‘The Bright Side of Life’ is my first novel. It stars a young Australian émigré to London and his efforts to break into London theatre. Despite the setbacks he encounters – and they are legion – his Panglossian optimism persists. The exigencies of contemporary life combined with a penchant for melodrama in the central character drive the humorous story, but behind it is the curious question of whether it is really a wise policy to continually look on the bright side of life.
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Charlie Brightman is 24, talented, self-confident, well-dressed (very well-dressed), and a bit of a drip. His first attempt at a theatre job is with the rather seedy Dengate Theatre in Soho, where a cast of dubious characters ensnares him into helping with an improv show which descends into chaos. He does, however, meet Lilly, a candidate for the position of his girlfriend. While pursuing this woman of his dreams, Charlie is hampered by the unexpected cancellation of his acting scholarship, resulting in a complete lack of funds. Thus he takes on a job in the country, helping the redoubtable Hattie Witherspoon run a ‘literary dramatic festival’. Hattie assumes a position of importance in Charlie’s affections after a night involving gin and a bathtub. The story follows his attempts to win Hattie’s heart and the adulation of London theatre-going audiences – or at least a paying job – in an ever-increasing maelstrom of bad luck and bad parts. But he remains confident that it will all be alright in the end.
Here’s a short synopsis, and a couple of excerpts.
Charlie arrived in London from Australia some weeks before the story opens, and has managed to find himself a flat and a flatmate. He is exuberant about his prospects in London – he has a scholarship to an acting school, an ambition to break into the London stage, and excessive self-confidence. As the everyday difficulties of getting by in the metropolis throw obstacles in this optimistic path, Charlie continues to look on the bright side.
Charlie’s first attempt at a theatre job is with the rather seedy Dengate Theatre in Soho, where a cast of dubious characters ensnares him into helping with an improv show, which descends into chaos; and involves him in a bout of unpaid Shakespeare in the seedy basement cabaret bar. He does, however, meet Lilly, a candidate for the position of his girlfriend. While pursuing this woman of his dreams, Charlie is hampered by the unexpected cancellation of his scholarship, resulting in a complete lack of funds. Thus he takes on a job in the country – helping the redoubtable Hattie Witherspoon run a ‘literary dramatic festival’.
Despite sufficient gin, this enterprise too has its challenges. When disaster befalls the marquee that Charlie helped erect, the police are called in. However, a series of twists results in both Charlie and Hattie being offered roles in a forthcoming production of a less-than-savoury opera, being produced by Dolores, a denizen of The Dengate, along with some shady Russian backers.
The opera turns out to offend all the wrong people, and Charlie is once again on the streets – literally, having been unable to pay his rent. He is rescued by a job in pantomime, the lowest dregs of theatre work, but in the end – everything will be alright.
Excerpt from Chapter One:
London throbbed a little as Saturday night segued into Sunday morning. A tall black transvestite teetered on her killers as she navigated the scurf of revelers pushing along Long Acre to Leicester Square. The Nero coffee shop was still open, the tube station still gorging and disgorging its favourite meal of travellers, thick and thin, crunchy and soft, small and large. Walking along the street was a feat, and Charlie thought he was doing great. For this first night out on the town with his new flatmate Oliver, he’d chosen his toilette carefully. Black, he thought, for elegance; skinny pants were still in, and a new green t-shirt under the jacket. Grass green, rather unusual.
Oliver, a head taller than Charlie, looked over the crowd and steered them up a side alley, along to Old Compton Street and into a pub that his mate’s girlfriend’s brother had recommended. Apparently this brother had been talking to a lot of people, because the pub was thronged so thickly with thirsty patrons that finding even a wall to stand up against was difficult. They pushed in. Oliver greeted a group around one table, a group dressed just like Charlie, black jeans, interesting jackets and a flash of colour. The occasional earring, a glimpse of an artistic tattoo. They found a sticky corner were there was a little standing room and a three-inch ledge along the wall, and Oliver went off to see what could be done about getting some drinks. Charlie was content. ‘London!’ he thought. He was a recent arrival and everything about the place was exciting: crowds, pubs, people; even the beer was exciting, though his usual tipple was a gin and tonic.
Oliver, using some kind of system which must be taught to young English boys at school, had miraculously secured beers for them.
‘Cheers!’ said Charlie contentedly. ‘The only thing missing is girls.’
Oliver looked at him curiously then burst into laughter.
‘Mate, this is a gay pub,’ he said, in a low voice and a tone of one explaining the obvious.
Charlie was confused.
‘But Valerie…isn’t she your girlfriend?’
‘Yeah, yeah, I’m not gay! I just though you’d like it.’
‘But I’m not gay either!’ said Charlie, a bit shocked that Oliver, who dressed rather shabbily in Charlie’s opinion, should confuse sartorial care with alternative sexual preferences.
‘Oh, sorry mate,’ said Oliver, disbelievingly.
‘Just because I’m an actor doesn’t mean…’ said Charlie.
‘Your friend’s looking for a girl?’ asked one of their companions in the crowded corner, who had overheard. ‘I think I can fix him up.’
‘Don’t do it Charlie,’ said Oliver.
‘He’s talking about prostitutes. You don’t want that, do you?’
‘Er, no. I was thinking more along the lines of someone to take long walks with and go to the movies…’
‘Mate, are you sure you’re not gay?’ said Oliver.
‘Let me get the next round,’ said Charlie, who thought a change of subject was needed. After waiting for ages in the three-deep crowd around the bar, he eventually managed to secure the beers and pushed cautiously back through the crush of people towards Oliver.
‘Beers coming through! How about a little elbow-room? There’s a thirsty bloke waiting!’
Charlie put on a cheerful tone as he tried to jolly his way through the crowd. Hearing him, a group at a nearby table called out.
‘Over ‘ere, barman! Over ‘ere!’
Charlie grinned at them.
‘I’m not the barman, mate.’
‘But…you’re Australian, aren’t you?’ Clouds of laughter followed this sally.
Charlie had noticed that most of the sweating bartenders in this pub seemed to have Australian accents. He supposed that they were on working holidays. He, however, had a scholarship, and was proud of it.
‘I’m an actor, actually,’ he said to the merry table.
‘Really? Oh yeah – we saw you in ‘Neighbours’! You were the gay guy, weren’t you?’ The laughter reached embarrassing proportions. Charlie pushed on through to his corner and set the beers down on the tiny ledge.
‘Don’t worry about those guys,’ said Oliver. ‘It’s just that most bartenders in London are Australian – or it seems like it.’
‘I’m not worried,’ said Charlie. ‘It’s just a joke, right?’
‘Er, yeah, right,’ said Oliver.
At that moment one of the more thuggish of the crowd heckling Charlie made a move to rise from the table and – accidentally – knocked Charlie’s elbow just as he was raising the hard-won beer to his lips. His sleek black jacket suffered the majority of the spill. Charlie might be mild mannered, but where his clothes were concerned he had high standards. He leapt up, brushing the amber fluid off vigorously.
‘Oy! You’re gettin’ beer all over me!’ said the big fellow who had jogged his elbow.
Charlie, shorter but plucky in defence of his wardrobe, faced this pub annoyance.
‘I wouldn’t worry too much about that t-shirt, mate. It could only be improved by a few beer stains.’
‘Ah! The Australian git wants some trouble!’ said his adversary, waving a signal to his table companions.
Oliver reached out and pulled Charlie by the arm.
‘Cut it out, mate. Just shut up!’
The well-dressed group at the table was grinning. Australians were often ridiculous, their faces seemed to say. Charlie checked his jacket rather mournfully. It would need expensive dry-cleaning.
‘Still,’ he said to Oliver, ‘I think the smell will come out eventually.’
‘Just a word of advice, mate,’ said Oliver. ‘You should keep your head down around thickheads like that guy. He could do you some real harm.’
‘Oh, surely you exaggerate, Olly. He’s probably just had a bit much. I can take a joke,’ replied Charlie.
‘That’s lucky,’ said someone.
Charlie and Oliver finished their beers and pushed their way out into the Soho night. The pub patrons had colonised the footpath outside, and part of Old Compton Street too. The London night was yet young. Interesting haircuts, ‘look-at-me’ boots and plenty of facial jewellery set the sartorial standard.
‘Can we go somewhere less, er, gay?’ asked Charlie. The London girls looked attractive to him, and he was ever hopeful.
‘Sure, mate,’ said Oliver.
They pushed on through the crowd on the footpath, jostling and being jostled. Beyond the yellow light thrown from the pub the street was dark. As they strolled through the crowd, the noise and the sour smell of old alcohol into the dark, there was a sudden shove in the ribs for Charlie. His jacket suffered a little more. It rasped against the Victorian brick wall of the alley next to the pub.
‘What was that?’ he asked in a dazed way, steadying himself and brushing down his long-suffering clothing.
‘Just another drunk, nothing to worry about. Come on,’ said Oliver.
They sauntered off.
Excerpt from Chapter Fourteen:
Hattie got up and tried to poke some more life into the feeble fire. Already something was not going according to plan. Hattie loathed it when things didn’t go according to plan. It made her peevish. She gulped a slug of wine and turned to warm her ample bottom at the fire, such as it was. Her new bra was uncomfortable, too, damn it. It was only last week that she’d spent a small fortune buying new underwear at Wigmore & Deller. Her friend Molly had urged her to try this underwear emporium – after all, said Molly, the Queen herself buys her bras from them. Hattie had been pleased at first with the welcome she’d received at the shop – a glass of champers while she waited for ‘a consultant’ – but was bemused when the consultant who materialised, a short, plain, serious girl in spectacles, had asked her to stand in the changing room naked from the waist up while she scrutinised Hattie’s breasts carefully.
‘We judge size solely by sight’, the consultant had said.
She stared harder, as Hattie’s nipples stiffened in the unaccustomed fresh air, then pronounced herself satisfied and went off to select a couple of samples in the sight-judged size. Hattie wondered if they did this to the Queen.
When the bra was produced, it took the consultant quite a bit of wrenching to get Hattie’s breasts into it. Sight gave way now to man-handling as the wayward mammaries were stuffed into the wire and lace construction that would make them point forwards, Madonna-like, facing the world. Once the breasts had been coerced into the bra, the consultant assured Hattie that her clothes would now ‘drape’ so much more attractively. Hattie asked if it was normal for the bra to feel so uncomfortable, and wondered how she was going to get it on without the help of several (close) friends. The consultant assured her that it would ‘stretch with wear’, and that she would find it quite easy to put on after just a little practice. There was something about the over-priced, Royalty-serving establishment that went to Hattie’s normally level head, and she paid an exorbitant sum for the new bra, walking out of Wigmore & Deller with her back as rigidly upright as someone wearing a straight jacket under her clothes. Which she was, really. And now, here in deepest Norfolk, in front of a feeble fire, the damn thing was starting to pinch, badly.
It was time to get it off. She finished her wine and asked Anthony to point the way to The Kitsch Room. In a gentlemanly manner, he hoisted her small bag and escorted her up a set of narrow wooden stairs in the corner of the front hall. The stairs were a bit rickety, but Anthony had assured her that the house had been standing for over a hundred years; Hattie assumed it would last out her stay. At the top of the stairs her host pointed out a bathroom – a couple of stuffed parrots hung from the pipes, several hundred seashells were dotted about, and an enormous insect, which looked closely related to the cockroach, was framed and mounted on the wall beside the bath, thankfully under glass. The decorator of Alderwood House had eclectic taste.
The Kitsch Room, once located, lived up to its sobriquet, prettily decorated in a nauseous pink and with various tasteless objets d’art dotted about. Anthony deposited her bag and left Hattie to deal with the difficult bra. She stood before the circular mirror of a ‘thirties dressing table, which was adorned with an Art Deco-style silver plaster statuette of a slender naked woman and a greyhound. There was also a Louis Vuitton handbag, in china. Shedding her white shirt, Hattie released her breasts from the medieval torture instrument that the Wigmore & Deller consultant had misleadingly described as a bra, and gave a relieved sigh. She was immediately cold, and scrabbled in her bag for a woolly sweater to ward off the chill. She tipped the contents of the bag onto the pink chenille bedspread, narrowly avoiding knocking over a plastic head of Minnie Mouse that occupied the bedside table. What was it? A lamp? A clock? Pulling on the sweater, and exchanging her skirt for a pair of jeans, Hattie wondered if she could get away with appearing downstairs in the sweater, bra-less. A moment’s scrutiny in the dressing table mirror was enough to make her abandon this plan, with regret. She didn’t want to frighten the other dinner guests, not this early in proceedings. She would have to don her back-up bra, an old faithful that was less uncomfortable. Probably the Queen did this all the time.
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