It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that we’re in difficult financial waters because the signs are staring us in the face. Whether it’s the tragedy that has befallen our nearest neighbour, Ireland, or gits like Lord Young telling us we’ve never had it so good, times are definitely hard.

So you can understand that banks and building societies (unless they’re the same thing these days – I forget) are now doing everything in their power to get new business. And I do mean everything. One building society has identified a market that has been largely untouched. I’m talking, of course, about the dead.

If this sounds like a sick joke, believe me it’s nothing compared to the letter I got last week, addressed to my brother who died 5 years ago. And they’d helpfully put ‘Dec’d’ after the name, just in case I’d forgotten. But to give credit where credit is due (no pun intended), they also remembered that I’d been the Administrator of his estate. Good to know that their records are up to date, after a fashion.

Apparently, he still has zero shares, presumably on account of still being deceased. Owning shares while in the afterlife is against the rules, I gather. But all is not lost; there was a handy shares application form prefilled in my late brother’s name, plus the legally required Dec’d. They think of everything, these customer-driven financial services.

I phoned the 10p a minute number to inquire what the flip they thought they were playing at, quoted the shares account reference and was asked to confirm my name. “I’m the living one on the letter,” I identified myself.

The poor soul on the other end of the line apologised and explained that some bright spark – my words – had ‘run a script’ based on anyone who still had money in the BS (and for now, let’s take that to still mean Building Society). So, not only do they want my brother to buy shares, they’ve also been holding on to £5 of his money for the last 5 years. And then they wonder why people don't trust banks any more.

July 2011 update

The issue hung in the air for months, my response email and follow-up letter ignored. The longer it went on, the more it bothered me. And I mean REALLY bothered me.

I wrote again to the Head of Quality, who again passed it down the line like a lead paperweight. And even though they've apologised - twice - and now reviewed the matter, and 'taken steps to ensure this doesn't happen again', and finally made a donation to Macmillan Cancer Nurses, I came to realise that six months of outrage can be a difficult thing to set aside.

So I wrote and thanked them for their resolution and explained that, in order to draw a line under the matter, I'd now sold my few shares. Today I received a gift hamper from the Executive Complaint Team, which was a kind gesture. In a no-win situation, I think we've at least reached a no-score draw.

Gym Nasty

I have a friend – let’s call him Zak for anonymity – and he’s exercise-a-phobic. Even the thought of going to the gym brings him out in a sweat. Which he accepts is useful as he could afford to lose a few pounds.

The way he figures it, the gym is just a way for fit people to feel good about themselves. Anyone who is slightly misshapen – by media standards – had best keep away.

For starters, he has to use the lowest weight settings, which is like using a loudhailer to announce to the world: “I’m weak.” The last time he tried an exercise bike, he got so saddle sore that his face wasn’t the only part of his body that ended up bright red. And rowing machines? Like Zak says, he’ll wait until global warming makes it necessary to learn how to row a boat. Because at that point he’s confident he’ll figure it out in no time at all.

“What about exercise classes?” I asked him. “You know, a gentle stretch and tone, just to start you off?”

“Believe me,” he said, “I’m stretched already. And I have the stretch marks to prove it.”

Zak gave up sports after college, apart from the very popular sport of drinking beer. Maybe that’s why one of his biceps is quite well developed; I’m hoping that’s the reason anyway…

So what’s a guy to do? Well, step forward our forever friend, the Internet. I did some trawling on his behalf (it was a Friday night and Friday night is beer night) and found the perfect solution for him – an elliptical trainer. With one of those babies, he has no excuse not to get as fit as he tells me he plans to be.

And Zak says? He says thanks a lot, but there are more machines out than suspect politicians and he’s not really into reading unless it’s beer bottles or ingredients. So back to the web I go, in search of a site that has elliptical reviews.

And thanks to a nifty site - - Zak can find the perfect machine for his frame and his wallet before he commits himself, by reading their consumer reports and ratings.

Then he can get the right machine and exercise at home and at his own pace, which is what he says he wants to do. And to help him along, I’ve promised to do something for him too – stop writing about him!

Check your notes

Every book on writing I've ever tried to read in a shop and every workshop I've attended have all had the same piece of advice - carry a notebook with you at all times. That's fine for recording what's going on around you, but it takes on a different dimension when you're writing about your own experiences as they happen.

I can't say that a writer's dairies (or journals) are any more honest than those people who don't write - mine certainly weren't in days gone by. But I did note little details which, with the passage of time, now surprise me. In the course of writing Scars and Stripes I dug out my chapter outlines and a faded print of 'American Adventures', a set of monologues that never saw the light of day. Some of it makes interesting reading. I didn't recall, for example, that while in hospital after a car accident, someone in the next cubicle was being given the Last Rites. Or that I'd faithfully recorded a phone conversation on paper with a Mr Wank, a man randomly assigned to me for a market research call.

The notes aren't exhaustive and they're inevitably biased. But I have another treasure from the past. I rediscovered - in the attic this very day - a cassette tape that a 21 year-old me sent home from New York. He rambles a little and his concentration after the blow to the head isn't brilliant. And he's a little full of himself when he speaks, as all twenty somethings ought to be. And he's every bit as sinusy as I am now. But when I hear him speak, I can also hear his isolation and his dreams and I suddenly have a hot line to all the things he didn't want to say.

Then suddenly I glimpse a truth both powerful and daunting. This novel I'm writing is about real people, whose lives briefly intersected mine. And while it's fine to use my experiences as source material for the plot and characterisation, I owe it to all of us, the heroes and villains and every shade in between, to do it all justice. I need to make it a good book that doesn't trivialise the emotional journey or lessen the impact of the loss of innocence - the same loss we all go through when we realise that life doesn't bend to our exclusive desires and that sometimes we're just dealing with circumstance.

I have to make good on that journey because I owe it to the people who aren't around any more.

"To err is human, to forgive is divine. And to forget is folly."

Post Script

I'd like to add that, awkward as it was to hear my past on tape, I'm really glad I stuck with it right to the end. And that I kept the tape all this time. What he doesn't say is as powerful as what he chooses to share. And it all helps me understand where the protagonist's character needs to veer away from what actually happened, even if it still draws upon those events, people and emotions. And hopefully I understand myself a little more too, which is one of the happy byproducts of being a writer!

Right to (a) Reply

I don't often do requests, but a fellow writer who has browsed this blog recently took me to task. He said I was being less than honest about those agents and publishers which have been a little tardy, neglectful or outspoken with their communications.

I maintained - and still do - that it's not only unprofessional to name names, but it's hardly a proven employment strategy. However, as a halfway house - and to provide a little amusement - here's a little update of my recent writing adventures, presented as.... The Face Slap awards 2010,

THE 'YOU MATTER TO US' AWARD - Novel submission 5th Feb 2009. I contacted them for an update four months later and a month after that I got an email from 'slushmaster' to say they'd accidentally deleted my submission. Seven months after my submission, they rejected it because, 'They liked it but didn't love it'.

THE 'CONSIDERATE AGENT' AWARD - Novel synopsis Jan 2009. Phone message left four months later. I subsequently sent them in three chapters and, over the eight month hiatus, left a phone message and subsequently sent a registered letter. At this point I got an email back to say they'd sent my material back months before. Needless to say, I never received it.

THE 'FRUGAL STATIONERY' AWARD - Novel submission - rejected two months later with a badly photocopied strip, about an eighth of an A4 page, that began 'Dear Writer'.

THE 'RIGHT IN THE KISSER' AWARD - Novel submission - rejected three months later with: "...we regret to inform you that it's not what we would consider publishing. We are looking for refreshing new writers who can deliver new and exciting work. We felt that your novel was an old take in a genre that has been stale for a long time." Ouch!

THE 'ECONOMIC DOWNTURN' AWARD - Novel submission query Nov 2009. Feb 2010 reply to say they're starting a fiction imprint, but the author has to purchase 150 copies- I ask for more details of their projected sales and distribution, etc. Two months later, without a response, I send in three chapters and my original queries. Three months later I leave them a phone message. Three months after that, I send a registered letter requesting the return of my material. A month later, still no response - they're obviously in need of my stamps.

And finally, as recently as today...

THE 'SHOULDER SHRUG' AWARD - Humour submission by email 24/03. Phone call four months later - they found the email and realised it hadn't been opened. Four months later, emailed for an update. One month later, phoned and was told 'We only publish three humour books a year so... like... we've already got our quota..."