The ghost of mayflies past

Every form of writing has its alloted lifespan. And the briefest of them all afflicts the topical joke. It suffers from three genetic weaknesses:
1. Timing deficiency - a joke is only as topical as the event it refers to.
2. Funny disposition - it's no joke if nobody's laughing.
3. Exposure - it may be current and funny, but without an audience it's like a falling tree in an empty wood - no one hear's it bringing the house down.

It's no great trade secret that news is the main source of topical material. Be it the tabloids, the BBC website or even good old fashioned television. Weekly mags can be good for celeb stories too. I'll skip the established rules of writing (See Rule of Three, Wordplay, Inversion, etc.) as there are many great books out there which deserve to be bought and read. The challenge is not so much the writing but what you do with them afterwards.

Live shows such as The Treason Show and The News Revue adopt the Darwinian approach of a large writing gene-pool and the survival of the sharpest. And every once in a while, a radio opportunity appears for writers to scrabble for. Most recently, that was Newsjack, a topical gag and sketch show on BBC7.

As it's now paragraph four and I haven't mentioned any successes, you can rightly deduce that my mayflies didn't make it past the flyscreen. Still, on clearing out the files (It's like burying a pet only without the feelings.), I saw one or two that amused me so I thought I'd give them an airing. I do tend to write a lot so I've split into chunks for convenience.

- There are now 29,000 UK politicians and their advisors on the public payroll. To put that into perspective, that’s about 29,000 too many.
- New research shows that a few drinks a week can lower the risk of Alzheimer’s by a third. Drinking or thinking – that’s your choice. The American researchers also warn that people with existing memory problems shouldn’t start drinking now. Maybe they could write that down on a beer-mat.
- eBay bidding for a little piece of Michael Jackson reached fever pitch. £8,000 for a hat; £36,000 for a jacket. But his kids are safe because there’s no trace of his DNA in them.
- A Californian teacher accidentally included part of a homemade sex tape on a DVD of school memories given to kids. Apparently, you can find it in the Extras menu.
- When former PM and Catholic convert Tony Blair had a black eye, he was advised to put a steak on it. But not the one Gordon Brown wanted to drive through Mandelson’s unholy heart.

- Gordon Brown and David Cameron are battling it out for the gay vote, but not with handbags. Because that would be wrong, and not what you’d expect from enlightened politicians. Like the Tory party, who first introduced Clause 28, banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools. Or New Labour, who took only 6 years in power to repeal it.
- Michael Jackson’s mother has filed for custody – of his back catalogue.
- In the US, Bernard Madoff who scammed Americans out of $65bn, was sentenced to 150 years. Proving that America still has a sound grasp of mathematics.
- Now that Baroness Thatcher has left hospital, she is said to be in good spirits. One of them is probably embalming fluid.
- Prince William and Kate Middleton checked into a hotel as Mr & Mrs Smith, prompting press speculation that they’re the new Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Perhaps they could adopt Prince Harry.

- The EU wants all horse owners sign a pledge not to eat their pets. Makes sense – but is it technically cannibalism if you eat an animal shag?
- 220,000 passports will be given to migrants this year. A Home Office spokesman said “This is brilliant news for the economy, particularly for the company that makes passports.”
- Sacked oil workers at the Lyndsey oil refinery have burned their dismissal letters in protest. I have to say, it never worked on my credit card bills.
- Google has agreed to take the pornography options out of its search engine in China. This will leave just three sites – one for the government, one for recipes and one for cockney rhyming slang.
- A Taliban fighter who was killed had an Aston Villa tattoo on his body. Army intelligence believes he was a Brummie, because let’s face it, who else is going to support them – Aston Villa, I mean? Perhaps that’s how they recruit their suicide squad – just give them a season ticket. Suddenly death doesn’t seem quite such a bad option.
- The Queen is starting an allotment at Buckingham Palace. That, or she’s picking out a suitable plot for Prince Phillip.

- The Calman Commission has recommended that the Scottish Parliament has control over speed limits, drink driving and airgun licences. Or, to put it another way, Scottish weekends.
- Gordon Brown is set to announce plans for the Iraq war inquiry. But, mindful of new technology, a Twitter conclusion is already available: Tony Blair did it.
- President Obama has appealed to the Muslim world for reconciliation. He says they have much in common, especially their condemnation of Israel.
- Silvio Berlusconi says that pictures of topless women at his villa are an outrage. Adding: “You can see any bush at all.”
- A dyslexic TV newsman has apologised after covering the story of two gay Humboldt penguins fostering a chick. He said he was unfortunate that he referred to them as two Bumholdt penguins.

- A mystery Brit has won £25million on the Euro-millions lottery. The search is on by the media to make the lucky winner’s life an absolute fucking misery.
- Jade Goody’s mum Jackiey has found love with a man and turned her back on lesbianism. And her front too.
- Former president George Bush snr has celebrated his 85th birthday by parachuting out of a plane. Sadly there wasn’t enough fuel to make it to Iraq, for target practice.
- Bad news: McDonalds is serving more meals than ever, despite the recession.
Good news: Someone must be being paid to serve them.
Even better news: The toilets are always clean there so it’s a great place to go for a shit.
- BNP leader Nick Griffin was egged by anti-fascist protesters. A spokesman said, “There’s never an ostrich around when you need one.”

- Madonna has been granted permission to adopt baby Mercy from Malawi. A humbled Madge told reporters, “All I need now is a couple of yellow ones and I’ve got the whole set.”
- Davina McCall has said that Big Brother will end in 2010. Gordon Brown has refused to comment.
- The parents of Ireland’s first sextuplets have described them as a ‘gift from God’. Let’s hope their next door neighbours see it that way at 2am.
- Bad news: There are fewer adult learners than when Labour came into power in 1997.
Good news: We haven’t run out of pens.
- Kung Fu actor David Carradine died after an auto-erotic experiment went wrong. At least he went to his maker knowing what the sound of one hand clapping was.
- A 49 acre Creationist museum has opened in Kentucky, backed by a Christian ministry called Answers in Genesis. But apparently there’s no gorilla there playing the drums. Of course, the big question is whether the idea for the museum evolved over time or if it was always part of God’s original plan?

Vox pops
- Yes, of course I’m frightened at the idea of bailiffs knocking at my door. But then I do live in a submarine.
- Gay marriage, gay divorce? Where will it end? They’ll want the vote next.
- I have every confidence in the government to do the right thing. That’s because I believe in Armageddon.

How to make a magazine - Part 2

So there we were in our own little world, with two heads full of ideas and the freedom to express them in our own publication.

David and I had already realised that there were more things in heaven and earth to make fun of, so a name change was in order. Coincidentally, we also discovered that another magazine existed - called New Age magazine. In a flash of David French inspiration – and before you could shout “Lawsuit.” - As Above So Below magazine was born. (And to think we’d considered Kindled Spite among the options!)

We started to take the whole enterprise a bit more seriously, surprising our loyal readers, both with our inventiveness and a price rise to £2.00. By now we had our fans and our detractors (humourless new agers, you know who you are). Issue 5 proudly carried a cover cartoon cover of two ETs in a café, asking the waiter for ‘Cow’s arse and chips twice, please.’

We were influenced by anything and everything - books we’d read, magazines we’d trawled through, the news, even people we knew; all went into the mix of satire, parody and nonsense. Using Apple Macs, we were able to improve the graphics and generally professionalise everything. I say ‘we’ but David was and is the creative engine for the look and feel of the magazine.

The regular characters developed traits and back-stories organically . Croydon Masterley, the (self-proclaimed) New World Teacher and his lovely wife Marjorie, in their orbiting space-station Orgasmir, offering tantra workshops to passing extraterrestrials and avoiding their tax returns; John Phoenix, private investigator, seeking conspiracies in the phone book and train maps; Colin Smith and Geoff Nimbus bestowing their world-weary cynicism – usually in workshop form; Mistry DuMont channeling all and sundry and forever changing her name; and presiding over everyone, the editor-in-chief Sheldon T Packett, frequently aboard his yacht the Saucy Logos. Like all good creative fiction, they become real to the author. We sat in pubs and discussed how they each felt about one another, and whether John and Mistry would stay in her flat above the chip shop if they got engaged.

By Issue 6 we had seven outlets, across the UK. We were still small scale though and our unwillingness to operate on a truly commercial basis imposed its limitations. It meant that every time we produced another edition, we had to warm up some of the shops from scratch. Or, we found that they were no longer interested, or even still in business. Some still hadn’t paid us for the previous issue. As Above So Below was still great fun but it was also starting to feel like hard work.

Every successful writing partnership is a combination of collaboration and healthy competition. By and large we were achieving that, eyeing one another’s output with a mixture of appreciation and envy. There was an attitude cycle that will be familiar to every writer. First, we loved what we’d produced then we despaired at its clumsiness and all the errors. Then we edited it to the point of indifference, where it didn’t seem like our own work at all. It was only usually after we’d published that we could finally enjoy the mag for what it was.

In hindsight, we were still vague about where to take As Above So Below next. We still nurtured aspirations of creating a cult following. And I saw one way of doing that by using merchandising – a few t-shirts here and a few postcards there. The revenue would also give us some tangible reward for our efforts (and the cost of the Macs). Maybe one day we'll get round to it.

Reader opinion was still divided over whether the magazine was any good. Father Lionel Fanthorpe (Remember him – the motorcycling, mystery investigating reverend off the telly?) proclaimed that we were 'good satire' while another reader urged us to print his own work and insisted that we were ‘funny but not actually satirical … good satire should be philosophically stimulating.’ That letter was the only thing of his that made it to the page, under the tag line ‘Readers tender their jewels.’

To be honest, we were happy for any feedback, even a little controversy. It’s maybe why I wrote a piece about the United States of Europe’s Declaration of Co-dependence, a considered parody of that famous US document.


How to make a magazine - Part 1

Sometimes a 'no' can end up with a 'yes' you might never have imagined. Somewhere better.

Years ago, I wrote an article combining modern astrology and the Tree of Life. In it, I sought to use established correspondences on the Tree as a way of re-interpreting and psychologically resolving some of the apparent conflicts. And yes, I was that po-faced about it at the time.

Back then there was only 1 or 2 magazines on the market. I plumped for Kindred Spirit and offered them the piece. The then editor (who has left, long since) wrote back, expressing an interest and asked me to re-edit the piece down and make it 'more accessible' to the reader, for their magazine. All music to my ears (whale music, probably).

I must have spent about 4 hours on rewrites, reframing and generally changing the piece completely - for the better, I hoped. I sent off the improved article and awaited a print date at best and a request for more tweaks at worst. But, as any optimist or pessimist will tell you, the best and the worst can sometimes far exceed our expectations.

The editor wrote back, thanking me for my submission and regrettably advising that they were not interested in using the article. I responded, somewhat impolitely, asking why they hadn't said that in the place and avoided wasting my time. A second reply swiftly followed, apologising for any confusion and explaining that they normally sourced their articles and interviews from publishers, representatives, authors and the like. i.e. not from lay people like me. Or, to put it another way, a magazine reader.

The editor was new and, in the end, honest. But I was still peeved. I mentioned it to a writer friend, David French. His response is etched into memory: "Bastards; we'll start our own magazine!"

And so after a short while, New Ager magazine was born - on a photocopier where I worked. Ours would be a satirical magazine though. Issue 1 was 5 pages of double-sided A4 silliness. It cost £1 and if the readership exceeded 30 I'd be very surprised. The strange thing is - looking back at it now - how most of the essential elements were there at the beginning: product adverts, news, interviews with new age luminaries, de-classified ads, music and book reviews. Even two of the characters that still frequent the mag made the debut edition.

It was a bit like two boys starting their own comic. We even introduced our first free gift in Issue 2 - a laminated 'Well Manifested' card - ideal for births, deaths, wedddings, accidents, divorces and embarrassing legal proceedings. According to the cover I have before me.

We only produced a mag every 6 months or so and treated the whole thing like an adevtnure. Friends who had a shop - Lisa and John Coward, take a bow - saw the joke immediately and became our first retail outlet. They're still with us today, patiently waiting for the next Issue.

Other would-be writers became interested in what we were doing. Sadly, often not interested enough to purchase a copy. Issue 3 carried a cover line: 'Do you have an article or investigative report that would be suitable for New Ager? Tough. Print your own magazine. We had to.'

We added 2 more shops - in Bristol - and received our first feedback.
"I almost shat myself laughing!" Joe McNally, then Associate Editor of Fortean Times. (They kindly gave us a plug, afterwards.)
"This is crap, no more please." by Mr A Nonymous.

Issue 4 (The Wrath of Gaia) broke new ground for us. David French and I drew cartoons and I wrote a crossword offering a prize for the first completion received (no one ever bothered). It was the first outing of our tag line: NOT FOR SALE TO CHILDREN - NOT EVEN INNER ONES. Our influences - or targets - included: alternative medicine, planning committees, Eastern philosophy, death (me - naturally), extraterrestrials, conspiracies, relationships and sinusitis.

In many ways, we had arrived. And as any good traveller knows, arrival is just the start of another journey.


Life Writing - “A miss,” bawled Wanda.

Originally offered to one of those freebie magazines, given away outside London Underground stations.

Once upon a time, I received some junk mail informing me that I'd had been selected at random (subject to status) to attend an exclusive Fab Holidayhomeshare Presentation. in the Centre of London. Enticed by the embossed possibility of a £1,000 prize in cash, I rang up and confirmed my appointment. I even convinced a friend of mine to tag along as a temporary fiancée - the best kind to have.

Duly assembled on the day, each couple was assigned their individual sales guide and we were all whipped into a gentle frenzy by a slideshow and a cheering session. They were simpler times.

Later, segregated from all other couples and any contact with the outside world, we got down to the finer details with our personal guide - the meek and unassuming Wanda. After a minute of polite conversation, Wanda had ascertained our financial circumstances and confirmed that we qualified for the deal of a lifetime. She'd also mentioned her struggle to bring up her young son, solo, on the strength of her commission.

Without warning, she struck an arm in the air, like a swimmer in distress and Pete swaggered over, with the speed and banter of an East End barrow boy (with a tie).

Supervisor Pete was as smooth as operator as ever Sade sang about. He hemmed us in with four irrefutable concepts, like a distortion of the Four Great Noble Truths. If we liked it, could afford it, understood it, and could use it then there was no reason not to write out a cheque, there and then.

It was brilliant really. If we didn't like it there must be something wrong with us, unlike the rest of the cheering hordes. If we couldn't afford it then what the flip were we doing there in the first place. If we couldn't understand it then we must be stupid. And if we couldn't use a fabulous virtually no-strings-attached holiday home for the same two-weeks a year then God help us.

Pete made it clear that any negative response would brand us second-class citizens of the worst kind. i.e. people who weren’t buying.

"Of course." He added tellingly at the end of his victory speech. "If the answer to all four questions is 'yes' and you’re still not interested, than Wanda here hasn't been doing her job properly."

Wanda, you will not be surprised to learn, turned suddenly fish-eyed and cast her gaze rehearsedly downward. I even checked the floor for glass beads, in case she’d been crying.

Now we were really up a gum tree and the pressure was on. I did wonder how the other couples were doing and if it was too late to tunnel into their cubicle and form an escape committee. All thoughts of 'I hope we don't end up with the Queen Anne cruet set' evaporated as we locked wits against the wily Pete and his affordable special-price-today-only repayment scheme.

For a while, it looked like I’d be seeing in the next twenty New Years in the same apartment in the same holiday block in Portugal. Or a similar standard alternative destination, subject to availability and transfer charges.

Then my silent prayer to St. Jude* was answered. In a sudden and uncharacteristic burst of inspiration, I started chatting to Pete as if we were chums.

"So Pete, have you got a new car?"

My logic being, if he had he must be loaded and if he hadn't then timeshare can't be that successful.

Caught off guard, he snarled at me, "Yeah, newish; why?"

"And tell me," I questioned him like a strutting TV lawyer, "Did you go down to the showroom with a pocketful of money or did you take a brochure away to think about it?”

The metaphorical penny dropped; the only kind he'd be getting from us.

"I’ve ’ad enough." He surrendered, which is the timeshare equivalent of 'It's a fair cop guv.' Then he stormed off muttering in a loud voice: "You’re obviously only here for your free gift."
As opposed to a charm demonstration perhaps?

I hope it won't come as a shock when I tell you that the £1000 prize eluded me, in the prize draw on the way out. My blue vinyl suitcases did just nicely though, thank you. And besides, it was a small reward beside the real prize - a one-day sales psychology seminar, courtesy of Fab Holidayhomeshare.

I believe the company is no longer in business.

* St. Jude is the Patron Saint of lost causes.

Life Writing - Remembering Kitty and Fred

I received a letter in the post today, from a stranger.

It was from the niece of a neighbour, from London where I grew up. The letter informed me that Kitty had passed away at the end of June and a family service had been held. Barely 30 written words but enough to form a bridge across the last 40 years.

As adults, my brother and I would alternate, sending Kitty and Fred Christmas gifts and a card. We always received a present each in return, sometimes with a short, handwritten note. I didn't know Kitty well and even when Fred died I didn't feel it right to express anything beyond condolences and flowers. Somehow, I always felt there was something prim and proper about them but I think I still saw them through a child's eyes.

Kitty and Fred never had any children. But they were always generous to us, buying toys and taking an interest in what we were doing. David and I weren't really close with them though, which makes their generosity all the more touching.

Latterly, Kitty and I said more in our letters; updates about the present from me and comments about the past from her, about how much London life had changed. It occurred to me only recently that Kitty was the last person who would remember the local shops as I knew them.

Mr Thomas, running the fruit and veg shop with his son and daughter - the scent of apples always lingering in the shop, and soil from the sacks of spuds spilling across the concrete floor. The way that, years later when every shop tried to sell everything, they would wrap up a single toilet roll in newspaper for you to carry home. And Lil's, on an opposite corner, selling sliced meats, bread and breakfast cereal. Even then, those shops seemed so small. Especially Mr & Mrs Pitman's sweetshop - where jars of sticky boiled sweets crammed the shelves, just out of reach, like a children's purgatory.

If I make that walk of old, I reach the High Road where Pete ran the other fruit and veg shop. Where his labrador Sam would sleep all day, unimpressed when Pete picked up an apple and twisted it in half. Further along, Bob's Wavy Line store - probably one of the first convenience franchises. Bob used to reach for the top shelves with his pincer on a stick, like a 1970s Doctor Who monster. 'Go to work on an egg' still proudly displayed on the wall, and Bob resplendent in his white coat.

There was Chappel's, the newsagent was a door or two away; the only place you could buy newspapers back then, and fireworks too. Past the baker's was a sub post office, the one where I used to save my milk-round money for my holidays. In a savings book I still have - £5.11 left, last time I checked. On the opposite side of the High Road was a hardware shop. Buckets and pans and mops, stacked outside and in, as if in a hurry. There were parafin heaters on sale and the thick scent of polish in the air.

Kitty knew all those places, all those faces now lost to time. It's a world I visit occasionally in dreams, a shadowy half-remembrance of travelling on routemaster buses, of going to the library to look at picture books and stumbling around Coronation Gardens with mum, David and the dog.

It's a realm of bright sunshine and smiles, of pleasure in small things. I still have a Lesney's matchbox car which came from Kitty and Fred. It's an heirloom of sorts from my brother - an ambulance.

I wish I'd spoken to Kitty more, about her memories, about the East London of my childhood. But I didn't. L. P. Hartley opened his novel 'The Go-Between' with: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

Not only is it true, but also I think I've just lost my tour guide.

The Business of Writing: Crossing the Line

In March last year, I crossed a line; I had a commissioned feature printed by The Guardian - Last of the Line - an intimate piece about my relationship with my late brother, David, and reflections on life without him.

I'd pitched the original idea six months previously, but a combination of moving editors and the email Bermuda Triangle added to the delay. It was an interesting process, start to finish. Part of you feels like you are selling off the family silver at best, or whoring your soul at worst.

Above all, I wanted to tell some of David's story and the amazing way he dealt with the cancer that claimed him. But the ambitious writer in me also wanted to produce something intensely personal and meaningful. To see whether I could translate my experience to another person, a nameless reader who might understand it and feel it. In short, to see whether I could cut it as a writer.

Unsurprisingly, it was a challenging piece to write, to accurately portray David's character and our interactions without overdramatising or diminishing them. I carefully prepared the ground with friends and family who knew him well. People were generally supportive although there was some unexpected fallout much later on.

What really made it all worthwhile though was the letter I received from a newspaper reader, about the sudden death of his own brother, unlike the 9 years I had to get used to being without David. When I read that letter it was a sobering moment, to realise both the power of the written word and its ability to touch strangers. This is what real writing is about - not fame or fortune or books on shelves - connecting with people. I should add though that the feature paid well.

It affected the way I write fiction too. I'm less afraid now to draw directly on personal experiences or incorporare aspects of a person or memory. I don't know if it makes my writing any more powerful but I feel liberated as a writer.

Here's a link to the piece which you may have read previously:

Objectively, it's an okay piece. A little hammy, here and there, and I still cringe at the ending. In my defence, I didn't get to do a second edit - the first time the new editor contacted me was a week or so before publication.

Today would have been David's birthday, and without doubt he would have hating me writing about this. It won't shock you to know that I can live with that. Here's to you David.

Why Failure is the Writer's Friend

I've had a lot of writing failures. The stories that don't sell, the articles on perpetual circulation. The novels that amble around like docile sauropods. The topical gags and sketches that live and die without an audience.

Sometimes I get despondent, more often just peeved. But part of me takes a secret delight in it. Because, in order to get this many rejections, I must be making a hell of a lot of submissions. I watch myself, to see what he'll do next when the standard rejection letter arrives or when nothing comes back at all. And if, despite all that, I still write something new or edit something old, and whizz it off to a new prospect, I smile a little. I know I've got it bad. And that's good.

Fair weather writers are ten a penny. Any time I hear someone say "I've often thought about writing something..." I change the subject - they're a lost cause. For hardcore writers - even the not so literary ones like me - writing is an itch, an obsession, maybe even a religion. It shapes how you see the world and how you see your own life. It makes you pay attention.

So with that in mind, I present a failure list - comedy writing this time - and all of them hard won. Or rather, hard lost. Some wrote back nicely, others left me hanging.

C5's Swinging, C4 Bremner, Bird & Fortune, News Huddlines, The Now Show, Watson's Wind-Up, Newsjack, Jimmy Carr, Lead Balloon, The Comedy Unit, Glasgow, Shoot The Writer, The Last Laugh, For Training Purposes Only, Work supplement in The Guardian, BBC Writersroom x 3, C4 Comedy Lab, Parsons and Naylor, The First Post, Private Eye, Readers' Digest, Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton.