The time you have left

‘As you get older, the questions come down to about two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?’  David  Bowie

‘And it’s a human need to be told stories.  The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other, about who we are, why we are, where we come from and what might be possible.’  Alan Rickman

Before Monday I knew exactly what this blog was going to be about.

I’d had a great start to my writing year, with one short story – Dinner for Four – published in Shooter Lit and another – Charis -Highly Commended in the Words and Women Prose Competition and due to be published by Unthank in Words and Women: 3

And then David Bowie died.  So many thousands of words have been written, tears shed, songs listened to and discussed, posts shared, quotes quoted, tributes piling up in Brixton and Berlin.  I’ve got his music playing as I write this, I’ve gone to sleep and woken up thinking of him all week.  My copy of Blackstar still hasn’t been delivered, but when I ordered it I thought ‘oh well, no rush, he’s not going anywhere’.

On Thursday, Alan Rickman died.  Also 69, also cancer, also an icon to so many.  I was so shell-shocked by Bowie that I couldn’t take it in, even though I’d loved him as an actor for years – and yes, I am one of those people who can say ‘well I saw him on stage long before Die Hard’.

They were both storytellers, both used their lives to create and create change.

While I was thinking of where to submit my two stories, I read a blog that said ‘don’t write about dementia and don’t write anything based on the bible .’  Well, that was me fucked right there.  Charis is about dementia and Dinner for Four is set in a curry house where four warring siblings – who also happen to be the four horsepeople of the Apocalypse – are having their once a year dinner because their father has ordered them to.

I then went to a meeting of our brilliant short story critique group.  We discussed the blog and everyone’s advice was ‘just ignore it’.  So I did and submitted and here we are.

I write what I write.  I like writing odd, surreal takes on things.  I love my four horsepeople and am currently planning a sequel.  And yes, as Bowie so rightly said – what do you do with the time you have left? David Bowie, who died at 69 leaving us more gifts than we can number and who turned his death into art perhaps because that was the only way he could deal with it.  The only thing he could do with it.  Because what else would that man do?

So this is not the blog I meant to write, but it’s the one I’ve written, and I will continue to write what I write, no matter what blogs advise.

Because it’s about the stories – and if we’re grieving their loss, not as family members or friends, but as part of the huge mass of people whose lives they affected – perhaps the best thing we can do is to tell stories, in the best, most creative, most truthful way we can.  Because we will always need stories.

If Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti rang a helpline…


Sam: Samaritans… can I help you.
Christina: I’ve got a secret.
Sam: Mmmhmm?
Christina: Do you want to know what it is?
Sam: Only if you want to tell me.
Christina: You’re too curious.
Sam: My name’s Jo – can you tell me your name?
Christina: It’s Christina. And I’ve got a secret.
Sam: OK. I’m here to listen, if you want to tell me.
Christina: ….
Sam: Take your time.
Christina: My heart is like a singing bird, but my life is like a frozen thing.
Sam: That sounds difficult to deal with – how does it make you feel?
Christina: Why are you asking me these questions?
Sam: It’s absolutely fine if you don’t want to tell me. There’s no judgement.
Christina: There is only one Judge. I will meet Him one day and all deep secrets shall be shown.
Sam: Uhuh. Can you tell me any more?
Christina: Perhaps some languid summer’s day.
Sam: OK.
Christina: It’s been very pleasant talking to you.
Sam: And you too, Christina. Please call back if you feel you need to.
Christina (a bit huffy): Why would I need to? I don’t need to. Nothing wrong with me.
Sam: I only meant…
Phone goes down. Sam sighs.

Dante Gabriel
Sam: Samaritans… can I help you?
Gabriel: I’ve just seen Lizzie… oh my god… how can that be?
Sam: Can you tell me who Lizzie is?
Gabriel: My wife, but she’s dead… I destroyed her, and because of me she’s dead.
Sam: OK… take your time. Can you tell me any more?
Gabriel: She was my muse. Well, my first muse. Well, my main muse. Apart from Fanny. And Jane. And the other ones… um…sorry, can’t remember half their names.
Sam: OK. My name’s Jo, can you tell me your name?
Gabriel (getting a bit flirty): Do you have red hair? I could paint you.
Sam: Are you a painter?
Gabriel: (getting a bit arsey): Yes. Rossetti. Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, hello?
Sam: Sorry, Rossetti… is that your name?
Gabriel: Dante. Gabriel. Rossetti.
Sam: Which do you prefer to be called?
Gabriel: Depends who’s asking. You can call me Gabriel.
Sam: OK… Gabriel. Can you tell me any more about Lizzie? You say you just saw her.
Gabriel: Did I? She’s dead, you know. That would be ridiculous. Oh my god… am I going insane?
Sam: It’s OK Gabriel, I’m here, take your time.
Gabriel: You sound cute. Can I have your number?
Sam: I’m afraid that’s not possible.
Gabriel (pouting): You’re no fun. I’m going to visit Jane instead. Or was it Fanny?

“If you have the hunter sticker you have to live with the social outcast label.”

Back in 1999 when a freelance travel writer could still get a commission, I wrote a piece on hunting in Namibia which was published in CNN Traveller. I interviewed two major players in the Namibian hunting fraterntiy and one, the now-dead Jan Oelofse, invited me to his farm, Mt Etjo, to see for myself what happens in a hunt and to meet some of his hunters.

Jan Oelofse remains one of the most unpleasant people I have ever encountered, but his views on hunting and hunters were jaw-dropping.  For him, hunting and conservation were intertwined – a viewpoint extremely common amongst hunters.  He admitted to me that he ran canned hunting, illegal then and now.  In a canned hunt, someone – usually someone American – pays a great deal of money ($25,000 then, probably around $35,000 now) to shoot an animal – generally a lion  – in a small enclosure. When I asked if if he regretted anything he’d done, he answered:

“I’ve done a lot of things I didn’t like to do. The first impala I shot on this farm wasn’t necessary for me to shoot, but it was financially necessary. If a guy takes you out and every night wines and dines you and doesn’t take you to bed, he’s not going to take you out any more. It’s the same in life. If people are prepared to pay in kind, in money, you cater for it. Hunters have sponsored this place.”

Cecil the lion has rightly made headlines across the world.  The American dentist who shot him with a bow and arrow on an illegal hunt in Zimbabwe and then left him to in agony for 40 hours before he was killed, skinned and beheaded has discovered how it feels to be hunted.  I have no sympathy whatsoever.  I have no sympathy with hunters who would rather shoot with a gun or a bow than a camera.  I despise their attempts to justify and their pride in ‘the hunt’.  In my view, hunting is indefensible, whether it’s foxes, deer or the animals of Africa.

I am currently working on a travel book/memoir/thing.  One of the chapters is about my time with the hunters.  Rudi and Annette (not their real names) were Oelofse’s professional hunters. Michael was the American hunter client. They tried to persuade me to go out with them, but I couldn’t.  Perhaps I should have done, all in the name of the story, but nothing I would have seen happen would have changed my views.  Despite all that, I liked them, a fact that still disturbs me, although nothing in Namibia is ever black and white.  Here’s an extract:
“OK,” I say, taking another slug of wine to bolster my confidence. “You love watching game, you love animals. So why go that extra step? After tracking something for days – why do you need to kill it? Isn’t the hunt enough?” I feel like I’m in an undercover documentary made by Merchant Ivory.
Rudi, shamelessly conforming to stereotype, declares: “It’s the challenge,” and Michael, hilariously, shrieks: “Oh noooo!” Annette and I both laugh but Rudi is clearly irritated. “It’s so personal – like hallowed ground. It can be murder or a great experience. If you are not in the circle, hunting is a machismo, big horn on the wall thing and it annoys me when I get dismissed like that.”
It’s still not nearly good enough for me. “But why kill it?” I persist.
“We want to utilise it. We utilise to conserve…”
But now I’m irritated. “No, I don’t want the conservation shit. Tell me what you really think, because if you can’t even say the word ‘kill’…” I wish I’d been this brave with Helga and Henk. These guys and girls may have the guns, but they scare me a lot less than the Swakop racists.
Rudi finally tells it like it is for him. “Because I have outclassed the animal. He’s made too many mistakes. Actually, I don’t even like hunting with a rifle anymore, it’s not enough of a challenge. I use a bow – and before you ask, it’s legal here now. The bow hunter is not going to utilise as many animals as a rifle hunter.”
“Why don’t you say kill?” Astonishingly, it is Michael who asks.

“Well,” says Rudi, shifting in his seat, “It just sounds a little bit better – some people don’t like that word.” Oh, you think? But then he wrong-foots me again. “A lot of times I prefer it when the animal gets away. We beat him, we could have killed him. I feel super about it. If I just want to kill, I could shoot 2-300 animals a day. It’s not the kill – and that’s why I don’t like to use the word. Killing is the final full stop. When you get to the final stage of the hunt… I’m so psyched up, I can hear my heart beating.”
Michael agrees. “There’s nothing like it. But how can we explain that to someone like you? How we can respect it and kill it? In the simplest terms, it makes no sense whatsoever. I’m hunting kudu tomorrow and you should come, you know that. “
“But it won’t make me understand, because I could never kill something,” I point out.
“True,” he says, “but you’ll maybe understand why we do it from beginning to end. You’d have a better input. To people that don’t do it – and yes, I mean people like you – it’s a stigma, you’re just a macho asshole trying to prove something and it’s so far from the truth that I want to scream. I hate being dismissed as the Great White Hunter, what the fuck is that about? Guys back home do their bowling and their tennis, so maybe there is a macho thing going on. They switch the subject too quick. They want to push me down the drain, because I’m doing what they don’t dare to.”
“Come on then,” I ask as we drain the third bottle. “Sum it up for me in one sentence.”
“For the sport and the challenge,” Annette and Rudi say simultaneously.

Michael rolls his eyes, intensely self-aware. “I’ve spent fifteen years not getting it straight in my own mind. Maybe I’ve never been cornered before.”

Clever girl (or why I love the Jurassic Park franchise). Contains spoilers

17th July, 1993.  My father had died suddenly of a heart attack just over a month before.  I am on tour with the Sound of Music, currently resident for three months in Bournemouth.  My friend and I are co-producing a charity gala for a Bournemouth HIV/AIDS hospice starring pretty much everyone performing in Bournemouth over the summer.  I am stressed, shocked, numb, driven.  And Jurassic Park has just opened in the UK.

The SoM company had booked a cinema for a midnight matinee – our own private viewing, post-show excitement, some of us with sweets, more with alcohol.  I sat next to Christopher Cazenove, a lovely, kind, talented man who died a few years ago, also too young.  We were all excited, even me in my head-fucked state.  We had no idea what to expect except that there were dinosaurs, Richard Attenborough and Sam Neill.

When Alan Grant, played by Sam Neill, dropped to his knees in front of a parade of dinosaurs, Christopher and I unconsciously and simultaneously reached for one another’s hands, both of us crying with joy and wonder.  It’s a memory as fresh now as it was then, and I have watched Jurassic Park rather more in these ensuing twenty years than might seem reasonable.  I can quote you most of the lines, in order.  I am entirely smitten with velociraptors.  It’s one of my favourite films ever.

Jurassics 2 and 3 – well, not so much.  I switch off 2 once they leave the island (having made sure I get my velociraptor fix first) because it’s just silly.  3 is better because Sam Neill and Laura Dern are back, William H Macy is in it and the velociraptors get a load of airtime.  But still.  A bit meh, as they say.

Fourteen years on, Jurassic World has broken box office records around the globe. Yeah I know, they say that every time, but it’s just beaten Avengers: Age of Ultron, a film I have no intention of seeing.  The thing is, I’m not a massive fan of a franchise.  Yes, Star Wars the originals, Indiana Joneses up to a point, Lord of the Rings for sure and The Hobbit because who wouldn’t want to see Aidan Turner as an unfeasibly beautiful dwarf?  But your Avengers and your Marvel this and Mission Impossible that… couldn’t give a toss.

So what is it about the Jurassic Park franchise?  I couldn’t wait to see Jurassic World, but was a little nervous having viewed the ridiculous trailer of Chris Pratt leading a pack of velociraptors on a motorbike.  I mean, seriously?  The signs weren’t auspicious.

But within five minutes, I was lost, overwhelmed with joy, adrenaline and a kind of grief.  I cried a lot.  The first time was when that incredible John Williams theme kicked in.  Then when the little kid, Gray, gets his first glimpse of the island.  Then when we see the original Jurassic Park gates, looking oddly small.  Then when I see the velociraptors.  Then… then… then…

I’ve read a lot of blog posts and reviews where the writers say things like: “Cardboard characters,” “where’s the feminist perspective?”, “what’s the BAME index?” “why does the impending divorce of the kids’ parents never get mentioned again?” Normally, I would also be engaged with these questions, but with the Jurassics, I simply don’t give a shit.  I’m not there to watch the people, I’m there to watch the dinosaurs.  I’m there to weep when the brontosaurus dies in Chris Pratt’s arms.  I’m there to cheer when Blue the velociraptor rips Hoskins to pieces.

If you’ve ever been on a safari, you know what an indescribable privilege it is to see animals in the wild, doing what they do.  I am reminded of that feeling as I am immersed in Jurassic World.

So why is that?  It seems to me that JW is made by fans, for fans.  It ticks every box from the original film to every film Steven Spielberg has ever made.  The dying brontosaurus is ET.  The English babysitter getting eaten by the Mosasaurus references Jaws.  Spielberg is the absolute master of the emotional hit.  There is no irony in a Spielberg film, no post-modern knowing winks.  Watching a Spielberg film and allowing yourself to be taken by it is to become a child again.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, are the films that most resemble Jurassic Park. They are not manipulative, unless you have no soul.  They go straight for the heart, they are about deepest dreams and wishes, they are about love.

Jurassic World remains true to the Spielberg ethos of ‘never kill off the core family’.  Core families are a vital element, and generally don’t mean blood families.  There’s a lot of divorce in Spielberg films, there are parents who are not present, and adults who become surrogate parents (Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler in JP, for example).  There are always children, and the children never die.  Oh except for that kid at the start of Jaws, but we hadn’t got to know him and it was Spielberg’s first major film.

Jurassic World is also about man’s – or humanity’s – relationship with the natural world.  Yes, it’s layered on with a trowel, but that doesn’t make it less valid.  The dinosaurs are ‘assets’, the Mosasaurus feeding time with laughing spectators – well, have you seen the backlash against Seaworld and keeping whales in captivity just for our viewing pleasure?  It’s about hubris and arrogance – the arrogance of the military, the arrogance of science.  It’s about creating a hybrid dinosaur with the ridiculous name of Indominus Rex (part-cuttlefish, part-tree frog, part-raptor, part-oh who knows, they won’t tell us) because the public want something ‘cooler, with more teeth’.

It’s about Chris Pratt taming velociraptors, a concept so bonkers it actually convinces.  But then, he imprints on them when they are born, so it does make a kind of sense.  I only hope Blue, the one remaining raptor, pals up with the T-Rex after they save the park, because she’s going to be awfully lonely without her siblings.

Oh, and about the lead woman – Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Claire, manages to run in insanely high heels.  She runs really fast.  She doesn’t take them off as you might expect just because Chris Pratt has told her too.  No, Chris.  Fuck you.  I can run in my heels and do it while holding a flare to bring the T Rex out of the paddock to save everyone.  She’s not Ellie Sattler, with her classic: “Dinosaurs eat man.  Woman inherits the earth.” – but Jurassic World, for all its fabulous, adrenaline-rushed glory, is not Jurassic Park.  Jurassic Park had a tiny cast, and a truly original storyline.  It had a great script and genuinely terrifying moments and nobody had ever seen anything like it.  And of course  it had the wondrous Bob Peck and “Clever girl.” Jurassics, you are the business and I love you.  Now and forever. 20150619_16364220150619_163337

So – what is it you actually do up there?

This was the question my mother asked when I said I was off once again to North Wales to do crazy stuff with Clwyd Theatr Cymru Theatre for Young People – the community strand of Theatr Clwyd.  “We take over a school for a week,” I said. “I’ll let you know when I haven’t been singing Sondheim in a freezing schoolyard since 8am.”

My first encounter with Theatr Clwyd was when I went to do Beatrice in A View from the Bridge.  I love Miller and could happily spend my entire career in his plays, interspersed with Sondheim musicals.  It was also my first encounter with Tim Baker, the director.  Tim is (and I’ve told him, so it’s not like I’m hustling for another job or anything) the best director I’ve ever worked with.  Not only because he is creative, imaginative and understands texts from the inside out, but because he trusts his actors.  Towards the end of the third week, during that traditional floundering time when actors go ‘what the fuck am I doing?’, Tim cancelled rehearsals and told us to go away for three days. I took my script up Moel Famau, the highest hill in the Clwydian Range (thanks Wiki), and the following Monday came into rehearsal with a fully-formed Beatrice.  I had literally gone up a hill and come down with a character.  I loved it.  I loved that he trusted us to get our arses in gear.  Not everyone loved it but hey.

Fast forward several years and Tim rings me up. “What are you doing for the next six weeks?”  Given a bit more notice than three days, I might have been able to say ‘whatever you want’, but I’d already got work lined up for much of it.  However, for the last two weeks of Tim’s new project, called The Hub, I turned up as a visiting artist and, with the core team of five actors and several other visiting artists, we did indeed take over a school.  Two schools, one for each week.

So what is it then?  To quote Tim’s press release: “The team consisted of a core of five actors and a host of visiting artists that included a street dancer, performance poets, musicians, visual artists and events were created (as much as 40 per day) all over the school – in the corridors, at lunchtimes, at break times, and in the halls and classrooms.  The Hub was always conceived as a creative ‘handshake’ with young people and we consistently challenged students to respond to our interventions with their own creative work, through e-mailing us, through drop-boxes throughout the school, through workshops and other activities.”

All the schools have been secondaries, not always OFSTED (or the Welsh equivalent) 5 starred.  That’s the point.  To go to places that don’t get this sort of stuff, that don’t get a stage fighting workshop, or a bunch of people coming into your classroom, performing an extract from Lord of the Flies or Macbeth and melting away again.

A visitor from ACW (Arts Council of Wales) said: “This reminded me of why i work at the arts council.”  It also reminded me of why I love being an actor.  Tim gave us the freedom to wander round doing pretty much whatever we wanted – ooh look, there’s a classroom just waiting for a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird/a poem/a song/a breakdance/a guitar solo.

I remember walking down one corridor peering into classrooms full of bent-headed students and feeling like Puck, or the Trickster.  We were anarchy, we were challenge and laughter and freedom.  I hated school up until the fourth year – I’d been stuck in a different class to my friends and was miserable and bullied by the cool kids until we joined up for O Levels.  One day, out of nowhere, two actors from the RSC turned up to give us English Lit students a short performance.  And those actors?  Ben Kingsley and Bob Peck.  In our classroom.  Othello and Iago.  To this day I have no idea why they turned up, who had got them there, but I have never forgotten the awe I felt.  And yes, that consolidated the ‘I want to be an actress’ path.  Up until that point I wanted to be an astronaut, but as I could do neither Maths nor Science, it seemed unlikely.

Perhaps it was the same for these kids – actually, I know it was for some, because they told us, they tweeted, emailed, gave us flowers and in Nia’s case, a Valentine’s card.

This last project – as if the schools weren’t ambitious enough – took over a whole town, Connah’s Quay, the largest in Flintshire.  For five weeks, interventions were staged everywhere from a care home to primary schools, in Morrisons, on buses, on roundabouts.  Seven people in blue boiler suits managing to make red and blue umbrellas a must-have fashion accessory.  The blues were the core team, the red boiler suits were the visiting artists.  I’ve never discovered why the boiler suits – we are called Artists@work, maybe that’s why, or maybe it’s because they are unflattering to absolutely everyone – but they are certainly distinctive.  And have a lot of pockets for phones, pens, scraps of paper, the complicated schedule.  Ah the schedule. 8-8.45 – in the corrider, singing to welcome the kids and staff.  Everyone else doing their own thing in and outside. Lesson one performing arts, crossover between lessons, make a cup of tea, no time to drink it, come back and it’s cold, oh look I’m in English next, shall I do a poem or a song, or a workshop, quick sandwich for lunch if you’ve got a spare 15 minutes to eat it….  more classrooms, workshops, singing, poems, tea gone cold again, then we wave them off until the next day.

Each day we handed out cards with themes on them: Friendship, fear, love… and the kids responded with lyrics, poems, monologues, scenes which we then performed back to them.  We got amazing stuff.  One girl had written a science fiction novel – two of the actors did a scene from that at the closing concerts.

Each of the visiting artists gets to do a party piece at the closing concerts. For the two previous Hubs, I’d gone with Worst Pies in London from Sweeney Todd.  My props were a fake pie and lots of rubber cockroaches that I chucked into the audience to much screaming.  This year, always up-to-the-minute, I went with Last Midnight from Into the Woods.  Thanks to my niece Sarah, my prop was the Elder Wand from Harry Potter (she got it for me at a knockdown price when she worked at the Harry Potter Studios).  Gods but that was fun.  I lose track of how many pupils I scared during that song, but it was a fair few.  And quite a few sidled up to me during the week and muttered “You’ve got a great voice, miss” before sidling off again.

There have been so many highlights to this brilliant, insane project, but here’s some from the latest.

1.  Playing the cajon for the first time in public, and jamming with some of the best musicians I’ve ever met.  OK, I’m not the best cajon player in the world, but it was bloody marvellous.

2.  Taking Mark Grist and Mary Oliver poems into classrooms and watching the pupils’ faces go from resignation to genuine pleasure.  It doesn’t always have to be Wordsworth, kids.

3.  Introducing the three (I know, JUST THREE??)  A Level English Lit students to Primo Levi and truly shocking them as we spoke about how the doctor’s pointing finger meant either the gas chambers or sort-of-life.  And then we worked on a stunning poem called Explaining the Declaration. “Ever done any acting?” I asked.  They looked at me with trepidation, but half an hour later, having split the poem into one line each, they performed it as though they were angry drunks at a bar, and loved every second.

4.  Touring the maths classrooms with a song composed by Tim based on a riddle written by one of the teachers.  I still have no idea what it means even after about nine renditions (the median’s the… the mode is the… oh whatever) but apparently I made maths sound sexy.

5.  Singing a love song about a hedgehog (the girl who wrote the poem was in the audience was overjoyed, hands clasped to her face, her friends either side of her nudging her with glee).  Nia, Claire and I LOVED the hedgehog song.  “I’m in love with a hedgehog.  I’ve never felt this way before.  I’m in love with a hedgehog, and every day I love her more and more.”

6.  And of course, triple threat girl (actor, singer, dancer) whose name turned out to be Ellison.  At going home time the afternoon before, this sweet, shy twelve-year old picked up the mic and sang – brilliantly – with the musos.  She was in the audience at the second of our third concerts and I thought ‘she has to sing in the final gig’.  So Tim and I asked her if she fancied joining me on the blues he’d written to lyrics by Reece.  Reece, cerebral palsy, wheelchair, sharp and funny, had loved every second of us being there, following us around, chatting and when he knew we were doing his song, was beside himself.  Anyway.  She got ten minutes of rehearsal and to end the concert, we called her up on stage and she improvised with me like a pro.  We harmonised, we played vocal games, she was phenomenal.   “Thank you so much,” she said afterwards.  “I never thought I’d get a chance to do anything like this.”  Watch out for triple threat girl, she’s’ going to be huge.

Any downsides?  Well, trying to belt out music theatre numbers while you’re still virtually asleep was tricky, but then hey, that’s your job.  It’s incredibly tiring, but I was only up for three days this time and the core team had been non-stop for six weeks.  I genuinely don’t know how they were still standing.  Our green room was like a plague village – circling germs jumped from one to another as everyone coughed and sneezed like the last act of La Boheme.  Seat of the pants at all times as we zoomed from place to place, often making things up as we went along.

But what a great gig, with the loveliest bunch of people – talented, focused, funny and at all times serving the job and not our egos.  “You’ve transformed the school this week ” a teacher told me. “I’ve seen pupils who never join in and never engage dancing, laughing, talking to the artists.”
And we get paid.
See you soon, Team Clwyd x


I am the Bold Thunder

Our fantastic English Lit teacher, ex-actress Jenny James-Moore, had taken a group of us to an RSC production of Coriolanus at the Aldwych, their London home at that time.  I’d never seen nor heard of the actor playing Caius Marcius Coriolanus (or Cor-aye-o-lanus as they decided to call him) but the moment he was flung up on spears, blood-spattered and leather-clad is as indelibly etched in my memory today as it was then.

There are a variety of ways to say the line “I banish you”, but only the towering, idiosyncratic brilliance of Alan Howard could summon up this version: “Aiiiieeeee banisssshhh yeeeouuuuuuuu,” the words strung out, snarled with utmost sneering contempt.  I was smitten, remained smitten, and when I heard with great grief yesterday about the death of this giant who I had worshipped from that moment on, was instantly transported back to my first sighting of the tall, pale-faced imperious figure dressed in tight red leather (a common Howard costume design, not that I nor my friend Pip were complaining) stalking around the stage withering the senators with one myopic, penetrating glance.


Alan Howard was 77 when he died, no age at all really.  He has taken with him a major part of my teenage crush years.  Alan Howard made me fall in love with Shakespeare as well as him, although his extraordinary way of verse-speaking wasn’t to everyone’s taste.  He sang the words, tasted the syllables, found ways to deliver a line which you would never consider in a million years.  Sometimes the music of his voice took over the sense – he would rattle off lines so fast you could barely keep up but then he’d stop and cut you to the bone with one single line or word.  “Alone I did it.  Boy.” is another Cor-aye-o-lanus classic.

He worked extensively with Terry Hands and the designer Farrah – their productions were glittering, mesmerising, often with a coldness at their heart that perfectly matched his performance.  He was amazing at the nasties –  Corayeolanus, Richard III, Richard II…

My personal favourite was RII – Big Al in gold lame crying “Down, down I come; like glistering Phaethon… In the base court?  The base court, where kings grow base, To come at traitors’ calls and do them grace.
In the base court? Come down? Down, court!
down, king! For night-owls shriek where mounting larks
should sing.”

No-one I’ve ever heard since has managed to get so many interpretations of the word ‘base’ into that speech.  Nor ‘down’ for that matter.   The first time I worked at my beloved Theatr Clwyd and met Terry Hands, I told him what an impression those productions had made on me, how they’d given me a love of Shakespeare that has never left, the sheer joy of those words and Alan Howard giving them to us (clad in gold lame/red leather/black leather).

But he could also do funny – John O’Keefe’s play Wild Oats was another classic Howard moment – as Jack Rover, declaring “I am the Bold Thunder!” cheers rang out from the auditorium.

The rasp of his voice had a Richard Burton quality to it, possibly due to the chain-smoking.  Big Al (as Pip and I called him) would rarely be seen without a cigarette holder as he wandered around in jeans and a denim jacket.  How did I know this?  Pip was working in the RSC bookshop at the time and managed to get me a part time job.  Those hours were magical, despite the presence of the raving bonkers woman, known as Grim, who also worked there.  Grim was obsessed with Ian McKellen and I do mean obsessed.  In a stalker-type way.  One day in a fit of post-McKellen pique (he’d done something to upset her, probably ran away as she loitered outside his house) she ripped up a picture of Big Al that we kept on the till.

But still, there I was, with a like-minded friend, stacking books, endlessly re-arranging photos of Big Al and best of all, watching to see when he’d walk past the shop on the way to the theatre.  Or on very rare occasions, come inside.

Notoriously shy, with all the small talk of Helen Keller, we could so rarely get a word out of him that we used to make and wear badges with his sayings on them.  “They’re all watching News at 10” came about when we were talking about audience numbers and how they’d dropped off a bit.   When we saw him lope past the door, I was always allowed to get our lunchtime sandwiches from the Aldwych Green Room, so would instantly shoot out, follow him round the corner and stand behind him in the queue.  He always smiled and said hello.  I don’t consider it stalking, not for one moment.  He could barely see me anyway – being incredibly short-sighted he always wore lenses on stage making his gaze even more penetrating.

Pip and I were also at that time creating our ideal cast list for The Lord of the Rings.  Big Al was of course Aragorn – and how lovely that he ended up playing the Voice of the Ring in the films.  We feel that we can take a little credit for that.

The last thing I saw him in was in the frankly awful Oedipus at the National.  He was, however, extraordinary and even when still (especially when still), nobody else existed on that stage.  RIP Big Al.  You were and are unforgettable.  Thank you.


Time to talk

Today, 5th February, is Time to Talk Day 2015. Time to Talk was started (I believe) by Rethink and the idea is to spend five minutes talking about mental illness – how it affects you, or people around you. It’s about breaking the silence surrounding mental health issues. This will probably take a bit longer than five minutes to write, but hey.

Now you might think that there is no longer silence – mental health issues seem to be constantly in the news; pleas for more funding, need for better care, testimonies from people and their families or friends. The official statistic is that one in four people will be affected by mental health issues every year. That’s a lot of people. And it doesn’t always have to be the biggies – your schizophrenia, your bi-polar disorder, your depression. It can be insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks. It can be bereavement, post-natal depression, work or relationship stress. Mental health issues aren’t fussy, they’ll take anything that’s going. And we all have mental as well as physical health, it’s just harder to talk about the former.

Mental health problems affect the way we feel about ourselves and others, they affect our sleep, attention span and productivity. This in turn will affect our work, so wouldn’t it be better to ‘fess up rather than try to hide it?

There is a history of depression in my family down my father’s side. My mother’s side has given us short-sightedness, thanks for that. I have had quite a few bouts of depression, and I’m not just talking ‘ooh a bit miserable today’. I’m talking dark, exhausted, grey, agoraphobic, can’t move, can’t talk, can’t think depression. I’m talking suicidal thoughts. I have, in my time, wondered what it would be like to… what would be the easiest way to… it would be so much easier if… oh well at least one day I’ll be…

So far, I’ve got through these periods without doctors or prescribed medication. Perhaps one day (if you’re good) I’ll tell you some of the stuff I do that helps. But today is the time-to-talk moment, to actually come out and say: yes, me too.

The first time I got hit by it, or at least knew what it was I’d been hit by, I was in my mid-twenties. I was terrified, because it had (seemingly) come out of nowhere, this cloud of grey that removed taste, smell, joy, desire and left me bewildered and lost. “But what’s wrong?” people were asking. “There must be a reason.” Well actually sometimes there just isn’t. Sometimes there you are. And no-one can hear you banging on the glass – but one person did, a friend who (I then found out) also suffered from depression. “It’s like being in a goldfish bowl. You can see out, but no-one can hear you calling.” Just to hear that, to know she got it and more than got it – was the moment I began to come to the light again.

Many people – even friends – don’t get it. If you haven’t experienced it, don’t understand that it’s not always quantifiable, there isn’t always a reason – often isn’t a reason – watching someone drift away or hide is not an easy experience. “But you’re always so strong, so up, so glass-half-full.” Yes, most of of the time. Except when I’m not. Sometimes I’m not strong, I can’t be strong all the fucking time, I can’t put the face on all the fucking time. And that’s when I talk to the people who really get it, who have either been through it themselves or have the empathy and care to let me be where I am.

One of my closest friends was felled by post-natal depression after her first child. She and I have always laughed at the darkest, most inappropriate things, but when I went to see her in hospital I couldn’t believe the same person was lying in the bed. My friend had gone and someone new and blank had taken her place. She’s one of the people I can talk to and I often cite her particular form of loving bollocking which goes something like this: “I know you. You never say, but if you don’t say how the fuck do I know what’s going on?”

So here we are, Time to Talk day. Mental health is as real as physical health, and as deserving of the same respect, sympathy and treatment. Nobody asks to have a mental health problem any more than they ask to have a physical one. Be kind. To use that oft-quoted tag – the person you meet might be fighting a battle you know nothing about.


Ooh aah aren’t they lovely?

I write in praise of Firework Night, aka Bonfire Night, aka the day Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament and honestly, not sure I blame him at the moment but that’s a subject for another blog assuming I want MI5 to bug my phone.

But no. I don’t write in praise. I write on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of animals who are so utterly terrified by the constant and ever-louder bangs that they start to shake as it gets dark, won’t go out, won’t eat, won’t drink. Their heart-rate goes rocketing up, their adrenal system is on override and no matter how much Rescue Remedy you shove down them, or how many DAP plug-ins you try, or Thundercoats you wrap round them, they are still terrified. Some run away and are lost for good. Others have to be sedated.

A dog’s hearing is far more sensitive than ours. Whereas people can detect sounds ranging from 64 to 23,000 Hertz, dogs can detect sounds ranging from 67 to 45,000 Hertz. If we can hear a sound at 100 feet, a dog can hear it a quarter of a mile away. Ever laughed at how scared your dog is of the hoover? That’s because the sound is deafening them.

When we acquired our beautiful lurcher Dylan, it was pretty clear that he’d never been in a house before. Dumped as a stray in Merthyr Tydfil, picked up by the pound there, transferred to Watford animal shelter and rescued by us, Dylan was traumatised, stressed by everything from the back door to a cupboard opening. Gradually, he calmed, settled and became the first dog we’ve ever had who loves to play. But here we are again at 5th November – or not, in fact. Fireworks have been going off for a good couple of weeks already, thanks to Diwali and people thinking it’s fun to let them off because why shouldn’t they, it’s their human right to let off fireworks at any time from dusk to 3am? Who am I to tell them that their constant firework action is terrifying my dog and so many other people’s animals? 5th November only comes once a year doesn’t it – oh sorry, I mean 5th November for six weeks or so. And then at New Year. And then some other random time.

Dylan begins to shake as it gets dark. He won’t eat or go out, he is now in that Pavlov’s Dog state where he associates the dark with noise and fear. And of course he’s not alone.

In Canada or Australia, you’d need a permit to set off fireworks in your back garden.
In the UK it’s illegal for anyone under 18 to possess a firework in a public place. According to the law,
fireworks cannot be set off by a private individual between 11.00pm and 7.00am except for certain nights of the year. What certain nights of the year might they be? Any night between say 15th October and 10th November, with a few added extras to use them up?

There’s an organisation called Ban the Bang currently campaigning for stricter firework law – this is what they propose:

1. Ban the private use of fireworks and public displays except for three festival days per year (plus Saturday nearest to each festival day). (I.e. in UK, November 5th, New Year and Diwali)

2. Fireworks that bang and rise more than 2 metres (average garden fence height) would be banned outright for use by the public. Only bang-free ground based fireworks (with a dispersal range of no more than 2 metres) could be sold to / used by the public – and only sold for two weeks prior to festival days (see 1.).

3. Outside of festival days – the public would be able to apply for a private party / wedding reception licence (restricted to one licence per household per year). With this one-day licence, the licence holder would be able to purchase no-bang ground fireworks from licensed all-year firework shops. (These shops will not be allowed to supply loud / aerial fireworks to the general public at any time – see 2.)

4. Sensible restrictions should also apply to professionally organized public displays. For example, enforcing a maximum threshold on noise:
No public firework displays louder than 85db.
Locations of displays must be carefully planned (and revised), whereby they can only take place in open, strictly designated areas least likely to affect wildlife. Displays must be a minimum distance of around 1.5 km from rural habitat areas such as trees, woodlands, heathlands etc. and at least 2km from stables, zoos and farm animal locations.

Wow, what a bunch of joyless arseholes you might think. But is it really so outrageous? I actually love firework disaplys, I think they’re beautiful and was lucky enough to be in Sydney one New Year’s Eve and watched the display from the Opera House. Fantastic, and I wouldn’t want to ban them. The fireworks at the Olympics? Bloody marvellous. But that’s because they were special. Made special, because the occasion called for it. What’s so special about setting off a banger every night for a month? Have we so lost our ability to wait for an occasion, to plan for something wonderful? Does everything have to be now, all the time? Where’s the joy in that?

So yes, I will be looking at the firework displays and thinking how pretty. I might even go to one. But I will also be aware of Dylan hiding in the darkest, smallest place in the house, of the other dogs, cats, horses, rabbits who are thoroughly and comprehensively traumatised. Ever been so scared you thought you might die? I have. It’s not nice. It’s not nice for animals either.

One about writing and the Word Factory (with some shameless name-dropping)

“So when did you start writing seriously?” someone asked the other day.  Drawing a veil over the ‘novel’ I began when I was around fourteen, dealing with the invasion of the UK by Germany during WW2 (move over Robert Harris), I suppose it was when a friend and I began what we called The Comic, but could probably be better described as Fan Fiction.  I do not propose to speak a word about what went on in The Comic, but we then progressed to writing a novel based entirely on multiple choice.  As I recall, we were on a rowing boat on Regent’s Park lake when we began mapping it out thus:

1.  It is set in a) 20th century b) ancient Rome c) Medieval Tymes.  (We chose c).

2.  The hero is called a) Dickon b) Robin c) PanPot.  (None of those, though Robin did end up as a subsidiary character.)

You can probably imagine the rest.  We loved writing it, even though it was shite.  Never ones for much research at that time, we decided one character needed a wheelchair and duly ‘invented’ it.  The anti-hero was a necromancer, so it was pretty easy for him to do (his name was Gui, in case you’re wondering).

Then I went to India for 6 weeks, my first time travelling alone.  A couple of years later, I saw that Bill Bryson, whose writing I love, was the judge for the Time Out Travel Writer of the Year competition.  “What the hell?” I thought and entered with a piece about a 24-hour bus journey from Delhi to Manali.  Dear Reader, I won.  The prize was a round-the-world air ticket and a posh camera that I dropped in the Okavango Delta whilst escaping from a hippo.

Still,, I never seriously considered writing as an option, although I did a lot of freelance pieces for newspapers and magazines, mainly about travel, sometimes not.  Not even when my then-flatmate (name-drop alert) Michael Grandage wrote me a letter – yes, we did write letters then – to say: “I’ve just seen three people on the tube reading your article.  I wanted to shout ‘I know her!’  It’s brilliant.  Be a writer.  Why would anyone want to be a poxy actor anyway?”  Michael, as we know, gave up being a poxy actor and pretty much took over the world as a director.

Still I didn’t consider it as an option.  I loved being a poxy actor, I still do, though have diversified quite dramatically into all sorts of other things.

And then I wrote a novel.   One that I think is good enough to be out there (and which is currently being read in its entirety by two agents), and that is not based on a multiple-choice scenario.  And I met other writers, all incredibly generous with their time and advice.  One is Stella Duffy (name-drop alert 2) and she introduced me to the Word Factory one Saturday night at the end of January, where she was reading one of her short stories.

Now, I’ve never really got short stories.  I mean, I like them and all, but offer me a novel instead and I will take it.  But the Word Factory showed me what short stories could be.  This is what the website says:

“In the beginning was the Word Factory – a series of intimate short story salons bringing brilliant writers and readers together for wine, conversation and great work.”

And when it says “brilliant writers” it isn’t kidding.  Since January I’ve heard Val McDermid, Toby Litt, Alex Preston, Evie Wyld, Vanessa Gebbie and more read their fantastic stories.  And if that weren’t enough (for £12 including a glass of wine), you can also go to the free Short Story Club for an hour before the salon.  Each month, clubbers are sent a story which we then discuss, fairly politely.  I’ve been introduced to George Saunders and Flannery O’Connor thanks to the Short Story Club, and can’t believe I’d not read them before.  And as if THAT weren’t enough, there are Masterclasses to sign up to on the Saturday afternoon.

I love the Word Factory.  It is welcoming, friendly and relaxed and that’s thanks to the organisers – Cathy Galvin, Paul McVeigh and team – and I always come out of a salon inspired to write more, write better.  Every writer needs a Word Factory in their life.  And the wine is excellent.


All creatures will make merry

Fantastic piece on the Tories’ latest masterplan to take benefits away from those with mental health issues.

It's not the despair

You can tell three things about whoever thought it might be a good idea to take away benefits for unemployed people who refuse therapy for depression.

First, they have never been unemployed. Second, they have never been depressed. Third, they have never been unemployed and depressed.

Since I have, I’m here to tell you: it doesn’t work that way. Unemployment makes you depressed, even if you weren’t depressed. Unemployment makes depression worse, if you’re prone to it. Unemployment and depression is a dark spiral in which your diminishing self worth is constantly attacked by the evidence around you of your failure. Failure to work, failure to stop being depressed. Failure all round.

Another reason I can tell whichever person scribbled this fag packet proposal down has never been through depression is that you can’t just get therapy. You get put onto a waiting list. Depending on your postcode…

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