With tracks from Northside, Jean Philippe-Goude, Jimpster, The Herbaliser Feat. Wildflower and more, all interspersed with silly conversation and efforts to articulate what we love about music.
With tracks from Funkadelic, Clark, Thelonious Monk, Digital Underground, Self Esteem and more, all interspersed with silly conversation and efforts to articulate what we love about music.
Like all bookish, film, tv and box-set-loving, literary, narrative bores and writer-types, I am very interested in Joseph Campbell’s mythic structure the hero’s journey, or monomyth, as it sometimes goes (a word borrowed from James Joyce).
In the monomyth, just on the rare off chance that you had a hangover on that day it was covered in your media studies class, there are 17 (or 12 in a slightly simpler version) stages for our hero to go on. If we ever read or watch something that we can’t retro-fit these stages to, like the sophisticated narratologists and Soviet folklorist wannabes that we are, it often means that we have endured an unsatisfactory narrative.
Of course, one aspect of comparative mythology and morphology that is often pushed to one side in order to work out/grind into the dirt what constitutes a decent narrative is that, because as humans we are innate storytellers, we don’t really need to be mindful of all of these stages in order to tell a story, or ever to refer to them – that stuff just exists in our skillset. The hero’s journey is there, etched in the dusty recesses of our drink-addled brains.
Dan Harmon, the large, drunken, baggy-eyed, outrageously bearded creator of Community and co-creator of Rick & Morty, has done an exceptional job of simplifying Campbell’s approach. His 8-stage, Trivial Pursuit-lookin’ story circles, used in the writers’ rooms of the stuff he works on, are paired down, super basic versions of Campbell’s more wordy effort, ridding difficult to remember phrases such as meeting with the goddess, ultimate boon and atonement with the father and replacing them with the much more digestible You, Need, Go, Search, Find, Take, Return, Change.
When I wrote at a desk, back when I had better posture as a writer, I’d have a visual of Campbell’s 17-stage monomyth, alongside Harmon’s easier on the eye 8-stage version, hanging above me. Just in case. If you apply either to every character in your work, rather than just the main protagonist, as Harmon and his writers very successfully do, you can head into some complex labyrinths and miss loads of deadlines. But the end result is layers and layers of quality. Of course, I never looked up from the keyboard to look at either. In the same way I don’t pore over a copy of John Yorke’s Into The Woods while I’m writing. If you’re a writer, it’s not your job to know this stuff because you’ve read it in the various re-iterations that exist, it’s your job to know you already know it and to fucking relax, because it’s going to be there as a coincidental byproduct of your ability as a storyteller. Or just give up.
I do like to read and watch things that disrupt and question this whole hero-quest think. While it’s clearly and obviously everywhere in Western/Hollywood/Netflix narratives, beyond the West and the mainstream multiplex exists a whole world of alternative approaches that do their damnedest to tell stories in a different manner. Existential narratives, magic realism, indecipherable art house films, tragedies.
There are alternative structures to the hero’s journey. A lot of them are shit and nonsense, mind, and a lot of them are very similar, and a lot of them are just the dreadful guidelines and rigid templates that lead to unsatisfactory genre fiction (unsatisfactory for the reasons outlined in paragraph 3).
Get yersen away from Western literature, mind, and risk-averse blockbuster-fixated Hollywood, and you’ll find works of art that suggest there are other methods by which we tell and share stories, alternatives to crossing the threshold, descending into a mess and coming out (or not) of the other side, and other stuff that is equally stashed in the Imagination, Salience and Executive Attention networks within our fat and arrogant heads. Go read some Japanese fiction for starters.
I got to thinking about this – again – because I was reading an unlikely source (rather than getting down and dirty with Vladimir Propp or Phil Cousineau for fun) – John Higgs’ biography The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned A Million Pounds, bought for some loose change from HMV. Where, as unlikely as it sounds given he’s attempting to get behind what made Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty tick, Higgs starts going on about Harry Potter and the peripheral characters in JK Rowling’s franchise.
For a page and a half, it said the kind of thing I wish I could have thought of as a response when someone or other – and there have been many – was giving me the bad dramaturgical questioning line that goes, “well, whose story is this?” Clearly, those asking the question are never looking for a response that is so complex and mind-curdling that they wouldn’t understand it and couldn’t convey it to a marketing department, or go on to make some casting decisions based on who’s playing the lead.
Anyway, I found it interesting and I am pondering, as Higgs was in 2012, if there is such a thing as a story that no one knows they are in, least of all the main characters. Here’s the bit in the book:
If you’re interested, you can read more about Dan Harmon’s approach to story structure here.
With tracks from A Certain Ratio, The Blow Monkeys, Floating Points, Tortoise and more, all interspersed with silly conversation and efforts to articulate what we love about music.
With tracks from Sons of Kemet, Noga Erez, Basil Kirchin, Courting and more, all interspersed with silly conversation and efforts to articulate what we love about music.
With tracks from Leon Vynehall, Osibisa, The Breeders, Life Without Buildings and more, all interspersed with silly conversation and efforts to articulate what we love about music.
With tracks from Donna Summer, Outkast, Newen Afrobeat, LCD Soundsystem and more, all interspersed with silly conversation and efforts to articulate what we love about music.
In early summer 2005, following the unexpected minor success of a first full-length play, I was invited to a place called Peaberries that specialised in selling big messy sandwiches that you ended up wearing, to discuss whether I had any other Hull-related ideas* for Hull Truck to produce, or if that was that.
I think I ordered a lemon pepper chicken in a bloomer the size of a planet, and probably a bottle of Corona to wash it down. Over the course of attempting to get some of this hefty, elaborate sarnie in my mouth, and between spitting mouthfuls over Truck’s then Associate Artistic Director Gareth Tudor Price, and him spitting whatever he’d ordered over me, I banged on, and on, about an idea for something called Happy Hour.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, it was slightly Housemartins related. As a recently discovered scrap of A4 reveals, the play would not be “reliant on the use of the [Housemartins] music, nor will any of the characters be based on band members.” Rather, he writes looking down at this piece of paper, it would be, ahem, “a fast-paced psychological comedy packed with the bleak humour prevalent at the time . Think Dog Day Afternoon set in a Hull pub [The Grafton].”
The overly simplistic outline suggests that untalented psycho Gus wants a piece of the fame, celebrity and fortune that he sees the band having and, to that end, intends to invite himself into the band. He holds four lads hostage in The Grafton, but they’re not the band – they’re just dressed in similar woolly jumpers and sportswear to that donned by Pd Heaton, Stan Cullimore et al (there were, of course, a lot of these groups of four wandering around Hull’s Avenues area at the time). Gus is also faced with bar staff who are even more disturbed than he is, which throws his plan off, somewhat, as the tables are turned and the hostage-taker becomes the hostage.
Anyway, I didn’t get round to suggesting how this hostage situation would pan out, although it would probably have involved sleeve note writer and Marxist poet Swift Nick bringing things to a shouty left-wing conclusion. Each scene would be named after the tracks on London 0 Hull 4, which I thought lent themselves nicely to me not really having to think too much for myself – Anxious, Get Up Off Our Knees, Think For A Minute, Freedom, etc etc. Swift Nick, or the actor playing him if Nick himself proved too expensive, would provide a little precis/review of each song ahead of the relevant scene to keep those deceived into buying tickets because they thought it would be a jukebox musical about their favourite, pre-Beautiful South band, happy.
With half of my sandwich in my lap and probably some of Gareth’s having made its way into my open, jabbering mouth during the course of this ‘pitch’, I looked at him for a response. Then started up again.
“I had a dream last night. Might be worth mentioning…”
As he mopped some sandwich/salad dressing out of the corner of his mouth, I assumed he was indicating I should go on.
“…it was a poster for a play. Clive Sullivan. Dressed half in Hull FC kit and half in Rovers kit, holding a rugby ball, about to run down the wing. Above his head, there’s the title, Sully. I guess it’s a biographical drama about a sporting legend.”
“Ok,” says Gareth, “We’ll do that.”
And we never spoke about The Housemartins idea ever again.
Which was the right move (Gareth, who settled the bill at Peaberries, went on to do the most amazing job of directing and casting, with Fidel Nanton excelling as Sully, and incredible multi-role support from Lee Green and Natalie Blades (and subsequently Amy Thompson in the revival)).
Anyway, I was only reminded of all this because I recently got the opportunity to re-visit the magnificent career of Clive Sullivan via co-writing the story, for a Humber Mouth commission, of the supporting role that Ros Sullivan played in her husband’s rugby league life. And the co-writer was Ros herself.
In 2005, sandwich digested and ahead of tackling the script for Sully, the brilliantly named Hull Daily Mail sports reporter Dick Tingle put me in touch with Ros (thankfully, given I didn’t know what I was doing) and, from the moment I met her, she was incredibly generous, sharing loads and loads of stories of their life together (and also giving me permission to do whatever I wanted with what she shared with me).
And Ros has done the same again so, together, we could tell this well-known story from her different perspective. The result is a short story that has been broadcast on the radio called Sidelines (it’s only 10 minutes long, so we barely scratch the surface). Ros was also brave enough to read the words, which are available on BBC Sounds, at least for a few more days. You can listen to it here (about 3 hours, 15 mins in).
*when I walked in to Truck for the first time as a ‘writer’ – to attend a new writing session – I remember explicitly stating that I didn’t want to write about Hull, most certainly didn’t want to write about rugby league and had no desire, by association, to become a professional Northerner. Ah, the confidence, swagger and naivety of the younger me.
With tracks from Moodymann, Tony Allen/Theo Parrish/Eska/Andrew Ashong, Groove Armada, Alice Coltrane and more, all interspersed with silly conversation and efforts to articulate what we love about music.
With tracks from Eska, Melody’s Echo Chamber, Gang of Four, Discodeine, The Selecter and more, all interspersed with silly conversation and efforts to articulate what we love about music.