Friday, 30 November 2012

Couldn't resist...

Couldn't resist posting this irresistible picture - just as a little celebration of the fact that I am Going On Holiday Tomorrow!! 

Sadly not with Mr Renner, but with my mum; I'm very fond of her too though...

I also couldn't resist this lovely post from Mrs Fox:

Which kind of says it all, really, doesn't it?  May it be so - for me, for Mr Renner, and for all of you out there. I hope we all read some good books and get kissed by someone who thinks we're wonderful.  Soon, and well, and thoroughly, and amen.

Have a good week!

Science 2, opera nil

Last night; Natural History Museum Annual Science Lecture by Professor Sir Martin Rees.

Wednesday night; Late night opening at the Science Museum.

Tuesday night; Calixto Bieto’s “Carmen” at the ENO.


It isn’t fair of me to say “Opera nil”, actually, as it was a reasonably competent performance.  But it wasn’t much more than that (except when one particular singer was on stage - more of that anon!). 

Calixto Bieto has this reputation as a shocker and a bit of a sex-orgy-man, but there was relatively little shock and almost no simulated sexual behaviour to be seen; we got one male nude, dancing about slightly feyly, and some fake fellatio, tastefully obscured behind a parked car (it’s a modern dress production, in case you’re thinking “Cars? - in nineteenth century Seville?”).  But the real  problem was that, all matters of taste aside, it was basically rather an uninspired production, and way, way too bl**dy busy.

Busy-ness on stage is becoming a bit of a bugbear of mine, I have to admit.  There was so much charging around, waving of arms and brandishing of stuff and rushing hither and thither; it was confusing and irritating.  I don’t want the music to be drowned by forty extras running about and stamping arrhythmically in army boots.  I don’t want to have masses of distracting background activity.  I don’t want bizarre things happening on stage, at least not if they are pointless things that mean nothing.  If they have a point, I’ll give them fair consideration on their merits.  But if they are completely extraneous and incoherent, they just piss me off. 

Why, for example, in this production, do the gypsy smugglers put their child to bed on the bonnet of their car, and not on one of the seats as anyone sane would do? And why do they push their car everywhere?  There’s already been a car driven across the stage by that point, and plenty of raucous noise, at times covering the music entirely.  So it can’t be because the engine doesn’t work, since it clearly does, and it can’t be because the engine will drown the music, since clearly no-one in the production team cares.  So why?  It doesn’t clarify or illuminate the action, or create a startling visual metaphor, or anything; it just looks stupid. 

There is one great moment; just at the point when I was beginning to give up hope of a single fresh idea, the huge bull silhouette of the iconic Osborne’s Sherry hoarding that had dominated the set for Act 3 was suddenly thrown down and dismembered by a team of cheerful workmen during the introduction to Act 4.  As a metaphor both for the coming bullfight and the coming destruction of Carmen herself, this was a fabulously effective bit of staging; simple, dramatic, clear, striking – everything the rest of the production, frankly, had not been.

On the plus side, the orchestra played their socks off; one would never have thought this was some of the most clichéd music on the planet, it sounded so fresh and potent.  On the singing side, things were patchier.  Ruxandra Donose sounded good (I like a Carmen with a nice deep growl), but isn’t much of an actress, and wasn’t helped by a production that saw Carmen as completely two-dimensional.  The Don José shouted a lot, and I’m afraid the Escamillo wasn’t terribly exciting either. 

Anyway, I can’t really complain, since the only real reason I had gone was to hear Elizabeth Llewellyn in action again, and she at least did not disappoint.  Oh boy, did she not disappoint! 

The more I hear of her, the more convinced I am that she is on her way to being one of the great singers of our time.  A lot of Micaëlas go all out for the “unworldly-innocent-girl” thing, and end up acting dumb and sounding bland.  Miss Llewellyn’s singing has enough heft and plangency to make Micaëla sound like a real, three-dimensional, thinking person, yet also has the unerring sweetness that is so vital for the character.  There’s no discernible break in her voice, she soars into the top notes as if they were the easiest thing in the world, she is both lyrical and dramatic, and the timbre of her voice makes the hairs on the back of my neck prickle up.  And she’s beautiful, and she can act.  The perfect package.

But the production overall just didn’t have anything much to offer me.  It wasn’t shocking, except for being shockingly unexciting.  Each time Miss Llewellyn came on, the whole thing went through the roof – she has the same kind of absolutely committed engagement on stage as Simon Keenlyside or Sarah Connolly, so that one is simply riveted to her from the moment she appears.  But Micaëla isn’t around very much, and the rest of the time I’m afraid it was all basically rather dull.

Which the science events were not.

Wednesday, I went along to the Science Museum Late largely to support the Dipgeek, who was one of the semi-finalists in a kind of public-speaking rally for wannabe science communicators.  To my indignation, she was only the runner-up, despite being easily the best speaker.  I don’t say that just because I’m prejudiced in favour of my friends, by the way (although obviously I am!).  The winner was a scarily bubbly lass who gave a terribly jokey talk that was clearly aimed at kids – to an adult audience.  I guess I don’t like being talked down to, even when the talk is about something I know b*gger-all about (stem cell research, in this case).  Anyway, as far as I can understand it this means the Dipgeek may yet make it to the final, which is in April and clashes with a concert featuring Nikolai Lugansky playing Tchaikovsky 1 at the Festival Hall.  Aargh!  Support friend, or support Lugansky?  Friend or pianohunk?  For that matter, friend, or Tchaikovsky at his most passionate and dramatic?  Aargh...

The rest of Wednesday evening I mooched in the Science Museum, enjoying the late-night party atmosphere; had a glass of shiraz, amused myself playing with all the push-the-button, watch-it-explode hands-on stuff one normally can’t get near for screaming kids, and went on the Apollo Launch simulator thingy, which turned out to be at one and the same time both slightly cheesy and one of the most exhilarating things I’ve done in ages.

Last night I met Jane for a pre-birthday treat of a crêpe and a lecture on cosmology.  Professor Sir Martin Rees looks like an elderly sparrowhawk and is a terrific speaker who can make the most mind-boggling stuff sound comprehensible, even to a total layperson like me.  He’s the Astronomer Royal (I didn’t know we still had one!) and as science communicators go I don’t think they get better than this.   I haven’t a hope of summing up his talk, but it was witty, fascinating and thought-provoking, and illustrated with some excellent slides - images from the Hubble Space Telescope, computer simulations of galaxies crashing into one another and so on. 

Today I had a fairly busy day at work, and this evening I am doing my packing, eating one of those slightly-odd “use everything up” suppers, and trying to get a couple of hours’ sleep before getting up in the wee small hours to take a night bus to Victoria Station, and a night train to Gatwick Airport, and my flight to Paphos and the joys of brandy sours and good Cypriot food, fresh sea air, and hopefully some sunshine on my birthday... 

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Singing, writing, and ballet

It’s raining again.  It occurs to me that I’ve probably been rained on, either coming in to, or going home from, work (or both) about 40% of this year.  That is way too much rain.  My brother Steve, down in Bath, has seen the river Avon flood his garden three times in as many days this month.  It’s cold and wet and it seems to be dark all the time, and it depresses me.

We had another choir rehearsal today for Kew's Christmas carol Service; Nigel has rejoined the choir and is alternately playing the piano and booming away richly from the back, while a chap called Tim with Burne-Jones hair, has taken over the conducting.  I am now in my regular annual state of nerves regarding my singing, coupled this year with a vague desire to throw something at John Rutter.  He cannot leave a tune alone!  Why can’t we all just sing parts and harmonise in a normal way?  I have enough trouble with that, after all.  But no, Mr Rutter wants us altos to do a syncopated descant with massive intervals and lots of sharps and flats.  I know it isn’t in the Christmas spirit of me at all, but drat the man! 

I’ve been looking at my notes for “Gold Hawk; the nameless sequel” and trying to be realistic about them; there are some fun ideas there, but it isn’t cooked yet and it’s silly to pretend it is.  I want to spend more time with Thorn and Anna, but I’ll lose them if I try to force them into a story they’re not ready for.  So my next projects, when I get back from my week in Cyprus (can’t wait can’t wait), will be a) start typing “Gold Hawk” up, and revising as I go, and b) go back to either “Midnight in the Café Tana” or “Fortitude” and finish one or both of them.  Probably starting with “Café Tana”, since that’s the most coherent.  I’ve left Mel, David and Yaz in rather a ticklish situation, and things are due to get worse before they get better.

I sent “Gabriel Yeats” to the last agent on the initial shortlist 2 months ago, and have heard nothing back.  Sigh.  I wish I were getting somewhere with this agent business.  The idea of dispensing with one altogether and trying to do my own thing lurks in the back of my mind, tempting me.  My relative lack of computer skills holds me back (I have never figured out how to drive eBay, after all, so the idea of me producing a properly formatted e-book is frankly asinine).  And I know that for 99.9% of electronic publishing, this is the quickest way to sink your work without trace.  The odds are worse than the odds for keeping going as an artist (apparently an average 96% of Fine Art graduates – that’s me, folks - give up practising as artists within two years of leaving art school). 

The first thing, the foremost thing, the thing that drives me, is the writing itself.  If I can keep going with that, then at least I am generating new work.  Hopefully the more I write the more fluent I get as a writer; hopefully...  Meanwhile I guess I need to find another agent to try.

What else is going on?  I had an evening at the ballet last week; a triple bill, and the second cast, so a chance to see several young hopefuls in action.  Much though I love Marianela Nuñez, in “Concerto” she gets partnered by that sweet-faced blank Rupert Pennefather, and I find his gently void expression distracting (at least in the second movement of “Concerto” the chap is meant to be blank).  Besides, when Melissa Hamilton is on stage my eyes always slide towards her; she is completely electrifying whenever and wherever she turns up.  The final movement brought another bright spark in Claire Calvert, one of those dancers who make everything look easy.  I am quite certain it isn’t! – but there is a casualness in her grace that conveys almost luxurious confidence.  

The second item on the bill was “Las Hermanas”, featuring plenty of MacMillan’s signature ballet sex-and-violence.  It’s based on “La casa de Bernada Alba”.  Mysteriously the sisters have lost their names  - Angustias, Martirio and Adela have become simply The Eldest Sister, The Jealous sister and The Youngest Sister, which feels odd when you know the play – I kept thinking of them as Angustias etc.  No matter; it was still a striking distillation, though the introduction of Pepe as an on-stage figure weakens the sense of bottled-up tension Lorca creates.  But of course, one couldn’t have the aforesaid signature sex/violence without a male character on stage, and Thomas Whitehead overcame his very unpleasant wig to make a striking icon of machismo.  It’s lovely to see Alina Cojocaru get to sink her teeth into something dramatic occasionally – she embraced Angustias’ repression and agony with poignant force. 

The final item was “Requiem”, heart-breakingly sad with its dying Everyman and floating consoling angels, led by the luminous Yuhui Choe.  Not much one can say about “Requiem”; at the risk of sounding facetious, it does what you’d expect.  And at the risk of sounding kinky, it’s always great to see Edward Watson suffering (blimey, yes, that does sound kinky; oh dear, what a pity, never mind).

I haven’t much else to report.  Off to “Carmen” tonight; possibly to a talk tomorrow night; probably to another talk Thursday night; packing Friday night; off to Cyprus at crack of dawn Saturday.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Rock Chick at work...

I have pinched this picture from TCI's facebook page; if I get a bollocking for it, I'll have to delete it!  But it's not often you get to see a photograph of me (I'm camera shy) so I thought this might amuse.  Chutney-making is a serious business, don't you know? 

We made about eight lbs of Apricot and Walnut Chutney, about six lbs of Mixed Fruit Chutney, and about 4 1/2 lbs of an improvised (& very pink) jam made of apples, pears, raspberries and a healthy slug of Crème de Cassis.  "We" being TCI, her pal Alex and me; G. was rehanging the kitchen door at the same time, so there were wood shavings flying around as well and a fair old racket going on.  It was a bit manic, but huge fun.  Having three of us doing all the chopping up made things a lot quicker, though the actual cooking still took a couple of hours for each chutney. 

We had just a scrap left in the pan from the mixed fruit one, so sampled it dobbed onto chunky slivers of sheep's milk cheese.  God, that was good!  I must remember that if I am ever trying to make food I can feed someone with in tidbits. 

In the end we all flopped down exhausted and drank several large martinis, and then went out for gnocchi (+ lashings more cheese) at a local Italian restaurant.  Then I crawled home on the Tube.  A productive Sunday.

Saturday was productive, too; I managed to sort out about half my Christmas gift buying in one mad swoop on Oxford Street.  And in and around all this busyness, sitting on Tubes or buses, or crashed over coffee in John Lewis's, I wrote a couple of short extra sections for "Gold Hawk" and made a pile of notes towards a potential sequel - which led me to start wondering if there's even room for two sequels. This is ridiculous, but a fun thought.  I mean, I started off with just this vague idea for a story, just five months ago, and now I'm getting sequelitis.  I love The Muse; she is the most wonderful thing in my life.  Blessed be!

Friday, 23 November 2012

A bit of thanksgiving of my own...

I know I’m a day late, but I've been wondering if our Friends Across The Pond have an idea in this Thanksgiving malarkey... 

I’m having rather a trying day (plugging through a monotonous but useful task [every office job has them!] while trying not to disturb the person at the next desk who is getting a tad tense wrestling with a lot of figures) and I find I keep thinking “Roll on five o’clock!”.  But it occurs to me that this is wishing the next three hours of my life away, which I don’t like doing.  So for now, while I munch my apple and finish my cup of green tea, I’m going to practice gratitude.

Thank you, you gods and little fishes, for this very good apple.  Thank you for apples, generally.  And bananas.  And pineapples.  And the mad way pineapples grow...

Thank you for the frail wintry sunshine washing over Kew Green, and for the beautiful wispy mares-tails of cloud in the sky.

Thank you for the fact I’m going on holiday in just over a week!

Thank you for the fact that all my orchids are re-blooming.

Thank you for all the actors, dancers, singers and musicians whose great performances give me so much pleasure and awe.  Thank you in particular for all those who are not just gifted but hot hot hot and gorgeous as well...

Thank you for the wonderful autumn colours all around me at Kew, now entering the final phase before winter; and for the winter colours (textured bark, scarlet twigs and stems of dogwoods, rose-pink linden buds, nerines in bloom) just arriving, and the sharp, musky, bittersweet and incense-y perfumes of the season.

Thank you for it being Friday evening, the evening I treat myself to a really easy supper, and desert, and a beer. And a dose of silly TV - Friday night means "The Mentalist" and "Castle"; yay, shiny...

Thank you for my health.  Thank you for my family and friends.  Thank you that I have a job, an adequate income, a roof over my head, sane flatmates, and the use of a kitchen where all the appliances work.

Thank you for my writing.  Even if it never means a thing to anyone else at all, it means the world to me to have a creative outlet.  Thank you for my maddening, mercurial Muse, and Blessed Be She Who Comes With Stories! Thank you for that mysterious inner spring that wells forth with situations and scenes, characters and ideas.  Thank you for the guidance that nudges me towards knowing that this story will work better if it’s told in the first person, and this story doesn’t yet work because although the initial premise is good there’s a socking great hole in the plot, and this story is the one I simply have to tell right now...  Thank you for giving me Gabriel Yeats and Simon Cenarth and Anne Hope, thank you for giving me Thorn and Anna, thank you for the Ramundi clan and dumb, long-suffering Massimo; thank you for Iain Siward and Aiean Aietes, for the Hobards brothers and Maramne Myers, for Mel and Dottie and David and Yaz, for the Hughuddles, and for all the other imaginary people who have made and are still making my life a happier place.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

All the wrong reasons...

I read this for All The Wrong Reasons (as will become apparent if you follow the link) and have been spluttering with laughter into my hand for the last five minutes (it doesn't really do to roll on the floor hooting out loud while you're at the office, even if it is your lunch break). 

Do take a look: It's clever, witty, and splendidly, unashamedly mean about what does sound like an awesomely bad bit of novel-writing; and it features some very appealing gifs...  I love the term "alphole", too.  Is Gabriel Yeats an alphole, I wonder?  He's certainly an arrogant moron, after all.

All lust and laughter aside, the thought that people publish writing like this gives me hope that I might get published one day.  At least my plots make sense (well, for fantasies, that is) and my characters have character - and motivation, for that matter; and at least I have a sense of the ridiculous. 

While I'm on the subject of being ridiculous, how about The Crush of the Moment for Simon Cenarth?  In that putative dreamed-of film version of the magnum opus that hasn't even been published.  He can sing and play the piano, after all.  He would need to do a passable British accent, but that's why it's called acting, isn't it? 

Yes, definitely I'm being ridiculous.  It's my Magnum Opus and I'll make jokes about it if I want to.

Monday, 19 November 2012

How not to do it

Last night I stayed up late - far too late, in fact - watching part of the movie "Watchmen".

I like superhero films.  I've sat through some bad ones in my time just because they are fun if you switch your brain off.  I even sat through "Wolverine", which is seriously dire and has a plot that manages to be both completely predictable and completely incoherent - quite a feat when you think about it. About the only good thing going for it is the eye candy (and the relish with which the wonderful Liev Schreiber wades into acting a guy who Goes To The Bad In Capital Letters, mwah-ha-ha!).

"Watchmen" doesn't even have eye candy; unless you count Billy Crudup's face, heavily CGI'd, coloured blue and stuck on someone else's naked body (huh? Isn't Mr Crudup buff enough?).  There wasn't a single character whose motivation I could understand, much less identify with, and the unrelenting gloom and doom began to seem first trying and then childishly self-indulgent. But my biggest complaint was that it didn't seem to have a plot.  Is it too much to ask that one should have been given at least a fragment of story to engage with, by the time things have been rollicking on for well over an hour?  I gave up at what was I think the fifth prolonged flashback, explaining in yet more detail just how bloody miserable the characters are. I was irritated, and worse, bored.

The whole thing was an object lesson in how not to do these things.

So tonight I'm going to go home and watch "The Avengers" again.  I bought the Dvd (of course) and have re-watched it twice (and not just for the eye-candy, which is plentiful, as fellow fans will know). It's just such a perfect specimen of the genre in almost every way.  Yes, it has its minor problems (A. The flying aircraft carrier!! - don't get me wrong, it's gorgeous, but really not terribly probable. B. Just how quickly can you travel into the centre of Manhattan, all the way from open countryside, by motorbike?  Not that quick, I'll bet. C. Not enough Hawkeye. D. Not enough Black Widow. E. Not enough Hawkeye and Black Widow together - that's such a great little scene the two of them have together and it's so beautifully played - low-key and painful and real [in the middle of a superhero film!] and I want it to last twice as long).  But what's a minor problem when everything else is so spot on?

It's been a chilly, grey, rainy day in London and I'm tired from staying up waiting for "Watchmen" to develop a story.  Bangers and veg and a good movie for me.  And lemon curd yoghurt. And maybe a beer. Time to go home, time to go home...

Friday, 16 November 2012

Busy happy bee...

It's all go.  I love it when it's all go; at least until I fall apart with tiredness.  Haven't reached that stage yet, though.

Finished writing "Gold Hawk", first draft, and have begun on revisions.  Went to a terrific Royal Ballet triple bill and a terrific play.  Went to the first rehearsal for the Kew Christmas choir.  Had a blood sample taken (actually that wasn't much fun, but then it never is; c'est la vie).  Booked a week in Cyprus for my birthday. Discovered that the delicious vegetarian dish called Civilised Swede is better if you don't put it through the blender. Had a cool idea at work and got the go-ahead to work on it (to start with it involves compiling a large spreadsheet, which is boring boring boring, but I hope it will be worthwhile in the end).

And I've got on fine so far with the "500 calories a day, 2 days per week" diet.  I'm finding it's surprisingly easy to make it work and it doesn't lead to horrible feelings of deprivation.  I was very happy to see this post on Helena Halme's blog, outlining exactly the same eating system and giving some useful tips to make it work.  Clearly I have a way to go, but unlike every other diet I've ever tried I am not already thinking "wtf am I doing, life is too short for this misery..."  So am hopeful, for now.

The ballet was a mixed bill of new + fairly-new pieces by wunderkinds Liam Scarlett, Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon.  Three fantastic young choreographers, all at the top of their game.  Three fantastic modern-but-deeply-rooted ballets; each one abstract but with a core of emotional sincerity; each with a fine pas de deux, or a series of them, as the central image.  The middle item in particular, a revival of McGregor's best piece "Infra", absolutely knocked my socks off.  And a host of my favourite dancers were in action the night I went.  Good to see the RB get off to a fine start this season, then!

The play was the revival of "Constellations", transferring from the Royal Court to the dinky little Duke of York's Theatre in St Martin's Lane.  Wow.  A really fascinating, thought-provoking play, both funny and deeply moving - but moving without being simply press-your-buttons-emotive.  I'm still toying with it in my mind and taking delight in remembering the skilful and touching performances of Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins.  It's a gift for the actors, though I'm sure it would be horribly tricky to learn!  Have a dream US cast in mind, of course!  >sigh<

Choir practice went well, and it looks as though I'll spend the carol service in my usual state of nervous tension, wondering if I can keep to my own vocal line and not digress up into the soprano line (which does sound v odd in an alto) or down to join the tenors (which seems to take them aback badly).

And feeling really rather happy and excited about making steady headway on the latest magnum opus.  I'd like to finish revisions before I go to Paphos if possible, so that I can relax and do s*d all for a week; just walk and swim and look at archeological sites, and drink brandy sours!