Archive for October, 2013|Monthly archive page

Not a lot (Day 33)

A note-shuffling day, uneventful. The highlight was making contact with Paul Arden’s wife, Toni, and arranging a visit to interview her at their Sussex home. As something of a quid-pro-quo I’m going to clear the spam off Paul’s memorial site, as it disrupts the general  feelings of inspiration from the later posters who are predominantly his readers expressing the impact of his thinking on theirs.

I spent a bit of time trying to marshall my notes which is surprisingly tricky. I’m using Evernote as a way of working between desktop(s), phone and laptop which broadly works well but the occasional sync clash dose throw a spanner in the works and wastes time. A big part of this book-writing game (certainly for this sort of factual book which has a good deal of underlying research) does seem to revolve around self-organisation, systems, and the like.

Between note wrangling and sorting diary syncing issues on my phone, the bit of writing and video research I’d planned for the rest of the afternoon never happened and I trotted off to watch Saracens at Wembley Stadium to round off the week.

saracens v toulouse

 

 

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Hostage to Fortune (Day 32)

Oh What a Lovely War {Photo: courtesy of Theatre Royal Stratford East Archives}

Murray in Oh What a Lovely War {Photo: courtesy of Theatre Royal Stratford East Archives}

Headed East for the afternoon to meet actor Murray Melvin who was a key player in Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE). He was in the original and West End cast of Oh What a Lovely War in 1963 and played the hostage in Behan’s The Hostage. He started working with Joan in the late 50s when he was an office worker and untrained in acting beyond some am dram. He was born in Kentish Town (as was ArkAngel Productions) and he grew up in Hampstead High Street, when it was a very different place from what it is now. Joan spotted something in him and took him on. He now pays that back by maintaining and building her archive at TRSE and has done assiduously for 22 years. After the interview he was going to see the latest production so he can give his notes which the director appreciates, plenty of wisdom to tap into there.

Murray brought me up to his room, a rich red den containing Joan’s library which he has rescued (it’s around a quarter of what it once was) and housed in specially made shelves also in TRSE red, that traditional theatrical red that goes with gilt. He emphasised that she was a voracious reader of broad range. The volume that jumped out at me was Alvin Toffler’s FutureShock which for me screams 70s  – my mum had the US paperback edition on recommendation from some hippy-type, it may have been Pete, the lifeguard at the Thatched Barn swimming pool with the cool earring. That’s why she also has Trout Mask Replica among her records.

We spoke for just under an hour in a free-flowing way (though hitting all the points/questions in my notes) about many aspects of Joan’s work from her attitude to community to her process of collaborative creation, from Brendan Behan to Shelagh Delaney, from her take on Ego to her relationship with Gerry Raffles, from the influence of European theatre to the fact you never touched her, she maintained a block of space around her. I hope to publish the interview in the online archive for this book.

On the way home I received an email from Toni Arden, wife of Paul, which opened up another interesting vista…

murray melvin

A Taste of Honey

A Taste of Honey with Rita Tushingham

Murray Melvin on Brendan Behan

Brendan Behan

I’m on the Tube heading for home from Stratford. I’ve just been interviewing actor Murray Melvin at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, where he worked with Joan Littlewood.

It was the first outing for my LiveScribe smart-pen as recommended by Jemima Kiss of The Guardian for interview recording. It performed fine but I ballsed up the last bit (5 mins) because of a technical mistake (you need to restart record mode when you change pages in the smart-notebook (it ain’t that smart).

So I want to capture that last bit for posterity while it’s fresh in my mind as it was about Brendan Behan. Murray played the hostage in the original TRSE production of the eponymous play.

Most importantly he poopooed the notion that Joan wrote any of Behan’s stuff.

Behan habitually attended performances of The Hostage in Stratford and would get up mid-show in the auditorium to interject. For example, after a song: “I’ve written an extra verse for you.” The audience loved the disruption. So did Joan as it kept the actors on their toes and the performance fresh and alive. And the new verse would be even better than what was already in the script.

Murray felt Joan loved the “destructive” nature of Behan’s character. In the same way that she was drawn to the destructive energy of the teenage boys hanging out in front of the Theatre with her encouragement.

Murray emphasised that Behan was from a family of storytellers. He would regale the company with stories, prompted by Joan. “Tell us the one about…” He’d go on for three hours then notice the time. The bar’s open, he’s off. Then Joan would ask the assembled actors: “What did he say about your character?” and scribble down furiously the collective memory of what had been said. From that she’d spot the moments of real brilliance and extract from the 3 hours 3 minutes of pure gold.

Murray-Melvin

Treasure in Hackney (Day 31)

archive

A theatrical day. Started with a performance in front of 20-year old University of Syracuse students illustrating the principles of multiplatform TV creation. Went smoothly though the fella who was sitting for some reason with his red trackie bottoms round his ankles, mercifully with running shorts on underneath, did distract me momentarily. Otherwise a friendly and respectful class. That warmed me up for a trip to E8 to a quiet back road off Kingsland Road in Dalston to immerse myself in the thespian world of Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop.

I went to interview two women who worked closely with Joan at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE) in the 60s and 70s. When I arrived a Stratford native who had been part of the army of kids who gathered around the Theatre with Joan and her partner Gerry Raffles’ encouragement, keeping them engaged and as much as possible away from trouble, was sitting having a quiet cup of tea with the interviewee who was kindly hosting. Her job revolved around the community outreach  work which kept the Theatre and company in close touch with day-to-day reality and relevance. The 45 year old connection between him and her was clearly still strong and affectionate. She could recall the name of every child in every photo from back then.

A long table had been carefully arranged for me with documentation from Joan’s activities extending from just after the War til the 70s – photographs, clippings, letters, programmes. A bottle of water and a glass was left thoughtfully by the  chair. It took me two hours, fuelled on the coffee and chocolate biscuits that kindly followed, to get as far as 1963 where I parked up tantalisingly at the cliff-hanger of Oh What a Lovely War. The two things that most stood out for me was the material on Brendan Behan, which for all the tragedy of the drink and the pantomime Irish stuff, drew attention to what a wit he was, a worthy compatriot of Wilde; and a photo album of Great War photographs which served as research/source material for Oh What a Lovely War. It ranged from prints of Haig and the high command via aircraft and newly emerged tanks to nurses and troops in wrecked churches – no idea where Joan acquired these from but it was no ordinary collection. Detailed research and a documentary sensibility were critical to the evolution of the landmark show. I’m going back for Round 2 in this extraordinary archive in a few days, accompanied by Adrian Dunbar who has recently been playing Behan on stage in New York.

The double interview – the two women specifically requested to be interviewed together as they enjoy the fact they have slightly different perspectives on TRSE and naturally fall into a bantery double act – was illuminating and  free flowing. They both preferred not to be recorded (which surprised me, I’d have expected the opposite in the interests of accuracy) so we had a not over-structured chat from which the complex character of Littlewood emerged  strongly if not clearly. She evidently had at least as many contradictions, ambiguities and complexities as the rest of us, probably many more to match what the second interviewee described unequivocally as her genius. Our host made it clear that the total focus Joan had on her theatre work, that her genius, was only possible because her partner/lover Gerry in particular (and her colleagues to some extent) dealt with all the everyday demands and realities – cooking, shopping, paying the bills and rent, transport, the lot. A gender reversal perhaps but a common dynamic – behind many if not every creative genius lies a person who cares and supports in a quotidian, quiet way.

The thing that most struck me during the afternoon was a photograph by the door in. It showed Joan working hard on a patch of waste ground by the Theatre which they were preparing to squat as a venue for kids and community activities.  An army of urchins were lending hands. Over Joan’s shoulder is a beautiful dark-haired teenage girl. Radiating energy she is marshalling the younger children. This was my host back in the late 60s. Despite her youth, she’d already made a name for herself racing scooters and setting speed records. She still has 30 scooters out back of her tardis-like house. For all her energy and friendliness, her edge and integrity, I’d never have guessed from her outward appearance when I first met her on stage at the Theatre Royal a couple of weeks ago that such stories lie behind her. I am constantly amazed and shaken out of my assumptions by the stories of ‘everyday’ people.

brendan behan

Manchester, so much to answer for (Day 30)

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

The day was centred on non-writing activity – namely a speaking event at the Radio Festival 2013 in Manchester where I participated in a discussion on Democracy, Radio and the Media with Bea Campbell (writer and feminist) and Rod Liddle (journalist, columnist in The Spectator, former editor of Radio 4’s Today programme). The session in The Lowry theatre in Salford was chaired by radio presenter Peter Curran and produced by Radio 4 Today Editor Peter Hanington. I traveled up on the train to Manchester with Rod. The last time he came on my radar was when I read a piece of his in The Spectator about Channel 4’s decision to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer during Ramadan. His view of Channel 4 commissioning editors was expressed thus: “The suspicion persists that over at Channel 4, in the commissioning departments, it is forever Wank Week. A perpetual circle jerk of low-achieving white middle-class males tugging away like there’s no tomorrow. The latest spurt of fatuity comes from its Head of Factual Programming, a very pleased-with-himself little semi-bearded monkey…etc. etc.” Other than his being apparently down on monkeys (which I love and are only 0.4% different in their DNA, or so I heard on Radio 4 last Sunday [from evolutionary anthropologist Professor Volker Sommer on The Museum of Curiosity – presenter John lloyd was someone I was thinking about for the Comedy chapter], and apparently men and women can be 4% different), other than the monkey thing  and his being too down on Crouch End (he uses the word “bien-pensant” a lot, deliberately pronounced in an English accent), he proved a very affable chap with a voice fit for the stage. He knew a lot about the landscape we were trundling through from the Welsh borders to Stockport viaduct (which later showed up in an exhibition I went to, see below). He was helpful sharing his experience of book writing and publishing.

Once in Salford, at Media City in the shadow of Old Trafford, both very ugly, we hung out in a strange long curved back-room getting our heads together and broadly discussing the issues at hand. Bea was very friendly and easy to connect with. She now does a lot of her writing in South-West France which she balances with Camden Town. She has a great passion about her which explains why my Other Half has been so inspired by her over the years. Peter Curran did a grand job holding the whole thing together so the session proved smooth and not narrow, three clear perspectives on the topic, mine focused very much on the multiplatform potential of radio, the medium I love most (I listen to over 20 hours a week).

Once over I high-tailed it into town to the Manchester Art Gallery to see the Jeremy Deller exhibition I missed previously at The Hayward in London. I was fortunately alerted to it by the art collector at The Groucho on Day 29. It’s a tremendous exhibition – All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is Exhibition as Art Work, a reflection on the Industrial Revolution created from existing artworks and artefacts arranged to give maximum illumination to experiences and phenomena which remain central to our lives. It only opened on Friday so time was on my side. Time was one of the most revelatory themes for me – the regulation of time through industrialisation – working hours, clocking on, time off. The most disturbing object on display was a contemporary device from Motorola which is affixed to the wrist (where, having listened recently to an extract from Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, the nail went in to fix Jesus to the cross) to monitor the efficiency of warehouse picking workers at Amazon and similar workplaces. That kind of thinking, zero hours contracts, and you can see the Industrial Revolution is not played out. At Peter & Shelagh’s wedding on Saturday in the church where Milton, inspiration for the ridiculously long sentences in this post and the insane sub-clauses, we, heavenly muse, sang Jerusalem so this whole thing has been in the air all week.

Jeremy Deller is the subject of my Art chapter so it was brilliant being able to tune into him through such an inspiring show. I saw him talk about it once at a small conference while he was creating it, focusing on the above image of a miner and his returning prodigal son. What a perfect capturing of the tension of industry – connection and alienation, love and fear,  old and new, monochrome and colour, manual work and non-manual.

I enjoyed the people-watching as I walked from the gallery to the station – everything you’d expect from the city of Lowry and The Smiths.  And of Tony Wilson, the subject of my Music chapter.

The  journey home allowed for a bit of writing, carrying on with Paul Arden to the rhythm of the train and the Talking Heads.

Worse for wear on Margueritas (Day 29)

jeremey-deller-the-battle-of-orgreave

I’m on the tube home from a meeting at the great media cliche that is the Groucho Club. Synchronicity in that on the way there I was reading The Origin of Virtue by Matt Ridley about the scientific basis of altruism in our species and it mentioned Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin in the section I was reading. … Actually I’ve just checked back – make that Karl rather than Groucho (easy mistake 😉 ) I’ve ended the Writing Day with a few Margueritas. It’s not the first post I’ve written under the influence. One that springs to mind was on the way home from the V&A after an amusing encounter with Janet Street Porter.

Anyway just had a meeting with a charming art collector and he confirmed Jeremy Deller as an ideal for the Art case study being “the most generous person I’ve ever met – one of the anointed”.

The rest of the day has been way more sober but nonetheless productive, mainly carrying on with the Paul Arden chapter. I read the opening of it to my Other Half and she liked it but helped me simplify it. The first unread-back draft had phrases like “a propos of nothing ” and “en famille” which really needed a good kicking. It made me aware of how important and impactful that second pass can be.

I took a lunch-break at a local cafe (the wonderful Amici, domain of Maurizio) to meet two French specialists in multiplatform production who want to involve me in their Paris conference next summer. Chatting about comic books and 60s French movies and translation and Asterix and Lyons (and multiplatform) and all manner of inherently interesting stuff was great fuel for a solid afternoon of writing.

Tomorrow I’m doing a speaking gig in Manchester with Bea Campbell (who inspired my wife’s university final film about miners’ wives in Ayrshire during the Miners Strike – connection to Deller and Channel 4 through The Battle of Orgreave) and Rod Liddle with a bit of input from Boris Johnson via video. I’ll get 3 hours each way on the train to write.

marguerita

Bright Sparks (Day 28)

Finger spark

The day was focused on meeting the head of a London art school for advice on Design candidates and also to explore whether this project and the subject of catalysing creativity through openness, generosity, sharing and altruism is of interest to his institution and how that interface might work. We had lunch in Kipferl at The Angel, an Austrian restaurant which we’re both fond of. He felt it would be useful to have a term for the type of person I’m writing about. I did have one I was trying on for size at the outset – Bright Sparks – but I felt the phrase has too much baggage. It’s derived from a passage in the Surrealist Manifesto by Andre Breton which talks about the creative spark which happens when things that don’t normally belong together are combined in an innovative way.

The rest of the day I spent reading about the scientific/evolutionary explanation for Altruism and Co-operation.

ORF idents

 

Time travel (Day 27)

keith-jarrett

I used to write these posts in the last 15 minutes of every writing day but I’ve shifted to writing them first thing next morning as they work well to get the juices flowing. I’m not really a morning person so sitting down at 9 of the clock and diving into writing goes a bit against the grain. I’ll think of this as the literary equivalent of the thoroughly thought through exercises Joan Littlewood devised for her actors to get them in the zone. I pinned down an interview date with one of the Theatre Workshop acting company today (which is yesterday aka Day 27) which I’m really looking forward to doing. He charmingly gave me a choice of Coffee or Tea slots which means late morning or 3.30pm (half an hour out if you go by Asterix in Britain).

I tried out some of the Writing Music suggested by people yesterday. The natural sounds of sea etc. were rhythmically tranquil but lacked that little charge of energy music can bring to boost you into the flow. I’m sure if I give it more of a go it could bring me somewhere interesting. The Nils Frahm piano music had promise. It’s along the lines of Keith Jarrett and ECM stuff I sometimes listen to when working, airier sort of jazz. Listening to it on Spotify may not be a fair test as the ads are so loud and irritating, and I don’t feel like subscribing because I don’t agree with the price point (same with digital books – given there’s no production or distribution costs how expensive are they!?)

I had a good, productive afternoon’s writing on the Paul Arden chapter. I want to start each chapter with an emblematic scene which captures the essence of the chapter’s protagonist. The Ginsberg chapter I knew from long off how it would start, which scene to springboard from. The Arden one I figured out today (which is yesterday aka Day 27) – I’d already written it so it was a case of shifting things around and revising it to sit more as a self-contained story, which actually made it read much better any way. I’m meeting the main character in that story (besides Paul) Monday week.

Tomorrow (which is today aka Day 28 or Friday 11th October) I am seeing a grand fromage from a London university for lunch to see if I can carve out an academic dimension to this project as its an institution I respect massively.

I’ll work out what tense I’m in for next week…

Music and Writing (Day 26)

Jim-Morrison-the-doors

Wordsmith and Lizard King

A much more productive day than yesterday though still a tester of resilience with various things going wrong from hardware to software to children to somehow having gotten myself involved in a speaking engagement with some very daunting people on the panel (one of whom recently referred to Channel 4 commissioning editors as wanking monkeys – that should make for a fun encounter).  But I set up five interviews with people connected to Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop. And had a good writing burst in the afternoon fuelled by a rather good playlist I made for a party recently.

It’s funny that thing of writing or working to music. I was listening to Daniel Kahneman (the Israeli-American psychologist, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics) on a Desert Island Discs podcast when jogging the other morning and he was saying how he only discovered in recent years that he worked much better without music, after a lifetime of writing with music playing in the background. In the morning I worked with some tranquil classical music which is the half-way house for me between silence and working to Music – I don’t resort to it often. I generally play non-Classical instrumental music when writing. For years I worked to Kind of Blue on a daily basis when I had my own non-open plan office. Never tired of it, often inspired by it. So yesterday’s session did hit that ‘flow’ state a couple of times on the back of some 60s soul and the like, one of my rarer non-instrumental sessions. This morning I’m going non-instrumental too – Strange Days by The Doors (carefully skipping Horse Latitudes which only a maniac could write to).  Let’s see where the spirit of Jim takes us…

In the meantime, any suggestions for music conducive to writing, favourites that work for you?

Miles Davis Quartet

Tunesmith and Jazz Prince

Turn of the season (Day 25)

monsters-university-movie

OK, I admit it – I slacked off yesterday for one of the first times since I started. I read the end of a Joan Littlewood book for research in my outdoor office – i.e. picnic rug in back garden with the cat. And then I started reading a few chapters of the new James Bond book by William Boyd, Solo, which came out recently, enjoying the last of the autumn sunshine. I watched the end of a documentary about Joe Papp and made notes. So that was two loose ends tied. But I never did the other two of the four things I planned to accomplish. I didn’t finish my first pass at the Paul Arden chapter. And I didn’t set up five interviews for the Littlewood chapter. (Though I did set up one for the Advertising section). Then I knocked off early to take the younger Enfant Terrible to see a screening of Monsters University at a plush hotel viewing room in Soho, preceded by some Lebanese grub at our favourite, Yalla Yalla, in an alley off Beak Street. We had fun watching men emerging surreptitiously from the sex shop opposite, we enjoyed sharing the fresh hummous and haloumi, we popped in to say hello to tailor-cum-film-maker John Pearse (whose film Moviemakers was at the Cambridge Film Festival a few days ago) and who made my wedding suit, we enjoyed the buzz of all the girls outside the hotel waiting to see Madonna come in or go out, we mucked about while we were waiting taking selfies. The film was very funny and the Enfant Terrible asked a good question of the director Dan Scanlon and producer Kori Rae from Pixar who did a Q&A after the screening – he was trying to find out why the 12 year delay between Monsters Inc and this one, representing in effect most of his life. I got to have a good chat with Dan afterwards about the process of working with Helen Mirren and the other actors. So it was a well spent day but not very productive. Perhaps that’s part of the point of the sabbatical I’m tending to overlook a bit, there’s an aspect of reward to it and recognition and battery-charging.

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