Friday, 30 April 2010

President Bellot.

Student elections today and as usual a cracking atmosphere across campus. It's also the final day of formal lectures so with many of the students off on exam leave after today the party started early.

The two big positions are the SU President and the Athletics Union post. This year with just two candidates for the SU much of the campaigning focused on the AU. Two candidates had made a serious bid for the post Kerry Boyd, who has managed to turn around the fortunes of the Rugby club with strong and dignified leadership and Jon Miller, who produced a highly inclusive manifesto which looked to attract votes from non-sports students as well as those involved in the extra-curricular sport. The other two candidates Nick Reynolds and Frank Goodwin alienated many students at hustings by describing the AU post as having a sports only focus - the truth is it's supposed to support the societies as much as the clubs.

Shortly after 9pm we were ushered into the Hall to hear the results. I found myself walking in with first year Matt Dennis - who'd been covering the count for the student newspaper.

'I know the result,' he said teasingly.

'Is it good news?' I asked.

'I'm not at liberty to say!' he replied, raising the tension a notch or two more.

The AU election was first. Nick and Frank were quickly eliminated over the first two rounds with Kerry slightly ahead. It was only on the third round of voting that under the transferable system Jon came through to pip it by less than ten votes. It was really hard luck on Kerry, but it was living proof of how important each vote can be.

Then came the SU election. The number of votes cast had risen, which I took as a positive sign for Siobhan - who was relying on a broad constituency of students to get past the winning post. Sam, by contrast, knew he was carrying a huge bloc of the sport students votes.

In the end Siobhan carried it by over 100. A fantastic victory for her and also a sign perhaps that the Union is diversifying. I think it's a hugely encouraging victory not least because both of the winning candidates have a real awareness of the wide student body, reducing the risk of partisan leadership and opening up the possibility of broadening the remit of the Union. If they work hard and stick to their promises it could be a very different place this time next year.

I'm also of course delighted that Siobhan, who's been a wonderful Drama St Mary's student for three years is staying on at the University College; bringing her smashing sense of humour, indefatigable work ethic and genuine empathy for her peers to this vital job. We're all really proud of her.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

11 and 12

A really impressive lesson in storytelling from Peter Brook at The Rose this evening as his meditation on religious tolerance 11 and 12 came into town.

Set in Colonial Mali in the 1930s a local dispute amongst the Sufi community over whether to repeat a prayer 11 or 12 times is manipulated into violent confrontation by the divide and rule tactics of the French imperialists.

The work of course has a contemporary resonance in its suggestion that our lack of understanding about Islam and the speed with which we seek to comment on religious practice fuels the fires of Western prejudice rather than promoting tolerance and diversity. Ultimately the play is a call for intelligence and meditative reflection rather than active intervention.

Brook as ever delivers his points with crystal clarity, poignant calm. Spectacle in this work is linked to style rather than, as in so much contemporary theatre, to pace or production effect. In itself this approach becomes a metaphor for the play's central message. Each actor seems to create the aura and space in which to consider his words and refine his actions. It's simple and self-assured theatre. Rather beautiful and captivating, all accompanied by the haunting music of Toshi Tsuchitori's under score.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010


Student hustings last night ready for the elections tomorrow to take over from Ben and Ian (see opposite) as SU and AU Presidents. There are just two candidates for the SU position this year. Siobhan Bellot, who's currently doing sterling work on the Ham House project and Sam Wise, who sits on the Student Experience committee.

There's a massive difference between the two candidates and their approaches to the role, but I'm not sure how much of that communicated in the raucous atmosphere of the Union Hall.

Siobhan pitched herself as a serious candidate prepared to work with the University body and manage the changes that a new principal will bring. She was at her best when answering questions relating to a strengthening of the student voice, improving the infra structure of representation and seeking a platform from which the SU might genuinely influence policy making. She lost it a bit at the end when her nerves overtook her, but in the main her message was strong and coherent.

Sam was more concerned with building on the work Ben has already done, but was short on detail, choosing instead to play a more general hand about representing everybody and making sure everybody's voice was heard. He was more emotive than Siobhan asking for the opportunity to give something back to the University he loved. I worried he was long on pleasing everybody and short on leadership.

One of the problems is that neither candidate had had time in the hall to sound check or rehearse their speech and this is something that we could offer. Just as in the general election, it'd be a shame if such an important post was decided by personality rather than policy.

When in April the Showers Sweet.

Back to Westminster Abbey for another RSC collaboration with the focus this time on Henry IV. Of all the history plays I think of them as the most accomplished - mixing perfectly the sociology of power as with the personal drama of a father son relationship. I've not come across writing that so perfectly captures the bitter sweet rejection of youth or the assumption of responsibility and adulthood as Shakespeare manages to in his evolution of Henry's son, Prince Hal.

Tonight's play though began appropriately enough with Chaucer, who was present at the court of Richard II and may well have known Henry as, the then King's cousin, Bolingbroke. In fact the claim was made that Bolingbroke was the model for Chaucer's knight in The Canterbury Tales. Again I found myself in Poet's Corner - which itself formed around Chaucer's grave - and found the combination of poetry and place both moving and memirising.

The evening ended with the audience following Clive Wood, playing Henry, as he was helped up the nave towards the Jerusalem Chamber, where in 1413 the real King died - fulfilling an ancient prophecy that he would die in Jerusalem. A cantor sang and the old King slipped out of sight watched by his son. The ghosts were everywhere.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Car - tharsis.

Up at 7am and off with Drama in the Community students to Greycourt School for a car boot sale to raise money and promote Ham House's 400th Birthday on the 23rd May.
It was a really rewarding morning, particularly after the rain stopped and it was great to find that most of the people we met had either already heard about the event or wanted to know more. Everybody seemed positive and looking forward to taking part. We leafleted, chatted and made another £70 for the coffers.

The car boot sale itself is such a wonderful community idea and beyond the bargains and haggles are lots of interactions, clarifications and neighbourly conversations. I promised myself early that I wouldn't buy anything, but rather would enjoy the cathartic process of clear out, of getting rid of the stuff you'd long since forgotten you had. The temptation to pick up nick knacks on the cheap, though, was almost overwhelming.

The most gratifying part of the sale comes when you sell something to somebody who's really excited by their purchase. A primary school teacher couldn't believe her luck when she saw a badge making machine on our stall and practically bit our hands off when we let her have it for a fiver. She couldn't wait to let her kids loose on it. It left us all with smiles on our faces.

Pressure Drop.

In the evening went with Trevor, Patsy and Ben to the Wellcome Trust on Euston Road to see Mick Gordon and Billy Bragg's collaboration Pressure Drop - part gig and part play all staged in promenade within the gallery space there.

The play followed the theme of Billy's book A Progressive Patriot and examined the appropriation of 'Englishness' by the far right.

The funeral of Ron, a veteran of the second world war, brings back together an East End family to remember the good times and look to the future. Jack, used to work at the car plant, and now struggling to earn enough money to keep his family, is toying with becoming a BNP councillor. Younger brother Jon managed to get out and works as a successful trader in New York; whilst their old school friend Tony, the most thoroughly developed of the characters, a man whose own son was killed by a road side bomb on duty in Afghanistan, agitates and provokes. As the drink flows in The Bull, the temperature rises and Jon begins to learns that the town he left behind twenty years ago seems on the brink of meltdown.

The work seemed nostalgic both in terms of style and contact. Like Shane Meadows excellent movie This is England. The piece suggests that the critical moment when multicultural Britain fractured came from Thatcher's 1979 victory and the resulting unrest of the early eighties, signified clearly by the dislocation of black and white music. The Pressure Drop of the title references The Clash's cover of the sixties reggae hit by The Maytals. It's played as if it were a line in the sand.

Nonetheless with Billy Bragg operating as a frontman and guide, a wonderful songbook interrcutting the action and a dialectical text with a clear political agenda there were echoes of both Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop and the Theatre in Education movement of the seventies and eighties.

It's always good to feel the solidarity of others who want to stand up against racism and I sensed that all of us in the audience arrived sympathetic to the play's cause.

However, this is also a consciousness raising piece that, in the build up to an election, where both Nick Griffin and Richard Barnbrook are peddling their poison in the East End, should leave the comfort of the arts centre and head for the secondary schools and pubs of Barking and Dagenham.

Telling Stories.

Saturday was a fascinating day at Richmond Theatre working with Rib Davis from the Oral History society - looking at approaches to interviewing and transcribing work for reminiscence and verbatim theatre projects.

A number of really interesting issues came up - not least the notion of accuracy and neutrality. We looked at trying to interview each other - with the aim of not allowing the process to become a chat or sharing, but rather an open ended opportunity to allow the interviewee the space in which to tell a story. It was really difficult - particularly as all of us found ourselves manipulating or working on the material of the story as soon as it was told. In someways this is the essential difference between the oral history and the theatrical process. The former will always look to be accurate and the latter poetic. Where factual detail is important in the first, the second is always looking for a shape, a metaphor, an edit or a narrative sweep to hang the individual stories around. It's a different definition of 'the truth.'

Some verbatim theatre playwrights - David Hare in The Power of Yes and Gregory Burke in Blackwatch have overcome the neutrality issue, by including themselves in the action, revealing in the process their own flaws, naivete and struggles with turning primary source into poetry. In doing this they've also freed themselves to enter discussion rather than purely record testimony during the encounters they've had with their interviewees. Essentially I think they'd both want to argue that drama is more a Socratic dialogue than a confessional. The key is knowing when to interfere and when to allow the material to generate itself.

Our work for the 110th birthday project will need to take today's training a step further and begin to explore the theatrical languages that lie beyond the initial interviews. For now though it's great to have a firm structure from where we can build our research.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Shakespeare on Film.

A really enjoyable afternoon on Thursday watching the Level 2 presentations in the lecture theatre. The assignment was to create a five minute DVD trailer for a proposed touring production of The Winter's Tale aimed at programming directors in mid scale venues and looking to attract a booking. The groups began work on this in January.

The results were wonderfully eclectic - some incredibly well produced, some conceptually clear, some a lot of fun - but what was evident was that every group had put in a huge amount of imagination, thought and energy into both thinking through their approach and then into the manufacture of the DVD itself. I'm really pleased that the idea caught fire and that, perhaps driven on by the efforts of friends or colleagues in other groups, the standard of work was raised higher and higher. It's the kind of synergy that gives a value added to the learning and takes the work beyond the lecturer's input.

This cohort of students are always the pioneers. The new degree began with them and the idea to produce DVD's was an attempt to find a more creative possibility to assessment by presentation. It must have been time consuming and occasionally frustrating - working with technology always is - but I also hope by mixing the pathways and bringing in the expertise of the Joint honours students - whether from Media or English to support the editing and scripting of the trailers - that the first two years of the programme have been consolidated a little and that we've learnt some new skills from each other.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Women Beware Women.

A stylish and seductive Women Beware Women at the National this evening directed by Marianne Elliott and cleverly designed by Lez Brotherston, who brilliantly uses the revolve to take us in and out of the royal palaces, and backstairs subterfuges of Florentine society. It's a world that spirals around central images of power and authority - a dominating crucifix or stunning chandelier - creating, in the vast space of the Olivier, the cynical sense that power and money are both natural pursuits and inevitably corruptive forces.

It's a brutal play of deceit and crushed hope as beautiful young heiress and wife Bianca is tricked into having sex with the Duke. To her surprise rather than filling her with revulsion, the encounter offers her possibilities for influence beyond her imagination and so begins a brilliant dissection of the complexities of lust, submission and reward. There's something very attractive about fortune.

There are some cracking performances from Samuel Barnett as the cuckolded husband, Leantio, Andrew Woodall as the ambitious sleazebag courtier Guardino and Harriet Walter as the desirous aristocrat, Livia, cheerfully pandering opportunity, manoeuvring and matchmaking for her own strategic advance and sexual fulfilment.

A thrilling dance macabre ends the show as the masked ball to celebrate the Duke's marriage to Bianca disintegrates under the machinations, plots and counter plots into a carefully choreographed orgy of decadent sacrifice.

With the stage littered by corpses it's left to the Cardinal to denounce the adulterous behaviour of his brethren and in what must have been a direct, and prophetic, challenge to the Jacobean court warns against the corrosive forces of absolute power and divine rights.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

An astonishing show from the Drama Soc tonight in Studio 3 bringing back to life this dated Dario Fo play with verve, energy and commendable stamina. On the back of some excellent work prior to Easter there's little doubt now that the society is well and truly established in the life of Drama St. Mary's and has positioned itself as a genuine asset, offering those students who prefer putting on plays to eating or sleeping a chance to do it. They're not just geeky enthusiasts either - the quality of the work is very good.

At the heart of Lindsay Clark's excellent production was a fantastic solo performance from Mikey O'Neill who held the stage for near on two hours without missing a beat or wasting a gag. I haven't seen a student do that with such aplomb in the four years I've been here and he was ably supported by James Docherty, Matt Dennis, Gaz Wilson and the brilliantly understated Jo Winter who all, in different ways, did their bit to keep the ball in the air and the laughs coming from beginning to end.

As with all great comedy the actors had the energy and investment to stay one step ahead of us, playing with a huge generosity of spirit and a real understanding of the play. It's clear through the apparent ease with which they delivered that rehearsals had been thorough and productive. It's great to see the standard of acting and directing being raised high. Viva Drama Soc!

Saturday, 17 April 2010

BAC to Ubu.

Ended the week at the BAC to see the MA Physical Theatre International Ensemble's first show Chairman Ubu directed by Sean Foley. There were some cracking performances and strong commitment from the actors who took Jarry's anarchic play about power and desire and set it at an office party where middle manager Ubu unveils his naked ambition to raise himself up to the boardroom.

Cedric, was great fun and really charming in the main role with wonderful support from Paka and Alice, playing a Spanish and English actress, respectively, fighting for the role of Ma Ubu.

The company had had a couple of try outs back at Uni during the week, but the houses had been disappointing and although the theatre was pretty full last night, there was a feeling that they'd settled for playing out the pre rehearsed show, rather than allowing us to be part of the fun. This isn't to say it wasn't an entertaining evening, but rather that the performers lacked the supreme confidence needed to relax and play off the audience's reaction. Occasionally they needed to take the foot off the accelerator and wait for laughter. In the end, deprived of the opportunity, we kept much of it to ourselves.

It is a shame so few of the undergraduates got to see the work, particularly as the actors had both a control over the material and a level of performance energy that we rarely see. For all the flaws there was a lot to learn here.

Friday, 16 April 2010

A Shift?

Thursday night and Drama in the Community hit the streets of Ham to leaflet in preparation for next month's show. We coordinated our strategy in The Royal Oak, dividing up the publicity material and allocating streets, before heading off in pairs to cover the village. Two and a half hours later we'd posted to 2,000 addresses. Job well done!

Bry and Carolina even managed to bump into our MP Lib Dem Susan Kramer out on the early evening stump. She knew all about the birthday party and providing she's still representing the constituency has promised to be there.

Retired to Patsy's to watch the first of the live debates between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. It was a fascinating hour and a half job interview and seems to have blown the election wide open. The debates have been almost universally welcomed, but the downside for me is that they confuse a party political system with a presidential election. Only 50,000 or so people in Sheffield or Kirkcaldy or Witney will get the chance to vote for one of these three and although of course they each represent a body of political opinion the media have obsessed over making it a personality contest. It's very confusing. Are we voting for a leader or a government?

It became clear from very early on that, on a personal level, the real winner on the night was Clegg. Both of the others might need to cut a deal with him in three weeks time and so rather pulled their punches, allowing him to look as though he were setting the agenda. It'll be fascinating to see whether this is the pivotal moment where we move from a two to a three party system or whether as the Liberal manifesto is opened up to scrutiny the electorate gravitate back to one of the two parties who've held power for the last sixty five years. Either way the next debate has been complicated by that expectation that the Liberal Democrats have become a genuine threat. Interestingly their manifesto seems every bit as 'soft' as Labour's 1983 document - which has gone down in legend as 'the longest suicide note in history.' Both Cameron and Brown will, undoubtedly, rough it up a bit next time in an attempt to portray the Liberals as loony, ban the bomb, hippies!

The real loser seemed to be Cameron, who may be moving too fast for his own good. His enthusiastic manifesto calling for a big society is a huge gamble, simply for the fact that beyond the initial radicalism there doesn't seem to be much contingency. Of the three leaders he seemed the one least able to manoeuvre his way through the minefield of an unbriefed ninety minutes and once his idea had been voiced it was ignored by the others, leaving him seeming a little lost.

Despite the predicted gains they made last night, the present system makes it nearly impossible for the Lib Dems to hold over 100 seats, even if they become the most popular party, but strengthening of their support does make it harder for the Tories to capture enough of the Labour seats to win the overall majority. It's all become excitingly unpredictable.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Boys Own Bones.

Westminster Abbey and the RSC have combined to run a series of lecture demonstrations on Shakespeare's kings over the next few weeks. It's an interesting format of mixing period music with excerpts from the plays and a contextual sermon reflecting both on reputation and interpretation. On Tuesday the focus was Edward III, the progenitor of all the many players in Shakespeare's history cycle.

I arrived late, long after all the decent seats were taken, and ended up standing in Poet's Corner surrounded by the silent statues of a boys own pantheon of heroes. Shakespeare himself, casual as a cat, fist on chin. Caught between action and reflection. David Garrick bursting through a heavy curtain to delight an audience. Fatty George Handel staring into the middle distance, awaiting his muse and peeping out cheekily from the shelves and alcoves a hundred others: Macaulay, Keble and rare Ben Jonson.

The lecture itself delivered by Canon Theologian Nicholas Sagovsky was fascinating and the music haunting. Unfortunately it was the actors who disappointed. Eschewing mics, they struggled with the reverberation of the high vaulting ceiling and frequently mistimed their responses as they tried to get a grip on the unusual acoustics of the space. It was impossible to hear.

After a few minutes I gave up on them and went for an unsupervised walk, past Chaucer and through to the jumble sale of tombs at the South End of the Abbey. Plantagenet Kings are two a penny here - Richards, Edwards and Henrys. It felt strangely thrilling to trespass amongst them - each an inspiration for our enduring cultural myths of leadership and nobility. I hovered by Henry V and was reminded how Samuel Pepys had both been here before me and allowed to see into the open grave of Henry's French wife Katherine - the Queen immortalised by Shakespeare as a struggling English student. Tourism in 1669 clearly had a value added aspect.

'Here we did see by particular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois, and had the upper part of her body in my hands. And I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this my birthday, 36 year old that I did first kiss a Queen.'

As the show finished I crept along the East side, past the politicians, musicians and scientists and out into the night.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

A Trip to the V&A.

We're down to the final twenty five young writers who are going to help create the new play for Richmond Theatre's 110th anniversary celebrations in the summer. Originally we'd thought that it'd be an easy job finding ten talented teenagers to contribute to the project, but as we've been workshopping round local schools in the last couple of months interest in the project has grown, with over two hundred registering to take part. The scale has caught us by happy surprise.

So on Monday we ran a day long audition to finalise our choice beginning with a journey up to the theatre and performing arts galleries at the V & A for a tour and introduction by Gillian, the collection manager, focused on a broad history of the British stage.

For a discipline that's so reliant on energy, momentum and movement I'm always struck by how lifeless the artifacts, posters, tickets, costumes and posters feel trapped in cabinets and behind glass - their magic faded, their stories stifled. The exception was Charles II's royal decree of 1660 allowing - or actually insisting - women appear on stage for the first time. An etched black and white portrait of the king on the top left smiling wryly at us across the centuries, content at the good deed he'd done.

The video clips, dressing up costumes and model boxes provided more interest, but we didn't really have enough time to explore independently, or to get a gauge of how the students might approach research, before heading back to the theatre for an afternoon workshop. In truth all twenty five deserve a place on the project and rather than making the job easier a day of work just made selection that bit more tricky.

Once the teenagers had gone home Eleanor, Carolina and I retired to the pub to try and construct the right team. It took a while, but now it's done I'm really excited to begin work proper.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Rick and Roll.

Down to The Rose and a brilliant fund raising event organised by Yel for the International Youth Arts Festival, featuring the return of eighties crooner Rick Astley and his new band The Luddites. It was a long way from Together Forever!

Clad in orange boiler suits the three piece cracked their way through a string of covers with Rick himself leading from behind the drumkit. As an eighties icon he couldn't have been more packaged and harmless, but here, live and without a care in the world he revelled in the freedom of choosing and interpreting music that he felt something towards. It was the most wonderful subversion - twenty four years late! I wasn't the only one shaking my head in glorious disbelief.

There were some fantastic highlights - Creep, Seven Nation Army, Use Somebody and Pretty Vacant, even a re rendering of the Katy Perry song manfully changed to I Kissed a Boy and how the audience liked it.

Between songs Rick grinned, cracked jokes, and clowned, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, for all the world resembling that other great Lancastrian Eric Morecombe. Then finally just when we thought it couldn't get any better he picked up a guitar and thrashed his way through Never Going Give You Up with all the irony of a man who'd long ago realised the folly of fame and genuinely just preferred hanging out having a laugh with his mates.

London Assurance.

Off to the National to see the ludicrous Dion Boucicault play London Assurance.

The star studied cast took the opportunity of an unusual Sunday afternoon outing to revel in their own sense of fun. It's as close to a pantomime as I've seen in the Olivier and by the middle of the second half I'd lost almost all interest in the slim story and was left to enjoy the competitive playing as the actors took it in turns to try and corpse and out do each other. Perhaps artistic director Nick Hytner decided that taking the reigns off might be the only way to accommodate Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw and Richard Briers on stage simultaneously. Perhaps he's right? There's fantastic support from Michelle Terry, Paul Ready and Mark Addy - all of whom you fancy can give as good as they get, even when on stage with the naughtiest of actors.

In many ways the show is a reaffirmation of Hytner's blueprint for a successful Theatre. It's broad, operatic, camp and populist - decidedly not a place for introverts or puritans. Occasionally though it leaves me longing for subtler, more ambiguous shades.

It is, however, an approach culturally in tune with our inclusive times where emotionally empathy takes precedence over intellectual complexity. It's theatre as celebration, where everybody is welcome, and in the hands of the cavaliers works brilliantly well.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The Real Thing.

To the Old Vic to see The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard, in preview. The play was originally performed in 1982 and the revival seems slightly oddly placed. A sign perhaps that theatre hasn't got much to say at the minute? Essentially it's a clever and witty musing on love, set in the world of the theatre where successful playwright Henry is having an affair with actress Annie, whilst Annie's husband Max and Henry's wife Charlotte star as a married couple in Henry's play where Charlotte's character is having an affair. The play's smart Pirandello twists offer Stoppard the chance to craft some beautiful lines particularly about the value and weight of words, both as seductive tools and as precise instruments for describing experience.

There are some excellent performances notably from Toby Stephens' as the charming and self-assured Henry and the ever wonderful Hattie Morahan, whose every guilt, doubt and fear reveals itself physically. Stephens' Henry is impossible to read; whilst Morahan's Hattie betrays 'the real thing' with each glance, gulp and gesture.

So it's a good night out and a great exercise in intelligent and skillful technique.

It's not a show to rock any foundations or hail a brave new world but then it doesn't to pretend to. It does what it says on the tin, leaving a comfortably well off and theatre literate audience to drift away and compare their own happiness and flaws against those of the characters they've just spent two hours in the company of.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Empowering the Misfit.

News of Malcolm Maclaren, the Godfather of Punk's, death this morning generating a string of almost disbelieving tributes to his legacy and vision. I wonder whether Punk as a force did signify a revolution or whether it's simply a footnote to a greater history of popular culture. I was very young when the Sex Pistols attempted their musical rebellion - opening up a possibility to every teenage misfit in the country to pick up a guitar and have a crack - but remember it distantly as an uprising, full of the anticipation of something different. Perhaps the fact it wasn't The Bee Gees or The Wombles was enough? Certainly in that first wave the comforting familiarity of the music and lyrics mattered much less than the attitude and energy.

There's a popular myth that suggests that the excessive threat of the movement helped Margaret Thatcher to be elected in 1979. A form of cultural clampdown, but the reality was that the anarchy of The Pistols, links back to The nihilism of the New York Dolls and the Dadaists' angry rejection of a structure. As in previous generations an overcrowded deck was unsentimentally swept away, allowing a new talent: The Clash, The Jam, Elvis Costello, The Smiths etc. etc room to establish. The legacy is there.

Sometimes I'm overally critical of the acceptance that our students seem to have of the world in which they live. Perhaps I'm over romantic about rebellion and wonder why it's stopped being attractive? Perhaps our students have a more sophisticated maturity than I mustered but I do get concerned that occasionally they don't feel that they are important enough to challenge orthodox opinion.

What Punk championed was the idea that culture wasn't just for the rich and beautiful - that one group or class didn't have to control expressive behaviour. I still think that somewhere in the back of your mind it's healthy to be a punk; to remember that conformity isn't necessary and to understand that it's okay to do something about your boredom.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Off.

The general election has been called, which means wall to wall coverage for the next month or so. The media, of course, set a loaded agenda by telling two stories from the off - on one hand geekishly analysing every pause taken, backdrop chosen and hair trimmed, whilst on the other groaning in anticipation of the fatigue and ennui of the whole thing.

There are, as always, two elections - one for style and one for substance - and every indication this morning is that all parties recognise that style is the more important attribute. Policy has to be packaged, arguments made to fit the bite size chunks on the news, politicians groomed like dogs at a show and a buoyant sense that we're are at an unmissable moment of history maintained.

David Cameron cleverly launched his campaign with immaculate timing, undercutting Gordon Brown's official announcement in Downing Street, by a matter of minutes. He stood on a South Bank soap box, surrounded by activists and with the Houses of Parliament in the background. The whole thing called to mind both Julius Caesar engineering a way to cross the Thames and Henry V at Harfleur. It also of course, despite the fact he's been an MP since 1997, gave a sense of distance from recent scandals. A very, very posh rebel. Robin Hood was an aristocrat, after all. If they can maintain such slick stage management and strong narrative hints the Tories could leave Labour for dead in a few days.

No party will release a manifesto for a week, but the way the hacks and MPs circled each other in mutual need on Parliament green this morning, suggests that this will be a side show.

Off the leaders went Cameron to a hospital in Birmingham, Brown to a supermarket in Kent and Lib Dem Nick Clegg, who provided he plays a straight bat and doesn't cave in to the bigger parties, has a lot to gain this time out, to pound the streets of Watford.

I hope in a few days, once the initial excitement dies down, we'll be able to look at how the parties see our economic future rather than posturing in the moment, but for now the screens are filled with vain bonhomie and a desperate sense of self-control needed so as not to be caught off guard.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

A Corner of England.

Spiral headed for home via Stanstead this morning. After seeing them off I decided to keep driving up the M11 towards Cambridge (not the most sensible place for an Oxford boy on boat race day.) I didn't get as far as the city centre instead turning off through Trumpington - home of Symkyn, the Miller in Chaucer's Reeve's Tale who was cuckolded by Geordie students - and then onto Grantchester for a coffee in the beautiful orchard where Rupert Brooke ever wished to be.

I've always thought of Cambridge as a city of scientists and spies - lean and puritan in comparison to the high church indulgence and childlike fantasy of Oxford but, here, sitting in a deck chair under the trees, as Spring tried desperately to assert itself, it was the neo-pagan poets and philosophers who haunted the afternoon.

Brooke's poem about the village, written in Berlin, immerses him in the comfort of this gentle place, another Eden, held close to the heart in times of danger. It's a wonderful hymn poised between a knowledge of having lived and a desire to stay young, to keep wide open the eyes of exploration. What kept coming into my head, however, at the end of a near perfect week, was the second - and lesser known - verse of his most famous work The Soldier.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Cambridge won the race, but relaxing in the hospitality of their mellow meadows I couldn't begrudge them that.

Light Skies and Heavy Stones.

Friday 2nd April

Just across a mud clogged field from the farmhouse where we're staying lies a Boscawen-Un a neolithic stone circle with a leaning pillar at the centre aimed towards a mysterious quartz stone lying South West. Although nobody can really make sense of its meaning it was a good excuse to delay leaving for a while.

We headed north to pick up a few things in St.Ives, stopping at the more remarkable Chyauster Iron Age village crunched high on the hill above Penzance ground down to evocative ruins under the low dark sky.

The sun came out, as it always seems to, by the time we got to town. The seagulls sang, the fishing boats bobbed in the harbour and the pastel blues, whites and yellows of the cottages and daffodils invited us to stay. We buzzed around the studios and shops picking up a few souvenirs and a very early cream tea, to steel ourselves before facing the long drive back to London.

We stayed off the motorways and at Exeter headed due east through Somerset and Wiltshire for a final stop off at Stonehenge - just as it was closing. The stones are protected, cordoned off and visitors have to circle them at a distance of fifty metres or so. We tried to persuade the guards that we were Spanish druids, who'd just turned up a bit early for solstice, but they wouldn't let us go any closer. It's hard to fathom this attraction - it could be so inspiring but everywhere the trapping of twentieth century commercialism invade the eye line. Gone is the majesty or awe inspiring conundrum. Most tourists take photos of themselves jumping in front of the stones - a strange juxtaposition of movement and the immovable; of energy and latency.

With evening drawing in we detoured past Salisbury and through the New Forest before turning onto the M3 and a fast track back to Ham.

East to Eden.

Thursday 1st April

We headed East today to the Eden Project tucked away in an old quarry just south of Bodmin. It's another example of a small group of people using positive determination to fulfill a dream and is a rather magical place somewhere between Disneyland and a garden centre. Outside the rain fell, but we stayed warm and a bit dehydrated in the two wonderful biospheres. It's a brilliant resource and the ticket, which gives you a year's access to the site, really supports local schools and communities to make full use of the educational resources and research going on here. In a county where tourism and agriculture provide the main industry it's a wonderful magnet for encouraging young people growing up in the area to visit regularly and make sense a potential economic future for Cornwall.

We drove north up to Tintagel and braved the angry afternoon on the ruined battlements of the castle. Marta - a serious historian - wasn't very impressed by the mythical conceits of Arthur's 'alleged' birthplace and shunned Merlin's cave hidden in the cliff face below. Still the drama and romance of the place was difficult to dismiss. Weather beaten we headed for a pint in The Cobweb at Boscastle - now fully restored after the devastating floods of five years ago and then headed down coast to Padstow for a 'Cornwall rocks!' meal in Rick Stein's bistro. Heading for home tomorrow

The Wild West.

Wednesday 31st March.

Up early and driving down the hedgerow high lanes to The Minack Theatre at Porthcurno. The theatre, hewn from the cliff with bloody minded determination by local landowner Rowena Cade, is a triumph of amateur endeavour and a real labour of love. I've applied every year to bring a Drama St Mary's show here and every year have been told the waiting list is as long as a Cornish mile. My cunning plan is to make Marta and Carol fall in love with it and see if, with the weight of Spiral behind us, some kind of joint project could be negotiated. It'd be fantastic to devise work with them for this beautiful setting.

As we clambered down the cliff, the sun came out, the sea sparkled, the world curved on the far horizon and the theatre worked its stimulating magic. We spent half and hour exploring exits, entrances and imagining what we could do if consent were given.

The rest of the day was spent working our way slowly round the wild Penwith peninsula - blustery photos at Land's End, a walk along the exposed sands of Sennen Cove, up to Cape Cornwall where the Atlantic currents split to form the English Channel and the Irish Sea all before a pub lunch in St Just.

Afterwards we went hunting for the Iron Age Chun Castle and Quoit, the ancient and spiritual centre of the region. It took some finding and two abortive attempts, arriving in the wrong field, before we finally made it through the wind and hail to the ancient hill fort from where both coastlines north and south can be seen and, presumably, commanded.

Next stop was Zennor church to see the carving of the Mermaid (Merry maid) who was so seduced by the singing of local tin miner Matthew Trewella that she came onto land to capture his heart and take him back to the sea.

Onwards to St. Ives for a portion of whelks in the waning light before crossing back to the South in time for the full sunset over St. Micheal's Mount and a huge fish supper on the cosy quayside in Mousehole.

Taking the Waters.

I've had a couple of days off. The ever wonderful Marta and Carol from Spiral flew over from Spain for a lightening visit, so we turned off our mobiles and laptops, loaded a car with maps, CDs and nice food and headed West for an explore.

Tuesday 30th March.

Up early to avoid the traffic and off to Bath for to see the Roman remains. I've never looked round the ancient site before - from the outside it seems so small and contained - but with Marta as expert guide the whole place opened up as a fascinating, vibrant and even slightly nostalgic exhibition. The great bath is an incredibly evocative place, with guests and tourists leisurely strolling around its circumference feeling the thermal heat on their faces, sitting and talking in the alcoves and imagining the decadent pleasures that brought the rich and powerful of the town here 2000 years ago. It's an incredible living preservation, as complete and tangible as Pompeii.

My favourite touches were the curses scratched onto small lead tablets and thrown into the spring as an offering. They are an excessive and fantastic way to deal with petty thieving.

'Lord Neptune, I give you the men who have stolen my six silver coins. I give you their names. I give you their life, health and blood. The mind which has been privy to this act may you take away. The thieves who stole may you consume and take away, Lord Neptune.'

Fearing the disproportionate Gods, we were careful to pay for a glug of the sulphurous water (the aftertaste, we felt, was punishment enough.)

We headed on to Exeter for tea in Devonian hero, Francis Drake favourite cloisters pub - The Ship and a quick look round the cathedral, where the choir were practicing evensong. With the clocks turned back we still had some time in the twilight for a leisurely drive over the barren moonscape of Dartmoor, before a final stretch through South Cornwall, leaving London ever far behind - onto our desolate farm house retreat on the very edge of the country and last orders at The St Buryan Inn