I’m not sure now whether it’s my age or just the age that we live in. But really often, I’ll start watching something and there will be an advert first, with a countdown. We never used to have countdowns or progress bars, but now we do and typically it says something like “your video will play in 10 seconds, 9, 8…”

And I’m exasperated at having to wait six more seconds.

I mean, I know I’m busy, but now five seconds, four, come on.

Some ads have to be played to the end –– and actually, if you’re on YouTube, for instance, the YouTuber only gets paid if the whole ad is seen –– but others do have that skip feature.

“You can skip in four, 3, for god’s sake how long is 2, 1…”

Back when we had terrestrial TV but DVRs had come in so that you could pause live television and then fast-wind through the ads, I thought advertisers missed a trick. Someone, surely, should’ve done an ad that only made sense when seen played at 20 times normal speed.

But today’s advertisers have caught on. They know you’re going to skip, so they front-load the first six or ten seconds of the ad with the best bit they can.

The first ten seconds of an advert are now like a pilot episode of a series. They come in fast, establish the characters, make their point and hope that you want to stick around for the next episode or, in this case, the next twenty seconds.

And just as with TV pilots, you’re now seeing a range of approaches. There’s the big, splashy, look-at-me flashy advert. But over time, we’ve started to get ones that are more slow, subtle, and gently seductive ones. And the ones that will stop me tapping on Skip tend to be ones with characters talking.

Both TV drama and adverts need to get your attention and then they want to persuade you to do something. With drama, it’s to keep watching and please come back for episode 2. With adverts, it’s stop watching videos and go buy something.

Adverts are meant to be a punch to your attention and drama wants to move in with you. But in both cases, I think there’s friction between grabbing your eyes and then keeping your brain.

And – this could well just be me – I think in both cases the makers get one shot. I could be wrong, and I may be unfair. Especially as at the moment I appear to be being hounded by ads for SquareSpace and I’ve been through the stages of shrugging, harrumphing and on into thinking I might look into them the next time I do a website.

But usually, if I’ve skipped an ad the first time I see it, I skip it every time.

And it’s exactly as hard to get me to come back for the second episode of a show. I understand, for instance, that Luther is a good series, but it lost me on episode 1. Maybe you remember the show better than I do, but I recall there being an impossible crime and if was ever even solved, the real conclusion was that the person who did it is an incredible criminal mastermind of evil.

But I’m sitting there thinking even I could’ve done that exact same crime and been back home in time for lunch. That meant the criminal mastermind of evil wasn’t much cop and the lead police detective character was no cop.

I’d have kept watching if that had been deliberate, but I was supposed to admire both characters and so I simply never watched another minute.

Grief. That was ten years ago. I just looked it up to see how many episodes I haven’t watched – 19 out of the 20, as it happens – and the first one aired in May 2010.

Who could’ve imagined even a decade ago that today episodes would also end with “Next episode begins in 10, 9, 8…”?

As I write this to you, the next Self Distract is in 606,300 seconds. 606,299. 606,298… You could kill a few seconds by joining my new mailing list or perhaps by buying one of my books or Doctor Who radio dramas. I’d be fine with either.

Critically important

I’m a weekly guest on an American podcast and during the latest recording, I was told off. A listener had written in to say that I shouldn’t talk about television because my opinion was no more valid than anyone else’s.

This isn’t the first criticism I’ve had. Previously, as a British writer on a US podcast, I have been told to drop the fake English charm shtick.

But it is the first time I’ve responded.

So, yes, I did it. I said on air about having spent more than a decade being a paid TV critic on Radio Times, BBC News and BBC Ceefax. I said I was Deputy Chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. I said I was a scriptwriter and a dramatist.

In my defence, I didn’t mention that I was once fired off a TV drama.

But in my attack, I don’t think I can describe what I did here as anything better than having been a prat. I did it quickly, it was under 15 seconds, but the prat level was high.

In that lightspeed moment, though, I did build to a point, which was this: everybody has an opinion about television shows, but hopefully mine comes with an informed background. Rather than just saying something is the best show ever, I’m hopefully able to capture what is so good and convey that to help you decide whether it’s worth watching.

There is an argument that this is more useful now than ever. Since we have so much television and film, since so very much of it is so tremendously good, it is a wall of drama and comedy. The sheer volume of it all is a barrier to finding any of it to watch.

So anything, anyone that can bring your attention to a show that you will then love, that has to be good.

Except, there used to be paid, professional TV critics who really just wrote about themselves and how clever they are. Who perhaps sneered about a show being exactly the same as every other one before it –– or sneered at a show trying to be different. And who tell you details about a show in order to sound as if they’re the ones who created it, regardless of whether that detail spoils the series.

Today we have fewer paid, professional TV critics, and about eleventy-billion more unpaid ones.

So many of whom have recently been damaging a show that I like, If you don’t already know it, I think you’ll like it too.

As I write for American publications, I have a press pass to the new Disney+ service. It’s not available here in the UK, but I can see whatever shows Disney’s press office wants to show me. So far there’ve been about eight shows, so it’s barely a fraction of what is on the actual service, but it has included the Star Wars series, The Mandalorian.

I watched the first one for my work but I’ve watched another two since purely because I enjoyed it so much.

And there is definitely one stand-out element of the series.

I don’t think you can actually separate out elements of a drama, you can’t solely say that an actor, for instance, is the reason to watch because he or she couldn’t act at all without the script. But you can identify something that is attention-grabbing, and The Mandalorian has one of those.

It is excellently well done, it is even a delight, and if you won’t read what it is from me, unfortunately all you have to do is look left or right on the internet and you’ll find out.

I think it’s unlikely that Disney’s press office will continue to put episodes of this show on its screening service for writers like me: anyone writing about the show has seen these and I’m sure Disney+ has other shows it wants to push.

So any moment now, I’m going to have this supply of Mandalorian episodes cut off and will have to wait until whenever Disney+ comes to the UK to see the rest.

And yet, I’m still going to know more about it than I want to. TV critics, journalists, all media writers, have already revealed this delightful element and they’re going to continue doing so. I’m not trying to seek out spoilers, I am trying to avoid them, and still have got through to me, still they will continue to.

I think the critical part of TV criticism is gone and we’re left with being barkers. Shouting about shows to get attention, ideally for the show but usually for ourselves.

I love that any drama can get inside you so much that you want to talk about it. I think that’s wonderful. I just get bored when the talking is empty. I get annoyed at spoilers. And I merely fear for the soul of humanity when the reaction to a finely-crafted piece of emotionally true drama is that the star used to be in Frozen.

Now excuse me, I need to go practice my English charm.

The world at 5am or so

Write Brummie, the BBC Radio 4 documentary by Rosie Boulton that I’m featured in, aired this week and you can catch it on the BBC Sounds app. If you can find your way around that rather confusing app, that is, or if you cheat and just follow this link.

In it, I mention how it feels as if the world expands outwards during the morning. If you get up to work at 5am, it’s just you and a sense of no-one else going on, then slowly you become aware of movement around the city. I mentioned traffic and the bins and kids, but I think it’s also just plumbing.

I like that sense at 5am that the air is different, that it’s waiting. Air and wind have a long day ahead of them and they’re just taking a minute, eating some toast, before they have to get going.

And I’m obviously telling you this because of the documentary, but actually as I write to you now it’s a little before 7am and for once, it all feels the same. I’ve put the bins out, I’ve waved to a neighbour, if I stop typing I can hear traffic. And that very second I said this, I just heard a sound from next door’s pipes.

But mostly, it’s as still now as I’m used to earlier. Maybe Birmingham is having a lie-in.

It’s funny how a city has a personality, and possibly not funny how it doesn’t, it just has what we project onto it. Maybe we do this with people too, maybe nobody has a personality other than that we expect of them.

I’m simply conscious this week of how I would like to live in the Birmingham that is portrayed in the Write Brummie documentary and yet obviously I do. I know some of the other writers featured, I know the work of more of them, I certainly know and like every single place they mention.

Maybe it’s that when you string them together as Boulton did, it makes you reconsider what you know. Or maybe it makes you conscious of we all know so much, we hold so many thoughts and facts and feelings, that we see one whole mass of sensations and miss the the detail.

It’s possible that I’ve just found a long way around to say something about wood and trees.

Still, I want to be part of that documentary’s portrayal of my city, and yet I am.

I do also now want to be every one of the other writers in the show, and I especially want all their kitchen tables and crackling fires, but I’ll work on that.

Unintended perspectives

Listen, for alll that you and I talk, you’ve still never been round my house at 5am on a weekday morning, have you?

Producer Rosie Boulton has and you can hear why in Write Brummies on BBC Radio 4 at 11:30 on November 21.

She’s charting writers through a day in my home city of Birmingham and I am first up because, well, I am first up.

I don’t remember what I said when she interviewed me, but of course I know I tried to sound interesting. What I’m most curious to hear, if not a little anxious, is what you make of me. The impression we think we give is of course rarely, if ever, the impression received.

And this has been on my mind all week because of a tweet I saw that just boomed with insight – but into the sender rather than what he was trying to say.

I can’t seem to find it now to show you and I suppose it doesn’t matter, this is maybe a universal rule.

But to use this tweet specifically, it was from some software developer. He stated that he could take 20 such software coders and they could be a fully-functioning newswriting team by the next morning. And that it is impossible to take 20 journalists and make them good coders in the same time.

He’s certainly right about the latter. I’m a writer who is also a journalist and also at times a coder, and I’d say there’s a sliding scale of my ability there. If sliding scales step off a cliff for the last part.

But of course he’s also wrong about the first part. I know software engineers who can write, but I also knew one who – literally, I do mean literally – hid under a desk rather than write something for people to read.

What I’m interested in, though, is that this tweeting coder stated all of this. Didn’t suggest or propose or opine, he stated it. And he did use that laughable justification you regularly hear, the one that goes "well, all my friends agree" line.

By making what he believed was a declarative statement, a statement of utter fact that we should take notice of, he was really telling us a lot about himself.

You already know factual parts such as that he’s a coder, although admittedly I told you that. You’d have got it anyway. You also know that he’s arrogant. I’m afraid it’s not a shock that he’s a man.

In maybe fifteen words, he conveyed so much of himself that I feel I can picture him. If he did that deliberately, if he fashioned that tweet to reveal a character then, yes, oh definitely yes, he is a writer.

But you know he didn’t.

He doesn’t see what he’s done, and that’s why he’s a coder and not a writer.

I’m not saying he needs to be, I am saying I don’t want to know him.

Deploy the weapon

I don't think there is a term for this, and I really want there to be. Maybe we can figure it out together.

Here's the thing. There is a certain type of dialogue where the character stops speaking, and the writer takes over. Specifically, the writer takes over in order to leave a note for him- or herself to fix later. And then doesn't.

I might've called it sciencefictionitis because it used to seem that it was always in science fiction. I feel as if there have been countless examples, but the one I somehow never forget is the line "deploy the weapon!"

Well, I say I never forget it. This line is the one that prangs into my head every time there's a similar example of this, er, whatever it is, but for the life of me, I can't remember which SF show or film it was in.

If only there were some kind of, I don't know, worldwide something… that had science fiction fans using it…

Oh, god in heaven, it was this? "Star Trek: Nemesis" by John Logan. I've apparently had this dreadful line in my head for 17 years. I've been mentally quoting a film I found gratingly bad. I tell you, if I had only read some more classics in my time, my quoting would be so useful now. Or at least not so annoying.

Star Trek: Nemesis has a lot of problems, but in this particular case the villain is trying to sound incredibly dangerous and, I believe, the writer is trying to sound very science-fictiony. "Deploy" is a good word, tick, there's a military feel to that, check, sounds really serious, fine.

But whatever value you or an actor can wring out of the word "deploy", it is somewhat punctured by following it with "the weapon".

I hear that line and I picture the writer staring at the screen, thinking how "gun" doesn't seem big enough. And having failed to find anything about phaser cannons in their thesaurus, deciding they'd come back to this line later.

There is another possibility. At worst, I see the writer actually thinking it's impressive – "The Weapon!" – but I really don't believe that.

I'm afraid I think the truth is in the middle. That the writer of this, or any of the many similar. lines across film, radio, theatre and television, doesn't think it's good, doesn't think it's bad, and instead just figures that it's fine because we won't notice.

I would remind this particular writer that I've noticed for 17 years.

But the reason I've taken this long to talk to you about it is partly because I really have never managed to find a term for it, and mostly also because I just heard the same type of line on the new big-budget drama "The Morning Show." Twice. In quick succession.

First, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) asks someone if they can maybe just stay home to watch "the British cooking show." She says that and I'm hearing "stay home to watch the British cooking show whose name a) I can't find on Google just now and 2) might need legal clearances anyway."

Then when that person can't stay, they insist "But I'll be back on Friday for The Event."

They didn't really capitalise The Event, but it sounded like they did. So did someone else talking about it in the immediately preceding scene.

Here you know the line is meant to intrigue us. We're meant to wonder what this big event could be, you know we are primed to stay in our seats and ignoring all the notifications that come up on our phones or wherever we're watching it.

And yet you know when they say "I'll be back on Friday for The Event", I'm hearing "I'm out of the episode for the next twenty minutes but you'll see me again just before the cliffhanger which will be set somewhere big, somewhere really exciting that I'l figure out when I'm writing act 5."

Nobody in the world has ever or will ever say they'll be back on Friday for The Event and therefore can't stay in to watch the British cooking show.

I do not mean, in the slightest, that there are rules for this kind of thing, though. "The Morning Show" is one of the tentpole series of the new Apple TV+ service and Dickinson, another, lower profile series on there, arguably does something similar yet it's great.

It's a period piece about 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson – I tell you now as I'll tell you over and over, she's my favourite – and it wilfully kicks around with dialogue.

After Dickinson writes her wonderful "Because I could not stop for death…" poem, she looks up and says "Nailed it."

Then the show is set around 1850 and in the middle of a perfect-sounding exchange of period dialogue, she'll say "Bullshit".

It is wrong, wrong, wrong, and I adore it. There is something so vivid about it, I don't understand how writer/creator Alena Smith pulls it off, but she does with utter verve and I am racing back to watch more.

I do think some of it comes down to intent. I don't picture Smith sitting there thinking "What's a good 19th Century word for bullshit?" and shrugging, figuring she'll consult a historian before the next draft. Instead, I think she chose that word, and all these "wrong" words, knowing to the pixel what effect it has and what it does for the characters.

Frankly, she's also braver than I am.

At the opposite end of all this, I was criticising a soap script this week, saying I found it really hard to get through the cliched dialogue. The person I was reading the script for told me that was the problem with soap, they have to write naturalistic dialogue, they can't go off into great speeches or have the episode play around with music and effects.


Soaps do not have naturalistic dialogue, they don't have characters speaking the way people talk in real life.

Instead, soaps have characters speak the way other soap characters have spoken in the past. "What's that supposed to mean?" It is a contrived and specific language and I have no problem with that, except when you tell me it's natural or, it turns out, that I have to read it.

Soap writing is a truly specific skill that I do not have, yet I think even it would stumble with a phrase that was out of line with the rest. Dot Cotton will never talk about The Event. I can only imagine Ena Sharples saying "you deploy the weapon, Minnie Caldwell, and we'll have no more of your lip."

Pinned down and buttoned up

So this happened. On Tuesday I was at the celebration for the life of author Terrence Dicks, a wake for his family, friends, professional colleagues – and me. I never met him, unforunately, but I was there representing the Writers' Guild. I'm not planning to tell you about the day itself, it feels personal to Dicks's family, but I do want to examine a moment to do a compare and contrast.

The moment I heard a few weeks ago that Terrence Dicks had died, I was mentally back to a very specific summer in 1978 when a particular Doctor Who novel of his came out. I had to look up which one it was, but when I saw a photo of the cover, that book was in my 13-year-old hands. I could feel it again. And for a tiny moment, I could feel everything from that time.

Including my just-forming hopes of being a writer. I didn't know any writers, there were none in my family, I was just, just, just beginning to reach out to this idea.

Now compare to Tuesday, when I was in a suit and tie, standing there in a room full of people in television or for whom television drama was what their family did. I'm standing there, I've been invited as the official representative of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, and because of the obituary I wrote about Terrence Dicks for them.

Yet I was still a little boy.

Not so much mentally, certainly not so much physically, but really because I'd torn my trouser leg on the way.

It tore right on the seam, but it also tore right at the precise moment when it was too late to go home to change. I was committed to a long sequence of bus, train and tube rides and the only wriggle room I had was about 20 minutes at various train stations.

In case you ever need to know, John Lewis at Birmingham New Street is about the only place that sells sewing kits.

One other store tried to sell me a sewing machine, but I just gave them a Paddington stare.

The 13-year-old me of 1978 had no more talent at sewing than I do, but he'd have done it, I did it, and there is a certain smugness to striding across New Street Station with your trousers fully repaired by your own hand.

For about five minutes.

Doubtlessly it's down to the quality of my sewing, and I'll have a better go over the weekend just to prove to myself that I can, but the thread unravelled as I sat on the train. And it took more of the seam with it.

In case you ever need to know, HEMA is about the only place in Euston Station that sells safety pins.

They keep them in the back. Tell them I sent you.

I promise you that no one noticed at the event. I'd say I doubt anyone noticed me at all, but they did and it was a particularly warm and welcoming group of people.

There are two things I want you to take away from this. The first is that I did not embarrass the Writers' Guild, standing there with my trousers held up by three safety pins. I did not.

And the second is that it turns out that if you prick me, yes, I bleed quite a bit.

Wearing us down

I come not to insult a type of writing that is abhorrent and offensive and an embarrassment to our entire craft, but rather to try figuring out how anyone can actually type this stuff.

And possibly to admit that there is a decent case to be made that I’ve done some of it.

I promise you I haven’t, but it doesn’t half look like it. The other day, I wrote an article about how to wear an Apple Watch. Now, come on, tell me that isn’t stupid. I thought of it, I actually formed those thoughts and made a case to an editor about it, then I wrote the the words.

About how to wear a watch.

Only, give me this. The prompt to do it was that Apple updated a list of materials used in the Apple Watch and detailed what was used for what – and which were ever known to cause any skin problems with anyone.

I’m reading this, thinking how I’ve not seen this level of detail nor thought about people’s allergic reactions to any watch, when I come to the official advice on how to wear an Apple Watch.

Yes, I threw a quick glance at the sky.

Except, there was advice on how you could tighten the Watch strap when you’re doing a workout and loosen it afterwards. The whole piece was less about the style of wearing a watch and more how to make the thing’s health sensors work the best. And then there was a bit that explained why I’ve sometimes seen bright green lights under people’s Apple Watches.

All of these watches have these lights, it’s just that if you see them, the person is wearing the Watch too loosely and the health sensors can’t work.

That was the point that made me think of writing about this.

I did, and while I don’t know how many readers the piece got on, I’m told it was lot. A big lot. A lot of lots.

So in terms of writing success, I got readers. In terms of what I was writing about, this falls into a category that I’m very happy with: it’s a piece where I’ve found out something I didn’t know and I rush up to you like a puppy to say it. I’m never sure how I square that puppy-rush with the way that I assume if I know something, you’ve always known it, but that’s how it is.

I’m doing more journalism writing now than I have in a long time and I am enjoying it, but I also haven’t forgotten why I stopped.

It was because I can’t solely write about something other people are doing, I have to do something myself, to make something, to create. I need that mix. Right now, I seem to have that balance and I hope it lasts, but you know that whenever you’re writing something, you’re reading it too. So I am reading more journalism now than I have in a long time and I am enjoying most of it.

Just not all.

This has been bothering me for months now, but in the last week, I’ve come across a specific example of what ails me. It’s a news article about Strictly Come Dancing. Or rather, it is several. None of them are making anything, but they’re also not reporting, as I know the term. They are shouting.

They’re clickbait headlines followed by Shock Gasp Awe in order to stand up the headline. There’s no possibility that the story will warrant the headline, but the writer has a very good go.

Let me give you the example from this week’s Strictly. Last Saturday night, Claudia Winkleman was doing that post-dance interview with one or other of the celebrities, and the camera cut to his mother in the audience. He tells Claudia that his mum doesn’t like being on camera, and Winkleman politely sympathises.

This became a news story saying that this dancer celebrity fella was furious and Winkleman was forced to apologise on air for the enormous Strictly gaffe.

I know I’m sounding as if I think I’m a better writer because I couldn’t manage to write that crap, but actually I just think I’m normal. There is no possibility whatsoever that I would’ve thought to write about this – er, okay, I’m writing about it now, and I don’t have a smart comeback about that. But, okay, say I did think to write about it or, maybe more likely, an editor assigned me.

The very best I could do with this material would be to think about what I could tell a reader that was interesting or new. The event, if you can even call six seconds of nothing an event, wouldn’t cut it for me.

Maybe I could find a paragraph to say about Winkleman. I think she’s witty and there are many times when the sheer speed of her reactions has been impressive. But this didn’t particularly happen to be one of those.

Perhaps there’s something in this business of not liking being on camera. Certainly that’s something you can identify with. I’m not going to get the time to talk to psychologists about how we’re all shifting about on the spectrum between introvert and extrovert. I’m not going to get to muse about how we all photograph each other and especially ourselves.

If I were already primed to be anti-BBC, I could look into this business of them filming a woman who doesn’t want to be filmed.

Only, she chose to come to Elstree Studios for the recording of a live Saturday night show, a show she’s probably familiar with because her son is in it and because it’s been a giant success for BBC1 for 15 years.

And when the show cut to her reaction shot, a full-size BBC studio camera had been lined up on her face, ready, and her son was talking about her on the monitors. It’s possible she was made up for the cameras: I’ve been made up for TV and makeup people somehow manage to simultaneously tell you what’s going on and make you relaxed about it.

I don’t doubt that she dislikes being on camera, but I cannot even force myself to pretend that she was actually all that bothered. I don’t doubt that she might have preferred not to be on the telly, but I can’t get from that to how it was a monumental blunder that required an on-air apology to soothe a furious celebrity.

Yet others did.

Hello magazine, The Sun – you’re not surprised at that one – plus the Mirror, the Express and the Birmingham Mail all managed to find the story that I still can’t.

You know full well why they did it, that any story bashing the BBC and mentioning Strictly is going to get readers. I read it. I don’t actually know now which one I read because I read most news through RSS or aggregate services like Apple News+, but I read it. I’d seen the show, I saw what happened, and I still read it.

And that is all that matters here.

The writing does not.

Journalists Jenni McKnight, Carl Greenwood, James Rodger, Kyle O’Sullivan and Charlotte Manning all found a way to spin 200 words or so out of this empty air. I think I can admire that they physically found something to type, that given nothing to write about, they conjured up something.

And I can definitely think that this is sheer bollocks, that I am offended any of them think I am so insanely stupid as to believe what I actually saw was actually this horrendous awkward gaffe.

But I set out to write to you about this thinking I would end up just about there, this moment where I can express at least an acknowledgement of there being some craft in writing nothing up into, well, nothing.

And I knew I’d be thinking a lot about this business of rushing up to you with facts, about how creating something is better than describing someone else’s creation.

Yet since I went to find where I’d read this story and, perhaps because it was more widespread than I’d known, I’ve also realised this.

Whatever you’re going to write, you try to write it well because it’s going to be read. Except here. I truly don’t think that’s the case here. I think the headlines were read, I think the headlines were clicked-through, and I think that’s the end of it. Not only do I struggle to accept anyone read to the end of these pieces, I know that nobody on the publication from the writers to the publishers gives the faintest shit whether they do or not.

Not only is the writing worthless, it isn’t writing. It is a graphic. It is a visual part of the page designed entirely to space out the adverts around it.

Get the reader in, give them some ads and count the clicks, job done.

That’s not enough for me as a reader, so it sure as all hell on Earth is not enough for me as a writer.

It’s not you, it’s me

Yesterday I had a rejection in – hang on, it was over email, I can check the details. Right, nine minutes. That’s nine minutes from my pitching to my being told nope.

It actually stung a little, I’m surprised to say. I wouldn’t have pitched if I didn’t want to do it, but it was something I fancied doing rather than something I needed. But, I realise now, I was profoundly tired when I emailed. In other circumstances I can see that exhaustion would’ve made my pitch poorer, but this was quite a simple one.

What the exhaustion did was let the rejection stick in my head far more than it should, it let the rejection colour the rest of the day.

That’s not the problem, though.

The person who rejected me did so in nine minutes, did so quite thoroughly but was just straight, just told me no and why, there wasn’t any flannel. She was a pro and she treated me as one. I’ve no complaints about being rejected or how it happened.

I have a wee problem with the exhaustion as that’s happening too much lately. Hang on, let me check another detail. Okay, this one isn’t so hot. I’ve only worked 48 hours this week. But the first 29 were last Saturday and Sunday, and those came after a couple of days of driving. I’m making excuses for myself now.

What I have a big problem with is me. And specifically how I decided to pitch to this person something like four days before I did. It sat on my To Do list for four days, or approximately 640 times longer than it took get rejected. I think I probably spent 10 minutes on the pitch – told you it was simple – so my problem is why I didn’t do that four days earlier.

I see a lot of similarities between you and me, and I think we can both take a lesson. We have to get on with things.

And also sleep more.

By gum

This just happened. I’m researching a project – can’t tell you about it yet, sorry – and you know what it’s like whenever you dig into something. You find interesting things.

Usually it’s a little fact, some detail and it Is incredibly exciting to you – though, okay, maybe not to anyone else.

Such as a time I was reading the original typescript of a novel I love but which has a startling mistake in it. A plot mistake, I suppose, but one that made a character so wrong that you just ignored it.

In the manuscript, I found a last-moment change to something else and that fix is what created the mistake later. I ran to the archivists to enthuse. They were very patient.

Anyway, sorry, this is not the kind of thing I just found.

I found chewing gum.

Included in with a letter sent in 1978 is a single, unwrapped stick of chewing gum. It’s a little jokey present to the letter’s recipient, and it fell out of the envelope into my hand 41 years later.


Four-decade-old chewing gum.

Both the sender and the recipient are now quite long dead, I remain upset to tell you, and I’m doing this research at their request.

So I am now the recipient. That chewing gum is now meant for me.

I put it back in the envelope.

Windy dishes

I have a cold. And all night, I've been thinking of you and how I must tell you about a set of browser bookmarks I've got called Windy Dishes.

Only, and I promise this makes absolute sense at three in the morning, this collection of website bookmarks contains a pile of paper notes. Detailed descriptions of work I was doing ten years ago. There's a photograph that I could describe to you in such pixel-perfect detail that I should surely be able to upload it too, except it doesn't exist and it's of an office I've never been to.

It most specifically is not the first BBC office I worked in, but that's what my cold says it is. Speaking of the BBC, this Windy Dishes set of bookmarks also contains an extremely thorough memory of exactly the route out of room 7540 In BBC Television Centre. That memory is correct, that one is real, this truly is the way I would go out of that fantastic newsroom and to the crush bar on a late night shift.

But it's a memory, it's not a bookmark, it's not even a physical thing like the detailed photograph.

Nor, too, is the collection of games that I never had. I'm no gamer, but in this Windy Dishes bookmark set, there are floppy disks with names of games I don't know but apparently remember fondly and anyway can't play.

I don't mean I can't play them because I'm rubbish, I mean they won't start.

And that might be the only solid thing in this whole nightmarish nonsense. We live in a time when we can call up things we wrote ten or twenty years ago pretty much as easily as what we wrote yesterday. Yet we can't always then read them. Documents in WordPerfect or WordStar are preserved perfectly, but can be unreadable.

We can decipher cuneiform scribbles from 5,000 years ago more easily than we can prise a Word 5.1 for Mac document off a floppy disk.

And we can read an email we send ourselves at 4am today which says "tutor if self duster is Windy Dishes" and think ourselves brilliant for deciphering that it means "title of Self Distract [must be] Windy Dishes".

I have a cold.