LTD 002: The Commencement Speech

Commencement speech to the graduating class of the University of Essex at Southend

On the occasion of having been made an honorary Doctor of the University

Delivered 31 October 2017

Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on-Sea

I’m going to keep this short, because I just got back from Amsterdam, and I’m sure some of you know how that goes.

(This actually got a big laugh, which led me to make a comment along the lines of “Oh, I see what kind of crowd we have here.”)

I’ve been asked to say something inspirational and uplifting to you on the happy occasion of your graduation.  Which, given that you’ve worked very hard for your qualification and I just wandered in here and got one for free, seems faintly obscene.  So I could lead out with a cautionary tale about how life is fundamentally unfair and old white guys steal everything.  But, you know, I left education at 18, and by the time I was your age I was living in a six foot by six foot rented room that used to be a dark room and would sometimes go out at night to punch pay-phones to get them to spit out loose coins that I could use for food money.  And here I am.  Life is unpredictable. 

Sometimes you start out at the bottom.  Sometimes you’ll trip and fall down. Sometimes you stay there for a good long time.  Sometimes all the lousy luck in the world only ever seems to wash up at your door.  I’m telling you from experience that sometimes you’re going to feel like giving up on your chosen path.  Maybe you’re even worried that you don’t actually have a chosen path yet.  There’s going to be a day when you say to yourself, the hell with it, I’m going to leave a note blaming my teachers for everything and I’m going to go and sell all my organs to medical science while I’m still alive.


I’d been working as a professional writer for seven years or so when I went on my first American tour. On the first stop, at the signing table, this big guy comes up to me, with wet eyes, and told me about the story I’d written that saved his life one night when he’d been down so long that he didn’t see a better day ahead.  Whatever was in that story, it gave him something to think about, a goal to stay alive for.  I don’t tell you this story to explain what a wonderful person I am, though of course that’s true and now I have a doctorate to prove it, which I’m going to use to drive my family absolutely insane for the rest of my life.  I tell it because life is unpredictable and you never know what’s going to happen to let in the light.  And I say that as someone who used to literally live in a dark room.

The focus and dedication and determination that got you into this room is what’s going to keep you going.  You know how to aim at a goal and reach it.  You know what you want.  Keep it in sight.  Hold on tight.  Maybe you don’t know what the specific goal is yet.  That’s fine.  You’ve got time.  Even if you don’t know the shape and name of it, you know in your gut where you want to be.  Aim for what makes you happy.  For what feels valuable to you.  Put yourself where it’s going to count.

That’s where I need you to be.  You’ve lead lives that had structure and clearly defined ends, and now you’re entering a world where people watch Jeremy Kyle on purpose. Nobody predicted how weird it’s gotten out here. And I’m a science fiction writer telling you that.  And the other science fiction writers feel the same.  I know some people who specialized in near-future science fiction who’ve just thrown their hands up and gone off to write stories about dragons because nobody can keep up with how quickly everything’s going insane.  It’s always going to feel like being thrown in the deep end, but it’s not always this deep, and I’m sorry for that.  But we need you to be out here with us now.

I hope you have the fire in you that my generation had at your age, that most generations have at your age – the fire to fix things, and the fire to make new things, fly new ideas, create the new sound that nobody heard before.  You’ll notice that my generation didn’t fix everything, and also released Piers Morgan on the world.  We’re sorry for that, too.  We made mistakes.  You’ll make mistakes too.  Don’t be afraid of that.  Making mistakes happens when you’re trying something new. It’s how you know you’re bending the envelope.  Making mistakes is how you learn, and sometimes a mistake gives you something valuable.  Brian Eno made a set of cards with weird notes on them that he used when he was working with David Bowie, among others, and one of the cards reads, “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.”  You’ll find that’s a lot more useful than Keep Calm And Carry On.

Don’t worry about making mistakes.  You’ll learn something, and that will be added to the commonwealth of our knowledge, and we all take one step forward.

Today isn’t the end of anything, really.  It’s the beginning.  You’re just getting started.  You’re going to do great things.  You’re going to surprise yourself with what you’re capable of and what you achieve.  I’ve seen it happen, over and over again.  All you have to do is not quit.  Take a day off, but don’t quit.  Keep fighting, keep thinking, keep making, keep trying something new.  Hold on tight to what matters to you, stand up for what’s right, and keep your eyes on the horizon.  It all starts today.  It all starts with one step forward.

Congratulations to you all on your achievement.  It’s time to begin the bigger and more exciting and more important part of your life.  The part where you make a difference.  I look forward to seeing you all again, in the future that you help create. Time to get started.

LTD 002

LTD: Context And Presence

I am half a century old, and for more than twenty years of that run, I’ve had a public-facing presence on the internet of some kind. Most recently, I had a morning journal imaginatively titled But time, and working methods, and schedules, and life all act upon practices and plans. Writing in the mornings was a great leveller four or five years ago when I was travelling near-constantly. Today, I spend the first hour or two of my day staring blankly at the sky over coffee with soothing ambient music being poured into my ear canals in an attempt to stop my brain from flipping open the top of my skull and abandoning ship.

And yet. I find myself continuing to want a public-facing place on the net. I always say that I need to get ideas out in front of me so that I can see them properly, and writing not-fully-baked notions on a website is often the best way for me to do that.

Social media does not “get” not-fully-baked. Social media is useless for thinking out loud and exploring notions. Social media — bizarrely, given its nature — does not do context.

I start a new notebook every year. Notebooks have internal context. Notebooks exist only to think about things, remember things and preserve things for later consideration. This is a notebook.

Also, let’s face it, it’s a blog. Not fully elderblog, as it’s a fresh notebook. But it’s a blog, which is a niche activity. Not fully baked is a coinage of Simon Reynolds, from the days when we were all publishing and all reading each other. Now, we’re the Isles of Blogging, a scattered archipelago of desert islands and sea forts who throw messages in bottles towards the mainland. And signal to each other with mirrors.

I am half a century old and nowhere near the cutting edge of anything. I am fine with this.

A legible presence on the web is also important to me. Because I’m a working writer, involved in many things with long gestation periods, and disappearing entirely from human notice is not always the best thing for a career. Put bluntly, I need to be able to signal that I’m still alive.

I’ve been testing out various publishing systems and formats for the last few months, to settle on what I want to do and how I want to act for, say, the next three to five years. I think this is it. So I’m signing and dating the first page of the notebook.

LTD 001