Happy birthday, Susan Hare

Facebook has just told me that today is Susan Hare’s birthday. I didn’t get her anything but that’s less because I’m mean, more because she doesn’t exist.

She’s real, or at least she is to me, but there is no such person. Susan is an old and dear friend of mine, she’s just completely fictitious. A very, very long time ago I created her for a script that I liked very, very much but never went anywhere. Shortly afterwards I popped her into another script that never went anywhere. I’ve no complaints about my writing career but along the way you do create a lot of projects that fizzle out for one reason or another and Susan Hare is in many of mine.

I’m only now wondering if she’s bad luck.

I think initially I just really liked her name. I can’t remember the projects and certainly not the sequence but initially I thought I was just reusing the name and that there was no other connection. Susan Hare was definitely about 8 years old in one story, I’m certain she was in her 30s in another, and so on.

But after she’d been in – I’m guessing here – four completely different scripts, I realised that with just a teeny bit of effort, it could be the same person. That 8-year-old could conceivably have grown to be that 30-year-old. If that were so then this woman had lived a hell of a life and somehow that just made her more real to me. It made me like her enormously.

I wish I could remember what the idea was when I created a Facebook page for her. I know it was work but I’ve not a clue what it was for. I’ve also not a clue what the account password is so I can’t delete her. I’m slightly scared to look at her timeline in case she’s been living a life there without me.

I do remember this, though. I used her name when I was working on a magazine and this fictitious online woman had an impact on the real world. I mean, it’s a very small impact, but she had one.

I was features editor on a technology magazine called PC Direct and in a company that had two or three other titles covering similar topics. This was pre-internet but it was far from pre-online and all the magazines had various services and forums. Each time a new one launched, all the staff were asked to join in and chat so that readers could contact us and that there could be a lively discussion on there.

It was really quite hard to find anything to say, though. If you were supposed to discuss a topic your magazine had covered, well, probably you wrote it and certainly you read it so there wasn’t much else to add. If someone else’s article in some other magazine was interesting, you’d already called across the office to them to say so.

Very quickly, then, conversations were started up by staff solely to get something moving. All three magazines included columns answering reader questions and all the online forums did too, so we were encouraged to ask technical questions. It wasn’t directly stated that you had to use pseudonyms but it was a bit obvious: you couldn’t be represented in one forum as a great technology expert and in the next be asking how to spell “Excel”.

All I did that was apparently unusual is that I created two pseudonyms. Just the names: you’re used to threads on Facebook and Twitter now where there are photo profiles but this was before all that, this was solely text. Not even a bio.

Yes, I used Susan Hare for one. But remember, I really like her so I made her contributions to the forum be as witty and clever as I am capable of: I would take twenty minutes to craft a comment from her.

And with my drama head on, if you’ve got one smart woman character, it felt natural to have a dumb man one. Nothing to do with any gender comment or opinion, just the need to explore a range and having only two characters to play with.

I can’t remember his name. But I can remember that I used to spend even longer writing his comments because I made him illiterate. He was both illiterate and a very, very bad typist.

The thing is, though, this was in a forum answering technology problems so I gave both of my characters identical trouble.

I think this took place over several weeks and it was damn hard to have them take answers from editors and somehow not quite solve their problem, to have them come back for more help.

But initially both characters got lots of attention. People on staff and just readers passing by would do their best to help them equally.

After a while, though, that changed. In the end, the only person even talking to my dumb man character was the editor of the magazine and he was trying so hard but you could see he wanted to weep.

Whereas over with Susan Hare, this fast and clever and funny woman, everybody piled in to help at first – and everybody stayed to the end. Discussions with her were getting to be ten and twenty times longer than the ones with my poor sap with precisely the same technology difficulties.

I keep mentioning the end because there was one. I didn’t plan it. I didn’t really plan any of this: I just created two characters to see what wold happen.

Until one lunchtime I was in the office kitchen where that editor was talking with a friend about the forums. And these two men were concluding that Susan Hare fancied the editor. They were serious. And they thought she was too.

If I actually fancied him, I would tell you now and I’d have told him then. If Susan had set out to make him think anything of the sort, I wouldn’t have a story to tell you now. But she didn’t. There was not one word that ever implied any interest outside her technical problem, not a single one.

You’re not surprised. But back then, I’m guessing early 1990s, I really was. I’d created this funny, sparky character who had come alive and that made me proud. These male editors and, it turns out, plenty of other men on the forum, had projected fancying onto her. That made me embarrassed to be male.

But I like to think Susan and I have put this behind us. We don’t talk so much anymore but, as I say, she doesn’t exist. Still, Susan Hare: many happy returns.

I’m not here

When you get this, I’ll be in France on a trip that took detective skills and twenty years of work.

It’s my 20th wedding anniversary on 3 August and I will be with Angela Gallagher in Paris. We honeymooned there and that’s where the detective work came in.

I was sure the hotel had changed its name and anyway, I wasn’t certain what it was. I remembered a shop on the same street, though, so I got out Apple Maps and Google Streetview and I searched Paris for where we had honeymooned.

Hours of searching, phoning hotels in the city, struggling with my schoolboy French, I did it all and booked our room.

Then, late one night, Angela couldn’t sleep. She went into our living room, crossed to the shelves and took out a book to read. A piece of paper fell out. A letter she’d used as a bookmark.

Twenty years ago.

The letter was the original booking confirmation for the hotel.

And with my detective work, I had got us a room in the right part of Paris, the right hotel, the right floor and just two doors away from where we were in 1994.

Weird to think that the hotel had stayed there all this time. (It has changed its name but only slightly; it’s old name is now prefixed by a different company’s one.) Very strange to see the place from Apple Maps and Google Maps, neither of which were imagined or maybe imaginable back then.

And very weird to think that amongst so much change in the world and in my life, Angela is still with me.