An Old Man and some People

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The first of my radio plays to be broadcast, long, long ago, was called An Old Man and Some People. And I think its genesis provides a good answer to the question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’

The main substance of it came from an incident which happened when we were at some friends’ for dinner. They lived in a house on an estate to which new houses were still being added. We’d finished an excellent meal and there was a knock at the door. It was a policeman asking whether the grey Citroën outside belonged to any of us. It was mine.

The policeman was very polite. He just wanted me to park the car around the corner off the main road. Apparently, the night watchman on the building site had ‘reported’ it. God knows why. There were no yellow lines or anything. In fact, he was just doing his job. But when the policeman left, I was angry. I was all for going out and telling the man what I thought of him. It didn’t help that our hosts tutted and said he was a nosy old bugger.

But the following day – sober, of course – I was ashamed of the way I’d felt. I was young, having a good time, eating great food and swallowing litres of wine in those absurd drink-driving days. He was old, alone, stuck in a hut on a building site. And I wanted to have a go at him. I disgusted me.

Then, a month or so later, I was looking through some newspaper cuttings. I clip out things which seem out of the ordinary, absurd, sad or anything which makes them stand out. This one was in the tragic category. A man was accused of the manslaughter of his wife. She’d been terminally ill for a while and was always asking him to finish her off to stop the pain. He couldn’t do it. Then, one day, she fell and was just lying there, so he took a pillow and held it over her face. Then he phoned the police and told them he’d killed her. The irony was that he was acquitted because the autopsy showed that his wife was already dead before he held the pillow to her face.

That awful image of the poor man, after months of suffering, ‘suffocating’ his wife’s body had haunted me but I’d put the cutting with the rest and forgotten about it. But now, suddenly, by making it a part of my night watchman’s past, I had a play which wasn’t just a petty subjective record of my unreasonable anger and consequent shame, but something which worked at a different level. Contrasting the relative levels of his deep suffering with the triviality of my childish petulance made its resonance far greater, its conclusions less facile. It might now constitute a play which involved listeners at a deeper level.

As I said, it was the first play I had broadcast. I still think it was possibly the best I ever wrote, too. I also realise now that it begs another question. What’s the morality of me using a true, tragic story to give substance to my writing? That’s not an easy one to answer. By writing the play, I may simply have compounded my guilt.

Writing: work, rest, and fun.

One of the (many) benefits of operating in an online world is that you leave a record of your opinions, attitudes, beliefs and all the other stuff that you’ve felt over the years. For someone who’s as bad at keeping records as I am, that’s invaluable. (There are plenty of disadvantages to being online, too, of course, but that’s for another blog.)

For example, it was reassuring, when I came across an interview I did 10 years ago, to find that my thoughts about writing haven’t changed a bit since then. I’m not claiming they’re profound or unique, just that they’re consistent, and I do seem to believe in them.

I noted, for instance, that writing was (is) a compulsion. I love spending time with my family, watching sport or good films on TV, wood carving, sailing, growing stuff, and doing all sorts of other social things, but writing is also part of work and rest and fun for me. As well as creating fictions, it helps to articulate things I might sense without really understanding. Putting feelings, beliefs (or lack of beliefs) into words gives them clarity, substance. That’s never felt like a chore.

And my approach to it hasn’t varied since the earliest days. When I start a project – big or small – I know overall where I want to be heading. There’s an issue I want to address, a character I want to explore, an anger I want to externalize, a remark I want someone to make – all sorts of things provide a starting point. So I have a notion of what the tone of the writing will be and maybe of some major turning point I intend to reach.

But then, as the fiction begins to build, it’s the characters who take over to a fairly large extent. They lead the narrative in directions which often surprise me. They add details I hadn’t suspected were there and, in the process, they force me to adapt my original intention.

It’s still the same basic drive and the purpose remains relatively unchanged, but the way in which I convey it is coloured by what my characters allow me to do. When it comes to rewriting, I correct some of the wilder fancies they’ve had and bring them back within the scope of the book but the process from conception to delivery (sorry to use a gynaecological image but, as a man, it’s the closest I ever get to having a baby) is organic, unstable.

However long the novel, until the final version is delivered to the publisher or uploaded to Kindle or IngramSpark, all it has is potential.  If I started with a rigid notion of its shape, I’d be inhibiting that.

In fact, the only time I did that was with a radio play. I was very keen to maintain a specific set of images, so I made the characters do exactly what was necessary to achieve that. After the broadcast, a well-known critic reviewed the play in a respectable journal. His review began ‘This is a tiresome play about tiresome people.’ He was right.

Earning thousands of pounds for my scribbling would be nice, appreciative reviews and comments from readers are very satisfying, but the truly constant pleasure is the absorption I get in the process itself. I get lost in it, and yet all I seem to be is a witness to things said and done by a bunch of people who don’t really exist until a reader lets them.

Beats ‘reality’ any day.

Art and reality

I once wrote a blog about theatre being a collaborative process. Of course it is, that’s obvious. But I want to take the idea of collaboration a little further. I said then that I thought the director had much more power in movies or TV plays than in the theatre and, consequently, the writer’s role was overshadowed. But there’s so much more to it than that.

In a chapter of a book about writing which I co-wrote with Kathleen McMillan, we drew a parallel between editing film and editing text. The relevant passage runs as follows:

‘It’s like the process of editing film or video; a scene is shot from various angles, favouring different perspectives, emphasizing different aspects of what’s happening but, in the edit suite, the material is reviewed, selections are made and then spliced together to create a fluid ‘real’ representation of events. The editor creates a ‘reality’ on the screen which never actually happened as a single episode. As a writer, you want to create the same sense of flow, blend selected pieces of the information you’ve collected into a single, coherent sequence, create your own, unique written ‘reality’.’

If you’ve never been involved in making a movie, this totally artificial ‘reality’ it creates is puzzling. On the screen you see, for example, a woman reach for her scarf and have difficulty tying it round her neck because she’s so angry with her partner. She’s shouting at him and tells him that he must either spend more time with her or she’ll leave him.

Then she grabs her car keys from the table and goes out, slamming the door behind her. There are probably cutaway shots of the partner, attempts at bits of dialogue from him. There may also be some other element – visual or aural – that’s in the scene to symbolise something or maybe hint at a shared memory or a harbinger of something sinister waiting to happen.

The important thing in connection with the point I’m making here is that what you see as a single sequence never happened, so the reality it’s offering is a lie. Having to set the camera up in different places to highlight the different characters and objects involved takes several minutes, even days – but the editor cuts it together and what we see is a seamless scene lasting maybe 20 seconds.

But then, we’re judging its reality by the way it mirrors what we see around us – people slamming doors, having a row, fumbling with items of clothing. It’s just a straightforward picture of it. And yet it’s not, because the editor and director will have cut the scene to suit their purposes.

Maybe they want you to dislike the woman, or maybe they suggest that the argument she’s having is simply a cover for something else, or perhaps the two characters are being manipulated by someone or something outside their awareness. And so, as we watch, we’re being manipulated too; our judgement is being deliberately compromised so we become accomplices of the director …

… just as our readers become our accomplices when it comes to the written word, because this process of creating a seeming ‘reality’ out of disparate incidents and actions is even stranger in prose fiction. Let’s just take one example from the scene I’ve been describing. We’ll make it as basic as possible and write:

‘Samantha grabbed her scarf and walked to the door.’

OK, so how many actions does she perform? Two, you cry – ‘grab’ and ‘walk’. But wait, didn’t she maybe look at the scarf? Reach towards it? OK, four then.

But she must have opened and closed her fingers too, so six. And the more you break the sequence down, the more the actions multiply. So much so that, in the end, the simple act of reaching for the scarf requires an infinite number of steps as neurons fire in the brain, amino acids do what they need to do to provide the fuel which energises the muscles, the lungs take in oxygen, the heart pumps the blood to where it’s needed, nerve endings relay messages that contact has been made with the material, etc., etc.

In other words, what we describe and perceive as one fluid, meaningful action consists of millions of sub-routines without which the whole edifice crumbles.

But such detailed analysis would be unreadable and is, obviously, unnecessary – because we collaborate with the writer. We’re grateful to him/her for breaking infinite complexity down into a couple of distinct, apprehendable movements.

But, again, we’re being manipulated because not only does the writer reduce the action count, he/she chooses the words to convey them. If I write ‘water’ you might think of oceans, a tap (or faucet), a bath, a kettle, a cup of tea, a pond, a river, a shower. But the more I qualify it, the more I restrict the interpretations available to you – ‘running water’, ‘hot running water’, ‘a bloodstained copper tube from which hot running water spewed into the stagnant, viscous residues at the bottom of the pit’. Hmm, so bang goes your cup of tea.

Art is artifice and yet it produces realities far more profound and affecting than most of those around us. As I keep saying to myself and repeating to anyone who reads my blogs, it’s a joy to be doing something that lets us pretend there are meanings and significance somewhere and even to create our own. Isn’t it great that, out of scraps of experience which we’ve woven together in our little room, we can make someone in Brazil, Australia, Canada or anywhere feel an actual emotion? Once again, it’s that mystical, intimate, one to one connection that’s so fundamental to the reader/writer dialogue. It’s the reality of fiction.