item in the bagging area.
But I do realise it wasn’t all great back then. A lot of things have got better since then and I’m not even talking about the merciful abolition of the perm and the mullet. I’m thinking about ideas dismissed as ridiculous over-reactions, ‘health & safety gone mad’, propounded by ‘do-gooders’, which have now been enshrined in law and I’d argue that by and large, we’re better off as a result.
Here are 10 things we don’t miss about the 80s:

1. Corporal punishment. It was outlawed in schools in 1987 and it seems unthinkable now that we’d send our children to a school where a teacher could legally hit them. As a little aside here, in 2005 there was an unsuccessful challenge to the prohibition of corporal punishment, by headmasters of private Christian schools. Why would they want to wind the clock back to the 80s (and before)? Well, they claimed that it was a breach of their freedom of religion.
WHAT? Oh, poor them. How terrible for them that they have been prevented from inflicting pain on children. How can they possibly be expected to practise Christian teaching without the use of violence (FFS)?

But back to the bad things about the good old days…

2. It was fine to smoke anywhere, even in someone else’s house

. 734188-fbe6cd18-fc06-11e2-983c-b7c40a81e930Remember when visitors would walk into your home and light up a fag without a second thought? Complaining about smoking in a restaurant or in a room full of children, was thought to be rude. You wouldn’t ask someone to stop smoking — it would be an infringement on their rights and frankly pointless because no one was going to put their cigarette out for your sake. We all had to breathe in other people’s smoke on public transport, in pubs, clubs and places of work. People would look at you like you were mad if you said anything. You’d be described as a health freak, over precious.  Second hand smoke was harmless anyway (or so we all thought until Roy Castle died). And of course children got to start early, imitating their parents with candy cigarettes (pictured).

3. Creepy popstars and TV presenters using their reputations as a free pass to get access to vulnerable children. There was a wide-eyed admiration for celebrities which we now know some of them exploited. My previous blog (about my experience in Stoke Manderville Hospital in the 1980s) posed the question, how did Savile get away with it? Well, to a certain extent we have to accept that he was a deviant, depraved bastard and he’d have found any means to get what he wanted. But prevailing attitudes and beliefs of the day allowed him certain freedoms (see below).

4. Unassailable respect for authority figures (including police, church and school). There’s nothing wrong with being cautious and careful about who we allow to have access to our children and it shouldn’t be based on whether they ‘seem upstanding’ or ‘must be alright because they are a head teacher/priest/police officer/politician’.
The introduction of the CRB check and child safeguarding training obviously created an additional layer of bureaucracy which schools and children’s clubs didn’t have to cope with back then. It’s not a guarantee of anything but it must deter some unsuitable individuals from applying to work with children.

5. Recycling was thought to be wacky and hippy.

Good Life

Something amusing and eccentric that they only did in The Good Life (or possibly not even there since I couldn’t find an image from the show to illustrate it).  You’d only do it if you were a sandal-wearing vegetarian. In the 90s it became quite acceptable and middle class (remember all those scenes in Cold Feet where the characters would meet up at at the bottle bank?). Now we are all required to do it by the local authority and few people question it. What did we think was so ridiculous about reducing the vast amount of non-biodegradable rubbish we bury in landfill?

6. Having to put up with prejudice, intolerance and bigotry. Anyone who held views which later came to be labelled ‘politically correct’ were dismissed with an eye-roll as just so right-on. Objecting to racist jokes or derogatory, sexist comments, expecting equal employment rights and protesting about sexual harassment in the workplace was thought to be hysterical feminist over-reaction, instead of a perfectly reasonable and justifiable response to unacceptable behaviour.

7. Seat belts were unused or were thought of as an attack on personal liberty.

clunk click

I shudder to mention this one as some of you will no doubt remember Savile’s Clunk Clink TV campaign. (Imagine a world where we needed him to help keep us safe). The law on wearing a seat belt in the front came in to force in 1983 and many people complained it was an outrageous infringement on their liberty. It wasn’t extended to children on back seats until 1989. Throughout my childhood, kids were chucked in the back of estate cars without seats, never mind seat belts. Or, in our case, squeezed behind the seats of a two seater sports car. If seat belts were present and you put one on, you felt as if you were doubting the competence of the driver. The driver was always a grown up who knew best.

8. Dodgy car maintenance. How often do you see someone standing at the side of the road with their head under the bonnet of a broken-down car, these days? You might argue it’s because we don’t have the skills which is undoubtedly true but we don’t really need them – cars are more reliable. At one point in the 80s we had ten vehicles at our house. I remember counting them and telling my friends that. What I failed to mention was that nine of them were rusting into various states of disrepair around the garden. None of them was roadworthy by today’s standards. The one that was considered roadworthy (because it was the only one that would actually start) had a faulty driver’s door — it wouldn’t close. Someone sitting on the back seat (always a child) had to remember to hold the driver’s door shut otherwise it would swing open when you went around corners. Things fell out. On one occasion, a child.

9. Drink diving was something to be got-away-with. I remember occasions on which both my parents (otherwise loving, responsible people) drove us around while over the limit (and yes, there was a limit, it just wasn’t taken that seriously). My dad would say of the short drive home from the pub (approx one third of a mile up a country lane): ‘I can’t walk — I’m far too pissed!’ Once my mum was driving home after a party at someone’s house about a mile away. She drove into a ditch on the driveway and luckily couldn’t get the car out again so we all walked home.

10. Film and TV stereotypes and undesirable role models.

grange_hill_titles

In the context of the previous item, it now seems ironic that my parents were so censorious about what we could watch on telly (like that was the thing that was going to do us most harm). Adverts were switched off, as were many American TV shows. The BBC was mostly acceptable, apart from Grange Hill because the kids were too gobby (even though they did Just Say No). But limiting our exposure to advertising and role models they deemed inappropriate, is one of the things they may have been right about. We weren’t allowed to watch films like Grease which everyone else seemed to watch endlessly on video. But now when you think of it, the depiction of ‘the good girl gone bad’ — smoking and dressing in a trashy way to win approval, is not an idea I’d particularly want my 12-year-old daughter to take on board. Would you see that message now, in a film aimed at children? At the risk of sounding hideously self righteous, the notion that smoking is cool and that a teenage girl should have to dress tartily to please her boyfriend or to fit in, now seems utterly crass and very last century.

Of course, access to TV (with its four channels) was a hell of a lot easier to control back then compared with access to all the evils of the internet. But that’s a whole other topic…