The day I became a writer, maybe

My A-level English teacher died recently.

We weren’t close. I don’t think I’d spoken to him once since leaving school 25 years ago, but he was one of those teachers who I can say had a definite and direct impact on the course of my life. So when I heard that he’d gone, I felt strangely bereft. Bereft of the opportunity to say thank you I suppose.

As well as teaching me how to appreciate Shakespeare’s metaphors and Andrew Marvell’s metaphysics, he also gave me confidence in my ability to write. It was Mr B who awarded me the Lower Sixth English prize for a ‘Pinteresque play script’ I wrote. Which was probably the moment I believed I might have a bit of talent in that department.

So the other day I dug out the script. Luckily it was printed in the school magazine that year, otherwise it would have disappeared along with my dad’s old IBM word processor, the vessel for all my ‘early works’. I suspect the literary world didn’t lose much the day that machine died.

Now don’t laugh, but I cried when I read my script. Was that down to the quality of the writing? Or just me feeling the emotion of spending time with my younger self?

It brought back memories of how I had struggled with that piece of homework, not knowing what on earth to write about. But then I had experienced a proper bolt-of-lightning moment of inspiration – the first time that had ever happened to me.

One evening my big sister and I had been having a conversation at our bedroom windows, while the rain was coming down in that kind of hard, determined way that it does at the end of summer. I don’t recall what we were talking about (neither of us was praying or grieving at the death of a child) but later that night I woke up knowing what I wanted to say, and how I was going to set it. So I got up there and then, sneaked into dad’s study and let the whole thing pour out. I remember knowing that the words felt good; they felt right.

The words aren’t all good of course, and it’s been hard resisting the urge to nip and tuck as I typed them up. But resist I did, so here they are, unabridged and punctuated exactly as the 16-year-old me wrote them.

As the late, great Mr B would say as he sent us off with our set texts at the end of every English lesson: enjoy!

RAIN

One Act

Scene: 
Two bedroom windows looking out over a garden and a park.  The rooms are on an angle so that a conversation can be held between two people – one at each window. It is late evening and it is raining softly.

Enter Jane at left window. She throws up the sash, puts her head out and takes in a deep breath. She looks around her and stretches out her hands to catch the rain. Looking up to the sky, she tentatively clasps her hands.

Pause

A light is turned on in the room on the right.

Jane      (Whispering) Anna!
 
Pause
 
She clicks her fingers and almost immediately the sash in the other room is thrown up and Anna leans out.

Jane       Isn’t it a beautiful night?
Anna     It’s wet and freezing.
Jane       It isn’t.
Anna     Yes it is.
Jane       Well it may be wet, but it isn’t freezing.
 
Pause
 
Jane       It smells lovely – all damp and refreshing.
 
Pause
 
Anna     It does smell nice, I’ll give you that.
 
Pause
 
Jane       Why is the sky orange?
Anna     Street lamps.
Jane       What?
Anna     From the town.
Jane       But it isn’t usually orange. Mostly it’s blue.
Anna     Well the clouds are low and the light’s shining on them isn’t it?
Jane       Oh – of course. Did you work that out for yourself?
Anna     Yes.
Jane       I’d never have worked that out.
 
Pause

Jane       I love the rain, don’t you? It smells so nice.
Anna     Yes, so you said.
Jane       It helps me to think.
Anna     About what?
Jane       This and that.
Anna     Like what?
Jane       Anything. Whatever comes into my head.
Anna     What were you thinking about when you called me then?
 
Pause
 
Jane       I can’t tell you.
Anna     Why not?
Jane       You wouldn’t understand.
Anna     I would.
Jane       You wouldn’t.
Anna     Try me.
 
Pause

Jane       You’ll laugh.
Anna     I won’t.
Jane       You might.
Anna     Go on. Tell me.
Jane       No.
 
Pause

Jane       I was… it’s personal.
Anna     Forget it then. It doesn’t bother me.
Jane       I was saying a prayer, that’s all.
Anna     A prayer? Since when were you religious?
Jane       I’m not. I was trying it out.
Anna     What for?
Jane       I felt like it.
Anna     Did you get a reply?
Jane       No.
Anna     I knew you wouldn’t. It’s all a load of rubbish. You don’t want to waste time being religious do you?
 
Pause

Anna     Do you?
Jane       No.
 
Pause
 
Anna     What did you pray for then?
Jane       I didn’t. I was asking.
Anna     What for?
Jane       Not for anything.
Anna     Not for anything?
Jane       No. I was asking Him to do something.
Anna     And you thought He’d do it? That’s a laugh. As if he’s got time for you. Look out there. The whole world stretches out in front of you, full of people and animals and creatures, and up there is the whole massive universe with millions of stars, and then there’s you – tiny little Jane – kneeling at your bedroom window, and you reckon that God or whatever is going to hear you and do whatever you tell him to do?
Jane       I didn’t tell Him, I asked Him.
Anna     Same thing.
Jane       It isn’t the same thing.
Anna     What did you ask him to do then?
Jane       To look after Jessica.
 
Pause

Anna     Why are you crying?
Jane       I’m not crying.
Anna     You are. Why?
Jane       I’m tired.
Anna     Why? You hardly did anything today. And you slept most of the afternoon.
Jane       It was a tiring day.
Anna     You didn’t do much.
Jane       The funeral made me tired.
Anna     It wasn’t very long. You were back in a couple of hours.
Jane       I was tired.
Anna     That’s what you keep saying.
Jane       Well I was and I am now.
Anna     Go to bed then.
Jane       No.
Anna     Why not?
Jane       I’m not sleepy.
Anna     I don’t understand you.
Jane       Don’t bother trying. I’m too mixed up.
Anna     Are you alright?
Jane       Yes, I’m fine.
 
Pause

Anna     Did you enjoy the funeral?
 
Pause

Jane       Enjoy it? Of course I didn’t enjoy it. It was a funeral. And a girl’s funeral too, not some old person. She should have had a long life ahead of her. And that was the last time I’ll ever see her. And I couldn’t see her anyway because she was inside her coffin. And I watched them throw her in the ground where hopefully she’ll be forgotten about because she’s dead and she doesn’t matter any more. I can’t believe you asked that.
 
Pause

Anna     Sorry. You knew what I meant.
Jane       I didn’t know what you meant.
Anna     Sorry.
Jane       It’s alright.
Anna     Will you miss her?
 
Pause

Anna     Sorry.
Jane       Yes I will. Let me show you something.
 
Jane disappears into her room

Pause

She returns with a glass bowl

Jane       Jessica’s mum gave me this. I always loved it. She said she thought Jessica would have liked me to have it.
 
Anna     That’s nice. It’s a nice bowl.
 
Jane       It’s got flowers carved in the side and Jessica’s name engraved here.
Anna     That’ll be nice to remember her by.
Jane       (Softly) Yes.
 
Pause

Anna     Dad’s back tomorrow.
Jane       Yes.
Anna     I think mum’s looking forward to seeing him. It’s been a long time.
Jane       Yes.
Anna     He’ll have a tan.
 
Pause

Anna     He might bring us presents.
Jane       Perhaps.
Anna     It would be nice if he did. To show us he thought of us.
Jane       Yes.
Anna     Of course that’s not the most important thing. It’ll just be nice to see him again.
Jane       It’s been a long time.
Anna     Too long, mum says.
Jane       Yes.
Anna     It’ll be nice to see him again.
 
Pause

Anna     I missed him.
 
Pause
 
Anna     It’s getting late.
Jane       Yes, I’m going to bed.
 
As she stands she knocks her head on the window and drops the glass bowl. It smashes on the stone terrace below

Pause

Jane kneels down again, staring at the bowl. Anna looks at Jane and then the bowl, unsure of what to do

Jane       (Without moving) Goodnight.
Anna     Yes. See you tomorrow.
 
Anna closes her window and draws the curtains

Pause

The rain falls harder. Eventually Anna’s light goes out. Jane stretches out her hands again to collect the rain, then she washes her face with it. She remains where she is, but raises her head to look at the sky. She allows the rain to fall freely onto her face.

Pause

She ducks under her window and closes it. A few seconds later her light is turned off.

Olivia Jones (L6)

The best four words I’ve ever written?

I’ve written a few words in my time. Some have flowed from my pen like silk; ribbons of mellifluous prose. Some I’ve frogmarched into columns with military precision. Others I’ve frankly vomited onto the page and not had the wherewithal to wipe up properly. (For those I apologise.)

Recently I found myself wondering if the best of all these words, over all these years, might be the four that I strung together on behalf of Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland.

I’m not saying they’re the best four words ever written. I don’t think they’ll ever reside in the pantheon of 4 word greatness, alongside “those blue remembered hills”, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” and “Talk to me, Goose”.

But they might just carry the power to do some real and lasting good. And for the lowly copywriter, that’s a thrilling prospect.

It all starts with the brief

It was just a regular Monday briefing. Creative team sauntered in clutching mugs of tea and coffee. Account managers dealt out wads of A4 paper and talked us through the task at hand.

Chest, Heart & Stroke Scotland had asked us to come up with a UEP. (UEP = Unifying Emotional Proposition – the set of words that sums up what an organisation stands for beyond its functional purpose.)

The account team had already had in-depth discussions with the client. Q&As, interviews and workshops – the usual process of fact-finding, exploration and interrogation that informs the creative brief. But there was something palpably different about this one.

It was the clarity of ambition. The client’s commitment to being brave and taking a bold stance. We were in no doubt about the direction that the new Chief Executive, Jane-Claire Judson, wanted to take this organisation. And excitingly for us, she understood the power of the brand to get her there.

Her passion overflowed to her own marketing team, spilled into our agency brief and permeated our creative thinking. We knew what they wanted, and were inspired to find it.

Thank you, Baz Luhrmann

I was on the bus home when I thought of it. Top deck, left hand side, staring out of the window. Not so much a lightbulb moment as a dimmer switch, undimming. The trouble with the old lightbulb analogy is that it suggests there is darkness and then, ping! there is light. That the answer comes out of nothing.

In my experience, the creative process isn’t actually like that very often. First there’s reading and learning. Then there’s sifting and sorting. Thinking and incubating. Floundering around in murky waters trying to catch a fish. But eventually, with a bit of luck and a lot of persistence, the fish does land in your hand.

So back to the bus (where there is no fish, bar the old trout driving it).

I was still musing and mulling over the brief.

Earlier that day I’d been reading stories of people living with chest, heart and stroke conditions in Scotland. About the man who had to learn to eat with a knife and fork again, aged 62. About the woman with COPD who didn’t go out for weeks at a time until she found a local singing group for people with breathing difficulties. About the young dad paralysed by a stroke whose dream was to read to his daughter at bedtime like he used to.

All these stories carried a common refrain: there was life before the diagnosis and life after it.

Life divided into two halves – before and after. ‘Before’ was remembered as happy, healthy, care-free. ‘After’ was characterised by isolation, struggle and depression.

The whole point of Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland is to be there for the ‘after’ bit. The condition might be life changing, but it shouldn’t be life ending. They are there to make each precious life the very best it can be.

We swung off Crewe Road roundabout onto Crewe Road North and under the cycle path bridge that feels too low for the double decker, so I always duck a little bit in my seat. Out the other side.

This UEP had to be about life, I thought – about making the most of life even when you’ve got a debilitating health condition – about not missing out on doing the things you always loved doing before – or giving up on dreams you had before this thing happened – about not just existing but really living – about living the fullest life you can – because the alternative is something partial, a life you’ve only half lived.

Suddenly Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom was in my head.

Vivir con miedo, es como vivir a medias!” explodes Fran when she can’t contain her frustration with Scott. Later, as he walks her home to the rundown outskirts of town, she translates it. “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”

A life half lived. If Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland had their way, there’d be no life half lived.

No life half lived.

Fighting talk.

Four words.

But they seemed to say it all.

I’d only gone and landed an 80lb salmon.

Tears before teatime

A few months later, on 29th May 2018, a gaggle of folk from Story (the creative agency where I work) attended the launch of Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland’s new vision.

NLHL words

We walked into the Caledonian Hotel and saw the line everywhere. On lanyards, screens, presentations, leaflets, balloons, mugs, name badges.

It was obvious that these four words were going to be more than just a strapline. For Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland they were a platform. A promise. The foundation for the organisation’s entire strategy.

That was pleasing to see. But the thing that really made me well up was hearing the service users saying the words. A young woman who’d suffered a stroke spoke them with powerful conviction. When a man with heart failure uttered them, we saw hope in his eyes. As a lad with chronic asthma was saying them on the big screen, I turned and saw the same boy standing right beside me, a broad smile across his face.

Then Jane-Claire got the whole room to say the line in a rousing show of support – volunteers, fellow charities, donors, medical partners, survivors, staff.

That was a first for me. And a bit of tear-jerker.

I just stuck four words together, borrowed from a favourite film. The line is a good one, but it will be meaningless unless people get behind it, believe in it and commit to it.

But if they do… If Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland can use it to reach the quarter of a million people they want to… If they can make hearts work better, and lungs breathe better, and bodies recover better after stroke… If they can lift spirits that have been sunk, and persuade the rest of us that this work is worthy of our time, money and support…

Then yes, these will be the best four words I’ve ever written.

 

You can find out more and donate to Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland here >

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