Friday, January 29, 2010

Midsummer at Soho Theatre is billed not as a musical but "A Play With Songs". How does that work? you wonder. The answer is, brilliantly. A lyrical & erotic story of a lost weekend, a comedy of manic manners, and a mesmeric, moving, metaphor for that extraordinary process we call falling in love. Written by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre, events unfold at an exhilarating pace veering from breathless physicality to tender reflection: moving, funny, unexpected, delightful - 2 hours of theatrical magic enhanced by genius casting: Cora Bissett as the disillusioned divorce lawyer with a penchant for rom com and recklessness, and Matthew Pidgeon as the small-time crook who'd rather be busking, can melt your heart from their first words.
Which incidentally are sung:
Love will break your heart...
but sometimes you want it to...

... and like the parking machine says, change is possible. Contagious midsummer madness that sends you out into the winter night with a luminous smile.

Luke Wright's Petty Concerns turn out to be difficulties around balancing slight conceit with overweening insecurity. His hour-long solo show features 7 poems - all new - among the rapid rueful reminiscences. From the scatter-gun self-assault to the painstaking trawling through Google for disparaging comments by others, this is an ego stripped bare. More than poetry, more than stand-up, his performance has the audience rocking with laughter while showing us humanity as scathingly as Eliot's Prufrock. "The best thing I've seen since.... ever!" said my friend Roger as we left The Old Red Lion Theatre where Luke's foppish buffoon act finishes this week - catch it on tour if you can.

Another reason for my London visit was the annual-ish reunion with two writer friends, both of whom have a book launch very soon: for Christine Coleman, her new novel Paper Lanterns, and for Roger Jinkinson a biography of the Kevin Andrews, another Hellenic travel writer. Roger's Tales from a Greek Island is about to hit Greek bookshops too.
Chris was one of my Plinthathon supporters last July, so we included Trafalgar Square in our itinerary, and found the One-and-Other space now occupied by Air Chief Marshall Sir Keith Park, GCB, KBE, MC, DFC, DCL. So, the idea of breaking the monopoly of militaristic men in the heart of London has melted like a dropped lollypop in the fountains. It's a dreadful statue, too.

Current affairs corner: Christopher Reid is the surprise winner of the Costa Book of the Year for A Scattering. Asked how he planned to spend the £30,000 prize money, he said "as frivolously as I can", which is also surprising since his collection of elegies was reviewed as "understated, elliptical, glowing with restrained passion."

And finally: "Boy when you're dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has the sense to just dump me in the river or something," says Holden Caulfield. No chance of that for his creator. Newspapers this weekend bulge with images of J D Salinger, all movie-star-eyes in his youth and wild-eyed recluse in his old age, together with analyses of his works and his womanising.
The curse of immortality again...

Monday, January 25, 2010

Friday's arrival at Farncombe was in fog as thick as junket, at the mph of a hesitant hedgehog. Such is the cosseting charm of the Cotswolds Conference Centre and Chris our ebullient host that by the time the 9 members of my writing course assembled together after supper, the drive-from-hell had slipped from our agenda: from that first session till we parted on Sunday this was an outstanding group, mutually supportive as well as creatively diverse.
Some great stories were germinated, and Saturday night was an especial delight, with thought-provoking and entertaining readings varying from Nick's droll morality tales to James's 'rumble in the jungle' honeymoon blog.

Back when Kate Winslet -who played the novelist in her wayward youth- was still reading Janet & John, I was avidly devouring the novels of Iris Murdoch. The film of her life was based on her husband's insensitive memoir and consequently paid scant tribute to her luminous literary talent. To my mind, the scandalising and sentimentalising of her life story was probably the reason there was no major retrospective review of her works, and I wrote as much in The Journal of the Society of Authors. I grieved for the downgrading of her reputation from clever philosopher to barmy bag-lady. "In his book of that name", I wrote, "Milan Kundura imagines two dead writers talking about immortality. Hemingway protests bitterly to Goethe that this is no honour but a cruel sentence: Our books will probably soon stop being read. But people will never stop prying into your life. I used to think that Ernest Hemingway, with his fearful homophobia and flaky sexuality, would forever be the leading example of this ironic truth, but poor belittled ‘Iris’ has left him far behind."
The serious retrospective review hasn't happened yet, but some of her letters have been published in a collection entitled Iris Murdoch, A Writer at War, and I'm interested that editor, Peter J Conradi, writes in The Times: "Dame Iris, in life so august, remote and intensely private, was in death unwittingly reduced to two opposed stereotypes: in vulgar language, bonking (younger Iris) or bonkers (elderly Iris). If you’re American: screwing or screwy. Both sensationalisms reduced her to gross physicality, bypassing and demeaning the one thing about her that was truly remarkable – the freedom of her mind."
If you're interested, I recommend The Bell, The Nice and the Good, and A Fairly Honourable Defeat. It's not too late...

February 2002

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bath Poetry Cafe has had a worrying few weeks but the January meeting on Wednesday was able to celebrate a future now no longer precarious. This was a medley night, with a wonderful range of great readings skilfully choreographed by Sue Boyle whose passion for poetry always illuminates the room.

And this week I had the fantastic privilege of an interview for Plays International with Tom Morris, the much-admired new artistic director of Bristol Old Vic, who really is as awesome as his reputation. We met in a cafe near the theatre on a freezing morning so I greeted him from behind steamed-up glasses and dripping blood from a cut finger which decided to re-erupt, neither of which could be called a good look. But Tom was effortlessly polite and his enthusiasm for his new role and for the creative community comes across as utterly genuine. 'Our starting point is collaborative,' he says, emphasising how he's hugely excited by the 'crucible of culture' that Bristol is becoming. One example of his own contribution is Bristol Ferment, nine days of theatrical experimentation,“a forgiving environment were people can try things out and learn from performing whether an idea has legs” - which looks simply brilliant though frustratingly I'm already committed elsewhere on every night...

“It is only when the bodies start piling up that the world takes notice of Haiti” wrote Andrew Marshall in The Independent. That was back in 2000, as a sombre tribute to Jean Dominique, Haitian journalist and human rights activist, assassinated on the steps of his radio station. I'm abashed to admit I knew nothing about this charismatic champion of the powerless and campaigner for justice, until the Haiti benefit night organised by my friend Niamh included a showing of his life story. The Agronomist was made soon after his murder by Oscar award-winning Jonathan Demme who also directed The Silence of the Lambs. Jean Dominique knew his struggle was his death sentence: he believed "You cannot kill freedom, you cannot kill justice". Savagely sad and inspiring in equal measure, this is a story of a country in need of not just donations but far better treatment by the world beyond its borders.

This week's weird footnote: A reading test!
I cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in what oredr the ltteers in a word are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is that the first and last ltteer be in the r ghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it wouthit a porbelm. This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

- and a totally irrelevant image of Bristol docks on the first night of that much-welcomed thaw.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Hansel & Gretel is the quintessential tale of abandonment and child abuse. Psychologists following them into that dark forest speak of the terror of rejection and other dreads at the heart of our individual and cultural psyches but you can't have a Grimm tale at Christmas so the Kneehigh production at Bristol Old Vic gave us a much jollier version. This is a rumbustuous lederhosen yodelling romp, enlivened by song, puppet rabbits and philosophical hens, and exciting Heath-Robinson contraptions. As their parents are too ineffective to lose them successfully, the children set off into the forest themselves like Enid Blyton kids on a holiday adventure. Having dispatched the witch - who rears up like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction in a very funny protracted death scene - they head home with a picnic singing the family song Yes we are fine and we are dandy. Don't have nightmares, kids.
There's much to enjoy in this retelling, beginning before we even reach our seats with a journey through the Old Vic's underbelly dressed for the occasion with witchy decorations like eggs clamped in clawlike dangling forks. There's the live music, Carl Grosse's manic transvestite witch, Giles King who brought wonderful energy to the action as both the mother and the witch's birdlike familiar. The set, essentially a vast tower of metal riggings, seems designed to facilitate the impressive array of stage tricks rather than enhance the atmosphere of the story, and the one element that was missing was emotional engagement with the characters. To me it all belonged to a more innocent time, the era of Terry and June, tickle-sticking business from a ferret in the trousers, and the incredible inventions of Professor Branestawm. But the mostly-teenaged full house audience clearly loved it and that's what matters.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The big freeze continues and days zigzag by in forty shades of white.
Either I'm getting blasé or cabin fever has kicked in because on Monday I set off with writer friend John Payne, who's researching a quirky city guide, to walk the Bath Skyline route... through Rainbow Wood and Bushy Norword, past Sham Castle - sounds like a Rupert Bear adventure, doesn't it?
It took us nearly 3 hours to cover 6 miles. I'll skip the full list of hazards; suffice to say that tho we enjoyed it, my top tip for anyone intending to undertake this in the middle of the most snowy snap in 30 years would be: Don't.
Stourhead is still accessible, though, unless you're a duck. Snow has turned frozen lakes into fields.

Luckily, the night Debby Holt launched Recipe for Scandal at Bath Waterstones saw a brief respite, so a posse of Frome writers managed to be there to celebrate her latest novel as it swoops off on its journey from the shelves to the best-selller lists - with a rave review from Heat magazine. Good too to catch up with Sarah Duncan, whose novel Single to Rome has been nominated for the RNA 'novel of the year' award.
Debby always gives an electrifying talk at these party-style launches, mingling witty anecdote with tough tips for writers:
"Never kidnap a person and plonk them in a book without bothering to do anything with them. And never think you know what’s going to happen...
When I started this book I thought it was about something else, but when I finished I realised it was a story about how we let our pasts control our present – and sometimes we have to jettison our past. When we get older, shock horror, we don’t get any wiser."

The power of the past is an appropriate reflection, perhaps, for this time of year, and it seems to have loomed everywhere for me lately. Everything is Illuminated was filmed 5 years ago but I only caught up with it this week on DVD: Cohn-brothers-style spiky comedy and poignant historical backstory, but essentially it's a road movie: the journey of a belligerent old man and two young men with little in common but their inarticulate mutual commitment. Like all good road movies the journeys are within. "The past" Alex concludes "is always inside us, looking out."

In Your Image, the new play by Rob Benson staged at the Ustinov as a 'Script Factory' reading, replaced the Ukrainian road with a rubbish-filled flat but the abrasive relationships, the lost boys searching for answers, the old man who walked out on his life, were all there- although the debris of the past had not been so tidily collected. Rob Benson started with the idea of disposable cameras which might, or might not, hold secrets to the past, as two estranged brothers coincide at their dead father's flat to rummage through his debris in their different ways. 'Leave those pictures there,' the older brother urges, 'it isn't our past - he's not our past.'
Director Mark Powell emphasises this is still a work in progress, but there's already much to appreciate especially in the structure, which time-shifts the father's death to the second act and slowly probes the dark confusion until everything is illuminated...

This posting's unrelated endpiece: A friend introduced me to TED - a kind of cerebral youtube. Go to 'most favourited' to hear Ken Robinson explain how schools kill creativity.


Friday, January 08, 2010

Judging the Warminster Writers Circle poetry contest was great fun as prize-giving was convivially combined with their annual party, so having picked my favourites from a dozen enjoyable submissions I was free to pick at smoked salmon and sauvignon. Here's me with Meerkat and A.Paternoster, worthy winners.

It's been a good week for anyone planning to stay home and polish their new year resolutions, though less good if any of these plans involve getting the car out.
Niamh and I managed one of our walk-and-talks at Stourhead before everything writerly not in trudging distance was cancelled. No need to ask if our journeys were Really Necessary, they were impossible, as Frome like the rest of the southwest sparkled in subzero temperatures. So here, instead of a lively update on meetings and a contentious review of Hansel & Gretel, is the world according to January:

Appreciations to Rosie Jackson for her inspiring session at the Library on setting targets for 2010, here's mine - I've achieved the first already!

In 20-10 I decided to lose that lisping ‘thousand’ and give this year a name that chimes.
In 20-10 I went back to my roots, and fertilised them organically.
In 20-10 I found gems in old notebooks, and threw them away.
In 20-10 I found the path through the forest
In 20-10 I surprised myself.
In 20-10 I finished books I started, and reread Winnie the Pooh.
In 20-10 my private life was so glamorous I nearly forgot to write.
In 20-10 I found what I wanted to say, and found how to say it.

Tenuous link time: Cakes - but with writing on them! If you want to send a heartfelt message, ice it....

And finally: sugar-free congratulations to Sebastion Coe for scooping the Financial Times end of year award for mixed metaphor. Sebastian pulled out all the spades, levers, and lenses in his autobiography The Winning Mind to create “There are times when there is a need to dig deep and find another gear – while never losing sight of the bigger picture.” Thanks for the winning words, Seb.

Friday, January 01, 2010

The past is another country, but we can still look over the border once in a blue moon... and it was a full blue moon on New Year's Eve so what better way to celebrate than dancing through midnight with Sgt. Peppers Only Dart Board Band and the songs that were the soundtrack of my college days. Fast-forward a few years, and I'm interviewing Linda McCartney in the Apple Studio for a photography magazine. While we're talking I can hear someone coming down the corridor, whistling (I swear this is true) The Long And Winding Road.
Linda introduces me to the whistler as he enters. 'This is my husband', she says, adding helpfully as he shakes my hand, 'Paul.'
I still have the tape. Paul McCartney is saying, 'Hello Crysse' and I'm saying 'hhh... ahhhh....'

So as we lift this new decade from its wrapping, still box-fresh, all together now:
All you need is love,
All you need is love,
All you need is love,
Love is all you need.

At last, a splash of commonsense in an article about author copyright. Nick Inman, writing in The Author - the journal of the Society of Authors - points out to ranters against 'piracy' that the word itself is simplistic, emotive, and inaccurate. "Real pirates steal stuff: if they've got it, you haven't. Copiers do not deprive anyone of anything - they increase rather than reduce supply of the goods in question... and we make a grave error if we cannot see the difference between a lost sale and a sale that never was." He challenges the ethos of "obsessive insistence that using or enjoying must equate with owning." Not Captain Hooks, in short, but Robin Hoods: "Is it any wonder that the 'pirates' get the idea that copyright is wielded by the powerful as a means of economic protectionism? More seriously, also cultural protectionism - a deliberate attempt to restrict words and ideas to those who can pay for them."
Let's make this the decade that positive anarchy finds its voice - or at least the decade when writers take more responsibility for making the world we'd like to inhabit. More here.