Edinburgh 2015

August 24, 2015

I spent the weekend in Edinburgh. When Gareth goes to Edinburgh in Festival Season, he does things properly. So between Friday night and Sunday afternoon I managed to fit in ten shows, a visit to the National Gallery, and even sang a Piskie Eucharist on Sunday morning.

The first show I saw was also one of the best, Canadian stand-up Mae Martin’s Us, in which she talks about labels, and especially the erasure of bisexuality, the assumption that because a woman dates a woman, say, she must be a lesbian. It’s a very funny show, and I smiled and laughed a lot, but the abiding memory is of a feeling of tremendous good will in the room. When you watch Mae Martin perform, you fall in love with her. (I think I was most of the way there already, to be honest.) There were two or three times when she made points that felt really important to me, and some discussion towards the end of homophobic abuse and misgendering that would have been more painful if not for her reassuring presence, and I thought, perhaps another performer, a comedian with a more aggressive persona, would have made this into a rallying cry for change; but Mae Martin’s softer approach is effective in its own way. I loved it and will see it again when she brings it to London in a month’s time.

Mae Martin

On Saturday I saw a couple of shows on transgender subjects: firstly, Jo Clifford’s one-woman show The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, a tender, wry monologue told by a transgender Jesus, culminating in communion; and secondly, Trans Scripts, a theatre piece curated by Paul Lucas in which six actors recite testimonies from trans women, American, British and Australian, about their lives and experiences. The more I think about it, the more exceptional Trans Scripts seems. It’s a smart move to include a wide range of people, as it brings home both the individuality of everyone’s experiences and the universality. I keep thinking of Rebecca Root’s Eden, born intersex and assigned male because her father wanted a boy, justifiably bitter at her treatment by the world, by medical professionals, but still clinging to the hope of a reconciliation with her mother. To single out Root is to overlook the other performers, Calpernia Addams, Catherine Fitzgerald, Jay Knowles, Bianca Leigh and Carolyn Michelle Smith, who are flawless. I don’t recall the last time I was so moved at the theatre. At the end I was one of many who stood to applaud. Visit the play’s website here.

Jo Clifford made the point that she was preaching to the choir, that the people who would choose to attend a performance like hers would be those already inclined to be receptive to her show. The same goes for Trans Scripts. It’s frustrating. A piece of theatre as vital and important as Trans Scripts should – must – be seen by an audience of people not yet engaged with the ideas it deals with. It ought to be filmed, or at least put on the radio. It would be an ideal thing to broadcast on Radio 3 or 4 at the weekend. It’s infuriating (if not surprising) that when Clifford’s show was first staged in Glasgow it attracted condemnation from churchmen who would naturally never have dreamed of attending a performance of it so that they could give an informed opinion. Anything to avoid challenging their fucking prejudices. I know people who call themselves Christians and yet would deny trans people their gender. If I had the power to do anything in the world, it would be to compel the uninformed, the unreceptive, the insensitive, to watch these two shows.

Trans Scripts

One joy of the Fringe is that there’s so much going on, and if you have a spare hour here or there you can always find something to do. That’s how I ended up going to Michael Burdett’s show Strange Face – Adventures With a Lost Nick Drake Recording, which I spotted a poster for while I was queuing for Mae Martin. I knew about the project already, as he gave this talk at my friend Victoria’s excellent bookshop a few months ago, but hadn’t seen it myself. Having discovered a hitherto unknown recording of Drake’s ‘Cello Song’, Burdett travelled around the country playing it to people and photographing their reactions. It’s a disarmingly moving hour, well worth seeking out.

Most of what I saw was comedy, though. Gein’s Family Giftshop, so polished and sharp, gifted physically and verbally, and clearly destined for greatness; hot young Alex Edelman, engaging and likeable; and Sheeps, whose new show on the Free Fringe, a series of deliberately blunt satirical sketches, feels somewhat ragged at present but will doubtless be refined into something as dazzling as their previous offerings.

The two most brilliant comedy shows I saw were Alex Horne’s Monsieur Butterfly and Kieran Hodgson’s Lance, both tours de force. Horne’s show was on last year but I couldn’t fit it in; thank goodness I made it second time around. He constructs a wacky Mouse Trap-style contraption on stage, enlisting the help of the audience to assist with e.g. making a flower arrangement, or shooting an arrow through a toilet seat suspended from the ceiling. At the end, if all goes to plan (and it generally doesn’t), he succeeds in catching the squirrel that escaped him six years ago, thereby laying several ghosts to rest. No less exhilarating is Hodgson’s show, in which he plays himself and various other characters (including, briefly and convincingly, Oprah Winfrey) in an exploration of the various ways in which Lance Armstrong’s achievements inspired him as a boy and whether later revelations discredit everything. His writing is pitch-perfect, his performance too. It should win every award it is eligible for. I wish I’d seen his solo show last year, which received similar plaudits.

Kieran Hodgson

Just before hopping on a train heading south, I had time to see Sam and Tom from TV! The exclamation mark feels important, as it’s a very high-energy show, with the ‘Sam and Tomfoolery’ threatening to escalate into blind, ugly violence. Which it does, sort of, though the violence is mainly psychological. The physical violence is better left undiscussed here, and is the catalyst for the show’s finest sequence. There was a depth to Tom’s mania that I hadn’t seen since the time I gave him carpet burns on his back by dragging him around the floor by his feet when he was a little boy. Recommended.

Artlessness and Scottishness

August 20, 2015

I often think of things in terms of artfulness and artlessness. To give musical examples, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is the work of an artful composer, motivic and rigorous; Satie’s Gymnopédies are in the other corner, projecting an intentionally childlike naïveté. They give the impression of having been born whole, not worked out. It probably says something about me that nine times out of ten I’d choose to listen to the Satie rather than the Beethoven. (It’s a specious way of looking at things. Debussy’s piano prelude ‘Voiles’ shares the watery sound world of the Satie and feels similarly weightless and ethereal, but underpinning it are discipline and organisation. Still, bear with me.)

My increasingly infrequent attempts at composition tend towards Satie’s model. Artlessness is the refuge of the man who can’t write a fugue. Easier to introduce naïve mistakes into your music in an attempt to make it sound charming. Even the great composers did this. I remember one of my lecturers saying Berlioz (or was it Mahler? but Berlioz sounds more likely) prepared for a modulation to E major with a chord of E major. (If this means nothing to you, take my word that it is a solecism.) Childishness or incompetence? It’s hard to tell with Berlioz. One trick I like is to combine chords I, IV and V in different permutations. In a ‘proper’ piece of tonal music there is a strong relationship between these chords, but you don’t use them simultaneously. Belle and Sebastian exploit this neatly (listen from 0:45). The effect can be poignant.

Artlessness is essentially a pose, though. Like playing the piano badly (see Les Dawson or Eric Morecambe), you can only do it effectively if you know the proper way too. Real artlessness is hard to come by. For that you have to look at things created by children.

Perhaps you know the short novel The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford, written at the age of nine. It’s one of my favourite books. All the things I wrote at that age were either very short or abandoned before completion. It wasn’t until I was twelve that I managed to sustain a narrative over several chapters (my magnum opus, The Spikenard Archipelago). This passage comes towards the end of Ashford’s book:

Next morning while imbibing his morning tea beneath his pink silken quilt Bernard decided he must marry Ethel with no more delay. I love the girl he said to himself and she must be mine but I somehow feel I can not propose in London it would not be seemly in the city of London. We must go for a day in the country and when surrounded by the gay twittering of the birds and the smell of the cows I will lay my suit at her feet and he waved his arm wildly at the gay thought. Then he sprang from bed and gave a rat tat at Ethels door.

Are you up my dear he called.

Well not quite said Ethel hastilly jumping from her downy nest.

Be quick cried Bernard I have a plan to spend a day near Windsor Castle and we will take our lunch and spend a happy day.

Oh Hurrah shouted Ethel I shall soon be ready as I had my bath last night so wont wash very much now.

No dont said Bernard and added in a rarther fervent tone through the chink of the door you are fresher than the rose my dear no soap could make you fairer.

No adult writer could capture this fantasy world as effectively as a real child.

The spur for writing this blog post was my rediscovery of Marjory Fleming, a Scottish diarist and poet who was born in 1803 and died in 1811, a month short of her ninth birthday. Mark Twain described her as being ‘made out of thunder-storms and sunshine’. Years ago I read Oriel Malet’s biographical novel about her, but it wasn’t until this week that I actually sat down and read her writings, in the edition edited by Barbara McLean and published by Mercat.

Marjory Fleming

Marjory (let’s abandon surnames given her tender years) is best remembered now for her poems. This is an epitaph for three turkeys.

Three Turkeys fair their last have breathed
And now this worled for ever leaved
Their Father & their Mother too
Will sigh & weep as well as you
Mourning for thre osprings fair
Whom they did nurse with tender care
Indeed the rats their bones have cranched
To eternity are they launched
There graceful form & pretty eyes
Their fellow pows did not despise
A direful death indeed they had
That would put any parent mad
But she was more then usual calm
She did not give a singel dam
She is as gentel as a lamb
Here ends this melancholy lay
Farewell poor Turkeys I must say

Marjory is a natural entertainer, and knows that her shortcomings as a poet can provide amusement too. The ending of her sonnet to a pug:

His noses cast is of the roman
He is a very pretty weomen
I could not get a rhyme for roman
And was oblidged to call it weoman

The diaries she kept, at the suggestion of her cousin Isabella, who became her tutor, are the most beautiful and entertaining things.

I am now going to tell you about the horrible and wret[ched] plaege that my multiplication gives me you cant concieve it – the most Devilish thing is 8 times 8 & 7 times 7 it is what nature itself cant endure

I think the price of a pineapple is yery dear for I here it is a whole bright goulden geinie that might have sustained a poor family a whole week and more perhaps

To Day I bronounced a word which should never come out of a ladys lips it was that I caled John a Impudent Bitch and [Isabella] afterwards told me that I should never say it even in joke but she kindly forgave me because I said that I would not do it again I will tell you what I think made me in so bad a homour is I got 1 or 2 cups of that bad bad sina [senna] tea to Day

Sometimes she seems much older than her years.

I love to walk in lonely solitude & leave the bustel of the nosey town behind me & while I look on nothing but what strikes the eye with sights of bliss & then I think myself tronsported far beyond the reach of the wicked sons of men where there is nothing but strife & envying pilefring & murder where neither contentment nor retirement dweels but there dwells drunken[ness]

One of the delights of this edition is that the original spelling is preserved. Although Marjory’s vocabulary is wide and many of the most difficult words are spelled correctly, you do encounter the occasional Kermical (Carmichael) or Pisplikan (Episcopalian).

In 1969 Richard Rodney Bennett, the most sensitive of composers, wrote a song cycle to texts by Marjory Fleming. This setting of lines from Marjory’s poem about her beloved Isabella strikes just the right balance of tenderness and tartness.

Here lies sweet Isabell in bed
With a nightcap on her head
Her skin is soft her face is fair
And she has very pretty hair
She and I in bed lies nice
And undisturbed by rats and mice
She is disgusted with Mr Wurgan
Though he plays upon the organ
A not of ribans on her head
Her cheak is tinged with conscious red
Her head it rests upon a pilly
And she is not so very silly
Her nails are neat her teath are white
Her eyes are very very bright
In a conspicuos town she lives
And to the poor her money gives
Here ends sweet Isabellas story
And may it be much to her glory

The ‘conspicuos town’ is Edinburgh, where I will shortly be going myself, armed with a copy of Berlioz’s memoirs. Perhaps inspiration will strike.

I remember 2

August 8, 2015

I remember going to a children’s concert at Jackdaws in Great Elm and the programme giving the name of one piece as ‘Vaginia Reel’.


I remember the happiness of going to National Trust properties and, against the odds, not being bored, perhaps because of the shop or the tea room.


I remember playing the word COON in a Scrabble game because I’d got it mixed up with ‘coot’, and sensing from the grown-ups’ reactions that I’d done something wrong, though no one said anything.


I remember feeling inhibited about waving my arms when we sang hateful evangelical songs in school like ‘We are climbing Jesus’ ladder’.


I remember feeling embarrassed by my unbroken singing voice.


I remember the sickly smell of breakfast in Barry: pineapple juice and Weetabix.


I remember D saying confidentially to me that there was someone in the changing room with awful BO and my suspecting that it was me. Perhaps he was trying to be diplomatic. He wasn’t an academic boy, but he was kind, like Piggy in Lord of the Flies.


I remember seeing a comma butterfly in Welshmill Park on an inset day.


I remember stroking my tortoiseshell butterfly until its wings fell off and all that remained was the abdomen.


I remember the summer when I went down the road to the petrol station to buy a 500ml bottle of Sprite and the lid was a special one that meant I won a free bottle of Sprite and it happened several times in a row so the people on the checkout began to get suspicious.


I remember Tiger Tokens.


I remember reading The Great Gatsby and picturing the gas station as the one at the bottom of Weymouth Road.


I remember a boy shouting ‘Queer’ at me from a window, and realising he’d only shouted it because I happened to be there, but also half thinking, How does he know?


I remember Miss Davies showing us Blackadder the Third in class to explain about rotten boroughs.


I remember getting shyer as I got older.


I remember feeling absolutely indifferent to cars.

Tortoiseshell, July 2015

Babar: a retelling

July 19, 2015

Babar et les ballons

I’m reading The Novel Habits of Happiness, the latest of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series. In an early chapter, Isabel reads Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar to her infant son Charlie, and contemplates leaving out the bit about Babar’s mother being shot by a hunter. She then (typically) gets distracted and starts thinking about Hitler while Charlie waits for the story to continue.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of Babar. Perhaps before the books I knew Poulenc’s musical adaptation, in the tremendous orchestral version by Jean Françaix. We had the LP narrated by Peter Ustinov. This version is narrated by Jacques Brel.

When in my childhood a French-Canadian cartoon version reached British TV, I (who used to watch any old rubbish without discrimination) gave it a miss. It felt like a watered-down misrepresentation of the Babar I knew.

While I appreciate Dalhousie’s trepidation about exposing Charlie to the violent death of Babar’s mother, and while it was something that upset me as a boy, I came to appreciate the potential of violence. I would have been aged about six or seven (the same time I wrote the story about Mrs Thatcher here) when I rewrote the story with a more grisly ending. (Actually I think I just copied the first few pages of the book, got bored, and tacked a bit on to tie up the loose ends.)


In the great forest a little elephant was born. His name was Babar. His mother loved him dearly, and used to rock him to sleep with her trunk, singing to him softly the while.

Babar grew fast. Soon he was playing with the other baby elephants. He was one of the nicest of them. Look at him digging in the sand with a shell.

One day Babar was having a lovely ride on his mother’s back, when a cruel hunter hiding behind a bush shot at them. He killed Babar’s mother. The monkey hid himself, the birds flew away and Babar burst into tears. The hunter ran up to catch poor Babar. Babar was very frightened and ran away from the hunter.

After some days, tired and footsore, he came to a town. He was amazed, for it was the first time he had seen so many houses. What strange things he saw. Beautiful avenues! Motorcars and motorbuses! But what interested Babar most of all was two gentlemen he met in the street. He thought “What lovely clothes they have got! I wish I could have some too! But how can I get them?”

Suddenly he saw an extremely rich old lady and he remembered the face of the hunter. The hunter was one of his best friends! He ran and found the hunter. The hunter came and shot the old lady! Babar stole her money, bought the suit and lived happily ever after.

The Story of Babar, c. 1990


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