Simple – A Photo

Early one morning after a deep fall of snow at Wellspring House, Ashfield, before I’d even put the coffee machine on, I opened the door to check the depth of snow outside.  The sun was so bright it was difficult to believe that it had appeared so quickly after such a major storm.

I don’t know which animal made the tracks, but they’re tiny and delicate indentations, as if a fairy had danced across the surface.

As soon as the first person left the house the traces were obliterated.

Long Legs in the Winter Sun

It’s probably a reflection of the rarity of bright sunshine in London in the winter months that I noticed how very long my shadow was on the station platform.  The sun was very low in a brilliant blue sky, and I spent the interlude waiting for my train moving around to observe the effect of my shadow bending up the side of the ugly shelter, across the tracks and intersecting with the shadows of my fellow passengers.  Needless to say I garnered some funny looks too.

The image immediately conjured a memory of reading Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster when I was a child.  The part of the book that has stuck in my mind was the fleeting image the heroine caught of her unknown benefactor, a shadow in a corridor with disproportionately elongated limbs, her re-imagining of what he must be like, and my satisfaction in knowing, when his identity was revealed at the climax of the book, that I had not been fooled by all the misleading clues in the story into believing the same thing as the protagonist.

To write this, I’ve had a quick look online for other people’s comments on the book, and it seems that I’ve not retained the ‘big themes’ in the book about women’s education and the righting of social inequality, and may be alone in recalling the image of the misleadingly attenuated shadow so vividly. But then, each of us remembers something slightly different from every experience.

The last time I thought about Daddy Long Legs was when I read the revelation about Sayuri’s benefactor in Memoirs of a Geisha  by Arthur Golden, because, I think, of a glancing similarity in the relationship between the mystery supporter and the innocent protagonist.  But now I’ve written that down, it looks like quite a controversial comparison to make, and potentially puts me in the same camp as those who criticised Daddy Long Legs for its anti-feminist paternalism, in which I don’t really belong: it’s a book for children about a girl receiving an education, with a dollop of romance at the end.

Meanwhile, maybe there’s a PhD somewhere in the role of the mystery benefactor and the subjugation of women in 20th Century American literature…….

Braving ‘The Storm That Battered Scotland’

The moment of calm after crossing the Lammermuir

The weather forecast predicted high winds for the day; but then they’d been predicting windy weather most days over the Christmas period, so we thought it would be like all the others, blowy and wet, and set off for the drive south with sandwiches and waterproofs in easy reach.

Perhaps I should have thought more about it when we saw rubbish skips in the middle of the road at the first set of traffic lights, or when we passed a tree fallen across the road bringing park railings with it, or when I felt the car pull away from my control, but the sky was blue, the sun so bright I needed my sunglasses, and the road ahead was free from traffic.

We were about 30 miles south of Edinburgh on the A1 when we were passed by a fire engine with its lights on, and I made the stupid remark ‘I hope that’s not heading for a road blocking incident’.

We came upon the police car parked diagonally across the carriageway a couple of miles further on.  A lorry had been blown over.  E, my passenger, got out of the car to ask the policeman if there was a diversionary route we could take.  I watched as she was buffeted across the road, unable to stand still while talking to the cop as they wobbled backwards and forwards in an awkward dance against the wind.

‘Go back, or go across to the other road south’ was the basic instruction, and what should have been a journey along the length of the A1 straight to London turned into a cross country adventure.

Maybe we should have turned back, but I suppose sometimes we overlook the power of nature, after all we live in a temperate climate…..don’t we?

On the smaller roads the power of the wind became immediately more evident.  Branches and debris littered the tarmac and in some places trees had been partially cleared to allow passage of one car at a time.  One way we were turned back by the team attempting to clear a large fall on the road, and then along another road we waited while a tractor opened a path for us.  I became uncomfortably aware of the trees bending and swaying on the wooded sections of the roads.

‘We will see it coming, if one’s going to fall on us, won’t we?’ E asked as I accelerated through a wood lined area.

By then it had become clear that our options were limited, and now probably excluded going back, so we carried on, finding an alternate route when another one was blocked.

This led us to the road across the Lammermuir Hills; a winding single track road across the top of the landscape used by Walter Scott as a backdrop for ‘The Bride of Lammermuir’.  The winter sun was so bright and so low in the sky that it was often hard to see where we were going, but at least the denuded hillsides were free from trees, and we had no company apart from the sheep.  As the area grew wilder and more remote, I had moments of worry that we were lost, but when the sun wasn’t directly in my eyes it was to my right, reassuring me that wherever we were going it was south.

I wish now I’d stopped to take photos it was so beautiful, but my focus was so much on the journey I didn’t.

Back on our intended route after our 90 minute diversion, we listened on the radio to the litany of road and rail closure due to the storm; our A1 blockage falling disappointingly low down on the list of those causing maximum disruption, realising we may have been a bit cavalier to ignore the risks presented by gusts of 100 miles per hour, from the ‘worst storm to hit Scotland for 13 years’, and by then, carefully evaluating the wobbling and straining of any lorry we saw, to assess the level of risk before passing it.

Happy New Year!

May 2012 be a good year and bring many new and exciting experiences….. inspiration, good health and the company of great friends and family.

360 and Still Counting

With unexpected numerical neatness, this is my 360th post since I began this blogging adventure at the beginning of 2011.  This count includes something every day, apart from one, since 5 January.  That’s quite a surprising statistic, even if I say so myself.

None of the posts contains anything very significant, sometimes a bit of a rant, a few reviews of theatre, films and books, random photos from long ago holidays; it probably builds up to a picture of vague impressions of my idiosyncratic engagement with the world.  That’s part of the point of it, when I come to think about it for a moment.  If I thought any of the posts had to bear the weight of saying something specific, relevant or deep, then I think I might have been paralysed, my fingers hovering uncertainly over the keyboard.  Knowing that if today’s isn’t great, there’ll be another one tomorrow, has afforded me an unexpected freedom from worrying unduly about any individual element.

Although my original commitment was to write the blog for a year, I have decided to continue, although how this continuation will manifest is something I’m still thinking about.  I have decided that I will experiment with the way the thing looks, so sometime soon you may arrive here and wonder at the change in appearance, but I’m ready for a change, to see if that generates something new.  In the meantime I will continue to gently amble along with the random ideas that life throws in my path.  Do let me know what you think.

In the meantime, thank you for sharing this experiment with me and giving me your tremendous feedback and extra ideas.  Discovering that there are readers out there has been one of the greatest surprises of all.

Stand-Up Comedy – Will It Ever Make Me Laugh?

Before Christmas I watched a two part Imagine programme about Stand-Up comedy.  Now, those of you who know me may wonder why I would spend any time on comedy, as I generally don’t find it amusing.  But that is the very reason why I did watch.

The majority of orchestrated comedy, stand-up and sit-com, usually has a broadly negative impact on me; not only does it rarely make me laugh, it actively irritates me.  But I have witnessed, on many occasions, in cinemas, theatres, and other people’s sitting rooms, that other people do find such things funny, are even attracted by reviews that mention rolling around in the aisle or crying with helpless laughter.

Usually when I say that I don’t like comedy, my interlocutor will tell me that I must try this or that show, performer or act, because they are ‘really funny’.  I nod and smile ‘Oh really?’ just to be polite.

It is such a question of personal taste, and yet, the fact that some performers attract large crowds and make lots of money, interests me.  It’s unlikely to make me crack a smile, but it is nevertheless a cultural phenomenon that I’d like to understand better.

Watching the Imagine shows was, however, a surprisingly gloomy experience: talking heads, popular stand up comedians seriously analysing what it is they think they’re doing, how they calculate the content and performance of their shows, and how long it has taken them to develop their particular shtick.  Interspersed with the interviews were filmed extracts from their shows, presumably illustrating the points they had just made; all of them uniformly, to my eye and ear, entirely unfunny.  I can see that some of them are clever, but there was nothing in it to make me laugh.  It seemed such a shame that they put in so much effort to so little effect on me.

There were however many parallels between the way the comics described how they generated their material and their stage persona to what any writer takes into account in their own work; to take small details of life and to exaggerate, to riff, to change, to improve and then to deliver it in their own individual authentic voice.  A couple commented that early in their careers they had been told their material was clever but that they had not found yet the right voice in which to deliver it.

I’m still puzzling about why I am so put off by stand-up comedy.  Some of it is the shoutiness of so many of them, and the pausing for effect, the craven begging that they be found funny, the laughing at their own jokes, the ‘trying so hard’-ness of it all.

I do however quite enjoy the silly panel shows that are often on television, where the quick witted repartee does amuse me.  Yet it is often the same performers who are on these shows, who, on their own doing the ‘Hello, Swansea’ type shows, will always make me operate the off switch on the TV and radio.

So if there is a joke, I’m still not in on it.

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes – A Hidden Inheritance’ by Edmund de Waal

I came to this book by a somewhat circuitous route; I saw Edmund de Waal speak about his approach to making pots in the BBC series on the history of British pottery earlier this year, and searched online to find a little more about him, fascinated by his neat appearance and fastidious mannerisms.  I found an article about the book, and realised somewhat slowly that this was the book that lots of people had recommended to me, but which I had been behind the times in taking up.

It was a delicious read, ‘part treasure hunt, part family sage’, as it is described in one of the review quotes on the back cover.

On his Great Uncle Iggie’s death, Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of 264 small wood and ivory carvings, Japanese netsuke.  When he saw the interest inspired in his listeners when he recounted the story of the collection, how it had been passed through several generations of the extended wealthy Ephrussi family, de Waal decided to write a book about it.  The researching in Belle Epoche Paris, in Imperial Vienna, Nazi Austria, and post war Tokyo, took him longer and deeper than he had ever anticipated, and in the book we are presented with the dual narrative of family history as well as that of the searching to find it.

As de Waal is a potter, he is interested in the texture and arrangement of things, so he uses the netsuke and the collection’s travels and physical environment to illustrate and bring the family story to life.

He travels to look at the large house in Paris built by Charles, the original purchaser of the collection and sits across the street and imagines the interiors, the furniture and painting on the walls.  He has a plethora of research material to consult to build his picture of the comfort and ostentation of the house because Charles was well known in Parisian society, and appears as a possible model for Swann in Proust’s ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’, as well as a character in a work by Goncourt; he’s also there in records of people who bought early Impressionist paintings, and in the society pages of newspapers. He builds a portrait of a man through the things he chooses to own and to have around him.

From Paris he followed the netsuke to Vienna, when they are given as a wedding gift to de Waal’s great grandparents, part of another branch of the Ephrussi family who also build themselves a new house in the fashionable part of town, which they fill with things they consider tasteful and beautiful.  The netsuke are kept in a glass fronted cabinet in Emmy, his great grandmother’s dressing room, where the children, the young Iggie, and Elizabeth, de Waal’s grandmother play with them.

The fond memories of these times with their mother, and the extraordinary story of how the collection remained intact may be why there is such a strong fondness for them which de Waal has inherited from both Iggie and his grandmother.

I so enjoyed the exploration of a domestic history through the examination of the things that people choose to have around them.  There may be some added interest in the fact that very little other than the carvings survived in family ownership after they were stripped of their belonging by the Nazis; that the Ephrussi’s were extremely wealthy in the 1930s, but by the 1950s it had all been taken from them.

But to me the story spoke of the universality of the idea that some things are valued in a family because of the people we love who are associated in our minds with them, and that we honour them by telling their stories.

Between – A Photo

This is me between the twins from down the road.  It looks like it must be from another century, and it was.  I think we used to go to their house sometimes to watch television, as their set could get ITV, while ours only had BBC1; although we all seemed to have the same wellingtons.

I wonder if they are still more technologically advanced……

Having The Name Badge Doesn’t Necessarily Mean You’re Useful

This is a photo I took through the dirty window of a bridge across the M6 on one of the allegedly busiest pre Christmas travel days of the year, as I was driving north.  I’m glad all the worry mongering forecasts of long delays were wrong, but I did still wonder where everyone else was.

That is, I was wondering that until I hit a roundabout at the entrance to a shopping centre area, Morrison’s on one side of the road, Asda the other and I found myself in the middle of exactly where everyone else was; queuing to get into a supermarket car park.

Leaving aside the questions of why anyone sane would join a line of stationary traffic waiting to get into a shopping car park, or why there is such an orgy of shopping before Christmas when the stores are only closed for one day over the holiday season, I wondered about how vile it must be to work in a supermarket over this period, where the frenzy of over consumption is laid bare in all its essential ugliness.

A few days before leaving London I walked to a nearby supermarket to buy a couple of things.  I specifically chose the shop on the basis that its chief characteristics is that there are rarely the long lines at the checkouts that are the sine qua non of a visit to most of its competitors.  I was disappointed on this occasion however as I had to wait some time to pay for my meagre five item basket.

Never one to miss an opportunity however, it afforded me the chance to observe the comedy of manners played out before me.

Everyone in my long line was watching the employee at the adjacent till hoping that she would soon get her machine working and open up, remove the ‘this line is not currently in use’ sign from her conveyer belt, and start to tot up the bill for the person speedy enough to dash across at precisely the right moment.

From my vantage point I could see that there were some technical problems with the screen, as it had been displaying the ‘leave me alone while I reboot’ rotating egg timer symbol ever since I’d joined the queue.  The middle aged lady operator had already performed the basic ‘switch it off and start again’ routine a couple of times when a very young woman in the green jacket which denotes a supervisor rank rushed up.

‘Open up the till.  There’s a queue.’ She pointed at us, as if the other woman hadn’t already been aware of 10 pairs of eyes observing her every move as she attempted to overcome the reluctance of the technology.

‘It’s rebooting,’ the older woman said, in a tone, which to me sounded remarkably unperturbed by the rudeness of the supervisor girl, who had already rushed off without contributing anything to resolve the basic issue.

Two minutes later, another bright faced girl in a green jacket, clip board in hand entered the scene from the other direction.  She removed the ‘this line closed’ sign from the belt,

‘Open up now,’ her tone was even more peremptory than the first girl.

‘The till’s not working,’ the woman’s tone was still patient.

‘You’ve got to open,’ the girl’s pace barely slowed, while she gesticulated with the hand holding the ‘closed’ sign.

‘Put it back’ Finally the older woman’s voice contained the years of additional experience, the fact that she knew what she was doing and that the girl was contributing nothing to the customer service experience.  ‘Put it back,’ she pointed to the conveyer belt. ‘Now.’

As a disinterested observer, in an increasingly restive crowd, I could have suggested that instead of rushing about issuing useless instructions to an experienced co-worker, most likely old enough to be her mother, and manifestly used to the idiosyncrasies of the company’s IT systems, at least one of the girls could have opened up one of the unmanned cash desks by the cigarette counter and done something to contribute to reducing the lengthening lines.

But then, I’m only a customer, so what would I know?  (And if they were more efficient, maybe there would have been more people in my way on the motorway…..)

‘Christmas With The Rat Pack’ at Wyndhams Theatre

This was my Christmas Panto outing for this year.  A cabaret show, riffing on the idea of the shows that were performed by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in the 1960s, but with a Christmas flavour.

In contrast to the other jukebox shows on in London at the moment, there is no attempt to give this any kind of narrative; it’s simply three guys giving us their impersonations of the three ‘rat packers’.  There’s a little repartee between them, the joshing of each other that the originals indulged in, Dean being drunk, Sammy being Jewish, and Frank smooth, but apart from that, it’s all down to the singing, supported by a ‘three sisters’ group, backed by a 15 strong band, arranged across the back of the stage.

The singing is good because they’ve all got great voices, but it’s not a brilliant sign that I spent a lot of the time worrying about whether they were going to trip over the cables of their retro style microphones.  And when I wasn’t thinking about that, I was wondering about how satisfying it could be to make a career out of the fact that you can do a decent impersonation of someone else.

There wasn’t really enough to look at on stage for me; I perked up when the girls danced, but there wasn’t nearly enough of that.  So instead, in my perpetual search for a narrative I watched the small interactions between them to see if there was something in the relationship between the three crooners.

Who knows what the dynamics really were, but based on this show it seems that Frank was the acknowledged cock of the walk, Dean had a better voice, but disappointed he wasn’t Frank, drank too much and made a virtue of that in a hard drinking age, and Sammy was the most talented of the three, but who played the fool and endured the patronising of the others in order to be allowed into the gang.

This is essentially a tribute band, but its the fame and mythology surrounding the original artists, and the age of their audience, that allows this to be produced in theatres rather than on the university circuit or in the fourth string tents at festivals.

It was foot tapping and fun by the end, with the addition of a few carols in smooth swing time for seasonal spice

In a trawl around the internet I found one ‘user comment’ about last year’s Christmas show by the same cast that made me laugh out loud.  ‘He’s the best Dean Martin I’ve ever heard.’

And there you have it; ersatz can win the day.

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