This blog is Vienna

This morning, as I was sponging an unidentifiable stain off a bouncer chair with one hand, while simultaneously trying to remove mascara barnacles from my lower lashes with a nappy wipe with the other hand, I thought to myself: why not start up my blog again? WHY NOT WRITE A BLOG?

And already I’ve lied to you – I actually had this thought about a week ago, but if you have recently given birth and are looking after said offspring, you will know that there is no space for spontaneity anymore.  Unless it is a shit sodden nappy or barf ridden body suit – these things trigger an emergency response – they are dealt with.  Writing a blog? Not so much.  Blogging falls somewhere below ‘wash hair’ and ‘eat sandwich’ on the priority list.

But here I am, writing on my blog after an absence of a year.  I’ve brushed my eyes noncomitally over some previous entries – but I’m almost scared (ashamed?) to really look them in the eye.  I’m still afraid of witnessing the change in me.

But before my writing starts to too closely resemble discarded lyrics from Fame – the Musical, let me reassure you and me.  Yes, I’ve had a baby and he is wonderful, but I do not intend to write about being a mum, good or bad.  I will not share with you receipes for organic teething gel, nor will I use this space to confess all my sins and work through any new mum angst.  This blog will be … Vienna for me; somewhere that I’ve never been, where I know no one and where I imagine I can relax and temporarily not be a mum but instead become a turn of the 20th Century lady spy played by Ingrid Bergman (subject to change).  Vienna also appeals to my unbelievably snobby self.  I will come to Vienna to think about books, not Iggle Piggle (the fact that it is also Freud’s hangout rings some alarm bells which I will consciously overlook for now).  I don’t yet know how often I will visit or what I will talk about – but I shall return Vienna! I shall return!

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Embrace your Random Thought Soup

I think therefore I am.

 

Hmmm

But does that mean WHAT I think is WHO I am?  Surely it;s not as cut and dried as that?

 

I’ve recently started Transcendental Meditation after reading one of my heroes, David Lynch’s endorsement of it as a creative tool in Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity.  I’d also noticed how I was letting work stress seep in everywhere else, manifesting its presence in the 3.30 am wake up.  Admittedly, my workplace is a Total Wipeout obstacle course of pressure borne from incompetence, but I guess everyone feels like that, anyway.Still, I needed to do something about it.

 

I have tried meditation before; I spent most of my early twenties staring earnestly at a candle in 5 minute increments to no avail.  Because I’m a stubborn mule, means of de-stressing do not come easy to me.  If a room, person or technique is inviting me to relax through their decor, manner or method, my inner voice, the dickhead, will scream back NEVER!  And resist, filling my mind with snatches of irritating songs or dramatisations of work related anecdotes.

 

I don;t know why it won’t let me relax.  My inner voice is a dickhead, after all.

 

So I’ve been meditating for over a month now and I like it.  It’s no pressure.  Ifv your inner voice decides to list all the times you have been snubbed by a shop assistant, you just let it.  Its this aspect of no resistance that I found most appealing – mind control is impossible, we are going to have thoughts, so just bloody have them instead of engaging with them and trying to wrestle them to the metaphorical ground.  And what happens next is great: once I let them run off, I gradually stop listening.

I will make a terrible parent.  

 

This is when I’m happiest with how my sessions go – when I genuinely lift away from my thoughts and achieve a bit of bliss.  These sessions generally pass very quickly and I can’t remember what I’ve been thinking about that whole time.  That’s the gold standard, right there.

 

Most of my sessions are still a bit of a battleground, involving me unwittingly chasing dickhead’s thoughts around and then feeling guilty about doing so.  I often feel like this is my failure to bear, but TM does not differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ meditation.  Nascent meditators may have grand notions about reaching some subconscious nirvana on their first attempt, but that speaks of our socially conditioned desire to succeed, to be the best, the first, the most.  I don’t think that TM urges you to strive for this.  By striving for it, you’re bound to fail.  Such a joyful ethic!

 

In stead, the TM approach is this:

Did you close your eyes?

Did you keep your mantra in mind and if you forgot it, did you come back to it?

Did you stretch and come round slowly afterwards?

If yes to these, then you meditated my friend.  The quality of the meditation, how surface you stay or deep you go is secondary.  In that 20 minutes, you did whatever your brain needed to do: if it was shallow processing, so be it.  The trick is not to worry too much about it.

 

And here I am, sounding like Maharishi when I spend most of my sessions arguing with my own head.  I know the menu – I just need to swallow a bit more random thought soup first.

WOMADic adventures

How organised are you? I like to think that my chaos makes perfect sense to me and when it fails and I lose something, I’ve developed a technique called ‘blame the object’, in which whatever is lost is personified and subjected to the most tremendous hate known to womankind.

It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault.

The bills, deadlines and decisions which any adult normally has to deal with are to mike like fantastical figures looming up at me in an enchanted wood which I have to battle with increasing urgency (take that, British Gas!). They are talking trees with ensnaring branches, bright eyed creature- lings, deceptively trusty elves. They encircle and come at me from nowhere, causing my heart to thump and adrenaline levels flicker as they approach with stealth and dedication.

this is no way for a thirty six year old woman to live, but it sure as hell makes keeping on top of things more interesting than usual.

Which is why I was so surprised that our trip to Womad festival ran so smoothly, a conflation of luck (mine) and planning (theirs). I’ve not been to many festivals but those that I have have had the opposite to the desired effect; I feel tense, like I need to survive something. The campsites resemble thunderdrome by the end of the weekend: an architect’s impression of dystopia; carriers blowing free like plastic drones; scorched or sodden earth; dazed looking toddlers in T-shirts gnawing on their entry bracelets for succour and rogue loose teens without centre, winding down and then alarmingly up as they stagger towards the exit in their vomit breastshields.

Don’t get me wrong; to paraphrase Russ Abbott, I love a festival with a happy atmosphere and once I’m in the main bit, I relax. But the other bit, the camping, leaves me feeling tense (tents, ha!)

EXCEPT FOR THIS TIME. THIS TIME MAKES ALL THE OTHERS NULL AND VOID. We were parked and camped up in 20 minutes, in the glorious Cotswolds countryside and heading off to hear sublime music within an hour. I showered and ebluted in the Womad spa (additianal fee for the VIPS) which even housed a sauna and hot tubs. My husband, the rough-houser slummed it in the normal showers and toilets and came back every time looking refreshed and surprised. Security were visible and thorough but cheerful and charming and there was always someone touring the site, checking that everything was as it should be. Shout out to the festival going teachers who formed an efficient second wave of unofficial, plain clothed enforcers, bollocking privileged teenagers (in Crips and Bloods bandanas, WTF?) who dared step out of line. It must be in the muscle memory.

Now I know some of you may be nostalgic for the festivals of old, where you had to hitchhike all the way there, share a sleeping bag and forage for scraps of bean burger before offering up your body as host nation for the universe’s bacterium by visiting a fetid toilet. That ain’t me – I love new style ‘everyone be happy and organic and Cath Kidston’ and Womad delivered. Bravo.

I also know what you’re thinking, middle-management style, I’ve just spent an age describing the route and not the destination, man. I am a product of the health and safety generation. I’m also quite possibly, very boring. But, in truth, the music at Womad was so exceptional that I’m nervous about unpicking it.

We saw Amjid Ali Khan and his sons Ayaan and Amaan one Saturday and the father put it best when he said; ‘nothign we perform is planned, it is all created in the moment, for you.’ That was WOMAD encapsulated; a group of select musicians from around the world, who were so skilled that they could forget their many hours of rehearsal and put themselves at our disposal, absorbing the relentless sun, atmosphere and joy of the crowd to tailor their sound and nourish our burgeoning happiness. The Khans play the sarod and I quickly gave up trying to impose what I know about rhythm and song structure. Eyes closed, I relaxed and let my eyes go through a frantic journey into my own headspace, like Luke Skywalker in a TIE fighter.

The Khans were probably my highlight, but it’s difficult to say. However incredible they may be, when you are listening to musicians who you are unfamiliar with, their sound starts to blend together, like different pieces of plasticine, into one exquisite harmonious experiential lumpt (an analogy that I feel Sledgehammer era Peter Gabriel would approve of).

Take it as given that every artist we heard was incredible and it becomes a matter of taste and experience. The only way to listen to Goran Bregovis and his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra is by going crazy and preferably wiping one’s bum on a goose, if you’ve seen Black Cat White Cat. Trombone Shorty were slick and multi-layered and along with Snarky Puppy delivered a big funk. Though not my thing, Stylo G and Afrikaan Boy provided high intensity sustenance for the Crips branch of Eton. Ukrainian band Dakha Brakha seemed surprised by how how popular they were and gave up an fast paced auditory mindbath akin to The Khans.

We rounded out our listening with Oliver Mutukundzi and the Black Spirits. Oliver wins my prize for most unforced impressive swagger of the entire festival. Your award is in the post, sir.

There was so much more, snatches of sounds as we strolled from tent to tent, stopping and dancing wherever and whenever I pleased. In fact, I now have full on festival feet and will instinctively start getting down to any sound, including doorbells or Huw Edwards reading the news on the BBC.

The costumes, the people watching, the sounds. I spent a weekend in the Quality Street tin, 7 years old again, stuffing myself with every treat on offer, till I lay down giddy, sated and truly happy.

Well done, WOMAD and thank you.

Build your beet basket! Build it high!

I’m going through a bit of a change.

No, not hot flushes (I’m always sweaty and flushed, so it will be hard to tell when they begin), nor am I coming out. Things are changing. I am undergoing change. change is upon me, etc, etc.

Like one of my chillis, this has been a bit of a slow burner. In fact, any change that I make is the result of many arduous hours of half-assed research, handwringing and procrastination interspersed with what I like to call the ‘settling process’, which involves many hours of oblivious television watching. Seriously, rocks form faster.

The most important part of any change-making I undergo is listening and subjecting myself to the stereotypes and pronouncements offered up by family, friends and media.

For example, I wore black trousers and a black polo neck consistently throughout my year at drama school. Urged on by my mother (who had never been to drama school), I was pretty much convinced that this was the uniform of all serious students of theatrical arts. I then went on to wear a mood ring during a vaguely hippy phase which culminated in me visiting a a pagan store twice in one week, feeling the relationship was becoming too intense and guilt buying a bookmark before leaving, never to return.

The black theme resurfaced when I moved to London, teamed now with Buffalo trainers and a droll expression, as my friend, who already lived in London and was therefore already always in black with drollface, assured me that this was ‘what Londoners are like’.

Well done, you noticed: my stereotypes are very image led – shallow me! And I think lots of them were formulated during childhood. Most of the time, they’re not bad prejudgements on a group of people or type of living; they mostly aim at being humorous (my family deal almost exclusively in jokes and jokes alone). Some of them are quite strange, specific and could only be deciphered if you belonged to my family (hence the title of this post).

I also feel that my keenness to adopt stereotypes and images when I was younger was because of a desperate need to afiliate (thanks Maslow). I would happily have joined any group that would have had me and if all I had to do to identify was wear a ring, bandana or shell suit, so be it. I was part of the gang – or so I thought. Sometimes the desire to fit in is stronger than the desire to be yourself, after all.

But things have started to change recently. Really change. After years of diddling about, I finally learnt how to practise Transcendental Meditation. My battles with my negative talking mind have been well documented and while my audio fast gave me some respite (as does writing), mindful meditation hasn’t suited me. After reading ‘Catching the Big Fish’ by David Lynch, I was inspired to finally give it a go. I will write more about it at length elsewhere,but suffice to say that I am enjoying the process and wonder whether my shift in perspective has led to other changes.

After one lost Saturday too many, I finally gave up alcohol. This has been miraculous – who knew being clear-headed could be this much fun? Please bear in mind, that I used to get the most God-awful hangovers, like the inside of my head and stomach lining were being peeled back simultaneously. I looked like I had been poisoned. I had been poisoned! Dumb ass that I am, it has taken me this long to realise that maybe alcohol and I didn’t get on too well.

From this point on, the floodgates have opened. I’ve stopped eating all dairy except for goats cheese and most meat as well. Naturally the stereotype dial has just shot past ten and up to eleven, but please, give me a moment of your time. I’m no fan of animals; pigeons are satan’s minions and I’ve no desire to pet a monkey. But recently, when I’ve eaten steak, I’ve heard screams. Not because I’m eating in bad neighbourhoods. I mean mental screams. And I’ve clunked down on far too many of those chewy veins that you get in chicken, the bits that make you gag then spit hurriedly into the nearest receptacle, then spend the rest of the meal wondering what sort of monster is lurking in there. So my reasons are really those of a fourteen year old girl, except I am also aware of the benefits of a plant based diet. If it’s good enough for Prince, it’s good enough for me.

It’s this final change that has led to the most stereotypes. Stereotypes extempore, as I’m about to demonstrate. When I told my mother about my swtich in diet, she responded ‘oh go and build your beet basket, then’.

Beet basket?

I’m not entirely sure what a beet basket is and neither is she, but I love her crystallization of what being a vegetarian teetotaler was. God, it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But is eating dead flesh and poisoning oneself?

I can’t guarantee that all these changes will stay (vegan cheese ain’t fooling anyone and tempeh tastes like the devil’s drainscrapings), but they do at least feel like changes from within rather than without. They’re not a mood ring for the soul. And in the meantime I shall continue building my beet baskets with pride.

Holidays: The Knightmare

Top fact: I have an incredibly high embarrassment threshold. Exhibit A: I once snogged my then boyfriend in a cinema full of our friends for a commercial. I endured directions like ‘more tongue!’ Without a ruffle. Nay, not only did I endure them, I responded, despite the many critical or curious eyes upon me. Exhibit B: I dressed up as a flamenco dancer and flounced around on Grimsby dock, to celebrate the town’s inauguration as ‘Europe’s food town’ ( a short lived reign). Aged 16, I danced suggestively to Bobby Brown in greek restaurants, shopping centres and circus rings.

I’ve done it all in the shame game.

What links these escapades is the presence or the promise of an audience. I’m that shallow. I don’t think I’ve matured at all in the last few years, although the number of embarrassing escapades has dropped drastically. It’s basically down to the fact that my audiences are dwindling, dahling.

Which is why I was relieved to lose a bet to my year 10 class last week, which resulted in me performing the whole of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air rap with some gestures ( I bartered them down from full on dancing). Finally, I could relax in a bath of full on, non educational, inappropriate behaviour.

The affect achieved was not the desired one. They didn’t laugh at how funny it was, or how on point my stylings were. It was 90 long cringey seconds. I quickly gave up even trying and just closed my eyes, reciting the tale of my ill fate on the basketball court and the eventual taxi journey to Uncle Phil’s house like one unbroken mantra. It was amongst the strangest 90 seconds I have ever spent on this planet and unlike the snogging, flamenco strutting and Bobby Brown gyrations, it was no fun at all.

Because I’m too old for this. My Fresh Prince was a dad dance. A dad dance of death. Teenagers don’t find it funny, they find it a cringe. I had woefully misjudged my audience and so sat down and pretended to look at something on the computer.

Unable, as ever, to fully the take the blame for my behaviour, I have arrived at the conclusion that my material was too familiar to them. What with neon loom bands and flat peak caps, teenagers feel they own the FP. I should have stepped back further in time, to a show much closer to my heart: the CITV classic, Knightmare.

If you are unfamiliar with this show, stop reading my pile of nonsense and seek it out immediatement. Knightmare exploited our burgeoning interest in Virtual Reality and combined it with medieval quests. But for kids! Every episode involved a child being intimidated for a few moments by a man with a beard before being strapped into a helmet and transported into a virtual world (possibly a car park in reality) where he or she would have to navigate various tasks using only the directions from their teammates which would be yelled with increasing hysteria until they fell through a wormhole and lost. What was brilliant about Knightmare was that hardly anyone ever won and that you could play vicariiusly, shouting instructions at helmet kid in between bites of jam sandwich, standing so close to the black and white in the kitchen that your hair and top layer of skin would buzz witb static energy.

Knightmare is on my mind at the moment as well because it sort of mirrors how I feel at the start of the long holidays. I am helmet kid, full of grand ideas, but ultimately at the mercy of the shifting terrain and inept advice of others. I often wondered what would happen if helmet kid had just mugged it all off and removed the helmet. I’m tempted to do the same before i fall down the wormhole …

Angel Meadows and Sleeping Lions

I lived in London for 11 years and depended on the tube for every single journey I made.  Even now, I can plot a route across the capital in 30 seconds; I relish the challenge of finding the quickest route from A to B.

 

3 years into my Manchester residency (parp) and I still miss the speed and commonality of Tfl.  My  commute to work now feels like a portal into ‘Last of the Summer Wine’.  Trains are slow and they smell, a mixture of pollen, scotch egg and urine.  So I don’t leave the city centre much.  I’ve become a little insular.  But it turns out that it’s okay, because I only needed to walk 5 minutes from my flat to enter a world not dissimilar to how I imagine Hells Kitchen once was, a world of more than just spit and sawdust.

 

On Friday I went to see Angel Meadow, the inaugural project from HOME, delivered by the acclaimed ANU Productions.  We were told to meet in a square on the other side of the Oldham Road and I guess, await further instructions.  Curiosity piqued, I had a look online.  One reviewer had found it too much and had to leave.  Great.  I’d had a jangly week at work and would take ‘too little’ over ‘too much’ any day.  The pull of the sofa and a bland world cup tie between whosit and the other team was very strong.

 

Thank God I ignored this urge, because Angel Meadow was without doubt the finest bit of theatre that I have ever experienced.  And I mean experienced in the most literal sense of the word.

 

Angel Meadow takes place in and around the Edinburgh Castle, a derelict pub which called time 10 years ago after a particularly nasty riot of Oldham and Wrexham fans.  The Castle itself is slap bang in the middle of Ancoats, an area not unfamiliar with blood grudges.  Ancoats is the home of the industrial revolution and subsequently home to some seriously messy gang wars between rival factions who moved there to work, notably Irish and Italian communities.  Apparently the cast and creative team had arrived in Manchester without a space in mind and having discovered the castle, they moulded the piece from the lives and histories that the pub and surrounding area revealed to them; times when women believed in the devil and drank bleach for their sins, where men formed allegiances and rivalries at remarkable speed, where children were cheap and life was very fucking quick.

 

I’m not going to describe the show in detail, because I wouldn’t do it justice (I’ve wrestled with how to write this since seeing the performance 2 days ago) but also on the offchance that the company may perform it again, in which case I urge you to sell your least favourite body organ to procure a ticket.  Truth be told, I couldn’t speak of the full experience if I wanted to, as I only caught a fragment of it.  Each performance is for eight people at a time and we were picked off, reassembled and reformed many times over the course of an hour, but always made privy to performances of such heart-breaking conviction that it felt like a gift and a blessing to bear witness.

 

Angel Meadow is totally immersive  I’ve seen companies like Punchdrunk and Shunt and never felt truly touched – how could I with 50 other people in the room?  And then, for the inhibited amongst us, there’s always the nagging anxiety: ‘Don’t pick on me, please don’t single me out’.  Involving the audience can be enthralling, but it isn’t the same as making them perform.  When this happens, encounters become forced, uncomfortable and leave Sue the office manager feeling exposed, like she’s fallen short all at the same time.  Angel Meadow avoided this by not turning us into performers, but by taking away the audience.  We fell through the space in this funny old run-down pub, sometimes landing together, sometimes alone.  I might grease up a boxer for a fight or have a chat in the kitchen about flowers.  Either way it’s just me (and maybe one other) and the performer, no-one to mediate or judge.  We were free to play.

 

And if this still sounds eggy and uncomfortable, it isn’t.  The performers are so extraordinarily committed that you allow them to pull you through this sordid wormhole without resistance.  You move from watching a play, to watching people, to being part of the group.  The final event was delivered with such energy and conviction that I came out shaking.  And I know that sounds like a shitty theatre critic thing to say, but I’m not wearing a top hat, I’m not arsed about the fourth wall and I don’t cry at soliloquies.  I don’t care for a lot of the stuff that I’m supposed to, stuff that’s  ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘ award-winning’.  I’m a human being who thought she wanted to spend the night on the sofa and ended up having an earth-shattering experience in Angel Meadow.

 

Passable at faking

Recently, when I’ve written the date, I’ve been putting the year as 2016.  Am I losing my mind?  Am I a time traveller? Or am I just always somewhere else?  I worry about an early slow descent into dementia (who doesn’t at 3 am in the morning? ) but I think the reality is that I never fully concentrate on what I am doing and then I wonder where the hell the day has gone.

People have me pegged as a ‘good listener’, but most of the time, I’m not actually listening, I’m waiting for them to leave the room so I can get on with shit.  There’s a massive difference between genuinely giving someone your attention and just being so trapped by social morés that you sit and plaster on an ‘Í’m here for you’ face while secretly sweating with the urge to tell them to do one.  I have conveniently blended these two skills and convinced myself and others that I am, for want of a better phrase ‘good at listening’.  But they don’t come from the same point.  The more admirable route would be for me to tell the speaker that I’m busy and to come back another time and/or never, depending on the nature of their grievance.  but that would involve a measure of self empowerment and willingness to preserve oneself and one’s sanity.  The road more often travelled by me, to sit and ‘listen’ involves a form of self-preservation, but more from a fear of others than from genuinely looking out for the big id.  That internal monologue that cringes in your ear ‘ Oh God, I’ll look so rude if I tell them to go away now, they’ll pull that affronted face and then they’ll say something about me to someone else and about how rude I am and how I’m not a good listener after all, ah God oh God.  I’ll just quickly send this email while nodding at whatever they’re saying and then I’ll apologise for sending this email and really pretend to give them my attention’.  Lest you think me a horrific she-devil, can I just stress that I’m talking about listening not when people have a real genuine problem that they want to talk through, but when people just want a good long moan about the injustices of the break duty rota or how someone didn’t say hello to them that morning.

 

This is not Syrian crisis that I’m pretending to listen to.

And of course, everyone needs to vent, I understand this and I hold nothing against the plaintiffs in these cases.  They’re lovely people.  It’s me, I’m the problem.  Almost how certain folk were set up as the town scribes when no-one knew how to write, I have become the team’s rant-guardian.  This is my fault, I’ve let it happen.  Sure, I give all the physical signs to show that I want the person to leave; foot wedged in door, body turning away, making eye contact with others, the triple impact conclusive comment, shurg and eye roll. But still it come, a ticker tape of slights, perceived or real. And I’ve taken it.  I’ve not just lay down on the floor, I’ve written welcome on my face and permitted people to traipse their shit in and park their arses for the long haul.

 

So how to extricate myself?  Maybe erect a sign? ‘ You’re too wrapped up in your own problems and I’m passable at faking’?  Even this feels too passive.  I’m going to have to flat out tell people – the ‘hurt face’ has held sway over me for too long!

 

And now, having written this, I realise thatI have been moaning.  I sincerely hope that you pretend read it and got on with something more useful instead.