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Review: Black Earth, A Field Guide To The Slavic Otherworld

Andrew L Paciorek’s Black Earth, A Field Guide To The Slavic Otherworld is two wonderful things at once.

Firstly, it is an entry point into a mythology largely unknown in Western Europe. Secondly, it is beautiful.

On the first point, Paciorek’s one-page descriptions of specific gods, spirits and folk horror entities found in the Slavic pantheon are concise, intriguing and well researched.

Perun, the king of the gods, is a thunder deity we are told, who can transform into an eagle and hurl exploding apples. Veles, the serpentine god of the underworld is a deity of sickness and also, interestingly, of cattle. These two gods, Perun and Veles are in eternal warfare – thus symbolising the seasonal cycle…

The mythological stories are laid out without labouring the point, but with enough to reveal the logic behind the myths. In this way we begin our journey into the mysterious Slavic otherworld.

But wait a minute. What constitutes the Slavic world? Paciorek culturally and geographically orients us in the introduction, pointing to Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and those living in former Yugoslvia, among others. This means Paciorek’s Black Earth draws on the rich and strange folk world that produced, on the one hand, Baba Yaga with her house on chicken legs, and Stravinsky’s Firebird on the other.

Along the way we meet spirits of water, forest, mountain and field, sorcerers, witches and hags, shape-shifters and demons, and entirely new classes of vampire, of which there are surprisingly many. Through Dhampirs, Lampirs, Upior, Nelapsi, Nachzeherer and Eretiks (the last being undead heretics) one enters into a whole other world full of possibilities and potentials.

As a writer, these creatures and entities are invaluable. I am sure some of them will surface in my storytelling at some point in the future. For providing a valuable entry point into an alien mythology, Paciorek should be commended.

There is also another aspect to this book that gives real delight. The artwork in these pages is just wonderful. The line art style, bold and exquisitely executed, gives an earthy life to the text. They powerfully boost the overall effect. Pictures of gods grappling with dragons, and three-headed, five-headed and six-headed forest gods, spirits and superhumans fill the book with a sense of otherworldliness that fires the imagination.

In all, this book is a recommend for anyone interested in the strange and the beautiful, in mythology and in folk horror. Great stuff!

Black Earth is available from: http://www.blurb.com/user/andypaciorek, £10 for paperback, £20 for hardback with either printed cover or dustjacket.

Not Waving But Drowning at the King’s Bar Loft, April 27th

I recently had the privilege of compering a night of Film Poetry Performance at the King’s Bar Loft, Albert Road, on April 27th. It was a fascinating night that showcased some extraordinary talent from Portsmouth and further afield. And it was an event, with wonderful projections provided by Dr Lighthouse and some great decor that gave the whole bar an unusual feel – as if we were descending into the dark depths.

The first act up was Elephant’s Footprint, a duo from Bristol, who gave a talk on Poetry Film and showcased one of their works. Poetry Film is pretty much what the label says – it can be a film with the poem integral to it, or, to give a frisson of live performance, the poet can deliver the poem on the night.

Next came Isabelle Bilton with a diary of an anorexic, and the night took an even darker turn with Jidos Reality performing a disturbing story of a psychopath, called The Hangman’s Many Souls. The first half was rounded of by Maggie Sawkins reading Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning and then showing some of her short films from her award-winning show about addiction, Zones of Avoidance.

So, a sombre first half.

The second half took us into the light, with a crazy, eccentric and ear shattering performance by The Vulture Is A Patient Bird, that lampooned corporate speak with a wicked touch. Next came Richard Williams reading a poem to Jenna Lions’s accompanying film – the change of pace to something gentle being much needed after the frenetic energy of the opening. Craig Maskell had us all laughing out loud with his hilarious Laurie Anderson style loops and auto-tune antics, while he played along to a series of Lego animations. One could feel the mood in the room shifting upwards. Next came Elephant’s Footprint again, with some really uplifting and interesting poetry film from around the world.

Finally, Matt Parsons performed a hilarious and clever piece in which an uppity computer took issue with his nostalgic view of the decline of Shipbuilding in Portsmouth.

The night was organised by Johnny Sackett, whose Front Room happenings at Aurora and Hunter Gatherer showcase some extraordinary talent from near and far, with visuals provided by Dr Lighthouse and sound by Ken Devine.

It was a special night indeed, and two phrases have stayed with me:

1) Why are you dressed like Arthur Askey?

and

2) We’re all in this together.

If you were there, you’ll know why!

A Talk at The Temple of Spiritualism, Southsea 5th Aug 2016

02 Arthur_Conan_DoyleA lovely email from Sue Hayes at the Southsea Temple of Spiritualism, where I gave a talk about Conan Doyle’s faith on 5th August 2016:
 
Dear Matt
Thank you so much for your talk, knowledge and enthusiasm that you displayed in the Temple on Friday evening. As you were aware from the response, your talk was very much appreciated. I think you are a brilliant speaker – most engaging and inclusive. Thank you.
 
Richard was absolutely amazed that someone who is not a Spiritualist has such a knowledge of Spiritualism. There are very few people at present in SNU Spiritualism who would know as much as you do, and have such an objective and informed attitude. Thank you for that.
 
We would love you to come and speak again in the future, for you to share more of your knowledge and wisdom with us.
 
With very good wishes to you and Jackie
Sue Hayes
General Secretary/Officiant
Portsmouth Temple of Spiritualism

After You’ve Gone – What Next After The Three Belles and Sing Sing Sing?

The Three Belles - fond memories...

A forlorn sight meets the eyes of the Pompeyite out for a walk on Southsea Common a few days after the circus leaves town.

A circle of yellowed grass and a few handfuls of sawdust are all that tell of the wonders that paraded, galloped, shimmered and sparkled there only days before beneath the Big Top. Standing at the ring’s centre, the roars of laughter, the gasps of amazement, bursts of applause and shouts of joy are silent; the only movement a few dried stalks in the sea breeze.

I know that departed circus feeling so well. It’s 3.45 in the morning after The Three Belles put on their show Sing Sing Sing at the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth and my mind is still buzzing with the triumphs of the night, still blaring in the silence that has now come.

The Three Belles - fond memories...
The Three Belles – fond memories…

Fast forward two years, with a ton of other writing jobs and Belles adventures in between. The latest step in developing their original idea came in a very short time – just 6 brief weeks. In mid-December, I’d immersed myself in reading a full history of World War 2, then poring over eyewitness accounts of the Blitz and watching hours and hours of documentaries and war films. After that, we had a meeting at my house in which I presented to them a storyline for a completely revamped show. The idea was to take  elements from previous shows we’d worked on, add more depth of characterisation and more character interaction so that we could unfold a story of humour, tragedy, pathos and drama in a setting of beautiful music.

The new script proper was started on 2nd January by all of us to an agreed plan, completed on the 18th and rehearsed relentlessly for the next two weeks. I by no means wrote it all – it was a genuinely shared project with emails flying between us in a frenzy of writing activity.  We steered it along together, creating, nipping and tucking as we went, quietly focused on what we wanted, changing lines, adding scenes and working collaboratively in a way that was completely new for me.

Before then I had virtually stalked The Three Belles! I had caught them in live shows whenever I could so I could learn the rhythms of their natural speech and the qualities, pitches and timbres of their spoken voices.  Now, writing for their characters alongside them and seeing them deliver the lines we had written was utterly fascinating. There were times I got it wrong. There were times when their inventiveness amazed me. And there were times when it just felt absolutely right that a scene should be such a shape, or have such an outcome.

Those rehearsals were intensive and they were fun. The sheer hard work and professionalism of The Three Belles and of William Keel-Stocker left me feeling delighted just to know them.

Then came performance night.

There is a moment before a show when there are just hours to go and a writer has nothing left to do except sit there, hold his breath and cross his fingers while the actors and stage crew work it all out. Would it work?  Would it all come together? I felt sick with not knowing if we’d got it right. Had I got the rhythm of the scenes right, did the narrative arcs work? Would the audience like it?

The answer was a very big YES. The cast were magnificent. From the opening in which Will introduced the Belles – right the way through to the roar of the crowd at the end, the show had a vibrancy and joy that lifted people up.  It was a fantastic night.

Now I wonder what I’m going to do next? I’ve lived and breathed The Three Belles’ world for the last 6 weeks: reading, writing, sleeping, dreaming, waking and creating.

My mind’s a yellowed circle of grass. I wonder what new tent will pitch up here? What new show? What characters will dance before me in the Big Top of my mind’s eye?

I don’t know. All I know for now is that this was a fabulous night and the hard work was so very, very worth it.

As for the next project… Well. We shall see!

Dorothy’s Response To Hearing There Are Only 50 Tickets Left for Sing Sing Sing

I told Dorothy there were only 50 tickets left for Sing Sing Sing at The New Theatre Royal on February 2nd.  This was her response…

Dotty… Profound thoughts from the songstress…
Dotty… Profound thoughts from the songstress…

WHAT DOES THIS STRANGE GURNING MEAN? EXPERTS ARE DIVIDED.  TO FIND OUT FOR YOURSELF, GRAB ONE OF THE LAST TICKETS AT THE NEW THEATRE ROYAL, OR REMAIN PUZZLED FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE!

A Farmhouse Somewhere In Northern France… (French Resistance)

The Three Belles - fond memories...

The scene: somewhere in Northern France British troops have pushed the Germans back towards Berlin and secured the perimeter. As the dust settles and a semblance of normality returns to the countryside a woman in the French Resistance comes out to greet the British.

Normandie, Aout 1944. French Resistance member.
Normandie, Aout 1944. French Resistance member.

A photographer attached to the regiment is on hand to capture the moment as she stands demurely with gun in hand, sleeves rolled up as if ready to do a job of work, no matter how unpalatable that work might be. She smiles enigmatically to the camera.  Is it a grin, a look of satisfaction, an expression that says that such young eyes have seen too much? Is it the  blatant confident flirtation of a young woman pleased to see the soldiers she has been waiting for?

Perhaps it is all these. It is a triumphal picture – the moment in history in which a young French woman is at last free to show her face again after the Normandy landings, and a moment in which she begins to transform into being a civilian once more. There is, no doubt, a degree of showing off in it, too. The moment is captured.

The picture, captioned only “Normandie, Aout 1944” is a little blurred, grainy and discoloured, but speaks plenty of the world to come when Europe is at peace again.

Find this interesting? For a longer view of how the modern world is connected to the  events of 1945,  come to Sing Sing Sing The Three Belles’ stage show on Saturday 2nd February at The New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth.

The Three Belles – Next Round of Rehearsals

Well, another fascinating day at “the office” with a full run-through of Sing Sing Sing. Will Keel-Stocker added an extra layer to the proceedings, with his easy smile and questioning brain.

There were some really interesting moments as The Belles took hold of their characters and begin to inhabit them more.  Here are some thoughts about each character, as I saw them start to blossom and grow:

Betty – rich, impulsive, living for the moment. Betty is neither good nor bad, but a bundle of self-interest whose real pay-off in life is enjoying the now. She’s also a Polar Responder. If you tell her she can’t do something, she’ll do it, just to prove you’re wrong. It makes her morally complex, and at times unpredictable – both in her thoughtlessness and her generosity. She is exciting because of it, prone to daydreaming and being creative – and is also morally ambiguous and certainly not the best person to go to for advice.

Gailpoor, smart, feisty – she’s a redhead who will put you in your place if you step out of line.  Gail is your salt of the Earth working class gal, who says what’s on her mind.  She’s all too aware of her vulnerability in a world in which her hometown is being flattened around her. Unlucky in love, she’s looking for a man who can do right by her, and although she is at times hostile to “Lady Muck” Betty, she also knows Betty has a certain careless charm that she wants to learn. Watch out for Gail losing her temper – because when she blows her stack, it’s nuclear.

DorothyA sweet-natured and honest young middle class woman who has just married, and whose man is away fighting.  Dorothy is steady, reliable and caring. She has a sweet generosity in her nature that is fed by her faith.  She always sees the good in people, and trusts in Providence that things will work out right.  She loves Gail and Betty very much, and although she sometimes becomes exasperated with the latter, she maintains an optimism that Betty will grow and mature in time to become a moral person.  Whether she is right, needs to be seen!

So, a few thoughts.  We are working on the final notes as we go along.  It’s getting exciting!

Tickets for Sing Sing Sing are available here.

The Three Belles – Sing Sing Sing Script Sign-off!

So, with two weeks to work it up, The Three Belles and I signed off the new incarnation of “Sing Sing Sing” on Sunday!

The Greenwich Court Wrens at play...
The Greenwich Court Wrens at play…

This came during a weekend which included a fantastic Saturday night at The King Street Tavern, where the Belles did their magic to a packed, raucous house.

I’d had my head down on the script all day, ironing out minor problems and reworking some of the  scenes from early morning, then turned up (flagging a little from not seeing the light of day!) at the pub to have it reconfirmed why I love working with these women. Brilliant is the word.

Back home, rather unsteady on my feet after a good few beers, then a quick review of the script with Anneka on Sunday morning  – and boom – done.  Great feeling sending it off, getting their minor edits back and then it was finished.

Things get lively...
Things get lively…

It’s a funny old thing. The work has been intense in a short time on this script and it leaves a bit of a hole for me to fill. That thing that happens when suddenly the close intense thinking you were doing comes to a halt. But then, I’m excited about  seeing it come to life.

Rehearsals, here we come!

Sing Sing Sing! will be performed on 2nd February 2013 at The New Theatre Royal. Click here to book now!

The Three Belles Rehearsals – A Few Thoughts

I had a fascinating day yesterday.

If you don’t know, I’ve been working with The Three Belles, a vintage singing trio, to develop storylines for Sing Sing Sing! a stage show to be performed at The New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth on February 2nd, 2013.

I came back from the rehearsal yesterday in which The Belles, Joe Bishop, Chloe Seddon (the fourth Belle) and I started to work through the script, find the weakspots and bring out its strengths.

The Three Belles - fond memories...
The Three Belles – Sing Sing Sing

The whole process of script creation has been a revelation for me.  I’ve always been used to working alone, but the time pressure on creating the script meant that the Belles wrote many of the scenes to a storyline I initially developed.

I was out of my comfort zone when this way of working was suggested.  I thought: “Boy, how will we be able to control the story arcs?  How can we direct the nuances between the characters with four different minds on it?  How do we maintain consistency?”

Then Anneka rolled up her sleeves and started turning out her scenes.  It was a genuine surprise to me – how easy it was to work in this way.

Then Sally and Issie did the same with their scenes, and I learned loads about how they approach their creativity.  Each Belle has her strengths.

Anneka is smart and quick – with a clear idea about what she wants from a scene.  She also is good at thinking structurally, and so is aware of how a scene moves a story on.  She is a natural strategist, I think.

Sally has this comic knack and an ability to really make a scene live. I believe there’s a whole load more to come from that fast-moving brain.

Issie was very aware of what she wanted from her character, and since I had already written most of her scenes, she was extremely clear about where the weaknesses were in what I’d written for her, and gave me clear guidance about it.

And so, in about a week, we pulled a script together.

Yesterday was the first rehearsal.  It was really positive.  We all pitched in, giving suggestions on direction, staging and cuts, etc.

There was a moment in the rehearsal room when I saw a different life stretch away behind me. What, I wondered, would have happened had I gone to Uni and studied the arts instead of English Lit and Philosophy?

The answer came back loud and clear.  To be honest, it would have been a disaster. I was so immature at Uni. Now is the right time to be doing this.

I loved hearing what the Belles and Joe had to say about the script. It’s all  part of a creative journey. The thing is, I trust the Belles. No egoes.  We just get on with it.

My final reflection is this: I came away with a feeling I haven’t felt for a long time. Satisfaction. Real deep satisfaction at doing something I absolutely love.

Well, that’s it for now. I have a script to work on!

“In The Mood” – The Experience

The Poster for In The Mood
The Poster for In The Mood

Well, the show “In The Mood” that was held on Friday 18th May has been and gone.  And the truth is, it was fantastic!

I look back on the achievement of The Three Belles and I think that what they did is extraordinary. To hire the Guildhall, fill it with around 500 people, organise a cast,  do the sound, a big band, dancing lessons, decorations, programmes and so much more was really something – but to be only a year out from their degree! The world is at their feet…

It was also fascinating to see them the night before the show. They were stressed. Boy. Each said they were afraid. But the fact is that they just faced this major pressure, and won through to the other side.

I confess I was stressed, too. Although I overcame my writer’s block years ago, I never addressed the fear I had of acting, which had been with me since my student days. I don’t know where that fear came from – it just happened one day, while I was doing rehearsals for a stage play.  I never acted again after that until this show.   27 years.

I had a feeling that being in the show would teach me so much and be good for me. So, while The Three Belles had every right to be stressed, so was I. I felt it in my body as the day got nearer, until I could hardly eat.  I used to lie awake at night staring at the ceiling, and my lovely girl, Jackie, noticed that I seemed quite cold and off.

How stupid I am!

Then, the morning of the day before the show, I couldn’t take it any more, and I did a series of NLP mental exercises. They worked, and the tension reduced from then on. Quite strange that I didn’t think to do it before!

At the show, there were cast members who were also stressing, and I helped them with a little NLP pep talk.

Then the show came.  I really can’t fault this.  I played my small part well enough and really enjoyed the acting. It was a change for me. A big change – and I came away from it ecstatic.

When I think back on it, it’s clear that part of the appeal is that the night provides a dream of glamour and heroism all at once. “In The Mood” doesn’t quite fit into anything I’ve experienced before. It’s not a gig, exactly. It’s not a dance.  It’s an experience. A 1940s experience.  I believe The Three Belles have really got something with this. Something that really captures the moment we are in and does something good with it, ironically, by sending us back in time.

I’d say to you now, you should experience “In The Mood” with The Three Belles, wherever you are, at least once in your life!

Find out more about The Three Belles, here: www.thethreebelles.com