Monday, 11 July 2005

Skipping the exposition

There are several ways of starting a story which avoid the tedium of setting a scene, introducing characters and generally footling about with a prologue before cracking on with the action. You can choose to tell a yarn which has absolutely no scene to be set and practically no characters (“In the beginning God created the heaven and earth...”), or you can, if you are a really great writer, coin an opening sentence which seizes the reader’s attention immediately and sets the tone of what follows (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that…”).

Harriet Wilson (1789-1846) kicked off her memoirs in medias res, making it clear that she was not going to waste her time on background information: “I shall not say how or why I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven”.

This seems to me to be an admirably crisp non-introduction and I shall start the same way in telling a story of tribulation nobly borne and an agonising dilemma resolved by an entirely satisfactory compromise.

I shall not say why it was that last Friday Anne and I decided to drive to Manchester to a performance by a music school orchestra and choir. Nor will I explain in detail why what is normally a five-hour journey took nine hours (A22/M3/M25/M1/M6 says it all).

We arrived at the concert hall, hungry and exhausted and an hour late, just as the first half ended. The performance was being recorded and we would not be allowed in after the interval was over, so we ran to a nearby Italian restaurant and asked for two gins-and-tonics and something – anything – they could give us to eat in fifteen minutes.

They did their best and the gin came at once, but by the time a plateful of spaghetti carbonara and one of linguine alla salmone landed in front of us there were five minutes to go before the doors would be shut. For me the decision was easy: the second half was to be Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time and, admirable a work though this is, after a day’s driving and on an empty stomach I was sure I would not be able to give it the attention it deserved. But Anne is of sterner stuff and we agreed amicably that she would run off to the concert after a couple of forkfuls.

Now in relaxed mood, I chomped my way through my spaghetti and the rest of Anne's linguine, with a glass of a modest Pinot Bianco. The waiters clustered around me solicitously, clearly believing that they had witnessed a major domestic upset or perhaps even the tragic end of a relationship, an impression no doubt reinforced when I called for a cognac to round off my lonely meal. When leaving I felt obliged to try to explain to them that all was well and that we were both having happy though regrettably separate evenings, but they did not really understand and clearly felt I was putting a brave face on some great sorrow. So later, on our way back to our hotel, we made sure they saw us chatting merrily as we walked past the restaurant.


Anonymous said...

I'd have opted for to finish the spaghetti carbonara too. After all, they were recording it ... the choral piece, I mean, and you'd already missed the first period (hockey speak)....

Great White North Boy

Sal said...

couldn't you have just shoved itinto your pocket for some crafty mid-(part)performance noshing?

honestly. you english. so hide-bound.