Shirley Rubinstein

Alan Plater and Shirley RubinsteinMy friend Shirley Rubinstein died this week. I keep staring at that sentence, pressing on the words, seeing if there’s any give in them, but there isn’t. Still, if her death is the jolt and the reason to want to talk to you about her, the friendship part also jolts me and also makes me want to talk.

I am like this with everyone. I think the odds of getting to know anyone in the slightest are impossibly low and becoming close with them are about as low again.

But I’ve known Shirley since the mid-1980s when – no, hang on a second. Let me back up a moment.

I loathe describing or identifying someone by naming their husband or wife. If you ever tell me about a partner or an ex or kids, well, I’m hardly going to be disinterested – but I will not have asked you unprompted. I’m interested in you, specifically you, and what you’re doing.

Yet in this one very particular case, I think naming Shirley’s partner is genuinely akin to naming her: she was married to the late Alan Plater. If you knew one, you knew the other. They were as close to being one person as I’ve known.

It would be simplistic but not entirely wrong to say that Alan Plater and Shirley Rubinstein were the Trevor Chaplin and Jill Swinburne of his Beiderbecke drama series. Actually, Alan was both Trevor and Jill together: their characters were both him. Yet when describing The Beiderbecke Affair and its descendants, Shirley would say they were all about “Alan and Shirley having adventures”.

That’s when I’ve known her from, from when I first interviewed him about The Beiderbecke Affair. And I have a strong, visual memory of being on their couch with their very heavy dog, The Duke, sitting on my feet, when Shirley brought Alan and I some tea. I remember it that clearly because she was surprised we’d got down to the interview so quickly and I thought, oooh, real interviewers must take longer. I have taken longer ever since.

The last time I saw Alan we got on to the topic of his book and TV drama Misterioso. The last time I saw Shirley I was rushing by her house returning a DVD she’d loaned me – of Misterioso.

It was a fast hug and run and it means that I will now also forever have a strong visual memory of her at her doorway.

That first time I met her, she trusted me with a pile of Christmas cards to pop in the post on my way home. The last-but-one time I met her, she trusted me with a book project she wanted done.

She was right to know I’d find a post box. I hope she’s right that I’ll do this well too.

It happened on my watch

An editor I particularly liked working for once told me she knew I was serious about what I did because of my watch. This was Helen Hackworthy on Radio Times and she is smart. She’s the only editor who ever spotted that I signed off emails with a capital W when things were fine and a lowercase w when they really, really, really were not.

What she’d also seen was that when I’d sit down at that BBC desk, I would take off my watch and place it next to the keyboard. She saw that as my being conscious of time, determined to get things done, all sorts of professional things that I’d love to have been correct and I hope weren’t entirely wrong.

But they were a bit wrong.

Quite a lot wrong.

I used to take it off because that watch had a metal strap and it kept scraping against the keyboard.

I remember this, I know this, I remember Helen and I talking about it, I remember her laughing when I explained but I cannot remember that watch. I’ve had many watches over the years and – exactly like you, admit this now – I haven’t worn one regularly since I got a mobile phone.

Somewhere in the set of watches I’ve had there was that one with the metal strap and I know there was a Casio thing in the early 80s because the same watch is a plot point in the 1983 movie Blue Thunder. That was a helicopter adventure, an aerial paranoid thriller and apparently it’s going to be remade now with drones instead of the chopper. This is either modernising the tale or making it cheaper.

But of all the watches in all the bars in all the towns, there are three that matter to me. And they’re all in this shot.

watches

The one on the left there with the brown leather strap is the watch I was wearing when I first met Alan Plater and Shirley Rubinstein in the late 1980s. They became friends of mine but then, on that day, I was just meeting and interviewing Alan. I was all kinds of nervous: not just because he was already a writing hero to me but because this was my first big interview with anyone.

That man was so interesting in that interview that 25 years later or so, quotes from it were used in a set of DVD liner notes and about five years further on, I used quotes from it myself for my first book.

But for all that, there was this: the watch stopped working soon after I met Alan. I don’t know how to blame him but I do. Except that I kept the watch because of him and I quietly wore it again just one more time at his funeral in 2010.

See the watch in the middle of that shot? The one that looks like it says ‘now’ underneath the watch face hands? It does say now but it’s not underneath anything: there are no hands. That is it. The word now. I have to tell you, it is the most accurate watch I’ve ever had. Never have to wind it, either.

I do think it’s been losing a little time lately but I still wore it because I like it and because it was given to me by Angela.

But then it would be Angela who pointed out a few months ago that this watch’s time was up, so to speak, that its days were numbered. She said that as soon as the existence of the third one in that shot was announced. It’s an Apple Watch and I could do you a review here but instead let’s just take one fact about it.

Apart from the Now watch which I’ve worn a lot yet far from constantly, I have not had a regular watch since I got my phone in 1997. That’s over. I have a watch again and it has slipped into my life as if I’ve always had it on me.

My watches up to now, where I can remember them, have been reminders of things that have happened or of people who matter to me. Now my Apple Watch actually reminds me of things I have to make happen and it is how I keep in touch with those people. Quite literally keep in touch as you can send tap, tap, taps to fellow Apple Watch owners.

But it will also always remind me of buying Angela one at the same time. It will remind me of how hers came ages before mine. And now it will remind me of talking about this with you.

Don’t tell anyone that bit about my only taking my watch off because it scratches, okay? Who knows, maybe other editors projected qualities on to me like that.

Shelve your ideas

So some preposterous number of years ago, I interviewed Alan Plater at his then home, a spectacular flat in London. I was very young and rather nervous but wowed by how massive this place was and, especially, how full of bookshelves he and his wife Shirley Rubinstein had it. I wanted the flat, I wanted the bookshelves.

I particularly wanted the bookshelves. I’m not sure I could’ve vocalised this then, I suspect I just drooled, but it seemed a pretty perfect kind of place to live in.

Did I mention the size?

I came away thinking that London flats are superb and that bookshelves are fantastic. I was right about one of those things. While Alan and Shirley’s flat was glorious, it was actually two flats. They were knocked together into one long one and in fact few people in London live like that.

Shirley and Alan became close friends of mine after this but I never went back to that flat. They moved to a gorgeous house – and this time the knocking through and building on turned it into an even more gorgeous house with more levels and rooms and crinkly corners than can truly be appreciated in one sitting. Oh, and book shelves. Lots and lots of bookshelves.

I’ve just realised: when I watch Grand Designs or lesser property shows, my lip does curl just a little at those houses that have no bookshelves. Not fit for purpose, if you ask me.

But I like that I never went back to that flat. It makes that place and that moment a specific little bubble. I’ve never been one for lusting after houses and cars – possibly I have a bit for some Apple gear but give me a break here – but those shelves, that bubble, I wanted it. It felt inextricably bound up in what I wanted my career to be. I did lust after being a writer, even as I thought that was something other people did. Not me. Couldn’t be me.

Turns out, it could.

And all of this came back to me this week as I did a mentoring session over Skype. (I do mentoring for The Blank Screen and Other Stories now. It’s a thing.) During the natter, there was an oooh. Look at the shelves behind William.

I turned around, winced at how I’d forgotten to tidy up, but there they were.

Floor to ceiling bookshelves. Crammed.

Nowhere near as organised as Shirley and Alan’s, but bookshelves aplenty and akimbo.

I haven’t thought about this much in recent years but I’m thinking about it today. Because I look at those shelves of mine and I want them. Just as I wanted Alan and Shirley’s, all that time ago.

And I’ve got them.

A couple of them have copies of my books.

How in the world did that happen?