Sunday, October 31, 2010

It's pumpkin time in California and Half Moon Bay is pumpkin capital. Orange polka-dotted fields, roadside stalls billowing with orange - we dine on pumkin soup and carve pumpkin lanterns for the pot-luck party. A great night of music, folk & country classics and original songs by Mo and his friends.

Lots of coastal walks too, all along the bay where the pale sand is deserted and the sea crashes in endless high waves for miles and the sky is vast and impossibly blue and everywhere seems empty except for sun and birds. And I've been with Mo and Heather down to Pescadero (where a stranded blue whale is now in the piquant stages of disintegration) and dog-walking in the pine forest, and cappuccino-sampling at Pillar Point... and a certain amount of writing. But to be honest, not much.

Footling footnote of the week: The New Yorker is bucking the American trend of attempting perfect parenting with a "Good Enough" approach. A baby never really needs to be clean enough to eat off, unless you intend to, so why not just run it through the sprinkler occasionally? Feeding on demand is hardly a good way to prepare a child for the real world, where nothing is available on demand except cable television, while reading, singing, and talking to your baby 'may actually be harmful, lengthening her attention span to the point where she will be unable to enjoy most popular entertainment.'
Clearly not all Americans have an irony deficiency.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Imagine a column of stone 400 miles long and 80 miles wide, reaching up to ten thousand feet high, hammered into a staggered zig-zag corridor by glacier ice melting ferociously, filled slowly with thousands of lofty pines and redwoods, with its own dramatic climate, unpredictable and theatrically flamboyant.... no I couldn't either. You have to visit Yosemite to appreciate it. America's first National Park, over 1000 square miles, is a unique place where like the movie says 'every dawn is a new beginning.' The movie, at the visitor's village, relates how this incredible area played a key role in conservation awareness, thanks largely to John Muir - but it's the 5-hour cycle around the valley to stare at amazing crags of rock, and the treks up to view those magnificent falls, that really show the magic of this place. Anja and Mo had booked us a yurt in Groveland, just outside the park itself, and though it was a tight fit for the 4 of us I've never camped so luxuriously before - microwave, coffee-maker, and fridge too.
Brilliant sunshine made Friday ideal for cycling up down the valley and back (our hired bikes had neither gears nor brakes, which gave an added sense of adventure...) and we chose the next day, since it was dramatically misty, to hike to the major falls and viewpoints. I took over 300 pictures and missed thousands more - if I'd stopped for every photo-opportunity I wouldn't have got far through this spectacular corridor of towering crags, massive cascades, redwood glades , sunlight on water and turning leaves, with reflections of these stunning vistas in every mirror pool.
Back now in Half Moon Bay, we're still staggered and bemused by the vastness and variations of this awesome environment. Like John Muir says: " This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Autumn continues amazingly colourful, and Saturday was another luscious day with sky still bright blue as the moon showed frail and luminous over Bristol docks just before the dazzling sun set. I'd been at the Pierian Centre for Cortijo Romero's Taster Day, offering a smidgeon of what we'll be doing in the jasmine days of next summer. A delightful and responsive group of 10 tasters joined the word-mezze, and en route home I stopped off at BOV studio for my own sampling: monologues from this year's Bristol Ferment. I wanted especially to hear Adam Peck's monologue My Bristol Vista, as I'd so much enjoyed his script for Bonnie & Clyde. This turned out to be a charming, if slightly lack-lustre, mapping of the city from his personal perspective. Mostly as factual as a visa application, with a smidgeon of emotional history, it was enlivened by slivers of dialogue from both his hometown (Leeds) and new home here. A second monologue on the same local theme, M32 Is Also A Galaxy by Timothy X Atack, was much stronger: tense, filmic, and funny, enhanced by second-person, present-tense writing. My only reservation was the abrupt That's-all-for-now-folks ending but perhaps that's because I could have listened to much more from this writer-performer.

From the Independent I learn that Ken Loach greeted news of the departure of top TV executives with a rousing "Good riddance" and recommended further pruning from the ranks. Urging those still struggling to survive in the media to 'stay hopeful, stay angry', he included this appeal: "I would like to ask those colleagues who have knelt before the Queen at some time in their lives, really, what are you doing? The woman you're kneeling before represents most of what is wrong with this country: inherited wealth, inherited privilege, the apex of the class system. Let's have a bit of dignity. Don't crawl before that woman, please."
It's 33 years since Ken Loach refused to accept an OBE. How great to know age does not wither his infinite integrity.

Next posting will be from Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco, where the weather forecast is sunny and warm.
I plan to write, walk, and write. For three weeks. Sounds like bliss....

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

French night at Macfadyen's on Tuesday was a strange and lovely event, part soiree, part living-room theatre, as Timothy Adès joined hostess Annabelle in offering poésie Française et chansons avec l'accordéon to a small group of fascinated friends. Timothy was en route to BRLSI in Bath, where next day he presented a talk and readings on The Excitement of Rhyme and Metre to the uni-verse group. Timothy translates from several languages, publishing principally his re-interpretations of French and Spanish works, and prides himself that he is a poet in his own right in that he finds metre and rhyme in English to suit the mood rather than the form of the original. He specialises too in word-play, lipograms and naughty rhyme-matching - what you are with spatula - as well as sensual love sonnets and the poetry of Resistance in the Second World War. Perhaps because it reminds me of Kavafis's Ithaca, one of my favourites was The Voyage by the beach-comber poet Lámbros Porphýras.

"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower" - Albert Camus.
Every afternoon this week we've had a Greek blue sky framing exhilerating autumnal colours - here's Stourbridge, but Longleat and Ashton Court are just as fabulous.

PG Wodehouse was my pretend uncle when I was a child so I was delighted to discover the BBC archives include a 1958 interview, from which I learned that the Jeeves stories were set in a world that definitely did exist, according to their creator. "Before the first world war, as a young man I used to know them by the score. Now of course I suppose I'm writing historical novels." On the vexed question of sex, or rather lack of it, PGW was equally clear: "When I started writing, sex was absolutely taboo so I supose one gets set in one's ways - anyway I've never felt tempted to do anything in that line." Lord Emsworth couldn't have put it better.

And finally: Oxfam research reveals that Dan Brown is now their most donated author, but has failed to achieve No. 1 in their best-seller list... Could this be that he's sold a lot of books already? It's good to know your donations go to something important in overcoming poverty and suffering, though, isn't it?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"You're kidding!" said the first person to arrive for Poetry Platter at the Merlin when a steward explained that audience seating was on the stage, now transformed bistro-style for tapas suppers and poetic entertainment. Stewards were kept busy explaining, and adding extra chairs, until the stage was filled with nearly 50 people... and responses by the end of the evening were massively positive. We had one no-show poet, so I had to step into the cockpit for lift-off, but after that we soared with Rose Flint's luscious imagery, Wayne Hill's wry wit and succinct words, Alex Lackey's 'naughty alter-ego', Dianne Penny's eloquent simplicity, and David Johnson's idiosyncratic take on having a posh accent... all so varied and all delightful.
As one participant put it: "What a pleasure. Everyone loved it... the combination of voices, the words, the warm congenial atmosphere. Serious achievement. I liked the feeling of an intimate cafe, whose walls were the theatre seats rising in the dark... Such a strong thing to be able to invent and experiment and see things work so well. Hats off to the Merlin for supporting you. Lovely food, too!" So that's a big bouquet to Claudia for the concept and an extra posy to Nikki for her irresistible platters.

Bristol-based Gonzo Moose Theatre Company is touring their new show Is That A Bolt In Your Neck? to ferociously good reviews. I caught up with it in Trowbridge, in a village-hall atmosphere that seemed ideal for the chaotic capers of this Frankenstein-inspired farce - especially when a the rhetorical question "Is it murder to take one life and give it to another" is interrupted by a cellphone from the auditorium promptly used, Who wants to be a Millionaire?-style, by the cast... or was that scripted? Hard to tell in this delightfully ludicrous tale of gothic horror and romance by three incredibly talented performers: Seamus Allen, Mark Conway and Cariad Lloyd (she'd make a great stand-up comic, if she chose, though in taking on 6 roles in this show she slightly over-estimates her versatility) and the play never falters in physical comedy or witty dialogue and even manages to pack an ethical punch: "So much knowledge, so little wisdom" marvels Anastasia as the mad scientist dies along with his monster... or does she...?? No wonder Venue gave the show five stars, I would too. I especially loved the random addition of disillusioned gargoyles.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Sometimes when the traffic to Bristol chicanes through the roadworks at zilch miles an hour in an endless ribbon and the drive from Frome takes twice as long as the play which turns out to be flat as bad prosecco, I wonder why I do it... Then I see something fantastic like Fairground Theatre Company's Bonnie and Clyde and I remember.
We have chosen to live lives less ordinary, the outlaws announce in slow unison at the start of what, it is soon clear, is their last day on the run. Less ordinary in that every simmering emotion – regret, frustration, jealousy, and love, is played out in the dreadful foreknowledge that, if not today then soon, a violent death will find them. The set, a half-derelict shack in pale cornfields, is superb both in supporting their lonely isolation and creating a childish haven, a Wendy-house where these killer children play dressing up and picnics, quarrel and fight and curl up together to sleep.
Actors Eoin Slattery and Catherine McKinnon were heartbreakingly good, brimming with bafflement at their predicament and their passions, and looking remarkably like the foyer photographs of both the real couple and the 1967 film actors. A fabulous script by Adam Peck took us to the heart of the story through succinct exchanges and lyrical monologue from Clyde as he flashes forward to the slow-motion shooting with such precision you can feel the dusty heat shimmer.
What's shown is visceral, intimate, theatrical, surreal, often beautiful, always poignant, sometimes funny, but this play engages at every level: glimpses of stifling social attitudes, and Clyde’s early idealism (Is that what we were doin’ Clyde? Bonnie wonders), and even comparisons with contemporary car-crash wannabe famous blondes but with a light touch skilful as an acupuncture needle. It's on at the Brewery till 23rd October- go see.

Another road-movie story, but I won't be reviewing A Laughing Matter at the Alma because I didn't see most of it. It wasn't the actors' fault that my coulrophobia kicked in from the opening sequence and since the suicidal mime artist stayed in costume and partial make-up throughout, my experience was mainly audial. So any attempt objective commentary would be unfair: all I can say of the script is that the journey of an 'odd couple' of anachronistic entertainers is not enough to sustain interest without characterisation, relationship, or dramatic purpose.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Like Alex Broun, playwright Tim Crouch is a generous and charismatic workshop leader. Unlike Alex, he speaks not of structure but of space. He quotes Duchamp, who believed the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. “If you write the play without allowing for spacial flow, then there’s nothing for an audience to do," Tim says. Space allows for the unintentional to be expressed. “Restrictions impose outcome. Post-rationalisation is a fantastic thing, rather than pre-rationalisation, that’s anti-creative.” Obediently taking Tim's constraints as freedom not pressure, we drew each other in five seconds without looking down, described our journey using only the vowel O, and wrote a story in 26 alphabetical words, before moving on to the dramatic form: creating a totally alliterative monologue and a duologue from three-word interjections. It was inspirational, freeing and fun. (Thanks to my partner Tom too – that’s him in the 5-second picture…)
And as an intriguing postscript to my comments on The Author in the previous post, Tim told us of an episode at the previous night's performance which was bizarrely close to the theme of his play- a bruising encounter with an audience member disturbed by the content. "The idea of the play is that we share an experience. I felt flayed alive, because she took it literally instead of just trusting it." A fascinating insight into not just the mind and heart of this outstanding writer but theatre itself and why, when it works, it's life-affirming and life-altering.

Dressing Up again... another Stage Write workshop and more delightful monologues, from tales of a preposterous fascinator to a father who wore his trilby everywhere except in the bath. Evaluations all positive, with the word 'fun' healthily featured.

And finally: ever been asked 'What sort of stuff do you write?" No longer need you grope around self-effacingly for some point of reference, for help is at hand at an impressively authoritative site called I write like... which will tell you from instant analysis which major author your style resembles. My blog, apparently, is Stephen King but my voice for fiction is more Last of the Mohicans...

Friday, October 01, 2010

A dramatic week, stylistically speaking, opening with a 10-minute play writing workshop organised by Writing Events Bath and led by charismatic young Australian Alex Broun. Alex is a prolific playwright himself and the inspiration behind Short-and-Sweet, the biggest 10-minute play festival in the world. "The greatest thrill for a playwright is to see your work performed" Alex began: true but tricky since his festival is in Sydney, though these festivals are apparently spreading across the world like creeping jenny: “My aim is to inspire you to write a play. Next step is to write a good play. You have to get on the bike and start peddling.” In three hours he had deconstructed and demystified the playwriting process with vigour and copious handout notes and we all came home hugely enthused and slightly exhausted.

Frome's own modest version of short-and-sweet drama events, Stage Write, started a new series of monologue workshops this week too. With 'dressing up' as our theme, the first session produced some fantastic writing which will find fruition in February at the Merlin.

Bristol Old Vic is currently staging Tim Crouch's play The Author which I saw a year ago at the Royal Court and wrote in my blog "The actors were chillingly good, and the questions at the heart of the piece are powerful. But I wouldn't sit through it again." Yet that's what I did, perhaps from curiosity to see why I'd felt so resistant to the 'disturbing' nature of the material' as the programme warns, adding in defence that "Tim Crouch's new play is about the harm carried out in the name of art." I'm reminded of Alex Broun's sound advice: "Never let your message or theme dominate the play – that’s didactic”. It's also deeply unpleasant, and at surface level as non-subversive as those car stickers that chide Baby On Board! as though without external control we'd all wantonly crash into (or abuse) every child in sight. It's scrupulously acted by the four performers, who are embedded among the audience in a show that's either stageless or all stage, according to how you look at it. Every now and then they ask with solicitous concern 'are you alright?'- 'is this alright?' as though allowing us to choose how much graphic description of violence and abuse we will accept in the name of boundary-breaking theatre. We stay, of course, because it's meticulously written and it's Tim Crouch, which is his point really: we consent, and come back for more, because we feel safe, but does that collusive voyeurism make the world a less safe place for everyone? Discuss, with reference to Greek and Shakespearean tragedies: did they encourage, or merely reflect and mourn, man's inhumanity to man?

Imagine a surreal game in which Jacques Tati meets Amélie in a Highland bothy. He says to her "Je vais avec mon lapin blanc", she says to him "Och the noo, me too" (actually there's only a smattering of speech throughout but that's the gist) and the consequence is they take a steam train to 1950s Edinburgh, beautifully animated in minute detail and pastel tones, and meander around having gentle adventures until like Wendy at the end of Peter Pan the girl becomes a grown-up... That's as close as I can get to describing The Illusionist, screenplay by Tati himself and now adapted and directed by Sylvain Chomet, poignantly evoking the final days of Music Hall as rock stars and television begin to take over the entertainment world. My writer friend Esme Ellis alerted me to this delightful evocation of an innocent era that's light years away from Tim Crouch's theatrical world. Or perhaps I mean dark years.

Big news for Frome Writers' Circle this month is that Rosie Finnegan's satirical comedy Back to Back, which was a Port Eliot competition winner earlier this year, has been selected by Salisbury company Bootleg for their autumn short play tour Snapshots and will also be performed Upstairs at the Lamb on November 10th & 11th as our next Nevertheless pub theatre production. Brilliant stuff Rosie.
And next week will see Poetry Platter at the Merlin: a totally new concept for performance poetry, as the stage will be transformed into an intimate restaurant so the audience can enjoy tapas while being entertained by six top-class local poets. A dramatic week indeed...

And finally: David Cameron's favourite poem is Dulce et decorum est (pro patria mori), he told an RT interviewer. "I still remember the first time I read Owen's poems and the incredible power and anger... I still find them moving when I read them again today" he quavered - I didn't hear him myself but I picture a quaver. A pity his knowledge of Latin doesn't match his enthusiasm for literature, or he might have recognised 'the old lie' when voting on the war in Iraq.