If you haven’t read part one, it’s here.
Now, the obvious question is: Why am I suddenly so twitchy about live audience behaviour? Apart from my stuffy middle-aged Britishness, there’s a specific reason: I’ve been invited to enter the Literary Death Match, and I’m fucking bricking it (that’s English slang, it means “I am extremely apprehensive”).
I apologise in advance to any TNB regulars who already know about my situation, but I have to explain. Not only would I be the least published, least formally educated “writer” in the competition, I’m also disabled, and not in a good way. I mentioned a wheelchair earlier, but I don’t fit the usual spinal-injury-legs-don’t-work model. My cerebellum – the rear brain housing the motor functions – was damaged in a 2003 road accident, and I lost roughly 75% of the range of movement, speed and strength throughout my body. Not so much in my head, maybe 50% there – it’s impossible to quantify – but my speech is very quiet, slow, slurred and flat. So I need an attentive audience. A quiet, captive, supportive, engaged audience, the type of people who will come out on a Wednesday evening to hear people talk…
Aha! OK. I’m starting to think the noisy Friday night Red Nose Day event that scared me a bit was an aberration. I haven’t been part of Friday night out since 2003. I’m too unstable (physically), fragile (physically) and quiet to deal with crowds, and I can’t allow myself to get even slightly drunk, or I’ll fall over or…I dunno, it hasn’t happened, and it’s not going to, OK? When my Friday nighting came to an enforced halt I was already getting a bit old for it, and that was eight years ago.
So you see why I didn’t go over to the chattery people at the jazz café and ask them to STFU.
London LDM’s organiser Nicki LeMasurier suggested a few possibilities. Apparently the stage at the venue is wheelchair accessible; she enquired and to her surprise they whipped out a ramp. Or I could get someone else to read my work, or…her words were “Ball’s in your court.”
Possibilities. I have a few friends who could pull off the right delivery, have accents close enough to mine, and aren’t afraid of a bit of scrutiny. But there’d have to be hours of rehearsal…and it would never sound quite right, and why should they get all the glory? Yes. I have confidence in my ability to string a few decent sentences together, and I know that if my body worked properly I could hop up there and make a really good go of it. In The Before Time – before The Accident – I was utterly unafraid of public speeching. Not that I did much, but my finest outing was when I was best man at my mate Tim’s wedding. I talked for 45 minutes, accompanied by a slideshow; I got laughs and claps in all the right places, didn’t fluff anything or vomit – it went well. The moment everyone remembers is when the temperamental projector clunked forward two slides instead of just one, and a five-foot-wide photo of a chicken and leek pie with the words FUCK OFF baked into its lid appeared on the wall, in front of all the youngsters and oldsters.
There was a moment’s silence, followed by a huge cheer.
I wouldn’t mind something like that again, but this time I can’t rely on a sweary pie. If I want attention and applause it’s going to have to be me on stage. So how’s that going to work?
Although I’m pleased to hear the venue (a place called Concrete, which is also Pizza East, on the ground floor of the Tea Building – London, eh?) has a stage access ramp, there’s no way I’m going up there in my wheelchair. I hate seeing myself in my chair; even though it’s a fine piece of German technology, and I sit upright and composed, it still bothers me when I see my reflection in a shop window. If I’m on stage someone’s bound to take a photo, I’ll want to see it despite myself, and then I’ll get all moody.
The other (more reasonable) reason is this: I don’t want special consideration. Oh look, they’ve got a wheelchair guy. I’m surprised to find myself using – in a positive fashion – a golf reference, but I don’t want to be handed a handicap, I want the same starting position as everyone else. OK, so I might need assistance getting up the stairs, I’ll stagger and drag and limp and stick my way across to the microphone, and I’ll take a while to compose myself, but then I’ll just be this bloke, which is how it should be.
Should I sit or stand? Standing, particularly standing up straight rather than slouching, demands a bit of concentration. Not 100% by any means, unlike walking. I can’t walk and talk simultaneously; in fact I’m literally unable to walk and chew gum. Standing, though, while it’s not entirely automatic, doesn’t take up too much mental space. Although it intrudes a little on the processing power required by speech, it also frees up my lungs. Overall, I have a bit more volume, clarity and tone when standing, so I’m better off upright. Another reason to leave the wheelchair at home. And…do I want to die on my feet or my arse? Feet please. So, although sitting would give the audience a better view of my undoubtedly excellent socks, standing wins.
But still, my voice. I can only choke out a few words at a time. At best, maybe ten – if I take a run-up. At worst, one at a time, or even none at all. And it’s a huge effort to impose any inflection, too – my tonal range is, well, it’s not very rangey. Cadence doesn’t get a look-in. The way I write is very similar to the way I used to speak – literally my voice, as it was (and still is, in my mind). But now, if I were to read my writing out loud, the listener would have to hold on to each two-to-five word chunk, then put them together at the end of each sentence (which would be indicated by a longer-than-usual pause); it’s a lot to ask.
For a little while I entertained the idea of using a computer with a projector. I could have an extra monitor and an extended desktop, so as well as live typing I could copy whole words and sentences without anyone seeing, then paste them into the projection – Pow! Snappy one-liners! Pivotal words! I’d be like a mute Rick Wakeman. And then I thought, well, I wouldn’t really even have to be there. It could just be a Powerpoint presentation, I could set it running and hide…no. I have to speak. I am barely able to speak.
There is a solution, though:
I have to re-write
whatever it is
I’m going to read
like this –
Chunks that not only
make it possible
for me to read out loud
make it possible
for an audience
I have one more trick up my sleeve. This could be crucial: Look the bollocks. (More English slang, “the bollocks” simply means “good” or “the best”. “Bollocks” on its own means testicles, or nonsense, but adding the definite article (see shit/the shit) makes a negative positive.) Dedicated slacker though I am, I can really get my sartorial shit together when necessary. I’ve bought some new shoes and they are very shiny. I might even have a shave.
But still. After all this strategising it’ll still be me, standing, wishing I could sit down, trying to hold an audience’s attention by telling funny little stories, a few words at a time, with a ruined voice. It’ll be roughly equivalent to making your karaoke debut singing The End Of The World As We Know It. In Japanese. Blindfold and naked. I don’t make things easy for myself do I?
If it goes well, though, it’ll be a good story. If not, even if I commit literary suicide, ultimately, nothing will change. Assuming the offer still stands, what have I got to lose?
Steve Sparshott 1971-2011: He was shit at reading, but he had great shoes.