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.

Endings and finishes

It’s not that I’m in a fight. But I’m disagreeing with someone and as polite as we’re being, as much as I rate the fella, we’ve come back to the same point many times this year and neither of us will budge. I can’t actually tell you the details because it’s about a book of his that isn’t out yet – and, besides, if you knew everything then you might take his side.

But I can try to present a case to you that I think applies generally to writing and drama and fiction. And by chance it also applies very directly and specifically to a piece of my own that I’ve been working on this week.

In both mine and this fella’s, the last moments are key. With mine it’s a radio play and it’s all about the penultimate sentence. With his novel, it’s about the past page.

He’s much further down the line with his piece than I am so I got to read it finished and as one of several readers he asked for opinions. I can tell you that my summary opinion was that it’s bloody good and so scary that I was reading bits through my fingers.

Only, he wanted to know a specific opinion about a specific thing. What exactly did I think the last page meant? I told him and actually felt a bit on the spot because while it was excellent and maybe a key reason I like the entire novel, what I thought about it seemed bleedin’ obvious to me. But of however many readers he’d had, apparently I was the only one who understood it.

Bully for me.

Except because of this, he plans to change the ending. To make it clearer. And that’s our fight: whether he should or not. Now, he’s going to win because it’s his book but in the middle of our emails about it, I stood up to make my point. I actually stood up even though we were emailing. I got to my feet because I am so certain that I am right. I’m never certain I’m right and yet here I am, standing up and steadfast.

His ending is a real punch to the throat, it is the kind of powerful head-jolt moment that a writer would give their last kidney for. He argues that this doesn’t matter, that it’s worthless if most people don’t get it.

I argue that there is no possible, possible way to simplify this single-point ending yet also keep its power.

So his position is that it’s better to have something every reader gets. And mine is that if you do this, then what they get is tepid water when they could’ve had moonshine-strength alcohol. He wants something for everyone, I want something brilliant. I envy this man’s writing and one of the reasons is this power that he’s willing to throw away.

Let me describe my own nearest equivalent, the thing I’m writing this week. It’s also not out yet and it’s actually so early days that the odds are it will never reach an audience or at least not in this form. Nonetheless, it’s mine so I can tell you that the penultimate line is someone saying her name.

That’s all. Just her name. It’s a point in the play when I officially reveal that someone is really someone else – and it comes about 40 minutes after the audience will have figured that out anyway. Only, I want the audience to be ahead of me here because when they finally hear the name spoken, it then tells them a second fact that they will not have got. I do like the trick of it, I do like the surprise, but it’s also important for the character and what she’s been going through.

And I’m proud of this next part: I wrote that line, I wrote the sentence that is simply her saying her name, and in that context, at that point, it made me cry at the keyboard. Honestly. Consequently that single line is the reason I must get this play made. The power in that penultimate line is my reason for writing it at all.

I just know both that audiences will have guessed the first part of it and also that given where it sits in the play, some will miss its import. Inescapably, you know the play is ending when you get to this line and I think it’s a beat that comes after you expect all of the plot and character to be done with.

Perhaps I could move it up earlier, but then it wouldn’t have the bang. I could skip it completely and just end the play a moment sooner. Accept that it’s no longer an ending, it’s just where the play finishes.

But this sentence is an end, it is the snapping of the suitcase being closed on the story. It’s also the best sentence I’ve ever written, so, you know, there’s that.

Back in time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divide by zero

I was doing a thing earlier in the week, writing about our need as humans and especially as writers to see patterns in events. To make sense out of chaos and to form a narrative is just natural.

We all do this. But at one extreme, I’ve a friend who needs me to construct a story about everything. If I give her a book, she will honestly need me to tell her that I heard about it on the radio, that I went to the shop, that I asked a shop assistant for it and then brought it back. If I don’t tell her that, she tells me each step, prompting me to agree.

At the other extreme, I’ve someone who if they need me to get something for them, will give me a script of what to ask for and where to stand when I do.

Hang on. I thought that was just two people who were a bit fixated but it’s me, isn’t it? The second one thinks I haven’t got a brain cell in my head and the first suspects that I go around stealing books.

Well.

Moving on, apart from these two, you’ve seen those TV documentaries about some year or other and you’ve been startled about things such as the fact that Star Wars and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall came out at the same time. I want to give you some example of how surprised I was at how a famous political event happening at the same time as The Muppets but I’m not political.

What I am and what I suspect you are too, is unconsciously used to seeing events sorted out into threads. It’s like history begins as a piece of A4 paper but studying history is like reading that after it’s been shredded. We see long straight lines, we don’t see the whole picture.

Maybe the whole picture is just too big, I don’t know. Certainly it takes time to understand what’s been going on: I can’t wait for the history books to cover today. Though that’s chiefly because by the time those are written, our current events will be safely behind us.

Only, just looking at this as a writer, just looking at this idea of organising events into a comprehensible timeline of cause to effect, I’m seeing something. I’m seeing a structure that a writer would have to invent if it didn’t exist. I’m seeing enough that I wonder whether we are not only prone to looking for sequences and timelines, but that we also naturally, actively create real-life drama in the same cycles and patterns that we do in art.

For there’s this business now that Brexit has metaphorically divided the nation and there’s at least a strong chance that it will cause the literal division and end of the UK. This is just fact now: Scotland may vote to leave, Ireland could even reunite – and, come on, whatever you think of the politics about it, that is surely a third-act surprise twist.

The UK is being divided and the result is that it feels some of us are being focused more on infighting. I do mean territories but I also mean individuals as lines are being drawn and crossed, political opinions are becoming concrete and angry instead of comparatively abstract. Nobody debates, we all entrench.

It’s just that we’ve seen this before.

It’s no stretch to say that divide and rule was British policy across the world and across history. It is both how the Empire was created and how schisms remained across the world after that fell.

I am thinking that what goes around comes around. I am thinking that if you show a gun in the first act, it will be fired at you in the third.

That does imply that we’re in the third and final act of the UK but, remember, we also love sequels.

Restored to life

Confession: I backup everything I write, everything that lands on my Mac, everything. But I rarely go into the backups to restore anything. Until this week when my arm was twisted into powering up my last computer again and doing some work with it. I’m going to claim that it doesn’t matter what the work was but really, I just cannot remember – because of what I found instead.

Every five or six years I buy a new Mac and take a minute or two to bring over all my current documents. I also promise to sort out the pile of hard drives I have inside some of these Macs and outside all of them but I never do.

This week I did and it’s been like data archaeology. Let me just tell you this first: here on my old Mac Pro I found I’d got 44 feature films. They appear to have been ripped from my DVDs but I don’t remember doing that.

Then there are 279 whole episodes of TV series. Some DVD rips, some iTunes purchases, I don’t know.

And 15,768 radio or other audio tracks.

I do understand that one because I used to have my Mac Pro automatically switch itself on to record the Afternoon Drama on BBC Radio 4 every day so there’s a pile of those. It’s a pile with titles like ‘Afternoon Play -ep723.m4a’ and no other way to work out what each is but to listen.

Then, too, I’ve made a lot of radio on my Macs so there’s surely a thousand or more tracks to do with that.

One more thing. Somewhere in that Mac Pro’s folders there were also 3,336 scripts. A thousand or more movie scripts plus entire series of television ones. Oddly few radio, for some reason.

All of this is now on a drive connected to my iMac and Backblaze, my online backup service, is sweating as it uploads the lot to cloud storage to make sure it is never lost, that it is always available to me wherever I am.

And that would be where I’d stop. Look at this, I could say: I’ve found all this glorious material and that it will of course occupy me, enthral me, distract me.

Only, this digging into a massive personal archive turns out to be a delicate dig into the past. It’s delicate because at first you see a photograph and alongside it there’s the date. It’s a file on your Mac, there’s the name and there’s the the Date Modified. It’s putting a pin in a memory – but then opening that image, looking at that document, just glancing at it changes the Date Modified to today. It’s like grasping at something that crumbles in your hand.

Now, if you dig slightly to the left and down a bit there is way to show the Date Created. But I didn’t think of that until I’d go into paroxysms about the ephemeral nature of even digital memories.

And as I write this to you, I’m actually back by that old Mac Pro because I wanted to get that screen grab of its display looking whitewashed. (When did I take that whitewash photo? Apparently Sunday, 8 September 2013 at 11:12.)

But I’m looking for that date and the drives inside this Mac Pro began giving out a little scream.

They’re going to die. And I’ve already plugged in one ancient external drive that I pointlessly struggled to find the right cables for because it’s dead.

We use these machines to do our work and to do everything, but along the way we are inadvertently documenting our entire lives in sometimes minute-by-minute detail. It’s not always great detail. It’s sometimes scraping when you find an old email and the text comes along with a tsunami of upset.

It’s not great detail when you learn what open wounds you still have. But it is great detail, it is the greatest of all details, when you a To Do list from 2003 that has hopes for the future that you’ve since achieved.

I’m not saying you should dig through your old computer documents and I’m definitely not saying you should do it without a strong mug of tea beside you. But I am saying you should backup everything. I’ve said that for years and meant it in very practical terms but today I mean it in emotional ones too.

Sticking to type

Earlier this week I needed to get a photograph of a keyboard for a colleague on a project. Easy, I said, do you want a shot of the two I carry in my bag or of the three on my desk?

Easy, they said right back, you’re scaring us now and we’re just going to be over here, phoning other writers and a few medical experts.


Look, I can make my keyboard obsession seem perfectly normal and healthy if you’ll just let me tell you two things. One is that, excuse me, plenty of writers through the years have fixated on their 2B pencils or expensive fountain pens, I’m just ahead of the technology curve.

Okay. That didn’t work. Fine. This will. I can make the keyboard stuff seem perfectly sensible by blowing it out of the water with something worse.

For by coincidence, someone else asked me two days ago what I write in. I like her so I should’ve just said “English” rather than being boring for an hour but, pretend to be shocked, I chose the boring option. For an hour I answered that I write in Microsoft Word. And Apple Pages. Scrivener. Ulysses, Final Draft. Evernote. Apple Notes. Drafts 4. OmniOutliner. DEVONthink.

I’ve weaned myself off also using Simplenote. I never quite got into Bear Notes, Typed, Vesper, BBEdit, MarsEdit or the various flavours of WordPress but there’s still time. Ooooh, also Slack.

What I don’t understand is how I use all of these apps every day and for whatever it is that I’m writing. Without thinking, I automatically know which one I’m going to work in. That’s a bit bleedin’ obvious when I’m writing scripts because that’s what Final Draft is for – except, mind you, Scrivener is good for scriptwriting and some places I write for are less fussed about formatting and more fussed that you must deliver in Word.

So, yeah, occasionally I can’t find a piece of work because I don’t remember which app I wrote it in, but that’s just normal, everyday sane first-world problems.

What I very much don’t understand, though, is how writing can physically feel so different in each of these apps, on each of my dozen current projects. In every case I’m typing on the same keyboards into the same machines, iPad, iPhone and Mac, but they feel different. Seriously. Also, when I’ve been writing in Ulysses for iPad using an external keyboard and then go to use Scrivener for Mac with a very similar external keyboard, my fingers react differently.

A pianist I know says she finds the same thing when she goes between a Church organ and a regular piano.

I can understand that for her yet can’t explain that great difference I find where there surely can’t be any. It’s as well that I’m not fussed about justifying it as I can’t. And you may have been looking at me funny for the last couple of minutes but I’ve been thinking about this stuff for years.

Which is why there is one thing that I do understand about my fussing over keyboards and about my constant search for the next thing to write in.

It’s because that’s a damn sight easier than searching for the next thing to write.

That’s what I should’ve told my what-do-you-write-in friend: I write in the tiny amounts of time between my having been able to successfully distract myself.

She was asking, incidentally, because she’s been using Word and knows there are alternatives. I showed her all the ones on the iPad I had with her and some appealed, some didn’t, but we talked about what she wanted and ended up agreeing that Word is fine for her. It’s fine enough and she knows it well so she’ll stick with that.

So apparently I can cut through the crap when it’s someone else’s writing, I can see clearly what they need and how they’re just postponing writing. I can see that just making any decision about an app or a keyboard is better for everybody.

Except me. I’ll definitely crack on with this collection of Time stories I’m writing, though I’ll just wait until the new update to OmniOutliner for iPad is out.

1) I’m wrong b) You’re right

I deeply like and relish and appreciate having my mind changed. It is exciting. It’s also fun because I’m a man so if someone, especially a woman, does this to me then you get to see them blinking. Did he really just say aloud and in public that he’s wrong and I’m right? Where’s my diary? Can I get this on video?

Only, I have a slight sticking point on one subject that I spend a foolish amount of time arguing both sides of. I don’t usually do this with you, this isn’t something I arm wrestle anyone about, but it’s something that I’ll sit here for an hour internally debating.

It’s this. In my heart, I am a writer who resists and even resents the entire notion of outlining. That’s something you have to do at school, it’s something you are required to do contractually when you’re scriptwriting, but it is wrong, it is just wrong.

There are writers who like planning out in this way and I’m not criticising those psycho nutters. It’s just that for me, outlines constrict instead of construct.

Except I chose that in-my-heart phrase carefully because my head has gone somewhere else and I don’t like it, except that I do. I swear that I remain religiously anti-outline but, hang on, let me check something, okay: the iPad I’m writing on now has near enough 300 outlines in it.

There’s only about a dozen that are stories, though. The rest are workshop plans, event notes, a lot of articles where the topic was complicated.

I’m surprised it’s only 300. Thinking about it, I did have a clear out about a year ago. So that’s 300 outlines in a year. Given that I wrote fewer than no outlines whatsoever between leaving school and starting Doctor Who, that’s surprising.

Except I’m not surprised. For its not that I’ve turned to a dark side, it’s not that I’ve fundamentally changed my views on writing and what works for me in that. You don’t need your diary yet.

It’s that a few years ago I was so enjoying the boon a To Do app called OmniFocus was making to my life that I looked to see what else that same app developer made. I liked OmniFocus so very much that I even downloaded a trial version of what’s called OmniOutliner. It’s an outlining app for God’s sake and it was also expensive. I mean, I’ll gladly spend a lot of cash on software if it helps me enough to be worth it, but I’m dabbling here, I’m only checking something out because it’s related to another app. I don’t need or want an outliner and as sure as eggs are eggs and Word will lose your work at a crucial point, I’m not paying a lot of money for an outlining app.

Before the first day of using this trial version was over, I bought the app.

And then never used it again.

But only because the morning after I’d bought OmniOutliner 3 for Mac, the company brought out OmniOutliner 4 and all recent buyers got the update for free.

I’m telling you this now because OmniOutliner 5 came out on Wednesday and it is very good. I’ve been using a pre-release version for a month or so and I’ve planned more events, I’ve sorted out things I need to do, I’ve written a dozen or more articles and pitches that at least used it a little.

But I’m also telling you this now because of one thing about one version of this software that came out. It’s called OmniOutliner Essentials and it’s only $10. (You’re best off buying it directly from the makers and they’re a US firm. I don’t know what the UK equivalent price is.) That is about a fifth of the price I paid before.

Now, it’s partly a fifth of the price because the company’s updated the app while also removing a lot of features but they weren’t ones I tended to use. Also, it’s a fifth of the price but you have to have a Mac. There’s no PC version and won’t be.

But nonetheless, this is a preposterously cheap price for something that changed my mind about outlining. It still hasn’t changed my heart but while I will continue to stride off into thousands of words of script or page just to see what happens, I doubt a day goes by that I don’t open OmniOutliner for something or other.

It’ll be that this something-or-other is complicated. Or that I know one thing I definitely want to do, to cover, to write about, and I’m really just making a note about that before I forget it. Then tomorrow I might come back and add another point that’s occurred to me. When I’ve got twenty or two hundred points like this, I’ve got an article or maybe I’ve even got a story. And away off I’ll go.

I said that I enjoy it when people blink at me. I want to make you blink now. Here I am recommending OmniOutliner Essentials to you but you will never under any circumstances catch me using it again.

For while this new version still hasn’t got my heart, it has got me mind, body and soul enough that I’ve upgraded to what’s called OmniOutliner Pro. It’s Essentials with a lot of bells on and they turn out to be bells that I like.

If you have a Mac, go get the trial of Essentials and then see if you can resist buying it, see if you can manage to not splash out that whole ten dollars. I am as certain that you’ll like it as I am that I can never explain why it’s great yet Word’s outlining feature is a whole kennel of dogs.

If you have an iPad and iPhone instead, you could buy OmniOutliner for those and have a very good time but there’s a version of Essentials coming for it at some point.

If you don’t have a Mac, iPad or iPhone, then write in your diary that I said outlining apps are all rubbish, okay?

Austen powers

Get this. Somewhere around 230 years ago, teenage Jane Austen wrote the name of someone she fancied on her pencil case. Okay, it was actually the names of two different someones but then it wasn’t a pencil case, she wasn’t at school. She was in a church and she filled out two proper and official marriage records saying she was the wife of these guys.

I like that while she’s still famous, the two men are so forgotten that nobody can tell now whether they were even real. And I just like imagining her doing this, giggling.

And as delighted as I was when this news was reported earlier in the week, it does not surprise me at all that she sounds like a present-day teenager

For a few years ago, BBC Radio 4 did a new dramatisation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and I think I was reviewing it for Radio Times. I’m not sure now: either I was reviewing it or I’d taken illicit advantage of having access to the BBC Radio Previews press site.

Either way, I was listening and getting into it apart from one thing. This particular production had decided to use a narrator and I twitch at narrators. Or at least I do when the narration is simply exposition, just trudging out the plot because it’s easier to say it than show it.

This time my bias felt especially right because although it was better than boring exposition, it was witty and entertaining – until the narrator was saying something far too modern. I can’t remember now what it was but there was no chance Jane Austen would’ve approved of it, there was every chance that it would mean I gave the show a bad review.

It was just anachronistic and enough so that I got out my Pride and Prejudice paperback to see how Austen wrote that part of the story.

Yep.

You’re right.

The narrator’s dialogue in this Radio 4 dramatisation was verbatim Jane Austen.

Two centuries after she wrote it down with, I don’t know, a quill pen, Austen’s words sound like she could’ve dictated it into Siri yesterday.

Two centuries.

Imagine writing anything that’s even remembered after two minutes.

I first read her novels starting only about ten years ago but I’ve admired, relished and loved her writing. So I’m just tickled to think she was also a naughty teenager defacing Church records for a laugh.

Hawaiian topping

Earlier this week, scriptwriter Phill Barron wrote online about what he called ‘the Magnum voice’ and how it was a tool he uses in writing. He explains why it’s needed but the short version of what it does is keep him conscious of what his characters are feeling when he may have written the previous scene a month ago.

He names his internal writer’s monologue after a technique I’d forgotten was used on screen in the 1980s US detective drama Magnum, pi. Nobody remembers the ‘pi’ bit of the title, incidentally, just as no one remembers the ‘medical examiner’ bit of the title Quincy, m.e.

Er, except apparently me. But even remembering title minutiae, I’d forgotten that after every ad break in Magnum, pi, the title character would give us a quick voice-over narration to remind us what was going on.

I think I’d forgotten that because I loathe narration. At least, I loathe narration that is there solely because otherwise we wouldn’t know what was going on. Narration that does other jobs, most especially voice overs by unreliable narrators who are lying to us, I love those.

Thomas Magnum wasn’t lying in this show’s narration so I think I erased it from my mind.

But I’m disappointed that I’d forgotten the show because what looked like a glossy American drama from the roughly same era as Miami Vice was and is a rather remarkable piece of writing.

One reason that as much as I love novelist Jeanette Winterson’s writing but don’t really warm to her personally is that she once claimed to have invented what she called the spiral narrative. It’s when you leave one character to follow someone else for a bit and when you come back, the story of that first character has moved on. I read her saying this somewhere and before the end of the sentence I was thinking ‘but I saw that on Magnum years ago’.

In case I’m misrepresenting her, let’s call it the Magnum narrative instead. For it’s what was at the heart of this show and it’s why I think this detective series still stands up some preposterous 37 years after it first aired.

Let me say first that everything you might think Magnum, pi is, it was. Originally. Glen A Larson created a series, wrote a pilot episode and it was never filmed. Don Bellisario is brought in, keeps the name Magnum, the Hawaii setting and the two dogs, Zeus and Apollo, from that first script and starts again.

Incidentally, Hawaii was the one bit he would never have been allowed to change. The whole reason Larson got to pitch a detective show was that Hawaii 5-O had been cancelled and there were all these film crews and production facilities about to go out of business.

Maybe it was the setting that prompted Larson but his take on the show was seemingly more of a standard 1980s macho gloss kind of series. Then Bellisario turned it into a character piece. There’s still plenty of action but riddled through the entire 162 episodes are two rules.

One was that every third episode or so must be about the Vietnam background of the main characters. Lou Grant beat them to interesting explorations of that conflict, but Magnum made it part of the format.

More interesting to me and more why it’s worth still catching is the other rule. As far as possible, all of the plot of an episode must take place wherever Thomas Magnum isn’t.

So if he’s racing across Hawaii to find a suspect, he’ll get a flat tyre on the way and we’ll stay with him.

It did make for a lot of tension. I remember how it was deliciously frustrating but in retrospect, as a writer now, I get it.

When you focus on the character more than the plot of the week, that character has to be worth focusing on. He or she has to be interesting enough to keep us watching.

Character comes first. That’s why Magnum, pi, stands up, it’s why Columbo does, why The Rockford Files does. And it’s why Miami Vice doesn’t.

Poet time writer

Please don’t ever ask me who my favourite writers are because it would be about eight hours before I finally asked who yours are in return. Still, if you were nutty enough to enquire, then way up in the first ten minutes of mine I’d be saying Emily Dickinson, Suzanne Vega, Christina Rossetti and Dar Williams.

Spot what they’ve got in common.

They’re all poets.

Actually, I don’t know that Williams would say that of herself as she, like Vega, is a songwriter, but to me her finest work is exquisite poetry.

Only, I don’t know when it happened that I spotted that or when so many of my writing heroes turned out to be poets. I can’t write poetry. Not a single line. And while I’m reasonably half or quarter sure that my school must’ve mentioned poetry at some point, none of that went into my head. None of that made me like the stuff.

I can tell you that it was when a TV show called Head of the Class claimed you could read any Emily Dickinson poem to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas that I first heard of “Because I would not stop for death / Death kindly stopped for me”.

Then I associate Christina Rossetti chiefly with “and if thou wilt, remember, and if thou wilt, forget” which pops up in Alan Plater’s work. That is a chasm of a poem. I swear Rossetti sat down one day in 1862, cracked her knuckles and said right, I’m going to upset that William Gallagher bloke.

I can’t read it, can’t hear it, can’t even type that extract without feeling the centre of my body yanked down into the dirt.

That’s the other thing this bunch have in common: they upset me. Emily Dickinson does have that gleefully, joyously conspiratorially friendly “I’m nobody, who are you?” piece which balances out a lot of things, but still, on average she upsets me greatly.

There’s the one of hers that begins “Hope is the thing with feathers” and when that line, just that line, was read out over a scratchy tannoy at a breast cancer rally, I stopped and wept.

Dar Williams has You’re Ageing Well, which in its original version has seen me pulling over to the side of the road to let hot tears fall out of me. Curiously, she did a version with Joan Baez and I find that one a shrug.

Then Suzanne Vega has Tired of Sleeping which used to double me up in pain and can still be a blade in the gut.

I think you and I can also conclude that poets are really nasty people while I am a hard, macho man. But, grief, I yearn to write like them.