The Turning of the Fictional Tide

A couple of nights ago, randomly browsing the TV for a nightcap, I chanced across Four Weddings and a Funeral. It’s long been in my old-favourites’ list; not least for Simon Callow’s adorable (and awfully sad) depiction of Gareth (and it’s got W H Auden). I liked it too, at the time, for being inclusive: having a main character with hearing loss was forward-thinking at the time (especially as he was played by the actor David Bower who is deaf). As I watched it this time though, I realised that Charles’ brother David isn’t actually included in many of the conversations in the film; just one of the starting points for my sudden – and quite Damascene – experience.

Carrie (a role that many people still haven’t forgiven Andie Macdowell for) isn’t very nice but Charles, Hugh Grant at his Hugh Grantest, is an absolute shitbag. His character floats adrift in a sea littered with failed relationships; some with women smart enough to laugh at him, others (like poor Duckface) who are broken-hearted. And then, after sleeping with Carrie behind her fiancé’s back, he stands Duckface up at the altar. No wonder we needed Helen Fielding to come along and show us that these men (who were being coo-ed over and judged as ‘harmless’) needed to be rebranded as ‘emotional fuckwits’. And thank God she did.


This trope of ‘men who can’t help it’ ran for years in fiction and the media. In many respects it still does. A side note here, I’ve been dying to write the word trope in a post forever – ever since my friend Tracy told me what it meant. Coincidentally, when I woke up the morning after watching the film, Molly Ringwald’s piece had appeared in the New Yorker (a piece I really recommend you read). She writes so brilliantly about art that you ‘can simultaneously love and oppose’ that I urge you to read her piece.

Women’s fiction has run this trope (I mistyped then and put ‘tripe’) for years. It’s refreshing that the decade that has brought us #MeToo has also brought ‘uplit’, fiction designed to show us that kindness is the real route to happiness, and that women’s fiction doesn’t need to involve a feckless twat being, almost, tamed into a useful life partner. Rachel Joyce, Ruth Hogan, and Gail Honeyman have carved out a genre that is far more empowering to women, friendships, and personal strength, than the traditional depiction of romance.

Kismet, really, that Charles and Carrie should end up together. She was prepared to cheat on poor old Hamish, although she said she ‘wouldn’t do it once they were married’ and he jilted Henrietta at the altar: AT THE ALTAR, let’s think about that. We were rooting, through that not-so-real-rain, for a boy and a girl who were both emotional fuckwits.

I’ve only got one thing to say to you, Carrie (or, for that matter, Charles), be careful how you get them, because that’s how you lose them. And that trope doesn’t ever change.

The More I Practice, the Luckier I Get (attr. Gary Player)

My friend Jess owns an eyebrow salon. You take your eyebrows there and you come out svelte, groomed and attractive. While Jess was shaping and grooming my brows the other day, she told me how incredibly lucky she is. She has a great and growing business, staff she adores (and who adore her), two terrific kids, and a beautiful home. And she was surprised when I told her none of this is luck.

Jess has worked hard to get this ‘lucky’: she worked out of a shed in her garden when her babies were tiny; she took business risks and leapt forward wherever she could; her staff members are great because she both picks them well and treats them well. Are these things luck? Or are they the results of measured risk, hard work, and a good portion of ‘balls’.

Professor Richard Wiseman studied luck and how you find it. In 2003, I bought his brilliant book, The Luck Factor, for the ‘Women Returners’ I was teaching in Staffordshire. Some of them said they found it difficult to do their homework or get to college because they were single parents. I was a single parent who’d recently finished a first and second degree, so I didn’t have an awful lot of truck with that as an argument. The real reason those particular women couldn’t get it done was that they didn’t believe that they could (I hope a year at college proved to them that, in actual fact, they could do pretty much most things they put their minds to). Of course there are barriers: logistics; health; childcare; money (especially with student fees at an all-time high) - but the optimistic mind is far better prepared to scale these obstacles.


In an article for the Skeptical Enquirer  in 2003, Wiseman wrote that ‘lucky people generate their own good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.’ They also, he found, have optimistic memories. Lucky people remember fewer failures – and therefore take more risks. The more risks you take, the greater your chances of one paying off. Unlucky people remember the failures and are more guarded in future choices.

I’ll be talking about making your own luck on the Path to Publishing at the Kent Festival of Writing on April 14th. Writers have to do the necessary work to get lucky. We have to put in hours of making, ligging, creating, reshaping. We have to follow instructions, keep to deadlines, and respond to criticism in a positive and useful way. Much like any other job you want to do well really...

When I first started getting feedback from agents and editors, I used to rail against their comments – furious that they thought I had one character too many or my plot was implausible. The most important thing I learnt on my writing journey was to listen, to make the changes that people with more experience and a better eye suggested. And now, funnily enough, the more I take their advice on board, and the harder I work, and the more risks I take – the better I get at being lucky.

The best story from Wiseman’s research is this: I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs whereas the lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message “Stop counting – There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was over two inches high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.

And then it gets better: Just for fun, I placed a second large message half way through the newspaper. This one announced: “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” Again, the unlucky people missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for photographs.

"Not everyone has to love you, Phin. Just a few good people"

I’ve seen The Greatest Showman twice now and intend to see it twice more before it leaves the cinema. It’s a glorious, old-fashioned musical and I heartily recommend it.

PT Barnum was no saint, if the storyline is to be believed, but what’s so interesting to me is the part of his personality that makes him – constantly – doubt his own self-worth and his achievements. I have a huge, and sometimes insurmountable, streak of this in me: one of my school-friends once described my daughter (as a child) as ‘like you if you’d had confidence’.


I have absolutely no doubt that this deep-seated doubt and need to have friends and family constantly prove their allegiance comes from being an adopted child. I was adopted at 9 weeks old, and have no way of knowing whether I was with my natural mother for that time or in foster care. I was born in an unmarried mothers’ home in Liverpool and my research shows that mothers were encouraged to keep their babies with them while they were in the home, partly as it made it easier to care for the infants, and partly to make sure the mothers ‘learnt their lesson.’ When my parents picked me up, it was from a foster home in Liverpool where a number of babies were being looked after. No one knows, or at least remembers, how old I was when I arrived there.

In the 1960s, 150,000 children a year were put up for adoption. At the end of that decade, the Abortion Act became law and far fewer young women, and babies, were forced to go through the trauma of separation. My granddaughter is nine weeks old this week: she smiles, she communicates, and she looks at her parents with such love and adoration. It cannot be possible that losing that security and bond, even at that age, leaves no effect on a human being. Attachment Separation Anxiety is a very real thing that can follow people throughout their lives and can make relationships very difficult, even just with yourself.

When I introduce my, rather naughty, spaniel to people, I always excuse him because ‘he’s a rescue.’ There was a time when we didn’t extend that amount of understanding to human beings. I was a tricky child, an awkward teenager, and even as an adult I’ve never shaken off some of the demons – nowadays, I try and ask myself (before I think it’s my fault or that those around me might not really love me) ‘is it because I’m a rescue?’

It’s so important to think twice about people’s behaviour and what it is that might be behind their motivations. We can almost never know. It’s important for writing too: a writer needs to be absolutely aware of these chinks in the character’s armour, of traits and motivations that the character may never have actively recognised in themselves, if the character’s actions are to be in any way robust or plausible.

I know the echoes of this Separation Anxiety can be very tiring for my family and friends and often put a strain on relationships but luckily for me, like Hugh Jackman’s P T Barnum, I am loved by more than just a few good people.