I have been wanting to share with people some of my main influences for a while now and I think I have found a simple way to do it. It goes without saying that family and friends are the biggest influences but I'm talking more about the art that has inspired me. On this page I thought I would share a book, a film and a piece of music and write a very brief paragraph on why I have picked them. On the second inspirations page I will pick more random one-offs. These are not reviews, just personal reasons why they are significant to me. It's not going to be in any order... I may pick a childhood favourite one week and a brand new album I have only just heard the following week, it's whatever comes to mind at the time.
CIA World Fact Book
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Dazed and Confused
Did you know this book existed? I don’t
mean that in a secretive way, I mean it is the CIA after all, but rather did
you know that government organisations also publish books that are for the
general public (not just the countless brochures, reports and ‘findings’ that
cover specific academic and political research)? I can’t remember how I found
out about this but it has fascinated me ever since. Even though I know most of
us will just peruse it here and there to take up a few minutes of idleness
(then immediately forgetting that amazing fact you just read) I like to imagine
government agents reading it cover-to-cover ready to be tested on how many
females aged between 16-49 are eligible and fit for military service in Moldova
(979,128 estimated in 2010) or the name of the American ambassador to Chile
(Paul E. Simons in 2011) for when that unusual mission comes up (anyone
picturing Jason Bourne clueing up on the oil production of Tajikistan whilst
sitting on the toilet? Just me? (238bbl/day estimate in 2008 in case you’re
wondering)) and sorry for thinking that the MI5 version would include dictators
favourite Savile Row tailors and brands of aftershave. The reason it is an
inspiration is that there a million stories to be told between the simple lines
of facts and statistics. Information on the peoples of the world told in such a
matter of fact way is great for knowledge but what about the imagination? Any
single page could set an idea in motion…
Forgive me for wanting to be an eternal
17 year old, I know it’s a juvenile fantasy but dear me, what a fantastic time
that was! There are lots of films that cover that crazy emotional time when
childhood is ending and adulthood begins (I guess coming-of-age or
bildungsroman in the classic sense) but this one is right at the top for me. Of
course I am biased because it came out in ’93 so by the time I watched it I was
amongst the prime audience but it holds many truths for me (despite being set
in 1976 Texas which I have zero connection with). The first is that ordinary
life can be exciting in itself, a single night out can give you a lifetime’s
worth of memories. I hope to use that in my writing. It’s very hard to describe
what I want to write when people ask other than saying, ‘well, boring dramas
really,’ and in truth, they are boring, because a lot of normal life is boring.
It’s all anticipation isn’t it, working for the weekend, saving for the
present, training for the race; mostly it’s all build up to a few very special
occasions. This film hits that nail on the head so amazingly well, it is all
about anticipation and that horrible moment when you know it’s nothing like
what you hoped it would be, yet the journey is what offers opportunities,
adventure, memories… and you end up having a great time despite the setbacks,
embarrassments, failures and other excruciatingly frustrating moments. That is
life! So, as well as being a great film that portrays mundane life brilliantly,
it inspires me to keep going in search of my own boring stories!
My first musical inspiration pick was
Kate Bush’s debut album ‘The Kick Inside’ and as I am about to watch her first
band perform this week (
I thought it would be timely to pick her second album. I’ll get through all of
her albums eventually so why not do them in order? In my view it has an
entirely different sound and feel to later work and whether or not you regard
it inferior to albums such as Hounds of Love to me it’s apples and oranges, I
love it because I don’t expect to get from it what I expect to get from Hounds
of Love, and that is the mark of a great body of work. There is a sensation of
wanting to describe ‘Englishness’ I get from this album and yes, that maybe
slightly obvious considering it is mentioned many times, along with references
to the cultural environment I was brought up in, but I need that, because it is
what I want to do in my own writing. I have no idea how to do it, and so far my
attempts are pretty awful but putting this album on gets me in the right
contemplative mood for trying. I explained before why Kate Bush herself is an
inspiration and this album moves me away from her as a person, to her as a
route to finding my own self-expression.
With such sad news of Gene Wilder's passing...
My French Whore
See No Evil, Hear No Evil
Pure Imagination (From "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory" Soundtrack)
Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley (Sung by Gene Wilder)
I have posted this before on my social media pages but I am posting again as it is one of my most prized possessions. When Gene Wilder was in London I, along with a friend, queued up in Waterstones bookstore (I think Charing Cross Road but can't be sure now, think this was about eight or nine years ago) to buy the book and have it signed by Gene himself. He was on a book tour and it was such a wonderful moment when he walked into the room. I recall people were quite nervous because no one knew whether to clap and cheer and there were a few moments of awkwardness before he cracked a joke and settled everyone down. Shaking his hand and telling him how much his work meant (I'm guessing everyone said the same thing) was such a thrill. Rest in peace Gene.
I could have picked any of his films (one of my first picks when I started this series was Young Frankenstein) but for the sheer amount of times I have watched this ( and will do so again shortly after finishing this) I went with this slice of genius. I know he meant a lot to several different generations and across such a wide spectrum of people so there is nothing I can say that isn't already known and felt by millions but one way to put it simply is to say nothing makes me happier than watching Gene Wilder. Rest in peace Gene.
Hold your breath... make a wish... count to three...
Come with me
And you'll be
In a world of pure imagination
Take a look
And you'll see
Into your imagination
With a spin
The world of my creation
What we'll see
If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There's nothing to it
There is no
Life I know
To compare with pure imagination
You'll be free
If you truly wish to be
If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There's nothing to it
There is no
Life I know
To compare with pure imagination
You'll be free
If you truly wish to be
Any Old Iron
Last Man Standing
Jerry Lee Lewis
Anthony Burgess is such a remarkable character to watch and listen to. I have watched all I can find on YouTube and he fascinates me in the way teachers used to fascinate me, how can anyone be so clever and erudite and witty and funny but be a real down to earth person at the same time? As a child to a teacher you have no idea of the factors that have gone into forming that adult, you just assume they are older and wiser and you do as you are told. I instinctively feel that with Anthony Burgess and I have a feeling that wouldn’t change no matter how old I am in relation to him, if we were living at the same time and of the same age I would still have looked up to him as a man better-than-I if that makes sense, in the same way I do now in 2016 aged 36. I think I will also feel that way when (and if, of course) I age and become older than he was. The thing that amazed me recently is that I suddenly realised I had not read him! It was criminal of me as (probably) like a lot of other people I have only read ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and that was as a teenager. So recently I bought several of his books (there are a lot to choose from by the way!) and this is the first one I attempted. It is simply brilliant. It consolidates everything I thought about him, a really adult, mature writer who I both admire for his writing capability as much as I do his prolific output.
This is new, released in 2015, and although a brilliant film is an inspiration for a reason other than how well the film itself is made. It is based on real life and depicts the way in which a Boston newspaper investigates child abuse by the Catholic Church. Everything about it is brave. The real people who done this work in the first place are brave, the real people who told their stories and helped the investigation and the police are brave and also, years later, the people who made the film are brave. That’s why it is an inspiration, because it shows you what real bravery is. Whenever I watch the news or read the latest piece from an investigative journalist I am confronted with how much of a chicken I am. I’m scared sometimes to use certain language in my stories, or to confront certain issues even though I know I must, should I wish to write what I want to write, and not a half-baked ‘PG Rating’ substandard version of what I have in my mind. I find it hard to talk about issues that I am surrounded by every day for fear of insulting someone, hurting someone’s feelings and so on. If I am to be any kind of writer worth a damn in the future then I have to get over those issues because I won’t get anywhere. There is a great interview with the writer Colm Toibin, I forget where you can find it now, but during the conversation he mentions how a writer has to write the truth no matter what and not be afraid to upset people and he gives an example where his grandmother was upset after reading one of his stories because he describes the way that the dinner table was set, or something like that, I forget the details. Something as simple as a household routine can cause great offence and I think about that a lot when examining the themes I want to write about, but writing about child abuse by a priest? I mean that would scare me to death. As I have mentioned before I was raised Catholic and although I do not believe in religion anymore that doesn’t mean I would find writing about Catholicism easy. I know I would probably upset some people and as farcically obvious as it sounds, even if a billion people around the world read my story, I’d still be worried about certain key people who I knew growing up. It really annoys me when I get nervous, I feel I should be past that, I should be braver, I should care less about other people’s opinions and do whatever the hell I want to do. Yet I still find myself sweating and panicking about what someone would think of me, and usually before I have even written a single bloody sentence! This film was a good lesson.
You just keep going don’t you? That’s the
only way to live. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. It goes without saying
that Jerry Lee Lewis wasn’t my generation growing up but certain key
influential people like him perpetuate culture forever and his was a name that
I seem to have always known. His life has been interesting, that’s an easy way
to put it… but putting everything to one side, the reason I picked this album
is because I love the fact that at aged 70 he releases his 39
studio album. I don’t care what the reasons were but the fact that he still did
it is fantastic, and what’s more I love the fact that a lifetime of work and of
inspiring others allowed him to pull in a few favours. How many people can draw
up a wish-list of collaborators but then turn that wish-list into reality. I
really want to record a song with Jimmy Page. I wonder how many musicians have
said that! But for Jerry Lee, some calls are made and then bingo, Jimmy’s in
the studio (not to mention B.B King, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Mick
Jagger, Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, to mention just half the
guests, I mean come on, it doesn’t get any better does it?) It tells me that if
you keep working hard great things can happen at any time, it’s not quite the
same as having success in later life because of course in Jerry Lee’s case he
had success from an early age, but it’s more about your life’s work paying off
for you in more than just a financial sense. It’s about inspiring others, it’s
about allowing future generations opportunities, it’s about collaborating,
sharing, and most importantly still having a great time. There is something
about great artists working with other great artists that gives you shivers and
this is one of the best examples.
The Oxford Reference Dictionary
Oxford University Press
The Way of the Dragon
Huyendo conmigo de mi
Fito & Fitipaldis
There’s a yellow sticker on the inside
of my book exclaiming, ‘Awarded to Robert Rankine for Progress’, underneath the
date July 1994 and the signature of my school’s Headmistress. I can remember
the day. There was an awards ceremony, which was a kind of internal pat on the
back for those who had achieved something during the year, I think there were
several categories. Of course being teenagers it was all a little bit strange,
not knowing really why we were there but happy to be out of class and doing
something different. As names were called I think there was good natured
cheering although some ribbing and character-building ripping of souls but in the
main we were a friendly year group. I can clearly remember being called for
this prize and I can also clearly remember the mixture of emotions I had, on
one hand pleased, but also bewildered and embarrassed, I’m not one for ever
thinking I deserve something, and trying my best to say thanks and look happy
at receiving a… well, a bloody dictionary. It wasn’t exactly an Oscar night
goody bag. Typical stroppy kid reaction. But over the years I’ve realised what
a treasure it is. It’s one of those books you can flick to any page and learn
something new, it’s not a normal dictionary but rather a reference dictionary,
so it has lots of events, people, inventions, and all that sort of thing. As
it’s fairly hefty it always gets my attention when looking over my bookshelves
and I have to admit it has become something of an inspiration, because the
further away my school days become the more I have to question whether I am
making ‘progress’ and whether I deserve anything.
I learnt a lot from this film. Sadly, not
how to do the splits or flick the nunchucks round but more how censorship
works. For some reason - stupid, naïve, ill-educated, you name it and I’ll
accept it - when growing up I just assumed that someone creates a product and
then they sell it and that’s that. I had no concept of how government works and
the different ideologies around the world and the levels of control that may
infer. When I was young I, like countless others, loved martial arts movies and
of course Bruce Lee was the legend to top all legends. When I received a
present (Christmas or birthday, can’t recall) that was the VHS of Way of the
Dragon I watched it until the tape warped and it defined my expectations of
what a martial arts film should be (I was a little older before I got my hands
on Enter the Dragon) and it was only years later that I understood what that
little round sticker saying British Board of Film Classification meant… and I
wasn’t happy! By this time, maybe I was mid teens, I really couldn’t understand
how it was possible people could dictate what the population saw (and read
don’t forget, but that’s another matter entirely) and were allowed to cut and
edit other people’s work in order to make it, in their minds, suitable! I was
the cliché stroppy teenager apoplectic at the thought I could be controlled!
What sort of dictatorship is this! What kind of 1984 keeping-the-proles in
check madness was this? Surely this was a thing of the past? This is the 90s,
the people are in charge! What an innocent little wally I was. It was actually
quite a profound change in my understanding of British culture and something
that still hurts me today. It’s part of a wider look at the difference between
who we say we are and how we promote ourselves… and how we actually are. It
made me realise the danger of ignorance and the power of government control,
all from cutting out footage of someone being hit over the head with a nunchaku…
Rule number 1: Don’t mess with Bruce Lee.
This is a simple one for you. I spent
2014 living in Spain and this was one of the groups I remember listening to. I
don’t know much about Spanish music and as much as I tried learning the
language I’m still a very long way off even being a novice level communicator
so I can’t claim to know much about what they are saying… but it is more the
memory of my time there, exploring, adapting, integrating and appreciating. The
world is such a big place despite the advancement of technology and I would
love to spend more time living in different countries in the future. It’s an
inspiration because I keep telling myself I did it once, I could do it again.
Hopefully I will.
Sons and Lovers
Brothers in Arms
Simply put, this is my favourite book.
As I’ve said many times I am not a reviewer and didn’t intend this page to be
full of technical reviews, it’s more of a gut instinct thing, why something is
important to me without necessarily fully knowing why. Having watched a few
documentaries on D.H Lawrence and read some of his other works (still yet to
read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which is probably the most famous or infamous in many
country’s’ publishing histories) it would be a huge injustice to even attempt
to explain some background narrative and contextualization in a few sentences.
All I will say here is that when I am asked by someone a variation on the ‘Who
do you wish you could write like’ question I always say D.H Lawrence in Sons
and Lovers. It is by no means perfect and it is easy to find complaint in the textbooks
but in the overall sense of telling a story and making characters come to life it
absolutely ticks every box for me. In fact, for a long time, I purposely didn’t
finish it. I slowed to reading a page every few days or once a week or so, I
genuinely didn’t want it to end. If ever I need a bit of a boost to get me
writing, I read a page from this book and I feel invigorated. I have no idea if
I will ever get to the stage where I can produce a work that attempts to
portray a generation of people, a land, an era and so much more, like this does
but my one single ambition is that by the end of my life I can look back and
say I tried to write a novel that created a sense of understanding of its
characters like Sons and Lovers.
Where do we start with this? It’s probably one of the most famous classics I will list on this page and surely anyone who reads this will have watched this 1941 masterpiece. The perfectly obvious reasons this is an inspiration are well… perfectly obvious; the scale of Orson Welles ambition is jaw-dropping, his age, his invention, his ingenuity, his skill… the list goes on. I actually didn’t see Citizen Kane until my mid 20s and there was probably, if I am embarrassingly honest, a part of me that didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, how could a film from way back when (black and white for God’s sake) still be relevant and enjoyable? Well… have you seen it? It is so good that the commercial world made a bit more sense to me. I suddenly realised that despite there being so much dishonesty and smoke ‘n’ mirrors, there is a reason why great art and great artists gain reputations that don’t die when they do. There is a reason why this film always tops the lists of best films ever and is always remarked upon when discussing the important milestones of cinema (not necessarily milestones acknowledged at the time of course) and as well as the technical brilliance there is something so brave about the film that makes it timeless. Again, like so many inspirations it is the knowledge that despite controversy or limitations, pressures and risks, making great work is the single most important factor in being proud of your time spent messing about on this speck of the universe.
Ahhh, remember the old mix tape?
Sometime around ’93 a friend of mine at school gave me a mixed tape (meaning
probably a night’s work went into it, none of this instant download business)
of songs he liked on the radio, illegal I think yes, but who wasn’t up to it!
And amongst the 90s classics such as ‘No Limits’ (hey, I mean that, classic
okay, don’t argue with me), Sleeping Satellite, All That She Wants, etc. there
was this song that was so incredibly sad and unmistakably ‘adult’ to my teenage
mind called Brothers in Arms. As was often the case the stop and record action
wasn’t so clean (I imagine one of those recorders that had the thick black
chunky plastic buttons/switches that no matter how well you timed it clunked
into place a second or two after or before the intended moment) and there was a
snippet of the DJ still on the cassette explaining how he always thought of a
caller some years prior who requested this song in honour of his fellow
soldiers he went to the Falklands Islands with. Although I didn’t really know
what that meant at the time it stuck in my mind. It was released a decade
earlier so strange to be in with the current pop of the time but it must have
been a favourite of my friend I guess. I loved this song for years but it was
only later in my 20s that I became aware of Dire Straits properly and like so
many others bowed at the altar of Mark Knopfler. It remains a powerful song
that always takes me back to that mixed tape and that nice feeling of being
presented with something new that you weren’t expecting, it’s those moments
that often change you.
The Black Cauldron
Grant Cathro & Lee Pressman
Here’s a personal story for you… but first a confession… I can’t remember the story to The Black Cauldron, I can’t remember the characters, I can hardly remember anything about it in fact! But that’s not why it is an inspiration, it’s the story behind it. When I was in primary school, maybe around the age of 6, one term we had a weekly (or maybe it was monthly, I’m not sure) bookshop set up in our canteen area. This isn’t to be confused with one of those mobile libraries, which we also had at one point, whereby a van or converted coach parks up in the playground and you explore inside. This was simply a tonne of books all left on display. The canteen was set up so that a square of tables, with a hole created in the middle, maybe three or four school desks in width and height, was covered in books. I can visualize it very clearly in my mind but whether it’s accurate or not, I don’t know. Also, I say books, but I don’t mean brick sized Dickens’ novels, of course it was comics and all manner of children’s books, adventure books, choose-your-own-adventure books and the like. I recall we were taken there in year groups and when it was my year’s turn to go we all wandered around pointed and chatted excitably much as for the new experience as well as the books. Then I saw The Black Cauldron. It sounds a cliché to say it jumped out at me but I remember it magnetically pulling me towards it and as I neared it, my nervous, meek, afraid of crowds, timid young self saw that there was a round red sticker on the top right corner… disaster! I wouldn’t be allowed it! The books with red stickers was meant for the older kids, I think those aged 8 or 9 and above. I was too young… but where I got the courage from I have no idea, I picked it up and went to the teacher and said I wanted it. How it then came into my possession (Money? Parents? Getting it home?) I have no recollection what so ever, I can’t remember past my shaky hands being absolutely in awe of it and wanting it so badly even though I feared I wouldn’t be allowed. By the grace of my mother’s care it has somehow survived thirty years and is probably one of my first ever purchases. That’s why it’s an inspiration, not because it is actually the novelization of a Disney film (had no idea), not because of the storyline (still no idea) but because it reminds me how much a book can really get to you, like owning it and feeling it in your possession is the most important thing in the world. Not everyone can understand that, and that’s fine of course, everyone in the main feels that way about something – cars, clothes, stamps, records, swatch watches… on the list goes, but isn’t it crazy that from such a young age all the way to adulthood you can still get the same buzz from seeing a book.
This is another example of how much I loved escapism. It’s pretty easy to see how influenced I was by the two decades of my youth. I was born in ’79 so 80s children television and 90s youth culture, but that I presume is common (and it is just coincidence that they were the two greatest decades ;) okay, okay, I’ll give you the 60s) and impacts your character forever. This was a series that took a few twists and turns but can be summarized as this, a little girl was transported to another world (each series was different but the first series began by her being somehow miniaturized into a board game in a shop) where she would find herself on a quest to collect a bunch of objects that the evil witch (not really a witch but more like a sorceress or something) needed and the witch would chase her to try and get the objects. The witch had a sidekick that was sometimes seen as a slave and sometimes more like a nephew, alternating between helping and hindering and even sometimes directly helping the little girl. There would be all manner of characters making random appearances (some based on real life figures from history) and through luck, boldness and ingenuity the little girl would always somehow survive the scrapes she found herself in and get the upper hand on the witch. The reason it’s an inspiration is because I remember how it was genuinely educational, I mean, I remember at the time knowing I was meant to be learning from this as well as enjoying it. What I can’t remember is what I actually learnt! The point is, I remember how you could mix and match reality and fiction to do whatever the hell you wanted. You really could let your imagination go and use things to aid your story, not be held accountable to them, that I think, in retrospect was a great lesson in storytelling before I had any idea what that even meant.
I can’t remember when I was first aware of the ‘soundtrack’ being an entity in its own right, later on in my teens albums for Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting were not far off as well known as the film they would be so eternally linked to for people like me watching it at the time (and there was one holiday I went to once in Turkey where the restaurant played a panpipe version of the music to The Last of the Mohicans on constant repeat so I know that one pretty well.) but once you get a bit more knowledgeable on these things as you age, plus the magic of the internet allowing you to find trivia in a few clicks, you realise how many hits were associated with film and how vital they are for a film’s success. It’s rare that an artist becomes well known for thematic music and not just big popular chart hits. For instance, who can’t whistle a few bars of Ennio Morricone? And the der-ne… der-ne of John William’s Jaws’ theme is part of culture now in its own right. For me, when I first heard Vangelis, it made me aware of the link between music and film because even though the film came out in ’82 the soundtrack came out in ’94, slap bang at the start of my teenage years. The reason I am calling it an inspiration rather than just a favourite album is that it shows you how to be transported. It’s unbelievably powerful in its ability to send you to a far off place and time. And it’s incredible because generally if you hear synthesizer music it takes you back to the 80s not the future. But that is what good storytelling is, taking you to a place that although maybe set out so clearly in film, like Bladerunner is, is still private to you. It’s in your mind alone and explores your dreams, your fantasies, your visions and Vangelis for me, easily opens that dreamscape to you.
Where have all the merrymakers gone?
I had this book sitting on my bookshelves for nearly two decades. I remember getting them (the trilogy) from one of the many charity shop forays that I would spend guiltily miniscule amounts of money on, walking out with cardboard boxes full of paperbacks. And like so many, they just took their place in the queue and became decoration. Then a little while ago I was looking through the Gerald Moore Gallery at Eltham College and was confronted with some of Mervyn Peake’s works that are on permanent display and it reminded me to get back to his books, plus as serendipity always has it (or is it synchronicity?) I then either read or watched George R.R Martin who mentioned it. So why is it an inspiration? Because good work never dies, that’s why. I love having treasures in plain sight that when the magical time comes get unearthed and you sit down and wonder why you never read it earlier. Aside from it being an enormously fun, clever, descriptive, intriguing and immensely readable (how does one describe readability?) novel, it gives me that sense of the eternal. As long as you make good work, it will last, and whether or not you are recognized in your own lifetime it doesn’t matter (Mervyn Peake’s life is fantastically amazing, sad and inspiring in equal measure, do watch a documentary on him) it is the satisfaction of knowing who you are, and being yourself, through your work. I haven’t done the book or the author justice with this description but maybe I’ll talk in more depth in a blog post one day.
I picked this film not necessarily because it is good but because it really messed with me. It may be a brilliant film or it may be terrible, I couldn’t say, I have only seen it once and I will leave it to reviewers to judge, however it had such an impact that it changed my viewpoint on film. Firstly, if you haven’t seen this then look it up before you do so and make sure you know what you are getting into… don’t shout at me! The reason it is an inspiration is that I am not sure a film has managed to disturb me more and that I think is saying something. After so many years of watching a wide ranging eclectic mix of film you think you are incapable of seeing anything new; not new in the sense that the ability of a special effect has developed so much that the quality is vastly better and the experience blows you away, no, the kind of new that means you are emotionally challenged to a level you have never been before. So I always remember this film when you get into that argument, ‘everything’s already been done’ or ‘there’s nothing new in art’ with someone. You always have the ability to do something new and although this is an extreme example, perhaps because so, it has stuck with me and reminds me to be bold and brave in my storytelling.
I love this album and there’s a particular reason I include it in my list of inspirations. It’s because even though you may be famous or have fame due to one particulat ‘hit’ that doesn’t mean that hit defines who you are or what you then do. They had a smash with their song, ‘Flagpole Sitta’, which you may recognize from either the film American Pie or the comedy series Peep Show, and if you judged their album by that song then you were in for a surprise, not a massive monumental shocker, but definitely not what you were expecting, and I love that. I remember the first time I listened all the way through and was really moved by some of the songs, I honestly had no idea the album would go the way it did. That’s great inspiration because again, like most of the things I comment on, it’s all about being true to yourself, working hard to produce work you are proud of, but that doesn’t stop you from mixing it up every now and again, not being confined by your own expectations and, well, simply going for it.
The Complete Nonsense Books
12 Angry Men
Although I have always enjoyed studying and learning and never minded formal classes and the school environment, I have never been great at remembering specific data. I remember ideas, themes and general points but when it comes to memorizing stuff, I’m not great. Which I think I first found out about myself when trying to tell jokes as a young child… I was terrible, and have never really recovered. I could hear something, at the time repeat it word for word, but in the space of travelling from the front room to the back room to tell the joke it would completey disappear from my mind. I remember this happening with Edward Lear… I used to love this book, really love it, the rhymes of course, the naughty nature of it (aged 6 or whatever I was) and the brilliant illustrations. Yet could I remember one damn verse? It annoyed the hell out of me. I still can’t remember jokes or poetry or rhymes to this day and I think there will always be a part of me that wishes I was a poet, rude or otherwise.
If anyone asks you what storytelling is, when the gazillions of YouTube films, books, classes and courses on the subject can be overwhelming, just tell that person to watch 12 Angry Men. If you ever need inspiration, this is for you. For me, it has the most important element in abundance, amazing and believable character building. It's what I hope to manage one day before I depart this world (so I'm giving myself fifty years on a good day and I'm not sure that's long enough at my current rate) as it is the spell that casts so much more than blockbuster special effects or big money sets; just watch this and see why. I don't want to give anything away so get back to me once it finishes and you pick your jaw up from the floor at how you were carried away at such a simply constructed film (and play).
I was fascinated by this album when I first heard it and the reason it’s an inspiration is that, like so much great art, you can come back to it and find new things every time. It’s almost magical in the way you get lost in different tracks. I love people who can do so much good work in so many different genres (or on different subjects, in different disciplines, etc.) and it makes you realise how much is possible if only you let yourself go, stop inhibiting yourself (how many reasons we have!) and be brave enough, and of course, work damn hard. It's also one of those great works that can put you in a mood rather than you have to be in a mood to listen to it, no matter how you are feeling, putting this on can transport you.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Unlike Lord of the Rings, I did not finish
The Silmarillion… but it’s an inspiration because it consumed my attention in a
totally different manner. I really had no idea what was going on! I’d like to
say it was because I was too young but that would imply that I now understand
it, which… well… isn’t true. I love it though! How can that be? It must be the mystery
of trying to understand a great mind like Tolkien’s when you aren’t anywhere
near his level. One way of looking at it, is that it is simply a made up
fantasy creation tale so why should that be so difficult? Because it is so damn
complicated, complex and big! It is a fascinating weaving of mythology, history
and culture from several countries and done with such a passion for language,
and with such love for his creations that even though I have no idea what is
going on most of the time, I can feel the power of Tolkien’s imagination with
every sentence. How many of us wish we could sit down with him and discuss it
over a few ales? I keep saying to myself
it one more time,
which is another reason it is an inspiration; how many
people can write something that people will keep coming back to?
I could have picked any of John Hughes'
films and may well come back to some later. As I was born in ’79 I was slightly too
young to appreciate his films as a teenager at the time of original release,
however, as most kids brought up in the 80s (and with an older brother who
would have been more in line with its culture) his films continued to have an
impact on my, and continuing, generations. I have picked this one over the others because it has more of a direct
emotional punch-in-the-gut for me. I mean, all of his films are struck through
with melancholic angst to some degree, but this one somehow felt more ‘adult’
to me growing up. I guess because the main characters aren’t teenagers but
that’s not to say they don’t act like teenagers… no, it’s more because of the
sense that life can so easily go off the rails (that’s not a shower curtain
pun) and how hard it is to regain what you once were. That really stuck with
me. I’ve spoken before about not feeling particularly ‘funny’ and unable to
write comedy and I am incredibly jealous of the skill John Hughes had to create
something so outwardly funny, slapstick and humorous while never failing to
thread a serious and ‘real’ commentary on how hard life is all the way through.
Ahhh, I could fill this section with
Britpop album after Britpop album after Britpop album… but that’s why this one
comes first actually. Because it makes you reflect on cultural periods… is this
really Britpop? I always assume so but they had been going for years and years
before releasing this album and it always sticks in my mind an argument I had
about who was the best band, Oasis or Blur (as every teenager did in the mid
90s), when actually we were listening to so many different bands that I never
really cared for who was best... it was just the argument you were supposed to
have at the time. I don't actually remember being so acutely aware of the Britpop tag, but maybe I was. I don’t know why I remember that so well but I do, and it
always make me think to those feelings of what it is to be cool, or to be
popular, and so on. As you age you (hopefully) realise that all that matters is
doing the best you possibly can, doing what you love, and working hard towards
your goals. Whether that falls into line with whatever is culturally popular at
the time I couldn’t care less - perhaps it does and perhaps it doesn’t - but the
main thing is enjoying what you do and if you are different to those around you
then that’s fine, which is of course, such a big part of the album’s meaning
anyway. This always inspires me because it helps to remind me to refocus, to see what things are
really like rather than what we are confronted with.
Transformers (The Movie, 1986)
Christopher Hitchens is one of my favourite
writers and this collection of essays is fantastic. It does not focus on one
particular passion, be it religion or politics or books, rather encompassed a
wide range of his published articles in magazines such as Vanity Fair. It is an
inspiration not because of his viewpoints, I find myself agreeing with most but
not all, and not because of his targets or subjects, but rather because
whatever it is he is talking about there is no doubt about his conviction. He
believes in what he is saying and even though he has a dramatic flair and
enjoys being controversial or outspoken (and why not) you dare not take his intelligence
or knowledge lightly. He is such a great orator but when reading his works you
don’t feel you are dealing with a different person, his character is alive in
every single word, phrase, punctuation and stuttering cough-pause. If you can
find a way to write that makes it feel to a reader like you are in the room
with them talking then you’ll be on your way.
I have a confession to make. I used to
watch my VHS of Transformers well into my teens, and by teens, I mean my 20s,
and maybe, just maybe, my 30s. I was totally fascinated by it and as I got
older I found that for whatever reason, it still had the ability to engage me
emotionally. Despite it being incredibly 80s, like, violently screaming 80s, it
had a transferable timelessness to it and the quality of the animation or
dialogue became less and less important to me, and the feeling it gave became
the key. When thinking about writing, world building, whether it is set in
fantasy, sci-fi or contemporary real life London is all about making the reader
believe in the settings you are describing. There is a feeling in a lot of
books and I am only now starting to realise how amazingly difficult it is to
create. Describing a writer as a natural can be a disservice because it someone
implies that they don’t work hours on hours on hours in self-deprecating,
doubting, nauseating, sweat inducing small dark isolated rooms like others do…
however, when you come across a piece of work that seems so naturally written
you can’t help but wonder how that person’s brain works that enables them. That
is the sort of feeling I get with certain works and for whatever weird reason,
I get with this film too, it speaks to me as a whole rather than from its
separate parts and that is what I hope to be able to do one day. Plus, it was
only as an adult I realised that Orson Welles is one of the voices! That must
No need for explanation, it’s ABBA. That
should be enough. Life is better with ABBA, the end.
Jean De Florette
I am an atheist and make no apology for
disliking religion. However, I would like to point out that I am picking the
Bible not to make fun but because it genuinely informs so much of my life. I was
brought up Roman Catholic and understand what it is to be within an environment
that has a religious focus, not that I would say it was incredibly strict,
compared to say my mother’s upbringing (there are nuns and then there are nuns)
but nevertheless it was a daily indoctrination. I could pick any number of
religious texts but of course I was not brought up in other faiths so although
I have studied a bit about Islam, Judaism, Sikhism to name a few I have nowhere
near the level of experience I have with Catholicism or wider Christian
denominations. The question is, if I no longer believe in religion, and in
fact, think it is harmful rather than beneficial, why then does the Bible
influence and inspire me? It’s easy really, isn’t it? It is the world I live in
and am surrounded by, it is one of the mechanisms by which I can understand
other people, how we live our communal lives, how we interact, how we identify
with national institutions and so on. When I write, I of course rely upon my
experiences and if my life has been so entwined with religion then how can I
not use it? It is essential. So, in many ways, this is amongst my biggest influences
and I do indeed take my Bible off the shelves quite often to read. I also am
fascinated about Biblical study (in all its forms) and there are a number of
authors I read now that shine a light on the historical study and examination
of religious texts which are also hugely influential on me… but that’s for
This inspires me because it reminds me how
wrong you can be and why it is always wise to give everything a go. I love this
film now, I really do, its story yes, but also the location, the music, everything
about that sense of ‘place’ that I always go on about, it’s what I strive for
when examining my own aims. Yet I remember being at school and being absolutely
100% uninterested. I couldn’t care less about French class, French language and
French film… oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Ever have those moments, those flashes
of embarrassment, when out of the blue for no apparent reason you shudder at
some ridiculous thing you said or did when younger? I get that shiver every
time I think of this film, how could I have ignored something so beautiful and…
what else did I ignore that is still lost to me? I don’t have a single bad
thing to say about this film and the reason I have put it on this list is
because it makes me want to have a better life, it really does. Sounds
ridiculous doesn’t it? I don’t mean, it makes me want to be a better writer
(which it does), I mean it honestly, genuinely makes me aim at a better life.
Here was a valuable lesson in life. When I
picked up the guitar for the first time aged around 25 or so I knew I was never
going to be a great player. I just wanted to be able to enjoy strumming a few
songs and perhaps find my way around an eight bar blues. However, we all get
brave don’t we? We all get above our station every now and again… Whatever
compelled me to buy the sheet music to this it soon became apparent that there
is a reason practice makes perfect. There is a reason why people take hours and
hours, weeks and weeks, months and months and years and years to develop
skills. The comparison to writing is easy to recognize now, layers of
complexity are delivered by practicing and working hard. I look back to my
feeble attempts at trying to play this and see as clear as day someone who had
not put in the requisite hours of practice, someone who had not earnt his
stripes, but… the desire is there, and that’s what is so important. If you have
the passion and the desire then you aren’t put off by the hours of hard work
your passion demands, for me, I know that means many years ahead of developing
my writing, because in truth, my passion for playing the guitar is all ‘show’
and I don’t have the commitment needed to be at the level I would like to be,
whereas my writing is a part of me, something I am prepared to work my whole
life for in order to produce just one piece of work at the very end I can be
The Best of Jethro Tull
Remember what it felt like to be shocked? This magazine was my
weekly dose of nerve shattering outrage. I was actually nervous walking up to
the shop to get it. Partly because it was 50/50 whether or not the shop keeper
would serve me and I’d have to go home and pester my mum to get it. Yes, it was
something I probably shouldn’t have read at 11 or 12 but then again, so was
bloody everything so who cares. It was amazing, genuine surprise every week at
the storylines and most of all (until Game of Thrones came along) the most
anticipated part of my week, I couldn’t wait until the next episode came out so
I could find out what happened and that is why it is such an inspiration, to be
reminded of how characters and plots can be so insidious that they form part of
you before you even realise, how important it is to create suspense and make
people care for your work. P.S I wanted to be Accident Man so badly…
Kevin Smith is one of my biggest inspirations and Clerks (and Clerks 2) is why. I could write a whole essay on this but I’ll have to keep it short. For someone to have that sense of, ‘I can do that,’ is one thing, but to then make it happen, is another. He wrote a script, got his friends together, beg, borrowed and stole (well, I don’t about stealing but you know what I mean) and made a film. Simple isn’t it? Just write something, produce something, edit something, release something, enjoy global praise and a cult following, and go on to have a successful writing and directing career. Why don’t we all do it? There is something about the creative drive that is so hard to examine and pin-point, the difference between wanting something and making it happen can be wider than the ocean but that’s both the pain and the pleasure. Clerks always makes me laugh and always gives me a sense of time and place, no matter how many times I watch it.
Late on television one night I saw a Rolling Stones concert was
coming up so I thought I’d stay up and watch it. It was one of those accidental
moments that changes you. It was the 1968 Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus
and amongst many mad and fantastic moments one stood out for me. I can’t
remember if they came on first or not but I remember this strange looking guy
standing on one leg playing the flute… I bought this album soon after and it
has been a trusty companion ever since, transporting me to another time and
another way of thinking whenever I need it. That’s why it’s an inspiration, because
when you produce work it can be enjoyed at the time, yes, but also, if you are
lucky it can last a lifetime and longer, it can survive different eras,
different cultures and generations and that amazes me. To produce work that has
such a common humanity must be such a satisfying joy.
Jimmy: A Legacy of Peace
Once Upon A Time in America
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars
This is the most serious inspiration on
this list. My friend’s younger brother was sixteen years old when he was
murdered and his family have worked tirelessly ever since to pass on a message
of peace and make communities safer. They created a charity in his honour and
they are doing amazing work trying to offer alternatives to young people, away
from negativity and violence and towards a fulfilling life. There is so much to
discuss that a paragraph here doesn’t can’t do it justice but please do follow
this link to find out more:
and this book is the mother’s story, although I mostly talk about my
inspiration in artistic terms, this is the most important one because it is
inspiring in terms of being a better person.
It’s the film that changed the way I felt
about gangster movies and showed me how you can do so much more within a genre,
or perhaps how you don’t have to be constrained within a genre in using that
genre’s rules. It reinforced to me that having a story to tell is the single
most important thing and you can utilize whatever genres and techniques you
want to express that story and for me, this film is so sad, so incredibly
melancholic that the action sequences have nothing on the dramatic sequences.
It is powerful storytelling and something I think of often when examining my
own aims in telling stories that have long arcs of character development
(seeing a character age and understanding why a person turns out the way they
do is something I have always found interesting).
This is another case of feeling moved by
someone who goes beyond a single definition. I don’t think you will find many
people who haven’t expressed their admiration for David Bowie and I can’t add
anything new so I will keep this short. When I listen to this album it moves me
in a way that is hard to express, it makes me think and it makes me smile and
it makes me cry.
John Wagner & Carlos Ezquerra
The Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer
Jagged Little Pill
I was not a superhero comic fan growing up.
I enjoyed the cartoons on television but I was not one for using any pennies I
had for buying comics. I’m not sure why because I had nothng against them but
when I stumbled across Judge Dredd, I think I may have understood a little. I
think I enjoy world building (not in my own writing, I don’t have that talent,
but in what I enjoy watching and reading) and superhero characters a lot of
times are people within my own world. When I started to explore the worlds of
2000AD I found myself fascinated, and I think that balance of new enviornemnts
and such outragoues characters made me realise how possible it was to let your
imagination go wild and dream up anything, to not worry about boundaries or
rules. I didn’t stay long within that world though, I didn’t end up being a
collector but the impact of those years (I think aged around 13/14) has stayed
with me and there is a small part of me that one day would like to try out more
science-fiction/fantasy styled story.
Okay, an easy one here. I didn’t read the
book and I didn’t know anything about it before I went to see the film. I hate
watching trailers or reviews or anything that in any way informs me about the
story. I love going totally cold and this totally blew me away because I had no
idea what to expect. I was absorbed and intrigued and confused, then
awe-struck, then perplexed, then scared and well, the clichéd rollercoaster
saying comes to mind. I like being puzzled, I like not fully understanding
what’s going on, I enjoy trying to work things out, and this film gave me that
in spades. That’s why it’s an inspiration, because it tells you there are no
limits to the scale of storytelling, you tell whatever story you want to tell
and if that happens to span centuries and have a complex series of thematic
links then go for it. I have never worried about what is ‘saleable’ or
‘popular’ or ‘justifiable’, I have the belief that you need to express what it
is inside you and I think back to the experience of watching this whenever
doubts start to fester.
I do fear that if I’m not careful I will
end up listing every 90s album but I can’t leave this one out any longer. There
is no specific reason this is an inspiration other than I just love it. I hate
saying I’m getting older but you know, I’m getting older, and this reminds me
of being a teenager and the sense of fun and adventure that comes with that.
Part of what I want to write about is that sense of childish wonder, how we all
think the world is a vast open playground, but at the same time we know we have
hardships to endure and that part of growing up is going through emotional
times (and don’t the lyrics just express that!) so when I put my mind to
particular stories I have in mind I know that this album will be a resource I
will need to put me in that mindset. Plus, as I’ve already said, I just love
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
After reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula I went
through a period of gothic reading and Carmilla had a huge impact. I think it
probably influenced me in how I tend to look for romantic themes, regardless of
the genre, as despite a story being horror, thriller, sci-fi or whatever the
case may be, fundamental themes are always present and although this one was
obviously a vampire story, it just shows the complex layering that is possible.
There were two major sources of inspiration
for me when it came to my first foray into world cinema (I usually had that
aisle to myself in my local Blockbusters on any given night), one was La Haine
and the other was Subway. I remember loving how it was just so damn strange. I
loved the idea of people living in the subway, I loved the idea of them being
hidden underground in their own makeshift community and I loved the hide and
seek, catch me if you can battle between the police and the random characters.
It was a romantic drama played as a farce comedy and just so damn bizarre. I
still love it now even though it maks no sense and that’s the magic of it, I
get so caught up in making things ultra realistic that it reminds just to chill
out and not get so caught up in detail and continuity (to an extent) and allow
a story to be fun and entertaining.
This is very similar to other albums that
have that initial what-the-hell impact. It takes you by surprise and makes you
realise you enjoy a type of music you never knew existed. Yes, it probably
helped that it was on the soundtrack to the movie Leon, which was a great film,
but never the less I was mesmerized by it. It’s great seeing someone who makes
their work so unique and from then on you know that artist immediately the
second you hear them; what a talent that is. It makes you wonder if we all have
that ability deep down, if we just believe in ourselves and let our fears go
(or perhaps use them!)
The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm
Sailing the Sea of Cheese
Can you believe the first book was written in the 30s! I had no idea. This is a magical book for me and I loved it as a child. I loved the absurdity of what was going (when I understood it that is) and how the illustrations were so intricate and complex, I think part of the fun actually was the complexity. It’s a challenge having to work everything out and even though the whole point of the stories were that it was intentionally bumbling and all over the place, the fact that it ‘seemed’ clever made it so compelling. Like Dahl later, it was one of those books that really spoke to kids and I remember feeling like it was almost a friend. That’s an inspiration because it makes you want to produce something that really speaks to someone, I don’t think I’ve got a kid’s story in me, but in terms of what I write, it would be nice to know that it really impacts someone’s life.
One of my favourite films. The reason it’s
an inspiration is because it was brave enough to do what we think we want but
when it comes to it, we don’t actually want… an unhappy ending. Well, I guess
it all depends on your perspective but for me, it is a source of eternal upset.
I will go to my grave (or fertilize a tree or something is more my thing) wishing
they went Hollywood with the ending but of course that’s why it stays with me
and why I love it so much. However, it was interesting to learn that indeed
they did go Hollywood… to an extent. They cut a theatrical release that changed
the ending entirely and it was just that I happened to purchase the director’s
cut that had the theatrical release (a lot shorter and removes a key plot
twist) as a bonus extra that I realised. There’s a lesson in there for people
wishing to make a career in industry but what I take from it is that it is so
hard to create something that is truly yours, there is always give and take,
negotiation and well, being told what to do. But he found a way didn’t he? So
aside from it being a wonderful film with a wonderful story, the reason I think
of it often is that even though it goes over the top in one sense (romanticism)
it still gives you a brutal slap of truth.
This inspires me because if ever there is a
band that epitomizes, ‘doing what you love’ for me, it’s this band. It’s crazy,
out there, mad, frenzied, eclectic, odd but most importantly, skillful and
expressive. There is so much talent in this band it’s ridiculous and they made
their own path. The individual style and the way they construct their songs is
incredible and although of course it won’t be to everyone’s taste, I love the
way they are so different. That is an inspiration in itself and shows you how
being different doesn’t mean you can’t be successful. I can’t speak for bass
players but I would wager that he is a huge inspiration to them, just watch him
on YouTube to see why.
Lord Iffy Boatrace
Appetite For Destruction
Guns N' Roses
This book has stuck in my mind since I was fourteen years old. As you may know Bruce Dickinson is part of the band Iron Maiden and is somewhat of a modern polymath being well known for several skills and one of them naturally is writing (songwriting of course) but he has also dabbled in prose and I think my brother gave me his copy (inappropriately as per an older brothers duty) and I remember crystal clear taking it in to English class with me when I knew it would be a reading lesson (we take our own books in and just read for 50 minutes). I could not stop laughing. I mean, I was in fits of laughter, crying, coughing and spluttering. Everyone was meant to be silent and getting on with their reading and I was turning redder and redder, and just could not hold it together. The thing is, twenty years later I can’t actually remember the book itself, what was going on and why I was laughing (well, I can remember a scene or two that I can’t possibly repeat here) but I do remember the physical impact the book had. It made me shake and I couldn’t make it a few paragraphs without laughing my damn head off. How powerful is that! It reminds me that some books can make you cry, some can make you feel sad or lonely or happy or in love or rueful and all those things but also… they can make you cough your lungs up and cramp your ribs and put stiches in your stomach with uncontrollable laughter. I think I get a bit too serious sometimes in my writing and I don’t find comedy an easy well to dip into but thinking back to this book makes me really want to try to improve.
I associate this film with lazy Sundays and Bank Holidays. In the late 80s and early 90s as far as my wobbly memory goes was for me and plenty others when Roger Moore became their Bond. I wasn’t much of a thriller reader when young although I do remember trying to read Tinker Tailor Solider Spy but I can’t recollect the actual text so I don’t think I was successful but in terms of films there was simply nothing better than the James Bond series. I loved them and the reason why I am choosing this one and saying it is an influence is because of the knowledge I had, before sitting down and the song/credit sequence started, that I would be transported. I knew that within the first few minutes, without doubt, I would be in that world and totally caught up in the plot. I can remember that feeling so clearly that in a way it’s a little sad because as we grow up it gets easier and easier to lose that sensation. On the positive side we became more sophisticated, we are more knowledgeable and experienced and so it takes more for us to disassociate our minds from what we know is realistic and possible. On the negative side we become more cynical and judgmental. But isn’t it wonderful to just forget the real world for an hour or two and enjoy the crazy ride of a Bond film? That’s why the mixture of being a teenager and being exposed to this film works well because it’s obviously one of the more ‘out there’ Bonds but that’s why I love it. It has all the elements that make up the right Bond ratio for me, and that includes boring long sequences too, I love that! Ha! So when I think of trying to write I try really hard to remember that as much as I am more interested in depicting real life, there are moments of absurdity and fun and disbelief and coincidence and bizarre hilarity in real life too! Life can be a bit Roger Moore James Bond sometimes and I don’t want to forget that sense of sitting back on a Sunday afternoon and letting it all happen with a Moore wink and a saucy double entendre.
Never gets old. Never loses it power. I remember being excruciatingly embarrassed when playing this and the more suggestive and explicit vocals blasted out and my mum would (pretend to?) ignore even though I knew she heard and I would play it quieter and quieter even though of course it is meant to be played louder and louder! This will always inspire me because every part of it screams being at the top of your game. I have read Slash’s book and watched interviews over the years and enjoyed their other collective or independent work but in a way learning more about the people and the time doesn’t always heighten your enjoyment of the product, a lot of times when I learn about the background to things I love, it can actually harm its emotional appeal because somehow the reality behind it detracts from the impact. So this isn’t an inspiration to me because of the ethos of rock and roll, or punk and metal, the reason they were who they were, etc. but because the music is so powerful and it moves me every single time I listen to it. That’s the thing about creating something - do we have it in us to produce something that is so powerful it doesn’t age? Does even thinking that way mean you never will? How many things we experience never lose its impact? Does it keep its emotion attached to whatever period you happen to be in, no matter what age you are, or how you long it has been since the last time you experienced it? That is what powerful art is, it keeps energizing you, it keeps motivating you, inspiring you, challenging you no matter how much time may pass. That’s certainly something to aim for.
Graham Greene is an enormous influence on me but I find it hard to get to the root of why. There is a comfort in reading his work and I think a connection or association to the major themes he was interested in, and perhaps a strange envy of his life too. In Brighton Rock, I found something that I could immediately think of as mine, and it wasn’t just the place. I, like a lot of people who live in the south east of England, think of Brighton as a nice getaway. We go there (or used to a lot when younger anyway) for Bank Holidays, for a weekend away, for an escape. It is not very far to get to either driving or on the train and even if you only visit once a year, it is immediately familiar with a sort of second-home kind of atmosphere. So although the physical location is recognizable the history and connection to society is also very recognizable, the landmarks, the arcades, the pier, the beach and all the rest of it are part of a routine, or pilgrimage, or rites of passage, that countless families have undertaken over the generations and in a way it feels like more than just a seaside town. So for me, when I started reading the book it was just as if I were reading a book set in south east London, the places and the people as recognizable, even though miles and generations spanned us. The reason why it inspires me as a writer as well as a reader and had a profound impact on me is that it showed me a way to describe what my version of Britain or Britishness is, not that it is the same as in Brighton Rock, rather I could be free to talk about what I see in the way Graham Greene did. It comes back to something I have mentioned before and that is not worrying about being boring. I am talking about myself here, not Graham Greene! I am interested in ordinary lives in ordinary places but of course to another person what is ordinary to me can be made extra-ordinary or at the very least, entertaining. There may be a ‘thriller’ aspect to this book and it’s main plot but at its heart is the exploration of the characters Pinkie and Rose who are young, and in different ways damaged/vulnerable, kids who by the process of interaction find out (as we the reader do) about each other and themselves in deeply emotional situations with life changing outcomes. That is what interests me, trying to explore the world I see around me through characters' eyes so I can try and make sense of it. So for me, one can be as ‘clever’ as you want, incorporating metaphysical concepts, adding metaphors and allegorical elements to your work; and anyway you want to get your meaning and message across, is of course fine, but there was always the worry for me that no one would be interested to read about what an everyday ordinary person gets up to. This is one of those books that encouraged me to rely on the basic artistic drive of working on what you believe in.
Like many things in life it seems to be the simple ideas or gestures that mean the most. There are many films that I may reference in the future that moved me due to their simple nature but I chose this one first, perhaps because it came out in 1995 when I was 15 and I would have been developing a better understanding of what romance was, alongside experiencing the ‘real’ world as I gained a bit of adult freedom; and what the two characters were talking would have been something I could associate with (albeit in a ‘one day in the future’ kind of way) but also because it was around that time I started taking my note-taking more seriously. I remember roaming around local towns and boarding bus after bus with my notebook trying to register my thoughts and feelings towards what was around me. Even back then I had the notion I would be a boring writer (if I ever were to write of course, that wasn’t a given, definitely not a concrete belief) as all the things I seemed to be interested by were the plain and obvious things all around me. I couldn’t find a way to channel my emotions into genres such as fantasy or sci-fi which my school friends would have assumed would be the case seeing as I read a lot of that when younger. I didn’t mind the fact I would be boring as I knew deep down it wasn’t boring to me but I was a realist and knew my ideas for stories wouldn’t make exciting, roller-coaster, un-put-downable thrillers… Then, the more I watched films and read books that weren’t of the blockbuster all-action type, Before Sunrise being a great example, the more I realised I could do something like this and (if it were any good) be riveting and emotionally challenging. I wasn’t necessarily interested in romantic portrayals of people although I was aware that given enough anonymity most people would admit to being more romantic that they ever admitted or allowed to be evident (my views only, not scientifically established!) Rather, what I was interested in was people being empowered by meeting others that they found interesting and on a similar wavelength, and being brought out of their shells; realizing people are more alike and go through similar experiences than we think, being shaped by their surroundings without ever exploring why and subjects like that. I was just interested in putting people in a normal situation and seeing what happens. To most people, that is boring but I’m afraid that’s what I’m stuck with. This film helped me appreciate you can make something out of two people chatting! That may be a simple story but one I want to do a lot with in the future. Writing this now, it has just dawned on me how much this film has influenced the themes I am looking at in writing my first novel. I was going to blog at the weekend about how scary it is when you see obvious influences in your work… I think I had better add this to my notes!
I don’t have an expansive description to explain why this album influenced me because I am not exactly sure myself, it’s just one of those things that always makes me feel motivated without knowing why. When I first heard them I didn’t know their history and involvement with Bob Dylan, which seems to be the first thing people mention whenever I bring them up, or the Scorsese film and so on. I just remember being blown away by the talent and rawness of their music. They seemed very ordinary people (my first impression) who loved music, loved playing, and wrote some amazing songs. When I saw them on a festival DVD once I remember thinking there was an honesty about them, no frills, no razzmatazz, just honest playing. They reinforced the concept for me, that you do the work because you love the work. Whatever else may come your way, the work will always be the most important thing in your life and whether or not that continued for them I have no idea, but it is what I felt, and what I still feel when I listen to the songs on this album. There is one more thing about this album: it was like discovering something that everyone already knew about…
Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You
Dark Side of the Moon
This was a really important book for me because I like being reminded that there is so much we don’t know, and I especially like being reminded how much we don’t know by people who already know a lot. Life used to overtake me because the material things I wanted drove me, instead of my natural love of learning. Life moves so fast that it was enough work to simply keep up and over the last few years I have changed a lot. One of the main reasons is that I no longer place any seriousness on my place in the universe, not that I used to in a selfish, or big headed way, rather it was just an individual way of looking at things, the earn more money then buy something, pattern. The sheer smallness of my being in the history, size and future of the universe is very reassuring. I do not hide the fact I have been an atheist for around ten years. Although raised Catholic and probably having a residual inclination to certain beliefs up to my early twenties, for many years I have not believed in any supernatural existence (Catholic or otherwise) and believe firmly and resolutely that every single human is born equal and humans are the ones to blame for making the world such an unequal place. I have no problem accepting we came from ‘nothing’ and will return to ‘nothing’ (even if I can’t explain what ‘nothing’ is) once we die and that the amazing (and unfathomably unlikely chance) we were born and will have a momentary experience on this planet is so exceptional in itself that it seems to me the most terrible aspect of humanity that we subject others to harm during this one fleeting burst of sensory experience. This book isn’t about being an atheist, but as someone who finds relief and peace in science it only makes me feel further relief and peace. The world around us is so incredibly amazing that when you take a moment to look at some of the work going on to understand it (Have a chew on these for a while: Anthropic principle, Copernican principle, Dark matter, Dark energy, Decoherence, Double slit experiment, Entanglement, Quantum Superposition, Quantum Tunneling), both at the grand scale of the universe and the minute scale of the atom, it just blows my mind. There is so much to learn and discover, and people such as Neil deGrasse Tyson who talk so fascinatingly about it on television and radio (of course I understand so very little of it!) only ever deepen my wonder. I have such awe when thinking of what may be in store for future generations when they solve what is currently unknown, that it makes me think that there is hope for us, despite what we see us doing to each other and to the planet today. Every time I think of the craziness of quantum physics or stare at the vastness of space, it really does inspire me to make the most of life, and its seems strange to say that reading a book that I don’t understand makes me happy!
This is an important film for me but not because of the film itself, which is brilliant and inspiring in its own right, but rather because of the fact my friend had an acting role in it! Thinking back twenty plus years ago to my school days I have very clear memories of my friendship group discussing our dreams and ambitions, the same as everyone does. We all wanted to do different things and many of us changed our mind from year to year, post school, post college or post university. Frankly, I never explicitly said, ‘I want to be a writer,’ because I always thought I would be someone who had a job but also wrote, I don’t know why I never had the confidence or the determination to admit I wanted to write, but for what ever reason I used to talk about writing as if it were absolutely the thing I wanted to do, but would always be the ‘professional hobby’ rather than the ‘profession’. Anyway, one friend never had such doubts. He wanted to be an actor, would become an actor and that was all there was to it. No workarounds, no ifs or buts, no depending on this or depending on that. Actor. End of discussion. Guess what. He became an actor, has always been an actor, and is still an actor today. I picked this film because although he had worked before this and had a great start to his career, there was a very distinct moment when I remember saying to myself, ‘He’s done it’. That’s why it’s an inspiration because I know what went on behind the scenes (sorry) and the hard work and dedication involved to get there. An ordinary person from an ordinary town wanted something and they worked hard to get it. If they can do it, so can I, and so can you. It’s like what I wrote about Dark Side of the Moon next to this. If I happened to be born in a certain place at a certain time and be a contemporary of a member of the band I would have seen the same thing, the hard work and dedication that went on to produce that album, there is no mystery to it, no hidden secret routes, and whether or not someone is a genius is not for me or you to worry about, what is for us to worry about is working hard and not giving up.
As you may well assume this isn’t going to be the most unique of viewpoints, seeing as I think every single person on the planet owns a copy of this album. What I want to get across to you is something other than the music itself. Yes, of course the music has inspired me, but what has also inspired me is what I have subsequently learnt from the members of the band through interviews since. There is part of me that has always been afraid of brilliant people because firstly, you always think you can never be brilliant yourself, and secondly, because the level of their success somehow removes them from the work that made them successful. As you age and mature and read more about people you start to understand that actually the vast majority of us are ordinary and you have to stop comparing yourself to geniuses. We fling around the term genius fairly generously when most of the time the people we call geniuses are simply very hard working. Yes, there are people who can learn a new language in a week. Yes, there are people with ridiculous levels of recall and memory. Yes, there are people who have brains that work in such a way that they are geniuses and there are no two ways about it, they are simply brilliant and unless you too are equipped with their abilities you will not produce the level of work they produce. I ‘got over’ that years ago. I no longer worry in the slightest about comparing myself to people at all in fact, genius or otherwise. I never say to myself, ‘I will never write as good as that,’ or other similar sentiments because it does me no good. What I do say to myself is that I need to work hard in order to achieve because that is the only way I will ever produce anything. DSOTM is a good example of this contradiction. Most people will say it is a work of genius, and I won’t argue with that, yet if you watch the countless minutes of interviews with any of the band members on YouTube stretching from the sixties to today you will see people who despite their wealth, fame and auras of myth and legend that envelop them (made by other people of course) are normal people who happen to be incredibly motivated, inspired, obsessed perhaps, hard working, restless and creative. They are the same as everyone else, they went to school, they practiced at their instruments, they formed bands, they played a million gigs, they drove a million miles to get to those gigs, etc, etc. all the normal pre-fame stuff you hear about. What they didn’t do is give up. There is nothing to be ashamed or regretful about if you do give up because to succeed in any creative field is incredibly difficult but what is amazing is that it is not the giving up that is the problem, it’s the trying and trying and trying again that’s the trick. If you are creative and suddenly you are a millionaire, do you stop being creative? Whether or not you have the innate talent, obsession, genius, tenaciousness, sense of hard graft that means you have the capability to produce a DSOTM in you or not, to me I have learnt not to worry about that, it’s not letting the gut instinct disappear that makes you excited about making art in the first place, even if you are down right awful! P.S: I had the luck to see David Gilmour perform ‘Wish You Were Here’ earlier in the year and there is nothing more inspiring than that I can tell you.
Terry Brain & Charlie Mills
This inspired me because it was a relif to know that sometimes you don’t’ have to make sense to make good work. Growing up I felt in awe of people, or of specific works, that I just took to be grown up, intelligent, serious, and at a level that I would never be able to comprehend. I don’t know when I was first aware of Kafka but somehow my understanding of him was that he was a genius writer of visionary insight and I wasn’t good enough to read him because I wouldn’t understand or ‘get it’. Then I read The Castle and realised you don’t have to make something perfect to make something amazing. I was astounded when I learnt it didn’t have an ending and wasn’t finished. I was astounded when I learnt he wanted his works destroyed when he died. There were so many things I was amazed to learn that actually it was quite an awakening for me, more than an inspiration. You see, we mythologise people or events because it is just the way we seem to cope with great art (and of course the sadness that arises from early deaths) and at the core of that myth is often a very accurate and serious truth, and in this case it is the ability of a great writer, but because the nature of his work itself lends to obfuscation, confusion, mixed retelling and so on, then truth and fiction combine to create something so big the whole world knows about it, and yet, doesn’t. You say to somebody something is very Kafkaesque they will probably get what you mean, but that doesn’t mean they have read his books and studied him. I really, really, really loved The Castle but it dispelled as much myth for me as it did create. I promised not to write too much on here so to wrap this up, this helped me understand ‘the idea’ is the most important thing. If you have an idea you believe in, if you have something you feel is important and want to tell people about, if you have belief in the core concept of what you want then that’s enough. Don’t try and be brilliant at everything else, just work hard and do what you can to get your work out there and that may (in my case, good writing) eventually come. But it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t, you may die before your work is appreciated, you may change your mind about your work, you may get lost many times along the way but you must believe in what you are doing. Imagine if his friend did destroy his works?
I picked this because during the week I read the news that one of the creators of the show passed away (Terry Brain: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-35907091) and it made me feel pretty down. Being born in ’79 meant that I was prime audience for 80s children’s TV and the amount of amazing shows back then were vast and varied. I have brilliant memories of this period and I think I’ll focus on one particular element of Trap Door that applies to a lot of other material of that time. They were children shows but they were not ‘dumbed down’. I, like many others, fell into the nostalgia trap when going through the first few years of my 30s (I read an interesting article somewhere about how our generation are the first to have easily accessible DVD and YouTube uploads of our childhood shows which makes the nostalgia trap particularly prevalent to people born in the late 70s or early 80s because we had a long gap, of perhaps 20 plus years, in viewing old stuff whereas people who were born in the early 90s say never went without access due to the rise of digital content, immediate uploads, TV channels specializing in re-run content and so on, I can’t remember the article in order to share with you but it made interesting reading) and when I purchased the Trap Door collection I watched it and STILL laughed and smiled my way through it without grimacing in cringe-worthy anguish. They had a way of making adult content appreciated by children without being overtly coarse or graphic. I think that is great storytelling and I like the memory I have of being tested as a viewer (or reader, etc.) when young, of not understanding everything, of not being totally sure about certain jokes, etc. It made it fun and dangerous. I like the fact a children’s animation can be quite scary because we liked being scared! Thinking of Trap Door immediately makes me want to create interesting characters that test people and if I can make someone funny and sad, strange but likeable, nasty but loveable, grumpy but compassionate, then I’m halfway to presenting real people (Berk!). Thank you Terry Brain!
I picked this because I have a very clear memory of being in a primary school music lesson and our teacher playing us (and we all eventually had an instrument each to play along with I think) Yellow Submarine. I hated it. I hated singing it. I hated having to keep in time with everyone in the chorus. I hated everything about it and that’s saying something from me because generally I’m one of those annoying people who likes everything and doesn’t want to say a bad word about anything. I don’t know why I remember that particular lesson so clearly (I also remember a Ground Control to Major Tom lesson) but I often think of it because it shows just how wrong we can be sometimes! First impressions don’t mean nowt! I based my entire understanding of the biggest band of all time on a single nonsensical children’s song and I honestly think that impacted me until I was at least thirteen or fourteen. I remember telling people, ‘I don’t like The Beatles!’ Hahahahahahahahahahahahhahahahahahaha! Oh dear. That felt like quite a confession, you know. Anyway, it goes without saying that I now of course love The Beatles and their impact on me is immesurable but doesn’t it just go to show how you can be put off by only ever understanding a fraction of someone’s work? Imagine all of the artists, writers, directors, actors, etc. that you have ever seen, then think of the worst they have done (in your opinion) and think what your life would have been like if you had only seen that ‘worst’ thing and decided never to bother with them again? Not that I’m saying, Yellow Submarine, is their worst thing, or even bad in itself, but my eight year old self thought so and that could have jeopardized my future! So, this is here for two reasons, firstly, never judge! But secondly, do whatever the hell you want to do! If you want to put in a children’s song in the middle of your groundbreaking worldwide generational influencing classic album then why not! You know what I mean! It’s all about creating isn’t it? Just create and do what you want.
Franny and Zooey
I read this before I read Catcher in the Rye and I didn’t know who J.D Salinger was. I picked up my copy in the sale bin of a local library (it still has 10p marked in red pen on the front page) because I loved buying books for the sake of buying books and whether or not I would actually end up reading it was a separate issue. As a side note I remember losing a box of books that I had collected in this manner during one move or another and how upset I was because I had no idea of its contents and felt sad I would never get the chance to read them and come across an author like J.D Salinger by accident like I had on this occasion. Anyway, the reason I am picking this as an influence is because I remember reading it and enjoying it (not necessarily understanding much about it or connecting with the characters in any solid fashion) because it was a story that was just so ordinary. I know I didn’t truly believe this following comment entirely but at the time I think I allowed myself to believe that books had to be complicated and complex. Somehow they must show a deep knowledge of new ideas, worlds, language, etc. not just in genre books like Sci-Fi or Fantasy but any books. It took me a long time to relax and be confident in the fact I was allowed to like whatever I wanted and simple works could be just as powerful as epics. Reading this was probably a stepping-stone on that understanding. I loved the fact I could enjoy a normal story about normal people (of course, when you really examine things you learn that nothing and nobody is normal, but that comes later) and not have to have any select expert knowledge on difficult subjects. It is one of a number of books that I think of whenever I feel a bit like I don’t know what the hell I am doing, it reminds me that great work can come from the ordinary, and not that I am saying I have great work in me, but the objective of creating something great from everyday lives is what I am chasing.
This is an easy one. No, I didn’t pick it because it was my first experience of Richard Pryor who I would later appreciate as one of the best comedians of all time; it wasn’t Clark Kent’s bowling or the Superman Vs Superman fight that so impressed… No, it was the transformation of ‘Vera Webster’ into the robot. Oh dear god lord almighty it scared the living hell out of me. Let me be honest: it still does. When I thought of the film to use for this page I watched the robot scene clip again on YouTube and I felt a childhood fear surge up from some hidden depth I didn’t realise still existed. However, I did feel a little better when I read all the comments and most people (my age) said this scared the hell out of them too, so I’m certainly not the only one! This was an influence on me because it made me realise that you can turn someone’s emotions so ridiculously quickly. One minute it’s a normal jolly action hero film the next second it’s a dark subversive horror and before you know it, it’s back again. How amazing! I think that is why I put this (in childhood impact terms) above films like Predator or Terminator which also scared me as a child (forget about the ratings, come on, we all watched them) because you set off at the start knowing you are in for a bumpy ride… but Superman? What? Suddenly that scene happens and you’ve got thirty years of trauma ahead of you! It’s brilliant really isn’t it? Sometimes I enjoy looking back to those moments and think, how can I do that? What is within me that I can express through my writing that can have that power? I’m not sure yet but maybe I’ll give it a go one day.
This is a great example of never making your mind up on something before understanding it first hand. Experience everything for yourself and make your own damn decision on whether you like something or not. I can’t explain why I didn’t think I would like the Grateful Dead. I don’t know why it was in my consciousness that they weren’t for me. Somehow, growing up, as independent and strong-willed as I was, I must have ingested certain cultural inputs that made me think Grateful Dead were a band I should not bother with. I mean, honestly, I can’t think of a single specific reason why I should have thought that, but as a teenager they seemed an alien concept to me. I didn’t know anything about them of course but that didn’t stop me making my mind up. Then… I watched the film ‘Festival Express’ sometime in my early twenties and gave myself a serious talking to. Why had I not investigated this stuff for myself? Why had I allowed stereotypes to influence my thinking? I was really mad at myself and that’s why this album is an inspiration, because it got me thinking. I can’t be totally sure about my timelines but it was probably the start of a period in my life when I started to understand I knew nothing about the world. I may have had some remnants of teenage self-importance or perhaps smugness or emotions similar to that still live in my system and it was a joy to rip it out. Now it is one of the nicest things to happen, when you are exposed to new influences and new inspirations, rather then just surfing with the crowd. I just wish I found them out much earlier as I think they would have had an even greater impact. It’s one of the themes I will try and weave into my stories in the future, how our entertainment is so controlled by popular trends, it’s always been that way to an extent, I know, but it has got a lot worse recently and the pressures to conform that come with it (body image, etc.) are terrifying and I’m not sure how well I’d cope as a teenager today, even with accessibility to new stuff so immediate through social media, it must be tough. Grateful Dead always remind me to just be myself.
The Lord of the Rings
Well, it was bound to appear wasn’t it? This will always be an inspiration for me because it was the first book I read that I remember thinking; ‘I’m part of the story’. I started it young, like a lot of people, around seven or eight years old so looking back I am sure there were tonnes of it that I didn’t understand but nevertheless it went with me everywhere and was hugely important in my life. I can still remember the book (sadly lost somewhere down the line) and the way it smelt and the curve of the pages due to the way I held it. A friend of mine in my school class was reading the book at the same time and it was great fun to discuss the various adventures the characters were going through and I think that is why it stuck with me, in terms of being a reader, the fact we got so much from it, but in different ways. How could his favourite character not be Gimli for instance? For me, it was one of the only ‘epic’ books I had the energy for and I think it is because I found it easy to lose interest or momentum with long storylines. Later, as an adult I would be more ready to tackle longer books but at the time this was the only one that I managed. LOTR (look at me using fancy acronyms) had me hooked and that is an important lesson for me because my work will have the danger of being… erm, boring. It taught me two things, to consider how I can keep a reader interested in a plot that takes a long time to unravel (works by Charles Dickens and George R.R Martin would also be important to me later and I’ll add them here at some point) and not be too crazy with spontaneous events and cliffhangers that are so obviously added in for excitement rather than being relevant to the story, and the second is how do I keep tabs on so many things going on? If I want to have lots of characters, lots of settings, etc. how do you structure your story? I doubt I will ever have a mega-long book in me (let’s try getting the first one out of the way, eh!) but even with shorter works it’s important to think of. Are individual scenes too short/long? How long before you return to a character or sub plot? All these questions were raised by this book and it is still something I think of. That’s probably because the skill of the writer and storytelling ability impressed me so much I think of the impact of the book, maybe even before I think of the actual story. Reading it as a child made me a better reader and there is a small part of me that wishes one day I could produce something that will affect a young person in the same way.
I know I may be upsetting people by selecting the movie and not the book but there is a very simple reason: the cast. I have nothing against the book (by Graham Swift and won the Booker Prize!), it’s brilliant, and it’s not a case of choosing one over the other (remember this is not a review, the reason I am picking these is because they have inspired me in one way or another). When I first saw this film a little bit of me died because I knew I could never create something as good. It’s exactly the sort of experience I want to create. I mean it is everything I hope to achieve one day. I can’t pin my reasoning down to one thing but in terms of the ‘feeling’ it gives me every time I watch it, I absolutely love it. Brilliant characters, London based (there is a scene that drives past a few places near where I live), gritty realism, sadness, joy, love, hate, rejection, risk and lots of beer. It is brought together by such an amazing group of actors that their portrayals teach me more every single viewing. That’s why this film is so important to me. It reveals how to bring to life fictional characters. As I said, if I want to write a book that has these types of characters, what better way to learn about what makes them ‘real’ and ‘rounded’ than by watching Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren and Ray Winstone? They help me to see what it is that makes something believable and writing techniques aside, I want to create believable people. Everyone has their moments of happiness and sadness, good luck and misfortune, empathy and hatred, etc. and whether a person chooses to still like a character, deem them a protagonist or antagonist, is entirely down to their personal life experiences and their own character, and that is what I find exacting about writing. Can I create a person and put them in situations that readers will react differently to? Some may find Michael Caine’s character, Jack, an old fashioned, bitter, selfish and egotistical man who may not be easy to like… others may see him in a very different light and both would be right, because it’s an individual’s right to make their own mind up about what they see and hear in front of them. You can’t force people to like someone but that’s not the point in what I want to do, I don’t want to be explicit in my intentions. All I want to do is allow the reader to be absorbed into the world I create (or represent rather, because it will be the real world) and let them take of it what they will. This film does that in my opinion, it shows you how real people live their lives and everybody will take away something different from it.
It's A Shame About Ray
How many albums do you own that are almost a medication? Something you reach for like a pack of aspirin? This is definitely one of my tonics and I use it pretty often. It is an inspiration to me because it reminds me that I can allow life to be better if I try. That sounds so ridiculous but it’s the gut reaction I get when the album starts. Yes, yes, yes, it’s all nostalgia but I remember the mid 90s as a great time (yes, yes, yes, it’s all about being young too) and the more I reflect back on some of those times the more I realise and appreciate the creative effect it had on me. As I try to write and understand the critical importance of trying to produce a sense of place in my work, the more I am amazed at how certain songs activate that sense so easily. That’s what I mean about allowing myself to enjoy life, it takes work and sometimes when you are so miserably down it seems impossible, but just by thinking of the way you felt about life at a certain point in your life can help you back up. This is one of those albums and in a different way, that is what I want to achieve in my writing. I have the distinct expectation that the work I produce will always seem sad or melancholic on the surface, but its true intention (if I am successful in increasing my skill at writing that is) will be to reflect on all that makes life wonderful and worthwhile. There is one more thing to add too. It makes me want to work harder. That is because that’s how I felt at the time (although it was released in 1992 I came across it in late 1996 during my first year of work after I had left school) and I remember how it made me excited simply to exist. That is what I want to explore in my writing, how people despite having so many emotional, financial and physical obstacles thrown in their way can still find those magical moments when you just sit down and marvel at the beauty of life. Although, let’s be honest, I’m going to have to trawl through a world of pain to get there! Let’s hope readers will stick with me!
The Rings of Kether
Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone
It would have been easy for me to pick any of the Fighting Fantasy role playing books of the 80s/90s but this one I remember for one particular scene. Before I get to that I would like to say that this series was hugely important to me growing up. It was influential because it offered insights into such a wide range of worlds. During the ages of around 8 years of age to 13 I was engrossed, like so many were, by the epic fantasies of Tolkien and the horror of Stephen King. I remember being just as amazed by the size of the books as to their content, thinking it impossible someone had simply made all of this up. Those books took commitment, they weren’t easy to skip through with all those characters and sub plots and I remember carrying my copy of Lord of the Rings around with me for so long it was like a third arm. So I was already a fan of fantasy in the heroes, elves and dragons kind of way and I was a fan of horror in the what’s-lurking-behind-the-shower-curtain kind of way… what happened with these Fighting Fantasy books was that I was transported to types of fantasy and horror worlds that I had never experience before. Looking back, I think this was also my entry into science-fiction which is why I picked this particular book out of the fifty or so in the series. I loved the way they were so different in context (as an adult I can see that the fundamentals are the same in each one and the way in which it has to be structured in order to work, but I didn’t see any of that at the time) and the descriptions were vivid and shocking. They allowed me to really believe in the adventures I was taking part in and I was very emotionally invested in trying to work out the correct path (I will never admit to keeping my thumb in place in case I walked into disaster…) so I wanted to pick one of these books to show you how much they taught me about reading. They had short punchy paragraphs that often had brilliant hooks in them, they had dilemmas and puzzles and of course they had out-and-out action. They were brilliant and so much fun. Reading them really were so much fun. Going back to this book and the scene that sticks in my mind… for whatever reason you find yourself chasing somebody and there was a series of decisions to make about how to do it and one of them involved taking a taxi and asking the driver to, ‘follow that cab,’… although (how many people will feel this pain) I no longer have those books, somewhere down the line during house moves and so on, they were lost or given away, so I can’t actually look up this specific reference for the actual wording or what preceded and followed it, I can feel that section in my bones. It may be over twenty years ago but I can feel the excitement I had, I must have re-read and re-played that book a hundred times and each time I loved it. That is the power of writing and reading, it lasts a lifetime and can stimulate the imagination beyond what you think is possible.
Get your tissues out everyone! Dry your eyes! I picked this film for one specific reason… I cried my bloody eyes out watching this. I don’t know how old I was but it couldn’t have been more than seven or eight and I stayed up late to watch this with my older brother. I was fascinated. The idea of space of course does that to most kids but the way it highlighted environmental issues was a real eye-opener. I’m not going to pretend I understood it at the time but it is one of those films that as you mature and develop it becomes a point of reference. Every time a film covered these topics I would find myself thinking, ‘oh, that’s like that film with Bruce Dern and the robots,’ and that is pretty powerful. Something that you watch once, as a young child, and yet its themes stay with you show it had done a good job. Looking back, I think it had more of an impact on me than I at first thought because I haven’t watched it again since (purposefully) and that means not far off thirty years have gone by and I can still remember some scenes vividly. Probably one of the most famous scenes is the ending and that’s where I lost it. I absolutely bawled my eyes out at the thought that this poor little robot was going to be left on his own to look after the plants in space… damn, I can well up thinking about it now! My brother was in a state too but more because he didn’t want to have to wake up our parents to have to tell them I stayed up late and was now crying like a baby… but I do also recall him laughing… If you haven’t seen it then it’s a film of its time for sure (1972) but I think it means a lot to me because after all this time its themes are ones that I myself would like to explore in my own writing (albeit not sci-fi. I would love to be able to write sci-fi and maybe one day I’ll give it a go but I know I haven’t got it in me for now) and I suppose I saw something in it that took me a long time to appreciate. For me, identifying with the themes of loneliness and companionship in modern society and big cities (which is of course the opposite of the film) is a key idea I want to explore and in a way, the film makes more sense than ever today as how many of us now interact with machines far more than we do with people and the most intimate of relationships take place on computers and social media platforms… the idea of human/robot relationships has been explored a lot recently (have you seen ‘Ex Machina’?) and it seems we aren’t done with the human-in-isolation question. I for sure would like to explore the human-in-isolation problem but from the viewpoint of contemporary London but for how long will that be separate? Is it crazy to think that in fifty or one hundred years the integration of artificial intelligence would have progressed so much that writing about contemporary London would naturally include robots and living machinery?
Cannonball Takes Charge
The reason I have put this on the list is because it marks an important step for me in being able to write for long periods of time. I have always struggled to maintain concentration if it is silent, and also if it is too loud. I have to have a balance and for a long time I couldn’t manage it. If things are silent I need it to be properly SILENT. The occasional disruptive bird tweet would be enough to seriously pi*s me off. Yet, if I played music I didn’t like it being just ambient or background, it needed to be LOUD. That results in the biggest single problem I have with having music on… words. Once music is loud enough to drown out everyday life going on around me then it’s loud enough to beat the lyrics into my mind and all I end up doing is typing what I hear or concentrating too much on it and not being able to divert my focus back to my writing. It really was an annoying situation trying to get that balance correct. This was especially so when writing essays during my degree (I don’t want to sound old but as an aside point, when I was studying I was still of the time i.e. only fifteen years ago, when going to the local library would actually mean going somewhere quiet. If I was studying today I think I would have been put inside for murder by now having slain anyone in the library playing music on their laptop/phone/tablet, etc. or openly having conversations across the room, which is practically everyone… not to mention the crèches which seem to have been installed directly in the middle of libraries so as to carry babies cries to the maximum length of the building in every direction. I know that makes me sound like Victor Meldrew but am I wrong?) but liberation from my own anxieties came when I started listening to Jazz and Classical music. Now, the funny thing is I always did listen to these types of music when I was younger but I somehow left them behind and forgot about them and it took until my early to mid twenties to re-discover them. Since then I have been able to work while not being distracted, which has helped me enormously. Today, I listen to jazz and can totally detach myself from the world around me while still being able to concentrate and focus on writing (and the thinking that goes with it) so although it is not an influence on me in the same sense other music I have picked for this list has been, it most certainly has influenced the way in which I work, if not the content. One more thing, the reason I picked Cannonball is that for the most part I am a pretty unsophisticated listener. I can’t list you hundreds of different musicians and I’m sorry to say to any jazz/classical aficionados reading this that I often simply listen to compilations (again, it can’t be the radio because of all the talking and advertisements interrupting all the time) so although I recognize pieces of music due to listening to them all the time, I’m terrible at naming the artists involved. However, this particular album is just perfect to listen to while writing. I can’t remember how I came across it but it has the right balance the whole way through for my personal tastes and temperament so in a way, it doesn’t just allow me to write, it helps me to write, it livens me up when I need it and it slows me down when I need it. I can’t describe music very well so I’ll just say that if you are reading this and haven’t tried writing to jazz before then give this album a go.
Lewis Grassic Gibbon
No Prayer for the Dying
This was a set book for one of my units in my Literature degree and it's sad to think I may have missed out had it not been on my reading list. Sad not just because I absolutely loved it, but sad because it makes me wonder what else I'm missing! If this was voted the best Scottish book of all time and I hadn't heard of it then what on Earth else is there that I need to be made aware of! I guess the list would be endless. Anyway, the reason I loved it so much was because at first it was a real challenge to read. It is written in a type of Scots dialect and to be blunt, it's hard to understand what anyone is saying. Then the magic of language takes over and after a short while you just suddenly 'get it' and are able to feel part of the story. That is important because it puts you in the mind set of the characters and the private nature of the language (as you will understand with historical context). This means you have invested time and energy to understand this story and it opens up a new world to you, not a geographical world but the way in which the people of the area live and die. The other reason I loved it is because it has the quality of making you empathise with bad characters, it's easy to love good characters but to make horrible people feel real is tough. I would liken that to D.H Lawrence's Sons & Lovers, which I will no doubt add to this list soon enough, whereby the roughness, coarseness, immoral and sometimes even criminal behaviour can be seen with an honesty and complexity that shows both sides of the story (you still don't have to feel sorry or excuse them) which makes reading the book such an investment and emotional journey. It is a book that can make you angry and make you cry at the same time. That's why it is an influence on me, it's impact on me has lasted and is a lesson on creating an emotional attachment to characters. On a side note there was a new film adaptation made just last year, I haven't seen it yet but I'm looking forward to. I'm not one of those that gets upset over the book/film argument, I love both mediums so much that I'm happy to enjoy them both for their own artistic merits.
(And yes, I have only just realised the first two books I picked had very similar front covers. Odd.)
If you ever want a lesson in how to use silence and space to create an atmosphere and still progress a story then any Ingmar Bergman film is worth watching but this one is a particular favourite. There are so many of his films I could have picked and I will no doubt pick another soon enough but I decided upon this one as it has a nice mixture of comedy, drama and sadness, whereas some of his films can be a tad heavier on the sadness side and I wouldn't want to put you off if it is your first experience of watching his films! I went through a spell of watching his films non-stop and the reason was that I couldn't quite work out why I enjoyed them so much. They can be hard going and are certainly slow compared to what a modern audience can expect (they are more or less all dramatic character driven pieces without any special effects or action sequences, etc.) but if you allow yourself the time to really invest in understanding what he is trying to say then the emotional impact can be incredibly moving. As someone who is interested in writing in order to convey the topics I want to talk about (rather than creating new worlds or things like that, I know that as much as I love reading fantasy and science fiction I haven't got it in me to write it) then this film is a lesson in character development. Not necessarily anything new in terms of the plot but it doesn't have to be to be successful, it just has to be meaningful, and for me, it is. I really enjoy being taken away in a film, as if time and reality have stopped, and this film has that magic-realism that is enjoyable without being too theoretical or allegorical. Saying that, there are always lots of layers to a Bergman film and multiple viewings always peel away more for the viewer and I think this film stands out for me because as I get older I can associate with the main character more and more of the film's content makes sense to me (or is funnier) and that is what I really want for my writing, to be able to produce work that has a significance beyond the first reading and can be enjoyed by different people for different reasons.
As with anyone who has older siblings, you are subject to different influences when growing up that you may not have stumbled across on your own. In my case I had a mixed range of music pushed on to me but Iron Maiden in particular was one of the major changing points in my life, and I have been a fan ever since I can remember. I chose this album because it's the first one that was 'mine' in the sense I didn't have to wait until my older brother bought it or someone else had it at school. I was around eleven I think and just about to enter secondary school (so that too must have had en emotional impact on me) and I felt like I could associate with Iron Maiden as a band I liked in my own right. The significance of Iron Maiden goes beyond the music however and I can distinctly remember becoming aware of it being okay for a person to enjoy different things. The thing is, I did enjoy different music, I wasn't the traditional 'headbanger' that only listened to pounding, thrashing, wall-shaking metal (although I did have a typical 80s demin jacket with Maiden badges sown in all over the place, wish I still had it now!) I enjoyed everything from light pop to jazz to indie, etc. but the point is, I remember all my friends knew I liked Iron Maiden and that was perfectly fine. It was good to be different and that's always stuck with me. The interesting thing is that when you get to know more about the individuals in the band (and this goes for any band or artist who has had success) you realise what hard working and determined people they are. This album was an early lesson for me in how not to judge a book by its cover. It was also a lesson in working hard and keeping on working hard (I'm writing this as Iron Maiden are about to start another world tour with their sixteenth studio album). In interviews with the band you learn about what things they were happy with and what things they weren't, and the attitude is always: well let's just write more and try something else. As a listener it made me realise you can go a bit off the expected path, do something slightly different or odd to mainstream expectations. Again, that has stuck with me. It's good to be bold and try new things, it's good to be your own person and do what you enjoy regardless of what others think and it's good to produce individual work. So, I picked this album because I remember the bold emotional feeling it gave me and the motivation to open my horizons and although I certainly have had ups and downs with my confidence over the years and probably always will, it still brings me back to that excitable and looking-to-the-future teenager... just one that doesn't have any hair to headbang with anymore!
I picked this copy because my copy was an Animal Farm combo too. I keep going back to 1984 as it helps me in many ways. When I first read it I didn’t know who George Orwell was or the story of his life at all (for those of you who still don’t please watch documentaries on him as it will really help you appreciate his work) but I was slightly apprehensive of it because I somehow thought it would be a difficult adult book that was too ‘something’ for me. Looking back to being a kid there was always ‘something’ that I was afraid of when reading books and I can’t put my finger on what those ‘things’ were. 1984 had sunk into the culture so much that I had obviously picked up on elements of it through watching television or ‘something’ which in a way only makes understanding the book later on so much more insightful. Anyway, despite whatever nerves I had I remember enjoying it but not thinking too much of it, in a way I didn’t know what all the fuss was about, I was probably too young. Then I re-read it when I was around 22 or 23 and at the time going through an unhappy period at work and I remember very distinctly trudging through Charing Cross station looking blank and despondent waiting for my train home and a woman approached me and asked if I was okay and needed to talk. I was taken aback (it was only later I realised she was a volunteer who looks out for people at places of risk like stations and bridges, those who look like they may be contemplating the worst) and said I was fine, thanked her and got on to the train as normal. Then I opened 1984 (I can’t remember what chapter I was on at the time but around half way through approx) and the feeling of George Orwell’s world really hit me. I realised that I must have looked so unfulfilled that a stranger was worried about me and suddenly the characters in 1984 became real people to me, it was a significant moment in understanding the potential of association. I have re-read the book every few years since then and I always think of that moment. Now, as someone who is trying to write I look at that book in two ways. How you can write complicated thoughts without using complicated language, and how you can describe the ordinary world to create an extraordinary world in the readers’ minds. I don’t care what people say about the skill of Orwell as a writer, it is still a book that affects me when I read it and that is the one thing I am striving for in my own work, to be able to put meaning into a story that really makes someone think.
Only the other week I posted a photo on Instagram of my signed copy of Gene Wilder’s novel, so I guess he was on my mind (meeting him, albeit for only a few brief seconds was more fantastic than I could ever explain). Watching this film as a child is an incredibly clear memory because it is one of the first times (maybe the first) I can remember choking with laughter. I was lying on my front room floor and cracking up as the film progressed… but the scene where Igor put his face in place of one of the aged skulls in the secret laboratory and scared Gene Wilder, well, I nearly lost my life through asphyxiation. I was rolling side to side, my face going from pink to beetroot totally out of control. I can’t remember how long it took me to calm down and how many times I rewound the tape and watched it again but I do remember thinking it was the funniest thing I had even seen. A bit later in life I would appreciate Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman in many other roles but this one will always be a significant childhood moment for me. I was then, and still am now, in awe of people who have the skill to act dramatically while simultaneously being hilarious.
*** Update, August 2016. ***
From such sad news of Gene Wilder's death how wonderful to see the worldwide tributes to the man and his work, rest in peace Gene.
The Kick Inside
I picked this album first because although I knew it was important to me and I would have shared it with you at some point regardless, I happened to see a Facebook post mentioning it was the album's anniversary so it was too good a coincidence not to go with. It was released on the 17th Feb 1978 ( I was born in ’79) and I listen to it start-to-finish at least once a week. It is perfect to write to but even more perfect (?) to walk to. When I need to think through ideas or just walk for the sake of walking it is one of my main 'resources'. I use the word resource because some music isn’t just about enjoying listening to, it’s more than that, it can fill you with a sense of purpose. Knowing that there was such a drive and artistic ambition in her work makes me feel I could do better, it pushes me on to work harder. Kate Bush and people like her are so inspirational because just as much as the end product of their work, their process is also inspiring. You can feel the boldness and the ‘theoretical’ fearlessness (because we all get physically afraid don’t we) in her work and every time I hear her voice it makes me want to become a better artist. She tried whatever she wanted to try, she changed when she wanted to change and she did it because her art was driving her – if people loved it, great, but she would have done it anyway. I really admire that and it’s how I want to be, I am interested in writing about certain topics and I want to do my best by those topics regardless of other factors. Another personal connection that inspires me is that she grew up nearby and actually lived in my town, just minutes walk away) and it reminds me that I have no excuses, it is only hard work and dedication that are the pitfalls of achievement. By the way, there are only two kinds of people in the world, Kate Bush fans, and people who don’t yet realise they are Kate Bush fans (it’s just a matter of time for them).