Richard Wilcocks writes:
In a warm front room, we ate wedges of a chocolate cake which would have made Nigella green with envy, cursed the weather outside and listened to Ray Brown. It was my idea of a house event: friendly, intimate, stimulating and… sweetly nourishing.
Ray began by talking about work in progress, about how writing plays is totally different from writing prose and about how playwrights often steal from each other. David Nobbs had, in fact, once slunk up to him to apologise for stealing a single word - 'seemly'. He told us about the creative writing class he had once run and about the rules he set: every member had to bring what they had written to every session and read it out, at risk of exclusion from the session. “It's always the ones who don't write anything who criticise the most.”
Then came the flash fiction, flash because it didn't last long and flashy because it was well honed. The first was set in the seventies, at a time when the leaders of the RAF (Rote Armee Fraction) in West Germany - Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof - had yet to commit suicide, and was about a mysterious someone traveling out of Germany to Schipol airport in the Netherlands who may or may not be a terrorist or a drug dealer. The second was set in Headingley, “which has always been a mixed area full of interesting people - the Hampstead of Leeds as it were…” Entitled The Gift, it was written, like the first, at a time when Ray lived in Headingley. “I used to write about dying and making love,” he said, “and I was fascinated by the heartbeat in this story. It has a basis in a relationship I had.” The repetition of words and phrases helps provide the heartbeat.
Maria's House came next. It is not flash fiction, but a longer piece which came out of a time when Ray was working as a writer-in-residence at Dove House in Chamberlain Road, Hull and another hospice just outside Lincoln. He turned the story into a play for radio, which has never been produced. He read beautifully, using a credible Lincs accent where necessary, and explained to us that the character Maria was his opportunity for an imaginative link with a place which is like another home for him - Mala Brda (it means 'little hill') which is in Slovenia, near the famous Postojna caves, and not too far from the Italian city of Trieste.
He gave Maria, an old woman who lives in a hospice, a really convincing Italian accent in his reading - she calls him "Ha-Ray". She had, long ago, been part of the Italian community in Istria, which had once been overwhelmed by Mussolini's fascist forces and which had now been reclaimed by Slovenia and Croatia. Ray is a frequent visitor to those parts, so when, in his fiction, he visits Maria's house, having been given the key by Maria, he is visiting a real house from his experience. It is “overshadowed by a giant chestnut tree” and he rides a Tomos moped (the headquarters of the company which makes them is in Koper, Slovenia) on the roads near it. “Sretan Put!” he is told: “Pleasant journey!” in Croatian. Yes, Ray knows those parts, and something of the tortured history: one character makes a reference to when “Stalin was threatening to shake his little finger at Tito”.
“I wanted to hint at the enormous richness of experience in that country,” he told one questioner when he had finished.