Saturday, March 28, 2009

Camellia Day


Which magazine has just astonished even Plymouth by naming it one of Britain's Top Ten Tourist Destinations. Accessibility to a range of wondrous places is part of the reason, and very valid it is. I'm looking over the Victorian gardens of Plymouth Hoe as I write, towards the hills of Dartmoor. And a sequence of ferries (two in winter, four in summer) spin you from the centre out to different stretches of Devon and Cornwall's coastal paths.
Last Sunday we took the Cremyl Ferry from Stonehouse across to Cornwall. You land near the grounds of Mount Edgcumbe House and Country Park, where early flowering in the National Camellia Collection (thanks to the warm Gulf Stream) made it a splendid place to celebrate Camellia Day.
We wandered the paths, following the trail, picking up camellia facts and role-playing people who are interested in camellias.
I've learned more since. 'The name camellia honors a pioneer botanist in the Far East, a German Jesuit missionary to the Philippines, Georg Kamel, who died in Manilla in 1706,' for example. That and other facts can be found in a rare and sweet camellia website from the university of South Carolina, who have forged its contents out of their collection of camellia books.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Last Chance Harvey


Last Chance Harvey came out in the US in time for Awards season ... Emma Thompson claiming a Golden Globe nomination. It comes out in Britain, much more appropriately for it's a summer feel-good movie, on June 5th. I went to its first English showing the other day, a private screening for Emma's friends and family in London's Soho Hotel, introduced by its writer / director Joel Hopkins.
It's a gradual, steady movie which accumulates some real power. Dustin Hoffman's Harvey is a composer whose career is on the ropes, in London for his daughter's wedding where's he's displaced by her stepfather. Emma's Kate is an airline employee, her widowed mother (Eileen Atkins) hectoring her by mobile phone about lovelessness. The acting of the lead couple is magnificently unshowy, fun and fear and hope and hopelessness simmering and flashing in the eyes.
It's a comedy about two mature people, rendered solid by disappointments, daring to open up and give relationship one more try. The writing was a rare treat: some great come-on lines from Hoffman and a fine long speech from his Harvey, standing up at his daughter's reception to finally have his say. Most striking for me was Kate's final speech on London's South Bank, a long 'you're fine and all that but I'm much better on my own thank you very much because I can't bear the inevitable pain of breaking up' line of speech. It was astonishingly sustained, so many swoops and dives of emotion, all mirrored in Emma's face that reddened and streaked with tears. It's brave to act in so open a way, to allow your face to be ten foot high and distorted by pain. The writing was astonishing - I found it hard to see how so many shifts, so much accurately fractured language, for so long, was ever captured on the page.
Joel deflected the praise for that element. Emma had seen his original for that scene, smiled and said yes it's a good try, and then rewritten it herself. Her Oscar-winning actor joined her Oscar-winning screenwriter side for a while, and the result is sheeringly brilliant.
You step from this film feeling good about life (and if you sit through the credits, the mother's story is rounded off sweetly too). Go see it.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Penzance then and now ..... in paintings by Marjorie Mort and Gill Watkiss

One of the charms of southern France is discovering reproductions of famous paintings, sited where the artists stood to paint them. You discover the fauvists' views of Collioure, Dufy chief among them. Charles Rennie Macintosh in Port Vendres (I doubt he would have painted the factory that now bleakens his best view). Van Gogh in Arles.
I've just had fun doing the same in Newlyn, chasing a couple of our own paintings down to their sources. Newlyn is at the edge of a wide bay at the tip of Cornwall, half an hour's walk from Penzance. The Newlyn School of painters ranks alongside those of St Ives, all inspired by the light that spills from three sides as the sea surrounds. Commercial fishing boats cluster the harbour, bright colours bobbing on blue. Just with my camera rather than an easel I kept being caught by surprises of light.
Marjorie Mort lived at a house called 'The Willows' on Cornwall Terrace in Penzance, a sweet road running back from the Promenade (the house name has disappeared). She painted in a studio above Lloyds Bank in Newlyn, and this view was one she must have seen every day as she paced along the seafront on her way to work.


The place is easy to spot, although there are some changes over the last twenty / thirty years. the Belisha beacons are still there, and hooray for them. I've long loved these and our zebra crossings here in Britain, giving priority on roads to pedestrians, and have feared 'progress' would remove them. The T-junction has become a roundabout, lamps have become fancifully old, and there is nothing to string lights from now.

Wandering up Cornwall Terrace brought me to Morrab Gardens, chancing upon another picture that hangs on our wall. I like the drama in Gill Watkiss's paintings, characters caught leaning into moments of intimacy and estrangement, somewhat Munch-like. Cornwall is light but it's also winds and driving rain, it fronts the Atlantic while sitting on a Gulf Stream, and her pictures capture much of this.

(The painting is 'The Broken Promise' and I find fresh aspects to admire every day. the girl in bridal white at the centre is viewing, to my eyes at least, her former fiance with his arm around the woman in green.) The bandstand still holds Sunday afternoon concerts in summer, and the garden is sub-tropical. Gill paints the sky in afterwards, I understand, unlike the standard practice, and here the skyline includes an imaginative strip of sea (just as Marjorie Mort brings in a spur of land above).

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Newlyn Harbour

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mark Ravenhill's OVER THERE


Find a couple of charismatic young identical twins and why not write a play for them? If you need a theme that mixes in a little conflict and ups the intellectual quotient, why not have them come from, and somehow represent, East and West Berlin, Communism and Capitalism? And since our twins are pretty vital and attractive, have fun with them. Why leave them clothed if you can strip them naked? Have them perform in Y-fronts or shiny grey suits without shirts; they can take it in turns to vamp it in drag as a Californian blonde; they can give us a touch of Wedekind's Spring Awakening (I still remember going with my mother to this years ago) and facing the audience while masturbating; cover one in food and have him jump about in a pig mask; chuck in a little murder and cannibalism and achieve a full-frontal sex change if you know how; for a pleasing gay finale, round things off with two young men kissing.
Mark Ravenhill gives us this in his play Over There at London' Royal Court Theatre. It's a brisk one-act show of 75 minutes, the actors entering a closed bright box of a stage through the audience. The Sunday Times just gave the show a snotty review, as can be their wont with anything challenging, and it's true I came out of the show pretty unilluminated about the East West divide. But then I'm getting on and lived through it. I worked in Berlin when the Wall surrounded its western part, wrote my first novel about the experience, and had friends on both sides. I didn't expect to learn much. However I have been struck by how many educated folk of about twenty years old are clueless about such matters as the iron curtain. It's not just us in the west. A Czech told me about her sister, also aged about twenty, who is unaware that life was once divided on east/west lines. So this play has value for those as young now as the characters depicted.
For me, the evening was entertaining. I rolled with the fun of it. The whole show ran at a cracking pace ... one actor walks one quick circle and we've jumped miles or years. There's lots of theatrical fun - a sponge standing in for a child; a bag of flour for a man's cremated ashes; lines of dialogue are voiced simultaneously by both actors; toppling cardboard boxes into the audience is the wall falling down; a song is belted out through a megaphone to baked bean tin accompaniment while both men enjoy a wild dance; another fine acoustic song is delivered to guitar while the twin covers himself in food. It's all lively stuff. The audience offered few laughs because it was all so fast and curious, sometimes macabre and weird, but it was good black comedy even so.
I'm learning to leave my critical faculties at the door and go with the flow. Luke and Harry Treadway were a great double-act, and Ravenhill and they served each other well.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

In memoriam James Purdy


I'm sad this morning to learn that James Purdy has died. (His New York Times obituary draws a line from my own interview with James Purdy posted on this website.)
James trembled with a sense of literary injustice and neglect, but was also canny enough to recognize that the establishment is more likely to pin awards on those who mimic rather than threaten it. James Purdy trimmed his life back to bis Brooklyn walk-up and kept on writing. His books are audacious, often scabrously funny, and sexually they seem almost impossibly daring for their age. Patrick White and Paul Bowles achieved greater acclaim, and indeed are in my pantheon, but Bowles used hs gay aesthetic to write of those who are pinned between conflicting cultures (largely in his adopted homeland of Tangiers) while Patrick White fed that gay displaced sense onto an Australian landscape, people's tiny lives swirled into strange dances of death with the landscape and spirits of Australia. Purdy is rawer. It's as though he turns his whole life inside out, for opening wounds is an act of healing.
His books dominate my shelves. He's been my favourite living author. Now, it seems, he's simply my favourite author. When other books seem pointless I pick up one of his.
I flew to New York to be with him, because it was too late to sit with Henry James and that is the league in which James Purdy belongs. Some day I'll mine my interviews and write of him again. Some day soon I may post the photograph of him I took in our meetings. Today I moved from the news of his death into finishing a final draft of a new story. That's something that James has to teach - the folly of writing in expectation of due recognition, and the primacy of writing.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Chris Goode's KING PELICAN


Plymouth's Drum Theatre continues its inventive support of new writing with Chris Goode's King Pelican.
The play mines Chris Goode's long obsession with the works of Edward Lear, the little man roaming around the stage while words spew delicate streams from his mouth. It's a curious evening, Lear's sister Ann dying in a bed on an upper level and subsequently embarking on a series of letters from heaven, the downstairs Victorian drawing-room suddenly exploding, walls collapsing and water spouting to surround the drawing room, Lear's words becoming those of King Lear marooned on his island.
The play is the first that Chris Goode has ever sat down to write, an experience he disliked and vows never to repeat. For him, the theatre experience gains its magic from co-operation, actors sharing the synergy of creation. For a while Edward Lear voices his fears at speaking words before impressionable Johnny, the postboy who is the third member of the cast, because any words will be etched on the young man's brain, they are an unwarranted intrusion into his life.
The boy seeks exactly that kind of intrusion. He strips naked to demand Lear breaks through the carapace of Victorian conformity and look at him, finally placing Lear's hand onto his naked stomach. He returns in tight jeans on a skateboard, morphing unremarked, but for a surprised glance, into a twenty-first century man. The theatre is being brought into the audience's world, this shift in time supporting Lear's opportunities to break from the conformity and repression of Victorian culture.
The play sometimes seems to choke on its words, there are so many of them, but it is surprisingly gentle. Characters are portrayed with love. For Chris Goode (speaking after the show), admitting that one is naturally a sad person, that melancholy is the most dynamic stream in your life, is as significant as coming out gay, and Lear gets to portray both aspects of exictence.
At the close, a makeshift boat is erected and Lear and Johnny sail off in the guise of the owl and the pussycat. Much of the play on stage is visual in this way, not so much anchored to text. This element of play is quite freeing, and the end is a delight.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Writing and not writing


I like to imagine that teaching creative writing doesn't replace the writing itself, but stokes it somehow. I come up with new hobbyhorses to ride, and begin to wonder 'do my students really need to hear so much of this, or am I trying to tell myself something?'
My latest, as I teach life-writing, ('Bring in the senses, bring in movement, this is life writing so make it live!') is to set your subject within his / her environment. This is clearly a residue from my own last biography of J. S. Haldane, whose guiding spirit in life was that nothing can be seen as separate from its environment. For me the environment in biography includes culture and place, and also all the other lives with which the one of your subject intertwines.
As I teach texts of late I find some anger me ... probably out of my frustration that I'm not getting enough writing time myself. What was Anne Stevenson doing in taking on Sylvia Plath as a subject? She kept slashing at Plath with the words 'spite' and 'witch', the book Bitter Fame only raging into life with its direct quotations from later Plath that showed Stevenson harumphing at nothing in comparison. (She clearly agrees and has returned since to the wellspring of her own creativity, in poetry and landscape.) And I found Blake Morrison's As If about the James Bulger child murder case insufferably middle-class and therefore adrift from many quivers of life, with literary allusions on almost every page trimming his audience to those who share his education, his quick depictions of the 'working-class' parents shallow and damning. His journey is inward, life like books reflecting the inner Morrison. He needs another subject. (Many of my students loved the book so this is quite likely my hang-up ... they didn't get the literary allusions but weren't put off by them, and felt it was grand for a middle-class guy to be writing for a middle-class audience.)It reminds me why my preference keeps shifting to American literature, shaking loose the shackles of the Great Tradition to follow Ezra Pound's 'Make it New!'
Oh well, get over it Martin. You need to write more. I'm off to run a PhD supervision in the British Library cafe today, having a separate lunch there with a writer pal beforehand, taking the rest of my time to fossick around my latest biographical subject (of which more anon) ... Daffodils sprout, and I begin to sniff the air of a writing summer which should set me to rights once again.
(It's really best not to criticize other writers while not writing yourself, for you project your own grievances. Writing, while a strain, is a balm and a cure. V.S.Pritchett did trot up his staircase every day of the week for his writing stint and so never needed to vent his writing spleen on others who had bothered to hack it. He refused to review any book about which he could find nothing good to say. Hooray for him!)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

piano playing


A piano has just come back into my life, digital this time to spare the neighbour in the apartment below. It's a birthday present from my partner, who's noted me treating every surface as a keyboard and drumming my fingers across it. My new novel has music at its core, so its moving to be able to shift myself inside music in so physical a way.
It has set me thinking about piano playing. One of my favourite stories is 'My Dear Palestrina' by Bernard Maclaverty (and check this great interview with him that touches on this and is beautiful and intimate on the writing process). The story was made into a BBC film in 1980, Eleanor Bron starring as the piano tuner, and it worked equally well in the form of a radio play. For me it captures the unique poignancy of the relationship with the piano teacher (my own was Mrs Towers in Loughborough, a weekly half hour in her front room for more than a decade, a step over the threshold of another life where life can be powered into a different quality of meaning). I met Bernard Maclaverty once and asked about his own piano teacher. He never had one; loves music but cannot read a note.
I marvelled then at the powers of invention and imagination that conjure so true a piano teacher out of no direct experience. It's only just now I see the truth behind it. Maclaverty didn't have a piano teacher, but he did have a mother.
I see myself playing the piano, and I picture perhaps the most idyllic scene of my life. I'm stroking the keys of an old Grotrian Steinweg grand in the dining room of the Old Rectory in Rempstone. The piano is angled into the room, my stool is beside a glass doorway open to the patio outside. My mother is on a chair, taking in the sunshine with her eyes closed perhaps, smoking a Dunhill, maybe shelling peas, and listening. Piano playing was many things to me (Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata I used to flash out whenever I had anger to express, the anger fuelling a storm of musicianship till I was spent at the closing bars) but perhaps most of all it was this relationship with my mother, me playing and her listening, both of us opening out into realms of other possibilities.
I played for my grandmother too, on her Sunday visits. She was a rough diamond, working-class Leicester, who in her day could belt out any tune for her husband to sing to as friends squeezed into the parlour of their tiny terraced home. There was secret magic in playing so that her eyes welled with tears, journeying out to find some space and moment that was special to us both.
So I realize that the relationship with the piano teacher for me was also one with the mother. I played the piano, muted but without headphones, the evening it arrived. The next morning a sour note appeared in the hallway, the lady below complaining about the noise. It disturbed her watching of the TV.I realize the magic went out of piano playing when my mother was no longer there to listen to it.
With my writing I had to take the conscious step of no longer writing for my mother. I sometimes set students the task of writing something they would hate their mother to see, just to break them loose of those constraints. I guess I have to take a similar step with piano playing, journeying into music that shocks me and isn't necessarily a pleasant listening experience at all. How curious, that growing up keeps setting new challenges.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

With Linda Duong at home


At 14 I looked onto what would become my new bedroom, in the old Rectory in Rempstone, Nottinghamshire. The house had underground passages running from cellars in its 12th century foundations, and in later years Oliver Cromwell was schooled there. This bedroom had been home to two writers before me; Dorothy Hartley and Cecil Roberts. The current occupant, the house's elderly owner, kept the room monk-like, just a wooden cross marking its white walls. The decor of a monk's cell has always appealed since then.
We achieve it at our home in France. Here in Plymouth we're starting to let rip. This photo sees me at today's Sunday dinner table, looking out across Plymouth Hoe, a new photograph finally framed and up on the wall behind me.
It's by Linda Duong, bought from a show curated by Garry Hunter in the crypt of St Pancras Church, London, last year. Linda received a grant to return to Vietnam, where she was born, and brought back some wondrous images. This one, to be found in more glaring colours on the travel section of her website, is filled with detail and story that I'm very happy to live with and look my way into each day. Taken in Vietnam in 2002, it has the retro look of Blade Runner while also feeling like a glimpse into the future somehow.