Tuesday 31 December 2013

Great craic & ceoil

Regular readers know I love all things Italian.  This week you’ll discover my delight in everything Irish.

I was keen to get out of the big city for Christmas this year.  Apart from the sadness of losing a couple of friends in a short space of time, not to mention the feelings which Christmas brings up about other absent loved-ones, London is crazy at this time of year.  So I bid goodbye to an Italian friend who’s been staying with me and head off to the west of Ireland to visit family friends, surrogate Aunt and Uncle, Jo and Val, with whom I am completely at liberty to relax and be myself. 

When I first arrive I am so tired I simply sleep and read.  Gorgeous.  Just what the doctor ordered to end one year and prepare for the next.  

Then something in the Irish air or water gives me literary inspiration and suddenly I have a rush of ideas for a new book.  I churn out chapter after chapter with barely a pause and will soon be finished a first draft.  Sometimes all you need is a safe haven, to snuggle into, rest and revive.

That’s when the partying begins.  I venture out into one of the many local pubs and find live music.  In one room there’s a spirited ceoil and in the other rock ‘n roll is raging.  In the next pub I find dancing.  And so on and so forth until I’ve been singing and dancing in so many pubs over consecutive nights that complete strangers are stopping me in shops and on the street saying “ah, you’re the lass who was singing in such-and-such the other night”… or “where are dancing tonight then Julie?”.  In the morning I wonder why my calves and throat are sore, then I remember the great craic of the night before.  After a walk, a read and a nap, it all begins again. 

I know it’s the festive season and, realistically, it can’t always be so ebullient, but if you have any interest or energy for music you are absolutely spoilt for stimulation in this luscious part of the world. 

Here’s a few of the reasons why I can’t wipe the smile off my face:

  1. The men can dance, and they bother to ask you
  2. Some of the men are such good jivers you wonder what world you’ve been living in that you haven’t done more of it
  3. Musicians appear from every corner and seem to be able to play any song in any key
  4. It is strongly encouraged that if you can sing, you should
  5. It is expected that the bustling crowd will shut-up and listen when anyone gets up to give a song or a poem a go, and nine out of ten times they do
  6. Friends of friends open their homes to you and invite you in for drinks and dinners and a warmth around the fire which is distinctly Irish
  7. More friends of friends have dinner parties planned and it’s nothing to add an extra plate for the Australian visitor
  8. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is warm and welcoming
  9. Just listening to the Irish speak is a lilting pleasure, and that’s before you get them talking about literature
  10. And the Irish men… well… they are charming and handsome and in such apparent abundance that it’s like a chocoholic walking into Willy Wonka’s factory…
Ok, I’m slightly exaggerating about the latter, but only slightly.  Charm and warmth are synonymous with the Irish character and clichés come about as much from truth as idealization.

This Christmas I am tapping deeply into my Irishness - my Irish Catholic upbringing, education, musical training and genetic heritage - and without becoming a Plastic Paddy it’s a scenario which fits comfortably, organically.  In particular, my habit of talking to strangers without hesitation, befriending people quickly, is here not such an anomaly.  Here is a place where strangers talk back without reserve or judgment.  Gregariousness is normal.  You meet, you banter, you laugh, you flirt, you dance, you sing, you eat, you drink, you welcome, you connect.  What could be better?

And don’t be thinking that this welcome is superficial; for already I have evidence it is not.  There are, of course, the friendly acquaintances which stop at the threshold as you go your separate ways… but others recur, you go back to their house again, you go with the flow, and the friendship builds.  People care what you’re about, what you’re doing.  They take you to their heart so surprisingly quickly that, apart from the Irishness, you have to remind yourself that is one of the huge benefits of not living in a big city.  For as Londoners know – it’s a lot harder to take two tubes and a bus to visit your friends for a chat and coffee, than it is to walk a few hundred meters up the road.  Of course intimacy is affected by access.   And over time that shapes a community, a city.

A few yarns from just a few days include:

Monique, my cousin, arrives from London.  We enjoy some traditional music, then move into the back of Matt Malloy’s (a west country icon) to dance.  I make a complete exhibition of myself, dancing in various styles, alone and with partners, until I’m wet from head to toe and have to sit down before having a cardiac arrest.  Monique, as it turns out, sweetly defends my virtue, saying to a lady whose partner I have stolen “you don’t have to worry about Julie, she is just having fun, she loves to dance”… to which the typically generous lass replies “ah no, it’s grand, I’m glad she’s got him up”.  Brig and Oliver, Bernadine and Damian are typical of the couples we meet.  There’s warmth enough for everyone in these parts.  It’s great craic.

Sunday afternoon we drive out to the edge of the world, or so it seems, to Achill Island.  This is territory so remote, so sparse and ancient in origin, that you have to be made of strong stuff to survive in it.  There is also a gale so forceful it lifts us off the ground.  And when we get into the little church, where my friend Val is baptizing baby Florence, the scream in the rafters is so raucous we can hardly hear each other.  Monique remembers her convent education and automatically passes out the hymn books. I sit under a blanket at the back playing some carols on an instrument so old and colourful it looks like a painted-toy (thankfully without pedals as I’m a pianist not an organist), not sure if I’m most worried about how forcefully I have to pound the keys, how loud I have to sing to be heard, or whether I might first freeze to death. 

One night I’m out on a date at a large hotel with a lovely man I’m just getting to know… when the manager of the establishment greets me saying “I understand you are an actress and theatre manager from Australia… we have a show going on in the ballroom now, you’ve missed the start but would you like me to walk you into the back row for a little look”.  Of course we say yes, of course we stay and enjoy it, and there’s even space for me to dance at the back as well as come and go to a little bar on the side.  I meet one of the principals, a man called Seán Keane, famous in these parts… and he kindly gives me a signed CD to take away.  Someone even welcomes me from the stage: “tonight we have a lady from Neighbours in the audience, let’s give her a big welcome… and if you ask her nicely I hear she might play the piano and sing for you in the bar later..”.  I have clearly been getting about too much.  But it’s such a laugh, and though that evening I’m too tired to sing – or perhaps distracted by some other charms – it’s another memorable experience.

The music doesn’t really get going in the pubs in town until an hour or two before midnight, so early another evening I knock on the door of some lovely neighbours who I met on Christmas Day when they had a splendid open house.  I am welcomed into the kitchen, then the lounge, which morphs into dinner in the adjacent dining-room followed by more drinks and chat around the fire.  This is a glorious Georgian house, its high-ceilinged rooms filled with features of interest and decorated to perfection, yet it’s not the material beauty which touches me most but the extraordinary warmth and conviviality of this family.  I have only met them once before, they are acquainted with the friends I’m visiting, and cousins to some other new acquaintances, but I am quickly drawn to them on all manner of levels.  My wonderful hosts are a very special couple, and you sense their love for each other and their family in all they say and do.  They have five adult children, four daughters and a son, each enormously hospitable, intelligent, sensitive, of good humour and very much on the verge of life and adventure.  They are a perfect example of what it is to be well brought up, well brought up in character and love.  They are all physically beautiful too, every one, and when looking at them seated together I can only pray they have the good fortune in life they deserve.  The ‘guests’ were one of the girl’s boyfriends, clearly liked by everyone, and a beloved friend they call ‘Granny’.  I was so lucky to be included at the table, taking up the tenth chair – the songs we sang and the discussions and jokes we shared still vivid and enriching.  I have a strange feeling too it won’t be the last time I enjoy their spirited company…

Earlier in the week I am sitting in a pub in a group of four, when a cute guy I have already noticed across the room approaches our table and introduces himself.  He doesn’t say much, Will just wants to say hello.  Shortly afterwards he joins the ceoil and sings a pretty song in gaelic.  Ah, cute and musical.  Then he disappears into the crowd.  Twenty minutes later he’s back, again leaning across the table: “would you like to dance?” he says to me with a cheeky smile.  “Oh, thank you” I reply, surprised (as the dancing is in another room) but pleased.  “What kind of dancing?” I venture.  “I’m going to jive you around the room” he replies with a beguiling grin.  “Ok, that’d be lovely, but may I meet you in five minutes”.  “Ah sure”, he says, “but don’t wait more than five minutes, my dance card is gettin’ full”.  And again he disappears.  My friend Jo encourages me to join him quickly, and our new friends, Gareth and Lesley, who are celebrating their engagement, comment on his direct but polite approach and think it’s a good sign.

When I walk into the dance hall it’s hard to see him.  He’s strong, well built, but not particularly tall.  He waves from the other side of the room, and once he has a hold of my hand goes up to the band to request music with a faster tempo.  They immediately oblige – it’s Ireland after all – and it is only seconds on the floor before I realise I am with a really great hoofer.  I’ve been doing jive classes in London just a few months, but Fred Astaire turns me into Ginger Rodgers in a few easy turns.  Ah, THIS is what it is to dance with a strong leader!  It is not only easy, filled with variety, and immensely satisfying, it is sexy.  Now I know what it means to be swept off my feet.  The dance floor clears and around and around we whirl.  How did he know from across the room that I didn’t have two left feet?  How does he make me feel so confident?  His arms and directions are strong, commanding, and there is not a single moment when I’m not completely comfortable, completely in the moment, completely thrilled.  It already feels like a scene from a movie, and I’m rapidly falling in love with the whole idea, when suddenly he picks me up off the ground and spins me around and around, my legs right up in the air.  He is strong and I feel as safe as if we’d rehearsed it.  When the crowd cheers and he puts me back down on the ground to end that dance with a flourish of twirls, I am so taken by the feel of his arms I don’t want him to ever let go. 

Yes, I’m a romantic.  Yes, it isn’t every day you find yourself in a scene from Dirty Dancing.   But how could I not be in love with Ireland after that?! 

How fabulous to end 2013 reminded of the beauty of spontaneity, of openness, of warmth, of laughter, and of the endless possibilities which music and dancing make you feel.  Happy New Year everyone.  May we start as we mean to go on!


Friday 29 November 2013

Bitter Sweet

Have you noticed that as you get older more moments have the potential to be bitter-sweet?  I don’t necessarily mean sad, but full, seasoned.  The history we bring with us can flavour occasions with memories, some of which are joyful, nostalgic or melancholy.  Maturity inevitably makes one more aware of complex resonances… and an aspect of this awareness is the knowledge that loss can shadow (even chase) many of life’s riches.  

The expression, ‘the big chill’, reminds me of this complexity.  For its two meanings are closely entwined: the first suggesting a relaxed and casual atmosphere… the second a frosty, hard-edged environment.  Strangely, they co-exist without dissonance, as if the contradiction were by design.  Such is life.

The use of this expression as a title for a film was especially clever, because the production managed to embody both meanings; the bitter and the sweet.

On some levels, what greatly moves me about The Big Chill is obvious.  People reunite after the suicide of an old friend.  They loved him.  They wish they’d known he’d lost hope and better understood his journey.  In coming together after many years, these friends are reminded of how much they have missed one-another, and how much they’ve left behind.  In a long-weekend of friendship, familiarity, regret and reflection they revisit shared joys and dreams, ideas of what their life was going to be, and in doing so grieve for a loss of innocence, for failings, and for the sense that choices have been which close other paths.  Their musings are particularly vivid because the background to their youth was America’s revolutionary, idealistic and hopeful 1960s.

Without hyperbole, The Big Chill is a great film – a resonant, surprisingly humorous, and insightful slice of life.  The sound-track is legendary, of course, but so too is the script, the direction and the performances.  The way themes and needs weave together is truly a work of art, a classic.

And to think that when I first saw the film – was invited, in fact, by a film critic to accompany him to a preview – I was bored and restless.  I complained after that the characters were indulgent and unsympathetic.  I also thought the humour abrasive.  Quite appalled, my friend looked down at me from a great height – and I mean literally because he was a rather slim, tall chap – no doubt realizing he was foolish to be attempting to court such a young and innocent girl.  For no matter how pretty, or promising as an actress, I clearly had bad taste.  Well, undeveloped.  The point was that I didn’t understand the film.  I was too young.  I was too innocent and sheltered.  Life was going to turn out as I expected.  If I did the right things and followed my passion I would end up exactly where I expected to be.  So I thought. 

In retrospect, I must have sounded like the character of Richard at the kitchen table: narrow and simplistic.  That evening he let my disappointing comments slide with a mere shake of his head, but he didn’t take me out again.  He imagined, I guess, that it would take some time before I could understand what was “wrong” with these people in The Big Chill, “swapping partners and taking drugs…”  Nor did I understand that levity, even flippancy, can be a necessary part of grief, as we struggle to normalise the shock; existentially torn between light and darkness, life and death.

Anyway it was nearly a decade before I saw The Big Chill again.  I don’t remember where I was or who I was with… but as every frame rolled I remembered that writer, Greg, and my own naivety and lack of perspective.  My teenage self stood so shamefully before me the poignancy of the film was enhanced.  At the time I was still younger than the characters in the movie and my life was going very well.  I was enjoying a long period of continual employment, quite a luxury for an actress, and in many ways felt I was just starting out.  Yet I’d experienced enough heartache – particularly the sudden death of my father - to empathise with the underlying pathos of the film.  This time too I got the film’s comic and ironic elements.  I also knew I was destined to see it again… that over time my appreciation for it would grow.  And so it did. 

X years later I watched it a couple more times; and again the other night when I was moved to the point of being choked up.  After each heart-tugging experience my appreciation for this film deepens like the lines on my forehead or the annoying grey hairs that do their best to poke through as I do my best to hide them.  Eerie is what this film is now… poignant and strikingly eerie...

But why?  What has Lawrence Kasdan captured which touches me so deeply?

Is it that these likeable characters can’t get the milk back in the bottle, and I identify with their feelings about “the road not taken”?  Is it the softening of revolutionary spirit that comes with age… the slide of pragmatism which accompanies if not middle-age then at least middle-class living?  Is it that Alex and Chloe’s charming hideaway reminded me of the wooden cottage in South Carolina which a dear boyfriend once presented to me with pride… and I’d been too young (again), and giddy with the love of show-biz, to consider serious commitment?  As the film was in fact set in South Carolina this would be an inevitable comparison.

It was some and all of those things but, in a constructive way, what the film illuminates through the palpable loss is that it is impossible to journey through life holding on to everything as much as we may wish we could.  The same is true of our idealism and the plans we may make.  Alteration and adaptation is not only crucial, it’s endless.  This does not make loss any less painful, but there is definitely something healthy and compelling about these friends coming back into a cocoon of sorts to support each other while processing the challenges they are facing.

I’ve had my share of death; too large a share lately.  So the scenes where the friends sit around remembering the person they desperately wish was still with them, are achingly familiar.  By contrast, the recriminations between them, the tensions unleashed in the tide of grief, seem comparatively modest.

I was also deeply touched by the respect and generosity of Sarah and Harold helping their friend Meg to become a mother.  The film predates the broader use of IVF so, looking back, the storyline was progressive.  If the morality of their ‘triangle’ strikes some as suspect, I can understand that.  If some think their choices too risky, I can understand that too.  But the gentleness and compassion shown here between them greatly warms the part of me which wishes more often we saw such unabashed compassion in action – compassion outside ‘accepted norms’, outside judgement. 

Nevertheless perhaps the big thing about The Big Chill is that it shows people in the prime of their life learning that personal growth and understanding is a grey business… a flawed and murky business… a journey far from black and white, or pure good and bad.  Living and love, wisdom and wonder, go on and on in waves of bitter-sweet experience.  Our job is to hang on for the upside, and to keep loving no-matter how grey or imperfect circumstances and people may be.

In this the friends in The Big Chill reinforce each other – eventually venturing back out into the world ready for another round.  That’s what true friends are for - for many better than family - and I think it’s this element which resonates with me most of all.  For in that warmth and comfort, frost and fear melt.  It’s ok to be less than perfect, less than all-knowing, for your friends will love you anyway.

That’s why The Big Chill, despite its plot, is like a warm hug.  As well as a celebration of the lives we are challenged to make the most out of while we can.



The Big Chill was released in 1983 and filmed entirely on location in Beaufort, South Carolina.  Principal Cast:
The director, Lawrence Kasdan, has made several splendid films, including another favourite, The Accidental Tourist, where he worked again with William Hurt.


Monday 11 November 2013

Barbarism and Civilisation

I went to a moving service for Remembrance Day on Sunday in London.  The minister gave a good homily about war and, by implication, peace… during which he said “barbarism and civilisation are as far from each other as a varnished sword is from rust”.  He suggested evil and goodness, virtue and human-failing, operate on a delicately poised scale and ready-to-swing pendulum.

His message was that to preserve our humanity, moreover to grow and improve, individually and collectively, we need to remain aware of our vulnerability to corruption and indifference.  And one doesn’t have to be religious to know that his observations of human nature and society are apt. 

At the more trivial end of the spectrum, do we push and shove and behave aggressively in peak hour?   For a few moments I had the moral high-ground on Victoria Station on Friday night when a guy with a bicycle pushed it through the crowd and slammed it into my leg.  I asked him to stop moving as my leg and jacket were hooked on his pedal, but he continued to push forward violently, dragging the metal deeper across my calf.  The expletive I called after him added unhelpfully to the agro of the commuter mosh-pit, not to mention fell on deaf ears.  What was the point of it all?  He didn’t get to his train any quicker than I got to the pub.

There are many moments when we have to choose between kindness and selfishness – regularly when living in a city surrounded by extremes of wealth and poverty – and even at the water-cooler we may not realise we are being asked to choose between judgementalism and gossip, and the opportunity to give people we encounter in our professional and personal lives the benefit of the doubt.

War and peace are extreme examples – strong juxtaposition aiding our ability to identify good from bad, courage from weakness.  It is right on so many levels that we ‘celebrate’ November 11th.  This consciousness is as important for the living as it is for the dead – even ninety-five years after the end of World War One.

And that brings me to my reason for writing: if barbarism and civilisation lie, at times, a mere knife-edge apart… how close is enrichment from loss, comfort from abandonment, and life from death?  Destruction in the Philippines in recent days is so deeply tragic… so widespread… it makes for a painfully vivid reminder that life (and what equates with civilised living) can be wiped out brutally and on masse if you simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

It is different to the suffering in Syria only because a typhoon is not of man’s making.  Similarly, George Orwell describes a slippery-slope from affluence to poverty and marginalisation eloquently in Down and Out in Paris and London – a small book everyone who can really ought to read – but that journey is a slow and inexorable one.  In the Philippines, it is the suddenness of the typhoon which shocks and overwhelms.  We feel numb and powerless in the face of such a large-scale ‘natural’ disaster.

Many tens, even hundreds of thousands, of people are dead and/or suffering in the torrential wake.  We don’t yet know the half of it.  Like the Boxing Day Tsunami it is too much to take in, and will surely take years to remedy their physical lives, let alone heal emotional scars. So I don’t mean to minimise the catastrophe by shifting focus from the whole to the particular, but I have lost a friend in this tragedy; in circumstances which are complicated and sad. 

Since I got the news I keep thinking of my friend.  I see him body-surfing happily in the ocean; laughing over a bottle of red; exploring the churches and monuments of Rome and Assisi; passing round beers while I rough up some dinner; listen to him comment on (or argue about) the rugby league, the news, the latest item of political interest; riding his motor-bike; surprising me with a bottle of lemon-cello because he knows I’m missing Italy; encouraging me to play the piano while he competes with his good friend, Ray, to win at billiards; eagerly talking to bunches of school children who look up at him with fascination; standing fervently on the Altar celebrating Mass, during the dedicated years he gave his life to the church; celebrating Mass in whatever intimate place he found himself with a few friends or parishioners; starting every sermon with a joke; raising money to build a new church or support an orphanage; sharing his Faith and compassion with all he encountered; praying often and long for people who were sick, troubled or deceased; caring about people; and only a very short time ago making decisions which were to separate him from many he loved, from a vocation he loved, and, most sadly, lead him to the place where he would lose his life in massive tides. 

Technically, the distance from life to death is a breath.  Whatever the prelude, ultimately the change occurs in a moment.  Our challenge is to fill our breaths, however difficult at times, with as much richness as we possibly can… so when that last breath comes we have as few regrets as possible.  Whatever else he did, this friend gave out an abundance of love and kindness.  He spent the majority of his life in the service of others.  His life has been cut tragically short, but it was a full life; a life which did not shirk many difficult questions.  He was not always right.  Not always prudent.  He stuck his neck out rather than sit on a fence.  But the majority of the time Kevin had available, he fought the good fight.  The fight to ensure forgiveness and love rises above the attitudes which take us closer to barbarism, to coldness and isolation.  Knowing that, knowing him, the nature of his passing - alone on the tropical island where he hoped to find a new kind of fulfilment - seems all the crueller. 

I’m certain many lives lost in the Philippines deserve their own story and reflection.  Yet in the end it is only the sincerity of one’s heart and conscience, and what we leave behind in the hearts and minds of those who knew us, which counts.  And this friend deserves to be remembered and prayed for, for the life in his life, the spirit in his Faith, his passion for social justice, his love of God and humanity, and his certain belief that, whatever our mistakes, ultimately we each earn the right to be reunited with and welcomed by our Maker.  He has left a lot behind.  He made a valuable contribution – perhaps most when he was least aware of it.  Many will miss him and feel the pain of his absence and loss.

Nevertheless, despite our tears, all we can do is follow his example and trust the best of what he told us.  So for Father Kevin and all those lost in the Philippines: 

Eternal rest grant to them oh Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. 
            May they rest in peace and rise in glory.  Amen.



Wednesday 30 October 2013

Fear, Films & Fiona

I have a way of seeing connections between things which some think odd.  But it’s not my issue if people’s brains work differently.

The last two movies I’ve seen at the cinema have reminded me hugely of two dear friends called Fiona and of our experiences around fear.  Your loved ones don’t often know when you are thinking of them and missing them on the other side of the world – ‘little Fiona’ in Brisbane and ‘the other Fiona’ in LA – so I figure I may as well write a blog about them as anyone else.

The films I’m referring to were superbly made and highly recommended: Rush directed by Ron Howard, and Captain Phillips directed by Paul Greengrass.  Both these craftsmen know how to make a great movie which girls as well as guys love, because they have human nuance and compelling narrative as well as thrilling action and speed.  I don’t even like Formula One and I was engaged by Rush from the earliest frames.  And anyone connected with the making of the brilliant Bourne Trilogy and I’m hooked. So Howard and Greengrass: in your enormous fields of achievement these were exceptional efforts.  Thank you!

As it happens I’ve never taken speed.  Apart from health or legal concerns I have absolutely no need.  It’d be like giving uppers to the Eveready Bunny.  But these films made my blood pump.  Glued to the seat, all other realities evaporated as I utterly suspended my disbelief and sank into the drama.  At the end I felt like I’d been running a marathon and was desperate to get outside into London’s chilly Autumn air, walking home with wind blowing in my face and image after image replaying in my head.  I dreamt about them too – Tom Hanks’ final scenes exquisitely moving.

So what is it about fear which is so simultaneously frightening and compelling?  I’ve sky-dived, scuba-dived, heli-skied and fallen out of a white-water raft in a most inconvenient rocky river… but I wouldn’t class myself as a high-risk sportsperson.  I never go to horror films.  Yet these movies frightened the hell out of me and I loved it.  Perhaps the characters and story-telling won me over to the extent I endured the fear as an inescapable bi-product?  Yet I suspect Howard and Greengrass are so clever they understand how to take an audience to the brink of their coping threshold - dangling us in a metaphorical bungee-jump, where a collective addiction to narrative unites with a carnal hunger for wildness and beyond-our-boundaries experiences. 

The element which really made my heart pound in Captain Phillips is the lifeboat.  That small capsule with a lid was far more frightening to me than the pirates or the prospect of a bullet.  I could intensely feel the heat and lack of air, to the point that I had to repeatedly concentrate on slowing my own breathing.  How can one survive such a long journey so confined?  It was torture.  How do people in prison cope with four close walls, especially those thrown into dark dungeons without trial or justice?  All through the film I kept thanking God for Amnesty International and promising I’d give them some more money. (Can someone please hold me to that so I don’t forget?) 

Of course, Hanks’ brilliant performance and the director’s intense building of tension are sufficient provocateurs, but my projected fears enlarged the experience.  I am a little claustrophobic.  For years I’ve had a recurring dream I am trapped in a box or a cupboard.  And time and again I’ve woken up banging the wall behind the bed trying to get out. 

In life I do whatever I can to avoid peak-hour public transport, especially undergrounds.  On planes it isn’t crashing which freaks me out, but rather waking up in an overheated cabin with insufficient oxygen.  Occasionally this has threatened a mini panic-attack, but thankfully it only seems to happen in economy; which is great incentive to fly at the front of the bus. 

Anyway thoughts about “facing one’s fears” brings me to my friend, Fiona.

When we flatted together in Bondi in our fun-filled, wonderfully courageous, it’s-all-ahead-of-you 20s, Fiona would confront any hesitance or fear she felt, by saying “there’s nothing to fear except fear itself”.  I’m inclined to forget Franklin D. Roosevelt and attribute this phrase to Fiona, for I never hear it without thinking fondly of her.

Now fast-forward to the Mediterranean in 2009 when I’m showing ‘little Fiona’ around the Cinque Terre.  Setting out on the coastal walk from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza, I call out: “Walk at your own pace, Fifi, you can’t get lost, there’s only one path… I’ll wait for you somewhere on a rock”.   The wind is whistling, a delightful breeze tickles the pre-midday leaves, and hundreds of metres below steep cliffs I find the sound of crashing waves utterly invigorating.  Various parts of the path are infamously narrow and rocky but I’m in my element – out in the world, fit and free, luxuriating in the sights and smells of my beloved Italy. 

Some time later I am perched in shade admiring the infamous blues of this great sea, and I hear footsteps approach.  Turning around with my lemonade (a treat offered by neighbours on route made from delicious local lemons) my sweet but somewhat pale-looking friend walks slowly toward me.  “What’s the matter?” I ask, bewildered.  “It’s really high, Julie” she says with more shock than malice.  She then adds quietly: “I think you’ve forgotten I’m afraid of heights.”  OMG, I had COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN.  What a dreadful friend – a most awful thing to do to someone who has travelled half way across the world to visit you!

“I’m sorry.  I’m sorry” followed, but the girl with the most generous nature in the world would hear none of it: “But I did it” she said humbly.  “I was scared.  Especially the difficult parts when I thought I was going to slip off the edge.  But I did it.  I took my time and I was fine”   What can you do but hug a girl like that?!  I love her to bits, then and now.  And after a refreshing glass of lemonade we continued the walk to Vernazza, wandering quietly and contentedly together – the making of a very precious memory.

Now I’m thinking of ‘the other Fiona’, which is how I distinguished my L.A. friend from ‘little Fiona’ who my Tuscan mates had met and taken to their hearts.  I am sitting on a bar stool near San Gimignano recounting an extraordinary adventure to the Ice Hotel in Sweden with ‘the other Fiona’.  I have the whole room’s attention for this story, something I clearly enjoy, and the audience should be praised for accepting its meagre delivery in a mix of English and hand-waving Italian with conspicuously dodgy grammar.  I’m making my point anyway, sometimes jumping off the high-stool to act out various parts. But this Ferrari-loving race is hooked.  I skim over the details of meeting the chiefs of Audi while swigging vodka in the Ice Bar – a compulsory part of the Ice Hotel experience – and I’m up to the part where this divine group of ‘strangers’ have taken Fiona and I, and assorted journalists, out into the middle of a frozen lake in Lapland for the launch of a new Audi Sports Car.  (Don’t ask me which model. Not my thing.)  The sun is setting and in the far distance six spotlights cut through the haze.  Lights race toward us across a wide expanse of ice, until we recognise there are three pairs - three very fast pairs on bright red cars.  Audi has arranged for their European Racing Team to arrive… and arrive they do like James Bond or Jason Bourne… pulsing hot-rods soon inches from our twitching toes.  You’ll have to buy my book to get a full description, but suffice it to say the experience was nothing short of spectacular. 

The point about fear is this: Fiona and I were taken by each of these hot, racing-car drivers out for a spin on the enormous lake.  Scream?  Are you kidding – it’s a wonder you didn’t hear us in London!  These guys were out to give us the ride of our lives and the more we spun, the more we screamed, the faster they went… with an ocean of slippery ice between us and the nearest tree they played those cars like a Stradivarius… the little sports-steering-wheel so small yet powerful in the hands of truly great drivers.

Adrenalin pumped.  Curiosity peaked.  So much so I had to stop screaming and ask questions – while still the car spun, sped, reversed and raced while the driver calmly informed me about things I previously never thought interesting.  In love with everything Audi, everything fast, and everything stimulating, we returned to the Ice Bar for more vodka.  The anecdote has followed me around the world never failing to amuse.  And this fond and familiar sensation tugged at my heart during every scene of Ron Howard’s brilliantly rendered, Rush. 

OK, my thrilling European Rally Car had a proper roof.  I am still terrified of the risk Formula One drivers face with burns and injuries and the sheer insane noise of it.  But if my racing-car story is not about overcoming fear, it is certainly about embracing it. 

Rewards are all the richer, whatever the activity or goal, if we face the risks and do it anyway.  So thank God for friends, for my pals Fiona, and for films and experiences which take us out and beyond ourselves.


            Captain Phillips:             http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1535109/

Rush:                            http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1979320/     


Sunday 6 October 2013

What’s with all the questions?

Do you remember the Seinfeld episode where he was driven mad by a girl who wouldn’t stop asking him questions? 

I remember laughing hard, at the time, but over the last few days Seinfeld’s  pain rang repeatedly in my ears while in the midst of my own torture and an overwhelming desire to scream “what’s with ALL THE QUESTIONS?!”  

To make it worse these endless questions and questionnaires were framed by boxes… confining, un-spontaneous, un-imaginative, contrived boxes.  Boxes which didn’t let you express or explore what you really wanted to say, what you might have said if you’d had enough space to breathe.  An awful limitation for someone with a huge freedom need and inclined to claustrophobia.

What was I doing?  Well, I caved in to social and psychological pressure to embark on a trial weekend with internet dating.  Friends genuinely wanted me to ‘give it a go’ as a means by which I could ‘sort the wheat from the chaff’… ‘let the cream rise to the top’… ‘eliminate a large percentage of inappropriate candidates’… ‘improve the odds’ etc.  Such is the faith people have these days in this most strange method of ‘meeting’ and forming attachments. 

I know it works well for some, but I don’t mind saying that everything in me resisted the idea of introduction and conversation via computer.  I struggle enough with Facebook, and only enjoy Twitter because it’s abbreviated and light-hearted. There’s no pretending it’s more than it is.  I am a face-to-face person who has no trouble with spontaneous meetings or talking to strangers.  

Moreover, I never admit to my age so why would I want to put it publically into print?  I don’t want to LIMIT a guy’s age or LIST what he should be, as that’s far too prescriptive for someone as flexible in her tastes as I am.  Nor do I feel in a hurry at the moment to find ‘Mr Right’.  I’ve turned down many possibilities in the last year as I’ve just not been interested in sub-standard.  I want quality not quantity.  Some friends joke I’ve got tired of being a cougar.  Others that the options in London aren’t half as sexy or eager as the Italians I met so easily while living in Tuscany.  There’s truth in both.  But I have many friends to go out with, including a lovely man who is very good to me and takes me regularly to the opera.  The bigger reason for a shift in my ‘romance antenna’ is probably that 2012 was bookended by the worst and best experiences of my dating life.  The former, so destructive I still wonder how I ever fell into it; let alone recovered. The latter, so enriching and enjoyable that it significantly raised the bar on what I felt I should expect. 

So, months after that friendship has changed course for reasons beyond our control, I found myself with a few days off work and the offer of a free trial on a dating website.  That was when the questions started.

OMG you’ve never seen so many questions!  You fill in page after page of questions so the computer can put you (and your supposed matches) in a category.  Your online profile is launched and then you have more questions – hundreds in fact – which I diligently answered thinking it was compulsory.  Then the ‘matches’ started to arrive, dozens and dozens of them, fifty in the space of three days.  It took HOURS to read so many profiles, to the extent I don’t know how anybody with a job actually does it! 

Then the real frustration started. I couldn’t see any photographs, for that was not part of the ‘free communication’ advertised. Oh well, maybe there was something positive to be had in discovering someone’s character before making judgements about looks.  Kind of like a traditional Matchmaker might have done.  But then I discovered most of these blokes hadn’t answered the 250 profile questions I had answered about behaviour, preferences and politics… or if they had they perhaps weren’t bothered to read my answers.  For in an excruciating impression of Groundhog Day, all these questions started to arrive - question after question, page after page until I felt hemmed in, under pressure, and anything but natural or relaxed.  I found my heart racing.  I was utterly overwhelmed.  And that’s saying something from someone who can sing in front of a thousand people with less nerves than most!

My mistake, of course, was that I was treating every approach from these faceless strangers as if they were real people, whose feelings needed to be considered.  I didn’t want to ignore approaches which may have been genuine.  Wouldn’t it hurt their feelings if I didn’t reply?  Send back a smile?  But the damn computer wouldn’t let me write a simple message, you had to go through the hoops, the obstacle course, with every candidate, stage after stage of differently worded QUESTIONS. 

It was all too much.  I felt like I was in the guilty seat of an Alfred Hitchcock with the spotlights pointed on my heart and inner most character.  Would I pass the test?  But what were the bloody rules?  Torture, pure torture.

So now I’m at Day 3, when one guy, who seems interesting, intelligent, sends five questions too many - the first of which is: “how often do you lose your temper?”  I am tempted to write back “NOW, you bloody idiot, because you keep sending me THE QUESTIONS!”  But the computer won’t let me answer in my own words because the computer LOVES the BOXES.  And the only people who can circumnavigate the boxes are the people with paid subscriptions (so I find out later).  I am about to lose it, as I put two and two together he is sending the questions because he LIKES them, and is probably either very guarded or a control freak.  So, with a thud, the penny drops: why am I actually answering?! 

Then, in the same ten minutes, a guy who’s pursued me vigilantly over 48 hours… and with whom I’ve made a date to meet face-to-face in Covent Garden… suddenly cancels two hours out.  The reason sounds fake; so no idea what that's about. 

As things often come in threes, before another twenty minutes has elapsed… another seemingly nice guy, suddenly BLOCKS ME.  Seriously?  Rejected by a guy I can’t see and who I’ve never met for, what I can only guess is, answering his last question incorrectly.  Well, he can seriously go **** himself.  But that doesn’t stop me feeling uncomfortable and judged.  For that question was: “how do you conduct yourself at a party?”  Do you a) set out and make your own introductions, meet new people?; b) remain glued to your date’s side all night?; c) stand in the corner and feel shy? or d) something I can’t recall.  Well, of course I answered option a)… but clearly that was not to his taste!  So he bins me without a ‘how’s your father’.   And though I am likely to be far better off never to meet someone so socially inept… it does highlight what’s wrong with the BOXES.  Real life is not as black and white as all that, because you may in fact do a mixture of a) and b) or whatever else is reasonable at the time.  Yet these artificially generated interrogations don’t allow for individuality or nuance.  And, THAT’S WHY I HATED THE ENTIRE EXPERIENCE.

You can tell I am scarred.  It was held out as the big chance, the thing you ought to do to take your love-life into your own hands. I’d resisted so long and then given in, that after the suffocation of the whole process and three rejections on the hop I felt totally inadequate and somehow at fault.  Friends said, “but you’re used to rejection… treat it like showbiz”.  But that’s the thing, I get enough obstacle courses and rejection in my profession, I don’t need it in my personal life too.

Anyway, why is acceptance of this medium so prolific there’s an inference that if you don’t ‘do it’ you are somehow responsible for not finding that someone special?  

I reject that inference of course, but it only took until the next day to see I’d gone out too hard.  I had felt overwhelmed by the volume and the weirdness of it, and I’d been making myself persevere like medicine given by the doctor.  I wasn’t approaching this strange electronic dating game with the kind of cynicism or detachment which must surely be the only way to survive it.  Well, a dose of that, and some superior discernment re the truth or otherwise of many profiles.  I was operating as if I were at a party and each person deserved a polite response.  But seriously, if I hadn’t stopped and gone with a nice neighbour to our local coffee shop where Frankie (the lovely Italian manager) gave me a cappuccino, a brownie and a cuddle in that order… then I think I’d have hyperventilated. 

Instead I had a little cry… laughed at his suggestion that perhaps the guys weren’t real men anyway, but just elaborate CGI to get people to spend money… that I got past the disappointment and the feeling that I was a fly pinned to a boy’s school experiment board…  and I made the liberating decision to cancel my membership.  It’s too time-consuming – especially for a writer who needs space and time to create.  It’s too artificial and stressful.  It’s too sad, as I feel too responsible and open in a world where you can’t judge who is also being honest.  I’d rather start up a conversation in a pub, or smile across the departure lounge at a handsome stranger; as I did in the case of the fabulous guy mentioned above.  The internet dating thing is just not for me.

Nevertheless, as I logged off for the last time, I noticed a final message from one guy who said “I can’t believe you’re X years old… you don’t look half that… what’s your secret?!” 

Hmm, perhaps not such a bad ending after all. 


Tuesday 24 September 2013

What a day!

Some people say blogging is no different to writing in a diary so is therefore indulgent.  I disagree.  Many bloggers explore and develop a theme, sometimes cleverly, so as with much digital media it’s different strokes for different folks.

Today, however, I confess my post is little more than an enlarged journal entry.  

The day started with fog.  You wouldn’t believe how white and wintry it felt.  I had the central heating on for hours before 11am, drying the washing as I sipped coffee and addressed miscellaneous emails and tinkled on the piano which my lovely friend Adam has kindly loaned me for the winter after my last keyboard gave up the ghost.  By lunch-time the air cleared and I had the windows wide open as I searched for summer clothes again.  

 Around 2pm I was trotting down the Kings Road enjoying the designer shops, when the second stranger in less than a week stopped me unexpectedly, saying: “excuse me, I love the colour of your hair”.  This man was also a red-head, keen to explain his restaurant policy was to offer red-heads a free drink.  Well, can’t argue with that.  But as I was on my way to an audition, which have been rather thin on the ground lately, I had to take a rain-check.  It made me smile anyway.  (And he was more stylish than the guy who spun me on the pavement late last Friday only to say: “ooh, I love a ginger… do you want to come with us?” and pointed to his straggly collection of drunken friends.)

After a happy exchange in Chelsea I skipped off to the appointed venue and from 2.30pm to 4.30pm took part in what could only be described as a workshop.  A dozen actor/singer/musicians worked with the Director around various themes, musical and dramatic, to elicit our ability to play a diverse range of characters.  It was great fun – challenging and stimulating.  We played theatrical games, improvised, moved around the space working scenes, imitating animals, and doing jazz-vocal scat.  I far prefer being ‘put through the hoops’ and really working my craft, than arriving with a ‘party piece’ which may or may not hit the mark in five minutes.  It was tiring, hot work on a surprisingly sunny day for late September in London, but I felt one hundred percent in the moment.  That doesn’t mean every improvisation was balanced or successful, but it does mean I was relaxed and in my element.  I thoroughly enjoyed the process. 
After waiting outside the theatre for fifteen minutes I then discovered I had been recalled early evening to meet the Musical Director.  So I scooted back up the Kings Road to relax in one of its many appealing cafes and watch the beautiful people walk by.   It was hard to resist the pull of the pub, in the lovely warm afternoon a cold beer would have been perfect, but I couldn’t possibly drink alcohol before a performance.  Eventually I returned to the theatre and went back into the studio, to sing a prepared jazz ballad and play the piano.  Then we improvised around a jazz chart.  I was asked about my ability to bluff/make-do on various other instruments… which I tried to answer with a balance of honesty and optimism… and then we rehearsed a new scene.  I had been playing a fox and an owl in the afternoon session, so was amused to now be playing a jazz-singing walrus!  The script said this walrus was glamorous so I searched for some husky, sexy sounds and by the smiles in the room things went rather well.  Again I enjoyed myself.  The script is new, imaginative, perfectly geared for a young audience, and probably plays well to my varied strengths as an actor/musician.  Yet the point of the audition was to flex my creative muscles, and by 6.45pm, when I left the theatre for the last time, I felt it had done just that.  What happens next is anyone’s guess – I’ve long since learnt if you’re a walrus and they want a whale, or you’re an apple and they want a pear, there ain’t a thing you can do about it.  That’s showbiz.   It was, anyway, a fulfilling afternoon.  
Back up the Kings Road I found myself at the door of the restaurant where I’d been spotted by the lover of red-heads.  The second I appeared Butch called out to me and within minutes I was embraced, introduced and made feel part of the friendliest bunch of Italians I’ve met since leaving Tuscany.  Almost immediately I was given my complimentary G &T… then I was in the kitchen meeting the Italian/Australian chef Domenico, and his assistant Danny (with kisses all round)… then I was meeting the restaurateur’s extended family (including the nice, single brother?!)… then the woman who had booked the large rear table for her book launch (an occasion I took straight to heart)…all the while loving the chance to practise my Italian… and somehow those exchanges morphed into more kissing, more greetings, and a seat at the bar eating exquisite seafood pasta, drinks, and a cross-over conversation between a stand-up-comedian who was barracking for his football team, Swindon, playing against Chelsea on the television, and a rather boastful police-officer who wanted me to know that if he wasn’t waiting for his date "I would really like to count every one of your freckles”.  It was just that kind of day. 
Isn’t London lovely when the sun is shining and everyone feels happy?  I certainly bumped into people in the same mood as me, and post any audition (like post a good hair-cut) I’m always a bit pumped and loved every minute of the play, the flirtation, and the food, wine and bonhomie.  For those few hours – as with the play as owl, fox and jazz-singing walrus – I was exactly where I was supposed to be.  And I wandered back down Beaufort Street to admire the Albert Bridge shining on the Thames and felt all was right with the world.
Tomorrow I go back to being a responsible Project Manager, though happily that’s dealing with a new entertainment company, so as with many an artiste it’s one hat off and one hat on and I’ll be all the better for the variety. 
To prove it’s been a remarkable day, I then returned home to an annoying email about a potential new contract which I’ve been carefully considering for several weeks but just this moment decided to decline… and another email, out of the blue, from an international recruitment company saying “your CV is excellent and well-suited to blah blah” and asking me if I am interested in a senior event management job for nine months on the other side of the world.   I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when you’re not in favour, and your luck is not in, you can’t even get arrested… when things change for the better, everything comes at once and suddenly you feel you have some bargaining power.  I won’t let it go to my head.  But it has been a good day.
Buonanotte.  Sogni d’oro! 

         Frantoio, 397 King's Rd  London SW10 0LR (Ph: 020 7352 4146)

         For the children's show The Ballad of Rudy book online at: www.chelseatheatre.org.uk