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.