Writing to ourselves

This is a tough one because I can’t quite form the thought that’s bubbling but I want to try. It’s clearly about the little local difficulty this week, that tiny of thing of Trump getting elected. And it’s also definitely about the disconnection between most things I read beforehand and what a majority of the US public must’ve read.

But other things keep popping in. Like the photo of a spray-painted sign that went went around social media this week. It’s so peculiarly spaced that you have to think for a moment but what it’s trying to say is “Make America White Again”. Forget that it’s an inexpressibly painful statement and instead if you see the photo, look at the symbol between the words.

Here’s someone doing the America-for-Americans crap but he – it’ll be a he – uses a German Nazi Swastika symbol. That symbol had a life long before the Nazi Party but that’s over, that’s gone, that’s erased: this logo is forever Nazi and German. If the painter knows this, he’s just broken his own ambition of building a wall between the US and ‘foreigners’. If he doesn’t know, then he’s even more ignorant than you already think.

Yet here’s an ignorant prick turning to writing. Writing matters. It reaches people: even his hateful message got widely circulated and I’m part of that. We couldn’t be more different, this man and I, yet he wrote something and I’ve passed it on to you.

Usually, though, it is true that we write and read within our own walled gardens. This has been an issue with the rise of Facebook and Twitter where if you don’t agree with someone, you can just remove them from your social media life. It’s definitely a big issue now as the result of the election was a surprise to pretty much all of the media writers. No question, they believed they were right and no question, each article condemning Trump backed up their view.

Only, I don’t think the walled garden idea is entirely fair. At least part of the problem with media coverage of the election is that people lied to them. People knew that it was bad to say they supported Trump, so they didn’t say it. The more they didn’t say it, the more the accepted view was that you couldn’t support this man so the more they didn’t admit it.

Obviously they knew they were lying, obviously they chose to lie, and it follows that they did so because saying they backed this foul man was socially unacceptable. It isn’t any more. He won. So the haters feel they’ve won too. Even if we didn’t have the evidence from Brexit here and even if we weren’t already seeing it in the States, you could predict that hate crimes would rise, that the darkest sides of people would come out into the light. Because they think they can do it, because they know it is socially acceptable to enough people, because their President is truly theirs.

That makes me shake. That’s a walled garden where the people in it have just discovered each other and are crowing about it.

It’s horrible but it’s not new. Even though Facebook and Twitter have exacerbated the walled garden idea, we have always had this exact same thing. Think back to when newspapers mattered: you didn’t see very many dinner dates between a reader of The Sun and one of The Guardian.

Go back even further, no, further than that, keep going, still more, nearly there, here you are. Pre-industrialised society. Whatever were the generally accepted norms in your village could be very different to what was thought right in the next. Back then the barrier was a physical problem of separation, now it’s more human response.

And I’m afraid it is human. We are born into one tribe and even if we leave, we seek out others. Writing has enabled us to leave sooner and spread further, yet we still and always will gather in similar groups. Aaron Sorkin once had a character say that if you’re dumb, surround yourself with clever people and that if you’re clever, surround yourself with clever people who disagree with you. We won’t.

I don’t write to you because I consciously think you’re in my tribe, I write to you because I like you. My Facebook friends are people I like, or people I’ve worked with, or people I’m pretty sure I know even if I can’t quite place them at the moment. Amongst them, there’s been a lot of talk about blocking and unfriending people who are pro-Trump. It is tempting but I’ve resisted because I do want some gristle, I do want to learn and grow and persuade and be persuaded.

But I accept that in the main, I am in a walled garden and I am writing in one. I also accept that this is bad and that we should do what we can to break those walls down.

Only, there is a part of me that thinks this isn’t the problem. If Trump and Clinton supporters are in walled gardens, if Brexit’s Leave and Remain sides are in walled gardens, we probably can’t change that.

What we need to do is make our walled garden bigger than their walled garden. And we’ll do it with writing. You and I.

The twelve-word writing lecture

You didn’t notice but I borrowed you about twenty minutes ago. I was asking your advice about a writing thing and I just went off into the most tedious and even poncy side points. As we talk, you see, I’m in a rather posh club in London waiting to deliver a couple of workshops for Equity. It’s a really nice club. I could and did go on about it. But your time is more important.

And I do want to sound you out on something. Next week I’m due to give a talk on the Life of the Writer at a university. I asked if the writer could be Alan Plater or Emily Dickinson, I did. But it has to be about me and since there is no way in the world I can stand talking about myself for three hours, I’ve got to think of something.

It’s for students on a writing degree and I didn’t study writing, not at university or ever, so I can’t charm them with tales of debating Proust in the bar. I could, but they’d see through both my points and that I only drink tea and Pepsi Max on the rocks.

They have asked me to read from my writing, so I’ll do some of that. But what I’m thinking is that because they’re students, they probably don’t yet know what it’s like writing for a living. I presume some will be mature students so they may well know all about it, but on balance, I’m probably safe to stick to that. Safe and hopefully best.

It’s where to start, though. And how to fill three hours.

I do know that I absolutely, definitely, completely do want to stop people writing three very similar words in a row for emphasis. Also that for everything else that writing is, it’s a job. If you do the professional stuff professionally, you get to do the artistic stuff artistically.

There’s also that yes, there are very definitely harder jobs than writing. But there are also easier ones.

I think I’m going to end up saying that you need to take writing seriously and to get on with it. That’s it. Twelve words. Given that our general speaking rate in English is three words per second, I’ve got two hours, fifty-nine minutes and fifty-six seconds to fill.

I’ll make sure I read from my longest book.

Competence porn

Perhaps you already know this one but the term ‘competence porn’ is new to me – and it’s given me a little bit of hope about a long-standing bugbear hobby horse of mine. Alternatively, it’s given me a little ammunition if I ever need to argue about dumbing things down for audiences.

My grumble is with clever people in television drama. You need someone smart to solve a problem, to move the plot on, to get characters out of a dull situation. But usually that clever person cannot be the hero, cannot be the lead character. Moreover, the actual lead will mildly mock them for being a geek. Mock them while being completely dependent on their idea.

What that’s supposed to do is let the audience know it’s okay that they, the viewing public, are not very smart. I don’t like that any more than you do. But I especially don’t like being patronised because apparently I, as a viewer, genuinely am smarter than the writers and more often producers or networks who decide to do this. For I can see and you can see both that it’s annoying and that what it really does is make the hero look like an ass.

But now we have this thing that is apparently called competency porn. It means we like watching characters who are good at what they do. Sherlock is the first example that comes to my mind. The Doctor in Doctor Who is another, usually.

Allegedly one reason we like Darth Vader as a villain is because of how professionally ruthless he is at the beginning of Star Wars. He’s caught the Princess, he casually kills somebody-or-other and we’re impressed. That’s more surprising when you think that nothing else he ever does in that film works out for him.

I think of the opening of Grosse Pointe Blank where we meet a hitman. He’s precise and focused as he prepares to kill someone, even while he’s also on the phone reciting bank account numbers to his assistant – he has a PA, this guy is professional and busy – and then he does this thing of aiming a rifle at someone far away. The hitman is in a corner hotel room, the target is a cyclist out on the street, and our guy takes aim through one window, then walks to another, tracking along where the cyclist will be, before shooting from the next window.

I know the hitman is John Cusack but he’s just killed someone and, bizarrely, we’re impressed. We’re on our way to liking this character.

One last example from where I heard this term competency porn. There’s a US drama called Leverage, a con/crime series very much like an American version of Hustle. As much as I like it, every episode does follow a set path and one early part is where this team of criminals – the good guys, by the way – have a briefing. Here’s producer John Rogers talking about a 2009 episode called The Fairy Godparents Job:

“Good Lord, how we agonized over spending so much time in the briefing scene in this ep. Ironically, this episode arrived just as we were collating feedback off the ‘net and found, stunningly, you people love the briefing scenes. For we writers, it was always X pages of pipe we tried to make as entertaining as possible and move past to get into the plot. For the audience, watching competent people banter and plan was a big part of the appeal. ‘Competence porn’ as we started calling it.”

There is a spectacularly and quite wonderfully dumb character in the remade Ghostbusters: I’m not saying everyone should be smart, I’m saying nobody should be dumbed down. And they don’t have to be.

Time for something new

I want to make a case that there is nothing new and also that everything is new. Follow.

This is on my mind chiefly because I was in a Facebook discussion last night where writer Iain Grant said that he and co-writer Heide Goody were looking at a time travel idea for a novel. (If you don’t know their work, take a gander at their website.) He wanted to know if it had been done before.

I knew a few examples that were close and others had more that were similar, some had ones I’d not heard of but are apparently pretty much the same.

Now, one of my more annoying but uncontrollable habits is that if you tell me an idea, I might well wince and say no, it was done in Upstairs, Downstairs or The A-Team. This is specifically the reason I can’t get through Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom: as good as it is, he has stories and characters that he’s used so often. There is a part of me that wants to see how The Newsroom handles a particular storyline that was beat for beat the same in Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but chiefly because I’m fascinated by how it was romantic in the former but creepy in the latter.

Wait, I suddenly remember having a little row with a script editor who argued that just because I’d seen something done often, that didn’t mean my audience had. That didn’t sway me. I couldn’t write the scene the way he wanted.

Yet in that discussion last night, you could sense Iain beginning to think that nope, he and Heidi should skip it and I really don’t want him to. Nor does anyone else in the chat. And I think it’s for this reason.

Yes, at least parts of the idea have been done before, but it hasn’t been done by Iain Grant and Heide Goody. Until they’ve done it, you can’t know that it would be written better than the previous versions but you can know that it would be different.

I’m not sure why that’s enough to make me urge them to write it and yet not enough to let me do the same. For me, if I know that an idea has been done before then, so far, I’ve been incapable of doing it. This could be why I never ask on Facebook whether something’s been done before.

Only, there is another reason for this being on my mind today. Earlier yesterday I was on a train reading an unpublished novel that I wrote. Funnily enough, it was about time. Unfunnily enough, it was appallingly bad. So bad that I truly gaped when a search on my Mac happened to turn it up: I had written 70,000 words in 1994 and erased it from my mind immediately afterwards. I’m not sure why I didn’t erase it from my Mac. I might. There’s still time.

A day on and it’s already evaporating from my mind but I did remember how struck I was by one core idea that ran through the second half of the book. Because while the details are different and the relationship is different, it’s otherwise the same idea as in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. There’s even a part of it that is the same idea as River Song and the Doctor’s out-of-sequence relationship in Doctor Who.

The Time Traveler’s Wife was published nine years after my novel wasn’t. River Song first appeared in Doctor Who in 2008, fourteen years after my novel didn’t.

There’s something appealing to me about this timey-wimey issue, that two separate time discussions are leading me to how there were at least two great ideas within the novel I wrote. It’s less appealing to me how ferociously bad my writing was in 1994.

I often get pupils in writing workshops asking if they can do something slightly different to what I’ve asked and the answer I’ve grown is always this: yes, if you do it brilliantly.

Maybe that’s the bit I should be focusing on: work at being brilliant instead of working at whether this catalogue in my mind recognises an idea from somewhere else.

I mean, at one point in that novel I wrote the words “a myriad of”. I was young, but I’ll understand if you never talk to me again.

Creativity on rails

You try so hard, so damn hard to think of new things, to write new things. And then something like this happens. Actually, this particular thing happens to me so often that I honestly find it a bit frightening.

Say I’m editing some complicated audio or video and at the end I need to run off a version to send to someone. The process is easy but it’s rather harder to come up with a name for the file. It’s got to be something clear so that your recipient knows what it is. It’s got to have something saying it’s from me so that they can always track me back down if there’s a problem.

I’ve also got one eye to the future and another on just how many of these bleedin’ files I’ve got on my preposterous number of hard drives. So the name needs to be clear to me, too: it has to be so clear that I can recognise it two years from now. It also has to be so clear that when I need to search for it, the words that will find this file are obvious.

I really think about this, I mean I really do. Maybe the most creative thing I do on a given day is come up with a short filename that does all this. Wait: I forgot to mention short. It has to be all this and pithy, too.

The problem is that I’ll come up with this masterstroke of creative thinking, I’ll type that name, hit Return and immediately get: “file already exists”.

All that honestly hard-thought creativity and I’ve done it before. Precisely the same way. Truly, it scares me: I wonder if all my creativity is down precise lines, if I can never break out of previous patterns of thinking.

And then there was this week. Most of which was good.

I read a short story of mine about time at the Birmingham Literature Festival. Then I performed a different short story of mine about time at a book launch, also in the Festival. And on Wednesday I performed yet a third time story in a recording session for Brum Radio. Lastly, very late one night, I flopped down onto our couch, I had a chocolate mini-roll with my name on it – and I didn’t eat it for two hours because I’d finally cracked another short story idea and had to write it down. My hands and arms shook as I typed, I was writing so fast.

It was also about time.

Okay, so maybe a distressing proportion of my creative thinking is spent on this one obsessive topic but I’m fine with that, that’s not the problem. Nor is how having written what turns out to be a fifth story about time, I had an idea for a sixth.

It’s a really good idea. I promise you it is. I’ll even tell you the title: it’s The Pointless Time Machine. I don’t usually write about time in the sense of time travel and science fiction, more in terms of regret and anguish, but here I’ve got a time machine – and, more importantly, the character who makes it – and this machine is pointless. I won’t tell you why, but it is.

Only, give me some credit here, I had an inkling that I may have thought of something vaguely like this idea before. Obviously not the same idea, obviously not the same pointless time machine, doubtlessly not the same character, but the thing that is pointless about it is something that I know tickled me before.

Yes.

In 2012, I wrote something approaching 2,000 words about a story quite a bit like the one I’m working on now. Weirdly for me, that was not 2,000 words of story, it was all my groping toward an idea. Making notes of the things I liked, that tickled me, trying to see what pressures I could put my characters in. And I had quite a few characters. All of them bore me now and from 2,000 words of notes, plans and pondering, I think I’ll maybe take one possible setting.

So that’s all good, that’s all fine.

But, yes.

The notes were saved under the filename The Pointless Time Machine.

To make a short story long

If you look at writing from a cold, commercial view then you know that short stories don’t sell. But a great short story can have an impact on its reader and I’m learning that they can have a bit of a wallop on the writer too.

For you know that Facebook has this thing now of dredging up things you said one or more years ago. Today it showed me one from 2014 that was about a short story of mine. Unfathomable that it’s two years ago. But Roz Goddard commissioned me to work with a reading group in Combrook to come up with a short story for them. Each year several writers work with several groups and the job is quite clear: find out what each group enjoys and write them a story that fits.

I think there were six writers and six groups in my year and that would mean five got it right.

For I’m afraid that I rather betrayed my group and the principles of the entire project as instead of writing a story for them, I wrote a story about them.

Well, let’s be clear for personal, creative and definitely legal reasons: it wasn’t about them per se. But it was.

They’re such a good group of people, I had a delightful evening working with them, but despite the torrent of ideas and thoughts and laughs, there was one fact that I could not get out of my head. This group was in a beautiful village – you want to move there, you do – but that village actually had two such book groups.

That’s what I called the story: The Book Groups, plural. I imagined all sorts of rivalry between them and I am slightly disturbed by how some of the real group tell me they identify with certain of my imagined characters’ actions. Maybe you don’t want to move there after all.

What happened that evening two years ago is that I read them the finished story. I remember asking for a seat near the door in case they didn’t like it. But it was a happy evening for me, a privilege to be in that group for a spell. And I’ve read the story a couple of times since.

Once was to my mother who I didn’t think was particularly listening until I reached a key moment and she jolted. “What?” she said. “Read that bit again.”

Then I got to perform the piece at the Library of Birmingham. And this is where the short story becomes a long-lasting thing for me because I’m back there tonight. Alongside the very many events in the Birmingham Literature Festival, there are a series of extra readings and performances and I’m doing a new story, Time’s Table. It’s written for this evening, it’s partly set in this evening.

But then on Sunday there is the launch of an anthology of short stories, What Haunts the Heart, at Waterstones’ in Birmingham and it contains one of mine so I’m performing there too. Time Gentlemen Please is therefore my second published short story after The Book Groups.

Two published short stories in two years. It’s not a lot and I don’t know the word count but even together they can’t add up to a significant fraction of the number of articles and books I’ve done in that time. But they’ve been a huge wallop for me.

Depth perception

I’m not going to name someone here because I don’t want to embarrass them. But also because I think it might apply to you and I’m hoping it does to me.

It’s about how we see ourselves and how others see us. Let me give you the example that prompted me thinking about this, that prompted me to want to talk to you about it.

I ran a pair of workshops last Saturday, back to back things all day with mostly the same writers across the two. All sorts of writers, all sorts of experience, but every one of them professionals. And afterwards we got into a topic that for some reason is a recurring one in this job: the discussion over when and whether you can call yourself a writer.

I don’t know why we have this: maybe it’s an arts thing as perhaps it happens with painters too yet there’s no engineer who’s ever been in doubt what their own job title was. It’s a tough world, there probably isn’t an engineer who hasn’t doubted whether their job would continue, but they knew what it was called. When asked on a form they don’t have heartbeat’s hesitation over what to write as their occupation. Writers do.

I used to. These days I’ve come to accept that I’m unemployable in any other field.

But there was this one person on my workshop who was talking about this and about the genuine relief that she’s recently felt able to call herself a writer. There’s a deeper issue here about identity and I think also self-worth but this particular writer saying this particular thing was a jolt.

She’s not only published, she is a publisher. She has a poetry imprint, she runs events, she runs workshops. Now, to me that’s all writing: she disagrees, she calls them writing-related jobs and of course she’s right but to me it’s all the one thing. You use the same muscles in producing an event as you do writing anything: there’s a lot of actual writing, for one thing, but also you’re communicating, you’re persuading, you’re trying to inform and to do so entertainingly. You’re trying to learn, too, which is a big thing in this lark.

A year or two ago, a mutual friend asked me to meet with this same writer to tell her how to do a particular thing – and I laughed. The notion that I could tell her a single thing she’d hadn’t already done and wasn’t already doing. We did meet, we did have tea, I had a good time and fortunately there was something she hadn’t happened to have tried. Or so she said. She may have been being kind.

But the fact that it’s only recently she has felt able to call herself a writer means she didn’t think it when we met that time. There is absolutely not one single question that she wasn’t a writer then, that she isn’t now: she’s a writer and she’s a pro.

I’m glad and relieved that she now accepts it but I’ve been thinking about this workshop conversation all week. The disconnection between how she was seeing herself and how I was seeing her. I’ve been going around impressed with her and she’s not seen why.

This isn’t exactly a new thought in the world but it resonates me with me this week: if she could be so wrong about how good she is, perhaps we all are. Even you.

Maybe even me.

I need a word for this

There’s got to be a word, or at least there really should be one and I would like it now, please. As ever with words, the reason we have them is so that we can describe something. So without the word yet available, this is going to be tricky to explain to you.

But you know I’m going to try.

There is this thing that very bad writers do and they do it most obviously on pretty bad television drama. Don’t ever get me wrong on this: the one-hour TV drama is my three-minute pop song, I am obsessed and adoring of the form. But when it’s crap, it’s very crap.

And one way you can tell instantaneously that something is going to be crap is this thing I can’t find a word for.

Usually it’s in a long-running series that tends to have a Story of the Week. This features some guest character we’ve never seen before, will never see again and in all honesty couldn’t really care less whether we see now either. But there they are. It’s always a story that doesn’t impact on the regulars but the writer kinda sorta thinks it would be better if it did, and isn’t allowed to.

They’re the writer who thinks it’s madness that they can’t make the hero be a drug addict. The truth is that you can, just that they can’t. Because they’re looking at this one episode and don’t see that if the hero is a drug addict this week but wasn’t last week or next, this is not searing deep drama, it’s a Just Say No advert.

These are also the writers who base their ideas on previous television dramas instead of on anything they’ve actually experienced. So they write searing deep drama about having an alcoholic guest character but they have not one single clue how foul and wretched a situation like that really is. They’ll have a regular character suddenly have a drunk brother and it’ll be really funny until, gasp, it’s really serious and then, shock-plus, everything is sorted out because the brother just cares so very deeply about his family. Give me a hug. Pass the tissue.

I’d say something like kill me now but I’m not an idiot.

Kill the writer.

Even this is not quite the thing I want a word for. I’m after a word to describe a specific thing – but it’s not a specific thing. It’s a prop or a device or a recurring something.

It’s when you see a guest character who always carries a pot plant. Or they’re a grown woman who can’t be in a scene without her teddy bear. Maybe they make ship models and for some unfathomable reason need to bring them everywhere.

That’s the thing I want the word for. The pot plant/teddy bear/ship model/thing. Could be a verbal tick instead. Could be that they happen to be obsessed with spanners and, oh, wouldn’t you know it, the only way for them to rescue the puppy dog at the end of the episode is by adapting their beloved favourite spanner into a rudimentary pulley system.

Watch for this thing. Watch the actor trying to make it all believable.

And then agree with me that there already is a word for this thing.

It’s No.

Lead time

There used to be this thing called lead time: I mean, there still is but it used to be a big part of my life. If you’re writing in the Christmas double issue of Radio Times, you have to finish it weeks earlier than Christmas. When I was on monthly magazines you at least had an eye on what you’d be doing half a year ahead and with some titles that was crucial. It’s all rather faded away with the rise of online: the greater majority of things I write tend to be needed now and published now.

Only, lead time doesn’t always have to be long in order to be significant.

Yesterday morning I wrote an opinion piece for the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s weekly email newsletter. I believe it will be published later today. I’m not actually certain of that now because today is the Writers’ Guild’s AGM and there may well be a delay in this weekly newsletter since a lot of news is happening today.

But in theory, in the regular course of things, I write and deliver it early on a Thursday morning and it gets published on a Friday late afternoon or early evening.

I can’t show you what I wrote because it hasn’t come out yet but I can tell you that it was about Brexit and the business with Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof messing about on boats. Since this is just you and me here, let me tell you that I was pleased with it: I think I found an interesting point to make and it was a point that enabled a fair few good jokes.

But a few hours after I delivered it, the MP Jo Cox was killed and allegedly by a man who shouted words to the effect of “Britain first” either one or two times during the attack. If that’s correct, it would mean this was probably related to the EU debate and so here I am piddling about with jokes when a woman has died.

There isn’t anything in the piece that is directly wrong or arguably is even insensitive. I haven’t had a discussion with the Guild about whether we should postpone or drop it. But its tone is light and jolly and even or maybe especially because it carries a much more serious undertow, I know I wouldn’t have written it a few hours later.

Not a syllable has changed in that piece: for all I know it’s still waiting unread in the Guild’s email inbox until they need it. But a lot else has changed.

I think I talk to you about a time a lot but that’s not even a pixel in comparison to how much I fret about it. One unchanged thing like an article looking completely different depending on where in time you stand. We can’t choose our position in time but that doesn’t alter the fact that the view, the perspective from two different points is so different.

And I’m saying there are two different points but there are three. Or more: I’ve written this to you as if we’re talking now yet maybe you’re reading this because you found this it through some happenstance Google search next year. Certainly I’m having to remember the right tenses and the right terms like saying I wrote that Guild opinion piece yesterday and it’s published today when hopefully that is true from your perspective but it isn’t from mine.

For in order to get to that Writers’ Guild AGM, I will have to leave home very early. Consequently, in order to be sure of talking to you properly and not dashing a postcard off on the train, I’m really writing in advance. Overnight. It’s Thursday night now so I wrote that Guild opinion piece this morning, not yesterday morning. It will be published tomorrow afternoon, not this afternoon. From my perspective right now.

I don’t think any of that surprises or confuses you, though I got a bit free and easy with the tense clauses along the way, but I am not the man I was this morning and I am not the man I will be tomorrow. By tomorrow the initial shock of this MP’s death will be over and whatever I think of the piece I wrote for the Guild, it will be subtly different to what I think now. The real now, the Thursday night now.

Yet again, those words will not have changed one single syllable but now I’ve got three different views, three different contexts for them that mean actually yes, they are different so really they have changed. Writing is about much more than the words on the page or the screen and the text may remain fixed but the meaning, the writing, does not.

Do you see why I am obsessed with time? There are moments when this stuff paralyses me and now I’m picturing you looking at your watch and telling me that we’re out of time, perhaps we can discuss this further next week.

Comedy impressions

A friend was trying to remember what the Benny Hill music was called. “Yakety Sax,” I told him, with my head in my hands. Sorry: it’s in your head now, isn’t it? Whether you dislike it or hate it, that music is in your head and you’re thinking how painful it is that Benny Hill comedies were always about him chasing women in speeded-up videos. I know you think that because everyone thinks it, except perhaps for Anglophiles in America who for some reason see Benny Hill as archetypal British humour.

The thing is, he was. I don’t mean for those Yakety Sax videos and I am not trying to be revisionist and claim there was a lot more to Benny HIll – but there was a bit. I used to write a television history column in Radio Times magazine which meant spending a gorgeous lot of time in archives and finding unexpected things. Such as Benny Hill before the speeded-up videos.

Those were always written archives like Radio Times’s own issues but at some point, once I knew Hill had done more, I remember finding footage of him somewhere. And it was funny. Just a very short sketch where a reporter and an IRA informant are in a TV studio: the informant is supposed to be in darkness to protect his identity but instead the reporter is.

That’s all. Must’ve lasted only moments and the overt comedy was in the IRA guy’s reactions, his realisation. I remember it being a nice piece of acting, actually, a comedic double take that was laced with a bit of fear. Very nicely, that acting was from the guest actor playing the informant: Benny Hill himself kept a straight face. That’s pretty good: the star and possibly also the writer of the sketch giving the laugh to the guest.

I remember, too, that the comedy was really Benny Hill mocking television conventions, maybe even taking a poke at the media’s coverage of serious events. It wasn’t The Day Today but it was clever enough stuff and I believe Benny Hill did a lot of this. I can’t be sure because so little of his work is easily available but then that’s for a reason.

At some point in his career, Benny Hill found this Yakety Sax format and that was that. It’s our fault, really: we must’ve responded so much and liked it so much that he kept doing it.

We should all do things that get into everyone’s heads, we should all create work that lasts, though it would be nice if it were work that people liked remembering. I think Benny HIll effectively erased his comedy career by these speeded-up videos.

I wonder if he knew.

I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression will survive of us. I don’t expect to be remembered after the end of this sentence but equally, I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression we give people now.

I keep thinking about how Benny Hill is never repeated in Britain, I keep thinking about how I’m mostly fine with that, yet I also keep hearing how popular he is outside the UK. True, I hear that less and less – he died in 1992 so over 25 years since his last work – but I hear it.

I’m not claiming some statistically valid example here but it seems to me that the people who mention Benny Hill are all outside the UK and they are all either fond of him or at least not wincing.

I keep thinking of this outside opinion and particularly of how things are seen from other countries. How in one place or in one group of people you can be so caught up in opinions or issues that the rest of the world sees completely differently.

Yes, I keep thinking of this because of the idea of Britain leaving the European Union. My niece, working in Luxembourg, tells me that people keep asking her why David Cameron is campaigning to leave the EU. He isn’t, he’s publicly on the side of staying in, but that’s how he’s seen overseas.

Then people who are in favour of leaving the EU act like anyone else gives a damn. I bet most Americans are completely unaware it’s going on at all – why would they? – and I understand that across Europe the attitude is like, whatever, stay or go, Gallic shrug, get on with it.

You’re thinking I’ve taken a left turn since Benny Hill and you’re sure that I’ve done it to argue that the UK should stay in the EU. Actually, I do very much believe that and I am very much angered by the Brexit arguments and not just because I loathe that new word.

But my point really is a writing one: you can’t control what other countries think of your work, you can’t control what other people think of you – and you shouldn’t try.

I think it’s a shame that Benny Hill erased his reputation here and maybe he didn’t have to do that Yakety Sax thing so very often but he did it and he made an impact. We should all have people trying to remember the name of our theme tune a quarter of a century after our death.