Visibly invisible

For sixteen months, I’ve been working as hard as I know to be completely invisible in a project but now it’s done, I want to shout that I did it. I’ve realised that I don’t often talk to you about specific things I’m working on but this was one that I have itched to and now that it’s been officially launched, I can.

It’s the National Trust’s What is Home exhibition at Croome.

Croome in Worcestershire is a Georgian stately home and the Trust is preserving it, but the National Trust always also wants to preserve the memories of the people who lived and worked in a place. It isn’t about buildings, it’s about the people who have called these places home. And Croome has been a different type of home to many different types of people from its original days with the rich and on through its time as a boys’ school.

The thinking about this led the National Trust to explore the whole idea of What is Home? It is all about Croome, but the idea is that it is really all about us. We create our homes and then, I think, our homes rather create us back.

And as I’ve written in the notes for the What is Home exhibition, if you want to know what home really means, ask someone who’s had theirs taken away from them.

The National Trust commissioned artist Kashif Nadim Chaudry to work with the ex-pupils from when Croome was a school and also with school-age children who are currently in foster care. He ran workshops with groups and together with the National Trust team, he worked individually with the ex-pupils. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t cosy – but I was there and I can tell you it was also fun.

He asked each person to loan us an object or two that signifies home to them. Anything. Rachel Sharpe, who created the project, told every participant that their object would be treated the same way that the National Trust treats million-pound oil paintings. I was there for that too and she wasn’t kidding. There was painstaking cataloguing and there is precision tracking of every single object as it came in from the participants and ultimately ended up in Nadim’s art installation.

Nadim has done this utterly gorgeous artwork that shows all the items together. It’s plain in the sense that it’s not adorned or over dramatised, but it’s also beautiful. The objects are on plinths that gently rise and fall as you’re looking at them. It’s as if the art installation itself knows which part you’re focusing on and it offers you a better look. Then the whole piece, all of the artwork, is housed in a lattice-work frame that seems to float in the room. Just beautiful.

Photo: Jack Nelson


And so far you’ve only gathered that I wrote some notes. There’s a second room which contains a couple of panels explaining the project and the history of Croome. I wrote those and you’ll see my byline on them.

You won’t see my name on the more important writing.

And if you were anyone else, I would even deny that I did the writing at all.

For behind Nadim’s artwork, there is a wall full of quotes from the participants. They’re all very short, never more than two or three sentences, and they are as plainly written as they are plainly displayed. I mean, the typography is exquisite but it’s presented entirely for clarity, it’s meant to be read, it isn’t trying to be pretty.

I wrote it all.

I worked with the participants, I worked with National Trust people who know the ex-pupils very well, I worked to capture what home meant to the participants. Some of the sentences are simple, direct quotes. But all of the time it was a question of conveying feeling as much as anything, of connecting you to that person. My aim was that you read this wall and you do not ever think that it was written at all, you just take in the words and it is as if those people were standing there in front of you.

I’ve told the National Trust this next bit. I said to them that if we’d known at the start exactly how many words I’d be writing, I’d have told them I’d need about an hour to write it. Compared to books and articles and scripts, it is a tiny amount of writing. And yet it has occupied me for sixteen months and I ain’t kidding when I say it’s occupied me. I have lain awake at nights thinking about it.

This What Is Home idea cuts so very deep that it was exposing some remarkably personal thoughts and feelings. I was being trusted to communicate that from these participants to you and, God in heaven, the responsibility. Also, frankly, the work was beyond me. It required fewer words than I have ever written for anything else, but it necessitated reaching deeper into myself than I ever have before.

And I have not told the National Trust this next bit.

I didn’t think I’d succeeded.

Because the text goes along with the objects that the participants loaned, and because those objects are being tracked in a database, I had to deliver my writing in an Excel spreadsheet. I’d read the latest draft of it and I’d know that I’d technically accomplished certain things, but the stories of these participants have often upset me and text in that spreadsheet didn’t.

I don’t want to knock Excel, but clearly it’s rubbish.

Because last Saturday, I read all the text again on the wall and it made me cry.

I think I’ve managed to be invisible. You do stand there and know that you have the participants and you have Nadim’s artwork. You don’t stand there and think this wall is written or composed or studied or drafted or contrived. It is plain and it is plainly the participants talking to you.

Do go have a look yourself if you possibly can. And whether you can or not, do have a read of that official website as it includes photographs of Nadim’s work plus interviews with both he and I.

Oh! Wait, one more thing. This tickles me and at the same time I think it fits everything I wanted to do. I said that there’s a second room away from Nadim’s artwork. Amongst items from Croome’s days as a school, there is also a video about the project. Last Saturday afternoon, I was standing behind a group of visitors as we watched it. And not one of them twigged that the fella on the screen talking about the writing was also the guy standing there with them and wiping his eyes.

Reading and writing

I can remember my sister trying to teach me to read. I can see her, I can see the room, I can feel my anxiousness to get away, I can hear my mom saying okay, well, maybe that’s enough for today. I was slow to start and while I’m fuzzy now on the details of how it went at school, I know I was in a remedial reading class for a least a while. I know that because I can equally clearly see the room and the teacher.

Again, I’m shaky on details but I think it was that several of us who were below average reading ability were regularly taken off out of classes and into some other room to read. I’m sure of it, actually, because the thing I can see, the moment I can completely visualise is when the teacher thought I was pretending to read.

Whatever it was, however it happened, there was just one moment when suddenly I could read very well. I’m not certain I even realised it: I picture her asking me to read something aloud and instead of struggling as I presumably did up to then, I read it flawlessly. I read that flawlessly, I read the next piece she shoved under my nose and the next. I read and read and never went back to that remedial class again.

I don’t often tell people that but chiefly because I don’t often remember it. Reading is just part of everything I do, it’s part of everything I am. Only, I wanted to tell you this today because something happened this week. It’s something that I am having difficulty processing, I am struggling to get it into my skull. But then equally, I can’t seem to get it out of my head either.

I’m a best-selling author.

Seriously.

You’ve got to let me qualify that, you’ve got to let me try to whittle it down a bit. I’m a best-selling author of a non-fiction book, actually solely an ebook, and I’m a best-selling author only in its very, very specific niche. I’ll tell you: the book is called <a href=”http://amzn.to/1OdOCJx”>MacNN Pointers: Get More from Your Apple Software</a> and I co-wrote it with Charles Martin. We are best-selling authors of this collection of tutorials on how to use the software that comes with your iPhone, iPad, Mac and so on. We co-wrote it, I edited it and the book was proposed by Mike Wuerthele. He’s managing editor of MacNN.com, Chas is editor.

Within a few hours, certainly no more than a day of it being available, the book went to number 1 in its category on Apple’s iBooks Store in both the US and the UK. On Kindle, it was number 2 in the US and nowhere near as high in the UK – but high enough that Amazon listed it has a Hot Seller. Then at some point it became number 10 on Amazon for books in its category. That’s books, not ebooks. Number 10 in its category across both ebooks and physical books.

That speed isn’t just exciting, for me, it’s directly responsible for the best-selling status. For publishing has changed and not just in the fact that there are now ebooks. It’s changed in how I believe it used to be that the book that sold the most number of copies was the best-selling number 1. I don’t know that was the case but it sounds pretty reasonable. Today that is a factor but so is the speed of sales: something selling a dozen copies a minute will chart higher than something selling a dozen a week, even if the former only lasts for one minute.

So the fact that, for whatever reason, the book was immediately popular, that’s what took it into this status. I can tell you we’ve sold a couple of hundred copies so it’s not like we’re shirking.

I’m not thinking of numbers though. I’m certainly not thinking of the money: this is not something that will change my week let alone my life. I’m thinking instead of how this is like the time a proof copy of my first-ever book arrived. I held that book in my hand and I realised no one can ever take it away from me. Good or bad, I’d created that book and long after my death if any other writer wants to cover the same ground, their proposal will have to explain how my book can be bettered.

In much the same way, then, you can argue that best-seller status doesn’t mean what it used to, you can very well argue that it’s a bit different being a best-selling author in a non-fiction technology category than it is being a novelist on the New York Times charts. But you can’t take it away. No one can. I actually am a best-selling author.

I’m a little red-faced with excitement yet also pale: a slow-starting reader, a remedial-class reader, what one pixel changed in my life or my head that turned me into a writer? I am unemployable in any other job: I think a lot about what would’ve happened if I’d not found this in me.

I’m also uncomfortable being proud of this. I’m only telling you, right? And any publisher I ever pitch to, naturally. I’m modest but I’m not stupid.

No, sorry, modesty is wrong. I am British, that is how I feel about it, but I’m also proud and so I should be. I didn’t particularly aim to be a best-selling author, the lifetime ambition has been just to write and keep writing, but now it’s here I am and I should be proud.

I got to this the long way around, I got to it through stubborn persistence. So yes, I’ve been pig-headed for a long time and maybe now I can spend a minute or two being big-headed instead.

Back to school

I left school certain that I would never go back and not at all certain that I could ever be a writer. It took a lot of work to pull off writing and while I was concentrating on that, I accidentally went back to many, many schools. From last weekend to the start of next week alone, I’ll have spent three full days in schools as a visiting author and I ran one short workshop for school-age writers.

I’ve also done one workshop for adult writers which doesn’t sound relevant except one of the attendees was a teacher from my old school. In the Venn diagram of things I remember about my school and teachers I liked, she’s in the tiny smidgeon of an overlap. She walked in that door and the only thing faster than her asking if I were the William Gallagher she taught was me asking her if she’d been my chemistry teacher.

I didn’t like my school but she and I had a great natter after the workshop and I’m astonished how much she got me to remember. Good and bad: I told her of the teacher who, heading for a nervous breakdown which he later succeeded at, had worked hard to get me expelled for no reason. That sounds bad and it was but the fight to keep me in there later proved useful in the politics you get in journalism.

I told her of the other chemistry teacher we had who’d spent a lesson having us mark the homework of the previous group. I know I was irritated, I wish I had been older and objected, Mind you, I really wish I’d just turned to the back of the exercise book and given this pupil a 10/10 well done, see me. Just to find out what happened.

There’s no 10/10 anymore. I don’t know how marking is done and from what I gather, I am unlikely to comprehend how teachers are supposed to mark or really do anything. The sobering and distressing part of going into schools is seeing this sliver of how controlled and inflexible things are forced to be.

But the good thing is that I can go in to them, cause a right ruckus and then get out. Usually get out and go right back to writing. I don’t usually do this many schools so close together, I’m a writer who does the odd school visit. I could never be clever enough to be a teacher nor have the resilience they do to go in again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

These three school visits all came via a company I’m just getting to know called Authors Abroad. But I can trace the lot back further to one conversation with Jonathan Davidson of Writing West Midlands, the company currently running the Birmingham Literature Festival as well as around 300 events for young writers – three hundred, every year.

I’d just moved back to Birmingham, I don’t know how I’d found Writing West Midlands. But I met Jonathan for a coffee. This is three years ago and I can tell you every detail of the conversation including the moment when he mused over whether I might be good in schools and I pretended that would be great, every single ferociously bad memory of mine coming back into my head and flooding down to make my stomach twinge too.

I can tell you every detail and I can picture every inch but I can never go back to the same place because we met at New Street Station. I was there yesterday, coming back from a Manchester school, and I tried figuring out where the coffee place had been. New Street is transformed and, okay, maybe I am too.

But those Manchester kids. There’s at least one who I’m sure will become a writer, who I think actually already is. And there’s another who told me that this had been the best day they’d ever had there. I melted them, I’m still melted now.

Full circle

You’re supposed to know when you’ve come full circle, you’re supposed to notice it happening.

And most of the time, I have. I can look very easily at how I was a Doctor Who fan as a child and now I write Doctor Who radio dramas. Actually, there’s a famous Doctor Who story from Tom Baker’s years called Full Circle and now I’ve worked alongside its writer, Andrew Smith.

Then there was Lou Grant, the television drama that is responsible for my becoming a writer. I watched it in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the very names on the credits becoming as familiar to me as I understand football players are to sports fans. I haven’t completed that circle by now writing understatedly brilliant television drama, but once in a while those names on the credits are now names in my email inbox.

I can vividly see myself buying the new issue of Radio Times one week in 1996 when it announced it was going online with what would become radiotimes.com. I can vividly feel how I felt I’d missed a boat there, that I should’ve been involved somehow, that I wanted to be involved somehow. Shortly afterwards, I started working for them and Radio Times magazine plus radiotimes.com became probably my biggest single and consistent freelance writing gig throughout the 2000s.

Same thing with BBC Ceefax. I wrote for the teletext service on the Paramount Comedy Channel and was very glad to get to do it but really it was BBC Ceefax I was aiming for. Actually, I remember pranking my mother with a news story that looked like it was on Ceefax but I’d written up on a BBC Micro. (This was in the days of BBC Micros, it was before the day that pranking became a word. I was a rebel.) Not very many years later, I was leaving messages for my wife Angela Gallagher hidden in pages of the real Ceefax.

But.

You knew there was a but.

Easily the biggest, most marked, most rattle-me-to-my-core full circle happened this week and I did not know until it was too late.

I ran a trio of writing workshops at Newman University. (My sister went there when it was Newman College. I thought that was the circle for the day.) It was at Newman and it was for the University but it was with school children. The university was recruiting, really. There was an open day, there was a tour and then three of us local writers each ran three of these workshop sessions.

There was an extra fun to this in that the school groups were divided into three and they each stayed in their room all morning, it was we writers who had to race around the campus. There was an extra eeek to this in that I’d run into a room that had just had a workshop run by storyteller Cat Weatherill or poet Alan Kurly McGeachie. Follow that, William.

I think I did. I know I had a good time, I hope the schoolkids did. At the end, when everyone was gathered in a lecture hall, I had a quick count and I reckon there were 100 kids. I think they were mainly from three or four schools and I hadn’t actually heard of any of those.

Until.

When it was all done and half the pupils had headed out on their guided tours of the campus, I was standing near some staff planning the next day.

And I saw the name of my school on the page.

My old school, the one I nearly named here but have spent so long decrying that a decent Google search and a bit of elbow grease could even build you up a picture of me libelling that place, allegedly.

Let me tell you quickly. I had fights at my school, not just fistfights with the other pupils but a political one with a member of staff whose oncoming nervous breakdown somehow made him want to have me kicked out. I had a careers lesson in which the teacher did not just laugh at my saying I wanted to write, he got the entire class to laugh with him. I should own up to having been a poor student, but this was a bad school and all I got from it were the kind of bruises that did help in journalism but let’s not give them any credit. And I also got a bucketful of embarrassing memories of just how much and just how many of my year I fancied, but fortunately that’s not the point here.

The point is that I’ve now visited a lot of schools as a writer and I have never come so close to my own one. They were going to be in Newman University the next day and I wasn’t. That was so close that I felt jolted.

So it was really more of a kick to hear “No, that’s today’s list”.

I turned to the students left and asked if any were from this school that again I just began typing the name of, you’ve got to stop me. But there were none. As I understand it, only a very few came from this place, it wasn’t one of the main schools who were there.

But.

Without question, without doubt and unfortunately without knowing it, this week I taught some kids from my own school.

I’ve come full circle. I’m rather excited by this, I am certainly more than a little freaked. Maybe if I’d known it would happen, if I’d known it was happening, that would’ve been easier. But knowing I have done it and not being able to know which kids had been from there, it’s on that borderline between tantalising and disturbing. I’ll admit, since it’s just you and me here, that it did also make me feel old. It did also make me feel a bit strange. I’m wondering if this makes me square or loopy.

But.

You’re supposed to know when you’ve come full circle, you’re supposed to notice it happening.