Archive for February, 2014|Monthly archive page
Still not really in my rhythm but getting some stuff done. The highlights of the last couple of weeks (The Story conference displaced last week’s entry) are primarily interviews. Today I did an interview with Barbara Windsor who was one of the third generation of Joan Littlewood’s acting ensembles doing Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1959, before transferring to the West End, as well as Oh What a Lovely War on Broadway in 1965 (where Barbara was Tony-nominated). It was fascinating to hear how tricky Barbara found Joan’s loose, improvisational approach after a training in the West End where the script was the script and you did exactly what the director told you to do. But what emerged from the experience ultimately was the actress getting more in touch with her real self, after years of playing down her East End background. Joan really admired her work in EastEnders – and thought she was the only one with a decent Cockney accent. Barbara learnt from Joan during Fings at the Garrick when she was drifting into artifice and over-blown performance, too Judy Garland, not enough Bethnal Green, and carried that lesson forward for the rest of her career.
Last week I interviewed Hamish MacColl, son of Joan’s first husband Ewan MacColl (folk singer and playwright), brother of singer Kirsty MacColl. He was kind enough to share some of his memories of Joan from his teenage years. He has his mother living with him, Jean Newlove, the third corner of an artistic triangle at the core of the Theatre Workshop with Joan (director), Ewan (writer/music) and Jean (movement). Hamish arranged for me to interview Jean too. Jean is an associate and champion of Rudolf Laban’s analytical movement work, using people’s physical actions, in the theatre context, as a key to their character and portrayal. She is 91 now and sounded incredibly energetic and youthful, quite inspirational. She told me a bit about the early years of the Theatre Workshop including when they were camped out at Ormesby Hall near Middlesborough in a kind of proto-hippy thespian commune.
I also sent my Proposal document off on the start of its journey to a potential publisher which would be a real coup if it all comes off. I sent it on a particular day to mark the memory of a friend of mine who checked out way too early.
So progress made, even if a little unevenly.
This year’s The Story annual one day conference/gathering, brainchild of my former Channel 4 colleague Matt Locke, launched during his time at C4, was the fifth. I’ve been to all but one, last year’s when I ended up being abroad on the day and passing on my ticket to a colleague, producer Jorg Tittel. The bitter-sweet hand-over took place at the Trafalgar Studios on Whitehall where Jorg and his wife’s (Alex Helfrecht) excellent production of The Sun Also Rises was playing. I can remember that because it is a conference I actually care about and missing it is bothersome.
It was interesting coming into this year’s model off the back of my story-writing sabbatical. What for me turned out to be the highlight and emotional core of The Story 2014 was a direct result of that sabbatical work. One of the chapters of my book, When Sparks Fly, is centred on Joan Littlewood. I began writing that chapter on the stage of the Theatre Royal Stratford East – it was lunchtime, no-one was about, I had my laptop on me and an hour to spare before the event I was attending resumed – it had to be done. Theatre Royal Stratford East was Joan’s theatre, this year is her centenary and the event was a big gathering to help realise a vision of Joan’s she ultimately couldn’t pull off in her lifetime, the Fun Palace. The baton of her dream has been picked up by Stella Duffy who filled The Story slot just before the midday break. Having heard about her plan back in October to realise the dream in this centenary year by catalysing local events across the nation and beyond which bring Art and Science to regular people in an entertaining, fun way, I thought Stella’s story would add to The Story in this particular year and hooked her up with Matt. She had helped me get going on my Littlewood/Theatre chapter and between that chat and the Theatre Royal Stratford East event my instinct was that she would fit right in to the proud heritage of The Story speakers just so.
As it turned out, her slot was more than I could have dreamed. She used her three decades experience of improvisational theatre to create a spontaneous and focused energy of extraordinary impact. She picked up on the contribution just before hers, Kenyatta Cheese on the history of the animated GIF and its role in digital storytelling, an account which used Disney’s Snow White as the vehicle for its narrative, and started by getting six volunteers out of the audience (rarely have I seen people move so fast to get up on stage and help, including Matt’s twin brother and his old BBC friend Tony Ageh, a subsequent speaker) and used them in place of a white board as a living graph-cum-tableau to illustrate the dynamics of a classic (Dionysian) story structure – the one underlying Snow White and, as Stella livelily demonstrated, the New Testament. You can see this coup de theatre here.
She went on to explain the background of the Fun Palace as conceived by Littlewood and architect Cedric Price. She, perhaps somewhat controversially, pulled up one of Price’s drawings and suggested it had formed an important ‘inspiration’ for Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Centre. And then she explained how we all (and you all) and everyone can get involved. Everything you need to know to make a Fun Palace in your neighbourhood on the weekend of Joan’s 100th birthday you can find here. (And by the way, they need a media sponsor so if you can help please get in touch with Stella or her partner Sarah Jane Rawlings).
What made this perfectly judged performance all the more remarkable is that Stella has been having full-on breast cancer treatment recently and this was her first post-operative outing. She had to high-tail it off the stage to go straight to the hospital to have her dressing changed. A true inspiration capping a brilliant morning of all manner of story-telling.
Meg Pickard, ex-Guardian Head of Digital Engagement, presided, geeing up the already up-for-it crowd. The house charity, Ministry of Stories, set up by Nick Hornby, Ben Payne and Lucy Macnab, was showcased by Ben, demoing in a couple of videos the impact this imaginative literacy and story-telling project is having on the children and supporting adults involved. I walked past their Monster Shop in Hoxton Street just last weekend when out in flaneur mode with Enfant Terrible No. 1 and enjoyed how the display of MoS goodies like Fang Floss, some kind of monster snot, and Bah Humbugs fitted into the Hoxton context.
First up of this year’s featured speakers was the engaging Bryony Kimmings. She explained the genesis of her Catherine Bennett project, a fun music project based on a manufactured popstar, played by Bryony as shaped by her 9 year-old niece, Taylor. Bryony mentioned a Stamford study which centred on asking kids what type of person they wanted to be when they grew up. For years the answer “Kind” came top of the list every year until a certain point in the 90s(?) when Kind dropped to 16th and “Famous” took top spot. Catherine Bennett, pop star and paleontologist, is designed as an antidote to the fame-seeking and twerking inflicted upon children today. The Miley Cyrus debate hit half way through the process of creating CB, emphasising its timeliness, a process which led to the creation of a stage play for kids, one for adults and a touring workshop for schools which we saw video of. I was charmed.
Next up was Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth who gave us insights into their film ‘20,000 Days on Earth’ featuring Nick Cave. The dynamic duo met at Goldsmiths in 1992 and discovered they hated the same things. Then they discovered they hated the same things as Cave and a music documentary with a difference was born. Made by Film4 and the always interesting Pulse, they set out to make the antidote to rock docs by resetting the expectations of the audience (they covered nineteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety-something days or so just in the title sequence) and embracing the myth of their subject who plays his mythologised self pretty well. Self-mythologising is the subject of Chapter 2 of my book – centred on another UK music industry stalwart, Tony Wilson. Although they slipped into art jargon easily with art-school-bingo words like “practice” and “strategy” punctuating their commentary, Jane and Iain clearly communicated the kind of truth they were after, the emotional truth. A key sequence at the heart of the film features psychoanalyst and writer Darian Leader who was in my year at uni and marked himself out by hanging out with Jacques Derrida in the holidays while I as a lowest-of-the-low runner was driving film gear around London to promo shoots for Simply Red, Duran Duran and the like. He grilled Cave for ten hours until Nick “just couldn’t be bothered to lie any more”. This interrogation brought out Cave’s greatest fear – losing his memory – and memory proved the key to the film as Iain and Jane created a Nick Cave archive in the basement of Brighton Town Hall to help get to a truth beyond the mementoes and facts. As Jane memorably said:
“the truth just doesn’t matter – we should create, imagine and lie – it’s good for us”.
Illustrator Kyle Bean really pumped my nads with a talk entitled Materials & Messages. He specialises in tactile illustration – in other words,to fulfil mainly magazine/press illustration commissions he makes things from everyday materials and photographs them to create his 2D output. These range from a mobile phone Russian doll to a jelly hand-grenade, all best grasped by having a look at his portfolio here. He often uses word-play and combining pairs of concepts to prompt his creative approach. For a recent article on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden he combines a USB stick with a sports whistle to get the point across concisely and with impact. He has a real spareness which reminds me of a graphic artist well represented on the walls of my home. The other night I went round for dinner to the home of Naomi Games, daughter of graphic designer and poster supremo Abram Games who was a mentor for my mum when she was at London College of Printing. Abram had a ruthlessly spare style with nothing wasted in all his work, from the Festival of Britain logo to his famous ATS poster.
The afternoon also brought a rich mix of pleasures.
Foley Artist Barnaby Smyth illustrated his cinematic art (sound effects) with a scene from Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie which he worked on. He then did a live demo (for which we all closed our eyes, no peeking), memorably using tearing celery to create the sound of a corpse being ripped apart by dogs. TTSS was made at DeLane Lea which reminded me of my introduction to moving picture media as a child at DeLane Lea in Dean Street, watching Hungarian TV puppet shows for kids being dubbed into English by Louis Elman, as recalled here.
The Editor of Wired US, Bill Wasick, flew in to tell us a bit about the stuff of his recent book to do with why things go viral. He sat on the edge of the stage like a nice teacher with patches on the elbows of his proverbial corduroy jacket. He had very attractive yellow and white slides I’m going to copy. And he invented flash mobs.
Tony Ageh of the BBC Archive, iPlayer, City Limits et al, went a step further and brought a chair on stage to do a full-on Ronnie Corbett routine which went down a treat. He reflected on his career and the theme of Lists which seems to weave through it, all in a warm, understated way. His anecdote about how the iPlayer was thought up was a cracker. He concluded with a heart-felt plea for iPlayer to move on from being the first bit of BBC technology ever to carry BBC content only. Imagine, he conjoured up, a radio which only played BBC programes. It should never happen. It’s not what the BBC was put on Earth to do.
And, just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, novelist Meg Rossoff, who wrote her first novel aged 46, managed to wrangle a divergent shaggy horse story to illustrate the passage from the conscious mind to the unconscious in writers which develops with practice and helps bring dream into everyday life, thereby enabling her – and she encourages others – to “write fiercely with resonance from a really deep place”. Makes a lot of sense of William Burroughs, with whom my book opens, who spent decades consistently taking the trip into that deep, dark place…
Gruff Rhys provided a music interlude with a journey story which roved from his native North Wales across the frontiers of America in a delightfully absurd meander.
Armagh non-poet Philip Larkin brought this to my life, for which thanks. He’s a big fan of Vine and has a good sense of how to deploy those 6 moving seconds for comedy.
Lisa Salem told us a bit about her Walk LA with Me project which was interesting though felt like it could use the lightness of touch of an old school flaneur.
And the day was brought to a heavy-weight end by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger telling us a story about a man called Edward Snowden, a character called Glen Greenwald and a big baddie called NSA which frankly was so fanciful and absurd I reckon he should try his hand at non-fiction 😉
So, bottom line, there aren’t many better ways to spend a Friday.
Here’s an old Friday called The Story 2012 for anyone who wants a yardstick to make a comparison. Thanks to Matt Locke and the Storythings team for a top day.
Well, that’s more like it. Had a productive evening and got two and a half hours in, even after a full day’s work. Prepped for an interview tomorrow which I’m really looking forward to – a major player on the London counter-culture scene in the 60s and 70s. Then watched the doc (A Man Within) kindly given to me by director Yony Leyser in Leipzig back in the autumn to get me even more in the mood for tomorrow. Not that I really need it, I’m so there at the moment. Just wrote a poem derived from the Beat Hotel – I really wanted to try out a technique and last night’s radio listening gave me a phrase to play with. There’s still a fantastic energy around these writers and artists and thinkers and storytellers and hustlers. Because I’ve always been really into collage the whole cut-up phase is particularly fascinating. And that’s a big theme of the week. Reading about Brion Gysin. Going to the opening of the Richard Hamilton exhibition at Tate Modern. And trekking over to the Hannah Höch show at the Whitechapel last Saturday. This last gave me an idea for a graffiti character I’m going to try out this weekend.
And I forgot to recount yesterday that part of this week involved me doing the first public reading from When Sparks Fly. My Other Half organised a Words & Music night at our place on Saturday night and I read from the opening chapter first about Ginsberg & Burroughs in Tangier compiling Naked Lunch and then about Ginsberg’s foundation, COP. To round off I read a short Ginsberg poem, Dream Record, about Burroughs’ wife which linked directly to the opening scene of my book. It was a great night with some fantastic offerings, from short stories to rap. Words & Music, that’s pretty much where it’s at. And Love, of course.
The spaces of love truly felt
The spaces of felt love truly
The spaces felt of love truly
Felt the spaces of love truly
Truly felt the spaces of love
Truly felt the love spaces of
Love truly felt the of spaces
Of love truly felt the spaces
Of love spaces truly felt the
Of spaces love truly felt the
Spaces of love truly the felt
Spaces of love the truly felt
Spaces of the love truly felt
The spaces of love truly felt
Well, it’s been a bit tough getting this routine to stick. I may need to adjust. It didn’t help I went out three nights on the trot last week.
Tuesday was Oh What a Lovely War at the Theatre Royal Stratford East with Enfant Terrible No.2, the production to mark Joan Littlewood’s centenary. At least she’s a subject of a chapter so it adds to my understanding of her. I started her chapter on the stage of this her theatre.
Wednesday was the screening of American Hustle with Christian Bale and David O Russell in attendance as just related.
Thursday was the wonderful John Newman at the Empire in Shepherd’s Bush.
All good ways to spend time but not conducive to writing. And the idea was to make up for a missed night by doubling up the next night, but three in a row pretty much put the spanner in the works. So I’m rethinking and came to this conclusion talking to my colleague Noorah this lunchtime. I’ll aim for Monday – Wednesday – Friday instead of all five weekdays which is unrealistic as I more than adequately proved in Phase 2: Week 2.
All that said, I did actually get back on the horse during this last week and got through some stuff. Revised the first third of Chapter 1 Draft 3 (Allen Ginsberg) to take on board the feedback I got from Una, Farrah and Marilyn and that involved some quite challenging reworking, mainly to put more of me into the case study rather than limiting that aspect largely to the inter-chapters. I also began processing the recorded interviews which I’ve been avoiding for some reason – it’s quite laborious in some respects but in practice it was enjoyable re-experiencing the conversations.
Last night I bumped into an elusive interviewee – the British Beat poet, Michael Horovitz. I was at the opening of the Richard Hamilton exhibition (another lover of Ulysses) at Tate Modern when I spotted him by a colourful picture of flowers in a vase with a turd neatly placed in front. I went up and said hallo, had a lovely chat and he sent me a link this morning to an excellent radio show (Private Passions) he featured in this past week on Radio 3 – you’ve only got 3 or 4 days left to listen to it, well worth an hour of your time, especially Michael’s performance at the very end with Damon Albarn and Paul Weller. (Creative connection: Damon’s mum designed sets for some Theatre Royal SE productions in the 60s.) Michael knew Allen Ginsberg and performed with him at the legendary First International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall in June 1965. He has a lovely speaking voice, very old school, testimony to arriving as a young refugee from Nazi Germany around 1937/8 (exactly the same as my dad, though he from Frankfurt, my dad from Leipzig). As the youngest sibling he was guardian of the proper English accent, especially when it came to instructing father.
So that was another evening blown as far as the book is concerned, and now I’ve blown this one writing this post. However I did do Monday, under the new regime Tuesday was a legit night off, tonight I should have done an hour so I’ll make it up tomorrow and get back on track…
This time last night I was putting the plan into action. On leaving work I faced up to the hassles and bustle of the tube strike and managed to get myself into the West End. I walked up from Embankment to Forbidden Planet in St Giles’s and picked up a copy of a Dark Knight comic (along with my current fave, Sledgehammer 44). Phase 1 complete.
From there I headed across Soho to the Soho Hotel off Dean Street. I dropped down into the screening room (where I was last for the classic in-the-making, The Wolf of Wall St, with Enfant Terrible No.1) to watch, for the second time, American Hustle. I wasn’t too taken with it on my first viewing on DVD – it felt a bit superficial and cold in the shadow of Silver Linings Playbook which was my top film of last year.
But it played much better for me on a huge screen – and all the better as Christian Bale, director/co-writer David O Russell and producer Charles Roven showed up in the modest-sized screening room and gave articulate insights into how the film works.
DOR placed the emphasis firmly on exploring “What’s worth living for” / “what people live for”. He also talked in terms of wanting to “find a way of loving [Irving Rosenfeld]” (the protagonist, based on a real person called Len Something). He picked up on his authenticity/sincerity and joie de vivre. And from there looking at how various pairs, from Irving and Sydney (Amy Adams) to Irving and the mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), loved one another. So it was closer to Playbook than I had realised.
I asked one of the first questions – to Christian Bale. His Londonish accent (belying his Welsh roots) knocked my socks off. It must have already done the job on him as he was without socks and laces, reflecting a modest openness. He had mentioned that DOR’s way of directing gave him space and comfort to “try crazy stuff” as he played the scenes. Also David’s way of wielding a fluent and unpredictable camera meant the acting was whole body and exposed. So I asked, given this, ‘What crazy stuff did you try?’, probing for concrete examples. CB gave a long explanation, attentively directed at me in the second row, which made it clear that each take was deliberately different, a certain amount of improvisation or harking back to older versions of the script took place, and we ended up focused on the scene outside the Plaza Hotel in New York where Irving tries to lure Carmine back in. It was a very full and thoughtful answer (see beard-stroking below).
After the Q&A the distributor invited us into an adjacent rather red bar for drinks. I chatted with the MC, Edith Bowman, as I lay in wait. Then as Christian Bale entered I was obliged to ambush to see through the plan. I whipped out the Dark Knight comic, another Batman comic Enfant Terrible No.2 had given me (one of his most treasured) and a good black pen. Christian was very Christian about it as I explained it was my delivering on the request of a 14 year old, apple of my eye. Phase 2 complete.
We had a good chat about how the film played better for me second time/how you sometimes need to be in a receptive state (his observation); his accent and its origins; and finally about the nature of the autograph requester: Enfant Terrible No.2 said to me as we were planning and I was walking along Old Compton St on the phone to him that if I could only get one signed, Aurel’s (the first one, a birthday present for his best friend) was the important one. Now that’s what’s worth living for. Mission accomplished.
I told you not to put metal in the science oven, what did you do that for?
Before I come back to the book writing, I’ve got something on my mind, a subject I’ve touched on before – serendipity, weird coincidences and strange connections. Here’s a few that have happened in the week and a bit between finishing my sabbatical and returning to my writing.
This letter popped through the letter box, all the way from Australia. Wrongly delivered to an incorrect address. It should have been about three or four miles down the road in Tufnell Park with someone I’ve never met or heard of.
It has the street number of our current house. But the road of our last house. That road name has nothing in common with our current road, different postcode area, not a similar name. As I say, the addressee is unknown to us and lives the other end of the road from where we used to live – 15 years ago. What are the chances?
Last Friday I was working at a production company in Carnaby Street. They are having a new mural done in the office by a talented local artist which I was lucky enough to get a preview of. I felt inspired as I walked out the offices to try something similar and resolved there and then to spend the evening making a picture. I’ve had a project in mind for a good few months based on the Shipping Forecast. I decided, as I walked along Carnaby Street, to combine these two things. What I needed was a word to base the design on. As I turned into Golden Square five minutes later I hit upon “Seaview” as an idea – it works well by containing both the notion of sea, the focus of the Shipping Forecast, and view, the point of this image. I was pleased with myself and stopped for a moment to put it into Evernote on my phone so I didn’t forget my brainwave. As I unlocked the phone a notification came up from FourSquare saying someone had liked a comment I left at Pentonville Prison. I don’t leave comments often, only when I’m feeling facetious and have time to kill, so this was a couple of years old. My way of using FourSquare, which frankly I hate as a concept, is to check in to places I haven’t been to. So my comment on the gaol was: “I don’t know what went wrong – I asked for the sea view”. That’s two minutes literally after I came up with the word for my picture- so “sea view” pops up a second time on a tip about HMP Pentonville from yonks ago. How Twilight Zone is that?
On 6th January I made a note in my diary to look up on YouTube an old TV series I remembered from my childhood – The Champions. On 12th January, the obituary of one of the three protagonists (Alexandra Bastedo), popped up in my paper. I hadn’t thought about The Champions in years.
I’m fascinated by these ‘coincidences’ because they range from the just plain bizarre (like the mis-delivered letter) to the ‘in the air’ and what’s most interesting is the grey area in the middle. Like when you hear a word for the first time …and it crops up a second time in the same day. I had a great one of those while I was writing the book. I was in Copenhagen and had a few hours to kill before going back to the airport so I went to the art museum called the Glyptotek. On the flight home I was reading a thriller set in Munich and up popped the word Glyptothek (with an H, the German version). So not just any word, but a really weird and obscure one.
Connections of the chance kind is a big part of Creativity hence my fascination. And part of the explanation I suspect lies in Louis Pasteur’s observation that “Chance favours the prepared mind” i.e. when our mental radar is switched on connections follow.
So back to the book writing. I finished writing the sales document on the Wednesday before last. The next morning I started back at Channel 4. I gave myself a week and a day off and now I start my new routine. I kept on track during the sabbatical by working 9 to 5 Monday to Friday. The follow-up regime is 1 hour per night weekdays, with two hours on weekend days, any missed hours on either count to be made up the next day. That gives 9 hours a week or a day a week. Let’s see how quickly that moves me on.
Tonight was the first day of the new routine. I fixed a couple of points in the sales doc based on feedback from my Other Half. Only she, a good friend of mine and my mum have read the first chapter in its entirety. I then went back to start the 3rd draft of the opening chapter based on their feedback which luckily was consistent. I hope to finish this pass by the end of the weekend at the latest. It feels good to be back at it.