I have always thought writers owe it to their readers to send them away happy, especially after they have waded through masses of horrid events happening to the characters. I read War and Peace
once and (spoiler alert!) it sort of ended happily, although not how I would have written it. So, I've tried my hand at some (unpublished) fiction to change the fate of characters who have met with misfortune. There was the exotically named Badalia Herodsfoot, who in one of Kipling's short stories met a sticky end – I rewrote her story to kill off her horrible husband and enable her to marry the rather drippy Reverend Eustace Hanna. Not my choice but it was her story!
Then I produced the story in which the Templar Knights (who had helpfully invented time travel while hunkered down in their preceptory in Beautiful Downtown Banchory) prevented the local university from becoming a theme park (not easy). Scottish independence was assured in the year 1680 by the historically rather inept Duke of Monmouth finding his feet as de facto ruler of Scotland, helped by Eric the talking bear and gumshoe Philip Marl's dysfunctional marriage.
Although none of these efforts will necessarily be read by others, changing the characters' fortunes cheers me up. I might even go further. Jane Eyre doesn't need that long sojourn with her boring relatives while Mr Rochester ends up permanently disabled for trying to rescue his dysfunctional wife. When he asks Jane to run off with him to Europe she could just say: 'Well, this is the early 19th century, but hey, why not? And Brexit hasn't happened so we won't have passport problems'. And as for Mr and Mrs Capulet: 'Well, young Romeo is a Montague and the marriage will probably only last six months, but we were all young once! Not sure about that Friar Lawrence doing the ceremony though – he was caught last week in possession of Class A drugs!'
Happy endings are not just the province of fiction. After 10 hours (or so it seemed) on the phone, the HMRC finally answered me to confirm I didn't need to complete a self-assessment form for this year as they were already getting enough from my pension income to pay for the Queensferry Bridge. But did the confirmatory letter have to be so unfriendly, threatening me with dire penalties if I was telling fibs? Why not be more polite and just… nice? For example:
Dear Dr Brown,
Thank you very much for waiting so patiently on the phone last week and listening to our horrible choice of music until one of our advisers could speak to you. I know you pointed out that we may be a wee bit understaffed but you called us on a day when we were particularly busy – sorry about that. Wednesdays are never good, for some reason! We are really sorry to hear that you have no untaxed income to declare for the last tax year. We appreciate your point that although you offer a proof reading and editing service, none of the recipients of your professional expertise has ever offered to pay you apart from one student who sent you a gift token that was not recognised by Amazon – what a shame! Of course, the generous amount of tax you pay remains in Scotland and following the closure of the Cumbernauld office (in spite of promises by the Better Together lot) we are all joining the SNP.
Have a nice day! Yours ever, HMRC
I have always thought that American country music was somewhat overemotional for my liking. Well, soppy even. Blues, yes, definitely – I can see Bach loving 12 bar blues as it's so wonderfully structured – but all that 'Jolene, please don't take my man'? I would have asked Jolene to relieve me of a twit who was so superficial that he was only interested in Jolene's auburn hair and green eyes – she would have eaten him for breakfast and dumped him, and serve him right.
But after accidentally coming across a TV series about the history of Nashville and American country music, I have changed my opinion. I had to admire the performers – people who lived, in some cases, into their 70s or 80s despite consuming vast quantities of illegal drugs or alcohol and marrying so many times that they must have lost count, yet still managing to turn up and perform (apart from one George Jones, who went through a period of being 'No show Jones' because of his various addictions, but was eventually reformed by his fifth wife – this could be the theme of a country music song!). And they never lost their belief, as one put it, in their ability to tell the stories of people who didn't have a voice.
There was, for example, Townes van Zandt, of whom I will bet no-one reading the SR has ever heard. Despite coming from the very rich and respectable van Zandt clan, he became a sort of early hippy, and amazingly managed to survive to the age of 53 despite a lifestyle that would kill most of us off in our 20s, while writing several amazing songs. I had never heard of Pancho and Lefty
but it's well worth listening to, especially as some country aficionados think it was one of the best country songs ever written.
The women country stars were better survivors and remained, in general, elegant and well-presented even in later age. Even the Jolene
writer, Dolly Parton, emerged from a poverty stricken and somewhat dysfunctional family to become sophisticated, clever and with a well developed sense of humour – often at her own expense.
And as for the emotional stuff? Rosanne Cash, daughter of the amazing Johnny, talked of the way her father exorcised his own demons in his stage performances. The Ancient Greeks called this catharsis – a cleansing of the emotions of both performers and audience. Would I personally take country music on my mythical desert island? Possibly not, as my playlist would be Purcell, Bach and Mozart, plus early Blues, but I now have a healthy respect for an art form I had never previously valued.
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant