Reginald and his struggle against the eunuchs

Lots of writing competitions have certain restrictions on who and what you should be if you want to go in for them - the Asham wants you to be female; Welsh ones tend to want you to be Welsh; most say you must be over eighteen, unless it’s one for young people, in which case you must be under; some specify what area you must come from or live in, and some have great screeds of rules which you must sign in blood. These strictures may be irritating, but you can appreciate the reasoning behind them.

However, I have come across a competition - the H.G.Wells Short Story Competition (see rules and FAQs) - which has the most peculiar condition I have ever heard of. Entrants must submit a typescript of their story accompanied by a hand-written copy which will account for 10% of their resulting marks.

I started to think about this. Why handwritten? What was the agenda here? Obviously, we were going to be judged by the quality of our handwriting, but why? I wondered at first if the organisers wanted to use graphology to see if we were fit to go in for their competition, which was worrying, as graphology is known for being unreliable and is not much used to judge character any more.

Mercifully, this isn’t the case, although it’s not a lot better. Further investigation revealed that the competition is run by one Reg Turnill, aged 94, who is so appalled by the current standard of literacy that he is taking it upon himself to improve matters. He has run the competition before, stipulating that entries could only be handwritten (and furthermore with a ‘no science fiction’ rule, which seems a bit odd in an H.G.Wells competition). Unsurprisingly, it got no entries at all.

Did he learn from his mistake? Not really. He has unbent sufficiently to allow typescript, and says handwriting is not compulsory, but you lose ‘marks’ for bad handwriting. In other words, write it nicely or else. When I was teaching, I would take Handwriting once a week, and I can tell you that some people naturally write neatly and some just don’t, despite endless practice in letter formation, etc. The brainiest writer I know has handwriting that even I, after twenty four years, still can’t read, and everyone knows about doctors.

There is another very large and obvious problem with this. What if we are dyslexic or have a manual disability - arthritis, injury, Parkinsonism? Or are Stephen Hawking? I could cite Dennis Potter, who would strap a pen to his hand in order to write. Doesn’t this come under the heading of discrimination on grounds of disability, which I believe is illegal? And we have to ask, could Mr Turnill at the age of 94 do it himself?

You could always get a friend to write it out for you, I suppose, but they’d have to be a very good friend to copy out several thousand words, and what if the judges found out? Oh, the shame.

You could say that the medium is the message, and certainly any judges would be unimpressed by a story written in green ink on the back of a Sugar Puffs packet, but handwriting is surely a separate issue. Perhaps he should have a handwriting competition and get his message across that way.

He is also rather missing the point of writing competitions in being too arbitrary about what he wants to see. He said of the ‘no science fiction’ rule:
"Last year’s competition brought in too many stories depicting ghastly invasions of our everyday lives by all sorts of nameless horrors"
So what? Every competition will have its dross and gluts of a particular kind of story, and that’s why there are judges – to pick out the diamonds. Maybe a writer will have a new and original take on a much-used idea. Or why not simply say, ‘Don’t go for the obvious?’ If you’re judging a writing competition, you have to take what comes, and a good story is a good story, whatever its genre.

This, from the 2010 brochure, is what he’s looking for:
"Stories should give readers in 2110 an idea of what life is like for ordinary people, working or retired, in the second decade of the 21st century - its complications and perplexities, and above all its humorous aspects. HG’s characters described the misery and humour of apprenticeship in a draper’s emporium. There must be both fun and drudgery working in a supermarket or MacDonald’s. Is this or back-packing a better way to fill in the time between college and university? And what is it like if you don’t go to university? Plumbing is said to be a well-paid alternative - and always good for a laugh. And how does it feel to be made redundant - all too familiar in 2010, but hopefully less well-known in 2110? There are plenty of non-sci-fi stories waiting to be written."
Cor. I really feel that if this is what he wants, he should be running a different kind of competition. You can’t dictate to the competitors or they will avoid your competition, as they have. There are plenty more they can choose from.

In 1994, and probably since too, for all I know, the mighty Bridport competition gave a list in its anthology of the kinds of stories they received all too often. It was daunting, yet helpful because it gave you a good idea of what was becoming clichéd. Bridport is a long-standing and well-respected competition and can do this. Mr Turnill is merely giving his personal views and making it all too clear where he stands and what he will approve of, and I fear he is fighting a losing battle.

The obvious come-back to any complaint would be, ‘If you don’t like it, don’t go in for it’, but isn’t that just what people have been doing?

Further reading:

Mulberry

Mulberry was a TV comedy series in 1993 by Esmonde and Larbey that seems to have been somewhat overlooked.

I remembered enjoying its gentle story line, but wasn’t sure if I’d still like it now. So I did what I always do and had a look at Amazon, where I found a two-disc set for well under a tenner. I decided to risk it and get the whole thing, and how glad I am that I did.

I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for Esmonde and Larbey, but have only ever admitted to liking The Good Life, an acknowledged classic. Mulberry, however, is way up there with it.

It’s an unhurried story about a mysterious young man, Mulberry (Karl Howman), who arrives out of the blue to apply for a job that hasn’t even been advertised yet. The elderly, cantankerous Miss Farnaby (Geraldine McEwan), is a sour recluse who takes him on reluctantly, but gradually comes to rely on him, much to the disgruntlement of her two staff, Bert and Alice (Tony Selby and Lil Roughley).

The mystery keeps you wondering. Who is Mulberry and what are his intentions towards Miss Farnaby, who he is teaching about life while taking her out of herself? Who is the sinister stranger who seems to be urging the reluctant Mulberry to kill her? All is revealed by the end of Part 1, much to our relief.

Karl Howman as Mulberry is perfect casting. He has immense personal charm and you hope and hope that he’s not going to turn out to be a baddie after all. His scenes with Geraldine McEwan are masterpieces of dialogue and you know she’s going to warm to him eventually. How could she not?

I wondered why Geraldine McEwan (who I remember in shorts and crew cut in The Member of the Wedding in the 60s) hadn’t been offered a damehood, and found that actually she had, but declined it. If anyone knows why, I should like to hear. Her Miss Farnaby has an edge of Mrs Proudie and the same qualities that we used to admire in Margot Leadbetter – she’s steely and determined and can dig in her heels like a jack donkey - but she also has Miss Marple’s twinkle and charm. I think that’s the keynote here. The leads have charm. Not false sweet charm, but a kind of innocence. Even the sinister stranger (the divine John Bennett, another perfect casting) has it, in his dour way.

The ancillary characters, alas, do not. Bert and Alice are perhaps the weakest. Their bickering sometimes borders on the silly, and their scenes only take off when another character is present. I think the problem with them is that they are just there to be sounding boards, something for the leads to bounce off. They do add to the enclosed feel of the scenes, but they don’t quite work. I’d have preferred more interaction with Miss Farnaby’s sisters, whose scenes do work. Bert and Alice are outsiders.

Esmonde and Larbey were very fond of Mulberry and had planned a third series, in which Miss Farnaby understands what is going on. I think this would have been an excellent idea, but unfortunately the Beeb didn’t see it that way and it never happened. Quite often a series passes its natural finish (see Last of the Summer Wine, in which we start getting Compo riding down a hill in a bath for no very good reason), but I think we could have taken a bit more. Larbey appears in an interview - see below - to be quite distressed that we never got the chance. These characters get under your skin and make you want to stay with them for just a little bit longer while the story line winds to its natural conclusion. We are left with a feeling of something incomplete.


Bob Larbey discusses end of Mulberry

Vie Hebdomadaires

Just a brief note that I am this week's blogger on Varun Kothamachu's collaborative blog Vie Hebdomadaires, which offers weekly guest spots for bloggers worldwide to report on their lives.

Ratatouille



I was introduced to ratatouille in the seventies and have to say was not impressed by the rather sloppy vegetable stew that appeared on my plate, and wasn’t impelled to try it again until the other day, when I watched the amazingly good film, ‘Ratatouille’.

The best films about food make you want to go and eat some of it (‘Eat, Drink, Man,Woman’, for instance, should never be watched on an empty stomach), and it’s rather surprising that something cooked by a rat should actually be appetising. He does wash his paws, however, and steam-cleans his family when he conscripts them to help in a crisis.

The ratatouille here - a sophisticated layered version named confit byaldi - was far removed from the one I had all those years ago. The vegetables were well-shaped and beautifully arranged and it really looked as if it might be worth eating, so I did what I always do in these circumstances and went straight to Google. There it was, the very same, beautifully illustrated with full instructions, at Smitten Kitchen: Ratatouille's ratatouille. The reviewer was also surprised to be following a rat’s recipe.

I googled several other versions and found that, although the basic vegetables - courgette, aubergine, pepper, tomatoes and onion – remain the same, what you do with them very much depends on you. You can slice them, chop them. leave them in hunks, add thyme or basil – anything goes, more or less. Possibly the French take a different view, and I’d like to try an ‘authentic’ version, but they’re there and we’re here.

Ratatouille - confit byaldi style - before cooking. Wikimedia Commons.

I forgot the fresh basil, and found I’d run out of olive oil, but a what-the-hell attitude often works quite well. Reading other people’s responses shows there are a lot of folk out there who will experiment and make a recipe their own, either, like me, by not having some of the ingredients or by deliberately putting in something they like. Red wine sounds good. Harissa? Well, why not? The addition of crème fraiche is hardly authentic, but it is rather nice.

Confit byaldi - public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
In my version, you make a tomato puree from fresh tomatoes, half a tin of chopped tomatoes and a little sundried tomato paste, with chopped onion, garlic, a sprinkle of mixed herbs from a jar and seasoning, and spread it over the bottom of a baking dish. You slice the aubergine, courgette and pepper very thinly and arrange them in a pretty pattern on top and drizzle it with oil (I had to use cooking, but olive is obviously better.) Cover the dish and bake for about an hour at 200 degrees. Consistency is up to you – you might like your veg on the crunchy side or you might like to be able to cut it with a spoon, so adjust to suit yourself.

When it’s done, put a few cubes of feta or some dollops of crème fraiche on top (Ray got himself some cranberry Wensleydale!) and either serve it with your own rice or do what we do and pop a packet of Tilda coconut and chili, or lime and coriander, rice in the microwave for a couple of minutes. You haven’t tried Tilda? It’s probably a bit pricey for what it is, but it’s good stuff, comes out right and saves a lot of time. Am I allowed to advertise? All right, then, a packet of flavoured microwaveable rice.

We were expecting something a bit bland, but it was quite a revelation and we shall certainly be having it again. I think probably the flavoured rice gives it a little extra something, so I’d recommend that, along with trying the missing fresh basil. Thyme seems to be favourite, but we find it a bit too strong, especially in a dish of restrained flavours, which is why I used the mixed herbs.

Ratatouille isn’t an in-your-face recipe, but it does have the all-important ingredient – umami. We discovered umami many years ago from, I think, an article in the Science section of the Guardian, and it’s only now beginning to creep into the national conscousness. Umami really just means ‘flavour’ and it’s often lacking in vegetarian food. It shouldn’t be, because it’s chiefly supplied by tomato and cheese with a little salt, which explains the great popularity of pizza. I have suffered quite a lot of bland vegetarian food over the years because it didn’t have umami.

All in all, much nicer and quicker to make than I’d anticipated, very healthy, and, without the cheese, suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

If you want to be fussy, it’s pronounced ‘rat-a-twee-uh’, not ‘rat-a-tooey’.

Oh, and do watch the film next time it’s on telly.



Update
Tried another version using the fresh basil and feta that we didn’t have the frits time, and experimenting with a dollop of Patak’s Universal Brinjal Pickle in with the tomatoes. Brinjal pickle is wonderful stuff and we put it in just about everything. It’s not too strong, but it delivers terrific umami. Having been to Aldi, we tried their frozen Mediterranean veg, which worked very well, and their lemon and coriander couscous, which was even better than the rice. I put some sliced aubergine and pepper on top to make it look more authentic and drizzled olive oil over it. The result - pictured above - was indescribably wondrous.

See also Ratatouille at Vie Hebdomadaires.

HIGHLIGHTS OF LOVE, CONTROL-X

This was my entry for Mini Operas, the English National Opera mini-opera script competition.

The brief - see Script Competition - was to write a short opera libretto based on one of three 'seed stories' by Will Self (The Death of a Government Inspector), A.L. Kennedy (On Paper) and Neil Gaiman (The Sweeper of Dreams). The organisers asked that we put submissions up in blog format, so that the links are available from a wall on their site. See the Script Finalists and All Script Entries.

Mini Operas now continues with The Soundtrack Competition, which invites compositions of soundtracks for any of the finalists' scripts. The closing date is July 23rd. The final stage, running from 6th August to 24th September, will be The Film Competition, to visualise one of the ten winning soundtracks.




HIGHLIGHTS OF LOVE, CONTROL-X

The author is sitting at her desk, which is very tidy, everything just so, and a small vase of flowers at one side.

AUTHOR
I thought I’d be a writer.
That it was easy, anyone could do it.
Nothing to it.
Begin at the beginning and work your way through it.

WORD CHORUS (Rhythmically)
The chorus counterpoints the words of the author, not the characters. The words are passed between them like a conversation.

Murderous, mysterious. Romantic, rustic. Medical, radical. Spooky, kooky. Enquiring, desiring. Disgusting, trusting. Research, detect, select.

AUTHOR:
I’ve found the very hardest part
Is knowing where and how to start,
I’ve set about the thing a thousand times.
I find I still can’t get it right.
I’ve even laboured through the night
In one or two or half a dozen minds.
(Stops)
It’s all been done before.
And it’s a bore.
Let me see ... Once upon a time ... (Pause, erases)
It was a dark and stormy night ... (Pause, erases)
It was the best of times ... (Pause, erases)
It was Christmas Day in the bloody workhouse ...
DAMN IT!
I chase the words like peas around a plate,
I clear my mind, I settle back and wait –
And there is nothing ...
Perhaps a little meditation
Will help the process of gestation,
And produce a great creation.
Think of nothing ....
(She adopts meditative attitude)

HE
Listen, we’re here

SHE
Listen, I’m here

HE
Perfect on paper

SHE
Unblemished as paper

HE
I’m He

SHE
I’m She.

TOGETHER
What do you want us to be?

SHE
Waiting to meet

HE
On a plane

SHE:
In the street

HE:
In a bar

SHE:
A bazaar

HE:
Here, there,

SHE:
Anywhere.

HE:
We’ve been stuck here for ages
Adrift on your pages
Have a heart
Make a start -

SHE:
Who am I?
Who is he?
Give us life
Let us Be.

AUTHOR:
What shall I call you?

WORD CHORUS (Rhythmically)
Matthew – Madeline. Bruno – Bronwen. Daniel – Mirabelle. Ottoline – Peregrine. Pollyanna – Mungo. Tarquin – Tabitha. Jasmine – Joshua (increasing pace) Laurence - Florence, Billy, Lily, Millie, Willie ...

AUTHOR:
Stop, stop, it’s getting silly!
Let’s go for -
Petronella? And Keith?

SHE:
Petronella?

HE:
Good grief!
Perhaps he lives in a castle by the sea
Darkly dreaming at the window
Of an unattainable She.

SHE:
Perhaps she sees the child inside the man
Perhaps she saves him,
She’s the only one who can.

AUTHOR:
Where shall it be ....
A foreign land by the sea ...

WORD CHORUS (Rhythmically)
Umbria – Cumbria. Vegas – Galapagos. Lucerne – Crewkerne. Abu Simnel – Mumbai. Alicante – Phuket ...

AUTHOR:
Phuket.
HE:
Hello from Ipswich.

SHE:
Love from Berlin.

HE:
Greetings from Basingstoke.

SHE:
Hi, from Beijing.

AUTHOR:
Basingstoke? Oh Lord,
I said abroad.
(Heavy sigh)
There’s the dog to be walked,
Friends to have round,
The cooking, the cleaning,
The mending unending,
Shoes to be found
And the making of tea.
Concentrate, let me see ...

HE:
I’ll ring you, we could speak

SHE:
I could manage Tuesday.

HE:
I can’t do Tuesday.
Shall we say Thursday week ?

TOGETHER:
I can feel you across the void
I know we would love each other

SHE:
It would be bliss

HE:
From our first kiss.

TOGETHER:
But each time, we miss.
I miss you.

AUTHOR:
Words ...

WORD CHORUS (Heavily rhythmic)
COUPLE, KNEECAP, BYLAW, BLUE -
TEACAKE, PLASTIC, DISTANCE, GLUE –
PERFECT, KENDO, ANSWER, PLOT -
COMPASS, FEVER, PARAPHRASE, BLOT ... !

AUTHOR:
GOD DAMN AND BLAST IT!
Maybe I’m just past it.
(Closes computer)

HE:
But what about us?

SHE:
For ever apart

Breaking my heart

AUTHOR: (To him)
Maybe it’s better
That you forget her.
(To her)
You’ll never upset him
If you’ve never met him.
Romance untested,
Stays purer and sweeter

TOGETHER:
AUTHOR:
If you never meet.
HE:
We’ll never meet ...
SHE:
We’ll never meet ...

HE: (Fading)
Goodbye

SHE: (Fading)
Good bye

TOGETHER:
Maybe some day ....

AUTHOR:
I didn’t want to write it anyway.

Switches off, exits.

We are the Champions

Marge and Gower Champion

If you were born after 1960, or are English, you may not be familiar with Mr and Mrs Champion, but in their day, they were very popular figures on the American musical stage and in films. I first came across them when I was a student and got hold of a special entertainments edition of Life magazine, in which they featured. They seemed a pleasant and talented couple, but I'd never seen them in action, so didn’t take much notice at the time. But the name stayed with me.

Having recently become a convert to Amazon uk, I’ve been buying quite a lot of cheap DVDs to replace my old videos, and in the process came across Show Boat. I’m not the greatest fan of these rather epic old musicals, but I do like them and the more I see of them, the more I admire them. One thing that might not be immediately apparent is that they aren’t afraid to deal with quite heavy Issues. Carousel contains domestic violence, Showboat is about colour prejudice and the perils of gambling. Race appears again in South Pacific, and even in The King and I.

But in among all the seriousnesses, there are many invigorating song and dance numbers – the barn raisin’ in Seven Brides, the farmers versus the cowmen in Oklahoma, and so on - and in Show Boat, three terrific turns by Marge and Gower Champion, which I think show them at their best.

As soon as I saw their first number, I was staggered. These guys were good, right up there with Fred and Ginger, and even, in my view, better. Rogers and Astaire were expert hoofers, obviously, but never athletic, and I don’t think Astaire ever did any great lifts (I’m open to correction on this).

I have always regarded the skater Christopher Dean as what is known in ballet circles as a danseur noble – a beautiful mover, always exactly where he was supposed to be, perfectly complementing the movements of his partner, and yet much more than just a prop. Gower Champion is another. You usually tend to look at the female of these duos - she has the pretty frocks and is more to the fore - but when you start to notice the man, you realise how much skill and artistry is going on behind her back.

Watch these two. Every move has been refined to the nth degree, and the result is perfection. The Champions were the Torvill and Dean of their day, and aptly named. Actually, their routines were very much like those of modern skaters when you come to look at them (and skaters could do worse than copy them). Not a move is out of place, they could work in very long takes, they could tap, they could sing and they were capable of some spectacular lifts and catches. It's a shame that they only made about seven films in all.

Marge and Gower were married in 1947, but divorced in 1973. Gower married again in 1976 and became a film director, but his career took a downturn for a few years until a sudden spectacular success with 42nd Street in 1980. He contracted leukemia, and, in fine theatrical tradition, died six hours before the first curtain-up of the show at the age of 61.

Marge also married again, became a choreographer and teacher, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At the time of writing, she is 89, and living in New York.


Selected Marge & Gower Champion videos
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes 1952
I Won't Dance 1952
Lovely To Look At
Someone To Watch Over Me
Show Boat (unfortunately minus original soundtrack)
Marge Champion - Archive Interview - 10-part Archive of American Television on YouTube.

The Bee



The Bee by Hideki Noda and Colin Teevan at Soho Theatre

It has to be said, I approached The Bee with some misgivings. I wasn’t keen on the long journey, I’d never been to Soho Theatre before and the script hadn’t looked particularly promising. However, critics had raved and, as a playwright, I felt I should see it.

My map wasn’t up to much and most of the streets were boarded for building work, so it took a while and a lot of asking directions before I found Soho Theatre. I was expecting a small arts theatre rather like our own Phoenix, but was surprised to find a very large theatre with three separate stages and a smart cafe-bar. The upstairs theatre was pleasantly laid out with comfortably padded benches, and the staff were friendly and helpful. Good start.

The action takes place on a vermilion stage laid out with a few simple artefacts, against a mirrored wall at the back which becomes transparent from time to time as scenes are played behind it. Mr Ido comes home after work to find his house barricaded and himself surrounded by eager reporters. It transpires that Ogoro, a murderous criminal, has escaped from prison and is holding Mr Ido’s wife and son hostage. Ido is a peaceable man, but the ineptitude of the police and Ogoro’s refusal to enter into negotiations enrages him and he goes to Ogoro’s own house and takes his wife and son hostage in retaliation.

Ido takes over the role of husband and father in Ogoro’s house, and when Ogoro still refuses to cooperate, cuts off one of his son’s fingers and posts it to him (some neat work with pencils that nevertheless makes you wince). Ogoro responds with one of Ido’s son’s fingers. Ido sends another back, so does Ogoro, until there are no more fingers left. The play ends inconclusively with Ogoro’s wife and son dead and Ido preparing to cut off one of his own fingers.

The play is very much in the spirit of modern drama, and ‘theatrical’ in its best sense; that is, of the theatre. Not film or realistic telly drama, but suited to the demands of a stage, where realism can take a back seat. It’s highly stylised, with nods to Japanese Manga and Kabuki, and by turns funny, playful, shocking and beautiful, and it grips you from start to finish. Two images that remain with me are a family group eating noodles that are represented by elastic bands, and Ido sharing a bed with Ogoro’s wife and son on a stage littered with pink petals to the Humming Chorus from Madam Butterfly.

In the role-reversal tradition of Kabuki, Ido and Ogoro’s wife are played by female and male actors. It works well - Kathryn Hunt makes a very convincing Ido, and Hideki Noda is a delicate Wife. There are only four actors in the cast, so two have to double up a good deal, with considerable ingenuity. A play like this needs very strong direction, and as Noda does his own directing, you feel that everyone knows exactly what they’re doing.

I confess that the significance of the bee, which makes two brief ‘appearances’, eludes me, and there have been several speculations, but it’s probably symbolic of something. I’d be glad of enlightenment.

Further reading:
Noda Hideki
Discussion with Hideki Noda and Randy Gener on The Bee.