Writing Greenwood Tree – and more

...a Collection of Quiddities. And inkpots. And most often, cobwebs...


Of Artists and Anarchists

“…A poster, half dangling from its moorings, flutters briefly in the draught created by passing coats and capes, delivering its message in flickers:

‘International… Congress … of Anarchists …’

Various speakers from America and Russia will be present including one Slavic prince lately escaped from an impenetrable fortress – such stuff as legends are made of, thus warranting a giant of a man swathed in dark cape with Byronic eyes and pose; and surely there should be a raven perched on one shoulder to complete the picture. Instead, the audience is treated to a little man of cherubic features, half smothered by bushy beard, whose eyes, Byronic or otherwise, are shielded by thick pebble glasses. …”

  (Of Soul Sincere, Part One, Chapter 2)

This could be called the Story of a Printing Press. Except that there is more than one printing press. It could also be a story about a family – only, there is more than one family.  It might be the story of one particular address – and yet, that too changes. It could also be about anarchists.  It is certainly about writers. Writers with quite an artistic and literary pedigree.

When does it start? I had thought to begin with the late 19th century; but really it could be said to originate in the 1830s when Italian writer and scholar Gaetano Polidori, by then residing in London, set up a printing press at his home near Regent’s Park and proceeded to print, among other things, the early work of his grandchildren: Maria, Christina, Dante Gabriel and William Michael Rossetti.

His eldest son (uncle to Dante and William) was that same John Polidori who became physician to Lord Byron and author of The Vampyre, the first of its kind. Interesting to note that Lord Ruthven, the vampire of the novella, was based on Lord Byron, just as Bram Stoker’s Dracula was based on Henry Irving – inspired by that same draining quality on the energies of the people surrounding them. As much a social commentary as gothic fiction, it is tempting to see in The Vampyre an anticipation of the later Rossettian social conscience in John’s nephews and nieces.

John Polidori by F.G.Gainsford

The two sisters we know went on to write poems and act as models for Pre-Raphaelite opiate-ingesting Dante. Poor Dante. His drawing, anatomically never terribly brilliant, took on near nightmarish qualities as laudanum, alcohol and mental instability progressed – not unlike Friedrich or Blake in its solidity, yet  weightier:  – a tangible expression of the oppression brought on by his mental and physical health. William Michael, by direct contrast, after briefly appearing in one or two paintings, went on to become writer, critic and, along with Dante, fellow founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848; in the same year, Dante began studying under Ford Madox Brown, whose daughter Lucy later married William Rossetti. The network was growing, with a fair amount of cultural overlap – artists with writers and the occasional politician (Burne-Jones, Kipling, Baldwin and Poynter were all connected by marriage).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti at 22 by Holman Hunt

Within the following few years, social revolution and anarchism were bubbling across Europe; the seeds sown by Proudhon gained momentum with Marx, Bakunin, Kropotkin, with its artistic counterpart represented by such movements as the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1853, Millais painted The Stile. In 1854, co-founder member Holman Hunt, produced The Awakening Conscience. Both of these caused quite a stir in their social commentary and symbolism, while contemporaneously in Smolensk a 12-year-old aristocrat called Peter Kropotkin renounced his title of Prince as a result of his republican education. He continued in his beliefs into adulthood, and furthermore, began to share his thoughts through writing and lecturing. In 1874, the year William Rossetti married Lucy, Kropotkin was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress as a direct result of his teachings. He escaped from imprisonment in Russia and reached London, where he settled for a time, giving lectures on Anarchism.

In 1880 he wrote ‘Appeal to the Young’, a brief and brutally honest critique of living conditions for both rich and poor; by this time, William and Lucy had a family of five; the three eldest of the Rossetti children read it and decided to establish ‘The Torch’ in 1891. It was initially hand written, with small circulation.  Kropotkin travelled from Acton to visit their family home in St Edmund’s Terrace and was presented with a paper by Olivia (Isabel)to sign, regarding the political platform of the Torch. The anarchist was delighted to do so. (He appears, disguised as Count Voratin, in A Girl Among the Anarchists).  The Rossetti children later had tea with him in the British Museum (there were Thursday ‘At Homes’ held by Mrs Garnett in the east wing of her new address at the Museum). In 1881 he lectured at the International Congress of Anarchists, on which is based the meeting described in the opening extract from Of Soul Sincere.

Peter Kropotkin circa 1900

By the late 1880s, Ford Madox Brown was residing at Number One St Edmund’s Street. In 1890, his neighbours the Garrets moved to official residence at the British Museum, and the Rossetti brood moved into the newly vacated Number Three St Edmund’s Street. It was an unorthodox household; free from the trammels of religion, in a domestic environment where freedom and expression of thought were actively encouraged, it was hardly surprising to find the children developing eclectic interests as much in politics as in the arts.

In 1892, a year after ‘The Torch’ had begun, the Rossetti children acquired a new printing-press whch was installed in the Torch Room in the basement; circulation now increased and by 1894 the press moved to Camden Town, then to the West End, under the aegis of Dr Fausset Maconald and finally in December of that same year to Somers Town, near where the British Library now stands (and where the printing-press remained until 1928). ‘The place is constantly observed by policemen.’ (Olive Garnett, Diary)

Ford Maddox Brown continued to be closely connected: as father-in-law and neighbour (from 1890 on)to William Michael Rossetti, and as grandfather to Ford Maddox Ford, supposedly the friend from whom Conrad in casual conversation one day heard the words regarding anarchist activities: ‘Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards.’  Ford later re-wrote the words, and suggested he knew a great many anarchists and a great many of the police who watched them; he would, as cousin to the Rossetti children and as neighbour, have been well aware of the various anarchists who visited the Rossetti domicile.

Conrad visited William Rossetti the late 1890s or early 1900s, (possibly to discuss Nostromo) – Helen, the younger sister, recalled the occasion. She was by then twenty; he did not, according to her, meet Olivia(Isabel) although he may well have based his Lady Amateur in The Informer (1906)on her. He mentions The Torch in the first chapter of the Secret Agent(1907).

The Torch was by no means alone(see footnote below); it is interesting for its literary connections and the germs for narrative that were supplied as a result (The Girl Among the Anarchists, The Secret Agent, An Anarchist,The Informer). The Rossetti connection ended finally in 1896 and the press was handed over to Thomas Cantwell. Life had taken over, or perhaps as described in the Girl Among the Anarchists,  the Rossetti children had outgrown it. Kropotkin continued to be involved with the Freedom press for a while until theoretical disputes within the organisation caused him to part ways.

Cover for The Torch

And there you have it, a story that is more a mish-mash, a patchworky sort of a thing, where east meets west through the printed word; a mosaic as complex as the beings it describes. There is of course a lot more to it than the compressed version here; the following books are on my wishlist and will contain a great deal more detail and cohesion than my meagre effort and they are:

Conrad’s Secrets by Robert Hampson

Conrad’s Western World & Conrad’s Eastern World by Professor Norman Sherry

Essays on Conrad by Ian Watt


(FOOTNOTE)The main anarchist paper of the time was the Freedom, published by the Freedom Press, which publishing house still continues today, although the paper itself had ceased to run in 1927 (a year or so before the main action of Of Soul Sincere). (Freedom Press : History)




Appeal to the Young, by Peter Kropotkin can be read online here:




The Stile, by John Millais


Notes on The Stile by Millais:


The broken wall: if it is meant to be symbolic, then it could be suggestive of lost virginity – elsewhere it has been suggested that the wall represents a boundary, a form of innocence. If the sitter is indeed Effie Gray, as has also been suggested, the fact that Millais is painting her unchaperoned, in such a scenario, when she was trapped in an unconsummated marriage, offer even more interpretations, especially as Millais became her lover and eventual second husband.

In another interpretation the stile she sits upon acts as the stepping stone, or portal, of the wall; beyond it the viewer is treated to another landscape, fresh, green, apparently uncontrolled – a horizon of desire for freedom, perhaps, a hint at a more positive future. (If the model was instead Annie Miller, as has also been suggested, the symbolism does not change – he had taken her under his wing and educated her with a view to marriage – the relationship did not change until the 1860s when he decided she was unsuitable).


1853 : The Order of Release has Effie as the wife – but who is the wounded soldier husband she has rescued? Ruskin or Millais ?

The Order of Release by John E. Millais


Of Buns and Balancing Acts

‘Trunk – check.

Knees – check.

Now …. Up-si-daisy…creak, groan, not getting any younger, y’know. And we’re up! Loiter forward slowly – don’t let them think you can run or there’ll be no end to their demands …

Step one: collar the one in the top hat – he knows where the food is.

Step two : Walk, don’t run (see above).

Step three: allow them one encore then back out quick in pursuit of top hat (see step one)

Oh yes. The ball thing. Roll it about, kick it, balance it – keeps the punters happy.

And the old trick with the plate thingy.

Not sure I see the point to it, to be honest; perhaps it’s some form of exercise in Gestalt philosophy. More of a Copernican myself – when I’m not feeling Darwinian. But they’re a light-hearted lot here…

Right, done that, pick him up and carry out to rapturous applause. Where’s the grub?’


Well, I would quite like to think of Jumbo and his counterparts engaged in such ruminations while balancing balls and tossing plates (or was it vice-versa?) before being led off for a well-deserved pile of buns.

Elephants joined the circus relatively early in its evolution; the cavalcade of horses under the aegis of Mr (Sergeant-Major)Astley evolved in the late 18th century, and was quickly embellished with exoticism: as early as 1812 the first trained elephant performed at Cirque Olympique in Paris. This in turn set off the winning combination of circus and wild animals, most notably developed in Germany by the Hagenbecks, the world’s foremost importers and dealers of exotic animals.

The sheer logistics of transport quickly take on mind-boggling proportions in the 19th century, when the travelling circus became big business. Whole trainloads of performers both human and not travelled the length and breadth of Europe, some of them jumping aboard a passing steamship to America along the way – when Barnum’s came to London’s Olympia in 1889 their entourage comprised 450 performers, 300 horses and 21 elephants. The amount of hay alone required must have been astronomical.





A field. An ordinary, uncultivated field. Nothing untoward about it. A path running diagonally across, and a ditch running alongside. A handy pool in the middle distance, a tree or two, some wild flowers. And an elephant.

The elephant was not alone. She had wandered across to inspect the taller of the two trees tentatively with her trunk. A man with a canvas bag slung across one shoulder sauntered up beside her. ‘Come along now, old girl, you don’t want those, do you—look what I have here…’ And so saying he delved into the canvas bag and drew out some bread. This was quickly disposed of by the wandering proboscis.

A muted trundling in the distance grew gradually as a series of brightly coloured caravans grumbled across the ground; there was the occasional bark from the three dogs gambolling about, the chatter and clanking of pots and pans, swinging from their hooks in constant confabulation, a murmur of voices both within and without as the troupe dispersed, picking out their spots with the practised eye of a proprietor lately established in his new home. Each had its own identity: the fortune teller’s caravan had a huge white circle painted on the side, on blue sky with stars across which was emblazoned ‘L’Oeil Voyant’. Another, decorated with a mage in star-bespeckled robe spreading out his arms against a panoply of curtains, playing cards and tripods, heralded the coming of the Great Doctor Miraculous. A third, modest in comparison, yet of content explosive enough to outdo them all, featured a small man sailing across a night-sky, with below him the mouth of a magnificent cannon pointing diagonally up. And if the viewer were still in any doubt as to its significance, the whole was topped off by large, clear lettering that declared the occupant to be the one and only Human Cannonball: Blazer, A Marvel of the Modern World.

And so on: the clowns sported balls and hoops, the balancing act plates and cups teetering on poles and trays, and most imposing of all, the ringmaster’s own domicile, with both sides adorned with top hats, plumed horses in mid-leap and a whole collection of colourful performers, with the magnificent emblem ‘Roly Tadger’s Remarkable Circus of Oddities’ running in cheerful colours across. A modest king this, who, rather than take centre stage, chose to set his abode in the wings so to speak (in the shade of the trees), at a slight distance from the rest. A tall man in a chimney pipe hat stepped out and wandered amongst his citizens, checking on this, minding that.

Water was fetched from the pool, a clearing made for a fire, and food prepared. The elephant keeper wandered off, munching on an apple, sizing up the surrounding area. He ambled about, stretching occasionally, squinting up at a wintry sun, meandering along until he ended up near the ditch. The elephant, her curiosity regarding the trees now sated, drifted in his direction. Absently, her keeper fished another bread roll from his bag and handed it to her over his shoulder. His gaze focussed on a clump of grass overhanging the ditch.

‘Did you hear something, Milly?’ he enquired. Milly responded with a furtive rummage in his bag.

He stepped forward, and peered over to look at the ditch more carefully. He had not been mistaken. Another groan, as if in confirmation, came up from the sorry individual lying there.

‘Dear, dear. Footpads, no doubt. No good travelling alone in these parts: you wait there,’ murmured the keeper, as if the unfortunate man in the ditch were chafing to be off; the keeper turned and cupping his hands to his mouth let out a hearty ‘hallooo’ to his companions.

Instantly doors opened, feet clattered down caravan steps and an assortment of oddities both human and otherwise spilled across the field. One of them, in elegant coat and moleskin hat, with the air of a medical man, knelt in the ditch and checked the insensible body for breaks.

A decision was reached, a stretcher made up from coat and boom handles, and the unconscious man was lifted and carried back to one of the caravans. By general consensus, they put him in the caravan belonging to the Human Cannonball, he having the least cluttered of all.

Day passed into evening, evening into dawn, and come the morning the caravanserai set off again. From time to time they paused along the way: the tall man in a chimney-pipe of a hat would leap up and down steps, knocking on the door of the Human Cannonball to see how the patient was doing.

‘No memory yet? Well, well, but from the look of him, one of our kind. And we could do with an extra set of hands…’ ”

(From ‘Of Soul Sincere’, Part Three)

circus filled


By the time Roly Tadger’s troupe is travelling the counties in the 1880s, the wildlife element of his ‘circus’ is reduced to a few horses, Milly the elephant and some performing dogs. By the late Victorian period, the trapeze artist and acrobat had come into their own, fuelling a re-discovered interest in athletics which led to the Olympics of 1896. Roly Tadger is relying more and more on human  performers (and probably his drinking has made it inadvisable to keep big cats on the programme anyway).


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It is summer, 1928.

When invited by her publisher to assist a well-respected M.P. write his memoirs, Julia Warren is at first reluctant to concentrate on anything other than her next novel; however, circumstances(involving among other things unexpected plumbing) conspire to change her mind and she finds herself at once guest and employee at the great man’s rather bohemian household.

Almost immediately she encounters memories from the past, of a rather unsettling nature …

Of Soul Sincere, coming April 2 2016, published by Grey Cells Press 

Lot 34 (Unexpected Auctions)

‘Lot 34, what am I bid, gentlemen, what am I bid? Very nice piece of classicism here, highly sought after, a sound investment – wide-sweeping vistas, possibly crumbling a little at the edges, but plenty of wear left in it yet,  never mind the quality shall we say, feel the breadth, ha,ha, – what am I bid? Thank you sir, you won’t regret it – any more? Come, gentlemen, a wide range of assets here, own in-built infrastructure, huge returns, no effort required; well, very little, anyway, minimal maintenance necessary as free service is included – won’t let you down, – unless you turn a little tyrannical, eh? Ha,ha, sorry – what am I bid? My, but we are all eager, aren’t we  – hardly surprising: the elegance, opulence, the sheer size and scale are unequalled. A growing concern, constantly expanding, new annexes all the time… Admittedly not the original Greek version, but as is often pointed out, a fair copy nonetheless, I think we are all agreed – thank you, sir – any more? And going, going, – GONE! Sold to the gentleman in the toga at the back there: one Roman Empire to …Senator Didius – Julianus, wasn’t it?’

No, it probably wasn’t quite like that, but tempting to imagine even so. Old Marcus Aurelius got into the habit of auctioning goods to get out of debt, and with a rather generous commodity in slaves and unwed females, auctions were the norm. Still, to end up auctioning a whole Empire. That takes some seriously bad housekeeping. But then, by 193 A.D., things were perhaps getting a little crumbly around the edges: conspiracies, messy murders and war have a way of leaving moth holes in the furniture, so to speak.  The result was the Praetorian Guard who, having relieved Emperor Pertinax of his position (and life), offered the Empire up for auction – and Julianus rose to the bait.

Auctions can be such emotive things. Drama, comedy, tragedy – it is an extension of theatre, filled with emotion and excitement, tension and hypocrisy, plots and paranoia, acts of pernicity coupled with acts of generosity. Witness the dramatic candle auction in Moonfleet, or the pathos of Dobbin secretly buying Amelia’s harpsichord in Vanity Fair. In the case of the Empire, it did at least kick some of the provincial commanders into action, and Severus marched on Rome to pull it back into shape. The Praetorians were sent into the corner for being such naughty schoolboys, and poor old Julianus was executed. Let that be a warning to greedy bidders: you never know what you might be buying into. Which leads me neatly (or probably not) onto the opening scene of the second Julia Warren Mystery (Of Soul Sincere) where a house with a past is auctioned off to the highest bidder: in this case, another politician. He too, didn’t know what he was buying into …



 A catalogue of household furniture, one piano-forte, a capital eight-day clock, plate, silver, ornamental china, a few pictures and drawings and numerous curious articles, the property of the late Geoffrey Bosquith, Esq, deceased; which will be sold by auction by Mess. Cardew & Penn, on Friday the 10th, and Saturday the 11th of June, 1791, at eleven o’clock, on the premises, at Bower House, South Lambeth, by order of the executors.

Bower House, an elegant building completed in 1762, property of Geoffrey Bosquith, Esq. deceased, will be sold by auction, also by Mess. Cardew & Penn, on Monday the 13th of June, 1791, on the premises, by order of the executors. …

‘GONE!’ The auctioneer’s gavel lands heavily, with a resounding bang! and the auctioneer wipes at his perspiring face with a piece of cambric. A last minute bid. No one had challenged. The bid had stayed. One of their more favoured clients, too. Henry Paglar Esq. Member of Parliament. No question of Queer Street with HIM—money fairly pouring out of his pockets in musical fountains. The auctioneer bows, smiles, extends his hand towards the register. The auction house clerk scurries across, hair tied back in a knot, with limp cravat and worn coat two sizes too large for him, holding quill and inkpot.

The auctioneer bows again. Henry Paglar Esq. (Member of Parliament) leans over the book, holding out his hand for the quill. It is dipped in the ink for him, and proffered with due reverence. He takes it and scratches his name in the ledger. The deed is done. There are bills of exchange and terms and contracts to be drawn up; the executors are even at this moment in the house, through there, dear sir, preparing the papers. The Member of Parliament is escorted to the next room and the business is concluded.

Only a few members of the audience remain to act as chorus to the whole scene; the rumour that sped through the air moments before hovers yet around them.

‘But is it true then? And that gentleman has gone and bought it even so?’

‘I would not live in such a place, not if you was to pay me for it—why, even just standing here, in full light of day, makes me shiver.’

‘And where was it they found him?’

‘Up the stairs, hanging, from the stairwell.’

‘Was it… was it murder then?’

‘No,’ and here the voices lower still more. ‘By his own hand, they say…’

A short pause. Then: ‘Shall we go and see?’

Almost on tiptoe, the little group wanders out into the hallway, to gaze with ghoulish relish up at the sun-filled stairway and landing.

‘Aye,’ murmurs one of them at last, ‘he’ll not rest easy, that one.’

‘Well, I do not know about such things,’ blusters one of the party, sticking his chest out, ‘but I should say the Honourable Member made a sharp bargain, and if he ain’t concerned about suicides and unquiet graves, why then, he is welcome to it. And I, for one, say well done for catching a bargain before it can wriggle away.’ With that, he declared himself ready to partake of a pint of ale and a pork pie at the White Horse down the road, and set his hat firmly upon his head.”

 (Opening from ‘Of Soul Sincere’)

It is odd. I wouldn’t have made the comparison, but for stumbling upon this historical footnote re Ancient Rome, yet in a way, the thread is similar. The House is bought, and becomes the nucleus for the same family all through the rest of the 18th century, the whole of the 19th century, to reach the year 1928 – when Julia arrives on its doorstep, to begin unravelling its secrets. In the same way that the Empire was sold, bought, and stayed with the same family, enduring the usual untidy asides of plots, murder and strife. Well, that’s families for you. Another coincidence: two of the female members of the Severus line were called Julia. Disconcertingly, both ruthless poisoners and political intriguers by all accounts.

I have a pet wish to set a whole series of stories in and around an auction house; most likely in the 18th century – they somehow belong there. It was when the big auction houses took off: Christies, followed by Sothebys, and perhaps some not so big, such as Cardew and Penn…


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It is summer, 1928.

When invited by her publisher to assist a well-respected M.P. write his memoirs, Julia Warren is at first reluctant to concentrate on anything other than her next novel; however, circumstances(involving among other things unexpected plumbing) conspire to change her mind and she finds herself at once guest and employee at the great man’s rather bohemian household.

Almost immediately she encounters memories from the past, of a rather unsettling nature …


Of Soul Sincere, coming April 2 2016, published by Grey Cells Press 

A Question of Binoculars…

Rehearsals have been in progress- broken up over the week, the time available necessarily making these short, frequent and concentrated. A week also to source props – the essential ones. Once the script was run through a few times, the essentials were narrowed down to barely three items; one of which stands out for being woven into the text, and without which the piece might actually lose a sense of place and time.
Simply put, we need binoculars. These happen to play a fairly important part in the piece throughout.
Well, not binoculars perhaps – immediately an image is conjured up of hefty field glasses. We need something a little more delicate, something you could hold in one hand (there’s a bit of business involving some snatching, physical banter so to speak); and a little bit vintage (the characters are in 20s -30s get up) so, … ah. Opera glasses. Now there’s a thought. Yes, they might do.
Head for Google. Websites. Not many, in fact. The same website for props in London pops up repeatedly, followed by vintage wedding supplies. The website that actually has opera glasses does not however indicate any price. My immediate reaction is to move away, just as I would from a beautiful window display, following the old adage: if the price isn’t showing, you probably can’t afford it.
Can I make them from scratch? Possibly. Can I make them in less than two days? Perhaps, had I the basic materials to hand (I start calculating what would be needed: small pastic bottles, tape, paint, glue, additional bits and bobs to finish off and realise this not a viable option). Can I adapt one?
Ho for home supplies, where I spot a simple black plastic little item for ₤6.00 or so. The basic shape is there. Otherwise they look hopelessly modern. I consider how long it would take to get them, and to find suitable materials to convert them into the kind of thing required. Too long.
The local hospice? I have on occasion seen the odd costume (mermaid, to be precise) but it’s a long shot as to whether they have a spare pair of opera glasses kicking about, and I don’t want to risk wasting time on it to no purpose.
It is now evening, and dress rehearsals due the next afternoon.
One more try online – a last resort, I did not expect to find anything now, yet within seconds I had an image on screen of a smart set of ‘generic horse race and opera glasses’ in wine red and chrome: they looked the part, didn’t cost much at all and offered next day delivery. Bingo! I clicked the button and arrived at rehearsals with only a slight delay, proudly bearing the prop. It feels like something of a triumph. It now only remains to source a couple of sandwiches (yes, these are props too, although how long they will last is moot point as I haven’t had any lunch yet….)



No U-Turn runs Sunday 17th at the Pleasance Theatre.

No uturn 3



A Special Humility

It’s been rather crowded recently – people, theatre, words, more people, more theatre, more words – on paper, in the air, in that dusty attic posing as my brain. Characters that had previously inhabited the relative comfort of notebooks, sleeping between the pages, are at present being made ready to be brought to life. Dusting off their wigs, hats and coats; now a little fard, a little rouge and powder; polish those shoe buckles, and they are standing in the wings, ready to leap out into the spotlight. Nothing huge, mind, in the way of actual stage-work; just a little conversation here and there – only with unexpected results. It has been an ongoing creative process, with more to come: something else I had previously written to no end has now been taken on board by another set of creatives who are actually enthusiastic to bring it to life; and all of this happening all at the same time. A little whirlwind made up of other people’s imagination, energy and perception is making its way across the pages; words, lines, dialogues, whole scenes have life breathed into them, and the transition from paper to that unreal reality of theatre is made, almost without you realising it. The magic has begun – thought processes start to whir, kickstarting a series of added details, gestures, inflections and more; some of these will be kept, others discarded, there is a constant moulding and re-modelling until the piece of art that is an imaginary character stands up on stage and takes command of itself.
The bubbly enthusiasm and creative energy brought to the rehearsal space by the actors themselves speeds up that process.

Watching someone take on board your ideas, thoughts, words and characters and invest their energy, creative, physical and even psychic, in something you have written could be a challenging experience – horror stories abound of writers turned homicidal after the perceived mangling of their work by negligible directors and/or actors; so far I can only say how pleasurable it has been, and how curious I remain to see what happens next, how those same characters will develop on stage. It is all part of the huge ongoing creative process called acting – and when you are fortunate enough to find those who can jump in, focussed, and pick up the shreds and patches we offer them, it is a magical thing indeed.

It takes a particular kind of humility to submerge one’s own ego in another’s; it is what drives many very fine actors (whom we may never actually see on the big screen), and a quality which makes such actors very special people indeed.


No U-Turn will be at the Pleasance Theatre Islington, on Sunday 17th: www.directorscuttheatre.co.uk/nouturn

No U-Turn at the Pleasance Theatre


No uturn 3






A Night at the Theatre…

The other day I spent the afternoon and evening in the company of Mr Goya and Mr Foote – and a good time was had by all: Mr Goya as irrepressible as ever, his tone a little less acerbic than in his ‘Disasters of War’; his sitters treated with sympathy for their intellect and made approachable. Here he shows his other side, that of the court painter, analyst, friend and colleague – there is no sense of status quo, only of Goya’s striving to grasp the essence of his subject.

He proceeds to fling and slap and dash loosely at his subject; he glares up at us briefly from his easel, eyebrows  inquiring as to what, exactly, we are doing there – can’t we see he is busy?

Occasionally his stare is more abstract; concentrating on some study he hasn’t quite resolved – and later, his expression is the stark, tragic one of the deaf-smitten. Only recently appointed as Director of Painting at the Royal Academy of San Fernando, he was forced to resign owing to this disability, brought on by a mysterious illness in 1792-3.

The portraits follow his development in style, and to a degree, his life, among friends, patrons and (legitimate) family until finally we are allowed to sit at his bedside, while he is administered to by his brilliant friend, Doctor Arrieta. Behind the two men shadowy figures hover, in distant conversation – are they alive or imaginary?

I made my excuses and hurried on, anxious to visit Dona Isobel de Porcel, who had been given a whole wing to herself some distance away. She had been the main draw of the show for me, yet was not included in the main exhibition. The simplicity of her portrait is misleading. The verve and zest of the artist is in very lightness of touch – her black lace veil, wound carelessly about one arm, barely covering her bronze hair, is but a few hasty brush strokes, yet convince utterly in their loose deftness. All the portraits, drawn together from collections across the globe, demonstrate his in-depth study of character, his mastery of technique; all share a play on light and shade, and a radiance of the skin. Eyes bright, their skin luminous, they glow from within the shadowy framework of the canvass he places them in.

I left Mr Goya and company reluctantly, and wandered down from the National to Regent Street; on turning a corner I bumped into Mr Foote, showing off his other leg at the Haymarket, like the brazen hussy he was. On an impulse, I allowed him to usher me in to witness the story of his life, though swift scene shifts and quick, lively banter enriched by occasional visits from Mr Franklin expounding the theory of electricity, and Prince George himself. Mr Garrick was there too, along with Miss Woffingham, and of course Mr Foote’s servant Francis Barber (on loan from Dr Johnson). All of the company gathered there were bustled through backstage, upstage, dressing rooms and wings of the theatre as Mr Foote trod the high and low.

The action is fast and merry, the whole piece is a vigorous theatrical tour-de-force, with scenes reminiscent of a Gilray or Rowlandson brought to life (the sorry incident of his leg being removed by Doctor Hunter is a prime example) – visually, the colours, lighting and period detail are atmospheric and well-studied; candle light and shadows play against walls, ceilings and floors, (for we rarely leave the theatre, save in the dark) adding drama, terror and warmth to this most engaging of plays.

Both Mr Goya and Mr Foote share a ferocious vitality, a splendid disregard for convention and status, as well as surviving life-threatening situations : Goya’s illness resulting in the loss of his hearing, Mr Foote’s ill-timed wager resulting in the loss of a leg. Both satirize, challenge and explore; both lived through turbulent times and both made enormous contributions in very different ways to our ideas on perception and cultural development.


Mr Foote’s Other Leg runs until 23rd January at the Haymarket.

Goya The Portraits runs until 10th January at the National Gallery.


A Night at the Theatre: The Wonderful World of Dissocia at Questors, Ealing

Impressive space, amazingly well supplied with comfy bar and very relaxing cafe/lounge area upstairs….


The trailer is up and the rehearsals are winding down – or up – to the big night: Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia, which opens 22nd May at The Questors Theatre in Ealing.

The play won the 2004-05 Critics’ Award for Theatre in Scotland for Best New Play and made its London debut at the Royal Court Theatre in March 2007; it was also included in The List’s Best of a Decade in 2009. But as for what to expect when you go to see it, that is perhaps best left to the wonderful words of the director, David Emmet and stage manager Cathy Swift:

 A Wonderful World Awaits

 What’s the most frequent conversation you’ve had over the last year? Mine goes like this:

Member or friend: Hello David. What’s your next production?

Me: The Wonderful World of Dissocia.

Member or Friend: Oh. I’ve never…

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