Monday, 17 June 2019

When is something out of date? by Elizabeth Kay

Times change far more quickly than they did in the past. Honest. It’s not just my age, although it does seem as though only yesterday that we had mobile phones the size of bricks. If you’re writing children’s fiction, the vocabulary mutates with an alarming rapidity, and the technology does too. Unless you’ve opted for the safe haven of fantasy or historical fiction, yesterday’s electronic device is as extinct as a plesiosaurus. This applies to adult fiction as well, of course. What self-respecting criminal wouldn’t use a drone, or a burner phone? What detective would ignore social media or digital photography? What police force wouldn’t employ the cast of Silent Witness? Oh, hang on, that’s fiction. Real forensic science is ahead of that, and it’s as well to keep some of it secret. Terrorists are well aware that you need double pairs of gloves these days, and murderers know you need to keep your DNA about your person rather than scattered around the crime scene.
           I was having a clear-out, and glancing through a lot of old short stories, some published, some unpublished. And what struck me about all of them was how dated they seemed. What is the cut-off point, when something stops being yesterday’s news and becomes social history? I have had elderly students in the past, nearly always men, who were perfectly competent writers but were seemingly unaware that an absence of mobile phones in a story set in the present needs to be explained. Morals have changed, too, and not just those connected with the LGBT community. Common politeness is a surprise when you encounter it, honesty on CVs outright foolishness. Go back a few decades (but don’t forget to flag this up), and we accept that this isn’t real life any more, and needs to be taken in context. For female writers, it seems to be more a question of body image and lifestyle. Sixty years ago magazines told you how to put on eye-liner and starch your petticoats, but cosmetic surgery and the latest diet were minority interests. But sixty years ago is history now, and there’s a certain curiosity about a world where people wrote letters, made calls from phone boxes and used maps.
            I think something feels dated when it appears to be set in the present (especially if it’s written in the present tense) but feels wrong. Current preoccupations are not those of thirty years ago. Everything has become more extreme, led by what we watch on television, what we play on the computer, and what we see on social media. There is a lot more violence. And I mean a lot. Thirty years ago we were all agonising about how much sex we should see, and whether gay scenes were quite the thing. No one bats an eyelid these days – and sex seems to be a declining interest. It just can’t compete with social media, which requires far less physical effort. Violence, on the other hand, has become far more inventive and cruel and frequently very graphic. I tend to switch off.
            I like to set things in the near future, predicting what might come to pass. But beware. Books like that date very quickly. I set my novel, Missing Link, twenty-five years in the future when I wrote it. It’s about an imaginary TV show which features two guests who have never met before. A ‘heaven or hell’ link between them is revealed – either something wonderful, such as a windfall or a long-lost relative, or something appalling, like a false identity or a scandal. The presenter decides he’s had enough of dumbed-down TV, and decides to make a programme so shocking that it will be taken off the air and the series scrapped. Reality TV and Jeremy Kyle weren’t around. But the book was rejected over and over again with comments such as: This would never happen, it’s too awful. And: Unrealistic. Television is more responsible than this. It was eventually published ten years ago, as soon as crucifying people in front of the cameras became mainstream. It’s old hat now. My other little venture into the future was to do with modern art, once again in a story I wrote twenty years earlier. It was called Retrospective, and was a winner of The London Writing Competition in 1998; it was published in a book called Does the Sun Rise over Dagenham? As usual, I was trying to go that bit further than real life – but blow me, the same year Chris Ofili won the Turner Prize with his pictures executed in elephant dung…

The narrator in my story works for an art dealer.

…We humans deal with investments here. Buying and selling really modern works of art, and making a tidy profit in the process. We’ve got quite a few of the big names – Tadeusz Twardowski, who paints with body fluids; Roland Spickett, the one who uses microscopes and bacteria, and Donald Barnes. Donald Barnes was the really big money-spinner with his series on toenail clippings, and the fact that he’d died of a heart attack the previous week had made him worth considerably more. Cranford Smith (my employer) always held back plenty of pieces in the warehouse so that he could make a killing after a death. Sound economic sense, really…
I loaded up Toenail Clipping number 43 with London Clay to see what it looked like. It was a remarkably faithful portrayal, with the little twist at the end of the clipping smeared with grey. The Third World ones have sold the best, with the one encrusted with oil-soaked sand fetching a quarter of a million. ‘This tragic reconstruction of human debris is a powerful comment on the sharp practice employed by the shoe industry in under-developed countries’, was what one leading newspaper had said, and although a rival paper had come back with‘Donald ducks the issue’, the first observation stuck. Donald became known as an extremely serious exponent of the New Organic School of painting, and his prices rocketed.
I never quite knew how seriously Cranford viewed his work, however. Sincerity wasn’t Cranford’s strongest suit, although he was very well regarded by the critics and regularly appeared on Spot The Forgery. He had all the right phrases on the tip of his tongue and that’s half the battle, isn’t it, whatever field you’re in.

And that’s the problem. The right phrases won’t be the right phrases any more in twenty years’ time. And the technology will be the stuff of science fiction!

Thursday, 13 June 2019

I had a dream.... by Alex Marchant

I had a dream...

No, not a Martin Luther King sort of dream (sadly), just an ordinary sort of one, a few nights ago. But it set me thinking on a subject I’ve thought about a few times before. The connection between dreams and the imagination of a writer.

A couple of months ago one of the questions put to me in an interview about my writing asked, ‘Do you rely more on dreams, imagination, or planning?’ That was something of a surprise to me – that ‘dreams’ appeared in that list, let alone at the start.

My answer was that I wouldn’t say I rely on them, but dreams have fed in to my writing at important times. Particularly those ‘between sleeping and waking’ types of dreams (one of which was responsible for my short story ‘The Beast of Middleham Moor’ that led to the charity anthology Grant Me the Carving of My Name).

On this occasion, the other day, just before falling asleep I had been reading through some of the submissions for Right Trusty and Well Beloved..., the follow-up to Grant Me the Carving. All the stories and poems have in some way been inspired by King Richard III, and many submitted to both collections have a certain melancholy air (given the huge tragedies he experienced in his short life). For the first anthology – a result of direct requests to authors I already knew – I decided to offer a token of balance by including a very short, but happy extract from my own book The Order of the White Boar (depicting an Easter egg roll won by Richard and his little son, just before his life begins to fall apart, also found here). This time, with the submissions invited in an open competition, a balance should be easier to achieve – but the matter was obviously to the forefront of my mind as I fell asleep.

I had also spent the day copyediting a fascinating academic book on North American archaeology. Perhaps it will therefore come as no surprise that in the small hours of the night I dreamed about writing a rather magnificent piece of flash fiction – one in which a group of Native Americans come together to refute, once and for all, William Shakespeare’s propagandistic portrayal of King Richard as an evil, child-murdering, hunchbacked tyrant.

Image may contain: one or more people
Off to play lacrosse - or to defend Richard III...
This may seem a rather unlikely proposition now. But in the wee hours, don’t you ever awake in the middle of a dream and think ‘that was the best idea ever for a book’? Maybe you lie there, thinking back over what you can remember – perhaps snatching at those wisps of the dream before they dissipate into what passes for us as reality. I don’t imagine I’m the only writer who always has to have a notebook and pen by the bed to catch those ideas, just in case. Sometimes it may be just part of an idea, a solution perhaps to an issue that’s been bothering me, rather than a fully fledged plotline. 

This time, I lay there thinking back through the words I had dreamed, seen written (on parchment was it?) in a beautiful flowing script. My initial impulse – to switch the light on and grab my notebook and pen – gradually receded as the words themselves did. And I finally gave up the notion of trying to grasp them before they disappeared. Because surely – surely? – they really weren’t that magnificent?

 I guess I’ll never actually know. The memory of dreams fades so quickly – not only at my age (when Sherlock Holmes’ ‘mind palace’ has, for me, become more like a tiny trinket box where I can keep only the most precious items), but throughout my life. Is that the same for everyone? Some dreams may stay with you for a long time – such as the one when I ‘woke up’ at the noise of an intruder breaking in, only to actually wake up (gratefully) during the subsequent pursuit by said dreamed intruder (years before the film ‘Inception’ was made) – but I think most are soon lost. The one that led to ‘The Beast’ solidified into that short story, another is still awaiting transfer from the notebook where the idea was scribbled one night into the bestselling YA science fiction novel of the 2020s (maybe). 

What have been your experiences as either a writer or a reader? Have dreams led to fiction written? Or has fiction read led to dreams... lived?

Alex is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, the first set largely in Yorkshire, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name, an anthology of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A further anthology, Right Trusty and Well Beloved..., is planned for later this year.

Alex's books can be found on Amazon at:

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Lost and Found by Bronwen Griffiths

I picked up a copy of Elena Ferrante’s book, The Lost Daughter last week. I have no idea how close this novel is to Ferrante’s real life but that really doesn’t matter because what resonated with me was its honesty and candidness. That’s what we are looking for when we read a new book. Not just something new in terms of story and plot but something which speaks to us. As a writer – just as it is in everyday life- it’s hard to be open and honest. Unless you are a psychopath, you are likely, just as I am, to be consumed by anxiety, guilt, envy, and a host of other sins. None of us like to admit to these. And we judge, don’t we? We judge other people’s appearance and behaviour and we think we are better than others - or much worse. Often we swing between insecurity and over-confidence and most of us harbour secrets which we are afraid of revealing in case we are judged – or worse – abandoned by our loved ones. This is what it means to be human.

Ferrante’s short novel is, at its heart, a story about the complexities of motherhood. The mixed emotions we have about our children. The way we can love them but resent them. Ferrante explores the worst and best of our humanity. She does it without fanfare. She reveals our human frailties and strengths, our ability to love and our ability to hate.

We can learn from Ferrante in our writing - learn to take more risks with what we write about and how we write it. We know when we are not being genuine – either to ourselves or others. It’s the same with writing. If we are not being honest and open on the page, it shows. The writing becomes dull. It lacks sparkle. This is why it’s important to get into the heads of our characters. We need to know their deepest secrets, their strengths and weaknesses otherwise our characters are mere words. Cardboard cut-outs. Cliches. But in order to create characters that ‘sing’ on the page we need to go deep inside ourselves. We must be honest about our own motivations, weaknesses, strengths, and passions.

We are also afraid of being judged. Should I write about this or this? What if I offend someone? Do I know enough about this subject? All this gets in the way of our writing. But equally we shouldn’t just write for shock value because that’s not honest writing either.

 I have a new book of fiction out later this month - 'flashes' of my childhood based on growing up in a village in North Worcestershire in the 1960's. Not everything that happened in the book is ‘true’ in the sense of absolute fact. The truth lies in the emotions, in my feelings looking back now as an adult. My brother remembers different things about our lives together. That doesn’t make his account untrue. My experiences are filtered through my memories and emotions, not his. What matters is being true to my experience on the page. This is not journalism where facts matter. 

Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two novels and a book of short stories about the war in Syria. Her new book of flash fiction/memoir, Listen with Mother, will be published later this month by Silverhill Press, Hastings.  

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

An Unexpected Book of Stories: Misha Herwin

My little red address book has finally fallen to pieces. I’ve carried in my bag for years and now the pages are coming loose, the letters down the side curling up at the corners so it is harder and harder to find what I am looking for.
Time for a new book and it will have to be a real one. I can’t trust so much information to a phone that might get lost, or stolen, or decide to give up the ghost. I don’t mind using my mobile as back up, but I’m not going to rely on it as my only source.
I already have a new book. Slim and brightly striped, it’s waiting in a drawer. But I am curiously reluctant to get rid of the old one.
To start with, it was a present from Karen. Seeing the state of my previous one, she gave it to me as a replacement, so there is a sentimental reason for not letting it go. There’s also the practical one of having to transfer all those names and addresses and this is where it becomes interesting, because this little book is a mine of stories.
Flicking through its pages I am reminded of people I no longer see. Colleagues I used to work with, contacts that proved not as useful as I might have hoped, schools where I did workshops or taught.
Much more poignant are the friends I’ve lost contact with. People like Barbara, who helped me through the worst time of my life and who then moved away. We sent cards, I emailed, rang, tried to set up a meeting, but her sons have immigrated to Thailand, she spent a lot of her time there and somehow there never was a right moment for meeting up.
Then there are family members and friends who have died. Their addresses are crossed through. Just reading through some of these brings back memories of a London flat, or bungalow beside the sea.
Not all changes of address are sad. Some chart the good times in life, like those of my son and my daughter, who have moved from rented flats to homes of their own. Children of friends have married, or set up home together. Friends have re-married and bought new houses with their new partner. Even a divorce has heralded a new and happier life.
Would all this history still be there on my phone? I doubt it. An old address would be deleted to make room for the new. So gradually, bit by bit, I’m copying the relevant information from the little red book to the sparkling new stripy one and allowing myself a wander back through my past as I do.  

Monday, 10 June 2019

On Revision | Karen Kao

Revision is an ugly word among writers. It means that what you’ve written is no good and you know it. It may mean that you’ll have to start fresh, over and over, the way J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings. Or maybe you need to dig a whole new tunnel to enter your story. Whatever form of revision you’re contemplating, you know this for sure. You're not going to be done any time soon.

I’m in the process of revising my novel manuscript for Peace Court. For better or for worse, I revise the Tolkien way. It’s a page one rewrite, a step off a cliff, a fumbling toward a vision of a novel I can just barely see.

The fact that I’ve started revision at all is a huge moral victory. You see, in order to revise, you first have to overcome rage and fear.


On Rage

The rage comes from feeling misunderstood. You project that rage onto all those stupid readers who question your authorial authority or don’t get your cunning references. Rage is for arrogant writers like me whose work needs no improvement.

That rage hangs around for quite a long time until, inevitably, it turns inward. Call it self-loathing. Self-loathing gives you 20/20 vision. You can see all the manifold ways in which your manuscript truly sucks.

Now is the time when doubt creeps in. You suspect (and not for the first time) that you don’t know what you’re doing. Perhaps you never did. Getting stuck in a manuscript is exactly like walking into quicksand. You know you shouldn’t flail and yet you do.

The worst thing about this internal rage is how very quietly it sneaks up on you. Alice Munro knows how that feels.
I could be writing away one day and think I’ve done very well; I’ve done more pages than I usually do. Then I get up the next morning and realize I don’t want to work on it anymore. When I have a terrible reluctance to go near it, when I would have to push myself to continue, I generally know that something is badly wrong.
— Alice Munro, “The Art of Fiction No. 137”, Paris Review, Issue 131, Summer 1994. Accessed 30 Jan 2019


On Fear

Fear lives just around the corner from self-loathing. The fear of abandoning this manuscript. The fear of abandoning writing altogether. The problem with all these fears is that there are very good reasons for them.

First, the bar is impossibly high. James Baldwin wants every writer to produce “sentences as clean as a bone.” Junot Diaz, in his role as fiction editor of the Boston Review, wants:
fiction in which a heart struggles against itself, in which the messy unmanageable complexity of the world is revealed. Sentences that are so sharp they cut the eye.
— Writer Guidelines & Submissions, Boston Review. Accessed 28 Oct 2015.
Second, no one can agree on what is good writing. For every writer who offers a signpost to success, there is at least one other writer ready to point in the opposite direction. So when a fellow writer reads my novel manuscript and says my narrative voice is all muddled, I begin to despair.


On Hope

Then hope shows up in unlikely places. A newsletter lands in my inbox, spam I suppose. It contains an article on free indirect speech. Lo and behold, I find in that piece, not only a description of the kind of narrator I’m trying to create, but also tips on how to make that narrator work better.

I attend a lecture by a visiting author, Jennifer Clement, who talks about her own revision process. Once the shape of her novel is more or less clear, she sits down to draw a map. Here is the trailer park and there is the school. Then she draws a family tree to see all the many ways in which her characters interconnect. She may cut some or fold others. Clement maps her novels in the most literal sense of that term.

It’s not that I’m looking for revision strategies so much as I’m trying to muster the courage to start again. Because I know that this revision won’t be the last one. When my new draft is finished, the whole process starts again: the rage, the fear and, if I’m lucky, the hope, too.

Alice Munro knows this drill. Stuck writers are not happy campers. We beat our head against a brick wall. We snarl at our significant other for daring to breathe while you’re thinking. Then, while you’re in the dairy aisle at the grocery store fingering the butter, your great epiphany comes to you. You’re saved.

Or not.
I don’t even know if it makes the story better. What it does is make it possible for me to continue to write.
— Alice Munro,” The Art of Fiction No. 137″
That’s revision: finding the will to keep on writing.

Note: When this blog post was first published in February 2019 on my blog Shanghai Noir, I had just started the long slog of revision. I'm happy to say that I survived the process.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Cold War Child: hearing what wasn't said by Julia Jones

Peter Duck approaching Bawdsey
early 1960s
I was trying to reach the Bawdsey Radar Museum. A long planned visit – part of my background research for Pebble (volume six in the ‘Strong Winds’ series). I was impatient to arrive. Too impatient?

I took a wrong turning. A gate was open that should have been closed. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I was inside some chain-link fencing and driving up a poorly maintained road. The brick-built bungalow to my left showed broken windows and missing slates. There were brambles. Unexplained structures in different stages of decay and dereliction. The grass was ragged. There were no signs.

I knew this wasn’t where I was meant to be. However modest the newly re-opened museum they would surely have put up a notice for visitors. I should stop and turn back.

perimeter fence
I went on.  Driving uphill towards the empty sky. As I neared the farthest edge of this wide space, I stopped my car beside a patch of concrete. If I were to walk a few metres further I’d reach the fence at the top of the cliff. I could look outward to the sea. Or I could look down and check whether the sandy slope was as orange and as friable as I remembered from the days I used to try and climb it as a child. It was an ascent to be made on all fours; feet sinking in to the crumbling surface; hands grasping at it, hoping to get hold of the shallow-rooted vegetation; staying low, trying not to think what would happen if I started to slip...

I got out of the car. Looked at the patch of concrete. Stepped onto it. Wondered about its function when this had been a working RAF base.

A young man in country clothes came hurrying across the grass. He told me the field was private. I shouldn’t be here. I must leave.

open gate
I didn’t want to. I began explaining how the gate had been open so I had just driven in. I was looking for the radar museum. My map had shown a left hand turning. That’s what I’d taken. It was an Open Day, I added. There’d be more people like me coming along soon.

This seemed to bother him. He explained that the gate shouldn’t have been open, except that there had been recent incidents of vandalism and he was waiting for a security firm. I felt a bit sorry for him but not entirely. Pleasant though he was he was determined to get rid of me and I wasn’t ready yet. I repeated the unwelcome information that there’d be lots of other people like me coming to the Open Day.

He said he needed to ring the owner but there wasn’t any mobile reception here. He’d have to go back down the hill.
"Good," I thought, meanly, "That gives me more time."
He told me again that I had to leave.
"Was this a missile base?" I asked him.
"Yes. There were some of them sited right here."
"Exactly where you’re standing. On that concrete base. I need to go and call the owner. You have to leave. Now."

I vacated the concrete as instantly as if I’d been standing on a grave. I went towards my car and he set off to wherever it was that he could use his mobile. I didn’t drive away at once. I fetched my camera and returned to the edge of that concrete base. But I didn’t step on it again and there was nothing to photograph. I knew that this was the place I had come to find. It wasn’t the radar station at all.

I was born about ten miles away, in Woodbridge, in 1954. A ‘baby boomer’. We were peacetime babies, taking our lives for granted, assuming that our world – whatever it was – was ‘normal’.  That was very far from true. Khrushchev was the General Secretary of the communist party in the USSR: Eisenhower, then Kennedy, were USA Presidents. The superpowers were in a state of dangerously escalating hostility. My generation were Cold War children and Britain, in George Orwell’s phrase, was Airstrip One.

Woodbridge, the small town in East Suffolk where I lived until I was 12 years old was a good place to explore on my bike, go to Scottish Dancing classes, sail on the River Deben with my parents and younger brothers on board Peter Duck, pester relentlessly for riding lessons. It was also ringed around by air bases, military research stations, listening posts and weapons.

I don’t think these were talked about much, in the civilian world. Not in front of the children anyway. My parents’ generation was post-war, post-traumatic. They might be talking about their experiences now, in their old age, (I’m writing this on June 6th, D-Day anniversary) but they weren’t saying anything then. They had put the past behind them, cleared the beaches, and were getting on with their lives; looking after us with love and to the best of their abilities. (Please allow me to generalise for a few lines longer.) We baby boomers are said to be a generation who grew up believing in progress and accepting our increasing affluence as if we had known nothing else. Fourteen years of food rationing ended in the year that I was born. The people who gave us this feeling of security and the space to focus on our own lives were those non-talkers, our parents. And also, perhaps, some of the people whose daily work they weren’t discussing.

It was quiet as I stood in the empty field beside the redundant missile site. Then, into that silence came a few unexpected memories that took me back into my 1950s self. They were sounds and with them came emotions; puzzlement and fear.

I am upstairs in my bedroom, looking out of the window as it wails above the town. Then I hear it again when I am somewhere near the railway station. I think it was a routine sound but why should this be? The war had ended nine years before I was born.

I know now that in some small towns the sirens were continued as a means of summoning volunteer firefighters –and I think that may have been their use in Woodbridge. In addition, thousands of World War 2 air raid sirens were retained across the country, in planned locations, to give warning in the event of nuclear war. They are still tested regularly in Plymouth dockyard in case of a accident with the submarines. The sound makes some dogs howl and, as a child, I would like to have howled as well. I remember vividly how it frightened me – even if it was routine.

Another sound that I hated as a child was the scream of fighter aircraft. Although RAF Bawdsey was primarily a research and radar station in the 1950s there were active fighter squadrons based much closer to home– at RAF Bentwaters, Woodbridge, and Martlesham Heath. My re-accessed memory is quite specific – I am alone in the garden when it comes – so I’ve used YouTube to search different jets of the period.  The sound that still gives me a cold shiver (though aircraft enthusiasts love it) is the distinctive ‘Blue Note’ of the Hawker Hunter.  It’s made by air passing over open gun ports. If you’re playing happily with your brother it’s possibly the sound you make by going ‘gnnnnnneouw’ as you roar past lifting your wingtips. If you’re on your own and get taken by surprise, it’s very scary.

Green Garlic
The RAF / USAF bases nearest Woodbridge didn’t have Hawker Hunters (as far as I can discover) in the 1950s. Bentwaters, for instance, was a USAF base with F101 supersonic voodoo jets which passed with such a whoosh that they were gone almost before you could look up. It’s possible that the Hawker Hunters came from the RAF base at Wattisham, twenty miles away, clocking up the surprisingly high number of flying hours that were needed to fulfil the pilots’ weekly quotas. All I can record is the heart-thudding effect they had on one small child if they caught her when she was alone.

Remembering heavy roar of bombers raises cold goosebumps though I’m not so able to place the memory. I think we were on or near the river and the sound was out to sea. RAF Sutton Heath (later RAF Woodbridge) had a specially extended runway so that Lancaster bombers limping back from war time raids across the North Sea could touch down on their last drops of fuel. A facility that had saved my oldest uncle (and his crew’s lives) as he navigated them home with an empty tank. But I’m sure I wasn’t told that story then.  I learn now that, when I was a 1950s child, there were regular low altitude practice bombings on the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Orfordness, some of them carried out from nearby RAF Martlesham, others from further away.

Orfordness, I thought as a child (and still think) was an eerie place. All we were told, as we came up the river on Peter Duck and landed at the Quay to visit the castle (treat for us) or the Jolly Sailor (treat for Dad) was that it was secret. Forbidden. No-one  allowed. So, as I watched the military landing craft regularly crossing from the Quay to the landing stage, I wondered who these people were who did go there – and what they went to do?  I’m sure I never asked. There was as much Don’t Ask as Don’t Tell in our way of living then.

RAF Bawdsey was a listening site in the 1950s (its missiles came later) – listening for whatever might be coming across, or down, the grey North Sea. It too was a forbidden place, emanating secretiveness and with sentries on the gate. From out at sea however, (or after a successful scramble up the cliff), there was no hiding the 4 x 350’ masts, retained in action after World War 2, nor the huge, much newer, AMES Type 80 (Green Garlic) unit that tipped and swivelled as it listened for the signals humans couldn’t hear. Who – or what – were they listening for? What did they fear? Whatever it was, it frightened me as well.

After I left the missile site that day, I did reach the
Radar Museum. There I met people (not from the 1950s but later) for whom RAF Bawdsey – and some other RAF stations – had been ‘normal’ places of work, who had stories to tell and explanations to give. I was glad of that.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Starry, Starry Night by Bill Kirton

I was intending to write about one thing when a second occurred to give the first a different perspective. That’s 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. That’s less so the case with novels because they develop in such a leisurely way that what may begin as two incidents soon multiplies into several.

Anyway, for some reason, I was remembering visiting my daughter and her two sons in Glasgow when they were little more than babies. Every night she used to read them a story and, when they were in bed, sing them a song. I’m not sure how often she’d change the song but the times I heard it it was ‘Starry, starry night’, or whatever the correct title is. She had a sweet voice, was 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.

And I think that’s the way the writing imagination works. Set up a scenario – a man has just had a 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 significantly – the sentence should 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.

And it was while I was wondering whether to make a blog of all that that we had an orange abomination of a visitor whose every utterance and action calls into question the sapiens bit of who we're supposed to be. But, before we allow our smugness to delude us too gravely, let's consider some of our own equally troubling idiosyncrasies. Take, for example, the absurd charade of 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.

OK, 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 thinking about all these (apparently) important people doing very silly things, the contrast with the intensity and reality of 'normal' personal experiences struck me very forcibly. I know that many fellow citizens as well as non-UK residents take pride in or envy us the traditions and so on but how absurd that people who (are failing to) take huge, serious decisions about health, education, crime, poverty and all the rest, and are even responsible for (theoretically at least) concocting the legislation needed to save the actual planet, have to take part in a pantomime.

Most of our regular, repetitive daily events are light years away from the apparent 'realities' that preoccupy our lords and masters (and a tiny sprinkling of ladies). And that simple, beautiful  ‘Starry, Starry Night’ drifting through the darkness is in a different realm of truth from their pomp, circumstance and ermine robes. Where the hell are our priorities nowadays?