Concerning Corrie: we need more grit and less suds

In a previous blog, I hinted that Shakespeare’s plays may have been early soap operas for the thousands of groundlings who cheered and hissed and threw missiles at the stage when the tragedy was notched up a gear. They would have paid a penny, these butchers and tanners, seamen, shop keepers, wig makers, to stand in front of the stage. That was almost a day’s wage in the 1600s. They were a boisterous bunch, too: often loud and hot- tempered, they would often heckle the actors and they clapped and booed and jeered as they thought appropriate. In 1629, a French company were jeered and ‘pippin pelted’ because they dared to use real women for the female roles. They would arrive late, leave whenever they liked before the end and at times, the groundlings would become so affected by the action, they even joined in, climbing on the stage.

That’s not too far a cry from our current response to soap operas – how many of us have never shouted at the screen when the characters are in a high drama situation, our suspension of disbelief going into overdrive?

There have been moments of soap madness which have combined excellent script writing with sharp acting performance and the result has been the creation of household names and momentous drama situations which stay with us to this day.

Remember Brookside, when Mandy Jordache killed bullying hubby Trevor and Sinbad put him under their patio, then Jimmy Corkhill had to dig him up again to retrieve the wedding ring? Remember the best row ever in the shocking climax  in Eastenders when the Slater girls were screaming at each other and Zoe yelled at Kat ‘You’re not my bloody mother!’ and Kat replied ‘Oh yes I am!’

We love the pantomimic qualities of soap; the creation of heroes whose triumphs we can hope for, and villains whose vileness and knavery we can loathe and despise. Put the baddies and goodies together and drama will develop. There was the Krystle and Alexis catfight in the lily pond in Dynasty where we all goggled at the spectacle of kicking legs and wigs and wet dresses on the telly before bursting into laughter. There was Den and Angie’s Christmas divorce and the awful fire in Emmerdale which killed Sarah Sugden and the flying window, roof tile, biscuit or whatever it was that sent Tricia Dingle to an early grave. But amid the riots and romance, we have to care about what will happen next.

This brings me to the point about modern soaps and perhaps the competition between them for viewing ratings, which may cause the plots and the characters to be strained to such an extent that they defy belief. Once upon a time, in the sixties, seventies and eighties, soaps were mini kitchen sink Dramas and a good place for brilliant actors and promising scriptwriters to cut their teeth on new, edgy stories. Soaps boasted characters we could believe lived next door to us, and we treated them as if they were neighbours, we were concerned about their lives. Stan and Hilda Ogden and the Mitchell brothers had a certain quality we both loved and hated: they were flawed heroes and yet somehow likeable. Now we are treated to characters who may be down on their luck, may be troubled, may be bankrupt or breaking up but they still manage to find their way into the Rovers for a pint or a pie and a pastry in  Roy’s Rolls, and how they keep managing to slide out for lunch in Nick’s trendy bistro on the wages from a part time job in Underworld is mystifying.

We expect soaps to bring a bit of drama into our lives and I’m sure we have all had moments where our own lives have roller coasted out of control a bit, so we expect to be staggered by the events which play out on our screens. But who would choose to live in Weatherfield, where minibuses crash and boozers blaze while Fizz gives birth seconds after the impact and Leanne marries Peter at his hospital bed moments before she’s told to fear the worst.

And in terms of romance, does anyone look any further than their next door neighbour for a life partner? Moreover, why does simpering Tim stay with silly Sally? Why would tough business woman Carla pick boozed up and bankrupt Peter Barlow, who cheated on her while she fell into an alcoholic stupor on her wedding night? Are we expected to believe that any man on earth, let alone the talented if bland Robert would cope with Tracy the conniving, lying and duplicitous murderer?

It’s good that Corrie has defied the trend to make all the storylines about misery and death, and the warm humour which seeps into characters’ rapports can be a step away from empathy and likeability, as seen in the Steve/ Lloyd friendship. But what about the Platts? I laughed out loud at the ridiculous comments and death- puns which kept coming through the family mouths as Gail arranged the furniture in her granny flat while druggy Callum was cold beneath the concrete floor. I am guessing the body under the annexe story is one which will keep bubbling for a while, culminating in a massive showdown scene before the actress who plays Kylie gets arrested and goes off on a real maternity leave? Or perhaps Callum will come back from the dead, as Dirty Den did on several occasions, and claim his new son Harry? Or maybe there will be a haunting, or they will wake up and it was just a dream!.

There have been some powerful and impactful moments of drama, such as Steve Mcdonald’s brush with mental illness, well scripted, and sensitively performed by an actor who had previously specialised in being a feckless barman who told superficial jokes. It is impressive when we realise we are in the company of great actors who are capable of startling performances, such as Katherine Kelly as Becky Mcdonald, who had us convinced that, despite her shady past, she was a character with depths of integrity and altruism.

But too often, the characters and storylines are a little weak and implausible, such as Maria’s pointless marriage to Pablo, which then causes her to dress like a lion so that Luke acquiesces with an engagement ring, without giving her betrayal more than a second thought. Even serious and ground breaking story lines, such as Phelan’s rape of Anna or Izzy’s sourcing of cannabis to cope with her everyday pain have not yet reached the emotive impact which will make an audience think about the real repercussions. Brechtian Lehrstücke or learning plays, where the characters and plots imitate life so that an audience can use logic to make decisions and form conclusions about how society works is often an important part of soap stories, but in these cases we the audience are not being made to care enough about the characters; their agonies, their plights, their dilemmas are being superficially presented without the  real jolt of empathy or tension which will make us react.

Remember the Free the Weatherfield One campaign, and the  signs which went up all over the UK asking for Deirdre to be released from prison when she was wrongly jailed for theft? Tony Blair backed it, t-shirts went on sale, it was a huge talking point nationally. Yet Gary’s arrest and Tony’s death and Phelan’s petty crimes in the community centre pass almost unnoticed: Sally, Norris and Dev remain comic characters and the romance triangle roller coaster between the bullying Caz and the star cross’d Kate and Sophie has raised barely a sniff of compassion.

Perhaps what we need is characters whom we can care about, who are less superficial, and that is difficult to achieve now in the mad soap-opera world of a tragedy a minute and a death,birth or divorce every few episodes. What we need is a dilemma we can believe in and characters we can commit our allegiance to.How can we care about characters who are underdeveloped and engaged in superficial story lines? I have seen Anna do her pained expression more times than I want to, and the result is that I don’t see her problems as interesting or her relationship with or Kevin as a venture I really care about.

Give them all something heroic to do, give them some depth and purpose. Create more characters like Eva Price. Her storyline showed her saving the enslaved Marta, despite her determination to do the right thing getting her sacked from Underworld. The situation  was far fetched but worked due to her performance, where she mixed humour and determination with gritty, gutsy action and a few human mistakes which make the drama credible. Eva the Diva has a heart: she is flawed and funny and her character is being constantly developed, due to the actor’s ability to create subtext and to show a multi-faceted personality. If only this were true of the downtrodden Tim or the whingeing Norris or the miserly and boring Dev. Give the characters passion, a heart, some credible layers and some honest action.

Strong story lines we can believe in, characters we can understand and get to know and like, a sense of commitment to backstory and action is what soap fans now need. There’s a lot of montage, a brief glimpse of a character emerging, a facial expression, a moment, and then we move to another transitory and peripheral storyline. We need some grit without the misery, some drama without the sense of déjà vu  accidents and incidents. We need to start to care again about our characters and believe they are real, rather than the current situation where Martin is cracking bad jokes about  dead, concrete- embalmed Callum in front of  gormless and gaping Gail while Sarah-Louise is having hysterics at the baby’s baptism.

Otherwise, the alternative is that reality TV will become the new soap opera. I mean, is there anything more exaggerated, ridiculous, mercurial and episodic than the life of the Kardashians? We soap-opera groundlings are always going to be more than capable of shouting abuse and throwing a few pippins at the screen. Moreover, it is very easy to change channel, watch the football instead or just take ourselves off down our local pub and have a little life action of our own.

Sublime Shakespeare: ‘Tis Beauty Truly Blent

‘… we will draw the curtain and show you the picture.’

I loved Shakespeare when I was at school, despite my English teachers. They were not the enthusiastic pedagogues of today, striving to make the bard accessible because every child mattered. My teachers were dry pecking birds who wanted to perpetuate a class system in which the Felicities and Florences were urged towards Oxbridge and the threadbare uniformed eleven plus-passing paupers like me were relegated to the back row of low expectations. I knew I would achieve an A grade at A level in English. When I mentioned going to Liverpool to study my degree, the headteacher wrinkled her rhinoceros nose at me and said ‘Eww, that is so towny!’

I paid her about as much attention as I ever did and never looked back once I’d left.

But I loved the Literature classes, even though Abigail and Arabella got to read all the best parts round the class and I had the occasional comic role because I could do accents.

In year eight we ‘did’ ‘Twelfth Night’. I struggled a bit with the concept of Shakespeare’s comedies at that point. We were told that some plays were classed as comedies, but I didn’t understand why some of them  were funny, and no-one explained it to me. In ‘A  Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ we were meant to laugh at Bottom’s working class plight and his subsequent humiliation. In ‘The Shrew,’ we were meant to find Kate’s subjugation funny. And I never knew, as a kid, what was  so hilarious about the antisemitic abuse and exploitation of Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice.’

It was the 20th century, not the 17th, and I was clear why Sir Toby was fairly funny and Sir Andrew was a figure of parody, and I understood that it was hilarious that Maria and her boys took the poke out of Malvolio because he deserved it for being priggish. I was a bit uncomfortable with that, though. The idle rich and drunk laughing at others and marrying the maid because she showed her superior wit by ridiculing someone a bit weak with probable low self-esteem. Wasn’t that bullying, I wondered? And as a thirteen year old, I had no idea why it was funny to dress up as a boy and cause a rich egotistical heiress to pursue you.

Then much later I saw Mark Rylance as Olivia.

‘Twelfth Night’, at The Globe in 2013, was an all-male cast, much as it would have been almost 400 years ago, in Jacobean costume, with traditional music and instruments.

Rylance as Olivia brought everything into sharp focus: with his tiny steps, which gave the impression of gliding daintily across the stage, and his falsetto-high voice, his performance was not a parody or a grotesque, but a radical and witty interpretation which cleverly makes the traditional also sharply contemporary. Olivia was not played for her superficial beauty, but for her keen wit and her ability to run her own household powerfully and with insight. And when she sees Cesario, Viola’s male character in disguise, looking very similar to Boy George in his days of ‘Karma Chameleon’, she decides she must have him.

All performances were incredibly impactful and strong. The cast were a collaborative team, but Rylance has such a superb sense of timing and diction and how to use Shakespeare’s language to wring out the most meaning for the audience. The moment Cesario and twin Sebastian appear on the stage together for the first time , Olivia exclaims ‘Most wonderful!’ A fresh interpretation from the one which implied a miracle: we as the audience know she is goggle-eyed, considering the prospect of a ménage a trois and we oblige with spontaneous laughter.

Olivia is in charge but her attraction to Cesario is a sucker punch to her omnipotence, and it is this new found frailty and dependence which swings from cool mistress to besotted girl which inspires the humour. We find ourselves, like the groundlings of the 1600s, laughing raucously at the innuendo jokes which would never be noticeable in a straight performance done entirely for the type of middle class audiences who laugh politely in the right places. Yet Rylance remains credible, a dilemma of delicate femininity and a woman who rules her own world. It is fun and frivolous, but never a pantomime.

The scene between Orsino and Viola/Cesario annoyed me when I was in year 8, when Orsino says such lines as:

There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.

But this scene was tenderly homoerotic. Orsino is not the priggish macho aristocrat here: we realise that his words are currently mistaken as Viola gazes at him through the eyes of Cesario, but we forgive him, because she does, and also because the rapport between the characters promises such passion and hope for change. This too is why the scene is humorous but also full of tension and romance. It’s perfectly positioned to pave the way for the action and confusion which follows.

While Stephen Fry as Malvolio and his rowdy tormentors create the slapstick which the groundlings would have revelled in, Rylance and the actors play out the love triangle and confusion of identity with  intelligent comedy, wit and farce, a great homage to how Shakespeare should be done. I just felt really happy to be in the audience: no numb bum moments, which can be the case with some productions – we were truly transported and delighted throughout. If I didn’t understand Shakespeare’s comedies before, this production made every opportunity crystal clear.

I also saw Rylance as Richard the Third, a performance rich in self-loathing and machiavellian exploitation. But perhaps that production is for another blog.

As we remember Shakespeare’s birthday, and his death on April 23rd, 400 years ago, we can contemplate an important part of our culture which may once have been the property of the middle class audiences who, due to their elitist backgrounds, understood or claimed to understand what it all meant. But it didn’t start that way. Shakespeare’s plays were the top dramas and soap operas of his time, played for fun, for laughter, for passion, loved by all who saw them, whatever age, class or background.

It is thanks to brilliant actors like Rylance and his cast, and thanks to the dedication of outstanding modern teachers who make Shakespeare’s plays fresh, accessible and meaningful that those times are here again. We can all enjoy Shakespeare; we can understand the meaning of every line in context, and new and exciting interpretations enable us to build bonds with the characters and make the storylines contemporary and meaningful without losing their original impact. The curtains have been drawn and we have been shown the picture. And what a great picture it is too.

If I could go back to my dry and diffident English teacher, I’d still say thanks, though. She may not have taken me to where I was always going to go, but I had a seat in the room and a book marked ‘Shakespeare’. And from that starting point, the journey was always going to be exciting.

We should dance more! Join me – become a crazy dancer..

Dancing is such a great way to celebrate and to enjoy how our bodies react when we’re enveloped in the rhythm and the emotion of music. I have decided this summer is all about spontaneous dancing. When no one expects it. Unplanned. Grab someone by the hand or just leap onto the table by yourself, shake a leg, a hip, arms up and just go wild.You don’t need an audience. You don’t need a reason. You just want to celebrate feeling happy.

It’s fun being a spontaneous dancer! This morning, as I was making breakfast, Shame, Shame, Shame by Shirley & Co came on my Spotify. The toaster was ignored; the coffee bubbled over, the marmite was left out in the cold. We were  in the kitchen, giving the raunchiest moves to a wonderful piece of music which transports you to fun clubs on outrageous and mischievous nights. By the end of the tune we were all on chairs, tables, jazz hands waving, with smiles as wide as slices of watermelon, feeling like who cares?

Which, of course, set me thinking. I should dance more often.

I was not the sort of child who was sent to ballet or tap classes. We weren’t that kind of family. Of course, I danced as a kid, from the beginning- I bet you did too, that saggy nappy dance where the knees bend and the bottom skims the floor, baby’s round face breaking a smile bigger than trapped wind and an innate, natural rhythm takes over. This is atavism. We were born to dance and we didn’t care less how we looked.

Remember it? We should bring that feeling back into our lives.

My Mum didn’t dance when I was a child. She was too poorly, too tired, too busy and harassed and anyway there wasn’t a lot to dance about. She did sing a lot of songs, mostly about death and loss.

My Dad, however, would have a couple of drinks at night and then he’d whip off his boots, leap over the fence and do a midnight watusi on some posh neighbour’s freshly mown lawn. The next day their roses would be flattened, their tulips downtrodden, and yes, that was my Dad who was probably snoring it off in a nearby hedge. Great days, bless him!

So, we should dance while we can. All the time. Throw our arms in the air, shake our bodies and sing. And here are five tracks I will put out there for you, especially to bring in a spring to your step this coming summer. I will be certainly pounding the floorboards  with these songs, and I’d love it if you’d join me.

Track 5. Motorhead. Ace of Spades. What else can I say? No need.

Track 4. Here’s an ideas you’ll love.You must try it. On a balmy summer night, take a table outside, on the patio, roof, balcony, street, by a lake, under a tree, somewhere you can light candles, put two chairs down and look up at the moon.Set out two glasses, a bottle of Vin Rouge, your favourite savoury nibbles and invite the love of your life (or someone you would like to be,) to join you. After a little conversation, a bit of gentle laughter, put on Manu Chao’s song, Si loin de toi. Whisk your amour to his or her feet and dance cheek to cheek to this tune. Best aphrodisiac, best smooch, bring on the good times.

Track 3.Or try this one. With a bottle  of beer and some good friends at night in the park or early on a Sunday morning to blow the cobwebs away.In the streets, on a bike, on a boat, or at the end of a great house party before everyone goes home. I’d bring in the New Year with the Dropkick Murphys. I’m Shipping up to Boston

Track 2. This is perhaps the most romantic song to dance to when you’re not by yourself and you don’t want to be: it has to be this one. I mean, if you wanted a slow dance with someone you know so well, someone you love or someone you just want to get to know better. If you want to pop a question or even ask a question you shouldn’t, or apologise or if you feel inarticulate and just want the music to do it all for you and express some deepest sentiment, here goes. Just rely on the Rev to rev the mood up for you.  Al Green.

Track 1. Here is my favourite track to dance to. I can rock to this one day and night and it makes my heart bump. For me, this is one of the best anthems by one of the best live bands I have ever seen, and I have seen them many, many times. They speak the thoughts of my soul in their lyrics and their music takes me to the place I am most at home in the world. I can dance my feet to stumps on this one, and on pretty much every song they have ever done.This song says it all – dance to it with fists punching the air, legs like pistons pounding, head back and singing along. It will always clear the dust away and banish any bluesy mood. Strong, positive, infectious music and a message I love. The best. Gogol Bordello’s Break the Spell.

So come on, let’s dance- as the classic song says, put on your red shoes and dance the blues. Bowie’s for another blog, with possibly lots more crazy dance tracks to follow. I mean, I haven’t really got started yet, have I? Where’s the reggae?

Meanwhile, barefoot or booted, get on down and live it up. It doesn’t matter who you’re with or where you are or what you look like when you’re doing it. Let’s just enjoy the moment and  crazy dance the summer days away!

My weekend in Loughborough

This weekend, four of us bundled ourselves in an old Peugeot Estate with heated seats and we hurtled up to Loughborough for the Wordsmith Award Ceremony. It didn’t take us too long to get there from the sunny South West, but there was an exciting whirl of a snowstorm in Tamworth and by the time we launched ourselves into Loughborough, we were ready to get on our glitter suits and party.

The awards ceremony was great, with three good performance poets and a few knowledgeable and nice people from the industry. Between us, we picked up three awards – prose, illustration, journalism – drank too much wine and shared the food – I enjoyed  a vegan feast of pickled onions and roasted courgettes.

But that wasn’t all.We were in Loughborough, where the people are friendly, the University is the second most popular with students according to Which Uni and everybody wears the most luminous and spotless trainers.

On the way back to our bed and breakfast, where the host was totally accommodating and chatty, we passed four curry restaurants which were cumin-scented heaven. We almost caved in at that point and, had we needed to sit down for a samosa or two, the places were open, despite it being nearly twelve o’clock. Perfection.

After a good night’s rest in a proper bed which wasn’t soft or lumpy, we decided to find a pub for breakfast. iPhones are great – instantly there as a fantastic choice on the screen with clear recommendations and we picked one and headed out in the car.

Loughborough is a bright and colourful town: the buildings were salmon and cream and aqua; there were sweeping willows and poignantly sculpted metal statues and all the fluorescent trainers lit up the morning like dancing crotchets on a page of music, as some of the fittest and happiest people jogged by.

A perfect town; warm, friendly people, fantastic breakfast. Students have such a lovely time nowadays.

I remember – and this is the point of my wittering blog – those great and halcyon days in student Liverpool, where a Sunday morning meant  heaving your head between your fists and staggering down The Grapes for eleven. The streets were full of people who looked like Scooby Doo or Shaggy.

John the barman would have the Sunday morning specials ready, a package all students chose and loved on a weekly basis. For a few quid, we could have a pint of best bitter, two paracetamol, a potato omelette and a copy of The Observer.

I’d sit in Pseuds’ Corner, nursing my obligatory Saturday-night-into-Sunday-morning hangover, talking rubbish with a few ancient Sociology students from Toxteth, a too- healthy toothy  dentist and a couple of anaemic tropical diseases students. I would clutch at my copies of Keats and Donne and grimly pretend I was cool and diffident, offering empty hypotheses and inaccurate logic, misquoting poets, philosophers and authors, pausing only to sip the beer or groan and hug my headache before checking that everyone else had noticed. Of course they hadn’t: they were all busy doing the same thing.

In comparison, how bright, brave and bold were the jogging Adonises, the powerful Amazons, the Loughborough league of the student mighty, launching forward into Sunday morning with their gleaming hair and bouncing trainers, rushing past the vivid green of the trees and the peach and aqua smear of buildings.

How misspent and pretentious were my student days , although I still retain my love for Keats and Donne and I am grateful for the thousands of literary works I came to adore in the three years spent between pints and sleep.

I never managed to find much warmth for the works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, however, although I did feel a bit impressed with her early feminism and bringing the smallpox vaccine to the UK.

But this weekend, my love affair with the Midlands took a step forward. Loughborough is awesome, and we all had a great time in this welcoming, warm and happy town.

What’s next on my list? Maybe a trip to Leicester, taking in a football game and maybe then on up to Nottingham and renew my passion for D. H. Lawrence!

Midlands and M42 beware: the old car is revving outside and the butt-cooker seats are heating up!

What if Jeremy Corbyn were more like Jürgen Klopp?

Jürgen Klopp came to Liverpool six months ago, inheriting a tired team who played slack and lacklustre football. He has brought with him a reputation, a rock star charisma, a keen and articulate intelligence and a unique sense of humour and mischief which would quickly endear him to fans. More importantly, he has brought the scent of success with him. We believe he can change things, a little at first this season, leading to the big impact all fans crave for in the future.

Klopp is changing the way his team play, imposing a demanding tactical remit. We now have more intense football which presses high up the pitch, more committed players who believe they can score goals: this is a great change from the stagnant play and the stale atmosphere in Anfield which was sadly becoming routine under Brendan Rodgers.

We hope for new signings next season, but Klopp has made a difference already, with current players such as Adam Lallana,  Mamadou Sako and Dejan Lovren noticeably upping their game. Improvements have also been made by many other players, Can, Allen, Firmino and Origi being a few names who have achieved far better form under Klopp than Rodgers.

Klopp has been honest about the team’s initial inconsistent form. He has been straight with his fans after defeats; he is always passionate and angry and committed to what we all want – results and change and the chance to have our blood pressure raised during every game with the ever-present belief that we can win.

The atmosphere has altered around Anfield. The Kop bounces and rocks; the fans have sensed the commitment and the desire which Klopp exhibits and it has affected his players and all of us who watch the games. He is infectious in his determination and desire, and every game is a game we believe we can win, whether a league match or European clash.

We believe he can do it. His fresh approach, energy, enthusiasm and passion have given us something we can believe in.

And then there is Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn was elected last September. Ed Miliband resigned in May after Labour had lost the last election, the majority of the voting population having decided he was not as strong a leader or as safe a bet as David Cameron.

So, little known MP Corbyn won the leadership race with nearly 59.5% of first-preference votes. He began his leadership by apologising for the Iraq war, holding a pally rally in London and promising to fight for the downtrodden. Many party supporters were hopeful; many new members signed up, desperate for victory. Then came the gifts to the Tory media: the no-tie incident, the National Anthem incident, the scepticism he expressed about the shoot-to-kill with regard to armed terrorists and, more recently, the disappearing tax return straight after he had called for Cameron to publish his details.

Rigid, awkward and with no visible signs of charisma, Corbyn is no Jürgen Klopp. Whereas Klopp inspires trust and motivates his team, Corbyn has allowed Labour to fragment. Klopp could win us cups; he is a contender for the top places: Corbyn is considered unelectable by many of his own party.

Klopp has brought a visible ferocity and  energy to Liverpool, making each fixture intense and vital. Corbyn, however, is a complete contrast. Watch him in news and interview programmes. He often mutters in a monotone, offering the same bland platitudes which might have just about held up in the 1970s and 80s.

Klopp has an in-your-face, gegenpressing, immediate ball recovery  style, a polar opposite to Corbyn’s laid-back pusillanimous rhetoric.Corbyn comes across as dull and disinterested during Prime Minister’s Questions, too. It is difficult to see how voters might invest in our new leader against the smooth or chummy styles of Cameron and Johnson. Corbyn chooses dry, tame questions, often clearly vicarious, as he has crowdsourced them. This may be, in his defence, that he wants to take the pantomime out of Parliament and this is, of course, laudable. But unless he can make his opponent acquiesce, and Cameron seldom does, he is giving the Tories a free opportunity to knock the stuffing out
of Labour and to demonstrate to voters which party has the strength and power to be the next government at the expense of Labour.

Klopp’s tactics involve pressing his opponent, never giving an inch: while remaining witty and fun. Klopp is gritty and determined. Corbyn gives more than an inch at PMQ and Cameron and his cronies take a mile!

I am not suggesting that, since Klopp is the ‘rock star’ of football management, Corbyn should be the Labour Party’s Lemmy Kilminster. But he has too much of the opposite: his calmness makes him look weak, his monotone renders him diffident. All of this makes him fair game and he pales into insignificance next to the more charismatic characters of Cameron and Johnson.And, sadly, if the Bullingdon Club charisma is winning votes, then Corbyn needs to promote a better, more plausible version of political energy  which demonstrates a self-belief and is infectious to voters, inspiring their confidence.

Jürgen Klopp will, despite any minor setbacks, take Liverpool forward towards league and cup victory. He is consolidating what he has this season and from next September, we are confident of a Champions League spot: we hope for even more victories and we believe that we can win trophies and top the League.

I  wish Jeremy Corbyn could offer me similar hope. He seems a nice, sincere guy. His road trip with Diane Abbott on a motorbike in the 1970s makes him sound like a dude and he obviously has a heart, but that will not win him elections. He is too frequently the butt of media jokes: people are talking about him in parody terms – the Jeremy Corbyn musical is an example of this –  and I see no evidence that he is uniting the party, demanding with belief and charisma that Labour moves forward  and putting in a few shrewd and effective tackles against the opposition.

To continue with the language of football, I don’t want to see Labour at the bottom of the League table; the penalty is too great. But is Corbyn able to take a leaf from Klopp’s book of management and up his game, to score the winning goal for us? I  fear that we have no really good substitutes on the bench and, in the long run, the next big title clash between Labour and the Tories will result in a hard-to-take defeat which can only suggest another season of bitter relegation.

I really hope I’m wrong.

Best of Samuel Beckett: Mark Rylance hamming it up. (Part 1)

Lots of people tell me they don’t get Samuel Beckett.

Perhaps they have stared at a script in a Drama lesson at school, or watched a little bit performed out of context on film. My own first taste of Beckett was watching a play called ‘En Attendant Godot’, aged 18, all in French, in a theatre in Liverpool. I didn’t really get it either.

The trick is not to try. The trick is to immerse yourself in the humour and the language and the characters of it and to give it a go. And the best advice is to watch someone perform it who knows what they want to get out of it, and who is really good at what he or she is doing.

Beckett said: ‘James Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could. I am an analyzer, trying to leave out as much as I can.’

And he’s right, he does leave stuff out. But oh, the stuff he puts in – when it’s performed properly, it’s magic.

I have been very lucky to see two brilliant performances of Beckett plays live. I will blog the second one another time. The first was Endgame in 2009, in The Duchess Theatre in London. Théâtre de Complicité, with much of it’s work rooted in director Simon McBurney’s Lecoq training, and therefore full of animated physicality, performed a masterclass in Beckett, showing why it is both entertaining and bittersweet .

Nell, played by Miriam Margolyes, spends the entire play in a dustbin, next to another bin containing her husband Nagg, played by Tom Hickey. They cannot move and they are tragic in their tender symbiosis, yet she says ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.’ Later in the play, Nell dies in her bin – and then Nagg dies of a broken heart.

Hamm, their son,  is blind and in a wheelchair and he is seated throughout the play, squirming and waving. Their world is one room, a prison; they dwell upon their past and seem to have no future.

McBurney, as the servant Clov, waits upon Hamm. He can move, he is unable to sit: he is downtrodden and disenfranchised, but his blighted life is quirky, touching and amusing as he staggers stiff-legged at Hamm’s beck and call.

All four performers are magical but Rylance excels as Hamm, a blunted hammer who beats and subjugates the others, who are his nails. (Clov – clou in French; Nagg – nagel in German. Nell, I am guessing, is ironically her own death knell). Hamm lurches from side to side, his emotions ranging from cruel to hysterical. At times he dominates, at others he is a martyr. He is a spoilt child, he is a torturer; he is suffering, he hands out pain. Rylance manages to make his character furious, humorous and always expressive as he performs with high energy, his vocal skills and changing pace both communicating his need to dominate and his need to be pitied. He is vulnerable yet he is a parasite.

Beckett is a master at using words. He once said:’Words are all we have.’

Ever the witty pessimist and a genius with linguistics, Beckett also said ‘Nothing matters but the writing. There has been nothing else worthwhile… a stain upon the silence.’

And there you have Endgame, a sensitively written thing of beauty, perfectly performed, leaving you at the final curtain feeling the  stain upon the silence, because we as an audience cannot care for the emotionless, self-centred Hamm, who is left on stage at the end of the play to starve to death. Although nothing much happens in the play in terms of action, it is bleak and powerful.

Look here at Hamm’s monologue as an example of Beckett’s brilliantly sensitive language:


One day you’ll be blind, like me. You’ll be sitting there, a speck in the void, in the dark, for ever, like me.
One day you’ll say to yourself, I’m tired, I’ll sit down, and you’ll go and sit down. Then you’ll say, I’m hungry, I’ll get up and get something to eat. But you won’t get up. You’ll say, I shouldn’t have sat down, but since I have I’ll sit on a little longer, then I’ll get up and get something to eat. But you won’t get up and you won’t get anything to eat.
You’ll look at the wall a while, then you’ll say, I’ll close my eyes, perhaps have a little sleep, after that I’ll feel better, and you’ll close them. And when you open them again there’ll be no wall any more.

The stage is a desperate place where four characters act out the intensity of life as they all totter towards death. The set is visually powerful, a dark and foreboding skull – shaped prison with two high and unreachable windows, and the acting is always acutely moving.

McBurney is a great actor and director; he’s ubiquitous in his film roles too. He pops up in The Last King of Scotland, Harry Potter, and the most recent Mission: Impossible, but he is undoubtedly most magnetic on stage.

Rylance has had huge acclaim for his recent role in Bridge of Spies. He was the best Olivia I have ever seen in Twelfth Night, but that’s for another blog.

Back to Beckett and his genius: his ability to write plays which seep into the core of your emotional understanding, even if you don’t fully get him, is unsurpassable. He is a pessimist and a master of words and emotions, and it is always entertaining, therapeutic, uplifting and cathartic to watch his plays performed well.

I’ll leave the last word to him: his plays are encapsulated in the following quotation:

‘The tears of the world are a constant quality. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.’

International Roma Day

Today, April 8th, is International Roma Day. It is a day where we celebrate Roma culture and raise awareness of some of the issues faced by Romani people all over the world. In the 21st Century climate of globalisation, inclusion and respect for minorities’ rights and culture, Roma and Sinti people seem to have been forgotten, viewed with prejudice and suspicion, with stereotype still playing a large part in how Roma people are perceived.

Television shows featuring chatty girls in bridal gowns don’t help. Roma people often prefer to be allowed to follow their own practices and enjoy privacy, so much anti-Ziganist discrimination is still prevalent and often unchallenged.

There is, of course, the romantic side, the ‘Esmeralda’ image, and the idea of dancing girls lifting their skirts while dark-eyed men play violins. But in real life, while the arts are frequently celebrated by Roma people, you won’t see dancing bare legged girls. However, there are and have been many people of Romanichal descent in the arts and entertainment business: Ronnie Wood, Robert Plant, Charlie Chaplin, Tracey Emin, Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins.

Outside the UK, there are many famous people of Roma descent with whom you probably would not associate Roma heritage at all, including Pablo Picasso, Rita Hayworth, Yul Brynner and even Elvis Presley, whose ancestors were apparently Sinti.

There is also the prevailing attitude of suspicion and mistrust of Roma people, often instilled in people from a young age. Think of the rhyme ‘My mother said…’.

Nowadays over 60% of Romanichal people live in houses made of bricks. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived in smaller communities, many may have worked in agriculture or been involved with travelling fairgrounds or circuses.

Roma language is part of wider culture: words such as pal, mush, dosh and kushti are well known words, and there are plenty more.

Roma people have lived separate lives and, for centuries, have been the target of prejudice which still goes unchallenged, even today. It makes me sad that the minute a Roma family arrive in a neighbourhood, suspicion precedes action, with calls for eviction. It is astonishing that people still pre-judge in this way. But such racism is rooted in world history and it is not sufficiently challenged.

I once asked a man who brought leaflets to my home asking to remove a local family  in a caravan on a nearby disused piece of land why he thought they should be hassled to move away. He was aghast that I had challenged him. His next few words were rooted in absolute prejudice and suspicion, and sadly he assumed that everyone else would naturally share his belief. Within a fortnight the family were gone.

Racism has its roots in a culture of ongoing dehumanisation. The Roma people have a history of such abuses across the world. In the 13th Century, the Byzantines said they were ‘wizards… with satanic inclinations.’ In 1541, Ferdinand I insisted that Roma people were expelled. By the 1700s, Joseph I was hanging adult males without trial and flogging women. In 1725, Friedrich Wilhelm’s slaughter of Roma males was backed by the Lutheran Church.

Non-Roma populations have been desensitised by centuries of myths and suspicions about Roma people. Stigmatised, herded, persecuted, even called ‘vermin,’ Roma people were stripped of their humanity and targeted due to their ethnicity. In the early 20th century, in the time leading up to the Holocaust and paving the way for focused euthanasia, they were referred to as ‘Lives unworthy of life’, (Lebensunwertes Leben).

The Romani genocide, the Porajmos (the devouring), saw the slaughter of thousands of Roma men, women and children. Even now, the number of deaths is not clear, but we know the number is between 220,000 and half a million.

Josef Mengele was particularly interested in Roma children for his medical experiments in Auschwitz, apparently feeding them sweets before performing amputations and attempting to change their eye colour.

The German government paid war reparations to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, but not to the Roma people. There were no consultations at Nuremberg. Ian Hancock, political advocate and Romani scholar, said  that Roma people “are traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others.”

Dr. Hancock is a brilliant and very knowledgeable author, and I recommend any of his books for readers who would like more background information beyond this blog.

However, this is April 8th, International Roma Day. How should we celebrate it? There are twelve million Roma alive today. There are many of us who share Roma heritage through our parents and grandparents. And there are many people worldwide who believe that intolerance is intolerable. There is much we can do, including campaigning for equal rights, asking for political support from the European Parliament, working on a local level to ask for education and change, talking to people about their lives, their culture, and their choices.

It is also important to move towards tolerance and understanding, and to seek opportunities to enable one of the world’s largest minority populations to have the same rights to dignity and justice as all other groups of people.

Opreh Roma!

Would your dog eat this?

To complain or not to complain, that’s always the question. As a ‘weirdo eater’, I am always pretty humble about anyone who will feed me something I can accept: ‘Thank you, O normal carnivore establishment, for thou hast condescended to cook something I can eat.’

And that’s me, really. Ever grateful that someone has cared enough to make me a meal. This is the bottom line, the base line, the starting point. I am always glad.

I’ve been with friends who have whinged – the coffee is cold, the portion is too small, bring out the chef and hang him or her from the rafters because the meat is raw or the meat is black. And I am peaceful and smiling. Usually.

I did slightly lose it on an aeroplane once when an air hostess shoved a plate of Quorn in front of me and told me it was vegan. That was ten years ago when even the Vegetarian society weren’t happy with the use of battery hens’ eggs in Quorn. I have to admit, I did tell her where she could shove her food. Interestingly, on the way home the flight was taken by a Dutch airline who were horrified that the UK company couldn’t accommodate my food request and the crew had a whip round of their own sandwich boxes to find me some fruit. How sweet!

As a non-conformist eater, I do occasionally have to clarify what vegans can eat but I don’t mind. One of the worst meals I ever had was a buckwheat and carrot salad which was tooth breakingly bad. I offered it to a friend’s dog, and the dog was sick over it, making the point quite colourfully.

I recall being at the end of a lovely meal in a local curry restaurant and the poor waiters were run off their feet by a raucous party. After waiting for 50 minutes, I phoned them to ask for a cup of coffee. I know that’s a bit mischievous, but the coffee  was lovely!

However, this brings me to the point of my blog. I went out for a meal last weekend. I don’t see my brother often enough, or my sister-in-law, whose birthday it was, so I booked the table in the restaurant section of their local gastro-pub and drove for 200 miles to arrive in time for lunch.

Great pub, great setting, popular place, busy carvery. I’d already told them I was vegan and I would be happy with a ‘veg curry’ and, to my delight, there it was on the specials board.

Oh, what splendid food. We sat around the table and the others enjoyed baked brie and then came the fish, the chips, the steak pie, all the usual fare, piled high on plates. Then the veg curry, with rice. Ahh!

I wasn’t going to complain because everyone was having a great time and so was I, and it was just about edible to a vegan with determination to enjoy the birthday lunch. But would you have eaten it? Would your dog take a nibble?

I didn’t see anyone else with the ‘vegan option’. I’m not surprised.

The rice was ok, plain white Uncle Ben’s. Fine. The curry was mulch brown, the colour of diarrhea, but with no curry flavour, just a bit floury. The vegetables were from the carvery: just swede, sweet potatoes and potatoes. Not an onion, not a green vegetable, not a leaf of spinach in sight. And the vegetables weren’t cooked. I mean they were hard enough to be almost raw but not quite and slathered in a non-curry sauce. But I expect someone thought it was perfectly adequate for the vegan who will eat anything and be grateful, being used to there being either nothing on the menu or the ubiquitous microwaved jacket potato or green salad. And I’ve even been offered salads and potatoes and carrots that were not vegan, so I do humility and thankfulness really well.

If my local curry house can make an 8/10 vegan meal and I can cook an 8/10 at home, then this vegetable slurry was a 2. Maybe. I should have complained for the sake of all the other ‘dietary differents’ out there, and I have no qualms whatsoever about politely telling someone their food isn’t edible, but I didn’t because the occasion was bigger than my private satisfaction.

( I did ask if they had any chutney or anything which might make it taste more like a curry, though.)

It’s time to mention the people who get it right. My local Middle Eastern restaurant can fill my belly to bursting with vegan food. Most curry restaurants, bar the ones who insist on beef gravy in everything, are wonderful. In France recently I asked if it would be possible to have a vegan pizza (in French) and the waiter replied ‘Here, madame, everything is possible.’ What a great attitude.

I think it is the proper thing to  politely point out if my food isn’t nice, because that happens so rarely nowadays: the world is so much more vegan friendly. But I think it is important to expect what I eat to be not too far below the level of satisfaction that my carnivore friends can enjoy, with their high-piled plates of fish and steak pies. And it is important to be vocal about the expectations, politely, that vegan or vegetarian or any other type of food is treated with equal care and pride when it is served up.

Sadly, this was not the case with the curry-less, vegetable-sparse vegetable  curry, and rarely have I waited until I arrived home to register how uninspired I was by the worse than bland uncooked vegetable lunch.

Importantly, though, everyone had a great time and this is the primary function of a meal: to share, to laugh, to enjoy the company.

It does help a bit though if the food is eatable! (Apparently, the brie starter was fantastic, fish was nice and the ice cream puddings were delicious.)

Who’d be a vegan, eh? Next time, I’ll just ask for a salad. They can’t get that wrong- can they?