Monday, December 23, 2019

Unexpected Holiday


My wife reckoned I couldn't write this column without mentioning that I've had the 'flu - I don't know what she means. I reckoned I'd avoid mentioning Ruth Richardson.
As I write this I've had a blackout-of-brain for at least three days - an unusual event in case any wish to comment on that last statement. So I'm having to wing it a bit this week, since I find that dredging myself out of bed to write a column has been about the last thing my beleaguered body desired to do.
I hear that some people have managed to survive having this strain of 'flu for three weeks - remarkable! I couldn't make mine last much more than the aforesaid three days before I found myself back on normal household duties.
In fact, there was a great deal of unsympathetic imitation of a certain television ad in which a rain-soaked gentleman climbs the stairs requesting hotties and chicken soup. Unlike this fortunate fellow, I frequently had to get my own hotties (except when the Aged Parent* lent a hand). This included one horrendous low point at 5.30 am when the unbearable cold in my previously mentioned beleaguered body couldn't stand it any more and Demanded To Be Warm!
The low point of My Illness was the day Ruth Richardson announced her forthcoming retirement from Parliament. My brain was drifting in and out of radio's National Programme, and every hour they told me the same three pieces of news, so that by the end of the day I could recite the material along with the announcer.
I'd never been aware before just how boringly repetitious the news is on the radio. Not enough happens in any one day in this quiet country so I suppose they have to keep repeating it until something really interesting comes along.
During the morning Kim Hill dissects every word, thought and remembrance of things past. At midday Geoff Robinson from Morning Report returns - after the announcer has Read The News Again. Geoff then repeats it (for the really slow) and discusses it, analyses it, gives us other people talking about it, and just when you think it's all finished, along comes the announcer again to Read You The News which is no whit different to the stuff he read half an hour before. That's for those who might want to check how many times the man from Federated Farmers stuttered.
Late at night they go through the whole routine again, though on this particular evening they managed to lose some of their recorded interviews and played them out of sequence. That added some variety - of the pinch of salt kind.
Predictably, some said, Ruth Richardson had been very generous in waiting until the Maritime Bill was on the water. Predictably, some wondered, surely she must have been just a teeny weeny bit upset about being dumped from the Finance job? Predictably, Michael Laws (who has to say something about everything - rather like some columnists), told us it was all sour grapes and she couldn't have chosen a worse time to leave.
She'll do well, of course, since her name on its own will sell the new business. I mean, when you've set a country to fiscal rights, you must be able to do something about the old investments, eh what? You'll note that they didn't call the business Mr and Mrs Wright's** Financial Consultancy - nah, it just don't taste the same, somehow.
By Friday I had managed to weep my way through a mildly amusing video called King Ralph - weeping only because my eyes ran of their own accord.
And later I coped with reading a bit more of the 1474 pages of A Suitable Boy. I'm nearly halfway there - at page 610 - as a result of my confinement to quarters. This paperback is so heavy to hold, however, I found it difficult to avoid toppling over in bed.
The true relief of Mafeking occurred, I'm sure, when a friend gave me a bottle of whisky - for medicinal purposes. Following an ancient recipe, I downed an occasional glass of warm milk, with sugar and a wee dram of firewater stirred in.
Sweet to the taste, very soothing - and plainly anathema to 'flu bugs.

This column first appeared in Column 8, 20th July, 1994

*Aged Parent: the name my mother, who lived with us for more than twenty years, occasionally appeared under in these columns.   Borrowed from Wemmick's Aged Parent, in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. 
**Mr and Mrs Wright: reference to Ruth Richardson's married name.

Standing-In

While taking a few days off last week, I caught up with an old movie called 42nd Street, one of those behind-the-scenes-stories about the trials and tribulations of producing a big Broadway musical.
The producer (permanently-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown), had to face a major crisis when his leading lady (still-madly-in-love-with-her-old-vaudeville-partner) broke her ankle the night before the big try-out in Philadelphia.
Where to find a replacement? In the chorus line, of course: the male juvenile who couldn't dance for rocks in his socks knew the new star was there all the time. After a rigorous five hours of I-can't-do-it!-rehearsal, she carries off the leading part with aplomb and panache.
Such things never happen in real life, of course - or do they?
Apart from watching a video or two on my holiday, I tried catching up on filing my newspaper cuttings. Amongst them I found a Christmas letter from a friend in England, and thought I'd drop him a note the next day to bring him up to date.
David, my friend, has worked at the Royal Opera House in London for 20 years or more, first as a repetiteur (him what teaches the singers their notes by repeating them until the singers have got them glued onto their brains), and more recently on the admin side. He's also conducted occasional performances.
Before I started the letter next day, I glanced at the ODT's News Digest section. And did a double-take of a significant kind: David, this very same friend, was mentioned in dispatches.
And why? Seems that during a performance of the opera Manon at the Royal Opera House, the lead baritone had fallen sick at the end of the first act. And the understudy had been sent home for the evening.
What to do?
David and the producer of the opera took counsel together, and came up with a stand-in job between them. David would sing the part from the wings, and the producer would go on stage and mime it in front of the audience.
The ROH is an enormous place to fill with a human voice, and I've seen more than one singer swallowed up in its cavernous spaces. David can sing, but for all that he's hardly what you'd call an operatic baritone. How he managed to make his voice heard from the wings is beyond me. Perhaps he was fitted up with some subtle form of microphone: a real no-no under normal circumstances in an opera house.
So standing in for the star does happen in real life - and I've experienced it happening at least one other almost-as-amazing time.
I was sitting in my Tooting Bec flat in South London some 20 years ago, listening on the radio to a performance of CarminaBurana at the AlbertHall. The baritone soloist was winging his way up through the high notes of his part when he came to a stifled halt: a strange shuffling and scuffling was heard on the airwaves - along with general wonderment from the audience.
It was a warm night; the Albert Hall was packed for the Proms season. We learned that the stuffiness and heat had overcome the poor baritone, all wrapped up as he was in his dress suit. Possibly he ran out of air from scaling heights which baritones are not wont to scale. (A couple of days later, on television, we would see the fellow tottering backwards into a row of first violinists, with music stands, chairs and musicians scattering in all directions.)
The management were save by a most remarkable thing: a young man who'd recently sung the same part in a production in the north, leaped up from his seat in the audience, raced round backstage, offered his services to the perplexed management - and was accepted! They tucked him up in a tuxedo, and whisked him on stage, where he proceeded to sing as though he'd been contracted to do the job.
And he too carried it off with panache and aplomb.

This column first appeared in Column 8, July 13th, 1994


Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The writer's brain is a con-artist

Because my wife is working this week as well as through the Christmas period, I have some time to try to get moving again on The Counterfeit Queen, which has had a long time sitting on the back burner due to all sorts of family issues going on

Yesterday I went through and summarised each chapter that had been written in first draft* – fourteen chapters in all. The fourteenth ended in a kind of unsatisfactory waffle after having a nice twist in the middle of it. The fifteenth chapter had stopped after a few paragraphs, because I really had no idea what I was doing anymore. 

The previous chapters had begun to diverge from the (hard-won) synopsis to a great degree, and if I’d followed the plan as laid out I’ve have been going round in a large circle with more secret tunnels and more imprisonments. Even now it’s hard to get away from the latter – and secret tunnels want to creep in, in droves in this book. 

Courtesy Gerd Altmann, Pixabay
So this morning I began what I’d already planned to do over the weekend: rewrite the synopsis so that it was more in line with what had now changed in the draft. And then things started to go off on other tangents. Immediately my brain said, I’m too tired for this. Let’s go back to bed.'  I pointed out that it's only eleven in the morning. 

The brain talking like that is a sure sign that I need to push forward, but sometimes pushing forward requires the opposite:a step back. This morning I tried this approach: pushing myself to put words down, and then leaving them for a bit, coming back, finding my brain has been working away in the meantime (in spite of claiming to be too tired). Already this has given me a better way forward. 

I’ve also realised that because the section starting with the end of chapter fourteen is the climax of the second act, essentially, it can’t be just more 'stuff.' It has to be that turning point when things either go all well for the heroine or they fall apart completely. Falling apart completely is the more interesting way; it will give the third act more action, action that brings everything to a resolution as well as tidying up all the loose ends. 'Sounds like a lot of work,' says my brain. I don't disagree. 

Anyway, I’ve written down several things that at this point in the story are hanging or could be disasters if not handled properly (by the characters rather than me). I need to make sure I structure this sequence/scene rightly, otherwise it won’t have full impact. The brain is saying…’I’m tired, can we go back to bed?’ and giving me the lame excuse that I was awake at five this morning and surely that’s a long enough day already.

But the brain is a con artist. It claims to be tired when what it actually needs is the stimulation of a challenge. Throw something its way, and it will chew on it while you're not looking and come up with an innovation or solution that you hadn't expected, in fact, would never have thought of. (If that makes any sense.) 

I've lost count of the times I've given into the brain's so-called tiredness, gone for a snooze, tossed around for a while trying to get comfortable, and then found that the brain has solved the problem and wants to get up and going again. 



*When I say 'first draft' I actually the first draft of this current incarnation of the book. There have already been at least two unfinished drafts. But at least each new draft makes more progress than the previous one!