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

in short

manageable

chunks

like this –

Chunks that not only

make it possible

for me to read out loud

but also

make it possible

for an audience

to comprehend.

And…

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.

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Formerly a professional modelmaker, STEVE SPARSHOTT turned to writing after brain damage sustained in a 2003 road accident removed much of his physical function. Typing with the three middle fingers of his left hand at a blistering fifteen words per minute, he has had work printed in London literary magazine Smoke, and various academic publications have featured his design-related social criticism. He has reviewed films for Screenjabber.com and Nude Magazine, and because his life just isn't difficult enough, he's writing a memoir called Get Well Soon. He is well chuffed to have an essay called Fin in the Nervous Breakdown compilation The Beautiful Anthology.

35 responses to “SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP – Part two of two”

  1. […] Edit: Here it is: Part two. Further reading, listening and […]

  2. Quenby Moone says:

    Oh my god. I am “bricking it” (now my Anglophilia rises and I start stealing from the genuine masters of colorful language) on your behalf. Good Christ. I have to go read No. 1, and re-read No. 2 in order, but this is another one of those moments where you’ve managed to take us on the ride in your brain–and it’s pretty amazing in there.

    And if one is going to have an epitaph, yours is better than most.

    • Well, there’s plenty of empty space in there, all aboard! I haven’t really touched on the emotions involved (except in my usual facetious way – “bricking it”), but even if I approach the whole thing in a cold, analytical fashion…well, you can see it’s still quite a challenge. Thanks for the apprehension; that’s actually another stratagem – get people on my side. I’ll be hassling my local friends and Twitter people to come along, but just getting a few words of support here and there really helps. You might know this already, but the TNB crew can be quite a formidable cheerleading squad.

      As for the epitaph, I think I’d prefer:

      Steve Sparshott 1971-

      Great shoes, decent reading, not dead yet.

  3. Hope Ewing says:

    Excellent conclusion!
    I’ve been thinking about this since Part 1…
    When I used to work at an opera house here in New York, a coworker (a musicologist, working in the Planned Giving department because that’s apparently what a doctorate in musicology gets ya right off the bat) explained to me that Baroque opera is so repetitive because the audiences were expected to be distracted, taking breaks from talking to one another and snacking to maybe appreciate an aria here and there. Supposedly at the time the opera was seen as a social event, the performers incidental to the audience’s experience. Those raucous 1600s.

    However, I have been called out for shushing people at rock shows. Because people en masse, as has been established in the comments to Part 1, are dicks. They have always been dicks. They will always be dicks. The internet is another way in which we can all be more dickish. Perhaps Montiverdi would agree?

    LDM audiences are rad, though. If the reading conveyed half the style this essay did, I bet everyone was too rapt to notice the shoes.

    • As we attempted to enjoy the performance, Mrs. Thrale and I were beset on all sides by FOOLS, PHILISTINES and POLTROONS all up in our respective GRILLS as they indulged in banter, texting and miscellaneous FUCKWITTERY. – Samuel Johnson

      Probably got my centuries all mixed up but I’m running on an ancient battery (and so’s my laptop – wahey!), so I don’t want to waste it further by going online to do research.

      “… people en masse…are dicks.” – a bold, sweeping, entirely correct statement. Phrases like mob mentality and mob rule exist for a reason. But yes, I reckon LDM audiences probably are rad. I won’t be on until October or November so there’ll be some more matches before then, and I’ll be sure to attend at least one. I’ve seen a few audience photos and they look pretty captive – in a good way. And the shoes’ll be at their eye level, so the gleam should transfix them good and proper.

  4. Irene Zion says:

    Make sure that someone tapes you so you can do a podcast for TNB.
    Can’t wait.
    It’s gonna knock the walls down!

    • Honestly – I’m not hyperbolising (or even bullshitting) but if you heard my voice, audio only, you probably wouldn’t understand much. I’ve heard it on phone-shot videos – obviously not the greatest sound quality, but still – and I had no idea what I was saying. Also it’s (literally) monotonous, so it’s unlikely to hold your attention on its own.

      I’ve always maintained that when people converse with me face to face, part of their understanding of my words comes from unconscious lipreading. And in fact I’ve recently come across evidence supporting my claim; the remarkable McGurk Effect. Watch the video, it’s only a few minutes long.

      My video camera has really good sound recording quality, though. So there might be some comprehensible recorded evidence, eventually…

      • Irene Zion says:

        Steve,

        I watched the video and after I understood what was actually happening, I tried to hear the right thing but I couldn’t! I heard what I saw instead. That is so amazing!
        Will there be a camera filming you with a big-screen picture of your face speaking?

        • It’s quite a thing, isn’t it? Oof, a big screen of my face – I’m not worried about my complexion, but there’d be a lot of saliva visible. Big spitty spit; there might even be bubbles. So, hopefully, no.

  5. Wow, I really want to hear how this turns out!
    How do you type?
    I bet you’ll knock ’em out. Can’t wait to hear the follow-up post!

    • How do I type? Oh shit, you’re right, I hadn’t thought of th

      Sorry, couldn’t resist. I use the first three fingers of my left hand, and very occasionally the fourth. I also have the “sticky keys” function on permanently. I don’t know if that’s a general or Mac-specific thing, but the way it works is: If I press shift (or ctrl, alt, apple etc) a little ghost “shift” symbol appears on the screen, and it’s as though shift’s held down until I press another key or hit the trackpad button. So I don’t have to hold keys down, I can click them in sequence.

      You know how I said I have about 25% physical function? Well it’s unevenly distributed, particularly between left and right. So in fact my right arm and hand barely move (say 5%) while the left is somewhere up around 45%. Let’s see how fast I can type. One minute: Go!

      the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog the quick bro

      Blimey! That’s actually much better than I thought! 20 WPM; single-syllable words, no punctuation or capitals, but still.

      There, that’s probably much more information than you wanted.

  6. This was fascinating to read and funny, not only because I sometimes wish I had an excuse to show off my excellent socks.

    For a few years awhile back, I put in stints as the right hand man to a wheelchair-bound friend. His chair was a technological marvel as was the customized van with the wheel-in open spot in the driver’s seat. He had an endless patience with my operation of the airline cockpit-style buttons and switches.

    Don’t want to use a golf reference either, but no doubt your reading will be the balls.

    • There’s an amazing array of adapted transport; you’ve probably seen those sit-on snowboards, for instance, and I’ve even seen a motorbike (actually a trike) that a wheelchair fitted into from behind, then the rider drove it like a chariot. But all of them depend on the user having a fully functional upper body (give or take an arm), which I don’t have. I can’t look round very far, can’t deal with sudden movement, can’t react quickly – so I take the bus, or black cabs. Or the fabulous chair! Its USP is that it’s modular – it breaks down into (and re-assembles from) twelve components without tools. Here.

  7. James D. Irwin says:

    I thought I’d commented on this. Apparently not.

    Hope it all goes well for you.

    Weirdly I write the way the voice sounds in my head, but not how my voice actually sounds.

    I’m sure you’ll be awesome. If not that it one hell of a good epitaph. Also, I love how you frequently explain English expressions in your posts. Someone has to educate these people!

    • Wahey! Sorry, burst of enthusiasm, I’ll try not to do that again.

      I say I write the way I used to speak, but of course it’s an idealised version, because I have far more time to think before I set finger to keyboard – and, because of my incredibly slow typing rate, I have plenty of time to think while I’m typing. But sometimes, when I’m doing a memoiry bit and I want to set down something I said verbatim, I’ll often find myself adding I really used to speak like that – what a wanker!

      And of course I’ve always spoken Englandish. When I started communicating with people from all over the world (America) I thought – briefly – about moderating my English to make it more universal. Then I thought “Cobblers,” but I realise a bit of explanation’s required here and there.

      • James D. Irwin says:

        There’s something incredibly un-British about enthusiasm. Unless you’re an eccentric. I’d like to an eccentric but my particular accent is fairly deep and flat. Much like Jack Dee I find it hard to say anything without sounding bitter or sarcastic. Which is at odds with how I write most of the time… a general tone of enthusiastic eccentricity etc etc.

        What sort of accent do/did you have? I’ve always imagined you to have a London-ish accent… which of course is actually incredibly vague. I know what I mean though.

        I always deliberately play up my Britishness for TNB because I find it amusing. Although I find I don’t really have to go up very far…

        • An odd mix of influences have ended up as a simple mongrel accent; basically received pronunciation but with short Northern A’s. Apparently I get more Northern when I get excited or angry, and I start saying “fook” a lot.

          David Mitchell (the Cloud Atlas one, not the Peep Show one) sounds a lot like me (in The Before Time), apart from his odd lip-smacking action. I also have a tiny hint of that Jonathan Woss thing, a bit less than Mitchell.

          Here you go

  8. Dana says:

    Woah. Can’t wait to hear how this all turns out, Steve! I want pictures (socks included), AND audio.

    Knock ’em dead!

    • Well, the fact that I so rarely dress up for anything (today I’m wearing six year old Levis and Converse and a four year old t-shirt from North Carolina) will probably qualify the outfit for inclusion in Flickr’s Wardrobe_Remix group. Meanwhile, here are the shoes.

  9. Todd Zuniga says:

    For starters, Steve, your writing is crisp and brilliant — it’s rare that my interest doesn’t get diverted these days (even when reading about LDM!), and you held me, effortlessly, all the way through.

    As for doing LDM or not, my thinking is that life is risk and as risks go, LDM is about one of the most tender-hearted, gentle risks going. And your prose should be heard by the masses! The offer absolutely stands. We’d love to have you center stage, pouring your lit heart out.

    • Ooh ‘eck, it’s the guv’nor! Look busy!

      I actually did a LOL at …LDM is about one of the most tender-hearted, gentle risks going. In a café, which could have been embarrassing, but they know me there.

      I think the material I prepare for live reading will be somewhat different from my on-screen work, but it’ll still have a good dollop of me in it. I won’t be pouring my heart out as such; another of my disability’s myriad joys is that if I’m even slightly emotional (happy or sad) I can’t speak. Also my right arm assumes a strange gunslinger position – it’s not rocket science, but it is brain surgery. So no great outpouring of emotions – rather, I’ll be carefully maintaining a neutral position. As my default setting is FACETIOUS, hopefully it won’t be too hard.

      Ah, you said lit heart. Well then. Yes.

      It’s just occurred to me that LDM’s structure is such that, even if I crash and burn horribly*, I can always say I made it through to the semi-finals.

      *as opposed to crashing and burning lightheartedly, elegantly or triumphantly

  10. Joe Daly says:

    Steve-

    I can’t wait to hear how this goes. It’s a bit surreal to read this piece and have to consider your communication challenges for the performance. The piece is so well-done that it’s almost difficult to digest what I’m reading.

    Rock that mic like a motherfucker and be sure to do a follow up piece for us. Good luck and rock on.

    Btw- I recently heard a take on the dog’s bollocks which was entirely new to me- “the mutt’s nuts.” Love it.

    • You know that never occurred to me – people here know me as someone whose communication is only hindered by his foreign (un-American) nature and occasional messy sentence structure. And a tendency to ramble. But in real life, where communication’s usually quicker, easier, clearer and more nuanced – for me it’s harder. Not an easy concept to make sense of. Eventually there’ll be some recorded evidence and everybody will be able to look at it and say “Ah, right. That’s how it works,” but for now you’ll just have to take my word for it.

      Will I be able to rock the mic? I’ll…I dunno. I’ll coerce it or something. Anyway, cheers!

  11. kittenpants says:

    i never know whether to stand or sit at a reading. I generally compromise and stand with a podium or music stand or some other thing to lean on.

    One of the greatest things I’ve ever seen was a performance by a band called The Baptist Generals in Denton, TX. The band is from Denton and they were headlining a show for the hometown crowd. Instead of setting up on stage like the rest of the bands, they put a nice area rug in the middle of the dance floor and set up for an intimate, acoustic set. The crowd surrounded them on all sides as they started playing, but some of the crowd continued to chit chat loudly, without regard to how especially disturbing and impossible they were being. They were drunk. They are always drunk.

    So the band stopped playing 2 1/2 songs into their set and announced they’d be moving the show outside. Those that wanted to drink would be legally required to stay indoors. The rest of us walked out and watched them perform on the sidewalk next to a dumpster. It was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. And there were a ton of us, standing in the street, being fans.

    My point, if I am required to have one, is that you can always take it to the streets. Right?

    Give ’em Hell.

    • The worst thing for me would be a tall perchy stool. It’d take a while to get on it and then I’d be working so hard not to fall off I’d be unable to speak. As my mate Rory used to say about his Harley Sportster, “The pillion seat’s so small you need a prehensile arse to stay on.”
       
      Is that the same Denton as in the Mountain Goats song? That’s a great tactic, leaving the boozers inside. It wouldn’t work here; outdoor drinking’s legal, you don’t even have to brown bag it. I think certain city centres are becoming no drinking zones, ones where there are always alcohol-related incidents.

      Anyway, that wasn’t your point, was it? Your point was that there are ways and means. I mean to do everything I can to get the audience on my side (short of bribery).

      No, actually, bribery might be good.

  12. Sara H says:

    Loved reading this, and certainly gives some perspective about our perceived difficulties with writing.

    We always think we’ll do worse than we actually do — and while we’re up there, we still think it’s worse than what the audience is thinking. I think that’s true for everyone.

    So g’wan then, with your new shoes, looking well fit. Gis a show. 😉

    • We always think we’ll do worse than we actually do — and while we’re up there, we still think it’s worse than what the audience is thinking. I think that’s true for everyone.

      I reckon you’re dead right there. I can’t just wing it, though – I’m going to have to analyse my own voice carefully, work out exactly what I can and can’t do with it, and construct a performance round that. One that will probably be scripted and stage directed down to the last “er…” and nose scratch.

      Anyway, yes, for what it’s worth I’ll try to look as tasty as possible.

  13. Tawni Freeland says:

    I am hoping for you that in the same way whispering a reprimand to a naughty child rather than shouting it at them will get their attention faster, your soft-spoken approach will garner you a respectful, curious and attentive audience. I also agree with you that reading your work in short chunks will help with this, especially for those with short attention spans.

    I look forward to hearing about it, Steve, if you decide to write about it afterward, and have really enjoyed reading this two part about disrespectful audiences that won’t SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP. I have a feeling you will be pleasantly surprised by how well it goes. Your reading will be the dog’s bollocks, and definitely won’t go pear-shaped on you. (:

    • Wow Tawni, thanks, this is very encouraging! Yes, you’re right, take a John Wayne/Clint Eastwood/Batman approach. I’ve often thought of the event as an East London middle class Eight Mile (for an older crowd) but I’ve had no idea how I can make my weaknesses work for me (like Rabbit (Eminem) does at the end (Warning: That was a spoiler.)). And there it is, you’ve nailed it. Ace!

      As for writing about it, even if I get knocked out straight away, I think the passages I’m going to prepare will make

      a fun –

      albeit

      long and narrow –

      TNB piece.

      UPDATE:

      You appear to be

      a teddy bear.

  14. Matt says:

    What you need, Steve, is a combo barker/bouncer: some well-dressed (though not enough to upstage you), vaguely menacing type who’ll talk the crowd up while you get yourself situated on stage and who’ll quickly and with minimum fuss handle up on any rotters who get the notion to act a fool during your performance.

    I’m experienced, and available. Book me a flight and I’m all yours.

    • Yes! You could wear a stovepipe hat. And – I don’t even know what it’s called, where your sidies loop up into your ‘tache and there’s no beard as such. I’m getting a Gangs of New York vibe.

      “Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Witness the 21st century’s most remarkable spectacle, the talk of East London society – The Incredible Mumbling Man! Yes, for your entertainment he stands in one place and says things with the utmost sloth – a few words at a time!

      You sir! In the plaid shirt! No, not you – the other one. No, the skinny one…er…”

      It could be good. We even have the new cold beer available in the more modern venues.

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