Old furniture

In London, if you have a thing and it works, someone near you probably wants it. If you don’t want your thing any more, it is common practice to put it on the street. Sometimes you might put a little encouraging note saying “take me.” It’ll be gone in no time. It really will be.

I was standing outside RADA once waiting for a van to carry a theatre set to Earls Court. We had a load of lovely old furniture for a play at The Finborough. In the twenty minutes it took for the van to arrive, three people assumed that our set was up for grabs and tried to help themselves until I explained it wasn’t being dumped. Each one of them was a little passive aggressive with me, as if I shouldn’t have put it on the street in the first place if it wasn’t up for grabs. They left a bit huffy, looking back longingly at the cuckoo clocks and old cabinets.

With this this mind, I walked past an expensive members club today and saw a load of lovely furniture things including a marble top liquor cabinet out on the street.

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“Are these up for grabs,” I asked the bloke I identified as the “me” role in this version of events. Joe. Sitting in a high backed armchair. “Take what you want mate,” he said. So I booked an uber XL. Ten minutes later Mohammed showed up and we filled his Citroen full of things. I now have a lovely writing desk, a marble top liquor cabinet, an unnecessary lamp, a something thing for somethings and ooh what a pretty little table. I’m thrilled with that result. Even if I throw some of it out later, the cabinet looks like it was made for my flat.

Then I go back. Joe has told me there’s loads more. But he wants it gone tomorrow. I am off to Wales tomorrow. I’ll see if he can wait until next Tuesday, as all the stuff he has will do well at Gatsby and it’s going to end up in landfill. I can likely take it on Tuesday. There are a few more desks, an amazing table, bits and bobs, pictures, and loads of old lamps. The club is being refurbished. New lamps for old. Some eejit thinks old things look bad, or has a business arrangement with some chancer who makes modern furniture. So they’ll rip the character out of the place and replace it with ostentation, but delboys like me will end up with nice things. If he lets me come back next Tuesday I’ll sort him out with Gatsby tickets.

The problem is, getting back to my block, I realise I can’t carry the two biggest pieces up all the stairs on my own. Mohammed got them inside the front door with me, because I immediately tipped him £20 and he wants to be helpful. But I can’t co-opt an uber driver into getting it all upstairs, big tip or not.

Either way, good on Joe for being so chilled about me loading an uber. At the end of the day his mate showed up with a van and there was virtually nothing left. “I better take some stuff or I won’t get paid for moving it,” he says, so we bring another desk down. There’s so much stuff up there. “I’m just dumping it with some people I don’t know.” says the guy with the van. “I need the van empty at the end of the day. I drive every day for Louis Vuitton.”

I return home once more wishing I had my own van. I contemplate the communal downstairs corridor crowded full of antique furniture like a junk shop, and I manage to persuade a friend who lives locally to hump the two biggest items up and inside, in exchange for takeaway curry. We have a lovely chilled evening. I write this. And now I’ll get back to packing for Green Man. What will I forget?

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Fire safety and baby

There’s a little flat in Whitechapel where I spent many an evening dreaming. My best friend lived there. We would stay up all night, sometimes in company, sometimes just the two of us. We would take out the pieces of each other that needed polishing, and carefully put them back in the right places. When she moved out I wrote a sad poem to Squintles, her lonely sofa, on whom I had slept so many nights, the silent recipient of my night thoughts and bits of my skin and my tears.

She moved to Catford and has tenants in the flat now. That flat is too small for a baby, and her baby is getting bigger by the day. But today, hungover Al went and met her in the downstairs corridor. My job; entertain the baby while she worked out how to do a fire test on the cryptic fire safety equipment she has had installed.

Just as there is an industry in making some user interfaces logical and intuitive, so is there an industry in making others counterintuitive and arcane. You have to run a test once a week on this nonsense. Once a month it needs a full check up. If the interface is completely incomprehensible, then it guarantees that their engineers get paid to run the service. My friend was trying to do her weekly test. At first I tried to help her, but she snapped me down. “I spend my life having men stop me doing this sort of thing. I want to do it. You look after the baby.” So I did, and she got on with it. Too many buttons.

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I didn’t necessarily feel I was in the right place to look after the baby. She is so small, so innocent, so pure. I was sweating wine and guilt after staying up most of Sunday night with my festival friends. Still, we found some games to play that didn’t involve me getting a headache. She understands space better than last time I saw her. Peekaboo can happen. A month ago it did nothing for her. Now it’s hilarious.

I spent a bit of time with this amazing baby, got to know her a bit better, this whole new person that I can pick up so easily. I discovered that she loves having her socks put on. And I struck a deal with her mum that after Green Man I’ll try to take her on Sunday mornings for an hour or so, so she can go to Zumba, or do some writing.

We are still dreaming, the mum and I, but this new life in her life changes the game. We are both still up all night and tired in the day, but the reasons are very different.

I’m so struck by this journey that she has undertaken, and the grace with which she’s done it. Babies are as incomprehensible as these crappy interfaces, and you can’t call an engineer. She’s worked out so much, and is still somehow finding time to write, although not as much as she needs. If I come and play with the baby once a week I think it’ll do us both good. Me to connect and play with someone so uncomplicated and innocent. She to have a bit of unworried time in which to create. And the baby to have another rumbly voiced bemused man whose glasses are detachable.

Train dream

I often dream about trains. It’s odd, since I don’t really think about them at all when I’m not on one. But there they are – often. Dream trains. I can dream quite lucidly, and can fend off bad outcomes pretty adroitly. It’s a thing I nurtured as a child, to stop the terrible nightmares. But when there are trains, it tends to mean I don’t have my hand on the tiller so much. The train is my brain telling me it’s going to dump. Last time I got shot in a dream it was running away from a train. By Germans, of all things. War stories.

I was trying to get to Ladywell last night, and I was avoiding one of my ex girlfriends in the process. She was hunting me. So far, so Freud. London, it seems, has a very busy functioning ghost train network. They run on the same tracks as the normal trains, and normal trains can’t drive through ghost trains so they have to sit there. They are the reason for all the unexpected delays in London. There must be shitloads on Southern Rail tracks. In my dream I could see them all, those darn ghosts, blocking the way with their glowing ghosty steam locomotives, gossiping and ghost-farting while we all backed up behind them in a hurry. “Move along,” I asked one. “So you’re the one who can see us tonight then?” says the laconic guard, interrupting his conversation with a woman in a bonnet. “It won’t make us go any faster though, will it, mate? You’ll just have to wait.”

I ended up on a ghost Oriental Express heading – apparently – to Ladywell by way of Russia.

I don’t know why I’m sharing that with you. Other people’s dreams are almost always incomprehensible and unhelpful, as they are peculiar breakdowns of that individuals bullshit. Sure you can use them to contemplate the way our strange brains work. So the train metaphor for me, where my brain tells itself that it can’t stop the story by bringing in something that’s on tracks. That’s noticeable. As is the sexual draw of “Ladywell” and the fact that I was being actually hunted by my benign and happy ex – my brain telling me to stop running away, perhaps? The fact is, I ended up on that dream train to Russia purely as a diversion to avoid an old flame who was pursuing me. Maybe I’m still running from something?

I don’t use dating apps. At silent speed dating I only stood opposite people I didn’t find attractive. I tell myself it’s because I don’t really give a shit, but then this seeps into my dreams and I end up writing a blog breaking it down because there’s something shifting in this bachelor.

Meanwhile my friends are having their happiness directly affected by their relationship status. People in relationships and all they talk about is how difficult it is being in them. People out of them, hating themselves or blaming themselves or changing themselves in the hope that it will make them more desirable to some nebulous idea of a person they hope to meet. Oh stories, stories. You are so irresponsible. What were we selling that so many of the old stories talk of this true love ideal. We all have armpits. My job is to tell stories – I see the edges and the structure – but I still get sucked into the fantasy.

Well, hello introspection. At this point a bunch of friends came round my flat and we ended up having an impromptu party. That’s a good way to smash a man out of his thoughts. I am returning to this late at night, after everyone has gone or fallen asleep, and I am in my bed. No work tomorrow, which is a blessing and a curse. Just emails and a delivery of a new bed frame from Amazon. I cleared out more boxes of junk today and can see the end of the amazing junk box pile in my flat. But right now I’m going to bed glad of good friends and the fact that I can unwind so comprehensively in their company. Now I’m off to bed, irrespective of the word count, to find out how far into Russia that ghost train has got, and whether I can get the interchange back to Ladywell now I’ve shaken her…

I took no photos. It’s so late. Here is a random picture of a jar thing. Yes. Great. That’ll do. Night night. Or good morning… or whatever. I’m off to sleep.

Smithfield mini golf

Smithfield is so quiet on the weekend. It’s noticeable how that happens in and around the square mile. Everyone goes there to work. Nobody lives there. The most ancient parts of this city are all but abandoned for two days out of seven. Even Pret à Manger is shut. They make enough Monday to Friday to justify the rent, but they’d lose on staff wages if they opened on the weekend.

Occasionally you walk past the glass windows of some forsaken oubliette of an office to see one lonely soul amid the banks of computers, sweating hope as they sacrifice their weekend to greed or fear in front of that slurping screen. Mostly its just crisp packets in the wind, pigeons and the occasional prat like me in plus fours and a golfing jumper, earnestly playing mini golf on a patch of shoddy turf.

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It’s for a thing. Of course it is. The random swings and moments in my life are always for a thing. This one is a sort of murder mystery treasure hunty thing. Games in the real world. It’s an industry now. It runs alongside the acting as another form. You’re a character but you’re a facilitator. It’s improv but it’s not about being impressive. It’s play, simply. Strangers come to explore a new place, to see it in a new way, and to have permission to be playful. It’s something I have been doing in one form or another for 2 decades now, but back then it was a bunch of geeks messing around and now there’s money if you get it right. You still have to be careful. I met a guy who was very invested in telling me how important and successful his company was, making this sort of work. “Send me your CV,” he told me. “I’ll consider you for an audition.” I didn’t. Less than a year later he’s bankrupt. People have to want to see your stuff and tell their friends. Shame really as he was providing lots of employment and making nice things. I guess pride comes before a fall.

We had a good 50 people through today, over the course of 2 hours. That’s ticking over. And it was pleasant. I just got to hang out in the sun for a couple of hours and be silly with strangers before giving them the clue they want and sending them on their way.

The patch of turf where I was stationed is just by the entrance to Bartholomew the Great, a truly ancient church in the heart of London, next to where William Wallace was executed (and he didn’t look like Mel Gibson, get his face out of your mind.) To the north are the huge awnings of the meat market, selling brisket wholesale for 800 years. Carluccio’s was open surrounded by boarded up doors, risking it to catch the tourists. But nobody lives in central London anymore. It’s the Australians in the room above the pub, the old American couple in the expensive airbnb, and whoever got the flats in the Barbican tower. But the city is like a fairy ring, with the middle emptying over time as the mushrooms spread further and further apart.

I haven’t spent much time there since leaving Guildhall. Back then it was pleasant to wander those forsaken streets. It still is, but I don’t like seeing empty buildings knowing how many mates have been chased out of town entirely by rent. Such an odd city, this one. I guess the older we get the more convoluted we become. London has deep wrinkles now, weird blotches, stinky bits, but hidden beauty, harsh wisdom and shiny new teeth. I like it here.

Ironing with a pan

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I woke up this morning, staggered into the kitchen and sliced a loo roll in half with a bread knife. First of all, in preparation, I got a 6 foot mahogany stand from the corner of my living room and taped my iPad to the top. Then I tethered my iPad to my phone, because the internet is broken in my flat, and downloaded an app called Filmic pro using my phone’s bad data connection. Then I worked out where I would stand, and how. I had to walk into shot with bowed legs in order to reduce my height and get the top of my head in shot. I practiced a bit until I stopped looking like an Oompa Loompa. Then when I was confident it was all lined up I sliced the loo roll in half in one take. It took a bit longer than I expected. I only had one loo roll to waste though, so I wrapped that shot and moved on.

Next thing I had to do was to fry an egg. I would have to flip it and catch it in a plate, so I deliberately broke the yolk. Don’t want yolk all over my lovely clean kitchen! I still hadn’t had my coffee. But time was ticking. I had a day job to get to. I fried the egg. I also laid out an ironing board with a wet shirt on it, just out of shot. Fry egg, hear sizzling, flip egg, catch on plate. Put plate down out of shot, grab shirt, put shirt out of shot other side, pull ironing board with wet shirt into shot hoping it reads as the same shirt, slap down hot pan into wet shirt, hear sizzle, start ironing with pan. Brian emerged from his bedroom and watched bemused in his dressing gown. Second take was cleaner. Done. Coffee.

This is a self-taped audition and it came through last night, when the light was wrong. It had to be with them for noon today. I was working 9-12.30 at Imperial, invigilating an exam for the summer course. As my agent said, the money for this self-tape is not great, but money is still money and it will bankroll Spain if I get it. So it’s worth a bit of weirdness first thing in the morning.

Problem is, now it’s in the can, I still have to send it. And they want a lot. They want 2 photos, and ident, and a form. I have to pay £9.99 for a PDF editor so I can fill in the form. I paid for Filmic a long time ago. I get it all ready, put it in a wetransfer and try to send it while getting 250 students into The Great Hall for an exam. “I thought you said you’d be rehearsing Hamlet for this that tour of America, and we wouldn’t see you,” says Christine. “It fell through,” I reply, sparely, as all the feelings shoot through me again and this is the first week of rehearsals. “You were really excited about that,” she says sympathetically. “Yes. I was. But now I need to send this video of me ironing with a pan.”

Periodically I go and check the status. 0%. It won’t go through the college WiFi. Fuck. It’s now 10.00. The exam is underway and there are plenty of us. “I’m going to check the loo,” I say, and run out of the college onto the road to book an Uber home. I’ve forgotten that my internet is down at home and I am rushing back to try and upload it on my home network. The round trip is about 25 minutes. It doesn’t occur to me that I have no internet at home (broken router) until a phone upload is interrupted by a text from the courier to say that they have just failed to deliver my new router and it’s going back to the depot. Nooooo! I turn the Uber around. I have successfully uploaded and sent an ident now by phone. It’s a start. Over £20 spent and I’ve sent: “Hello my name is Al Barclay.” My agent rings to say she’s got it. “That’s quite a tan you have.” I tan in a blizzard. But yes, it is. It’s the Spaniard in me. Olé.

Eventually the ironing scene goes through to my agent. The loo roll scene is too long. My phone can’t cope. It won’t send. Time is running out. My agent sends it to the Germans with just the iron scene. It’s 11.00. Everything is on fire in the exam room. It’s the summer course. None of the academics have checked their questions. “Where have you been?” Asks Christine.”Checking the toilets.” I say. She looks like she thinks I’ve been crying. “Don’t worry. I’m sure something will come up.”

Bloody self tapes. If it’s not the equipment that’s lacking it’s the software. If it’s not the software it’s the connectivity. If it’s not the connectivity it’s the knowledge. Now we all have to be camera savvy, tech savvy, light savvy, sound savvy and good actors, and that’s before we even get in the room. £10 software, £10 uber, 1 egg, 1 loo roll. Still, if someone in Germany likes my face I could be paid enough to take a month off work and go on some hippy pilgrimage to Spain just for ironing a shirt with a pan. So it’s swings and roundabouts. And with the turnaround it’s probable that there weren’t many people who bothered doing it. Or so I tell myself, as Klaus in Düsseldorf stares down the barrel of 3k emails, throws his hands in the air despairing, and picks a random number. Pick my random number Klaus! Pick me! I wanna go to Spain. It ain’t quite Miami but it’ll do.

Images of the past

In order to counteract some of the weird feelings elicited by the picture of my hopeful mother that now has pride of place in my living room, I decided to wield the drill this morning and stick some more pictures up.

I’ve put up lots of pics on theatre sets, but few in my own home. I’ve drilled into the walls of The Finborough more than my own bedroom, and that’s despite doing nothing there for more than ten years.

I have two portraits of my face. I’ve never really known what to do with them. I remember both of them being painted.

Summer 1980’s, Douglas Isle of Man and I’m eight or nine. I’m playing in the garden. Most likely I’m blowing bubbles and then shooting them with a water pistol. That’s hours of fun right there, and with stories attached “The alien disease is launching, I am mind controlled, I have to help it disseminate. BUT THEY AREN’T COUNTING ON MY SECRET PISTOL WEAPON.” Repeat ad nauseam. (Water pistol always wins.) Mum finds me and makes me come in to talk to an artist. I have to sit in a chair inside on a nice day. He comments that I can’t sit still. Mum behaves like that’s a good thing. The artist catches my mischief. I don’t know his name. I barely remember him. It’s a sweet picture. I can’t believe I was ever that innocent.

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Fifteen years later and I’m sitting on a flight of stairs in Fulham. My old school friend Tom is with me. He and I got into trouble for reviving a satirical magazine that had been part of the old school’s history for many years. It’s an entrenched school so even the means of protest are entrenched. We made both friends and enemies in the faculty by doing it, but some of the stuff we created was lovely. God rest JPRM. It was a clear example of the privilege one has at a private boarding school – we could make something that genuinely upset some of the establishment, using establishment facilities. Tom is and was an artist, and did some brilliant accurate witty caricatures whilst I wrote overblown guff. I’ve often wondered how we don’t spend more time together now. We had a generative partnership and a deep friendship. He painted this just after my first drama school audition, for Webber Douglas. It hadn’t gone well and I knew it. He catches that concern and determination.

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I’ve stuck both of these pictures up on the wall because why not. Neither of them hurt me to look at. I’m neither of those people now but I remember being both. I’ve put them in the same corner as the papier-maché bust of Scrooge that was made last year for Christmas Carol – the one I use as a hat stand.

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Three versions of me, decades apart. It’s nice to put them together. To remember that the distracted happy child, the haunted pressured youth and the odd man I am now – getting on with it and writing about it every day still hoping – we are all the same person, and we’ve all been on a long journey together.

Some of you that read this regularly first met me as that kid. Some as that tricky schoolboy. More know different varieties of the man I’ve been experimenting with since. I feel like I’m forever away from these two versions of me. But that kid and that youth – they’re still in me somewhere. It’s good to remember what made them tick. It’s good for all of us to occasionally connect with what we have been. The sharp uncompromised perception of that child. The deep unfocused ambition of that youth. They are both still there but honed. Honed doesn’t mean blunted. There is still much to do.

Portrait

I’m not sure how I feel about being back home. I’ve seen nobody today and spoken to virtually nobody as well.

I was supposed to be going to Wales with a friend, but it would’ve been too much of a distraction. I need to keep momentum up on this flat reboot that has been so actively catalysed by Brian and co. There is still much to do, and much attic space in which to put stuff I can’t deal with.

I’ve been making sense of it though. And rationalising my monthly spend. Stopping myself from blowing too much on mobile phones and broadband through habit, getting refunded for a Netflix I don’t use, thinking about what I need vs what I want. Also making sure I don’t have loads of random crap cluttering my gohonzon, and buying a little shelf to raise the thing a few inches so I’m not looking down at it when I chant.

The pieces are in place for me to turn my flat into a palace. Then I can go to crap like silent speed dating and actually stand opposite people I like the look of, rather than studiously avoiding them. I enjoy my own company but I think I can countenance sharing concerns again in the right context, and negotiating the intimacy and compromise that goes with that. It’s weird being alone in this head all day. There’s way too much noise.

Brian put up a portrait of mum as a young woman that I’ve had for years and never hung. It dominates the living room. It’s looking at me. It was painted by a Jersey artist who apparently loved her, and who became a fellow of the Royal Academy, so it’s probably worth a bob or two. There it is, staring down at me as I write.

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It’s strange. She’s full of youth and possibility there. She did a lot in a short time, including making Max and me. She was a brilliant friend and a kind mother. But she left us at 55. The picture wakes a lot up in me. It reminds me how fleeting everything is, and how arbitrary our hopes are. It reminds me how hard her death hit me and the things that I broke through my grief that are still a bit broken. And it also reminds me that she was great.

I’ve been planning a pilgrimage for some time now, to clear these ghosts. The most logical month is mid September to mid October, so I’ve been trying to clear the diary. She collected a vial of holy water at Lourdes around the time that picture was painted. I also found her brother’s rosary in Jersey recently. It’ll be an expensive thing to do but I want to walk from Lourdes to Santiago di Compostela. It takes about a month. It’s hard to book that sort of time off work and I might regret it fiscally. But if I get my flat clear then I can probably Airbnb my room to help with budget. I think it’s the right gesture, to blow out the cobwebs, honour their memory, mark the passage of time, speed them through purgatory, get a bit fitter, and put some miles between me and this old sadness. There’s too much to do. I need to put the past in the past, gently and with honour, so I can look at that picture and think of my own future, not her truncated past, and get on with it.