If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know the early summer found me teaching screen-acting on the Pacific ocean, climbing volcanoes in Hawaii, declining offers of plastic Jesus statues in Mexico, celebrating Shakespeare in Wales, and glorying in the magic of Merseyside.
Since then I’ve been admiring sculptures by Miró in sight of the Mediterranean, watering pots and plants in rural Aquitaine, gulping at the terrifying power of the Catholic church, and revelling in Toulouse-Lautrec’s dazzling sketches of Parisian show-biz.
Oh, I meant to tell you about Wilfred Owen. We need briefly to return to the South Bank. Of the Mersey.
Philip Larkin, as I noted in my Hull notes, is splendidly remembered at Hull Paragon and London King’s Cross railway stations (Blog post May 12 2017) Larkin wrote major poems while working as the University Librarian in Hull, and observed that
…life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban*
And the Beatles’ first LP.
The Beatles, themselves of course considerable poets, had mates in Liverpool who created the famous “Mersey Sound” paperback in 1967 – and one of its authors, Brian Patten, included a verse tribute to Wilfred Owen, the great World War One soldier/writer who had lived and worked in Birkenhead. It’s called “Sleep Now” and there’s a manuscript copy of it in “The Wilfred Owen Story” – a genuine community project put together and staffed by local people in an empty shop. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Birkenhead, go and check it out, along with the salvaged German U-boat and the world’s first public park.
But to return to Europe. As the pound slithered downwards, and Mrs May’s bunch of shabby clowns smiled, floundered and smiled again, I had one question: would you shake hands on a deal with someone who grins as relentlessly as David Davis? It becomes increasingly clear our country will soon be plunging over a sharp, steep and unforgiving cliff-edge. But for now my lovely friends with homes across the water remain calm, generous and welcoming. Last year Kate and Doug, my friends at Cap d’Antibes, introduced me to local treasure-troves of works by Picasso and Fernand Léger.
This year saw a visit to the remarkable Fondation Maeght – works by Miró, Calder and Giacometti, in a steep, wooded garden high above Antibes at St Paul de Vence. Well actually, all the Giacomettis were away at a big retrospective in London, but it was still a terrific place to visit, and it’s the perfect environment really to experience the fun and surprise of Miró’s and Calder’s peculiar visions.
Meanwhile, down on the Azure Coast, ” le stand-up paddling” seemed all the rage, and while wandering in Nice I was led to the Ultimate Sweet Shop.
It’s a sparkling corner of Europe, and easy to see why the glitterati have flocked there since the 1920s, since Gerald and Sara Murphy provided a haven for Scott and Zelda, for Pablo and Ernest. And for two summers now Doug and Kate have provided a haven for Jones.
While I was there, the news broke in London about Shakespeare’s Globe. Michelle Terry to take over as Artistic Director next year! Regular readers will know Michelle has featured before in this blog, as a former student from RADA days of whom we are all repeatedly proud. Great acting performances at Stratford, in the West End, at Regent’s Park (a brisk and utterly convincing Henry V last summer) at the Globe itself, sharp comedy-writing for television, enterprising projects with young people, highly praised workshops with students – for goodness sake, Miche, just to list it all is exhausting – and of course a few short months ago she changed step just for a minute or two to produce a baby…Only a few weeks since you may recall I walked away from the Globe’s latest “Romeo and Juliet” in near-despair at the crass and clumsy direction. A New Dawn on the South Bank in 2018 – a defiant bright light by the Thames as Brexit shadows spread from the Channel. I fear poverty, I fear pestilence as our NHS dwindles, but all may not yet be lost while our theatre shines. (Photo – BBC News)
Inspired by this cheering news, I returned home from Antibes and mowed the lawn. We who dwell by the waters of Walthamstow are apprehensive. There is a new Wetlands project, opening up the banks and groves beyond our garden fences to you, the public. Now of course you are welcome – we are happy to share our trees and waterways, our sunsets, our egrets and cormorants. But plans are afoot to fund this venture by renting out the newly-refurbished old Engine House for parties and weddings, and a seven-day licence has been applied for, for alcohol and music till midnight. We are nervous of this, and so are the cormorants, the egrets, not to mention the swans. There is a Licensing Hearing at the Town Hall this week, at which if given the chance I will speak.
Having cut the grass, I re-packed my bag and headed for Stansted, from thence by Ryan Air to Toulouse and a train to Albi. There to be collected by car by my friend Jenny, who has an enchanted sprawl of a farmhouse in the hills of the Tarn region, close by the border of the ancient kingdom of Aquitaine, which I was visiting for the first time.
This isn’t glamour, it’s beauty. Valleys filled each morning with white mist, slow rivers in deep wooded ravines, ancient stone-built villages and hamlets, hot sun, cool rain, clouds and rainbows. In return for a little token help with watering geraniums, Jenny fed me, nourished me with tales of adventures around the globe, introduced me to her scattered community of warm and friendly friends – and found time to show me some of the region’s rich and sometimes disturbing history.
How much did they teach you at a school about the Albigensian Heresy? Quite – well to be honest I’d only vaguely heard of it, and I did A-level European History. It’s yet another uplifting tale of the benefits of organised religion, as exemplified by the frequent terrorist horrors of our own day. Back in the 13th century it seems folk in south-west France developed a taste for some of the Eastern strands of belief brought back by crusaders, which focussed in a group called the Cathars, and two of the major towns where they gathered were Toulouse and Albi. As far as I can make out their belief system was fairly esoteric, but included an opinion that much of the Catholic Church was misguided and corrupt. Now the Pope didn’t take kindly to this, and ordered an event called the Albigensian Crusade, giving licence to war-like nobility from elsewhere in France to commit massacre (and incidentally build up their own landowning portfolios). Thousands of people were slaughtered, the Inquisition was established and given full reign – and a massive new cathedral erected at Albi. It’s still there, and boy does it make a point: don’t mess with the Church, guys – we’re big, and we have God on Our Side.
Fortunately for us, in more tolerant times the bishop’s palace attached to this huge church (said to be the largest red-brick building in the world) has been turned into a museum housing works by Albi’s most celebrated secular son – Henri Toulouse Lautrec.
The collection is wondrous – full of zest and compassion, instantly evoking the backstage powder, perfume and sweat of glamorous fin-de-siècle Paris, the world-weary putains and their eccentric patrons, the sassy dancers and actors. Talking of which, it seems the theatre scene right now is thriving in France, generously subsidised, but only for the moment – the word is M. Macron may reign in the subsidies tout-de-suite. At Albi in the evening Jen and I came across a troupe performing an open-air show in one of the bishop’s palace gardens, a farce with masks, full of merry energy, albeit mildly bewildering.
Another by-product of the Albigensian unrest was the creation of a network of fortified hill-towns, the bastides. A fine example is the town of Cordes-sur-Ciel, which I spent a happy afternoon exploring while Jen was in a yoga class. There are steep shady narrow streets with wide views of the surrounding country, some terrific medieval buildings and a stone-pillared covered market-place. There’s a deep, deep well and if you pay 50 cents you can switch on a light and look all the way down. Here’s someone getting full value.
Another attraction of Cordes-sur-Ciel is a fine modern theatre nearby, the Théâtre le Colombier, at which The Friends of English Theatre (a group including several very distinguished members of our trade who live in those parts) present each year six one-off shows imported from the UK. Suffice for now to say that, as you might expect, there have been conversations….
Now once more I’m back in London, and the autumn theatre-going is under way, sometimes with American students sometimes not. Perhaps my senses have been over-fed with European delights, but nothing so far has sparked much excitement. Tonight it’s to the Gielgud to see Jez Butterwoth’s “The Ferryman” and expectations run high.
A bonus for Europe this month is the return to Greece of a much-loved and admired colleague, Andrew Visnevski, who after decades of bringing wit, wisdom and unique insight to countless students at RADA has left to share more time with his partner Colin at their olive grove in the Peloponnese. He generously treated Alex McPherson, Diana Fraser and me to a slap-up Greek farewell supper in Charlotte St last week, at which several toasts demanded several glasses. Back at home I was looking after a set of masks Alex had designed for a production of “The Cunning Little Vixen”. When I woke up the next morning, the masks had mysteriously colonised my bedroom window-ledge…
* The Chatterley ban? Oh dear I suppose there’s a lot of you don’t know what that was. Look it up. The revolution it sparked was not quite Albigensian, but it made quite an impact, especially amongst the wives and servants of the more genteel English classes.
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