408 Not Out

I’ve said this to you before but if you don’t remember, it’s fine: just ask anyone I’ve ever passed on the street because I’ve told them this too. The sole way I have of guessing whether my work is any good is if I’m asked back to do it again.

And I think this might be very male of me but usually I also track the details, the minutiae of what I’m doing. Except for one thing: word counts.

I’m rubbish at this bit, I cannot now remember how I worked this out but I am certain that I’ve had over four million words published. I’m less certain but pretty sure that I’m on the way to five million. Half a billion words published.

Good or bad, that’s a career.

Only, there is a number that I know for absolute, documented fact because I absolutely document it every time it happens. It’s now five years since I was made redundant from Radio Times (I’ve been freelance since 1996 but RT put me on staff for a couple of days a week) and shortly after that, I was asked to speak at a festival. Five years, 1996, two days, these aren’t the numbers I track.

Instead, for some reason – and who knows why – I made a note of that festival and I gave it a number. I mean, I was delighted to be asked and I had a great time, but I don’t know why I gave it the number 1. I mean, Steph Vidal-Hall of PowWow LitFest interviewed me and even in the middle of answering questions I was admiring how deftly she was steering me the way she wanted, but I didn’t expect there to be a number 2.

There was.

From that first public speaking gig, I’ve talked at a lot of festivals, I’ve run very many workshops, I’ve been in schools, universities and prisons. Radio. Television, a bit.

So there was a number 2, there was a number 3 and last week there was number 408.

That’s an average of one and a half speaking gigs per week since I left Radio Times.

I was thinking that I’d tell you something useful I’d learned over those 408. I’m not sure I can say anything you don’t already know, though, so my mind’s gone on to how I’ve now mentioned Radio Times to you three times.

It is true that leaving RT was a blow.

It was worse than it sounds, too, because I didn’t just lose whatever it was, two or three days of staff work, I also lost all my freelancing with them. (Almost all: I still write the odd radio review them, even now. I was asked back once to work on a Radio Times book: that was a blast.)

I think at the time I left I was doing three different things, being on staff for the RT website, freelancing for the magazine and, er, something else. Maybe freelancing for the site. I don’t know. But it was typically the equivalent of eight days work per week, so Radio Times was a big deal.

Plus it’s Radio Times and I have adored that magazine all my life. Seriously, everyone should get chance to dip into their archives: I have had such bliss researching television history in those.

You’re aware that there are only seven days in a week, you’ve spotted that, so you can also see that there was no time for any other work than RT. Somehow that wasn’t true, I wrote my first book while I was still there.

It’s just that since I left, I’ve written or co-written another 17 books. Now I can’t figure out how I fitted RT in.

And yet you know this to be true: clearly I think about Radio Times, clearly I miss it, clearly leaving was such a big deal that it is part of me.

Not so much.

I feel bad saying this now because working on RT did mean the world to me, working with those people was tremendous, but it’s all on my mind now for another reason entirely.

It’s that when I left I popped the date into my calendar and for some reason marked it to repeat annually.

This date popped up on my screen the other day. I batted the notification away and carried on writing the script I was working on, but it obviously went into my head.

So I had wanted to give you some life lesson about presenting 408 times. Then I wanted to give you some kind of life lesson about how gigantic, shocking, startling, disappointing change can be fantastic.

But instead I’m just going to say you shouldn’t be so daft as to put reminders in your calendar for events that happened a lifetime ago.

Writing to ourselves

This is a tough one because I can’t quite form the thought that’s bubbling but I want to try. It’s clearly about the little local difficulty this week, that tiny of thing of Trump getting elected. And it’s also definitely about the disconnection between most things I read beforehand and what a majority of the US public must’ve read.

But other things keep popping in. Like the photo of a spray-painted sign that went went around social media this week. It’s so peculiarly spaced that you have to think for a moment but what it’s trying to say is “Make America White Again”. Forget that it’s an inexpressibly painful statement and instead if you see the photo, look at the symbol between the words.

Here’s someone doing the America-for-Americans crap but he – it’ll be a he – uses a German Nazi Swastika symbol. That symbol had a life long before the Nazi Party but that’s over, that’s gone, that’s erased: this logo is forever Nazi and German. If the painter knows this, he’s just broken his own ambition of building a wall between the US and ‘foreigners’. If he doesn’t know, then he’s even more ignorant than you already think.

Yet here’s an ignorant prick turning to writing. Writing matters. It reaches people: even his hateful message got widely circulated and I’m part of that. We couldn’t be more different, this man and I, yet he wrote something and I’ve passed it on to you.

Usually, though, it is true that we write and read within our own walled gardens. This has been an issue with the rise of Facebook and Twitter where if you don’t agree with someone, you can just remove them from your social media life. It’s definitely a big issue now as the result of the election was a surprise to pretty much all of the media writers. No question, they believed they were right and no question, each article condemning Trump backed up their view.

Only, I don’t think the walled garden idea is entirely fair. At least part of the problem with media coverage of the election is that people lied to them. People knew that it was bad to say they supported Trump, so they didn’t say it. The more they didn’t say it, the more the accepted view was that you couldn’t support this man so the more they didn’t admit it.

Obviously they knew they were lying, obviously they chose to lie, and it follows that they did so because saying they backed this foul man was socially unacceptable. It isn’t any more. He won. So the haters feel they’ve won too. Even if we didn’t have the evidence from Brexit here and even if we weren’t already seeing it in the States, you could predict that hate crimes would rise, that the darkest sides of people would come out into the light. Because they think they can do it, because they know it is socially acceptable to enough people, because their President is truly theirs.

That makes me shake. That’s a walled garden where the people in it have just discovered each other and are crowing about it.

It’s horrible but it’s not new. Even though Facebook and Twitter have exacerbated the walled garden idea, we have always had this exact same thing. Think back to when newspapers mattered: you didn’t see very many dinner dates between a reader of The Sun and one of The Guardian.

Go back even further, no, further than that, keep going, still more, nearly there, here you are. Pre-industrialised society. Whatever were the generally accepted norms in your village could be very different to what was thought right in the next. Back then the barrier was a physical problem of separation, now it’s more human response.

And I’m afraid it is human. We are born into one tribe and even if we leave, we seek out others. Writing has enabled us to leave sooner and spread further, yet we still and always will gather in similar groups. Aaron Sorkin once had a character say that if you’re dumb, surround yourself with clever people and that if you’re clever, surround yourself with clever people who disagree with you. We won’t.

I don’t write to you because I consciously think you’re in my tribe, I write to you because I like you. My Facebook friends are people I like, or people I’ve worked with, or people I’m pretty sure I know even if I can’t quite place them at the moment. Amongst them, there’s been a lot of talk about blocking and unfriending people who are pro-Trump. It is tempting but I’ve resisted because I do want some gristle, I do want to learn and grow and persuade and be persuaded.

But I accept that in the main, I am in a walled garden and I am writing in one. I also accept that this is bad and that we should do what we can to break those walls down.

Only, there is a part of me that thinks this isn’t the problem. If Trump and Clinton supporters are in walled gardens, if Brexit’s Leave and Remain sides are in walled gardens, we probably can’t change that.

What we need to do is make our walled garden bigger than their walled garden. And we’ll do it with writing. You and I.