Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The incomprehensible Muse...

I just don't get my Muse.  She settles down for months to meditate on her navel and say "Not now dear" if I try to do anything creative, and then suddenly, completely out of the blue, starts shouting at me; "Get up off your lazy a&&e, fat girl!  Get with it! - we've got work to do!"  Two things seem to have galvanised her this time.  One was the fact that in my frustration at an unfinished story that simply wouldn't come, I had set out to draft a synopsis, to try and work out if the problem lay with some unresolved narrative issues I hadn't faced up to.  This has been a revelatory exercise in the past, so was well worth a try - but on this occasion it simply served to show me I really did know exactly where this story was going.  The second thing seems to have been the jolt of adrenaline I got from walking into William Houston outside the health food shop. 

I have been writing hard for the last two evenings, and cannot wait to get home and get on with some more.  I am even slightly wishing I wasn't going out tomorrow and Friday evenings, because I can't take the laptop and will have to make do with mere paper if I am to write while I'm sitting on the tube, and during the interval...

It is exhilarating when the creative fire is flowing like this.  But I do sometimes wish I could control the Muse a bit more.  Anyway, I owe Mr Houston a happy thank you, since his appearance on the scene seems to have given her a kick up the backside, just when I was starting to worry she had settled into hibernation.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Good omens

There have been a few times in my life when I have felt as though I was being swept up in a storm of weird coincidences.  Some of them were so bizarre that I have only told them to a select few people - those who I trust not to take the mickey out of me.  But each time this has happened, it has seemed to bring me luck. I tend to think of it as the universe nudging me; as if the Almighty, whatever you conceive Him/Her/It to be, has leaned down and given the air around me a stir, so that amazing things suddenly swirl into my ken.  So nowadays if it happens I tend to think it is a good omen; heaven is on my side, and if I run with this energy and let it galvanise me, catch Kairos by his forelock and go with him, it will bring me luck. 

This weekend I did some grocery shopping, bought a bundle of wallflowers for the front garden, and then took another deep breath and went and sent the sample chapters of "Gabriel Yeats" off to another agent.  The last items on my list of jobs were pumpkin seeds, linseeds, green tea and cashew nuts, so I then headed to my local health food store, As Nature Intended.  As I turned into the door, a tall-ish man came hurrying out carrying a bag; I sprang out of his way politely, and he caught my eye and gave me a quick grin as he passed.  And I nearly fell flat on my face with shock; because it was William Houston, the brilliant actor I would love to see playing my protagonist, Simon Cenarth, if "Gabriel Yeats" were ever to be filmed.  I feel all fluttery inside again, just remembering.  Be still my beating heart. 

I checked my shopping list again, to give myself time to close my mouth and straighten my face out, and then went on into the shop.  I fought off the urge to follow him instead and see where he went - I'm rather proud of my self-control, since I would have loved to know what he was doing in my neck of the woods!

When I'd got home, and put away my shopping, and put the wallflowers plants in a bucket of water until I could get to planting them, I was still shaking inside.  I made myself a cup of Yogi Teas "Frauentee", which I find very calming.  It was the last bag in the box (bother).  I don't know if you ever use Yogi Teas, but every tea bag has a little motto on it, rather like fortune cookie mottos (only more Buddhist).  My tea bag motto on Saturday afternoon was "Remember that the other person is yourself".  

Of course, as I was still fizzing with excitement from seeing The Man Who Should Play Simon, there was only one "other person" in my mind.  And I thought "How perfect!".  Because in the story, Simon is my alter ego; so the "other person" could indeed be said to be my self...  Please, please, lord, let it be a good omen.

The agents I've just sent "Gabriel Yeats" to are the fifth lot on the list.  They probably should have been the first, since they're quite a prestigious firm.  I didn't initially think there was any point in my approaching them at all.  But then I discovered they represent several authors I really admire, and I thought "The heck with it, why am I acting humble and 'oh-no, not-little-me"~ish about this?".  So I have given it a go with the Prestigious Firm.  Meeting Mr Houston was an enormous shock, but it has given me a real boost.  I have faith again that one day this will come together; I will get published, I will be read.  It can happen.  If I just can walk into Will Houston in a shop, just half an hour after posting GY, then anything can happen.  I am in God's hands, but it is a safe place to be.

On Sunday I planted the wallflowers, hand-washed a load of clothes, had a lovely bike ride (not going anywhere, just randomly circling local streets in the autumn sunshine), watered the garden, cooked a vegetable lasagne, and patched a pair of trousers.  A constructive weekend altogether.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

ENO "Figaro"

According to my opera-going friend Alan, “The Marriage of Figaro” is the greatest opera ever written.  I’m usually a bit frustrated by sweeping pronouncements like this, but with “Figaro”, I can kind of see where he’s coming from.  It’s one of those rare works of art of such subtlety and nuance as to be almost limitless in possibility.  Like “Twelfth Night”, you can play it for laughs or for tears, with detachment or love, with tradition or with a radical overhaul.  Or you can make a bit of a muddle-up of all of those and hope it comes off.  The current ENO production, which I saw last night, takes this approach and, as (in my opinion) usually happens with muddled productions, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Judging from this example, Fiona Shaw’s biggest strength as an opera director is that she directs the singers very well as actors.  She has got some excellent acting out of them, with detailed, naturalistic, nuanced performances all round.  I am highly in favour of this approach!  The majority of opera singers can act, after all (although some are certainly far better than others, and oddly some of the world’s most famous ones can’t), and it pays to focus on the acting and interpretation of the characters.  Unfortunately, the rest of the production, in the sense of the underlying concepts and directorial ideas, didn’t really work.  It was doubly a pity given the strength of the individual performers and the scintillating playing from the orchestra.  They were all so good, and I wanted desperately to love this production, but although none of the weaknesses were appalling, opera-ruining things, they were bad enough to irritate and confuse me, and they did detract from the production’s strengths.

I don’t mind modern dress productions, or odd-dress productions; I don’t mind contemporary relevance and contemporary references; I don’t mind things being different, non-traditional, unconventional, quirky, I don’t mind over-riding directorial concepts, no matter how weird or confrontational; all of these things are fine provided they work.   When they work – as with the ENO “Parsifal” I saw in the winter – they justify their existence a hundred-fold.  But when they don’t work, they just detract.   One of the best ways to make sure they don’t work is to be hesitant about them, and another is to be too busy with them.  This “Figaro” manages to be both.

The costumes start in period, but occasionally vary towards modern dress – only half-heartedly, with no discernible rationale and no coherence.  Props likewise – mostly these were in period, but the odd modern item (not all from the same period of “modern”) was thrown in, for no apparent reason.  New media, back projections and so forth can be immensely effective when they are used with confidence and panache; but not if, as here, they seem to have been shoved in just for fun or to cover patches when the director wasn’t sure what to do.  And constant frantic busyness onstage is usually a sign that the director doesn’t really have faith in the work itself or in whether what they and their cast are doing with it is interesting enough on its own.  This was a very busy stage; literally.  Not only did the cast have to scurry from room to room endlessly, but the set itself scurried, going round and round almost ceaselessly on the revolve. 

However, despite the twirling stage and the oddly fudged stabs at doing a bit of Regietheater (I think that’s the right word but I may have spelled it wrong!), this was a very enjoyable evening.  The characters came over as real people living real lives, not artificial people in a staged production.  Their relationships and their responses to one another were real and credible, their movements were natural, recitatives were shaped subtly to sound like fresh thoughts and conversations and not like “I have to say this just-so and on-the-beat”.  Figaro wasn’t the usual uncomplicated jolly chap but an intelligent, angry, politically-awakened man, powerfully aware that in everything that really matters he is the superior of the man he has to defer to; the Count was a credibly neurotic addict, totally unaware of how pathetic he makes himself look as his libido rules him; the Countess was a good deal more troubled, and more stroppy, than the saccharine saint we generally get.

Roland Wood’s Count looks as if he might be Hugh Bonneville’s younger brother (which is actually slightly unnerving) and Kate Valentine’s Countess looks like Julianne Moore, but I wasn’t left thinking “What a pity they can’t act as well as HB and JM” (& I bet neither actor can sing like them!).  Both are excellent.  I loved Devon Guthrie’s curly-topped, warm-voiced Susanna, Timothy Robinson's Don Basilio is luxury casting indeed in such a small part, and Kathryn Rudge’s Cherubino is also good.  Rudge looks about fifteen and splendidly captures the physical gaucheness of adolescence, seemingly not quite in control of her limbs yet; she reminded me vividly, despite being a good a foot shorter than him, of my younger brother at that age.  The Count’s aggression towards Cherubino, his desire to victimise and crush a potential competitor before he can spread his adult wings, was pointed up strongly in moments of painfully violent bullying.    

The best thing in the whole evening, though, was the marvelous Figaro of Iain Paterson.  I’ve become a huge fan of this big rangy Scotsman over the last few years.  He is amazingly versatile, his voice is both lustrously beautiful and absolutely huge, and he is one of the best actors on the British operatic stage at the moment.  I suppose it comes of having been brought up on the old Erich Kleiber recording with Cesare Siepi (& a gobsmacking cast altogether), but I do love a Figaro who inclines towards the bass end of things.  Patterson has an amazing stage presence as well, and this was some seriously sexy singing.  He also has very good diction; not a syllable got lost from start to finish (& I was sitting fairly high-up in the gods, so not in the optimum position for catching everything).  Roland Wood has a lovely voice, too, but if I’m honest most of the time he could have been singing in Dutch for all I could tell; not so with the ginger giant from Glasgow.   I'd love to hear Mr Paterson singing Figaro opposite Favourite Baritone as the Count; now that would be a confrontation worth seeing.

I’ve previously seen Mr Paterson at ENO as a searingly tragic Amfortas, easily holding his own against John Tomlinson and Stuart Skelton (& believe me, this takes some doing), as a gorgeously nasty Mephistophiles, easily the best thing in a dodgy “Faust” last year, and first of all as a powerful Amonasro, dazzling me with his mighty singing even as as he rose above a cringe-making costume and fuzzy-wuzzy wig.  All I want to say to him now is “Bring it on!”  Anything he can do, I want to see.   The man is terrific.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011


I've just been uploading some of my holiday photographs from Thassos onto Facebook.  Gasp! Good grief, Imogen does something technical using a computer!  Very nostalgic looking at them again.The blue skies, the turquoise sea, coffee on the beach; the deserted village in the mountains, the dramatic silhouette of the island of Samothrakí in the distance; olive trees and pines, flowers, beaches, and mountains shining in the sun... 

The highest peak on Thassos, Mt Ipsarion, is slightly higher than Snowdon.  Magic. 

Friday, 14 October 2011

Absolutely beautiful...

Today is the sort of day that makes autumn feel close to paradise.  The sky is clear, the air is crisp.  As you walk along, the sun warms one side of your face, and the brisk air cools the other.  Rich brown and golden leaves are lying in drifts around the Gardens, late autumn plants like asters are blazing with colour and the Rose Garden is having a glorious late flush of flowers.  As I walked down to the Palm House with three colleagues, a cloud of long-tailed tits flew through the trees above us, twittering to one another.  I work in heaven, I think.

We were on our way to be photographed for a marketing publicity shot; it needed a group of "interested visitors" and we had been roped in.  We spent about twenty minutes pretending to be given a guided tour by the Keeper of the Palm House.  As he is a mine of knowledge, of course we all started asking him questions, and fairly soon it was bordering on a real guided tour; only with a photographer sitting on the floor at our feet, saying things like "Can you point a bit more, please?"  I love the Palm House,anyway, even without the chance to quiz someone who knows about every plant in it.  I was really sorry when the photo shoot ended.

Of course, I may feel differently when I see the final pictures.  I'll probably have my mouth open in most of them.  But still, it was a nice mad excuse to get out of the office for a while, and the Gardens are looking absolutely stunning at the moment.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Stale, flat and unprofitable

Just a quick note to explain why I haven't written for a while.  I had only been back from Greece for a week when I went down with a rather nasty gastric bug which caused me to vomit a lot and left me with very uncomfortable crampy diarrhoea for several days afterwards. I haven't felt so utterly, entirely ghastly since I had swine 'flu two years ago.

I had gone down to my mum's for the weekend to look at holiday photos, have a nice lunch out, perhaps go to the coast on Sunday; that was the plan.  Then Saturday morning I started throwing up, and it was downhill all the way after that...  Poor Mum had to nurse me instead of having a nice relaxing weekend with my interesting company.  I lay in bed and slept when I wasn't in the bathroom, and was about as poor a house-guest as one can be.  I seem to have shaken that actual bug off now, but am still feeling very washed out, over a week later. 

Trying to be positive; get on with work, get some early nights, think about making another submission to another literary agent, think about blanching and freezing french beans (my only decent harvest this year has been a bumper bean crop - good thing I love beans), think about the beauties of autumn with its variadated skies and dancing leaves...

But I'd really rather like just to go home and sleep.