Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘gil scott-heron

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S is for Shut Up and Deal

[also for Spoiler if you’ve never the seen the film, so beware…]
Writer/director Billy Wilder, co-writer I.A.L. Diamond, and star Jack Lemmon had combined two years earlier (with Joe E. Brown delivering the killer line) to create the immortal “Nobody’s perfect” dialogue at the end of Some Like It Hot. In 1960’s The Apartment, there’s something approaching perfection in the stuttering path Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine take, through endless work and love-based misdirections, to the romcom moment of epiphany depicted at the start of this closing sequence. But from the moment MacLaine enquires after the deck of cards, the brief remainder of the film becomes an outstanding example of letting the action speak for itself, that any writer would do well to heed. Yes, Lemmon attempts a gushing declaration of love but he’s cut short and handed the deck: “Shut up and deal.” Note MacLaine’s expert shuffle, a story in a few hand movements, and then, as the end credit appears, the way Lemmon follws that instruction, cards flying everywhere and bliss taking hold:

T is for Twist…Bust
Shirley’s just dumped Fred McMurray to see in the 1960s with you, she’s got the pixie haircut and she’s wearing that dress…those cards aren’t getting picked up anytime soon – it’s not as if you’re playing Felix in The Odd Couple for another eight years. Should Jack and Shirl eventually return to their game, they might get round to playing some blackjack, and they’ll know that, when you’re aiming for 21, if you twist too many times, you could end up bust. T could be for Tortuous Analogy because, as in card games, so it is in the short story: twist if you need to, but exercise caution. Writers approaching the short story via a Tales of the Unexpected, Guy de Maupassant or, indeed, Scooby Doo route, might believe that a twist in the tail is essential to a short story’s DNA.

Maupassant’s influence, as one of the 19th century architects of what we now understand as the short story and the leading pioneer of the twist (and you thought it was Chubby Checker!), is powerful. Yes, he may wrong-foot the reader, but his characters aren’t constructs purely for the purpose of concealing the surprise at the ending: these are people living real lives. In The Necklace, the unfortunate, impoverished Mathilde, having borrowed a glittering diamond necklace to mask her poverty when attending a function related to her husband’s work, loses the necklace and she and her husband spend ten years raising the funds to buy a replacement to give back to the owner. The twist is that, when the owner has the dreadful secret explained to her, she tells Mathilde that the original necklace was a cheap fake. It’s a shock to the character, definitely, but the story isn’t about that shock: they’ve crippled themselves with debt and worked hard for ten years to pay for something they could have replaced for less than 500 francs – that’s a story about how crap life is when you’re skint. It’s not a twist at all: it’s a boorish, droning inevitability. Get the reader to understand your story, and the ending may momentarily startle but it won’t seem to have come from nowhere. Set out at every turn to fox and confuse your reader and it won’t just be the disgruntled old retainer in a phantom mask who’s plotting your downfall.

U is for “Uno, Dos…Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro…”

Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken count-in to The Bottle; Little Richard’s “A Wop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom” into Tutti Frutti; George Harrison’s double-tracked guitar intro to I Wanna Hold Your Hand: if they were short stories and not songs, they’d read something like –

And then, after six years, she saw him again.
[Katherine Mansfield, A Dill Pickle]

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
[Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen]

Miss Cicely Rodgers strapped her cock and balls into the Miracle Deluxe Vagina, which was made from skin-like flesh-coloured latex and came with fully adjustable straps to ensure a perfect fit and to hide any last sign of maleness.
[Alexei Sayle, Who Died And Left You In Charge?]

V is for Velázquez
It wasn’t just that he’d paint a dwarf as well as a Pope. It was that the depictions of the Dwarf Francisco Lezcano or the beggars and lowly workers, in the grounds around the royal or papal palaces, were proper portraits, investing the subjects with dignity unattainable in everyday society. It was also that Pope Innocent X could be portrayed in such a storytelling way, the terse, malevolent executive overflowing with human power but without too much divine grace in evidence. Stories can work like paintings in as many ways as there have been artistic movements, but the humanity in a Velázquez should be high on the list of aspirations.

W is for Watermelon

Thank you, the sex was lovely and, as you know, I’ve been very keen for it to happen for some time. And how delightful that the hotel puts watermelons in the room – so refreshing! I’m going to cut myself a slice. Would you like one?. I tell you what – this is lovely, but those black pips get on my nerves.

In Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog, none of this is spoken by the male protagonist, Gurov, to his titular sexual conquest. He does cut himself a slice of the watermelon, which he eats slowly. And then Chekhov creates an image so excruciating, it’s enough to put you off the fruit for life: “At least half an hour passed in silence.” Girls, if he’s not at the very least asking you whether he’s got any pips stuck in his teeth within the first ten minutes, (a) get the message and get out of there, but not before (b) you shove the rest of the watermelon into him, not sliced up, and not necessarily via his mouth either.

X is for X-Ray Spex
Acknowledging the passing of Poly Styrene and celebrating the concise characterisation displayed in Warrior in Woolworth’s:

Y is for Yeast
That idea you’ve got, that you think would work in a story but you’ve not got a plot yet, or characters, or a setting or a way to begin or end it. It’s still there, still at work, and it’ll grow, so give it time.

Z is for Zelda Fitzgerald
The epitome of the writer’s muse. The ethics of drawing from your own life, and thereby the lives and personalities of those who share that life, are in a constant state of push-me-pull-me within each writer. You use your non-writing hand to wipe away the tears shed at the worst moments of your life because the other hand’s twitching for the nearest pen. Zelda was not simply a muse but an incisive writer herself. Scott knew this, of course, but does the selfishness required by a writer instinctively seek to overshadow this apparent equity in their relationship? Is there room for a second writer in your house? I’m only asking because I write short stories for a living, and I think my landlord might have got wind of this….

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E is for Emotional Choreography

A line I’ll often throw out to students facing the construction of their first ever short story is to think of as simple a plot as possible, then make it simpler. If someone is telling you the summary of their short story plot, by the third or fourth “and then…” alarm bells are ringing out. Any short story, even the most fleeting vignette, requires a plot, whereby the characters do things, or things happen to them, or things are revealed to the reader, in a particular order – it’s just not always helpful to try to break it down in those terms. The idea of emotional choreography can be more useful when talking about a story in which little takes place in the way of external action or happening but we are witness to a shift in the internal state of the character(s), and the writer’s job is to arrange the steps by which they experience this shift. In Mansfield’s A Dill Pickle, the action can be summed up in terms of Vera unbuttoning and then rebuttoning her coat, with a conversation in between, but the emotional choreography is worthy of Gene Kelly.

F is for Forbrydelsen

In 1995, Steven Bochco’s Murder One unravelled a single murder trial over 26 hour-long episodes. In a TV world in which the biorhythm of any crime was that it should be solved with time for a bit of banter at the end within the space of one hour, where the feature-length deliberations of Morse had seemed an impossible luxury, Murder One‘s progress towards the truth, led by Daniel Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman – the shaven-headed, ursine embodiment of Raymond Chandler’s line “Down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid” – seemed more in keeping with the complexity and level of commitment we’d expect from a novel. When novelistic TV series, like The Sopranos, began to roll out of HBO and the other US networks, Bochco’s innovation receded into fond memory. Once high production values, narrative complexity and mumbled articulacy had become familiar to drama viewers, the crime-solving drama moved towards being the type of quality pulp that enabled you to switch your brain to autopilot without feeling you’d surrendered it to a tribe of reality show producers.
First airing in its native Denmark in 2007, but only reaching the UK when it was shown at the start of 2011 on BBC Four, Søren Sveistrup’s Forbrydelsen (The Killing, but the poncey insistence on the Danish also serves to differentiate it from the patchy US remake) took on the police procedural genre. While crime, in general, and police procedural or criminal psychologist narratives, are staples of the fiction bestseller lists, as well as the TV ratings, and while “fiction bestseller” equates to novels rather than short stories, it’s also possible to argue that the Whodunnit is a pertinent model for short fiction. Getting to the truth, or a good enough truth to enable us to move on, is as much a short story reader and a Chandleresque detective-figure can hope for over the course of a story. Forbrydelsen‘s first series ran for 20 episodes, but each episode represented one day of an investigation into the murder of a teenage girl, and one day at a time in the grieving process of her family. So, while it had a similar novelistic scope to Murder One – and in Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund, a shrewd, sensitive, tunnel-visioned Sam Spade for our times, and for the future series of the drama to come – it often carried itself like a short story. As one example, Lund’s relationship with chewing gum is a crucial aspect of Gråbøl’s performance but it’s one never given overt reference in the script: we just see her chewing her way through the barriers – bureaucratic, emotional, political – that hamper her progress towards the truth. The correlation between her chewing and the stress tells us enough so that when the frustration piles up to the extent that she bums a cigarette from her colleague, Jan Meyer, an arc, reaching back to way before we knew any of the characters, is completed.

G is for Gil Scott-Heron
For all the reasons discussed here, and for the story told in a lyric like that for Pieces Of A Man:

Saw my Daddy meet the mailman
and I heard the mailman say,
“Now, don’t you take this letter too hard now, Jimmy,
‘cos they’ve laid off nine others today.”
But he didn’t know what he was saying.
He could hardly understand
that he was only talking to
pieces of a man.

H is for Hunger

“Cig?”
“Come on.”
“Bit of a break from smoking the Bible. Eh?”
“Oh aye.”
“Anyone work out which book is the best smoke?”
“We only smoke the Lamentations – right miserable cigarette.”
“Nice room.”
“Very clean…”

Hunger is Steve McQueen’s 2008 depiction of the 1981 IRA hunger strikes and dirty protests in the Maze prison, culminating in the death of the IRA prisoners’ Commanding Officer and newly-elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). The film, drawing on McQueen’s background as a Turner Prize-winning video artist, deploys the essential short story technique of observed detail to extraordinary effect, so much so that the genuinely harrowing scenes of filth, brutality, a shocking assassination and Sands’ lingering demise acquire a perverse luxury through the beautifully patient storytelling. The heart of the film, for which co-writer Enda Walsh deserves credit, is a 17-minute dialogue between Fassbender’s Sands and Liam Cunningham’s Father Dominic Moran. With just one change of shot after ten minutes, we are able to focus on the dialogue’s humour, tension, tragedy and politics, not to mention the relief – for us and, we can empathise, for Sands – to have this break from literally wading in shit. This clip is just the first chunk. There are breezeblocks of exposition in fiction – and then there’s this expositional sculpture:

I is for iPadding
Nothing at all wrong with first person narrative. Nothing wrong with streams of consciousness nor with charismatic narrators who are the stars of their own stories. Writing what you know: tip-top advice. We often enter into the process of writing short stories as an act of self-expression or memoir; we come via the poetic statement that’s acquired a narrative; via the anecdote; via life’s epiphanies or forks-in-the-road. And when I say “we”, we write “I”. “I” in fiction can be a Nick Carraway or a Charles Ryder, the unremarkable foil to the Gatsbys and Flytes that absorb the light throughout those novels. But “I” can also be an obstruction to any given scene or story. A writer can wrap themselves around every detail so every piece of information about place, action or other characters comes to the reader already evaluated and filed under a particular conclusive emotion. It can make for a narrative effect similar to having someone sitting next to you, talking all the way through a film you’re trying to follow, not only drowning out the dialogue but explaining the plot as well. Simple(-sounding) solution: get “I” to step back and allow us to see the sunset, the actual sunset and not just what “I” thinks about the sunset – we know “I” can see it, otherwise we wouldn’t have it narrated to us, so we get very little from “I looked across to the West and saw in the sky a beautiful sunset.”

J is for Johnny Cash
When you can sing a song like this, you’ll get a great reaction from any audience, but when you’re stuck in Folsom Prison or, as the crowd is here, in San Quentin, then the visit of a country&western superstar, singing songs about the life you used to lead and the one you’ve got now, will be a story you’ll be telling each other every day until your release, and every day thereafter. Confinement is a key to short fiction. One night in a cell might get you enough material for a short novel, if you’re Roberto Bolaño (By Night In Chile), and a train journey might provide you with a murder mystery novel, but you’d beter hope that train’s the Orient Express: for the 13.34 from Irlam to Widnes, you’re going to need a short story. A restricted temporal or spatial setting alerts the reader to the idea that what happens here and now matters: what’s being described is not leading you to anything or anywhere else more important so stick with it, pay attention to every clue and, eventually, you’re going to find that sonofabitch that named you Sue.

K is for Stanley Kunitz
His last published poem, written and performed here at the age of 100. “What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire.” This is a poem that anyone, but especially each and every writer, needs to “remind me who I am” and this video is a short story in itself:

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The afternoon was spent preparing for a lecture on John Steinbeck’s Breakfast. Solidarity; the dignity of labour; Steinbeck’s prose always working up from the land and the people, coming back always to the land and the people; the synapses of the American Left passing this ideal via Steinbeck from the Wobblies and Joe Hill to Woody Guthrie, and on to Bob Dylan, to Gil Scott-Heron, to Angela Davis, to John Sayle, to Michael Moore. Stepping out of this aesthetic into D.W. Wilson‘s 2011 BBC National Short Story Prize-winning The Dead Roads felt a brutal re-entry into the nihilistic realpolitik of 21st century getting high and getting by.

Animal had a way of not caring too much and a way of hitting on Vic. He was twenty-six and hunted looking, with engine-grease stubble and red eyes sunk past his cheekbones. In his commie hat and Converses he had that hurting lurch, like a scrapper’s swag, dragging foot after foot with his knees loose and his shoulders slumped. He’d drink a garden hose under the table if it looked at him wrong. He once boned a girl in some poison ivy bushes, but was a gentleman about it. An ugly dent caved his forehead and rumours around Invermere said he’d been booted by a cow and then survived.

The retina-grabbing intensity in this description of Animal Brooks – road trip companion to the narrator, Dunc, and Dunc’s sometime girlfriend Vic – is somewhat hard-boiled and somewhat in the transgressive vein of a Hubert Selby Jr or Chuck Palahniuk. It’s an impression that barely makes it into the second paragraph, though, as the three companions head across the Canadian Rocky Mountains, towards the Northern Lights, and it becomes clear that it’s the emotions stirred up by their adventures, rather than the adventures themselves, that will define this story.

The difficulty, and danger, with analysing a prizewinning story is that you could grab hold of it with the trembling, clenched fist of the struggling writer and view it in terms of: “So this is the style and subject matter my prose has to sleep with if I want it to win any prizes.” Alternatively, there’s the news media reading of the story, which will focus on the money that one writer has won, and the names of the slightly better known writers that were passed over by the judges. It was a syndrome that found perfect expression recently when the Nobel Prize for Literature went, not to Bob Dylan, nor even the likes of Thomas Pynchon or Les Murray, but to Tomas Tranströmer. I compared the deflated response of headline writers – expecting a Dylan v Keats Revisited pseudbath – to that of the papers ten years ago when a Premier League footballer revealed to have had an extramarital affair, having hitherto been masked by privacy laws with speculation growing, was revealed not to be an international superstar but the journeyman midfielder and Blackburn Rovers captain, Garry Flitcroft. The Sun‘s banner headline – “IT’S GARRY FLITCROFT” – was an Ozymandian masterpiece.

IT'S D.W. WILSON

As silly as the discussions can get when short stories are subject to the supertrooper beams from an event that news editors consider might interest the public, let’s not pretend that any light at all shone on the form doesn’t make a welcome change. The scope for “IT’S D.W. WILSON” headlines was off-set by a week of scheduling, within Radio 4’s Front Row, of a reading and podcast of each of the five shortlisted stories. Listeners had the opportunity to form unfiltered opinions of the works themselves, within a medium which has traditionally bypassed literary hierarchies to allow the stories themselves to flourish. Fresh from completing a PhD at the University of East Anglia, the prize represents a hell of a way to announce your entry into the industry and – while it’s hard to shake the idea that Wilson is casting himself as the “university kid” with whom Vic “bops around [on the West Coast]…who wears a sweater and carries a man purse. Her dad showed me a picture of the guy, all milk-jug ears and a pinched nose that’d bust easy in a fight.” – you can imagine the man purse being put to good use with the cash prize. We can celebrate his good fortune but we can’t afford to have it colour our reading of the story.

It’s the way Wilson gets the machine of the story to work that makes The Dead Roads a significant new presence in our short story universe. The story is told with the benefit of hindsight – it’s set in 2002 and the potentially fatal dramatic high point, that turns out to be merely chastening, is flagged up in the breezy opening sentence – but it’s withheld from us what that benefit provides. By the end, Dunc appears suspended in a moment we know has gone by. He’s arrived at what seems a resolution regarding his relationship with Animal, the archetypal small town childhood friend you never grow up fast enough to get away from, and thereby his passing into adulthood; particularly definitive is his awareness of how he feels about Vic, who seems to slip like mercury between the gazes of all the men in the story. Yet there’s no sense of to what, beyond this moment, any of this has led. We just know that, on a mountaintop, Dunc has acquired a vantage point on his life he may never attain again.

Wilson prods the themes along with each new disclosure of character among the three road trippers, and Walla, the Native who acts as a mirror to the group and a plot catalyst for the story. If our initial impression of Animal was of a thuggish creature of base instinct, egregious in his overt pursuit of Vic, Wilson provides him with stepping stones towards a greater complexity:

He’d packed nothing but his wallet and a bottle-rimmed copy of The Once and Future King, and he threatened to beat me to death with the Camaro’s dipstick if he caught me touching his book. His brother used to read it to him before bed, and that made it an item of certain value, a real point of civic pride.

The role of the T.H. White re-telling of the Arthurian legend seems to reach beyond Animal’s protection of it as an emblem of family comforts. We later see him struggle through it, “finger under each sentence”, and for all its painstaking nature, his attachment to the book is a notable contrast with the more intelligent but infuriatingly passive Dunc, who senses he should have been able to accompany Vic to university but instead has ceded that side of Vic to the man purse carrier, just as he seems to be ceding her raw, pleasure-seeking side to Animal. Vic clearly seems to be a Guinevere in this equation but Wilson avoids too easy and crass signposting of plot parallels with White’s epic.

For all the Arthurian overtones, for all that it steers away from the transgressive towards something nearer the dirty realism of Tobias Wolff, for all the Hemingwayesque nada of the competitive posturing pit where men try to show that they are men, for all, indeed, that the shadow of Steinbeck doesn’t entirely depart over the course of a reading, a story lives and dies in the quality of its sentences. In Animal’s reaction when Walla points out that he’s just put diesel in a petrol tank, we can see how this story, about seeing things the way they actually are, will stay with us when we’ve forgotten how we came across it in the first place:

Animal stared straight at the Native guy, as if in a game of chicken instead of wrecking his engine with the wrong fuel, as if he just needed to overcome something besides the way things actually were, as if he could just be stubborn enough.

After the emotion of the weekend and the discussion of the incendiary lyricism and revolutionary influence of Gil Scott-Heron, stepping back into the park bench and coffee shop world of the short story might feel like being doused with freshly-squeezed whimsy. In a publishing culture that regards the short story as the Huggies Pull-Up to the novel’s Calvin Klein boxers, it would appear an unlikely detour. Moreover, if we’re taking the Gil Scott-Heron suggestion, from Delta Man (Where I’m Coming From, to “put a little revolution in your life,” surely our first thought should be for the kinetic energy of the spoken word?

Here is the short answer: no art form, genre of art form or single work of art ever changed the world. Art has influenced consciousness, educated and agitated; it has provided rallying points, anthems and eloquent critiques, and sometimes it’s said things like “a change is gonna come” that, when those changes did come, seemed like the argument that had finally won the day. But we know that the process of change is more gradual and complex than that. Let’s be honest: if everybody knew that you could create a work of art, any art, that was guaranteed to make a radical change to the world you’re living in, Hitler would have stuck to the painting and Margaret Thatcher would have learned to play the banjo.

And yet…when our warm breath hits the cold air, there is a change. Whether we regard Sheherazade as the poster girl for the performative act or the short story, her bedtime tales fulfilled an agitprop function of keeping her alive, which is as radical a change as you need to make when there’s an axe being sharpened on the other side of sunrise. Incrementally, the bigger change – calling off the threat of execution – was achieved. When I first began performing poetry, the attainability of these incremental changes was a large part of the appeal. It was self-evident that more could be achieved in fifteen minutes in front of an audience of 50 than over several months of attempting to have one piece of work accepted by a publishing outlet. That my perspective has changed over the last twenty years can be attributed to any number of personal and historical factors, but the point I wish to tease out from this sketch of my personal development is one of technique and it’s relevant now while our thoughts are on a giant of spoken word.

The question is whether there is an area of short story technique that can give a printed story the kinetic properties of the performative moment that are routine within the spoken word format, and it’s one I’ll be contemplating as the blog continues to develop. What I’m interested in is the idea that there is something peculiar to short fiction that can work performatively. I’m inclined to discount first person narrative because, while this bears obvious characteristics of performance, being located in the oral storytelling tradition, it’s as suited to the novel as the shorter form.

Where we may begin to detect a technique that’s both a crucial strength of short fiction and a parallel to the molten energy of the live performance is in this blog’s regular fixation: the rendering of life in a sort of real time, whereby we can see, in the emotional choreography of the characters, a performance of what it is to be human. This is mimesis, whereby we experience the narrative, rather than having it relayed to us. When the topical issues have rolled on by and the world has not changed, other than in minor increments, we still need to deal with forces that act to reduce or refuse our common humanity, so the ability to place your reader within the emotional and sensory world of the characters is not just good writing, it’s an act of radicalism. The reason we keep going back to Chekhov is because he understood this. His writing captured snowflakes. It held in place for our inspection the moments of inspiration or heartbreak, and it lifted out of the fleeting the lives of the ordinary, the unconventional and the disappointed. So a story, in which love realises far too late that it ever had the potential to be requited, gives us a depiction of what it means to let life happen without taking action and it’s as political as a clenched fist salute:

Ilovaiskaya did not say anything. When the sleigh started moving and was going round a large snowdrift, she glanced back at Likharyov, looking as if she wanted to say something to him. He ran after her but she did not say a word, and just looked at him through long eyelashes, on which hung snowflakes…
[Anton Chekhov, On The Road]

The intimacy of those snowflakes work like the flecks of spittle that fly from a performer’s lips onto the front row of the audience. This writing is alive.

Let’s talk about Gil Scott-Heron, and let’s talk about the writing. Let’s forget, for a moment, the voice, the music, the life; let’s forget Brian Jackson, Ron Carter, Glenn Turner, Kim Jordan; let’s forget Civil Rights, Watergate, Plutonium, Reagan, Apartheid and Revolution. Let’s remember that what you’re feeling when you read this, and when you flick back through memories and sounds across over four decades, came about because someone picked up a pen and began to write.

Time. The words comes through the turnstiles of your mind, ringing the bell that attracts your attention like the warning bell near the end of a line on a typewriter. Time is here; then it is gone. I remember the first day I learned the meaning of the word gone. I had found my grandmother dead. Gone meant no tomorrow. Gone meant over. Dead meant that you, who had been something, were now nothing. That was the first time I saw a body lowered into the ground while people cried. I cried too, because I realized that I would someday die, and I was afraid of death. No longer was death a shootout in a cowboy movie or Christians being eaten alive in a Roman arena by toothless lions. It was the end of everything.
[from The Vulture, Canongate 1996, originally published in 1970]

It’s the reference points that set the fingertips tingling. The “turnstiles of your mind” – turnstiles, the ones you push through to get to the cheap seats; the image of hammering away at the typewriter, desperate to get the thought out in time to beat the bell; cowboys and indians; lions and Christians; the truth that comes from movies and the lives we actually live. When your eyes glaze over another obituary this weekend telling you that Gil Scott-Heron was called “the Godfather of rap” or “the black Bob Dylan” but blah blah blah he shied away from those titles…think about how small the box is into which those reductionist phrases place a writer with such a facility for illuminating the apparently banal and the apparently humble.

The passage above is from his 1970 novel, written in his early twenties yet vivid about the thoughts of a young child and the knowledge we grow into as we approach old age, and his poetry and lyrics are also studded with moments in which the humanity reaches out from the text to stroke our faces. “It stands out on the highway/ Like a creature from another time/ It inspires the babies’ question – What’s that?/ for their mothers as they ride…” [We Almost Lost Detroit]; “I saw my Daddy meet the mailman/ and I heard the mailman say./ ‘Now, don’t you take this letter too hard now, Jimmy,/ ‘cos they’ve laid off nine others today.’…” [Pieces Of A Man]; “Should have been asleep/ When I was sitting there drinking beer/ And trying to start another letter to you/ Don’t know how many times I dreamed to write again last night/ Should’ve been asleep when I turned the stack of records over and over/ So I wouldn’t be up by myself/ Where did the night go?” [Where Did The Night Go?].

We’ve had these nights, these journeys, these conversations; we’ve touched it all with our hands. That doesn’t make Gil Scott-Heron unique. It was what Chekhov and Whitman did, and Steinbeck, Langston Hughes and William Carlos Williams. Dylan managed to connect in this way too, and so do quite a few rappers, but this is too vital a tradition in the last 150 years of art to be narrowed down to a binary polarity of white folkie / black proto-rapper (and to trace hip-hop back to anyone and not get as far as Louis Jordan at least is simply ignorance, but that’s a discussion for another, more music-driven blog). We are talking about the lives and voices of ordinary people being acknowledged and dignified, not just that they can be considered worthy as literature but, more, so that the lives of the poor and powerless, the marginalised and defeated can be raised up and the pastimes and leisure pursuits of art and literature be dragged down to become the biological necessities we know them to be. Brian Jackson was GSH’s greatest collaborator but Henry Fonda provides some neat backing in the quote from the end of the John Ford film of Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath:

I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be ever’-where – wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise, and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

This is the language Gil Scott-Heron spoke too, and he addressed us as a friend and brother, which is why today’s remote news floating over the wires feels like a very immediate, local and personal loss. I don’t intend for obituary-writing to become a major part of this blog, though Poly Styrene jolted me into some thoughts on here a few weeks ago, but there’ll be writers the world over who’ll feel today that a slice has been taken from their tongues, some centimetres taken off the legs of their writing desk, and some water poured in to dilute their pens’ ink. There are truths about this world it’s our job to state but Gil usually got there first. And that world’s not getting any better for knowing that what he said made the most honest, humane and progressive sense. So things are going to get even harder from today onwards.

But I’m not too happy ’bout the middle of the mountain
so soon I’ll be climbing again
‘Cause all I can think of are chapters and scenes from
all of the places we’ve been.

That’s from 95 South (All Of The Places We’ve Been) and it was, of course, folly to think we could forget about the music so here’s the song:

Your reflections on Gil Scott-Heron are welcome.


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