Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Out of the Loop

In just one week away on holiday I forget the most basic things about London - for instance that you can't just bowl up at a theatre and expect to get in, even on a Monday night and even for the first night of a play that hasn't yet been reviewed.

'I have people queueing for returns in the shopping centre', said the box office assistant, waving towards exit right.

I don't know the form at the Donmar, not having been before. It's a victim of its own success, going by the attitude. 'Oh, how will I know if there are any returns?' Cold stare, then, 'We'll come and tell you'.

Welcome back to London, Sheila.

Still, there were only what we'd call in the North a courting couple and three gay blokes in front of me, so if someone came back with a single ticket I was in with a chance. Two other single people came behind me. Still in with a good chance. But no, just after the first bell rang the box office assistant appeared and addressed the trio: 'You were hoping for a single ticket, yes?' and as one of them left the other two went in.

'Ive got standing tickets only, now.' So the two behind me went in but I remember it's quite a long play and my legs aren't up to it. It's not age - I wasn't any good at football matches for the same reason. I can't concentrate if I'm standing up. I once asked the Shakepeare Globe people if I could bring my folding chair to the pit, but no.

I'm sorry now I didn't go to 'Ghosts' at the Arcola in Dalston, but was still feeling knackered from the long drive the day before and didn't fancy a bus ride from London Bridge. A lot of travelling puts you off for a while and we'd got stuck in traffic in St Albans on a lunch detour.

Never mind, I have my Cineworld ticket with me so I'll to the Haymarket and see a film. It doesn't start til 9pm so first I eat a pizza to pass the time, and think 'Oh well, I'd have spent the money at the Donmar if I'd had the chance. It'll be a late finish, but R's at his bridge club, so I won't be missed. The new lodger's probably glad to get a night on his own.'

I quite enjoy the trailers, as they're all new. But hang on, there's something familiar about the credits for the main film!

Oh no! I've only seen it already - the week before I left for the North.

It's a very good film the first time you see it, with an excellent performance from Sam Rockwell. He plays a space-ship employee, at the end of a three year contract, monitoring equipment for an company that's somehow getting energy from moonrocks and sending it back to earth. I say he's the only actor, but there's a voiceover from Kevin Spacey as one of those silky-toned computers who's supposed to look after astronauts welfare and keeps sidling up behind them saying 'Can I help you?

It's even better the second time, though, because it's a film with an excellent narrative, that intrigues until almost the very end, and it's satisfying to see how you could have picked up on the clues all along. It's also an opportunity to note how good an actor Sam Rockwell is in a demanding part. He's no Stanley Kowalski in terms of physique, but he spends a lot of time in his vest. So I wasn't even tempted to leave early.

R chuckled at my mistake, even though I called him just before midnight to escort me up the hill. 'Moon!' I complained, 'What kind of a totally non-descriptive title is that?

I've learned my lesson, though - leave the choice of play to my friendly neighbourhood theatre-paperer, who deals in cheap tickets for untried or tired-out plays, or book in advance. Oh, and check to see if I've already seen a film before I go in.

A Streetcar named Desire at the Donmar: http://www.donmarwarehouse.com/pl102.html

Moon: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1182345/

Monday, July 27, 2009

Divided by a Common Cuisine

Naturally, there's a certain amount of interpreting necessary when I go to the North with R, and it came to the fore when we visited the biggest fish and chip shop I've ever seen, in Bolton, Lancs. It's so big it's taken over the shop next door.

I explained, for instance, that a 'scallop' in Lancashire-speak isn't a shellfish but a thick slice of potato dipped in batter and then fried.

The 'scallop' , I imagine, derives from 'escallope' or 'slice', as in French 'escallope de veau', but there's no reason it has to be meat.

Butties he knows about, but 'barm', short for barm cake, was a puzzler. As with 'scallop', I knew what it was, but had to scratch my head to remember I was told as a child that 'barm' means 'balm' or 'yeast'. It's a kind of non-sweet teacake, but flatter and crustier.

I felt at home in a town with a statue of an engineer in a flat cap and a model engine in the main shopping street - nearby was a carved stone frieze to show stages in cotton manufacture, from picking to weaving.
Bolton's town hall is a building of such Victorian splendour it almost equalled, with it columns and pediment, the Harris Library in my home town

The dining potential of Northern towns is dire, although cheap enough. Bolton is a vast improvement on Blackburn, the town in the other direction from the Travelodge on the M65 where we spent three nights. The fish and chips were excellent but there was no room for fancy grills or salads in the Olympus .

After a week of cheap eating in the North, I
cancelled the cholesterol test I had slated for this morning. I hope a week or so of southern food will restore the level to more or less what it was before I left.

Our new lodger suggested he take us out to dinner this week. He's from the North, on three months' probation in his new job. I suggested 'Zero Degrees' in Backheath Village. There's no ambiguity when it comes to mussels, but I think I'll steer clear of the frites. I've had it with chips for a while.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Quiet Belief in Angels

‘But he isn’t Steinbeck or Hemingway, so why does he write like that?

Do we like contemporary novels to remind us of past writers we admire? When does too literary a style detract from a crime novel? These points are relevant to a discussion of RJ Ellory’s A Quiet Belief in Angels.

The crime reading group were all agreed this was is not a traditional crime story or thriller, and some thought it too long. At times compelling, it covers events in the life of the narrator over a period of about thirty years, moving from the American South to New York.

Sections are introduced in what is almost a cliché format of American crime novel narrative – a dying protagonist looks at the man he has just killed and recalls the events that brought him to this point

Thirty years before, ten year old Joseph Vaughan was singled out by his teacher in Augusta Falls, Georgia, as a young man with a great future as a writer. She introduced him to Steinbeck and the American classics, to which the style and themes of the book pay homage: Faulkner, Salinger, and Auster are all echoed in the assured, densely written text. The writer’s great strength is an ability to evoke atmosphere.

The consequences of WW2 in Europe and a series of brutal child murders set Joseph on a path of suffering and loss.

A series of child murders baffle the local sheriffs. Joseph, a classmate of the early victims, resolves to catch the killer. Like Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, he is a self-appointed ‘Guardian’, first as the leader of a group of boys and later as an adult, long after the community has decided to bury the past and its memories. His unwavering resolve and courage are matched with a sensitivity that finds an outlet in writing. That and his complex personal life distract him.

As Joseph makes a move from small-town America to Bohemian Brooklyn, the number and importance of themes, including links between secrecy and mental instability, romantic love, suffering and injustice threaten to bewilder the reader. When Joseph seems to have escaped the suffocating atmosphere of Augusta Falls only to meet with fresh tragedy, the story seems repetitious, the odds stacked too heavily against him.

In a way the indulgence in a rambling narrative detracts from the interest in the crimes. It’s to the author’s credit that it does keep you guessing until the very end and the last fifty or so pages are riveting. For me the literary style was a plus, but I could understand the objections raised by other members of the group. Hopefully we won't have too many problems with the next choice, a novel by Raymond Chandler.

RJ Ellory website: http://www.rjellory.com/page12802641.aspx

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I ♥ Google Alerts

Months back I read an article in The Society of Author’s Magazine, The Author about books being sold as illegal downloads with no payments reaching the author. Google Alerts was recommended as a way of keeping track, as it can be set to monitor the web for any mention of your book(s) or articles as well as your research interests.

It’s a long time since I earned any royalties, as the book I wrote on Chinese cinema is an academic one, published in 2002. Not exactly a text book, it's aimed at undergraduate film students.

Still, the library lending fees come in handy and tracking them is one of the services offered by The SoA. As they say, the fees they recover pay for the membership. I’ve been to a few of the Society’s practical talks and I’d definitely seek their free advice service before I’d sign a contract.

So I occasionally get an alert to say my book is on some reading lists that’s published on the web, or that it’s for sale on a website. The original print run of 2,000, at £12.99 a copy, sold out ages ago. It’s of interest, to me if no-one else, to check occasionally on the current price.

But what’s this? Yesterday I get an alert about a site that’s charging £31.50! Admittedly I have to convert it from Australian dollars, but there it is – what can’t speak can’t lie, as my Camberwell mother-in-law used to say.

If I thought £31.50 was excessive, Amazon is even better. My book's becoming a collectable!

Just a minute though – on the same list you can still get it new for around the original selling price - less if it's 'slightly worn' ! Now why would anybody pay £35.93 ? It doesn’t make sense. Interestingly, the publishing date's being changed, too. It says 2002 in my copy, and it's not the sort of thing'd forget.

All the same, thank-you, Google Alerts, for cheering up one jaded writer.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Touch of Flu

It’s R’s idea on Friday to see a harrowing Wajda film about a massacre. When I start coughing I assume it’s a reaction to some cleaning product in the cinema. Afterwards, I put the feeling of general malaise down to the depressing film.

Next morning, though, I wake up with full-blown flu symptoms: headache, sore throat and aching limbs. Too bad I’ve chosen the weekend to get sick; the doctor’s surgery is closed and the phone message is quite strict – don’t go to the hospital or use an emergency number unless you are at death’s door. As I had the antiflu jab last October it must be the latest strain – swine flu. I check it out on the Internet and the only symptom I don’t have is a high temperature.

‘No, Mum, you haven’t got swine flu’, says my daughter on the phone. ‘You have to be under 60 to catch it’.

Meantime my head feels as if it’s clamped in a vice, my throat’s been rasped with a cheese-grater and I’m coughing every few minutes. The slightest effort makes me feel exhausted.

By this time the only way to ease the ache in my legs is performing a horizontal St Vitus dance. Sitting in a hot bath has the same effect, and means I can doze for a while. My chest emits a kind of high-pitched whistle.

I spend the night in the spare room so R can get some sleep. Reading makes the headache worse but I listen to a radio play and an audio book.

R contacted the surgery today and the doctor rings at noon. She tells me if I want an antiviral medicine I can have one, but they do affect the stomach and as mine is already dodgy that’s not such a good idea. Besides, I’m over the worst.

I ask how long I’ll be contagious – I'm planning to drive to the North next week. The doctor says it’s only the first few days that are infectious. So that’s a relief. Now all I need is to get my strength back.

Symptoms of Swine flu:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wK1127fHQ4

Friday, July 10, 2009

Decisions, decisions!

‘Where did you buy your sandals?’ The question, spoken in Italian, caught me off-guard. Surely the elegant teacher standing next to the overhead projector didn’t covet my battered Clarks? My Italian may be rusty, but I can recognise ‘where’, ‘buy’ and ‘sandals’.

A glance at jewelled leather straps on the feet of a neighbouring student made me realise she didn’t mean me. However, I added ‘catena’ (chain) to my meagre vocabulary. If, come September, I need to find a chain store in Genoa, I’ll be OK.

When you learn a language you learn a culture, and ‘Consolidation Italian 2’ is a sartorial challenge, even before I try to get to grips with the grammar. The teacher has brought this class of lawyers, accountants (and did someone say she was a stockbroker), to their current standard and it’s pretty good. After the shoes, we moved on to peruse an interesting text about Italian newspapers, their history and political leanings. So it’s not just the long words in La Repubblica that put me off, as I'd thought.

But I wouldn’t even be in this situation if the Spanish hadn’t gone wrong. Classes often combine above Level 3, which what happened at Mary Ward, but it didn’t work well. I decided to change.

Thirty years ago I wanted to visit Pirandello’s ‘casa natale’ in Sicily and went to evening classes at Goldsmiths for about three years, so it’s the obvious choice, but what about the level?

The need to find a class coincides with the fatal blow delivered to my Frith Street Chinese class. So I have to find classes that a) don’t cost a lot b) don’t overlap c) are at the right level and d) are within 40 minutes travel of home. I’ve decided to switch to evening classes, to free up the daytime for writing.

It looks as if I’ll be doing Chinese, not Italian, at King’s College. It’s about the only place that offers the right level. The fees are manageable, because I can get a 30% alumnus discount. That’s something I didn’t know before.

Finances won’t stretch to Italian as well – I’ll have to find a class in an outer borough. Not easy when so many being scrapped. Still, at least I don’t have to go after working long hours at some demanding job. Will I feel comfortable in well-worn trainers, though?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Sunday with a Purpose

'I'm looking forward to Dartford Festival' said a young woman to her friend on the train last week.

When every London borough and hamlet hosts a Summer festival, chill-out Sundays are essential.

But what's this? Last Sunday morning, as we strolled to Blackheath village with coffee and a read in mind, we found the heath a sea of pink, and hundreds of spectactors cheering. A taped –off track seemed to stretch as far back as the A2.

Women who'd evidently been running some kind of race spilled off the heath around the church and were crowded into the village. Even the area outside the Crown pub had turned pink. An infectious cheeriness emanated from supporters congratulating the runners. They gasped, sweated, laughed and hugged one another as they made their way down towards refreshment in the village.

I had to admire the dedication of runners who'd turned out in the heat. Two young women clutching wine glasses who agreed to be photographed reminded me of an extra cost. 'The worst thing is it's Sunday morning. When I got up I was still hung over from last night!'

A loudspeaker announced the men' s run would take place in the afternoon. Just as well, I suppose.

For most of the runners, there was a personal story. In addition to numbers on the fronts of their vests most had notices on their backs carrying sad messages: 'For Dad and Angela' or 'For my aunt Susan'.

It suddenly seemed churlish to resent not being able to get a seat in the Blackheath Costa. It looked as if our best chance of a coffee was to turn back and walk home. Besides, the detour necessary to get across the heath would be too impossible. Dark clouds overhead seemed to act like a lid on a steamy pot and when the sun broke through I felt dizzy.

We did get a trip to Costa after all, though. A 54 bus carried us to Lewisham and we took the DLR to Greenwich. The cafe in Waterstones, which I prefer anyway because of the location, was crowded too, but the runners and their supporters all stayed at the other side of the heath.

It was a sober reminder that some people are willing to sacrifice a Sunday for charity. Well, there's always next year for me, I suppose. It certainly looks a lot more do-able than the London Marathon.

Race for Life: