Reading and righting

When I was at BBC Radio WM an extremely long time ago, I worked a lot on their Sport On Saturday show. What I know about sport is that I don’t know anything about sport. But it was a good radio show, well made, I was stretched and daunted and loving it.

Only, one year the station entered Sport On Saturday for an award. I can’t remember what: probably the Sony Radio Awards as they were called then. I also can’t remember what I had to do with this but there was something. Perhaps I just fetched the tapes I was told to. Nothing more than that but something and I liked being even that tiny bit involved. I liked that the show was being entered for an award.

I do remember that it was a lot of work for everyone else. Selecting clips, getting the tapes, editing a compilation of the best bits together, it took time and work and effort.

Then one morning during all this, I was leaving BBC Pebble Mill to go to a day job writing computer manuals and walked by the WM noticeboard. Pinned to it was the letter from the awards committee saying what the rules were.

Rule number 1 or 2, something near the top, was this: no compilations.

Every pixel of work that everyone was doing to prepare this awards entry was pointless. The judging was to be of one single edition of a programme and if WM put up the compilation it was making, it would not be listened to, it would not be considered.

I’d forgotten all of that until this week when news came of what’s happening with the European Capital of Culture initiative, a programme devised by and run for the member states of the European Union.

Yesterday Dundee, Nottingham, Leeds, Milton Keynes and the partnership between Belfast and Derry twigged that they were ineligible to bid. It’s an EU project and the UK is leaving the EU. You may have missed that.

Apparently Leeds has already spent £1m on their bid. That’s over the last four years so you can’t blame them for investing in it before the Brexit vote happened. But you can blame them for investing afterwards. You can blame all the cities for continuing to invest in this.

There is a key difference between doing something stupid and actually being stupid, though. These cities continuing to invest until now is them doing something stupid. BBC Radio WM thinking it could compile a Best of Sport On Saturday for the awards because it didn’t read the rules was them doing something stupid.

Only now we’ve got the Government saying the Capital of Culture business has “come out of the blue” and we’re into a round of blustering. The EU is being unfair, we’re told. The EU has just decided this thing that’s actually always been bloody obvious and they’re throwing the UK out of the programme that the UK decided to leave.

Most unfair of all is how anyone could’ve expected the UK to realise that they were bidding for City of Culture 2023 and that year comes after 2019 when we leave. So unreasonable.

It’s the blustering that makes the difference between having made a stupid mistake and being stupid. I can kind of understand the bidding cities not realising that they were ineligible the moment we voted to Leave because there is so much else wrong with leaving, there is just so much to understand. Although if I were producing a campaign so deeply involved with the European Union and I learned we were leaving, I might have taken a moment to make the connection with Brexit.

Maybe that’s just because of what happened to me at WM. I did of course tell the station manager that I’d spotted this. He blustered like the Government is doing today. And the show entered the compilation into the award.

Writers are often told that if your audience doesn’t get what you’re saying, it’s your fault. It’s the communicator who is wrong, not the listener. I’ve always felt that there is a certain amount of bollocks in this but I accept that usually the communicator needs to communicate and if the audience isn’t listening, the writer needs to do it better. But still, there’s not a lot you can do for people who want your message, are spending money toward your message, and yet won’t read your message.

I had forgotten all of this but I do now remember becoming unpopular. I’d seen this rule in plenty of time for them to ditch the compilation and enter one whole eligible programme but instead I was disliked – and they entered the compilation.

That wasn’t making a stupid mistake, that was being stupid. And the UK Government’s blustering this week is exactly like that manager and the producers who then waited with pointlessly crossed fingers to see if they won.

Voice breaking

I’m never going to claim that I’m a good writer but I have been writing for a long time and there is something I’ve seen. Actually, I see it quite often and in fact this time I saw it seven weeks ago. To the day. I’ve waited this long to talk to you about it so that there’s no chance the person involved can figure out it’s got anything to do with them.

Clearly, I’m chicken.

But also while they are the one who prompted the thought this time, they’re far from the first and this is hardly a new issue. It’s the voice. The writers’ voice.

I think now that if you’re new to writing, you ignore voice because you just don’t get what it is. And that if you’re not new to it, if you have found your writers’ voice, you ignore it because you can’t write any other way and, besides, it’s not something that takes any thought.

What’s new to me is this: I think now that voice is the divider between a writer who is good or experienced, and one who is not. And even more specifically and precisely, I now think you can see the division because the inexperienced writer puts voice in quote marks.

That’s what I saw on Twitter on Friday 29 September. A writer I vaguely know made a sarcastic comment about ‘voice’ and reading it, I knew she didn’t know what it is.

Voice is the undefinable something that makes my writing different to yours.

It’s how I walked into my kitchen while Fi Glover was on the radio and I recognised her immediately because I’d just read one of her books.

It is the choice of words, yes. It is the patterns and the rhythms, yes. It’s just somehow more than that. Which is fitting because voice is not something you can define very well and it’s not something you can learn.

I mean, even if you didn’t happen to know what voice was until a minute ago, you get it now yet that’s not the same thing as having your own voice in your own writing. You can be taught what the term means, you can’t be taught how to do it.

You only get there through writing more and more. It’s not as if you get your voice when you’ve passed a thousand or a million words, either. It happens eventually or it doesn’t.

Which is in truth why I was so keen to talk to you about this and why I felt I had to wait seven weeks. To the day. Because the real reason this one tweet stood out to me was that a day or two before, this same writer happened to come up in conversation and I had been saying that there is something missing in her work.

I was in a car driving a colleague who thinks she’s taking a long time to write her novel and who is worrying about it as we all do. I’ve read an early draft of her piece and I was trying to convey why I like it and in fact like it so much more than she does. I like it because it has life and verve, because there is something more behind the choice of words and the choice of rhythm and pace. I think her novel is alive.

Maybe it’s because I was driving, but for some reason it wasn’t until I read the tweet that I made the connection. My car colleague’s unfinished novel has voice. And this tweeter’s published ones don’t.

No better time

This is going to sound so optimistic that you’ll think I’m auditioning to write for Hallmark Cards. But I mean it.

I mean this: right now is the best time there has ever been to be a writer.

Okay, just to get Hallmark off my back, I will also say that this is the worst time it has ever been to be a paid writer. Getting money for this is tough. But while I can’t and won’t discount the problems, the opportunities are astonishing.

I was doing a writing masterclass session at Birmingham City University this week where we discussed a couple of students’ work in detail. One of them was a short radio play and I’m blathering on about it when I realise that actually what this writer needs isn’t me.

She needs to make that play.

And she can.

Now, I’ve been in Birmingham City University’s radio studios and they are impressive: I presume she can book space there. And there’s a School of Acting around the place so I imagine casting isn’t going to be a great problem.

But as handy as all that is, the truth is that she’s got a phone. I don’t know what phone and I don’t know what recording apps she may have, but for pennies she can turn that phone into a recording studio.

She can even edit the audio on the phone and I’ll never get used to that. I don’t mean that as in I’ll never cope with doing it on phones, I mean that I edit audio a great deal and it is forever a delight what you can do now. I learned on giant BBC local radio desks and I was taught to edit with razor blades and chinagraph pencils. And, actually, I think sometimes you learn better from doing it physically, from doing edits where you can’t undo them with a tap or a click.

But then that’s really what I think about writing now. You have always been able to write but now you can see and hear how that writing works. Immediately. Pretty much.

I had lots to say to this student about her script and I loved that she and the whole room had lots to tell me that I’d missed in it. But ultimately I mean it: write something, make it, and you’ll learn what works and doesn’t work for you.

I don’t quite know how this goes for novelists but for scriptwriters, this is the best time there ever was. If only we could lick the money problem.

Lost week on Self Distract…

The last seven days are a hot lemon haze: I had a flu jab last Friday and took to it rather badly. I feel that rather than preventing a flu, I ordered one. But among the seven days of red hot fever alternating with shaking with the cold – wait, I’m going through a manopause – there were moments of clarity.

Such as last night. Sitting in Birmingham’s Town Hall in the interval at a concert. Everyone around me was still buzzing from Clare Grogan’s Altered Images and The Christians. I liked them both but realise I only know one and a half songs from each and this was a night of nostalgic celebration rather than of new music.

“We’re going to play a variety of things,” Midge Ure would say in the second set. “Don’t worry, it’s all old.”

But before that, sitting in the interval, feeling clammy and actually rather old from both internal and external reasons, I checked my email. And find myself saying this aloud, actually this: “Ooooh, great, the beta test of OmniOutliner 3 is here.”

“Well,” said Angela. “So long as you’re enjoying yourself.”

You wait forty years…

I did not set out to do this but when I realised what I was up to, I did it anyway. I had a play staged last week – unusually, I also acted in it – and pretty much the entire idea flew out of my typing fingers once I’d stolen the first line.

Now, to be fair here, the play performed is something like the sixth draft and I think now that at least two of those were entire blank-page rewrites. But from draft 2 onwards, I knew what I wanted and it is at least in gigantic part because I could hear the characters and I knew what the first line would be.

The only trouble is that I appear to have waited four decades to use that first line. Here’s a ten-second clip that I present to you as evidence.

 

The first segment is from forty years ago: Lou Grant, episode 1, Cophouse by Leon Tokatyan which aired in America on 20 September 1977. I don’t know when I saw it here in the UK but probably 1978. Still, 40 years or 39, that line has stuck in my head for no apparent reason. I mean, Lou Grant was and is special, there are issues it raised and characters it had that I can trace my current opinions and beliefs to. But “Excuse me, that’s my desk, okay?” can’t be one of them.

The second segment is from last Saturday. In Time by me.

For completeness, let me say that the first segment of that clip shows Ed Asner, sitting, as Lou Grant, and Robert Walden as Joe Rossi wanting his desk back. The second shows Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, sitting, as Jemima and William Gallagher as David, wanting his desk back.

That’s me. Forty years on, I am a writer. And maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise since it’s taken a fair bit of effort and work, but I’m also an actor. Maybe only this once. But I have acted alongside a real actor, I’ve acted alongside Nadi Kemp-Sayfi.

I don’t want to examine or think about how that happened because I’m afraid if I do, it won’t have done. Or that it somehow won’t have been the startling success it was.

But I tell you, it’s a Dear Diary moment. Thank you to Cucumber Writers for inviting me to join them for this one production.

And They Are Us

I wanted to talk to you about a play of mine that’s being staged tomorrow night. I really, really wanted to talk to you about how I’ve ended up acting in it. And actually I also wanted to gabble at you about a whole series of workshops I’m running with writer Alex Townley.

But that’ll keep.

And this won’t.

This is too important. I was going to say that it’s too important to me, which it is and always has been, but it’s also just generally too important. I need to talk about the ‘me too’ and the ‘I believe you’ discussions. The journalist in me hesitates because, talking to you now, I feel I’m late to the topic and it’s been covered a lot. But then that’s about the only good thing here, that this has been discussed so much – and I want it to be discussed more.

I thought I knew, that I grasped how women are treated and I thought I was already appalled to the point of shaking at the way I don’t have a clue how to stop it. But the utter, ceaseless, overwhelming tsunami of ‘me too’ posts on Twitter and Facebook has turned my shake into paralysis.

The ‘I believe you’ ones gave me pause in a different way. Where the volume of ‘me too’ posts was deeply shocking, I’m ashamed to say that they weren’t surprising. The call for ‘I believe you’ was more startling to me because I can’t grasp how anyone wouldn’t believe.

Yet then if everyone both knew and believed all this, surely it would stop. So I posted ‘I believe you’ even though I still feel it is the most obvious thing I’ve ever written. Actually, I posted it on Facebook where they have those buttons for making things big and red. I’ve never before bothered to see how you do that but it felt right for this. I don’t think I’ll do it again because I don’t think I’ll write anything that important.

But then listen to me: I’m a saint. Except I’m not. If ‘I believe you’ is the most important thing I’ve written, this is the hardest: I can instantly think of incidents where I’ve made women uncomfortable.

I can tell you that I’ve never set out to do it and if it’s happened recently then I am scarily unaware of it. And I can also most definitely tell you that I have never, not once, ignored it when I’ve seen other men do it.

Except I must be wrong there. Must be. The sheer number, the wave after wave of ‘me too’ posts from people I believe I’m close to, it has got to mean that I have been blind to things happening.

Now, being blind to something is not the same as condoning it – except that of course it is.

I’ve failed my friends here. And there must be women who are wary of me because of it. Therefore there must be women who put me on the same side as men who do press and harass and attack. God, that’s not a side I want to be on.

There’s an interesting point being raised about how the language being used is creating its own issues and silos. It’s true that one hears about “violence against women” and don’t hear the phrase “violence committed by men”. I think it’s peculiar but true then that this is seen as a problem for women rather than a problem caused by men.

The fact that this is being pointed out now might even be the one shining outcome of the whole discussion if it makes men aware of it. But for God’s sake, it’s not like there’s been some secrecy about it: men can’t pretend that this is news to us.

I don’t know what to do and that makes me shake again. But I do know that thinking and talking about it is essential, even or especially when it’s difficult. And I also know that this is something men need to fix.

It’s men’s problem and it’s men’s fault and I am a man and I need to fix it.

When I think about us men ignoring the situation or particularly about somehow thinking it’s something women need to fix, I keep coming back to an ancient military phrase.

We have met the enemy and they are us.

Back to the past

On Monday I went back to what was BBC Television Centre, one of those iconic buildings that you know will last forever – and instead was closed down five years ago. I thought I’d never go back because I thought it would never be there: I believed that it was going to be knocked down and replaced by luxury flats.

It’s been partly knocked down and mostly replaced by these flats. But the facade remains and when it’s fully reopened the statue of Ariel will still be in the centre of what was called the doughnut. That was the famous circular centre with production offices, that was the circular centre I spent months walking around before finding I was going the wrong way.

I am really deeply torn.

You can’t conjure up an atmosphere in a building, you can’t make it famous and important. You can throw all that away and I do think the BBC did: they sold it off, rented it back for a while and then let it go.

Only, now they’re renting a bit of it back.

If you stand in the front of the building and look ahead, you see the old circular doughnut done up with new red cladding. Look to your right and you see an entire, huge section of office building has been replaced by an identically-sized stretch of apartments.

But look to your left and you’ve got the old studios 1, 2 and 3.

The old TC1, TC2 and TC3 are still there. And now they’re being used.

I think Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two goes live to air five days a week from TC2 and I think some music show is shortly to launch in TC1.

But I can tell you that on Monday and for the next couple of months, TC3 is home to Pointless. Because that’s what I went to see.

Okay, no, I went to see Television Centre. But I was expecting to be profoundly unhappy at seeing the shell of this building and I needed something I’d like to see or I wouldn’t have gone. Wouldn’t have been able to face it.

And Pointless is fun: I think it’s startling that I saw the recording of something like episodes 1,221 and 1,222 but I had a good time. A head-jolting time as I recognised one of the production team from when I was back at TVC before.

That was disturbing. That reminded me that I know it’s better to be crew than passenger, that it’s better to be making a show than watching one.

But I also left reasonably contented that for the moment, TVC retains its slightly falling-apart feel. True, it used to be because it was slightly falling apart and now it’s because they haven’t finished rebuilding it.

If all of this truly had to happen then I think they’re doing it well. I just miss that place and I miss the me that used to work there so very much.

What four stars really means

The reason I stopped being a TV critic – well, it’s because I got kicked out of Radio Times. But there was also the very big pull that I wanted to make drama rather than analyse other people’s. And unfortunately there was also the pretty big push that I was getting ever more unhappy with how reviews and reviewers worked.

When you write for one magazine you obviously read all of them and this was my thing, this is what I enjoyed, this was drama, so I read them all with gusto. Except I’d keep reading a competitor’s review of a show and realise that out of the two of us, only I had actually watched the drama.

Then, too, in researching various books and looking back across archives, I would see that some reviewers were writing at best what they thought the reader wanted to have and at worst what the drama producers insisted. The same reviewer would praise a series to the heavens and then next year in the archive he or she would be praising the show’s second series by saying how much better it was than the rubbish first one.

You get the idea. I got kicked out for unrelated crimes (aka budget cuts) and reviewing is one thing I’ve not looked back at once. Except that it has tickled me how over the last couple of years I’ve done a great deal of reviewing of software.

And I love it. There is some tremendous work being done in software and the tools I’ve relished the most have become part of my daily work. I wouldn’t be producing what I’m producing if it weren’t for this stuff.

I’ve just not seen this enjoyment of reviewing as being incompatible with my previous fretting. An app says it is for X and that it does Y. You use it and find out. I’m not saying it’s easy but the nuances of drama aren’t there: I do think about why I like and enjoy one app over another and that’s important. It’s also as indefinable as reviewing drama: if you can explain to me why I enjoy writing in an app called Drafts and I don’t enjoy writing in Word, well, I’ll be grateful.

But someone else’s review came out this week of a particular piece of software and between that reviewer and me, I am honestly wondering whether only I actually launched the app.

I won’t name the app or the reviewer for a combination of reasons from how this is about the overall issue instead of one specific case, and also because of legality.

But I filed my review the other day and before it came out, there was this other website covering this same thing. I read it to see if I’d missed anything, I read it from curiosity. This other reviewer gives this app four stars. Understand this: it’s not an issue of opinion, this thing factually does not do what it says.

Nothing in this is opinion, it’s straight reporting so you report it. Or I did, anyway.

This particular software is free and these days no software is expensive but your time is valuable to me. I wouldn’t recommend an hour-long episode of a show if I didn’t mean it; equally I won’t recommend a tool that will take you a time to discover it doesn’t do what it claims. Or rather that maybe yes, strictly speaking, it’s possible to get a feature to do a thing if you’re of an engineering persuasion and aren’t actually trying to use it to do something. Oh, that’s why I don’t like Word.

I know I sound like I think I’m a paragon here and I can remember reviews where I’ve been wrong or later changed my mind so radically that I was effectively wrong. But reviewers have one job and one advantage: they’ve used the software or they’ve watched the show before you.

We can’t tell you not to buy or not to watch but we can give you our opinion and present a case for you to judge. And I say ‘we’ there because this is more than about one review. Maybe that four-star reviewer is a very technical German speaker and the bugs I found were peculiar to my Mac. I don’t mind stopping reading a site or a magazine because I’ve found that the reviews just aren’t for me, but when you stop because you can’t trust them, that makes me doubt all reviews.

There’s a big element here that as a reviewer I might think my reviewing is a small thing yet I don’t like it being undermined or not taken seriously. There’s a big element here that I use an awful lot of software and I have relied on reviews to help me find the tools I need.

So if I’m a paragon, I’m an unhappy one. Besides, I can’t claim to be virtuous because I also used four stars in my review of this app, although only to cover up an unpublishable word.

Shirley Rubinstein

Alan Plater and Shirley RubinsteinMy friend Shirley Rubinstein died this week. I keep staring at that sentence, pressing on the words, seeing if there’s any give in them, but there isn’t. Still, if her death is the jolt and the reason to want to talk to you about her, the friendship part also jolts me and also makes me want to talk.

I am like this with everyone. I think the odds of getting to know anyone in the slightest are impossibly low and becoming close with them are about as low again.

But I’ve known Shirley since the mid-1980s when – no, hang on a second. Let me back up a moment.

I loathe describing or identifying someone by naming their husband or wife. If you ever tell me about a partner or an ex or kids, well, I’m hardly going to be disinterested – but I will not have asked you unprompted. I’m interested in you, specifically you, and what you’re doing.

Yet in this one very particular case, I think naming Shirley’s partner is genuinely akin to naming her: she was married to the late Alan Plater. If you knew one, you knew the other. They were as close to being one person as I’ve known.

It would be simplistic but not entirely wrong to say that Alan Plater and Shirley Rubinstein were the Trevor Chaplin and Jill Swinburne of his Beiderbecke drama series. Actually, Alan was both Trevor and Jill together: their characters were both him. Yet when describing The Beiderbecke Affair and its descendants, Shirley would say they were all about “Alan and Shirley having adventures”.

That’s when I’ve known her from, from when I first interviewed him about The Beiderbecke Affair. And I have a strong, visual memory of being on their couch with their very heavy dog, The Duke, sitting on my feet, when Shirley brought Alan and I some tea. I remember it that clearly because she was surprised we’d got down to the interview so quickly and I thought, oooh, real interviewers must take longer. I have taken longer ever since.

The last time I saw Alan we got on to the topic of his book and TV drama Misterioso. The last time I saw Shirley I was rushing by her house returning a DVD she’d loaned me – of Misterioso.

It was a fast hug and run and it means that I will now also forever have a strong visual memory of her at her doorway.

That first time I met her, she trusted me with a pile of Christmas cards to pop in the post on my way home. The last-but-one time I met her, she trusted me with a book project she wanted done.

She was right to know I’d find a post box. I hope she’s right that I’ll do this well too.

William Gallagher performing poetry at Waterstones Bookstore.

Rhyme of my life

I’m truly not sure that I can convey to you what this week has meant to me, not least because a huge part of it is dizzying surprise. But here goes: last night I performed my poetry on stage for the first time.

It sounds straightforward when I say it like that and actually I’m conscious now that a real poet would’ve imbued the line with layers of meaning. You’d read their version of that line and not just comprehend that this was a life milestone for me, you’d also feel the tug in your heart that it was a milestone for you.

Poets do that and I can’t. All I can do is talk. Privately – no, now I think of it also quite publicly – I’ve been terrified of poetry. The power of it. There are poets who can make me weep on cue and that’s just evil.

I’ve been glad that at least I get this now, that while I came to it very late, I do at least read some poetry and I get this. I get to be made to weep, I get to have my heart tugged and my head wrenched.

But that’s different from writing the stuff.

Only, would I ask you to do something I can’t do myself? Of course I would. Consequently when I’ve run writing workshops that have been required to cover poetry, I’ve happily told you it’s beyond me and I’ve very happily learned from you.

Except a few weeks ago when poet Nyanda Foday conned me into writing a piece when myself and Maeve Clarke were running a summer school for Writing West Midlands.

Maeve Clarke is now the key part of that sentence.

For last night she produced the Birmingham heat of a poetry contest called Superstars of Slam and it was held at Waterstones. I went to support her and to just have a good time listening to the poets.

It turns out, though, that poetry contests will apparently often want what they call a sacrificial poet. This is a new term to me but then the term ‘poem’ isn’t exactly familiar yet, and Maeve had to explain. Judges will listen first to a poem that is not in the competition and to a poet who is not competing. It’s like warming them up. It’s like being the dull first questions in a lie-detector test, you know, where they are setting a baseline.

The judges assess this sacrificial poet and that’s the baseline for the night. Apparently it’s better than them judging the first real poet cold.

The only requirement to be a sacrificial poet, then, is to be a poet with a poem. One poem. Maeve knew I had one poem. She knew I’d written one at that summer school.

And she also knew that because I wrote it on my iPad, it would automatically be on the iPhone I was texting on when she called me over before the start.

I feel like I’m writing a Dear Diary entry here and I’m grateful that you’re putting up with me wibbling on, thank you. But I’d like to ask you to do one more thing: make sure I keep some perspective here.

I was not in competition last night. Having one poem does not make me a poet. And most of all, poetry evenings are supportive and welcoming and kind.

But this was a big thing for me, made possible both by Maeve and specifically by how she sprung it on me. I wish I’d shaved, but otherwise it was perfect: I had no time to get nervous.

Well, there was one moment. The three judges – Maeve Clarke, Giovanni Spoz Esposito and Afshan D’souza-Lodhi – had large laminated sheets with their scores on out of 10. Like Strictly Come Dancing paddles, but with less glitter. And as I looked over at them for approval, I saw all three sheets had the number 1.

That’s a bit harsh, I thought: scoring 1, 1 and 1. Fair, but harsh.

Then they turned them over. For content, I got a 6, a 7 and an 8. For performance I think I got a 7, an 8 and another 7. I was a bit too dazed to take it in but I believe so.

I think it goes without saying that these were the worst scores of the evening but you didn’t have to bring that up.

Mind you, I don’t have to bring up this last point but I see no possible way for you to stop me. That dastardly Maeve who needed a poet and like the producer she is knew where to get one, also filmed my performance. It’s an entire 35 seconds long, which means I’ve now gabbled at you about something forty times longer than the something actually took.

I have no problem with that. You’d best avoid me for a while or I’ll tell you about it all over again.

Anyway. Here’s Palimpsest – about the type of ancient document where words are written over over over each other in layers because the paper was so scarce – as performed by me. Poet William Gallagher.