Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: January 2013

Sex & Docks & Rock ‘n’ Roll: Leeds City Varieties, 21 January 2013

This is the first performance I have seen at the City Varieties since it was restored. City Varieties is my favourite theatre. Since I moved from Leeds to Wakefield, it is no longer my local one. It is not as big as the West Yorkshire Playhouse, nor as ornate as the Grand. But it has many fond memories, starting with the pantomimes I was taken to see as a child, forty years ago. I was worried that the replacing of the threadbare velvet and the chipped gilt would destroy that atmosphere of Victorian nostalgia and urban sleaze. The renovation has made the place feel different, and much less sleazy, but it has produced magnificent results. It is now the task of the people of West Yorkshire to get as much use out of the venue as possible, so that some of the patinas start to dull and the edges start to fray, like it was before.
As soon as we arrived in the auditorium, we were greeted by some members of the cast, including a comment from Ronnie (played by the director, Rod Dixon), a pugnacious Scouser with a red beard and wearing a towelling dressing-gown. He noticed the snow on my boots, and asked if I had walked all the way from Finland – a ready example of Scouse humour, demonstrating that it can be friendly and lovable, or rude and intrusive, depending on your point of view.
Ronnie is the character on stage when the performance starts. He is sitting on an armchair in his underpants and vest, and snoring with a newspaper on his lap. The set is a 1950s working class living room (because, while the play deals with the political and social tensions of the 1960s, interior décor had not had a chance to catch up at that early stage). This set showed the first evidence that two members of the team that produced the show used to be in Chumbawamba: flying ducks. Further evidence is provided later by a laundry-basket containing a sheet with, for the audience’s benefit, the lyrics of a left-wing song written on it in foot-high letters.
Tension is created by the disappointment that Jean, Ronnie’s wife, played by Lisa Howard, feels about the cooling of passion in their relationship. This is continued throughout the play by reference to the lifting of censorship on D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. There is generational conflict between Jack (Nigel Lister), who wants to be in a band and support Gene Vincent in concert, and Ronnie, whose head is stuck in Soviet Russia and who does not get rock ‘n’ roll. And there is a semi-conscious policeman in a cupboard. As Jean, the main narrator, points out to the audience, the policeman is the “ticking clock” in the story.
Barry (played by Harry Hamer, ex-Chumbawamba) is the Shakespearean fool who turns out to be wiser than everybody thought. He sings an excellent song, accompanying himself on a pink ukulele. This is one of those moments in music and theatre that demonstrate that, in capturing the attention of the room, it is much more important to have talent and something important to say than it is to command a fifty-kilowatt PA system. Barry’s mum, Mona, is played by Kyla Goodey.
Arthur, played by Adam Smith (the actor and musician, not the 18th century Scottish economist and philosopher), doubles as the hapless police constable and also plays the piano superbly. Arthur is the only character who doesn’t sing. The vocals, so often the weakness in a musical production, are excellent – strong, passionate, full of flair and perfectly in tune.
The writer, Boff Whalley, (the other ex-Chumbawamba element) gave a very candid interview about the play and his approach to writing it:
Boff refers to “the confines of one living room”, meaning the place in which the tensions from bigger, wider, weightier situations are shown and, eventually, resolved. For a comical piece of entertainment, I think this works well. Any-one wanting to find an in-depth analysis of social tensions in post-war Britain should look to something much longer and with fewer songs and more words in it. This holds up a mirror to what was happening then, and offers the intelligent theatre-goer plenty of things to consider or investigate.
I don’t often say this, but I would like to see a sequel to this production, dealing with the complex and, in some ways grimmer issues of the 1970s. I propose that it be set in the West Midlands, against a background of a car plant rather than docks. Working title: Kegs & Cogs & Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The show runs until Saturday 26 January 2013. There are tickets left.

How I write 3: editing a short story

By “short story”, I mean something between 2000 and 7000 words in length. I also mean a lyrical short story, intended to convey something about feelings rather than a history of a series of events, even though events are necessary to depict the story. Anybody who has read Raymond Carver but can’t stand his work should stop reading now.
It goes like this:
1. You have an idea.
2. You start writing.
3. You get stuck with the idea.
4. You work out why you got stuck.
5. You fix the reason why you got stuck.
6. You finish the story.
7. You market the story (of which, more later).
That is how I write short stories. Item 1 has already been discussed here under “How I write 1: getting the utmost from a free-write”. This article deals mostly with items 3 to 6.
Any writer of any short story must be able to answer the following questions.
1. Whose story is this?
2. What happens?
3. What is the epiphany? If there is no epiphany, …
4. Why not?
The reason why you got stuck is that you were hazy about “what happens?” As with free-writing, there are a number of simple steps to carry out. Because they are simple, they are frequently neglected. The more assiduously you can carry them out, and the more you can cultivate the habit of carrying them out, the better will be your writing.
The first thing to do is to borrow a technique from poetry-writing and talk out loud. I said OUT LOUD. I don’t mean reading and imagining in your head that you are talking out loud. I mean TALKING OUT LOUD. The reason you have to talk out loud is that talking out loud to most people is more embarrassing than reading inside one’s head. When you are trying to unpick a story that has got stuck, you need the story to speak for itself. If it is a bad story, it will sound worse when you try to describe what happens in it out loud. If it is a nothing story, it will sound like nothing when you try to describe what happens in it out loud. It if is a good story, it will sound better when you describe what happens in it out loud.
Better still, explain what happens in the story, out loud, to another, living person.
One of the things you are looking for at this stage is ambiguity. “Well it’s sort of about…” is no good at all. What the story is “about”, at this stage, means who does what to whom, and why: nothing to do with underlying themes or metaphors: just the physical facts, the sequence of events, and any salient points about setting (“it takes place on board a submarine”), or the protagonist (“he has recently gone blind”). All such “salient points” should be able to stand up to the question, “Why is that important?”
Once you can explain, out loud, what the story is about, from beginning to end, without drying up, or getting lost, or realising that you are talking drivel, you are starting to get somewhere. You should write down “what the story is about”, or record it on a dictating machine. You can then start to re-write the story.
What mainly characterises a contemporary, literary short story is not the word count. It is the degree of development of the protagonist, and the time-scale. The action of a short story should be completed in less than one day. And the protagonist should be the same person he or she was to start with, except for one thing. That one thing is the epiphany.
A short story does not have to have an epiphany, but it needs either an epiphany or a reason why there is no epiphany.