Colin Tucker

London-based novelist, writer and screenwriting coach

IT’S ME ELF, INNIT

IT’S ME ELF, INNIT

For all the many people who must have wondered at my rudeness in not responding to messages here’s a brief (well, brief-ish) attempt to excuse myself. My health hasn’t been too good. A checklist for those interested:
2006. Parkinson’s diagnosed.
2013. Heart attack, triple heart bypass and a wobble involving fluid in my chest.
2014. Obscure blood cancer, essential thrombocytemia, incurable but controllable.
2015. Bowel cancer. Surgery to hack out a chunk of gut and currently half-way through a course of chemo to deal with a couple of escapee nodules.
I do feel that this is all a little OTT. But it’s all containable or will be once the chemo’s finished. Still, my inability to follow through messages isn’t excused by this; it has simply had the effect of increasing my natural laziness. I’ll try to do better in future.

THE BALD PRIMA DONNA

In the summer of 1963 I went to Paris to meet my girlfriend. She’d been doing a vacation job in Copenhagen. We didn’t get the dates right and I found myself with two days in the city on my own. As a drama student and a lover of film I headed first for the Cinematheque where I saw an ancient version of Manon Lescaut, probably the German silent directed by Arthur Robison. Watching it I know I felt like a serious person, a proper scholar. I can remember nothing about the film itself.
I next went to see what was already France’s longest running theatre show, the Parisian answer to London’s The Mousetrap. It was playing at the tiny Theatre de la Huchette and was a double bill of Ionesco’s La Leçon and La Cantatrice Chauve. I’m not sure whether this says anything about the cultural differences between the two cities and if so, what. What I can say is that while La Leçon has joined Manon Lescaut in the blank stretches of dead memories La Cantatric Chauve has become a part – if a very small one – of my life.
It’s a piece of sublime absurdist drama inspired by the textbooks that Ionesco had used while learning English. The Martins visit the Smiths and engage in conversations of the utmost banality. Non-sequitur follows non-sequitur. A maid becomes involved as does her boyfriend, a fireman. He mentions la cantatrice chauve – The Bald Prima Donna of the title – but why remains unclear. Looking for meaning is of course pointless.
Why should I remember this play? In fact I remember only one repeated motif, a momentary action and a chanted phrase. This phrase has become embedded in my brain to come trotting out whenever appropriate and more frequently when not. There’s some small hiatus in the action at which the characters turn to face each other, spread their arms and chant in unison:
“Comme c’est curieux, comme c’est bizarre.”
I find this wonderful, a profoundly satisfactory response to, well, almost anything. I do find however that the smaller the event the better. A supermarket trolley inadequately stowed? “Comme c’est curieux, comme c’est bizarre.” The post wrongly delivered? A bruised apple? A tall girl holding hands with a shorter man? You get the idea, I’m sure.
My girlfriend duly arrived and matters cultural took a different turn, art galleries taking over, plus visits to various institutions with literary connections – La Coupole, Les Deux Magots. All very enjoyable but for me nothing has quite achieved the longevity of:
“Comme c’est curieux, comme c’est bizarre.”

BERTHA

BERTHA
I’ve just had three nights in Lewisham Hospital (don’t ask) bored out of my skull with nothing much to do other than think while various splendid people busied themselves on my behalf.
I thought about:
‘Time’s ruins and the seven laws,’ and realised that much though I love the line I hate the poem it’s embedded in. Eliot’s anti-semitism gets worse every time I encounter it. So I stopped thinking about it.
Then I thought about my struggles with my novel, The Prince Of Bad Ideas, and wondered if the current in-revision version needs less reflection and more events. More comedy, too. After all that was the original intention, to write a comedy, if at times a sad one, a comedy of desperation in denial. But I didn’t have my lap-top with me. So I stopped thinking about it.
Then I thought about poems. And that turned into thinking about songs and I realised that I wanted badly, very badly, to hear yet again one of my favourite female blues singers delivering what I regard as one of the greatest blues tracks ever. So once I was discharged and had arrived home I put it on and luxuriated in it, and in its second version.
Pratt City Blues was first recorded in Chicago in1926. There’s a pianist, Richard M. Thomas, who deserves the greatest respect because he does nothing to draw attention away from the two he’s accompanying. He knows how good they are so he simply plays a few supportive chords and let’s them do their stuff. The singer is a young woman called Bertha Hill. She’s utterly unlike Bessie Smith; there’s none of the drama that Smith invests in her songs. She’s plain, direct, uninflected. I picture Bertha standing unmoving in front of the microphone, monolithic, rooted, letting the song do its work without embroidery. But there is embroidery, and what embroidery! It comes from a young man called Louis Armstrong. He plays cornet, not trumpet, and uses the lightness of the instrument to dance around the unflinching voice, filigree cascades of notes weaving in and out, pointing up the singer’s simplicity and majesty and the solemnity of the song. And then in under three minutes it’s over. And has to be played again. And again. Until I skip intervening tracks to play… the second version.
The singer is always credited as Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill and this interpolated nickname is an additional, writer’s reason for my interest in her, because ‘chippie’ was a word which in Afro-American culture of the time had a sliding scale of meaning. At the lighter end it meant simply a young girl who was out for fun, with possibly but not necessarily a sexual content to the fun. But ‘chippie’ could also mean a girl who would, for an inducement perhaps, put out if requested. And then moving up the scale to the heavier end ‘chippie’ meant , quite unequivocally, a hooker, a streetwalker.
Why this nickname? Bertha was barely out of her teens when she started recording and the most likely explanation seems to me a P.R. exercise to exploit her youth, a nudge, nudge, wink, wink idea – hey, this singer is a fun girl, sure, but maybe, maybe she’s also been, or perhaps still is, a hooker. Other songs she recorded at the time build on this sexual hint. Sport Model Mama for example has lyrics in which she compares herself to an expensive car, ‘out on the rack for pay’ and adds ‘you can come down and buy me.’
Pratt City Blues is equally unequivocal: ‘You walk Sandusky with your head hung low.’ It’s undoubtedly a street-walker’s song, but it has none of the brazen assertiveness of Sport Model Mama. It’s the song of a defeated woman, honest, retaining dignity but saturated with the sad reality of the street-walker’s life. It’s beautiful but it reinforces the idea that the singer is, or has been, a hooker. Did Bertha approve of this exploitation of her youth? I doubt it.
I’d first heard Pratt City Blues on a compilation record produced by Paul Oliver. It was later that trawling through the Document Records site, a treasure trove of blues, spirituals, ‘race’ records and other popular and in their time largely ignored musical forms, I came across a CD of Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill, 1925 to 1929, the tracks in order of recording. Number 10 on the playlist is Pratt City Blues. Number 24 on the playlist, the last one, is… Pratt City Blues.
At first I hated it; it was so totally unexpected, a complete reversal of the first. It’s anything but solemn and statuesque, it’s up-tempo, with a jump-style pianist, unidentified but possibly Georgia Tom, a banjoist, a string bass player with a lively slap style, probably Bill Johnson, and vocal interjections from the vaudeville entertainer and drag artist Frankie ‘Half-pint’ Jaxon. And then as I played it again and again I began to like it, and then to love it, and at last to understand it. The music bounces, full of life, of joie de vivre, of the sheer fun of being alive and enjoying yourself. The result is as unequivocal as the first version, but the message this time is: I’m a young girl out for fun. Yes, the ‘head hung low’ line is still there but it’s undercut by Jaxon’s shout of ‘let it hang!’ It’s now no more than a temporary blip, a momentary querying of the new interpretation, to be considered and then dismissed. This version of Pratt City Blues is in short Bertha reclaiming herself, rejecting the P.R. nudge, announcing that this, and only this, is the reality of who and what she is. What’s more the recording marks the end of her career, and so acts as a deliberate full stop. She produces nothing more until 1946 when she emerges briefly to record three low-key tracks accompanied by the pianist Montana Taylor and two accompanied by another pianist, ‘Mr. Freddie’ Shayne. What scanty biographical details I’ve come across tell me no more than that in the interim she raised a family and continued to sing in various clubs in Chicago and New York. A photograph of her in the 1940’s club shows an unglamorous middle-aged woman with rimless glasses. I find it beautiful. She died in a road accident in 1950.
Words shift with context. This is what for me helps to make the business of writing so exhilarating and so difficult. The two versions of Pratt City Blues exemplify this. They also warn against making easy assumptions. Slogans are always worth a measure of distrust.

FONT DISASTER

What’s this? Where did Trebuchet go? God, how I loathe computers.

I’M STILL HERE

Yes, not dead yet, though I’ve had a nodding acquaintance with the old feller before the quacks saw him off. The blog itself may also have seemed near extinction, but I’m not quite prepared for that either.

Resuscitation then, and to mark the occasion I’ve switched font. I was introduced to Trebuchet by Ben Gibson, the former Director of the London Film School, when I was working there. It’s a clean, precise font which sets a standard for me in the chaotic shambles of office, with my laptop perched amid the detritus that threatens to swamp my desk. Only threatens, mind you, I can always find a way to clear a space by the simple system of piling. Yes, piling. Here’s a pile of stuff, largely paper but probably containing a photograph or two, a flyer for a long-closed fringe play, the carcase of a cartridge, whatever (a favourite word, whatever, I have to watch it’s over-use) and onto it goes… yes, another pile, which move reveals the green mock-leather surface of my certainly-not-period partner’s desk (or are the 1990’s period now?) and work can commence.
Simple, see? Is piling not the future?
Anyway, that’s part of Trebuchet’s function, to remind me that clarity can actually be a good thing. If only it can be achieved. That is to say, if I can be bothered to try. Whatever.

So: restarting the blog. Why? Well, I’ve finished novel number two, finished except for the inevitable fiddling I can’t stop doing, and finished bar the edit job I’ve paid for from someone I don’t know who will I trust perform a properly cold and objective analysis of all the things that are wrong with it and which I can’t see without help. The editor as guide-dog? I bravely said that I wanted brutality. And there’s a part of me that does want it, a rational, questioning part. Do I want to sell the bloody thing? Odds agin being what? 66-1? If so, brutality is required. Of course what I fantasise about is fawning adulation, the pronouncement that the thing is nothing short of perfection, that publishers dream of being offered such brilliance. I like fantasising. I anticipate brutality.
Anyway, I’m free now and can start… what? Another such purgatorial exercise in futility? A short story? I’ve got a Leo one marinating, which should fill up a few hours, days, weeks, but I’m not yet in the mood for Leo.
Trouble is, the creative wells, never deep, are silted up, and need a good thunderstorm to sweep away the mud and dust and start pumping again. At least in the meantime I can turn my attention once again to this blog. But what about?

A good friend, a proper writer with books to her name, has written about the shortage of strong women in mainstream fiction and it’s a topic that interests me. I know what she means; the tendency is to sensitivity, and, regrettably, to suffering as the female lot. Where are the toughies, the kick-butt women who know what they want and set out to get it?
So here’s a suggestion: I’ve spent my working life in the too often unrewarding fields of drama, as a producer (the unrewarding percentage high) and as a screenwriting tutor (blessedly, thoroughly, 90+% rewarding). And in the world of drama there are tough women, plenty of them. The Scandinavians are particularly good at producing them, from Miss Julie and Hedda and Nora up to today’s tattooed girl and the splendidly direct, Asperger’s direct, heroine of The Killing. But why should this be? Why should drama deliver so many strong women when the novel struggles?
I shall answer my own question in one word: actors. I nearly wrote actresses, but that’s quite correctly a word that’s now out of favour, viewed with suspicion for carrying connotations of women as different creatures, despite sharing the same profession, with the same challenges and disappointments as men. It suggests old-style femininity, Downton Abbey twaddle, all frills and lace and delicacy, and should be discarded. Cast members are now all actors. And actors set the tone. Vanessa Redgrave is a good example of an actor who by her very existence demands strong parts, and gets them. Janet McTeer is another powerhouse. It’s the strength, the physicality of these actors that brings into existence appropriate vehicles. This demanding, tangible muscularity says: take notice, write for me, give me something big and raw to get my teeth into. They don’t rely on the writer’s imagination to conjure up the powerful roles, they are there, present, real.

A footnote: there’s something I hope my guide-dog will notice. My cast of characters includes one I regard as a strong woman, one of the novel’s six subsidiary narrators and one who gives the main narrator (male) a properly hard time, so much so that he dubs her Cerberus, after the hell-hound of Greek myth. What d’you think, Fido?

SO, WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

The question that’s always asked of any writer.

The question I dread.

 

In part, this is because the honest answer is one that usually means nothing to the questioner. DOUGLAS BROWN, RUNNING DOWN has a central character with early onset Parkinson’s Disease, but it isn’t about P.D. It deals with it, sure, and provides – I hope – some interesting information on the subject. It could be said to provide, in ad-speak, a Unique Selling Proposition, the thing that makes the book stand out, and it’s certainly a useful way of fending off the question. But it isn’t what the novel’s about, not really. It provides the subject-matter, certainly, but there’s something else that lies behind it, the fundamental reason for writing. There’s story, there has to be story, and in this novel there are two linked storylines, one to do with the job Douglas has been asked to undertake and the other to do with his daughter, Kirsty. But story doesn’t these answer the question, either. What then does?

 

Of course there’s always Dr. Johnson’s dictum – ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote but for money,’ – and much though I revere the great man, I have to disagree. Or perhaps I prove him right; I’m indulging myself in a gross folly?

 

No, there’s another motivation, the one that makes me want to write a particular story, this story and not that story, that makes some ideas fizzle out, fail to sustain my interest, die on me. It’s the business of writing itself, of language and the use of language. That’s what DOUGLAS BROWN is about. That’s what my prize-winning short story THE GOAT is about. It’s just an answer that isn’t what the questioner wants to hear, it’s poncey, it’s pompous, it’s pretentious. It’s unfortunately true. I have many story ideas which dribble into the sand shortly after I start them because they don’t give me the right buzz, the one that comes from language, from the fascinating technical challenge of telling a story in the right way, in the way it should be told.

THE IRRELEVANCE OF STRUCTURE

I was in Munich earlier this year, for the day job – teaching screenwriting at the Film School. In the past I used to prepare, plan, anticipate in great detail, but as things have evolved over the years I’ve become less and less rigorous, less and less pre-planned. To be truthful, I don’t plan at all, I simply acquaint myself with the material, and start a conversation. And for three hours the student and I talk, mostly about the script but not exclusively. One thing I do try to do, though, is to downplay the various banalities that go with screenplay theory, turning points, three-act structure, story arcs, all the dull, prescriptive, restrictive gubbins that gets regurgitated by the dogma-peddlers and, I believe, gets in the way of, becomes a substitute for, creativity. However I invariably find myself giving way and resorting to it, largely because It seems that this sort of theorising acts as a security blanket for the students. They feel naked without it.

An example. One student got worried because, as a result of our conversation a weakness in his script became apparent, a sequence which took the story on a detour – but it was a weakness with an obvious solution. Lose it, I said, you’re way too long anyway, so lose it, all of it, it’s a sequence which you’ve identified as redundant so why keep it?

He was aghast. It’s my mid-point, he said, I planned it that way, how can I lose my mid-point? Because it’s an arbitrary stupidity, I didn’t say, a piece of theory invented to shore up the importance of the expert, with no organic truth to it at all. Just tell the story, lose the boring bits, be truthful to your characters and let mid-points and other such imbecilic clutter go hang. In the end all I said was: because you don’t need it. He’s thinking on.

The word that sits behind all this neediness, the word which encompasses all of it, is of course ‘structure’. For me, this is a word that opens the door to sloganised thinking. It’s a weasel word, one of those that may be practical in origin but when imported into the world of theory start to turn slippery. The structure of a building, yes, but the structure of a screenplay, a novel? The meaning doesn’t reduce to a neat, comprehensible package but on examination begins to expand, to become baggy. It’s the end-product of a combination of other factors, inseparable from character, theme, place, point of view. It can’t be isolated, as the word used on its own might imply. And because it lacks a specific, narrow, precise function it’s useless. It may have validity as a critical tool, but when we turn to the business of creative writing it is entirely irrelevant. Get rd of it.

MAPS V SATNAV

I’ve always loved maps. As a child I was entranced first of all by the business of unfolding them, opening them up, entering into the parallel world that they revealed. I knew that they had a function, to give direction, to relate space to space, but this wasn’t the initial attraction. For me as a child maps were stories, as yet unformed, but crying out to come alive. I began to draw maps of imaginary places, usually islands,and these islands had towns and villages, designated by little square blocks of habitation, accessed by red roads and blue rivers and situated on hatched seaboards. They were at first unpeopled, at least not with individuals; they were sufficiently alive not to need specific human beings. They had gazetteers, though, and tables of population statistics. Hotels and garages were important, too, because of their prominence in one of my favourite books: the AA handbook. Looking back, I think that the underlying function of these maps and their support material was to situate me in a mental understanding of the physical world. That achieved, I could introduce the human element.

Much later when I began to write I came to see the map as a valuable step in the process of creation. Once the physical world was in place I could move on to the organisation of the emotional world. Or was it the threat of potential chaos in the emotional world that needed rooting in the simple clarity of the map? Maps were, are, the basis from which stories sprung. They help me to shape the world, help to put me in control; they are a step in the business of interrogating my material. They offer choices and guide my decision-making. With a shaping device, a map, I can begin to organise my thoughts, to find my story’s place in the universe.

Satnavs do not offer this. Their functionality is essentially reductive. They give instructions and by doing so – if we obey – take over from us our need to choose. The jokey stories of satnavs taking hapless drivers hundreds of miles in the wrong direction may be seen as comments on the gullibility of the individuals themselves but they are also significant in that they flag up the destructive potential of technology. More importantly this abdication of responsibility robs us of the satisfaction to be got from addressing the map, unfolding it, interpretng it – and choosing.

Satnavs reduce, maps expand.

MEA CULPA

Why haven’t I written anything for weeks now? I could say ‘writers’ block’ but that’s just a convenient get-out, ultimately meaningless. I need to get beyond that, if I’m to understand whatever it is that’s depriving me of any creative spark. So what’s holding me back?
Suspect one: the publishing industry. My agent sent DOUGLAS BROWN, RUNNING DOWN to nine publishers’ editors last September and we’re still waiting for a reaction from eight of them. The one response – a rejection – was positive, and courteous. But until the others have delivered their verdicts I feel paralysed.
Suspect two: the field’s too wide. A historical novel? Set in the 1950’s perhaps? That dull, dull, dull decade which saw me enter teenager status? It deserves a kicking. The 1960’s can’t be understood without an appreciation of the emotional, cultural, sexual desert that preceded it. Or could I exploit my four years in BBC Radio in the late sixties, early seventies? Both these are open to comedy, which I suspect is my thing, however much I might try to present a serious face to the world. No, the world is absurd and comedy is how to deal with it.
Suspect three: the narrator. In DAR it was the omniscient author with a few drifts into free indirect style allowing Walter’s thoughts to be presented direct. DOUGLAS was first person throughout; 85% of the narrative coming from yer man himself with the remainder parcelled out to the five other narrators. I preferred this, but somehow it only seems to work for me in a contemporary setting. And I haven’t got one; only historical ideas bubble up.
Suspect four: plotting. I need a story, with an end-point, and a driver which will get me there. The route’s irrelevant, it’ll emerge, but without that endpoint… The ideas I have are all to do with territory, the fields in which the story is to be set, none with story itself. And until I locate story, I’m paralysed…

A MYSTERY

Having had the benefit of a devoutly Roman Catholic education, courtesy the Loreto Nuns, the de la Salle Brothers and the Irish Christian Brothers I’m now a devout atheist. You might think I’d also like to view myself as an appropriately rational and logical thinker. But I’m saved from that dry and dust-spotted fate by the insistent, not-to-be-ignored parade of convincing illogicalities and mysteries I encounter on a regular basis. Most of these are down to language, in particular to the English language and its astonishing ability to transcend the literal. An example is required? Right. Kindly explain the following, which is both the title of a poem and the closing line in each of the two short verses that constitute the poem.

The Emperor of Ice-cream is by Wallace Stevens. It describes the preparations for the funeral of an elderly woman. The first verse ends with the couplet:

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

The second verse ends:

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

 

I find this line simple, beautiful and intensely moving. But what does it mean? The only emperor? Ice-cream? Does this add up to anything that makes any sense whatsoever? What logic can we apply to it to winkle content out of it? I can’t discern any. It’s a flat statement, an assertion that seems both utterly sure of itself and at the same time defies analysis. It goes further, it mocks the rational.

And it’s wonderful. I wish I could have written it; I wish that one day I could write something as fine, though I doubt it. What it does, for me at least, is to encapsulate the  mystery of language. It’s why I myself try to write, to make up for my jettisoning of God and all the tedious unprovable and often contradictory claptrap that goes with belief. I write to participate in a mystery.