Sunday, 16 March 2014

The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd

So, exactly one month after the last post, in which I said I'd be posting more often, you get another one.

You lucky people.

But it's a Sunday afternoon, one of the less-credible Bond movies is on the telly, so I'm easily distracted. And it was on an afternoon just like this, a few months ago, when they pulled me back in.

Oh yes. You think you can leave. You believe you can put it all behind you. But they're incessant. They'll find you. And they'll get you to do what they want.

They're not the Cosa Nostra. They're much more scary than that. I have re-joined the shadowy world of Amateur Dramatics.

It was a normal Sunday afternoon about six months ago and I was idly looking at Facebook. A status update popped up from my Auntie Bibby.

I should explain. Bibby is not her real name. That would be odd. She's really a Vivienne, but as youngsters we all struggled with the letter 'V', so Bibby she became and 40-odd years later Bibby she remains. She is the lynchpin of the murky world of AmDram in South Birmingham. The Capo di Tutti Capo, the head honcho. Oh, she'll deny it and say it's a harmless pastime, but Auntie Bibby is the main recruiter. One quick conversation with her and before you know it, you're in the chorus for a production of HMS Pinafore in a community hall.

Some 20 years ago, I thought I'd got out. Oh, I'd started reasonably enough, hefting scenery backstage for a pantomime. But then it'd developed into something else. I'd had to learn lines and remember not to bump into furniture. They'd had me in period costume. Oh the horrors. But I'd escaped. I'd put that life behind me, or so I thought.

But there was this message. It was a Sunday afternoon and I'd just had a bacon sandwich. I was as relaxed as it was possible to be without chemical help. The message said that a local amateur dramatics group was looking for some help. One of their male actors had pulled out of a play due to go on stage a few months hence. Could anyone out there in Facebook-land help?

I thought about it. I wandered around the house a bit. I might even have had a cup of tea. It was that serious.

I called Auntie Bibby, to be told the play in question was Alan Ayckbourne's Absent Friends. A play that I had actually done all those years ago. The part in question was, in fact, the same character I had played before. It was almost as if Auntie Bibby intended me to be pulled back in.

Fast forward to November last year and I was on stage in front of a paying audience. I remembered my lines. I avoided the furniture. I even got some (deliberate) laughs. So it ended there, yes?

Well. No, it didn't.

We're in early rehearsals for our next play, and this time I'm learning the words of Noël Coward. And bloody hell, but he did like writing them. I've got speeches coming out of my ears. The trick, of course, will be for me to make the come out of my mouth. But every Thursday evening I and the rest of the Billesley Players do our level best to put this show together. And in-between, I'm often to be found with a script in my hand.

So if you're near the Old Repertory Theatre in Birmingham in early June, you'll be able to see me hyperventilating my way around the Old Master's words.

Who said nothing good ever came from Facebook?

Sunday, 16 February 2014

In which I explain my prolonged absence

I blame Steve Jobs.

I know I shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but in all honesty it's his fault. I haven't written anything for ages. I have done very little creative work over the course of the last few months. My productivity has reached a new low.

I mean, look no further than this very blog if you want proof. There's been the square root of bugger-all in terms of updates. I can hardly call myself a blogger, can I?

And it's all down to the late Mr Jobs. Or, more to the point, one of his inventions.

Because, some four-or-so years after the rest of the Western Hemisphere, I obtained an iPad in 2013. It was about two-thirds of the way through the year; you can plot its impact on me by looking at the frequency of posts from me. At one point it was relatively healthy; every week or so. But once I got iPadded, it dropped lower than a snake's belly button.

Do snakes have navels? Probably not. But I'm on a roll here, don't distract me.

At first I thought it would be ok. I could take it or leave it. Nothing was going to change. I could give it up tomorrow if I wanted. But then, night after night, weekend after weekend, the device inveigled its way into my existence. It got under my skin.

And I hadn't even needed to have a compatible docking mechanism fitted.

So, instead of doing something useful every night, I've been hooked up to Apple's finest. (And yes, I'm well aware that other tablets are available. I'm sure they have the same effect. It's like comparing crack cocaine with crystal meth.)

There's no doubt that the iPad has its attractions. You switch it on and everything's just there, immediately. The faff-factor is practically zero. I turned on this laptop today and, after waiting what seemed like a fortnight for it to boot up, I've now had to install seven Microsoft updates, reconfigure my antivirus and deal with Adobe, Java and others being all needy.

Quite frankly, it's all a colossal pain in the arse. And you can quote me on that.

So iPads are great for consumption. You can sit there, making the most of other people's content. You can read from any newspaper on the planet, watch obscure films, hear some terrible music and see a quite depressing array of videos of cats doing something inopportune. You can, if you like, use up a quite significant proportion of your life slashing at pieces of fruit and doing unspeakable things with cartoon birds. If you're like me, you can test your knowledge of obscure rock music on QuizUp against the rest of the planet. (Fatboyfat - 'best in Classic Rock Music in the UK', if you're interested.)

But this is all consuming. It's not producing. And I know there will be someone from Apple's marketing department who'll tell us that any number of people with fascinating facial hair use their iPads to create content. But, let's face it, most of us use ours while we slob out in front of the telly, upping our Candy Crush score while stalking old school friends on Facebook. (I went to a boys' school, so that's a little worrying.)

We've become battery hens, pecking at our screens for a quick hit of feed. And that's fine for some people. Witty Facebook updates and Tweets might be enough for many.

But three years ago I wrote a novel. Last year I had two screenplays that got filmed. In 2014 that novel is still no closer to getting edited and published. There are no new films in the pipeline.

I guess the iPad and I need to be nodding acquaintances, rather than best buddies.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a screenplay to think about.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

"3.7. Over and out."

There are a number of inevitable signs of ageing. The odd ache here, the occasional pain there. The inability to get out of (or into) a chair without grunting. We expect this sort of thing.

But no-one ever warns you that your childhood heroes will - also inevitably - get old and start to pass on.

This was brought home to me a couple of days ago with the news that Lewis Collins, best known as Bodie in the late seventies TV series, The Professionals, had died at the age of 67.

For those of us of a certain age, this show has a special resonance. To explain, I have to take you back to Britain 35 years ago. It was a world of brown polyester. Politicians all looked about 100 years old. Newscasters spoke in measured tones, displaying carefully received Home Counties pronunciation.

If you were, like me, an eight-year-old boy, whatever TV you saw, on the three channels we had, was strictly limited. If you wanted to see a cop show - and let's face it, which eight-year-old boy wouldn't - you'd probably be faced with a succession of American imports.

Don't get me wrong. Starski & Hutch was great. But to this young Brit, it might as well have been set on an alien planet. People drove cars the size of small counties. They ate in diners where they'd casually toss dollar bills on the counter before leaving. There were a lot of guns. And inexplicably, they'd have telephones in every room of the house.

I was easily impressed at the age of eight.

But then The Professionals came about, and it was totally different. They drove Ford Escorts like that chap across the road. They had banter. Rather than gunplay, Bodie and his bubble-permed sidekick Doyle would normally give the baddies a quick slap.

It was a little shabby around the edges. It was grim and grey in places. It was ours.

On Friday nights, if we were very lucky, Dad would have have gone to the Boundary Chippy for our tea. We'd lie on the floor, all five of us gathered around our rented Granada TV, watching as the heroes of CI5 set the world to rights and winked at a lot of girls along the way.

And let's be honest. Who couldn't fail to have their eight-year-old mind blown by this?

I can almost taste the vinegar.

So farewell then, Lewis Collins. You and your CI5 colleagues made a big impact on me. Maybe I'll go and drive through some cardboard boxes next week, just as a tribute.

If you're around my age, you'll know exactly what I mean.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Crystal clear

Exactly 15 years ago today. I was sitting in this very room. I was playing Gran Turismo on my Playstation, with a moustachioed gentleman called Stuart.

That's not exactly the main topic of this post.

As we tried to upgrade our virtual Nissan Skylines, we were drinking John Smiths Bitter from cans. John Smiths, for those of you who don't know, is terrible beer. It is beer for people who don't like beer.

Again, that's not really the main topic of this post.

But Stuart was there for a reason. He was to be my Best Man, for the day afterwards - 15 years ago tomorrow - I was to get married. It was Stuart's job to drive me to the church. Not in a Skyline, but a Micra. It was that kind of deal.

Fifteen years later - our crystal anniversary - and Stuart is no longer on the scene. I don't play Gran Turismo, and avoid John Smiths Bitter where I can.

But Katie is still here. I'm at a loss to understand why, but I'm grateful every day.

You should not marry the person you can live with. You should instead marry the person you can't live without.

Sing it, Van.

(If you can't see a video of Van Morrison singing our first dance song here, blame YouTube, Apple, the Internet Cabal, Piers Morgan or all of the above.)

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Back to life, back to real ale and tea

Yes, I know. It's been a while. About six weeks, in fact. Sorry about that. I've been busy, you see.

Well, when I say busy, I'm playing a little fast-and-loose with the whole concept. A significant proportion of my time in Marrakech last month was not, in any way, stressful.

Colourful drinks by the side of a pool featured quite heavily in the proceedings.

But it would be wrong to say I spent all my time in a sedentary position. We did get up and around, from time to time. Since our return, whenever anyone's asked me about Morocco, I've mumbled something along the lines of, "Oh yes, a fascinating country."

Which is partly my way of deflecting attention away from the whole 'lying by a pool, drink in hand, European house music in the middle distance' thing. Because in fairness, that only applied to a small amount of our time over there.

Morocco - or at least the bit we saw - is truly fascinating. Get yourself over there if you don't believe me. (Just not right now; it's Ramadan and the temperature's in the high forties. The people were lovely when we were there last month, they must be somewhat distracted at the moment. I know I'd be.)

It's a terrible cliche, but there was something for everyone. 900-year-old cities, the hustle of the souks, the muezzin's call to prayer drifting in on the afternoon's breeze. I even managed to be vaguely arty with my photos. My memory card was groaning by the time we got back; hopefully I avoided any cheesy 'here I am standing in front of a landmark' ones:

OK, scratch that:

Djemaa al-fna Square. Simultaneously one of the most exhilarating and scary places I've ever been. Snake charmers, story-tellers, chaps with monkeys, beggars and blokes trying to flog knock-off Dr Dre headphones. If you want it, you can get it here. Although you might need a shot afterwards.

It wasn't all hustle and bustle. We went up into the Atlas mountains and visited the Berber people there.

Sitting in the house of a village elder, we watched as he made sweet mint tea with which to greet us, passing the water several times through the pot - a ceremony as old as time itself - before pouring it from on high, a stream of hot sweet liquid into narrow glasses.

The effect was lessened only slightly by the Sony Trinitron TV in the corner of the room, hurriedly covered up with a cloth. The 21st century gets everywhere.

We went out to dinner in the medina, the old Marrakech, in a riad. That's basically a townhouse with a very nice garden in a central courtyard. We sat, watching the sky slowly darken from cobalt blue to inky black. red-clad waiters silently brought course after course. Arabic and African musicians entertained us. It was, without any doubt, a night I'll remember for ever.

Going out to a Harvester doesn't really compare.

Returning to England was a real culture shock. I missed the heat. I missed being woken every morning by the tree full of finches outside our window. I missed walking back to our room at night with the bullfrogs and cicadas providing a chorus. I missed the smile of Ismail, the barman whose idea of a gin cocktail was Lots Of Gin. I missed the Brownian motion that passes for traffic over there (I'm not kidding - we were in the country for one hour before we saw our first dead body on the road).

Morocco? Fascinating country.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Visca el Barça!

I have for a very long time thought that to be British was in many ways similar to having won the lottery in life. Don't get me wrong, I'm well aware of other places. I know also that people from elsewhere probably consider their homes as being pretty good, too

I won't disagree. Especially after having spent a few days in Barcelona earlier this month.

I mean, Barcelonians (I am almost certain this is incorrect) have pretty much won the rollover in life, haven't they? You've got the combination of a great climate, cloudless blue skies, a gentle breeze rolling in from the Med.

You have a city that mixes gothic with modern, where you let artists design your buildings. Look at these:

That final one is the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, which they started building in 1882 and is still underway now. I'm not a particularly church-y person, but it pushed my buttons.

I can imagine town planning meetings in Barcelona must be like:
"I'd like to put this building up. It's a little bit left-of-field."
"Does it have a roof like the back of a giant dragon?"
"You're just not trying, sunshine. Come back next week."
If you live in Barcelona you have art galleries, museums and parks on your doorstep. You can get from one side of the city for a few euros. You have the technological quarter, with wide airy boulevards taking you into and out of the centre with ease. You seem to figured out the whole 'living well in a modern environment' thing. You have sensible living areas and spaces to work and live in.

Your local cuisine is like this:

You have a football team that is successful and admired by everyone in Europe. That's something that just doesn't happen, normally.

If you live in Barcelona, you're surrounded by waiters who don't know when to stop when pouring drinks (I accept this might be a tourist thing, but bear with me). This is what passes for two sangrias:

This is not a poster for sensible drinking. We flew black from Barcelona with livers like pickled walnuts.

I'm sure, like any other large city, there are less favourable elements. But in short, if you live in Barcelona, I'm bloody jealous of you. You really have won the lottery of life. I'll be coming back to see you again at some point in the future. And I'd recommend that anyone reading this does so, too.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

On the Marrakesh express

This is most unlike me. Us. It's most unlike us.

For a number of years, our idea of a holiday has been quite simple and described using these five words: get away from it all.

Quite what It All is, we've never been quite sure. But we aim to distance ourselves from it at least once a year. So our holidays have involved going somewhere quiet, relatively private and lacking in both hussle and bustle. Climate doesn't enter into the equation.

There's a reason why we're not fussy about the weather at our intended destination. I am, by nature, north-west European and don't go in for heat. Warm weather is just so damned un-British. You get all sweaty and unpleasant. You have to worry about what the sun's doing to your pearly white flesh. I have Irish ancestors. We don't worship the sun, we run away from it in fear.

An early holiday with Katie, not long after we got together, saw us spending some time on a beach. And while she went a deep golden brown, I opted for Shade of Lobster and spent a significant proportion of the next fortnight screaming, "Don't touch me!" in a strangulated falsetto.

Which is not what you want to be saying in the early stages of a relationship.

So if, on holiday, I look out of the window to see rain lashing down, I generally say, "Marvellous," out loud,  reach for a good book and put some John Martyn on the stereo. I am a man of simple, temperate tastes.

Which is why it's all the more puzzling that we've booked two weeks in Morocco in June.

I've checked and, yes, this is an African country. It's bordering the Sahara desert. We'll be just outside Marrakesh, home of the beguiling Jemaa el-Fnaa, the busiest market square in the continent.  A heady mixture of spices, souks, mosques and ancient, history-soaked streets await us. We'll have the Atlas Mountains off in one direction, home of ancient Berber tribes. I will eat quite a lot of lamb dishes.

All of which sounds lovely. But I'm going to melt.

I'm told that everywhere will have air-conditioning. It's a modern country, after all. But you still have to walk from one air-conditioned bit to another air-conditioned bit. And I don't think the ancient souk is going to be quite so well-equipped. Thinking about it, in order to be respectful to the locals, it occurs to me that you need to cover up a little bit. So the Speedos are out of the question, which, on reflection, is probably a good thing.

I've just looked at the temperature for Marrakesh. A couple of hours ago, in the early evening, it was a balmy 26 degrees celsius, or 79 degrees in old money. But with undisguised glee, Katie tells me that she's researched the typical daytime temperature for June. By all accounts, 40 (104 in fahrenheit) is about par for the course.

Seriously. I am going to melt.

The famed Berber storytellers, who gather in the market square at night, are going to have a new tale to tell. About the pale ghost from the north who simply burst into flames one day.

This should be interesting.

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