Tag Archives: Monty Python

Just Write: Week 5, 24th February

Writing classes resumed after a week’s absence for half term with a focus on dialogue. If nothing else in the past few days it has made me appreciate that the placement of the “” speech-mark on a Mac is one of the few things that’s less intuitive than the standard keyboard position above the 2 found on most laptops. I digress.

Homework had been something of a spying mission; to eavesdrop on some real life dialogue, transcribe it, and note down what struck you in terms of its flow and tone. In a triumph for technology over ethics I achieved this by using the voice recorder on my phone and picked apart a brief piece of conversation that I recorded and, I should add, subsequently deleted. I won’t transcribe it here: it’s not something that I’ve actually written and was done only for the purposes of listening to how people really talk.

A number of (I guess, obvious) things were striking to me. Firstly, the extent to which conversation just doesn’t follow any readily accepted written convention – it really isn’t a series of “turns” by its participants. People interject and interrupt, brief sub conversations start up and die, people get off track, come back to the point, lose it again. Secondly, quite a bit of it is pretty dull. Some of this might be as straightforward as people playing through a set of social conventions (“hello, how are you ?” etc.) and some of it might be just, you know, that all of us have our fair share of moments being dull. Every single sentence that comes out isn’t a pithy one liner worthy of Dorothy Parker or Clive James or <insert your own favourite wit here>. Finally, pace was quite interesting to me as the cadences of people’s speech change dependant on a variety of things, from what they’re talking about to how likely it is they think they’re about to be interrupted, to the emotion they’re trying to convey. That’s a tricky thing to capture within written dialogue itself – without clues that might come off as clunky (she said slowly…).

The exercise didn’t entirely disabuse me of the notion that I like quite stylised speech in books and films; I don’t necessarily want fictional people to talk like real people, I want real people to aspire to talk like fictional ones. I guess the important thing is to try to write dialogue that reveals character. This struck me more as I took on some additional, self administered homework and picked out some random pieces of dialogue from work that I admire – specifically Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” (if pushed, my favourite book), Armistead Maupin’s “Tales Of The City”, and Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X”. I’ve included the snippets as an appendix at the bottom of this piece – no copyright infringement intended and all that.

Whilst stylistically very different it was telling in all of them that, even taken out of context, you got some sense of the character that was speaking – it gave you something to go on whether it’s Michael’s faux melodrama, McMurphy’s glee and mischief, or the Gen X’ers self involvement (pot, kettle, black – I know but technically I am a Gen Xer). The voices are distinct.

The main exercise in the class wasn’t so far removed from my extra curricular work. We were given a randomly assigned line of dialogue from a book and had to work it in to our own free written (i.e. ten to fifteen minutes, whatever comes) piece, ideally with a focus on a conversation. It turned out that I knew the book that my line was from – still not sure whether this was a good or bad thing – and once that was in my head it was difficult not to reference it in some way. So, here it is, with apologies to a couple of old school friends whose names I shamelessly plundered in this piece:

“Three pints ? said Arthur”

“At lunchtime ?”

John sat bolt upright in the bed as he called back the line.

“Let’s not do that”.

“Why not hoopy froods ?” asked Dan.

“We did it last week, remember ?”

“Did we ?”

“Yeah, Willsy was passing that paper round in the back of Latin. Hobbo never suspected a thing.”

“How far’d it get ?” asked a now interested Dan.

“Vogon poetry I think. Definitely past the towels but then Jenkins cam in about that Maths thing for half term and I think he knew we were up to something.”

“God, Jenkins… There’s a guy that doesn’t know where his towel is.”

“What do you want to do then ?”

“Is this a cheese shop ?”

“No ! Not again” all of them said in unison.

“What have the Romans ever done for us ?”

“No, seriously, no Python.”

“Ever wonder why girls never talk to any of us ?”

“It’s a mystery my friend, a mystery….”

Looking at it now it didn’t quite do what I wanted – I had a fairly specific memory of some sort of school trip and a group of lads working their way through a Python recital. It’s in that spirit and some of that comes through but it needs a little more flesh to strictly qualify as prose I think. It’s pretty bare boned at the moment. I also appear to have misremembered the cheese shop sketch as I don’t think the words “is this a cheese shop” are actually in it. The fifteen year old me would have known that. The jump off quote (which I cheated a little by breaking into two lines) is from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy; a book which my friends and I did indeed used to quote at each other.

We also did a quick fire exercise with just the line “yes”, she said as a start point which we had to follow with one line to try to express a girl/woman in a variety of emotional states. This yielded the following (none of which I was particularly taken with):

“Yes” she said. “I wasn’t sure how we’d recognise each other, that’s why I mailed about the carnation.” (shy) 

“Yes” she said. “You’re the little brother, I’m the mummy and you have to pretend that you’ve been really really naughty” (bossy)

“Yes” she said. “It’s what he asked. Turn it off” (sad)

“Yes” she said. “I have had enough, we’re going home” (moody)

“Yes” she said. “He does do that but I won’t leave him” (stupid)

That exercise was a five minute thing at the end and I struggled with it. Of the five the bossy little girl was the only one that really came easily and that’s largely because I have a six year old daughter who, on occasion, does say things like that.

However, all in all, another enjoyable week and much to ponder.

……

It would be remiss of me to not mention that one of my fellow classmates has just co-authored a book that has just been published. It is a non fiction piece on the subject of assisted dying and, amongst other things, compiles some heart breaking personal testimonies on the subject.

It’s an emotive topic but, to my mind, the law in the UK as it stands is wrong on this and we should seek to help people choose the manner of their dying with compassion and dignity. I wish Lesley well with her book and ongoing campaign work.

There are more details here at Dignity In Dying and, for the book, at Assisted Dying: Who makes the final decision ?.

……

That promised appendix (and once again – this is not my work (I wish !) and it’s reproduced solely for reference)

Random snippet from Tales Of The City (Armistead Maupin):

She managed a grin. “That might be nice.”

“Try to control your ecstasy, will you ?”

“I might not be here, Michael.”

“Huh ?”

“I think I’m going home to Cleveland.”

Michael whistled. “That’s not close to death. That is death.”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense right now.”

“You mean” – he threw his napkin down – “I just wasted a whole chicken making friends with a transient ?” He stood up from the table, walked to the sofa, sat down and folded his arms. “Come over here. It’s time for a little girl talk!”

Random snippet from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey):

“It’s your roll, Cheswick.”

“Hold it a minute before he rolls. What’s a man need to buy them hotels?”

“You need four houses on every lot of the same colour, Martini. Now let’s go, for Christsakes.”

“Hold it a minute.”

There’s a flurry of money from that side of the table, red and green and yellow bills blowing in every direction.

“You buying a hotel or you playing happy new year, for Christsakes ?”

“It’s your dirty roll, Cheswick.”

“Snake eyes! Hooeeee, Cheswicker, where does that put you ? That don’t put you on my Marvin Gardens by any chance ? that don’t mean you have to pay me, let’s see, three hundred and fifty dollars ?”

“Boogered.”

“What’s thum other things ? Hold it a minute. What’s thum other things all over the board ?”

“Martini, you been seeing them other things all over the board for two days. No wonder I’m losing my ass. McMurphy, I don’t see how you can concentrate with Martini sitting there hallucinating a mile a minute.”

“Cheswick, you never mind about Martini. He’s doing real good. You come on with that three fifty, and Martini will take care of himself; don’t we get rent from him every time one of his “things” lands on our property ?”

Random snippet from Generation X (Douglas Coupland):

The first chink of sun rises over the lavender mountain of Joshua, but the three of us are just a bit too cool for our own good; we can’t just let the moment happen. Dag must greet this flare with a question for us, a gloomy aubade: “What do you think of when you see the sun ? Quick. Before you think about it too much and kill your response. Be honest. Be gruesome. Claire, you go first.”

Claire understands the drift: “Well, Dag. I see a famer in Russia, and he’s driving a tractor in a wheat field, but the sunlight’s gone bad on him – like the fadedness of a black-and-white picture in an old Life magazine. And another strange phenomenon has happened, too: rather than sunbeams, the sun has begun to project the odour of old Life magazines instead, and the odour is killing his crops. The wheat is thinning as we speak. He’s slumped over the wheel of his tractor and he’s crying. His wheat is dying of history poisoning.”

“Good, Claire. Very weird. And Andy ? How about you ?”

“Let me think for a second.”

“Okay, I’ll go instead. When I think of the sun, I think of an Australian surf bunny, eighteen years old, maybe, somewhere on Bondi Beach, and discovering her first keratosis lesion on her shin. She’s screaming inside her brain and already plotting how she’s going to steal valiums from her mother. Now you tell me, Andy, what do you think of when you see the sun ?”

I refuse to participate in this awfulness. I refuse to put people in my vision. “I think of this place in Antarctica called Lake Vanda, where the rain hasn’t fallen in more than two million years.”

“Fair enough. That’s all ?”

“Yes, that’s all.”

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Here we are now, entertain us

23. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (The Spam Ducks / Brian Clough)

I know, I know. Too obvious, right ? Well, I kind of agree but it’s not on the list, not entirely at least, for the obvious reasons. It’s here as much for the, ahem, spirited cover version of it that I was once involved in as it is for kicking in the door to the mainstream for a slew of US alternative bands in the early 90s.

There’s a whole host of musical “scenes” that I could lay claim to have been part of. Part of in the sense of associating with, using as a badge of identity, rather than literally being part of obviously – there isn’t about to be a big reveal wherein I announce that I was actually the bassist in Buffalo Tom. Any of the following would have just about fallen into my later formative years:  Madchester, acid house, the tail end of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (sort of), glam / hair metal, and stretching it a bit, C86 if I’d started early and Britpop if I’d started late. Whilst there were bits in all of those that I loved at various stages, including a long infatuation with Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” which baffles me now, I never really felt like I belonged to any of them. For me it was all about the explosion of primarily American bands that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s playing, for want of a better term, alternative rock. Key reference points would include Pixies, Throwing Muses, Belly, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Buffalo Tom, and Pavement, as well as people like Teenage Fanclub, Ride, and The Wedding Present from the UK.

At around the same time – 1990 to be precise – I began to learn to play the guitar. Play probably isn’t the right verb. Work would be closer, for both me and anyone unfortunate enough to be listening. I learned – in those heady days before any of us had the internet – via correspondence with a friend who used to send me little chord diagrams in the post, gradually progressing to a sort of rudimentary tablature. He’d gone on to University, along with most of my school friends, whilst I waited another year to do fun things like retake a couple of exams and have knee surgery. That year did give me the time and inclination to pick up the guitar though so perhaps these things happen for a reason.

I think the first song I could vaguely bash my way through was “My Favourite Dress” by The Wedding Present but playing guitar also meant that I could begin to relieve myself of vocal duties in the finest band ever to emerge from the villages of the South Gloucestershire area. I’ve relived the glory days of The Muppets elsewhere in this blog but they were not the first band I was a part of. No, that honour belongs to The Spam Ducks who later morphed into Brian Clough. Not literally.

The Ducks / Clough had various line ups over a period of a couple of years but was principally the result of the friendship between three of us – Ian, Russ and myself. Those are their real names. I feel they should shoulder as much responsibility for this as me. The band was an excuse for us to mess around and entertain our friends – we would periodically put on a show at a local village hall. On very, very rare occasions we convinced ourselves that we sounded okay. We had a certain ramshackle charm perhaps, often depending on who we’d persuaded to play drums (never underestimate the power of a good drummer to make a bad band sound okay). I think we mainly did it to make each other laugh and, on that score, we were the greatest band in rock history.

As none of us could really play that well we ended up having more of our own songs than covers; we usually couldn’t play the covers. Song writing involved someone coming up with three chords – some variation on D C G proving especially popular – and someone else turning up with a set of lyrics. I say lyrics… Quite often I think a good idea for a song title arising from something we found funny was then stretched out beyond the point of absurdity. So our set typically included: “Washing Machine On My Mind” (it’s tough on dirt, it’s not kind), “Soap On A Rope” (sitting in my bathtub, it’s not a tin one), “Fishfinger” (genuinely with no adolescent sex-gag connotations – it was about fishfingers that you, you know, eat), and “Alan” (Alan, I’d rather drink a gallon… of beer… than have you near…). “Soap On A Rope” was actually a pretty good little punk song.

When we did venture into cover versions it was typically something by The Wedding Present which was helpful in that a) most of the songs were three chords, b) the vocals don’t require much by way of singing ability, and c) no one in the audience really knew the songs anyway. That all changed when we decided to take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, one of the biggest songs of 1991 and so called anthem for Generation X. So how did we approach Kurt Cobain’s sarcastic, contradictory call for teenage revolution ?

We did it sat in large, high backed armchairs with Ian reciting the lyrics in a bluff Northern accent (part Mark E Smith, part Python Four Yorkshireman sketch). There may have been an odd call and response element to the “hello” “hello” bit leading into the chorus involving waving. It is fair to say that we made the song our own. I think Kurt would have approved. If Bill Drummond had done it people would have called it art.

That was one of our last performances and who knows what we might have gone on to accomplish ? We were definitely branching out into experimental territory – we had supported ourselves at that gig as The Living Carpets (stolen entirely from Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer) and performed the theme song to children’s TV show “Heathcliff” with large pieces of carpet taped around our heads. I guess to an outsider it would have looked like kids making a godawful racket, full of in jokes and nonsense but for us it was just hugely fun. Part of the point, as well, was to provide some entertainment for our friends – even if sometimes they got to laugh at us rather than with us – and hopefully we managed a little of that too.

I don’t listen to “Teen Spirit” very often anymore. Don’t listen to “Nevermind” much to be honest – time hasn’t been kind to the production and I think “In Utero” is a far superior record. For a long time though Nirvana were really important to me. It sounds kind of sad but I can strongly recall hearing the news about Cobain’s death and I was affected by it. That was still no excuse for spending a couple of years trying unsuccessfully to ape his hairstyle though. To everyone that witnessed it: I am truly sorry.

When I do listen to “Teen Spirit” now I tend to remember Russ struggling to switch his distortion pedal off, hear Ian bellowing “hello hello” like he’s Graham Chapman at the start of the Spanish Inquisition skit, and see a group of old school friends staring at us in a mixture of amusement and bemusement. It makes me smile.