It’s fair to say none of us were expecting the Queen to die last week. From radio and TV schedules to sporting fixtures and parliamentary debates, there’s been a flurry of last-minute cancellations and rearrangements as people either have unexpected tasks (like the PM and the BBC) or don’t want to look disrespectful. Incidentally, there’s a side-note here about nobody quite knowing where the borders of disrespectful are because social expectations around death and mourning have completely changed in the UK in the 70 years since we last had to negotiate this, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about.
I was listening to a 6Music programme on BBC Sounds (i.e. listen-again) this morning. It had been broadcast last Monday, and included a trailer for live coverage of the Mercury Music Prize which would begin at 7pm on Thursday evening. I haven’t checked, but I’d be willing to bet large sums that the BBC did not in fact switch across to the Mercury Music Prize half an hour after the Queen’s death had been announced to the nation. If, indeed, the prize event went ahead as planned. It made me think of the posters in darkened shop windows at Easter 2020, advertising events in March that never happened because of the national lockdown for the pandemic. That gap between plans and reality, that’s where the stories can be found.
If you run across a flyer for gigs at a particular venue in November 1995 you probably assume without a second thought that they all went ahead. Likewise past newspaper announcements of forthcoming sales, talks, events. When I’m researching family history the reading of banns, noted in the parish register, is usually enough for me to say that my ancestors got married the following month. But what about the ones that didn’t? It’s not you, Obadiah, it’s me. It’s both a cautionary note about making assumptions in research, and a good starting point for writing a story.
- Weddings are a category all to themselves. The invites were sent and various plans made, but the wedding didn’t go ahead. Did one of the pair get cold feet and not turn up on the day? Did they have a row (or a heartfelt but amicable talk) and call it off in advance? Was there an illness or accident that threw a spanner in the works? Did the couple get sick of the fuss their families were imposing, and run off for a quiet wedding? Did the reading of the banns turn up someone with objections? Was the church hit by lightning the night before?
- Anything else that requires an invite and advanced planning can also get scuppered by illness or accident, the venue being unavailable, or a change of heart: christenings, birthday or anniversary parties, graduations. The silver wedding couple decide to get divorced. The soon-to-be-fifty-year-old has a wobble about reaching the half-century. A lorry takes the corner badly and puts the bar out of action for a few weeks.
- There’s a related category of unused tickets: train, plane, theatre, concert. As above, there’s the possibility of illness, accident, change of heart or unavailable venue, plus a few more besides. Bad weather or strikes mean the transport’s not running (this goes for events as well as train tickets actually – I once bought a theatre ticket I couldn’t use because of train disruption). The local authorities have banned the concert (those infamous Sex Pistols gigs) or the band have split up partway through the tour. There was a terrorist incident the day before and now the ticket-holder daren’t go. Maybe they just got a better offer on the day, bumped into an old friend or a new love. As well as the reasons for not using the ticket, there’s also the possibility that it is kept, in the story – they run across it twenty years later and the memories flood in, or someone else finds it – and why they kept it. What does it mean to them? Or did it get forgotten as a bookmark in an abandoned novel, and the person who finds it reads more significance into it than really exists?
- These stories can be contemporary, historical, set in other worlds, and there will be specific circumstances that suggest themselves based on the setting. A scientific demonstration in the 17th century might be blockaded by a group from the local church who consider it blasphemy. Anything high-profile in the 1910s is ripe for suffragette disruption. A wormhole collapses unexpectedly, meaning someone can’t travel across the galaxy as planned. An apprentice wizards’ convention blows up the venue as they’re setting up, or accidentally sends the only person who can let them in into a nearby painting.
The possibilities are endless and what’s more, relatable – we’ve all experienced messed-up plans, whether mildly frustrating or heartrendingly tragic. There’s an awful lot of stories lurking in those gaps.
If I’ve given you some inspiration you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville