York, briefly

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It’s coming to sunset over the river Ouse in York. People are lining the riverbank. They are occasionally being organised by friendly coppers on bicycles when it starts to feel like more of a party than it legally ought to. But mostly it’s small groups, some people playing music, others just enjoying the sunset and the weather.

I’m sitting apart, remote from the crowds as Tom and Lydia go back to their new home to switch into evening gear and freshen up. I’m only in York for one night. I’m the driver, helping them move in. All I have is a change of underwear and my iPad. But we have an evening together. We might as well have … an evening together.

Four hours drive and more, up from London and it felt like old times at first. We loaded up the van. They got in the cab with me. I’m their employee so I can sit closer to them than their mothers can sit.

We made extraordinary time through London and out up north. I might have said a few weeks ago that the road outside mine was busy but for a summer Saturday, how the hell were we steaming up the M1 so quickly?

There are bits of roadside that I think of in the same frame as books that have been in the loo for years and years. I run my eyes over them while I’m there but I take in no new information. These spots of arterial London : I know every shopfront, every bit of graffiti, every unusual detail of every house. I have spent weeks of my life in stationary traffic on these roads, endlessly heading out on the M4. We flew through, and up up and away, which is just as well as I barely slept last night for the heat and was nodding at the end of the drive. It was so quick.

I was fading before we got to Watford Gap, and we stopped for a boost in the Welcome Break. Being there suddenly helped us to remember the nature of the world we live in right now. WH Smith and Spar were open, both with coffee machines and godawful sandwiches displayed like chocolate bars. That’s it. All the great big hideous unethical global food concessions with their huge adverts looming over the motorway – shut. And I bet they’re still just munging the animals and then throwing the result away as it’s easier to keep running the machine than it is to rejig it. Every other loo cubicle shut, every other sink taped over, and every other urinal. Nobody is moving though.

I had a disgusting Scotch Egg for lunch as I needed something. Bad choice. I’m normally ok with that shit. I almost retched on the last mouthful of this one as something was definitely veering towards rancid and my brain shouted “BAD” even as I’d employed my swallow reflex and it went down and stayed.

It was bad, but not bad enough to beat the caldera of my stomach acid these titanic days. I’ve had no repercussions yet and I won’t. My stomach is wormwood. It’s Alien-blood. I learnt that from the other night when the roiling mess of caustic horror inside me kept me up until dawn by trying to jump out of my throat.

I’ve made a bed of cushions on the floor. I don’t have to return the van until Monday at 10am. I’ll get back to London by then. But right now I want to take advantage of the fact I’ve been employed to move, and just … be somewhere notlondon. It’s lovely up here.

Taking a toll

Brian occasionally has to go and check The Arts Theatre. It’s sleeping right now, as they all are, these huge central expensive buildings. Worth making sure everything is still secure from time to time. You wouldn’t want to get back after lockdown to find a colony of leopards living on stage.

He does it all by the book, gets forms from the government filled in so if anybody questions his journey he can avoid fines. Then he jumps on his amazing huge great big bike – is it a Triumph Rocket III? I think so. It’s 3000cc. I would drop it on my leg the first time I turned left.

His route goes past mine, and like a legend he knows I’ve been a bit starved of contact so he stops outside and we shout at each other – a bushy bearded Juliet and her biker Romeo.

This morning I actually came downstairs to see him. We sat on my bench. We consumed small snacks and spoke in the way that humans speak. We even bumped elbows. It was lovely. We had a good few years living together up here in this ivory tower with Pickle. I saw him and immediately thought about how untidy I’ve made it the last few weeks. Once I get back from York I’ll have to deal with it. I’ll just frame it in my mind as “work” and then I’ll do it. I’m much better at doing things if I can call it work.

I lost a bit of motivation in the last week or so on the flat – let some negativity seep in. But Rishi Sunak has just announced that there will be another round of income support which helped me untangle my fug of worry. It’s enough to make me like him. Thank God for the magic money tree although we are all going to have to work like trains and spend all our spare time shopping when business opens up again. I’m feeling quite optimistic now, with my mind back on things I can make and who to make them with.

I’ll be seeing Tom, who made Christmas Carol, and spending time with him tomorrow. It’s work. And it’s conflicting emotions. He’s been in London a couple of years now, getting stuck in to theatre even though his base was York. He was doing well until this hit, but now with London rent and uncertainty he’s moving back up. He’s asked me to drive the van and help with the loadup etc.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a gradual flood of similar cases, friends of mine in the theatre game, packing up and packing off back home. Sad for London as he and his girlfriend are good minds and kind people in the industry. Sad for London but good for York, and with his creative mind and his huge work ethic I have very little doubt but that there’ll be something interesting bubbling up in York before too long with him at the helm…

Birthdays and knives

“Lucky you, living by the river,” the Uber driver mumbles to me through his mask.

“You know what,” I reply – “I am. And before all this I was running around so much I barely had the chance to appreciate it. Now I often go out and watch the tide in the evenings. And on days like this I couldn’t think of a better place to live in London.”

It’s glorious again here and we know it. Everybody’s out and about in their summer clothes and matching masks letting the sun hit their skin.

Cabby is extremely talkative so my plan of getting this written on the way might fall through. He’s listing the businesses that have been hit by this. It’s a long list. I’m reflexively repeating his last word because – you know – Uber ratings… “Airlines!” “Airlines.” “Theatres!” “Theatres.”

I’m moving. I’m crossing town. Heading to Richmond. It’s Tristan’s fortieth birthday.

However many years ago Tristan showed up at my party at a pub in North London. He’d somehow managed to get hold of a Tamahagane kitchen knife. Beautiful thing and really sharp. He gave it to me, but I could feel his imagination sticking to it as he did so. He wanted that knife, and I don’t blame him. It was £200 worth of lovely slicey Japanese steel. It’s a bit blunter now, and occasionally gets put in the dishwasher when I’m not paying attention. But I try and keep it separate and use it a great deal. It needs a sharpen at last but it kept good through heavy use. The dishwasher did for it.

The pleasure and use I’ve had from my “special knife” made it easy for me to know what to get for him when he hit the forty. I counted the years ahead. “2020?” I thought. “Ah I’ll be sorted for money by then I’m sure.” If only I’d known. Still. A plan is a plan.

My bank balance is not going to send me a Christmas card but now there’s a knife in my bag as well as a couple of bottles of wine, and none of it will be coming home with me. He’s got a garden so we can socially distance and raise a glass at the same time with proto-family, and it’s a good opportunity to pretend to be normal for a bit.

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It’s been lovely, and convivial, and we’ve been trying to be well behaved and stay away from one another as much as possible, but I did the shopping for Jacky just yesterday so I’m unlikely to be exposed to anyone more vulnerable than I am for a good fortnight and good God I needed a hug.

Now it’s the slower side of the early evening and I left a mouse to defrost in the sink for Hex as it’s time for another go this evening. I’ve managed to stay reasonably sober, and I’ve budgeted for an uber to get home so once it gets too cold to be outside in my shorts I’ll go and puppet mice for an anorexic snake and then, if things go according to plan, I’ll spend a large part of the weekend hucking out my flat.


Snake update! Because I know it’s why you’re all here. He took it out of my hand almost immediately… Either I’m getting better at puppeting or he was hungry!

According to Mel “once a week is a bit too frequently really. He’s more like once every ten days ”

Now she tells me. I’ve been a feeder.

Thinking too much

I was woken from a warm snooze by a phone call. I’d forgotten I had to be in in rehearsal, and was enjoying a mid-morning languish such as those of you with kids can only dream of. 5 minutes after waking from dreamtime I was in rehearsal dissecting Shakespearean language with four other people all in completely different places across the UK. That’s an advantage, I suppose, of us all doing everything through the screen of a laptop.

But it’s hard to connect. These faces in a screen, they convey the idea of people. We hear their words. But we lose so much. It’s a memory of contact. A tech-shadow of touch.

What about that unquantifiable “chemistry” thing that, for instance, makes us disproportionately fancy one person while overlooking another? What of that hackle-raising pheromone kick that lets us know when somebody is scared or angry all of a sudden – “are you ok?”. The observation of goosebumps – (“is he cold? Repelled? Turned on?) or of a knee that starts ticcing or that constant glance into a corner. Even the detail of eye contact. We can’t make eye contact on zoom. We talk to each others foreheads. To see the face we hide our eyes, to show the eyes we lose the face. It’s all veiled. No wonder this is what those awkward buggers in Silicon Valley have come up with.

Minnie’s sister is a doctor. “This virus is mutating, and it will mutate. But that’s not a bad thing so long as it mutates into less harmful strains, which is the likely evolutionary outcome for its own propagation and survival.” I can take comfort in that after spending the day dogged by dark thoughts.

“What if we’re the borderline in history between pre-Covid life and post-Covid?” I had myself thinking, unhelpfully. “What if future generations are boggled by how we used to pack in our hundreds into tiny rooms and share glasses and jump up and down with strangers and hug people all the time? Here we all are saying ‘when the doors open again,’ but what if they don’t ever in a way that we recognise?” Aaargh.

I went and sat by the river, hoping in the late evening that I’d snatch a glimpse at the space launch this evening, but it’s been delayed so I just looked at the water.

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I’d like to believe we’re over the hump now, but this global lockdown is just so completely unprecedented. The longer it goes on the more businesses are going to be in tatters, and I’m still thinking about theatre and how we activate the buildings themselves that are all lying empty. It’s a tangle. Meanwhile I’m just gonna keep trying to get involved in making what can be made. Trying to get some writing done outside of my daily prose. And trying to keep my head up.

At some point I’m gonna have to do some serious tidying as well as right now the flat looks like a student dig…

Snake, zoom and early bed

I was just settling down calmly to write this when another six fire engines screamed into our little crescent yet again because somebody in sheltered housing at Chelsea Court has burnt the toast and the smoke alarms calls the fire station. I’m not sure if it’s happening even more than usual at the moment or if I’m home more so I catch it every time it does happen. They’re all shouting at each other now as they’ve established it’s another false alarm so they all have to reverse out again. It’s a regular pantomime and they all know it, just as they know that the first time they don’t show up mob-handed like this will be the time that there’s a chip pan fire and the whole block goes up.

I’d be screwed in a fire here. There’s a fire escape that goes nowhere and I’m not allowed to put a ladder up to my roof. I was told that I’d be fine no matter what because they made us all pay to have our antique doors replaced by crap ones with no letterbox which are apparently magic. Never live in a leasehold. It’s a fucking stupid system, and the management companies are all on the take. Added to which, in 26 years I lose my home unless I can pay some astronomical fee between now and then to renew it.

Hex and I are hanging out in the early evening. It’s hot in his home so I like to let him clamber all over me so long as I’m happy I won’t forget he’s out and lose him in the upholstery of the sofa. It’s some sort of company for both of us and it stops me worrying that he’s cooking. I never really thought I’d have a snake for as long as this, but he’s very low maintenance apart from the eating disorder, and he’s a living being. Right now he’s having a nap across my legs with his head on one of my feet and the end of his tail on my belly. I’d take a photo but I’m just in my pants so it’ll look weird. Instead I’ll share this snap from more or less this time yesterday evening.

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The tide was out, and there was that ozone smell of the end of a warm clean day. The clear sky was shifting up dark, with the new moon presiding. Putting aside all the inconvenience and death, it’s probably been good for this planet. The road outside is back to normal traffic volume now, although I’m sure all the drivers are being “alert”. It’s good to see we can have beautiful memorable balmy summer evenings here in London as I don’t expect there’ll be much opportunity to go on any holidays for some time yet, which is a depressing thought as there is such a huge amount of world left for me to see.

I’m tired far too early, considering my indolence today. I’ve just been lounging around with the snake. Zoom meeting in eight minutes and then, sod it, I reckon I’ll be asleep by ten…

Recorded zoom training madness

Home. This morning I staggered out of bed at 8 and set up the studio. Hamhanded, I tried to take photographs that would serve as an office background for a major building contracting manager. I thought about shaving my beard but somehow I felt that my boy Brian would be proud of a bushy one. I kept it. I would probably have cut my nose off if I’d tried shaving, the state I am in the morning, especially considering I’ve got a whole ecosystem attached to my chin right now.

We had to have a fifteen minute Zoom conversation about the price of wallboards. I was buying in bulk by the millions for a major housing project, and playing hard ball with the seller to see how cheaply I could get them on a renewed contract. We were recording it to send to the client, who was teaching about bad selling and wanted to use the video we make around a teaching point.

Problem was the length of the conversation – and therefore the length of the shot. We got very good at the first five minutes. We were ok at the middle five. By the time we got to the last five it was frequently slipping, because it only takes one irretrievable fuck up or some ridiculous shouting outside your door to bin the whole take and then you have to go back to the start or likely take even longer in the edit than you would retaking.

There’s no saving it in post or starting halfway through if it’s a recorded zoom meeting and it’s just the two of you and you’re both shit at editing. We had to get fifteen minutes of involved sales talk down pat in one long long shot. It took us a couple of hours all said, with breaks. I recorded it as a screengrab, the same way I’ve been recording myself playing a computer game occasionally just for YouTube shits and giggles. I’m glad I even learnt that much as it served me well today.

My terrible design head didn’t serve me so well. After failing to take photographs for my background without wacky perspective, I panicked that I’d never be able to find something that would work for an office background for my character so I decided to try and build something. I pulled all the pictures off the wall in my living room and built a weird pile of tools and cushions and boxes behind me. Panting from exertion I proudly showed it to Sylvia when she logged on at eleven. “I couldn’t find a background that worked and wasn’t right-protected. I thought rather than risk someone trying to pull down the video because we’re using their image, I’d make this. What do you think?” TADAAAA. I proudly reveal it.

“It’s shit. It doesn’t work at all.”

“Oh. Um. Well I’ve got a greenscreen…”

2 minutes later: “What about this image as background?” Oh skill-sets. She had found a public domain image that was perfect. In no time. After I fucked around for TWO HOURS! While I was berating myself she sent three more.

This is why collaboration is the key, generally. She then supervised multiple costume changes (“too smart” “too casual” “too vintage”) until I looked right, whereas she had logged on (albeit half an hour late) looking the bees knees immediately. We rolled into the takes.

We work very well together, the pair of us. Guildhall in different years but contemporary. Always friends. Always allies. Now she trains rich people to unblock themselves and tries to make herself rich in the process. It’s good work, needed work, kind work and valuable work. I occasionally come on board as her second, or help her out with writing, and it’s because of the way we complement each other. She’s dyslexic, instinctive and sharp. I’m overlexic, instinctive and blunt. Here we are. With invisible costume and prop carnage.

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Ringmaster costume

A friend of mine and her husband have been doing their shopping and daily walks in character as superheroes around Shepton-Mallet in Somerset. It’s just their way of spreading a little joy. They’ve got two kids, so they take them along in the pram, and parade around in brightly coloured tight fitting costumes. The photos on their Facebook are delightful and they got an interview with BBC Radio Somerset and even some of the Arts Council Emergency Funding, being some of the only people who are bringing silly creative joy abroad in these strange times. Recently one of them posted a photo of a protective bushel that had been slung onto their windowsill by somebody local and witchy. Looking out for them, making sure that while they’re shiny and visibly bringing weird joy they aren’t accidentally bringing home nasties from anyone throwing bad energy their way, as can happen when you’re visible.

I only fully appreciated the power of a good costume in these times this afternoon. “Get that video done!” said a friend by WhatsApp. I haven’t really seen her for a decade but I’m hardwired to do exactly what she tells me. I had a video to shoot. I had been procrastinating for too long. Time for action.

I threw on my ringmaster jacket and headed to the park. I didn’t really think about the time it would take between my flat and the video, walking down the river in my ringmaster jacket.

A couple of years ago my friend, the snake owner, was in New Orleans. She’s part of a Mardi Gras crew out there, and involved in theatre as well. She knows the creative lot. An old costume store was emptying out their stock. There’s only a limited amount you can take in your checked luggage, but she’s got an eye. “What’s your chest size?” comes a message, and I tell her. “What colour is magic?” she asks next and for some reason I say “green”. “I’m getting you a present.”

Brooks Van Horn and Son made a ringmaster costume in green for the Mystic Club New Orleans some time ago. It’s blazoned with the name J Kenneth Baer. It fits me like a glove, as if it was meant to be worn by me, and it is very much mine now through familiarity and use. Big buttons, epaulettes. It’s a work of art and I love it. I’ve spent more on repairs for it than on any other garment I own because it gets a huge amount of active use and it is exactly what I need for much of the strange work I end up doing.

Walking to the park in it was delightful and surprising. I forgot how visible I’d be. I was just thinking about the video I was going to make and I realised that everybody was grinning at me as I walked past. I wasn’t even doing anything but they took some strange pleasure in a good item of clothing and a brisk walk…

I once stood on a podium for a few hours every day and barked for a sideshow on the South Bank. “Roll up roll up” you know the score. But for hours, and I kept it fresh despite running my voice into the floor. Hours every day in the hot sun for tuppence and the manager was a dick. This was before I got the jacket. I was just in something I’d pulled together, running my imagination. They didn’t provide costume, of course, or any help whatsoever. But that’s cool, I’m generative.

The woman running the candyfloss came up to me one day, as carny as toffee apple, long grey hair and all the tats. Is that the remains of a tooth? What’s that smell?

“My dad was a ringmaster,” and there she is right in my space, small but fervent, like a dangerous ancient otter. “There’s a few of you lads do the job you’re doing – I’ve been watching – and you – you’ve got the gab alright. You don’t have the costume though, boy. The costume does as much as the gab. Don’t matter what your saying if you don’t look right. Get a costume.” It was my last day. I guess, for the money, I hadn’t really considered anything more than throwing energy at it. She was totally right though. I’d forgotten the power of clothing. In retrospect I wish I’d had my Van Horn.

Here I am in the park. Everybody said hello. It was lovely. I wish I hadn’t left my top hat in the artists container at Wilderness two years ago. “No mate, none of us have seen anything like that left here. Certainly not my mate who left an hour ago wearing it.”

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