The next train arriving at Platform 1 is…

It’s like Clapham Junction in my head. Trains of thought speeding about, vying for space, and none stopping long enough for me to get on.

Annoyingly, they seem to be running in the middle of the night, so I get up in the morning too tired to execute anything on my to-do list.

The 1.14 to Clutterham

I’m Spring cleaning at the moment and as it’s not really an annual thing in our household, we’re talking about some serious decluttering. Since there’s only a finite amount of space in our home, I should be getting rid of much of this stuff. But there are so many boxes labelled ‘to be repaired’, ‘to be sold on ebay’, ‘to keep for a rainy day’ and it feels like I’m just shifting things from one place to another. Nearly every inch of floor-space is being taken up with containers and piles of paper that need filing and until I clear that, I can’t get on with anything else.

The 2.25 to Writerton

My daughter’s friend recently asked me what kind of work I did. As I didn’t really have an elevator pitch to cover my multitudinous skills, I simply said: ‘Well, I suppose I write for a living’. This is true, when you consider that the earnings declared on my last few tax returns were mostly as a result of writing – press releases, content for a corporate website, short stories, turning a mammoth business document into plain English, even blogging. It means my personal writing projects have gone to pot. I am juggling three at the moment:

  • a second novel. I’ve shelved the other one for now because my writer’s ‘voice’ has changed quite a bit over the years and it would need major tweaking before I do anything with it. The second book is completely different from the first and involves a lot of research which I don’t seem to have time for
  • a feature on crisis communications. I was fascinated by a PR conference I attended on how businesses can make or break their reputations by the way they handle a situation when things go wrong. I wanted to look at Vauxhall’s response to fires breaking out in some of its Zafira B cars. The company’s director of communications has given me a very substantial interview, but a Facebook group which is raising a petition and taking legal action against the company is proving to be more elusive.
  • more short stories. My writer friend Kim Fleet has been a fabulous mentor and I’m ashamed to say that while one of her main pieces of advice was to keep sending my work to publications, I’ve pretty well failed to do that. I have several that are ready to go, but I just haven’t got around to farming them out. I did have a competition win last summer, but it only involved emailing my manuscript rather than printing it, placing it in an envelope and heading to the post office to get it stamped and sent off.

The 3.40 to Film City

Every February for the last three years, I’ve been filming the Bristol Sound and Vision Show for the hi-fi retailer Audio T with my good friend and former BBC colleague, Andy Barnard, who now runs Sure Shot HD Video Productions. It’s manic, the subject is not really my cup of tea but actually, it’s immense fun. And every time we do it, I say: ‘I want to make other films.’ We’ve knocked about a few ideas, but with all of the above going on, they remain just that. But the desire to do something about them still keeps me awake at night.

The 4.52 to Volunteersville

I recently dropped in on a planning meeting where our local community association was arguing against the development of a nearby pub into flats. The four-hour hearing went in our favour and during a celebratory drink, I found myself agreeing to help out with the association’s website and marketing. It was probably the prosecco talking, but here I am, adding more trains to the junction.

Something else which hasn’t yet kept me awake, but probably will nearer the time is that I have been invited by author Rachel Sargeant to do a joint talk with her about being a writer for members of a twinning group in Gloucester. I feel totally out of her league, but very flattered to have been asked. To writer friends who have already done one of these, any tips gratefully received.


The art of self-promotion

There’s nothing quite like the threat of your blog suddenly being exposed to more readers to make you update it. And the threat is raised slightly, as I dip a toe into the unfamiliar waters of self-promotion.

Let’s go back a week or so… during a particularly hectic day in the Police press office, I get an email which says I have sold a story to The People’s Friend.  Cue loud whoop and startled looks from my colleagues. This is a magazine that has strict submission guidelines and a distinct style which apparently makes it a tough market to crack, so I’m quite proud of this achievement. And I’m not in the least bit put off by those who’ve told me: “Oh yeah, my gran reads that.”

The following evening, I receive another email telling me I’ve been shortlisted in the Almond Press ‘Broken Worlds’ short story competition. This is what it said: “The judging process was not an easy task due to the high calibre of entries, but in the end all judges agreed that your story was exemplary it its original depiction of the Dystopian theme. We would be honoured to include your story in our upcoming collection, where it would feature alongside the other shortlisted authors.” More loud whooping!

So, as part of the publication process, I’m asked to provide a short bio, a photo and links to any social media pages, published works and blogs I have. Eek. Self-publicity. I’m not comfortable with it. I was brought up to believe it was a bit vulgar to blow your own trumpet. Anyone displaying any hint of self-aggrandisement would be deemed boastful and embarrassing.

However, I pulled together a few words and gave it to husband Rob to proof-read, as I do most things. “Hmm,” he said. “I see what you’re trying to do, injecting a bit of humour about being hopeless at keeping up your blog and spending too long line-editing your book, but it’s a bit self-effacing. This is going up where a lot of people could read it and should really be a bit more business-like. It’s not like you’re just dabbling at it all, it’s quite serious stuff.”

Point taken and bio duly re-written.

Self-deprecation is very much a British trait. But, apparently, it’s becoming rather outdated in an age where we keep being told to advance our personal brand. For example, what I had believed to be the socially-acceptable way to publicise my accomplishments was challenged at a careers course I took after leaving the BBC. The importance of selling yourself with a ‘hey, I’m really good at that’ manner was a repeating theme throughout the workshop. Looks like I’ll have to dig out those old notes.

Cheltenham Banksy update
Since my last post, this story has been changing faster than a flashing strobe light. The mural was:

  • boarded up amid a bid by the house owner to sell it
  • given a reprieve after the council put a stop notice on its removal
  • unboarded by unknown persons annoyed at its concealment
  • saved by campaigners raising money for its purchase for the community
  • defaced with silver paint by vandals
  • covered with protective perspex while a decision is made about how to restore it
  • and now boarded up again

All I want to say on this now is that it’s a shame it couldn’t just have been left alone for we locals and visitors to enjoy in peace.

Banksy pilgrims’ progress…

IMG_3159Pilgrimage to the site of the Cheltenham ‘Banksy’ has dropped off dramatically in the last couple of days, more probably due to a return to normality after the Easter break rather than waning interest.

Going about my usual business in the last week, it’s been commonplace to see a constant presence of up to a couple of dozen onlookers in front of the mural.

Yesterday, it tailed off to just a handful throughout the entire day. So said, it’s had a decent run in the news:

  • BT send in a team to clean up and repair the phone box (so I no longer have the urge to get my Marigolds out)
  • CCTV footage of a mysterious white van strengthens proof that it really is a Banksy
  • Paint is daubed over the faces of the figures in a vandalism attempt, but is washed off in a rescue op by local residents
  •  A bid is made to get the artwork protected behind a perspex cover

I suspect it will continue to attract a lot of attention and considering it’s still not been confirmed as the genuine article, this is pretty good going.

Reaction to the artwork has been fascinating. As soon as word got out, visitors came on foot, by road, on bikes. Traffic in the area suddenly got super-heavy and a couple of drivers actually stopped on the mini-roundabout to take pictures from their cars. Dozens of ‘Me at the Spy Booth’ selfies and snapshots started popping up on Facebook and Twitter. And for the first time in yonks, I heard the chimes of an ice cream van in the neighbourhood and sure enough, there it was, parked up by the line of ready customers.

You can’t really blame the vendor for having an eye to the main chance. A few of us Fairview residents have already joked about cashing in. Yesterday at the Londis store, I told the owner I’d considered providing refreshments. He, in turn, suggested setting up a barbie offering Banksy burgers. But I see at least one entrepreneur (said in the style of Del Boy, please) is now offering Spy Booth Banksy prints and canvasses on eBay. Considering no-one has actually claimed the artwork, I presume no one is breaking any copyright laws.

And that leads me to ask, when if ever, will we find out if it’s a genuine Banksy? Another mural which popped up in his home city of Bristol at about the same time – nicknamed Mobile Lovers – appears on his website. You can’t get greater authentication than that. And yes, having the real thing here would put Cheltenham on the world culture map. But if ours turns out to be a copy cat, does it really matter? It’s brought the community together, has brightened up a drab street corner and lucky for me, is practically outside my front door.








Two for the price of one Cheltenham Banksys

IMG_3159Having claimed in my first ever post to have been known as Banksy for at least as long as the celebrated street artist, how can I not blog about the intriguing mural which appeared on the wall of a house across the road from mine a couple of days ago?

No offence to the neighbourhood, but I live in a pretty nondescript part of Cheltenham. So the last thing I expected was for the area to be thrust into the limelight, attracting hoards of spectators and media types – sorry, yes, used to be one, I know.

Being Sunday and not a church-goer, I hadn’t actually ventured out of my own home until the early afternoon, when my daughter, Jess, returning from riding said: “Have you seen the artwork on the house across the road?”

Going over, I saw a small crowd had gathered in front of the public phone box outside the end-terraced house, around which had been painted three 50’s-style secret agents wearing trench coats and trilbies, carrying listening devices. Onlookers were taking photos or having photos taken of themselves inside and in front of the  phone box. There were a lot of mutterings of: “Is it, or isn’t it? It looks like one of his.” A number of experts on street art have claimed it does have all the hallmarks of a Banksy and considering the political themes of many of his works, people have been quick to make a connection between the subject matter and the government’s GCHQ spybase a couple of miles down the road.

Just an aside on the political note, if you Google ‘Banks’ and ‘political activist’, you’ll find Wikipedia entries for both Banksy and my dear-departed dad, John Banks, so something else we share in common.

It’s incredible that the installation has made a tourist attraction, not just of the mural, but of the phone box itself. It’s a bit of a shame that it has what looks suspiciously like a slick of dried vomit on the glass frontage and the faint whiff of eau-de-bladdered as you pass it. As the days have worn on, I’ve become oddly fond of the image and am fighting the urge to get my sponge and Fairy Liquid onto the phone box to give the artwork the setting I feel it deserves. But a pal has reminded me that grime and nasty pongs are part of the whole urban graffiti culture, so best left alone.

The plus side is that the curious crowds arriving in their droves throughout the day are a welcome replacement for the ‘yoovs’ who usually loiter around there. And that begs the question, how long will it last before it’s tagged and obliterated? Rumours are flying that the local council is going to preserve it somehow, possibly behind a perplex barrier. Be interesting to hear what the owner of that property says to that. One thing, if it does stay and become a provincial treasure, BT is never going to be allowed to take their box away.

It’s been a nice little bonus for the handful of businesses just here. The guys in the nearby Londis store told me the shop’s been pretty busy since the artwork went up. Indeed, a friend of mine who’d come over to have a butchers at the painting, popped into the store afterwards to buy some gravy granules.

It has occurred to me I could start a little business, selling refreshments.  I whipped up a round of coffees for a couple of my BBC ex-colleagues who were out there vox-popping and reporting live from the scene on the Monday.

I, for one, hope it’s the genuine article. Grubby street corner on a mini-roundabout is not your usual must-see destination, but it’s great to have a bit of cul-tcha on your doorstep.



Be careful, or you’ll be in my next novel…

Working as a news journalist, you learn as part of your training what you can and can’t say if you want to avoid getting into trouble. Most of the time for me, it was straight forward stuff, crime, local government, education, where I was there to report and all the controversial comments were usually said by the interviewee. At the Beeb, I had a legal team behind me to check over any tricky stories. Thankfully, the only time I’ve been to court is to cover a case.

But I was largely dictated to by the news agenda. That’s what I’ve found so refreshing about choosing to write for myself. I can offer personal opinions and do investigative stuff which is useful to me.

However, a recent publication did land me with a threat. Not a big one, I should add, but a threat nonetheless. Long story short, I was invited to blog about a friend who’d accidentally opened a bottle of vintage ale I’d been saving, then chucked it away thinking it was off. I’d approached a number of ale experts to find out if it could have deteriorated and how much it might have been worth. I included their replies in my write up and one was shown in a very unflattering light:

Subsequently, I received an email from that particular expert, threatening to forward all their queries to me. This was rather bizarre, because had they done that, I would’ve simply replied to each customer explaining that the brewery was punishing me for exposing their poor PR and guiding them to my blog entry.

Again though, that was just factual reporting and the brewery damned itself, really. The novel, however, gave me a different insight into dodgy literary waters. Everyone I’ve given it to for feedback has either said: “I’m trying to work out which character is based on me,” or “I know who that person is supposed to be.”

I have this T-shirt, given to me as a present, which says: “Be careful, or you’ll be in my next novel.” Wearing it, there’s always the risk of sending people retreating quickly away from me. But actually, it usually gets a laugh.

It did get me thinking, though, what if some arch-nemesis from my past sees my novel in an airport bookshop (I can dream), buys it because they recognise my name on the cover and believes themselves to be the inspiration for the psychotic antagonist? Shudders at thought of libel writ falling on the doormat. Well, I found some good advice in blogaboutwriting – and that is, have fun with my characters, use mannerisms, catch-phrases, actual incidents, but be careful that any real people I’ve based them on are well-disguised. Then again, there’s always the all persons fictitious disclaimer as added protection.

I’m currently doing a write-up on my recent unhappy experiences with Vauxhall. Having said that, there is an army of consumer journalists out there who’re better equipped than me to expose a company’s failings. Perhaps I could persuade one of them to look into my situation, so I can get on with the boat-load of other projects I have on the go.

Who’d’ve thought….?

I am embarrassed to say I have been a rubbish blogger. I can’t believe I started Banksywrites a year ago and I’ve only managed three posts. It’s not as if I’ve been too busy grafting at the novel and bashing out short stories for magazines and competitions. I do have several writing projects on the go, but as mentioned before, I am the Queen of Displacement Activities and have been finding excuses to avoid finishing them.

Why? Well, according to several authors’ biogs I’ve read, it’s not unusual. Tricky scenes, a crisis of confidence, losing the (literary) plot, these are some of the things which easily distract writers, not to mention flipping Facebook and Twitter.

But I do have one genuine excuse for the diversions. In my last post, May 2013, I mentioned I’d been news-reading at BBC Radio Gloucestershire. Since then, I’ve also begun working periodically in the press offices of Gloucestershire’s Police and Crime Commissioner and Gloucestershire Constabulary. I have also been making promotional films on behalf of Audio T at the Bristol Sound and Vision Show with my good friend and ex-BBC colleague, Andy Barnard of Sure-Shot Videos. I even knocked out a press release for Cotswold Riding for the Disabled which got their manager onto BBC Gloucestershire’s breakfast show and a few lines in the Echo. So I appear to have one of these portfolio careers I keep hearing about.

Journalists who leave a place of employment are generally assumed to go freelance, or into PR or media training. I hadn’t planned to do any of that as the main reason for my leaving the BBC was to get away from a lifetime of news reporting and into writing fiction.

But I can honestly say I’ve really enjoyed these other jobs, perhaps most surprisingly, the police press office. Seeing it from the other side of the fence has made me appreciate how difficult it can be sometimes to satisfy a reporter’s query. And it’s been great catching up with former media colleagues at the other end of the line, who’ve strangely not been that surprised at my full and varied new life. Who’d’ve thought….?

My new best friend…

I’ve had another little writing success. I’ve been shortlisted in a 3,000-word short story competition on the theme of bingo and although I don’t get a prize this time, my entry is apparently going to be published in an anthology along with the other finalists.

Meanwhile, the May edition of Reader’s Digest is now out with the winners of the 100-word short story competition in print. But what’s really made me whoop with joy, is finding a video on the home page of magazine’s website where the editors are discussing some of the entries. About four minutes in, they talk about mine and book editor James Walton, I hope you don’t mind, but you’re my new best friend after those fabulous comments you made:!

Writing class

I’ve signed up to a creative writing class. It’s run by a writer whose blog I’ve been following for about a year now. It’s great. We have fun exercises to get our creative juices flowing and (optional) homework from which we get feedback. Our last session was on poetry and though I haven’t really read much since Winnie-the-Pooh at junior school, I’ve found myself thinking in rhyme all the time. Even shopping lists; potatoes, cheese, milk, Febreze. OK, not all poetry is rhymed, but the class has got me interested in it again.

The headlines again…

Back in the newsroom at BBC Radio Gloucestershire, I’ve come through the bulletin shifts relatively unscathed. The news-reading wasn’t a problem. The journalism wasn’t a problem. But getting to grips with the new technology under pressure left me a bit frazzled. Comment when I first walked into the newsroom after eighteen months away: “Wow. You look really well.” Comment a couple of days later at the end of a shift: “You look a bit jaded.” It’s not that I’m a techno-phobe. The new system is clearly better than the old in many ways. But when I’m turning around material for bulletins, I want to be able to do it quickly. I know, practice makes perfect. Note to ed: I need more shifts!