“Mounting to dangerous heights and travelling into the vast inane”

That’s a quote and a half of full cream milk, isn’t it? You’d put it on a sweatshirt if it didn’t need XXL to get all the words on. That may not remain a problem for me for as long as I’d hope.

And there’s a way to find the words “vast inane” a little insulting. There’s a way to find “dangerous heights” a little cocky. But right now, as I’m working on end of year stuff and so getting all reflective, it’s hard not to think of 2008 as having seen some serious career climbing progression. Normally, I would be shrugging at you about now: my own mother does not maintain a chart of my progress, why would I imagine you’d be interested? It’d be nice if she did. Anyway.

Part of it does involve getting into the finals of the Red Planet contest. And there won’t be news on that until next year so there’s plenty of exciting pratfall potential in any boasting I might do about getting this far. That’s one thing.

And there’s that quote, “mounting to dangerous heights and travelling into the vast inane”, which is an old favourite and which you are a wee bit intrigued about. I like the unintended sense of it that achievement is ridiculous, that perhaps we choose what we call achievement and that this, the choosing, is part of our great inanity.

It doesn’t actually mean any of that. Talk about reading things into something.

The quote is really from Pao Phu Tao by Ko Hung – I can hear you go “Ah!” – and it is believed to be the earliest reference to helicopters, to rotary flight. It was written sometime in the fourth century AD and t’was but a short step from there to Airwolf.

My Red Planet submission is called Wasps and it’s set, primarily, in the air with said helicopters and the police people who fly a lot of them. And I didn’t realise it until the day I got the email about being in the finals that my very first script, the first screenplay I completed, was also about helicopters. In fact, if Wasps ever went to series, the things that have to happen in episode 2 happened in The Strawberry Thief some years ago.

I need you to know that no piece I’ve written in between these two has featured helicopters at all. I’m not, well, strange about them. I have flown them, but rotor time is so expensive I can’t claim the lessons I had amounted to much at all. Still, watching the whole world tilt under your feet, and knowing it’s your cack-handed use of the controls, that’s the most exciting way I’ve ever had to make myself feel sick. And there was metaphor even in lesson 1: my instructor told me I was a natural at hovering.

Anyway. Red Planet means a huge amount to me because it’s precisely, I mean to the nickel, about the type of writing I want to do. I’ve said it before, if the prize also included a bacon sandwich and an iPhone, I’d be convinced the whole thing was invented for me.

So to get some affirmation, even just this amount, that I can do the thing I want to do, is of course a dangerous height. To have it over a piece whose roots go back that far and which effectively charts my progression as a writer more than my mother does, that’s got to have a little bit of a deliciously vast inane.

Funny thing: Wasps is the most commercial thing I’ve ever written, but it’s simultaneously the least. I mean I hope it’s high drama but I think it’s more low cunning, and if I have better characters and dialogue than any helicopter TV show since Whirlybirds, that’s not a bleedin’ difficult thing to do. But just putting a helicopter in is expensive. Doing the things I need them to do, priceless.

And the week my best action thriller script ever got this little spot of recognition happened to be the week I wrote my most acutely personal, non-commercial, bitterly felt stage writing. I wrote a piece that was frightening. Not the subject matter or how I was doing it, really, but having this piece inside me and having to get it out, having to. But simultaneously being honestly scared of it. The phone would ring and I’d grab it, glad to escape the writing. And then if the call went on too long, I was frightened that I’d lose the moment and be unable to carry on writing.

I was honestly feeling pale from the writing. And it’s funny that I should keep using the word “honestly” because I think that was the thing. It’s the most honest, truthful, unpleasantly raw piece I’ve done. All writing is a peek into someone’s soul, or at least into their view of the world, and it’s a good thing if the reader catches you bleeding. What I didn’t really feel until this piece was that you can do this, I can seemingly do this, I can make a piece so raw it is painful and yet it’s fiction. An utter lie.

How can truthful writing be all lies? Ask me last month and I couldn’t have told you. Ask me now and I still can’t, but I can write it.

So this is why I’m unexpectedly seeing 2008 as a year of dangerous heights. I fully accept that as heights go, it’s not that dangerous, that it’s less mountaineering and more an exercise step class, but I’m hoping that means 2009 will entail more climbing.

I’d mentally written 2008 off, right back in 2007: I knew the year would be taken up with Angela’s chemotherapy. And it’s bizarrely great to tell you that now, this moment, she’s in the kitchen sorting out a delivery of fish. I loathe fish, I especially hate cooking the stuff, touching it, smelling it, but I did it often enough during the year. What I mean is that she’s well enough to stand, that she’s doing what she wants to do instead of at times being unable to move. And though there’s a way to go, when I think of what some of the chemo drugs could’ve done, it makes dangerous heights and vast inanes feel smaller. (A single example: one drug she had to take has been known, commonly, to remove all feeling from your finger tips for a decade.)

So. I’m surprised that 2008 went as well for my writing as it has – previously on 2008: Red Planet you know about, this personal honest writing lark too, but also two produced stage plays and one big fat not, also getting new journalism work including on Doctor Who Adventures magazine, which may be my favourite thing of the year.

Now 2009 feels wide open, unbound, unconstrained. If Red Planet would like to hire me on January 1 that would be okay. And, hey, I have the story for episode 2 ready to go.


3 thoughts on ““Mounting to dangerous heights and travelling into the vast inane”

  1. After all that I’m almost hoping you win it. Right, if RP don’t want me come January then they can have you. Okay?

    I was cock-a-hoop at being a finalist. Now I want to win. And I kind of know I’m not going to. I kind of want the disappointment of that to spur me on to higher heights.

    But I want to win too.

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