Monday, 31 October 2011

Ramblings: Country Living

You know how people describe themselves as outdoorsy? Well, I’m more indoorsy. Inside a house is safer, more private and it has beds to lie in and chairs to sit on, running water and central heating. Much more civilised. I’m of an age where I like a nice settee now. Actually, I’ve always liked a nice settee. I’m with Winston Churchill in that I also believe that the secret of life is “conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down."
I grew up in a very urban area of what was a large town but is now a small city. I lived on a small terraced street with Double Decker buses trundling right past my bedroom window throughout the day and evening. You could walk to the town centre in 10 minutes, there was a shop two doors away which sold sweets and if you wanted fresh air there was a park down the road to cover all that business.
Parks are great. You can pretend you’re in the countryside without leaving the safety of the city. Taking in a nice leisurely stroll is so much more reassuring and relaxing when you have mobile phone reception and a 24 hour Spa shop to buy cigarettes from within staggering distance.  Personally, I don’t feel at all safe without a back up lighter, a minimum of 20 cigarettes and at least two bars on my phone. I also need regular coffee. There’s never a Starbucks outside of towns.
I’m petrified of dead animals. Rotting fox corpses by the roadside horrify me and I retch a little when I see a battered pheasant. The countryside is a place of dead animals. Death lurks around every corner and decomposition is left to take place without the intervention of a friendly council bin man to scoop up the cadaver and dispose of it neatly. I was once strolling through some remote woods with my parents and smelt the unmistakable tang of rotting flesh in the air. I stifled my gagging and walked on with a mounting sense of dread expecting to see a murder victim or two. It was a rotting sheep pulsating with maggots. Seeing that left me feeling quite traumatised. You don’t get that in the suburbs. The worst thing you’ll see in the city is a gunshot victim or a collapsed pensioner and at least the police are usually nearby.
Nature is pretty brutal too. The countryside is awash with violence whether its foxes ripping apart rabbits by the throat or an owl swooping down and disembowelling a mouse, it’s a nasty environment. Not to mention the personal danger. There’s ravines, badly made footpaths, rickety stiles and concealed mine shafts. It’s all so slippery too. I watched enough “999” with Michael Burke in the 90s to know that a rural amble usually results in loss of limbs at the very least.
The countryside is very pretty looking, although it does have a lot of dirt and soil and it over relies on the colour green. It could be tidier and better organised (and would be if I had the time). The problem for me is that it’s all a bit samey. You walk up a hill and you see hill. You get to the other side of a hill and see the other side of a hill. You walk back down again, looking at a hill. It goes on a bit. I prefer buildings with interesting architecture, throngs of weird people to gawp at and be entertained by and an ever changing vista of life; much more stimulating.
You can’t dress nicely in the countryside. Who wants to wear clunky boots, fleeces or heavy cords? They’re awful things and there’s never a reason I’d go somewhere where you need to wear sensible shoes or waterproof items. I was once on a country walk with my parents one Boxing Day and my non-sensible shoe became lodged in a muddy rut in an icy field. As I pulled my foot out of the stinking dirt the sole of my shoe was left behind. My mother insisted we couldn’t turn back as we were over halfway. She lied and my lacerated blue foot took a little while to heal.
It gets so dark there too. I was stunned aged 27 at how dark it gets in the deep inner countryside. I don’t think I’d ever stayed anywhere as remote as the cottage I stayed at in rural France. It was horrifyingly claustrophobic at night. It was an unpleasant revelation to realise darkness was so intense. I thought that kind of darkness just existed in horror films. Have you noticed that lots of horror films are set in remote country farm houses? I can see why. There’s a good reason.
Finally, there are all those animals. I do like animals but prefer them either on TV or behind bars in a zoo or through the glass of a car window in a safari park. Walking through a field of cows terrifies me and all those news reports of couples being trampled to death by crazed bovine herds echo through my head and set my pulse racing. My best friend and I once took her slightly naughty dog for a walk and wandered into a field of bullocks who decided that a barking dog was a good reason to run at us. We were soon muttering something sounding like “bullocks” as we panted along breathless and red faced towards the nearest stile. We ran pretty fast for two heavy smokers with the fitness level of elderly sloths after a cardiac operation. I was screeching all the way, shouting “If they get too close we can jump in the river!” Thankfully we escaped, dry.
If you’d like to invite me out on a stroll I’d love to come, as long as it’s less than 3 miles in total, it’s not raining, I can bring a Kendall Mint Cake, a thermos, 40 cigarettes, a pack-a-mac, some emergency flares, an umbrella, a blanket, biscuits, a first aid kit, a stun gun and a novel. Oh, and will you carry my bag? It’ll be quite heavy.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Ramblings: Things That Don't Go Bump in the Night

It’s almost Halloween and I’ll be indulging in an activity which I love at the weekend. Namely, dressing as a corpse. Last year I joined an attempt to break the record for the most people around the world dressed as zombies simultaneously dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. We failed in breaking the record, I hated Michael Jackson for his strange facial self mutilation and insincerity but my dancing was passable. I won a prize for best dressed zombie with my depiction of a nurse with multiple gunshot wounds. Very classy.
There’s something very liberating about trying to make yourself look as sinister and horrendous as possible. Try it. I can guarantee you’ll feel a lot differently about yourself once you look in the mirror and see yourself with fake blood dripping from your eyes and ears. This year I’m taking part in a charity zombie walk and am planning to dress as a partly decomposed vicar. Vicars are a little bit sinister anyway, so this one should be easy. I have two un-dead brides accompanying me, so I may be officiating over the first zombie gay wedding in England. I’m expecting the press to come knocking.
I love Halloween but detest trick or treating. It’s a nasty little tradition which should be called by its real name, extortion. The children where I live don’t want sweets or apples (with or without razor blades in them) but demand money with menaces. Neither do they generally bother to dress up but just come in out in their usual sportswear with a cheap mask on and present you with an outstretched hand. Like the grumpy middle aged man I am, I just stay in and don’t answer the door.
I do love the macabre though. The ghost stories of M. R .James and the spooky tales of Edgar Allen Poe thrill me still. I gasp at “Psycho” and cower in front of “Nightmare on Elm Street”. I love “The Innocents” and anything that makes me jump and increases my heartbeat gives me an adrenaline rush which makes me feel alive.
I’ve spent many a night shift over the years listening avidly to improbable ghost stories about doctors hanging from the ceiling after mistakenly killing a child, shadowy nurses who wake the patients then vanish and strange poltergeist activities in the sluice. There’s no place quite as creepy as a darkened hospital ward, full of emaciated sickly people rasping away through the night.
My grandfather claimed to see a ghost fairly regularly at one time. During the 60s he often saw a shadowy grey lady who would enter my aunt’s bedroom in the working men’s club he lived and worked in. My grandfather’s eccentric sister still sees ghosts everywhere. If you take her to a National Trust property she’ll turn to you wide eyed and tell you about the spirits in the room. This isn’t always good as she doesn’t whisper and people do tend to stare so. My father saw a ghost when he was a child too. A blurred figure which had the shape of a human walked past the window when he was about 9 years old and he swore it was a ghost.
I believe in nothing. Ghosts don’t exist. I’m narrow minded, closed to suggestion and refuse to accept that anything exists. I don’t have any religious faith, don’t think there’s an afterlife, don’t think ghosts make sense and think that there’s a huge industry of phony spiritualist mediums looking to part us all with our money by playing clever confidence tricks. I have however, seen a few ghosts over the years.
My first time was aged 6. It had snowed quite a bit and my dad took me with him to take the dog for a walk. Instead of taking our usual path up the hill on the park, we stayed on the flat, trudging around the football pitch in a light blizzard. Our boxer dog, Benny, was over friendly, loving all people indiscriminately and would generally bound over to people and greet them. As we approached the edge of the pitch the dog stopped in his tracks, began to yelp and then fled across the park. The thing that had startled him was a man. He was unusual in that he was sitting on a bench in snow a foot deep with no footprints around him. Also, although 70s fashions were a bit outlandish, not many people sat around in monks’ habits. The third thing that was striking was that instead of a face there was a void, a darkness. He was groaning audibly and my dad stopped to a halt. Grabbing my hand, he ran with me, as far away as we could get.
We talked about it endlessly and speculated as to what it was we’d seen, coming to the conclusion that as we’d both seen the same thing it had to have been a real ghost. The evidence of the dog’s distress only served to cement our belief. Like the pesky teenagers off of Scooby-Doo we decided to go back the next night and investigate. He was there again.
We didn’t get very close, we were too spooked and the dog, again, had scarpered. We returned a third time, with my brother this time, but alas, the ghost had gone. Looking back, I think we created our hysteria amongst ourselves. It was dark, snowing a blizzard, visibility was poor and our eyes deceived us. Maybe I said “Why has he got no face?” because the light was playing tricks so my dad expected to see no face, also, when he looked. He had no footprints but given that amount of snowfall they’d have been obliterated in no time anyway. People do dress oddly and sometimes can smell a bit odd too, especially if they’re sleeping rough, which explains what looked like a monk’s robe but probably wasn’t and why the dog wasn’t too keen on him. We still talked about it for years afterwards though and part of me expects that my memory of it, even, is skewed through constant retelling.
My first job was in a shoe shop, a part time exercise in stultifying boredom at weekends whilst I studied for my A Level exams. The shoe shop had a notorious poltergeist which had made the local papers and ultimately an exorcism took place. There were incidents of flying shoes, ladders being moved about and strange cackling laughter. We’d all mutter about the events and speculate wildly about why all the shoes would be lined up on the floor in neat pairs when you unlocked the shop in the morning. A troubled girl had worked there, a teenager with severe mental health and social problems and the activity seemed to centre on her. This apparently is the classic pattern of poltergeist activity. I think it also provides an explanation of why a desperately unhappy teenage girl might suddenly have dramatic events taking place around her and why she might conspire to make these happen.
The third incident was in an old hotel. It was being used by a firm my then partner, Barry, worked for. It was being used as office space and there was a legend that it was haunted by the ghost of a murdered prostitute from the 1960s. Things would be moved about inexplicably and turned themselves on and off. People saw pale faces at windows and heard strange noises. It was a genuinely creepy old place, very run down and with lots of dark corners and rotting fixtures. Straight out of a Hammer House of Hammer set.
I went to meet Barry from work one winter evening and entered a scene of hysteria. One of the workers claimed to have felt something touch his face and was in a state of mild panic. There were five of us there and we went into the office where he’d experienced this to take a look and see what was happening. The man (a rather bizarre man of a nervous disposition) who had felt “the ghost” was white and shaky and we all gathered round. The office was stifling with the radiator blasting out and there was a very loud humming noise.
“It’s freezing in here. I feel sick. I feel really sick.” said the panicky oddball.
Suddenly we all felt cold and we all felt sick. The noise seemed to get louder and the spell was only broken when the feisty Italian boss arrived and wanted to know why the phones had all been dead. My explanation: mass auto-suggestion, a loud radiator, exaggerated in our minds due to hysteria and an intermittent fault from British Telecom, of course.
My final ghost appeared when I was about 26. It was about 11pm and Barry was at the pub as usual. I was sitting up in bed reading with the dog lying beside me when I heard the most almighty crashing noise which sounded like someone falling down the stairs. I jumped out of bed and ran to the top of the stairs only to see a crumpled figure lying at the foot of the stairs in a heap. I looked again and it was gone. Dylan stood beside me looking puzzled. I scratched my head, looked again and satisfied there was nothing there went back to bed and carried on reading, barely perturbed.
We had a coat rack at the bottom of the stairs and I reckon that it was a simple optical illusion. I’d glanced at the coat rack and then having just heard what sounded like a falling person, translated this as a corpse at the foot of the stairs. The noise I had heard was, I suspect, my neighbour stumbling on his stairs. It was a thin walled terraced house and I often heard him thumping his way up and down stairs. No ghost to see here, move along.
I love the posters advertising the celebrity psychic to the stars, Sally Morgan. I especially like that she advertises the fact that she advised Princess Diana. Not being funny, Sally, but wasn’t there something minor you forgot to warn Di about? Something about a tunnel? Paris? Seatbelts? Perhaps not the best celebrity endorsement. I loved the recent stories about how someone passing by an open window of the theatre where she was working overheard an assistant feeding her lines on stage via an earpiece. What I don’t love is how these people prey on the desperate and needy, extracting cash from the troubled and bereaved and giving false hopes which may comfort briefly but is more likely to stop people moving forward and accepting things in the long run.
Don’t get me wrong, I find programs like “Most Haunted” hilarious. It’s great to watch a camp TV psychic get himself in a lather and see people ecstatic over a speck of dust picked up on an infra-red camera, which they call “an orb”.
In spite of my cynicism, I still enjoy the thrill of the whole concept. I was only saying so the other day when I was talking to the little old lady who sits in the corner of my lounge. Oh hang on, she’s evaporated again.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Poems: I'm Nobody! Who are you?

Emily Dickinson lived in almost total isolation in Massachusetts during the 1800s, rarely leaving her room at all for long stretches. She was viewed locally as an eccentric and lived her life through correspondence and writing. I love this poem and think it should be compulsory reading for anyone contemplating seeking fame. Being nobody is sometimes a wonderful thing.   

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

By Emily Dickinson

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog – 
To tell one's name – the livelong June – 
To an admiring Bog!

Ramblings: Perchance to Dream

I love to sleep. I’m just not always very good at it. I keep trying though.
As a child I was plagued by nightmares and would sit, bolt upright in bed and scream, like a heroine in a Victorian horror story, before laying back down and going back to sleep. Unfortunately this habit has persisted into adult life and although less frequent, I’ve scared a few sleeping partners over the years. One long term partner had a pull cord light switch over the bed and I managed to snap it twice during attacks of the night terrors. I’ve knocked over lamps, jumped out of bed in a start and shaken people awake. Annoyingly for them, I then instantly fell back to sleep. They usually didn’t.
I dream a lot still, one of the more annoying side effects of the Serotonin Uptake Re-Inhibitor anti-depressants I take long term. I dream in Technicolor, my brain spewing out the surreal and the mundane and rearranging them into life like meandering stories. I get confused at times about what is a dream and what happened, they’re so vivid. It’s usually easy to work it out; if I was a Jamaican woman or a dwarf when the incident happened I can usually work out that it was a dream.
I very rarely struggle to get off to sleep. I wake up in the mornings and am wound up by a couple of coffees and a few cigarettes and like a clockwork toy I set off and go until my key winds down mid afternoon and I pass out. I then begin again and whizz off until I collapse into a coma at night. Insomnia for me is when I’m not asleep after 3 minutes.
I do struggle to stay asleep, waking frequently throughout the night and am often to be found standing at the back door having a sneaky cigarette at 3 or 4am. It’s a pain, especially when I get the odd week or two where I wake religiously on the hour every hour. I tend to wake early too, something which has got worse with ageing. In spite of stopping working shifts almost 3 years ago I still wake up for the early shift at 530am on a regular basis.
Being childless has many advantages. Yes, I’ll be in old people’s home which smells of urine one day, but I can have an afternoon sleep and no one bothers me. I got into the habit as a student nurse. The shift pattern was odd and the work was laborious and back breaking at times so I got used to snatching sleep when I could. Finishing at 9pm and then having to be back at work at 7am meant that the split shift sleep was a necessity to function.
The habit crept up on me. It started innocuously with me getting into an absurd routine. Whenever I finished an early shift I’d race home, lie on the settee and put the TV on. The minute the quiz show Countdown came on at 4pm I’d nod off and wake up the minute it finished. I never saw the program but it was a perfect sedative. I think it might be a show about anagrams. I’d then jump up, swig a quick coffee and set out with the dog for a walk. This meant that he also got into a routine. He’d sit by the side of the settee staring at me, knowing he was due a walk soon but hoping that one day I’d wake up before Countdown ended and he’d get an early walk. He never did. I always went to sleep with a dog staring at me and woke up with a dog staring at me. He was persistent. He hated me working nights and would sit outside the bedroom door all day, occasionally banging on the door with a shoe until I arose let rip like a crazed banshee and he’d skulk away.
The afternoon napping progressed and soon I was actually going to bed in the afternoon. It’s a blissful feeling to strip off, slide under the duvet and hide from the world for an hour. Yes, it grew to an hour. I’d get quite excited and jump into bed exclaiming to myself “I’m in bed!” Then it grew to two hours. I had to draw a line there. It was getting to a point where I’d get up in the morning and be thinking how soon I could feasibly be back in bed. Naturally, I haven’t stopped doing it even though I work regular hours now. I invariably go to bed every afternoon on my days off. It’s my body clock now.
I hated working nights and never really adjusted well to them . It’s pure cruelty to be so tired that you could pass out and be surrounded by sleeping people. It’s like being on a diet and having to watch a room full of people eat. Unlike other jobs, nursing also involves having to be quiet and sit in semi-darkness during a night shift. Quite an ordeal for the weary.
I once slept through Barry breaking down the flat door when I was a teenager. I’d locked myself in and forgotten to take the key out of the door. I spent a 5 hour night flight asleep without moving once. A couple of pensioners complimented me on my ability to sleep and I nodded graciously in acceptance. I think they’d got a book going on whether I was dead or not.
My previous love of alcohol was often about sleep. I found that in large enough quantities alcohol could make me sleep through whatever crisis I’d invented in my head or whatever was going on around me. Unfortunately it was a flawed plan and led to deferred problems with the added burden of malnutrition, lowered moods and storming hangovers. It felt good to sleep constantly for a day or two though, during a good drinking bender. Thankfully, I got out of that habit. It was hideously dangerous and not a good way to spend your time off work.
Up to the 1960s they used sleep cures in psychiatry, inducing unconsciousness for a week or so with heavy sedation to cure depression or anxiety. Now isn’t that a tempting thought? Mind you, it didn’t work so well for Michael Jackson, did it? As a recognised treatment it fell out of favour well and truly in the 1970s when 26 patients died in a clinic in Australia due to over sedation. Maybe I’ll stick to a good book and a Horlicks.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Reviews: Autumn 2011

I posted some reviews of things I liked in the summer so thought I’d follow up with some of my views on stuff I’ve been seeing or reading recently that I hope you might like too.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

There’s nothing quite like being made to read an author as a schoolchild to instil a deep hatred for that writer. Jane Austen is out for me forever after having to plough through “Mansfield Park” for A Level English; Thomas Hardy makes me shudder but luckily “Great Expectations” made me actually take notice of Dickens and persist further. I couldn’t resist the charms of Miss Havisham. We were forced to read “The Heart of the Matter” when I was at school and to my young mind it was tedious and irrelevant and sadly I put Greene aside. It was only last year on reading “The End of the Affair” that I rediscovered his genius for depicting human frailty. I hadn’t ever seen either film version of “Brighton Rock” which was a bonus, so I had no preconceived notions when I read this recently. It’s a fantastic book and I’d recommend it to anyone. The seedy criminals of Brighton are used to illuminate human behaviour with Greene’s usual understated perception.
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

I was captivated by “The Swimming Pool Library” in 1989 and loved the two follow ups but found the Booker Prize winner “The Line of Beauty” a bit of a chore. The latest book was absolutely compelling. I was awake late into the night reading this book. I loved the story line and the sweeping romp through history. Alan Hollinghurst is a rare thing in the literary world, a skilled writer who doesn’t neglect storyline to show off his talent for prose.
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Don’t be put off by the packaging and titles. Sittenfeld is fine writer of quality fiction who gets packaged by her publishers to make her books have a wide appeal and consequently they always look a bit trashy. This is huge tome of a book but well worth reading. It covers the story of a woman who marries a man who becomes president of the United States and is based on the life of Laura Bush. I have very little interest in American politics but the quality of the characterisation and the plot made me want to read more which is a testament in itself. My only criticism is that it could have been slightly shorter. There seems to be a trend for meaty volumes currently. Maybe people don’t feel they get value for money unless they get a book which wrenches their shoulder when carried. I’d recommend Sittenfeld’s other two novels (Prep and The Man of My Dreams) also.

I definitely wouldn’t say I enjoyed this film. I did love it and found it profoundly moving but it’s on the bleaker end of the spectrum. It’s good to feel disturbed by things, sometimes, I think. I think that good art should enrich understanding and not just be about entertaining. Not that the film doesn’t possess a certain humour. The two lead actors put in intense performances which made me gasp at times. I’m in awe of Olivia Coleman.
Midnight in Paris

I’ve never been a huge Woody Allen fan and went to see this with mild reservations. It was a charming film. Great concept, stunning shots of Paris and wryly witty and amusing all the way through. I loved the vision of Paris in the 20s and Woody Allen’s ear for dialogue is still acute.
We Need to Talk About Kevin

So often good books make bad films. Maybe bad filmmakers make good books into bad films. I love the book this is based on and recently re-read it, which deepened my respect for it as a work of genius. I was actually quite nervous that it would make a bad film and ruin the book for me but was reassured that the author had spoken out about how pleased she was with the film (she seems to have integrity) and equally bolstered by the choice of Tilda Swinton to play Eva. Although I preferred the book to the film, I found that the images used were actually affirming and didn’t jar with what was in my head. It’s a complex book and to make it cinematic is a hard task but one which I think succeeded largely. A few of the themes explored in the book were lost in the film and there was more ambiguity in parts and less in others but on the whole I’d thoroughly recommend seeing this as a well shot and intriguing film.
My appreciation this month goes to two touring productions which you may be able to catch as they’re both doing the circuit in the U.K.
End of the Rainbow

This tightly written play is a depiction of the last few months of Judy Garland’s life. Struggling with addiction, a gruelling schedule and a new fiancĂ©e who seems to want to work her into the ground, she starts to unravel. It starred an amazing actress called Tracie Bennett who captured the voice and mannerisms of Garland perfectly. It could have been crass but actually this play really worked and received a standing ovation. It’s a sad play but also a very funny play which I was left thinking about for a while after I saw it.
An Inspector Calls

This revival of the classic play by J.B. Priestley is a joy to watch and has a theme which has as much relevance today as when it was written in the 1940s. This revival of Stephen Daldry’s 1992 production is immensely powerful. I won’t talk about the set, for fear of spoiling your enjoyment of it if you see the play, except to say that it was stunning and deserved a round of applause of its own. Definitely worth seeing. There were about 5 rows of teenage schoolchildren in the audience in front of me and they were so captivated that they didn’t utter a sound all the way through. That is an accolade.

Ramblings: Televison: The Drug of the Nation

I hate it when people smugly say “I don’t watch television!” like it’s a great virtue. I’m ashamed to say though that “I don’t watch television!” too. It bores me senseless. I find myself getting itchy and restless and losing concentration in no time at all. It doesn’t relax me and feels like a chore. I’d always rather be reading.
I loathe adverts, they seem to crop up every 7 minutes or so now and half the TV shows now seem to spend a proportion of their time advertising their own show, recapping what happened, what’s going to happen and encouraging you to phone in to premium rate phone lines after answering the world’s most banal question. It seems to me that a lot of TV consists of about 20 minutes of actual television spread out over an hour or more. No wonder it makes me restless.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a snob about it, there’s stuff I love to watch. I unashamedly record “True Blood” every week to get off on the subversive shenanigans of a load of vampires with good pectorals. I smoke along with “Madmen” and if there’s a good BBC drama about a 1950s TV star then I’m glued.
Indulge me while I rant about a few of the worst culprits. I really enjoy ranting. Naturally this is only the opinion of an Interrupted Gayboy and does not have any endorsement from any major organisation or institution, sadly. I apologise if this is hard to relate to for people reading in countries other than Britain, but I’m sure you get dross that’s equally as annoying where you are.
The X Factor is the worst show on TV for me. Its a few minutes of TV spread over many hours each week. I fail to see the point of it. I see that it’s a huge cash cow raking in money from people but otherwise I’m puzzled. OK, it launched the stellar careers of Shane Ward, Steve Brockenstein and Leon Jackson. It gave us the multi talented Jedward and the world’s most interesting pop star, Leona Lewis. Yes, it has such stellar people as Danni Minogue judging it. She’s really experienced as a music artiste and in no way scraped a career through nepotism. If I wanted advice on a long lived music career I’m sure she’d be my first port of call. That’s if that there wasn’t a member of the world famous N-Dubz available or a woman famous for winning a talent contest, punching a black girl in a toilet and marrying a philanderer. Maybe a guest judge like the multi talented Gerri Halliwell would be a good role model. I love a woman who tirelessly seeks fame by any means and tastefully names her child Madonna Bluebell whilst eulogising about how great Margaret Thatcher was.
To be honest the people on X Factor are no role models for anyone, a panel of over styled, over botoxed victims of spray tan disasters are not my idea of entertainment. The freak show doesn’t stop there either. There’s the whole sadistic element of watching deluded fools who think they have talent make themselves look like idiots in front of millions. At least that’s tempered by the sad sob story ones to manipulate you a bit more and the annoying ones they put through on purpose to sell newspapers and get people spending money voting for them in a spirit of “I’m mad me!” faux subversion. Then of course the ultimate end result, a generic single for you to buy just in time for Christmas and then never play after a week or two.
I wonder if the poor people who enter realise what they’re aspiring for too. Fame isn’t always a barrel of laughs. I’m pretty sure it’s a mindless dream for lots of them with no thought to the consequences.
It’s a program celebrating the bland. Bland songs by Whitney and Mariah and a generic singing style of how many notes can you fit in one syllable. I can’t help but think what they’d said to various famous people had they been contestants.
“Scrap the bin bag dress Miss Harry, get the roots touched up and smile and we’re on to a winner.”
“Less of the squinting Mr Ferry and could you wear something instead of a lounge suit? Maybe a pair of Jeggins and a crop top?”
“Too husky Miss Springfield and could you sound a bit less Welsh?”
Now I turn my attention to a pointless celebrity who we’ve resurrected to taunt the public: namely Noel Edmonds.  Surely his appearances on the radio and TV in the 80s count as war crimes? He introduced Mr Blobby for fuck’s sake. He encouraged people to do dangerous stunts for fun which didn’t work out too well. Wasn’t it enough that we endured his novelty jumpers on Swapshop? He had to come back with the worst kind of vehicle possible; a program where British people pretend to be American. Deal or No Deal is the most ridiculous concept ever. People open boxes. If they don’t win money they still open the boxes they might have opened and everyone draws breath sharply for no discernible reason. Bizarre, but more disturbing is that everyone who goes on it becomes like the worst kind of American. I’ve nothing against low American culture, but I don’t want it on TV at teatime. There’s no call for tears over an unopened box or incessant whooping and pep talks from a group of people infected with false camaraderie. All presided over by a midget in misguided knitwear with a serious case of eighties bleach bouffant and a phrasebook full of cheesy catch phrases. Is lynching still illegal?
Now a whole genre which drives me mad: TV cookery shows. It’s just so bloody dull. I’d rather watch a vacuuming show or a dusting special. Why would I want to watch some egotistical fool make their tea? Not to mention the particular brands of fools they choose. The horrible smug faced Jamie Oliver who’s vying for world domination one short tongued Mockney lisp at a time? Ainsley Harriot: the unfunny black bloke with the wavy jazz hands who makes the Black and White Minstrels look like they were a genuine documentary? The sweary philanderer Gordon Ramsey who could store a week’s ingredients in his facial creases? Yuck. I don’t care how high you can lob a sweet potato before it lands in a pan, you bore me senseless. Take your fennel and stick it somewhere else.
Disclaimer: Fanny Craddock was a genius. I reserve the right to contradict myself.
Finally, I come to the true anti-Christ: Philip Schofield. The man gives me the creeps. I’m not fooled by his false sincerity. He doesn’t really care about the woman from Thane with a twisted bowel or what trauma Katie Price has been through. There’s evil lurking behind that fake smile. It’s in the eyes, I tell you. You may think I’m mad but I refuse to believe otherwise until proved wrong. You’ll be marvelling at my skill as a judge of character when it all comes out that he sold his soul to Satan or perpetrates a massacre. There’s badness lurking there, I tell you.
...and breathe.
Phew, I’ve typed away my bad day. All the little things that have driven me crazy today have drifted away in a good rant. Maybe TV does serve a purpose. I didn’t even get time to mention Gok Kwan, reality TV or the Loose Women either. Maybe next time.

Ramblings: Fantabulosa

Ready for a lesson in language and etymology? Then I shall begin:
Have you ever ogled someone in “clobber” which was tight around the crotch showing off their “basket”? Maybe you called someone a “bitch” and had a “barney” today or saw a slightly “naff” man in “drag” as you left your “bijou” flat which you’d “zhoosed” up a bit before leaving? Maybe you used the “khazi”, hopefully whilst on your “todd” before “mincing” off.
Yes, we gaylords are everywhere and we’ve infiltrated your language; sneaky or what? These words all come from Polari, the ancient language of the covert and shifty homo. Polari is thought to have originated from Italian, French, Yiddish and London street slang and was originally used by circus people in the 1700s, spreading in time to the markets, fairs and theatres of London. Naturally there were a lot of gays hanging around the markets, fairs and theatres of London. In time it became the official secret language of the clandestine homosexual and was spoken quite commonly in 1950s London.
Until homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967, gay men needed to be discrete and secretive or risk imprisonment or time in an asylum and polari provided a nice little code. Although there are only about 20 or so core words, most of which covered subject matters relating to hair styles, fashion, attractive men and having your end away, they covered most bases for the homo about town in 50s Soho. What else was there to talk about? The effeminate gay men of the coffee houses and illicit bars were able to converse freely, gossip about everyone and admire men at their leisure and no one understood a word. Genius.
Polari declined once homosexuality was legalised and fell into disuse but a few of the words remained and entered mainstream culture. Princess Anne once shouted “Naff off!” at a photographer so clearly it even has royal approval.
The very naughty Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick played two very camp characters for the BBC radio show “Round the Horne” in the mid 1960s. The boys, Julian and Sandy would speak almost entirely in polari and the dulcet screeches of obscenities which no one understood were broadcast into suburban homes all around Britain; pure subversive genius in my view.
I’m pretty fluent in it myself. It comes in handy from time to time and hours spent listening to Kenneth Williams have taught me the rudiments.
So, without further ado, I’ll uncross my lallies, runa  comb through my riah, rearrange the expression on my eke and troll off for a mince round to vada the bona omis. Fantabulosa.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Ramblings: Marlene on the Wall

I’m having a moment of nostalgia and bringing to mind fond memories of my teenage bedroom. My memory is odd, unreliable at times; forgetting names and faces, incidents and whole chunks of life, but at other times is almost photographic. I can recall scenes and pictures in minute details and random useless stuff like price codes from when I worked at Woolworths in 1988, lodge within my brain wasting space.
We moved from a densely populated terraced back street near to the centre of town to a dull suburban street. I was aged 12. The move seemed exciting and felt like progress as at least I wouldn’t have to share a room with my older brother. We were at odds when it came to musical taste and tidiness. He liked mess and clutter. I was organised and clean to the point of anal retentiveness. I liked The Nolan Sisters and Abba and he liked Iron Maiden and Motorhead. It wasn’t harmonious.
I missed our old house and hated the sleepy homogenous street where no buses passed by and there was nothing to see or nowhere to walk. I did however like my room. As the younger of two  I got the smallest room which I considered very unfair and felt it should have been allocated out according to standards of tidiness. As the neatest I should have had the biggest room which had its own gas fire and mantel piece. It seemed logical to me but still I was consigned to the tiny box room. I sulked so much about this and managed to maintain a momentum of bad mood for so long, that my parents agreed to decorate my room before any other in the house. This was a sacrifice as the whole house was hideously papered in bold floral prints and was screaming for emulsion.
I chose beige walls, chocolate brown paintwork and a swirly brown carpet. It was very brown indeed. Fast forward to 1985 and I was 14. Who would live in a room like this? Live in it, I did. I rarely left the room if I could help it, begrudgingly attending tedious family meals when I had to but otherwise staying cloistered away.
There was a bed with a stark black and white duvet under the window. It was strategically situated so that I could lie down and look at the small black and white portable on the G-plan unit in teak. The TV was tiny and white with a coat hanger style aerial, no remote control but a very large and sensitive dial. The picture often scrolled and depicted snowstorms whether the program featured them or not. My favourite programs were Victoria Wood’s “As Seen on TV”, “Tenko” and “Juliet Bravo” I had high hopes that I would grow up to be a stern but caring policewoman like Ms Bravo. Obviously there were minor obstacles to this, the first being that I am male.
Whiskey, the cat that looked (and often behaved) like Hitler, was usually to be found asleep on my bed and much to my chagrin would often leave behind muddy footprints and the odd slug who’d hitched a ride on his long hair.
Next to my TV sat the stereo, an ancient brown record player, radio and cassette player combination in mock wood and silver. The records jumped a lot and I had to prop a penny on top of the stylus to weight it down. My records were an extensive if slightly odd collection; The Smiths, Suzanne Vega, The Cocteau Twins and a bit of Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield. Tucked at the back were the secret gay records which my dad had banned from the house: Bronski Beat, Erasure and Culture Club. I could only play these when no one else was in the house or with my chunky headphones on and one eye on the door.
To accompany my love of Suzanne Vega there was a huge poster over my bed of Marlene Dietrich. See what I did there? It was Marlene on the Wall just like the song. I felt that this was very witty indeed. The pretension of youth is limitless. It was a great poster though, full face shot, dark seductive eyes and cheekbones that could slice cheese. She spoke of enigma and sensuality. Facing her was a full size picture of Debbie Harry from Blondie, looking sassy and a bit scary. I wanted to be like her, a person no one would mess with. I was never very good at this but I could aspire.
Up above the stereo were my books. These were mainly the countless battered editions of Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and P.D. James novels which I’d devour, sometimes reading one a day. A minor investigation would reveal that stuffed at the back behind the Dickens and Brontes was a minor collection of smut; Jackie Collins and Harold Robbins, which I would read covertly to learn about “real life”. There was also a very saucy book called “The Lure” by Felice Picano which was a lewd thriller set in the gay leather bars of San Francisco. That was a guilty pleasure and was top secret. I’d found it on a market stall and loved it’s speedily paced plot but more importantly its debauched scenes. It all felt very tantalising.
I had a clock, given to me by my grandmother, which was a 60s design classic, a stylish oval wooden affair with a loud tick. I also had a small collection of tasteless cat ornaments and a large collection of old Smash Hits magazines which I’d flick through, mooning over boy pop stars.
The window still had a net curtain. A couple of years later I would accidentally set this on fire whilst smoking out of the window late at night. When my mum asked where it had gone (I binned it) I replied "I got rid of it, it was very last year." She accepted this explanation.
My wardrobe contained an assortment of hideous items which have sadly all come back into fashion: skinny jeans, checked shirts and jaunty tank tops. The eighties were a bad decade for style. I rarely ate at this time so the drainpipe jeans looked ridiculous on my knock knees and cachexic legs.
In the corner at the end of my bed sat a wooden legged brown chair from the 1950s. Low to the ground, with no arms, it was perfect for sitting reading and had an imprint of my bony bottom on its seat. I’d spend hours sitting there reading, trying to escape the misery of being a teenager in the suburbs in the 80s.
Under the bed lurked my collection of games which I rarely had anyone to play with. I loved Cluedo (provided I could be the sultry Miss Scarlett) and was a dab hand at Scrabble.
Finally, there was a secret place. On the end wall was a little air vent which was perfectly sized to fit a small notebook. This was my notebook of boys. It was supposedly a diary but was actually all about boys. It was, of course, written in code. I’d wax lyrical about different boys, always older and always taller. I’d write reams of coded text about my love for them. I eventually burnt it, thankfully.
I like spending time alone and have learnt how to keep myself amused over the years. Having my own room cemented my love of being solitary. Provided it’s balanced well with fine company being alone does not equate loneliness. It can be nice to have a place to withdraw and read a smutty book, listen to banned records or moon over boys. I still do it now.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Poems: Happiness

Raymond Carver was a fantastic short story and poetry writer who was prolific in the 60s, 70s and 80s in spite of chronic alcoholism. You may know him from the Robert Altman film, “Short Cuts” based on his book of short stories. He eventually stopped drinking and ten years later developed terminal lung cancer at the age of 50. These two poems describe his gratitude for the ten years extra years he got (he was on the point of death when he stopped drinking at 40) and are both inscribed on his grave stone. Sobering words indeed and very uplifting.
Happiness by Raymond Carver
No other word will do. For that's what it was.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. "Don't weep for me,"
he said to his friends. "I'm a lucky man.
I've had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don't forget it."

Late Fragment by Raymond Carver

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Ramblings: Straight Acting

I was thinking this weekend about how we all complain about how times have changed for the worse and things were better in the past. It’s a banal and short sighted way to look things. I mistrust sweeping statements about how things are one way or the other and tend to see life in shades of grey, not black and white. I mistrust those who are certain of anything. They’re on shaky ground.
The reason I was thinking about this was because Paul always kisses me in public when we meet. I like it. This isn’t however something I would have contemplating doing ten or twenty years ago. Paul met me in town after my shift at work yesterday and I spotted him strolling along. He beamed with pleasure when I called out to him and we embraced and kissed on the lips briefly. We do have decorum, of course. There were no tongues involved.
As a teenager in the 1980s I would never have dreamt that one day I could kiss a man in public on the streets of a small provincial city. It wasn’t something I expected. I once held hands in the street with my first boyfriend in 1987 on a quiet suburban street very late at night when no one was about. A passing group of men saw us from a car and screeched to a halt and we had to run and hide in someone’s garden as they hailed abuse down on us; pretty scary, really.
My ex, Barry, would often rebuke me for looking “too gay” in public. He was nervous of the reaction we’d get if I looked too much like what I was. He wasn’t actually that unwise. A pair of folded arms, a sibilant lisp or a camp gesture could cause you to be the object of abuse at that time and I often was. I lost count of the times we were called “Fucking queers” or glared at and the atmosphere in certain bars could be frightening for an obviously gay man who was an object of hatred. I only ever felt comfortable in gay bars and this was offset by the often bitchy atmosphere in such bars and the sexually predatory atmosphere.
When I was a teenager the local gay bar didn’t have windows. It had boards and a thug who you could summon by knocking on the door. Like Fat Sam’s Speakeasy in “Bugsy Malone” a little panel would shoot back and you’d be let in. Leaving could be hairy. You’d go to leave the pub and the bouncer would say “Hang on a minute mate, there’s 3 skinheads kicking the door.” And you’d wait patiently till the coast was clear to scuttle out. The bar was often infiltrated by the sounds of groups of men hammering on the boarded up windows and the DJ would turn up the music and we’d carry on dancing. You get used to anything, usually. I was stunned on first visiting London and Brighton to see gay bars with glass windows. I thought that was amazing, but asking for trouble.
As a teenager I was in a relationship with a man 24 years my senior. Yes, it was wrong on lots of levels but it was my choice. I was however, breaking the law at the time. The age of consent was 21 and he could have been imprisoned for having sex with me. I can’t imagine that anyone could accept nowadays that waiting till age 21 to have sex is an acceptable or likely thing to happen. Barry worked for as an office manager for a firm of corrupt Italian tile fitters who were involved in heavy mortgage fraud and were ultimately imprisoned. When it all came out the police were quite adamant that Barry knew more about what had been going on than he did and interviewed him for days on end. The fraud squad called at our flat often, searched it (and left it rather messy to my disgust) and ultimately decided to play the gay card and repeatedly threatened him with the vice squad and a prison sentence for sleeping with a 19 year old, unless he told them what they wanted to know. This wasn’t pleasant and when we were burgled a year later we debated for a long time whether to call the police as we worried this would expose him to the risk of imprisonment.
Things are brilliant now, of course. It’s all better, isn’t it? We have an equal age of consent, civil partnerships and gays on TV soaps. What is there left to moan about? Plenty in my opinion.
We may have civil partnership but it’s not equal to marriage. It doesn’t carry the same rights, isn’t internationally recognised and is unequal to both gay and straight people. I can’t have the same as a married couple and straight people can’t choose to have a civil partnership; not very equal really. I don’t actually want to get married, I’d hate the fuss and anyway, I’m hanging on till I need a new toaster or have a hankering for a fondue set or George Forman grill but I’d like to have the option.
Religious groups still get away with inciting self hatred in young gay people, calling us possessed and evil and bound for eternal damnation. There’s nothing quite like condemnation of your essential being to make you feel warm and cosy inside whilst growing up. Unsurprisingly, suicide rates and rates of substance abuse and mental illness are still much higher in young gay people. Gay internet sites are littered with hundreds of married men calling themselves “bi” or “curious”, scared to be openly gay so having a convenient wife who they can cheat on with men. My ex, the compulsively untruthful police inspector was so scared of discovery that he lived a life of painful anxiety and went to torturous lengths to cover up his sexuality which certainly extracted a toll on him.
It’s no longer considered acceptable to make jokes about ethnic groups or disabled people (although we can still call people “Mongs” apparently if we’re the scary toothed Ricky Gervais). Gay people are still seen as oddly humorous and benign, camp little things we can make jokes about on TV and radio and in the office workplace. We’re cute little inoffensive things who make good friends for girls (as long as we try to ignore the bum thing) and know the scripts of “Sex and the City” off by heart and can lip sync to Kylie. Banal bully disc jockeys like Chris Moyles can make unfunny little jokes about gay celebrities or call people or things “gay” (meaning “shit) and no one bats an eyelid. The media watchdogs even exonerated him when there were hundreds of complaints about this.
I often sit on the bus and hear people calling things “gay” and wonder why this is seen as acceptable. No one would dream of using the words “Black” or “Asian” and subverting them to mean something crap. It wouldn’t be tolerated for a second and quite rightly so, so why does being gay get to be associated with being rubbish?
The worst homophobia comes from within. Gay dating profiles look for people who are “straight acting”. Any sign of effeminacy is frowned upon and campness means ugly and repellent. It’s an amusing concept and I still don’t understand what it means. As a friend of mine once said “How straight do you really act with a penis in your mouth?” It’s as if any outward sign of gayness is abhorrent, a sad statement of self hatred in a liberated community.
Life is better now and life is worse now, it’s the way of the world; shades of grey. Don’t think me ungrateful though, I’m glad I can kiss Paul in the street.

Ramblings: Always Join the Minority

I've been fascinated by the artist Edward Burra since seeing his painting, "Winter" at an exhibition at the Quad gallery in Derby which i've shared at the bottom of the page.  

He was infamously grumpy and solitary and always shunned publicity. There's only one existing interview with him in existance. He only accepted a CBE in 1971 because he said he thought it would help him get served in bars, something he struggled with due to his dilapidated appearance. He didn't want fame and the trappings of recognition and celbrity were something which he rightly felt would interfere with what he wanted to do, which was paint pictures.

He was born into a wealthy family and was a sickly child, plagued by juvenile arthritis and ill health which left him a crippled invalid. He found joy in painting and viewed it as an addictive drug. He spent large portions of his life living in his family's mansion although did once tell his mother he was nipping into the garden and returned six months later, following a trip to Harlem to paint hookers, sailors and drunks.

Whilst his contemporaries in the 1920s were hard drinking, cocain snorting womanisers, he was a celibate ascetic. He was iknown for his acerbic put downs and quick wit. His motto was "Always join the minority." He stuck by this and at a time when his contemporaries were painting mostly abstarct work he was fascinated by depicting people, particualry the seedy section of society.

I love the picture at the top of the page, "The Snack Bar" from 1930. The faces fascinate me and speak volumes about the characters. There's a certain dark undercurrent to the picture, perfectly captured. I also love that Burra conquered life long disability to become such a great and prolific painter. Life needs observers to chronicle it for us and help us to view it differently.

Poems: Bluebird

“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”
“Boring damned people. All over the earth. Propagating more boring damned people. What a horror show. The earth swarmed with them.”
“Sex is kicking death in the ass while singing.”
I love this poem by Charles Bukowski, author of “Ham on Rye” and “Post Office”. I like that a hard drinking, troubled rock of masculinity can admit to this bubble of happiness which battles with his cynicism.

Bluebird by Charles Bukowski
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody see
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody's asleep.
I say, I know that you're there,
so don't be
then I put him back,
but he's singing a little
in there, I haven't quite let him
and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it's nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don't
weep, do

Friday, 21 October 2011

Ramblings: The Art of the Matter

As a teenager, I longed to move away from my hometown of Derby, in the East Midlands area of England. I saw it as a grim, industrial place with limited culture and poor architecture redeemed only by its position nestled in the beautiful Peak District. Surprisingly, I’m still here aged 40 and more surprisingly have actually grown to feel very proud of the place and its achievements. I think I’m revising my pride in my home town, though due to the short-sighted attitude of our local council. The statement looks like being changed to “a city I once felt proud of”
I don’t discuss politics generally, unless it’s a subject I feel I know enough about to hold my own in a debate without making errors. I’m making a partial exception here and want to express my views about cutting arts funding but will focus more on a viewpoint of describing what I think we may well lose. I’m not an expert on funding or political spending but I do have a lot of experience of local arts. Let me preach a little, if I may.
My first proper experience of theatre was at Derby Playhouse as child of 12. There was a scheme running whereby local schools were allocated two free tickets to each performance which was fantastic and a great oppurtunity for a boy from an ordinary working class family. I got a ticket to see Julius Caesar and although I found Shakespeare a bit hard to follow at 12, loved the staging and sense of drama. I was instantly hooked and was lucky enough to see scores of really top productions for free which inspired me and left me with a lifelong love of theatre. A memorable event was “The Ghost Train”, written by Dad’s Army’s Private Godfrey actor, Arnold Ridley. I totally loved it and can still recall scenes from it now, 28 years on. That’s quite a testament to the power of the arts on a young imagination.
The Playhouse was a spectacular place, putting on their own productions of both well known and more obscure plays, each season interspersing more populist farces with high drama and cutting edge plays which still drew in good audience numbers. The main house was used to its full extent. I can remember gasping as the curtain drew back in the late 80s to see a full picket fenced house on stage in a play about Lizzie Borden, the time they had a swimming pool on stage (which the actors swam in) and the clever use of the revolving stage for the stunning and nationally acclaimed production of Sweeney Todd, to mention but a few.
The studio theatre allowed for more intimate productions and I still smile when remembering seeing the darkly comedic “Two” by Jim Cartwright and the stunning (and mostly completely naked) production of “Frankie and Johnny at the Clair Du Lune” bolstered their reputation as a bold local theatre. I smile about that one too, but maybe for a different reason.
I could write all night about plays I’ve seen in Derby (I won’t though, I’ll desist soon), the polished productions of Tennessee Williams which inspired me with a passion for his works, the international collaborations, through to the final production of “The Killing of Sister George” with the lovely Jenny Eclair. The production of both rarely seen and better known Sondheim plays attracted national praise and Derby featured daily in the broadsheets as a place to go for top quality theatre.
Sadly this is mostly a thing of the past. We’re now left with no Derby Playhouse and a few home grown productions at the renamed Derby Theatre or the inadequate Assembly Rooms, which, I’m sorry to say, are distinctly lacklustre with the odd exception (The Mountaintop and the Pair of Pinters at The Guildhall being good examples). For the past few years Derby certainly hasn’t been on my radar as a place to stay to see quality plays and I’m not tempted by the odd tired looking touring production. I travel elsewhere and go to Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield, cities which have thriving and vibrant theatres performing quality innovative drama. I also spend my money there, taking money away from Derby which I would have spent on meals and drinks here.
In my teens I also discovered a love of cinema. I wasn’t however, drawn to see big blockbuster films. I wanted things which suited my tastes and experiences. I fondly recall the illicit thrill of seeing the depiction of Joe Orton’s gay lifestyle in “Prick up Your Ears” and the antics of Cynthia Payne in “Personal Services”. The plush green womb of the Metro Cinema provided me with sights I couldn’t see elsewhere and made me feel a little less alone and like I wasn’t the only oddball in the world.
Thankfully this continues and we’re so lucky to have the Quad Cinema. It’s a beacon of excellence in the region, with less mainstream films on show as well as the opportunity to see world class art exhibitions for free and participate in events. I’ve seen countless films, completed a couple of brilliant creative writing course there, seen some inspirational art exhibitions and shared my love of literature with the book group, amongst other things. The Quad is a consolation for the lack of theatre, which soothes me, somewhat. I even chose to celebrate my 40th birthday there with a screening of “Running with Scissors”.
The “Objects of Desire” exhibition chosen by older people and endorsed by Dame Joan Bakewell was a rare treat. To see works of art for free by Edward Burra, David Hockney and Vanessa Bell in a small provincial city is a wonderful opportunity. The acclaimed Format Photography Exhibition was inspirational as well as entertaining and something to be proud of. Events like the Alt. Fiction weekends, although not my thing, draw in revenue and acclaim from all over the country. Again, I could eulogise endlessly about how much the Quad enriches Derby with visiting film directors, film courses, participative events, but I’ll stop at that.
We’re also lucky enough to have Deda, the only dedicated dance house in the East Midlands. I only discovered contemporary dance a few years ago, thinking (quite wrongly) that it was all inaccessible arty stuff which wouldn’t appeal to me. I was very wrong and have been inspired by diverse performances which have proved inspirational and emotive. “L.O.L.: a dance about modern love and online dating? Sounds odd but was a hilariously funny and breathtaking show which we were fortunate enough to get before it hit the Edinburgh Fringe. I saw a very surreal performance based on Freudian dream interpretations which still haunts me. These are the things which enrich my life.
Deda isn’t just about watching performances either but is a fantastic place to see art, attend classes and caters for many groups of people in society and liberates them through participation and inclusion.  
Finally, the crown jewel of the local arts achievements, Derby Feste: I’ve attended over the last few years and it’s an amazing experience. Where else can you see French drummers suspended hundreds of feet in the air on a giant mobile, a singing nun on a motorised piano and attend a giant open air disco? I learnt a complex disco routine and took part in a flash mob which was frankly hilarious, watched tap dancers, break dancers, weird comedy and, more importantly, I wasn’t alone. This year the streets were packed, it was hard to get a table anywhere to eat and the businesses of Derby must have increased their takings substantially. It’s unlikely, with the proposed cuts that there will be another Feste. The local council state otherwise but I’m more inclined to believe the people who are involved in the arts.
Derby is earmarked as having a city of culture year in 2015. Leading up to this the council has decided to withdraw all funding from the theatre, from the Quad and from Deda. They have chosen to cancel all arts funding, which is a resounding death knell for Derby arts scene and a short sighted move which will result in Derby losing out in many ways as the consequences of this ripple outwards.
I know we’re in a recession and I know desperate times call for desperate measures but I find these decisions unpalatable. The council’s choice is to spend vast quantities of money on a new sport arena, refurbishing their offices and a new swimming pool is insanity when balanced against a total withdrawal of arts funding.
My friend Bill posted a very apt quotation by Winston Churchill. When asked by a minister during the Second World War whether we should cut funding to the arts to support the war effort he replied “Then what are we fighting for?”
The leader of Derby City Council offers the consolation that at least we aren’t turning off streetlights, something Bill cleverly lampooned in the cartoon above. Interestingly, the aforementioned council leader describes his interests as being theatre and travel. I imagine that like me he now has to combine the two.
There are things you can do if you feel passionately about the city and I’ve posted a link to the Deda website which gives suggestions of how we can fight these absurd cuts.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Ramblings: .Men in Rome...

Paul, my partner, couldn’t be more English (although he was born in Canada and spent time living in Ireland). He typifies a certain kind of polite English gentility. He even has a few nice tweeds and a bowler hat, has participated in lots of aristocratic activities and has his name listed in Debrett’s. He has the noble face and fair colouring of a traditionally English man and the impeccable manners to go with it. I find him ravishing, of course, but saying that I have also always found Mediterranean men quite fascinating.
There’s something about their long black eyelashes, their moody looks and dark eyes. A hint of blue stubble on a not long shaved jaw and a bout of mad gesticulation always sends my pulse racing. I wrote previously about my dalliance with a psychotic Greek, which maybe taught me a lesson about what lies underneath the Latin temperament but that didn’t stop me enjoying ogling the men of Rome.
I went to Rome in 2005 on a very cheap flight with my ex partner, Rob and had booked an inexpensive hotel in Trastevere, a slightly more bohemian neighbourhood which was a moderate walk into central Rome. The flight was ropey, the in flight food was Pringles and the stewards wore fleeces, but the hotel was amazing. It was everything you’d expect of a classy Roman Hotel, dark wood panelling, huge bed with white linen and lots of ostentatious gold things here and there. The hotel guest book was full of pictures of cheesy Euro-pop singers accompanied by their lavish signatures. The bathroom had one of those showers with jets all the way up which was certainly a stimulating experience. Unsurprisingly, we both spent a lot of time showering.
The hotel breakfast was idyllic for a vegetarian carbohydrate addict like me. It consisted entirely of cake and coffee. Now that is a proper breakfast. I love a bit of cake of a morning. The evening meals were something I struggled with. The restaurants would serve everything separately, meat, then a plate of spinach, then some potatoes. The local people seemed to take an age to eat too, musing over their food and talking, drinking, musing a bit more and finally, maybe, eating a little. As a definite non-food fan, I found this quite absurd, I like to scoff and go. I’m a bit of philistine when it comes to food. Fine cuisine is often wasted on me.
It was August and incredibly hot and muggy with bouts of drizzly rain which left you damp and even stickier. I really did love the place though. It was a bewildering experience to walk around Rome. The city is compact and presents you with surprises continually. You walk along a fairly grand street and suddenly you’re confronted by the Pantheon or the Coliseum, sprouting up like misplaced illusions. The noise was overwhelming. There was always the sound of sirens in the background and no wonder as every car seemed to be peppered with scratches and dents. Zebra crossings were frightening. They’d stretch across 4 lanes of traffic and the only way to ensure cars would stop for you was to stick close to a nun. Italians won’t run over a nun.
There were a lot of nuns. Nuns of all shapes and sizes with habits of every colour, mostly delicate pale pastels. They tended to run in packs. I devised a little game whereby we’d score points for finding the most sinister looking or ugliest nun. We scored a lot of points. One carrying a guitar scored an extra bonus.
The sights of Rome were overwhelming and it was like a historical theme park. We took in all the usual sights but sadly didn’t get time to explore the crypt which had walls made entirely of the bones and skulls and bones of long dead monks. I’d have liked that. I usually moan a lot when I see famous things like Saint Paul’s Cathedral or the Eifel Tower. I always expect them to be bigger than they are and heave a sigh and mutter to myself “Is that it?” but the Coliseum impressed even me with its stature. I especially loved the ruins at Torre Argentina, the site where Julius Caesar was stabbed to death which is now home to over a thousand feral cats. They’re a very strange sight to behold in the middle of a frenetic city.
I found the Vatican a bit creepy and odd. The holy relics littered around in Saint Peter’s were just curiosities to me. The church really gave me the creeps and I felt a bit spooked by its size and opulence of its smoky interior. The Pope had just died and his corpse was in the crypt. There were huge queues to view his corpse and the signs reading “One Hour” up to “Four Hours” like those at an amusement park ride, bemused me.
We found a local gay bar in Trastevere and decided to see what the Roman gay scene was like. The bar was run by an elderly and very over friendly Irish man who treated it like it was a cocktail party and he was the host. He was hopelessly slow at serving drinks as he was continually popping out from behind the bar to mingle with the guests and introduce people to each other. We met some lovely locals who were talkative and welcoming but drew the line when a beautiful Albanian man walked with model good looks. The bar owner paraded him round the room introducing to everyone along with his price for the night and a whispered aside of “He’s terribly good in bed, dear. He can do amazing things with his cock.” We left shortly after this began, without the Albanian, may I add. We were quite drunk walking back to the hotel as we’d been bombarded with free glasses of Limoncello, a lemon liquor.
I indulged in a lot of people watching in Rome. Everyone fascinated me, not just the delicious men. There was such style. The local women were sleek and slender on the whole, sauntering along managing to look chic in high temperatures and drizzle which is something we seem to fail to do in Britain. I don’t think many of us could pull of those clothes and that poise in such heat.
The men were exceptional. Their dancer’s postures and movements and luscious colouring were something to behold. I ogled and ogled until my eyes almost bled. It was joyous to see such rare and exotic specimens become so commonplace. I’d like to add that Rob didn’t mind me looking, he was doing it too. It’s part of the joy of being gay. You can both have a good leer and compare notes and neither one usually minds.
I’ve mentioned this next part before in a post but indulge me for repeating myself, it fits in. My atheism was almost put to the test when we were walking away from the Vatican on our last day. I spotted a man walking towards me and he absolutely took my breath away. He was super human in his beautiful, so stunning it made my stomach lurch to look at him. He had thick dark hair, regal bearing and a manly figure, all setting off his rugged featured face which just shouted “Sex!” and induced instant carnal thoughts. My mouth fell open and it was only as I fell down the steps I’d failed to notice in my crazed fit of lust, that I noticed he was a priest. The Catholics may say it was a divine hand which sent me careering down those steps, jarring my back, by I like to call it injury by a divine misadventure on my own part.
I’ll stick to looking at Paul from now on, I think.