Not what I was expecting to talk to you about

Grief, I need tea. Would you like one? I think there’s two teabags left, though oddly they’re called “tagged teabags”. I don’t know if that means they bleep when you steal them from the hotel or whether they’re just really well catalogued, but let’s have them anyway.

Slightly dizzy. I’m in a Manchester hotel and there was a fire alarm: did you hear it? So loud. Made louder by it being at 06:25. Made louder still by the klaxon being joined by an automated voice shouting that we had to evacuate the building, this is no drill, warp core breach in thirty seconds. I may be exaggerating.

Actually, that’s a horrible thought. I grabbed yesterday’s clothes and joined the crowd going down the stairs. Before I’d finished dressing, though, another – er, tenant? Member of the public? Civilian? I’m not sure what to call her. Another hotel guest, thank you. Another hotel guest was coming back up the stairs and calling out that it’s okay, apparently this was all a mistake. What if she were the one exaggerating? What if she was out and out lying – and we should all have continued to go out?

Why didn’t she tell me this four floors earlier?

I want you to know that I was very good and I left all my luggage in the room as you should. (What if she were working with a team of hotel thieves?) I don’t want you to know that my first thought was that I could be outside for hours and would be writing to you on my Apple Watch. No, actually, do think that, do know that: my potential last thoughts were of you.

And of the workshop I’m doing at 10am.

I did one here yesterday for the Federation of Entertainment Unions: about twenty people from Equity, the NUJ, the Musicians’ Union and the Writers’ Guild. I’m doing another one on a different topic today, different set of people, also for the FEU. I think yesterday’s went well, certainly I had a great time, but I know it went easier than ever. The venue, Band on the Wall, has the regular projector and screen I need for presenting but they also have an Apple TV.

Now, that’s two references to Apple in one go, so I’m improving. Yesterday was only the second time I’ve presented via one of these boxes – and the first time was the evening before. That was a practice run in the hotel room: I brought our own Apple TV, meaning Angela couldn’t watch Netflix at home, sorry, and tried it out on the hotel TV set.

If you’re interested in this stuff then I’ll tell you this is my new ideal and I will always bring an Apple TV with me: it beats having to hope you’ve brought the right cables for a projector you’ve not seen before. It also means I could roam the room with that iPad. All really useful stuff for me, so useful that I love it. That the venue had its own, just icing.

Only, the hotel TV set. I am a TV drama nut and yet this is the first hotel I’ve stayed in for about the last three years that I’ve even switched the telly on. The last time was also in Manchester, I was appearing on BBC Breakfast and switched it on so I could watch the start of the show in my room and get even more scared.

It’s even longer since I used the phone in a hotel room. That used to be the thing, didn’t it? Get into a new hotel room, phone home or phone wherever you’re going next, then one of you checks out the bathroom and the other tries the TV. Face it, when you’re in Stereotype City, it’s the man who switches on the telly and the woman who checks out the bathroom. Both use the phone.

Or did. Now look at us, at all of us. We bring our own phones with us. We don’t bring our own TV sets, except we do. When I’d finished rewriting the first of these two presentations on my iPad, I kicked back and relaxed – by watching the same iPad.

I watched Lou Grant on it. This is the journalism drama that made me want to be a writer and I can quote you lines, I accidentally use lines from it, 35 years after it aired. Lou Grant has finally come out on DVD. This was the one show I longed for the most when I was reviewing DVDs, when shiny discs were a thing, and now it’s out as nobody’s buying DVDs anymore. I bought it. Of course I bought it. And I’ll buy season 2 when it comes out in August.

Only, I’m doing that because it’s Lou Grant and it’s special to me and I want it to be a success, I want all five seasons released. When I was doing the disc reviewing lark, I would regularly hear from people who said they refused to buy a TV show until the entire series was released. They didn’t want to spend their money buying season 1 if season 2 were never brought out. People are idiots. You like the show enough to buy it, buy it. You don’t buy it because you hope the studio will release all five seasons first, you’re not really attuned to how this works.

I’m buying the DVDs to do my tiny part in making the sales enough to warrant doing more. This is a genuinely special show, not just to me, for all manner of television history reasons and for how tremendously well done it is.

But it’s special to me. I watch the show now as a writer with, if not experience then at least age behind me, I watch it now having been a professional critic, but I also watch it as the 13-year-old I was then. My job today is standing up in front of established actors, musicians, writers and journalists. I watch Lou Grant in this hotel room and there is an extra commentary track in my head with my 13-year-old self wondering at how I got here.

My 50-year-old self is wondering why it took me so long to get here but that’s another story.

God in heaven.

I’ve just realised, saying this to you I’ve just realised: I am now the age that the character Lou Grant was at the start of this series.


Here’s a thing. Lou Grant is at last out on DVD, right? I’ve already got the first three seasons on iTunes. (They didn’t release the fourth and fifth: I check regularly.) It came out on VHS once: about three episodes and I have two of them. Speaking of VHS, I have a huge filing cabinet draw with about 30, possibly 40 VHS tapes that I recorded off-air or that friends did. It’s missing one episode: Violence, from 1981. That missing one killed me, for years.

It doesn’t kill me now because I’ve got it. I will buy the DVDs as they hopefully continue to come out and I will buy the iTunes versions if they do, but the hunt for this missing episode took me down some interesting alleys. It’s a fourth-season episode so it has not been released officially in any form and consequently I don’t feel 100% bad about this. But that interesting alley has the whole season 4. And 5. And 1, and 2. It only has about half of season 3, but that’s okay, I’ve got all of that one on iTunes.

So I’m in a hotel, drinking tea with you, head still a little fuzzy from the fire alarm, and in a moment I will have to work on my iPad. But at this moment, right here under my fingers, right here in my possession, this one device has all 114 episodes of Lou Grant on it.

Call me ridiculous, because I am, but I left my luggage but I grabbed this iPad.

Lou Grant on iPad

Talk a lot, don’t I?

When did writers have to yap so much? Whenever it was for me, there was then also some moment when I discovered that I enjoy talking with groups so much that it’s worth the close-to-vomiting pre-show nerves I get. Mind you, I say that and when we’re done today I’m off to work with probably 75 to 100 people and right now, right this moment, I’m not nervous.


There we go. Stomach took a nose dive. Bodies are funny things.

Minds are worse. I can’t judge whether I’m any good at the things I do but I can count. Success for me is being asked back. The answer to nerves is to tell myself I’ve done this before and it seemed to go okay.

I want to talk to you about this now because I’ve just passed my 200th presentation since records began back in October 2012. And because I’ve got four more today: I’m preparing for those by thinking about this stuff and I’m distracting myself from the job by talking with you. Kettle’s on, by the way.

Right after last week’s Self Distract chat, I went on to do five workshops and then a mentoring session earlier this week which all brings me to a total so far of 203 presentations, talks, workshops or the like. Plenty of those were radio or television where I’ve no way of guessing how many folk I was really talking to but as best as I can judge it, I’ve been face to face with a total of 6,528 people.

Approximately. Told you I count. And for completeness I should say that these figures do not include events I produced but didn’t speak at. Over the same period of nearly three years, I’ve produced six events.

I am supremely conscious that this is nothing compared to, for instance, any teacher I’ve worked with in that time. Any of them. I work with Writing West Midlands which produces 300 events a year. I am feeble. I’m also conscious that no matter how many people you are going to talk with, the odds are that you won’t meet precisely the same 6,528 so my telling you about them all is useless. Though watch out for that one in the hat. Trouble.

Yet I have learned things from these people, from these events. Some things I’ve learned are precise nuggets that I’ll always carry with me, some are directly useful things that I will be trying to do from now on.

1) Of the 203 events so far, I’d say 35 were great successes, 147 were pretty good, 19 were okay and 2 were total stinkers where I died. If the day ever comes that I am blasé about speaking to groups then – no, actually, that isn’t going to happen. Chiefly because of the two deaths. One of them was entirely my fault: I was just totally crap and deserved to have a bad night. The other wasn’t entirely me, I had worked as hard for it as any of the rest but somehow the material just did not come together in time and I was awful. If you’re counting, it was event #3 that was the worst. Two hundred gigs ago and I can still see every minute of it.

2) People are on your side. Everyone wants you to be good: of course they do, they’ve turned up hoping to enjoy themselves, they are hoping you’ll be great. You can lose that in seconds but when you first stand up there, the room is on your side.

3) You can and must plan like mad but you’ll rarely follow your plan. In every one of the 35 best events I’ve done, there has come a moment when I know in my stomach that I can’t fill the rest of the time. That I’m out of material, somehow, and the finishing line is a long way off. I say that to you and I can feel the sickening lurch and the compulsion to fight my face falling. I don’t want this to ever happen again but, seriously, each time it has, the event has ended up going brilliantly. If I could explain why, maybe I wouldn’t fear this moment so much.

4) Everybody is more interesting than you. I hold this to always be self-evident despite being aware that I’m going on a bit at you today. Seriously, though: everybody is more interesting. The more you can get them to talk instead of you, the more fun everybody has. Depending on the group and the subject, I’ve had some success announcing early on that there will be a Question and Argument session at the end. I’ve threatened people with a Q&A saying that if nobody interrupts me with a question or a comment during the session then we will have the Q&A but it will be me asking them the questions.

You do then have to follow through with questions but that means you’re looking for them through the whole session and it keeps you on your toes.

5) Hard and soft items. This is a thing I learned from radio that I’m using now: vary what you’re doing, vary it in topic and length. A hard item is something that is prepared and can’t be changed, like a video you play. A soft item is a thing you can shorten or lengthen as you need so a Q&A or an interview.

6) On your feet. Even if you were talking to me in a room, there would come a point when I wasn’t taking it in any more. Get me to think or act or do or something, just for a minute. Shake me up. I once had a thing where it was after lunch on a hot day, the third day of a residential thing, and all I knew was that this was going badly. So I gathered up everyone from various groups and marched us all outside where I had no single clue what I was going to do but I found something and it worked. We went back in to work afterwards with renewed energy. Well, the group did, I needed whisky.

7) Shut up.

I should do number 7 now. Thanks for letting me talk this through. I know I’m not an expert in this but very unexpectedly my career has broadened out to include what for me is a lot of talking. I’m astonished how very, very much I like it – and I’m appalled how nervous I still get before every one. It’s talking but it’s like live writing, you know? Everything I know or think I know about writing gets used here. It’s like the way I see video and audio editing as being writing: there is just something the same about it, you use the same muscles.

And I like using those muscles. I really, really do.

The spoken word

I’m a writer. It’s possible that I’ve mentioned this before. But something over two years ago – I actually cannot remember the date – I returned permanently to Birmingham and something under two years ago, I talked on stage.

For that one I was being interviewed at PowWow LitFest by Steph Vidal-Hall in September 2012. I’ve been interviewed quite a bit since then and I’ve also been the interviewer many times. Produced a few events. Run a lot of workshops. Presented a great deal. Book talks. Author talks.

Being a writer, I wrote all this down. I have a list in Evernote. It’s got LitFest as number 1.

Tomorrow is September 2014 and I’m in Burton upon Trent to run a Young Writers’ Group session for Writing West Midlands – and that is number 100.

After the first 9, I started counting how many people heard me. That’s sometimes necessarily approximate and I’ve no way at all of even guessing the answer when I’ve been on radio or television. Or when I’ve done teleseminars for other companies. That’s quite eerie, speaking into the void. So this can’t be accurate at all, but I’ve at least spoken to 1,754 people.

Funny thing, though: I still think of this as writing. It’s the same job of communicating an idea. (Or hopefully lots of ideas: you’re spending money here, I’ve got to give you good value.) I go about it the same way in obviously planning and structuring but less obviously in reaching into myself as deeply as I can to find something new and something that might be worth your listening to.

So it’s writing, which I’ve done all my life, and by tomorrow I’ll have spoken 100 times to something like 1,754 people and still it’s scarier than writing to you like this. You’re nice.

Actually, I think the 1,754 people were nice too.

But that only helps from the moment I begin speaking. From that instant and throughout the talk, most certainly afterwards nattering with people, everything is great. Usually.

Up to that instant, not so much.

I’ve only vomited once with nerves and that was before this 100 started. During the 100 I’ve come close only two times so that’s pretty good: near-retching 2% of the time.

Funnily enough, I’ve been wretched 2% of the time.

Clearly I’m not saying I’m fantastic the rest of the time but those two stand out as bad. I should say that these two weren’t same as the two near-vomit ones and actually I’m being a little unfair. One of them, number 80 (Royal Television Society mini-summit at BBC Nottingham, 17 people on 26 June 2014) I was merely rubbish.

But for the other, number 3 (Mee Club spoken word cabaret, before records of exact dates and audiences began), I stank.

It wasn’t for a lack of effort. I just hadn’t got the material right, despite a lot of work and a lot of time. The material only came together that afternoon and I didn’t physically have enough hours left to get it right.

Cat Weatherill ran that evening and let me atone very shortly afterwards with number 5 (Tell Me on a Sunday, also before counting began). I was much, much better then.

So I have Cat to thank for that opportunity to redeem myself. I have Steph to thank for making me sound great on stage that very first time, I have 1,754 people to thank for at the very least pretending to listen very well.

But I’m a writer, okay? I just talk about it a lot.