It is easy to be dead

Or so I imagine.  Everyone seems to be able to manage it, reardless of wider ability (or lack thereof).  It is the ultimate equal opportunities employer: no discrimination on any grounds. I am, as is widely known, a terrible human being but believe that even I should be able to master the state given time.

I can only assume that it is this expectation of the cold embrace of death, looming on the horizon, that causes me to try and fit quite so much incident and moment into my remaining days.  How else am I to explain the very few hours I have spent in my own home over the last month?  If I’m not over the water for work, I am gadding about the country for pleasure: maintaining friendships and over-indulging in culture.  However, compared to some I seem to have achieved so little – which brings me rather neatly back to the reason for today’s title.

Many years ago, the great Tom Lehrer used to compare his accomplishments unfavourably to those of Mozart.  Whilst his musical output may be slightly less well-known, I strongly suspect he was the much better mathematician of the two which would make him the clear winner.  Having made so much less of a mark in either the public sphere or mathematics than Mr Lehrer, I have many people both today and historically to which I can make comparisons from which I emerge entirely overshadowed.  In an attempt to keep this post to a manageable size, I shall focus on just one such high achiever: Charles Hamilton Sorley.

“Who he?” you may ask (slightly ungramatically, I would note).  When I first encountered the name recently, I didn’t know either.  He was a poet, who worked in the period just before the start of the First World War and until his death at the Battle of Loos in the autumn of 1915.  He was highly thought of by both John Masefield and Robert Graves, to name but two (and two that I have heard of).  I was introduced to Mr Sorley by the Finborough Theatre who were planning to stage a play about him, written by their Artistic Director: Neil McPherson.  Such is the parlous state of so much of the arts, they were looking to crowd-fund a little money to help finance the endeavour.

Being the nosey chap I am, I had to seek out some of his work using the miracle of the internet: whilst my ignorance is vast, I am keen to have some superficial knowledge on as many topics as possible.  Having found CHS and some of his work, I was forced to agree with Messers Masefield and Graves: I absolutely loved his poetry.  Given that I would probably have passed through the rest of my life without encountering his work, I felt the least I could do was bung the Finborough a few quid by way of thanks.  This being the modern era of crowd-funding, my modest contribution did qualify me for a reward when the play was staged back in June.

So, one Saturday afternoon back in June, a friend and I headed off to the Finborough Theatre to see It is Easy to be Dead.  We both thought the play was wonderful: and for once, my eyes were not alone in being tear girt.  They play is constructed from Charlie’s writings and gives a glimpse into the life of an exraordinary young man.  Before his untimely death Charlie had led a surprisingly interesting life and had gained insights into life that I still struggle with at my age (and had certainly not managed at his).  We also got to meet the cast, producer and writer afterwards over a couple of very fine beers in the Finborough Arms (which acts as the foyer to the theatre).  This was a huge amount of fun and further increased my understanding of how the theatre (just about) works.  I even had a backstage tour of the Finborough – which covers a larger area than I had expected, but is still very small.  I now know that not only is Neil the Artistric Director, writes some of the plays and seems to answer most of the emails but he also does quite a lot of the painting (I’ve seen his overalls) and many of the odd jobs.  It really was one of the best night’s out I’ve ever had and made me love the Finborough even more.

Chatting with Alexander Knox who played Charlie, brought up comparisons with Patrick Leigh Fermor.  I was already primed to seek out his work, having been introduced to it by Nick Crane at an RGS talk given in Southampton a while back, and this provided the spur to actually read some.  Having now read the middle section of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (having had it briefly liberated from the stacks at Southampton Library), I shall have to read the rest.  It was an extraordinary journey through a Europe that no longer exists – and, indeed, has been violently torn apart.  Plus, you have to respect a chap who was expelled from school for holding the hand of the greengrocer’s daughter!

I’ve only managed to make it back to the Finborough once since It is Easy to be Dead – a trip snuck in on my way back from Cambridge.  On that occasion I caught the Canadian play Proud by Michael Healey.  I really loved this play (and no crying was required) it was both funny and very interesting politically.  At the end I felt I had some understanding, and even respect, for Stephen Harper -the Conservative Canadian Politician.  This was not what I’d expected and perhaps not what Mr Healey intended.  Apparently the play was considered controversial in its home country, though if I were Mr Harper I’d take it as quite the compliment: as a politican, people can (and will) say far worse things about you.

Given my fondness for the Finborough, I was pleased to learn that it has once again been saved from a planning threat.  London needs more than just endless flats: surely egregiously wealthy foreigners could find something else to do with their surplus funds than buy London properly and leave it empy?  Are there no Perimership football clubs still available?  I was also excited to read that It is Easy to de Dead may transfer to the West End later this year, which would open it up to a much bigger audience than can fit into the modest confines of the Finborough.  It feels like my child (or at least a friend’s child) is achieving success in the world which is always lovely.

Dad 321

It had to happen eventually (it didn’t), I have finally experienced the joys of fatherhood (true, but misleading).  And now I shall just leave matters there, in an attempt to build some dramatic tension…

I spent last week in Edinburgh, at the famous Fringe and its much smaller cousin, the International Festival.  As usual, I attempted to fit way too much culture into a week, but as last year I attempted to manage my addiction by refusing to attend any show starting after 22:00.  I may have been massively over-stimulated, but at least I was tucked up in bed before midnight!  Effectively my ego was acting as a rather laissez-faire parent to my id, but did at least impose some boundaries (okay, one boundary – but you have to start somewhere).

As I headed north for my annual cultural overload, the weather was set fair – or so the Met Office claimed, erroneously as it transpired.  So damp and totally unlike the forecast was the actual weather that a lesser man might suspect the Met Office to be in the pay of an unscrupulous cabal of Scots mackintosh and umbrella vendors, attempting to lure gullible Sassenachs north with insufficient wet-weather gear.  Fortunately, years of childhood holidays in Wales mean that I am not so easily fooled.

As is traditional, my Fringe had an underlying bedrock of comedy, but this made up the smallest proportion of my gigs yet. Before going I had left myself a note to see a chap called Tom Ballard, though I no longer had any idea why.  Trusting in the judgment of past-me I dutifully went to see the youth – and was surprised to find he was Australian.  Despite this handicap, I had a great time at his gig and current-me can thoroughly recommend the lad: however, I still have absolutely no idea why past-me had made a note of his name.  Does this suggest that my work in temporal mechanics will shortly bear fruit and that I use the breakthrough to provide gig recommendations to my past selves?

In a further nod to tradition, several mornings were spend at the Queens Hall soaking up some classical music.  Mark Padmore made a vastly better fist of An die ferne Geliebte than I ever have – and I was watching him (and listening) very closely for tips.   Despite this hawk-like observation, I still cannot say how he filled the whole venue while also singing piano and even pianissimo.  Other musical highlights were the Dunedin Consort playing Handel, accompanied by the stunning voice of Louise Alder (where required, she sat out the concerti grossi) and a concert of piano, viola and clarinet centred around György Kurtág.  This is a very fine grouping of instruments and the works by Mark Simpson, Marco Stroppa and Robert Schumann have opened a whole new area of music to me, though I may need a little more time to fully embrace Mr Kurtág himself.

Circus also played a big part in my week, once again demonstrating that I have a long way to go before running away to the big top is a viable career plan.  Most of the circus seemed to originate from Australia, perhaps indicating greater legal protection for French-Canadians (who, like elephants, can no longer be exploited to thrill an audience), and was very good.  My two avourites were A Simple Space and Elixir which both combined amazing skills with a lot of fun – and, in the case of the latter, the first time I have seen a man actually steam.   In fact, every circus I saw was good and introduced some new physical feat or new way of approaching an old idea which suggests that there is life in the form for some time to come: which is good new for my long term career planning.

For the first time in Edinburgh, I branched out into dance and saw an amazing piece called Smother.  This claimed to be hip-hop dance, though given my limited (okay, non-existent) knowledge of the genre I wouldn’t have guessed, and the 55 minutes flew past.  It would seem that hip-hop embraces rather more than a rap-based musical style: you live and learn!  I am now more keen then ever to extend my limited gymnastic skills into  b-boying – though was distressed to discover that even in this apparently free form of dance, one is still expected to keep in time with the beat (or at least the young performers clearly acted as though this were required).  Do evening classes still exist, or are we supposed to leaen everything from YouTube videos now? Music-wise I also went to see the Melbourne Ska Orchestra which was a great experience, though unlike much of the audience I did resist the urge to dance (too early in the day for my blood-alcohol levels to have reached the threshold required for dancing), but I’ll admit it was a close-run thing and had the seating been a little less cramped I might have “cut a rug” (as I believe the young people say).  My other favourite musical piece is harder to describe, it was a combination of fairly thin spoken autobiography, a music lesson and some virtuoso piano playing by Will Pickvance (a chap I had heard on The Verb, purveyor of many good things).  This, in a place where animals were once dissected, was a thing of total joy and a complete contrast to everything else I saw.  It somehow seemed to recharge my cultural batteries.

I also looked at some art and discovered that 10am is rather to early to face the full onslaught of surrealism.  It also became clear that Bridget Riley’s work is not ideal for the sufferer of astigmatism: though staring at some of her works does function as a suprisingly effective legal high!  I can fully recommend Inspiring Impressionism at the Scottish National Gallery which opened my eyes to the the role of Daubigny in so much of the impressionist art – and indeed beyond – I have seen over the years.  The exhibition ends with a wonderful, if heart-breaking and very late, painting by Vincent Van Gogh: it would seem I now cry at paintings too.

The final category of fun was theatrical.  My favourite piece came from Belgium and had the unpromising start time of 10am and subject matter of the terrorist massacre at the high school in Beslan.  Despite this unholy trinity of issues, Us/Them was an amazing piece of work and made the whole week in Edinbugh worthwhile on its own.  In fact, Summerhall was awash with interesting Belgian theatre (mostly Flemish) – of which I had time to see far too little – so I think I may have to spend some quality time in Brussels.

Right, I suppose I’ve kept you waiting long enough, I should explain my recent fatherhood and introduce my new son (who has a bushy beard and probably out-weighs his father).  My second favourite piece of theatre was Every Brilliant Thing, which I wanted to see last year but was sold-out and so this year I got myself organised (just a little bit, to quote that sage of life planning, Gina G).  It was worth the wait, though I did blub a little (well, I was more involved than usual in the plot) having made it through Us/Them with (almost) dry eyes.  The play stars one half of Jonny and the Baptists (I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to reveal it is not “the Baptists” and that one should never trust a swan) and, as it turns out, quite a lot of the audience.  Many people are handed a slip of paper to declaim at the appropriate moment: mine was numbered 321 (not, so far as I know, in tribute to the late Ted Rogers).  However, a few of us had larger roles and I had to play Jonny’s father (and to an extent Jonny).  This seemed a fairly modest obligation at first, safely discharged from my seat with only a minimum of speaking (just the one word, albeit delivered several times) or acting required (so very much pitched at my level of skill).  This contrasted with one member of the audience who had a lot more work to do while wearing only one shoe: and in my performance she was so good at her part I still wonder if she had been practising.  However, just when I thought it was safe to rest on my laurels (or cushion, no laurels were provided) I was dragged centre-stage and required to give an impromptu wedding speech as the father of the groom.  I’m sure my readers would not have been caught napping, but I had come woefully unprepared with not so much as a best man’s speech on me.  Luckily the discovery that Jonny (my son) was very much shorter than me provided an “in”(by way of reference to his tiny mother) and I managed to extremporise a small speech which went down suprisingly well.   It is rather nice being applauded by an entire theatre, if also a tad embarrassing, and I rather fear a monster has been created.  In future, I shall expect a round of applause for any impromptu declaration exceeding a couple of sentences.

Gosh, that was a long one – and such a range of references, if I were a better chap I’d provide footnotes.  Suffice to say, I had a splendid holiday but very little (if any) of a rest.