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.

Writing fast and slow

Here’s an example of writing too quickly: this week I was made Deputy Chair of the national Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. The End.

I mean, that’s factual and it’s entirely accurate, but it doesn’t do anything else. You can guess how I feel about this happening but that’s more because you’re you and you get these things, it’s not that I’ve conveyed it at all in the writing.

Actually, I’m not sure I’ve grasped it all in order to convey it in the slightest, but the fact that this is taking a time to settle in my head is one thing that’s made me want to talk to you about something else. The other prompt is that I’ve just had a report on a script of mine and it’s more praising than the best reviews I’ve ever got for things that have been made.

I can tell you the report was so good because it’s also a rejection. I nearly didn’t read it: once you read the first ‘but’ in the email, you know you’re out. On the rare times I get any more detail I will file it away to read later and then never do, but this time it was more.

Specifically, I’d written the script at lightspeed and it failed so I knew the whole idea was rubbish, my writing just didn’t cut it. I was going to scrap that and write something else.

For some reason I read on and, cor, you should read this stuff. I now think it’s my best work in ages. Okay, my best rejected work, but still.

So let you and I both take a telling from this: read the feedback.

But.

Feeling good about this does put the idea back on the top of pile but it doesn’t take away the fact that I wrote it at ludicrous speed.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about on multiple long train journeys all week.

I think I write at my best when I am writing at speed – and that this isn’t good enough.

I’ve seen this before, most especially with articles and books where if it comes easily, it reads the best. When it’s a slog, you can feel that as a reader and the life is gone from it.

When there’s time on an article that’s gone wrong like this, I will walk away, come back and try a second blast-draft to see where I get. Invariably it’s better but invariably I also hold back because I’m afraid of getting it wrong again. So we get a third go and it becomes okay. It’s only ever very good when it flowed easily the first time.

I did think about this sample script for a fortnight and it’s an idea I’ve had plus written short stories around for at least three years but the total time from writing FADE IN: to about 15 pages later is measured in hours. Single-figure hours.

Which is all very nice for me. Except I can make a good article this way and I believe I can write a fair book, but there’s a limit with scripts. I think at my best I am able to make a script be very, very good – but not great. But lacking.

And that’s the problem. It needs work – this script, all scripts – and the more I work at a piece, the worse it gets.

I’m going to have to pull my finger out, aren’t I?

Blogger in Residence at the Pen Museum

Exhibit of pen nibs at the Pen Museum, Birmingham

I am rarely the jealous type of writer. Back in 1996 I was fully green when I bought Radio Times and found they were starting a website that I thought I should be working on. A few months later, I was.

Apart from that, there’s only been one case where I wished I’d done something. Well, no, okay, you could have any limb of mine you want if I could’ve written Arrival and actually I’d be out of limbs in seconds if I thought about writing I wish I’d written.

But apart from that. A couple of years ago, the writing partners Iain Grant and Heidi Goody became the official, legitimate and authorised writers-in-residence at – wait for this – a phone box.

Oh, I admired that. I still admire it. I don’t plan on stopping admiring it. For it’s one of those ideas that seems obvious once someone has thought of it but never before. Clever, funny, fresh, new and apparently next door to a pub. Even as I took my hat off to them, I was plotting to steal.

Well, steal in a writer’s sense in that I did set out to become writer in residence of something equally appealingly daft.

I have not succeeded.

But from daft beginnings come serious endings.

For over the past couple of months I’ve been Blogger in Residence at The Pen Museum in Birmingham.

Now, I could’ve mentioned this before. Especially as I’m about to finish. And most especially because I adore the Pen Museum: when I got a chance to do this for a Museum, my first sentence was “Hello, can it be the Pen Museum, I’m William”.

If you can possibly go, do. Right in the heart of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter there is this glorious place. It’s where World Calligraphy Day is based, it’s where poetry events and rotating exhibitions visit. But on an ordinary, damp day with nothing going on, it’ll still absorb you for a couple of hours.

It’ll possibly leave you with ink-stained hands if you have a go with the calligraphy exhibits. It’ll make you want a fountain pen after you’ve made a pen nib – under supervision, this stuff is really deliciously tricky to get right.

And I guarantee you this: you will tell people about how at the peak of pen manufacture around the late 1800s, 75% of all pens in use in the entire world were made in this small part of Birmingham. Later on, Walt Disney animation artists continually ordered pens from here so, yes, Bambi was probably sketched with a Birmingham pen.

I love all this stuff and I haven’t even got to their typewriter collection. But I’ve not written about it here before because I’ve been working to figure out what in the hell I should do.

Because it sounded so clear. Fun but clear. Write them some blogs. Easy. You know me, I can barely shut up. And actually, yes, I’ve done that: if you visit the Pen Museum website over the next year or so you’ll see blogs of mine popping up at appropriate moments.

But this was a case where the staff and volunteers of the Pen Museum didn’t really need me for that. They’re already writing and blogging and tweeting. They already have events – I’m an event producer and I recognised early on that there wasn’t space in the schedule for me to contrive another one.

It turned out, though, that it was my producer head that was needed. Lots of people want to volunteer at the museum so you get a great turnover of staff and also a great variety of them. Appropriately, I didn’t met a single one who couldn’t write well, but of course you know that some are already blogging, others wouldn’t go near Facebook if you begged them.

My own blogging writing became incidental – I think we just quietly agreed that I couldn’t stop writing so we might as well use me – and what became important was producing a process.

We’re still working on it but I think what we’ve started will make the Pen Museum website feel as much of a place to visit by itself as the actual museum always has been. So many people visit from around the world but you know many more would want to so over time that site’s blog will grow.

There is just something right about a Pen Museum having a vibrant blog. There’s this one quite small exhibit in there, for instance, which lines up writing tools from pen through typewriter to iPad. You can use all of it and get a sense of how the past forms the present and I think that’s fitting for the blog too.

Being Blogger in Residence at the Pen Museum isn’t as gorgeously daft as being a writer in a phone box but I adore that I got the chance to do it. Thank you to Writing West Midlands and the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Without them, I might have been reduced to being writer in residence of my mobile phone.

Flipping hecklers

It would be really good, I would feel really great, if you just read the next sentence and then looked away.

I’ve now performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Okay.

Not really. I was in the audience for maybe 15 comedy acts or so and twice I was repeatedly called on by the comedian, once I was both called on and called up. I have now stood on a Fringe stage being laughed at. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure why I felt this was good.

But while I was climbing through an unstrung tennis racket – you had to be there – and later when Tim Vine was asking if my face always looked like this, I was thinking about the workshops I do.

I run day-long things, half days, two hours, one hours, all sorts and in every case the job is showing people something so you’re getting them to do it. It is entirely audience participation, but it doesn’t feel as heightened or as clenching as it does in a comedy because it’s continuous through the day.

Also because I’m the one calling on people, not the one fearing being called. That does make it easier, you’re right.

I was thinking how it’s actually quite hard to contribute to a show if you’re used to running them. I’m really not comparing my workshops to comedy sets, neither in good or bad ways, but it is all performance. So when a comedian asks you to describe something, you want to do it, you want to provide what she needs for her act, you’re more than willing to be laughed at, but you don’t want to actually perform. You don’t want to get in the way.

It’s their show, not yours.

I’m not saying that this is a huge issue or that it’s somehow unique to me as a special little flower but it was one of the two things that kept crossing my mind every time it happened. The other was to wonder why I’d chosen the front row again.

But then I saw Ivo Graham.

He’s a standup comic who does plenty of audience interaction which this time did not include me – and did include hecklers.

I loathe hecklers. If you know someone who heckles at comedy acts, give me their work address: I’ll pop over tomorrow and drunkenly interrupt them at their job.

The best comedians can get a very big laugh out of reacting to a heckle but when they do it that well, as Graham did that night, the stupid hecklers think they’re responsible. That their half-pissed spontaneous call out is what’s funny, not the maybe hundreds of hours of work that the comedian has put in to be able to deal with them.

Ivo Graham was the only one of all the acts I saw that got heckled and it is of course unrelated to the standard of his material. He is very good and he is very funny and he was on Friday evening. There you go. The hecklers were fuelled by alcohol and I imagine Graham had to have a few after the show himself.

You get that I abhor hecklers, you get that I admired Graham’s handling of them. What I liked, though, the only thing I actually liked, was the rest of the audience. Even Graham himself commented in the middle of asking the audience questions that it was great and funny how there’d be a heckle but immediately someone else would call out a serious answer to move it all along.

That was good and that worked. The whole act worked very well, it wasn’t even soured too much by those hecklers. But I did tweet Ivo Graham afterwards to say how deftly I thought he’d handled them. He replied saying it had definitely been an eventful night, hadn’t it?

But.

This is a week ago now and I’m still thinking about it but not for the hecklers and not for how this or any comedian reacts to them. I’m thinking about it because I watched some YouTube videos of Ivo Graham.

Like all the best comics, his act on the night feels fresh and new and like he’s just chatting with you. Of course you know that it’s written and rehearsed but there’s a lightness and a bounce and it’s engagingly new. Watch the same comic on YouTube and, whoever they are, you’ll often see the same act.

Fine, but what fascinates me is when you see something that is an earlier version. The internet and how much gets recorded, how much gets kept forever and made immediately available, it means we can now often see the development of an act. See which lines stay the same, which get tweaked or added or dropped or tuned.

Comedians are like poets, I feel, with every syllable considered, every pause planned and none of that effort meant to be seen. It’s the same swan analogy that you can apply to all writers, all shows, but with much of the development being done in front of audiences.

There is one workshop I do in schools that, just between us, I’ve now done so often that it truly feels like a scripted show. Of course it’s always different, of course each school needs different things. Yet still, there are many times when I feel I’ve slipped into the script and I know when I’m going to get a laugh out of these kids.

I’m a writer so I’m obviously focused on the words but in these cases I am a performer and there is a physicality to it. A pause, a just-remembered, an oops-forgot-to-say kind of stance and gait that I will do that will always get a laugh.

And it does have audience participation. I forgot this. I have a thing, close to a rule, that if you walk into a workshop of mine then you are part of it. And one day in a school I was in mid-flow when a teacher came in to borrow a pen. All he did was come in quietly, get the pen and leave again, not once breaking stride but during that time I had got the kids to cast him as a Doctor Who monster and he had acted the part. Left growling. Did it perfectly.

So naturally the next day when I was in the same school with another class and their head teacher came in to borrow something else, I did the same thing.

And he didn’t.

Just looked at me like I was dirt.

He walked out of the room reeking with disdain.

It was a silent heckle.

And when the door shut behind him, I just jerked my head toward the ceiling – and got a huge laugh from the kids. I was funny and we bonded and it started with that heckle but, you know, it was me, not the heckler.

The Handover

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.

You couldn’t make it up

You’ve seen this over and over again: Trump does something stupid, Britain realises yet another thing it failed to consider before Brexit, and someone will say that you couldn’t make this stuff up.

Of course you could.

The End.

Only, as well as just being wrong, I think this ‘you couldn’t make it up’ lark is a kind of marker post. It’s saying that over here is reality, over there is fiction. Actually, I think it really says that reality is better or sharper or harder or just more.

Okay. Except there are going to be Brexit dramas aplenty, there are going to be Trump biopics, and the faultline between fiction and reality will be examined anew every time. Writing will be tested, writing’s ability to convey real-life drama is going to be tested.

And it will fail.

As both a journalist and a writer, I can’t do creative non-fiction: to me it’s either fiction or it’s fact. As a reader, I want the same divide: I don’t want to come away believing that Napoleon was the leading Tetris player in his gang.

And when we get dramas based on real events, I think the audience is watching for the facts – or actually for the errors. If it’s a brilliant, searing, insightful piece of drama that wonderfully conveys the human condition, there will still be complaints that this person didn’t say that or this other person never wore the other. I’m minded of people who would come away from the Harry Potter movies saying yes, great, but they skipped chapter 11’s reference to ostriches. Or something.

Anyway, the dramas that we are going to get about anything real, anything political, are going to be rigidly factual and that will just reinforce this notion that we can’t make things up.

True, we’ve had a Nigel Farage piece that was a comedy but it was really just one good trailer-length joke and nothing else. We’ve also seen real-life events translated into science fiction but pretty simplistically. We’ve more often seen dramas that are as faithful as possible to the real-life events.

And I just don’t see the point of them.

That’s not drama, it’s a Crimewatch reconstruction. Granted, plenty of what’s happening now should be examined in criminal law courts but my need for a verdict is firmly, totally centred in reality: I don’t have a thirst to see justice done only to make a drama’s happy ending.

The word dramatised, by the way, means moved. From some non-dramatic form to another. You can’t dramatise a movie, for instance, because it’s already drama. The aim is to move whatever it is to another form in order to make something new, to create something that has value and worth on its own. It is not to fill in the blanks.

Drama documentaries do this and nothing else. They are a foul idea borne of a need to have something to look at when there’s no contemporary footage. So some historian will talk to some camera in some gorgeous house saying “And of course WIlliam Shakespeare lived on Lemsip” and it will be followed by portentous music, ancient costumes and actors trying to put emotion into Shakey telling Anne Hathaway: “I doth so adoreth it greater than Night Nurse”.

You can make it up, but you won’t.

This took me a very long time to realise but I got there and it’s become a staple for me: journalism is about facts and drama is about truth. It’s not the same thing.

There’s a thing I stick to in drama writing and specifically when pitching an idea. I’ll begin with what the story is about but then as fast as I possibly, conceivably can, I’ll ditch that and move on to this: what it’s really about.

Drama is about what really matters, what really is going on. Journalism is about who, what, where, when, why and how. Dramatised versions of real-life events are just pointless bores. Drama that examines why people do what they do, that dives into people instead of diligently copying news reports we’ve already seen, that’s just tedious.

You shouldn’t make it up.

The moving finger types


I don’t like what I wrote last week. I don’t really like what I wrote yesterday. And I’m coming to regret starting this. It’s just always been a fact of life for me: you do your very best and know that tomorrow you’ll be wincing at how poor a writer you are.

A friend has a regular habit of re-reading his scripts from, say, five or ten years ago, and having a good laugh at himself. I re-read mine and weep.

Only, I was just searching for something on my Mac and I found this.

020502.2235
THE LAST OF THE BLONDE BOMBSHELLS
UK Drama 2100-2235
Impossibly, this is the first repeat for this charming and uplifting Alan Plater drama from two years ago.

It’s long been out on DVD in the US but here, curiously, not so much, so this is a rare and welcome chance to see the reunion of a (nearly) all-girl band.

Judi Dench is a gem as the woman who sets out to find her disreputable pals and maybe recapture their glory days.

Don’t be shocked: they manage it. But the game is in traveling desperately as much as it is in arriving.

If you really know your television drama history then “from two years ago” is enough to pin this text down in time. If you’re not then let me offer you my congratulations and say the clue is in that string of numbers at the top. That’s the instruction to BBC Ceefax’s systems that the text should be removed at that date and time. It should go off air at 22:35 on 02/05/02.

That’s 2002.

I wrote that 15 years ago.

And it’s not bad. You’re too young to remember Ceefax so let me explain that it would’ve been tricky to get one more letter, let alone one more word, into the page that text went on. That was the limit of a TV preview and actually of any writing on Ceefax at all. You could have multiple pages but readers would not necessarily see them in the right order so every page had to stand on its own.

So, given that it’s so very constrained in space, I read that text and think it does the job. Tells you what’s on, tells you some news about it and it gives you the plot as well as clearly being a recommendation.

Plus it’s got a bit of bounce to it.

That’s the element that gives me some pleasure. I also get some from the phrase ‘travelling desperately’ which I think works even if you don’t know it’s a quote from another Alan Plater drama. (Misterioso, if you’re wondering. My favourite.)

So I’m willing to tell you about this because my cold writer/producer’s head sees that it works and is no cause for weeping. But I want to tell you about it because of the way it just popped up while I was hunting for something else. Like a little peek into the past. An unexpected window into what feels now like a very different world and a very different me.

We think of online writing as transient and it’s true that all my Ceefax pages vanished the day after they were aired. Most of my writing is already long gone and usually not remembered but this morning a shard of it came back to poke me in the eye. Only because it was written on computers. I have a shelf of paper notebooks I used to use but I never look at them and I can’t read my own handwriting. Whereas a gallon of Ceefax writing just came back as if I’d typed it today.

I have no idea why I’ve still got this text on my Mac, especially as I didn’t get this machine until ten years after I wrote that. I am coming to see why my hard drive is so full, mind.

I think for once that I’m glad it’s there. I’m glad I can see that I wasn’t dreadful. The fact that I wrote around 16,000 pages of BBC Ceefax has come up quite often for some reason and now I think if they were all like that, I’m okay with it.

The gigantic majority were written in BBC Television Centre, typing directly into the systems there, so I don’t have even a significant fraction of the text on my Mac. But I have some from when I would be working at home and delivering copy: I think I’d send in a week’s worth of previews and reviews at a time. I feel sorry for the poor sod who then had to copy and paste them in, but I suppose I did that for other people too.

Ouch. I’ve just read a piece in the same document, a TV preview of some football thing.

040502.1800
THE FA CUP FINAL
BBC1 1210-1725/Sky Sports 2 1200-1800
Best get your bank holiday trip to the DIY store over with in the morning, then, unless this is a dull match.

What’re the odds? Arsenal meet Chelsea for a quiet, cosy kickabout with several million people roaring them on. That’s all this will be.

To make sure this appeals to everyone, the teams are London ones but filled with players from around the world.

Here’s an idea of how important this is: it starts at 1500. So the build-up is twice the length of the game.

I even made football jokes. Now I’m wondering if someone else wrote all of these. It would explain some things.

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?