Place and time

Maybe you can create a space, a place, a venue. I know you can build a building and I know you can run events but I’ve said before that you can’t just decide that this place will be special, that you can’t predict what venues will start to have a life of their own. But I could be wrong there because there’s a spot that has done this and not by accident. Last night I was at Waterstone’s bookshop in Birmingham and realised that it has genuinely become an arts venue.

This is mostly great but that thought last evening came in tandem with one that isn’t so good. This bookshop now has the same life and impact, it has become the same kind of hub for my working and social life, that the Library of Birmingham used to be. It knifes me saying that: I was so in love with that Library and it was so instantaneously important to the city, but then they halved its opening hours, cut its staff, immolated the place.

I had thought it remarkable that within weeks of it opening, so very many things I do revolved around the Library of Birmingham. I’ve spoken there, researched there, eaten there, had very many coffee meetings, it went from nothing to surely having always been there.

And now I pass it often and I regularly see tourists pulling on the door, perplexed why they can’t get in.

Anyway.

Across the city, there is this branch of Waterstone’s and over the years I’m sure I’ve bought many books there but to me it’s always just been where the old Times Furnishing building used to be. I can’t conceive how long ago that store closed and I refuse to look into it for fear of how old I’ll feel, but I walk into Waterstone’s and somehow I can still see the old store. The bookshop is all light and welcoming and I remember the furniture shop being dark, but the walls are where they were, the distinctive steps up to each floor are where they were.

This Waterstone’s was refurbished and reopened last November and earlier this year I went to pitch a vague event idea to the manager, Stuart Bartholomew. By the time it became less vague, by the time it became a poetry and prose event I performed at and co-produced with Charlie Jordan, it became a fair miracle that we could even be fitted in. This store runs events constantly. Take a look at the current schedule on its official website.

I can speak as someone who’s run one of these events: it buzzed, it was a success, there was great wine and chocolate. There was also Grace, who manages the events and didn’t criticise my shoving aside anyone who stood between me and that chocolate, yet whose surname I clearly didn’t bother to learn. Well.

But I can more speak as an attendee. I’ve been to talks there, I’ve been to see authors talking about their new books and last night I was at the launch of the Birmingham Literature Festival. The event is in October but the programme was revealed last night and you can now buy tickets. Perhaps ironically, I don’t think any of its events will be at Waterstone’s and I know very many will be at the Library of Birmingham. But Waterstone’s is running pop-up bookstalls at the Festival and last night it hosted the launch.

I am doing bits in the Festival but last night I was watching so many happy people near chocolate. I had to skip out early, I’m in London today running a workshop, and do you know it felt wrong leaving? Going from the verve and life of this event to a deeply long and boring train ride and a midnight slump into a Travelodge. Just wrong.

This bookshop is an important part of Birmingham’s literature, writing, arts and poetry scene. It’s become so in less than a year. I think it’s obvious that this is a direct result of the effort of Stuart, Grace and the rest of the staff but this is becoming an advert so I’ll just say that really it’s down to the chocolate.

 

Thin film

All week I’ve been looking forward to talking to you because – please wait for this and picture me savouring telling you – I’ve got a film coming out. Next Tuesday night, “Taking Time” gets its cinema premiere. I need you to know that actually my contribution is the smallest thing: this is a short film written by five writers and I think I account for about one minute of it. Still, it’s a minute. In a film.

I’m actually refusing to watch it before Tuesday because I want to walk into that cinema and enjoy it. But let me point you at details of the film because it’s also part of the launch of the Screenwriters Forum which you might be interested in. Otherwise, I’m going to tell you more about this next week instead, because something happened last night that I need to tell you. I’m not sure there’s anyone else I can talk to about this as it’s confidential. Plus you’ve already seen through the thin film that is my hard man tough guy image.

(Hang on. If the film is rubbish then I won’t mention it next week and we won’t speak of it ever again, okay?)

Anyway.

Late yesterday afternoon I ran a scriptwriting workshop in Stourbridge Library for Gavin Young. He’s a writer, performer, storyteller and at the moment also the Reader in Residence at the library who booked me for this talk. I had a blast. I hope everybody there did too, but I definitely had a blast and a half plus it came at the end of back to back workshops and deadlines. For me, it was like getting to natter with a group of fellow writing nutters. I did have to run away immediately afterwards to get back to writing deadlines, but it was the last event and it did feel like a long week was over.

It’s early evening in Stourbridge. A dark winter’s evening. Windy. Cold. And raining enough that I shouldn’t have got out my phone but when do I not get out my phone? There was an email waiting with the subject heading “A little bit of feedback for you”.

I can’t tell you very much at all as it’s to do with work I’ve been doing with school-age kids but because of who sent me it, I knew from her name and that subject what it was going to be about, I knew it was going to be from parents. I crossed my fingers as I tapped to open the message, hoping that this feedback was going to be okay.

It was.

There were just a very few short lines and if I could tell you what it was, you’d think that’s nice and I think you’d be pleased for me but you wouldn’t be gasping.

I didn’t gasp either.

But I stood in that road and I cried.

I’ve not seen Star Wars

I’ve not seen the new film so I can’t spoil it for you. But although I hope to get out of work early today to see it, it’s not the film that’s on my mind. I’m not really thinking of any of the Star Wars films themselves, I am thinking of how they crop up every few decades and remind me of everything else that was going on.

It’s like life is this long rope back down the mountain and the Star Wars movies are pitons in the rock. They are fixed points and each one reminds me of that spot in time even though the films themselves aren’t a big part of those moments. I mean, I have a uselessly good memory for footage: for example there’s a certain type of US TV drama whose closing credits would be done over clips from the episode and I always unerringly notice when the clip is a different take. Totally useless, though sometimes handy when you’re editing video and can remember seeing just the right moment within the hours of footage. So I’m footage-aware, except with Star Wars.

When the prequels are on the telly I have caught myself wondering if I even saw these films because I don’t recognise anything. And as big as all the Star Wars movies were, maybe none were as anticipated as Return of the Jedi. We’d had Star Wars itself, we’d had The Empire Strikes Back which as well as ending on a cliffhanger was also just a good film, so Jedi was a big deal. In six movies, the single frame I remember from seeing in the cinema is an early shot in Jedi where we see the Death Star and I thought oh. We’re late getting into the cinema, such long queues genuinely around the block at the Gaumont in Birmingham, and they’ve started the film before we are at our seats. Doing that excuse me, pardon me, thanks dance through the line, I am seeing the Death Star on screen and all interest, all excitement somehow punctured.

That’s all I remember from the films as I saw them in the cinema: the deflation at Jedi, that single shot somehow telling me this was not going to be a great night. It wasn’t and there’s probably a life lesson in how I believed it was a disappointingly poor film but we didn’t yet have the prequels to know what poor means.

I do remember a vague shot from when I went to see Empire. It’s much less clear in my mind and partly because it isn’t from The Empire Strikes Back at all. I’d won a contest in the Evening Mail and got to see an early screening. I remember the thrill of being in a cinema during the day to see an exclusive screening and the footage I remember is from one of the Omen movies that was playing when we were led back out through the auditorium.

For Star Wars itself, I say the title and I see a very young me walking with my mom across an ice-cold Birmingham. I remember excitement, I remember my mother saying she didn’t understand the film, I think I remember her holding my hand. I do remember us having a meal out at a Berni Inn. I remember how special that was. If you remember that chain of steakhouses, you may think I’m being sarcastic but no, it was special at the time.

I was the exact perfect age for the original Star Wars when it first came out. Exactly perfect: with Star Wars I was a little boy rooting for Luke and Leia to get together but by the time Empire came out I was old enough to see that Luke was wet and Han Solo was the guy. Later every man you know is supposed to have gulped a bit at Princess Leia’s gold bikini in Return of the Jedi and I didn’t. I saw that and felt I was supposed to gulp. I resented it: you think you can push my hormones around? But I had fallen hard for Carrie Fisher in Empire and maybe it’s because she had more to do in that, she was a more interesting character clad in white snow gear instead of barely wearing gold. Maybe I was also getting all sophisticated: I think it was around Empire that I finally nodded and thought yes, it was right that Star Wars had lost out at the Oscars to Annie Hall.

I’m a boy for Star Wars, I’m hormonal for Empire, I’m disappointed for Jedi. Flash forward to 1999 when The Phantom Menace came out and what I remember so vividly is going to see another press screening. I’m now a BBC film reviewer, writing for Ceefax and possibly the nascent BBC News Online if that had started yet. Sitting in a very large press screening, aware that somewhere over there on that opposite side there’s Barry Norman. I’m seeing a film at the same time as quite legendary film reviewer.

I’m also seeing it at the same time as my editor from Ceefax. Never before or after did the editor go to a screening with the reviewer, never before or after would two people go to any screening, but this was big. The first Star Wars in nearly two decades. I remember going in to that Leicester Square screening with her, I remember us coming out. I liked that editor a lot and far, far more than I liked the film and I hope she felt the same. I know she felt the same about the film.

There was this giant, giant movie, this world event really, and I can see us walking out of the cinema into bright sunshine and all thoughts of the film evaporating. We were more interested in what we were doing for the rest of the day, getting back to the newsroom, the other deadlines going on, anything but the movie.

That was 16 years ago. Today my BBC work is behind me and I’m not reviewing Star Wars for anyone. But I’m going to a screening and I’m thinking of the work I’m doing now, I’m thinking actually rather excitedly positive thoughts about what I get to do these days. More excited about my work than about this movie. I’m also just thinking of that editor, of that Death Star, of Carrie Fisher’s heart-buckling Nordic look in Empire and her superb writing style since then, I’m thinking of The Omen and how the Gaumont cinema is long gone, I am thinking of an ice-cold night walking across Birmingham holding hands with my mother.

Who needs to actually see Star Wars?

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.

Just hang on a sec

I want to give you an example of something. On Wednesday, I was nattering with this guy in a pub in London. He mentioned a writing job he used to have that he had particularly enjoyed. The front of my head is fully in the conversation and enjoying the talk when the back of my head starts thinking.

I couldn’t do what he had done – for one thing, it’s his idea and for another it’s quite a while ago, the gig is gone – but there are elements that really particularly appealed to me. Take this element, change that, bring this, try the other, soon the back of my head is joining the front and I’m enthusing at him about what we could do now.

That’s Wednesday night. By Thursday morning, I knew exactly – I mean, exactly – every inch of the new idea and what to do plus who exactly – I mean, exactly – to pitch it to. And had pitched it. I can’t know if it will happen and I imagine it’s a year away if it does, but 25 hours after the idea, I’ve got a meeting.

This is how I like to work. Think of something and do it. I can’t tell you how satisfying I’ve found the last year: I’ve produced five events in 2014 and while that isn’t many, it is 100% more than I have ever produced before. To think of something and get it done, to eventually be sitting in the audience watching people you’ve chosen be everything you wanted them to be, it makes me giddy.

I like being giddy. I like being busy. I like rushing, I hate waiting around. It’s just that I feel I’ve wasted so much time and have done so little, I need to catch up and get on. If I’m not shaking with giddy exhaustion by the end of the day, I start shaking that I’ve burnt those hours away for nothing.

Except.

That does tend to be the only time I think of today. Usually my head is in next week or next year. I’ve had a stone in my stomach for the last month because I couldn’t get a guest speaker for an event I am especially keen to do well. My head’s been in the day of that event and in the days since I got the gig. Worrying about what I’ll do and worrying about what I could’ve done better or sooner or quicker. Not an awful lot of my head in the day today.

I’ve got the speaker now. She’s a mensch for doing it, I’m a bit of a mensch for asking her, but let’s not menschion that. Let’s just leap to how, now that I have got that sorted out, my giddy mind is looking forward to how that event will go. And my relaxed mind is half looking forward, half very nervous about an event next week where I’m performing myself. (I’m reading from my entry in a book of short stories. I love the story, I deeply loved how the book required me to meet various people before writing, I love how those people reacted to the story, I hate how sick with nerves I am before the launch.)

And.

I have this fear that I’ve wasted so much time yet here I am arguably wasting every day. Always working on the next thing.

But.

I went to a poetry event earlier this week, an evening about Next Generation Poets. Originally I was going on my own, just nipping in to see it, and it was a treat to then find that a friend was going and we could meet up beforehand. I don’t want to presume she had as good a time as I did, but I had a great time and was walking in to that show with her feeling very good and relaxed.

And by total chance, found myself seated precisely in the middle of seven friends I like and whose work I rate immensely.

It was terrible.

There they all were, great and talented people, every last bloody one of them better dressed than me.

None of them were performing, none of us were doing anything, we were just this tiny segment of the audience that happened to be sitting together. My body was in my seat and for once my head was in the room, in the time too. At that point I still had the stomach stone but it lightened. I forgot how far behind I had been feeling I was with everything.

I was just acutely, deeply and actually happily aware of the here and the now. Maybe I’m only reaching for the Ferris Bueller line “Life moves pretty fast… if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it”.

But in the here and the now, the there and then, there was a buzz that wrapped around my shoulders and it came from these talented people.

Maybe even from me.