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Mechanics’ Institutes are educational establishments, originally formed to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men…The Mechanics’ Institutes were used as ‘libraries’ for the adult working class, and provided them with an alternative pastime to gambling and drinking in pubs.

In 1823, George Birkbeck, an early pioneer of adult education, founded the then “London Mechanics’ Institute” at a meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand. Over two thousand people attended. However the idea was not universally popular and some accused Birkbeck of “scattering the seeds of evil.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birkbeck,_University_of_London

Scattering the seeds.  That belief in disseminating education to working people enabled me, almost 200 years later, to achieve my MA whilst holding down a full time day job.  Thank you, George Birkbeck.

The Review is a collection of creative writing from students past and present.  Over 90 stories were submitted this year, 21 were chosen.  In addition, there are stories from published writers Colin Grant, Jackie Kay, Adam Marek and Evie Wyld.

I started writing my story ‘Roxburgh’ years ago.  In the final version there are still references to characters smoking in pubs.  That’s how long ago it was that the idea came to me.  I’d worked on it a bit over the years, and revised it during a term of my MA.  SInce graduation, I’d forgotten all about it.  Earlier this year, out of the blue, a fellow graduate emailed me to say he’d heard something on the radio that had made him think of the story.  I was so touched that he’d remembered it, and taken the time to email, that after replying to him I looked at the story again and thought ‘s’alright, that old story’.  It happened to be the submission deadline for the Mechanics’ Institute Review, so on a whim, with no nerves and certainly no expectation, I sent it off.   It was a genuine surprise when I was told they wanted to publish it.

Then of course, the internal critic started needling.  Having sent it off without much thought, I started agonising.  It’s not a complex story, it’s formally conservative and thematically rather sentimental.  I wasn’t ashamed to attach my name to it, but it’s not one of the pieces I’m most proud of having written.  On the other hand it is funny, the dialogue is very good and it’s something of a coming-of-age for a middle aged character.  That’s relatively unusual.  The fact that it was selected for publication meant that a group of people (the editors) thought it was good.  Despite my own caveats, I think it is well written.

We were assigned an editor, and the wonderful Mary Bracht http://marybracht.com/ was mine.  It was my first experience of being edited, and it was fantastically useful.  At one point in the writing, I had vaguely toyed with the idea of ‘Roxburgh’ becoming a novel, and that shadow structure lay under the short story.  I’d almost forgotten, or certainly thought it was invisible.  Not to such a forensic editor as Mary, who charmingly and supportively suggested cuts that removed the extraneous ideas and focussed on the key characters and key relationships in the story.  Sue Tyley, a professional copy editor then went through the text for line edits.  I thought I was thorough, I thought I had a good grasp of grammar and syntax.  Perhaps I’m reasonably detailed, but being edited by a professional is awe-inspiring.  And for someone as pedantic as me, a delight.  In a short story especially, each word is important.  Sue’s focus means that every sentence has been interrogated to check for inaccuracies or inherent weakness.   The end result is as strong and as precise as it can be.

There was a launch party for the authors, editors and academic staff on Thursday 26 September.  The Review has been in existence for 10 years, so this was also a significant birthday party.  I chatted to my friend and fellow contributor Barbara Bleiman https://twitter.com/BarbaraBleiman  Her story, Indecent Acts, is an extract from her novel.  It’s very powerful, and I’m sure her search for an agent won’t be a long one.  I was told that there were two actors who would be reading extracts from two of the stories, and mine was one that had been chosen.  The terrific and charming actor Lloyd Hutchinson http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0404371/ read an extract from ‘Roxburgh’.  It was of course the first time I’d heard the story out loud.  I’d spoken it to myself as I was writing it, to get the rhythm and the dialogue right.  But this was the first time in front of an audience, and thanks to Lloyd’s perfect timing they laughed in all the right places, which was gratifyingly.  Perhaps most potent for me was the experience of hearing Roxburgh’s voice, of imagining his presence in the room.  A man speaking the words of a male character.  It was a lovely moment, and I did feel proud.  Afterwards, lots of people complimented me on the story (thanks really to Lloyd for bringing it alive) and Claire Houghton-Price, an agent from HHB Agency http://www.hhbagency.com/index.html gave me her card and said when I’d finished my novel, I should get in touch.  It’s no more than that, but it has acted as a spur to get on with finishing the novel, and with perhaps writing some more short stories.

And if you want to buy it…

This is the book version:

http://ow.ly/pjEOY

This is the Kindle edition:

http://ow.ly/pjEHj

And finally, if you want to see me read an extract, nowhere near as well as Lloyd, then come to The Harrison, 28 Harrison St, London WC1H 8JF at 7.30pm on Monday 14 October. I’d love your support.

http://writershub.co.uk/writloud-piece.php?pc=2182

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I went to see Old Times, for the first time, in 2004.  I went alone.  That is important.  I’d never been to a Pinter play before.  That too is important.  Nine years ago.  A long time.

I remember that the language captivated me, the odd and unsettling use of words.  I remember that the set was very plain, all white, open therefore to whatever interpretation you wished to place on the piece.  I remember that it made me laugh, but mostly it made me ache.  I remember that the actors became the characters, inhabited them completely.  Jeremy Northam’s artificial loucheness that gradually shatters, Helen McCrory’s sheen of sophistication that gradually slips to reveal the naked longing and vulnerability beneath, and Gina McKee’s impassivity, which suddenly, shockingly, holds all the power.  I remember I’d recently seen the film they make reference to, Carol Reed’s ‘Odd Man Out’.  I’d seen it with someone I was quietly obsessed with.  That too, at the time, was important.

Afterwards, I travelled home, alone, in silence.  I went and sat in my dark nighttime garden, and smoked, and felt as if I was still living in the world of the play.

Pinter’s pauses have become a clichéd shorthand for the way he lets the audience participate in the drama.  There is space to enter the text, to interpret.  People who don’t know his work don’t know how funny it is, or how shocking.  There is a great deal of violence in his plays, and in Old Times it is an unseen emotional violence, the struggle over possession.  Possession of another, of the story, of the power in the room.  It is terrifying, and horrifying, and nothing happens.  Just ripples.  ‘…always wait…for the ripples to pervade and pervade the surface, for of course as you know ripples on the surface indicate a shimmering in depth down through every particle of water down to the river bed…’

All these things I remember.  They may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.

I saw Old Times again, last night.  Rufus Sewell, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Anna and Lia Williams as Kate.  The performances were very accomplished, and credible.  But this director’s view of the play was completely at odds with my own.  Even the set was far more ‘real’, the colour scheme in the second, final, section far too deterministic (the colour of the characters’ clothes matched the piece of furniture they ended the play occupying). This was played like a farce.  It is farcical, in part, but there is more strangeness and terror in a minor key (not necessarily true of The Birthday Party, but true, for me, of Old Times).  This was played like a brass section, trumpeting, loud.  My first experience was played like a woodwind piece, a strange, mournful, unsettling, frightening lament.

All these things I remember.  I would like you to understand that I came here not to disrupt but to celebrate.

What cinema is for

It’s Oscar weekend.  So bloated, so self-important and earnest, so conservative (in so many ways, only one is that film awards still value male performances over female.  Each year alternating would be a really positive step.).  And yet, I pay close attention every year.  I am seduced by showbiz, and this is its apotheosis.

Not having seen the big films (I do want to see Lincoln and Argo), I’ve spent my time in cinemas this year seeing really impressive, garlanded films that are not (with the exception of one) Oscar fodder.

I saw Berberian Sound Studio in the summer of last year.  It’s a compelling and disturbing film about giallo cinema, without showing anything remotely horrific on screen.  Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is an emotionally repressed  Englishman abroad, culturally out of place and desperately homesick for his native Dorking.  He comes to work in the Berberian Sound Studio to add the post-production soundtrack to a film (never seen) called The Equestrian Vortex.   Vegetables are smashed, squashed, spliced again and again whilst women stand in the sound booth and scream on demand, over and over, blood-curdling sounds of pain and fear.  Gilderoy is fastidious and undemonstrative, when not at work he plays himself home-made soundtracks of the English countryside and reads letters from his mother detailing the family of chiff-chaffs that have nested in her garden.  As Gilderoy’s mental equilibrium tips over, I thought the letters might have written by Gilderoy himself.  That wasn’t the writer/director’s intention, but that interpretation adds to the sense of the man’s increasing dislocation from home and from his sense of self.   The most shocking moment in the film comes when all sound is turned off.  Gilderoy has become so overwhelmed by and consumed with the sounds of human torture and death that his descent into madness, which is also perhaps a kind of liberation, has to happen in silence.   If this film is about a type of cinema that is unsubtle, it inhabits that world with great subtlety.  Unusually in cinema, it is the audience’s imagination that has to provide the horror, and that is much more powerful.

Holy Motors is a riotous, confusing, funny, tragic film.  Is it about anything?  Only what you find in it, I think.  For me, it’s about identity, the various guises we all adopt throughout the day, throughout our lives.  It is about alienation and connection, where and with whom we find it.  But it is also bonkers and playful and silly, qualities not often found in cinema.  This is a film I could watch again and again, and each time I’d find something different in it.

A new Terrence Malick film is out today (I can’t wait to see it), and a film that owes a lot to his style is the Oscar nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild.  The landscape, below the New Orleans levees, looks post-apocalytic, the people living there are off the grid, practically beyond the reach of federal agencies.  When they are ‘rescued’ by the outside world they reject the intervention, and escape that sterile, confining world and return to the Bathtub, the brutal and unforgiving wilderness that gives them their freedom.  It’s not clear whether or not Wink, the father, might have been cured, or at least given longer to live, by accepting modern medicine in the hospital.  It is, in his mind, a moot point.   This is a man who ran out into the eye of Katrina firing off his shotgun, and derides people for being ‘afraid of the water like a bunch of babies’.   Perhaps what is really killing Wink is his broken heart at the loss of his daughter Hushpuppy’s mother.  A heartbreakingly funny and tender scene has an imagined recreation of his words that she was so beautiful she could light the gas stove just by walking past.   Zeitlin is like Mallick in his desire to foreground and tell his story through visual image, not to show his characters’ stories as superimposed on the landscape but as emerging from physical place.  Hushpuppy is as the place she lives: wild, indomitable and full of wonder.  The depiction of the creatures of her imagination seemed to me completely organic and in context, they are feral and enormous and powerful and incredibly gentle.  Whether or not they are ‘really real’ doesn’t matter.  They are ‘really real’ to her.   This is a hard film to watch, the lives seem so perilous and so isolated.  Who will look after Hushpuppy after Wink’s death?  How will she learn to read and write?  What if she too gets ill?  And yet, she is part of a community, a community who know what they want and how they want to live.  She has deep roots.  She will flourish.

The Sessions is only nominated for one Oscar, Helen Hunt for Best Supporting Actress.  How John Hawkes came to be overlooked as a nominee for Best Actor is a mystery.  This is a grown-up, unashamed film about sex, specifically sex with a disability.  John Hawkes is Mark O’Brien, a real-life poet and writer who since a childhood bout of polio was confined to an iron lung for all but 4 hours per day.  He’s not paralysed, but his muscles are entirely wasted and he has no mobility, apart from his neck, head and face, and his penis.  He’s 38, and a virgin.  Desperate to overcome not only his disability but also his religious and disapproving upbringing, he talks to his priest, and then employs a sex surrogate.  Helen Hunt plays her as utterly compassionate but not mawkishly sentimental.  She is entirely comfortable being naked, and naked in a way that we rarely see on camera.  Natural and unaffected (although it is a deeply sad world that makes Helen Hunt, a beautiful woman in her late 40s, think that having Botox and/or a facelift will keep her young).  Together, they allow Mark to explore his sexuality, and finally to lose his virginity.  The film is very funny and very direct, and captures the embarrassment of sex without being embarrassed.  It is, in the end, a film about self-expression, and about tenderness.

A coda: I saw The Sessions with A, who told me about her time nursing on the post-operative ward.  Patients would be on the ward, still under anaesthetic, and would need washing before returning to recovery.  A said that she loved that work.  The work would usually be done at night, the light would be low.  That the patients weren’t watching, weren’t aware of her, allowed her to concentrate without embarrassment or fear of theirs.  She said she found that liberating, and that she found the work a great privilege.  In her view, to be able to give real tenderness, one has to be experiencing intimacy.  She said she found the experience very spiritual.   Giving dignity and acknowledging beauty are some of the most important gifts we can give each other.

Walking out on Juliette

I’ve never walked out of a theatre before.  (I’ve wanted to actually only a couple of times, but a rather British politeness prevailed.)  On this occasion, I walked out on Juliette Binoche, because the production of Mademoiselle Julie in which she was starring was the worst play I’ve ever seen.

When Strindberg wrote Miss Julie at the end of the 19th century, the story of a relationship between a landowner’s daughter and her father’s servant broke class as well as sexual taboos.  Transposing the story to the present day dissipates the transgression, unless an adept writer/director can find something new to say.  Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie famously managed to capture another moment of upheaval in the world order, and the unbearably visceral South African version Mies Julie by Yael Farber had plenty to say about race in post-apartheid South Africa.

Frédéric Fisbach’s Mademoiselle Julie starring Binoche and Nicolas Bouchaud brought the story into the present day, but gave the story nothing new.  The setting is a sleek modern kitchen, and when the action begins Jean and Kristin could easily be the owners.  When Julie enters, there is little sense of separation between their two worlds, and the power play between the lovers is so muted as to be almost moot.  These are a pair for whom nothing is at risk.  Binoche and Bouchard are too old for these parts; when Jean tells Julie (a wealthy forty0something year old woman) about the beauty of the Italian lakes, and she says wistfully “I’ve never been there”, it is risible rather than poignant.  Strindberg’s Miss Julie has nothing of her own, she is her father’s possession, and John has nothing because he is a servant.  In Fisbach’s adaptation credibility is stretched to breaking point to make the audience believe that this sophisticated middle-aged woman has no means of either accessing or earning her own money, and that Jean is trapped by his own obeisance and lack of job prospects.

If a modern adaptation can no longer deal comfortably with the class and sexual transgression of the original, it could focus on Julie’s psychological disintegration.  But to do that would require a script that has depth, and a staging that has resonance.  This was a self-satisfied, flaccid affair that insulted the audience with its view that a lifestyle-magazine beautiful staging and beautiful well-known lead actress would stand in stead of any insight or passion.

Perhaps the only thing salvaged from the evening was that my admiration for Binoche’s films has not been negated, and the hope that this will be the last time I walk out on her work.

A verbatim musical about the Ipswich murders of 2006 sounded to me a bit like ‘Springtime for Hitler’ – squirmy, in bad taste, and with no artistic merit.  Fortunately London Road is none of these things.  Alecky Blythe (book and lyrics) and Adam Cork (music and lyrics) have created a piece of theatre that is innovative, funny and moving.  The verbatim script, complete with hesitations, repetitions and cliches is transformed into music that is a hymn to everyday speech.  These are people’s real lives, the poetry and the prose of it.

The murders of the women working as prostitutes in a quiet suburban town was dealt with salaciously by the tabloids and with moral hand wringing by the broadsheets.  Alecky Blythe went and talked to the local residents to ask ‘how has this affected you?’  The answers are touching, peculiar, inspiring, and chilling.  The community, angry at the portrayal of the area as a seedy red light district, rallied together and formed a residents association.  This led to a ‘London Road in bloom’ competition, a beautifully, quirkily British affair.  The residents hated the prostitution happening on their streets, they hated the men kerb crawling and accosting local women, they hated the associated drug problem, they mostly hated seeing the prostitutes themselves.  The residents have varying degrees of sympathy for the women, and the circumstances that led them to become sex workers, and the most chilling moment comes when a resident says, unapologetically, that she would like to shake Steve Wright (the murderer)’s hand for cleaning up the area.

For a liberal, London, National Theatre-going audience, this is a complicated moment.  The resident’s (literal) sang-froid feels pitiless, horrifying.  And yet, the result of these terrible murders has been a community reinvigorated, engaged as citizens, looking after each other, taking a pride in their environment.  The horror, the indifference, the hope and the the joy coexist, morality is muddied, because life is muddied and morally complex.

The residents are presented as they really, are, because these are their actual words.  They are as normal, as odd, as funny, as un-self-aware, as lonely, as inspiring, as kind, as cruel and as loving as all of us.  When their words become song, it is moving and beautiful to hear the poetry there is in prosaic, quotidian life.  The production ends with a stage filled with hanging baskets.  The English obssession with gardens garlands the hopes of the community, and perhaps also signifies a wreath-laying of sorts for the dead women.  In a small community, these things lie side by side.

 

Hockney’s landscapes at the Royal Academy was the most joyful art exhibition I have ever been to. C and I spent three and half hours there, and thought that if there was a way to measure the happiness levels of visitors at the beginning and again at the end, there must be an increase.  Plenty of reviews have said that there was simply too much in this exhibition, of varying quality, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the volume, or bored by the recurring themes.  Hockney is observing the tiny details, the subtle yet dramatic changes occurring as the seasons pass, and invites the viewer to take pleasure in stillness, in the magnitude of the tiny.

‘It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven’  E.M.Forster

Hockney does do bigness of course, both in his use of multiple canvases and his perspectives on the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.  But I think the multiplying effect shows his fascination with the one square mile, and that it is by appreciating each part that we can wonder at the magnitude.  The majority of the pieces in the exhibition are of Yorkshire, the place of his childhood, and whilst it seems odd there are no grey skies, no muted shades, his bright colour palette creates a feeling that is celebratory, riotous.  He is in his 70s, and his workrate is prodigious.  That in itself is admirable.  Perhaps there is too much.  Perhaps his eye is not what it was.  But his joyfulness and vigour are ‘ebulliant to the point of jubilation’, and jubilation is the feeling created for the viewers.

Chick Corea and Gary Burton have been playing together for 40 years, and they seem almost to be reading each other’s minds when C and I saw them at the Barbican.  I know almost nothing about jazz, so had no idea what to expect.  I might have worried I’d find it a bit boring or inaccessible.  It was neither, I was riveted by their musicianship, and lifted by the sense of fun created by these two jazz legends.  A week or so after that, C and I finished our month of ‘virtuoso eccentrics’ with Camille, also at the Barbican.  “You’re my favourite French lady,” yelled one audience member, “will you be my girlfriend?”  She is unlike anyone I’ve ever seen on stage, vital and sexual and fun.  Her voice is an instrument, she makes musical noise with it, as well as straightforwardly singing.  She is a performer as well as a singer, her set is almost like a cabaret.  She borrowed an audience member’s socks to show off her moonwalk, and did a terrific cover of Wanna Be Startin Something.  Her own songs were joyous and playful, but never twee.  Wet Boy seemed to be both sexual and maternal, and her version of Too Drunk To Fuck was filthy and funny.  She is incomparable.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is one of many to have been (thankfully) defeated by plans to stage The Master and Margarita. The interweaving strands of 1930s Moscow and the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate, magical realism and social realism coexisting in the same storylines, not to mention a naked woman flying across the night sky towards a huge, opulent and hedonistic ball hosted by Satan, make any potential staging of this novel a daunting challenge. Simon McBurney and his theatre company Complicite are known for their experimentalism and innovation, and their production at the Barbican in April was both. The stage was bare, the furniture minimal. The extraordinary lighting and laser projections did the rest. Paul Rhys as Woland and The Master was sinister as one and tragic as the other, Sinead Matthews as Margarita was fearless and committed.  Behemoth was a life-sized puppet, foul-mouthed and Liverpudlian-accented. The Variety Theatre scene used the audience, filming the first few rows and commenting on the clothes and shoes of audience members, modernising and adapting the source material.  It was an experience of ‘total theatre’, intense and compelling, and without being cowed by the source material Complicite did justice to Bulgakov’s masterpiece.  As B and I stepped out into the Barbican, B commented on how ugly a place it is.  I have mixed feelings about it, but the architecture that suggests at a utopian communality and dystopian brutalism seemed like an apt place to stage such a production.