The Audience Were The Winners!

As I’ve mentioned before, not only do I keep a journal, but I sometimes find useful or interesting stuff in there and it gets rehashed as a blog post! I’m an avid people-watcher. People fascinate and astonish me in equal measure. This is a journal entry I wrote in July 2011.  Remember those heady days when we used to go out of the house, unmasked, and sit perilously close to complete strangers? That’s what my daughter and I did that evening. I swear this is all absolutely true.

Wed 20 July 2011:

My daughter and I had the most bizarre experience at the theatre this evening. The play was a ‘murder mystery farce’ called Death By Fatal Murder.

Actually the bizarre experiences began well before we got to the theatre, when we went for dinner at Pizza Express. When we were seated at a table for two in the pretty busy restaurant, a couple were soon seated next to us. They were a bit odd.  Or maybe they had just never eaten out before. Anyway there they were, seated at the table next to ours. We soon became aware that there was a discussion between them about money. He had a £20 note and a huge handful of change which he counted out on the table twice.

The waitress brought them a large-print menu, and after leaving them for a while to choose, another waitress came to take their order.  The chap told her he only had £20 and so had to be careful not to overspend. Also, he said he didn’t like mozzarella. For at least twenty minutes–we had ordered drinks, waited, ordered food, waited, received and eaten our food–he asked the waitress questions about the menu items.

She tried to persuade him to have a pizza without cheese but with ham and peppers. She suggested chicken on his pizza. He asked for chicken wings. She explained they didn’t serve chicken wings. She suggested a chicken salad, but he thought that was too expensive. He asked what goat’s cheese was like, but was afraid he might not like it. He asked what parmesan was like. Again, he thought he might try it, but what if he found he didn’t like it after all?

The waitress was helpful in the extreme. If he’d been the mystery shopper from hell, she must have passed the test with flying colours. But instead the chap and his girl decided they would go and eat somewhere else. As they left they told her they were going to try Nandos.

That was the warm-up, now for the main entertainment.

At the theatre, we got to our seats at 7.10pm for a 7.30pm show.  I’d thought we were cutting it a bit fine. Others cut it finer. To begin with we were virtually the only ones there, but the place filled fast. A massive lady sat on the other side of my daughter, so she was pretty squashed as the seats were narrow and she had me (also massive) on the other side.

A tall well-dressed man with a HAT (it’s Derby Playhouse, not the National Theatre) entered and sat three or four seats along from us with a tiny little old lady we presumed was his mum, wearing her best outfit, and with handbag and theatre programme too. She looked very excited. Along from them, a middle-aged chap and his wife and their 20-something daughter, both wearing lovely frocks, took their seats.

The curtain went up. The set was lovely, the music was 20s/30s, but pretty good, the story set during WW2, so not quite right, but never mind.

It was the most farcical farce to end all farces. It was awful.  The main stars were Leslie Grantham, Dirty Den from Eastenders, no doubt he’d done loads of other stuff, but that’s all I knew him from, I don’t watch a lot of TV.  And there was also Richard Gibson, Herr Flick from ‘Allo ‘Allo.

But… the audience was definitely the main attraction.

Behind us and slightly to one side, sitting next to two utterly mortified late teen-early 20s women, was a chap. As soon as the play began, he opened and began to eat from a HUGE bag of Quavers. He made the most incredible amount of noise grabbing them out of the bag and eating them. It took him ages, and it wasn’t just me who turned to glare at him.

Also behind us was another guy who kept saying very loudly ‘What the f**k?’ and doing huge nausea-inducing snorting sniffs through his nose. Whether he was referring to Quaverman or the play or the Little Old Lady, I don’t know.

The Little Old Lady. Well. Every single word, action, expression or movement brought gales of laughter and guffaws from her. And her laugh was a cross between the Granny in the Tweety-Pie cartoons and Barbara Windsor in the Carry On movies. She laughed longer, louder and more frequently than anyone else in the place. She clearly had a wonderful time, and I have to admit, some of the time, it was her everyone was laughing at, not the play.

Then came the intermission.

Some people had bags of sweets. Some, including Little Old Lady, came back from the reception area with an ice cream tub with a little plastic spoon sticking out of it. Quaverman had another big bag of quavers.

But Dad, Mum and Daughter in the posh frocks had…

…peas.

Yes. Peas!

During the intermission I glanced along the row to see Dad with a huge bag of something long, thin and green. I thought at first maybe it was a kind of jelly sweet, like those little  sugar covered very tangy bootlaces or sticks. He opened the bag and pulled out a massive handful and passed them down the row to his family members, holding out their eager hands. Whereupon they popped the pods and scooped out the peas and devoured them.

Honestly, they were peas. See, even now, it seems too mundane yet bizarre to be true. You know when in a daydream you think, what if I stumbled into a parallel world, how would I know? This is how. Real life is the most peculiar experience imaginable, and fiction cannot possibly live up to it.

Then I thought, maybe they are just trying to find a useful way to pass the tediously long intermission? Shell the peas, save time later when you arrive home from the theatre starving and ready for your slow-cooker chicken casserole or whatever, whack the peas into the microwave, and hey presto, a lovely quick vegetable side dish.

But no, it was their intermission snack.

Don’t get me wrong. I love peas. And straight from the pod–yummy. But ever so slightly odd for the theatre, wouldn’t you say?

And it’s not like they were organic hippies, rejecting the modern commercial and industrialised production of food. They drank Coke.

The people sitting next to me frowned at my almost convulsive laughter as I took in the whole strange scene, and for a minute, as I tried not to pass out, I couldn’t remember if the play was what was happening on the stage or in the rows of seats.

The girls were commiserating with one another on getting stuck next to Quaverman, apparently he wasn’t just loud, he sprawled, too.

Then the intermission was over.

Quaverman was clearly high as a kite. He screamed with laughter and called out comments such as, ‘Yeah, you tell him!’ to the bumbling detective. He was practically standing on his seat and completely oblivious to anyone else. Even the cast were sending him sidelong glances.

One of the actors–the bumbling detective–had to ‘accidentally’ spit tea on his junior colleague. Then he couldn’t keep a straight face, and for several minutes both of them kept corpsing to the delight of the audience who laughed and applauded.

Eventually the ordeal was over–the play was awful–sorry Leslie and Richard, not your fault, guys–the ending nonsensical even for a send-up of the detective-farce genre. The audience was definitely the winner. I felt a bit as though I had taken part in one of those live-action, unrehearsed, ‘theatre of the absurd’ type things.

Little Old Lady trotted out happily with her programme in her hand to mark the occasion forever. Someone said, as we left, ‘What great writing’.

Only if the dramatist wrote the lines for the audience as well.

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The anti-social writer

This is what I overheard in a café in town a while ago: “I find that writers aren’t very nice to work with. One or two are okay, but most of them…well, they very much like to keep to themselves, don’t they? And they don’t like the competition either. It would be nice to have a chat, you know, but most of them just won’t. You get the odd one who will say ‘Hi’, but that’s about it.”

Needless to say, my ears were flapping as I tried (surreptitiously) to hear every word and quickly write it down as I knew I would forget it, and at the same time I’m trying to look casual and eat a caramel-topped, cream-filled doughnut (definitely high on my mental list of priorities, I don’t get out much), and hoping they won’t turn round and see me writing down their every word. I decided Lady Number One must work in a theatre or something, and the café we were in was close to Quad in Derby, where they run both writing doobries and theatrical thingies. (Please pause here to marvel at my expert use of the English language.)

She went on to talk about how some of the actresses had been very moved by the speeches they had to deliver. Lady Number Two was her friend-from-another-workplace and just kept nodding and agreeing.

Now I freely admit that we are all entitled to our opinions…

But…

I apologise on behalf of all writers everywhere if we aren’t as good at chatting as you would like us to be. It’s not always easy talking to someone you don’t really know too well. Just give us another chance…

Quite often it can be difficult to shut a writer up. Once you get them started, they can talk for hours – all that time spent alone with a journal or laptop means they rarely see actual humans, let alone enjoy conversation. But it’s also often said that a writer is busy with an internal life others are not privy to, working away at the coal-face of a tricky plot or puzzling over the intransigence of a character.

But maybe, like everyone else, sometimes writers are just rude. Or shy. Or nervous. Or feeling out of their depth. Or worried. Tired. Or maybe even wondering if their wife is having an affair, or if the kids are in trouble, or yes, about their work, if their plot is shallow or their characters wooden. Maybe they are looking at you and thinking, ‘Wow he/she would be the perfect victim in my next book’. Or an arch-villain.

Do we hear people complaining about dentists not being chatty enough? No. All too often, anecdotal evidence – and TV comedies – tell us that dentists love to talk and only ever require an answer if your mouth is full of putty, fingers, sharp objects, or that scary sucky gadget.

And no one complains that hairdressers don’t talk. Or lawyers. Or retail assistants. Or window cleaners. Usually lack of conversation is a bonus in everyday situations. So why do writers have to be so chatty?

Is it because we’re ‘wordsmiths’?

(I hate that word – so pretentious! Imagine me up all night, filing and drilling and smoothing then peering myopically through a loupe at my carefully crafted, gleaming word. Congratulations, it’s a pronoun!)

But I can’t deny that words are my – our – profession. Does that mean I have to share them constantly? Does a banker hand out free cash to all their friends and acquaintances? If only! Do my marketing and publishing contacts promise me freebies to help me sell my books? Nope! Again – if only!

No. We all inhabit our little solitary worlds. It’s not because I’m a writer that I’m rubbish at making conversation with a total stranger. It’s because I’m a human being. There are loads of things I’m rubbish at, making conversation is only one of them.

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Nomads Like Us – part 2

 

I quite often write a blog about people watching and things I have observed. Usually these are humorous, or quirky. Not today.

Yesterday in town, I had a short conversation with a young woman who was selling the Big Issue. I was one of only two people who had bought a Big Issue from this pleasant, polite and half-frozen young woman yesterday. I paid for two copies, that’s £5. Which, quite frankly, means little to me. I spend as much on a coffee and a muffin, which lasts me maybe half an hour. She tried to give it back to me, to talk me out of it. The first thing she did when I left, was to go and buy some food. I watched her as she sat on a bench and ate. People walk past without even a glance, she is more or less invisible, even with her red tabard on. I feel quite angry. Why is this girl on the street all day like this? If one of my children got into difficulties in a foreign country, I’d like to think someone would have compassion. We are all human, all parents or children, and we all find ourselves in difficulties sometimes, and need help.

Now before you roll your eyes and go, ‘OMG not another illegal immigrant trying to sponge off our great nation,’ let me tell you a few things. These are actual human beings we’re talking about. People. Not things. Not disposable objects. But people, living, breathing human beings. With dreams. With grandmas. With kids to worry about. Who came to this country (often undergoing unspeakable danger and difficulty) in search of a better life. And not illegally – this woman is not one of those fly-by-night chancers who drive in from overseas, nick all our copper cables and sell them for a fortune, then drive back again. She—and most of the others—are here with permission. And, to be extra clear, not everyone who sells the Big Issue is here from overseas, plenty of them are home-grown and finding life just as tough.

You can probably tell, issues around immigration, homelessness and poverty are hugely important to me.

You know what? You do not own this land. We all pretend we do, so that estate agents and lawyers and government departments and even home owners can make money from house sales and land purchases. But actually, we all arrived in this country, on this continent as migrants. Scientists have proved that we all came from somewhere else. Yes, I know it all happened millennia ago. But actually the first person who claimed a nice little patch of land in the UK had no real right to do so, they just got there first. We were all migrants. So it’s ludicrous to say, ‘This is mine, you can’t come in.’ Especially when we have not had the same attitude to our own invasion of the lands of others.

Back in the mists of time, before cities were built, before the towns and the offices and the shopping centres, before ports were built to allow boats to dock, before anyone thought of issuing a passport or a visa, there were humans. People. Just people. They spoke all sorts of languages and didn’t always understand one another. Disputes were settled in a variety of ways. I might give you a goat or sheep from my flocks in reparation for any damage you received at my hands. Or I might whack you with a big rock, and possibly face the dire consequences if my actions were discovered and your people didn’t like it. Or I might marry one of your relatives and we would just get over it.

That is what people do. Have always done. Once upon a time, we didn’t understand about borders and governments and territorial rights. We followed the herds. The herds migrated, to find pasture that didn’t die back in winter or get covered by twenty feet of snow, or they migrated to reproduce in more favourable climates, or, who knows, maybe they just got bored.

But wherever the herds went, we went after them. The herds, of any kind of deer or any kind of cattle, or I don’t know, maybe gigantic sweeping herds of emu or ostrich, or chickens the size of buffalo, they were everything to us. They were our food, our tools, our clothing, our lighting, even, later, our status. So we always had to be near the herds, and when they migrated, so did we.

But migrating for both herds and humans took its toll. There was always the potential for disaster, for predators to take advantage of the migrants, for climactic events to cause disruption and problems. For humans, it meant people with children travelling huge distances and arriving in a maybe less fabulous place than expected. sometime there was a terrible storm or hurricane, or there might have been a wildfire, or flooding. The elderly sickened and died, babies were born on the trail, and babies and mothers alike struggled to deal with the demands of the journey.

So one day, a character who was probably a national hero, gifted with foresight, radical and willing to take a huge risk, embracing blue-sky, out-of-the-box thinking, looked at all his or her community members as they packed the moose ready for the journey, and he or she thought to themselves, ‘Stuff that, I’m not going through all that again. Remember last time, when Granny got sick and she almost died? And she was barely 35!’

Or maybe they thought, last year’s place was too far from fresh water, and although the herds were strong, they were hard to catch on that uneven land. This place is nice. The water’s right there a stone’s throw from the tent, I can see for miles over these lovely rolling hills, the hills protect the land, so that summer leaves late and spring arrives early. I’m staying right here.

So they used some of their animal sinews and their flax or plant stem ropes, and they whittled a bunch of stakes, and they roped in some of those herds, and there they stayed. And when everyone came back next spring, lo and behold, there they were still, fat and sleek and healthy, and not totally exhausted from the long journey. So the following year, a few more crazy people decided to follow suit. Their wives and children and old people flourished, their flocks and herds produced young, and numbers multiplied.

I’m not a historian – as you can no doubt tell – and yes, this is probably hopelessly idealised and unrealistic. But my point is this: territorial borders are man-made and arbitrary. We do not – contrary to what many believe – own the land on which we were born or where we live. We are just there. I don’t normally post a political message. And I don’t want to debate endlessly. I just want to point out that in my own view, we are all migrants. We are all nomads. So, please, let’s have some compassion.

A Big Issue costs around £2.50. Seriously, folks, my cappuccino costs more than that. And I probably buy four or five a week. Can we all not make an effort to buy a Big Issue and enable a homeless person in desperate need buy food and shelter for a night? There but for the grace of God…

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My Life in the Criminal Underworld, or, What I saw from the bus…

It’s no secret that I live in a slightly dodgy part of town. In fact there are dodgier areas, but there are also–rumour has it–nice areas where there is little crime and people don’t let their dogs cack on your driveway.

I don’t drive. I passed my test back in the day, when Methuselah was a lad, but that marked both the beginning and the end of my driving career. I’m just doing my bit to keep road fatalities to a minimum. However, this means I use the bus a lot.

This week I was trundling into town, Riverside blaring through my earphones, blissfully drifting away on a happy cloud of bellowed F-words in Artificial Smile, and the bus made a stop in Allenton. For those of you who live outside of the city of Derby, it’s a busy ”low-income” suburb on the route to the city centre. Now I know that 95% of the residents of Allenton are pleasant hard-working people just trying to get by. But some of them are not.

Other writers may witness drug deals ‘going down’, as we hardcore crims say, on a daily basis. I’ve only seen a handful over the years, living in my book- and music-induced sheltered little world. So I was quite surprised that I saw a drug deal take place right before my eyes. I suppose it’s just about possible the guy bought a teeny tiny packet of popping candy or artificial sweetener, or indeed a single teabag. Those are so hard to get if you only want one; you don’t always want a box of 80, do you?

The bus stop at the stop (it’s what they do). No one got on. No one got off. But we were running five minutes ahead of schedule, so the driver had to make up time. So we sat there. Like a bunch of tourists on a not-very-exciting tour.

A scruffy weaselly little bloke was mooching around the stop, but not making for the bus. Then further away, an over-grown kid was doing wheelies on a bike and generally twatting about getting in everyone’s way, for all the world as if he was still a teenager.

Artificial Smile ended, Volte Face started, (I’ve got a number of tracks from different albums on my phone). I was still daydreaming. But the guy on the bike caught my eye, doing his stunts a wee bit too close to the rest of humanity. He’s going to hit someone if he’s not careful, I thought. Suddenly he made a dive for the weaselly guy, they shook hands in a weird way and one of them not-very-secretly gave the other a folded banknote and the other gave him a teeny tiny packet of drugs or a teabag. Maybe it was dried catnip, that’s supposed to help you relax. Not sure if you can smoke it, though. I think it was hash or maybe worse. Then, Weasel dived on the bus just as it was finally about to pull away.

He sat at the back. Right across the aisle from me. Great. I reflected it was a good thing I was listening to music on my phone rather than using it to film the ‘transaction’. A scenario ran through my head where said weasel followed me and mugged me for my phone, or whipped out a knife. The only weapon I’ve got is a one inch blunt penknife on my key-ring, given to me by my 82-year old Dad. I doubt it would cut through butter let alone a vicious drug-thug. Or a pen. Matt Damon and Daniel Craig know how to use a pen as a weapon, I however, only write with mine. It’s not mightier than the sword when someone else has an actual sword.

He reeked of marijuana–it’s a horrid smell, especially when stale. And to keep up his hard-man image, he put on some ‘music’, sans headphones,which consisted of someone screeching profanities, making Artificial Smile sound like a lullaby. His knee bounced uncontrollably. He couldn’t sit still. He really needed that fix.

A lady sitting further down the bus with her small daughter, asked him to turn it down a bit. But all she got was a stream of obscenities in return. So she started to scream obscenities at him in her frustration. An elderly man with a hearing aid waded in, whilst Weasel began to defend his human rights to listen to vile, hate-filled stuff really loudly in public.  Ah the benefits of public transport. The council will never get people to give up using their cars until they get people to be pleasant and considerate towards others. I don’t see it happening, do you? Needless to say, the rest of the journey was a filth-addled nightmare.

This is why I like writing stories about a world when a gentleman would doff his cap and say, ‘Excuse me madam, please forgive the intrusion, but could you possibly turn down your Polish Alternative Rock for a moment or two, I’m trying to catch the jolly old cricket score on the transistor radio. I’d be most awfully grateful.’ Upon which I would say, ‘Gosh, yes, I’m so sorry, I had no idea it was so shockingly loud. How silly of me. I do beg your pardon.’ And we’d all get along swimmingly. That’s not much to ask, is it?

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Author interview – Emma Baird: multi-genre author extraordaire!

It’s been a little while since I last did an author interview, and I recently ‘met’ Emma Baird by the magical medium of the Interweb. With her recent release of her novel The Girl Who Swapped, I thought this would be the perfect time to interrogate her before she can recover from post-publication exhaustion.

Hi Emma, it’s great to have this chance to find out a bit more about you. Q1. What kind of books do you write?

Women’s fiction – which is a broad church, thankfully. So, I can write fantasy, chick lit, young adult, contemporary fiction, humour, adventure stories, thrillers, crime fiction… You get the picture. Women, luckily, are very open-minded about what they read. And they tend to read voraciously. I think that gives writers so much freedom.

Q2. What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?

I just read. And read. Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens and a lot of Greek mythology which meant I was useful for crossword clues.

I do remember loving Judy Blume. She tapped into the 80s child psyche so well. If I mentioned Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret or Forever – I’m sure there are lots of people who would nod along, saying ‘Yup! Loved those books.’ I did have to work my way through understanding American food references, though. Graham Crackers, digestives, basically.

And er… my mum had a copy of a Jackie Collins book, and a friend and I used to sneak into her room and read it. Now, that was educational.

Lol I bet it was. My parents used to go through my books quite carefully to check they were suitable. I’m glad to say a few things slipped through! They didn’t realise I read their books too! Q3. I know you’ve only recently released The Girl Who Swapped, which I’ve read and really loved by the way, so what are you working on at the moment?

 What can we look forward to in the future from you?

Oof. I went through this mad writing phase last year and finished quite a few books. They are not fit to be unleashed, however.

I do have one book that I’m quite fond of, a coming of age tale that needs a little French polishing. It is set in a small Scottish town, and it tackles lack of confidence, homosexuality, crime and acceptance. The working title is Artists Town, though I’m working on that too. Re-writing and revising is the really important bit. I wish I could find a way to stop procrastinating about it. My way of dealing with rewriting is to start another story instead!

Q4. What are your favourite authors? What are you reading now?

Otherwise, I’ve just finished Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac, as I adore many of the 20thCentury women writers. I re-read my way through Barbara Pym’s books a couple of years ago, and I really enjoyed Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop. I love their observational skills, and the way they make the ‘ordinary’ so interesting.

I LOVED Lauren Graff’s Fate and Furies – and she’s a much more current writer. Special mention too, to Fiona Walker and Marion Keyes (women’s fiction experts extraordinaire). I’ve read all their books – and Marion Keyes is vastly entertaining to follow on Twitter.

Q5. What do you do when you’re not reading?

Cook. I love cooking. I don’t do anything else while doing it, but prep and cook, so it feels mindful. I walk a lot, as it’s easy exercise. Kind of fond of drinking wine too… (interestingly, you can drink and write, but you can’t drink and read!) Also, I’m very much into the 21st Century habit de jour – Netflix binge watching. What the flip did we do before Netflix?!

Q6. What is your writing process?

Boringly prosaic. A word count per day. I set it low. I read a book by Martha Beck years ago about the importance of setting small goals. So, mine is 200 words every day. As it is so low, most days I manage 500 words, so every day I get to feel like I’ve over-achieved my goal. The day job helps with that too. I’m a copywriter – blogs, website content, product descriptions, e-books, video scripts, etc. The usual deal is you get paid by word count, so that discipline makes writing for yourself a lot easier.

At least you’ve got a process that works for you! Emma, thanks so much for ‘popping along’, and I wish you every success with The Girl Who Swapped, and with your future projects. I’m looking forward to reading your Scottish-based book hopefully fairly soon. But you can’t rush these things! To find out more about Emma and her work, please follow the links below:

Links

http://emmabaird.com

http://diabetesdietblog.com

Twitter @Glitterbaker

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