Playing Bottom: an alternative Easter message.

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Image: A Midsummer Night's Dream

The play by William Shakespeare

So, it’s nearly Easter. Listening to breakfast radio the other day I heard of a feud between rival amateur dramatics societies somewhere in England. (Bear with me: this is relevant). One group planted saboteurs in its rival’s audience to disrupt their production by heckling.

No, don’t laugh! I expect this was deadly serious for the folks involved. But forgive my cynicism if I wonder out loud whether the whole thing was a setup to gain publicity for an upcoming performance of Jack and the Beanstalk. I expect it would be sold out after its mention on a high profile national news program, and I for one wish them well with it. I’d tell you where it is (or was) if I had caught the venue, but I was too busy spluttering into my cornflakes. Anyway, the incident spurred me to write this essay and as it has an Easter connection this seems an apt time to post it.

I will come clean at once and admit that apart from playing 13th sheep, duly mystified by the unnatural happenings in a primary school nativity play, I have only once been on stage with a speaking part. In my first year at secondary school I played 1st Roman Centurion in the Easter play. I forget the production. For some reason I have it lodged in my mind that it was some variation of Shakespeare.

Being no actor (as Mr Jones, our English master and director, made a point of telling me) the part allotted me was mercifully brief and utterly disastrous. Mr Jones directed me to listen for my cue, stride purposefully on stage and arrest the accused party. Don’t ask me what he was accused of: I doubt I ever knew and have long forgotten anyway. As it was an Easter production possibly the miscreant was Jesus, though I don’t recall actually nailing the poor blighter to a cross.

“Centurion, arrest that man…”

Grousing at being coerced into what I didn’t want to do in the first place I grudgingly donned my centurion’s getup and waited sullenly in the wings for the rest of the class to play their pieces. Uninvolved in the principle action, I got talking to a friend, another centurion who was supposed to accompany me on stage to effect the arrest. Unforgivably bored by the playwright’s genius and finding greater interest in some puerile joke of our own, as boys will… yes you guessed it: we missed our cue.

“Centurion, arrest that man,” said the principal actor. Thinking about it now, I suspect the play was some biblical plot entirely concocted by Mr Jones himself. Whatever, nothing happened. The stage froze as though someone had shouted “CUT…”. The audience grew restless. We centurions didn’t even notice. I think maybe we were amusing ourselves rehearsing a more interesting fight scene with our wooden short-swords.

“CENTURION, ARREST THAT MAN,” bellowed the principal again, glowing red with embarrassment before his audience of a hundred or so parents whose onerous duty it was to attend.

Thus prodded, we centurions rushed on stage, took Jesus in a severe headlock and unceremoniously hauled him off into the wings protesting all the way at the excessive realism of our performance. “But we’re acting,” we responded, astonished that Jesus had the temerity to complain. “You’re supposed to make it look good.”

“Not that good!” Jesus whined, massaging his stretched neck. I don’t suppose it occurred to him he was lucky this was England in the 1960’s, not Palestine in the year zero. I daresay but for Mr Jones’s intervention we bloodthirsty centurions would have gleefully sharpened the six inch nails and carried the thing through to its logical conclusion.

All this was clearly audible to the audience, who sat stony faced and silent (miserable lot!). I forget whether Jesus ever forgave we centurions. I suspect we all fell out permanently, but out of common courtesy I offer Jesus my apologies now for any permanent injury to his neck.

Curtain down, play over, our excuses cut no ice with Jesus or with Mr Jones. Having ruined the reputation of the whole class, we centurions remained in deep disgrace for the rest of that term, and in my case at least never recovered from the excruciating shame of it all.

So it was that when, a year or two later, Mr Jones pressed hard for me to play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I refused outright, and being both disastrously shy and determinedly belligerent in those horrible teenage years I stoutly maintained my refusal even in the face of thundering authority. I was no actor; I knew it, and Mr Jones knew it, and I was more than glad to tell anyone so who would listen. I remain to this day rather proud of that particular teenage rebellion.

Bottom’s revenge:

Thankfully, I was relegated to backstage duties and after a period of disgruntled, monosyllabic teenage skiving found myself out of the loop altogether, merely part of the audience watching rehearsals with no part in the production at all, which suited me just fine. But I was later to regret my stubborn strop.

The boy appointed Bottom in my place (I forget his name; I’ll call him Johnny) was no better actor than me. At some point he was directed to lift a pint of ale and glug it down enthusiastically. Johnny did his best, but I guess a whole pint was too much for him. It took a while. The rest of the cast stood about woodenly on stage waiting for Johnny to swallow his pint of cold milkless tea and play his next line.

“No, no, that’s no good,” boomed Mr Jones from the hall in front of the rehearsal stage. “Leave the glass empty for now, Johnny. Just make some swallowing sounds as you pretend to drink. Positions, everybody: we’ll do it again.”

This time, coming to the point of the scene, Johnny lifted his empty glass, tipped it to his lips and said loudly, “Glug glug, glug glug, glug!”

The whole class in the rehearsal hall erupted in laughter. Johnny was a hero and Mr Jones, to his credit, agreed to keep the glugs in. It went down a storm with the audience on play night as I recall. But I was kicking myself. I could have done that, I thought, and been the hero of the class. But of course, now we’ll never know. Maybe my teenage Bottom would have been as disastrous as my earlier Roman Centurion.

Bottom gets a walk-on part:

So, I’m no actor, but I do count myself a novelist and fictional characters need background and personal interests if they are to appear real to readers. That breakfast radio item caught my ear because I wrote a fictional AmDram society into one of my novels when (at least in later editions) I gave one character, an unhappily divorced woman more than a bit prone to jealousy, an interest in amateur dramatics. This tied in with another character who needed a stage crew to help him set up an unconventional wedding for the love of his life, and as a by-product, in fond memory of Mr Jones’s long-ago production, Shakespeare’s Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream got a walk-on part.

I did worry that someone might be offended by my humorous take on AmDram, but that Jack and the Beanstalk story might have been made for the purpose. I’ll keep it in reserve for a light hearted moment in My Next Novel. Just think yourselves lucky you will never be exposed to my dreadful Bottom!

Ever thought of writing your own novel? I’ll be glad to answer queries in the comments below.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I read a good book the other day #10

Image: Gone Girl book jacket.Portrait of a wronged wife who gets her revenge by shredding her husband’s life instead of his ties.

No wonder this has been such a hit. Deservedly so. The story is set in America, with totally American characters, attitudes and language (non of which is a criticism; just so you know what to expect), but there is a lot that is universal in this portrait of a disintegrating marriage and disintegrating lives. If you don’t see yourself reflected somewhere in the first half of Gone Girl, and admonish yourself for the same stupid errors in life that you’re reading about, then you’re either very lucky or you’re telling yourself lies.

But that’s just the first half.

Suppose your spouse went missing. Who would be chief suspect? It’s got to be the partner, right? And it turns out he’s a rotten cheating louse. He appeals on TV for help to find his missing wife. At first the nation’s heart goes out to a bereft husband. Then the details of his illicit affair come out, and public opinion turns against him. In the blink of an eye he’s a murdering, philandering, dirty rotten cheating basket. It’s gotta be him, right? Unless…

I won’t spoil it with details. Suffice to say this is the story of the wronged wife who gets her revenge by shredding her husband’s life, instead of his ties. But Flynn works in twists and turns right up to the last page. The whole story is presented in his and hers chapters, so we get two points of view about everything that happens. The writing style is modern, lively and fresh. You won’t be bored; just don’t expect to feel too much sympathy for either the cheating husband or the wronged wife.

A few cautions:

1) Seriously profane language (again not a criticism…).  Characters spatter their speech when under stress with words beginning with F and C that are never uttered in my house or anywhere by me, but which I hear routinely on the street, in film, on the TV and at work. They are part of modern life now, and they are used appropriately in Gone Girl, adding to the realism, by characters who very likely would use such words in real life. Just be prepared.

2) It’s quite long. The author has clearly done detailed research and has every aspect of the police investigation, for example, nailed down. The story could have been told more briefly (as could any story; again not a criticism) but then something would have been left out and some self-appointed expert would have delighted in pointing out the omission. The detail is what makes this story authentic.

A good read. Definitely give it a try (subject to the cautions mentioned above).

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

I read a good book the other day #9

Image: The Cuckoo's Calling book jacket.J.K. took a beating… but not from me!

Detective mystery with a difference. JK took a beating from some critics when she switched from Harry Potter to adult mystery. Well, not from me. I thoroughly enjoyed this crime/mystery/ ever so nearly a romance. Took me a few chapters to understand the characters but then couldn’t put it down.

Galbraith’s detective, Cormoran Strike, is a new type in the genre. Neither cosy nor hard boiled, he is a hard man, army trained, but hampered by a peg leg (UK expression, mostly obsolete. He has a prosthesis), but as a PI working in the UK he cannot carry a gun. Strike is estranged from his long-time fashion model/society girlfriend, and he has an assistant, Robin, which allows Galbraith to inject a thread of romantic suspense. All the way through I was thinking, Will Strike and Robin get together? They don’t, in this book, but there are hints. It’s my guess Galbraith/Rowling will keep us on the hook with this strand through at least the next and maybe several more instalments in the series.

The strange name, Cormoran, is BTW the name of a mythical Cornish giant, as Galbraith reveals in the next book, The Silkworm. The aptness of the mysterious title, The Cuckoo’s Calling, does come out in the book, but I’ll leave you to discover the explanation for yourself. 5/5 stars from me. Good stuff.

 

The Magic of the Swatchways & Round the Cabin Table, both by Maurice Griffiths

I read a good book the other day #8

My 20 year old paperback editions are from Conway Maritime Press. Search Amazon for current editions.

My 20 year old paperback editions are from Conway Maritime Press. Search Amazon for current editions.

And now for something completely different, as they used to say on Monty Python. Most of my recommendations so far have been fiction. These two are what I call fictionalised non fiction. Maurice Griffiths was in his day (the 1930s to -60s) editor of the Yachting Monthly magazine in the UK. His books recount tales of cruising under sail, mainly around the south east coast of England. They evoke all the magic of a time when the seas were less crowded and a yacht could find anchorage in sheltered places where now a predatory marina occupies the best spot and works in cahoots with rascals who dress in uniform and style themselves Harbourmaster. These thieves work in packs and lie in wait with cosh and cuffs to pounce on the visiting yachtsman and empty his wallet. In some places, lying to ones own anchor is these days not only considered eccentric but actively discouraged by officious harbourmasters demanding money with legal menaces. Why, I was once hoist to the yardarm by the ankles by one of these pirates intent on shaking the loose change from my pockets. And I only made up one element of that last sentence! I would gleefully name the rascally basket here if the laws of libel were not so unfairly biased in his favour.

Do I sound peeved? Yes, you bet. I read and re-read Maurice Griffiths to sooth the hackles, comfortably settled in my armchair beside a roaring log fire during the loooong winter evenings with pipe and slippers and cat purring on my lap. Okay so I made up that last bit too, but you get the idea. If only ’twere true…

These are not stories of heroic adventures on the ocean waves. They are more domestic than that, on a scale that will chime with weekend sailors who escape their rotten, boring office jobs for a few days at a time during the sailing season, and submit to the dismal slavery of earning wages the week after. Five stars for quality of writing and stories that evoke better times. I suppose only the over sixties will really appreciate this sort of writing, more’s the pity.

Dammit, my pipe’s gone out! (reaches grumpily for ounce of rough shag and box of Swan Vestas).

 

The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson

I read a good book the other day #7

Image: The Detective's Daughter book jacket

Click the image to go to Amazon UK

A Marmite read (UK expression). Loved or loathed by reviewers (try a few at Amazon). Not exactly a detective mystery, though there is a mystery solved. Very complicated plot. Took me several chapters to get the hang of Thompson’s peculiar characters and the minute detail of their puzzling lives. Take, for instance, the weird London underground train driver who secretly lives in other people’s houses (while they are present, mark you, without their noticing). In the course of developing this character Thompson goes into considerable detail about the workings of the London underground system. I’m guessing this is intentional, to cloud the issues and obscure the truth until the end as well as to convey the strangeness of this character, which it does pretty satisfactorily. You might have to persevere, but it does all come together in the end. I was puzzled at first, then drawn into the plot, and finally I did enjoy it, which is a pretty good result overall and more or less what every author tries to achieve with what I’ll characterise as literary mystery. So, four stars. Give it a shot. Challenging, but you don’t always want easy reading, after all.

 

Do you want to be immortal?

Within our grasp…

Image: HeadstoneWouldn’t the earth become terribly crowded if nobody ever died? Where would we find space for new people to be born? Babies would have to be banned at some point, wouldn’t they? But here’s a thought:

I heard on the radio this morning (BBC Radio 4, Today, 19/2/15) an interview with Professor Michio Kaku in which he said that experiments on mice had shown that their memories could be recorded by means of an MRI scan, and when later replayed into the mouse’s brain the mouse immediately “remembered” its previous behaviour. Okay, that’s an over simplification. The MRI scan records blood flow in the brain, which Kaku said is thought to represent memories in action. But consider what this might mean:

We already have the concept of preservation of DNA in the sense that we can clone living creatures, including ourselves. Dolly the sheep. Dinosaurs resurrected from fossilised toenail clippings or whatever to eventually break out from their pens and wreak havoc on humanity. Never mind the cynicism. You get the idea.

Kaku suggested that if a person’s memory could be scanned and recorded by MRI or some similar future technology, then we have also the concept that a clone of ourselves could be programmed with all of our own memories, knowledge, emotions, reactions to everything and all circumstances. Would this not then be to resurrect ourselves after death? Shades of the horrors of immortality mentioned above?

Except, how many times have you wished you could live your life over again? I guess not everyone would want to do that, given the horrific experience of life some people suffer. You get born, life’s a bitch and then you die. But I for one certainly would, if it was possible, even if it meant starting out as a new born baby and making all the same stupid mistakes that I have. For me, and I hope for many, the good times have been worth suffering those periods of doom and gloom, the regrets for opportunities missed and things said and unsaid that were hurtful to loved ones and can never be taken back after their death, and so on.

If I have seen further…

But how much better would it be to live your life again starting as a new-born baby, but knowing all that you know now, possessing from the get-go all the wisdom that you have accumulated through your present life of strife and struggle? Think about that. Newton (was it?) said, If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. How much more wisdom might be accumulated in the world, and how much more rapid the progress of mankind and civilisation if we could start our lives already possessing that wonderful store of hindsight that took us a previous lifetime to acquire.

Yes, like many developments of technology it opens the way to a bunch of horrors. The time delay would be a handicap if we tried to clone a lost loved one. We would grow old while the clone is growing up. But how about, when a loved one dies and we are sunk in grief, we abduct someone else’s body and reprogram their brain. Some useless, worthless person, say. Any volunteers? Yes, we’ve lost the original body, but way-hay! we have a substitute for that, and with reprogramming have we not in essence re-created the person? By careful choice of target we might even improve on the original. Perhaps you fancy a slimmer/blonde/blue-eyed/taller/shorter/chubbier/more curvy/more muscular spouse than the one you just lost. Oh dear! Meat there for dystopian future fiction, I think. Any takers? Hugh Howey?

Anything that possibly can happen…

Hmmm. Needs a bit more thinking about, I guess. But I’m a believer that anything that possibly can happen, will happen eventually, regardless of laws against it or human disapproval. So bring it on, Professor Kaku. You want a guinea pig? Look no further; I’m your man. Given another lifetime or two maybe even I could achieve something approaching wisdom.

Image: Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Millions long for immortality image by Duncan C. (Creative Commons)

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I read a good book the other day #6

NB: Watch out for the TV adaptation starting Sunday 15th February 2015 in the UK.
Image: book jacket

Click the image to go to Amazon UK

A tale of corruption in local government with all the shenanigans we see or suspect of our local councillors every day (well, I do, anyway). One side of the argument in the Parish council want to close a drug rehab building that they feel attracts undesirables to the town. The other side, the local doctor and other worthies, side with the undesirables.

Everyone has something to hide. Nobody is innocent. Very few deserve better than they get, but J.K’s portrayal of one character in particular, a damaged teenage girl coping valiantly with life in a sink estate battered from all sides by drug pushers and the sort of mother nobody should be afflicted with (and yet, you can see it’s not all her fault either…), is sympathetic, tragic and very true-to-life.

Read The Casual Vacancy for a better and more profound understanding of what some folks have to put up with in the real world. Well observed, J.K., with some very cutting and insightful lines that certainly made me sit up and think twice. 5/5 stars. I thought it was brill. I hope the UK TV adaptation does it justice.

 

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Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

I read a good book the other day #5

Image: book jacket

Click the image to go to Amazon UK

Stop sniggering, you there at the back! I read Fifty Shades wanting to know what all the fuss was about. I was far too shy to go into a shop and actually buy a copy (I’ve led a very sheltered life, y’know), but my big sister lent me hers. I said it was for “research”. It is popular to scoff at Fifty Shades. I’m not going to do that. Leaving aside all the kinky S & M stuff, which doubtless would have held me enthralled when I was fifteen, but which now that I’ve grown up a bit I began to skip after the first two or three bouts, I thought E.L. James did a pretty good job of capturing the “voice” of the heroine, a young woman fresh out of college in the USA beginning to make her way in the world. Of course, I’m not American and neither is E.L. James, so that aspect may not come across so convincingly to a native citizen. The heroine’s encounters with the sort of super-wealthy but weirdly screwed up person I truly hope never to meet may seem unlikely to those of us who live more down-to-earth lives, but E.L James managed to portray the underlying love story convincingly. As to the erotica, I get the impression EL read some contemporary porn (are we supposed to call it erotica these days?) and reckoned she could do better. YMMV but in my opinion she succeeded… um… not, that is, that I’ve read tons of porn to compare, you understand. EL thus invented the new genre of mummy porn, and if I had her brass neck I’d give it a go myself. I’ve only read the first in series.

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Red Bones by Ann Cleeves

I read a good book the other day #4

Book jacket. Click to go to Amazon.co.uk

Click the image to go to Amazon UK


Detective mystery set in the Shetland Isles. Deep family secrets are exposed by the uncovering of a murder during an archaeological dig. I saw the UK TV adaptation and bought the book to compare. Ann Cleeves also writes the Vera Stanhope detective mysteries set in the north east of England. Just the sort of stuff I like: interesting out of the usual settings and down to earth characters and plot. Five stars. Loved it.

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The Wool Trilogy by Hugh Howey

I read a good book the other day #3

Book jacket: The Wool Trilogy

Click the image to go to Amazon.co.uk

Three books in one: WOOL, SHIFT and DUST. Be warned, it’s very, very long… but I still had to read to the end to find out what happened. Isaac Asimov wrote The Gods Themselves, which might have been an apt title for The Wool Trilogy in an ironic sort of way. Deservedly famous. Dystopian future in which all life is deliberately destroyed save a select few hundred thousand who live underground in protective silos. Well thought out logic, except for one or two tiny niggles: an underwater scene for example where, as a sport diver myself I quibbled with the practicalities, but Hugh resolved the issue with an explanation near the end that I had stupidly not seen coming. All Hugh’s characters behave believably. Free of superheroes, zombies and fantasy beyond the fantastical, but frighteningly possible premise on which the whole story rests. I don’t usually buy this genre but enjoyed Hugh’s contribution all the same. Four good stars. Give it a go.

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