Thursday, 29 January 2009

Poetry, anyone?

Just a quick note to say - if you are that way inclined - Richmond Magazine is running a poetry competition on the theme "A Poem for Kew". So if you write poetry, or are inspired to by the idea of winning a joint Premier Friends membership of Kew for a year, have a look:
Details are on page 9.

Would anyone be interested in contributing to a poetry-sharing team blog, by the way?
I just ate my lunch: Jansson’s Frestelse (the spelling of which I’m sure is wrong!). Fish, potatoes, onions, garlic, black pepper and cream. The easiest fish pie in the world, and in my opinion the best. Followed by a Delicje malinowe, which is a Polish raspberry jaffa cake. Cor, yum. This is a fairly unhealthy lunch, of course, but I’ve got a cup of green tea and a pile of clementines to finish off with, which will tip the balance back a little towards antioxidants and vitamins and so forth.

Going home tonight to make a cauliflower and parsnip gratin. Yes, making and enjoying good food is definitely one of the aspects of creativity, albeit one which is seldom cited as such. As I’ll have the oven on I may bake biscuits as well…

More and more I feel in sympathy with Rebecca West’s definition of creativity as being a continuum, running from someone baking a good cake at one end to the work of Mozart at the other. Gardening is in there, as well as cookery, and so are all the activities derided by the Fine Art world as “crafts” – knitting and patchwork quilting, making greetings cards (I have a nice range of hand-made valentines, if anyone is interested), making jewellery, clothes-making, pottery and clay-modelling… the list is, to coin a phrase, endless. While personally I think “Clay artist” is an unutterably silly piece of newspeak, and “Craftsman potter” sounds noble and authentic, and altogether rather good, I do heartily dislike the implied minor status generally accepted as implicit in the terms “craft” and “craftsman”.

Especially let no-one who wants to be taken seriously as a fine artist permit themself ever to be called a “good craftsman”. To actually be good at the basic skill of one’s art form is the kiss of death, relegating one (in some people’s eyes at least) irrevocably to the ranks of the amateur. How nonsensical that is…

These raspberry jaffa cakes are the tops, by the way. Good old Gudi Food Stores. I love Ealing.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Tell me a story...

It’s Tuesday afternoon and the ‘phones have gone quiet. Conversation has turned to odd topics (kinky-sounding abbreviated names, intra-species breastfeeding…). I’m looking at a picture of a very strange object which someone has sent in – a sort of hollow terracotta tube with a dish-shaped foot – and wondering who at Kew would know what the flipping heck it is. Various theories were voiced as the picture was passed round the office, varying from the possible through the facetious to the downright rude, but so far it remains a mystery. We’ll see what Stewart Henchie makes of it.

Got some more writing done last night. There’s nothing quite like getting on with it to kick-start the solving of what have earlier appeared really knotty problems. After being beaten at University Challenge (admittedly by Corpus Christi, who I think are going to win overall, with something like 350 to my puny 235) I needed some light relief. Writing and playing “Renaissance of the Celtic Harp” repeatedly did the job perfectly. I think I’ve got to the end of chapter two. Whoo-hoo!

I’m very happy to be finding as I write that the whole thing is taking shape in ways I hadn’t envisaged. This is a story I conceived years ago, as a fairly straightforward space-opera, when I was a “Star Trek”~ and “Star Wars”-mad teenager. It had sat quiet in the back of my mind ever since, much as “Gabriel Yeats” did, simply because I liked the principal characters and felt they interacted well. Frankly, I thought the story was the weakest part, but now I’m actually having a go at it I’m pleasantly surprised to find that there is more to it than I’d originally thought. That sounds terribly self-aggrandising – embarrassingly so. At bottom this is still a western set in outer space, a pretty standardised genre which I make no pretension of revitalising. Far better writers than I will ever be already have that task in hand, anyway…

I’m just happy that when I lifted this particular pot from back-burner to main-burner, it turned out to have a bit more thematic substance than I’d expected. Why is the “alien” alien? – and why do we develop, and hold to, the loyalties we do, and let others go?

There’s a large back-burner in my mind where this story was sitting, and others still sit today; the oldest dates from my teens, the most recent from last autumn. They need to sit on a very low hob and brew for a while, like decoctions.

Back in the late summer of 2005, when I was trying to get my new life in London and my new job at Kew back on track after the chaos and unhappiness of my father’s death, I began working through some of the exercises in a self-help book called “The Artist’s Way” that I had bought shortly before he was diagnosed, and had never had time to start reading. The author, Julia Cameron, has written a lot of this sort of thing; I’ve read several of her books. At times she’s a little too breezily Californian for my tastes, and I feel myself getting all British and stiffened in the upper lip in response; and at times her huge self-confidence astounds (and slightly repels) me. But she’s very good on tips and tricks and ways to keep your creative juices flowing. I remember a cold, damp autumnal day when I was on duty at Lion Gate all day (boringboringboring) when I was reading this book and decided to do one of the exercises; it was like opening the back door and suddenly seeing that far from living in an inner city I had the South Downs out there. That was the exercise that got me writing again, after what was by then ten years of solid, dedicated focus on my visual art work. I had forgotten I’d ever had any other creative dreams; in fact in reading the book I was hoping to kick-start myself into some painting after a fallow period.

This was the exercise I did that day. IT WORKS; so if you don’t want to uncover your lost creative dreams, look away now.

Imagine you are a filmmaker, and you have been asked to make a film and given a generous budget, with no strings attached, by an independent film production company. Their only stipulation is that you make work that really matters to you. What film do you make?

Don’t think about it too much, just make notes. If you find yourself thinking about more than one project, make notes on all of them. If you know who you want to cast, note that down, too, together with why you want those particular actors (& don’t worry, “because he/she is hot” is a perfectly adequate answer to that question!). If you know why this or that project matters to you, write that down too. When you’ve made all the notes you can, then and only then do you start to look at them dispassionately and try to analyse what you’ve come up with. What have you written, and why? Why is this the film you want to make? – why is this what really matters to you?

It’s weird; it disarms all those inner restraints that kick in going “you can’t, it won’t happen, that’s just a silly daydream” and so forth. After all, it’s just a game, isn’t it? – you know you aren’t going to make a film. It’s like saying “What would you do if you had eighty million pounds?” Because the exercise is fantasy it frees you to think about things that otherwise you might have buried under a thick layer of muffling insulation. Mind you, if you want to make films in the first place it may work slightly differently…

In my case, I didn’t hesitate for even a second; I instantly began listing stories I wanted to tell. They varied enormously in subject matter. The one obvious connecting factor was that these stories mattered to me; not their content or their meaning or their message, or any idea of their supposed literary merit, just them as stories. All of them were stories I’d “always meant to get around to writing”. I sat and looked at my three pages of notes and thought “So why aren’t I writing them, then?” And the next day, I began to write “Gabriel Yeats”.

Very sincere and heartfelt thanks, then, to Julia Cameron, for that one. For more of the same, see “The Artist’s Way”.
It's worth the look...

Friday, 23 January 2009

End of the week already...

It's Friday again. Good grief.

Last night I did no writing. I ate pizza. I drank rum and apple juice. I watched tv. In short, instead of feeding my soul and unleashing my creativity I took time out to do s*d all. Is this the same as procrastination? I don't think so - but then, I wouldn't, would I?. Seriously, there is, I am sure, a big difference between taking a break and never doing anything in the first place. One has to let the cistern refill, if you'll pardon the metaphor (note to self: must see if I can think of a more poetic phrase than that).

It's a sticky issue - on the one hand, one must make that total, Calaf-like comittment, but on the other hand one must stay alive, and although "man does not live by bread alone", man does not live by paint alone, either; nor by words, nor by sitting in the lab staring into the electron microscope until one's eyes bug out... (Please don't shriek at me for putting "man"; I'm just continuing the phraseology of the quotation for tidyness' sake. I have noticed I'm not a man [even if some men haven't!]).

There's a wonderful line in one of Ursula Le Guin's essays; I don't think I can remember the exact wording, but it is something like this.

"Apollo, god of the sun, of light, reason, music and the arts, blinds those who press too close in worship. Don't stare at the sun. Go into a dark bar with Dionysos occasionally."

The ancient Greeks understood this; they wouldn't have had a god of reason, light, music and the arts and a god of excess, of letting your hair down, festive release and drink, and the theatre, if they hadn't seen that these are not opposed but complementary forces. One cannot have order without chaos, or light without darkness. Or work without rest. Complexity is all; only connect.

On a totally different note, here's a funny news item;

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Thursday lunchtime

At the risk of sounding like a monomaniac (as if!), I want to report that last night was interesting.

Firstly, on the music-while-you-work strand, I tried “Pelléas et Mélisande”; hopeless. It’s one of my favourite operas, with its limpid, pellucid colours and heartbreaking story, and always moves me deeply, even in the deeply weird and visually stifling production at the ROH a while back. But as music to work to it was useless. I could type, or I could listen, but there was no combining the two, and no drawing inspiration from the one to feed the other. “Pelléas” simply had to take my world over. So I turned it off, and played “The Cunning Little Vixen” instead. I cry buckets at “The Cunning Little Vixen”, at the theatre. Sitting in my own little room, I could relegate it to background music without a flicker, and wrote happily for the duration.

Which would seem to support the “language” theory; I can put to the background what I cannot understand verbally. But I still think there’s more to it than that. The fact that I can’t sublimate “Zauberflöte” is one clue. Another is the fact that I wasn’t really not listening to the Janacek (sorry about the erratic appearance of diacritical marks; I’m having trouble finding the ones I need here). It was feeding me. I wrote on the swell and depth of the music; not simply cut off from background noise by something more pleasant, but uplifted and inspired by it. “Pelléas”, although hardly insistent musically, insisted upon dominance; what happened between me and the “Vixen” was more of a fusing of equal spirits (hah! - and you don’t get to write that every day!!).

On the which distinctly kinky-sounding stuff, I’ll go on to “secondly”!

Secondly, the playing-out-the-scene-before-you-write-it thing worked really well. Really well.

I’d always had the idea that this particular scene would follow a fairly talk-y line. The fact that two of the protagonists are speaking mutually-incomprehensible languages was a snagging point, and I had decided that “playing it out” with that element omitted (so that I would not have to keep stepping out of my role-play to remind myself of my invented alien grammar!) would help me to get it straight. It did; I realised it wasn’t working. The problem was partly too much talk, partly, I suddenly felt, that one of my characters simply wouldn’t behave this way.

I sat down, re-wrote the whole thing, and am happy.

I’ve read other writers, discussing their own work, talking about the way that the characters take on a life of their own and “don’t want to do” what they, the author, have planned for them. It sounds deeply suspect, until one has the same experience oneself. It really is a most peculiar feeling. In this case, it has almost opened out a whole new aspect of the character; how she responds in stressful situations, and how that links into her background culture and her system of loyalties, her general way of dealing with things… I had never thought about this before; I should have done, but I hadn't; and now I have. I'm sure the best thing would be to be an accomplished enough writer to think of all these things straight away, when first conceiving a story. But as it is, the fact that I have thought of this at this stage cheers me enormously. It means my heroine is coming alive, as it were, on schedule.

Maybe, on second thoughts, it would not be good to have everything totally sorted-out ahead of time. Would these people come alive at all, if they were that thoroughly controlled?

So anyway - I am feeling pretty pleased with life just at the moment.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Wednesday lunchtime...

The laptop worked again, come last night. I hope it doesn't do this to me frequently, though, as it is pretty wearing on the nerves. However, I got my transcription done, and went on from there. I did make myself eat first, too, always a wise move for me, as I tend to get very absorbed in my work. Last night was no exception to this; it was at well after midnight when I realised that it was no longer early evening and I would have to go to bed at some point.

I have left my protagonist about to be stabbed in the throat, which spurs the imagination onwards... Obviously as this is in a flashback the reader (well, putative reader, for now) will already know that he survives unharmed, but it is still exciting to work on how to write it. This is the moment two of the principal characters first meet, so it needs to be right. The meetings in "Gabriel Yeats" all wrote very smoothly (the love scene was probably the toughest thing to write, followed by the last few paragraphs of the penultimate chapter). So I am hopeful that this one too will come off just so.

I can see it all in my mind's eye already. Tonight when I get in I'll make some tea and then go all through it as if I were improvising it for camera. I've found this very effective as a technique for making sure dialogue actually sounds, and actions actually feel, like the characters in question and not like me fumbling at playing them. That sounds contradictory, but it seems to work, for me. I enacted the whole of the scene on board HMS Merganser when Simon is preparing Felix' body for burial, and cried until I was almost sick; and that was how I knew that particular scene had gelled.

Slept appallingly. I don't know if this was the fault of my supper; I had made risotto, and then found when I was serving myself that my parmigiano had sprouted a nice blue-green colony of penicilium or some such. Cobblers, cobblers, cries Dent. I was forced to put grated Leicester cheese on it, which was not unpleasant, in a rather unctuous and melty way; but way too mild, not the dark, tangy kiss of proper parmesan.

Last night was the Eve of Saint Agnes, when supposedly one can, if one is a single woman, put herbs (Italian mixed, in my case) in one's shoes and ask for a dream of one's future husband/partner/One True Love (and then get one, obviously). I dreamed of someone I happen to know is happily married, and famously uxorious to boot; and then of buying lettuces in a rather nice street market. So, unless the lettuces were symbolic, I can't help feeling St. Agnes let me down rather. Maybe it was the Italian mixed herbs.

At least I can get on with my writing again tonight.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

A mixed evening...

Very frustrating - my ancient laptop is packing up. It's practically a museum piece, it must be over ten years old and it was second-hand when it came to me, and the letter "v" sticks (turning "live" into "lie" and "beloved" into "beloed"), but I am fond of it. And it wouldn't turn on yesterday. I was so fired-up with wanting to write that I set-to with some scrap paper and got some work done; but pen-and-paper is slow compared to typing, even typing as bad as mine. I put on "Rosenkavalier", though, and I put my head down and stuck at it.

I often work - writing, painting, drawing, the lot - with music, and I have found that certain kinds of music uplift and inspire me; light, pleasant stuff that doesn't have any real guts is fine, as are folk music and world music (Alan Stivell, Tina Malia, kora music, for example), and truly great music is fine so long as it is instrumental (Bach's solo violin works are fanastic to write or paint-to) and isn't heartbreaking (I don't think I could paint to Mahler 3, for instance, as I'd be crying too much). Singing is fine too so long as it is NOT sung in a language that I understand, as I then listen too much to concentrate on what I'm doing.

This is a pity, as it rules out a great deal of opera, which is probably my all-time favourite music. If I listen to "Billy Budd", for instance, I am completely gripped from the beginning, and would be incapable of applying brush to canvas except to leave a trail of random daubs, until the very last bar. (Okay, so I have the Hickox/LSO recording, with Simon Keenlyside and Philip Langridge, which is pretty rivetting stuff). And, although I don't speak Italian, I do speak Spanish, and I've listened to enough Italian opera to have picked up a lot of vocab from it; I find myself hanging on every word of that, again, despite the idiocy of many libretti (I'm sorry, but "Mille serpenti mi devoran il petto", anyone? Really, how silly is that?! Have YOU ever said that, even when seriously pissed-off?!). Ah well; musically they are the cream of the bunch, those big nineteenth century Italian operas, and I feel rude not giving my full attention to really great work. Yet I can semi-sublimate "Rosenkavalier", a truly magnificent opera on the stage, and any amount of lieder, even with my favourite lieder singer in action. The only clue I can find in this confusion is that I speak barely twenty words of German (& those are mostly things to eat and drink). Yet I can't blot out "Die Zauberflöte"... so that puts paid to that theory.

Anyway, I did get some writing done last night, as I'd hoped - but not as much as I'd hoped. And IF I can get the laptop to behave again tonight, I shall have to transcribe it all, which is a bit boring when one wants to rush ahead with exploring the story, and the method of telling.

I knew when I first conceived this particular story that from the reader's POV it would have to begin at a particular point, and therefore at least one part of the narrative would have to be explained in a flash-back of some kind. Easy to think of in theory! - not so easy to write. Part of what got me started was suddenly "seeing" how I could write it; one of the principal characters is imprisoned, awaiting trial, probably going to be sentenced to death, and is visited by someone who can penetrate his mind. Cue flashback; the events that led him there are connected to the events he recalls, and I am having a lot of fun trying to convey the confused and eddying state of his thoughts. If I can, I'll work "E lucevan le stelle" in, for a joke; after all, given the character's situation it's pretty appropriate. "Gabriel Yeats" is full of references to music; mostly "Die Zauberflöte" and the Brahms violin sonatas that I have Simon Cenarth playing at a couple of salient moments. We'll see, we'll see...

Monday, 19 January 2009

Last night while the rain came down...

... I got writing again. It feels good to get writing. The blank laptop screen is almost as intimidating as the blank canvas, in truth, but once one faces up to it and starts, it is, like the blank canvas, not an enemy but a friend.
I'm working on something I first thought of years ago - unlike "Gabriel Yeats", it's more of a SF story (go on, laugh, I won't see you...), but I hope it will work. Early days yet. My principal worry at the moment is that on jumping in I have written possibly my thinnest chapter one ever - but there's plenty of time to rewrite and revise, goodness knows. It isn't as if the world is waiting on tenterhooks for my latest ouevre, after all. But I was using a technique for breaking through the paralysis induced by that blank screen (& the blank sheet of paper I used to use was just as bad) - a technique called "just write something". Be grateful I am not Mortmain, and am not going to write "The cat sat on the mat" forty times. (If you haven't read "I capture the castle", by Dodie Smith, then do - unless you're a guy - I don't think it's a guy's book, somehow). But however facetiously Dodie Smith may have used the idea, it is basically a sound one. Getting started means you have less to lose, and you can get on to the interesting part of trying to say what you want to say; in my case, simply trying to tell a story. I started "Gabriel Yeats", incidentally, with the scene at Victoria Station, and wrote through to the end of the WW1 sequence, and then went right back to the beginning from there. Crazy, maybe, but it worked for me.
I know - I should be working on the second revision for "Gabriel Yeats"; and I'm rushing off on something new instead. This is called displacement activity, I believe, and it's a common problem for the creative individual. At least I have the excuse that my displacement activity is itself creative!
More rain now - at least here I'm not at home, so it isn't quite so loud. My attic ceiling at home sounds like being inside a timpani when it rains... Can't wait to get home and get on with it, now I've started. There are two other things on the back burner at the moment, but for now I seem to have channeled my interest into this. At the moment, tentative working title is "Fortitude and Tulear", except I'm referring to it myself as something else, in my head, which doesn't bode well for that as a working title! The title in my head is even worse, though, so I won't bewilder you with it.
Going to go home, put on some music (Schubert lieder, last night), and get on. Oh, the buzz of anticipation! The Muse is a funny creature, and I wonder if I'll ever know what really turns her on (at least it isn't cutting off heads - see previous entry!). But for now, at least, she is turned on; very much turned on. It feels like an electric current inside me; as if, if I were to touch someone, just now, I might give them a small shock...

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The Muse, or, Voglio Turandot!

As that title might lead you to guess, I've just been to see "Turandot" at the Royal Opera. It's one of my favourite operas, a fact I tend to conceal as it provokes confusion or outright anger - "How can you like that? - the story is horrible..." To which I can only say, are the stories of "Madama Butterfly" or "La Traviata" not horrible, then? "Traviata" is even (loosely) based on fact - now really that IS horrible. Poor bloody Marie Plessis.
I love "Turandot" firstly for the music, which I think is some of the most dazzling Puccini ever wrote, and secondly for, yes, that's right, the story. It's an allegory, for crying out loud; an allegory of the creative life. For those who aren't opera buffs, the overall line of the story is as follows: Princess Turandot, heir to the throne of China, will only marry the man who can answer her three riddles, and executes anyone who cannot; the Unknown Prince answers them, and commits himself totally to her, risking his life and turning away from those who love him and try to hold him back, even when they have to suffer because of his choice; he sets Turandot a riddle of his own, but after kissing her cannot resist telling her the answer; luckily for him, she decides to spare him because she is overcome by the depth of his love for her, and by her own emotions on being kissed for the first time; instead of announcing the answer to his riddle (his real name, Calaf), she tells the assembled court "Il suo nome é amor", and accepts him as her husband.
I've always seen this as an allegory of total commitment to the Muse, and the risks inherent in this. Calaf is initially repulsed and enraged by what Turandot requires, and what she does to people; by her power and her potency, her casual, emotionless cruelty, and her ability to ensnare and overwhelm. Then he sets eyes on her, and suddenly he knows that this, and only this, can make his life complete. She is the Muse, the power-from-within that will drive him to become what he is capable of being; she is the creative life force of the universe personified. To follow her, you must be blind to all else. But without her, to those who are capable of seeing her in the first place, life is only ever going to be a shadow. Those who are capable of seeing her are princes, potential kings; surely all this is allegorical? The other men in the story only ever see a powerful, destructive woman who they fear and would like to see cut down to size. The princes see something worth giving your life for.
The Unknown Prince forsakes his old, blind, exiled father, and the faithful slave girl who loves him, and rejects their pleas to forget what they say can only hurt them and destroy him. He makes a total commitment, even though it is to something everyone advises him against, and he abides faithfully in this commitment. He sees at first hand what the Muse can do; how much pain and destruction she can cause, how she will turn her back without a flicker of feeling on someone who has given themself to her, like the unfortunate Prince of Persia, and all his beheaded predecessors; and he still makes that same commitment, knowing all the risks. When, momentarily, he is in a position of dominance, he willingly gives it up, because he cannot resist giving himself utterly and in absolute trust to his love. He knows that only his love and his commitment can save him, and so he has to trust a force that has not yet ever shown itself worthy of trust, only of fear. He takes all these incredible risks; he sees his family suffer; he is offered, and refuses, both bribes and threats; and he doesn't give up. Finally he wins Turandot - and his beloved herself says to him "Please, go; you have made me love you - isn't enough to know you have won? - can you not just savour that victory and leave me in my solitude?" - and still, even then, faced with that seductively easy way out, still he doesn't give up.
That's how I see it, anyway. It simply isn't a story about real people making real decisions and happily condemning others to death or to a life of misery. It's about the absoluteness of commitment to your path in life.
And then I go to a production like this Royal Opera one, and discover how this fable can be made into a story about real people. I'm startled, but convinced; it was terrific. As a fusion of theatricality and human-interest, it was spot-on. The singers had been directed to adopt a slightly formalised movement, as if to undermine any possible sense that verismo was the goal. Stylised posture and gestures were tuned to the individual character, and costumes and make-up likewise, but then, within that framework, the performers were allowed natural acting; and, somehow, the characters began to seem far more real than if they had been played completely naturalistically. It was as if one were watching a whole society hooked on maintaining the perfect façade of courtly behaviour, but with their real natural feelings breaking through inescapably. The production looks magnificent, with light gleaming through fretwork window screens, and blood-red banners hanging. The Emperor Altoum is flown in from above on a golden throne, and Turandot makes her first entry carried shoulder high in a litter by masked servants, glacially statue-like and distant. The entire Chinese court wear either full or half-masks most of the time, and only Calaf and his family are allowed the fully human expressiveness of their own bare faces.
But the whole thing would stand or fall on the casting, and in this particular case this was brilliant. The Swedish soprano Irene Theorin was a stunning Turandot, with the capacity both to blow your socks off with "In Questa Reggia" (the operatic equivalent of dancing the Rose Adagio - come on and go straight into one of the most demanding pieces in the repertoire) and to melt into thrilling, floating pianissimi as her reserve gradually breaks down. She also looked good, which I'm afraid does help, given that this is supposed to be a staggeringly beautiful woman - the last Turandot I saw was built like a balloon and could barely manage to sit down at the impact of Calaf's kiss, whereas Ms Theorin swooned to the floor very convincingly. And within the icy façade and the stylised gestures, this was all-too credibly a woman utterly terrified of giving up her freedom from male domination, incredulous at meeting her equal at last.
I didn't really like the Liu at first; rather too effortful of voice, and with a lot of vibrato in between the soaring high notes. But she could act, and, again, this helps. Liu is an immensely sympathetic character but I've never seen quite this mixture of tenderness and steel. The moment when, with the merest flicker of expression, she let us know that she has realised the only way out for her is suicide was wrenching in its simplicity.
I've left the best till last. I had heard of the Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato, but had never seen him in action before. Now I am thinking "Oh my gods, when will I get to see this guy in action again?" I had booked expecting to see José Cura, who goodness knows is worth the trip, but he had gone down with the flu and was unable to sing. Enter Mr Armiliato; for me, a completely new discovery (though clearly not for the rest of the world - he has a lot of big rôles under his belt, but it seems he doesn't sing in the UK much). At first I thought he was holding back slightly; perhaps he hadn't quite got the feel of the House yet. But round about "A me il trionfo, a me l'Amore" (I bow gratefully to a considerably better authority than my own inaccurate ear on the question of which line it was!), he just started to open out and give it everything, and was suddenly riding this beautiful ringing voice out over the orchestra and really sounding like the hero Calaf needs to be. Acts two and three were simply stunning.
He's tall and presentable, and is the best kind of actor, ie subtle, totally natural and inward - no tubthumping, no trick-playing, no ham; and he has a splendid voice. Really gorgeous sound, with all the things I love; strength and colour and feeling, and a lovely bell-like clarity. Not Cura's blackened-bronze colour, but bright and golden, and with rich depths of tone; a hoppy, real-ale gold rather than a crisp lager-y one. And it is a pleasure always to hear someone sing as if they really understand and mean every word. "Nessun Dorma" can so easily be churned out on autopilot these days; but not with this guy. When one adds to the quality of his performance the fact that he was a stand-in, new to the production, with at most three or four days rehearsal; and he has only sung in the house once before... Yet he was totally integrated and committed to the production, and was certainly by miles the best Calaf I've seen. Damn it, I've got a new hero; goodness knows when I'll get another dose of his work, though...

Friday, 9 January 2009

Reflections on drink and disappointment...

Well, it’s Friday again – almost ten days into the new year already… Yesterday we had our Team (post-) Christmas Lunch. This was interesting, with some excellent (if rather meat oriented) tapas at a restaurant beside Richmond Station, a highly entertaining quiz (oddly enough, won by the team with one more member than the others!), and then drinks at a cellar bar near the bridge… A lot of drinks, and the inevitable accompanying frivolities of behaviour and conversation.

I am amazed at some of my colleagues’ alcohol capacity. I know I was the oldest person at the table, at least once we got to the bar, and I know I don’t drink as much as I did in my twenties, largely because nowadays a hangover isn’t a slightly delicate feeling for a few hours, but a two-day hell. But I have never gone in for those trick drinks, multi-coloured shots depth-bombed into lucozade and the like, that have to be downed all at one go while they are still frothing insanely. I certainly won’t be starting on them now, having smelled a few last night. Jägermeister in Red Bull looked like toxic waste and smelled of nail polish remover and cough mixture. Compared with that, my white rum and ginger ale is positively tame.

One small bit of news – sad in a way but useful for me to know. The conversation turned, as drunken ones tend to, to the subject of sex, and thence to “Who at Kew would you shag, if you could only have someone from Kew?” As the sayings go, there’s no accounting for taste, and it takes all sorts to people the world, and goodness knows some to-me odd preferences were expressed – but then, I don’t go for Older Men, or for the Power-is-a-turn-on thing. I happily named someone I’ve always thought terribly attractive; I know he knows it, and I know the interest isn’t mutual, so I didn’t see any harm in saying. Several people said “I know what you mean, yes, he’s nice-looking” and similar things – but then followed that with references to this person’s notorious promiscuity! So, since I always go into such things with my heart fair-and-square on my sleeve, and since the last thing I want is to be another notch on a well-worked bedpost, it is just as well that my interest wasn’t reciprocated. But it does sadden me to be reminded of how I tend always to be attracted to slightly unsavoury men. However much I console myself with ideas like “He can see you aren’t a person he could just bonk and leave, clearly he has too much respect for you”, etc, etc, the fact remains - I now know that a man who is practically the Whore of Kew turned me down! I am fat and plain with big feet and no-one will ever love me again. Probably explaining inosculation in a letter to a gentleman in County Armagh is as close as I’ll ever get to any kind of osculation any more. Sniff…

Men do mystify me at times, you know. I joined an online dating agency a while back, as an experiment, and have been fascinated to find that the same things are happening to me online that happen to me in the real, non-virtual world. I want to meet a guy who is intelligent, attractive (to me), and genuine. (This is not abnormal, incidentally. Almost every profile on the site is a variation on that theme…) I’d be a hypocrite if I said looks are unimportant – I want there to be a chance of some chemistry, and when I find someone seriously unattractive then that is, in all honesty, highly unlikely. I’ve fallen for someone for his personality alone before, but he wasn’t actually UNattractive, just not my usual “type”.

But on this website – well; I send messages to men who sound interesting and intelligent, and whose looks appeal to me, and they ignore me. Men old enough to be my father, and with faces like bulldogs, send messages to me. I read their profiles, and they sound like pleasant blokes, blokes my dad could have made friends with, but I am not looking for a man of my dad’s generation, and I am not looking for a man I find outright ugly. Sorry, boys. I may be fat and plain with big feet, etc, but I am not going to settle. Not to that extent.

I have a theory that I am Agnes Wickfield. For those who don’t read Victorian novels, she is the second wife of David Copperfield, who he eventually marries after the death of his idiotic but adored first wife Dora Spenlow. Dora is everything I am not. She is pretty, charming, delightful company, sweet-natured, dizzy, terribly spoilt, not very bright, very loving, and utterly hopeless with regard to all domestic matters and in the face of every minor difficulty of daily life. Agnes is intelligent, patient, sensible, mature, competent, honourable and good; and rather plain. David Copperfield is eventually liberated from his marriage to Dora by her dying from unmentionable (to Dickens) post-miscarriage complications. Time passes, he mourns, and finally he realises that (to put it crudely) his childhood friend Agnes is a far better bet, and he marries her and is very happy. I’m traducing a very great novel in this summary, by the way – my apologies to it and to all of you!

Anyway, my theory is that intelligent, sensitive men (and this is a brutal generalisation, so please do not write to me saying “I know one who isn’t like this!” – I know, everyone BAR ME knows one who isn’t like this – and you promptly grabbed and held on, didn’t you?!) – ahem - as I was saying - that intelligent, sensitive men tend to want, in their youth, women who they feel subconsciously are not their equals; women who are pretty, charming, delightful, not very bright, and all the rest of it. Nowadays they are not going to be deprived of their Doras after a few years in novelistic tragic-but-pure ways, because mercifully we live in the developed world and very few women die of post-miscarriage complications here nowadays. So they have to sweat it out until eventually in middle age they divorce, or get divorced by, Dora. And then a bit after that, when they’ve recovered their self-esteem, and begun to think “I really hate having to do the cooking everyday”, they start to look for another woman, and they notice that the quiet, rather plain ones are still around, and are better cooks and more domestically capable than Dora was, and probably less expensive to run, and they think “That’s what I want!”. Agnes Wickfield. Me.

So I’m a perfect Second Wife. Humph…

Waah, I’m in a whinge-y mood today.

Well, I don’t care. Maybe I’m meant to be single in this life.

I’ve just realised on re-reading the above that I have just indirectly announced myself to be “intelligent, patient, sensible, mature, competent, honourable and good”; a catalogue of virtues that would have had my maternal grandmother in forty fits. She did not believe in thinking well of oneself, and would have been deeply ashamed, not to mention disgusted, to have a grandchild of hers praise themselves so brazenly. I'm not at all sure I can really lay claim to any of those qualities except intelligence, anyway; pace, Grandma's ghost.

Just before Christmas, a guy I once went out with got in touch – I’d included him on a “round-robin” Christmas email message – and he sent me a delightful response, friendly and charming - and extremely flirtatious in tone. I thought about things (this lad broke my heart in small pieces about fifteen years ago, just to fill you in), and wrote back. I figured that if he was going to be flirtatious, even now, he had meant enough to me that I’d be a fool not to keep communications open at least, and try to meet him halfway. But I don’t do flirting; I am hopeless at it, always have been. So with my heart somewhat closer to my mouth than is physiologically comfortable I said how glad I was that we were still in touch, however erratically, and added that I have always regretted that we never managed to move any further than this tentative contact. And guess what? – he backed off as if I’d tried to bite him in the jugular. I wouldn’t mind – indeed I’d never have said anything so forward in the first place – if he hadn’t been so bally flirty to start with. O why did I bother? Now Tom know I still care about him, and although for some peculiar reason apparently he wants to flirt with me, he doesn’t want to do anything else – not even be in touch more regularly! Perhaps he was drunk when he wrote…

Which brings me back to last night. A good night, and a good laugh. I’m glad I didn’t drink any of the depth bombs, though.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood...

It's amazing how a few simple things can really brighten one's thinking and stiffen one's resolve.

A few days ago I was walking home from As Nature Intended in Ealing Broadway with my shopping, trying to put the creepy guy on the bus out of my mind and thinking how tired I was and what a good thing it was the weekend... On Saturday I got taken by a fit of baking and produced a loaf of wholemeal sunflower seed bread and some wholemeal danish pastries (which are a trifle bricklike, if truth be told, but the flavour is good). Sunday I mended two broken bracelets, and was suddenly complimented on "Gabriel Yeats" by my landlady Sandra, who has begun reading it, months after I had decided her interest had been politeness only, and says it is totally gripping. Monday evening I came home from work and got taken by a fit of painting, and I produced a whole bunch of stuff - a lot of small things and the beginnings of two larger landscapes which will need a lot of working-into. Last night I sold ten handmade greetings cards, and had a long chat with Sandra's artist friend Joanne, about collographs and craft shops and cellophane, and the properties of different types of inks versus acrylic paints, and the fear of the blank sheet/canvas/page.

And suddenly I feel as if it is all possible, after all. So perhaps it really IS New year, New Me, this time... I'd like to apend a picture of the new me here, but don't currently have one to hand. Anyway, the new me looks exactly the same as the old me.

Friday, 2 January 2009

New Year, New You

...Well, that's the theory, anyway. As Kerry (flatmate, "Wicked" fan, mentioned before in context of origami) remarked in ironic tones at midnight on Wednesday "Happy New Year! - hey, our lives have just been completely transformed." We then drank a large amount of champagne very quickly and went out in the street to wave sparklers and cooo at the neighbours' fireworks, so you can see that the mood of adult cynicism didn't last. In fact we had a great evening; she has taken up baking, and produced a very creditable apple pie with a rich chocolate crust. Paulo missed out on the pie as he had decided at the last minute to try and get to the Mayoral fireworks, and announced at the kitchen door "I am going out to the streets, I may be some time"; at which we both shrieked "Goodbye, Captain Oates!" and fell around laughing, much to his bewilderment (unsurprisingly, Robert Falcon Scott is not a national figure in Portugal).

Captain Scott; author of one of my favourite quotes (from his last journal entry):

"I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew that we took them, things have turned out against us; therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of providence, determined still to do our best to the last."

As a statement of calm resolution in the face of defeat, and of what I can only call the spiritual equivalent of Truth-to-materials, that takes some beating.

I had that quotation stuck on the wall of my studio space at college for four years out of the five I was there. I remember one of the tutors stopping to read it once, then snapping dramatically at me that I hadn't taken any risks at all; I replied mulishly that I thought for me I had, and she pouted and flung her hair(ex-KIAD people will probably be able to guess which tutor this was!). I simply hadn't the nerve to say "Lady, I have taken a far bigger risk than most of the students you applaud as risk-takers - I have done my own thing, consistently, even though it was neither fashionable nor popular with you, and even though I know it won't get me a good degree."

Yea, I'm a reb, me! Ahem, kind-of, ~ish...

Anyway, going back to new years and new starts; 2008 has been very much a year of reshaping and shaking up, and of altering the basic formulae, as 'twere, so that I reached the end feeling rather different from the woman who went in, twelve months ago. Most of this tranformational process has been internal - mental and emotional and, dare I say, spiritual. I hope this coming year will be one of building on these new foundations and starting to make real headway on realising my plans and dreams.

And I hope it will be so for all of you, too. Happy New Year, everyone!