Follow the sun (and the lightning), Late May Bank Holiday 2018

“Go west, young man,” that piece of advice given to American pioneers who loaded up their wagons and headed into the vast expanses of the unexplored US has been my own mantra when it comes to the slightly less epic short holiday out of Portsmouth. 

What lies west, I considered, are all the good bits in easy driving distance. Dorset, Devon, Cornwall – and further up the Welsh Borders and Wales proper.

The best, however, cannot be said of the weather. When the Anglo-Saxons pushed in from the Continent and chased the Celts into the hills, I’ve often wondered whether it was a distaste for that bloody Bank Holiday weather that left them poking their camp fires at Brighton and Lyme Regis, so that by the time they’d bred a race hardy enough to handle the dispiriting Welsh and Cornish rain, all that was left to their descendants was to show off their resilience by inventing the drizzle-soaked seaside holiday.

Despite this, I had never really considered going east. I’ve made a few trips that way, but I have to admit that Brighton, with its huge hotels, infinite seafront and wrecked pier leaves me cold. Once, when going further east on business, I broke down (or more accurately my car did) in Rye, but I never saw the town, since I was struggling with driving home along a busy road sans clutch. Roundabouts were impressive.

The weather for this bank holiday, however, promised Armageddon, what with storms, thunder, lightning and possibly fireballs and / or falling fish all neatly scheduled by Notan (the ancient English God of Bank Holidays) for the entire west.

Time to follow the sun. Looking at the weather maps, sunshine was forecast for East Sussex and Kent, and so, with an acceptance that it might not be as fun as the wild west (covered wagons or no), we headed out into the eternal tailback at Chichester, which, black-hole-like, holds all south-east coast traffic circulation in its orbit, slows time, and in the crawl crushes you to a singularity, before you reappear on the other side.

We drove on, toward the rising sun (quite a bit after it had risen), past the great castle at Arundel and the dull mass of Brighton, stopping off for a bite at Lewes and then heading on again. 

East. East into the green countryside and the comfortable villages of East Sussex. Noticing a real difference in architecture – clapboard houses and flint cottages, so different from the whitewashed thatched confections of the west. And something else. Flags. Flags fluttering everywhere, in red, white and blue, as if the entire country was a confused and indignant elderly relative who kept ambiguously asking: “Do you know who I am?”

Stopping briefly at Hastings for a cuppa, we were struck by the extremes. Rows of caravans stood rotting on the seafront where the poor had taken up makeshift residence. Homeless people huddled in seafront shelters in St Leonard’s, where the paint from abandoned hotels peeled like tree bark. Yet, further up the road, expensive housing and smart bars thronged with visitors, overlooked the sea. 

The road diverted as we swung past the net shops – the black clapboard towers the fishermen used to store their gear. Soon we were out in the countryside again, passing attractive villages adorned with yet more flags. Union flags everywhere, run up poles, hanging from bunting in the streets. I felt a sense of unease at the instinct that leads people to want to hoist a flag of any colour, and to overlook all the terrible things done under its shadow.

We passed through bright country roads, through Winchelsea looking super picturesque, down past the low stone structure of Winchelsea Castle, where cows grazed in buttercup fields, and onwards to Rye. 

I was curious about this place, having seen on the BBC’s Mapp and Lucia (a series in which two rival middle class ladies – one, a fierce Little Englander furious at having her world dislocated by the other, a sophisticated woman of foreign-sounding extraction, fought battles for influence in the social milieu of an English idyll), and we climbed up to find an ancient town atop a hill. 

It was beautiful, full of half-timber mediaeval houses, with a church surrounded by nestling cottages on cobbled streets. It seemed like a little slice of historic perfection, as if someone had mocked up the quintessential English town, with bar-gates, and ruins, and pubs and shops. Walking the streets, I got a sense of the closeness and tight scale of English village life, and marvelled at the melted houses where the beams had bowed under the weight of centuries. I realised then that I knew nothing about this part of England.

That night we stayed at The Bell at Iden, just outside Rye. We pulled up in the camper and were immediately greeted by a super-friendly barmaid who welcomed us as we walked in and who told me it was no bother to park in the car park and stay overnight. Cosy. The place was cosy and friendly, and I felt surprised at the chattiness of the locals. Portsmouth, after all, can be famously terse.

So the weekend began with a warm welcome both meteorologially and figuratively. The following day, we drove out past Camber Sands on a military road, past a firing range and army training ground where mocked-up villages await trainees in urban warfare to do our flag’s killing work, and onward past the towering metal box that is Dungeness nuclear power station, which sits on the west side of the nature reserve.

There, away from the great green expanse of the countryside, we arrived at what in urban myth is known as the UK’s only desert due to its low rainfall (a story denied by the Met Office) and gazed over the great shingle headland, dotted with makeshift huts where people live and work in sparsely dotted homes, some of which were made from old railway carriages. The feeling was like a Native American reservation. We almost expected to see tumbleweed blow down the road. To add to the effect of the Wild West was a steam train, though the Old Lighthouse (next to the new one), and the fact that some of the huts contained art studios, and were overlooked by a gigantic nuclear power station somewhat lessened the impression – as did the fact that the steam train was narrow gauge and we were taller than it. 

It did, however, add to the sense of an alien landscape, unmade and ill-formed, and both of us loved its eery otherworldliness.

Onward again, to Dymchurch where a classic British seaside town crammed along the coast road, and stubborn donkeys allowing small children to sit on them while they were dragged across the sandy beach made me feel like I had suddenly gone back to the 1950s.

Then out into bright and massive countryside, full of greenery, through yet more flag-fluttering clapboard houses in villages bearing Anglo-Saxon names like Lympne, Bilsington, Hamstreet and Tenterden, with each hill we climbed opening up massive vistas and views across yet more startlingly beautiful countryside. 

Finally, we arrived at Bodiam, and explored the castle. It was great. A proper castle, with a moat; the sort that schoolboys might have consulted Disney and fantasy writers to make. It was built in yellow sandstone in the 14th Century by contractors working for Sir Edward Dallingridge. I’m precise about this because although the National Trust tells us Sir Edward “built it”, Dallingridge himself was far too busy terrorising peasants, and generally slaughtering and murdering the innocent as part of the Hundred Years War, to do anything so useful as lifting a trowel. “On the backs of the workers,” etc.

The story of Dallingridge seizing his opportunity when King Edward III decided on a whim that, actually, he owned France and declared war on his neighbour, is a useful one as a clue to the whole of human history. 

Like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage, mediaeval businesspeople also saw disruption as an opportunity, and so Dallingridge went out in a gang run by Sir Robert Knolles, a man so cruel and ruthless, the National Trust film informed us with what seemed like misplaced pride, that French people threw themselves in the river at the sound of his name. Ha! That showed ’em. Damn Frenchies, I can imagine one of the flag-flyers saying, not realising he probably had more in common with the poor French peasants than the psychopath who was murdering them. But there it is, when we imagine history, we are selective about those with whom we identify. That is the problem of history in a nutshell.

In the same film, we were informed that, like most of his contemporaries, Dallingridge was extremely concerned about the afterlife. Which, considering all that he’d got up to in this one, will come as no surprise. This may also explain why Jacob Rees-Mogg is a staunch Catholic. Thankfully, Dallingridge died quite soon after going back to the wars, and certainly didn’t make the whole Hundred Years of it, which must have been a relief to the French. It is not recorded whether his personal chapel in the castle made any difference to outcomes thereafter. Jacob Rees-Mogg, take note.

Opposite the Castle was The Castle Inn, which some lucky landlord must have named in the hope that someone would put up a castle. What were the chances of that, eh? Here we spent another night, again, warmly welcomed. It’s a lovely pub with a long lawn leading down to a river, where children played and families congregated in the summer sunshine to eat and drink and socialise.

That night, we were woken by the most extraordinary thunderstorm. It went on for hours, the thunder rolling on and on to create a constant rumble, and the lightning striking so often it felt like we were in daylight, and I wondered if I had been perhaps a little too disrespectful of Dallingridge in my private thoughts that afternoon. Then I reckoned it was probably the ghosts of all those murdered French and English peasants, and I thought I had probably underdone it.

From Bodiam the following morning, we went to Great Dixter house – a gorgeously combined mixture of 14th century farmhouse, 16th Century Yeoman’s Hall and Lutyens-designed modern house that creates the most beautiful scene, surrounded as it is by perfect gardens, the whole being set in yet more stunningly beautiful countryside. The patriarch who bought the place and made it his project, I learned, made his money in the first flush of sophisticated Victorian advertising, in which the modern nature of publicity, branding and mass-produced consumer goods meant worldwide sales to a public grateful for the reliable and the familiar. This meant he could retire at the age of 42. Which puts a new spin on the phrase “it pays to advertise.”

From there, we headed to Battle, which was decked out in red, white and blue bunting, and there were yet more Union Flags in people’s gardens. We stayed the night at this quintessential English town and drank French Merlot at a Trattoria, looking down the High Street at this place so central to mystical English identity. It was when I realised all those Union Flags had been bought on the proceeds of businesses in a town whose whole raison d’etre was to celebrate being invaded by the French, that I profoundly thought: wtf?

On again the next morning to Cuckmere, past the Long Man at Wilmington, supposed to be either neolithic, Celto-Roman, Saxon or modern, depending on which archaeologist is talking. Like so many other villages in East Sussex, the streets were cosy and warm and picturesque. 

They were also flaggy. Don’t get me wrong. I get it. You’re proud of this part of the country. It’s stunning. It’s genuinely something to be proud of. But this part of the country is not represented by a Union Flag (convenient political concoction born of debt and oppression) or a Cross of St George (dodgy myth about a Turkish knight). No, what really makes it distinctive is the hop fields and the oast houses with their white cowls used to dry the hops one tastes in English ales – hops that were originally Dutch imports. Even the word clapboard comes from the German root klappen – meaning to split. And all those flags – they are probably made in China. But hey. I get it. 

Then, down to the Birling Gap via Cuckmere, to walk along the coast and see the Seven Sisters, the great white cliffs. They reminded me of the cliffs at Dover, associated with all that safe, reassuring, misty-eyed patriotism, though I thought they could just as easily stand for upheaval, seeing as they are massive uplifted seabeds dotted with flints that were once sponges, long before flags were even thought of.

Next, over to Eastbourne to meet with a friend. And then, back to the Cuckmere Inn, where we stayed in the car park and – after a bite to eat and several pints of fine English ale – we walked down to the sea, waded the river and walked up by the meandering elegance of the snaking Cuckmere.

It was there, as the sun set and the birds made such a noise in the fields and the skies, and the cows lowed, and the gulls cried, I felt such a sense of sudden quiet and eternity and such a passion stirring inside me, that I too felt proud and awed to be, though it be for only a short time, a citizen of this world.

The next day we came home. And I have to say, East Sussex is beautiful. Despite those darn flags.

“We’re proud of England, see our flags flutter!
You can just feel the history: In High Weald’s
fossil-rich chalk downs, in bells of butter-
cups, clapboard houses and hanging hopfields.
Look! That oast house dried hops brought by the Dutch;
this stronghold, French-gold funded, reeks with stench
of war. That Battle street, decked in so much
colour, celebrates defeat by the French.
We welcome you coz we know who we are –
we Sussex English, comfy in our skins,
claim this land as ours. Though you come from far –
our distant ancestors saw it all begin.”
And Seven old Sisters don’t even shrug
at fleeting flags, knights, and Union Jack mugs.

Trip to Dartmoor, May Day Bank Holiday weekend.

I’ve just got back from a real surprise. And that surprise is Dartmoor. I mean, I just had no idea.

True, I went to the National Park when I was a kid. My dad was in the Royal Navy, and had gone along as a natural expression of the ruggedy outdoorsy thing that he was connected up with as Exped Officer.

My memories are: dad struggling up a hill with a caravan (attached to our car, obvs), a cute antiques shop in a small village where I saw a badge depicting a Nazi spreadeagle clutching a swastika in a laurel wreath and big, open empty spaces. I was young.

I’ve also crossed the edge of the moors on a number of occasions, often in the rain, and have been struck by its complete bleakness.

This time, we headed west on Friday afternoon of the Bank Holiday in the camper, and spent our first night part way there in the The Haymaker Inn, Wadeford, Chard – a real local’s boozer, which did great pub classics – my ham, egg and chips had high quality crumbed ham and was just yumptious. The team were welcoming of a camper van, and we slept well after a few beers.

Early next morning, we headed on our way – torn between Exmoor (which we love) and trying out Dartmoor. Both of us had the idea that Dartmoor was a big, bleak open space – but we decided to give it a try, just for a change.

What a great choice that was! The first day we headed to the wonderfully named Castle Drogo, a Lutyens-modelled modern castle, where we stopped for breakfast in the impressive entrance driveway, before heading up into the National Trust car park and taking a walk down to the valley floor. It was a steep drop down in glorious sunshine, and we made our ways through luscious woodland in light that seemed to have have been specially laid on for artists. It’s a weird effect at this time of the year that I’ve also noticed previously in Exmoor – as if the trees have not grown, but been drawn by a fine draughtsman, with black shadows and startling deep green mosses and lichens on trees whose newly-sprouted leaves make them the sylvan equivalent of life-loving teenagers. There is something beautiful about trees at this time of the year, with luminescent greens overhead spreading deep cathedral light.

At times, the path opened up to stunning views across the valley where the soft leaves cotton-woolled into  emerald clouds.

Jackie and I walked with a kind of joyous anticipation at what was next. The valley floor vouchsafed a kingfisher and a yellow wagtail, and so much greenery and reflections on the river that it was like the world was new-made. The climb back up took us out to a viewpoint in which the hills spread out far into the distance, and it seemed that someone had fashioned the perfect landscape with us in mind.

A bite to eat, and a drive through more gorgeous and verdant woodland took us to the village of Moretonhampstead, where we mooched in the shops and I couldn’t resist an antiques buy. Then, newly provisioned after chatting with the locals who were super-friendly, out, up, on to the moors.

Taking a side road that squeezed and turned and twisted and dipped, single tracks with passing places and an occasional local farmer hurtling round corners with wild abandon, we climbed up on to the moors proper and found a space to park. We were up, now, in the sky, with the coconut smell of gorse bushes around us, and the steady khom khom khom of ponies that were sculpted by sunlight. Here we came to rest, sitting in the blaring silence that drowned everything else out, and feeling the slumber that sealed my spirit come upon me – that calm at the centre of being where the true me is. Except it wasn’t slumber. I didn’t sleep, but passed into eternity, the zen state where time reveals itself for what it is: illusion – and the world turns on its axis oblivious to the minutes and seconds of man. I was the same as the horses and the stones and the pools with the waterboatmen and the gorse in muddy green and the shaggy blonde of dried sedge.

Reading up here gave every word concreteness, and I read a novel, The Red Sailor, with joy as Jackie sat and crocheted, and we drank tea in the silence, and the sky came down to kiss us.

That night, I woke in the darkness to see the stars bewilderingly bright. The constellations seemed to be changed, and though some of the sky was familiar, it was teeming with new-bred stars. I aligned the centre stroke in Cassiopeia with the tail of Ursa Major to triangulate Polaris, but could not see it. Someone had stolen my night sky and filled it with milk, or the semen that fills the belly of the sky and creates newborn worlds – and I felt primitive and modern and bewildered and holy all at once, while the ponies stood around me, stock still, as old as the stones.

The next day, we headed through perfect countryside, and I felt as if we were suddenly in a fantasy world. Down into Widecombe where one of Dartmoor’s signature four-finialed church towers points stolidly at the sky, then out again onto the Moors. We climbed to the top of Haytor, a pile of striated granite left by a careless giant and sat in silence a while, taking in the scene. Then, joined by a pair of Slovaks, I broke the ice with the question: “Does this mean anything to you: Strc prst skrz krk?” They laughed and we fell into conversation.  They were I.T. developers out from London for the weekend, and had never been here before. We shared the sense of wonder at a place newfound.

And so the day went on, with us exploring, going through fairy dells where I was sure Mr Tumnus would suddenly appear, looking at Hobbit-shire fields and feeling like that small child again who stepped on to the moors. But this time, focussing on the really powerful stuff, the gentle and inexorable throb of deep life in the land.

That evening, we headed off the moors and stayed in a pub car park at Lydford. The Castle Inn is situated next to an ancient tower once used for court sessions and, next to that, a mediaeval church. The whole of life is there: social, legal and spiritual, in a microcosm. The food at the Castle Inn was excellent as was the beer, and we slept early and woke early, to break our fasts outside the castle tower as the sun beat down.

Next, a walk to Lydford Gorge before 8 am, descending down to stand at the base of the White Lady Waterfall, and feel the pagan magic of the world here. The thundering power of the water filled my ears and I felt more wonder. I paid an offering to the water deity in an atavistic moment and felt completed, somehow.

We lingered on the moors a while longer after eating a Devon Cream Tea at Lydford Gorge National Trust centre, and then made our ways home, filled with a kind of elation.

These moments, these are what life is for.

Stay here a few days and walk through your dreams:
down through green valleys, from high barren hills,
to lichen-scaled trees by numinous streams,
where moss-thickened walls ring deep fairy dells.
Feel, in your dreaming days far from the town,
all weight lift, till only a daisy chain
tied to your ankle keeps you on the ground –
else dandelion-clock-like, you blow away.
When you wake, you will wonder: were they true –
those careless nights and days which time fleeted
as though I walked in a magic-imbued
land, where world weariness is defeated?
If love is a dream of sky-kissing moors
Then I fell in love. Dartmoor: mon amour.

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:, £10 for paperback, £20 for hardback with either printed cover or dustjacket.

7 Random Reasons Why Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 Rocks

So, as a childhood Marvel and DC comics fan, over the last decade or so I’ve taken great delight in the fact that CGI in movies has progressed so far that you don’t actually have to suspend disbelief. I remember seeing the back projection outline when people were thrown off buildings, or the strings when The Invisible Man lifted things up. No wonder they didn’t make that many superhero movies back then. At least not convincing ones.

That it’s all possible to do seamlessly is old news, and the only thing that now holds writers and filmmakers back is their imagination and budget.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 has both in full measure. Here are 7 things picked at random as to why it rocks:

1) Little Groot. Okay, so it’s a merchandiser’s dream, but supercute Groot is joyous to behold, with his big eyes, his innocence and joyful naivety, there is so much potential for the bundle of laughs here. He’s the wide-eyed fool, and he’s hilarious.

2) That opening sequence that subverts the heroic form sets the tone. The show starts with the Guardians protecting some super-duper batteries for a race of gold skinned Sovereign aliens from an interdimensional monster made entirely of teeth, blubber and super-thick skin. But instead of doing the usual thing and focusing on the fight, it focuses on Little Groot’s dance routine. The juxtaposition is hilarious.

3) Drax’s one-liners. Boy oh boy, the writing team have really gone out of their ways to work up the characters for best comic effect. Drax, the alien who doesn’t understand metaphor goes through the show offending, irritating and genuinely making comedy gold. The deadpan delivery adds to the effect. I haven’t been in a cinema for a long time in which the audience is howling with laughter. Drax does it.

4) Rocket, the trickster. Rocket the Raccoon (“I’m not a Raccoon!”) is as super-sneaky, clever and selfish as ever, but now you start to see his “human” side. For a writer, this archetype is a gift. He’s straight out of Carl Jung, and he adds an element of chaos to the whole show. The script, indeed, the whole story arc, starts with one transgression from him – but he’s not all selfishness, as later events show. He intrigues and delights and builds wonderful empathy.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2..Nebula (Karen Gillan)..Ph: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2017

5) Nebula. Ok, I’m going to make an admission. I got through the entire first Guardians without clocking that the blue-faced semi-robot alien with a psychotic streak was none other than Dr Who’s Amy Pond, aka Karen Gillan. It was only when the name jumped out at me on the credits that I clicked – and even then, I thought “Ah, maybe there’s a different actor with the same name, in the US”. Her American accent is pitch perfect, but more impressively, her angry, downtrodden, rage-filled character has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with Amy Pond. I genuinely wouldn’t have picked these two characters out as the same person. That is a tribute not only to the make-up team, but to Gillan’s skill in acting.

6) The visuals are sumptuous (as the picture above attests). There are so many visual delights in this show, it’s difficult to know where to start. Apart from the extraordinarily lifelike cgi, which means you genuinely think you’re watching interactions with real talking trees and real talking raccoons, the part where the designers let themselves go is fabulous. That is on the planet Ego, in which we are treated to a massive vista of impossible things that are beautiful and straight out of dreams. From wonderful colour-popping bubbles that greet them as they leave the spaceship, through the incredible animated fountain to the sumptuously designed interiors of the palace, everything is designed to a “T”. This show should win awards simply for visualisation.

7) The plot is both taut and hilarious. It’s a fine balancing act to get a genuine sense of comedy in a script balanced against a driving plot. If you watch many tv comedy shows, you’ll see that the plot is paper thin, while the comedy simply comes from the characters rubbing together. This has both. Add in the asides with Stan Lee (which are outside the plot for sure) and the extra elements that feed in to future episodes, and it is a work of brilliance.

So, there it is. Needless to say, I’m going back to watch it again with a friend of mine who writes comic books. Discussions after that should be joyous!

Review – Cirque de Glace, “Evolution”, King’s Theatre, Southsea, 8th May 2017

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for the circus, so when I saw Cirque de Glace were performing at the King’s Theatre, I couldn’t resist going. I LOVE CIRCUSES, and this was one with a difference. The whole thing was a circus on ice, with a real refrigerated floor for the performers to skate around on! How would they do it? I wondered, how would the circus motif be transformed with this added frisson, or freeze-on, of a potential slip-up at any moment?

From the start, I knew things were going to be different. Taking our seats, the theatre was already filled with theatrical smoke. The show started with lights across the audience and ponderous music. The scene was set. We were at the start of the universe itself, and stars were being formed, the booming narrative informed us. Planets coalesced, the rock that would become the Earth was struck by a gigantic meteorite, splitting the proto-planet into Earth and moon and suddenly – boom! crash! – we were in the world of the volcanoes, billions of years ago…

Next, the skaters appeared, making a circle around a rather small volcano in the middle of the stage and skated around it. The music boomed, the voice continued talking about magma and rocks and the formation of the planet and… I started to lose my focus.

There was some great skating, but the first 15 minutes of the show felt like an extended geography lesson for children with Attention Deficit Disorder. I think I was meant to feel a sense of awe and wonder, but actually, being told that rocks formed and that somehow that had something to do with people skating around the stage… I’ve got to say it didn’t quite hit the spot. It was Geology On Ice.

Nevertheless, I persevered. Perhaps a narrative would evolve that would hold my attention. Sure enough, next came the creation of the sea, then insects, and Gaia doing acrobatics on an earth-shaped ball. Everything the performers did was brilliant technically, and I marvelled at the aerial silk performers dangling from the Fly Loft… except that the smoke I’d mentioned earlier hadn’t cleared away, and with lights directed straight at the audience, it was actually quite difficult to see what they were doing. The special effects distracted, until the performance got lost in smoke and lighting.

The skaters were brilliant, but something about the concept of the show didn’t quite work. The booming recorded voice of the narrator at times took on a tone half way between environmental activist and children’s poet – and when the narration descended into terrible doggerel, it introduced a new level of struggle for my tiny brain, that had to decipher what was going on, as well as fight the blinding lighting and deafening, meaningless words.

At the same time, the performers didn’t seem to understand the grammar of applause. The action flowed from one scenario to another, not giving the audience the right cues to clap. I was waiting for that breathing space to show my appreciation for the extraordinary feats I was viewing, but there was no room to allow it. Sitting just a few seats away, a member of the crew tried to encourage clapping by doing so loudly herself. That worked for the first two or three times – but people just wanted to watch. The clapper seemed not to understand that applause should come at the release of dramatic tension. The simplest way to do that in trad circuses is to do a drum roll, have the performer do their trick, then stand with arms outstretched. Bang! There’s your cue to clap.

No such cues were given to the audience. The planted clapper distractingly picked the wrong moments to clap, pulling the audience’s appreciation too early, so that when the right moment came to clap there was silence because they were already “clapped out”.

I so wanted to really enjoy this show. Don’t get me wrong, I did think it was good. But watching the story of the world unfold, with trees being chopped down by men with chainsaws, and then the voice track telling us that we were reaping the whirlwind of our own destruction, it all felt that we were being hectored and accused for the faults and greed of people we can’t control. That the refrigerated floor must use up a hefty dose of carbon emissions was an irony not missed on me. The performers were brilliant. The production, like the clapper, was just a tad heavy handed. 6/10.

Yoga and Sherlock Holmes – a brace of Pompey events

Two very different cultural events occurred in Portsmouth yesterday, that I was lucky enough to attend.

The first was the limb-stretching Yoga for Writers, a workshop run by writer and Yoga teacher Helen Salsbury. A good hour and a half long, the workshop addressed the particular issues met by writers who spend too long at their desks and don’t take breaks. The stretches and exercises dealt with a number of issues: posture, ergonomics, stiffness of joints due to too much inactivity and glassy-eyed staring into the distance. For anyone who forgets to take a break and loosen up the body, Helen’s soothing lesson is a recommend. Another part of the training – and let’s face it, yoga is all about breath control and meditation, was how to just chillax. Entering different states of consciousness is the heart of the writer’s job. And with her hypnotic talk and relaxation exercises, the spaced out feeling of deep chilledness at which the doorway to creativity so often opens for many writers was a welcome reminder of the power of doing nothing. I walked away from this one feeling lighter and more focused. You can find out more about Helen Salsbury here:

Another cultural event was the final instalment of The Sign of Six – a deeply joyous homage to one of Portsmouth’s great literary heroes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the character who is so famous I am sure he is even recognised in far-flung galaxies across the universe, Sherlock Holmes (and of course, his bosom buddy Doctor Watson!).

The Sign of Six was a series of six short plays performed at different venues across the city throughout the week. From Paulsgrove, to Southsea, Holmes and Watson were on the track of a deadly assassin who variously tried to bomb, gas, mine, poison and generally polish off the super-sleuth owner of the deerstalker. Each of the six venues yielded a clue to the identity of the would-be killer – until finally it was revealed that the man trying to kill off Holmes was none other than Conan Doyle himself.

The team behind the plays was Periplum, whom I went for drinks with after the final show, in Southsea. Dan, the villain of the piece described how working with the public in Pompey had its challenges – like being pushed in the Commercial Road fountain or dealing with people questioning them mid-rehearsal as to what they were doing. Yet, this was all part of the excitement of the live performance, and it worked out really well. A suitable street theatre compliment to one-time denizen of Portsmouth, Arthur Conan Doyle.

Each play was broadcast on Facebook Live, the verve and fun with which this whole project was performed can be still be viewed, here:

There’s always something happening in Portsmouth!

Puss In Boots, the Phoenix Players, Southsea, February 2017

One of my secret pleasures in Portsmouth in the early months of the year is the Phoenix Players pantomime, at the Trinity Theatre on the corner of Frances Avenue.

Over the years I’ve seen Treasure Island with a massive cast replete in grass skirts, Cinderella with an outrageous pantomime dame, and Sleeping Beauty with an evil fairy godmother to die for.

This year, Puss in Boots got the treatment, and it was well worth a visit on a chilly February night out. The Phoenix Players are an amateur community troupe, and everyone at some point gets a chance to shine, in more ways than one. Whether it’s the outrageous bling of the costumes, the sparkle of magic or the UV special effects, the show is a visual delight. The writing is of the deep panto tradition, with a rich seam of 1950s music hall in the mix, along with Pacman and Super Mario Brothers.

What I love about the Phoenix Players is that they have a big, warm heart. They don’t worry too much about getting things a little wrong, and know how to laugh off mistakes when they happen from time to time, and keep the show pootling along nicely.

There’s also something else: the show has its surreal moments. The sudden arrival of Puss at Catland, where an unearthly feline court must decide whether Puss lives or dies was unexpected, and the sudden appearance of a Brummy-accented fairy godmother with a lisp and purple hair added to the fun.

For a good night out, haunted by Donald Trump ghosts, gigantic cuddly spiders and unearthly transformations, this is the place to go.

You’ll have a great night out.

Oh yes you will..!

Matt’s 2013 Progress Report…

Well, it’s been an up and down sort of year. It started with something of a feverish burst of creativity – working with The Three Belles to craft their stage show Sing Sing Sing into a brand new beast for performance at The New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth on 5th February. Two weeks of intensive collaboration, co-directing the show and helping out where I could came to a conclusion on that chilly night, with a packed house and a very happy audience.

For me, this was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. Working closely with the Belles, chucking ideas at Anneka, Izzie and Sally and playing creative tennis by email with the script was joyous.

After that day in early Feb, I hit a low, I have to say. The cold nights of winter continued. A trip to the Tunisian desert with Jackie was fascinating, but she had to put up with me being a grouch. It was great to see her loving it, though. And there was a moment, when the desert foxes barked in the distance and the star-filled night froze the water in the washing-up bowl to a thick sheet of ice, that I realised a little bit more about the strange nature of the world.

It was extraordinary walking across a lunar landscape with a wind blowing for 500 miles off the snowcapped mountains of Morocco across the flat lands, bringing sand and dust and a reminder of the great empty spaces outside of civilization, and dumping it all in my salad. How much sand I ate that week, I do not know.

Strip out the machinery and the creature comforts and you see humans at their most impressive – living despite the harshness of their surroundings.

Slowly winter opened into spring, and in a moment of optimism I decided that I would take on the house. I ripped up the floor in the dining room to investigate a damp patch in one corner of the room, and ended up renewing the joists, rebuilding the walls (and nearly collapsing a corner of the house), mixing by hand and laying half a ton of concrete to build a hearth and tanking a wall after the replacement of the damp proof course didn’t have the desired outcome.

All this took many months while I worked on other projects. In the writing sphere, I continued my articles for The Best You magazine, and I conceived a whole series of ideas for stories, wrote a radio play starring The Three Belles, commenced a novel starring them, wrote a little horror story for the Day of the Dead event organised by Will Sutton and developed different talks for different audiences on the nature of writing.

This year also saw the departure of Dom Kippin, the Literature Development Officer with Portsmouth City Council, who had brought so much to city culture. I stepped in for him after he departed to give a talk entitled: “Portsmouth The Home of Great Writing” – and demonstrated how the city itself had shaped the thinking of some of the greatest writers of the last 150 years, including Conan-Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. The talk was well-received, and I think that’s one I’d like to do again.

Other connections with the council included me writing the educational resource material for the City Museum’s Egyptian exhibition – which included its own real mummy. This was utterly fascinating and took me back to the time I lived and taught in Egypt. I have a mass of resource material on this amazing country, and it was fun to delve into the old knowledge and reuse it for kids. This is something I adore doing.

Other connections with the Council were less fruitful. Having a series of ideas knocked back by the City Development and Culture Service in a manner that was both rude and combative hit me hard. I remain deeply committed to Portsmouth, but will find other ways to express my love for the place, and am looking elsewhere for for ways to promote the city and my ideas.

The hypnosis has been fun. I have several people now wandering around able to give talks to crowds, who were absolutely terrified of getting up in front of others before I put them under the ‘fluence. This, I have to say, has been deeply rewarding. I love to give people more freedom. There have been some wonderful successes in this line, including some people who were very low who I’ve really helped to see things in new ways. This is not boasting, just a reflection of their feedback. We have to do what we can for others, I guess.

The later half of the year saw some projects outside my normal workload. Developing the relationship at The Three Belles’ In The Mood show between Charles Fallowfield-Smith and Gail was fun. The first time Gail gave me a slap in front of the Gen Pub was interesting – especially hearing the audience’s gasp…

This got me thinking about how you work the emotions of a big crowd. Stepping in to compère The Three Belles‘ show at Gravesend gave me an opportunity to do more of the same. I was given about 45 minutes’ notice to get a talk together. I had a hoot and the audience loved it. Developing Gail and Charles’s relationship further at St Ives was really cool. The black eye she gave me after our drunken row at that show was great fun – as was extemporising a speech when I had no idea what I was going to say even as I stepped on to the boards. All good stuff and genuinely not nerve-wracking.

The character of Charles that I play fits like a glove, and it was fun in December to compère again for the ladies at Portsmouth Guildhall in front of a crowd of 350 on that big stage. Where else would I learn to play with an audience? Thanks to the Belles for that.

There have been other moments. Waking on a hillside not far from Evesham with Jackie was lovely. There is a magic that happens when we go on holiday in the camper van. Back at home, helping to get the house together with her, creating a home space that works for both of us – this has been new territory for me. It has stretched me, too – but I’m pleased with the results we have started to achieve together and I forever look forward to being with her when we are apart.

The year ends with new ideas and thoughts. I want to work more with actors and write more stage works. The Three Belles have shown me how my words can really come to life in a way I never expected. There is a new project in the offing with them, too.

A fascinating year. I feel like it has been one of transition. There is more to tell, but this, I think summarises the important stuff.

Thank you for being my friend.  Have a wonderful New Year.



My Little Life

Up early and the sky is a muddle of whites and blues above the white villas cum flats opposite. A summer morning, but with that tinge of damp in the air that nearly the whole of this summer has had, and the way the shadows are, that sense of the city not yet woken up.

I’m in my O’Neill shorty with dive boots when I unlock the bike and cycle down Victoria Road South to the sea.

There’s not a car. Not one car. Just the silent sleepy white fronts of the houses, and the tall elegance of the plane trees at The Circle – nature’s green and girdered architecture.

Down we go, along Clarence Road, past Clarence Park, past the Clarence Boutique Hotel, looking like something from a Beeb period drama. Down further, to the sea. The little perfect gardens on the Common, planted to look pretty and slightly untamed at the same time, then along by the Pyramids and out to the sea.

There is a monster of a ferry coming into harbour, out by Spitbank Fort. Blue and white, with great big radar domes on stalks, like someone very big is about to tee off in a game of colossal crazy golf. The ship is shining. The sun is maybe an hour above the horizon, and South Parade Pier is looking for a moment marvellous.

Down the big-stoned beach and into the sea. A kind of inept splashing about for ten minutes or so, mask and snorkel catching glimpses of the sand under the sea. The water is surprisingly warm and the night’s cobwebs wash away. Pretty place. Pretty city. Horizon. Stretch of water. Sky. The honest stuff of life.

Something in the water. A muddle of bladderack, bifurcated, like a mermaid’s tail, submerged. Little joys.

Then, back out. Back on my bike on to the empty, wide roads, and out along the Ladies’ Mile across the Common. A man walking his dog wearing a surgical support – the man that is. Under the green leaves of the elms, the air changing warmth and dampness. On again, feeling the emptiness of the city now, up Palmerston Road, past the street cleaner stopped talking with a cyclist.

A shout of “hello” from a homeless in a shop doorway, then on again. The tramp-like figure of Vincent, one of the care in the community guys who lives nearby.

“Vincenzo,” I shout.

“Ah, Matto,” he calls back, laughing at the sight of me in wet suit on a bike.

Then home. The seagulls are scavenging the carcass of a bin bag put out for the dustmen today. As I watch, a cat pounces, sending them scrabbling upwards, talons clacking against slate roofs, explosions of wings and beaks and necks and eyes. The cat, satisfied, picks around the carcass itself.

It’s all here. My little life. And I’m okay.

Spitbank with The Three Belles

Today I took a RIB out to Spitbank Fort in the middle of The Solent with The Three Belles.  The talented trio are performing out there this Saturday, and I tagged along because I am considering writing a story starring our musical girl heroes set on the manmade island.

The place was a building site still, so no photos of the interior, but the potential is absolutely extraordinary. There’s an open-air jacuzzi, a plunge-pool, recreation room and numerous really lush bedrooms, along with little hidey-holes to chill out in.

The Three Belles - Boatalicious!The Fort will be the ultimate getaway for the wealthy and for those wanting privacy. No papparazzi will get near it. The secluded location also makes it a fantastic spot for a story… so watch this space, for The Three Belles And The Spitbank Mystery..!

Issie was also keen to get me to write a story with vampires in, or a werewolf. Which is something I have been considering. The skill will be finding something fresh to do with these strange supernatural creatures. But then, I also have a Bond movie style of story to think about too!

I’ve got to say it was a fantastic day to be going out on the water and Belles added their own Bond Girl glamour to proceedings. Sparkling water, big smiles and a certain chic – what more is there to life?

The low line of Portsmouth Point from Gunwharf Marina and the harbour mouth looked great with its old Georgian buildings as we headed out on the water. I imagined the raucous, crazy, wild times that happened there, when sailors came home, laden with prize money after capturing a ship. It’s different today, but the ghosts linger still!

The Belles were as the Belles always are – funny, smart and quickwitted. I really respect the way they’ve taken what was a university project and are, step by step, turning it into a career.

They were striking as ever today: Sally, elegant with flaming red hair, Issie, pale in the sunlight like a flower wilting in the heat, and Anneka with her cloche hat and her tweed jacket, like a picture from the 1930s.

The building was low in the water and looked impressive as we approached during a five minute skip across the Solent. The RIB was driven by Mark Watt, who’s organizing the rebuild of the Fort to luxury standards. It’s really going to be something special

 when it’s done, and it’s going to be a fantastic venue and hideaway. Wonderful to see these places being refurbished.

Well, Saturday night is going to be a hoot for The Belles – I do, as ever, wish them the best of luck. As if they need it!