Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that. That was the pudding. In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered - flushed, but smiling proudly - with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quarter of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top."
Dickens virtually invented the christmas idyll as we know it, and with three more sleeps to go what could be lovelier than to listen to the mellow rotund tones of Pip Utton splendidly retelling the classic story of Scrooge's sentimental epiphany? A packed audience at the Merlin enjoyed mulled wine and mass contentment as Pip, costumed like the author himself, regaled us with Dicken's famous ghost story from a red vellum volume set in glittering candlelight.

So now with snow thick all around - Coldplay couldn't have got it more wrong could they?- the end of year countdown has begun:
X-factor and Strictly finals: tick.
Lord Sugar's apprentice picked: tick.
Anti-Cowell kick-back in the charts: tick. (You have to admire the Cage contender for audacity - and value for money at twice the length of Trashmen's wordy bird.)
Flyaway holiday airport chaos: tick.
Yes, we must be nearly there. Still waiting for war is over - a long wait, with turncoat liberal MPs voting now to keep the troops in Afghanistan.
So, merry Christmas and a happy new year. Let's make it a good one, without any fear.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

So as snow crashes all our schedules and intentions until that towering sledgeload of excess and stress we call Christmas skids into the bleakness of New Year Resolutions - here's my pick of the seasonal shows:

Herding Cats at the Ustinov features the traditional office Christmas party debacle as a kind of climax but it's a dark psychological story of loneliness and interdependency despite the jolly Slade jingles. Justine (she went to the fancy-dress party as The Pantychrist, if you're wondering about the costume) is franticly work-obsessed, while her flatmate Michael is agoraphobic and spends his hours working a phone sexline as the fantasy daughter of sadist. Michael can't resist the depravity of Saddo, the most difficult person in his work life, while Justine convinces herself she's in love with the most difficult person in her work life - her boss, who inevitably rejects her. Love and Hate look the same word in the mirror, on the teeshirt Michael gives Justine, and this seems a theme at the heart of this immensely powerful play: troubling, sad, but never drab. Olivia Hallinan and Philip McGinley were totally engaging as the young people, and the simplistic set enhanced their curious isolation. But what I liked best was Lucinda Coxon's script, which boldly created Justine's most significant relationship entirely offstage through reported dialogue as she confides in her sympathetic flatmate. In fact it would have been interesting to see what would happen if the playwright had been similarly brave with Saddo, who didn't really need to be spotlit for his menacing phone calls - a dark stage with Michael curled up whispering those sleezy endearments to 'Daddy' would have been even more effective. But I'd still give it four stars - oh, it's christmas, I'll give it four and a half.

And now one for the kiddies: Peter Pan at the Merlin in Frome, an all-singing all-dancing traditional pantomime with live music and cinematic special effects. We all know the story: Peter doesn't want to be grown-up, and Wendy tries to change his mind by introducing him to grown-up things like marital bickering and demands for improved housing. Of course it's all a dark psychological allegory with irrepressible surges of erotic yearning and loss of innocence really, but that didn't bother the little girls who adored the mermaid and fairy dances and the little boys who thrilled at wicked Captain Hook. My own favourites were Tinkerbell the feisty fairy who turned exquisite cartwheels in her flight harness, and tiny Michael asking Hook if his mother really wanted him to be a pirate... And everyone loved the crocodile.

And now, as the steep streets of Frome rapidly becoming a car-free zone and children groom them for toboggan slopes, here's wishing everyone a peaceful snowy solstice, with plentiful pagan celebrations to come.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bath Christmas Market... a kindof vast outdoor stocking-filler warehouse, spread all around the abbey like brandy butter around a pudding. It throngs with near-gridlock crowds and has apparently been sprayed with gullibility dust that makes us avid to hand over notes of absurdly large denomination for small sewn, carved, and painted, gewgaws you'd normally pass to a charity shop without a pang. Great fun.
I met up with my writer/editor friend Diana Cambridge in Café Rouge too, for festive planning. And the Fromesbury Group converged at Emily's for our midwinter jolly, with our very own Nigella hostess providing mulled wine and the most decadently delicious mincepies on the planet.

Until this week I'd never heard of the great Russian producer and showman Diaghilev, called by Jean Cocteau 'Cet ogre, ce monstre sacré" and by himself a charlatan with no principles. From the Ballet Russes exhibition at the V&A, I learned that he was a catalyst and trend-maker before and between the wars - and a user and abuser of all who worked for him, including the ballet dancer Nijinsky, whose mental illness and death were allegedly caused by Diaghilev's treatment of him when their affair ended. But whatever his private life, his artistic influence on the early decades of the last century was extraordinary: Picasso, Matisse, and every great composer of the century. Diaghilev bragged he had no interest in achieving the possible, it was only the impossible that interested him, and his ground-breaking work shocked society, notably with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring which caused a riot at its premiere. Diaghilev founded his Ballet Russe when Imperialist Russia was high status in the cultural world, but he ended his life a stateless exile from Bolshevik Russia, still touring. A dazzling exhibition, informative, richly decorative, and totally absorbing.
And then on to the Finborough for a Victorian melodrama - Trilby, a sensation when first produced just before the turn of the century. This is the story of a svengali-character far worse than Diaghilev: the actual Svengali, the preditor-hypnotist who represented the anti-semetic fearfulness of the English. Like Shylock, like Dorian Gray's Lord Henry, he's a decadent dream-maker: he transforms a pretty girl into a popular singing sensation but at a terrible price... actually that's beginning to sound more like Simon Cowell than Shylock. A stonking cast, especially Rebecca Brewer's beautiful and endearing Trilby, did full justice to this revival, revealing resonances of brutality and mental cruelty that are as timeless as love itself.

Finally...Facebook has become my morning window to the world. It's an intriguing fleeting magazine of media news (how politicians voted on student fees, how police & BBC interviewers deal with a protester in a wheelchair), what my friends are celebrating, lamenting and laughing at, event invitations, esoteric videos and literary recommendations. Which is how I came across the New Yorker roundup of best poetry collections, including Don Paterson's Rain. described as showing "what heartbreakingly small difference beauty can make in the world. This is fascinating work, a poet having a brutal argument with his art in his art."
A good aim I think for a dramatist too.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Freezing fog is both beautiful and unpleasant, a combination I think shared only by the word 'syphilis' which sounds like a flower fairy while actually meaning a disgusting degenerative disease causing dementia and death. That's about ten-out-of-ten in unpleasantness, whereas freezing fog is probably only a one-to-three, depending on whether you're walking through it or trapped on the motorway in it.

A poetic week, with a double dose on Wednesday. In Bath, lunchtime readings From Around The World at the BRLSI uni-verse, compèred - for the final time after her heroic 3 year stint - by Nikki Bennett. International in a very English way, the main theme was snow and the overall mood sombre. Rose Flint's celebration of winter lifted us finally:
This is ascension time -- sing!
Let the light hold you through the ice.

And in the evening, Frome's Garden Cafe hosted the annual festive season Poetry Cafe/Merlin tie-in event, with pantomime tickets for best poem on the theme of winter flights of fancy, as picked by Nikki Bennett, going to Margie McCallum and Carola Cooper. Fourteen performers gave us some wonderful fantasies, from a witty skit on aged Boy Band reminiscences by Muriel Lavender to Phillis Higgins' touching tribute to her personal superhero Peter-Panman. And for me the most surprising flight of fancy was Wendy Miller-Williams presenting me with a gift of gorgeous glasswear, from all the team, as a farewell present for my festival involvement. Completely & utterly unexpected, and I'm deeply appreciative.

Over in Bristol, Word of Mouth promised "a night of extraordinary urban voices" with 'achingly funny' Byron Vincent introducing 'mellifluous' Shagufta K Iqbal, 'charismatic, entertaining but thought-provoking' Ben Mellor, and Kate Tempest - 'without a doubt one of the best performance poets in the country.' Who could live up to hype like that? Well, each of these did, and then some. One of the best nights of poetry I've seen anywhere in the country, achingly funny and thought-provoking too. I couldn't put it better myself so I won't even try. Byron says there'll be another Word of Mouth event at the Bristol Old Vic basement in January - can't wait.

Bath's Oh What A Performance night - yes folks, that does make 4 poetry events attended in 3 days, the kind of excess that in Ireland prompts the question "catholic or careless?" - was actually more of a music night, with the rather wonderful Golden Eggs creating richly textured arrangements of familiar carols with cello, keyboard, guitar, percussion & trumpet that were quirky enough to charm even the most jaundiced listener with an allergic reaction to the seasonal C-word. Which is usually me. They were joined by Brian Madigan, better known in his solo persona as A Band Named Brian who promised and delivered a genuine 'folkclub first': four minutes of total silence as he recreated Cage against the Machine, the anti-X-Factor chart contender. Highlight of the evening for me though was his stunning performance, with Beth Porter, of the Pogues christmas classic Fairy Tales of New York - an absolute Live Lounge cover winner.

And finally... I can't let the week go by without homage to Corrie's 50th birthday celebrations, which went with a bang as the street exploded from the cobbles up, topped by a tumbling tram, cleverly contriving the climax of all its lingering loose-end storylines: the secret-lover baby, the secret-lover bride, the secret-lover body-burier stalker, the secret child at the pub, the secret chocolates at the Kabin... all the stuff of an ordinary suburban Soap Street in fact. Corrie is unsurpassable for its huge swings from melodrama to farce - even in the hour-long live episode with several residents bundled off to the morgue, mad Mary managed like the porter in Macbeth to interject surreal comedic notes - but it packs a profound emotional punch: there's a scene between Sally and Kevin in the darkness of their kitchen when she quietly reveals the terrible truth that Molly mouthed before she died, which is as good as any television drama I've seen and very much better than most.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Possibly I set a local, if not global, record for tissue consumption over the weekend at Farncombe Estate in the frozen Cotswolds. Despite my gleaming Rudolf-nose and struggling energy, my loyal and lively creative writers provided all the pzazz necessary for a terrific course. As a group mutually supportive, as individuals all genuinely interesting wordsmiths, here's the self-styled Glorious Residue - and what's not to love about a group that claims that title? We worked from 9.30 Saturday morning till 9.30 that night, and I left them in the bar still discussing each others' work and sharing readings with the singers...

Always good to see writer friends doing well - Christine Coleman spotted her new novel Paper Lanterns in a Waterstones window display with that 21st Century accolade of success: a 3 for 2 sticker - and in the happy company of literary leviathan Colm Tóibín, hardy-perennial Nick Hornby and queen mum of lit-chicks Maeve Binchy... or you could get 3 copies of Paper Lanterns and give two of your friends a great read.

December's Frome Poetry Cafe traditionally has a panto link, and as this year's christmas show at the Merlin is Peter Pan - my all-time favourite - the theme on Wednesday 8th is Winter Flights of Fancy. 'Tis the season for audience votes but we've bucked the trend and Nikki Bennett is coming from Bath to decide who gets the prize of 4 panto tickets for the most apt poem of the night. No Tory ex-Home Office ministers welcome, whether flying on wires or sailing on ice.