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.

I have no stories about Prince

Well, apart from Kunmi making a group of us go see Purple Rain in the cinema and it being the first and last film I saw with an intermission. The confusion when something purple turned into an ad for a ice lolly, the relief when this meant a break from the film, the sinking feeling that maybe we were only half way through it.

Not that it would be very long before I liked the music from the film but that evening in Derby, that was a long time all by itself.

Whereas I do have a short story of the time I may possibly have slightly annoyed Victoria Wood. Last week I was talking to you about the times I interviewed Gareth Thomas for no purpose – there was a bit more to it than that but it’s a fair summary – and now there’s that time I crossed Victoria Wood for no reason.

Listen, I feel I’m trivialising the news of her death and Gareth Thomas’s, maybe also of Prince’s. Trivialising it down into anecdotes from what I appear now to think is my great celebrity-mingling career. Reducing a life when the most I would want to do is reduce a death: I want to reduce these down into them not happening, please.

Gareth Thomas would not recognise me on the street. I am connected to Prince only via seven billion degrees of separation and I could name more of them than he ever would. And for one half of one moment, there’s Victoria Wood frowning at me. I’m thinking I’ve annoyed her, she’s probably thinking “Did he say something?”

It was at a BBC event and I remember Lee Evans making me convulse, I remember someone very senior agreeing to my interviewing him or her but then spending the ten minutes either looking over my left shoulder to find someone more interesting or talking over my right to somebody across the room. I remember all this and I can picture it, I can picture the table Wood was at when I sat down next to her, I just cannot recall what the event was or when.

Good grief. The handy thing about that Very Senior person is that I can carbon date the event because of her or him. I just looked up him or her and can see from a Wikipedia timeline that the event had to be between 2000 and 2005. I would’ve sworn to you it was the 1990s.

Whenever it is and whatever I’m there for, it’s work and I’d guess either for BBC Ceefax or Radio Times. I’m definitely there to ask questions and learn things. Only, I remember that at the moment I got to Wood’s table, I was thinking about how she was on tour and that meant doing the same show every night for months. I was thinking about how you imagine a writer writes and their writing is finished whereas you know a singer has to re-perform the material over and over. I was thinking of the repetition and the difficulty of that.

So what I thought I was asking Victoria Wood was about whether it’s hard to go back out on stage repeatedly. I know I actually asked about how presumably there must be some nights when you don’t want to do it.

“Well, I hope I’ve never disappointed anybody,” she said and that was about it. Someone else came along, I picture myself reaching out through the swell of people as I say Nooooo in slow motion and they all block my view of just how much offence I’ve given her.

I did offend her and she did take it as an accusation that there are evenings when she wasn’t performing at her best. That isn’t what I meant but now it’s out there, it must be the case, it must be. Yet you don’t think Victoria Wood ever gave a bad performance and nor do I.

I do think some of her pastiche parodies were thin and stretched but I have her Chunky book and the script to Pat and Margaret on my shelves here and I just won’t ever write as well as she does. Sorry. As she did. This is a hard year.