Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Day 48: Field 58

In Surrey’s ‘Green Belt’ just south of London, beyond the orbital M25, lies the town of Chobham. You can see the church spire of St. Lukes from Junction 14 nestled amongst the green canopy of oak, elm, beech, horse chestnut and ash.

Chobham is not a very big town and it sits somewhere between a number of other settlements in the well-heeled commuter belt: Egham, Virginia Water, Sunningdale and Ascot. Most of these communities are serviced by train, all are neat, tidy and attractive, cars are mostly new, schoolchildren are invariably uniformed, local activities and clubs vibrant. Middle class England, serviced by the gym, cable TV, the country club, golf course, nursery, local pub and Sainsburys (supermartket).

Driving into Chobham, which is not at all big, one gets the feeling that despite it’s very cottageyness, it’s not rural, pastoral nor bucolic, yet neither is it citified or urban and its certainly a far cry from the other uglies that spring up along the motorways spreading south and west of the capital.

Surrounding these towns and tucking in where they can are pockets of agricultural land. It’s not easy to make a profitable living exclusively through agriculture these days especially if you’re right under the Heathrow flight path and subject to the vehicle emissions of London’s grand prix ring road which often sits chockablock, at a standstill, for most of the day. And, if your farm is not one of those hand-picked to supply produce for one of the major supermarket retailers, then you need to look at ways to supplement your income.

One such farmer, just outside Chobham, has found a way to boost his idling profits by selling a piece of his land - Field 58 - to a group of “travellers” (once known as gypsies or Romanies). He had to let it go it to because his farm was not one of those selected for supermarket produce; hence Field 58 was sold.

Field 58 was occupied by one caravan, one family, who then sub-divided the field into lots 1 and 2, selling off half of their own lot and the whole of Lot 2 to other travellers. Lots 1 &2 were sub-divided again into Lots 1,2,3 & 4 and so the process has gone on until caravan saturation point in Field 58 (to the power of four and a half) had been reached and something like 64 mobile residences occupied what was originally one plot of land. No by-laws had been breached in the process and the small community of Field 58 was thriving.

As the caravans arrived and the population on the farm swelled, so the complaints by residents local and nearby increased - traffic, refuse, noise, degradation of green belt land, disturbances, an increase in crime, violence; the plot of land had become an eyesore and there was a considerable increase of pressure on local infrastructure - schools, health facilities, utilities. The locals of Chobham had had enough and when another farmer, just outside town, decided to sell a field for the same purpose, a line in the sand was drawn.

The ‘Friends of Chobham’ (FOC) was formed with the express intent of halting a further sale and evicting the travellers from Field 58. A committee was made up of local residents - lawyers, businesspeople, interested parties - and the community was canvassed for membership to fight each case (each Lot warranted it’s own legal challenge) in whatever court they would have to go to. A membership fee or tithing of sorts - 0.10% of the value of your house/property - was needed to join FOC (“Who cares? We do. We give a FOC!!”) and the money was to be their war chest.

There was been no shortage of active subscribers and soon the local Member of Parliament was rallied to the cause and the campaign begun in earnest with an FOC meeting in the Chobham Village Hall. The battle for Field 58 was on.

Day #48 Tip: Grab your ideas where you can
From time-to-time, when attending social functions, parties, events and the like - but especially dinner parties - someone asks me what I “do”. I generally tell them that I’m a writer; they then ask “what” I write, I say “film” and they want to know if I’ve written anything that they’ve seen and I say “yes, Lawrence Of Arabia”. I let the answer hang there in space for two seconds before telling them “that’s a lie, I didn’t write Lawrence Of Arabia at all.... I was too busy on Doctor Zhivago”.

I think I’m funny, I don’t know that the other person agrees. But once my career cat is out of the bag, this is what invariably happens next, especially if I’m seated alongside the someone at a meal table: in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink sort of way, they’ll tell me that they’ve got a “great film idea” for me but that they wouldn’t dream of boring me with it at the meal table.

I can almost set my watch by what happens next; before we’ve got to the dessert, they lean into me and, checking that Steven Spielberg isn’t within earshot (in case he’ll overhear and run off with their filmic gold) they ask if I want to hear their idea. Of course I do, I’m a polite young man. I’m told a mildly amusing anecdote (mildly amusing to them maybe), they roar with laughter, I offer my best wry grin and they tell me “it’s true, it really happened” and then ask what I think?

What I think is that they want me to say: “we must have a meeting because I think you’re onto something there and we must run off to Hollywood together.” What I actually say is “you should write that”. This generally stuns them and gets me off the hook from what, I don’t know. They then respond with “do you think so?”, and I tell them “absolutely.”

I don’t know that it’s actually ever happened like that and most of the time I’d rather tell them that I’m an astronaut than have to explain the down and dirties of the screenwriter in all shades of script development at the un-Hollywood end of the biz. At least these days, I have a shorthand version: “I’m the Hungry Screenwriter”, to wit, I urge them to get their iPhone out and check me out on the web.

But the story of Field 58 came to me, fully packaged like I wrote it hear today. I don’t know if it’s a film, TV idea maybe or whether it’ll be consigned to the bottom drawer of my laptop to never see the light of day, but it’s got something - the something that is like a piece of creative grit in my shoe - and I’ve learnt to pick up on the good stories when I hear them. When I do, I ask the teller of the tale: “can I have that story?” They usually say “yes” and I usually reach for my Moleskin notebook and pen to get it all down before I forget or before Steven Spielberg hears of it.

The world is a Hungry place my friends.

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