Starry, Starry Night.

by Bill Kirton

Image from Wikipedia
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 Glasgow 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.

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).


Nick Green said…
That song would be Don Maclean's 'Vincent', right? A wonderful song indeed. But something of a melancholy choice for a bedtime tune, I can't help feeling. Always brings a lump to my throat, anyway.
Kathleen Jones said…
I'm with you on this - what others see as 'Parliamentary historical tradition' I see as absurdity. It's lost the original meaning and become a pantomime. But then, I'm a republican, so should probably be hung drawn and quartered for treason!!
Bill Kirton said…
I agree, Nick, but it's a lovely song (and I'm not sure it necessarily has the melancholy connotations it holds for adults).

I'm a paid-up Republican, too, Kathleen. Along the bottom of my study window there's a wee banner 'END THE ROYAL FARCE'. It doesn't seem to be working.
Lydia Bennet said…
lovely story about your daughter singing - I used to sing to mine a lot and I often personalised or changed the lyrics to suit, though I doubt this one would sound sad to a child even as is. While I'm not a royalist at all,and don't consider myself anyone's 'subject', the way things are going now in the UK makes the argument seem unimportant, compared with the damage being done to the fabric of our country and welfare state by the con-dems, so people can dress up as daft as they like!
Bill Kirton said…
Couldn't agree more, Lydia. Trouble is, until everyone sees the absurdities of those outdated ideas of hierarchies 'legitimised' by accidents of birth and the unearned deference on which they insist there's little point talking about equality. I like babies and usually try to make them laugh by making funny faces and noises. No chance of that working, though, if I'm having to bow first.
Nick Green said…
I actually quite like having a hereditary head of state who doesn't wield real power. It blocks off that position, so no-one else can occupy it. It keeps the PM from being revered and fawned over, as US presidents often are.

I'd deal with a long queue of bankers and oligarchs long before my guillotine was free to tackle the royal family.
Dennis Hamley said…
I have to say that, though I view the Royal Family and all the attendant flummery as a sometimes charming, usually infuriating irrelevancy, I tend to agree with Nick.'Always keep a-hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse.' Wise words, I, on the whole, I think.

But the remembered song at a crucial event is not just a beautiful literary gambit which I've used myself but a potent image of memory and loss. Yes, what are the many levels of truth? I've been thinking a lot about that recently and it will be a staple of my next AE blog.
Kathleen Jones said…
Nick - a lot of people think like you 'the Royal head of state has no power', well, think again. In reality they have a great deal of power which is by tradition (a gentleman's agreement) wielded by the Prime Minister and the Privy Council. A great deal of controversial legislation by-passes Parliament and is passed by Order in Council, signed by the Queen. This is a democratic outrage and it's time everyone knew about it. The Queen/King could legally at any time decide to wield this power for themselves as we have no proper constitution. That's why I'm a republican! At least you can vote a president out. And some of the southern Irish ones have been quite nice:-)

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