Monday, November 13, 2006

For Future Reference

For Future Reference

Having seen The History Boys and Starter For Ten in the past seven days it should be noted that I have developed a little bit of a crush on Dominic Cooper. I'm brushing under the carpet the fact that he spends the majority of the former in a school uniform and has a storming Essex accent in the latter, lest I start getting worried about myself. Because I'm already a little bit worried that multiple people have asked if I want David Tennant/ John Barrowman dolls for Christmas*. I've got to think: where will this end if I throw in uniforms and not very appealing accents?

Two words: Restraining. Order.

*The answer - obviously - being yes, yes and again yes.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Conversation I Never Expected To Have Aged 23 and 4/5ths.

A Conversation I Never Expected To Have Aged 23 and 4/5ths.

"I think you should come to beginners' ballet with me"

I do a little double take, checking in the process that I'm not hearing voices. Or rather valiantly hoping that I am hearing voices because early insanity is undoubtedly preferable to the thought of me going to beginners' ballet. And not just going to beginners' ballet but going with someone who trained at London Contemporary. The damage to my ego does not bear thinking about.

D looks back at me and I realise he's serious. If the world is to end due to a meterorite, polar ice cap melting or the universe contracting because of the mass within it then now might be the best moment for its destruction. Please.

"I can't dance!"

This comes out as an involuntary shriek, the words rising and coating the surrounding air in my abject fear. And I'm having mental flashes, the type you undoubtedly have when you're about to die.

D chooses to ignore my obvious panic.

"Yes you can, I've seen you dance"

This is said as one might talk to a particularly over-wrought three year old. Its only immediate effect, however, is to deepen my panic. Because I've seen the articles of clothing with high lycra contents in them that D currently has in his bag. And it is safe to say that my bottom does not need to go anywhere near lyrca. It doubly does not need to go anywhere near lycra when dancing.

And anyway, my natural poise and grace is not something that is ever commented on. My ability to remember events I really shouldn't remember or my ability to spot photos of Sienna Boho Princess from considerable distances or even my ability to know all the scene numbers for random plays - yes, yes and again yes. But dancing. No, no, no. Even when I did succumb and allow D to teach me 'The Hilton'* the fact remains that it's taken weeks for me to be able to do it unaided and even now I don't do it quite right. And that's a dance that is meant to be crap.

"I was dancing to Steps! That does not count!"

I yell it with a flourish. Because you can't argue that a fairly impressive knowledge of the dance back catalogue of Steps constitutes the ability to dance properly. And I was tanked up on rum that night.

"It's still movement"

I shake my head. The panic is subsiding with the realisation that D can't fight the Steps thing. D, however, just smiles. It's mildly disconcerting.

D goes to ballet. I don't. But I can't help the overwhelming feeling that whilst I may have won the battle I have lost the war.

*'The Hilton' - verb, dance involving jiggly movement of upper body as orginated by Paris Hilton.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

"Read it now, learn it now and you'll know it whenever"

"Read it now, learn it now and you'll know it whenever"

Not so long ago I was told to go and see The History Boys because i)there were cute boys in it and ii)I would find it "beautiful". Given that I also had a discount voucher to use at the Vue cinema of my choice (a result of D and I going to see Marie Antoinette a couple of weeks ago) I really had no excuse for not going. Let's just pause and do the maths:

Discount x (cute boys + something beautiful) = a good night out.

Or not so much night as late afternoon/early evening because - and I hang my head in mock shame - I'm craving early nights at the moment, undoubtedly a reaction to rarely being home before 11:15pm what with The Duchess of Malfi in the Quarry. But either way, the maths shows you that it would have been rude of me not to have gone to see The History Boys.

Within about five minutes of the film starting - or at least enough time for me to eat the free chocolate bar I'd been given in Borders, no doubt as a thank you for single handedly keeping them in business - it struck me that I didn't understand why I've never seen The History Boys on stage. Because this film, this play, it screams out just how much I would love it*. And not just because it is incredibly well written and acted and, the film at least, made me squeak a little when it showed both Fountains Abbey and the Rad Cam in Oxford. But because it spoke to me. It spoke to me about my own experiences and my own beliefs.

"There are two types of teachers - those who teach you to pass exams and those who teach you to enrich you as a person"

I was sixteen when I heard this, sat in an empty maths classrooms having my first British History lesson with a teacher I'd come into contact with only via those never ending end of term assemblies. I knew nothing more than that he had a long term reputation for smoking biros. I think the word is quirky. Certainly there was a lack of official looking worksheets of the type that we'd been given in European History. Heck, we'd been given binders and plastic wallets and everything there. I felt it safe to assume that Mr C probably didn't know where the plastic wallets were kept. Indeed over the course of two years it was deemed a very good haul if we got so much as a sheet of lined paper. But there were other things. Copies of Private Eye that would appear, large stretches of lessons that would be given over to some random topic that had some outside link to whatever it was that William Pitt the younger was supposed to be doing, debates on voting age and proportional representation. I was sent home with orders to watch The Madness of King George when studying the regency crisis, the first and only time that I can say that watching Rupert Everett has been an educational necessity. I gained not only large chunks of my political outlook in those lessons but an indelible feeling that those far away people with their reasons for going to war, their desires for better working conditions and their fears weren't that different to us. Even more importantly, I was taught how to use an apostrophe. I believe I was taught about splitting infinitives too, but that one didn't stick.

It was Mr C who suggested to me - one morning in the ramshackle office with its deputy head sign on the door - that I consider applying to Oxbridge. And whilst those months that followed weren't quite as intense as the system shown in The History Boys the fact that many sixth forms have 'Oxbridge Lessons' points to the fact that getting into Oxford or Cambridge is still considered a subject in its own right. I can remember the lists, the hours in the library reading novels I didn't quite love (Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, Anita Brookner's Hotel Du Lac), isms I didn't quite understand (Marx , Freud) and rhyme schemes I couldn't quite pin down (yes, you, Mr T S Eliot). And if Mr C's Hector was the background for this, then it didn't mean I was exempt from having an Irwin brought in to test me.

"If you can't talk about Dickens then you must be able to talk about George Eliot"

It seemed churlish of me to point out that I didn't really like Dickens and I hadn't read any George Eliot. I went home read Silas Marner and started The Mill on the Floss. I was still reading The Mill on The Floss as I sat in a service station on my way to Oxford for my interview. And, yes, I did talk about it just as I talked about body parts in Jacobean drama, the notions of time presented in The Four Quartets, Larkin's cosmos and whether I thought that ET was an analogy for the story of Christ. Because you can't deny the pragmatic Irwin entirely. Be it examinations or Oxbridge interviews there's a lot to be said for being able to jump through the hoops you're set. And that piece of advice that I was given pre-finals, it could have come straight out of Irwin's mouth in the wonderful scene where the boys debate writing about the Holocaust: "It's better to be interesting than to be right".

If that was where The History Boys had finished I would have been happy enough, feeling as I did that it touched a part of my life. But what about the part that I found utterly, heart wrenchingly beautiful? If you've seen either play or film you can probably guess.

Posner and Hector discussing Hardy's 'Drummer Hodge'.

As the two characters read the poem they both became reflected in its words, their feelings spread out before them by the writing of a long dead man. And my heart soared and I felt tears running down my face because this - this - is what reading is all about. Not about Irwin's "gobbits", but the feeling that you are not alone, others have trod this path, as Hector so brilliantly puts it, that a hand reaches out to hold yours. And if I firmly believe that there is not much in life that a bar of galaxy chocolate and a Richard Curtis film and/or an episode of Friends cannot soothe I believe even more firmly about literature's restorative powers. Because it doesn't just numb you, it makes you understand. Need an answer? Look in the pages of Will Shakespeare, or Ted Hughes or Ginny Woolf or, if you're feeling particularly brave, Byron. Nothing there? Try Marlowe, Wordsworth, Behn, Stoppard, Browning, Webster, Shelley (either of them), Fitzgerald or Plath. Give Tennyson, Sidney, Bronte (all of them), Hare, Atwood, Middleton, Ishiguro, Austen, heck even Chaucer a go. Hector loves Auden and Housman because they speak to him - they speak of loss, of homosexuality, of youth, of love. They speak to him of himself. And in 'Drummer Hodge' both Posner and Hector reach in and see the lonliness at the heart of the poem; it joins them, binds them with Hardy and momentarily they're no longer alone.

Having shuddered with the boys through their interviews and felt that great flash of satisfaction as they gained their places, by the final moments of the film I was crying again. Crying for everything contained in the final words of the film which, rightly, belong to Hector:

"Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me, not for you but for someone somewhere one day"

In my world at least there is no greater call to arms.

*Basic plot outline: a group of A grade grammar school boys in Yorkshire in the early eighties prepare for the Oxbridge entrance exams under the competing influence of an eccentric general studies teacher [Hector] and a progressive History teacher [Irwin].

Friday, November 03, 2006

The fine line between comedy and farce

The fine line between comedy and farce.

Throughout this year I've entered various writing competitions, the letters (and in some cases emails) I've received back have become something of a morbid fascination for me. Because seeing how many ways there are to say no, bugger off is quite fascinating. Favourite until this morning? The Traverse Theatre's [and I quote] "You were a particularly strong applicant and we would have liked to have been able to offer you a place" - the proof of the pudding being that they resolutely didn't offer me a place.

I'd almost forgotten that back in January I'd entered Some Sort of Beautiful into The Royal Court's Young Writer's Festival, so I wasn't expecting a response from the Young Writer's Programme to be among my gmail this morning.

Consequently it was a pleasant suprise that they "would like to invite you to join a playwriting group here at the Royal Court Young Writers Programme". Let's put to one side the fact that the group is in London and would involve five hours of scary coach not-getting-any-sleep travel time every week for ten weeks (eek) and let's just focus on the fact that they're prioritising a place for me on a group that's scarily over-subscribed.

Slightly less of a pleasant surprise was the discovery that rather than attaching the feedback form for SSoB to the email I'd been sent the feedback for another play. I didn't clock this for a while until I got to the sentence "The relationship between Darren and Lydia is the strongest part of the play and has the most potential". And if I were to wonder if they'd got Harry and Kate's names wrong a sentence later I knew we weren't talking about the same thing: "The weakest point is the sudden revelation that Darren is a child killer". Heck, SSoB got twisted in the post. Seriously though, if I get all successful and famous as a writer and get the chance to write some kind of memoir (and let's face it, regardless of levels of fame I'm pencilling in my memoirs, I've got lots of good stuff to use) I'm going to want to call it "Darren is a child killer" just because I suspect that it's the first and last time I'll ever read that on a feedback form.

So, rather than basking in some ego-massage, one finger up to all you student newspaper critics fandango, I'm having to wait for my proper feedback to be sent to me. If I didn't work in a theatre I'd roll my eyes.