23 March 2015


          We’ll have Manhattan,
          The Bronx and Staten
          Island too.
Rodgers and Hart

As My Perfect Mind prepares to head to New York for a short summer season at 59E59 Theaters, Told by an Idiot have commissioned me to do a regular blog about my memories of New York and in anticipation of returning. Here is the inaugural film blog:

22 March 2015


Later today the coffin of Richard III will reach Leicester Cathedral where it will lie in state before the king’s reinterment on Thursday. This morning I woke to Radio 4’s live broadcast of the Sunday service from Leicester Cathedral. A limerick to mark the occasion.

The monarch old Richard the Third
Of whom everybody has heard
But who’d think to rest a
Great monarch in Leicester,
Build a car park on top: it’s absurd.

Image: National Portrait Gallery, London

In the first scene of My Perfect Mind I quote Keats on Edmund Kean’s King Lear, but I was struck not long ago by a wonderful review of Kean’s Richard III and in particular his fight to the death on Bosworth Field. It was written by Thomas Barnes and appeared in The Examiner in February 1814:
His death-scene was the grandest conception, and executed in the most impressive manner; it was a piece of noble poetry, expressed by action instead of language. He fights desperately: he is disarmed, and exhausted of all bodily strength: he disdains to fall, and his strong volition keeps him standing: he fixes that head, full of intellectual and heroic power, directly on his enemy: he bears up his chest with an expansion, which seems swelling with more than human spirit: he holds his uplifted arm in calm but dreadful defiance of his conqueror. But he is but man, and he falls after this sublime effort senseless to the ground. We have felt our eyes gush on reading a passage of exquisite poetry, we have been ready to leap at sight of a noble picture, but we never felt stronger emotion, more overpowering sensations, than were kindled by the novel sublimity of this catastrophe. In matters of mere taste, there will be a difference of opinion, but here there was no room to doubt, no reason could be impudent enough to hesitate.
Every heart beat an echo responsive to this call of elevated nature, and yearned with fondness towards the man who, while he excited admiration for himself, made also his admirers glow with a warmth of conscious superiority, because they were able to appreciate such an exalted degree of excellence. 
Edmund Kean as Richard III

17 March 2015


Yet there are times when a deeper need enters, when we want the poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a retuning of the world itself.
Seamus Heaney, ‘Crediting Poetry’, Nobel Lecture, 1995 

In celebration of St Patrick’s Day, a preview of our (Kathleen’s and my) book, featuring just a few of West Hampstead’s notable Irish connections.

The Dandy of the War of Independence

Portrait of Figgis by Estella Frances Solomons
Long a home for mavericks as well as movers and shakers, West Hampstead can boast among its former residents a Russian Revolutionary, a Confederate naval hero of the American Civil War, and a defender of the Eureka Stockade miners. It is also the final resting place of Edward Darrell Figgis (1882-1925), poet, novelist, playwright, Sinn Féin activist and independent parliamentarian in the Irish Free State.

‘His life consists of the stuff of which fictions and films are made,’ said one observer who studied his short life and dramatic career. When Michael Collins signed the new Irish constitution in the Shelbourne Hotel in 1922, the document was largely the work of Figgis. That same year Figgis was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Born in Rathmines, Dublin, not far from the home of his contemporary James Joyce, he spent his formative years in India where his father owned a tea plantation, and as a young man he became immersed in London bohemia before returning to Ireland and joining the newly formed Irish Volunteers. Figgis had been the main organizer of the famous arms shipment that was landed at Howth Pier in 1914 and, although he did not take part in the Easter Rising of 1916, he was one of hundreds of Sinn Féin supporters who were rounded up in its aftermath. He was interned in Reading Gaol and recounted his experiences in his book A Chronicle of Jails.

Photo: RTÉ Stills Library

A dandified and fiercely independent character, Figgis eventually had a serious falling out with Michael Collins. On 13 June 1922, a group of armed men broke into his Dublin flat and in a strange ritual cut off half his ginger beard in which he had always taken inordinate pride. A turbulent private life, mired in scandal, led him to take his own life in 1925. The location of the grave of this founding father of the Irish Free State was lost for over eighty years and rediscovered in West Hampstead as recently as 2008.

Figgis’s grave in Hampstead Cemetery, Fortune Green

Dublin’s Answer to Gertrude Stein

More of a cultural revolutionary, the sculptor, stage designer and novelist Desmond MacNamara (1918-2008) lived in a flat at 1 Woodchurch Road, West Hampstead from 1957 until his death. The house had been built by the Victorian painter John Seymour Lucas, who was also Henry Irving’s costume designer. Early in his career, MacNamara had worked as prop and costume designer for the film of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. Before his move to London, MacNamara had been known as Dublin’s answer to Gertrude Stein, running a non-stop salon in his sculptor’s studio on Grafton Street. In Paris he met Samuel Beckett when the two of them helped the young sculptor, Hilary Heron, who had been injured in a motorcycle accident.

Portrait of Brendan Behan by Ida Kar, 1959. NPG
MacNamara’s flat in Woodchurch Road was packed to the groaning Pompeian-red ceiling with artworks, masks, books, and other memorabilia. His mantelpiece housed a life-size bronze bust he made of his best friend, playwright Brendan Behan. The two had met as teenagers on a Spanish Civil War demonstration and Behan often stayed with MacNamara in West Hampstead, including the time Behan was ejected from Wyndham’s Theatre for drunkenly interrupting a performance of his own play The Hostage in June 1959.

Among MacNamara’s books were a biography of Éamon de Valera, an acclaimed book on picture framing and another on puppetry.

Desmond MacNamara
In J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (named one of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century), MacNamara appears as ‘MacDoon. Small dancing figure. It is said his eyes are like the crown jewels. A sharp red beard on his chin. A Leprauchaun for sure. Can’t speak too loudly to Mac, else he might blow away.’ And in a blurb for MacNamara’s Book of Intrusions, Donleavy called MacNamara ‘the Einstein of Irish literature’.

The Bohemian’s Bohemian

The West End actress Florence Farr (1860-1917) was part of a legendary dinner party in Edwardian West Hampstead and at the heart of the Irish Literary Theatre movement.

Named after Florence Nightingale, Farr was a ‘First Wave’ Feminist, sometime mistress of Bernard Shaw, who wished to mould her into his idealized vision of ‘The New Woman’, and a collaborator of W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and Oscar Wilde. She was regarded as ‘the bohemian’s bohemian’ and was the first woman in England to perform in Ibsen’s plays. 

Farr as Louka in Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man

Yeats made her stage manager of the Irish Literary Theatre and said of her: ‘She had three great gifts, a tranquil beauty like that of Demeter’s image near the British Museum reading room door, and an incomparable sense of rhythm and a beautiful voice, the seeming natural expression of the image.’ Throughout the 1890s, he used Farr’s voice as part of his quest to encourage the rebirth of spoken poetry. They developed a theory of the music inherent in words, and Farr often recited to a psaltery, assigning musical notations for the speaking voice. And it was on one particular evening in 1909 at the home of editor Ernest Rhys, in Hermitage Lane, West Hampstead, that Yeats and Farr transmitted their theories to an audience that included Pound and D. H. Lawrence. Quite a good impressionist, Lawrence’s favourite ‘turn’ was an imitation of Farr intoning the ‘Lake Isle of Inisfree’ to the accompaniment of an imaginary psalter – something he first witnessed in West Hampstead in 1909 – a party piece he was still doing in 1927.

Farr with her psaltery harp in 1903, an instrument
created for her by Arnold Dolmetsch

Farr gave recitations to poets on a number of occasions at Hermitage Lane after that. In 1909 she published The Music of Speech and her interest in the interrelationship of music, poetry and the spoken language made her a central figure in discussions of poetry during the years before the Great War.

Farr, incidentally, is the subject of Pound’s poem ‘Portrait d’une Femme’, which is supposed to have influenced or precipitated ‘Portrait of a Lady’ by another sometime resident of West Hampstead, T. S. Eliot.

(Research and text by Kathleen Riley)

EP as Beckett’s Krapp
And finally, also in celebration of St Patrick’s Day, the first of two excerpts from my production of Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, filmed in Dublin in November 1998:

14 March 2015


Our grapevine on Friday the 13th.
Photo by EP
A reprise of an excerpt from a little diary I kept in the first weeks of Spring 2009, just as I was finishing work on the portrait of my brother Bill outside the Bradford Alhambra.
It is only Tuesday, 17 March, but already the year, or at least the week, is shaping up very nicely. Global warming and the recession continue to dominate the airwaves, of course, but yesterday I noticed that the grapevine, which last year found, or rather forced, its way into our little conservatory through a hole it enhanced in the roof, creating a charming indoor canopy, has already sprung into bud, nay even leaf, one or two of the biggest leaves having a span of an inch and a half. Outside the plant still appears comatose; only this adventurous, now domesticated extremity is the advance harbinger of Dionysus; no wonder it has twirled its way around the supports we improvised last year and made itself at home. I wonder what the rest of the plant from the root to the hole in our roof thinks?
        I have thought that sometime I must clear up last year’s vine leaves off the floor, though some of them cling decadently to the vine. The truth is that I have cluttered the conservatory ‘studio’ to do two paintings and between them they have taken from the autumn to the spring. 

10 March 2015

WOWH (Women of West Hampstead)

What she would resolve to do that day did not yet seem quite clear, but something that she could achieve stirred her as with an approaching murmur which would soon gather distinctness. 
George Eliot, Middlemarch

Although she is not featured in the film, it is worth mentioning, by way of a postscript, the prominent socialist and feminist Dame Margaret Postgate Cole who lived at 7 Parsifal Road, West Hampstead from the late 1920s to the late 1930s. She established the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda in 1930 and the New Fabian Research Bureau the following year. She was also a champion of comprehensive education. She produced a large body of work on politics, economics and Labour history and her autobiography, Growing up into Revolution, is considered a beautifully written classic of the genre.

Portrait of Margaret Cole by Australian artist and feminist Stella Bowen
who was an official war artist during World War II. NPG. Circa 1944-5
In 1918, she married G. D. H. Cole, who was regarded as the most influential socialist thinker of the period. Margaret consistently pursued married women’s right to work and equal pay and wanted to find ways of making married women’s role compatible with a successful career. With her husband she wrote twenty-nine detective novels.

The Coles at home (possibly in Parsifal Road), 1938
Photo by Howard Coster. NPG
Margaret Cole is also famous for writing, in November 1915, the one of the first anti-war poems from a woman’s perspective.

‘The Falling Leaves’

Today, as I rode by,
I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree
In a still afternoon,
When no wind whirled them whistling to the sky,
But thickly, silently,
They fell, like snowflakes wiping out the noon;
And wandered slowly thence
For thinking of a gallant multitude
Which now all withering lay,
Slain by no wind of age or pestilence,
But in their beauty strewed
Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.

09 March 2015


Photo by EP
I walked through the alleys up to Hampstead proper this afternoon, retracing the footsteps of the old poets and painters I like to think. I took a picture of the Admiral’s House, painted at least twice by Constable, but I was wondering about abstraction and trying to compose in my head a limerick about it; I got as far as ‘critics’ criteria’ to rhyme with ‘inferior’ and, turning from the last alley into Heath Street, was faced by a new gallery with a Miro in the window.

Photos by EP

I cased the joint then went down the hill to the art shop and bought some materials …

        Is the science of Art quite exact?
        And where would that place the Abstract?
        I think I would fall
        Having no rules at all
        Or is it just courage I’ve lacked

        I’ve bought me a grained piece of wood
        A few dabs of paint would look good
        I might stop the traffic
        Turning non-pictographic – 
        All abstract – if only I could!

Photo by EP

08 March 2015


A limerick to mark the fifth annual Women of the World Festival held at the Southbank Centre this past week (audio only):

Coming soon: a film celebrating West Hampstead’s special contribution to women’s suffrage.

The women’s advocacy paper Shafts, founded by
Margaret Shurmer Sibthorp of Westbere Road, West Hampstead

05 March 2015


It may be a task that’s humdrum
This forcing the dirt to succumb
Who is it deplores
That I’m doing the chores?
When I’ve done them, the cleaner can come.

And I have to get rid of my clutter
Released from its weight – oh but what a
Joy it will be
When of dross I am free
My Spring will spread wide, glide and flutter. 

Photo by EP

03 March 2015


        If ever I saw blessing in the air
        I see it now in this still early day
        Where lemon-green the vaporous morning drips
        Wet sunlight on the powder of my eye.

Laurie Lee, ‘April Rise’

A little film to celebrate the arrival of Spring and St David’s Day just past:

Self-Portrait, c.1953
And speaking of St David’s Day: West Hampstead – where all roads sooner or later seem to lead – has had over the years a number of notable Welsh connections. I mention here just two. Sir John ‘Kyffin’ Williams, RA (1918-2006), widely regarded as the defining artist of Wales in the 20th century, had lodgings and a studio in West Hampstead during his tenure as senior art master at Highgate School from 1944 to 1973.

Hampstead Heath
When Williams died, the Guardian said he ‘captured the imagination of the Welsh public. His dark, monumental landscapes of Snowdonia came to assume an iconic status and so too did the man, affectionately known simply as Kyffin.’ He was also an accomplished raconteur who wrote with panache about the people and places he had known. He felt a lifelong affinity with Van Gogh, not least because they were both epileptic.

Mount Snowdon from Nantlle
Photo by Olive Edis
The Welsh tenor Ben Davies (1858-1943) lived for many years at 33 Compayne Gardens, West Hampstead. He appeared with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and in 1883 created the role of Gringoire in Esmeralda by Arthur Goring Thomas (who tragically committed suicide at West Hampstead Station in 1892). He was chosen by Arthur Sullivan to create the title role of Ivanhoe in 1891. Bernard Shaw wrote: ‘As to Mr Ben Davies, the robust and eupeptic Ivanhoe, who sets to with the mailed Bois Guilbert at Templestowe in a comfortable immensikoff of the period, and gets beaten because he is obviously some three stone over his proper fighting weight, his obstreperous self-satisfaction put everybody into good humour.’

Spring, NW6
Photo by EP