Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Filey by Campervan

I've been trying to get over to the North Yorkshire Coast for ages, but hadn't managed to in the many years I've lived here. It's just a hair too far away for a day trip with small children. But with a VW Campervan at my disposal thanks to the lovely people at Jolly Campervans in Huddersfield (who even dropped it off and picked it up at our house), it was at last within my reach. And so it was that me and my partner packed the two kids - and the unbelievable volume of brightly coloured kid-and-baby gear even a weekend trip requires - into the van and headed East for a long weekend. Were we crazy to be taking a 3 year old and a 10-month old camping? Hmmm.

While Mancunians traditionally go to the seaside towns of Lancashire and North Wales for their summer holidays, my resident Yorkshireman informs me that the North Yorks coast becomes like Leeds-on-Sea in summertime. For the simple reason that it was almost exactly due East of where we live, we opted for Filey, a small town near Scarborough and this was luckily a fantastic choice. We stopped off at Castle Howard for lunch (lush farm shop, very cool adventure playground) and rolled into the campsite by late afternoon. Filey Brigg Caravan Park is run by the council, tidy and spacious with sea views, and a five-minute walk from the unspoiled beach and the tidepools and rock formations of the Brigg. The small seafront is council-owned too, and maybe that's why it had quite an old fashioned feel to it. That and the fishing boats.Everything was scrupulously clean and family-oriented with a small funfair and a few stalls selling rock and fresh seafood. I even ate cockles, which is apparently an important part of the traditional seaside holiday here in the UK. The last time I encountered cockles it was in the small hours at the sadly defunct Malt and Hops in Chorley, when I was utterly amazed to learn that anyone would try to sell drunk people cold sea creatures in styrofoam pots. But you know, they were great.

We also ate some excellent fish and chips at The Brown Room in Filey town, which still uses dripping to cook their chips in like many of the chippies along this coast. It really does make a difference - they were much crispier than normal. The chips were noticeably better. But my attempts to order a fish muffin met with utter failure.

The van itself was beautiful. It had a name: The Baron, because Jolly Campervans names all their vans after characters on Danger Mouse. The Baron was fresh off the boat from Brazil, where they still make these beauties, but had been converted to left-hand drive and thoughtfully packed full of modern conveniences like digital radio, proper coffee and Fox's Biscuits. Traveling by VW bus is a wonderful way to see the world. You can't go to fast, so secondary roads are the way to go, and you really get a chance to look around and get a sense of the place you're driving through. And it's strangely liberating to be traveling in the place you're going to be sleeping in.

I'd never stayed in a campervan before, I thought it would be cramped, but once we figured out how to set up the massive canopy tent (essentially a large canvas room that fits on to the side) we had plenty of space. I was charmed by the cunning way everything fits together so neatly - the tiny but incredibly handy kitchen, the ingenious compartments, the pop-up cathedral ceiling. Not so charming: spending several hours lying in a bed located directly under a screaming, teething baby. But that can hardly be considered a design fault. Eventually, the little dear calmed down and nodded off, and the second night went much more smoothly. My eldest daughter is already clamoring for another trip in The Baron. Next time maybe Whitby and Robin Hood's Bay? I'm definitely up for it - once teething is safely behind us.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

#MIF11: Doctor Dee

Doctor Dee was a grand, blazing spectacle. On that level it was extraordinarily successful; it was good fun to watch. The staging, sets and costumes were ingenious and beautiful. From the opening moments, when Scooby the raven flew from the back of the hall for his star turn, you felt that this was going to be something really different. And it was. The way that projections were used, the cunning tricks with books, paper and balloons, the choreography and the curving beaked raven masks... it was mesmerising, in the way that watching a series of beautiful, evocative tableaux can be hypnotic.

But once you'd had your fill of spectacle, there wasn't much else on offer. For me, Doctor Dee failed on the most basic level: as a story. It lacked heart. It lacked developed characters and anything resembling a proper narrative. (Albarn has apparently said it's closer to masque than an opera, which may be an effort to excuse the lack of narrative structure, but the masque isn't a form that we know much about these days so that doesn't really mean anything to me.)

I was beyond excited to see this. It's hard to imagine a more interesting subject for an opera than Dee, who I'd read lots of mysterious things about over the years. The man was supposedly the model for both Faust and Prospero, and seems to be the closest thing to an actual magician we've ever had.

Yet with all that Dee supposedly did and was, the best they could come up with was a vague interaction with the court of Elizabeth, some noodling about with scrying bowls and blindfolds, with it all culminating in the wife swapping incident that we're supposed to believe was his downfall? Sorry, but I need more than that to work with. It felt half-baked; rushed and under-researched, and as if it was missing an experienced writer's guiding hand. I can't help but wonder how different it might have been if Alan Moore hadn't left the project early on. If reports that Moore was the one who had the idea to do an opera about Dee are true (and it certainly sounds like the kind of subject he'd pick) then his participation would have been fairly essential to the whole thing coming off well.

One of the most crushing errors of judgment here has to do with the way Dee himself is presented. He never sings, which makes him a curiously inert presence on stage. Albarn sings Dee's part (sort of) and also that of a narrator at the same time, perched above the actors like a leather-jacketed angel. The effect gives us the impression that Dee is not someone who does things, as such a powerful and illustrious man must have been, but is someone that things happen to. He's one of the weakest characters in a pretty nebulous and weak bunch; only Walsingham (in tremendously cool stilts) and unearthly-voiced medium Edward Kelley make any impression at all. But all are secondary to Albarn, who opens and closes things and is at the forefront even when he's not in the spotlight, somehow.

I have a lot of time for Damon Albarn. I like his music and he always seems like a good guy in interviews. I'm not even going to take issue with his "Englishness" obsession, which I don't really get. But I mostly wished he would have butted out a bit more here. I suppose that wouldn't necessarily appeal to the same audience, would it? His fans want to see him. But the ENO is hardly a backing band. They did astonishingly well with what they were given. The music for Doctor Dee reminded me a lot of what I'd heard of The Good, The Bad and The Queen; mournful and plonky but charming in a vague sort of way. It had a few soaring moments, but the music didn't feel very connected to what was happening on stage. The lyrics Albarn sang seemed foggy and remote from the story they were meant to be amplifying. Rather than clarifying or commenting on the action, they somehow abstracted things further.

So, I didn't like it. It must be pointed out that I seemed to be in the minority. Most of the audience was on their feet cheering themselves hoarse at the end. Go figure. For me it was a triumph of style for sure, but not so much on the substance. And you need both.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

#MIF11: Bjork's Biophilia

So this turned out to be one of those general admission, crick in the neck gigs where you really need to get their early. Trouble was, I didn't, and as a result I stood in the back of a crowd of tall men catching glimpses of Bjork between heads. My own fault. It was a proscenium gig in a big old warehouse, so I don't know what I was expecting. Never mind. It is a mark of how good this performance was that I didn't really even care that I couldn't see much of Bjork. This is because the projections were a whole show in themselves, and because there was so much happening with the music that not being able to see was kind of sensory blessing ( a theory I'm looking to test further at Amadou et Mariam next week). I didn't get to see any of those instruments she famously made herself for these gigs. But I did get to see her costume, a ruffley blue number topped by a big red afro wig with what appeared to be a chinstrap. Must have been devilishly hot.

On first listen the new music was wonderful, with a crystalline, fractured beauty to it. I think her new songs were about things like DNA, cosmology, the origin of life, and viruses, but I'm not quite sure; parsing her lyrics live is a challenge. Nobody sounds like Bjork, her voice can transform itself from a small, feline, warm creature to an avenging banshee howl in a few heartbeats.

The Icelandic women's choir, Graduale Nobili, provided an incredible texture to proceedings, like the layers of sound created through overdubbing in production but done live. I've never heard an Icelandic choir before so I don't have much to compare it to, but their sound had a stark, Eastern European dissonance to it. The choreography added a nice element to the show. Sometimes they jammed on their own, swinging loopily in their glittery choir robes, other times they loomed over Bjork like angry maenads. After seeing them perform after the show in Albert Square, I'd definitely be up for seeing the choir on their own (they're playing at St. Phillip's on July 14.)

The performance must have taken a lot out of Bjork. It was clear she threw every ounce of herself into it. And it's an intense experience for the audience too, taking all that in. So it was a great decision to end it with a raved-up version of Declare Independence, in which audience and performers joined in for a joyous jam, a needed release of energy after all that intensity. We all left smiling.

Image from Bjork Spain

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

#MIF11: Sinead O'Connor

As we filed out of the venue in Albert Square, I was walking closely behind a white-haired rather posh sounding gentleman. "The music was smashing," he remarked to his companion. "But of course, she's a complete crackpot."

This nicely sums up what most people think of Sinead O' Connor. (If they think of her at all, and judging by the blank expressions on the twentysomethings round my pavilion table when I announced I was off to see Sinead, they increasingly don't.) Nice songs, but completely Dagenham. She tore up a picture of the pope on telly, for chrissakes. In the 80s she was a beautiful young woman with a stunning voice, but she shaved her head and wore shapeless clothes and made a habit of saying angry things that made people uncomfortable. Then she went all religious and wanted to sing a lot of songs based on scripture, didn't she? The record industry loves it when you do that.

This was all in the background when I went to see Sinead O'Connor last weekend. The woman who took the stage was simply dressed and seemed nervous. There was a strange dynamic between her and her backing band which became clear when she told us she'd only met them the week before. There was a white cotton banner embroidered in rasta colours with the word "Joseph" draped from her music stand, and a piece of paper facing her instructed her to BREATHE. She periodically jumped into kind of a nervous boxer bounce.

Her set was a nice combination of new and old. I'd heard she didn't perform old songs any more, but The Emperor's New Clothes was one of the first she played, followed by many of her old hits. Her acappella version of I am stretched on your grave raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Beautiful, unearthly and harrowing. For me, that alone would have been worth the price of admission.

But her newer songs, most of which I had never heard, were lovely; her voice is lower than it used to be but just as magnificent, and her songwriting skills are still very much in effect. I'm not a religious person, but I found her songs from the Theology album touching, and wondered why sacred music is so little tolerated in the world of rock and roll, where ironic detatchment often seems to be the default setting. Songs from her forthcoming album, Home, also went down well, as did a reggae cover of Buju Banton's Untold Stories. The only place where she lost me a bit was a long sermonizing number called What is a real VIP?, which could have done with some editing.

She has a salty sense of humor, which was increasingly in evidence as the show went on, and curses like a sailor. I found this mostly funny, even later on when she had a nerve-induced attack of turrets - yes, she's rough around the edges, but she seems like a real person, a far cry from the standard plastic persona of the musician on display. On the strength of this performance, I'll certainly be giving her new music a listen.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Introducing: The Real Story

Hooray! I'm delighted to be able to share the details about Openstories' new project, The Real Story. So here's the deal:

The Real Story is a celebration of creative nonfiction. Not that there’s anything wrong with fiction. Look, we like making stuff up as much as anyone else does, but we’re more excited about the creative possibilities of telling the truth. We love true stories (even mostly true stories), personal essays, memoirs, diaries, sketches and literary journalism. After all, life is much stranger than fiction.

We’re kicking things off this summer with a writing competition. We are inviting people to submit unpublished personal essays or brief memoirs of 2,000 words or less. The topic can be anything – your childhood, travels, reflections on life, a person you have loved – as long as it tells us a compelling story from your point of view.

The best submissions will be published alongside specially commissioned photographic portraits of the writers on a new website to be launched in October at the Manchester Literature Festival 2011, and some of the winning writers will be asked to read their pieces live during the festival.

To enter, email your submission as a double-spaced Word document to info@openstories.org with “Real Story submission” in the subject line. Please include your full name and contact details and a 50-word biography. All submissions must be received no later than August 27 2011. We regret that we cannot consider entries from outside the UK.

If you’d like to learn more about using your own experiences as the basis for nonfiction writing, we’re holding a primer workshop, Life Writing Bootcamp, at Manchester City Library on Saturday July 30 from 11am to 4pm, with writer and Rainy City Stories editor Kate Feld. The workshop will cover developing and writing personal essays, memoirs, and first-person blogs. The cost is £25 (£20 concessions). Places are limited. To book call 01706 823264 (this is now the correct number, there was a typo before) or email info@openstories.org. See you there.