Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Starry starry night

by Bill Kirton

This blog was going to be about one particular event and what I felt about it, but then a second occurred and it changed my perspective on the first. That’s the sort of thing that’s behind many of my short stories and plays. I keep a cutting from a newspaper or a note I’ve made and it just sits there waiting. Then along comes something else which completes it or contradicts it or energises it in some way or another and I write about it. That’s less so the case with novels because they develop in such a leisurely way that what may begin as two incidents soon multiplies into several.

Anyway, I recently spent another very enjoyable weekend visiting my daughter and her two sons in Glasgow. I had a great time and that’s when the first event I mentioned set me musing. Every night she reads them a story and, when they’re in bed, sings them a song. I’m not sure how often she changes the song but every time I’ve heard it it’s been ‘Starry, starry night’, or whatever the correct title is. She has a sweet voice, is pitch perfect and it sounds lovely drifting through from the boys’ room. So the two of them are lying there in the dark hearing this just before they go to sleep and I projected into the future and imagined them as grown men, middle aged even, and how suddenly hearing the song broadcast on whatever the medium will be then might affect them. The potential for drama, poignancy, joy, sorrow is enormous.

And I think that’s the way the writing imagination works. Set up a scenario – a man has just had an huge violent row with his wife, or he’s heard the news that he’ll be the next CEO of a major international company, or the doctor calls him in for the results of his tests, or he’s standing in the empty rooms of the house he’s just sold before emigrating to New Zealand, or his wife’s left him – and so on and so on. And, at one of these extremes, he hears the song, or another song that triggers the memory of his mother’s voice in the gentle, comfortable darkness.

I know it’s not an original thought. Noel Coward, after all, wrote ‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is’ (which, by the way, isn’t as well expressed as it might be; ending the quip with ‘is’ weakens it significantly – the sentence should climax with ‘cheap music’). There were also those powerful plays and films by Dennis Potter which made fantastic use of many old standards. But in this case, it’s the juxtaposition of a moment of exquisite security and loving with perhaps some future turmoil that set me thinking about how the narratives of our lives are far more subtle and textured than many of the fictions we find so entertaining.

And it was while I was wondering how to develop that notion into a blog that I watched a programme which featured the absurd charade of the Queen’s Speech. That’s the thing that happens when parliament resumes after a long recess. For those of you unfamiliar with the rituals, here’s a brief summary.

Queen arrives, puts on special robes and imperial crown, goes into the Lords and says ‘My Lords, pray be seated". Then she nods at the Lord Great Chamberlain to fetch the House of Commons. The LGC lifts his wand (seriously, his wand) to signal to Black Rod (don’t ask) to go and get them. Off he trots (with a police inspector who says "Hats off, Strangers!" to everyone they pass en route). As he gets near to the doors to the Chamber of the Commons, they’re slammed in his face. He has to knock three times with his staff (the Black Rod), and then they let him in.

Oh, that’s enough. I can’t go on. At least the MPs are wearing normal clothes. Everyone else is in breeches, gold stuff, silly hats. It’s embarrassing. And as I was watching all these (apparently) important people doing very silly things, the contrast with the intensity and reality of personal experiences struck me very forcibly. I know that most of my compatriots find these ceremonies admirable and many non-UK residents envy us the traditions and so on, but how absurd that people who are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to cope with the global financial crisis, initiating legislation on health, education, crime, poverty and all the rest have to take part in a pantomime.

That ‘starry, starry night’ drifting through the darkness is in a different realm of truth from the pomp, circumstance and ermine robes of our masters, lords and (a tiny sprinkling of) ladies.


Mark W. Danielson said...

Great post, Bill. Music can definitely set the mind adrift. Everyone has special songs that trigger memories, some pleasant, others not so much. Perhaps in this regard, music is the most influential of the arts.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you for this lovely post, Bill. I think we, on this side of the pond, find all the pomp and circumstance both amusing and admirable in a quaint sort of way. As for the music, I used to sing an Irish lullaby or two to my children at bedtime,and wonder if they remember, now that they're grown.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks Mark and Jean.

Mark, one theme I didn't develop here is the whole business of just sound itself. Words are specific but sounds need to be interpreted. The creaking stair, the bump in the night, or just something which defies rational description - they all have greater visceral impact than a description of the same thing. I wonder whether setting words to music liberates them a little from their meanings.

Jean, they may not remember consciously but I bet the memories are there, buried deep and comfortable, ready to be revived by some oblique trigger - especially if they're Irish songs. My own mum used to sing as she played piano in the pub, so all the old classics have associations with her and bring the love back every time.