The actor in me was often annoyed by the author: ‘Who wrote this s***e?’

Philip Judge on the lessons learned recording his own book, under lockdown’s shadow

Philip Judge: During a week of solitary confinement in a silent sound studio in a deserted Dublin I tried to reconnect to the “fair thoughts and happy hours” written of in another life by the gregarious, essentially satisfied man I had since lost sight of.

Philip Judge: During a week of solitary confinement in a silent sound studio in a deserted Dublin I tried to reconnect to the “fair thoughts and happy hours” written of in another life by the gregarious, essentially satisfied man I had since lost sight of.

 

Recording the audio version of my book, In Sight of Yellow Mountain, almost four years after publication was a strange experience. Circumstances have changed and so have I.

The year of which I wrote back then was a rich one. It was bookended by a rewarding professional immersion in the plays of Brian Friel and happily absorbed in the drama and comedy of family life. I had watched contentedly as the seasons revolved with reassuring inevitability around our abundant acre in deepest Wicklow.

But this year just passed has been grim. Closed theatres meant thwarted prospects and enforced idleness. Then physical illness and accumulating, unacknowledged stress led to a strained and frequently joyless existence throughout much of these mundane Covid months.

During a week of solitary confinement in a silent sound studio in a deserted Dublin I tried to reconnect to the “fair thoughts and happy hours” written of in another life by the gregarious, essentially satisfied man I had since lost sight of.

And the actor in me was often annoyed by the author. “Who wrote this s***e?” I occasionally asked myself when struggling with a winding sentence which had once seemed elegant to write but was now proving challenging to speak.

Apart from these major and minor personal contrarieties there were other ironic inversions. The book celebrates escape to the country as an emotionally nourishing respite from urban clamour but over a lengthy lockdown this has become harder to relish – rural isolation is less restorative when it’s enforced and a choice loses its charm when it becomes a necessity. My haven had begun to feel more like a hamster wheel.

Any initial notion of a trip to the city being a source of diversion or relief was short-lived. It was late March. Baggott Street was subdued and depopulated. My walk along the canal from the tram stop was blandly uneventful, apart from being sporadically overtaken by the odd jogger cocooned by habit and headphones.

Besides, to be truthful, I was exhausted and depressed and hadn’t the energy, let alone the outlet, for divilment. Anxiety bubbled up as I contemplated spending long monastic days in a soundproofed cell, reciting into an impassive microphone and fearful that my voice would have a jaundiced, less than faithful tone.

Thankfully, years of developing my skills as an actor bolstered me. In rehearsal we take our time exploring a part, gradually probing till we find a way in – “fake it till you make it” one might say. In this instance the process was accelerated by unique familiarity with the material and my long-practised aptitude for identification with character helped me re-engage with the text and lift my mood by osmosis. I was also fascinated to discover pleasing parallels between the process of writing and the process of recording.

I suspect many authors spend most of their writing time not actually writing at all but staring blankly at paper or laptop, sharpening pencils, refreshing screens and thinking about re-grouting the bathroom tiles. But when they finally get down to it, the words can come in a torrent like an unregulated flood from a burst dam.

A good friend, who also happens to be an eminent novelist and playwright, suggested this approach when I told him, years ago, that I was scribbling something. He flattered me by taking me seriously but was almost offended when I questioned his advice to write freely till something decent emerged. The reason I demurred was that I just can’t type that fast.

When I wrote the book, it was necessarily a slow and considered tapping out word by word, tweaking and editing sentence by sentence. The recording mirrored this. The term is “punch and roll”. You perfect a passage, correcting mis-readings, editing out mistakes or loud breathing, re-doing mispronounced phrases and “dropping them in”. When the engineer at his mixing desk on the other side of the glass is happy, you move on.

The alternative technique is “fluff and repeat” – you sit at the mike and recite in long stretches. When you make a mistake, you just stop and read again from where you went wrong. Everything is recorded and the engineer ploughs through it all later, editing, cutting and splicing as required. This is not dissimilar to writing in long, uncensored reaches then clarifying afterwards – “scatter and gather” rather than “pause and polish”.

Recording the book in the fashion we chose gave me regular opportunities to ponder the moments of genuine happiness I wrote about and revisiting them had a therapeutic effect. It also recalled the early days of lockdown this time last year, when our change of lifestyle – the withdrawal to an intimate space of home, family and self-sufficiency – became national policy. But it seems after all, you can have too much of a good thing. The simple life on our fertile field – the antidote to the often overwhelming strife of modern society – became the new mode of being. The refuge became requisite.

We all need a return to the bustle and commerce of the world – if only to serve as a contrast to easy, small-scale living at low gear: to being content with life in the here and now. That’s pretty much what I espouse in the book. The struggle is to return there for real, to practise what I once preached. I’m getting there but that might be because the weather is definitely improving.

Philip Judge is an actor. His book In Sight of Yellow Mountain, published by Gill, is now available in audio version from Bolinda.com

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