Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall

I went to see Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall, the first of what was for him a three night stretch and his first time at the venue since the chaos tour of 1966. My friend and I walked into the venue at 7:30pm and the speakers were already announcing that he was coming on stage in 5 minutes. So, a few minutes after we took our stalls seats, on Dylan was - like another world appearing in this one and it's an odd adjustment to make, because it's Dylan and there's so much history and, if you're a devoted follower of Bob (I confess I am) a heap of an intensely personal relationship with the artist's work. It doesn't make sense coming from work and the tube and the pub and the street and seeing him, this glorious anomaly, up there sharing time and space with me.

He seems to know this, as the first few songs establish the reminder of where you are - in his world - from the off. He's in the Albert Hall for the first time since he was being booed in the UK and he begins with "I used to care but things have changed". It's not the greatest version of the song he's ever played (although it doesn't slack) but the chorus reinforces who he is, what he's done, what this place means, where we've all gone in the meantime. The second number She Belongs to Me pulls us solidly into the whole strange mystery of what he does - it can't be put into any other words or context than what we have here in our ears and eyes; the song admits that the singer doesn't know what this muse that sings to and through him is but it's happening and he's opening the door to it again. By the time he's singing Beyond Here Lies Nothing, he's seduced me into thinking "well, he's right - what is there outside this world that gets created when he sings this stuff" - he's singing for his audience and tempting us to see that
"I love you pretty baby
You're the only love I've ever known
Just as long as you stay with me
The whole world is my throne"
And just as if he's casting a spell which seems to be just about Bob Dylan, one performer and the audience he's wooed and won the gate fully opens and there's an entry point here to the truth that beyond what any of us create from our sharing our love, there's nothing.

The past few times I've seen him I've been struck by how, physically, Bob Dylan on stage is this compendium of weird gestures and stances. There are these odd ways of standing, these strange and ersatz gesticulations, this way of playing the audience and holding the mic stand which brings to mind a kaleidoscope giving glimpses of lounge singers, minstrels, vaudevillians, Vegas showmen, silent film clowns, starlets, melodrama hams, 50s pop stars - all these crazy collective memories of what a popular performer does on a stage. It's like he's so totally performing for us that he's a old time performer - he can't be described of doing anything natural - and so this ironizes the whole performance of Bob Dylan and we're watching a legend consciously perform as an old pro. Coming from anyone else, the gestures and stances might be cod or clichéd or dated but coming from Dylan they're done with a wink, a sense of "aw, shucks, y'know how important I am and and you're going to let me get away with this." Dylan has always been sophisticated theatre games.

He plays a fair bit of piano (zero guitar, which is sometimes on/sometimes off these days - is it a choice or is the arthritis playing up?). Watching him at the old Johanna, I had this vision of how this is that kid from Duluth, Bobby Zimmerman, who wanted to be Little Richard and did a spell on the keyboards with Bobby Vee's touring band way back in the late 1950s under the name Elston Gunnn. Zimmerman, Gunnn, Dylan, Blind Boy Grunt - all these ghosts playing in that shell up there on stage and brought to life. A ghost machine that can scare you it'll psychotically Pay in Blood, make you swoon with over some gorgeous Simple Twist of Fate, remind your Forgetful Heart of how you used to be and lull you into a false sense of things having become a too diluted Spirit on the Water before the the mask is changed again you realise that that this is just another tease:
"You think I'm over the hill
You think I'm past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin' good time."

Near the end of the set - which was pretty heavily drawn from recent material with only two 60s, two 70s, one 80s number and the rest from the last decade and a half, to emphasis that this is most definitely not nostalgia - the man who'd begun by wooing us and reminding us of our affair with him performs a killer version of the recent Long and Wasted Years; it's a bitter lament of a man who has some time ago fallen out of love with his partner and reflects on the bad time they've for quite some time together through their life (and now it's, it is hinted, the Apocalypse). Dylan performs this centre stage, the giant organ of the Albert Hall lit ostentatiously above him; the sound is 50s dragged up like glam and the drum punch stops to the song crack the mind before we're dragged out of each halt by the winding guitar. Dylan barks the lyrics at us and jolts as if he's a Jerry Lee Lewis zombie electronically revivified. At the close, he snarls "so much for these long and wasted years." The song stops and the concert comes to its formal end. He's gone from the stage and the effect is shocking - as if he's got us here, seduced us, played with us and then suddenly turned on us, broke up with us and finally walked out. It's daring and thrilling and not something you expect from someone who, if he were anyone else of a similar stature, would be either preserved in aspic or telling us how much he loves us all. It's both not what I excepted at all but there again, of course, exactly the kind of moment I expect Bob Dylan to deliver.

This Tempest storming out is, of course, another trick of this particular Prospero's. He's soon back on, playing an encore consisting of a killer psychedelic All Along the Watchtower and the elegiac Roll on John. He's show that he's still a conjurer to be reckoned with and his staff ain't broke, there's still a whole lot of shaking going on.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Henry VI, Shakespeare's primer in History

Shakespeare's Globe are currently offering audiences the relatively rare opportunity to see all of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays over one day, either at the Globe itself or on tour (including some Wars of the Roses battlefields). The plays add up to an extraordinary theatrical experience, being a kind of primer to History through Shakespeare's eyes. Shakespeare later returned to History in his Henry IV and Roman plays which are more sophisticated in terms of structure, language and character. Yet there is something raw and elemental about the Henry VI plays which makes me wish that they were better known and performed more often. A full day contemplating an Elizabethan contemplation of English History is a day well spent.

It is probable that what is now known as Henry VI Part 1 is the latest of the plays, first performed after the success of Parts 2 and 3. The play isn't really about the Wars of the Roses, being what we'd now term a prequel. The play's main focus is on the loss of France by the English nobility, as Henry V's victory at Agincourt is undone by an insurgency led by the French Dauphin and other nobles, assisted mightily by a woman whom we now know as Saint Joan of Arc but in Shakespeare's time was considered by the English as a witch and called Joan La Pucelle. The French are given a run for their money by the occupying English Army led by Lord Talbot. This French story is interspersed with scenes showing the beginning rumbles of York's rebellion, what was to become the Wars of the Roses back in England.

Talbot is the most striking character in Part 1. He is a kind of archetype of the loyal soldier, completely brilliant on the battlefield, absolutely sure-footed tactically but ultimately betrayed by his superiors in the English Army, whose squabbles lead to him being denied reinforcements in a key battle (Castillon) and the ensuing loss of his life (alongside his son, John). Shakespeare (and his collaborators) take some liberties with the actual history in this portrait but this allows them to create a rich and resonant character; Talbot is not very different from the contemporary British soldier in Iraq who loses his life because he was denied the proper equipment by slippery politicians who have their own concerns back home. Of course, Talbot does not question the war itself. In Talbot's brave, forlorn death we see (when the plays are performed in historical sequence) Shakespeare's History claiming its first victim. A man who lives by the sword dies by the sword, whatever the morality of the battle or sense of patriotic duty he is performing under, Talbot's reward is death. It is a death which involves the extinguishing of the life of another member of his family, whose demise makes Talbot's all the more personally painful. Howard Barker says ""...the experience of history is an experience of pain; the words are interchangeable" and the Henry VI plays are very much a pageant of pain.

The England-set scenes in Henry VI Part 1 snake around the French scenes, sowing seeds for the later civil war. The important thing here is that those seeds have been planted before the action happens, with the deposition of Richard II and the usurpation of the throne by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV); Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York discovers that he has a legitimate claim to the throne, albeit by such a tortuous lineage that the explanation of it brought floods of laughter from the Globe audience. More than one critic has linked these plays with Aeschylus' Oresteia and there is a strong sense in which they, like much of Greek tragedy, show the workings of fate and the payment for past sins, which might lay dormant but fester until they erupt. There is a warning here – don't let anybody think they've got away with anything, as Time working through History continually brings the past to knock on the present's doors. And, Shakespeare being as Biblical an author as he was Greek, we see the sins of the fathers visited on future generations.

There were some unfortunate cuts in the Globe's productions, understandable in practical terms but still losing some of the point of the play. An early scene (Part 1 Act 2, Scene 3) featuring the Countess of Auvergne attempting to trap Lord Talbot through means of sorcery and enchantment. In itself, it adds little to the onward motion of the narrative – but taken together with Joan's use of sorcery to battle the English and Margaret of Anjou (albeit unwittingly) enchanting the Earl of Suffolk towards the end, there is a strong sense that underneath the use of force is an attempt to use dark and irrational forces (be they devilish or simply of the body and beauty) to influence the game. It is as if Shakespeare is acknowledging that men, power and weapons are not all that there is. This theme continues throughout the trilogy, with the downfall of the Duchess of Gloucester in Part 2, the evolution of Margaret of Anjou into a veritable Deborah of the Lancastrian side throughout to the prolongation of the War of the Roses caused by Edward IV's marriage to Lady Grey in Part 3. Desire and seduction have their role to play in History but in the Henry VI plays, desire is always dragged tomb-wards by events.

The Globe programme makes much of the fact that the plays were not written as a sequence and their titles were not, initially, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3. Only Part 1 originally had that King's name in it's title (Harry the Sixth), ironically I presume given the play is largely about the loss of the lands the more popular Harry the fifth won. Henry VI barely appears in Part 1, and when he does he is a callow youth - yet his character is nicely set up: he prefers books and study to public life, even shrinking initially at the idea he has to marry someone. Some read the plays as a dire warning against the centre of power being weak and vacillating but Henry seems to me to be more an emblem of a sensitive human being caught in History's web; History is unsparing even of those who don't take up the sword, and sometimes a man's birth drags him onto History's field of horror. 

Part 1 is very much a play with a central story (the battles in France) with a sub-plot (the enmity between the Houses of Lancaster and York) snaking through it. Part 2 (originally The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster) is much more a play of two halves. In the first three Acts (The Globe wisely has Part 2's interval at the close of Act Three), we see mostly men of influence interacting in interiors. These are very much scenes set in the corridors of power and much of the action is through talk; yet violence is an ever-present subtext of the talk and the first half of the play ends with the bringing down of the King's Protector, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Alongside Talbot, Gloucester is about the only character in the plays who offers anything like a positive image of a statesman. Early in Part 2, Gloucester is tempted by his Lady Macbeth-lite wife to usurp the throne, he being the next in line for the Lancastrian claim after Henry VI. He refuses to countenance this and we see that he, like Talbot, is a man for whom duty is more important than personal ambition. It is telling that, in the three plays as a historical sequence, the first major characters on the English side to be brought down to death are Talbot and Gloucester, the only two political animals who have duty as a spur. Shakespeare's monster History devours those most likely to offer loyalty and stability first, in order to open up its chaotic mouth. Yet is Gloucester good? In a scene cut from the Globe production, he has a couple of con-artist paupers flogged soundly – the kind of Shakespearean scene which is likely to give a left-liberal audience qualms. Shakespeare doesn't here question have anyone question the rightness of such rough justice (as Lear does in his mad scenes) and so the scene stands as an emblem of good social justice which potentially undermines itself to some audiences. The political Shakespeare of the Henry VI plays is, as far as I can see, a social conservative who extols patriotic duty, the strong arm of the law, strong and non-vacillating government.

Once Gloucester is out of the way, the contest for the throne begins in earnest and things fall apart. The consequences of the alliances and disagreements and decisions in the corridors of power are seen in the blood spilled in the open air of public spaces. The second half of Part 2 is, in contrast to the first's interiors, almost all exterior scenes of riot and battle. First, York prompts Jack Cade's rebellion (an Elizabethan conspiracy theory, if there ever was one) and, that being put down, the first battle of the Wars of the Roses takes place. It is worth pausing over Cade's rebellion a moment. Shakespeare is clearly not in sympathy with the revolt. Cade the puppet of people more powerful and educated than himself; once he gets power over other human beings, he immediately begins arbitrary executions, show-trials and a cultural year zero policy. Although some of Cade's commands are greeted by an audience with glee ("let's kill all the lawyers"), this is a pretty dispiriting portrait of revolutionary energy; I doubt Shakespeare would have been surprised by the 20th Century's Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot, nor stored up much hope in the recent "Arab Spring". Revolt and revolution is, through Shakespeare's eyes, the mania of the mob; Cade is a thuggish, murderous, vainglorious vanguard. Anyone with hopes of human progress brought about by violent means might bristle at this portrait of revolutionary energy but History offers more evidence for Shakespeare's vision than against it.

Part 2 ends with England in the grip of civil war. Part 3 (originally The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York) shows civil war as a horror show and conveyor belt of pain, each major stage figure passing towards their death. Atrocity pretty soon becomes the norm, as Margaret and Clifford for the Lancastrians summarily execute York's young son, the Earl of Rutland, during the Battle of Wakefield. The historical Rutland was 17 and older than Richard of Gloucester and George of Clarence when he died; Shakespeare makes him much younger. The killing is portrayed as a despicable act, on a par with Macbeth's murder of Macduff's children; what we would now consider a war crime. The slaughter of child Rutland sets a tone of darkness which pervades the first part of the play. In the midst of the darkness, the central scene of the first part has King Henry come centre stage and wish himself out of History, a mere "gentle swain" counting the days, months and years as he tends his sheep. Being in History is unforgiving and straight after his speech Henry is made to witness the mourning of a Son who has killed his father and a Father who has killed his son, a schematic pairing with little historical basis but which beautifully emblematizes the hellishness of the world being staged.

Just as Part 3 becomes almost unbearably painful in its impact, Shakespeare does what might be counted as the first genius coup de theatre in his career. We've already met the Duke of York's son, Richard of Gloucester, as a minor character in Part 2; intriguingly, the audience yelped with joy as soon as they saw his limping, twisted form come on stage. During Act 3 of Henry VI Part 3, Richard gives a long, Machiavellian speech outlining his future ambitions and determination to let nothing stand in the way of his own progress to the throne. There are a number of curious things about this speech. One is that it is absolutely not "set-up" in anything we previously see or hear of from Richard. He has been a loyal son of York, understandably sickened by his brother Rutland and father's killings. He is suddenly revealed as a psychopath and sociopath par excellence, a far more terrifying figure than anyone we have hitherto seen on the stage. The effect is almost as if we had seen a number of larvae wriggling in the murk of the Wars and now one suddenly bursts forth from its chrysalis as a Death's Head Hawk-Moth. Richard appears like a great eruption from History, just as the Beast bursts forth from the sea in the Book of Revelations. Richard is certainly a consequence of the chaos the civil war has caused – which is not to say that there is merely a cheap psychological point being made about a deformed and abused man who experienced the butchering of his father and brother and so becomes a monster (although that's certainly in there) but that the plays vision has it that such monsters in unstable times get the opportunity to burst forth, as night follows day.

The second intriguing thing is that the audience love Richard and his speech. Not only does Richard fulfil the needs of History, he embodies the need of the audience to have the horrors of history mediated in a way which can still be seen as entertainment. A play which continued as the first 3 Acts of Henry VI Part 3 does without Richard coming in and entertaining us would be unbearable for a popular audience. Shakespeare has to continue to the worst but, to do so, needs Richard's theatricality and showmanship to carry his audience with him (we should always remember that Shakespeare was a populist writer and he writes his plays with the crowd in mind, not a cognoscenti or school of aesthetes). Richard's speech is a perfect example of theatre doing its thing as a means of inducting an audience into areas it might not otherwise wish to go. It's no wonder that Shakespeare went on to write a play with Richard at its centre; management, audiences and his own canniness must have been begging him..

The Globe put Part 3's interval after Richard's speech and follow it with the scene where Margaret and Warwick both approach the French King Louis for support. This scene is played as farce, with Louis a camp and broad parody Frenchman. This feels right, as not only are the shifting tones of the play necessary for the attention of the audience but also History, although painful, is farcical from a certain point of view. Louis takes himself very seriously indeed and therefore we can laugh at him; Richard brings us in on the joke, and so we laugh with him.

The play runs apace to its end at the Globe after this, with Henry and Edward IV on and off the throne for each other as if on a jigsaw. The Globe cut a lot of this fluctuation in fortunes, which is again a shame, as the text has intriguing, Jarry-like elements of absurdity not emphasised when these cuts are made. Finally, the Yorkists win at Tewkesbury, killing Prince Edward of Wales in front of his Mother, Margaret of Anjou. Margaret is one of Shakespeare's greatest female characters, every bit as developed as Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra and with a longer emotional journey through the trilogy than any of them. The shy princess brought into the net of history by the Earl of Sussex has seen her husband deposed, her lover beheaded (she carries around his severed head for some of Henry VI Part 2), finally becoming the Lancastrian warrior that her husband could never be. It was she that rubbed York's nose in the blood of his child, Rutland and now she weeps to see her own child die, realising too late what humanity is and how much pain is involved in such atrocities. It is a tribute to Shakespeare's writing that, although we know Margaret's complaints are rich considering her previous antics, we still nevertheless empathise with her pain. Even better, Shakespeare lets us realise how ironic Margaret's complaints are without having another character point out this irony in on-the-nose dialogue (dramatists, learn from this).

Richard of Gloucester scoots from the Tewkesbury battlefield to murder Henry VI; the apotheosis of History meets out its revenge against the man who would escape it. Henry's killing is purely about ambition and ideology – Henry stands in the way of the Yorkist claim to the throne (and therefore Richard's aim at it) but his friends and supporters are all dead and he has zero capital with the English people. Richard's killing of Henry is the symbolic sacrifice of an innocent. In his dying breath, Henry cries "God forgive my sins, and pardon thee!" It is no coincidence that in the final scene (in lines I can't remember being in The Globe version), Richard explicitly draws comparison between himself and Judas. Shakespeare, working in a deeply Christian culture and tradition, shows History as culminating in the sacrifice of Christ.

There is of course a large dollop of Tudor ideology in the Henry VI plays. I won't say propaganda, as I don't think the Elizabethan playwrights were being consciously propagandistic, rather simply repeating the commonplace beliefs – ideologies – of their time. Henry, near the end of Part 3, lauds the young Henry Tudor (future Earl of Richmond, nemesis of Richard III and so Henry VII) and Henry VI's death as Christ suggests Henry VII's victory was a kind of Second Coming, which is problematic to say the least. Tudor England was nobody's idea of paradise and in later plays Shakespeare dramatises the problems. Despite this, there is a strong sense in which the Henry VI plays transcend the particular history they are writing about or indeed writing from and offer a vision of History itself, a terrifying vision which, if you factor in the problems of seeing the Tudors as bringing long-lasting stability, is akin to Joyce's "…nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

In the programme notes, The Globe go out of their way to emphasise that the plays were not written as and never meant to be performed as a cycle. Yet by happy serendipity and beyond all reasonable expectation, they work as perfectly well in cycle as the Oresteia or Der Ring des Nibelungen. They ought to be much more frequently performed – I'd like to see the National do the three plays as uncut as possible in the Olivier with a large cast and major actors in the major roles; one of the problems with the Globe's touring version is that, whilst it is very good indeed on its own terms, the battle and mob scenes are very sparse and the cast have to double so much that many major characters (Warwick suffers particularly) don't come across as individually as they might. The plays are, as I said at the outset, Shakespeare's primer in the problem that is History. Though one might disagree with the pessimism of the vision, World History since their writing has tended to reinforce it, as the likes of Henry VI, Talbot, Humphrey, the Richards (of York and Gloucester), Margaret, Joan La Pucelle and Jack Cade et al try to either make good in, escape from or manipulate History to their own ends and all end up drawn down into its flood, dragging whole peoples down with them.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Flemish Primitives Part 1, Hieronymus Bosch

I spent a week’s holiday in Belgium, which afforded me the opportunity to visit a number of important galleries and soak myself in the work of the so-called Flemish Primitives, the early Netherlandish painters who flourished between the 15th and 16th centuries. I say “so-called” primitives, as their work is anything but primitive, rather being a school of sophisticated masterpieces by supremely talented individuals on mostly Christian but sometimes classical themes.

Thinking back, the work of perhaps the best known of these painters, Hieronymus Bosch, was one of my ways into classical Art when I was in my teens. I haven’t had much opportunity to see his work in the originals, there being one solitary, albeit astonishing, Bosch in the National Gallery; I did see a number in the Prado in Spain a few years ago, including the surprisingly small Garden of Earthly Delights triptych. Virtually the first painting I encountered in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels was the Temptation of St Anthony triptych, a much bigger series. I’d known this painting from book reproductions for half my life (we even used the figure of the bird with the letter as part of the publicity for my play Groping in the Dark) but seeing it up close and personal like this was thrilling. The work teams with vibrant detail and writhes with a terrible life. All three panels show scenes from the life of the early Church desert father St Anthony, who was assailed by the world, the flesh and the devil as he attempted to put his mind solely to Godly thoughts in his wilderness retreat. Bosch is a mysterious figure about whom little is known; one theory has it that he leaned towards a Cathar outlook and saw the material world as a stenching (all those decaying fish creatures!) thing of evil. Certainly in Bosch nature is prodigious in its production of horrors; figures mutate between the human, the demonic and the bestial, as if the world were merely a breeding ground for freaks, each one of which has its own peculiarities and quirks. The freaks torment, torture and prey on each other; there’s a curious attitude towards generation which suggests that the act of sexual congress produces this carnival of horrors in which the revellers get off on their terrible antics. The Saint must resist the blandishments of this world, which despite being horrific hold intense fascination. Only contemplation of the person of Christ and His sacrifice can take the Saint away from the demonic world and it takes an enervating effort to achieve communion with Christ (one of my favourite images in the painting, on the left panel, has Anthony being carried away by his companions, utterly exhausted). Even when the Saint appears in meditation in the right panel, his gaze is fixed on a table under which naked sinners are lost in violent, somnambulant revels – but here he has learned some distance, perhaps linking the Saint’s gaze with that of the ideal Artist, who can look at these things as mere vision; for whom the earth itself is a passing vision…

In Ghent, Bosch’s third and last and greatest version of Christ Carrying the Cross assaults the viewer with a vision of intense violence and hatred carrying on around a Jesus who, His mind entirely elsewhere, has transcended it despite still being physically a part of it. It is telling that all but one of the figures around Christ are male, testosterone-fuelled products of a brutal patriarchy against which only withdrawal to an inner world and passivity towards the outer aggression are the only answers. The one female figure is Veronica, who holds her veil on which Christ’s face has been miraculously implanted; she holds this out to the viewer and so Christ looks at us. This has a curious effect, as if I think of the veil with Christ’s face as a mirror, I also must widen my view and take the entire painting as a reflection; I wonder how much I contribute to this hell of aggression portrayed and how I can free myself from it. The aggressive world is timeless and ever-present, no matter what temporal ephemera happen to be around at any given moment; whether Christ (whatever He signifies) is the answer is another issue – the painting certainly posits the question of aggression with unwavering force. It is blindingly obvious that Bosch, in this painting and others, does not see the Church as a means to Christ, as the representatives of religion are themselves a part of the aggressive world and offer no solace; the good thief in the upper right corner swoons in terror at the words of his grisly confessor, who couldn’t be less Christ-like if he tried. The painting is a formal triumph, with Christ at the centre of a cross and the two thieves, Veronica and the hands of Simon of Cyrene at its four corners. I rather admire the gumption and resistance of the bad thief at the right lower corner but clearly it gets him nowhere and only adds to the ugliness of the scene.

Also in Ghent, Bosch’s St Jerome at Prayer echoes the theme of the St Anthony triptych but in a calmer key. St Jerome has abandoned the things of this world – his fine cloak, his book, his hat; he lies abject at the feet of his object of contemplation, Christ on the cross. The world around him is a complete wasteland, an emotional and physical dead end. Yet this desperate natural world cannot harm the Saint, as evidenced by the lion who has been turned here into little more than a gentle lamb.

In Bruges, Bosch’s Last Judgement triptych shows the world’s end. The last days are a war zone, with cities on fire and rats the size of cows in the streets. As ever, the prodigious demons torture the damned. Most medieval Last Judgements confine hell to the right hand corner  and give most space to the righteous and the Heavens above. Not so Bosch, for whom hell is almost the whole scene; his left hand panel is a calm scene where a few naked innocents are taught by angels or frolic in serenity and a single Gothic structure stands (in contrast to the many destroyed buildings in hell); there is also a hint here that a more positive vision of sexuality might be possible. According to Bosch, few will find a way out of hell, punishment, retribution which – if I for a moment apply a Blakean reading – can be seen a mindset rather than a physical place (although of course the mindset creates the physical into the embodiment of hell). For me, Bosch’s work is a vision of the mind in action, for the most part a terrible, tormented mind full of violence, enmity, sometimes strange pleasure but finally disease and death; yet there is an alternative mind of calm, knowledge, contemplation. Yet it takes tremendous efforts of concentration to take oneself from one to the other, and that other is always waiting with its pinchers to pinch and pull.

Bosch is the most extreme of the Flemish Primitives and whilst he sums up their vision is also anomalous in the fever pitch of his imagination. Like most of them he was a master craftsman with an enviable sense of composition and a mean ability to colour his scenes in vivid, striking tones. He’s a great place to start as his figures are so utterly indelible that once seen they are never to be forgotten. In my next blog, I’ll talk about some of his fellow Flemish Primitives, who give him some context and not a few of whom are geniuses in themselves. Yet I suspect he’ll always be my first love, who torments me with the most terrible and profound of loves.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Note on Writing AI characters

It is quite unusual for me to write futuristic or science fiction works but a recent challenge I set myself – to tell a particular story three times in a single short play, each at different historical junctures – led me to set a piece in the future. As a consistent character in the story is a police officer, I got the notion (not original, I own) that law enforcement in a possible future may be the responsibility of AI machines.

I do not know very much about AI, so it behoved that as well as setting my imagination to work, I read a little into the science of AI. I am not unfamiliar with fiction around the area, especially in film, having viewed the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Westworld and Robocop a number of times. I chose to read Artificial Intelligence: A Beginner's Guide by BlayWhitby (Oneworld Publications, 2008). It’s a simple book and suits my purposes perfectly, as I don’t wish to stage the science, just have some idea that there can be a science behind what I have happening on stage.

I have become especially intrigued by a major problem in AI, in that it has proved particularly difficult, if not impossible, for programmers to get their AI machines to distinguish between objects – the robots cannot tell a mobile phone from a glasses case, for example. This set me thinking about how this might be solved (and I am not in the least bit a scientist!) – but surely the answer might well come from looking at the problem from the other way around? The cell phone and the glasses case will tell the machine what they are. This can be done very simply by having all objects microchipped. Machines entering any space will scan the space and collect data from the microchips in the space, so that every object will be distinguishable from every other and identifiable to the machine. The microchip might well include details of the dimension of the object and even dimension of each part within, so that objects packed or piled together will be distinguishable. The microchip could also include ownership information. There might be some objects –like match sticks or fresh food – which a machine might encounter without a microchip; these would be dealt with in the same way that computerised counters deal with “unexpected items in the bagging area” – people would have to help out the machine. People themselves would be microchipped alongside objects…

The initial microchipping will involve a large-scale project to ensure that all spaces are machine-friendly. Will people agree to this whole-scale adaptation of their environment for the benefit of AI machines? I think about the way my xBox kinect works and the way in which my partner’s nephews and nieces are happy to adapt where they stand in the room for the benefit of playing a game; humans have always been willing to adapt their behaviour for the benefit of technology as long as they believe they're getting a pay-off…

In solving, at least for myself, one of the issues of AI, I can see how my machines in my play might negotiate environments. I am not sure I need to explain this within the play, but I can happily write them moving through the world without wondering how they know what’s around them.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

2012 and End Things

A number of people thought that 2012 was going to be the end of time. On a personal level, 2012 looked at one point as being the end of my time. The Mayan calendar offered signs of apocalypse for the superstitious-minded; my own demise was predicted by signs of a more concrete nature, although they evaded interpretation for a while.

In October 2011, I suffered from what I thought was a flu. I was feverish for a week or so and then it passed. Another flu-like episode a fortnight later and I cursed my bad luck at picking up another virus so quickly. When a third episode occurred at around the same distance from the second, I realised that this might be something other than bouts of flu. A first doctor’s appointment led to a rather rash diagnosis of a chest infection and a prescription of antibiotics. Another recurrence and an appointment with a different doctor raised rather more concern and I was counselled that it might be any number of serious things; given to me amongst the possible causes of the complaint were tuberculosis, lymphoma, malaria and lupus. I underwent blood tests and ex-rays. These were showing no positive results but the fevers were continuing in their fortnightly pattern, with temperatures up to 42° and soaking night sweats. I was spending more time off from my lecturing job than at work. Eventually, my doctor had me admitted to the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel for observation, as the new tests they wanted to do would be done quicker as an inpatient. I hadn’t spent a night in hospital since I was 6 months old and had bronchial pneumonia, an event I predictably don’t remember. In the hospital, where the care and facilities couldn’t have been better (I even had my own room, even though I am an NHS patient without any extra cover), I was given a PET scan and a lymph biopsy. When I’d initially had blood tests, the doctor had told me that there was no sign of lymphoma in the bloodstream, which had lulled me into a false sense of security. My hospital consultant was pretty sure I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and the biopsy/scan results confirmed this.

I had cancer. To be specific, I had Stage 3B Hodgkin’s, meaning that it had spread above and below my diaphragm and I was experiencing systematic symptoms. I was handed over to a new consultant, Dr Sylvia Montoto at Barts, who told me very clearly that, if left untreated, the disease would kill me. Treatment would involve an ABVD chemotherapy regime. This may have adverse effects – hair loss, nausea, sore gums, etc. – but the prognosis was very positive and I was told that the treatment cures over 80% of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma patients, with over 70%+ of those cured experiencing no recurrence of the disease. Nevertheless, being told you have a potentially fatal cancer is, to say the least, sobering.

Our lives are lived behind glass walls. We know that what lies beyond those glass walls is called Death although most of the times he doesn’t come close enough to the glass that we can see him, so it is easy to forget him or at least tell ourselves he’s some distance away. Sometimes, though, we hear his noises penetrate the glass or getting a feeling of his shadow passing; now and then he even comes close enough to be seen, he can even push his face up against the window. Most of us rather hope that by the time he is so close, we’ll be tired of living in our little glass house, maybe it’s too decrepit and old to be a joy to inhabit, so we’ll happily open the a window wide and let him in. Yet all the time we hear tales of how he’s smashed through to someone as an uninvited guest. I can’t say that I saw his face in 2012 but I certainly felt his presence, out there, closer than ever, perhaps I heard him breath. His breathing’s increase is the decrease of one’s own…

I am not sure that I fear Death, although the pain that one knows he can bring in his wake is a scary prospect. The sorrow he’ll give to those left who loved me is also an awful thought. Most horrible, to me, is the thought that he’ll come before I’ve had time to do all I wish to do with my life. I am a writer, I don’t think I’m written out yet and I certainly haven’t yet seen my creations bedded down in the world for a certain life beyond me, the only children I am likely to have are not yet thriving, so the prospect of death coming to call at this time in my life causes me to sing along with old Dock Boggs, “Oh, death, oh, death, can 't you spare me over till another year?”

Chemotherapy ain’t easy. Its bad reputation is well-earned. What I didn’t reckon on is how stealthy its miseries are. My first couple of sessions were made difficult by one of the drugs, Dacarbazine, giving me a severe bout of rigors - but the effects of the drugs soon wore off, my hair stayed sturdily in place and I was able to get out and about a fair amount in the weeks off from treatment (which was fortnightly, for six months; I was signed off university work for the duration). The more the treatment went on, the more impact it had on my body; energy levels decreased, the hair eventually fell out (leaving me looking like a raggedy scarecrow before I shaved it all off), the gums got sore and a woozy feeling of nausea stuck around. Unluckily for me, the antiemetic drugs weren’t entirely effective and the later treatments were usually concluded with severe bouts of vomiting.

The treatment is given through a drip and the chemo called Dacarbazine particularly took a while to go in, around 2/2.5 hours. I grew to dread this infusion. Sitting in the treatment room, somehow unable to read or listen to music, as this helpful poison slowly entered my body – it’s the worst position I have experience of being in. It was as if in those hours my life and my actual self were suspended. I managed to sleep through some of it (especially as the antihistamine they gave me to prevent the recurrence of the rigors was quite somniferous) but it was a deeply upsetting experience, eroding of all identity and faith in its moment, although these would appear again outside of that dreaded drip-time.

The treatment is given in blood cancer-specific day-wards at the hospital, ghastly and secret rooms in which the ailing sit in armchairs getting themselves infused with what they hope are helpful poisons. Some of the patients are old and weathered by the long-term effects of prolonged treatment; others are young and their eyes tell of the question as to why their glass windows have become menaced by the figure beyond this early in their lives. The wards are for the most part staffed by angels who couldn’t be gentler and kinder, a mercy indeed as without considerate attention, these rooms would be torture chambers.

My own visits to the wards were also alleviated by the companionship of my partner, Andrew, who always accompanied me on treatment days. Our relationship is only a couple of years old but he been the epitome of faithful and true. I wonder if I could have got through 2012 without his love and presence. When I hear the self-proclaimed Holy crew condemning and demeaning same-sex partnerships, I simply feel sorry for people who, supposedly above all others, should be servants of love but yet cannot see love-in-practice when it wears a form they’re prejudiced against. Compassion is a word often improperly used in contemporary life; in Andrew’s devotion, I knew compassion to literally mean co-suffering and I believe him when he says that every time I underwent the soul-destroying treatment, part of him was destroyed alongside me.

In late-October I had the final treatment of the prescribed regime. Over the following weeks my vitality has been returned. I am easing back into my university work and also hard-at-it writing a trilogy of new short plays, a commission from some actors. I had another PET scan in mid-December and, a week before Christmas, got a telephone call from Dr Montoto telling me that the scan shows that there is now no sign of the disease and that I am in “complete remission”. I am seeing a life beyond the cancer now, although it’s been such an intense ordeal that it’s sometimes hard to believe that, for now, the figure living beyond the glass is not imminent.

All of this is not to say that 2012 has been an altogether annus horribilis for me. I have seen devotion in the form of my lover and many of my friends; I saw the premier, six years after I wrote it, of my play Coward by the splendid and extremely talented folk at Just Some Theatre Company, and the seeds laid by their short tour of the play in 2012 are to flourish in an audio release of the play early in 2013 and a longer tour/possible London run of the play later in the year; I have seen some wonderful theatre and opera, although regrettably have not had the energy to write about it other than in short tweets; there was a new Bob Dylan album to wonder at. I have also had time to consider my life and life in general in a way I haven’t perhaps had the leisure to do since I had periods of unemployment in the 1990s; illness does allow one a certain temporary decadent aristocracy during which one can pursue a life of mind and contemplation which daily work undermines. Yet the longing to create is strong in me and I wouldn’t want any longer an intermission of vitality, so I am glad that it looks as if the aristocrat has now been deposed.

It is hard to sum up an experience like this, and I am leaving a great deal out of this perforce short account. I am not going to preach any lessons – perhaps being ill has allowed me to let go of the need to proselytise and for that if nothing else, I am eternally grateful to the circumstance. Perhaps going through a very serious illness gives one a privileged vision of life, or at least allows one to put certain things into perspective; perhaps many do this anyway, without brushing with the Reaper. It certainly allowed me to focus on that which makes me the same as everybody else – knowing myself to be a being whose stay on this earth has limits, that at any moment I might suddenly be thrown from my hobby-horse and encounter that lurker in the land beyond the glass. I could now worry that my cancer will return, or that my body will betray me in some other way, or will be otherwise defeated; yet in my vulnerability I’m not any different from you or anybody else, no matter how apparently healthy a person has always been. We all breath a numbered series of breaths, have terminable heartbeats.

I will take a small liberty and encourage you, if you do not already, to acknowledge Death, as I surely now do. He is for all of us a certain future companion, the caller stealing through the window to be with us in the last dance of our earthly lives. Until then - God, the fates or medical science willing – we’ll have other companions and who knows how many other rounds to dance.