Nicola Streeten passed me on to Sophie Kamlish. Kamlish is Streeten’s niece: “I like to think that I’m her favourite niece…” she says. The two of them have shared interests – even though she’s about to compete in the Rio paralympics Kamlish tells me that her main life goal is to be an illustrator. Later this year, after Rio, she will go to Kingston University to study illustration and animation.

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 Photographer: Clare Green Copyright: Northcliffe Media Ltd/Western Daily Press

There is a lovely description on her mother’s website Rosie Flo which describes how Kamlish played her part in her mother’s business: “The Rosie Flo colouring books evolved through hours of sitting and drawing with our daughters when they were small. They gave me instructions as to what I must draw and each time I promptly obeyed. Dresses were the most popular items demanded of me and Sophie would then do the faces, arms and legs.”

Sophie Kamlish is the youngest of the Pass Me On alumni to date, being 19 years old. She’s a sprinter that will be competing in her second Paralympic games in Rio in September this year (they follow the Olympics) and, because of the funding she receives, she is expected to bring home a medal. She’ll be competing in the T44 100m event – that classification is “Single below knee amputation or an athlete who can walk with moderately reduced function in one or both legs.” A couple of silver medals have come her way already, one in the IPC Grand Prix in Dubai this year.

Kamlish had her right leg amputated when she was nine years old. She had been born with a deformed right leg and spent a year in a wheelchair before the operation. To some degree she thinks that if that had never happened to her, she wouldn’t have gone on to compete: “If had been born with conventional feet I would have been that kid that only ran on sports day when forced to and would never have realised that I’m a sprinter. I’m more grateful for the fact that I’ve been born differently.”

She thinks she ended up being a runner because, “I don’t work well in a team. There’s too much pressure. If you mess up your whole team is going to be upset with you.” Kamlish had tried other sports but swimming was ruled out because “you have to train two or three times a day and really early and I’m not that kind of person.” Other sports were eliminated because of more basic practicalities. Wheelchair basketball, which she initially enjoyed, was “too boys-y, too rough and competitive. Also I wear glasses and I’d always keep getting hit in the face.”

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The running is hard on her. She trains six days a week for two hours at a time and also has physio and massage sessions on top of that, which seem vital given the state her body is in.

Since she started competing she has had MRI scans that have revealed that she has missing bones in her back and her pelvis. On top of that she has congenital deformities in her left foot and also suffers from arthritis. Part of the problem is the blade that she wears to run. “The blade tips all of your pelvis around. When I’m walking in it I feel really wonky but when Im sprinting I should be fairly even because of the compression that it goes through.”

Despite this she says that the blade is fun to run on.”You go from running on a day leg which is like a brick to running with something that is more natural feeling.” A lot of her funding goes on the blade – they can cost between £4000 and £8000. “Every amputee has a different kind of stump and it takes a while to get the fit right. They’re not like shoes.” Athletes are funded through the National Lottery.

Kamlish seems an unlikely candidate for an athlete, not because of her disability, but because of her bookishness. There’s a video interview with her on Youtube after she’d won silver in the International Paralympic Committee Grand Prix in 2015 where she says “I’ve always thought of myself as more of a nerd than an athlete.”

She confirms this both in her Twitter bio (she describes herself as a bookworm) and when we speak. Given that she is 19 years old I had asked her if, because of her strict training regime, she ever feels like just going out and getting drunk with her mates. She tells me she couldn’t anyway because they are scattered around the country at universities, “but I’m not particularly bothered about that sort of thing because I prefer to just read or something. I’m like a typical nerd.” Author Dave Eggers is apparently a favourite at the moment, as is Emily St John Mandel.

Also on her Twitter bio is the word feminist. She says she thought it was important to distinguish herself from those who say they just want equality but also because: “If you start being sexist towards me on Twitter, I won’t stand for it.” I’d noticed that someone had trolled her for a different reason on Twitter. Earlier this year she had been told by Bath council that she couldn’t have a bus pass, despite turning up to the council offices to prove she only had one leg.

Someone on Twitter responded “if you can run you don’t need a bus pass do you (sic)”, which Kamlish retweeted. Although there is a media officer from British Athletics she can lean on should she need to, she seems pretty relaxed about such challenges: “I’ll either ignore it or I’ll retweet to show the stupidity and the ignorance that we come up against all the time.” For those wondering if there is anything in that Twitter jibe, “I run 100m – that’s what I do. But standing on a bus, or just standing up for a long time is painful or uncomfortable and I will fall over on a moving bus.”

In fact, Kamlish seems pretty relaxed about most aspects of her life. When I ask her when she will find out if she is definitely going to Rio, she says she thinks, “it might be June or July…” When I remark upon her laid-back attitude she tells me that she’s always been like that, whether it’s taking exams or competing. She’s quick to confirm that she really wants to go to Rio but is pragmatic where other athletes offer hyperbole or clichés: “I can only decide my fate by how fast I run.” A beautifully simple way with which to end an interview with a Paralympian.

Simone Lia passed me on to Nicola Streeten. Streeten knew Lia’s work and they had a kind of mutual acquaintance. Lia came to speak at Streeten’s speakers forum Laydeez Do Comics and their relationship has prospered over time. Streeten says that she finds Lia clever and funny and when I ask if they are friends she replies: “Definitely – she’s in my top ten.” Nicola_Streeten_RESIZED_245x0__false_nocrop_true

Streeten is an illustrator but it’s as a comic book artist that she’s best known. This is because of ‘Billy, Me and You’, the book she wrote about her son dying – Billy was two when he died. His death followed surgery to correct congenital heart deformities which had been diagnosed ten days before.

The subtitle of the book is ‘a memoir of grief and recovery’ and if you’re anything like me, you might approach the book with a degree of trepidation. But that’s kind of the point. Nothing prepares you for the death of anyone that you love. We don’t talk about death until it happens because it’s considered to be such a morbid subject and who wants to intentionally make themselves miserable, right?

The best sort of writing is often honest though, and it is this quality that will keep you gripped to ‘Billy, Me and You’. Although we’re afraid of what we might find, there is also an irresistible curiosity about the book because there are so many questions. How will it affect Streeten? How will she cope? Perhaps most importantly of all, will she get over it, will she be alright? We want to know if she makes it through because we want to know if we’ll be ok when it happens to us, which, unless we go first, it probably will. It was 13 years after Billy’s death that she rediscovered her journal and other items she had kept from the time; it started her off on the journey of writing and drawing the book.

Streeten says that her aim was “to make it something that people ask questions about”. She did a degree in social anthropology and she tells me it was this side of the experience she was interested in. In it we see her (and John) go through desperate grief, anger (both at the unfairness of the situation and the reactions from people around them), some healing and some joy.

One particular part of the book that stands out is when Streeten scores the responses of other people out of ten. The scene manages to be comic and awful simultaneously. People saying sorry or asking her what happened scored highly; those who said nothing or told her they could imagine what she was going through didn’t go down so well. She had friends who weren’t sure if they should come to the funeral and what becomes clear is that there is a lot of confusion when somebody dies, because very few people know how to handle it. IMG_2753

In particular, she objected to people using the inappropriate euphemism when they said that she and John had ‘lost’ Billy. ‘Billy wasn’t lost, he was dead’, she writes, ‘It was John and I…as the people we’d been just one day before…who were now lost forever (but not dead)’. Although she complains about her memory during our conversation, she certainly remembers the transformative effect the death had on her and indeed, even sounds somewhat grateful for, if not the event, then maybe the legacy.

The day it happened, John and I – it completely transformed our vision of the world. We couldn’t look at parents that didn’t want their children to have sugar, all those little neurotic things about schools… that doesn’t matter. You just think ‘fuck you’ about people who’ve had nothing wrong. People who’ve had no trauma are a bit boring. Sometimes I think the death of my child was the worst thing but the best thing that’s happened to me because of that switch in how we viewed the world. It sounds shocking and wrong to say it but in terms of developing as a human, when someone dies, you learn a lot.”

The first quality I encounter of hers is not misery or bitterness but generosity; not only does she pick me up from the train station for the half hour drive back to her wonderful converted chapel in the village of Wellingore but there is homemade soup ready for our lunch. As we are strangers we swap condensed life stories on the way. I’m a city dweller who wonders about a more rural tranquil alternative and I want to know how she took to the quiet and the isolation (the answer is it’s good for artists). She probes me about grown up stuff like fostering and pensions, as well as the possibility of moving to Brighton. The empty winter fields appear to be slumbering on either side of us, waiting for spring to bring them back to life, as we approach her home.

We agree that the most famous of clichés about death is also the most truthful. “When I’m talking about it now, I’m not talking about my deep feelings, it’s not opening up a deep wound. It’s almost like it’s not even true. Also my memory is shot to bits, I’m 50, I can’t remember anything anyway. So that cliché of ‘time heals’ which you hate at the time, is true. I came to write the book 13 years after Billy died so what shocked me was that in my diary I’d written stuff I could not remember. I couldn’t believe I’d cried every day.”

This misery is tangible as you read, perhaps the most awful page being where she remembers how much touch there is involved with raising a child, followed by a page where she has drawn herself looking exhausted and unwell, arms outstretched. ‘My arms were empty’ she writes, looking bereft. She notices other parents playing with their kids and yearns to have Billy back so that she can do the same. IMG_2752

Streeten had been adamant with her publisher, Myriad editions, that she didn’t want ‘Billy, Me and You’ to be a self help book but can’t remember why she was so vehement now and is welcoming of the letters and emails she receives telling her that the book has helped them through their own bereavement. What’s it like when she meets people – do they feel like they can approach her and talk about it?

“Yeah and I love that. It’s great for collecting gossip about people!”, she says, jokingly. “People always do ‘my story is this’. That’s what conversation is, it’s sharing stories, it’s fascinating and relevant.” I wondered if she minded being so much associated with death and in response she tells me the story of a man who had got in touch after his wife died. “He wrote to say he’d like to make a graphic novel about his wife’s death. I asked him if he’d read my book and he said he hadn’t but he’d spoken to someone else and they’d said that I might be able to advise him and I thought, ‘really… you should have done your research!”

Again, she’s laughing when she says it. For all her light heartedness about the subject, she also takes care of the people that come to her; in the case of this gentleman by spending some considerable time talking with him on the phone. Perhaps surprisingly, given the subject matter, there is humour too in the book, most notably when they go to a bereaved parents group where the parents end up laughing at their own crazy actions, including keeping headstones in their bedrooms and then having friends making confused faces when they visit. How can somebody laugh during grief? “It’s the relief theory of humour. In that group I have never ever laughed so much. I’ve talked to other bereaved parents who have had that experience and they have said the same. I think the humour is from the absurdity. It is healing to laugh in the way that crying is healing.”

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It seems a good time to ask the question I’m most hesitant about. Eventually Streeten fell pregnant again and had a daughter, Sally. Would she have been as ok as I find her if she hadn’t had another child? Streeten says that was important but more important was the sense of perspective she got after Billy died: “I needed to have another child and I would have adopted if we hadn’t been able to – I had to have a child in my life. I really did think that I wouldn’t survive without another child.”

“My trajectory was to be a school teacher because I loved being a mum and I wanted something that fitted in with having children. What I was doing was putting my child’s needs first at that time but after Billy died, I put my needs first. I was so lost; I wasn’t a mum and that was my identity. So I had to be fulfilled in my work or what I do. I might have become a primary school teacher but I don’t think I would have been fulfilled in the way I am, doing what I do.

“A lot of women have children and throw their lives into the project that are their children and then their children leave at 18 and then they wonder what they are going to do with another 30 years.”

It turns out that quite a lot of perspective can be gained when someone you love dies. My time is up and a train back to London needs catching. Before I leave I ask Streeten what she thinks experiencing death can teach us? “It really sounds a cliché but you just have to do stuff while you can. You have to live your dreams now. Because you could die tomorrow, even if you’re fit and healthy. You should be doing what you need to do all the time. You shouldn’t compromise. I know we have to sometimes but you should be aiming to do the stuff you want to do.”

If you’d like to see more of Streeten’s work, you can find it in the show that runs at the House of Illustration until 15th May. It’s called Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics

 

Sam Bain passed me on to Simone Lia. Bain had picked up one of the early editions of ‘Fluffy’ and got in touch with her by email. They’ve stayed in touch and Lia describes him as “a really friendly and supportive guy, very down to earth and he just helps people a lot with their work.”simone-800x500

The first thing that you need to know about the comic book artist Simone Lia is that she’s a very patient interviewee. On the week I was due to meet her, I got invited to the opening of a new restaurant so I emailed her and  asked her if she fancied it. ‘That sounds like brilliant fun, what time?’ she replied. When we turned up, it wasn’t brilliant fun. On a warm summer Tuesday, loads of assorted other freeloaders had turned up to fill their boots with champers and shellfish. We couldn’t get anywhere near the grub and could barely hear each other, sort of hovering in a spot where we thought it was least likely we’d get knocked against in the melee. Weird sort of thing to do with someone you’ve just met. We lasted about ten minutes before we left for somewhere civilised where we could sit down and actually hear each other.

I don’t read comic books; not because I don’t like them, I just don’t know where to start. Two of her characters, the incredibly sweet Chip & Bean, had entered my consciousness somehow though. You might know her because of a small, challenging rabbit called Fluffy or for the courageous, soul-baring ‘Please God Find Me a Husband!’. She also draws a regular strip for The Observer. Fluffy is owned by Michael (although it’s unclear how this happened) and apart from the fact he doesn’t think he’s a rabbit, he’s essentially a surrogate child, innocently misbehaving by painting on the walls of Michael’s kitchen, blurting out inappropriate truths that cause Michael to blush and constantly wanting to go to McDonalds. There’s a decent history of rabbits and men having relationships in culture, what with James Stewart’s best mate Harvey and Donnie Darko telling Jake Gyllenhaal the world is going to end. Why a rabbit? To anyone who has read ‘Fluffy’, it’s perhaps no surprise that he started off as a child.

“I was interested in a father child relationship. And then when I drew it, it wasn’t sweet enough so I started drawing a rabbit instead as it had the qualities I was looking for, which was being very vulnerable and sweet and tiny. A character that you wanted to pick up and hug. And in a comic you can do that, you can have these characters that are completely unreal and you believe it. I drew a rabbit and it just resonated. It was a picture of a man and a rabbit sitting on a bench and the rabbit says ‘You smell like my Daddy’. And thats when I started investigating the characters a bit more.”

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Comic books, or graphic novels, started being taken seriously around the time of Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ back in 1987. Instead of being just for kids, comics became things with violence and characters that had anxieties, rather than the superheroes of yore. I think you know a comic book is good when you forget you’re reading drawings and you’re invested in the characters. ‘Fluffy’ will certainly make you smile, but there are also parts of it that might have you anxiously biting your lip, hoping that the uncomfortable emotional situation you’re witnessing will turn out alright. Be warned – you might also find yourself forming your own relationship with Fluffy. His Instagram account is a thing of wonder.

Having first appeared in 2007, Lia is now working on another instalment. Michael and Fluffy will both be ten years older and Lia says that “It’s really interesting to get into the mind of a man in his 40s. How has he changed? How has he developed? His relationships, what’s going on in his life? How is he relating to Fluffy? It’s a different dynamic.” She’s got the story arc worked out and about 40 pages drawn – the deadline is next summer. Seems it takes quite a lot of time to get a comic book together and a lot of that time consists of thinking. “The more I play out scenes in my head, I imagine who they are. For me they’re really real. Sometimes I think ‘I’ll go round to Mike’s house’ or ‘Fluffy would like that’. Before I started writing the storyline, I had to think for weeks. It’s like watching films in my head. And then me drawing the characters because that helps with the thinking process.”

It’s the opposite of my own working life – I wish I had more time to think before I have to ‘do’. Given that she spends so much time thinking and then creating, is it difficult for Lia to relate to people who have regular nine to five jobs? “I don’t find it hard to relate to people. Sometimes I get jealous of people in normal jobs because they’re working with other people! I used to teach at the University of Westminster. I had to go to a meeting and I remember the thrill of thinking ‘I’M IN A MEETING’, it was really exciting. And then I thought, I hope they don’t ask me what I think because I don’t know what they are talking about.’ I was just really excited about pretending to be at work.”

This is told in a great south London accent and ends with a very endearing giggle. Lia has the kind of shiny, raven hair that looks like it would be at home in one of those L’Oreal ads that Cheryl Cole does. Very dark eyes too, that contain plenty of the mischief you’ll find in her work and also something of the mystical – we’ll come to that soon enough. She’s a lot more attractive than the version of herself you’ll find in the opening pages of ‘Please God, find me a husband!’ where she appears as a kind of frumpy, bespectacled librarian who’s miserable, having just been dumped. Mulling this as she walks through Leicester Square, the character decides to ask God what will become of her. “Well, to cut to the chase, God – I’m going to be thirty-four in two weeks time and if you want me to marry someone you’re going to need to get a bit of a move on.” The scene ends with God cheering her up by dancing with her to an INXS song. Which is just how you thought that was going to pan out, right? Pleasegod

What follows is a story familiar to many people in their late twenties or early thirties: the search for a soulmate. This journey involves going on retreat, travelling to Australia and revisiting her past. The twist is that God is along for the ride as Lia is a devout Catholic. Rather than the title of the book being an exasperated common expression, it’s a prayer to her maker to help her out. Obviously I can’t tell you if she finds her man – you’ll have to read the book. But what an incredibly brave thing, to put your life out there like that. It’s fair to say it wasn’t all plain sailing.

“When I was doing it I kept stopping and thinking ‘I don’t want to say all this; it’s really personal and embarrassing’. At the beginning when I had the idea I thought I was going to be this holy lady and then when I was writing it I realised I’m not like that at all. I had to put in the stuff that was quite embarrassing because I thought ‘I’ve got to keep it real, I can’t just stay stuff that’s going to make me look good because then it’s not going to be authentic.’

One notably courageous part of the book is when Lia revisits her childhood self, which seems particularly painful. “When I was praying I saw all that. I do think that I needed some healing and I couldn’t quite handle it – I didn’t want God in there. I’ve got all this brokeness but sometimes you can’t even accept the healing that goes with it, it’s just too painful. I wasn’t ready to receive it even then. I was a bit worried about my parents seeing that as well, I didn’t want to upset them. You’ve got to be a bit delicate.” Later in our conversation she will tell me about violent situations between her parents. “There have been some situations that have not been good.”

As she carries on talking about the kind of soul baring necessary to finish the book, she describes a compulsion to keep going and alludes to a higher power at work, “Every time I stopped I would have some weird intervention, usually by a stranger on a bus talking me back into it and I would think ‘how did that just happen?’” Along the way she realised the book wasn’t really for her and now she has the letters to prove it, from people who’ve read it and written to tell her how it has helped them. As you might have guessed from the opening scene where she dances with God to INXS, it’s not all soul searching. There’s plenty of laughs to be had to, not least when Lia morphs into Penelope Cruz when confronted by a Crocodile Dundee type.

Perhaps because of the lack of a spiritual dimension in my own life, people who have faith fascinate me. Where does it come from? “I think there is a lot of different ways that God can speak to people but in my experience that audible voice has happened and you know that it’s not your voice. It’s outside of you but also inside of you. That was my experience. But I’ve also had experience of just having felt God there and it’s as if someone was actually standing there”. For a long time she says she had some sense of an inner voice or some higher wisdom but just ignored it. That the answer to what that was ended up being in the Catholic church was as much a surprise to her as anyone else.

To her credit she’s aware of the frustrations of language to articulate spirituality. Does she think you can explain what it’s like to have faith to somebody who doesn’t have any? “You can give it a go but I’m also aware that it can sound like a load of mumbo jumbo. I have to remember that before I had my experience that I was in the same boat. I didn’t believe in anything particularly. I can say that I have a relationship with God but I’m aware that can just sound like nothing really. I could just be talking about myself – I’ve got a relationship with myself.”

Before we go our separate ways, she tells me that her favourite artist (currently anyway) is a vlogger called Casey Neistat who she has discovered researching material for the next book ‘because Fluffy likes Youtube.’ As we come up into a warm summer London night she tells me that she’s going to walk to Elephant and Castle and we say our goodbyes. A day later she emails to say she kept walking beyond there, arriving two hours later back in Brockley. I can’t help wondering if it was God or a small, cute rabbit that she had for company in her head along the way.

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Sam Bain

Sophie Hannah passed me on to Sam Bain, one of the co-writers of Peep Show, Fresh Meat and Babylon. The two met each other studying English at Manchester University in 1991. Bain describes her as the ‘most impressive and most professional writer on that course. She was a hugely talented, energetic voice to have in the class.’

The first time that I saw ‘Peep Show’ was in Hong Kong. I was laid up with a bout of food poisoning. We’d done a lot of sight seeing anyway and my host had a box set. The two people that I was with laughed with familiarity at lines they’d obviously watched repeatedly before and I was attracted, in the way that you are when your mates find something funny. You want to share the humour, like the joke as much as they did. The show was a slow burn for me and started with a growing fondness for the characters. Super Hans initially, the goggle eyed maverick with a delicious hint of unpredictability but then, much more, Mark and Jez, the stars of the Croydon based sitcom.

Mark Corrigan has knowingly caved in to life’s rules. He’s got a job that is, let’s say, spiritually unfulfilling but that’s how he thought life would be anyway – he didn’t expect anything else. The spanner in the works is Jeremy his flatmate from college, the other half of the El Dude brothers. Because they’re mates and presumably because Mark wanted help with the rent, Jez moved in. The eternal cadger, it’s unclear whether Jeremy Usbourne has ever paid any rent but the two need each other.

The writers of ‘Peep Show’, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, have explored the question of what would happen if the two characters ever split up but their co-dependency is such that being apart never really worked out. The two are opposites who, in some weird way, attract as mates. Mark, unsure if he would ever find a mate for life, married someone he didn’t really love and split up with her soon after. Jez couldn’t care less about the soul mate thing. He just wants to have lots of sex and be a pop star.

As Bain points out when we talk, writing about two losers was a conscious decision. ‘I think you’ll find in some ways, most sitcom characters are losers. Winners aren’t that funny. The successful guy who gets everything he wants doesn’t sound like a comic character to me. When you think about comedy you generally think about people who get things wrong, make mistakes, are stupid, arrogant and otherwise flawed.’

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Our heroes: Jez (Robert Webb) and Mark (David Mitchell)

If writers abide by Mark Twain’s advice that you should write what you know, then it seems inevitable that Bain and Armstrong have based some of the characters on themselves. Bain has been transparent about using his own humiliation to comic effect in the show – the sitting on the burglar for example, which happened when he worked in a video shop.  So if Mark and Jez are losers, is that how he and Jesse thought of themselves?

‘I certainly feared being a loser. Maybe that’s what comes out in the writing. The character of Jeremy is the classic example of a self deluded artist who thinks he’s talented but clearly isn’t. Anyone who tries to write or paint or make stuff like I do, your basic fear is that you’re a deluded idiot like Jeremy, that you’re pursuing an impossible dream that’s a childish fantasy. That character embodies those feelings.’

Bain and Armstrong knew each other at university but only started working together after leaving. Starting off writing links for the Big Breakfast, they moved to children’s television before eventually writing a pilot for the BBC that never progressed to a fully blown series. This was where they meet David Mitchell and Robert Webb. ‘Peep Show’ almost didn’t happen. Bain and Armstrong had been writing together for four years by this point and he tells me that he got close to giving it all up.

‘I’d done my novel which didn’t get published. I’d written a feature film which didn’t get anywhere. I wrote a short film which was a traumatic experience. Jesse and I had written some stuff but hadn’t got an agent and that was about four years into writing quite seriously. Then I thought, come on, it’s never going to happen. I’m just going to go to Brazil and teach English or something. And then we got an agent and it all started to come together but that was the last time I remember feeling like I should give up.’

Peep Show has made stars out of Robert Webb and David Mitchell and Bain is open about their involvement being integral to the show’s success. The four of them had met working on a sitcom about squatters that went nowhere. They all got on and when Bain and Armstong had the idea for what was initially called ‘P.O.V.’, they wrote it with Mitchell and Webb in mind. There is a funny section in Mitchell’s book ‘Back Story’, when he describes his worries about the subsequent name change. ‘Surely that would put off some of the right people – those who might be up for a sitcom and attract some of the wrong: those in the mood for a wank.’ he writes. When Robert Webb tells him the name change is Bain and Armstrong’s idea, he is reassured. ‘God knows, Sam and Jesse had written every other word in the scripts brilliantly – who was I to complain if I wasn’t massively keen on the first two?’

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Jesse Armstrong (rear) and Sam Bain (front)

The ninth and final series of Peep Show will be shown later this year; it’s now more than a decade since they wrote the first six episodes. Bain and Armstrong are currently writing and filming will begin in August. The show has won BAFTAs and lead to gigs writing ‘Four Lions’ with Chris Morris and for Bain, working on Rev. Together with Armstrong, he’s also created Fresh Meat and Babylon. Their career was given an early boost when Ricky Gervais named Peep Show as his favourite comedy when The Office was flavour of the month. Given the plaudits, the successive recommissions and a place cemented in the television industry, presumably Bain doesn’t feel like much of a loser anymore?

‘I guess I definitely feel like I could still become a loser. The next thing I write could be terrible and I could realise that I was actually a loser all along. Fear of failure is probably the writers best friend. If you lose that you’re in serious trouble because you lose your edge. Your perfectionism…you would lose your desire to make everything as good as it possibly can be. Jesse and I keep our fear of failure quite close in order to avoid being mediocre.’

He admits feeling the pressure of writing a decent final series of Peep Show because he’s been the viewer, not wanting final episodes of his favourite shows to be shit. ‘As a fan of other people’s stuff, it is a bit disappointing if your beloved show goes off the rails.’

This snippet is typical of our conversation. Bain seems grateful for the life he’s been afforded; humble, with no sense of displaying false modesty and seemingly still genuinely happy to hear that people really enjoy his work, even though he must have been told that about a thousand times by now. Aside from the comedy, his work has become more political in recent years. ‘Four Lions’ seems even braver now than it did at the time, lampooning the ineptitude of young British Muslims attracted to the ‘glamour’ of jihad. ‘Babylon’ followed more recently with greater fanfare, given the attachment of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ director Danny Boyle and the involvement of Jimmy Nesbitt. It looked at the difference between the PR machine representing the police and the truth on the ground.

Given that we’re heading into the most unpredictable election in years with a public seemingly increasingly disillusioned with politics, I ask him how he’s feeling about it all. Declaring himself ‘not a Tory voter and not a UKIP supporter’ he believes in using his vote, ‘I’m not a Russell Brand character in that respect,’. He sees a lot of potential in writing about immigration concern, one of the deciding factors in this year’s vote.

‘There’s a lot of drama and comedy in that. Why not? I’m more drawn towards controversial writing, whether it’s about Islamic terrorism for ‘Four Lions’ or paedophiles for an episode of Rev. I think there is a lot of material in any subject that is very emotional, where people get angry or heated.’

Which way would Mark and Jez vote?

‘Jeremy might well pull a Brand, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d never voted. Mark would definitely vote for one of the mainstream parties, he wouldn’t go offline and go crazy and vote Green or UKIP.’ Bain was less sure about Mark, but after consulting with Armstrong, they felt he’d voted for New Labour throughout the Blair years before defecting to the Lib Dems at the last election. Like many of us, Mark’s not sure who will get his ‘x’ in a few weeks.

Post election, post last series of both Fresh Meat and Peep Show, Bain is contemplating some time off next year. Together with Armstrong he’s written two shows a year for the past four years and admits to workaholic tendencies. He tells me he still has ambitions outside television, possibly another novel, another film script or something for the theatre. Has success been as gratifying as he imagined? ‘In some ways its much more gratifying because I never expected to have shows as well appreciated as Peep Show or any of the others. It’s been beyond my wildest dreams really, what we’ve been through, what we’ve achieved.”

Naomi Alderman passed me on to Sophie Hannah. The two met at a Society of Authors awards ceremony. Naomi had recommended Sophie’s book Little Face in ‘The Bookseller’ so Sophie introduced herself. Afterwards they started conversing on Twitter, became friends and meet up regularly. Hannah_HC_72-1

Her novels keep readers wide-eyed and tense, the answers to her perplexing scenarios calling them onward through the pages like a siren’s song. But perhaps the biggest mystery about Sophie Hannah is this: how did a poet come to be one of the UK’s most popular crime writers? If you asked me, I’d say Agatha Christie had a lot to do with it. Hannah tells me that she read all 66 of Christie’s novels as a teenager and revisited them all again as part of her preparation for writing the new Poirot novel ‘The Monogram Murders’, published in September last year.

Christie is the best selling author of all time, her books having only been outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare. Why, I ask Hannah, would we need another Christie-brand novel out there? Hannah points out that continuation novels are no longer a strange idea. Literary reboots of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes by Sebastian Faulks and Anthony Horowitz, among others, have proved successful. Maybe it was time for Hercule Poirot to make a comeback.

‘Overwhelmingly, the Christie Estate’s motivation was that they wanted to ensure Agatha’s books were discovered by new generations of readers. Now, with children having so many more activity options such as Xboxes and Playstations,  it’s more of a struggle to get them to read at all. The Christie family felt that the online generation of teenagers might mistakenly think that Agatha belongs to another era. It was time to remind everyone that her stories are timeless, that you can enjoy them now just as much as you can enjoy Benedict Cumberbatch whizzing around being a contemporary Sherlock Holmes.’

Hannah didn’t need the gig; her novels were doing pretty well for themselves. The enduring popularity of her detectives Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse has meant that she’s published a novel every year since 2006. Her books typically start with a mysterious situation that doesn’t seem to make sense. A mother who swears that the baby in her house is not hers, despite her husband being adamant that it is, for example. Or a man who says he killed a woman several years ago and that the police are mistaken if they think she’s still alive, which they certainly seem to.

Aside from her enduring love for Christie, Hannah was drawn to the Poirot project because she had a firm idea of how she’d want to treat the moustachioed Belgian. ‘The Christie Estate were very reassured when I said that I absolutely wanted him to be Agatha Christie’s Poirot. I didn’t want to modernise him, I didn’t want him Googling anything. I just wanted to write a traditional Poirot, and the element of novelty would come in the form of the case that he had to solve.’ Duly reassured, the estate gave the green light and, according to Hannah, the new book has done the trick. Even before the book was published, the media buzz breathed new life into sales of Christie’s Poirot novels.Monogram-Murders_612x952

Although she started at the age of six, and despite having an author for a mother, Hannah tells me that she never thought about making a career out of writing . She owns up to doing the bare minimum at school to get by, relying on her ability to knuckle down in sufficient time to pass exams. She got into Manchester University, which led to an MA in novel writing. After that? ‘I deliberately got a job as a secretary: the easiest, quietest job I could find. What I wanted was a dead easy secretarial job so that I could get on with my writing and save all my mental energy for that, and I never expected to become a professional writer, or for it to earn me any money. I just loved it and it was the only thing I was willing to put any effort into.’ Sophie lived in Moss Side at a time when guns and drugs were ravaging Manchester. Despite the burglary of her house,  being held up at gun-point and mugged, she was content. ’It was always my boyfriend (now my husband) who would say “I don’t much like living here” and I would say “I love it here – we’re so near to loads of brilliant Indian restaurants!’

An early collection of poems, The Hero and the Girl Next Door (Carcanet, 1995) got her noticed, and that led to a lucky break – patronage from Trinity College, Cambridge (and later, Wolfson College, Oxford). Sophie loved Cambridge, and told me she felt ‘like little orphan Annie ending up in the home of Oliver Warbucks.’ Trinity College paid her more than she’d been earning as a secretary and sorted her out with a flat. ‘It made me think that I’d had a very lucky break, and it just fell into my lap. For the first time, I realised that I could be a proper writer rather than someone who just writes a bit. So I thought I would use those two years at Trinity to become a writer so that I didn’t have to go back to another job’.

Hannah thinks her writing grew out of a desire for a freedom – the kind of autonomy children and teenagers don’t have because they have to live by their parents’ rules. During her teenage years, she counted down the days until her 18th birthday. In response to her father wishing her ‘Happy Birthday’ on this landmark day, she promptly responded ‘Thanks.  Now, just so that you know, I’m never doing what you tell me ever again.’ Laughing as she recounts the tale, she dismisses the notion that this was pretty standard teenage behaviour. She tells me that she was always too scared to rebel overtly, in the way some teenagers did.  ‘I accepted whatever strictures were put in place, while privately yearning to be subject to no rules, and I was quite cowardly – too scared to challenge anything, so I went along with what was expected of me and tried to pacify and smooth over wherever I could. Often I’ve heard that the people who become writers are those who can’t satisfactorily express themselves or have any power in real life. My desire for autonomy came out through my writing. Having done that through my childhood, why would I give it up? It was how I best communicated with the world.’

It is this last line that makes me think that this dual life she maintained as a teenager has continued into her adult years. Though she’s excellent company, delivering insightful, considered answers to my questions, I would love to know how the Sophie Hannah unrestricted by social convention would have answered my questions. Not because I’m a paranoid hack who felt he was being indulged by someone intellectually superior to him (although, now you come to mention it…) but because we go on to talk quite a lot about how she considers herself to be a people pleaser. If one dinner guest has unwittingly upset another one, she’ll be the one wondering how she can smooth things over.

So what we end up talking about is freedom. The construction of the worlds in her books are up to her; she can have her characters say what they truly feel. That freedom is something she says she doesn’t have in the real world because there are always strategic decisions to be made in order to keep the peace. ‘Writing allows me to describe the world in the way that it is. That’s the thing my real life won’t allow. You try describing your own experience of life and someone will come along quickly to tell you that you’re wrong or you’re being contrary, or you’re getting on your high horse. When you’re writing a novel, though, you can create a fictional world that expresses whatever you want to express. That allows for proper freedom, which day to day life just doesn’t.’

Hannah’s more than happy to admit that the repressed stuff often finds its way out of the mouths of her female leads.  ‘My heroines stand up for themselves.  I really enjoy writing characters who do that. They’re not bad people, just people who sometimes don’t take much shit. I find that a hugely attractive characteristic, because I’m someone who’s always taken way too much shit.’ The success of the Zailer and Waterhouse series would seem to confirm readers also like it.

Aside from the dilemmas thrown up by the tricky navigating of other people, Hannah assures me she knows how to enjoy life. She’d earlier told me she hated saving for a rainy day, because that’s a way of life that’s based on worst-case scenario thinking. We meet in the Langham Hotel and she includes this in her list of indulgences. ‘I eat out all the time. I drink nice colourful fizzy cocktails. I eat really strong curries. I stay in posh hotels. I go swimming in beautiful swimming pools and lakes and the sea. I’ve got a dog now, so I go on nice country walks with my dog. I make time to do all those things.  I’m a bit of a hedonist, really.’

I leave her with half an hour to kill before she has to head over the road to the BBC and I’m halfway down the road before I remember that I didn’t offer to pay for my tea. If her next book starts with a generous author taking revenge on a journalist for being a tightarse, you’ll know where she got the inspiration.

Tracy-Ann Oberman passed me onto Naomi Alderman. They met after Tracy-Ann had played Ronit in the radio version of Naomi’s novel Disobedience. Naomi introduced herself at a party, explained the link and now they’re friends.

You can tell a lot about someone by the state of their living room. Naomi Alderman’s is dominated by a very sturdy looking desk. Books line the shelves and there is a slouchy looking bed/sofa thing where one could nap when the words won’t come, but it’s the desk that dominates. This seems only right. In an age where so much seems cheap and disposable, her desk sits centre stage, solid and serious. It’s a statement of the importance of writing to her life.naomi_alderman_portrait_2

Alderman established herself on the literary scene with her first novel Disobedience. The controversy that surrounded it helped. It’s about a woman, Ronit, returning to London and the Orthodox Jewish community she left behind to attend a funeral. She also returns to Esti, the woman who is her former lover and Esti is now married to a rabbi. Even from those couple of sentences, you can see why Ronit had to leave.

Similarly, Alderman took herself out of orthodoxy but it seemed it was less to do with the subjects she was addressing in Disobedience, it was the act of writing itself that took her away.

‘I had a very specific moment when working on my first novel at UEA when I realised that I could either be a good writer or a good Jew, but that I couldn’t be both. When you go and write a novel, you are the one who decides. Not a word falls in your novel but that you made it so. People are going to read it and respond to it and be within it and take things from it and learn things from it. But then you think, ‘How can i possibly decide what should happen in this book?’ Because that is as if to say ‘I can invent the world. Like God.’

Alderman compares taking up writing to discovering one’s sexuality. Not a choice; discovering something about yourself instead. It took away a lot of her structure. ‘There’s a Hebrew prayer. The Shemah, which you’re supposed to say three times a day. It talks about what God tells you to do to live a good life’. She recites it in Hebrew to me before translating. ‘Don’t go wandering after what your eyes see and your heart desires’. She emits a shiver of horror as she recounts the realisation that she wanted to be a writer. ‘Oh. But that’s exactly what I’ve done.’

She tells me that stepping outside of the framework of orthodox Judaism put her in a very unfamiliar place. ‘It was a bit like moving to Tokyo. You could still text your friends but it would be a bit of a challenge. There would be lots to do and some days you would have a cry!’ she says, laughing. The answer turned out to be therapy. She mentions it twice during our meeting and is an advocate. Being candid about it is part of her belief that the world would be a better place if people talked about the psychotherapy they’ve had. ‘I think it’s nice for people to know that you didn’t get to be as sane as you are without some work. In the same way that you don’t get to have one of those Hollywood buff bodies without going to the gym.’

She still tends to believe that she’s not successful even though she’s got quite a history of brilliance by now. She was good at school and that lead to Oxford, where she did Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). A job with an international law firmLiars'Gospel in New York followed before the writing took hold. After her first novel, Disobedience, appeared she won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award and her last novel, The Liars Gospel, was similarly loved by critics. She also happens to be a professor of creative writing at Bath. So: not doing too badly then.

PPE is a traditional route into politics – both Cameron and Miliband did it. Our meeting takes place the day before the vote on independence in Scotland and in discussing it, Alderman gets very animated (and hilarious) about Cameron’s attempts to convince the Scots to stay. ‘Does he not register what colour Scotland looks in the electoral register map? He would do better if he said he thought we’d be better off without the Scots and then just to spite him, they might stay in the union.’ Given her political background and Jewish heritage, there is a bigger political subject to discuss though, that of Israel and Palestine. Her third book is about Jesus and is set in the year after his death during the Roman occupation of Judea. ’It’s as if the land remembers and keeps doing the same thing over and over again.’ she sighs.

Choosing her words carefully, she believes the state of Israel has a right to exist and that ‘I would love the Palestinian people to be able to self govern; that would be a wonderful thing. The whole business is an unfolding tragedy. Both sides have been badly let down by their leadership. Israel should stop building settlements, it doesn’t look good. Do they have a real partner for working towards peace? Well, it’s not Hamas. Do I understand why the Palestinian people elected Hamas? Yes I do. They feel desperate and Hamas has been there on the ground like an organised crime family handing out medicine and food when there is no one else to do it.’ Her conclusion is sage. ‘Anyone that thinks one side are the good guys and the other side are the bad guys is deluded.’

Before we get too depressed about it, we agree that a ray of sunshine might be the next generation and Alderman has found some joy in discovering an organisation there that gets Israeli and Palestinian kids coding together. Ah yes. As well as being a best selling author Alderman loves games. Earlier she’d told me that she’d lost four months of her life playing Diablo II when she was living in New York, post 9/11. ‘But they were not months that I wanted. The thing was, you could smell it. The fires smouldered underneath the towers for five months afterwards. I would play for four hours and there was just no room for anything else in my head.’

Although she’s dabbled with writing games before, she hit pay dirt with ‘Zombies, Run!’, an app that tells you you’re being chased by zombies when you’re out running or walking with your smartphone plugged into your ears. Co-created with games company Six to Start, it’s an audio drama with 160 missions to choose from that interrupt your chosen soundtrack and act like interval training. You might have to speed up for a minute when the flesh eating undead are bearing down on you, for example. She came up with the idea with her friend Adrian, who is (you guessed it) a keen runner. ‘Not everyone wants to run’ she says ‘But almost everyone wants to want to run. And thats where we come in. There’s motivation – you can only hear the next bit of the story if you get off your bum.’ The project has been wildly successful: they’ve sold over a million copies. Logo

Her writing routine changes seasonally, but she aims for 800 words a day when she’s writing a novel. In the afternoon she’ll swap the isolation of that for the collaboration of working on games projects with a team. Given she writes in her living room, I wondered if the distraction of the internet was a problem. Zadie Smith saluted the discipline afforded her by using internet stopping software tool Freedom, coincidentally the title of the book that Jonathan Franzen was writing when he superglued his ethernet cable into the port before severing the wire. How gutted was he when wifi took over? Alderman is obviously better at exercising self control. When I ask her how she shuts out the web she tells me she doesn’t as she likes being able to look things up when she is writing.  ‘I can only really write for about two or three hours a day anyway at which point it’s quite nice to go and surf. If I’m looking on Wikipedia I don’t consider that a waste of time. Facebook and Twitter – well it’s never a waste of time to catch up with your mates.’

If she does end up spending too much time on the net, therapy has taught her that probably means something else is wrong. ‘Blaming the internet then’, she says ‘is like the alcoholic that blames the bottle.’ It’s common to look at successful people and think they’ve cracked life but Naomi admits to having some ‘food issues’ before explaining how she deals with problems.

‘You can’t stop it by being mean to yourself. You can’t stop it by saying to yourself ‘Why are you being such a twat? Just do your fucking work’. You have to ask yourself ‘What is the matter?’ and often that’s something really small. It might be that you saw an email that made you feel really judged or you saw some younger person on television who has achieved more than you and you started to think nasty thoughts about yourself. I think it’s the work of a lifetime to grapple with that but that’s ok: a lifetime is what we’ve got. It’s spiritual work to think ‘What’s going on here?’ When I compliment her on her self awareness, she swiftly answers ’12 years of therapy!’ before laughing heartily. ‘You don’t get this wise without putting in the hard yards.’ She’s being gently self mocking but the way she says it, I know she means it. To achieve the life she wanted outside of the framework she was raised within would have meant learning to exist in a different way. Her success is proof that the work was worth it.

Arabella Weir passed me on to Tracy-Ann Oberman, who I met at the Hampstead Theatre.  ca987b_3dd22e6b93e55575fdff7d5989df3a4d.jpg_1024

Tracy Ann Oberman is trying to blag me a ticket for the play that she’s in.  The problem is the performance is too popular.

‘No returns?’ she asks the lady at the ticket counter? ‘What about if he sits in the lighting box?’

Both enquiries are met with a sympathetic but firm denial.  Nine years since she dropped a doorstop onto Dirty Den’s head, putting an end to the old philanderer’s antics permanently, Oberman is still hugely popular with the masses.  So much so that she still gets fan mail about Chrissie Watts, the character she played in Eastenders.

That role propelled her into the public consciousness, but she was a respected jobbing actress long before Chrissie came along.  After learning her trade at the Central School of Speech and Drama, she spent four years at the RSC before going on to appear opposite Kenneth Branagh at the National Theatre and generally working her butt off.  There’d been a ton of radio (around 600 plays), quite a bit of comedy with everyone from Lenny Henry to Simon Pegg and, she tells me, numerous voiceovers. You’ll be seeing quite a bit more of her on the telly in the coming months, firstly as Auntie Val in ‘Friday Night Dinner’ and latterly in Sky’s spring drama ‘Give Out Girls’.  Where does she get her strong work ethic from?

‘I come from a family where a lot of people died very young so I think I’ve always had this feeling of needing to do something before you go.  Maybe when you’re aware of mortality when you’re very young, you realise that you don’t know how long you’ve got. When people are dropping dead, the sense of immortality that children have goes very quickly.’

Oberman’s grandmother fled from the Russian pogroms in 1907.  Two million Jews fled Russia between 1880 and 1914 as anti Jewish rioting and killing was enflamed by the anti-semitic policies of successive Russian leaders.  After arriving in England aged 15 without her family, Oberman’s grandmother slept on the floor of a factory for two years.

‘We were bought up with this woman who could’t even speak English but would go on in Yiddish Russian ‘We’ve got to keep the bags packed in case the Cossacks come.’  My Dad’s family also lost a lot of people in Auschwitz and Dachau.’  It is this, she tells me, that propels her to make the most of her time.

Her father was initially terrified of the thought of her being an actress, telling her he thought she would end up a lonely old woman who lived with a cat, struggling to pay the rent on a bedsit.  ‘My family weren’t from the entertainment industry and they didn’t understand it at all.  They thought that real people didn’t get to do that, that you had to be the son or daughter of someone.’

Oberman has just finished a play at the Hampstead Theatre called ‘Godchild’ which held up a looking glass to an alternative future for her personally.  Her character Lou doesn’t end up with a cat in a bedsit but is someone who, as Oberman puts it ‘is a 40 year old in an arrested state of development.  She isn’t married, has never settled, can’t commit to anything and doesn’t really know who she is.  She’s had same job for 25 years, is hanging out with 19 year olds and is in complete denial that her life is just an empty meaningless void of sex and drugs.’  As a happily married woman with a daughter and a fulfilling career, does Oberman really think her life could have turned out that way?

‘I just know a lot of women like the character Lou that I played.  And a lot of men!  At a certain point in my life, maybe in my mid 30s, I might have ended up like that.  It’s the flip side of where I am in my life which is happy, secure, family, sense of belonging.  This character has none of that and I can easily see how that could have happened to me because it’s happened to a lot of my friends.   You know what I mean?  You get to 40 and you think, where did the years go, I still feel like I’m 20?’

Oberman’s own life couldn’t be more different.  Happily married to music producer Rob Cowan since 2004 and a Mum to seven year old Anoushka, her career is not only successful career but varied.  Many actors struggle to succeed in other genres after leaving a high profile soap; consider the number of popular characters that have returned to Eastenders and the security of a regular pay cheque.

Oberman went a different way.  She’s appeared regularly in theatre and kept her hand in with the television work, appearing in many popular shows including Doctor Who and Waterloo Road.  More interestingly, she’s increasingly turned to writing, adapting (with Diane Samuels) Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ for radio and imagining the personal conversations of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford for the Radio 4 play ‘Bette and Joan and Baby Jane’.   The success of this resulted in ‘Rock and Doris and Elizabeth’, this time using the characters of Hudson, Day and Taylor respectively.  There’ll be another instalment as Radio 4 have just commissioned the final part of the trilogy.

Rumours abound that Chrissie Watts will be resurrected though.  18 million people watched Chrissie murder Den, propelling Oberman into a world of paparazzi and successive TV magazine covers. What was it like being that famous?    Oberman-as-Chrissie-Watts-007

‘It was odd, it was like I’d never worked before.  I was well known in the industry but the public thought of me as the girl who vaguely looks like Alex Kingston.  Literally two minutes after my first episode had aired a car screeched to a halt as I was leaving the house.  A girl got out and took a picture on her phone and said ‘Allo Chrissie’ and I remember thinking that life would never be the same again.  I got stopped all the time but it was very nice.  People understood the difference between Chrissie and Tracy and the public wanted to talk about the character.  She was confusing for them – was she a victim or was she a villain?’

She tells me that it’s only now that she can take the tube without being recognised.  Anonymity has helped open some doors too, allowing her to go up for parts in comedies that her famous face formerly excluded her from.  Recently this has included a delightful turn as the love interest of Matt Berry in Channel Four’s hugely successful ‘Toast of London’. While she won’t be drawn on whether Chrissie’s return is on the cards, would she want to step back into the glare of the spotlight if the call came?

‘She was a character I was proud of because soap is a very interesting medium, it’s a heightened reality. At the same time I’ve been quite maverick in my career, I’ve never focused on one area.  Never having been pigeonholed has meant that I’ve never been out of work.  That means I will never rise to the top of anyones list: I don’t think that I’m the first  actor to go to for drama for example.  I span the theatre camp, I span the comedy camp and I think that’s a strength.  I’ve been lucky because every day there’s been someone different.’