Dragonfly

Rested. Calm. Happy.

I’m sitting here with my flask of tea on the banks of the Cherwell. A lark has just started chirring high in the air above the river. Here we go again. 120 times this week and then we can all go home and miss it.

Wet mud on the pathway and all over my boots. I drove up to Oxford through the morning looking forward to this moment though. When there’s no rain, it’s a great joy to sit here with the willows and the water and to see which of the creatures are active today. There was a Garden Tiger Moth on my bench when I arrived. That’s the third one I’ve seen this year. The fish are jumping. Nobody is messing about in boats so they’ve come out of hiding to try and catch unwary flies. And the sun, cracking through the clouds and warming my face as I write. I took my ears off just to soak it up the better. I’ll just have to remember to put them back on before the kids come running round in about fifteen minutes. Meantime I’m gonna sign off here and just breathe at the river for a bit, and feel it breathing back.


And there it was. A rare moment. Nature, red in tooth and claw.

It looks like nothing but a blur, but it was a magical moment for me. An Emperor Dragonfly, female, hunting. It’s bigger than you think. Like a small fast bird. Move, hover, move, hover. I was standing in the middle of her beat. She circled me repeatedly, scanning the foliage. Incredibly complex eyes able to predict the movement of prey. I snatched a photo as best I could, but it was more about just hanging out with this beautiful predator and watching it move. I put the phone away. And I was lucky.

I don’t know what it was but there was something edible living on a nettle. She zeroed in and leapt on it, and there was a brief rustle as she made sure it was held before shooting up, past my face, back bent under itself sandwiching her catch as she triumphantly munched as she flew with those nasty big teeth.

It got me thinking how lucky we are not to have any insects that are big enough to hunt us. It doesn’t matter how many times you knock a wasp off your sandwich. It keeps coming. If it wanted to fly off with you and eat your soft bits it would manage it eventually or die trying, much as it does with your jam. Whatever was on that nettle was having a lovely afternoon right up until it got bundled up and flown away. And the dragonfly would have little thought about mercy when it came to the munching. You often see insects eating things backwards.

It’s evening now. Time has jumped to the calm before the evening show and here I am again. It’s not a bad way to spend your time. Even though there now appears to be a wasp on my nipple. It’s sick. Writhing in pain – perhaps parasitised. I feel strangely sad for it so I’m just letting it wander around. Why not. I’ve got ten minutes. Maybe one of the dragonflies will come and pluck it off me

Magdala meeting

I’m at Hampstead, lying here thinking how lucky I am. I met a pair of people who make things and they want me to make things with them. I met them just down the road in The Magdala pub. I chose the venue. It’s where Ruth Ellis shot her lover. He probably deserved it. But she went on to be the last woman to be hanged in the UK. Bad timing for her life. Good timing for her legacy.

She tracked him down in an infidelity. How the hell did she get hold of a .38 calibre Smith and Wesson Victory Model revolver? Thank God we don’t have guns in this country, generally. She had one though, somehow. And she chased him round his car with it as he came out. The first one missed. The second one knocked him down. Six bullets in total. Three, four and five went into him at closer and closer range, just to make sure. The fifth one burnt his skin. Number six jammed, and ended up in the pavement. She kept clicking until the bullet came out, even though her purpose – to kill him – had been served.

The wall outside the pub used to have bullet holes in it, but apparently a random actor discredited them. Rather than let us all have a bunch of holes where we could contemplate a woman desperate and angry enough to take things into her own hands like that, he used whatever contacts he must have had to say that he’d heard the landlady concoct a plan to drill the holes in 1990 in order to impress a bunch of Japanese tourists. Maybe the landlady enlarged existing holes, maybe not. I don’t know. I like stories though.

Reading the articles, the name of this nothing actor is larger than anything else in them. It’s HIS puff piece. It’s like he pulled his one big favour on the “fake bullet holes” story in The Sun and in The Camden New Journal when his career went to the tits. He never realised that actually the world would be more interesting with the fake bullet holes in the pub wall than his first name last name in The Sun. Maybe he realised too late that he had made the world smaller by making his name momentarily bigger. Who knows. I’m not gonna say his name. But don’t worry. You’ve never heard of him. Like me, he’s just some tit.

But this tit writing now at least sorted out what he’s doing for Halloween, and in the run up to it. Spooky stories. North London. More about ghosts and less about guns. But hopefully I’ll be presiding over some delightful nonsense in October. Let’s see.

Meanwhile I’m at my friend’s place in Hampstead, knuckling down for an early night and an early wake…

Week over and back to London

A pair of swans came and found me here in my sett during the matinĂ©e. I thought they were gonna get up on the bank and start messing with my props but they seemed content to just come right up to the edge and see if my boots had churned up any worms. I was half expecting to have them here again this evening, but they’ve moved on. Shame. They were a beautiful distraction.

It’s always different here. Calm and still tonight again, with fish jumping and the birds showing themselves off in the branches. It’s not going to rain for a change. I have trusted it and my umbrella remains at unit base. I just have a flask of Ayurvedic tea, a bag of mucky weasels and a few scraps of voice. One more show. Then I’m gonna jump in the car and mission to London, where I’m gonna fill up a hot bath with salt and lie there until it’s cold or I’m pickled. Then tomorrow I’m gonna keep my mouth shut as much as humanly possible. No unnecessary talking. Heaven for my friends. Hell for me.

The mud on my path has been churned into a foul soup of hungry muck. Audience members have started openly worrying more about their new trainers and less about defeating those pesky weasels. I probably have just about enough energy to refocus their attention, but I’m really starting to feel the wear now. At capacity I do my scene 120 times between Tuesday and Sunday. It might well hit capacity next week, as the local rags have been kind. It’s exhausting.

I’m beginning to remember what it is to be match fit but I’m still not there. My voice is doing exactly what it does after the first full week of Carol. Thankfully I’ve got Wolverine’s vocal folds – they recover brilliantly given just a touch of rest. After my London bath and a whole day down I’ll be at 100% again.

I’m meeting somebody about a ghost walk tomorrow, hence the trip to London. Might be a pleasant thing to do in the evenings on the approach to Halloween, and it’s unlikely to clash with anything else. Plus it’s for adults. I swear, of I see a child tomorrow I’m gonna bite it.

Showtime.


And now I’m briefly home. Bath is running. Plants are watered. Tomorrow I will clean the fish and go talk to people in Hampstead about a ghost walk. For tonight quiet peace, and a dreamy rest in the bed that used to be my grandmother’s in Jersey and now has been wrestled into my friendly boho Chelsea penthouse. Joy.

I was given a little origami butterfly by a small child. “My favourite type of army,” said Badger. So sweet. It’s the little things.

Sleepy

Oh dear. Badger is tired.

I had no idea when I signed up quite what it would entail, despite loving every second of it. It’s a very unusual schedule. Normally matinees happen twice a week, and we always hate them. But … we have tiny groups because of Covid. So it’s two shows every day but Monday. Have you ever heard of a Tuesday matinee? That’s happening. Yup. And even two shows on a Sunday! Damn that pathogen. But there we go.

I do my outdoor scene twenty times a day, every day but Monday. It only lasts maximum 8 minutes with top and tail. Nevertheless that’s over two and a half hours of constant talking, plus energyspam to hold the audience together and pull their focus from future and past weasels. It’s tiring.

Frankly, I’m knackered. Tomorrow is the last day of this particular working week though. The show is lovely to play. We are given an idea of roughly how many groups to expect before we go into the field, which makes it so much more manageable. We aren’t playing scenes with each other so we only come together as a team at the start and the finish. The only shared info we have is about the gaps. I love how we are given a sense of how our evening will play. It changes on the hoof, of course, but it feels respectful that we are privy to that info, as it helps us budget our energy.

Lou is back in Brighton. She integrated with the work, and made sense of herself around my very full hours.

I’m here in my attic now, sleepy after Claire’s birthday. We are all tired but it’s joyful. I’m at the end of my energy for the week though frankly and I still have to do it twenty times tomorrow. I love what I do, but there’s not much room for “life” around this particular schedule. Thank God Lou gets it. I’m feeling pretty chilled. I’m just a tired Badger.

I like this little tree carving. It’s right where I start work. I like to call attention to it…

I’m off to sleep.

Unpredictable weather

And then the heavens opened. All my little bucolic observations. Ahhh nature!? Nope. Sod that. We had to do a matinee from the Marianas Trench. Horizonal rain seeping into every unprotected crevice for hours and hours, with nothing to look forward to but more of it. Plummeting temperatures, slippery pathways, everything soggy. Oh hell.

The show ended with a grumbling and mutinous crew slumping back to the community centre damply. Animals of the woodland, swearing like troopers and emailing their agents. The collective noun for actors is “a moan of actors,” or so I’ve been told. I was one this afternoon. Everybody dialed up the energy as needed for the punters. As soon as they were done, so were we.

Lou is here though. A flying visit. Here today, gone tomorrow. So I stuck a smile on and we went for lunch and the smile turned out to be genuine, as they often do when you make the effort. I had soup and pasta, comfort food all the way. Then sleepily we made our way back to the unit base in time for the evening show.

It looked the same on the weather forecast. I think that had a lot to do with why you found us in such a foul mood at the end of the matinee. It looked like there would be torrential rain once more and all of us alone and gradually disintegrating in a meadow. This is why you can’t trust the weather forecast.

It’s 18.30. The birds are singing. There’s a gentle rush of wind, and a light dappling of evening sun drying the soaking grass in front of me. Charlie just came round with a cup of tea. It’s easy to forget how pissed off and sodden we all just were when we look at a happy bright newly mown meadow and a sky without so much as a hint of rain. There’s been a gap in the show – audience groups discouraged by the rain. I’ve been able to jot these thoughts down as I wait here for the next lot to come round the corner.

The weather changes everything. We are totally subject to the whims of the winds here. This won’t change for the next fortnight. Swift shifts from storm to calm, from rain to shine, all the way to the end of the run. Now we’ve seen it at its worst. And we’ve also seen how quickly it can change. I’m gonna stay positive. As how could I not … ?

The cup of tea helped as well though. And with Lou here, it’s hard to sink into just being soggy and grumpy.

Just before it starts

Our first little review came out. Most of us get a sentence, although the reviewer appears to have forgotten some of us. I get “feels like you’re going further into the forest”. I can work with that. Come with me my dears, further now. Further into the forest. It’s one of the places I belong.

Find the irascible snuffly badger… Here he sits, in his sett, with his weapons and his whack-a-weasel, ready to teach you that fears are things to be confronted rather than avoided.

It’s another soft evening, and no rain is forecast. The good people of Oxford scull past in a variety of different aquatic vehicles, enjoying a summer evening that is closer to perfect than many we’ve had so far. A light breeze stirring currents on the surface of the Cherwell. Yesterday’s rain just a memory held in a few little puddles on the pathways. My hayfever has improved, although I’m still stealthily honking into tissues when they aren’t watching.

Sound carries a long way in the stillness of the evening. I can hear the knives and forks as some neighbors eat supper in their garden. They likely hate me, disturbing their peace on a loop every evening with my “left right left”. Then there are the dog whistles. Some bastard somewhere has recommended you go and get a whistle that can be heard six miles away in order to train your lockdown puppy. The sodding things are everywhere and they all sound the same. Dogs and kestrels for miles around are likely getting traumatised as their unfamiliar handlers substitute blowing into a tube for being a bit firmer in the first place.

A couple just went by on a punt and got totally snagged in a willow tree. We really are in Oxford now. They’re enjoying themselves anyway but they’ve been stuck for a good five minutes. “Clearly we are trying to get as much foliage in this punt as possible,” he says.

“All ready?” That’s the text on the show WhatsApp. “Always ready,” I reply. Although in fact I’m only half set up and I’m enjoying listening to everything going on around me knowing that there’s no chance of anybody getting close to me for at least fifteen more minutes.

Toad is warming his voice up behind me, singing up and down the octave, diligent as always. A lovely old fellow with a stick and a straw hat just stopped by to say good evening. “It may be alright tomorrow by this time,” he tells me, defaulting to the weather without a topic having been introduced yet – “but it won’t be during the day. It’ll be raining.”. Old men in straw hats tend to know these things. Lou said the same thing. I’ll be putting on my raincoat tomorrow.

For now I’m going to enjoy the stillness while it lasts. The children are coming and there’s a lot of energy between now and bedtime. I’d like to have a go on a punt before I leave Oxford. I remember many a drunken summer day with half remembered friends in the days before mobile phones, capsizing one another and getting stuck in trees… I think I’d opt for a more sedate experience now instead. But that might be fun on a day off…

For now, time to get up. Showtime. Switch that body on. Here we go…

Slow changes

Here I am once more enjoying a moment of calm in the evening before it all happens again. Many summers of working outdoors in places like this have taught me how changeable the weather always is at this time of year. The sun is shining, but I have no doubt there’ll be some rain before I’m done tonight.

They’ve mowed the meadow. There’s a guy with one of those mowers behind a tractor. His job is to be mowing things, and by God he’s going to do his job. We used to be working in a huge overgrown meadow. Now it’s just strips where the wild growth used to be. Unthinking I said to one group “You’re not here to have a pleasant stroll in this riverside meadow, you know?” and a child immediately told me “This isn’t a meadow!” I guess not, oh small precocious one. Not anymore mister mowerman. But it’s not a field either. So I’m still gonna call it a meadow…

Outside of these large sweeping distracting changes that we make with our noisy machines, the small quick changes are the things I like to observe when I’m doing this kind of work. How the lanky black winged damson flies of this afternoon are replaced by the low white lepidoptera of early evening. How the nettles bow down under the weight of the raindrops. The rise and fall of the river, the effect of the wind on the water and the willows. The plops of the fish taking a prize. The conkers suddenly thudding down. How quickly yesterday’s sodden mud has hardened. How soon it starts to crack again as all the water drops through to the water table and works into plastic bottles as per the diagram.

It’s well used, this urban meadow, despite being remote from the city centre. Dogs walk off the lead here, some already familiar, others new to me. People are here for their evening stroll. When I arrived at the bench today three pleasant young lads were getting stoned and listening to sweary music on Bluetooth. I warned them that we would be coming through armed with children and noise and they volunteered to move on immediately. I’ll have less luck with this chap. He’s a regular here, and likes to fish in peace. If a dog comes near him he mumbles imprecations to himself for a good five minutes after it has departed. I’m about to march past him repeatedly with armies of children. He might well kick off…


Time passes. He turned out to be absolutely lovely. Patient with all the noise and then as he was leaving he found a pair of lost sunglasses in time for me to return them to the owner.

Crayfish and weather

It rained hard last night. I went for a marathon twelve hour sleep and was woken the first time by cloying heat and then the second time by lashing rain. I’m rested now and in place for the first audience of the matinee. We might be able to keep dry.

I wait for the audience in a pathway flanked by overgrown nettles, with a little stream running by it. Everything is open to the public so occasionally I approach a dogwalker thinking they’re an audience member. Somebody was fishing in my sett earlier. Rain is forecast though, so there aren’t so many random members of the public today. We just build them in if they show up.

I wandered down to the riverbank and saw a string sticking out of the water. Immediately curious, and with the instinct of a geocacher, I pulled it up. Not a cache. A rather sickening moment of wondering. Chicken bones. There’s a bucket full of raw chicken in the river. Nothing else yet. It must be an improvised crayfish trap.

I wonder how effective it will be? Maybe I’ll check it again this evening. I won’t be taking any crayfish home though. Also I wonder if it’s put there out of necessity or greed. You’d think if they were hungry they’d eat the chicken.

I once put out a crayfish trap in Maine as a young man, for greed. I came back to find a drowned water rat and I felt terrible about it. If I’d been starving I’d have eaten the rat. But I wasn’t, and it didn’t look appetising so it died for nothing. I tried to sink it in the lake and it came back the next morning washed up in my sight to rebuke me once more. So I canoed it half a mile away and slung it into a bay where I correctly assumed it wouldn’t be able to find its way back to our little patch of shore. The whole experience rather put me off trapping crayfish. I used fish guts, which you’d think would be more effective and you can’t eat them. There were lots of crayfish in with the dead rat but my appetite for home caught crayfish was sorely damaged by the dents in the steel made as the poor drowning creature frantically tried to get out through the side of the cage.

I don’t think this bucket of chicken in this urban English stream is going to yield much. There’s probably somebody up river with an electric smartmesh that covers the whole river bed. Nowadays everything is done on such an industrial level it’s a miracle there’s anything left alive anywhere there’s water.

Here comes the audience…


Time passes.

And yep, the crayfish guy showed up by chance during the evening show. With his bike. Checked it and replaced it. No crayfish despite torrential rain. He hocked a great big loogie and wandered off. I reckon he’s working alongside one of the restaurants nearby. Like the guys in Richmond harvesting the garlic when the park wardens are trying to get them to leave it for the deer. He got none because they’ve had the lot already in that area. Another bit of the ecosystem funneled into the machine. “When I was a kid you’d lift up a rock around here and there’d always be a crayfish. Now you never see them.”

We suck. We’ll take ourselves out of the equation before long. But the more I think about how shortsighted and selfish we are the less I care about our continuance as a species.

Down day

I’m in the attic room, as the evening turns to night. It’s 8pm and bed is already calling. We were going to go to The Ashmolean or take in some sort of culture, but it’s the first week of the school holidays and I’m not in the headspace for crowds. I went and said hello to an old friend instead. On and off I’ve known her since I was 8. But we don’t see one another so often. Sitting together outside The Fishes we realised that nobody really does see one another nowadays. We all know what we are all doing because the social meejah tells us all about it. But it’s rarer and rarer to be in the same space with each other.

She’s a nurse. She’s been on the Covid wards. Unsurprisingly she’s thinking of shifting to research, and who can blame her? 9 patients per nurse now, so 2 nurses on a ward with 18 patients. It’s impossible for her to properly do the job she trained for. Everything is cut back, and it’s all very well to call them angels but we all know that decent pay is a motivator, and that seems to be like getting blood from a stone. It’s a tired and disillusioned workforce trying to stop us from dying.

We went for a walk through the meadows near hers in Oxford. Lots of empty space and the occasional tent springing up. “No camping” say the signs, so it’s obviously started to be noticed. Nothing like the canals and parks in LA, but there are a few people settling for the moment in these meadows. Better than sleeping in a doorway.

She has a delightful huge dalmatian. Dogs are too much for my lifestyle – I can’t manage Mao without Lou. But the physical nature of the dog, flolloping and bounding, it reminds me of all the things we are starved of. We need to be able to run around outside together and to paw each other and try to lick each other’s faces. But without ending up on her ward.

I went home, played some games, strolled in the early evening. Now I’m here, with my skylight and my comfy bed, between Oxford and the meadow, looking out.

It’s been a lovely day off. I feel rested, and I reckon I’ll be asleep in an hour. Twelve shows next week, but at least we get to connect with the audience one on one in an outdoor space and take them on a journey.

Last willows of the week

For ten minutes I can just sit here with my whack-a-weasel and enjoy the gentle curve of the river. There are wood pigeons and other less familiar birds calling out in the early evening. Nobody in the river right now, but often there are swimmers and boats. In fact somebody just leaped in as I wrote that last sentence and made a noise like a dying cow. But mostly there’s a peace here, marred by the distant whoosh of the road, if you don’t tune it out. Relative peace, marred by the occasional airplane. And mostly it’ll be marred by my voice barking orders and shouting “left right left right” in a half conscious imitation of the teachers who used to get a bunch of 8-12 year olds to march on the spot every morning whatever the weather at my first boarding school. I thought it was normal at the time. I think the Badger marching stuff I’m doing is closer to fun and further from trauma than it was out on that driveway in all weathers in my shorts. Mostly my audience is smiling, which we weren’t back then. From time to time there’s somebody crying a bit because they’re terrified of weasels but what can you do? Weasels are scary! Mostly this is a glorious fun experience for us and them simultaneously.

And we’re off. There’s the message. It begins. The first audience is go. WhatsApp makes it so much easier to run shows like this, but no more rest for the Badger. Not until tomorrow anyway, and tomorrow I just get to be in Oxford to relax and regather before the next weeklong willows push. Hurrah.


Well, as ever that was lovely. It’s a step in the right direction, being able to work with a small audience outside. Most of us are on our own with the audience, not doing scenes. There’s a lot of thought about bubbles and so forth. Sanitiser. We are all trying to keep as safe as possible, and if one of us tests positive they might be able to marshal a swift last minute replacement. We’ve all been filmed for that purpose. And brilliantly they’ve just added an actor to the company! Somebody to come on at the end of the audience’s journey and give them closure. I see that need. It’s easy in these experiential things to have so much fun in the middle that you forget to put a button on it. We have a song that we all share, but it’s logistically impossible to bring us together to sing it while we are still in world so it can’t be a button. People need to know it’s over.

It’s joyful to sing the song. We sing it while we walk across the playing field to return to our tiring house – all of us with our insecurities. There’s a certain romance in it – the actors scattered but bound by sound, walking home both in and out of character, sharing a breath and a set of notes. We stop at the climbing frame and wave to some of the young’uns – they who have brought us the element of random we so crave. “Will octopus ink work on weasels,” asked one fellow today clutching his fluffy octopus. “The thing I don’t like is weevils,” tried another. “Yes And.”

I’m having fun. And I’m working. That’s what I signed up for. Tick. So lovely to be back at Creation and with only one project on. It feels that everybody has a bit more time these days, myself included…