Can’t see the words for the stress

I don’t remember the last time my head felt so squeezed but then, I wouldn’t, would I? That’s the thing when there’s a lot going on and it’s especially the thing when some is good and some is damn hard. You lose the ability to remember the last time for anything, you lose the ability to think ahead. But in the most intense moments you also lose the ability to see what’s around you and I really, really want you and I to see this.

For I’m in a summer school for young writers aged 10 to, I think, 17. I’m rubbish with ages, I never think of them: it’s just a lot of writers together. Right now it’s the quiet hour before everything kicks off and actually it’s the quiet hour on the last day.

We’re on couches in a nice room – oh, wait, I’ve got to tell you this. It’s at a university and I promise you that there is a magnetic imaging resonance chamber nearby to which you appear to get access by looking clever. To enter the writers’ room next door, you need a key, a swipe card and a retina scan. I don’t know why that seems right to me, but it does.

The writers are spread all over this place right now and by me here there are nine. Some are reading. Some are writing. And I’m talking to you.

Writing West Midlands runs this summer school and all week I’ve been saying I wish it had been around when I needed it. My secondary school laughed at me, teachers and pupils simultaneously, for wanting to be a writer and this summer school would’ve been a boon. It would’ve been the ignition I didn’t know I needed and that I didn’t get until many years later.

Only, another thing about being squeezed is that I just get increasingly stupid. Earlier this week I tried to cook something in the dishwasher. All through this week I’ve been missing turns on the drive and adding 30-40 minutes to the trip.

And the most stupid of all is that it took me until today to realise that the summer school did exist when I needed it. Because it does exist. I’m here right now.

I’m not 10-17, no matter how much I look it, but I am in a writing summer school and I am – okay, chiefly I’m exhausted but otherwise I’m invigorated and truly inspired. I don’t use that word casually. There are many of us running this and of course the summer school gets in speakers and of course they really come in for the young writers. But stuff them, I’m having a great time.

I’m working with professional writers Maeve Clarke, Joe Bennett and Holly Reaney. I’m working with Writing West Midlands’s Emma Boniwell and Jonathan Davidson. I’m working with 20-odd young writers whose work you’ll shortly be able to read when they have novels out on Amazon.

And then yesterday I was working with – I mean, the kids were working with – Birmingham Young Poet Laureate Nyanda Foday. I confessed early and readily that as much as I was looking forward to her coming in, that was mostly because she attended this summer school a couple of years ago. So she was back in the same room she had been, talking to young writers like she had been. Fantastic.

Plus, I do adore reading poetry. I came very late to it but I have now discovered, for instance, that 200 years ago, Christina Rossetti sat down, cracked her knuckles, and said right, I’m going to upset that William Gallagher bloke. And she did. And she does. The power in poetry. I love it and I crave it and I can’t do it.

Nyanda gave me a quite patient look, I feel, and then set all of us off writing something. Including me.

I cannot allow the notion that Nyanda was anything but being very nice about the end result, but she was really convincingly nice and I’m coming away from summer school just a little bit transformed.

And so I want to do something. Late this afternoon, the students on this writing summer school get to read their work to their families in a showcase. I want to show you mine.

Only you, okay? This is what I wrote. It’s a piece about palimpsests, those ancient pieces of paper from a time when such things were incredibly expensive. You couldn’t easily afford paper so when you had it, you wrote and wrote and wrote. You wrote over what you did yesterday. You wrote in the margins. You tried rubbing off yesterday’s shopping list in order to make notes on today’s news or something. Over and over, layer over layer of writing.

PALIMPSEST

The paper that we used to use is gone
The paper that we reused is gone too
Nothing survives of our tree-based scribbles
Nothing prevails of the accidental
Of our deliberate hidings and finds
Screens are clear and text is deleted again
Screens are fresh and untrodden forever
We gain speed, clarity and decision
We gain a permanence in typing but
The people that we used to be are gone.

William Gallagher

Charged up

I know I overthink this, but I feel bad whenever I find myself slipping into male stereotype. When I’m clothes shopping, for instance, and I don’t spend above twenty seconds picking anything. You know me, you know how I dress, tell me you’re surprised.

Or when I catch a history documentary on TV. A technology history documentary.

Or when I get some beers in to watch the footba – no, come on, I can’t say that one with a straight face. I don’t drink and the most I’ve ever seen of football is one half of a game when I worked in radio. I spent the entire time facing the audience I was interviewing, didn’t see a single goal or whatever.

And actually I did feel very separated, very isolated. Saying this to you now, I’ve remembered how it felt when I walked into the ground. It was like slapping into a solid wall. Such total fandom, such tightly-woven atmosphere. I felt like the unwashed.

Or maybe that’s another male stereotype of mine.

I was thinking about washing and grooming in Solihull recently, while I waited for my iPhone to be repaired and quietly sobbed about how much that was costing. I like Solihull and I used to work nearby so I know it, but still I was only there because it was the sole Apple Store that could fix the phone that week. And so there I am, waiting for an Apple repair, sitting having tea in John Lewis – sometimes my hard man image is overpowering – and realising how good everyone looked.

They all, every single person I passed, looked like they’d been cleaned by someone else.

Do you know Solihull’s Touchwood shopping centre? If you don’t, I can help you picture it by explaining that the Apple Store is the cheapest place in it.

Much more expensive is the Tesla car place halfway between Apple and John Lewis.

Cars.

Male.

Nope.

I have never once had the slightest interest in cars other than as the way to get me to wherever I need to be. No, tell a lie: a very long time ago I used to enjoy driving and would somehow relish hundreds of miles. Unfathomably boring now. And even then, you could tell me the difference in mule power or something and I might nod at you politely, but I’d really be concentrating on tuning in Radio 4.

Only. Well.

Maybe it’s the technology. Maybe it’s the fact that I had two hours to kill. And, okay, maybe it’s the midlife crisis. But I went into the Tesla store and I arranged a test drive.

Tesla Model S car

Listen, the first thing I said to the salesman was, well, it was hello, but then it was look, it’s not happening. I cannot buy a Tesla car and even if I could, I’d have to buy a new house first. My house doesn’t have a garage and if you think I’m leaving a £60,000 car out on the street then please tell me where you think I’d get £60,000 in the first place.

But Tesla turns out to be like Apple in that the hard sell is nonexistent. I think it genuinely is like Apple in that the sales people aren’t on commission: I don’t know that but it fits how unpressured, relaxed and practically casual they are. And I’m afraid I also think it’s like Apple in that they don’t have to do much: the product does the selling.

It is impossible that I can ever buy a Tesla car but unfortunately I now also cannot ever buy anything else. Take it from me, a car expert of several days standing or, if you must, a middle-aged man: this is an electric car and it is how cars should be. It’s how cars should always have been and now are. Albeit with a price tag.

The only way I can think to help you gauge my lack of knowledge about cars is to explain that it’s even less than my interest in them. But I sat in the passenger seat while the salesman was walking around to the driver’s side and I said Wow.

Actually, I said wow followed by “I hope he didn’t hear that”. He did.

It was wow about the roof. Just barely interrupted glass from the windshield to over and beyond my head.

And shortly afterwards I said – I’m not proud of this but I said it and I said it loudly – “Frack”. There’s some history to that word, it predates the ecological use of it in fracking, as it was a made-up swearword in the 1970s Battlestar Galactica. (Some sources spell it ‘frak’. Never say I’m not thorough.) If you happen across the original show, watch for when exciting fighter pilots launch their ships.

These ships are catapulted out into space from this analogy of an aircraft carrier and each time it happens, we see the pilots slammed back into their seats by the force of acceleration. I just had exactly that. Really. Exactly. The salesman was driving us out of Touchwood to a park where I was to take over and after waiting at some traffic lights, frack.

Sometimes I don’t think my own car actually accelerates at all and in comparison this was a punch to the chest. And not an exaggeration. It winded me. Not the speed, as this was a residential area, but the acceleration.

Dear god. I nearly said nought to sixty to you like a male petrolhead. Fortunately I know you’re supposed to follow that phrase with some seconds and to me seconds are when you go back to get more pudding.

Anyway.

In Solihull’s Brueton Park, we swapped over. And then driving this car, it was as if we went from not moving to oh, we’re moving: no big engine starting sound, no fuss, just moving. And then driving. And then going quite quickly on a motorway.

“Are you okay if we try Autopilot?” asked the salesman.

“No,” I nodded. I knew that Tesla has this thing that’s like a bionic cruise control and I’ve driven cars with that, it’s spooky having the car drive while you take your foot off the accelerator.

Stuff cruise control, though. Autopilot did that plus it steered the car. It steered the car. If you’re a car freak you know this already but I’m not and suddenly I get why the word freak is used. It took a bend in the motorway. It zoomed us up to two car lengths behind the next vehicle. Then when that car changed lanes, mine zoomed up to close the distance between us and the next one.

Flick the turn indicator and the car starts looking for a gap in the next lane. It found one, started to change lanes for me – and then jerked back away because another car had suddenly crossed over from the other side and would’ve been in the way.

It is the spookiest, freakiest, best thing ever. I am simultaneously scared as the car accelerates to what looks like it’s going to be too close behind another one and I am also certain that I want this.

Here’s how comfortable I got with autopilot in seconds. The salesman was answering a question about charging or Radio 4 or possibly my bald spot and I realised I was looking at the controls and hair care products he was telling me about. I wasn’t looking at the road. I knew the car would do that for me.

I don’t mean intellectually, that I knew because I’m a car fan who understands how it works. I mean, I do understand, but really I mean that I knew it in my bones. I trusted this car.

Oh, and then when we got back, this trusted car only went and parked itself. Found the space and parked in it.

I write about technology and I feel as if I sit at the point where it and art cross: I have no more interest in electronics than I do in combustion engines but I am riveted and excited and thrilled at what technology can let me do. All my books, all my scripts, my video and audio work, it’s enabled and empowered by technology and I am alert to that yet still I’m focused on the job.

Sitting in this Tesla car reminded me of this and of something so very long forgotten. The first time I owned a car and got into it. It felt like this was a whole world. I could go anywhere in it. That sensation vanished quickly but it came back in this Tesla. I am instantaneously addicted to Autopilot. I am instantaneously addicted to cars parking themselves. I enjoyed driving again.

The salesman said he could arrange a 24-hour test drive for me and I can’t do that to him, not when there is zero chance of my buying. But when he said “and you could drop it back on Monday evening” I had to ask: “Would you have a team of specialists waiting to tear me away from it?”

I even like the colour.

I’m telling you this now chiefly because it’s just happened but also because I am thinking of so many things. You know when you’re writing and you can’t see the words for the stress? It’s been like that for me lately. Brilliant times in so many ways, tough in others. So I’m thinking about Tesla cars and how I can’t imagine getting one. I’m thinking about male pattern stereotypes and nature versus nurture. I’m thinking about technology and art, I’m thinking about the cocoon feeling this car gave me and how it’s similar to the very best moments in writing. Those distressingly rare moments when the writing is going so well and you are so into it that there is nothing else whatsoever in the entire world or in your entire head but the next word. I find those moments blissful uplifting and energising.

But I’m also telling you because as I write this, Tesla is about to reveal details of a cheaper car. Damn them to hell. This “cheaper” car is merely £35,000 instead of £60,000 and when exactly did £35,000 become cheap? I’ll tell you when: it’s at something like 1am tonight when there’s a live stream of the first thirty Tesla Model 3 cars being handed over to their owners.

Look, I’m going to be walking everywhere before I can spend that money on a car. But this is a car and it is getting a live streamed launch event. Told you this is like Apple. I won’t be watching, I said lying, and I can’t find out where the stream will be but presumably on Tesla’s website.

I’ve just had a thought. If you gave me a pound toward a Tesla car right now, I’d have an entire pound toward it. Can you tell 34,999 of your friends about me?

It’s bigger than it seems on the outside

Look, I’d want to talk with you about this anyway, simply because it makes me so happy. You’ve seen the video on YouTube and television news of a young child who explodes with excitement that: “The new Doctor Who is a girl!”

The only difference between me and that child is that I said “Doctor”, not “Doctor Who”. And “woman”, not “girl”.

The thing is, I hadn’t realised just how very much I wanted the next Doctor to be a woman until BBC aired that utterly gorgeous one-minute video revealing Jodie Whittaker. And thinking about it a lot since then, I realise that the really key single reason for how much I wanted it was that it was now or never.

Of course it matters that we get a superb actor, as we have with Jodie Whittaker, and of course that should be all that matters. But it isn’t all that matters and I also realised that I would’ve been disappointed with any man. Apparently there are people who are disappointed that it was any woman, but there’s no accounting for folk.

Only, yes, I am a feminist and I do think it is ferociously wrong how few women are in drama – but I’ve always felt that more about the writing than the acting. Yes, no question: I write strong roles for women in my scripts both because it’s right and because so few people do that you are guaranteed to get truly brilliant actors.

Doctor Who, the series, has been just plain wrong in the ridiculously tiny number of women writers it’s had. I do think the show is amongst the very hardest to write so naturally I think the pot of people who can do it will be smaller than for other shows, but there’s no conceivable reason that the proportion of women in that could be as teeny as it has been.

I have not thought it wrong that the Doctor hasn’t been a woman before.

Follow. Alongside the praise the show has got for doing this, it has also got criticism for not doing it before – and that’s the bit I disagree with.

I think people tend to consciously or unconsciously see the Doctor as being a role in the same way that James Bond, Miss Marple, Hamlet and others are. It’s a role that many or even any actor can take on.

No.

This isn’t about the quality of the actor and it isn’t even really about their gender, it’s about the character. The Doctor is not 14 different actors – don’t ask why Whittaker is called the 13th – who happen to be playing the same role. The Doctor is one character.

Think about soaps and the way they will re-cast a role and pretend nothing’s happened. Michelle coming back to EastEnders decades after she left. I’m struggling for another example but there was one in Corrie where a young man has been played by three or four young men. It’s that kind of thing. You are supposed to accept the new face and believe that it’s the same character.

It is the same with the Doctor, except that no new actor tries to completely mimic their predecessor. And then, worryingly, they change into clothes that they’re going to wear for the next several years.

But Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is the same character who used to wear that long scarf. He is the same character who first tried to stop Ian and Barbara from entering what looked like a police box in the 1960s. Actually, Peter Capaldi referred to this in a sweet chat with young fans that I can’t find on YouTube again. He spoke of his predecessors and said with total sincerity that if you look in his own face, you can see the Doctor’s previous selves.

And then in Jodie Whittaker’s announcement press release she said that one thing about taking on the role is that: “It means remembering everyone I used to be”.

So the Doctor is the Doctor is the Doctor. That doesn’t explain why she wasn’t a woman before. But go back to that soaps analogy. Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow is getting on a bit, if they wanted his character to continue they could perhaps recast the part. They would recast it as a man again because it’s the same character, but imagine that they didn’t. Imagine they cast a woman.

A woman taking over Ken Barlow’s role could be done – I don’t think it’s an acting problem at all – but it would have to be done with the most enormous storyline. Barlow would be transgender, it would run for months or more, it would be a gigantic deal within the storyline of the series.

In comparison, all that’s going to happen in Doctor Who is that Peter Capaldi will glow and out of the flame will step Jodie Whittaker. That’s it. On with the show, on with the character.

I think that’s fantastic. The Doctor is a woman, so what? Star Wars: The Force Awakens made me squeeze my cinema seat’s arm rest constantly because it has a lead woman who isn’t allowed to lead for one minute without a male character telling us it’s fine. The film expects us to be amazed alongside the male characters that this Rey is a pilot, for instance. It’s insulting to women, it’s insulting to everyone. I take it personally: it was insulting to me.

Doctor Who won’t do that, you can be sure, and Doctor Who can go straight into new stories without fuss because actually it has spent around five years setting this up.

I think it’s about five years. I’m trying to remember what there was in the fiftieth anniversary special around four years ago but there was something. I definitely remember another Steven Moffat episode where some random Time Lord regenerated into a woman. And of course for a couple of years we’ve had Michelle Gomez as Missy, a truly glorious incarnation of the Master. Funny and likeable and frightening.

Without her, then, and without the small touches through the last few years and, okay, without some pretty heavy-handed hinting in the last series, the change of gender has been made an organic part of the series.

If all of this had not been done, if the show had just decided on a whim to cast a woman, well, I’d probably still be pleased but then it would’ve felt like a gimmick. The show has been accused of doing this because it’s politically the right moment, because the BBC is under pressure about diversity, and if it were just a single casting decision, maybe that would’ve been true or at least partly true.

Instead, this has been worked on for perhaps five years. It has been created in the writing for perhaps half a decade.

That effort, that continued writing effort and talent, seems to me to be being ignored and it seems to me to be worthy of huge praise.

It was now or never and I am ecstatic that it was now. I don’t fully understand why I’m exactly this excited because I don’t know how the Doctor being a woman is going to change the show since this is literally the same character it always was. Each new actor brings something else and the tone of the show changes each time yet somehow this one being a woman makes the show tingle with new energy.

One more thing, just since it’s you. I was trying to explain to a guy why I was so pleased and I ended up focusing on a little half-smile, half-grin that Whittaker gives just after she’s been revealed. It’s when the Doctor sees her TARDIS and somehow it just promises adventure to me.

That’s true, but what I’ll tell you that I didn’t tell the guy is that I also got a ridiculous amount of pleasure writing the words “her TARDIS”.

Pirates aloud

Well, this is new. Someone on YouTube is advertising an audio version of a book of mine which is an interesting move since there isn’t one.

Actually, I say this is new but I am aware that Doctor Who radio dramas get pirated so it must’ve happened to me before but I’ve never seen it happen. I’ve definitely never seen it while in the bath.

I’m not sure I should’ve mentioned that last but it is just you and me here plus you’ve got a kind face. I was having a long soak with my large iPad propped up on a chair across the bathroom. It was playing various YouTube videos I wanted to catch up on and I’m stopping right here, I’m not telling you what I watched, you’re going too far now.

But the purpose of the soak was to hide away from a tough week and explicitly to not think about various projects I’m on.

And the result of the soak was that of course I had an idea about one of them.

A bath plug tugged and two big towels sanding me down later, I did a search online for a fact to do this idea – and the only result that came back was me. My book. In this unauthorised, unheard-of audio version from someone I suppose I shouldn’t name but who, let’s be clear here, isn’t me.

Thanks to editor Mike Wuerthele, I’ve learned that you can file complaints to YouTube about just this sort of thing and I did so in the required great detail before my hair dried.

It’s just that I should be angry, and I am. I should be determined to stop this – and you had better believe that I am. Yet alongside that, I keep coming back to wondering why it was this particular book.

If you promise to not search YouTube for the illegal audio version, I’ll tell you that it’s Getting Productive with Omni Software: Exploiting OmniFocus, OmniOutliner and OmniPlan.

I think that’s pretty niche. This software is world-class and the first two, especially, have transformed my working life. (OmniFocus is the To Do app I live in and OmniOutliner is how I’ve planned about 400 of my last speaking gigs. Also some books. OmniPlan is project management software which I’ve used for some complex projects but really they were only complex to me, you’d have done them in your sleep.) Read my book or just go buy the software.

It’s niche but I like that book and it seems to be in demand more and more. Earlier this month I got to speak about it over Skype, presenting to the members of the Chicago Apple User Group. Early evening their time, after midnight mine, and whilst I was in an oven of a hotel room in London ahead of delivering an all-day workshop for the Federation of Entertainment Unions.

I told you about the bath: that night I had five showers solely to cool down and only got dressed again because it would’ve been a bit offputting to the Chicago people if I’d sat there in towels.

That was a really good night: hearing twenty or so people laughing back at me across the Atlantic, it was buzzing. Plus I’ve had since some lovely comments about the book, too.

All of which means that one of those projects of mine that’s been so pressing me down has somewhat floated up higher. I’m doing a new edition of the book and it will be out as an ebook and this time a paperback later in the year. I don’t know when because I want to wait for a particular new version of OmniOutliner to be released and all I know is that it’s soon.

But I wonder if I should do an audio version.

UPDATE: YouTube has accepted my copyright claim and removed the video.

Talking and not talking

In the middle of a six-hour workshop yesterday, I stopped to explore a thought about an issue that had been coming up throughout the day. “I offer,” I said, “that it is the people who can communicate, who can write and talk, who find it the hardest to do.”

I think I’m right. I was running the workshop for the Federation of Entertainment Unions which means for members of the NUJ, Equity, the Musician’s Union and the Writers’ Guild. Something like 20 or 25 professional freelancers in London. I adore – no, I love – running FEU workshops because of these people. The only stock a freelancer has, really, is time and these people choose to spend a working day with me.

Now, whenever someone elects to spend time with me, I’m honoured. I just had a thing where someone came within a pixel of flying over from the States to see me. As much as I would’ve liked to meet her, I was immensely relieved when plans changed because I get anxious enough when someone crosses a room in my direction.

But with the FEU workshops and these freelancers, it’s a business decision. They want something the FEU says I can give them – yesterday it was about blogging – and they’re here to get it. No playing around, no messing, no idle thought about maybe one day doing a blog. I think of it as playing with live ammunition: they need something, I have to show them whether blogging does or doesn’t do it, then I have to get them what they need to start.

If I talked bollocks for the first hour, I expect all 25 to walk out. If I speak brilliantly but they realise blogging or whatever isn’t what they need, I expect all 25 to leave early and get back to their work.

And actually, maybe no more so than yesterday because this was a really impressive group. Grief. One guy has his acting career but actually he’s really focused on social issues like care homes. One journalist is a Libya correspondent. And one is the woman who made that documentary about suffragette Emily Davison which showed she didn’t choose to be trampled to death, it wasn’t a suicide plan. I got to shake hands with someone who owns the sash Davison wore in that gigantically important moment.

So this was a room full of talented people. Talented creative types, people who apply their talent and their skills all the time. People who actually I picture as being on their feet and in action even though we spent most of the day sitting down.

And yet the thing that kept coming up over and over was that each one of them finds it crippingly hard, paralysingly hard, to talk about themselves and their work. These are people who for a living talk or write or act or perform and this was a difficulty you could see pressing on their chests.

I don’t have a solution and I do have the same problem. But I didn’t quite tell you the whole quote just now. This is what I really said:

“I offer that it is the people who can communicate, who can write and talk, who find it the hardest to do. And that it’s the people who can’t, who won’t shut up about themselves.”

Please don’t point out that I’m writing a blog about one sentence of mine, one thought. This isn’t me talking about myself, it’s you and I having a chat because you’re exactly the same, aren’t yoU?

Three iPhones

Seven hundred and four thousand

I learned a lesson from last week when I called our chat “58 Keys” and bemoaned, even belaboured, how much I loathe starting a sentence with a digit. Writer Garrie Fletcher pointed out that I could’ve written it as “Fifty-Eight Keys” instead.

I considered his point and concluded: “Bugger.”

So here we are with seven hundred and four thousand. I didn’t intend to use digits in any form this time: if I were planning to use digits again, I really think I should be talking your phone number and dialling it. Why in the world we don’t just talk over the phone or better yet over a tea, I have no idea.

But it’s funny I should say the word phone. It’s almost as if I planned this. For yesterday, 29 June, was the tenth anniversary of the iPhone going on sale. Or rather, going on sale in America: it didn’t come to the UK until 10 November 2007. Which makes today not the tenth anniversary but the 9 years, 7 months and 20 days anniversary. It’s the 502 weeks and 6 days anniversary. It’s the 9.64 years anniversary. It’s the 3,520th day’s anniversary and yes, I used Wolfram Alpha to work that out.

I’m a bit more vague on two other numbers. Some number of years ago, I was doing a thing where either I was paid to see how often I used my iPhone on an average day or possibly it was a really average day and I was just very bored. Not sure. I’m also not sure what the number was. But I think it was about 200. That includes just picking the thing up to see the time and it probably doesn’t including making phone calls because – look at you and me – we never ring anyone anymore.

I’ve got a feeling that there’s some academic study that says iPhone users average somewhere around 200 uses a day. The Daily Mail says it’s 85 times but look at that source again, we can rule that out. Last year Apple said iPhones are typically unlocked around 80 times per day but the number of times I unlock it to do one thing and put it down again are few. A research firm I’ve never heard of before, dscout, says Android users touch their phone 2,617 times per day.

So I think my estimate that I use my iPhone 200 times daily is reasonable, maybe conservative. But that means that since they came out, I’ve used mine 704,000 times.

This is a device that didn’t exist a decade ago and now you never intentionally leave home without it. For about eight of those ten-ish years, I did not once leave it behind anywhere. Since I’ve had an Apple Watch, I’ve left my phone at home or in the car maybe a dozen times. Never deliberately, but still its demon lock on me is loosening.

Still, look at this thing. I’ve never written a book on one but I have written articles – I do a weekly Writers’ Guild opinion column and the latest one was written, edited and sent entirely from my phone – and I doubt there’s a book I’ve worked on that I didn’t write something for on it. Maybe a draft chapter. Absolutely without question some notes of some kind as I’ve been doing research.

I first read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice on my phone. So that means I can’t have come to Austen until this last decade. She’s a bit life-changing all by herself: I’ve read her other novels since and I’ve re-read P&P and I’ve aspired to write as well as she did. Because of my phone.

Very early on, I remember stepping onto a train to Edinburgh while making corrections to a Radio Times article. I’ve sat on the London Underground making really fiddly corrections to PDF invoices that I then emailed as soon as I got up to street level. And got paid an hour later.

I’ve tutted at it when Apple Maps couldn’t find a place I needed. Then shortly afterwards I have sworn like a docker when Google Maps was able to find the place yet I then couldn’t find how to make the damn thing start the directions to there.

Oh! Sitting in a carpark near Birmingham City University, doing photo editing. I cannot recall what in the world I could’ve been editing, but it was for a job, it was for publication and it was for right now, please. I could do quite remarkable Photoshop-style work in my car using Pixelmator instead of driving home to my office to use actual Photoshop on my Mac.

Three weeks ago, driving in to Hull and telling my phone to play Misterioso by Thelonious Monk and it doing so. My car filled with the sound of this music that was appropriate to my job that day but which I don’t have, I’ve never owned.

Over these ten years, writing has changed and the job of a writer has expanded to cover so many other things. All of them needing, using, stretching the same writing muscles and so very many of them needing, using, stretching my iPhone.

Mind you, I’ve had an iPhone for 3,520 days so that would be just about 3,520 times that the bloody battery’s run out before the end of the day.

58 Keys

Just to say, it kills me beginning a blog title or actually any sentence with a number. It’s as knife-scraping as beginning one with a lowercase letter. Consequently, having written very many articles and news stories about the likes of the iPhone, I’m used to contorting headlines to fit in one word, any word, before the offending digit or lowercase. In this one situation, though, putting anything before “58 Keys” would change it.

“The 58 Keys” would make you think of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, for instance. “The Mystery of the 58 Keys” is Agatha Christie if you’re normal, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators if you’re less so.

Mind you, just saying 58 Keys is at risk of putting you in mind of either Edgar Allen Poe or, in a slightly different chain of thought, Florida.

Somehow I think it’s fitting, however, that you are very unlikely to read that title and know what this is about yet it is impossible that you haven’t been affected by it. Now it sounds like a disease.

It’s just this. I offer that every artistic, sporting, engineering, scientific, medical, architectural, sculptural, scriptural, design or really any human endeavour, any human thought of the last thirty years has gone via a keyboard. That’s obviously true for writers but a sculptural artist, say, he or she may work with stone and chisels but at some point they email a gallery describing it.

Amateur photographers not intending to ever sell their work and, let’s go to an extreme here, too illiterate to write a caption, they still use a keyboard. Whether it’s holding down the Option key as they choose a function in Photoshop or it’s logging in to Flickr as CrazyNutBoy99, they use a keyboard.

We never think about this, most especially not if we’re touch typists, because we’re thinking about the work we do. The keyboard and our fingers on it are the bridge from our thoughts to the physical reality of what we’re creating. And I’m just fascinated by that. I’m fascinated by how pressing these keys means I get to talk to you. By how using exactly the same keys I will unthinkingly, unconsciously switch from writing words to issuing commands: I press Command-S to save my work do much that the S key is worn down.

If you’re reading this on a phone or a tablet then you’ve got an onscreen keyboard that pops up when you need it and hides away again when you don’t. If you’re on a laptop then these days the keys are probably what’s called a Chiclet style unless it’s a Butterfly mechanism or in Microsoft’s case a curious cloth-like one.

The type of key varies from silent and virtual to the mechanical Cherry keyboard that clacks away terribly satisfyingly to the ears of those of us trained on manual typewriters. The number of keys varies a lot too. It’s not that I usually go around counting them, honest, it’s more that for decades the standard layout for a computer keyboard has been what’s called the PC AT one with 102 keys. When you see the QWERTY layout with a numeric keypad to the right and arrow keys between the two, it’s probably 102 keys.

That is a standard, whether you’re using QWERTY or something like France’s AZERTY. That is also a standard whether you’re in the UK or the US, though for unfathomable historical reasons, our two nations have different keyboards. In the UK, the Return key is a tall one that takes up the space of two keys vertically. In America, it’s a wide one that takes up two key spaces horizontally. Nutters.

Even so, it’s the same number of keys and you have never looked at me so strangely before. Let me hurry to explain why I’ve called this 58 Keys and not 102.

It’s the Mac.

The original Apple Macintosh is the reason we have iPhones and iPads, it’s the reason we have Windows. And, yes, that original Mac had 58 keys on it.

There should’ve been 62. People at Apple fought over four more keys and they lost. Steve Jobs rejected four keys. He rejected the arrow keys. You can think that’s taking micro-management too far, but there was a reason.

He refused to allow the original Mac keyboard to have these arrow or cursor keys because if it had them, people would use them. Since it didn’t, there was no other way to move your cursor around the screen than to use the mouse. This was the first time any public computer had included a mouse and, as strange as it seems today, it was bloody hard to grasp what in the world this thing was for.

Taking away four keys meant you had to use the mouse and it’s part of why we did so it’s part of why we got to move away from those green or yellow phosphorus text displays into full-screen, full-colour, overlapping windows.

Even if you have never used a Mac, even if you’re a die-hard PC fan and even if you’ve only ever had your phone as a computer, the decision to give the Mac just 58 keys shaped everything we do today.

There’s no reason to say this to you now, no particular anniversary, no keyboard launch and definitely no way to explain why I currently have about nine keyboards in my house. But you will spend time at some keyboard today, whether that’s onscreen or physical, and you will every day. We could get really deep into how mechanical keys work, we could dive into how onscreen keyboards invisibly expand the letter you’re most likely to type next. But let’s just take a moment to notice how this small thing has world-changing impact.

Looked at but not seen to

June the 21st is National Writing Day. Actually, it’s also National Day of the Gong – truly – plus Music Day. And Selfie Day. Skateboarding Day. National Daylight Appreciation Day. I’m not making this up, though you have to assume someone is.

Still, I’m a writer so while the gong, music, skateboarding, selfie and daylight fans neglected to tip me off, I did get nudged about National Writing Day. And what whoever does these days wants is for writers to write about the view from their window.

There is a bit of me that rebels at any writing prompt even as I’ve seen how startlingly effective they can be. There is a bit of me that feels an urge to find a joke about what’s outside my window. The best I’ve got is I do have a garden that I don’t go out into and that this is for want of trying.

It’s not hilarious but it’s one of those very tiny changes in a familiar phrase that, at least to me, makes us reconsider the original. We say phrases that might as well be meaningless collections of sounds for all the attention we pay to the words. With no further ado, if we were hanging on the phone now, for instance, you’d be hearing my dulcet tones. I’ve sometimes ended an introduction of someone and asked audiences to welcome them onto the stage with more ado, with as much more ado as we can.

I hope my vocal tones can be dulcet when I want them to be, but I can see it in your face, you’re not sure what it actually means. You know it’s something vaguely praiseworthy or complimentary, yet you’ve never felt a compulsion to look up that it’s a pleasing sound. Nor me, not until two seconds ago.

That said, the ‘view from your window’ is a pretty clear idea, it is transparently obvious, if you will. Still, as soon as you say ‘window’ my mind flies to John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire which features the recurring and, in context, truly upsetting phrase ‘keep passing the open windows’. I also flit to a quote I heard from somewhere that the default screensaver in Hell is the Windows Blue Screen of Death.

And then I say that to you and for no useful reason my mind flicks on to a friend whose emails have suddenly begun announcing that they are virus-free. I see that and wonder at her still faffing about with viruses but doubtlessly she sees that and doesn’t think one single thing about it.

For you know that there is looking and there is seeing. When I was told about National Writing Day I was in the Library of Birmingham and the view from the window was exceptional but my mind was on a meeting I was on a break from. Above that, resting atop that and poking me from time to time, my mind was on entirely unrelated news that has been colouring how I’ve seen the entire week.

An hour later and the window I’m viewing through is my car’s. Then I was thinking about all this in the supermarket. I briefly returned to my own office which does have that little-seen garden out of the window. Now I’m in my living room where the The let feature of the view through the big windows is the tops of houses down the hill. And they are not as clear or vivid as the beautifully photographed view of Manhattan that turns out to be tonight’s screensaver on my TV set. It’s right underneath the window and that backlit rectangular window looks like it’s in higher resolution than the reality above it.

I might stare at that image for a bit, actually, and if I do then I’ll stare at it while absorbing the artistry of the photography plus remembering a thousand memories of New York and not quite remembering yet never being able to shed a million more impressions of the city that I’ve absorbed throughout my life.

The only thing I’m not doing with that window onto Manhattan is the same thing I didn’t do with the living room window, the office one, the car, the supermarket, the Library. I looked at them all and I looked through every one but I didn’t and don’t see them.

Not when my mind is buckled under a project. Doubtlessly this is the same for everyone but as a writer, I know that the view from a writers’ window is cloudy and shifting and unpleasant and scary and utterly beautiful and replete with potential though sodden with failure, a bellowing yearning to write better inescapably coupled to a need to pay the mortgage too.

And then just once in a while, something else that isn’t there.

Follow. After about 15 years of living here and working in that office, I have officially given up trying to get the wooden blinds to work and they’re just on the floor behind my long, curved desk and occasionally snagging on a power cable. So my windows are bare and you know what that means at night.

One particular night, easily around 3am, I was doing this yearning, reaching writing stuff on my first book. That was this non-fiction title about Alan Plater’s The Beiderbecke Affair. The deadline was so close, the word count was so tight – just 30,000 words and I’d given up about 2,000 of those in order to reprint a Beiderbecke short story of Alan’s – that it was frightening and exhilarating and just plain bloody exhausting.

Until of course it’s utterly black outside and it’s brightly lit in my office, so that window ceased to be a window and became a mirror instead. If I ever glanced up, I’d see my bookshelves and my messy research, but I didn’t look up.

Not until I had to sit back in my chair for a moment, shake out the tension in my hands and intend to get back to the typing.

In that moment, in that movement, the view from my window was not of either the real outside or a mirror image of my interior office. Instead, whatever it was, it had Alan Plater sitting back in his chair and telling me to get some sleep, it’s only a book.

That’s not the view from my window now or at any other time but that one single moment. Actually, it wasn’t really the view from my window even then, it was something inside me projecting out. But then you could say that of any view from any window we look through without seeing.

Travelling Desperately, again

Shush, we’re in archive. It’s the Hull History Centre and six years ago I was here researching my very first book. That was – take a breath, this is a long title – BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair, from the British Film Institute. The Beiderbecke Affair is a 1980s television drama by the late Alan Plater and this place has his papers.

It’s weird being in an archive that’s got a friend’s papers. I’d sit here reading something in the Beiderbecke collection and remember Alan or his wife Shirley Rubinstein telling me about it. But anyway, as much as I adore The Beiderbecke Affair and as important as my book was to me, there was also something else all those years ago.

I worked like fury to collate and copy every pixel of detail about the Beiderbecke Affair and then also Alan’s dramatisation of Fortunes of War because I had a canny eye to what the next book would be. That hasn’t happened yet, but give it time. Only, I did all that at extra-fast speed solely in order to leave the last two hours free.

Because there is this other Alan Plater work that is especially dear to me: Misterioso.

It’s a novel that’s out of print (but you can find it changing hands for a lot of money on eBay and Amazon) and a TV drama that has never been released commercially. It’s really just one small part of his work but I am shocked how deep it cuts into me. This is not a high-profile piece, not elaborate or overt, not famous or lauded, yet there are issues that I believe in and concerns that I share that I can easily trace back to the novel Misterioso in 1987 and the TV version in 1991.

Title card from the TV drama Misterioso

For a simple example, it’s why I’ve always loved the name Rachel. For a somewhat more complex one, it’s why I cherish the thought that, as the show describes, “it’s better to travel desperately than to arrive”. It’s why when I’ve done a lot I know that even as an atheist, I need time for my soul to catch up.

So knowing from the Hull History Centre’s catalogue that they had one entire box of papers about Misterioso, I was having that. Nobody was paying me, I wasn’t writing a book about it, but I was going to read that box for myself.

Only, the collection was still quite new then and things were still being sorted out. They told me they couldn’t find the Misterioso box.

Deeply unhappy, I vowed to return.

Yes. Six years later. I’m back and it’s still only for me, but this time I have a day and a half here entirely devoted to Misterioso. And that’s good because they’ve found the box. I call it a box, often these things are more like folders. But okay, I was ready to read one folder, then, and instead they’ve now got ten.

One more thing. The title Misterioso comes from a jazz piece which features as prominently as you might expect in an Alan Plater drama. I like jazz when I hear it live, I adore jazz anecdotes, but I’ve not been a fan and I have not collected any albums.

Only, the very last shot of Misterioso on television is of Rachel driving off down a motorway as the music plays. Yesterday as I drove down a motorway toward Hull, I lifted my Watch to my lips and said “Hey, Siri, play me Misterioso by Thelonius Monk“. And my car and my head were filled with this tune that seems so simple yet somehow means so much to me.

Endings and finishes

It’s not that I’m in a fight. But I’m disagreeing with someone and as polite as we’re being, as much as I rate the fella, we’ve come back to the same point many times this year and neither of us will budge. I can’t actually tell you the details because it’s about a book of his that isn’t out yet – and, besides, if you knew everything then you might take his side.

But I can try to present a case to you that I think applies generally to writing and drama and fiction. And by chance it also applies very directly and specifically to a piece of my own that I’ve been working on this week.

In both mine and this fella’s, the last moments are key. With mine it’s a radio play and it’s all about the penultimate sentence. With his novel, it’s about the past page.

He’s much further down the line with his piece than I am so I got to read it finished and as one of several readers he asked for opinions. I can tell you that my summary opinion was that it’s bloody good and so scary that I was reading bits through my fingers.

Only, he wanted to know a specific opinion about a specific thing. What exactly did I think the last page meant? I told him and actually felt a bit on the spot because while it was excellent and maybe a key reason I like the entire novel, what I thought about it seemed bleedin’ obvious to me. But of however many readers he’d had, apparently I was the only one who understood it.

Bully for me.

Except because of this, he plans to change the ending. To make it clearer. And that’s our fight: whether he should or not. Now, he’s going to win because it’s his book but in the middle of our emails about it, I stood up to make my point. I actually stood up even though we were emailing. I got to my feet because I am so certain that I am right. I’m never certain I’m right and yet here I am, standing up and steadfast.

His ending is a real punch to the throat, it is the kind of powerful head-jolt moment that a writer would give their last kidney for. He argues that this doesn’t matter, that it’s worthless if most people don’t get it.

I argue that there is no possible, possible way to simplify this single-point ending yet also keep its power.

So his position is that it’s better to have something every reader gets. And mine is that if you do this, then what they get is tepid water when they could’ve had moonshine-strength alcohol. He wants something for everyone, I want something brilliant. I envy this man’s writing and one of the reasons is this power that he’s willing to throw away.

Let me describe my own nearest equivalent, the thing I’m writing this week. It’s also not out yet and it’s actually so early days that the odds are it will never reach an audience or at least not in this form. Nonetheless, it’s mine so I can tell you that the penultimate line is someone saying her name.

That’s all. Just her name. It’s a point in the play when I officially reveal that someone is really someone else – and it comes about 40 minutes after the audience will have figured that out anyway. Only, I want the audience to be ahead of me here because when they finally hear the name spoken, it then tells them a second fact that they will not have got. I do like the trick of it, I do like the surprise, but it’s also important for the character and what she’s been going through.

And I’m proud of this next part: I wrote that line, I wrote the sentence that is simply her saying her name, and in that context, at that point, it made me cry at the keyboard. Honestly. Consequently that single line is the reason I must get this play made. The power in that penultimate line is my reason for writing it at all.

I just know both that audiences will have guessed the first part of it and also that given where it sits in the play, some will miss its import. Inescapably, you know the play is ending when you get to this line and I think it’s a beat that comes after you expect all of the plot and character to be done with.

Perhaps I could move it up earlier, but then it wouldn’t have the bang. I could skip it completely and just end the play a moment sooner. Accept that it’s no longer an ending, it’s just where the play finishes.

But this sentence is an end, it is the snapping of the suitcase being closed on the story. It’s also the best sentence I’ve ever written, so, you know, there’s that.