9th March 2012
The process of coming up with an idea for a story is mysterious. Harlan Ellison liked to lie that he got all his ideas by post from a service in Schenectady. It’s not like Sudoku, where certain rules, rigorously applied, will always solve the problem. Yet it is something of a puzzle to be solved. I spend a lot of time on this when I’m teaching, because for many students getting started is the biggest obstacle. This is the process I used to come up with the idea for my story Starfield for Edinburgh City of Literature’s enLIGHTen project.
I got the commission email in last thing on a Friday. That weekend featured two tough deadlines, and I was teaching on the Monday evening, so I didn’t really engage with it until Tuesday. At which point I learned they wanted a piece of flash fiction by Friday, for audio delivery, to a very specific brief.
The story had to relate to David Hume’s old house, previously at 8 South St. David’s Street. It also had to be a response to a quote by the poet Allan Ramsay:
Schools polite shall lib’ral Arts display,
And make auld barb’rous Darkness fly away.
Now, understand, my normal process for writing a story includes leaving it in a drawer for two weeks, and having it workshopped at a monthly session with Writers’ Bloc. I am also absolutely dreadful at writing to themes. It’s just not how my idea factory works. I contacted Peggy at City of Literature and blagged a weekend extension to the deadline.
So now I was committed to doing this in about five days. It wouldn’t be the writing that would be the problem; 600 words is nothing. The challenge would be coming up with a workable, on-topic idea, and forcing it to come quickly. I saw three possible entry points: the location, David Hume himself, or liberal arts.
I had time on Wednesday to walk down to David Hume’s house and look around. The actual pavement in front of the plaque, which is very high up for a casual observer, was dominated by black binbags and dirty phoneboxes. I shot a photo panorama, which came out distinctly uninspiring. However, I was intrigued to discover this crest on the same building, around the corner:
To find out more I headed to the Council’s historical planning records office on Cockburn Street. I explained what building I was interested in and was trusted with a stack of handwritten cards recording planning applications for St. Andrew Square dating back to 1861.
I could have spent literally all day digging around in these, but I had half an hour until the office closed. I followed the history of the building, number 8 St. Andrew Square. June 3rd, 1955, shows an application by The London & Lancaster Insurance Co, Ltd. to “Demolish Office Block and rebuild New Office”. Subsequent entries refer to Standard Property Investments.
I headed to the Edinburgh Room in Central Library on George IV Bridge to see if I could follow the history of the site. They had a number of photographs covering the area. After a tedious process of form-filling to request them one by one, a helpful man brought me the entire stack. I saw the Ivanhoe Hotel, just down the road, now gone; a splendid dark townhouse across the street, on the corner of Rose Street, now gone; and eventually, a two-storey clothiers named Harrison & Son, on the very spot where the plaque was. It had a two-storey residential extension on top. And yes, it was gone, presumably demolished in 1955.
Fascinating as architectural history is, none of this was really getting me anywhere. David Hume’s actual house had vanished, probably demolished around the 1890s, and the story emerging here was of aesthetically pleasing buildings being replaced by bland grey blocks. It was too generic to address the location and it didn’t refer to the Allan Ramsay quote at all.
As I was close, I popped into the City of Literature offices to say hello and show Ali and Peggy the photos I’d found. Ali recommended James Buchan’s book, Capital of the Mind, for reading on the period and Hume in particular. That was to be my next approach.
My initial knowledge about Hume was rather pitiful. There was that statue of him on the High Street with the shiny toe, of course. But the only philosophy I had studied related to scientific models, and artificial intelligence in particular. Hume’s contribution seemed immense, too much to grasp in such a short time.
I began with Three Minute Philosophy: David Hume and worked up from there, finding a comfortable level of description in some university lecture notes. Two aspects of his thinking seemed promising for a story: his ideas on cause and effect (we never actually experience this happening, we just construct the relationship ourselves) and his ideas on self and identity (we have no mind as such; we exist only as a bundle of perceptions). By this time it was Friday lunchtime.
I'm in a poker school with a bunch of supposedly educated people. On Friday night we were crammed around the table, booze and snacks scattered across the green felt, when it occurred to me to ask if anybody was “into David Hume”. There were a few seconds of awkward silence and then the game resumed.
However, around three in the morning, Ahmed gave me a lift home. He raised the subject again and revealed he was quite the David Hume enthusiast. We talked about Hume’s ideas. Ahmed urged me strongly to read the Treatise of Human Nature. I knew I didn’t have time for that, but our chat kept things uppermost in my mind as I went to bed. I felt there were definite possibilities in Hume’s exploration of self. When our perceptions stop, we are annihilated.
By Saturday afternoon I was ready to explore the final area: liberal arts. I had a feeling this didn’t mean the same thing in Allan Ramsay’s day as it does today. I took a chance, and trusted Wikipedia.
The entry on Liberal Arts was just what I needed. The original three liberal arts were grammar, rhetoric and logic. The medieval period added mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy. I was drawn to this second list, my kind of subjects. For the first time in the process I had the feeling of being onto something; an elusive energy which as a creative person you get to recognise and pursue.
I use mind maps to force myself to think around a subject. (They’re also a good excuse to use coloured pens.) I started a mind map on liberal arts, but only managed to get down maths, music and astronomy when I had the first solid idea. CLUNK. It concerned the Music of the Spheres.
This is another ancient concept: that the movements of celestial bodies produce a kind of harmony. Not one which we can actually hear, but one expressed in terms of proportion and tone. The sun, moon and planets resonate; effectively they hum, and this has an intangible effect on our lives on Earth. Music is mathematical anyway, with harmony expressing ratios of frequency. (If anybody had explained this to me in terms of numbers when I was young, it might have saved my piano teacher, Miss Campbell, a lot of frustration.)
I grabbed Jamie James’s book on the subject, which had been at the bottom of a dusty stack for several years, and got reading about Pythagoras. I didn’t get far, because suddenly there it was, the idea. Combine Hume’s philosophy on self and perception, with this cosmic music. Tap into nighttime fears of insignificance and mortality, and offer reassurance with the omnipresent music of the universe. CLUNK again. I dare say Hume would have dismissed this reassurance … but he wasn’t my target audience.
The scene dressing was easy. The Occupy Edinburgh protest camp had just been evicted from St. Andrew Square. What better setting for existential fears than a tent on a winter night? Sleeping under the stars … and this was the final CLUNK. The structure was there. But one more thing was nagging at me.
I remembered reading an article on sounds made from star vibrations. This endeavour combined music, astronomy, and maths, and conveniently, stars also lit up the Earth. It was a perfect fit for the enLIGHTen project.
I Googled carefully and tracked down a page of sonifications from the Kepler satellite. Listening to them, I thought some could fit behind spoken word without being a distraction. So I sent an email to NASA asking permission … and that was fun in itself. The scientist concerned, Jon Jenkins, was charming and generous. A quick examination of star charts for the proposed night; a nod to David Hume’s house in the southwest of the square … and the first draft was done by Sunday night. Adding the star sounds would come later.
That’s the trail I followed to find the story of Starfield. Feel free to read it. But I would rather you listened to it, and the sounds of the stars.
29th February 2012
Today would have been the 100th birthday of my granny, Mary Fraser Anderson Young (1912–1995). She liked to be called Molly. Because of the leap year, technically it would have been her 25th birthday.
She was a fun granny. I remember little details about her. When I was very small, she would make a swing by hanging a bit of wood from hooks in her kitchen doorway. After she was widowed, she kept two pictures of Grandpa around, one rather stern and one happy after singing at a concert. She would switch them depending on how she felt she had been behaving.
Granny was … I don’t know if religious is quite the word, but she was certainly God-fearing. After I went vegetarian, she told me seriously that she believed God had put the beasts of the field on Earth “for us to eat.” It didn’t seem worth having a disagreement over.
Nevertheless she loved card games, and we often played “A Hundred Up” which is a variant of gin rummy. She also read fortunes in tea leaves, but seemed uneasy about this, like it was a bit wicked. She was horrified when she discovered my cousin had been doing the same thing to raise money at her school fair.
I had barely started doing spoken word when Granny died, and never made a connection with her about it. But I was startled, years later, to find out she had been an enthusiastic and popular turn on the church social scene for her poetry recitations in Scots.
Molly had a stammer when she was young, and so went to elocution lessons. She threw off the stammer and became interested in performance. We’ve still got a folder of her material. There are a lot of scraps — she acquired material from newspapers and friends — and one yellowed Boots two hundred sheet refill pad, where we think she was collecting good versions of each poem. There’s stuff about church mice, Greenock men, the decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde, how a dog is better company than neighbours, and even a gentle nationalist jibe about the English stealing all “oor watter”.
We’ve still got a clipping from the Greenock Telegraph, sometime in the 1930s, which describes her as “Molly Young, the rising elocutionist”.
Happy birthday Gran.
25th October 2011
I often wish that my Edinburgh flat had a door which led to London. I suppose it might lead to complications with the Council Tax, but I would like to be able to drop into the city’s cultural schedule at will without that messy business of travel and accommodation.
I used to live in a plasterboard half-room in Clapham and work in London Bridge, so I’m comfortable getting around the city and seeking out whatever my specialist interest is at the time, whether it’s Egyptology at the Petrie Museum, typography at St. Bride’s or the declining population of pinball machines, of which London is a rich source. (Know any?) I visit once or twice a year on average.
One thing I’ve never properly engaged with is London’s lit scene. I hope to start fixing that next week with a couple of reading slots.
First up on Tuesday 1st November is The Special Relationship at Concrete @ Pizza East, downstairs at 56 Shoreditch High Street. I’ve yet to meet the YARN crew in person but I’ve seen Jarred McGinnis and Sam Taradash read before and they are dead-eye pros. The night seems to lean towards material that crosses art forms, so I will take down some of my music-backed stories from Bloc’s festival offering, Electric Lit Orchestra. 7.30pm start here.
Then on Wednesday 2nd November I’m cruising over to Clerkenwell for the Four Thirty Three magazine live event at the Betsey Trotwood. 4'33" is an audio publication with values close to my heart — keep it tight, hit hard with it — and the Betsey seems to have a staggering regular programme of music and words. It’s at 56 Farringdon Road, 7.30pm.
Can’t wait; hope my delicate Glasgow phrasing will play well to London ears.
29th August 2011
I am jealous of musicians. There. I said it.
As a writer you spend hours staring at blank pages, trying to manipulate your unconscious to come up with something startling and insightful which will touch people on a deep level. Then you crank out the first draft against psychological resistance. Then you hate it. Eventually you go back to it and start rewriting and revising. Finally you agonise over the placement of paragraph breaks and commas. Weeks later you take it to a spoken word event and pour it out and if you got everything else just right, a few people are moved by it.
Compare that to musicians. They get together and work out a few chords, get into a groove and people respond intuitively to the music. We are programmed to change mood depending on the music we hear. If you don’t believe me, try watching a scary film without the soundtrack — or notice how often the hard rock riff kicks in as the action hero finally takes his stand.
Don’t get me wrong; I know how hard it is to become a skilled musician. I play more instruments than you might think — and none of them particularly well. I’m just saying, the pluckers and honkers and plonkers have a natural advantage.
One of the approaches to having a good Edinburgh Festival is to explore a theme. My season this year was coloured by two themes: magic and storytelling — of which another time — and music and storytelling. Even the terrific Devil In The Deck, which incorporated card magic into a story of dire predictions and fateful life choices, had a bloke sitting at the back cranking out fat guitar licks.
Two of the Chemical Poets were working the music in underground chambers. Texture presented a farewell to cyberpunk at the Royal Oak (I wrote “Royal Punk” first time, that would be a good bar) reading to his own music. He used a great little pedal to give some characters a Davros/Transformers voice. The Oak is a folky bar; the music and voice-changer were just what the show needed to lift the audience out of there and into the glittering data fields.
Harlequinade is a guy with a unique artistic vision, and I think it’s fair to say he was doing the only Lovecraftian clown/bouffon rap apocalypse show at the Fringe this year. His Church Of When The Shit Hits The Fan partner Asthmatic Astronaut supplied a lingering soundtrack. We were sitting in an arched cellar of the Banshee Labyrinth and the atmosphere was at its best when the story, and sound effects, sank beneath the waves on a journey to cosmic oblivion in brine.
Of course the main reason I have been thinking about this stuff was our Writers’ Bloc show at the Book Festival. Named Electric Lit Orchestra, I programmed only stories with a musical accompaniment — two of which were enjoyably dodgy: a one-man band and cross-gender karaoke. We brought in punk guitarists, a saxophonist, a cellist and even a small choir. And I can tell you, no matter how good your story is, people still wake up when the music starts.
21st July 2011
Festival time in Edinburgh can be strange for the writer who performs their own work. You walk around a city choked with shows, operating from every conceivable venue, and many, many of them are absolutely dire. Yet unless you got organised six months earlier and paid the almighty price of entry to the Fringe programme, you probably won’t get a gig.
There are exceptions — Itsy’s Kabarett events have some slots if you can handle the intimidation factor of appearing between edgy comedians and beautiful women taking their clothes off. And PBH’s Free Fringe has an entire spoken word programme at the Banshee Labyrinth which you might be able to squeeze into somewhere. But on the whole, you’re more likely to be bumped from your regular haunt by a out-of-town trio singing topical comedy songs, losing money on every show.
Which is why it was refreshing last year to see the arrival of Havers and Blethers. This presented twenty different nights of unpretentious spoken word — powerful stories and poetry delivered by locals and guests, with a little music to taste. It’s back this year in a prime slot, 7.30pm–8.30pm; a central location, the Captain’s Bar on South College Street; and at the time of writing, it still has slots available.
Of course we’re talking here about reading to an open pub, not a sanitised back room populated only by poets waiting for their own slot. But it’s a pub packed with people who appreciate a good poem or a story, and will shut up for long enough to give you a chance. It has an occasional pirate theme, perfect for stories of buried treasure, exotic islands or sea monsters. And it’s beneath the room where William McGonagall died.
If you think you have something that fits the bill — five to eight minutes is about right — then drop the bar a line. Or pop in and ask for Captain Pamela. Yarrrr.
Havers and Blethers, Captain’s Bar, South College Street. 7.30pm–8.30pm, 1st–20th August. FREE admission.