Cuckoo in a Cockatoo’s Nest

Theatres are funny places. They seem to absorb a little bit of everyone that spends time in them. No matter how many times I’m in a theatre, or how welcome they make me feel, I always feel a little like I don’t belong. Like there is a long list of people far more deserving who have been there, who have done it far better. I think it might be because I don’t actually consider myself all that theatrical. Lots of people really nail the theatrics. My dressing room mates this week for example. I’ve just done a week’s run of my play Pramkicker in London. It was fun but shattering and to be honest I feel like I could sleep for a week.

The show after ours was a piece of glossy fun called Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens. A musical. Every day, after we had finished the play and were collecting our stuff together to head out to the bar, they would knock at the door and ask if we were decent. Not that it would have mattered if we weren’t. They were all I’m sure at least 2000% interested in the opposite sex. We could have had our naked breasts out on platters and our derrières covered in melted chocolate and they wouldn’t have even glanced in our direction.

Once we’d said a cheery “come in”, in they would clatter with their bright bags full of even brighter costumes, make-up at least half-done and sequins and gemstones stuck around their faces. They were instantly at least ten times more interesting than us. They were like exotic birds swooping in to land in the trees, feathers outstretched, squawking shrilly. And they had jokes. Everything they said came with a pithy actor’s phrase or a double-entendre or a camp retort. A couple of them had that matryred suffering air of the actor in transit; as though their Art was a burden to which they were shackled til death. Art, dahling. Exquisite suffering. Their voices sang with expression, their bodies were beautiful and packaged in Fun. They were theatrical. They were Theatre. The most theatrical thing I’d done, other than rock up to do the play in the first place of course, was neck a Red Bull before the show, burp out loud, and do two nervous wees while deep-breathing. Most of the time I didn’t even bother with lipstick. They out-theatred me just by existing.

I felt like a dull little sparrow compared to their rainbow cockatoos. But I’d watch them taking it all in, absorbing their funny ways and smiling. Then when I’d finished packing up my rather ordinary costume I would leave the dressing room, with a cheery wave and the traditional “Break a leg!” To which they would sing queeny farewells that were worthy of a own show all of their own. I passed back through the theatre and over the empty stage, lights unlit, absolutely convinced that they would spank the show out of the ceiling and through the skies of London. They would give it all they had, and then some. With sequins on.

As I trudged out into the bar, weary and in desperate need of a long cool drink, I would find my friends, chat to the audience members who had stayed to say well done, and find a corner to stow my stuff in til hometime, my bags of play-making oddments done for the day. Despite having only just been offstage for fifteen minutes, despite having cried and shouted and danced and joked about in front of an audience, I fell quiet. I reset myself to neutral, untheatrical, feeling like a cuckoo in the cockatoo’s nest, quiet and unconfident until the next show. Theatre is a strange friend, never fully to be trusted.

  

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Wiping the Slate Clean

Imagine if you woke up one morning with the ability to wipe the slate clean. To start again. Would you do it? Are there things you would alter, or eradicate completely? Or would you only tidy up a few things rather than blot the lot?

I suspect there are very few people who wouldn’t change a thing. There are very few of us who manage to convincingly say they wouldn’t change the bad things because they know they make them stronger. We still, out of loyalty to a sense of purity, look back to the life before trouble and think “Yes. Even though I’ve learned lots and am stronger and everything, I kind of liked it when I was simpler.”

We’re all a bit grubby really aren’t we. No matter how we scrub ourselves up or how we make nice or put the front up, we all show the signs of wear and tear from birth. But would we wipe it all clean if we could?

People talk to me a lot about a lot of stuff. I think writing this column for four years makes them think they know me a bit, and I think something in my flinging out little stories from my life makes them feel safe doing the same. I like that they do. I like to talk to people. For at least a day a week it makes me think if I was a better person I would give up all my nonsense and train as a counsellor. Do some good. Maybe one day.

It occurs to me that almost without exception they are people who want to change something. Who feel one way and wish to feel another, who are in a situation they wish was somehow different. Standing on one side of something and wishing to leap over and be on the other side. To see if that something different makes them happier.

I have female friends asking me to set them up with a man, to find them ‘the right person’, when I am not qualified to know what that is. It’s as though being a writer makes them think you have answers, when really you have none. And these friends – funny intelligent beautiful women who have found themselves single again and want to start again – are asking me to fix them up from the magical black book of my life. I’ve not been terribly useful. One girlfriend ranted at me “WHAT IS WITH EVERYONE BEING WITH SOMEONE. ARE THEY JUST SETTLING? HOW HAVE THEY GOT IT RIGHT? WHERE ARE ALL THE SINGLE ELIGIBLE MEN?” and I sipped my gin wide-eyed and thought about it for the first time. Where ARE all the single eligible men? I couldn’t think of any single mates I could set her up with. I couldn’t think of a single person that I would set her up with in real life. In lieu of something useful to say I just topped up our glasses.

And I felt that small rush of panic. That “am I getting this life stuff right?” That little hot flush in the blood of wondering if I’m doing any of the right things. That’s the trouble with talking to people. It makes you think. Bastards.

What if I starting saying yes to the people who ask me on dates? Would that be a good new thing?

What would happen if I said yes to the people who have said “let’s just go. Sod it, let’s just…go.” What if I went? What if I packed my bags for a few months and went off on an adventure? Would that be a good thing? Would that, by getting distance to everything, be a bit like wiping the slate clean? How might my life change?

If you woke up one morning with the ability to start again, would you?

Goodbye, Victoria Wood

There was something bad about the day from the moment of waking. One of those days that seems to jangle in the air like impatient keys, unsettling me, keeping me on my toes and on the look-out. Whenever I feel like a day is ready-marked for bad things I try to tell myself off for being witchy and put it down to my hormones. But every now and then these days fulfil their promise and become heart-clangers, the portentous feeling dancing around me silently since morning then pipes up and whispers in my ear “See? Told you.”

I had that feeling the day you died, Victoria Wood. Woke with a not-quite-rightness that wouldn’t shift. Then the afternoon news. Everyone talking about it. Instant wide-spread grieving and tributes. I was stunned. I put everything down, switched off all other thoughts, and just took it in. Like with so many people, it felt like a personal loss. A direct swipe at my heart by Life. So much of what I care about – that I have done since I was 10 & still do now, privately in writing or on stage – is because of you.

You are the unattainable heights, but the inspiration to try anyway.

I will always remember it was you that made realise that notebooks would be my best friend for life, that an open notebook was an open mind to open worlds. My first intimacy. My first had gilt pages. I had a pencil with a rubber that smelled of American grape. Gilt & grape always make me think of you.

You taught me it was possible to laugh out loud and feel a small heartbreak in the same moment. Your sharps were always on the right side of empathy, were never ridicule. In your strange creations, life’s quiet losers, eccentrics and frustrated lovelorn freaks, you made silliness, imperfection, and ‘doomed to fail’ beautiful. 

When I learned you had gone I had a document open with final comments to my publisher of my play Pramkicker. We had literally just done an hour’s rehearsal to see if we could remember the words before we take it on tour. You were one of the reasons I was so happy to be published by Methuen. To have that logo. I lost count of the times I read Barmy & Up To You, Porky as a teenager. Brontë Burger made me howl and ache and I learned it off by heart just so if I never had the book with me I would always have the words. That logo became like a talisman, something linked to you and other writers I loved (mostly dead, and so not to be missed as real people) and now you’re gone. I will always be five million steps behind you, but that logo will give me the illusion of being close. It will always be the link to when I began to know that words are only the start of things, that words are a bridge to our better selves. To when I fell in love with sitting alone, quiet, and letting words come out of seemingly nowhere and form characters that could walk and talk and breathe and live and love and laugh and fear and hope and make you feel things you would not have felt without them. No one could do these things all at once better than you. We will all call you, mostly, a comedian, but that is because we can’t really find the right word for what you were and are. You are so much more and it will always be part of me. Thank you for the things I love.

  

Massive Face

I almost puked when I saw it. My massive face. It’s probably not healthy to have quite such a visceral reaction to the sight of your own visage, but there we go. It was like the moon. Somebody, right here at the paper, the tykes, had put a really big picture of my face alongside a piece about my play, and I almost puked when I got handed a copy. I was mortified that people would open up the pages and see it. I wanted to issue an apology for my face and for having a piece about my stupid play. I wanted to stop doing plays, because plays are stupid. Because anything humans do that isn’t sitting in a cave hiding from mammoths and waiting for the next meal is stupid. All this stuff we do, what is it? Stupid.

And of course all of this is perfectly ridiculous. Get over it Hasler. No one cares. Quite right. And after I’d stopped mentally giving myself the birch like a mediaeval monk, I did get over it. Because even punishing myself was making me want to vomit too.

I suppose it’s only natural to have feelings of gross self-effacement. I know in this age of self-based psycho-analytic enlightenment we’re supposed to accept ourselves and like ourselves and all that, but we don’t really trust people who actually do, do we? There’s something shifty about people who like themselves. We want to know how they do it, but we don’t want to ask. Because asking is a step closer to trying and if we fail then that’s one more thing to dislike isn’t it?

The piece in the paper was about my play. Tomorrow is the day it is being published and the first day of the tour. A big day for me. I should be happy to shout it from the rooftops, happy to be in the paper, happy that someone wrote a nice thing about me. But I just feel like a twit.

Maybe it’s an English thing. Maybe we’re culturally predisposed to see our face in a newspaper and want to screw it up. Or maybe it’s just a human thing. Maybe we’re genetically predisposed to seeing our face in a newspaper and want to screw it up.

But I think we owe it to ourselves to try and hurdle over our innate dissatisfaction with ourselves. Because otherwise it’s a long old slog to the end of life if we’re not happy in our own skin, in our own company, in our own heads. We sort of have to be a better friend to ourselves to make the journey nice. Be kind and accepting. See the good parts of ourselves like we see the good parts of other people. Allow ourselves to celebrate our achievements.

In addition to liking ourselves we occasionally have to push ourselves too, because we seldom have benefactors to do it for us. We have to take up the things we are passionate about and wave them like flags, because if we don’t we allow them to stay hidden. And that is sad. Because the world is nicer when we all share our passions outwardly. That’s what gives life colour.
  

Doing Stuff is Good

I had a terribly cultured weekend. This was not due to me being terribly cultured in general – that is a label saved for people better than I – but simply because I got off my typing-til-I-twitch toosh and said yes to stuff. I am not a great goer to things. I either find myself “too busy” or too forgetful, only remembering an event is on afterwards when I hear people talking about how great it was. 

But this weekend there was a constellation of stuff I wanted to make the effort for, and the condensed calendar splurge gave me an almost commando roll burst of energy. I was all “You can do this, Hasler.” I was like an action hero of Saying Yes, a streak-faced marine of administrative planning – mapping out where I had to be and when, so I could make it all happen. For once, useless forgetful twit Hasler was going to Go To The Things.

And I did. I made it to most of the things. And I didn’t fall over and I didn’t spill anything and I didn’t accidentally call someone’s new wife by the old wife’s name, like the last time I decided to be a social butterfly. I would have been way less dangerous in the times when divorce was heavily discouraged, let me tell you. I can do one wife’s name. But two is asking a lot of me. Put the effort in, guys. Marriage is supposed to be for life, not just for a cocktail party.

I made it to the newspaper launch and the rock gig. I made it to the exhibition launch and the pub and the other exhibition launch. I made it to the theatre. I only missed one event, which was a party, and that was only because I was being polite and didn’t want to rock up at 1am with a bag of Doritos while they were stacking the dishwasher in their dressing gowns. So I don’t count it as a fail. I count that as a win for not being the kind of idiot who turns up with snacks when the hosts are listening to Radio 4 and talking about how great all their punctual friends are.

While all the events were great in their own way, one really stole my heart for the weekend. The first event I made it to. On Friday I went to see an ex pupil and now colleague of mine, Paige, read a piece she’d written about Wild Swimming at the Trawler magazine launch. She had been very nervous, but had no need to be. She was brilliant – calm and engaging and delightful. The kind of person who not only commands admiration, but who inspires love. Even if you’ve only known her for five minutes. Paige spoke about finding herself in a landlocked Midlands town for University, then of returning home to the sea. I sympathised. Coming back from Uni was the thing that made me fall in love with my town again, a love that is still strong enough to keep me here, even when London beckons. Perhaps it was due to the wine, but I felt a little teary rush go through me watching her speak. For her nerves and her victory, for her thoughts and her experience, for the age she was, the age she is, the ages she will be, for all that awaits her. I remembered her little face from school as I watched the beauty she has grown into. Boom. There it was. The memory, again. Those girls I taught kept me sane when Dad went. Here one of them is, years later. In my life again. And here I will be for her, if she needs. Even if it’s just to ply her with just the sensible amount of confidence-bestowing booze before she gets on stage to do stuff. Doing stuff is good.