Our house is number 13 in our street. 13 – the so-called ‘unlucky’ number. It’s never caused me a moment’s thought. You know why? It’s because I’m not fucking stupid, and you have to be fucking stupid to be afraid of a number. It’s nothing to do with being old-fashioned or folksy. It’s not about sensitivity or world-view. It’s about ability to process information and draw reasonable conclusions. I bring this up now because Ireland’s Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, announced today that there will be a change to vehicle registration plates in 2013. For those who don’t know, Irish plates take the format ‘Year–County of registration–Number of registration’. So the eight hundred and fifty-third car registered in County Sligo in 2013 should have a plate saying ’13–SO–853′. But it won’t. Under pressure from the motor industry, Noonan has decreed that cars registered in the first half of the year will have plates saying 131 instead of 13. Cars registered in the second half will have 132. No-one will have to have an unlucky number on their car.
Here are my top ten tips for aspiring writers:
- Set realistic writing goals like ‘I won’t cry today’.
- Your screenplay needs to have at least three characters who say ‘Let’s get out of here!’ at least twice each.
- It’s not a real romantic comedy if it doesn’t have a guy running through an airport at the end.
- It’s pretentious to subtitle your book ‘A Novel’ unless it’s called ‘How Do You Pronounce “A Novel”?’, in which case it’s hilarious.
- Kill every adjective you can find. Adverbs too. Use nouns sparingly. Absolutely no verbs.
- It doesn’t matter where or when you write, provided it’s before noon and in front of a north-facing window.
- Always draw your own book covers – and don’t scrimp on the crayons. Get the very best you can afford.
- Suffering from writer’s block? Just quit forever. Who needs the grief?
- Some writers like to plan their story meticulously, others like to wing it. Both approaches are wrong.
- You have to grab the reader’s attention, so always start with an explosion. If the first word in your novel or screenplay isn’t ‘KA-BOOM!’, you’re screwed.
Hands up everyone who’s ever been chased by an angry mob. Hmmm. Quite a few of you. OK then, hands up everyone who’s ever been chased by an angry mob who believe that you’re the spawn of Satan come to do battle with Jesus in an apocalyptic battle for the very Earth itself. Yeah, I thought so. That particular privilege was reserved for us Damiens in the early nineteen-eighties when one or other of the Omen films was on TV every Saturday night. You will doubtless recall the original, in which Gregory Peck took a very long time to accept that his adopted son’s biological parents were not poor unfortunates who couldn’t, for whatever reason, raise a child, but rather the Prince of Low Lighting himself and some trollop of a jackal he met in a nightclub. In fairness to Gregory, he eventually realised his mistake and went to the kitchen drawer for the Seven Daggers of Meggido. When push came to stab, however, he was unable to do the necessary and before very long there was a sequel. Damien: Omen II, they called it. Oh-oh, I thought. Sure enough, someone at my school noticed that by merely inverting the M in omen, you could make the word Owen. And what did those Roman numerals represent if not the number 2, which is nothing more than a backwards letter S, squashed a bit? The evidence was overwhelming. The antichrist was alive and well and sitting not ten feet away with an E.T. flask and a Wagon Wheel. Cue chase music and a lunchtime spent running eight feet in front of the aforementioned angry mob. It wasn’t so bad, really. Once they’d cornered me and established, with some violence, that my scalp was free of little sixes, they lost interest quickly and permanently. I was one of the lucky ones. Some of my classmates had even more unfortunate names and endured sheer hell throughout their entire primary school careers. Poor old Gareth Vader … I wonder where he is now.
I love it in old movies when someone grabs the earpiece of a bakelite phone, turns the crank a few times and demands that they be put through to a three-digit number. There’s something deeply engaging about it. Maybe it’s the fact that there’s physical activity involved. Or maybe it’s the wispy half-presence of the operator, the crucial go-between with her sensible skirt, nimble fingers and weakness for listening in. The three-digit number helps too; a subtle whisper about exclusivity and power. There’s glamour here, in short, and romance and ritual and drama. You can’t imagine someone picking up one of these old phones, going through the laborious connection process and then sighing, ‘So, any crack?’ much less ‘Would you like to take a few minutes to provide us with some feedback so that we can continue to improve our service going forward?’ No hold music either, of course, no Greensleeves played on a comb and a bit of toilet roll. No ‘Press the hash key NOW’. No ‘I wouldn’t have a clue pal, I’ll put you back to reception’. And no call waiting. Imagine that. Call waiting symbolises everything disappointing about the modern phone experience. You call someone up, not because you’ve got something important to say, but because you can. They’re engaged because someone else with nothing to say got in before you. But they know you’re out there, hanging on. They might swap calls, they might not. You’re stuck in limbo, complaining under your breath. And no one’s even listening in.
‘You can’t eat it. It’s a stick. Not food. NOT FOOD. PUT IT DOWN.’
‘No, I don’t know why Daddy has hair in his ears.’
‘Stop kicking your sister in the face!’
‘You do like toast. I know you do. I’VE SEEN YOU EATING IT.’
‘You can stop helping now. Please. STOP HELPING.’
Ever heard of Leo Gorcey? Me neither. He was an actor, by all accounts. You may not remember him from such films as Crazy Over Horses, Feudin’ Fools, or my own favourite, Dig That Uranium. But in 1967 Leo Gorcey had something in common with Laurel and Hardy, Mae West, George Bernard Shaw, Tony Curtis, Karl Marx, Marlon Brando and Shirley Temple. His likeness was one of those chosen to decorate the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ and hence the world’s first concept album (the concept being ‘Let’s get wasted and not bother so much with the concept thing’). But his face was removed before the album went to the presses because Gorcey – get this – thought he should get paid. Now, it’s not as if Ringo and co. were unknowns at the time. This isn’t a story of unrecognised opportunity, like Decca’s legendary rejection of the self-same Beatles on the grounds that guitar music was on the way out. Gorcey couldn’t have known that Sgt Pepper’s would turn out to be probably the most famous and memorable album cover of all time, but … it was the Beatles, for God’s sake! We can only conclude that he wasn’t all that bothered about immortality. Sadly for him, that’s just what he’s earned. The modern sleeve notes for the album include a list of who’s who on the cover. Gorcey’s name is still there, trailed by a smirking asterisk. The footnote, ours to ponder forever and ever and ever, reads ‘Painted out because he requested a fee.’ They’ll still be laughing at him in two hundred years time, the poor bastard. There’s a moral here somewhere, I’m sure of it.
You know those care guides that you see attached to a little stick in the soil of a new house plant? Have you noticed that they’ve gone first person? They used to be nothing more than a stern list of dos and don’ts, written in cold instructionese. Now they read like a lonely hearts ad. ‘I like to be kept out of direct sunlight and to be fed once a week in the summer months. I also enjoy wine-tasting and walks on the beach.’ Presumably, the idea is to give the plant a personality so you’ll feel guilty enough to take care of it. It works, too. I found myself apologising to one the other day and promising that, if it gave me another chance, I’d be more attentive to its needs in future. In fact, I’d like to see this approach extended to other vulnerable products. Clothes labels, for example, are currently all but meaningless. Pictures of dotted irons, circles with a letter P in them, crossed out triangles … How much better if they said things like ‘I like to be washed in water no warmer than 40 degrees and to be carefully ironed, then hung up on a proper wooden hanger. Please don’t boil wash me with the tea towels and then stuff me into a drawer while I’m still damp.’ Is that too much to ask? Cars, too, could benefit. How I wish that mine had come with a sticker saying ‘Please take care of my delicate outer shell. For example, check my rear-view mirror for poles before reversing out of your parking space last Tuesday’.