Searching for the authentic working class voice…

I’m not sure when it happened but at some point between 1995, when I found myself back in education, and 2008, when my ‘work play’ about a bunch of lifeboatmen coming to terms with having to work with a woman in their testosterone-charged workplace was receiving little attention outside of Hull, the chip on my shoulder was smoothed and sanded off to virtually non-existent, and the anger that fueled my work completely subsided.

I had, somewhere along the line, abandoned, and subsequently severed, the once-strong roots of being born in a council house and become middle-class and, when it came to pitching a follow-up to On A Shout (2008), I proposed an opera about the desperate plight of three earth mothers who could not source the kohlrabi they required to make their dinner party the success they felt it deserved to be.

With good reason, Hull Truck refused to commission me again. Ballroom Blitz, which was produced by the company in 2012, was actually written by me at a Saturday morning dance class when I was eight and struggling to learn a new cha-cha step, submitted to the theatre in a plain brown envelope anonymously in 1998, and it was as much as a surprise to me as it was to audiences when it surfaced with my name on it, having had several jokes that elicited that marvelous smug theatre laughter we all know so well added to it by someone else that were better than anything I could ever hope to write. This, I later learned, is called dramaturgy.

Beyond all expectations, audiences hailed Ballroom Blitz as “an old-fashioned Hull Truck show, like back in the good old days [of the 1990s]” and, had the managerial and artistic regime at the company not changed, at least fifteen sequels with similar names, the same characters and extremely Hull accents, were on the cards. Although I’m still not sure if I would write them or if they’d also found the other scripts I’d submitted anonymously.

The abandonment of my roots, and the loss of the working class voice that was so evident in the stupidly xenophobic and sexist taxi driver in Sully (2006), probably commenced towards the end of the good old days [of the 1990s] when my ex-wife and I provided the home for at least 37 rescue dogs over a six month period, the amassing of cupboards full of granola and [back then] obscure organic foodstuffs. Nobody had heard of Kundalini Yoga in those days, but, if they had, we’d have probably started a class in our living room, where it would all take place in and around our many children and their many toys and our pack of many rescue dogs.

I say all this with shame, of course. It was never meant to have turned out this way. For, not only was I born in a council house and expected to amount to nothing, I spent the first ten years of my working life slaving away in a factory unit somewhere near what is now called Kingswood, crafting snouts for Miss Piggy dolls for the Jim Henson Company, whose work in the city of Hull still goes mostly unknown. Indeed, my first full-length play, never produced, was called Snout. The first two pages were devoted to a scene description that demanded the auditorium be pumped full of the authentic smell of sponge, nylon and bacon (the Jim Henson Company’s dolls were of the ‘scratch and sniff’ variety). In the unproduced Snout, an uneventful night in the factory is thrown into disarray when the production line churning out Kermit’s eyes is jammed when Richard, a broken man with a love of country and western and Capstan full strength, attempts to inflate an unstuffed Kermit. With disastrous results. Meanwhile, the factory’s charge-hand mocks the Victorian approach of the workplace’s owners by sticking his nose firmly in the trough, losing it in the process. It was a terribly derivative piece of work that led to a stock response akin to a letter from Readers Digest when submitted to the Royal Court.

Still, at least Snout was an honest piece of work, full of anger and demonstrating how grueling working men and women had it in these hell holes, and all for £3.75 an hour. Similar pieces fill a box in the loft labelled ‘unproduced’. Codhead, about a fish filleting factory in Hull; Belted, about a violent conveyor belt factory in Hull; Shocked, about a shock absorber factory in Hull; and Timber, about an east Hull stevedore who can’t get an erection. Unlike the stevedore, I could go on, but a theatre director once reminded me that lists are terribly boring and I might want to be mindful of the comedic rule of three occasionally.

My fate was sealed, of course, when I made amends for making such a terrible mess of my education the first time around by going to university. It was here that it became clear that working class authenticity is all well and good, but doesn’t leave you much to talk about in the refectory. So I started working my way through the Dewey, gobbling all of the books up on the university shelves, spewing out quotes from Baudrillard, Laura Mulvey, Moholy-Nagy and Noam Chomsky over the school-dinneresque offerings, and reading the plays of everyone from Ibsen to Ionesco (I was, mysteriously, fixated on surnames beginning with ‘I’. Very narcissistic).

I was ruined by the university experience, despite getting a first, and I lost whatever vital ingredient made ‘me’ me. Or at least the me that was me before I found, and lost, myself in higher education. Much of my ‘working class’ output was penned in that first semester, when I still used profanities honestly and abusively, rather than ironically. Sadly, I was soon to become part of the ‘mock soc’, where we would find new ways of laughing at people that lived on ‘sink estates’, never once considering that we could deliver lucrative community arts workshops there. Shameful behaviour. Please forgive me.

So as I sit here, devoid of what was once, perhaps, an authentic voice, I realise I have little to write about, nothing to be angry about, and nothing to kick against. I eat sushi, ride around town in Spandex on a faux-old-fashioned fixed-gear bike and, despite not quite knowing what it is or what to do with it, still have a surplus of granola.

Ironically, I am now involved in the search for authentic working class voices. As a producer with Ensemble 52 and of Heads Up Festival, nothing excites us, and therefore due to contractual obligations me, more than the prospect of discovering such a thing. We are yet to find it but I do feel there is hope amid the many Oxbridge graduates that make unsolicited submissions to us. Occasionally, something completely indecipherable, incoherent and undramatic will land in our inboxes, sent from a postcode in a disenfranchised corner of Hull. It is only a matter of time and funding before we produce one of these, and then we will be lauded.

On his appointment, in July 2014, I hastily arranged a meeting with the CEO of 2017 Hull UK City of Culture Martin Green to discuss my creative plans for next year (2017). I wanted, I told Martin, to get back to my roots. I had worked in a factory, for a decade, stitching snouts on to Miss Piggy Dolls for the Jim Henson Company. Martin is a big fan of The Muppets, and his ears pricked up. We got on famously, like Statler and Waldorf. It was really good to be able to tell Martin of my work as an artist. I was certain that many other conversations with other artists in the city were also taking place but I clearly had his respect. I went on to tell him that I was promoted mid-career, placed in charge of Fozzie Bear production. We would remove the hair from living red setters that were reared in battery conditions by Henson himself, and hand stitch them on to the skins of the unemployed of HU3. Then sell them as a job lot to the lucrative far east market. This was human trafficking on a grand scale, left thousands of red setters completely un-red and hairless, and all in the city of freedom, no less. This was a tale that must be told. Probably as a piece of musical theatre. An Unbearable Truth, with songs by the re-formed Looking For Adam, sans their objectionable drummer, and with lighting by Durham Marenghi. Tracey Seaward could produce it if she wanted. And maybe we could insert some film footage by Sean Mcallister. And, so, that’s what we’re doing next year.

Actually, we’re not. We were going to, but I’ve had a change of heart. For, as Martin kindly suggested to me, this is not my tale to tell. At some point between 1995, when I found myself back in education, and 2008, when my ‘work play’ about a bunch of lifeboatmen coming to terms with having to work with a woman in their testosterone-charged workplace was receiving little attention outside of Hull, the chip on my shoulder was smoothed and sanded off to virtually non-existent, and the anger that fueled my work completely subsided. Work of this nature requires an authentic working class voice. Sure, I was there and lived that life, but I was already earning £8.5k in 1987, a significant sum back then that allowed me to purchase a Mini Metro outright.

I am not that person anymore, and I cannot get back there, however much the fee might be. I am at ease with that and, indeed, now spend many hours on the Avenues talking about offsetting my carbon footprint. But if you are that voice, that person, then you do not need to ask permission. I can even give you the first draft.

Pale blue dot…

Been reading Carl Sagan this weekend. Prompted by Robin Ince talking about Pale Blue Dot on the Bookshambles podcast recorded at Bluedot Festival. Anyway…

“Before we invented civilization our ancestors lived mainly in the open out under the sky. Before we devised artificial lights and atmospheric pollution and modern forms of nocturnal entertainment we watched the stars. There were practical calendar reasons of course but there was more to it than that. Even today the most jaded city dweller can be unexpectedly moved upon encountering a clear night sky studded with thousands of twinkling stars. When it happens to me after all these years it still takes my breath away.”

Songs really mean…

Often wish I was in the songwriting game.

“And I thought about how many people have loved those songs. And how many people got through a lot of bad times because of those songs. And how many people enjoyed good times with those songs. And how much those songs really mean. I think it would be great to have written one of those songs. I bet if I wrote one of them, I would be very proud. I hope the people who wrote those songs are happy. I hope they feel it’s enough. I really do because they’ve made me happy. And I’m only one person.”

Stephen Chbosky – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Jumping…

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

Kurt Vonnegut – If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young

“In strange and uncertain times such as those we are living in, sometimes a reasonable person might despair. But hope is unreasonable and love is greater even than this. May we trust the inexpressible benevolence of the creative impulse.”

Robert Fripp

Again and again…

“One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”

Goethe – Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship

“If you try anything, if you try to lose weight, or to improve yourself, or to love, or to make the world a better place, you have already achieved something wonderful, before you even begin. Forget failure. If things don’t work out the way you want, hold your head up high and be proud. And try again. And again. And again!”

Sarah Dessen – Keeping the Moon

“How noble and good everyone could be if, every evening before falling asleep, they were to recall to their minds the events of the whole day and consider exactly what has been good and bad. Then without realizing it, you try to improve yourself at the start of each new day.”

Anne Frank

Inhaling and exhaling…

I love walking alongside rivers and estuaries and seafronts and hearing water lapping, and waves washing. The best place for ideas, and writing, and thinking, dreaming, living and breathing. And this is why…

“Although the rhythm of the waves beats a kind of time, it is not clock or calendar time. It has no urgency. It happens to be timeless time. I know that I am listening to a rhythm which has been just the same for millions of years, and it takes me out of a world of relentlessly ticking clocks. Clocks for some reason or other always seem to be marching, and, as with armies, marching is never to anything but doom. But in the motion of waves there is no marching rhythm. It harmonizes with our very breathing. It does not count our days. Its pulse is not in the stingy spirit of measuring, of marking out how much still remains. It is the breathing of eternity, like the God Brahma of Indian mythology inhaling and exhaling, manifesting and dissolving the worlds, forever. As a mere conception this might sound appallingly monotonous, until you come to listen to the breaking and washing of waves.”

Alan Watts

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing…

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

 

Read more on this from Elmore Leonard at the New York Times Writers on Writing series.

Pantno…

Usually around this time of year I’m generally putting off thinking about writing a panto. For the last four years, I’ve been in the lucky position of writing the festive fayre for those young whippersnappers Middle Child, and those pantos are now firmly established as the city’s now annual affordable offer at the downright sexy warehouse venue Fruit, and it pisses all over what’s on offer beneath proscenium arches up and down the country. And summer usually involves me not writing anything for them, and telling them it’s on the way when it isn’t, and director Paul Smith reminding me what the story of the chosen panto is, and us agreeing on a deadline that I then let sail past, and then agreeing another deadline, and me ignoring that too. Then summer ends, the leaves start falling off trees, Paul reminds me what the story of the chosen panto is, gives me an update on cast size, I get round to writing a blurb for the back of the flyer, then the deadline passes, I negotiate another, and, with my summer tan fading and the cast and musicians standing on the doorstep of Middle Child’s home at Darleys, I eventually deliver something that they turn in to something magnificent. And I thank them for it, I really do.

By mutual consent, though, we’re breaking up the band. Which means that I can pretty much spend the summer months that are almost upon us doing what I normally do when I’m supposed to be writing a panto (actually, I can’t. I’d love to sit in beer gardens doing fuck all but I’m a bit busy with the Amy Johnson Festival).

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being involved, and Mr Smith sharing his panto insight, and his passion for this centuries-old tradition with me, and working with those annoyingly young, energetic and brilliant sods, and marveling at them in the rehearsal room.  Before they asked me to write the first one, I hated panto with a passion, mainly due to having to see around ten a year when I worked for The Stage and others. So it says something for MC’s powers of persuasion that they squeezed four out of me. I’d love to say thank fuck it’s over but, actually, I’m going to miss it enormously.  Aside from the trying to write it bit – thank fuck that’s over.

I’m really looking forward to rocking up as an audience member this year and, outside of their ongoing efforts to reinvent pantomime, what else Middle Child get up to in the coming months, years, and decades. I genuinely love ’em, the little rascals, and you should too. Cheers guys, thanks for putting up with me and my Douglas Adams’ attitude to deadlines – it’s been an absolute blast.

Supply & Demand…

Here’s a jolly little poem for you on a Friday afternoon, ’bout a corner of Hull, along with an attractive image of said corner. Have a nice weekend.

Waterhouse Lane

Supply & Demand

She was standing under the streetlight

No idea who Septimus Bromby was

And no desire to wade through some early 19th century census

To find out the name of the pub he ran.

No desire to be here, either

Standing under the streetlight

Of one of the city’s most famous streets

Built on a demand for fresh water

Giving those of a different era

What they wanted

Long before sewage

Flowed through here

Cash in hand.