Sunday, October 30, 2011

We've had no coastal fog here in Half Moon Bay this week, which means intense blue sky and dazzling sunshine all day. The beach is a scimitar of soft sand for five miles, or a bit more if you take the cliff-top nature trail. These routes intersect at various points between the town and the port (including at El Granada sea front where I join them via the well-used pedestrian access of the big drainpipe under the highway) and after daily investigation - lasting from 2-4 hours - of every permutation, I can now confidently report they are all mind-blowingly entrancing.
The path is popular with cyclists and dog-walkers, but the beach has long stretches generally completely deserted. Near the connection points where there are car parks they suddenly become alive with clusters of picnickers or broiling with surfers, but the seabirds don't mind and nor do I.
So we've really arrived on Planet Pumpkin now it's the eve of Halloween. Every housefront is decked with ghoulies and ghosties and things that go Boo! on the lawn. Pumpkins are so franticly ubiquitous that every emporium looks like Squash Central, including the canine beauty parlour (devilish dog costumes also available for hire.) Mo and I got busy with the carving knives but our Jack o'Lantern efforts were paltry compared to the winner of the 24th Annual Pumpkin Carving Contest at Farmer John's, for which we were both inexplicably invited to join the judging panel. San Francisco skyline, complete with witch, we unanimously voted first, though I also like OCCUPY THIS! and a teeny muffin-sized squash deemed in candle-lit lettering by its carver BIG. Partying in the maize under the glimmering new moon was fun too.

Finally, since this is - ostensibly - a writer's blog, let me recommend this TED talk sent me by Keith Hart. Fascinating. I've also been intrigued by Bill Bryson's At Home which ranges far from hearth & hall, illuminating all manner of social developments including the response of the 19th Century establishment to the Chartists' London rally: viz,sending in 170,000 special constables armed with swords and muskets. Plus ├ža change...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

One of the amazing things, to someone like me more familiar with the spaghetti-snarling roads of England, is the casual way that long road trips are undertaken in California. Our weekend jaunt took us eight hours up the Redwood Highway, through the famous 'Avenue of Giants' and literally through a tree, to Arcata where Anja's daughter Kaitlyn is studying at Humboldt State University - visually thrilling all the way.
Arcata is a delightfully boho little coastal town, full of gaily painted wooden buildings dating from the 1850s when it was first established. Dress code is hippy/sporty, as if the entire population listens to the Eagles on headphones while jogging. The entire population, actually, more than doubles during termtime: of the 17,000 inhabitants, nearly 8000 are students. On Saturdays there's a Farmers Market in the Plaza - a large grass square with a statue of William McKinley, a few palm trees, a blue-grass quartet called Striped Pig Stringband and the Occupy Arcata encampment, all surrounded by fruit, veg, flower, and cookie stalls.
There's a lively cafe culture in the admirably compact town centre, but Arcata's major attraction is the wonderful wild fowl sanctuary that's actually a water treatment plant, where you can see hundreds of sea and marsh birds. We saw pelicans, sandpipers, avocets, egrets and herons - including a black crowned night heron in a tree only feet away.
Good times, with lovely people, and some great meals too... here's Mo & me snapped by Anja choosing a starter of Rumi's Lovechild from the esoteric menu of culty self-styled 'cafe at the end of the universe' Three Foods, a misnumber if not a deliberate misnomer.

So now we're back in El Granada, an even longer drive partly because we took the even-more-fabulously-scenic coast road and also became caught in a truck-fire tailback coming out of San Francisco. Since I wasn't driving, I took the opportunity to finish reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom which I'd recommend to anyone wanting insightful context to America politics and society, or just anyone who wants a really gripping read. As well as following stories of his annoying yet endearing characters, the novel offers shocking & sad truths about the depravity and inevitability of capitalism. The American experiment of self-government is statistically skewed from the outset, his narrator reflects, because it wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along with others. Nevertheless it was good to see students in the posh Uni campus up the hill have united - in principle if not in location - with the transients & campaigners in the town centre in support of the Wall Street anti-capitalist protest and plea for peace.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

This seems a strange time to be in America, with news of protest occupations of Wall Street and San Francisco - & now the rest of the world - flooding facebook... a strange time to be anywhere, maybe.
I think a lot about these things, and the news from Libya, as I pace along the five mile stretch of Half Moon Bay.
It's a great place to walk and reflect: there's usually no-one else around, apart from a few surfers down by the harbour, and the odd dog-walker.
I've walked here every day since I arrived last Friday, watching the pelicans' dipping flight and the tiny sanderlings skittering along the rim of the waves and snatching at the dark shimmering sand for molluscs. There is huge solace in this timelessness, in becoming invisible on the long shoreline as swirling sea mists drift in.
So in lieu of weighty matters I've decided to focus on a few aspects of life here in, all beginning with P.
1 Pumpkins, obviously. Half Moon Bay is the pumpkin capital of the world - it's official & on all the banners. Thousands of cars crawled the final miles of Highway One to cram the town's Pumpkin Festival last weekend, where the streets were dense with stalls selling pumpkinabilia while bands played. Best act was Farmer Mike, carving Disney faces into giant squashes with remarkable skill. Pumkins grow easily in this climate - the fields are all scattered with orange - and a pumpkin for Halloween is an Article of Faith over here.
2 Pelicans - they seem so exotic and bizarre, like small lost pterodactyls looking for another era.
3 Plinko. My great friends & generous hosts, Mo & Anja, have acquired a cat and that's his name. Apparently it's from a 'pricing game' on American TV but Plinks is clearly oblivious to that, being into physical rather than fiscal play.

4 Pharmacists - well, the one in Half Moon Bay's CVS, anyway. I had a bit of an itch in my eye, so I approached the Consultant Pharmacist counter for advice. He decided it was probably an incipient stye. "Have you got anything...?" I asked. He scoffed - really, it's the only applicable verb.
"This is America! Of course we've got something. Look, here y'are - " (it was a small tube obligingly labled STYE) " - it's vaseline. Vaseline! D'you wanna pay 11 dollars for vaseline? Do you know what vaseline does to skin? It blocks the pores. This is America, this is American capitalism! Get a hot compress, that's all you need. I dunno what it's like where you come from but this is America and it's lousy."
Always good to consult a specialist, I thought as I thanked him and scuttled away. (Oh and my eye's better now, thanks. Hot compress seems to have done the trick...) I don't have a picture of the rogue retailer himself but here's the halloween figure greeting CVS shoppers, which probably didn't improve his patriotic fervour.

5 Prosecco in the garden at sunset... since then it's been log fires before supper, but Sunday was really lovely.

6&7 Peace and privilege of being here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ustinov Studio, round the corner from Bath's more opulent and well-to-do Theatre Royal, has launched an ambitious autumn season under the guidance of new Artistic director Laurence Boswell. Promotion promises 'the most exciting period of its history... British premieres of brand new in-house productions by major European playwrights... in brand new translations commissioned by the Ustinov Studio.'
Three of these are in an extensive run till Christmas, and if the other two are as good as Iphigenia the hype is well justified. Meredith Oakes' excellent translation brings psychological sensitivity to the conventions of Goethe's Greek-influenced dramatic form, with long passages of narrative in the opening scenes, but it's well worth waiting for the slow-smouldering fuse to ignite emotional fireworks in the later scenes. Laura Rees sustained with simplicity the difficult central role of the priestess herself, requiring presentation of long speeches with minimal physicality. The four men had chunkier and more complex roles: Tom Mothersdale is outstanding as Orestes, crazed by guilt at having murdered their mother, as is Christopher Hunter's King Thoas, who cuts through this Gordian knot of blame and punishment with moving simplicity at the end. Sound design by Fergus O’Hare was eerie and exquisite. I can't wait to see this superb ensemble of actors in another production - there's The Phoenix of Madrid by Spanish writer Calderon and The Surprise of Love by Marivaux to choose from.

And now for something completely different: Midnight in Paris. I've previously only seen Owen Wilson on an aeroplane in the cumbersome one-star comedy You, Me and Dupree so was unprepared for the subtlety and charm of his performance as Gil, the wanner-be novelist transported from his problematic present-day reality into the glamour of the 1920s ex-pat literati in Paris nightly with Cinderella-like exactness as midnight strikes. Woody Allen's delightful fantasy is visually seductive and witty in both eras: it's fun celebrity-spotting in Gertrude Stein's salon and the bars where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald dance and Ernest Hemingway brags as Cole Porter plays piano. It's a homage to Paris and to nostalgia itself, a rite-of-passage story, and a perky social comedy with so much psychological layering I wanted to see it again as soon as it was over. You'll miss a treat if you don't see this movie, but at least watch this 40 second clip

And now I'm packing for California, where the forecast is 22 degrees and sunshine. I'm planning to write and walk, whatever the weather, but there'll be music and poetry there too.. and Scrabble is a certainty.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

October 8th. A hundred and twenty black balloons float in a grey London sky, one for every murderous month of the war in Afghanistan. Stop The War Coalition has organised an assembly of protest against the continuation of this war, and every other imperialist intervention. You might expect our 4-hour gathering to be sombre, but actually it was inspirational: powerful and passionate words from activists including actors, poets, musicians, students, soldiers and families of soldiers.
There were so many highlights, from the poignant 'reading of names' of 120 war victims and Mark Rylance's spine-tingling delivery of I am not yet born by Louis Macniece, to the lively crowd responses in LowKey's rap Long live Palestine and Sanasino al Yemen's poem My name is not Iraq.
It was moving to hear life-long campaigner Hetty Bower, aged 106, tell us “The wars have changed, the lies remain the same” and Joan Humphries whose grandson died in Helmand mourning the 60,000 Afghanis who've been killed too.
Some like Elvis McGonagall in his wonderful anthem Operation Undying Conflict focussed on the hideousness of war itself; others made angry comparisons between the cost of war and our 'austerity programme' - as John Hilary from War on Want put it: "We should invest that 12 million spent on war every day in hospitals, schools, and the welfare state that Cameron is ripping apart". Jeremy Corbyn was one of several who pointed out that as well as bringing poverty and drug-dealing instead of peace, peddling death and destruction has brought 'unbelievable millions' of profit to the arms companies while the weakest and poorest of our own country are asked to 'tighten our belts'.
Lies were another major theme - the pretension that these wars are about bringing democracy and stability to Afghanistan & Libya was repeatedly and powerfully exposed. Jemima Khan crisply listed the horrifying statistics about Afghanistan which combine to make it the worst place in the world to be a woman or a child now. John Pilger challenged the media take on the strikes on Libya that morning: "The media call this town a pro-Gaddafi stronghold... the people of Sirte are ‘unworthy’ victims – not worthy of thought or concern. It's like Pinter says: None of this happened. It didn’t happen even when it was happening. It didn’t matter. Total has negotiated 45% of oil trade in exchange for French involvement and this is what Cameron boasts is a ‘model’ for intervention! We are here today to represent sanity. It’s those who justify these wars who are the extremists."
And Julian Assange in a brilliant short speech insisted "Wars are the result of lies, so who are the war criminals? Not just the politicians, the journalists too. If wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth. That is the task for the media now. Go and get your truth."
Another popular rhetorical message was the one to Tony Blair from Andrew Murray “Enjoy your money. There’s not enough water in the river Jordon to wash the blood off your hands.”

George Galloway was on stridently theatrical form with a succinct reminiscence: When the soldiers went in ten years ago, Jack Straw said they’d be home by Christmas. I said, “Not ten Christmases hence!” He laughed. It’s in Hansard. He laughed and he invited his colleagues to laugh with him. Well they’re not laughing now. And the families of the hundreds who have died will never laugh again!

Tony Benn's message was simple: "This is not a protest, it is a demand. End the war in Afghanistan."
Which brought us back to the petition introduced at the start by Joe Glenton, the soldier jailed for 9 months for refusing to fight in Afghanistan, who recalled Seigfried Sassoon's words: “The war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it”. So hundreds more soldiers and thousands more civilians should not have to die in the next three years to save face for NATO, when 70% of the public, and all of the politicians if they're honest, know this war has been a failure and a ghastly mistake from the start.

So what did we achieve, apart from providing substantial overtime for the staggering number of police who greeted us at Downing Street? I'm not under any illusion that anyone in power will wring their hands and have a change of heart because of balloons in Trafalgar Square - they already know their policies are based on strategic control not humanitarian care. I just wanted to stand up and be counted with those who believe - in Jeremy Corbyn's words - War is wrong. All wars are bad wars. There's a tribal feeling of connection, despite all our diversities, and it's exhilarating to be among so many passionate people on a grey October day... and to find one of them is my brother!

Friday, October 07, 2011

"Tea on the lawn. What could be more normal than that?"
Theatre West's autumn season of new writing inspired by locational photographs under the umbrella title Picture This has opened at Alma Tavern Theatre with The Darkroom by Steve Lambert. The play's title is both literally a place where secrets on film are revealed and metaphorically the murky recesses of human minds, individually and culturally. It's 1949 and all three characters hold sinister secrets from their wartime past which will blitz the fragile semblance of calm as one by one they are relentless detonated. In fact that's the main problem: the play effectively evokes the emotional austerity of post-war England, superficially subdued but seething with unresolved trauma, but a determination to include so many dark revelations ultimately overloaded the plot with twists at the expense of character empathy. Duncan Bonner as William brought stature and gravitas to the role of the double-agent who re-enters a troubled marital relationship to stir up the past; the production was directed with sensitivity by Pameli Benham.

Countryboy's Struggle at the Merlin, devised and performed by Maxwell Golden is the most exciting theatre I've seen for a long time. Maxwell opens the show as hi-energy MC Vibe-wire, setting the scene with clever free-styling (and a chance for local poets too - Muriel Lavender and I were both immensely thrilled to find ourselves adding verisimilitude to his open-mic sequence) before introducing us to hip-hop rapper 'Countryboy' Michael. Then the journey of his struggle begins - with a wonderfully lyrical poem from the womb - taking us confidently and with amazing emotional range through childhood, teens, family disputes, and adventures in London, right up to the club night we've all been sharing from the start.
It's an extraordinary tour de force, electrifying, and very varied, individual sequences which combine into the credible story of an immensely likeable young man. Maxwell's uses postures & gestures with skillful minimalism to create Michael's life through childhood, rites of adolescent passage, family conflict, and his naive first experiences of London. He's rarely alone - we meet his teenage mates in multiple roles playing Simpsons, and his rose-tinted arrival in London is vocalised & actualised through a landscape of Big Ben, pigeons, pushers, dossers & South Bank skaters until he meets his - slightly Spaced - flatmates. Simple set and clever lighting, using Michael's own vastly magnified shadow to show his relationship with his father, combine with brilliant sound track and Maxwell Golden's mesmeric and unforgettable performance to make this a must-see show. It's touring southwest now, moving up north later. Check out tour dates and hire a charabanc for your friends!

Footling footnote of the week: ever wondered which were the officially funniest gags at the Edinburgh fringe this year? Here it comes:
3: People say "I'm taking one day at a time." So is everybody. That's how time works. (Hannibal Buress)
2: Crime in multi-storey car parks - that is wrong on so many different levels. (Tim Vine)
1: I needed a password of 8 characters so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. (Nick Helm)
Nick says his Dad is chuffed about the Dave award - it was his joke.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Clifton's charming little Redgrave Theatre has a new production of The Importance of Being Earnest with Floor to Ceiling, a new venture by two Bristol Old Vic Theatre School Graduates. It's hard to bring a new take to Oscar Wilde's well-known words - and who would want to, with such outrageous wit and social parody. Monty Till's production wisely didn't try, concentrating instead on nuances of physical exchange between the characters. There were some nice details but overall the pace didn't seem to flow as urbanely as it should, the clunky set & oddly accessorised costumes not helping, to say the least. Nevertheless an entertaining evening out, and an interesting extension from previous productions.

How social manners change... from ladies to ladettes in Life and Soul by Ian McGlynn at the Rondo, where Katie, Chloe and Amy get drunk a lot and have an increasingly crap time. Provocation is committed to 'tackling social issues with a razor-sharp sense of humour and a barely-controlled simmering rage at the state we're in today' and this one tackles binge-drinking. The two-minute mime at the start - applying make-up, drinking, puking - as Black Eyed Peas sing I got a feeling summed up this morality play about what happens if you don't get good A levels. Katy Rachel Moore was outstanding as Amy, bitchiest and also most poignant of the three.

Bristol Old Vic offered another of their excellent script-writing workshops this week, this time led by Sarah Dickenson. The focus was on style, what it is and how to achieve it, with Sarah leading discussions and exercises aimed at understanding how drama needs to "trust its own tempo, trust the audience, understand what directors and actors can do, knowing that theatre can do more than words do.”
We had to create our own Wikipedia entry too - here's mine:
Crysse led the movement that became known as ‘Provocative Elder’ and in keeping with her tag she defines her style in perversely different terms when interviewed. Her ‘transgressional’ themes and disturbingly visible subtexts have split opinions among the critics. See also meta-theatrical and neo-realism. This entry needs verification.
So what does Sarah look for in her role as Soho Theatre's senior reader? "Freshness in story telling. A play written about something. Work that has immediacy, that says something about the world we live in. Plays that make me laugh and cry and think. Just good plays, basically.”

And as this amazingly unexpected week of late summer ends, let's give thanks for glorious sunshine days of cycling and fabulous parties & meetings with family and friends...