Blogger in Residence at the Pen Museum

Exhibit of pen nibs at the Pen Museum, Birmingham

I am rarely the jealous type of writer. Back in 1996 I was fully green when I bought Radio Times and found they were starting a website that I thought I should be working on. A few months later, I was.

Apart from that, there’s only been one case where I wished I’d done something. Well, no, okay, you could have any limb of mine you want if I could’ve written Arrival and actually I’d be out of limbs in seconds if I thought about writing I wish I’d written.

But apart from that. A couple of years ago, the writing partners Iain Grant and Heidi Goody became the official, legitimate and authorised writers-in-residence at – wait for this – a phone box.

Oh, I admired that. I still admire it. I don’t plan on stopping admiring it. For it’s one of those ideas that seems obvious once someone has thought of it but never before. Clever, funny, fresh, new and apparently next door to a pub. Even as I took my hat off to them, I was plotting to steal.

Well, steal in a writer’s sense in that I did set out to become writer in residence of something equally appealingly daft.

I have not succeeded.

But from daft beginnings come serious endings.

For over the past couple of months I’ve been Blogger in Residence at The Pen Museum in Birmingham.

Now, I could’ve mentioned this before. Especially as I’m about to finish. And most especially because I adore the Pen Museum: when I got a chance to do this for a Museum, my first sentence was “Hello, can it be the Pen Museum, I’m William”.

If you can possibly go, do. Right in the heart of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter there is this glorious place. It’s where World Calligraphy Day is based, it’s where poetry events and rotating exhibitions visit. But on an ordinary, damp day with nothing going on, it’ll still absorb you for a couple of hours.

It’ll possibly leave you with ink-stained hands if you have a go with the calligraphy exhibits. It’ll make you want a fountain pen after you’ve made a pen nib – under supervision, this stuff is really deliciously tricky to get right.

And I guarantee you this: you will tell people about how at the peak of pen manufacture around the late 1800s, 75% of all pens in use in the entire world were made in this small part of Birmingham. Later on, Walt Disney animation artists continually ordered pens from here so, yes, Bambi was probably sketched with a Birmingham pen.

I love all this stuff and I haven’t even got to their typewriter collection. But I’ve not written about it here before because I’ve been working to figure out what in the hell I should do.

Because it sounded so clear. Fun but clear. Write them some blogs. Easy. You know me, I can barely shut up. And actually, yes, I’ve done that: if you visit the Pen Museum website over the next year or so you’ll see blogs of mine popping up at appropriate moments.

But this was a case where the staff and volunteers of the Pen Museum didn’t really need me for that. They’re already writing and blogging and tweeting. They already have events – I’m an event producer and I recognised early on that there wasn’t space in the schedule for me to contrive another one.

It turned out, though, that it was my producer head that was needed. Lots of people want to volunteer at the museum so you get a great turnover of staff and also a great variety of them. Appropriately, I didn’t met a single one who couldn’t write well, but of course you know that some are already blogging, others wouldn’t go near Facebook if you begged them.

My own blogging writing became incidental – I think we just quietly agreed that I couldn’t stop writing so we might as well use me – and what became important was producing a process.

We’re still working on it but I think what we’ve started will make the Pen Museum website feel as much of a place to visit by itself as the actual museum always has been. So many people visit from around the world but you know many more would want to so over time that site’s blog will grow.

There is just something right about a Pen Museum having a vibrant blog. There’s this one quite small exhibit in there, for instance, which lines up writing tools from pen through typewriter to iPad. You can use all of it and get a sense of how the past forms the present and I think that’s fitting for the blog too.

Being Blogger in Residence at the Pen Museum isn’t as gorgeously daft as being a writer in a phone box but I adore that I got the chance to do it. Thank you to Writing West Midlands and the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Without them, I might have been reduced to being writer in residence of my mobile phone.

Charged up

I know I overthink this, but I feel bad whenever I find myself slipping into male stereotype. When I’m clothes shopping, for instance, and I don’t spend above twenty seconds picking anything. You know me, you know how I dress, tell me you’re surprised.

Or when I catch a history documentary on TV. A technology history documentary.

Or when I get some beers in to watch the footba – no, come on, I can’t say that one with a straight face. I don’t drink and the most I’ve ever seen of football is one half of a game when I worked in radio. I spent the entire time facing the audience I was interviewing, didn’t see a single goal or whatever.

And actually I did feel very separated, very isolated. Saying this to you now, I’ve remembered how it felt when I walked into the ground. It was like slapping into a solid wall. Such total fandom, such tightly-woven atmosphere. I felt like the unwashed.

Or maybe that’s another male stereotype of mine.

I was thinking about washing and grooming in Solihull recently, while I waited for my iPhone to be repaired and quietly sobbed about how much that was costing. I like Solihull and I used to work nearby so I know it, but still I was only there because it was the sole Apple Store that could fix the phone that week. And so there I am, waiting for an Apple repair, sitting having tea in John Lewis – sometimes my hard man image is overpowering – and realising how good everyone looked.

They all, every single person I passed, looked like they’d been cleaned by someone else.

Do you know Solihull’s Touchwood shopping centre? If you don’t, I can help you picture it by explaining that the Apple Store is the cheapest place in it.

Much more expensive is the Tesla car place halfway between Apple and John Lewis.

Cars.

Male.

Nope.

I have never once had the slightest interest in cars other than as the way to get me to wherever I need to be. No, tell a lie: a very long time ago I used to enjoy driving and would somehow relish hundreds of miles. Unfathomably boring now. And even then, you could tell me the difference in mule power or something and I might nod at you politely, but I’d really be concentrating on tuning in Radio 4.

Only. Well.

Maybe it’s the technology. Maybe it’s the fact that I had two hours to kill. And, okay, maybe it’s the midlife crisis. But I went into the Tesla store and I arranged a test drive.

Tesla Model S car

Listen, the first thing I said to the salesman was, well, it was hello, but then it was look, it’s not happening. I cannot buy a Tesla car and even if I could, I’d have to buy a new house first. My house doesn’t have a garage and if you think I’m leaving a £60,000 car out on the street then please tell me where you think I’d get £60,000 in the first place.

But Tesla turns out to be like Apple in that the hard sell is nonexistent. I think it genuinely is like Apple in that the sales people aren’t on commission: I don’t know that but it fits how unpressured, relaxed and practically casual they are. And I’m afraid I also think it’s like Apple in that they don’t have to do much: the product does the selling.

It is impossible that I can ever buy a Tesla car but unfortunately I now also cannot ever buy anything else. Take it from me, a car expert of several days standing or, if you must, a middle-aged man: this is an electric car and it is how cars should be. It’s how cars should always have been and now are. Albeit with a price tag.

The only way I can think to help you gauge my lack of knowledge about cars is to explain that it’s even less than my interest in them. But I sat in the passenger seat while the salesman was walking around to the driver’s side and I said Wow.

Actually, I said wow followed by “I hope he didn’t hear that”. He did.

It was wow about the roof. Just barely interrupted glass from the windshield to over and beyond my head.

And shortly afterwards I said – I’m not proud of this but I said it and I said it loudly – “Frack”. There’s some history to that word, it predates the ecological use of it in fracking, as it was a made-up swearword in the 1970s Battlestar Galactica. (Some sources spell it ‘frak’. Never say I’m not thorough.) If you happen across the original show, watch for when exciting fighter pilots launch their ships.

These ships are catapulted out into space from this analogy of an aircraft carrier and each time it happens, we see the pilots slammed back into their seats by the force of acceleration. I just had exactly that. Really. Exactly. The salesman was driving us out of Touchwood to a park where I was to take over and after waiting at some traffic lights, frack.

Sometimes I don’t think my own car actually accelerates at all and in comparison this was a punch to the chest. And not an exaggeration. It winded me. Not the speed, as this was a residential area, but the acceleration.

Dear god. I nearly said nought to sixty to you like a male petrolhead. Fortunately I know you’re supposed to follow that phrase with some seconds and to me seconds are when you go back to get more pudding.

Anyway.

In Solihull’s Brueton Park, we swapped over. And then driving this car, it was as if we went from not moving to oh, we’re moving: no big engine starting sound, no fuss, just moving. And then driving. And then going quite quickly on a motorway.

“Are you okay if we try Autopilot?” asked the salesman.

“No,” I nodded. I knew that Tesla has this thing that’s like a bionic cruise control and I’ve driven cars with that, it’s spooky having the car drive while you take your foot off the accelerator.

Stuff cruise control, though. Autopilot did that plus it steered the car. It steered the car. If you’re a car freak you know this already but I’m not and suddenly I get why the word freak is used. It took a bend in the motorway. It zoomed us up to two car lengths behind the next vehicle. Then when that car changed lanes, mine zoomed up to close the distance between us and the next one.

Flick the turn indicator and the car starts looking for a gap in the next lane. It found one, started to change lanes for me – and then jerked back away because another car had suddenly crossed over from the other side and would’ve been in the way.

It is the spookiest, freakiest, best thing ever. I am simultaneously scared as the car accelerates to what looks like it’s going to be too close behind another one and I am also certain that I want this.

Here’s how comfortable I got with autopilot in seconds. The salesman was answering a question about charging or Radio 4 or possibly my bald spot and I realised I was looking at the controls and hair care products he was telling me about. I wasn’t looking at the road. I knew the car would do that for me.

I don’t mean intellectually, that I knew because I’m a car fan who understands how it works. I mean, I do understand, but really I mean that I knew it in my bones. I trusted this car.

Oh, and then when we got back, this trusted car only went and parked itself. Found the space and parked in it.

I write about technology and I feel as if I sit at the point where it and art cross: I have no more interest in electronics than I do in combustion engines but I am riveted and excited and thrilled at what technology can let me do. All my books, all my scripts, my video and audio work, it’s enabled and empowered by technology and I am alert to that yet still I’m focused on the job.

Sitting in this Tesla car reminded me of this and of something so very long forgotten. The first time I owned a car and got into it. It felt like this was a whole world. I could go anywhere in it. That sensation vanished quickly but it came back in this Tesla. I am instantaneously addicted to Autopilot. I am instantaneously addicted to cars parking themselves. I enjoyed driving again.

The salesman said he could arrange a 24-hour test drive for me and I can’t do that to him, not when there is zero chance of my buying. But when he said “and you could drop it back on Monday evening” I had to ask: “Would you have a team of specialists waiting to tear me away from it?”

I even like the colour.

I’m telling you this now chiefly because it’s just happened but also because I am thinking of so many things. You know when you’re writing and you can’t see the words for the stress? It’s been like that for me lately. Brilliant times in so many ways, tough in others. So I’m thinking about Tesla cars and how I can’t imagine getting one. I’m thinking about male pattern stereotypes and nature versus nurture. I’m thinking about technology and art, I’m thinking about the cocoon feeling this car gave me and how it’s similar to the very best moments in writing. Those distressingly rare moments when the writing is going so well and you are so into it that there is nothing else whatsoever in the entire world or in your entire head but the next word. I find those moments blissful uplifting and energising.

But I’m also telling you because as I write this, Tesla is about to reveal details of a cheaper car. Damn them to hell. This “cheaper” car is merely £35,000 instead of £60,000 and when exactly did £35,000 become cheap? I’ll tell you when: it’s at something like 1am tonight when there’s a live stream of the first thirty Tesla Model 3 cars being handed over to their owners.

Look, I’m going to be walking everywhere before I can spend that money on a car. But this is a car and it is getting a live streamed launch event. Told you this is like Apple. I won’t be watching, I said lying, and I can’t find out where the stream will be but presumably on Tesla’s website.

I’ve just had a thought. If you gave me a pound toward a Tesla car right now, I’d have an entire pound toward it. Can you tell 34,999 of your friends about me?

Writers and technology

The writer and poet Jonathan Davidson said this to me ages ago and I have stolen it regularly since: writers went digital first. Everything is digital now and if you’re a writer you can feel like the world is changing – but we’re not left out, we’re not left behind, we just went digital so long ago that we’ve been here, we’ve done it. The world is finally catching us up, that’s what’s happening.

It was back in the 1980s: word processors came out, we saw them, we said we’re having that and we never went back. Not one of us. Not ever. There are writers who prefer pen and paper but there are no writers who don’t have a computer and a word processor.

Yet we do keep this strange duality in our heads: it’s as common to find a writer who is genuinely afraid of technology as it is to find one who isn’t but is actually a rubbish writer. Stop looking at me like that.

I’m in pain here. Four days ago I agreed to take off my Apple Watch for a week and write about what happened. This is for MacNN.com and next Tuesday there will be a feature and it will tell you what I missed, what difference it made. It just might not include all of the wailing. I’ll want to at least try to look professional there.

Here, I’ll tell you. I’ve wailed.

The thing is, more is going on. I don’t have my Apple Watch – well, I do, is right next to me on a stand but I’m not wearing it or switching it on for another THREE ENTIRE DAYS – but I do have a new iPhone 6. Only, I didn’t want to buy it.

I didn’t buy the iPhone 6 when it came out last year because I couldn’t afford it then and I wasn’t sure what it gave me that my existing iPhone 5 didn’t except for a larger screen that is more difficult to hold. This is the first time since 2007 that I wasn’t interested in buying the next iPhone and I still wouldn’t be. But my iPhone 5 finally died, a trooper to the end but a trooper that had been through wars. I try to take care of things but I don’t half use them too.

I can’t run my business without a phone and it can’t now be run without a smartphone. I’m hardly going to switch to Android: it’s cheaper but you really do have to be interested in technology to enjoy those. So where buying a new iPhone has been genuinely fun and even, I’ll say it, exciting, this time it wasn’t. This time I left one speaking engagement, went into the Apple Store, spent the minimum time and the minimum money, came out with an iPhone 6 and went on to my next meeting.

Technology as a writer’s essential tool but no more than that. And that’s probably right. Technology is a bit boring. I am glad to tell you that eight days on I’m coming to really like this phone but I have this second, this very instant, realised that I’ve left it in my kitchen. Hang on.

Right, I fetched it and a mug of tea. Do I go on as much about tea as technology? Nearly.

But there is something else. I’m working with a company on a thing and just seeing how they work and some complex problems they’ve got, I know a software tool that would help them. For their size company, it’s free too. Yet I don’t know how to convince them to try it: it’s more software on top of the tools they already have and don’t especially like.

Nobody there, I don’t think, would rush to try it just for the fun. Most would loathe the idea of taking on something new when they are stretched to a limit already. Some would be actively against using yet another piece of software.

There is an attitude across companies, across people who like this stuff, that here is a tool, it does this, you need that, it will work, off you go, what’s the problem? Perhaps usefully, perhaps empathetically or perhaps just pointlessly, I think software is amazingly personal and that no size fits all. What works for me won’t for you and vice versa.

I said you need to enjoy technology to like Android phones. I think that’s true and it’s the same with PCs. If you enjoy fiddling and setting up something or other and solving problems then it’s all hog’s heaven and a for a short while that was me. I clearly remember the feeling of true accomplishment when I got a new hard drive to work in my PC. Every night for a week, that PC open on my desk and my working hard to understand it. I learned a lot about jumper switches, to this day I swear it’s where I learned to swear. But the satisfaction when it switched on. That was great.

Only, not long afterwards I installed a new hard drive in my Mac and it just slotted in, worked right away and I got back to what I was writing.

You can tell that I preferred the Mac, you can guess that I preferred writing to fiddling and you can assume I never bought another PC again. But sitting there that day, so long ago now, I think what I realised was that writing is down to me. My effort, certainly, and my talent, hopefully, are what make the difference between the blank screen and something to read, something to perform.

Whereas fitting a hard drive and installing Windows drivers is down to following other people’s instructions and learning to swear because those instructions are wrong. At the very best, there is a creativity in puzzle solving because Microsoft or whomever can’t be bothered to write down what you actually have to do. But it’s not a creativity that satisfies me in the long run, it’s not a creativity that counts.

I’m going to tell that company about this software but I’m going to tell them what problems it will solve rather than how it works or what you do with it.

After all, nothing else matters. It’s a quick shorthand to tell you that OmniFocus is an application that I depend on, that my working life runs through my iPad, and I will discuss the difference between Microsoft Word 2016 and Drafts 4 at length. But it is our work that matters and whether these digital tools help us do it. The right ones just help me so very, very much that it’s hard not to be enthused by them and it’s impossible not to be glad I tried them.