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A short note about loss – Paris, 11 November 2018

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It had rained fairly steadily throughout the 11 November. I was in Paris. In the morning I had seen and heard the very large number of blue and black windowless vans passing by, vans that were taking the thousands of security personnel and riot police down towards the places where the commemorations were to take place. Many Heads of State had gathered in Paris to acknowledge the centenary of the ending of the Great War.

The newspapers had forewarned the residents of Paris that around 10,000 troops and police were to be deployed to protect those Heads of State (and their respective entourages of associated dignitaries) from terrorist or other forms of attack. (I rather smiled because I learned later that one or two women who belonged to the feminist group femen had been ‘led away’ – so as not to disconcert or disrupt the proceedings. 100,000 versus 1 or 2 wasn’t much of a contest.)

In the late afternoon I left the flat in which I was staying and walked down to the river Seine. In the late afternoon light on a mid-November day a rain-soaked Paris looked beautiful. The drenched streets and pavements shone with gorgeous lights and the fallen leaves laid intricate bronze and green and yellow patterns that made me feel as if I was in a painting or a magic land. The Seine, too, was alight with reflections. And it was a time to reflect …

I walked away from the quais of the Seine past Chatelet and I looked towards the magnificence of the Hotel de Ville – the ‘city hall’ of Paris. In the wide and open spaces in front of the Hotel de Ville the city had organised a stylish and thoughtful commemoration to lives lost and ruined in the first World War. They had, for example, created flowerbeds – that ranged, from left to right, in blue, then white, then red flowers; the flowers were tiny and the flowerbeds were vast.

And then I looked again at the astonishing achievement that is the Hotel de Ville. And as the suffering and loss of life were being remembered I could not help thinking that the British had made a great mistake in their decision to leave the European Union. I thought this, simply because, as a citizen of the EU, I somehow had a direct ‘share’ or ‘interest in’ or association with the Hotel de Ville – and in fact with all the great achievements that have taken place on the land area that is called Europe. In a strange and curious way I shared in the ownership of the Hotel de Ville and I did not want to lose this unusual sense of ownership.

At that very moment I would have liked all the people of the UK to come and stand where I was standing and I would say: ‘This is part of us. But I think we have failed to grasp our shared ‘ownership’ of such a remarkable cultural achievement. And surely we are lesser for it.’

Then it was the day after the 11 November … and I was one day closer to loss.

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A sign in New York City

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Well, this is one way to try and deter thieves.

The sign was stuck up in the window of a New York toy shop. Among other things, the shop had a number of very alluring  and rather splendid remote controlled cars.

A visit to this particular toy shop was featured in the  television programme: ‘Last Chance Lawyer, NYC.’  The criminal defence attorney, Howard Greenberg, who ‘stars’ in this programme, drew our attention to the sign.

I suppose New York does have a rather distinct culture. And, in a sense, this sign is the perfect riposte to the cliche: ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ This sign has just six words – and that’s the long and the short of it.

Post script: As the cultural commentator P.J. Villiers remarks, the sign has ‘neither finesse nor irony.’ (But it does have sellotape.)

 

 

The trouble with Brexit

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The trouble with Brexit  – and with acceding to the so-called ‘will of the people’ to leave the achievements of the European Union – is that it is not really the ‘will of the people’ at all; but worse, it misses the point of knowing something about and valuing our shared history; it also misses the point of the importance of neighbourliness and the delightful phenomenon of charm. (In fact, it misses several points.) As far as I can tell the European Union was born out of a vision, held specifically by two Italian thinkers – and the rubble of the second world war – a vision that translated into words which basically said: ‘Look, we can do better than this’ – and, overall, the result is that ‘we’ really have done better than before. The countries of Europe are doing their best to do well and to fare well. They offer their citizens a great deal; in return, they ask: ‘Please can you play the game?’ (and play it fairly.)

The cultures and societies and political systems that make up Europe are extraordinary achievements. And, it is not true to say that the United Kingdom doesn’t owe Europe ‘anything.’ In fact, it owes almost everything to ideas and examples born and manifested in Europe – from the Greeks, the Romans and the continental Philosophers of the Enlightenment. In the United Kingdom, we – the people – benefit from a culture of dissent – and this culture has its roots in both the heat-haze and the clear skies of the Mediterranean and the salons of the capital cities of Europe.

I am very disappointed that so little regard is given to the history of Europe and the relationship of that history to United Kingdom culture. What particularly disappoints me is the rejection of the framework that unites our friends and colleagues who live, work and think about ‘things’ on the continent of Europe.

I’d like to take one simple example that tells me something valuable – and which is something that anyone can ‘come across’ in Europe. It’s taken from a recent visit to Berlin. In Berlin, not only did I have the wonderful luck to stay in a flat with three young German women who spoke three languages perfectly and who were plainly good people (studying medicine and political science and social psychology respectively) but I also had a good conversation and a great exchange of ideas in a place called Hard Wax.

Here’s an outline of the Hard Wax experience:

Well, I don’t really know much about ‘Techno’ music; but my guide book – the Lonely Planet book on Berlin – included a short reference to a record store at the end of Gotbusser Strasse in Kreuzberg . So I went there. And it was wonderful because even before entering the store I discovered that all-about were workshops and tiny businesses doing good things. In  Hard Wax itself I met a young woman. She helped me navigate through the records and selected ones that someone in England might like. And she took her time doing this. Then we had a discussion about elite art – the kind of art that gets to be shown in exclusive galleries. And I said that I was uneasy about the fact that the elite circuit of art seemed to be full of works that criticised the media and consumption, production and capitalism – but at the very same time this elite establishment and its clients participated in and fed off the very system that the art (apparently) criticised.

I don’t like that,’ I said.

Yes,’ she said, ‘I know what you mean: it’s shit.

But it was the way she said it: serious, long-suffering, aware of the hypocrisy and of the irony. She was studying philosophy and was about to embark on a year of study specialising in aesthetics; so we talked about that, too. And when I said that a philosopher I knew had asserted that the aesthetic dimension is absolutely central to human life and existence and to all our perception – to the fundamentals of our being – she said:

Yeah – but I’m going to have to think about that.’

And I knew that she would.

That’s the kind of lovely exchange that anyone can enjoy as they travel through the cultures of Europe. It’s worth being an engaged participant in those cultures and not just a casual visitor. That – and the promise of peace – is the point of the European Union.

 

 

 

The Art Show

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I went to the Art Show. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The single work occupied the whole of an exhibition room. Among other things it shows how media and technology are literally ‘in your face’.

The Art Show is a very large installation. It was developed between the years 1963 until 1977. Situated within the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin, the curators provide notes which describe this extraordinary work as follows:

‘It is one of the major works by Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz. Its theme is the opening of an art exhibition in a gallery and it entered the collection of the Berlinische Galerie in 1996. The first ideas for this walk-in scene with ironic qualities were worked out by Edward Kienholz in the United States as early as 1963 and 1967. The realisation of the work is, however, closely connected to Berlin. With a grant from the DAAD (The German Academic Exchange Service) – the husband-and-wife artists spent several months in Berlin from 1973 onward. In 1974 they decided to spend part of each year in Berlin to realise the Art show.

The tableau (in the show) consists of nineteen figures, fourteen collage-like works of art on the theme of casting the bodies for sculptures, furnishing and installing the gallery space – and, installing electrical wiring.

For the figures, the couple molded friends and personalities from the art scene of the 1970s, including their three children. All of the figures wear the clothing of the people modelled. By contrast, their faces are distorted with air conditioning vents and fans from junked cars. They radiate warm air. (!) When visitor press the buttons on the figures, a comment on art by the person depicted is heard with background noise from an art exhibition opening.’

One of the reasons that I like going to contemporary art exhibitions is that, for me, they are often full of surprises. I find myself enjoying the sense of being ‘woken up’ and they demand that I ask the question: What is this about?’ Even if I do try to answer that question I often do not find anything like the answer which the artist intended. However, I rather liked listening to the assertions made by the people depicted in The Art Show. In fact, some of the comments made by these ‘personalities’ were very demanding. One, for example, contrasted ways of thinking in science and philosophy with those of conceptual artists. The former distinguish between theory and practice: theory concerns itself with understanding whilst practice concerns itself with altering or bringing about change in the empirical world. Quite what the latter (the conceptual artists) do is not always clear!

The photographs show some of the figures in the Kienholz’s work that is exhibited in the Berlinsche Galerie. But I have also included a photograph of another work of art on show in plein air (for all to see) near the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. The plein air figure is deliberately provocative and amusing. He makes people smile. The performance artist also speaks to whomsoever may wish to listen. His assertions were often gnostic and other-worldly.

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Just a Photograph

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But guess where …

Helen and Robert – a play – Act 2 Scenes 2 and 3

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The Oxfam shop (again) the one that sells books and records

Helen is re-organising books on shelves. Robert enters the shop. Neither catches sight of each other. Robert goes to the fiction section. He picks up a book. It’s by Angela Carter. He starts thumbing through the pages.

Helen: Well, Hello. What’s cooking?
Robert: Helen High-water… things are simmering – I suppose …
Helen: What’s the book?
Robert: Something for Frankie. I didn’t really know any of this but she was impressed by Ms. Carter – and I read somewhere that Angela Carter was a kind of literary rock-star.
Helen: Oh yes: There’s no one like Angie – she turned the world upside down …
Robert: Frankie told me about the ‘Bloody chamber’ and weirdly it made me think of ‘Blood on the tracks …’ and …
Helen: … writing in blood. And to what do we owe this honour?
Robert: Actually, I’ve come in a) to see you and b) to see you.
Helen: Oooh – and where’s Joleen?
Robert: She’ll be in soon.
Helen: Come on – sit down – I’m all ears
Robert: You’ve got nice ears …
Helen: Flattery gets you nowhere …
Robert: OK. Right, I’m making a few last minute arrangements for the demonstration. You know, I’ve got to admire Petra. She’s stoked up a lot of support for the WAVE thing. She’s even got Dan – Dan the guitar man – to share a platform with her. She’s going to speak and Dan’s going to play – like only Dan can play. Frankie tells me that Petra’s speech is all ‘passion’ – at least I think that’s what she said.
Helen: Don’t worry. I’ve even planned my sandwiches for the day – liberation sandwiches.
Robert: Goodness: That reminds me: D’you know why I couldn’t but support JC – Jeremy Corbyn?
Helen: No – I’m all ‘beautiful’ ears – why did you decide to support JC?
Robert: Well, I was reading an article – I was reading something about the real Labour party – and it was written by a journalist who had found himself travelling about with Jeremy Corbyn. I think it was on the campaign trail or something like that – and the journalist said that Corbyn was fundamentally a good guy – and you could tell that, why?- because he was the sort of person who would be travelling on a train and be happy to share his sandwiches with any fellow traveler. That really stuck in my head.
Helen: To be fair Robert: Mrs May might share her copy of Vogue. Strike a pose.

They pause.

Helen: Vogue versus half a sandwich. No contest. Half a sandwich every time … Right, I’ve been telling everyone about the WAVE and actually it chimes in with combating the dreadful adverse publicity Oxfam had – you know about the aid workers in Haiti – and all that. So, what’s Petra sorted out for us?
Robert: Petra has done Facebook and Instagram and kick-started all the usual social media stuff- and there are hundreds of students – maybe a couple of thousand or more – ready to join the march on Saturday. There are lots of others too. We meet outside Regent’s Park tube. The police are marshalling the show – which is good because there could be trouble.
Helen: Speaking of which – I spy Joleen! And how is Madame?
Joleen: Hello Helen: (They exchange kisses)
Helen: Joleen, so we’re going to reprise Paris ’68.
Joleen: (In a french accent) Good – As long as we do not have to meet the CRS. Even now when I am in France I am scared of the CRS.
Helen: I don’t think the police – the police here – want to take sides – not unless they have to – they’re the biggest gang in town so keep them sweet.
Joleen: You cannot keep the CRS as you say, ‘sweet’. They look at you with fierce eyes.
Helen: Well, this is England – you know – doctrine of minimum force and all that.
Joleen: So, is there no need for a crash helmet?
Helen: No – unless you want to deny everyone the sight of your lovely hair …
Joleen: Thank you. Are we travelling up together? Are you coming with us?
Helen: All things considered, yep. And I’ve corralled a few of our regulars to come too. I’ve even made a small display on women and the struggle; Look, there’s ‘In our own hands’ – I love that book. And, naturally one by your fellow countrywomen: Simone de Beauvoir.
Joleen: I remember that: The second sex. And I remember her ‘Memoirs of a dutiful daughter‘ … I think that I was once a dutiful daughter. I taught the catechism. Robert thinks that I did well to escape the cage…
Helen: So, are you all Ready Steady Go? What’s that in french?
Joleen: On est prêt? and ‘On-y-va …’
Helen: Le jour de gloire est arrivé … Non, je ne regrette rien: That might even be my choice for the I’m stranded-on-a-desert-island thing …

And the scene fades into the sound of a train ride to London …

Act 2, Scene 3:

The beginning of the march. Petra, Frankie, Francesca, Helen, Joleen, Robert and Dan – are all smiles. Dan strikes up some wailing chords. A placard reads: ‘WAVE – from now to eternity

The actors move off stage.

We hear the sound of marching and chanting. We hear a range of songs.

Then: Alarum:

We hear shouts and discern insults and then we hear the sound of rocks striking the ground.
A policewoman stumbles out onto the stage. She clutches her head. She’s been hit in the face.

Policewoman: This is way out of order. My God, am I OK? I need help … But … hang on love …
She catches Petra who is falling backwards.
Rocks and wood from a placard hit the stage.
Petra appears to have been struck on the head.

Policewoman (into her radio): Ambulance – medics quick – there’a woman here in a bad way … Jesus – come immediately – Exact Location: She shouts something technical into her phone. The policewoman puts Petra in the recovery position. Face covered in blood, the policewoman looks directly at the audience.

We hear, in the distance a siren; the sound of the siren intensifies.

Version 2

 

Helen and Robert – a play – Act 2, Scene 1

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A room somewhere in London: Planning for the demo

Petra, Frankie and Francesca are sitting at a table.

Petra: As you know, this is going to be a mix-n-match demo. We’ve teamed up with the Anti-racist groups as well as a load of the ‘I am other’ movements. We get a five minute platform and I’ve outlined a short speech …
Frankie: Yeah! Go Petra!
Petra Thanks Frankie. I’ll give it some welly. But we’ve got to watch our backs. There’s a counter demonstration planned – so things could get nasty.
Frankie: So what are you going to say? Let’s hear it.
Petra: Well, no jokes. Just simple, straight and – well, I hope I don’t get overcome – break down – or whatever; It happened once before – the emotion suddenly kicked-in big time – and got caught in my throat and it all bombed …
Frankie: You’ll be fine.
Petra: So this is the opening:

Sisters and Brothers – Hello – and thank you so much for being here. And thank you for standing up for the W A V E – for this ‘Women Against Violence Event’ and, of course, for ‘Stop Racism’ … We are here to say something very simple, something very basic, something fundamental about justice and the radiance of hope. We are here to say ‘enough is enough’ – that our culture, our society finally has to wake up, to stop accepting the status quo and to show the one thing that really matters – and that one thing is Respect – Respect for women, Respect for difference, Respect for being what we are – and that is HUMAN. In our humanity we are all equal. We are here not to blame, not to berate, not to hang people out to dry but to say: The time has come, at last, at long last – and forever – to stop violence against women, the violence behind closed doors, the casual everyday violence that deforms and ridicules and derogates girls and women. I can quote you a hundred million stats – stats that show how, on every count, women, are still not only second-class citizens – but worse … so I’m here today, we’re here today – to stop the long ordeal of womanhood and to say: You count, We count, All of us count – and we count in our shared humanity and our right for a full, safe and equal life …

Francesca: Wow – that’s amazing Petra – I’m feeling really moved – I feel alive – I’m feeling – Jesus – Christ I don’t know what I’m feeling …
Frankie: Spot on Petra. Stay with it. Go for it.
Petra: There’s more – but are you sure it’s OK?
Frankie: It’s more than OK. It’s about saying it from deep deep down …

(They pause and compose themselves)

Francesca: Look, here are a couple of words – you know slogans – for the banners … And, I’ve been persuading everyone I know to come. Even Dad is coming – along with Mum – Helen is too. Mum is really up for it.
Frankie: Although she’s a bit worried about the fascists – and, you know, she’s always worried about surveillance. And Dad is up for it – he said that Berlin – and the timeline – the year 1933, when the terror really kicked off – well that did it for him. He’s coming too – he’ll even carry a placard!
Petra: So, we’ll be meeting up outside the tube station in Regent’s park and then we’ll trek on down to Traf. Square. And good news: Even the Met. commissioner is making extra police available. I think deep down she’s on our side! The police have advised us not to respond to provocation. The fascists are in the usual nasty mood. So – be warned – and stay safe.

(To be continued)

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Helen and Robert – a play – Scene 3

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Act 1: Scene 3: The kitchen in Francesca’s flat

Frankie: Hi – Hi Petra …
Petra: Listen up, listen up: What do you call a mythical figure with a big comb-over hair-do who wants to rule the universe?
Frankie: I don’t know: What do you call a mythical figure with a hair-do who wants to rule the universe?
Petra: Trumplestiltskin.
Frankie. Dreadful. Actually that’s not too bad.
Petra: I’ve got another: What do you call a muscular Brexit?
Frankie: I don’t know …
Petra: Flexit. Blimey. Don’t you think that Mrs May is post-modern Thatcher. Da Doo Ron Ron. The Ronettes had great hair-dos …
Francesca: Frankie’s got a question for you.
Frankie: So you’ve got just three things to take on your desert island: just three: a book, a song – a piece of music – and a film. What do you take?
Petra: Serious or silly? The Beano or Proust?
Frankie: Serious – things you actually care about …
Petra: OK, so that rules out Proust but not the Dandy … off the top of my head, Adichie’s ‘Half of a yellow sun’, music? – well Le Tigre and ‘Hot topic’ – can I have something by Patti Smith and the film – I’m going to have to think about that …
Actually, speaking of Adichie I also really and truly like her Americanah. The bits on how to write a good blog were brilliant. My favourite character in ‘Half of …’ was her Kainene. Now that is someone I really do admire. Let’s hope she’s still alive. Right: What’s new?
Frankie: It was art and art only. The question was: What’s the backdrop to the painting. What’s going on – and into the work of art? And so we thought of you ‘cos you announced that you ‘know what is wrong with all things UK but you don’t know how to put it right.’ But you can stuff the question …
Petra: I said that? I don’t remember saying that. Still, the Brexit thing does focus the mind. OK, here goes: There’s this ‘best in the world’ thing that is forever being trotted out. I only got to see that when someone from Portugal actually said that the Brits think they’re ‘the best in the world’ and then I picked up this message over and over again. A kind of uber-feeling – which is good for confidence but bad for harmonies. And this raises my question of the day: So, are you ready for the question of the day? If Freud stood on Nietzsche’s shoulders – was Nietzsche right?
Francesca: Dangerous stuff.
Petra: Time for a joke: What do you call a president who sits on a wall?
Frankie and Francesca in unison: We don’t know … what do you call a president who sits on a wall?
Petra: Trumpty Dumpty.
Frankie: Very good. Very good indeed. Who’s a clever girl? Humpty Dumpty got to make words mean what he wanted them to mean and didn’t Donald say that what he said wasn’t what the word actually meant and that ‘would’ in his case actually meant ‘wouldn’t’?
Petra: Something like that. So that’s another thing swirling about in the ether. What does anything mean? You’ve got to leave things open.

(There is a long pause and then)

Petra: Are you ready for the demonstration?
Francesca: Yes.
Frankie: Sure.
Petra: Francesca – can you do some of your placards?
Francesca: Yep – in a kind of Baroque-less Baroque.
Petra: I like the rock bit… and there maybe a few rocks a’flying …

 

To be continued – so meanwhile here’s another photo …

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Helen and Robert – a play – Scene 2

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Act 1: Scene 2: An artist’s studio in London – in which we meet Francesca and Frankie. Francesca is painting a representation of Frankie. Francesca is standing at the easel. Frankie is seated on a rather bashed-up leather chair. The scene opens to the incessant beat of hard core techno music. Then the music stops and Francesca pauses at her easel. She speaks to Frankie.

Francesca: Sometimes Dad gets it about right. I didn’t think he’d bring this music back from Berlin. Hard Wax too! It gets me in the mood. I paint to the music. I guess the music is in the painting.
Frankie: How’s it progressing?
Francesca: It’s on track. Erm – I just need to wake this bit up a bit.

Francesca – in a staccato rhythm – stabs some acid-coloured paint onto the canvas.

Francesca: So that’ll do for a while. Let’s have a break. Patience, patience.
Frankie: You know, as I’ve been sitting here I’ve been wondering about art and your art and our times. And the music in your art too. I mean: What are our times? What’s going on?
Francesca: Things are marginally better if you’re female – compared with before.
Frankie: Marginally. Men still just divide into wankers or those who just want to suck your tits dry.
Francesca: Yes – and no. But mainly yes. There are a few more women in art now; at least some women are getting some recognition.
Frankie: I was watching this tv programme and it was on European art – you know the art of Italy and of France and Germany. The guy doing it told a good story. He didn’t look like the usual presenter type. He had a fat gut. And what he was really good at doing was relating the art to the psyche and the history and the politics of the country. I’ve been thinking a lot about this …
Francesca: Well, what have we got? Advertising and consumption and all the stuff that Orwell moaned about …
Frankie: How much of all that gets into your art?
Francesca: I don’t know. I don’t know how much is unconscious; I don’t quite know whether my art ever gets away from having to please some sort of audience. I heard someone the other day talking about theatre and he was saying that there is always a battle going on – a battle between the actors and the audience – and then he said that the actors must always win. So, I’m thinking about that in the work that I make. Nowadays, I like what Marlene Dumas said: ‘If you like an image then paint it’ – which is what I sort of do. It’s a relief just to get on with it. And then there’s the whole ‘you’ve got to get the artist to get the art.’ Which I suppose must be true.
Frankie: Yeah – but can we dredge up some of the UK culture and represent it? Can we see it – or some of it – in your art? I don’t even know if it makes sense to think about a UK culture. The Scots must resent being lumped in with the English. God, they must be pissed off. Anyways, I read that essay called ‘What’s so good about Peppa Pig?‘ It’s taking the culture question literally as well as critically. So, ‘What’s so good about the UK?
Francesca: Oh God. Well, at the moment I’d rather look at what isn’t good about the UK. The prospect of having to have visas and standing in queues in order to get into other European countries is really annoying. Who’s idea was that!? The amazing wealth divide. I mean, how is that possible? That can’t be right. The absolutely amazing low level chit chat on the TV. The levels of debt. The mania about house prices. It’s like the Polish woman who said – when she was interviewed about why she was here in the UK and what she thought about England – that there were quite a few good things but the people are shit. ‘I don’t think much of the people,’ she said. I mean that was pretty devastating.
Frankie: Yep: OK – what I cannot stand – I mean I really cannot stand it anymore – is the way we are told about ‘the will of the people’. There is no shared will of the people. What the f**k are they talking about? Orwell would go nuts.
Francesca: Cup of tea?
Frankie: (Nods as she consults her iPhone) Hey look. Petra Villiers has just sent us a text. She’ll be over here to the studio in half an hour. Good old Petra. The last time I saw her she told me that she knows what has gone wrong in the UK but she doesn’t know how to put it right. But I don’t know exactly what she thinks has gone wrong so perhaps she’ll tell us.
Francesca: And some of that is going to get into my painting. Actually, there is something very wrong with English art. It’s contrived and there’s loads of affectation and the worst thing is that it criticises the very society it feeds off. It’s like that english jerk who buys endless properties abroad, lives off them, swans about the place and then gripes about capitalism. He junks the very society he thrives on.
Frankie: Talking of being abroad I was on a flight back from Bologna and this guy was sitting next to me. And he must have been very nervous or else alcoholic because he ordered two of those little bottles of wine. He chatted away – he‘d developed a hatred for the police and so I heard all about that – and then he suddenly said: ‘Right, you’re about to be stranded on a desert island and you’ve got to grab a few things but you can take one book and one piece of music and one film with you. That’s all: So what would you take?’ I liked this question. So I thought about it and I first went through a number of books that came to mind, and then some songs – and so – quite quickly – I made my choice and I told him I would choose:
The Green Road’ by Anne Enright and then ‘Kool thing’ by Sonic Youth (or Emmylou’s Goin’ back to Harlan) and the film was obviously Varda’s superb – ‘Vagabond’ or her ‘Cleo from 5 to 7.

Frankie (who turns as if to address the audience): And what would you choose?

(To be continued.)

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Helen and Robert – a play

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Act 1: Scene 1
Inside an Oxfam shop specialising in books and music.

Helen is speeding around checking this and that – and then pauses to examine a new in-take of books. Robert enters the shop and picks up a book that he finds in the late summer sale. He then looks through the records and chooses an early LP by Joni Mitchell, another by the B52s and a copy of Bob Dylan’s ‘Greatest hits’.

Helen: Well hello! And where have you been?
Robert: Goodness! Hello Helen. Hang on – Let me put these records down here …
Helen: But where have you been? I haven’t seen you for weeks! Ages! Years!
Robert Where have I been? I’ve just come back from Berlin.
Helen: And?
Robert: Well, I’m still in Berlin – as it were. All in a dream really …
Helen: So what was it like?
Robert: Well, I’d like to live there.
Helen: So you’re all ‘Berlin’ at the moment.
Robert: Yes.
Helen: And where is your gorgeous wife, Joleen? Is she still in Berlin too?
Robert: No; she’s at a french ladies’ do.
Helen: Oh yes, I remember – their regular lunch thingy.
Robert: Yes – but now that you’re here and I tell her you’re here she’ll probably pop in to say ‘Hello’ – perhaps tomorrow …
Helen: Good. Listen listen listen: It’s finally happening: after all these months they’re opening the new Oxfam shop here – and this one is moving up the road. I love this space. It’s a dream – perfect. So this is what I’m going to manage when they move. I’m so happy. I’ve been waiting for this for nearly a year.
Robert: Comme il faut: I’m really pleased. Yes – you’ve been waiting months for this. You could turn it into a very special space. Anyway, how’s things?
Helen: Just a mo. I’m not supposed to hang around talking to customers. It’s about ‘work’ here. Not too much levity. I’ve been told not to be frivolous. Work. And more work. The atmosphere is different here, quite different. It’s more reflective – all rather serious. Work and more work and not dallying with customers. No repartee.
Robert: What? Oh. Well never-mind. Talking to me is work.
Helen: I’ll be back in a mo…
Robert: You’ve got so much energy. Always on the go. You turn on a sixpence. This woman Helen – a blitz of a girl …
Helen: Come and sit down. I’ll stick prices on these books.

(They sit down on a somewhat dated but stylish vintage faded-lime-coloured sofa. Helen is seated on the right as you look at the sofa and Robert on the left. A pile of books lies between them. Helen begins sticking prices on the books.)

Helen: And how are your girls?
Robert: Well, first tell me about how things are with you.
Helen: Nothing much that is new – except everything is new: Daughter number 1 has started teaching maths at All Hallows; my son is teaching to level 3 at you-know-where and daughter number 2 is off in Tanzania doing charity work for Save the Children – And my lovely grandchildren are growing up quickly. The eldest is now 8. So nothing to complain about.
Robert: (After a pause of a moment or two) So, although things were really tough for you as a youngster, you know, when you were growing up, you’re a really successful person. It’s impressive. Three children all doing good things. I’m not a successful person – but that’s another matter …
Helen: Robert, what are you talking about? You’ve got a gorgeous wife and two stunning daughters.
Robert: Yes – but sometimes I wonder if I lumbered them with the fall-out from my psycho-pathologies. (He pauses again) And anyway, after the ethos of Berlin I wonder what on earth I’m doing here. I mean here in the UK. Brexit has really left me feeling fed up. Cheesed off. And the visit to Berlin just rammed it all home.
Helen: See – you’re all Berlin Berlin Berlin at the moment. It’ll pass.
(Helen continues sticking prices onto the books – and then)
Helen: Who on earth reads …
Robert: … this rubbish. Incidentally what are these books about?
Helen: Don’t ask me, Robert.

The manager of Oxfam books and music appears in the near distance.

Robert: Helen you’re doing loads of work. You’d put the workhouse to shame. A Mars a day helps you work rest and play. And may the Lord see your good works … Work makes one free …
Helen: Yes Robert we get the idea ..
Robert: And in Berlin I listened to Kraftwerk
Helen: Shut up Robert
Robert: OK, I won’t mention W – O – R – K again. A propos of nothing – have you bought anything new recently?
Helen: No.
Robert: Not even hair dye.
Helen: Well of course I buy things like Hair dye.
The manager: Are you two doing a sit-com?
Helen: (to the manager) Can’t you see? It’s soon to be released.
Robert: This is just a first take.
Helen: First we take Manhattan then we take Berlin.
Robert: I went to Hard Wax. I had to go for a Hard Wax.
Helen: (Laughing – and perhaps blushing) What in the world is Hard Wax? Robert, this sounds a little bit, well not quite right…
Robert: Hard Wax is the edgiest coolest – at least that’s what they say – record store in Berlin. You get the hard-core techno stuff there. And so I went to Hard Wax.
Helen: But who wants to listen to that stuff?
Robert: God knows. James does – apparently – so I went to get some stuff for James. And I asked the young woman who was working there at Hard Wax what was the best most recent hard core techno music and she fished out some records and Jo and I listened to them and Jo actually thought they were really good. I bought three.
Later I taught a dog to do the hokey-cokey to a hard-core techno beat. Not in German though. That’s why it failed.
Helen: Robert, what are you talking about?
Robert: I’m talking about my dog-sitting in Berlin.
Helen: What? You dog-sat in Berlin?
Robert: Well, I didn’t expect to – but ‘yes’. I did some dog-sitting in Berlin. That’s where the hokey-cokey came in.
Helen: Like this?

She gets up and does the hokey-cokey. Then she sits down on the sofa.
Robert gazes at Helen. Helen gazes at Robert.

Helen: You put your left leg in your left leg out – in out in out – shake it all about … so what’s this dog-sitting all about?
Robert: It was all very odd. We’d found an airbnb in a district called Neukolln in Berlin – but the person hosting it, Magdelena, didn’t seem to get off first-base when it came to the idea of being an ‘host’. She was cool and caustic and found fault with everything. Anyway, she had a dog called Clementine. And the dog was bipolar: Sometimes it was all tail wags – and then, for no apparent reason, it went off into a crazy horrid bark that turned into an eerie penetrating howl. (Robert imitates the howl.) And, to my surprise, Magdalena announced one evening that she was off to a party and we were to look after the dog. ‘She’ll yell, for a while and then she’ll quieten down,’ she said: And then she was out of the door and into the night. Helen are you listening? Well, I went to sleep but at around midnight the dog started to bark and then the dreadful howling began. I mean it was really awful. I got up and tried to reassure the dog but nothing worked. In the end I started to feel as if I was going potty because of the racket – so I turned it into farce and did the hokey cokey. It was successful for about 30 seconds – but it only brought out the beast in the dog. Teeth were bared and the yowling intensified. By this time I thought the neighbours were certain to complain. So Jo, who is tougher than me, called the woman. Jo used the term ‘inconsolable’. ‘Clementine is inconsolable, please can you come back and care for her.’ Incredibly when the host – this Magdelena – returned she rather rebuked me for not having the skill to manage the dog. I actually felt really puzzled by it all. Anyway that’s the dog-sitting bit.
Helen: Isn’t there a thing called the Berlin Schnauze? You got the Berlin Schnauzer
Robert: Very funny. But then I had the opposite kind of experience at the airport. One of the security chaps spotted the fact that I was carrying a bag from Hard Wax. And he simply had to look inside. So he took out the three records. ‘Please be careful,’ I said. ‘Of course,’ he replied. And then he said something in german to the effect that this music was not only uber-german but also the best thing since sliced brot. And do you know what he then said? He said: ‘Thank you so much. Thank you so much.’ And he looked at me with a kind of real gratitude. I’d made his day – and he’d made mine.
Helen: Nice one: Ooops: Here comes the manager – Robert – off you go. I’ve work to do.
Robert: OK: I’ll tell Jo that you’re here. Bye.
Helen: Love to Joleen, Bye Bye, love you …

To be continued.