Blogger in Residence at the Pen Museum

Exhibit of pen nibs at the Pen Museum, Birmingham

I am rarely the jealous type of writer. Back in 1996 I was fully green when I bought Radio Times and found they were starting a website that I thought I should be working on. A few months later, I was.

Apart from that, there’s only been one case where I wished I’d done something. Well, no, okay, you could have any limb of mine you want if I could’ve written Arrival and actually I’d be out of limbs in seconds if I thought about writing I wish I’d written.

But apart from that. A couple of years ago, the writing partners Iain Grant and Heidi Goody became the official, legitimate and authorised writers-in-residence at – wait for this – a phone box.

Oh, I admired that. I still admire it. I don’t plan on stopping admiring it. For it’s one of those ideas that seems obvious once someone has thought of it but never before. Clever, funny, fresh, new and apparently next door to a pub. Even as I took my hat off to them, I was plotting to steal.

Well, steal in a writer’s sense in that I did set out to become writer in residence of something equally appealingly daft.

I have not succeeded.

But from daft beginnings come serious endings.

For over the past couple of months I’ve been Blogger in Residence at The Pen Museum in Birmingham.

Now, I could’ve mentioned this before. Especially as I’m about to finish. And most especially because I adore the Pen Museum: when I got a chance to do this for a Museum, my first sentence was “Hello, can it be the Pen Museum, I’m William”.

If you can possibly go, do. Right in the heart of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter there is this glorious place. It’s where World Calligraphy Day is based, it’s where poetry events and rotating exhibitions visit. But on an ordinary, damp day with nothing going on, it’ll still absorb you for a couple of hours.

It’ll possibly leave you with ink-stained hands if you have a go with the calligraphy exhibits. It’ll make you want a fountain pen after you’ve made a pen nib – under supervision, this stuff is really deliciously tricky to get right.

And I guarantee you this: you will tell people about how at the peak of pen manufacture around the late 1800s, 75% of all pens in use in the entire world were made in this small part of Birmingham. Later on, Walt Disney animation artists continually ordered pens from here so, yes, Bambi was probably sketched with a Birmingham pen.

I love all this stuff and I haven’t even got to their typewriter collection. But I’ve not written about it here before because I’ve been working to figure out what in the hell I should do.

Because it sounded so clear. Fun but clear. Write them some blogs. Easy. You know me, I can barely shut up. And actually, yes, I’ve done that: if you visit the Pen Museum website over the next year or so you’ll see blogs of mine popping up at appropriate moments.

But this was a case where the staff and volunteers of the Pen Museum didn’t really need me for that. They’re already writing and blogging and tweeting. They already have events – I’m an event producer and I recognised early on that there wasn’t space in the schedule for me to contrive another one.

It turned out, though, that it was my producer head that was needed. Lots of people want to volunteer at the museum so you get a great turnover of staff and also a great variety of them. Appropriately, I didn’t met a single one who couldn’t write well, but of course you know that some are already blogging, others wouldn’t go near Facebook if you begged them.

My own blogging writing became incidental – I think we just quietly agreed that I couldn’t stop writing so we might as well use me – and what became important was producing a process.

We’re still working on it but I think what we’ve started will make the Pen Museum website feel as much of a place to visit by itself as the actual museum always has been. So many people visit from around the world but you know many more would want to so over time that site’s blog will grow.

There is just something right about a Pen Museum having a vibrant blog. There’s this one quite small exhibit in there, for instance, which lines up writing tools from pen through typewriter to iPad. You can use all of it and get a sense of how the past forms the present and I think that’s fitting for the blog too.

Being Blogger in Residence at the Pen Museum isn’t as gorgeously daft as being a writer in a phone box but I adore that I got the chance to do it. Thank you to Writing West Midlands and the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Without them, I might have been reduced to being writer in residence of my mobile phone.

The moving finger types


I don’t like what I wrote last week. I don’t really like what I wrote yesterday. And I’m coming to regret starting this. It’s just always been a fact of life for me: you do your very best and know that tomorrow you’ll be wincing at how poor a writer you are.

A friend has a regular habit of re-reading his scripts from, say, five or ten years ago, and having a good laugh at himself. I re-read mine and weep.

Only, I was just searching for something on my Mac and I found this.

020502.2235
THE LAST OF THE BLONDE BOMBSHELLS
UK Drama 2100-2235
Impossibly, this is the first repeat for this charming and uplifting Alan Plater drama from two years ago.

It’s long been out on DVD in the US but here, curiously, not so much, so this is a rare and welcome chance to see the reunion of a (nearly) all-girl band.

Judi Dench is a gem as the woman who sets out to find her disreputable pals and maybe recapture their glory days.

Don’t be shocked: they manage it. But the game is in traveling desperately as much as it is in arriving.

If you really know your television drama history then “from two years ago” is enough to pin this text down in time. If you’re not then let me offer you my congratulations and say the clue is in that string of numbers at the top. That’s the instruction to BBC Ceefax’s systems that the text should be removed at that date and time. It should go off air at 22:35 on 02/05/02.

That’s 2002.

I wrote that 15 years ago.

And it’s not bad. You’re too young to remember Ceefax so let me explain that it would’ve been tricky to get one more letter, let alone one more word, into the page that text went on. That was the limit of a TV preview and actually of any writing on Ceefax at all. You could have multiple pages but readers would not necessarily see them in the right order so every page had to stand on its own.

So, given that it’s so very constrained in space, I read that text and think it does the job. Tells you what’s on, tells you some news about it and it gives you the plot as well as clearly being a recommendation.

Plus it’s got a bit of bounce to it.

That’s the element that gives me some pleasure. I also get some from the phrase ‘travelling desperately’ which I think works even if you don’t know it’s a quote from another Alan Plater drama. (Misterioso, if you’re wondering. My favourite.)

So I’m willing to tell you about this because my cold writer/producer’s head sees that it works and is no cause for weeping. But I want to tell you about it because of the way it just popped up while I was hunting for something else. Like a little peek into the past. An unexpected window into what feels now like a very different world and a very different me.

We think of online writing as transient and it’s true that all my Ceefax pages vanished the day after they were aired. Most of my writing is already long gone and usually not remembered but this morning a shard of it came back to poke me in the eye. Only because it was written on computers. I have a shelf of paper notebooks I used to use but I never look at them and I can’t read my own handwriting. Whereas a gallon of Ceefax writing just came back as if I’d typed it today.

I have no idea why I’ve still got this text on my Mac, especially as I didn’t get this machine until ten years after I wrote that. I am coming to see why my hard drive is so full, mind.

I think for once that I’m glad it’s there. I’m glad I can see that I wasn’t dreadful. The fact that I wrote around 16,000 pages of BBC Ceefax has come up quite often for some reason and now I think if they were all like that, I’m okay with it.

The gigantic majority were written in BBC Television Centre, typing directly into the systems there, so I don’t have even a significant fraction of the text on my Mac. But I have some from when I would be working at home and delivering copy: I think I’d send in a week’s worth of previews and reviews at a time. I feel sorry for the poor sod who then had to copy and paste them in, but I suppose I did that for other people too.

Ouch. I’ve just read a piece in the same document, a TV preview of some football thing.

040502.1800
THE FA CUP FINAL
BBC1 1210-1725/Sky Sports 2 1200-1800
Best get your bank holiday trip to the DIY store over with in the morning, then, unless this is a dull match.

What’re the odds? Arsenal meet Chelsea for a quiet, cosy kickabout with several million people roaring them on. That’s all this will be.

To make sure this appeals to everyone, the teams are London ones but filled with players from around the world.

Here’s an idea of how important this is: it starts at 1500. So the build-up is twice the length of the game.

I even made football jokes. Now I’m wondering if someone else wrote all of these. It would explain some things.

Divide by zero

I was doing a thing earlier in the week, writing about our need as humans and especially as writers to see patterns in events. To make sense out of chaos and to form a narrative is just natural.

We all do this. But at one extreme, I’ve a friend who needs me to construct a story about everything. If I give her a book, she will honestly need me to tell her that I heard about it on the radio, that I went to the shop, that I asked a shop assistant for it and then brought it back. If I don’t tell her that, she tells me each step, prompting me to agree.

At the other extreme, I’ve someone who if they need me to get something for them, will give me a script of what to ask for and where to stand when I do.

Hang on. I thought that was just two people who were a bit fixated but it’s me, isn’t it? The second one thinks I haven’t got a brain cell in my head and the first suspects that I go around stealing books.

Well.

Moving on, apart from these two, you’ve seen those TV documentaries about some year or other and you’ve been startled about things such as the fact that Star Wars and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall came out at the same time. I want to give you some example of how surprised I was at how a famous political event happening at the same time as The Muppets but I’m not political.

What I am and what I suspect you are too, is unconsciously used to seeing events sorted out into threads. It’s like history begins as a piece of A4 paper but studying history is like reading that after it’s been shredded. We see long straight lines, we don’t see the whole picture.

Maybe the whole picture is just too big, I don’t know. Certainly it takes time to understand what’s been going on: I can’t wait for the history books to cover today. Though that’s chiefly because by the time those are written, our current events will be safely behind us.

Only, just looking at this as a writer, just looking at this idea of organising events into a comprehensible timeline of cause to effect, I’m seeing something. I’m seeing a structure that a writer would have to invent if it didn’t exist. I’m seeing enough that I wonder whether we are not only prone to looking for sequences and timelines, but that we also naturally, actively create real-life drama in the same cycles and patterns that we do in art.

For there’s this business now that Brexit has metaphorically divided the nation and there’s at least a strong chance that it will cause the literal division and end of the UK. This is just fact now: Scotland may vote to leave, Ireland could even reunite – and, come on, whatever you think of the politics about it, that is surely a third-act surprise twist.

The UK is being divided and the result is that it feels some of us are being focused more on infighting. I do mean territories but I also mean individuals as lines are being drawn and crossed, political opinions are becoming concrete and angry instead of comparatively abstract. Nobody debates, we all entrench.

It’s just that we’ve seen this before.

It’s no stretch to say that divide and rule was British policy across the world and across history. It is both how the Empire was created and how schisms remained across the world after that fell.

I am thinking that what goes around comes around. I am thinking that if you show a gun in the first act, it will be fired at you in the third.

That does imply that we’re in the third and final act of the UK but, remember, we also love sequels.

Timeless appeal

Of all the current TV shows about time travel, the last one I imagined would be in trouble is Timeless. But apparently while it’s doing fine in streaming video, iTunes, downloads, catch up and every other way you can watch television now, it’s struggling to find viewers who tune in to NBC on Monday nights.

I can’t watch NBC, I’m in the UK. It’s airing here on E4 but even if it got record-breaking ratings everywhere else in the world, NBC would at the very most say that’s nice before they cancelled it. What counts for them and therefore for the show is eyeballs on NBC. So if you’re in the States and especially if you happen to be one of the households that the Nielsen ratings counts, do take a look at it.

It’s just good. I’ve been a professional TV critic and that’s all I can usefully say. I’ve also been obsessed with time all my writing life and Timeless is the time travel show that isn’t about time travel. I’m not interested in time machines, I’m obsessed with regret and with experiencing events from different angles. Timeless has plenty of regret but it’s also a deep-dive into an adventure series which specifically avoids Doctor Who-style timey-wimey stories.

In this show created by Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke, our three heroes continue their pursuit of a baddie. Calling them the heroes is reasonable: they are the protagonists and while we’re seeing widening gulfs in whether they’re good or not, they are doing what they do with the best of intentions. Calling their antagonist the baddie is more of a stretch, though, as unusually this fella has good reason for what he does.

So there he is doing something foul yet there’s a part of you that can’t help but at least understand why, maybe even agree.

I’m compelled by that but I’m also just relishing how each week is broadly similar in shape but totally different in tone and location. There was an episode set during the Alamo which really felt like movie. Ian Fleming pops up in a Bond-like adventure fighting the Nazis. The good guys got stranded in the 1700s. The good guys kill people and they don’t exactly shrug about it afterwards.

I also relish how since the show is set in different historical periods, the research is excellent and there’s always something true yet completely unexpected. I heard that some history classes are using the show for that and I don’t know if it’s true, especially so soon into its run, but I can understand it.

Only, as a time obsessive, the thing that feels fresh and fun to me is that the show goes into history and messes it up. It has been such a rule of time travel stories that you do not do this: Back to the Future centres on putting right something that got changed. Even Doctor Who, right back in the William Hartnell days, maintained that “You can’t rewrite history… Not one line!”

So here’s Timeless where – sorry, spoiler – the baddie has gone back to the day the Hindenburg exploded and he saves it. You know from the start that he’s going to do something bad but, grief, hats off to Timeless: the bad thing he does is save it. And then we learn why that’s such a bad thing: it’s fascinating.

It’s also fascinating back in the present day of the show as people who died on the Hindenburg now didn’t so there are ramifications and repercussions. Throughout the series, the baddie and eventually the goodies kill people and it’s necessary, you can see it, you kind of root for them, but there are repercussions.

Well, there are and there aren’t. There’s not yet been a repercussion where the goodies’ time machine wasn’t ever invented, for instance.

What this willingness of the show to let history change gives me is the impact on the characters. They’re not required to be some model citizens protecting the fabric of the spacetime continuum, they are scared people trying everything they can to stop very, very bad things happening.

So Timeless is a show about time travel, sure, but it’s about characters who travel in time and what that is like for them. It’s action adventure, it’s not as astonishingly deep into time as 12 Monkeys is, it’s not using a TARDIS as just a way to drop the Doctor into trouble.

It’s something new and that seems especially gratifying in a season where even I think there are too many time travel dramas.

I’ve forgotten the count now but I remember learning that there would be something more than ten, possible fifteen shows about time during this year and there’s no way they’ll all survive. But the one I’d miss is Timeless.

So if you can watch NBC on Monday nights, please do. And while I’m in the UK where E4 is now screening the show, I’ve got a US iTunes account so I’m watching each week as soon as it’s available.