2010 highlights

A tale of five cats (April 2010)

I’ve heard it said repeatedly that you are either a dog person or a cat person.  Even if you have both, they say, you favour one or the other.  But ‘they’ don’t know everything, I guess.  Consider this: my family only ever had one dog, but what a dog.  Benjie the golden retriever was the most wonderful friend a man could have, and indeed my dad went into mourning when his faithful hound passed away.  My sister and her family have owned a whole series of dogs since then, and are unmistakably dog people, right down to the wet noses and shaggy hair.

Me, I married a cat person.  Not that we had any animals at first, not that my wife would have allowed a dog into the house.  But the house next door to where we were living at the time owned a small menagerie, including a female tabby cat named Gizmo after the charming furry critter in the film Gremlins.  Gizmo was something of a nervous cat, not helped by the presence of dogs in the house, who ate the cat’s food with relish.  So it was little surprise when Gizzy (for short) popped over the fence one day when we were BBQing some trout and was given some choice morsels as the party took pity on the poor cat.  Thereafter, things snowballed.  Gizzy would leap for England through the small kitchen window and earned some tasty titbits.  And eventually it was me who became the big softie and bought tins of cat food, until eventually we adopted Gizzy full time.

I say Gizzy was nervous.  In fact, the poor beast was terrified of all the neighbourhood cats and got into terrible scraps while trying to escape.  Then something strange happened.  Some of the cats in the road started to vanish, presumably cat-napped.  Nothing to do with me but it caused great distress to the owners.  Anyway, it made life more pleasant for Gizzy, who enjoyed the run of our garden thereafter without any interference.  This was truly a lap cat, a gentle and affectionate animal that lived a long and happy life.  In fact, she even survived getting locked in the shed when we went away for our 5-week pre-kiddy holiday, thanks to being heard by neighbours and released before starving to death.  She made the move down to Broxbourne with us, eventually contracted cancer and had to be put to sleep.  But a lovely pet and a great character.

After experiments with hamsters and guinea pigs, it was not long before the kids decided more cats were in order.  So it was that we went to a cat rescue place looking for one cat and ended up with two brothers, ginger and white, who became known as Oscar and Tiger, the irony being that Oscar looks more like a tiger than Tiger.  To this day, Oscar and Tiger patrol the house and garden in Broxbourne and are fat and happy as the day is long.

But I moved out and eventually into my new home in Tiptree.  I live alone, I travel to work and can’t be here during the day, so a dog was not really a viable proposition.  But cats?  The house comes equipped with a cat flap and a lovely big garden.  Hell, even the shed has a cat flap!! I had no choice, did I?  So it was that I went out to rescue centres looking for cats…. and also ended up with two, which at least means they keep one another company.  Older cats, 8 and 9, Misty and Molly.  Misty is grey and longer haired, while Molly is a tabby with a large white patch.  At present, they are holed up in a bedroom to allow them time to acclimatise, though I’m hoping they will eventually have the run of the place and the garden.  My kids are delighted and in truth it’s nice to have some company.

Does this mean I am finally transformed?  Have I mutated from dog man into catman?  Darn it, I was hoping for superman but my time passed by…. 🙂

PS. Sadly, Tiger was run over and killed in December 2010, aged about 5.  His mistake was a late night sortie to the Lea Valley country park, over the road from Jean’s house.  It’s a reasonably quiet residential road but drivers do tend to step on it.  Evidently he mistimed his run and paid the penalty. RIP.

Election fever? (April 2010)

They tell me there is a general election coming.  This I know because a polling card came through my door this morning, but more particularly because politicians are suddenly everywhere like a rash.  For the previous 5 years they were conspicuous largely by their absence, or occasionally named and shamed regarding their frivolous (or criminal, depending on who you ask) expense claims.  Naturally, it’s in the interests of the Westminster clan and their activists to talk up the election, claim they are creating a buzz of interest, tell you their story and only theirs is true, spin you a wonderful yarn about how the UK will be transformed under their leadership, explain how they and only they can lead us out of recession and into the land of milk and honey.

Truth is, we’ve heard it all before, and increasing numbers of us are sceptical or downright cynical.  “If voting made any difference,” the saying goes, “they would abolish it.”  The voting public has by common agreement become apathetic, divorced from participation in organised politics.

Peter Osborne, writing for the voice of the right-wing disaffected of Surbitons, otherwise known as the Daily Mail, puts it down to the impact of corruption.  Expenses, cash for honours, clandestine party donations, taxi cabs for hire, lobbyists, you name it… sleaze, in the common parlance.  All these and more have created distance, indeed a yawning gulf between the political elite and the ordinary voter, says Osborne.

Without any doubt, that has had an effect, except was it not always so?  We’ve had scandals as long as there has been politics, and this does not explain the long-term decline of the political party and the election process.  Membership of mainstream parties is lower than at any time since the second World War.  True, we get the occasional flares of single-interest parties, but that again was always the case.

Election turnout has been dropping steadily over the past 60 years.  It reached a peak of 83.9% in 1950, the heady post-war years and the air of radicalism that saw the basis of the NHS and the welfare state created by the founding fathers of Atlee’s government.  By 2001 it had plummeted to 59.4%, the lowest on record, and was not much higher in 2005 (61.4%.)   2010 might see a rise since it is arguably the most important and competitive election in decades, but that does not deflect from the deepening underlying disillusionment of the British voting public.

So does this mean we don’t care any more?  Not a bit of it!  We care about issues relevant to us and the country with a passion!  Ask anyone in the pub what’s wrong with the country and they’ll wax lyrical, or more probably moan ad infinitum about the economy, healthcare, immigration, any number of issues.  Yet they don’t trust Westminster, or more particularly the people elected to govern.

We can look beyond the Osborne version to gain insight.  Firstly, the fact that to be a successful politician nowadays, you can’t be yourself.  You need an alter ego, an Incredible Hulk to your meek and mild Bruce Banner.  You create a monster, and that monster has a voracious appetite for publicity, self-promotion and climbing the greasy pole of power.  Rather than speaking simply with the voice of authenticity about issues on principle, parties and MPs have made themselves into brands, collectively and individually.  And with the brands come the entourages.  The advisors, the media and PR experts, the speech writers, the organisers, the whole kit and caboodle.

Every message is spun to within an inch of its life, and the truth has become a distant stranger.  Small wonder nobody trusts the message any more, especially when that process has become so cynical and manipulated.  Leaders (who you will recall are elected to high office only by their own constituents and members of their own party, not directly by the whole electorate) answer questions but only from specially invited audiences.  They walk away from hecklers and never engage in open hustings debates.  Even TV debates, supposedly the big innovation to save our democracy, are carefully orchestrated affairs with a book of rules 30 pages thick!  Whatever happened to the politician being a man of the people?  Come to think of it, where are the women leaders?

And what about policy itself?  Is this not prima facie evidence of the cynicism within politics.  Every policy is bounced off focus groups and honed to check whether it is a potential vote-winner.  If making black white were deemed to be popular, there it would be in the manifesto!  It’s long been said that parties crowd into the middle ground to win over middle englanders, but the reason for doing so is not because the policies are necessarily the best for the country, it’s simply those regarded as most suitable to keep the party in power.

The punch & judy politics and slanging matches we’ve been so accustomed to have become an end in themselves.  You stole our policies, oh no we didn’t, oh yes you did…. In fact, there is not an original thought among any party.  Collaborative politics would place the onus on the right thing for the country, not who proposed it first.

Then there is the political system itself.  It was probably appropriate for the 19th Century but now looks increasingly archaic.  And naturally, the parties who talk most about change are the ones who want it least, those most likely to gain power as a direct consequence of our ailing institutions of democracy.  Power and change work in inverse ratios, so it seems.  Far from Labour and Conservative, what we now have is conservative and radical.  And the further from power you are, the more radical you can afford to become.

Accountability in politics means putting the voter back in control, not the party.  I could go on to describe my agenda for change, though there is probably little point – yes to electoral change to make our voting system proportional, yes to an elected second chamber, yes to shifting the balance of power back to the voter, a bill of rights and much more.  But most of all, reducing the party machine to impotence, abolishing whips and making the voter king should mean elections actually mean something beyond faux-sincerity and rictus grins on TV.

So to hell with election fever.  I shall vote but I shall do with great care.  Ignoring rosettes, I shall vote for the candidate with the greatest merit and highest integrity rating, the one who will serve and take account of my needs, the one who is not afraid to vote against their party on principle, the one who will make time for a voter and not simply line their own pockets or aim for the highest office available.  But then, such a person would probably not be elected under first past the post.  Is it any wonder that people think it’s not worth bothering with?

Domesticity and in praise of ex-wives (May 2010)

Picture the scene: a lovely late spring evening in semi-rural Essex.  A householder ventures forth into his garden, armed only with a newish mower and intent on cutting the grass in his idyllic cottage garden.  In hindsight, that was arguably a mistake given a predication to suffering hay fever attacks and eczema on such evenings in late May, but it’s all down to the pride in house ownership and doing the job properly, as if being handed the keys instills in your heart an urge to maintain and improve. Except of course that when you live alone you have to do the whole job, not just those bits that were traditionally yours in a previous domestic existence.

Traditionally, my ex was the gardener, by inclination and skill.  She has a diploma from the RHS, no less, not to mention a qualification in floristry that may come in useful some day, albeit not en route to her first million.  But I digress… she would be the one who designed the garden, chose the plants, dug the ground (other than the occasion in our previous house when after demolishing a rotten shed I was awarded the role of grunt labourer to dig through several feet of solid clay, add topsoil and turn an infertile wasteland into a passable vegetable plot), weeded the plots and gained the plaudits.

My skills generally lay elsewhere, so I did what suited me best and avoided getting hands dirty (did not agree with my eczema).  She was also better than me at decorating, baking, event management and interior design, though I tended to excel at other cookery, computing, finance, arguing the toss with suppliers and shopping.  We shared cleaning jobs (though admittedly I did less, given my responsibilities as primary breadwinner) and neither of us felt terribly confident when it came to anything but the simplest electrics or plumbing tasks.  In fact, as our wealth grew I became ever less inclined to attack any job with any degree of risk of injury, destroying property or ruining the appearance of chez nous, so increasingly we chose to employ professionals to do the job.

Hay fever notwithstanding, cutting the lawn was one of my jobs in the marital home.  Admittedly, that was with a petrol mower in recognition of the wide open spaces to be mown, so the prudent choice of a rotary electric mower is somewhat inconvenient when you tie yourself in knots. But that was a job I felt comfortable with, it was mine and I could do it well.

Fast forward to the new chez moi, shared as it is with two cats and no people.  Suddenly all chores are mine to worry about.  I look at the garden and think: those edges need strimming; must weed those flower beds; got to get that tree cut down; must sort that dead and overgrown stuff; what veg should I plant, and when does it go in? Tempting to call my ex, though she is currently on holiday with the kids.  And that’s only the garden.  Indoors it’s about: when should I repaint my bedroom to get rid of that ghastly shade of yellow? What do I put in that inglenook fireplace to make a feature – a dried flower arrangement, possibly? How about a wall-mounted TV to get rid of that messy table in the corner with dangling cables? Still got cables hanging out of the wall there – must do something about it… and so on.

Not that I’m stridently macho, but it is noticeable that my feminine side is coming to the fore, to the extent that I now worry about soft furnishings and even bought some cut flowers to display in a vase for my recent party!!  But it’s all worth it – to have a place to call your own makes it worthwhile learning again from scratch how to do a whole variety of jobs.  You notice things more, you tackle those chores more readily, you ask friends and gain advice, you research on the net, you solve those problems.  Needs must, but this is a challenge to be met with enthusiasm!

As for Jean, must invite her round for a BBQ later in the summer – sure she will have lots of helpful suggestions to improve my garden ;).

Tranquility (June 2010)

Just a short note to capture the joys of living in the countryside, the stillness of this Spring moment.  The sun is shining, my garden lights up in a riot of colour, from the myriad shades of green, the violets and blues in my hanging baskets, the coral pink erections of the red hot pokers.  Birds are singing, bees flit from flower to flower.  Indoors, my cats lounge about in a shaft of sunlight, the only sound I hear is the constant ringing in my ears (tinnitus, for my sins!), but everything seems peaceful and still.  Moments like these make life worth living.

Coping, or what can we learn from Hamlet? (June 2010)

Recently I played Hamlet.  Yes, that’s right – the Dane himself.  Admittedly it was only Tom Stoppard’s 15 minute version, so I did not have to learn the full 1495 lines of text (pretty much twice the longest part I’ve yet learned) but even so, there is something about the role.  The words resonate, such is the skill of the playwright.  Hamlet’s alleged madness (or is it playacting?) and his dilemma over whether to follow reason or instinct seems to lie at the heart of so many human decisions.

We may not all be princes of Denmark, but in our own small way we have to control the stresses upon our lives and our reactions to them and other people.  At one level, Hamlet is about the young prince forming his own coping strategies and deciding how to react to the circumstances in which he finds himself.  Many of his reactions seem quite natural, not least the thought of killing himself.  But he perseveres and eventually gains revenge… at a price.  Maybe it wasn’t the right decision but at least he went for it, where many people sit on the fence and put on a three wise monkey act for as long as possible. ignoring the important issues and facing up to responsibilities is one regrettable human trait we could well do without – by delaying a decision we only make things worse for ourselves.

But Hamlet goes through a process before making up his mind.  He tests the theory by the device of a play within a play: “I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play have by the very cunning of the scene been struck so to the soul that presently they have proclaimed their malefactions… If he but blench, I know my course!”  He also has to put up with being exiled to England (and surviving!) and of course the death of his beloved Ophelia along the way.

But is he mad?  Surely not – he is coping as best he can in difficult circumstances.  If he lived in modern Britain, the GP would prescribe him anti-depressants, the therapist would propose a few weeks in the Priory and he would spend time chilling out in front of the goggle box while his subconscious wrestled with the inevitability of fate.

Personally, I think learning to cope and fight back is about constructing goals to focus on, and summoning up an indomitable positive spirit towards achieving those goals, which ultimately is what Hamlet does!

Saxophone music for kids (June 2010)

I’ve written before about the fact that I was determined my kids would get every chance to play since my parents failed to push me to learn, much to my later regret.  I would learn acoustic guitar now but for the fact that I could never meet my own expectations to play as well as Forcione!  Anyway, I wanted to make sure Lindsey and Adam had every chance, and thankfully they both took it gratefully.  Adam hasn’t taken to guitar but he seems to enjoy playing drums.

I was slightly surprised Lindsey finally selected sax but absolutely delighted.  Not an orchestral instrument but hugely versatile nonetheless, and expressive as any.  You can making it sigh, sing, shout, squeal, whine, whinny, belch, fart, groan, grumble, growl – in fact, it’s a source of incredibly inventive and emotional sounds, and has the distinct advantage over, say, the violin in that even when it’s being played badly it sounds divine!!

She is now playing Alto in the jazz band and Tenor in the wind band.  And she intends to do A-level music along with her sciences and maths, and maybe to play during her ongoing studies.  In fact, sometimes she seems to think that a career in music might be more to her taste than a brilliant scientific future, though her mum rightly says that it would be insecure and not pay as well.  But nice to have options, regardless.  If nothing else, the thought of playing part-time in a jazz band is satisfying!!  Not only that, but her musical studies have broadened her tastes.  She is not simply fixated on indie bands but does appreciate classical and jazz music, shows and opera, pretty much anything.  How good is that?

May both of my kids grasp life with both hands and live it to the full!

British eating patterns: rise of the zombies! (June 2010)

If I blog occasionally about food, this is because it’s a favourite topic for most people, myself included.  Not everyone, quite – did have a friend who seemed to regard what he put in his mouth with bland indifference.  Food for him was just fuel, not a sensation to be savoured.  Seems crazy to me, and doubtless most French, Spanish and Italians (the people who, according to stereotype, “live to eat”) would be up in arms that anyone could take such a lackadaisical attitude to such a vital part of life, but he seemed happy enough.  He lived and breathed windsurfing instead!  The attitude lingers everywhere I look though – laziness towards our diet, verging on zombified lack of awareness of what we put into our bodies.  Every British person should take a leaf from those continentals and enjoy food to the full!

During my campaign to interrogate all the candidates in my constituency I was in Witham to meet Margaret Phelps, the LD candidate.  Witham is a lovely town in the heart of the much neglected and underrated county of Essex.  And it has a fantastic butcher who makes wonderful hams, scotch eggs, pork pies and other traditional goodies much under-appreciated by those who buy only the feeble manufactured versions from Tesco.  That was a joy to behold and an unexpected pleasure of my time in Witham, that and attending a farmer’s market and buying local asparagus from a farm shop later in the day.  But that’s the point – we should be taking advantage of local suppliers and enjoying these wonderful foods rather than going on autopilot and buying stuff because it’s more convenient to buy from the industrial scale retailers.

Now I’m on a diet, scotch eggs, pork pies, craft cheeses and beers and all manner of other wonderful products are off my agenda for some while.  But that doesn’t stop me cooking good fresh food from raw materials when there is time.  We should all spend a little more time to cook freshly, don’t you think?  It’s better for you and really does taste better.  In fact, it might help to re-educate people to the techniques of cooking that seem to have been largely forgotten these days.

It’s not difficult to put together a decent meal but so many people seem to have forgotten how in the culture shift that sees us microwave TV dinners rather than eating properly.  When I was young dinner was a social event, everyone at the table and talking, quite apart from the food which my mother regarded as a matter of pride.  Perhaps the secret to reacquainting Britons and the joys of eating lies in re-establishing good communications with families and, if you reduce it to core essentials, changing working patterns so people make time to sit and eat as a family.  Our lives are so busy we all eat at different times, which is a great shame.

Anyway, that’s enough griping for now.  Can I invite you all to enjoy your food today, and if you have time come round to my place for some proper home-cooked food! 😀

Pause for reflection… (Oct 2010)

It was one of those reflective moments, just like the days when TV had the potter’s wheel.  There I was, sat in one of the many fine restaurants on Gerrard Street, in the heart of London’s Chinatown, before me a bowl of roast duck and roast pork noodle soup and a pot of china tea.  Something comforting about soup, don’t you think?  Just like Jewish sons remember their mama’s chicken soup with knaidlach, I’ve long regarded the authentic noodle soups in Chinatown (not the ubiquitous noodle parlours, you notice, though if Chinatown is not handy you could always try Wagamama though it’s usually packed and certainly not as restful) as perfect nourishment for the brain.

So it was.  The moment that soup was placed before me I had to pause and savour its perfection: the rich soup, a fine sheen of  fat on the surface like a rainbow reflected in a puddle; the gloriously textured noodles – with bite!; the succulent meat, chopped fresh to order, layered on top.  If you’ve ever seen the Japanese western movie, Tampopo, you’ll know all about reverence for noodle soup turned into an art form.

Anyway, the cleansing effect of the noodle soup helped me see with clarity.  See what, you ask?  Kind of life-changing really.  I’m now almost complete in my divorce, I’m done the same sort of business for well over 17 years, I have my country cottage and two lovely kids, I love my acting and writing, but what next in this roller-coaster we call life?  How about clear goals:  to be sure I find my soulmate, my partner for life; to take the plunge and make a living from the things I enjoy most; to travel to more places while I’m fit enough to do so; and maybe, as we sup the last of the soup from the bowl, just maybe to find contentment in what we do without having to strive for more?

Conducting an orchestra or being a one-man band? (Oct 2010)

So at last Harvey takes on a life of its own and we’re into the last panicky couple of weeks before the curtain opens and a real live audience sits expectantly waiting to be uplifted by a glorious evening’s entertainment….

Behind the magic of theatre there is so much to be done to get it up and running.  Taking responsibility for this is the director, a person whose role extends far and wide and encompasses all key decisions (except budgets): selection of the play; creative direction of the play and cast; appointment of cast and crew; devising of lighting and sound cues; sourcing of props, arranging transport etc.; design of set; approving costumes; organisation of rehearsals, set building, technicals, front of house, ticket sales, refreshments, raffle prizes, everything.  In fact, every aspect of the play!

The only thing you don’t get involved in is actually being there on stage and spouting forth lines, though since amateur companies rarely if ever employ understudies it is far from unknown for the director to have to learn a part at very short notice, don the britches and set forth to act.  It happened to me once – I had to sack an actor from a production since he didn’t bother to turn up for rehearsals, then appointed myself as romantic lead, opposite an actress to whom in a previous production I had had to propose marriage every night of the run.  She never accepted even once, but at least both shows went down well with their respective audiences!

Speaking with my actor’s hat on, acting is the best part, the place where you get the buzz, get the character inhabiting you, feel the adrenalin flowing, hear the laughter and applause, hear the greasepaint and smell the audience… where the director paces nervously at the back of the hall, as powerless as a football manager, muttering under his breath : “No, you blithering idiot, I told you to say that quietly while standing downstage right!”

Of course the director does delegate where possible, but in the context of amateur theatre the options are rather restrictive: you can’t dragoon anyone as paid employees, so you have to wheedle and grovel to persuade people to give up their valuable time and participate in whatever activity fills the void.  Sometimes you must extemporise because the ideal solution is simply not available, for whatever reason, but since the show must go on, if nobody else is available.  Where in professional theatre the director is conductor of an orchestra, the amateur equivalent often feels like a one-man band, supported ably by the committee.

Meanwhile, the director must decide on his or her style.  Theory would suggest you can adopt one of several styles, or a combination thereof:

The dictator
In this style of directing, the director has a strongly assertive role and is very dominant in the process of creating a theatrical work. Rehearsals are more or less fully controlled and predictable, with the actors having little or no say.

The negotiator
‘The negotiator’ is a style of direction in which the director focuses on a more improvised and mediated form of rehearsal and creation, using the ideas of the production team and actors to shape a theatrical work in quite a democratic style.

The creative artist
The director sees himself or herself as a creative artist working with the ‘materials’ of dramatic creativity, be they the actors, designers and production team. The “creative artist” wants input from the actors but, as artist, has final say over what is included and how ideas are incorporated.

The confrontationalist
In this style of directing, the director is in constant dialogue and debate with the cast and the production team about creative decisions and interpretations. The director seeks out and actively engages in such exchanges. Out of these exchanges, which can sometimes be heated or risky, comes a final contested product.

Guess I am probably more of the creative artist school since I generally know how I would approach the task if I were playing that character, and by and large I welcome ideas from the cast which we can try out in rehearsal before deciding on the final approach.  I would be an awful dictator – far too much of a democrat for that, but I’ve met some true gorgons in my time, directors who breathed fire and woe betide a humble actor who crossed them!  They would be mincemeat before the rehearsal was out….

But in the final analysis, what satisfies me as an actor and a director are happy faces among the audience and the cast and the crew.  Amateur theatre is addictive – you want more more more!!  Wonder if I can get anyone to pay me to do it… 😉

4 thoughts on “2010 highlights”

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