You couldn’t make it up

Long ago when I worked at BBC Radio WM in Pebble Mill, the sports department had a shelf of highlights on. Large spools of reel to reel tape with the recordings of famous local sporting events.

Only, I can picture that shelf now and I can remember being in that newsroom, looking at the reels and thinking well, er, no. These are not recordings of sports events.

They were recordings of radio presenters commentating on these events instead.

I’m not knocking the commentators, I’m in no way knocking the reasons for keeping the archive. It’s just that although it’s a slight difference, the tapes were regarded as the events themselves, not as the radio station’s commentary.

There’s something in that disconnection that I’ve been reminded of by all the writing about Donald Trump and Brexit. I keep hearing the phrase “you couldn’t make it up” and actually, yeah, you could. I think by now your audience would be a bit bored. They’d want some new characters, they’d be thinking we’ve got antagonists up our armpits, we need someone to be the hero. Anyone. Please.

I think the thing is that you wouldn’t make it up this badly. No matter whether you were commentating on events or especially if you are the poor sod who’s going to make a TV drama about all this one day, your very medium imposes certain things.

Commentators expect to be able to draw on previous statistics. TV drama writers inescapably want light and shade, they want pacing, they want to build to a conclusion.

None of that is available to us. It’s all dark, it’s all unrelenting and statistics are now alternative facts.

Hopefully this is just me but I can’t dramatise what’s going on. It makes me want to go write something else, to write about something or to create something that I can fashion, that I can explore, that I can convey something through.

We have the most visibly, publicly, proudly illiterate people in power that we may ever have had. Yet they are defying writers to comprehend them, they are controlling the disarray we’re in.

Maybe it will ultimately be good. Maybe this will shake us out of habits and patterns that we are used to, maybe it will make us – okay, me – writer better and deeper.

I don’t know about me and what I can do. But I do see journalism trying to fight back and I do see the writers of Saturday Night Live being on their best form in two decades because of it.

Maybe what I’ve been doing is trying to use writing to help me understand. Maybe I’ve been focused on the commentator’s tapes and really what I should do is go to the event.

Writers and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis

I don’t think I’ve ever quite said this to you before but I regard it as a treat and a privilege that we get to chat. And I am especially conscious of this now as Self Distract has been dead for a month because of website problems. Oh, my lights, but it’s good to be back.

Now that we’re on speaking terms again – thank you A Small Orange internet service provider for rescuing the blog from the debris – I do of course want to talk to you about writing. It’ll just take a while to get there and I think along the way we’re going to explore something that applies to everything and everyone. Certainly to you and I.

At least certainly if you spend as much time thinking about words as I do. It’s not healthy of us, it really isn’t.

But one word that I particularly like is the German one ‘heimat’. There’s a famous German television drama of the 1980s called that and I never got around to watching it. What I learned about it, though, was that strictly speaking the word heimat means home. And, more importantly, that it really means much more than that – which English doesn’t have an equivalent to.

Then there’s the quote from Cervantes which goes something like this: “Reading a translation is like looking at the back of a tapestry”. Isn’t that wonderful? Such a vivid, instantly clear, instantly obviously right way to explain that you can get the pattern but you cannot see the colour.

Only, this is a favourite quote of mine for one specific reason: Cervantes originally said it in Spanish.

So as much as I believe I understand the thought, as an English-only speaker I am perhaps only looking at the back of it, at the pattern of the meaning instead of its full colour.

It’s thinking about this kind of stuff that means I heard of what’s often called the Sapir Whorf hypothesis a long time ago. If you only recently heard of it, that’s because you’ve just seen the film Arrival. If you’ve never heard of it before right this moment, please go see Arrival. (The screenplay is by Eric Heisserer and based on a short story by Ted Chiang. For once, I urge you to see the film instead of solely reading the screenplay but right now that script is available online. It won’t be there for long: it’s online as part of awards season and will be taken down in a few weeks. If you miss it, tell me: I lunged at the screen to save a copy for myself.)

The film exaggerates or at least takes this hypothesis on further than Edward Sapir or Benjamin Lee Whorf did and apparently many people think their idea is bollocks anyway. I’m fine with a film using a bollocks idea and taking it to somewhere as gorgeous as Arrival does, but I also think the hypothesis is right because of Heimat, because of Cervantes – and actually because of radio.

Writ very short, the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is that the language we use affects how we think, how we see the world. In Arrival, this is the start for a simply beautiful story and one so delicately drawn that it made me want to rip up all my own writing and start over.

But in Arrival and in the full Sapir Whorf hypothesis, the point is very specifically about a whole language, an entire language and not just a phrase book. If you speak French then your very thought patterns are subtly different to the way you think if you are a German speaker.

I am sure that’s true but I don’t know because I solely speak English and can’t compare anything. Yet I still think there’s something key about this idea even within my one single language. For instance, I suspect that writers think differently to, I don’t know, chefs. I was talking to someone once, for instance, who visibly could not grasp whatever small-talk subject it was until we found a way to translate it and use an example from his industry. That was an odd and somewhat long hour.

I am also entirely certain that I think the way I do because of radio. Tell me if this is you, too, but I can see that I’m shaped by having worked in radio. Specifically that my sense of time is different. There’s the time passing away for all of us but there’s also the time that you plan out for a show, that you plan out like time is a physical space.

So for instance even though it’s years since I worked in BBC radio, I still think in the terms top and bottom of the hour. I think of the first half of an hour as being an easy, downhill-fast run while the second half is an uphill climb. I can rationalise that by how you’re doing a show because you have something you’re excited to say and so naturally you want to get to it quickly. The start is easy because you want to rush in. The end is tough because you’ve got to pace out the piece, you’ve got to be sure you’ve included everything. But still, sod rationalisation: I think this so deeply that the top of the hour feels fast and easy to me, the bottom of the hour feels hard.

You do this in radio, I do it still in producing events and workshops, but I also just do it all the time. Like, all the time.

I do this and then I also think in terms of hard and soft items.

A hard item, if you’ve not heard it described this way before, is one that’s already prepared and has a fixed duration. Watch The One Show, for instance, and you’ll see a mix of interviews in the studio and little films, sometimes called VTs, sometimes packages. (VT is from videotape, when these things were played in to the show off a prerecorded tape. You’re too young to remember videotape and consequently I hate you.)

These video packages are hard items and the studio guest interviews are soft ones. It’s nothing to do with whether one or the other is hard-hitting, gritty journalism or light, cheery frippery. It’s that the hard one can’t be stopped where the soft one, the interview, can be as long or as short as you like if things have changed. You can wrap up an interview when you’re running out of time where you can’t stop a film package.

Actually, of course you can. I’ve not worked in this type of television but in radio you would distressingly often have to come out of a package early because something happened or you’d mis-timed when you should’ve started playing it in. Stopping a package early while not sounding like you just fell over the fader took skill: you had to listen live and listen for the right instant, the right moment when actually the presenter only paused but it sounded like it could be the end. Then you slam that fader shut and you start talking as if that were the end.

It’s called potting. You pot a package. Language is wonderful. The reason this is potting instead of, say, slamming-fader-ing, is that before radio desks had faders, they had round little knobs. They looked like teeny upside down pots. You can still see a million of them on music studio recording desks.

I think of potting, then, the same way that we talk about taping a TV show when really we mean marking it to record on our Sky or DVR box. We talk about videoing an event when we mean digitally capturing it on our phone.

More than the terms, though, more than the words I think in, knowing what potting is and having done it, I can always hear what I can only describe as a pot point. If I’m watching the news, I know when they could pot the item and move on. Sometimes you wish they would and that’s about time too.

What we do shapes us, that’s certain. What we have to think about shapes us, I’m sure. I’m conscious that I’m now thinking about this in obsessive detail because that’s what writers do, or at least it’s what I do as a writer. But having finally got us back onto the topic of writing, I offer this: Sapir Whorf gives us an insight into characters.

Knowing this, or at least believing it, has got to help us see into the characters we create and inhabit in our fiction and our drama. See how they think and you’ll know what they’ll do, you’ll feel what they feel.

Amongst everything else about this, I believe that the practice of trying to think how other people do is a good, hopeful and maybe optimistic thing in a time when we need all of that. Whether it’s the Sapir Whorf hypothesis or just my own special kind of bollocks, I think it means that we can change how we think by doing and talking and thinking about something new.

Listen, I’ve been waiting to discuss this with you for a month. Let’s go get a tea and maybe watch Arrival. Waddya say?

Less justified

I’ll tell you now, I don’t come out of this well. Perhaps we could skip chatting this week, what do you think?

A year or 18 months ago, I can’t remember, the local radio station BBC CWR booked me to do an interview about something or other. It was just a phone interview, live into a show, and I’ve done that twenty times or more for various stations. You don’t get paid and as quick as it is to have the chat, it’s always a lot more work beforehand making sure you know your stuff, but I love and relish doing it. Gives me the same buzz I used to get while working in radio.

And doubtlessly because I’ve worked in radio, I get it. I understand how things work and so on that day when the show ran out of time before it got to my topic, I did not care in any measure. Someone from the station phoned right afterwards and sounded as if they usually get people swearing at them for doing this but I shrugged and I told them I shrugged. It’s the way it is, not one pixel’s worth of concern to me.

Equally, as absolute and resolute as they were when they then said they would definitely have me on the next day, I knew and I told them I knew, that the same thing could well happen again and if it did, so what? Radio is radio, news is news, it’s fine. I truly can’t remember the subject now but there was something about it that meant I needed to do some more work the next morning. I remember figuring out that over these couple of days I’d spent two hours on it. That’s two hours out of a freelancer’s week: you’re not getting paid for this but you’re also turning down work you would get money for so it’s a commitment in every sense.

Fortunately, this time they did get to the item. Unfortunately, they interviewed someone else.

Even that is fine. I’m a producer, I completely recognise that you could get better guests than me and that if you can, you’ve got to take them. Got to. No hesitation: the show comes first. I believe that in my very bones.

Only, I found out they got someone better by listening to the show: it was solely when this other guy appeared on air that I discovered I’d been ditched. They could’ve called me with seconds to go and I’d have understood. But they didn’t call before and they didn’t call after, either.

Now, I still kind of get it.

But they phoned this week asking if I could come on the same show and I said that I could – but I wouldn’t.

I can tell you that time is ferociously more pressing now, that taking time out from my work is far harder than it was a year ago, but the truth is that I’d do it like a shot for any station but BBC CWR. This is moot now because they will never ask me again and if they keep a running list of guests who are too petty to use, I’m on there.

The professional thing would’ve been for me to say yes and to do it. Nobody on that station even remembers screwing up that time and it is true that I’m petty being annoyed. It’s not like I’ve spent the year seething, but this week’s call of course reminded me and I just thought, shrug, fuck it.

Back podcasting at last

Ten years ago I started a weekly podcast called UK DVD Review and for a while it was in the top ten of all podcasts of all types across the world. Chiefly, I think, because there were only nine podcasts at the time. For five years that became an important show for me in how it seemed to validate certain things I believe about radio: for instance the fact that you may be broadcasting but you’re only ever speaking to one person.

It was a factual series yet I also got to dabble in drama. I remember some Top Gear DVD coming out the same week as a Knight Rider one so I had an episode that purported to be coming live from a race track somewhere. Top Gear’s the Stig in a race against Knight Rider’s KITT. The joke of it being that the two cars zoomed off leaving me behind and I spent the rest of the episode getting back to my home studio.

Or there’s an okay film called The Prestige which is based on a deeply wonderful novel by Christopher Priest and I reckoned there was a bit of The Princess Bride effect about it: if you saw the film first, you preferred it to the book and vice versa. (The Princess Bride film is not one pixel as good as the book.) So I staged an argument with one person as a fan of the film and the other as a fan of the book instead. Only, I was both of them. I argued with myself and it was all about writing dialogue that had pace and vigour but also difference. I did muck around with the stereo image so that one of me was on the left of your speakers, one on the right, and I did do a spot of acting to just make the tiniest change in my voices.

But it was the writing that did it. The real reason for doing UK DVD Review, before it became an important part of my life just for itself, was that I am a scriptwriter and I wanted to practice writing dialogue. It was my own dialogue, I scripted every word but the secondmost thing I’m proud of in the whole thing is that you couldn’t know that. I promise you couldn’t and that mattered to me a lot.

The firstmost thing I’m proud of, by the way, is that to this day I have friends I made because of that show. I used to do this thing where I’d end the year with a poll and have people voting on the best DVD releases. For the very last episode I’d get them on and we’d have a blather. Loved it.

That was the best part of the year but it was also why I stopped. In 2010, I ended the podcast because I simply could not give it enough time to do that end of the year show well enough. I often wonder whether I should’ve found a way and it touches my very soul how often I get asked to bring it back.

I haven’t brought it back. This time last week, I had no thought of doing a podcast of any description. I have been contributing to one by MacNN.com, the Macintosh News Network site that I write a bit for, but that’s just being an occasional guest. Plus I got to do an episode of Gigi Peterkin’s The Successful Failure and I remember telling her how good it was to have a little taste of radio again. I’ve done a fair bit of being interviewed on BBC local radio too and it’s all been reminding me how much I love this stuff.

Then I did some work with Birmingham City University that included a minute or three just walking through their seven radio studios. There is something inexpressibly great about a radio studio but I’m going to try expressing it. I think it’s the potency, the pregnant feel that this still, quiet, empty space can and will become alive and vibrant and an entire new world.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m back doing a podcast but I hadn’t thought of it until a casual chat last Monday. MacNN staffers were discussing how well the podcast is going and somehow the idea of an extra weekly episode was floated. By Wednesday night, I’d produced the first episode of what’s called MacNN: One More Thing and it’s available on iTunes and Soundcloud right now. It’s a separate series, though you get it in the same iTunes feed as the main show, and I co-present it with MacNN news writer Malcolm Owen.

So it’s not the same as UK DVD Review in that I don’t have to find ways to carry each episode by myself and it’s more about technology than arts but I’m producing and co-presenting. This is week 1 and actually I don’t know how long this will go on for. The ratings are already good but One More Thing is here in part because there’s a lot of Apple news going on at the moment and that will ebb and flow. One More Thing may need to run in seasons. We’ll see.

But, oh, to be producing again, even if it were just for one episode. I cannot explain the sheer joy of crafting radio: hearing your own voice as just one more asset to be edited and used. Shaping a programme, driving it forward, applying all my news skills to making a topical, timely, interesting episode. Applying all my writing and editing skills to fashioning a complete, coherent edition. One More Thing isn’t supposed to be edited much but of course it is and the old satisfaction of an edit done well came back in shovels.

I have an advantage that I’m encouraged to make this podcast different from MacNN’s other one and that’s a blessing. MacNN’s main podcast is produced and presented by editor Charles Martin and I could not match him if I tried. So I’ve devised a different format, a different tone and it runs for 30 minutes which is quite short for an Apple-related podcast but just seems right for a midweek extra series. In my head I’m doing the It Takes Two spinoff from Strictly Come Dancing or the Extra Slice for The Great British Bakeoff.

I’ve now daunted myself and I’ve got to go produce episode 2. Thanks.

But it’s good to be back and it’s far more good than I imagined. Write yourself a radio show, would you? It’s the best thingm especially for writers.