Talking and not talking

In the middle of a six-hour workshop yesterday, I stopped to explore a thought about an issue that had been coming up throughout the day. “I offer,” I said, “that it is the people who can communicate, who can write and talk, who find it the hardest to do.”

I think I’m right. I was running the workshop for the Federation of Entertainment Unions which means for members of the NUJ, Equity, the Musician’s Union and the Writers’ Guild. Something like 20 or 25 professional freelancers in London. I adore – no, I love – running FEU workshops because of these people. The only stock a freelancer has, really, is time and these people choose to spend a working day with me.

Now, whenever someone elects to spend time with me, I’m honoured. I just had a thing where someone came within a pixel of flying over from the States to see me. As much as I would’ve liked to meet her, I was immensely relieved when plans changed because I get anxious enough when someone crosses a room in my direction.

But with the FEU workshops and these freelancers, it’s a business decision. They want something the FEU says I can give them – yesterday it was about blogging – and they’re here to get it. No playing around, no messing, no idle thought about maybe one day doing a blog. I think of it as playing with live ammunition: they need something, I have to show them whether blogging does or doesn’t do it, then I have to get them what they need to start.

If I talked bollocks for the first hour, I expect all 25 to walk out. If I speak brilliantly but they realise blogging or whatever isn’t what they need, I expect all 25 to leave early and get back to their work.

And actually, maybe no more so than yesterday because this was a really impressive group. Grief. One guy has his acting career but actually he’s really focused on social issues like care homes. One journalist is a Libya correspondent. And one is the woman who made that documentary about suffragette Emily Davison which showed she didn’t choose to be trampled to death, it wasn’t a suicide plan. I got to shake hands with someone who owns the sash Davison wore in that gigantically important moment.

So this was a room full of talented people. Talented creative types, people who apply their talent and their skills all the time. People who actually I picture as being on their feet and in action even though we spent most of the day sitting down.

And yet the thing that kept coming up over and over was that each one of them finds it crippingly hard, paralysingly hard, to talk about themselves and their work. These are people who for a living talk or write or act or perform and this was a difficulty you could see pressing on their chests.

I don’t have a solution and I do have the same problem. But I didn’t quite tell you the whole quote just now. This is what I really said:

“I offer that it is the people who can communicate, who can write and talk, who find it the hardest to do. And that it’s the people who can’t, who won’t shut up about themselves.”

Please don’t point out that I’m writing a blog about one sentence of mine, one thought. This isn’t me talking about myself, it’s you and I having a chat because you’re exactly the same, aren’t yoU?

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.

Pride cometh before Autumn

I have a problem with the word pride. As one of the things you shout when a large number of lions are rushing toward you, fine. It’s also fine when it’s about you.

I completely get the idea of having pride in one’s work and more than getting it, I also get it: I have that pride in what I do. It rarely lasts, I am a writer after all, but at the moment I deliver it to you, I am proud of it – or I wouldn’t deliver it to you. That’s all fine as well. And I would especially hope that you know this kind of pride too.

For that matter, I would hope that you quite often feel proud of yourself. It’s you. Of course you should.

My problem is when I feel it about other people.

It’s not that I think it’s necessarily a bad thing to be proud of someone else, it just feels odd. What right do I have to be proud of someone else?

As I write, this Autumn’s Birmingham Literature Festival is nearing its end and it has been a very good year for it. Last year I actually did an event in the Festival and I still think this year’s is better. I’ve also had an interesting perspective on it because while I have done nothing and have attended lots, I’ve been half- or quarter- or a fifth- involved in bits. The Writers’ Guild has had a couple of events and I’m on the Guild’s committee so I had a fingernail in organising them.

The most I did was get a speaker to the Festival. There isn’t a pixel of the Festival that I could claim pride for myself but going to so much of it and having these tiny peeks behind the curtains, I am proud of the Birmingham Literature Festival. Proud that it happens in my city, proud that it is in the Library of Birmingham.

Thoroughly, delightedly proud of how successful it’s been. After I did my doings with that speaker, I left the green room to go find Angela. The queue for this event was so long and so full of people I’ve come to know in part through simply having gone to the Festival a lot, that it took me twenty minutes to get to her. Walking down that line, I got into four conversations. “Really got to go,” I’d say, then walk down ten paces and “Oh! Hello!”.

That was a Writers’ Guild and Birmingham Literature Festival event: the Guild’s Tim Stimpson interviewed Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. Full house. Queue snaking along the length of the Library and having to double back at one end. I did feel proud but the word I said at the time was just “Cor”.

I don’t think you can be in Birmingham and not be proud of this Festival. I’ve worked with many of the people doing it, I’ve had this tiny glimpse backstage, I’m a fan.

But.

There were many, many events where I at least vaguely knew the performers. That’s a funny thing to explain: I don’t know the poet Liz Berry at all but after you’ve seen her perform, you feel like you do. Tremendously, startlingly powerful poetry from someone so personable that if you ran into her with a friend, you’d introduce Berry to your pal like you’ve known her for years.

I want to introduce people to you, I want to list people that I actually do know and who were on full form in this Festival. But there are just so many. I do love that there are so many that I fear forgetting one. I don’t love that I’m going to chicken out. I’m not proud of that.

Only…

There was this one event. The launch of a book called A Midlands Odyssey: it’s a transplantation, a transformation of Homer’s Odyssey into tales of the Midlands. I could’ve just bought the book, and I did, but I wanted to see Elisabeth Charis, who produced it. I wanted to see Jonathan Davidson, one of its editors. Charlie Hill wrote one of the tales, Lindsey Davies whom I’ve met before did another, Elisabeth wrote a tale too. It’s published by Nine Arches Press and I really like the company’s editor, Jane Commane.

But then the first person who got up to read was the author Yasmin Ali.

I knew she was nervous because she’d told me. But in that theatre, under those lights, she strode up to read an extract from her piece and she looked like she did it every day. Read with style, got great laughs, if it had been you reading, you’d have been very proud of yourself.

And I told her afterwards, I told her truthfully: I’m proud of her.

But I don’t understand what right I have to be proud. I had nothing to do with her event or her story or her book or her. I didn’t have a damn thing to do with anything, but what I felt was pride.

Yet nuts to the word and the oddity of feeling it, if you went to the Festival or you are connected to Birmingham, you feel proud too.

If you didn’t go or you’re not connected to the city, then get yourself a sliver of a taste of a pixel of a moment of the whole event on BBC Radio 4. This coming Sunday’s (12 October, 16:30) Poetry Please was recorded there and features four Midlands poets – Liz Berry, Jacqui Rowe, Bohdan Pieseki and Stephen Morrison-Burke. And then in the following week’s edition you can hear me. I get to request a poem that always makes me weep. Please listen and picture poet Jo Bell squeezing my arm as I wept through the reading.

I’m fine with how I’m clearly not a hard, tough man. Possibly even a bit proud of it.