Charged up

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

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

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

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

Or maybe that’s another male stereotype of mine.

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

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

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

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

Cars.

Male.

Nope.

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

Only. Well.

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

Tesla Model S car

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I even like the colour.

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

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

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

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

It’s about {squiggle}

Apart from the framed cover of my first book, I’ve only ever chosen two pictures for our walls. The first was five years ago and a little related to that book: it was a single blown-up page of script from Alan Plater’s Fortunes of War dramatisation. People see that, read the page, have no clue why the text makes me sob.

From now on, they’ll be able to look to their left and see this as well.

The main symbol for Time as written in Heptapod from the film Arrival

I like that one is typewriter text and the other is also text but in a graphical form. I like that both speak to me about language. I like very much that this new one is the symbol for Time as seen in the film Arrival.

I like less that there were actually three different symbols for Time in the movie. But this is the main one, this is the one the characters pointed to when they called Time. And in a weird way, this is the one that reads like Time to me. It’s not like I think I can read the Heptapod language it comes from, but I read this symbol and I read it as Time.

I don’t know why this matters to me so much but I don’t need to: it just matters and oh, my lights, it matters enormously.

I’m minded of how as a man it’s considered weak to weep at poetry. I offer that it’s not a weakness in me or any man, any woman, it is a power in the text. To be able to write like that, to reach people like that, to affect people like this, it’s power.

Whether it’s in English or Heptapod.

Love is all around

Don’t look at me like that. If you’ve lived your whole life in the UK as I have, then a blog with the subject heading “Love is all around” can only mean one thing. Clearly, I’m going to write something about world events, about how there are eye-poppingly scary things happening but we should remember that we’ve always got each other.

No.

I got nothin’.

Not on that. In the meantime, if you lived in America at all, you’ve now got a song in your head. Love Is All Around is the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and this week its star died.

I could write you an obituary but people who actually knew her have done that. Instead, I want to focus on just that fact that in the UK you know her name but in the US she’s a deep-rooted part of the culture.

That does fascinate me, the way that we think of writers and actors as individuals but actually their talent and their reach is very much bound up in where they are. Mary Tyler Moore just isn’t as beloved in the UK as she is in the States. Mrs Brown might possibly not get the same reception in New York as in Britain.

Now, Brown is a character and Tyler Moore is an actor but you get it. As much as we try to move forward, as much as we try to create something new, to develop our choice of medium in new ways, we are very much bound to where we are.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is also an example of being bound to a certain time. This is a sitcom that aired 1970 to 1977 and the word hit just doesn’t cover it. Seven years, three spin-offs and there’s a commemorative plaque at the studio where it was filmed.

It wasn’t just popular, it wasn’t just funny, it was genuinely groundbreaking and all the more so if your ground was America. When the show began, Mary Tyler Moore was best known for co-starring in The Dick Van Dyke Show. More than best known for it, it was one of those cases where the actor is so successful in a role that she’s in danger of never working again.

If you don’t know The Dick Van Dyke Show then the quick way to describe her character, Laura Petrie, is to say she was the wife. For all the character did, when the show was over, Mary Tyler Moore was permanently fixed in the audience’s mind as the wife.

So here’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show where this actor is single, a career woman and joining a television newsroom instead of being a housewife. The writers wanted more: they wanted her to be a divorcee but there was absolutely no possibility that American television would allow that. They were skittish about divorcees in general but they were not going to let anyone think Laura Petrie had divorced Dick Van Dyke.

Today that seems ridiculous chiefly because it is. But it also seems ridiculous because we’ve grown up and if our television still doesn’t treat women as it does men, it’s better. And it’s better in large part because of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, created by James L Brooks and Allan Burns.

So here’s this gigantic hit which changes and develops US television, but it didn’t travel and it has never performed well in repeats, in syndication, even in the States.

There are other examples of this: a show called Murphy Brown was a smash from 1988 to 1998 but you don’t see it around now. Amongst everything else Murphy Brown did, though, it was replete with topical references and those date it considerably.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t do that. In theory any episode stands up today as it did on first airing. Its most famous one, Chuckles Bites The Dust, has no 1970s political agenda, hasn’t anything overtly tied to 1970s events. But still, the show belongs to its time and that would be fine.

Except for how it makes it harder to really appreciate the power this show had, the impact. Writing about it from another country and decades after it ended, I think I know, I think I intellectually know what the series meant, but I can’t feel it.

Except I can in one way.

I’m saying all this about the show’s impact on television and you’re quite reasonably assuming I mean American TV but you can trace a line from this four-camera, three-wall videotaped 1970s American sitcom to the grittiest of UK dramas today. It’s a line that affected me: The Mary Tyler Moore Show is directly responsible for the fact that I’m a writer even though I can’t have seen above a dozen episodes at the very most.

For you know how it goes, wherever there shalt be a hit show, so shalt there be spin-offs. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had three and it’s peculiar what happened to them. There was The Betty White Show which you’ve never seen. There was Rhoda, which I’d say is better known in the UK than The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

And then there is Lou Grant.

Lou Grant is unique. It is the only one-hour, single-camera, film drama to come from a sitcom. Not only had it never happened before, it has never happened since.

I am a writer because of Lou Grant and how this was the first show where I recognised that drama was crafted, that it was made, rather than just being something on the TV in the corner.

But I wouldn’t have seen it and neither would anyone, really, if it weren’t for the power of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Lou Grant was a character in that sitcom and he was so popular, the series was so very popular, that the network gave the Lou Grant show an on-air commitment for 13 episodes. Do what you like, make what you like but if it’s got actor Ed Asner playing his Lou Grant character, you’re on air for 13 weeks.

Well, okay, no, the network didn’t let anyone loose and if the show had bombed they’d have cancelled it halfway through the first ad break. But they paid for 13 episodes so cancellation is a tougher financial decision for them and this helped keep Lou Grant on for its first few months while it grew an audience.

Lou Grant, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show before it, was made by a production company called MTM and yes, that was named after Mary Tyler Moore. Even if you’ve never seen her show, even if you’ve never seen Lou Grant – come round to my place, we’ll have pizza and watch – then you still know MTM’s work.

For MTM went on to make Hill Street Blues and every single television police drama owes a debt to that. It’s the iPhone of cop shows: everything before it looked a certain way, everything after it looked like Hill Street Blues.

And that would not have happened at all without The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Her show was bound to a certain time and of course so is Mary Tyler Moore herself but both have impact that is so great that we feel it even when we don’t know where it came from. The makers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show were trying to make a good, funny sitcom, they weren’t sitting there thinking that oooh, after Hill Street we could make St Elsewhere and change hospital dramas too.

They got on with what they were doing and they did their very best. So actually, maybe yes, maybe I do have something about the world today: let’s get on with what we’re doing and do our very best.

It’s my job, it’s what I do

Quick aside? I love the line “It’s my job, it’s what I do” because to me it is the archetypal ridiculous line you used to get from so many cop shows. I say it with earnest dry seriousness and I am of course kidding. Unfortunately, it turns out that not everyone knows that TV cop show trope and one day I found out I had been seriously, seriously, seriously annoying an entire newsroom.

I’d like to say that I stopped using it but there are times when it still springs into my head unbidden. Such as now. I was just thinking about this thing I want to discuss with you and there it was, there was this old line. And I rather mean it this time.

Follow. A friend, Mary Ellen Flynn, said this to me recently after a tearoom natter:

I like your perspective since you are businesslike about writing but you still love it.

My lights, it has actually become true: this is my job, this is what I do.

I’m split now. She meant it as a compliment and I take it as one, but it’s sent me spiralling off into pondering the differences and the similarities and the Venn Diagrams of writing vs business, of art vs work. Then, okay, that’s further sent me off pondering how I have the nerve to call what I do art but fortunately I don’t. One dilemma at a time, please.

I think the reason I’m mithered over this is that her line reminded me of how I’ve previously been accused of being a commercial writer. It was not a compliment. Whoever it was – and I’m genuinely blanking on their name – pointed out that I write Doctor Who radio dramas and that every idea I was telling them was out-and-out commercial. Every idea was a thriller, a romance or both.

Oh, grief. I’ve just had a thought. If it were who I now think it might have been, she was writing literary fiction and it was bad. God in heaven, it was bad. One of the single most creative pieces of writing I’ve ever done is the way I answered her about what I thought of a certain chapter without telling her what I thought of a certain chapter. You’re asked your opinion in order to give your opinion but sometimes, no, the truth is best left out there.

Anyway. I like literary fiction but my best definition of it is a book that doesn’t fit into any other genre. Equally I suppose you can argue that the definition of a commercial text is that it is written to make money. It amuses me that she failed totally at being literary and I’m doing a good job at failing to make money.

Yet for all that I am supposedly commercial and for all that I agree I am businesslike, the fact is that I write romances and thrillers because I love them.

They excite me, they totally compel me and maybe I can’t do them well yet but I’m trying.

There is the part of my brain that recognises the existence of a mortgage and how nice it is to eat around three times a day. There is the part of my brain that knows deadlines and understands a brief and can copywrite and can build a structure, build an event. That’s the businesslike bit that is very easy for me; frankly because anything is easier than writing.

I said that all this pondering and noodling came from that friend’s line about my being businesslike. I was doing a talk last week and trying to convey a point about writing as a career, as a job. You know how you don’t know something until you say it?

This is what I think, this is what I do, this is what I said:

I write for a living – but I really write for a life.