Review – Benefactors, Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield, 17th March 2012

BenefactorsAn ambitious young architect has a great vision for social housing in some decaying corner of SE15, something that will provide decent accommodation whilst enhancing community spirit. His kindly wife keeps open house for their needy neighbours, whilst doing his admin and looking after the kids. The two guys were obviously at college together and the other chap has gone into journalism, whilst his wife, a sometime nurse, has gone into some form of depression.

Simon WilsonBut all is not as it seems. The friendships and marriages are fragile. Petty jealousies and rivalries come to the fore; and roles and values change. As the reality of dealing with planners, builders, utilities and so on gets progressively harder, the great vision for social housing becomes a little eroded. Compromises are made. Low rises become high rises. High rises become very high rises. Decent community housing becomes a mere tool for getting a job done; and something breaks between the four of them. I won’t tell you more of the plot because it’s an intriguing comedy and as it develops, the characters become more honest and the true nature of their relationships gets revealed.

Andrew WoodallSimon Wilson plays architect David, and his journey from noble visionary to cynic is very credibly done. It’s a solid central role, a character who sometimes can’t see the blindingly obvious, and his internal battles of self-confidence versus growing defeatism are nicely judged. His old friend and later rival Colin is played by Andrew Woodall, whose apparent reverse journey of cynic to visionary is also very well portrayed. His deflated disappointment with a life, a job and a wife none of which he rates particularly highly, all contribute to his being rather a nasty piece of work, and he carries it off well.

Abigail CruttendenHowever, I enjoyed the performances of the two women rather more. David’s wife Jane is played by Abigail Cruttenden, bringing out all the comic nuances of being nice as pie to Colin and his wife Sheila whilst actually finding the open house situation drives her mad, really disliking Colin and being frustrated with Sheila. When Colin manipulates her in the second act to a position of working against her husband, her distaste for what she is doing is both sad and funny, and her enthusiasm for how her role subsequently develops is also very amusingly done.

Rebecca LaceyAt first you think Rebecca Lacey’s Sheila is going to be a mousey mute but her journey of self-development is extremely well portrayed. When the mouse eventually roars it’s a very telling moment. With something of the 1970s Prunella Scales about her, during the course of the play step by step she pieces back together again something of a new life, courtesy of her benefactors. It’s another excellent performance.

The creatively flexible space that is the Crucible Studio is given over to a simple kitchen set, with just a few kitchen implements and bits of crockery and a functional kitchen table big enough to feed the neighbours and to spread out architectural drawings. It’s a straightforward set for a straightforward production that lets the text do the talking, and weaves an entertaining tale of what happens when you are practised at being good to others. It’s a very cleverly constructed play – I liked how it’s Jane who takes the confessional role in the first act and David who assumes that role in the second. But I still feel that the play’s vision is a little cramped – perhaps I was comparing it too much with the broad brush of “Democracy” that we saw earlier that day – and whilst it’s a good play, I don’t think it’s a great play. However, Mrs C enjoyed it somewhat more than I did and feels the characters’ journeys are very provocatively portrayed and that it says a lot about the nature of relationships and idealism versus reality. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who is right!

Review – Democracy, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 17th March 2012

Michael Frayn Season Mrs Chrisparkle and I love our occasional jaunts up to Sheffield, not least because the Crucible Theatre offers such a flexible space for meaty drama. This year their Michael Frayn season featured three plays, all of which were new to both of us. Alas, we couldn’t fit in seeing Copenhagen, but we made up for it by seeing both Democracy and Benefactors on the same day.

DemocracyWest German Chancellor Willy Brandt had an eye for the ladies and was supreme at simple evocative gestures on public appearances that made him a natural political leader. Unfortunately he and his team were not as adept at identifying and weeding out spies in their midst. Günther Guillaume was an East German spy who infiltrated the West German government and indeed worked closely alongside Brandt whilst copying virtually every internal document and sending it back to his East German spymaster Kretschmann via his wife Christel, in order to please the (never seen) big boss Mischa.

Patrick DruryVisually, this production offers a very simple presentation, with basic furniture and props, and excellent attention to detail in the business suit costume department. Director Paul Miller uses the big Crucible stage as a blank canvas for the interactions between the Chancellor and Ministers and the spy, with small corners at the edges of the stage depicting Brandt’s office, Guillaume’s office, the cabinet room and Kretschmann’s office. All the time that Guillaume is talking to the ministers he is also talking to Kretschmann, plainly demonstrating the very stark reality of the act of espionage – its ease and naturalness, and the way in which in fact it appears remarkably unsecretive. It’s a very effective way of showing Guillaume’s two-timing nature. Whenever a new minister is introduced, Guillaume reports the fact back to Kretschmann, who flings out another secret dossier on his office floor. The infiltration is all so obvious to us; which gives the dramatic intensity to the fact that Brandt’s team can’t see it.

Aidan McArdleEventually the bumbling security department begin to twig, and to decide how to cope with the knowledge of the spy in the midst. There’s a wonderful scene between Brandt and Guillaume in the Norwegian countryside, where Brandt, now deeply suspicious that Guillaume is a spy, tells him about his youthful days, and how he too worked undercover – but without quite accusing, just letting suggestions hang in the air for Guillaume to deflect as best he can. Not long after that Guillaume is arrested and under the glare of a blinding white light he is captured and immediately confesses. In the future, East Germany, along with the rest of the Iron Curtain states, is no more; and the play questions the point of sacrificing oneself and ones family for the State. It’s a very well written and thought-provoking play.

Richard HopeIt’s also extremely well performed. Patrick Drury as Brandt has a quiet arrogance that becomes noble when impressing a crowd but can make for a tough cookie when he is dealing with colleagues. When things go wrong he acquires a weakness that is virtually tangible. Telling Guillaume of his enigmatic past in Norway he becomes curiously manipulative. Like Walt Whitman, he is large; he contains multitudes. It’s all completely believable.

William HoylandAs Guillaume, Aidan McArdle hits exactly the right note of slightly weaselly subservience with Brandt, but with clarity and confidence in his dealings with Kretschmann. As he gets further in to his deception, he finds he has a loyalty to both his masters and the only way to satisfy this loyalty is to sacrifice himself. With slightly maniacal hair and a vaguely shabbier suit than his colleagues he is subtly presented as being from a different world from the rest of them; his East German roots inspiring snobbery from the other ministers, apart from his gullible champion Ehmke, a wonderfully positive and open performance from Richard Hope. Mr Hope even accepts Brandt’s turning his back on him and his demotion to being in charge of the Post Office with a charming innocent brightness.

David MallinsonOther excellent performances come from William Hoyland as irascible pipe-smoking party leader Herbert Wehner, delightfully scheming and pompous; David Mallinson as Helmut Schmidt, every inch a politician; and Ed Hughes as East German Kretschmann, his leather jacket and casual appearance adding to his visible foreignness, at times frustrated by and jealous of Guillaume’s hands-on honour of performing this noble espionage for the Good of the East German State.

Ed HughesThe performance we saw was captioned by Stagetext. I’ve not seen this before – basically, on a screen either side of the stage, the script scrolls up so you can read what the cast are saying. I found myself reading it more than I would have expected. As someone who occasionally can find it a little difficult to catch everything that gets spoken on stage I can definitely see how it could help one’s theatregoing experience. It also reveals when the cast make minor slip ups with the words though – and that happened a lot more than I would have predicted!

I’d definitely recommend this production of this stimulating play, well performed and directed, which will certainly have you thinking and analysing on the way home.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Derngate, Northampton, 16th March 2012

Dan EvansGreat to see yet another very full house for the regular Screaming Blue Murder comedy club last Friday. Our compere was Dan Evans, on excellent form again, and getting us well warmed up with his interaction with the front rows. We were quite a lively bunch last Friday, so there was plenty of material for him to juggle with. I’m enjoying the way Dan now introduces new material with a crestfallen sigh as if to pave the way for its unsuccessful response – it’s becoming a very funny new theme for his compering!

Paul Pirie Our first act was Paul Pirie. When I was getting the pre-show drinkies in, Paul Pirie was also at the bar, ordering a couple of drinks in a softly spoken and self-effacing manner. What a nice, unassuming and polite person he seemed, I thought. How different from his act! Aggressive and vulgar, the vast majority of his material seemed to concentrate on the more unpleasant bodily fluids and emissions, joking about people with disabilities, and doing to death each scenario he described with repeated sound effects. If he made a screaming noise to accompany, say, a stabbing action, he would do it about eight times, until he, and I, were exhausted with it. Additionally there was something wrong with his microphone, which meant that his voice was piercing and grating and went right through my brain. I spent his entire act with my right forefinger pressed on my eardrum. This act and I didn’t mix. However, in the interest of fairness, I have to say that the majority of the younger people in the audience found him hilarious.

Sunna JarmanAlas, the same could not be said for our second act, Sunna Jarman. She started very promisingly but for some reason could not quite hit her stride. I think she needs to strengthen her comic persona; she has some – very funny – lines that equate to her being a bit of a posh bird, and I think if she created some more snobbish material she could be much funnier. Even with her act going a bit wobbly, I still found her more entertaining than Paul Pirie. However, about seven minutes into her act, she was saying something detrimental about Katie Price (personally I have no problem with that), when she received a devastating heckle to the effect that at least Katie Price tells better jokes. Unfortunately, I don’t think she heard what the heckler said properly, so she ignored it; but the audience all heard it and basically agreed with it – and thus she was lost from then on. I’m pretty sure she cut and ran shortly afterwards.

Steve DayFortunately in came the cavalry to rescue the evening in the form of our final act, Steve Day. We’ve seen him here before a couple of years ago, and he is fantastically entertaining. He is deaf, and most of his material is based on being a deaf person in a hearing world, but it’s never sentimental or self-pitying, preachy or defensive. Some very insightful comedy about discrimination within disabilities, plus also some generally offbeat observations about families – and windfarms. So many great lines, I won’t spoil them by repeating them; but he is a superb comic as his massive reception at the end testified and you must catch him if you possibly can.

Review – Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Milton Keynes Theatre, 15th March 2012

Long Day's Journey Into NightYou can’t keep a good writer down, and I’m delighted to see this revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night doing a brief tour before taking up residence at the Apollo in the West End. I’ve always been a big fan of Eugene O’Neill, ever since I saw the TV adaptation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the 1970s with Laurence Olivier. (Olivier played Tyrone – he wasn’t sitting next to me in the living room.) Inspired by this play, at the age of 16 I read every single one of O’Neill’s works I could lay my hands on. Centuries later, I have achieved this ambition to see LDJIN live on stage. Any producers reading, by the way, please, I’d also like to see a production of Mourning Becomes Electra. I’m telling you all this because I want to emphasise that I had really high hopes of this production; maybe too high.

The set looks fantastic. In fact, Mrs Chrisparkle was verbalising her astonishment at it before she’d even spotted which row we were sitting in. Wonderful off stage glimpses of further rooms are offered, like the dining room and the hall. Classy wooden panelling abounds. However, given that the script is full of criticisms of the house – Mary says it was never a home, and Tyrone is constantly criticised for his stinginess, I felt in retrospect that maybe it ought to have looked a little shabbier.

The play has many autobiographical elements and was clearly inspired by O’Neill’s relationship with his father. It’s stamped with O’Neill hallmarks all over it – observing the Greek unities of time, place and theme thereby lending it an air of Greek tragedy; featuring a character whose life is changed by time spent at sea; and dwelling on ill-health and reliance on drink and drugs.

Laurie MetcalfWithout question the evening belongs to Laurie Metcalf as Mary. If the day is a journey – and the title of the play suggests it is – then hers is the longest. From the moment she walks on the stage you know this is a woman who is trying hard, but not coping. The language of the play pussyfoots around what might be wrong, but it’s a good guessing-game for half an hour or more. Laurie Metcalf is spellbinding with her flashes of nonsensical illogical reactions, which you put down to her being a worrying mother – which she is (as well), all papered over with a respectable air of Connecticut failure. O’Neill gives the character of Mary wonderfully self-contradicting things to say which Miss Metcalf carries off so believably. It’s an amazing performance. Occasionally she talks over other members of the family in a way that only a mother would, trying to hang on to a maternal role with which she is comfortable, still opening huge gashes of vulnerability as she journeys through this dreadful day. She is astoundingly good.

David SuchetHer Tyrone is played by David Suchet. I have vague recollections of Olivier’s Tyrone – my memory is that he played it almost schizophrenically, as a man who could be both a source of pure childish joy and a total monster. Mr Suchet plays Tyrone as a less extreme man, and I think that is truer to O’Neill’s vision. You get the sense that his kindness, when he shows it, is slightly reserved, and that his fury, when aroused, could have even more bite than it does. Two aspects of O’Neill’s description of Tyrone that I don’t think Mr Suchet quite achieves are the fact that he is meant to be unmistakably an actor, by word, tone and bearing; personally I thought he could have been retired from any number of jobs. He should also have an underlying sense of stolid Irish peasant. I sensed more refinement than peasant. Nevertheless, it’s a very good performance and his emotional pendulum for all his family members swings back and forth very credibly.

Trevor WhiteThe two sons are played extremely well. Jamie is played by Trevor White, very accurately portraying the underachieving disappointments of life, declining into an alcoholic stupor as the night wears on, showing a surprising delicacy of feeling for a whore named Fat Violet, whilst willing his own brother to fail. Mr White should take it as a compliment that he captured just the right level of degeneracy for this part.

Kyle SollerEdmund, the O’Neill character, is played by Kyle Soller. I have to admit that we weren’t really fans when we saw him in The Talented Mr Ripley or The Government Inspector, but I think he is much more suited to roles where he isn’t required to show off. This time he nails the role perfectly. His anxieties, administered with alcohol, are very convincing and realistic – neither manic, nor blasé; and his willingness to fit in with what his big brother wants, combined with his stomping off upstairs like a teenager were all very accurate. The two occasions he is called upon to punch Jamie are very deftly done too. The cast is completed by Rosie Sansom as Cathleen, the “second girl”, who turns in a nice study of a respectable girl who looks after herself pretty well – a touch of the blarney without going over the top.

Rosie SansomBut it’s the structure of the evening that doesn’t work. O’Neill has structured this play perfectly; four acts at different stages of the day – breakfast, lunchtime, teatime and night-time. However, they have chosen to make the interval fall between acts three and four, which I think is a big mistake. Act Two is the natural breakpoint. It’s almost half-way through the play; it ends with the men going off on their various errands, including Edmund finding out whether he has tuberculosis or not, and with Mary’s brief soliloquy that makes you really worried as to how she is going to turn out later on. These are all good moments on which to hang the break. Act Three naturally resolves the plot cliff-hangers, so ideally would come afterwards, and is also the scene were Mary’s deterioration becomes more and more apparent. The mood of Act Four is very different because it doesn’t progress the plot as such in the same way; it’s all about character revelation instead. So, with the current structure, when you get back from your interval Pinot Grigio, it’s almost as though you’ve joined a different play. Added to which, Mary doesn’t reappear until the very end of the play; and you really miss her, as she is the best thing about the whole thing.

Been a long time since a book cost 95pSo nostalgia let me down slightly, as it sadly often does. I still think it’s a very strong play, superbly written – quite possibly one of the finest plays of the 20th century – and this production features some excellent acting and an award-winning performance from Ms Metcalf. But the final act doesn’t punch you in the guts in the way it ought. Somehow the accumulated tensions before the interval just sap away. Mrs C thought it was a good idea that they are doing the pre-West End tour so as to get it absolutely right. I asked her what they needed to concentrate on. “Maintaining accents” was her sharp rebuke – always a pet hate of hers. True, there was also a little bumping into furniture and knocking over water, and the sound effect of Mary walking around upstairs was frankly ludicrous. But these things can come right I’m sure. But if they continue to divide the play after Act Three, everyone’s going to have to up their game for that last scene. A final plea: it’s a three-hour Eugene O’Neill drama. Would it be too much to ask for a twenty minute interval, not just fifteen?

Sir Andrew Motion: Following in John Clare’s Footsteps, All Saints’ Church, Northampton, 8th March 2012

All Saints from the backNorthampton has a number of famous sons and daughters: Alan Moore, Alan Carr, Matt Smith, Lesley Joseph and even Baroness Falkender; but perhaps none so literary as John Clare, rural poet famous for his decline in mental health that resulted in his living many years in asylums.

John ClareI studied English Literature when I were a lad, but I confess that John Clare only passed me by momentarily somewhere between Browning and Tennyson. I was still only 18 when we covered 19th century literature and I found it hard enough to keep up with all the set books we had to cover, let alone discover new poetry for myself off-piste, so to speak. So today I am eager to discover more about our local hero.

All SaintsA couple of years ago, Mrs Chrisparkle and I joined a town walk, organised by the Royal and Derngate Theatre, which took you to some less likely vantage points in the town and gave you a hidden history that involved places tourists wouldn’t normally frequent – not that we have many of them anyway. This walk was a semi-dramatised event; ostensibly it was a straightforward guided walk, with a real guide, who would answer your questions and interact with you as a real guide would; but at certain moments the story of the town came alive with an unexpected supporting cast of actors. At one point, our guide took us to All Saints’ Church, which is known to be where John Clare used to hang out, scribbling bits of poetry on the steps, probably bringing a bit of a rank smell to the place; and whilst we were there this young ragamuffin appeared from nowhere at the Church entrance, clutching a chalkboard, hair awry, eyes wild; then letting out a mad holler he scampered off into the traffic. It could have been Clare; very cleverly done. Just out of curiosity, please look at this excellent plaque below that commemorates John Bailes who lived in three centuries. Mr. Bailes must have been an extraordinary chap. Or lied about his age.

3centuriesI mention the town walk, firstly because Sir Andrew Motion’s talk was held in All Saints’ Church, and secondly because walking was its main theme. He considered the healing powers of walking in the countryside, just for the sake of doing it. You can; it’s free; so why not. Clare, of course, is well known for his long walk of escape from the asylum in Essex back to his home, and the first reading was from Clare’s prose account of the walk with its characterful, honest writing.

July 19, Monday. Did nothing.

July 20, Tuesday. Reconnoitred the road the gypsey had taken, and found it a legible one to make a movement; and having only honest courage and myself in my army, I led the way and my troops soon followed. But being careless in mapping down the road as the gypsey told me, I missed the lane to Enfield Town, and was going down Enfield Highway, till I passed the “Labour-in-vain” public-house, where a person who came out of the door told me the way. I walked down the lane gently, and was soon in Enfield Town, and by and by on the great York Road, where it was all plain sailing. Steering ahead, meeting no enemy and fearing none, I reached Stevenage, where, being night, I got over a gate, and crossed the corner of a green paddock. Seeing a pond or hollow in the corner, I was forced to stay off a respectable distance to keep from falling into it. My legs were nearly knocked up and began to stagger. I scaled over some old rotten palings into the yard, and then had higher palings to clamber over, to get into the shed or hovel; which I did with difficulty, being rather weak. To my good luck, I found some trusses of clover piled up, about six or more feet square, which I gladly mounted and slept on. There were some drags in the hovel, on which I could have reposed had I not found a better bed. I slept soundly, but had a very uneasy dream. I thought my first wife lay on my left arm, and somebody took her away from my side, which made me wake up rather unhappy. I thought as I awoke somebody said “Mary”, but nobody was near. I lay down with my head towards the north, to show myself the steering point in the morning.

Sir Andrew MotionA word about Sir Andrew’s style: he’s very thoughtful, measured, calm and quiet; when flustered – as at the beginning when he arrived ten minutes late because his pre-talk sausages were delayed – he hides it behind a slightly nervous laugh; when animated, there’s not a huge amount of difference. To be honest, he could have done with some better amplification, as it was hard to catch all his words, even with a microphone, at the back of the church (we snuck in at the back – old habits die hard).

Edward ThomasHe moved on from discussing Clare to one of his favourite poets, Edward Thomas. He took the poem “Old Man”, read it to us, and then did some Lit Crit on it. You’ll think me very ignorant for an ex-student of literature, but Edward Thomas passed me by too, somewhere between Eliot and Yeats. “Old Man” is new to me, and I confess that when Sir Andrew read it, I didn’t get it. I know for certain that Mrs C didn’t get it, as I recognised that glazed look. Today I have read it; and now I can appreciate it much more. Here it is:

Old Man

Old Man, or Lads-Love, – in the name there’s nothing
To one that knows not Lads-Love, or Old Man,
The hoar green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with rosemary and lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.

The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as someday the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last on to the path,
Thinking perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, though it is not old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I can only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.
As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember;
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

But I’m afraid I can’t pass on any gems of Sir Andrew’s critical appreciation of the poem as I had precious little understanding of my own on which to hang it. I think it is fair to describe it as the most scholarly moment of the evening.

Frank O'HaraAs another comparator, he then introduced Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died”. The Lady in question, was the one who sings the blues, according to the film and song title, Billie Holliday. O’Hara was a 20th century American poet. I chose American Literature 1800-1960 as a specialist subject in my degree, but, guess what, Frank O’Hara passed me by, somewhere between William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. “The Day Lady Died” was new to me; but when Sir Andrew read it aloud, it instantly spoke to me. A wonderful series of ordinary observations made whilst walking through New York City on an ordinary day that acquires an extraordinary quality by virtue of what else happened on that day in question.

The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

another picture of John ClareHe returned the discussion to John Clare with the poem “Langley Bush”. At his rural best, the poem is a sad realisation that what is now an old and mouldering feature of the landscape, must once have stood young and strong and witnessed splendid things. It’s an appreciation of both the honour and decrepitude of old age, and, like Thomas’ “Old Man” the bush becomes a key that links your present to your past. It’s a “still point in the turning world”. “I placed a jar in Tennessee”. I’m sure you see where I’m coming from.

Langley Bush

O Langley Bush! The shepherd’s sacred shade,
Thy hollow trunk oft gain’d a look from me;
Full many a journey o’er the heath I’ve made,
For such-like curious things I love to see.
What truth the story of the swain allows,
That tells of honours which thy young days knew,
Of “Langley Court” being kept beneath thy boughs
I cannot tell–thus much I know is true,
That thou art reverenc’d: even the rude clan
Of lawless gipsies, driven from stage to stage,
Pilfering the hedges of the husbandman,
Spare thee, as sacred, in thy withering age.
Both swains and gipsies seem to love thy name,
Thy spot’s a favourite with the sooty crew,
And soon thou must depend on gipsy-fame,
Thy mouldering trunk is nearly rotten through.
My last doubts murmur on the zephyr’s swell,
My last look lingers on thy boughs with pain;
To thy declining age I bid farewell,
Like old companions, ne’er to meet again.

Another picture of Sir Andrew MotionFinally Sir Andrew read one of his own poems, “In A Perfect World”, the poem he famously wrote for the TUC when he became Poet Laureate in 1999. Taking the simple act of walking the Thames Path, he includes words like “free”, “liberty” “equally” and “level”, all giving you an insight into his political ideology just by simply describing a walk. In reading out this poem he rather cleverly associated himself with the other poets in his talk.

In a Perfect World

I was walking the Thames path from Richmond
to Westminster, just because I was free
to do so, just for the pleasure of light

sluicing my head, just for the breeze like a hand
tap-tapping the small of my back,
just for the slow and steady dust

fanning on bricks, on cobbles, on squared-off
slab-stones — dust which was marking the time
it takes for a thing to be born, to die,

then to be born again. The puzzled brow
of Westminster filled the distance, ducking
and diving as long parades of tree-clouds

or skinny-ribbed office blocks worked their way
in between. The mouth of-the Wandle stuck
its sick tongue out and went. The smoke-scarred walls

of a disused warehouse offered on close
inspection a locked-away world of mica
and flint and cement all hoarding the sun.

I was walking the Thames path east
as though I was water myself — each twist
and turn still bringing me out on the level,

leading me hither and thither but always
back to the hush of my clarified head,
into the chamber where one voice speaking

its mind could fathom what liberty means,
and catch the echo of others which ring
round the lip of the world. Catch and hold.

The buttery sun kept casting its light
on everything equally. The soft breeze
did as it always does, and ushered me on.

There were some questions and answers, but our distance from his podium coupled with the under performing microphone made them a little difficult to follow. However, it was very interesting to see the ex-Poet Laureate at work, and to get a little insight into his character and his appreciation of the poets he considered.

Andrew Marr on the Media and the Monarchy, St Peter’s College, Oxford, 7th March 2012

St Peter's College OxfordOne day when there isn’t much happening, I’ll tell you about my time as a student. Inter alia, it involved (admittedly on different occasions)Princess Margaret, President Nixon, Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, and a promising young actor laddie known as little Hughie Grant. Maybe later.

St Peter's Freshmen 1978One of the perks of being an alumnus of somewhere rather prestigious, is that when you get invited back, it’s for rather entertaining events. So Mrs Chrisparkle and I were pleased to go and see a talk by Andrew Marr on The Media and The Monarchy in the College Chapel yesterday.

Mark DamazerHe was introduced by the Master, Mark Damazer, who took over the post in 2010 and has been succesfully dynamic in turning around the fortunes and profile of the college. I met him last year; a very nice chap with slightly scary undertones of massive intellect.

Andrew MarrAndrew Marr has just completed extensive work in the company of the Royal Family for his recently broadcast television series about the Queen in her Diamond Jubilee year; so he has had unrivalled opportunities to observe and assess their contribution to the country. His insights were indeed fascinating. He is very impressed with how hard the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh work – he said the rows of people simply waiting to shake hands could sometimes be extraordinarily long – and he emphasised how some of this work must surely be extremely boring, which is something I had never considered. He feels a number of Prince Philip’s alleged gaffes are simply “look at me!” moments to alleviate the dullness. He is also very impressed with Princess Anne’s wit and wisdom; he feels she is a sensible person who knows Where It’s At. In response to a question, he suggested that when Prince Charles is king he will find it very difficult – but will have no alternative – to keep his mouth shut when on official meetings with leaders of whom he disapproves. Being nice to the Chinese, whilst being a firm supporter of a free Tibet, was one example.

St Peter's College ChapelBut to go back to the beginning of his talk, Andrew Marr started with a snapshot of the year 1997. It was not only the year Princess Diana died, it was also the start of the Blair era. It struck me that to any first year students attending, 1997 must seem like the dark ages – or at least the stuff of childhood. Strange how I remember it so well. Back in 1997, Andy (as his friends call him) pointed out that the circulation of newspapers was massive and that today, by comparison, it has dropped by approximately 40%. Apparently only the Sun and the Mail have held their own; all other papers have plummeted. In those days he was the editor of The Independent. His observations about newspaper proprietors were very revealing; he said to own a newspaper you need a massive amount of money which you are basically prepared to lose. If you own a newspaper you do it for a different reason other than merely seeking profit. He asked one of the then owners of The Independent, Tony O’Reilly, why he did it – and he said it was because it was simply nice to be able to go through the door of 10 Downing Street and be accepted there.

St Peter's ChapelOne of Andrew Marr’s main concerns for the future of journalism is his belief that you have to have professional journalists, who are paid a good wage and who can guarantee a degree of assurance that research has properly taken place and the truth has been fairly arrived at. With the falling numbers of newspapers actually being sold, and some online news sources not reaching sufficient numbers of readers (the Times paywall is a considerable barrier, no surprise), how is the profession going to maintain itself?

SPC PlaqueMr Marr also talked about Leveson, and what he thinks its impact will be – which is actually that the current shame being felt by the newspaper world will probably be as low as it gets. He doesn’t think that Rupert Murdoch is the worst thing that’s ever happened to British newspapers; but he did have some revealing information about the recent launch of the Sun on Sunday. Mockups and pilot issues had been created, as the paper started to take shape, but the editors were far from convinced that the definitive format had been created. At a meeting one Sunday, Rupert Murdoch asked the team how the preparations were going. Good, they replied, we are getting there. Excellent, said RM, I want it launched next Sunday. Sharp intakes of breath all round. Erm, are you sure, they nervously proffered. Yes, next Sunday, have it done, was his reply. Given the short time they had to bring out the first edition, Andrew Marr thought it was a remarkably professional achievement.

Mr Marr’s talk was peppered with a number of humorous observations; here are two that I find most memorable. He obviously finished his degree the same year as me, as he said it was a time when there were simply no jobs around – 1981. Actually, the old joke was, “What do you say to an Arts Graduate with a job? I’ll have a Big Mac, please”. I think things may have come full circle. Anyway, I digress. Mr Marr was on his was to Edinburgh for an interview to work on The Scotsman newspaper. He got on the sleeper train at Kings Cross and, on entering the cubicle where he was to have bottom bunk for the night, was met by the top bunk occupant, a Scottish gentleman, brandishing 24 cans of super strength lager and three packets of cigarettes, who said something along the lines of “I hope you’re not a soft southern poof who won’t share a few bevies tonight”. By the time Mr Marr arrived in Edinburgh he was rancid with drink, choked with cigarettes and a blotchy mess. He knew he’d blown his chance of a decent job. However, on arrival at the Scotsman offices he was met by a newsroom full of similarly blotchy, drunken, smoky journos and he knew he had fallen on his feet.

John PrescottAnother nice tale was of his waiting inside a Brighton hotel during conference season, presumably ready to do some reporting, when along bustles John Prescott, a swarm of assistants behind him with folders, files and cases. On seeing Andrew Marr, Prescott firmly marches up to him, stabs him with his pointy finger and says “You bastard! You f***ing bastard! I’ll f***ing get you!” and then he marches off, leaving Mr Marr perplexed and wondering what on earth he’d done to deserve it. About a minute later Prescott returns and says “sorry mate, wrong person” and then walks off again.

All in all a very interesting and enjoyable talk and question and answer session, which was full of fascinating snippets of information and personal anecdotes. Thanks to St Peter’s for the invitation, and for continuing to share the college activities with the alumni.

The Real Chrisparkle meets Adam Blake!

The Dead Sea DeceptionIn the second of a series of occasional interviews, I have recently had the pleasure to interview British thriller writer Adam Blake about his work, his inspirations and his ambitions. I hope you enjoy our chat!

 

 

RealChrisSparkle: It gives me great pleasure to welcome the readers of the Realchrisparkle blog to the writer Adam Blake! Hello Adam, and thanks very much for agreeing to the interview. You hit the bookshelves a few months ago with your first book, “The Dead Sea Deception”. Would you like to tell us a bit of what it’s all about?

Adam Blake: Sure – and thanks for having me, Mr. C. The Dead Sea Deception is a conspiracy thriller with a Biblical flavour to it. It ties together a number of different plot threads – one concerning a crashed plane in the US, another about a murdered historian in London, and the third about a man whose entire family just vanishes into thin air one day. Ultimately, there’s a single mystery that relates all these things to one another, and it’s a mystery that dates back to the early days of the Christian church.

RCS: As you say there are multiple threads there. Did you have to do a lot of research for this book?

AB: I did, yeah. One element that’s very prominent in the book is the possible existence of a lost gospel – and the actual gospel of Judas, the Codex Tchakos, is hugely relevant to that. So I read a lot of the scholarship that’s been written about the codex since the National Geographic team translated it, and I read a lot about the early Christian churches. I was especially interested in the Gnostic faiths, and their treatment within the official church hierarchy. There was also a lot of research that related to setting. I wanted all the settings to feel real, and there were some I’d never visited or visited only briefly. And then there was a certain amount of research relating to the logistics of some of the action scenes.

RCS: So this book must have taken you a long time in the planning, I guess. Did you enjoy all that research, or did you occasionally wish you had decided to write about something simpler?!

AB: It was a complete departure from everything I’d written up to that point, so it was actually very exciting and rewarding. I had no idea if I could make a story like that articulate properly – if I could make it work. It was good to find out that I could. In general, I’m terrified of being one of these guys who writes the same book over and over. Doing stuff that takes you out of your comfort zone keeps you fresh.

RCS: It felt very fresh to me! You’ve got a very exciting writing style and there are lots of cliffhangers and surprise twists in this book, which I really enjoyed. Do you meticulously plan ahead how you are going to write it, or do you sit and wait for the story to take you in an unexpected direction?

AB: Thanks! It’s very much a combination of the two. The broad structure has to be planned, and some of the detail is very tightly embedded in that structure. So I work out a chapter-by-chapter plan which is fairly rigorous. But there are always things that just happen because they happen – because as you’re writing, a cool idea will pop up in your head and you follow it to see where it leads. So the scene at Dovecote Farm, for example, where two of the characters are trapped on the roof of a burning building, was down in the original plan in a much simpler form. But when I got there, I wanted to do something big and cataclysmic, which would lead to an irrevocable choice for my male lead, Tillman. The plan is a starting point, in other words, not really a full blueprint. But it has to be there. It gives you the liberty to follow your nose when you need to.

RCS: Have you ever tried to depart completely from the plan? Does it result in an almighty mess, lots of cutting and pasting and an eventual massive “delete”? Or can you rewrite the plan? Or is that cheating?!

AB: Oh, I’ve been known to leave the reservation. I did that with the second Adam Blake thriller, which I only just finished. There’s a character in that, Diema Beit Evrom, who just got more and more under my skin as I wrote. She’s barely present in the first book, but in the second she ends up stealing the spotlight to a very large extent, and her arc became more and more central to how I saw the book working. So the structure of the book changed to accommodate her. And yes, that DID mean that it took a lot longer to write than I’d expected. I made a lot of big changes.

RCS: Excellent, so you will be having a new book out! What’s it called, when’s it out and can you give us a taster of what it’s about?

CromwellAB: I can’t give you a title yet – we’re still discussing it. It’s out in August, and it’s a direct sequel to The Dead Sea Deception, taking place about three years later. Trying to avoid spoilers, one of the characters from DSD is called in to consult after an apparent break-in at the British Museum. Someone has broken into a storeroom, but doesn’t seem to have stolen or even touched anything there. And there’s a knife on the floor of the room with fresh blood on it, but no sign of a body and no clue as to who was wounded. Investigating the crime brings together some of the people and plot threads from the first book, and leads to a shocking revelation about a seventeenth century text – a book of prophesies written by a minor religious dissident in Cromwell’s England.

RCS: Wow, sounds great. No please don’t spoil the story for us! I can see from what you say how there might be joint themes with the first book, perhaps a similar structure, but maybe this new book has more whodunit elements? Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

AB: No, you’re right. It’s written very much as a mystery, which then opens out into… well, something else again. It gets bigger in scope as it goes along, and in terms of themes, it’s kind of about family, and belonging, and what you will and won’t do in the name of your tribe, your collective, the group of people who give you your context in the world.

RCS: That sounds like it will be a very rewarding read. Where do you get the inspiration for your books? Do you have a particular interest in historical religious writings?

AB: Yes and no, I guess. I think if you’re going to make it as a writer you have to be interested in everything. Anything you read, see, hear about, fall over, can be a starting point for a book. You noodle around with an idea, and maybe it turns into something. The real Judas gospel was the trigger for the first book. For the second, it was reading about Cromwell’s Barebones Parliament and his troubled relationship with fringe religious groups. I have one major asset, which is that my brother is a historian with a vast lumber room of a mind. If I say to him “What about Cromwell and those fringe religious groups, then, eh?” he’ll turn out to know more about the subject than I could learn in a year by just reading about it. He’s kickstarted a lot of my stories, just in the course of idle conversations.

RCS: That’s handy then! So do you think you will continue to write books that take place in the present but somehow link up with a historical event or culture; or might that become your new comfort zone – and will you then want to move on to other subjects?

AB: I think the next thing I write will turn out to be something different. I’ve got a hankering to write a police procedural. But I also write full-on urban fantasy novels under a different name, so at some point I’ll write another one of those. I was reading something recently – I can’t even remember what it was – and one of the characters says “If you’re lucky, every once in a while, what you do to get by will also turn out to be what you do for love.” That’s the high I’m always looking to get.

Chief ConstableRCS: A police procedural sounds fun – I can imagine that your style would really suit it. Would that again entail lots of research or do you have another brother who’s a Chief Constable?!

AB: In my family, a Chief Constable would have a hard time of it! We’re a larcenous bunch. Yeah, I’d be hoping to get some kind of a work shadowing deal into play, like Jon Courtenay Grimwood did for 9Tail Fox. And, as always, hitting the books and the net for juicy stuff that might turn into seed crystals. Apologies for the mixed metaphor there.

RCS: No worries, mixed metaphors are always welcome here! Now I hope this isn’t too algebraic a question, if an editor came to you and said Adam, we want you to write about X and you said great, that would be my dream job, what would X equal?

AB: Oh man, that’s hard. I think I roam around a lot, in terms of subjects and in terms of themes, so I don’t have any one dream job any more. It’s just whatever I’m obsessing on at any given time. I’d love to get an actual feature film out there, but that’s a question of medium rather than material. And I’d love to write a YA book. That’s something I haven’t tried, and I think it would be very different.

RCS: Is that Young Adult? We don’t have any of those in our household so I’m just guessing! Obsessing is an interesting word though – would you describe being obsessive as a major creative force within you, if that isn’t too psychological a question?

AB: Yeah, YA is young adult. And absolutely, I’d describe myself as obsessive. I think it’s true of my whole family, in different ways. I work furiously when I’ve got a deadline, become totally focused on it to the point where nothing else seems to matter. And ever since I quit my day job, which is twelve years ago now, I’ve lived like Tarzan, swinging from one writing commission to the next and never touching ground. If you take the ground in that metaphor as “being destitute and penniless and out on the street”, that will give you some idea of the way my mind works. Insecurity has made me hugely productive.

RCS: What a great way of looking at it! Well I don’t want to make you more insecure and stop you from being productive, so just a couple of other questions if I may – when you’re not slaving over a hot keyboard, do you have any hobbies or pursuits that take away the pain of the working day?

AB: Reading, of course. And I listen to a lot of music – especially in the times when I’m planning rather than writing. My favourite music tends to be indie or folk, or sometimes what Rough Trade Records calls Americana. I recently discovered both Beth Jeans Houghton and Yeasayer, which counted as a very good day. I go to the cinema, and also watch a lot of American TV drama, which seems to be going through a golden age at the moment. And I sometimes go to live music gigs. I’m going to see Anais Mitchell in May, when she comes over with her Young Man in America tour.

RCS: You said earlier that you write urban fantasy novels under a different name, and in fact in my copy of Dead Sea Deception it says: “Adam Blake is a pseudonym for an acclaimed internationally bestselling novelist based in the UK.” So is it true you are really Dan Brown?

AB: That one always floors me! Why would Dan Brown use a pseudonym to write books that are very, very much in the sub-genre that made his name. If I were Dan Brown, I’d hire a couple of guys to carry a huge banner behind me wherever I walked, that said “I AM DAN BROWN!!!” But I’m not, no. I’m some other guy, known for writing in a very different genre. Which is the point of the pseudonym, really. It’s easier to get a sense of who Adam Blake is if this other stuff is rendered magically invisible.

RCS: I’m relieved really, I don’t have to lie to you about how much I enjoyed the Da Vinci Code now. Actually I wikipedia’d you earlier and it gave me a choice of two Adam Blakes. You’re either the alter ego of Captain Comet or a musician with the band Zoot Woman. If it’s neither of those, which would you prefer to be?

Captain CometAB: I’d love to be Captain Comet. I don’t know if I could carry off that bright red spandex costume, but he’s got telepathy, telekinesis and clairvoyance. All I’ve got is an ability to spell sesquipedalian without looking it up in a dictionary. No contest. I know too much about Captain Comet, don’t I? That’s something of a giveaway…

RCS: So if the writing ever dries up, there’s clearly a ready-made alternative career path for you. Finally – in all the interviews you’ve ever done, is there one question that no interviewer has ever asked you, yet inside you’ve been burning to answer it?

AB: Maybe “what does sesquipedalian mean?” No, not really. Every interview’s got its own rhythm and rules. I really enjoyed this one.

RCS: You’re too kind! Well thanks very much for taking the time to come on here and tell us a bit about yourself and your books; best of luck for the next rattling good read in August, and keep on swinging like Tarzan!

AB: Thanks, Mr. C. It was my pleasure. And keep on being the benign scourge of theatreland…

Later edit:
Thanks for reading my interview with “Adam”. Four years later I had another interview with him – this time as he really is as “Mike” – Mike Carey, M. R. Carey, M. J. Carey or however you know him! It was just as his book Fellside hit the shops. If you’d like to read it – here it is!