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.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Mark Twain said the coldest winter he ever experienced was summer in San Francisco. Fooled by blue sky and palm trees when we drove in, I failed to realise this city has its own micro-climate direct from the Arctic Circle. The first thing I had to buy was another sweater and hot coffee. Thus fortified, we rode the platform on the cable car down to Fisherman's Wharf where the waterfront is full of buskers and the water is full of seals.

Back in time for another open-mic spot, at Cafe Lucca. The last three nights I've been regaling the locals with me pomes. There was open-mic at Camerons English Pub, which has a red phone box & a London bus outside it, but otherwise is big & bombastic American-style so my set had a certain novelty cachet, especially as all the other performers were musicians. Most of them turned up at Cafe Lucca the next night, and Saturday was even better, the whole cafe filled with appreciative audience for both Mo's singing and my extended poetry session. So thanks to all you generous Californians for coming along to hear a writer from England, and for being so exceedingly nice about what you heard.

There's a significant ripple of interest in the election along the California coast, with a healthy rash of Obama car stickers and street merchandise, and a spoof debate doing the rounds. But the big news over here currently is Halloween. They take macabre seriously here. We went shopping for costumes at a hangar-sized building dedicated to vampires, ghouls, and other life-sized grotesques. Those evil-faced pumpkins are just a start, you can buy anything revolting from a bloodshot eye that walks to a torso that crawls, any costume from the tooth fairy to a plateful of poo, a vampire outfit for your dog or for $300 a family of gothic zombies.
Am I going to pass scornful comment on this national obsession? Of course not, I wouldn't be so rude. I'll simply say what San Mateo Coffee Company says to promote its Pumpkin Spiced Latte: " We hold this to be self-evident."

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Morro Bay is more a nature reserve than a seaside resort, although ironically local promotion seems almost abashed there’s so little dollar-demanding distraction on offer. Only the seals at play, pelicans teasing the fishermen, sea-otters picnicking on clams in the blue water bay, and mighty Morro rock changing colour from early light to sunset.

Our stop-over base is close by the jetty, opposite the long sandspit which has been reclaimed as a sanctuary for estuary wild life, so we spend hours simply being there, watching, but the serious grape-growing area of California is close by so we take a drive to look at some wineries too.

Being here is like living in a road movie: the nonchalant acceptance of vastness, the affability of strangers, monster trucks and Harleys - and in towns pedestrians have right of way over traffic, how civilised. But they can’t make good Americano here– why is that? Coffee bars everywhere and it’s either too sweet, too weak, or filter.

What else have I learned… That the 250 mile coastal drive from Half Moon Bay to Morro rock is one of the wonders of the world, especially playing seventies folk –rock all the way.

Back to Half Moon Bay in time to walk the eucalyptus forest, admire the pumpkin harvest, and do a poetry set at Cafe Classique's performance night. As Basil Fawlty said, I think I got away with it...

Sunday, October 05, 2008

So here I am in California, after 10 hours and 4 movies, none with a shot as good as the icecaps of Greenland. Mo collects me from San Francisco airport and we take the coast road past long pale sands where surfing waves are dramatically eroding the cliffs away, down to Half Moon Bay.
Mo and Anja live here in a blueygrey painted timber house, the Pacific on one side and hills & creeks on the other, canyons in the distance and hummingbirds in the back garden. In short, Wow...
Within an hour of arriving we’re all in CafĂ© Gibraltar where I’m mesmerised by the way the waiter chants the specials with particular attention to dressings. I pick the tomato salad with pumpernickel, Peruvian pine nuts and open-sesame seeds, drizzled with light squalls. (I may have misrecalled some of those ingredients, but the waiter applauded my choice & didn’t call the whole thing off even though I pronounced tomato the UK way.) Ah, and there was Californian wine too, I seem to recall...
Next day is mostly orientation & walking by the rocks of Pescadero, with an evening performance of Waiting For Godot at the theatre in Half Moon Bay. Mo plays Pozzo. “One day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?” It’s an amazing play for many reasons, one of them being that every part seems to have the best lines. The director has decided that this timeless allegory of alienation exactly defines the plight of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, and his set reflects this. It’s interesting, and of course all interpretations have validity, but for me there’s extraordinary power in Beckett’s evocation of the road to anywhere, and that existentialist question what are we waiting for? is compromised rather than enhanced by a realistic answer: for rescue from specific urban tragedy. That aside, a great production, with some powerful performances, notably Estragon and Pozzo.

A quieter day seemed called for after the cast party: more coastal walking along the bluffs and a little downtown mooching -oo-er that’s me on the poster in the bookshop! I'm hoping my airbag burns will be less livid by the time I perform. We're off to Morro Bay for a couple of days first...