andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Category Archives: RLS

The merits of a leaky ceiling: how the Wrong Box came to be

Madrid and a cold beer, starting point for most of our Spanish travels

I went to see Jackie recently. It’s good movie, although there’s something a bit odd about it: the Guardian review probably sums it up for me. There’s a dream-like quality to it that got me thinking, because the way that the various forms of the sleeping state influence creative work interests me a lot.

I’m scarcely an original in using dreams to help the creative process: writers and musicians from Robert Louis Stevenson to Prince have talked about how they’ve plundered the stuff clambering out of their night-time subconscious. Stevenson’s classic horror, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for example, came to him in a dream, although the cocaine he’d been prescribed by a doctor for his ongoing health problems might have had an influence too. According to that particular creation myth, he got as far as the first transformation scene before his wife woke him up. Wives, eh!

Which leads me to the inspiration for my published-at-long-last novel, The Wrong Box.

Most of my creative endeavours, whether musical or writing wise, tend to have shadowy beginnings – a half-heard piece of conversation; an encounter on the express bus to Edinburgh; an earworm of a tune that won’t go away despite it appearing during work time. In the case of novel’s story, however, I can more or less trace the date of its inception to a week in April, 2008, and the Hostal San Bartolome, Almagro.

Anyone that knows me half at all will know that I’m a lover of Spain and all things Spanish, and not even just the wine neither. Every year for the last fifteen or so, we’ve been spending time travelling through that great country, all the time seeking out different regions, different places to visit that are off the tourist trail. Because we rely on train and bus to get about (just never fancied driving a car in Spain, funnily enough) that usually involves reasonably decent-sized towns. However, in 2008 we decided to push the envelope a bit, and explore somewhere that even the more generous Spanish classification of ciudad wouldn’t cover.

First stop, though, after touching down in Madrid and spending a night in the unremarkable but reliable Hotel Mora, was one of the great Spanish northern cities, Valladolid. It was a pleasant three nights there, from what I can remember: the things that stood out were the storks nesting on the roofs of the churches, and the quirky proprietor of the Hostal Los Arces showing the 9-year-old Daughter and Heiress the model house he was building out of sweets (although that now sounds so unlikely, I’m wondering if I dreamed that bit!)

From there, we had to head back south, through Madrid, and change trains at Ciudad Real to get to our second stop, the La Mancha town of Almagro. It was, in retrospect, quite a small place to spend almost a week, (from 5th to 11th April according to the itinerary I’ve unearthed) and I remember wondering, as the tren de media distancia crossed what I was to describe, in a subsequent poem, as a ‘tiny wrinkle on Spain’s great red face,’ whether I’d overcooked the length of our stay there, and undercooked Valladolid.

I had. It rained. It wasn’t a warm rain. Although what I described in the same poem as the ‘green and white layer cake’ of buildings forming three sides of the central square had its charms, in the rain those charms were a bit, well, on the soggy side (I’m giving you the absolute best bits of that poem, by the way – you can see why it never made publication). As we huddled in the bars and cafes of the plaza mayor with the locals and very few other tourists, we also came to realise that, given the somewhat niche appeal of the place, we had probably arrived a week or so early, tourist season wise. Not all the cafes and bars were open all the time.

We gravitated initially towards one place in the square which seemed popular with the locals: the food was decent, if a little red-meat heavy, and they had, like most bars in Spain do, a decent Rioja as the house red. We ignored the bullfighting on the telly at first as one of those cultural things that come with the package; but by the time of the second visit, the relentless procession of Hemingwayesque scenes from the plaza de toros started to grate a bit. Then we learned that the son of the establishment was a bullfighter, and took the hint that they probably wouldn’t be changing over to the football any time soon.

The main alternative seemed to be the bar/restaurant on the side road that led to our hostal. It was often virtually empty, and the waiter a youngish bloke who didn’t seem that sure about anything we asked him. The food was ok, though, and the inevitable telly was tuned to a channel that featured lots of what we took at first to be nature programmes. On closer inspection, these turned out to be actually about one of La Mancha’s other obsessions, la caza: the types seen striding about various grassy wetlands weren’t there so much to appreciate the bird life as blast the hell out of it with guns as soon as look at it. Oh well: asi es, as the Spanish say. By way of compensation, the uncertain young waiter decided we merited an end-of-meal taste of the local liqueur: three glasses of the stuff (including one for said 9-year-old D & H) appeared unbidden at our table.

Needless to say even we Scots leave it a couple of years before starting our kids on spirits. The Redoubtable Mrs F, meanwhile, had taken one sip of the yellow liquid and decided it was something I had to deal with, either by drinking or pouring into a handy plant pot. The plants were plastic, so down my neck all three went. I still have no idea what it was, beyond perhaps being the subject of a bet back in the kitchen to see if the crazy extranjeros would drink it. I’ve a vague recollection we even got charged for it.

All of this was nearly offset by the charm of our accommodation, the Hostal San Bartolome, and the young woman who ran it. Built around a central patio, the place was brightly painted, had real plant life in it, and was comfortable, accommodation wise. On the debit side, it was a bit – well, crumbly. I owe the place a debt for forcing me to find the Spanish phrase ‘el techo de nuestra habitacion esta goteando,’ (our room’s ceiling is leaking) as well as one for the handle falling off the door of the room I can’t place exactly now. All good practice, but not particularly great in terms of rest and relaxation (I’m sure they’ve fixed it all up now, of course).

Anyway. There we were, and there was the rain, and after dinner there wasn’t a lot to do except retreat to our room and hope the door handle didn’t fall off the outside while we were inside.

And whether it was because of the weather, the leaky ceiling, the third shot of mysterious yellow liqueur, or the bed which, in common with most Spanish hostal beds, wasn’t designed for those of us north of 6 feet tall, sleep didn’t come easily: which is how I came up to dream part, at least, of the story which was to become the Wrong Box.

I can’t remember specific details now, of course: but the essentials, I think, were there, of an obnoxious commercial property lawyer who wakes up with the hangover shark biting his head and the dead body of a client, naked, dead and with his toe stuck up the tap, staring up at him from the bath. There was always the idea of women having been there but then having disappeared; of there being some wider conspiracy at work that he didn’t appreciate; and of dark forces at his workplace.

Every so often throughout the night I’d wake up, hearing nothing but the sound of the others’ breathing and the downpour outside; then drift back off again, back into this dream that spun on with its story. There was another character, one from one of the housing estates that encrust the far outer ring of Edinburgh’s historic core: a conspiracy theorist who, alone, could help the lawyer find out the truth.

Towards morning, the periods of wakefulness became longer, as a watery light started to bleed through the curtains of the room. Inevitably, the left brain – the half that likes to impose order and structure on ideas – took over: the lawyer’s name would be Simon English, and his Englishness was a factor in the whole story, making him the stranger in a strange land. I don’t know at what point I came up with the name Karen Clamp for the conspiracy theorist, although I suspect it was then, still half-dozing, when the trapdoor between the two brain halves was still half-open.

As soon as it was light enough to see, I crept to where I kept the notebook I always carry with me on holidays and scribbled some essentials down. There were still long, arduous hours of plotting to come before I could start on the story properly, because I was determined that, if I was going to commit all the spare time it would take to write another novel (the previous two remain, tucked up in a digital drawer on the hard drive, unpublished and unpublishable) I was going to have a story that actually ticked all the story-formation boxes. My fantastic Finnish friend, Hannu Rajaniemi, was to help with all of that. But for now, fresh from the alchemical moment of creation, I knew I had something.

In the movie version of this moment, the rain would have stopped, and my family and I would have walked to our breakfast café through tendrils of steam drawn from the pavement by the rapidly climbing morning sun.

In reality, it just kept on pissing down, of course.

 

The Wrong Box is now available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon and, in Scotland, Waterstone’s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anything below here, WordPress put it there.

 

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Stevenson Unbound Update

The sound effects are – nearly – in the can. My faithful sound engineer, Harky, has scared up a P.A. system that’s going to give us full throttle.

The preparations for this show have been an interesting process. However, I feel I can now relax – a bit – and knuckle down to the small matter of rehearsing the reading of RLS’s great works.

Two things to update you on, though – I’ve changed the running order, so I’ll be doing Thrawn Janet first, followed by Markheim.

The other piece of news is really good news – for the final, climactic piece in the third segment, Hyde’s Last Words, I’ll be joined by my favourite axe man, Kenny Mackay. Kenny’s played on this piece before – last November, in fact – so you can look forward to some guitar-shaped fireworks when he and I play out the final sequence.

Buckle up, this is going to be quite a trip!

Facebook event here

11 Reasons why you should go to Stevenson Unbound

1. It’s in the back room of an Edinburgh pub, centrally located, with good transport links and disabled access. There will be lashings of lemonade readily available, as well as something stronger (in fact, you’re encouraged to drink more, because that way I get my deposit back).

 
2. It’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s 164th birthday – sort of. RLS Day is on Thursday 13th, but it’s chock full of events already (some, or all of which you should really go to see!) but I’ve moved this event to Saturday 15th, when you might not be at work.

 
3. It’s in the afternoon – 2 till 5 – so if it’s a rubbish day weather wise and you just want a quiet night in, you still can do that.

 
4. It features readings of Thrawn Janet and Markheim, two of RLS’s best supernatural short stories. He wrote a whole load of other stuff beyond Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Treasure Island, and Kidnapped, and these two chillers are up there with any of them.

 
5. This isn’t just any old pub. This is the White Horse, 266 Canongate, which is the kind of place RLS himself might well have frequented in his velvet-jacketed yoof. The back room is regularly used for Free Fringe events and is a great wee performance space.

 
6. The combination of RLS’s words, the low light, and stereo sound effects throughout will make this event something special. It’s the culmination of two years or so of my experimenting with music and sound in my spoken word shows, and with the help of my esteemed sound engineer, Harky, it’ll be unlike anything else you’ve been to.

 
7. Halstead Bernard is taking part. Need I say more?

 
8. The payment is an honesty bucket system – suggested payment if you’re fully waged is a fiver, but if you’re unwaged, or a student, or just staying for one segment, less is fine.

 
9. It’s in three parts. There will be decent breaks between the three for you to get a drink, come late, or leave early. Although I’m hoping you’ll stay for the whole thing, obvs.

 
10. I have a fuzz box (technically, a squarer pedal, assembled by the Redoubtable Mrs F, which is one of the reasons she became Mrs F) and, in the last segment, I’m gonna use it.

 
11. It’s on November 15th. Come on, what else are you going to do on the afternoon of November 15th – your Christmas shopping? I don’t think so!

Markheim’s Last Words

Time, as Robert Louis Stevenson says in Markheim, has become instant and momentous, and I’ve run out of it to put the final cut of my audio version up today. RLS is up there somewhere laughing at me, fag in hand: to do the story justice, sound-effect wise, is a massive job, given the amount of aural cues he scattered through the text. I’ve made a start, having downloaded twenty or so sounds so far, and recorded a few of my own, but it’ll take a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, I had hoped to at least put up the unfurnished version. Unfortunately, that was so massive it was going to take about forever to upload, so it’ll go up another day.

However, I have managed to upload the final version of Hyde’s Last Words, my own take on what Dr Jekyll’s dark side might have to say for himself. Utterson, Lanyon, and Jekyll himself get to add their voices to Stevenson’s multi-layered narrative: why not Eddy?

14, a Magic Number

I’m not really into numerology, and I’m the opposite of into Maths. All the same, the number 14 seems to feature rather prominently in most of the shows I’m involved in for the foreseeable future.

First, on Wednesday 14th August, I’m taking part in the Writers Bloc collaboration with musicians John Lemke and Poppy Ackroyd at the Book Festival, as the Jura Unbound event that night. It’s on from 9 till 11, and is absolutely free. I’m really looking forward to this, and not just because I’ve booked a night at Hostal Inglis and will therefore, for once, be able to have a drink after the show.

It’s also the first time for a long time Bloc has collaborated on a story; the early rushes are looking good, and next week, the 8th, we rehearse with John and Poppy and see how it all comes together. Their material can be played on the Denovali site.

I’ve previously posted about my Virtual Fringe (see separate page). I’ve decided it’s now traditional for me to release an audio version of a Robert Louis Stevenson story as part of this, so this year it’s Markheim. As an extra bonus I’ll be sharing at the same time my own RLS-influenced Hyde’s Last Words. The Markheim trailer version is now available. And so, indeed, is the HLW trailer version. The full versions will go up on 28th August – weirdly, a number divisible by 14.

It gets spookier. Edinburgh may be filling up with bright, happy, shiny people just now, but come September the nights will fair be drawing in, and how better to celebrate the oncoming darkness than an evening dedicated to the Gothic Grandmaster itself, Nick Cave? Well, if there is a better way, I don’t know it – four bands, three spoken worders (self, Gavin Inglis and MC Andrew Wilson) on 14th September at the Citrus Club. More details to follow on the separate page for this gig.

Rather spoiling the sequence is the Writer’s Bloc Halloween show, on Wednesday 30th October. However, that’s going to be the only disappointing thing about the gig – on a theme of Unnatural Scotland, you can expect the usual mayhem from, amongst others, the returned (from France) Stefan Pearson. We don’t think he’s been anywhere near Lake Pub

Finally, the solo show I’m planning of music and spoken word has a provisional date of Thursday 14th November. I’ll post more about this in the coming weeks, but trust me, it’s going to be something special.

Start all the Clocks

I’ve been thinking about what Robert Louis Stevenson story I should release on my Soundcloud site this August, as part of my Virtual Fringe, for some time. I think now I’ve decided on Markheim, a tale he wrote for the Christmas 1884 edition of the Pall Mall Gazette, but which was too short word length wise for it, and eventually appeared in the 1885 Unwin’s Christmas Annual (even RLS had to scratch about for markets, dear fellow scribblers!)

Other candidates for this year’s story included The Tale of Tod Lapraik, which was in Scots, but to me is not that strong a story – more two stories jammed together. Olalla intrigues me, partly because of its Spanish setting, but partly also because it’s a vampire story that prefigures Dracula (though not the first, of course: Mary Shelley and Sheridan Le Fanu got there before him). However, it’s quite long. The Bodysnatcher would be another obvious choice – on the plus side, RLS knew his Burke and Hare, and I really like the opening scene with the old drunk and the famous doctor; on the minus side, it’s perhaps too well known.

So Markheim it is then: a fine psychological study which owes a lot to Crime and Punishment – although RLS slips in a supernatural element for good measure. Thanks to Russell Gray for the suggestion.

I’ve started collecting sound effects for it: the opening scene contains a lot of clocks. So if I come round your house and show an unnatural interest in how your clock ticks, now you know why…

I also plan to release at the same time a version of Hyde’s Last Words, one of my own bits of RLS-related work.

Virtual Fringe 2013: beautiful plumage!

August is a strange time of year for indigenous Edinburgh performers. Their normal habitats are invaded by bright-coloured, exotic species from England and elsewhere, squawking and preening in huge numbers, making it hard to catch the amount of audience attention the natives need to keep going through such lean times.

There are two survival methods. One is to burrow underground (the Cowgate, for example) and see out the month living off the reflected glory of these noisy incomers; the other is to dust down one’s own feathers, spread one’s wings, and squawk with the best of them.

In common with last year, I intend to do a bit of both. I have the (still press-embargoed) Bloc show (or is it a Bloc show?) on 14th August; I’m also planning to record another audio version of an RLS short story for release in August (see the RLS page).

Other than that, I intend mainly to go to, and enjoy, a variety of Fringe and Book Festival events. So far I’ve signed up to an eclectic mix, bearing in mind these may not all be my first choices, since I’m going with others and we’ve had to find that interlocking bit of our Venn Diagram of tastes that means we’ll both enjoy it:

7th August: Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells for Two, at the Cowbarn, Underbelly;

9th August: Henning Wehn’s Authentic German Christmas Do, at the Caves;

11th August: Oliver James – Is the Office a Malicious Place? Book Festival

11th August: Jesse Norman – Edmund Burke: A Hero of our Time; Book Festival

I might go to other stuff. I might write reviews, particularly of the shows which are not just a one-off. If so, they’ll be collected on the Virtual Fringe page.

In the autumn, I will be seen swooping and cawing in the Edinburgh skies as the sun sets. Updates on what I’ve planned for then soon.

 

RLS Day

Any Stevenson fans idling about Edinburgh on Tuesday (13th) should get themselves down to the National Portrait Gallery between 10 and 5 when the whole of Treasure Island will be read aloud to celebrate the great man’s birthday. John Sessions and Nigel Planer are on between 3 and 4. I’m reading Chapter 31 at 4, and Chapter 33 at 4.24 – or at least that’s the plan: timings, needless to say, may slip.

So I may have to follow Sessions…