Another year, another summer made fractious by the Edinburgh fringe. Even opening the programme this year made me feel queasy: I marked performances, turned the corners of its pages, feeling like I was wading through the Argos catalogue, consuming consuming consuming. And although I was careful and made sure I had lots of space for conversations and walking and a balanced diet of cake and fruit, and although I took almost no risks and so almost everything I saw felt meaningful, smart, exhilarating sometimes, nourishing other times, I still ended up glutted and sick. So since then I haven't been going to the theatre. I haven't even been able to look at theatre listings. Instead I've had stillness. Other doings and beings. And before I re-enter the fray – despite all misgivings, a sense of superfluity, and the fear that writing about theatre is no longer the thing I love – a celebration: of things I've been able to do because I haven't been witnessing in the dark...
1: Most of the recipes involve 150ml of double cream. Most of the recipes display an astonishing lack of concern about the environmental impact of eating so much meat. Most of the recipes involve tablespoons of chilli and ginger and spice concoctions that I haven't been able to use since starting to cook family meals five years ago. But Nigel Slater's Eat is the most inspiring, I-want-to-make-that-inhale-that-savour-that cookbook I've read in aeons. And not just because it's the only cookbook I've read in aeons. Snip-snap sentences. Unctuous language that sizzles and simmers and glistens on the page. The first thing I cooked from it was a chicken and farro recipe that I sold to the children as an Italian version of chocolate rice and they ate it and didn't whinge once. Result.
2: In my list of top 10 albums of all time and ever that is at least 500 albums long, Father John Misty's Fear Fun is, it's emerged, somewhere in the elastic top two. I keep posting Now I'm Learning To Love the War on here, but there's also this one
and this one
and this one
And still I'm startled by its country twang, but I grew up on Dolly and Willie and Kris, and took myself deeper backwoods, through the dark mysteries of the Appalachians, and country feels like home. In any case, it's not the style but the voice, so plangent, a deep seam of disappointment in which he mines still for hope:
Before the star of the morning comes looking for me
I would like to abuse my lungs
Smoke everything in sight with every girl I've ever loved
Ride around the wreckage on a horse knee-deep in blood
I listen to that voice and I swoon.
3: I've been getting a lot of emailing done, sitting at the table beside my husband on the sofa watching TV, and I haven't quite followed The Honourable Woman but Orange Is the New Black has lesbian sex – romantic, playful, teasing, functional, aggressive, tender lesbian sex – and it's proving very distracting. I'm not always convinced by the glossiness of its surface, but there's enough feminist nous and queer abrasion beneath to make me want to down tools and just watch.
4a: I read Donald Barthelme's The School in an anthology of short stories 19 years ago and every synapse shivered. I ran off a dozen photocopies and used it as a secret handshake; last week I sent the link to Churlish Meg and realised I still think of it as a soul gift. Originally it was published in a collection called Amateurs, which I bought in the days of scouring secondhand bookshelves for Brautigan and Barthelme and names that don't begin with B, but only got around to reading in August; The School remains my favourite story ever written, and Rebecca might turn out to be the second.
4b: From the days when the chimneys of Battersea Power Station, those crumbling columns that puncture the sky as the children and I walk to and from school, still reconfigured the clouds with smoke; from the days of open racism and closed abortion and communities of women laughing in the soapsuds of laundries; from the days when warehouses weren't apartments for the wealthy but factories employing the poor; from that moment of transition, between the demolition of slums and the rise of estates, Nell Dunn's Up the Junction emerges so vivid, so raw, that reading it made me gasp. London has moved on from there but how far I'm not sure. The tale of the Tally Man captures an exploitation of poverty that abusively persists; the desperation of teenagers, for a fuck, for an approximation of freedom, that doesn't change. Dunn writes elliptically, mostly in dialogue, rough jottings scrawled on the hoof, in the dark; it's social realism, but compressed, made poetic, edited with lapidarian skill. Reading her and Barthelme has not only made me want to write again, but rethink how.
4c: Page after page of D.I.Y, the manual for theatre-makers edited by Robert Daniels, inspires and soothes with its generosity and common-sense. It's reminded me why I keep saying yes to theatre instead of doing the writing that requires me to sit on my own at a computer hour after hour. It's reminded me to listen to the Mountain Goats more. It's reminded me to treasure my shift away from being a “professional”, why it's important to keep struggling in the unknown. Above all, it's reminded me that:
We are humans. We have feelings, we have souls. Don't beat yourself up about your practice. Ever. It is the self-loathing and doubt that delays EVERYTHING. Imagine yourself as a baby, if you keep being mean to a baby, it will hate you and poop out all sorts of nonsense to punish you. Take care of yourself. Be kind. Give yourself time, chocolate, holidays and a fucking break. Negativity breeds contempt. Happy artists make good art.
Not for the first time this year, reading that makes me want to give Bryony Kimmings a great big kiss.
5: This doesn't count because we went in the daytime but the Doll Museum in Dunster is one of the strangest places I've ever been. Arguably I write about theatre now because of a B&B in Scarborough whose eerie parlour was crowded with dolls: tiny dolls, foreign dolls, dolls to my thighs that lined the stairs as if waiting to trip me up or push me down. The Doll Museum in Dunster was that room to a factor of three, all staring eyes and twisted limbs and fraying national costume. A repository of white colonial thinking on history, class and race. But at the same time, a really fun place to take my daughter. Weird.
6a: And OK, there were two nights at the theatre. The first was the Benedict Andrews/Gillian Anderson Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, which bored me to itchiness. I couldn't unthink the Secret Theatre's version: the musicality of its European accents; the sensual melt of ice-cream, the crack of watermelons, the ice spill of water; Leo Bill's humble, bumbling Mitch, with his bad jumpers and stuttering desire; the rejection of every lurid colour that Andrews and Anderson made garish again. The day after seeing it I hosted the Young Vic Two Boroughs Project Theatre Club on it with Lily Einhorn and we talked for well over an hour about how the play sits in Williams' oeuvre and how it relates to his biography; how the play isn't misogynist but an indictment, a really aggressive and scathing indictment, of patriarchal culture, not just the old patriarchy of America's old south but the bullying, entitled patriarchy of the emerging new south; women, age and feminism; how familiar aspects of the play felt to those of us in the group from ethnic backgrounds (including, on that particular night, Nigerian, Spanish, Indian and my own Cypriot); witnessed accounts of alcoholism, bipolar disorder, domestic violence; and on and on, a rich and involved and really smart discussion that was far more engrossing than the production itself.
6b: The second was Itai Erdal's How To Disappear Completely at BAC, seen on a night of such precarious, panic-streaked instability that even walking into the theatre was like punching myself in the brain. Oh well. Erdal is a lighting designer by training and his demeanour is scuffed and gauche, in a likeable way. He introduces his mother, his step-father, his furiously intelligent sister and gawky best friend, the way he might if we were sat around a pub table with him, making friends. One story, of an overexcited dugong, made me cry with laughter; but its overarching story just made me cry, because it traced his mother's demise, from cancer that spread through her body with relentless purpose, taking them all by surprise. Erdal speaks with the dangerous honesty of a child who hasn't yet learned to self-edit, the kind of honesty that provokes alternately alarm, disapproval and relief. And because he is a lighting designer, he makes us think about how stories are told in theatre, how emotions are manipulated through luminosity. I keep talking to people about this show, because its bravery startled me, and because its argument for assisted suicide has a clarity that makes it unimpeachable. But I also keep talking about it because Erdal's mother believed something about motherhood that I emphatically reject. She told both her children that it was vital for them to reproduce, because it's through their children that individual humans perpetuate their existence in the world. Such thinking is inimical to me, egotistical, and damaging in the ways intimated by Virginia Woolf, in a book I haven't read yet, quoted by Jacqueline Rose in a terrific essay on motherhood published in the LRB:
“In The Years, written on the eve of fascism, Virginia Woolf [comments] on the dire consequences of parental exclusivity, on the damage it does to the social fabric – which was on the point of being rent beyond repair – to think it right to put your child, your family, before everyone else. She is also suggesting that, while England takes pride in its difference from Nazi Germany, there might even so be a link between the overweening egoism of the bourgeois family and the autocracy of statehood.... At a family gathering in the mid-1930s … North, the now grown-up grandson of Colonel Pargiter, watches as people inquire after each other’s children:
My boy – my girl … they were saying. But they’re not interested in other people’s children, he observed. Only in their own; their own property; their own flesh and blood, which they would protect with the unsheathed claws of the primeval swamp, he thought … how then can we be civilised?”
Woolf, Rose concludes, is describing how “the intricacy and breadth of human possibility can be sidelined or quashed before it has even begun”. Yes, they're my children. But they are their own people. The least I can do is respect that. No, that's not true. The least I can do is not resent how, having made them, they eat up time and energy, leaving only scraps of both with which to make anything else.
7: Speaking of which:
A month of being home to tuck them in.
Reading bedtime stories.
Learning the times tables together.
(Never quite mastered the 7s or 9s).
Sitting at the computer with earphones on listening to Father John Misty so loudly that I can't hear their voices.
Talking about how I could be a better mother.
Her ideas include creative mealtimes inspired by typical menus in different historical periods, a designated painting space that doesn't always need tidying, and taking her to the theatre in the night-time.
A month of being present. And sometimes not coping with what that means.
8: Escaping not into the dark of the theatre but the light of the kitchen. One night I made chocolate cookies using an ounce of black treacle instead of golden syrup; they were fudgy, smoky, much more grown-up than I'd intended when adding most of a packet of white chocolate chips. Another night I made pastry with 20g cocoa, 100g flour, and 60g cold butter, rubbing them into crumbs as usual then blending in a tablespoon of golden syrup, pouring the crumbs into a loose-bottomed, buttered, 28cm tart tin and pressing them into the base and edges. That went into the fridge for 15 minutes then – covered with baking parchment and copper coins – into a preheated gas 4/180C oven for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile in a bowl 110g softened butter, 110g light muscovado, 110g ground almonds and one egg, beaten with a fork until amalgamated. Out comes the pastry, off come the coins and parchment; over the chocolate base four or so tablespoons of apricot jam, spread almost but not quite to the edges, and over that the frangipane mix, smoothing its surface to cover not blend with the jam. That baked in the same oven for about 35 minutes, so when it came out it was still squodgy; in retrospect, another 10 minutes wouldn't have hurt it. Still, the bitter crumble of the chocolate crust and sweet melt of fruit and frangipane was heavenly. And even better the next day.
9: The mother in the Dardennes brothers' film Two Days, One Night makes a tart, too, a really crisp-looking fruit tart that the family share after takeaway pizzas. And then she sobs that she's invisible, irrelevant, I can't remember the exact words but that's because approximations of them had been ringing through my head all that day. And the day before that. And before that. It's not an easy film to watch, and not just because she keeps having anxiety attacks and crying and snapping at her husband when he expresses concern at her taking Xanax. She spends a weekend traipsing around the houses and haunts of all her co-workers, trying to persuade them to take her back at the factory where they earn so little that many of these people need to take on secret second jobs to get by, trying to do this knowing that if they take her back they won't each get a thousand-euro bonus that might relieve the pressure in their own lives. Sometimes on train journeys through London's suburbs I feel stifled by the number of houses, people, stories in this city; Two Days, One Night enters those houses, talks to those people, listens to their stories, and sympathises. And even where it doesn't sympathise, it attempts to respect. This made it not an enjoyable film so much as a sternly moral film whose politics I share.
10: I'm speedwriting now because it's getting late. And because I'd like to write about Cate Le Bon and the gig at Koko (a stronger performance than the one I saw in February, but I missed being close to the stage), about the wild magic of her voice and the angular jolt of her guitar, and how she makes me wish I could sing, about standing on the balcony of Koko between two of my oldest friends, the same people I've been sharing angular jolting guitars and wild magic voices with for over 20 years now, and all the history between us, the honesty and safety, but I've been writing this listening obsessively to Perfume Genius, all three albums, and now his voice is all I know of music. He was a surprise guest at Koko and for those few minutes when he sang I thought I was levitating. I can't get a handle on his albums: they're so intimate, and yet something in them resists intimacy. I think it's a problem of timing: they'll make more sense alone in the dark. I should have been writing about the new one tonight instead of writing this. I should have been doing all sorts of things all day instead of writing this. Seduced by the wrong words again.