Cumberbatch and Van Gogh in the same frame. Fascinating.

Today, I was discussing the new film ‘Loving Vincent’ with an Art student. Apparently, it is a really exciting and ambitious film, to be released this year, in which Van Gogh’s troubled and brilliant life is told through animation; there will be 56,800 hand-painted frames in the entire film in the style of the artist. I watched the trailer and I now I think I have to see the film! It promises to be stunning, breathtaking and beautiful. Directed mainly in Poland by painter Dorota Kobiela, the ground breaking film will be a real feast for the eyes.

A year ago, I was in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. A few hours in the museum, traipsing from one painting to the next, is exhausting emotionally. It’s as if you have been on a visual whirligig of his life, unsettling, incredible and in full colour. I recall looking at one of Van Gogh’s paintings, ‘Self Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat, 1887’, and having a strong sense of Vincent the man. In the picture, he is gaunt and hunched: his eyes don’t meet ours, wherever we stand. He is solitary, singular and sad. Then again, I saw ‘Self Portrait’, 1889, the one against the blue background.Vincent’s mouth is set and stubborn but his eyes are unsettled, his beard fiery red and the whirling blue behind him makes me think of his intense mental confusion. By this point, he had committed himself to an asylum in St Remy, having argued with Gauguin and cut off a portion of his own ear.

Today, for no particular reason, someone gave me a film and recommended that I watch it. It is the docu-drama  ‘Painted with Words,’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Van Gogh. Released in 2010, and featuring only Van Gogh’s own words through his letters, narration from Alan Yentob and some talking heads from other actors playing Theo Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and other influences, it tells Van Gogh’s life story in flashback from the hospital in Provence.

This film had somehow passed me by, but it shouldn’t have. Cumberbatch is an ideal actor to play Van Gogh, not only visually, with his light hair and beard and intense blue gaze, but because of his intelligent interpretation of the painter’s character. Cumberbatch’s Van Gogh is self-absorbed, obsessive, often a little lachrymose and tender hearted, and his portrayal is sensitive and believable. We know what will happen at the end of the story: we know about his unrequited love obsessions, his loneliness, his excessive absinthe drinking, his friendship and quarrels with Gauguin.

But Cumberbatch delivers on empathy, often merely by talking to the camera.His ability to use pause, pace, non-verbal language and vocal expression is stunning, as are his excellent facial expressions. His eye contact and then the lack of it, his moments of self absorbed musings, create a portrait of the artist as a troubled genius and Van Gogh’s painted and drawn masterpieces are his props, which makes for a powerful depiction.

‘Painted With Words’ is a thorough film, covering Vincent’s time in England, his inappropriate love for his cousin Kee, his  fractured relationship with his father and, above all, his dependence on the good nature and support of his brother, Theo. It touches upon his love for his mistress, Sien, whom he found as a pregnant prostitute and took her in, using her as the model for paintings such as ‘Sorrow’.The film deals with his life in  France, his loneliness, his obsessive need to paint and his descent into bipolar illness. Here Cumberbatch excels. Vincent is a driven artist and his genius is his enemy.  He separates himself from a world of people  he does not completely understand in order to paint it’s natural beauty.

Van Gogh’s paintings and  drawings, many which he gave away to his brother, feature powerfully, telling a story by themselves, as his work changes in its influence, from his early copies of others’ styles, studies such as ‘The Fisherman on the Beach’, to ‘Sorrow’ and then the wonderful ‘Potato Eaters’.Then  came his fascination with colour: self portraits, Japanese art, bright fields, flowers, then the superb ‘Starry Night’ in 1889. At times, he could complete a painting in a day. By the end of his life he had created well over 900 pieces of Art.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a very  likeable Van Gogh and he creates a tragic figure. It is a unique portrait of an incredible artist using only his own words, and it is a moving film. Often misjudged and, at times, misjudging and ill-treating himself, Vincent is a man obsessed with his work. It is the only area in which he excels, having failed in other areas of his life: conventional paid work, religion, parents, friends and love.

Cumberbatch shows us Vincent’s youthful enthusiasm, his growing pains, his losses and mistakes and tantrums, but he remains a character with integrity and compassion. We notice the resolution with which Vincent accepts his isolation and his illness, as if his paintings are the greater part of the man, subsuming his soul. Vincent is tormented, unsupported and alone and the final moments of the film show him eating his  paint in a suicide attempt and finally shooting himself in the chest in a field of golden wheat, (although there are other theories about his death, including the idea that he may have been murdered).

It will always be an irony that Vincent Van Gogh is lauded now and yet he had little celebration or payment for his genius in his lifetime. It may be too late for him, but films such as ‘Loving Vincent’ are a great tribute to a unique artist. Benedict Cumberbatch credits him with a depth of character and an obsessive talent which may have initially  balanced the banalities in his life, but later Vincent became two polarised characters, the genius painter and the flawed man. ‘Painted with Words’ is a superb film, another triumph by one of the greatest actors of our time as he portrays one of the greatest artists ever.

My new novel’s protagonist: ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’

I am trying a few ideas out. Basically, I need to find a new protagonist to write, one who will fascinate and absorb me for 100,000 words. He or she then stands a reasonable chance of absorbing the reader. My first novel’s protagonist, Evelyn, and her son Brendan were protagonists for whom I felt empathy: I wanted them to find the life they wanted. I gave them a problem each, then I tried as their writer to help them solve it over a period of challenges and conflicts in which they learned about themselves. And, basically, I liked them.

A reader’s empathy for a character is important at times; at other times, it isn’t. When writing roving third person protagonists, it is easy to expose a character’s motivation, good or bad. What is important, I guess, is not that the reader likes the protagonist but that the reader is interested in them, their story and what happens next.

I have just read a couple of popular novels as an exercise in checking out how I, as a reader, respond to protagonists’ characters, how they are revealed by the writer, and how their dilemmas are resolved.I wanted to to investigate why readers found both books so fulfilling.

Firstly I read ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn. It’s a current best seller and a successful film. It is a suspense/mystery novel which explores the psychology and dynamics of Nick and Amy’s marriage through  roving first person narratives, and Amy is an unreliable narrator. The characters are strikingly different, well developed and there are some clever plot twists. Amy is, apparently, the girl ‘every man wants and every woman wants to be’. Nick is handsome and desirable.

In fact, Nick is a shallow oaf and Amy is a sociopath. They have interesting, complex and unpleasant  personalities: Amy is out to avenge all wronged women while dismissing or using as many people as possible. Nick and Amy appear the perfect couple and then Flynn cleverly drip feeds the reader information to show that they are both flawed and terrible. I disliked them both and found it very hard to care about what happened to them. It wasn’t just because I didn’t like either of them. They bored me and, often, I just didn’t believe in them.The novel was clever and crammed with striking devices: often Amy’s chapter would begin with the words which ended Nick’s, to show how similar and intertwined they were. But, despite being able to appreciate the writing, I didn’t enjoy the book.

I read another ‘girl’-themed book: ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins. Another psychological thriller; again, roving first person protagonists; again, flawed characters; again, a best-seller and a film. And again, I didn’t initially warm to Rachel and Anna and Megan, but it didn’t matter at all this time. I found that I could invest in their characters’ growth  and believe in their lives. I accepted their back stories and I understood what had led to their current situations.The twists and turns of the story were good, even though I kind of suspected what would happen at the end.The characters were affable, credible, troubled and there was  ongoing exposition and denouement, which kept the book lively and the characters and storyline were always developing. Early animosities and relationships between the characters change and suspense is high. Hawkins uses her characters’ narrative to create complex, flawed individuals who appear to be going through a rough patch; they have a past and are capable of change, desperation, even heroism.

Red herrings and clues are well signalled. We want Scott and Rachel to be innocent. I suspected Tom the minute he used the same lines on Anna as he did on Rachel.

Both ‘Girl..’ books are not the sort of genre I usually read; neither of them create the depth of characters you might find in a Brontë, a Winterson, a Mitchell, an Amis  or a Donoghue, although perhaps the characters are more vivid and absorbing than – say – Emma Healey’s ‘Elizabeth is Missing,’ which tugs at different heartstrings. But that’s not really the point. I wanted to discover why one protagonist worked for me and the other didn’t, and the key to why the characters worked for other audiences.

I think perhaps readers enjoy seeing the pretence of ‘perfection’ of the main protagonists of ‘Gone Girl’ exposed as the sham it is and then their relationship dissolves, leaving two nasty characters whose punishment is to remain bound to each other? Isn’t the strength of the novel the unreliable narrator being finally unmasked and then the truth of their relationship becomes increasingly more palatable to a reader when  Nick and Amy  get what they deserve? And Rachel Watson, the flawed girl on the train, finally becomes a valid character through her determination and her capacity to change. We admire her honesty, and her previous lonely obsessive alcoholic weaknesses are absolved as she triumphs against a character whom we knew was too oleaginous to be true.

So, back to my new novel and the protagonists I have in the melting pot. My previous protagonist, Evelyn, is funny, mischievous and resilient. Her story is an adventure, and she is pursued by the hapless Brendan, who has much to learn about what he wants from life. My next protagonist will not be such an easy or straightforward one to write.

I have several ideas for my new, unreliable or perhaps not so likeable narrator. One is Zach, an angry young man who relates the story of his life from an unusual setting and an unusual perspective. The story will take the reader through many of the events of his life and there will be unexpected twists and turns, surprising action and strange relationships explored until the  climactic ending.

My second idea is set in the 1980s. I am interested in the sexual politics emerging now from accounts of that era. My protagonists are two women with totally different life styles, and different histories and cultures, who both begin the novel with huge dilemmas in their lives before I bring them together and enable them to seek resolutions or change.

My third idea is about a man and a woman, identical twins: again, they will be roving first person protagonists. Both of them appear dangerous and unpredictable characters but the reader will not always know which of them, if either, is culpable until a late and unexpected exposition.

I am currently interested in writing the unreliable narrator. I am keen to create a character who is complex and flawed, one whom the reader may not like but who will be fascinating and will enable new details, action or change to emerge from the fact that information is held back until later.

As a writer, I continue to research and learn, and from such growth my characters and writing may improve and develop. Reading the ‘Girl’ books was not the deepest experience I have had with a novel, and neither of them gripped me sufficiently that I couldn’t put them down, as was the case with – say – Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ or Evaristo’s ‘Mr. Loverman.’

But both books challenged me as a reader. Not intellectually, but in terms of suspension of disbelief despite their smooth and polished style, and they took me on a journey and made me think. They enabled me to ask myself questions about the craft of writing and about the quality of the reader’s experience.Both novels pointed out to me that I am not necessarily right in my subjective judgement of the storyline, either; both writers have been best sellers, they have an audience who invested in their characters and found them absorbing and pleasurable. The unexpected plot twists and the smart narrative style and the ongoing suspense in both novels create a popular genre which sells. Both books are well written, in a style which readers love for the way the narrative exposes and develops aspects of the characters and plot. And both novels have visual qualities; they light up readers’ imaginations. They have become successful films.

Back to the fact that I spent time reading a book I didn’t like and another book I thought was okay: such time is never wasted. Both books are good reads and highly successful, which means that as a writer, I need to analyse what works and why and how.Research which prompts thinking which prompts learning, which prompts better writing, perhaps, is always time well spent.

My new protagonists do not need to be likeable, but they do need to be fascinating, and perhaps with a surprising background, a secret or an unexpected story to be drip fed…

Back to the computer, energised and ready to write.

How will you celebrate World Poetry Day?

Today marks the first day of Spring and it’s also World Poetry Day. It is a time for rebirthing and creativity. All around the country, countless kids will be going to school and reading a poem, maybe some Edward Lear or Ogden Nash or a wonderful bit of Benjamin Zephaniah? Maybe the old favourite, Blake’s Tyger, will crawl out of the woodwork.

Poetry is one of those delicate issues in schools where kids can easily be turned off. But there is also a huge opportunity to galvanise their love of words and mix it up, make it real and find your inner poet.

I remember a group of us being taken into some gorgeous gardens and told to look at nature because we were all going to write poems. One student turned to me and said ‘Bloody Haiku again, innit?’ as we were ushered into a cold room and asked to use the beautiful things we’d seen around us in nature and render it in a five-seven- five formation. I admire John Cooper Clarke’s Haiku best, the one which goes:

To-con-vey one’s mood
In sev-en-teen syll-able-s
Is ve-ry dif-fic

I think iconoclasm is important in a poem, or at least that the poet uses the opportunity to write something big. It doesn’t have to be world changing but it must say something resonant, something more than just personal indulgence. It goes beyond self gratification,  to create a bond with the reader, so that they either understand, want to work at understanding or are simply blown away by the ideas and the words.

I am fortunate to know four brilliant poets personally – probably more, but I am going to mention the four on World Poetry Day, because their poems mean a lot to me. Nathan is a performance poet and he is incredibly gifted, not just with his words but with how he takes ideas and works an audience. Julie, too, a talented actor and performance poet. I heard her do one on Dunblane last week which made everyone in the room gasp. Erika, who is a wordsmith, an artisan, who creates beauty in words and hones them so that they are a gift from her to the reader. And Zack, a poet of incredible sensitivity and skill, who unwraps words in his poems which astound and gratify. They are four brilliant poets, and today, being the first day of Spring and a time for rebirthing, I am going to wish you the best of all words this year.

I know people who don’t like poetry. While I loved trochees and iambic pentameter, metaphors and allegory, they didn’t see the point and were not enabled to see it. Poetry should not be hard graft, it should be a joyous exploration. If one has the slightest love of words, then the delights of Hopkins, Plath, Byron, Donne, Ginsberg, Coleridge, Lamartine, Atwood, Heaney, Nichols,  Rimbaud, Tagore, Thomas, Bukowski, Angelou, Frost, Pushkin, Yeats, Larkin, Duffy – I could go on – are  blooms in a Spring garden, each offering something different for the reader, but it has to be said, there are so many people out there who don’t get poetry at all.

In my case, I love literature despite being drilled, hammered, bashed, cajoled and threatened in the classroom, made to read around the room words which made little sense to anyone at all and were never explained. I remember the whole class being given detention when we sniggered at the lines ‘Pistol’s cock is up,’ without the teacher ever explaining that Shakespeare’s Henry V and other great works  had characters who were there to be bold and bawdy and amuse the groundlings, and that this was perfectly legitimate literature.

I know some brilliant teachers who work a lot harder than is physically good for them. They are not just trying to achieve the target percentage of passes which the education system deems they should reach each year, but they aim to ensure that each kid is inspired, learning something  which will last  long after they have left the classroom and which will be their first steps to wider autonomous reading, writing and enjoyment throughout their lives.

I dare say the old adage, with a bit of adaptation, could be true here: if you love words and can read them, thank a teacher.


How would you bet on the next James Bond?

Like so many other people, I had always disliked James Bond films. I suppose the 007 movies have become a cultural reference point for British people: we know a bit about the actors, the villains, the traditional genre and the theme tunes. I didn’t like the Connery Bond; even if we allow that it is of its time, it established a farcical playboy pattern where the bad girlies were nearly always killed off and superfluous. They were sprayed with gold paint to suffocate in their own skin, eaten by piranhas, drowned, stabbed, shot or – my own personal unfavorite – forced to fight another woman barefoot for her man.Of course, the good girls stayed pliable and acquiescent, or at least became so by the end of the film for the last sexist punch line.

I loathed their awful names too. Kissy Suzuki, Plenty O’Toole. Mary Goodnight, Wai Lin, Chew Mee and Pussy Galore. Oh, and don’t forget the unimpressively reductive name, Bibi Dahl. Even if we accept the dated ethnocentricity and misogyny, the characters still lacked depth and imagination. But then Roger Moore was aptly called Roger Moore, so I suppose that set some kind of standard.

I rarely watched early Bond movies unless I was round someone else’s house at Christmas. Then Daniel Craig came along and improved the genre by being a little more multi-faceted. His Bond had some kind of chip on his shoulder from being an orphan. He fell in love with Vesper, who was an unusual and strong woman. He tried to rescue her and he grieved when she died. He had a credible rapport with Dame Judi Dench’s ‘M’ and, as he became older, his body occasionally failed him and he became more vulnerable, while still falling back on his usual experience and courage.

This version of Bond was more watchable as the villains became more complex and interesting. I liked the updated Le Chiffre with his tears of blood but my favourite was Raoul Silva, a character with the type of unpredictability and guile seen in formidable villains such as Hannibal Lecter. Silva was played superbly by Javier Bardem and he, Craig and Dench made the film ‘Skyfall’ memorable and disturbing through their screen presence and skilled performance.

So now Daniel Craig, having reformed the genre and made it modern and more palatable, may be leaving the role, and the top contenders are lining up to become Bond. Here is a superb opportunity for the franchise to change character and move forward again. The next Bond could be black, gay, even female – to give the franchise a contemporary twist and to build on the subtle revolution in style that Daniel Craig has brought to the role.

Idris Elba (6/1) is gritty and has style, humour and panache, and could make a really fresh and interesting Bond. Kate Beckinsale (1000/1) would make the role realistic, resonant and completely individual. Aidan Turner (8/1) could make the leap from Poldark to predictably handsome secret agent and Eddie Redmayne (66/1) would certainly add emotional depth and complexity to the role. Jason Statham (50/1) would bring Cockney bravado and endless swagger – and imagine the fight scenes!

Even Beyoncé is 1000/1.

But this is an opportunity to think even further outside the box, isn’t it?

I would love to see David Haye (N/A!) do Bond, all charm and dreadlocks and boxing gloves. Or maybe someone else would bring a bit of individuality and a new challenge to the role, someone who isn’t doing a lot at the moment. Think Jose Mourinho (1000/1 – seriously), Jeremy Clarkson, Ed Miliband (both N/A). Scratch Clarkson – he is better villain material, perhaps with wired teeth and a little cat on his knee. Richard Hammond, maybe? (Also N/A)

An exciting debut would be Jeremy Corbyn (1007/1 – again, I am not making this up) as Bond, facing the terrors of bowler hatted villain Boris Johnson while Teresa May shoots from the hip in the driving seat of  a foreign convertible? Or perhaps the judges of The Voice could line up as villains, and Boy George throwing mini missiles as their chairs swivel round and our intrepid Bond would be Olly Murs or Adele, singing and dodging the way to safety?

The safest choice for the next Bond would be Tom Hardy (favourite at 2/1) or Benedict Cumberbatch (50/1), both actors being highly rated for their versatility and immense talent. Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Hamlet blew me away. Hardy is prolific too, and he has yet to offer a performance which has been less than stunning. He has made otherwise mediocre and mundane films shine and good ones glorious.

But this is an opportunity like no other,to find someone groundbreaking as  the next choice of Bond. If Daniel Craig decides not to be the next 007, here is a heaven-sent opportunity to shake it up and make it rock and roll.If only Lemmie were still with us, he’d get my vote.

Now that would be some movie!

Pantry talk…not for the faint hearted.

You know how sometimes you start thinking about words and where they come from? It occurred to me yesterday for the first time that I knew the difference between a pantry and a larder. I’m sure everybody else knows it and I’ve just being a bit mentally sluggish – it has taken me a lifetime so far to work it out- but it’s obvious if you know a bit of French. Pantry – le pain– where you keep the bread. Larder – lard, les lardons– bacon – where you keep meat, so a bit cooler. How easy is that?

We don’t have pantries or larders in many houses now although some old houses may still have them, the lovely little rooms with shelves for so many filled jars and pots and a few friendly spiders.We have fridges and deep freezers and all sorts of cooling and stabilizing devices, so we don’t need larders and pantries. I am currently working on what I might make to go in a pantry, though, and I’m considering making mine as creative as possible.

Since doing a master’s and deciding to write full time, taking a break from the treadmill I used to leap onto on a daily basis, I have become a bit more self-sufficient. Cookery writing and blogging sharpened my desire and, before long, I was making my own cheese, freezing my own ice cream and finding new ways to source sauces than from a supermarket shelf.

Now I make my own (plant-based) milk, butter, tofu, mayonnaise, tomato ketchup, mustard, pie fillings, granola, sauces, pasta, pates and a variety of cheeses – I made a passable mock parmesan yesterday from brazil nuts – in addition to the bread and occasional cakes. (I rarely do sweet stuff unless it’s to share).

There is a guideline which I apply when shopping. It goes-‘if it has more than three ingredients, I should think about not buying it.’ Of course, hard-and-fast rules are mad. I’ve just made a tofu ricotta with basil and lemon zest and lemon juice and lemon salt and sunflower seeds and nutritional yeast and tofu – that’s seven ingredients and it makes for a great lasagna topping. But the idea of shop-bought tinned  baked beans with more than three ingredients or tomato ketchup with more than tomatoes and something sweet and something zingy and a bit of salt is raising the probability stakes of there being ingredients in there which I may not want. Also, it’s nice to be in control of how much salt and sugar – and which sugars – are shoved in your food!

I will never be one of those homely people who knit their cats pullovers and darn old socks and spend nights  running up curtains bending myopically over the sewing machine. But it is so easy to shove some oats in a jug to soak and the next day you add a bit of (oat) cream, whiskey, maple syrup to the drained water and you have a brilliant liqueur to share. A few almonds or cashews left overnight in some water, and you have the basis for a healthy  cheese or milk or sauce. A few unsweetened stewed apples in a jar, and a cake will rise with real conviction, no eggs needed.

Alternatively, a few mustard seeds and a couple of extras and you have a better dijon than you can buy for a fraction of the cost. Homemade mayonnaise is so much nicer than the coagulated oily gloop which comes in plastic squeezy bottles and as for homemade pickles, jams and  chutneys- they just don’t taste of anything but the ingredients, which is so good.

Health-wise, I feel much better about choosing a creamy mock-butter made from liquid lecithin and coconut oil, nut butter with three ingredients and homemade bread on my breakfast table than the stuff we can buy in supermarkets.

Now spring is coming, it’s time to get out of the pantry and onto the picnic mat, or at the barbecue. Outdoor fun  starts in March and ends in October, or even later. It’s time to collect the fresh ingredients out there and make something delicious for the pantry, and next winter will be so much warmer with home made stocks and soups and sauces, preserves and pickles.

I will fill all the empty spaces in the cupboards and then resort to putting up a few shelves for the rest of the jars. Doubtless, I will give lots of jars away. Sharing is what food is really all about, I think.

Then there is winemaking… an opportunity for another blog, another time maybe, but it is lunch time now and I have a 2006 vintage elderberry waiting for me with some homemade lasagna and granary bread, homemade butter, piccalilli and pickled onions preserved three months ago, and a leafy salad.

Bon appetit!


The Tiger Lillies: so beautiful, Brechtian and bad to the bone

Love is a strange thing. We love things which lift our spirits. Spring time makes everything feel better. Or a glass of wine on a Friday night, an unexpected gift or a compliment, a work of art we can see at close range in a gallery, Beckett performed live,  a quiet beach at sunset.

How much happier do we feel when our spirits are lifted by something beautiful?

The Tiger Lillies are in this category, as far as I am concerned. They make me smile and I can’t help it. Their music is evocative, sensual, raucous, cathartic but they are truly bad to the bone.

Like many fans of The Tiger Lillies, I discovered them through watching the film Plunkett and Macleane. Their songs Hell and Whore featured in the score and I wanted to know who this band were who played accordion and sang in the crazy falsetto  style, and I checked them out. Since then, I have been hooked.

Think of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, a play set to music: a narrator with a white painted face mask enters, barks obscenities at the audience and then whips up energy on stage to make the lehrstucke vivid and immediate, explaining the world as it is. Now imagine The Two Penny Opera, The Tiger Lillies album, and a ‘cheaper’ version. Three figures on the stage: a bass player who also plays the saw, a drummer with a constantly moving kit which includes a hanging chicken and a baby doll, and an accordion player who sings in a bowler hat and grotesque make up. The Tiger Lillies are not only visually distinctive, but visually unforgettable. But it is their sound which amazes and takes the breath away.

I have seen them perform live several times. Once I saw them in a huge auditorium in Manchester. They were spectacular and the audience heckled them good-naturedly for two hours while they played encore after encore as requests.

I saw them in a dive in Bristol where they were superb and I sat on the front row in a huge coat (it was freezing) while Martin Jacques, the ‘criminal castrati,’ sang Maria at the piano and made half the audience weep. It has to be one of the most beautiful, sad and awful songs ever.

I saw them play in a little community centre in Berkshire and most of the audience left before the interval, they were so disgusted. The Tiger Lillies were sensational!

The Tiger Lillies are iconoclasts whose music often pushes boundaries in the way humour so often can. With song titles such as Bastard, Kick a Baby, Banging in the Nails and Piss on your Grave, not to mention She’s My Sheep and Vagina, the band are not for the easily offended. Sometimes, they are even uncomfortable for the thick-skinned, or those with the most outrageous sense of humour, and they are certainly not for those whose strong religious sensibilities can’t handle a ribaldrous bashing.

Their songs hold nothing – and I mean nothing – back in terms of irreverence, in terms of stretching the audience’s moral limits and expectations. Even I have bottled out and skipped the odd track – especially when kids are in the car and I don’t want them to listen to CancerRapist, or Car Crash (which is about Princess Diana). But these three dudes are nothing if not geniuses.

Staple favourites such as Bully Boys and Crack of Doom are great ways to acclimatise oneself to their idiosyncratic and anarchic opera and their peculiarly dark brand of cabaret. This is postmodern vaudeville, entertaining and ironic, with a twist of mischief, covering all aspects of the nefarious side of modern life.

They do covers, too. Check out their renditions of My Funny Valentine, Send in the Clowns, or – for something more upbeat – YMCA.

The Tiger Lillies play around 300 gigs a year and they have released some 35 albums, from Hamlet, Shockheaded Peter, Farmyard Filth, The Brothel to the Cemetery, Bad Blood and Blasphemy and the haunting, beautiful Urine Palace, complete with The Symphony Orchestra of Norrlandsoperan, so it isn’t too difficult to access their work or catch a live gig.

They are not everyone’s taste, as the emptying hall space will suggest if you go and see them. But if you like their brand of deep sadness and cruel humour and you stay until the end, you’ll be guaranteed a chat with the band afterwards as they sign CDs and memorabilia and mix with their audience. What great guys they are too!

Be prepared for surprises: the raw emotional charge of Martin Jacques’ voice can change in a flash to mischief and mayhem. The music is a joy ride which can quickly become swerving savagery. But The Tiger Lillies are a phenomenon to be enjoyed or avoided, and who ever wanted half measures?

They make me smile. They make me sad and deliriously happy. But above all they are entertaining, a joy, a tonic and a corrosively delicious experience not to be missed. Check them out when they are next in the neighbourhood.

He’s gigging in the UK. Who Roy?

U Roy  is playing dates in London and Falmouth this year and I have tickets.

Live gigs are a thing of beauty: I love mosh pits and dancing until dawn, but a reggae gig is a thing apart. I have been to so many, so often: Misty in Roots, Steel Pulse, John Brown’s Body, UB40, Easy Star All Stars, the wonderful Burning Spear, the Wailers and more. But I have never seen U Roy.

When I told friends I had tickets, the usual replies came: ‘Never heard of them? Who are U Roy?’

He is Ewart Beckford, 73 years old, vocalist, toaster pioneer: he has a melodic voice and a heightened sense of rhythm and tone.

I bought his album when I was a kid and was struck at first by the misogyny of his lyrics in Runaway Girl: even though he protests true love, he urges her to remember that she’s ‘just another girl’. However, I managed to move beyond a few macho lines and embrace the whole performance. But I was thrilled by his vocal tone, his laid back style which, while nonchalant, has its own high energy. He has a persistence, a sense of mischief and then there is the toasting and the rhythm. Listen to Chalice in the Palace and you’ll maybe understand why his vocals are so irresistible.

I love live gigs but there is something about the reggae gig which is special. It is not just the atmosphere of benevolence, peace and love. It so not just that huge kicking bass, which bumps with unbelievable rhythm and regularity and hits you in the chest on every note. It is not even the ethereal atmosphere of happiness.It is the all- encompassing acceptance of live reggae music and the sharing and joy which goes with it. I was at a Misty gig in Brighton not too long ago and there was a woman on her own at the back; she must have been ninety: her body was bent over and her spine was twisted but she was giving it everything, twirling and dancing with a smile on her face like half a melon. That’s a role model for me!

U Roy is playing this Easter and this summer and tickets are less than £20. How much fun can you have for twenty quid? U Roy will be a big pile of pleasure: whether you go to London or Cornwall to see him, you can make a weekend of it, and the gig will be the cherry on the Bakewell! U Roy is totally uplifting: hear his cover of Natty Soul Rebel. You’ll totally get the voice and the toasting. I love the fact that these guys – U Roy, Burning Spear, are still gigging into their seventies and offering audiences rock and rhythm and reggae until the early hours, and still enjoying it and believing in the healing and embracing qualities of their music.

If I haven’t persuaded you yet, then it isn’t for you. But if you’re in any doubt, catch U Roy this time round in London or Falmouth. Totally good for the mind and the body. I’ll be there, dancing down the front with my arms in the air and singing along. Infectious stuff!

For Mums: flash fiction

On Mother’s Day, we remember our Mums with love and we give thanks for all they have done for us. Many of us don’t have our Mums any more and feel quite sad that maybe we did not say thank you enough at the time and it’s a bit late now.

I often think about how great my Mum was and how her life was tough on all levels, but at least she knew we all loved her, even though we weren’t always there with the right words, or there at all. But what about those Mums who give so much and receive very little back? I often think about what a lonely place that must be, to love and be a victim for loving, to be perceived somehow as weak for caring, or to care about a child who has gone away.

I never asked my Mum how she felt when I left home at 18. I was more interested in pursuing my own education and my own independence and it never occurred to me that it might feel to her like part of her life had changed forever.

This blog post is a piece of Flash Fiction, written for all Mums, but especially for those Mums who don’t get the love and thanks they should. In the lines of self-sacrifice and expecting nothing in return, I can also remember my Mum too.

Mother’s love

Gingerbread cake, warm as mother’s love. Spicy and harsh as an absent father.

Her whisk whirled in her hand as she beat away thoughts of the father’s leaving, his new lover, his old threadbare life, a closed door, a final slamming. The eggs dissolving, frothy: her marriage dissolving, messy.

The flour, light as hope. The sugar, each grain a birthday wish, the cake rising, foetal, new, golden and gifted as her son’s future.

She looked at her hands: cooking hands, caressing hands, empty.

She would keep active, useful, to forget.

The cake, displayed in magnificence, shining plate covered with a flurry of flour, icing soft as mother’s hugging, melt in the mouth then forgotten.

Soon her son would be like him. Gorged. Grown. Gone.


Franca Rame: behind the great man there was a superstar

When Franca Rame died in 2013, aged 84, the Italians at her funeral remembered her by wearing red clothes with red roses,as she had requested. She was a superstar, grieved in much the same way as recently departed cultural icons have been remembered after their deaths, surrounded by tributes and superlatives.

In this country, Rame’s husband and professional partner, actor-playwright Dario Fo, is much better known than Rame. When Fo received the Nobel prize for literature in 1997, he hailed Rame as his muse and shared the medal with her.They gave most of the Nobel money to charity.

Fo is well known for his political plays, ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ and  ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’, which featured roles for both himself and Rame. In 1970 they co-founded their own militant theatre group, La Comune, in Milan.

Franca Rame was a superb actress, a feminist and a champion of the underdog. She was never afraid to speak out against injustice. She worked for Soccorso Rosso (Red Aid), to collect funds for the families of political prisoners, who were being mistreated in Italian jails.

She said in 1984: “I’m not defending prisoners because I think they’re poor helpless beings who have been maltreated by an evil society. I just want to defend their right to dignified human treatment.” Such activity made it initially difficult for her and Fo to be given visas to visit the US.

Rame was a seminal writer and great performer of monologues, and again her characters and performances reflected her political convictions.In 1977, she put the sketches together into a one-woman show, ‘Tutta Casa, Letto e Chiesa’ (It’s All Bed, Board and Church).

It became a favourite text for feminist theatre groups and was performed (as Female Parts) by Yvonne Bryceland at the National Theatre in London in 1982.

Her monologues, ‘A Woman Alone’, are outstanding to watch and to read; they range from deeply serious to the extravagantly comic and grotesque, all comments on the female condition. Rame said, ‘The pieces are comic, grotesque, on purpose. First of all because we women have been crying for two thousand years. So let’s laugh now, even at ourselves.’

It is impressive that Rame can use writing and the stage as a platform for catharsis and political injustice. In 1973, Rame was kidnapped , tortured and raped in a van by neo-fascists. They abandoned her in a park, after dark. Ten years later, she used the experience for a monologue, Lo Stupro (The Rape), which featured in a 1983 workshop she did at the Riverside Studios in London.It can be found in her collection, ‘A Woman Alone’ and is a harrowing depiction of her ordeal, written in the first person.

In 2006, Rame surprised everyone by standing for parliament. She was elected to the senate for the populist Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values) party, a enemy of Berlusconi’s party, set up by former magistrate Antonio Di Pietro.

For the last four decades of her life, Franca Rame fought against against rape culture, always insisting that hers was never a special case. She insisted that rape is always a crime of hatred, about power and control.

Dario Fo is still alive and he is an active participant and campaigner on various political, social and cultural issue. One of his famous quotations about his work is ‘With comedy, I can search for the profound.’ If he was the people’s court jester, then maybe Rame was behind him, pulling strings or in the wings, prompting. But her work deserves its own place in the limelight. She should be remembered for her incredible contribution to political and feminist theatre.