Starter for Ten – w/c 24-2-20

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up and blank pages are not allowed – if all else fails type out song lyrics. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold!

Suckage often occurs. Wednesday’s is best this week…



W: What is your problem?

M: I was waiting to pull into that space. You already had a space, so move back.

W: Why should I? There was no one in the space so I pulled into it. I can see now you were looking at moving into that space, but I did first.

M: It was mine.

W: If it was yours then I would have crashed into you, you arsehole.

M: Lovely attitude you’ve got. Do you talk to your husband like that?

W: Did you talk to your ex-wife like that?

M: Jokes on you, I’m not divorced.

W: Good things come to those who wait.

M: Listen, just give me that space back.

W: Why?

M: Because it’s the one that I was waiting to pull into!

W: There’s loads of space.

M: Yeah, but I want to go there.

W: As we’ve already established, you clearly didn’t have the space in the first place, otherwise I’d currently be parked on top of your head – which is an attractive thought right at the moment.

M: Oh so you’re threatening me now? Did you hear that mate?

S: What’s that?

M: Did you hear what she said about driving into my face?

W: I didn’t say that – I pointed out that it wasn’t “your space” because I was in it first.

M: That’s not the point!

B: Mum! Dad! Why can’t you just enjoy the dodgems like any other normal people?


There’s a bad energy in the room. Jokes that would usually land are falling flat. He’s hoping that it’s something to do with this fucking mouth ulcer. Every time his tongue probes a certain point on his inside lip it stings and his attention is momentarily distracted. He’s changed his delivery ever-so minutely and it’s enough to screw his timing.

But he’s experienced, he’s been doing stand-up a long time and he knows enough to sell the lines with physical movements. His arm movements become bigger and his hands start to push the punchlines; after twenty minutes his face muscles are exhausted because he’s pantomiming the fuck out of the evening.

“I’m not one of those self-hating Jews,” he says and he realises that the word “Jews” is the perfect storm for this ulcer – the pursing of the lips for the J and the little thrust of the tongue for the S antagonise it perfectly and he winces. He notices a lady react to the wince and pushes quickly on. “My mother does that for me.”

A small laugh – maybe a 5. That line is usually a solid 7 out of 10 laugh and it allows him to build from it, this section is going to be tough. Mentally he computes how well this section would deliver if he had to prune the word Jews out of it. Somehow even thinking the word makes his lip wince – he bails.

“But enough about Je-ow the adherents of the Hebrew faith, let’s talk about…”


The mouse crashed through a pile of leaf mould, scattering fragments in the air and skittered on the wet gravel. He turned hard right and ploughed again through the deep piles of oak leaves that sat on the road. The cat sprang and landed on the pile, padding at the various movements with his claws, thrusting into where he hoped the mouse would be. A noise over on the right alerted the cat that he had miscalculated and he tore through the leaves, swiping clusters of them to one side in the hope of revealing the small, damp creature. It would make no more than a mouthful, but this was about more than hunger now – it was about humiliation. The cat felt it and longed to inflict it.

The cat approached the trunk of the tree and swished at the remaining leaves. The mouse scuttled quickly around the edge of the trunk, a fraction too slow to stop the cat from driving the claws of its right paw through the bed of its tail. It peeped with anxiety and pain and the cat reveled in the moment. The chase was beautiful but the kill was art – first a wound to ensure that any subsequent chase would be very one-sided. Then a parody of the morning’s back and forth, to rehearse for the next and to celebrate the kill. Then a small meal – it’s body and innards, leaving the spine and skull for the birds.

He drove his claw in further and the mouse peeped again and shook. It shivered and looked up just in time to see the bulldog tiptoeing up behind the cat, with the largest metal skillet the mouse had ever seen, raised over its head.  


There’s something really satisfying about pouring sugar into a container. Opening the folds of a large packet of sugar and tipping it into the caddy that will be its home. In part this is because the sugar is, at this stage, pristine white and is yet to accumulate the mysterious brown flecks that characterise the look of latter-stage sugar caddy sugar. You can kid yourself that this time you’ll keep to the rules, it will be dry teaspoons only that will be used. But really, who can be bothered to get a spoon to fish out the tea bag from the cup and another spoon to get the sugar. That’s where the brown flecks come from, crystallised drops of tea.

The other thing that’s nice about tipping the sugar into the caddy is the aesthetic of it. It whooshes out and builds into a peak in the centre which a quick nudge on the caddy will flatten. The grains of sugar behave according to some laws of fluids, in the same way that you get waves in banks of sand. Enough atoms of sugar are pushed into the atmosphere to sweeten the very air. The echoing caddy soon takes on a deeper sound as the weight of material builds. The entire bag fits in and means that you won’t have to fold the bag over and keep yet another scrag end of a bag in the cupboard with the odds and sods of flours and powders.

The lid sits snug on the container, a rubber seal keeping the contents pristine – a new hope that this time it will be better and that the area around the kettle will not attract chaos. This time it will all work out.


Afternoon tea? A four tier platter of sandwiches, cakes, petits fours, a glass of champagne, a vole and a pot of perfectly-brewed tea. All served by a waiter who is so smart he could be off to a wedding and he’s wearing white gloves.

Yes that sounds lovely. I’m wondering though if you’d accept some feedback?

It’s the vole, isn’t it.

It is the vole, yes.

It’s an outlier, isn’t it.

I’m not sure I’d even describe it as an outlier, I’d simply say it’s an irrelevance. You’ve done really well with the rest of the offer – the good, the drinks, the service. I’m just not sure what a woodland creature adds to the ensemble.

On the first week you said that we needed a USP. I looked it up when I got home and it means Unique. A Unique Selling Point.

That’s right.

None of the other hotels do a vole with their afternoon tea.


It’s unique.


I googled it, there is no other hotel anywhere in the world that offers voles. The niche is entirely empty.

Right. Let’s for the moment establish that the vole provides the U in this situation.

It’s Unique.

Right. What I think you might want to ponder on is whether this same element brings the S.

The Selling.



That’s right. If I compared offerings between your hotel and the one next door would the vole raise an eyebrow? Certainly. Would it get me through the doors? No.


How far have you gone with the marketing?

Not far. Barely anywhere.

That’s good.

Just a banner.

OK, well that can be removed.

And a thing in the paper.

Which paper?

All of them.


A skywriter. I’ve renamed the business to The Voletel.


And I’ve ordered fifteen thousand voles. And employed a vole handler.


I thought people might want to choose their vole from a bucket of live ones. Like lobsters.

Starter for Ten – w/c 17-02-20

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up and blank pages are not allowed – if all else fails type out song lyrics. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold!

Suckage often occurs.

I took a break from Starter for Ten while I was busy marketing Before and After, but as I start to focus on writing a new book, the plan is to do them daily again but publish them weekly, or possibly weakly. Hopefully that way it gives you a bundle to read or ignore as you see fit, in one handy package.



There’s a little scratch on the wall and it bothers him. The walls were only painted a few months ago and to see this scratch where flecks of paint have been scraped off, reveals the colours underneath – that awful green that the landing had been painted ever since they arrived. He runs his thumb across the scratch and a minute fleck of the paint chips clings to his nail. It’s fine. He moves on with his day.

Later, he finds himself on the landing with a fine grade of sandpaper. He’s not entirely sure where he got the sandpaper from, but he dimly recalls a shop and a joke about DIY. Now here he is and he eases a sheet of the paper out and folds it carefully around a small block of wood, about the size of a chalk-board eraser. This gives him a pad which he can use to gently push at the edges of the gouge. He’s decided it’s a gouge and not a scratch – almost like it was a nail that pulled through the surface. He brushes and wipes and vacuums and soon he has a flat surface – the gouge is less prominent but underneath there’s that green colour that his wife insisted on. It reminds him of pea and ham soup. It’s a colour from another era.

The next morning he lays out a small cloth on the floor which is covered with spatters of colours. He’s mesmerised briefly and half composes a thought about Jackson Pollock, which dissipates as he returns his focus to the wall. He has a small tester pot in a colour which very, very closely matches the colour he chose for the landing when he was redecorating. He unscrews the pot and feels his tongue protrude through his lips as he daubs the paint in a neat line across the length of the seven inch fissure. In a macro he can picture the little valley of the gorge. The trauma that there must have been to create it. He pushes his face up close to watch the brush deposit the paint. As the paint hits the wall it fills the valley. It blots out any trauma and once again pushes the green walls back out of existence. It calms him to look at the now smooth walls. The paint is a good match. You’d hardly ever notice. He hopes it won’t dry darker, he’ll check again in the morning.


There was a small black cat on the table. It could only have been a few months old. Its body was growing but it’s head was still kittenish and her paws still seemed a little large for her body. The children had named the cats, so this one was Bing. The other ginger kitten was Mr Tumble, which had been shortened to Tum. She pushed at a pen on the table until half of it was over the edge. All right gents, I’ve got an idea. The pen fell and skittered across the floor. The noise scared the cat and it bolted from the table, which wobbled under the sudden movement and the vial tipped on one side and rolled with intent towards the edge of the table. Just as it approached the edge, the man reached out and calmly put a finger on top of the vial stopping it a centimetre from the edge.

He was a big man, but the word fat wouldn’t have done him justice. He was just large. His head was large. His chest full. His frame was double-sized. Even the finger that now held the vial was large, the nail as big as a fifty pence piece. He wore a double-breasted white suit and his head was wet shaved so that the lights glinted off his dome. Bing circled around his foot, feeling the safety of his presence and scenting his feet. He carefully lifted the vial and placed it back in the rack, where it should have been but it was an object that called to him and demanded to be lifted and rolled between his fingers. The outright horror of what lay behind the simple rubber bung never failed to bring him a thrill. To own death and to keep it trapped in such a feeble prison amused him.

He lifted Bing onto his lap and the cat brushed its face against his hands. It circled several times and sat on one of his thighs, its entire body easily fitting. He lightly curled a finger around the cat’s ear and it lifted its chin to glory at this attention. He reached over and pulled the vial from the rack and ran it across the cat’s jawline. The cat enjoyed the game and feinted to bite at the vial. The man smiled and pulled it out of reach and secured it once more. How thin the lines were between chaos and normality. 

“Not today Bing.”


“’…Slapped the fish on the table and said cook it yourself’ – that’s not good,” Pops looked up from the laptop. He raised his eyebrows – inviting comment. When nothing came he carried on.

“’Our party was then told that the table had been double-booked and the waitress told us we had to leave, even though some of us had already been served our starters.’ That’s not good. Marcy? What can you say?”

Marcy lifted her eyes and took an exaggerated breath. She twiddled the control stick of her wheelchair which made her fidget on the spot.

“Trip Advisor is a really important source of customers for us – if we get reviews like this then it hurts us as a business. And if we’re hurt then it hurts our staff – including you – as well.”

Pops made an awkward face at Marcy, his expression like he was witnessing a five car pile up on the freeway. “If you can’t tell me why you did it, I think we have to let you go.”

Marcy twirled the pommel of the control stick in her hand and found that it was a bit loose, so she pinched harder and screwed it back into place. Pops was still looking at her, the grotesque pantomime of awkwardness playing across his face.


The silence stretched until Pops could bear it no longer.

“Marcy – was it because of the wheel-, because of your…did it happen…”

“Oh fuck off Pops. I kicked them out because I was bored. It didn’t have anything to do with my wheelchair. It didn’t have anything to do with my leg. It didn’t have anything to do with anything, other than the fact that I was bored of looking at another table of shit-munching customers who expected me to bring them food.”

“But you’re a waitress.”

“I was a waitress until ten seconds ago. Now I’m a gin-seeking missile.”


The line is nearly out of the door. It’s not even straight, it sort of circles around a display tables that has books about crochet on it. The audience is mixed, good balance of male and female, good ethnic mix and, best of all, they’re young – maybe averaging at around mid-20s. That’s all the more unusual when you consider that the city is mostly older and affluent. To attract an audience like this is surely the sort of thing his handler will take back to the publisher.

The handler was suggested by his editor. “She’ll help you make all the arrangements; it’ll free you up so you can focus on getting pages down.” That was the most appalling horseshit. The handler was there to take the temperature. Sales weren’t good on his last two books and although it still made all of the usual lists, that was now a given rather than a bonus. He briefly thought back to that magical Summer evening when he hit the best-seller lists for the first time. There had been whooping and wine and sex. The last time he hit the best-seller list his editor sent him an email asking if he had corrected the proofs for the German version.

He was saying a few words before the signing started. Generous, self-deprecating comments pushing his brilliance to one side and blaming the excellent crowd on the weather. Inside he thought about his pages. There were none. It was the book’s central idea that was the problem – there wasn’t one. He’d declared a breakthrough on this book so many times that it was becoming a bit of a cliché. Every time he thought he’d pinned the idea down it slithered from under his grasp like a squid. Fucking analogies.

“With no further ado then let me open the signing and thank you in advance for your patience.”

The table was set, a comical number of his favourite marker pens, a drink – lightly alcoholic – and, of course, his handler. The first reader came forward and smiled.

“Please could you sign this,” she asked and he took the book from her hands, opened it and fired his standard greeting into the inside cover.

“Thanks. Do we get the twenty pounds from you as well?” she asked.

The handler’s head snapped up.


It felt tickly, that was a warning. It felt a bit like a cough, but also like a bit of the food had got stuck in her throat. The difference was that coughing really didn’t do anything to remove the sensation. She started to cough anyway, a light, high-throated Hrrrem noise that she repeated two or three times.

“Are you all right, Shirley?”

“Bit of a frog,” she managed to croak in-between hrrrems.

But she knew. It had only happened two times before and those were in very different circumstances. Very different.

Shirley started to panic. If previous occasions were anything to go by then within a few minutes her throat would be closing up and her breathing would sound like a punctured bagpipe.

“Ladies and gentlemen, will you please rise for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.”

There was a sound of chairs being politely scraped back and a hundred cake forks hitting plates as the star of the garden party arrived. Even given her situation Shirley found the power of royal obedience compelling her legs to stand. She tried to hrrrem even harder in the hope that it would dislodge something.

But she knew. The real horror was how had it been triggered? She knew it was absurd, but she searched her mind for any way in which she could have forgotten a meeting of that sort in the last few hours. But there was nothing! Of course, there was nothing! She and Katya had been in the hotel, they had dressed and as the invitation had promised carriages had arrived – albeit a hackney carriage, where it had deposited them here and they had joined the queues of ladies, all looking so stately and perfect.

It had to be something she had eaten then. She breathed hard through her nose and looked at her plate. Two fairy cakes – which were exquisite – and three long-fingered sandwiches. A cup of tea with milk. Shirley was peripherally aware that the Queen was circulating closer to their table. She was shaking hands with a chosen few. She had beautiful, long white gloves. It was true what they said too – she was smaller than you expected. She exuded a force though.

HRRREM – another effort to dislodge the blockage. Katya was now shifting between beaming with joy at the nearby royal and looking with a dark concern at Shirley. Shirley looked at the Queen and wondered why she was so bendy. Why would the Queen have black splodges on her? The roof of the tent was beautiful. Why didn’t everyone lie on their back and look at it, like Shirley did.   

Starter for Ten – 25/07/19

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold. Suckage often occurs.


When they built the railroads in Australia they didn’t account for the fact that the country was federalised. In part due to the massive size of the country each state functioned almost independently of the others. Consequently, no one had bothered to ask what gauge track each state was using and, naturally, they all chose differently. After the tracks were laid it was too expensive to standardise and so trains would cross a state and then at the border they would have to be lifted by a crane and placed on the rails of the next state’s tracks. It could then continue until it hit the next border.

When JFK stood and delivered his rousing anti-communism speech in West Berlin, one of the most well-remembered lines is when he pronounced “Ich bin ein berliner”. The reason it’s well-remembered is that it was a mistake and rather than allying himself with his host city, by leaving the “ein” in Kennedy was actually declaring that he was “a Berliner” which was colloquially taken to mean a donut. The miscommunication though wasn’t Kennedy’s but history’s. It’s perfectly acceptable to use such a phrase and was understood in the manner which Kennedy meant it – the audience even cheered the comment, both times that Kennedy said it. Now though the berliner/donut lie has perpetuated to the extent that it’s taken as truth.

If fake news is destined to be the dividing line of our times then we must own our miscommunications.