Sleeping with the Dead

After alighting at the Metro station Gambetta, I walked through a hill garden to gain entrance to the cemetery. Along one of the walls there was a figurine with arms spread out, pushing back the wall, faces surreptitiously appearing, almost fading away. Keeping the souls encased.

Cemetery Figure

An old phrase my Nan used to say came immediately to the forefront of my mind,

You should never fear the dead, it’s the living you should be afraid of.

I’d bought four blue iris flowers with a lick of yellow in the centre, a fragrant tongue. The rain came down forever, wet arrows bouncing off my grey wool suit. I walked through a narrow entrance in the wall and was totally mesmerised. Death done with panache. Gothic miniature chapels. Stone crafted sculptures. Ancient tree trunks with branches dramatically stabbing the sky. A calm within the core of the City of Light.

Cemetery shrines

The graves were so decrepit and battered by the ages that at times I had to remind myself that these were authentic graves and not fabricated. Four ravens appeared and for a moment I’d assumed I was really in Universal Studios, Florida and not the 20th Arondissement in France’s Capital City.

Oscar Wilde 2

Oscar Wilde’s grave had an Egyptian-like quality, a mini shrine. The tomb had been encased in glass, as admirers had for years glazed it with lipstick. This had not prohibited the ritual. For all over the surface, lipstick-stained kisses re-decorated it. One bold visitor had even puckered a smooch onto the lips of the Sphinx’s head. I placed the flowers on an arm-like ledge and waited for a moment. The rain, birds and stillness added to the atmosphere.

Thinking about the roll call of people buried in this site, I thought imagine what it would be like when the gates are locked at the end of the day. Sleeping with the dead, the site of numerous French luminaries – writers, artists and musicians:

Moliere
Marie Callas
Sarah Bernhardt
Isadora Duncan
Amedeo Modigliani
Edith Piaf
Gertrude Stein
Oscar Wilde
Colette
Frederic Chopin
Eugene Delacroix
Max Ernst
Jim Morrison
Marcel Proust
Marcel Marceau

Imagine the party the spirits could have. Now that would be one big Bohemian Kiki indeed! I guess in the way a Catholic pays homage to their faith by going on a pilgrimage to Rome, a pagan to Stonehenge, a writer or lover of the written word chooses to show their respects to the literary gods.

Cemetery sculpture

Later on in the evening, I danced like an idiot in the Marais. I thought about how laid back the attitude is in Paris. As I saw my sister in the midst of a cluster of bald, bearded bears, an adult version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, perhaps, it made me smile and I said inwardly, ‘Thanks, Oscar!’

Cemetery Panoramic

Pere Lachaise Cemetery is the largest in Paris (44 hectares/110 acres). It was the first garden cemetery in the capital and contains 3 World War Murals. It opened on 21st May 1804.

Photographs courtesy of Liam Maguire

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The happy insanity of John Waters

Last year I decided to mark 9 November with a new holiday Trashaday, in honour of the granddaddy of trash, Mr. John Waters. On this date, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of possibly the worst ever art house film ever made, BOOM!  A film adaptation of a play by Tennessee Williams. This cinematic treat for the eye stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, camping it up on a desolate island. The screening was part of the internationally acclaimed festival Homotopia and was followed by a question and answer masterclass with the director of trash classics, Hairspray, Pink Flamingos and Cecil B. Demented.

I vowed on that day to celebrate the work of this cult genius on a yearly basis and call the day Trashaday. I contemplated hosting a bad taste beauty pageant here in Liverpool this year. A distinctive award for ‘Scally/Scouse girl of the year’ would see girls with hair in curlers, eyelashes like tree branches, layered with mascara and orange face foundation – that would look more fitting on an Oompa Loompa – compete for a trophy. I could also screen one of the many bad taste films in Waters’ back catalogue. Although I would draw the line at recreating the infamous dog poop scene in Pink Flamingos.

Finally I decided to start the day by watching a most disturbing self-help film presented by Dame Angela Lansbury. This may be the stuff of nightmares but it is rich in trash.

I then chose to try to get into the man’s head by dipping into his latest book Carsick. I had read and enjoyed his previous zany scribblings, Role Models and Crackpot. His recent work chronicles a hitchhike from Baltimore to San Francisco. You see the world through the creative insane perspective of JW. A journey into the sublime, with a cast of characters, straight from his screenscape, filthy, trashy, kooky individuals.

CarsickI decided to accompany our hero on his odyssey from the safety of my reading chair. I felt the pain of being stuck hitchhiking in torrential rain, despite knowing that I was only a few seconds away from a strong cup of black coffee.

Carsick-not-psychoHe treks armed with a sign made out of a piece of cardboard with his destination emblazoned and on the reverse,

I’m not psycho

His descriptions of his hike are darkly comic and some of the simplicity in the writing is effective, the heat of the sun is described as ‘the ball of hell’. There is an undercurrent of social satire, railing against the modern world, in all its commercial, fast-paced humdrum sameness. A standout favourite for me was his participation in a modern-day freak show, an alternative cirque du soleil, as a man without tattoos. Before the show, he is petrified at getting naked in his sixties and is advised,

The audience won’t be criticizing your body-they will just be amazed to see you don’t have tattoos in this day and age. You’ll be a triumph.

He also encounters a female sex-fiend desperate to make love to him,

It’s a little late in my life to come in.

Waters is an avid reader, a self-confessed bibliophile. Whilst reading this odyssey I found myself empathising with the comments he made in last year’s lecture,

It wasn’t until I started reading and found books they wouldn’t let us read in school that I discovered you could be insane and happy and have a good life without being like everybody else.

I recommend this book to all those people who yearn to be insane and happy. It is essential reading!

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‘We need more work for and by women’ – an interview with Margaret Connell of Lantern Theatre Liverpool

Two best friends, two sons in the army, both serving in Afghanistan. Maggie and Rita were like sisters, until Rita’s son James was killed saving Maggie’s son Paul. An intense, emotionally charged play that illustrates that, in war, it is not only the soldier who has nightmares.

Poster for the play Broken Biscuits by Trisha DuffyThe work is an exploration of friendship and all the qualities that lie dormant behind the laughter, the jealousy, bitterness, loyalty and absolute admiration. The intimate Lantern theatre is an ideal space for this well-scripted piece, for the audience is positioned up close to the dramatic tornado.

Broken Biscuits has already been staged twice at the venue to packed audiences. It makes a welcome return to mark Remembrance weekend. ten minutes hate caught up with the play’s director and artistic director of the Lantern, Margaret Connell.

Artistic Director of the Lantern Theatre and Director of Broken Biscuits, Margaret Connell10mh: What attracted you to directing this piece?

I loved the dialogue, it really rang true and that can’t be said of all new work.  I also liked the fact that it was written by a woman.  We need more work for and by women.

10mh: How did you discover the script?

Trisha Duffy came on our ambassador scheme as she had an interest in writing and helped set up our writer development programme.  She asked me to give her an opinion on the script, I really liked it and offered to produce and direct it as a Lantern project.

10mh: What kind of things did you do in rehearsal?

It was an incredibly short rehearsal period so we worked through the script chronologically and blocked and learned it a chunk at a time. The hardest thing, because of the staging, was getting the actresses not to look at each other and imagine they were speaking through a door.

Thankfully I had a really great cast who worked together really well; it was a joy to work on and didn’t feel like work at all.

10mh: Is there any future plan to stage the play again in the future?

After the Remembrance Sunday dates we are looking at different festivals, but definitely Edinburgh.

10mh: Do you have a phrase or lines from a piece of poetry about war that you like?

The first line of Owen’s Futility: ‘Move him into the sun’ is the one that sticks with me.  It’s heartbreakingly loaded.

10mh: What advice would you give to new directors?

See as much theatre as you can and work with as many different directors as you can.  Trust the creative process.  The first day with a script can be terrifying, but you need to remember that your actors are your strongest asset and if you have cast well, you should all spark off each other.

Broken Biscuits will be staged at Lantern Liverpool, 9th November-11th November

Remembrance Sunday picture

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Whistle And I’ll Come To You

I thought Hallowe’en had come early last week, due to the ghastly media coverage of the mysterious disappearance of Renee Zellweger. The net and press were plastered with images and commentary. The words were downright vulgar and toxic, with one article featuring a microscopic facial autopsy of the plastic surgery supposedly undertaken. It seemed almost barbaric the way people critiqued this individual’s action. It led me to think that perhaps this Hallowe’en there is a new type of mask, that of celebrity.

It used to be the case that theatre held the mirror up to society, to highlight its hypocrisies, double standards and faults. Now it is apparent that the very representative of celebrity, the star him/herself is the mirror to society’s horrors. Essentially the contemporary world, with its fixation on the body and how we look, is the Dr. Frankenstein creating the fame monster. We are, it seems, one step away from the beauty enhancement explored in the dark comedy film, Death Becomes Her, although if Lucifer offered me the elixir of life in guise of Isabella Rossellini, I’d take it.

Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. JamesSo this Hallowe’en, there is no need to wear a zombie/demon/mask of horror, because the so-called ‘natural’ ones that people are choosing to don all year around – paying a surgeon to craft their ideal self – now, that is the real stuff of terror. However, being a traditionalist, on 31st October my choice to scare the bejeepers out of me will undoubtedly be to pick up a book, particularly the short story Whistle and I’ll Come to You by the master frightener, M. R. James.

He was a prolific academic who redefined the ghost story for the 20th Century by scrapping many of the formal gothic cliché’s of his literary predecessors and setting his tales in more realistic contemporary locations. ‘Whistle’ is set in Barnstow, a seaside town on the east coast of England. Published in 1904, this tale focuses on an introverted academic on a golfing holiday, who explores a Knights Templar cemetery on the East Anglian coast. He happens upon an object, a whistle with a mysterious engraving etched on it, Quis est iste qui venit (who is this, who is coming?). Blowing the whistle brings a windstorm and an unwelcome guest.

James is an enigmatic master of the supernatural story. He stated his ambition,

If any of [my stories] succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.

There is a fantastic black and white adaptation by Jonathan Miller.  Michael Horden plays the character with grimaces and mutterings. The whole ‘less is more’ approach to the drama creates a chill that strikes up the spinal cord.

James’ writing provides scares that do not just shock, but leave the reader with an aftertaste. Failing that, if his tales do not satisfy your horror fix, another suggestion would be to pick up a tabloid rag, like The National Enquirer and take a peep at the Celebrity Monsters gracing those pages. Fame, oh I would not wish it on my worst enemy!

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Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

Orwell’s pioneering fable – Animal Farm – has been translated into many different formats, including cartoon, radio and theatre. It is a testament of the greatness of the tale that it can be so adaptable. Now a stage version of Orwell’s seminal work by Laurence Wilson comes to Liverpool.

The local writer’s catalogue of work for theatre, television, film and radio includes: Urban Legend, Lost Monsters, Cardboard Guitar Man, Blackberry Trout Face, Tiny Volcanoes, Scouseland and Surf’s Up. His material has been produced by The Liverpool Everyman, Paines Plough, 20 Stories High, Menagerie Theatre, and Dukes Theatre Lancs. Blackberry Trout Face won Best New Play for Young People, the Brian Way Award in 2010. ten minutes hate caught up with the writer to talk about translating Animal Farm from the page to the stage.

10mh: Why did you choose to adapt Animal Farm and what are your thoughts on the book?

The chance to adapt Animal Farm came to me from Tell Tale Theatre Company. They had received funding from the BBC to commission a writer to write them a new play. A first for them and they collectively decided that they wanted to tackle Animal Farm. They contacted me and other writers and asked us to pitch our take on an adaptation.

I first read the book when I was about nine or ten and didn’t realise it was about the Russian Revolution and Communism. I was continually surprised and dismayed at how dark the story kept going. I kept waiting for Snowball to come back and save the day but of course that doesn’t happen and it was a great lesson for me about the reality of life and power, hopes and dreams.

I read the book many more times over the years. I’d wanted to adapt a book for some time and Animal Farm seemed the perfect one for me and so I made sure my pitch was really strong and it worked. I felt that the dark humour that I write was suited to the job and wanted to be as faithful as possible, whilst at the same time injecting a bit of me into it.

The book still stands up today, not just as analogy of the Russian Revolution but as a warning on how power corrupts, about the human condition to mess it all up and how easily we are conned and manipulated as people. The media do a good job of it these days.

10mh: What was your favourite part of the tale to adapt?

The arguments between Snowball and Napoleon were great fun to write but I think the scene where the porkers are executed and then followed by other animals was great. I tried it a few different ways and I think we have something truly gruesome and shocking now.

I also enjoyed writing scenes that are not main features in the book, such as Farmer Jones prepping the other farmers before the Battle of the Cowshed and the pigs getting drunk and how that makes them behave. It was great to bring in scenes to the company that had a flavour of their improvisations.

10mh: Do you think Orwell’s piece speaks to a contemporary audience and if so why?

Like I say, the theme is timeless. It was originally written about the Russian Revolution but it stands up today. Squealer’s character draws comparisons to the media and how the media feeds us a diet of bullshit and twists the truth to suit the establishment. Just like Boxer and the other animals, the working class are still being walked over by the rich and powerful.

The austerity measures being meted out by the coalition are not unlike the rationing, increased hours and loss of leisure and community spirit the pigs inflict upon the working animals on the farm. Benjamin represents so many of us who are intelligent enough to know things are wrong, that we are being used and cheated and yet choose to do little to nothing about it.

10mh: If you had to be a farmyard animal, what would you be?

I’d be a sheep dog, they always look happy and they are not food but they do have their pups taken from them and they may end up tied to a stone and drowned when they are too old to be useful.

10mh: What challenges did you find trying to translate the page into a stage adaptation?

I think other adaptations have gone down the narration route but the company and I didn’t want to have any narration at all, which meant creating lots of dialogue and realising scenes that aren’t in the book or only briefly painted. I read and reread the book over and over and wrote down every significant moment and all the lovely details about mangle-wurzels and the pigs learning to read from a children’s book.

I would have the book open on the area I was adapting and keep going back to it as I went, which worked well for me but meant that I had a first draft that was way overlong at more than 30,000 words. I cut it down by more than half over the next two drafts. Tell Tale also did lots of workshops which  I attended, in which the actors improvised under Emma’s direction, and that gave me lots of ideas about how to approach scenes.

10mh: Describe your writing studio/area you work in and do you have any particular rituals when working?

I write in my little studio space, surrounded by my beloved Doctor Who figures (Classic Period) and I try to get started early in the morning, as that’s when my brain works best. I try to get on a roll and just keep on rolling with it, as long as I can, allowing myself to be free, and adventurous, and dangerous.

My guitar is handy, so that when I get stuck or need a rest I pick it up and play for a few minutes before returning to the script. And I drink ridiculous amounts of coffee. Sometimes I play music in the background to help create a mood. I try to inhabit the characters, to find their voices and I act them out a bit.

10mh: A favourite quote/philosophy/phrase?

‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.’

Those words broke my heart as a child, one who though he was reading a fairy tale with a happy ending. Our whole civilization is based on that philosophy.

Tell Tale Theatre Company present Animal Farm:

Animal Farm FlyerAt Arts Club, Seel Street, Liverpool Tuesday 28th-31st October at 7:30pm. Tickets are available online here.

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‘Cheeky bum cheeks’

That was the first thing I remember about the John Moores Painting Prize. It was also the first time I saw Hockney’s portrait of a man emerging from a poolside, Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, in the collection of previous winners. The rush of the blue flooded over my retina imprinting its memory on the canvas of my cranium. In my years of teenage wildlife, I’ve been visiting ever since.

David-Hockney-Peter-Getting-Out-of-Nicks-Pool-1966-Acrylic-on-Canvas-84-x-84-c-David-HockneyRecently, an early Sunday morning in October 2014. Town was littered from the previous night’s disorder. A carton of mushy peas and a blonde discarded fascinator lay on the pebbled courtyard, debris from a battle in a nightclub. I thought perhaps Saatchi may purchase it for his next happening.

88 CaloriesI love the Walker Gallery; it is a source of inspiration, William Roscoe’s collection of Medieval Paintings, Stubbs classics and one of my ultimate Pre-Raphaelite favourites, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. This year’s selection for the John Moores Painting Prize is an impressive batch of real painters. From the meticulously crafted 88 Calories by Conor Nial Rogers – painted on a minute crisp packet – to the texture rich, 18.45 April 7th, 2011 by David Dawson that up close looks like cake, paint is layered on as thick as a Scouse girl’s make up on a Saturday night.

18.45 APRIL 7TH. 2011My favourite piece is The King of Infinite Space/Don’t Let Life Pass You by David O’Malley, I think as I have a passion for the work of David Bowie. I see the displaced astronaut as a Major Tom-like figure. Instead of swimming in a tin can, the space cadet is floating in a most peculiar way in front of garish bad taste wallpaper.

THE KING OF INFINITE SPACEDONÔÇÖT LET LIFE PASS YOUI also love the massive Vinculum by Juliette Losq, which looks like it has come straight out of a Victorian penny dreadful. This piece covers the span of an entire wall and the detail is stunning. I have often believed that an artist needs to refocus the viewer into seeing the beauty in the everyday and that is apparent in this collection of diverse work.

Juliette Losq VinculumThere are a few pieces in here though that I feel suffer from the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome, but this is an impressive gathering of creative souls. I’d also advocate for seeing the exhibition with a kid. For a child has that Huckleberry Finn quality of telling it how it is. I took my niece, the ginger minx, for I have always valued her perspective, sometimes over the experts. I took her to see a Sarah Lucas exhibition several years ago at the Tate and one piece was just a massive photograph of a spotty male bottom. Two art groupies stood in front of the piece pontificating with syntax laden with terminology and pomp. Not really sure what they themselves were saying.  The kid was three at the time and she looked up at the piece, looked at me, gazed at the two adults drooling over the masterpiece in front of them, she looked back at me and then pointed at the art and growled, ‘EEEEE!’ In one word she summed up the fact that this naked image was in fact gross.

The exhibition encourages people to vote on their favourite and submit it in a ballot box. She chose Homeland by Covadonga Valdes and on the card when asked why, wrote simply, ‘It is unusual.’

HomelandThe exhibition is on till the end of November, I have made several visits back in my lunch hour, it beats sitting at a desk, with a stale sandwich and internet glaze. Go and vote for your personal favourite and if you can, take your own little mini art critic. Remember those artists need you!

Details of the winners can be found here. The ‘Visitors’ Choice’ award will be presented towards the end of the exhibition. Visitors can vote for their favourite painting when they visit the gallery. The winner will receive a prize of £2014.

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Tales of the Unexpected with Roald Dahl

As the autumn nights drain the colour from the day, I find that dipping into Roald Dahl’s short stories makes for a suspenseful evening read. Dark, disturbing, direct, Dahl’s tales take the reader into everyday normal scenarios, a familiar world of daily occurrences, tea, nicely turned-down beds, cosy fireplaces, friendly policemen and then he twists up the macabre volume to full. The everyday becomes the horrific, fear filled flights of fancy.

His writing reminds me of the great Alfred Hitchcock, particularly Psycho. Take the infamous shower scene; you never actually see a knife penetrate the victim’s skin. It’s all in the clever editing, the final cut (pardon the pun). This is precisely what Dahl does with his short stories; it’s what is not said that is most disturbing. It leaves the reader to fill in the cognitive gaps.

tales of the unexpected

I remember being disturbed by the beginning of Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected when I was a boy. The title sequence consisted of silhouettes of dancing-girls with a backdrop of flames, followed by Dahl’s personal welcome. The tall, skeletal man perched in his armchair, his gaze piercing and speaking like a quintessential English Aristocrat.

dahl skeleton

He reminds me of my friend Hogarth, who I have in my study. Frida Kahlo used to have a full skeleton above her bed, to remind her of the fact that we never know when we are going to die, so must live for the moment. I liked this idea. For there is a danger that with all the pre-disposition with technology, worries about work, politics and balancing lives on an ever-increasing treadmill, we can actually forget to look around at what we have, take stock, appreciate and enjoy. After all, tomorrow is a long way off.

But please note, I do not wish to offend the respected author in any way, I am describing him through the eyes of a child. In fact, given some of his descriptions of adults in his works, I think he would find it rather complimentary.

I recently viewed the television series again as a 36-year old man; with a little bit more experience of this insane place we call earth. My particular favourite is A Lamb to the Slaughter, involving infidelity, murder and a frozen leg of lamb. Oh, and Brian Blessed, roaring the role of an investigative policeman. I am not going to announce ‘spoiler alert’ or even tell you what happens, I would instead encourage you to have a look at this episode and read the tale, you will not be disappointed!

Dahl is still making the headlines as a figure of controversy even now after his death; with the recent re-publication of his iconic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, re-issued with a cover specifically for adults.

roald-dahl-charlie-chocolate-factory-2014

I’d say that if an adult feels that to be seen reading a tale that happens to have been written for children as a problem, they need to have a word with themselves and grow up. Besides with the amount of trees that are sacrificed to publish some of the mindless tripe these days, Fifty Shades of Clever Marketing for example, you are best grappling with great works, children’s lit and all.

It disturbs me how Waterstones has to label whole tables of books, chick lit, potential cult classics etc. Let people decide themselves! You might even stumble accidentally upon something you like. That is how I found Iris Murdoch, who in my head I’d thought was like Catherine Cookson, how wrong was I? It is fortunate that there are contemporary writers like Donna Tartt, releasing books only when she sees fit that they are ready, not to a marketing schedule.

the gold finch

A literary Kate Bush! When you read a tome like The Goldfinch, how you are reminded that sometimes things are worth waiting for, particularly when they are richly textured and poignant as this piece of literary genius is. Sentences that need to be savoured and a plot that engulfs. One lady of Liverpool letters Madam Le Smith, summed the book up in three words, “What a ride!”

And I can guarantee that Dahl’s short stories will also provide a ride, a tempestuous ride into the dark recesses of your soul.

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