Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Never say never again, again

Awww; it almost seemed for a moment, in that flurry of recent activity in these pages, that Thompson's might conceivably have been kissed by a fairy as it slept, and awoken to find itself transformed into a real blog, with new posts popping up almost as frequently as Merzbow records. Unfortunately, I think it's not to be: today's post is not much more than an apology in advance of my sinking back into the doldrums of unearned and unwarranted aestivation.

This week's matter-in-hand is an encroaching deadline for finishing a first draft of The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley for Queer Up North. Though the piece won't emerge into the daylight until next April, the scale and potential complexity of the project means we need something script-shaped in the bag in the next few days. It's not going badly, though there's a long way still to go and progress is pretty slow, partly because of the intricacy of the writing, the structure in particular, but partly because despite the recent showers, the room where I work is pretty hot and kind of stupefying, so even at its most intense and fluent the process seems to wobble constantly on the edge of utter somnolence. Every time I come up against a problem, my body reacts by going into standby mode. I have hidden the aerial for my tv card, I've cut my sugar consumption by half, and I've taken to turning my phone and email off for the greater part of the day, so that nothing can distract me: the consequence of which is I become distracted by nothing, or hardly anything. I gaze vacantly upon lint and paperclips as if they somehow held the key to everything. What with my work-rate and my woozy-headedness, it occurs to me that this must be what it's like to be George Michael (but without any money in the bank -- or, for that matter, a guy called Kenny doting on me in a slightly creepy way).

Anyway, I've got to get this all done and dusted in the next week, as I'm then off on some travels: a few days hanging out with my dad and re-reading various biographies of Edward Lear (research for the next play, King Pelican, which I've said I'll deliver in about six weeks time); but before that, a few days in Edinburgh.

I swore blind I wasn't going to go this year, just to spite them after the outrageous dumb-ass fulmination with which my 2007 offering was greeted. But then Andy Field got in touch with news of some freshly-opened slots at Forest Fringe, after an exciting-looking Russian company he'd programmed were refused visas: and this coincided with some particularly unmanageable pangs on my part as the list of shows and exhibitions and friends that I was sad to be missing started to chafe. Also, a floated notion of me penning a newspaper article along the lines of "Why I am not going to Edinburgh this year" failed to come to fruition, and it started to seem almost as easy to spite them by, in the end, going, as to spite the Fringe by not. (I do appreciate, by the way, that neither the Edinburgh Fringe nor the arts editors of any of the national newspapers give a twelfth of a cahoot whether I'm there or not; I suddenly realised you couldn't see how far my tongue was embedded in my cheek...)

So, to cut to the end of the non-anecdote, I'm now going to be doing a series of three reading/performances of work from the wilder territories, one way or another, of 20th century poetry (and allied trades). I've read or performed quite a lot of this stuff before in various contexts, but mostly in academic settings -- so I'm fascinated to see what happens if I try and share this work, which I so greatly value, with a festival crowd to whom much of it, I guess, may be new. The three programmes, each with a run time of about 50 minutes (counting introductions beforehand and apologies afterward), are as follows:

#1 (Wednesday 13th):
Gertrude Stein, 'If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso'
Allen Ginsberg, 'Howl'
Rainer Maria Rilke / Geoff Ward, Duino Elegies (nos. 1, 4, 10 -- I think)

#2 (Thursday 14th):
short pieces by Samuel Beckett, Erik Belgum, Christopher Knowles, Jon Leidecker [Wobbly], Bruce Nauman, Yoko Ono, Jerome Rothenberg and Cecil Taylor (or thereabouts)

#3 (Friday 15th):
Cathy Berberian, 'Stripsody'
Bob Cobbing / Jeremy Adler, 'Notes from the Correspondence' (excerpt)
Kurt Schwitters, Ursonate

Saturday 16th will I think mostly be spent in bed with some camomile tea.

Seriously, I'm excited about the prospect of getting down and dirty with this stuff in such congenial surroundings, and particularly about having a first stab at the whole of the Ursonate, having had a go at the last movement as part of a sort of relay with Peter Manson, Sean Bonney and Josh Robinson at a memorable event curated by Harry Gilonis in Cambridge a couple of years ago.

Anyway, I've posted all this here partly in the hope that, if you're in Edinburgh next week or you have friends or colleagues who will be, you might kindly pass these details on to them. Like all the Forest Fringe stuff it's on a pay what you can basis, so you have nothing much to lose other than fifty minutes of your life -- or, alternately, insert a less diffident promotional catchphrase of your choice HERE. I'm slightly nervous because Edinburgh's a busy place, and 7pm is a popular time for doing other things, and the Forest Fringe is wonderfully disattached from the horrid leviathan fringe proper but therefore doesn't get included in the regular whirl of listings -- which may turn out to be to its advantage, who knows, and will certainly make for a more oxygenated ambience, but it would be a shame to go all that way to read poetry to no one. Ursonate in particular could very quickly in such circumstances become a dose of, er, "sound and fury, signifying nothing" avant la lettre.

Well, so, we'll see. In the meantime, val-de-ree, and heigh! for the open road, and etc etc.

But all this means I won't be posting again until the end of this month at the earliest, unless I find myself sufficiently unable to resist sounding off from Edinburgh that I'm prepared to sit in an overpriced internet cafe for the privilege of doing so.

On what, then, mes chouettes adorees, are you to squander your time in the meanbetwix? Fear not: Uncle Controlling T. has compiled a little list of ten things you might conceivably enjoy turning your attention to while I'm busy devastating what shreds remain of my once-proud reputation. (Eleven if you count Cake Farts, but for heaven's sake don't click on that unless you are (a) completely alone and pretty drunk, or (b) literally Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.) So, fire up your copy of Brian Fahey's "At the Sign of the Swinging Cymbal", and let's see what the world has to offer you:

1. My old sparring partner David Eldridge has a two-part audio interview with Heather Neill quite newly up at TheatreVoice, to tie in with the opening of his early play Under the Blue Sky in London's sparkletastic West End. Thompson's regulars will need no reminding that David and I have struggled at times to see eye to eye but I hope it's always been clear that I valued those sometimes bumpity conversations because I greatly value David himself as a passionately committed advocate for the playwriting stream in British theatre. If he weren't so smart and so interesting, those conversations would have been a waste of time. In fact, if it hadn't been for his provocative presence in the blogosphere (now sadly -- and I hope only temporarily -- withdrawn), I don't think I would have had the idea to do ...Sisters, for one thing. (It's for you to decide what balance of praise and blame should be transferred to him.) At any rate, it's a terrific pleasure to hear David in relaxed and expansive mood here, talking about Under the Blue Sky and, with characteristic ardour, about the need for contemporary playwrights to be better served with second and further productions of plays that for the most part, as it stands, only ever get one airing: an unimpeachably good point, admirably well made.

Incidentally, TheatreVoice can now be subscribed to via iTunes (though you'd have to like proper theatre considerably more than I do to take that particular plunge); and the interviews can also be downloaded from the TheatreVoice web site rather than streamed. I have a whole bunch in my iPod for long journeys and sleepless nights.

2. Tim Etchells links to a very interesting interview with New York-based visual artist Vlatka Horvat, at an excellent blog, This is That, maintained by artist Johanna Reed. All of the above, excepting Etchells of course, are new to me, and an especially happy discovery. I particularly like the subheadings in the Horvat interview, which speak very acutely and seductively to the work I'm doing and the dreams I'm incorrigibly dreaming in preparation for my upcoming piece Hey Mathew: "Wanting more than the body can do"; "A body attempting to simultaneously occupy inside and outside"; "Language as an object", and so on.

3. An Experiment in Collaboration is the current exhibition (through to the end of August) at the Jerwood Space gallery -- it was being installed about ten days ago when I took Jonny over there to flirt with the cafe staff. The show asks six visual artists, working across a range of forms and media, to choose a collaborator, and each project arising is then collaboratively conceived and created. The chosen collaborators include a forensic psychiatrist, a biophysicist, a computer game designer, an architect, a filmmaking collective, and the ladies and gentlemen of Dazed & Confused magazine; and a blog details each process as it emerges. (There's a particularly interesting post on "the blog as an analogy of process" which really dovetails fascinatingly with my research project at Rose Bruford, which will feed into Hey Mathew.) What's surprising in a way about this enterprise is how simple it is at a group level, and I don't know how much the relations of the individual projects (or, one might imagine, their parallelism) can say or suggest about the nature of collaboration in general: but it looks as though the individual projects might be at least interesting. Unfortunately the only detailed information at the Jerwood Space site is a .pdf, which is slightly annoying, but your mileage may vary.

4. Look! It's The Reality Street Book of Sonnets. I thought I might die before it finally emerged from its epic pupation; but in its own good time in the end it arrived -- and once again I thought I might die: the range, the chutzpah, the sheer bloody excitingness of this anthology is heart-attack-inducing. I'm a sucker for anthologies, but this is something else entirely. Someone over at Dennis's blog reminded me today of the phrase "all killer, no filler", and that sums this book up perfectly: there is literally nothing here that doesn't abundantly reward the reader's attention and imagination. The compass of the anthology is the life of the sonnet from 1945 up to about this time yesterday (culminating with the gobsmackingly brilliant Justin Katko and Sophie Robinson), and its scope easily accommodates plenty of visual and soundtext work as well as exhilarating adventures with both the cumbersome baggage of the form and its startling elasticity and mutability. Watch me ride half a league into the valley of individiousness as I choose some favourite stuff: Tim Atkins's droll and weirdly poignant refashionings of Petrarch; a ravishing sequence of brush-stroke sonnets from David Miller, which effectively reframe for me everything of Miller's that I've ever read; Giles Goodland's sublimely funny and disconcerting compositions from found documentary sources; and Jen Bervin's reticently poised and lyrically reverberant writings-through of Shakespearean phantoms. One of the best things about those four examples is that nothing else here is not at least nine-elevenths as good as them. And it's a pleasure also to see more familiar sonnets (from Adrian Clarke, Tony Lopez, Ken Edwards, Peter Jaeger, Peter Manson...) in this context and this company, where everything folds itself outwards like a house party spilling onto the lawn outside.

Worth noting, I think, in passing -- though it's touched on briefly in the excellent introduction -- that one of the centres of gravity to this anthology is the Writers Forum workshop, instituted by Bob Cobbing and these days helmed by Clarke and Lawrence Upton. At least a dozen of these here poets, probably many more, have or have had strong links to that workshop, which meets fortnightly through most of the year, these days at the Betsey Trotwood pub in Farringdon, though for a short while at CPT while I was swivelling in the warmseat. A book like this brings home the importance of that meeting-place, and of its longevity not least. It was sitting in that circle that I first heard Jeff Hilson, the editor of this astonishing volume and himself one of the most brilliant poets I know, read from his Bird Bird -- just about my favourite thing to have ever happened. I really want to start going to the workshop again, but I'm sick of making the resolution, only to have it swamped by my own disastrousness.

Anyway, I don't think I can recommend this anthology any more highly than I already have; if you think I can, then please take it as read that I do. I definitely can't think of a better or more inspiring introduction to what remains to be done in your life, starting now.

5. While we're doing poetry, can I quickly remind you of the increasingly vital site of my pal Tom Moore, who, under the nom de blog of Thomas Moronic, is gradually, more or less daily, creating a massive and seemingly edgeless composite work whose moment-to-moment lightness of touch and sureness of cadence eventually starts to yield, if you'll let it, to a cumulatory weight and resonance that's starting to genuinely astound me. Some of Tom's work has now been gathered in a collection called Surfaces (which can be ordered via a link on the blog), with which I've been settling happily down whenever I've found myself in transit in recent days. (Well, except when on foot.) There's a loomingly, often movingly eerie disjunct between -- well, I suppose it's simply between what is said and what is unsaid, and how the precsion of his phrasing (even when the voices he uses are at their bleariest) tightrope-teeters between those two sheer drops: between unreliable but not un-truth-like utterance on one side, and everything beyond articulation and at the farthest limit of what we can imagine daring to feel on the other. I've liked his stuff for ages: but at the moment, every time I go to it, I find myself thinking that I didn't know the half of it. And what's more the beggar's a fine musician: and a peach of a fellow to boot.

6. Just stumbled a few nights ago across this place, which has a peculiar but pretty interesting assortment of vintage (and less so) television programmes available on DVD. I don't know, I can't find anything that says, what the sources of the footage are -- I imagine it might just be transfers of private VHS recordings, conceivably. (That would certainly explain the apparent randomness of the catalogue.) Nonetheless, the prices are not too steep on the whole and I imagine one might be prepared to put up with some less-than-pristine picture quality in order to have the chance to revisit, say, series 4 of The Adventure Game or all three seasons of the correctly unloved Simon Callow / Brenda Blethyn sitcom Chance in a Million. There's a lot of Zammo/Gonch-era Grange Hill, masses of Childrens Film Foundation stuff (including the disturbing late-era drama Survivors which still somewhat haunts me), and bags of Kenny Everett; what's got me all a-quiver, though -- a tremulousness I can hardly consider resolving while I don't have a functioning DVD player in the house -- are a collection of the genius late 60s US cartoon 'The Ant and the Aardvark', initially conceived by the great Friz Freleng, and featuring music from a nifty little jazz combo including Shelly Manne and Ray Brown; and the one-off BBC2 drama 'Dirtysomething', a frankly irresistible love story which followed the then little-known Rachel Weisz and the soppily beautiful Paul Reynolds as they upshifted from being happy itinerant crusties to houseproud, screwed-up yuppies, and then explosively chucked it all in and went back to their roots. I reckon 'Dirtysomething' is one of those helpful early-in-a-possible-relationship litmus tests: anyone who doesn't want to sleep with you after you've shown it to them just basically isn't nice enough people anyway.

7. Still in archive-trawling mood, here's a blog I've come across this week: Time Has Told Me is an eye-wateringly massive compendium of out-of-print albums mostly from the folky neck of the woods, particularly 60s and 70s British stuff (as the Nick Drake reference in the blog name would suggest), though with a fair dab of more recent acid-folk and freak-folk materials, and plenty (and Planxty) besides. For each one, a cover pic and some introductory notes are posted, along with a Rapidshare link (or similar) if you want to download a ripped copy. It's understandable that this practice of posting links to whole downloadable albums causes some consternation in some parts -- witness the row in the comments field when an in-print Nic Jones album is featured -- but almost everything here is long out of commercial circulation and, pace some of the protestors' comments, I'd tend to think having these ripped copies freely available increases, rather than decreases, the demand for properly authored reissues.

A quick skim of the dazzling artist index brings up such interesting and worthwhile folks as Andy Pratt, Assagai, Chris Foster (whose awesome All Things In Common is here, featuring perhaps the best rendering I've ever heard of Leon Rosselson's classic 'The World Turned Upside Down'), Dick Gaughan, Dr Strangely Strange, Frankie Armstrong, John Fahey, Julie Covington (both of her albums, both essential), lots of Martin Carthy, lots of the great Peter Bellamy, lots of Robin Williamson... and so on. There are literally hundreds of really good records here; not all of the uploads are maintained in perpetuity but it seems like if you ask nicely for a repost, there's a good possibility you'll get it. Likewise, requests and recommendations are solicited. It's really an incredible resource and the dedication of the blog owner and posters is, as so often with these things, humbling.

8. The Live Art Almanac is now available: it's a publication from the Live Art Development Agency, and can be picked up through their abundantly useful provisional wing stroke giftshop, Unbound. The Almanac gathers writings on and near live art from a variety of sources over the past couple of years, from position papers to online reviews to newspaper obituaries to talks to emails; the thirty-odd contributing writers include Brian Catling, Helen Cole (of the Arnolfini), Tim Etchells, Lyn Gardner, Guillermo Gomez-Pena (brilliant as ever), Nick Ridout, and my pals Theron Schmidt and Rajni Shah. It's a fascinating idea, almost counterintuitive -- to be gathering these shreds and patches, in all their fugitive and marginal and provisional partiality, and fixing them in an actual book (as opposed to an online archive, say) seems like a remarkable, and highly attractive, instance of swimming upstream.

On a personal note, I rather regret refusing permission for a bit of Thompson's to be published in this collection. It's important to me that writing for Thompson's is not the same thing as writing for print (though I have on occasion allowed other things to be circulated on paper in certain contexts), important not least for me in the moment of doing the writing. But I didn't quite understand the nature and scope of the project; I think the piece they wanted would have been better protected in this context than I feared it might. So, Daniel, if you happen to read this, I'm sorry, I think I made the wrong call.

As it goes, this is a lively, mostly intelligent, often pretty infuriating publication; I like what it stands for more than I like some of what gets said within it, but that's the territory. I did in fact draft half a response for here, trying a really intemperate voice on for size and wanting to let the performance of polemical blood-spitting fury drown out the fact that a lot of the book is worth reading. But it would have done more harm than good, in every particular. So the next best thing is to recommend that you track this baby down, and see if you can work yourself up into your own personal lather. (The colossal, vacuous self-regard of Simon Casson's submission to the McMaster review would be a good place to start. Never have I felt such a rush of sympathy for the DCMS. I'd have slit my wrists if my morning inbox had contained such an arrogant, cheap, fake-witted pile of bullcrap.)

9. For those who are not in Edinburgh and who prefer their live art live and for real, can I strongly recommend my friend Brian Lobel's upcoming performance at the Shunt Vaults, Hold My Hand And We're Halfway There. It sounds like a hoot: Brian dances for two hours to a bunch of musicals on video, and you get to dance with him, or choose your own musical, or just hang out. It's on over four consecutive evenings, August 13th to 16th, and I would very warmly urge you to take it in if you can. Brian's a wonderfully warm and engaging presence and I can't imagine anyone I'd rather see doing stuff like this. But I'll be shooting my own horses, won't I, so you'll have to go instead and tell me what you think.

10. Finally, above all, can we pause for a moment to celebrate the inclusion of John Berger's yet-to-be-published novel From A to X on this year's Man Booker longlist? As all the accompanying reportage has reminded us, when Berger won the Booker in 1972, for his (fictional) masterpiece G., he gave half the money to the Black Panthers. (His brilliant semi-acceptance speech is included in his Selected Essays from a few years back, ed. Geoff Dyer: every home should have one.) What will come of this latest -- and of course in almost every sense transcendentally irrelevant -- endorsement, who can say? There's certainly no indication in his most recent writing, in say Hold Everything Dear, that Berger at 82 has remotely 'mellowed': why would he?

I mention this mostly, though, because I've been re-reading G., and liking it even more than I did when I first sat with it ten years ago. It's a difficult book, or not difficult so much as demanding: it requires extended attention, patience, care; some of the writing on sex seems a little overripe at this distance, in a way that perhaps it didn't in '72. But it's a beautiful work of literary art, utterly serious and searching and kind and full of Berger's radiant humanity.

Like all of the best of Berger's writing (in other words, pretty much everything apart from the poetry), it also seems to me to be about theatre: I mean it seems to describe, in various ways, and with great insight, the things out of which theatre is, or could or should be, crafted or delivered. I don't suppose that theatre per se is very close to Berger's mind: though of course he has collaborated to some effect with Simon McBurney on a couple of projects, The Vertical Line for Artangel in 1999 and Vanishing Points in 2005, and on Complicite's adaptations of his stories The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol (from his book Pig Earth) and, for radio, To The Wedding. But, I guess because he is intensely interested in, and committed to thinking deeply about, different models of social relations, and the means by which we read and apprehend the world before us and the conditioning of those means by extraneous and invasive forces, he can often be seen describing an essence of searching and inquiry, and a double bind of human availability and dissidence, which appeals to any sense of theatre that contains or approaches the practice of ethical action.

In the seminar paper The Forest and the Field [not to be confused with the Forest's Andy Field], which I gave earlier this year in Cambridge and posted here somewhereabouts, it's an essay of Berger's that describes the "field" which I posit as a post-liminal alternative to the permissiveness of the Shakespearean "forest". (I used the same essay, in connection with some stuff about kanji nicked from a Robert Lepage interview, as a component in my 2006 show We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg!.) And now, looking again at G., I'm once again struck by these amazing, nearly but not quite unwitting, descriptions of an ideal theatre.

Take for example this passage, in which the young boy at the heart of the novel has fallen in love with his governess -- or rather, she has become the channel through which he learns to fall in love with the world, and with himself in it. Berger writes, with infinite tenderness:

"The mystery which inflames him and at night in bed stiffens his penis leads the boy to ask a number of questions. But the questions are asked in a mixed language of half-words, images, movements of the hands and gestural diagrams which he makes with his own body. Thus, the following are the crudest translations.
Why do I stop at my skin?
How do I get nearer to the pleasure I am feeling?
What is in me that I know so well and nobody else yet knows?
How do I let somebody else know it?
In what am I -- what is this thing in the middle of which I have found myself and which I can't get out of?
He is convinced that by means of the same mixed language in which he asks these questions, she can answer them. All the formal questions he asks her in the schoolroom and which she answers (What makes rain? What does a wolf really eat? etc.) are a mere preparation for this."

It's all there: the act of questioning, the "mixed language", the body diagrams and gestures, the questions themselves, all of which pertain so profoundly to the syntax of theatrical (bodily) presence; the ineffable erotic suffusion of the yearning -- and the basic need -- to ask questions of the body with the body, the desire to express the desire to express; and, not least, the way in which the content, as it were, of his questions -- about the rain, the wolf -- is not where the theatrical potency of them resides: they're preparatory to the act of theatre, they're text as pretext. Everything about this passage is describing the theatre towards which I, and others, are feeling our way.

I could go on like this about Berger for hours, but I won't.

Time to go. Enjoy the next bit of summer, if that's what it turns out to be. If I don't impale you on the receiving end of some serious Schwitters (or thereabouts), I'll be seeing you -- no doubt -- in all the old familiar places before too horribly long.


Alison Croggon said...

Chris, so delighted to find a fellow Berger fan. I'm like his No 1 fangirl OMG. I wrote him a rather breathless fan letter once and he wrote back (in his own hand), thus cementing my adoration...

andy pratt said...


thank you very much for mentioning me. Happy days and blessings to you

Andy Pratt

Leigh Caldwell said...

Ah, the Adventure Game. Probably the first thing I would have thought of as "interactive" media had I known the term, maybe with the exception of Why Don't You. The phone-ins on Swap Shop were definitely for "other people".

Then again, there were the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Which have been reissued by somebody. Is the whole idea of the long tail just based on a misreading of self-indulgent Generation X nostalgia?

I'm not sure that I quite got the idea with the Adventure Game that these people were celebrities. I am sure I wanted to be on the show myself, except that they had a rule that nobody could be on it who had seen it on TV. Clever way of reducing your content origination budget. Maybe they could do the same thing with Millionaire or Countdown, so we can get a genuine comparison of contestants' abilities. Did you know someone had invented duplicate poker with that objective?

The Betsey Trotwood used to be my local. Last thing I saw there, apart from Richard Herring improvising some standup about baby pies which found its way into his main routine - lovely to be present at the birth of something, even a pie - was a stunningly knowing and ironic tribute concert to a fictional blues singer. The stories they told about him were beautifully stereotypical exemplars of what this iconic blues person should be, the wives he should have left and the drinks he should have overindulged in. I thought it very clever that they had advertised it as a genuine tribute, announcing the guy's name as if we should all have heard of him, and then performed four hours of such clearly made-up blues standards from his songbook.

You know the ending already, but imagine my sheepishness when Wikipedia explained that Blind Willie McTell actually existed and everything I'd heard was true. Fill in your own punchline or interpretation of my surprise.

The easy listmania of this posting has allowed me a relaxed and anecdotal response, but bear with me and I'll be back with a much more vicious engagement with an earlier blog, though I haven't quite chosen which one yet.

Lucy Ellinson said...

helloo. very glad you are heading up to Edinburgh to take part in the Forest Fringe at the Forest Fringe cafe.

something reallyveryexciting is happening there. lots of very nice people popping in to spend time with the ideas. lovely.

back up on the 17th - will you still be there? I owe you some veggie sausage and mash...