Now and Then

I’d like to know when things stop. The moment when something is done. I’m struggling to explain this but it’s on my mind a lot and I want to try. Let me have a go with an example.

If you write a book then at some point the manuscript is with the publisher and you’re done. You don’t know which point that is, though, or at least you don’t at the time because there’s always a chance you’ll have to do something more to it before it finally comes out.

Maybe publication is the moment. I’ve commissioned writers who wouldn’t respond to any request after they’d been paid and it happened enough that now I tell each new editor who hires me that I ain’t done until the piece is online or on the newsstand. Don’t wait to pay me, but I’m not leaving until we both know you don’t need me any more.

Except a piece of mine was published this week and I think it’s a good sample for another thing I’m pitching for. So as soon as it was out, I was pointing people to my new article.

Perhaps what I’m wondering is when new becomes old.

For instance, someone like Dar Williams releases a new album and at some point it stops being the new one. Long before her next is announced, you stop saying Emerald is new, you start calling it her latest. Then some day, somehow, you and I imagine she just thinks of it as one of her many releases.

It’s still a superb album but the heat of creation is over for her and the energy of discovering each track is over for me. I’m picking on her album because I like it so, because I’m listening to it again but also because I just went to check and it came out in 2015. What have I done since 2015?

Whether it’s an album or it’s the book she’s written since, there is still this furnace when everything is being made and anything can change and every pixel of it all is in your head. And then all of it is encased in the plastic of a shiny disc or the digits of a digital download, and it’s over. Except the singing of your song or the reading of your book until then that’s over too.

There must be a day, there must be a moment, when this happens.

In thinking about saying all this to you, wondering what you thought, I had the flippant idea that maybe the only absolute definite end to anything is death. But no, apparently not.

As ever, I don’t expect you or anyone to remember me past the end of this sentence but even when I die, my books will survive. I remember thinking this of the very first one, how BFI Television Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair will outlive me. At the very least, if some other author ever wants to write about Beiderbecke, their first job is prove to a publisher why their book is needed when someone has already covered the topic.

My name will at most live on in a muttered curse by that future author but the book itself will persist. Who knows, one day it might even start earning back the advance I got.

I framed the cover of that book and it’s on my wall with the date racing further into the past every second. It was published in 2012 and I think my second book would’ve been 2013 so clearly by then, Beiderbecke was no longer either new or my latest. But there is a day, an hour, an instant when it ceased to be either and I wish I knew when.

I wish I could work it out but I also wish I could’ve been conscious of the moment as it happened.

Poet time writer

Please don’t ever ask me who my favourite writers are because it would be about eight hours before I finally asked who yours are in return. Still, if you were nutty enough to enquire, then way up in the first ten minutes of mine I’d be saying Emily Dickinson, Suzanne Vega, Christina Rossetti and Dar Williams.

Spot what they’ve got in common.

They’re all poets.

Actually, I don’t know that Williams would say that of herself as she, like Vega, is a songwriter, but to me her finest work is exquisite poetry.

Only, I don’t know when it happened that I spotted that or when so many of my writing heroes turned out to be poets. I can’t write poetry. Not a single line. And while I’m reasonably half or quarter sure that my school must’ve mentioned poetry at some point, none of that went into my head. None of that made me like the stuff.

I can tell you that it was when a TV show called Head of the Class claimed you could read any Emily Dickinson poem to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas that I first heard of “Because I would not stop for death / Death kindly stopped for me”.

Then I associate Christina Rossetti chiefly with “and if thou wilt, remember, and if thou wilt, forget” which pops up in Alan Plater’s work. That is a chasm of a poem. I swear Rossetti sat down one day in 1862, cracked her knuckles and said right, I’m going to upset that William Gallagher bloke.

I can’t read it, can’t hear it, can’t even type that extract without feeling the centre of my body yanked down into the dirt.

That’s the other thing this bunch have in common: they upset me. Emily Dickinson does have that gleefully, joyously conspiratorially friendly “I’m nobody, who are you?” piece which balances out a lot of things, but still, on average she upsets me greatly.

There’s the one of hers that begins “Hope is the thing with feathers” and when that line, just that line, was read out over a scratchy tannoy at a breast cancer rally, I stopped and wept.

Dar Williams has You’re Ageing Well, which in its original version has seen me pulling over to the side of the road to let hot tears fall out of me. Curiously, she did a version with Joan Baez and I find that one a shrug.

Then Suzanne Vega has Tired of Sleeping which used to double me up in pain and can still be a blade in the gut.

I think you and I can also conclude that poets are really nasty people while I am a hard, macho man. But, grief, I yearn to write like them.

Next crisis

Years and years ago, my therapist told me I over-think things. Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder: what did she really mean?

I do know that if you see me lost in thought, it is usually about whatever the next thing is that I have to do. I’ve often got to a party or a meal or a play and consciously thought right, got here, that’s done, what do I need to do tomorrow?

Do you do this too? I also queue up my worries. If I have a big event coming then the single way I have of ever getting it off my mind is to have another big event coming up before it. So I’ll come out of that first one probably feeling great – yesterday was event number 176 of which 10 were meh and 2 were ulcer-bursting awful – and I’m immediately fretting about the next one a week away.

But.

Two things. First, when I’m actually working at an event or a workshop or whatever, I’m right there in the moment for every single moment and there isn’t a whisper of a thought of the next thing from start to finish. I think this may be why I like producing and presenting events so much.

Second, this did happen to me again yesterday. The day was fun, I glowed out of there and through a tea with a friend and colleague from the event, I glowed into joining up with Angela and then right in the middle of a curry, wallop.

Angela looked at me just like you’re doing.

But the reason for saying this to you today, the reason for the But up there a few paragraphs ago, is that this changed. This went away.

We saw Dar Williams in concert at the Glee Club. She’s the artist I’ve said I wouldn’t kill to write like – but I’d maim. I adore her work, her music has meant a lot to me for a very long time and I’ve often seen her in concert. Every time has been good, but this one was great.

Whatever I was thinking about when I went into that concert, she took us all wherever she wanted to go.

I’m going to think about that.