Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Listen

Can you hear it?

The soft thlump of iron shoes on damp turf, the gentle ear splitting crinkle of chain mail ringlets jostling, the high-pitched twang of twine slung between the tips of a beech bow. There’s the rasping, nervous breath of the men next to you, the shouts and jeers, mingling with the dawn’s dew, a dozen tongues, accents and dialects like alien languages all fumbling into one with fear.

This is 1346 and we are waist deep in farmland mud just outside the small French town of Crecy. We’re English and we’ve just developed a system that enables men armed with longbows firing in tandem to be the most destructive force on the planet.

Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe this isn’t Crecy, maybe it’s Poitiers in 1356 or Agincourt in 1415 – that was particularly successful for the English. Henry V’s army so decimated the French that they happily surrendered and agreed for him to be crowned King. Unfortunately, he managed to die a few weeks later from dysentery and it all began over again. So maybe it’s not a battle that the English win. Maybe it’s Orleans in 1429 or Castillion in 1456.

It doesn’t matter. What’s important is the dry smell of shit at the back of your mouth, the burning sweat on the back of your hands. It doesn’t matter when or where you are if you’re going to die.

This is the One Hundred Years War, the war between England and France which actually lasted one-hundred-and-nineteen-years. On and off. Over a century of near-continuous warfare between what are today peaceful neighbours, except we still laugh about hating the French and they, I am sure, do the same about us. So keen were the English, though, on fighting in the fourteenth century that we also managed the fifty-year long War of the Roses, the first major English civil war.

How did we get here?

We got here because of land and because of trade. Like most wars, really. Edward III of England had a claim to the French throne through his Mother. She would have been Queen had not the medieval inheritance laws been decidedly male biased leaving her cousin, Phillip VI, to succeed her brother instead. But what Edward really wanted was to regain Normandy and Anjou, the lands he claimed through Kings William the Conqueror and Stephen, the lands that had been lost to the French by Edward’s Great-great grandfather, John. The lands that had formed a natural bridge between England and the southern France English ruled territory of Gascony. The Angevian Empire once spread from Hadrian’s Wall to the Pyrenees and Edward wanted it back.

That’s the unfunny thing about Empires. They never end. Rome might have appeared to be all over in the fourth century when the Ostrogoths sacked the city for the umpteenth time, but the Emperors of Constantinople, of Byzantium, of the Eastern Empire never gave up trying to regain Western Europe until the Turks crushed them in 1453. And still Rome remained the hypothetical justification behind the medieval Germanic Emperors use of the term Holy Roman Empire.

The British fought, killed and died in America, in Malaysia and in Palestine, so desperate were we to hold onto our lands. The French did the same in Vietnam until the Americans took over in defence of an ideological capitalist-democratic empire.

Once you have it, you don’t want to relinquish it.

But all things must die.

As I write this a cat has killed a bird and left its corpse on the lawn. The recent combination of guilty heat and torrential showers means the decomposition process is occurring at an unexpected rate. I’ve yet to clear the body away. It’s just left rotting away amongst the tall blades of grass, merging back into the soils of life.
Everything happens in cycles. Nothing is new. What has been will be so again.

The 1789 French Revolution was a decade long foray into pre-socialism, but Europe’s oldest sovereign nation couldn’t exist without a single dominant character at the helm and so Napoleon, came to the fore. Revolted by the upstart’s appointment the rest of monarchist Europe formed a coalition against the French. Old against new.

In 1932 a former Lance-Corporal and frustrated painter from Austria became the Chancellor of Germany. Initially the world saw Hitler’s rhetoric and hard-line stances were seen as essential to drag the country back to its feet after the economic meltdown post-world war one.

History is like a mirror reflecting the past so it happens simultaneously. It’s like an onion, underneath the skin it’s just layers of the same stuff over and over again down to the core.

In 1797/1938 Napoleon/Hitler smile tightly and make their promises to Archduke Charles of Austria/ Chamberlain. No more, they promise. The Netherlands, Milan and Venice/The Rhineland, Austria and the Sudetenland are sufficient. Lands which had once been French/German will be so again. It is enough.

They are lying. They were lying then and they do so again now and every minute for ever more.

By 1802 Napoleon’s Empire stretches from the Spanish coast and into western Russia, from the Netherlands down to Sardinia. By 1941 Hitler’s territories run from Norway to North Africa and Greece, from Belarus to the Pyrenees.

Still, on they march.

Once it starts it will never be enough.

Listen.

In the distance there is the thump-thump of shells being fired and detonating in the soft earth, there is the metallic shriek of tank tracks crushing brick. A President speaks beleaguered rhetoric in a language that is not yours. There is no innovation in destruction today. Today, there are just people dying. This is Georgia. Today is tomorrow or next week or in the spring. Or in 1968 and Prague or in 1955 and Budapest.

Georgia has been Russia territory twice before. Once part of the Russian Empire, it briefly declared independence after the 1917 revolution before being absorbed back into the USSR.

No-one escapes an Empire easily.

History repeats ad infinitum.

In 1962 US spy planes identify nuclear warhead silos in Cuba. Kennedy and Khrushchev get itchy palms and the world holds its breath.

In 2008 Poland agrees to the installation of US sponsored ICBM defence systems within its borders.

Russian General Anatoly Nogovitsyn declares Poland a legitimate target.

Robert Hunter, the former US Ambassador to NATO, antagonises Russia by telling the BBC that it’s just “Saudi Arabia with trees”, not a world power.

In the 1930s The League of Nations declared that Germany’s rearmament posed no threat to Europe.

I blink in the unexpected sunshine and wrap a plastic bag around my hand. I bend down and try to pick up the bird’s corpse, but it breaks apart between my fingers. Its innards have turned to mush at my touch. There’s the faint smell of stale mustard.

I look up and see a cat sitting on the utility room roof. It cocks its head to one side, as though to ask ‘why bother’, as I tie the bag in a knot.

Its tail flips from side to side thudding rhythmically like distant mortar.

In the fourteenth century France was a pivotal part of the trade routes, it was the linchpin between the kingdoms of Spain and the rest of Europe. Marseilles was the only Mediterranean port to threaten the dominance of the Italian city states. In 2008 Georgia plays an equally pivotal role in the transportation of oil and gas, thousands of miles of pipes cut through its mountains, arteries pumping black gold to the world.

We never change.

An arrowhead momentarily glints in the French sunshine and then thousands block out the light like a plague cloud. They soar through the air in a beautiful arc and you raise your shield over your head, praying that the taut leather will be sufficient to protect you. In the glimpse of centuries the beech stick, steel head and goose feathers metamorphose into a hard, metallic cylinder with a burning tail. There’s a gasp as the air is pulled into a vacuum and you are gone.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Even pent-up, stressed-out, paranoid, wannabe writers need to take an evening off occasionally.

“So, I’m in this thing, tonight,” Beck says looking up from the watching a middle-aged German man covering a Johnny Cash song.

“Thing?” My fingers type extremely slowly, forcing the words out. Writing is like getting blood from stone today*. “What thing?”

“This performance thing? Responding to the play?”

“You never mentioned that before.” I sa, but I don’t believe myself.

“You can’t have been listening.” Or perhaps I have just temporarily forgotten?

“Oh, the thing with what’s-his-name?”

In my defence you can substitute what’s-his-name with the name of a performance artist/curator whom Beck’s worked with before. Nice guy, interesting artist, shameless self-publicist through email, facebook, myspace – every conceivable form of electronic communication. If he gets your details you’ll be bombarded with a constant stream of updates. He just can’t help it, especially in the run up to an event.

The ‘thing’ in question is a series of performances delivered off the cuff by artists responding to a play they’ve just watched. Live art feeding direct back into the audience, enhancing the theatre experience.

Or something like that, at any rate.

“What’s the play again?” I ask a little later.

“I told you.” She’s talking to me, but her eyes following the flickers of the computer screen, images of Canadian front rooms reflecting outwards.

“I know, but-?”

“Moll Flanders.”

“Oh! I bet it’s the same performance as at my pub recently.”

By which I don’t, obviously, mean the pub that I own. The brewery owns it. I just pump pints, but it does have a moderately successful fringe theatre tacked on the side. Embarrassingly, despite describing myself as a theatre fan, I’ve never been to see a play there. I’ve always meant to, but never quite found the time. The things I wanted to see were always on when I had to be elsewhere. I even carried the box office number around in my phone for a year or so with the best intentions. Then the phone died and I started working nights.

“Do the flyers have a red background with a blonde woman staring up to the camera?” I’m suddenly enthusiastic.

“Eh? Probably.”

“Hey, why don’t I come along too?”

“You don’t have to. Aren’t you busy?”

“No, no. Well, yes I am, but I’d like to come.”

The play’s not quite what I was expecting, but okay, even though the stupid girl I end up chatting to afterwards thinks differently. She sounds like she was breast-fed foie gras when she says “Of course, I couldn’t possibly be involved in any theatre like that. It offends my socialist principles.”

Darlin’, I think but politely restrain myself, economics can be socialist. Justice and morals can be socialist. Plays and fiction and art with a deliberate political aim can be socialist. This was just a bit of fun. Now piss off back to your country estate.

Anyway.

The point is that if you constantly force yourself down everyone’s throat then at some point it’ll come back and bite you.

For example: How easy is it to misread ‘invitation to a performance,’ as ‘invitation to perform’?

After the play I lurk around, trying not to talk to the lady of the manor and sucking on a bottle of Budvar, when a guy dressed as a pink rabbit marches out of the toilets and up to the bar. He hands the staff a CD and harangues them to play it. A thumping dance beat fills the tiny room and he begins some sort of interpretative dance in which he appears to worship a funnel.

Beck wanders over chucking quietly. I raise an eyebrow and wonder how rude I can be. Does she know this guy? Is she laughing because it’s funny or ridiculous?

“Who the fuck is he?” grumbles the curator storming past, his face a mix indignation and pure bafflement.

“I’ve come all the way from Bristol,” the rabbit protests, looking crestfallen. “I’ve got to catch the train home in a few minutes.”

You start off from an incorrect presumption and see what happens? Everything can fall apart. It wasn’t even the same version of Moll Flanders. The fringe version is, I suspect, sillier and involving less flouncing around to harpsichords, but then who’d have thought there’d be two stage adaptations of Defoe’s novel in the same city at the same time? Who’d have thought it a good idea to travel across the country, bunny suit under arm, for a thirty-second dance slot?

*: See? I’m even resorting to tired clich├ęs.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Beer, how do I love thee?

It’s August in an even year and so I’ve been to CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival at Earl’s Court. Not that it only runs alternate years, just that I seem to go in 2004, 2006 and now 2008. So, I spent Tuesday evening with my old boss, a real Scotsman and a pretend Scotsman supping pints of real ale from around the country, snacking on strips of deep-fried pig skin, in somewhere which by resembling a sixties brutalist car-park has absolutely none of the ingredients which make a good pub.

Except for five days a year where it has the best selection of beer anywhere in the country.

Good old concrete hell Earl’s Court. Even it can’t spoil the joy of discovering a different micro-brewery or the fun to be had watching the bemused expressions of foreigners wandering through the hall. The GBBF, as it’s pointlessly known, has no entertainment other than to drink beer. Even the Germans like an oompah band whilst getting intoxicated.

It’s not all wrong side of middle-age men with pot bellies and beards, although there’s an unusually high quota of them, there’s also a surprising number of young women, city types and people wearing hats made from balloons. One of whom I ended up talking to, or rather listening to, was a public defender and despite having to be in court for nine o-clock the following morning was hitting the cider and perry stand pretty hard.

“But, you know, he’s probably guilty, so fuck him, yeah?” she cackled.

(Perry, incidentally, what’s that all about? Twelve months ago nobody drank perry. Re-brand it as pear cider, give it an advertising campaign with an Oirish voice-over and some cock and bull story about how the old cider makers used to save the pears to make their own special drink to keep, and every bugger’s drinking the stuff.)

Anyway. Beer. Pubs. Love them.

I talked recently about my romantic devotion to the perfect pub, or indeed the imperfect local, but it’s the beer as much as anything that gets me excited.

“Ah, come on, man,” says the Greek guy who works behind the bar with me. “I don’t know how you can drink that stuff.” But then when someone offers to buy him a drink he takes a bottle of Bud - and I mean crappy imitation American Bud not the real Czech stuff.

“It’s all in the water,” I try to explain. “The great thing about British beer is it tastes of the land it comes from. Regional brewing is dictated by the hops and the water where the brewery is based.”

“Like Stella is Belgian?”

“Well, no, because that’s brewed in Cardiff.”

I guess you can’t explain it, and even going to a festival, isn’t the same as actually travelling around the country and trying them in their homesteads.

I could go on about all the wonderful beers I’ve tried and loved. About how the Midlands is the spiritual home of brewing, but the best beers probably come from Yorkshire. About how I’m becoming a little obsessed by beers from Cornwell and Norfolk, but don’t worry.

I won’t.

Instead, I think we’re back to romanticism.

It’s the same with my ideas about pubs. The history, the flavour, the sense of tradition that comes from good beer. You never get that with Carling. But it’s also partially a romantic invention of the drinker. It is, at the end of the day, just water hops, sometimes malt, sometimes barely, occasionally other bits and bobs. The context is imposed by the drinker and the brewer alike.

Certain men find the idea of sitting alone in the pub, reading the paper or just thinking somehow a noble past-time. Just stopping off for a quick pint and to set the world to rights and perhaps bump into an like-minded soul and with whom to pass the time of day in suitably manly fashion.

This is, alas, romanticising drinking and I, like many, am guilty.

Usually when I’ve already had a couple.

A few times recently when I’ve been out in town, everyone’s disappeared into the public transport network, and I’ve missed the 2305 and so rather than hang-around Charing Cross until the 2345 I think I’ll have one more and read my book for twenty minutes. Fortunately, contrary to the Daily Mail’s opinion that city centres are no-go areas because of marauding twenty-four hour drinkers swirling aluminium chairs above their heads, it’s surprisingly difficult to get a pint after traditional opening hours in central London.

So, I think it, but don’t necessarily do it.

Tuesday, on my way home from the beer festival and I miss the 2323 at London Bridge by seconds which means a thirty-five minute wait. I go for a bit of a wander around and come across a pub, The Bunch Of Grapes, still very much open. Despite whole weeks of my life (probably) spent hanging around London Bridge I’ve never spotted this pub before and I’ve got that ‘a-bit-tipsy-but-feeling-really-sober’ feeling going on and think that I could happily handle one more.

I glance at my watch, it’s now 2336. To be sure I’m on the next train I’d really need to leave no later than 2350.

I stand in the doorway for a moment. It looks an okay pub. So-so, but not great. Young’s on tap, which despite relocating the brewery to Bedford and selling the Wandsworth land for housing is still quite a good pint.

(You see? Context.)

2337.

No. This’d be drinking for the sake of drinking. There’s nothing noble or dignified or romantic in it; it’s just being a bit pissed.

I head back to the station.

The irony in all of this comes Saturday night. I do an evening shift during which some Australians come in and ask for ‘proper English beer.’ I do the whole waxing lyrical thing about the Greene King IPA and Abbot Ale, which whilst not bad beer, are hardly amazing. They opt for one of each and for the second round switch to Fosters and a Guinness respectively. It’s seriously hot in the pub, though, so when I get home I have a cold lager simply to cool down. After all my adoration for the merits of ale, I have a bottle of Carlsberg.

“God, you drank that quick,” says Beck as we head for bed.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Distractions of Blackjack

Wednesday night and the humid stickiness drains every. Every limb feels weighed down by excessive moisture when we call a relatively early end to our workshopping session at the Royal Festival Hall.

Ruby and I amble down the platform at Waterloo East chatting about nothing in particular, aware that there’s two whole minutes until the train is due. So engrossed are we, that we barely notice there’s been nine minutes delay when the train arrives. It gathers more passengers at London Bridge and we keep talking.

Ruby’s explaining how to cheat at internet gambling when I glance out of the window and think: “Don’t we usually pass that block of flats on the left, not the right?”

“So there’s this website you can go to-”

“Hold on,” I interrupt. “That displays says the next station is Orpington.”

“It might be wrong. Ask someone.”

I turn to the bald gentlemen, diagonally opposite, hiding behind a paper.

“Er, where’s this train going?” But by now I already know the answer, because even the colours are wrong. This is not a Brockley service. It has a toilet, for god’s sake.

“Sorry,” he says with a slight jerk. “I was hoping to find out how to cheat at blackjack.”

Which kind of sums things up, really.

I haven’t written anything of worth for nearly two weeks. Well, the odd sentence perhaps, but nothing consistent. Despite a positive final tutorial I’m having a slight crisis of confidence. There’s the nagging doubt that what I’ve written, this great big wodge of paper neatly clipped into a green ring-binder, might actually be a little bit… well, shit.

Not funny enough.

Poorly executed.

Shallow, unsympathetic characters.

Just. Not. Good. Enough.

This is far from the ideal time to be suffering what I guess is ‘writer’s block’ (or just general panic, depending on your point of view). It means that I’m going to kind of limp, battered and bleeding over the course finish line rather than charge triumphantly, confidently through it and onto better things.

But, as my tutor helpfully pointed out “it’s too late to change your mind, now.”

True, but possibly not that useful or reassuring.

Back on the train I text Beck to see if she fancies a sojourn out to Kent to rescue us, but irritatingly she’s on the train we were supposed to be on and any mission of mercy is going to be significantly delayed.

“I don’t want to worry you further,” says the bald man with the newspaper, clearly enjoying himself, “but there’s a conductor coming.”

You never see a conductors on London trains there isn’t the space to check tickets, but of course this is a Kent train and the rules are different. The prospect of a fine looms as not only are we on the wrong the train but, as I suddenly realise, I arrived at the Royal Festival Hall via Camberwell and that tutorial. Which means I came on the bus and don’t have any sort of ticket let alone a valid one.

(sigh).

It works out okay in the end. I hide behind Ruby’s Brockley tickets and we claim stupidity. Having already met a dozen or so people further back on the train who’ve done exactly the same thing, he lets us off.

At Orpington the last train back into town is due in two minutes and it’s a fast one, first stop at London Bridge. Back in town we have to wait just four minutes on a cramped Brockley service before it departs. When I eventually walk through the door, to the sound of Beck’s giggles, I’m only an hour later than I would have been. Only problem now I’m wide awake and my intended early night impossible.

Still. Hardly a disaster, but I just hope that I’m not on the wrong track generally.