It’s not King Lear…

I am fully aware that I have a rather pedestrian intellect and have access to no great wellsprings of creativity that lie within but, I think in common with everyone else, do like to have some creative outlets in my life. This has become even more important over the last pandemic-ridden months while proving simultaneously harder to accomplish thanks to the depletion of various forms of get-up-and-go and, indeed, focus. Despite the time on my hands, I have (disappointingly) not become a concert pianist and, if anything, my level of practice has probably declined rather than improved.

I haven’t exactly swamped GofaDM with new content either. However, on the positive side of the slate, in most weeks I have prepared, or at least continued, a new adventure in Generic Fantasy Landia which does require a degree of planning, plotting, improvisation and the creation of artwork of varying quality and styles. Last weekend, I did find myself attempting to sketch my own torso as the model for a statue and, to be honest, I had not turned turned the heating sufficiently high enough to make this entirely comfortable. Still, I like to think the result was recognisably a torso, though not really mine, though it did (intentionally) have two necks and no nipples. Later, during our time in GFL, I did find I was striking myself repeatedly over the head with a very sharp 8.25″ cook’s knife protected only by my Akubra Stockman’s hat. This was not a cry for help, or a slightly odd failed suicide, but was rather a practical demonstration of the quality of my decision making as Dungeon Master. With hindsight, I was placing a lot of (entirely justified, as it transpired) faith in the protective quality of my millinery. Both I and my hat were entirely unharmed by this practical demonstration and if Akubra wish to add its protective qualities to their advertising, I do have a GIF which they can use for a very modest fee…

I have now massively over-written six quizzes for a weekly Quiz Pub that a bunch of friends and I have been holding since the first lockdown. We have just passed quiz number 42, which I think shows a degree of commitment to a project, and an increasing number of memes have been spawned over the months. My ability with PowerPoint has also improved significantly, which may prove to be a marketable skill at some future stage in my career…

Finally, in the annals of “hasn’t he achieved a lot”, I put together a menu for a remote, Zoom-based dinner party each month with Quaranstein 10 coming up in 10 days time. Given the timing, it will have a Scottish theme…

Despite the suggestions at the start of the first lockdown, I have not written the modern King Lear – though I am far from alone in this particular failure. However, between Christmas and New Year, when I had limited paid work and, thanks to insomnia, a lot of waking hours on my hands, I penned a play! I may not be the modern Shakespeare but am, perhaps, an Ernie Wise de nos jours: my legs are not especially short or fat but they are at least decently hairy.

One of the (many) things that I have missed at the turning of the year was being able to see one (or even a few) Mummers Plays and so I decided that I would write my own. I felt this would represent tangible progress towards my intent to write my own pantomime, which has otherwise seen no movement in nearly three decades now. I felt a Mummers Play had some of the panto vibe but with the benefit of being considerably shorter and without the need for musical numbers or celebrity casting. The Mummers Play what I wrote is rooted in the tradition but does take a few liberties and is rather more overtly topical and satirical than I think is usual.

This Monday it was my turn to set the quiz, and in place of the usual Music Round (where I sight-read an unfamiliar piece of well-known music and play it on an unfamiliar or poorly practiced instrument to a combination of hilarity and horror), I decided we would hold a performance of “the play”. Everyone was forewarned of this alarming development and volunteers sought to play some of the dramatis personae. Well, as 9pm on Plough Monday arrived an unexpectedly (worryingly) large audience had assembled in the mighty Zoom Theatre and it was time for the, entirely unrehearsed (one doesn’t want to lose any of the immediacy of live performance) world premiere of my play.

The performance both went and was received far better than I could have imagined in my wildest dreams. The cast of strolling players were excellent, all entering into the spirit of the thing and many providing their own props and costume and even providing suitable voices. As the writer, I played three (mostly) small roles and more-or-less managed the required costume changes, though rather more slowly than would have been ideal, and I do need to work on a south Manchester accent. Even the audience had a role, as my version of a Mummers Play includes a Greek Chorus (and obeyed at least two of the three unities) and so they had a chance to join (another nod to panto). Between us, and despite a minor degree of chaos at my end, we brought my words to ridiculous, uproarious, joyous life.

So far as I can remember, this is the first time that anything I’ve written has been performed on even a virtual stage: at most, I’ve read out a short eulogy or speech I’ve prepared in advance. The combination of a group of people bringing my idiot words to life and an appreciative audience is a seriously intoxicating one. I think it is the most fun I have yet had on Zoom – and I have managed a surprisingly large amount of fun on Zoom over the last 10 months – and I stayed on a high for several hours afterwards. It did play merry hell with my sleep hygiene but was absolutely worth it! I am now seriously on the look-out for an excuse/subject for another short, somewhat comic play: though that will be the difficult sophomore play, people will now have expectations…

As the play was such a success, I thought I should publish it here – while recognising that it should (a) date quite quickly and (b) mean very little to anyone outside the UK (and probably to many within it!). Indeed, it went so well, that we are going to try and record a version for posterity (or future blackmail material).

Anyway, after not too much more than 1000 words of ado, GofaDM proudly presents the play what I wrote…

The Plague’s the Thing…

Dramatis Personae

CharacterInspiration (where relevant)
Old Father Christmas
“Prince” GeorgeBoris Johnson
The ExpertScientists
Pestilence
FamineJacob Rees Mogg
Death
The Slithy GoveMichael Gove
The DoctorDominic Cummings
The StrikerMarcus Rashford
The TurkUgur Sahin und Özlem Türeci
The CroniesA Greek Chorus of the Profiteers

Play Text

Enter Old Father Christmas...

Old Father Christmas:
In comes I, Old Father Christmas; Welcome or welcome not,
I 'ope old Father Christmas will ne’er be forgot.
'Ere but a short time to stay,
I'll show you sport and larks afore I must away.
A tale of deeds most dark that do afflict the land.
Corruption in the highest ranks soon you’ll understand.
As our players do strut and fret: behold here comes the first buffoon...
Now immorality will be exposed on this, our virtual stage, praise be to Zoom!

Enter “Prince” George...

“Prince” George
In comes I, Prince George, from England I claim to spring
Though I be a clown, with lasses I’ve had many a fling.
Children I’ve sired, ask me not to make a count.
I’m no good with detail, and don’t know the exact amount.
For naught but my own ambition will I be seen to care.
If trouble be sighted, you’ll find me in the frigidaire.!

Enter The Expert…

The Expert
In comes I, the Expert, a seeker after truth and fact
Against those that spread cant and lies will I react.
With reasoned argument I’ll share the science
A method in which all folk can place reliance.

“Prince” George
Be gone! Your expertise is not welcome in my demesne.
The sheep must accept my words, even when they sound insane.

The Expert
My honour will not allow me to quit this fray.
Do your worst; the truth must see the light of day!

The Cronies
See Prince George strap on his mighty shield of bluster
Though his sword be sharp his thrusts lack lustre.
But the Expert has no weapon but his pipette
We fear the knavish fool may slay him yet…

Prince George and the Expert fight; the Expert is killed…

Old Father Christmas
You have slain expertise, does this not your conscience prick?

“Prince” George
Ha! Not a bit! Their insistence on logic and facts made me sick!
My pie-crust promises I no longer needs defend nor discuss,
Just command them to be writ large on the sides of a bus!

Prince George exits…
Pestilence, Death and Famine enter and menace the audience….

Pestilence
In comes I, Pestilence, my fell gifts to share,
Wherever two or more are gathered, I too am there

Death
In comes I, the Reaper Grim
My harvest now I’ll gather in!
In this charnel house I’ll set up shop,
I see no-one here to make me stop.

Famine
With jobs and savings lost, the children starve
But I am famine and this makes me laugh!
So many holes in the safety net:
Loren ipsum dolor sit amet.

Prince George returns…

“Prince” George
Come to me o’ slithy Gove, cease your gyring in that wabe.

The Slithy Gove
[whispers to audience] In come I, the slithy Gove, I smarm to your face and do your lab-
ours but to slip this dagger into your back is my true desire
[to the Prince] What is your bidding, most sagacious sire?

“Prince” George
Despite my efforts, we have but horsemen three.
How might I complete the set? Fetch thee War for me!

The Slithy Gove
Gunboats to the channel I’ll now dispatch.
No European shall share our fishy catch!

The Cronies
Prince George, you kingdom is in disarray
The dead stack up like cordwood, have you naught to say?

“Prince” George
My policies have but sped them on their way,
With pre-existing conditions, they already stood in Death’s foyer.
These many dead are but of the common herd,
Their sacrifice will deliver immunity: you have my word!

The Cronies
He offers us his word, the Prince of Lies
With confused, half-cocked rulings he stupifies.

We fear for our fortunes as the economy tanks...

“Prince” George
Here, have a billion!  More will follow, no need for thanks…

Pestilence places his hand upon Prince George’s shoulder…

Suddenly, I feel mighty queer!  *cough* *cough* *cough*
I am a great Prince, or did you not hear?

Pestilence
I care not for mortal titles, your lies, your fakèd news
I shall stake my claim upon whom soe’er I choose!

“Prince” George
My cough is dry, all scents have gone.
I have no time for indisposition,
Summon now my crack physician!

The Slithy Gove
Your quack, o Prince, is purblind and in haste hies he to County Durham.
You must isolate alone, ‘til his return bearing some curative nostrum.

The Cronies
O great nation, rudderless with its shoy-hoy leader struck down:
Or perhaps ‘tis better off in the absence of the scruffy clown?

Enter the Doctor in great haste…

The Doctor
In comes I, Doctor Dom: famed for my goings and my cummings.
Be not afraid, I’ll soon return you to your Tweedledumming!

The Cronies
What can you cure, Doctor?

The Doctor
I can fix scrofula, dropsy, palsy and gout,
Galloping knob-rot I’ll soon root out!
Apoplexy, ague and gripe:
Each can I swiftly put to flight!

The Cronies
What is your fee, Doctor?

The Doctor
Ten pounds is all, praise be to the NHS our great protector.

Sorry, I had forgotten that you were a private patient
But at ten thousand pounds, for speedy service, the cost is not imprudent.

“Prince” George
OK, OK, a grateful nation will pay whate’er you will.
Just, I beg you, exercise now your skill!

The Doctor
Swallow first this pill, ‘tis but six inches across.
It kills 99% of germs, just like Domestos.
Then place these drops against your lips
Every night afore ye kips.
In a mere two weeks of this regime you’ll find
Rude good health restored and peace of mind!

If you’ll now pay my fee, I must away:
Many more opticians must I visit this day!

The Doctor exits, clutching his cash and smirking…

The Cronies
All seems lost, the country is in a parlous state.
Our millions may not save us, who’ll come to our aid?

Enter the Striker and the Turk...

The Striker
In comes I, the Striker, my skill with boots and ball has made me rich.
But I come of humble stock, when young with hunger did my belly often itch.
Come nation, unite! Throw off the chains of Mammon!
If we all pull together we can soon rout Famine!

Famine
Argh! Those with little, spend even that to feed the poor.
Even weakened Hospitality shows me the door!
I am mastered and now must flee this forum:
Infinitus est numerus stultorum!

Famine flees before the Striker and his allies…

The Turk
In comes I, the Turk, founder of Biontech
The plans of Pestilence soon I’ll wreck!

Pestilence
Not so fast, I am not finished yet! 
See, my R number rises: I am still a threat!

The Turk
We now have all we need for your defeat.
We need but time and our victory is complete!
We must follow science to complete your doom.
Then all can celebrate together, in the flesh, no need of Zoom!

The Striker and the Turk approach the fallen Expert…

Old Father Christmas
See, the death of Expertise is exaggerate.
He doth but sleep and for this time didst wait.
Rise now and take your rightful place,
We need your wisdom as to vaccinate we race!

As the Expert rises, Death and Pestilence retreat...

The Expert
As from cumbrous death I rise, I find a world transformed.
While some will always peddle lies, the people seek the well-informed!

Old Father Christmas
Remember, gentles all, that Pestilence spreads on the air,
Drafts and distance our are allies here.
If for some more months we steadfast stay,
With summer’s lease will come much freer days!

"Prince" George returns...

“Prince” George
Be gone, old fool, your hopes still languish far away
My confederacy of dunces still holds sway.
I’ve cancelled Christmas at the 11th hour;
Mendacity and incompetence will rule while I still hold power!

Old Father Christmas
Methinks I hear a final gust of wind from that buffoon
His support is melting and, like a snowman, he will join it soon!

Be of good cheer, for our tale now all is told!
Applaud our players, whose skills at acting are manifold!

Now is time to wave adieu to bright showbiz!
Now return we all to the sodding Quiz!

© MMXXI

Unpaid debts

The first post of the bright (or, more accurately, grey) new year will come in two parts, linked by little more than the applicability of the title. Then again, this blog does make claims about juxtaposition and I feel it incumbent upon me to make good on this threat from time to time.

Our first thread will once again pick away at my inability to sleep, a theme which this blog is forced to return to on a regular basis. As we passed the winter punctuation that is Christmas and with a return, once again, to full lockdown for me, if not for much of the country or the government, it eventually became obvious – even to me – that I was sleeping far too little and ineffectively for it to fulfil its role in the vital nightly re-building of the shattered ruins of my mind. It took a little longer and the prospect of having to be vaguely functional for money, with the return to work, that I started to do something about it.

In the prolonged absence of human company, or a bubble to call my own, I have been forced to lean on video conferencing to retain social connection. This is a lot better than nothing but doesn’t come without cost – and I’m not talking of the modest fee to maintain a Zoom account. I am coming to realise that the social performance required (or at least delivered, wanted or not) when I am with friends on Zoom does come at some emotional cost which in the depths of winter is proving harder to repay than it was in the spring and summer. It also means a lot of screen time in the evening and into the night, which is not generally associated with good sleep hygiene. It became clear that something was amiss when I woke each morning with the same thought as a bowl of petunias brought, improbably, into existence at some significant height above the surface of the planet Magrathea, viz “Oh no, not again”. This did not seem a healthy way to approach continued existence and so I decided I should probably do something about it: and hiring an assassin during lockdown is something of a challenge…

My initial strategy to fill my life with ever more baroque divertissement did provide a certain degree of entertainment – I have designed my own currency, written a topical play and made a massively over-elaborate PowerPoint presentation for my next quiz (well, I had to fill all those extra hours of not being asleep somehow and I feel all of these things could stand me in good stead in the post-apocalyptic wasteland into which we shall some day emerge) – but did not, sadly, represent a solution. A more desperate plan to eschew alcohol, I was pleased to find, was also ineffective. So, after bailing early on New Years’ Eve – though being in the presence of friends did keep my awake for a good two hours longer than I expected to be feasible (which may, itself, not have been such a wise decision), I decided that I need to implement much stronger sleep hygiene. This has meant no evening Zoom calls for the last eleven days and so no synchronous human contact in that period either (well, other than a brief sight of the back of the postman’s or delivery person’s head as they wisely flee my potentially infected presence). It also meant, as things re-opened after the lacuna between bank holidays, the acquisition of rather more serious chemical aids to slumber. This combination does seem to be bearing fruit in that I have started sleeping rather more successfully, have been able to function convincingly at work and have managed to cut the chemical assistance.

However, both tonight and tomorrow night, I have Zoom commitments and so we will see how well the sleep survives or whether I return to running up an ever rising debt. I have programmed my screen to switch to its most orange possible state at 21:00 as a partial defence (and to feel like I’m living in the future) but only time will tell whether I am ready to rejoin the virtual world…

It is now time to start down the second tine of our conversational (yes, I know you can’t join in) fork (I am imagining a pitchfork, if that helps with this metaphor). A couple of days ago, the journalist and writer (and so much more) Katherine Whitehorn passed away. I’ve read a few of her columns over the years and heard her essays on Radio 4 but for me, as for so many more, she is most significant as the writer of Cooking in a Bedsitter. This came into my possession shortly after starting university in 1984 and discovering both that food does not magically appear in front of me and that mid-80s ready meals barely qualified as food. It was she, rather than my mother, who taught me my first important lessons in cookery and made me into the Quransteining monster I am today. I should note that my mother did act as an inspiration that cooking meals was something that people did on a daily basis, that food should be tasty and made from recognisable ingredients and as a very valuable source of recipes in days long before the internet.

I like to imagine that I repaid the debt to my mother substantially better than I did to Ms Whitehorn who, I assume, never knew of the formative role she played in my food life. However, I’m sure she must have been aware how important she was to generations of young adults leaving home for the first time and taking their first faltering steps with a baby Belling. Many influences came later but she was the first and there are still aspects of her teaching that I use to this day: she even had some impact on my becoming a (terrible) vegetarian.

Perhaps it’s my age but this experience of not properly recognising the contribution someone has made to my life until they have gone is becoming increasingly common. Then again, I think it might just be the human condition that we take things largely for granted until they are no longer there. A thought which brings us back to today and missing human company, pubs, restaurants and the glorious cultural scene this city had right up until mid March last year. I can but hope that some of it can survive the degree of vandalism being delivered by the current government (through a combination of indifference, stupidity and conscious choice): it does put me rather in mind of the Taliban or the Commonwealth under the Protectorate. I, for one, am looking forward to the Restoration, undesirable as a leader though Charles II(I) was in many ways…