A Writer’s Life No.5: Keeping An Ear Open
I overheard this on the tube yesterday.
‘I was hosting a health talk show, sort of like Dr Miriam Stoppard, and I’d taken so many pills I had no idea what I was saying.’
‘Oh? I trod on her foot once, you know.’
I love overhearing odd snippets of conversation. Joe Orton was famous for making notes on buses as he listened in to his fellow passengers. He once overheard two women complaining: ‘There’s a lot of green about these days.’ ‘Yes,’ said the other, ‘and there’s a lot of blue around, too.’
The master of dinner party conversation, in that he was the first person to translate it to the page so that it really appeared to have been overheard, and not just consisting of epithets, was the deeply strange Ronald Firbank, but there were others after him. Surprisingly, Noel Coward was very good at this. In ‘This Happy Breed’ he record an over-the-fence chat which concludes; ‘How’s your boy now he’s started shaving?’ Oh, he just knocked the heads off a few spots but he’s alright.’
Real conversation is a messy, fluid thing that doesn’t usually work in books, because most conversation in books is designed for a purpose, while much of the talk in our lives is more about filling empty air. Info-dumps in crime novels are hard to avoid sometimes, and need to be broken up in a way that feels real. Charlaine Harris is the mistress of the truly bad info-dump, and there’s not a dialogue line in her books that ring true – but perhaps they’re not meant to sound real.
The director Mike Leigh has for the most part made his actors improvise their parts in workshops, but then locks the dialogue at a certain point so that it becomes a fixed script. As a result, his films are peppered with the kind of memorable phrases that stick in your head forever and get repeated to friends. Most people I know can still quote from ‘Abigail’s Party’ and I regularly quote from ‘High Hopes’ and ‘Secrets & Lies’.
The alternative to naturalism is stylisation, huge in the sixties, the golden era of experimental books and theatre, now dead as a doornail, although I love the writer Ned Beauman, who stylises perfectly and seems incapable of writing a dull sentence.
Aardman Animation debuted with their Plasticene animals chatting using the conversations of real people in ‘Creature Comforts’, of which, a compilation here: