The Old-School Headmaster

This is my first attempt at writing a short comedy sketch for radio. Forgive the presentation, I don’t know how to do tabs on WordPress.

SIR:                          [Speaking into his buzzer] I hear we have our first rabble of rioters waiting outside, Miss Crowther. Would you be so kind as to send the first three in?

F/X:                           [We hear a knock at the door]

SIR:                            Enter! Right, who have we got here then? Names!

WILLIAM:                William Chapman, Sir.

TOMMY:                   Tommy Spicer, Sir.

ERNIE:                      Ernie Jones, Sir.

SIR:                            Your second day at secondary school and in the headmaster’s office already. Tut, tut. So which one of you deliberately tripped over Tina Watts on the staircase?

WILLIAM:                 But Sir, it wasn’t like that.

SIR:                             William, is it?

WILLIAM:                  Yes, Sir.

SIR:                              It was really nothing, was it, William? Life in a humdrum town dragging you down, eh? Heaven knows you look a bit miserable to me, boy.

WILLIAM:                  I’m not miserable, Sir. And I didn’t trip up Tina Watts.

TOMMY:                    He’s telling the truth, Sir. It was just an accident.

SIR:                             Tommy, is it?

TOMMY:                    Yes, Sir.

SIR:                            [Chuckles] Used to work on the dock?

TOMMY:                    Eh, Sir?

SIR:                             Down on your luck, are you? Finding it tough? Tina’s probably thinking of running away.

TOMMY:                    Honestly, Sir, she just tripped.

SIR:                             And you, boy. What’s your name?

ERNIE:                       Ernie, Sir.

SIR:                             Fastest milkman in the west, are you?

ERNIE:                       What, Sir?

SIR:                             Feeling lost without Bert? Once a muppet, always a muppet, eh Ernie?

ERNIE:                       I’m not a muppet, Sir.

SIR:                             In the school of life, Ernie, a muppet is someone who trips up a fellow classmate, sending them iPhone over funny bone and leaving them with a broken arm.

ERNIE:                       But Sir, it wasn’t us. It was Luca Di Pietro.

SIR:                            [Speaks into buzzer.] Is there a Luca Di Pietro out there?

F/X:                            [Door opens, Luca enters.]

SIR:                            Name?

LUCA:                        Luca, Sir.

SIR:                            Live on the second floor, do you?

LUCA:                        What? No Sir.

SIR:                            Think you’ve seen me before, hmm?

LUCA:                        Sir? I was lost – we all were. I wasn’t looking where I was going. I walked straight into Tommy and we sort of stumbled into Tina and–

SIR:                            I think I’ve heard enough.

LUCA:                        If you must know, Sir, it was Rio Wentworth.

SIR:                            We’ve got a Rio in our midst? You’ve got to be kidding!

LUCA:                        Rio did it, Sir. I saw him stick his leg out.

SIR:                              I can’t wait! [Speaks into buzzer] Miss Crowther, please tell me there’s a Rio Wentworth out there?

 F/X:                           [Door opens, Rio enters.]

SIR:                            Rio, is it? Tell me, lad, do you dance across the sand?

RIO:                           [Sighs] Yes, Sir – just like that river twisting through a dusty land. And when I shine, I really show you all I can.

SIR:                            [Long pause.] All of you are dismissed on a warning – except Rio.

F/X:                           [The others leave, door closes.]

SIR:                            Alright you smart aleck, explain yourself.

RIO:                           Last year you gave my older sister a week of detentions, Sir.

SIR:                            And who might your older sister be?

RIO:                           Eileen, sir.

THE END

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Creative Brighton

Last week Design Week asked a group of creative directors from around the UK why their location was a good place for a creative agency to be. My husband and co-director at Harrison Agency, Chris, suggested I respond with a poem about Brighton. Never one to turn a fun piece of creative writing down, I got stuck right in. Here’s my answer below. (And if you’re looking to relocate to somewhere with creative work in mind, the full article is worth a read.)

 

You might think you’ve got Brighton sussed

A town built on weekends of lust

With hipsters and greens

Mods, rockers and queens

The odd bit of new agey crust

 

Yet bold ideas are key to this place:

Its royal palace once deemed a disgrace

But a prince with a vision

Ignored all derision

The result? An iconic ace

 

This city gets under your nails

Its freedom puts wind in your sails

Be creative, be a freak

Brighton loves what’s unique

By contrast elsewhere simply pales

A poem about… Budgie Smugglers

Dedicated to all British men who dread putting on the appropriate attire for the French piscine… Allez. Bon courage.

 

One thing about France that British blokes hate:

The piscine rules aren’t up for debate

Baggy shorts are seen as a foreign man’s crime

Blokes, there’s no point complaining – it’s budgie time

 

You trawl the internet, seeking lenience

What are the reasons for this inconvenience?

How can baggy shorts be more of a scandal

than bikini bottoms that draw attention to your handle?

 

Get over it Britishers, work that stiff upper lip

Remember, in France, you’ll look pretty hip

There is one advantage to the hammock de banane –

all the French ladies love a budgie smuggler man

Good copywriting is important – here’s why.

Today I want to talk about copywriting, which is what I do for a living. It’s a different kind of challenge to writing fiction – I have to bear in mind clients’ requirements, but creatively it can be just as rewarding.

I work with my husband, a graphic designer, and over the years I’ve often noticed how people see the importance of good design, but sometimes text plays second fiddle. People often think that so long as there aren’t any typos, their copy is probably fine as it is.

Tut, tut! To this I say: never underestimate the power of words, in particular the tone of voice they’re written in, and the effect they can have on the reader.

The right words are key. The right amount. The right tone. The right message.

Good design with poor copy is like eating artisan bread with Happy Shopper marge.

So here are a few things I’ve learned about copywriting over the years, some of which can equally be applied to writing fiction.

1 • Don’t say what you think people want to hear.

Businesses want to sound professional, so they strive to use professional language. But language that sounds too professional and businessy, can often sound soulless and dull.

Thanks to this tendency, there are certain words and phrases today that have become a tad vacuous: ‘world-class’, ‘cutting-edge’, ‘highly regarded’ and ‘leaders in our field’ to name but a few.

Would you say to your friend/partner/kids, “Let’s go and visit that world-class museum with the cutting-edge displays that really add value to the unbeatable admission price!”?

Of course not.

Just speak normally. It’s allowed.

2 • Go easy on the war paint.

Vacuous words aside, messages drenched in adjectives don’t sound confident. You just sound like you’re trying to compensate for having a below-average product or service.

For example, ‘So-and-so stars in this side-splitting, laugh-out-loud, smash-hit comedy.’

Is this film going to make us wet ourselves with laughter? Probably not. The copy is trying too hard and we suspect it’s probably a mildly amusing film at best.

You might think your message looks a little bare or weak without a good dressing of adjectives, but don’t be fooled by the fear. Too much make-up never makes anyone look better.

Keep your message simple and honest.

3 • Frankie says relax.

Don’t go spewing all your key selling points into one piece of marketing.

If you’re trying to shoehorn a long list of benefits, accolades, praise and statistics into a paragraph, then take Frankie’s advice and for goodness sake, relax.

Less is more. Hold something back for later. Have a little mystique. Keep ‘em dangling.

After all – those three words ended up going viral for Frankie, decades before ‘viral’ was a thing.

4 • Forget your ‘target audience’.

You may well have worked out exactly who your target audience is, down to the most detailed demographics. But the person you’re really talking to, if the truth be known, is the one who gets it.

The more you try to widen your tone of voice to reach every potential customer, the weaker your message will be.

You’re talking to one person. The person who gets it.

This requires trust.

5 • Be true to yourself.

If you’re true to yourself, you’re much more likely to reach those who’ll get it.

Every time you get lost in a book or film, or laugh at a comedy or advert; every time you’re swallowed whole by a piece of music, or stop to stare at a piece of art – the creator, whoever they might be, was being true to themselves.

They didn’t create it with nothing but sales figures in mind. They wrote it/painted it/produced it for themselves. That’s why it touched you. It was fresh, honest and real – not contrived.

Find your true voice and don’t be afraid to use it.

6 • Show, don’t tell.

If you’ve ever gone to a creative writing class, you’ll no doubt have heard the expression ‘Show, don’t tell’. It’s one of the golden rules of storytelling.

But it’s just as relevant to copywriting as it is to writing fiction. To tell is to state the facts. To show is to paint a picture in the reader’s mind – to help them visualise what it is you’re talking about.

To tell: “That’s a very big shark.”

To show: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Don’t just state the facts. Paint the picture.

7 • Don’t undervalue the power of humour.

We all notice language that makes us laugh or smile. It brightens our day for a moment.

When companies take themselves a little less seriously, they start to sound less corporate and more human. The more human you sound, the more you’re likely to connect.

Inject some humour into your copy and it will start to sound more friendly and warm. If you think this doesn’t apply to you because you’re a firm of lawyers/accountants/other type of professional service, then I would challenge that perception. Too much serious-toned sales bluster on your About Us page can actually come across as intimidating and, in some cases, gives off a condescending air. Remind people you’re a bunch of humans, too.

ShitcoffeeAmazingcoffee

(I asked a group of friends which sign they preferred. ‘Shit coffee’ won hands down.)

8 • Don’t brag.

Saying you’re the market leader or the best in your field is all very well, but who cares? No one likes a big mouth.

By all means get the message across that you’re number one gun, but do it with some subtlety. It’s less off-putting and more believable. All companies have their flaws and weaknesses, so why claim to be perfect? Everyone knows it’s not the entire truth.

Be honest about who you are. And again, don’t just state the facts. Paint the picture.

9 • Don’t stack stats.

Never add up lots of statistics to make one big, fat, meaningless statistic, such as: ‘We have over 175 years’ experience between us.’

TV documentaries are particularly guilty of this insult to the nation’s intelligence. Ie: ‘These 40 dieters lost a whopping 150 stone between them.’ So what? It means nothing to anybody. How one dieter lost a few stone is what’s relevant and interesting.

Keep stats to a minimum and put them in context to make them meaningful.

10 • Ignore what everyone else is doing.

Don’t spend too much time looking at other people’s websites/brochures/adverts. You will definitely find someone whose work looks better than yours. And another person is likely to think your work looks better than theirs. And so on and so on…

So don’t waste time drooling over their awards/portfolio/market position.

Avert your eyes and ears from all the noise out there, find your true voice, write yourself a quick, uncensored pep talk and frame it. That voice in the pep talk – that’s the one.

You’re writing for the person who gets you. And as you’re the first person to get you, you’re basically writing for yourself.

Bah Humbug Apostrophes

Season’s greetings and all that crap. It’s not actually Christmas yet, so let’s get down to business. Apostrophes. Come on, people! It’s pretty simple really. I’m not going to explain it to you, as it’ll just fall on deaf ears. It would be far more effective, I thought, to just give you punctuation-abusers out there some examples you might remember. OK, like hell you’re going to remember, but at least I can get it off my chest and enjoy my mulled wine unburdened. So pay attention.

• You’re eating a lot of mince pies, you greedy bastard. (You’re = you are.)
• Your festive jumper isn’t ironic, it’s annoying. (The festive jumper belongs to you, hence your – not you’re. If you say you’re festive jumper, you might as well be saying, “You like jump up and down at Christmas time?”
• It’s fucking freezing out there. (It’s = it is.)
• The sodding tree has pissed all its needles all over the floor. (Its not it’s. I can’t be bothered to explain why. Just ask yourself would the tree piss all it is needles? That doesn’t make sense, so restrain yourself and don’t stick an apostrophe in here.)
• Have you done all your Christmas shopping yet? (Your – not you’re. If I say you’re Christmas shopping, I’m stating that you are Christmas shopping, as in right now, when in fact you’re probably lying on your backside eating more mince pies.)
• Thanks for the leg-warmers, Auntie Cynthia. They’re so 1980s. (NOT 1980’s for crying out loud. Get it right.) (Don’t get me started on they’re, there, their. On second thoughts, I’ll come to that in a minute.)
• Don’t even think of putting that Christmas compilation album on again. (Don’t = Do not.)
• Do they know it’s Christmas time again? (According to The Guardian, they do. And they also probably know there’s an apostrophe in it’s in this instance – unlike you.)
OK, deep breath. Count to 10. Time for the big one.

• There were six mince pies in this packet. Now they’re all gone. Whoever stuffed them down their pie-hole is going to get their arse kicked.

OK. I think that’s enough for now. (That’s = that is. There’s no such word as thats.) Happy Yuletide. (Yule not you’ll.) May the new year bring you peace, happiness and a deeper appreciation of apostrophes. (Apostrophes, not apostrophe’s.)

Sun, sea and my desert island books

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I love listening to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, and have often thought about which books and pieces of music I would choose to be marooned with. You could argue that, stuck on a desert island, it would make sense to choose a book that you haven’t read yet. But we all know the rules! In a twist on the radio show format, I’m choosing eight books, rather than discs, that I’ve never forgotten – books that made a real impact on me at different stages in my life, books that I’d love to read again one day. The kind of books that, when you finish them, make you go ‘into the zone’ for at least three days until you feel the fog has lifted enough to start something new.

So, in no particular order…

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

I was probably 10 years old when I read this, and I was engrossed. I can’t remember much about it other than there were two groups of kids, a lot of sailing, swimming, camping and rivalry. So I’d love to read it again to rediscover the magic escapism this book gave me the first time around.

Stranger With My Face by Lois Duncan

I was about 12 when I discovered this author, and what a find! It wasn’t long before my friends and I were spending our school lunch hours discussing all her books, plots and characters. Stranger With My Face was the first one I read and it was unputdownable: a girl’s life starts to spin out of control when her boyfriend claims he’s seen her with another guy and strange things start happening to her friends. The supernatural element – there’s a bit of astral projection going on – had me hooked, and night after night I felt compelled to try projecting my soul out of my body.
“Any joy?” I would ask my friends at school each day.
“Nope. You?”
“Not yet…”

Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry

I must’ve been about 13 when I read this. I took it on a family holiday and boy did it stop me from getting bored! It was the first grown-up novel I’d read and I think I borrowed it from my mum – or I’m not sure how else I would’ve come across it. It was full of emotional drama, swearing and scenes of a sexual nature. I was transfixed! I suppose my mum thought it would be educational for me, and might make me look at our mother-daughter relationship from a more mature perspective. It certainly did raise a few questions…not all of which I felt comfortable putting to my mum though.

Germinal by Emile Zola

I didn’t read this by choice. It was on my reading list for 19th Century French literature, part of my French degree. I can’t say I felt that switched on by any of the other books in that module, but Germinal had me gripped – I couldn’t put it down. A mining town community living in extreme poverty. A young couple falling in love for the first time amidst a climate of starvation, anger and violence. It got made into a film with Gerard Depardieu, but trust me – the film doesn’t compare to the book. A nail-biting read that made up for some of the other duller tomes I had to get through. (And no I didn’t read them in French or else I’d never have made it to le fin.)

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

When I was in my early twenties, my elderly French great aunt pressed a £10 note into my hand and urged me to go and buy Wild Swans. Having fallen out of love with reading at university, it was tempting to spend the tenner on a bottle of wine and a Marie Claire. However, knowing that I’d eventually have to report back what I thought of the book, I reluctantly went and bought it. Holy Cow. What an epic read! Not one dull moment. A lesson in history, culture, and how the other half lived, all rolled into one. It’s the true story of three generations of women in one family in China, from the turn of the last century, through the revolution and beyond. A jaw-dropping read. Major respect to my late great aunt for that recommendation. (And for making it to 92 years old as a chain-smoking carnivore – she sure had some gene genies going on there.)

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

I read this while backpacking around Asia with my now husband and devouring books on a speedier-than-usual turnover. For some reason I didn’t read the blurb properly and assumed Arthur Golden was the person the geisha told her story to – a ghostwriter or translator. I was about two thirds of the way through before I realised it was a novel rather than a true story. I couldn’t believe how the drama in this woman’s life was so timely – just like an epic novel! Oh. Hang on… it is an epic novel. Right. That’ll teach me not to dive in without studying the back cover and acknowledgements first! Anyway, bloody brilliant. Left me desperate to visit Japan and name my first child Chiyo. (Husband refused.)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I read this about four or five years ago after another hiatus in my reading life (children, this time – hence no energy to read more than the ingredients on the back of a jar of pasta sauce). A twisty-turny tale set in Victorian England. An orphan grows up with a family of thieves, and ends up becoming a maid at a mansion where she meets another orphan who lives a mysterious life with a wealthy but sinister uncle. The plot of this story didn’t let up the pace at any point. You get so sucked in to the world that Sarah Waters has painted, you feel like you’re living inside a Victorian snow globe. Great storytelling.

The Right To Write by Julia Cameron

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. But back in my twenties, I went through a phase of reading a lot of it – mainly because I was finding life hard and so I sought out guidance. So I read a lot of self-help books, with a fair few that focused on writing and creativity. This book in particular helped me to believe that I was a writer, that writers weren’t some exclusive group I wasn’t qualified to join. Every page is littered with nuggets of wisdom that I’ve underlined in order to programme them into my brain. I owe a lot to this book and its insightful author, and every now and again I skim through it, reminding myself of truths I’ve forgotten.

Music and a luxury item?

As with the Radio 4 show, I also get to take a piece of music and a luxury item. So I would choose Say Hello, Wave Goodbye by Soft Cell, which I would sing passionately from the top of my lungs into a twig and an imaginary camera. And for my luxury item, it’s got to be an enormous note book and pen. Wait – does that count as two items? Ok, well it’s one of those notebooks that comes with a pen attached. Sorted. Bon voyage!

Please, please, tell me now!

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The bedtime routine. What should be a blissful hour of giggles in the bathtub, reading aloud a much-loved classic to an enraptured audience, followed by kisses and cuddles goodnight, is often a chaotic last hurdle to jump over before collapsing on the sofa with a large glass of wine and the next episode of Borgen.

When you’re tired, surrounded by mess, and you have to repeat the same instruction five times like a malfunctioning robot – “Have you done your teeth yet?” – it’s a real challenge not to skip bedtime stories and let them spend half an hour playing on their Kindles instead. Or, if I read them a story, I’m often yawning so much they can’t understand a word I’m saying anyway.

But failing to read bedtime stories to children just adds to the constant trickle of everyday parental guilt. (Five-a-day? Erm…not today.) So when my children were younger (they’re currently 10 and eight), I tried to solve this problem by reading them stories while they ate their tea or lay in the bath. That way, I could tick the story box and get ahead of the game, perhaps enjoying a little extra time to myself starting a little earlier in the evening…

As if. My children are smart. While I’d ticked the story box ahead of schedule, my children had a new box waiting for me: the Tell Me Something.

Every night, as I tucked them into bed, they’d beg: “Tell me something! Tell me something now – please!” Apparently, this ‘something’ had to be a true story from my childhood. Such as the time I stole my best friend’s purple stone and ended up confessing, unable to look her in the eyes – or display it in my own precious stone collection for fear of being rumbled. Or the time, aged six, I wet my knickers while standing up reading Roger Red Hat in front of the whole class. You get the gist – anything with a good dose of guilt, humiliation or general ‘epic fail’.

And when I’d run out of those, they’d demand a true story from someone else’s childhood. Such as the time their dad, at the age of nine, locked his little sister in the cupboard under the stairs after farting in it. Or the time he flicked a peanut and it landed in his sleeping father’s open mouth. (He often tells them these stories himself, as I only know so many of his childhood anecdotes.)

When I’d struggle to think of true anecdotes, they’d up the ante even more by demanding a made-up story instead. So what do you say when your head is empty, you can hardly keep your eyes open and you’re not even sure you’ve got the energy to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones? You say the first thing that comes into your head: “There once was a girl called Fartina Gasratilova…who suffered from an unfortunate condition…that kept landing her in lots of trouble…”

It’s actually quite satisfying to see what you can rummage out of the depths of your depleted imagination – especially when you’re one glass of wine away from being asleep yourself. And watching your kids’ faces light up as they picture the story you’re telling is a true delight.

Of course, that triumphant feeling didn’t last long, as they started demanding a new Fartina story every night. Eventually, having kept up with my children’s demands for weeks on end, I had enough material to put together a little ebook. I polished the stories up, persuaded the husband to knock up some illustrations, and changed her name to Fartella just in case…you know…the book became so huge, I got a letter from Martina Navratilova’s lawyers. (Well, what do you expect from a woman with a depleted imagination?)

These days the bedtime routine is a little simpler. My eldest is happy to read to herself and my youngest is, too – provided she has a book she’s happy with (my current challenge). I still read to my youngest, although more often, she likes to read to me. I’m still thrown a request for a Tell Me Something from time to time. But nowadays, it’s usually on a long car journey just as I’m getting stuck into a favourite album or Desert Island Discs. So what do you say? You say: “There once was a girl called Thirsty Kirsty, who lived on a desert island surrounded by sharks, and was only allowed to take three luxury items with her…”