Listening Closely…

October 18, 2007 at 5:04 am (Uncategorized)

I don’t want to unduly alarm anyone who’s ever been over to Chez J for dinner or drinks, but I have to admit to a genuine desire to commit some conversations to tape. It’s just so frustrating after the fact when I can’t remember that scathingly brilliant thing that so-and-so said, or the stunning witticism what’s-his-name dropped into conversation over dessert, or even the odd insight I myself might have had or, better still, listened to my darling husband hijack and claim as his own (I love that best of all). It’s awful knowing our collective contributions are usually lost for all time, and I’ve often lamented the fact that it’s not really the done thing to, er, tape people without their knowing.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? Not seeking their permission first. But that’s the whole point, because people modify their behaviour to a really staggering degree when they know they’re being watched and/or recorded. I, for instance, try to tone down my naturally very blue tongue. If there’s no one recording me, and if there are no small children present, then stand back, warden, this inmate has something to say. I’ve seen people become nervous, affected, stilted, silent, self-effacing, insincere, monosyllabic, derisive, vaudevillian and sometimes even unexpectedly provocative when they know they’re being recorded. It’s an excellent way to get to the pot of gold at the bottom of the human response rainbow. So it’s a bit of a shame there’s that whole privacy thing in the way, because I’ve been present at some absolutely cracking conversations I’d give anything to be able to listen to in the sober light of day.

Oh yes. That’s another thing. Sobriety. After a night of solving the world’s problems – a task so ably assisted by the simultaneous drowning of one’s sorrows – I usually awake feeling groggy, cranky, hungry, parched and in need of the kind of healing only the Pacific can provide. And I’m usually a little sketchy on the details. It was great, whatever we were talking about, and we were all erudite/hilarious/controversial/impassioned, but… well… nope, sorry, it’s gone. So I would also like a recording of some of these conversations because I would like to see a) if we were anything more than a bunch of tiresome dribbling idiots and b) if so, then what did we say that was so interesting and/or amusing? Instead, I’m left only with the uncomfortable certainty of having sent many more millions of brain cells to an untimely and violent end.

And of course from a creative standpoint, I’d be lying if I said I don’t weigh up certain social settings and juicy revelations from the point of view of possible fiction fodder. I’m not talking about ripping off someone’s life and trying to pass it off as fiction, I’m talking about the spark, the tiny light bulb of human drama that might be the makings of a character or a story. Real experience – someone’s real experience, at some time, somewhere – informs so much fiction even at the most basic conceptual level that it just seems to me to be an essential ingredient in the creative process. Is this pillaging? Turning over broken chairs and abandoned dolls at the tip? Is there something more than a little unseemly, a little parasitic about my lamentation? Perhaps there is. But people have such wonderful stories, and they say such incredible things, that it’s a shame, I think, not to learn something from them.

Think about these quotes. Oscar Wilde was voted Britain’s greatest wit in some poll or other on the strength of this:

On his deathbed, Wilde said “Either those curtains go or I do.”

Genius. And those words deserve as large an audience as possible. Think about what they say about the man. Think about what they say about wit.

Spike Milligan’s epitaph: “I told you I was ill.”

Winston Churchill, accused of being drunk: “Madam, you’re ugly. And tomorrow I’ll be sober.”

And I’m not just giving my friends a rap when I say they are often just as screamingly funny, they really are. And I’d love to put the best of it – or the soul, the atmosphere of the best of it – into my writing, I unashamedly would. Because I hate the idea of all those lost words. All that untapped laughter.

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