My Pop Life #231 : Dancing Queen – ABBA

LicheinsteinintheskywithDiamonds

Dancing Queen – ABBA

You can dance, you can jive
Having the time of your life
Ooh, see that girl, watch that scene
Digging the dancing queen

IMG_3595

My favourite memory of my younger sister Becky was her practising ‘majorettes’ routines in our front room in East Sussex to Dancing Queen, when she must have been around 7 years old.   It was her joy.  Her enthusiasm and excellence got her on the front page of a local paper which I cannot reproduce for you here, but:

IMG_4464

Becky standing on the right in majorette’s costume 1979. Mum in front of her

On June 18th 1986 I had reached 29 years old and panicked – I hadn’t written a play yet!   I actually envisioned my life at that point as a shape – literally – a kind of warped triangle with a steep slope up to the top (30 years old) and a gentle declining slope going back down to the base (death around 75?).  So at 29 I was a few steps away from my peak.  I should explain – I thought of my peak as a physical thing, like an athlete or a footballer.  The decline was gentle and should include other peaks within it of course, of wisdom, happiness, success blah blah.  But thirty 30 thirty was a Big Deal.  Be honest, it was for you too wasn’t it?  The end of fucking about.  The start of being responsible for your own life and its trajectory.  The start of the end of blaming your parents for your life.   Proper grown-up, middle-class white western privilege style.  I had an old typewriter and sat down and punched out a play,  vomited up the family history based around an Easter weekend from hell.  It was, to all intents and purposes, my family’s version of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.   Which was my favourite play when I was 29.  Steal from the best !!

IMG_4771

Christmas 1980 perhaps – Mumtaz, Becky, Andrew, me, Paul and Mum – but who is taking it? Alan!

In the play, Easter visitors to the family home are Mumtaz and I who are having problems, and brother Paul, who will announce to the single parent that he is gay.  Mother is having both a nervous breakdown and a bad reaction to new tablets at the time of the visit.  Rebecca is a seven-year old Dancing Queen and Andrew is present via a series of letters which my character reads aloud.   I cannot remember how this happened but I seem to recall slimming the thing down from three hours to two and presenting it as a radio play at one point.  So the slender version was some how sent to The National Theatre Studio under the wing of Peter Gill and got a week’s rehearsal for a rehearsed reading.  This was exciting !  I think I thought that I’d made it. Ha.  I cannot remember anyone in the cast except Stephanie Fayerman who played Mum.  She was extraordinary and instinctively knew how to play the part I’d written.  Without comment.  Deeply sympathetic yet unsentimental.

IMG_5262

Drive Away The Darkness is set in the house on the left

Gill and Nicholas Wright summoned me into a room after the reading was done and asked me “what I wanted to do with it?”  I wasn’t entirely sure why they were asking me that, so I answered, truthfully : “Get it produced?”   They smiled somewhat condescendingly “no, we meant what do you want to do with the material?”   I didn’t know what they were talking about.    “Go away and have a think about it”.   No clues, no notes, no help was offered.  I wondered what the point of it all was.  Encouragement ?  There isn’t a course for playwriting that I was aware of, and I had no idea what they thought was wrong with it as it was.  Maybe – in retrospect – they wanted the structure to be clever.  Flashbacks.  These kinds of things go in and out of fashion, but there are no flashbacks in Pinter (ooh, yes there are – Betrayal!) , and Shakespeare’s plays all start at the beginning and go forward in time.  Most plays do this to be fair.   I don’t know.  Anyway, I don’t think I was a better playwright at the end of that week than I was before.  It was a famous Missed Opportunity.

IMG_4803

teenage rampage!

But the flame had been lit, and the following year I applied to Joint Stock Theatre Company with my friend Paulette Randall for their annual playwriting job, based on a workshop which we would do with six actors and a designer.  I got lucky and we got the gig.  The result was Sanctuary, a hip-hop musical about homeless teenagers which toured the UK in 1987 (see My Pop Life #86).

IMG_3743

Rebecca and her looky-likey Martine ‘matinee’ McCutcheon

I digress somewhat.  My sister Rebecca who opened my first play as a seven-year old has had a long eventful fecund life, three marriages, three children all from the second, and a wonderful sense of humour.  I wrote about her 40th birthday and her children Mollie and Ellie in My Pop Life #120 and again went back to that party for a different angle in My Pop Life #161.  Since I wrote those chapters things have changed – Becky fell out with some finality with mother, who had been abusing her for years, both mentally and physically.  We’ve all taken it in turns to make a final break with mother – she is very difficult and as well as being mentally ill is also not a very nice woman.  It’s difficult to find the line sometimes, but we have all found it in our own way and drawn it distinctively around ourselves for protection.  I don’t hate my mother but she wants to hurt us, and does so consistently.  She isn’t stupid, she knows where our weak points are and pokes them until she can see blood.  It’s just what she’s like.  She has a gift for seeing people all the way through but she abuses it.  Becky held out longer than any of us.  We’ve all supported her though, even though the four of us – me, Paul, Andrew and Becky – are in different corners of the earth – we have a family What’s App group for sentient adults which Jenny is included on where we share the news both triumphant and tragic.

IMG_4768

Alan, Mum, Becky early 80s

Early last year Mum started to fall over in her bungalow back on the estate in Hailsham where we all moved in 1971.  She has a garden on three sides and it is quiet, best place she’s lived in I think.  She has a small dog called Trisha and walks with a Zimmer frame, support workers and health visitors come in every day.  She fell over and hurt herself and went into hospital.  I was in England to officiate at my niece’s wedding in Hampshire but I had time to visit her in hospital, with Andrew (who was frankly shocked at seeing her in that condition).  I’d done it so many times I didn’t realise it was new to him.  Above the bed it said “Bedbound”. Now all this time, Becky is having nothing to do with her.  Tired of the abuse and needs to get on with her own life, to heal, to stop going back for more abuse and pain.  So Andrew steps up and does the admin – talking to the hospital, the social workers, the carers, with Becky giving him a bit of help without having to speak to anyone.  Mum is taken to a Nursing Home which she hates.  I call her there on her birthday and she is in a rage of self-pity and pleads with me to get her out “I’m surrounded by dying people”.    Within weeks she is home but not because of anything I did.  Paul and I go to see her in August at home, reunited with the dog.  As visits go it is up there with the best.  No hallucinations, no abuse, no paranoia just a few reminiscences and a chat and a laugh.  Becky still isn’t speaking to her.

IMG_4893

Mum and Trish, August 2019 aged 84

Cut to 22nd November 2019.  Two months ago.  Becky has a row with live-in boyfriend Lee, goes outside and gets into her car and drives.  Even though she hasn’t spoken to mother for over two years, she finds herself driving across Hailsham to Town Farm Estate where she went to primary school and where mother now lives.  As she parks the car and walks towards the house she can hear a beeping noise than sees smoke pouring out of a window.  The place is on fire.  The door isn’t locked so she runs in and grabs Mother who is screaming “I’m not leaving!” and gets her outside somehow, grabbing the zimmer frame as she goes, calls 999 and waits for the Fire Brigade while mother continues to abuse her and the neighbour comes out and Mum goes to wait in there.  She’s never spoken to the neighbour until this point.  The Fireman asks where is Heather (mum) going to live – by this time Becky’s best friend Jan has turned up who is herself a miracle social worker and she intervenes, Becky has just had a stroke she can’t look after her mother.  Jan and Becky leave and Mum gets taken to a nursing home because the kitchen is destroyed.

What are the chances of Becky arriving at that very moment?

IMG_2005

Debbie, Mark, Bex & Peter, Andrew, Paul and Colin 1987?

There are stranger things happening than you or I know about.

I called mum a few days later to see how she was.  We spoke for a bit about Jenny’s sister Dee who died suddenly last summer after an operation which knocked us all for six.  At which point my mum said “You care more about Jenny and those black people than you do about me“.   Pretty soon after that the phone got cut off and I decided not to call back.  Andrew is still in loco parentis there, fielding the admin.

*

external-content.duckduckgo

Thinking back to that period of time after I left home, really anywhere between 1976 to 1981 it’s ABBA who dominate the musical landscape.  Mum and Becky shared a mutual love for I Have A Dream, Chiquita, Lay All Your Love On Me, The Winner Takes It All, Thank You For The Music.   No wonder I started my play with ABBA.   Watching them live on Youtube is strange though.  They are so antiseptic and stiff.  Amazing music, arrangements, melodies, chord changes.  Great pop music.  If you listen to the albums (rather than the greatest LP of all time ABBA Gold), you’ll hear hit after hit after hit.  Every song is a hit.  Benny on the keys, Bjorn on the guitar, a songwriting hit factory to match Lennon & McCartney. I’ve had a weird relationship with Dancing Queen.  I think it was so ubiquitous in the 1980s/90s, being wheeled out at every party disco club and rave that I got sick of it.  Jenny loves it – she was one of the DJs who wheeled it out in fact!  Then the band decided to play it for a party and I got to play the violin parts on my keyboard – quite a good sample as it goes – but I got the chance to crawl inside the song and examine its mechanics.  What a joy.  The harmonies.  The clever way it loops back into the verse each time, the chorus chords which flip over depending on which part of the song you’re in.   But that was just an introduction.  Recently I re-discovered it as a piano piece – got the chords, and started to learn it properly.  And have completely fallen in love with what is probably the finest pop song every written and recorded.  The way it all fits together so effortlessly but the wonderful architecture that makes that possible is just incredibly impressive.  Listen to the counter melody beneath “having the time of your life” for a glorious thrill that is unmatched in popular music…

Took a while, but I got there in the end.

E                           C#7                 F#m                                   B7
You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
                         D                    Bm                                                A
See that girl, watch that scene, digging the dancing queen