Category Archives: Lists

Writing well: 10 useful tips for feature writing from the pages of the Wall Street Journal

art and craft ofA couple of months ago, a colleague, pressing me to get started on a feature for the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper I write for, suggested:

“Have a big glass of red wine and then just start writing.”

I should put some context around this. I don’t drink wine at work as a rule. I was going to function, where wine would be served. Then I would come back to the office.

My colleague’s rationale: it would free up my creativity.

I took his advice, and the end result was good, but the story certainly did not flow out of me like….fine red wine (perhaps the quality of wine ingested matters!)

Feature writing is challenging. There are many different things to pull together – people, events, themes, counter-arguments – and to do so well is as much technique as it is flair, talent or creativity.

My technique, until recently, was a stop-start approach of firstly trying to come up with the lead (the opening paragraphs) which usually involved numerous attempts, re-writes, teeth grinding, coffee break, chat with colleagues etc before finally making a start. Then I’ll write to the length required and then arduously work back, trying to create some kind of flow and rhythm and to give a point to it all.

But there are better, more structured ways to go about writing features (not that writing should be easy, good writing requires effort, sweat and toil).

I recently came across a useful book recommended to me by Michelle Griffin a very experienced journalist at The Age, who has also been my mentor the past 8 months.

She suggested I read: “The Wall Street Journal Guide to The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by William E. Blundell, himself a journalist with the esteemed newspaper

It’s an old book, first printed in 1988, but you can get a newish reprint online. I bought a copy from the Book Depository and read it cover to cover, slowly, underlining parts on the way into work, trying to ingest some of Blundell’s tips, tools and techniques for telling better stories; after all isn’t that what feature writing really is?

As Blundell puts it: “We can learn a great deal from fiction and this book makes at least a modest start to connecting some techniques of fiction to the work we do.

The book is helpful on many levels, for example the opening chapters are about generating ideas and coming up with the raw materials for a good feature and I suggest reading it cover to cover.

What I found most useful where the practical tips for the writing process itself. These are 10 to keep in mind:

1. Write out your main theme statement

In a couple of simple, tightly written sentences express the story: its main developments, likely effects and reactions to them.

If writing a profile, the theme statement  should be the facets of the person, company or organisation you plans to focus on.

“Tack this main theme statement up where  you can see it. Let it guide your work. Let it reproach you, question you, when you stray too far,” Blundell writes, adding; “I consider the main theme statement the single most important bit of writing I do on any story.”

2. Have a plan

“The only important thing is that you have a plan, however loose and informal and use it to good effect”, says Blundell. Good writers, plan before they report and again before they write.

3. Readers love action

“The story that does not move, that just sits there stalled while people declaim, explain, elaborate and suck their thumbs is justly labeled by some editors as a MEGO – “My Eyes Glaze Over”,” writes Blundell.”The most desirable kind of movement is the unfurling of natural story progression.” To do this stories must shift the reader’s attention from “the abstract to the concrete, from the general to the particular, from the mural to the minature.”

Feature writers are storytellers. “We are in the drama business,” Blundell declares.

4. People with direct experience are better than ‘experts’

I think this is particularly useful as many journalists quote too easily from “certified somebodies” rather than “little people with direct experience”.

I heavily circled this paragraph: “The story is happening on streets where there are no PR men strewing palms in the reporter’s path, no computers disgorging blocks of seductive statistics and a lot of people who have nothing to gain from doing pirouettes for the press…we have to gather details and direct experiences that show the reader what we are talking about, that convince him of the truth of the sweeping assertions made by us and our desk people. Most of all we go there to convince ourselves.”

5. Skim read through all your material beforehand

Often, I don’t do this. I go back and forth looking for what to include in various documents. It’s an exhausting process and sucks up vast amounts of time.

Blundell’s advice: Skim through all interviews and documents. Read rapidly, not for mastery of detail, but for the sense of things. Put aside material that is irrelevant or weakly repetitive.

This will help refine and define your main theme statement and story plan.Blundell also suggests creating an indexing system where you group things in a logical manner. This may be vital for very long stories, but I find it overly complex. A couple of theme sub-heading and a few notes about what to include under each theme should do the job on shortish features.

6. Keep digressions short, return quickly to the action

Anything that is not action is digression: observations, quotes, explanations and descriptions. Blundell’s advice: Keep it short and sharp, or as he says it: “Hustle the reader over the lakes as rapidly as you can to get his vessel back into white water – story action.”

7. The lead is key, but can be left till later

The lead is what draws a reader in, gets him to make an investment of his time in your story right away. Blundell says a good lead intrigues, teases, gives you a reason for reading on. Many of the best leads he says have one quality: mystery.

The book is full of numerous examples of good and bad writing. I’ll just transpose one example he gives of a good lead:

“Crowded with 346 passengers and crew members, the Turkish Airlines DC-10 rose smoothly from Orly Airport in Paris bound for London. Terror came at 12,000 feet.”

Mystery is good, but not confusion or riddles. If mystery does not work for your story focus on urgency or telling the reader that something compelling is happening.

An anecdote or quote is a popular way to start a feature, but Blundell says it should be simple to understand and have relevance for the main theme of the story.

Often, the lead can be a retooling of the main theme statement, especially if you are struggling to come up with one.

However, don’t spend hours at the beginning of the writing process coming up with the lead, unless one comes naturally to mind. Write the main body of the story and come back to it later.

8. Don’t overuse numbers and statistics

Blundell’s advice – don’t overload readers with too many numbers.  Also, he says express them in their most simplest form, rounded-off, expressed pictorially (something “doubled” or “trebled”) or as ratios. Very large (or very small) numbers are better expressed in a way that can be visualised. E.g. “It was three times the size of New York City’s Central Park”

9. Choose your quotes carefully and sparingly

Too many people quoted in a story, not saying anything that is particularly interesting will drown out those who do have something worthwhile to say.

Blundell advises avoiding quotes that state the obvious (the writer should be brave enough to state these points themselves). He says good writers are merciless about who they include and exclude. A good quote should have: credibility, draw an emotional response, be trenchant (sharp, incisive, authentic) and add variety to your story.

10. Endings are important

Blundell suggests that good endings drive home the established theme and help readers remember all they have been told. He says there are three that seem to work well:

- Circling back: reminding the reader of the central message through “symbols, emotional responses, observations, even snippets of poetry”. It should be full of echoes and overtones of the body of the story.

- Looking ahead: “What might be useless speculation clogging up the middle of a piece can become evocative material at its end,” Blundell says.

-Spreading out: You end by giving the reader something new to think about. The ending makes the story bigger than it was before, something worth remembering.

These are just some of the tips I picked up from the book and have found useful.

Of course none of this matters if your idea is weak, ill-conceived, poorly researched, of little gravitas or just plain boring.

Every great story begins with a great idea.

Happy writing, storytellers.

Serial killers: a reading list for the obssessed (or uninitiated)

jack the ripperIn 1997, I went on the famous Jack the Ripper walk through the East End of London, visiting all the spots where he had committed his grizzly Victorian-era murders. The tour ended at the Ten Bells pub in Whitechapel, where two of  ‘Jack’s’ victims – prostitutes Annie Chapman and Mary Kelly – were said to have regularly frequented.

Our guide on the night was Donald Rumbelow, one of dozens of writers who had theorised about who Jack the Ripper might have been. I remember I bought a copy of his book after the tour and devoured it in a hurry.

At the time and throughout my twenties, I had perhaps an unhealthy interest in these evil monsters, reading book after a book, utterly fascinated and repelled in equal measure.

I had and still do have a fascination with the darker side of human nature, particularly when the crimes are committed by seemingly ‘ordinary people’.  But doesn’t everyone?

Recently, it was revealed that testing of DNA on a shawl that belonged to one of the Ripper’s victims – Catherine Eddowes – was a 100 per cent match for the sister of a Polish-born hairdresser called Aaron Kosminski, a suspect in almost any reputable book about the crimes. This, it seems has dealt a body blow to 120 plus years of speculation and intrigue and an industry of ‘Ripperologists‘ comprising amateur sleuths and published writers.

zodiacThis re-ignited my interest in the subject of serial killers, which had already been stirred by a book I came across in Big W of all places.

I was intrigued by the cover and its title: “The Most Dangerous Animal of All – Searching for my father…and finding the Zodiac Killer.” by Gary L. Stewart.

I have not read it yet – I am still making my way through, of all things a comic novel by Howard Jacobson called “The Making of Henry  – but it’s next on my reading list.

On the back cover it says tantalizingly:

An explosive, revelatory memoir of a man who discovers that his father is one of the most infamous and still-wanted serial killers in America.

Like Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer – who murdered seven or more people in Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s – was never caught. In another similarity, the Zodiac Killer also sent cryptic notes to the police, one in which he stated that man “is the most dangerous animal of all”.

There were numerous books written about the Zodiac killer and a very good 2007 film called “Zodiac” directed by David Fincher and starring Jake Gyllenhaal,  Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo.

If this Zodiac book is as convincing as the back cover claims, than that would be two famous serial killer mysteries solved. Never mind, countless others remain as does the question: who or what makes these monsters?

Here’s my list of six of the best books I’ve read about serial killers:

1. Written in Blood by Colin Wilson
This is actually a book about forensic science, but within its dense pages are countless tales of serial killers including Bela Kiss, Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) and Albert Fish to name just three plus insights into their psychological make-up and motives. Wilson, a prolific writer on crime, the occult, philosophy and countless other topics sadly passed away last year.  “Will enthrall connoisseurs of violent crime”- is on the cover of my well-thumbed paperback edition.

2. The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
The most chilling and fascinating book every written about a serial killer. Ann Rule was a friend of  the charming, well educated and good looking Ted Bundy, only later to discover to her huge shock and revulsion that he was a vicious serial killer.

3.  Ten Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy
The story about one of the most infamous murderers in British history, John Christie, and the wrongful arrest and execution of his neighbour Timothy Evans. Made into a brilliant, hugely disturbing film starring the late Richard Attenborough as John Christie in 1971.

A poster for the movie "Ten Rillington Place" starring Richard Attenborough

A poster for the movie “Ten Rillington Place” starring Richard Attenborough

4. Killing for Company by Brian Masters
Noted crime writer Brian Masters tell the story of Londoner Dennis Nilsen, who brutally murdered 15 men in the late 1970s and early 1980s, kept them as companions and then later buried them under his floor or dismembered them and flushed them down the plumbing. What haunted me was that he had lived close to a cousin of mine in Muswell Hill, North London.

5. Lust Killer by Ann Rule
The story of Jerry Brudos, a married man with children in Portland, Oregon, who kidnapped, murdered and violated women in the workshop of his family home in 1968 and 1969. His wife had no clue.

death in belmont6. A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger
Written by the author of “The Perfect Storm” it tells the story of Albert DeSalvo who by an incredible coincidence worked on a construction job in Junger’s family home in the early 1960s and who later confessed to being the “The Boston Strangler”. Junger theorises that DeSalvo was also the murderer of an elderly woman in the neighbourhood, not a black man called Roy Smith, who was jailed for life for the crime. Deeply disturbing, the book has on its front cover a photo of DeSalvo posing in a family photo with the author as an infant.

Five Woody Allen movies infinitely better than Blue Jasmine

woody_allen__1218229285_1191I’ll be honest. I was a little bit disappointed with Blue Jasmine.

It certainly wasn’t a Woody Allen clunker like Celebrity or Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Small Time Crooks, but it wasn’t up their with his best work. It was better than his middle-of-the-road stuff, and neatly reflected in the IMDB  score of 7.4 out 10.

Blue JasmineThe acting was excellent, particularly Cate Blanchette as Jasmine – the neurotic, snobby and materialistic New York socialite brought down to earth by the scandal of her New York husband’s Hal’s  (Alec Baldwin) Bernie Madoff-like fraud, who flees to San Francisco to start her life over. There are also excellent performances by Sally Hawkins (who plays her sister Ginger) Andrew Dice Clay (Ginger’s ex-husband) and Bobby Cannavale (Ginger’s cocky love-struck boyfriend).

For me, the film started incredibly strongly and then just lost momentum two-thirds of the way through with an obscure, annoying ending (I won’t spoil it for those who have not seen it). It felt like Woody Allen wrote the film mainly to win an Oscar for Cate Blanchette – roles involving dysfunctional, intense female characters having a history of Oscar success, consider: Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted, Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, Natalie Portman in Black Swan to name just three (all far better films than Blue Jasmine).

Blue Jasmine is worth watching for the acting and some excellent scenes, but if you want to watch classic Woody Allen at his best, there are more than a dozen films that are better from his vast oeuvre going back five decades.

For Woody Allen novices, these are five of my favourites, all absolute classics:

Crimes and Misdemeanours (1980)

Woody Allen’s greatest cinematic achievement. Interweaves multiple plotlines in a film about the nature of comedy, guilt, forgiveness, betrayal and love. Incredible performances from Martin Landau, Angelica Huston, Alan Alda, Sam Waterston, Mia Farrow and Jerry Orbach. Some of his funniest jokes, some of his most poignant moments in film. IMDB rating 8.0

Judah Rosenthal: I remember my father telling me, “The eyes of God are on us always.” The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

Annie Hall (1977)

A romantic comedy about Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), a neurotic, over-sexed comedian who falls for the utterly charming but ditzy Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) filled with Jewish New York humour, witty observations about sex, love, family and relationships. IMDB rating – 8.2

Annie Hall: Sometimes I ask myself how I’d stand up under torture.
Alvy Singer: You? You kiddin’? If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale’s charge card, you’d tell ‘em everything.

Manhattan (1979)

Shot beautifully in black and white to the music of George Gershwin, this is Woody Allen’s homage to his favourite city, New York. It stars Allen as Isaac Davis, a divorced writer of TV shows caught in a dubious love affair with teenage Tracy, (a very young Mariel Hemingway), but who falls in love with his best friend’s mistress (Diane Keaton). IMDB rating 8.0

Isaac Davis: My analyst warned me, but you were so beautiful I got another analyst.

Match point (2005)

Set in London high society, a tennis professional (Jonathan Rhys Myers) engages in a steamy affair with visiting American Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson) while engaged to Chloe (Emily Mortimor) the innocent daughter of a wealthy family. A film that examines the nature of good and evil, temptation and fidelity and injustice. IMDB rating 7.7

Christopher “Chris” Wilton: It would be fitting if I were apprehended… and punished. At least there would be some small sign of justice – some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning.

Play it Again Sam (1972)

A screwball, slapstick comedy set in San Francisco about Allan (Woody Allen) a neurotic film critic who takes dating advice from his alter ego (Humphrey Bogart as Rick from Casablanca) and best friend Dick. Predictably he falls in love with Dick’s wife (Diane Keaton).

Allan: If that plane leaves the ground, and you’re not on it with him, you’ll regret it – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.
Linda: That’s beautiful!
Allan: It’s from Casablanca; I waited my whole life to say it.

And here’s a whole bunch more to add to your “Must watch” list:

Love and Death (1975)
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1987)
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Husbands and Wives (1992)
Might Aphrodite (1995)
Hannah and her Sisters (1986)
Interiors (1978)
Midnight in Paris (2011)

Have you paid too much for your iPad?

ipadFinancial institution CommSec recently published an interesting global retailing index called the iPad Index.

The index ranks the cost of a buying an Apple Air 16 GB wi-fi iPad in 51 different countries converted into US dollars at prevailing exchange rates, mirroring The Economist’s much more famous Big Mac index.

The latest iPad Index shows Australia slipped from 4th cheapest country to purchase the popular computer tablet in September last year to 13th on the latest list – still (surprisingly) one of the cheapest places in the world to buy the gadget.

The fall down the list reflects a decision by Apple to lift local pricing rather than currency fluctuations – the Australian dollar was around 94 US cents when the index was compiled, hardly changed from an exchange rate of 94.3 US cents in September last year.

Untitled

The Apple iPad Index

Malaysia at $494 is actually the cheapest place for Australians to buy an iPad, saving you around US$68 off the Australian price ($562). Canada and Japan both add sales taxes to their purchases, pushing their iPad prices well above $500.

As the index shows, you certainly wouldn’t want to buy an iPad while visiting  Brazil for this year’s Fifa World Cup while much of Europe is also a no-go zone for cheap iPad purchases, mainly because of high taxes.

Alternatively, if you’re a Kiwi heading over to Australia for the Bledisloe Cup, you could save yourselves around $90 by purchasing an iPad over here.

Even if you’re not planning any overseas trips, the fall in Australia’s iPad Index ranking is interesting for a number of reasons:

Firstly, it could be interpreted to reflect Apple’s gouging of its Australian customers at the same time as its also gouges those who purchase songs and movies on iTunes (ABC show The Checkout highlighted this recently and provided a way around it), whilst gouging the Australian Tax office by shifting all of its taxable profits offshore. If you’re not feeling the Apple love, perhaps a Samsung or Google Nexus device will do instead.

Secondly, in the word’s of CommSec chief economist Craig James the index reflects why “on-line shopping sites and the power of travel are putting pressure on Australia retailers to remain competitive”. “If local pricing isn’t responsive to exchange rate changes then Aussie shoppers will increasingly look overseas to purchase imported items,” James says.

Thirdly, for investors, the current index could be interpreted to mean that the Australian dollar is overvalued if you compare it with the cost of an iPad in California ($543) but undervalued if you compare it with what it costs in China ($578) where all iPads are manufactured.

Fourthly, the higher price may also reflect higher Australian freight costs, tariffs and mark-ups.

So it’s a useful index both for retailers who want to remain competitive and for consumers, if they’re planning a holiday in the coming months and want to upgrade their tablet.

Alternatively, if you’ve got a friend visiting from Argentina or Brazil or Europe, a visit to an Australian Apple store might be a good suggestion.

The Christopher Hitchens guide to drinking (for the young) and artistically minded

christopher-hitchens-drinkingTowards the end of the marvellous memoirs of the late journalist, thinker, philosopher and humanist Christopher Hitchens – Hitch-22 – there’s a little gem of a section where he dispenses some advice “for the young” on drinking.

Hitchens loved a drop or two and could by all accounts – including his own – handle his booze pretty well.  He claimed to never miss a deadline or an appointment or class due to booze, though admits to being mildy tipsy once on the BBC (though no one, he says, noticed).

When writing at home he maintained a certain discipline when it came to drink.

He was partial to whiskey – “a decent slug of Mr Walker’s” – at about half-past midday cut with Perrier water and no ice, then at luncheon (not quite sure how soon this was after midday) “perhaps a bottle of red wine, not always more but never less”, no after dinner drinks but maybe a nightcap “depending on how the day went – though never brandy.

“Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland and can help provide…the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing,” says Hitchens with his brilliant wit, charm and self-deprecation.

But he maintains “he was never a piss artist”.

Here then, faithfully transcribed by yours truly are his “simple pieces of advice for the young” (and the artist I think) when it comes to drinking:

1. Don’t drink on empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food.

2. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood.

3. Cheap booze is a false economy.

4. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain.

5. Hangovers are another bad sign (as is watching the clock for the start-time to your next drink) and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night (If you really don’t remember, says Hitch, that’s an even worse sign).

6. Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed – as are the grape and the grain – to enliven company.

7. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available.

8. Never ever think about driving if you have taken a drop.

9. It’s much worse to see a woman drunk than a man. I don’t know quite know why this is true but it is.

10. Don’t ever be responsible for it.

freshlyworded list of the week: 10 television dramas you have to watch before you die

3533683614_7e4b5741efHaving just watched the final episode of Season 5 of Mad Men – and mourning the long wait I must now endure until Season 6 comes out on DVD, I thought I might jot down the 10 television shows I reckon are among the best to ever grace the small screen.

Plus my wife and sister-in-law are watching Season 3 of The Walking Dead, which I have enjoyed, but there’s only so many gurgling, mindless zombies I can watch chasing the living through an American wasteland.

So these are 10 television shows I reckon are as good as just about anything you could watch at the movies, and in most cases, infinitely better.

(I’d welcome suggestions from other bloggers; yet to watch Boardwalk Empire, Primal Suspect and have a couple of seasons of Inspector Morse on my shelf too as well as The Tudors.)

1. The Sopranos

Apart from the bemusing final episode of Season 6, the Sopranos set a new television benchmark when it hit television screens in 1999. It could be set that it sparked the revival in television entertainment and inspired countless other shows. Who would have thought watching New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano pouring out his family and “business” problems to a sultry psychologist played by Lorraine Bracco would set the stage for the great gangster drama since The Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas. Plus there’s all the other great characters: power-hungry Junior, stupid but scary Paulie and Tony’s drug-addicted nephew Christopher Moltasanti to name just three.

2. The Wire

Many people argue The Wire – the story about Baltimore police officers and the criminals they pursue – is the greatest television show every created. It’s certainly the greatest show never to win any major awards. Each of the five series looks at a different aspect of Baltimore society: the drug scene, the docks, local politics, the school system and the media. It features the first gay gangster-turned-robin-hood (Omar), arguably the finest portrayal of a police-officer on the small screen (Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty) but the real stars are the dialogue, which captures the language of the street perfectly and the carefully woven plot lines. Personally, my favourite character is Bubbles, the heroin addict turned police informer and in many ways the moral compass of the show.

3. Six Feet Under

The story of a dysfunctional Californian family running a funeral home. Each episode begins with a death and the body being prepared for burial by the Fisher Family. There is never a dull episode. It features great performance from Michael C Hall as David a gay man struggling with his sexuality and his virile brother Nate, caught up in a twisted relationship with Brenda, brilliantly played by Australian actress of Muriel’s Wedding fame Rachel Griffiths. And its darkly funny.

4. Breaking Bad

The story of family man Walter White (Bryan Cranston) a poorly paid high school chemistry teacher who upon being diagnosed with lung cancer, turns to cooking crystal meth with former pupil and local low-life Jessie (Aaron Paul) to build a nest egg for his family.  The pair get mixed up with organised crime and one of the scariest, suavest villains in the form of Gus Fring, the proprieter of ‘Pollos Hermanos’. Yet to see Season 5, but can’t wait.

5. Mad Men

Was there ever a cooler show on the television? The story of the lives of Manhattan advertising executives in the 1960s. Every shot is a period piece, the dialogue meticulous; you can sit back and just enjoy the decor and clothes, never mind the characters. Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Pete Cambpell and of course Joan Harris – the most voluptuos woman ever to grace the small screen – are creations that would sit comfortably alongside any in the Great Gatsby.

6. Luther

John Luther (Idris Elba) is the toughest and most brilliant police officer you will ever meet. He operates by his own set of rules and code of ethics as he brings down the sickest criminals on the streets of London.  I’ve watched the first two seasons, and believe a third season will air this year. Also a chance to see Paul McGann of Withnail and I fame in a great role.

7. Law & Order: SVU

One of the longest running televisions shows of all time, the Special Victims Unit (SVU) spin-off has generated 14 seasons. The episodes featuring Benson and Stabler as the lead detectives are the best. Very well written, with believable characters and stories, all filmed on location in New York. Plus there’s that bad-ass motherf*cker Ice-T and the freaky, sardonic Munch to entertain you as well.

8. Secret Life of Us

An Australian series about the lives, loves and heartaches of twenty-something Melburnians living in St Kilda. Does not sound like much, but lots of great themes explored. Narrated by the philandering writer-in-training Evan (Samuel Johnson) with career-making performances from Joel Edgerton (now a Hollywood star) Deborah Mailmen and Claudia Karvan to name just a few. The first three seasons are the ones to watch. From Season 4, all the good characters have left the show (I’ve not watched it).

9. Midsomer Murders

Each episode in the 15 seasons set in quaint Midsomer county with its hedges, afternoon teas, quiet woods, grand old mansions and quintessential English villages (the deadliest county in England) is a feature-length whoddunit featuring the unshakeable Inspector Barnaby (John Nettles) and a number of different young side-kicks. The corpses pile up faster than freshly baked scones at a fete but you’ll never guess who the murderer is.

10. Downton Abbey

A period drama about masters and servants who live in palatial Downton Abbey in a changing Britain in the years leading up to World War One and beyond. Headed by the sweet-natured but strong-willed Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his somewhat annoying American wife (Elizabeth McGovern, it features a brilliant performance by an ancient-looking Maggie Smith as Grantham’s mother, the towering Dowager Countess of Grantham.  And of course there’s the dour Mr Bates and impeachable Mr Carter, the butler of Downton Abbey.

freshlyworded list of the week: 11 meetings with famous people including Spike Lee, Johnny Vegas and Gary Player

The impression you form of a celebrity, someone you see regularly on television or in the newspapers, is often very different to the ‘real person’ when you meet them in the flesh.

Sometimes it can be an exhilarating experience, other times a disappointment. Often they’re just an ass!

Over the years, I’ve bumped into a number of people with varying degrees of fame, some just for a brief minute and others I’ve had the pleasure of engaging  in conversation.

These are the ones that spring most readily in mind:

1. Gary Player

gary-player-z01

I met golfer Gary Player at a charity event at his estate just outside of Johannesburg in the late 1990s. Winner of nine majors and over a 100 tournaments in his career, it was a pleasure talking to this legendary sportsman surrounded by his glass cabinets filled to bursting with his golfing trophies. We talked about the future of South Africa and what the young people needed to do to make the country work. I recall him being very optimistic about the future, very easy to talk to and a real gentlemen. This is of course the guy who said: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

2. Spike Lee

spike lee

I very briefly met film director Spike Lee, outside the Union Buildings, Pretoria, about 1999. He had just been part of a press conference with then South African president Thabo Mbeki to promote a television commercial he was shooting for one or other charity. He was getting into a car and I said to him: “Spike I am a great fan of your movies.” He turned around and said: “Oh yeah, which ones?” I told him “Do the right thing,” was my favourite.

3. Gary Bailey

gary bailey1

I met Gary Bailey, who was goal-keeper for Manchester United in nearly 300 hundred games, at a sports press conference in Johannesburg and remember he was very much like his on-camera persona (he hosts the Premier League show on Supersport in South Africa) – warm, friendly and sincere.

4.Michael Madsen

michael madsen

Michael Madsen played ‘Mr White’, the psychopathic criminal in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’,  a film I idolised. He came to London while I was writing for an accountancy magazine (AccountancyAge.com) to attend a press conference to launch a film he was producing and to star in called “Red Light Runners’ (which I don’t think was ever made). It was being funded by some new tax ruling, which was why I was there. Entirely, inappropriately, after the press conference, I asked Madsen to sign my press pack, which he did. He looked a lot older and dishevelled compared to the cool character he played on-screen – dancing around his victim to “Stuck in the middle with you” with a switch-blade. Still it was a bit of a thrill to meet him briefly. Needless to say, I lost the press pack with Madsen’s autograph.

5.Jonny Vegas

Empire Awards 2010 - London

I met Johnny Vegas  (you may have seen him in Black Books, episodes of QI or doing his stand-up routine) also while working on the Accountancy magazine. We attended an awards night in Newcastle on a bitterly cold night, though it didn’t stop the local girls from wearing virtually nothing I recall. Johnny was the entertainment at St James Park (home of Newcastle United football team). He arrived on stage with a tray of Guinness pints, proceeded to get pissed, and then after the show we all joined him for drinks at a nearby pub. He has a really magnetic character, very charming and you should have seen the number of beautiful women hanging off every word of this rotund, jovial man. I got chatting to him about rugby – he is a rugby league fan (coming from the north of England) but we got to chatting about rugby union and I remember him telling me how much he enjoyed the game and was a big fan of the Springboks.

6. Bruce Grobbelaar

bruce grobbelaar

Anyone who is a Liverpool fan will know who Bruce Grobbelaar is . He played for the club in the 1980s and 1990s and was capable of being an unbelievable goalkeeper on his day, but also able to make the silliest mistakes. His career was tainted by match-fixing claims. I met him at an FA Cup event in a pub in Johannesburg. He was signing autographs on the back of beer coasters. He didn’t seem particularly pleased to be there and can’t say I left with a good impression of the man.

7.Dara O’Briain

dara o briain

Dara O’ Briain is probably most recognisable as a frequent guest on Stephen Fry’s QI show on the ABC. I met him when he was less well-known, but hosting our annual Accountancy Age awards in London. Being Irish, he was very friendly, talked a lot, said “ehm” instead of “um” and was also charming and funny.

8. Baby Jake Matlala

baby jake

Jacob ‘Baby Jake’ Matlala is a legend in South African boxing. He measures all of 4 foot 10 inches, but was an incredibly tough opponent in the ring as a flyweight fighter and ended up with 53 victories from 68 fights and won four world titles. I found him to be very lively, enthusiastic and sweet in person. Like his jabs and punches, he talked at a rapid rate.

9. Peter FitzSimons

peter fitzsimons

I met Peter FitzSimons very briefly backstage at the Australian Mortgage Awards. FitzSimons was the host and I was presenting one of the awards. He asked me, as we waited for the winner to come on stage, how the magazine was coming along (I was the editor then of a mortgage broking mag called Australian Broker), though I doubt he’d ever read it. But it was a nice thing to say. FitzSimons is a successful Australian non-fiction writer (mainly in relation to wars and battles), a journalist and columnist and played seven test matches at lock for the Wallabies.

10. Iain Banks

iain banks

Iain Banks (or Iain M. Banks if you like science fiction-writing) is a best-selling writer, most famous for his novel “The Wasp Factory” a very, very dark, nasty bit of fiction, considered one of the best novels of the 20th century. I met him at a book signing at Exclusive Books in Hyde Park, Johannesburg. I brought an older, paperback copy of The Wasp Factory. He remarked that he didn’t often see this version of his book. Needless to say, I think I lost that autographed book as well.

11. Andie MacDowell

andie macdowell

I am kind of fibbing on this one. I never actually met her, perhaps “stalking” would be more accurate. I was kind of obsessed with Andie MacDowell, the  model turned Hollywood actress, when I found myself in the Tate Modern Art gallery in London one afternoon, and there she was looking at paintings all on her own. I had a picture of her in my bedroom and loved her in Green Card, Groundhog Day and Short Cuts, perhaps it was her Southern accent that really appealed to me. Anyway, I ended up following her, from a discreet distance as she walked from room to room at the Tate Modern. Only for a few rooms mind you. If I wasn’t so star struck, I might actually have ventured a conversation. “What does this piece say to you Andie?” is perhaps the question I was pondering in my head.