Monday, April 28, 2008


Pianists become different beasts as they hunch over the keyboard. It's as profound and total as that switch from nice young student to beast in American Werewolf. I saw it again last Thursday as Ian Pace gave a seminar and performance at Plymouth.
He wound up gradually, illustrating his talk with bursts of piano playing. The talk, on notation in twentieth century piano scores, was pitched above my head though I appreciated the passion. I picked up that every note in a chord can be played at different volume for different effects, and appreciated how modern composers have to work against performance habits that are engrained yet inappropriate. The talk moved on from the promised sixty to ninety minutes, Ian Chase clearly disappointed at the lack of subsequent questions, but we all wanted to get on to the playing. And that was phenomenal. Stockhausen left me vibrating ... I've never enjoyed him before, but this timne around it was as though my own body was an instrument that was being played by the piano. Thrilling.
In a varied three days, Thursday saw me at an event at Brian Eno's studio in Notting Hill. It was an event for Basic (of which Brian's a patron), essentially a lobbying organization arming policy makers with arguments against the prolifertation of nuclear weapons. Their director made a plea using terror-fear tactics (a bomb will be dropped on Washington, New York of London if we keep on going this way ... a dirty bomb maybe, but I see one aim of 'western civilzation' is to make sure the bombs are exploded elsewhere if anywhere (even Hillary Clinton promises to take out Iran)). He also stressed how the nuclear threat is more immediate than global warming - well I don't see those two causes as oppositional. But I am frustrated that our government allowed no voices against renewal of Trident. It's an obscene waste of money in urgent times. So I signed up onto the whiteboard as a patron ... alongside Annie Lennox, who gave a fine speech about her own passion for the cause. The evening, a Lebanese buffet, moved through conversation into acappella singing, spirituals and rocksongs led by Brian. A great fun way to round off an evening. I've not sung so much in years.
Then on to the National Theatre and George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara for the third evening out in a row. I thrilled to the play when I last saw it ... but that was about thirty years ago at the Nottingham Playhouse. This did seem rather a static production, and painfully didactic ... but I wonder if it's not just that I've grown older and learned stuff along the way. Shaw had a lot to teach me once, but in time you learn it. The audience did their best to enjoy themselves ... I'm always struck by audiences' eagerness to laugh, to have a good time. The production bit home at one particular point, the industrialist (well played by Simon Russell Beale) noting how he was the government, how politicians danced to his tune - everyone noting that Shaw, from a century or so ago, was speaking about our governments now. It was a largely wearying evening for me though, lightened by a few brisk comic touches. I think I'll give up serious plays. Give me an intelligent comedy (Speed the Plow with its pitch perfect Jeff Goldblum Kevin Spacey double0-act was terrific the other week) or a feast of farce (Boeing Boeing a recent goodie). I go out for an evening, I've found I want a good time.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Allan Guthrie and 'Savage Night'


I've been getting down and dirty with Allan Guthrie's Savage Night these last few days (a good title, fitting a character's name in the book. Al tells me all his titles have been tributes to noir classics of the same name, in this case a 1953 book by Jim Thompson).
I got a brief taste of an underside of Edinburgh some years back, taking a touring production to a school on the East side. Our minibus drove from the school gates festooned with kids, banging on the windows breaking off the wipers and clinging to the outside.
That was tame though ... this is more like my old neighbours in Glasgow, with their tales of times in the high-security wing of Barlinnie, outings with razor gangs, deaths administered with single twisting punches to the gut (which reminds me why I quit the city). This novel takes the vendetta theme, families punishing each other, and twists it to fresh extremes - the vendettas are mistakes, and the likes of dismemberment, decapitation, defenestration all happen in the name of some tough love. Get a bite of it ... lock yourself into flailing minds as they face their dying moments!
The book has fine terse language, lots of well-played tricks of time and comedy, characters you're sad to see the end of, and a curious fractured chronology: we're placed in the book in the middle of one intense scene, then other scenes wrap themselves around it, forwards and backwards in time. As the line between life and death keeps getting crossed, this warping of time is a good fit for the book. It's a bit like being buried alive, a spadeful at a time, but then of course it's not because heck, you're just a reader and can break off for a pint or a cup of tea at any time.
Check out the special promo video.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Ayahuasca in Cornwall - the Eden Project

The Eden Project is a remarkable feat - in under ten years, a derelict quarry in Cornwall has been turned into one of the country's very top tourist attractions.
Cornwall is the left-hand toe of Britain, scenic and a great pull for tourists, yet it is still west-coast Britain so it's often wet. It's clever to site an indoor, wet-day attraction here. Saturday was wet and chilly, the various biomes of the centre merrily buzzing with families on days out.
There are three biomes ... one outdoors,a pleasing terraced area of gardens, the other two vast bubbles of conjoined geodesic domes.
To the left is the rainforest. My first principle delight, while waiting the ten minutes for my thick glasses to demist, was listening to tropical birdcalls ... in fact a host of robins singing their hearts out for their various patches of territory. The dome is large enough to absorb the crowds over the pathways and various levels, the whole surround of vegetation quite comforting. Up near the top, beyond the waterfall, is a run of plants strong in shamanic ceremonies of South America. The ayahuasca vine, its stem mashed to a pulp and mixed with the neighbouring (here at least) chacruna leaves, is a powerful hallucinogen. Though my own ayuahasca experiences (described in my book I Was Carlos Castaneda) took place in the jungles of Peru, I'd never seen the plant growing before. Those experiences were almost the death of me. I took gentle hold of a leaf to see what message it might send. I felt a deep internal shudder.
One thing the rainforest lacks is insects. It's a shame they don't import some butterflies at least, though clouds of mosquitoes and a host of spiders would make the experience much more authentic. Small ants were doing their best, crawling across many of the plants, but they were a tame version of the tropical reality.
More soothing was the Mediterranean biome ... featuring what we in Europe think of the Mediterranean but also South African and Californian plants. I especially liked climbing the hill on which grew the plants of the maquis, that area of scrubland familiar from our Pyrenean home. Rock roses, what I know as grey-leaved cistus, were just coming out when we left the Pyrenees two weeks ago. In Cornwall they were in full flower.
The day out seems to have had a desired environmental effect. Our car broke down just across the Tamar River back in Devon. It seems to be terminal. We shan't be replacing it so that's the end of cars for a while. Great cost-saving if we hire as necessary, and probably 10,000 miles worth of refined oil not spewed into the atmosphere.

Friday, April 18, 2008

going quiet


The old pattern was back the other morning. I woke at 5 and sat down at my table, waiting for the sun to rise. Here it comes, zooming fast above Dartmoor and much more blinding than the vast round ball of red that bulged over Plymouth Citadel a few months back. I opened my manuscript book, pen in hand, and prepared to write.
Then found I didn't want to. Keen observers of this blog might have spotted an equivalent silence of late.
Two new novels of mine, one for adults and one for children, were being passed around the London Book Fair this week. That suddenly seemed enough to be going on with. Even my doodles feel artless just now. There comes a time when you're just spent.
I'll fill in forms, write modules and handbooks for next year's teaching, read and re-read what I'll be teaching then. I recently found and liked Nabokov's notion that there is no such thing as reading, only re-reading, the only way to find true worth in a book. I think he is right but without my teaching responsibilities I wouldn't have found this out for myself ... another example of learning to slow down rather than rush forward to the new all the time.
So some reading is due ... but I can't say I need recharging by other people's words just now to trigger me into more of my own. Some light-touched landscape and silence will do me for a while.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Montaigne's Tower



Writers' homes are generally worth a detour. Not far from the splendid French town of St Emilion is the home of Montaigne. The family mansion burnt down a hundred or so years ago, but his tower remains. This is where he removed himself in his fifties and began his sequence of essays, pacing round and around the upper library, for walking helped his thoughts flow.
I led my partner James there - Montaigne's writings influences his own early life, and the model of a guy in his fifties who retreated to his tower to write a book which helps society reconfigure itself is tailor-made of James. It's worth heading to the rooms of such creative beings to imbibe some of that alternative current their thoughts charged into the walls.


It was wonderfully empty. We had the whole tower to ourselves for much of a Sunday morning. And graciously a torrent of rain subsided just as we chose to step from the tower, allowing us to walk the orangery and admire the landscape of the surrounding hills.
Everyone who came into contact with the young Montaigne was directed to speak Latin with him (they must have employed very educated gardeners and servants). Montaigne grew up with Latin as his mother tongue, and marvellously managed to ignore it all so as to write his works in French. Still, he had his favourite Latin phrases inscribed in the wooden beams of the library ceiling. It was pleasing, to come to know a man for whom words meant so very much.


The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself - Michel de Montaigne

Monday, April 14, 2008

Lascaux and the earliest days of cinema


We finally made it to the Perigord area of France. The caves of Lascaux are now closed to visitors but the replica, Lascaux 2, provides a great introduction to the prehistoric caves of the region. It's simple to magic yourself back 17,000 years to how these parades of bison and horses first looked. The flames of torches flicker and dance movement onto the images, pictures conjured out of darkness and coming to life on the walls around you. The first scenes, on your left as you enter Lascaux 2, are a sequence of horses ... each horse in a developed stage of a gallop, legs and haunches stretching, the whole pattern of a horse's movement brought to life. I looked on, and realized that the very first form of art we have on our planet is, in effect, cinema.
James and myself were then given a private tour of Font de Gaumes, with its awe-inspiring bisons' gallery, the artists discovering the shapes of animals in the fissures and rounds of the rock walls and, with just a few strokes of colour sometimes, bringing those images to light. Here the prehistoric cinema takes on emotional drama, one deer reaching forward its head to lick the face of another.
Archaeologists found scaffolding stored in the caves, wooden platforms allowing artists to climb and fold their images across ceilings and high along walls. Animals and not men dominate these early cinematic scenes, living marvels of nature brought to life on cave walls as if in a womb.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

decompressed

And so this period in France comes to a close ... I take the ferry from Roscoff (here in Brittany) back to Plymouth this afternoon.
It's been a fine time of decompressing. After a couple of days in the Bordeaux / Perigord region (about which, more later I hope) we tucked ourselves into our hillside hideaway of Pezilla de Conflent and decompressed ... some grand walks in the hills, visits with a fire salamander, sub-alpine warbler and miniature iris and narcissus; reading and chatting and walking the village dog that adopts us down there. Some hermitting was going on, but Easter Monday saw us social and joining in the village Easter feast, a convivial four hours of wine, omelette de Paques, and local chat.
I managed one spell of writing ... keeping the tradition going that the new novels kick in while surrounded by those green hills. Otherwise my working and writing brain switched off for a time and I read work that comes nowhere near my own writing and teaching remit. I return with that comforting feel of being restored to somewhat normal again.