Category Archives: Writing

Remembering Gerry Anderson

Over the Christmas break, one of the true heroes of my life sadly passed away: the great Gerry Anderson.

Like most people of my age, my first exposure to Gerry’s work was as a child. The opening bars of each of his shows called us to gather eagerly around the television, captivated in turn by Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90.

Famously, Gerry was frustrated by being known as ‘the puppet guy’ – he wanted to make serious films with live actors. (Of course, that day came with UFO and Space: 1999 – both blockbuster hits.) Yet I doubt that if he’d gone straight into live action that his legacy would be anywhere near as rich.

Out of financial necessity, Gerry created children’s television shows, using increasingly sophisticated puppets. Though sponsored and trusted by the great Lew Grade, he was squeezed tightly on budget – Grade knew that Anderson could deliver the goods, but he needed to turn a decent profit too.

And, where other filmmakers might be enjoying the luxury of large sound-stages and studio facilities, Anderson had to make do with a cramped unit on a Slough trading estate.

All of these restrictions were fuel to a unique creative fire. Tight budgets meant solving problems in an inventive way. Working for children meant that imaginations could run wild. A small set meant that people worked together closely; new techniques were needed to film what were ostensibly large set pieces.

A lesser person may well have produced what was ‘good enough’. Not Gerry. Gerry absolutely did not accept that any of these restrictions meant his output should be in any way apologetic. Yes, he was out to prove himself and desperately wanted to attract a different kind of commission – but he was also passionate about his product.

As a creator of children’s tales for a more modern age, Gerry was without equal. I say that in the knowledge that other filmmakers – most notably Disney – were around at the same time. But where Disney plundered folk tales for his stories, Anderson’s catalogue was set mostly in the future – original creations.

There is a magic and charm about Gerry’s work that is not only unique but has enabled it to stand the test of time. His shows are full of cheeky humour – but sentimentality is rare. Gerry’s audience were children – but he never, ever patronised them. He created television shows that were shot like blockbuster movies – large-scale action, tightly plotted stories and (despite their puppet-nature) entertaining and likeable characters.

Pushing back the boundaries at a technical level paid off – sure, we can see the strings, but the sheer quality of the model work and special effects still looks great today. It’s said that few filming techniques used by Hollywood in disaster blockbusters weren’t created by Gerry, from his little trading estate in Slough.

In filmmaking, genius isn’t all about self. It’s teamwork. And Gerry was oh so good at selecting, working with and trusting some truly great people. The model designs of Reg Hill and Mike Trim. The special effects of Derek Meddings. The fashion designs of Sylvia Anderson. And of course the unforgettable music of Barry Gray – each theme tune a heraldic introduction that set pulses racing and grabbed you firmly, pushing you down in front of the television. All of these elements – and more – came together under Anderson’s tireless coordination to create 30 to 60 minutes of television magic, week in, week out.

Gerry wasn’t always (indeed, often) the writer, but it’s as a storyteller rather than a filmmaker for which I remember him. His ideas positively sparkled and absolutely connected with his audience – which child wouldn’t want to be a secret agent with adult mind implants, or save people’s lives with the amazing equipment of a secret rescue organisation?

He only gave up work towards the end of his life. It’s true, his career took a dip – but he regained his creative mojo in 2005 with the CGI version of Captain Scarlet (sadly hidden in the schedules and not destined to be a commercial success). He didn’t own the rights to much of his work and would have loved to have remade Thunderbirds in CGI – and was scathing, rightly so, of the embarrassing misstep that was Jonathan Frakes’s Thunderbirds movie.

I doubt that any other person has had as big an influence on my childhood. Gerry Anderson created the things which inspired me to play as a child. Even today, my office contains models of Supercar, Fireball XL5, Eagle transporters, Skydiver and Interceptors. Each is beautiful in its own right; each is a reminder of a time when stories were told with both innocence and gusto; each shows me that – even with a tight budget and limited facilities – true greatness can be created.

Gerry, I can’t thank you enough.

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

I love my iPad. It’s probably the single most useful device I’ve ever owned. But it’s useless for one thing: typing any serious amount of text.

The on-screen keyboard just doesn’t cut it. It’s good enough for editing, responding to e-mails and so on – but trying to write anything of any length is nothing short of torture.

(I’ll deviate a little here. I think this is my generation’s hang-up – and that future novelists will have no problem with an on-screen interface, or dictating via Siri – or even ‘thinking’ a novel direct from their minds. After all, standing behind us are writers who used pictograms, longhand, typewriters and word processors – each probably swearing by their method.)

So, while my iPad might go with me almost everywhere, it seldom gets used for any substantial typing. Until now.

That’s because I’ve just got myself the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover. Which isn’t just a keyboard cover: it’s a keyboard, too.

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

I’ve had a couple of iPad keyboards in the past but not really got on with them. Apple’s own solution was a Frankenstein-like combination of dock and the company’s normal Bluetooth keyboard. It worked (and, since the keyboard is a joy to use, is productive) but it’s hardly portable. Wandering around with an iPad, keyboard and dock is just stupid. And the whole combination wobbles like crazy if you attempt to do anything as audacious as work on a train. The final blow is that you look like an utter berk when you’re using it.

Likewise, other keyboards have been too cumbersome or didn’t integrate that well with the iPad.

Not so, the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover.

It’s exactly the same size as the iPad for a reason – when not in use, it becomes a screen cover. It attaches using the iPad’s internal magnets – the ones used for the official Apple iPad Smart Cover. This makes it easy to attach, detach and carry around. It adds a little bulk to the iPad, but not too much. A neat trick here is that the iPad ‘knows’ when it’s been attached or detached and turns itself on or off accordingly. It works so well that it feels as though it might be a piece of Apple kit.

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

The back of the cover is aluminium, so it’s also a perfect visual match for the iPad. It’s not that scratch-resistant, but that is the nature of the material.

You charge the keyboard via your Mac or PC’s USB port – and a charge (apparently) lasts for months.

To use it as a keyboard, you simply remove it from the iPad and slot the iPad into the groove above the keys – which gives you a decent viewing angle, albeit one which can’t be adjusted. It connects via Bluetooth – and, once slotted in, you’re up and running.

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

The keyboard itself is a touch cramped, being about 10% narrower than a real keyboard. It’s nothing you can’t get used to, though touch-typists will find themselves stumbling at first, especially with the outer keys. Once you get used to it, you can get up a fair lick of speed. The keyboard’s action is nice – not as good as Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard, but positive enough. The keys – like the inside of the cover – are plastic – but they don’t feel cheap.

There are also some iPad-dedicated function keys, so it’s easy to call up spotlight, switch applications, copy, paste, set the volume level or even lock the iPad. The level of integration is lovely.

There’s no software to install – you just pair it as a Bluetooth device and that’s it.

In terms of compatibility, it works with the iPad 2 and the third generation iPad. My guess is that it would function with the original iPad, but the iPad itself would slip out of the groove that’s engineered so well to hold the later iPads in place.

Downsides? It’s not quite the build quality of iPad, but it’s pretty good. It’s expensive – around £70 currently. I’m no expert on what it costs for these things to be made, but I’d say the price point really needs to be below £50 for a peripheral like this.

Overall, I’m sold on it and really liking it. There are going to be plenty of instances where I’d previously have taken my MacBook Pro where I’ll now be more than happy with the combination of iPad and Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover.

The bottom line: I’ve not seen or used a better iPad keyboard.

This review was written using an iPad and the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover.

Writing with Evernote

I’ve written before about being a big fan of Scrivener. As writing software goes, especially for long projects such as novels, it takes some beating.

Currently, for me, there’s one fly in the Scrivener ointment – the lack of an iPad version. Although I don’t want to write entire projects on my iPad, when I’m out and about without my laptop I do want to write, make notes, add to my research, edit and review. (In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be just on my iPad either – sometimes I only have my iPhone with me.)

This got me thinking about what I really need from writing software – and setting aside the fact that I’ll later need to have the manuscript reviewed, edited and proofed by someone else. If it needs to be exported into Word at some point, so be it. (I’m not allergic to Word; I use it daily for copywriting. This makes sense since it’s what my clients and my proofreader use. But I find that it’s next to hopeless for long documents. Why? It forces you to work and think in a linear way. It has no mechanism to easily reshuffle chapters and scenes. And, the bigger your document, the slower it gets. I could go on…)

I decided that, when it boils down to it, a writer needs surprisingly little of the word processing power. Here’s my personal bottom line:

  • Non-linear document structure – a way to break the project down into manageable chunks which can be easily reorganised.
  • Word count.
  • Basic formatting (bold, italic).
  • Easy and robust synchronisation with other devices – computers, tablets and phones.
  • The ability to incorporate research, including images, video and audio – plus links to Web pages.

That’s about all I need. Sure, there are lots of things I’d really like – but I’m trying to identify my most needed word processing elements.

This led me to an interesting conclusion. Most writing software just doesn’t suit my needs or workflow. Google Docs, Word and Pages may be the most-used writing software, but they’re the first to be struck off my list – since they’re linear and can’t readily incorporate research into the same document.

Good old Scrivener does everything I need (and more) but document replication between different devices relies (currently) on clunky workarounds using Dropbox to transfer files and then using an entirely different editing application on the iPad. It works, but it isn’t pretty.

There is one contender, though. It’s a surprising one: Evernote.

I’ve been using Evernote for ages – for its intended purpose, to take notes. It’s very useful – there are versions for PC, OS X and iOS, Windows Phone 7, Android, BlackBerry and even WebOS. Not enough? Well – perhaps you work on Linux occasionally. In that case, there’s a Web interface to fall back on. Everything you type gets replicated automatically to the cloud and is quickly available on any other device. It’s built for a multi-device world – and one where your data can live anywhere.

This is powerful stuff. You can work on your laptop – and then go review on your iPad. Got ten minutes to kill? Review your manuscript on your phone. Stuck somewhere where there’s no Mac? Fire up a Windows or Linux PC and just login to your Evernote account. You can work online or offline – and replicate when you can connect to the Internet.

Editing the same document on different platforms, with Evernote

Evernote for OS X, Windows, iPad and iPhone – all in sync

So, that’s replication taken care of very neatly. What about non-linear document structure?

Evernote can handle this, but it’s not quite a hit clear out of the ballpark. Evernote breaks things down into shorter documents, true, but it doesn’t give a lot of control over how these are organised. Within Evernote, you create ‘notebooks’ – which then contain individual ‘notes’. So, these could either be the projects and chapters, or chapters and scenes, depending on how you work. It’s adequate – although nowhere near as functional as either Scrivener or Storyist (with their visual corkboards) but way better than Word.

Currently, there isn’t a live word count in all versions of Evernote, but they’re working on it. There isn’t any word count in the iOS version, although there is in the Windows and OS X apps. This isn’t ideal, but it’s workable.

Basic formatting is present and correct – there’s not much, but there’s everything you need: bold, italic, underline, paragraph indents, strikethrough and bullets.

Incorporating research and notes is part of what Evernote ‘just does’. Evernote documents can incorporate video, images and audio. You just fire up the camera or microphone on your iPad or Mac and that’s it – take photos or make audio notes right from within Evernote. You can also drag and drop images or add website URLs.

Again, Scrivener’s ability to incorporate research wins because of its organisational finesse – but there’s more than enough here to get by. And anything you add on one device automatically appears on your others. Evernote even has a widget for your browser – to make it easy to clip Web pages straight into your notebooks without even launching Evernote itself.

Adding rich media does become an issue – once you’re incorporating lots of images, audio and video into your notebooks, you’ll quickly move beyond the space that’s offered by a free Evernote account. But you can upgrade to a premium account for £4 a month, so you’re hardly being stiffed.

There are lots of compromises. Word and Pages run rings around Evernote in terms of layout ability. Scrivener and Storyist are built with the writer in mind and have lots of features to help manage large projects. Evernote is more workmanlike than slick – and at some point you will have to get your creative gem out of Evernote and into a file format your editor or proofreader uses. I’ve found that you do need to check over exported text for formatting errors or special characters that aren’t properly converted.

But it’s the workflow and replication where Evernote shines. It just works. You edit on one device, pick up another and carry on where you left off. It’s liberating. It makes switching between Mac and iPad (or PC and Android tablet) as simple as it gets.

There’s another advantage. Right now, I’m an Apple user – but that might not last forever. So knowing that I can move to another platform – or even just use a different one temporarily – is a bonus.

For novel-writing, I’m pretty tied to Scrivener for a multitude of reasons – and the team behind Scrivener is thankfully working on an iPad version, though that’s some way off. Scrivener for Mac and iPad, with easy file synchronisation – perhaps via iCloud – would be ideal. But for other projects, I’m very tempted by Evernote’s workflow.

Looking at things from a different angle

I’ve recently added website video production to what I do as part of my day job (developing websites).

I’ve always really loved to learn – and boy, this is one learning curve and a half. Or possibly two learning curves, who’s counting?

As with any new skill, it’s interesting to discover the parts of the job at which you do well – and the parts with which you struggle.

Video production breaks down into several – often quite difficult – tasks. Broadly, they are:

  • planning the shoot.
  • setting up the shots and equipment.
  • filming.
  • post-production and editing.

It was only after working on half a dozen or so videos that I began to realise the parallels with writing – and the differences.

Planning the shot is broadly the equivalent of plotting. There might be a storyboard, there might be a full script, there might be a shooting script – or there might be nothing, for those pantsers of you out there. There are pros and cons to each approach. Each can be successful and each can fail.

The reality I found was that no matter how much you plan, you will film something differently on the day. You just will. Opportunities will arise which are just too tempting to overlook. Barriers will be put in your way which are too solid to circumnavigate. Logistics will shift and you’ll have no option other than to accommodate them.

But, if you’re creative, these won’t blow your masterpiece out of the water. Frustrating they might be, but they’re likely to fuel your creativity in unexpected ways.

You’ll shoot far more footage than you expected, which will escalate the editing – but improve the product. Just because you shot more doesn’t mean you have to use it, you just use the best – even if the job of sifting through it is harder and longer.

Setting up the shots is like the research, combined with technical skills. I’m personally a big researcher. I’ve found if you “just check that later” a core assumption of your plot can be wildly wrong, leading to significant rewrites. Better to do as much as you can either upfront, or as you go.

There’s the technical as well as creative side to attend to. How far your lights are from a person affects the exposure. How far the microphone is from his or her mouth affects the sound. Plus there are settings for the lights, sound equipment and camera. These have to be managed diligently. If not, then you can be in for a lot, lot more editing and post-production. Or, worse still, a re-shoot.

The filming itself is enjoyable and usually less problematic than other aspects of production. That’s not to say it always runs smoothly – people say the wrong things and have to say them again, doors slam so you have to roll again or perhaps the battery in your camera or microphone runs out, but you don’t notice. But, with decent planning, this is more like the actual writing. You’re getting the stuff down.

Yet there’s always the story to attend to. As with a novel, we have to consider everything that’s going on around the shoot – from props in the room, to people in the background. We have to consider how using different camera angles of the primary subject can draw someone into the story we’re telling. Also, we need to look at how much more effective the story is when we’re cutting away to other places – things which illustrate what the primary subject is describing. Some of these will be considered during planning, others will happen on the day.

Finally, there’s the bit where it all comes together. Yet, it’s possibly the most time-consuming and difficult part of all. During the editing, the story is built up gradually,  using clips from different takes, adding different audio, using different camera angles – all of this modular construction is part of ‘telling the story’.

This may be the same story you set out to tell originally, it may differ slightly or it may differ enormously. The editor works with the footage and sound available and from it builds up the best story that he or she can. It takes a lot of time. A two-minute video, cut from three or four hours’ filming, can take eight hours to edit.

There can be happy accidents. For example, I’ve discovered footage that was shot on the off chance (and unknown to me, by an assistant). The footage might have been intended simply as a possible filler, or shot because something looked interesting – and this chance footage has been interesting enough to become a central part of the video narrative.

Interestingly, writing a book is a journey that’s most usually undertaken from first chapter to final – regardless of how/when you do the planning and editing. Filming is different; it can be a real jumble – you work in a way that’s time-efficient, often grabbing what you can, going with the flow and getting as much filmed as possible.

There’s no real reason that writing can’t be undertaken in this way; I’m sure many writers do – though mostly I don’t. I do often create ‘unplaced scenes’ in a manuscript. I may or may not use these later. They may become stories on their own. They may never be used. Sometimes, I write scenes for my own benefit – for example, what happened when two characters met for the first time. I may not want to use the scene, but I might want to have a deeper understanding of their meeting than I’d get from writing “Sarah met Jim, at firs they didn’t get on”, or whatever. When I write them, I may have no idea how they’re going to fit in.

What is especially interesting about the process of film-making is how much it encourages you to explore different angles, view close-ups and film others’ reactions to a primary character’s dialogue or actions. You’re working in 3D space – the real world – and experiencing the fourth dimension of time. You do this in a way that’s more intuitive and explorative than you would when writing the same scene – which is why a filmed version of a scene can be radically different from the script.

For me, the process of film-making encourages me to be braver and looser with the writing; to explore different viewpoints of the same event; to plan even more – and edit even more than that. The more you put in, the more you polish, the better the end result – and the more it looks as though the whole process was effortless.

When is a monologue not a monologue?

I was reflecting recently on the nature of interior monologues (yes, I know, that in itself is an interior monologue).

Setting aside for a later blog the question of whether it’s good for the narrative to expose thoughts of a character in a way that’s impossible in real life, it occurred to me that an interior monologue is frequently anything but a monologue.

True, in real life, much of our thinking takes place without us thinking in words. But this is written fiction, we need the words to be understood, so the interior monologue will be, for the sake of the medium, better constructed than our real-life thoughts.

A monologue, though, is literally the thoughts of one person – and true, when expressing thought in fiction, that’s entirely valid, as in: ‘Bitch, thought Gerald’.

Yet people aren’t comprised only of their own thoughts. We’re all the sum of our past, our surroundings, our family and our friends. When we reflect on an issue, we take it apart using our own views – but we also test it with the views of others. We consider how others would feel; what they would say. That’s one way, perhaps, that we reach a viewpoint that’s different to the one we previously held.

So a monologue can involve the thoughts and influences of more than one character. Not as a conversation (unless the character is schizophrenic – I’m thinking in particular of the excellent Gollum to Gollum monologue/dialogue in The Lord of the Rings film The Return of the King) but as a single voice, albeit a mental one.

It’s the nature of people to be multifaceted – and so should be the nature of fictional characters. Our views are seldom that black and white. Sometimes we do things which seem to be contradictory to our nature, at least as others understand it.

Thoughts in fiction, then, are where these different facets of our lives can crystallise. Where internal debate can become a force, like opposing waves crashing each other – or, more gently, like two different coloured paints meeting, to make a third colour. It’s where decisions are made, choices debated – and where even what others might assume is unthinkable can be considered.

If the only viewpoints in the interior monologue were those of the one character, then there’s less scope for that character to behave as a real person would, to change, to go on a journey, to grow apart from another character or perhaps grow closer to one.

Sure, the voice of the interior monologue will be one voice, but more than the single character holding that voice will shape it.

An unexpected gift

It’s always nice to get feedback from readers, but I was overwhelmed when I received this e-mail from reader Adam Hall yesterday: “Just finished reading The Well and I must say it was a brilliant book. So, in celebration of that fact, I drew you some fan art, which can be found either via the link below or on my website.”

Here’s the illustration:

Becca in The Well

Becca in The Well, by Adam Hall

I posted the drawing to my personal Facebook page, and comments from friends included: “Brilliant,” “That’s incredible,” “That’s awesome,” “What a fab illustration,” “Creepy and excellent,” “What a wonderful tribute” and, my favourite, “I propose a graphic novel of The Well”.

What can I say? I’m always grateful for comments, but for someone to spend so much time creating such a wonderful illustration – I’m literally overwhelmed. Thank you, Adam – you’re very talented. (For those who are interested, Adam says that it was drawn in Sketchbook Pro and Photoshop.)

The times they are a-changin

So, a few things have happened recently. Sadly, Steve Jobs died. I visited the Beamish Museum in northeast England and I saw Bob Dylan in concert. Work continues (slowly) on my second novel. Quite possibly, these are all unrelated, but you know how life is. Sometimes, the connections seem to be there, begging for you to write about them, to give them meaning.

So, in reverse order.

My second novel is (honestly) progressing, but slowly. It’s the topic I’ll cover in least detail here, but within it I cover a fairly wide time period. Fortunately, it’s a time period that I’ve lived through – and so have first-hand experience of. I think this can lull a writer into a false sense of security. Yes, I remember the 1970s and 1980s fairly well, I think – but it’s easy to make mistakes.

Can I really remember how, as children, we used to arrange to meet – without having mobile phones? Indeed, many of us didn’t have landlines. How I managed to complete my homework without access to the Internet? This kind of detail is easy to remember with a little effort, but hard to write effortlessly.

I’m 50. That doesn’t feel old to me, but I’ve lived through some staggering changes. Not to me personally, though I now have a soft centre and less dependable vision. I’m thinking worldwide. I’ll come on to some of those shortly, but first I’ll cover something that’s been around all of my life. Well, not something, someone. Bob Dylan’s been making music since I was a toddler. He’s 70 – he probably got laid before I was born.

I was fortunate enough to see him in concert, for the second time, last night. What’s amazing about Dylan live is that his songs are seldom the same. Well, they have the same words and general direction, but they’re frequently rearranged. That’s quite interesting – he’s been around for 70 years, progressing musically all of the time (sometimes being rejected by an established audience because of abandoning one musical genre for another). So, if he were a character in a novel (or perhaps used as a reference anchor) we’d experience his journey along with our own. But because he rearranges many of his songs as he sees fit (well, they are his) he remains an unpredictable moving target. I hope I can say the same at 70.

This is consistent with my view of writing about people – they’re so darned inconsistent. When you make them behave according to a prescribed pattern, they’re not really believable any more.

Still, in this piece, Dylan’s simply our touchstone – perhaps in the way Kate Bush was used in Starter for Ten.

A more central character is Steve Jobs. Dead at just 56, too young in anyone’s book and certainly not enough life for someone so restless, so driven, so creative. (Although, as was observed of Roy Batty in Blade Runner, “the light that burns twice as bright, burns half as long” – and he did burn so very, very bright.)

Steve’s connections to me? Well, not much more than many of you. I use an Apple computer – although that wasn’t always the case. I own an iPod, an iPad and an iPhone. I don’t mind if you mock me.

Ah – but the connection is tighter than that. I complained to Steve directly about iBooks – and he forwarded my e-mail to the person in charge, asking them to get in touch so I could express my views more clearly. Still not much of a connection, though.

Wind back the clock to when I was at school and I had two clear choices: to write (most probably as a journalist) or to become a graphic designer. I chose the latter and went to art college. Steve was only a little older than me, so he’s not yet got around to creating the thing that would change my working life.

I studied typography. This was only 30-odd years ago, but at the time, setting metal type was still the norm. I learned to set type by hand, in a stick (which means learning to read upside down and backwards, no kidding). I learned that upper case and lower case are so-called because of where they were kept in the wooden case – a kind of massive drawer with compartments for each letter. That the spaces between lines were expanded with leading, so called because they were padded out with strips of lead. Type is beautiful, elegant. Words convey meaning and beauty, but the right type can give them a sense of being.

I also painted type by hand (using a brush, if it was above 12pt, or a pen if it was below). Hand-drawn type wasn’t good enough for reproduction, only for rough designs – but it was still a required skill that the tutor could tell exactly which typeface had been drawn.

Letraset existed, but its use was not permitted. We did hear tell of computers. Vast things, which companies were trying to make small enough to use in the office and home. We laughed. What on Earth would we use one of those for?

We laughed because we lacked vision.

In his (retrospectively moving) address to students at Stanford University, Steve Jobs cited how he also studied type, drew it, loved it. This love of type inspired him to want his computers to use proportional fonts for display and print. When personal computers were new, this hadn’t been the case – we had fixed-width fonts and no typographical control.

Apple ushered in (with the help of Adobe, Aldus and Quark) the era of desktop publishing. What had previously taken teams of specialists to do (layout artists, finished artists, repro people and more) could now all be done on one machine.

I use such a machine pretty much every day of my life to earn a living. True, I now mostly create websites – though I still do design for print also. (Actually, more than half of my work is now copywriting.)

It’s not all thanks to Steve Jobs – but he played one of the biggest parts in it. And I love it. I love the total control working on every single element of a design, from one machine, can deliver.

I also write, as I already mentioned. The same machine is my typewriter – and I can move my manuscript from word processor to page layout easily, making it available in print or on Kindle. My children, who can’t recall a world without computers, don’t see in the same way I do quite how amazing this is or quite how much people such as Steve Jobs have changed our lives.

So finally, to Beamish Museum, where I came face-to-face with a Victorian printshop. I smiled with nostalgia as the gentleman, younger than my eldest son, patiently explained how the letterpress machines worked. They had a working Cropper, a machine so notoriously dangerous to use that the phrase ‘come a cropper’ is now part of our everyday speech.

Then I realised. Print hadn’t really changed that much since it had been invented. For hundreds of years, the process got faster, but was essentially the same. Metal type, inked up, added to paper. Litho printing brought more speed. Phototypesetting brought clearer type. Desktop publishing blew it all out of the water. What I realised was this – I was a piece of history. One of the last people to learn how to use all printing technologies. That’s how fast the pace of change was – I learned how to set metal type for letterpress, phototypeset for gravure and litho print and desktop publish for litho and electronic delivery formats such as PDF.

I’m 50. That’s all. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press sometime around 1440. Yes, it evolved, but not really that much. Most of the change happened in the last 50 years.

That’s the challenge of writing across any kind of timescale – understanding the magnitude of change. It’s not just a question of trying to avoid anachronisms. Change is everywhere. Change permeates everything: across the world, in culture, music, politics, attitudes, technology – everything. It’s a challenge to capture just how people embrace and adapt to that change – quickly forgetting what life was like before – without downloads, CDs, cassette tapes, 8-track and vinyl records. I’m sure Bob Dylan remembers, because he recorded for all of those formats – and I bought his music on most of them.

Meanwhile, as I design brochures and websites on my Mac, I download Bob Dylan albums using Apple’s iTunes. There’s a kind of symmetry to that.