Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Where do you get your ideas?

A blog by Anne Rooney in her excellent An Awfully Big Blog Adventure speculated on the origins of some of her stories, i.e. the incident which triggered a particular story. It reminded me of how my first broadcast radio play came about. It didn’t have just the one source but two. It was only when they came together that the idea formed.

The play was called An Old Man and Some People. The main substance of it came from an incident which happened when we were at a friend’s for dinner. This was many years ago. I was young and, astonishingly, drinking and driving didn’t seem mutually exclusive. The friends lived in a new house on a fairly posh estate but one which still had houses being built on it. We’d eaten and drunk well and there was a knock at the door. It was a policeman asking whether the grey van outside belonged to any of us. It was mine.

The policeman was very polite. He just wanted me to park the van around the corner off the main road. Apparently, the night watchman on the building site had ‘reported’ it. God knows why. There were no yellow lines or anything. In fact, he was just doing his job. But when the policeman left, I was angry. I was all for going out and telling the man what I thought of him. It didn’t help that our hosts tutted and said he was a nosy old bugger.

But the following day – sober, of course – I was ashamed of the way I’d felt. I was young, having a good time, eating great food and swallowing litres (probably gallons in those days come to think of it) of wine. He was old, alone, stuck in a hut on a building site. And I wanted to have a go at him. I disgusted me.

Then, several months later, I was looking through some newspaper cuttings. I clip out things which seem out of the ordinary, absurd, sad or anything which makes them stand out. This one was in the tragic category. A man was accused of the manslaughter of his wife. She’d been terminally ill for a while and was always asking him to finish her off to stop the pain. He couldn’t do it. Then, one day, she fell and was just lying there, so he took a pillow and held it over her face. Then he phoned the police and told them about it. The irony was that he was acquitted because the autopsy showed that his wife was already dead before he held the pillow to her face.

That awful image of the poor man, after months of suffering, ‘suffocating’ his wife’s body had haunted me but I’d forgotten about it. But now, suddenly, by making it a part of my night watchman’s past, I had a play which wasn’t just a petty subjective record of my unreasonable anger and consequent shame, but something which worked at a different level. Its resonance was wider, its conclusions less facile and it might involve listeners at a deeper level.

As I said, it was the first play I had broadcast. I still think it was possibly the best I ever wrote, too.

(PS. I realise that this begs another question. What’s the morality of me using a true, tragic story to give substance to my writing? Not an easy one to answer.)


  1. Dude, you give yourself too much of a hard time. Using the truth is what we all do when telling a story. Or a version of it. It's that "truth" that our readers connect with. Is there a morality issue with that? My feeling is it depends on your intention and if the people are recognisable. Or perhaps this is too big a subject for such an easy answer? Over to you. You're the clever one.

  2. You're right Michael, of course. I suppose in a way sharing the poor man's pain with lots of others increases the degree of empathy/sympathy that attaches to it. Not that he'd be aware of it but anything that builds up the communal store of compassion and understanding is a positive act. So thank you for absolving me (without even the need for any Hail Marys) and thank you for noticing how clever I am.