Thursday, 12 October 2017

I Applaud A Performance

Lucy Aphramor is hot.  You can tell this from the cover of her book, Raise The Roof.  She is shown sharp with style and she looks you in the eye. If she had a gauntlet, she'd be laying it down.  Behind her are the flames of a burning home.

It is typical of Lucy, ever-generous, that proceeds from the sale of Raise The Roof are going to support her friends Leela and Jamie, who, she says in her preface, have stuck with her through thick and thin, and whose home burned down earlier this year.

Raise The Roof is the book of the show. Lucy is the Naked Dietician and I first saw her performance in its entirety in Edinburgh, on the Fringe.  I've kept my ticket from that day as a souvenir.

I want to remember that performance because it was brave and bold: in fact, it was incendiary.  Lucy's monologue is a weaving of stories of injustice, of heartbreak and oppression, into something that's alight with energy and hope. Always serious, she plays with words in a way that's clear with enjoyment and raises some chuckles amidst the intensity.

So to take the opportunity to see the performance again at the Quaker Meeting House in Shrewsbury last Sunday evening was, for me, obvious. At a time when the news is full of miserable stories about the abuses of white male privilege - women groped and raped, young black men singled out, children shamed about their body shapes - Lucy challenges the status quo - the assumption that simple sound bites: for example, eat less, move more, dispensed by the Powers-That-Be-So-Simplistic, can redress the injustices resulting from inequalities built into the very fabric of society. Whilst this a personal statement, it inevitably calls us, the audience, to consider living differently:

         for right now I am on fire gut-busting for an exodus from stasis
         so almighty it incites the gods in each of us to hurl up everything
         they worship   sacred  secular  profane   inflame a new way 
         of doing being praying grieving growing speaking thinking longing
         loving listening fucking that does justice justice

It's impossible to hear the density of Lucy's text and absorb it in one sitting. Hearing it again, I realised it's impossible to hear the density of Lucy's text and absorb it in two sittings, but it was definitely an advantage to hear it twice. And buying the book for a longer look makes sense.

On Sunday, the audience was focused and able to hear each word, each lift of hope and ecstasy, each plunge into despair and pain.  Lucy's command of her words, her amazing memory for them, left us free to soak, washed over by wave upon wave of a searing yet playful narrative which includes the deeply personal references to self-harm and discrimination, and the deeply political longing for injustice to be brought out into the clear light of day, seen for what it is.

Friday, 6 October 2017

I Feel At Home

It was my eldest son who said it out loud first - "Mum, you fit in here."  We were in Antwerp buying small electrical items for his new home, wondering at this city, its zigzag frontages, its mercantile heritage.

Antwerp is in Flemish Belgium: in Flanders.  The language is Dutch: Flemish Dutch.  In those simple facts lie layers of history, politics and numerous cultural sensitivities with which I am only just becoming familiar: sensitivities which this blog may in some way trample across unwittingly - I hope to come to understand more of the complexity, and may need to re-write parts of this in future.

My son expanded on his verdict by saying that I look like many of the women we passed. I'm tall and apparently I dress in middle class Dutch style. His analysis fitted with my feelings.

I have often felt at odds in new places - in Thailand I was too tall, in Paris too casual, in Bari too pale, in Los Angeles too introverted, in Scandinavia too jealous - whereas on arriving in Antwerp, even when driving on the right, I felt immediately at home. 

It wasn't just the weather which settled me, although the grey rain with its moments of intense sunny glory set the backdrop.  It wasn't just everyone's (but everyone's) ability to speak English during a week in which I struggled to commit any more Dutch than the words 'dank je' to memory. I knew I was amongst a tribe I recognised.

From this tribe, the Plantin and Moretus families emerged in the 16th century to establish a phenomenally successful printing business, and the Plantin-Moretus is amongst the best museums, no, it's the best, I have ever visited. The two oldest surviving printing presses in the world live there amongst drawer upon drawer of beautiful fonts.

So far, my son is settling well to his three year BA course in Fashion Design.  I'm hoping to pay several visits to Antwerp during this time and said as much to my Uncle Bob on the phone last weekend.  "Of course, my dear" he said, ever-affectionate, "our Huguenot ancestors were in the cloth trade in Flanders and they fled persecution back in 1570 or so."

My uncle's reminder explained in some way that sense of alignment that comes to me from time to time, when for a moment it feels as if the world, quietened for a while from the clash of empires, fits snug as the new coat I bought yesterday for my niece's wedding. When I got the coat home and looked properly, it turned out, of course, to be Dutch.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

I Compare Two Audiences

Royal Albert Hall Saturday 23rd September 2017
Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

Notes on the Audience

Flash photography? In a place this size? With the lights down and the sublime music of Beethoven it's like watching a badly choreographed, underwhelming firework display.  If you are going to use your camera turn off the flash AND the sound you twerps and oh, you're clapping after the first movement; well, I mustn't judge - it's just a convention to remain silent but it IS Beethoven and I hope by the time the 9th comes on you'll know not to clap until the end and why oh why are you eating, and eating noisily - yes, it is the Emperor Concerto which is a popular piece but it's not the bloody Nutcracker and whatever you are chatting to your neighbour about ,can't it wait because the Royal Albert Hall acoustics are bad enough as it is without the competition of what is not even an apologetic whisper and surely you could have used the interval to rummage around your bag which is the size of Wembley stadium and I am going to turn around and smite you with my Paddington stare if you don't shut up ... there I did it (and am I a musical snob for wanting to listen to music in quiet I mean I know that sometimes people have to cough and that can't be helped but talking - talking! - why did you even bother coming and if you realised I'd booked these tickets back in February to enjoy an evening with my son whose favourite piece is the 9th and which I have never seen live before and which I want to be memorable for the right reasons would it make any difference?).  Oh, and there you go! Clicking away during the slow movement which is so sublime that I want to cry and shout at you for the sake of all of us who want to listen and I think I will stand up and leave and I think I will stand up and walk down and into the orchestra to be as close as I can be to the cellos when they pick up that theme which is the most amazing moment and even you lot with your rustling and your chatting and your flashing and your clicking can't ruin this - the voice of joy rising from the deepest place in the whole wide world.

Much Wenlock Pottery Saturday 30th September 2017
Voices for Change - An Evening of Poetry to mark 100 Thousand Poets for Change Global Event Day

Notes on the Audience

I look out at  people, listening with all of themselves.  You are still, intent, serious about this: focused on what's happening now.

Thank you.

Friday, 22 September 2017

I Live In The Present

I Wake Up In Bed
I Regret My Late Night
I Push Back The Duvet
I Turn On The Shower
I Wash My Hair
I Turn Off The Shower
I Towel Myself Down
I Roll On Deodorant
I Decide What To Wear
I Put On Some Clothes
I Change My Mind
I Brush My Hair
I Swap My Jumper
I Squeeze An Orange
I Boil The Kettle
I Moisturise My Face
I Boil The Kettle
I Apply Mascara
I Make Some Tea
I Dry My Hair
I Make A Cheese Sandwich
I Drink Tepid Tea
I Pack My Bag
I Lock My Door
I Descend The Stairs
I Ascend The Stairs
I Check My Door
I Walk To The Station
I Stop Off At Waitrose
I Queue For Free Coffee
I Meet A Stranger
I Hum A Tune
I Buy A Ticket
I Chat To The Ticket Seller
I Catch A Train
I Take Out My Book
I Turn To Page 254
I Stare Through The Window
I Remember Something Sad
I Take Out A Pen
I Look At My Hands
I Write Something Down
I Put Away My Book
I Disembark From The Train
I Arrive At Work
I Work For Eight Hours
I Rush For The Train
I Take Out My Book
I Turn To Page 254
I Read About Willem
I Mark My Page
I Get Off The Train
I Lope Up The Hill
I Reach My Home
I Hug My Son
I Boil The Kettle
I Make Some Tea
I Drink Hot Tea
I Mix G And T
I Add A Slice Of Lemon
I Cook Ham Hocks With Sweet Potato Fries And Green Vegetables
I Apologise To Vegetarians
I Whip Up Blueberry Pancakes
I Share Pancakes With My Son
I Recommend Vanilla Cream
I Enjoy Eating Seconds
I Chat About Shostakovich
I Put On My Pyjamas
I Boil The Kettle
I Blog My Day

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

I Review A Collection

The Knives of Villalejo
Matthew Stewart
Eyewear Publishing 2017

Those of us caught in mid-life, between generations - our children to one side, our parents (alive or dead) to the other - will find much that resonates in Matthew Stewart's first full collection. 

Expressions of loss: of his father, primarily, but also of the contents of his childhood (including an elegy to the dying art of milk delivery: Milko - "by the ebbs and surges of daily pints you knew who’d grown, who’d aged, who’d upped and left") exist in tension with the fearless tug of his child's growing. Stewart explores this mid-state primarily in the ordinary incidents and objects of a daily life, albeit a life lived between West Sussex and Extremadura.  So some of the ordinary is extraordinary, as exemplified in this exquisite moment:

Home Comforts

Until you’ve lived in a country
full of kitchens full of saucepans
that slowly creak to the boil,
a kettle won’t seem to whistle
like the owner of a loose dog
calling it back, calling it home.

Whether he is disposing of his father's ("small electricals?") razor at the dump, taken back in a gasp to the moment his father's teaching him to tie a tie, or Making Paella with David, "learning how to shell langoustines, exploring their cartoon-alien faces and train-track bellies", Stewart uses what's viscerally familiar, what's most noticeable only when it's gone, or shifted, or seen through a different, younger life, to draw us in: his sparse, precise language, engendering curiosity.

Though these poems are accessible at one level, there is nothing simple here. They are to be read and savoured like a complex wine with a minimalist label - to be sipped, held in the mouth a while.

Matthew Stewart will be reading at Shrewsbury Poetry on Thursday January 4th 2018

Friday, 1 September 2017

I Set Fire To My Table

Back in the height of summer, you know, when the clouds were lowering over the horizon just as the school holidays started, my friend Emily and I plotted a small party, mainly to celebrate her birthday, which is today (Happy Birthday, gorgeous), but also to continue the warming process of my new home.

I've moved into my home gradually.  Dawn downstairs reminded me that it's been five years, near enough, since I started buying it.  I shared it for three years in a system called 'nesting' (more of this one day, maybe) and for the past 18 months, it's been all mine. 

Wanting to ensure we had at least one guest, Emily and I created Hugh Jape, a mannequin dressed for the occasion in one of my son's hand-made coats and draped in fairy lights.  We stood him in welcome, at the bottom of the stairs, calm as anything.  We discussed food, seating, dancing, ice, candles.  We discussed my new table, the quality of its oak grain, and the need not to damage it with water.  We protected it with a plastic table cloth.

What happened to my table halfway through the party was entirely my doing.  It involved tea lights and the careless placement of a packet of poppadums (Waitrose). Back in the 70s at school, we used to shrink crisp bags in the oven and wear the miniaturised Smiths Salt and Vinegar or Cheese and Onion packets as badges.  The bag of poppadums didn't shrink - it burst into flames.  The plastic cloth underneath quickly followed suit.

My first reaction was to try to put out the flames with the second pack of poppadums (Waitrose). Maybe one guest brought both packets (thank you, and I'm sorry).  I completely forgot about the fire triangle (heat, fuel, oxygen) in my haste.  Fortunately, Mike hadn't, and he calmly poured water (sparkling, natch) on the table top fire.

Afterwards, Mike said that what'd come to hand first was lemonade, but that he'd had enough time to choose sparkling water.  I was glad about that, as the smell of burning sugar added to burning poppadum and plastic would've lingered.

As it is, the smell is nowhere to be smelt today and I am urged, once again, towards gratitude: I'm so grateful that the party didn't end in a panicked alarm, that the table isn't damaged, even though in the few minutes of Ted and Mike doing the clearing up and re-dressing-the-table-in-a-duvet-cover-process I had reconciled myself to its imagined imperfections.  

Yes, the cloth with its gaping charred hole had to be thrown away (along with the now-laminated poppadums) but what of it?  What of the small losses in comparison to the warmth of my calm-as-Hugh-in-a-crisis friends who have seen me through to this gift of a place, this sanctuary of rest and creativity.