Guild edged

I’ve been looking at you for ten minutes, easily ten, with my head going in two directions. Part of me wants to enthuse at you about a table reading I attended over Zoom last night, but I’m not sure I can. I can definitely tell you that scripts I’d read and very much enjoyed seemed even better performed by however many people in Celebrity Squares-style video boxes.

But I think what I really want is to talk about the Writers’ Guild. This week I was re-elected as co-Deputy Chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and I may never get used to that. Except this is my last year – the Guild is a trade union and it of course has rules, which of course include term limits.

I promise to hand over power peacefully.

It’ll be reluctantly, but it will be peaceable. And that’s not for a year yet, so in the meantime I plan to be as bleedin’ useful as I can. The Writers’ Guild raises the tide for all writers, which I think is amazing, and actually it does so whether you’re in the Guild or not, which I think is astounding. Pay rates, conditions, the Guild is constantly –– and I really mean constantly –– negotiating, pressing, arranging every possible aspect of professional writing life and doing so in our favour.

Writing is an isolating kind of job which might suit you and it might not, but it makes us vulnerable. I think it’s telling that during this hard time, Guild membership is going up. The more of us there are, the stronger the Writers’ Guild is, the better we all fare.

Take a look at joining and what membership brings you.

Tinker, Spy, Soldier, Tailor

I’d like to use something very specific so we can talk about something very broad. Right now, BritBox has the 1979 Arthur Hopcraft version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the BBC iPlayer has the 2011 film version by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan. And of course John le Carré’s original novel is available everywhere. Plus the script is online.

I’ve read that novel years ago, re-read it now, watched both the BBC and film versions, read the 2011 script, and there is a single scene in the movie that I’ve been fixating on for about a week.

In all the versions, here’s the thing. A British intelligence agent, Peter Guillam, is infiltrating his own agency to steal some files. (This is in the 1970s, files meant big paper and cardboard folders, not a USB stick or three.) It’s every bit as tense as you can imagine with Guillam diverting attention, distracting people and then of course he’s stopped just before he can get away.

He’s doing all this to investigate various senior intelligence officers and he’s stopped by one of them. Before you can wonder if he’ll find a way around this one man, he’s being escorted to all of them.

So now he’s in a closed room meeting with all the people he and we suspect, and if it’s been tense before, we are now certain the game is up.

Except, very nicely, if the game is up then it’s actually a slightly different game. Guillam is threatened, bullied, shouted at, and it’s all over the fact that, as we know, he has been speaking with a particular other agent named Ricki Tarr.

To mix spy genres for a second, Ricki Tarr has been disavowed. Meeting with him is treason, literally. So Guillam has a choice and he makes it. He claims he’s not seen Tarr and he keeps that up throughout – until he is eventually believed.

Fine. More than fine. It is a successfully tense and compelling couple of scenes and so well done that you can feel in your stomach the moment Guillam commits to his lie about not seeing this man.

In the novel.

And in the 1979 BBC version.

These same couple of scenes are in the 2011 movie, but they’re dramatically different, in every sense, because in the movie Guillam has not been speaking with Tarr. He hasn’t seen him.

In the film version, he first meets up Tarr right after these scenes and there’s a bit of action as he takes out his fear – amongst other things – on the man. But here’s the specific general point: his fear is minuscule.

He hasn’t seen Tarr so he wasn’t lying in that scene, in the film. He wasn’t lying so he can’t be caught out. In the BBC version there is every chance that the people accusing him of meeting Tarr have actually seen him do it. In the novel, he’s reasonably confident that he wasn’t under surveillance at the time. He doesn’t know, he can’t be sure, so while it’s weaker in the novel than in the BBC series, the tension is still there.

It isn’t in the film.

I liked the film when I saw it around 2011 and I liked it now, except the BBC one was so fresh in my mind that it was hard to separate them. I think that was probably why I noticed this because I do remember thinking the film was taut and tense the first time I saw it.

I keep thinking and thinking about this. About how a change in the sequence of a story can destroy tension that had otherwise been very carefully engineered.

It’s like the opposite of the Hitchcock theory that a long and boring dinner between two characters can be made riveting if they don’t know there’s a bomb under the table –– and the audience does.

I suspect that the film did the story in this sequence for one of two reasons. It could be collateral damage from decisions about other sequences, when to tell which other bits of the tale. Or it’s possible that it was done to serve Peter Guillam’a character. In the other versions, Guillam gets no big release from surviving this interrogation, no particular action.

In the film, he gets back from the interrogation, sees Tarr and makes a dive for him. It’s one of the few pieces of physical action in the story and it does also let Guillam believe some of the things his interrogators have told him. But he only gets to believe them for a moment, he only gets a brief spot of action.

If it was to give Peter Guillam a character moment, I think it came at the cost of a gigantically bigger one in that interrogation.

So if it were deliberate, I think it was just wrong. If it were a consequence of other issues in the script, other needs, then it’s a shame.

But whichever it is, there is always a reason why a scene is where and when it is in a story.

Cheap Thrills

We genuinely are in a TV golden age right now and we have been for so long that it’s hard to remember there were ever ages at all. But there was. Oh, trust me, there was. I’m suspicious now because I feel that the last un-golden age was while I was reviewing television for BBC Ceefax and BBC News Online, but there were still two things in that period that kept making me wonder why I liked TV drama so much.

Perhaps the most pervasive was that television began looking like cinema. Every series looked wonderful, utterly arrestingly gorgeous. And bugger-all use as a drama. Characters who barely qualified for the name, stories that might or might not have worked but you’d never know because the dialogue would leave you wondering over and over again how adults had stood there saying this crap aloud. But it looked great.

Maybe you feel less harsh, but I remember, for instance, one boring evening in a London hotel with a pile of ho-hum dramas to review on VHS, and then the last one of the night being Queer as Folk. It was instantly wonderful. Watch it now, watch it then, there’s no question but that this show is like being hit by joyous wall. It is alive, that’s what Queer as Folk is, and back in 1999 or 2000, there wasn’t much else that was.

You might not agree with me, you’re looking kinder about TV back then, but there’s this other thing which you’re less likely to know. Unless you got on BBC and ITV’s press list, you won’t have seen how very many times a new drama would be promoted as being “the next Play for Today”.

I was reminded of this watching clips from the Republican National Convention the other week. Just as BBC and ITV knew that Play for Today was high water mark for drama, so the GOP’s speakers all knew what was right, what was proper, what was decent and sane. They don’t do any of it, but as they stood there saying these lies, it felt worse than ever because clearly they know what the truth is. There’s no ideological stance here, no belief that you could disagree with and yet still understand, these are people who know full well what the right thing to do is, and they’re choosing not to do it.

Equally, not one single “next Play for Today” was ever remotely like Play for Today. It did get so that you just wished they’d bloody make more Play for Today, but instead, they did do something better. Eventually.

Eventually, television married the brilliance of how things could look on our ever-larger widescreen TV sets with how much more brilliant they can be when the drama is written and acted and directed well.

I think this time, right now, is the very best that television has ever been. But I know that it’s also the first time we’ve been able to check.

Think of a TV series and you can watch it, pretty much. There’s no sign of The Onedin Line or The Duchess of Duke Street on any streaming service and there so very much should be, but otherwise it appears that every show ever can, well, appear on your screen.

It also looks better than it ever did. I watched Thunderbirds the other night on BritBox simply because I wanted to hear that famous theme and yet the image quality was so vastly greater than I’d ever remembered that I was held for long enough to get into the story. Curiously, the sound wasn’t remotely as great, but before I knew it, I was rooting for Virgil to save the day.

He did. And last night at the end of an episode of Dempsey and Makepeace, Dempsey was in that classic hero position where he could’ve shot the baddie but after a few tense closeups, took the moral high ground. Compare that to the newer and infinitely better Justified where the only thing that saves a baddie from being fatally shot is not the hero’s morality but rather the producer’s deciding he’s too interesting a character to kill off.

You see the nonsense we used to put up with on television, but you also see much more. It fascinates me how you can, reasonably easily, skip around television history and see how norms and conventions and budgets and technology changed. The most striking example for me, though, is how studio-bound British TV was for such a very long time.

Any given episode of a drama would consist of maybe ten minutes shot on location, shot on film, and then the rest would be recorded in the studio. As a nation, it was as if we collectively agreed to ignore the vast difference in picture quality between the two. Then as portable, lightweight OB cameras came in, we moved to all film, all-location, and it is better.

The very last drama to be shot in this part film/mostly studio way was BBC1’s The House of Elliott, which ended in 1994. That’s also not available to stream, but you can now turn left and watch 1993’s Cracker which was made entirely on film. Or you can scoot back a little to 1987 and a series where the constraints of the studio were much more painfully obvious.

This is available on BritBox, as of last month. Star Cops. If there is a contest for the worst-named TV series of all time, Star Cops would be in with a shot at the trophy. I actually remember it getting the front cover of Radio Times and yet, despite the attention and despite it being made by ex-Doctor Who people I rated, I didn’t watch. Not something called Star Cops, I’m not.

I think it was maybe ten years later that I caught an episode and ended up buying the complete series on VHS. And now I’m watching the whole thing on BritBox.

It’s got that same dreadful title, it looks cheaper than even Crossroads ever managed, and yet it is absorbing. I’m not going to say it’s the next Play for Today, but it is fresh and interesting and well written enough that I’m watching even as I keep remembering what happens.

Truly, you could make a better or at least far better-looking Star Cops episode on your iPhone today. But you probably couldn’t match writers like Chris Boucher.

And if old studio dramas do nothing else, they demonstrate the strength that writing –– and acting –– can bring. We don’t need multi-million pound dramas, but they are superb, so long as the writing is there too.

No idea

Oh, go on, let me do this. I had a Serious Writing Topic that I wanted to discuss with you, but it is you, it’s just me and you, let me tell you something else that I think you’ll recognise. It’s the way that you get an idea you think is good but actually you have no idea how much work it is going to take you.

I have a YouTube series called 58keys, it’s about 30+ videos so far and all for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads. Fine: I like doing it very much, I’m getting gorgeous reactions, all is ace. Except a week or two ago, I had an episode ready to go and decided to pull it.

There was nothing wrong with the episode but I’d made it especially to be relevant to people who listen to a podcast called The Omni Show. That’s a surprisingly happy little show about the company that makes various particularly great software tools that I rely on daily. Hourly. They invited me on and after the recording, I made this 58keys episode about the especially particularly great To Do app OmniFocus.

Only, their interview with me didn’t air when I expected. It has now aired and you can hear it and it was a lot of fun, but it didn’t come out on the day I thought it might. So I decided to hold off on the relevant 58keys episode. You’d have done the same, I know you’d have done it and found that so obvious that you might even have bothered to complete the thought, you’d just do it.

But this meant I had no 58keys episode.

With 90 minutes –– honestly, I think it came in at 89 minutes –– I had thought of a new episode, written it, filmed it, edited it and uploaded it to YouTube ready to go. That was a nice feeling, that rush of creativity, and that episode did very well for me.

But no good idea goes unpunished. I ran that episode, then the next week when The Omni Show was out, I ran my OmniFocus episode –– and realised that I really, really had to have a second one about that software. It’s that useful, there is that much to say. And this is where I got the idea that I have since spent thirty hours on. That’s thirty hours. Twenty times longer than the previous one took.

I don’t think you do or should care how long I spend on anything, just as I don’t think either of us should especially care how long any piece of work too, how much effort it did or didn’t take. The end result is all that matters and actually I am now very pleased with it.

This 58keys about a software app that you may not be using, may never have heard of since the last time we had coffee and you foolishly asked me what I was up to, certainly had the potential to be dull. It also needed to be quite long in order to cover everything. Long and dull. For some reason I didn’t fancy long and dull.

So I did what any drama fan would. I turned it into a fight.

If you watch, you’ll see a four-way Zoom conversation with three of me visibly not liking each other, and a bear just staring at all of us. This might be something I should say to a therapist before I admit it to you, but I appear to really, really like arguing with myself like this, I deeply like disliking myself. Plus I got to do it in a form that was half Zoom, half more like a certain TV thriller.

There you go. Instead of long and dull, I made a thriller. Or at least I tried to: you’ll have to judge it.

I hope you enjoy it, I know you would’ve done it differently and that this could very well have meant you did it better, but you also recognise this part. Once I had the idea, I was committed. Ten hours in, twenty, I might dislike the idea and I might have gone off the jokes that I’d now heard six times, but I was committed. When I realised I’d made a small mistake and needed to entirely reshoot a whole segment, I could’ve held back a little tear, but I could not stop myself getting out the camera and the tripod again.

There are parts of this video that are literally four or five pixels big and you cannot, just cannot see why I needed to do them. But I needed to do them.

Because we do. I was working with 20 or so writers, musicians, journalists and actors earlier this week and we might have all wished for the regular salary of a regular job, but we all knew exactly like you do that it takes unreasonable, unjustifiable, uneconomic effort to pull off an idea.

And you also know how I’m feeling right now. I’m a bit conscious of some other pixels I would like to change now that I’ve seen it all on my living room TV set, but I’m also deeply glad that I did it. Deeply glad that I got a laugh from Angela at just the right place.

And somewhat less glad that I now have to think of something to film for next week’s episode.

The same but different

The streaming service Britbox just added a shovelful of more British TV dramas to its service and one of them is Cracker by Jimmy McGovern. I saw that when it originally aired on September 27, 1993 and now I saw it again on Wednesday. That’s 26 years, 10 months and 30 days, but throughout that time I have remembered and admired one scene in precise detail.

Admire is a funny word. Feels a bit clinical. As if I were saying I could appreciate its technical merits, or something, but otherwise it left me cold. No. Cracker is a crime series with the ability to make me frightened for the victims in it. No high body count, no meaningless deaths – at least not in the sense of just being done for a plot twist; plenty of times the deaths are as meaningless as ones in real life.

And actually I do feel as if I’m going to reduce the show by focusing on what I want to talk to you about. It is the smallest moment in an exceptionally well written, commanding, engrossing, provoking drama.

The lead character, Fitz (Robbie Coltrane), sees a news report on the TV. That’s it.

Swap this show for any other police series, even ones I like, and there is a fair to total chance that this scene would play out in exactly the same way. The hero catches a news bulletin just as it happens to mention what he, she or we need to know for the drama. There’ll be a helpful photograph, some exposition that would never really be said that way by any journalist, and the hero would then unerringly know the precise moment to switch off the TV.

In the first episode of Cracker, The Mad Woman in the Attic Part 1, McGovern does have a news bulletin like this. It has a photograph of a woman who’s been murdered, it has a news presenter presenting news. What it doesn’t have, what Fitz doesn’t have, is the remote control for the TV set.

So we see him noticing the photo on the TV news, then scrabbling to find the remote to turn the sound up, and finally crossing to the set to find the controls there. And he succeeds, he gets to turn up the volume, but he’s too late.

He’s too late to find out anything and it is perfect. I’ve remembered that moment for three decades.

It’s perfect in part because we already know she’s been killed, we know a huge amount. We don’t yet know what his connection is, but there is no information that news bulletin could possibly give us that we either didn’t already have or couldn’t see from his frantic searching.

It’s also perfect because it’s new. That may sound strange to say when it is 9,830 days old, but it was new then and it is new now. A very familiar situation is completely reversed and providing the same information in a totally new way.

In a somewhat smaller way, I’m minded of when I worked on the Radio Times website. Back then there were sub editors, subs who checked facts, smoothed out grammar issues and really a dozen or more different things that meant articles were as good as they possibly could be.

Except sometimes I’d find a sentence I’d really carefully fashioned would come out as a cliché. I did ask, I did protest, but I was told that it was necessary because people like clichés. You can tell me that until the cows come home in freezer bags, I told them, it isn’t true.

Look what I did there with the freezer bags. I’m not saying it was great writing or even noticeable, but you understood it as completely as if it were the original cliché, and it wasn’t. It was the same thing but different and maybe this is just me, but that’s worth the world.

No, wait, it can’t just be me because you’re nodding and, besides, there is even a term for it. When you write a sentence that is a cliché or, more commonly is just a familiar phrase, you can recast the sentence. Audition different words and hire them if they’re right for the job. I’ll never turn to a thesaurus, but I will spend as long as it takes to find a different way of saying something.

I just realised this week that maybe it comes from that Cracker scene. Seeing how you can deliver the same information in even a slightly different way, it’s stuck with me.

You wouldn’t make it up

It’s hard to remain confident that everyone was brought up to believe in right and wrong. But I think we were less overtly, yet more effectively, brought up to believe in how stories work. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, for instance.

You can point to the beginning of Brexit very easily. Right now you can point to the start of Trump’s presidency and hopefully you’ll soon be able to point to its end, too.

In general, though, the world does feel like it’s in a very long, very bad middle act and that the conclusion is going to be pretty short and unpleasant.

I can handle that.

I can even cope with how there are no heroes. There are hopeful signs like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but if she is demonstrable proof that intelligent life exists in other political systems, she’s still in another political system. She’s not going to be any help to us in the UK, she’s never going to be anything in UK politics.

Not unless she happens to be a friend of Boris Johnson and needs some quick cash. That’s now the approved route to positions in the cabinet, places on the honours list and jobs of no value but high prices.

What gets me in the drama of all this is that the baddies are so crap.

If I’m going to have evil malevolence and the destruction of everything that is right and good in the world, I at least want a decent crazed villain with brilliant plans. Even if those brilliant plans can’t be thwarted at the last second, at least give us a show.

Were this all a drama, with the only escalation being in the level at which politicians think they can do what they like, I’d have walked out by now.

We had a time

I had forgotten this. When it was announced that I was leaving Radio Times, like thousands and thousands of years ago, I sent out an email to everyone on staff. I’d been in a rare position of working with most of the departments across the separate editorial teams on magazine and the website, so it wasn’t as if I were a stranger to all 120 people, or however many it was.

But I was stranger to enough of them that I apologised for the mass email and asked those who’d never heard of me to turn to their left and say “Who?” to whoever was there.

I also pointed out that this place had been my home, that these people were my closest friends and that they meant a lot to me. I did acknowledge that a ridiculous number of them had commissioned me for work over the years, and so concluded that “this means they’re dear to me and I’m expensive to them.”

Since it’s you, I’ll tell you that I was proud of that line then and, mumbling quietly, still am.

However, also since it’s you, I’ll tell you that email included one last line that nobody knew then, nobody recognised, and which wasn’t original to me. I signed off by saying “We had a time”. That line was written by Winnie Holzman and it is the final one in the pilot episode of “My So-Called Life”.

I’ve been trying to work out the maths of when I must’ve seen that show and how old I may have been, but I can’t. It was made in 1994 and I definitely didn’t see it then, but I imagine it was close. Call it 1995. In which case I would’ve been a British, 30-year old man writer but for 17 episodes of 50 minutes apiece, I knew what it was to be an American, 15-year-old school girl.

I can’t think of a single actual point of reference in the show –– and last night I watched that pilot again so I checked –– no single thing that I could identify with between me and Angela Chase (Claire Danes), the lead character, nor with Rayanne (AJ Langer). Not one. With either of them. And yet every point hit home then and hit home again last night. Some of it is that I do think the acting is extraordinary with moments of silence so painful that they draw blood.

But I’ve been re-reading the available scripts this week, too, and it is all there on the page.

I’m now somewhat older, possibly somewhat more male, more British, but the razors in the dialogue that bounce between perfectly inarticulate and shockingly profound, they’re still there and they still work and I still wish to god I was even a fraction as good as that. I’d take being pixel as good. Half a pixel. And you could name your limb.

This is all on my mind again after not having thought of this show for a long, long time. But a month or two ago now, I worked with journalist Genevieve Hassan and she has a new podcast called Celebrity Catch-Up which is a particularly well-done series of interviews. Well, I say interviews because that’s what they are, especially in how good Hassan is at drawing her interviewees out. But what they really feel like is you getting to have a proper natter with two friends.

So naturally I subscribed, but that meant when the latest episode came out, I got a notification. I picked up my iPhone to call someone and there on screen with this line about an interview with AJ Langer. Hand on heart, I have no idea who I had been supposed to phone. If it were you, I am so sorry. But come on, this is My So-Called Life.

It’s also an actor so aside from bizarre missteps like Lawrence Fox’s Question Time appearance, you know an actor is going to perform and perform well. Wait, there was also Meg Ryan on Parkinson. And most of Bruce Willis’s film promo chats. But otherwise, you interview an – no, I interviewed Trevor Eve once and loathed him. Okay, so it’s not a universal rule, but in general you can expect an actor to be good value in an interview, you can expect them to fun.

What you unfortunately can’t expect its that they will give any credit to the writer –– but Langer did. Repeatedly.

Yesterday I was in a long workshop session and the topic of scriptwriting came up. I found myself saying, completely truthfully, that seeing an actor inhabit my lines is ceaselessly wonderful to me. Sometimes I don’t think writers appreciate actors, but far more often you know actors don’t appreciate writers.

This one did and the whole podcast is a treat. I had a time.

I’ve been mansplained

Let me tell you that last weekend I wrote a tweet and it was immediately commented on with a patronising explanation that completely missed my gag. Just from that, you now know several things, starting with how I got mansplained.

And ending with that I’m a man.

Because I doubt any woman would bother to write about this. One man’s unique experience is every woman’s commonplace occurrence.

I would’ve told you that I get that, I understand it. My closest friends are women and I’ve heard the tales. I promise you I’ve never seen it in real life or I’d have a story to tell about stepping in. But I don’t think you can use social media without knowing it happens.

Wait, I want to tell you what I tweeted. It’s an old joke, but it’s my old joke and as small and slight as it is, I’m proud of it as an idea and one day it’ll find a place in a script. Until then, I left it to rest on Twitter.

“If a tree falls down in a forest, and there’s no one there to hear it,” I wrote, “does it swear?”

That’s it. Told you. Slight. But it’s good. Apparently not good enough for someone who doesn’t use his name. For he gave me a quite admirably concise explanation of the physics of arboreal audio. He even included a dig at the self-centred nature of humanity, which I hadn’t known was under discussion, but there you go.

Here’s the thing. While this has never happened to me before, I thought I knew all about it. Men being toddlers, really, I don’t know how else to say it. My iPhone does know how else to say it: that word just got autocorrected from tossers.

Men do this, they look like fools, we all have a good laugh at their expense – and maybe we sneak a sniff at our armpits to check whether we’ve done the same thing.

What I completely missed was the confusion. I read his reply and now I’m wondering whether he’s really being clever. Never meta-tweet he didn’t like, that kind of thing.

Also, chiefly because of this business that he doesn’t use his name, I’m left wondering if my instant longing to retort sarcastically would be a bad idea. Part of this is that I meet a lot of people in my work so while I don’t remember him, he could be someone I know. Could be someone with problems. Could be both, could be somewhere between the two.

So I don’t know whether I’m missing his point or if my retorting would be damaging either to him or to me.

A friend rescued me. Chris Kent did what hadn’t occurred to me and read back through this fella’s other comments on his twitter timeline. Chris reported that the guy believes the pandemic is a hoax.

INSTANT BLOCK

Man, that was a relief. Woman, I’ve understood mansplaining but in every sense going, I’ve never got it.

I understood the irritation, I got the surprise, I got the despair at how dumb men can be. But I didn’t get the moments after, the moments where you don’t know what to do, when you’re trapped, really. When the best thing you can do, walking away, feels less sensible or noble, and more like allowing this to continue.

The mansplaining itself was a slap, it stung, it made me smart. Thinking about it obsessively made me know I’ve always been dumb.

Both kinds of music

I like New Country music from about the middle of 1994 to the end of 1996, so long as it’s sung by women. I feel you may have questions.

The women part is easy. It’s because I got to like this watching CMT, Country Music Television, which means as much through videos as the music itself. And is far as I could see from when I got the channel to when it went off air in the UK, every man on it wore a silly hat.

I’m not saying a 10-gallon hat is daft if you area cowboy out on the range, but you’re not and neither is a single one of these.

Sometimes one gets by me. Junior Brown is a male singer/songwriter, extraordinary guitarist and hat-wearer who’s entirely responsible for my pronouncing the name of law enforcement offers as the po-lice.

Plus he has to win a pass for having one of the greatest titles in music history. I haven’t heard it in twenty years now, but as soon as you and are done yapping, I’m off to Apple Music to find if they’ve got his “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead“. (The lyric is “Because you’re wanted by the po-lice / and my wife thinks you’re dead.”)

Mind you, nothing in this world can top the title “Did I Shave My Legs for This?“. Written by Deana Carter, who performed it, and Rhonda Hart. But two seconds into music and we’re already back to women without hats. And the writing: I think Gretchen Carter is among the finest lyric writers in any genre and her “Independence Day“, sung by Martina McBride, is more a short story than a song. I’d be a fan of Matraca Berg even if she’d solely written the description “a fallen angel on a weekend pass“.

Apple Music is one reason all of this is on my mind at the moment. The latest Favourites Mix that Apple Music picks for me each week has Independence Day on it. Somehow it’s full of new country music from exactly this 1994-1996 period. And this is doubly on my mind because only the night before this playlist updated, I caught a reference to the film Twister on TV. That 1996 movie had one of those not-really-on-the-soundtrack songs, a piece of music wedged in the end credits so that it can get a single off the back of it.

In this case, that single was “No One Needs To Know“, sung by Shania Twain and co-written by her and Robert John “Mutt” Lange. I just like it. But I don’t just like it, I’ve been thinking about it all week.

It runs for three minutes and 16 seconds. At average talking speed – I mostly write scripts so this is how I think about it – that works out to 588 words. I don’t know how many words there are in the song, but you know it’s less.

However many it is, this is what the song is about. A character has met a man she likes and he doesn’t know that yet.

That’s it. Nothing else. Except for a joyous yearning, a delighted fizz of a secret and a giddy dream of possibilities. It is lovely and charming and make-you-smile and incredibly endearing. We know so little about this character and yet we like her enormously, we feel for her.

I think that core idea is exceptional. So obvious in retrospect and definitely so very simple. But I hadn’t heard or thought of it before and a new idea is gold.

If I had thought of it, though, I think I would’ve over-written it.

I’d have had to fight myself not putting in a plot twist, for one thing, even in three minutes or 588 words.

I think there is an enormous discipline to writing exactly the right amount. To milk the drama but not let that milk boil over. To get the real worth out of an idea and use it to precisely the right degree.

It’s two decades since CMT closed down on UK television and I’m still trying to learn from it.

Ode to a fallen keyboard

I want to write a eulogy to a dying keyboard. It’s a keyboard that has lasted me, at a conservative estimate, about three million words. Only, it is now fallen. No more English, Irish or Scottish words will go into this space bar. And certainly not any with the letter O, unless accompanied by rigorous prfreading.

Last night I mentioned to someone that I was getting a new keyboard. “You do like your gadgets,” she said. I tried pointing out what I do for a living, but it didn’t make a difference. I wanted to explain that it’s more than that I’m a writer and a keyboard is about as crucial as a an ability to lie is to a politician. But she was gone before I could finish spluttering. You get it, though, so I’d like to talk to you about this bond between us and the right keyboard.

I could wait until its replacement arrives, but it seems wrong to write a eulogy on the poor thing’s bright and shiny successor. So let me stumble on, let me occasionally try cleaning it again, let me press on in every sense.

And I ask you to please join me in saluting – wait for the silly name, none of us are responsible for what our parents call us –– the Apple Magic Keyboard 2. Magic. Grief. I suppose no one would buy the Apple So-So, Ordinary, Does The Job Keyboard 2. But Magic does seem to be pushing it.

Except it is a remarkable keyboard and I am going to miss it. Even though I’m replacing it with the Apple Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad. Somehow replacing it with exactly the same thing again felt like not replacing it at all. So I’ve gone for exactly the same thing again, but extended. It may make a difference, it may not, and I think now we’re heading into the fine distinctions between HB and 2B pencils.

I think I was in class 2B at school.

Look, I’m floundering around here. I want to mark the passing of a thing that I have touched pretty much daily for 1,704 days. I want to mark that therefore it has touched me too.

It’s just a keyboard. You and I could go in deep and debate the fall of mechanical keys versus the rise of chiclet-style ones like this keyboard has. There is actually something to be said about the differences between this one and the extended keyboard with numeric keypad that I’m getting. And there’s even – I am perfectly serious here, I just don’t look as if I am – a way to discuss cultural difference as expressed in keyboards.

Americans, you see, go for wide and shallow Return keys while the British prefer a long and narrow one that’s more reminiscent of history and the old Carriage Return levers on typewriters. Tell me that doesn’t say something about national identity.

And that’s just one key. This poor beloved keyboard of mine comes with another 77.

Maybe it’s the word keys. If I did a YouTube series called 58buttons, I don’t think it would mean as much to me. If this keyboard came with 78 elevated platforms upon which a legend is printed, I don’t think I’d print the legend.

But keys, now that implies unlocking what is locked. I think through typing. I could forget that a keyboard is there because of the way it’s the mess in my head appearing as the more coherent words on the screen, if only slightly more coherent. I don’t think about my fingers as I type so I don’t have to think about the keyboard. I do, though, because I enjoy those thousands and millions of key presses. I like the feel and the sound of them. Touch typing feels to me like kneading bread and I adore it.

I do also like that I’m quite a fast typist. I used to be very fast and I daren’t take a test again now to see how I’ve slowed down, but I believe I type quickly and I believe I type well and it’s good to hang on to something unchangeably positive.

This keyboard has been a conduit for everything I’ve thought from about November 22, 2015, to today. That means it embodies every problem, every bad day, every foul hour, but also every brief moment when I think I’ve written something good. There is no feeling like that and it is so powerful that it outweighs everything else.

I can’t throw this keyboard away. I can’t. I don’t know how one goes about recycling keyboards, but I’m not going to find out. I’m definitely keeping it in my office. Whisper it: I’m tempted to frame this keyboard.

Oh, look, the new one has arrived. Let’s see if it lasts the next three million words. This time I’ll keep the receipt.