Learning a lesson from writing 50 scripts

I think it’s 50. Today is the one year anniversary of my 58keys series on YouTube and it has 57 videos, of which I’m pretty sure the majority were scripted. Call it 50.

While we’re calling it, and as I want to build up some suspense over what this one great lesson is that I believe I’ve learned in the last year, let me call some more numbers. I’ve produced 57 episodes for a total of 13 hours, 1 minute and 54 seconds of video. Some 27,613 people have watched for a total of 2,236 hours and I have 781 subscribers.

Yes, if you look at the first episode and compare it to the most recent ones, you can tell which is better. It’s not as radical an improvement as I’d expected, mind. But I’m choosing to believe that this is because the early ones were fine, not that the later ones aren’t.

There were also something like 7 pilot versions. We will not speak of that again.

Oh, except that there was a lesson I learned from the pilots, which isn’t the Big Overall Writing Lesson I want to tell you about, but I think was still pretty big. I spent ages, like two minutes out of the ten, in the pilots of 58keys explaining who I am and why I believed I could make a useful series for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads.

The lesson I learned from that part was that nobody cares and nor should they. If I talk utter rubbish, then having a track record doesn’t make it right. Concentrate on saying something useful, that’s the job, that was the little big lesson from the pilots.

Whereas the Big Overall Writing Lesson from a year and something like 50 scripts is this.

Get on with it.

Writing half ideas, having stories you never finish, planning to write some day, you know the thing, there’s no point to it. I found a scrap of video I’d shot around ten years ago when I first had the idea to do a series. It’s not great. It’s not bad either. What it is, is a decade old.

Similarly, I like the title sequence in 58keys but I shot that whole thing around August 2019 and didn’t start the series for another five months.

Have an idea, then make it happen. Write the idea now, this minute, and if it’s rubbish, write something else.

Mind you, if it’s brilliant, save it and then still write something else.

Incidentally, the fastest I’ve ever done an episode of 58keys –– I mean from idea to edited video uploading to YouTube –– is 90 minutes. The slowest is four days. And so I did also learn this: if you want to write it, you can find the time.

Heads and tales

I don’t think you need to be a writer to have choked up a little over the word “Madam” in the phrase “Madam Vice President” this week. I do suspect you’re a writer if you’ve spent as long as I have trying to work out whether it should be spelt “Madam” or “Madame”.

Anyway. Watching the Inauguration felt like it was safe to come out of my head and look around. Then BBC News had a strapline saying Boris Johnson had congratulated President Biden and Vice President Harris on their inauguration ceremony — before it was even a fraction over. That’s not someone feeling choked up over the word Madam, nor the word Madame, that’s a man who staffed out what he’s supposed to do.

Since then we’ve had the UK refusing to treat EU diplomats the way every country treats every diplomat and it feels like England wants Europe to beg to be our friend. I see that going very well.

And I see me going back into my head.


This is a week when I could weep for my own government but actually got a little teary watching the US one. It’s a week when I wish we had politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and am glad we don’t have Ted Cruz.

But it’s also a week where, by chance, I got into more conversations with other writers than usual. Plenty over email, many over Messages and Messenger and WhatsApp, a couple on the phone — that’s couple as in more than one call, not that I spoke to two people in a relationship — and of course Zoom.

One in particular, though, was a conversation about writing television drama. I am a writer at all because of TV drama and we are in the longest continuous Golden Age of it that I think there ever has been. So I get to talk about TV quite a bit, but this time it was with people in the industry and it was about both the dramas and that industry.

And it was invigorating.

I think I am at my happiest when I am in script. When I’m writing a script and am a good chunk into it. Doesn’t matter overmuch whether it’s going well or not, it’s the using of those muscles and the being in that space that works for me.

And after that quite short natter, I came away knowing what script I’m going to be writing next.

In a week that’s been a little tough and a lot long, you just need some good words to keep you going.

Tender is the Night Manager

So by chance, this week I’ve been reading the scripts to The Night Manager, David Farr’s dramatisation of John Le Carré’s thriller. And I’ve been watching Normal People, Sally Rooney and Alice Birch’s dramatisation of Romney’s novel about a teenage romance.

I’m late to both of these, I know, but what strikes me most is that they’re pretty much equally tense. If anything, Normal People has me stressed out more and yet close to nothing happens.

In the first episode of that, we meet a schoolgirl and a schoolboy, and by the end they are secretly a couple. In the first episode of The Night Manager, there is murder, there are explosions, there is a really frightening villain.

I am deeply enjoying The Night Manager but I’m going to call it for Normal People as Most Tense of The Two.

And in this second, as I write to you, I remember something Alan Plater said about TV drama. He preferred it to be about people being, rather than something happening to people. Drama about people living, rather than drama about there’s-a-serial-killer-coming.

Mind you, I also think Normal People is more tense because it’s a romance. There’s an element of romance in the start of The Night Manager but, despite all that script’s other strengths, it feels like the pretty standard thing of a quick love affair before she gets murdered and he wants revenge. I am being so unfair to this show, but.

I used to think that my true definition of drama was two people arguing in a room and they’re both right. I still think that’s a peak, but maybe the true pinnacle is two people standing in a room and they both want each other yet the risk of saying it is so great.

It always is. I don’t know why this never stops being so tense when every romance has the same moment. Comedy romance turns on the first encounter, that’s so crucial that it’s even got a name, but drama has more than the meet-cute. It’s got the moment when one person tells the other.

There is no circumstance, no combination of desires or rejections, that can possibly mean anything, anything at all can stay remotely the same after that moment. If the other person is equally interested, that’s one thing and it’s great. But if they’re not, it’s over. You cannot go back to the friends you were one sentence ago. There will hopefully come a time when it’s not as painful for either of you any more, but until then you cannot have one sentence that isn’t awkward.

Listen, I was going to announce to you this week that I am becoming evil. I had decided it is the only way. In the US, there are people backing sedition and in the UK we have Brexit destroying the fishing industry while the government’s Jacob Rees-Mogg claims fish are happy now because they’re British. Clearly, self-interest to the point of blindness is what gets you anywhere in the world today.

Except now we’ve talked, I want to go write some romances. I’ll put evil on hold for a bit. Thanks.

Write away

One night next week I’m running a course on productivity for writers. I think it’s billed as being encouraging people to find time to write, but I do versions of this course a lot and really they boil down to showing various ways you can pull your finger out. I know there is actually helpful, useful stuff in there, but if you can give a writer their own “get on with it” attitude, you’re set.

Except if I were running it today, right now, this minute, I have an awful feeling I’d tell people to make some tea and put their feet up instead.

Friends who aren’t writers have said to me that this must be a fantastic time for us. We get all this free time in lockdown, plus there’s so much to write about with the coronavirus and the US attempted coup.

Leaving aside the free time aspect, and just casually ignoring the loss of income, there are writers I know who do agree. Who are inspired by everything.

I don’t want to even read another syllable about coronavirus, I can’t see that I’ll ever want to write about it. If you’re the opposite, if you disagree with me, good luck to you. I just heard a BBC Radio 4 play set in these times –– Personal Shopper by Hugh Costello — which worked very well.

And I might be reading the news a bit too avidly in search of the 45th facing the 25th, but I long for when this chapter of US politics is a chapter in a history book that I don’t have to read.

So here I am, saying good luck to you if you’re writing a coronavirus drama and extremely good luck to you if you’re attempting to write a history book that has all of this make sense.


The point of that course next week is to get people writing for publication. I don’t mean there’s a book deal at the end of it, I mean that so many writers see writing as this hobby and they’re frustrated that they don’t have enough time to do it. And if they instead would take it seriously, if they’d see it as part of their working life instead of a stamp-collecting afterthought, they actually would get more done.

This course is not for people who just write for themselves. None of my courses ever are, they are usually about reaching deeper inside yourself as a writer, but they are always also about the practical business of getting writing done and read.

I’ve actually ignored people who write just for themselves and while I’ve claimed I understand why they do it, I think really I haven’t. I think I’ve been a bit dismissive of scribbling.

And yet here I am, feeling better about the world because I’ve scribbled to you. Focusing on writing has today meant focusing on how dizzying everything is and that’s made it just a significant little bit less dizzying.

So good luck to you with the play, very good luck with the history book and plenty of good luck if you’re going to spend today writing for yourself, writing to a friend like this, or putting your feet up and finally finishing watching Tenet.

I keep getting interrupted by phone calls. I’m currently on about Sixet.

The new Christmas Eve lagrange point

I know I definitely want to wish you a happy Christmas and I worry that I may still owe you an email. But once you and I are done talking today, I’m switching off every screen –– Mac, iPhone, iPad –– and turning on the TV.

It’s strange to not be going anywhere this Christmas and yet for all that I miss meeting up with you, I’m really glad of a quiet space for a while.

Usually, I get a very particular two-hour-long quiet space on Christmas Eve, which is actually when I’m writing this. Usually I have what I think of as a lagrange point.

Those are actually the points in space between, say, the Earth and the moon where all the raging gravitational forces are precisely balanced out and all is calm. On Christmas Eve, the phone has stopped, there’s no one to answer an email or to ask for anything.

Usually my wife Angela Gallagher goes out to church with her sister and I have somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours alone. Usually, I spend that time watching a film I’ve been saving up and usually that film takes me away from everything.

I keep saying the word usually and that doesn’t seem to have quite the meaning it did before. This year’s Christmas Eve lagrange point will be the first where I’ve not been alone. Angela’s joining me and though she doesn’t know it yet, we’re going to watch one of my favourites from previous years.

It’s “Safety Not Guaranteed” and it is a quiet joy.

But speaking of quiet joys, nothing is going to change my other Christmas Eve tradition. For the fifth year in a row, I’m going to be watching Arrival sometime around midnight.

That’s partly because this is now my metric equivalent of midnight mass, partly because the stillness of the time seems right. But also because it’s the anniversary of when I saw the film in a cinema’s midnight screening.

It was actually the second time I’d seen it and I put this tradition down entirely to poet and celebrant Charlie Jordan, who took me to see a film without telling me what it was. I owe her.

That first time seeing it seems so long ago. That first Christmas Eve, driving out at midnight in the cold, that seems like fiction. I don’t want Christmas to be like this, but it has to be –– and I do want Christmas Eve to be precisely like this.

Take care of yourself, okay? Good talking with you. Now bunch up, get the Malteasers, we’ve got two movies to watch.

Speaking of writing

It’s been pointed out to me –– gently but absolutely correctly –– that one can spend so much time talking about writing and trying new writing software that you don’t actually write.

I felt caught out.

Also slightly guilty. But not so guilty that I stopped everything and did some serious writing. Instead, I’ve compromised and asked a whole series of other people to talk about writing instead.

Every day next week, December 22-25, 2020, there is an in-depth interview with a different writer on my YouTube series, 58keys. Normally that show is specifically for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads, since YouTube adores a niche and I’m quite fond of one too, but this time it’s for everyone. Well, for every writer.

The Writers’ Guild’s Martin Sketchley, for instance, does talk about his writing, but he’s got much more to tell you about his new service for Writers. His “Think. Feel. Write.” helps us develop as people as much as writers. Plus he’s an absolute expert on Scrivener.

Speaking of software, Ken Case from the Omni Group agreed to talk about his firm’s major writing app, OmniOutliner. Today is the first day in months I haven’t opened OmniOutliner, but only because it’s early. I know for certain that later today I will be planning out two complicated articles in it, for instance.

Actually, that might be the moment in next week’s more than two hours of interviews that tickled me the most. Ken confessed that he’d prepared for the interview by making some notes in OmniOutliner –– and I had to confess right back that so had I. We both had this app on our screens throughout. Love that software.

Then on another day, I want you to meet Debbie McAndrew. To me she will always be this superb theatre writer: never flashy, never over the top, always true and moving and funny. I relish her writing but she is also an actor and in our chat she brings up fascinating details about being on Coronation Street during one of the show’s golden ages for writing.

There is just something about combining things that interests me. Debbie has this enviably useful twin perspective on her writing, reaching deep into herself as a writer yet knowing so very well what will help an actor bring that work to audiences. Ken Case is a software developer who makes this tool for writers and Martin Sketchley has this split career of writing and helping other writers through his service and through being West Midlands regional representative of the Writers’ Guild.

Only, if I think doing these five interviews means I’ve really appreciated my interest in multiple perspectives, multiple different writing muscles, I must’ve known I was into this from the start because of who else I interviewed.

April Smith splits her time between television and novels. That would be enough to make me interested, but then within novels she can be doing crime thrillers or deeply absorbing historical fiction. And in, to me, the ultimate in developing and applying a writer’s skill, in television she’s both a writer and a producer.

You’ve just seen her latest work: April was a consulting producer on the tremendous Mrs America. And you’ve long heard of the first show she produced, that little thing called Cagney and Lacey.

To me, though, she’s one of the writers of Lou Grant. It may never stop startling me that I get to talk with one of the writers whose work is responsible for my wanting to be a writer. If you’d like now to blame her, she’s on Tuesday.

In fact, let me tell you what I haven’t told anyone else yet. All five of the episodes are on my 58keys YouTube site daily from Monday to Friday next week –– that’s Monday to Christmas Day, it’s unbelievable that we’re at Christmas Day already –– and the schedule runs thisaway:

Monday: Ken Case
Tuesday: April Smith
Wednesday: Martin Sketchley
Thursday Christmas Eve: Debbie McAndrew

Every episode goes live at 07:00 GMT and will obviously stick around for you to dig into later. All five will then also go in my first-ever 58keys playlist, too.

Wait, hang on, that’s four. Ken, April, Martin and Debbie. There are definitely five interviews, I know there are, I was there, I saw them happen. Now I’m wondering which writer I can possibly have got to come out to play on Christmas Day.

It’s definitely a writer who has that very special feature of being available.

Come to think of it, I’m sure that’s how I get most of my work.

More lessons from reading scripts

I read at least one script every day and, yes, I do it to learn from them. Really I do it because I enjoy it gigantically, but there is an element of education there. And so as we near the end of the year, I’d like to offer you my top five scripts –– and what I’ve learned from them.

Let me be as clear as I can given that this is a bit muddy. These are my top five favourite scripts of 2020, but they aren’t of 2020. They range across decades and I just happen to have read them this year.

Speaking of this year, I didn’t do any script reading for awards judging panels. Chiefly because there were no awards. I’m surprised to say that’s knocked about 100 off the typical number I read in a year.

Also, it means that the scripts I read were entirely selected by me. It was what was available times what I fancied. No plan, no direction, just interest and hopefully then enjoyment.

I wanted to do some maths here and break down the totals but I’ve got stuck on a detail. So instead let me tell you that it is gold when you hit on a whole series of TV, radio or film scripts and completely fascinating when you can read how a show developed over several years.

But it can also be disappointing. I found a collection of James Bond movie scripts and thought that was me set for a week or two’s reading. I only made it through the whole of Dr No by promising myself chocolate at the end and I gave up a few pages into a couple of others. I don’t remember which because I didn’t finish them, so they don’t count.

Whereas I do remember that The Simpsons episode called You Only Move Twice was very good. And the Only Fools and Horses episode called Diamonds are For Heather, well, it had a great title. (If you click the link for that Only Fools scripts, be careful: the site has all the show’s scripts but it is riddled with popups and links that misdirect you into adverts. Exasperating.)

In all then, I have so far read 523 scripts this year. Which means the following top five marks 0.956% of them. Told you I tried to do some maths. Here’s the one statistic I can be confident of: all five are TV scripts. I’ve apparently read around 30 film scripts, 50 radio ones and 30 stage ones, but by chance it’s five TV scripts that cut the deepest into me.

Here’s my top five in reverse order for no reason other than to try to build some tension.

5. Mrs America: Gloria by Dahvi Waller
I am singling out this one script from the whole of the Mrs America series, but solely because it’s the only script from that show that you can get. The series is about the efforts in the 1970s to pass America’s Equal Rights Amendment, the ERA, and the efforts to stop it, too.

I just relished the show for its tension and how well it explored the arguments for and against. It was also deeply uncomfortable in its depictions of 1970s male attitudes.

But it also made me think a lot about creating likeable, admirable characters –– who you completely disagree with. It made me think about people with opposing views to yours can be great people. So Mrs America is ostensibly about the 1970s, but it felt very modern, too.

4. My So-Called Life: Father Figures by Winnie Holzman
I re-read all the MSCL scripts you can find online because a friend, Genevieve Hassan, interviewed one of its stars, AJ Langer, on her Celebrity Catch-Up podcast.

If you don’t know My So-Called Life, I profoundly envy you having it still to watch. It’s the story of American teenagers in the 1990s and I’ve just made it sound somewhere between Beverley Hills 90210 and even more boring. But I promise you this: you’ll have a time.

As a script, I think what I learned or at least am still trying to learn is how quietly you can shout. On the one hand, this is a low-key series with no great twists, but on the other hand every moment is compelling and makes you feel small surprises as giant shocks because you get what they mean to these characters.

3. Motherland by Holly Walsh, Sharon Horgan, Graham Linehan and Helen Linehan
Specifically the pilot episode, though again mostly because that’s the only script you can get. I relished the series as a whole and it’s the one show I’m looking forward to seeing in this Christmas’s TV lineup.

Motherland is about being a working parent, I think that’s about all you need to know and I think that is just the smallest sliver of what it’s really about.

A producer I like mentioned to me that she’d found the series weaker than the pilot. At the time, I hadn’t even known there was a pilot so I’d come to it a bit backwards. Somehow that’s meant I can’t assess the differences because to me the pilot was a treat of an extra episode after the rest.

There is one thing I have definitely learned that I want to hold back from you for a second because I learned it too from the scripts that follow. But specifically and only from Motherland, I think I learned about writing crushing pressures on characters and how those pressures can be both forcefully real and very funny.

2. Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge
It seems like eleventy-billion years ago now, but last Christmas I was given the book of these scripts. So it was the first I read this year and it was the first complete series I got to read. Do go get the book. But you can also read two episodes online via the tremendous TV Writing website.

This had that thing I’m holding off saying, but it’s also a two-series-long adaptation of Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag stage show and it’s the conversion that I think I learned from the most. Don’t get me even slightly wrong, I know I learned from all of it and this is a series of scripts that upset me as much as they made me laugh.

But it’s also a series of scripts that do not include one key moment from the stage show. So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why that didn’t transfer, what difference it means to the characters. A year on, a COVID year on, I’m still thinking about it.

1. In My Skin by Kayleigh Llewellyn
Scripts for the whole five-episode series are available online. It’s about a teenage schoolgirl in Wales.

And let me stop there. For this is what I learned from In My Skin, Motherland, Fleabag and I now realise actually also from My So-Called Life and Mrs America.

I am not, never have been and never can be a teenage schoolgirl in Wales but the right script can make me feel as if I am. All of these scripts took me places I don’t know and into characters I cannot be, and they made me feel.

I wish to God I was as good a writer as any of those in this rundown. Don’t count me out yet, though, I’m working on it.

Imposter sin

I promise you this is about writing, but it won’t seem it for a while. Here’s the thing: Britain is the first country in the world to have a coronavirus vaccine. The vaccine is great news that’s come a lot sooner than could’ve been hoped, and it’s like the first light after a worldwide pandemic.

Worldwide. I can’t think of anything that’s hit the entire world and put us all on pause like this. So the world has been hit, but a pan-European effort involving a US company has got the first vaccine.

There cannot be even a scintilla of this that is in any way bad.

So the British government invented one. This week Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, took this unequivocally good news and lied about it.

The vaccine is a win, it is a brilliant achievement, and he lied.

This isn’t a matter of opinion, it is not a difference in interpretation. He says –– and continues to say –– that Britain developed the vaccine because of Brexit. If we hadn’t left Europe, we’d have been held up by pesky red tape.

He might call it red tape, I might call it safety standards that mean fewer of us die, but, you know, that bit is splitting hairs.

What isn’t is that in this case Britain is still bound by exactly the rules and standards it was. Not for much longer, we’ve got that chlorinated chicken coming, but right now, this moment, we are. The vaccine was developed under these European rules, it was developed by people across Europe, it is a great thing.

And yet I’m embarrassed by it. Because of how Rees-Mogg told the story.

When I say this vaccine was developed across Europe, I do include Britain. My own country played a part here and that’s something to be proud of, but instead Britain is diminished by its own choice.

And there’s the writing part of this.

You have a story, the creation of the vaccine, but it’s your choice of how you tell it that decides whether you make people proud or embarrassed. It is literally writing this time, as Rees-Mogg tweeted that bullshit, but the fashioning of the story, the telling of it, that’s writing whether it goes into text or not.

It used to be that you knew politicians lied, but at least they made some effort and at least they knew it was bad. I mean, Richard Nixon resigned. Nobody does now. Nobody resigns because of something they’ve done, nobody gets fired, or at least not in politics.

There is something worse than lying these days. There used to be a disconnect between what politicians said and what they do, now there is a chasm between what they do and the truth.

The nearest similar chasm I can think of is going to sound trivial because it doesn’t end up killing lots of people. It severely damages one person, though. And it’s the imposter syndrome chasm. I know this as being something writers feel, that they’re not really writers and will be caught out soon, but actually I suspect it applies to everyone. Except current politicians, obviously.

I’ve been talking about imposter syndrome with a friend this week and somehow all the old jokes didn’t seem right. The key old joke is that actually I have solved imposter syndrome: I no longer suspect I’m a rubbish writer, I looked into it and proved that yes, I’m crap. All doubt removed.

This time I keep thinking of that chasm between our perception of ourselves as writers, and whatever the reality is. I keep thinking that there is no truth any more, you can and maybe must just choose what you want to believe. Make a choice to believe you’re good, regardless of the facts, and then at least you can remove the constant, time-consuming doubt and get on with actually writing something.


I hereby declare these three things to be true and self-evident. I am a brilliant writer, I am roguishly handsome and I invented chocolate.

It’s just a number

Listen, it’s my birthday so surely I am allowed to do anything I like –– and I’m 55, by which time I should surely be expected to do anything I like. I have no problems with the concept of birthdays, I’ve nothing against being an adult and making my own choices. I just have the single most enormous difficulty knowing what it is I like to do.

I mean, hello. I’ve been looking forward to nattering with you so that’s a huge tick in the Like column. Other than that… I’m about to have croissants and pain au chocolat in a late breakfast with Angela. That’s rather good, each word of that is pretty excellent. But it does remind me that I haven’t done today’s French lesson in Duolingo.

What do you do to relax?

I think I’m fortunate in that I’ve managed to make everything I’ve ever been interested in become part of my job, at least partly, at least tangentially, at least sometimes. But when I finished working last night, I shut down my Mac and stared at the screen for a bit, wondering what to do next.

Speaking of the Mac, I should say, a thing I definitely like doing has reached a little milestone of its own. I have this YouTube series called 58keys, which is for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads – ah, you know how YouTube loves a niche – and it recently crossed 500 subscribers. There’s a competition in this week’s edition which has now seen it cross 570 subscribers, so that’s also pretty enjoyable.

The competition, by the way, is to win a year’s subscription to Setapp. That’s a kind of Mac app equivalent of Netflix: you pay one monthly fee and get full use of 200 or more apps. I’ve written about it a lot, recommended it often, and the company agreed to let me give away two of their subscriptions. That’s been fun.

I know we’re friends but you are still allowed to enter because the two winners will be chosen randomly through some software thing. If you read this before midnight on Friday 27 November, 2020, off you pop and have a look.

Oh, grief. I just went to search for that link and one of the results that came back was “William Gallagher obituary”. Well.


So, that’s a YouTube link that I Googled and it’s about Mac apps. Even stepping away from the keys, this appears to be something I like. And I do: I cannot explain why, but I do find it engrossing and satisfying to use great software tools to make something. I think it’s the making, I find if I’m required to learn some app then it’s an impossible slog until I actually need it to make something and then I’m off, I’m flying.

It has been pointed out to me, gently but firmly, that I can spend more time fiddling with writing software than I do actually writing. Can’t argue with that. But I offer that writers are the people who do anything they can to avoid writing.

Plus I mentioned that this was my birthday and that I’d crossed 500 subscribers to that 58keys series. What I didn’t say is that this week’s special is the 58th I’ve made. It’s not the 58th you can watch, there were a good seven at the start that no one will ever be shown ever again, plus I’ve some Christmas ones ready to go. But on my 55th birthday, the 58th edition of 58keys crossed 500 subscribers.

It’s like I planned it. What I didn’t plan was that, I promise you, my writing has improved. I find I can write my own dialogue, I can write my voice, and I learned it from filming myself and wincing a lot.

I’m going back to work, aren’t I?

That’s what I’m going to do with my birthday. I’m going to work. But I will enjoy it, so. Let’s you and me have a tea and a croissant together first though, okay?

Lie of the land

I know we’re not really in a post-Trump era yet, but it feels as if we are. It feels as if not every post has to be about Trump, that he doesn’t colour everything any more, or wear everything down. For the first time in years, it feels as if we can have other concerns and even enjoy tiny, little ones.

Such as this. I don’t think I’d have had the room in my head before to notice but this week one school in America replaced all its world maps with a different design. This one school’s decision slightly narked me, slightly made me frown, and completely reminded me of a true story. It’s a story about the map they chose and ultimately it’s about one person’s ego.

When I said world map just there, you pictured what I imagine you know is called the Mercator map. Strictly speaking, it’s the Mercator projection. And what this school says it has changed to is called — if you listened to its creator back in the day and you didn’t find him as irritating as apparently everyone else did — the Peters projection.

You know this one, too. It’s the one where the world looks funny, where every country is oddly skinny.

I’m not going to name the school because I don’t know it. And I’m not going to criticise them because I hope they’re teaching their students what this all really means. It’d be good if they also taught about map gerrymandering by politicians to redraw districts so that voting favours them, which is clever and abhorrent and not the story I want to enthuse about with you today.

Anyway. The usual claim is that Geradus Mercator’s map is wrong and Arno Peters’s one is right. Mercator did his in 1569 and Peters, well, borrowed his in the 1970s. He brought this out then and shouted about it so much that quickly people pointed out to him that exactly the same idea had been done by James Gall in 1855.

It was exactly the same because it would be. These two designs, Mercator’s and the Gall-Peters one, are not paintings, they are maths. If you believe that Mercator’s map is wrong, you are correct. But the Gall-Peters one is precisely, I mean exactly as wrong –– just in a different way.

Proponents of the Gall-Peters version say that Mercator distorts the shapes of countries, that he makes ridiculous decisions that make smaller countries look as big as, well, big ones. And that their version shows every country in exactly the right size. Ta-daaaa.

The list of things I love about this started with Peters pissing everyone off so much that they searched back into the 1800s to find a way to diss him. And it continues with how that claim about Mercator’s distortion and Gall-Peters’ showing the correct sizes is simultaneously entirely true and entirely bollocks. Isn’t that wonderful? If anyone ever insists there are two sides to a story and won’t listen to you saying there are usually more, settle the discussion by pointing out that both sides can be bullshit.

I’m going to take Gall out of it for a second because by all accounts he knew what his map did and did not do whereas Peters, though he must have known, pretended it was perfect. So there’s Peters, way back in the 1970s, righteously adamant that his map has the correct sizes of every country. And if anyone should point out that the sizes are right but the shapes are not, he’d point to someone else and say “Next question.”

It is not possible to have a flat map of the world that doesn’t have something wrong with it. If you want a correct map, buy a globe. The act of transferring a map from a sphere to a flat surface is an art, sure, but it’s chiefly maths. It’s called projecting the globe onto the map and you have to make certain decisions about which way you’re going to do it.

Sometime in the 1990s, I interviewed the owners of a Geographical Information System, a GIS, and asked them about this. These two men looked over their shoulder to see if their PR person was listening and when she wasn’t, they nodded at me with these gigantic, enthusiastic grins. And then they showed me how their GIS map is really exactly as wrong as everyone else’s. It was a very good system and you had to do an awful lot to it to hit this projection issue in any way that would be a problem, but you could do it.

You just don’t have to be a dick about it.

If Peters had been like Gall and just said here’s a map, it does this, it doesn’t do that, well, he might not have been noticed, there may not have been much attention paid to him. He talked himself up, though, he claimed a creation that wasn’t his, he reportedly slammed all alternatives. Oh, god. You’re thinking this too. He did claim he had the best maps and he was lying.

Anyway. Here’s the thing for me. I like Mercator’s projection and I like it for a very specific reason. The Gall-Peters projection is usually used as a political tool. It is used by people who know full well how maps work but reckon you don’t and so they can say they’re putting right centuries of misrepresentation.

Whereas Mercator did his map in the way he did because it does a job. Mercator did not set out to misrepresent countries or distort continents, he set out to make a map that ships could navigate by. Use his map and you got where you were going. That’s it.

I like that honesty of purpose. I like that purpose. So if we have to have maps that are wrong –– and we inescapably do, it is impossible to have a completely correct map of the world –– then I vote for Mercator. I vote for the one that was designed to help everyone, not for the map some eejit used to aggrandise himself.

That list of things I love from this tiny fact of a school changing its maps. I said that Peters was apparently so irritating that people not only looked up the previous James Gall version, but they also rubbed Peters’ nose in it as much as they could by always referring to his projection as the Gall-Peters one.

They stopped short of drawing on it with a Sharpie. But they did very quickly call it something else.

The Unmitigated Gall-Peters projection.