Monthly Archives: November 2013

Art and the Community

We had my mother to stay last weekend, and very nice it was too. Although she lives alone, she’s very happily ensconced where she is, with lots of friends and a very active social life. The concern for us is that she lives just a little too far away to be easily in reach. As she gets older – she’s in her late seventies now – the dilemma is whether it’s preferable for her to stay close to where her friends are, or else abandon the support network she’s built up over the years in favour of being closer to family members who can provide care on a day-to-day basis. It’s not an easy decision. If she were to move sooner rather than later, it would give her a better chance to make new friends in the community where we live, but even so, and as she’s very well aware, it won’t be the same.
Before she caught the train home, we visited the Beyond El Dorado exhibition at the British Museum which features a selection of the gold or gold alloy artefacts created by the indigenous peoples of Colombia before the arrival of European settlers at the end of the 15th century. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have gone if it had just been down to me, but I’m glad I did; it was exquisite. The quality of the craftsmanship was breath-taking and the detail, much of it so minute it could only really be appreciated with a magnifying glass, was incredible. Many of the objects were worn as ornaments in religious ceremonies – masks, breastplates, and nose and ear rings not dissimilar to many of those worn today. For me, the most impressive items, however, were the votive objects in the form of animals, lizards, snakes, bats and birds. These were used to channel the spirits of these creatures thus enabling religious leaders to assume their characteristics – or so it was thought.
What does the creation of art mean for a community? At its most basic, it enables sophisticated or cerebral ideas to be transmitted directly and viscerally to all members of the community ie via the emotions, without any need for the mediation of language. It facilitates the development of a common culture, usually rich in symbolism, which supports continuity and cohesion and can be passed down from one generation to the next, thus building a sense of identity and belonging. Above all, art endows a random, ineffable universe with meaning, bringing it within the compass of human understanding and enabling the community to interpret the past and plan for the future. Although there aren’t too many of us these days who express ourselves through the manufacture of highly crafted metalwork, the communitarian purpose of the indigenous South American people in producing their artefacts is identical to that of most creative artists today. Isn’t the point to try and reach beyond ourselves and find common meaning in our everyday experiences and in our reflections on reality as we perceive it?

On a different note, I wanted to wish a very happy Thanksgiving to all those celebrating it. Although we’ve imported a quite number of American traditions into Britain, Thanksgiving is yet to catch on here. Could it be because the thing the Pilgrim Fathers were most grateful for was the fact that they’d left our rain-soaked shores behind them forever? Perhaps it’s time to move beyond any sense of pique and embrace Thanksgiving; it’s good to count your blessings from time to time.

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Characters with minds of their own

The spouse, bless him, is inordinately pleased with himself for having successfully hung a pair of curtains at the weekend.  While undoubtedly a man of many talents – he is very much keeping the roof over our heads as I write – DIY isn’t exactly his thing.   Not that I’m in a position to cricitise; it isn’t my thing either.  There are at least a dozen niggling little jobs that need to be done about the house, which neither of us has quite got round to yet.  Part of me feels a bit resentful; I have an old-fashioned idea that the man of the house should be the one to concern himself with things like blocked gutters and unpolyfilled cracks.  However I concede that the quid pro quo of the sexual revolution is that there’s no earthly reason why I shouldn’t be the one to take on these chores. 

Generally speaking, I’m feeling kind of empty and aimless at the moment.  This is not surprising; it’s been a really intensive eighteen months and I’ve just finished re-writing my most recent feature length script.  Every time I take it up, I get sucked back into the world of that particular story – it’s set in Belfast – and I fall in love with my characters all over again.  After I’m done, it takes a bit of time to be able to disengage myself emotionally and move onto something new.  Do all writers fall in love with their characters?  I suspect it’s a necessary part of the creative process.  I need to feel deeply about the people I invent and identify with them completely for them to be successful.  The more I get involved in their lives, the more they start to spill out beyond the confines of the story and begin to assume an existence of their own.  Which is necessary.  At its most intense, it becomes an obsession to the point where I can barely think of anything else.  I’m not sure this is entirely healthy but it’s something I’ve always done. 

Periods of idle reflection are a crucial part of the process.  A state of mindlessness, when you’re not really thinking about anything at all can often turn out to be particularly fruitful.  I often find my characters start speaking to me when I’m embroiled in household chores.  Walking helps too.  We’re lucky enough to live on the edge of the city, with access to lots of green spaces.  I’m trying to get into the habit of walking every day even if it’s only for half an hour.  I know something new will come to me – there are several ideas that are beginning to emerge; it’s a question of waiting for the one that really grabs me.  It will then start to burgeon until it catches flame and grows into and beyond my imagination.

                 On the TV, I’m enjoying Masters of Sex, particularly Michael Sheen in the title role.  It’s not easy to carry off such an awkward, buttoned up character, one that’s deeply uncomfortable with any sort of emotion, and still make him relatable and moving.  The other characters are very engaging too especially the female ones; Lizzie Caplan as Virginia Johnstone, Caitlin FitzGerald as Libby Masters and above all, Allison Janney who plays the provost’s wife, Margaret Scully.   Yes, there’s a fair amount of nudity, but what really resonates is the way the programme explores the emotional rewards and costs of sexuality.

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Superstition

I’m not much of a one for spine-tinglers, so I was a tiny bit amazed when a fully formed horror story popped into my head a few days ago.  In fact a number of things I’ve written recently have turned out to be pretty dark.   It’s been a stressful few weeks – perhaps that’s what it is.  On the morning of Halloween, our son announced that he’d invited a bunch of friends over for an impromptu sleepover.  He’s of an age where he thinks it’s OK to organise such things himself, although it seems not to have occurred to him to mention his plans to his parents.  Or perhaps he’s cannier than I’m giving him credit for, and foreseeing a less than wholly enthusiastic response, decided to wait until it was too late to cancel.  It’s possible he thought we simply might not notice the extra bodies on his bedroom floor…  Anyway, a manic shopping spree ensued, during which egregious quantities of junk food – pizza, nuggets, pick ‘n mix – were acquired in order to placate this alien horde and  ward off any other baneful spirits that might decide to come along for the ride.  In the event it passed off without too much trauma, although the amiable host turned spookily grumpy the following morning when he realised he had to be up for early football practice. 

I’m a bit superstitious about Halloween; I don’t really like it that much.  I’m superstitious about other things as well even though I know full well it’s ridiculous.  Magpies are the worst – two or more are fine; one makes me anxious until the bad magic has spent itself in some way.  Spilling salt or breaking a mirror are to avoided at all costs.   Alexander Pushkin was no better, so I’m in good company.  Pushkin got worried if he saw the moon on his left side, and if a hare crossed the path of his horse, he’d stay indoors for the rest of the day. 

Or maybe it’s because the clocks have gone back, the evenings have drawn in and Christmas is peeking over the horizon.  Don’t get me wrong – I like Christmas.  Really I do.  It’s just we’ve reached that stage of the year when something has be done about it – presents chosen, cards bought, get togethers planned (who’s having Grandma this year?) and invitations tactfully negotiated.  The anxiety has started and the expense will soon follow.   Whoever decided on St Nicholas as the patron saint of Christmas made a mistake; the real saint of Christmas is almost invariably Mum.

                As well as organising the family festivities, I’m also hoping to polish up a screenplay, develop a couple of short scripts for colleagues at the film school and maybe even write something for radio.  I like the idea of creating something purely through the medium of sound, not least because it vastly opens up the possibilities with regard to period and setting.  If the story you want to tell is a lush period romance set in sixteenth century China, budget-wise it makes no odds if all that’s needed is a cunning confection of sound effects.  There are also a lot of drama slots on radio, opening up possibilities for new writers that simply aren’t there in TV, let alone on the big screen.    Time to put the kettle on and settle to it.

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