Monday, August 31, 2009

Goodbye (for now) to all This

'There's a glut', said the Lewisham market trader on Friday, shovelling 50p's worth of green beans, about 2 kilos, into a huge bag. I love them, but a dodgy tum caused by over-consumption nearly kept me indoors yesterday. I'm glad I vowed to stick to bread and go out anyway.

R went off to Oxford Street to buy trousers that will be comfortable in 30 degrees of heat, and I arrived at Regents Park Bandstand at 4pm. I jigged a bit to Brazilian Jazz and gave altruistic D some sponsor money for walking on coals to support Air Ambulances. I talked to her about Madrid, where she now lives. I hope to meet up with her there on my way to Castile-Leon in October. Music by Samara was mellow, and it was an-all-family-plus-dogs affair, very good-natured, although the lead singer said she'd be glad to leave the 'English Summer' behind.

I've never seen a bad production at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, and the last time was Pinocchio with the grandchildren, in the heat of a July afternoon. Friday's visit was more magical, though, a packed audience laughing and shrieking as thunder and lightning and a heavy shower delayed the start of Hello Dolly. It was a beautifully-designed production of a fairly vapid musical. I loved the choreography of the waiters' scene in the second half, all arm-flinging in soldierly formation, but the best part was snuggling under a double sleeping bag in the back row with R . Good thing I still hadn't stowed all the camping gear.

So, after writing this last blog for a while, I must clear up the bedside clutter and clean some floors before we pack for Italy. It's been a really hectic August, what with having to disassemble my plans for the Winter just after I'd made them, so I can spend two months volunteering in Spain, the camping trip and D's job search. Not to mention the new lodger. At least we'll know someone is clearing the letterbox. The temporary postman is too harrassed to push things all the way through.

(Maybe there'll be time to catch the new Almodovar release at West India Quay Cineworld. I don't want to risk it having gone by the time we get back on the 8th. )

So a temporary goodbye to London. I hope 30 degrees of heat in Liguria will lead to a week of nothing more stimulating than reading and daily seaside strolls.

Firewalk for London Air Ambulances:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Kindness of Strangers

'You know why you're having trouble putting that tent up?' I was struggling against the wind, and probably should have practised at home, but my new neighour from across the field had his own theory. I was glad to see him come over because I was beginning to have doubts about the whole venture.

There were only two poles, crossing in the centre and fixed at the ends to form a dome. The poles were made up of sections and I'd just bent one of the metal sleeves where they joined. Now how was I going to slide it through the outer sleeve, as per instructions, without piercing the material?

My granddaugher, meantime, had grown tired of holding one end of the sleeve, and was watching from the car. She came out when a wiry man, rather bald and short of teeth, appeared from behind a wind-break with his nine year old daughter, Paige. He was joined by two others - a weather-beaten camping hand and a tall young man in a T-shirt. It was my cue to stand aside while the three men discussed what was to be done about the bent pole. 'I think I've got some tape that will hold it', said the elderly one and fairly skipped back to his caravan. I noticed most of the other campers in the field were in caravans with awnings.

In no time, it seemed, the tape was applied and the tent erected. Although it had a somewhat lopsided appearance like a house in a 1930s German Expressionist film, it seemed stable, especially with guy-ropes in place. One corner seemed liable to collapse but the car was shielding it from the worst of the wind. I'd buy myself one of those stripey wind-breaks as soon as I could.

'What you really need is a replacement section. I thought I saw one up on the hillside.' And the nimble old man disappeared. While we waited, Paige's father told me this was his seventh year at the site, usually staying six weeks or so until the beginning of September. The one in the T-shirt laughed and said it was his first, and last, season. I could imagine it would make for a cheap and pleasant holiday, with lots of places to ramble nearby and the sea not far away. We saw the families later in the neighbouring village , eating fish and chips.

The potential replacement from the hill was thicker than the existing segments. It didn't seem worth the bother of dismantling it all to see if it would fit, despite the old man's offering to do just that. So I thanked them all for their help and we set to pumping up the mattresses.

'Well, that's one lesson learned', said the man as he left. 'Don't try to put a tent up in the wind!'

What I'd learned, or been reminded of, was the kindness of strangers and their willingness to help.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Carry on Camping

'We're fairly full-up, but I think we can just about squeeze in an extra tent. You won't want a hook-up, will you?'

After trawling Internet campsite pages I was savvy with the lingo, so I knew the kindly site owner was talking about electricity. My kettle-boiler and lantern run on calor-gas, but in any case I didn't want to push my luck. With forecasters predicting a fine Summer and the harsh economic climate, it took some time to find even a 'squeezed in' vacancy.

I'm all set, now, though . Extra tent-pegs, gas canister, notebook and a mallet from Milletts meant a fairly modest outlay, but that's the beauty of camping: once you've got all the basics -it's cheap( as well as fashionable )

The notebook's included because I won't be taking my laptop. It wouldn't surprise me, really, to find that the 'working farm' campsite where I'm headed with my granddaughter has free Wi-F. But a tent's not very secure and I still remember a Womad where thieves crept into tents in the night and stole purses from rucksacks.

Was that the year when it was so muddy we couldn't get into the music field? It was the clayey, glutinous kind that sucked in your wellies so every step was an effort and it took ages to reach the loos, never mind the music. We had to pay out for a visit to Laycock and a cinema, plus cafe meals, and my friend in a wheelchair had to stay in a local B&B. Several tractors were on permanent duty towing cars from ruts. It put me right off.

Womad used to take place on a well-drained site near Reading town-centre.There were plenty of plastic duckboards laid out as pathways, between the area where you could buy a Reiki massage or driftwood furniture, the air heavy with incense, and the international food stalls where huge vats of paella and cassoulet vied with spiced Cornish mackerel.

I have fond memories of camping South of Bordeaux, where we used to head with the children when we had lots of holiday time but not much money. We'd arrive after a three day drive in our tiny Diane 6, having stayed in sites that were little more than fields with a shed and a chemical loo. It seemed to be a rule that every village in France had to have a campsite, however primitive, but Camping du Lac was luxurious, with a cafe and a games area, a beach and a lake. There was even a van that came round every day delivering ice.

We'd find our reserved pitch under the pine-trees, staked out with string and marked with a numbered board. The first thing to do after pitching the tent was dig a trench all around in the sandy soil to act as a drain during the occasional downpours.

Alas, Womad was resited to the grounds of some stately home in the West Country. The mud-bath ensued when the owners failed to supply duckboards. 'All in use at other festivals', the cheery tractor-drivers told us as they hooked tow-ropes to cars, no doubt mentally calculating the overtime.

Trouble is, camping's addictive. My son regarded Womad as an excuse to break out the tent and take his children, with grandma along to keep an eye on potential wanderers. Now my grandaughter is 'hooked', though not in the electrical sense. So it's just me and her at Ecclesden Farm, near Angmering, Sussex. Don't try going this week, because they're full. Besides, torrential rain's forecast for tomorrow.

Ecclesden Farm Campsite:


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake

A wealthy businessman hires Private Investigator Philip Marlow to find a missing wife, suspected of eloping with a bit-part film actor. The trail leads to seedy hotels and a remote lake with a bloated body. There's more than one femme fatale in the convoluted plot, and Marlowe is often on wrong end of a gun barrel or has his head in the way of a blackjack. So far so 'Chandleresque'. Given his reputation, it comes as a surprise to learn that Chandler, like Jane Austen, wrote only six novels.

His writing style made his work particularly suitable for adapting to the 'film noir' genre popular in US cinemas of the 40s and early 50s. When much younger I attended an 'all-night Humphrey Bogart ' programme at the NFT - ironically enough, sleeping through the Chandler-based The Big Sleep, in which Bogart made the perfect Marlowe. At a later date, though , I was wide awake to watch Robert Mitchum as the hardboiled detective hero, typically wreathed in cigarette smoke, in Farewell, My Lovely.

Chandler was born and spent his adulthood in America, where his stories are set, but he was educated at Dulwich College, credited with encouraging literary talents such as P. G. Wodehouse.

It seems to me Chandler's personal history and experiences- he came to England aged twelve after his parents divorced - played a part in creating the character of Marlowe, a troubled outsider in a society where infidelity and greed characterise the well-to-do.

It's his style, though, that makes the books so readable -his way of creating atmosphere by describing the essentials, the character-revealing dialogue and the telling imagery. For instance, Marlowe waits in an outer office to see his client as:

'The minutes went by on tip-toe, with their fingers to their lips'

or builds up to a startling revelation, as when he is disturbed by a woman when searching a house:

'She saw me and didn't stop or change expression in the slightest degree. She came slowly on into the room, holding her right hand away from her body. Her left hand wore the brown glove I had seen on the railing. The right-hand glove that matched it was wrapped around the butt of a small automatic.'

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Vaughan Town Volunteer

'What do you mean, you'd forgotten you'd applied?' said R. I'd just I told him I'd been accepted on a ten week  volunteer teaching programme in Spain., beginning in September

Sangria was a welcome refreshment at the Camino Bar, King's Cross when I went to share the news with J, my ex-colleague. I hadn't intended to go to the last Vaughan Town Meetup of 2009- most of the volunteer slots have been taken up for the rest of the year, so they don't need extra support from 'veterans' as Ian the organiser calls us.

Every month or so there's a Meetup and it's a chance to catch up with friends made on the programme - in my case a week in the Extramadura last September. It was too hot to venture out after 11am, unless to sit with my feet dangling in the swimming pool or in the air-conditioned hotel as I chatted to Spanish business people on an 'immersion' English language course. Over five days they had one-to-ones with all 14 of us 'Anglos' - Americans, Australians and British.

I learned quite a lot about local customs - for one thing that Spanish business people depend a lot on their families and and are reluctant to work abroad. They were all friendly and sociable.

I didn't get to speak much Spanish, except on the two short stays in Madrid before and after the course. Did I really do 80 hours? 'What can't speak can't lie', my late mother-in-law used to say, and it's there in black and white on the certificate. Maybe that includes the hilarious meal-times and the lovely long siestas, which I spent lying on my bed watching Spanish TV. It was one of the most enjoyable weeks I've ever had; no wonder people go back again and again.

For me, though, a week's too short. Vaughan Systems run a whole raft of English Language teaching activities in Spain.

'I'd have preferred a whole year, but my sense of wifely duty persuaded me to go for a shorter period'. R gave me a sceptical look and said, 'Wifely duty! That phrase doesn't exactly trip lightly off your tongue'. He did smile, though.

In March I'd applied for the Castile-Leon schools project, run jointly with the local Spanish education authorities to intoduce English speakers as classroom assistants into junior schools. Within a week I had an email to say the funding would only be settled much later. I promptly forgot about it. So it was a surprise when I received an email inviting me to join the programme on October 13th. I still can't quite believe it.

'It's not as if I'm off to climb Everest or paddle round the world in a canoe'. After a while he softened and began to enquire about the weather in Castile-Leon in October. I suppose it occcurred to him that besides basking in sympathy at the bridge club, there's always Easyjet for long weekends. As I said, it's not as far as China. And it's only for two months.

I wonder if it'll be warm enough for Sangria.

Vaughan Town:

Camino Bar:

Friday, August 07, 2009

Coco vs Pelham

Two very different films this week, French biopic, Coco Avant Chanel, and a remake thriller, The Taking of Pelham 123, shared an awareness of filmic possibilities.

Anne Fontaine's direction of Coco was plodding, a common fault with costume dramas, though costumes, scenery and sets rang the changes: French orphanage, Parisian dress shop, cabaret bar, theatre, seaside and society gatherings. The cunning couturier, Audrey Tatou at full pout, stalked a reluctant Baron, (Benoit Poelvoorde, a Bill Paterson look-alike with a moustache and wavy hair), to escape drudgery as a seamstress. His sexual demands met with the same polite demurring as when she allowed her playboy lover to set her up in business. It was as well-laundered as a nun's wimple, sex a tiresome necessity for a woman set on freeing women from corsets. Her playboy lover's marriage to an English heiress was seen in much the same light.

The liveliest scenes had Emanuelle Devros as Coco's wordly lesbian admirer and purveyor of hat-hungry ladies. They seem to have had the some role as shoes today. Emanuelle's scenes as star of luridly-lit farces made Coco's earlier cabaret act look like a Sunday school recital.

In a different part of the universe, John Travolta had stolen a New York subway train and was holding the passengers hostage until the Mayor, played by a rascally James Gandolfini organised the delivery of £10 million dollars. Denzel Washington was an unperturnable chief negotiator, after some bungling attempts by police 'expert' John Tuturro. It's a long time since I saw the original, but this version seemed to foreground action and sets rather than character-interaction, although there was a moderate amount of buddy-bonding between the principals.

What linked the films was the emphasis on the camera-work. In Coco the lens lingered on carefully framed scenery or details of fabric and processes. For the most part the camera functioned as the heroine's 'eyes', taking in the cool greys of the nuns' habits, the stripy jumpers of fishermen at Deauville or the elaborate lacework of high-class ballgowns.

If Coco was self-consciously art-house, Tony Scott's flashy swerves and sharp edits demanded whip-lash alertness, as trains whooshed through tunnels and cop cars careered across intersections. Even the control room was full of blinking lights and huge neon-lit screens, as well as characters dashing to and fro as they were variously summoned or recalled to deal with minor crises during the main emergency. Both films, although flawed, explored in different ways the possibilities of film media, instead of merely illustrating the narratives on which they were based.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Chun Yi: The Legend of Kung Fu

'Always listen to your muyu', says the Abbot with the long white beard. He's giving advice to the Shaolin temple's newest recruit, a boy of about eight. In case you were wondering, the muyu or 'wooden fish' is a gourd with a slit that produces a pleasant sound when struck with a small hammer. To get the audience in the mood, a youth in a saffron robe was striking one in the foyer of the Coliseum when I went on Monday. 'Already seen by 2 million in Beijing!' confided my Chinese ticket facilitator.

In fact, music was almost the only aspect of the show I liked - bells and zithers and chanting that reminded me of the Buddhist chants on CD that makes a pleasant prelude to sleep.

No chance of falling asleep during Chun Yin, a tale within a tale of a reluctant novice left by his mother at the temple. To encourage him to stay, the Abbot tells the story of another hesitant disciple, a story enacted in a number of striking and contrasting scenes by a talented cast of Chinese acrobatic dancers and singers.

The spectacle was impressive. But watching half-naked men breaking sticks over their heads, tumbling about the stage or flying through the air suspended on lengths of cloth doesn't thrill me at all. No amount of smoke and bubbles and flashing red lights, not to mention clashing cymbals and drumming, can convince me the quasi-mystical cult of physical prowess ('Carve your body like wood or stone!') leads to spiritual enlightenment.

It was more coherent and watchable than 'Monkey' at the O2 last Winter and more honest than the Falun Gong-funded show I complained of at the Festival Hall, but a dream sequence about rejecting female temptation needed more explanation for a modern audience. So my attention wandered in the second half. It didn't help that I was seated in the upper circle behind three rows of Chinese youths who moved about and commented on the action.

They were more interested in taking photos on their mobiles than listening to any muyus.

Chun Yi:The Legend of Kung Fu

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Mountaintop

I loved this two-hander by American writer Katori Hall, and so did the rest of the audience, going by the standing ovation at Trafalgar Studio1 last Friday. James Dacre's direction is brisk in a play that keeps its momentum for 85 uninterrupted minutes.

It’s April 1968, and a stormy night in Memphis, as ‘Preacher’ King prepares an address to protesting workers the following day. He worries about his family back home and the possibly violent outcome of the march. Sassy maid Camae, with a cigarette pack in her garter, agrees to keep the insomniac leader company, for reasons of her own. As they review the self-doubting activist’s career, a shocking connection between the wildly different characters is revealed. More astute audience members no doubt guessed Camae’s identity long before I did.

Memorable touches include a tour de force portrayal of the great man’s preaching style, delivered by Camae as she stands on the bed, Luther jumping to ominous thunder cracks and a pillow fight which echoes the weather outside as well as the astonishing surprise. ‘It sometimes snows in Memphis in April’, says Camae. The best surprise of all, though, is who can be reached on the telephone extension. Eat your heart out, BT!

The play’s title refers to what became known as King’s ‘mountaintop speech’ – it’s superbly acted by David Harewood and Lorraine Burroughs and full of surprises.

Although the set’s what you might call adequate, Richard Hammarton's music & sound and Emma Chapman's lighting design are very effective. The script keeps you laughing until you end up crying and clapping.

The Mountaintop:

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Too Close to the Sun

‘A writer is not just the sum total of his books – he’s a legend’, says Hemingway’s stalwart fourth wife. She defends the dying author from his floozy secretary and a predatory old school chum in this feeble musical about the Nobel Prize-wining author's last days. Snake-hipped Louella hopes to be wife number five and the Indiana Jones-style project Rex outlines can only tarnish the writer’s reputation.

Daniel Reitz’s much better Studies for a Portrait, at the Oval House Theatre explored a similar theme in more dynamic style. As an admirer of Hemingway's prose, if not his subject matter, I was interested. Whereas Reitz’s play pitted respectful homage against get-rich-quick opportunism in the final days of a dying painter, writers Roberto Trippino and John Robinson stumble under the weight of Hemingway’s action-hero reputation and the mystery of his shotgun death.

‘Words fly at me like meteor showers’ and ‘America only knows what to think when I have my say’ pronounces the shambolic hero, in a terminal state of writer’s block but happy to re-imagine the hell-raising youth evoked by Rex. The play offers no real insight or portrait of the action-hero writer. The actors did their best with a poor script and some banal and unmelodic songs

Christopher Wood’s set is the best thing about the show - three spaces in the ground floor of a house in Ketchum Idaho, where the reclusive Hemingway has come to die. The rooms’ dividers are slatted wood, making a kind of tropical see-through log cabin, the walls festooned with bleached animal skulls. A revolving stage makes for seamless scene-changes, and suggests a steamy Somerset Maugham or Tennessee Williams atmosphere, while the see-through walls suggest the characters keep each other under constant surveillance. In a memorable sequence where Rex runs through his frenetic screenplay, Ernest following him from room to room, it becomes a model zoetrope, a visual preview of the proposed Hollywood travesty.

The fatal weakness is the musical numbers. Each character steps forward in turn and crudely expresses their aims in a recitative style. Ernest’s expository ‘I lived too Close to the Sun’, is little more than an ‘I did it My Way’ apologia that doesn’t endear, an impression reinforced when Rex and he join in a song about their womanising. In a chilling precursor of the final scene Ernest demonstrates to Rex the only certain way to shoot oneself (place the shotgun in the mouth), but otherwise the script is rambling.

Christopher Howell was an adequate standby Rex in the performance I saw, but James Graeme made an over-active Hemingway for a man suppsosedly physically ruined by his excesses. Tammy Joelle as Louella was pert rather than seductive. Helen Dallimore as wife Mary, the only admirable character, brought a resigned dignity to her role as the protector of a husband whose work she admired. It’s a shame the writers can’t make the audience care as much as she did about his legacy.

Too Close to the Sun at The Comedy Theatre, Panton Street: