Thomas Sutcliffe: When the time comes to walk out of your life

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The Independent Online

The BBC News website includes an interesting section, down towards the bottom of the home page, which tells you what the most popular stories on its site are. There are two categories, Most Emailed and Most Read, and usually you can detect a subtle difference between the five stories that top the charts.

Most Emailed is strong on animal-related trivia, health scares and funny stories (men having sex with bicycles or marrying goats, say). Most Read, by contrast, is a bit more serious in its content and a better register I would guess of the kind of stories that really matter to the average reader. And it wasn't very surprising yesterday to find that the Missing Canoeist from Hartlepool spent quite a bit of time at No 1, sharing the top spot with Teddy Row Teacher.

In case you didn't see it, the Missing Canoeist concerned a Hartlepool man who never came back from a kayaking trip five years ago. A couple of days later the remains of his canoe were washed up on the beach and the air-sea rescue teams called off the search. And then last Saturday he walked into a London police station and said, "I think I am a missing person".

When I read this story, two thoughts crossed my mind. The first was that not one in a hundred people would find it difficult to come up with some kind of plausible reason for the initial disappearance. That psychology is relatively easy to construct, and taps into on our own dreams of leaving. What's much harder to explain is why, after five years, you should suddenly decide to check back in. The second thought and it virtually came with a sound effect of stampeding feet was that all over the country writers and dramatists were already scrambling to pitch the idea as a television film.

The reports yesterday suggested that amnesia might have been involved, with the missing man unable to remember how, or why, he'd been plucked from his previous life. For his wife and children I imagine that might be a consolation, effectively defusing much of the rage you would feel at the calculated cruelty of such an apparent abdication. At a stroke it converts a perpetrator into a victim.

But it would be a bit of a blow for the screenwriters presumably already working up a synopsis for the first draft, or at least those who are determined to stick faithfully to their interpretation of the source material. Because without premeditation and calculation, the story is nowhere near as interesting. It turns into a bizarre accident, rather than a biopsy of the ordinary life and its moments of despair.

With premeditation and planning, on the other hand, such derailments become utterly fascinating. Indeed the subject has already attracted the attention of writers with David Nobbs's The Death of Reginald Perrin and Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years just two examples of literary treatments of the theme. And what makes it so fruitful as a subject is the groaning harvest of unanswered questions it delivers.

Why and how does the flight first occur? Is it a kind of cowardice or a kind of courage to leap from your own life without a parachute? How would you go about remaking a relationship so abruptly severed and what if the other half of the amputation had come to prefer life as a stump? In real life one imagines such questions would be answered only in private, if at all. In fiction we could explore this widespread fantasy in depth. I just hope it gets a writer worthy of it.

Sir Ian and Ewan: the naked truth

I'm off to see the Donmar's new Othello this week (in which Ewan McGregor plays Iago) and struggling to remain high-mindedly indifferent to the fact that tickets are trading on eBay at tulip-mania mark-ups. A pair sold yesterday for 461, though McGregor isn't the only star who can command a hefty premium. Tickets for Ian McKellen's Lear are also trading at four or five times face value on eBay. It's good to see that the older generation can give the young a run for their money, though if we wanted a strict like-for-like comparison I think we'd have to see what would happen if McGregor also promised to take off all his clothes mid-performance. I suspect he might just edge it.

* Good news for hi-fi bores from New Scientist, which reports that some kinds of plastic transistor have been demonstrated to improve their performance if left to ripen at room temperature for a week. Apparently it has something to do with the self-repairing properties of the organic molecules involved, but that's surely less important than the new playground this development provides for sound reproduction obsessives.

Questions such as whether to deep-freeze CDs before playing them or whether gold power cables can acoustically justify their cost have kept them harmlessly occupied for months, even years, so the confirmation that a transistor can mature like a fine wine opens up an Arcadia of fresh disputation about tonal nuance and timbre. I expect to see grand cru transistors on the market before long. And I bet there'd be enthusiasts out there who would swear blind that they could tell the difference if you aged them in oak barrels.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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