Keeping A Kid Alive: A Babysitter’s Celebration

In some ways, asking a childless woman to babysit is a really smart move. She will be so terrified of breaking your only infant that she’ll stay vigilant; she’ll tend to every creak and murmur out of turgid-knickered fear. But in a lot of other ways it’s also pretty stupid. Because she hasn’t got a bloody clue what she’s doing. She has no skills and no instinct. If she’s lucky she has a large bar of Fruit & Nut and a bottle of red.

Take now for instance. I’m babysitting as I type. If I wasn’t I’d probably be writing my column about the environment or how to fix Africa. But I’m not. I’m babysitting. Last time I babysat I got poo under my fingernails. I hope I’ve improved.

Things got off to a bad start when I tried and failed to work the telly. First mistake – opting for ambient noise when you should really be listening for signs of colic, hunger, choking, pooping, general melancholia, or dying. It’s like the television knew keeping me entertained was a bad idea. “Just focus on keeping the kid alive for god’s sake, Hasler, yeah?”

Naturally I turned to social media for comfort. I flung a couple of emergency flares out onto Facebook and Twitter, just so that people knew I was in a vulnerable situation. I was glad to observe that some of the responders were friendly types that could potentially be relied upon to be character witnesses. “Sadie? Oh yes, normally she’s absolutely fiiine with kids. Except for that ‘head-in-bannisters’ incident. But the kid was a wriggler; what can you do?”

I wasn’t looking for any answers, really. I just wanted to feel like I wasn’t alone. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a new parent alone at home with a baby with nowhere for all that fear and fierceness to go but into bottles and kisses.

I decided, as the child seemed perfectly alive, to get on with my work.

But all I could think of was the little boy upstairs, just turned one – his eyelids fluttering with the pull of dreams and his breathing so low and steady it’s like his lungs were conserving themselves for later life, when stuff gets harder. I felt strangely honoured to be there for a few hours of his contented silence. His unmarked newness.

I thought of my dog and how responsible I feel for him. For his health and happiness. For his provision and continued safety. How I want to vomit if he even hurts a paw. I allowed myself to wonder if I might not be an abysmal mother, after all. One day. If the urge ever kicks in.

I visualised my boyfriend holding a little bundle and smiling at me. He has a very fatherly beard. He could be trusted to do the sensible bits of parenthood in a beard while I charge around being a disco-dancing dinosaur.

Part of me wants to have a baby just to see if I can bring it up without breaking it.
Part of me wants to have my greying head ruffled by a giant son thanking me for dinner.

And part of me shudders and thinks “That would be so inconvenient – loving something that needs you so much.”

Is it just cowardice that makes me feel this, or a more fundamental reluctance that I should listen to? How can you tell? Is it like when you need a wee; you just know; you feel it?

Deciding to not have children is just as brave as having them, but I suspect parents have fewer regrets than those who opted to keep their fingernails clean.

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Review – The Secret Wives of Andy Williams

A review for Old Trunk’s latest play The Secret Wives of Andy Williams, which premiered at Camden People’s Theatre in August 2013.

Low Down

It is rare in film, theatre or any art form to encounter a follow up show, a prequel or sequel that is as good if not better than the first. This unique occurrence has happened with Old Trunk and their new show The Secret Wives of Andy Williams, the prequel show to their stellar hit production last year, Watership Breakdown; The Bastard Children of Remington Steel. For background both shows are set in a nunnery where orphans and strays are taken in and looked after.

Review

Secret Wives of Andy Williams is every bit as quirky, honest, funny and engaging as the last production and yet manages to retain the same voice despite being about the nuns taking the front row seat over the orphans. Only one character remains as the through line, Sister Mabel Matthew, and yet the style is the same and so it feels undeniably like a prequel. The characters are exceptionally well formed and it is clear a huge amount of work and passion has been applied to enable the audience to fall headfirst and fully immerse in the stories of these likeable, unique characters.

The team of performers are very tight knit with only one actor different from the production last year. The addition of Edward Mitchell as Susan and Sister Gertrude has added a wonderful new dimension to what was already a fantastic group dynamic. Mitchell adds a sparkle and twinkle to this strong female trio and the balance that is created ensures a great sense of harmony. Mitchell is an excellent character actor, seamlessly switching from one to the next with not even a beat. Men, women, old and young are all delivered with the same level of passion and commitment.

Sadie Hasler is truly destined to lead the charge as we discover the next generation of prolific writers in the UK. I wouldn’t be surprised if she is not the name on everybody’s lips both for theatre and TV in the next year or so and I can certainly say I was lucky enough to witness the humble beginnings of that greatness at the Camden Fringe. Her trusty co producer and exceptionally talented actor and comedian Sarah Mayhew yet again reveals her attention to detail with character; playing Sister Clara, the obnoxious yet misunderstood Enid and Queenie Bee, all completely unique and utterly convincing. Charlie Platt is delightful as the confused young nun Caitlin and her sense of fun and innocence in this playful role is totally charming.

Hasler has delivered another little piece of heavenly storytelling to the stage and no doubt there are many more to come! I for one cannot wait to see what’s next for these nuns!

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Letter from The International Andy Williams Appreciation Society

During Old Trunk’s London run of The Secret Wives of Andy Williams, I got a lovely email from a chap called Bill Lothian from the International Andy Williams Appreciation Society, asking me some questions about the play…

Are you old enough to remember The Andy Williams Show in 1969 and were you fascinated by it yourself?

I don’t remember the Andy Williams show as am 33, but my mum absolutely loved him, and I have always loved Andy Williams’ music. My mum loved the fact that he was included in the play as she has really fond memories of watching the show. I did however watch lots of clips on Youtube when writing the play, and I know that if it was on today I would be a dreamy-eyed loyal viewer. He’s a cutie.

Do you remember the Cookie Bear’s weekly appearances, for example?

I hear that little bear got too popular and was axed after a while so Andy could reclaim his spotlight. Ha ha – was this true?

I wondered if any of his songs get a mention or if you could give a hint to the sort of Andy Williams references included.

We started the play with the opening bars of Music To Watch Girls By because it’s a such an upbeat energetic opening for the play and gives the first scene – Caitlin’s narration and the introduction to her, Tilda, and Susan, two bonkers orphans – a great dynamic. We had a scene where Andy Williams appears as an almost heavenly being in the young nun Caitlin’s dream, where he appears to her and offers her some advice on love, and for a while we were using the jaunty instrumental bits from Can’t Get Used To Losing You in the background, but the ‘plucking’ effect wasn’t working as we thought, so we used Andy’s version of Ave Maria instead which was far gentler and dreamier and turned it into the scene we were hoping to create. We had a little snippet of Moon River and a bit with Andy talking in our Andy Williams Show segments. (And for a while had a little scene where the nuns played Moon River on recorders, which we decided to cut in the end as it hampered the drive of the plot and we didn’t want to stick something in just for our own nerdy enjoyment!)
We closed the play with Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, which rounded up the story with a wonderful, affectionate burst of energy after quite an emotional scene, and the audience loved it. We were very happy with the response we got, laughter and tears in equal measure, which is more than we could have asked for. The music definitely made the play what it was, it augmented the moods we were going for without our needing to use words in certain places. Music’s very powerful in that way, and I think the audience responded with affection because the songs we picked are so well-known and so well-loved that they bring with them a sort of cultural history too. Every time you use songs like that that are so imbued in our cultural pysche you sort of cheekily borrow from their success, if you do it right and don’t just turn it into a cheese fest. Brilliant songs. I also really wanted to use the The Village of Saint Bernadette somewhere in the play as the themes of Lourdes and salvation and peace were very relevant to our story, but we found there wasn’t a scene that it fitted with naturally and we didn’t want to prise it in and risk being nauseating. I would have used his entire back catalogue if I could but it would have been a very long play!

Were you by any chance in touch with him (if you were writing it last year before he died) or his people at the Moon River Theatre in Branson?

Alas, no. That would have been awesome. I did a lot of reading about Andy while writing the play and I thought the Moon River theatre sounded wonderful! I was aware of the timeliness of writing a play about him the year after he died, though that wasn’t the reason for writing it. I like to think he would have liked it though. He had some rather impressive pearly-whites – I’d have liked to make him laugh and show them off, all glinty-like.

How did you come to pick this musical TV icon to be the “motif” for your show.

It’s quite strange, but I don’t really remember certain bits of how the story all came together in my head. I take a while to get started on a play – i have to let the elements of it mill around in my head for a while before I can start writing, and once I can hear the characters talking to each other I know I’m ready to start. It’s almost like it forms its skeleton quietly in my mind while I’m pottering about with other things, and then I pull back a curtain and this creature starts walking towards me demanding my attention. That sounds a bit mental, doesn’t it. Oh dear. Most of the time when I’m writing a play I don’t remember making many conscious decisions about the plot or characters or elements, other than certain editorial tweaks I make much later on in the process once the words are up on their feet with the actors. A lot of it seems to float up from the depths; it’s already there. I don’t sit down and think “I’m going to make this happen, and include this” or anything. Once the characters have formed it’s pretty much just my job to follow them and write down what they’re saying to each other. They’re already there, and that’s how it was with Andy Williams too. He was just there in my head.

I always get to about halfway through a rough draft, then need to hear it aloud with my cast. Then the characters flesh themselves out, and I go away and finish the bugger. I love writing for actors I know well. Knowing your cast makes the voices come out with greater vibrancy. You know what they can do, where their powers lie, and you bend things a little around this. You’re writing for a purpose, not just writing a play which might never be performed and might sit in a drawer forever. I find that so exciting, and know how lucky I am that to have a strong company of people who want to be involved in all the various stages of making a play happen.

Despite not remembering how certain things found their way into the script, I do remember certain key ‘decisions’ I made while dreaming it into shape. I knew the play was to be the prequel to my last – The Bastard Children of Remington Steele. I knew that it was to take place at St Agatha’s Covent Orphanage again. I knew I wanted to peel back the stories of the place like layers of wallpaper.
I knew it was going to be set mostly in the late sixties, thirty years before Bastards, at a time of increased sexual freedom and decision-making for young women.
I knew I wanted a young nun torn between her love for God and her love for a man.
I wanted to tell, sub-textually, the story of the nuns and how they had come to live that life, and what their lives might have been like if they had made different decisions. I wanted to think about to what extent they function as ‘ordinary’ women – do they have crushes, do they feel certain impulses within their bodies, how do they stopper certain hormonal impulses that we all have, how do they regard their bodies, their uniquely female parts, do the truly inexperienced nuns ever imagine any of the things they declined to live for themselves? And I thought the idea of these women who had chosen not to know corporeal love having a harmless fascination with a chastely charming sort of man like Andy Williams, and for half an hour a week just giving in to a world of fantasy watching his show, was quite beautiful. Just like Eskimos might dream of fields of grass, or children of space. There is always something we want that we know we will never have. Andy Williams – in this story, for these women – is a symbol of all the things that might have been, but never were. He is also used as a dream figure that advises Caitlin about love, and answers her big question: “Just…follow your heart. It’s my favourite answer because it’s the shortest but gets the best results.”
And it had to be someone like Andy Williams. It wouldn’t have been psychologically plausible or tasteful to have them fawning over James Dean or Elvis or anyone typically sexualised or rough around the edges. He had to have the qualities they respected and had built their lives around. Andy Williams seemed on the surface like a very suitable candidate. Though I’m sure he was a cheeky tinker in his own way too.
This was a very long-winded way of saying I can’t remember picking Andy. I think the nuns picked him.

By the way, did you know Arthur Smith once did a show called Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen? But, when he took it to America, he wasn’t sure if they would know who Leonard Cohen was, so he changed the title to Arthur Smith Sings Andy Williams. Still don’t think it contained any singing, though.

Yes, I’ve heard of that. Ha ha! Arthur Smith is a funny chap. He gave me some pineapple and an old T-shirt at a gig I did years ago. He was getting rid of all his old T-shirts and had packaged them in plastic sleeves with a picture of him wearing the t-shirt on the front, which is rather cute I think.

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Moving In

I have always loved packing. There’s something exciting about the containment of objects in your life; their removal from one place, and arrival at another. It has both the feeling of the alien and the inevitable about it. Every item has an origin, is a memory, represents a choice you made somewhere.

At some point soon I’ll have to think about packing in readiness to move in with my boy. It’s a big thing, not least because I have a lot of junk to somehow box up. I have been fiercely protective of my space and independence since I last lived with a partner three years ago. Between 22 and 30 I lived with two very strong men while mourning another, my father. If I could relive my twenties there’s a lot I would do differently, but I suppose that is what your twenties are for. Mistakes and waste. Your thirties: learning, and growth.

Living in my own space for the first time after over a decade of anxiety and unhappiness has been the best thing I’ve done as a woman. I cleared my soul of a lot of things. I got stronger. I began to understand who I am, what I want, and to assert what I don’t want – and won’t allow – in my life anymore.

So to decide to move in with someone again is a big thing. The fact I have chosen to do it at all is a toast to the character of the wonderful man I am with. I have been a skittish creature, and hurt some nice men whose only fault was to try to be a part of my life.

But I never knew you could be just as strong and free with someone as you are alone.

In pondering packing up all these totems of time, I am sort of revisiting all the lessons I learned while living as a single woman. Remembering moments where I stopped in the middle of something, apropos of nothing, and thought “Holy fuck – what the hell were you doing all that time, you idiot?” Sweary epiphanies while doing housework mostly. Small moments of revelation that outwardly would seem like I was just washing a spoon but inside I was reforming.

When you come to live with someone after feeling such freedom you can’t help but feel a little trepidatious. It’s healthy to feel this alongside your excitement though. That feeling is a confirmation that you’ve been thinking good things; been being the right person, observing life and its lessons unhampered by others and whatever self-assuredness they might inflict on you. That you are a person who can stand alone and still be happy. The clarity doesn’t have to stop. That is the lesson to take into your new life. None of that has to stop, ever again.

I suppose humans are meant to live together for reasons of biology. We wouldn’t last long as a race if we gave in to hermitage. But everyone should live alone at least once in their young lives. No one should do it for the first time when they are old. You need to know the sound of true quiet, feel the flexing of echoes in your own skin. You need to know how to be resourceful and content in your own company. You never know when, or for how long you might need to do it again.

Sometimes there’s defiance and independence. But sometimes there’s giving in to the loving voice from the next room, asking if you want tea.

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Home-Pimps, Daddy Gangsters, & Dolly Clackers – Why I Love Estate Agents

Hey, guys. I am going to say something controversial…

I LIKE ESTATE AGENTS.

I do – I genuinely like them. I like their brusque no-nonsense tones and their property speak and their shiny shoes. I like their tiny cars, their phone manner, their merry jangling of keys. I like their optimistic engorging of features – I like the fact they can see a crack in an attic roof in Shoebury and call it a sea glimpse. It’s creative. It’s positive. It’s fun.

I’ve come into contact with quite a few estate agents lately because my boyfriend is buying a flat and has trusted me to do a lot of the sorting because a) he is a very busy boy who just wants to move into a flat that has magically appeared like a giant pop-up tent, and b) I have a genuine perversion for the Right Move website. An actual serious medical problem. When Matt made an offer on a flat a part of me died because I knew I would have no sane reason to take virtual tours round strangers’ houses anymore. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stare at utility rooms and wonder how many boxes of washing powder you could stack in a pyramid until you got stuck and had to call for help. Not anymore. Not without it looking a bit weird.

It’s quite an intimate relationship you have with your estate agent. They know lots of stuff about you. They know what you earn, they know your homely desires. They know how to stand in a lounge doorway and prep you correctly for a nice original fireplace because they can tell you’re a bit hormonal about features that day. They’re like family you don’t have to live with. The perfect kind.

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite types of estate agent. I like:

i) Young dudes who go to work in a suit that doubles up for a night out (EVERY NIGHT IS A NIGHT OUT) – hair spiked, cheeky swagger. I like this young breed of home-pimp. They know you want a home, they’ve got some bloody keys in their hand – they’re gonna find you a bloody home, get back to the bloody office, stick some paperwork in a sodding drawer and be down the boozer by five thirty. Bosh. I trust a man who likes his beer and gets the job done without faff.

ii) Lady estate agents who rock up fifteen minutes early to an appointment and stick a Glade Plug-in in the entrance hall. They usually wear pencil skirts and have nice bottoms. This pleases me. (Although I do not like the sound of their heels on laminate floor. This makes me tense. They should bring slippers with them.)

iii) The ones who try to squeeze fifteen years of imagined friendship into a ten minute appointment. The conspiratorial ones who tell you secrets about the owners. The ones who quietly slag off the curtains and flatter you by saying they can tell from the way you dress that you’ll be able to make it look way nicer. The ones who have their little stockpot of jokes to make you giggle. The ones who make massive assumptions about your life and don’t pause to hear you correct them. This harmless bullshit amuses me. At least they’re bothering to craft some sort of persona. You don’t want to be shown around by a bloody mannequin. That’d be spooky.

iv) I think my favourite kind are the ones who are a cross between the nicest Dad ever – (sensible, measured, smelling of Paco Rabanne – the kind who offer to come and strip your banisters at the weekend) – and gangsters. The kind who have dodgy contacts who will take out your noisy neighbour if they don’t desist in playing Greensleaves on their Yamaha Synth at 7am on a Sunday. Lovely amenable DIY-doing daddy gangsters who will kill for you – they’re my favourite kind.

I don’t trust: ones with fake nails who take ten minutes over a Chubb lock and in the meantime phone the office to discuss how to open doors and what they’re thinking of having for lunch, ones who only have the adjective ‘nice’ in their vocabulary, or ones that don’t get excited when I get excited about extra storage.

Also shit are the estate agents who are a bit jaded by it all. The kind who started their career while Thatcher was in power – that slope around their desks not able to work the Internet but pretend to know everything. They are usually very nasal, these ones. I don’t know why.

So. Estate agents – on the whole, a big thumbs up from me.

Next week, I shall write quite a different sort of column – about solicitors.
Strap in, motherfuckers. That shit gonna sting.*

*I will not write that column. I will get sued. My editor said.**

**I might write about editors instead.

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Chicks, Pricks, & Micropigs

In Ancient Greece, when minotaurs roamed the earth and gods came down for dinner, some very clever men discovered that life wasn’t just one big juicy olive, but that it was actually quite hard – like a fortnight old pitta bread. They pondered the big stuff so that men today can take it easy knowing we’re all essentially screwed but should try and keep a smile on our faces anyway. They called these great, head-scratching men Philosophers. They deserved a good title for all that top-notch thinking they did. Their intellectual travails were why the kebab was invented, to give us something to cry into when it all gets a bit much.

Last week I employed some of the fathoming skills that were characteristic of those bearded Greek brainboxes. Or rather, I had some questions about life and so took to our modern oracle. Google.

I poured my mortal wonderings into the ethereal pool of knowledge and fished around for enlightenment like it was a big lucky dip of facts at the Fair of Life. Google did not disappoint. I found, dear people, The Answers.

So, apparently, Twerking is, like, when you stick your butt in the face of someone you fancy and wiggle it about under the pretence of dancing so that they might see your animated derrière and think “Cor.” It’s essentially what lady baboons do in the wild, but with more lycra. I’m not sure what all the Miley Cyrus fuss was about. Most modern dancing seems to mimic the call and response of primitive life, so I don’t know why Twerking is any more offensive that any other moves employed by acts in need of some extra PR. A lot of modern dance relies on the display and suggestive movement of female bits; why is a jiggling arse any worse than a jiggling tit or hip? Maybe it’s because it’s ass-uming a certain submissive posture more reminiscent of being overpowered than being empowered, or with the right lascivious glint could imply that the girl ‘twerking’ will offer up some other orifice for a dude’s delight. Maybe prick-teasing as an artform is harder than you’d suspect to get right; perhaps it bizarrely requires a little subtlety or class. Perhaps it just wasn’t done well by Miss Cyrus, perhaps big girls do it better. Perhaps black culture commentators were right when they said that rich little white girls shouldn’t appropriate black moves to make themselves look cooler because they will fail and just look like vanilla dickheads with no style. I am no judge of all this. I can’t barely do the hokey-cokey without falling over. If I wanted to attract a male it would certainly not be with my moves or my arse because mine are rubbish.

Moving on – this one was not what I thought it was going to be. Fracking. It is a man made process for throttling the earth for even more of the natural gas resources we were already running low on at the old slower rate, to the detriment of the natural order and the environment. I was expecting to find it was what computer hackers do at sex parties or what people do to parking wardens down an alleyway when they’ve been given a ticket only two minutes after their time expired. I was very sad to find that it is yet another case of humans not learning their lesson, not thinking long term about our future on this revolving rock.

I then did a bit of reading about Syria and what all the big boys in suits we’re stuck with think we should do about it, and what they might wade in and do about it despite their electorate clamouring for the opposite. I often shut off from the news because it depresses me how little Man learns from his history (and until the sexes are equally represented in power, I think ‘Man’ is the continued acceptable term when directing blame or discontent), but last week I felt like I was being irresponsible and stupid for not know the sitch. So I read the news. As predicted it made me mad and sad. I was later cheered, as were most normal humans, by the Commons’ vote against military action in Syria. A nice and timely reminder that our country can’t always be harried into acts of idiocy.

While in my funk over the world I looked up something else to cheer me. I looked up pictures of micro pigs. Pigs in bonnets, pigs that fit in espresso cups, pigs being dwarfed by a daisy, pigs in veils getting married to a mouse. Tiny weeny pigs. I felt a little better. The oracle The Internet might educate, enlighten, and even be employed to change the world, but it also has a really good stash of cute stuff. And we’re going to need that too if we’re ever going to survive the next century I reckon. With all the twerking, fracking, and fucking shit up, we’re going to need our sweet reprieves.

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