With some notable exceptions, my comedy writing career hasn’t been much of a success till now. I started in 1999 with a sitcom based on the psychedelic antics of the acid dropping Buddhist monks, hippies and resident Clown of The Happy Hippie commune I’d stayed in when I was a teenager in California. The action was translated into inner city Peckham in South London, which in 1999 was far from gentrified. The main character, Helga who was brought up on a snail farm in Germany, had been dumped by her husband and reluctantly decamped from Prime Central London Belgravia to Peckham. When she’d got into her rented flat, she’d discovered Buttercup, an ageing hippy and tech nerd drop out from MIT, meditating in a cupboard. He’d been living in parks for seven years before that. They set up a Hippie magazine Ecology and soon word goes round London that anyone who can provide a service to the commune or magazine can get free accommodation. Various oddballs such as Kirk the “body guard” a former US marine who’d survived a nuclear explosion in the Pacific but said sayonara to his sanity afterwards and Dick a gay stripper turn up. Those of you who’ve read my post “Dropping acid with a bunch of Buddhist monks in California” will recognise the scenario. But the sitcom was much more political lampooning various left wing and politically correct activist groups.
The magazine is focused on various good causes such as Amazonian Indians, Native Americans and trees. But is actually a load of rubbish based on a misunderstanding of Buddhist, Hindu and Native American philosophy. They engage in missions with various groups such as the Animal Liberation Front where they attempt and catastrophically fail to liberate 20,000 gerbils who are having bad perms on their eyebrows. Fuck ups are fundamental to the group. After printing a solid gold issue commemorating the death of the Dalai Lama (who’s unfortunately still alive) the magazine is stormed by hordes of angry Buddhists and they have to flee for their lives. The story charts the dot.com boom and bust as they set up a website in hiding, masterminded by Buttercup, who transforms from a downtrodden hippy to an Internet Entrepreneur.
The website with chanting, hallucinogenic effects and various new age philosophies becomes a massive cult hit with clubbers who are so stoned they think it’s really deep. After the website is valued at £100 million pounds Buttercup launches a coup trying to sell it to Google. This is thwarted by the dot com bust but a talent war breaks out with companies trying to poach Buttercup who ends up earning a million pounds a year.
I sent the script to Curtis Brown, the premier TV writing agency in Britain and got a personal letter back from Ben Hall the man who’s now their CEO saying he had greatly enjoyed the script and that he was “very impressed with the craft” with which I wrote.
I also sent it to a friend, a senior TV comedy producer who’d worked with many big names, such as Lenny Henry, who said I “definitely could write” but that the sitcom would not be commissioned as it was too similar to existing sitcom Hippies.
But reading through the synopsis I wrote in 1999, now in 2016, I realise that the story was very funny, quite political and very topical. If only I had had the persistence that I’ve developed in recovery plodding on with my writing career despite multiple setbacks I had enough material for a comic novel. I bitterly regret all the energy and good ideas I wasted that came to absolutely nothing because I didn’t plough on with the idea.
My next project in 2001 was completely different – a short film that was a gothic horror story about a young couple who, while having sex for the first time in a romantic woodland setting, realise they are next to a corpse. The corpse looks exactly like the girl. She falls apart after the discovery unable to touch her boyfriend or share a bedroom with him. The girl is later haunted – or imagines – the voice of the dead girl echoing around her bedroom begging her to come back to the wood where she committed suicide. There are hints that the ghost may be that of the living girl’s sister. The girl goes back to the wood, after her boyfriend fails to stop her. When she is in the wood the ghost suddenly says that she does not want to leave the girl. She invades the girls head saying she will never be alone again for a second, and the girl starts screaming realising she is going mad. The film ends with a flashback of the living girl gloating as she pushed her little sister out of a top floor window as a child.
People who read this short story said it was “gripping” and “a real page turner.” When I sent this short film into the National Film and Television School in 2002 they immediately rang me in Jamaica to ask me in for an interview. Unfortunately as my mother was devastatingly ill in Jamaica I could not come back to England for the course. Again, although I had had such good feedback on the film, I did nothing to get it produced.
The height of my comic writing career came when I had a series of 10 short factual comedy dramas about Jamaica broadcast on BBC Radio 4 to an audience of millions. These dramas which featured up to 15 characters, each performed in different accents by myself, were broadcast between 2001-2004 while I was living in Jamaica. But when I crashed out of my journalism career because of my cocaine addiction this avenue was permanently closed. In any event although I could arrange and perform the truth artistically in these dramas (which were broadcast on the “From Our Own Correspondent” programme) they had to stick closely to the facts.
My next fictional project was more ambitious: a feature film script called “The Fish Tank Babies.” This was based on a short comic story I’d written detailing my reluctance to get pregnant as “you waddle around like a walrus whose eaten too much dairy milk and can’t even pee or have sex properly afterwards.” Modern women I said were “badly designed” as “Thousands of generations of harpy-like fashion editors have liposucked our hips from the requisite 76” to 36″ inches. The solution I said was either to “return to a deeply unfashionable Stone Age sillouette or “Start growing babies in fish tanks”
The film is a satire on a glamorous driven career woman in New York, who is incredibly obnoxious but has a “perfect” life who wants children but is horrified by birth. Until very recently because of my lifelong eating disorder I could not contemplate getting pregnant and wanted to have a surrogate birth. The film also takes the piss out of the American pharmaceutical industry, as the main character is the Creative Director of an ad agency that produces glossy ads for products like “Nolaze” that treats a condition called “Morning Attention Deficit Disorder” or MADD and “Perfect” that deals with the symptoms of an epidemic disease called Limited Imperceptible Friction Energy or L.I.F.E.
Conned by the perfect commercials she creates, she decides she wants children and discovers that scientists in Japan have grown goats in artificial wombs. This last fact is actually true! In my film the Japanese government are engaged in a top secret project to rescue their national economy by raising the IQ of the population by ten points. By removing the element of pregnancy and birth they are trying to persuade the most intelligent and successful people who have the fewest children to have the most. The fishtank babies can also be mentally stimulated twenty four hours a day with Einstein’s theory of relativity piped directly into the tank, alternated with bursts of Mozart and soliloquies from Shakespeare. She emails the project and is amazed when three scientists from the Tokyo Ministry of Technology turn up at her door the following day. One of these is actually an undercover white supremacist, Smith, who has infiltrated the project trying to spread a blond haired blue eyed gene throughout the world. She goes to an Elite sperm bank to hand select the sperm donors who all produce glossy “dating videos” to attract the women. Of course everyone she chooses is over 6 foot, has been to Ivy League Universities and successful in their chosen field.
This has peculiar resonance with my own life at the moment as I want a sperm donor (preferably over 5 foot 10) who has been to a good university to create genius frozen embryos. This is to preserve my ability to have my own biological child as I am 46 and my eggs will soon be past their sell by date. The fertility clinic said a sperm bank in California has donors that look like film stars but I was horrified that you can’t get any photos of them. The honest truth is I would love a dating video of my sperm donor!
As the fish tank baby technique in the movie is experimental they have to create eight embryos in fish tanks to be sure some survive. Unfortunately all the babies survive and Sandra cannot bear to terminate any of them. This causes her life to fall apart and for her to be sacked from her job after she asks for maternity leave without being pregnant. The children are incredibly advanced, crawling within a few days, speaking after a month and also have special powers like crawling vertically up walls. She takes her employer to court for unfair dismissal and the babies at three months old give evidence in court to prove that she is their mother. The appearance of the children in court produces a media storm.
The main character softens during the film becoming more and more attached to the babies and swops her TV Executive boyfriend, who can’t get it up, for the caretaker of her building who is an impoverished writer but intelligent and actually cares about her.
After the white supremacists get wind of a plan to move the project to Tokyo they launch a plan to abduct all the babies and kill Sandra. But the babies with their special powers and the scientists outwit the commandos who are arrested by the police. The family including the caretaker end up in hiding but happy in a South American country.
My friend who is a comedy producer said that the central character was not attractive enough for the audience to care about her and that there were elements of the story that were unrealistic. She said the central character needed to be humanised and the slapstick toned down. She also suggested I could write it as a novel, which I did nothing about.
Reading this script in 2016 I see it has many good elements. Again with the slightest whiff of discouragement I abandoned the project and didn’t try to do anything with it.
Despite the chaos and trauma of my life between 1999 and 2005 when I got clean, I have lovingly preserved every one of these scripts that I have written as well as the short stories.
Considering that I didn’t keep a single receipt from the £300,000 building project I did to build my house in Notting Hill this is pretty amazing.
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Once I got into recovery I was so caught up with trying to stay clean and dealing with my mental health problems that I had little time for writing. But the dramatic events that had happened in rehab, including my getting it together with an ex-armed robber pimp and drug dealer who’d forgotten how long he’d spent in jail, stimulated my imagination. When I moved into a dry house on the edge of Notting Hill, the crazy shenanigans of the residents which my boyfriend referred to as “Lunatic Lane” inspired me to start writing again. But I only made a few notes before I became obsessed with a major building project to completely re-build a house.
After the building project was finished, I started full time on my first novel whose drug dealing hero/anti-hero was inspired by my boyfriend and where the central character was a journalist who had dropped out of her career because of her cocaine addiction.
The story starts with a talented young actress, Aurelia, on the brink of Hollywood fame, ODing in a crack house. She comes to buried underground and, after a desperate struggle to escape, suffocates.
The other characters embark on a darkly humorous odyssey of addiction to avoid their feelings of guilt around her death. Her mother, Lady Olivia, realising she has not been perfect as a parent, decides to organise a perfect funeral instead. A cosmetic surgery addict, she has a series of mishaps at the hands of various cowboys on Harley Street. Aurelia’s father, Charles, a sex addict, who’s sexually abused Aurelia, becomes hooked on violent porn and sex with prostitutes. He persists in believing he’s a decent person, who’s basically misunderstood.
Aurelia’s sister, Charlie, an Oxford graduate, is the only member of the family whose life is not controlled by addiction. She is struggling to make ends meet as a journalist in New York, where she’s a rising star on a gossip column, poking fun at self-important celebrities.
Resolutely anti-drugs, she nonetheless gets drawn into the seedy world her sister inhabited as she investigates her death. But she leads the police to Colin – the man responsible for Aurelia’s death.
Wracked with guilt over her sister, who she adored but also envied, Charlie becomes addicted to alcohol and starts dabbling in cocaine. After several Absolut disasters, she crashes out of her career in journalism and relapses on cocaine. She starts doing peculiar sexual favours for older men – including a man disguised as a cocker spaniel, nicknamed “Mr Woof.” But, after a brutal experience with two clients, she gives up cocaine again and goes to stay at the house of her best friend, a loving normal family, to try to sort out her life.
Colin, whose life has been blighted by sexual abuse and his mother’s alcoholism has been caught and goes to prison, where he’s using heavily. Eventually, the heroin stops working and, overwhelmed by guilt, he attempts suicide. He is introduced to a “listener,” an older prisoner who becomes like a father to him. He starts attending meetings of Narcotics Anonymous and gets clean. He also learns to wash.
Unable to stay off drugs, Charlie starts a relationship with a Jamaican drug dealer in Notting Hill. After a while, he says his life is under threat and needs her to bring a parcel of cocaine from Jamaica. After being forced to return with the drugs, she realises she is pregnant. She leaves the dealer and gives up drugs. But she continues to drink and, after the baby is born prematurely with a heart defect, it is taken into care. On the point of killing herself, she decides she will give up alcohol instead.
Just as he’s about to flee the country, her father is arrested and charged with attempted murder after he’s attacked and almost killed two prostitutes.
Charlie cannot stop drinking and tries to get into rehab. Her father will not pay. She gets funding from her local council at a rehab bristling with ex-cons. After a procedural cock-up, Colin arrives. They clash repeatedly in group. But Charlie realises Colin has changed and that both their lives have almost been destroyed by guilt. After they leave, they become much closer and, eventually, kiss. Charlie’s father is convicted of attempted murder and stays in jail. The baby recovers after an operation on her heart. And, as Charlie is now off the booze and drugs, the social workers say that, if she stays clean, she can be re-united with the baby.
The exciting news with this novel was that the Editorial Director of a major publishing house was interested in the novel and had agreed to read it when it was finished. I set about writing the novel with absolutely no clue how to do. And when I had finished the gargantuan 250,000 word first draft and enrolled on a course in novel writing, realised it would have to be completely rewritten. After doing this I sent it to the publisher where it was read by everyone including the Editorial Director who said:
“It is a multi-layered novel which deals with the desperate consequences of addiction through a complex family drama, successfully weaving the two together. There are convincing darkly comic moments and characters. Despite the appalling situations all the characters find themselves in, there is a sense of hope threaded throughout the novel, which offers an uplifting message to a very serious topic. Overall, I thought it provided a real insight into addiction and exposes the sad truths behind it but it would be too commercial for our list.”
I then set about trying to obtain an agent for the novel. While I was waiting to hear from agents about the novel I started writing the sequel “Hippy Ever After” about the relationship and adventures of Charlie and Colin as they try to build a house and life together in Notting Hill. The blurb for this novel was as follows:
Celebrity neighbours, punch-ups with a minor royal and a basement full of exotic sharks…..
When unlikely couple Charlie and Colin choose to build a nest in one of London’s most fashionable zones they get a lot more eggs than they’d bargained for.
Will their love survive the chasm in their backgrounds and bank balances?
As well as the dark forces that are trying to drive them apart..
And will Colin, whose only home was a crack house, avoid cracking up?
When I showed the synopsis to my ex-boyfriend it was so close to my life with him he said “are you seriously telling me this is fiction.” Those of you who have read my blog posts “When celebrities destroy your house and cut through your bedroom door with a carving knife saying “we miss you” and “Armageddon with the ex-armed robber” will have an idea of the story. Though of course the big difference between my life and this novel is that I did not build my house in Notting Hill, with its constant interruption by celebrity neighbours, film stars and soap star lodgers with my ex-armed robber boyfriend. It was my house in Kensal Green, which had no celebrity involvement, that I built with him. I wrote this novel in a blaze of creativity at the end of 2013, writing 75,000 words in less than 5 weeks, as I knew a major building project was coming up on my rental property and I would not be able to write for a while.
In fact I had a nervous breakdown because of the building project and as my boyfriend, who I was still involved with, was having a baby with someone else. So I was not able to write anything for almost a year.
As I wrote Hippy Ever After so quickly I have only just read it now. Although it is a very hurried first draft and needs a lot of work it is funny and has potential. After I recovered from the nervous breakdown I got back into the first novel.
A friend of mine had said that if I wanted to be a writer I should be promoting my work on Twitter. I thought “I’ve got nothing to promote so I’ll start to write a blog.” I was really only doing it to kill time while I was waiting to hear from agents about my novel. I started posting bloginhotpants on WordPress almost exactly a year ago.
From the beginning the reaction of readers was different to my previous work. I had many hits on the blog from my first post on Facebook and comments such as “hilarious,” “sad, funny and shocking,” “Lord Byron’s got nothing on you,” and “this is very good you should turn it into a book it would be a best-seller.” Later readers commented that I was “changing their lives by revealing these intimate details.”
I had had absolutely no engagement with social media prior to writing the blog. I was not even on Twitter and never posted on Facebook. When I started I didn’t even know how to send a Tweet but did a social media course. I gradually learned how to use social media to promote the blog coming up with funny posts on Facebook and Twitter. I acquired almost 4,000 followers on Twitter. I read everything I could get my hands on on how to increase traffic to your blog.
This year I started posting on a US addiction website and Linkedin so most of my 20,000 hits have come in the last few months. The big difference between the blog and my previous writing, apart from the comedy dramas for the BBC, was my level of dedication and persistence. I treat the blog like a job doing a little on it every day. And now I have been writing it for a year I have basically completed a memoir. I still want to get the blog published but feel a tremendous sense of fulfilment from my 20,000 hits and the wonderful comments I’ve got from readers.
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Next week: Clearing the infestation of serial killers from my laundry basket, chest of drawers, wardrobe and even the deep freeze – my recovery from a lifetime of OCD.