William Gallagher performing poetry at Waterstones Bookstore.

Rhyme of my life

I’m truly not sure that I can convey to you what this week has meant to me, not least because a huge part of it is dizzying surprise. But here goes: last night I performed my poetry on stage for the first time.

It sounds straightforward when I say it like that and actually I’m conscious now that a real poet would’ve imbued the line with layers of meaning. You’d read their version of that line and not just comprehend that this was a life milestone for me, you’d also feel the tug in your heart that it was a milestone for you.

Poets do that and I can’t. All I can do is talk. Privately – no, now I think of it also quite publicly – I’ve been terrified of poetry. The power of it. There are poets who can make me weep on cue and that’s just evil.

I’ve been glad that at least I get this now, that while I came to it very late, I do at least read some poetry and I get this. I get to be made to weep, I get to have my heart tugged and my head wrenched.

But that’s different from writing the stuff.

Only, would I ask you to do something I can’t do myself? Of course I would. Consequently when I’ve run writing workshops that have been required to cover poetry, I’ve happily told you it’s beyond me and I’ve very happily learned from you.

Except a few weeks ago when poet Nyanda Foday conned me into writing a piece when myself and Maeve Clarke were running a summer school for Writing West Midlands.

Maeve Clarke is now the key part of that sentence.

For last night she produced the Birmingham heat of a poetry contest called Superstars of Slam and it was held at Waterstones. I went to support her and to just have a good time listening to the poets.

It turns out, though, that poetry contests will apparently often want what they call a sacrificial poet. This is a new term to me but then the term ‘poem’ isn’t exactly familiar yet, and Maeve had to explain. Judges will listen first to a poem that is not in the competition and to a poet who is not competing. It’s like warming them up. It’s like being the dull first questions in a lie-detector test, you know, where they are setting a baseline.

The judges assess this sacrificial poet and that’s the baseline for the night. Apparently it’s better than them judging the first real poet cold.

The only requirement to be a sacrificial poet, then, is to be a poet with a poem. One poem. Maeve knew I had one poem. She knew I’d written one at that summer school.

And she also knew that because I wrote it on my iPad, it would automatically be on the iPhone I was texting on when she called me over before the start.

I feel like I’m writing a Dear Diary entry here and I’m grateful that you’re putting up with me wibbling on, thank you. But I’d like to ask you to do one more thing: make sure I keep some perspective here.

I was not in competition last night. Having one poem does not make me a poet. And most of all, poetry evenings are supportive and welcoming and kind.

But this was a big thing for me, made possible both by Maeve and specifically by how she sprung it on me. I wish I’d shaved, but otherwise it was perfect: I had no time to get nervous.

Well, there was one moment. The three judges – Maeve Clarke, Giovanni Spoz Esposito and Afshan D’souza-Lodhi – had large laminated sheets with their scores on out of 10. Like Strictly Come Dancing paddles, but with less glitter. And as I looked over at them for approval, I saw all three sheets had the number 1.

That’s a bit harsh, I thought: scoring 1, 1 and 1. Fair, but harsh.

Then they turned them over. For content, I got a 6, a 7 and an 8. For performance I think I got a 7, an 8 and another 7. I was a bit too dazed to take it in but I believe so.

I think it goes without saying that these were the worst scores of the evening but you didn’t have to bring that up.

Mind you, I don’t have to bring up this last point but I see no possible way for you to stop me. That dastardly Maeve who needed a poet and like the producer she is knew where to get one, also filmed my performance. It’s an entire 35 seconds long, which means I’ve now gabbled at you about something forty times longer than the something actually took.

I have no problem with that. You’d best avoid me for a while or I’ll tell you about it all over again.

Anyway. Here’s Palimpsest – about the type of ancient document where words are written over over over each other in layers because the paper was so scarce – as performed by me. Poet William Gallagher.

Writing fast and slow

Here’s an example of writing too quickly: this week I was made Deputy Chair of the national Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. The End.

I mean, that’s factual and it’s entirely accurate, but it doesn’t do anything else. You can guess how I feel about this happening but that’s more because you’re you and you get these things, it’s not that I’ve conveyed it at all in the writing.

Actually, I’m not sure I’ve grasped it all in order to convey it in the slightest, but the fact that this is taking a time to settle in my head is one thing that’s made me want to talk to you about something else. The other prompt is that I’ve just had a report on a script of mine and it’s more praising than the best reviews I’ve ever got for things that have been made.

I can tell you the report was so good because it’s also a rejection. I nearly didn’t read it: once you read the first ‘but’ in the email, you know you’re out. On the rare times I get any more detail I will file it away to read later and then never do, but this time it was more.

Specifically, I’d written the script at lightspeed and it failed so I knew the whole idea was rubbish, my writing just didn’t cut it. I was going to scrap that and write something else.

For some reason I read on and, cor, you should read this stuff. I now think it’s my best work in ages. Okay, my best rejected work, but still.

So let you and I both take a telling from this: read the feedback.

But.

Feeling good about this does put the idea back on the top of pile but it doesn’t take away the fact that I wrote it at ludicrous speed.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about on multiple long train journeys all week.

I think I write at my best when I am writing at speed – and that this isn’t good enough.

I’ve seen this before, most especially with articles and books where if it comes easily, it reads the best. When it’s a slog, you can feel that as a reader and the life is gone from it.

When there’s time on an article that’s gone wrong like this, I will walk away, come back and try a second blast-draft to see where I get. Invariably it’s better but invariably I also hold back because I’m afraid of getting it wrong again. So we get a third go and it becomes okay. It’s only ever very good when it flowed easily the first time.

I did think about this sample script for a fortnight and it’s an idea I’ve had plus written short stories around for at least three years but the total time from writing FADE IN: to about 15 pages later is measured in hours. Single-figure hours.

Which is all very nice for me. Except I can make a good article this way and I believe I can write a fair book, but there’s a limit with scripts. I think at my best I am able to make a script be very, very good – but not great. But lacking.

And that’s the problem. It needs work – this script, all scripts – and the more I work at a piece, the worse it gets.

I’m going to have to pull my finger out, aren’t I?

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.

You couldn’t make it up

You’ve seen this over and over again: Trump does something stupid, Britain realises yet another thing it failed to consider before Brexit, and someone will say that you couldn’t make this stuff up.

Of course you could.

The End.

Only, as well as just being wrong, I think this ‘you couldn’t make it up’ lark is a kind of marker post. It’s saying that over here is reality, over there is fiction. Actually, I think it really says that reality is better or sharper or harder or just more.

Okay. Except there are going to be Brexit dramas aplenty, there are going to be Trump biopics, and the faultline between fiction and reality will be examined anew every time. Writing will be tested, writing’s ability to convey real-life drama is going to be tested.

And it will fail.

As both a journalist and a writer, I can’t do creative non-fiction: to me it’s either fiction or it’s fact. As a reader, I want the same divide: I don’t want to come away believing that Napoleon was the leading Tetris player in his gang.

And when we get dramas based on real events, I think the audience is watching for the facts – or actually for the errors. If it’s a brilliant, searing, insightful piece of drama that wonderfully conveys the human condition, there will still be complaints that this person didn’t say that or this other person never wore the other. I’m minded of people who would come away from the Harry Potter movies saying yes, great, but they skipped chapter 11’s reference to ostriches. Or something.

Anyway, the dramas that we are going to get about anything real, anything political, are going to be rigidly factual and that will just reinforce this notion that we can’t make things up.

True, we’ve had a Nigel Farage piece that was a comedy but it was really just one good trailer-length joke and nothing else. We’ve also seen real-life events translated into science fiction but pretty simplistically. We’ve more often seen dramas that are as faithful as possible to the real-life events.

And I just don’t see the point of them.

That’s not drama, it’s a Crimewatch reconstruction. Granted, plenty of what’s happening now should be examined in criminal law courts but my need for a verdict is firmly, totally centred in reality: I don’t have a thirst to see justice done only to make a drama’s happy ending.

The word dramatised, by the way, means moved. From some non-dramatic form to another. You can’t dramatise a movie, for instance, because it’s already drama. The aim is to move whatever it is to another form in order to make something new, to create something that has value and worth on its own. It is not to fill in the blanks.

Drama documentaries do this and nothing else. They are a foul idea borne of a need to have something to look at when there’s no contemporary footage. So some historian will talk to some camera in some gorgeous house saying “And of course WIlliam Shakespeare lived on Lemsip” and it will be followed by portentous music, ancient costumes and actors trying to put emotion into Shakey telling Anne Hathaway: “I doth so adoreth it greater than Night Nurse”.

You can make it up, but you won’t.

This took me a very long time to realise but I got there and it’s become a staple for me: journalism is about facts and drama is about truth. It’s not the same thing.

There’s a thing I stick to in drama writing and specifically when pitching an idea. I’ll begin with what the story is about but then as fast as I possibly, conceivably can, I’ll ditch that and move on to this: what it’s really about.

Drama is about what really matters, what really is going on. Journalism is about who, what, where, when, why and how. Dramatised versions of real-life events are just pointless bores. Drama that examines why people do what they do, that dives into people instead of diligently copying news reports we’ve already seen, that’s just tedious.

You shouldn’t make it up.

The moving finger types


I don’t like what I wrote last week. I don’t really like what I wrote yesterday. And I’m coming to regret starting this. It’s just always been a fact of life for me: you do your very best and know that tomorrow you’ll be wincing at how poor a writer you are.

A friend has a regular habit of re-reading his scripts from, say, five or ten years ago, and having a good laugh at himself. I re-read mine and weep.

Only, I was just searching for something on my Mac and I found this.

020502.2235
THE LAST OF THE BLONDE BOMBSHELLS
UK Drama 2100-2235
Impossibly, this is the first repeat for this charming and uplifting Alan Plater drama from two years ago.

It’s long been out on DVD in the US but here, curiously, not so much, so this is a rare and welcome chance to see the reunion of a (nearly) all-girl band.

Judi Dench is a gem as the woman who sets out to find her disreputable pals and maybe recapture their glory days.

Don’t be shocked: they manage it. But the game is in traveling desperately as much as it is in arriving.

If you really know your television drama history then “from two years ago” is enough to pin this text down in time. If you’re not then let me offer you my congratulations and say the clue is in that string of numbers at the top. That’s the instruction to BBC Ceefax’s systems that the text should be removed at that date and time. It should go off air at 22:35 on 02/05/02.

That’s 2002.

I wrote that 15 years ago.

And it’s not bad. You’re too young to remember Ceefax so let me explain that it would’ve been tricky to get one more letter, let alone one more word, into the page that text went on. That was the limit of a TV preview and actually of any writing on Ceefax at all. You could have multiple pages but readers would not necessarily see them in the right order so every page had to stand on its own.

So, given that it’s so very constrained in space, I read that text and think it does the job. Tells you what’s on, tells you some news about it and it gives you the plot as well as clearly being a recommendation.

Plus it’s got a bit of bounce to it.

That’s the element that gives me some pleasure. I also get some from the phrase ‘travelling desperately’ which I think works even if you don’t know it’s a quote from another Alan Plater drama. (Misterioso, if you’re wondering. My favourite.)

So I’m willing to tell you about this because my cold writer/producer’s head sees that it works and is no cause for weeping. But I want to tell you about it because of the way it just popped up while I was hunting for something else. Like a little peek into the past. An unexpected window into what feels now like a very different world and a very different me.

We think of online writing as transient and it’s true that all my Ceefax pages vanished the day after they were aired. Most of my writing is already long gone and usually not remembered but this morning a shard of it came back to poke me in the eye. Only because it was written on computers. I have a shelf of paper notebooks I used to use but I never look at them and I can’t read my own handwriting. Whereas a gallon of Ceefax writing just came back as if I’d typed it today.

I have no idea why I’ve still got this text on my Mac, especially as I didn’t get this machine until ten years after I wrote that. I am coming to see why my hard drive is so full, mind.

I think for once that I’m glad it’s there. I’m glad I can see that I wasn’t dreadful. The fact that I wrote around 16,000 pages of BBC Ceefax has come up quite often for some reason and now I think if they were all like that, I’m okay with it.

The gigantic majority were written in BBC Television Centre, typing directly into the systems there, so I don’t have even a significant fraction of the text on my Mac. But I have some from when I would be working at home and delivering copy: I think I’d send in a week’s worth of previews and reviews at a time. I feel sorry for the poor sod who then had to copy and paste them in, but I suppose I did that for other people too.

Ouch. I’ve just read a piece in the same document, a TV preview of some football thing.

040502.1800
THE FA CUP FINAL
BBC1 1210-1725/Sky Sports 2 1200-1800
Best get your bank holiday trip to the DIY store over with in the morning, then, unless this is a dull match.

What’re the odds? Arsenal meet Chelsea for a quiet, cosy kickabout with several million people roaring them on. That’s all this will be.

To make sure this appeals to everyone, the teams are London ones but filled with players from around the world.

Here’s an idea of how important this is: it starts at 1500. So the build-up is twice the length of the game.

I even made football jokes. Now I’m wondering if someone else wrote all of these. It would explain some things.

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?

It’s bigger than it seems on the outside

Look, I’d want to talk with you about this anyway, simply because it makes me so happy. You’ve seen the video on YouTube and television news of a young child who explodes with excitement that: “The new Doctor Who is a girl!”

The only difference between me and that child is that I said “Doctor”, not “Doctor Who”. And “woman”, not “girl”.

The thing is, I hadn’t realised just how very much I wanted the next Doctor to be a woman until BBC aired that utterly gorgeous one-minute video revealing Jodie Whittaker. And thinking about it a lot since then, I realise that the really key single reason for how much I wanted it was that it was now or never.

Of course it matters that we get a superb actor, as we have with Jodie Whittaker, and of course that should be all that matters. But it isn’t all that matters and I also realised that I would’ve been disappointed with any man. Apparently there are people who are disappointed that it was any woman, but there’s no accounting for folk.

Only, yes, I am a feminist and I do think it is ferociously wrong how few women are in drama – but I’ve always felt that more about the writing than the acting. Yes, no question: I write strong roles for women in my scripts both because it’s right and because so few people do that you are guaranteed to get truly brilliant actors.

Doctor Who, the series, has been just plain wrong in the ridiculously tiny number of women writers it’s had. I do think the show is amongst the very hardest to write so naturally I think the pot of people who can do it will be smaller than for other shows, but there’s no conceivable reason that the proportion of women in that could be as teeny as it has been.

I have not thought it wrong that the Doctor hasn’t been a woman before.

Follow. Alongside the praise the show has got for doing this, it has also got criticism for not doing it before – and that’s the bit I disagree with.

I think people tend to consciously or unconsciously see the Doctor as being a role in the same way that James Bond, Miss Marple, Hamlet and others are. It’s a role that many or even any actor can take on.

No.

This isn’t about the quality of the actor and it isn’t even really about their gender, it’s about the character. The Doctor is not 14 different actors – don’t ask why Whittaker is called the 13th – who happen to be playing the same role. The Doctor is one character.

Think about soaps and the way they will re-cast a role and pretend nothing’s happened. Michelle coming back to EastEnders decades after she left. I’m struggling for another example but there was one in Corrie where a young man has been played by three or four young men. It’s that kind of thing. You are supposed to accept the new face and believe that it’s the same character.

It is the same with the Doctor, except that no new actor tries to completely mimic their predecessor. And then, worryingly, they change into clothes that they’re going to wear for the next several years.

But Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is the same character who used to wear that long scarf. He is the same character who first tried to stop Ian and Barbara from entering what looked like a police box in the 1960s. Actually, Peter Capaldi referred to this in a sweet chat with young fans that I can’t find on YouTube again. He spoke of his predecessors and said with total sincerity that if you look in his own face, you can see the Doctor’s previous selves.

And then in Jodie Whittaker’s announcement press release she said that one thing about taking on the role is that: “It means remembering everyone I used to be”.

So the Doctor is the Doctor is the Doctor. That doesn’t explain why she wasn’t a woman before. But go back to that soaps analogy. Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow is getting on a bit, if they wanted his character to continue they could perhaps recast the part. They would recast it as a man again because it’s the same character, but imagine that they didn’t. Imagine they cast a woman.

A woman taking over Ken Barlow’s role could be done – I don’t think it’s an acting problem at all – but it would have to be done with the most enormous storyline. Barlow would be transgender, it would run for months or more, it would be a gigantic deal within the storyline of the series.

In comparison, all that’s going to happen in Doctor Who is that Peter Capaldi will glow and out of the flame will step Jodie Whittaker. That’s it. On with the show, on with the character.

I think that’s fantastic. The Doctor is a woman, so what? Star Wars: The Force Awakens made me squeeze my cinema seat’s arm rest constantly because it has a lead woman who isn’t allowed to lead for one minute without a male character telling us it’s fine. The film expects us to be amazed alongside the male characters that this Rey is a pilot, for instance. It’s insulting to women, it’s insulting to everyone. I take it personally: it was insulting to me.

Doctor Who won’t do that, you can be sure, and Doctor Who can go straight into new stories without fuss because actually it has spent around five years setting this up.

I think it’s about five years. I’m trying to remember what there was in the fiftieth anniversary special around four years ago but there was something. I definitely remember another Steven Moffat episode where some random Time Lord regenerated into a woman. And of course for a couple of years we’ve had Michelle Gomez as Missy, a truly glorious incarnation of the Master. Funny and likeable and frightening.

Without her, then, and without the small touches through the last few years and, okay, without some pretty heavy-handed hinting in the last series, the change of gender has been made an organic part of the series.

If all of this had not been done, if the show had just decided on a whim to cast a woman, well, I’d probably still be pleased but then it would’ve felt like a gimmick. The show has been accused of doing this because it’s politically the right moment, because the BBC is under pressure about diversity, and if it were just a single casting decision, maybe that would’ve been true or at least partly true.

Instead, this has been worked on for perhaps five years. It has been created in the writing for perhaps half a decade.

That effort, that continued writing effort and talent, seems to me to be being ignored and it seems to me to be worthy of huge praise.

It was now or never and I am ecstatic that it was now. I don’t fully understand why I’m exactly this excited because I don’t know how the Doctor being a woman is going to change the show since this is literally the same character it always was. Each new actor brings something else and the tone of the show changes each time yet somehow this one being a woman makes the show tingle with new energy.

One more thing, just since it’s you. I was trying to explain to a guy why I was so pleased and I ended up focusing on a little half-smile, half-grin that Whittaker gives just after she’s been revealed. It’s when the Doctor sees her TARDIS and somehow it just promises adventure to me.

That’s true, but what I’ll tell you that I didn’t tell the guy is that I also got a ridiculous amount of pleasure writing the words “her TARDIS”.

Looked at but not seen to

June the 21st is National Writing Day. Actually, it’s also National Day of the Gong – truly – plus Music Day. And Selfie Day. Skateboarding Day. National Daylight Appreciation Day. I’m not making this up, though you have to assume someone is.

Still, I’m a writer so while the gong, music, skateboarding, selfie and daylight fans neglected to tip me off, I did get nudged about National Writing Day. And what whoever does these days wants is for writers to write about the view from their window.

There is a bit of me that rebels at any writing prompt even as I’ve seen how startlingly effective they can be. There is a bit of me that feels an urge to find a joke about what’s outside my window. The best I’ve got is I do have a garden that I don’t go out into and that this is for want of trying.

It’s not hilarious but it’s one of those very tiny changes in a familiar phrase that, at least to me, makes us reconsider the original. We say phrases that might as well be meaningless collections of sounds for all the attention we pay to the words. With no further ado, if we were hanging on the phone now, for instance, you’d be hearing my dulcet tones. I’ve sometimes ended an introduction of someone and asked audiences to welcome them onto the stage with more ado, with as much more ado as we can.

I hope my vocal tones can be dulcet when I want them to be, but I can see it in your face, you’re not sure what it actually means. You know it’s something vaguely praiseworthy or complimentary, yet you’ve never felt a compulsion to look up that it’s a pleasing sound. Nor me, not until two seconds ago.

That said, the ‘view from your window’ is a pretty clear idea, it is transparently obvious, if you will. Still, as soon as you say ‘window’ my mind flies to John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire which features the recurring and, in context, truly upsetting phrase ‘keep passing the open windows’. I also flit to a quote I heard from somewhere that the default screensaver in Hell is the Windows Blue Screen of Death.

And then I say that to you and for no useful reason my mind flicks on to a friend whose emails have suddenly begun announcing that they are virus-free. I see that and wonder at her still faffing about with viruses but doubtlessly she sees that and doesn’t think one single thing about it.

For you know that there is looking and there is seeing. When I was told about National Writing Day I was in the Library of Birmingham and the view from the window was exceptional but my mind was on a meeting I was on a break from. Above that, resting atop that and poking me from time to time, my mind was on entirely unrelated news that has been colouring how I’ve seen the entire week.

An hour later and the window I’m viewing through is my car’s. Then I was thinking about all this in the supermarket. I briefly returned to my own office which does have that little-seen garden out of the window. Now I’m in my living room where the The let feature of the view through the big windows is the tops of houses down the hill. And they are not as clear or vivid as the beautifully photographed view of Manhattan that turns out to be tonight’s screensaver on my TV set. It’s right underneath the window and that backlit rectangular window looks like it’s in higher resolution than the reality above it.

I might stare at that image for a bit, actually, and if I do then I’ll stare at it while absorbing the artistry of the photography plus remembering a thousand memories of New York and not quite remembering yet never being able to shed a million more impressions of the city that I’ve absorbed throughout my life.

The only thing I’m not doing with that window onto Manhattan is the same thing I didn’t do with the living room window, the office one, the car, the supermarket, the Library. I looked at them all and I looked through every one but I didn’t and don’t see them.

Not when my mind is buckled under a project. Doubtlessly this is the same for everyone but as a writer, I know that the view from a writers’ window is cloudy and shifting and unpleasant and scary and utterly beautiful and replete with potential though sodden with failure, a bellowing yearning to write better inescapably coupled to a need to pay the mortgage too.

And then just once in a while, something else that isn’t there.

Follow. After about 15 years of living here and working in that office, I have officially given up trying to get the wooden blinds to work and they’re just on the floor behind my long, curved desk and occasionally snagging on a power cable. So my windows are bare and you know what that means at night.

One particular night, easily around 3am, I was doing this yearning, reaching writing stuff on my first book. That was this non-fiction title about Alan Plater’s The Beiderbecke Affair. The deadline was so close, the word count was so tight – just 30,000 words and I’d given up about 2,000 of those in order to reprint a Beiderbecke short story of Alan’s – that it was frightening and exhilarating and just plain bloody exhausting.

Until of course it’s utterly black outside and it’s brightly lit in my office, so that window ceased to be a window and became a mirror instead. If I ever glanced up, I’d see my bookshelves and my messy research, but I didn’t look up.

Not until I had to sit back in my chair for a moment, shake out the tension in my hands and intend to get back to the typing.

In that moment, in that movement, the view from my window was not of either the real outside or a mirror image of my interior office. Instead, whatever it was, it had Alan Plater sitting back in his chair and telling me to get some sleep, it’s only a book.

That’s not the view from my window now or at any other time but that one single moment. Actually, it wasn’t really the view from my window even then, it was something inside me projecting out. But then you could say that of any view from any window we look through without seeing.

Travelling Desperately, again

Shush, we’re in archive. It’s the Hull History Centre and six years ago I was here researching my very first book. That was – take a breath, this is a long title – BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair, from the British Film Institute. The Beiderbecke Affair is a 1980s television drama by the late Alan Plater and this place has his papers.

It’s weird being in an archive that’s got a friend’s papers. I’d sit here reading something in the Beiderbecke collection and remember Alan or his wife Shirley Rubinstein telling me about it. But anyway, as much as I adore The Beiderbecke Affair and as important as my book was to me, there was also something else all those years ago.

I worked like fury to collate and copy every pixel of detail about the Beiderbecke Affair and then also Alan’s dramatisation of Fortunes of War because I had a canny eye to what the next book would be. That hasn’t happened yet, but give it time. Only, I did all that at extra-fast speed solely in order to leave the last two hours free.

Because there is this other Alan Plater work that is especially dear to me: Misterioso.

It’s a novel that’s out of print (but you can find it changing hands for a lot of money on eBay and Amazon) and a TV drama that has never been released commercially. It’s really just one small part of his work but I am shocked how deep it cuts into me. This is not a high-profile piece, not elaborate or overt, not famous or lauded, yet there are issues that I believe in and concerns that I share that I can easily trace back to the novel Misterioso in 1987 and the TV version in 1991.

Title card from the TV drama Misterioso

For a simple example, it’s why I’ve always loved the name Rachel. For a somewhat more complex one, it’s why I cherish the thought that, as the show describes, “it’s better to travel desperately than to arrive”. It’s why when I’ve done a lot I know that even as an atheist, I need time for my soul to catch up.

So knowing from the Hull History Centre’s catalogue that they had one entire box of papers about Misterioso, I was having that. Nobody was paying me, I wasn’t writing a book about it, but I was going to read that box for myself.

Only, the collection was still quite new then and things were still being sorted out. They told me they couldn’t find the Misterioso box.

Deeply unhappy, I vowed to return.

Yes. Six years later. I’m back and it’s still only for me, but this time I have a day and a half here entirely devoted to Misterioso. And that’s good because they’ve found the box. I call it a box, often these things are more like folders. But okay, I was ready to read one folder, then, and instead they’ve now got ten.

One more thing. The title Misterioso comes from a jazz piece which features as prominently as you might expect in an Alan Plater drama. I like jazz when I hear it live, I adore jazz anecdotes, but I’ve not been a fan and I have not collected any albums.

Only, the very last shot of Misterioso on television is of Rachel driving off down a motorway as the music plays. Yesterday as I drove down a motorway toward Hull, I lifted my Watch to my lips and said “Hey, Siri, play me Misterioso by Thelonius Monk“. And my car and my head were filled with this tune that seems so simple yet somehow means so much to me.

Blink of an eye

Ten years ago, I was in a Broadcasting House studio with Steven Moffat, the cast of his comedy Joking Apart and also DVD producer Craig Robins. Craig is remarkable: he became a DVD producer, he formed a company and he bought the rights to this sitcom all out of his own pocket and all because he so loves the show.

So there’s Craig, literally invested in his project, and there’s Moffat plus actors Fiona Gillies, Robert Bathurst, Tracie Bennett, Paul Raffield and TV producer Andre Ptaszynski.

And me. At this distance I’ve not a clue why I was there: I wrote a booklet for the second season DVD and I think I must surely have been there to interview people for it. But all I remember is being a spare pair of hands: it was I who brought people up from BH reception to the studio, for instance.

I should also say that I remember having a very good time: the commentaries are funny and informative. But of course as with any recording of anything, there is a lot of hanging about. Not just for me doing nothing much, but for the commenters.

Which is why I’m telling you this now.

I can remember word for word a thing Steven Moffat said in that studio. I can’t quote him for you because while there isn’t a single syllable that I imagine he’d have a problem with, he didn’t say it to me. I wasn’t even in the room: he was in the studio and at that moment I was in the gallery so I just caught it over an open mic.

Plus, my head must surely have been focused on interviewing about Joking Apart because this was a Doctor Who comment of no use to me.

Except it’s a Doctor Who comment that has really stuck with me and which definitely did so because of what happened slightly later. Ten years ago to the month – 9 June 2007 – the Doctor Who episode Blink aired. It’s a one-hour drama that jumps out of the screen and through sheer force of vitality and energy grabs you by the neck. There’s a repeated line in the episode about how you shouldn’t blink, “don’t even blink, blink and you’re dead” and there is not one single pixel of a chance that you ever could because it’s such a compelling tale.

If you know the series, you know this episode and there’s a decent chance you think it’s at or near the best thing Doctor Who ever did. If you don’t know the series then no, sorry, you do: this is the story that introduced the Weeping Angels.

They are genuinely frightening monsters in a series that seems to have to have a new alien baddie every week. Perhaps that constant introduction of new monsters is why I’m usually disinterested in them, including when I write Doctor Who radio dramas for BBC/Big Finish. But I think I’m just automatically more interested in people than, say, tentacles.

Yet Blink is equally exquisite with its characters. Carey Mulligan stars as Sally Sparrow and she really stars in every sense: for once the guest actor outshines the Doctor. That’s no criticism of the then-Doctor, David Tennant, but rather to how he isn’t in the episode much.

I don’t know if this is still the case, but ten years ago each season of Doctor Who had to have one episode in which the Doctor doesn’t appear very much at all. It’s specifically so that the actor can be off filming a different Doctor Who episode. As I understand it, this was the sole way to get each season’s 13 episodes made in time.

Fine, only from a writing and acting perspective, this puts an enormous load on whoever is doing the Doctor-less or Doctor-lite episode. And that’s what Moffat mentioned in the studio.

He’d delivered the script to Blink and I don’t believe the episode had been filmed yet or at the very least he hadn’t seen it. So there we are, some short while before the episode airs, and I’m hearing Moffat talking about how he’d tried his best with it. The sense was that he thought it would be okay, that the show would make it well, but that it wasn’t going to be great.

That’s why the comment has stuck with me. Here’s one of the most successful and doubtlessly one of the busiest writers in British television. Here’s someone who I think has found compelling depths to the Doctor and whose writing can be magical. I don’t know how many episodes he’s written of Doctor Who, I couldn’t begin to add up those plus Joking Apart, Coupling and the rest. But by any measure, Blink is one of his finest moments.

I saw an interview recently in which he expressed mild bafflement at the praise this episode gets and I don’t know if he was being modest. Equally, when he told the Joking Apart studio that this forthcoming Blink episode wasn’t brilliant, he could’ve been just saying it.

I believed him at the time, though, and I still do. I’m just not sure why I find that lifting. I think this was a writer doing something great and not fully realising it so if someone that good writing something this delicious can’t see that, well, it’s confirmed that all writers are screaming crazy eejits and we’re in good company.