by Ronald Frame

SRB Diary: No Time to Lose: A Glasgow Diary

June 8, 2012 | by Ronald Frame

THE END. That’s the last of a trio of novel dramatisations completed for BBC Radio 4. The author of the novels? Georges Simenon. If you must adapt another writer’s work, then why not the very best?
For me, Simenon is The Master.
I’ve read dozens, scores, of his novels.
Ideally they should be consumed in one sitting (Simenon’s wish). It’s a custom with me to close the book and say – aloud – something along the lines of ‘My God, just brilliant!’ or ‘How does he do it?’
These are the non-Maigrets, what he allowed to be classified as romans durs – ‘hard’ or ‘tough’ novels. Let’s call them ‘psychological’ novels.
Events push the central character to the limits of his or her endurance.
The latest script is the tenth. It’s my primary function to serve Simenon. To that end I need to pull the novels apart. While they are all easy to read, Simenon’s is the art that conceals art. Filleting the novels you appreciate how complexly constructed they are. For radio the narrative has to be made more linear, while separate episodes or characters may need to be combined – followed by liberal application of the DELETE button in tandem with Word Count. To make the transitions smooth within this 44-minutes-of-airtime straitjacket format, I invent brief links. (The seams mustn’t ever show, of course: the drama must flow naturally, and nothing forced about it.) Taking a metaphorical red pencil to paragraphs, even pages of so-real-we’re-there atmosphere and narrative and character analysis, replacing Simenon’s actual words with some he might have written – that’s how I try to stay completely true to the book.
The completed scripts are forwarded to Switzerland, to allow the Estate a perusal.
For me the whole process isn’t like work at all – but unalloyed pleasure.
* * *
Round about midnight most nights I settle down to watch a DVD. (I buy them. But I can get two from internet suppliers for the price of a cinema ticket, or less.) I’ve just completed my thirty-second film noir in a row.
(If I should start wearing a belted trench coat and a trilby, shoot me – or deliver a well-aimed sock in the jaw.)
Too many highlights to cram into the few lines available to me. Possibly it was Rita Hayworth in Gilda – was she ever more luminously beautiful?
Of the other femmes fatales, Special Mention for Virginia Mayo in White Heat. Her character (Verna) moved in on her new victim (Big Ed), fastening on his mouth and kissing him while continuing to chew gum at the same time – it’s a neat trick if you can do it.
* * *
Into Glasgow.
It pains me now to do so. My father died last spring, and the city is mapped by all the associations it has with him.
There’s another lost version of Glasgow. It is more real to me than what is here and now and in 3-D. It’s a soot-blackened place, a kind of Gotham City, but with more elegance and class about it than I see anywhere in this 2012 imitation.
He’s driving me to the school I moved to when I was nine, and he’s smoking as usual, and I’m thinking nothing about it, just as I’m unconscious of all the smokers on the tops of the buses I use for the journey back home. He’s off to Rowan’s for coffee with his friends. He and my mother are off to look at what’s new in the Scandinavian Shop, like the modern people they are. He’s working late, fine-tuning copy, getting his hands dirty (literally) with the wooden blocks on which advertisements were despatched to the newspapers long ago. (Yes, my father was a Mad Man – so achingly trendy now – described by someone in the dim and distant as ‘the only gentleman I know in Scottish advertising’.)
I had somehow forgotten quite how debonair and how good-looking he was. He’s still sprinting along the streets in one of those Shearer & Hunter suits he had them make up for him, still slim, still so nimble on his feet.
My sister and I alighted on a cache of family photographs, many more than we thought we had. In one the stranger turns out to be Dad, at a routine business function but looking like a glamorous South
American playboy more suited to Regine’s nightclubs c.1970 and mysteriously displaced to Glasgow.
At home I seem to be slipping quietly into some of his habits: sitting now in his Father Bear wing chair which we left empty for the first few months, eating a couple of bananas every day as he did, wearing one of his suits and a pair of favourite cuff-links, speed-reading green-backed crime Penguins and slow-reading some of his Jewish thinkers.
I find him every day when I go walking, and we talk.
My sister and I sat with him, held his hands, as – slowly, over many hours – life ebbed out of his body. A friend said to me about the deathbed vigil, ‘You’re not ever the same person afterwards.’ It’s true, and I wouldn’t wish it any other way.
In the very final seconds a surge of strength had passed through him: it was like raw current, electrifying my sister and me.
Then he was gone – but only, of course, in the material sense.
* * *
Along the back ways of my laptop.
There’s always one more short story skulking somewhere.
Late last year I rounded up as many as I could which hadn’t appeared in book form – most of them had been in magazines, newspapers, journals, or broadcast – and published three Kindle collections myself. They all feature a fictional spa resort in the Perthshire hills, called Carnbeg. (It was originally the backdrop to my Radio 4 serial The Hydro, about a sprawling Highlands hotel.) Carnbeg, being a crossing-place, has allowed me to write about the tribes I grew up observing – strands of Scottish life not much favoured by fiction writers in the past, living the middle way, usually in the suburbs of our cities.
It occurs to me that I have about four-fifths of the quantity I need for a fourth. A Carnbeg Quartet. Well, properly a pentalogy, since Time in Carnbeg was book-published – as distinct from e-published (are you following?) – in 2004. So, after A Carnbeg Affair, Carnbeg Piccalilli, and Mysteries of Carnbeg, what about … Since some of the characters’ memories, or delusions, will take us back to the 60s (when the town briefly swung) – how does the title Carnbeg A Go-Go grab you?
* * *
Radio Times is kind about my latest of many RF radio plays. It’s one of their two picks of the day.
This is the third time I’ve had the good fortune of Jane Asher’s participation. But it’s been twenty-five years since the last occasion. She proved to be almost unchanged in appearance, enviably slim and trim (daily swims), the same rich copper hair (if styled differently) which I remember from Alfie. As much as her appearance, she has a young voice. Her character only has to speak to defy the sly underminings by time: ‘Paulette Dubois’, piano teacher in Nice and a woman with a complicated past, will walk out of this play with her secrets spilled but with her spirit intact, her optimism undimmed. ‘The sun is shining. It’s going to be a beautiful day’.
As ever, I shan’t listen until the play goes out over the airwaves. No doubts about the
direction or the acting, none whatsoever, but if I did listen I would spot what I’d be telling myself could have been improved in the writing. Someone once came up with this comparison: it’s as if you’ve built a brick wall – to all intents and purposes it looks fine – but you, only you, know that some of the bricks have gone in the wrong way round. This writing lark is, thank God, a process of eternal dissatisfaction: otherwise, why go on with it?
* * *
KERRA-A-ASH!!
Another tottering pile of books has keeled over upstairs. Picking them off the floor, to replace them on the floor but in more stable fashion, I find some surprises.
One is a monograph of the architect Oscar Niemeyer. He had a vision, which became Brasilia. That city has lost its shine, but at the time when it was still new and futuristic – the 1960s – it fascinated me, and I collected everything I could about the place.
I only ever wanted to be an architect. I endlessly drew line illustrations of imaginary buildings, filling sketch pads and jotters with them, but I was hopeless at school ‘art’, likewise at maths (never mind that the deviser of logarithms is somewhere in my mother’s family’s background).
Instead I’ve ended up writing about the occupants of those buildings, just as fictional.
* * *
In front of me, on the wall, as I type this is a b+w postcard. The forearm being held in front of the camera is that of Czech photographer Josef Koudelka – the face of his wristwatch tells the time as twenty minutes to eleven – behind the proffered arm and fisted hand is a random Spanish field, with trampled hay and gnarled trees.
It’s one moment in time.
I keep the postcard there to remind
me that I don’t have time to waste. Every moment must be made to count.
I survive on tea. (How many mugs of tea did Auden consume in a day? In the twenties at least, perhaps it topped thirty. I’m not far behind.) I purchased a coaster the other day, a tile, attractively patterned with the face (distressed, very) of an antique clock. (10.37,
almost a coincidence.) Whenever I pick up a mug, and put it down, I shall be reminded,
NO TIME TO LOSE.

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