Saturday, December 27, 2008

Twilight is a teen flick so obviously I went to see it for research purposes only, not for the charismatic allure of Robert Pattinson as a vegetarian vampire with super-hero skills and a passion for running up the tall pines of misty Washington forests with his girlfriend clinging on like a besotted backpack. Bella is the ultimate bored teen, so being sucked into a state of immortal sleeplessness is an irresistible lure, though that could be because the vampire gang are kindof the in-crowd at school, and Edward is especially good at biology although his mood swings kindof give her whiplash.
The blending of filmic conventions is actually quite well done, or maybe I have an adolescent longing for supernatural schizophrenia too. Edward initially attempts to explain his sudden superhuman strength as “an adrenalin rush – you can Google it.” Instead she googles vampires, and he comes clean.
“I’m the world’s most dangerous predator. Everything about me invites you in. And I’m designed to kill.”
“I trust you.”
But this is a love story, so of course she can... though not the other vampires, who turn a stormy baseball game into a showdown from The Warriors and then there's a car chase and a massive fight in a hall of mirrors... I hope I'm not spoiling the story for you. Go see it, there's too much rushing through misty forests and very little sex but an unexpectedly good end.

And after the best seasonal celebrations I've enjoyed for years, the news that Harold Pinter died on Christmas day. "The most original, stylish and enigmatic writer in the post-war revival of British theatre" mourns The Telegraph. "The most influential, provocative and poetic dramatist of his generation" says The Guardian. The Dumb Waiter , which I first saw in a student production in Northern Ireland, was my rite of passage into the power of contemporary drama. I admired his uncompromising opposition, undeterred by critical disdain, to the Iraq war - I had the chance to read his poem Where was the dead body found? at a PEN event organised by Victoria Glendinning last year, and was dead proud when Antonia Fraser told me Harold would have liked it and she would tell him about it.

Adrian Mitchell, too, chose the deep mid-winter to depart - as I discovered from Facebook status tributes. Only love can unlock locked-up love he wrote, unfashionably, when the trend to demonise inept parenting was just beginning in the 80s. I so agree.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Finborough Theatre has a reputation for staging great drama so I made the trip to Earls Court this week to see a revival of William Saroyan's Politzer-winning play The Time of Your Life. Somewhere between Altman's Short Cuts and an early episode of Cheers, it's billed as a comedy but the shadow of Second World War looms across Nick's downtown San Francisco joint where drunks, gamblers, whores, delusionists all wander in to show us their hopes and their loneliness. Twenty-seven of them, on a stage that spills across the auditorium so audience and actors share tables and pretzels. Nick runs his bar like a sleazy soup-kitchen, benign to all except the Vice Squad snoop: "How do you know the difference between a lady and a street walker? You're out to change the world from something bad to something worse."
With an ensemble piece like this, a fine cast is more important than a single star (though intriguingingly the wannabe entertainer who can't dance was played in 1939 by Gene Kelly) and Icarus Theatre had that. For me the only unsatisfying aspect was the ending, a flurried death off-stage, leaving it unclear whether or not there would be repercussions for this "profusion of wistful dreamers, lonely hearts, and beer-hall-philosophers".

But a dramatic ending is hard to write, as I'm finding. It's got to come from the characters, and they can be perversely secretive. I nicked this Harold Pinter quote from John Baker's blog. "I don't know what kind of characters my plays will have until they indicate to me what they are. Once I've got the clues I follow them. That's my job, really, to follow the clues."

And now it's nearly the longest night so in the words of poet Inua Ellams, I wish you all a Happy....
Solstice - Samhain - Yule - Saturnalia - Winterval - Hogmanay - St. Nicholas - Kwanzaa- Bodhi - Yalda - Hanukkah - Christmas.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

In Frome, ChristmasTreegate is hotting up. Letters in the local paper are fulminating about our traffic-distraction-free replacement as a "monstrous illuminated rotary washing line". "It looks like a broken umbrella," said one lady, who had brought visitors to view - "how embarrassing".
"A bit sparse but very nice" another correspondent called Carol comments, more kindly.
Excitement at Emily's writers' circle too, as Debby Holt's new novel Love Affairs for Grownups is poised for launch next month. Debbie's previous novel in Italian translation was hailed as Strepitoso!.

The Merlin theatre pantomime has been a sell-out again this year.
The Wizard of Oz is probably their most polished so far, with strong central performances from Dorothy and her wandering companions, though predictably Kylie the dog stole every scene she was in.
Star of the show for me though was Howard Vause, the most unforestwise lion ever, nearly as vain as Red Dwarf's cat and much more cuddly.
(Thanks, Mike, for the picture)

Another theatre show, a long way from the Land of Oz, Carthage Must be Destroyed, at the Ustinov in Bath: a brilliant play provocatively well performed.
"It's not a play about Iraq" says writer Alan Wilkins, "It's about the Third Punic War. But then... all wars are different - all wars are the same." It's about the culpability of passivity and the absurdity of violence, and the damage of love too. From the spa waters of Rome to the fires of Carthage, the first casualty of warmongering is integrity.
Performances till 20th December - go see if you can.

And finally....Angus Deaton who hosted the British Comedy Awards earlier this week is usually one of my TV heroes - most of whom can be prefixed by the word 'disgraced'. He introduced the Writers Guild Award with the comment that he was 'delighted at the number of good writers coming forward, which is hardly any at all.' Gavin & Stacey won Best TV Comedy, so James Cordon may find that funny even if the rest of us don't.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

A new month and a new moon - the Moon of the Long Night. My adoptive home of Frome traditionally greets the solstice season with street festivities and a mass countdown to the ceremonial illumination-switching-on moment. The Extravaganza, as this was magnificently titled, centred around the big tree beside the market cross, with shops staying open late and plying mincepies mulled wine and chocolates as well as their trades. We had carols, bellringers, bands... ah, the good times rolled. Last year, presumably responding to a directive from Brussells, the tree was surrounded by an iron fence Michael Eavis might envied, and local youths naturally rallied to the challenge. So this year there is no tree in the market place. Instead we had a Sunday market in the Cheese & Grain and sporadic santa-related activity in the precinct with sound effects from a radio van and a merry-go-round. Not quite what Strictly judge Len would call a smorgsbord of gorgeousness, but with quaint charm, especially the Christmas fairies dispensing snow from Siberia.
"Christmas decorations are a kind of defiance" Rose Flint suggested in her poetry workshop at the library, "Awareness of the night sky is deep in the human psyche. We're bringing the stars inside, and helping the light to return." We wrote about snow, and glitter, and stars, shaping constellations like gods. Winter glitz for wintry glums.

The Poetry Cafe was crowded for "Difficult Journeys" and we had to clear the window sills when we ran out of room for chairs. The theme's tenuous connection with The Wizard of Oz, the pantomime at the Merlin, was largely ignored by guest poets Rose Flint and Malinda Kennedy and 19 open-mic contributors who opted for more personal interpretations.
It always inspires a sense of privilege when writers share intimate feelings, and there were some glittering gems.
Dianne Penny's beautifully-performed poem was a favourite for me: I never knew I had the right to speak... listen, listen, listen... Paula as theatre director picked out many for special praise and donated prizes, with Linda Perry and Rosie Jackson agreed as worthy winners of the theatre tickets.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

In horse talk, I have not been On Form this month. Consequently most of my time has been spent in comfort pursuits involving mooching about, close friends & family, and online scrabble, so there's not much in the literary line to report. However, I made it to the Mission Theatre in Bath twice: once to see Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending. It's set in the playwright's usual world of small-town America: full of repressed passion needing only the trigger of a wild outsider to set the place alight, with an ending as horrifying as any Greek tragedy. In the hot dry dust of unspoken grievance and unspeakable grief, wanderer Val celebrates lyricism and hope for "a future called perhaps, which is the only possible thing to call the future. And the only important thing is not to allow that to scare you. "
It's a re-working of a much earlier, failed, play called Battle of Angels which Williams never abandoned. He said "You will find the trail of my sleeve-worn heart in this completed play... it's about the acceptance of prescribed answers that are not answers at all"
That notion of freedom from 'prescribed answers' is most lyrically expressed in Val's fantasy of tiny birds with transparent wings, eluding predator. "They live their whole life on the wing, and they sleep on the wing, they just spread their wings and go to sleep and never light on this earth but one time when they die! " A powerful image to anyone, perhaps especially to writers.
Russell Brand ended his documentary on Jack Kerouac with this thought: "The main thing I got from this journey is that if you aren't governed by fear then you can live truthfully and you can find a kind of beauty. But if you're inhibited and fearful, you will live a prescriptive existance. Once you get beyond the hedonistic first impulse of that philosophy, you find that you need to focus on something wider, more permanent and beautiful and valuable. That's what I've learnt." Could be Tennessee Williams' Val talking. Except he'd probably have strummed it.

Then on Sunday the Bath Poetry Cafe had a Rialto night, celebrating local connections with this prestigious literary magazine. Editor Michael Mackmin talked about what he seeks from submissions - a self-seal envelope is paramount, apparently. Readings from poets who had avoided this and other fatal errors followed: I especially enjoyed Sue Boyle, Emily Wills, and of course Rose Flint, who writes so sensuously and with such tragedic yearning:
And what I hope for every winter is to find a way through
to the other side where the jubilant light begins again
in a hesitation of birdsong.

Footnote this week: my online interview with writer Judy Darley .


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night set in a 1960s Soho nightclub sounds a jaunty idea and I had high hopes of this production by Frome Drama Club, usually never less than competent. Sadly, purple tie-dye does not a Viola make, and the bullying aspect of this drama became, rather than Sopranos-style tension, an epidemic of pinching, punching, happy-slapping that even included Orsino flooring Olivia so violently her subsequent request that he call her 'sister' must have sounded alarm calls in Social Services. Even good acting - Malvolio as a lanky Gollum, the pragmatic fool Feste - couldn't create characters to satisfactorily survive this directorial savagery.

I didn't know what to expect from Dracula staged as a musical at the White Bear theatre in Kennington by Loveless brothers writer/director Chris and composer Alex... a comedy, maybe? (Wiv a littul bit of blood, a littul bit of blood, you can let temptation drip right in...) Not so. It was stunning. From the wilds of Transylvania to prim Victorian London, the drama was darkly bloodstained and biting. Piano and cello enhanced a mesmeric mood, with every element for a gothic fantasy glowing through: madness, lust, the fear that immortality is worse than death itself and that love can seem the deepest abyss of all. Songlines simmered: Love is a knife that carves your life. Faithful to Bram Stoker, the production still managed to find twists in the story, and played grim torchlight on undercurrents of brutality posing as medicine and morality. There's an amazing scene as the men, outraged by the transformation of their women into vampiric seducers, form an armed posse and thunder through the forest, the vampire as their quarry, like any group of self-righteous fanatics witch-hunting the outsider who threatens their supremacy. Brilliant. I'd go to see anything by Fallen Angel Theatre Company now.
Pix by Michael Brydon, more about the production here

I'm writing a play at the moment - I don't usually admit to writing anything until it's finished & safely published, so acknowledging this is a strange part of the process - and therefore collecting comments on drama from every source I come across, as well as my dramaturgy (wonderful word, too) mentor, playwright Steve Hennessy. Like this from Tony (Mark of Cain) Marchant in an RT interview: "I don't think there should be any taboos. The object of drama is to illuminate and to explore - it's a writer's job to make people think harder." Finding this week's BIG ISSUE is a playwrighting special, I turned the pages avidly with highlighter poised. Here's a collection of write-bites from the mag:
"What makes good drama? Pushing the creative boundaries" - this is agent Mel Kenyon- "the stage should be about metaphor rather than literal recreation." Zia Trench of Zeitgeist Theatre Company believes: "If theatre wants to grow more of an audience, it's got to rethink just about everything", and there's frustration about the moribund state of theatre among most interviewees. "Shakespeare is all well and good but we get 2000 scripts a year from unknown writers" says theatre director Lisa Goldman, lamenting that there is no funding to produce them.
Patron Joachim Fleury doesn't want theatre "a formaldehyde form of art - museum pieces resuscitated ad infinitum." James Phillips urges other directors like himself to relish the risk offered by new writing: "I mean we know Twelfth Night works, don't we?" (see above, James...)
An overall theme emerges: face the fear and do it anyway. "The most important virtue for a writer is determination" concludes the editorial.
True for any writing, any media - and especially with difficult stuff. I was talking this week with Malinda Kennedy, therapist and poet, whose experience has convinced her that long-term anxiety = suffering that's not been expressed creatively. But, she cautions, personal outpourings are not art. “Most people feel so good about the outpourings they think it’s a novel - it’s a poem - it’s a play! Is it heck. Now starts the crafting.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ninety years ago to the month, Siegfried Sassoon wrote Memorial Tablet, a poem as full of anger about class divisions as about war itself. His grave, in the sombre yew-shadowed churchyard of Mells near where I live, is often honoured with red poppies, and always on Remembrance Sunday.

Merlin Theatre foyer turned tardis on Monday night, as an auditoriumful of audience crammed through to see the magnificent Eddie Izzard in a one-night-only try-out of stuff for his new London show.
It's a sell-out there too - here tickets were going on eBay for £160, and I'm sure the buyers were delighted - my eyes were sore next day from weeping with laughter. Eddie's new stuff circles "like a cow with a gun" from Obama through the fallacies of world history through Wikipedia, Galileo, Genesis, stromatolites, stone-age scrabble, squirrels, Spartans, creationism, arriving back at Obama and the possibility of hope for the future. "Terrorism exists where there is no hope" he says simply, at the end of two hours of surreal humour, unflinching satire and brilliant mime. I wish we could elect our own God, my vote would go to Eddie Izzard - even though he doesn't believe we have or need one. "I believe in humans" he says, "Good and evil are in your tummy. That's our fight, how to live our lives."

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Hot on the heels of November 5th - and how celebratory those fireworks felt this year - came the verbal sparklers of Madabout Words night. Over 60 people came along to hear thirteen local writer/performers in a cabaret of poetry, prose, drama, and lyrics.

I'd love to give a full and impartial review but as I organised it I can't so I'll just say to fiction writers Debby Holt, Magnus Nelson, Rosie Jackson & Niamh Ferguson; to poets David Sollors, Gordon Graft, Rose Flint, & Caleb Parkin; to dramatists Alison Clink and Rosie Finnegan, and to musicians Howard Vause & PJ Leonard: Darlings you were wonderful and I mean that most sincerely. And many thanks to all who supported us.

As one performer said, for us it's an opportunity to play to a perfectly listening audience, and "it is something that actually seems to matter to people - very lovely - this sort of thing is important isn't it?"
I certainly believe so.

Same yet different, another evening of spoken word at the launch of a new book from Peter Please: CLATTINGER An Alphabet of Signs from Nature, a quirky look at a Wiltshire wildflower meadow and site of special scientific interest. The Georgian premises of the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Society contrast and blend graciously with imagery of snakeshead fritillaries and damselflies. Unusually for an author launch, this gentle and charming event was designed as a team effort, with musical accompaniments and contributions from several other writers including a striking poem from cover artist Sean Borodale. Clattinger is an unusual book too, a hi-tech production finished by hand; Peter Please sewed them all himself, pinching the spines in the traditional manner of 19th Century craftsmen. "We are the farmers' markets in a supermarket world," I like to tell writer friends; Peter Please wants to be slow-simmered broth in a fast food planet. You can find out more here.

Footnote to last week's epic event in America: Jeremy Paxman to Dizzee Rascal "Mr Rascal, could you see this happening in Britain?" "If you believe you can achieve, innit?" "Do you believe in political parties in Britain?" "Yeah, they exist." Perfect.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Searching Halloween for smatterings of significance beyond pumpkinheads and Dracula for this once hallowed evening, I found that in some cultures the entire month of November is a Festival of the Dead. Something to look forward to.
Emily and I celebrated this tricky night by treating ourselves to Comedy Scratch Night at the Arc in Trowbridge. A fun evening, though with a curiously non-contemporary ambience. 'Rather a lot of genitalia' one audience member commented, which was true, yet Master Bates apologised for both his swear words and no-one mentioned Voluptuagate.
You've probably already over-familiar with what the Head of the BBC calls "the tumultuous events of the past weeks" and the tabloids term "sickening obscenities that made the whole nation shudder", (the infamous phone call to Andrew Sachs has been viewed over a million times on Youtube) so the only thing that can make it better is... another cheap jibe. "This sort of obscenity against a member of the Satanic Sluts cannot be countenanced." thunders News of the News, "Suspension is hardly sufficient. The British sense of justice and fair play will not be satisfied until they are castrated by a baying crowd, pursued through the street on horseback with dogs, hanged by the neck outside White City until dead and their foul corpses left there to fester for at least a month. We pay our licence fees!"
What a good thing we in the literary world aren't tainted by such salacious voyeurism, I thought smugly, going into WH Smiths where exciting promotions encourage everyone to turn off the telly and read a good book. Promotions like TRAGIC LIFE STORIES - BUY 1 GET 1 HALF PRICE...

Quantum of Solace.... well I won't go on about the dizzy-making yumminess of Daniel Craig but I will just mention that Ben Elton's first novel Stark had a similar storyline (villain poses as environmentalist) though without the breathtaking car-chases, land-sea-&-air shoot-outs, the inferno and the Tosca opera. Other than that, pretty close.

I'm posting this as the world is poised to know whether Obama managed that final lap to the White House, so in electioneering mode I commend this more local party political broadcast from 'shouty scot' & poetic genius Elvis Mcgonagall.

And finally... how about writing a novel this November? NaNoWriMo will help you. Lots of tips and pep talks, and an international scoreboard for ongoing word-counts. England is at currently number 18, with the Germans already spreading their writing towels across the keyboard at number 1. So if you want to change that, pick up your pens! (Not now, at the end of the blog when lines are open....)

Friday, October 31, 2008

"A marvel" is how crackerjack's reviewer describes Cave by Steve Hennessy, one of Theatre West's new season of 'Writing in the Margins'. The isolate cave is a setting and a metaphor too, representing the dark and difficult place where Greek dramatist Euripides - and by inference all passionate artists - must go to find their creativity. And it can be a place of refuge, which is why runnaway slave Helen is here, heavily pregnant, feral and defiant. Their strange shared sanctuary is invaded by Theodoros: young, citified, glamourous and shallow, he embodies everything the playwright loves and loathes. Will Euripides choose his muse or his career? neither of them are glittering any more. There is a third way, one which is reckless and loving and wholly credible. A play which resonates long after the cave is empty. See it if you can - it's on until 8th November at the Alma Tavern Theatre.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Foxton is a great name isn't it? Sounds like a place in a Rupert Bear annual, with plucky young animals called Algy having lots of adventures in rhyming verse. In fact it's near Cambridge, and the location of Villiers Park education centre, where last week my writer friend Rosie Jackson and I led a creative writing course for twentytwo 'gifted and talented' 17-year-olds from across the British Isles.
An amazing week, and I felt overawed by their energy and charm, a bit like watching seals at play off the Californian coast but with the addition of dazzling writing.
The gee&tees gave us comedy, political satire, and personal emotions, all explored with individual style and lucent integrity. They'd clearly never grasped the concept of Kevin-the-teenager - nasty, brutish, and short of vocabulary; they were delightful company too.
Friday's "presentations" were one highlight of the week, and another was a performance and talk by Luke Wright, whose own blend of talent and candour the group found inspiring.
We had a theatre trip too: Alan Bennett's 'Talking Heads' at Mumford Theatre. I'm not a huge fan of Bennett's whimsical assaults on social Aunt Sallys, and the two monologues memorised by Moonstruck Theatre Company seemed to me dated in their snobby lampooning of low-brow culture. The students were polite and some were appreciative, but I felt more moved by their own work.
Throw in mountain bikes, music, footie, and a Murder Mystery night, no wonder course evaluations were so upbeat. Virtual group hug, anyone?

American update: I see from G2 that the phenomena of Tina Fey upstaging Sarah Palin has now registered this side of the pond. While giggling over the goofy spoofs, you may be interested to note Tina doesn't stray far from the original - in fact sometimes, as in this multiviewed CNN clip, not at all...
And also from that slightly scary big place over there, news of a teacher suspended without pay for allowing her students to read The Freedom Writers Diary. This motivational collection of true stories by young people is a best-selling book and now also a movie. It contains swearing, apparently. Did I say 'slightly' scary?

I don't know what the Indiana censors would make of Ricky Gervais on Jonathan Ross (my Razorlight-alert gave me the link - they're at the end) – but he made some good points about comedy writing. He doesn't do gags, he says; just characters. "If it’s just constantly one-liners, the audience is looking at their watches after 20 minutes. There has to be some character." He underlines the point with a hysterically funny story about his mother’s funeral. No, really, it was. And it gave a glimpse of a loving family, and the way outsiders simply can’t touch their grief.

Finally: What were you doing at 22.04 yesterday? Four minutes past ten at night is apparently the time we are all most creative, according to a new survey. (What time of day do they dream up these research projects, I wonder.) Sebastian Faulks spoke up for writers: "I was thinking what I think at 10.04 most nights: whether to open another bottle of wine."
Which reminds me of something I haven't done since I came back from America...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bill Bryson writes in I'm a Stranger Here Myself of "those sumptuous days when autumn is full of muskiness and tangy, crisp, perfection with vivid blue sky..."
That's how it is here. Guitarist Bill Peterson summed it all up at Mo and Anja's party: "That view out front, sun shining, good food, nice company, great music playing - it doesn't get any better than this." I'd walked that afternoon along the coastal path, entranced by the views of shore and sea and wild birds, and spent the evening listening to 9 talented musicians' varied styles - most of the songs original.
(Especially popular was Mo's tribute to George Bush: Daddy What's A Brain?)

Once again beside the rocks of Pescadero on my penultimate day: seals basking, spray crashing beyond the deep purple of the near-shore lagoons. It's a transitory landscape, as the coastline of California is crumbling: about a foot a year on average, apparently. We reflect on this sombre statistic for a while and then go to Duartes Tavern for artichoke soup and sourdough.

And now I'm packing for my journey back to the UK, to dull grey days and the tension of trying to get hold of a car in time for next week's course in Cambridge... I'll have to stop giggling over Bill Bryson's account of the safety demonstrations on transatlantic flights and prepare myself to watch closely while the value of the whistle to attract attention is explained by United Airlines stewards self-taped into yellow lifejackets. Hoping, of course, that this is a hypothesis I won't have to test.