Late on a Wednesday evening in maybe 1999 or 2000, I had the closest thing I’ve known to an epiphany. I want to share this with you now in 2017 partly in order to to remind myself of it, to stoke up the fire for me, but also because after all of these years, I’ve only now realised why it worked.
Here’s the thing. I feel that I haven’t started yet: I’m not the writer I aim to be, I haven’t done anything, I’m still only just beginning. Unfortunately I also feel that time is roaring away and this is a truism that burns me: there are fewer days ahead of me than there are behind. Probably.
I may even have chronophobia: the fear of time passing. I suspect not, given how long I spend re-watching Columbo episodes and the number of times I can’t separate my back from my bed at 5am. But I’ve thought about it and it fits a lot of things about me.
So, okay, I’ve done bugger-all and I’m too late to do anything about that. That isn’t the cheeriest position to be in and certainly not to be in continually. I did have one moment of lightening up, however, and it was this aforementioned epiphany. I like the word aforementioned. I don’t know why.
Anyway, I’m pretty sure of the year but I know for certain what day of the week it was because for a long while around then I used to do the late shift on BBC Ceefax’s Entertainment desk on Wednesday evenings.
This is all so long ago now that I struggle to remember how the evenings went but there was one requirement of the job that I do recall. Not only was it something you had to do, it was required to be the last thing you did before you closed down the desk for the night.
You wrote a handover note.
Actually, you emailed it. Just a note from you on the late to whichever colleague was going to be in on the early shift the next morning. You’d tell them if there had been any technical problems they need to watch out for; you tell them if some news came down the wires and they should look for updates. I don’t know, all that kind of thing.
And I can see myself on one Wednesday night. I can see where I was in the newsroom, I can see the very seat in BBC Television Centre, when I realised that a handover note is a pretty good analogy for life.
Think about it. My job was to run that entertainment desk, writing news, updating stories, doing anything and everything to make that the very best place I could. My job was to live up to what every other journalist did there, my job was to keep the standard up.
But then I’d finish.
I would finish my shift and leave the desk in hopefully as good a state as I possibly could, most definitely as good a state as I found it. You do everything you can and then you hand over to the next person, knowing that they will do the best they can.
And shortly after them the entire day shift of journalists would start and they’d all be there to do the best they could. Okay, maybe not all of them. But this was a particularly good team.
So, okay, I could measure my evenings: I could see that nothing had fallen over, I could see how many stories I’d written, I could see whether entertainment news coverage felt complete. I can’t do any of that with my writing since: I’m clueless whether it’s complete or has fallen over. But still, you work to your best and then you accept that you’re handing over to someone.
I feel this may all sound silly – let’s please just keep it between the two of us – but it helped me.
And now, 17 years later, I was thinking about this and, okay, needing it anew, when I made this rather late realisation. I’m embarrassed to have taken so long to join a dot since I’ve often thought about both dots, just not in connection with one another.
It’s just this: the show comes first.
I’ve always believed that and I always will. Whatever the show or the project or the news desk or the book or the article or the website or the TV show or the event is, it comes first. My job is to do it, to do what is needed for it.
And so I don’t matter. It doesn’t matter that it’s me, it only matters that someone does it.
Nobody’s going to carry on writing my books after I’ve gone but someone, actually many someones, will write on these topics, will explore these things, will press forward.
So my dying off before I’ve written a fraction of what I want to do is not something to fear, it is not something that means I’ve failed. It means I did my shift to the best of my ability and now I can hand over to someone else. I don’t matter, they don’t matter, but the show does and the show goes on.
If I could just pull my bloody finger out and get things done a bit more.