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London Road Calling

Last week I went to see London Road at the National Theatre. It's a verbatim play: its script contains nothing but things real people actually said over two years from the first of the Ipswich Murders, to the conviction of the murderer. And as we discussed it, I remembered the part of the Writing for Radio course I've just done, where we explored the use you could make of pre-existing spoken-word material - news broadcasts, for example, or other kinds of sound clip, right back to the days when you tuned your wireless from the Local or the National, and waited to hear those black-tie-ed voices at Alexandra Palace saying, "This is London calling," out into the ether.

The words of London Road come from interviews by the playwright, from neighbourhood watch meetings, the local TV news and so on; they're complete with ums, errs and hesitations, clichés and banalities, not to mention occasional comments (e.g. about the deaths of prostitutes from residents sick of living in a red light district) which sets the metropolitan audience wincing. But what was so fascinating about London Road, and raises it above other kinds of verbatim docu-drama such as plays which re-enact transcripts of trials, was that those flat little phrases become the basis for a music drama.

Begonias, petunias, um, impatiens and things, says a character as they water a plant, or, Everyone is very very nervous and very uncertain of everything, basically, while waiting for a bus after a shopping trip: the actors catch exactly the inflexion and cadence of 21st century Suffolk (in previous plays the dramatist Alecky Blythe has actually fed the lines to the actors, via ear-pieces, to get just the right verbatim intonation). The character says it again, as people do, while going on with life, and then again, and we begin to hear the music within the pitch and rhythm of ordinary speech. Then that music is picked up by the band, and by one actor after another, and more of both so that the single line becomes a properly-woven piece of music, in which phrases curl round and return, are re-shaped and inverted, stretched and compressed, passed from singer to singer, and plaited to a final cadence. Indeed, I'd be tempted swear that one number was a formally correct fugue: it reminded me of the "Fugue for Tinhorns" at the beginning of Guys and Dolls.

Of course, in whether it's drama or novels, in the one-remove-from-factual-reality that is fiction, within the contract of writer and reader that we'll  both forget that none of this really happened, you can still use the forms of pre-existing speech to make elements which aren't narrative or dialogue, but instead seem to have been taken from the real world. Orson Welles's radio play of H G Well's War of the Worlds is the exemplar, of course, and in a novel I'd call them documents, like the ventriloquial poems, criticism, diaries, biographies and so on which make up such a large part - and perhaps the best part - of Possession. But you're still trying to capture the essential flavour of something which is now second-hand, both in the sense that it's "pre-owned", as the car salesmen say, and that it was originally made for a different purpose from the one you're now putting it to: the railway carriage has become a country cottage.

In creative writing we often talk about "second-hand language" as A Bad Thing (for reasons that were explored in the comments on my post Twelve Tools (Not Rules) of Writing, for example) and often (usually?) it is; it's the easy way to make sure all readers "get" the basics of what you're saying, but there's no desirable difficulty, as I was discussing here, to help what's being said flower into life in the reader's mind. The poets call it "received language", which is less pejorative, because the licence they have to bend the elements of language to their will makes it easier to make such language sing. When Lil's husband got demobbed, I said - / I didn't mince my words, I said to her myself, runs a line in The Wasteland, and though there are no "", we know it's someone speaking because it's casual, demotic language complete with cliché... but there's music there, too, which is picked up and woven into what follows, not necessarily as a political statement about the hoi polloi being the true poets really (certainly not from Eliot!) but using human language as the stuff of poetry.

Of course, the challenge is to give the feel of second-hand-ness - whether in dialogue or narrative - without actually being so banal, imprecise and predictable that what you're trying to convey slides over our consciousness with minimal effect on us: a defence of dull writing that "people really talk like that" isn't good enough, any more than it's a defence of a slack scene or unconvincing drama to say "but it really happened". 

That's where it's worth studying what you might call extreme examples, like Eliot (or Joyce, say) and London Road. Efficiently journalistic phrases have a different effect when they become part of a recitative for retired schoolteacher and unemployed teenager: it's the equivalent of the photographer's fierce side-lighting or worm's-eye view. You may not be able to write music, but you can find the music in how real people say things, especially if you actively train your ear, as you should, to hear pitch and rhythm in speech and prose. Then, what you do with that particular (over-familiar, dull) little tune, and what fabric you weave it into, might just make something really special. And just to show you what I mean, have a look here at the work of one of my photographic gods, Eugene Atget. My special favourite there is "Avenue des Gobelins II, 1925" - it's delicious documentary, but it's also so much more. That's the kind of more we writers need to find and convey, when we're strolling the streets of our own worlds, real and imagined.

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