Come in

Here’s a thing. If you show up unexpectedly at my front door, I will be delighted. (Bear with me, this is a theoretical exercise. If you actually show up at my door I will be delighted but I also haven’t tidied up, so it’d be that special kind of delight that borders on panic.)

In principle, anyway, you coming to my door uninvited is in all ways a very good and a very great thing that would make me happy. Really delighted: I’m beaming at the thought. And promising myself I’ll hoover. Since it’s you, I might even dust. Could you pick up the corner of that carpet for me?

If, instead, I show up at your door – well, no, that’s just not going to happen. This isn’t you, this is me. I cannot come to your door unexpectedly or without invitation unless I have a really good reason. “Excuse me, are those flames coming from your roof?” My just turning up as me, not with a message or a parcel or a purpose, I cannot do it. It will never happen. No matter how much I enjoy talking to you, I just can’t do that. I don’t know why.

So when I do go to someone’s home, when they have invited me, I find that very special. It doesn’t matter if I’m there for some practical reason like a meeting or because I’m picking you up to give you a lift somewhere. You don’t let someone you dislike into your home – not if you can help it anyway – so I am alert to the fact that you are welcoming me in. I get the compliment and it’s a big thing to me.

I have had meetings in friends’ houses recently and I’ve felt all of this. There’s a project I’m working on where we tend to have day-long meetings at a particular friend’s house. She actually apologised this week, said she knew it was inconvenient for us to schlep over there and I explained she is insane. It is a treat for me. I think it’s a privilege.

There is just something about how we are all the same and we need the same things, we do the same things, we have the same things – we have kitchens, we have loos, we have books – but everywhere is exactly and precisely as different as everybody. What you choose to have in your home. The spoken and unspoken rules, the way that you choose to cook, the spaces where you work seriously and the spaces where you relax. It fashions a specific environment. It’s an exo-skeleton, a body around your body. It’s the contents of your head and your taste and your past made corporeal and physical and made to be right there within touching distance.

Maybe I’m just groping toward the cliché that a home is someone’s castle but I think your home is you.

Appropriately, my mind has just darted off thinking that I must have a very untidy mind.

But anyway, the other night, Angela and I picked up a friend from her narrowboat on the canal and I felt all this even more acutely. It’s a huge boat and I want it, I want writer Elisabeth Charis‘s home exactly the way she has it, but also it’s closed in enough, it is small enough, that all my feelings about being invited in somewhere were concentrated.

Angela said it best: she said the boat hugs you.

There is a cocoon feel even as the boat rocked a little in the wind. You felt distinctly separated from the rest of the world especially as you could see that rest of the world bobbing outside the window. It helped that you could only make out the rest of the world because there was street lighting near the canal. Otherwise, it was dark out there and it was warmly bright inside.

Equally, from the outside as we walked up to it, I wasn’t sure Elisabeth was even in. The boat looked dark to me. It looked like every other narrowboat I’ve seen on canals and now I wonder if they were all occupied, all the time. They look cold and forgotten. Interesting paintwork, yes, but also somehow alone and closed, bumping next to to the towpath. Yet maybe every one of them was this alive and warm on the inside.

All those boats, all these houses on the street, all these homes in the world. Maybe this is just on my mind because we had a good night. Maybe if Angela, Elisabeth and I hadn’t had a fine natter I wouldn’t be thinking about the bubbles we form around ourselves and about the membrane between outside somewhere and inside it.

I do like houses and homes and I do like property TV shows like Grand Designs. And I think I may be being pretty grand here myself, I may be overblowing things yet I feel it: being invited in to someone’s home is special.

Mind you, maybe I’m only thinking about this because Elisabeth is tidier than I am.

Pride cometh before Autumn

I have a problem with the word pride. As one of the things you shout when a large number of lions are rushing toward you, fine. It’s also fine when it’s about you.

I completely get the idea of having pride in one’s work and more than getting it, I also get it: I have that pride in what I do. It rarely lasts, I am a writer after all, but at the moment I deliver it to you, I am proud of it – or I wouldn’t deliver it to you. That’s all fine as well. And I would especially hope that you know this kind of pride too.

For that matter, I would hope that you quite often feel proud of yourself. It’s you. Of course you should.

My problem is when I feel it about other people.

It’s not that I think it’s necessarily a bad thing to be proud of someone else, it just feels odd. What right do I have to be proud of someone else?

As I write, this Autumn’s Birmingham Literature Festival is nearing its end and it has been a very good year for it. Last year I actually did an event in the Festival and I still think this year’s is better. I’ve also had an interesting perspective on it because while I have done nothing and have attended lots, I’ve been half- or quarter- or a fifth- involved in bits. The Writers’ Guild has had a couple of events and I’m on the Guild’s committee so I had a fingernail in organising them.

The most I did was get a speaker to the Festival. There isn’t a pixel of the Festival that I could claim pride for myself but going to so much of it and having these tiny peeks behind the curtains, I am proud of the Birmingham Literature Festival. Proud that it happens in my city, proud that it is in the Library of Birmingham.

Thoroughly, delightedly proud of how successful it’s been. After I did my doings with that speaker, I left the green room to go find Angela. The queue for this event was so long and so full of people I’ve come to know in part through simply having gone to the Festival a lot, that it took me twenty minutes to get to her. Walking down that line, I got into four conversations. “Really got to go,” I’d say, then walk down ten paces and “Oh! Hello!”.

That was a Writers’ Guild and Birmingham Literature Festival event: the Guild’s Tim Stimpson interviewed Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. Full house. Queue snaking along the length of the Library and having to double back at one end. I did feel proud but the word I said at the time was just “Cor”.

I don’t think you can be in Birmingham and not be proud of this Festival. I’ve worked with many of the people doing it, I’ve had this tiny glimpse backstage, I’m a fan.


There were many, many events where I at least vaguely knew the performers. That’s a funny thing to explain: I don’t know the poet Liz Berry at all but after you’ve seen her perform, you feel like you do. Tremendously, startlingly powerful poetry from someone so personable that if you ran into her with a friend, you’d introduce Berry to your pal like you’ve known her for years.

I want to introduce people to you, I want to list people that I actually do know and who were on full form in this Festival. But there are just so many. I do love that there are so many that I fear forgetting one. I don’t love that I’m going to chicken out. I’m not proud of that.


There was this one event. The launch of a book called A Midlands Odyssey: it’s a transplantation, a transformation of Homer’s Odyssey into tales of the Midlands. I could’ve just bought the book, and I did, but I wanted to see Elisabeth Charis, who produced it. I wanted to see Jonathan Davidson, one of its editors. Charlie Hill wrote one of the tales, Lindsey Davies whom I’ve met before did another, Elisabeth wrote a tale too. It’s published by Nine Arches Press and I really like the company’s editor, Jane Commane.

But then the first person who got up to read was the author Yasmin Ali.

I knew she was nervous because she’d told me. But in that theatre, under those lights, she strode up to read an extract from her piece and she looked like she did it every day. Read with style, got great laughs, if it had been you reading, you’d have been very proud of yourself.

And I told her afterwards, I told her truthfully: I’m proud of her.

But I don’t understand what right I have to be proud. I had nothing to do with her event or her story or her book or her. I didn’t have a damn thing to do with anything, but what I felt was pride.

Yet nuts to the word and the oddity of feeling it, if you went to the Festival or you are connected to Birmingham, you feel proud too.

If you didn’t go or you’re not connected to the city, then get yourself a sliver of a taste of a pixel of a moment of the whole event on BBC Radio 4. This coming Sunday’s (12 October, 16:30) Poetry Please was recorded there and features four Midlands poets – Liz Berry, Jacqui Rowe, Bohdan Pieseki and Stephen Morrison-Burke. And then in the following week’s edition you can hear me. I get to request a poem that always makes me weep. Please listen and picture poet Jo Bell squeezing my arm as I wept through the reading.

I’m fine with how I’m clearly not a hard, tough man. Possibly even a bit proud of it.