Lotte Lenya and From Russia With Love

Watched the last bit of From Russia with Love last night. Saw poor Vladek Sheybal get his come uppance all over again with a certain amount of satisfaction. He may have been an excellent actor but as a theatre director he was - how can I put this? - difficult. Challenging. Bloody awful to work with. Many years ago, I wrote a play about Solidarity (the original, Polish version of the movement!) and Vladek was asked to direct it. The whole experience was a nightmare.
Vladek rewrote my play. Then he shouted at the actors. Rehearsals were a constant battle. Not that the play didn't need 'development' because it did. I was a very young and inexperienced playwright. But Heroes and Others needed proper work, of the kind that my later play Wormwood got, in the skilled hands of Philip Howard, at the Traverse - a thoroughly enriching experience for me as a writer.
Back then, though, the whole miserable time was compounded by the fact that it was winter and we were rehearsing in what amounted to a derelict building, with lavatories that didn't work. Tension and dust triggered a severe bout of asthma. I can remember struggling through the Edinburgh streets, gasping for breath. With all the hindsight of age and experience, I should have made a swift exit stage left, taking my script with me, and (in view of my breathing difficulties) headed straight for the nearest hospital. Instead, I soldiered on, trying to rescue my original vision.
The play was not a success and the whole miserable experience put me off writing for the stage for some years. Now, however, when I look at the reviews, they were actually quite complimentary about my writing. It was the production they didn't like. Scottish theatre is a very small pool, and word had got out about the 'difficulties'. They were absolutely right. But at the time it seemed like the end of the world. All of which leads me to other 'end of the world' experiences.
At the same time as cheering Vladek's onscreen demise, I was trying to explain to my son about the wonder of Lotte Lenya (Rosa Kleb!) in her heyday. Somewhere, I have the Berlin Theatre Songs and the Threepenny Opera, on vinyl, with Lotte singing. Surabayah Johnny is my favourite: the most magical, heart rending track. And over the years, I've come back to it, from time to time, partly because it's so beautiful, but also because it's the embodiment of the outraged howl of every woman who has ever been loved and left by some man she thought she knew, which is probably all of us at one time or another!

The Curiosity Cabinet (Again)

Have just had an email from Polygon to say that all the rights in The Curiosity Cabinet now revert to me, or at least are with my agent, who negotiated the original deal. 'There is no stock available in the warehouse' says the letter, which means that the print run of 1500 sold out in what amounts to quite a short space of time: not a vast number of books, for sure, but three times more than many a political memoir for which large advances have been paid. And demand is still there, particularly since I continue to give the novel a certain amount of online publicity with my blogs, my website, and linked in with my own flourishing eBay 'antique textiles' shop. (My largely female customer base always seems to contain potential fans of novels such as The Curiosity Cabinet!)
Latterly, there have been copies for sale on Amazon, for a whopping £18.00. Even allowing for Amazon Marketplace's own markup, this seems quite high, and yet they have obviously been selling at that price. But of course, there is a certain rarity value about these copies now, published in a well designed edition, and I only have a few of them left myself. I have decided to list the very few that I can spare on Amazon, at rather less than £18.00 - an almost ludicrously easy procedure - and meanwhile explore other possibilities.
I cannot for the life of me understand why publishers can't go down this route as well, keeping in print a back list for which there is a low but steady demand, so that they can take advantage of those inevitable little blips that will occur. There is a possibility that some of those seeing the play might just possibly want to read something else by me. Traffic to this blog is also growing. And I'm actively looking for a publisher for The Corncrake, which is a follow up (although not a sequel) to the Curiosity Cabinet, and would probably appeal to a similar readership. I know that some publishers, notably in the USA and Australia, recognise and take account of this Long Tail phenomenon. But not Polygon.
Before I go down the 'Print on Demand' route, however, I will almost certainly spend the rest of this year exploring other, more conventional, publishing options, particularly since I am already deep into a more commercial novel (with a Mary Queen of Scots theme), have a fully revised version of The Corncrake to sell, and now have the available rights in The Curiosity Cabinet to offer as well. All this, with poetry and plays and journalism too.
I sound like a good marketable proposition, even to myself.
If I sound like one to you, and you have publishing connections, do let me know!


Have set up a Facebook account. Major displacement activity. Now have several friends. Obsessively visiting site to see if I have any more. Somebody has written on my wall. Somebody has made me into a Zombie. Some days I feel like a Zombie. Engage in debates about relative merits of MySpace and Facebook and Bebo with Large Viking Like Son. Networking is looming very large in my life at the moment. Suspect that it's very much the way forward for writers and artists as well as musicians, who are already making the most of their opportunities. Doom laden sense of potential for timewasting vies with perception of all the exciting possibilities. Feel I am taking baby steps, in the dark. Absolutely fascinating.

The Scent of Blue - a Poem about Perfume

Well, it's about much more than perfume, but I suspect a few people may identify with that aspect of it! I haven't consciously written poems for years, although I once published quite a lot of them, including a collection called A Book of Men, that won a 'new writing' award from the Arts Council. I used to do readings, as well. Enjoyed performing. Then the plays and the prose took over. The plays in particular seemed to use that part of my creativity that had inspired the poems and they just didn't come any more. Now every writer knows that if you wait for inspiration to strike, you'll never produce anything. And it's true that you can make yourself sit down and write prose, and plays. But I couldn't make myself write poems.

For a long while, every new poem I attempted seemed like cliched, stilted nonsense. Nothing worked.

So I wrote stories, plays, novels, non fiction. But not poetry.

Then, quite recently, a strange thing started to happen. The plays in particular became more and more like poems. The director who worked on The Price of a Fish Supper told me that she was reluctant to ask me to cut anything, because it was all linked so intricately together.

Now, each play I write tends towards poetry. Is this good or bad? I don't know.

A day or two ago, I got out an old folder of unpublished poems. Usually, that's a salutory experience. Going back, I mean. Novels that you once thought were brilliant, fall apart before your very eyes. Plays wither on the page.

But not the poems. I could swear that the poems are still good. It was like finding an old bottle of whisky in a shipwreck and discovering that it still tasted of itself.

And then I wrote something new. I wrote the Scent of Blue.
I'm not sure quite what it is, but I think it's probably a long poem.
There are still a dozen novels, and other books, lurking in my head, crying out to be written. There are still ideas which only seem to present themselves as plays.
But for some strange reason, ideas for poems are also elbowing their way in, demanding to be heard.
Perhaps it's a leap of inspiration.
Perhaps it's yet another red herring.
Perhaps it's just something else I have to explore.
But here it is. And I reserve the right to change it, or delete it altogether, because I think it may be part of a work in progress. Judge for yourself.


A concert in Edinburgh, years ago.
She manages to find a single seat.
Two people sweep past, ushered by the
front of house manager in his dark suit.
He's a famous conductor,
silver haired, sharp featured like some
bird of prey, but smaller than you would
expect, in evening dress.
On his arm a thin woman,
taller than he is, strides with
striking face and hair, a cloud of
grey blonde curls around her head.
Not a young woman but a
diva surely, inhabiting her clothes,
inhabiting her skin with such confidence.
She wants to be like that some day,
longs for self possession.
And she remembers the scent of her,
musky, mysterious, a heavy, night time
scent, like flowers after dark.
The scent of passion.
The scent of money.
The scent of blue.

She searches for the scent for years.
Her mother wore Tweed.
Now she wishes she could
open a wardrobe door, and
smell her mother’s plain sweet scent,
almost as much as she
wishes she could tell her mother so.

As a girl, she wears Bluebell,
fresh and full of hope, or
Diorissimo, like the lilac she once
carried through the streets,
on her way from meeting a man
she desired and admired, thinking
Girl with Lilac, still so young,
self conscious, not possessed.

Later, she tries l’Air du Temps and
Je Reviens and Fleurs de Rocaille
but they are none of them the scent of blue.
She wears Chanel, briefly, with dreams of Marilyn,
loves to watch her, loves to hear her voice,
satisfying as chocolate or olives but
Number Five is not her scent, never suits her, never will.

She discovers Mitsouko.
Some tester in some chemist’s shop somewhere.
An old, old fashioned scent,
syncopated, unexpected, not to every taste.
When she wears it,
women ask her what it is,
I love your scent they say.
How strange the way scent lingers in the mind.
How strange the way scent
changes on warm skin.
On her it ripens to something
peachy, mossy, rich and rare.
But it is not the scent of blue.

She loses her heart.
It is an affair of telephone lines,
more profound, more sweet and
bitter than Mitsouko,
a sad song in the dark,
and the colour of that time is blue.

Afterwards, she searches through
Bellodgia, Apres L’Ondee, Nuit de Noel, Apercu
Until drawn by nostalgia
She finds Joy,
dearly bought roses and jasmine,
a summer garden in one small bottle.
She loves Joy.
She marries in Joy.
She wears Mitsouko
and she forgets the scent of blue.

Older, she glances in her mirror and only
sometimes likes what she sees.
She finds Arpege,
not just rose and jasmine but
bergamot, orange blossom, peach, vanilla, ylang ylang,
one essence piled on another like the notes on the piano she
used to, sometimes still does, play.
Oh this is not a scent for the very young.
It is too dark for that,
a memory of something lost,
an unfinished story.
This scent has a past.

She sees him across a room.
Another woman ushers him,
this way and that, makes introductions,
a little charmed the way women
always were charmed by this man.
It used to make her smile the way
women flocked around this
man who belonged to
nobody but himself.

She is wearing Arpege.
Not a scent for the very young,
vertiginous as the layers of time between.
With age comes wisdom,
but like mud stirred at the bottom of a pool,
memories bubble to the surface.
Not wisely but too well they loved.
Now, they are waving across a
chasm of years.
They speak in measured tones,
they speak and walk away,
they speak again in careful words, that
every now and then
recall the scent of

It will not do.
Only in dreams
can one innocently recapture that
first fine careless

So much more is forgotten
Than is ever remembered.
And the clock insists
let it be let it be.

One summer evening
a young man observes the way twilight closes the flowers,
whose scent lingers on the last heat of the day,
the way the light goes out of the sky,
painting it dark blue, how
soon the war will tear this place apart.
How soon all things resort to sadness.

In a new century,
She finds among jasmine and rose
vanilla and violet,
a dark twist of anise, like the
twist of a knife.
First last always.
The scent of the diva.
The scent of passion.
Fine beyond imagining.
She sees it is essentially
sad, sad, sad, a
sad scent:
L’Heure Bleue.
All things come to sadness in the end.
The beautiful bitter foolish scent of blue.

Catherine Czerkawska

The Locker Room and the Specialist Reader

It serves me right. Absolutely and completely my own fault. But it's quite interesting. So here goes.
The back story is this. I have this play called The Locker Room which has been sitting in a folder in a drawer for several years. I wrote it with the Traverse in mind. It is a dark study of the effects of sexual abuse on a young athlete and, having revised it extensively, I eventually submitted it to the Traverse from whence it bounced back quicker than a speeding bullet. The artistic director didn't like it although he didn't feel there was anything technically 'wrong' with it - and their 'reader', whoever that was, I've never been able to find out - had been very enthusiastic indeed. I filed it away, as you do, and then sent it to one or two Scottish theatres, including the Ramshorn, at Strathclyde, but heard nothing. And by nothing that's exactly what I mean. Plays (much like manuscripts sent to Scottish publishers) simply disappear into black holes. They don't say yes and they sure as hell don't say no. Me, I think they use them to fuel their central heating boilers.
Anyway, cue forward several years, and I read about the Scottish 'Playwrights' Studio' and their 'Fuse' scheme. You can submit a play which is then read, anonymously, by a 'very experienced specialist reader' (reader, not writer) who delivers a judgement. The play is then forwarded - with or without the assessment, it's your own choice - to various 'partner' theatres within Scotland, a long list of them, some of whom I wasn't even aware of. Couldn't hurt, I thought, even though the scheme is probably not aimed at playwrights of my weary years of experience. So I printed out the full length play, sent it in, with the proviso that the assessment should not accompany it to the theatres - do you think I'm daft or what? - and went off on holiday for a week.
Somewhat to my surprise I returned to an instant response (so instant that I wondered what else the reader had had to do with his time, but hey, why I am complaining about speed?) Did he like it ? I'm saying 'he' because I suspect he is of the male persuasion, but I could be completely wrong on this one. No he didn't. S/he began by saying 'you clearly have an ability with language and some interesting ideas or intuitions about the ambiguities of love in its various forms'.
Well it's kind of nice to know after all these years that I still have an ability with language (sometimes you do wonder!) - and why do I think it's a man? - oh yes, it's the faintly perjorative use of the word intuition.
He thought there was no clarity of motivation - which I take issue with. Well, what I suppose I mean is that I take issue with that as a criticism. Show me the character who has clarity of motivation, and I will certainly be looking at a two dimensional character.
Nobody real ever has clarity of motivation. Do you?
He thought - strangely -that there was a contradiction between the 'single setting' and the 'poetic style'. Not sure why. I'm never averse to moving my characters around, but in this instance, I made a conscious choice to place my characters in one enclosed, claustrophobic, and slightly risky space. So no, the play won't ever 'move' in that sense.
His main gripe - much more helpfully in my book - was that there was an imbalance in the characters and 'no competition of energies' and he could be right. The Locker Room is, in essence, the story of my main character, a young ice hockey player called Matt. And perhaps that's all it should be. Another monologue. Or a dialogue between Matt and his 'ghost' - the coach who abused him, and who is now dead.
In this instance, the reader's observation was spot on.
But I wonder if - knowing who had sent it in - his response would have been the same. Well maybe it would. One hopes it would. But it does strike me that some of our better known playwrights and novelists might well benefit from the same treatment. Perhaps experience makes you lazy. Not, mind you, that I have ever found anyone reluctant to offer criticism where my own writing is concerned. Quite the opposite.
So what to do now I wonder? Is it worth my while expending the considerable effort involved in rewriting the play with a new kind of focus. Well maybe.
Or should I wait to see what, if anything, the various theatres make of it? But then this particular reader reckoned that it wasn't worth sending out to them - so perhaps that won't happen.
Or should I post it on here? But it's dark, and not altogether suitable for family reading.
And it is rather long.
And definitely poetic.
Hey ho.
At the moment, with a dozen other fish to fry, and not entirely sure myself about the play, I will probably return it to its drawer and do nothing.
But I'll let you know if I decide to do some rewrites - and how it goes!

Life, Literature and Sheep.

Sheep seem to be looming quite large for me at the moment. I've been watching Shaun the Sheep every afternoon - more displacement activity, the only justification for which is simply that I love it - so clever, so funny, and yesterday's episode with the bees was kind of sinister as well. So there I was, upstairs, which is where my study is, thinking 'Shaun the Sheep is about to start, better go down' when I heard this loud bleating and thought 'Did I leave the TV on?' Only it seemed very loud, and very realistic. I went over to the window which looks onto the village street and there was a small flock of sheep, running between the parked cars.
Every year a local farmer moves them from one field to another, and this entails taking them along the back road through the village. I remember turning up at the crucial moment a couple of years ago, and his wife asking me to stand in the middle of the road with my arms out, to stop them from making a detour down our road. Obviously, this year, they had decided to explore. They were cut off at the pass, so to speak, and headed back the way they were supposed to go. I watched out of the window as one of my neighbours stepped out of his front door to be met by a whole flock of Shauns trotting past.
Isn't it strangely satisfying when fantasy and reality coincide like this - and doesn't it happen rather more often than you would expect?

Plot versus Characterisation

Last night, I was reading an interesting piece by Alison Graham in this week's Radio Times, in which she talks about 'well constructed, gripping drama that tells good stories, something drama over here long ago sacrificed for the dreaded "characterisation." ' I found myself pondering this in the early hours of the morning - one of those comments that work away like yeast in the mind.
For years I've conducted writers' workshops, and people invariably ask me about plot and characterisation. I usually find myself repeating the conventional wisdom that character is what really matters, it is from character that plot springs, get that right, and everything follows on as night follows day, etc etc etc.
Which is true, most of the time! I write quite a lot of issue based drama, and there is nothing more boring than drama where the issues are firmly placed into the mouths of cyphers.
But it did start me thinking.
I've been watching Rome, addictively. Now I'm normally chicken hearted where gore and violence are concerned. But even when I have to watch this from behind a cushion, I find myself pinned to the sofa, unable to take my eyes off the screen. And when I think about it - apart from the acting which is exceptional, so many great performances that it would be hard to single any one out - the thing that has kept me engrossed has been the story. For sure, it wouldn't be so involving if the characters themselves weren't absorbing as well. But it is the way the story is put together that finally does it for me: the energy, the variety, the unexpectedness and outrageousness of so much of it.
So what does Graham mean by 'characterisation' I wonder? Well, if I'm honest, I know exactly what she means and I can remember the point where everything changed. Years ago, I used to watch a series called London's Burning, about firemen. It was good, solid entertainment, a new story every week, with a continuing group of interesting people. And then quite suddenly, one season, it changed. No longer was it a series of gripping adventures. It had become a series of personal dilemmas with the weekly 'story' only there as a vehicle for detailed explorations of ongoing relationships. Not only that, but these people were so obviously 'characterisations' - all back story and no substance. They were cliched, predictable, and irritating. I stopped watching. I stopped watching Casualty as well, just about the time when I found that I could predict exactly the way each week's story was going to go from the way everything was flagged up - by heavy handed characterisation - in advance.
So have we got the balance wrong, when as human beings we love nothing better than a good strong story, well told?
Take Doctor Who for instance. ( And what on earth will I do with my saturday nights now that the series is finished? Sad or what? I'll just have to buy the DVDs) We know enough about the Doctor, and his companions - enough to make us care about them all, but never so much that the back story dominates the drama of the present. There are other dramas that manage it as well, often, but not exclusively, American. But it would be interesting to know what anyone else thinks about this. And how does TV differ from other media in this respect?

Comment on this Blog and Interesting Times

A few friends have told me that they have had difficulty posting comments on Wordarts and presumably also on The Scottish Home. I have now tweaked the settings, so comments should be possible, particularly positive comments about The Corncrake/The Summer Visitor (Although the consensus at the moment seems to be veering towards The Corncrake as a title.)

We live, it seems, in interesting times, in the Chinese curse sense. Large viking like son returns from Europe next week, and I will be chewing my fingernails until he is safely home - but then for most of the year he lives in Glasgow, so there will only be a small respite. And life has to go on as near normal as possible, in spite of the fact that relatives dropping friends at Prestwick Airport this morning report that there were more police than passengers. Or should that perhaps be 'because of' rather than 'in spite of'?
In the face of such onslaughts - and who among us, hand on heart, can say that when they first saw that young man pinned to the ground outside the terminal building last night, they didn't think 'hope it really really hurts him?' - we strive to be normal and happy, which is, after all, the best revenge.

Consequently, a group of us had a barbecue in somebody's barn last night, while the swallows that nest there every year, flew in and out, feeding their young, twittering in a disgruntled fashion at being disturbed. Then, because it had finally stopped raining, we played boules or petanque, whatever you prefer to call it. Two jack russels and a pet lamb called Madser (as in 'madser fish') trotted about after us, getting in the way of the boules and in imminent danger of concussion. We drank about enough wine and came home feeling a bit less ragged. Friendship is a pretty good revenge as well.

This morning, Gordon Brown on the TV was oddly comforting, in the way that the familiar presence of a mountain (Ben Lomond? Ben Nevis?) is oddly comforting . Granite through and through.