Festival Disasters and Other Play Stuff

The Edinburgh Festival has not been what you might call a roaring success, as far as The Price of a Fish Supper goes. Well, actually, everyone who has seen the play has emailed or phoned, or called in person to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Unfortunately, very few people have seen it. Most of the time, poor Paul has, like the ancient mariner, been talking away to a handful of people - which actually isn't too much of a disaster as far as this play goes, because it is written in the shape of an intimate conversation with the audience.
The problem stems partly from the fact that it was a late decision to stage the play at all, and consequently it isn't mentioned in the official fringe brochure. That, coupled with the fact that the fringe is just so big these days, means that nobody has 'discovered' the play. They have had to be pointed very firmly in its direction. And even between several of us emailing friends, relatives and friends of friends, there's little we can do to muster a proper audience such as the play had for a whole week at Glasgow's Oran Mor. Hey ho. These little things are sent to try us. And my how they do.
Meanwhile, am waiting to hear something, anything, about my new play The Physic Garden, about which there has been a complete silence on all fronts.
I submitted another script, called The Locker Room, to a scheme whereby plays are read by 'experienced readers'. My heart kind of sinks when I hear such things, because I wonder just how experienced they can be. Are they, for instance, as experienced as me? But everyone, even the most experienced of us, sooner or later needs some editorial input. The first reader loathed it and said so at length. If I had really been the starter playwright he so obviously assumed I was, I probably wouldn't have put my head above the parapet for another ten years. The second gave it much more considered, sympathetic, as well as extremely useful and insightful feedback. The contrast was quite startling. Which goes to show something, but I'm not quite sure what!

Large Boys Rowing

A title to conjure with. Spent yesterday in Gateshead International Stadium, with large viking like son, who was doing a trial for the Sporting Giants project - they are aiming to find likely medallists for the 2012 Olympics, in sports such as rowing. Son filled in online form earlier in the year - the only absolute criterion was height, seemingly you have to be really tall to be a good rower, with no experience necessary - and then forgot all about it. To his amazement, he was invited to a three hour trial at the Gateshead stadium. That was yesterday and involved a three and a half hour drive along the side of Hadrian's Wall, and back again in the evening. We had a little interlude in lovely Corbridge while we bagged what my family like to call 'mum's piles of old stones' - in this case the remains of a Roman Town (and a truly enormous pile of old stones) just outside the new(er) town.
Then it was on to Gateshead. The boys, and the occasional girl, though there didn't seem to be many female applicants, had been invited in groups of about thirty, starting each hour through the day. There are trials in various places throughout the UK. It was a little like an X Factor audition though without the wailing. Large Viking Like Son was very pleased that he compared favourably with his group, since it turned out that so many of them were career sportsmen, doing degrees in Sports Science, or excelling in other sports. Suspect that of those who got through the initial selection process, a further few must have dropped out, alarmed at the idea of a 'trial'.
Charles has done Karate very seriously for years, plays squash, runs a bit, used to play ice hockey but - although he considers himself 'sporty',which is quite rare in a mathematician - never really thought of making a career out of it. He doesn't expect to be one of the tiny number eventually selected for 'Boot Camp' but will seriously look at the possibility of joining a local rowing club, since he enjoyed himself so much.
What struck me, though, sitting on the sidelines as a mum, was what a nice bunch of (toweringly tall) boys they were. And I kind of wished that the doom laden tabloids would for once come along and see all these lads who had made the effort to spend several hours exerting themselves in a worthwhile cause. But it wouldn't make very good copy, would it? Large boys rowing? Hmmm. Depends on who you think your readers are!
A final thought - Gateshead is lucky to have such a wonderful stadium. Speaking as one who has spent hours and hours freezing her backside off, while son did ice hockey training when he was younger - small ice pads tend to be murderously cold, even for the spectators - it made a nice change to sit in such pleasant surroundings.

Cut Glass (an old poem but one I'm fond of!)

Oh speak to me of things that do not matter.
Our friendship is a fragile thing.
Speak too loudly and
It will shatter.

Each self is patterned with
The other self.
We are similar but not the same,
Surrounded with a tissue
Of touches now and then
Or compliments.
The light shines through us
Is distorted.
We both pretend
Not to know
That this fragile thing
If subject to one outright blow
Would shatter.

Take care.
Oh speak to me
Of things that do not matter.

(From White Boats, Garret Arts)

I wrote this many years ago, but it still seems to mean something, even to this older changed me. And I suspect it will mean something to a few other people as well. Somebody once set it to music - it was beautiful. Could have just possibly been John of the cheekbones, here. Or George in the same picture. I seem to remember that John did the singing. But we've lost touch over all these years, and I can't remember anything about him, except the melody he wrote, and sang! If he's reading this I hope he gets in touch. They were from Fife, these guys, and they were brilliant musicians. I read my poems, they played and sang - now people seem to be 'discovering' this sort of thing again, as if it is quite new. Nothing's new. Ever. And meanwhile, we carry on speaking about things that don't matter....

Number Thirty Two

The house had once been an old farmhouse. Years later, I found it on a facsimile of a map from the seventeen hundreds, a small cluster of buildings in open countryside between the city of Leeds and the village of Holbeck. It felt like a farmhouse still, although by the time we lived there, the city had enclosed it; factories choked the air round about, the railways clanked in the distance and only the street names reminded you of a distant rural past:- Whitehall Road, Springwell Lane, names with a hint of green.
Number Thirty Two, Whitehall Road was where my grandparents lived. Next door was their shop where my mother helped out, selling boiled sweets and cigarettes to the workers who passed to and from the surrounding factories. And next door to that was the fishing tackle shop where my grandfather spent most of his time, fiddling with reels and rods and talking to little fat anglers in waistcoats and flat caps. “Ey up Joe” they would say to him and sit down to drink strong sweet tea out of china pint pots and reminisce about fishing trips to Tadcaster and York. He sold maggots for bait and kept them in a tin bath, flavouring them with sawdust and curry powder for enigmatic reasons of his own. When I was three years old I would run my fingers through them, fascinated rather than repelled by their constant motion. Nobody told me to be revolted by them so why should I mind?
As a very young man my grandad had sailed on the last of the tea clippers, and spent his free time making the intricate wool work picture of a sailing ship that hangs on our sitting room wall. My grandfather loved me unreservedly. I could wind him around the smallest of my small fingers, the way my mother wound my fat Violet Elizabeth ringlets and tied them up with red satin ribbons.
“My little queen” he would call me, using the old Yorkshire word for woman.
“Who sewed your hair on Gangad?” I would ask him, running my finger along the back of his neck where the sun deepened creases looked like stitches.
He was tattooed as well, and I would trace the pictures on his arms, loving his illuminated skin, reading him like a book.
Up above the shops was the two roomed flat where I spent the first seven years of my life, until my handsome Polish refugee father, managed to get enough qualifications to obtain a research fellowship at the university. At weekends my parents would take me on the bus to Old Farnley, to walk through bluebell woods, to see wasps’ nests and tadpoles and – on one memorable occasion – a grass snake curled up in a hollow. But most of my pre school weekdays were spent down in my grandmother’s kitchen at Number Thirty Two.
I remember every detail of that kitchen the way you always do when you’re very small. There was a big black-leaded range on one wall with a fire oven where my grandmother baked loaves and plain “oven bottom” cakes and sometimes curranty shortcakes, made with flour and the best butter and baking powder.The sink to the left of the range was set into the wall, and tiled in white. It smelled of bleach and more mysteriously of potatoes. To the right of the range was a big wooden bank of cupboards and drawers, a sort of early fitted dresser.
I remember the cool marble topped table where my grandmother rolled out her pastry, with the cupboard underneath where she kept Jacob’s cream crackers in a green coronation tin. There was a kitchen table made fancy with a ginger velour cloth and a brown leather covered stool, like a hovis loaf, which lived beside the range and always went by the name of “Rufty Tufty” like a person. My grandfather had made the brightly coloured rag rugs which softened the stone floor. “How about it on the rug Vara?” I would say to my mother’s sister, my Aunty Vera who used to sit on the hearthrug with me and read fairy stories and film magazines aloud while I picked at the tufts of cloth with my starfish fingers.
The house was a long, thin house with mysterious cellars beneath, and two rooms on each of the three floors above. Up in the attic was a “Galloping Scooter” a little carriage and horses, brought from London by my impulsive grandfather when my Aunt Nora (the eldest child) was a little girl. But it had only had one outing during which poor Nora was mobbed by curious children. Thereafter it was used indoors where it survived intact to become a later exhibit in York’s Castle Museum. I didn’t much like it back then. I preferred my teddy bears:- Mr Tubby and Teddy Robinson as well as Brown Dog Dingo, a morose woollen dog, who seemed very large because I was so small.
At the back of the house was a yard, where my grandfather had once tried to make a duck pond, but his ducklings had left their mother too soon and drowned, one by one. Such tragedies always beset his attempts at country living, here where the city hammered against all his walls.
Beyond that again was a washhouse, with a copper and a big mangle, and the pungent smell of soapsuds. And beyond that was the outside toilet, with its scrubbed warm wooden seat and the scent of bleach and whitewash. I was too young to go through the washhouse by myself at nights, so someone would always take me: my mother, or sometimes my aunty, and I would sit on the lavatory and pick the flaky whitewash off the walls, and watch the comforting glow of her cigarette in the dark.
The house was warm too and dusty and yeast scented and safe. Yet things were changing. Relentlessly, time claimed us. My grandfather was a diabetic with failing sight; and ulcerated legs that grew gangrenous. My grandmother had a series of small strokes that left her confused and vague. But so fiercely did my mother and father and my aunt work to protect me, queen of the household, from the adult world, that I was never fully aware of their misery. It only lurked on the edge of my comprehension. I wished things were as they had been, but didn’t know why they were not.
And now, in middle age, I know that I have never again felt so safe, and so universally loved as I felt within those rooms. After my grandparents died, the house lay empty for many years. Once, in my twenties, I went back but it was derelict and very sad. Brown Dog Dingo lay in a corner, but the moth had got into him, and besides, he was amazingly small. How could he have grown so small? And then Number Thirty Two was sold to the factory next door which promptly swallowed it whole.
I live in the countryside now and tell people that I’m a migrant from the city. But it doesn’t seem like that. Instead I had a blissful country childhood in a house which somehow kept the memory of a rural past buried deep within its walls. But still it haunts my dreams, and it, at least, has not grown small with the passing years. The house has changed subtly and Number Thirty Two grows ever more beautiful and magical. In my dreams the house has begun to spiral outwards into underground passages and tapestried rooms, all richly decorated, and peopled with both the living and the dead.

Son's Brilliant New Video Games Blog!

If you have a moment, have a look at my son's new blog, Gamesecosse. He's a mathematician (just going into his final year of an honours maths degree) who can actually write. And he's been mad about video games for years. OK, I'm biased, but I think he's making a good job of promoting this most exciting of new industries - having spent so many years trying to defend his choice of career/interest/obsession against the misunderstandings of those who believe that all games are (a) facile, (b) violent, and (c) mindless. I've a lot of sympathy with him, because it does seem to me that so many writers (and publishers) ignore the vast imaginative possibilities of the new technologies. He's intent on working in video games design but seems to have a real flair for writing about it - and a perception of just how exciting this developing industry really is. And if you've read some of the stuff out there on these topics, you'll know that the ability to put that across is something of a rarity!

Feeling really really morose

Could it be the many signs of approaching autumn up here? Nights getting darker, the advent of the coal man with several bags of smokeless fuel at alarming prices, (dear God, now the environment police will be after me, but we live in a listed building with chimneys and yes, it's very well insulated, because we're poor.) The garden looks tired and sad. Me too, me too.
Spend my working days robbing Peter to pay Paul in terms of time. Writing endless lists. Not doing half the things on them. Working late at night when I should be sleeping. And at the moment, not really taking the pleasure in the work that I should. When you're a young writer, I think you have this faith that one day it'll all happen. You think it'll be enough to learn your craft and work hard. You'll have a success, and be able to build on it.
Well I've been writing for forty years now. I've won awards for plays and poetry, had plays produced to rave reviews, had novels and non fiction books published, and I still find that nothing changes. There's no sense of a career progression. Not only that, but I think that the constant struggle to be produced, published and publicised has encroached on the very real joy in the work that I used to know. Oh. And I've got repetitive strain from using a mouse, and my shoulder is giving me gyp, so there. Does this explain the uncharacteristically jaded posts of late? Well maybe.
All I know is that I seem to have lost the knack of writing for its own sake. Well, maybe it's lurking there. And I know it'll come back again. Just that for the moment, I think I need to do the snail thing, retreat into my shell, and think hard about where next and why.

More Hubris

Hell's teeth now Christopher Brookmyre is at it, attempting to disprove the existence of God and all things spiritual in his latest novel. Or at least that's how the Scotsman and the Beeb reported it. So maybe I'm maligning the man. But why would a writer of fiction assume that he was going to make any converts?
What is it with these people? Can it be that they overvalue the real scientific world in which corruption and bigotry sit side by side with the 'scientific method'. My late dad was a distinguished biochemist, so I write with the benefit of his experience. Scientists are as prone to all the faults and foibles of humanity as the rest of us. The best of them are open and imaginative. The worst are blinkered and self seeking. We are all of us looking for ways of describing, of coping with the world. And for sure, all things come to sadness in the end. But many people, perhaps a majority (and it is often, though not invariably, women) have an inkling that there is much more to life than meets the eye. Sometimes it can be an experience such a bereavement, which should be embittering, but isn't. Sometimes it comes as a side effect of a lifetime's observation of how people interact. But most of all, I think, I object so strongly to the assumption that spirituality is a sticking plaster which we poor blinkered souls use to protect ourselves from the more unpleasant aspects of life. And again I say hubris. Overweening pride that subsumes any sense of humility in its own certainty.
The person in my life who was perhaps the most 'spiritual' was the most generous person I have ever had the good fortune to know. Her faith was simple and uncomplicated, but she herself was not. She never proseletysed, and didn't even attend church very often, but simply lived her own beliefs. She had overcome more of what life had to throw at her than most, yet had no bitterness. She was perceptive and full of the wisdom of her years . She was a truly 'good' person, with a warmth that defied the world's sournesses, and to categorise her as among the deluded is to wilfully misunderstand the limitless potential of the human spirit.

Of Makeovers and Eyebrows

Yesterday, I was interviewed by a magazine for a 'life begins at fifty' feature, or to be more precise, about starting a whole new business at fifty. This was mainly because I decided, once I hit the big five-oh, to fulfil a lifelong ambition and open a shop dealing in the antique textiles which have been a lifelong passion for me. The fact that this isn't a real shop, but a virtual one, on eBay (the Scottish Home) only added to the magazine's interest.
Not that I've given up on the writing of course, just decided to divide my time between two absorbing jobs. Which was what the interview was all about.
I can't remember when I enjoyed myself so much. We had lunch in the kind of hotel that most poverty stricken writers can only dream of, a very friendly chat , and then came the pre-photo make-up... What a revelation!
Now I've always loved clothes, handbags (new and vintage) shoes, vintage perfumes (obviously, see The Scent of Blue below), girly stuff. It kind of goes with the territory. But I've never really been into make-up. On the night when my dear late mum first met my (incredibly tall, dark and handsome) Polish dad, at a dance, in Leeds, after the war, she was wearing no make-up and had her hair tied back with a bootlace. Or so family mythology has it. I find myself following in her footsteps. When I was a girl, I used to have long, ultra thick, dark brown hair - so long that I could sit on it. I loved it, and still sometimes dream about it, about brushing it, that feeling of being surrounded by this amazing, dark sea of hair that sparked with static when you brushed it.
I had it chopped it off, of course, while I was still quite young, had one of those shiny, bouncy, bobs that were so fashionable. I even had it henna-ed, when that was fashionable. (Like wrapping your head in something that smells of a warm hayfield). I don't know whether men ever realise just how much women mourn their long hair after it has gone. Now I spend far more on my hair than I ever used to. It's still thick and shiny, but it sure takes work.
And I've become a bit more interested in the make-up counters at Boots, shall we say?
So yesterday, this lovely, cheerful make-up artist sat me down, and looked at my face, and honed in on my eyebrows right away. She said 'if you take care of your hair, you should spend some time and money on your brows. It would make a difference.' Then she set to work on them with a will, as well as some clippers and some tweezers.
Once the make-up was in place, I glanced at myself in the mirror and hardly knew myself. How could somebody achieve so much in about fifteen minutes, including the eyebrows? I looked... well, let's say I looked younger.
Cue forward to this afternoon, when (after all the lovely war paint had long gone) my son came in after a night spent at a friend's house. 'Wow' he said, all unprompted, stopping dead in his tracks. 'What have you done to your eyes mum?'
'Why?' I asked.
'I dunno. They look different!'
'How different?' I asked, anxiously. 'Better, or worse?' Large Viking Like son is not noted for (a) observation or (b) compliments where his mum is concerned. As long as I don't actually scare the horses, pals, or girlfriends, he's usually fine with my appearance.
'Oh better!' he said. 'Yeah. Better.'
I looked at myself in the mirror. I could see exactly what he meant. How could ten minutes with clippers and tweezers make such a difference? I don't know. But it does. Only problem is, now (along with the hair) I'll have to keep up to it.
I seem to be becoming high maintenance. Rats.

Dawkins Shmawkins (2)

Must have blogged about this before but he comes around with monotonous regularity. Can I be alone in finding the relentlessly self promoting, crusading, and all too ubiquitous Mr Dawkins, along with all his facile works and pomps, completely and unutterably intolerable?
There. That's got that off my chest.
The man must be peculiarly, nay culpably naive if he really believes that scientists aren't as prone to corruption as the rest of human kind. He who pays the piper invariably calls the tune, and good dog science follows after, briskly wagging its tail, in pursuit of ever more elusive funding. Or in Mr Dawkins case, in pursuit of book and TV deals.
But chiefly it's the hubris of the man that is so vomit inducing.
He isn't science's 'knight on a charger of reason' as some sycophant describes him in the Radio Times this week. To me he seems more like a cynic, with an eye to the main marketing chance. And about as blinkered in his own way as the more extreme religious proseletysers are in theirs.

More Fish Suppers and Cattle Markets

Went through to Edinburgh to the Gilded Balloon, Teviot, to see the play. Strange experience. Had forgotten where the venue is. Which sounds mad, but what I suppose I mean is that this part of Edinburgh is so changed from the years when I studied here, that I tend to forget exactly how to get to places. The university campus, which used to be manageable, has grown big and - to me at least - seems to be increasingly cutting itself off from the rest of the world, and life as we know it Jim. Or are my prejudices showing?
The venue, where The Price of a Fish Supper is on for most of August, used to be the old Men's Union when I was a student. I wondered why it looked so completely unfamiliar and then remembered that it was because I have never been in it. I seem to remember that it was a men's club back in those peculiarly sexist days. The only time women were allowed in was when they were invited by some man, or to dances, which had the grim reputation of being 'cattle markets'. Neither I, nor any of my friends, went near the place. Which explains my complete unfamiliarity with it!
Paul turned in another astounding performance as Rab, the ex fisherman at the end of his tether. And this in spite of a small (but appreciative!) audience, and the fact that just as he was embarking on his tour de force, a smoke machine at the front of the stage (why? why?) gave a loud metallic graunch, and belched out a huge puff of theatrical smoke. That Paul didn't even falter is testament to his skills as an actor of the first order! The joys of live performance.

The Price of a Fish Supper - Pass This On!

We need an audience for the Price of a Fish Supper, which is on at the Gilded Balloon, in Edinburgh, until the end of August. Can you help? Even if you aren't actually going to be in Edinburgh, if you know anyone who is already at or is going to The Edinburgh Festival, please pass on the details from the link above. It's a lunchtime show, 12.30 - and it doesn't cost the earth. But if you go, you will see a cracking performance from one of the finest actors working in Scotland today - Paul Morrow.
Our problem with the show is that - well reviewed as it was in its original production in Glasgow - and it was extremely well reviewed - it was a late entry to the Festival Fringe, which means that it isn't in the official fringe literature - and it's now competing with all those shows that are! Word of mouth is our best option - so if you think you can help, simply by passing on these details, please do!

Cloudberries - Another poem.

Cloudberries are rare these days.
You can search all day
among the marshes. Meanwhile
mosquitoes feed on you.

When you bring them in a pail
though you have picked for hours
fingers torn, face swollen, they will
subside slowly to fewer than
you would ever have believed.

Dreamberries dissolving between the teeth
with a faint golden taste of the sky.

(Started many years ago in Finland. Completed only recently!)