Early Morning Swim.

Senses ablaze.
Cool air and cold water
on shaking skin.
Taste of sharp salt
and sea breeze.
Waves turning,
gulls crying,
toes curling in soft sand.
The stink of seaweed and death
rising in your nostrils.
Muscles stretching,
fully alive.
Looking out,
sun blinded,
into the far distance
from another world.
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Wild. Live relay from Hampstead Theatre. 23-07-16

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Caoilfhionn Dunne and Jack Farthing in Wild. Production photograph Stephen Cumminskey.

Mike Bartlett’s play Wild, which has just finished it’s run at Hampstead is an interesting and ambitious piece of theatre. It is difficult to write about because it contains a terrific coup de theatre- even the fact that it is there shouldn’t really be given away- and this is what you come away remembering and thinking about. The other thing which makes it difficult is that I was only able to see it by live relay and this sometimes makes it hard to judge performances. I found one of the characters- Caoilfhionn Dunne as “woman” a little overdone and mannered but every time that the camera pulled back and I could see her in the same way that I would have as part of the audience things came into focus. The part was being played on stage for the benefit of an audience who were actually present and those of us who had free seats via our computer for the final performance couldn’t be taken into account. A screen performance requires a very different technique and depending on the character that they are playing, a stage performance doesn’t always translate onto screen as well as it deserves to. Perhaps it was just me………….

I admire Mike Bartlett’s ambition as a writer. He has the courage to tackle a big subject, one which is not inherently theatrical, and make it work on stage. It examines the consequences of a large scale release of private information by a whistle blower- Andrew- who has now been forced into hiding by his actions and faces an uncertain future, not knowing who to trust. It allows the play to look at the real life actions of Edward Snowden, and what they mean, both for society and for us all, as individuals who are often prepared to give up so much of our privacy without a second thought. In the past those who stole and revealed sensitive and private information were thought of as traitors but Edward Snowden has also been called a hero. It’s a complex issue and while the play doesn’t fully work, a very big ask, it goes some way to untangling it. There are just three characters in a rather average looking hotel room. This means that it needs plenty of very good dialogue and lots of energy from the actors if the writer doesn’t want to risk sending the audience to sleep. Mike Bartlett does much more than this by turning things around at the end and reminding everyone in no uncertain terms that this is a piece of theatre. This takes real imagination- and great stage design from Miriam Buether. There is humour and some sharp playing from the three actors. John Mackay is a cool, quiet, enigmatic presence as “man” and Jack Farthing gives a natural, understated and convincing performance as Andrew.

And there is always that coup de theatre. Well worth seeing. I wish I had been there.

A Tangled Web.

There have always been lies.
Big ones, small ones,
lies that sidestep an awkward moment,
lies that change lives.
Lies that comfort, amuse,
bring advancement,
manipulate, distort, block.
Yes, there have always been lies.
Always.

It is easy to believe a lie.
The truth is tough, complicated,
and hard to stomach,
while a lie confirms and reassures.
A lighthouse beam of deceit
which blinds through repetition.
A lie gains traction
every time it is said or heard.
It worms its way into
the centre of your consciousness,
until disbelieving
means doubting your inner self.
It becomes a part of you.
It becomes the truth.
And surely we all want to be kind?
Be one of the gang?
Give and receive pleasure?
Fit in?
Shine?

A well timed lie
can bring a crowd of people
to their feet,
roaring approval
or baying for blood,
as they take ownership
of a falsehood.

A lie can pilfer someones heart,
bring it into line,
and use it for hidden ends
before discarding the remains.

Lies have short memories
and no consequences
so long as some still believe.

Oh yes, there have always been lies.
But it was never OK.
Until now.

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All Creatures- curated by Mark Hearld. Scarborough Art Gallery.

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All Creatures, the summer 2016 exhibition at Scarborough Art Gallery is both fascinating and unsettling. There is something quite eerie about seeing a large number of stuffed animals and birds of many different kinds, still and silent, in close proximity in a way that they never would be in life. So alive and yet so very dead. Bright eyes that see nothing, creatures set in lifelike poses that will never change. Each one of them has achieved a kind of immortality. This is just a tiny selection of the astonishingly diverse life on Earth, seen through death, beauty tinged with sadness. I particularly liked the goose hiding under a display cabinet and the gannet in still flight.

The Victorians loved taxidermy and sometimes took it to extreme lengths in a way that now seems strange to us. This exhibition helped me remember why. Bringing things back to “life” was part of their fascination with death. It was also a way to get to see animals closely when there was little opportunity to see images of them in the wild. As such it was also a tool for study and this was the motivation behind the collection which Mark Hearld has chosen from.

Mark Hearld’s own work is anything but eerie. It is joyous and life affirming. It was good to see some examples full size after seeing and sending so many small cards and to be able to take in the texture of the collages. They were much bigger than I had expected them to be and they had great presence and personality, able to compete easily with the collection of real creatures around them. The gaze of the seagull- one which I see from real birds every day- was perfectly captured and I would have loved to take home the arctic hare. The huge monchrome lino print of birds in a tree celebrated bird life in a way that the taxidermy never quite managed. I wished that more of Mark’s own work had been included and it would have been good to see them intermingled with the collection in a more direct way.

An atmospheric and thought provoking exhibition. I shall be going back.

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Please Obtain Putting Equipment at the Trampolines.

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Sometimes when you think about the past it’s the small things that you miss. I have lived close to our local park for a very long time- about twenty five years- and I have known it well for much longer than that. Filey is a seaside holiday town and in the summer it gets very well used. There is a boating pool, a putting green, crazy golf, slides, swings, a climbing frame, trampolines, little motorised bumper bikes to ride that run round a small track, tiny tricycles to ride along the paths and a cafe. Most importantly there is a large stretch of grass where visiting schools can eat their packed lunches and groups of energetic people can play football, cricket or rounders. There are seats everywhere for those who need a rest and flowers in the Spring. In lots of ways it has changed very little; forty years ago I was enjoying putting or playing cricket on the same grass and now I am within sight of the age where I will need a good sit down. I am glad that the park is still there, still giving pleasure, but some things have gone…………..

When I was growing up there were two putting greens, not one. You bought your ticket, which doubled as a score card, from a man sitting alone inside a small mock Tudor booth. I can remember his face very well. Early middle aged, round, cheerful, neat brown hair, tie. Like magic he would produce a putter, just the right size, and a golf ball for you and pass them through the window. When I was seven or eight this was exciting ( be tolerant there was no internet back then) and he would talk to me. When I brought the clubs back, running ahead of my dad, he would ask me how I had done. That was his day. Over and over again. One person after another. By the end of the first week of your holidays he might know your name and by the end of the second week you might have shown him your new Tressy doll and told him which of the beach ponies you liked best. Sometimes it was so busy that you had to wait for someone to bring their golf clubs back. I loved it. It might as well have been St Andrews. It was St Andrews.

That man is long gone now and his booth is used to store the crazy golf equipment. The putting greens are never busy. The window he used to look out of has been boarded up and there is a sign placed on it. “Please obtain putting equipment at the trampolines.” I always feel sad when I walk past it, almost as though the man who I remember is still hidden in the dark inside, longing to be let out, along with a whole world of childhood memories that come with him. He has been forgotten- very few of the people walking past will ever have known that he once sat in there. They do things differently now, in our hurry up and be careful world. The man at the trampolines has a busy day. As well as timing how long children spend jumping up and down he has to look after the golf clubs, set out the crazy golf, and monitor the bikes and the little racetrack. I doubt that anyone shows him their new doll, although I hope they do, and I sometimes wonder what would happen if one of the more determined toddlers tried to head for freedom on one of the trikes. You can get a long way in ten minutes.

 

Tenacity.

There are cracks in life,
rough places, weak spots,
moments when the rain seeps in
and you watch the wall you made
crumble into a haze of dust.
Keep building,
keep trying,
keep thinking.
Root yourself in those cracks-
discover the possibility of something new.
Open out your senses.
Use the gift of the rain to grow.
Feel the warmth of the sun
and reach out towards its light.
Cling on.

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Short Story: A Dog’s Life.

The dog was good at working things out. He had to be. The two people he lived with made a lot of noises that he couldn’t understand. He could catch the odd word or phrase, especially if it related to him, but a lot of the time the sounds they made were just a blur. Usually when they were making sounds that was a good sign. It was only if the tone of the sounds changed that he might start to worry, especially if they got louder. Then he would go to his bed. Nothing had ever hurt him while he was in his bed. Sometimes when he did that, they would look at him, the tone of the noise would change and the bad sounds would stop. He had learned to watch. Movements, patterns of behaviour, reactions- a lot of what they did was predictable. He liked that. He could use it to his own advantage, be in the right place at the right time, sometimes even get food that wasn’t in his bowl. They were always good to him, they meant well, but it didn’t hurt to give them a nudge, just to speed them up a bit if what he wanted wasn’t happening fast enough. If he could just get eye contact with them, make them look at him, that helped. Their faces were so far away. Mostly things worked well, life was good, but this morning when he had gone to his bed the bad noises hadn’t stopped. Something was wrong. Very wrong. He slumped down in his bed to watch and wait.The woman was sorting out some food on the kitchen table. Cutting a roll in half, getting ham from the fridge, squeezing mayonnaise. She wasn’t being very careful. He shifted slightly so that he could see if anything dropped on the floor. She might bring a bit of ham to his bed for him when she had finished- sometimes she did that. He gave a small whine to remind her that he was there. She didn’t bring any.

Sarah had wondered whether she should bother to make James a sandwich but she had ended up getting the ham and the margarine out of the fridge as she always did. No cheese- because she would have to ask him about that. When he was in a bad mood it was best to lie low, just make the sandwich, leave it on the table, bagged up in the way that he liked it, and then keep well away. She did this quietly and calmly before allowing herself the satisfaction of throwing the knife into the sink from a distance. He could hear that and make of it what he liked. There were times when James just wouldn’t budge, wouldn’t explain, and she needed him to.

The dog’s ears twitched when he heard the metallic bang of the knife hitting the sink. He looked carefully at the woman’s face, showing the whites of his eyes, and beat the very end of his tail. It was fine, the woman was not angry and she was not looking at him. There was a whirring sound from upstairs but that didn’t matter- he didn’t know what it was but he had heard it plenty of times before. He kept very still for a few seconds just to make sure that nothing else was going to happen then laid his head back down with a small sigh.

James stared at himself grimly in the mirror as he shaved. The razor buzzed over his chin, comforting, reassuring, exact. If he stood here for long enough his chin would be perfectly shaved. This was something that he could get right. Dealing with Sarah was difficult sometimes. She rushed at things that he had said and made them mean things that he hadn’t expected. It was confusing. Why should you have to explain away something that you hadn’t meant in the first place? Mostly he just wanted to be left alone to get on with things in his own way and talk about them when he was ready. If he could just be allowed to do that it would all be fine. Sarah was always on her phone talking to her friends for what seemed like hours, texting people he didn’t know. That was worrying. What did she find to say? What did she say about him?

When the dog heard footsteps coming down the stairs he shifted himself into position so that he could move quickly if he had to. He was perfectly still, but ready to bolt. There was always a chance that he might be going out through the front door. It wasn’t likely at this time, especially when the man was carrying a bag, but any time the door was going to open it could happen. If not, then this was one of the times when he absolutely had to stay in his bed. He watched and waited.

Sarah was not afraid of James. Of course she wasn’t. He was in the kitchen for all of five seconds. A fierce burst of energy. Just long enough to stuff the sandwich in the front compartment of his bag and say thank you without meaning it. She watched him leave and listened for the bang of the front door. He was gone. Gone, taking all his anger and his grievances with him. She sat down at the kitchen table, breathing in the still air and giving herself space.

The dog came to stand beside the chair that Sarah was sitting on, lowering his bum and wriggling. He wanted a hug. She looked down at him stretching out a lazy arm. Once he had eye contact he felt brave. He put his front paws up onto the chair seat and stretched out his neck, demanding attention now, not asking. Slowly he felt her warm arms curve round his neck and her face was right next to his. He shivered slightly, licking and pushing, glancing slyly sideways to see if there was anything to eat on the table.
“Good dog.”
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