Monday, 26 September 2011

Stories on the Air - part 1

The first rule of short story campaigning is: never read the comments after a Guardian blog about short stories. The second rule of short story campaigning is: never read...etc. I made that mistake recently, and found someone was dishing out both compliments & slaps to the Radio 4 short story on slightly spurious grounds of their being generally 'middle class.'

That set me to thinking about class and wondering how my own preoccupations might appear, what my own radio stories have been about. ("What do you write about?" is one of the questions non-writers ask for which I rarely have a sufficiently concise or polite answer; my default response now is: "Life".)

I decided as an experiment to list all the stories I've had broadcast, with a brief precis of each one's plot/theme. I've removed the titles, to maintain a little mystery... Many do have a female perspective, as you'd expect, but the voices are actually quite a mix of age, class, nationality, and gender (even species!). Much of the impulse to write stories came from my background in improvised comedy performance, and I've always liked to inhabit character voices of all sorts; when I hear a voice and tune in to it well enough, the accent, their obsessions and failings, all take me on a journey.  It took a while to understand how to shape and edit that sort of material, but the basic premise of finding a portal into another person's life was always where I began.

My first radio story aired in 1993. It was only the second story I'd ever properly written, finished and sent out; the first had been runner up in a competition, which totally surprised me. This first radio one languished in the Edinburgh BBC Radio Drama 'submissions pile' for about five months before I got any feedback; the response was 'er, we quite liked this, but it's too short - do try again'. I interpreted that 'try again' as mere politeness at first, went away and growled and fretted and brooded and tinkered, but finally added another 300 words - a stretch, and still too short really - and with a tiny spurt of courage sent it back. The producer replied within a couple of weeks, saying he'd like to record it and asked if I'd like to narrate it myself? Yes, I would - and yes, Reader, I did. I can still remember the oddness of being alone in a studio for the first time, watching for the green light. I can remember the uncomfortable shoes I wore, and the rather clingy black leggings. Above all, I remember my dry mouth (the jug of water I got through in the 2 hours session) and then the excitement of listening to my own voice, own words, being edited. That first lucky break is why I went on to write for radio again and again, and it's why I still see radio as the perfect medium for story telling.

Anyway - here's the list: all of these were broadcast on BBC Radio 4 unless otherwise specified (or if I can't find the details). Tx is short for Transmission date.

1 Tx 27th April 1993 (Radio Scotland) First-person female narrator has an elderly female neighbour, whose invitations to 'come in for a wee drink' she tries to avoid. After finding the neighbour's door open one day, the narrator goes in to investigate, and.. by the end of the story the listener realises the younger woman has learned and demonstrated compassion.

2 - Tx 10th August 1993 - First person female narrator, who we discover via flashbacks has been caught shoplifting; she details her surroundings, imagines the lives of her custodians, thinks about her morality. A double-twist ending reveals more about her state of mind.

3 -  Tx 27th Nov 1994 - In which a gallous young Glaswegian meets her idol, by sneaking in to a BBC dressing room - what does she really want to say to him and how will it change her life?

4 -  Tx 24th Jan 1995 Same gallous Glaswegian writes to a TV personality and sends him a gift, but he doesn't take it in the spirit of her giving.

5 -  Tx 1996  Gallous lassie goes 'Astral Travelling' and on a visit to a museum in the company of a potential boyfriend, who turns out to be not entirely her cup of tea.

6 - Tx 24th August 1996  Same gallous lassie - but it's so long since I wrote/read this I cannot now remember the plot! It had something to do with Dorothy Parker, and bra-sizes..

7 - (part 4 of a chain story) - Tx 22nd October 1998  Simon Brett, Ali Smith, James Robertson & I wrote this four-parter, which began with a burglar and ended with a tormented or perhaps haunted woman at a psychologist's clinic.

Stories 2 - 7 above were all written specifically with radio in mind; of these next ones, most were informed by my experience of radio, but some of them were in print first.

8 Tx - 28th Nov 2000 A first person male narrator, in the act of cooking, waiting for the doorbell to ring, musing over an encounter with a boisterous group of women in a pub, how he'd challenged them on sexism.

9 & 10 - recorded twice in 2000 (Tx once as live broadcast, once not) A middle-aged woman gets stuck in a lift with a younger man..if this were a film, how would it play out?  Can she be Holly Hunter to his Keanu Reeves? We glimpse her inner fantasy versus the realities of attraction and role-playing.

11 & 12  - recorded twice -Tx 1997 & 2000 (once as a stand-alone story, once as part of a group from a story collection) A first person female narrator; she receives a phone call to say that her father is seriously ill; she visits the hospital and the listener/reader slowly starts to understand the history between them.

13 – Tx 2000  A comic tale about an accountant who's also a stand up comedian; he's asked by a mystery correspondent to investigate shady dealings of an entertainment/celebrity agent, in the London Comedy scene.

142000 Tx Two sisters visit Tangier, over Christmas and New Year, but their health soon matches the tricky state of their relationship.

152000 Tx  A divorced woman recounts how her flat is burgled and how, after she takes matters into her own hands, things turn out rather better than anyone might have expected.

16 - Tx 4th Dec 2001 Narrated by the small black cat in the painting "Olympia" by Edouard Manet; a cat's eye view of the encounters between artist and model and his own contribution to the resulting canvas.

17 - Tx 2003 A young woman, flying back from a family funeral in France, remembers and analyses what occurred and how the feeling of being dressed in mourning will never allow her to see black clothing in quite the same way again. 

18 - Tx 2003 A woman uses considerable glamour to charm old school friends into believing her life story, but is the resulting renewal of friendship what they were expecting?

19 2005 Tx  A young man finds himself caught in a dilemma when a mouse invades his kitchen and he simultaneously wants to let it go and keep it safe - what psychology is at work here? 

20 - Tx 2006 A woman on holiday in a Tunisian resort hotel, awaiting the delayed arrival of her partner, finds she is unaccountably and terribly deprived of her drug of choice - good literary fiction - so she sets about trying to find something to read.

212007 Tx A retired divorced woman, living alone in France, is joined for a few weeks by a former friend from the UK, a women with money and a very conventional marriage; their road-trip goes from uphill to downhill and back again as they learn a few new truths about themselves and each other

22 2007 Tx  A retiring, snobbish, rather caustic woman borrows a friend's weekend cottage for a retreat but finds she cannot escape the tedious attentions of an insensitive neighbour and her curious dog.

After this were 2 recent sets of story-trilogies, about which I might as well leave in the titles and other details: 

23/24/25 I GOT THE DOG3 stories - Tx August 2010 - a trilogy on the theme of property and divorce – producer Sara Davies/Sarah Langan, Bristol - first person stories about a love triangle.
1. Andria's story, read by Rebecca Front. Andria loves Boris and they adopt a lost dog, Mimi, but when Boris' composing takes over their lives, Andria shows him the door - will he take Mimi with him? 
2. Boris's Story, read by John McGlynn. Boris loves performance-artist Chiara, but when she seduces Mimi away from him, he discovers she had ulterior motives - will he regain Mimi or be alone forever with only his art? 
3. Chiara's Story, read by Vicki Pepperdine. Chiara is house-sitting for a choreographer, in his house-boat; she runs through ideas for her new solo-show and relates how Mimi betrayed her - but the return of the choreographer may hold promise of a new duet, if she plays it right.

26/27/28 PORTRAIT: A Triptych - 3 stories looking at the significance of a portrait, Aug 9-11, 2011 - produced by Sarah Langan in Bristol.
1-The Painter's Story, read by Burn Gorman - Tom meets Nic at an arthouse cinema. She's out of his league, but he throws her a line about wanting to paint her, and one days she turns up at his studio and agrees to sit for him. By the time the canvas is finished, Tom realises she means more to him than just a female form he can observe.
2-The Model's Story, read by Federay Holmes - Nic wakes up in a hospital; she's battered and bruised, and as memory begins to return, her husband turns up. But is he there to console her, and will she go home with him? And what happened about the portrait of her painted by Tom?
3-The Voyeur's Story, read by Bill Paterson - screenwriter Andrew meets painter Tom on the set of a detective series, for which Tom has supplied the original artwork in a story about revenge. What's the real story behind the canvases, in particular the beautiful nude?

Monday, 19 September 2011

the metaphorical brick wall

Yesterday, I tweeted about why short stories are important - again.

No doubt this short story cuts campaign (or my part in it) has already bored the socks off many people - even fellow writers, especially those who've never written a short story in their lives. I think for those who don't write them, or read them, or hear them, it's difficult to make a connection with the form.

Hmm.. how can I structure my ideas about this in a way that makes others see it as clearly as I would like?  Metaphor.

The first metaphor that comes to mind is that of Literature as a house. If BBC Radio 4 in their wisdom decide that the short story doesn't warrant as much time on the air as other forms - as serialised novels, as plays, as comedy series - then one could say BBCR4 is like the proprietor of a new house, taking pride in the glories of the decoration and smart furnishings, without having asked how the boiler works.

Or perhaps, in the metaphorical House of Literary Output, if the grand rooms are novels, if the windows are poetry...short stories are the foundations. And if the foundations of your house aren't sound, fancy wallpaper, plump sofas and pretty curtains won't make it somewhere you can live happily ever after.

To me (and I'm not a theorist or an academic) Story means 'essence'. For writers, 'story' is about identifying the important elements, presenting them in the right order, and writing them imaginatively enough to reach the reader or listener. Every individual author's 'voice' is built on those basic but vital abilities. 

To paraphrase Jean Cocteau - without 'story', the great body of fiction is just a dictionary out of order.

Metaphors are not just useful, they're essential. A friend told me last week about a book called Metaphors We Live By" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in which Lakoff, a linguist, and Johnson, a philosopher, make the case that without metaphor we would not have a language to discuss ideas; they contend that language is structured like this:

 "The speaker puts ideas (objects) into words (containers) and sends them (along a conduit) to a bearer who takes the idea/objects out of the word/containers." 

That, in a nutshell, is what I see as one of the strengths of good short fiction - for the writer, it's a particularly elegant delivery system for ideas, feelings, images, truths, which are unpacked and reassembled by the receiver/listener.

Radio is a well-designed utility vehicle. The reader & producer are there to ensure the contents are sent at the right speed, over the best roads, that the ideas reach you on time and - one hopes - with nothing broken.

The sturdy lorries that carry novels, the bicycles and kites that carry poems, are also wonderful 'conduits' for ideas, sent in the way that their writer has chosen to meet the needs of their particular customer, standing on their doorstep, waiting, with their scissors and an allen key, ready to unwrap, assemble and appreciate the contents.

There is more to say about why the short story is important, why it needs to be appreciated by the BBC as essential to the upkeep of the nation's literary mansion (I know it's on ITV, not BBC, but I'm picturing Downton Abbey there, aren't you?); no doubt I'll keep saying it, again and again, even though it sometimes feels like banging my real head against a metaphorical brick wall.

Meanwhile, I must go - there's a slightly worrying ticking sound coming from my boiler...

(NB - no metaphors were harmed in the assembly of this blog post, though some have been mildly bent out of shape. Ed.)

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

What's the story with the Radio 4 Short Story? (update)

I've just written a piece for the Society of Authors' blog on the story so far regarding the BBC Radio 4 story cuts campaign. It's a whittling down, a summary, and also a pulling-together of facts and links, a short-hand description of two months of intensive work. Work not just by me, I must add, nor by the intrepid Ian Skillicorn, but by the Society of Authors staff, who've taken up this cause with admirable speed, considerable skill and above all with tenacity.

There wasn't room for everything in the blog, so here's one of the links I left out - an essay by Kate Taylor in the Toronto Globe & Mail (a paper for which, I'm honoured to say, I have in the past written book reviews) on the fascinating work of psychologist Keith Oatley (Professor Emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto) on why fiction is good for you - yes, we knew that, but now we can PROVE it.

Finally: the feedback I've had from friends, listeners, strangers, writers, non-writers, twitter-chatterers etc to my recent BBC Radio 4 story trilogy - Portrait -A Triptych - has been really quite moving, and encouraging, at a time when encouragement was much needed. If you listened and liked them, and even more so if you told me about it, thank you. I'm hoping to use all three of the narrators again, probably in a longer format...aka a novel.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Culture - not a mythical standard

I was very pleased today to be alerted, by Gabrielle Kimm, to a blog post by Dr Paul March-Russell re the BBC Radio 4 story cuts, analysing the wider questions.

He quotes Raymond Williams [Culture and Society (1958)] as saying "culture is not a mythical standard but a way of living under social and economic conditions not of the individual’s making."

You can read the entire piece here