Thursday, May 30, 2013


Alan Plater used to read my scripts and you know that he was tremendously useful, you know he was kind. But let me say it anyway: he was terrifically useful and he was really kind, most especially on the very first one. The Strawberry Thief – I still like the title – got the full Plater treatment in the 1990s and I've remembered every word he wrote me.

The key part, I think, was what you'd now call a praise sandwich or at least a criticism with a bit of a praise topping. He told me that my stage directions had regularly made him laugh aloud, but that my job was to get that life and humour into the dialogue instead. Because, after all, the audience never sees the stage descriptions.

I also remember that when I next did a script, his key comment was that I'd done this, I'd got the energy into where it could be seen. He said it was "a great step for writer-kind".

I've only recently realised quite how much he shaped me in how I write descriptions in scripts. I'm a dialogue man, I'm a dialogue fan, that's where I would've said I put my attention and effort and – however much it is – my talent. No, I'm hesitating over that word. Can I go again? I'm a dialogue fan, that's where I would've said I put my attention and effort and – however fast it is – my typing.

But I wrote a book about Alan's The Beiderbecke Affair and he has great descriptions in there. What's more, he wrote them with a very canny eye toward getting cast and crew to read them where usually they, well, don't.

"That’s right, actors don’t," said James Bolam in my book. "You go yeah, yeah, but his you read. I mean, his stage directions are worth a read in themselves. They’re so funny, some of them, and they’re so evocative. They create the mood that he wants, that he feels, that he thinks. They’re all done in the same way, not sort of stuck in there but part of the narrative."

He also had a way of writing just the right amount. He'd conjure that mood in a very short line and sometimes they'd be funny, always they'd be efficient: you'd get his point immediately and you'd enjoy getting it. So – again, I'm ripping off my own book here, but – take this for an example of apparently simple, short, description. It's from The Beiderbecke Affair:


Establishing shot of Trevor's flat. The cityscape of Leeds, lights shining like it was LA.

(You can see it for yourself in episode 1, What I Don't Understand is This... which is on a really good Beiderbecke DVD set from Network DVD.)

But can you believe that description was one reason I wanted to write about the show? There were myriad reasons but I knew that if I included that scene description, I could also include one of my favourite Alan Plater passages: the equivalent description from his Beiderbecke Affair novel. The story is that an editor from Methuen was on location, had read the Affair script and specifically because of those descriptions asked Alan if he'd like to try writing a novel. He did and this is what he did with that same moment, translated to a novel:
A panoramic sweep across the urban landscape of the mighty Leeds conurbation at night could easily lead to confusion with San Francisco, if there were a bridge, Rome, if there were a Vatican, or Athens, given an Acropolis and a whiff of lapsed glory. In the blackness, the sub-standard housing and empty factories disappear, and the lights shining out, from street lamps and buses, public houses and filling-stations, police cars and off-licences, seem like beacons of hope in a hostile world. They are not, but they look like it.
I love that because of its way of getting you to picture a beautiful camera move, because of its Plateresque wry way of appearing to say very little and to say it with humour while it's really undercut with a vivid example of his worldview. That last "They are not, but they look like it" seems to me to be final, closed, decisive and firmly bleak yet still open and hopeful. It's someone who sees the world as it is but also as it could be, as perhaps it should be and is neither ashamed of being cynical nor makes any effort to hide idealism. If you want to get really, really, pixel-picky, it's the comma. The entire description has stayed in my mind for three decades in part because of that rolling series of city names but mostly because of that comma in the last line. It's a beat, a breath, a voice.

Tell me I'm not detail-orientated.

But listen, this is all on my mind because the other day I co-presented a talk on descriptions at South & City College here in Birmingham. Novelist Robin Sidwell is writer in residence there and runs a regular writing group session. I talked at one about scriptwriting and rejections, and judged a short contest with him. It was a script contest but we both separately remarked that it was unusual how long the descriptions were. He's a novelist, I thought he'd like longer, richer, fuller scene descriptions but we talked about this and turned out to agree on everything. I mean, everything. He had this idea that we could present a talk on descriptions in script versus those in novels and part of me leapt to the Plater example, part of me enjoyed the idea that Robin and I could presumably spar: he'd be the real lecturer, he'd be the good cop championing novel-like long descriptions, I'd be the bad copy.

It didn't work out like that. Apart from the, you know, small issue that he knows novels infinitely better than I do, we could've given each other's side of the talk. We did do one swap: he gave me a novel to dramatise in script and I gave him a script to novelise. The bastard improved my story.

So I really wanted to spar.

But he had another reason for this talk. He's got some students who are unsure whether they want to write novels or scripts so they're really doing both. At the same time. In the same piece. I think this is common. I read a script once that had got someone a 2:1 degree in screenwriting and I would've handed it back to them after page 1 because, I believe, it was unreadable. Because of the descriptions. There were technical issues to do with the scene slugs, but it was just stuff that made it really slow to read and I maintain that if a script is slow to read, it doesn't get read.

You can argue that producers and script editors should read on whether something is slow and hard or not. You can also argue that I'm in no position to talk about going on at length.

But working with Robin and remembering Alan, I realised that you can summarise my entire view on script description with that note that the audience never sees the stage directions.

So if you find yourself writing something like, I don't know:


Brad Chap sits on a park bench. He's 20s, a little the worse for wear, maybe still carrying some scars from when Take That broke up, maybe the wounds of disappointment are still bleeding from when Take That reunited, and if he were a car, he'd be a Renault Megane with hatchback and a decent sound system that he routinely connects his iPhone to with Bluetooth. Brad could have been a lawyer, he could've been doctor, but instead he's an international jewel thief and sometimes – usually when another woman has broken up with him because of his nervous, twitchy behaviour whenever police go by – he regrets his life choices. But not today. Today he's just heard a good joke and it's lifted him, it's made him think that perhaps, just perhaps, life is actually worth living and if it's raining now, it will clear up later and there's a chance of sunshine. Not much of a chance, but enough for Brad. He is the world's greatest optimist. He doesn't look like it, but he is.

What will the audience actually see? If you think they'll just see a man in his twenties sitting on a bench then, no, sorry, you're wrong. They won't even see that much. Because no producer would've read to the end, no producer would buy that script.

Nor would you. Because that description of Brad might as well be a description of the writer: not that the writer is a little worse for wear and all that, but descriptions can describe more than they appear to and in this case what I'd take away from reading this is that the writer is an amateur. It tells me that the writer doesn't understand film. It's not as if there are rules and it's not as if we aren't all amateurs until we've been blooded, but a writer doing that description will not have written an interesting drama.

I keep saying that the audience doesn't see a word of your stage description but actually that's only true of your ultimate audience. Your first one is the producer, the director, the cast and they do. They all see every single word.

They just don't read any of it.

But when something is described the way Brad Chap was, there is no need to read it. Simply registering the length and the type of description it is, you know to reject the whole script.

There's another difference with this first type of audience. The ultimate audience turns up to enjoy the movie, the first audience of these cast and crew are turning up to make the film with you. They are your collaborators. So your script is a working tool for you and them to work together, it is a blueprint for a drama that you will all make.

I put all this effort and energy into dialogue but I will also be as quick and precise and straightforward as I can be with stage directions. So if I were really writing the adventures of Brad Chap, that scene would run:


BRAD CHAP (20s, optimist in a bad world) waits on a park bench.

That's it. Do you need anything else? If you do, put it in the dialogue. It's harder to put it in dialogue because that's not dramatic, it's just telling people the plot or the backstory or the description but that's why dialogue is wonderful. It carries all this exposition, it propels all of the action, it is the characters. You do it so that nobody notices that the dialogue is even written, you do it so that it is as if these characters had just thought of these words. And you do it so that what they actually say is nowhere near what they really mean and yet the audience gets it. God, dialogue is a reason to live.

Description isn't, not for me. If you want to write descriptions, write a novel. Or a blog. Cough.

To sell me a script, make it quick to read the descriptions and make the dialogue wonderful. I want to enjoy reading the script. I want scripts to get me engrossed and involved and I want them to regularly make me laugh aloud.

And I consider it a great step for writer-kind when they do.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

How to get rejected

I offer that the best thing any writer can do is get someone else to do the writing. You're thinking they might do my blogs shorter and let you get a word in. You're thinking Dan Brown could retain his apparently gripping stories but that you and I might be able to read beyond chapter one. (Didn't you say you'd managed more than me?)

But I mean it and I wish it were something you could very readily do. Commission other writers and it will change the way you write. It will change how you see the whole process. And it will mean fully half the rejections you get won't trouble you.

Best of all, you'll no longer take it personally when an editor phones you up, skips all the polite stuff about how great your typing is and just comes straight in laughing about the very worst bit of your script. It's happened to me and I admit I wish I hadn't written that scene, whichever it was, but I laughed along with that editor because he was funny, he was right, it was a dreadful scene - and because I knew we'd fix it. I can't remember the scene and I'm struggling to remember which script it was but I can tell you the editor: Alan Barnes at Doctor Who.

You want to write the best drama you can and that's what he and all the Big Finish people want too. It's not what every editor, producer or director I've worked for wants but usually it is. (I once had a director whose chief dramatic aim, I am certain, was to make sure he could catch his last bus home after the play. I never knew a human being could make me as angry but now, when I can instantly recall the bile but cannot draw his name to mind, I'm glad it happened. Because I wonder if I'd appreciate the directors I've worked with since. Ken Bentley, Nick Briggs and Barnaby Edwards at Big Finish; Polly Tisdall, Tessa Walker and Tom Saunders at the Birmingham Rep. I imagine I would, I imagine I must, but I really do because of this fella.)

This is going to sound all idealistic and happy-clappy but everyone wants the best show they can make. I found plenty of jaded people in journalism, maybe I've just been lucky in drama so far. But if the ideal is that this is what we want, the harsh practicality is that there is never any time to piddle about.

And this is one reason for rejections. Nobody wants to reject anyone, everyone wants the material to be great, everyone needs the material to be great right now or sooner, please. If your piece isn't what that person or people need at this moment, they're off looking for the one that is and you're rejected.

I feel I'm telling you something you think is obvious and yet it keeps coming up. Rejection isn't personal, it just feels as I it is because we're writers and we are required to dig very deep and scrape very personally to make drama. Even though you know, intellectually, that it isn't personal, it feels it. When it's your innards on the page, it's hard not to take a rejection as being a rejection of you.

So commission someone else and see what it's like. I'm not sure how you can do that very easily, I'm afraid. But I've done it on magazines and quickly got to the stage where I had no ruth at all. You need this or that piece and you need it by a certain date: you don't care who writes it, you just have these pages to fill and fill well.

It kills me to say this, as a writer, but we're not the most reliable people. After my first month on a magazine, every deadline I ever gave anyone was a lie. It had to be. I had to have time for them to be late, I had to have time for me to cope if they failed to deliver at all and I had to have time to handle it if their writing wasn't good enough.

You can of course argue that it was only my opinion whether their writing was good enough or not, but that was my job. And if I didn't do it or I wasn't good enough at it, I'd be rejected and replaced.

I found that there were a few writers who I could really rely on. I'd know they'd write well and I'd know they would deliver on time. I used them over and over again - and so would you. From the outside, it looked like I'd got myself a stable of writers and that it was a pretty closed bunch. On the inside, it was that I was trying to get a stable of writers and unfortunately it was a pretty closed group because I couldn't find many more to add to it.

Getting into my stable was hard. I don't say this to make out that anyone would want to, that it was in someway a special set, but genuinely, really, practically: it was hard to get in. I had this many pages to fill with this many articles and I had this long in which to do it. It was easier to hand over a feature to one of these writers I knew would do it. I could hand that off and forget about it for a few weeks. As those weeks ticked by, it became less that it was easy to hand it over to them, more that it was essential.

Taking on someone new is a risk and a risk that takes a lot of time. And this was just on a magazine: drama is so much bigger, so much more complex and so much more pressured. So taking on someone new is so much more of a risk and takes so much more time - that you don't have.

I've never commissioned drama. I'm new to writing it. But because I have commissioned writers, I believe I get it. People can tell you rejection isn't personal but I think you really only get it when you've been even briefly on the other side.

It doesn't absolve you from trying to write better but it does stop you wanting to give up.

Even when a guy phones you and laughs down the line.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Events in June

I've a couple of events coming up that I really want to tell you about. If you're anywhere near them here in the Midlands, it would be a treat to see you.

June 1, 2013: Gillian Bailey at Kaleidoscope

Whether you only know her for this or you're well aware of her huge acting career, you know that Gillian Bailey was in Here Come the Double Deckers. I'm interviewing her on stage about that show and this career plus what she's doing now.

It'll be at the Kaleidoscope event at the Talbot Hotel, Stourbridge, (map) from 3pm. Admission free but donations to RNLI encouraged. Add to Calendar

I met Gilli for the first time last year while researching a book about a show she only briefly appears in. So briefly that I nearly didn't contact her. But I'm so pleased I did because she is funny and fascinating and her academic career is so interesting that sometimes we both had to promise to get back to the subject of the book. I still can't tell you what the book is but to save you scouring Gilli's ridiculously long list of credits on IMDb, let me say that this one begins with "B" and ends "lake's 7".

Dr Gilli Bush-Bailey is a professor of women's theatre and this is a rare chance to hear her talk about her work and her acting. I think it's a bit of a tribute to Kaleidoscope that they managed to get her and I am chuffed that I'm the one who gets to natter with her on stage.

If you've ever heard of a lost TV show being miraculously recovered, the odds are that Kaleidoscope was involved. It is a non-profit organisation that preserves and catalogues and archives British television. This is its 25th anniversary year and I think I've been using their books for most of that time.

I used to write a thing in Radio Times called On This Day – it was easily my favourite gig of all my favourite gigs at RT – and it involved a lot of studying back issues of the magazine. Actually, it shouldn't have been quite such a lot but it's impossible not to get absorbed by the job. It was an immense benefit to me that Birmingham Central Library had a set of Radio Times issues and I would spend a long and delicious time there, eventually coming to notice that so were some other people.

I remember struggling to find a fact I was after and becoming very aware that there must've been five people with their laptops out on the desks near me, all using RT back issues and all typing very fast. I promise you, I looked at them and I knew. Kaleidoscope, I said. Yes, they said – and here's that fact you were after.

Tremendous people, doing an overwhelming job and making my research work infinitely easier. Have a look at their event site for details of everything at the 1 June event and their books for the reference works they have for sale. When I met them that time, I had a couple of their spiral bound drama books. A couple of years ago I bought the ten-volume perfect-bound set. And last year I bought the new PDF version of this stuff. It is ferociously annoying: I put the PDFs on my Dropbox folder and so now there is nowhere I can go that I can't just take a little peek and end up spending hours entirely absorbed.

Kaleidoscope was also a great help with my book, BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair and it's funny that I should mention that to you because that's what the other June event is about.

June 13, 2013: Meet local author William Gallagher

I've been invited to speak at the Jewellery Quarter Bookwormers Group about The Beiderbecke Affair. It's at the Drop Forge pub, 6-10 Hockley Street, Birmingham, B18 6LB (map) from 7:30pm to around 9pm ish. Admission free. Add to calendar.

The group meets monthly or so for a drink in this most gorgeous pub which has these nooks and crannies dotted around. It's all very informal and you get to talk properly: I've been to a couple of events just to see what it was like and have been thoroughly entertained by speakers like novelist Anna Laurence Pietroni, organiser Simon Stokes and everyone I happened to sit next to.

Have a look at Simon's Meetup page for details of the group and the other speakers coming up, would you?

Which reminds me, I've got a new website as of today and it even plays nice with mobile phones. It doesn't mention any events. I've just realised that now. Um.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Fat Priests

So I had this small play on earlier in the week. Very small. Closed performance, script-in-hand, you know the thing. It was done as the culmination of a writing programme at the Birmingham Rep that saw fifteen of us writers working toward this week's performances. Now, it wasn't a competition but we didn't collaborate either: these were fifteen separate short plays and you know every one of us secretly feared our one would be the worst and secretly hoped that our one would be the best.

For all that I talk to you ceaselessly about my work, I'm usually actually very modest about it – if for 'modest' you read 'has no clue whether it's any good or not so had best keep quiet'.

But not this time.

This time I'm telling you the truth. My play, Fat Priests, was excellent.

Easily in the top fifteen.

The truth that I do know and that I am rushing to say to you is that Fat Priests was new. I mean that literally, it was written for this event – though I so clearly remember in the 1990s telling a friend named Peter Guttridge that I had this great title and not one clue what to do with it – but it's new in more senses than that.

I was very aware of this Birmingham Rep programme, Write Away, because my wife Angela Gallagher got on it last year. That was so exciting: every Monday for ten weeks I'd wave her off and really just spend the evening waiting for her to come back to tell me all about it. She would come home elated and it was wonderful. And she wrote a final piece called Fun-Packed Flat Pack – about a woman living in Ikea – that was marvellous. Really flew high on its performance night and she was being back-slapped about it for the rest of the run. And then when I got on this year's one, it was delicious just how many times her play was mentioned. Usually it would be in a sentence that would suddenly take a left turn and become "- and of course that's William's wife Angela". So she wasn't being mentioned because I was there, but because I was there, I was gobbling up every mention.

And, I'll admit this, I was also thinking I can't let her down and do a rubbish piece for myself. She's got a reputation here, she's got form.

I got really worked up about that. And, stupid William, I also did the journalist thing: I looked up everybody else on the programme before it started. You just don't walk into a room cold if you can help it. It's not as if I was going to interview anybody, but we all have big social media footprints these days, for the five seconds it takes to see what someone's done, I will spend those five seconds. The trouble is, this bunch was a bit startling. Poets, playwrights, performers, professionals: not everyone had written before but every one made me wonder how I'd managed to get in.

So I'm walking into that first session with the memory of Angela's great group in my mind and the image of this year's great group in my face. They were all instantly terrific, I mean all of them. I really liked these people and – flash forward to today – I'm going to miss the Monday night nattering.

But - flash right back to then, you, come on, we're not done yet – I was thoroughly scared I would not be able to write something new. It had to be new. They'd never know if it came from my teetering pile of old ideas or old scripts. But I would. This had to be new: by the end of ten weeks, I had to have written a new short play.

We met on that first Monday night and I wrote my play on that first Tuesday morning.

Well, actually, I wrote a play. It was a short piece called Entrenched and it was fairly typical me: a nice enough idea, good enough characters, good dialogue – I do write good dialogue, that's about the only thing I will say and I say it because dialogue is so important to me in drama – but, you know, meh. It wasn't bad, wasn't good, it didn't matter.

But it was written. And that got me over the scare at the start of the programme: even if it wasn't good, that play was done and could be handed in if necessary.

Somewhere along the ten weeks, though, I think I had the things I care most about in drama be pulled out, examined, scrubbed up and, mostly, put back. And somewhere along the ten weeks, I wrote Fat Priests.

I should really tell you about it but I'm hesitant. I want you to see it. I've no idea whether you'll ever even be able to, there is no plan to stage it publicly. And short plays are fine for events like this but they're not so hot for yer ackshual going-to-the-theatre evenings. I think that on the night Fat Priests came in around 20 minutes: in my mind I can easily expand it to 21. I don't know how to make it longer.

But one of the reasons for that is a good 'un: it works at 20 minutes. It's tight and though you could drop in a line or two, though you could take out a line or three, you'd have to do some serious restitching of the whole piece to make that change work. Everything leads to everything else, that kind of thing. I like that. Especially if you can't tell it's the case until you try poking about under the hood.

I'm surprised that I managed to cover an issue, a subject that matters very much to me – I was going to say, I was typing the words that I'm surprised I managed to do this in such a tight, short length but actually I'm just surprised to say I did it at all. I'd like to be surprised to say that I managed it successfully, but that's too far: I don't know.

Except I do know that at the end of rehearsals, I explained to my cast and my director that I have no faith in my writing yet I felt what the four of us had created that afternoon was special.

Fat Priests was directed by Polly Tisdall and it starred Rochi Rampal and Laurence Saunders. Very powerful actors. Rochi brought more venom and just a greater mess of conflicts inside her character than I think I wrote. Even on the first read through, Laurence delivered a huge line and froze the room in the silence that followed. In that silence, I could hear a ticking clock. Hadn't noticed it before, not even when we had happened to be silent. But it was like he made the silence more silent.

There was a lot I didn't think I'd written. Polly saw a parallel between my setting and the deeper themes of the piece and – I warned her I would do this – I am now telling you that this was all my idea, it was a piece of brilliance and it was all me. Not her. Me. And it's my name on the script, QED.

I've never watched an actor work to get into a character before. Watched them discuss it and debate it, reaching for what makes a character be that character. They'd get to a realisation about it and, inside, I'd be going "Yes!" It was thrilling to see them get a subtext or an undertow that I'd worked to provide yet also worked to keep as a hidden subtext. But then they kept on going further and finding more and I'm thinking, jaysis, they must be right. My script must be fantastic. Got to be.

Drama is collaboration, that's one of the myriad things I love about it. But one of the things about collaboration is that while, yes, you have to work with other people and not be all precious about your writing, you also have to step up to their level. And this was the Birmingham Rep. It's in its centenary year, it's been a part of my life as an audience member, it's been the subject of my ambition, it has a gigantic and impressive history – it was the first theatre in the world to stage Shakespeare in modern dress – and did I mention that this was the Birmingham Rep? I look back at the other shorts and plays I've done and, fun as most were, this was like when I got that first Doctor Who contract: it was real.

You can't go back from real. I'm conscious that on the one hand I am making the Alps out of a snowball here and on the other that I'm pratting about like anything. Don't mention to anyone I've said all this, would you? I can tell you because you've got that kind of face. And as small as this is, as little as Fat Priests is, it was very big to me.

Fat Priests was first performed at the Birmingham Rep's offices on Wednesday 8 May, 2013. Oh! It was the very first one staged of all the fifteen this year so for twenty minutes, it was the best!

I've only just thought of that. Fantastic.

What I thought at the time was that I can relax now, I can just enjoy all fourteen of the rest. And, my lights, it's fascinating to see where all these writers went. Writing is always a peek into someone's soul and a glimpse of their worldview, even if they don't realise it, certainly even if they deny it. Though clearly that's not the case with my writing. No. Noooooo.

Listen, the Rep is moving back into its main offices and so I don't think there'll be another Write Away group before next year. But keep an eye on the Birmingham Rep website and apply for it when you can. Just remember to invite me to your play or I won't be able to get in.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Three departure times and the truth

If you haven't done this, you would do it: yesterday I stood at a bus stop, leaning against the printed timetable and using an app on my iPhone to find out when the next bus was due. Anyone who doesn't have a smart phone might mock me, but you know it's the truth, you know that you are so dependent on the information you can get on your mobile that this wasn't silly of me, it was a profound statement about the world we now live in.

But the NextBuses app on my phone was wrong. It was the kind of wrong you only come to realise after you've been waiting ten minutes for the bus it said was due in seconds. Ten minutes of increasing cold, rain and the sense of having been conned. Never fear, though, there was that other timetable… app. There's a fairly new one for my region called NetNav which is ace at planning bus routes for you and ridiculously good at listing the departure times of every bus within a mile of you. And sure enough, the times it gave me were only in the most generous sense even similar to the ones NextBuses listed.

After about five more minutes, I started to get suspicious.

So, trying to look nonchalant, I turned around and read the printed timetable on the bus shelter. I'm not certain why it's called a shelter when that is one of the many things it doesn't do, but as a housing for a timetable, it could do no wrong. And sure enough, the times it gave me weren't even similar to NextBuses or NetNav.

You're starting to think I was at a stop that had been abandoned, aren't you? A stop that had stopped. (There are two bus stops near where Angela works that have never had any buses, not one. It's as if they were put there in the hope that if you build bus shelters, buses will come. It's a sound theory with plenty of precedent and if it had worked for them, by now I might've started building a shelter myself.)

The bus came in its own sweet time.

And when I'd got on, it waited at the stop for the correct time to depart. Which appeared to be as wrong as all the others but had the benefit of being when the bus actually departed.

I don't expect you to happen to know the methodology of the West Midlands bus transport system, but I would like you to tell me why I carry on using these apps on my phone. This is far from the first time that everything has disagreed and everything has been wrong. In my office, I've also used the online bus planner and got times from it that were only accurate to the nearest day. But I keep using all of this.

I have become so dependent on my phone that I keep using this stuff and I keep forgetting the equivalents of the printed timetable behind me. I know I'm not alone in this. And you're smart but I can see it in your eyes, you do this kind of thing too.

Do you also swear when it goes wrong? No, me neither.

I've told you before that I don't tend to swear. No reason, I just don't tend to. But there was a time when I didn't at all. Again, no especial reason not to, just no especial to. But I learned. I learned to swear during the three evenings it took to fit a hard drive into my PC. This was a long time ago, back when there were PCs, and it wasn't difficult, it was just stunningly tedious: I can't remember all the steps now but it even included twiddling with the jumpers on the computer's motherboard. If you don't know what a motherboard jumper is, you're looking at the wrong guy for the answers.

I promise you that I knew then and that I got it right then. First time.

It didn't work. There were just enough permutations and I still had just enough interest in computing that I was willing to keep going and then there was just enough boiling rage that I wasn't going to be beaten by this sodding thing. On the third night, I took everything apart, breathed deeply, and started again from the very start. I did each step perfectly and I did each step exactly the way I had done it the first time.

It worked.

I had a huge new hard disk and I had learnt the language that makes mothers blush.

I can't remember what huge meant then, I know it was not a fraction of what you'd call huge now, and I also can't remember having either that patience or the time to be that patient in. Strangely, as well as the swearing, I also learned this day that computers are alchemy and that knowledge has helped me through turbulent times when, lo, one's faith in the cheapest equipment slapped together without being tested, was tested.

I trusted that the computer must be right and that I must be doing something wrong with fitting this thing. Trusted is too active a word, I just knew it was right and I was wrong. And you would think that having this dented would stop me believing the machines whether they are cheap PCs or, to be honest, gorgeous phones.

But no. I obviously still assume my phone knows more than me but I promise that's less my bowing to the great electronic gods and more that I've twigged how everybody knows more than me. Yet the Hard Disc Debacle isn't what showed me the truth, the closest I've come to Damascus was with what used to be called a Turbo Button.

If you know about turbo buttons, you've forgotten them. They used to make your PC run slower. You read that right: turbo means slower. When PCs came out, they ran at some certain processor speed, God and many people know what speed but nobody cares. Then when PCs reached their tricky second album stage, they were faster and, gasp, it was so fast! It was so fast that people thought software might not be able to run properly at this heady speed. Again, I can't remember the numbers but think of the way people believed you wouldn't be able to breathe in a car that went faster than walking pace.

No software had any problem whatsoever. But in that very Microsofty kind of way, PC manufacturers added a feature that you didn't need. It was a button to slow the PC down. You're wrong to think that calling a slowing-down button Turbo is the reverse of all sense. You're just not thinking computing. Remember the Start button in Windows 95 and how that's where you go to switch the thing off. Remember Microsoft Word which doesn't have a New or Open Document button at all.

Turbo buttons always had LCD displays above them that said what the speed was. It was always a two-digit display and it only ever showed one speed or the other. If your software was collapsing at the wicked fast high speed, you press the button and all is well again.

I was okay with turbo buttons and even then I wasn't all that fussed when reviews – I worked on a computer magazine – would mention it as a feature.

Except, one day, myself and a colleague did a feature together where we learnt how to build PCs. 'Build' is a joke. Assemble. It was like those How Do They Do It shows on digital TV where they promise to explain exactly how a car works and begin by saying "And when the engine has been placed in the chassis…" before going on to detail the method of paint spraying used.

Building a PC meant doing what a million PC firms did: take this motherboard, which is effectively the entire computer already built for you, and add in a few other components such as a hard disc. I promise I didn't swear. But I came close with the only fiddly bit in the whole thing: the turbo button. It had a button, obviously, but that was already built into the casing. It had some fiddly wires, that was the thing. Wires that ran from the button directly to the LED display above it. Directly and solely.

I can't speak for all PCs, but in this one, the turbo button only controlled the display that said it was a turbo button. Someone had designed, engineered and manufactured a button whose sole purpose was to tell you that you had pressed it. In my mind, that was suddenly just like the way that Microsoft Word is fantastic, truly fantastic at recovering documents that have gone wrong and how I deeply wish they'd just put a fraction of that talent and effort into not losing the bloody documents in the first place.

That button may have been the day that I lost interest in what had to then been my career. It was possibly the day that I got more interested in the mind of someone who'd put that effort into lying with electronics than I ever really was in electronics.

It was probably the day that I realised I was relieved to go back to my desk and write on the review Mac I was using.

But it was definitely not the day that I learned to distrust computers and stop relying on them because that day has yet to come. It wasn't yesterday with the cascade of instant but wrong information.

And it wasn't today when my 5am alarm went off yet didn't sound.

Today is the 76th weekday that I've been getting up at 5am to work, the 76th day that I have put a £1 coin in a pot, and the 76th day that I have risked losing all that. I've said this to you in surprisingly enormous detail before but if I ever fail to get up at 5am then I take out every coin that is in that pot and I start again.

This morning I was just thinking that surely it was 5am when I turned to the phone and saw the alarm button was on – the one that says Snooze or Cancel – and that it was 5:31am. The alarm had been on for over half an hour but it hadn't made a whisper.

I made more than a whisper, I can tell you. And as I continue to prevaricate about emptying that pot, I'm whispering quite a bit.