Monday, 28 August 2017

TADS #14:Along The Cam (or Welcome to Paradise).

"If I should die, think only this of me
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England
There shall be in that rich earth a richer dust concealed
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam
A body of England's, breathing English air
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home"

"And think, this heart, all evil shed away
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Given somewhere back the thoughts by England
Given her sights and sounds, dreams happy as her day
And laughter, learnt of friends and gentlemen
In hearts at peace
Under an English heaven"

The Soldier was written by Rupert Brooke in 1914 one year before he died, during World War I as part of the Gallipoli Campaign, off the Greek island of Skyros in the Aegean Sea of an infected mosquito bite. It's easy enough to imagine how any young man (Brooke was just 27 when he died) would feel nostalgic for home when fighting in a deadly war but when you get to see one of the places Rupert Brooke called home it becomes even more striking.

I was taking lapsang souchong tea in The Orchard House Tearooms in Grantchester just off the banks of Cam on the weekend of my 49th birthday with nine good friends. I was sat in a deck chair surrounded by beautiful scenery, gorgeous greenery, and the contented purrs of happily refreshed punters (quite literally in many cases) and it would've been remiss of me not to reflect, at least briefly, on those who made the ultimate sacrifice so I could enjoy such pleasures.

No day that starts with a huge map of the world on the wall of your bedroom should ever be a bad one and so it proved to be. My incredibly generous and loyal friends Teresa and Adam had treated me to two nights in an absolutely lovely airbnb near Cambridge station. The day before we'd been joined by other friends (Eilish, Pam, and Kathy) for a bout of sightseeing, a few drinks by the river, tasty veggie food in the Rainbow CafĂ©, and couple of pints in our local, The Flying Pig. One of those great local pubs that are dimly lit, covered in posters for gigs, comedy, and art, and stocked with a tough to choose collection of real ales.

Eilish had travelled back to London on Friday evening but on Saturday morning she'd been replaced by regular TADS walker Shep. He'd left Basingstoke about 6am (a lie in for him) so he arrived at the accommodation not long after Adam, Teresa, and I had risen. We met Pam and Kathy in The Regal for breakfast. It's a Wetherspoons and, even at 10am, folks were getting stuck into their 2nd and 3rd pints, of course they were.
For a 'Spoons it wasn't bad, truth be told. Nice Art Deco flourishes (even in the toilets) and rumoured to be one of the, if not quite the, biggest in the country. It's never nice to give money to pro-Brexit mullet-headed throwback Tim Martin but the veggie breakfast is delicious and ridiculously cheap. It's a dilemma but this time taste and cost won out.

Back at the station we met up with Rachael, Belinda, Eamon, and Neil. All ten TADS in place I contentedly surveyed another successful turn out and we set off down Station Road, then leafy Bateman Street, and on to Belvoir Terrace.
Just before we reached the Cam we caught the sight of a field of cows running back and forth (or dancing according to Rachael). I'd never seen cows move so fast and the lady who appeared to be responsible for them seemed to have lost control a little. It's one of the many wonders of Cambridge that cows seem to roam almost free in parts of the city.

Crossing over a metal bridge into Coe Fen, cutting through some woods, and leaving the city behind us we picked up the path of the Cam as it gently ebbed and flowed through Arcadian idylls. Weeping willows kissed the water and punts and canoes serenely glided along as families, friends, and lovers set up picnics on the riverside. All was calm in the brilliant sunshine.
We passed through Grantchester Meadows, the Paradise Nature Reserve, and Skater's Meadow. We saw more cows, a pair of hardy wild swimmers, and a field preparing to show films as part of the Cambridge film festival. Each twist and turn revealed new vistas and new beauties before we finally turned off the river into The Orchard House Tearooms.

Various teas and cakes were consumed. Pam was bold enough to risk a small bottle of rose, the first of our group to take a booze drink all day (though certainly not the last). Deck chairs are so comfortable (once you're in) they're hard to get up from. In this location more than ever.
It seems such a simple plan to place a few deck chairs in amongst some trees and let people eat and drink there but it's so rarely done. The Orchard House Tearooms has been an essential riverside stop for undergraduates since 1897. Like Grantchester itself they were made famous by Rupert Brooke's poem, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, which he wrote in Berlin in 1912 during a fit of nostalgia. He'd taken rooms at both The Orchard House and The Old Vicarage (later to be owned by disgraced Tory MP Jeffrey Archer) and his 'chums', EM Forster and Virginia Woolf, used to punt upriver to visit him. They'd take tea and thus established a tradition I was glad to become a small part of.

The little village of Grantchester itself is pretty cute. We had a brief look at the fine chancel of the Perpendicular Church of St Andrew and St Mary (I read from 'the book' at the pulpit which was obviously absolutely hilarious - everyone agreed, everyone) and then retired to the Rupert Brooke pub. There are three equally fine looking ale houses dotted around the village but how could we choose any other?
It wasn't like we needed a stop but we felt it was what Rupert would've wanted. It's clearly been poshed up a bit in recent years and seemed to cater more for the gastro crowd than ale and crisp craving ramblers so we sat outside in the garden. Justinians, Spartas, wine, gin, and lager (step forward Mr Bacchus) were downed before we sat off back along the Cam into Cambridge proper. My gout was tickling me a little and I was glad I wasn't on The Ridgeway. Smutty stories and memories of Reading Festivals gone by kept the spirits up.

As did the sight of a gingham gondolier, a very sweary piece of graffiti, and the promise of another pint in Cambridge (I'd styled the walk "A pint and a punt with a birthday cunt" but the punting did not materialise until Sunday). In 1999 I'd visited Cambridge with Tina and remembered very fondly the grassy riverside banks of the Cam near The Mill pub. That had been a gloriously hot weekend and this one followed suit. It was still just as nice there so the inevitable two pint mistake felt less of a mistake than ever.
A local mendicant, styling himself as Andi Pandi, and clad in red corduroy trousers, a green tweed jacket, and a jester's hat was coaxing people out of money. He claimed to be a 'cosmic genius' that could tell you more about yourself in ten minutes than you'd learn during years of professional therapy. Simply by sorting eighteen coloured cards in to order of preference. Of course he was rubbish. He'd guessed I was a middle sibling, a lawyer, and had issues with my father's alcoholism. All patently untrue though the third guess may work in reverse. He then said I liked my lovers to be in love with me, my friends to be loyal, and sometimes worried about things which, of course, apply to pretty much everybody who has ever lived. He was entertaining enough when he'd approached us on Friday (Teresa had given him a fiver) but we were pretty certain one experience with Andi Pandi was quite enough.

After a couple of quick quiz games we managed to get our asses off the grass and complete the walk. Over the Silver Street Bridge with views to the Mathematical Bridge (rumoured, incorrectly we were informed the next day, to be able to stay up without nuts and bolts) before we hit The Backs.
The view of King's College Chapel, even to non-believers and those not interested in architectural history, was, and is, sublime. The Perpendicular college proudly asserts its authority over the city, the university, and the river with such aplomb it has become the symbol of Cambridge and features on most of the postcards and other tourist tat you can buy there.
Clare College (founded in 1325) and Trinity College (the city's largest, founded by Henry VIII, and counting Byron, Dryden, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Bertrand Russell, and Isaac Newton among its alumni) are beautiful but King's is the, er, king. Eamon remarked upon its buttresses and I have to say 'I like big buttresses and I cannot lie".

The sight of a swan (a pen we assumed) and its cygnets enthusiastically feasting on algae on one of the Cam's backwaters was as touching as King's was awesome. We stood for a while watching nature do what nature does. Then we stood for a while longer on a bridge over the Cam watching punts go back and forth, secretly hoping someone would take an unintended dip but to no avail. Our schadenfreude remained unsated.

Back in the centre of Cambridge we passed by the fronts of the same colleges we'd just walked behind. People were getting hungry and thirsty (and day trippers had trains to catch) so we took a quick jar in the Prince Regent, bade farewell to Neil, Eamon, and Bee, and headed over to Vedanta.
The waiter insisted we try the samosa chat. In a good mood we fell for his spiel and were immediately grateful we had done. All agreed it was one of the most delicious things they'd eaten in an Indian, or in fact any, restaurant. The rest of the food was great too. I had dal makhni, pilau rice, and a garlic naan and washed it down with a pint of Cobra.
It was now Rachael's turn to head home to Welwyn Garden City so the six of us that remained went back to The Flying Pig. There was live music and the atmosphere was amiable. The locals seemed to be excited about the all day festival, Pigstock, they had planned for the next day.
We didn't go. We had breakfast in a youth hostel, took an informative and relaxing guided tour on the Cam, had a couple of quick pints, and hopped on the train back to KX. Down pokey quaint streets in Cambridge I'd discovered my distant spastic heritage and, as is so often, with these TADS walk I came home feeling enriched. Enriched by what I'd learnt, enriched by what I'd seen, enriched by the exercise I'd taken, and enriched by the fact that I'd been fortunate enough to share it all with such great people.
I can now say, with some authority, I know where Syd Barrett lived!


Sunday, 13 August 2017

Fleapit revisited:Prick Up Your Ears.

"With madness, as with vomit, it's the passer by who receives the inconvenience" - Joe Orton.

I'm not quite sure how thirty years have passed since the release of Stephen Frears' Prick Up Your Ears and I'm even more uncertain of how, as those three decades elapsed, I'd never got round to seeing it. It's not as if it wasn't raved about at the time of its release and I was quite aware of Gary Oldman (who plays Joe Orton in this story of his life and death), having travelled up to a now defunct cinema in Camden to see him as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy just a year before.

The BFI Southbank were showing the 1987 film as part of their Orton:Obscenities in Suburbia season so I was finally getting my chance to lay this ghost to rest. But thirty years later would it have the same impact on me as it did those who saw it on its release? Would it seem impossibly dated? Do people even know, or care, who Joe Orton is now?

Well, I can't answer the first question and the third is up for debate but on the question as to whether or not it looked dated the answer is yes, it did. But that wasn't a problem. It would've looked dated when it came out in '87. The rain soaked London streets, the seedy public toilets, the now vintage police cars, and the unflattering y-fronts all spoke of the late sixties far more than they did the late eighties. There's virtually no sunshine in the film. A fair amount of it is shot in the poky Islington flat Orton shared with his lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) and rarely do they venture outdoors during the daytime. Even when they travel to Morocco to enjoy some dubious, potentially underage, sex the skies seem to be permanently overcast.

Alan Bennett's responsible for the screenplay and if that comes across in the slightly dour settings it does so even more in the amount of wonderful one liners dished out by Orton, Halliwell, and Orton's sister Elsie (played by Frances Barber). There are also appearances from Julie Walters (Joe's mum, Elsie), Richard Wilson (as, I don't believe it, a psychiatrist with a poor understanding of homosexuality), Eric Richard (a man whose features are etched into the mind of anyone of my generation after a decade long shift playing Desk Sergeant Bob Cryer in The Bill), and an uncredited cameo from Derek Jarman.

But the film belongs to Oldman and, to a slightly lesser extent, Molina. Oldman, in his handsome pomp, is a near perfect fit to play Orton, his star rising at the time the film was made as Orton's was at the time the film was set. He's got the insouciance, the devil-may-care attitude, the taboo busting disrespect for civilised society, and the sexually cavalier attitude down to a tee. Witness him checking out men's packages in the park and leaving a prestigious award in a urinal as he celebrates the winning of it with a leather clad gay orgy in a public toilet so grim looking you can virtually smell the piss.

It looks fun to play. Molina gets more of a challenge. Halliwell is a frustrated, fastidious, fusspot full of insecurities and jealous about Orton's success, promiscuity, and full head of hair. He jokes that it would take him three days to plan a wank and then enviously allows Orton to escort various articles of rough trade into tube station alleyways and tower blocks for dimly lit knee tremblers.

Halliwell even joins in sometimes and it's to Frears' credit that he shows us the duality of Halliwell's character, how he's changed. We see him both as Orton's crabby, complaining house husband and, by use of a non-linear narrative, his passionate lover and a once talented, if horribly hammy, writer and actor himself. By the avoidance of strict chronology Frears and Bennett are able to paint more rounded pictures of Orton, Halliwell, and their relationship, carried out for the most part, it's worth stressing, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK.

We jump from the years of Orton's success, and Halliwell's mental collapse, back and forth to his days growing up in Leicester where his mum paid for him to have elocution lessons so he can make something of himself. A third strand that weaves in and out of the film involves American biographer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) and his wife Anthea (Lindsay Duncan) working, posthumously, on a book about the playwright. This gives Vanessa Redgrave, as Orton's theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay, a chance to lay the groundwork for Joanna Lumley's Patsy Stone character in Absolutely Fabulous a few years later.

It's not the most interesting part of the film and when the action was on Lahr & Ramsay I was always wanting it to switch back to Orton and Halliwell and their banter, badinage, and brawling. In 2017, despite homophobia still being undoubtedly a very real thing, homosexuality is more accepted than it was in 1987 by wider society so it's unlikely this film will have quite the impact on its re-release as it did when it first came out (if you'll pardon the pun) but that takes nothing away from its brilliance.

Enjoy the jokes about East Croydon being in the countryside, pubs being so gentrified they now serve salad, and the running theme of Orton ramming his typewriter up anyone he's taken a dislike to's arse but also come to marvel at a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, period piece that feels very very English indeed. It's a deliciously saucy seaside postcard but it's stained with the blood and barbiturates of the era too.