Word on the Wire

Month: March, 2014


Aside from a sneaky Monday off to make up for a weekend devoted to writing, it’s been a couple of thousand words a day week.  The most I can do at the end of play is stagger downstairs, eat and slump in front of the small screen.   If feeling particularly energetic, I read a few chapters of historical fiction before I switch off the light.

So, quite by chance, I stumbled across ‘Run’.  Originally shown on Channel 4, written by Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan and Marlon Smith, ‘Run’ is a masterpiece of storytelling. 

Set on the mean streets of South London where life is raw, tough and violent, it’s a compelling, interweaving tale of four personal stories connected by an unfortunate chain reaction of consequences. 

Olivia Coleman (the antithesis of her vicar’s wife role in ‘Rev’) portrays struggling single mother and thief, Carol.  She has two antisocial, but doted over teenage sons who, in a fit of malevolent rage, beat to death a Polish man.  Carol’s path crosses with a young illegal Chinese immigrant, Ying, who, in the second tale, is shown to be at the mercy of a vicious gang-leader.  To make enough money to pay the gang master, Ying sells dud DVD’s to Richard, an addict engaged in a desperate struggle to stay off heroin. Richard, a heartbreakingly sympathetic character, is the main protagonist in the third tale. His life crosses with a young Polish woman, Kasia, whose story dominates the fourth and last episode. Kasia, it turns out, is the girlfriend of the Pole killed in the first episode.  In spite of the overall gloom, it’s not unrelentingly grim. There is a note of hope in the darkness, which is no mean feat.  Yes, there are some extremely nasty pieces of work who you can’t help think would have been nasty whatever walk of life they found themselves in, but there are also those with strong work ethics, those seeking to do the right thing even when they are tempted to be bad.  Flawed and unlucky, these are characters with whom we can identify, and characterisation does not get much better than this. 

Camera work, which is documentary in style, creates the illusion of the viewer tumbling through a dystopian Alice in Wonderland mirror into a hellish world of hand to mouth existence, if you’re lucky, random cruelty and exploitation, if you’re not. Only a breath away, it’s a deeply knowable world, and speaks of what we really know to be true about life for those most on the margins.   

There is nothing preachy about ‘Run’, no bleeding hearts.  It doesn’t seek to send out a message.  A story about the dispossessed, those who have fallen through the cracks in the pavement simply because they didn’t luck out in the Lottery of life, one can’t help think that it should be required viewing for politicians and lawmakers, alike.


Meanwhile, Back in the Real World…

I had a close encounter on foot with a man in a van this week. 

     There I was, minding my own business, crossing a side street when said van man drives past on the main road and then stops and, with no indication, no checking mirrors, reverses at speed into the street I’m crossing.  Fortunately, an alert pedestrian shouts a warning.  I freeze.  Van man stops.  There is a coat of paint between us.  Note, I did not spring out of the way, a la Jason Bourne, nor did I identify the van’s registration in John Rebus style.  It was as if someone had cut the power cables to my brain.  Before I had the chance to curse, the white van – why is it always a white van – disappears, laying rubber, in the opposite direction.  Thanks very much, mate.

     Then I got thinking and, by the time I’d got to my cash point destination, paranoid me reckoned someone had put out a contract, and I’d written the opening line of a thriller, a neat reversal of the saying ‘Art imitates life’. 

    Motoring mayhem aside, I had an altogether more positive dose of reality this week.  Two writers I’ve helped, with my Writers’ Workshop freelance hat on, obtained publishing deals:  Luca Pesaro’s ‘The Zero Alternative’ with e-book publisher ‘Three Hares.’  Lips sealed, until release, on the other, but it didn’t stop me from feeling like a proud mother hen with chicks.

     And me?  I had the rare pleasure of meeting up with a longstanding fan of my novels over coffee in town.   It’s quite an odd feeling to finally meet someone who has been in email contact with you over a number of years.  I don’t doubt it’s equally strange to meet the writer whose work you’ve long admired.  Luckily for both of us, we got on like the proverbial house on fire, but then Craig Chapman is not your average reader.  A musician and former band member of ‘Tara’s Secret’, Craig is no slouch in the music ‘bizz’.  I thought writing was a tough game until I got talking to Craig.  Illegal downloads are the bane of a musician’s life.  Subsequent sales may be in zillions and you might be a music sensation in Japan, but the humble musician won’t receive a penny.  Just as in writing, for every band that makes it big, there are thousands who bump along the bottom, and ‘don’t give up the day job’ applies as much to musicians as writers.  

      Like I said, back in the real world.   And if you don’t believe me, check out Phillipa Ashley’s incisive post on D H H Literary Agency’s blog!




Strike Back

It’s been a bloody week. 

I started reading ‘Master of War’ by David Gilman.  Main protagonist, Thomas Blackstone, a young archer is forced to join the king’s invasion of France with all consequent hacking off of limbs, arrows in eyes and medieval mayhem.  It’s one of those novels that does exactly what it says on the tin.  Research is great and you feel as if you’re in a safe pair of hands.  For me, it’s exactly the right book to get my teeth into when I’m concentrating on writing (in a very different genre).

As for viewing, ‘A Line of Duty’ continues to thrill.  I’m still not quite certain whether D.I. Lindsay Denton is a wrong ‘un, or not, and, like many, I’m looking forward to the conclusion next week.  Having sung the praises of French cop dramas lately, it’s fabulous to watch an equally gutsy British version.  And no wonder, its chief writer is Jed Mercurio, whose name I first came across as the writer of ‘Cardiac Arrest’ broadcast many years before.  His name also popped up this week when I very belatedly watched series 1&2 of ‘Strike Back’. 

Based on Chris Ryan’s SAS novels, ‘Strike Back’ is a combination of high-octane ‘Ultimate Force’ and ‘Spooks’.  There are two main protagonists, a British Sergeant, Michael Stonebridge, played by American Philip Winchester who rates as having the best British accent ever, and ex US Delta Force Commando, Damien Scott, played by Australian Sullivan Stapleton.  Working out of Section 20, a covert, highly specialised, intelligence outfit with an amazing amount of gizmos and gadgets for identifying bad guys, Stonebridge and Scott are a yin-yang couple, polar opposites, who are forced to trust each other with their lives in all the world’s hotspots.   I love the way the story flips from Lahore to Delhi, to Cape Town, to Kosovo and Budapest – these guys really get around in their tea break in a desperate quest to hunt down a merciless enemy.  Predictably, there were tons of stakes-high, fabulously choreographed action, double-dealing and betrayal, and some fairly graphic stuff in the bedroom department.   What’s not to like?  Needless to say, series 3 arrived yesterday.  If blood and guts, high tech and brilliant storytelling float your boat, catch it.    

A Very French Affair

Picking up from last week’s blog about the Dreyfus affair and continuing with a French theme, I spent last week riveted by series one and two of  ‘Braquo’, or ‘heist’ to give its English meaning.   

A fan of ‘Engrenages’ (Spiral), I didn’t think French cops could be tougher, sexier or plain reckless when it came to ‘bending rules’.  Within a single scene of Braquo, I changed my mind.

Picture the opening:  a policeman questions a rapist in a police cell.  Along with another man, the rapist has raped and murdered a six-month pregnant woman and refuses to reveal the name of his accomplice.  He is big with the strutting attitude.  ‘Whatever, shit happens, go fuck yourself,’ is the general gist.  Without wishing to spoil it for anyone about to order the box set, what one frustrated cop does with a ballpoint pen to ‘help’ the guy remember had me jumping two feet off the sofa.  

And that was only the beginning.  To succeed against the really, really bad guys, the good guys come within a fag paper of behaving really, really badly!  It’s down and dirty and utterly compelling. 

Consequently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the French take on crime drama.  Nobody could fail to be knocked out by the grittiness of ‘A Prophet’ and ‘Mesrine’, the latter based on the infamous real-life criminal and bank robber, Jacques Mesrines.  ‘Alex,’ an outstanding novel by crime writer, Pierre Lemaitre, was my read of 2013.  Brutal in its simplicity, it is, as Sarah Ward put it, the kind of novel that makes you fall in love with crime fiction all over again.   Is something going on?  Are we British writers more contained with our violence?  (I expect a deluge of examples that challenge the above).

It’s dangerous and foolish to label a nation and attach cultural attitudes to millions of people.  The prevailing stereotype that Brits are tolerant, patient in queues, rotten cooks and lousy lovers is as daft as stating that all French are hotheads, (although French demos are breathtakingly energetic) great cooks and ‘fantastique’ lovers.   Does it simply boil down to the ‘vivre le difference’ factor?  Are corrupt goings on in a Marseille backstreet more compelling than corrupt goings on in Manchester, peut etre? 

Either way, I’ve yet to come across a French version of  ‘Midsomer Murders’, although I guess tales of Brantome (a commune in the Dordogne) exist. 































An Officer and a Spy

A few weeks ago I finished reading Robert Harris’s ‘An Officer and A Spy.’ Rich in period details, evocative of France in the 1880’s – you can almost smell the sewers in the Parisian heat – the story is based on real life events:  the Dreyfus case.

Alfred Dreyfus was an officer wrongly convicted of treason and sent to Devil’s Island.   Those, and there were many, who brought him to trial made the evidence fit the crime largely because Dreyfus was a Jew and anti-Semitic feelings at the time ran high.  A family man, Dreyfus was not the easiest individual to like.  He had a pedantic attitude to work and prized diligence to detail.   He was, in essence, a bit of a prig, but he was an innocent prig.  What makes the case so interesting and appalling is that even when it was discovered that Dreyfus could not possibly have committed an act of treason and that all the evidence pointed strongly to another, elements in the army insisted that the innocent Dreyfus serve out his life sentence in truly grim circumstances.  The reason for this:  it would be too embarrassing to admit a mistake had been made.  In summary, the Dreyfus case bears all the hallmarks of a conspiracy.   Had it not been for a few brave souls committed to saving Dreyfus, he would have died in captivity.

As depressing as it is when individuals pervert the truth, condemning others to save face, it’s also uplifting to witness those few prepared to stand up and risk all for the sake of justice.  Colonel Georges Picquart, Chief of the Statistical Section was instrumental in saving Dreyfus, as was the writer, Emile Zola.  Both men risked lives, freedom, relationships and livelihoods.   Given those circumstances, it’s tempting to wonder what sort of people we would be.  As every writer knows, it’s only under pressure true character is revealed.   Those who throw caution aside in the pursuit of justice are very special indeed.   They are the stuff of main protagonists, but in the Dreyfus case, truth really is stranger than fiction.