Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Layer 475 . . . A Midsummer Night's Dream


Imagine this. Going to see a performance of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (or indeed any play) and being able to stand right next to the actors as they speak their lines. Moving from location to location for each scene, sometimes down earthen pathways that are lined with candles and lanterns, with each scene having its own unique outdoor setting. Being accompanied by a group of minstrels who play beautifully on the walks through the trees and gravestones of Abney Park Cemetery - for this is where this particular Dream takes place, for the next few midsummer nights.

There's no point in me urging you to go (unless you want to take a chance on the gate) because its short run has been completely sold out in advance. The audience for each performance is limited to 40. But what a privilege it was to be there on the opening night.

For those readers who don't know Abney Park Cemetery itself I would certainly urge you to go there and just wander around - it's open every day of the week, thanks to the volunteer group who have made it accessible and look after it. It's an unbelievable place in the heart of Hackney/Stoke Newington, just behind the corner of N16 where the Church Street meets the High Street. It's the most magnificent Gothic cemetery you could possibly imagine, complete with a ruined spooky church, thousands of amazing tombs and gravestones, and huge mature trees.

I was told by the director, Owen Lewis - who happens to live literally a stone's throw from the cemetary - that the production has been put on for about 1500 quid, since no-one is being paid for their work. In other words, this is a group of highly talented, highly skilled people coming together to do something amazing - just for fun!

It's definitely fun for the enthralled and appreciative audience too, as well as being delightful, captivating, involving and at times stunning. I could mention any number of scenes where the setting, the action and the performances take you by surprise and genuinely excite and amaze.

There's no point singling out individual actors - they're all superb in the delivery of their lines and in the execution of their bits of business which make this production such a laugh-out-loud piece of work, as well as a powerful study of human foibles and foolishness.

For what is this thing called 'falling in love', that creates such individual and collective madness? It may as well be inflicted on us by unseen and unseeable fairies, since it usually appears as if from nowhere, and is inclined to disappear as quickly as it came, having run its course of fever and havoc, having inflicted destructive emotions on so many of those who fall in love, and some of those who only stand and watch. Passion, jealousy, envy, wrath, hatred, fear, insults, unreason, enmity, sometimes violence and sometimes death - all in the name of love. What delicious and amusing irony - if you happen to be a non-attached onlooker, or a member of an audience. Not so much fun and not so amusing if you happen to be one of the 'love' struck, one of the love deprived, or someone hit by its backlash.

After the play ends the audience leaves the cemetery through an avenue of the 17 actors - each standing stock still, staring straight ahead, like statues holding candles and lanterns. As a son of Warwickshire myself I'd suggest that Shakespeare himself would have been delighted with this amazing production of his amazing play.

And as a good friend said to me afterwards - Keven Spacey and Richard III are wonderful at the Old Vic, but no more wonderful than this magical production in this magical setting.

Apparently the Trustees of the cemetery are keen to see much more use made of it for plays and drama, so keep an eye open for future developments. You'll be sorry if you miss out.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Layer 474 . . . Games, Pastimes, Winners and Losers, Berne, Reich and Maslow

My father taught me how to play chess. He taught me the basic moves, but nothing about strategies, openings and endgames - of which I still know very little. I've never been a great one for playing games, or for pastimes. What the hell is a pastime?

My father taught me some basic things about life. He lived a very simple life - practically hermit-like and very monagamous, as far as I could see. If it turned out he'd had a secret lover I'd be completely shocked and amazed.

And yet dad was a great player of games. He had drawers and cupboards full of games. His own children were a huge disappointment to him in terms of their enthusiasm for games. It was his grandchildren who joined in with his games-playing to while away hours of companionship, having innocent fun on many a rainy weekend and school holidays. Dad would much rather play a game than have a conversation. What was the point of talking? Listening in to most people's conversations you might have to admit that he kind of had a point, even if he never expressed it as such. Inarticularcy was pretty much dad's speciality.

In terms of winners and losers - it's hard to say whether dad was one or other of these things. Having a leg blown off and almost losing your life in a war against fascists isn't exactly conducive to being a winner in the game of life. Yet having been brought back from the battlefield in Normandy and having survived horrendous injuries - you possibly learn certain things during a year or so of hospital convalescence about the preciousness of life itself, and an appreciation of its absolute value. You maybe learn that life is simply about being, and learn not to worry too much about doing or having.

Dad was a winner in that he had a beautiful and thoughtful wife who was his lifelong companion. She was feisty as hell and gave him endless brainache, but she was loyal and strong, and she took good care of him. She was full of enthusiasm, and she was brave and energetic. She gave him pride and dignity, and two children to enliven their lives and their modest household.

Dad was a winner in that he was able to retire to a beautiful part of the country and live in a part of the world he truly loved. He had enough money to live on, a decent car to get around in, and a decent home he could call his own. His lifelong work in a factory gave him dignity as well as a regular income. He also had a decent retirement pension that allowed him and mum to live out their lives well above the poverty line. He owned the home he lived in, and paid no rent to any landlord or local authority. This home that must now be sold - the last remaining contact with two good people and their decent and honourable lives.


It's never been clear to me what's supposed to happen to people's possessions when they die. Obviously some of them are inherited and are gratefully owned by descendants - for their utility as well as their sentimental value. Some things are essentially useless but are wonderful reminders of their previous owners.

I was shocked by my sister's lack of interest in mum and dad's possessions. Her only interest was in their monetary value - and very few of their possessions had any monetary value. Therefore her attitude was - throw it all away, or sell bits if you're able. She was quite happy to give away all of mum's clothes to charity shops, keeping nothing at all for herself - not even a scarf or a cardigan. Thankfully my children, my nephews and their partners at least wanted to inherit some things as souvenirs. The bungalow had been a second home for my nephews as they were growing up, and living in various places around the county - as much as it had been for me. It was a place of stability, identity and continuity.


During certain periods of her depression mum didn't really want me to go to stay with her at the bungalow. She'd come to rely on her meals on wheels, and she hated not being able to buy food for me or cook for me. It negated all she stood for as a mother and a provider. In the end she didn't even have the strength to clean properly or to change bed linen. Such is the indignity and loss of pride when you're old and feeble and reaching the end of your life.

I wonder now if she had any regrets - any unfulfilled ambitions, any thoughts about things she'd not done that she could have done, and maybe should have done, when she still had energy, drive and feistiness.


Dad must have learned to play games to while away the hours as he was lying in a hospital bed, while the war in France and Germany continued, whilst hundreds and thousands more teenagers were losing their lives and their limbs in a war against fascists and their evil leadership.

Dad taught us how to play ludo and drafts and card games. He introduced us to the joys of Monopoly and Totopoly. (I get it now - it was about the Tote. Ha!) He was a great fan of dominoes and games involving picking up sticks and flicking counters into plastic cups. He was a good winner and a good loser. My sister was a habitual loser. Myself - I couldn't see the point of winning, or the taking part, and definitely not the losing. There were much better things to do - many of them involving friends and the vast amount of complete freedom available outside the house, away from parental control and the strict rules of the game; away from winning and losing.


Aunt O was born during the First World War. The solicitor who came to the house yesterday was shocked when she told him she was born in 1915. 96 years of age and still sharp as a tack. "Oh well," she said, on learning how much it was going to cost to change her will and to set up powers of attourney. "I'll just have to get a job."

She would too, if only it were possible. Never afraid of hard work, my aunt - infirmity now afflicts her body, but not her mind. She can even cope with loss of hearing, as well as loss of mobility. She can still prop herself up on a walking frame and on her worktops well enough to cook a roast dinner for two. "Yes I know you can buy roast chicken in the supermarket - but I've already taken the lamb steaks out of the freezer!" Now be quiet.

She hadn't been allowed to get a paid job till she was 18 or 19. My Victorian grandfather had insisted that as the oldest girl in the family she had to stay at home and look after the rest of the children. No wonder she ran away from home to be with my uncle.

She manages quite well in her own home, and still does her own cleaning and washing. She has a stair lift and someone to take care of her gardens and her shopping. As she says herself, she wants for nothing.


Eric Berne was a psychologist and the author of a seminal book called Games People Play. In it he describes the game-playing that goes on between both consenting and non-consenting adults. He also talks about people who take part in interpersonal 'pastimes'. Berne was the grandfather of what's now known as Transactional Analysis. It's worth reading about - especially if you've ever been involved in inappropriate game-playing or on the receiving end of an adult behaving like they're either a child or your parent.

To find out about what adults are supposed to be like when they become fully evolved human beings try taking a look at Layer 20 and the conclusions of another great psychologist - Abraham Maslow.


Yet another great but little-known psychologist mentioned in the media recently - Wilhelm Reich. Channel 4's curious documentary series on human sexuality did a superficial review of his work on human sexuality with particular mention of the function of the orgasm. It's maybe time to write some more about Reich, and time to write something more about Zen, sexuality, enlightenment and well-being.