Friday, 21 December 2007

Too Many People

There are too many homeless people on the streets of Truro. There are too many second home owners sitting in their cars on the M5 and A30, massing for the Christmas exodus. There are too many cancer patients at the oncology and haemotology centres at The Royal Cornwall Hospital. There are too many fat cats and I'm-alright-Jacks, and too many little match girls, shivering as they wait for punters in the frost. There are too many empty churches and reconstructed rectories. There are too many turkeys and way too many mince pies.

Took two coats down to the crisis appeal at the cathedral. Two old coats that had kept me warm for far too long, and far too long ago. I wore them on trips between Helsinki and St Petersburg (then Leningrad), and they kept me warm in twenty degrees of frost.

Then I gathered together my hoard of shampoos and contitioners and body lotions and handcream and moisturiser samples, garnered from four and five star hotels in Europe and the USA these last few years and put them in a gold-coloued tote bag, marked for the attention of homeless women. And it isn't enough.

Anybody can be homeless. Anybody. Even those mortgage-free people like me. Anybody can be homeless. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a report about a former news journalist, who had co-anchored the national news on occasion, but still managed to run up more than two hundred thousand pounds worth of debt. He's homeless now. And children are homeless, And mentally ill people. And vulnerable young women. And ex married couples, homelessly single, sleeping in their cars and office floors. In the old days, vicarages used to open their doors to the homeless, but now there's aren't many vicarages running as homes for the clergy (there aren't many stipended clergy), so shelters are opened by social workers for eight days over the Christmas season. There aren't enough social workers. There aren't enough shelters.

The Bishop of Truro, who always gives an apposite address, said the message of Christmas was: 'Don't be afraid.' Fear not, said the Angel, for I bring you tidings of great joy. The greatest joy for me was giving two old coats and a hoard of unwanted toiletries. I looked in my wardrobe and counted eight coats altogether, not counting the two in the trunk which I gave away, and my grandma's old furs, waiting for my daughter to give them a decent burial. That's too many coats for anyone. But still there aren't enough coats...

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Middle Aged Texters...

U-tube post sent to me by Neil, my editor, this morning:

I'm the one who can't open the book!

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Tales from school

I am still reeling from the shock of the parents' evening at my daughter's school this week. Not because it was shocking. On the contrary, it was deeply underwhelming, particularly the discussion of how literature is taught. They look at bits of things: 'extracts' of Victorian novels; sound bites from broadsheet newspapers, comparing these with the miniature bite-size mouthfuls from the redtops. At least I came away enlightened about that. Now I know how the redtops have gained such an almighty readership. The punters are trained for it, at school, by looking at bits of things. I'm not too much of a snob to look at redtops. In fact, I enjoy looking through all those bitty magazines you find in hospital waiting rooms

(which is a convenient link to my new blog


'Chat' is an exemplary title, for instance, since it encapsulates the skimpy sound-bite nature of the content. It's like looking into a parallel world of enhanced breasts and celebrity fashion gaffes (and other gaffes) and people who had their brothers' babies, or whose babies grew up to be serial killers or rapists. All in bite-sized, easily digestible chunks. With no analysis. And no demanding words above three syllables.

I thought my daughter's expectations should be greater than these - not because of snobbery or elitism but because of the SHEER BOREDOM that a diet of chit-chat imposes on enquiring minds. It's worse than boredom after a while. It becomes what the old Victorians might have called 'ennui', and the postmodernists 'anomie'. Whatever you call it, it deadens the soul.

Why read extracts of Great Expectations? Why not stick your toe in the water and tackle the whole thing? Because, I was told, children could not be expected to read 'those long Victorian novels'. Not all children, maybe, but limiting all of them to extracts sends out the message that extracts are all you need to digest the themes and issues of the day. It tells my daughter, for instance (who had already read Great Expectations, because she found it on the shelf at home) that she needn't bother in future, thank you very much, but she should pipe up more in class because the English GCSE assessment is as much about SPEAKING as it is about reading and writing! (As an A level examiner, who resigned in despair from a Board that refused to penalise lapses in basic English usage, such as simple apostrophe use, this shouldn't really surprise me...)

But edcuational nonsense aside, the real issue is far more serious, because this system seems to be fitting up kids for a lifetime of soundbites and extracts. And where the hell is literature in that? When I was thirteen, I looked forward to losing myself in a long Victorian novel - Jayne Eyre, say - or even Great Expectations. The novel, according to that great French master of the form, Stendhal, is a mirror held up along a highway. Sometimes it reflects the sky above, sometimes the mud below your feet. The point is all about the journey. Extracts, on the other hand, are a hide into nothing. A short fix before you get your teeth looked at or your blood pressure taken. A trip to nowhere.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

A Town Tale

Yesterday, I was in Redruth, a town that seems to be dying. It is as different from London, or even Truro, Cornwall's 'capital', as it could be; and yet, in many unexpected ways, it has more life than either.

Sixty years ago, in 1947, my father was transferred to the grammar school in Redruth, after spending the War in rural Wales. Like me, commuting the wrong way from Truro now (in my case, for my weekly singing lesson), he took a bus through villages that must then have been alive with tin workers and their dependents to the epicentre of Cornwall's industrial heartland. Redruth, then, was Cornwall's core, its beating heart. Now, it's like a heart on bypass.

The shops are empty. Even though it costs a mere forty pence to park for an hour, the Tesco carpark, on the outskirts of town, (where supermarkets always seem to crouch, incidentally, like a besieging force), is free. There is even a bus. The EU funds that have been pumped into the heart of the town, to regenerate the beautiful and atmospheric old marketplace and Fore Street, cannot ressucitate a body that is ailing - and failing, for want of new blood. But would Reduth have died without these funds, these regeneration committees, these bureaucrats? No, I don't think so.

I went into Warrens', a bakery-cum-cafe, and had a cup of tea and a donut for less that the price of a single cup of tea in Truro, or a third of a cup of tea in the metropolis. In fact, in Harrods Food Hall cafe a couple of weeks ago, I paid ten pounds for a pot of tea and two stale pastries. My daughter had a glass of tap water which, I assumed, was free. The thought of what I had paid for that snack made me ashamed when I overheard the conversation in Warrens'.

They were talking about a local woman, in her twenties, who worked in a chip shop but had hazarded a fiver on the national lottery and won a million. The woman behind the counter was impressed. 'But,' she said. 'Could you afford to lose a fiver?' The consensus seemed to be no. The topic then turned to a programme currently running on BBC2 called 'The Secret Millionaire', a pretty nice concept for reality TV (which so often deals in ugly human exchanges) in which a self-made millionare visits some poor, run down community, looking for people to help. The programme ends with the rich person returning in his/her usual daywear of Armani suits and Rolex watch to make their charitable gifts. It is affectingly and sensitively done, and although the concept is at least a series old now, it never fails to touch and surprise. Well, the people in Warrens' thought it was wonderful - in the fullest sense of the word. They were full of wonder that such a concept could exist at all.

I was full of wonder when, having asked for a custard tart with my tea and been told there were none, the woman who could not afford to lose a fiver went out of her way to grant my wish: 'Not to worry, my handsome - I'll find you something with custard in.' It's been a long time since anyone called me 'my handsome' or gone out of their way to anticipate my needs in a simple transaction like that. 'I can see your face light up,' she said, so pleased to have granted my wish. And it was quite wonderful, on a cold day, in a terminally ailing town. The custard in that donut was like liquid gold.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Where do stories come from? I suppose always as a response to something. EDDIE (my first) came out of my response to the death of my father, and also from a sense of outrage at Thatcherite policies which had been steadily brewing inside me since the (now long ago) 1980s. London at the time was a schizophrenic place to be - yuppies and dinkies and other City boys on the one hand and Socialist Workers and IRA on the other. I remember the IRA collecting subs from punters in Kilburn pubs - you could smoke in pubs those days. I also remember being evacuated from my school in Liverpool all throughout the previous decade - once in gym kit (aertex blouse and bluebottle knickers...). I used to go to the Tuesday evening soirees of my Belsize Park neighbour, Dr Helena Bakova, a Theosophist and painter who compared big and small states to tarantulas - I'm not sure why. Her son, Alex, had schizophrenia, and used to scare me on the stairs, although he was a pussy cat at heart, like many in similar states of mental distress. The Bakovs were refugees from Russia (Revolution - in the case of the mother) and Prague (Nazis - in the case of Alex) and had lived on a fixed rent since the 1940s. When the current landlord (a well- known labour MP and compatriot of Neil Kinnock) bought the house and moved into the basement with his American wife and children, he did up all the top flats, including mine, but left the Bakovs to stew. Which they did very nicely. When I left for Egypt, which was probably a mistake, Alex took care of my cat; and then I got a letter, much later, from his mother to say that Small-Cat missed me: 'she is silent and shy'.

EDITH (my second) came partly as a response to this experience, and also to my long-lost friend Roy Norman, a fellow Liverpool native (like me - although Roy was a true scouser), completely obsessed by The Beatles, John Lennon in particular. When we were all living at Cotleigh Road, West Hampsted, in the early 80s, Roy would spend his days on watch outside the bins at the Abbey Road Studios nearby. Sometimes he got loot - bills, bankstatements, other personal detritus, although he would never have dreamed of using it illegally. Data protection laws and identity theft were still things belonging to the future.

And PINCUSHION (out next year in BeWrite Books) is a response to the stupidity of wasted lives - aimless lives, celebrity flim-flam. The obsession with body image is another schizophrenic symptom of Western society. We have the pincushions on the one hand (the pierced and studded, the sado-masochist Torture Garden crowd, the posturers in rubber pants) and the fake boob and botox brigade on the other. It always amazed me how anyone could voluntarily go under the knife because their sense of self was pinned so closely to their outer shells. I was always terrified of the knife, but then I had to go under it for an operation to save me from the cancer that was eating up my right breast. Prosthetics then became a fact of life. But I should so hate it to show...

And there were more before that: CHATEAU KERNUZ, a response to my life in France before I lost all sense of innocence. And having that script funded by the European Script Fund was definitely too much too soon. I was paid 7000 ecus - a currency which didn't actually exist, although my bank manager was delighted to open a foreign account for me, and I used the money to travel to the Caribbean... LEGALLY BOUND came from my longstanding obsession with Regent's Park, still one of my favourite spaces in the world: an oasis in a chaotic city. The other playscripts were pretentious treatments of the stories in Metamorphoses, as though filching plots from Ovid might have give some serious weight to my work. They got me professional readings and studio productions, even a residency - but, as usual, there wasn't any money in it. But a lot of theatre writing is like that - what the favourite of my characters, Eddie Kronenberg, would call 'meretricious.'

That's quite enough for today. Chin chin, as Eddie would say...
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