Monthly Archives: March 2012

I Know I am English When The Sun Stops Me From Writing.

I know I’m English when the sunshine stops me from writing.

Actually, I will go further than that, I am originally from Manchester and grew up suffering from good weather poverty.  It didn’t seem that bad to me at the time until I started travelling with my job. When I told people where I was from, they replied with either – Ah Manchester United or Oh, it always rains there.  It did occur to me when I spent a lot of time in the South of England that they had a much better weather deal.  I won’t even mention travelling into France, Italy and Spain – their weather starts a tick off in my face.  When I read of fellow bloggers from California mentioning their weather, a strange noise emerges from my throat not unlike that of a strangled cockerel.

Okay, so you are now in the position to understand that when the sunshine comes out I do a little skip and want to rush outside in a rather undignified manner.  Toddlers queuing up for a turn on a slide show more decorum that I do but I don’t really want to go into that at the moment.  What I do want to address is why I don’t take my laptop outside and work there.  I know that anyone reading this must be thinking – I really don’t see your problem – just work outside.

 

The problem is that I live in a rural English village which is full of menaces.  Think Miss Marple mixed with Midsomer Murders and you are nearly there.  The first menaces are the bell ringers.  There is nothing more glorious than the sound of church bells, particularly if the church is both historic and beautiful.  The church at the side of me is both.  However, I am positive that there is a gaggle of bell ringers (I don’t know the term for bell ringers on mass – but this sounds apt) spying on me.  I think they hide up the trees and make strange bird noises to each other.  The message being  - “Ha ha, she thinks she can write in the garden.”   It is amazing how having church bells ringing next to me stops me from writing and make my eyes bulge.  In fact, it prevents me from doing anything. If any bell ringers read this, I adore you except when I’m trying to write in the garden!

If the bell ringers are not out to get me, then the wild life is.  My garden backs onto the garden of Geronimo the cockerel and his harem.  Geronimo is huge and has vocal chords to prove it.  I think that the worst part of him  is that he is sly, unbelievably sly for a bird.  (It has just occurred to me that maybe he isn’t a bird and is an alien from another planet.  I wouldn’t be surprised.)  He is sly because he lulls me into a false sense of being able to write.  I will sit and listen, nothing – all is calm – all is perfect.  I am feeling serene as I lift my cup of coffee and stare at the screen.  Like the bird assassin that he is – his strangulated shriek makes me shudder and spill the coffee.  All is silent – it’s as if he knows he has hit his target.

Last spring was glorious.  We had warm weather and the pink blossoms on the trees were truly beautiful.  It was all so perfect, that like a fool I thought I would work in the garden.  I had the laptop on the table and as it was early morning a bowl of Weetabix and prunes in my hand.  My cup of coffee was sitting next to the laptop and I believed that all was a haven of calm.  I do not know why I ever think that because it is almost as if some meddling Puck from Midsummer’s Dream is messing with my thoughts.  The churchyard has lots of squirrels which the local cats are fascinated by.  The squirrels are always in and out of my garden.  My spoon was just reaching my mouth when I heard a kerfuffle and a loud rustling noise.  I looked above my head to see a squirrel being hotly pursued by Mildred, The Laboratory cat.  As I looked up, I thought it had started snowing. My bowl of Weetabix became covered in pink petals off the blossom tree.  I sighed and reached for my coffee, only to see it in the same state of disarray.  The rumpus between puss and squirrel had obviously caused the shower.

So there you have it, I have given up trying to write in the sunshine.  It is too risky.  The only problem is that when the sun comes out,  I don’t know how long it will last and so I sometimes drop everything and join the menaces outside.

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How Drama Classes Give Teenagers Work Experience.

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

(As You Like It)

Last weekend, I watched the same rock musical for three nights running.  It was performed by a group of teenagers and children who are participating in Connections – a theatre festival/competition run by The National Theatre.  The National Theatre commissions ten new plays each year for Connections.  This year 180 theatre groups are taking part.  Each group performs locally and then performs at one of The National Theatre’s partner theatres around the country.  Eventually, ten groups are chosen to perform their play at the National Theatre in London.  Over the course of the weekend, I noticed how being in the production was similar to being in the workplace and how it could be classed as work experience for those taking part.

I constantly hear news items about how companies cannot employ teenagers because they haven’t got any experience in the workplace.  This gets me annoyed and I write articles about how great teenagers are to work with.  However, we cannot get away from the fact that teenagers need work experience.  It does not take a brain surgeon to work out that whilst school provides an education, it generally does not provide much work experience.  It cannot be expected to do everything.

One of the main differences between being at school all day and being at work is the timetable.  In school, teenagers might do Maths for 70 minutes, English for 70 minutes and P.E. for 35 minutes.  At work we might spend three full days doing the same activity over until we get it right.  Teenagers will experience this in a drama production.  I have no connections with a drama school; I am the parent of a teenage boy who attends weekly classes.  I am stating this to demonstrate that I am writing this purely as part of my mission with Loony Literature.  Over the course of the weekend, the teenagers spent eleven hours rehearsing plus four hours performing.  This was in addition to endless, weekly rehearsals.  I was astonished by the improvement in each performance I saw.  This is wonderful work experience for any teenager.

Confidence affects every decision we make.  Being a teenager can be a roller coaster of conflict as we agonise about our appearance and whether anyone finds us even a bit attractive.  For teenagers,  confidence is paramount, it affects their belief that they can pass examinations; it affects their career choice and their social standing.  No one wants to be a wall flower.   Being involved in a drama class insidiously installs confidence.  When I saw those teenagers singing and acting in such a positive and forceful manner, I knew that unless those kids weren’t 100% sure of themselves in that production, they would not have completely let go – they would have appeared reserved.  People who are not entirely comfortable in their parts can be seen to be acting; people who are entirely comfortable in their parts seem to be the truthful representation of what they are portraying.   It then occurred to me that this confidence came from being proud of their product – their product being themselves.  I cannot imagine a better tool to be equipped with when starting in the workplace.  We’ve all seen how the painfully shy teenager can appear bad mannered because he/she is too embarrassed to speak amongst older people and strangers.  Drama classes give the teenager the work experience which in turn gives them confidence to be social in a work environment.

On the first night of production, the bulb went in the changing area.  At this moment, my son and one of the girl actors had to do a quick costume change.  Unfortunately, the girl actor could not find her costume.  There was intense panic as both my son and the young lady in question scrambled around in the dark looking for the outfit.  It was nowhere to be found.  As they came out onto the stage, I remember thinking what a strange costume the actress was wearing – it looked a bit like an underskirt.  When I heard the story later, I roared with laughter.  The point is that the young woman had the confidence to go out and carry on with the show.  She also knew that this wasn’t like school where everything could be stopped whilst the costume was found; this was like work and many people were depending upon her.

Being part of a drama production teaches being a team player.  This is imperative in the work place.  Being a team player means being able to work closely with people both younger and older than yourself.  Often, when in schools, because of the vast numbers of pupils, children tend to work mostly with other children of exactly the same age.  It is often a shock to find that we are the only young person in the office when we get our first work experience.  Going to drama classes means an eleven year old will often work closely with a fourteen year old and an eighteen year old.  They get used to being with kids of different ages – it is like the workplace – age is of no consequence – the important bit is that you are a team player.

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Introducing children to Shakespeare by using insults.

Thou art a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three suited, hundred pound, filthy, worsted stocking knave…” (King Lear)  I hope, dear reader, you don’t think I am referring to you.   Perish the thought, no, I simply wanted to grab your swan-like neck and swing it in my direction.  I don’t want to insult you but I do want to talk about insults and how they can be used to help children be comfortable with Shakespeare’s plays.

 Children love Shakespeare if they are introduced to his works properly.  Unfortunately, what should be an exciting journey with The Bard often becomes painful, embarrassing and boring.  I say painful, embarrassing and boring because if the background work is not done, Shakespeare’s language can seem unapproachable.  It then becomes embarrassing because the learner feels stupid.  We all know that feeling when something seems to be definitely “not for us”, we cut off and it becomes boring.  I am a great believer, therefore, of priming children with Shakespeare’s works well before they reach the teenage years.  Children who have been introduced to the stories   (it is important that children know what is happening in story form well in advance of reading a full blown play) and aspects of the language are ready to read one of Shakespeare’s plays.  It is thoughtless to expect teenagers who haven’t grown up in a literary atmosphere or a book loving household to embrace a sixteenth century play without any former grounding.  Fundamentally, I cannot stress the importance of introducing children to Shakespeare in a child friendly manner.

This is where insults are invaluable.  I first came across this exercise whilst doing a day long workshop with The Royal Shakespeare Company.  It was used as a warming up exercise to allow everyone to relax and clear out those dreadful inhibitions we can suffer from.  Everyone is given a piece of card with an insult written on it.  It can be something like this quotation from King Lear:

Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.

Elizabethan music can be played whilst everyone swiftly marches or skips around the room.  When the music stops you turn to the nearest person to you and shout your insult out at the top of your voice.  They then shout their insult back at you.  The next time, it can be whispered in a sly manner. In essence, the insults can be said in many different ways e.g. angrily or with uncontrollable laughter. It is a very good drama exercise. The insult cards can then be changed around.  Incidentally, children, teenagers and adults love this as they are actually allowed to use insults without getting into trouble – it has that naughty, delicious edge to it which allows us to let off steam and then gives us the desire to learn.  It also gives Shakespeare a bit of street cred before he gets the label of boring.

As children love to be creative, I have added an activity so that they can create the insults themselves.

Activity

They need to take an insult from the first two sections below (both of these are adjectives) and then add it to the third section which is a noun.  Add ‘thou’ at the beginning and you have a lovely Shakespearean insult.

Section 1 – base, proud, shallow, beggarly, bawdy, filthy, coward, paunchy, gorbellied, puking, droning, dankish.

Section 2  worsted-stocking, pigeon-egg,  boil-brained, onion-eyed, elf-skinned, trunk-inheriting, clapper-clawed, milk-livered, lily-livered, doghearted, hundred-pound.

Section 3 knave, rogue, bladder, bugbear, pribbling, flap-dragon, boar-pig, barnacle, apple-john, maggot-pie, coxcomb.

For instance – Thou filthy, boil-brained boar-pig.

For any children who particularly enjoy the insults, I love Elizabethan insults so much that I have them all the way through my book Will Blyton and The Stinking Shadow.  Will finds Hamnet, a small boy trapped in a stone, who unfortunately hurls insults every time he opens his mouth.  He is, of course, from the Elizabethan period and has had a curse put upon him by the evil, Elizabethan magician Corpsehound.  His outrageous insults get Will into trouble everywhere he goes.

“Leave me be, thou fetid, old skanky breath,” says Hamnet.

 

So thou base, clapper-clawed rogue – I’m sorry it’s become a habit.  What I really mean is “until we meet again, dear reader.”

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My Frankenstein Diary 8 – A Creative Writing Journal

        How writing sometimes makes me tell lies.

In recent diary entries, I have told of creating The Laboratory to work in and building monsters.  All this has been done to encourage people to embrace more creative reading and writing.  In earlier entries, I have spoken of promoting our writing and the problems we can come up against.  In this entry, I want to explore another problem of creativity – as writers, actors, artists and film makers we don’t always appear “normal”.  I know being “normal” is truly subjective but in this instance, I am talking about fitting in with a more traditional world.  Should we tell white lies to fit in with a traditional society?

When I was building The Laboratory, I needed lots of black, satin material to drape onto walls and over screens.  Being a mistress of the diminishing budget, I duly set off to a market in the city centre to see what was on offer.  A very nice material stall was sitting waiting for me in one corner of the market.  Problem solved – or so I thought.  When I asked the very nice lady for the black, satin material, she had, goodness knows, many different types to choose from.  I pondered and rubbed my chin and was totally thwarted.  It was at this point that the very nice lady asked the question.  “What do you want it for?”  Without thinking, I told her all the about The Laboratory and the monsters.  Her eyebrows danced and her top lip twitched frantically as she tried not to burst out laughing.  I could not let the poor woman suffer so I told her that it was okay to have a smirk and a guffaw.  So she did.  This example makes me want to be honest with people.

In one of my earlier diary entries, I mentioned having dreadfully bad pain in my left arm, shoulders and neck, because of this I see a physiotherapist.  The problem with doing something slightly unusual is that when people have no idea what we do, when we are talking to them, we forget that they know nothing of our slightly unusual lives and the slice of what we give them can often sound rather unsavoury.  The lady who I go to see asked me if I was having any trouble with my hands.  I told her that my hand was uncomfortable when I had to change the trousers of my monster and it was difficult tucking his shirt in.  The silence which followed was loud enough to stop me babbling out an incoherent explanation.  At that point, I started to discuss possible rain in the afternoon.  This example makes me cringe as I remember the ear splitting silence I suffered.

Sometimes, however, we simply cannot hide our creativity.  Last week, all my electricity went off.  I telephoned the electric company and it seemed that it was internal.  I would need an electrician.  Late afternoon, two electricians turned up in their van.  One was the expert, the boss, and trailing behind him was the teenage assistant who had a marvellous grin.  We did a tour of the house looking for the problem.  I knew, that at some point, these two chaps were going to have to step into The Laboratory.  I opened the door and followed them in.  The main man turned into a statue.  The teenager burst out laughing and turned to look at his boss who was simply frozen on the spot because he was trying not to show any emotion.  He quickly muttered something about someone having some sort of mask.  It was so charming because he was trying to act as though he encountered The Laboratory in every house he visited so as not to embarrass me.  I get the feeling though that I was probably the topic of conversation over the evening meal and at the pub that night.

On Tuesday, I will be at the hairdressers.  My hairdresser asks every client at some point – I think when the conversation is faltering –  “And what will you be doing with the rest of your day?”  Time and time again, I hear –“Oh nothing exciting, just housework.”  When he asks me what l will be doing with the rest of my day, I shall reply “putting some washing in and a bit of vacuuming.”  In reality, I will be dressing up as Dracula to make a Loony Literature video.  I am now wondering, if everybody else in the hairdressers keeps their true intentions under wraps and are up to all sorts of things.  It is definitely something I shall be thinking about.  However, as for whether we should always be honest about our creativity, I am not sure whether the world is always ready for us.  What do you think?  I would love to hear of other peoples’ funny experiences because of their writing, acting, painting or film making.

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Will Blyton – The Alternative Detective Part Four

Mr Hyde, from the Boris Death room, gets a shock when he sees himself in the mirror. Find out what Will Blyton decides when he develops the photographs from Boris Death’s old house.

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Loony Literature Holds a Party for Charles Dickens.

Loony Literature is holding aparty for Charles  Dickens.  Sadly, it all goes wrong.

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Let’s Talk About Frankenstein (2) – Walton’s First Three Letters.

In the introductory post, I offered the hypothesis that “Frankenstein” (1) was a letter written by the teenage Mary Shelley to her dead mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.  I suggested that Shelley had written herself as Frankenstein with her mother Wollstonecraft as the monster.  It occurred to me that Shelley wanted her dead mother to understand how it felt to be an abandoned child.  It could be suggested that this hypothesis is flawed because we start the text with the explorer, Walton and his sister, Margaret Saville.  However, if we reason that Shelley is the mother of sci fi; I think we can safely expect her to have fluidity in her writing.  Even though she was writing in the early 1800s, Shelley was not bound by convention.  As her main character Frankenstein was a scientist, an experimenter, so Shelley embraced investigation in her writing.   I think that Shelley explores her communications with her dead mother throughout the text in a theatrical way.   The characters change their costumes and become someone else.   Hence, in the beginning, we are introduced to Walton the explorer and his sister Margaret Saville who are simply Shelley and Wollstonecraft, respectively.

In this post, I will explore how my hypothesis fits with the beginning of the book when we read Walton the explorer’s first three  letters to his sister, Mrs Saville.   Mrs Saville has been left at home whilst her brother has exciting adventures.  It is a typical 18th century scenario.  The male has inherited the family fortune and is off proving his masculinity whilst his sister sits at home waiting for his correspondence.  As the daughter of the first feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, it is easy to see how the text could be perceived as a bit tongue in cheek.  However, as I am reading the letters  as  letters  from Mary Shelley to Mary Wollstonecraft, they can be viewed another way.

As I suggested earlier, Mary Shelley has depicted herself as Walton whilst her dead mother is the sister Mrs Saville.  Mary was a teenager when she penned Frankenstein, Walton is an explorer.  The teenage years are when young people try many things for the first time.  In other words, teenagers are explorers.

It is obvious that Shelley both loved and mourned her mother – she would read on her grave.  In Frankenstein, she has placed Mrs Saville in the home.  The sense of Mrs Saville being tied to her domestic quarters is obvious, so distinct in fact, that it suggests the home we never leave – the coffin.  The sub text is sly; it is similar to having a rag of ether placed over your face whilst you are unaware of it.  In other words, it creeps up on you insidiously but once you are conscious of it, it is obviously there.  The message is loud and clear to the dead mother – “Look at me, this is living.  Look at what you are missing by abandoning me.”  Fundamentally, the first letter is all about bravado –”I am an explorer of life and you are tied to the domesticity of the grave.”

When we read the second letter there is a huge change of mood.  The teenager who has bragged, strutted and portrayed herself as a complete adult returns to the isolation of a toddler missing her parents.  Shelley as Walton laments her loneliness.  Even though there are many men aboard the ship, Walton suffers from a sense of alienation.

“I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no-one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection.” (2)

Letter three is a short missive.  Walton does not speak of personal matters.  He merely discusses the weather.  However, in the last paragraph he tells Margaret that he will “not rashly encounter danger.  I will be cool, persevering and prudent.” (3)   I would strongly suggest that this is Shelley writing to the dead Wollstonecraft.   She is telling her that although she is embarking on a voyage of motherhood, she can and will look after herself.   The message is ambivalent.  It partly consoles the mother that she doesn’t need to worry about her daughter.  Contrastingly, it also says that she has had to learn to steer her own vessel onto safe waters because the captain jumped ship.

Shelley is a mistress of signposts.  We have to be vigilant when we read her.  She throws small clues into the text which the eye might skim over.  A good example of this is the way Walton has signed the first three letters to his sister.  They are signed – Your affectionate brother, R. Walton; Your affectionate brother Robert Walton and Most affectionately yours, R.W.  (4)  By signing each letter differently, Shelley is depicting changes in Walton’s moods.   Fundamentally, the changes in Walton’s moods are a teenage girl’s conflicting emotions towards the dead mother she is desperate to communicate with.

Notes.

  1. Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein 1818 text.

(Oxford World’s Classics.)

  1. ‘ibid; p.8
  2. ‘ibid’,p.11
  3. ‘ibid’ p.8,p11.

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My Frankenstein Journey 7 – A Creative Writing Journal

In previous entries I have written about creating The Laboratory, two monsters and writing a play.  All of this has been inspired by Mary Shelley and Frankenstein.  I have also talked about promoting my children’s book Will Blyton and The Stinking Shadow.  To promote the book I had written some of Will Blyton’s diary entries from before the book starts – a type of prequel.  It seemed to me that if I was going to get the children interested in The Stinking Shadow, perhaps I had to film some of the diaries and put it on Youtube.  It was going to be so easy.  A little dramatic irony there –In this post, I look at some of the problems we encountered whilst filming.

Problem 1.

The first problem was the constraints of continuity.  The book was inspired by my son.  The same son also acts; therefore it was going to be even easier.  It is only when we have convinced ourselves that certain undertakings are going to be like a perfect day that we remember that it doesn’t exist.  For instance, boys grow into teenagers.  The most obvious continuity problem was that my son’s voice has become too deep for a twelve year old’s voice.  However, as well as giving my son work experience, I wanted him to be involved specifically because of his age.  In other words, I have no doubt that kids learn from other kids.  I have watched children work together and learn together – kids often pay more attention to what older children are saying than they do to adults.  So even though my son’s voice is too deep for the character of Will Blyton, I still approve it because the main aim of these videos is to inspire children to read and write more.  I think that boys (9-12) watching a teenager involved in something like Loony Literature will be inspired themselves.  I hope that it will help them see that reading, writing, filming, in fact, any sort of creativity is both fun and fulfilling.

Problem 2

Another problem was lack of experience in certain endeavours.  As I said, my son acts.  He has passed acting exams with Distinction and performed live in front of audiences many times.  However, he hasn’t got experience in front of a camera.  It would seem, I expect, to most of us, that if you act, you act – it should not matter whether there is a camera there or not. For the strangest reason, initially we were both incredibly self-conscious.  Years ago, I was filmed for exams performing both Chekhov and Brecht – I don’t remember feeling self-conscious simply because it was being filmed. Therefore, I can only put the current self consciousness  down to lack of  experience and recent practise.

During the first three diary entries, my son seemed quiet and lethargic.  As I have watched him perform and listened to monologues for exams many times, I thought it was because he had outgrown Will Blyton.  Today as we have been filming the fourth diary entry, his sparkle has resurfaced.  When I told him this, he said it was because he wasn’t used to being filmed. The more he does it, the more comfortable he is becoming in front of the camera.

These insights seem obvious as I write them but when we are living experiences, it is always easy to be wise in hindsight.  I  would say, therefore, to anyone in the arts, if we try something in our field which is slightly different, we must not be put off if we don’t appear to be successful at first.  Keep writing, keep acting and film making – hard work will always improve whatever it is we are trying to achieve.

Problem 3

A major constraint when not filming in a studio is lack of equipment.  In this case, it was not having an autocue.  Normally, when my son is acting he learns his lines. However, as we are moving through scripts quickly and he has lots of other things to do, I don’t feel as if I can expect him to learn everything off by heart.  The problem, therefore, was how could I film someone reading narrative without their head being stuck in a book?

The first solution was to have the text on a laptop in front of him.  The problem with that however, is that The Stinking Shadow is set in 1974 and we could not film without the laptop being seen.  I decided to enlarge the text and print it up.  It then occurred to me to stick it on a board.  As I looked around the room, I noticed the box which one of my painted screens had been packed in.  It is about one foot wide and five feet tall.  If I put it lengthways, I could stick the text all along it.  It probably looks an effort but it works.

Problem 4

If all else fails to put us off filming our fiction the thought that the world wants to sabotage our efforts will surely mean that the camera lens stays closed for good.  The tiniest thing can sabotage filming our work.  Mildred, The Laboratory cat, becomes unbelievably mischievous when we are filming. The first day we were filming Will Blyton’s diaries, my son was in his seat reading from the board and I had the camera.  The next moment, I heard one almighty screech and my son had catapulted from his chair.  Mildred had been hidden underneath the table and had dived at his nether regions. Today, she grabbed me around the back of my leg whilst in the middle of filming. For a moment, I thought I was being attacked.   I think she has designs on being in the videos herself.

Swat the obstacles

The main reason I write this journal is to, hopefully, give other people inspiration and ideas.  So even though all this probably sounds like an awful time – it isn’t.  It is truly wonderful.  To prove it, I am now off to dress up once more as Mr Hyde (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) to film another Will Blyton – The Alternative Detective Diary.

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