I’ve just come back from Ghana where I’ve been bouncing through the bush in a dusty 4×4, stopping to talk to pregnant schoolgirls and village women who’ve set up their own credit and loan schemes. They’ve been telling me their stories which I’m hoping to weave together into some sort of narrative for a book that the charity Plan UK is planning to publish with Random House. Needless to say it was utterly riveting, and a rare privilege to step into people’s lives. The question is, how far to fictionalize what I’ve heard and how much of a presumption that might be.
Ghana is a deeply religious country, even down to the shop signs. I particularly liked Pray Without Ending Haircuts and the ambiguously-named God Has Done It Beauty Parlour. Nobody smokes, either, and there’s a huge interest in politics and Nigerian soap operas, which broadcast on huge plasma screens which show rooms where another plasma screen is showing a soap opera…and so on and so on, worlds within worlds.
The weekend before that I went to Cairo, where I spent most of the time sitting in traffic jams. I was supposed to be giving a talk to young Egyptian film-makers but none of them turned up so I went to the bazaar instead, and sat in a Coptic cemetery drinking tea with my taxi driver.
I’ve recently been sucked into another world too, that of dementia. My mother, who was a children’s writer and illustrator, had dementia and her death on New Years’ Eve triggered various articles and interviews about this ghastly illness, and discussions about quality of life. Her story was complicated by the fact that twenty years earlier she herself had helped an old woman to die, and had gone to prison for it.
For this reason I’m familiar with prisons and have visited some in connection with the work of the estimable Anne Frank Trust. Since the TV series I’ve done many talks about Anne Frank in schools and other places. As I’ve written in earlier blogs, making the drama has been a hugely emotional experience and there’s been a mass of letters and emails from people who’ve been affected by it. It’s now available on dvd, which is great, and you can get it online for £8.99. I’m talking about it at the Hampstead Authors Society on 18 February, in Northampton on 23 February, in Borehamwood Library on the 24th, for English PEN on 10 March, and at the Jewish cultural centre at Ivy House, London, on 19 March.
My “Romeo and Juliet” film seems to have hit the dust but I’m busy on my adaptation of “A Little Princess” and a TV series set in the Crimean War, which will weave together the lives of three mavericks – Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and the French celebrity chef Alexis Soyer. Various other adaptations are in the pipeline and I’m mulling over a contemporary drama about sex and families, with a sixty-year-old heroine. Everything’s been a bit disrupted recently, due to the events I’ve just described, but I’m back at my desk now and would love to hear from you, just email me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you have anything you’d like to ask…
Here’s a photo of my study by Eamonn McCabe, that appeared in The Guardian recently, with an article I wrote about it.
I live in Hampstead and my study is at the back of the house. I keep swivelling round on the chair, which has lost its arm somewhere, to look out of the window – I can just glimpse Keats’ House, where my grandmother was born, and the hideous sixties’ block of the Royal Free Hospital, where both my parents spent their last days before they died. Talk about full circle…
I can also watch the local fox which visits my chickens at dusk each day to check up on them, like a malevolent watchman.
The pills on the printer are to remind me to take my malaria tablets because I’m just off to Ghana on a writing job. The coffee cup was made by my brother-in-law David Garland, who’s a potter. The brass fly next to it is filled with stubs from my roll-ups. I can’t start writing without a coffee and a fag, which is pathetic but still….
That long string of photos shows a reunion of my university friends; their faces help me with a TV drama I’m writing about people my age. Casual snapshots – people just glimpsed on the off-beat – help to stir and trigger things in my head. I’m also writing a film about the Crimean War and that yellow book in the foreground is by Alexis Soyer, celebrity chef who went out there. That open script is the first draft of “A Little Princess” which I’m adapting for the BBC; I’m trying to write the second draft but it hasn’t warmed up yet, I’m just moving stuff around like re-arranging jigsaw pieces. With any luck it will suddenly come alive, but the phone keeps ringing and emails keep pinging and then I start logging onto YouTube to look at kittens. The newest addition to the bookshelf is an Obama chocolate bar which I shall never eat of course. There are also several objects made for me by my partner Mel Calman, the cartoonist, who died before I moved to this house. He made me a little typewriter whose every key is a “D” and a cartoon of somebody sitting at their desk with a sign “Please Disturb – Writer At Work.”