A Bit Like That Fella off The Ipcress Files

I’ve mentioned this before in a number of posts but it’s such a feature of my everyday life I think it’s inevitable that it will just keep coming up from time to time.

It’s about me and people’s names and how I have such great difficulty in keeping them in my head. 

I’ve worked at it, I really have. I focus on it when I’m meeting people. I try all the tricks, I repeat your name back to you when you tell it to me. I associate your name with some image in my head, I make a rhyme out of it. Nothing works.  

People tell me it’s a sort of laziness, even a type of arrogance. I’m so interested in what I am about to say to you that I can’t even be bothered hearing you say your own name to me, letting it register. I don’t know about all that. I hope it’s not true. All I know is that I would really like to be able to remember your name and say it back to you as a common courtesy whenever we meet, just like regular people do.

Instead, in an attempt to treat people equally, I will use nobody’s name. Even close friends, whose names I do know, will be treated with a generic ‘Hiya’ or ‘How’s it going?’, probably to draw attention away from the fact that I really don’t know the name of the guy standing next to you.

Anyway, whenever I start with a little spiel about this failing of mine, it invariably leads to an anecdote to illustrate the social problems it regularly lands me into. 

Here’s today’s one.

A while back, I was sitting in a coffee place having a coffee when the door opened and a guy came in. He was carrying a fair-sized steel case of the kind that photographers sometimes use. He looked around and then turned to the lady behind the counter and had a few quiet words with her.

Then he came down the room to find himself a seat. He passed my table, his case almost brushing my leg.

Then he was gone past.

Except he wasn’t.

“Ken Armstrong?” A hand was suddenly extended down towards me and was duly shaken. “Is that really you?”

It was. It was really me.

“I haven’t seen you since National School. You haven’t changed a bit. Well… A bit of ‘timber’ here and there maybe but we all have that, eh? eh? Can I sit down? Do you mind? It’s great to see you!”

Then silence. Expectant silence. He sat down and looked across at me expectantly.

Here’s the thing. I knew who he was. He hadn’t changed all that much either. A bit of ‘timber’ but we all had that. He was the guy from St. John’s National School. He lived out the road a bit. We had hung together now and again a bit and had even gone to see a Bruce Lee flick together once. He was okay, one of the good ones.

I know all this…

But what the hell was his name?

My mind ran though thousands of possibilities as I kept up a passable discussion about times gone by and where various people are now. As each of those people's names were mentioned, I mentally ticked it off my long list of what this person might be called.

The lady from behind the counter approached our table.

“He can see you now,” she said to him, this guy, whatsisface.

“Great!” the guy got up, "I have to see the manager. I sell restaurant fittings for a living and he has a query. I’ll show you the stuff when I come back, If you like. I’ll only be a few minutes.”

Great. He went off to see the manager, leaving me with his case. 

Sometimes there’s an odd thing that works for me. If I can’t think of something, If I ask myself the question out loud, the answer sometimes comes to me. I know it sounds strange but it’s true and it seems to work better the older I get. Desperate measures, perhaps.

“What is that guy’s name?” I asked myself and I must have said it a little too loudly because several people at other tables glared over at me. It was a wasted effort in any event because it didn’t work. 

If only there was someone I could call and ask the guy’s name. But who? Who? They mightn’t be available in any case…

Wait. Wait.

Case?

The Case.

His name would be in his case. On some letter or document or something. Maybe even inscribed on the inside for security reasons.

All I had to do was look inside his case, quickly, before he came back.

But I couldn’t do that. 

It just wouldn’t be right.

The case opened easily, there was no lock. It perched a little uneasily on the small table, between the coffees and the milk. It creaked a little as it opened. It was packed full with trade literature about kitchen fittings and such. And there, on a business card, tucked in a pouch inside the lid, was his name. Of course that was his name! How could I have forgotten that? His name was_

“What are you doing?”

“Hi. You’re back quick.”

“What are you doing in my case?”

“Ah, yes, it’s interesting really.”

“Yes?”

“Yes. You see… when you mentioned kitchen fittings, I’m kind of in the business myself and I was very curious to see exactly what it was you sold.”

“I see,” he certainly might have seen but he looked managed to look hurt and invaded, “you could have waited until I came back.”

“Yes. Sorry” I said and then I said his name. It was great to know it. 

It was an awful experience, obviously. The nervousness of breaking into the case, the getting caught. The slightly iffy cover story.

Awful, yes.

But, just for a minute there, riffling through those files illicitly, in danger of being discovered at any moment, I felt... edgy... alive.

A little bit like that fella off  'The Ipcress Files'.

What was his name again?

Bringing a Little Drama to Roxanne

Friday was Sam’s practical music test for the Junior Certificate exam cycle.

It was held at the school. The set-up is fairly straightforward. A visiting music examiner comes in and hears all the music students play four pieces. Then she (it was a she) goes away again and grades them. The practical is allocated a good-sized percentage of the final grade, I can’t remember exactly how much.

On Friday morning, as all the other students were arriving in with their instrument cases and such, Sam arrived with his two-cars-full of equipment. Yup, as you may already know, Sam is the Drummer of the family.

I’m not a musical/techie type person but, over the last few years, I’ve had to be ‘acting roadie’ from time to time, carting the kit around, getting it set up, all that jazz. This time had an extra layer of complexity though. Sam was playing with a keyboard-toting mate of his for one his pieces (Take Five) but the other three pieces involved playing along with drumless tracks. To the uninitiated, these are music tracks by artists, often covers of the originals, where the drums have been taken out. These tracks had to be played loud enough to be heard over the live drum kit, which, let me tell you, is rather loud. Sam also had to be able to hear the track. All this had to be done without deafening the examiner, which never reflects well in the grades.

The solution was very much a 'gaffer tape' one, involving a guitar amp plugged in to a laptop as well as a pair of headphones for the drummer. The examiner would get to hear the track via the amp and Sam would get it from the headphones. 

I’m making all this sound far too easy. Between getting the kit loaded up, unloaded, disassembled and reassembled and then getting all the sound stuff working passably well, there was over two hours of amateur roadie sweat used up.

When we had it all set up, we asked the music teacher to come and assess what we had done and whether it would pass muster. She seemed to like it, in fairness. 

Then she did a nice thing, as she often does. Sam and I had been a little isolated in the Library, getting everything set, while the other students had been communing in the music room, playing for each other and hanging out. What she did was gather all the students in the library to hear Sam do his thing. She also rounded up a bunch of the final year music students to come and listen too. So, all of a sudden, there was quite a gathering of music students amassed in the room and sat waiting to be impressed.

Rewind to the evening before.

Sam and me were busy trying to work everything out. Sam’s last track was to be a drumless version of ‘Roxanne by’ The Police. When he played it, it sounded a bit wrong to me. We talked it through. It turned out that Sam was doing some pretty nifty drumming right from the first minute of the track, quite a bit more than Copeland was doing on the original. The thing was, it didn’t sound quite right. 

We thought about it for a while and concluded that people are so familiar with the track that the busy work Sam was doing from the get-go just didn’t seem to fit. I suggested that he take it easy for the first 60 seconds at least, until we get out the back of the first chorus.

We tried it. It sounded better but that simplified first minute didn’t sound like much in the way of drumming. It was fairly straightforward. Maybe that would be a problem.

That’s where my theatrical head kicked in . Let’s use that. Let’s work it. We bumped Roxanne from the end of the set list right to the front. The idea being that the listener (examiner) would be lulled into a sense of slightly bored security in that first minute (not too much to see here) and then get hit pretty hard when the heavy drumming kicked off. It seemed a bit risky but it also seemed like a plan.

So here we were then, next day, in the library, with all of the examination-class music students gathered. 

Roxanne kicked off, sounding a little muddy through the guitar amp but passable. Sam started drumming, tight and good but not too showy. I watched the audience, as I always do. Attentive, relaxing a bit, glad to be missing a class... 

And then the first chorus ended.

And the real drumming started.

And it worked. Oh man, it worked.

The audience sat up, leaned forward, looked at each other, smiled, whispered. Sam had lulled them and then had amazed them. If he had amazed them from the first moment, if wouldn’t have been so good. 

Perhaps the point of this is that I’ve picked up a few theatrical moves down through the years, an instinct for what works well and what works less well.

No.

It’s not about that. If you think that’s what this post is about then you’re a bigger fool than I am.

Sam rocked the show. He’s a great drummer.

This, here? This is simply a Proud Dad post.

No more, no less.

My Writing is Like a Crossword Puzzle

I don’t often write about the writing I do. There’s a couple of reasons. 

Firstly, if I write in any detail about something I’m currently working on, I’m afraid I’ll jinx it. 

Well, not ‘jinx it’ exactly, that just sounds silly and superstitious and it’s not that. It’s more that the exposing of my idea to any kind of atmosphere, other than the rarefied oxygen-deprived one in my head, will cause it to rapidly wither and die away.

Secondly, if I leave off writing about it until after I’m finished, I’ve completely lost interest in doing that and have moved on somewhere else.

Also I don’t rate writing advice terribly highly. Strike that too. I don’t rate any individual persons writing advice all that highly. I love to read what people have to say about their writing and their methodology but I find only the smallest proportion of what they say is actually applicable or useful to me. Thus I read lots of stuff and only hold onto the bits that suit me. It’s like asking all the writers to throw strands of their cooked spaghetti at me and see which bits stick. Okay, it’s not like that at all.

Having said all that, it should be clear that I don’t expect anything I might say about my own writing to be of very much use to you. In fact, I’d be disappointed if it was. I think we all need to find our own way with the stuff we do and if your way is the exact same way as somebody you’ve read about, then maybe you haven’t quite uncovered that truth about your own writing yet. Maybe you have. Maybe that’s just the first strand of my bullshit spaghetti advice.  

Emmm… I can’t remember what I wanted to say now.

Oh yes. 

I’ve just started writing a new full length play and I’m very excited about it and it’s going rather well… and all that jazz. It just struck me that I naturally go about it on a rather odd, haphazard, sort of a way. I thought this might be worth mentioning because I reckon there are people out there who may feel, deep down, that they don’t deserve to get their play written if they don’t do it by the book, step by step, stage by stage, until it’s all neatly packaged up and done. That’s where I thought this particular strand of Fettuccini might have some value to .03% of some as yet undefined collective of writers.

If I were to try to do my thing by the book, I would have a few weeks of head scratching and frustration by which time any enthusiasm for the fledgling idea would be cold and dead and I would throw it by the wayside and trudge on to the next failed attempt. Mostly failed because I tried to do it somebody else’s way.

The important thing is to get it done. Whatever way you can. Get it done.

If I were to sit down, with my precious germ of an idea, and try to develop it into a synopsis, a treatment, God help us – a series of cue cards, I would not get very far. I know this because I’ve tried. Robert McKee in one hand, cards in the other, I’ve neatly written stuff on postcards, spread them on the floor, and taken a photo of them to show myself what I good kid I am. 

So that do I do? What is my great secret to success?

Well…

I sort of… dick around.

If I’ve only got a germ of an idea but, crucially, if it’s coupled with that tingling in the back of the neck that implies there’s something developable there, then I dick around with it. 

Bear in mind it’s only a germ, a seed if you will. If it’s going to grow I need to lay it in some fertile soil and pour water on it. I need to read and  view stuff related to the idea, the more obtuse the link the better. I need to think about it.

But most importantly, and here’s the rub, I need to write whatever I can about it. This could be anything, a note on staging, a bit of business, a scrap of dialogue, a phrase, a joke and bit of music… anything that adds another molecule to the idea.

It’s a random process with little notion of a start, middle or ending. Bits of stuff are dicked-around-with and added to the germ and, bit by bit, the germ grows. It sprouts little weak yellow shoots. I keep dicking and adding and eventually, it finds a form.

There will be 'Eureka' moments and there will be 'Fuck' It moments but the thing will continue to grow.

It’s quite like the way I might do a crossword puzzle and how you might do it better but that wouldn’t work for me. You might start at one across and solve it and then do two across and then three across and you might get them all. Then, when they’re all done in fabulous order, you start on one down and fill them in. 

With me, I don’t have a clue what one across is. Not a clue. But there’s a three letter word in thirty-one across that I think I know and the letter ‘n’ at the end of that three letter word might give me a hint about thirty-two down and now I’m stuck again but, wait, doesn’t five across look teasingly gettable?

I can finish the crossword too. Maybe not as impressively or even as easily as you can but the end result will still be a finished crossword. And the picking around, the deciphering and the general sorting-out can be fun and fulfilling to do. 

I suppose all I’m saying is this. If you feel you have a play in you or a story or a poem, you don’t have to start at line one or even at any line at all. Spend time with your germ. Write whatever you can around it and, I promise you this, every little thing you write will open up another line in towards the centre of what you are trying to do. 

Then, one day, the thing reaches critical mass. Suddenly there is enough to work with, to write with and the flow, the wonderful flow, can begin.

The secret. The thing that makes this process work. Is that you have to be willing to throw lots of stuff away. As the germ grows and strengthens, it will naturally start to shed lots of stuff that you tried to put on. Don’t try to keep it there with spit and glue. Let it go. I think some people fail by being over reverential of the stuff they dream up. Learn to step back, recognise the lesser parts of your creation, and let them fall to the ground.

Hark at me, almost sounding like I know something of which I speak.

I don’t.

That’s the point.

I don’t have to.