The left-handed writer

So. I have a couple of poems going up in an exhibition at the Catalyst Festival. Grand. But the organisers also wanted a bit of blurb about ‘why I write’.

That paralysed me. Why do I write? Flippin’ heck. It doesn’t help that I have always found this sort of meta-writing difficult (I don’t like writing press-releases or advertising text either). Some authors write books about why they write (and maybe someone, somewhere has written a book about why they wrote a book about why they write), but, honestly, I can’t be bothered with that.

I don’t want the grim wisecrack, in the style of Doug Stanhope (‘I’m Doug Stanhope and that’s why I drink’). Nor do I want the weirdly worthy: for example David (and Leigh) Eddings:

The field of fantasy has always been of interest to him, however, and he turned to The Belgariad in an effort to develop certain technical and philosophical ideas concerning that genre.

(I have loved that sentence for over thirty years.)

I was stuck. Then, on a train, away from the interwebs, I thought I might as well try one of the techniques I recommend to other people: five minutes’ free writing. I opened a new text document in FoldingText (because there is no possibility of wasting time with formatting) and started typing.

It worked. The first few sentences were gibberish, but quite soon I got something worth developing. What I ended up with is manifesto-y, but I think it is an adequate answer. Here it is.

Why does anyone write? Dr Johnson said no one but a fool wrote except for money. So, I write out of folly. I write out of ignorance, to find out what I think. I write out of excitement: when the big idea wasp buzzes around my head the best way to be rid of it is to pin it to the page. I write because sometimes, very, very rarely, I think I might have something worth saying. I write with an excess of hope, but no expectation of success. I write as peacock and as ostrich. I write out of fear, because if I stop the writing I might disappear. I write because I have something even more difficult to do. I write because the world keeps giving things to write about. I write because I can’t draw, paint, sing or dance.

Radio playing

20160507-100850.jpg So. I went to Alphabetti Theatre to see Frank Sumatra by Mike Yeaman, which the publicity described as being performed in the style of a radio play. (As an aside – if I needed any encouragement for that – if you are in the North East of England go to Alphabetti. It’s a shoe-string operation which does great theatre in a basement.) It was a great evening with a funny, well-performed piece, which left me thinking about the radio play format.

In my teens I listened to a lot of radio drama: adaptations of Dorothy L Sayers detective stories, half-hour comedies, proper plays. I even tried writing them myself. (My early 70’s play about a plane hijacking – very topical then – used a hoover for the sound of an aeroplane taking off: that was before I got my first cassette recorder.) Despite all that listening I haven’t thought about them very much: so here goes.

The first and obvious thing about radio plays is that you can present any scenario you want, provided you can present a realistic soundscape. You can do things you can’t do on stage or in film without a massive budget. In Frank Sumatra, Frank was an orang-utang, four months old at the start at the play and fully grown by the end: eat your heart out Richard Linklater.

Beyond even Frank are the Goon Shows, which used the freedom of the format to create astonishing sound images: a rabid Christmas pudding terrorising people; a man travelling in a crate (Eccles: ‘Ah this is the life, being nailed up in a crate and carried across Africa’); a canvas tent with an upstairs.

Why does that work? My current idea is that radio draws on our experience of oral storytelling: it is a step beyond Charles Dickens giving readings from his work, but still on the same path. In the same way as our friend giving us the ‘he said, she said’ of their day, the radio play invites our engagement with a vocal story. We have to put ourselves in the path of the play.

The second thing I noticed was the treatment of time. The radio play, like the novel (and the TV advert) can make huge temporal jumps: ten seconds of a Frank Sinatra song and the characters in Frank Sumatra have conceived, carried and given birth to a child. Brilliant. And no need for a nine months later caption. The story-telling roots permit the leaps in time, which the more visual presentation of theatre and film balk at.

The more I think of it, the more interesting the format becomes, even without the additional layering of the live stage performance of Frank Sumatra (and, in its first incarnation Anomalisa). I might have to give it a shot myself.

The nature is back

Probably not the same deer

The nature is back. Not that it has ever entirely gone away. The fieldmice which live in the drystone wall in the front garden have become more enthusiastic about our house again. They have been wandering about the kitchen, the hall, the lounge and my study.

The one in the study was making a terrible clatter behind the Welsh dresser. Then the noise stopped and a hazel nut rolled out from behind it. I waited and a mouse scampered out after it, disappearing under the bookcase. A minute later the mouse reappeared carrying the hazel nut with that same curve of the back as the squirrel in the Ice Age films. I let it carry its booty into the dark of the hall.

I think they are getting in through the air bricks at the back of the house then romping under the floors, popping out where they choose. (A couple of years ago I found one of an earlier generation of mice stuck in one of those airbricks: a pair of very dead back legs poking out. The answer is long-nosed pliers lightly clamped around the pelvis and a gentle, steady pull.) I am going to have to put some mesh across the openings.

A larger visitor was the grey heron which occasionally lumbers in to check out next door’s fish pond. It didn’t stay very long this time; put off perhaps by the plastic herons (less than life size) they have stationed around the edge of the pond. I am always astonished that something that big can get into the sky: it reminds me of propeller transport aircraft lumbering into the sky.

And then there were the unfamiliar birds, a bit bigger than a sparrow, with green wings and a red splodge on the head. They were hanging upside down from the spindly branches of the silver birch among the light brown precursors of the leaves (rats, now need to know what is going on with those). I had to look those up. Turns out they were greenfinches: I would have called them red finches, as that was the most distinctive part of their colouring.

Finally, I was cycling along the lane that runs beside the golf course. I slowed to overtake a pedestrian. As I passed, she pointed toward the golf course. There, to my right, was a deer loping along the nearest fairway. It was cantering roughly the same speed as I was cycling, so we traveled in parallel for a hundred yards or so. Then the lane swung to the right. The deer burst through the hedge and onto the lane, coming face to face with me. It stopped dead, turned and went back through the hedge. I thought it had had enough of a fright, so I cycled on, still very excited at having been only a few yards from a deer.

And even more finally, a couple of days later, a stoat scuttled across the road in front of my bicycle wheel. At least, I think it was a stoat.

I don’t go looking for these encounters, they happen as I go about my day, but each one of them – even the mice – give me a lift. They remind me that despite our self-obsession, we are not the only species on the planet, and that all the stuff that goes on in my head may not, in the end, be all that important.