Milling Things Over

After Christmas and New Year we find it a good thing to have something to look forward to in the gloom of January so we have for a number of years treated ourselves to a long weekend away in late January. The advantage of this is that the range of places you can afford to stay in – we always do self-catering – can also be higher as it tends to be one of the cheapest times of the year, for obvious reasons.

In particular we look at Landmark Trust properties, an organisation I have a lot of time for as they pretty much do what I used to dream I would do when I was a kid, which is to acquire or take out a lease on historic buildings as holiday accommodation which otherwise might fall into disrepair and be lost. Some of their buildings are of historic importance, many are just quirky or fun – like the Pigsty above Robin Hood’s Bay, which was indeed home to a couple of pigs originally but was built to look like a Grecian temple. Or The Music Room, which is the miraculous survival of a garden pavilion mysteriously stranded in the middle of Lancaster, bereft now of any sign of the big house or garden it was built for. There are also larger properties, castles in Scotland and Devon for example and Pugin’s The Grange in Kent. One of the more recent projects was Clavell Tower in Dorset, famous from P D James’ ‘The Black Tower’ a folly that Landmark first had to move brick by brick a few meters in shore before turning it into a holiday cottage. They open up a window onto the people who built or lived in them, and this year was no exception.

This year we were in one of their earliest acquisitions, in Derbyshire. North Street, Cromford was built in the 1760s by Sir Richard Arkwright to house workers from his water driver mills. Arkwright was a hard businessman who to some extent revolutionised the spinning business with his huge water powered mills by use of automation on a previously not seen scale, allowing for use of fewer, unskilled workers. This usually meant women and children, and it was dangerous and tiring work. That said, it meant their husbands – often skilled weavers- could then work on their own while their families worked in the mill, so the possibilities for income became much greater. And there was no shortage of people willing to work, when the likely alternative was the work house. People came from all over the country to work in Arkwright’s business empire.

One of the reasons was the accommodation. We were staying in number 10 North Street which is the house Landmark retained as a holiday let (they own several other houses in the street that they saved from demolition in the 1960s and have permanent tenants). While it has been sympathetically extended to meet modern requirements (easy enough here, but how they have made some of their other properties habitable – especially those which were never meant to be lived in, even for a short time, can be quite ingenious) it is clear to see what might have tempted a family to take the deal even considering the hard work and very real risks of injury or death. It is a three story terrace, one ample room to each floor of good solid stone construction, where the range on the ground floor would have heated the bedroom above together with a light and airy upper story where perhaps they would have installed a loom. Compared to what was available elsewhere this was a nice place to live. Looking out of the back window you can see down to the mill buildings, and out the front houses continue up the hill and then stop as the Derbyshire countryside takes over. Apart from the traffic going past the end of the road on A6, not a lot has changed about the place.

Thankfully, a lot has changed about what is acceptable in working conditions. Or has it? Certainly here in the UK that is true, but elsewhere people are still exploited, and often without the trade-offs that working for someone like Arkwright clearly entailed. This weekend was a lovely one, and it was a privilege to stay in such a place and think about the people it was built for, but that’s also the point; I’m very lucky, and need to remember that sometimes.

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Matchless

I am not sure you are supposed to be made to cry by a puppet, but I was the victim of such an emotional attack last week and had no answer to it. So the tissues came out and have continued to come out every time I think of the poor little thing huddled up on the stage, lifeless beyond the bits of wood and string that it is actually made of. Even going to see the latest Disney, the marvelous ‘Moana’ has not totally cheered me up.

The Lovely Wife and I were lucky enough to catch one of the final performances of ‘The Little Match girl (and happier tales)’ at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse, the quite wonderfully atmospheric and candle lit indoor performance space at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre on the South Bank. I had not originally thought of going but the reviews were extremely good and at £10 for a standing ticket you can usually afford to take a risk that actually it might be overrated. It wasn’t.

The short reign of Emma Rice as artistic director at the Globe has been a controversial one (including of course her dismissal). Personally I have found it a little hit and miss; interesting certainly, but nothing to match some previous productions for entertainment and energy (personal highlights were the 2010 productions of Henry IV part 1 and 2 and the 2012 Henry V, all starring the hugely underrated Jamie Parker as Hal/Henry V). However, I’m very grateful for ‘The Little Match girl’ as the experience was a unique one and one likely to stay with me for a long time.

The show is based on several of Hans Christian Anderson stories, including Thumbelina and the Emperor’s New Clothes (the slightly happier stories). Many of you will know that the story of the Little Match Girl doesn’t end well so I was partly prepared for the pull on the heart strings but as the performance progressed you could real feel her slipping away (also thanks to some great puppetry) and there was nothing you, as the observer, could do about it. The story is simple; the little girl is trapped on the streets, and the only thing that brings her warmth and solace is by lighting one of the dwindling number of matches. In this case, that summons Ole Shuteye, a storyteller, who proceeds to delight the little girl with stories, with his band of performers, and he delights the audience too with clowning, songs, more puppets and a goodly amount of breaking the Fourth Wall. This is the bulk of the performance and is often very funny, although in keeping with the nature of the original stories you do not have to look far below the surface to see the social commentary and at the end of each you are dragged back, as is your heroine, to reality – or something passing as reality. There are some odd things here, that feeling of dreams layered on dreams, but they all make perfect sense through a few, devastating late twists.

Eventually however, the laughs become harder to come by, and there is only one match left. There is a terribly sad moment as that final match is allowed to burn right down to the fingers of the character holding it, his face covered so you cannot see the expression. And then it just falls to the stage from his limp hand. Beautiful, and there was no way to avoid being upset.

I was wondering why I could get so upset over a puppet.

I think the key is that in this kind of performance you forget that your protagonist is not a real actor because while they may chat or shake hands with the audience making clear this is a performance they also treat the puppet as though she is a real little girl. As such it completes the illusion and allows you to be genuinely moved when she lifted onto people’s shoulders, or sitting shivering, without shoe or coat on the stage. It always amazes me that you can have the puppeteer in plain sight and yet completely ignore him or her; even in the curtain call, it is not entirely clear who you are applauding as the Little Match Girl ‘walks’ back onto the stage. And that is as it should be. This kind of show is one that exists in several levels of reality – at least three – and to adopt the imagination of a child is the best way to enjoy it. Certainly, the ten year old (at a guess) girl in the front row was virtually wetting herself with laughter most of the time and quietly rapt at the right moments, and so was I.

Afterwards they took a collection for Centrepoint. It was entirely appropriate. We’ve seen a lot of stuff very recently that was incredibly entertaining but not in the least challenging. This was both, and since you cannot save the Little Match Girl (for one aching moment I thought they might have changed the outcome, as the storyteller passionately tells the little girl that ‘I’m not telling your story’ as though that could perhaps save her. But of course that would have been a betrayal and far too Hollywood) maybe we can help save some other person trapped on our streets.

Don’t Pick A Fight With A Ballet Dancer

I have never really thought of ballet dancers as scary, but I may have to revise my opinion after last Saturday.

The lovely wife and I enjoyed a performance of the ballet Giselle at the Coliseum in London (English National Opera) and rather good it was too. I will lay my cards on the table – I do not come naturally to ballet. It has been a bit of a struggle but I was happy to take it up because (1) the Lovely Wife loves any form of dance and (2) it allows me the smugness of getting really cheap tickets for something everyone assumes is expensive (specifically £12 seats, which, when compared to a popcorn and goodness knows what else contaminated seat at the local multiplex seems good value to me). We have the advantage of flexibility, short legs (I really feel for taller people folder up in balcony seats) and I have a thing for booking well in advance and in the faith that the universe will not get in the way.

But I’m growing to like ballet – or at least the shorter ones. I was terrified to find that the version of Sleeping Beauty we saw some years ago, which I felt had fallen by the end in a never ending series of solo dances at the wedding actually in its full form ran to over four hours. I mean really? We have only ever walked out of a theatre before the end once and that was an awfully misjudged production of a musical version of ‘Gone With The Wind’ – it was past 11 and at the second interval announcement the Lovely Wife informed me how much of the story was still to go (somehow I have – still – managed to miss the movie or book). At that point we left, with pretty much the rest of the audience. It was not a hit. The lead in that performance was former pop idol runner-runner-up Darius; I’m pleased to say that the next time we caught him on stage was in the much better musical version of ‘From Here To Eternity’ which was quite interesting – and did not run over the two and a half hours (including interval) that really should be the limit for an evening production to avoid people like me (who has long since stopped trusting on a last train home and now finds the early morning after an evening out a struggle, which I didn’t in my twenties).

I think I should get back to Giselle and scary ballet dancers mentioned earlier. I could be talking about the male principals of course; those guys are ridiculously fit and muscled and as Billy Elliot taught us anyone who thinks men who do ballet are not as scary as those that say, play rugby, is fooling themselves. These guys could eat most professional footballers for breakfast and watching someone quite that powerful move with such grace and precision is pretty impressive. No, in Giselle (and I knew nothing about the plot before seeing it) there is a form of vengeful female spirits that latch onto men that are unfortunate to stray into their realm and basically dance them to death. During one sequence a number of potential victims are surrounded by the spirits and with the lights down the swirling maelstrom (Oh I love that word, this entire blog is an excuse to get that one word in I suspect) of ballerinas circling their victims was that most unusual thing of being beautiful and terrifying at the same time. It was a short section of the ballet but sold me totally. To echo something that was shouted several times in the performance, ‘Bravo!’

I have several dancing friends and young charges and all I can say is terrify and delight me, as my personal view of what defines art – that I personally like – is that in needs to generate some emotion in me.  That can be dance, music, writing, drama or painting, I don’t care. I just rejoice sometimes in what we humans are capable of and how people should be allowed to express it, as it has impacts that artist cannot possibly conceive.

And Another Thing…

First off – thanks to the number of you who come back at me (in the nicest possible way) after last week’s Blog. I was quite touched by the feedback and so I have in the week decided to keep going when I can and feel I have something to say with the understanding I can take a week off now and then. Let us see how that goes.

This week I have been reminded yet again of several aspects of my character that I find annoying. In particular, there is the part of me that is very resistant to change, more specifically change that is enforced and not part of a conscious decision on my (or indeed the Lovely Wife’s) part. The new company car for instance. Now, I’ll be honest, it is a nice benefit to not have to worry about servicing etc. and get to drive a much newer car than I could afford, but the recent enforced change has not made me very happy – although there have been some amusements, as I will come too. For the last four years we have had a Toyota Prius that, while it was difficult to get used to initially – getting the thing started and moving is not intuitive, it was my first automatic, footbrake instead of handbrake etc. etc. in the end I grew to really like it. It was nippy, easy to drive and economical and just about the right size. After 4 years the lease came to an end and I had assumed I would just move onto the latest version.

I was somewhat disappointed to find that on the list of what was offered there were no hybrids and basically everything had to be pretty much a diesel (never had one of those) and German (or at least German owned). And if I wanted it in time it had to be one of the larger models. This was not at all what had been planned out in my head so needless to say that put me straight into Grump Town.  Ah, pity my Lovely Wife when I am in that grey and dark place.

Thankfully I do not like Grump Town much myself, so heading back to Look On the Bright Side Village I ordered what looked the best of the options that were available and a large slab of grey appeared yesterday (somewhat unexpectedly early, but that is a whole different story). So now I am trying to learn how the thing works.

Cars have definitely gotten too complicated for mere mortals like myself. I am sure that all the clever little features on this car are all terribly useful and that within a few months I will wonder how I ever got by without something that apparently is supposed to warn me of the proximity of pedestrians (I thought that was called ‘using your eyes’) and the overcomplicated in-car entertainment system will seem as clear as day. But at the moment I am looking at the instruction manual with bafflement – it is larger and more complicated than most of the science texts I studied at university. Admittedly, a lot of that bulk is taken up by very serious boxed comments with little warning triangles that simply repeat messages that, summarized, say ‘if you drive like a muppet, you’ll have an accident and it will not be our fault (don’t say we didn’t tell you!)’. Fair enough. But all that extraneous text just buries the instructions on how to use the thing properly.

However, as I say there have been some amusements.

In particular, some of these dire warnings, completely seriously, inform me that while useful, the highlighted feature ‘cannot change the laws of physics’.

I am somewhat disappointed with the state of automotive engineering in that case.

Beyond my disappointment that a standard fleet car does not possess the ability to warp the fabric of Reality, unfortunately I am of an age that the line ‘canna change the laws of physics’ immediately raises the spectre of someone attempting to do a terrible Scottish accent (i.e. therefore a reasonable impression of the late – and wonderful – James Doohan, bless him) in The Firm’s 1987 number one ‘Star Trekkin’. I can only hope this means that when I turn on the Sat Nav at some point it might try and sound like Lt. Uhura warning me of Klingons (or, indeed, pedestrians) off the starboard bow…

Resolved

So 2017 is here with us, and to my amazement I seem to have been pushing stuff out on this platform for about four years now.

I am not entirely sure why, as according to the statistics on the WordPress site hardly anyone actually reads the six hundred or so words I try and put out every Tuesday. Even among the few regulars I confess that one of them is the Lovely Wife, so I am increasingly aware that my path is not really in the blogging business and probably not worth the time it takes or what I am trying to achieve. For a start, I am usually far too concerned about upsetting people or getting into an online argument to be too controversial which usually means more interesting in the views of readership – niceties on the while do not sell books, newspapers or get your site more hits. So while I would like to rant and rave sometimes I rarely have the courage, even on areas where I am on factually safe ground. I do not think you can really captivate an audience by being even handed. I cannot talk about work so that cuts out a large chunk of topics that probably would interest people, but that will have to be private discussions, or until I retire. It feels to me most of the time that too much of what I write is in the style you might sued to calm down an argument perhaps, but probably not a good policy for entertainment.

Add to that that my creative failings and pretty amateur writing – proof that having a degree in creative writing only allows you to criticise your own and everyone else’s writing and does not provide a route to an instant bestseller – then really this is going nowhere. I’m awed by the ability of some of my friends to be creative on a major scale that just seems unattainable to me. And do not get me wrong I am not feeling sorry for myself here – I have had plenty of time over my life so far to realise that being firmly just above average is probably fine, unless you are going to work that bit harder that would be necessary to get you to the next level. There are some areas that I think could get me to do that, but a weekly blog that no one reads is not one of them.

But it has been an enjoyable exercise to have to have the discipline of pushing something out, even if the only person it might entertain (like any of my fiction) might be myself. I have no idea how I have managed to be on time so much of that period as well, so it has proved to myself that I can work to deadlines even with personal things; work obviously sets its own.

I might try a different format, but for now this will be the last post (as it were) for a while. Maybe a more considered monthly reflection might be the way to go. Personally I have been disappointed in the last few years how little truly creative writing I have been able to finish after a period during my Open University degree when it seemed to flow easily. While even fewer have ever read any of my short fiction, I find that in that kind of creativity – telling a story new to the world, even if it is not ‘literature’ and may make only a few people smile – I think that will give me more to reflect on that these odd waffles.

So thank you for those that read these and if you ever enjoyed one I am glad I that the time to write it for you.