Connected to Cove Park

This time next month, all being well, I shall be in Edinburgh experiencing the Festival.  It’s (almost) shaming to admit that while I’ve visited the city many times, this will be my first visit to the Festival.  Well, my first visit apart from a family trip to the Tattoo in the 1970s.

In an uncharacteristic moment of precision, I tried to work out which year that must have been.  I was quite young, it wasn’t long after we’d moved to Scotland, and there were formation motorcycle riders performing amongst all the military bands and dog displays.  And then I remembered that knowing what the seating plan for the Tattoo on the Castle Esplanade looked like help me decipher a significant clue in a TV adventure programme I was glued to, well before the protagonists worked it out.  So if I could find out when the programme was broadcast, I’d know when I’d been.

If only I could remember the name of the show.  This launched me into one of those google searches that against all the odds brought me to the right answer.  It went along the lines of ‘it had that actress in it who was in that other thing in the 1980s about meeting the man who jilted her at the altar years before.  Wasn’t he in Jesus Christ Superstar in the West End?   Her name was Jan something…..?’

It worked. The Long Chase (starring Jan Francis,who subsequently appeared in Just Good Friends with Paul Nicholas in the 1980s) was first broadcast in 1972.  So I saw the Tattoo sometime before then.  (I even found an online discussion thread petitioning for the issue of The Long Chase on DVD.  Interestingly, no-one, me included, seems to recall whether it was in colour or black and white…..)

Anyway, all of this is just preamble to illustrate how long overdue it is for me to visit the Edinburgh Festival.  and even though it’s still a month away, I am already aware of the risk of over gorging on it.  There is so much, largely because it is not one thing, but several combined, and there is a temptation to want to try a little bit of each.  One mercy is that as I am not a fan of comedy I am able to ignore a significant proportion of the Fringe(!).

This week the thing that has been exciting me at the prospect of all the things I am going to see, is that I have noticed pre publicity for works from people I have met during one of my sojourns at Cove Park.  One of the founding ideas of Cove Park is to have a mixture of artistic disciplines there, to allow people from different backgrounds and with different objectives to take time out, watch the weather and the light change on the surface of the loch and the hills beyond, to meet and to exchange ideas and inspirations.

I’ve been very fortunate in the people I have met there.  Many of them were novelists and poets, but I’ve also met visual artists and actors there.  I don’t know them well, but have shared a late night drink in front of the roaring fire in the bar at the Knockderry House Hotel, tartan carpet and all, and heard about their projects when they were in the very early stages of thinking and development.  I am therefore full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing them come to fruition as part of the Festival.

Adura Onashile  is performing her one woman show HeLa  inspired by the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were used, without her permission as raw material for some of the most significant  medical research in the last century.  I met Adura as she was doing the first research for the project, so in a very tiny way I feel like I was there at the beginning, so have to see it come to fruition.

Brody Condon was on a preliminary visit for a joint project with Christine Borland and was using Cove Park as an accommodation base when I met him.  I’m not sure at that time that they had a very well formulated idea of what the nature of their project would be, other than they would be doing it jointly; so I’m really interested to see what they developed together, especially as it sounds as if it will be installed in an unusual venue.

Who knew I was so well connected?

Thatcher Years

The last 24 hours has seen blanket news coverage of the death yesterday of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman Prime Minister and one of its longest serving.  Winner of three General Elections, her name has been attached to a monetarist economic theory, as well used as a chant of derision in demonstrations and protest.  She was a controversial figure in her lifetime and the recent comments and debates show that she still manages to excite both admiration and loathing in equal measure.

My views fall somewhere in the middle.  Mrs Thatcher was elected in 1979, in the first election in which I was old enough to participate.  I remember voting, and it feeling both quite exciting and a bit anti climactic, but have no memory of for whom I made my mark.  Watching the news clippings of the major events of her premiership, of the 1980s I see the background to my early adulthood, and it seems both like ancient history as well as not much longer ago than the day before yesterday.

While those who have popped up on the screens spouting paeans of praise for her greatness and leadership, have set my teeth on edge, the embittered ones who opposed her and lost, and are still eager to say something disobliging, were even less interesting.

If I never see that clip of film of her on her first arrival at No 10 in 1979 reciting the quotation from St Francis of Assisi again, it will be too soon, but not every policy she followed was bad; and while she may have been the clear leader, making the most of the power of the role of Prime Minister, she won a majority in three elections – someone was voting for her party and not for the other ones.  Everyone who was active during that decade contributed to the unfolding events through either co-operation or opposition, be it the trade unions or the barrow boys in the City.

Much of what has been shown has highlighted the divisiveness of the time, but it was one of great change; and many of those changes were retained by subsequent governments, even those from the opposite side of the debate.  The comments that I have found most interesting are the more nuanced ones: she was good at this, and horrible about that.  She got this right, but misjudged that.  She retained loyalty for these periods and then alienated everyone for that.  She clearly got grander and grander as the years past, and probably served for too long; her ‘we have become a grandmother’ comment being particularly unfortunate, and perhaps a signal that her political end couldn’t be far off.

I felt sad when I heard the news, largely I think, because her death represents the passing of a large segment of my life, and makes me doubly aware of the passage of time.  But I think it’s unlikely I’ll watch her funeral.

Coincidentally, I have recently read Damian Barr’s memoir of growing up in the west of Scotland during the 1980s ‘Maggie and Me‘ in which he describes, as a child,  being both inspired and appalled by Margaret Thatcher in equal measure.  (A review of the book will follow in due course….)

‘Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?’ by Jeanette Winterson

In ‘Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?’ published in 2011, Jeanette Winterson revisits the same territory she mined for her first 2013-03-18 08.12.37novel, ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’, 25 years ago.  For this book though, she says she has written something more truthful, without some of the lighter moments in the earlier one, because  ‘Oranges…’ was the story she could live with at the time.  Now, as an older, perhaps wiser author, she can write both more of the harshness of her childhood, but she can also view some of the people in it with more sympathy.

Adopted as a baby Jeanette Winterson was raised in a strict, eccentric, Pentecostal household in Accrington, north of Manchester in the 1960s and 70s.  Her mother, referred to throughout as Mrs Winterson, was a larger than life enthusiast for stories of the Apocalypse and the many roads to eternal damnation, who repeatedly told the child Jeanette that the Devil had led them to the wrong crib at the orphanage, and kept a gun in the duster drawer and the bullets in a tin of Pledge.

It’s a vivid story, and I can remember many of the scenes from reading ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’ not long after it was published, or it might be that I am recalling the snippets from the BBC TV dramatisation of it, when Geraldine McEwan portrayed the monstrous, but not altogether unsympathetic mother.

In ‘Why be Happy when You Can be Normal?’ Jeanette Winterson is now also able to be more sympathetic to the older woman, whom she recognises as larger than the life she had to occupy, and trapped by it, and that Jeanette herself  may not have been the most suitable child for her, echoing the image of ‘the wrong crib’.  Having said that, the portrait of Mrs Winterson is of a powerfully unhappy woman, who was generally mean to everyone around her; a person who could say the line ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’ when Jeanette, as a teenager, told her that being in love with a girl made her happy.

This is not a conventional autobiography, as although it might look like one for the first half, as soon as the young Jeanette reaches Oxford, the story stops, and jumps forward at least 20 years, to the almost contemporary telling of the author’s decision to try to locate her birth mother.  There were moments in the description of this arduous process that brought tears to my eyes, even though I was sitting perched, waiting, in a bus stop on a dark, chilly evening.  There were also passages where I became very impatient with her; with tales of lost loves and tempestuous relationships, she tells us that she has never received any love, and has been a perpetual outsider, while to my eye it looked like she had received a great deal of love, but had not known what to do with it.

Towards the very end of the book, though, she does seem to have come around to this realisation herself; perhaps encouraged by insights gained through her relationship with the psychologist Susie Orbach.  Orbach’s influence may also account for some of the psychologically analytical passages the author includes in the latter chapters of the book.

I think you can see that this is an honest attempt by Winterson to understand her life and her experiences and their effect on her character and view of the world, exposing even unflattering things about herself, and yet, given the loyalty of her friends and the history of her relationships, she is clearly a more likeable person that the construct she had created in this book.

‘Old Times’ at the Harold Pinter Theatre

IMG00723-20130116-1809My one key piece of advice for going to see ‘Old Times’, Harold Pinter’s 1970s enigmatic three hander, is to sit behind someone small.  I didn’t; I was behind Man Mountain, and even though I am significantly taller than average, even when seated, because there is insufficient rake on the seating even in the not-at-all-cheap seats,  I had a somewhat restricted view of the stage.

I think that mattered because, although there are only three people on stage, they were rarely physically close, and spent most of the play at opposite sides of the stage from each other, and I could never see all of them at the same time.  So where, as in all Pinter plays, there were the weighty silences and glances shared or avoided, I missed much of the interplay of action and reaction.

The play, ostensibly, is about a married couple being visited by an old friend of the wife’s.  During the visit they reminisce about old times, and the husband and friend compete for the attention of the wife, a battle which may or may not be a replaying of something that might or might not have happened 20 years before.

At the end we’re left with no clear idea of what we have watched.  Are the two women different aspects of the same person?  Are they all alive, or is it all an argument going in on one of the protagonist’s head?  Or is it something else altogether?

I think it’s up to each of us to decide what we think.  For some people that will mean that they leave the theatre dissatisfied, asking each other ‘what the hell was that all about then?’, others will say that it’s an examination of the tricks memory can play, that each person’s recollection is as unreliable as the next, and while there may be overlap, none of it may be true.

The cast of Kristen Scott Thomas, Rufus Sewell and Lia Williams will surely guarantee that this show does well, but I do wonder how many in the audience, will, like me, wonder if they really understood what it was that they were watching, other than a masterclass of non sequitors and brilliant enunciation and word play.  There is too much time spent looking at impassive characters to feel engaged on anything other than a superficial intellectual level for me to feel that I had enjoyed a properly engaging evening at the theatre.

One speech, setting out the idea that recollections of the past are created in the telling, and that the act of  telling could make something happen, that had not actually occurred, is perhaps the closest I can come to understanding a theme of the play; that a story told with enough belief and conviction can become a sort of reality.  But I’m not sure that recalling this as a great play will necessarily make it so.

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty at Sadlers Wells

After famously reworking Swan Lake and The Nutcracker ballet’s based on Tchaikovsky’s scores, Matthew Bourne has produced a new work inspired by the music for Sleeping Beauty.  On the Wednesday after New Year, the matinée performance at Sadlers Wells was a magnet for dance loving families and the audience was filled with little girls in Alice bands and short, cross your heart cardigans.

Fortunately, we had a child with us, so I felt no shame in asking for a reminder of the traditional story.  Is there really nothing more to it than a baby is cursed, she grows up, pricks her finger, falls asleep for ages, and is woken up by a kiss from a prince who hacks his way through the wild wood to find her?  It’s not that much of a romance, if the hero only turns up in the last act, is it?

I have a very vague memory of being taken to an open air performance of the ballet by my French pen friend’s mother when I made my first visit to France when I was about 14.  It was somewhere near the Louvre, and was the Ballet of the Opera do Paris, and the little bit that I remember is that we were a long way from the stage so the performers were tiny distant shapes.  Towards the end, synchronised with a fantastically thunderous drum rhythm, a male dancer leapt across the stage like  scarlet lightening, his legs split straight out beneath him, his arms driving him forward; again and again he jumped and flew, each time the bass drum sounded.

It may not sound like much of a memory, and it may not even be accurate, but it was the first time I had seen ballet on the stage, and something about the visceral feel of the drum and the colour streaking across the stage has stayed with me.

You can see then, that I approached the show without much of an idea of what to expect.  Once again, Bourne has altered the story to fit his purpose, so there is a cheeky baby, portrayed by a puppet which crawls across the floor and climbs the curtains, and generally dominates whenever she is on stage, there is romance for Aurora before she is sent to sleep by the prick from a rose’s thorn, indeed there were rivals for her affections: the dramatically dashing, but evil son of the bad fairy, and the rather awkward gardener from her father’s estate; there’s some vampire action, some dancing on a moving pavement and a generally gothic look to the whole thing, as well as a few things I didn’t understand at all.

Sometimes, with Bourne productions I have seen, I feel there is too much miming and walking about on the stage, where a quick bit of dialogue could get the show moving along quicker to the next bit of dancing.  That would not be a complaint I would level at Sleeping Beauty, which included plenty of spinning, jumping and twirling; I especially enjoyed the section where Aurora is asleep but dancing floppily, held up by her partner none the less, and, when he fails to rouse her, the bad suitor, bored by her, pushes her away and she rolls across the stage.

The set and costumes were very beautiful, and there is a plenty to be amused by, but, when it got to that section of the music that I recall across the decades, the choreography didn’t inspire in me that same wonder I had experienced as a teenager; and I felt curiously disappointed.

Now I’ve read some newspaper reviews of the show I know there are some jokes, especially in the naming of some of the characters, which I missed because I’m too mean to buy a programme in the belief that performances should speak for themselves.

Taken as a Christmas show, it had the fun costumes and pantomime theatricality, but I think with ballet generally, I do come away feeling that I’ve missed something.

On a Circular Roll

IMG_2911Not obviously photogenic circular things have been attracting my attention over the last couple of days.

This weekend, a friend brought a box of tea cakes to our writing group, and immediately we were thrown back on memories of childhood.  For those of you not familiar with a Tunnock’s Tea Cake, they are a biscuit topped with s sort of soft white marshmallow all covered in a thing layer of chocolate.  They are manufactured in a factory on the outskirts of Glasgow somewhere, and they are an intrinsic part of nostalgic memories for many Scots.

There is absolutely nothing nutritious about them, and they disappear in your mouth as soon as you take the first bite.  But there is something delicious about the first taste, while at the same time a box of six might be just a bit too much to eat alone.  The fact that they are wrapped in silver paper is important too; the unwrapping is a vital part of the ritual.  It wouldn’t be the same if someone else had unwrapped them first.

 I suspect they will last forever, so I’ve put them to the top of the cupboard in the hope that I won’t be tempted to eat them all at once.

Another Old Shirt

I’ve spent the last couple of evenings going through old photos, and loading some of them onto my laptop so that I can use them in a couple of gifts I am contemplating making for the end of the year.  While I already knew I had lots of photographs, mainly because in the recent past I’ve always seemed to be moving the albums and boxes from one place to another, actually looking through the pages brought the message home very forcefully.

Because I had a particular purpose in mind, I tried not to spend too much time letting my mind meander around in all the memories that were unearthed; all those odd little incidents, the people with whom only a few hours were spent, but who live on in the stories I’ve told of my trips, but it was hard to keep focussed.

The clothes are a talking point in themselves.  We’re all wearing the same waterproof jackets and trousers in most of the hundreds of shots of the Lake District where, for a period of about 10 years I used to spend a week walking every May with a group of friends, so I’ve no idea which year was which; and some t-shirts and dresses seem to have lasted for several years worth of warm trips in the late 1990s.

This one in particular made me laugh out loud, even when I wasn’t looking at my hair.  It was taken in 1996 near the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu where we had sought refuge from the hoards of people visiting the main site.  I’ve still got that shirt.  In fact I still wear it quite often to my drawing classes.  I knew I’d had it a long time, but I would never had said ‘at least 16 years’ if you’d asked me; but here is the proof.  I guess you could call it a good buy.

It brought this Mary Chapin Carpenter song to mind; the story of a life lived through the memory of all the places one old shirt had been, and all the things for which it had been used.

‘Hurry Up and Wait’ by Isabel Ashdown

Sometimes when I read a book, something about a description of a person or a place will set me off thinking about something not really connected to the book in hand, and it can take a little while for the author to reel me back in.  I don’t think it’s a negative reaction; it usually happens because of the accuracy of description and the picture painted in my mind’s eye.

This happened to me recently when I was reading Isabel Ashdown’s Hurry Up and Wait.  I enjoyed the novel, which is the story of a girl’s coming of age in the 1980s, of the intricacies of evolving friendships, first love and Saturday jobs.  Many of the reviews I’ve read have commented on the accuracy of the description of being a teenager in that era, of the music and the magazines and make-up;  regrettably I can’t comment on that, as I was a teenager in the 70s, but the emotional truth of the relationships could apply equally to my era as to the decade after.

There is the pain of first love, and the awfulness of the girl who steals your boyfriend, and the growing awareness that the hip and trendy one might not be as good as he looks; and the self consciousness of knowing that your home life is different to everyone else’s.

But in spite of my enjoyment of the main narrative, of the protagonist Sarah’s memories of her adolescence as she returns to her old school for a reunion,  it was one of the peripheral adult characters that set me off thinking on a tangent of my own.  It’s Jason, the father of Sarah’s friend Kate: in just a few sentences, the description of his insistence that the girls call him by his first name, his way of dressing, his familiarity with pop music, and I’d pegged him.  Add to that the irritated tiredness of his wife, Kate’s mother, and I’d already painted in a whole scenario.

Jason is a man who fancies himself as perpetually young; one who has failed to realise that it’s better to mature, and as a result may prove himself to be toxic to all those around him, because there’s only so far it’s possible for them to tolerate the irresponsible Peter Pan.  He could much more likely to be Dorian Gray.

I don’t want to spoil it, so I won’t let on whether my prejudices were justified or not; but it is a mark of how much my sympathies were with Sarah that I worried for her when she went round to Kate’s house for the evening.

I’d be fascinated to know if anyone else had the same reaction to this engaging novel.

Lost in the Grampians

After touring my way through the wine areas of South Australia, largely in the rain, I arrived in Halls Gap in the Grampians in late August 1997.  Tired of staying in hotels and B&Bs, after my stay in a little cottage in Burra, I’d discovered the world of the off season holiday chalet rental market, so I searched out a little holiday village on the edge of town and decided to stay for a couple of days.

I remember the place, largely because I remember getting lost in the woods on a walk; but what I didn’t recall until I reread my journal was just how much I enjoyed playing house for a few days.  I elected to stay longer than I originally planned and, rather than continue my progress east, I opted to do day trips out from my cosy little base, deciding that driving out and back each day was worth it to be able to enjoy having the time to unpack my bags, do some laundry and even iron it, and cook for myself in some approximation of ‘normality’.

I’ve told the story of getting lost a few times in the intervening years, and it was quite surprising to see how calmly I recorded the events in the diary, as the memory is quite an unsettling one, so comprehensively had I lost my way.  It was quite a foolish thing to do, to set off into the woods on my own without a proper map, but the officer in the National Park centre had told me that the route shown on the leaflet she sold me was easy to follow on clearly defined paths.

Both of these things were true, but only for the first 2/3rds of the route, which is about where I lost track of the path.  Or maybe it was before then, because by the time I noticed, crossing over a messy river, through a stretch of mud and tried to turn back, I couldn’t find the path then either.

It took me nearly four hours of scrambling hither and thither to finally find a path – I was seriously starting to think about what kind of place I should look for to spend the night – i did have some food, water, waterproof trousers and jacket, but it was not a pleasant thought given the amount of wildlife both large and small that seemed to be about.

I’d even started shouting ‘help’, when I thought I’d heard voices in the distance.  On the path I managed to get back to the road and then  I walked the 5km back to the car trying to sing to myself to keep me going, walking along the white lines in the middle of the road to give me some point of reference in the dark.

It’s funny that I didn’t record the thing about the story that always makes people laugh when I tell it, which is that I found the path only after noticing that the sun was setting and following that direction, but only after having stopped dead for a few moments wondering if the sun sets in the west in the southern hemisphere and working out from first principals that it does.

When I got home I couldn’t believe what a mess I was – covered in mud from all the full length falls down the wet hillsides; hands and knees scratched and bruised.  Fortunately no marks on my face.  Everything, even the rucksack has been in the washing machine today.

The next day, I hobbled around and had a quiet time.  Well and truly chastened, I think.

Adelaide’s Lament

My arrival in Adelaide, in August 1997, after the train journey from Alice Springs was inauspicious.  After dry. crisp weather in the desert, it was dreary and wet when I emerged from the railway station in the early morning.  And, as taxis were scarce and hard to find, for the fist time on the trip, I had to properly test whether or not I really could carry my luggage by myself.  I could, but it didn’t stop me feeling rather damp and miserable.

Based on recommendations from the tourist information, I went to a place called the Brecknock Hotel, the first time I experienced the Australian tendency to call pubs ‘hotels’. It was so unprepossessing and the landlord so spectacularly grumpy and bad tempered that I decided to stay, if only to gather some good stories; and it was cheap.

It was very Irish too, featuring a surfeit of amplified fiddle music late into the night.  I wasn’t that fussed about the breakfast either: self service where it was impossible to simultaneously obtain both boiling water  and make toast without tripping the fuse.  My fellow guests were uniformly rather ugly middle aged men, but fortunately I had taken a book with me, so I didn’t have to look at any of them.

Each day of my journal during my stay in the city begins with ‘not that great a day today‘.  I toured the city and went out to the beach, but it was all too much like trying to find something to do at the English seaside on a rainy Wednesday, fighting the wind and wiping condensation from any windows.

I went book shopping, and inspired by a flyer the shop put in the carrier bag, I saw a play ‘Gulls’ at the Playhouse Theatre at the Festival Centre.  I noted its similarity to the National Theatre in London, in that it wasn’t immediately obvious where the door was.  The only thing I recorded about the evening was: Play not good.  One idea stretched too thin.  One note performances.  I think the lead might be in a Soap I’ve never seen.  Now, I remember the theatre, but sadly, not the play.

It was during this period that I started noting the programmes that I was catching on television; mostly British made things which because of my time in Moscow, I’d not actually heard of.  My memory is that I started following something which was on of a Sunday evening, and then made attempts to stay in places with a TV on Sundays!

I toured the Barossa valley in a small group, on the basis that if I didn’t have to drive, then I wouldn’t have to worry about how much wine I drank along the way.  Subsequently, when I had picked up another hire car, I visited place in the Clare and McLaren valleys on my own, having a chat, tasting what was available and, to be polite, buying a bottle, which I threw in the back of the car.  As the days progressed, the more clattering noises came from the back seat when I went over bumps in the road.

Things picked up as soon as I left Adelaide.  My first overnight stop was in Burra, where I rented a converted miner’s cottage, 20, Paxton Square, for a couple of nights.  My journal records my current delight; I am disproportionately pleased that I have the facilities to cook my own supper, sit in front of a fire and a private bathroom, all for A$25 per night.

I discovered a hitherto unknown interest in industrial history, which is very close to the surface in that part of South Australia.  Burra was a   town built by the miners who were encouraged to emigrate from mining areas in the UK.  Cornish men built their cottages in the style with which they were familiar, as did those from Wales, so there are little bits of home in the otherwise remote and alien place.

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