22 December 2011

Killing Me Deftly With His Song

He was on the bus from Orgiva to Granada – good-looking and leather-jacketed, but agitated, fidgety, speaking out loud to himself and louder still on his mobile phone.  He swooped like a chattering magpie on the El PaĆ­s newspaper scarcely out of the fingers of the passenger six rows forward.  He whistled.  He hissed between his teeth.  He hummed snatches of song, tapped relentlessly on the metallic handgrip on the seat in front.

At Granada bus station, he joined the queue for tickets to Malaga but warbled impatiently when the line crept agonisingly slowly, though he need not have been so exercised with a full forty-five minutes to spare before the next departure.

As luck would have it, our destinations were entwined.  He boarded my bus to Malaga, sat two rows behind, and stridently addressed no one and everyone. Then his personal soundtrack recommenced – and certain songs began to fall into place.  Surely that was a chunk of the old film High Noon, then the TV theme music of The Saint, and that was, yes, how appropriate, Killing Me Softly With His Song

A first view of the Mediterranean Sea unleashed a new barrage of sound effects –  whooping sirens, brassy trilling, bird twitter, dum-de-dums, cartoon boing-boings.  And throughout the hours on the road, the Andalucian passengers showed admirable tolerance. Although they didn’t quite follow the lead and join him in a rousing bout of community improvisation, they nevertheless did the next best thing. They didn’t bat an eyelid.  They didn’t groan.  They didn’t squirm. 

So was the problem, then, with me?  Me with palms going sweaty, earholes craving headphones, larynx holding back a scream, and innards cursing and fuming.  Me fixated on decorum and silence and boundaries and keeping your cotton-pickin’ self to yourself.  Me small again, silent, in the wings, watching someone with the sheer chutzpah to let it all hang out. Me in awe, me in wonder at a person simply dripping with sound.

14 December 2011

Haven't You Finished Your Novel Yet?

It’s not so much the scope of the question above that’s tricky, but the little word “yet” with its finger-wagging accusation. 

Every time I’ve been asked this question about my novel The Hand-Me-Down Madonna, some seven years in the making, I’ve been cagey. What in heaven’s name have I been doing all this time?  Clearly fiddle-faddling instead of knuckling down to the task at hand. 

But Andrew Holgate, literary editor of The Sunday Times, has come to the rescue.  Out of the four books that he has selected as novels to watch out for in 2012, two of them, he notes with some significance, took ten years to complete.  (Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.)   

So now I would prefer to suggest that my (rather youthful) book has been marinading all this while, or at least maturing in a cask that allows its contents to get stirred occasionally, each instance making the brew more palatable.

And this puts a new complexion on the gestation period of a future novel.  With a whole decade to play with, the scraps of dialogue, would-be scenes, and back story that at the moment are floating around undefined in the ether do not need to be rushed or churned out.  I can relax and wait to see what characters emerge out of the mist (today a lapsed monk, a cattle rustler, and a tango dancer) then lock them together in the close and sweaty confines of an A4 page.

Ten years could allow it to be a novel of extraordinary scope, poised precariously between ideologies, with postcard-scrawled recipes or snatches of verse.  Ten years could see it journey to Canada and the lakes of northern Ontario where the loons call and the space expands.  Or go continental, board the Eurostar and drink Pernod in Paris.  Or carry its fraying rucksack into a forgotten village of desperate secrets, where the bar is struggling to fill itself even more than the bell-towered church, and where the weeds grow mean and waist-high.     

And so it is fine for a book to murmur, sometimes almost out of earshot, sometimes as audible as laughter in the cellar or a footfall on the one creaky stair.  It has permission to flit, flirt, tease.  It can even, if it must, mass like a ravenous swarm of August mosquitoes outside a screen door.

Two months down.

Plenty of time…

8 December 2011

The Curious Tale of Alfred

Alfred is the ghostly mascot of our band.  Invisible to audiences, his presence yet underpins
and colours every gig.  Sometimes I think I catch glimpses of him at the back end of the bar, angled across the pool table.  Or drumming his fingers on the round table in the corner, his forearm tattooed with the guitar tab for Purple Haze.

Alfred is essential. Alfred comes with the territory.  Alfred is the sine qua non. Especially at those moments when volunteers bob up and ask us if they can take part in a number – like Tommy who once stepped forward clutching a tambourine and sporting a bicycle chain wrapped so tightly around his neck to threaten asphyxiation before verse two.  Or Ed, the saxophonist, who started creatively but then contracted with the devil and fog-horned across vocals and guitar solo.  Or Doug, the predatory pianist, who has perfected the technique of hovering with hands in the air, already shaping a jazzy E 7th chord to deposit on the keyboards the moment vigilance is lost.

Alfred has much more finesse.  Though I imagine him painting in his spare time – giant rugged canvases for love, kitchens for money - he is first and foremost a consummate musician, wild-eyed on a flute, slinky on a five-string bass, haunting on a violin, ballistic on a Les Paul. Vocally he is smoothed gravel, his pitch as perfect as his teeth.  He is ramshackle-cool.  He is inspiration and aspiration.

We’re proud that our band is called for him.   And whereas, on the odd occasion, our audiences may have wanted to tinker with our name – Shut Up Alfred or Sod Off Alfred – for us it’s always been a case of Stand Up Alfred, Get Your Ass Over Here Alfred, Take a Bow Alfred.

30 November 2011

The Naming of Names

This season used to be noteworthy for its harvest of names.  

At the college where I worked as an English teacher, the most colourful haul of names habitually came from China and the international students who redubbed themselves with a western alias to use during their stay in England.  Certainly, it made life easier for those who could not get their tongues around the pronunciation of Xiaoqian or Guo Peng.  Some names evolved during the taxi ride from Heathrow Airport and were duly workaday.  Alan.  KevinSusan.  Stephanie.  Others had a tinge of the exotic.  Gemini and Ice arrived as a matched pair at the college one morning, either side of their beaming agent.

Edison landed from Beijing, his name a fait accompli.  But three weeks into term his friend, Yu, stated that he, too, now wanted a western name. 

He wished to be called Beethoven.

“Why have you chosen this name?” I asked.
“I like,” he answered.
“Do you like his music?”
“Beethoven.  His music.”
“I don’t understand”
“He was a composer.”

“He wrote music.  Do you know his music?”
“If your name is Beethoven, people might make fun of you.”
“Da-da-da-DA.  Da-da-da-DA,” I sang.  The beginning of the Fifth Symphony.  
He looked blank. 
“People may laugh,” I explained.  “Or do you want this name because you saw the movie with the dog called Beethoven?”
He shrugged his shoulders.  He had not seen this film.
“We have no problem with your Chinese name.  It’s very nice.  I’m happy to call you Yu.”
“My name not Yu-Yu, but Yu.”
“Yes, I know.  You are Yu.”
“No.  Not Yua-Yu.  Yu.”

Yet how understandable this urge for reinvention.  I have always fancied the idea of changing and transforming, of shedding a skin.  And oh to walk the unknown paths of a foreign country - with clean slate, nothing to barter, and a soubriquet that would translate as On a wing and a prayer

For SNW.  It is his day.

23 November 2011

A Woman in Goggles Mimics My Movements

The title of this blog spot is taken from a poem I wrote after a visit to the local swimming pool where, in the shallow end, I did a bit of front crawl, water treading and (extremely average) breast stroke. A woman in thick goggles and swimming cap stared.

“How do you do that?” she asked.

And I thought, how long have you got?  How long have I got?   I can’t just impart in five minutes something it’s taken me a lifetime to learn.

Yet I have come to realise two important things since I wrote that poem:

1.              I too am a woman in goggles – impatiently expecting others to use shortcuts to pour their knowledge into me, rather than facing up to the necessary commitment.

2.              Being asked to function as teacher is an honour not to be discarded lightly.

Mimicking the movement of others in the shallow end can be a useful starting point.  Getting to the deep end on your own is another matter.

This is the poem:

A Woman in Goggles Mimics My Movements

She’s at my heels, demanding that I do it again
only this time making it slower and more obvious,
as if my actions can be cornered and boxed
as a gift set that’s hers for the taking

without negotiation, without attorneys present
baying in Chicago accents about piracy,
blood money, copyright, patents,
royalties, trademarks, syndication deals.

And though the act of imitation may be small beer
in the drive to be someone else,
like battling into jeans tailored for other hips
or fantasising audiences by singing into a banana,

I would rather she did not plagiarise my steps,
gloss over the ten years to perfect a pirouette,
the sixteen to cartwheel out of danger,
the twenty-seven to handspring across the floodplains,

and I would rather that she, if hell-bent on copying,
were a smidgeon more frisky, a touch less bulb-eyed
than this frayed, itinerant soul – my doppelganger
come to repossess me, so long after nightfall.

© Katie Griffiths