This won’t be a terribly gushing post; I don’t really know enough to gush. But I learned the news of Stephen Sondheim’s death on Friday evening, and I feel I should type something, even though I know so very little.

I came to appreciate Sondheim late. I think that’s a key part of why I now admire his work so much. I had to grow into it. Even when I was quite young, I knew of him. I listened a bit and didn’t quite get it. To me, back then, it seemed stagey and slightly off-melody.

But, like I said, I’ve grown into it. I think I needed to. It’s often pretty grown-up stuff.

But, like I said at the start, I’ve only grown a little into it. Scratched the surface. There’s a life’s work there. So much to see and so much to hear. I'll be working on that in the coming years, if I'm spared.

I admire the work he did. My current favourite is ‘Sunday in the Park with George’. I have haunted YouTube on that one. It’s so strong on Creativity and Art plus it’s got Mandy Patinkin in it and ‘Sunday’ right at the end.

But much as I adore the work, I also adore the way he did the work and I take encouragement from it. Two things, really. Stephen Sondheim pushed boundaries in all kinds of directions and, importantly, experienced failure upon failure at times. But he did not stop, and he could not stop. In my own attempts at writing, I’m not much like Stephen, but in this one thing, I kind of am. I fail, I mess up, but I won’t ever stop.

The second thing is about the level of real feeling in his work. My friend William Gallagher was on a little uncharacteristic tirade, over on his blog last week, about that cliché advice that goes ‘write what you know’. I’m with him on that all the way. I think it’s bullshit too. For my own part, I edited that advice for myself quite a long time ago. For me, the advice now says, ‘write what you feel’. This works for me now. Oh, you don’t have to wear your heart on your sleeve or go around weeping and wailing about everything in the goddamn world all the time. But I tend to audit the stuff I do to try to ensure that there's at least an ounce of ‘blood’ and emotion in there somewhere. If you, the reader, the audience, can’t see it, all the better but it’s the stock that flavours the stew, even if you don’t know what it is.

And Sondheim, he tapped the deep well of his soul in his work.

I think that’s why I’ve had to grow into his work. I think empathy gets learned as we go through our lives, to some extent at least and, until you’ve learned it, you won’t get the Art that demands it.

Let me give you the briefest of ‘for instance’s. When I was young, I would watch movies where characters punched their way through glass windows, and I wouldn’t blink. But, when I was eighteen, I accidentally punched my way through my own window. And the blood, the wound, the painful removal of the impaled wrist from the shard of glass, the stitches, the lingering scars, they all taught me a little empathy on that particular subject. Now, when the detective goes through the window in that old movie, I wince. Boy, do I wince.

So let it be with Sondheim. If you don’t get him now, well, you may never get him but it is entirely possibly that, someday, you just might.

This weekend, a new play is taking shape inside my head. An idea that has lain around for years has, with a little encouragement, begun to extend its tendrils through my mind and through my senses. It’s a rather heady feeling, when it happens, and I wouldn’t swap it for anything.

Thank you, Stephen Sondheim, so full of learning and teaching and creativity and respect and, yes, genius. Your refusal to fail and your willingness to share your heart has set you on high and, now that you are gone, you will  ascend ever higher and higher as the years go by.

And, through you work, you will remain with us for the longest time.

One Tiny Part of ‘Back to the Future’ that Baffles Me

There’s a certain exchange in the film ‘Back to Future’ that baffles me a bit. I watched the film again last weekend and there it is; that strange little dialogue interlude. Why is it there? What does it mean?

We’ll get to all of that shortly.

I saw ‘Back to the Future’ on the first night it came out in the Empire Leicester Square. My memory was that I was little underwhelmed with it. At that time, it seemed to spend the first third setting up the middle third in a terribly obvious fashion. Although the fun and pace picked up as it went, I didn’t quite forgive it that. Plus, something happened after the showing that made me sad and that may have also coloured my fading memory of the outing.

Over the years, I’ve seen it on telly time and time again (pun intended), usually around Christmas time. A couple of things have happened along the way. Firstly, it’s become a bit of an old friend. I mostly find it when it’s half-way through, so I’ve seen the second half way more than I’ve seen the first half and that second half is pacy and fun. Secondly, I’ve come to appreciate some of the more subtle touches that are everywhere in the writing and in the design. Somebody put a lot of thought into the little things on that movie. Which is why this one thing bugs me and makes me wonder…

But we’ll get to all that shortly.

Before I go on, I should say that I don’t rate Back to the Future Part II at all. Trish and I saw it in a cinema in Harvard Square in Boston on the first night it came out and it was a terrific disappointment in every respect. Back to the Future III, we saw in an Adelaide cinema one morning while waiting for our bus to Alice Springs. I think of it as an okay made-for-TV effort but nothing more.

But the first Back to the Future, while nowhere near my all-time favourite list, still has a place in my heart. I think, mostly, this is because of how it is always weaving stuff in. It weaves and there always seems to be something new to see in it. Some little trick or treat. For instance, Marty goes to Twin Pines Mall to meet Doc and start his time travelling adventure. On his getaway from the shotgun wielding farmer, he drives over one of the farmers beloved two pine trees. When he returns to the mall near the end of the movie, it is now Lone Pines Mall. There’s lots of that kind of stuff in there.

The second half of the movie cranks up the hazard and the challenges facing the protagonists and there’s an absolute shedload of stuff to get through before the day is finally saved. There literally isn’t a moment to lose.

Which brings us (at last) to that bit that baffles me.

It comes at the height of the crisis. Marty has just arrived from the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, having successfully paired off his father and his mother so that he can have a viable future. Doc is behind schedule, and everything must be in place before the lightning strikes the clock tower. There’s no time for idle chit chat.

Except that’s exactly what happens. Some apparently idle chit chat. Marty shows Doc the photograph with the three siblings now fully restored.

“The Old Man really came through. It worked! He laid out Biff in one punch. I didn’t know he had it in him. He’s never stood up to Biff in his life.”


“No. Why? What’s the matter?”

Doc thinks about this and then literally waves the whole exchange away with his hands and the movie rolls on to its conclusion.

(I’ve embedded the scene in here so you can have a look, if you want.)

But why is it in there? What purpose does it serve?

The script here is too rigid, the editing too tight for this seemingly gratuitous little exchange to be left in there by some kind of accident.

So, it means something in the context of the film. But what?

At first, I thought it was about parentage. Before I get into that, there is a slightly sanitised TV version of the film which is the one that we see mostly in the afternoons around Christmas time. The differences are not colossal but the level of swearing and the general edginess is cranked-up a bit in the uncut version and that is important in the context of the parentage question. You see, Biff has a salacious interest in Marty’s Mum, Lorraine. When he forces himself into the car with her, outside of the dance, his intentions are clearly sinister in a way not normally seen in a kid’s movie. And this isn’t really a kid’s movie anyway. Biff’s interest does not seem in any way born of the alterations that Marty has been making to the timeline. In fact, Biff''s threat seems fully-formed without any of Marty's interventions. 

So, if George McFly has never stood up to Biff’s horrible advances in the original timeline, what exactly happened on the night of the original Enchantment Under the Sea dance? It’s not a nice thought to explore too deeply but, when Doc looks at the restored photo and hears how George had never stood up to Biff, is he thinking about exactly who Marty’s parents really are?

This doesn’t stand up for all kinds of reasons. I’ll leave you to work that out if you care to (I realise you probably don’t). But, in the opening scenes of the film, adult Biff still seems salaciously interested in Marty’s Mum. What exactly kept him away from her over the years? We do not know, and we may, not without reason, fear the worst.

It’s not a happy train of thought to take from a light-hearted entertainment. Thankfully, my current theory is much less sinister and perhaps that’s why I have adopted it as my final answer as to why this scene is there at all.

Here goes…

Doc already knows that he is in big trouble in 1985. Marty catches him, in an earlier scene, watching the video over and over again. The one where the terrorists arrive to kill him. At the time of our scene, he hasn’t yet received the letter from Marty which warns him about his impending death, but he has clearly been wrestling with the ‘Timey-Wimey’ issues of changing the future. So much so that, when he gets the letter from Marty, he tears it up and, importantly, puts the pieces in his pocket. He hedges his bets. Why?

This, for me, having thought about it far too much, is the reason why our little scene is there. Doc looks at the future in that restored Polaroid photo and sees that all is well. Even though Marty has wreaked considerable havoc on the past, in order to try to save the future, all is still well. If George never stood up to Biff… until he suddenly did, and the Time/Space continuum held firm, then perhaps Doc could also take a small risk with the future and save himself?

In the film, when Marty finally realises that Doc has chosen to do just that, he asks him, “What about all that talk about screwing up future events?” Doc replies, “I figured, ‘what the hell?’”

It’s a funny line and it works well in the movie. But I now like to think that our strange little scene, right in the middle of the melee, gives Doc a lot more justification for doing what he did. It wasn’t a ‘what the hell’ moment, it was a calculated risk. All based on that one restored photo and the fact that George had never-ever stood up to Biff before Marty arrived.

There! Done.

Why should I bother writing this? Two reasons – well, three. The third one is that it was bouncing around in my brain this week and I figured that writing it might exorcise it out.

The first reason is that there is a lot of stuff to be found down the Internet rabbit hole about Back to the Future, including a lovely interlude about the terrorist’s van and the Mandela Effect. But there’s not all that much there about this scene. So, I thought I’d try to add to the canon a little.

And what about the second reason, Ken? About why you would waste your valuable time on this when clearly nobody cares that you do.

Well, because that’s as good a definition as any of what writers actually do. And, at the end of the day, like it or not Ken, you are a writer.

Aren't you?

Not as Sweet as You

They’ve opened an aisle just for me, apparently. That’s really very kind of them. The girl who guides me over to it is sweet but, you know…

It all happened at once, the way things do in those made-up stories sometimes. We were walking down into town on a Saturday afternoon. The little box was burning its usual hole in my pocket, and you had news to tell. Good news. Great news.

You’d got a gig. After all the months of waiting, auditioning, hoping, and praying, you’d finally got an acting gig. Better still, you’d kept it a little secret from me, and you’d gone and done it and got paid for it. You produced a cheque, an honest-to God old fashioned cheque with a full and amazing four digits before the decimal point. You didn’t know if you could pay it in at the cash till. You’d never had anything to pay in before, but you sure as hell were going to try.

You laughed and I laughed back as we ambled along and there was this slab of paving with a tiny edge sticking up proud from the footpath and you caught your foot on it and you tripped and fell, and your head hit the edge of the concrete kerb stone. It was nothing, really. In the movies, people get thrown off buildings and waylaid with crowbars all the time and they just get up and fight on. They wince and they rub the sore spot for a moment but that’s all. On they go.

You didn’t go on though, did you? Not really, anyway. They kept you breathing for a time. They kept you warm and sustained. But you were gone, really, weren’t you? When they eased you off the machinery it was a blessing, they said, a pure blessing.

I couldn’t really see it that way.

I should have asked you about the gig you did. You had worked so hard, waited so long. Acting degree, audition after audition, working for free whenever you could. Anything, anything to get on. I should have taken the little box out of my pocket and asked you then and there. You might not have tripped then; you might not have died.

Whenever I go to the supermarket now, I try to buy the minimum. There’s only me now to feed, only my clothes to wash. I try but I inevitably get too much. I either think or hope you’ll be there when I get home.

They have new checkouts in store today. Automated. Everywhere else has had them for years but they’ve finally arrived here in my little place. Three of them in a row. That suits me. I don’t need to see anyone in person these days, I don’t need to be discussing the weather.

I place my basket on the left side of the checkout and scan my first item, placing it over on the right. I know how it works from the bigger supermarket where I go on the weekends to buy too much stuff.

“Have you scanned your loyalty card?” the machine asks me.

I laugh.

“Gosh, no,” I reply, a sudden unexpected smile running across my mouth, “I almost forgot.”

I fish out my wallet and search for the card. Give it a quick scan.

“All of your points add up.” the machine says.

“I know they do,” I say, “I know it.”

I stop. Stare.

“Is it you?” I ask.

The machine doesn’t say anything. I must scan some more things.

I scan and scan. The machine says nothing more. It just beeps once with each item I send through. Too much stuff. Far too much.

When everything is scanned, I press ‘Pay’ on the touch screen.

“Select payment type,” she says, in her lovely voice.

“Is this the gig you got? The voice of the checkout?”

“Yes, isn’t it cool?”

“I’ve missed you so much.

“Please select payment type.”

The queue behind me is growing. People are looking at me with odd sideways glances. I select ‘Pay by Card.’

“Follow the instructions on the keypad.”

“I will. I will. But first I want to show you something.”

I fumble in my pocket and pull out the tiny box. I open it, the contents colour and sparkle in the high lux glare. I lay the box gently on the scanner.”


“Item not recognised. Pleased enter the code or select item from directory.”

“It’s not that big of a surprise, I think.”

“Enter the code or select item from directory.”

I pick the little box up and place it carefully on the right-hand side, along with my milk and my butter. I ease myself down on one knee, as we joked that I someday might.

“Will you please marry me?”

The machine beeps.

“Unexpected item in the bagging area,” she says.

"I know it’s quite sudden. I know it’s a bit naïve."

“Unexpected item in the bagging area.”

“It’s just that I thought I’d lost you.”

“Assistance is on the way.”

“And here you are.”

“Assistance is on the way.”

The assistance has arrived. The small crowd parts to let her through. She puts her hand on my shoulder. I think she might know my story.

“Walk over here with me, John. We have a place.”

They’ve opened an aisle just for me, apparently. That’s really very kind of them. The girl who guides me over to it is sweet but, you know…

… not as sweet as you.




It would be wrong to let this little flash fiction piece go out without name-checking the great Harlan Ellison, who has been an inspiration to me since I found first found ‘Shatterday’ on the library shelf, when I was aged thirteen or so.

His short story ‘Laugh Track’ from the collection ‘Angry Candy’ was an obvious influence for this tiny effort.

Facing It Down

Sunday morning, 9.40am. The temptation is huge.

Stick up a note on Facebook and Twitter, “No new blog post this week but here’s one from way back when…”.


Being a writer is easy when you’ve got something to write. Having ideas is easy when you’ve got a couple of ideas. When you have nothing to write when you have no ideas… not so much.

But the real writers are not just fair-weather scribblers. Sometimes they must ride out a drought or shelter from a hailstorm. Sometimes they just have to face down the blank page and make something happen. There’s just no other way.

So, stick around a moment. There actually is a new blog post this morning. It’s just, right now, at 9.44am, I have no idea what the next word of it will be… or the word after that.

Sometimes writing (for me at least) is like push starting a car. You’re back there heaving, and the car feels so heavy and it’s got so little movement and your back is breaking and you’d better just call the roadside rescue and sit this one out. Maybe you’d better. Except that if you can keep on pushing through the backbreak, something might spark, something might click, and you’re off and running towards something or other.

(This is a waste of time, I should stop now, have some cornflakes.)

(No, I can’t).

Look around the desk. A bit cluttered. Write a paragraph about something on there.

Well, there’s my beloved Bluetooth headphones. Status BT Ones. I hinted the fuck out of them for last Christmas and got myself a pair. I love to listen to podcasts in the kitchen when making the dinner and I love to watch a crap movie loud late at night when the rest of the house is sleeping. These puppies were gifted to me to let me do that better. And, partly, they do and, partly, they don’t. The ‘podcast in the kitchen’ part is a dream. I do my weekly Kermode and Mayo (the ones that I didn’t get in the car) or just play some Tom Waits or something.

The telly thing, though. Not so good. The headphones connect and the sound is wonderful. They just don’t always stay connected. Accidentally flick your head a little and the sound becomes broken and disjointed. And the trouble with TV sound on headphones for a movie is this: it’s either perfect or it’s absolutely no good at all. There is no middle ground. So that’s a bit of a disappointment. Every now and again I try them again and they work for a while and it’s perfect (just like the kitchen podcast is perfect.) But then, out of nowhere, it’s all “ah-oh-eh-oh-ah’ again and the effect is ruined.

The movie effect is a fragile one. When me and Sam went to see the most recent Star Wars film, it was in the afternoon in one of the smaller screens in the local Multiplex. For some reason, the sound channel carrying the dialogue stopped working halfway through. We could hear the sound effects and the music, but the character’s lips moved, and no sound came out. I went and found a young man in the sweet shop who promised he would attend to it. I went back to my seat and watched the partially silent space opera unfold. Then, suddenly, the dialogue came back. Hurray!

The movie stopped mid-frame and the sweet shop guy appeared in front of the screen. “Sorry about that,” he said, “I will rewind the film for you. How far back should I go?” The consensus was that fifteen minutes would be about right. He vanished and, a few moments later, the film on the big screen started cranking back, just like it would on your DVD or streaming.

The point is that ‘cinema rewind’ has forever since coloured my view of the cinema experience. Before that, there was a naive impression of huge film reels and coordinated change over of projectors. The ‘rewind’ drew back the veil and showed the mundane reality of digital projection at work.

These things are fragile. They're either perfect or no good at all.

10.01am and, once again, I don’t know what to write now. I had no idea I was going to write that ‘Star Wars Rewinded’ bit so I suppose that’s the 'car pushing' effect in action. What now though?

Suppose we were in the pub, having an Americano ‘cos the sun/yardarm thing is not quite right yet. The conversation has momentarily lagged. What would I tell you?

I got an image for the poster for the new play. I’m very happy about that. I was surfing Flickr looking for something that might work when I came upon the perfect image. It was both exciting and nervous making. If the owner of the photo doesn’t allow me to use it, then it’s all for naught. I banged off a message, knowing full-well that Flickr messages are not often read and even less often replied-to. Wonder of wonders, a short time later, a reply came back. Yes, I can use the image. This is bigger than it might seem. It’s like a sort of benediction. A note from the fates that this play-thing might just go quite well. And why wouldn’t it? I have such a stellar cast and such a lovely venue in The Linenhall. Plus, the rehearsals are so good. Funny and collaborative is the best of ways. It’s all very exciting.

That’s all I want to say about it for now but, rest assured, you’ll hear more about it soon.

10.11am and 1,000 words are in the bag (or they will be when I’ve done this bit). God knows they aren’t particularly good words and there isn’t a lot of value in here for you, the valued reader. I’m sorry about that. I’ll do better next week. Part of the reason I’ll do better is because I pushed myself to do this one today. The writing muscle had been stretched. That will serve me well for next time. At least, that’s how it usually works.

Have a good day. Do something nice for yourself.

Now… Cornflakes.