Sacrificial Moments

You can’t choose the songs that whisk you back to another time. They just do.

In an ideal world, it would be a track from an album that has grown and matured, over the years, into some deeply revered and much loved thing. Better still, some obscure and troublesome classical movement from some obtuse symphony. How great it would be to evoke my memories to a soundtrack like that.

But that’s not how it happens. Not to me anyway. The songs that whisk me away every time are simple, rather familiar pop tunes. 

I heard Elton John’s song ‘Sacrifice’ the other day and off I went again. Swept away on the tides of the memories evoked by that tune. Back to January of 1990. 

‘Sacrifice’ didn’t become a number one hit in the UK until it was released in June of 1990 but we weren’t in the UK in 1990 anyway so that’s a moot point. Although it was apparently never a major hit in the US, it certainly got a lot of airplay over there in January of that year. A lot of plays. That’s where we were and that’s how it got into my head and became associated with that time. Tied up with the drive from San Francisco to Tijuana. 

Patricia and me weren’t yet married but we were having a ‘year out’ around the world. That’s a misnomer, actually, because the trip only lasted 364 days and not the full year, as advertised. The whole thing must sound a bit middle class and privileged now but it was really anything but. In late 1989, I was embedded in my career in London. I could have envisaged myself doing anything else, being a somewhat unadventurous type. What happened was that my car got stolen while we in the swimming pool one evening and it was subsequently destroyed by the nice people who stole it. In the time it took to get everything sorted out, I became accustomed to not having a car in London and so, when the insurance money landed, and under Patricia’s adventurous inspiration, we said ‘sod the car’ and spent it all on a cut price world tour instead. 

It was one of the best decisions ever. In my current existence, where I rarely go anywhere or do anything, the memories of the miles we traveled and the things we seen, warms me and keeps me contented in my relatively confined life. 

And random songs sometimes bring me back to particular places.

As we drove out of San Francisco and headed off south down along the west coast, the Elton John/Bernie Taupin song seemed to be playing over and over and over again. I misheard the lyrics, thinking it was about some unfortunate person called CoCo Hall. In my mind, she was a sort of a modern day version of ChoCho San from Madama Butterfly. Sad and abandoned. Effectively ‘hard done by you’ as the lyrics say. Of course I was completely wrong. 'CoCo Hall' was actually 'Cold Cold Heart' but that didn’t stop me from singing along anyway.

Whenever I hear the song now, I experience a vision of the sort that you see in TV dramas all the time now thanks to drone technology. We are driving on Highway 1 down towards Carmel and I see a birds eye  view of us in our car, roof down, as we cruise along. We didn’t even have a convertible car but music-evoked memories can be a bit fluid like that. It was a magical time. Rare in the knowing that it was magical while we were doing it as opposed to only finding out it was magical many years after the fact.

The song reminds me of going to pick up the rental car in San Francisco. We were staying in a  hostel somewhere out by Fort Mason so I had a bit of a trek to get to the car place. I was then going to drive back and collect Patricia. I remember sitting in the hire car for a long, long time, trying to figure out how to put my seat belt on. It hung there above my head in a really unusual place and I pulled at it and tugged at it but couldn’t get it to go around me. In the end, I resolved to drive the car back to the hostel without the seat belt and use Patricia’s brain power to figure it out. I turned the key in the ignition and the seat belt automatically coiled itself around me and secured. Okay… that’s sorted then. 

I remember small things. All of the sign posts sounded like songs. Staying in random motels just because we’d never done that before. Having breakfast in some very tidy little back street pastry shop in San Luis Obispo. Trying to track down an old friend in San Diego and, when finally successful, spending a day with her on the beach in sight of The Hotel Coronado from 'Some Like it Hot'. 

The border into Mexico. I remember the considerable numbers of  troubled people on the Mexico side, pleading for help to get back into their own country. A gauntlet of hard luck stories to be run. 

A visit to Hearst’s Castle. Opulence and grandeur coupled with a subtle sense of slow crumbling. A sign for Disneyworld, quickly driven past.

And all along the way - the excellent way - there was that song playing on the radio. When I think of it all now, I think of the sun and the open road and the not knowing what lay around the next bend. But I always remember an occasional kind of low key sadness too. I remember being in some small town on a Friday afternoon and that song was playing. Everybody seemed to be buzzed because it was Friday and the weekend was here. But we were hobos on the road and everyday was a Friday to us. There was a brief sense of missing the ‘work is now done’ joy of a regular Friday afternoon. And, on the positive side, another sense that when we finally returned to that way of life, it wouldn't be all bad. Sometimes, too, out on the road, there was that small feeling of loneliness and isolation. To be a million miles from anyone who knew you or cared anything about you. We had each other, though, and that has always been plenty.

I also remember that every little place seemed perfect in its own way. That it would be easy to stop and stay forever in any one of those places and that life would always be easy and good there.

But, whenever I fell into thinking like that, the song was always there. Playing. Reminding me ever so gently.

“Some things look better, baby, just passing through.”

If I Had a Penny

For all the complaining I’ve done about Facebook over the years (and I’ve done some complaining) it does continue to provide a very important service to me.

It keeps me in touch with some of my oldest friends. 

I’ve always been more of a Twitter head, as you may know. Facebook was something I was sort of ‘dragged onto’, to take part in a campaign for Arts funding that was being run there. But I stayed and stayed, as I tend to do with things.

Twitter suited me, for some reason, but it didn’t suit everybody and so my old friends didn’t ever really show up there. But Facebook, for all its horrors, was a revelation in that respect. Old pals, who had become just a trace of fond memories and somewhat wistful thinking, were there. They were there almost in the flesh. A little older, a little more settled perhaps, but still very much the same in all the important ways. And there was their family and there were their kids and there was their dog and there was their cat. And it was like a bright window was opened into their lives, for me to peep in.

There was a reconnection, of sorts. For not only could I see them but, rather obviously, they could see me too. We exchanged ‘hello’s and ‘how are you’s and perhaps shared the occasional updated confidence but, mostly, in truth, we just saw each other again, after all the years. And how very good that was and how it remains that way to this day.

There’s MC, out on the ocean with her pals. There’s Nuala, still navigating the world like she always loved to do. There’s Brian, still making his excellent music. There’s Tim, hitting the Rugby with his pals and out sailing in the bay…

Even the friends I made more recently, on Twitter. They are there too with their lives and their families and their concerns. We are not linked by too many cords, my old Twitter pals and me. But the cords that do link us can get stretched and kinked and even a little torn up... but they don't break. They don't ever seem to do that. And that's a good and a somewhat precious thing. 

To look at my old friends, and to share small moments with them, is to also think of the friends who are not there. The friends who are out there somewhere, living their own updated/same lives just not choosing to share them on some website. It evokes a hope that they are okay and that everything is going along just fine for them. That’s why Facebook is so valuable in the end. If it wasn’t there, I wouldn’t call, I wouldn’t write. I would cast myself adrift by torpor and social ineptitude. Facebook provides me with the entry level tool that I need to keep in touch.

We think of our friends and almost believe that we all be together again some day. But we won’t. Or if we will, it will be for a fleeting moment. A changeover of trains that are going different directions. It may be a sombre thought but I think that our time in each other’s company is largely done. One or two of us will meet, from time to time, but no entire collective will assemble. Indeed, when we were ever an entire collective? Weren’t we always just a combination of personal relationships that bounced off each other and ricocheted off in so many different directions.

That is why I think it’s important, when any two meet, that we evoke the others, the absentees, in fond stories and smiles. That is the only way we will ever manage to reunite again, in each other’s  collective memories, shared whenever we may occasionally collide.

Because the years are passing quickly now. Almost as fast as the pages can be torn off a calendar. Not too soon, but still soon enough, we will slip into legend as we all must do. That is when the distant relationship changes. What is cosy and warm now may become precious then, almost at the flick of switch. 

It is with that it mind that I am scribbling this down today. Here’s to you, good friends. Although I hate Facebook in many ways, I won’t ever leave while you are in there. The picture I see of you may be a rosy one. For who shares their upset stomach on Social Media? But it is still you. And your kids look great and your pets look great and I’m glad to see you looking so well.

My friends. Online and off. If I had a penny for every time I thought about them, well, I wouldn’t be very rich or anything. Or, more accurately, I would be rich only on account of the thoughts I have of them rather than from any pennies I might have earned. I’d have earned enough for one good drink, perhaps, and I would raise that glass in a toast to them.


Glad to see you there.

Hope to meet up again sometime soon.

Keep in touch. 

Radio Drama - Mythos by Julian Simpson

If it can be said that I ever cut any of my teeth anywhere, I cut my writing teeth in radio drama. Radio was my first passion. 

Taking possession of an old hand-held transistor radio from my parents, I listened to the Radio Plays on BBC Radio 4 from an untenably young age, investing in the Radio Times to mark up what was coming in the next week. 

When I wasn’t allowed to watch a grown up movie on television, I retired to my bed and listened to it on the VHF band of my radio instead.

Lately I’ve gone back to spec radio writing with a vengeance and I am loving the revisiting of that ‘unleashed’ feeling it gives me. I think my radio writing has coloured every other kind of writing I’ve done since. Certainly in the theatre work I find I have an ingrained aversion to the use of any kind of complex set, preferring instead a couple of stools or a single chair. In radio, as with books, the audience/readership brings its own sets, its own costumes, its own lighting. It’s quite different from cinema or television where the entire meal is spoon fed to you. In radio, theatre and books, you have to do some of the cooking yourself and the experience can often be all the richer for it.

In the midst of this renewed radio obsession, I was delighted to see Julian Simpson roll up with the second and third episode of his new ‘Mythos’ series on BBC Radio 4 this week. Tuesday started off with a rerun of the first episode then Wednesday and Thursday brought the new stories. If you want to hear it, I believe it stays on the BBC iPlayer for another twenty days or so. Here in Ireland, we don’t get the TV version of iPlayer but the Radio stuff works just fine so it is possible that these plays can be listened to all over the world. Here’s a link to the page. I can’t guarantee it will work for you, dear resident of Western Samoa, but it’s worth a shot. 

Julian Simpson is a writer I admire. He’s been kind enough to chat to me on the ‘Social Media’s for the last ten years or so and perhaps that’s given me a front row seat to his work. Still, though, I can’t help but feel if there was no connection, I would still be envious of the ambition, wit and intelligence he brings to all of his work. Even if you don’t know his name (you probably do) you will probably have absorbed his work when remarking that a particular week’s episode of Spooks or Old Tricks was  exceptionally clever. That will most likely have been him. One also senses that even greater plans are currently being hatched among the unsuspecting denizens of North London so watch that space.

Mythos is great fun and one senses that JS had great fun writing it. The rough conceit is one of a team of Government-affiliated guardians who try to hold a line between the world we all know and an endless stream of alternate worlds which are shaped and coloured by our collective mythology and folklore. That’s a mouthful but basically it’s a conceit that allows some contemporary, slightly world weary, characters to come up against the great and good of our beloved monsters and heroes of yore. 

It’s hard not to think of how Douglas Adams reached out to the stars and made such fun out of them. JS reaches in to our folklore and does the same.

For me, though, the series successfully evokes the original ‘Avengers’ series much more than ‘Hitchhikers’. And, no, I don’t mean Iron Man and The Hulk et all. I'm talking about the John Steed/Emma Peel version which I grew up with. Tim McInnerny’s ‘Johnson’ character has, for me at least, some of the Steed DNA in him. Tim does a super job in these plays as, of course, does Nicola Walker and Phoebe Fox. It’s a truly great cast which includes Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s Jana Carpenter who plays Libby in the second episode and who I like for all kinds of reasons, none of which need concern the writer/director.

JS is a damn clever fellow and although he wears that lightly on his sleeve he can’t help but showing it in his writing. As a result there is one hell of a lot of stuff going on here. At face value, it’s a ‘steampunkish’ romp through time and fable but scratch the surface and there is perhaps some deeper political punches being landed too. 

One of the things Julian deliberately does is to draw back the veil of the narrative structure to show us, the audience, some of the workings beneath. I wonder if this is almost a sub-conscious effort to show us how he understands, all too well, the limitations of the narrative structure he is working within or whether it’s an entirely conscious wink to the audience saying, ‘this is just a bit of a lark, let’s get on with it’. Whatever the reason, I found it a tiny bit jarring. Audiences have an ingrained knowledge of their stories and, deep in their, hearts, they know how these stories must unfold. To open those stories up, mid tale, is a little like a magician showing how a trick is done or some exotic dancer (male or female, take your pick) peeling back their skin to flash the glistening muscle and tendon that lies beneath. I realise this is the writer’s intent and that this ‘desire for story’ lies at the very heart of the concept. I just think that when this conceit is extended into the actual story being told, that may be even a little too ‘meta’ for me. 

The very nature of these plays brings challenges, particular in Radio, and nobody sees this clearer than JS. There is an immense amount of business to be done in the forty-four minute running time. As a result, the drama unfolds rather breathlessly. Super-smart lines which might have benefited from a split second pause and an invisible, virtual, nod to camera, can not be permitted this luxury. The narrative simply must barrel along. One could see this format convert well to TV, where an extra fifteen minutes on the run time would give JS enough room to add an additional beat or two or even a ‘middle eight’ pause before barrelling on again. It is clear that there just wasn’t enough space in the timeframe to do all that. Despite that, the often-frenetic pace at which proceedings unfold is really very charming and it would be a shame to lose it completely.

Another great challenge of the concept is the large amount of exposition which must be imparted in each episode. Parts 2 and 3 were somewhat liberated, in this regard, as the world had been well-established in Part 1. Still, though, there is lots that has to be told and the characters take turns at telling it. In doing so, JS employs a knowing, almost-apologetic, tone which seems to say, ‘here we go again with the exposition, we know it’s a bit of a pain but it has to be done’. Much fun is had with this ploy although the fact that a number of characters employ it does sometimes lead to a touch of ‘tone-borrowing’ where the characters occasionally start to sound a bit alike.

For me, the biggest challenge in carrying off future episodes of ‘Mythos’ lies in the questions of Risk and Consequences. A great universe has been firmly established where almost anything can, and probably will, happen. However, there also appears to be infinite opportunities for escape and ‘do-overs’ within the rules of this new universe. The dead might be dead but not really all that gone. A universe can be destroyed but, wait, there’ll be another one along in a minute. Something I struggle with, in my own attempts at drama, is the ‘All is Lost’ moment where there really seems to be no way back (although somewhere/somehow there always is). With the three Mythos plays, due to a combination of an infinite number of options and the very pace of the action, there is always the feeling that everything will be all right and that it will be all right quite soon now. Knowing JS’s work, I know that if he had a little more time to work with, a greater sense of risk and consequences would quickly be instilled in the drama. 

I recommend you have a listen to the first of the plays via the iPlayer and see if you are engaged and entertained as I certainly was. As I said earlier, JS is a smart, smart fellow with a lot more to say and do. I feel that, in listening to these plays, you may find yourself on the fourth or fifth floor of an elevator that is very soon and very rapidly going all the way to the top.