Saturday, March 20, 2010

seven survey*

Having listened to his appearance on BBC Radio 4's Book Club, with James Naughtie, I've been reading Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street.

It's been a while since I experienced such a thing, but I think I've been struck by a case of Man Love. And from this (below), I think it should be easy to understand why:

Good day.

* references the Chapter Seven title of 44 Scotland Street: The Survey.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

six movements

Friday evening:

'Did I tell y' about the doctors' surgery?' asks mother.

'No', says I.

Soon after, I'm looking at this:

...And my sister and I are laughing at the very twenty-first century apology, from So So Sorry, of Spennymoor, that appeared on the local newspaper's website. (It was his kid wot dun it, apparently - burned the doctors' surgery down.) Confirming the gravitas of the blaze, mother grimly adds, 'They had to close Asda'.

On Saturday, my mother laid some flowers in the walled remembrance garden at the crematorium, in Durham. It was a bittersweet moment. She cried, I patted her back.

Later, in Durham, sister and I were on a Day-Before-Mothers-Day mission.

'Do we need wrapping paper?' I ask.

Sister locates the wrapping paper in Waterstones, swears, and re-directs us. 'Haway. Indoor market'll be cheaper.' A daughter's love, a daughter's economy.

Later still on Saturday, I recognise some things about mother's life in the small town that I'd previously undervalued. As she's describing the trials and tribulations that various friends and faces have been dealing with, I ask where she gets all of this information from. Seems that a walk through town is sufficient. People on the street. Tiny details, good for the soul.

Sunday, we went out for lunch, prior to my drive back. In the family restaurant, it seemed like tattoos were en vogue. But then I notice that many of said tattoos have that slightly blurred - stretched - quality. And I listen to how some of the fellow diners are speaking. 'More on rogue, than en vogue', I decide, admiring the line, but choosing not to share it. Wouldn't want to offend, see. Or get beaten up.

I get back to Stoke-on-Trent at around 6:45pm, and Emma gives me the lowdown on her weekend. 'I missed you', she adds. Fifteen minutes later, The Boy - returned by his Dad - steps in, throws his arms open and around me for a big hug, and says, 'We didn't win the talent show, but everyone laughed when we mixed the cat food into the rice pudding. And Miss Stokes asked who wrote our script. She wants you to help her with something, I think.'

And not to miss out on this lo-fi reunion, the cat wanders in, heads for the fireplace, and starts to bite the tulip stems.

Kettle on.

Friday, March 12, 2010

five star

Early 2010 featured far too much death and distraction for me to commit to being anything more than a punter at the second Stoke-on-Trent Pecha Kucha event. Pecha Kucha: Japanese for chit-chat. Here, taking the form of a presentation, over 20 slides/images, each given 20 seconds - total presentation time: 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

The Fat Cat Cafe Bar
, on the edge (the best bit) of Hanley, was a very good venue - its subterranea being sufficiently lounge-like and ill-lit, to foster a warm, relaxed atmosphere.

With Anna Francis' cool hosting, presentations began with local photographer, Mark Brereton, on responses to the Haitian earthquake. With this, there were related historical references to architecture and global network-based fund-raising efforts. A gentle opener.

Taking on the baton, was Nottingham-based Andy Clark, whose disarming moustache-fronted opening paved the way for a wry discussion around men's health. The timing, content and all-round intelligence of this presentation justified the rapturous response that the speaker received. Personal trials with prostate cancer were the background to what was effectively a health education message that the crowd actually wanted to listen to. Of course, self being self, I had to later daydream about the vast monies that are spent on getting such messages out, but with nothing like the appeal or flair that this self-effacing speaker achieved. Andy's happening to have the family in tow for the evening, was a warm detail that wasn't lost to me. I spotted his wife say, 'Proud of you', following his post-presentation kiss. Lip-reading, eh, whatever next.

From this, Gemma Thomas shifted us towards 'Collaboration'. Ultimately, a workish presentation, that was a little light on the trials of working in collaboration, or in partnership. Here, I have to acknowledge that whilst the desire and optimism attached to the 'Wouldn't things be better if we could all work together' sentiment, is attractive, I've known far too many collaborations and partnerships - in-depth - to know that the detail of such working arrangements, can create a lot of additional work in and of itself. A point that was oblique, here.

In discussing folk memories of the city (Stoke-on-Trent), Darren Washington (another local photographer), drew upon his own archive of images, along with spoken word recordings made around the Potteries. The pacing of this presentation, and its meandering content, was sufficient for many of the crowd to appreciate the humour in lo-fi everyday reflecting.

During a break in proceedings, throughout which local electronic musicians bITjAM provided the background music - agreeably non-disturbing, I talked with a fellow north-east exile about his recent move south, and about the university course that he's now leading.

Perhaps the most surprisingly entertaining talk came next. Anwyl Cooper-Willis, visiting from Bristol, provided a most elegant account of the grand architecture attached to the electricity sub-stations of Stoke-on-Trent. To many, this might herald a 'Y' wha'?!' response, but this was really about paying attention to and seeing the merits of those details of our everyday backdrops that we don't always see. I would fail to do justice to Anwyl and the sub-stations, were I to try to say more.

The one technical glitch of the evening occurred next. One speaker's presentation images were lost to the stomach of a laptop and so he had to stand down. I hope he returns, next time there's a Pecha Kucha event. Hearing reference to this SpeakerWhoWouldHaveBeen being from my part of the city, I was quietly excited - hoping that he was about to add a dimension to this most local of locales, that would have undermined some of my dearest prejudices. He looked like a decent sort.

From that hiccough, to Nantes, and Celine Siani-Djiakoua's reflection on the semiotics of her former home ('Where are you from?') city. In the imagery, advertising hoardings and text about the streets of Nantes, Celine discussed the traces of the city's historically pivotal role in sustaining the slave trade. Altogether, the narrative was fragmented, but such a patchwork quilt of talk was strong enough in its detail to hold interest.

And finally, they'd been spotted about the building earlier, Denim and Leather were to play 'Live!'. Stepping up to the microphone, the duo's manager, Hugo Nowhere, presented a 6-minute 40-second introduction. Recounting his boys' past tours, their achievements, and the underlying philosophy of these most fashionably unfashionable ne'er-do-wells, 'Rock is a three letter word', we all knew which S-word he was talking about. But lo, but behold. Due to their rockish excess, Denim and Leather failed to make it to the stage. Images suggested that their non-specified binges had led to unpleasantness in the toilets. The crowd were disappointed, if taken aback at such antics - on a Thursday. One suspects that they'll rock on, to make a difference at other performance events. Nowhere struck me as a man not to be trusted, though. Debauched.

By 11pm, I was back at the ranch, and settling self down for some really odd dreamsleep. I blame Hugo Nowhere.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

four tits

From recent observations, a gentle audit:

Blue - simple, pretty and common.

Great - 'Fat Blue Tit, with black belly stripe', I think to myself.

Coal - my favourite - a demure wee thing.

And now, Marsh - as we approached Doxeys Marshes, I saw the fleeting wag of a tail and proclaimed, 'Long-tailed tit' - really loud and professional, like. But on closer, quieter inspection, The Boy put me right, 'It's a Marsh Tit... (whispers) punk ass fool'.

Sunday felt like Spring, and the beginning - proper - of 2010.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

three moments

Eleven days ago.

Ahead of the recent cremation of my grandmother, I'd had a falling out with my sister - nothing more than a brief flare-up, but this was unusual - Sister and I generally get on well. Leaving the north east, prior to my return for the cremation, we'd not healed the rift. Unsatisfactory, but something that we could both live with.

On my return for said cremation, about to enter the familial home's front room, I wondered what kind of atmosphere awaited. As I move into the open doorway, Sister spotted me, suppressed an embarrassed smile and raised an eyebrow at me - a quiet 'Hello'. In response, I stick two fingers up at her and ask, 'Cup of tea?'.

That's how we don't deal with issues.

After the cremation service and an entirely pleasant afternoon, spent with relatives who I'd not seen in years, I requested a lift to the station from Sister, and she obliged. En route - a 15 minute hop, we discussed our mother, and strategies for helping mum - mam - to move on from our grandmother's death. Broadly speaking, we were as one. On reaching Durham, I stepped out of the car, took my bags and said thanks for the lift. Sister replies, 'Y' alright'. And then, as I have my hand on the door - about to shut it, she calls out, 'Oi! Git!' 'What?' I ask, leaning back in. 'Thanks for doing that today', she said, to which I nodded. 'See y' next month', and closed the door.

That's how we draw lines under issues.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

two dramas

Walking into the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, last Friday, I was reminded of the Green Room, Manchester - large glass frontage, confident contemporary air to the space, and just a hint of middle-browness.

I was there with The Professor, to see a Love and Madness production of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love.

Reviews had been mixed, and the particular hook for drawing me in was the knowledge that this was Carl Barat's first professional acting gig. Walking into the theatre space, we enter at stage level, with the cast already in position - Barat (as Eddie) sits, head bowed. On a nearby bed, Sadie Frost (as May) is curled up. Gerard McDermott (as the Old Man) is half-way up a staircase, amongst the one-tier bank of seats. A small amount of additional seating is at stage level. The capacity looks to be around 300. As the play begins, I count 23 of us and immediately make the mental note to not spend the next hour or so (it's a short play) doing arithmetic and getting distracted by the economics of such a production.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

Soon, we are immersed in the messy, alcohol-fuelled relationship of Eddie and May. There is an undertow of violent potential - with drawled cat calls and deep southern swagger the order of the pair's clashing over Eddie's time away. The motel room environment is claustrophic.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

About twenty minutes into the play, I think to myself, 'It's not entirely obvious where this is going'. By now, we've had the addition of the Old Man's third-party perspective, narrating against the main protagonists' conflict. The Old Man is drunk, and has a different kind of energy to the younger actors. The professor will later comment, that 'He held the whole thing together'. Looking at the text of the play, it would be easy to take the same view. Thus far, each of the three characters have presented the further challenge for the actors of 'doing drunk', or 'doing drinking', but they're getting by.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

Whether by design, or fluke, McDermott's Old Man makes good use of the light in the space - stepping into and out of the shadows, and at one time, resting amongst the audience.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

As the play moves on to further disrupt the Eddie-May dialogue, with Neil Sheppeck's Martin - a humble man with a romantic interest in May - entering the fray, we build to revelations surrounding the identity of the Old Man, and the conequences of this for the doomed duo. Martin, meanwhile, is a character that hardly develops - aside from deciding that he wants to get out of there.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

In all, the production was competent - unremarkable, but certainly not bad. My guessing is that some of those mixed reviews would have warded off a good degree of shot-in-the-dark footfall, and so our two dozen get to do theatre intime. Through the course of the production, I wondered at the processes that may - or may not - have been undertaken, by way of casting. I wondered about the extent to which voice coaches would have worked with the cast. And I wondered how the cast would have felt, before, during and after the play's run. The experience of playing to a packed house would surely have generated nervous energy, but might smaller audiences risk the demeanour of going through the motions. I don't know - and the answer to the question wasn't obvious from any of the performances. The one technical criticism, that I would put forward, would be regarding the use of the whole body - and movement - through the play. The Old Man gave it 120% swagger, the awkward Martin was very much a stiff character, but - especially with alcohol in the air - I found it hard to imagine that Eddie and May would have been quite as static - quite as hands-off (despite the second photograph, above), were we in the real world. But perhaps this is a detail that we can forgive, given the revelations regarding the Old Man. See how I don't spoil.

If anything, Fool for Love was drama - writ large.

And so onto Saturday, and Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill, presenting A Life in Three Acts at the Soho Theatre.

(Photo: uncredited)

As this image attests, the staging of A Life in Three Acts was quite a different affair to Fool for Love. I'd seen Bette Bourne about a decade ago, playing Quentin Crisp, in Tim Fountain's Resident Alien. From that show, I'd deduced a warmth and charm to Bourne, that instilled confidence.

The Soho Theatre - on a Saturday afternoon - was packed. Maybe 200 folk, covering a broad white-only demographic, sat down for the one and a half hour show.

Ravenhill bounces onto the stage and speaks to us, explaining that a year ago, he began to interview Bette, and that with the assistance of a transcriber, a picture researcher and a long self-editing process, he and Bette had reduced those interviews down into a stageable, digestible form. And that, as the title of the piece suggests, the life of Bette Bourne - and with that, a rich seam of social, sexual, identity and performance history - was the central subject matter. And so we welcome Bette Bourne to the stage. Aged 70, he had a quiet charisma, if not an entirely lithe physique. Refreshingly, there was an honesty to the production - the process through which it came about, and the matter of the performers have the 'script' in front of them, was there for all to hear and see. The professor later commented, 'Within 30 seconds of his being on stage, I was with him'. It also happened to be the case that within 30 seconds of his being on stage he was recalling - and self-parodyingly performing - boyhood amateur dramatics, undertaken with his mother, as his father was at war.

Of white working class stock, Bourne was one that got away - or was, perhaps, rescued by himself and by the good fortune and direction of one or two of his tutors. In a life that spanned intimate and sexual relationships with men and at least one woman, a life that saw Bourne at the fore in the Gay Rights movement, and that saw his Bloolips performance troupe play through Europe and New York, Bourne had much to unfold. Beyond the drag and the suggestion of often larger-than-life self-characterisation, there emerged a thoughtful, quieter, more comfortable-in-his-own-skin individual. Particularly insightful moments came about as he discussed his decision to leave a commune, as the drug scene therein became too much, too negative, for him. And furthermore, in discussing the early 1980s, AIDS, and those who fell to it, he portrayed an individual who was fully aware of the tragedies that he had lived through. In discussing a relationship with a woman, which came to an end as he had to explain 'I'm not straight, I'm not bi, I'm a gay man', he acknowledged that he had at times been complicit in more local tragedies. 'I hurt her', he said quietly.

But heavy and profound as much of this was, there was - is - an air to Bourne, that reminds us that life goes on, and that we should make the best effort to get the most out of life. Ravenhill's discreet interventions - moving the narrative along - was a wise production decision - a constant visual reminder of the relational quality of biography. After all, what is a biography without a reader, a listener, or anyone who cares.

If anything, A Life in Three Acts was drama - writ deep.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

one view

One week ago.

Mentally, I'd prepared. And I'd prepared. There were the words - mastered them, but moreover, there'd be the faces - taut, teary, and the small gestures - hands to hands, and further tissue comforts - these could be my undoing.

Following a potted biography of Elspeth, and a brief spiritual (biblical) line - during which I'd been observing the gorgeous leafy vistas from where I sat, I accepted the introduction of HeWhoI'dInitiallyRecoiledAt, for what he anticipated would be a more personal account of Elsie.

Slowly stepping up to the podium, taking the script from the inside pocket, I thought, 'Right, you will do this - a wobble or two is fine, but you will do this'. And, with the addition of a few unscripted lines - [marked as such] - it went something like this:

(I glance at those gathered - there is a general stoniness. My cousin proffers a smile - though I may not have seen her in a decade, her non-verbal support is invaluable. She hasn't changed much in the past decade, despite the children. I lay the script before me - a useful prompt, a steadier of nerves, a safety net.)

'[I've a friend in Staffordshire who advised me against looking at any of you who might be having a hard moment during this piece - your tears possibly being my undoing, kind of thing. Right now, I'm feeling that that friend was exactly right. So if you'll forgive me, I may be speaking to the carpet, at times.]

The few words words that I have to say come from a perspective of having seen a lot of my grandma for the first twenty two years of my life, but having seen much less of her over the past twelve years. These words were put together during a couple of long train journeys, just over a week ago, after speaking with my mum, dad, brother and sister, about qualities that typified Elsie - about who she was, and how she was - to us and for us.

As HeWhoI'dInitiallyRecoiledAt has [so elegantly] recalled, Elsie was a giant when it came to the care of my grandfather. That itself was a commitment that spoke more deeply and loudly of the kind of woman that she was, than could any words that I'd generate for you today. [That said, I'll not be put off trying.]

I think it's entirely fitting that George should be invoked, now, as I think that to a lot of us, Elsie at her best was Elsie with George not far away. And vice versa. To me, it's pleasing and romantic to imagine their being reunited somehow - catching-up - in good health and good cheer, probably sharing a late fish and chip lunch somewhere.

But not only was Elsie a chip-eating giant when it came to the care of her husband and family, for whenever the sporting moment allowed, she would describe herself as having been something of a giant on the netball court too - 'I was a goal shooter', she'd say, with an accompanying arm action and sound effect that I'm sure spoke only of sporting prowess. [And as small a detail as that may seem, it's an important one. As perverse as it may seem, upon hearing of my grandma's death, there was something oddly freeing in how I thought of her - it was like I was suddenly reminded of what a well woman - a vital woman - she'd been for the vast, vast majority of her life. No longer were my thoughts of her tied to the woman with the ailing frame who'd seen her days out at the community hospital and latterly at NineFields.] I mention the netball - we used to catch-up on various sporting matters, but as has been said already, her real passion was family and friends. That was the subject that generated the easiest and most energised talk. From my catching-up with the old bird, over the past decade or so, I'd like to share a few thoughts:

(From practicing, I knew this would be the toughest 'wall' within my piece.)

(A pause, a long pause. I can't look at the family. For a moment, I wonder whether my mum is fidgeting and about to suggest that I throw the towel in on this. That thought produces sufficient resistance to that idea, to nudge me on - slowly.)

[This, for me, is the hardest part of the speech.]

My grandma saw my brother, Mac,...


[In my head, right now, there's all kinds of violin music and... I don't know what.]

She saw my brother, Mac, for exactly what he is... he is big and bluff, and he was superb at entertaining an ailing elderly woman. Elsie would often remark on how he made her laugh. This was of immense importance, in ensuring that she would retain a kind of dignity and humanity, especially in recent years, as her body began to fail her. It was much the same sort of thing that she'd assured for George, through his final days.

Of my mum and dad, and Richard and Jean, she almost didn't have the words to express how glad she was of all of your love and all-round support - which I know came in many forms, could be tremendously taxing, but was always given over without hesitation. I can recall, quite vividly, our sitting in the front room at Roseberry View, and her mention of 'They're good to me' - and I know that she felt the understatement of those words. [I also remember her once whispering - not even so much to me, but more as a thinking out loud, 'I want them to know that' - the kind of line that stays with you, stayed with me. I know you know all this, but I don't think it does any harm to have it mentioned out loud.]

When it came to my sister, Amy, there was something quite broad that was communicated. Simply put, it was happiness - she seemed to be quietly impressed and amused, as she recounted the latest from my sister's time in Sunderland and Newcastle. That amounted to a definite pride in the independence - it produced the kind of glow that I'd earlier witnessed in her commentaries on Jayne (Elsie's second granddaughter - died 1998, aged 24).

And that pride thing is important - the thing that enabled her to walk tall and stand tall - that never left her. (Holds photograph aloft) It was captured perfectly in this photograph from Daisy (eldest grand-child) and Tom's wedding - here on the left, the well turned-out woman, standing tall. [I like this picture, too, for the fact that it has George in it.] [The photograph is also testament to the fact that, with age, Tom's hair improves.]

And finally, I'd just like to share one further object with you. (Holds aloft small knitted doll - niece who created it scrunches face in embarrassment.) [Bianca has no reason to look embarrassed - as with the photograph, it's not about the object, it's about what it represents.] I know that this doll was created by Bianca, and was given to Elsie as a gift. I know this, because during the last couple of visits that I made to my grandma, despite her having little strength or energy to talk, she let me know who made this, and how much she appreicated it. More broadly, this reminds me - reminds us - that my grandma really did appreciate those acts of thoughtfulness and kindness that came her way - whether [flowers from her sister, Joan,] a knitted doll, or the old-skool good neighbourliness of her neighbour, Diane, in Church Hamlet. I notice that Diane is here, today, and I'd just like to say that not only was your support valued by Elsie, but it was also a big comfort to many of our family, knowing that you were looking out for my grandma. So, thank you, Diane.

With that, before we end the service with the imminent closing of the curtain, and outplay music, I will state something that is entirely obvious. We're here today, to say a final farewell to - and to give thanks for, and to, Elsie - a proud woman, a woman of good humour, and a woman who deeply weeply appreciated family and friends. Amen.'

(I raise my head, glance over at the coffin, and on cue, the curtains close and the music plays.)

As I step down, HeWhoI'dInitiallyRecoiledAt shakes my hand and pays a compliment.

I join the procession exiting the crematorium, alongside one of my cousin's children. There is a fervent tap on my shoulder. I turn to see the outstretched hand of Richard, my grandmother's son. I put my hand into his, and he says 'Excellent, absolutely excellent'. That meant a lot.