Babysitting

There’s something comforting about being read to. We don’t have it often outside of childhood. After work I came round and read to a three year old until he fell asleep. He chose his moment well. The little bear in the book was about to ask mummy bear if she’d still love him after she was dead. I maintained my soporific tone while simultaneously blessing and cursing the writer. Blessing her for subtly preparing young minds for the inevitability of loss. Cursing her for blindsiding me in the process. I inevitably thought of my parents, and my progress on the universal road from innocence to experience.

That’s the first bedtime story I’ve read for years. I’ve always managed to be busy when Ivo needed babysitting in the past. And most mothers wouldn’t let me within three streets of bedtime in case I microwave the baby, get the pajamas on the cat and put the milk out for the night. But it went pretty well. I ran him ragged playing “chase Al round the house instead of the cat.” Then I fed him fish until he was glutted. He can eat vast quantities of fish, it seems. But we got there in the end.

There was a momentary altercation regarding milk temperature. I don’t know proper procedure. I knew I was winning though as his eyes were drooping even as he threw up problems. There was a brief concern about whose job it was to hold the toothbrush. Ultimately I was a fool, a madman and an evil swine for choosing red pajamas. How could I be such a pig. I found blue ones instead.

But once we’d sorted out these important details all it took was a few pictures of monkeys, an emu and a book about mortality in bears. Now he’s flat out and I’m sitting surrounded by dinosaurs. It’s not a bad life being three years old.

I can’t say I remember much from back at 3. Who does. I was in Jersey, in Les Silleries, a little white house on a hill with a big garden. My mother was mostly looking glamorous and my father was mostly looking elsewhere. I have loose happy memories of sunny days in that garden: long grass, butterflies, blue skies and empty space. Occasionally cows would get into the garden from the field next door, which pleased me as much as it angered my parents. If my memories are anything to go by I never really went inside the house unless it was Christmas.

The house itself as it used to be was knocked down years ago and rebuilt as the fever dream of a varnished banker, complete with clocktowers and oozing flatulent piles of architectural guff. The garden was turned into a monstrous folly. Huge sapphic fountains and clocktowers. The bramble path from the road was replaced with a paved avenue lined with lamps. The copper beech tree where my mother dreamed her childhood and I dreamed some of mine was uprooted many years ago to make room for some godawful wank of a statue. I suspect someone who made a fortune in something unkind exists there, oozing a trail of grief and crushed up notes while wetly encouraging his guest to appreciate the life size statue of Venus: “The sculptor was Italian, you know.”

Bear in mind if course that they could have done anything with that house and I’d have been disappointed and vitriolic. Early childhood can be a sacred, safe place. That house as it was will always exist in my memory as a place where the colours were right, and all was as it should be. I’ll still have those innocent memories, and on days like this I can go out and feel the sun on my face and the wind in my hair and vaguely remember that lack of complication.

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Meantime the least I can do is read someone to sleep and make sure they don’t worry while their mum IS GOING TO BAT OUT OF HELL!! She’ll be back soon I suspect. Then we can have some gin.

Taplow Court

This morning I went with my friend Sue to Taplow Court. She wanted to show the place to me. She used to teach technical theatre at Guildhall, and is mother to my friend Jake. Taplow Court is a country house out in Berkshire.

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It’s huge, next to Cliveden where Nancy Astor held sway. (First female politician, Christian scientist, firebrand.) Former English home to the lords of Orkney and with a host of Grenfells and other loosely familiar aristocratic names, it’s one of those houses with history. There was a Saxon king buried in the backyard. There were probably loads of Saxons here when Normans howled in and made it theirs. It’s in the Domesday book. The Saxon king was enthusiastically hacked out of his eternal rest in the late 1800s by crap archeologists, and taken to the British museum to be taped back together for a slightly different posterity than he had in mind. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

In the 1980’s the house went on sale, and was bought speculatively by the growing secular Buddhist society Soka Gakkai International, with Japanese money. They wanted a base in the UK. And man they have made one. It’s astonishingly beautiful, well groomed, and peaceful. Thousands of people per week now come to resonate with positive energy and try to improve themselves and their surroundings. It’s a haven.

SGI is pretty damn good as far as belief structures go. It’s asking the adherents to be the best version of themselves they can be, while actively seeking to improve the world around them. It asks for gentle action, for kindness, for turning poison into medicine. There is no ooglyboogly monsterman that you have to obey, with impressive representatives on earth that need your money. There is no overarching authority figure who you must learn to be submissive to. You don’t chant to an idol. You have a scroll, a series of simple tenets, and a very wise man who currently leads the society. He’s called Daisaku Ikeda, and as a lifelong authority questioner, I’m happy to listen to him. He’s got a way with ideas. He’s very clear, and walks the walk he talks. He’s a good leader, and it’s not about him, even if his drive has made the sect international. He’s kept the sect secular.

So I chanted for a good while, and let my mind wander round the things myself and those around me need fixed. It was “kosen-rufu gongyo” and loads of people were “receiving gohonzon”. So yes, there is still a jargon that has to be understood. But even without a full understanding of what I’m chanting, I like the fact that there are people all over the world at all times chanting the same thing at the same time as me. This sort of thing appeals to me, believing as I do in vibrations and energy. Making pockets of the world vibrate in tune appeals to me.

Directly after chanting, and gathering all this positive energy, I went to lunch with Sue. And someone I didn’t expect walks in…

I keep my heart in a box most of the time. It’s nice and safe in there. But I have a bad habit. Very rarely, with little provocation, I reach into my chest cavity, haul out the whole pumping organ, and schlumpf it onto the table in front of someone I’ve only just met. It’s a ridiculous habit. Nobody wants that pile of oozing pulsing veinage squishily pumping on the table while we get to know each other. My hope, I think, is that someone will swap it for theirs. But it’s always a little early. I’m not really sure why I keep doing it. How are people supposed to react? Shove it back into me? Eat it? Ignore it? People have tried all three and it’s never worked out well. I’m learning to stop doing it. I’ve got friends on my case now. “You like her? Ok, don’t tell her everything about yourself immediately. Try and keep hold of some mystery.”

Someone I didn’t expect walks in. I schlumphed her many years ago. She’s cool with it. We have a cordial lunch next to each other. She’s a friend now. It’s lovely to see her. The past is a long time ago. Argh.

I like Taplow Court and the SGI but dammit cosmic vibrations. That was unexpected.

Is it art?

Earlier this week a load of people came in the night and erected a great big tent in the gardens near my house. Rather than fill it with rubber ducks and waltzers, they’ve stuffed it with art works worth more than I am able to properly contemplate. Millions and millions of pounds worth of old masters, all stuffed into a tent near my house. I went for a walk around there today. My friend Helen knew one of the exhibitors. It’s made me rethink the idea of money. Sometimes I was terrified of sneezing on something as I looked at it. Other times I was wondering how I could use a tractor beam or freeze time or something in order to get my filthy paws on so much lovely art.

One of the first things I happened on was a dollar sign. A colorful painting about as big as my head of a dollar sign. Signed Andy Warhol. Priced at £950,000.

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It got me thinking about value. I’ve always liked art that was made for reasons other than money, but to suddenly see the capitalism of art laid bare made me curious. That’s part of Warhol’s mischief.

There were some amazing things for sale in there, and some garish things. I found myself drawn to an ancient Egyptian fish sculpture, made perhaps for faith by an unknown artist. It was selling for 40k, the same as a half forgotten pencil sketch by Cezanne, trying to make sense of a thorny bit of composition. When I was at school one of the boys drew a load of circles on a canvas and sold it for thousands. Warhol knew what he was doing when he painted a dollar sign. Stick a high price tag on something and hold your nerve. Someone will buy. Close to the Warhol was a Van Gogh. What a thing, to live and die so tragically only to pay some art dealer’s mortgage with commission on a sketch 100 years later.

Value in art is as hard to pin down as where art begins where it ends. It got me thinking of the KLF nailing money to things and pricing it low, then trying to sell it as art. Ten grand nailed to a plank for 5 grand. Either buy it and destroy it for immediate profit, or buy it and hold onto it for years while inflation drops the cash value and appreciation raises the artistic value until it’s worth more. Mind you they had trouble persuading the artistic establishment that their “Money: A major body of cash” artworks had merit. In the end they burnt a million pounds in a little hut on Jura almost 23 years ago, and filmed it. That still gets people’s blood flowing. Is it art? Perhaps so considering the arguments I’ve heard about it. Is it wasteful? Certainly in one sense, and more so the less value we place on the action. I find interest in the idea of a couple of lads burning everything they’ve got in vague protest. More interest than in Damian Hurst’s diamond skull that cost 14 million to build.

Trans formation of Ahmed

After work today I picked up my bike, Ahmed. He’s been having some work done. He’s changed his frame. I wasn’t sure if I would know him to be the same bike when I collected him. When we met he had a rangy slim and tattered frame, weathered by storms, bent out of shape, once proud but now on hard times. Now he’s had some work done. He has emerged significantly different but still recognisably Ahmed. He has a shiny orange frame, and a working rear brake. But the same wheels, pedals, handles… I haven’t spoken to him about the details but I think my bicycle has undergone gender reassignment. I’m not clear yet having just reconnected, but I expect it’ll become apparent what to call Ahmed in the near future. Ahmeda is possible but also, absurdly, Wilhelmina is offering itself as an alternative. Time will tell.

Cycling is therapeutic for me. It gets the blood flowing and helps me deal with things that have sat on my mind. I started my journey across town concerned about someone I spoke to on Sunday who, after secondhand information from someone I didn’t get on well with on tour, has always been actively wary of me. By the time I was halfway home I had already arrived at “Why should I waste energy trying to make everyone like me.” I need to cycle more often. We all do. Cobwebs blown.

Then as I got close to home the phone rang. It’s my manager. They want me for some filming, and they’re happy to be flexible about dates around my needs. It’s a small victory, made a little less sweet by the fact that I have an agent AND a manager and they’ll both take a cut of fuck all because they accidentally routed the casting to my agent. But I’m thrilled that Iona has so quickly made good on her word. When I signed with her I explained that I haven’t had anything through my agent for years. I suggested it might be an operational problem and asked if she might find her way round it. She has started down that road, and thanks to her I’ve seen doors open. As an actor I fight as hard as I can, but it’s unprofessional of me to approach certain people unsolicited. Finally I have what I’ve been looking for. A bulldog who is also a friend. A running mate. It’s been a few years since I had someone willing to make personal submissions, rather than bulk submit and then hope for a snag. I think we might be able to forge forward together.

This is just early doors, and as I said when it came in “this is the sort of thing I was up for when I just left Guildhall”. But I am happy to push a reset button. The crucial time I lost to my mother’s dying and the aftermath of her death, just after Guildhall when my first film was in the can – I’ll never make that back. So I’m glad of anything that pays me to ply my craft and remind people that I still exist. I want the entry level jobs. I’m still optimistic and I’m still hungry. God knows how. But somehow I’m still calm that everything is going to be alright and when I’m old and my body isn’t working so well they’ll be willing to let me sit in a chair in every scene as the bolshy posh grandpa.

I’ve been playing the long game for a long time. It’s why I lose sleep when someone has been slagging me off. My best shot has always been to be calm, fun, friendly and reliable, which is just as well as that’s what I’ve got. But I need someone to do the industry side and the bullshit for me because I hate it – even if I’m getting better at it these days. I’ve known Iona since I was 10 and she held my hand when I was crying. Nobody could piss me off like she can and still be my friend if they weren’t the perfect foil to my slightly loose artistic sensibilities.

I’m trying to change my frame from slightly tragic “everybody loves Al” into “you need Al Barclay”. I think I can do it. Everything’s in place. Apart from the gender thing. But I suspect I’ll have to muddle through as a boy. Ahmed has that bit covered for me. Onwards into the summer. I’m going to get back to Ahmed and see if I can work out his/her intentions a bit more clearly.

As I left the bike shop I saw the remains of old ahmed. I’ll miss him:

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Year 8

I could never be a teacher. I don’t know how so many of you do it. Sometimes I tutor people into Drama School one on one. Even then, if you don’t care much about it I don’t care much about you. Sometimes I do workshops in universities. That’s been fun over the years. Prisons are lovely too. People are starved of stimulus and long for it. But schools? What madman teaches in a school? Nobody can learn in those places. Big swelling schools full of shouting kids? How? Still, that was roughly what I did today, while longing for the simplicity of a maximum security US prison where people want to learn.

I was out in the East End, talking about IT consultancy to year 8. Getting them enthusiastic. About IT consultancy. Oh yes. Yes indeed. What fun. Getting them to problem-solve. This is a workshop designed by adults for adults but also kids. It’s wordy. They want the kids to apply their thinking to develop technology in groups that will help with the refugee crisis, the aging population/healthcare, or food security. The heart of it is really firmly in the right place. They have to invent and pitch a bit of digital technology that can practically address issues around those subjects. It’s talking about applying technology to ethical problems. It requires them to work in groups, together, towards a common goal that they can set. There’s a lot of freedom. But it’s not simple. It needs focus.

My job is to lead it, to try to engage people in it, and to make it fun. The teachers are supposed to do crowd control but they just catch up with marking and leave us with baffled teaching assistants who do very little. I have no desire to instigate discipline and as a visitor it’s not my job. So when I’m on the line I don’t care. But my voice is worn today because I had to tell them to stop being such bastards to each other when THEY were on the line. They were fine to me. But when their fellow students had to present their findings they devolved into monsters. And I had to try to teach them empathy and stop them from being so aggressive to each other’s work. Which took away from my cache as a visiting expert. You can’t be a visiting expert AND a disciplinarian. But they were doing something I can only describe as “work-shaming.”

There are kids who want to learn, but in this school I noticed a culture of laziness supported by the stronger personalities. I come across that a great deal in different contexts. I always worry when I do. It’s the culture that Trump is giving permission for, but it’s always been there. Inquiring minds are framed by the group as somehow “boring” compared to pedestrian obedient minds. Kids with interesting thoughts are being yawned down by kids who might have more interesting thoughts but don’t want to express them for fear of being thought “interesting.” People don’t want to be seen to try. What sort of a culture is that? Where does that lead?

I went home a little upset because all I want to do on the rare occasions I visit a school is to help expand some horizons, and encourage kids to push their own boundaries a little. I hated unearned authority as a child and that means I don’t want to come in unknown and immediately discipline people. I think that the work did land, but I hate to see kids leading themselves and each other into willful ignorance.

I’ll be back in tomorrow with year 7. One year younger, they’ll probably be less self conscious but more swamped by the material. I bet they’re more willing, less afraid to admit to curiosity. Still, we do what we can. Onwards. Bed now. Zzzz

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Funerals

Most of us will end up in a box, carried by a bunch of strangers to the sound of an organ. We won’t be aware of it, but it’ll happen. There’ll be some songs. “Abide with me?” “Thine be the Glory?” That guy from the local amdram that wishes he was Placido Domingo will lead the church flat. Whichever of our friends are still alive will clutch a piece of paper with that photo we never really liked on the top. Why did they choose that photo? They’ll bellow along to the hymns, an enthusiastic solemn cacophony. The vicar will pretend to know you, but bets will be out as to whether or not he’ll get your name right. He might make some positive statements about your personality with the sincerity of a recorded voice saying “I’m sorry for the delay.”

Some mate of yours that still owes you 20 quid from that last game of backgammon will hesitantly hobble up and attempt to make sense of where you went in a jumbled speech. It won’t make much sense to them yet that you aren’t about to jump up and say “I’m here!” Our true friends are immortal, surely? That’s why we can be so shit about calling them.

Lesson time! Everyone will nod sagely as the wisdom of Ecclesiastes tells us unquestioned that there is a time to hate and a time to kill, oh as well as a time to love and a time to die because that’s why we’re here. But there’s definitely time to hate and kill too. While we decide who to hate and kill there’s sad music. Maybe some sad children wear suits.

Then our heavy corpse will be expertly lifted and hustled off to the crematorium, where the guy who does the logistics is just hoping he’s got the bodies in the right order. There’s a queue waiting outside with the next body, and someone in there when you arrive. The flowers might get jumbled so you burn as”Doris”. Afterwards the family probably just get a generic pile of ashes in an urn, the remains of someone’s lunch, with “Grandma” on the label. Already more idea than truth. But it’s all about symbols, about belief and about overlooking, this business of dying.

I’ve had my share of funerals. Too many already and I’m relatively young. I see the need for an end of life ritual, but this version is somehow counter to my tastes. But I also see with an entertainer’s eye that sometimes you just gotta give ’em what they want. And it’s familiar, easy closure.

Today was the funeral of my cousin. It’s a branch of my family in Folkestone – my maternal grandmother’s side. Nigel was a good guy, an architect, changing the landscape in that area. Last time I saw him outside of a family gathering was when I played Turner at Margate Theatre Royal. At the time he was building the Turner Contemporary Gallery on the harbor arm. I was thrilled he came to my show. We hung out afterwards.

I was glad to see him off today. It was a solemn but apt funeral. It’s impossible not to have a conversation about Boba Fett when I see that side of the family. My cousin Emma knows the actor in the costume, and sees how he makes his living via conventions. “You could do that. All you need is that part in Star Wars.” Yes, universe. That’s all I need. That part in Star Wars. I might turn down The Sun. I won’t turn down Star Wars. And GO universe!

And so we go on. And for me, fewer and fewer of the older generation remain to annoy me with their opinions. I’m glad I made the trip to see him off. Say what I will about the traditional service, it’s familiar. And familiar helps. Hopefully next time I go to Folkestone it’ll be for pleasure.

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Martin

“Your whole life is a work of art.”

Thus spake an old teacher of mine, today. I like it. It’s delightful challenging and strange. Much like the man who made the comment. Here we are together.

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I sat in a pub with Martin Tyrrell after having delivered an employability workshop at his son’s school. His son was auditioning for the school play after hours, so I got to catch up while he waited. His son goes to John Lyon School, which neighbors my old secondary school Harrow. It’s an independent fee paying day school. It’s named after the founder of Harrow School, because Lyon’s charter was always meant to be for local kids.

I went to Harrow. I dislike admitting that, but here it is in public. Yep. It’s one of the most expensive schools in the world. My dad was on a mission. He gave me fantastic privilege. That’s me. Hi. I went to one of the most expensive schools in the world. Fuck.

I knew I wanted to be an actor when I arrived there. That’s not what they want, really. Although it worked out for Cumberbatch. Martin was the first man who took it seriously. He gave me the role of Camille in the school play of A Flea in her Ear at a time when I was universally known and mocked by the tiny pool of socially derelict monkeys that made up the bulk of my contemporaries. Camille was the right part, in that he appears to be incapable of clear speech with a cleft palate written phonetically. Given the correct mouthpiece he becomes intensely erudite, desirable, and funny. From time to time the mouthpiece gets knocked out and hilarity ensues. Suddenly, thanks to Martin, I was able to make people in my limited circle laugh with me rather than at me. And then they didn’t treat me so horrendously. It was the beginning of the good times when these nasty little turds looked elsewhere for their whipping boy.

I loved Martin as a teacher so it was very pleasant to sit and reminisce with him. I’ve given so much of my time and energy to theatrical forms that are outside the norm that it’s pleasant to see that he’s still curious, still generous, still happy that I’m happy, still kind. He’s contextualising what I do for himself, and I appreciate that. I’m trying to do this on my own terms and he understands that, and knows how hard it is to do so. He did at one point this evening accuse me loosely of being a puritan, but I remember that we clashed a few years ago about my thoughts regarding delivery of verse in Shakespeare, so I’m cool with that. My thinking is less rigorous now than it was then, but I still firmly believe that until you understand rigour, freedom can be a general splat, and not satisfactory to watch. Freedom grounded with rigour is true freedom on stage. A mixture of the fixed and the flowing. As Patsy Rodenberg used to say, “It’s about the work.” It really is. Hail Eris/learn your lines.

Tomorrow my agent has got me an audition but she doesn’t know when! Yep. I’m going to show up at ten as I’ve got a funeral to attend. Hopefully I won’t get sworn at. This job is still as arbitrary and beautiful as it was when I started. I’m lucky that, somehow, I’m still going.