Brean there, done that

Ah, that’s better. Last week when my website was broken and I couldn’t talk to you, I went away in a huff and instead wrote a treatment for a series I’ve been putting off. Consequently I was annoyed but also productive. So, bah.

Naturally there was something I’d wanted to discuss with you last time and of course I’ve forgotten it now. I do remember thinking that I could tell you about when I worked for a firm that absolutely required me to drive a company car. No choice. It was a Fiat Accompli.

All week I’ve been waiting to say that.

This time, though, I’d like to tell you a slightly sad story from when I was child and then how pretty much the same thing happened again this week – but was fantastic.

Do you know Brean? It’s on the coast near Weston-super-Mare and when I was a child, my family must’ve gone on holiday there three or four times. What I remember most clearly, apart from buying Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama in the newsagent, is how the beach so abruptly changes to grassland.

Or I suppose it’s the other way around. Depends. As you head to the sea, you’re going across reasonably dense grass and some kind of bracken-like things, then you’re on the sand. There’s a divisor line between the two and your bare feet feel it in the heat of the sand.

It’s also a tiny bit hilly, though, and there was this one peculiar spot where the land rose up so that the sand formed a little hollow, like someone had dug a pit and then somehow hoisted it up to ground level. And this grass or bracken thing, these twigs and undergrowth, didn’t notice the hollow. They kept on going as if it weren’t there. So you had this recessed area in the ground and a roof of grass and twigs.

That was my den one year. I owned that place. It was secret and it was mine.

For one year, for one holiday.

I loved that spot so much that the next year when we came back, I ran to it.

I knew the hard-to-spot entrance and I ran through it.

And then I ran straight through the hollow and I ran immediately out the other side. Didn’t pause for one instant. And never went back, never looked back, could not then and still cannot now even find roughly where this place was.

Because this year my den belonged to a whole set of other boys.

I’m rubbish with ages but I remember seeing that they were younger than me. I knew there was no common ground, even as we stood on common ground, and this is the thing that made me sad. I also knew it was over.

Whatever I was the year before, I wasn’t any more and I never would be again.

Now, I need you to make some leaps here both in time and place because all of this is on my mind again because of what happened this week in a pub.

Some years ago, I devised a social event called Notworking. It’s under the aegis of the Writers’ Guild but it’s for writers, directors, producers and actors. Really anyone who works in our nutty profession. You get together in a bar for absolutely no reason. No speeches, no speakers, no topic. You cannot pitch, if necessary you can bitch.

The idea is that if you’re in this line then few of your friends and absolutely none of your family have the faintest clue what you do – or especially why you do it. But we do. We get it. Come have a drink and relax with your fellow travellers.

I set it all up and I’ve run some, others have run others, this one was a joint collaboration between several Writers’ Guild folk. Each time we tend to get around 20 people and, I’ll be honest with you, it’s usually the same faces. I like those faces.

But this time, I got there early, being the professional organiser as you do, and the bar was mostly empty but for about six people at the back. And they called out to me: “Are you looking for the Notworking evening?”

I did not recognise any of them and they didn’t know me. It was actually slightly awkward:

THEM: So what do you do?
ME: Er, I organise this event.

I think by its peak, this Notworking event had perhaps 25 people and – I’m guessing here – probably 12 or 15 had never met or even heard of me.

But they were there having a great time because, in part, of me. At one point I just looked around at all these happy people and it was wonderful.

It wasn’t the same as Brean where I wasn’t known and so therefore wasn’t welcome, it was more that I wasn’t known and wasn’t needed – because the original Notworking idea in my head has become its own reality. I could’ve walked away and nobody would’ve noticed, nothing would’ve stopped, it wouldn’t have been any quieter.

Actually, I did walk away for a moment: I walked out with someone when they were leaving. They were leaving the event but also leaving Birmingham and I’ll miss them. As we headed out, the heat of the room became the cool of the outside evening, you could feel the difference in your feet.

We said goodbye up some steps toward the Mailbox and when I turned to go back, I could see the light of the bar flickering and the sound of it coming and going on the wind.

Whoever I was when I was a child back in Brean, I’m not anymore. And I prefer this me.

Listen, this is important. I neither want to suggest that this particular event just coalesced by itself or that I was solely responsible for it. My Writers’ Guild colleagues and friends Tim Stimpson and Martin Sketchley worked on it too and we wouldn’t have been at Pennyblacks by the Mailbox without them. I’d not even heard of that place and now I like it hugely.

And I also really like having a website back. Now, next time the site goes down, we must go to Pennyblacks together and talk properly. Okay?

Women and losing

Give me a situation where one man and one woman are competing to write a particular piece of drama and I will ask why you bothered telling me their gender. It’s the piece I’m interested in, it’s their writing. I can’t conceive of a single possible reason that my knowing the sex of the writer would make any more difference than knowing their height.

Only, give me a situation where 86 percent of primetime television is written by men and now gender matters, now sex is telling me something is seriously wrong here.

Writing is not fair but then it shouldn’t be. Writers don’t get work just because it’s their turn. Not everybody should get to have a go. Because as much as I am a writer, as much as I care about writers, I’m a viewer first. I don’t tune in to satisfy a need in me for statistical balance. I tune in to watch and to be transported by writing that takes me places I don’t know with characters I’ve never met.

I want new.

And I ain’t getting it when 86 percent of television drama is written by men.

It’s not as if you suspect these men are the most diverse group, either, and that’s something the Writers’ Guild is looking at with Equality Writes. That’s a campaign launched this week that wants to fix film and television by making the industry recognise what’s actually happening. Get programme makers talking about it, get audiences talking about it, and maybe we can finally do something about it too.

Equality Writes starts with men and women because there are figures you can get for that imbalance. That’s why I know the 86 percent figure: it was uncovered during the research for an exhaustive and exhausting report that the Writers’ Guild commissioned. I nearly didn’t read that because I thought I already knew it was ridiculous how few women get to write for the screen. But then I’d see the report’s figures and then I’d see the report’s graphics about all this.

I did hang on for a while to the hope that things are getting better. Plus it’s a report about the industry today, maybe we’re just in a peculiar slump.

No and nope.

That’s the real jolt of this report and this campaign to me: the percentage of women writing television and film has stayed consistent for the last decade.

For ‘consistent’ read ‘low’ and for ‘low’ read ‘crap’. It is just crap how women aren’t getting to write and it makes me blood-angry that something is stopping me getting to see the writing of half our species.

I would like that to change now, please. And I work for the Writers’ Guild, it makes me proud that they’re doing something about it. Do join them, do join me in putting your name to the campaign too.

I am not a god

Well, that didn’t last. Previously… a week ago I was the hottest and the coolest man around. Okay, so that took some pretty unlikely coincidences and it took your turning a blind eye to some obvious facts, but otherwise it was true and I basked.

This week I was mistaken for Damien Green, the disgraced Tory politician. Wait. I mean a disgraced Tory politician. I’ve lost track of how many of those there are.

Anyway, it was only for a moment but I continue to shudder.

Still, if I had a point last week, I thought it was that there is a place for each of us. There in the Canary Islands I meant it physically or geophysically but also very much in writing. I have been in situations where my writing was the worst and others where it was the best. I’m not convinced I’ve got that range so I put it down to the places.

Clearly, then, you need to find the right place for you.

But my brief mistaken identity made me realise that it’s not that simple. For you’d think I should run away from the party where this mistake happened and you’d think I should run back to the Canary Islands.

Only, after I spoke to you last week, I caught a cold in the Canaries – I don’t know why that suddenly sounds rude – and my final memory of the place is of shivering in hot weather next to a pool which in my delirium may or may not have had a fashion show form around me.

And the party where I gasped aloud was superb. It was the Writers’ Guild Awards night and, hand on heart, I haven’t had such a good evening in years. Easily the best awards I’ve been to, absolutely the most interesting room full of happy writers, I had a blast.

And a shudder. But chiefly a blast.

So if I can hang on to any possible semblance of a point, it might be this. Yes, there are places we fit in and they are fantastic. But I urgently need cosmetic surgery.

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.