Separating the boys from the mentoring

A couple of years ago I did some work mentoring a teenage writer. He’s still a teenager but he’s just come back as a writer/producer – and he’s hired me for an event.

I’d say that this feels inexpressibly wonderful, except actually it’s that special kind of wonderful that is shot through with terror: what if I let him down?

He’s George Bastow and my event is one of an entire day he plus three teenage colleagues have programmed. I also love that one of the other three is a particularly strong writer I work with at a regular group session in Rugby.

Even if I didn’t know her and even if he hadn’t commissioned me – seriously, I just got all the paperwork from him and I can’t remember the last time I ever got anything like proper booking forms from anyone – I’d be thinking this event is wonderful. Actually, if I didn’t know her and he hadn’t commissioned me, I’d be free to think it expressibly wonderful and without the slightest fear.

What they’re doing is Teen Takeover Day at the Birmingham Literature Festival. The festival runs from October 6 to 16 but Sunday 9 October belongs to this group. Everything that happens on that day is down to them. I presume they were let in on the planning for the rest of the festival but as I understand it, the brief they were given consisted of two sentences: “It’s 9th October, here’s the budget. Good luck.”

They’re spending some of that budget on me.

This gives me pause.

Anyway, this is the first time that the Birmingham Literature Festival has handed over a day to teenagers or to anyone at all. It may be the first time any festival has done something so nutty as to fold their arms and tell anyone to get on with it.

You’ll forgive me if I tell you first about the event I’m doing, won’t you? Sunday 9 October 12:00-13:15 at the Studio Theatre in the Library of Birmingham: Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs. Young Adult writers Juno Dawson and Nicola Morgan come together on stage to discuss fiction and specifically how mental health issues for young people are and are not dealt with in novels.

I think it’s a coup for the Festival to get these two and I’ll be chairing the discussion with them.

But then afterwards there’s The True Identity of Comic Books Revealed and there’s an evening of poetry and spoken word with Hollie McNish.

Here’s how made up I am about this: I’m performing at a book launch in Waterstone’s, Birmingham at 14:00 on the same day and I’m telling you about Teen Takeover first. Plus I’m reading a new short story at a Room 204 pop-up event on the evening of Friday 7 October. As West Midlands regional representative of the Writers’ Guild I’m also a bit involved in a great event on Saturday 8 October: we’ve got the creators of The Bridge and Hinterland on stage with Lisa Holdsworth. How about that, eh? Saturday 8 October at 19:30.

Oh, just do what I’m going to do: move in to the Library of Birmingham for the whole ten days. Here’s everything that’s happening.

But back especially to Teen Takeover Day. You and a pal can come see the entire day for £10 – together, not each – with a special Teen Takeover Day pass. Quote TPASS241 when booking to get this deal.

Library of Birmingham speech

Just over a year since the gorgeous Library of Birmingham was opened, it’s under threat. More than half of its staff face redundancy, about half of its opening hours may be cut. Even in those opening hours and even if the staff that remain happen to be the experts you need, access to the Library’s archives will be further limited.

There was a public meeting this week, organised by the Friends of the Library of Birmingham, which saw the Library’s Studio Theatre full. Two hundred people turned out at 5pm on a wet Wednesday to have their say from the audience and six speakers got to have their say from the stage.

I was one of those six: I was there representing the Writers’ Guild. I want you to know about this. You can listen to the audio recording of my part here – though my mother warns you that afterwards Soundcloud goes straight on to an ancient BBC Radio interview with me – and the full text is below.

Since I had an almighty accident with the text on my iPad on the night (my finger grazed an on-screen button that fired off an automated reformatting and replacement of the last two thirds of it) I had to deliver most of it from memory. So this text is slightly fuller, slightly more detailed than I said on the night.

Go support the Friends of the Library of Birmingham, would you?


I’m William Gallagher, I’m regional representative of the Writers’ Guild here in the West Midlands. And I speak to you today very much on behalf of the whole Writers’ Guild, the national union, because this is a national issue. It’s an international issue.

It’s international and it is personal.

For I am a writer, I am from Birmingham, I am recently returned here from London. So you know the crisis facing our Library is important to me. You know it is.

Actually, you know exactly how I feel about this because it is obvious. A writer. A Brummie. It is impossible not to feel shaking rage that this is happening.


It turns out that it is possible to feel other things as well.

Maybe less obvious things. Certainly things I don’t believe are being considered.

Such as embarrassment.

I’m regional rep for the Writers’ Guild and today I’m here for the whole union. But being the regional representative more often means representing Birmingham and the West Midlands to the Guild. I was embarrassed telling them about the cuts. I needn’t have been, as it turns out, because they knew the second I did, they feel the same way I do. To the national Writers’ Guild union, this is not a Birmingham problem, this is a national issue.

But to me, it is also personal and it is also very much Birmingham, and I was embarrassed. Telling Londoners.

Shaking rage and embarrassment.

How about shame? I am ashamed of what’s happening in my city.

Now, I am proud to be part of the arts and culture world that we have all created here in the Midlands but as well as arts and culture and media and literature, I am a businessman.

I’m a full-time self-employed freelance writer. I create my own work. I hire actors, I commission other writers, I book venues. I am a businessman. And this is supposed to be a great time for business in Birmingham. The city wants to attract companies, the city needs to attract companies, the entire point of HS2 is to bring businesses here to the city.

We are telling the world that Birmingham is a fantastic place for business.

But we are showing them that we can’t even keep our Library open.

Shaking rage, embarrassment, shame. One more.


I am actually frightened for what this means to the future of our city. Now, that sounds like a bit of a reach. The library closes and a few writers have to buy more books on Amazon. Amazon needs the money. But no. It’s more.

I have taught writing to schoolkids in this very building. Schoolkids in the 21st century, thrilled to be coming to a library, having the best and the loudest day and then leaving roaring with excitement.

I think that’s worth the world.

But let’s talk hard business cash.

Take one hundred of those kids, any one hundred of them. How many will become writers? Novelists, poets, scriptwriters, journalists, playwrights, sports reporters nearly count, how many? There is no way to know. That’s one reason this kind of decision is easy: you can’t measure it.

And you do know that it won’t be many. Statistically, there is even a good chance the answer is none. That not one of those particular hundred kids will do what I did, will make writing their career. That makes it even easier: who needs the library?


All one hundred – all of them, every single one, one hundred percent – go away from this Library able to write, able to communicate. They go away communicating at the top of their lungs, they go away working together, creating together. They go away with books, they go away with ideas, they go away seeing, actually seeing, that art and writing and communication is something vital, something they can do and that it is something they might be capable of doing well.

All one hundred – all of them, every single one, one hundred percent – will use what they get from this Library in whatever career they have. They will do well in their careers because of this Library, because of communication.

A teacher told me here, told me in this building, that he can look around a class and tell you which kids are readers and which are not. It is that obvious. It is that physically obvious. Reading and writing and seeing what reading and writing does, it changes all of us. It improves all of us. It improves and it empowers our city.

I’ve come back to Birmingham after years of commuting to London. Now I’m back I wish I’d never left because Birmingham and the West Midlands have this vibrancy, they have all this creativity – and we have this Library of Birmingham.

And we’re thinking of cutting it.

So yes, I am afraid. I am afraid, I am ashamed, I am embarrassed and I am shaking with rage.

The Book Groups

The plural is important. I’ve been waiting to show you The Book Groups for months. It’s a short story that I was commissioned to write – actually my first-ever commissioned short prose – for the West Midlands Readers’ Network. That’s an organisation which does a just unfathomably huge and wide range of work with readers, libraries and anything to do with books. I think this is their best idea: they commission six writers and then pair them up with six reading groups.

I got a group in Combrook, near Stratford on Avon. (Actually, they might disagree with that definition. Sorry. It’s just that the two times I went, I pointed the car at Stratford and it seemed to work out.)

So I got to see the group twice. The first time I went to sit in on one of their meetings and have a natter about what we all particularly like in fiction. It started so sensibly. I took proper notes. Lots of notes. You should see the notes. More ideas than I could capture. Every author in the programme says this is exactly what happened with them and their group: you come away dizzy with information and perplexed about how to fashion a short story that covers all of these points. That addresses all the groups’ preferences.

It’s easy.

You ignore them.

I didn’t mean to.

I really didn’t mean to. I took that first night very seriously – as daft and funny and full of chocolate fingers as it was, I also took it seriously – and so it was with some guilt that I ignored everything.

Everything except one tiny point. I think literally the tiniest point. It turns out that this gorgeous little village actually has two book groups. And I could not get it out of my head. What if the groups were rivals?

I’ve not had this before: driving home, it was as if the story were pounding at the inside my head, wanting to get out. I refused to listen, I concentrated on the drive and I refused to listen and I will not listen, okay? Enough. The next morning, it was as if I were shaking to get this written. I’ve had that plenty of times on deadline but here it was pushing, shaking, pounding its way out. I can clearly remember the moment when I thought – and maybe even said aloud – okay. Okay. I’ll do it. I’ll write this story about rival book groups, are you happy now?

The plan was that I’d write this tale, get it done and out of my head, then I would go to the notes and start doing the job properly. I’m all for doing jobs properly and as I say, I took this seriously. The Combrook group is so nice there was a moment when I could’ve stopped being a city boy and moved there. They deserved a story that fit all we’d said, that covered the characters and the village, that was a proper job.

And instead they get The Book Groups.

Because once it was written, I just liked it too much. I felt I hadn’t touched the research and yet I’d also spent the research. It was all in this story even as none of it was in this story.

So this is about book groups and I want to tell you that nobody from Combrook is in it. Not from either of their groups. That was one thing I stressed when I went back to read them the tale. The other thing I stressed was that I’d like my seat to be nearest the door in case there was trouble.

I think I can tell you that they loved it. They stood up this week at an event and said so. On Wednesday, there was a presentation to all of the groups of the book we made. Six authors, six groups, six stories and about eighty people gathered in the Library of Birmingham. I know five of the tales were superb. I think mine is too. You don’t often hear me say that, do you?

One more thing? My tale is narrated in the first-person by the leader of a book group. So it’s a short story but it sounds like a script to me. Something I’ve not really understood and yet have been rather proud of is that actors have often told me my scripts are easy to learn because the dialogue is good. How could I not be proud of that? I get it now, though. Because I learnt my story and I learnt it very easily. I didn’t read it at the presentation, I performed it.

Or at least, I preformed the start. We could only read a few minutes of the tale at the event, there wasn’t time for all six stories to be read in full and anyway, we wanted you to grab the limited-edition book.

I long to read the whole story to you. To perform it. Combrook called it “Alan Bennett chic lit”, which made me shatter with pride. My sister said it made her picture Hyacinth Bucket. I admitted I sometimes channeled Les Dawson. If I could come around your house and perform this to you, I would. I can’t even get you a copy of the book now – but I can show you the story. In full.

Sorry: I really intended to write you a single paragraph of explanation and then simply reprint the story. I even thought that would make this week’s Self Distract a quick job. But this story, getting to write this story and then this week to get to act it, it’s been a highlight of my year and I had to tell you.

I could’ve told you faster, mind. Your tea’s gone cold. Go get another mug and a biscuit. Because here’s The Book Groups.



by William Gallagher

Our little Book Group isn’t perfect, I’ve never said it is. Ask my husband. He’ll tell you it takes quite some running. But it is our group.

And we were first.

Susie Farrow can say all she likes, I started ours six months before hers. And she only did it because she couldn’t get into mine. It’s not my fault I’m popular. And we can only have so many chairs, that must be obvious to the meanest intelligence. I understand she’s disappointed, of course I do, but that’s no excuse for running around claiming it was all her idea. I ask you. She even got that in the newspaper. Back in Plant a Tree year. “Susie Farrow runs the village’s first reading group and plants trees”. The Parish Observer.

Not very observant if you ask me.

I’ve been in the Parish Observer now. I’ve been in all the newspapers. And you don’t see me bragging.

It’s about standards.

We have standards here in my group. I insist on it. But that doesn’t mean we are exclusive. We do welcome new people, of course we do. When there’s room. I mean, we let in Henry, how is that being exclusive? He arrived just after Sally Moon passed away so there was a vacancy, but that’s beside the point. He wanted to join and we let him, no questions asked. We don’t vet people. We don’t check their income and everybody has a secret past in banking, I’m hardly impressed by that.

Some of us have commented, just in passing, that Henry is good-looking but I don’t see it myself. I love my husband. It’s so much easier when you’re married and can get back to books. I don’t envy these young ones chasing men all the time, I really don’t.

No, the problem with Henry is that none of us in the Reading Group are quite sure he can read.

I suspected it first when we discussed Bleak House and he looked quite blank. Fair enough, I thought, it was a challenging read, perhaps it was too soon. So I went the other way for our next one, I chose an easy book for us. The Da Vinci Code. It’s a terrible book. But sometimes those are best because you can have a really good time discussing how terrible the writing is, how schoolboy the descriptions are.

I was right, too. Henry was much more lively in that session, he got quite animated. Waving his arms about. Touching knees. I don’t like that myself. My husband never gets animated. It’s easy to say what you think without touching, that’s what we say. But it takes all sorts. So long as they’ve read the book.

And I was just sure he hadn’t. I went out of the room to replenish the chocolate fingers and did he say thanks when I came back in? Or was he in mid-sentence talking about Tom Hanks? I pretended I thought it was thanks and the group did give a little laugh. I confess I am quite funny, but I don’t like the group to get boisterous. My husband watches the football upstairs while we’re here and it’s just easier if we keep things a little quiet. “You are a reading group after all,” he says.

When they’d gone and he was off to his bedroom, I rented the film version off Netflix to check it out. It’s a terrible film.

We should’ve had a film group.

Some of the things Henry had said were definitely from the film and not in the book. Well, I say definitely. It was very late when I watched it and we had drunk quite a bit of wine – we are always respectable, I will not tolerate drunken behaviour, someone has to stay sober in our house – so I might be wrong. I’d have to watch the film again and I’m not that concerned.

I think Henry has a little thing for me.

I don’t say anything. Let the girls fuss over him. It’s them I’m thinking of, really. I know they’d be disappointed if I asked him to leave the group. So, never let it be said that I turned anyone away.

Not since 1989 anyway when Amy Rogers said that about Pride and Prejudice and, well, I think we all knew I simply had no choice.

She’s with them now. The other group. I’m sure they get our post.

Still, once you get something in your head, it is hard to stop it festering. And at each meeting, Henry would only ever suggest books that have been made into films. Mind you, what book hasn’t now? But a couple of months ago, before all this unpleasantness, I decided we should pick a John Irving novel. Something meaty for the run up to Christmas, you know? I went through Amazon and I looked up every book on IMDb to see what had been filmed and what hadn’t. I love the internet. You can read how to do anything on there.

Anything. I miss it.

Then at the next meeting, I proposed A Prayer for Owen Meany. I expected to see Henry nipping off to the bathroom again to look it up on his phone but no. He agreed right away. Said he’d never heard of it but if I recommended it, we should definitely read it.

I mustn’t encourage him, I won’t.

Everybody was quite frosty to me that evening, it was most unusual. But I’m not there to be liked. I’m there to get us reading good books and then having a good time talking about them. It’s important. It binds us together, there is nothing like reading. And I really do believe that our little group is a key part of what makes our village special. Makes it a community.

I was walking through our village a few days after the meeting, just past where the post office used to be. It was the last shop in the village and it closed down twenty years ago. Either the Post Office closed it down because of fraud or Environmental Health did for something else. If I ever knew, I forget. But it’s on my way to the brook and everybody knows I take a walk to the brook each morning.

You can’t go anywhere here without bumping into two or three people you simply have to talk to. It’s why we like it here. My husband isn’t much of a talker. It’s easier to get conversation out of a stone! But I do like talking with people, I do like knowing what’s going on. I do like eve-rybody mucking in, everybody cheery together. We’re not some anonymous city, I couldn’t bear that.

So I wasn’t surprised to see Henry walking up to his Jaguar. He was pleased to see me. He can be sweet like that. I look at his excited, out of breath face and I haven’t the heart to tease him about his reading.

But it just shows that you never know what people are really like be-cause he said to me, he said: “I’m so glad you picked that book. Great, isn’t it?”

Then he was gone, I didn’t see where he drove.

Primarily because here comes Susie Farrow, overdressed as usual. She’s out of breath too but I don’t think it’s excitement at seeing me. She’s unfit. Unfit to run a book group, I say. That’s my little joke. Still, it comes to something when a girl her age is red and panting. I ignore that, of course, and just give her a short but polite enough nod.

She sees the book in my hand. “Oh, I heard you were reading that. Sad ending, isn’t it?”

That woman has not spoken a word to me since I turned her away from the group and the first thing she says is to spoil a book. It’s meanness, that’s what it is. And it’s to boast. Of course she’s read it. Of course her book group has read it, hasn’t everyone?

Bad enough that I’m going to see her at the village Christmas party. I walk on and put Susie Farrow out of my head.

I wear a little tinsel hat and I give a little speech about how our lovely reading groups are such good friends. I say something like it every year and it always gets a polite little round of applause. One year even my husband joined in. It was easy to get him to come that Christmas, I’d actually organised sponsorship and he came to support me. To this day, people ask how I got a company to sponsor our little do.

I’ll tell you, though, because it’s about quality. It’s because our group is best. I know it and so does everyone else, including the brewery. So it’s no harm being gracious at the party. I am gracious. I’m not “up myself”. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Still, it is about standards and I do think that we should all play our part. Especially in our village. And this year it was so obvious that Susie Farrow thinks she’s superior. She was right there in front of the stage before I was called up to make my speech but then I couldn’t see her when I went to start. I always like to catch her eye during my speech and let her know I know that our group was first. But this time she had walked out. She had actually walked out. Fresh air, said one of the girls. Can’t take the heat, I said. I was pleased with that.

My gaze went to Henry. He’s dependable. Even if he can’t read. I hardly had to look at him before he understood me and was heading out after Susie Farrow. He didn’t get her back in time for the end of my speech but as I say he’s dependable, it doesn’t make him a miracle worker. And they had clearly had words outside. They came back in looking so angry and it was obvious how they avoided each other for the rest of the night.

I’m proud of Henry. Standing up for me like that.

I’m sure he has a little thing for me.

I mustn’t encourage him. I won’t encourage him. But there is something there. I can’t deny it.

My husband came to pick me up. It was easy to get him to do that, it was on his way back from the club. When I came out, Henry was talking to him. He saw me and slapped my husband on the back. “Here she is, you lucky fella.” I’m just saying what he said.

My husband never says anything like that.

Maybe that was why it was so easy.

I was surprised how many people came to his funeral. But then I am a figure here, it’s silly to be modest about it. They all turned out to support me. They’ve not been quite so good since. I really thought Henry would be here every day but I haven’t seen him once. But I expect he’ll make up for it when I’m out.

I tell you, though, it’s really the girls I’m disappointed in. I haven’t seen any of them, either.

I have seen Susie Farrow.

Of course Susie Farrow came to visit me.

She said she was here to build fences, she said she was here because she didn’t know I’d got it in me. She said we could be friends when I get out. Got to stick together. Us girls. “Very well,” I said. “Let’s talk like friends. Who’s given you that ring?”
She wouldn’t tell me.

All front, all talk, that Susie Farrow.

But I’ll give her this, she did bring me a book. She says that she and Henry had a meeting, representing the two book groups, to discuss what to bring me. That will be Henry’s doing, I’m certain. The book is The Wimbledon Poisoner and Susie Farrow says it’s a joke. I’ve never been one for comedy but I thank her for the thought. And I’ll check it out later, I’m sure there’ll be a message in it for me.

Do you know, there are quite few ladies here who I’ve seen reading at recreation. I should start a group. I’m going to start a book group, just for us.

We won’t be the first group, obviously. But you’ll see. We’ll be the best.

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.