The Time Has Come

Phew nearly Mysteries time. What a month.
The reading at the Troubadour was a triumph, though I say it myself. I got a lot of very positive feedback and promises of more readings and sold 7 of my 10 books, so I was pleased. The other readers were good too, we all sold books. The Troubadour has a strong core audience who are very serious listeners and generous with their money!
I was staying with a friend who is a solicitor at The Guardian, and she offered to show me round the building on the Tuesday 11th May - and also took me in to the morning’s regular staff conference. Of course it was packed because everyone was discussing what would happen with the hung parliament, so all the top minds and journalists at the Guardian were putting forward their thoughts - you couldn’t move for bodies in the room, they just kept squashing in. A very exciting event.
Meanwhile back at the Mysteries - we had a disaster when one of our major dancers fell and dislocated his shoulder, so very last minute we’ve found a replacement, who’s just as good, but not a lot of time to rehearse him in. He’s a dancer so there’s no problem with the moves, but learning lines on top is a challenge. All the costumes are dyed and now have a Cain or an Abel tag sprayed across the t-shirts. We’ve got a taxidermy sheep for one of the offerings - all the girls said Eugh! it’s creepy.
On the day of the last rehearsal, Saturday, our director thought she’d broken her finger and had to go off to A&E to have her ring cut off. Luckily it wasn’t broken, but it broke up the rehearsal somewhat. Sunday night we were down on the Sands plotting lights at 11.00 in the evening! It was wonderful to see the full stage - I think it’s going to be very impressive, but accessible too. And the lights can twirl about, change colour or pattern and all controlled by computer. It’s very clever. We just need a chance to rehearse in the actual space, with all the props and set - that is happening tonight in a Technical and Wednesday 26th May on our Dress rehearsal.
We’ve got one our older dancers, who is a Design and computer whizz student to put some of the choral raps into a video format so that the words will come up in sequence on the LED screens at the side of the stage, and when the words aren’t up. there will be camera operators sending live feed to the screens. I’m just worried the dancers will be tripping over them. But I expect they are professional enough not to get in the way...
I thought I was just writing the Mystery play, but in reality, I’ve been Mrs Right hand woman, director’s assistant, stage manager buying costumes, organising the tag graffiti, sound technician and music advisor, and administrator for transport arrangements. It’s fun - it’s Show Biz - but it’s full on. And I’m a fretter - I worry about all the little details, so I wake up at 4 in the morning thinking S**T, I haven’t hemmed the Tag material (In fact I got a very good friend to do that on her industrial sewing machine, thanks a million Jane!). Now I’m taxi person, taking my son and others to Durham. I think I shall be more nervous than them.
And in the middle of all of this, I discovered to my delight that I have been accepted for New Writing North’s Fast Track Fiction course! This is designed for writers with a first draft of a novel, to help them get a finished draft, and give us advice on approaching agents and publishers. I have a first draft of a novel for 12+ year olds, my first in prose as opposed to in poems, so I really do need a good eye over it. I’ve tried to make it very plot-led. In fact the plot was leading me, so I ‘m not sure if I’ve got to the end, or the end of a first book in a series. Debbie Taylor, ex Mslexia editor, is our mentor, and she really is the business. It’s a bit difficult with my head full of Cain and Abel at the moment, but after Saturday, I can focus on my writing once more.
And if anyone is tempted to buy tickets for the Mysteries, don’t be put off when it says sold out - it is for the two shows at the Gala and the Cathedral, but you should still be able to buy tickets for The Sands - the other eight performances, including Cain and Abel. My advice is wrap up warm, it got quite cool by ten o’clock.
The Time Has Come... if you want to know what that refers to, you’ll just have to come along. See you there?

Posted by Ellen on 24 May 2010 at 03:00 PM GMT [Link]


May Day, May Day!

April seems to have been one long set of rehearsals and performances.
We gathered for a meal on the 5th Anniversary of Julia’s death, and sat around remembering happy occasions and looking at photographs. We raised a toast to her and talked about planning a literary event in her memory at some point. Then today, trying to sort the huge amounts of boxes of tapes and cds that I brought with me from the old house, I found a cd called Waiting Room - what’s that I thought? I played it and there was Charlie Hardwick singing Rendezvous Cafe - it was the BBC recording of Julia’s blog, edited and adapted for radio, with Charlie reading Julia’s words. Lovely.
We spent a week at Northumbria university getting Cain and Abel up on its dancing feet - wonderful and exhausting (for me) the young dancers would do gruelling hours of rehearsal, then to relax, they put on music and did more dance routines! We even had them speaking lines, reluctantly at first, but once they felt comfortable with the idea, and realised no-one was laughing at them, they just got better and better. Though I say it myself, I think the ending of the play is really quite moving. I am now trying to tidy up (hence the sorting of boxes) as I’ve got family and friends all wanting to come up, to see the Mysteries and stay. It will be a lovely get together.
I was asked to be part of the panel on the Friday 23rd April for the Looking North Conference at Northern Stage. Erica Whyman chaired it with aplomb, but I was charged with putting forward the ‘strong female perspective’. No pressure then. I soon realised that it would be easy to let the other confident, interesting men take all the air time unless I spoke up. I managed to make a joke: Erica was taking a straw poll of the audience - who had adapted their accent to fit in at any time of their lives, and where did their accent come from? I recounted the time I went to hire a car and the receptionist said ‘Oh, you’re from the Radio.’ I read some of Wall, and then after an open forum discussion the speakers went out to dinner. I got to sit next to Martin Wainwright and opposite Fernando Pereira and his wife: we had very interesting discussions about Northernness. In Portugal, the north is the cultured, economic hub and the south is simply the European’s holiday destination. I also had a fascinating discussion about mixing family life and art. The Pereira’s had decided not to have children, as it would conflict with time given to art - and even then, they still found it difficult to agree who was going to take time out to cook! You can cut every extraneous activity out of your life and still not have enough time for your art.
Unfortunately I couldn’t get to see his film Permafrost or hear their discussions as I was at another Cain and Abel rehearsal. I was also launching an exhibition at the Grainger Market called Herstory, that had arisen out of workshops, run by writers and artists (of which I was one) and inspired by International Women’s Day. We sat beside etched glass cubes, and decorated screens, covered by our group’s life stories, drinking cups of tea with a huge range of women: young mums, schoolgirls, elderly ladies and families from Afghanistan. They all got on well, it was a very positive occasion. Then on Sunday 25th I was reading at the inaugural event of Free as a Bard - a new poetry night at the coast, run by Iron Press at The Trojan Rooms. I was on with Valerie Laws, Eileen Jones, Paul Summers and a singer Karen Banning. It was really well attended on a lovely balmy evening. I wish it all the best - it’s good to have new venues giving readings.
By Monday 26th April I was tired, but that was the beginning of the new term! May is a funny month with it’s two bank holidays. I used to go on the May Day march every year, religiously. I find it rather a depressing event now, and anyway, I have an excuse for absence this year - the Hexham Book Festival, where I will be sitting on a stage with three men (again) talking about the North East Literary History book, entitled ‘Fix This Moment.’ I contributed a chapter on Women’s writing in the region; I was asked for a title, and couldn’t think. Then Colette Bryce suggested using Linda France’s new collection title - You Are Her - taken from a public map, with missing letters. Great idea and Linda was very gracious about it.
On the tenth of May I’m zipping to London to read at The Troubadour - a first for me, along with a night of Flambard poets. So if any friends of mine are out there - do come along. And the end of May sees the realisation of all our hard work: the Durham Mysteries. I think the whole event will be quite spectacular, but I may have to lie down in a darkened room for a day or so afterwards.

Posted by Ellen on 27 April 2010 at 05:05 PM GMT [Link]


Life, death and the drinks in-between

We’ve been gathering together our group for Cain and Abel, the Durham Mystery play scheduled for the end of May. We’ve been holding exciting rehearsals with Fred teaching them how to rap the lines, and a fantastic Bad Taste Cru doing the choreography. BTC are break dance champions from Northern Ireland, now based at Dance City, and when the beats, the raps and the dance steps all come together I get a tingle down my neck.
Sometimes it’s a bit like a Marx Brothers film, with Fiona MacPherson the director, me, Fred and two lads from BTC: Connor and Darren, each trying to give instructions. (Most of the time I’m just operating the on/off switch on the cd player, and try to keep out of it.) We’ve got a female Satan, who is a sympathetic character as opposed to the patriarchal Old Testament God, and a group of about thirty young people ranging from 11 to 25 year olds. We’re going to make use of this by having lots of Cains and lots of Abels, who will ‘grow’ in size through the performance, as we start with their birth (Eve the first mother) through to the first murder and death, when Cain, in a fit of jealousy and passion, stabs Abel. We’ve got a great Graffiti artist from Leeds designing our Cain ‘tag’, a son of a friend.
I remember when our boys were in the early teenage years, we’d be phoning each other up, worrying, sharing the latest ‘bad boy’ stories and supporting each other when we’d had to visit police stations and were waiting for court hearings. Now, here they are, turning their youthful experiences into current cultural capital. Bad Taste Cru brothers Darren and Connor have similar stories of their young lives in Northern Ireland - nobody thought break dancing was a legitimate activity, and certainly not one to make a living at. They are now in demand world-wide, workshopping and dancing in Brazil and the USA. This is really the story at the heart of our Cain and Abel; if a boy gets off to a bad start, makes a mistake, even a terrible one like murder, is he going to be marked for the rest of his life, never given a chance to change or redeem himself?
The theatre are building a huge outdoor stage, and anticipating an audience, picnic style seating on the grass, of around 3,000! Anyone interested in the Mysteries, play dates 27, 28, 29th May 2010, there is a website. www.durhammysteries.co.uk

Tim Dalling and I did our music and poetry show ‘Life, death and the drinks in between’ at the Cumberland on Thursday 4th March. I hunted out the old Blue Room tablecloths and we had tea lights and themed sweeties: jelly bones, hearts, eggs and letters. I really enjoyed performing with Tim, and I think we got the right balance between laughs and seriousness; we started with my poem Breath, about birth and worked out way through to Death, and ended with Tim’s setting of Sean O’Brien’s poem Absent Friends, which I absolutely love. We got the audience to write their own epitaphs, which we read out - one of my favourites was ‘At last, I’ve started my diet’ and we also got each table to see if they could make words out of their sweetie letters. Kincy Baps was my favourite of these. We made enough on the door, and by selling CDs and books, to cover our expenses and have a bit in our pockets too. We’ll not get rich, but it was a good tryout, for a show we could sell further afield. We just need to get our publicity sorted.

I’ve been running some writing workshops for Beginners, thanks to New Writing North. I tell people that a writer is someone who finishes something. Everyone has drafts of poems, or half written stories in their files - the trick is the graft, the determination to bring it to completion. So I am trying to take my own advice: I’ve given myself a deadline of the summer to bring my novel for young people to a finished first draft. I’m trying writing in different settings, to get away from my desk (and emails) - I’ve been into Heaton Perc, one of my local cafes, and the city library, or even my front room. Off I go.

Posted by Ellen on 16 March 2010 at 10:38 AM GMT [Link]


There and Back Again

We’re back from a month long trip to New Zealand, and back to the start of a new year, a new decade too. I kept a journal while I was travelling, but internet connections were always a bit fraught on the the other side of the world - counting down the precious minutes I’d bought and my son champing to get his lion’s share of connection with home. Hence no blogs or diary entries for December.
We flew to Christchurch in the South Island, hired a camper van and travelled round, ending up in the North Island and flew home from Auckland. I reckon I clocked up over 3,000 kilometres of driving. But what a place to drive! Every journey was a discovery and a delight: new and varied landscapes round every corner. It’s like Britain in its variety in a small country, yet magnified in every way: chains of snow-capped peaks, even in summer, hugely deep fiords and glaciers next to temperate rainforests humid and jungly, hot sandy beaches next to arid clinker strewn volcanoes.
Not every sixteen year old boy would put up with sharing a camper van bed with his mother for a month, but we got on extremely well. We kayaked in Doubtful Sound, we swam with small, rare Hector’s Dolphins in Akaroa, in the Banks Peninsula, we climbed on the Fox Glacier (the one on the mint packet I presume?) much of it in rain to begin with. The wet made the glacier icy smooth and slippery, rather than granular, and added to the feeling of having stepped from the Turkish Bath of the rain forest into the freezer room of the glacier surface.
Instead of the snowy silence you might imagine, the glacier makes constant noises: the spiralling water gurgling as it drills into the ice in moulins, the crack of the slow shifting of tons of ice as it crawls at 3 cm per day down the mountain, the boom of the boulders coming loose and cannoning down the sides of the valley, along with the constant waterfalls that suddenly flood and destroy the path. The trip is only allowed with an experienced guide and is a fantastic antidote to our Health and Safety world. We held onto chains along narrow cliff ledges, traversed streams and jumped over collapsed paths.
Coming back, the rain had caused the streams to swell and we crossed thigh deep with the help of two men standing in the swift water to steady us if we stumbled. Even so, Johnny slipped and half submerged in the icy water and the last of our party twisted and dislocated his knee. This meant we had to halt, shivering and wet, while the mountain rescue were called out to stretcher him down to the only road in and out. We couldn’t proceed until our guide had a spare ‘Spotter’ - another guide with a radio whose job it is to watch for rogue boulders and to radio ‘Run!’ to our guide who then hurries us out of the path of danger. Very exciting, but it didn’t happen.
The rain had also caused the terminal moraine to collapse - that’s the front end of the glacier - it exploded out a couple of days previously, sending huge lumps of ice all over the valley floor, so it looked like some weird sci-fi landscape, all misty and grey. We kept likening our journey to Frodo’s in Lord of the Rings (the films were one reason we wanted to visit NZ) which was a literary game we both enjoyed.
The next day, we compensated by spending the morning in hot spring pools, wonderful to do in rainy weather. 40 c round your body and cool drops falling on your head, and steamy ferns as a backdrop. Because of the rain, much of the landscape is often glimpsed through wreathes of soft cloud and it reminded me of the opening sequence of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath of God. Which is not so far wrong, as we were told that temperate rain forest is only found below 43 degrees latitude - shared by New Zealand and South America.

It’s easy to see why many people are trying to settle there, as a last Paradise while the rest of the world goes to hell. But of course, as our friends and Guides all tell you, New Zealand is as much in danger from global warming and other environmental problems as anywhere else. And wherever, and however far, you travel from home, you take your heart with you (to paraphrase someone).
I did achieve my wish of spending Christmas Day on a hot beach - Waihi in the North Island on the east coast. It’s a long golden curve with the Pacific rolling onto it. Weirdly enough, it reminded me of a place I love in Cornwall, it even smelled like Cornish sea air. But as Johnny and I sat in the late sun eating our ‘christmas dinner’ of asparagus, chicken and sauté potatoes, we talked of home and missed our friends and family. And we talked about Keith, how both his boys have gone in musical directions, and he’ll never see or hear them perform, they will never have his support and approval or be able to ask his advice. So you can go round the other side of the world and still end up thinking about what you tried to leave behind.
Thank god for books and scrabble and ipods. They kept us going in the nights sitting in the camper van. I reread the Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin and Sean O’Brien’s Afterlife, which I was hooked on, despite Sean saying it was a ‘horrible’ tale. The cultural references were all my era (Sean and I were born in the same year) so it all seemed eerily familiar. And finally I read AS Byatt’s Possession which kept me going on the journey home. Funnily enough, similar in some respects to Sean’s novel - the wicked machinations of scholars.
And then there was the shock of coming back to dark, snowy Newcastle. We arrived in time for New Year, which I feel superstitious about: it was good to be with old, close friends for the turn of the decade’s midnight. And then New Year’s Day brought the arrival of Julia’s first grandchild - Arthur Darling, born 01/1/10, a palindrome of a date, to Florrie and Rob. Although Julia will never see the gorgeous lad, and Florrie will never have her mum’s advice and support, a new life is always a wonderfully positive event.
My resolution: write more, write better. That’s what matters.

Posted by Ellen on 10 January 2010 at 11:58 AM GMT [Link]

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