The Full Monty and What it Says About Not Being Controlled by Your Circumstances

Recently I watched the 1997 British comedy drama film  “The Full Monty” again. The Full Monty film posterThe reason why I love it is that it’s about “little” people deciding not to be controlled by their circumstances. Six men who in their different ways are suffering during the decline of the Sheffield steel industry, decide to do something nobody believes they can deliver on.

If you haven’t seen this wonderful film then I highly recommend it; read about it here. Somehow that message of hope is encapsulated in one of the outstanding elements of the film: the faces of the audience members in the club at the end. They express joy, laughter, fun and delight. Their reaction is a natural response to “local lads” demonstrating that if we choose, we can all have the courage to:

  1. compete with those who seem to be hugely successful “out there”
  2. get up on stage and run the risk of making fools of ourselves
  3. demonstrate that we will not allow ourselves to be controlled by our circumstances.

This is a universal message, relevant in so many different ways in today’s society. This is why “The Full Monty” is an inspiration to its audiences and why, using humour, it delivers a powerful truth, relevant to all our lives.

That’s Life – in the Eyes of Noel Coward

I’ve loved the work of Noel Coward since I first saw one of his comedies, in my teens. Noel CowardAmong many different archetypal character-types which I hold in my mind, is that of an indolent Noel Coward male lead, lounging against a mantelpiece wearing a silk brocade smoking jacket, elegant, mannered, and dispensing witticisms with the greatest of ease: the sort of individual who would instantly impress in a social setting; but what’s really going on behind that stylish, confident exterior? I had this image in mind when I created the character James in my novel Mystical Circles (and James reappears in A Passionate Spirit).

In Coward’s play Present Laughter, the male lead, Gary, a successful comic actor, lives out of the image of himself he projects on stage.

He is the focus of everyone else’s obsession.

Gary is a poser – he throws tantrums, acts in a theatrical manner, and hates it when others accuse him of “over-acting” – which he, of course, does all the time. Only his secretary and his supposedly-estranged wife see him in a plain unvarnished way.

Meanwhile, a strange, intense young aspiring playwright, Mr Maule, is obsessed with him and latches onto him and challenges him.

Gary want to get rid of them all, yet cannot see he himself is a magnet for them.

In this play, we see yet again the beloved Noel Coward tropes:

  1. A flouncing self-important male lead;
  2. A sullen fag-smoking housekeeper;
  3. A strange insecure subsidiary character who has a major effect upon the action;
  4. A femme fatale triple-crossing vamp married to the MC’s best friend, having an affair with the MC’s other friend, and with the MC himself.

In this play, the women who spend the night with Gary, and have to explain themselves to visitors in the morning, always:

  1. appear for breakfast wearing Gary’s dressing gown and his black silk pyjamas;
  2. say they had forgotten their latch-key, which was why they had to stay the night; and
  3. claim they slept in the spare room.

Just so do so many of us feel compelled to behave in predictable patterns, so that we might as well be following a script that’s been written for us.

It’s comedy, farce, satire … but isn’t it often just like life? Comedy is a wonderful vehicle for communicating truths. Don’t we find sometimes – especially in this society, and on the current political scene – that people behave as if they were characters in a farce, acting out a parody of themselves?

This is the human comedy.  And comedians only need to tweak real life a very little: just a slight exaggeration – for us to see how absurd this all is.

I think this is why, in moments of insight, we instinctively respond to good observational comedy, especially when it is delivered with warmth – for there are occasions when we recognise ourselves reflected back in the wit of the comedian. And when that is so, we might see opportunities to try and interrupt this pre-determined script, and start acting as if we genuinely do have free will, instead of behaving like characters pushed hither and thither by the plot…

Creative Artists: In the Minority, and On the Outside Looking In

Today on Radio 4, whilst stuck in slow-moving traffic due to an accident on the M40,  I listened to the Midweek programme, in which Libby Purves interviewed four guests – Diana Moran, fitness expert; Jack Thorne, playwright; Dashni Morad, singer and presenter; and finally Omid Djalili, comedian and actor. For the purposes of today’s blog post, I was particularly interested in what Omid Djalili had to say.Omid Djalili

Talking about his own development into a highly successful comedian and actor,  he made the point that throughout his life he has always felt, on every level, part of a minority within another minority… and so on. That has informed his comedy.

I loved him in the film The Infidel when he explored questions of identity as well as the boundaries and prejudices between two major world faiths, Islam and Judaism. He was brilliant in his role of a man who had been brought up an East End Muslim then discovered he was adopted, and really a Jew.

The point he was making in the Radio 4 programme related to the topic of one of the chapters in my new book Perilous Path: A Writer’s Journey, in which I explore the feelings of someone else highly successful in the arts; this time, a bestselling author. And I feel there is a close connection between being in the minority in a minority, and feeling as if you’re always on the outside looking in.

The author in question is Howard Jacobson and he made his remarks in another radio interview, just after he’d won the Man Booker Prize.Howard Jacobson

Here’s that chapter, a taster from my new book:

ALWAYS ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: WHAT DOES A BESTSELLING NOVELIST HAVE TO TEACH ASPIRING WRITERS?

I was listening to a bestselling novelist (Howard Jacobson) speaking on the radio about his success in winning a major book award. Among the many things he said which touched and amused me, I was most impressed by the answer he gave to this question:

 “Now you’ve won this prestigious award, do you feel you’ve arrived? Do you now feel you’re on the inside?”

And he replied,  “No. I have always felt myself to be on the outside of everything, looking in.”

What a wonderful response the interviewer received to this question! And it seemed to me an authentic writer’s response. As observers of human life, this is what creative writers spend their lives doing. Often whilst researching for novels, we are on the outside looking in. We do not necessarily wish to ‘get involved’ or ‘drawn in’, although there are times when we must ‘come alongside’ those we observe, in order to truly understand.

This is especially true of those on spiritual journeys. To be a traveller on this path, you need an open mind and an open heart, and must be prepared to go anywhere and come in on anything. This does mean exploring other spiritual outlooks, other worldviews. This should be no contradiction to a spiritual traveller, whatever religion they belong to. As Rabbi Lionel Blue discovered, ‘my religion is my spiritual home not my spiritual prison’.

The great mystics have transcended religious boundaries in order to experience the presence of God beyond them all. So, how can we always be outsiders looking in? Or is it sometimes necessary to get involved, and come alongside? I believe both can co-exist simultaneously. There is, in fact, never a time when a writer is so fully involved, he or she cannot at some future time stand back and write it. Every experience, no matter how negative or difficult, can prove raw material for a writer because in the act of writing a story you are often drawing upon unconscious material. Novelist Margaret Drabble remarked that fiction writers are good at ‘turning personal humiliations and losses into stories … they recycle and sell their shames, they turn grit into pearls’.

I am particularly fascinated by group dynamics. And in order to learn about those you have to participate. But you can also observe. The truth lies in paradox. Thus the most successful creative people can literally be, in the eyes of the world, on the inside. Of course they have arrived! And yet they can still feel they are always on the outside looking in.

 

 

 

 

What the Camp Comedian Has To Say to the Creative Writer

I love camp, on-the-cusp comedians who subvert gender stereotypes.Julian Clary

A good example is Julian Clary who is above all a genius with words – playful, teasing, fluid, quixotic, suggestive, subversive – and he has an acute sense of irony. His camp public persona in itself subverts what I believe may lie much deeper in him, which is more subtle and complex, the true person beneath the entertaining mirage.

 

I’ve long loved camp comedians. They follow on from a line of great gay writers: Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, to name just a few that come to mind. There are many examples among gay comedians, but my great favourite first of all was Frankie Howerd.

Frankie HowerdThere were others I loved too, Kenneth Williams foremost among them. I instinctively warmed to these entertainers and felt drawn to them. Perhaps it was because they represent, metaphorically, border country, phantoms behind the magic lantern, different dimensions, stories within a story. The man dressed as a woman, the woman dressed as a boy. And in Shakespeare’s time of course, the young boy dressed as a woman.

Whether or not any of them  hid their  true sexuality whilst in the public eye – as was the case with Frankie Howerd – that essential gay character suffused their performances and their personal style; I don’t believe it can fail to do so, in any creative area.

Not long ago, I saw Julian Clary in the role of Slave of the Ring in the pantomime Aladdin at the Birmingham Hippodrome. He shone out above all the other performers.

And my favourite character in the TV series Are You Being Served was played by John Inman.John Inman

When I first saw him in this sitcom, I was entranced. Here was an adult man, behaving in the most silly way imaginable, and being loved for it.

I loved him, everything about what he was doing and being and saying, and what he was projecting.  He told me something different about the adult world, and personhood, and what he turned upside down was the rigid compartmentalised view of the world that can so easily crush us in childhood and early teens.

What a Great Actress Has to Say to Creative Writers: Miriam Margolyes

Miriam Margolyes is an actress I have watched and been captivated by for decades. miriam-margolyesShe is of course the essential Dickensian character and she was perfect as a JK Rowling character too, and has been so in many other roles, both on TV and radio. I have often marvelled at her wonderful fluid and flexible voice on radio, and how incredibly versatile she is.

In her most recent appearance on our TV screens, investigating places round the world to retire to, the sheer roguish power of her personality is compelling. She slightly – and for some, greatly – outrages and offends us, yet I love her. She gives us permission to be who we are, whatever that may be, and she is a perfect example of being just exactly who she is, in total honesty and openness and freedom.

Despite the fact that she subverts the supposed ideal of feminine attractiveness in this very deluded society we live in, I think she is beautiful. She has eyes which shine with character and understanding and life. She is an intelligent and inspirational actress.

What does she have to say to us as creative writers? I read in an interview with Ernest Hemingway that as writers we have, above all, to be true to ourselves; and our most essential piece of equipment should be a “shock-proof shit-detector” (Hemingway’s words). A writing mentor once said to me, “If you’re going to be a writer you have to come clean with yourself.” For some that can be a lifetime’s journey. I do believe that as writers if we are deceiving ourselves in any way at all, it will work its way into our writing. And another quote is also compelling: “be sure that your audience will find you out.” Any writer can attest to that from reading their Amazon reviews.

But before you ever get to Amazon reviews you must deal with comments and feedback on your ms from beta readers and professional editors. Every  criticism on your writing must be taken as reflecting on the work itself, and not on you as a person – something else that is very difficult for notoriously thin-skinned, sensitive writers.

What do you think?  Do you relate to this at all? I’d welcome comments from fellow writers.

 

 

 

 

Boxing Day Entertainment by the Kenilworth Lions at Kenilworth Castle and Abbey Fields

The English love to do fun – and some might even think silly – things on Boxing Day.20161226_113145

Perhaps this is a relief from all the stress of preparing for Christmas. It’s also the opportunity for people to gather together in the fresh air and enjoy themselves with traditional English entertainments.

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Here are a few fun things that took place in one of my favourite places, Kenilworth, on Boxing Day – at Kenilworth Castle and Abbey Fields.

The events were organised by Kenilworth Lions who not only give people a lot of fun and enjoyment, but also provide tremendous support to local charities through their fundraising.20161226_111614

The entertainments included Morris dancers, Punch and Judy Show, and the best dressed dog contest at Kenilworth Castle…20161226_112701

 

 

……..and the annual duck race along the brook through Abbey Fields – an event which attracts a huge crowd.  We followed this with another very popular local activity – a walk through the fields behind Kenilworth Castle, through the area once covered by the Great Mere, filled with pleasure boats, out to the former site of Henry V’s “Pleasance in the Marsh” and back again to the Castle….

May I take this opportunity to wish you  a happy New Year and for all of us the chance to play our part in making the world a more compassionate, caring and loving place for us all, one in which people may come together in a spirit of mutual tolerance, acceptance and good will, so in many more countries people may enjoy being together as shown on the pictures in this blog post.

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Garden of Significant Inspiration and Curious A-MUSE-ments at Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon

O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

So wrote William Shakespeare in the Prologue to Henry V –  and a few days ago we were in the garden at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, site of Shakespeare’s former family home – infusing marbles with the power of that same muse.new-place-stratford-upon-avon

In case you’re thinking that sounds eccentric and zany, you’re right – and through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found both inspiration  and ideas that have changed the world.  Below is an approximation of what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No picture-of-an-approximation-of-shakespeares-new-place-his-own-family-homehouse currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens is where we embarked on a “Muse Catching” journey with the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (otherwise possibly understood as a group of artists / creators / thinkers / acrobats / inventors / actors whose goal is to awake the imagination, fill the mind and heart with fresh possibilities, and raise up the muse for members of the public who choose to visit).

Our purpose: to each take a marble and catch in it some of that muse Shakespeare wrote about, through the four elements of earth, fire, water and air.

The journey itself is full of fun, wonder, laughter inspiration and delight – and at the bottom of this wonderful, quirky, fanciful Art Happening, is a profound question and a fascinating subject for research: is there a correlation between place, time and lightbulb moments?

Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished by a character Shakespeare himself might have created. This “Art Happening” as I like to describe it, was based upon the idea that “the muse” is somehow present in the location where Shakespeare lived and wrote.  Many of us are familiar with the idea of certain places having a high level of inspiration. Often it seems to be present in the air, or lie hidden in the fabric of a special building, or within a natural phenomenon or feature of the landscape. But does it perhaps emanate from the ground? This is the idea played with and embodied by the UNBOSI at New Place this Christmas.  In the roundel at New Place, several information boards explored this, noting that many world-renowned geniuses had their lightbulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.

So let us be inspired by the fanciful, creative, quirky and even silly… for along that path may lie greatness.

 

 

 

New Puppeteers at the Children’s Christmas Party at St Mark’s Church Leamington Spa

On the third Sunday of Advent, I became, along with two others – Jamie and Sidney – a new puppeteer.puppet-show-3

That morning, after the Nativity Service led by St Mark’s Church Beaver colony, the children poured into the hall for their Christmas Party – and the centrepiece of the party was a puppet show.

To the sounds of Mary’s Boy Child by Boney M., a group of us, hastily recruited, became puppeteers. I operated a child angel plus the baby Jesus, Sidney took charge of the adult angel, Jamie manipulated, at different times, Mary, Joseph and  a sheep. Abigail and John held up the backdrop of the stable at the end. puppet-show-2 And Sidney and I held up No Vacancies signs at the appropriate time while Jamie and Sidney held up The Bible sign.

Long time ago in Bethlehem, so the Holy Bible said,
Mary’s boy child Jesus Christ, was born on Christmas Day.
Our trainer and director was master puppeteer Fiona Stutton from Thrive Youth Ministries who with great patience and good humour took two evenings to train us to become puppeteers. Fiona operated a singing puppet at the beginning, and followed this with a short session for the children about the true meaning of Christmas, using magic tricks with silk handkerchieves and a bag that mysteriously changed colour. Then it was time for our puppets to perform Mary’s Boy Child.puppet-show-1

We all had great fun and learned new skills, Fiona was pleased to have trained some new puppeteers, Ros who organised the party was delighted……..
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and, most importantly of all –  the children loved it!

Fun, Tranquility and Happiness on My Third Visit to Highgrove Garden

Last week I visited HRH the Prince of Wales’ garden at Highgrove for the third time.highgrove-garden-the-thyme-walk

Each time I’ve visited – the first time in pouring rain in August 2015, the second time near the end of the wildflower season in June 2016, and now in October 2016, we’ve been led by a different guide and each has chosen a different slant. On this occasion our guide (a gentleman in his eighties) told us that HRH the Prince of Wales takes his guides round the garden and tells them all the stories and points out the things he wants them to mention to the visitors. Inevitably, however, each individual will have his or her own angle onto the garden.

So this time I was able to notice not only those aspects of the garden this particular guide was focusing on, but those which carried stories told on my previous two visits. One of the tales told by today’s guide (tongue-in-cheek) portrayed the Prince as an unexpected visitor to Highgrove whose favourite occupation, having turned up without prior warning, is to hide behind the hedge and listen in on what visitors say about his garden.  In fact most of the time the visitors are silent with either admiration, delight, puzzlement, bemusement or even, dare I suggest, indignation, when they realise that they are not in the Land of the Immaculate, and that weeds are not treated like public enemy number one in this garden, highgrove-garden-moss-on-stonemoss is allowed to multiply to its fullest extent on stone, and different principles apply, other than those we might expect, perhaps from National Trust gardens, or those associated with Capability Brown.

This time I felt able to say which are most definitely my favourite aspects of the gardens at Highgrove. For those who have visited, this list will be meaningful, but for those who haven’t, then I suggest either reading this book on the subject, or just letting your imagination play with the images the list suggests:

I love the stumpery, and the little gnome that is to be found inside one of the stumps there;highgrove-garden-walk-through-the-stumpery the temple garden, with its two statues to ward off evil spirits, and the network of dry sticks and twigs in the temple pediments, that manage to look like intricate wood carvings;  highgrove-garden-pediments-of-the-temples-in-the-temple-gardenthe goddess of the wood; highgrove-garden-the-temple-garden-with-goddess-of-the-woodthe wall of gifts; the four daughters of Odessa; highgrove-garden-view-of-the-pond-and-gunnerathe pond with redundant stonework and limestone topped by gunnera, the topiary frog and snail.

To me, this is a garden that is playful, quirky, eccentric; a fantasy made real by someone who has the means, the time, patience and heart to achieve it. As I wander through the garden, I can’t help expecting trick fountains – such as those which King Ludwig of Bavaria incorporated into his own garden, in the gardens of his dreamlike palace.

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Book Review: “Being Miss” by Fran Hill – Brilliant Comic Account of One Day in the Life of a Schoolteacher

Being Miss” is a novella-length account written by Fran Hill. Since Fran is a member of my writers group and I’d seen several positive comments about “Being Miss” on Facebook and also read some of Fran’s very funny blog posts, I decided to download the Kindle version and move it to the top of my current reading list!

Being Miss by Fran Hill
Being Miss by Fran Hill

I found this account brilliantly and sometimes painfully funny. Fran addresses her subject with self-deprecating humour.  I feel this short book (112 pages) should be required reading for anyone on a B. Ed. course, so that they might have a true sense of the realities of life as a schoolteacher. Although I don’t believe, of course, that any teacher would genuinely encounter all these situations in one day, and it’s clear Fran has amalgamated probably several months’ worth of experiences in one intense, highly comical day, nevertheless this does give fascinating insights into the life of a schoolteacher. I have a sense that to succeed in this profession you have to be a master of mind-games and psychological tricks; for those unskilled in this, it must be unbelievably stressful!  I particularly loved Fran’s dialogues with her Scottish colleague in the staffroom, and some of the more picaresque tales in the book, including the moment when you as the reader think, “Oh no, she isn’t going to do what I think she’s going to do….” and then she does do it. Read the book to find out what that might be!

Her account of invigilation was particularly amusing; though I must admit, from my own personal experience as an occasional school invigilator, my favourite game has been to study in turn the faces, hairstyles, body-language, clothes and make-up of several students in the room, wondering about what their futures hold for them, and what mistakes they will make in their lives and whether any of them are destined to make the same mistakes that I’ve done. I have never deliberately set off down an aisle while another invigilator is heading up it in my direction, with the intention of sweeping a student’s exam paper and stationery off onto the floor. However, having read Fran’s anecdotes, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief that she has actually done the things she describes! (Or maybe there is some use of poetic licence here).

I’d love to see this kind of comic observation within the structure of a well-plotted full-length novel.  I hope Fran will give us this with her next book.  She may even be able to borrow from and subtly adjust some of those wonderful Gothic ideas presented by her brilliant pupils in their essays for her…

As this review might suggest, I thoroughly recommend Fran’s book to you!