Just. Leaving. This. Here.

Have a listen to this.

Being very lazy, I was kind of hoping someone would do a summary piece of the Hive experience, of developing a play, of being mentored, of sharing my work for the first time.  The opposite of striking while the iron is hot, on this occasion it worked! Mike Heath at the incredible Write for the Stage, Studio Salford interviewed me with Stephen Hornby for the podcast, which was brilliant fun as well as a terrific opportunity to reflect on what I have learnt.  The Greater Manchester Fringe is open again for business – if you have an idea, apply.  If you don’t have an idea, get one, then apply!

 

 

Development week -The Big Read (through)

This post relates to my debut play, Blue Lines, which has won the Hive Award 2019 and will be presented as part of Manchester Fringe.  Have a look here if you want to find out more about it:  

Wadda week.

World Book Day. International Women’s Day.  I got my mooncup in on first go.

It was a week of major wins.

It was also the week of the read through of my play, Blue Lines. The first time that I would hear it outside of my own head, read by other people.  In front of an audience of even more other people.

No wonder I’m still in my pyjamas today.

My play is super personal.  It’s based on my experiences of infertility – of being the woman who ‘is maybe leaving it a little bit late’.  People rarely see the feet pedalling frantically below the surface, do they?  I got sick of saying ‘we’re still trying’, which it would appear was the only acceptable response to enquiries about my lack of baby.  I digress – the play, yes the play – is an encounter between a teacher and student and the relationship that develops between them.  That’s all I’m saying.

Bearing in mind that it’s personal and it’s the first play that I’ve ever written, it’s a lot.  Oddly enough, I had no issue sending the piece off to my mentor, Tim Firth, to read and give me feedback.  He was reading it.  Somewhere else.  not loud enough for me to hear him.

Fate smiled on me though – the actors I worked with were intuitive and sensitive and despite having only a quick read through online the night before, did a great job of capturing the essence of both characters.  I obviously had to sit on my mouth (not a thing I know) to stop myself from interjecting, to ask them to try things out again, and over the course of the hour I produced the kind of fine, clinging sweat that I associate with wearing too many fine layers under an anorak.

But the feedback was what I wanted – it was positive but also constructively helpful, pointing me towards areas of plot and some dialogue that need clarifying, tightening, cutting or enhancing.

 

I just have to do it now.

BookLearning: Orphans by Dennis Kelly

I can’t help it – I get horribly ‘retired middle-class’ at Christmas.  I buy the Radio Times, listen to the Archers.  I attempt quizzes of the year in newspapers. I invest time and interest in entire episodes of Midsomer Murders.  The patina of glossy adverts for stairlifts and cruise – ships holds my gaze.  I can’t help it, and I love it.

 

So I needed some acid to cut through this muzzy, smuggy love in, and it came in the form of Orphans by Dennis Kelly, which was recommended to me to read for a piece of writing that I’m working on.  It reminded me of one thing and taught me another; firstly – reading plays for pleasure can be exhilarating.  I used to work in the bookshop at the National Theatre – my best ever job in retrospect and one that I only appreciate now, at a sorry distance of nearly twenty years.  I used to read plays all the time – it was encouraged for you to be seen reading plays at the counter, on the shop floor, on your breaks.  People would ask for recommendations and I could be learned and suave and theatrical (life goals, basically).  And I could also swan around backstage and pretend to be in stuff.

 

Now I don’t want to be in stuff anymore, but reading Orphans reminded me that actually reading a play can be more emotionally powerful than seeing it performed, where there’s always the risk that it can be a bit shit or indulgent or forced.  But a well written play plays in my head just as I want it to – and it turns out that I am an incredible director.

 

No, it’s the play.  And this is the thing that reading Orphans made me realise.  I think that playwriting has changed more than other written form, in terms of what is permissible and how it is expressed.  I couldn’t stop reading Orphans, which I am not going to spoil for you because you should just read it.  But, in brief, it’s the story of a brother and sister and her partner and how they deal with something that the brother has done.  Wow, vague, cool.  But you should read it, because it bites.  It really fucking bites.  And I think back to the plays that I read, including the classics, and I think about how ‘unreal’ they seem in comparison.  They’re polished, but they take a lot of craft from the actor to sound truthful a lot of the time.  With Orphans, you feel as if you are experiencing the dilemma with them, the godawful messiness of the situation, which is not to say it is written ‘off the cuff’.  Because when you’ve got through it and are lying in a sweaty fever dream, you’ll realise that each character had an arc, had something to say. It takes a really brilliant writer to put it together so subtly and effortlessly, so that you don’t see his hand in the writing of it until after you’re done.

So my booklearning is this: reading Orphans has taught me to spend longer on my structure and planning and less time ‘perfecting’ the words.  More at the front end, if you like, as much as it pains me.

 

And it’s given me a beautiful New Year’s Resolution: Read. More. Plays.

BookLearning – Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Tuesdays are my amazing days, my days when I shoot off the charts of Pinterest-esque productivity in the six child-free hours given to me.  It’s the day when I do yoga! Bake bread!  Tidy house!  Write! Write! Write!  Especially write write write!  At least this is how it plays out in my head , on the other side of my eyelids, just before I wake up.  It never really goes like this.  And especially so today.

 

As we’re approaching the winter solstice, I’m feeling the need to slow down and to genuinely immerse myself in the things that I so often do just to tick off the list (sorry, yoga and meditation – we really need to sort out our relationship in the new year).  And the same goes for writing; sometimes I’ll just write any old thing so that I can stand in front of the invisible gods who sit in judgement of me every day and say “see? I did some writing – I’m a good girl”  Who are these judges? And what’s the prize for my virtue?  What’s on the other side of that velvet curtain? In truth, my writing has been a bit thin recently.  I think that’s largely because I’m using the time to write while not doing enough to give me things to write about.  I need some fuel.  And so I did just that, or as much of that as I could do on a rainy day in Manchester.

 

I sat in the big grey chair  with the yellow throw next to the fire.  I raised the blinds so I could see the garden from where I sat.  And I finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

 

This book came out a few years ago, but I am only just reading it now because I have recently become aware (and subsequently very ashamed) of my blanket attitudes to racism.  I speak from a position of white privilege when I say that I have coasted on the very general, liberal opinion of  ‘all racism is bad’, which is kind of a pass on the issue itself, because if i just assume that general position, then I don’t have to think about it any further.  I’ve already chosen the right answer, so why keep learning?    Of course racism is bad, but I have, and still have very little understanding of the nuances of racism.  So, amongst other things I’m choosing books that can help me to understand, and gain a bit more clarity and insight on issues of race and oppression.  I’m a work in progress on this, so I’m not going to embarrass myself by drawing some nebulous conclusions here.   What I do feel more qualified to speak about is her words – and as a fundamentally selfish person, what did I learn from her writing style? What is my takeaway (to use nasty corporatespeak) for any writing I may get round to in future?

I think Americanah is incredible; it taught me things about the subtleties of racism that I wouldn’t have understood if they were presented to me in an essay or documentary, largely because Adichie’s characters felt real and the experiences that she describes were lived; they had unexpected detail, they contradicted themselves, they didn’t go where i expected them to.  Ifemelu’s inability to communicate with her lover was frustrating and irritating, yet her cojones in other situations was inspiring.  The description of the hair salon at the start of the novel was specific, unique and real, as was the moment when Ifemelu realises how much she missed the layer of oil on top of her mother’s stew (evocative and truthful).  The writer has incredible instinct and dwells on the ‘scenes’ that you want to know more about; like the hair salon, again, or the atmosphere in the magazine office, back in Nigeria.  I think this takes great confidence – some of these scenes are secondary to the straight surface plot of the novel (although they do reveal further insight into racial stereotyping and the experience of an African woman in America) but we want to see them, hear them – I’d love to know how much of the novel she cut, or whether she knew exactly what she wanted to include from the get go. (does anyone know that, when writing a novel?)   It’s a compelling read, one which covers so many different cultures and societal set ups without feeling didactic or preachy.  It’s bitter, heartfelt, romantic and grim.  It is also sensitively plotted and alive with texture and detail,  ‘takeaways’ (barf) for my next piece of writing, which I will write should I ever take leave of the grey chair next to the fire.

On a Man, Very Cross to Find that Prestwich Library is Closed Despite Being Advertised as Open on the Website

Huntsman, past Budget Saver, faster than my eyes blink

Hands not aloft, but grasping,

Clasping the smooth white of ‘documentation’

An impossible authority of forms –

His coat is unstitched, the quilting leaks from patch to patch

Like a field bereft of harvest.

 

Pramhanded,  I thrill when I sense his directionandintentionandmomentum

Towards me, in front of the library’s sealed lips.

I want the moment of a shared disappointment

I have the power of saying ‘It’s shut.  It didn’t say it would be on the website but it is’.

 

Sidelong still, the man tries the door.

Shadethrower.  Prick, just trust me.

‘But I needed to – bugger them – they’ll moan when they’re late

But I won’t bother then’.

He’s off now, because it’s half past ten and nothing tastes as good as a Tetley’s in the Orange Tree in the certainty that your forms will be late and it isn’t your fault.

 

Like Busses

I have a strange approach to memory.  I mean, I don’t know because I don’t really know how anyone else’s memory works, even when they say ‘oh my memory is terrible’.  It’s all approximation, baby.  But I’m going to go ahead and presume that mine is neither orthodox or particularly good.

 

I can’t remember dates, years, locations, events or even humans very well, but if I try to remember a very particular thing, like, when did I first hear the phrase, ‘Like busses, there’ll be two along at the same time’, what I see in my head is a wind swept playground in front of a low red brick primary school.  I don’t know if there’s any correlation between this phrase and the place, but it’s what I see in my head.

 

I am envious, in awe and suspicious of people who can recall moments with ease.  How the fuck does anyone write an autobriography?  ‘I first met Joaquin at a drinks party given by Sooki.  We were at a bar in Mayfair, The Chiselled Chimp’.  He was wearing a blue cashmere rollneck and initiated conversation by enquiring after my Chagalls.  We drank ‘Noisy Williams’ till dawn ..’  (Yes, this is my idea of glamour. No apologies.)

 

How do people remember to remember this detail? Or do people who write autobiographies have the self belief to think ‘I should probably note all this down because I’m the kind of important person who will have to write an autobiography one day’? Which is how and why they end up writing an autobiography.

 

So this is why I can pin down (or think I can pin down, in some way) the phrase, ‘Like Busses’ but not where I spent Christmas two years ago.  Oh and if you’re not familiar with the phrase, “Like Busses’, it basically refers to the idea that nothing will come along for ages and then two will come along at the same time and can refer to anything; job interviews, lottery wins, unsolicited travelling salespeople.  It’s kind of rueful and carries that sort of pissy British way of downplaying the hand of fate with it.  I recall hearing it a few times in it’s full form ‘Like Busses, you want it for ages and then two come along at once’) until finally I must have given off the air of being someone who understood the phrase at which point it was shortened to ‘Like Busses, isn’t it?’  With whom I shared this landmark moment remains a mystery of course, but when I think of this particular ‘Like Busses’ I see the shop front of a butchers in my hometown.  Memory, huh.

 

And I also wonder if the phrase ‘like busses’ is in itself, a bit ‘like busses’, because, after a long drought, I heard it twice yesterday in entirely separate contexts; I said it at exactly the same time as another woman in the post office queue and then we’d laughed at the very ‘like bussiness’ of it.  The second time was later, and with thanks, in my own head, when I opened my email to see that two piece of flash fiction had been accepted after a long and stomach churning silence.   Like Busses, I tell you.

Quick – Before the Monkeys Get Me!

It has been a while, hasn’t it?  And honestly, if I had to compile a ‘greatest hits of 2018’, even if i combined it with ‘wackiest nights out’ and the ‘memorable moments’ package, there wouldn’t be enough to fill an ad break.  For clarity, I should add that no one has actually approached me to put this together, so don’t worry, you won’t have to watch it.

 

So what happened this year?  Not a lot that is not solely attached to motherhood and while this is, yes, a big part of me and what I do, it is not the entirety of me.  And now, as we shudder and jolt into December, one eye glued to the screen for news of Britain’s impending Brexit shaped implosion, the other scoping out black Friday deals, is there time for all this distraction to get a good thing going?

 

And it would appear, yes.  I have momentum!  I am writing again, not as part of Nanowrimo (although I salute all brave souls who are) but I just picked up a pen, chose a title, thought ‘this will probably be a bit shit’ and started writing!  And you know what, it was a bit shit!  But it was writing!  And I have kept this going for the past two weeks.  I’ve submitted some flash and I’m working on an application for a mentoring programme.  I’ve become much less precious about what I’m working on.  Lightness of touch is everything, although a creeping doubt has started to set in .  My brain is run by a panel of monkeys in lab coats who throw out suggestions, instructions or queries at random – most often ‘You suck!’ ‘What even is this?’, ‘Why?’ or ‘Your kid hates you’.  Which I, for reasons unbeknownst, then take as gospel.  So, I am fully expecting the panel of monkeys in lab coats to wake up soon – I’ve never had such a long run without their toxic input – and my question is – how do I keep going?  I can’t get rid of them, so how can I circumvent their meddling and keep the pen on the page?  Writers, please let me know how you do this because I am sure that I’m not the only one out there.  All suggestions taken very seriously and will be followed to the tee.

Field Study

Here’s something that I read at a charity event in support of A New Leaf, who do incredible work towards greening the centre of Manchester,   I tried to write in the style of an eminent Victorian Lady Botanist (if I had more time or brains I would give you a specific name) and in this guise, imagine what she would discover on a journey across the city.

Field Study – An Exploration of Shudehill to Cornbrook, April 9th, 2018-04-09

Weather:  Cloudy, inclement showers.  I ascend the tram at Shudehill, a place which seems to be  a bustling interchange.  My first green sighting: a Broadfoot Plantain (Plantago Major) insinuating its way out between two paving slabs beside a small peach doily of vomit which itself lies in front of the ticket machine, as if waiting its turn to purchase passage to Crumpsall or East Didsbury.  I am shocked – was the vomiter unaware as to the supreme medicinal qualities of Plantago Major? If they were, they may have avoided such a distressing and public ejaculation.  I journey past the pile: A large, stately bush of Rubus Fruticosus Aggregate, enmeshed in a merry dance with Leontodon Autumnalis and Glechoma Hederacea  resides spreadeagled behind a wire fence.  I am pleased to see that it is being protected in this way.

I traverse the road and continue towards the eponymous Market Street, a semi formalised trading post, consisting of established stalls selling goods such as communication devices, shoes and something referred to as ‘sportswear’. But I digress, perhaps because there are so few green sightings here until – Oh wonder!  And I would invite all botanical enthusiasts to lift their inquiring gaze up away from potential terranean treasures and seek new bounty from the heavens above!  On the roof of a somewhat brutish building I see a whole shrub, Ligustrum  Vulgare.  It is mostly  leafless and squat, I must confess, yet it is beautiful and unexpected and it reminds me of my own dear mother at my wedding, wearing the most artful concoction of feathers and netting  atop her stern, square, naturally inscrutable face.

So there is nature in the city and it moves me.

Further along, I come to the city’s rich green centre piece – Picadilly Gardens.  Perhaps it is the season and weather (remaining cloudy and inclement)  but there is little of the conventional sense of garden to its presentation. There are trees – bare or brown leaved, there are trees -scattered about, like sobre guests at a drunken party, their feet in concrete.  As to their genus I am confounded.  They defy identification! Is it the lack of foliage that leaves me nonplussed? I request clarification from five different passers by and the responses are enlightening as to the nature of the denizens of Picadilly Gardens but irrelevant to my enquiry.  I will write to the council when I return to my lodging.  I can be sure of a prompt reply.

Exhausted and in need of succour, I return to the tram and continue my perambulation through this elusive city. I’m ashamed to admit that I am in the doldrums, and in a fit of absolute despair I almost slam closed my encyclopedia of trees (travel edition) – when I see it.  White blossom in the gardens of the Art Gallery! The glimpse is fleeting, but whose heart does not quicken at the sight of Purnus Serulata! And in full bloom – nary a petal discarded! I experience the same wonder upon every sighting – it’s transience reminds me again of my own dear mother and I remind myself again to find such wonder in all living things for we, and they, are but passing through.

I am still musing on this as we reach the river, and it gives me, as rivers often do, renewed pause for reflection. I re-open my notebook to record my observations;

Salix Sepulcralis – two fine example genuflecting at a bend in the water

A bridge – one side, framed in Ipomoea Alba, the other Hedera Helix.  A fabulous, verdant conjunction.

And then crowding the far side of the bank, a battalion of fluttering Narcissus Poeticus, craning their necks for better view of the joggers and prams and canal watchers who are out in force on this full and vibrant day!

Nature in its diverse forms and richness has revived my spirit and I arrive at my destination fortified, as demonstrated by the wild flourish with which I close my notebook and nod with firm cheer at my fellow commuters.    As I exeunt, I mark a crowd of Budleia pushing and jostling at the sides of the tracks.  Nature’s lonely trainspotter.  Their flowers are brown and crusted and the leaves are shrivelled and the weather remains cloudy and inclement and yet it prevails and we prevail and will no doubt, revive.  Such is the nature of the city.

 

Soho Walk Up

The first sign was the handshake at the door.  For a tall man, he had small cool hands and skin as soft and plump as my old home economics teacher’s.  Waterfall: the hand slipped out of my grip before I had made my impression, the one I’d honed on my dad, which told everyone that I was firm, in control, serious about the work.

 

We were in Soho, but not the Soho that I wanted, that I saw my friends and peers getting familiar with:  Bond girl receptionists, fresh flowers, coffee you could look forward to.  I was in the Soho of shimmer curtains and cartoon eyes urging you to ‘look!’, drawn thickly in magic marker on fluorescent cardboard.  Alleyways that you’d swear where not there the week before last.  Shit smells. Not even DVD, but VHS.

 

We were on the first floor above an open doorway next to a Chinese Herbalist’s, teetering on the brink of Wardour Street.  It was scuffed, scraped and cracked, dust trails and polyester curtains lending a sort of dingy glamour if you really searched for it. This room told me everything that I needed to know about the job – and still I was here.

So, I guess that tells you everything that you need to know about my career.

 

Despite not being a car, I made an unnecessary three point turn in to a boxy fuchsia pink bucket chair, so low to the ground that my knees bounced up to my rib cage. Obviously, I felt that this wasn’t awkward enough, so I looked down between my legs in surprise, noticing a big bruise of a water stain on the lower half of the chair as I did so.  What on earth was I doing?  I was seized by the sudden desire to let out a huge vaginal yawn, but I didn’t know what that meant and I doubt it would have led to anything other than an escalation in self diminishing acts from me.

 

He sat opposite, sleepy cat, endless legs crossed and contrived in unfathomable ways.  Sordid, born to it.  One hand cradled his phone, the other caressed a label dangling on a beaded plastic tie from the arm of the chair. Caution: Flammable.  It was the only new thing in the entire room.  A double bed gave a Gallic shrug in the corner.  I could hear Soho outside, so I knew I hadn’t died, but the very air in the room shrunk out all life, charisma and energy.

 

Someone had to, had to, say a something.

 

 

‘Thanks for seeing me.  I really admire your work.’

‘Great.’

‘It’s an interesting job.  Lots of possibilities I think.’

‘I can smoke in here.’  Statement of fact, to himself: the day was looking up for him.  He moved his attention to a pocket in his skinny jeans, pulled out a tin and started rolling a cigarette.  His eyes flicked back to his phone screen.

 

‘Would you like to know about the work that I’ve done?’

My voice was girlish and shrill, creeping higher as I inched my way through the sentence, a trait first observed in me by a bitter choir leader at Brownies, one which had persisted (due to my failure to address) into adulthood.

 

It’s worse when I feel like I’m struggling.   I pulled my skirt down towards my knees –  damn bucket chair – and with no response from him I kept talking, a desperate, rickety Beckett-y monologue which took in and spat out details of my training and first gigs, inspiration and ambition pumping like pistons to cover the cracks in my resume.

 

My voice sank upwards, joining an exclusive frequency enjoyed only by electrical hums and dog whistles.  The clip clop of a phone alert barely made the chorus. I knew it wasn’t mine, ringer off at the door of course, but I did take a break from all the great faces that I was pulling as I sold my tarnished wares to see him glance down to his phone hand.  Glance then stay, rooted, finger twitching over the keypad, tapping in his response.

 

In an audition mate.  This girl’s a dick’.  Probably, probably that, I imagined, all the while teeth and eyes and tiny voice keeping it bright and right.

 

I’d decided to tell him how rude he was, that I’d spread the word about him to others, because I had that much about me, by God I did– until I remembered that I didn’t need to do any such thing. I pressed my hands into the sharp arms of the chair and levered myself up to standing.  My skirt rode up and over my bandy, low-lying gusset, revealing no doubt to the observant eye all those tiny little white elastic worms that wriggle free to escape a dying pair of tights.  It helped – all true warriors wear little skirts, don’t they? Better to take charge in, of course.

 

‘Do you want this job?’ I said.

He looked at me. Then my gusset, then back at my face – he did have lovely eyes. I pressed.

‘Because if you do, put down the phone, take your top off and get on the bed.  The room doesn’t pay for itself and neither do I.’

 

He shuddered, muttered sorry and stood up, stuffed the still smouldering fag butt into his jeans pocket and started undoing his shirt buttons.  I moved over to the bed, opened my toolbox and started laying out the kit.

 

When I turned around he was ready, the shirt stuffed in haste down the side of the bucket chair.  Too brightly he struck a pose, nipples rosy, fingers splayed, hands outstretched.  Ta-da.

I looked at the water stain and gestured towards the bed.

“Let’s get this done.’

 

Sometimes I just need to remind myself that I am, in fact, the boss.

 

 

 

Alright

I never do anything fully, so I never do anything at all.  This phrase popped up in my journal this morning.  It’s a restless day, a day for the stay at home mums (as if any mum is genuinely a ‘stay at home’ mum now – we’re all too busy attending sensory/swimming/playdates).  But it is stay at home today, because of an unexpected and very beautiful snow fall which is now into its fourth hour.  Plus my son (I have a son now, eight months) is asleep in his chair and the house is more or less tidy and yes I’ve changed the TV License so well done me.

 

Stay at home – what sort of image do these phrases conjure up?  Home …comfort, home …safe, home ….sweet home.  Stay ….put, stay …still, stay ….calm.  All lovely and soothing if taken in isolation but far from accurate depictions of my experience.  When I genuinely am a stay at home mum (i.e today), these connotations are kind of soporific; I totally understand how people become sofa-locked when they are ‘stay at home’.. We become children – we work on a task and reward basis and if I ‘stay at home’ too long, the task reward ratio becomes ever slighter.  Day 1: I tidy out the drawers, freeze several meals and sort out life insurance, therefore, I shall meditate for half an hour and make a pot of tea.  Day five: I haven’t watched television for an hour, therefore I shall watch television for an hour.  You see? Who is the bigger baby here? When my son is awake, he is active, engrossed.  Sometimes I lose half a day being ‘stay at home’, dreaming of the things I’ll do when I’m not stay at home in the same way that, out and about, I dream of the things I’ll do when I’m ‘stay at home’ again.  Plus ca change.

This is not self-criticism, but written more in the spirit of acceptance.  The day is busy, but busy in a way that I never thought I would find busy – with dishes and nappies and stacking cups.  Being temporarily sofa-locked, I am going to wildly paraphrase here, but I’m thinking of the section in The Golden notebook when Doris Lessing writes about a change in her heroine’s character, when she moved from appreciating a certain hour as when day turns into night to seeing it as the ‘time to put the vegetables on’.  The day can be meted out thus; but it is no bad thing, it is how things are, for now. Continue reading “Alright”