Monday, October 16, 2017

Everyday Beauty 1 ~ Loving A Bright Red Plastic Tulip

In the early 1960's there was still such a thing as a local corner shop that seemingly had everything. Mrs Whitaker's faced the end of our road in Halifax. When you entered you stepped into a short narrow room with a high ceiling and worn unvarnished floorboards. To the left, dark shelves rose packed to the ceiling with merchandise, to the right, a large shop window with an old display of stock, much faded by light. At the far end was a small wooden counter with a hinged top, behind this stood Mrs Whitaker, the entrance door bell having already summoned her from her back room.

Once I was considered old enough, Mum would send me there with a hand written note and shopping basket. The note contained a list of things we needed, to be handed to Mrs Whitaker on arrival.  On this particular day, Mum sent me to buy Daz washing powder.  The pack of Daz came with a bright red plastic tulip. In the sixties everything seemed to come with a promotional free gift, or a token to cut out and save. Its questionable whether soap powder and a bright red plastic tulip were natural sales companions, though it seems someone at Proctor & Gamble deemed it to be so. I became really entranced by this unexpectedly beautiful thing being given to me, for free, and returned home delighted.

When Mum saw me coming in holding a red plastic tulip she quizzed me about how I'd got it. I told her it came with the Daz but she thought that so unlikely, she marched me straight back to Mrs Whitaker's to apologise for my having thieved it. There of course she found out the vindicating truth. Mrs Whitaker's shop was soon to vanish; the arrival of the first supermarket in town a few streets away, quickly killed it off, The tulip, however, remained with me as a much prized childhood possession.

I was around six or seven, and still possessed a fascination and delight with everything I encountered. Most young children have this briefly, an irrational unbounded love and appreciation for objects, places, even imaginary people. Everyone else, but me, seemed to know this tulip was a poor crude substitute for the real thing. However feeble its verisimilitude may have been, it was as charmingly innocent and devoid of pretence as I was, I didn't care, I loved it, and saw it as beautiful. My free spirited perceptions were able to appreciate it just for what it was, not for what it wasn't or what it should have been. I took direct unmediated delight in its everyday beauty, however tawdry. It seems sad that we lose this ability to appreciate the beauty of ordinary everyday things, and can spend our subsequent lives grieving, searching and longing for this way of perceiving things to be revived in us.

What is it that changes our way of seeing?  A lot of this comes down to a lack of life experience, and an accompanying naivety. Together these make children able to view things with a constantly new, fresh and vital eye. It is familiarity that slowly dims or extinguishes a child's 'beginners mind'. Life experience itself can cultivate a bored disinterest in what has already been seen and known, as we seek out fresh stimulating experiences, to feel that buzz of the new once again.  Our countries economy survives on our desire for novelty. whilst our formal education informs, alters and refines our sense for what an aesthetic pleasure can be. The higher up the educational ladder we go, the more knowing and sophisticated our aesthetic sensibility may become.

This can come at a cost, we start to self censor our responses to the breadth of things we are able to appreciate possess beauty. What we believe to be beautiful or not beautiful, is created  through learnt biases within our own culture, it is an acquired distinction.  Like osmosis, we absorb other peoples aesthetic views through the conversations we have, the books, papers, websites we read, the advertising, programmes, theatre and films we watch, making them our own.  As we narrow, refine and elevate of our views of aesthetics, we turn an appreciation for beauty, everyday or otherwise, into a search for an other worldly and rather rare endangered species.

Everyday beauty tends to be broader ranging, more comprehensive and available everywhere, at anytime. If a grown adult, however, were to show a simple childlike delight in something as everyday as a bright red plastic tulip, they may end up being patronised, treated as charmingly naive, unsophisticated, uneducated, ill-informed, unrefined, primitive, their sanity might be called into question. Generally what is ordinary and immediate, is often popular, and this on its own can summon forth an air of cultural condescension. These things being detrimentally compared to more rarefied aesthetic experiences, often held up as supremely High Art spiritually inflected, that you have to spend some time learning how to understand, appreciate and have a feeling for.  This tends to stifle or stunt an appreciation for everyday beauty, instinctive, uncensored, and not strongly filtered through a cultural bias. Its present in everything, to consider it beautiful or not, ordinary or extraordinary, low or high brow, machine made or hand made, are distinctions that no longer serve any purpose. Appreciating everyday beauty appears to grow the more aligned we become with each 'presenting moment.' This may cause the arising of delight, by our closeness to it, by the intimacy of our being with its being, through appreciating its suchness, we touch upon our own.

This is the first of four blog posts I'm planning to write concerning aspects of Everyday Beauty. In future posts, I intend to look at three differing views on the relationship between everyday beauty and art, the elevated and the everyday aesthetic. One takes a modern Buddhist's perspective, one an essentially secular viewpoint, and another takes the secular as its spiritual launch point.  The first comes from Sangharakshita the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, the second from the artist and non-musician Brian Eno, and the third from Soetsu Yanagi, a 20th century Japanese ceramicist. I'm hoping that through exploring these views,  however divergent or conflicting they may be, some of the elements that encourage or discourage a deeper appreciation for everyday beauty may emerge.

Monday, October 09, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW ~ Sparks ~ Hippopotamus

Its been a while, but a new album by Sparks, for me, is like a reunion with much loved old friends. It's not that they haven't been busy during the eight years since there last studio album. Most recently they've been working on music for a film script called Annette, filmed by Leos Carax of Holy Motors fame, starring Adam Driver, Rooney Mara, and reportedly a cameo by Rihanna. Personally can't wait to see it. After that Sparks returned to the studio for ten months to make this album, which has a guest vocal appearance by Carax on When Your A French Director., singing 'When your a French director, you're an auteur as well, What does that mean? Every scene must be as obscure as hell.'
So, yes, as that lyric indicates, Ron Mael has been sharpening his customary wit once more. It's been well worth the wait.

On Hippopotamus there are fifteen songs, each a miniature gem, each quite different from the other, but still inimitably Sparks. Here are my personal favourites in no particular order, just as they come to mind.

The album's opener, is a short, bitter sweet song, with a simple piano accompaniment. Probably Nothing, is sung in the first person, its a man trying to remember what it is he wants to say to his partner. Devoid of irony, wit or whimsy, its just a very poignant song about someone with dementia.
'Something to tell you, but now I forget. Probably Nothing. Some little story, No nothing, not yet. Probably Nothing. Don't try to think of it, then it'll come, Happens a lot lately, I feel so dumb. It'll come, when it comes, but I still feel so dumb'

The albums title song Hippopotamus, is one of those off kilter Sparks songs where you just have to surrender to the barmy logic of it. On the face of it, it's just a list of odd things this guys found in his swimming pool, including the aforesaid hippopotamus, a painting by Heironymus Bosch, a Volkswagan micro bus, and Titus Andronicus wearing a snorkel. It has all the lyrical inventiveness we expect from Ron Mael, whilst having the insistence of a playground nursery rhyme that children might skip along too, whilst driving you mad at hearing over and over again.
'There's a book by anonymous, a book by anonymous, a book by anonymous in my pool. There's a book by anonymous, a book by anonymous, and a hippopotamus in my pool. No I've not read it, no I've not read it, when it drys out I'll have a go.'  

Giddy Giddy Giddy, on the surface appears light and insubstantial, but nevertheless this addictive little song drives along at an insane gallop as if it startled the horses. But I absolutely love it. Its sending up the rather hyped up state that contemporary life can often get us all into, so self intoxicated and just giddy with glee about something and nothing.
' from another city, where nobody's giddy, comes a scientific group, to analyse our giddiness, Their water ain't too giddy, their diet ain't too giddy, we're prettier than they are, but their infinitely giddier.'

Scandinavian Design, is a classic Sparks song where knowing cultural references are paraded as a lure to attract a woman to stay the night.
'I've got nothing, just a table and two chairs, But I know that everything I need is there, Every line, every shape, sculptural, no escape. Its Scandinavian Design. Sometimes she comes over, I think I know why, she says the sky has bored her, what's wrong with the sky? Who am I to turn her out, all that she thinks about, is Scandinavian Design.'

Unaware, is another of those Ron Mael songs that by concealing plays with our expectations and interpretation. Eventually to reveal the reason why she's unaware is that she's only a baby.
'Taylor Swift has something new, Nike has a brand new shoe, Reads your heart rate, anywhere, she don't know, she don't care, She's unaware, unaware.'

I Wish You Were Fun, is a great song, reminiscent of a music hall tune in its musical and lyrical style. It demonstrates that in another era Ron Mael could have been a successful Broadway songwriter.
'I wish you were fun, I wish you were fun to be around, I wish you were fun, You say that your favourite colours brown. In every other way I find you amazing but one, I wish you were fun, I wish you were fun.'

The closing song on the album, Life With the Macbeths, Russell sings a duet with an opera singer, in a grand satire on celebrity TV, where Lord and Lady Macbeth's life is being filmed as a reality show.
'As the cameras are rolling, we roll our eyes, But our lifestyle demands we hide our sighs, One season, is all you'll see, As the Lady inspires me to depths unseen, Killing all in my way, some will yell 'obscene' The ratings are off the charts. Life with the Macbeths, both tart and smart.'

Hippopotamus, I think will be viewed as one of Sparks late, but great albums. In its range of styles and invention it bears similarity to Indiscreet, an oft overlooked album from their first flush of success. With Russell now 69 and Ron 72, how much longer these two can keep going recording, let alone touring, remains to be seen. There are a number of songs here that refer to aging and mortality, perhaps this is spurring them on to make best use of whatever productive time they have remaining. Long may they continue.

Monday, October 02, 2017

SHERINGHAM DIARY 6 ~ What Will The Next Thing Be?

September is a significant month for Jnanasalin and I. On the 22nd Sept five years we had our civil partnership, and two years ago on the same date we had the 'upgrade' to a marriage. Though a fifth anniversary is, I believe, traditionally marked by a gift of wood. we chose to mark it differently. First, by going to see a broadcast of Yerma at the Sheringham Little Theatre, which was brilliant! and  then a curry at the Taste of India restaurant in Holt, which was notable for being distinctly average.

This year, another thing makes September a time of note, it's our sixth month since we moved to Sheringham.  When we first moved to Upper Sheringham we made a list of things for me to refinish for the house. I'm currently halfway through refurbishing an old chest of draws for our bedroom, which, once done, will mean that list will be completed. We've moved, settled in, found jobs, so, now what happens next ?

Well, I appear to have become a Star Trek addict. I wake up early, so once up, I make coffee for both of us, and then watch an episode or two. So far I've completed watching the Voyager series and am now on Series 4 of The Next Generation. After an extremely dodgy first series, with badly written scripts and everyone acting like the wooden tops, it has improved immensely. I've grown fond of the handsomely bearded Commander Riker, constantly beaming whilst standing stiffly, head bent to one side. Deanne Troi, still wooden after all these years, with her supposed supernatural powers of telepathy and piercing insight. Every time her mouth opens, out spills the dullest of perceptions, she ought to have been called Deanne Trite.

We've officially entered Autumn, and whilst I'm not yet a fully fledged paid up member of the Monty Don Fan Club, I have been getting soil under my fingernails and discovering caches of snails concealed inside bushes. Last week I gave our small gardens, front and back, a bit of a short back and sides tidy up and attention before the colder months land on our doorstep.  Plus, we've found where the best local garden centres are ( Holt and Overstrand ) and  have been buying plants to bed in over the Winter.

Jnanasalin and I both got in contact with our inner bloke, and dug out a couple of Leylandii bushes that seemed to be on a mission, to not just gain territory, but achieve total garden domination. We've also created a herb garden in pots and planted a rhubarb patch. There is a plan, not yet fully fleshed out, to plant a range of decorative grasses in our front garden, and attempt to remove the ugly satellite dish that we have no earthly use for. We're trying to block out the basic structure for the garden improvements now, so we can further develop them in the early Spring.

As yet, I've not been able to find alternative work to my present job. First, there isn't much to apply for, and second, when I do, I'm not getting selected for interview. I don't know for sure, but being sixty and male, could be factors in my not reaching interview stage. I have the relevant experience for the jobs I'm applying for, and do my best to tailor my CV to be appropriate. In North Norfolk employers appear to be looking for more of what they've had before, which quite often is a female part-time worker. Anyway, I'll keep trying to find my way out of the 'glass cellar' I appear to have become locked in. Meanwhile, though I'm losing weight, I also feeling constantly tired.

Jnanasalin is really enjoying being able to drive, since he's gained approval from the DVLC he's like a new man. Apart from making his daily commute to work much easier and shorter, we've taken to visiting a wider range of places, to discover and explore North Norfolk a bit. A couple of weeks ago we went to Dalegate Market in Burnham Deepdale, which was disappointing, but we discovered Creake Abbey Farm Shop on the way back, which we will no doubt return to. With his work, he's gradually getting to the end of sorting out the organisational and staffing mess that he inherited. At present he's on the cusp of starting to enjoy it. For weeks he's been redirecting or quelling the mix of ambitions and loyalties going on between female staff and volunteers, and heaving large plastic bags of clothes around a warehouse, the upside of which is he too has been losing weight!

What will Jnanasalin  and I do with ourselves of an evening, during the upcoming darker winter months? Upper Sheringham, as you might well imagine, has no nightlife bar the occasional Fun Quiz at the Village Hall. Sheringham has its pubs and restaurants, and the Sheringham Little Theatre, where you can see great broadcasts of live theatre, and a pleasantly inoffensive choice of films  mostly four or five months passed their release date, that wouldn't frighten a cackle of blue rinsed pensioners. Cromer has the Regal Movieplex Cinema, which sounds like a grand modern multi screen affair, but its all a bit more cosey and homely than that. Some of its screens can't be much bigger than our front room. However, if you want to see less genteel films and current releases, then that's the place to be.

We've been able during the summer months to make the most of living right on the doorstep of Sheringham Park, a National Trust estate, taking walks there in the early evening. After a strenuous day working inside a laundry the size of a cupboard, or sorting donations in a dusty warehouse for Priscilla Bacon Hospice Shops, it's great to be able to breath fresh outdoor air. We promenade on the seafront with an ice cream or a bag of chips in hand, or make a flask of hot chocolate, sit by the boat pond and read a good book, until our fingers get too chilled to turn a page. We've also taken to just reading in the evening, or myself to writing articles for this blog, or occasionally we do a jigsaw together! Which may sound like we're turning into the sort of fuddy duddy gay couple who'd soon be taking up knitting and crochet, if we hadn't already done so! We're just finding more enjoyment in quite ordinary everyday things.

After six months, its turning out to be a full but simpler life than we had in Cambridge, with fewer opportunities for distraction. Whilst we've been preoccupied with setting up our life here, adjusting our way of being to this, and the change in pace, hasn't quite been at the forefront of our minds. Now we move on to whatever the next stage in settling into life in North Norfolk is.  The most pregnant of questions being 'what will the next thing be,' with regards to Cottonwood Workshop and our 'cafe project'. As yet, whilst fervently saving as much money as we can, its still not certain in our minds exactly what direction to take, and hence what the money will be put to realising,  What our first steps need to be, is still dark to us. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

THEATRE REVIEW - Yerma - Encore Broadcast - 21st September

I had read wildly ecstatic reviews of the Young Vic's production of Yerma before I went to its broadcast at the Sheringham Little Theatre. All mention the much garlanded performance of Billie Piper' in particular. This can make one wary that your perceptions are being pre-primed by heightened superlatives being dished out like exotic hors d'oeuvres. However, this time I must say it was all deserved, to every last full stop and exclamation mark.

This production, written and directed by the Australian Director Simon Stone, has extensively adapted and transposed the original Lorca play, moving the setting from rural Spain to contemporary London.  Not being fully familiar with the original text I'm not aware to what extent he has remained loyal to the narrative. Though having seen other Lorca and read his poetry I can tell that, even though the dialogue is at variance, it is faithful to the tone and feeling of barely restrained, if not unfettered, passion that is distinctive of Lorca's dramatic style, as he slowly cranks up the emotionally tense atmosphere.

The stage set is a large glass plated, carpeted room,  It looked like one of those confining boxy interiors you see a distorted grotesque figure splurging out of in a Francis Bacon painting. In some respects Lorca and Bacon are similar; in that their output on the stage and on canvas is visceral. As though a bucket of butchers offal has been tipped over the floor. The glass box gives visual representation here to things both transparent and caged, those pent up feelings lie just under that bland beige carpet. Those unsaid things are now to be exposed via a torturous dramatic process. Yerma, is in the tradition of a Greek tragedy, placed in an ordinary domestic setting, similar in many respects to any play by Arthur Miller. You know from the outset that this idyllic situation you are first presented with will not last, that it will not turn out well for anyone, someone will by the end die, either at their own or another's hand.

The pivotal character is Eva, a woman in her mid thirties who realises her biological clock is ticking.  The time within which to have a child is running out. She ambushes her partner John with her desire to have a child by him. He goes along with it, afraid he'll lose her otherwise. Eva is a successful journalist and blogger, who uses her own life and difficulties as frank source material. So everything that happens in her life gets broadcast to the world outside.  The years pass with still no baby, her desperation, ,jealousy of her sister and mistrust for how little time John is giving to the baby project, all these feelings end up disastrously exposed for public consumption. Relationships fracture.

Yerma means barren, someone here is infertile, is it Eva or is it John? But Eva is surrounded by people who are emotionally barren, a mother who is unable to express love or affection, a sister unable to walk away from an empty abusive relationship, a husband so evasively out of touch with himself he's unable to be openly truthful with her.

Billie Piper's performance as Eva sets Lorca's heightened melodrama alight, in a flare of combustible despair, frustration and anger. Though she begins by showing her as playful and self assertive, over the length of the play she gradually sours as her wish to have a child becomes a maddening, overriding obsession. One that eventually removes the support of those around her and the stability of her own self. At times this is a raw raging performance, emotionally uncomfortable yet compelling, it is startling to watch.  Yerma is that unfortunately rare thing, a completely female centred narrative. This inevitably makes other characters less rounded, as they come in and out of Eva's whirlwind. Nonetheless, they are well played, particularly Brendan Cowell as John and John MacMillan as the hapless ex lover Victor.

The updated contemporary language, is often apt and frequently base, coarsely filled with profanities. Stone's version, like Lorca's rarely dresses matters up in polite acceptable language, the language, though often poetically heightened, always rings true. One couple in our audience walked out within the first ten minutes, shortly after the dialogue about why John prefers 'bum sex' with her! But that 'bum sex' dialogue is a major pointer towards how John really feels, in his heart of hearts he doesn't want them to have children. This deception is what corrodes their love for each other.

The original play had a chorus who led you from one scene to another, as it has an episodic structure covering many months and years. In this production its marked by projected chapter numbers, titles and headlines that delineate the downward spiral. The chorus here is a choral one, that sings increasingly dissonant verses, often abruptly truncated like badly edited TV intermissions. This gives the play a similar feeling to one of those 'found footage' films, with awkward jump cuts, out of focus, wobbly camera angles encasing a fractured narrative. As filmed, Yerma is one of the most disturbing and compulsive pieces of theatre I've seen in a very long time. Goodness knows what it was like for those seeing it live in the theatre itself.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

PHOTO ~ Shabby Sheringham ~ Door Knocker

The door knocker on the empty old shop I found last week. I love the way the cobwebs envelope it and that white wisp of a bird feather caught in its threads.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

SHERINGHAM DIARY No 5 ~ Let's Not Do The Time Warp Again!

We are in the middle of mid September wind and rain. Sheringham has exited its high summer season, and entered the time warped silliness that is the 1940's Weekend. Its a regular event here not previously experienced by us, as we've studiously avoided it. The whole concept of everyone dressing themselves, the shops and streets as if it were still wartime, seems weird, as though the whole place has become infected by a rather virulent disease involving camouflage netting. A disease that's spread to other close towns in North Norfolk. Hubby says its like entering the world of Stepford Wives, where you're left wondering what is going on here and where the real people went?

You can, however, understand the financial rationale, because its very lucrative to have upwards of 20,000 people bumbling around your town for two days. All the pubs and B & B's being fully booked. The weekend was started by the North Norfolk Railway over twenty years ago, and every year it gets ever larger numbers attending. Its now one of the most successful such weekends in the country, marking the last hurrah before places lay off their summer staff, and shorten their opening hours.

Why the 1940's? Well, I guess its a symptom of our nation's narcissistic nostalgia, looking into the mirror of a long passed era for a sense of identity. A time when Britain had the appearance of a more cohesive society, and was defending democracy. This yearning to matter, to have an Empire, to be a great economic powerhouse, still affects the way we see ourselves in the world today. In our unrealistic expectations that others will do our bidding, simply because we say so, or throw our supposed weight around, because we are British, after all.  A delusive arrogance now presenting itself in all its vainglorious swagger in the Brexit negotiations.

Why Sheringham? Well, the first bombs that ever fell on English soil, fell during World War 1, and fell upon Sheringham. No one died, but the spot now marked with a blue plaque, proudly declares this footnote in history and the sizable dent made to someone's backyard. There is no other discernible reason, historical or otherwise, for this event. Apart from the fact it goes with the North Norfolk Railway's old fashioned steam trains, and is evocative of the wartime stoical romanticism of Brief Encounter. The huge numbers of people who died as a consequence of the war, is turned away from. The focus is on the period style, the way we survived at home, rather than the substance of the conflict. Because it has been so successful other seaside towns along the coast have decided to compete by manufacturing their own themed dressing up weekend, Cromer has its 1960's weekend, Wells next the Sea has its Pirate Festival, each bearing their own rather tenuous commercial logic.

The build up to 1940's weekend starts weeks before, as window displays are adjusted, charity shops start touting their period vintage gear, and someone in town does a roaring trade in masking tape, as every bit of window glazing gets crossed with the stuff. There are homemade fins of German planes sticking out of walls, unexploded bombs on roofs, and a small tank made out of painted hardboard. Plus the sand bags, the digging for victory posters, the period cars, the American jeeps. The dress code is simple, the women are either land girls in dungarees with bright headscarves tied in a knot above the forehead or wear flower print dresses with furs and a fascinator. The men are mostly dressed in military uniforms, tweedie civvies or dapper spivs in double breasted suits. The detail that its gone into is quite impressive.

Like most things in Sheringham its done with a certain amateurish and enthusiastic gusto, that is endearing. It has to be said, that it brings people together in a shared experience, those who turn up, obviously love it, so this provides its own justification, I suppose. No one bothers to question why a 1940's weekend anymore, if they ever did. Its something the town just does, because ,bizarrely, it does work. Though we can't be the only ones who've avoided town for those two days. However, if we do end up opening a cafe here, I guess we'll just have to create our own way to join in with this.

By Monday morning the forties paraphernalia will start being packed up and consigned to someone's loft or garden shed again, Then Sheringham will return to normal, and move rapidly forward in time to somewhere after the oil crisis of 1973.

Friday, September 15, 2017

PHOTO ~ Shabby Sheringham - Empty Shop

This is the condition of the window in an empty shop in Wyndham St, Sheringham, that once upon a time used to mend watches and cut keys etc.