The most glorious moments of my life that didn’t involve childbirth were the ones I spent listening to the actress Amanda Root reading my short story How Michael Stays Young on Radio Four. It was the high point, so far, of my lifelong love affair with radio fiction. I first internalised the rhythms and cadences of stories and plays (what Martin Esslin called ‘the Theatre of the Mind’) in the warmth of our kitchen, as I stood on a stool, aged four or five, to help my mother cook.
I’ve been writing short stories for a while now. I’ve learned a lot about how to do it, and some of them have ‘done’ well enough. But, lately, I’d started wandering off into strangely hybrid forms, writing pieces that weren’t exactly stories and weren’t exactly plays. Janice Galloway does this beautifully (see ‘Scenes from the Life No. 23: Paternal Advice’) but I didn’t. The problem was that for some time I’d yearned to write a radio play, a process Fay Weldon has described as ‘wonderfully simple, if only you knew how, but impossible if you didn’t’.
I’m not very good outside my comfort zone. On the first evening at Lumb Bank for the Arvon course in radio drama I felt distinctly homesick. We looked at each other uncertainly, sixteen women of a certain age, like new bugs at an all-girls’ boarding school. We perched on sofas in the lounge, the air heavy with doubt and with the effort of putting fifteen names – the Annes and Alisons and Andreas – to fifteen polite and weary faces.
And then, by the way, there was the writing. Well, who needs the upheaval?
I was thrown after supper that very first night by the obvious fact that plot was going to be immensely important. I’d hitherto tended to avoid it, put off by tutorials and books which had divided it into sectioned diagrams. These charts reminded me of the soulless graphs I’d seen at medical school, showing population means of IQ and the ages that people have, over time, died from cardiac disease in Scotland. Worryingly, there was apparently something called dramatic structure, which meant you really couldn’t get away without a properly defined catalyst of change and a clearly climactic scene that had to be followed by a so-called run-off.
Luckily, about halfway through the week, the whole thing suddenly gelled.
It was a mixture of things:
My room with its view of the valley and sloping green hills veiled by mist in the mornings. The way the evaporating dew wafted the scents of mint and rosemary from the herb garden through my open window. The handwritten Ted Hughes poems and monochrome portraits of famous novelists that line the walls of the historic house. Christopher Hill and Polly Thomas, our tutors, with their wholeheartedness and unflagging good humour. The ‘bonding’ as we cooked in teams - aubergine parmigiana on my night; sublime – and ate as a community and shared our wine late into the night. And no distractions. No blocked toilets to sort out or overflowing laundry baskets, no supermarket shops or emails. Writing, learning about writing, talking about it, crowding into bathrooms and running across hillsides in the Yorkshire rain to sound-record it, among people who came to feel not unlike friends.
It took me a while to settle back into civilian life. For a couple of evenings I didn’t even turn the telly on. Inevitably, though, Vanessa Feltz went into the last-ever Big Brother house and I couldn’t miss that. The people over the road had a scaffolding alarm that kept going off at night. I tried re-creating the Lumb Bank aubergine parmigiana experience but it just tasted like, well, aubergine parmigiana.
Despite all this, since my return I have been consistently in thrall to my play. At first, without warning, bombarded randomly by startling scenes peopled with characters who stole in from left field. I wrote it all down urgently, without hesitation or preamble. I felt a little crazy, like a shiny-eyed young girl thrashing around in an exciting and chaotic new romance.
Six weeks later, I have a first draft. We’ve had to calm down and put a bit of structure into our relationship, my play and I. Order and stability have their place. At times it’s been very hard work, demoralising even. But that’s always the way with love.