Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Hacking the Fringe

I’ve spent many hours combing (ha!) the Edinburgh Fringe online brochure this year, in search of comedic inspiration.

It’s hard to conceive of more than 30,000 performances of more than 2,000 shows – and that’s not counting the Free Fringe and other diversions.
The show's only got three hours to go. I'll be fine.
But how do you take advantage of such a cultural banquet, without breaking the bank or going bonkers?

Accommodation costs are fierce, so I went back to our old favourite holiday mode, the house exchange. Initially, I was sceptical that any Edinburgh resident would willingly miss out, but I was wrong. Twice, in fact, for we have arranged two exchanges for a double Fringe binge this season. Not central, but hey? How hard can it be?

I was born in Edinburgh, although I’ve never lived there, so I thought I’d be pretty au fait with getting around.Things have changed – and are changing – and I’ve had to learn fast. It turned out that buying the tickets was the easy bit and I’m proud to say I managed not to double book anything, or book two shows with insufficient time to get from A to B.

A good start, but Edinburgh is pretty intense and, perversely, having fun can be quite stressful. However, after a few days, I’ve been acquiring a few Fringe hacks (ha! again):

  1. Get the Lothian Transport bus app so you don’t get caught out, especially on Sundays or late night.
  2. Fill your pockets with enough loose change to sink a battle ship.
  3. Try not to spend all this lovely change when you stop between shows for a quick gargle of mood-enhancing giggle juice. (Pay with notes.)
  4. If you’re of a certain age, stick to halves to avoid trekking to busy loos.
  5. Use the Edinburgh Fringe venue map, not Google, to locate the venue precisely. Assembly George Square Studies are NOT in the middle of George Square, thanks very much.
  6. Have a printed street map as well, just in case you get your phone stolen, or it packs up. Always handy, too, for when the bus gets diverted and drops you somewhere unexpected.
  7. Four seasons in one day? More like in one hour. I needed a hat, waterproof, thick jumper and various layers including both long- and short-sleeved T-shirts, for venues can get HOT.
  8. Bulky clothing also doubles as a cushion to raise you in your seat to help you see past the folks in front, such as girl who’s just put up her hair, or the six-foot-six guy with a man bun
  9. Talking of clothing, flip flops are just daft. Many streets are cobbled, OK?
  10. Be happy to accept lots of flyers for they make good fans. And leafleting is hard work.
  11. Go retro and pack your own lunch/supper/breakfast, according to schedule. It also helps to pass the time in a queue. Avoid boiled eggs, salmon and tuna. Just saying.
  12. While waiting for a show, don’t get stuck next to boring people who like to SPEAK LOUDLY TO SHOW HOW INTERESTING THEY ARE. Or the dull ones.

OMG. I've double booked. Footlights or Newsrevue?
Wait. I have it. The One-Man Star Wars Trilogy. Something about the hair ...

Sidebar. We were waiting in line to see Thrones! The Musical, a thought-provoking piece of contemporary opera exploring the subtle effects of trauma on the human psyche. Not. Anyway, there we were, munching on our ham and roasted red pepper hummus on multi-seed rolls like the experienced Fringers that we’ve become, when the woman next to us started to regale her friend with a story about how her nan was going to have her leg amputated. “Oh, poor nan,” said the friend. “Just as well the doctor’s an expert in prosthetics,” the woman continued.

Mercifully, their partners turned up and we waited for the conversation to change to a lighter topic, such as how the show was going to tackle the Red Wedding, when said woman drained her cider and uttered the following word I dreaded: “Anyway ...”

I left, taking my ham and hummus sandwich with me, until I got the all-clear. GOT is one thing, but this. Eurgh.

Well, I’ve actually run out of hacks. Enjoying the Edinburgh Fringe doesn’t actually have to be a military operation. Sorry to sound like your Mum, but just wrap up, don’t lose your phone and enjoy the show.

And when you get off the bus, say thanks to the bus drivers, for although they aren’t in the spotlight, they are true stars.

Images: Peter Cook in Beyond the Fringe, 1962; Violet Romer in a flapper dress, circa 1910-1915

Saturday, 6 August 2016

You’re never too [insert adjective here] to enjoy being silly

We all like to think we have a great sense of humour, but occasionally it can go missing. Somewhere between autumn and spring, I mislaid mine.

Maybe it was because of the soggy weather, but it happened. It can happen to anyone, of course, for serious reasons such as bereavement, loss, illness, shock. I won’t go on. Sometimes it’s just the ups and downs of normal life with a dash of Brexit. Mine seemed to have drained away through my boots.

In fact, it had been lying dormant, and had not totally disappeared, for on Thursday, I found it again. This was not by chance, for I had been hunting around for a while. A few weeks ago, I came up with a plan to be amused. Go and see some comedy. Well, the Fringe seemed, um, just the ticket.

I bought A LOT, of tickets, I mean. To all manner of madness, from satirical musicals to a one-man portrayal of Star Wars. On Thursday, we gathered up our bus fare, our loins, and a giant picnic and headed to the Pleasance at the heart of the Fringe.

As we clumped to our seats and the lights dimmed, I felt a familiar thrill of expectation. And off we went.

Who knew that Foley sound effects to a 1940s graphic novel drama could be so hysterical? Or that just three people could produce so many wonderful accents, speaking a dime to the dozen into a giant microphone. We knew it would be fantastic simply by the ‘rhubarb rhubarb’ hubbub they created in certain scenes. Mad scientists, Indian gurus, scary monsters from outer space, wolves, death rays, luscious snogging ... we heard it all. 

Intergalactic Nemesis: Twin Infinity - A Live Action Graphic Novel offers a blockbusting hour and a half’s entertainment.

Half an hour and a pint later, the Reduced Shakespeare Company dazzled with a bravura array of silly wigs, bowdlerised couplets and dreadful puns in The Long Lost Play (Abridged), with more than a passing nod to another dramatic genius, Walt Disney himself. God, I laughed at its bardic bathos – and yes, water pistols can recreate a tempest on stage.

Edinburgh is so full of watering holes that it was no problem to wander into a cocktail bar/diner to refresh our laughing gear, then off to this year’s Cambridge Footlights. Perhaps our arrival raised the average somewhat, but by this time, I didn’t care. I’d forgotten how much I love bonkers students revues. And these sketches were sublimely bonkers.

Four guys and girl in jeans and T-shirts (and one notable occasion, boxers and a swimming hat) did the classic array of madcap sketches, some great, some so bonkers that the ghost of Monty Python could be seen hovering in the rafters, having a snigger. As we regaled the ‘best bits’ to a tolerant mate the next day, I realised just how brilliant it was. Outrageous accents, ludicrous costumes, embarrassing moments and a bit of classic farce with some chocolate cake and a jug of water. What’s not to like?

My favourite sketches featured scenes where the ensemble became young children expounding on their view of the world. Charming, bitter-sweet humour that will delights audiences of all ages and temperament.

So, I am glad to report that after just one afternoon of silliness, my humour batteries are completely recharged.

You’ve gotta larf. No, you really have to.

PS I will never look at a conker the same way again.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Full circle

Some years ago, I was raiding a charity shop in Leamington Spa and came across a batch of classic murder mysteries. I forked out the princely sum of £20 for nearly 100 books. 

Several dozen were by Gladys Mitchell (below,right), a crime writer whose quirky style I came to appreciate.
Gladys Mitchell, right, and actress Fenella Woolgar as seen in Home Fires. An unsettling resemblance ...
Gladys was something of a free spirit. The murders were all rather dashing, almost lurid. The characters so non-stereotypical it was hard to guess whodunnit. The settings were all so different and unexpected …

Courtesy of Jason Half
The investigative journalist that lurks in all of us got the upper hand a few years ago. I decided to drag Gladys into the spotlight and do a biography. Why not? It couldn’t be that hard! 

I rummaged around, tracking down some former neighbours and such. It’s only when I found some rare ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets that I realised she might have been secretly gay. If true, it suddenly made sense of so many of her plots in which sexuality and sexual orientation was a turning point.
Courtesy of Jason Half
In due course, I felt the publisher and I didn’t see eye to eye on the issue and after some years, collected up such papers as I had and posted them off to a true devotee in the US where they might be appreciated. (The tribute site is a real gem, a must for fans of vintage murder mysteries.

Ms Mitchell faded from my life, apart from writing the occasional fan bloguntil recently. I’ve been blogging a little about a recent fascination with ancient stones. Jason himself reminded me that Gladys was inspired by such phenomenon and penned several titles on the theme.
The Whispering Knights, near the Rollright Stones
After some foraging, and a download or two that were more complicated than some of Gladys’ plots, I tracked down my prey: The Dancing Druids and Whispering Knights. The latter particularly caught my attention for we visited the Rollright Stones just last year. If this is your cup of tea, the Rollright Stones is a ancient site located on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border. The complex consists of three main elements, The Kings Men stone circle, the King Stone, and the Whispering Knights. (It also featured on the BBC drama, Father Brown, just a few months ago.)

During the search, I found several others written during her prolific career, revealing a lifelong interest in the subject, as noted in a 1980 article by Patricia Craig

For deliciously macabre scenes involving to ancient rituals and mystic stones, look out for The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop; Come Away, Death; plus a hard-to-come-by children’s book, The Seven Stones Mystery, written under the pseudonym of Pamela Stewart. (I’m sure Jason will know of more!)
 Well, that’s my summer holiday reading sorted.

PS. If anyone decides to make a drama/documentary about the irrepressible Gladys, go no further than the talented Fenella Woolgar, recently seen as Alison Scotlock in Home Fires. The resemblance is astonishing, almost spooky ... It’s almost as if the ghost of Gladys Mitchell has come back to haunt us ... Perhaps Fenella took the inspiration for her look from the jacket photo of Gladys, or are they related? The mind boggles.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Striking a blow for bagpipes

I’m always wary of coincidences. It’s always particularly annoying in a movie or drama, when you suspect the author just needs to speed things along.

Detail from the Luttrell Psalter
However, a hilarious coincidence happened to me the other day, which had me in bits, to the amusement of passers-by.

There I was in Morpeth. Long story short, my husband Rob had a day conference in Leeds, so we extended the trip to spend some time in the Northumberland borders en route back to the Scottish Borders.

Rob headed south on the train and I went into town. First stop was Information, and then I came upon a sign that made me boggle. The Morpeth Bagpipe Museum.

In itself, this is not as incongruous as it sounds, for there is a long and proud tradition of piping in the North-East. What was personally amusing is that my daughter, Lauren, is writing a dissertation on the significance of musical instruments in the marginalia of Books of Hours, and has a chapter on ... bagpipes.
Now bagpipes are interesting for a number of reasons, not least is that the nobility found them rather vulgar, with the associations of animal parts and the expressions assumed by the players. Pigs playing bagpipes are a recurring theme in illuminated manuscripts and in other decoration. You only have to visit Melrose Abbey to see this for yourself (see picture). Lauren had just been to stay and regaled us with all manner of quirky bagpipe-related references.

(A previous essay dealt with whelks, and that was almost as riveting. Medieval art is really quite interesting in a Stephen Fry kind of way.)

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Peasant Dance
So there I was, outside what I believe is the world’s only bagpipe museum. And it was quite charming. Situated on the top floor of a stone chantry, showing how seriously the enterprise was taken, it was well laid-out, informative and attractive. You could listen to different styles (with headphones, of course!), see facsimiles and learn how this unusual brand of instrument came to be. And yes, there were many images of bucolic peasants being coarse and enjoying themselves at feasts tootling on all types of rude-looking musical paraphernalia.

When we booked our hotel in Morpeth, I got an email trying to sell me car hire and such like saying ‘Pamela, turn your trip to Morpeth into an adventure’. See?

I giggled at first, without realising how prophetic it was. So there you have it. My adventure with bagpipes. In Morpeth. You couldn’t make it up.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Legendary landmark

I collect stone circles. Not literally, obviously, but over the years, I’ve been adding to my list of sites visited: Southern Sweden, the South-West of England, Aberdeenshire and now ... Duddo.

Duddo? I hear you ask. She’s spelt it wrongly. But no. Duddo is tiny village near Etal – and that’s spelt correctly, too, in north Northumberland.

I live in Hawick in the Scottish Borders and it sounds long way away, but due to the vagaries of the English/Scottish border, it’s actually rather close (four miles).

I know the Borders quite well, and I’d no idea there were any standing stones in the region at all, to my shame, but during a chance conversation with a volunteer at Wallington estate (see more in another blog to come!), Duddo cropped up.

So, on a bright sunny summer’s day (yes, we do get them in Scotland), and drove the zigzag roads around the acres of ripening wheat to Duddo village.

Stone circle fans will know it can be something of a pilgrimage to locate said sites, but the signposts were clear. We parked on the grass verge at the side of a narrow road and set off across the fields, saying hello to fellow travellers on the path to archaeological enlightenment.

I felt like St Cuthbert himself, wandering the gentle pathways of the Borders, with very little sign of human intervention on the landscape. Amid that scene of rural splendour, we were aware only of skylarks, swishing corn, butterflies and bees. Only an occasional con trail or distant tractor reminded us of modern life.

We rounded a corner and there on a low hill were the stones, a ragged assortment of rocks looking more like the pulled teeth of giants lay ahead.

Ten minutes later, we had arrived, and were astonished. Only five stones remain out of seven, but they are huge, rilled lumps of sandstone, encrusted with coloured lichen. A small circle, by Avebury standards, but ruggedly epic and endlessly photogenic.

Experts believe they were erected in 2,000 BC. The tallest is 2.3m, higher than a modern-day man and one appears to have mystical Neolithic cup marks, which have inspired all manner of theories about gory sacrifices. Human remains were found underground in the centre some years ago.

Why were such stone circles built? Even with all the trappings of modern-day technology, we can only conjecture, which adds to the mystic beauty of these sites. (You only have to think of the opening credits to Outlander to appreciate the appeal. I even wrote Midsummer Glen, a short story on the theme.)

The setting is particularly majestic, with prominent landmarks such as the Yeavering Bell, a twin-peaked hill near the River Glen, and the Eildons, the distinctive triple-mound visible in the far distance (above).

The Duddo stones, proudly standing on a hill with wrap-round panorama, must have been a landmark for travellers over the centuries. Curiously, it is actually on a line linking Melrose Abbey with Lindisfarne. St Cuthbert himself must have seen it on his travels. In fact, would it be too fanciful to think the ancient site, with its spiritual resonances, might have inspired later ecclesiastical types to settle in these Borders locations?

Rob having a Gladiator moment
Going completely berserk on the conjecture front, was Melrose significant to the early Christian founders because of the ‘trinity’ of Trimontium, the Roman name for the three hills that form the Eildons. I’m sure some expert has thought of this, but I haven’t found a reference.

So. Duddo. A stunning and inspiring place which doesn’t even rate a mention on my road map.

PS See a blog from last year: Stones of a certain standing.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Writing on a sunny afternoon

I love working outside on a warm day, but glare is a problem.

Introducing Shadow Box Mark II, a revamped version of my personalised laptop anti-glare device, which I pimped up for today’s heat wave. Glaringly obvious bit of DIY, but it works!

Yes, even in Scotland, the temperature is over 20 degrees.

What you’ll need

  • Several different rolls of sticky tape
  • Scissors
  • A shoebox that is slightly larger than your PC
  • A patient partner who must promise not to laugh.
First, deconstruct the panels and then simply reassemble and stick into place around the laptop (making sure that any flexes/memory cards etc also fit!).

Fetch long cold drink.

Insert laptop and off you go.

Of course, you’ll have to change out of that sparkly top – those dazzling sequins are not helpful.

And has anyone else struggled with using a mouse on an ornate cast iron garden table? A problem for another day.

My husband was rather envious of my super-sophisticated creation, so he made his own. He’s dubbed it the ViewTube.

Actually, he's just abandoned it in favour of a garden brolly!

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Ten reasons to take your laptop on holiday

I don’t care if it’s not PC, as it were, but I’ve decided I like having my laptop with me on vacation.

Cloudy horizons at Mumbles
In the past, I just used to pack an A4 pad, some printouts and a pen, and hoped for the best. However, I never did anything useful, I’m afraid to say.

Norwegian Church on a bright Cardiff afternoon
This year, I’ve been parcelling up the old Acer and recharger and shoving them in my hand luggage. Then off I go. It’s not been obsessive and I haven’t been tempted to do hours and hours a day, but just a bit of dabbling. I have say, it’s been great.

Here’s why:
Breakers on Rhossili Beach
  1. I don’t lose the thread of whatever I’m working on.
  2. I hate typing on a tablet.
  3. It keeps me sane during inevitable delays at airports, stations, ferries, car hire desks etc.
  4. I feel liberated to tackle those knotty plot problems because I’m not distracted by the usual domestic nonsense.
  5. I don’t fret about the weather, for I can always edit a quick chapter while waiting the sun to come out. Especially useful in Wales, as you can see.
  6. Taking the laptop means I have all my notes, background details and so forth, so I can keep the text consistent.
  7. By the same token, if I get stuck on one manuscript, I have the wherewithal to dabble in another.
  8. Any work I achieve is a bonus.
  9. It’s much more environmentally-friendly than printing out masses of pages.
  10. Writing is fun for me, so why deny myself the pleasure?
Leafy bower in a shower on the Gower
So, it might not be for you, but it works for me. And since you ask, I'm now officially halfway through Machiavelli's Acolyte and raring to go to finish it soon.