by Bill Kirton
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Parallel narratives, now there’s a thing. I’ve probably mentioned before how important they are for humour, crime fiction, irony and many other writing effects. They’re the sort of thing that’s behind many of my short stories and plays. I keep a cutting from a newspaper or a note I’ve made and it just sits there waiting. Then along comes something else which completes it or contradicts it or energises it in some way or another and I write about it. The co-existence of two layers forces an adjustment of perspective, a re-evaluation of what’s being witnessed or experienced and sometimes their power is even more stark in real life. For example, here’s an experience I wrote about several years ago but which has stayed with me.
It was when my two grandsons in
were still quite young. I’d go down for the occasional visit and, on this
occasion, one event set me musing. Every night my daughter used to read them a
story and, when they were in bed, sing them a song. I’m not sure how often she
changed the song but every time I’d heard it it was ‘Starry, starry night’, or
whatever the correct title is. She has a sweet voice, is pitch perfect and it
sounded lovely drifting through from the boys’ room. So the two of them were lying
there in the dark hearing this just before they went to sleep and I projected
into the future and imagined them as grown men, middle aged even, and how suddenly
hearing the song broadcast on whatever the medium would be then might affect
them. The potential for drama, poignancy, joy, sorrow is enormous. Glasgow
And I think that’s the way the writing imagination works. Set up a scenario – a man has just had an huge violent row with his wife, or he’s heard the news that he’ll be the next CEO of a major international company, or the doctor calls him in for the results of his tests, or he’s standing in the empty rooms of the house he’s just sold before emigrating to New Zealand, or his wife’s left him – and so on and so on. And, at one of these extremes, he hears the song, or another song that triggers the memory of his mother’s voice.
I know it’s not an original thought. Noel Coward, after all, wrote ‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is’ (which, by the way, isn’t as well expressed as it might be; ending the quip with ‘is’ weakens it. The sentence should be reconfigured to climax with ‘cheap music’). There were also those powerful plays and films by Dennis Potter which made fantastic use of many old standards. But in this case, it was the juxtaposition of a moment of exquisite security and loving with perhaps some future turmoil that set me thinking about how the narratives of our lives are far more subtle and textured than many of the fictions we find so entertaining.
It was a powerful sensation, and it stayed with me over the next few days. I think I was planning to use it in a story. But then, along came one of our archetypal British absurdities – the Queen’s Speech. For those of you unfamiliar with the rituals, here’s a brief summary.
Queen arrives, puts on special robes and imperial crown, goes into the Lords and says ‘My Lords, pray be seated". Then she nods at the Lord Great Chamberlain to fetch the House of Commons. The LGC lifts his wand (seriously, his wand) to signal to Black Rod (don’t ask) to go and get them. Off he trots (with a police inspector who says "Hats off, Strangers!" to everyone they pass en route). As he gets near to the doors to the Chamber of the Commons, they’re slammed in his face. He has to knock three times with his staff (the Black Rod), and then they let him in.
|Image from Wkipedia|
Oh, that’s enough. I can’t go on. At least the MPs are wearing normal clothes. Everyone else is in breeches, gold stuff, silly hats. It’s embarrassing. And as I was watching all these (apparently) important people doing very silly things, the contrast of this charade with the intensity and reality of personal experiences struck me very forcibly. I know that many of my fellow-citizens find these ceremonies admirable and lots of non-UK residents envy us the traditions and so on, but how grotesque that people who make binding decisions about going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, who pontificate on the global financial crisis, Syria, and Ukraine, and who are responsible for legislation on health, education, crime, poverty and everything else which governs our lives have to behave like Widow Twankey.
Some of reality’s fictions really do stretch belief and that ‘starry, starry night’ drifting through the darkness is in a different realm of truth from the pomp, circumstance and ermine robes of our lords, masters (and a tiny sprinkling of ladies).