STILL NOT GOOD ENOUGH

I suppose I was slightly jangled as I made my way to the End of Term Concert of the Lews Castle College Music Department last night (9 June). Anna Wendy Stevenson and Simon Bradley promoted this event. The venue was St. Mary’s RC Church Hall in Griminish and the place was stowed.

Right. What was bugging me? I was remembering a similar musical soiree in Nunton I attended and wrote about under the heading VOODOO about six weeks ago. I had a few critical remarks to make then about how the youngsters spoke onstage, and I hoped I wouldn’t have to don my teacher’s mortarboard again on this occasion.

Whence, you may ask, comes my authority for carping at anyone’s continuity? I’ll have you know I have a doctorate in rhetoric. Once at a school dance when I was about thirteen, the girl I secretly loved allowed me to escort her home. On the way I asked her why had she allowed me to be her lumber?

‘Because you’re the funniest at doing accents.’

My patter – the one thing I was any good at – had got me the girl!

This taught me a valuable lesson. You have to make the most of what you’re given in life, and while my choices for a career – cowboy or French Foreign Legionary – would have provided more excitement, a flair for spoken language (and, later, grammar) were what I had been given. Accordingly, my lifelong quest is to have other people speak better in public.

Okay, it’s doors open time at St Mary’s. Simon welcomes us. He starts off well, speaking clearly in Gaelic and English. He has obviously rehearsed his salutation. I think I’m in safe hands until a judgmental lapse worthy of Theresa May lands on my lap like a cannonball. Uh-oh, he’s now ‘luggin’ it. Simon subjects us to a barrage of ‘ums’, ‘ers’ and ‘likes’ as he tries to explain that there will be a formal element in the proceedings before we’ll be exposed to the musical part of the evening’s entertainment. Fair enough. He and Anna Wendy are going to present HNC certificates to a couple of this year’s students. His entire spiel however lasts for ages. I peg it at about three days. He seems to be lost in a tangle of announcement he simply has to express. But he hasn’t sorted them out beforehand and the result is information overload for members of the audience. I am aghast. Daingeadaidh! This man is a member not just of a group who work at the College but of some über group within the College.

Dear Simon, you’ll really have to jerk out a lot of fatuous prattle from your delivery. Do it like a dentist extracting rotten teeth. As a stopgap measure I suggest you write down what you wish to say – nothing like writing about something to fully understand it – memorize your notes, and deliver them in clear, honest English. Let’s face it: most public speakers in Uist favour a rambling, boring, tangential style of delivery. You’re not the worst offender. You are, however, a much-loved teacher and a pedigree composer. Don’t you want to turn the sow’s ear of your onstage chat into a passable imitation of a silk purse?

I want the members of the group Eabhal who also spoke, namely Jamie MacDonald and Hamish Hepburn, to take these injunctions to bed with them tonight as well.

What about the music? It made my old heart go pitter-patter with pleasure. Chloe Steele sang Sìne Bhàn, a terrific song from Islay. (By the way, in my not so humble opinion, the best Gaelic songs of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries were composed in Islay, Mull and Tiree.) In her desire to hit all the notes bang in the centre she perhaps sacrificed tempo. The most entertaining bagpipe playing of the night came from two young men who came from overseas: one from Austria and the other from Vermont.

After the raffle was drawn, the stage was left to the headliners: Jamie MacDonald (fiddle), Nicky Kirk (guitar), Megan MacDonald (accordion) and Hamish Hepburn (pipes flute and whistle). As expected, they sparkled. The guitar playing of Nicky particularly impressed me.

The billed singer songwriter Wilf Stone intrigued me. He adopted a shouty style of delivery, particularly in his upper register that I first found disconcerting. His forte was a genre which included suffering, injustice and protest songs,  and he didn’t spare himself. Rage is rare in the Gaelice canon, but the urban folk clubs where Wilf learned his trade must be full of highly educated Berghaus wearers with red faces and throbbing veins in their foreheads. They appreciate protest because a lot of features in their lives – I’m not getting into them – make them angry. Wilf’s covers, Waltzing Matilda and The lakes of Pontchartrain, were acceptable. As he went on, however, the intensity of emotion he displayed increased. He sang about a woman whose husband had been hanged for poaching deer. He made me want to get up and shout ‘INJUSTICE FOR THE POACHER’S WIFE!’

What I did, after a final stramash dominated by Nicky, was get up and trap for Grimsay.

I conclude with a freebie for Anna Wendy Stevenson and Simon. How about I conduct a workshop on presentational skills in the autumn?

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MONODRAMAS

Let’s face it: storytellers I hear at public gatherings in the islands these days aren’t very good. They’d put the stones to sleep. Hold on, I’d like to explain. I’m not blaming the performers. The majority of these, young and old, who try to please their audiences, are well prepared and willing to share sweet-sounding Gaelic in public.

​No, what gets up my nose are the stories themselves. The favourite subject matter seems to be ‘a walk on the moor’ or ‘by the shore’ or ’in the city’. Personally, I rejected that swill about seventy years ago. Okay, now you know where I stand. Pick one of these lame subjects, and you’re putting yourself in a straight-jacket. You can only relate, at one step removed from your environment, what you say, heard or felt. Unless your descriptive powers are right up there with those of Jonathan Franzen or John Updike, you are unlikely to grab the listeners. Of course, if you come across a camel, a mermaid or Justin Bieber, and tell us about it, you’ll have nailed it, won’t you?

​It’s been a lifelong mission of mine to create drama, sometimes where it has no business to be. It’s a genetic thing. My maternal granduncle, Seumas Mòr mac Aonghais ‘ic Iain Mhòir, Big James Macdonald, of Old Mill, Benbecula, could spin a drama out of something as mundane as feeding the hens. I have a similar weakness. If I give an account of a shopping trip to MacLennan’s Supermarket in Balivanich, you can be sure I’ll try to jazz it up a little.

​Whoops! I’ve wandered off at some kind of nostalgic tangent here, and I don’t really want to pursue it right now.

​How would I improve the anaemic tales we are offered in the oral section of festival competitions, for example? Well, instead of the method adopted by present day storytellers – this is me, Donald or Mary, and my aim is to get you to like the way I portray myself. Yes, I’m a pleasant enough little person who has obediently memorised a boring piece of prose for your delectation.

Smash them! I should like to offer monodrama as a substitute for ‘traditional folk tales.’ Most of the authors of these bland narratives wouldn’t know a ‘traditional folk tale’ if it bit them on the leg in the Dark Island Bar.

​In a monodrama there has to be a story, right? I’d prefer Donald and Mary to forget about themselves and pretend to be different characters. They ought to be acting parts: crabby old woman, repentant church member, tipsy dinner guest, shy suitor, and ignorant school pupil . . . whatever.

​I want the performer to make a frontal assault on the audience. The character will be free, without restraint but with propriety, to become a spinner of dreams. The content, the form and the performer are inseparable; they are all one.

​He or she can stand motionless or be seated. He or she has permission to go walk-about among his audience, and, if he or she fancies it, he or she can stop and chat with anybody during the course of his or her stroll. The performer can mime and mimic with feet, hands and face. He or she can, and must, adopt the accents and physical mannerisms of each person who appears in the story. That’s my vision of monodrama.

​I hope to have published later this year a bilingual collection of monodramas. They may encourage folk: not only to have a go at acting solo but also to create their own monodramas. There could be ‘poppy’ in this, folks – low overheads and a chance to sell tickets at the door yourself!