The Plots inside the Coats

train station

Standing on the train station, early the other morning, I looked around at my fellow travellers. It was the first properly autumnal day of the year and they hunched quietly against the rain and the cold wind. All with a similar purpose, waiting for the train to arrive, but each with their own unique life. Inside those coats every one of them held, and continues to hold, the plot for a novel, like a board game with an infinite number of variations. Love, loss, illness, parenting, childhood experiences, ambitions, frustrations, feuds, the places they’ve lived, the lessons learned…


The French writer, Georges Polti, proposed in 1895 that there are thirty-six different dramatic situations such as ‘obstacles to love’, ‘daring enterprise’, and ‘ambition’. Later, Christopher Booker used a Jungian approach to argue that there are just seven basic plots. These include ‘rags to riches’, ‘the quest’, ‘comedy’, and ‘overcoming the monster’. Some literary experts have embraced this classification whilst others have decried it. However, regardless of arguments over how many basic plots exist, there are today 7,369,713,000 people alive and by tomorrow that figure will have grown by about 228,000. Add to that the 107 billion people who have ever lived and that’s a lot of stories.

I’ve come across plenty of entertaining people in my life so far. But I’m always keen to hear new stories and getting people talking round a table is an excellent way to find out about them. My fantasy dinner party list currently includes four guests. There are many who might merit an invitation because they are good, clever or brave but I’m opting instead for eccentricity, wit, intrigue and starry dazzle.

dinner table

I can’t resist a bit of eccentricity so my first guest would be Florence Foster Jenkins, the American socialite who had an unwavering belief that she could sing. In reality she couldn’t hold a tune and had no understanding of pitch or rhythm. She would hire the Carnegie Hall and trill arias, daintily and tunelessly, whilst the audience stuffed handkerchiefs in their mouths. Her performances were enhanced further by the costumes that she designed herself. Tinsel and wings featured prominently. On one occasion she was riding in a taxi when it bashed into the car in front and she let out a loud scream. She was convinced that this helped her to sing a “higher F than ever before” and sent the cab driver a box of expensive cigars. You can listen to her massacring Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria by clicking here.


Next to Florence I would seat Quentin Crisp – The Naked Civil Servant – who also lived in New York. He would be waspishly witty with her, and could also help to assuage the guilt I feel at hating housework. He didn’t clean at all and claimed that “after the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse”. I wonder, too, whether during the evening he might own up to his real name – Denis Pratt.

Quentin Crisp by GrahamColm at the English language Wikipedia

Quentin Crisp by GrahamColm at the English language Wikipedia

I’m not sure what my next guest, Thomas Becket would make of this very twentieth century gentleman. But I’d be keen to hear his take on medieval politics. In particular I’d like to understand how it was that he was ordained as a priest in 1162 and then the very next day had an accelerated promotion to archbishopdom. He might, too, be able to shed some light on his murder by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral, although the account of a bystander does suggest that he won’t remember much about it. “…The crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral”.


And then there’s my final guest – Dame Judi Dench. I could rely on her to charm everyone and put them at their ease. I confess to having been in love with her for many years and ever more so now, having heard her on Desert Island Discs this week. There’s something elusive about her, like a deer that’s easily startled. I discovered during the course of the programme that she likes to learn a new piece of information every day and also how her late husband used to say that she is “very nosey and has to know about everybody”. This revelation makes me feel better about my own nosiness.

“Judi Dench at the BAFTAs 2007” by Caroline Bonarde Ucci.

In fact it’s this high level of nosiness that has prompted the new project that I’m starting in this week’s blog. I’m hungry to talk to people and hear interesting stories. So I’m doing a chain interview. My first interviewee will introduce me to someone that they admire who is willing to let me interview them. And so on, each one leading on to another. It’s an experiment. I want to see where it takes me and what kind of people I meet.

I did the first interview a few weeks ago. It’s with a young artist named Kirsti Davies. I met her at a birthday party on board a Thames riverboat and was immediately impressed by her strong values and unusual creative ideas. You can read more by clicking here. Watch out for future chain interviews. They’ll appear from time to time and  I’m hoping to discover some surprising and inspiring stories. With 7 billion people to choose from there should be no shortage of those.



Missing the Titanic

A year ago this week, I packed up my house and moved a hundred miles, leaving my old world in commuter-belt Kent to start a new life in Southampton. Twelve months on, the boxes are unpacked, the pictures are hung, there’s an impressive layer of dust and I can, at last, make my way from home to the city centre and back, without finding myself accidentally heading along the M27.

This week I have another anniversary, too. It’s four years since I started my sixty treats. That first one was a visit to Tate Liverpool and has been followed by many others, including gambling at the races, planting old-fashioned roses, Berlin, New York, and Glastonbury. I’ve had fun, learned new things and made some unexpected discoveries about myself. And there’s another three and a half years to go until my next big birthday. By then I hope to have got to the end of the list. In amongst the remaining treats are New England in the Fall, getting to know the entire works of Jane Austen and Alfred Hitchcock, acquiring a clock with a nice tick, and walking the South West Coastal Footpath. There’s plenty to keep me busy.

new york

I’ve also been busy getting to know my new area; the New Forest pubs, the narrow, dappled Itchen River, the industrial landscape of the docks, big city shops, pub jazz and nearby ancient Winchester. And I’ve enjoyed a bit of university life. Recently, I saw a board outside a café on campus saying ‘Breakfast served from 11.30am to 3.30pm’. You can be sure you’re in a student city when you see that.


There’s a lot of history to absorb in Southampton. It boasts the world’s oldest surviving bowling green, dating from 1299. But I find the links with the Titanic more interesting. At Sea City Museum I learned about three brothers named Bert, Alf and Thomas Slade. Like many local residents they had signed on to work as firemen on the great ship’s maiden voyage. But unlike most of the others, they stopped off for a final drink at The Grapes pub on Oxford Street. They stayed there till the last possible moment and as they tumbled out, a docks train passed along the road and they had to wait at the level crossing. By the time the gate was lifted, the gangplank on the ship had been raised. They  must have spent the rest of their lives wondering about this twist of fate.


When I sat down to write my treats list, four years ago, I had no idea how the experiences would come to life. And the unexpected separation and divorce that came soon after, meant that none has worked out how I imagined. Life has been full of surprising twists and turns, not least of all those that led to my decision to move to this city. A phone call one morning that resulted in me meeting someone many miles away…who introduced me to someone else…who then did a bit of clever matchmaking. That innocuous phone call changed not only the course of my life but that of my daughter, Molly who moved with me.

I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I’d done something different. I feel responsible for all the poor little babies who won’t be born in the future because my simple action has influenced fate and means that their parents will never meet. Plenty of films and books explore these ideas; Sliding Doors, Back to the Future, Kate Atkinson’s Time after Time, Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, and Laura Barnett’s recent debut novel, The Versions of Us. ‘What if?’ is a great literary device. But much as it’s entertaining to play with these different paths, the unromantic truth is that they’re unrealistic. Whether you take comfort in religious ideas of predetermination or adopt an atheistic stance, then the alternative route will never exist. By the time you’re able to reflect on it and ask the question ‘What if?’, then it’s already history.

There is just one path. And that’s the one that happened.


Bert, Alf, Thomas and I can all be grateful for that.