2016 Grateful 20

Back in 2001, when I had a feeling that my time in the USA might be coming to a close, I took a road trip with the inimitable RosaB. On our way from somewhere to somewhere in the State of Alabama, we passed a billboard for the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman. Then we passed a second. By the time we hit upon the third, the advertising had done its job and we left the highway to see what the fuss was about.

Built by a Bavarian Benedictine monk, he himself a little on the small side, too, the four acres is known far and wide as Jerusalem in Miniature. Not far into the twentieth century, Br Joseph’s job was to man the pumps and watch the oil gauges at the Abbey’s pump house, a mind-numbing task he did for 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. To keep himself sane, he started to build little grottos around tiny statues. He made tiny copies of the Holy sites in Jerusalem and eventually had enough to put together a miniature of the city. The monk had rarely travelled so he built his pieces from images on postcards. [I still send postcards – maybe somewhere, someone might put them to use. You know who you are.]

The Abbot of the monastery would have made Walt Disney proud. He soon cottoned on to the winner he had within his walls. He had great plans for an OTT religious grotto, carefully landscaped, meticulously made. Work began in 1932 in an abandoned quarry in the Abbey’s grounds and today, it’s visited by millions. It was one of the highlights of a memorable trip. Well worth a look if you’re in the vicinity.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m in the UK. I’d gone to meet my then boyfriend who was on leave from the QEII. We ended up in Wimborne with its 1/10th scale model town. An idea that incubated during the 1940s, it opened to visitors in 1951. The buildings are made from concrete with beech windows. I still remember feeling like Gulliver as I wandered through the tiny streets, afraid to put a foot wrong lest I step on something or a little someone. All very real it was.  Another lovely memory. Another one worth a visit.

In Portugal recently, we happened across a third such marvel in the village of Sobreiro. Aldeia Tipicia (typical village) was a the brainchild of potter José Franco who began work on this masterpiece in 1960. Driven to preserve the customs and crafts of Portugal, he wanted to replicate the old workshops and stores, the houses, and the communities that were all in danger of being swallowed up by progress. He also wanted a miniature village for kids, with working windmills and all sorts. Later he added a third part – an interactive children’s agricultural centre inside some castle-like walls. Franco died in 2009 leaving a legacy that,  like the others, and indeed like Miniversum here in Budapest, is still working its magic.

Because no matter what adult worries and concerns you might have going in, when you happen upon these miniature places, you can’t help but revert back to being a child. Rediscovering the open-mouthed child-like awe often jaded by cynicism is quite the experience. I found myself pointing and exclaiming like a kid on Christmas morning.

None of the visits were planned. But all happened when I needed some perspective. Someone up there is looking out for me. For this, and for the artists like Br Joseph and José Franco who made them possible, I’m truly grateful. Cost of entry: free. Recalibration: priceless.

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A slight change of perspective

I was at least a year in London before someone pointed out the divers to me, the gold statues on a rooftop near Picadilly, on Jermyn Street.  I’d never have noticed Antony Gormley’s naked man in Oxford had a crowd of tourists not been gazing skywards. And in Bristol a couple of weeks ago, in search of Banksy’s graffiti, I’d passed by one without even noticing so fixed was I on the road ahead.

I’ve never been a great one for planning ahead. The plan has always been to have no plan. It’s served me well so far and has even worked in my favour. Not limited by ambition or goals; not focused on specific, sought-after outcomes; not defined by where I want to be in five years time because I’m still figuring out where I am right now, I’ve had the freedom to react to opportunities that present themselves, unannounced. Admittedly, it’s not for everyone. And perhaps, were I to examine it a little closer, I’d find a subconscious plan of sorts. And perhaps you could argue that not having a plan is a plan in and of itself. Whatever.

We had a plan in Bristol – we were going to see the city using Banksy as our guide. Born in Bristol in 1974, Banksy’s road to fame and fortune began with a can of  spray paint. Today, he’s known the world over and his art has appeared on walls everywhere. There’s even a Banksy shop in Bethlehem. What I hadn’t realised though is that he’s done much more than paint.

IMG_0085 (600x800)His Paint Pot Angel is on display in the Bristol Museum. The title says it all. This is Banksy’s challenge to what we expect to see in museums and what value we put in art. Apparently back in 2009, he took on the Bristol Museum in an exhibition that was organised in secret and when it opened, people queued for as many as 5 hours. Over 350 000 people came in a month and the event was  rated one of the top 3 tourists events in the world that year. Bristol Council insisted on paying Banksy for the exhibition – he finally accepted £1 and donated the angel to the museum when it was all over.  I was quite taken with it – mainly because it was so not what I’d expect from the man. I had thought he had limited himself to stenciled art. How wrong I was. Just goes to show, eh.

And I didn’t know that his documentary  Exit Through the Gift Shop, billed as ‘the world’s first street art disaster movie‘, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010 and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011. Where was I was all that was happening?

IMG_0079 (600x800)On the side of a sexual health clinic on Frogmore Street, he did this little number, captioned ‘Well hung lover’. Interesting that the lover is starkers and the gal still has clothes on. Not quite the usual depiction and I’m left wondering what was going through his head when he thought this one up. And are the splotches of blue paint part of the deal or were they blaubed afterwards? Apparently for this one, he posed as a painter behind closed-off scaffolding, with permission from the then owners of the building, the band Massive Attack.

IMG_0098 (600x800)The famed ‘Girl with a pierced eardrum’ was splattered with paint soon after it appeared last year. If you remember this was also when rumours of his arrest (for vandalism – oops – there’s obviously a fine line between art and defamation) were on the go and the public thought that his identity would finally be revealed [his friends must know what he does and who he is surely. Is the world actually capable of keeping a secret?]

But no, and no. No arrest. No revealed identity.  His parody of the famous Vermeer painting sees the pearl earring replaced with an alarm box. It’s down on the docks, on the waterfront, tucked away between two buildings. And yet once you know it’s there, you wonder how you could have missed it.

IMG_0100 (800x600)The last one we saw this time was the Grim Reaper. This one has a story behind it. Originally painted on the side of the Thekla, a boat moored in Bristol harbour, it’s now been moved (how do they do this?) to the M Shed. And the story… apparently…

Banksy borrowed a friends boat and left some graffiti on the side of the Thekla depicting the letters of his name, ‘Banksy’. When the Harbourmaster saw the graffiti he came along and painted it over in black. This made the owner of the boat very angry -as he was a Banksy fan- and threatened the Harbourmaster with legal action for criminal damage. Hearing about the dispute and never one to hide from mischief, Banksy borrowed his friends boat again, leaving a stencil of the Grim Reaper in a boat and wondering of the Harbourmaster would act again.

And there are more – plenty more. We ran out of time. But as I’ve said before, Bristol has earned itself a place on my ‘have to revisit’ list. It’s a cracking city – with no shortage of things to do and sights to see. And it’s reminded me of the value of looking up. Oftentimes we’re just a tad too focused on what lies ahead to see what’s going on right beside us. And oftentimes, too, the wonders of the world are right there on our doorstep. All we need is a slight change of perspective.

 

A change of heart

You know the expression – to feel like a red-headed stepchild? That’s always amused me. I could be mistaken but as I understand it, the combination of being a red-head AND being a stepchild is not the best. That said, all the red-heads I know are gas craic, happy, well-adjusted people with just the right amount of crazy to make them special. And the stepchildren I know, be they red-headed or not, seem to be fine.

IMG_0078In the UK last week, the term was just to describe the relationship between the sibling cities of Bath and Bristol, with Bristol feeling a tad overshadowed. Certainly, Bath is beautiful, far more quaint, with lots of eco-stuff going on, and has far better buskers. And in truth, when I visit that part of the world, I rarely get further than the train station at Bristol Temple Meads as I, too, head for Bath.

IMG_0070 (800x600)IMG_0071 (800x600)This time though, I stayed put. In Bristol. And what an eye-opener that was. The city, once a major departure point for the slave trade and a less than glorious history, is lovely. There are plenty of green spaces and it has more than its far share of bombed-out churches that are still magnificent. My favourite is Temple Church. No question. A stunning 12th-century ruin in Temple Gardens that just begs quiet contemplation. I don’t think I could ever get tired of it.

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IMG_0090 (800x600)Bristol Marina has been majorly revamped with the Brunel’s SS Great Britain the main attraction. Time wasn’t on our side so we didn’t go in to see what all the hoo-ha was about but it’s on the list for the next visit. The colourful terraced houses that look down on the docks would be more my style than the lavish penthouses that line both sides of the river. Mind you, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at one of them either. There are myriad cafés, brew pubs, cider houses, and restaurants to choose from with boat taxis to ferry you every which way. Think Venice without the striped t-shirts. A lovely way to spend an afternoon.

Wills Memorial Tower

Wills Memorial Tower

The St Mary Redcliffe, billed as a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, has stood tall for over 800 years. Like many other buildings in the city, the ones that managed to dodge the bombs like the University’s Wills Memorial Tower, it, too, is gobsmackingly gorgeous.  Again, with time being at a premium, the tour of this tower has also made it to the list of things to do next time around.

IMG_0107 (800x600)IMG_0106 (600x800)And in sharp contrast to all this stylish splendour, Shaun the Sheep was everywhere. Seventy sheep have been scattered around the city as part of a fundraising campaign for the Children’s Hospital. And cleverly positioned near places of interest so that some little bit of cultural exposition might sneak past. It was my first time spending any time of note in the city and I liked it – a lot. I’d happily go back . Anytime. I won’t forget Bath, because she’s been good to me, but perhaps its time the red-headed stepchild got some more of my attention.

 

2015 Grateful 23

I was at a birthday party last night. The invitation said no presents, just your presence. But people still brought gifts. Me included. There’s a whole culture around gift-giving that probably says more about ourselves than the person we’re giving to. Friends I’ve known for years, and know well, have yet to get it right with me while more recent friends get it right all the time.

There’s an old Indian thing (I think it’s a Cherokee belief) that when giving a gift, you should give something you value, not something you think the other person needs or wants. And the more you value what you part with, the more they say you value that friendship. I think that has legs.

The older we get, the fewer things we need, the less clutter we want in our lives. Okay – it is nice to wear a piece of jewelry that is a daily reminder of the person who gave it to you. Or to spray some perfume and have the scent evoke nice thoughts. But for me, experiential presents are the way to go. Give me something from which memories are made.

I got an early birthday present last week. A weekend in St Ives in Cornwall. Visiting St Ives has been on my list since I learned the nursery rhyme:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

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But I got it wrong. That particular St Ives is in Cambridgeshire. The one in Cornwall is famous for its light. For about 200 years, the area has attracted famous painters like Turner, potters like Bernard Leach, sculptors like Barbara Hepworth and her artist husband, Picasso’s mate Ben Nicholson. Admittedly, I’d had my doubts about the whole light thing. But I’m now convinced. It’s somehow purer, clearer, crisper than usual. And it’s not difficult to imagine why artists would find it appealing.

We took the train from Bath- it’s about a five-hour trip with stops along the way, changing to a local coastline hopper in St Erth. We ate Cornish pasties. We had cream tea (scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream) while sitting on the beach. We discovered the delights of Cornish gin. We cooked local lamb for dinner one night. And we ate out at the fabulous Portgwidden Beach Café another night, a dinner which is now on my top ten list of most memorable meals I’ve had so far in my life. We wandered through the art galleries, hunted through the charity shops, dodged the tourists as they navigated the cobblestone streets. It was lovely. Really lovely.

I was there with one of my besties, the lovely MC. We hadn’t spent any time of note together in a while so it was a much overdue catch-up. Between us, we clocked up a fair few hours talking through the whys and wherefores of relationships, politics, religion, kids, careers, life in general. We parsed and analysed our independent lives, our sense of self, the challenges we face in compromise. And we concluded, that having had no kids ourselves, our friends have become our extended family.

20150719_165359_resizedThis time last week, I was being attacked by a seagull who stole the chocolate out of my 99 and then had the nerve to stand in front of me and wolf it down.  I should have believed the signs. Today, I’m in a blessedly cooler flat (a massive storm last night with another on the way by the sounds of it), with  a long to-do list in front of me, hoping to make inroads into the work that has accumulated while I was gone. But before I get to it, I’m reliving my weekend in St Ives and giving thanks for the joys of lasting friendship – the gift that keeps on giving. And for experiential presents that can be relived over and over and over again.

A woman on the altar

I’m not very big on religions. I have a hard time distinguishing between the various Protestant churches and an even harder time identifying which church I’m in. I’ve learned to look for the little red light and know that when it’s there  the Eucharist is present. I’ve learned to look for a statue of Our Lady and if there is one  know that there’s a pretty good chance the church is Catholic. But when it comes to distinguishing between Church of England, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist… I am lost completely.

I was in Durham last week. Visiting the Cathedral there has been on my list of things to do for a long time. The city itself is very pretty. The northern accent is lovely to listen to. And the people seem to be dead sound. I was impressed. Down on Market Square, a group of volunteer tour guides offered help and directions and a bit of banter that made me want to stay longer. Popping in an out of the local shops took an age as every interaction involved a conversation. No one seemed to be in any rush to do anything. Buskers provided the entertainment as people sat around the square enjoying the morning sunshine and living the moment. If I had to live in the UK, I could live in Durham.

2015_0526_0825_52 (800x585)2015_0526_1031_31 (800x600)The Cathedral is magnificent. An amazing piece of work. It and the castle were amongst the first to be designated World Heritage Sites, along with the Taj Mahal and the Palace of Versailles. Built between 1093 and 1133, it is a testament to endurance. It’s mind-boggling how builders back in the day managed to do the work they did, given that they didn’t have any of our 21st-century tools. So much for progress. Perhaps though it was because they took 40 years to build something and weren’t in any rush. It has been in continuous use for 900 years, has more an 1700 services a year, and costs £60 000 a week to maintain. And it’s still going.

I was pleased to see that there wasn’t an entrance fee. I object to paying into churches but am happy to light my candles and make a donation. I wandered around for about an hour or so and then sat for almost another hour just contemplating life and the universe. I’ve a lot to be thinking about these days so it was good to have the time. I saw that there was Holy Communion at 12.30 and I went. And when the priest turned out to be woman, I figured the Cathedral definitely wasn’t Catholic. The words were pretty much the same – the same stand/kneel/sit rotation – the same readings. But it was so strange to see a woman in full clerical garb. I wish the Catholic Church would catch up – I’d be amongst the first to register.

20150715_111948_resized (600x800)I was fascinated by the door knocker. Apparently, if you were on the run from the law and managed to grab hold of it, you were given sanctuary for 37 days and then had the choice of facing your accuser or getting safe passage to the coast and from there escaping to another part of the world. I wonder what the significance is of the 37 days though…  and how many people availed of it… and if anyone ever cheated … With questions like these it’s no wonder than I lose countless hours day dreaming and surmising.

20150715_134209_resized (800x600)The Castle is now part of the University and when not in term, it offers B&B accommodation to the public. So, having crossed Durham Cathedral of my list of things to do, a night or three in the Castle has now replaced it. I only had one day in the city but it left an impression. Will simply have to go back.

 

A naked man and a post office

I’m well aware of my limitations. Painfully aware of them at times. When it comes to all that’s arty, I have my favourites. But as breakfasting with the Telegraph is not on my list of Sunday-morning pursuits, my education in this regard is severely lacking. That could get me down, were I to dwell too much on it. Instead, I revel in the delight of new discoveries that others, better read than I, have long-since enjoyed.

IMG_0002 (800x600)Take Antony Gormley. He of Angel of the North fame? [Another addition to my bucket list.] The artist behind the series Another Time? I’d never heard of him until I was in Oxford last week and happened to look to the skyline while in the vicinity of Blackwell’s bookshop. The last thing I expected to see (not that I had any conscious expectations) was a statue of a seven-foot-tall naked man in all his glory. Inspired by the artist’s own physique, it’s quite a sight and a somewhat refreshing change from the gargle of gargoyles that are more Oxfordy in style.

OX signBut that wasn’t the only thing that caught my attention. This sign has me completely puzzled. Sleeping in the loo? What exactly is an overnight facility? And how does that differ from a public convenience? Enquiring minds want to know.

20150710_153418_resizedMind you, if I had to pick one thing that really impressed me – it wouldn’t be the magnificent colleges, the churches, the statues, the Alice Shop, Sunday lunch at the Parsonage, or any of the usual Oxford attractions. Perhaps I was suffering from a slight case of Stendahl’s syndrome – it certainly surprised me that I was so fascinated with something rather mundane. Boring even: a self-service machine at the post office in St Aldates. What does that say about my life, I wonder, that the thoughts of being able to successfully interact with a machine that speaks my language and can, in its own way, smile, delights me.  I spend way too much time in the post office as it is. And this would make it all the smoother. I know there are ramifications in the form of job losses and redundancies. I know that machining the life out of social interactions can’t be a good idea. I know that there are myriad social consequences of going self-service… But even knowing that didn’t detract from the sheer pleasure of a hassle-free exchange. Yep – Oxford has it nailed.20150710_152843_resized

 

A portal to another world

I’m allergic to queues. Apart from the post office, there are few places I’d wait patiently in line for anything. With the post office, I’m conditioned. I think of it as time out – meditative time where I can move temporarily to a parallel universe. And anyway, with the ticketing system in Budapest, it’s not really a queue as such in that there’s no orderly line, just a room of anxious faces watching the numbers tick over. I will also queue for the loo – but then, too, I have other things on my mind.

Going through Kings Cross station in London the other day, I saw a tell-tale snaking line of people all queuing for nothing- all I could see ahead of them was a blank wall. No toilet, no post office, no ticket desk of any sort. I couldn’t leave it alone. Curiosity got the better of me and as I moved closer I was blinded by flashes as the crowds whooped and cheered and clicked away. A celebrity, I thought. But what were the masses queing for?

HP3HP1HP2I edged my way to the front of the rope and saw it. Platform 9 3/4. Of course – I was in Harry Potter country. The line of hopefuls turned out to be young’uns queing to get their photo taking pushing Harry’s trolley through the wall. The extra-long Hogwarts’ scarf was held up by the attendant and then let fly as the poser lept in the air.  Next door is the shop – the Harry Potter Shop – where you can buy anything from potions to lotions, from wands to broomsticks. In short, just about anything JK Rowling and her marketing machine have dreamed to be saleable.

I wasn’t a great fan of Harry Potter and had little desire to read him. I’m quite snobbily averse to anything that is so unversally raved about. But when I heard Stephen Fry read the books, I was hooked. Magic. Books written to be read aloud. And while I’d never queue for my photo to be taken, I’ve made a mental note to myself to go back to KC one night, late at night, or very early in the morning when I can have the platform to myself.

Years ago I remember reading about a photography/book project that pictured a city in the dead of night/morning, that hour or so when those who come in late are home and those who go out early have yet to leave. .

Walking through empty streets in the half-light of night/day is something I quite like to do. That strange suspension of reality, of time, of space, that’s my version of Platform 9 3/4, my portal to another world.

In a previous lifetime

It’s been ten years since I spent any time of note in Oxford and it felt a little strange to walk the streets again, rediscovering old haunts and marvelling at how little and how much has changed in the interim. What surprised me, too, were the places that I consciously sought out.

20150710_153715_resizedI wanted to see Alice’s shop, made famous in the 1850s, when the unassuming Rev. Charles Dodgson (known to the world as Lewis Carroll) wrote a story for Alice Liddell, whose father was then dean of Christ Church College.  To say the story was revolutionary would be an understatement – it’s said to be the most translated work of English Lit, second only to Shakespeare. The Old Sheep Shop where Alice bought her sweets was a grocer’s shop till the 1960s. Now it sells Alice stuff… a tad twee but a lovely part of the story. I was glad to see that it’s still thriving.

20150710_153440_resizedIn the year I spent in Oxford, I made it to some of the colleges but not all of them. I did go to Christ Church, to the dining hall where Harry Potter and his Hogwarts crew ate at school. I saw the secret tunnel that inspired Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole, and I still marvel at the number of ‘greats’ who have graduated from the great institution. Everyone from William Penn (of Pennsylvania fame) to Einstein to the Winklevoss Twins who gave us Facebook. I used to pass by it every morning on my way to Uni. Christ Church on one side and Alice’s shop on the other. It still felt a tad surreal.

As I passed the various pubs, memories of nights and days and afternoons came flooding back. I spent the afternoon of the Pope’s funeral with a Polish mate in the Lamb and Flag (a pub owned by St John’s College whose profits fund D.Phil. scholarships, putting a whole new slant on drinking to educate). I spent a Friday evening in the Bear, amidst the collection of ties, marvelling at the misogyny of Oxford’s male student cohort. And I felt a peculiar attraction to the Eagle and Child and quite liked to sit where Tolkien and Lewis would hold forth with the Inklings. 

20150712_134529_resizedPerhaps one of my favourite things to do back then, when I had money, was to take Afternoon Tea at the seventeenth-century Old Parsonage. It’s said that Oscar Wilde once roomed there, back in the day when he was still known as Finigal O’Flahertie Wills. And I loved it. This time around, I was invited to Sunday lunch after mass at the Oratory and can say, hand on my heart, that it has lost none of its magic.  Starting the late morning with a Bloody Mary, munching through lamb sweetbreads and then ploughing through a Roast Beef dinner… it’s the simple things in life that afford the most pleasure. And true to form, while enjoying the locally produced fare, we set the world to rights,  for what would Oxford be without the myriad debates and discussions that crackle through the air.

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20150709_193746_resizedI rediscovered the joys of Jericho. Paid homage to Oxford University Press, the only publisher I ever wanted to work for (how different my life might have been). I caught up with old friends and  idled away hours in the charity shops. I spent afternoons recounting all that has happened in the last ten years and while I enjoyed every minute, I wouldn’t want to go back there to live.

The year I spent there back in 2004/2005 was a good one. I learned a lot about my subject and about myself. But for me, the city is like a posh frock that I never quite feel comfortable in. It’s nice to wear every now and then but isn’t something I’d knock around in every day.  There’s too much of a divide between town and gown for me to ever really feel at home there. That said, I’d happily go back and am already planning a return visit next year. I can’t believe that I spent a year living by the Isis and never once punted. That’s something that simply has to be redressed.

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2015 Grateful 25

I was at mass yesterday in Oxford. In the oldest Catholic Church in the city – the Oxford Oratory. Mass-goers in Oxford are spoiled for choice as there are plenty of churches to choose from. This one is particularly noted for the quality of its sermonising priests and I was looking forward to hearing them in action at the Solemn Mass, sung in Latin.

I wasn’t disappointed. For the first time in a long time I heard a sermon that actual said something. Had I to evaluate the priest as a speaker, he’d have gotten top marks for vocal variety, humour, content, use of body language, and engagement. He ticked all the boxes. He had a strong opening, a strong close, and all that was in between was perfectly pitched with grace and humour. Impressive stuff. I’d go back for more.

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I knew that a publisher friend of mine was in town from Poland but I hadn’t been in touch with him. He’s a mass-goer too, and I figured that being Polish, he might go to the Polish mass at Blackfriars. But then, I had a feeling that I’d see him at mine. I said as much to the friends I’m staying with. I was sure I’d run into him.

I went up to take communion and caught a glimpse of the chap kneeling beside me at the altar. My mate. Small world. Afterwards, when we caught up, he didn’t recognise me. It’s been a while since we’ve met in person and I’ve changed. And if you add the fact that both of us being in Oxford was so out of context, his lack of recognition can be excused.

But when it finally dawned on him, the warmth of his greeting was staggering. He was genuinely delighted. And it was infectious.

We’re working on a book project together and are in pretty regular email contact with the occasional phone call. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve been in the same city at the same time but we keep in touch. And yet nothing can really compare to meeting in person.

Yes, Skype and Facebook and letters and phone calls are all well and good, but seeing someone in the flesh, hugging them, holding their hand, that’s something that the virtual world can never offer.

I am blessed with the friends I have around the world. These past few days have seen a series of reconnections  with friends from previous lives and despite the years, nothing much has changed. We’ve moved on. We’ve done things. We’ve had some catching up to do, but the friendships that were there years ago are still alive, kept alive perhaps by the vitual tendrils that are Facebook updates and Viber messages.

This week (I’m still having trouble sitting, by the way) I’ve a lot to be grateful for: Old friendships. New friendships. A life that allows me to live it anywhere I can find an Internet connection. It’s been ten years since I’ve been in Oxford and rediscovering it has been a pleasure.

 

Intimate apparel

Back in a previous life, many lifetimes ago, I lived in London. For about 18 months, I went to the theatre at least twice a week. I caught pay-what-you-can shows on the fringe. I watched for deals for shows at the West End. I was fortunate enough to have a good friend who had access to free, last-minute tickets for many of the big names, the classics. I was in heaven. I could ignore the humdrum, nearly robotic existence that was my lot in London as I didn’t have the bank balance to make it otherwise. I had an escape.

Budapest has many things in its favour. It’s a gobsmackingly gorgeous city with plenty in the line of music but not enough in the line of English-language theatre. So when I get the opportunity to see a show when I’m travelling, I’m never one to say no.

In Bath recently, the gorgeous MC had gotten tickets for the last night of Intimate Apparel, a 2003 play by American Lynn Nottage about a seamstress in 1905 New York which was enjoying its British premier. Esther (Tanja Moody), single and in her 30’s, makes underwear for rich women and harlots. She buys her material from a Romanian Jew (Llan Goodman), betrothed to a woman he has yet to meet. The chemistry between them is electric, but theirs is a forbidden future. All of my silent urging couldn’t make it happen. It was 1905. New York. She was black. He was Jewish.

‘Rapt’: Tanya Moodie as Esther in Intimate Apparel. Photograph: Simon Annand

‘Rapt’: Tanya Moodie as Esther in Intimate Apparel. Photograph: Simon Annand

Chu Omambala

Chu Omambala

Esther receives a letter from George Armstrong (Chu Omambala), a labourer working on the canal in Panama. Illiterate, she asks one of her rich, bored clients, Mrs van Buren (Sara Topham) – who herself is trapped in a loveless marriage into which she has failed to bring a child – to write a reply. Through van Buren’s life we see that money can only make up for so much. Esther’s landlady, Mrs Dixon (Dawn Hope), mothers her. Dixon’s life is founded on an inheritance from her dead husband whose wealth was a compensatory factor – he was neither socially ept or good looking.  The correspondence thus continues and by the intermission, I find myself thinking of any potential suitor as ‘my man from Panama’. But as is often the case, I changed my mind.

Rochelle Neil Credit: Simon Annand

Rochelle Neil
Credit: Simon Annand

Esther’s best friend Mayme (Rochelle Neil) is a hooker, clothed in her friend’s creations. She, too, is in on the romantic correspondence. George finally arrives in town and he and Esther get married. His life as we see it mirrors that of many immigrants, lost in a world they know little about, trying desperately to find a way to fit in.

We sat in the front row – up close and personal – in the Ustinov Theatre in Bath. It was a mesmerising production. There wasn’t a weak performance on stage. For nearly three hours, I sat enthralled, transported to another world, completely engaged in the lives that were unfolding before me. The disappointment I felt when nothing worked out as I wanted it to was real – very real. I went from love to hate with a passion that surprised me. I found myself making excuses for the characters, as I might with real friends, forgiving them their foibles and rooting for their success. I felt their pain, their frustrations, their fleeting joys. When the final curtain came down, I was exhausted, mentally and emotionally. I felt as if I’d been through the wringer; I’d been to the theatre.

Tanya Moodie and Ilan Goodman Credit: Simon Annand

Tanya Moodie and Ilan Goodman
Credit: Simon Annand

The play is about intimacy, the politics of which are understated but well understood. Intimacy between friends. Between men and women. Between women and women. It is a compelling piece of work, one that is worth seeing again and again. Nottage’s plays are about people who have been marginalised. Her intent is to write forgotten voices back into history. See it if you can.

couch-teaser1Back to Budapest, though, and good news for English-language theatre. This week saw the evolution of the much-loved Budapest Secret Theatre into Budapest English Theatre. A new show, PreText, is planned for this autumn. And that makes me happy, very happy indeed.