DAMN! IT'S LOCKDOWN AGAIN! | Blogging a dead horse

Blogging a dead horse

Is a barrel of naked monkeys more fun than a barrel of hairy ones?


@#$%! Lockdown yet again!


Damn! We’re locked down again! I am mortified! We should be out shooting our documentary
Following in the Footsteps of Isabella Bird but we cannot do it! The infection rates here in Johor are astronomical and we are of an age when infection does not necessarily go well. We even know people who had to be entubed, as they say, and put into induced comas while they pumped oxygen into them. This is not an experience anyone would relish. And so, we have had to postpone our shoot… or worse, abandon it!

That is a lot of work and preparation out of the window and I doubt we will ever be able to shoot it because we are now going to leave Malaysia. The whole purpose of living in this area was to enable us to travel and document the history and culture of the region. Since we cannot do that, and we are of an age where hanging about waiting for something to happen is really not an option, we are moving on to somewhere we can get back into action again.

Having said that, we have worked out the shooting schedule and are thinking, maybe, in a couple of years’ time, we will return to Malaysia and shoot the damned thing! Though when back in the UK, new projects will emerge and maybe the schedules will be clashing, but who knows? Everything is uncertain. But it does mean that a YouTube channel largely devoted to history and travel around Asia, will just have to morph into a channel about Rediscovering The UK!

It has been thirty years since we lived in the UK and although we have regularly visited the place, we have not engaged with it in any serious way for all those years. Which I have to say, is very good for one’s mental health! In fact, mentally I left the UK in 1989 when I went off to Hong Kong with Yorkshire TV to shoot a TV drama. The experience so enthralled me that in 1991 we moved there and frankly, Hong Kong gave me a life!

Before I went there I was a typical moaning Brit. I spent a lot of time in pubs complaining about the dismal weather, the iniquities of the world, the pointlessness of the universe and the little public-school educated idiot commissioning editors of Channel 4, wondering why the Government doesn’t do anything about any of it and get me a three picture deal in Hollywood.

There is of course no sensible logic behind most of the British malaise, certainly not mine. Every Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman, and Welshman, is hell bent on revolution and has been ever since the Norman Conquests, and I don’t mean the Alan Ayckbourn plays! Queen Elizabeth the First was once warned of an uprising in London, only to suggest that the Pubs and Inns be ordered to open longer hours, so that talk would replace action. And talk is what we Brits do best, and we do it very well. We do it even better if we can write it down and edit out the more drunken meanderings.

As my friends and I were writers we were trying to knock the old guard - practically anyone over forty - out of their positions and replace them with our progressive, future orientated, liberal open minded selves. Great Britain’s cultural revolution of the sixties was flagging and the Cholmondley-Smythes of Eton and Harrow seemed to be crawling back into vogue, protecting their money and power, which of course should be ours. Damn, we were determined to make Britain Great Again, one cop show episode at a time!

We weren’t working class oiks whingeing about being dragged away from their brass band culture into a middle class snobocracy by Grammar School scholarships, like Dennis Potter, another one of those writer chappies that nobody talks about anymore, and certainly nobody here in Johor has heard of, we were the Comprehensive School generation empowered by local tertiary education grants. Our culture was Rock N’ Roll, or at least Prog Rock, or was it Reggae, or Punk, whatever! It was not that of Accountants, Stock Brokers, or all the sensible things one’s parents thought education would suit you for. D. H. Lawrence’s mob might have been about unleashing the libido of the gamekeeper upon the unsuspecting hind quarters of Lady Windermere, but our mob were not in the slightest bit interested in Lady Windermere’s fanny, whether she wore nothing but pearls or not when photographed scandalously for The News of The World. That was so Fifties! And it was the Seventies now!

In truth though, I have no idea what our creative agenda for revitalising Great Britain would have been. We had a thing about giving the Great British Independent Film world a good kicking. We were Barbarians At The Gate, as one of the memorable covers of our London Screenwriters Magazine had it. We were influenced by a mixture of David Leland, Carol Churchill, Alan Bleasdale, Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths, Hanif Kureishi, Joe Orton, Barrie Keeffe, David Mercer, Terry Johnson, the blessed Jack Rosenthal and Ted Whitehead who once said a script of mine was like putting your hands in a draw full of razor blades. And all to the soundtrack of The Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello, who used to catch the same train as me when I lived in the London suburb of Whitton. He was called D. P. Costello then. I think he worked in a bank between gigs in folk clubs.

There were a lot of writers, musicians, artists out there doing stuff we admired and at the same time wanted to both overthrow them and join them! There was so much to feel rather chuffed about whenever we managed to slip in and out of the established circles, if only for a few moments. But that was it, one was slipping in, then out, then in, and glimpsing snippets of discontent from even the most successful. I once got drunk with Galton and Simpson who spent their time bemoaning their dismal treatment and telling me how writers had to lower their expectations. Ray Galton had given up writing altogether, and extolled the virtues of spending his time learning French and not having to deal with idiots any more. Jack Rosenthal told me the hellish story of the rewrites on Yentl and about various projects where the producers forgot to pay him. I recall Alan Bleasdale’s rather miserable phone call explaining how he had nothing positive to say to our writers group as he was turning to write novels so that he didn’t have to deal with the misery of working for the BBC. Arnold Wesker, who’s plays were on the A Level Syllabus, similarly did not want to say anything in public and bitched about the dismal money, the dodgy agents, the irrational decisions of the West End Theatres, etc etc. I think only Alan Plater had something optimistic to say about getting stuck into the scriptwriting world, hence no doubt the reason he became chairman of the Writers Guild. He said his talent was more a talent for getting commissions than as a writer! He was being modest, but I got the point. He did award me a prize once though! Another moment of glory that came, went, and is forgotten.

It was no better if one headed for Hollywood! I had lunch with Barry Morrow at Musso and Franks on Sunset Boulevard. He had just got his Oscar for Rainman and he was bitching about his agent and complaining how he couldn’t get funding for a little film he wanted to direct in Australia. He said the Oscar was a bit of a curse. He was now the man who wrote about mental illness and nobody wanted too many films about that
, so the Oscar might well have stalled his career! And the money didn’t go far once the agents, lawyers, and the IRS had taken their share.

On another trip to the US I had a meeting with a Hollywood agent. His office had a picture window showing LA off in all its shimmering sun soaked glory and he greeted me with his back as I walked in. He stood there in a very expensive and shiny suit studying Hollywood, seemingly ignoring me, then swang around, flung out his arms and said, “Larry, what’s your greatest dream?” And I in my dismally English way, thought it was probably to get out of the world of weary Brits and grumbling screwed up writers by any means necessary. I could see that even in Hollywood, the money and power was in management and not in the artist. And for that matter, when I went pitching to the studios a producer held up his hand to stop my impassioned pitch probably heavily influenced by a confluence of The Vikings, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, and Yang P’Tang Kipperbang
, about a childhood in the fifties obsessed with Vikings and Spaceships, to say, “Hey, Larry, we make films about nothing in particular here!” I never knew a plot about a YoYo competition could be construed as heavy duty drama, but it obviously had an English accent and that made American producers feel inadequate.

I decided it was a waste of time writing anything sensible and consequently began earning money, hence my presence on the hairy chested all guns blazing Hong Kong show. But when I hit Hong Kong, my little UK world seemed parochial and strangely ignorant of what was happening in the world. The Cold War was over and China was rising. The power balances were shifting and suddenly trying to write stuff about working class lads rising above their station, the dying world of the traditional middle class, the death of machismo and the rise of power women, or whatever piece of anger I was looking back at, all seemed trite.

Of course what I did not realise was that by moving to Hong Kong I was giving up a culture steeped in Shakespeare for one steeped in Jacky Chan, but whatever it was, it was a resetting of the mindset and here, writing nothing in particular, was at least doing it somewhere interesting. And suddenly one was free and whereas I cannot say that it enhanced my literary education, especially as one increasingly began to realise that even the local literati read Harry Potter rather than Samuel Beckett, the whole submersion in a Chinese world took one a long way from the dark broodings over a beer in a London pub. One now dipped one’s head into a bowl of soy sauce and carefully read and annotated books on the philosophy of Confucius, Lao Tzu and Mo Zi.


The Wisdom of The East does put things into perspective. The Book of Lord Shang, says people are selfish and that the task of the ruler is to allow the people to satisfy their desire for glory and riches in a way that will accord with, rather than contradict, the state’s needs. Which probably indicates why writing about nothing in particular is far more likely to satisfy one’s desire for glory and riches than anything that does not get with the programme. Lord Shang goes on to say that the interests of the state are agriculture and war. Which must be why The Archers is still running in the UK. Perhaps trade is the modern substitute for war though all our states seem very capable of confusing the two things, hence any subject matter embellishing tourist attractions, merchandising opportunities or military glory gets a go-ahead. Lord Shang further explains that people are ruled by reward and punishment, and when there is little to reward them with, punishment has to be harsh which rather explains the dismal Beijing policy towards present day Hong Kong. Hong Kong people just had unrealistic expectations of the rewards due to them, so their expectations had to be lowered by a good thrashing.

That two thousand year old book seems all too relevant to the modern world. None of this would have crept into my psyche if I had remained in London beavering away at episodes of some new cop show or medical drama, or whatever soap opera I might have slipped into. One’s ambitions, desires, attitudes towards money, people and places, change under the influence of Hong Kong. Though I am not entirely sure what those changes have been. But it has motivated me to delve in the histories of places, and discovered a liberating search for narratives that can provide insight into how and who we are and even where we are going. This is a much bigger and complex project than I could have imagined embarking on back in the UK. My travels have led to me reading articles on, for instance, the Islamisation of Malay society, along with an immersion in colonial histories as I follow in the footsteps of Great Game adventurers in Central Asia, or delve into the heroic histories of warrior kings creating jungle Empires up slow crocodile infested rivers. This journey from Harold Pinter’s Caretaker’s bedsit into the world of Sultans and Chinese secret societies, has been a surprising ride that I never knew I would embark upon.

And now I am returning to the UK which I know must have changed, though how fundamental that change has been is uncertain. I see old Imperial Themes in the withdrawal from Europe, the expenditure on new British naval hardware, and the sense that India and its politics have infiltrated the upper echelons of power. The Britain I am returning to seems to be more like the Britain of my Great Grandparents than that of the Baby Boomer world, except with blazing Internet Speeds! But it also appears to be full of more self-loathing than it used to be, and that is a saying a lot! There is a politics of identity that rather bewilders me. At one point Britishness had a four way split between flat capped Scargilites, Cool Britannia Blairites, Barrow Boy City Slickers and Tory Toffs, but now a Knight of the Realm runs Labour and a comedy writer with Churchillian delusions runs the Tories! But, whatever the UK has become, its exploration is going to be the subject of our next project. Though I hope one day I will be able to pop back to Malaysia and finish off that documentary on Isabella Bird’s travels! I have so much unfinished business, and yet, one must move on.