Saturday, 13 February 2016

Staring into the abyss


David: This might come as a bit of a shock, but in about six or seven weeks’ time our money completely runs out. We’ll be skint. We won’t be bankrupt, we won’t have debts, but we’ll have zero, absolute zero.

Jon: We’re staring into the abyss

David: Yeah, it’s quite a scary kind of prospect, you know, and it takes us right back to when we made the commitment to go to Derry in 1994. There was a period there of five years where we jumped into that abyss, and the two of us ended up living in an office space with all our possessions, illegally, we weren’t meant to be sleeping there…

Jon: Showering in the sink.

David: A Belfast sink in Belfast. In fact two Belfast sinks. I would heat up the kettle and then add cold water to it and then stand in the two sinks, one foot in each sink, and pour it over my head. God help me if anyone had come in. I was just a sort of naked soapy man in the most grimy toilet ever. It was horrible.

Jon: Yes, but it all fed into the show, I suppose. It was all put into Say Nothing. The caretaker, anyway. Frank. ‘I’ve been having some complaints! I know what you’re doing. You’re sleeping here.’ ‘No we’re not. It’s not a bed, it’s a stage set.’

David: Yes, so coming back to that, we’re thinking how did we survive then? And we have to work without designers, without technicians, we have to operate ourselves, we have to find a way, for example, with this show we would have to be able to build that set ourselves, and we don’t really have those skills, but we would develop them. Then we would have to learn Q-lab, and have the operating board outside the door where Jon is, pressing the ‘go’ button as well as acting his socks off…It’s like it’s going to that point, and you think that way we would be able to make a show that could go out at a rate that people could pay and still turn a little bit of surplus. Touring fees, if you’re doing well, are 800 to 1200 pounds per gig, to pay everyone properly it’s 1500 per gig, so you’re in this desperate need always for subsidy and then of course the gigs don’t come in the neat little zone that the Arts Council want…so we’ve got ahead of us now a few possibilities, Bridport and Kent, then possibly Bristol Mayfest then possibly the NRTF then possibly Edinburgh, which we have to think very carefully about, whether we can afford to risk that amount of money (that we don’t have), and then possibly an autumn tour….so you’ve got this horizon of bitty gigs that would all lose money, so you’re thinking what have we got in reserve?

Jon: Nothing.

David: Who could possibly fund us through that?

Jon: Nobody.

Chris: And just to be clear about the context in which this is happening. Presumably this directly relates to you losing NPO status last Spring.

David: Yes, the sequence there went after years of project money we were invited to be a Regularly Funded Organisation and that succeeded and we had six years of bliss, actually. And in the RFO phase you were allowed to apply for project money on top. So we had a lovely time.  We had the security of being able to pay ourselves a monthly retainer – the amount of which has remained the same up until this March. It didn’t ever increase. It just diminished in value. Then the NPO possibility came along and we were able to go up to this higher level of core subsidy of 100,000. But you were not allowed to apply for projects and that’s where it really started to go wrong. Our own staff were saying ‘You’re more of a project company than an organisation’ and I just felt there was a lack of imagination about the way we were using the funding, that we should have been more creative about that and they were actually saying to us ‘Don’t reapply for NPO.’ But we were saying ‘No, no, no. We are able to. We must. We cannot just say no we don’t want 100,000 a year.' So with the reluctant support of our own team we put in a new NPO application and failed. But the Arts Council were very apologetic, saying ‘Oh don’t worry, we’ll look after you, you can come to us for project money now, and you can get as much from that, if not more, and it will be better for you.’ So we put together a project application which was equivalent to what we’d been getting for NPO, and failed, and were told can you please resubmit for a smaller amount. And we said ‘Well, the tour’s in eight week’s time' and they said ‘Well, it has to be for under 15,000.’ So we went very quickly from being on 100,000 subsidy to being on 15,000. And luckily we’d been building up a reserve and were in a state where we thought we can now take a gamble and employ someone for a year.

Jon: Yes, and raise money, basically.

David: But the money’s not out there. The Arts Council want you to continue applying for these small things so that they can drip feed you and keep you alive, along with all these other artists who are being drip fed and kept alive, in the hope that on some distant horizon someone like Jeremy Corbyn will come in and start funding you properly again. So it’s very, very fragile, our existence and yes that gamble didn’t work, so we’re now faced with this prospect of zero money in March. And basically having to do the administration again ourselves. That’s a huge depressing lump of feeling, that you’ve been hit with and I don’t really know how we’re going to ride it out.

Chris: Sure.

David: I said to Jon the other day ‘Should we just hibernate?’ Try and squirrel ourselves away for a decade and re-emerge and see what happens. But I guess we’ll slither on. I can’t afford to slither on like I used to. I have dependants now. So then the pressure to get outside work increases and that of course requires commitments and Jon’s thinking like that too. In other words, veer towards hibernation. But it may be that we’re forced into hibernation because of this problem of having to work at Tesco or something. We’re not the most senior independent theatre artists that are still going, but you just think this ‘career’ is not a viable one. It eats up young companies coming out of college, full of enthusiasm, still subsidised by their loans and mums and dads, then they die off, fall out with each other…but there’s this supply of that, so the scene sort of struggles on, relying on these self-subsidised shows. We’ve attempted to get up into the middle scale by doing things like that two-hander version of The Importance of Being Earnest, and actually that turned less surplus than the remnants of our maverick style, which was Ideas Men, the last made for nothing piece…So that’s where the company’s at. Personally then, what effect is that having on us?

Chris: It’s such an extraordinary situation that a company like you should be facing that abyss, again at this point. And having to as yourselves whether it’s at all viable to go back to a way of working that…is there anything in that model that appeals to you?  

David: It’s ultimate, utter freedom. If you don’t have to answer to anybody, if you can just get out there and do a gig in a venue without having to report about it, you’ve got such freedom and it’s just joyous, you know. I’ve talked too much. Maybe Jon, you should say how you’re feeling, in your body.

Jon: In my body? Well, I’m getting a bit cold.

Friday, 15 January 2016

RITA GOD






My name's Rita, I said to the police, and later to the doctor. Rita God. And what are you looking for, Rita? I suppose I'm looking for a combination of good looks and intelligence. Well, said Dr. Simonov, you’ll be very lucky to get that. Most people never find it. The thing I didn’t want to talk to her about was the hair on my chin. It's a situation caused by the devil, the demon barber of Lewisham. Just over a year ago I was in this salon and the hairdresser shaved my chin as I sat helpless in the chair. I hadn’t asked her to. Just a trim, she said when she saw my look of horror. Just some downy hair on your chin, she said. Nothing you’d notice. Then why get rid of it, I thought, if you couldn’t notice it? I'm now seeing the long-term effects of her attack. The hair's got worse. It's stronger and longer. A single, long white hair has now gone. I was going to leave it there. I found that if I brushed it up it kind of lay close to the chin and wasn’t really visible. But it kept sticking out. So the other morning I extracted it. Will it grow back? And there are at least six fairly long ones sprouting from below my lower lip. To me it's quite obvious, and I've developed this habit of pausing before mirrors and viewing the expected growth and trying to reassess the horror and put it into perspective. The truth is that probably no one's noticed and that even if they did they wouldn’t care, but to me it's a grotesque deformity and a very real obstacle to my hopes of ever discovering the combination of good looks and intelligence mentioned above. I could cry. One way to lessen the ugliness or the chance of its being seen is to brush my chin gently with my hand, possibly with water or some other substance, like moisturiser, which will stick the hairs to the skin and render them temporarily invisible. But it doesn't last. This morning, when I got up and staggered to the ward round with the nurse, the beard had been slept on. And it stuck out rather obviously, like the hair on my son’s head when it forms a horn. How can I show my face in the group, looking like this and knowing what I know? I am the Lord, I said when Roy had finished his speech about the pigeons, and Corinne, the Yorkshire nurse, blew her nose and coughed, to cover up her laugh, the penis teaser, disbeliever, infidel, she’ll go to hell. You know, I don’t know whether I’m any good as a God. Yesterday I reviewed my good acts since I'd entered the ward. I felt disappointed. And this realisation helped, along with the beard problem, to plunge me into a depression that lasted for most of the day. Should I kill myself? I asked Dr. Simonov. Or just put up with it? She didn't know, and gave me some more tablets. It's really beginning to affect me. Long hours spent gazing at my reflection. In particular viewing my chin in front of a black background, against which the hairs stand out more clearly. There was one sticking out at right angles. I saw it on Thursday as I made myself up for dinner. And I thought it's only a matter of time before the nurses are noticing it and making a big joke out of it. If Michael the Sri Lankan nurse so much as mentions it, I will draw attention to his nostril hair, which grows long and wiry and hangs there for days, sometimes weeks, before he does anything about it. You will be sitting there in the group one morning and suddenly notice that there are no long hairs curling out from his small squashed nose. I brushed this solitary hair with my finger. It felt slightly wiry, too. I pulled it out, and immediately felt better. Have I done the wrong thing? Will it grow back, stronger? Will this plucking of one lead to the plucking of more? Will I be here in the ward still, aged seventy, plucking my beard every other day? Will I be able to return to Heaven, where there are lots of people hanging about and where it’s difficult to secrete oneself in the mornings, or any other time of the day, and continue to pluck, or will I just have to let them grow, causing amused comment from people like Michael when they notice this re-growth? That is, if Michael goes to Heaven with me. Perhaps I won't let him in.



JH



Sunday, 28 December 2014

Jon Haynes Pick of 2014


My pick of 2014

There was only one thing worth catching in 2014 – that great, rumbling, thunderclap of genius: 



JON HAYNES

His performances are consistently surprising, but this year he surpassed himself in one psychologically athletic turn after another. There was his poker-faced and pathologically narcissistic Richard in The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland. There was his inscrutable yet compassionate Mouse 1 in World Mouse Plague (co-written with the less talented but always interesting David Woods). Finally there was his gobsmackingly audacious Private Robert True in a one-off sharing of The Happy Ones (to premiere in 2015 – David Woods will have an insignificant off-stage part as Corporal Schmaltz). Unsurprising to hear that this most modest of actors has turned down the offer of an OBE for services to the arts in the Queen’s New Year Honours.         



Sunday, 3 August 2014

Arseflop





D: We have a very fragile existence.

J: I’m still eating rocket salad out of plastic bags in my rented room.

D: We’ve been hugging radiators for the last week.

J: There’s no work on the horizon after the bit we’ve got next month.

D: We didn’t get programmed in a major festival, and while in one sense we’re relieved by that, we also feel we’re missing out on something.

J: The country’s on the brink of a double-dip recession and our funding is about to be snatched away from us even before it’s started.

D: And yet we’re happy, aren’t we?

J: Well we are when we consider the alternatives.

D: So let’s look at the alternatives. In a conventional office job you’d have a few hours to yourself a day. You’d have a mortgage but get little time to enjoy the benefits of it. Your existence might be soulless.

J: It might not. It depends on your personality. You might be the kind of person who loves that kind of life.

D: So this existence we have is perfectly suited to our personalities.

J: Apparently.

D: And if we had money would we actually have any energy to make anything?

J: There was a time when we had a bit more money but I think we were the same, just as creative.

D: I think we were less creative. We had to tour so much to make that money that we never had time to think about what we were doing. Now we have serious thinking time. For example, we know that when we start work on the next show we’re not going to go into a rehearsal room unplanned and run around with bags over our heads wasting energy.

J: What a shame. I could do with a bit of that. I think I’ll do it when I get back to my room.

(From The (unpublished) Ridiculusmus book of making comic theatre: Arseflop 2011)

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Too much time reading about other writers and not enough time writing


I’m spending far too much time reading about other writers and not enough time writing. Plenty of time re-writing, planning what to write, changing my plans and making lots of useless notes on long and useless walks. Very occasionally the notes will end up in the thing and then I’m pleasantly surprised, so perhaps the walks aren’t useless after all. I often get in very bad moods. Sometimes these will become good moods, which is bad. I mean they’ll become good – suspiciously good, and therefore bad again - when I realise I am in a bad mood, as being in a bad mood is, paradoxically, often a productive state for me, a state in which it’s possible to generate material that might give pleasure to others, which is what writing’s all about according to Amis, M. And Amis, M. is one of the writers - no, the only writer - whose words on reading and writing so annoyingly and persistently distract me from my writing. But why him? Because, I hear myself saying before I’ve even written it (well, of course), I've found, like most of my generation, that Amis is an influence. Not an influence on my writing as far as I’m aware (apart from the italics, of course…oh God, the italics…oh and also the parentheses, I suppose, let’s throw them in too), but on my life. 

I saw him once in Prague. It was the Prague Writers’ Festival in 1998. He was on a panel with his wife Isobel Fonseca and I was in the front row, looking, I’m sure, distinctly weird. In between their answers they stared at me. Well, I was emaciated. I was driven. I was fucking scary. After the Q&A I nicked a copy of London Fields, which I still have, approached him and asked him if he’d sign it. Then I went back to my pension and wrote down what had happened. I was writing all the time. Literally this was true. I’d write when I was half awake. I’d write as soon as I got up. I’d write while walking to a cafĂ©. I’d write as I sipped a coffee, sipped a second and a third…I wrote in cemeteries, in galleries, in church. I wrote in restaurants, describing the faces of my fellow diners as they looked at me and frowned and turned away. I wrote while walking to the hermitage of St. Francis of Assisi. I wrote while standing in the metro in Vienna, while looking for the house designed by Wittgenstein. I didn’t know how to write and I was writing rubbish. I called this rubbish Things to Do and said it was a novel. It was not a novel. It was, I liked to think, a genre-busting work, part travelogue, part diary, which contained some tentative attempts at fiction. I called myself 'Lee Gamble' and persuaded Martin Amis to write an introduction (see below*). It was an utter mess. Here’s an extract from the mess:


It is 2pm, and I have just seen Martin Amis standing outside the British Council office in Vorsilska. I was heading straight for him, but had to turn to my left and linger in front of the building so that I could take a deep breath. For my heart had skipped a beat - yes, it is almost like love. Sometimes, though, the feeling towards him is closer to envy. I find myself obsessed by his face, his stance, his clothes. I’ve just flicked through a couple of his books (they have most of them on a stand outside the bookshop) to confirm that he is older than I am. Born August 1949, which, I calculate with the hasty relief of the unaccomplished writer, makes him, at forty-nine, fifteen years my senior. I have read all his books apart from “Einstein’s Monsters”, which I think is science fiction, and therefore unappealing. Hands in pockets, legs and brogued feet making solid contact with the pavement, like many short or smallish people, myself included, he has a tendency to hold himself very erect.

Has he been stood up again? It is more likely that he is waiting for someone, like Isabel Fonseca (whom I only later realise is his wife). Feeling confident now, I walk past him to the main entrance. Does he see me? He must at least have been aware of my passing shadow, even if he didn’t actually take in my features. I share his space, standing to his left, as if I am waiting for someone too. He must be one or two inches shorter than me. Just then he is joined by a woman with long dark hair who skips towards him in a long mac. He smiles. They walk off, like very good friends. Whoever she is, they like being in each other’s company. I do not follow them, but enter the British Council building, which is now awash with mainly older people, smartly dressed, standing in clumps, chattering and consuming a buffet. I help myself to a cup of coffee, half-expecting an official hand to close itself around my arm.

The auditorium doors are open (it is now 2.30pm) and I pass through, arrogantly taking a seat on the front row. The carpeted stage is set with a table on which there are bottles of mineral water and glasses. There are some seats below the stage on either side reserved for press photographers. My own camera is in my rucksack, from which I extract a copy of The Presence (Prague’s intellectual magazine), and my notebook. The room is filling up now, as I hurry to get down my immediate impressions of “seeing Martin” (another prospective title). My row is now full except for the seat on my immediate left. This is now filled by a young man with a mop of curls and John Lennon glasses. He extracts a notebook alarmingly similar to my own. I read it through the corner of my eye, as he makes additions, and as I try to conceal the written words in my own notebook with my fist. Later I begin to write in my parents’ code, Pig Latin (removing the first letter of a word, placing it on the end of that word and then adding an “a”. E.g. 'hatwa reaa oingaa ota oda ithwa thea hildrenca? ' - Translated as: "what are we going to do with the children?"). He has written “City” on the front of his notebook. Is this his title? Things he has scrawled inside include: “her legs sticking out from under car” and “introduce him to girls - charmed by innocence”. Is he a writer too? Are we both ‘wild-eyed sleazebags’? (C.f. The Guardian 1/8/98, interview with M.A).

M.A. in the street again, outside the British Council. Lee Gamble stood in the shade and made the following notes:
Hands in pockets of black chinos, black brogues, light checked sports jacket, unbuttoned. The shirt I will see soon when he is on the stage...

To my right two members of the press with cameras. Martin Amis enters, somewhat sheepishly, eyes cast downwards, with Adrian Lowe, Isabel Fonseca and Jeffrey Moody. He sits and takes a sip of water through a haze of flashlights. His fingers tremble as he wipes his mouth. The shirt is lilac.

The discussion is called “The Novel Today.” Adrian Lowe introduces the participants in his delicate drawl. There are to be questions after Martin has given a potted history of the novel. “It’s never been in a better state...The first protagonists, in Homer, were heroes and gods. By the time we come to Virgil they’re demi-Gods, and now...I wonder if we’ll soon be getting slugs or something as the heroes of novels.” Adrian Lowe interrupted to declare, irrelevantly, his love of  “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. Martin said “Yes”, and smiled patiently. The question of Amis’s accent arose. “My pre-teenage sons talk rather like me, in this Oxonian voice. Sometimes I catch their American grandfather staring at them as if he can’t quite believe what they’re doing. Like a lot of Americans, he assumes that it must take an incredible amount of effort and hard work to do it, and that when we get home we can drop it and start speaking American...American is English relaxed.” Isabel: “They say things like ‘like’ - and I know they say ‘like’ because they’re my stepsons”. Martin: “Yes, but they say it in an Oxonian accent.”(laughter).

Jeffrey Moody, the Liverpool poet, all in black, with three or four teeth, one of which looked entirely black too. His movements are elfin and excited as he jerks forward and shifts around on his chair, turning to include us when he speaks to Martin, like a pantomime performer to an audience of children. This was an inoffensive, genuine and childlike innocence, which he displayed again when enthusing about Martin’s work. “I love ‘The Information’ - it’s fascinating, that rivalry between writers...".  Martin, looking at the table: “It’s a bit like Road Runner. Every time the unsuccessful writer lays a trap for the successful one it is squelched on the road..." Adrian Lowe interrupted the flow to take a question from someone in the audience. It was an eighteen-year-old girl who wanted to know the secret of writing. “You have to wing it,” said Martin, “you have to accept the innocent part of you. If you’re too clever or smart you’ll never get a page written that’s worth anything. For every clever idea or proposition there’ll be a thousand objections..."

Later, Adrian Lowe, as if to remind us he was still there, asked Martin about his favourite novelists. “Saul Bellow is one,” he said, “and in particular ‘The Adventures of Augie March’”(another book to look for in Fetrenelli. Put it on the To Do List). “I have a feeling that in the future the novelist will be a philosopher of science.” Jeffrey Moody leant forward, confused. “You mean like Stephen Hawkins?” “No, no, no, not those kind of people.” He was asked about Burroughs, and drugs and writing. “All these innovations-like his cut-up technique- may look very well, but everything’s already been done. Burroughs relinquished control.” “He wasn’t a madman,” someone from the audience said. “Well, he did kill his wife”(laughter). “I think ‘Naked Lunch’ is unsurpassed and I like ‘Queer’...Reading is an art, as Bellow said. It is an act of communion between reader and author...In the future I can imagine that novels will come as a complete package with software that allows the reader to have virtual sex with the author...”
"The gentleman in the front," said Adrian Lowe, looking at me. I was surprised, because I hadn't felt my arm going up.  I was, of course, a burning focus of attention, but I couldn't foresee how I was going to speak.
"Do you get fans?" I asked.
I think there was a low rumble of laughter.
"Who's that addressed to?" asked Adrian. More laughter.
"To me. It has to be me," said Martin. He took a sip of water. His hand trembled slightly. He put down the glass and looked at me.
“Yes, I do get fans, and of course it’s nice when people come up and say thank you...Sometimes they don’t need to say anything. They just kind of give you a look, which says more...They tend to be divided. It's funny, but when I'm at these book-signing events with another writer, you can see a definite type in my queue. It's often full of people who look rather…er… People who stare at me as if trying to communicate telepathically, convinced I am talking to them and them alone."
Adrian Lowe sits, his lips pursed, puffy hands always ready to make an expansive, all-enveloping but ultimately peripheral gesture. Martin doesn’t like him. Someone posed a question about Clinton. What did the panel think? Martin remarked that no one talked about Bush’s mistress because she was a middle-aged woman. Isabel accused him of being ageist. Martin: “When someone asks you ‘have you had sex with x?’ you don’t say ‘Yes!’ You say ‘no’, then you think about it..."
Somebody else asked what made good writing. “There’s the writing of recognition,” said Martin, referring to an Updike character who sat on the toilet to piss. “Oh, other people do that too,” Martin had thought when he read this. I wondered if this is what Adrian Lowe was doing in the interval when I went to open the toilet door. He hadn’t locked it, and was sitting there with his trousers around his ankles. I shut the door before he could look up. While I was washing my hands, I saw that he'd left an A4 folder by the sink. I took it, thinking, quickly, that it might contain Amis's hotel details, and slipped it into my bag.

Now in kleptomaniac mood, I stole a copy of “London Fields” from the British Council bookshop and then returned to the lecture room. Martin was surrounded by people pressing books into his hands and, when they had left, by festival organisers. I returned to the large reception area and waited amongst the crowd. I saw a table and put my rucksack on top of it. I must have been standing there for about five minutes, in a kind of trance, when I suddenly noticed a box of Swan Vestas on the table. Lying on top of the box was a partly smoked roll-up. I raised my eyes. Martin was standing next to me.
“Ah,” he said. I held out the book. We tried not to look into each other's eyes. “Would you mind...? I didn’t manage to get you earlier.”
“Yes, sure,” he said as I delved into my pocket.
“It’s alright, I’ve got a pen,” he said with a touch of irritation that could have been fear. As he touched the page with the nib and his name appeared magically, I heard myself as a nervous, self-conscious adolescent saying:
“I’m one of those people who would give you a look, if I could.”
He emitted an embarrassed snigger and then shiftily turned back to address his friends.
I followed Martin Amis and Adrian Lowe out into the street and took pictures from behind, like some weirdo stalker. He was now wearing a long black mac (the same one he wore in the Bookmark special covering his interview with Saul Bellow broadcast four months later).

5.30pm. I’ve run out of Martin Amis. He’s worn off, like enamel paint, though I benefit from brief bouts of remission. I lost him just now, as I roamed the shopping arcade, finding Next, Body Basics, M&S, Tie Rack and other reminders of consumerist England.

6.45pm. The Centrum Franz Kafky. Reading by Martin Amis at 7pm. My camera is in my jacket pocket. Loud, jingly rock and blues tracks blast from the speakers. I don’t know what the music is. The young, predominantly Western crowd are hunched over their complimentary copies of  the Guardian International and The Observer. I tried to do a Paul Theroux on the box office girl earlier, but only got as far as asking when the doors would open. In the interval I passed Martin on the stairs. He didn’t make eye contact. He had a roll-up hanging from his lips (I nearly wrote ‘sneering lips’, though he doesn’t live up to the media image of a cynical, cool biscuit). “Even when he was smoking he wanted a cigarette. He was a cigarette.”(The Information). I am returning now for his reading, with a premonition of my departure before the finale.

An English-speaking girl is looking after my seat. Before I forget (and I am now sitting in an expensive Italian restaurant near the Charles Bridge), some snippets from tonight's reading. On returning to my seat, which the delicate English girl had reserved with her fur coat, I stuffed my little bag beneath my chair, crossed my legs and waited for the second half to begin. I jumped at the sound of her voice: “Were you buying your copy for signing?” “No, I got one this afternoon.” As we spoke, I realise this is the first conversation I have had since arriving in Prague which has lasted more than a couple of sentences. She was teaching English, she told me. I told her I was an engineer. Looking into her eyes, which dipped self-consciously to focus on the nape of my neck, I speculated on the possibility of romance or friendship, and maybe she did too.
Martin and the others came back to their chairs on the platform.

10.30pm.  The difference between Amis and myself is that he isn’t stood up. I really am. I have just walked for an hour and a half through the streets of Prague, beginning with indecision over how to fill up the evening, but as I walked on it filled itself up with thoughts of my own. Again I try to categorise them. Is this futile? Are they not part of the same world-picture? Amis has peeled himself off, and now a film actor walks through the neon-lit squares and cobbled pedestrianised streets of Prague playing first myself, and then an unnamed character to a haunting, throbbing soundtrack of my own. Curiously it is now being imitated by the piped music in this loud, brash and young Kenvelo Cafe off Wenceslas Square. I will never remember all this - that is what I thought as I moved on through the crowds, on the outside. The lone traveller. Could I communicate telepathically with Vincent? Surely he must be going through something similar. I am in a privileged, rare position - a lonely… blah blah blah...it all suddenly seems hopeless. Is this why people give up? I feel mad amongst swarms of humans looking for something to do. I recognise madness or depression in other people, and they in me.
The Liverpool poet, Jeffrey Moody: “I’m here until Saturday. And I’m loving it. Are you reading? Are you a writer? Oh, I thought you were a writer..."
“Would you like anything else?” the waitress has just asked me.
“No- just the bill,” I said, adding, under my breath, “And some love.”
I walk home, and as people pass I try to discern whether they are speaking English or Czech, or English in a Czech accent.

11.25pm. Standing on Kolej 1 bound for Namesti Miru on the Prague metro, I am pretending to occupy M.A.’s body. I have caught myself looking out of his brown eyes (piggy, I was going to call them) and making as if to blow bubbles from a plastic ring with the full lips of my slightly protruding mouth - a habit of his I noticed this afternoon. Eighteen years ago I caught myself repeatedly looking out at the world from the body of John Hurt after seeing him in Midnight Express. This has been the pattern with those I admire: aping their appearance and hoping this may rub off on the inner life. An acting process, too. Like Alec Guinness or Beryl Reid (“I always start with the shoes”). Concentrate on the externals first and then accrue the personality.


___________________________________________________________

*  Introduction

In 1998 I was invited by the British Council in Prague to headline their international literature festival. I was to read from my work in progress at an event called "An audience with Martin Amis" and to take part in a discussion entitled "The Novel Today", one of those comfortably vague prospectuses which make few demands on me or the audience.

On the day of the reading I was standing outside the British Council building on Vorsilska, having a quiet smoke, when I became aware of someone standing to my left. I was prevented from turning to look at this figure by an instinctive fear. After five minutes he, she or it disappeared. I soon forgot the incident, but now, on the publication of what we will call for a moment this 'novel', I am forced to relive the events of those two days and to reflect on their implications, both personally and for the world of letters which I so precariously inhabit.

It was a dire reading. My lungs wouldn't allow me to breathe properly and my hands trembled uncontrollably throughout. At one point, when I was launched into my rehearsed diatribe about the history of the novel from Homer to Joyce, I found myself gazing at the front row of the audience and the figure sitting two seats in from the end. He had a balding dome of a head and iron filing eyebrows above the most startled and mesmerisingly disturbed eyes I have ever seen. Those eyes were fixed on me, and I will never forget them. You will meet them too if you read Things To Do by Lee Gamble.

I have written elsewhere about The Morning Book and its embarrassingly feel-good method. It is, ultimately, just another device. Everything's been done before. Like all "ways in" the method has its value, but I can't help thinking that Barbara Harding, in prescribing a routine hour of free-association writing on rising in the morning (even before the first cigarette of the day), is encouraging an indulgent effusion she will live to regret. Perhaps I will be eating my words in later middle age when, on the drying up of my creative juices, I find myself giving it a whirl. Here, though, it works. And loath as I am to endorse a product that has my own much-mauled public persona as its inspiration, I am convinced that a scary talent is in our midst. His only handicap is that he is called Lee Gamble.

Martin Amis. London, November 2000

   

Friday, 14 March 2014

On previewing 'The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland'


It’s a very weird thing, previewing a new show. Not as weird as The Twilight Zone or the Bermuda Triangle or the ghost I saw in the grounds of Dean Close School, Cheltenham in 1978. But pretty damn weird nonetheless. It is excruciating too. Take this morning, the morning of the third day of our run in Shoreditch Town Hall. I woke at 6, having gone to bed at 1, and immediately switched on my computer, with whom I’ve been sharing a small room in a small flat overlooking London Fields since 2010. I checked the news of course to see if there were any updates on the fate of flight MH370. The search has now moved to the Indian Ocean. Malaysian authorities are rejecting the US’s theory that the plane went on flying for four hours after it lost contact with the radars, and in a press conference the day before a relative of one of the missing threw a bottle of water at a Malaysian Airlines official. I read an article on the BBC website about some of the passengers. There was – or is (because, as a friend of one of the missing said, ‘miracles do happen’) - a team of illustrious Chinese calligraphers, one of them aged 79. There was a couple returning to their two young kids after a short beach holiday. I recalled a Sunday Times magazine feature from the 1970’s about the passengers on Turkish Airlines flight 981, which had crashed in a forest outside Paris (a farmer found six seats in a field with dead passengers strapped to them), killing all 346 people on board. I must have been in my early teens when I read the article, but nearly forty years later I can still remember that a male model had been amongst the dead. After that I googled ‘The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland review’ to see if any conscientious reviewer had posted one already (the previous night being press night - though why they're reviewing previews I'm not sure). There were none. Then I thought I should really get some sleep. I wasn’t tired though so I sent a friend request to Jake Orr, who we’d met the previous day after a photo shoot for the show, and who’s just starting as our Assistant Producer. As I was talking to him, or, more accurately, listening to my colleague David talking to him, I carelessly poured peppermint tea all down my shirt. Jake, who had a metallic adornment set at a rakish angle in one lobe, asked us how the photo shoot was for us. ‘We have to be wary of gurning,’ David said, ‘as the more obvious gurning shots will inevitably be the ones they publish.’ This is very true. I spent most of the shoot being determinedly po-faced, especially during the Finnish folk dance, standing there with my weight on one leg, attempting to protect the arthritic knee of the other one, and watching Woods leap-frog over Talbot and Paolini. The trouble is, I might end up looking over-solemn, a parody of deadpan (‘His features lend themselves to expressions of gloom’; ‘he out-Busters Buster Keaton’; ‘he sings comic songs with a face like a Lurgan spade,’ and so on). Well, we’ll have to see, won’t we, when the reviews with their accompanying photos come out. If they come out. And if we can find out if they’ve come out. Kate Bassett from The Times was there. Terrifying. She reviewed our two man Earnest in 2005 and wrote ‘They’re just not great actors…their only option is to play everything knowingly fifth-rate.’ Yes, very possibly true, but then we were (she didn’t get it, which was of course our fault) meant to be playing two knowingly fifth-rate actors who were putting on a production of Wilde’s play. Kate Bassett sat, according to my colleague David, in the front row, but, perhaps a little considerately, on the far right side. That was in the first half, before the interval. We swap the audience round at half time and I’ve no idea where she sat after that. The other very weird thing about press nights (well, perhaps not that weird) is that once you know the critics are in you start imagining them. I’ve no idea, for example, if the voluptuously committed Lyn Gardner from The Guardian was in, but because I’d been on the receiving end of her complaints in the past (she kept on picking up her very large notepad, scribbling in it, putting it down, picking it up again, her response quite clear from the expression on her face, so no need to read the review, really, and anyway reviews are not meant for the artists, are they, they're intended as some sort of guide for the public), but yes, because of all this I imagined she was in. She was in the front row, just three feet from my right elbow. She had her very large notepad with her and she absolutely hated everything I did. Also sitting on the domestic side of the play, but on the other side of the row Kate Bassett sat in, was Ian Shuttleworth, critic of the Financial Times. Except it wasn’t, was it? It was Tassos Stevens, with a bottle of beer. There was another man in the front row with a moustache and dyed black hair and I was convinced he was someone from The Telegraph whose name presently escapes me. There were also several bloggers. And Time Out, I think, was there. I mean I felt they were there. I could sort of smell them. It was, then, an audience made up of critics and Tassos Stevens and Jake Orr. At one point someone in the audience started talking in a loud voice. Not a whisper. David, playing my character’s therapist, stared at them as though they were mentally ill and in need of swift diagnosis and, very probably, anti-psychotic medication. I ignored them, convinced that although the voice was deep and manly, they’d only turn out to be Lyn Gardner. Somehow we made it to the end. We had changed the ending, and will probably change it again, several times. It currently has a Finnish finish: we exit doing a hunched dance, wait for the blackout, wait for, hopefully, applause, and then re-enter for our bows. Or rather, actually, not for bows, having aired our loathing of the latter the previous night. We’ve chosen to nod at the audience instead. We’re not bowing and saying ‘we’re so grateful to be serving you, and being given the chance to humbly offer up this little piece for your entertainment.’ We are nodding our heads (possibly bigger than all the imaginary critics’) and saying ‘Yes, we’ve spent two years making a piece of theatre and that was it. It’s meaningful, we think, we hope, so please go away and think about it.’ And then we bugger off, go for a drink in a Shoreditch pub that’s quiet (they don’t exist) and return to our homes, knowing we won’t get good night sleeps…And then, and then, and then…