Miss-market paperback

So I was with about 300 writers at this year’s Swanwick Writers’ Summer School for one day this week, meeting them, gassing with them, and running a workshop about blogging with something like 60 people. Name a writing topic, and it came up in the dozens of huge conversations we all go into. But oddly, there was also something that slipped into most of the topics, most of the discussions.

Not true. It wasn’t mentioned at all in any of the conversations I had about how remarkably, I mean remarkably, well organised this event was. I felt privileged to be part of it.

Still, wherever two, three or several hundred writers shalt be gathered, so shalt there be talk about money.

Of course there is, and if people are making a living through writing, it’s far from a surprise when they think about aiming for certain markets, for doing certain things that appeal to readers. Having the hero in the first chapter of a novel, for instance. Having a happy ending, you know the kind of thing.

Against all these reasonable points and to all of these reasonable and talented people, I say bollocks.

Now, it’s easy to say bollocks over here where it’s just you and me talking. I promise you that I said it while I was there, but I grant you that conversation had a lot more context.

So let me summarise the context for you. Sod the mass market, I argued, and screw happy endings.

I am a full-time freelance writer and at this very moment I should be writing a non-fiction piece I’ve been commissioned to do. It comes with quite a specific brief, a word count, and while it’s not been stated for this piece, the fully sensible expectation is that I will again write in this publication’s style. Or near enough, anyway.

Not only have I no problem with this, I’m enjoying writing it. We’re talking now because I’m taking a tea break on the train I’m on. I need a minute or two to get some slices of tea from the buffet. Do you take sugar?

It’s just this. I think you can go native. You can assume that an editor is not only right in the sense that he or she knows what they want, but that what they say goes for everything. I think you can assume that what the market likes is what is right.

I doubt anyone at Swanwick would believe that there are rules to writing, but they know there are things that tend to work and things that tend to fail.

And I also doubt that any writer anywhere would agree with me about ignoring the market when times are really tight. When you don’t know how you’ll get through the end of the month, it’s impossible to be arty. To write something just because you fancy doing it is just impossible, you’ve got to write things that you know will sell.

Except you never know what will.

When things are that pressured, when you are truly under the cosh and you actually do have a strong clue that something will sell – because you’ve been commissioned to do it, because you’ve sold four books in the same vein before – then do what you have to do.

But also do something that you don’t.

Spend at least a little time writing something that doesn’t work, that doesn’t follow some formatted rules and isn’t going to appeal to anyone other than you.

The worst that can happen is that it will be rubbish, but it’ll be your rubbish, maybe you’ll enjoy it, probably it’ll show you what you’re good at in writing, and definitely it will stop you becoming a typist instead of a writer.

And the best that can happen is that it works.

The trouble with rules and formats is that they are a list of what’s worked before and if there’s anyone who should be breaking new ground, it’s writers.

Wait and Wait for It

I want us to fix a problem I missed back in 2007. I was going to say that it’s a drama problem, and I still think it is, but it’s to do with an episode of the comedy How I Met Your Mother, a series I think should be legen –

hang on, no, let me get specific. I’m talking about season 3, episode 1, Wait for It, by series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, which first aired on 24 September 2007, and which I just watched again – after seeing the preceding 44 episodes over the past few weeks.

I bought the whole series on iTunes and then discovered that it’s also on Netflix. Anyway.

When you binge-watch something, it changes. I think overall comedies, at least the best ones, tend to blur into dramas because after a few episodes back to back, you’re not as receptive to surprise as you are when watching it weekly. How I Met Your Mother, I think, certainly works as drama, and actually after a few years into its run, that was chiefly why I continued watching.

It would still always be sporadically funny, but I was just into the characters. And watching the first few seasons again now, it is a joy to find how continually very funny it originally was.

HIMYM features some really smart writing: there are episodes where I’m totally into the story and yet the writer in me pops up to applaud something particularly well done.

I should say that it never occurred to me that the show would ever actually reveal the mother of the title. I simply unconsciously thought that it was a great title, a smart framing device for the stories with a father narrating tales to his bored kids, and not at all that it was a deliberate plan they hoped to play out over nine years.

I should’ve realised, not only because when they finally did the reveal at the end of the eighth season, they did it superbly. I should also have realised because How I Met Your Mother is one of those extraordinarily rare series, a successful romantic comedy.

And, grief, it was fantastic on romance.

There was a particular recurring motif that they played for every ounce of romance, and that was a yellow umbrella. When you heard that mentioned by a character or you just glimpsed it in the back of a scene, it was electric.

And the problem is that I now think it was set up very poorly.

Maybe I didn’t follow every episode on its first run, certainly there were things I just assumed I’d missed, but now I’ve been watching the whole run again in rapid sequence, I’ve seen one key point about the yellow umbrella that I failed to spot before.

“Kids,” begins the narrator at the start of Wait for It. “There’s more than one story of how I met your mother. You know the short version, the thing with your mom’s yellow umbrella.”

WE DO NOT.

Maybe as written that line could be meant to say that the children have previously been told about the umbrella, maybe it’s meant to be that since they are the kids of this mother and father, they know the story as family lore.

But it sounds, it plays, as if we viewers have heard about this and we haven’t. This is the first mention of something crucial to the run of the series and, trust me, it ain’t mentioned once before this 45th episode.

Now, it’s easy to criticise an episode 12 years after it was made, especially a US TV sitcom episode where they were making 20 episodes one after the other, bang, bang, bang.

And clearly there were plans for this umbrella, plans that became scenes and whole episodes that I think are both marvellous and far better than I could ever write.

But.

Given that I’ve had either a dozen years or about a week, depending on how you count, I do have a way they could’ve launched the whole yellow umbrella story without clunking into it like this.

Within this one episode, the yellow umbrella makes two appearances. Once is during that wobbly start as the kids are reminded that they know about it. The other, gorgeously effective, catch-in-your-throat great, is the penultimate scene, really the last before an unrelated tag. The narrator is talking about everything is leading inexorably to how he met the mother, and how close that was.

And during those words, we see someone holding the yellow umbrella as she walks by McLaren’s Bar, the show’s regular pub setting.

It is that proximity that gives the episode a last little spark before the end titles. I just think now that it doesn’t need the opening reference. It’s tempting to set up something you’re going to pay off, it’s even automatic, but in this case, less is more.

All week I’ve been thinking that this is a dialogue problem. That rather than the narrator telling us about the yellow umbrella at the start, he could tell us at the end. Tell us about it over that last shot of one yellow umbrella in the crowd.

But talking to you about it, replaying the episode in my head, I think I’m wrong.

It’s a yellow umbrella. It stands out. And just as you always know who is the important character in a story without being actually told, so this time you would get that the yellow umbrella was important.

I offer that you would inescapably know that it was the mother who was carrying it.

Part of the satisfaction of writing, to me anyway, is in taking an audience to a certain point. Knowing where you’re going to take them, and then getting them there. How I Met Your Mother was first class at bringing you to a point –– and then throwing you with the smallest extra instant.

This was one of those. I just think, some 4,322 days after it aired, that this one could’ve punched even better.

What do you mean, I’m currently trying to write a romance and find it damn hard? There’s a word for anyone who can pull that off and it’s the same word for writers who can create a catchphrase I’m still quoting a dozen years later.

It’s dary. Legendary.

I’m not here

I’m not here because since Monday evening, I’ve been away researching a book.

I can’t tell you what it is – ask me in a year, quite possibly two – and, for different reasons, I don’t think I can tell you what the week has been like. Not really, not adequately.

I can tell you that I stayed offline for it and can see that, across various accounts, I have fewer than 200 emails waiting for me. No idea if anyone’s @ed me on Twitter or tagged me anywhere. I suppose I’ll find that out in a minute when I post this, but as I write, I have one more eight-hour session of research.

That eight hours is not my choice, I would be at it 24 hours with naps if I could.

But if it goes as well as it possibly can, I still won’t be halfway through the research when I have to stop. I thought devoting a week to it would be enough for this stage, I also thought that a week on any one subject would be bliss. Instead of darting about everywhere and juggling everything, I could really concentrate.

I did exactly that and it was blissy – not blissful but with bliss-like moments. Overall I’m too conscious of how much more I’ve got to do and trying to figure out how to do it.

Plus, I think I can tell you this, I can’t see the story yet. I’ve a mass of information and an even bigger mass – about two times the size – that I can’t get to on this trip. But I can’t see a line through it yet, I can’t see how to tell this story.

Right now, for speed, I am documenting everything into a database, reduced to reading as little as I can in the moment but photographing it all. When I’m back in my own world, I’ll methodically go through what I’ve got and sort out chronology, examine it all, see what I’ve got.

And then hopefully I’ll see the story.

But somehow that clear and easy frustration over not being able to get to all the material, plus that intangible sense of not getting the grip on the story I expected, and the way this week has been a bubble, it’s all combined.

I understand why I’m not here, how I’m away from my office and away from online, but right now I don’t think I’m all there, either.

Change the word

It’s been Baader Meinhof Effect week. Well, it’s also been the destruction of my beloved captain’s chair, the seat I’ve been in for every book, every script, every article and too many meals. The main metal rod sheared off and sent me tumbling across my office. But while I was lying there with one leg up on my desk and the other in our kitchen, it was the Baader Meinhof Effect that I was thinking about.

The brilliant thing about this is that if you haven’t heard of it before, you will now. That’s what it is. It’s the term for how once you’ve heard of something, you suddenly keep hearing it. I guarantee that you’ll hear it again soon.

What happened is that last week I mentioned typical reactions that writers get. Now, I don’t expect anyone but writers to know or give the slightest damn what writers do or say or experience. But as people stopped me all week to say they’d had exactly those typical reactions, they also told me something that I haven’t been able to stop hearing over and over again.

Writer Jacqui Rowe started it. She told me that she kept hearing of people who dream of being writers, but what they actually dream of is anything but the writing. They dream of the book launches, they dream of celebrity parties, they dream of money.

And as soon as she said that, it seemed as if every time I checked social media, I would see another discussion about writers and our dreams or our motivations.

I get that it would make for a dull dream and a long night if you regularly fantasised about thousands of hours typing. But you’ve got to enjoy those hours because you’re going to have to do them regardless. Maybe enjoy is too simplistic a word because nobody sits here constantly beaming with happiness. But this is what I dreamed of, the writing.

It wasn’t the only thing I dreamed of. I also dreamt of seeing a book of mine in my local library. That wasn’t a long or detailed or even recurring dream because I didn’t really think it was possible. (It was. I did it in 2012, a book of mine is in the Library of Birmingham and any day now I think someone may consider being the first to borrow it.)

I want to suggest to you that this dream, the specific dream of being a writer actually writing, is a kind of pure dream. I definitely want to suggest to you that people who just dream of being a writer at a celebrity party are unlikely to manage it.

But I chiefly want to suggest all this because there is also the question of why in God’s name you, I or anyone, anywhere, ever wants to write. And there I am wondering if I just have a failure of imagination.

Baader Meinhof Effect.

Told you.

For in many of these same online discussions during the week, the same question has been asked and the responses were always what I’d call crazy-ass. Some writers said that they wrote to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I may have exaggerated a little there, but that was the core of it. The world needs these writers, said these writers.

And maybe it does. It needs something and what it needs, it ain’t getting it from me.

I do write to pay the mortgage, thought not as cynically as that sounds, or actually as effectively. But it is an issue and it has to be. Beyond that, though, my real reason to write is just that I’ve got to find out what happens next.

Writer is Coming

That’s it, that’s all I’ve got that’s in any way to do with Game of Thrones. Writer is coming. I thought of it and, in my head, that sounded like a good title. It might be a bit portentous, I thought, and that’s not me, that’s more poncy than I intend to be. But it’s a good title and I’ve over-thought it. Except I possibly haven’t thought about it enough because now that I’ve actually written it down, now that you’re looking at it, I have an uneasy feeling that it might be rude.

Anyway.

I was thinking of this title when I got into a conversation about writing and writers. I get into these quite a lot, really, and I don’t think you’re surprised since it’s what you and I natter about all the time. But for some reason this week I noticed how similar these chats can be. I noticed that we are quite prone to the same concerns – but unfortunately also to the same nonsense.

I’m used to this from the outside. The rubbish that is said to writers is ridiculous. Sometimes it’s also manipulative. Such as a new one I heard the other day, where a film student told me that she’d been warned that if she joined a union like the Writers’ Guild – or Equity, the Musicians’ Union, any of them – she’d find it harder to get work.

Oh, yes? A producer who says that to you is not your friend. He or she is someone angling to hire you for less than the going rate. He or she is someone who is likely to tell you next that working for free is good exposure. He or she is someone the Writers’ Guild would take on in court for you.

Then there’s the issue of copyright which I think must arise naturally a little but is surely exploited by writing courses and writing tutors trying to justify why you spent money on them. I run writing courses, I am a writing tutor, and I don’t believe you can be taught writing. I think you can be taught to write better. That’s why I do it and I am not going to pad out a short course by making up rules about how you must copyright your ideas. Or Else.

I’m not saying you’ll never be ripped off – though in nearly thirty years, it’s only happened to me once – but I am saying get a life. Maybe it’s different in the US where things are more litigious and I know the Writers’ Guild of America runs a service to help writers register scripts for this reason.

But I also know this. Whenever I’ve been sent a script or, back when I was editing magazines, I was sent an unsolicited article, and the piece has copyright threats all over the front cover, I can already tell you what the following pages are going to be like. They will be amateur.

That shouldn’t be true, there shouldn’t be any reason why it could ever be true, but it always is.

Writers also always hear the same things when they’ve been asked what they do for a living. It’s either that the person who asked then tells you that they’re thinking of writing a book but they haven’t the time because they’ve got a real job like being an accountant. One variation on that: sometimes they tell you they have this brilliant idea, it’s about twins, now you just have to write it and we can split the profits.

Or more often, they say something along the lines of good luck, you might make it one day, you keep on trying.

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, they’ll still say that. A friend I’ve known since school asked me recently whether I’ve ever been published. “Um, just a bit,” I told her.

If I’d said anything more, if I’d listed books or scripts, I’d be the one who was being rude. I’d be simultaneously boasting and defensive, I’d be preening and trying to justify myself, and this person who doesn’t read much would point out that she’s never read anything of mine. And then I’d be off saying things like you got me, I’m lying, I’ve been a fool to myself, let’s not bother with dessert, and can we have the bill now, please?

I do think she believes that I’m playing at this. That writing is something you play with until you grow up.

Anyway, you know all this, you’ve heard all of this, I’m just trying so hard not to get to the point.

Because the point is that I realised this week that for all the nonsense that’s said to writers, we don’t half say some bollocks back, too.

Maybe the biggest one is that we have a tendency to talk about writers’ block. If there’s ever anything that says writing is not a job, it’s writers’ block.

Tell me the last time you heard an engineer complain about engineer’s block, or a plumber, or a nurse. Tell me when you’ve ever heard an artist talking about painter’s block or sculptor’s block.

We own this writers’ block phrase and we deserve all we get.

It’s not that there’s some mystical interference pattern affecting our talent and it’s definitely not that the muse has taken a holiday. You don’t have writers’ block, you’re just crap today.

Maybe you were crap yesterday too, and maybe you’ll be crap tomorrow. If it goes on long enough, possibly you should look into accountancy. But you’re just having a crappy day like everybody else in every job gets.

I really don’t think we help our case by conjuring up this notion of writers’ block. I think we damage ourselves with other people because we’re sounding like we’re special little snowflakes. But I also think we do some serious, some really serious, damage to ourselves.

If you are a writer and you believe you have writers’ block today, there are only two things that can happen and neither is good. The easier one is that you might just not write now, you might postpone it to tomorrow –– and tomorrow you’re going to have writers’ block too. This is how books don’t get written, this is how scripts don’t get finished.

And even so, I call that the easier one because it can only happen when you’ve got the time. If you’re on a deadline, you don’t have any option but to press on. I prefer that, I think it’s by far the better option, but it’s not easy.

I would remind you that there are harder jobs than writing, but I’d also like to point out that there are easier ones, too.

The trouble with deadlines is that they are imposed on you, you are responding to someone else’s deadline. And when it’s the opposite, when you have the time to just not write today, you are the one who is sole control of your deadlines. Writers have a crippling tendency to not write when we don’t have to, and dressing it up with phrases like writers’ block does not help us.

All that helps writers is writing. Getting on with it.

Writing is Going.

Hung, drawn and quota-ed

Yesterday I was speaking at the National Youth Film Academy – a really good, highly practical filmmaking course – and the topic of quotas came up. Was it right, I and colleagues from Equity and Directors UK were asked, that there should be quotas for getting more women writing film and television.

And is it fair, continued the point, for women if they are only there because of a quota?

Writing isn’t fair.

And nor should it be. Not ever, not in any possible way. Film and television and radio and books and stage and games, and anything else you can think of, do not exist for writers. You do not get to write a TV drama because it’s your turn.

Instead, everything is always for the audience. It was ever thus, it will always be thus, and there has never been one moment when it should not be thus.

So of course the idea of a quota, the idea of anything that artificially changes who gets to write things ought to be wrong and we shouldn’t need it.

But we need it.

We truly, truly need quotas.

Not because we’ve got some issue and require certain percentages of shows to be by women, certain percentages by certain ethnic minorities or certain proportions of drama to be about certain issues.

We need something because we already have certain percentages and they are wrong.

Without any quotas, without any effort, we ought to naturally have a situation where everything is achieved through merit. If you’re a good enough writer, you ought to be getting to write.

So explain to me why only 14 percent of primetime UK television is written by women.

That’s the figure right now and we know it because the Writers’ Guild counted. It counted as the start of a campaign called Equality Writes and ultimately it wants to find out exactly how well or poorly represented every facet of UK life is on television and film. The Writers’ Guild started by counting women because it was possible to get that data.

Now it’s researching further, but to be honest, I’m surprised they can face it. As well as that 14 percent for TV, the figure for film is 16 percent.

Here I am stridently saying that writing isn’t fair and shouldn’t be, but tell me that 14 and 16 percent is the result of merit. Tell me that there really is just that proportion of writers who are women. While you’re at it, tell me how exactly that figure has been approximately just as low for every year the Writers’ Guild examined.

There is no possibility, not one single pixel of a possibility, that British television and film writing is by merit.

Instead, the current system is bollocks. And I chose that word carefully.

So some quota system, really some anything system, anything that changes this is necessary. Anything that breaks the system, just give me that.

I was the last of three to speak to this point yesterday and my colleagues from Equity and Directors UK were impassioned and eloquent. Representing the Writers’ Guild but also representing myself, I couldn’t really add any more to the points raised – but I also really could not just nod in agreement.

“I want quotas or anything that changes this,” I said, “because it’s right and because I care about the writers. But also because I am just so tired of seeing film and radio and television and stage all being written by boring, middle-aged white men. And I am a boring, middle-aged white man.”

You’d think in an audience of about 200 filmmakers that one of them could’ve said I was wrong about that last part, but seemingly not.

Stream Misty for Me

Tell me you do this too. There’s a song or come piece of music that you get so obsessed with that you not only could play it on a loop, but you do.

It’s often when I’m writing and I thought both that this was a little peculiar and also nuts to peculiar, I ain’t stopping now. More than fifteen years ago, I created a playlist called Discoveries and only ever added a track to it when it had been one I so obsessed over.

The rule was even more specific than that. It had to be a piece I had been drawn to play so often that I was eventually sick of it. My Discoveries playlist became around 130 songs, all of which I now loathed.

Well, a bit.

Whenever I really needed to concentrate on whatever I was writing, I would pop headphones on and tell iTunes to shuffle Discoveries. I might skip the odd track if it really was so recent that I’d gone off it, but usually I’d let everything play and I’d have a grand time.

There is one more rule and one strong guideline.

The guideline is that I avoid allowing too many tracks by the same artist. With 130 tracks or whatever it became, having the entire discography of Suzanne Vega in Discoveries would just be wrong. Tempting, but wrong.

And the rule is that once it goes into Discoveries, it cannot be taken out. Not ever. Which means that it’s not enough to be a hit I quite like, I have to really, really obsess. If I can’t listen to the one same track a hundred times in a row, it ain’t good enough to be included.

And this cannot be premeditated or even considered. It has to be that I am compelled right now to add it. I’ve been got to the stage recently where I’ve made a Discoveries Contenders playlist.

Here’s how hard it is to get into my playlist. I have only one Suzanne Vega song in it. That surprised me a lot. That surprised me so much that I must surely revisit her albums, I’d have been certain most of her Songs in Red and Gray album would be in here already.

Now that I’m looking, I see that I’ve got two by Regina Spektor. Three by Kate Bush. Four by Tanita Tikaram. Five by Dar Williams. And I didn’t expect this: seven by Bruce Springsteen.

I have also made some choices I regret.

But at some point I read an interview with – I think – Anthony Minghella. I don’t believe he has a Discoveries playlist, but there was some comment about how he would have single songs on endless repeat. I hope it was him, I’d rather be a little bit like Anthony Minghella than a lot like the nutter I thought I was.

And then there’s this. Last night, I was in a supermarket queue and it really, really slowly dawned on me that nobody else was dancing.

I was wearing AirPods, these blissful wireless headphones, and I was shuffling Discoveries. To be specific, I was being incapable of standing still because I had Tómame by Francisca Valenzuela in my ears.

And as I’d left my car, as I entered the supermarket and as I walked down aisle 9, I wasn’t humming the lyrics, I was instead saying “Hey, Siri, play that again”.

Valenzuela is a Chilean singer and I rarely understand a word of her songs – weirdly, I never like her English-language ones as much – and right now she has six tracks in my Discoveries.

And here’s the other thing. It took at least fifteen years to get to somewhere around 130 tracks. But in the last three years I’ve added another 110.

That’s entirely because of streaming. I subscribe to Apple Music and with one single exception, all 110 new additions to Discoveries come from that service. The exception is Kate Bush’s reggae cover of Rocket Man which I had to actually buy. I barely remembered how to do that.

This is on my mind because of the supermarket dance. It’s also on my mind because if it’s streaming music that’s got me several Francisca Valenzuela tracks, it was iTunes that got me my first back around 2007.

I worry about how artists must get lost in the flood of our being able to listen to just about anything at any moment and for practically no cost.

But I’m not kidding about dancing in Asda and I’m really not kidding about my Discoveries playlist. You and I can immediately listen to any of millions of songs yet I will play the same one over and over again as I write.

Imagine writing something that a stranger obsesses over, internalises, and lives for.

While I piddle about making playlists.

So 551, not out and March 29, not out either

It turns out that this is the 551st Self Distract. It was pointed out to me last week that I’d started it in 2006, but I know it didn’t become a thing for some years. But it’s been every Friday for a long time now so let’s say 551 divided by 52 equals ten and a bit. Let’s call this the tenth anniversary of Self Distract proper.

Funny that it should happen today, though. I mean, okay, we’ve just contrived the numbers to make it happen, but the numbers were there and they were there today, March 29, 2019.

Since whatever day it was that I actually made this an unbreakable weekly chat, I have broken it once.

Just the once.

You won’t know or remember the absence of a Self Distract, but you’re a bit more likely to recognise the date. It was the day after June 23, 2016. The result of the damned Brexit referendum was announced and I couldn’t move.

Well, I’m surprised I say that because moving was all I could do: I shook. I actually convulsed.

When I regained some discipline, the following week, I wrote this:

If you looked out of your window and thought everything seems much the same as it did, go out the door instead. If you think we’ll look back on this in five years and wonder what the fuss was about, you’re confusing things being fine with having no damn choice about it. I hope we will become inured to this result but we are permanently injured.

And here we are. March 29, 2019, the day the UK leaves Europe –– except it doesn’t. I no longer know what date to dread, but the effects are already here and I’m not over it.

I wanted to talk to you about music today. About how we can and can’t write to music, how it does and doesn’t help us when we’re writing. But then I saw the 551 number and then I realised that not only had I nearly forgotten to put the bins out, I’d also nearly missed today’s date.

i think I’m going to carry on missing it. Let’s put the kettle on, get back to writing, and try to do something good.

Visibly invisible

For sixteen months, I’ve been working as hard as I know to be completely invisible in a project but now it’s done, I want to shout that I did it. I’ve realised that I don’t often talk to you about specific things I’m working on but this was one that I have itched to and now that it’s been officially launched, I can.

It’s the National Trust’s What is Home exhibition at Croome.

Croome in Worcestershire is a Georgian stately home and the Trust is preserving it, but the National Trust always also wants to preserve the memories of the people who lived and worked in a place. It isn’t about buildings, it’s about the people who have called these places home. And Croome has been a different type of home to many different types of people from its original days with the rich and on through its time as a boys’ school.

The thinking about this led the National Trust to explore the whole idea of What is Home? It is all about Croome, but the idea is that it is really all about us. We create our homes and then, I think, our homes rather create us back.

And as I’ve written in the notes for the What is Home exhibition, if you want to know what home really means, ask someone who’s had theirs taken away from them.

The National Trust commissioned artist Kashif Nadim Chaudry to work with the ex-pupils from when Croome was a school and also with school-age children who are currently in foster care. He ran workshops with groups and together with the National Trust team, he worked individually with the ex-pupils. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t cosy – but I was there and I can tell you it was also fun.

He asked each person to loan us an object or two that signifies home to them. Anything. Rachel Sharpe, who created the project, told every participant that their object would be treated the same way that the National Trust treats million-pound oil paintings. I was there for that too and she wasn’t kidding. There was painstaking cataloguing and there is precision tracking of every single object as it came in from the participants and ultimately ended up in Nadim’s art installation.

Nadim has done this utterly gorgeous artwork that shows all the items together. It’s plain in the sense that it’s not adorned or over dramatised, but it’s also beautiful. The objects are on plinths that gently rise and fall as you’re looking at them. It’s as if the art installation itself knows which part you’re focusing on and it offers you a better look. Then the whole piece, all of the artwork, is housed in a lattice-work frame that seems to float in the room. Just beautiful.

Photo: Jack Nelson


And so far you’ve only gathered that I wrote some notes. There’s a second room which contains a couple of panels explaining the project and the history of Croome. I wrote those and you’ll see my byline on them.

You won’t see my name on the more important writing.

And if you were anyone else, I would even deny that I did the writing at all.

For behind Nadim’s artwork, there is a wall full of quotes from the participants. They’re all very short, never more than two or three sentences, and they are as plainly written as they are plainly displayed. I mean, the typography is exquisite but it’s presented entirely for clarity, it’s meant to be read, it isn’t trying to be pretty.

I wrote it all.

I worked with the participants, I worked with National Trust people who know the ex-pupils very well, I worked to capture what home meant to the participants. Some of the sentences are simple, direct quotes. But all of the time it was a question of conveying feeling as much as anything, of connecting you to that person. My aim was that you read this wall and you do not ever think that it was written at all, you just take in the words and it is as if those people were standing there in front of you.

I’ve told the National Trust this next bit. I said to them that if we’d known at the start exactly how many words I’d be writing, I’d have told them I’d need about an hour to write it. Compared to books and articles and scripts, it is a tiny amount of writing. And yet it has occupied me for sixteen months and I ain’t kidding when I say it’s occupied me. I have lain awake at nights thinking about it.

This What Is Home idea cuts so very deep that it was exposing some remarkably personal thoughts and feelings. I was being trusted to communicate that from these participants to you and, God in heaven, the responsibility. Also, frankly, the work was beyond me. It required fewer words than I have ever written for anything else, but it necessitated reaching deeper into myself than I ever have before.

And I have not told the National Trust this next bit.

I didn’t think I’d succeeded.

Because the text goes along with the objects that the participants loaned, and because those objects are being tracked in a database, I had to deliver my writing in an Excel spreadsheet. I’d read the latest draft of it and I’d know that I’d technically accomplished certain things, but the stories of these participants have often upset me and text in that spreadsheet didn’t.

I don’t want to knock Excel, but clearly it’s rubbish.

Because last Saturday, I read all the text again on the wall and it made me cry.

I think I’ve managed to be invisible. You do stand there and know that you have the participants and you have Nadim’s artwork. You don’t stand there and think this wall is written or composed or studied or drafted or contrived. It is plain and it is plainly the participants talking to you.

Do go have a look yourself if you possibly can. And whether you can or not, do have a read of that official website as it includes photographs of Nadim’s work plus interviews with both he and I.

Oh! Wait, one more thing. This tickles me and at the same time I think it fits everything I wanted to do. I said that there’s a second room away from Nadim’s artwork. Amongst items from Croome’s days as a school, there is also a video about the project. Last Saturday afternoon, I was standing behind a group of visitors as we watched it. And not one of them twigged that the fella on the screen talking about the writing was also the guy standing there with them and wiping his eyes.

You are quite amusing

Okay, that subject heading has nothing to do with what I want to talk to you about. But it’s on my mind. Yesterday I was working in a school, doing the usual thing of coming in, causing a ruckus and getting out again. But at one point, a young girl of either 10 or 11, said to me: “You are quite amusing.”

I took it as a giant compliment, but I was also supremely tickled by the word ‘quite’. You were, too.

Anyway, I was there running a writing session and she wanted to ask me about a story problem she was having with a book she’s working on. We talked during a break, I think her story is delightful and very well worked out, and then I went back to my hotel room and learned what had been going on with Brexit.

I’m not going to talk to you about that. I just can’t. Last night I was able to forget about it quickly because I was working on a thing, writing late into the evening. Yet maybe it’s because this young woman’s story problem was to do with plot and maybe it was because Brexit is insane, but something made me change my mind about drama.

It used to be that, without exception, I knew, I just knew that the very greatest drama comes when you have two strong characters in a room arguing – and both of them are right.

God, but that’s hard to write. Both characters equally smart, intelligent, passionate and equally right about an issue that is complex, challenging and vital.

I’m not sure I’ve ever pulled it off myself, but you know it when you see it. For some reason my mind is leaping to The West Wing and its first seasons with writer Aaron Sorkin.

That’s fair because he and his West Wing writing staff were very good at this, but it’s also appropriate because that was a political show and it is specifically politics that have changed my mind.

I’ll still and forever relish the kind of drama where you have these two characters who are both right.

But now I am forced to wonder if it isn’t more dramatic, much more dramatic, when you have two strong characters arguing passionately – and they’re both wrong.

I think that’s what we’ve got here with Brexit as all these votes, all this posturing, all this bollocks goes on. All we’re missing is strong characters.

But to make up for it, while these arguments are going on, it’s our futures that are going to be affected. That are already affected. Maybe that’s what makes this dramatic, that giant consequences are resting on the shoulders of a government and opposition that prefer to pose instead of look us in the eye.

I said I wasn’t going to talk to you about this and I didn’t intend to. I’ve reached the point where I can’t always actually understand the headlines on BBC News – last night I had to keep re-reading one before I could work out the double negatives about not voting for a no-deal – so I’ve taken to reading the New York Times instead.

That paper is covering this but with the detachment of being based in a different country, even if admittedly a country with its own problems. When the New York Times writes about Brexit, it does tend to be well written and clear, sometimes with helpful diagrams, but it also has this unintentionally bemused tone.

Which can be quite amusing.