31 October 2011

BLOG 100

A modern house, he saw, perhaps ten years old. The place was beautifully kept with that air of opulent peace that clothes even the smallest houses of the well to do.
E. C. Bentley, Trent’s Last Case 

I was touched when some of my regular readers sent messages. There had been an unexplained long lull in my so-called weekly postings and the messages expressed the hope I was well. I responded to them and then posted my ninety-ninth blog.

I must not be intimidated by the task of this, the hundredth. At least I have some news and have the delicious chance to be thinking about two plays at once, the greatest tragedy in English and what many think of as the most perfect comedy. It may not be wise to tamper with perfection but, from the moment I heard the duet for Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble in a new musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest, I was smiling away my last scruple. This is the week in which I will have my first rehearsal of that duet with Susie Blake and meet with Paul Hunter under the joint auspices of the RSC and his company Told by an Idiot, just the two of us in duet form to tamper with and explore the colossal structure of King Lear.

My younger incarnation of Dr Chasuble, for the Actors’ Company in 1977.
Photo by Sophie Baker 
Meanwhile I have been preoccupied with the research into West Hampstead, or should I say Kathleen’s research. I said to her last week, on the strength of the breadth of her discoveries, that perhaps our book should be called West Hampstead – Hub of Empire, and that was before she discovered that Cecil Rhodes in 1873 bought ten new brick houses ‘prettily situated’ three minutes from West Hampstead Railway Station; he was twenty years old and had capital made from Kimberley diamonds he wanted to invest. We need to discover which houses they were and whether one of them was the house in which E. C. (Edmund Clerihew) Bentley wrote Trent’s Last Case, the detective novel which was the inspiration for the Peter Wimsey stories of Dorothy L. Sayers. 

Bentley’s house in Lymington Road. Photo by EP
E. C. Bentley by Hugh Goldwin Riviere, 1915.
National Portrait Gallery

Bentley was a groundbreaker, introducing not only the idea that his hero was not a superhuman mastermind but also a man involved in a romantic love story within the complexities of the plot. It was a plot, we are told, he worked out on his daily walks from West Hampstead to Fleet Street where he was a leader writer for the Daily Telegraph. It was no doubt easier to be creative and think strategically in the London streets circa 1911 with only the noise of horse traffic, even though there were twice as many Londoners as had been counted in the census of 1851. 

‘Traffic’ at West End Green, circa 1905

What would Bentley think of me now, not walking but Tubing it into the centre (as he could have done of course), but thrilling to his astonishing twists and insights in electronic form on my Kindle? What would he make of the Dog Roses I managed to ‘paint’ on my iPhone as I sped underground to play Sophocles’ Tiresias near London Bridge, a painting inspired by the blooms in the cemetery he too must have known.  

Bentley was also the inventor of the ‘Clerihew’, which The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary defines as ‘a humorous pseudo-biographical quatrain, rhymed as two couplets, with lines of uneven length more or less in the rhythm of prose.’ And so I leave you with my very first clerihew:

Trent’s Last Case, by E. C. Bentley
Was the first case to introduce love themes, very gently.
In similarly tender hue
I dedicate this clerihew.

23 October 2011


               Through the sweet-briar, or the vine,
               Or the twisted eglantine;
               While the cock with lively din,
               Scatters the rear of darkness thin.
                                                                     Milton, LAllegro

 The Metropolitan railway bisects West Hampstead terraces.
Photo by EP

I believe I am coming up to my hundredth blog, though I admit the title ‘Weekly’ has been a misnomer lately. The truth is I have been leading a double life, which takes twice as long as a straightforward single one. I doubt that any of you lives such a simple thing as a single life, however blameless you may be. 

I can’t walk or bus about London NW6 where I live without musing about the people who lived here before me and the delicious names of the places where they walked, so that I am half in the present and half in a series of pasts. Who could not wish that this dense, brick-built suburb of London still had a turning called ‘Sweetbriar Walk’, or that the young Queen Victoria could still be seen strolling between the hawthorn hedges bordering the meadows of West End Lane, having taken a drive in her horsedrawn carriage from her palace, up what was once the ancient Roman Watling Street. Walking to the Tricycle Theatre in neighbouring Kilburn the other night to see a play, in Kilburn High Road, aka Watling Street in fact, we passed a house where the Vorticist painter David Bomberg lived in the 20s and 30s, and I marvelled again, not only that this railway-riddled suburb was once the subject of Constable’s sylvan idyll with a shepherd lad, but that its dense regimented terraces of houses has not succeeded in creating regimented people. 

If we think of West End Green as a suburban vortex (it began life as a village green and is now a traffic island for all its stately plane trees), then a mere 500 yards up the road there is a little vortex of history in our kitchen formed by three fridge magnets: Romneys Lady Hamilton (fancifully portrayed at the spinning wheel), c. 1785; Bomberg’s Mud Bath of 1914 - both artists we know traversed the Green; and our magnetic London Underground bottle opener, reminding us of West Hampsteads Tube station opening as early as 1879, harbinger of Bombergs mechanized future which fractured Romneys handmade past. 

 Photo by EP

As Ezra Pound, another quondam habitue of West End Green, put it: All experience rushes into this vortex. All the energized past, all the past that is living and worthy to live. All momentum, which is the past bearing upon us, race, race-memory, instinct charging the placid, non-energized future.

Kathleen Riley, who has been editing this blog from the other side of the world in Sydney, but is now here, walked with us into the grime and noise of nearby Kilburn High Road last night to see the Cold-War play A Walk in the Woods, and there we were in another past, the Geneva woods, fascinated by two nuclear disarmament negotiators, one Soviet, one American. We had done the same journey the night before to the Tricycle Cinema to see Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which took us in enchantment to a world before the moon had been reached or The Bomb dropped. 

As we walked back home we were not three minutes’ walk away at one point from the 1920s house where until only six years ago the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Professor Joseph Rotblat lived. Having worked on the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bomb, he pulled out and eventually concentrated on harnessing nuclear radiation for medical purposes, meanwhile founding, with Bertrand Russell, the Pugwash Conferences, following the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955, which sought to urge international leaders to resolve their disputes through peaceful means. 

 The semi-detached house on the left is Rotblat’s former home in Asmara Road and the unlikely headquarters of the Pugwash Conferences. 
Photo by EP

The week before wed walked past the L-shaped Annesley Lodge on the corner of Platt’s Lane and Kidderpore Avenue, designed by C. F. A. Voysey in 1896, an Arts and Crafts breakaway from late Victorian brick-built conformity. Voysey’s father, the Rev. Charles Voysey, for whom the house was built, was also a breakaway from conformity; he was condemned by the Privy Council for heresy, having denied the doctrine of everlasting hell. What would he have thought of the unimaginable man-made hell, discussed endlessly in the Geneva woods and in the West Hampstead headquarters of the Pugwash Conferences?

 Annesley Lodge. Photo by EP

So you see we walk through our research every day as well as trawling the internet and delving into the archives of local history. Along the way we encounter poets, painters, parliamentarians and peace-brokers, magicians, musicians, magnates and modernists, conjurers, clowns and clerics, harlequins, hypnotists and heretics …

Photo by EP
There may be no time like the present but the past is currently our parallel universe. This morning we even walked on a pavement bordered by a descendant of sweet briar on our way to the old railway sidings, now a Peace Park, where we read the words of a Mayor of Hiroshima inscribed on a paving stone.

 Photo by EP. (Click to enlarge image)

02 October 2011


There is no index of character so sure as the voice. 
Benjamin Disraeli

October 1st, 2011: I took this photograph on my iPhone just after 7 o’clock this evening, so you see how our London nights are drawing in, though our day was perfect, breaking all records for October – and it promises to be at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit again tomorrow. This corporate steel and glass rises at the junction of Hampstead Road and Tottenham Court Road.

Photo by EP
Its humble nextdoor neighbour is a modest brick building with a door leading to a tiny fringe venue, the Camden People’s Theatre, where a company called Improbable were doing the second of two nights of their latest improvised experiment in The Still.

Photo by EP
I had a particular reason to talk my way into tonight’s sold-out performance; I had met the director Phelim McDermott at the nearby Pret a Manger for lunch yesterday along with Paul Hunter, my clown companion in The Fantasticks. We were discussing the forthcoming workshop Paul and I are doing on the subject of King Lear, and hoping Phelim would be able to join us in our experiments.

Myself as Henry and Paul Hunter as Mortimer in The Fantasticks. 
Duchess Theatre 2010. Photo by Francis Loney

As it turned out, tonight was more relevant than I could have hoped because the noted ‘Voice Dialogue facilitator’, John Kent, was interviewing the voices of the actors … well, I gather we might all have many voices, many people that we are, but it was fascinating to hear improvised interviews with two selected selves of each actor, as they strove to explain their function in, and their relationship with, the lives of the main self (whose seat was left vacant whilst the other self stood aside and did the talking, if you take my meaning.

According to Improbable’s website: ‘Pioneered by Drs. Hal & Sidra Stone, Voice Dialogue is a revolutionary process that allows us to become aware of the many different selves that influence the course of our lives.’ This technique is used in the corporate world of glass and steel as well as in experimental fringe theatres.

There was, of course, a more successful element of performance, not to say comedy, in the excerises than one might have expected had we been next door with executives on a development course. Even Matilda Leyser’s baby to be was a prominent character. Phelim’s two poles were a rather puckish, sly mischief and a hangdog shamed reluctance; hers, no less physically manifest, fidgety retreats into laughter and four-square, no-nonsense career woman. But, despite this element of performance, there was a sense of honest inquiry and revelation in the experimental proceedings.

I began to wonder to what degree a king might be himself part-fool and take the advice and criticism the fool is licensed to give, and conversely, a fool part-king. Most of all I began to wonder about the authentic voice, which of one’s many voices was the one to be attended to. For the actor, when attempting to take on the mantle of another person, the problem is further complicated. I found the authentic voice so difficult to find as I sat at my kitchen table saying Lear’s lines, attempting to honour the poetry, the rhythm and yet discover, too, the cadences of ‘natural’ speech, in fact to make King Lear – as I might say – one of me.

Lear and the Fool. Double self-portrait.
Charcoal on paper, 2006
My work on King Lear was begun whilst there were snowdrops in Hampstead Churchyard in very early 2007. Hence this rejected attempt at fulfilling a commision to supply my Lear in image form for publicity purposes before I quite knew who he was.

Photo by Arthur Petherbridge
I am intrigued by news of some distinguished voices that sounded just ten minutes’ walk away from my kitchen table, and not far from Hampstead Churchyard, albeit a century ago. Ernest Rhys, founder of the Rhymers’ Club and the Everyman’s Library of classics, recorded this extraordinary tale of a most memorable literary encounter in his West Hampstead home:

Ernest Rhys
At our house in Hermitage Lane – called ‘Derwen’ after the old oak tree staring in at the window – to which we had moved from Hunt Cottage, we often had gatherings of young poets, resuming the nights at the Old Cheshire Cheese of the Rhymers Club. …

The most memorable of these nights was one when the late D. H. Lawrence, then a completely unknown poet, came with Ford Madox Ford (who was editing the English Review). He had written to say he had discovered a wonderful new poet in a young country schoolmaster somewhere in the Black Country, and wished to bring him along. …

When the two entered the room together, they made a strong contrast. Ford always had the air of a man-about-town used to town occasions, while Lawrence looked shy and countrified; perhaps a little overwhelmed by the fanfaron of fellow poets heard in the room, with W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound dominating the chorus. …

‘Derwen’ today, complete with oak.
Photo by EP
During the supper, Yeats, always a good monologuer, held forth at length on this new way of bringing music and poetry together, and possibly Ezra Pound, who could also be vocal on occasion, may have felt he was not getting a fair share of the fun. So, in order to pass the time perhaps, and seeing the supper table dressed with red tulips, he presently took one of the flowers and proceeded to munch it up. …

The plan of entertainment on these occasions was a simple one. Every poet was supposed to bring an original poem and read or declaim it aloud. Willie Yeats was a capital opener of the feast, and that night we asked him, as he said he had no new verses to read, to recite The Lake of Innisfree’; but he said he was tired of that lovely lyric, and read us instead a later one which begins:

‘She lived in storm and strife,
Her soul had such desire
For that proud death may bring …’

Rhys continues his account of the evening at some length and says that Pound, sounding like Henry Irving with an American accent, declaimed his Ballad of the Goodly Fere.

I sat at my own kitchen table and listened, via the online Poetry Archive, to Yeats intoning ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’ and Pound his Cantos. They both seemed to believe that poetry came from a different place and had to be chanted with fulsome vibrato and a small range of notes as in an incantation or prayer. I now wonder, as they slipped in and out of this manner of speaking round the supper table, if they consciously became at one moment The Poet and at another the man again. Nowadays one would be embarrassed to be caught out speaking in a ‘poetry voice’. But isn’t it strange that grown men of genius could sit round a table and allow the poet in them to speak so portentously, religiously when we know that the poems are much nearer to our common lives than that, and sound, for all their word music and wonder, just like the real us.