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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