On London Bridge

On London Bridge

Stretching from London Bridge down to Forest Hill, Crystal Palace and Lewisham, south east London is a sprawling section of the capital city, rich and full of life. Cultures and communities converge. Delicious food abounds. I love this part of London. It’s my home. When I see the news notifications popping up on my phone on Saturday night, I feel sick. London Bridge is being attacked. Innocent diners, partiers, tourists and theatregoers are fleeing from Borough market, terrified. A pub I had spent many nights in as an undergraduate is being evacuated. People are being ushered down towards Elephant and Castle. I am tucked up in bed, watching events unfold on my phone, powerless to protect those people. A cacophony of sirens whirrs outside our window.

The next day, I hear interviews with bystanders on the radio. People who haven’t slept, who are distraught and haven’t had time to process the tragedy, are being interviewed on national television. Recently, some of those affected by past terror attacks have spoken out about the traumatic impact that intrusive journalists can have. One woman revealed the relentless tactics employed to contact her – hacking social media accounts, calling her parents and turning up at her house. I want the camera crews to leave London in peace. Let these people comfort each other. Let them grieve. Leave them be.

These events are horrific but they are still uncommon. The people who want to commit harm are few, although many voices will try to make you believe otherwise. I feel guilty about being scared and sad on Sunday morning. I wasn’t there at the scene, I tell myself, I don’t have any friends who were injured. I have no right to be upset.

Londoners are tough. We are determined to have a normal Sunday. We go to the pub. We do the laundry. I read on social media that neighbours in my area offered their homes to those fleeing the attack the previous night. The New York Times reports that Britain is ‘reeling’ from the recent terror attacks and a backlash emerges on Twitter as people across the country share mundane details about their Sundays, from taking out the recycling to live-tweeting The Archers omnibus. We are carrying on as normal, they say.

I take the tube on Monday morning, hyperaware that the commuter hour on the Northern line doesn’t feel as busy as usual. I listen more acutely, noticing that no one is talking. No one ever talks on the tube, I remind myself. As I walk home from the station after work, I see a group of women dancing in Burgess Park. I’ve noticed them before with their boombox, dancing together unashamedly, their children hanging around waiting for them. They are brazenly facing the rain, arms raised as if in praise. I love them. I nearly stop to tell them so but I don’t want to interrupt. Instead I watch for a moment, my hair dripping. Then I continue home, rain running down my face.

On Audiences

On Audiences

When we enter a space that has been designated for traditional performance, a concert hall or theatre, a room with a stage, we enter into an unwritten contract that determines how we behave as an audience. There may be announcements asking us to switch off mobile phones – this is always communicated clearly in a cinema environment – but often there is not. We are expected to be attentive listeners, quiet observers, dark-room dwellers observing the action, but this is not always overtly communicated to us. It is an expectation acknowledged through the behaviour of the majority. It is demonstrated by the layout of space itself, by the dimming of the lights, by the quiet hush that quickly sweeps the room, but it is not always announced.

A site such as the Barbican is used for multi-disciplinary performances but no matter what you are watching, the understanding is that you will be a respectful observer. At a recent concert, this behavioural contract was flouted by the woman sitting directly in front of me. She had her mobile phone out repeatedly during the concert, casually scrolling through Facebook, even pausing to take a selfie as the lights dimmed for the start of the second half. This woman wasn’t talking, she was listening and applauding politely when everyone else did. I was enraged by the light from her phone and by her inability to switch off from her digital device for 5 minutes to enjoy the performance by the Academy of Ancient Music.

After the concert, I began to question my own irritation at the woman and her mobile phone. I recalled that there had been no announcement before the concert that devices should be switched off. I tried to think of a reasonable explanation as to why she might think this was acceptable. Perhaps she wasn’t aware of the expectation that one should have a phone switched off during a concert. Perhaps she hadn’t twigged that the gradiated auditorium seating layout meant that the people sitting behind could fully see the illuminated screen of her phone. I wanted to lean forward and tap her on the shoulder, silently gesturing her to put her phone away, but I didn’t. Inhibited by my own social anxiety, and the withering look of my boyfriend who would have been mortified if I had made a scene, I instead fumed internally, occasionally venting my frustration with a shake of the head.

The disruption reminded me of a performance I had been ushering several years ago while I was a student, at an off-west end theatre in east London. The play was a two-hander consisting almost entirely of monologues. Unbeknownst to me, an audience member in the middle of the balcony was using an iPad throughout the performance, their face illuminated by the blue light of the screen. Midway through the performance, the lead actor who was in the middle of a ten-minute monologue suddenly stopped speaking. Breaking character, he looked straight up at the balcony and angrily demanded, “Why are you using your iPad? You’ve had it out for the whole performance and it’s really distracting”. My stomach dropped. The worst had happened. I had failed to notice the distraction this audience member was causing and the actor had taken things in to his own hands, ruining the performance. I watched in disbelief as the audience member calmly replied, “I’m making notes”. The actor was furious. “Make notes in a notebook. You can’t have an iPad out during a play. I’m not continuing until you put it away”.

I was amazed that someone would have the gumption to use a device during a play to begin with, let alone to defend themselves to an actor onstage who had sabotaged his own performance to get your attention and ask you to stop. I imagine I would be incredibly embarrassed, mumble a quiet apology and put the iPad away in my bag. I would then have spent the next several weeks obsessing over the incident. However, this audience member was defiant and protective over their right to make notes, if they wished, using whatever means was easiest for them.

Looking back on it now, I’m not sure whose behaviour was worse, the audience member or the actor. The actor’s job was to perform his part with conviction. The iPad light may have been distracting, but most professionals would ignore it, continue with their performance and rant about it in the pub afterwards. After all, there were bright stage lights shining directly in his face, illuminating him; surely he could have ignored the smaller blue light from the balcony. Perhaps the theatre needed to be more explicit in their notice that not only mobile phones but all electronic devices must be switched off during the performance. I felt certain that if questioned after the show, this person would have defended themselves with “I wasn’t told I couldn’t have it out”.

The refusal to conform to the expected audience behaviours is a fascinating kind of rebellion. It is not criminal; it is irritating. It is not violent; it is disruptive. And it is only through these kind of incidents that I have really become aware of the rigid conventions that govern an audience’s behaviour. I have realised that my attitude to conventional performance is conservative; people should behave as expected, they should conform, they should not question or disrupt the order. One thing is certain, those who are delivering the performance must be immune to these kind of minor disruptions. Perhaps it should be down to other audience members to police them. In which case, I have always failed at my job.

On Lists

In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2009, novelist Umberto Eco referred to lists as ‘the origin of culture’. He argues, ‘What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible’. Eco points out that cultural history is comprised of lists – dictionaries, museum catalogues, encyclopedias. He adds that novels are full of lists. Culture is made up of lists and so too are our everyday lives. We write lists to make life comprehensible, to create order in a world full of chaos.

I am made and marred by lists. I write lists when I’m feeling optimistic. Lists seem tangible; a clear delineation of what needs achieving. The lists I write range from the simple – send an email – to the ambitious – clean the whole house, write an essay, do a job application. I write lists so that I don’t forget to do things but also so that I can have the satisfaction of ticking them off, however small. I love the feeling of reaching the end of the day, all my tasks completed and a deserved gin and tonic in hand. But this doesn’t always happen.

The mistake I make is overestimating what can be achieved in a day. At work, I write a list of everything that needs doing in a week and feel disappointed when there are still 10 items unfinished by the end of Monday. I put ‘clean the house’ at the top of the list forgetting that this will take half a day, leaving little time for me to finish the article I am writing. I fail to acknowledge that the completion of certain tasks invariably depends on others; waiting for sign-off on a piece of copy or an email response to a reference request.

I have discovered that my personal sense of success is in direct correlation with my list-dictated productivity. I become frustrated if things are perpetually unfinished. Regular chores are a constant battle – as soon as they are ticked off, there is more to do. I have spoken to others who experience similar anxious sensations about productivity and needing to have a measure for their personal success on a day-to-day basis.

My solution is this: make achievable lists. It sounds simple but I am still working it out. Think realistically about how much time something will take and ensure you have allowed space in your day for it to take that long. When it is clear that the day is full, draw a line. Anything else that needs doing can wait until tomorrow. Next, prioritise. An application deadline the next day is more urgent than cleaning the bathroom. Accept that you may not have time to clean the bathroom for a few days. Do not punish yourself for this. You could even, god forbid, ask someone else to clean the bathroom this week.

I recently saw an anti-capitalist lovenote emblazoned with the message: You are worth so much more than your productivity. Remember this slogan. Print it out and put it above your desk if you have to. Sure, make a list if it helps you but don’t let it dictate your day. Feel free to stray away from the list; adapt it as the day goes on, cross off things that aren’t important or scrap it entirely. After all, the best days are those when you have space to be impulsive.

On Walls

On Walls

It is 2017 and Donald Trump is planning to build a wall on the US/Mexican border. This was one of the key policies on which he was elected as President. It has become synonymous with his politics; a politics of division, of separation and of distrust. On Friday, thousands of protestors joined hands along the border to protest the plan, forming a human barrier of almost 1.5km.

Back in 1989, Germany rejoiced as the wall that had divided the country physically, socially, economically and politically for the last 40 years was torn down. Back when I was an A-Level student studying German politics, I was astounded as I learnt of the post-war history of this nation. I couldn’t believe there had been a physical wall dividing this country, separating families and friends. It sounded like the plot of a dystopian novel, not the recent history of a European nation. But then, it’s not all that surprising given that physical and imagined walls are what divide our world.

Borders, fences and walls are all symbolic of the dark side of human nature that strives to shut out the world and divide land, people and property. As Donald Trump shouts about the wall he will build to stop Mexicans from illegally entering the US, I think of the late director Derek Jarman writing of his garden in Dungeness: ‘There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon’. I wish the rest of our world was like Jarman’s borderless garden, which thrived despite it’s inhospitable location on the harsh Kent coastline.

On Films

On Films

I have recently discovered, rather late into my twenties, the truly cathartic power of the cinema. There is something about the anonymity of the darkened auditorium and the shared experience with strangers and friends which makes it a good place to face your demons. Last night I went to see German writer and director Maren Ade’s new film Toni Erdmann, which was highly recommended by a film-buff friend. It is undeniably brilliant; an excruciating black comedy (which German directors are so skilled at) about the difficulty of communicating with your family. I won’t go into the detail of the plot here; Peter Bradshaw has written a fantastic review in The Guardian which says everything you need to know.

This film had an emotional impact because it deals with situations which feel uncomfortably close to my own life. But this certainly isn’t unique to me. Who hasn’t had to face up to a difficult relationship with a parent, an uncomfortable sexual encounter or the death of a pet? These are ordinary life experiences played out on a big screen but dealt with intimately, in what Bradshaw aptly calls ‘excruciatingly understated tragedy’. Yes, Toni Erdmann made me cry in a primal Where the Wild Things Are way but it also made me laugh loudly and it turned out this was just what I needed.

This is the fourth film I have watched in recent weeks. Manchester by the Sea was impressive and mesmerising in its slow-burning, gut-wrenching unravelling of past tragedy but lacked the nuance, subtlety and skill of Toni Erdmann. La La Land was mildly entertaining but too predictable and sickly sweet for me. However, there is another film that I thought matched Toni Erdmann for its charm and poetic beauty. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a beautiful film which draws its inspiration from the American poet William Carlos Williams and the imagist movement.

In this film, like in Williams’s poetry, patterns occur as images are repeated. A waterfall. A pair of twins.

The central character is named Paterson and lives in a town called Paterson; the town which Williams was from and which he used as the name for a collection of poetry. Paterson is a bus driver who spends his lunch break writing poetry in a notebook. He observes the daily rhythm of the city, he hears snippets of conversations, he returns home to his eccentric wife and her dreams. The film is punctuated by Paterson reading aloud poems that he has written.

According to Ezra Pound, the key features of imagist poetry are:
I. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.

II. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

III. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

It is refreshing to watch a film that responds to poetic ideas in such a determined way, combining and contrasting art forms. If you haven’t been to the cinema recently and are feeling disenchanted with the world, I would urge you to go. Ignore the news and switch off your phone. For a few hours, sit in the dark, be absorbed and transported, laugh, cry and remember that humans are still capable of making something beautiful.

Revolutionary Roads

Revolutionary Roads

This essay was originally published by Dear Damsels as part of the February 2017 ‘Trust’ theme.

The novelist Richard Yates has a remarkable ability to write the most unlikeable, recognisable characters, that are disturbing in their familiarity. They are the kind of people you have met at school, at work, on holiday. The kind of people that you hope you do not resemble, but fear that you do.

Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road have the same delusions as many ordinary people; an inflated sense of self-worth and intelligence, a preoccupation with how things ‘could’ have been if they had only pursued their dreams, lived dangerously, and become the people they were supposed to be instead of stagnating in a suburban life in middle America. As a woman in my mid-twenties, worrying about the present and the future, preoccupied with whether I have chosen the right career, whether I am ‘fulfilled’ by my daily life, I, too, have worried about these things; felt anxious about the fact that I’m not challenged or stimulated, missed the freedoms and rigorous thought of academic life.

Revolutionary Road opens with a much lauded chapter describing the opening night of an amateur theatre production by the Laurel Players in which April Wheeler has the starring role. In the space of a couple of pages, what seems to be a worthwhile production showing artistic promise descends into a shambolic mess, as the leading lady crumbles along with the rest of the cast. After the dress rehearsal, the director descends into a cliched speech: ‘Maybe this sounds corny, but something happened up here tonight. Sitting out there tonight I suddenly knew, deep down, that you were all putting your hearts into your work for the first time.’ But these hackneyed words are not enough to make a success of their performance.

After graduating from university, my boyfriend and I made the decision to move to Cornwall. We had spent over 3 years living in London and thought we were ready for a change. I had written my dissertation on the life-writing of the famously reclusive writer Daphne du Maurier, who had squirrelled herself away in her parent’s house in Fowey when she was in her twenties and had spent the rest of her life in the area, begrudgingly returning to London on rare occasions. Our plan was to move down to Truro (a far less romantic part of Cornwall than du Maurier’s Fowey) and establish a theatre company. We had spent a summer performing in St Ives the previous year and had been seduced by the experience.

We bought a car from an old schoolfriend of mine who was moving to Australia. The car was a Renault Megane convertible, a sensible sports car, which seemed to fit with our vision of escaping and prompted a friend to joke that we were having a ‘quarter-life crisis’. We drove to Truro that September and spent a night in an unusual B&B which had a claw footed tub in its communal bathroom. I had scheduled some house viewings and interviews for front of house jobs at the local theatre. I was serious about moving; my partner wasn’t convinced.

Rather like the Laurel Players’ opening night, this trip was a disappointment. Truro wasn’t the inspiring setting we had hoped for. As we looked around rental properties in the local area, we began to realise just how isolated we would be down here in a far-flung corner of south west England, hundreds of miles away from friends and family, working in minimum wage jobs and struggling to pay rent. Instinct told us that the opportunity to acquire gainful employment in artistic roles was minimal, so we retreated to London with our tails between our legs. Perhaps I should have trusted my initial impulse to move and take a risk.

Is the idea that you can move somewhere and start an artistic group somehow dated and nostalgic? I thought about how the theatre company Forced Entertainment had moved to Sheffield (my hometown) and established themselves after graduating from Exeter University in 1984. They are now one of the world’s most famous experimental theatre groups. Thirty years later, the same didn’t seem possible. We were too preoccupied with looming student debts and the rising cost of living to be able to throw ourselves into the unpredictable life of an artist. Although I auditioned for drama schools during my final year of university, I knew that I wouldn’t actually be able to afford to go.

In January 2014, the Guardian reported on ‘The great migration south’ where ‘one in three 22- to 30-year-olds leave their hometowns’ to move to London. By November of the same year, the headline was ‘Young Londoners flee capital for the regions’ as ‘house prices drive thirty-somethings out to smaller cities’. So, young people in their twenties are moving to London to get jobs and start their career, then moving away when they want to settle down and start a family. This isn’t surprising, in fact it has been the case for many years. My parents moved to Sheffield from London because they couldn’t afford to buy a house in the early 1980s, and not much has changed.

Two years after we flirted with moving to Cornwall, my partner and I are still living and working in London. We still have the car; the last remaining relic of our dream to escape. We haven’t experienced the traumatic suburban doom which Richard Yates reaps upon his unfortunate protagonists in Revolutionary Road, who never fulfill their plan of emigrating to Paris and whose dreams end in tragedy. I still talk of escaping London but have come to terms with when this will be; when I’m one of those thirty-somethings, like my mum and dad were, like everyone else is.