January 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

In an urban life it is almost impossible to escape, particularly in buses, other peoples’ mobile phone conversations. We only hear one part—often much more than half—of a conversation we would prefer not to hear any of: “I was like . . . ”;  “I said to her . . . ”;  “I . . .I . . . I . . . ”. These exchanges, rather than conversations, seem much the same. We could almost take over ourselves. Seldom do we hear anything of the least interest. The only exception I can think of, earlier this month, was in the Co-operative bank in Wood Green. Seated near me, in the waiting area, was a young black British man. He was telling his friend (at the other end of the phone) about his recent mishap in a night shelter.

The young man had been advised by the person managing the shelter that he should put his valuables in the designated safe place, (Perhaps it was a safe. I cannot recall.) The young man handed his valuables over for safekeeping. However, in the morning not only were his valuables gone but he was also admonished for having parted with them in the first place. The defence that he had been advised to do so by the manager of the shelter did not cut any ice. The same manager had gone on holidays, so there was no recourse to him.

The valuables were his work shoes and some unspecified documents. The young man recounted this tale of woe in a good-humoured way. Although he did not like the fact that the people running the shelter were denying responsibility for the loss of his valuables and trying to put the blame on him, he did not rail against them.

If that young man had been presented to you as a doctor, lawyer or architect, you would have had no difficulty in accepting him as a representative of those professions. What was such a presentable, articulate young man doing in a night shelter? What was his story?

Novelists often get germs of stories in such ways, fragments from which they must construct the whole. The fragment alone is not enough; your imagination must be fired too. In this case, interested though I am, no inspiration comes to me about the young man’s history. And I have a feeling that anything I might laboriously construct would be a cliché. Generally the first idea that pops into your mind also pops into other peoples’ minds. We do not always recognise these ideas as clichés but eventually we see, not soon enough, they are clichés and we have to think of something better. Elizabeth Bowen said dialogue should be unpredictable but inevitable. The same, I think, is true of stories. The reader should not guess straightaway what is going to happen. When the story does emerge, it should make good sense: be the only possible ending. Clichés are not the only danger to our story: unrealistic happenings pose a very real one too. Even if we avoid the unrealistic, we are not necessarily left with a story that is plausible and interesting.

But as to that young man, I cannot think of any plausible reason why anyone so, apparently, personable, should be in a night shelter. Perhaps some other writer can.




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