Back in time

I spilt my tea over this but I reckon you’re made of harder stuff. And also that if you were liable to spill tea over it, you heard it a week ago and have already mopped up. But about a day after I wrote to you that the US television drama Timeless has been cancelled, it was un-cancelled.

Now, I could go off on how this is good news – I enjoy the show very much – or I could tug on my TV historian credentials and talk to you about just exactly how unusual this is. A network cancelling a series and then reversing that decision three days later, all in public, is borderline unique. The only thing stopping me saying that it’s actually unique is that there’s an argument that a similar thing happened with the original Star Trek.

Picture me with my hand out flat and gently rocking it.

But you know that and you gathered I like Timeless so let’s refill our tea and take a look around. I’m in the local library I used to use as a boy. I’m sitting about two metres to the left of where I once sat on the carpet, reading some book I can still cherish but have long forgotten the title or author of.

It’s just that there, right there, is the first time that I so enjoyed reading a book that when I got to the last page, I instantly, unthinkingly, completely naturally turned it back to the first page and began again.

That spot is now one of – hang on, let me look – something like a dozen PCs. I can’t be sure because some are hidden by shelving, but it’s approaching a dozen. It’s funny how easily they fit into this space. Old wood, doubtlessly the same that was here – oh, right over there where it now says Western Fiction and Books about Railways, that’s where as a teenager I picked up James Blish’s novel A Life for the Stars. I believe I got my utter certainty that it is better to be crew than passenger from that book.

I was saying. Old wood, doubtlessly the same wood as when I was here. Ancient windows that I think have been restored but if so, now restored so long ago that they need it again. One table with that raised middle creating slopes on either side that are just right for reading newspapers on.

And across one end of the room, a set of three display cabinets each with one model railway carriage in. They look beautifully precise and well built, but I had no idea why they were here when I was a boy and I’ve no clue now that I’m a man. I suppose I could ask and I supposed I could’ve asked, but I won’t and I didn’t. Keep it a mystery.

This is all sounding like I’m just trying to tie something in to the word Timeless but actually it’s the newsman in me. Having told you that Timeless was cancelled, I couldn’t allow myself to not tell you now that it had been uncancelled. Doesn’t matter if you already knew, doesn’t matter if you have no interest, I can’t let it go because that would be wrong. Incomplete.

I just don’t know if the boy I was two metres to my left and some decades to the right would’ve cared about that. I think he would.

I tend to look back with an ache of loss. Definitely to the time when I was a boy, the other day to the time when an episode of The Sweeney was on TV and I had to accept that I had been alive during those prehistoric days. Certainly also when I look back to yesterday, to ten minutes ago. I don’t what it is about time, I don’t know why the past is a constant ache.

But right here, this moment with you in this room, that sense of time is making me feel peaceful. This room helped form me and it has waited for me to come back.

Plus, earlier this week I re-read Alan Plater’s novel Misterioso for easily the twentieth time. And yes, when I reached the last page, I did turn it back to the first one. The boy would be happy.

It’s about {squiggle}

Apart from the framed cover of my first book, I’ve only ever chosen two pictures for our walls. The first was five years ago and a little related to that book: it was a single blown-up page of script from Alan Plater’s Fortunes of War dramatisation. People see that, read the page, have no clue why the text makes me sob.

From now on, they’ll be able to look to their left and see this as well.

The main symbol for Time as written in Heptapod from the film Arrival

I like that one is typewriter text and the other is also text but in a graphical form. I like that both speak to me about language. I like very much that this new one is the symbol for Time as seen in the film Arrival.

I like less that there were actually three different symbols for Time in the movie. But this is the main one, this is the one the characters pointed to when they called Time. And in a weird way, this is the one that reads like Time to me. It’s not like I think I can read the Heptapod language it comes from, but I read this symbol and I read it as Time.

I don’t know why this matters to me so much but I don’t need to: it just matters and oh, my lights, it matters enormously.

I’m minded of how as a man it’s considered weak to weep at poetry. I offer that it’s not a weakness in me or any man, any woman, it is a power in the text. To be able to write like that, to reach people like that, to affect people like this, it’s power.

Whether it’s in English or Heptapod.

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?

Time for something new

I want to make a case that there is nothing new and also that everything is new. Follow.

This is on my mind chiefly because I was in a Facebook discussion last night where writer Iain Grant said that he and co-writer Heide Goody were looking at a time travel idea for a novel. (If you don’t know their work, take a gander at their website.) He wanted to know if it had been done before.

I knew a few examples that were close and others had more that were similar, some had ones I’d not heard of but are apparently pretty much the same.

Now, one of my more annoying but uncontrollable habits is that if you tell me an idea, I might well wince and say no, it was done in Upstairs, Downstairs or The A-Team. This is specifically the reason I can’t get through Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom: as good as it is, he has stories and characters that he’s used so often. There is a part of me that wants to see how The Newsroom handles a particular storyline that was beat for beat the same in Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but chiefly because I’m fascinated by how it was romantic in the former but creepy in the latter.

Wait, I suddenly remember having a little row with a script editor who argued that just because I’d seen something done often, that didn’t mean my audience had. That didn’t sway me. I couldn’t write the scene the way he wanted.

Yet in that discussion last night, you could sense Iain beginning to think that nope, he and Heidi should skip it and I really don’t want him to. Nor does anyone else in the chat. And I think it’s for this reason.

Yes, at least parts of the idea have been done before, but it hasn’t been done by Iain Grant and Heide Goody. Until they’ve done it, you can’t know that it would be written better than the previous versions but you can know that it would be different.

I’m not sure why that’s enough to make me urge them to write it and yet not enough to let me do the same. For me, if I know that an idea has been done before then, so far, I’ve been incapable of doing it. This could be why I never ask on Facebook whether something’s been done before.

Only, there is another reason for this being on my mind today. Earlier yesterday I was on a train reading an unpublished novel that I wrote. Funnily enough, it was about time. Unfunnily enough, it was appallingly bad. So bad that I truly gaped when a search on my Mac happened to turn it up: I had written 70,000 words in 1994 and erased it from my mind immediately afterwards. I’m not sure why I didn’t erase it from my Mac. I might. There’s still time.

A day on and it’s already evaporating from my mind but I did remember how struck I was by one core idea that ran through the second half of the book. Because while the details are different and the relationship is different, it’s otherwise the same idea as in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. There’s even a part of it that is the same idea as River Song and the Doctor’s out-of-sequence relationship in Doctor Who.

The Time Traveler’s Wife was published nine years after my novel wasn’t. River Song first appeared in Doctor Who in 2008, fourteen years after my novel didn’t.

There’s something appealing to me about this timey-wimey issue, that two separate time discussions are leading me to how there were at least two great ideas within the novel I wrote. It’s less appealing to me how ferociously bad my writing was in 1994.

I often get pupils in writing workshops asking if they can do something slightly different to what I’ve asked and the answer I’ve grown is always this: yes, if you do it brilliantly.

Maybe that’s the bit I should be focusing on: work at being brilliant instead of working at whether this catalogue in my mind recognises an idea from somewhere else.

I mean, at one point in that novel I wrote the words “a myriad of”. I was young, but I’ll understand if you never talk to me again.

Creativity on rails

You try so hard, so damn hard to think of new things, to write new things. And then something like this happens. Actually, this particular thing happens to me so often that I honestly find it a bit frightening.

Say I’m editing some complicated audio or video and at the end I need to run off a version to send to someone. The process is easy but it’s rather harder to come up with a name for the file. It’s got to be something clear so that your recipient knows what it is. It’s got to have something saying it’s from me so that they can always track me back down if there’s a problem.

I’ve also got one eye to the future and another on just how many of these bleedin’ files I’ve got on my preposterous number of hard drives. So the name needs to be clear to me, too: it has to be so clear that I can recognise it two years from now. It also has to be so clear that when I need to search for it, the words that will find this file are obvious.

I really think about this, I mean I really do. Maybe the most creative thing I do on a given day is come up with a short filename that does all this. Wait: I forgot to mention short. It has to be all this and pithy, too.

The problem is that I’ll come up with this masterstroke of creative thinking, I’ll type that name, hit Return and immediately get: “file already exists”.

All that honestly hard-thought creativity and I’ve done it before. Precisely the same way. Truly, it scares me: I wonder if all my creativity is down precise lines, if I can never break out of previous patterns of thinking.

And then there was this week. Most of which was good.

I read a short story of mine about time at the Birmingham Literature Festival. Then I performed a different short story of mine about time at a book launch, also in the Festival. And on Wednesday I performed yet a third time story in a recording session for Brum Radio. Lastly, very late one night, I flopped down onto our couch, I had a chocolate mini-roll with my name on it – and I didn’t eat it for two hours because I’d finally cracked another short story idea and had to write it down. My hands and arms shook as I typed, I was writing so fast.

It was also about time.

Okay, so maybe a distressing proportion of my creative thinking is spent on this one obsessive topic but I’m fine with that, that’s not the problem. Nor is how having written what turns out to be a fifth story about time, I had an idea for a sixth.

It’s a really good idea. I promise you it is. I’ll even tell you the title: it’s The Pointless Time Machine. I don’t usually write about time in the sense of time travel and science fiction, more in terms of regret and anguish, but here I’ve got a time machine – and, more importantly, the character who makes it – and this machine is pointless. I won’t tell you why, but it is.

Only, give me some credit here, I had an inkling that I may have thought of something vaguely like this idea before. Obviously not the same idea, obviously not the same pointless time machine, doubtlessly not the same character, but the thing that is pointless about it is something that I know tickled me before.

Yes.

In 2012, I wrote something approaching 2,000 words about a story quite a bit like the one I’m working on now. Weirdly for me, that was not 2,000 words of story, it was all my groping toward an idea. Making notes of the things I liked, that tickled me, trying to see what pressures I could put my characters in. And I had quite a few characters. All of them bore me now and from 2,000 words of notes, plans and pondering, I think I’ll maybe take one possible setting.

So that’s all good, that’s all fine.

But, yes.

The notes were saved under the filename The Pointless Time Machine.

Lead time

There used to be this thing called lead time: I mean, there still is but it used to be a big part of my life. If you’re writing in the Christmas double issue of Radio Times, you have to finish it weeks earlier than Christmas. When I was on monthly magazines you at least had an eye on what you’d be doing half a year ahead and with some titles that was crucial. It’s all rather faded away with the rise of online: the greater majority of things I write tend to be needed now and published now.

Only, lead time doesn’t always have to be long in order to be significant.

Yesterday morning I wrote an opinion piece for the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s weekly email newsletter. I believe it will be published later today. I’m not actually certain of that now because today is the Writers’ Guild’s AGM and there may well be a delay in this weekly newsletter since a lot of news is happening today.

But in theory, in the regular course of things, I write and deliver it early on a Thursday morning and it gets published on a Friday late afternoon or early evening.

I can’t show you what I wrote because it hasn’t come out yet but I can tell you that it was about Brexit and the business with Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof messing about on boats. Since this is just you and me here, let me tell you that I was pleased with it: I think I found an interesting point to make and it was a point that enabled a fair few good jokes.

But a few hours after I delivered it, the MP Jo Cox was killed and allegedly by a man who shouted words to the effect of “Britain first” either one or two times during the attack. If that’s correct, it would mean this was probably related to the EU debate and so here I am piddling about with jokes when a woman has died.

There isn’t anything in the piece that is directly wrong or arguably is even insensitive. I haven’t had a discussion with the Guild about whether we should postpone or drop it. But its tone is light and jolly and even or maybe especially because it carries a much more serious undertow, I know I wouldn’t have written it a few hours later.

Not a syllable has changed in that piece: for all I know it’s still waiting unread in the Guild’s email inbox until they need it. But a lot else has changed.

I think I talk to you about a time a lot but that’s not even a pixel in comparison to how much I fret about it. One unchanged thing like an article looking completely different depending on where in time you stand. We can’t choose our position in time but that doesn’t alter the fact that the view, the perspective from two different points is so different.

And I’m saying there are two different points but there are three. Or more: I’ve written this to you as if we’re talking now yet maybe you’re reading this because you found this it through some happenstance Google search next year. Certainly I’m having to remember the right tenses and the right terms like saying I wrote that Guild opinion piece yesterday and it’s published today when hopefully that is true from your perspective but it isn’t from mine.

For in order to get to that Writers’ Guild AGM, I will have to leave home very early. Consequently, in order to be sure of talking to you properly and not dashing a postcard off on the train, I’m really writing in advance. Overnight. It’s Thursday night now so I wrote that Guild opinion piece this morning, not yesterday morning. It will be published tomorrow afternoon, not this afternoon. From my perspective right now.

I don’t think any of that surprises or confuses you, though I got a bit free and easy with the tense clauses along the way, but I am not the man I was this morning and I am not the man I will be tomorrow. By tomorrow the initial shock of this MP’s death will be over and whatever I think of the piece I wrote for the Guild, it will be subtly different to what I think now. The real now, the Thursday night now.

Yet again, those words will not have changed one single syllable but now I’ve got three different views, three different contexts for them that mean actually yes, they are different so really they have changed. Writing is about much more than the words on the page or the screen and the text may remain fixed but the meaning, the writing, does not.

Do you see why I am obsessed with time? There are moments when this stuff paralyses me and now I’m picturing you looking at your watch and telling me that we’re out of time, perhaps we can discuss this further next week.

Only time can tell

Late one night this week, stewing with a cold and unable to sleep for coughing, I started to watch Somewhere in Time on Netflix. Don’t look for it: the film has gone. Even though I am new to Netflix, I did know that this happens, I just didn’t know that it could happen before I finished watching something I’d started.

There’s something fitting about it disappearing like this. I have to be in exactly the right mood to watch it and that mood is a bubble that never lasts long. Maybe Netflix is the Brigadoon of online streaming video services and in another hundred years the film will reappear. For a few moments or preferably the film’s 1 hour 48 minute running time, it will be as if the movie had always been there.

It does feel a bit like that now: it was made in 1980, and you can tell, but originally it was partly a present-day film, mostly a period piece and so now it feels like two period pieces. If you don’t know the film, it’s written by Richard Matheson and stars Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. I think summarising the film diminishes it and that maybe that’s one reason it was a flop on release: it’s a time-travel romance. The film only succeeded, only became a huge hit, after it was seen knocking around cable TV channels in the States. So really it only became a hit after people saw it.

If you do know the film, that’s not what’s on my mind. The book is. I like the movie but for the most part it is a nicer version of the story, it has an innocent sweetness that is sometimes good but often just too much. In comparison, I feel like the original novel tore at me. By chance, this week I’ve been interviewed for a TV show about my life – I was chosen because of my brilliant and apparently unique availability – and thinking about myself, seeing that film, being caught in this cold, it somehow showed me that this novel is deeply important to me.

somewhere-in-timeThe novel is also by Matheson and it’s called Bid Time Return after Shakespeare’s line in Richard II: O, call back yesterday, bid time return. Or it was called that: most editions after 1980 rename it Somewhere in Time. It’s obviously about time and for whatever reason that has become a profound obsession for me in drama and fiction. I also know that it is the first romance novel I read and while I haven’t read that many more since, I’ve noticed that everything I write is imbued with this. It used to scare me a bit: you might not spot it but I can see time and romance – and, full disclosure, thrillers – in every single thing I write.

I just don’t see romance as slushy, I see it as dangerous. That unpredictable, unreasonable, impossible lurch in your life. I’m fascinated by the power of romance, the compulsion, the roaring way it changes who you are and exposes who you can be. I’m riveted by what in the hell makes us admit to someone that we fancy them – and by what it’s like when they feel the same. That’s not slush, that’s primacord explosive.

Picture me forming this opinion when I was around 15. I suspect hormones played a part but I also think it would’ve been around then that I found the novel. I wish I could remember the details but I think I read it and at first didn’t realise how it got into me. I do vividly remember wanting to re-read it and not having a copy. At the time, there was a science fiction bookshop in Birmingham called Andromeda and they didn’t have it in stock. Nowhere did.

I remember standing at the Andromeda counter, mentioning to the owner Rog Peyton that I was so disappointed to not be able to find a copy anywhere. And I remember him saying something like “Wait there”. This was an independent bookshop where you felt much of the stock was there because it was beloved by the staff and when I say they had a special place in their hearts for Bid Time Return, they actually had a special place in the back. Rog had kept perhaps three or four copies of the book to sell only to people who were specifically searching for it.

At this point the book must’ve been quite rare and out of print, though the edition he sold me had the film’s rather beautiful period illustration on the cover so the movie was out. Maybe it’s a sign of how poorly the film fared at first, certainly it was a sign that Rog didn’t want people to casually pick up the last copies and chuck them on a shelf to never read.

I say all this to you and I can see me in that shop, I can feel that paperback in my hands. The novel is the same story about a man who falls for a photograph of a woman –– so far, not so very unusual –– but discovers that the photo was taken sixty years ago. It’s a funny thing: you know they are going to meet and you don’t care how the time travel is done, yet it has to be done in a way that carries you along. Or at least in a way that doesn’t drop you out of the story. It’s a remarkably fine line and the film is fairly good at it but the novel kills you. You are in that story and you are feverish as Richard Collier of 1971 burns to reach Elise McKenna of 1912.

Then you also have to have their first meeting and even at 15 I thought bloody hell, Richard Matheson is a smart writer. I’m willing to spoil a lot of this for you as it’s over forty years since the novel came out and about thirty-six since the movie, but I won’t spoil that scene which works well in the film and perfectly in the novel. I also won’t go to the filming location and re-enact the moment but people do. A lot.

I want to spoil or maybe just a tiny bit heighten two other moments, though, and especially as I think they’re appropriate to writing. One is very much about books and the other is very much about visuals.

The first ties to this business of getting us to agree about time travel: we know it’s coming, you don’t have to really sell us but you must somehow make it fly. Matheson does all manner of things to set us up for this in the book and his film screenplay does many of the same things but quicker. Yet arguably it all turns on one moment of deeply believable despair as Richard Collier no longer believes or can even hope that he’ll ever do it.

Matheson brings us to a moment where we did not see this coming but we should’ve done: Richard is in a hotel and trying to get back in time to that same hotel sixty years ago. He goes hunting for the hotel’s guest books and in one of these dust-caked, mouldy old ledgers, there he is. His name, signed in as a guest in 1912. Matheson plays this as clinching proof for Richard, the thing that makes him believe and so makes him succeed but I keep thinking about that signature waiting there. Throughout Richard’s life, that line was in that ledger waiting for that moment of discovery. That line would not be in that ledger if he didn’t find it.

Then visually the entire plot turns on the photograph that Richard sees of Elise. The way it’s described in the novel and the feeling that is conveyed in the movie is that it seems as if in this photograph she looking at Richard. Even at 15 and certainly now at somewhat older, I’m thinking right, sure, he just fancies her, don’t try to make it slushy. But the punch, for me, comes much later when we find out that actually, yes, she is looking at him.

There’s a brief scene where Richard walks in on the photograph being taken and the moment of the lens click is the moment Elise has seen him. She is looking at him in that photo and if he hadn’t been there, the photo would’ve been different and maybe he would never have looked at it.

I’m biased because I love the novel, I like the movie and I think about all this far too much. But these are resonant moments that – I’m right, aren’t I? – only time can tell.

Read the film’s screenplay online
Buy Somewhere in Time the movie in the UK or in the US
Buy Bid Time Return/Somewhere in Time the novel in the UK or in the US

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.

It’s about Time

For some reason, 2015 is replete with time travel tales from the continuing Doctor Who through multiple movies and new TV shows. This could be good: I am obsessed with time, it’s something somehow personal to me, and I’m excited enough by all these that I want to talk to you about them.

Unfortunately, every one of these new tales is about time travel and that’s not actually what interests me. I’m really more into things like regret – you can’t go back in time to undo things – and it’s also a kind of practical obsession. I produce a lot of events now and your mind splits when you do that, it splits into planning out the time of the event itself with what must happen when, and it also has you working out what time you’ve got left to prepare it.

But.

I do have a fondness for time travel stories because alongside the TARDIS or the DeLorean, their stories at least touch on these time issues that so occupy me. Going back in time and seeing something from a new perspective, cor. Going forward in time and seeing the consequences of your actions, fantastic.

As a writer, time is a tool to examine characters and to truly test them. I think it is a woefully underused dramatic device. Mind you, it is also a bleedin’ complicated dramatic device and so prone to leaving you unsure what’s happening that even I haven’t pulled it off well yet.

I am trying. So I will watch all of 2015’s spate of time travel movies and TV. Unfortunately, I’m not looking forward to it. Not to all of it.

There are some good ones. I’ve seen the pilot to 12 Monkeys, the TV version of the film, and that is good enough that I’m definitely coming back for the series. (In the UK, it’s begun airing this week on SyFy.)

Similarly, I’ve seen the pilot to Outlander and it’s a bugger that this series will only air on Amazon Prime instead of proper telly. It’s a rather beautiful series that looks gorgeous and has a compelling tale of a 20th century woman in battle in the 17th century. Lots of utterly wonderful scenery in Scotland, also rather a lot of voiceover narration.

I haven’t seen Hot Tub Time Machine 2 which opens in UK cinemas in April. Reviews of it are so bad – and so convincingly bad – that I may have lied to you just now, I may not see all of these time stories. It’ll be on the telly some day, I’ll maybe catch it then. I did enjoy the first one, mind. If you don’t know that one or its sequel, the short summary is that they both feature a hot tub, they both feature time travel, but apparently only the first film has any jokes.

I should be nipping out today to catch Project Almanac as that’s finally in UK cinemas right now after a long delay. A year ago, I’d have gone for sure. I was intrigued by the first trailer that began circulating before the movie was pushed back twelve months. A group of teenagers discover a time travel machine and abuse it terribly – until they find that something they’ve done has gigantic consequences for the world. Usual stuff, really.

But there is a second trailer now that is so perfunctory that it feels like they knew they had to do something. Yeah, yeah, that bit looks good, use that, slap on the title, we’re done.

It also has poor reviews. I’m an ex-reviewer and my own work gets reviewed sometimes now, I should know that you don’t put too much weight on a reviewer’s opinion. Yes, when you find a reviewer who seems to share your tastes, that’s one thing. But a single bad review is unlikely to put me off anything, if I’m sufficiently interested in it.

Like Hot Tub, though, Project Almanac is getting chiefly poor reviews from everyone. I have to go see it now, don’t I?

Next, there’s a movie called Predestination that officially has opened in cinemas this week but you try finding it. It was made last year and it’s done the festival circuit, it’s had screenings all over, I’ve eventually come to accept that I’ll need to watch it on iTunes or DVD when that release happens in April.

Predestination is said to be better than Project Almanac, there is precious little doubt that it is better than Hot Tub Time Machine 2.

But.

It’s based on Robert Heinlein’s famous time short story, “– All You Zombies –” from 1960. Fancy reading it? You can right here. It has nothing to do with zombies as we’d expect today, no walking dead, grrr, arg stuff. Instead, it is a classic of time stories.

However.

I don’t want to spoil both Heinlein’s story and Predestination in the same breath – I like to space out my spoilings – so I can’t explain why I doubt the film is great and I am sure it won’t become a mainstream hit. Let me try anyway. Heinlein’s story is incredibly clever and it bashes through the kind of human drama that only time travel’s ability to show you the same events from different views can do. It’s just that it felt to me like a brilliant puzzle instead of a story.

Remember, I don’t care how someone travels in time, I’m interested in what this ultimate change in perspective does to them. So I’ll even ignore the odd plot hole if I care about the characters and Heinlein’s story is air-tight about plot, I’m just not especially interested in the characters.

Maybe it’s a clue that I’ve spent all this time discussing the plot and haven’t told you the story. If you see any new time travel movie this year, see Predestination, but be warned it looks iffy.

So there’s Predestination which is iffy, there’s Project Almanac which is iffy-plus, there’s Hot Tub Time Machine 2 which is grade-A iffyness incarnate. There’s Outlander which is beautiful and languid and absorbing and I want to see more but I’d appreciate it if they cut down on the amount of narration. There’s 12 Monkeys which I watched just to see how they could turn the movie into a series and they seem to have done it remarkably well so far.

There’s also a US series called The Flash which apparently features time travel. But I hadn’t even heard of The Flash until this character was mentioned on The Big Bang Theory. I’ve been told all sorts of complicated things about this guy and the versions of him in comic books, in this series and in apparently forthcoming movies, but deep within all of it was that the series is boring. It gets better, I’m insistently told, but.

Maybe I think too much about this stuff. Maybe if I were less into the issue of time, I’d better enjoy these movies that dabble in it instead of feeling they waste a potent situation.

But this is 2015 and while I don’t know why we’ve suddenly got all of these, I do know that the year was already special for time. For 2015 is both the thirtieth anniversary of Back to the Future and it is the year featured in its sequel as the far future.

Do a google search on this movie and you’ll see many articles now about how it got the future wrong. That astonishes me: time travel stories are never about the future or the past, no matter when they’re set. Back to the Future is so firmly about the 1980s and what it was like for people living then. The 2015 of Back to the Future Part II is not a prediction, it is a new perspective on how people thought and what they expected.

Plus hoverboards.

Look, I’m into this stuff – time, not hoverboards – and I’m telling you about all these things coming up because I’m interested in them and I want to share but the more I write, the more down I sound on them all.

Okay. If you see one new time travel movie this year, make it Predestination. But this is 2015, we can watch just about anything we want, whenever we want it. So have a deep dive into the very richest, very best of time movies.

There’s Looper, that’s rather good. Primer is superb and Timecrimes is brilliant. The film 12 Monkeys. Back to the Future is the easiest watch but no less good for that.

On TV right now there’s 12 Monkeys the series – it’s very different, you can watch both series and film without one spoiling the other. Doctor Who of course, though actually it is rarely about time. The episode Blink is and I defy you to not choke up at the line “It’s the same rain”.

Is that it? Or do I just feel I’ve taken up enough of your time?

Listen, one more thing. Just between us. I did call this Self Distract entry “It’s about time” because it’s about time. But Angela and I have a watch that dates back to when we finally got together, years upon years after we’d been friends and I’d been trying hard. It’s a lovely little pocket watch that hangs in a small bell jar and engraved on the back are the words “It’s about time”.

Told you it was personal.

Time Gentlemen Please

I was ready to see myself. To turn this corner, wait by this door, to see my younger self come through as I had before. The reality of standing there wasn’t all that much different from the years of imagining it. A simple toilet door.

This side of the door, my side of the door, the gents. Empty then, now empty again but for me.

That side, well. Back then, back when I was first here, when I was that young and it was this same night, I thought it was a glorious time. I’d say that I had been thinking only of rushing back out and being with my new friends. But in truth I hadn’t thought at all. Too excited.

Too full of her.

Now would be different. My younger self will come through that door any moment and I am going to stop me. Just put my hand on his chest and say “Please”. I wondered if my younger self would understand, I wanted to be clever enough to understand, but it doesn’t matter. If I confuse him, if I scare him, it doesn’t matter. Just delay him here for one minute. Stop me going out when he went out before.

Just one minute. A few seconds.

Maybe you can always time travel when you know this, when you know to the minute, to the second when and where it all went wrong. So badly wrong. Outside this room, through that door. The things said and not said. The things I’ve done that I couldn’t ever undo.

Until now.

Now I can undo them, now I can stop me ever doing them. Just a quiet word with myself and if I listen, great. If I don’t, fine. Delay me and everything will be fine.

I was ready to see myself.

The door moved. The outside door was being opened, my younger self was out there opening it and I was in here seeing how the air and the vibration bumped the inner door. I felt a pressure on my chest, nerves and excitement and a little fear pushing in on me.

Right where I planned to place my hand on him.

I looked down.

My hand was on my chest.

Because I was standing next to me.

I looked older. Substantially older. And not very well. But the me staring at me from a cubicle doorway had the same expression I was planning to use. Serious. Calming. Sober. Strong.

He looked at me as the gents door swung open and I came in.

“Please,” said the me in the cubicle.

He moved his hand from my chest to my arm. It was still only a little touch, a little pressure, but it was commanding and I stepped inside with him.

He closed the cubicle door. Raised a finger to his lips.

And we waited for me to leave. Exactly as I had before.

ENDS