Reading out loud

Two years ago I was in San Antonio when I got a call from an old friend, Adrian Czajkowski.

Adrian and I are old friends from university. He’s a big man, bulky and about six foot four with a beard and long hair. He loved role playing games, and would often vanish on the weekends to hit people with foam swords while rolling dice in the woods. He was a prolific writer, churning out books and poems and plays, printing them on that old bicoloured printing paper with the holes in the sides, disbursing the documents to all and sundry. He’d sit in the pub stroking his beard and writing poems. Some of the poems were good. His degree was in psychology. He got a job in a law firm, got married to an opera singer, had a kid, didn’t stop writing. After fifteen years he found a publisher, and suddenly he started to crop up in the staff picks at Waterstones.

He got ten books published in a series – high fantasy, meticulously crafted. The Shadows of the Apt. What if humans had evolved from insects and could still do insecty things? Wasp people, mantis people, spider people, beetle people. The sword fights stand out – all that time hitting people in the woods near Reading gave him fantastic blow by blow understanding of the business of chopping people up. The books are a sort of steampunkish insecty swords and guns and magic fest.

Then he started writing sci fi, and he’s bloody good at it. Last year his debut sci fi novel Children of Time won The Arthur C Clarke award. All that hard work paid off. It’s a brilliant book. Hyperevolved spiders. Here’s his website. He changed the spelling of his name to Tchaikovsky match the Russian composer, just because it’s more familiar, and despite him hating it when we were at Uni.

So I was on tour in Texas when he rang me up to tell me he was having one of his short stories read on a podcast called Starshipsofa. He said he wanted me to read it. I’d never done something like that before, but I was game to learn. Problem was I was in Texas working hard. I rented a booth at the local university for 30 minutes one lunch break, read it once uninterrupted, rehashing mistakes and got an audio file that was so big I couldn’t open it on my iPad to edit. Curses! With the deadline looming, I ended up having to sit on the hotel room loo re-reading the whole thing into my iPad mic and editing on the fly with Twisted Wave. The result was harsh, but the story was harsh so it sort of worked. It went down well even if I wasn’t thrilled with it. That was the beginning of my journey towards trying to make sense of home recording. It’s a technical business and requires equipment which I haven’t had. Thankfully it involves a lot of improvisation, which is something I do have. The second short story I read was in digs in York, with paper thin walls and a noisy street at Christmas on the other side of them. I ended up having to record it lying on my stomach with all my bedding on top of me while people kept shouting in the street. The third one I read was “The Merger” by Sunil Patel, in a noisy corridor in my block, sitting in a corner surrounded by pillows. It took hours and I had to keep rerecording because of planes, but I was getting better at editing. You learn by doing. The fourth was much the same, but my neighbour was weirded out by it and kept noisily coming to listen from the other side of the door, and peep through the peep hole. I rushed it. Then in the edit my iPad was crashing constantly and I lost patience and submitted it even though I wasn’t happy. Despite that, they’ve asked me back. The fools.

There’s no way I’m going to record to iPad if I’m at home. It’s time to step it up. I called up my old roomie from Dubrovnik, Chris. He makes it work for himself, so I slavishly bought his recommendations. They arrived today. I’ve hacked together a temporary studio in my corridor and dammit it already sounds pretty good. I’ll road test by doing one more reading for Starshipsofa, and then gradually improve and tweak the soundproofing as I go.

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My technical know-how is still sorely lacking. But I’m doing a Voiceover Kickstart course online, which is helping me compound what I do know, and get better at what I don’t. I’d recommend the free six week course to anyone who is thinking of adding this string to the bow. If things go according to plan, and I work hard in my spare time, I reckon I can tick this over to the extent I don’t have to punish myself with stuff like Ascot again. And if I go on tour, there’s always the iPad. *shiver*

Chariot to the peaks

My rib is definitely much better, so at the first opportunity I overestimated my capabilities and shinned myself. I attempted to bound into the back of a Luton van in skinny jeans, which restricted the jump marginally, so I hit my foot and crashed both my shins down on the lip of the trunk. Ow. I’m an idiot. I am not made of rubber. That’s just the inside of my head.

I’ve ended up driving this monster of a van from London to Macclesfield and back. I arrived to pick it up at 8.30am only to be told that it had been used in Carnival, hadn’t come back, and they couldn’t raise the driver. I get the sense it was a friend of theirs and that they were laid out somewhere with a sore head. It took three hours for them to both wake and persuade whoever it was to return the van through their hangover. So I had to resign myself to getting home after midnight. I stopped for a vegetarian curry in the Peaks, and took some photographs. If you’re going to be home late you might as well do it properly.

I was driving the set for Blues Brothers up into storage. There’s a little arts space up there where Brian and his business partner keep the things they need in case they want to remount past shows. I had a rummage for the Christmas Carol stuff, as I have an inkling I’ll be back Scrooging it in a few months. God that came round quickly. But thinking about it, a lot has changed this year. I’ve got better at saying “no” to things that I really ought to say “no” to. And I don’t regret agreeing to drive this van all day. Sunset was beautiful.

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Now, however, it’s a long time after sunset, and I’m a little worried about how I’m going to make the final sixty miles. I’ve stopped at Cherwell Valley services. The van caps speed at 62 and consequently it’s extremely dull to drive. There’s not enough to think about. I’ve never been so heavy headed driving before. Even writing this I can barely keep my eyes open, and I’ve been stopped for a while now.

This whole service station reeks. There’s no way I’m sleeping here. Looks like I picked the wrong day to give up coffee. Chai has caffeine. It’s cheating, but cheating is better than dying. I’ll get some chai and a load of water and smash it home. If I make it home I’ll schedule this before I crash, in the bed sense. That way the very fact you’re reading this means you needn’t worry that I did it in the other sense.

It was close. I finally stumbled into my flat at ten to three. Every road that could be closed was closed. I almost ran out of diesel. There’s dried blood all over my left leg, although it’s just because the skin is taut. I have to move the van first thing tomorrow. I can hardly keep my eyes open and the cat hates me for not feeding her until 3. Bed. This blog was brought to you by chai soya latte, Spotify and The Prodigy. Without those three I’d be asleep in a layby. I nearly was anyway.

 

Carnival

Until 1855, if we wanted a bit of public disorder in London at this time of year, we had Bartholomew Fair. You could go to the ward of St Bartholomew the Great, dress up as The Archbishop of Canterbury, and shag people dressed as goats while shouting “Look at me! I’m the archbishop. I’m shagging goats.” Then you and your goat-dressed friends could go back to your jobs as candlebiters, feeling like you’d done something naughty. You’d bite candles until Christmas without question, buoyed up by the feeling you’d expressed your dissatisfaction with that damned corrupt archbishop. If someone suggested you seize the means of production you’d look at them like they were mad. “I’ve done my sedition for the year thanks.”

Bartholomew Fair was shut down in 1855 for “encouraging debauchery’. Clearly it went too far. Maybe the candlebiter found some real goats. Who knows. It’s gone. Now the biggest excuse for civil disobedience in the London calendar is Notting Hill Carnival. It started in 1966. I’ve gone every year for ages. It involves thousands of people kettling themselves in one of the richest parts of London. It’s a huge weird funny Street party, in an area not very well equipped to handle such an event. Improvised sound systems cause traffic jams on Street corners. Empty cans and smashed bottles line the streets. There’s a constant vague smell of wee. Grown men are pissing everywhere, and no surprise where huge signs happily proclaim “£3 toilets, this way!” Many of the gardens have futile signs exhorting people “please don’t wee in my garden.” As often as not, someone has weed on the sign.

I walked through the carnage, heading to meet a friend at Ladbroke Grove. Received wisdom is “Don’t go to carnival on Monday evening”, but somehow that’s always when I end up there. People were jumpy. There’s always a few incidents. Police were EVERYWHERE. Today would have been an excellent day to rob a bank in North East London.

Twice as I walked through the centre, near Grenfell, there were spontaneous crowd panics. Suddenly everyone around you starts screaming and running in both directions. It’s pointless running as there is no identifiable thing to flee so running could as easily take you towards whatever it is as away. Both times i shifted to the side of the road and looked, saw no clear reason for the panic, and watched as it died down. The second time, a police officer clocked me shrugging with exasperation: “Any idea what that was caused by?” I had none. “Expectation?” I hazarded.

I eventually got to meet my friend Mel. She was glad of male company. She’d had a constant stream of men asking her why she was alone, telling her she was beautiful, telling her how they were only recently single and their girlfriend cheated etc etc. It was something I hadn’t thought about but became aware thereafter as I witnessed men attach like burrs to people who were just trying to enjoy themselves; “Hey. Hey, beautiful. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey, beautiful. Beautiful. Hey beautiful. Hey, yeah hey, you yeah… you’re beautiful.” It’s pitifully uncomfortable to watch. God it must be tedious to receive. One guy kept kissing a girl on the shoulder in the supermarket queue. She kept hollowly smiling. I don’t know how she didn’t lamp him.

People were grabbing and holding Mel’s ass, before I came, she told me. Because she was on her own. I show up and she’s left alone. As soon as I’m there, no more crap. I partly see what they meant by banning Bartholomew Fair. A festival has to be permissive or it’s pointless. But none of them were dressed as an Archbishop. Perhaps that’s the trick they were missing.

Having found Mel, we went to get some food. It was a bit late though, so the concessions were no longer licensed. They were paranoid. But they had a load of chicken cooked that they couldn’t legally sell, that was going to go to waste. We appealed to their greed to sate ours. “Not here. Round the corner,” he hissed through his teeth. “They’re watching. Plain clothes police. Give me the money. Careful. Ok. Meet me over there by that van.”

 

Buying it gave me a rush of transgression, quelling that pressing desire to find a crozier and a goat. He sold us jerk chicken like it was something dreadful. I’m not sure if it’s enough to send me back to candlebiting happy, but I’m glad I went to the carnival. Just as I’m glad I didn’t get shanked or have acid thrown in my face, or get buggered by some lunatic in a cassock. And just as I’m glad that whatever got shot over Japan while I was pratting around at a street party landed in the sea. Although now there’s God knows what sort of unstable crap lying on the Pacific sea bed.

Hot Gatsby

It’s hot in London. Damn hot. I spent the morning oozing around Regent’s Park with Oliah, and then picked Brian up from King’s Cross.

Brian recently extended his Gatsby show until New Year’s Eve, and since I’ve got a guest I thought it only right, on a hot summer evening, that I share this steamy jazz age treat with her. She’s from Portland, Maine. She hasn’t been to an immersive show before, and Gatsby is a fantastic example of an immersive show led by narrative rather than gimmicks. It’s a great one to start with, and you’ve got a reasonably good chance of coming out knowing the story, which is more important than many people that make immersive shows appear to think.

We arrive in the evening at Gatsby’s Drugstore, which – brilliantly – you can find by searching for it in Google maps. For a Sunday evening it’s packed out. Loads of audience members have made an effort. There are plenty more three-pieces than mine on the men. The women have twenties style dresses, and those fascinator things in their hair.

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Even before we start there’s a festival air. And the little room we’re in is rammed to the rafters. The bar is doing a roaring trade. It’s hot.

The show rewards repeated watching, which is just as well, since I’ve seen it four times. It’s been built into an old factory near London Bridge. We unloaded a van full of furniture one day some months ago and saw some beautiful transformative work in progress. Having known the place before the show I’m aware they’ve done a great job on it.

There’s one big central hall and then lots of rooms around the edge, where you might find more intimate scenes. There are also chances of a one on one moment with any of the actors, in which case you’ll almost certainly get a good shot of Copperhead gin – it’s on tap. They’ve sponsored the show.

The central hall is pretty big, so it necessitates vocal projection from the cast. It’s pleasant to hive off into little rooms from time to time and catch other aspects of the story, more personal and nuanced than they can easily be in that big space. The actors are all strong and playful, and able to shift gear quickly. Some of my favourite scenes are the little intimate ones. But today I wanted to see how the show played if I stayed loosely central and behaved like an unadventurous or shy audience member. I didn’t mind not getting free gin, as I had to drive home.

They taught me how to Charleston a bit. They sang beautifully to me and one another. There was a lover’s dance up a wall. Four bemused audience members were tasked with creating the perfect tea setting and failed spectacularly. The performers all have enough facility with their material to deftly incorporate and reincorporate the random stuff generated by their audiences, and make it fun and safe for the people they involve. Even just staying in the middle I found I had a varied, smart, touching night at the theatre, and the story was told.

Now it’s running until New Year, there’s plenty of time to see it. I’m not in it, but I feel a connection with it. So many people I love are making it what it is. It’s a show built with community and love, and it comes across brilliantly. And they were all boiled in their costumes and sweating like racehorses at the end of the show, but it didn’t take any of the fun out of it for us. It’s a good shout for an early date, not that I’m a dating expert. But let’s pretend I am.

Drumming

“That’s a great Green Man. But you’ve put screws through his eyes!” “Yeah. We do reverence things. But we’re also intensely practical.”

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There’s a suburban house in Potter’s Bar that has a long garden at the back. You enter the garden through a portal. I wasn’t expecting this when I wrote yesterday’s blog, but I can’t be surprised when I walk through it and find another world. There’s a fire hut, a teepee, a fairy labyrinth. It’s beautiful and well looked after in a haphazard fashion. It’s a place of healing. It’s the centre of a community.

Last time I was in Potter’s Bar it was as a young Christian, buoyed up by the holy spirit, some 20 years gone now. God it feels like another life. I spoke to the Christian Union of an all girl’s public school, about The Importance of Reading the Bible. As a teenager I had consumed the whole thing, so at least I was someone who loosely practiced what he was preaching. Although I must’ve just passed my eyes over a lot of it as it doesn’t seem to have stuck. And my vague memory of the talk I gave is that it was more anecdotal than pious or helpful. Who would ever suspect that of me?

I’ve come back here many years later to do some shamanic drumming. That’s the extent of my expectation. It’s with someone I’ve only recently met. She has similar proclivities to me. We get on brilliantly and if she rates the drumming, then I’m up for it. Even if I’ve not been drumming before. I’m a drum virgin.

How pleasant to be in a group of people where I’m comparatively young. It doesn’t happen much these days so there’s a nostalgia in being called “young man” by loads of the people in the garden. Perhaps it’s the moustache, which I can’t bear to shave even though I just found out the pendulum swung away from me on that job. (Rare for me to have such a positive feeling for something and still see it tugged out from under me. But it’s the way of it. Back to the wall.) The drumstick can replace my head for a while. Part of my intention today is to drum away the near misses.

This is very English shamanism. Everyone gathers and has tea beforehand. Tea and chit chat. Then we all go into a yurt and drum lots round a fire pit. We call on a few directions, go on a spirit journey. Another cup of tea? I get told I’ve got the spirit of Salvador Dali in me. I’m a bit Spanish and I’m sporting a ‘tache. But he adds “you don’t look anything like him. But he’s with you.” Considering he posted one of his turds to his mother, I wonder what his spirit will make me do.

As the day goes by I end up getting involved in healing some people. There is good work done by good people. I can see people coming out of dark places. “Mind and body can work together if you let them,” as a dear friend said this evening.

After I witness a very complete healing – essentially an exorcism carried out effectively, but with jokes – the Shaman gets me up to help heal someone. I’ve got no clue what I’m doing, but I’m told it won’t be coming from me, just through me. So I surrender to circumstance as best I can and end up huffing over some poor woman until I’m insanely dizzy from hyperventilating in this tent full of smoke. But the dizziness helps with my surrender from intellectual control, which is also part of why I’ve come, and before long I find myself unthinkingly channeling low bass droning into her back. My self-monitor is gone. I’m taking instructions from the drum behind me. Afterwards the Shaman tells me I have a healer’s instinct. If I accept that, I also have to accept that I am channeling the spirit of Salvador Dali. It would be pleasant to think I’ve got a healer in me. I do spend a lot of time trying to heal those around me. It’s something of an obsession. So in the interests of my desire to heal better, if anyone wants a turd, just get an SAE to me and if Dali’s here when I get it I’ll see what I can do, and meet your watch for good measure. Hurry now. Get on your stilt-elephant.

Gateways to other worlds

I sometimes wonder about other worlds. The idea that just a sliver away from us exists the land of faerie, heaven, or the world of the dead. It’s an idea that has been in our culture in this country for thousands of years. “This place is a thin place,” said a vicar – of all people – to me one glorious summer evening at The Willow Globe. He meant that the “other” world is close. It’s part of the Celtic tradition, absorbed and accommodated by Celtic Christianity, like Easter and Christmas. At the times between times, the dusk or the dawn, someone might inadvertently stumble through a gateway and find themselves … somewhere else. Somewhere where the rules are different. Midsummer Night’s Dream. Strange and Norrell. Tír na nóg. An entirely strange land, or a land with only subtle differences. Infinite worlds coiled and writhing round each other in space-time. The butterflies wing shattering another reality into being every time it twitches.

Glastonbury Tor is one such thin place. The fecund body of the earth mother.

Today I felt a message from another world, thanks to the fecund body of my best friend. We were upstairs in the Tate Modern, slumming it in the member’s area, with a bird’s eye view of London laid out below us. I put my hand on her belly, and through a thin, taut boundary of skin, so so close to this light filled stinking breathing laughing world, I felt an unmistakable kick. A good solid kick, right in the centre of my palm from the person inside her. She’s carrying a whole world in there. A dark warm fluid world of heartbeats and liquid and flesh. In it there’s a small person growing, kicking at the edges, testing the boundaries. Everything is on tap in there. Free heating. Free food. No need to breathe, we can do that for you. Just relax, roll around, that’ll put some bones in your skin.

Soon now this fecund body of my dear friend will flush her unknowing tenant out to join us here in this crazy world. Bright light. Independent breathing. Looming giants repeating themselves in booming voices. Noise! Smells! A different place with different rules. Clothes! Fuck this, put me back! I want to get back in! It’s horrible here. Waaaaaaah.

I wonder if that’s part of why it’s such a prevalent mythological trope, the rip into another world. We’ve all had a difficult transition from one world to another. Maybe we can expect another change. If we take that red pill, maybe we will be disgorged helpless and slimy once again into a strange world to sink or swim or know Kung Fu. If the priest dunks us in water maybe we will be reborn in Christ. If we walk through the fire maybe we’ll end up in a subtly different place or a subtly different body. The whale will eat you and there’s a city inside it. Rick will fire his portal gun. Gordon Freeman. Stranger Things.

This evening I went to a piece of immersive theatre I built 4 years ago with a couple of friends that has taken a life of its own. It’s about implanted humans who have been chipped from birth and are treated as subservient technology. The game is to encourage the audience to customise, humanise and play with their bio-tech, and then see if, after all that, they’ll kill it for a box of chocolates. It’s playing with layers of reality. The audience knows they’re actors. But we suspend our disbelief. And we trust the frame and our own experience that tells us this is fiction. And we joyously electrocute our synthetic human and yay chocolates, whilst other people in the audience berate us for our callous greed. But who knows, perhaps just a whisper away it’s real. If we walk through the wrong archway at dusk we might find ourselves in a reality where we’ve had a chip in our brain that restricts all higher cognitive function and we are being electrocuted for sweeties.

I’m sure I’ve stumbled through a few of those archways over the years as this place makes no sense. Here we are in this crazy experimental parallel universe where those things actually happened. Best make the best of it. If that stuff can happen, anything can happen.

The baby is due on 17th October. That doesn’t feel like enough time for us to fix the world before arrival, but maybe that’ll be the baby’s job as well as ours. I look forward to finding out, which I will as long as I’m careful what I walk through at dusk.

Here’s a shot of a guard guarding a guard I took today. At the time I didn’t think my blog was going to wander towards portals. But fuck it. That’s where it went. Oh wait! These are the portal guardians. Yes that’s it. Two worlds, one ancient one modern. Both struggling.  *burp* Yeah that’s why I’ve taken it. The photo  Definitely. To illustrate two realities next to each other. Fab. Tick. Realities. I’m off to bed.

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Diplodocus

I love the Natural History Museum. I can easily lose a day there looking at dead stuff. It helps that it’s my brother’s office. If he’s there I might end up round the back, in the roof eaves, looking at Darwin’s beetles from the voyage of The Beagle, or at a giant squid pickled in formaldehyde, or at the gargoyles up close. He wasn’t there today – he’s in Russia with his family. But I went there with Oliah and we looked at stuff. We gradually worked our way through rocks, children, quakes and icthyosaurs to the huge main hall. I had an agenda. I wanted to see the blue whale.

When I was a kid we had a video of the Disney film “One of our dinosaurs is missing.” It was a relative flop for Disney so it sold cheaply. As far as I remember it involved a martial arts nanny, a Chinese Peter Ustinov and, front and centre, the iconic diplodocus skeleton from the museum entrance, which gets stolen and driven past London landmarks accompanied by hilarious music and fog. For hours.

I was skeptical when the diplodocus, or “dippy” as some trite committee had decided, was taken down. Giving the whale pride of place is, perhaps, important considering we are poisoning the oceans with plastic and toxic waste. That’s the sort of argument you can’t win. “I don’t think they should’ve taken the diplodocus out.” “Don’t you care about the whales?” “Oh sod off.”

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The whale is cool. But I liked the diplodocus. An example of quite how BIG creatures can get. It took up a lot of space. As I kid, with its long tail trailing down behind it, I’d frequently try to work out how many people it would take pulling that tail to move the fucker. But when I was a teenager the tail was raised from the ground. There was a scientific paper written that argued that the creature would have a raised tail to balance its neck. It’s notable how quickly they acted on the evidence of this single thesis.

“Dippy” (*gak*) stayed there with her weird raised tail, like she was taking a shit, until earlier this year. Now she’s been replaced by the blue whale skeleton that was already on display elsewhere in the museum. The whole business smells of shenanigans to me. The Hintze Hall now seats 1,200 people for corporate functions, charity galas, prize givings and so forth, out of hours. That’s a huge amount of covers, and the museum will be funding itself largely from these parties.  And well it should, as the NHM is doing great work, it’s a terrifically important collection, and valuable in many ways, and it’s free entry. When that paper was published about the tail, though, I can’t help wondering if it was commissioned by the museum precisely so they could raise the tail and fit more tables under it, raising the number of covers and thus profits.

But the problem with her is that, as I said at the start, she’s BIG. If you can organise an ironclad reason to get her off the floor entirely, then you can get a good 200 extra covers in. Rather than paying a scientist to write a paper arguing that diplodocus could fly, they brought in the wale. What’s wrong with that? Don’t you care about wales?

On the flip side, the diplodocus is currently touring, so loads more kids can imagine dragging it by its tail. Hopefully the van isn’t being driven by an aging character actor in ridiculous moustaches doing suspect mildly insulting Chinesey-acting. Because if it is, why didn’t I get the call?