Sunday, November 27, 2011

A dream fulfilled

At the age of 13 I vowed never to sing again in a choir, which was a bit unfair to the choir I was actually in for four years. It was quite fun and it had its advantages. Choir practice occurred during the long midday break, so we got an extra half hour added onto our bedtimes by way of compensation. Or, in the summer term when everyone got the extra half hour, we got an extra sweet ration. We had a good choirmaster, and we learned a good mix of religious and secular songs. We often got the day off to go and sing at weddings, for which some form of edible recompense was usually available. I remember us all being invited to the reception, once, where I learned that caviar tastes exactly like you would expect fish eggs to taste. There were occasional ventures to singing festivals or competitions in the area and I remember being part of a multi-choir festival thing singing ‘Carmina Burana’ to a packed house.

But it was also all a bit too much like hard work for something that was meant to be enjoyable, and after the mandatory term in the choir decreed at my next school for all new boys who could sing, I exercised my right to leave for good. I still know how to sing in tune, keep a beat and hit my notes - all useful skills.

As an adult I’ve toyed with the idea of joining up again, here and there, now and then – a local choral society, maybe, or something G&S – but again the thought of all those rehearsals to be any good just seems too time consuming where I could be doing something else. But when your local church advertises the chance to do Messiah, rehearsals and performance in one day only - experienced soloists and orchestra, otherwise no experience required - what’s to lose?

And so I was one of about 100 volunteers of varying experience – knowing every note backwards down to complete debutantes – who turned up at Christ Church on Saturday morning. I was ahead of some in that I had actually sung in a choir before, albeit 33 years earlier. The church was arranged landscape format to accommodate choir and a small orchestra, and we were left to self-sort into soprano, alto, tenor or bass. I guessed I would probably be bass and this turned out to be correct.

I presume that anyone who was totally, irredeemably, awfully flat (and I know for a fact they exist in our congregation) would have been gently turned away, but that didn’t seem to happen. There again the organisers may have adopted the Florence Foster Jennings philosophy - “they can say I can't sing but they can never say I didn't sing.”

As a final shakedown we ran through scales and phrases, with the advice that “if you can’t sing this then you’re a [whatever comes next down]”, right up to the point where bats fall out of the sky as the Hallelujah Chorus’s “King of kings” gets ever higher and higher. And then we started.

I had vaguely assumed different workshops for different voices but no, we worked through the whole thing together, chorus by chorus and learning to put the right emphasis on “Wonderful counsellor”, the right scorn and disgust into “iniquities” (say it like you’re Michael Howard, is the answer to that one), the right sarcasm into “he trusted in God”.

The assumption was that everyone who came at least vaguely knew the piece already, which is a dangerous assumption because when you have to sing a specific voice you come to the sudden realisation that you don’t actually know the tune. You know “the tune”, i.e. the bit you could whistle or hum if you listened to a recording, but you don’t know the specific notes you ought to be singing which sometimes are completely not the notes you thought you knew. Fortunately I was sitting next to one of the knows-it-backwards crowd (whose friend was a Doctor Who fan, I discovered by virtue of wearing my TARDIS cufflinks), and I can read music well enough to tell how many beats each note should last and approximately how further up or down the next one is than the last one, so all in all I got by.

My school choir only had one voice – unbroken boyish treble, and if you had the nerve to start adolescing in the run-up to some concert or other big do then the choir master’s disapproval was made plain – so I had never really appreciated what it is to sing in parts. You’re much more aware of feeding in to a greater whole; you feel much more part of the organism that is the choir. Team work! And over a gap of 33 years all the old habits came flooding back – how to stand, how to hold the score, how to keep an eye on the conductor – so, no problems there. Actually, at school I would have got told off for closing my score with a satisfied snap after the final ‘Amen’, but I make allowances for myself.

And what a thing it is to sing, eh? A cunning selection of Bible verses that take you from the bright and bubbly “And the glory of the Lord” through to the lowest points of the Suffering Servant and then onwards into Heaven where everyone is praising God. For ever. And ever. And ever. Hallelujah. At the end you can almost believe that’s where you are, until you go out into the cold, dark car park and think, “okay, still a little way to yet.”

For the last two years on this weekend we've been to Salisbury cathedral's candlelight Advent service to kick off the season. No candles this year, but otherwise a fully satisfactory substitute.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Japes joy

My short story collection Jeapes Japes has been reviewed, which is nice; favourably, which is even better; and it’s the first time my entire body of short fiction has come under the critical spotlight, which is absolutely wonderful. Though I say it myself, I appear to be quite good. Or maybe I should say that I appear to have been quite good, as I haven’t written short fiction now for over a decade. By the time my last piece appeared (“Go with the flow”, Interzone, 1999) I was into novel writing mode and life is too short for both, sadly. At least, mine is.

The line I found most interesting was this:
“The stories contained in the collection generally find the characters tending to merely support the novum of the story, rather than being the centrepiece of the tale. The tales therefore better present ideas rather than uniquely interesting characters, and after each the reader dwells more on the notion presented than the personalities.”
Yup, I’ll agree with that. (And while I’m here, may I add that the reviewer is quite fond of the word ‘novum’ – it turns up once or twice later on too.) I strongly suspect it’s the influence of too much Asimov in my youth, and it’s very nice of the reviewer to make a strength out of what I would still regard as a weakness. A beginning writer will usually write about nothing but the idea, and the story either grinds to a halt or turns out not very good because you need – gasp! – characters, who are interesting enough to make you care what happens to them, and another couple of ideas to make it into a proper story. I got the hang of that, but the originating idea always dominated. In novels, this was not such a problem because the originating idea inspired lots of other stuff and eventually it could just merge into the background. In short fiction I never had enough room for that to happen.

This is actually something I am trying hard to shake off, because I would love to be able to write just good ol’ adventures, pure and simple. Someone gets out of bed one morning and pow! Things start happening in their life. Some writers can do that as easily as breathing. I’m working on it.

I’m very glad the reviewer considers “Pages out of order” (F&SF, 1997) to be the stand-out story, because so do I: it’s one of the most personal contributions and also one I would really like to expand into a novel, if I can just do all the necessary working out. It might not be the only time travel story set in an English public school – though no others come to mind at present – but I’d bet good money it’s the only one ever published by F&SF. “Crush” (Interzone, 1993) was also quite a personal one to write, getting a lot of stuff off my chest, but I had no idea I had done it well enough for it to be described as a “rather chilling tale of obsession … Jealousy, obsession and incarnate rage are all wonderfully snippeted in this brief tale”. Cor.

So, what are you waiting for: buy from the publisher Wizard’s Tower or, if you’re one of those people who absolutely insist on patronising evil empires, from Amazon. Let’s give the reviewer the final word so you know what you’re getting:
“The stories leap sporadically from one genre to another, without flow or warning and yet they still somehow all work so well together. A reader gets far more from the ideas and suggestions each story creates, than from the characters themselves which are never really explored to much depth. This augments Jeapes Japes as the classic SF short story writing that gives each tale a striking novum and characters far more incidental to that central idea. Indeed it is not the characters that stay with you when you put the book down, but the rich and exciting ideas that burst from this collective library of short stories.”