The Brexit Tapes
By John Bull
A satirical glimpse behind the curtain as the Government tries, and fails, to deliver Brexit.
Thursday, 19 August 2021
Last One's Gone...
“Don’t worry.” They said. “It takes, on average, about eighteen months for a book by an unknown author to get funded. In fact, it’s one of the things we have to manage people’s expectations about.”
One week after Unbound told me that, to both my utter joy and my abject terror, you all proved them wrong.
Of course, I suspect when they approached me about doing this they had a bit more faith in you, the potential readers, being there than I did. Certainly, more than they were letting on. To me, the political satire threads I’d written (and at that point was still writing) during Theresa May’s Brexit battle had been intended as a throwaway thing.
That wasn’t to say that I wasn’t putting an awful lot of effort into writing them. They took a lot of bloody time and drafting to get right. More that I saw them as deliberately ephemeral. Born, in part, from a personal challenge to myself to try and prove that you can do meaningful, deep content on any medium, as long as you write for that medium. And that this included Twitter.
After they proved popular, Unbound weren’t the first people to approach me and ask me to transfer them to print. I’d already politely turned down a couple of publishing offers from more traditional houses. In each case, this was because they simply wanted to – for lack of a better way of putting it – “print and run.” That is, copy-edit the threads up, stick them between a cover and an end plate, and rush it to the shelves.
I said ‘yes’ to Unbound after they told me they didn’t want that. That to work properly in print, they’d probably need quite a lot of reworking. I agreed. I warned them I was a slow writer who tended to ‘turtle’ while I was writing a thing (that is, I’m almost physically incapable of discussing that thing until in my head it is almost done. It gives me panic attacks).
That was when they told me the eighteen months thing.
Well as wrong as we both were on the timing of funding, the reworking thing was absolutely true. The final manuscript, now in the safe hands of the lovely editing and layout people at Unbound (who have been spectacularly tolerant of me during the writing process), has been through three full different versions over many, many months.
The earliest was lost to Bacchus. He decided it would be funny to pour an entire glass of white wine over my Macbook, presumably just after he’d heard from whoever the god of computers is that iCloud doesn’t back up Scrivener files by default.
The second I (digitally) ripped apart myself. It was finished during the dark, early days of Boris Johnson’s Premiership, where I don’t think I was exactly in the greatest of mental places. I suspect I’m not alone in admitting that. But, weirdly, one of the ways I realised it was when I reached the stage of reviewing what I regarded then as the final draft of this book.
I realised that I had taken the original material, the essence of the Brexit Tapes, and turned it into something very, very angry.
And then, after I’d stared at that for a bit and wondered what on earth I’d done… things shifted in my head and, suddenly, I could see how it should be. It clicked.
What you will receive, when the wizards at Unbound have finished doing their thing, is the result of that clicking. Something that feels far more in character with the mood of that time, but which also expresses frustration, bemusement and a little bit of anger at the future which was, at the point the book now finishes (more on that in a bit) still to come.
Most importantly though, what you’ll be getting is something that now, at least to me (and hopefully to you!) feels like a book. A thing that you will enjoy reading, and maybe even think about reading again.
Turning it into that has been an interesting and lengthy process. From the beginning, I realised that this needed to feel like a proper narrative, with a narrative arc. Yet pulling all the threads together quickly highlighted that only perhaps a third of them really had that. Where they did have it, they really had it. But particularly for the earlier parts, it felt more like a series of loosely associated sketches starring vaguely similar (but surprisingly inconsistent, when compared side-by-side) characters.
That worked fine on Twitter, but the moment you started pulling them together into a continual narrative, suddenly the differences stood out like a burning flame.
An example that sticks in my memory: my original plan had been to rework and include the earliest of the things I considered part of the Brexit Tapes. This actually appeared online a fair bit of time before the thread most people saw as the start, and which is now the opening chapter of the book (“First one’s gone…”). This proto-tape (if you will) covered the infamous ‘Chequers sessions’ where it briefly looked like May had pulled off the impossible and got everyone to agree, before it all promptly fell apart the next day.
The problem: That thread featured some very different characterisations of people that later took on more of the characteristics that readers were used to. The later characterisations of whom (frankly) were actually closer to their real-life personalities. At least as much as I knew them, from my encounters with them in real life. Critically, this included Gove, Hammond and Grayling.
I spent several months tearing my hair out, trying to rework that proto-tape in various ways. Particularly because there was a mini-speech in it, by Hammond, that utterly nailed how and why the whole May government would come apart. Less seriously, there was also a fun bit involving Gavin Williamson and a air rifle, which seemed wonderfully prophetic about how unhinged he’d get in his later days as Defence Secretary.
But I just couldn’t find a way to make it work, in continuity with the later Tapes. Because it meant introducing Eldritch Gove too early.
In the end, I had to abandon the idea entirely. Instead (something started in Angry Version and Finished in Clicking Version), what I ended up doing was stepping back, asking myself which bits of that proto-tape would add to the narrative and then worked out how to splice them into the greater whole elsewhere.
So Hammond’s speech? It’s still in the book that’ll land on your doormat. It needs to be for narrative purposes (I won’t spoil things more than that). It’s just been moved elsewhere. If you read this (or were one of the people who read that original proto-tape), you’ll almost certainly know it when you see it. Meanwhile, Gavin Williamson’s attempt to shoot Rees-Mogg with an air rifle is gone (sorry) but there is still an easter egg mention of it in the book. Which probably only about three people (and anyone who actually made it this far into this post!) will now get.
Indeed, moving and reassembling, then writing bridging sections is something that I’ve ended up having to do an awful lot of. When I sat down and spread out the various tapes that didn’t already carry the core, consistent narrative it became clear that some weren’t even really fulsome enough to be expanded into chapters at all. I ended up calling these ‘fragments’ in my head (and my Scrivener folders!).
But… it also became clear, a bit like a jigsaw, that some of those fragments actually fitted other fragments rather well. They could be parcelled up as parallel activities with some careful rewriting (and the odd bit of timeline fudging) to make a legit bit of narrative that read better than the sum of its parts.
Once that started happening, those combined parts could then be worked in, surprisingly easily, with the existing narrative parts to form a much better arc.
And then, one day, I realised I’d hit a point when I started reading chapters through one after the other, that it finally suddenly felt like a book.
That process has meant some casualties: I’ll be up front about that. But not as many as you’d think. The aforementioned Chequers session is one, but so is almost the entirety of Theresa May’s encounter with Mr Blobby. Was it funny? I still think so. And I loved the revelation that Gove plays Blue in Magic: The Gathering that it contained. But it didn’t tell a story. The same holds true for 80% of the two long threads I did that were ‘live tweets’ of a couple of key debates. They just didn’t make sense in a book. They required too much “you had to be there at the time” and (as I mentioned in the one other post I did on here) I discovered very early on that rewriting to include context was critical. There, as elsewhere, some of the best bits have been lifted and quietly inserted elsewhere.
My original plan was to include these as ‘apocrypha’ at the end. But page count is precious and, sadly, that’s meant some tough decisions about what does, and doesn’t make it in. My other disappointment with this is that we just don’t have the space to do something I’d talked about on Twitter – include pages of remembrance. Dropping that idea was a tough one, but I couldn’t see anywhere else in the manuscript where taking things out to make space wouldn’t rob the reader of things that deserved to be there.
Most particularly, it would likely have meant sacrificing resolution of the story arc surrounding a certain, Eldritch duck.
Which brings me nicely onto the topic of endings.
What you’re getting here, with the print version isn’t just something that now feels like a book (or at least I think it does. I hope you agree). You’re also getting a story with an end.
That’s an ending that only exists in this version. It is an ending that I will never put on Twitter or anywhere else online (although once you read it, please do tell me what you think of it there!). It feels right that it appears only in print, and I think it’s right that only you get it.
I won’t spoilt that ending here, but I will say that it is the thing that has had the most versions of all. Five different versions, in fact.
Four of those endings will never see the light of day. I will never speak of them. Well, that’s a lie. If you ever happen to catch me drinking in Soho, and bribe me with enough beer I will happily tell you. But you’ll be disappointed, because they are not the right ending.
This one is. It is the biggest change between the Angry Version and the Clicking Version. Because, as seems to have been the tradition throughout the whole bloody existence of the Brexit Tapes, there was a point where reality intervened and dropped the bloody ending right on my lap. Once again, proving that no matter how ridiculous I tried to write the story, reality would always one-up me.
At that point, I dropped my initial other plan (which had been to include a custom ‘Brexit Tape’ focusing on Labour in the general election) and watched two existing Tapes double in size, and one brand, spanking new Tape covering David Lidington’s leaving party, flow straight out onto the page as the final chapter.
Indeed (with no spoilers) there was a point where I found myself literally watching Phil Hammond say something that’s in the book, live on TV. I don’t mean that I quickly wrote it down word-for-word. I mean that I’d already written it and was considering taking it out as crossing the line into putting words in his mouth.
And then there he was. Saying it (albeit with slightly less swearing). On TV.
I won’t spoil any of that, but I will give you a bit of a teaser, as Unbound begin the process (which I’m assured does take a bit of time) of doing their printy layout things, of what gets wrapped up:
Just why is Chris Grayling such an idiot? What on earth happened to M’Greh, his comfort duck? Why did Boris Johnson have to completely redecorate Number Ten? What eventually happened to the Ultragavines, Gavin Williamson’s custom Space Marine Chapter?
All these things will finally become clear.
And with that, I will leave it there for now. I thank you again, as backers, for being unbelievably tolerant of my writing process. Your reward is something that I am not just proud to be able to call my first book (and there will be more. Follow me on Twitter for updates on that subject at some point), but something I genuinely enjoy reading. And most writers will, I suspect, tell you that it’s very rare we feel we can say that about our own work.
To quote Douglas Adams from the introduction to the omnibus edition of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that first blew my teenage mind in the nineties:
“The publication of this book seems like a good opportunity to set the record straight – or at least firmly crooked. Anything that is put down wrong here is, as far as I’m concerned, wrong for good.”
So it is with the manuscript that now sits in the hands of Unbound. It is The Brexit Tapes. Not the threads. Not the slightly tweaked versions I chucked up on Medium at the time. Not the reworked-as-a-radio-script version I did that never got recorded (add that to your ‘drunk Soho questions’ list).
This. This book is The Brexit Tapes. Beginning, middle and end.
Hopefully, as the print process comes together and I get to see how this will look in print, Unbound will let me share pictures and snippets of that here, and on Twitter. And while they’re doing that, I also now get to do the bit of this project that (no lie) I’ve been very much looking forward to:
Writing an actual stand-alone, pen-and-paper adventure and ruleset for Ministers & Monsters. I have ideas for this scrawled down in various places already that I have been aching to start fleshing out. I hope those of you who opted for those add-ons will like them.
But until we speak again, I thank you once again for your patience and I’m excited to hear what you think of the end result. Do tell me when you read it. Unless you hate it. Then please don’t. Let me live in ignorance.
Was there anything else on my list?
Don’t think so…
And the good news is, scanning this back up, I only mentioned Chris Grayling twice. Disaster avoided.
Can't wait - I think I'm suitably past the emotional crisis of Boris's election win (well, maybe not past, but I've come to terms with it) to enjoy this as I originally intended when it reaches me.
posted 19th August 2021
The origins of the Angry version: you were definitely not alone with those sentiments and having to handle that time. Glad you & the book came out the other side of it. Looking forward to M&M too.
posted 19th August 2021
Jimminy, that's quite an update! I hope the writing is as good as the story of the writing! :)
posted 20th August 2021
Like others, I can't wait to receive my copy and it's lovely to read your pre-publication comments and insights before we get the copy.
posted 20th August 2021