It’s very easy, of course, to see my street as packed with a convenient cast of characters I can steal at any time for writing purposes. Here we are, for example, on Saturday night in the Ladywell Tavern, celebrating Mandy’s birthday. Nige is for once on a proper chair at a proper table, and Tom and Kath are here too. Mandy (no. 3) is American, married to a stand-up comedian who is usually on tour. Around another ten of us have turned up. The tables are spread with different coloured stars, and there is bunting and balloons, and a three-piece jazz combo playing nearby.
As if reading my thoughts, Al (no. 18), says, “So, have you put me in a story yet, Tel?”
“Do something interesting and I might,” I say.
“My life isn’t that interesting,” he says, “but it’s enjoyable.”
“I enjoy my life, too. I think.”
He laughs. “Okay, so where did you go for your last holiday?”
“We spent four days on the Isle of Tiree and four on the Isle of Coll.”
“Inner Hebrides; way up north. Takes a couple of days to get there; car to Oban, stopping one night on the way; then a four hour ferry ride to Tiree.”
“And what did you do there?” he says, smirking slightly since he can already guess the answer.
“Well, there are a couple of pubs, lots of empty beaches, some basking sharks and Tiree even has a Co-op.” I don’t bother telling him that I wrote a lot, too.
“There are three Co-ops within walking distance of here, Tel. Why would you want to spend half a week travelling to one near the North Pole?”
“Ah, but it’s so peaceful there,” I say. “Besides, we wanted to escape the Olympics.”
We’ve had similar conversations before. Al doesn’t understand why anyone would want to take their holidays in wet and windy UK rather than somewhere hot like the Caribbean, especially when it’s usually more expensive here.
“Why, because they don’t have TVs up there?”
“I know you’re kidding but it’s okay. And if you must know, it was sunny most days.”
“So, you did some sun bathing?”
“Well, I’m not really the beach-lying type – ”
“You don’t say.”
” – but it was too windy for sunbathing most of the time, anyway. And when it wasn’t windy, the midges got you.”
“But at least you missed the Olympics.”
“Not entirely. We went to this pub on Tiree which was packed with locals. They had a big screen on the wall showing the closing ceremony but with the sound turned off. All night, under the screen, accordion players went through loads of reels and folk songs.”
“And you prefer all that diddly-diddly-dee stuff to the Spice Girls? Come on: they were fantastic. Real performers.”
“Name one Spice Girls song,” I say.
“Um . . . Give Me, Give Me, Give Me, Lottsa Lottsa Dosh?”
I think about the Spice Girls and how difficult it is to see anything in their music with genuine passion, and without the straining sound of voices trying just a bit too hard to be marketable, to be names, brands, ‘icons’, to not cross the line into art that makes the audience work a bit to get it.
Maybe I have a subject for the next writing class. That the danger with writing is that the pressure of wanting to get published can, before you know it, steer you towards just enough. Just enough passion; just enough pain; just enough beauty.
My children’s publishers were always telling me to tone down what they called the ‘mystical’ elements in my fiction. My characters shouldn’t be so fascinated by chasing the meaning of life, they said, which of course has become a joke to the less mystically interested.
I did what they asked but maybe instead I should have gone even further into what at the time was my main passion.
The mystical as it appears in successful fiction is always just enough. Yoda nicks a bit of Carlos Castaneda for a short section in one out of six Star Wars films, and the rest of the time sticks to mangling his syntax to sound ‘wise’.
“Hey, Al,” I say, “do you think we’re luminous beings like Yoda says?”
He peers into my glass. “I’ll answer that if you tell me what you’ve been adding to your Guinness.”
Nige, who’s been listening, turns his chair round to join us. “So, give us a story,” he says to me, “about a Scottish island.”
I think for a moment. “A few years back, we were on the Isle of Harris, stayed in a little B&B which was also a croft run by this old couple. There wasn’t anywhere to eat out nearby, so we had a meal in the evening cooked by the Mrs. Nice cosy front room they let us have to ourselves, peat fire and so on.”
“Doesn’t sound like there are any bikinis coming,” says Al.
“Anyway,” I say. “It got to nine o’clock. I was reading a great book when the man comes in from the kitchen, clears his throat and says, ‘Well, you’ll be wanting to go to bed now’, and it definitely wasn’t a question. So for the first time since I was in short trousers I went to bed at nine o’clock.”
Nige looks genuinely shocked by this. Reflexively, his hand reaches out to grasp his lager glass, as if the ghost of an old Scots crofter man might suddenly take it away and tell him to go home to bed.
“In Grenada,” says Al, “we’re not even out for the night by nine.”
The next morning we’d woken to utter silence in the croft. Then, eating breakfast of porridge and honey and bacon; putting on our walking boots and heading up the mountain behind the house. To one side, a great sweeping expanse of pure sand and the blue black sea beyond. Snow fell, and then the sun came out, and there was a rainbow, and rain and the sun again; four seasons in one day; four variations on a theme of vast natural beauty.
The next night, we stayed at a hotel in Tarbet. In the evening, we went to a local bar, thinking we might find some live music. But the place was empty. The barman gave us directions to the community hall, suggesting we might take a look inside. We went there but the front door was closed and no sounds came from within. But then we spotted a slip of light at the bottom of the door and tentatively pushed it open.
Most of the village was inside, at that moment completely hushed. Even the man at the bar had the till permanently open so as not to make a noise. We went in just as a woman on the small stage at the far end began to sing, unaccompanied, in Gaelic. Her voice was both strong and gentle, as if she feeling her way around the shapes of the land outside, bringing back to the song hints of faeries and will o’wisps and the remembered dead.
Later, after her set, the local band turned the night into a ceilidh and soon people were on their feet, swinging each other around by the arms, moving smartly through the formal dance steps. Six year olds danced with seventy year olds; boys with women; girls with men; boys with boys . . . the fun was in the dance, not the brooding undercurrents that inform the largely crimped and narcissistic shuffling that passed for dance in my college days.
I don’t tell Al and Nige any of this. And I’m not sure where exactly the story is in all these memories. Somewhere between the mystical and the mundane, I guess, which is maybe the place a writer needs to choose to live. No one else will really understand why he’s never quite in one world or the other. But it doesn’t matter, as long as he produces the goods.
“Al,” I say, “I’ll put you in a story one day. But you might not recognise yourself.”
Nige says, “He’ll be happy as long as his missus doesn’t recognise him.”