You couldn’t make it up

Long ago when I worked at BBC Radio WM in Pebble Mill, the sports department had a shelf of highlights on. Large spools of reel to reel tape with the recordings of famous local sporting events.

Only, I can picture that shelf now and I can remember being in that newsroom, looking at the reels and thinking well, er, no. These are not recordings of sports events.

They were recordings of radio presenters commentating on these events instead.

I’m not knocking the commentators, I’m in no way knocking the reasons for keeping the archive. It’s just that although it’s a slight difference, the tapes were regarded as the events themselves, not as the radio station’s commentary.

There’s something in that disconnection that I’ve been reminded of by all the writing about Donald Trump and Brexit. I keep hearing the phrase “you couldn’t make it up” and actually, yeah, you could. I think by now your audience would be a bit bored. They’d want some new characters, they’d be thinking we’ve got antagonists up our armpits, we need someone to be the hero. Anyone. Please.

I think the thing is that you wouldn’t make it up this badly. No matter whether you were commentating on events or especially if you are the poor sod who’s going to make a TV drama about all this one day, your very medium imposes certain things.

Commentators expect to be able to draw on previous statistics. TV drama writers inescapably want light and shade, they want pacing, they want to build to a conclusion.

None of that is available to us. It’s all dark, it’s all unrelenting and statistics are now alternative facts.

Hopefully this is just me but I can’t dramatise what’s going on. It makes me want to go write something else, to write about something or to create something that I can fashion, that I can explore, that I can convey something through.

We have the most visibly, publicly, proudly illiterate people in power that we may ever have had. Yet they are defying writers to comprehend them, they are controlling the disarray we’re in.

Maybe it will ultimately be good. Maybe this will shake us out of habits and patterns that we are used to, maybe it will make us – okay, me – writer better and deeper.

I don’t know about me and what I can do. But I do see journalism trying to fight back and I do see the writers of Saturday Night Live being on their best form in two decades because of it.

Maybe what I’ve been doing is trying to use writing to help me understand. Maybe I’ve been focused on the commentator’s tapes and really what I should do is go to the event.

Lead time

There used to be this thing called lead time: I mean, there still is but it used to be a big part of my life. If you’re writing in the Christmas double issue of Radio Times, you have to finish it weeks earlier than Christmas. When I was on monthly magazines you at least had an eye on what you’d be doing half a year ahead and with some titles that was crucial. It’s all rather faded away with the rise of online: the greater majority of things I write tend to be needed now and published now.

Only, lead time doesn’t always have to be long in order to be significant.

Yesterday morning I wrote an opinion piece for the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s weekly email newsletter. I believe it will be published later today. I’m not actually certain of that now because today is the Writers’ Guild’s AGM and there may well be a delay in this weekly newsletter since a lot of news is happening today.

But in theory, in the regular course of things, I write and deliver it early on a Thursday morning and it gets published on a Friday late afternoon or early evening.

I can’t show you what I wrote because it hasn’t come out yet but I can tell you that it was about Brexit and the business with Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof messing about on boats. Since this is just you and me here, let me tell you that I was pleased with it: I think I found an interesting point to make and it was a point that enabled a fair few good jokes.

But a few hours after I delivered it, the MP Jo Cox was killed and allegedly by a man who shouted words to the effect of “Britain first” either one or two times during the attack. If that’s correct, it would mean this was probably related to the EU debate and so here I am piddling about with jokes when a woman has died.

There isn’t anything in the piece that is directly wrong or arguably is even insensitive. I haven’t had a discussion with the Guild about whether we should postpone or drop it. But its tone is light and jolly and even or maybe especially because it carries a much more serious undertow, I know I wouldn’t have written it a few hours later.

Not a syllable has changed in that piece: for all I know it’s still waiting unread in the Guild’s email inbox until they need it. But a lot else has changed.

I think I talk to you about a time a lot but that’s not even a pixel in comparison to how much I fret about it. One unchanged thing like an article looking completely different depending on where in time you stand. We can’t choose our position in time but that doesn’t alter the fact that the view, the perspective from two different points is so different.

And I’m saying there are two different points but there are three. Or more: I’ve written this to you as if we’re talking now yet maybe you’re reading this because you found this it through some happenstance Google search next year. Certainly I’m having to remember the right tenses and the right terms like saying I wrote that Guild opinion piece yesterday and it’s published today when hopefully that is true from your perspective but it isn’t from mine.

For in order to get to that Writers’ Guild AGM, I will have to leave home very early. Consequently, in order to be sure of talking to you properly and not dashing a postcard off on the train, I’m really writing in advance. Overnight. It’s Thursday night now so I wrote that Guild opinion piece this morning, not yesterday morning. It will be published tomorrow afternoon, not this afternoon. From my perspective right now.

I don’t think any of that surprises or confuses you, though I got a bit free and easy with the tense clauses along the way, but I am not the man I was this morning and I am not the man I will be tomorrow. By tomorrow the initial shock of this MP’s death will be over and whatever I think of the piece I wrote for the Guild, it will be subtly different to what I think now. The real now, the Thursday night now.

Yet again, those words will not have changed one single syllable but now I’ve got three different views, three different contexts for them that mean actually yes, they are different so really they have changed. Writing is about much more than the words on the page or the screen and the text may remain fixed but the meaning, the writing, does not.

Do you see why I am obsessed with time? There are moments when this stuff paralyses me and now I’m picturing you looking at your watch and telling me that we’re out of time, perhaps we can discuss this further next week.

England will leave Europe

I don’t know the details, I don’t really follow all of this, but history shows us that without question, England will be beaten by Paraguay or France or some such team. It will be a sporting tragedy that will make people across the entire continent cry out “Was England in Euro 2016? Really?”

Wait, that’s not what you thought I meant, was it? Yes, of course, you’re right: this is all about the forthcoming vote on whether the UK will leave the Eurovision Song Contest.

You have to wonder, now that Australia is in Europe, but you can’t presume, you can’t be sure. The UK is genuinely important to Eurovision because of the money it contributes to the show. If we didn’t do that, we could keep that money for ourselves and could put it toward the NHS.

Of course then the BBC would have fund the missing Saturday night television, it would have to put more money into all the pre-Contest coverage that currently hides away on digital-only BBC podcasts.

I started to say this to you as a joke: I was nodding off during BBC News’s coverage of some football thing and my mind wandered from the Euros to the Euro to Eurovision and on to chocolate. That last was unrelated.

Only, Eurovision and the money the BBC contributes to it is pretty analogous to everything the UK does with Europe. Stand by to be shocked here as you’ve never subscribed to something or opened a bank account or had a loyalty card, but the BBC puts money into Eurovision and it gets programmes out of it.

The first thing about the whole Brexit argument that ticked me off was, well, it was the word Brexit. But the second was the claim that the UK pays eleventy-billion pounds into Europe. I remember watching the politician saying this and assuming TV news had cut away before he said “and we get back this other amount”.

We can blame TV news a lot for this. For instance, they will show Michael Gove saying that Brussels passes laws that cripple our sovereign state and which we had zero input to. They’ll cut away before he presumably adds that he’s kidding. There’s the small matter that the UK is party to these laws and not just the whipping-boy recipient, there is the fact that Gove knows this and is involved. There is the small fact that if this were true, if Britain were powerless against the might of Brussels laws, then that’s why we’ve got the minimum wage. The bastards.

That would go if we left Europe. There’s not much you can be certain about, but there’s one. Minimum wage dies. On a completely unrelated note, and I don’t even know why I bring it up now, there are UK businesses that very much want to leave the EU. Can’t imagine why.

The leave campaign people would have you believe that we graciously give the European Union your hard-earned money and all we get back are laws that override our own. Britain joined the EU in 1973: if this were really what happens, our government chose to pay over money and take the law lumps and our government also chose to continue doing it for 43 years. On that basis alone, I’d rather we really were run by Europe or anyone but our own government.

As it is, you know that of course the UK gets a benefit from doing this. It is impossible that it wouldn’t. Yet the leave campaign hopes you don’t know that, it hopes that you are so thick that you just go yeah, yeah, we need that money for our own NHS. They’re crossing their fingers that you then assume that they would give the NHS this money.

The leave campaign is doing an awful lot of assuming and unfortunately the side saying we should stay in, is not. The stay campaign is making one assumption: that nobody could be so stupid as to think Britain is forever bailing out Europe from the goodness of its heart.

I think this is why the leave campaign has its word Brexit and the stay campaign has no word at all. It’s got a campaign name but I don’t remember what it is.

I do know that there is a Leave poster near my house which says something to the effect of how you should vote to leave the EU because that’s “the safe choice”.

The leave campaign appeals to politicians who are enjoying the ride and would quite like to be Prime Minister please. It appeals to old people who for some reason believe Britain was a superpower in their living memory and can be again. It appeals to people who think Britain still has any industry. That safe choice poster is trying to mop up the people who are lazy about this. Oh, just vote to leave, that’s safer.

Everything the leave campaign says, without exception, is scaremongering or out and out lies. You shouldn’t vote based on how you resent being lied to all the time, but it’s tempting. I also just think the sheer totality of the bollocks is a reason to be suspicious, at least.

But then, what do I know? I work in the Arts. If the UK leaves the EU my industry would be reliant on the British government and that’s the safe choice.

Lies, damned lies and percentages

I’m not saying that people make up percentages, I’m saying if that they were telling the truth they’d give us the figures. I’m going to make up some examples here in part because my point is about the lying rather than these specific lies but also because it seems appropriate. For I’m seeing this particular lying technique used a lot at the moment over whether Britain should stay in Europe or not and if you’ve seen an actual fact for either side, well done.

I’m seeing it most of all in discussions about immigration which is apparently a dreadful problem. Oh, is it bollocks a problem. BBC Breakfast interviewed a woman this week who said, like so many others, that immigration is a very bad thing and it must to be stopped. Only, she’s an ex-pat British woman living in Spain. She’s an immigrant. You can’t buy stupidity like that but you can pander to it.

Consequently you’ve seen people banging their fists on tables about how immigration has – I don’t know, let’s make up some high figures here – doubled. Maybe more. Maybe there are 60% more immigrants.

Since when? Usually people say “since when” in the same tone and with the same meaning as something like “you and whose army?” but I mean it literally. Immigration has doubled since when? Wednesday? The 17th Century?

The 60% or whatever other percentage in whatever argument you like is not a figure, it is a red-alert klaxon saying the speaker wants you to believe something you wouldn’t if you knew the truth. Say it is 60%, say immigration is up 60% and let’s even throw in that it’s up that much since this time last year. We’re throwing in an actual baseline comparison, we’re throwing in a genuine since-when.

Only, say 10 immigrants came to the UK last year and a whole 16 came this time. That’s a 60% increase right there. Gasp. Doubtlessly or at least presumably the actual figure is more than 16 people but I don’t know what it is and people telling you percentages don’t want you to know.

It offends me that politicians think immigration is a vote-winning issue and it offends me even more that they’re right. For god’s sake, though, my family is from Ireland: I’m only first-generation British born. I shouldn’t be allowed.

Comedy impressions

A friend was trying to remember what the Benny Hill music was called. “Yakety Sax,” I told him, with my head in my hands. Sorry: it’s in your head now, isn’t it? Whether you dislike it or hate it, that music is in your head and you’re thinking how painful it is that Benny Hill comedies were always about him chasing women in speeded-up videos. I know you think that because everyone thinks it, except perhaps for Anglophiles in America who for some reason see Benny Hill as archetypal British humour.

The thing is, he was. I don’t mean for those Yakety Sax videos and I am not trying to be revisionist and claim there was a lot more to Benny HIll – but there was a bit. I used to write a television history column in Radio Times magazine which meant spending a gorgeous lot of time in archives and finding unexpected things. Such as Benny Hill before the speeded-up videos.

Those were always written archives like Radio Times’s own issues but at some point, once I knew Hill had done more, I remember finding footage of him somewhere. And it was funny. Just a very short sketch where a reporter and an IRA informant are in a TV studio: the informant is supposed to be in darkness to protect his identity but instead the reporter is.

That’s all. Must’ve lasted only moments and the overt comedy was in the IRA guy’s reactions, his realisation. I remember it being a nice piece of acting, actually, a comedic double take that was laced with a bit of fear. Very nicely, that acting was from the guest actor playing the informant: Benny Hill himself kept a straight face. That’s pretty good: the star and possibly also the writer of the sketch giving the laugh to the guest.

I remember, too, that the comedy was really Benny Hill mocking television conventions, maybe even taking a poke at the media’s coverage of serious events. It wasn’t The Day Today but it was clever enough stuff and I believe Benny Hill did a lot of this. I can’t be sure because so little of his work is easily available but then that’s for a reason.

At some point in his career, Benny Hill found this Yakety Sax format and that was that. It’s our fault, really: we must’ve responded so much and liked it so much that he kept doing it.

We should all do things that get into everyone’s heads, we should all create work that lasts, though it would be nice if it were work that people liked remembering. I think Benny HIll effectively erased his comedy career by these speeded-up videos.

I wonder if he knew.

I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression will survive of us. I don’t expect to be remembered after the end of this sentence but equally, I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression we give people now.

I keep thinking about how Benny Hill is never repeated in Britain, I keep thinking about how I’m mostly fine with that, yet I also keep hearing how popular he is outside the UK. True, I hear that less and less – he died in 1992 so over 25 years since his last work – but I hear it.

I’m not claiming some statistically valid example here but it seems to me that the people who mention Benny Hill are all outside the UK and they are all either fond of him or at least not wincing.

I keep thinking of this outside opinion and particularly of how things are seen from other countries. How in one place or in one group of people you can be so caught up in opinions or issues that the rest of the world sees completely differently.

Yes, I keep thinking of this because of the idea of Britain leaving the European Union. My niece, working in Luxembourg, tells me that people keep asking her why David Cameron is campaigning to leave the EU. He isn’t, he’s publicly on the side of staying in, but that’s how he’s seen overseas.

Then people who are in favour of leaving the EU act like anyone else gives a damn. I bet most Americans are completely unaware it’s going on at all – why would they? – and I understand that across Europe the attitude is like, whatever, stay or go, Gallic shrug, get on with it.

You’re thinking I’ve taken a left turn since Benny Hill and you’re sure that I’ve done it to argue that the UK should stay in the EU. Actually, I do very much believe that and I am very much angered by the Brexit arguments and not just because I loathe that new word.

But my point really is a writing one: you can’t control what other countries think of your work, you can’t control what other people think of you – and you shouldn’t try.

I think it’s a shame that Benny Hill erased his reputation here and maybe he didn’t have to do that Yakety Sax thing so very often but he did it and he made an impact. We should all have people trying to remember the name of our theme tune a quarter of a century after our death.