Monday, 23 April 2012

The story of how "To the Heart of it" came together

A few months ago I stood up to tell a story at a the Spark London Open Mic that takes place upstairs at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton. I hadn't prepared the story in advance. I hadn't intended to tell a story. I was moved to tell my story by some of the other stories that I'd heard.

I can't now remember the specific theme of the night, although from the stories I can remember it must have been something like "Parents".

I stood in front of the audience with a dry mouth, banged my teeth on the microphone, looked out at the audience and started to tell my unprepared story. It came to me as I spoke it and it went in different directions than I'd expected.

It was a true story, made up of real memories. But I told them in a sequence that I hadn't put together before. The thoughts about them and connections I made between them were a surprise to me.

The story was about my Dad's mortality. Something I've been acutely aware of since I was 6 years old. All my life my Dad has always been an "old man". He had both a heart attack and a quadruple heart bypass whilst I was growing up.

I ended the story talking about my podcast Getting Better Acquainted. I've recorded conversations with both my parents about who they are, and significantly who they were before I was born, for the my weekly podcast series. To my surprise I found myself urging the audience to talk to their parents while they still can.

The story was over. The audience clapped.

Later I realised I'd missed a big part of it out. I hadn't even mentioned the heart bypass.

This was a good thing. It didn't fit and I'd edited it out. It was a whole other story.

Above is a conversation I had with Joanna Yates who runs Spark London. We go into detail about what the night does amongst lots of other things.

A week later I received an mp3 of the story. This file contained the genesis of two ideas. Or maybe developments.

One was a song. When I sat down with Hayley Gullen to plan the new album by our band The Reactionaries  this story came to mind. Our album is called 'Bouncy, Poppy Songs About Death' and the idea of talking to your parents seemed to me an upbeat yet challenging topic for a pop song.

Before starting to write the song I listened back to the the mp3. I wrote lots of notes about the story and ideas that sprang from the story. I fashioned some of the best ones into lyrics, came up with a melody, wrote the rest of them to this melody using the notes.

The song is a long song now but it was so much longer then. I wrote the song on a retreat with my writing group and this meant that I played it to a room full of writers. They critiqued it pretty much as they would a short story or a poem. When the verses were on the chopping block it became clear that the heart attacks weren't where the heart of the song was. It's so strange how that can happen, the thing you were chasing turns out not to be what you find. The heart of the song was in the moment that I woke up in the night and realised that death might be nothingness and was comforted by my father, and the time when he read to me the Lord of the Rings. Which is a challenge, finding a way of making a song be about the Lord of the Rings but not have the annoying connotations that songs about the Lord of the Rings suggests. I hope I navigated that successfully. It feels like I did but some things you only find out when you give them over to the audience. That's when you find out if you are speaking to more people than yourself.

The second thing that came from telling the spontaneous true story at Spark London was a desire to tell the other story. The part I'd missed out. And luckily it fitted with a theme for the curated Spark London night that they hold at the Cafe Canal Theatre on the first Monday of every month. It's not an open mic so the stories are planned, and to an extent crafted, before they are told live. You submit your stories to Joanna Yates. They are always looking for stories. If you have some and live in London then why not tell them. This is her email:

So I submitted my story for a night with the theme of  The Kindness of Strangers. It was about how I spent the day when my dad was having open heart surgery. The people who were kind to me that day weren't strangers exactly, but they were people who I'd found out were different from my idea of who they were. All three "strangers" are very dear to me and have been guests on GBA. Owain recorded a conversation with me. Steve features in the Cardiff Special and I hope to record a full episode with him later this year. My sister Jo's conversation went out the other week.

I recorded her GBA after I'd told both Spark London stories. Near the end of it we found ourselves talking about the details of Dad's first heart attack. As a big chunk of the rest of the family were coming over that night I suggested we continue this discussion with them on mic. I just had a moment where I got a sense of the shape of the GBA special that it would become. A few weeks later more family came to stay and so I recorded their side of the collective story. I took these conversations, mixed them with both Spark Stories and the new song and made this:

GBA inspired both Spark stories. The Spark stories inspired GBA. The project is really creating itself now.

Seeing us all together in this episode ties up the relationships of that side of the family nicely. One strand of the show is a kind of family album, an audio portrait of my family. It isn't the focus of the show but it is one element. I am collecting these episodes in their own playlist.

Another important element of this episode is friendship. The friendship you hear between the family. The friendship that is suggested in the way everyone speak Sue who is all praised by all the family at some point. (I've since then recorded a conversation with Sue which will come out on GBA  in the future.)  In the kindness of Owain and Steve friendship. And lastly in the friendship that I have with Liz, who is a much more recent friend but a very, very dear one. Her episode of GBA was one of the early ones. It's really good but it may have been missed by latecomers.

Liz was the outside ear for the rough cut of this episode. Not being a member of the family she could let me know if it would communicate more widely with audiences. Her notes were essential to the show, they shaped the episode very much, not just because of the structural and framing suggestions she gave me, but because her own story is one where she wasn't able to talk to one of her parents as much as she would have liked to. Remembering that there isn't always that choice, that we are all lucky for every conversation we manage to cram in with our parents, and with everyone we love, especially if we manage to have real conversations where we talk to each other and not at or around each other.

I asked my dad about how he felt about the episode when I was sitting with him in his flat having a cup of tea the week after it had aired and he said it made him think about his father, what they'd spoken of, and what they hadn't. My grandfather died when Dad was very young, a long time before I existed. He died of tuberculosis when my dad was serving in the army during the second world war.

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