I am here.

They are all posting selfies,
declaring their presence in the world,
announcing their importance,
staking a claim.
Hot or not?
Here is a new haircut.
This is a new dress.
Sunglasses, suntan, shoes.
A fragile existence,
validated by an image.
Look at me……. please?
Click like?

A face bare of make up.
Isn’t that brave?
A body stretched out by a pool,
see the biceps, envy the abs.
A cheeky prosecco,
lipstick stained.
Me and my besties-
right here, right now.
Proof of a good time.
Searching for worth.
Look at me please. I’m here……..
CLICK LIKE!

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The Wars of the Roses. The final three parts of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown.

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The Wars of the Roses, the final section of the BBC’s The Holllow Crown season is beautifully done. There are some fine performances from a great cast that you will never see together on stage and some well judged and beautiful cinematography. On the whole it works like a dream- I even forgive the adaptor Dominic Cooke for cutting Jack Cade’s rebellion. I watched the whole lot in a single day which speaks for itself. This is much the best way to see the plays- Henry VI edited down into two parts followed by Richard III- as it allows you to see the full sweep of the story, especially that of two of the main characters, Margaret of Anjou and Richard III himself. A fearsome warrior Queen who becomes the traumatised wreck of her former self and a young man, already emotionally damaged by his physical disability, who sees his family destroyed and becomes a vengeful psychopath caring only for himself. It was the Henry VI plays that established Shakespeare’s reputation- blood and thunder has always been popular.

The first half of Henry VI is dominated by two powerful aristocratic courtiers, Somerset and Plantagenet, who are frustrated by King Henry’s otherworldly inability to do what is required of him as king. He is kind but weak, not what you want at a time of looming civil war, an easy target for ambitious, rich men on the make. Ben Miles is absolutely mesmerising as Somerset. You can see exactly what he is thinking as he works out how to find a chance to wield power through his relationship with Queen Margaret and it is chilling. Adrian Dunbar as Plantagenet- the head of the family whose claim to the throne threatens the King most- is a nice contrast to Somerset, all fire and action. He makes the most of great lines like the one where Joan of Arc shows him Talbot’s body. “Oh, were mine eyeballs into bullets turned that iron rage might shoot them in your faces”.
Sophie Okonedo is perfect casting for Queen Margaret. It is one of the great parts in Shakespeare if you have the chance to play it across all three plays and she has every bit of the fire and venom that it needs.

The second part of Henry VI (mostly from part three) is action packed and there is more blood as the Plantagenet family rise against Henry and he ends up all but defeated, brokering a deal to stay on the throne for his lifetime and shamefully disinheriting his son. It seems like they have won, but there is a cancer hidden in the heart of their family- Richard of Gloucester- who will destroy their victory for his own personal gain. As Edward settles into his reign we know this all too well even if he doesn’t. Benedict Cumberbatch is fascinating to watch as he works away on the edges of scenes, with relatively few lines, showing everything that we need to know. By the end of the play he has done what his father stopped short of and killed an anointed king. There is nothing he will not do.

Richard III is a great play. It works like a modern thriller- think House of Cards- when it is on stage and it needs little editing. It belongs on stage- the device of allowing Richard to let the audience into the secrets of his villainy while fooling those around him is pure theatre, thrilling and sometimes very funny. For me this play is never going to work as well on screen as it does on stage when it is done to full effect but my goodness Benedict Cumberbatch gives it his best shot, talking to the camera, absolutely embracing Richard’s wickedness without any apology, and producing a full on, bravura performance. I did miss some of the humour that I know is there- the wooing of Lady Anne and the scene where “pious” Richard “reluctantly” agrees to be king can be laced with black comedy- but I think that this was perhaps because something about the events being filmed rather than staged made what we were watching too real to laugh at. This play really is a collusion between Richard and the audience, it is him saying to us look how clever I am, and you need to have that direct contact with a man on stage to really get the full effect. I have also seen the relationship between Buckingham and Richard come across more strongly. We should know immediately that when Richard says to him “I am not in the giving mood” he is making a huge mistake that will lead to his downfall. He has not done his villainy alone and if Buckingham’s contribution is not acknowledged and rewarded as promised Richard will be taken down. This is his only real collaborative relationship in the play and he has not grasped its importance to his future.
I think that because Richard III is so fast moving and claustrophobic I was less tolerant of the opening out that inevitably comes when it is directed for cinema. I really didn’t want the ending to be undercut by showing Queen Margaret wandering around the battlefield for example. Having said that these three plays on film, along with the rest of The Hollow Crown are a fine, lasting achievement and I’m glad to have had the chance to see them.

Hamlet. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough.

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Alan Mahon as Hamlet. Production image by Mark Douet.

Any production of Hamlet where Polonius stands two feet away from my front row seat in the round at the Stephen Joseph and speaks one of the most famous lines in the play directly to me- “though this be madness yet there’s method in’t”- gets my vote. This production by the Tobacco Factory theatre company works a treat- it was a very good place for the young people who were lined up along the back row to start. It is clear, fast and well edited and it zipped along in the small space like a thriller. The company know how to use the round to full effect and it showed.

Alan Mahon has had very good reviews for his performance in the title role and I am happy to add to them. He reminded me that Hamlet is young, naive and untried- the actor is only 23 himself and it is unusual and refreshing to see someone so young in the part. By chance I had just watched two great Hamlets, Simon Russell-Beale and Adrian Lester, talking about playing the part and they had agreed that Hamlet was naive. I hadn’t thought about this properly before and then the very next day along came a Hamlet who showed me exactly what they meant. More than ever the death of this particular sweet prince was the loss of someone with potential, someone who might have done great things. He is clever but he has been too busy studying rather than developing social skills. He doesn’t really understand about the unpleasant realities of the world until they kick him the face and he is forced to face up to them- a steep learning curve that he first tries to avoid and ultimately doesn’t survive. Alan Mahon also worked on the cuts made with the director, Andrew Hilton, so some of that fast moving thriller quality that I saw is partly down to him. I am glad that he was given his chance. To see the soliloquies spoken by Hamlet alone in the centre of a small space was very moving. Some of the quiet, thoughtful qualities that can be there in Hamlet were not so evident but that was not what was being played so I didn’t mind. Every Hamlet is different- especially the really good ones- and that’s what keeps you coming back.

There was good support from the rest of the cast too. I particularly liked Laertes- I always do- Callum McIntyre was suitably dynamic and good looking and the sword fight at the end was terrific. Isabella Marshall was a heartfelt and gentle Ophelia and I enjoyed the fatherly qualities that Alan Coveney brought to his Horatio, who was older than usual. I felt that there can be more to Claudius and Gertrude than we were shown by Paul Currier and Julia Hills but I am not complaining about anyone in the cast. The speed of the production and the cuts perhaps made it harder for the characters who surround Hamlet to make their mark. There are always gains and losses in any approach.

I don’t often praise directors- unless it is to say that I am glad that they have not done too much- but I was full of admiration for the detailed work that Andrew Hilton has done to make this production so clearly told and speedy and give us the Hamlet that he and Alan Mahon wanted. The whole show was almost entirely without props or furniture and it ran like clockwork. I also had the pleasure of a close up view of some very beautiful Elizabethan costumes designed by Max Johns- a more unusual sight in a production of Hamlet than you might think. I was very happy.

Insomnia.

I am far away from everything.
Far from light.
Far from company.
Far from hope.
My mind has been set adrift,
dragging its anchor
across a restless sea of thoughts-
the wreckage of my memories.
Mistakes from days ago,
months ago,
years ago,
rise up in clouds of sludge.
Bottom feeders dip and dive,
sucking up my successes,
spitting out insults,
clouding reason.
Steadily, behind the closed curtains,
the light grows stronger.

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How Long is Forever?

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Alice: How long is forever?
White Rabbit: Sometimes, just one second.

A beautiful young man drops easily into a chair,
holding his glasses loosely and frowning.
He doesn’t see me, his thoughts are somewhere else,
but I see him and I am watching him.
He is my future.

On the wall of his tomb in the Valley of the Kings
a small child is being carefully introduced to the Gods,
one by one, simply, slowly, gently.
He holds tight onto his father’s hand
so that he will not be frightened.

I walk fearfully past the door of the front room on my way to bed.
My grandfather’s body is laid out in there.
People are visiting his secret place to think and cry.
I will not look. I will not think.
I do not want to see.

An Autumn leaf is caught on a silken thread,
a dragline formed by the spinnerets of a tiny spider.
It dances in the afternoon sun, reflecting a shining golden glow,
pouring out its bliss into the last of the daylight.
Accidental glory.

I am standing on the ice of a frozen lake.
I am happy and I am free.
This place which I found by chance,
led by a love of books and beauty,
will be the making of me.

A photograph of a Victorian boy in his best dress,
just two years old on a horse which is much too big for him.
Wide eyed, arms out, back straight,
amongst the solemn faces and the blurred chickens,
showing us the horseman that he was born to be.

I am a short, plump, yellow fairy, hiding in the darkness,
waiting to rush out into the light.
I shall nod to the musical director, scream out “hold it!”
and raise my collapsing wand.
I am going to tear this place apart.

The tourist train rattles up into the high Andes
following a track which seems to lead nowhere.
It scythes through the markets of small towns,
waved at, wondered at, saluted by distant farm workers
and chased by frantic dogs.

Clouds are racing above my head in the early morning,
flying out to sea over an empty stretch of blown sand.
Different shapes, different heights, different speeds.
A rush of excitement.
I am the only one to see this.

A path formed from tree roots, leading upwards,
exposed by many years of eager feet.
A way forward through the past,
which cuts through time to bring secrets into the light,
and leads us out into the future.

Our lives are not lived in a straight line.
We are not bound by the dictat of a ticking clock.
We travel through our memories,
slipping backwards and forwards
to find moments which can last forever.

The Reluctant Christian.

Heather had always thought of herself as a Christian. It was what she had been taught and it was what she believed…… sometimes. That was fine. Doubt was fine. How could you ever be certain about something that you couldn’t prove? She had realised that very early on, when she first heard the phrase “a sure and certain hope” in church. Even at eight years old she knew that this didn’t make sense. Hope was never certain or sure. When her mother said “we’ll see” that was hope. When the ice cream was in her hand that was certainty. The two never went together. God was too big an idea for her to get her head around, but she liked Jesus. He was on the side of bad people and when she got into trouble she remembered that and felt smug. Heaven was confusing. There are many rooms in my father’s house, Jesus said. She liked that because she was good at drawing houses. There must be lots of rooms. Millions of rooms. Bigger than a palace. All those dead people needing a bed. Well not dead- obviously. Risen. Jesus had risen again and so would everybody else who believed in him. She had worried a lot about bodies and what they would be like in heaven- would people who were poorly and elderly when they died be stuck like that? If she fell under a bus would she have to be eight years old forever? When Rev Hunt told her that the early Christians had worried about what kind of bodies they would have in heaven too she felt very clever. He couldn’t tell her the answer though. That happened a lot. Eventually she had learned not to ask. She just tried to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast as though she was Alice in Wonderland but this was hard to do all by herself.

It was a long while now since Heather had been to a church service. It must be almost thirty years. This was not God’s fault. Long before middle age she had realised that while God might be all right, on a good day, other Christians were a big problem. They just didn’t like her very much and she didn’t like them. She had never gone down well. It left her sitting alone in a carefully chosen pew half way down the church, enclosed in a paper thin bubble of self consciousness which looked to those around her like a solid wall of heathen mud brick. After a service one or two people might come up to her with their cup of tea and say that it was nice to see her but they never seemed to find it quite nice enough, as they soon moved away and she was left to slip out early on her own. Inevitably she had stopped going. There were only so many times that she could listen to the story of the prodigal son- surely his brother had a point- and it was easier to think about the difficult bits on her own. Like the meek inheriting the Earth for instance. Didn’t happen. When some Jehovah’s Witnesses had knocked on her door and asked her about that, without even saying hello first, she had told them that she hoped it was true that the meek inherited the Earth because she was one of them. They didn’t like her either.

No services then, not for years, but if she was in a strange place where she was sure that nobody would recognise her, or worse still try to talk to her, she would lift the sneck and push the heavy door of a church to one side, carefully closing it behind her and find a place to sit down half way up the nave, just as she always had. There was no mother sitting next to her any more, ready to nudge her if she turned to look back or wriggled, so she could look around as much as she liked. The church that she was sitting in now was a good one. She had suspected that it would be as soon as she had been faced with the defiant message carved out in red and black letters on the first pillar that you saw. “Pra remember the power.” Once it had been an encouragement. Now more often than not it would seem like a plaintive request. There was an eagle lectern, a stern Victorian stained glass window with St George skewering a dragon and the name of the person who had paid for it in gothic script across the bottom, a high pulpit with a curving set of steps leading up to it, and seats in the choir stalls carved with animals and tiny people who hid away in the dark when you pushed a seat down. It was a glorious mish mash, formed by everyone who had wanted to make their mark on it throughout the centuries. It had the right Godly smell too, the kind of holy scent that takes many years of candles, dust and prayer to develop. It was charming. She frowned at the lion on the kneeler in front of her, a millennium lion it announced proudly, wondering about the word charming. God had been called many things, good and bad, by many people but charming seemed wrong whatever you thought about him. She was wondering about having a walk round when she heard the sneck of the door click. Damn. There was nowhere to hide so she just had to sit it out, exposed in the centre of the large empty space. They might just be visitors. They might leave her alone. They might go away.

They didn’t go away. A cheerful, well rounded woman walked boldly down the centre of the nave carrying a large armful of white lilies, gypsophilia and green foliage.
“Good afternoon!”
Heather muttered a good afternoon at the woman’s back as she walked past. If she was quick she could get out before she had to say anything else.. She was almost on her feet when the woman’s face appeared right next to her.
“Budge up.”
The woman sat down bold as brass. There was no way out of the pew now.
“Nice to see a visitor. Did you come to see the misericords? Lovely aren’t they?”
Heather had no idea what the misericords were.
“Not really- I just sort of wandered in.”
“That’s good. Let God lead the way.”
It gave Heather a jolt hearing God mentioned suddenly, even Christians didn’t often do that so quickly in front of strangers these days, but then if you couldn’t mention him here, where could you?
“I’m not a believer I’m afraid…….. at least I don’t think I am.”
The woman did her best not to look disappointed.
“What makes you unsure?”
“The church mostly- organised religion. It doesn’t always seem to have a lot to do with God.”
Well she had asked.
“He gets mentioned a lot.”
Heather gave the woman a sidelong glance. It was all right- she was grinning.
“Sorry.”
“Don’t worry. I sometimes wonder what I’m doing here and I’m on the flower rota.”
The woman introduced herself as Delia and returned Heather’s glance.
“Why don’t you go to church then?”
There was a long silence.
“Sorry. My big mouth again. You don’t have to tell me- it’s just our vicar said we should ask people so I am. It might make your mind up for you.”
She made a rueful face.
“Of course there’s always the risk that it might put you off.”
Heather laughed.
“Would it put me off if I came here?”
Delia screwed her nose up.
“Fifty fifty I’d say. It depends who you sit next to.”
“Do many people come?”
“A few. The usual mixture of the lost and the bewildered. They were the first to believe and judging by the way things are going they will be the last.”
“That must be discouraging.”
“It is for the person who has to count them every week that’s for sure.”
“Somebody counts them?”
“That’s how we know that we’re in decline. Although I like to think of it more as genteel poverty. Shabby chic.”
Heather looked around her. The church was a bit like a down at heel stately home, come to think of it. One that the National Trust hadn’t got around to yet, full of beautiful things that had been there for a long time, dusty corners, faded fabrics, polished metal and waxed wood. All labour intensive. It was the kind of place that unlucky owners sometimes called a money pit and now the servants had gone. The small core of family members who were left- the Delias- had to make do and mend, doing the work once done by a small army of believers. Delia was still talking.
“Of course there are churches where it’s all new carpets, plastic chairs and microphones. The younger ones like that and that’s where the growth is. Good luck to them. It wouldn’t do here. They’d have to take the pews out of here over my dead body.”
Heather wondered about pews. Of course they would be an issue. They were a straight backed, rigidly arranged bastion against change, filling the space with a silent promise that things would always be like this. You could dress it up as protecting heritage and beauty but what you were really protecting yourself against was the possibility of change. This was where God had always been and in the past he had never needed a microphone.
“I think the saddest thing is that so many people don’t think about God at all any more- after all even the most convinced atheists have done that and made their mind up- that’s probably why some of them are so angry.”
“Oh people still think about God. They just call him something else. Crystals, angels, mindfulness, the universe- as if the universe ever cared less about anybody. They are still looking, they just don’t come in here to search any more and there’s nothing to make them feel guilty about that. God will go on working- of course he will, he’s God- but if the church isn’t careful it won’t be through the church.”
This sounded like subversion to Heather.
“Do you say this kind of thing to the other people in your church?”
“As if. I’m unpopular enough already. I get fed up of people who seem to think they can understand the workings of almighty God- especially when the workings of almighty God mostly boils down to exactly where the vicar stands to say the peace and what kind of teabags there should be at PCC meetings.”
Heather laughed.
“If he’s there I think he might be just a bit bigger than that.”
“I’d like to think so, otherwise what am I worshipping?”
“Well, nothing potentially.”
“At least you will never be able to say I told you so.”
“I wouldn’t do that. I was brought up a churchgoer and it never leaves you. I sometimes think I come back to places like this to mourn. Hoping.”
“God’s not dead.”
This firm statement seemed to remind Delia why she was there.
“Well, I’d better get on.”
One last quick smile and she was on her feet, all bustle, finding, fetching, pouring, flat feet flip flopping around gathering what she needed. She was comfortable here, happy in her own space, purposeful, confident. Heather sat silently, watching her work. The vase she was using was an old one, quite ugly really, with a dented, wide meshed metal insert. As the pile of flowers and greenery on the grey flagstones grew smaller it was transformed into something beautiful, a timeless cascade of white lilies, trailing leaves and tiny white lacy flowers, an act of faith which had been made and remade many times before by a series of skilled hands. A whisper into the darkness. Finally the job was done. It felt as though it was time for Heather to leave. She was not allowed to do this silently. Delia waved a dustpan at her as she saw her get up.
“So have you found any answers?”
Heather shook her head.
“I don’t think there are any answers. Only questions.”
Delia smiled.
“Just so long as you keep asking.”
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Time Passages.

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When I was a child
I slipped into my grandmother’s bedroom
picked up her pink enamelled hairbrush
from the vanity set
on her dressing table,
stroked the soft surfaces,
and watched as they caught the dusty light,
staring in wonder
at the strange grey hairs
tangled into the bristles.

The vanity set is long gone
but the grey hairs are still there,
caught in the bristles of the past,
no longer strange.
Now they are mine.
Time passes.
Nothing changes.