Can’t see the words for the stress

I don’t remember the last time my head felt so squeezed but then, I wouldn’t, would I? That’s the thing when there’s a lot going on and it’s especially the thing when some is good and some is damn hard. You lose the ability to remember the last time for anything, you lose the ability to think ahead. But in the most intense moments you also lose the ability to see what’s around you and I really, really want you and I to see this.

For I’m in a summer school for young writers aged 10 to, I think, 17. I’m rubbish with ages, I never think of them: it’s just a lot of writers together. Right now it’s the quiet hour before everything kicks off and actually it’s the quiet hour on the last day.

We’re on couches in a nice room – oh, wait, I’ve got to tell you this. It’s at a university and I promise you that there is a magnetic imaging resonance chamber nearby to which you appear to get access by looking clever. To enter the writers’ room next door, you need a key, a swipe card and a retina scan. I don’t know why that seems right to me, but it does.

The writers are spread all over this place right now and by me here there are nine. Some are reading. Some are writing. And I’m talking to you.

Writing West Midlands runs this summer school and all week I’ve been saying I wish it had been around when I needed it. My secondary school laughed at me, teachers and pupils simultaneously, for wanting to be a writer and this summer school would’ve been a boon. It would’ve been the ignition I didn’t know I needed and that I didn’t get until many years later.

Only, another thing about being squeezed is that I just get increasingly stupid. Earlier this week I tried to cook something in the dishwasher. All through this week I’ve been missing turns on the drive and adding 30-40 minutes to the trip.

And the most stupid of all is that it took me until today to realise that the summer school did exist when I needed it. Because it does exist. I’m here right now.

I’m not 10-17, no matter how much I look it, but I am in a writing summer school and I am – okay, chiefly I’m exhausted but otherwise I’m invigorated and truly inspired. I don’t use that word casually. There are many of us running this and of course the summer school gets in speakers and of course they really come in for the young writers. But stuff them, I’m having a great time.

I’m working with professional writers Maeve Clarke, Joe Bennett and Holly Reaney. I’m working with Writing West Midlands’s Emma Boniwell and Jonathan Davidson. I’m working with 20-odd young writers whose work you’ll shortly be able to read when they have novels out on Amazon.

And then yesterday I was working with – I mean, the kids were working with – Birmingham Young Poet Laureate Nyanda Foday. I confessed early and readily that as much as I was looking forward to her coming in, that was mostly because she attended this summer school a couple of years ago. So she was back in the same room she had been, talking to young writers like she had been. Fantastic.

Plus, I do adore reading poetry. I came very late to it but I have now discovered, for instance, that 200 years ago, Christina Rossetti sat down, cracked her knuckles, and said right, I’m going to upset that William Gallagher bloke. And she did. And she does. The power in poetry. I love it and I crave it and I can’t do it.

Nyanda gave me a quite patient look, I feel, and then set all of us off writing something. Including me.

I cannot allow the notion that Nyanda was anything but being very nice about the end result, but she was really convincingly nice and I’m coming away from summer school just a little bit transformed.

And so I want to do something. Late this afternoon, the students on this writing summer school get to read their work to their families in a showcase. I want to show you mine.

Only you, okay? This is what I wrote. It’s a piece about palimpsests, those ancient pieces of paper from a time when such things were incredibly expensive. You couldn’t easily afford paper so when you had it, you wrote and wrote and wrote. You wrote over what you did yesterday. You wrote in the margins. You tried rubbing off yesterday’s shopping list in order to make notes on today’s news or something. Over and over, layer over layer of writing.


The paper that we used to use is gone
The paper that we reused is gone too
Nothing survives of our tree-based scribbles
Nothing prevails of the accidental
Of our deliberate hidings and finds
Screens are clear and text is deleted again
Screens are fresh and untrodden forever
We gain speed, clarity and decision
We gain a permanence in typing but
The people that we used to be are gone.

William Gallagher

Poet time writer

Please don’t ever ask me who my favourite writers are because it would be about eight hours before I finally asked who yours are in return. Still, if you were nutty enough to enquire, then way up in the first ten minutes of mine I’d be saying Emily Dickinson, Suzanne Vega, Christina Rossetti and Dar Williams.

Spot what they’ve got in common.

They’re all poets.

Actually, I don’t know that Williams would say that of herself as she, like Vega, is a songwriter, but to me her finest work is exquisite poetry.

Only, I don’t know when it happened that I spotted that or when so many of my writing heroes turned out to be poets. I can’t write poetry. Not a single line. And while I’m reasonably half or quarter sure that my school must’ve mentioned poetry at some point, none of that went into my head. None of that made me like the stuff.

I can tell you that it was when a TV show called Head of the Class claimed you could read any Emily Dickinson poem to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas that I first heard of “Because I would not stop for death / Death kindly stopped for me”.

Then I associate Christina Rossetti chiefly with “and if thou wilt, remember, and if thou wilt, forget” which pops up in Alan Plater’s work. That is a chasm of a poem. I swear Rossetti sat down one day in 1862, cracked her knuckles and said right, I’m going to upset that William Gallagher bloke.

I can’t read it, can’t hear it, can’t even type that extract without feeling the centre of my body yanked down into the dirt.

That’s the other thing this bunch have in common: they upset me. Emily Dickinson does have that gleefully, joyously conspiratorially friendly “I’m nobody, who are you?” piece which balances out a lot of things, but still, on average she upsets me greatly.

There’s the one of hers that begins “Hope is the thing with feathers” and when that line, just that line, was read out over a scratchy tannoy at a breast cancer rally, I stopped and wept.

Dar Williams has You’re Ageing Well, which in its original version has seen me pulling over to the side of the road to let hot tears fall out of me. Curiously, she did a version with Joan Baez and I find that one a shrug.

Then Suzanne Vega has Tired of Sleeping which used to double me up in pain and can still be a blade in the gut.

I think you and I can also conclude that poets are really nasty people while I am a hard, macho man. But, grief, I yearn to write like them.


I have literally bled over my keyboard: I like to say that it was from the power of my writing or at least the power of my typing but in truth I just had a paper cut one Tuesday. This was untold years ago but I want to talk to you about it today because I’ve had three messily disconnected thoughts that I think might just be very tidily connected, if we can just focus on them.

At the start of the week, a friend mentioned that she’d had some criticism of a script of hers, that she’d been told “not enough bombs go off in it”. My friend agrees with this and now she’s said it, so do I. Only because she’s said it, though: I read that script, I enjoyed it very much and between us I rather envied her writing, but yes, on reflection, it needs a bomb or three.

Then a couple of days ago, another friend sent me a poem of hers which, as well as a good thousand other things, was about her breasts. Now, I’m a man and I am rather deeply flattered that she correctly trusted that I would take this poem the way it was intended, that I would look at it as a piece of writing she wanted an opinion on, that I wouldn’t go all hot and flustered about it.

Okay. I went a little hot and flustered. Oh, but you should see it: a real example of the power of a poet where those thousand things are all there, all present, all explored in the shortest, tightest, briefest writing. Every word vital, every rhythm and punctuation a key part of the effect.

Only, look what I just did. I admitted to you that I got hot and flustered but then I immediately ran off to hide into literary critique and try to sound like a professional writer. I did the equivalent of coughing at you, of saying I’ve just got something in my eye, of saying “so anyway, did you see the match?” or something.

Her poem is really, I feel, about many different kinds and levels of intimacy, of trust and bonding, of shared and unshared experiences and feelings, I think it’s about friendship and just human connection. But I’ll say it: her poem is also very sexy.

I found that hard to say to you. I find I’m also suddenly hoping she never reads this or that the next time we meet up, we can drink a lot of whisky to disguise my red face. Nothing could go wrong with that idea, could it? But I also need to accept that I find it hard to write material that is exposed and sexy. I think it may come from childhood when I read a lot of Arthur C Clarke and got exasperated at how schoolboy his constant panting about breasts in zero gravity is. Flash forward a lot of years and someone told me they thought a character of mine was a sexual fantasy and I was appalled because I think she’s right yet the character is not a fantasy of mine. Did she think it was, would you think that’s what I, um, respond to?

I think sexy goes far, far beyond the physical and I’ve written many women characters that I’ve fancied on the page for their wit and excitement, that I’ve then fancied in studio for who played those characters. I think you are now reading the only thing I have written about body parts. No, wait, I did a Self Distract once about the word skin. Okay, you’re now reading only the second thing I’ve written about body parts.

That skin one was to do with a misheard Suzanne Vega lyric that I found charged and exciting and true, and therefore feel gigantically smug that as it was misheard, that means I wrote it and she didn’t. I also feel stupid for mishearing a line for twenty years, but. Speaking of Suzanne Vega, though, she has a song with called Ironbound/Fancy Poultry and, set in a food market, it gets to speak of “breasts and thighs and hearts”. It’s taking words we associate with sex and keeping that association but also taking the words out into the light to examine them.

I said I had three thoughts and you’ve got to expecting that the third is also about sex. I’m being very male today. Only, no. This is where the disconnection comes in, the feeling I have that I’m groping – unfortunate word, sorry – toward something more. This third bit is about another friend who, possibly two years ago now, also asked me to read something of hers she was working on. It was a novel and I enjoyed it but in the talk with her later, I realised she’d had no qualms about asking me to read it.

There was nothing in that manuscript that worried her. Wait, no, there was one thing: she had a character called Will who was particularly attractive and she needed me to know that “he isn’t remotely, distantly, possibly based on you, William”. I would never have made the connection, it would never have occurred to me that it was my name, but now I went harrumphing into reading it.

That was all that troubled her, the coincidence of names. And I can see us in a coffee shop talking later, I can see the moment when I realised that what I felt the book was missing was something that gave her, the writer, qualms. Something that exposed her more, that for all it was about interesting characters in an interesting situation, it needed to also be more about the writer. Exposed is the right word. It needed some risk. I think the piece needed something that when she handed me the manuscript, she was embarrassed about how I’d take it.

This is what I’m striving for with you today, what I realise my writing needs to strive for more. I hurt my characters, I have emotional bombs going off and I have emotional bombs waiting to explode, but I don’t cut into myself. I don’t mean that I have to write about breasts but I need to bleed over the keyboard much, much more and the fact that I hold back is really getting on my tits.