31 March 2005

To Pyrenees then, with the McGill sorority. Both very accomplished writers and great company, so a good evening guaranteed. The Chocolate Factory is growing on me, though I wish it wasn't quite so close to my beloved Southwark. I worry they're hoovering up some of the SP's business.
It was the first preview of David Greig's play so I shouldn't have been surprised, but it was a baggy affair, and I was disappointed. I've liked DG's stuff since One Way Street and Airport in the mid 90s. I was living in Edinburgh at the time and he let me join the Traverse writers' group, a grace I repaid him by spending the meetings in shy silence. The premise is simple enough - "Man" loses memory in medical emergency in mountains, and we meet him trying to piece himself back together aided by a consular official. The writing is as ever droll and insightful but also ever so slightly cruel, which is no bad thing. What lost me was the languid pacing, and the lack of forward movement. I felt sometimes there was a farce in there trying to get out but DG wanted to write a piece of "slow theatre" and that idea won through. I don't want to give things away (there are reviews of the Glasgow run on the web if you want more of an idea of the story), so enough.
To say I preferred his earlier, snappier stuff would be as misguided and annoying, surely, as the commonplace about Woody Allen, you know the one, about how he's not done anything good since his early, funny stuff. Because with people like DG and WA, you never know what's round the corner.

I think it was Kate Bassett sitting in front of me scribbling away. I did briefly try to sneak a look at the notes (only the once, and I'm sorry Kate) but nothing doing.

29 March 2005

Why We Fight

Before I forget, here's a link to a page about the extraordinary doc last week on BBC4 about American militarism.

Bloggus Interruptus

So I'd written a little post about doing the bar at Southwark on Saturday and how the show, Wilde Tales, had set off a bout of nostalgia for my first co-script, a Dorian Gray that went to Edinburgh in 1989. About meeting Nick Caldecott and Amy Rosenthal at the library last week, and Nick not having aged since playing Lord Henry. And about Rupert Wickham, Shuna Snow and Al "The Pub Landlord" Murray all being in it (AM was one of the rotating cast of butlers) . But I hit the Publish button and the piece disappeared into the cybervortex. How frustrating.

Working on the other Portrait today, the one of the artist as a young man. I have to write something about how I might adapt it. Then to the Chocolate Factory in the evening to see Pyrenees by David Greig.

26 March 2005

Good Friday

Went yesterday to the "Solemn Commemoration of the Lord's Passion" at Westminster Cathedral. A sell-out crowd, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor on the mike. As I was not as early as I'd hoped to be, I had to stand at the back, for two hours. But it was well worth it.

I hadn't been to a Good Friday service for such a long time, and I was expecting something completely different - The Stations of the Cross, where the priests go from one station to another doing readings, a station being a representation (painting or relief) of an episode from the passion story. Eg "Jesus Is Condemned To Death", "Veronica Wipes The Face Of Jesus" etc.
Yesterday was a revelation, and when I got home I dug out my old copy of Wilde's De Profundis,
and this quote I half-remembered:

...the ultimate survival of the Greek chorus, lost elsewhere to art, is to be found in the servitor answering the priest at Mass.

Except, this being an extraordinary Mass, the scenario is more complex. For the crucial and dramatic reading from John's gospel, three priests downstage took the speaking parts of Jesus, the Procurator Pilate, the High Priest and so on. But they delivered them in plainsong, rendering them formally and augustly beautiful. The choir of men and boys, way way above, gave voice to the crowd calling for J's crucifixion (in settings by Byrd*). In this way were set out the formal elements of a fifth-century tragedy, with protagonists played by three actors, the chorus not merely commenting from on high but taking part in the action.

(*other composers heard during the service were Bruckner, Poulenc and Pablo Casals.)

I'd finished the Exorcist screenplay the day before and so the sight of all the statuary hooded in purple gave me goosebumps. When the cardinal came to within feet of me, took off his mitre and accepted the crucifix with an air of determination and sorrow, I was very, very moved. The mood in this vast cathedral was as at a funeral for a friend. Except of course for the smartarse behind me, who whispered and giggled to his female companion. His words were inaudible, but his leery tweedy wrinkled face and mocking, darting eyes (think John Carey's raffish younger brother) spoke volumes: triumphant delight at his touristic infiltration of this ridiculous charade. Look at the credulous Catholics, how serious they all are! I told him off, told him to have more respect. He tried to patronise me into retreat and it nearly worked, but I saw his companion (trendy glasses, dark red lippie) was horrified, aware they were in the wrong. So I persisted, told him he was behaving like a child, and he was stumped. The whispering stopped. I know it seems terribly prissy of me, but you'd've had to've been there, among the concentrated devotion of so many people of all ages, races, nations and classes, all cheek by jowl, to see just how out of order he was. I somehow doubt he'd dare do the same in the Regent's Park mosque.

Thinking over the episode later, I was reminded of Seinfeld's, "When did I become a shusher? I used to be a shushee."

Antidotal to all that, The Two Ronnies Sketchbook last night was a treat. More please, Auntie Beeb! And Doctor Who's just started... (taping it). They should increase the licence fee.

23 March 2005

Salon Afrique

A memorable time was had by me, Georgina and Mackay when we took sprogs to the South Bank. The main event was a visit to the Hayward's amazing Africa Remix show http://www.africaremix.org.uk/.
Very high on the wow factor, it's a collection of contemporary work from all over the continent. Almost every piece is beautiful and provocative and strange. Some of it made me gasp in awe.
A highlight was a handdrawn blueprint of a Nuclear Telephone from Hell, as designed by aliens. Trust me on this. It's uniquely frightening. Luckily, Spike was asleep, I'm not sure if Nora or Arthur got a look at it. Hope not.
(there I go again protecting the kids. who am I now, Esther Rantzen?)
Meanwhile the theme extends to the ballroom (or so B likes to call it) of the Festival Hall. It's kitted out with patterned and colourful wallhangings, rugs, etc to suggest a sort of African lounging area. A huge display of food and drink in garish and stylish packaging and bottles on enormous shelving. Cutting edge music videos on tvs dotted around. G and Mck loved it, and they've spent time in Namibia and Zimbabwe respectively, so had some expectations. The kids had a riot, but then they always do. A further pleasure was that Melissa Collier dropped in to see us, on her way to the Actors' Centre. Since we last worked together she's played the lead in Elshera (2004) , a film by Damian Wood that's done very well on the festival circuit, winning at the Palm Springs one, with M nominated for best actress.

On our way to town in the morning, Spike and I struggled into the buggy space on the 106 bus to Finsbury Park to catch the tube. I'd've walked but it was raining. Anyway, I got chatting with the lady who'd made room for us. She was dressed in the full monty Islamic dress, so I could only see her eyes. I learned her boy's name, Uzair. What's it mean? I asked. "Don't know!" she laughed. "It's the name of one of our prophets, anyway... " And mid-chat with me, she was calling out to an Asian guy at the back, and his family. "Did you bring the camera??" says she. "What's the point anyway, if we can't see your face!" he shoots back, kidding. She bursts out laughing, eyes flashing. To still my ill-disguised perplexity, she explained. "These are friends of ours from South Africa. They're here for ten days. I'm taking them to the London Eye. This is their first time ever on public transport. They're loving it. They can't believe how everybody mixes here. Things are bad over there. They're allowed to ride buses and so on with the white people, there's no law against it anymore, but it's just not what people do, they don't mix with each other."

This eve, B and I watched Manhattan for the first time in many years. We relished the one-liners, as ever, but now we're a bit more grown up it was more involving, more affecting.
I'd forgotten about the Wallace Shawn cameo. To think, he wrote The Designated Mourner, had this brilliant part as the genius who opened up Diane Keaton sexually, and played the godfather of all Ferengi, my favourite Star Trek aliens. What a guy.

22 March 2005

Crise de blog

A good day at the office. The reading I've been doing about the Mary cult is chiming in with the action of the play. I don't want to jinx myself but I think I'm on to something. Play has a new working title:
The Empress of Hell.

But I'm uncertain as to how much to put down here. It's a conundrum, those of you active in the blogosphere might agree, when sitting down to write a new post: how much to say? Self-editing is an odd business. With the play, do I post a full synopsis of the unfinished piece and invite comment? Do I put up a couple of scenes? What if people hate them? Best to keep completely shtum? And as regards people - whom to name? Will they feel uncomfortable? Should I use initials? Will they feel left out if I don't mention that great conversation we had? Will they care... does anyone care? Is anyone there?
A procedure I suppose is to determine to write for oneself and the people who've let you know they're reading.
Blimey, I'm sorry about this. To write about the writing is, I fear, to be heading up one's own blogosphincter. Mea culpa, and I'll desist. (I wonder if there's a recognised blogo-syndrome, Fear of the Fifteenth Post. The blog gets a nose-bleed.)

Talking of which, B and I finished watching the 3rd season of 24 last night. We're ever so slightly suffering from adrenalin comedown.

A couple of bargains: a CD of John Adams' Grand Pianola Music, and a Dover Thrift Edition of In Praise of Folly by Erasmus (£2).

20 March 2005

Vernal Equinox, and "Midwinter"

Nature notes from our neck of the Hackney woods. On Friday morning I was settling down on a bench by our communal ornamental pond to read the irresistible article on rats in the LRB. The sun was gentle and the birds were singing. I'd barely read a paragraph before I heard them. Rutting amphibians. There they were, gangbanging away mid rolling hillocks of spawn. Neighbour Rachel came out to get me to sign a petition, and being herself an outdoorsy sort (I'm a card-carrying townie) confirmed they were toads.

See how vile they are.

It's not the sex I object to, in point of fact some hours later I witnessed another riotous reproductive assembly, this time in the park pond, that was stirring and life-affirming. On a log, six or seven terrapins or whatever they are were basking, and the couple nearer to the fence, drunk on the sunshine, were doing what comes naturally. Four teenage boys came riding by and stopped to look, and their leader said, "Oh, man...They's humpin' man..."
A perfect pause, while we all gawped.
Then the boy said, "Yeah man, they is gettin busy."

And yes, on Friday night I went to Soho to see Midwinter by Zinnie Harris. I'm a glutton for punishment, clearly. Postapocalypse, dystopian, horrific. And there's a scene where a child is beaten up. Oy vey. Comparisons with the other two shockers I've seen recently would obviously be odious, as ZH is barking up a different tree. Or is she? I suppose Mercury Fur was as much about what happens to loyalty and social bonds in extremis, the picking apart of the ties that bind, as anything else. And Midwinter seems to be about all those things too, as well as the flux of relationships and the ravages of time. The play, though, as lived on Friday night, was for me a puzzlingly distant thing, like there was a forcefield up. It may be the actors had lost something as they came to the home straight of the run. It may be I'm prickly about the violence and children thing. It may be I'm trying to write my own war play. I just don't know.


18 March 2005


I done me best when I was let.

16 March 2005

An away game

This feels incredibly daring. I'm posting from a terminal in Humanities 2 at the British Library. Now that I've discovered "Internet Resources", how the hell am I supposed to get any work done? Install a snooker table, why don't they. Could be worse though - all email is verboten.
The Marian worship is going fine, thanks for asking.


Nearing the end of Ellmann's biography of Joyce. Makes for melancholy reading, what with the near-blindness, the fights with Nora, the tragic decline of Lucia's mind. But there's also the enigma of the young Beckett, Joyce playing Bloom to his Dedalus.

What to read next? Recent purchases (apart from catechisms) are two of William Peter Blatty's
Exorcist screenplays, two by Whit Stillman, and Oswald's Tale by Norman Mailer. These were all bargains, by the way, the screenplays from Judd Books, the Mailer from Skoob.

In the playground today, kicked around with B and Helen and Georgina. Our Spike and H's Hannah commandeered wee Arthur's bike and joyrode in a frenzy, before coming to a stop at the edge of the sandpit... There was a dramatic pause, just like in the movies, before they toppled over the handlebars and into the sand in a tangle of limbs and blonde hair. No children were harmed during the making of this entry.

B's brother Toby stopped by, on his way to his flat from Stansted. He mostly lives in Tallinn, Estonia, so it was a rare pleasure. Spike went into hyperdrive, such was his delight, and had to crash for a nap.

Tomorrow, Marian worship (in the play, that is). And reading up about the IRA during WW2.

14 March 2005

Svieta has one for the road.

As you can see, I looked after the bar at Southwark Playhouse on Saturday night. Just like old times. Svetlana came to see the play, The Biggleswades by Torben Betts. She really liked it, as did I, though I saw only the first half. Must read the rest.

TB's friend Johnnie Lyne-Pirkis was in. He was cross about some of the reviews for The Lunatic Queen, though I expect he was mollified to read Kate Kellaway in the next morning's Observer: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,6903,1436341,00.html

Gareth Machin, the SP's artistic director, was duty manager and we shot the breeze upstairs during the second half. Turns out he's a Liverpool supporter. Ah well. All those brains, looks, suavity, and he's hooked on that football club. It breaks your heart. Quit now, Gareth, before it's too late.

12 March 2005

Stanley and the Virgin

At the Library caff, I sat opposite a whitebearded fella (I later learned his name, Stanley), tucking into a mountainous lunch. I had on me three Indie review sections, due to a newsagent's error, and offered him one. He accepted with theatrical reluctance, and we fell into conversation. I agreed it was often thin stuff, but bore with it for the theatre reviews. No, no, he said wearily. They're always too late. Prefer the Guardian, they're out the day after more often than not. "Have you seen Don Carlos?" No, can't really afford the West End. "Oh, well, these critics, I don't understand it. They go crazy over Derek Jacobi screeching his head off. It's a terribly good play, saw a young company do it in modern dress years ago, and they carried you along, but this, I know he's a very talented director but it was all so... You couldn't see why people said the things they did. And the lighting!"
Stanley had not a bad word, however, about Pedro the Great Pretender. He'd like to do a thesis comparing the trio, Pedro, Hamlet and another meta-theatrical thing, by Corneille I think it was. I mentioned the Ion I did at the Gate a couple of years ago, hoping he'd seen it. Alas no, but he did see Jude Law play the lead in David Lan's version. How was he in the part? I asked.
Another mouthful of cake and custard as he reminisced, then a wry smile. "He was pretty. And he knew his lines."

Later, a field trip to Westminster Cathedral. Shopped for catechisms in what can only be described as the megastore, and couldn't resist a £5.50 figurine of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (She's sitting on my desk looking all serene as she plants her weight on the neck of a serpent.)
Quizzed the bookseller about Latin missals. They're out of stock. Feeling all rebellious for a moment, I was tempted to ask her to look up Marina Warner's Alone Of All Her Sex, but thought better of it.

Wandered into the cathedral itself. Such a beautiful place, in the truest sense, especially with vespers starting up in the background. I lit a candle for Dad, then went and sat in the Lady Chapel, stood when they stood, sat when they sat, and let the music and the ritual wash over me.

10 March 2005

Joyce's Voice's Very Noice

Stumbled into the John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library today. Utterly free, utterly stunning. You can get to London? You like books, you say? Do yourself a favour.
I'd been in before and ogled at Shakespeare's signature - at least they say it is, and who are we to disagree - this time I had a hankering for anything Joycean, as he is my current squeeze.

And there he was. Behind a case, an open notebook in his spidery hand, a beautifully ga-ga confection of scratchings and musings and wordplay, all at odd angles, overlapping each other. The card tells you they're notes for Finnegans Wake. Again, we'll have to take that on trust.

But more, more. There's a selection of recordings from the National Sound Archive, so you put the headphones on, and press the wee button, and Jim reads to you from Ulysses. How brilliant is that?

He rolls his "r"s, was my first thought. Joyce might have had fun with that observation.
The sound he makes is overall melodious, mocking, tender and rumbunctious. He sounds like he's enjoying himself. He's self-conscious (a rare thing in 1924 to be asked to recite into a recorder) and at the same time self-possessed.

He reads from the Aeolus chapter (don't ask me what number it is). There's a lot about empire and culture and Mosaic law. But it's funny. It's the way he tells 'em.

Also by the way, in the Library foyer, there's an exhibition of letters, books, playbills etc all to do with that other Irish reprobate, Oscar Wilde. I especially liked the little notes Wilde wrote from home on headed notepaper, and the copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray inscribed to his wife.

08 March 2005

My Son The Googlewhack

Yes, Spike's a googlewhack, if you put him in apostrophes.
One in however many million.

Mercury Fur was a terrific buzz, but left a nasty taste. The world of the play is brilliantly well realised (more dystopian horror), and the reckless bravado of the choices Philip Ridley makes in his language to create that world is exhilarating. You also had the sense of being at an event, which is always pleasurable. People hopped up on prepub write-ups had fight-or-flight mechanisms on yellow alert. Me included.
Talking of flight, before the play goes up the frontofhouse person informs you with barely disguised glee that the play will last two hours without an interval (the most horrific part of the evening for R...) and that should you wish to leave for any reason, you must do so by this curtained exit here (necessitating a stroll across the stage). When the time came, and the more squeamish, or more discerning, or more in need of an early night punters came tumbling down across the space, trailing winter coats and godknows what else, the play's energy suffered rapid decompression.
There was much in the play to suggest a powerfully present righteous anger at the drift of geopolitics toward resource wars fought by the rich for the rich, and that socio-cultural collapse is their baleful companion. It was ever thus, of course, and cultures bounce back from war, but PR is clearly worried that technological "advances" will superinflate the collapses and render them permanent. All that is laudable and interesting.
What I can't get over - and here I cringe to realise I put myself in the bracket lambasted in the Observer by the blindingly clever and lovely Miranda Sawyer - is the use of a child actor, of about 13 years, as the object of nightmarish threats and abuse on stage. The character dies from an accumulation of physical and psychological stresses, and he dies onstage, moments before he is due to be disembowelled by a sadist. For all that I'm absolutely sure that the cast and director and PR himself will have done everything possible to reassure the boy, keep him alert to the fact that it's all play, all a story, and a story with the keenest moral intentions - for all that, I was still disturbed - by the fiction, yes, but separately by the worry of how this play was being processed in that boy's imagination. We can't yet know, can we, that it's caused him no harm?

Gosh, controversy.

The new title for the blog is from Ulysses, by the way. I had to change it after shamefacedly realising just how bloody common the "Writer's Blog" witticism is on the internet. I should be ashamed and I am. But hey, I'm a greenhorn in these here parts. I hope this appears on Google soon, as it'd be easier to direct people. Not that I've given anyone the address yet, but I might soon.

No news from Radio 4, blast it.

Looked at Apprentice yesterday and made some key decisions. Have Spike today but the delayed spring offensive starts tonight.

02 March 2005

In Like A Lion...

Out Like A Lamb. A saying about March, and though I'd never heard it before, the Lion bit seems about right. Freezing swirling sleet, slate-grey sky, everybody sick.
Today was supposed to be the start of my spring offensive - redrafting The Apprentice, after leaving it to stew since September, when I had to jump ship to write The Visitation for Radio 4. Best laid plans. After picking up Spike from playgroup at lunch-time, I took to my bed and didn't surface till 5.30, headachey and nauseous, and worried I've got this stomach bug that's on the rampage.
next morning...
Surfaced refreshed after further nine hours, crashed early after a distinctly odd evening, feeling buggy and stoned. Graham from upstairs knocked at 11 to give us the news - It's A Boy.
So today, looking at Apprentice, and tonight, going to see Mercury Fur at the Choc Factory with R and her sister H the film critic...
This represents a sea-change from the life I've led the last couple of years, the life of an isolated depressive. As Dr.Melfi says, and I paraphrase, with today's pharmaceuticals, no one need suffer unnecessarily. Of course, I know people do suffer ill-effects from these little helpers. And some. But they're working for me, right now, so praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.