Monday, July 31, 2006

French leave

I am just snuggling down to watch Le Rayon Vert, one of the EIGHT Eric Rohmer films in a box set I picked up cheap at HMV in the West End. Rohmer's movies absorb you into a benevolent conspiracy; it's like you're sitting at the next table to those two lovers arguing in a Parisian cafe. I started with L'Ami de mon Amie (My Girlfriend's Boyfriend) last week, which is about nothing more than the title promises, but manages to raise all sorts of subtle moral dilemmas in the way we relate to others. That is Rohmer's genius. I won't review them right now, except to say that I feel like I just rediscovered a great bunch of friends. How on earth did we manage before DVDs?

Friday, July 28, 2006

Mean machine

How difficult can it be to purchase, stock and maintain a sweet-vending machine? We have one in our office next to the watercooler and the microwave, around which vile vapours swirl. There used to be a coffee machine, but it croaked after six months, all its arteries clogged. There's also a Coke machine which seems to be lurking uneasily waiting for customers.

Anyway, about this sweet-vending machine: I suspect the bean counters bought it as a reconditioned unit from the Seventies. The choc bars and other comestibles are inserted into metal coils. When you put your coins into the slot, the coils turn and slowly expel your chosen bar, which then falls a long way to land with a thump like a suicide in a kind of trough. You then have to rummage around in this filthy recess to find your bar which is, natch, broken. All this is on a good day. In practice, several odd problems tend to thwart the purchaser.

1. The person who packs the coils has a policy of using up the old stuff while pushing the latest overstocked items from the canteen. So if you want, say, a mint Aero, you may find the new stock queued up behind a plain brown Aero and, say, a Mars bar. WTF? as they say.

2. The machine has a mercurial disposition when it comes to accepting coins. One two-rand piece might be accepted, the next declined. And so on. Or it takes the money -- and doesn't record the fact ...

3. OK, let's say the conditions are right, your payment is registered in the little display, and the bar of your desiring is available at the front of the coil. You press the tit. The coil slowly unwinds like a satiated snake; and jams with your Aero poised above the chasm.

This is where it gets interesting. Some people swear and shoulder-charge the machine. Others try to shake loose their choc. This is sheer macho overreach; the machine weighs tons, apparently. Yet others bang on the glass. Nothing ever works. You have to get on the blower to the canteen manager.

You report that the machine has eaten your money but failed to deliver on its side of the bargain. After a couple of hours, she comes down and says: "Who was trying to get a green Aero?" You trot up, get the once-over and finally the machine is unlocked and you are given an Aero. If you haven't gone for lunch or died..

I say again: How difficult can it be to purchase, stock and maintain a sweet-vending machine? And hasn't the technology progressed at all in the past, say, 50 years?

Let us pray ...

That no one ever explains the problem here to the Christian Union bookshop chain.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Living with the enemy

I'm beginning to think that work stress is nothing to do with the actual work, and instead the result of spending eight or more hours a day in the company of people you can't stand. That's more time than I ever spent on average per day with my wife or partners, or even my daughter.

I keep my head down in the trenches these days, instead of succumbing to my instinct to go over the top with guns blazing. The last great battle resulted in a page editor fleeing the office in tears, a savage stand-up row with the chief sub, disciplinary charges, legal appeals and permanent no-speaks with the deputy editor.

There are several really annoying people in my office. The aforementioned chief sub is gratingly shrill under pressure, admits she has no life outside the office and really seems not to relate to other people or have any idea that they might have feelings of their own. Feelings are not her bag. My approach now is, to hell with it.

But an inexorable drip-drip of stress remains. Administered by a woman with whom I used to have regular bouts of snarling hand-to-hand fighting. Having inflicted a provocation or started an argument, her tactic was to keep up a rapid-fire defence of her position. Any attempt to respond was met with a loud "Let me finish!" So one could either insist on interrupting the flow or just take the medicine.

This year, a strange transformation took place. She started breezing in to work, greeting each colleague by name, inquiring as to their welfare, personal lives and tribulations (as a compulsive nosy parker with a line to the management). But it was obvious to me and everyone else that the insistent bonhomie was entirely insincere. Who whistles while they work, for God's sake? I find myself gritting my teeth as she inquires about my weekend or my health -- and the reason is that I know she doesn't care and dislikes me intensely. At first I assumed she was on some powerful mood drug or anti-depressant. But her approach reminded me of something: the techniques described in How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, the bible of Rotarians everywhere. Anyone who has read that know that it is a paean to insincerity, indeed falsity, from start to finish.

I think it's time I read Sun Tzu's Art of War.

PS: in case anyone thinks I have a problem working with women, it's simply a numerical disparity. My fellow senior colleagues are almost all women. And I enjoy professional relationships based on mutual respect with most of the others.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The show must go

I went to see a play by a bunch of amateurs at my local little theatre and was astounded at the high standard of performance. It was one of those really sharp bittersweet comedies about three sisters meeting in their mother's house prior to her funeral. It's played out in mom's bedroom with the coffin in the corner. This is a contemporary English play with very cutting, funny dialogue and superb characterisation. It was so superior to the fare we were reduced to in my amateur theatrical days that I am tempted to get involved again.

Then I remember the hotbed of sexual pursuit, jealousy and the brandishing of bigger egos than Tom Cruise that got into full swing after the latest play had been chosen (this process itself an orgy of political backstabbing that would have appalled Machiavelli). And the kind of plays we could afford or get permission for without royalty payment were fairly creaky.

I was lured in by a talented ingenue who subsequently became my wife. The marriage only had two acts, alas. My first role was as a police constable, Lewis to the Inspector Morse of a very bad ham actor called Jack who regarded learning lines as an irritating detail.

One night we did the play in a community centre without a set except for the furniture. "Draw the curtains, Nash," ordered the inspector, despite pre-performance approaches imploring him to omit the line. I knew I was made for the stage when I turned, very slowly and theatrically shrugged my shoulders, and drew imaginary curtains at the rear of the stage. Jack was comically disconcerted at the laugh that greeted this, since he hadn't seen the business. And my exit drew applause. I was hooked.

This play also featured a misfiring gun, a common nightmare for props people. The Hungarian playing an English lord in the shooting scene clicked the hammer a few times as he tried to put a bullet through Inspector Jack, and finally shouted "Bang!"

I read an anecdote somewhere about a more creative solution when this happened in the West End. The actor playing the victim engaged in a brief struggle, whispering to the wouldbe killer: "Kick me up the arse!" When the other obliged, he staggered back crying "Aaagh ... the toe of the boot ... was poisoned!" and fell to the floor.

In an Emlyn Williams play called Trespasses, I played an Italian medium called Saviello, who is basically a victim of his powers and at the climax of the play falls back dead in his chair during a seance. The curtain came swishing across the stage and closed, I started to leap from the chair ... and the stage manager at that moment, inexplicably, reopened the curtains. This early version of "corpse suddenly comes back to life for cheap scare" earned a shriek from the audience before I fell back, fully dead again. That's the beauty of stage cockups in the amateur scene: people think it's all part of the script.

Because I could do accents and was very intense , with a huge appetite for scenery-chewing, perhaps to do with the tradition of drinking port in the dressing room before the performance (I have never had port before or since), I got some pretty juicy parts: Danny the psycho in Emplyn Williams's Night Must Fall (he had a head in a hatbox), for which I did a South Wales accent, fell for my co-star, much to the chagrin of her husband, who expelled me from a rehearsal in his house ... and I nearly killed her in the climactic scene one night, as she made her entrance. I was supposed to have a chair aloft but stay my hand when I saw who it was. I lost my balance and the chair came down hard enough to brain her. Her terror had never been more convincing ... I got an offer to turn pro on the strength of that performance. How different my life could have been: sitting in the canteen at the Space theatre with all the other umemployed thespians swapping info about parts available in crowd scenes.

There was the sex farce Hot and Cold in All Rooms, about the various denizens of a boarding house. I was a south London car salesman, and got to do a love scene with the luscious landlady in my pyjamas. My wife, knowing my dedication to the Method, sewed the fly shut. She hadn't enjoyed living with Danny the psycho killer the last time out. There was a drunk scene in this play involving most of the younger members of the cast. We got drunker every night, until the occasion when I crashed into the scenery. I remember this play very fondly for a sex scene involving a beautiful wanton called Jo, who stripped to wispy undies as several of us watched from the wings. We enjoyed it, but it caused a bit of a stir in the small town where I lived.

Well, must dash. Have to find a performance piece for the audition. Trippingly off the tongue and all that.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Michaela and me

So my Pilates instructor is chatting away about the various shortcomings of life in South Africa as she painfully stretches my hammies, glutes and other innocent bits of string that hold me together. "I have this client Michaela who's a TV presenter and she says she loves it, but ---"

"Hang on, you mean Michaela Strachan?" I say, forgetting my pain.

"Yes, I didn't know she was anyone well known till I told my husband and he said she's FAMOUS," Justine giggles. "Elephant Diaries hadn't started by then. And you know what she told me?
She's allergic to elephants!"

Sadly, I'm not likely to meet Michaela because she goes to the posh Constantia studio and I go to the one near my house.

Justine has also stretched the glutes of Rutger Hauer, who she says is a really nice guy, and done some neck work on an actress (not famous)I saw in a play the other evening. I ought to pump her for blog fuel, but it isn't easy when you're crunching your abs.

Still, Pilates does bring you into contact with a better class of fitness fanatic.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Lays of Ancient Dave

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, been haunted by earworms of childhood chants and songs. They're particularly annoying because I only seem to remember snatches and opening phrases. Does anyone else know this one:

One fine day in the middle of the night
Two dead men got up to fight
Back to back they faced each other
Drew their swords and shot each other.

There may be more, but I can't recall. Another one goes:
"Ask your mother for sixpence
to see the big giraffe
with spots over his body
and pimples on his ---
ask your mother for sixpence ..."
and so on through the bestiary, skilfully avoiding the naughty rhyme.

Then there was the spiteful "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me ..." accompanied by a pinch.

My daughter and granddaughters all had rhythmic skipping chants, which I think are traditional and passed down from mother to daughter. They were fascinating, but I can't for the life of me remember any of them. Perhaps readers can?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Digging the dirt

I became a pornographer at 14. I am prompted to share this unappetising confession with my reader by the current moral panic in Britain (and isn't there always one?) over the pornification of the mainstream and how young minds should be protected from absorbing the objectification of women by putting Maxim on the top shelf, banning, etc.

The fact is that the more difficult it is for young lads to get hold of porn, the harder they will try (sorry) to obtain it. At 14, I was a member of the most sexually oppressed class of one of the most repressive countries in history. Sex, what was it like? I wondered feverishly, prefiguring a Monty Python character. Its very cloistering drove my sloshing hormones into great swells. Clearly, wanking, being freely available, had to be a very inferior substitute. I was ravenous. There was nothing for it but to write my own. Indeed, I believe my porn story was my first piece of creative writing, which tends to affirm the link between sexual repression (see Harold Bloom) and poetry, which I began writing at 15.

The tale of lust was, necessarily, almost entirely imagined, drawn from wild speculation and boasting in the schoolyard, my mother's bookshelf and so on. We were very backward at 14 then ... I showed my best friend this grubby effort, written on paper from a school exercise book, and he begged piteously to be allowed to keep it for a while. It was only by accident that a month or so later I discovered the class cynic had been flogging copies all around the school. It was my first experience of royalty theft.

The point is, even if you don't mention the porn, this mix of sexual hunger and verboten thrill will always have the young stalking through the undergrowth of libido. Purdah has precisely the reverse effect to what is intended. I think the Danes have it right. Get everything out in the open and exorcise the power of the porn industry, along with the appalling attitudes towards women that it promotes.

I am not referring here to the really disturbing trend of sexualising children with junior thongs and the like. That is altogether a different issue, one of amoral commercial exploitation aided by parents so desperate to be thought cool (which they cannot be) that they have abandoned common sense.