Sometimes what’s outside affects what’s inside: on nature and inspiration

I decided to have a couple of weeks away from writing. It was a simple idea – it was summer time, so I’d write nothing, just let the summer shine in through the mind’s window and the brain bask in the warmth. After all, I have three new novels more or less completed – maybe four. Five, even – possibly six. And I’ve started a seventh. I have a bit of time to find inspiration.

As writers, we have sharp critical instincts about our own work – we think we know what works and what doesn’t. Of course, we may be completely wrong, but our instinct gives us confidence and direction, based on experience – years of reading, writing, analysing. I always abandon or file away anything I’m not totally enjoying writing, if it’s not working really well. And I’m prolific. I put the hours in. I don’t mind being at the computer at sunrise or writing into the early hours of a new day. I always meet deadlines, and usually beat them. I wake in the early morning to think about my next chapters and I ignore conversations at the dinner table because my mind is elsewhere, fixed on a character’s latest escapade. So taking time out in the summer is a good thing. And my instinct told me to take a break.

Of course, the weather wasn’t great at the beginning of June, so I’d started to tinker with my newly-finished novels. I couldn’t help it – the computer always pulls me in like a magnet and I’m soon reading my work back to myself out loud, checking it through: call it editing, if you like as mistakes pop up all the time demanding to be corrected and I’m desperate to make the story better while reading it with fresh eyes and asking myself if it’s entertaining and if it ‘works’ for the reader or in a visual way, as a film. It’s ‘tinkering’ by any other name.

June has been wet so far so I’ve found it hard not to tinker with the three novels that I’ve ‘completed.’ I enjoy reading them back, a sort of ‘quality control’ exercise. So I decided to do more walking, to take myself away from temptation. Living in the countryside, I have a lot of variety in terms of where to walk and so I’ve been across fields and through woods and along canal paths every morning before breakfast for the past four weeks. I haven’t walked far – between two and five miles, generally. But, rain or shine (and there’s been a lot of rain and a lot of mud and sludge, not so much shine,) it’s been interesting to be outdoors and surrounded by nature. I’m fascinated by what happens to creativity when it’s not asked to do anything except plod along outdoors at its own pace and take its own time to kick in.

I’ve already written the first two chapters of my next novel  about two characters I really find engaging, but I’m not sure which direction it will go so I need to take some time off and wait. I want to have written the new novel and have started another one by the end of this year: it usually takes three or four months to write a novel of about 90,000 words at a steady pace, allowing for editing as I go and when I finish. So I have an opportunity now to be away from my desk, a sort of holiday, and to a certain extent I can allow the weather to dictate when I will write: a hot July or August would mean time outdoors.

But walking in the mornings in all sorts of weather has been so interesting. Rather that asking myself to come up with ideas, I’m giving myself space to let them roll in at their own pace while I surround myself in a calm and natural environment. I’m asking myself to let go of work, rather than trying to find ideas, and I’m expecting nothing back but the squelch of mud underfoot.

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It’s quite an interesting metaphor for life – when we expect little, we might be surprised by what good things come back in abundance. I’m simply in it for the exercise, the uphill struggles, the elation of downhill slides, the feeling of happiness, lost in nature with rainwater streaming down your face and into your boots. It’s a nice feeling.

And when I come home, I can reward myself with muesli or blueberry pancakes or beans on toast and hot tea. A shower. An hour in the gym. Lunch with friends. A cup of tea with a neighbour. A Spanish class. But I don’t have to work every day at the moment –  in fact, it’s an opportunity to take a breath. I am very lucky to have the freedom to let inspiration arrive at its own pace and to be confident that it will just pop up and that I won’t be left waiting for it.

Nature certainly has a way of inspiring. Soggy fields and rickety stiles that lead to nettle-crowded paths, or the rhythm of rain plopping onto canal water and the sound of gravel scrunching underfoot have given me the space to examine what characters I might create to provoke entertainment and mischief. For some reason, spending twenty minutes up to my ankles in muck in a boggy field while a herd of calves with number tags on their ears licked my hands with long rough tongues gave me a great idea for a riotous scene set on a ski slope. Surreal – but being outside really works.

Of course, I wish the weather had been better so far this month. There has certainly been a lot of moisture drenching the woods and on the footpaths and, of course, drenching me. But we’re due warmer weather, surely. So I’m wondering about the quality of inspiration that might drift in if I walked in the sunshine on dry earth in shorts and a vest and trainers rather than through squelching bogs in wellies, a beanie and a weatherproof jacket.

I think I ought to find out. I’m seriously thinking of having another week or two off, away from the computer, doing explore beaches and coastal paths. After all, it’s worth taking time away from work. There is no need to feel guilty – it’s still work, in a way. Even if I’m not at my desk writing, I’m still thinking. After all, who knows what ideas will rush in when I allow my feet to tread…?

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My unconventional relationship with the sofa, based on Dr Who and the Champions’ League semi final game

 Perhaps I should start by saying that the only time I sit down conventionally is when I’m writing at the computer. And that is hardly conventional sitting – my cat, Colin, is behind me on my chair, occupying three quarters of the seat, so I am perched on the end, which isn’t a bad thing as it leans me myopically closer to the screen and the keyboard. Colin is purring, I’m typing away, so it’s a symbiotic situation that leaves me with a warm butt and Colin with a feeling of being connected to the person that feeds him.

Most of the time at home, I sit on the floor. At mealtimes, I am sometimes at the table, sometimes on the move, but for the purposes of reading or watching TV, I’m on the floor or on the exercise bike.

So – the situation with the sofa is as follows. I have one – a sort of soft sofa that visitors or family can lie full-length on with a cup of tea, nodding off if they wish, with a cat stretched across their torso. Sofas provide comfort. But, for me, a sofa provides more comfort than simply a place to stretch out and relax. A sofa is a sort of safe grandparent figure.

I only had one grandparent, and that’s a story for another blog. My Nanny Leigh was lovely but she wasn’t your conventional grandparent who lived in a conventional place and did conventional things. I certainly wouldn’t have crawled onto her knee for comfort. She’d have giggled and said something to me I wouldn’t have understood. So perhaps it’s not surprising that sofas are places I go to seek solace.

It started when I was a child, the first time I watched Dr Who and the Daleks. I was petrified. So, of course, I hid behind the old sofa and peered out at the scary metal creatures with the protruding stick arm that killed everyone with a blast of radiation and turned them into skeletons.

The good thinking about a sofa, and hiding behind one, is that it is big. You can duck behind it and just listen to the scary sound effects, or you can peek round the corner, having a huge barrier of safety, a wedge of furniture between you and the terrifying thing on the screen. It is also soft and giving, like a big hug, so you can lean against it and believe you are getting support from something larger and therefore less vulnerable than you are. Its solidity is solace itself.

Years later a student of mine, Magic Dave, recommended Gothika as a film he said I’d enjoy. Enjoy is one of those peculiar words. I did enjoy Gothika, but in the way that I’d have enjoyed having my toenails plucked out singularly for the fun of it. I watched the entire film behind the sofa, scared witless.

Peering out at Halle Berry’s psychologically terrifying and thrilling performance was even worse than the daleks. I took out my contact lenses and hid behind the sofa, peering out blindly occasionally to guess if the screen was safe enough to watch. I’d formed a habit now – the sofa was a shelter, a den and a giant brave grandparent all rolled into one.

And, of course,  there was the question of football. I’ve even put squashy cushions behind the sofa now, a duvet, pillows, a flask of soup, for watching football. Istanbul, the Champions league final of 2005, found me camped out for the entire 90 minutes plus extra time plus the heart-stopping Dudek heroics of the penalty shootout. And, cowardy custard that I am, I’ve hung out behind the sofa for most Liverpool games this season, both Premiership and Champions’ League.

This leads me to the Barcelona game last Wednesday, the game we lost 3-0 and still played very well. I was shivering behind the sofa singing ‘He’s Virgil Van Dyke’ at the top of my voice, clutching my flask of soup, hiding, peering out for a few seconds then diving back when the going got tough.

So, this Tuesday, with a 3-0 deficit, the game at Anfield, where will I be watching the entire match? I’ll be behind the sofa. I have no idea what will happen in terms of the final outcome, but I’m hoping for a miracle, a good result, the way my team often succeed by doing things the hard way and respond to adversity with heroics. We might score the first goal, a second before half time and then the second half is poised for a third goal. This will evoke memories of Istanbul, (seen from behind the sofa.) Messi may not turn up and maybe Mo Salah will. Maybe he’ll be fit and Sadio Mané will be on a roll and I may even be able to crawl out from behind the big sofa and watch some of the action before ducking back and shaking like a leaf, screaming ‘I can’t watch, I can’t watch’ at the screen.

Statistically, given that we’re three goals down, it’s possible that we’ll lose and I may emerge from behind the sofa to watch it all, Messi scoring the first, Suarez the second, and I’ll sit and watch the heroics of my team, playing well, missing sitters, not being quite incisive enough to score when we should have nailed it, but deserving to have found the net for a goal or two. I imagine I’ll sigh and be philosophical and say ‘Well, on another day we’d have won.’ ‘Who can play against that kind of Messi free kick?’ ‘We played much better than the result shows’ and ‘Next year, we’ll be there…’ I won’t need to be behind the sofa if we are five down on aggregate – the result would be a foregone conclusion, so therefore there’d be no tension, no fear. I’d be safe sitting on the floor in front of the screen in the knowledge that we’d lost.

But at least, although my air-borne dreams of football and trophies will have been dissipated, the sofa will be there in all its avuncular firmness, and I’ll be able to hide next season when, of course, my team will be beak with a vengeance, fully fit, ready to win the league, the Champions’ league, even do the treble.  The duvet and pillows and flask of soup will be at the ready and I’ll be able to dive behind for safety at any moment when a penalty is given, listening for the roar of the crowd to tell me whether we’ve scored or not before I can creep out safely and cheer.

I have a lot of reasons to be grateful to my sofa. But sitting on it is the last thing I use it for – unless guests come round and they’re not in my house to watch horror films or football.

The joys of research for a writer- and the scrapes…

As writers, we are often told that we should write about what we know. That much is true – we write about people, places, relationships and the vagaries of the human condition. So much of what we write is based on what we know already. But sometimes our writing ventures into places and areas we know nothing about. I don’t know everything. Sometimes I think I don’t know much at all.

Knowledge comes to us in many ways and one way to understand the world is through experience. So if I need to find out about a place I know nothing about, I pack up the camper van and go there. Research has its positives, and travelling is a huge opportunity. I’ve been to various locations in the UK and Europe to find out how it feels to be in such-and-such a place, as well as to understand the geography. Currently in the early planning stages, one of my future novels involves a road trip in the US, so I’m saving up for that, but it’s not cheap so it won’t happen this year – possibly next. Of course, when everything else fails in terms of actual physical research, there’s always the internet.

As a student years ago, the first time round, libraries were the places where much of my research happened: I spent hours leafing through books, files, documents, letters, trying to find the information I needed. There was also empirical research – direct or indirect experience or observation. But in those days, there wasn’t the immediacy of going on Google and having so many choices thrown up in seconds, which I discovered was a great benefit in recent years and during my master’s. The internet is a writer’s dream and I’m grateful for it every day.

However there is one drawback. I’m sure all writers will tell you this: we become victims of algorithms. It’s hilarious. When I was writing A Grand Old Time, I wanted to find out how much Evie would pay for a second-hand campervan in France. So I researched it on the internet. For the next month, I was inundated with spam emails asking: Are you hoping to buy a campervan, Judy? Look no further.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I wanted to write about an older woman who tried to find love on a dating site. So, having no experience of dating sites except for the sound advice of my twenty-something-year-old son, I delved into the internet to find out exactly how it happens. It was really successful research – I found loads of information. I sifted through it all with a smile on my face and sent my character on an internet date or two with fascinating results. I loved writing those scenes. Then I received excessive amounts of spam about internet dating sites and did I need to find love now that I was over forty? I was even offered a Russian bride, a suggestion that was received with much humour from my partner Big G who, it has to be said, is tolerant beyond belief.

This brings us to the drag club scene I was writing this week. I’ve never been to a drag club, although I’d love to, and I think it’s the least I can do to make my research as authentic as possible. But, for the time being, pre-editing, I did the research on the internet and found out pretty much what I needed to know to write the scene. But then the emails that came into my spam box this morning… No, no, I’ll leave it to your imagination.

There’s a novel to be had from all this: a writer is researching the internet perfectly innocently for a new book, but the trail left by the algorithms points to… dah, dah, daaahhh!!!

I’ll give that one some thought. Meanwhile, I’ll keep up the researching – it makes me laugh every day and it’s great to be writing with a big smile on my face.

 

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In praise of audiobooks

Today is world book day and I’d like to bring up the topic of audiobooks. Life is a learning journey and it is good to have the opportunity to reconsider and sometimes even change our views. I’ve always loved reading – I’m usually stuck to the pages of a book, often multi-tasking, reading while I eat, cook, hoover, travel – anything that doesn’t require an active mind or great dexterity is better with a book on the go, clutched in my hands, my eyes not on the task. However, I’d never really thought about audio books as a choice. Then an artist friend of mine told me she was into audio books in a big way while she worked. A light came on almost immediately. Of course – it is so much easier to do those tasks that have to be done when you are listening to a book. I’d never really thought about audio books before but oh, what a joy they are.

Then another flood of realisation rushed in. Think of all those kids at school, the ones who didn’t like books, those who are dyslexic, those with concentration problems, the ones who’d been switched off reading at an early age, being able to enjoy a good story. And people who don’t see well enough to read print  – how important it is that they can access a library of books through their ears.

As children we love to be read to. We read to our own kids. It often helps us to access sleep – not because a book is boring but because a voice is soothing and safe and we are transported on the wings of our imagination. How nice to go to sleep listening to a story being read to us!

Then A Grand Old Time came out, as a novel and as an audio book, read beautifully by Aoife McMahon. She narrated the story with warmth and humour, bringing out the character of Evie Gallagher perfectly. I was so impressed. And in a review, someone wrote that she’d enjoyed the audio book so much; that the narration was so skilful and Evie’s occasional expletive wasn’t offensive at all, because the voice of the reader was Irish and it sounded so beautiful. That made me smile.

When The Age of Misadventure came out, I listened to Julie Maisey read the audio. I was blown away by her skills, as I was with Aoife McMahon’s. Julie Maisey had a Liverpool accent, not intrusive (although I adore the full-on Scouse voice) but with studied accessibility to all people, including those who might find accents difficult. The characters, action, settings were so well evoked by an actor who, apparently, is asked to achieve the whole thing in virtually one take. What impressive skills these actors have and, to the best of my knowledge, they are rarely known for their performances unless they are a big name.

So here’s my chance: thank you, Aoife and Julie and all the brilliant unsung stars out there that bring a book to life and send it singing into the earplugs of all of us. We who listen to audio books in the gym while pounding the treadmill, while walking coastal paths, while doing mundane domestic tasks and while driving or relaxing in a comfy arm chair with our eyes closed or while imagining the most exciting places and people with our heads on pillows, are truly grateful.

I have realised what a treasure an audio book is. I’m now aware of the skills and thought that go towards producing audio books. Audio books are the ears’ equivalent of block buster films, voices creating powerful visual images, and they are so impactful for so many people, including me now. So thank you, to all those involved in audio books. You are rock and roll. I am looking forward to my next sortie with the hoover, my next thirty mile bike ride in the gym, my next sleepless night when I can wake and in an instant be taken to a thrilling place by a warm and accessible voice.

Of course it’s a personal choice and I will always choose to hold a book, turn the pages, and stare at the words on the page in my own time. But audio books are now important too – they are right up there with all the fiction and non-fiction in my library.

 

 

 

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My top ten reasons why I love writing novels…

I’m an avid reader. I’m the sort of person who will read everything: all genres, crisp packets, adverts on buses. I have my preferences, of course – I love anything by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Shakespeare, Jeanette Winterson, Ian Hancock, Roddy Doyle, Sarah Winman, the Brontë’s, Zola, Turgenev, Cecelia Woloch, Kamila Shamsie and lots more. Reading is fuel for the mind, the imagination and the emotions. I can’t read enough.

Reading also helps me as a writer. I start from the place that someone has written something as a gift and as a reader, I have the joy of unwrapping it. It has taken them a long time and their work has come from a special place in the writer’s creativity. I extract everything I can from it, like a nutritious meal. Mostly I love lots about others’ writing and, if I don’t, I can still learn about the style, the craft. Other people will love a book I don’t get and so I seek to find out what it is about the novel that hits the mark with readers. Very rarely, if I can’t get into it at all, I put it aside, like some people do with Brussel sprouts. It’s not for everybody but it’s not my style to be negative.

Then, of course, writing books has given me so much to be grateful for. I’m learning about the craft and the industry all the time. My next novel The Age of Misadventure is out this month and I’ve just finished writing another novel I have so much love for, so it is a good time to reflect and pick my top ten reasons why I love writing. Putting them into an order has been difficult, and of course, I will find more reasons as time goes by and there may be a top twenty. But here we go. My top ten:

10 Holding the baby. It is a powerful moment when the novel stops being a series of pages on the PC and first takes the form of a book. The writer can actually hold a copy, touch the printed pages, read the familiar first lines and the acknowledgements and think ‘Wow – this is real.’ To be able to take the book in your hands is incredible, turning it over and realising that you did this yourself – (well, not entirely by yourself – more of that later.) Then the book arrives and it’s in German, Czech, Italian, Japanese, Swedish, and the Canadian edition. I’m so grateful to so many people.

9 Being asked to talk about the novel. I’m quite a humble soul really and to be asked about my book is something that triggers a strange reaction. I’m being allowed to talk about something I’ve created and people are really interested in it. It takes some getting used to. I’ve done radio interviews, which I love, and a few signings and talks at book shops and universities. It’s a little bit scary and a little bit surreal when people ask How did you think up that character…? And why did you make this happen at the end..? But I’m overwhelmed that people have invested the time and interest to read and think about my novel. It’s a real honour.

8 The cover. Being shown an artist’s visual interpretation of your novel, and design which an expert believes will encapsulate the story and persuade others to read it is a great experience. My daughter is a talented illustrator and I’m always overwhelmed by people’s artistic talents and interpretation, and the time it takes to create the final piece. It is a joy to reveal a cover, and quite an emotional moment. Then, seeing the way the cover is designed for release in other countries is an experience that takes my breath away.

7 Being outside and being inspired. One of the greatest joys of writing a novel is that I have the freedom to choose how I schedule my working day. I’m quite driven, so I don’t spend lots of time in the bath or gazing at the sheep in the fields but I do make myself stop, in order to think and to recharge. The beach is a favourite place to go for thinking time, or on the moors, where ideas will blow through like clouds and I become clearer about what I want to write. I’m lucky to have a campervan so that I can travel, research my work and just let thoughts move around.

6 Laughing out loud at my own story – and even crying. If my own writing can move me, then it might move a reader. I find myself laughing aloud at what I’m typing sometimes and that’s a good measuring stick. Characters such as Evie Gallagher and Nanny Basham, and the three main characters in my latest novel, have all made me guffaw. When I’m editing and I know the story so well, it is another good time to test the waters. I shed a tear at the end of A Grand Old Time and Nan’s story about her past in The Age of Misadventure made my heart ache. I think the central issue is that I care about the characters – always flawed, dented by life’s experiences but optimistic and feisty, they deserve something special and that’s what I’m aiming for by the end of the novel. Of course, it won’t always be a happy ending for all of them…

5 Starting a new novel. Like a first date or a new love, a new novel grips the writer and you can’t get enough of it. I just want to write all the time, I’m so full of enthusiasm and energy to tell the story. Of course, I have dumped a few novels on the way at 20,000 words. Filed might be a better word. But if I’m not bursting with excitement, then probably the reader won’t be.

4. Waking up at 2 am. I love it when I wake up and characters are sitting at the end of my bed, yelling ‘So, what happens to me next? How do I manage to resolve…?’ and I spend hours working it out. Early morning is active brain time for me but I don’t mind. It’s productive and fun, so I roll with it.

3. Finishing a novel. It’s a great feeling but not a simple one to explain. Finishing a novel goes way beyond ‘Yahoo, I’ve finished – bring out the bubbly.’ There is a feeling of immense satisfaction, because I’m pleased with it and I’ve brought the novel to a conclusion and all the characters have a resolution. I know I need to go through and edit and re-edit, and I enjoy the process of improving what I’ve written. But there’s also a bitter-sweet tinge of sadness. I have to let the characters go now… they move from the smaller place of my life and into the wide world. But like children, you have to let them grow, move on and find their own way…it is a good feeling to have brought them this far.

2. The support. I can’t praise enough the people who help me with writing novels. I know lots of writers advocate self-publishing and I admire their expertise and focus. But I am blessed with the invaluable support of experts. From my wonderful agent to cheerful and skilled editors who are so experienced and helpful, to the exuberant publicist who works non-stop, I am truly lucky. The encouragement and love I receive from friends, neighbours, ex-students from my theatre-teaching days, even people I hardly know, is immense. I’ve had some really touching messages and incredible support from all over the world. It’s mind-blowing and truly wonderful. And then there is the encouragement I get from my family. At the end of The Age of Misadventure, my daughter whooped out loud and cheered at Nanny’s brave actions. My son knows every plot twist and my partner will read a chapter or two of a first draft each night, offering me technical advice about anything that has a motor engine. They are special people, my family, and I can’t thank them enough.

1. Readers. I’ve left readers until last because a book has no purpose without a reader. The readers are in my mind all the way through the writing process…will the reader enjoy this? How can I entertain, move, grip, interest, surprise my reader? It is an honour to be in the position of offering something I’ve created to someone else. And it’s not something I’m anxious about: it’s a privilege. Whoever and wherever the readers are, male or female, new to my books or not, whether they are bloggers, editors, people who’ve picked up a copy in a shop (someone told me they’d bought it on a whim because of the title and had no idea if they’d like it,) whether it features in a reading group or it’s an audio or on kindle or in paperback, I’m so grateful that I have such wonderful readers. It’s what it’s all about, the process, the ideas, the crafting, and the editing. The reader is the prize at the end of the race. So whoever you are, thank you.

 

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What I learned about writing a novel from the TV detective series Luther

As a writer, I try to learn about the craft of writing a novel from every source I can. The obvious source is reading and I try to read all the time. Each day I’m perched on my exercise bike for an hour, devouring anything I can get my hands on, and even if I have no more time for reading that day, at least I’m getting in the literary and physical miles at the same time. My favourite novel last year without a doubt was Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, the retelling of the Antigone story. Shamsie is a writer who clearly knows how to craft a clever story.

But I am on a mission to learn and to improve my writing all the time, and that means seeking out all other means of refining my skills. And this brings me to the fifth series of Luther on TV, written brilliantly by Neil Cross. Now it has to be said that Luther is a terrifying programme. That shouldn’t be a problem for me: I was brought up with scary films and books. My mum loved everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Agatha Christie. She loved the thrill of danger. It was escapism. (It has to be said at this point that my dad did not read, nor could he shift his stance from a stubborn belief in only that which he could see and touch at any moment of time, the real, the mundane.)

But since the screening of the Luther episode of the killer in the street wearing the luminous mask, I won’t to go out in the dark to put out the bins. Neil Cross deliberately targets our potential to be afraid and he unleashes the power that lies in our dread and anxiety about the unknown. He said ‘So all of the bad guys are avatars of my fears and anxieties, and once I have isolated that fear – the guy under the be- that’s a shared anxiety with so many of us – once I’ve got that initial spark of anxiety, then I begin to think about the character that could exemplify it… Who is he? Why is he doing what he is doing? What does he want? But that ultimately comes second to the scary stuff. You start with the fear and work backwards.’

Character is always important. Idris Elba’s John Luther is a sex symbol of our time, but more importantly he’s a maverick, a flawed genius who steps outside the rules, a man of the law who sails close to the wind, breaking convention. Other characters shine. Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan is brilliantly contrived – a ruthless unpredictable psychopath who turns up unexpectedly and behaves outrageously.

William Faulkner said ‘In writing, you must kill your darlings’ and Cross does exactly that in Luther. Justin Ripley’s death shocked us all, as if we thought someone so loyal, so important and good-natured was exempt from being murdered, and when he was not, we were stunned and we mourned. And then came the demise of Benny, the tech expert – another martyr. Neil Cross underpins my belief that the reader should be surprised by what happens next – no character is safe, no eventuality should be predictable. And the importance of complex likeable central characters with the potential to amaze but who bring empathy and warmth and human vulnerability is not to be overlooked.

An impactful setting is something we all strive to create in our writing. Luther is firstly a visual medium, but it works on the same principle as writing. Whether it is from a camera angle or the written word, whether we are following a victim onto a bus or watching someone take off their shoes from a killer’s viewpoint under the bed, setting can create emotional impact and needs careful consideration. Cross’ work prompts me to ask myself if I can make the setting more powerful, more relevant or can I find an alternative setting that is more surprising and unexpected.

Neil Cross excels at twists and turns in storylines and having several threads unravelling at the same time. He leaves vital questions unanswered, which draws the viewer in, and he misleads us deliberately to add to the surprise at the moment of anagnorisis. My background in both theatre and writing tells me how vital it is to suspend disbelief, to keep the interest of the audience strong but to draw them out of the comfort zone and keep them guessing. In series 5 of Luther, we wonder what will happen to George Cornelius’ kidnapped son, but we don’t expect what Alice does or when and how she’ll do it. We are interested in how new DS Catherine Halliday will fare working with Luther – the signs are mixed, a tentative novice but with a cool head. It could go horribly wrong. And DSU Martin Schenk is on to Luther – he now has real evidence of his dangerous liaison with Alice.

Then there are the murderers – Vivien Lake and her evil, strange husband, Jeremy: the luminous horror mask, the needles, the eyeballs, and that incredible moment where the patient was talked through her impending heart operation by the psychopath doctor and he slipped the shocking phrase ‘diseased whore’ into the professional dialogue, much to the patient’s – and our- revulsion and incredulity. Cross is offering a master class on suspension of disbelief, terrifying the audience, misleading them and keeping them guessing, interweaving threads of characters’ action and contrasting story lines in an intricate way so that the outcome will never be clear until the shocking moments of catharsis.

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Photo by Stephan Müller on Pexels.com

I got into Luther late, and scared myself silly by watching all the earlier series in a week. Series five is no exception – it’s horrific, brilliantly contrived, the stories unfolding expertly. Most importantly Neil Cross, like any good writer, knows how to channel and manipulate his audience’s emotions, how to create the dynamic interplay between fear and hope, relief and shock, admiration and sadness and dread. He knows how to pull us in to the plot and keep us there, how to make us take sides and invest in the characters, how to force us to feel sympathy, empathy, antipathy and to steel ourselves against a huge barrage of horror. And he knows how to keep it coming.

There is a lot to be learned about writing a novel from a television series, and in particular, from Neil Cross’ Luther. Series five was excellent, and although the action is often about male killers and female victims, I still focused on the belief that the horror was real and spent a lot of it watching through the gaps in my interwoven fingers. But, like every great novel, it leaves me sad when it’s over and waiting for more, although I’ve no idea what the next series might hold. But I’m looking forward to the superb storytelling and how it can help me to refine my own writing.

Two Shakespeare plays, two inspirational pairs of actors but two very different theatre experiences…

A few months ago I went to see Macbeth in Stratford, with Christopher Eccleston playing the eponymous role and Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth. I was looking forward to it because I admire both actors and I thought it would be a real privilege to see them in roles that would offer exciting performances. I wasn’t disappointed. Eccleston was very much the plain soldier Macbeth, completely at ease on the battlefield but not so able to deal with real-life emotional issues: he was a ‘nice bloke’ who did his job, adored his ambitious wife, respected his superiors but very quickly found himself out of his depth. Cusack’s performance crackled with passion and the desire to seize life’s opportunities. They conspired together to kill King Duncan; she was strong and organised; he was loyal and troubled by his softer conscience. Then after the deed, he fell apart and she could not sustain life with the guilt she had accumulated. His performance as tortured hero who became a murderer and her descent into mental illness suffocated by guilt were superb. I should have loved the production. But I didn’t.

Then recently I saw the National Theatre production with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as Antony and Cleopatra. A simpler storyline than Macbeth, I expected to be blown away by the acting but less impressed by the play itself. It’s a three and a half hour long performance about two privileged and self-absorbed people whose love is obsessive and at times controlling and they both get what they deserve at the end. The actors’ performances were brilliant – off the scale, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about the production not gripping me. The text was construed in a considered, innovative fashion; the characters were complex and well-studied and the result was a powerful sizzling interpretation.

Eccleston and Cusack as Macbeth and Lady M impressed me greatly, but the rest of the cast didn’t. I invariably try very hard to see positives in an interpretation and I am always in awe of people who perform well on stage, but the production contained two thrilling actors and a weak supporting cast. Banquo’s extended silence as he heard that his children and wife had been murdered didn’t work, making him look like an actor who’d forgotten his lines, and his subsequent high-pitched wail of grief was incongruous. The directorial decision to cast three little girls as the witches never resembled the chilling corridor scenes in The Shining, where children are ethereal and scary. Imagine the ‘Double double’ cauldron scene, Eccleston acting his socks off while three sweet kids in pink onesies skipped around him chanting a nursery rhyme. It didn’t work at all for me, or for the complete stranger I bumped into coming out of the loos during the interval, who looked at me and grunted ‘What did you think? Bloody amateurish waste of my time.’

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In contrast, the three hours plus of Antony and Cleopatra flew by. Although Fiennes and Okonedo weren’t immediately likeable, they impressed as complex characters both separately and together. The play ticked all the boxes: the revolving set made the action fast-paced; the opulent Egypt and contrasting business-like Rome was a clearly effective way of transposing action and place and highlighting cultural difference. All the actors, with a special mention for Enobarbus, Caesar, Eros and Agrippa, offered a wide range of emotions and were readily believable. Fiennes showed Antony’s dilemmas clearly, troubled by loyalty, caught between his brutal military life and his turbulent passion for the Egyptian Queen. Okenodo was playful, proud, imperious and controlling, occasionally vulnerable, but always fascinating. Their ability to allow the roles to consume them in performance was second to none. Antony’s intense anger, his self-hatred and his tragic destiny consumed the audience. Okenodo was incredible: her death scene came after three hours, and it is neither a short nor an easy death to portray, but her performance was measured, powerful and poignant as she infused despair and dignity into her final scene.

The director of Antony and Cleopatra combined inventive interpretation with the gimmicks that work well visually: a lavish lake into which Cleopatra pushes Eros and creates comedy; the powerful and violent war sound effects; the evocative images and crashing waves of being at sea. The play was effective as an entity; the text made absolute sense and the characters were totally credible.

Compare the successful realization of Fiennes’ and Okenodo’s Antony and Cleopatra to the predicament of two excellent actors, Cusack and Eccleston, and a supporting wooden cast acting around a wooden table. I came away from Macbeth pleased because the two main characters had been glorious, but with a sense of unhappiness that the rest was not good enough to balance their brilliance; they had endured bravely against the challenge of what was to me a pedestrian production stuffed with random gimmicks that were not joined-up in concept and therefore did not work. In comparison, Antony and Cleopatra demonstrated what happens when two great actors perform in a production where everything gels and the result is harmonious.

I love live theatre and it is very satisfying when a production absorbs me from start to finish. It is delightful, consuming and it enables me to leave the theatre feeling that in some way, my life has been embellished. It is less satisfactory when my suspension of disbelief stops during the early scenes and I start to consider the ways in which the production could be improved while it’s still playing out before my eyes. It is interesting to see how two great actors can thrill together and separately whatever the circumstances, but how much brighter they can shine when they are given a strong supporting cast and are part of an innovative production.

 

My top ten to bring us in from the January cold

January isn’t most people’s favourite month. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about it. It’s cold. Christmas has gone and won’t be back for a long time so it seems like there’s nothing to celebrate. It hasn’t snowed. It probably won’t. A holiday to somewhere warm would be nice but….

So, with a brief nod to a lovely woman I worked with once, who said I was ‘horribly positive,’ here’s my top ten of things to warm the heart this January. In no particular order other than random selection …

  • VEGANUARY. So many people are trying a plant- based diet this January and 61% of them, according to statistics, will still be vegan by December. The Bosh! Cookbook will be out soon and, having followed their blog for years, I know there will be some sumptuous recipes to make everyone happy, whether they are looking for a Christmas dinner, a delicious burger or a chocolate cake.
  • BOOKS. There are so many good books to read. Mary Beard. Sarah Winman. Patrick Gale. This is just my January reading list. On the exercise bike, it’s amazing how many chapters I can whizz through in an hour. I’m so lucky to have good books to read.

  • FOOTBALL. After Liverpool’s monumental win over Manchester City last week, (a team I admire for their attacking football and excellent players such as De Bruyne,) the future for the Reds looks good, especially if we can sort out the goalkeeper conundrum. Plus we have signed Virgil Van Dijk, and the Fab Four (Salah, Mane, Firmino, Ox) continue to amaze. Football is theatre, a performance in two halves. Which brings me to the next one on my list.
  • THEATRE. Last year ended on a high, seeing Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage. This year promises to be brilliant too. Hamlet is on in Plymouth next month and it will be really good. I must sort out tickets and then I’ll look forward to it throughout January.
  • MUSIC. I’m enjoying Spotify while I work at the computer and my current writing backing track is Humble Pie. I love Steve Marriott’s voice and the stomping rhythm makes sure my writing is pacy. Check this one. I know it’s from way back in 1973 but who cares if it’s this good…
  • WORK.  My book cover is out. My novel follows soon and I am so excited. I’ve had a wonderful review and such kind words and real enthusiasm blow me away. It’s a joy to work with people who aren’t just incredible professionals, but truly lovely. We are blessed if we find ourselves alongside people we trust, who are supportive, efficient and completely totally nice. Kiran, Rachel, Sabah, the Avon Team – they know who they are.

  • NATURE AND TRAVEL Whatever the season, whatever the weather, being outside, travelling, going somewhere the wind blows the salt of the sea in your face, or somewhere there is nothing but silence and a deer peering behind a tree, or somewhere you have to try a new language and rethink your own lifestyle, or somewhere you can be lost in bustle and noise and culture. It’s good for the soul.
  • ANIMALS (CATS). Last year, my best cat, Pushkin, was knocked down on a lane where three cars pass daily. She was so unlucky and of course, I said, as we all do, ‘No, I won’t get another cat. Ever.’ My daughter persuaded me to adopt Monty and Murphy, two mad clowns who had been feral and will now scrounge hummus on toast. Colin is just starting to tolerate them. They are lovely and cats make such great company. I love the way they slap their bottoms full-on the keyboard when I’m editing and give me six pages of dzzsmk..rrrtlgggggggggggg

  •  FRIENDS. My friends are scattered everywhere from the North to the South. I don’t always see them all as often as I’d like. I know we have email, messenger, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, phones. When we do meet up it’s rock and roll. I have happy friends, mad friends, friends who need a hug, who give hugs. I have funny friends, talented friends, kind friends. Where would life be without friendship? I love you all.
  • FAMILY. Family is at the centre of everything I think and do. Without them, it would all mean so much less. They are my backbone. They are my smile when I wake up each morning.

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. Desmond Tutu 
I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding that the most important things in life are health, family and friends, and the time to spend on them. Kenneth Branagh.

Amazing production of ‘Mother Courage’. It should be on national TV.

I took time out last weekend to see Josie Lawerence in Mother Courage. It was in a lovely little theatre in Southwark. I had front row seats, which is ideal for a Brecht play, to be able to take in every facial expression. I couldn’t understand why the theatre was three quarters full: tickets were only ten pounds each. But the play was a real gem.

Mother Courage and her Chidren is a play by Bertolt Brecht, set in  Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. Mother Courage is a canteen woman who pulls her cart with her three children, Eilif, Kattrin, and Swiss Cheese. Following the army, she lives by trading with the soldiers and attempting to profit from the war. To her, war is her living but making money costs her dearly in the long run .

The play is typical of  Brecht: his epic theatre was a phenomenon arising in the early to mid-20th century,  responding to the political climate of the time. It educates through the medium of entertaining; it’s political theatre.

I once directed The Mother, another play by Brecht and it was greeted by two typical responses. One was from audience members who thought that it was a serious play, too political, dull, lacking frivolity and entertainment. The other was that it was pertinent, moving and important.

Josie Lawrence’s Courage straddles both audience viewpoints. With lively music and lots of laughs, she and her cast entertain as Brecht intended, but the strong political message about capitalism and profiteering, poverty, war and exploitation is central.

I remember as a teacher of theatre, working hard  to enable students to understand the individual style of Brecht. I wish I could have taken them to see this production. Mother Courage embodied all Brechtian theories, from Gestus to alienation. It was funny, poignant, tragic and beautifully performed by a team of talented actors, headed by the superb Josie Lawrence.

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There were magical moments, from raunchy song and dance routines, to Courage’s devastating silent scream when Swiss Cheese dies; from Kattrin’s martyrdom to the final seminal image of Courage pulling the cart, her personal ball and chain. With the fourth wall broken, the actors would share jokes and biscuits and eye contact with the audience. There was one wonderful moment where Mother Courage put out a hand towards the person next to me, begging for support, as she trudged on alone.

The production has now finished but I hope someone decided to film it. I hope it’ll be streamed to cinemas. Apart from it being full of accomplished performances,  it is an important play. The storyline is gripping and Brecht’s words are perfectly translated by Tony Kushner, a playwrite I adore for his best works, Angels in America and A Bright Room Called Day.  (Apparently, he’s currently busy writing a play about Donald Trump.)

I hope Mother Courage tours the country and packs huge theatres. It’s one of those plays I’d love everyone to see. Sadly I suspect this production won’t be seen again. I’d love it to be on TV over Christmas, so that everyone could watch it from the comfort of an arm chair. But I fear it wouldn’t compete with Corrie or Strictly.

Brecht intended his plays to be for the masses, so it’s ironic that only a few theatre-goers will have witnessed this brilliant and thought provoking production. But then that’s the moot point, isn’t it? Audiences for whom it was intended will never see it.

I’ll leave you with some ironic lines from Mother Courage and let my readers decide if it’s still a relevant must-see play after almost eighty years. Does it still resonate?

What they could use around here is a good war. What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization. And when do you get organization? In a war. Peace is one big waste of equipment. Anything goes, no one gives a damn.

 

 

Fiennes shines as Richard III

Several years ago I saw Ralph Fiennes as Prospero in The Tempest. It was directed by Trevor Nunn, at the Theatre Royal, in 2011. Ralph, as in Salph and Sound, had only been on stage for twenty seconds. He hadn’t spoken a word. He simply raised a digit slowly into the air and -pow! Thunder crashed  and lightning split the stage. That is the sort of performer he is: autocratic and accurate and absolute in his instinct.

The Tempest isn’t one of my favourite Shakespeares but Fiennes as Prospero was commanding and powerful, yet vulnerable and utterly convincing. We were in Salph hands.

So, Fiennes as the villainous Richard the Third in Rupert Goold’s Almeida production, screened live to cinemas on 21st July, could only promise to be thrilling  theatre.

The play begins with Richard’s skeleton being discovered in a grave in a Leicester car park. The grave is the centre point of the stage and sets the context for the play as the archaeologist pulls out the twisted length of a spine and lifts it high. The lights change and we are in the fifteenth century and Richard sways forward, dragging the audience into his seething monologue:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking glass;
I, that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.

Fiennes delivers to us a callous misogynistic Richard who is ambitious, cunning and intent on achieving power at any cost. He dissembles and lies to other characters but with the audience he is honest, brutal, sometimes exposed in his weakness, but always scheming and self-obsessed.

There are times when he is funny. The scene where he pretends not to want the crown, but holds out the Bible and feigns piety, is hilarious: Fiennes becomes a master of stand-up comic timing. But then there are the murders and the deliberate schemes to strike his enemies and we know everything he does is done to further his own position.

The scene in which he persuades Anne to marry him while she is mourning over her dead husband’s corpse is outstanding. A difficult scene to achieve for actors- one minute Anne curses him, spits at him, then he asks her to kill him: she almost does it, then agrees to marry him. However, the rapport sizzles: we understand the motivation for Anne’s acquiescence in the face of Richard’s power, his craftiness and his sexual assault of a vulnerable woman. Anne becomes prey and victim and we the audience believe every moment. She is merely a step towards Richard’s achieving the crown: I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.

Richard’s interaction with women is a key theme of the play. Fiennes’ King holds no respect for women. He has no natural affection  for his mother and he repels Margaret’s bitter curse with a single swipe. He is indifferent to the fact that he has brutally murdered Elizabeth’s sons: he tells her that he will marry her daughter as recompense:

If I did take the kingdom from your sons,
To make amends, I’ll give it to your daughter.
If I have kill’d the issue of your womb,
To quicken your increase, I will beget
Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter

Goold then directs the scene shrewdly and with breathtaking impact: Richard rapes Elizabeth. He is violent in his abuse and she quickly leaves the stage: she has not acquiesced, but she is shaken and violated, and when she has gone he shows no remorse, but calls her a : Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!

It is perhaps at this point that we realise the monstrous king must die.

Fiennes is outstanding as Richard but this isn’t a one-man show. Vanessa Redgrave is magnetic as the cursing Margaret, carrying a doll which represents dead babies, feeding it alcohol from a glass. There is a powerful and tender scene where the three mothers, Margaret, Elizabeth and  the Duchess of York, combine their sorrow and lament the death of their children. Margaret advises Elizabeth to experience as much bitterness and pain as she has known in her own life and the three women combine in a curse as powerful as anything in Macbeth:

Think  that thy babes were fairer than they were,
And he that slew them fouler than he is:
Bettering thy loss makes the bad causer worse:
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse.

The performances of Aislin McGuckin, Joanna Vanderham and Susan Engel as Elizabeth, Anne and The Duchess of York are powerful: although they are each in turn the object of Richard’s maltreatment, they are still vocally compelling and each creates a taut and credible victim while demanding to be heard in their own right. They are no pushover, demonstrating the extremity of Richard’s heinous behaviour towards them. James Garnon as Hastings is perfect: the scene in which he realises Richard has duped him and he is to be killed is a triumph of characterisation. Finbar Lynch makes a superb Buckingham, perfectly balanced as a liar and cheat and as a victim of Richard’s fickle allegiances. Daniel Cerquiera’s Catesby is exactly right: the noble thug who does all Richard’s dirty work with impressive efficiency.

Each moment is a gem – there are no sagging scenes in the play. The final action where Richard is visited by the ghosts of his victims, and the Earl of Richmond has a contrastingly peaceful night’s sleep, is intense and thrilling as both men sit at the same table and the ghosts speak first to Richard then to Richmond, and we sense the outcome of the next day’s battle.

The final battle scene is everything it should be- loud, crashing and quick, with Richard repeating his famous lines A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse! until we can only hear the gasped word horse! and he is killed and falls into the grave where, as the lights fade, we see the archeological excavation and exhumation in February 2013 in Leicester.

Richard the Third ends with a satisfying reminder of where it started: the back story has been filled in and Goold has shown us history on stage. Fiennes has created the character of Richard with physical and vocal perfection: there is the dragging leg and the hunchback, but he does not wheedle or whine. Rather, he plots and simpers and cajoles and threatens; he is mentally incisive and always dangerous. He licks blood from the block where Hastings has been beheaded. He searches the audience for assassins to help him. He is commanding and sinister and lethal and in control.

I would have loved to have been at the Almeida and seen Richard the Third live. It was a close second, though, to be in a cinema auditorium  with another twelve or so people, having the opportunity to watch this fantastic production as it is performed in the capital.

It’s an interesting plot factor that  Richard seizes the chance to rule a divided country in difficult times. He sees the opportunity open before him and through his crazed ambition, his ability to deceive and his unswerving determination, he takes his country from stability to division and chaos. Fiennes said of the play that it resonated with what is happening in our own current political climate: “Not through our doing but just because of events happening around us. Suddenly it became full of a pertinence that perhaps it hadn’t had before.”

Of course he’s right. This is exactly the time to be watching Richard the Third and to be considering our own political parallels. Perhaps we’re not so Salph!

So where do we start looking?