Ivor My Engine

It had been a bad day at the bookshop. The boss was in a stinking mood, the heating was broken, and there was a huge pile of Schott’s Miscellany in need of new stickers.

Looking up, I noticed an old codger loitering by the reference section. He sported a tartan cap with a sunflower in the brim, and was studiously leafing through the latest Who’s Who. Oh god, I thought, another local loon – I’m really not in the mood right now. Catching my eye, and perhaps feeling I was owed some kind of explanation, he raised his head and said only one thing: ‘Just checking.’

It was no longer a bad day at the bookshop.

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My first experience of Ivor Cutler was a common one: it was on the Radio 1 John Peel programme, for which he recorded 23 sessions (a record narrowly beaten only by The Fall and, in various guises, David Gedge). 1991 had already been a pretty good year for Peel sessions, showcasing everyone from the Charlatans to the Shamen, Bongwater to the Ragga Twins, Helmet to Dr Phibes and the House of Wax Equations. I used to tape them religiously and compile elaborately felt-tipped cassettes of highlights. It  was the sheer variety of artists that mainly thrilled me, but nothing had quite prepared me for Ivor Cutler. Out of my radio came this slightly unsettling Govan voice, crooning the following over a doleful piano:

Why is your coat so thick, Joe?
Why is your coat so thick? It seems thicker every day.

“What’s it got to do with you?
That’s the way I like my coat.
My coats have always been thick.”

What’s the material called, Joe?
You told me yesterday but I forgot.

“I’ve forgotten too.
But I’ll tell you the colour – it’s a darkish blue.”

Oh don’t go on, the colour’s grey –
It’s only the light from the street.
Do let’s go for a walk, Joe,
I’d like to stretch my feet.

Why is your coat so thick, Joe?
Why is your coat so thick? It seems thicker every day.

It was deeply strange, but I found it hard to put my finger on precisely why it was strange. Even allowing for Peel’s famous each-record-completely-different-from-the-one-before-it eclecticism, Ivor Cutler was unusual. With the precision of his inflexions and the daringness of his silences, it was as if Radio 1 had – unlike my cassette deck – been put on pause. It was as if the weather had changed. ‘Ivor’s great at dreich’ Billy Connolly once said, referring to the Scottish slang for drizzle.

But the thing with Ivor Cutler was that you had eclecticism within eclecticism. He didn’t seem to fit into any one box. He wasn’t a ‘cosy’ poet, but he wasn’t an overtly ‘alternative’ one either. He was neither John Betjeman nor John Cooper Clarke; neither Pam Ayres nor Patti Smith. His work was very funny, but it seemed to carry a peculiar weight on its shoulders that the work of other ‘humour poets’ (even the very good ones) often didn’t.

In his world, nothing was quite what it seemed. The cover of his 1976 Jammy Smears LP sees Cutler bare-chested, apparently in a southpaw sparring pose, as if he’s snarling ‘You talking to me?’ into a mirror. Look closely, however, and his fists aren’t actually clenched. His face is melancholic and afraid, like a haunted figure in a Samuel Beckett play. His boxing shorts are pyjama bottoms.

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Cutler was Scottish and  Jewish, although he seemed to contradict Arnold Brown’s famous joke about these being ‘two racial stereotypes for the price of one’.  I often tried to piece together his ‘story’, but it was a slippery one. Who exactly was he? His recollections and observations were rooted in Scotland, but they also seemed to take place in a bigger, far woozier world. He belonged to Glasgow, but also to other planets. This is, after all, a man who was once grounded by the RAF for ‘dreaminess’.

It’s interesting, listening to Cutler’s early work (his first three records are currently available on CD as An Elpee and Two Epees), how his delivery arrived almost full-formed. Those 1959/61 recordings have a slightly more Milligan-esque knowing wink, and you can hear how they wouldn’t have frightened too many Home Service horses, but it’s still the Cutler we know. As far as I can tell, he’s an artist with no juvenilia.

As the years rolled on, the voice (and face) became unmistakable – when it comes to TV ‘hauntology’, he was exactly the kind of weirdo you’d expect to see popping up on Late Night Line-Up, Whistle Test or The Innes Book of Records. He was also terrific as Mr Bloodvessel in Magical Mystery Tour (‘I am concerned for you to enjoy yourselves, within the limits of British decency…if you know what I mean’), although it always annoys me how much they underused him dialogue-wise.

As he grew older, Cutler’s work – like Samuel Beckett’s – matured into a sort of crisp minimalism, and his imagery became even odder and more oblique. Here’s his 1991 prose poem Seaweed:

Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to determine where a woman’s face ends and the air begins. As though flesh and air shared the area, like high tide and low tide.

So when you lean forward to kiss her, your lips touch sand, or else they plunge into the sea. It’s always a surprise.

I prefer sand, with a bit of bladderwrack on the lip.

The phrase ‘flesh and air shared the area’ is brilliant there. Cutler doesn’t just have a poet’s eye – he peers intently at the world, and at language, as though through a jeweller’s eyepiece.

It always comes back to that voice, though – a voice that works very well on the page, but only if you already know what it sounds like. I remember when Cutler was about to collaborate with some indie band, the NME reported a telephone conversation between him and the singer. Sadly I can’t recall the name of the band, but I vividly recall the transcript:

SINGER: When shall we meet?
IVOR: Well, what time do you surface?
SINGER (Laughing): Well, we don’t usually surface till about ten!
IVOR: In that case I shall meet you at nine.

I also remember a Radio 4 announcer asking him about his plans for Millennium Eve: ‘I’ll climb over my books and try to get into bed,’ he said. ‘Then I might sneer.’

Much as I adore his poetry, the autobiographical Life in  a Scotch Sitting Room and Glasgow Dreamer monologues are probably my favourite works. I love the line about the family eating herrings, about how they’d wolf down the batter first ‘to take the edge off our appetites so we could eat the herrings with respect’. I never tire of the story about his father taking them for an instructional walk (‘There are lots of thistles in Scotland – we were soon well-acquainted with them’). And I’ll certainly never forget the line ‘I extended my puny finger and sank it into his fluted scrotum’. How much of it was true autobiography, and how much was invention? Again, Cutler blurs the lines.

I remember one winter I got ill with a fever (‘hugging the wall to escape the worst effects of the fresh air’) and my company under the blankets was the Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Volume II album, recorded at the 3rd Eye Centre on Sauchiehall Street in 1977. It remains one of the most blissful evenings of my life. Never mind listening to Pink Floyd on acid – you should try digging Ivor Cutler when you’ve got flu.

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When I moved to London and began working at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I got used to seeing incredibly famous people. When you work in London retail, you very quickly become blasé about talking to celebrities – they’re just part of your daily routine. I could fill a whole book about my experiences behind the counter, serving everyone from Clare Grogan downwards (or, if you like, Rod Liddle upwards). I could tell you about the time a grumpy Ken Dodd asked me to look after his suitcases or the time Nicole Kidman pushed past me on the stairs. I could tell you that Michael Heseltine and Jerry Sadowitz were both very friendly but Harriet Harman wasn’t. I could mention the week I served three different Doctors Who. I could recall the day a heavily-masked Michael Jackson generously tipped the security guards with chocolate but then had his credit card declined. Only two celebs have ever really made me truly starstruck, though: one was Tom Courtenay (who asked where the  Anglo-Saxon dictionaries were), and the other was Ivor Cutler.

Foyles stocked quite a few of Cutler’s volumes, a selection of which had just been republished as miniatures, and Ivor (who lived locally) would periodically pop in to see how they were getting on, a bit like a restless gardener tending a greenhouse. I remember the way he first introduced himself: ‘I’m Ivor – would you like me to sign anything?’ he said, carefully dismounting his bike. ‘I’m apparently Scotland’s foremost poet.’

During my time at Foyles, I got to know Ivor quite well. He’d come in fairly regularly, and I often volunteered to work in the poetry section in anticipation of his visits. He was somehow frail and full of beans at the same time. His official live performances were rare, but I had a private audience with him every week; he’d hang about by the till reciting poems, stories and songs, most of which seemed to be world exclusives. I remember one time a police helicopter could be loudly heard overhead and he ad-libbed a routine about the ingenious methods he was using to escape capture.

Did I discover ‘the real Ivor Cutler’? Not really. Or if I did, he was the same chap who’s on the records. He did confide that he didn’t think John Peel should be wasting his time with Home Truths, but that’s the closest I’ve got to gossip. It was very odd talking to him ‘out of character’, though – he usually had a smile playing on his lips, and I suspected that, like most eccentrics, he was fully aware of the eccentricity-buttons he was pushing. (How long had he planned that ‘Just checking’ line? Had he used it before?) I’ve always felt the same way about John Peel, Alan Bennett and Vivian Stanshall – there’s a trick to making all that quotability seem natural. Which isn’t to say that any of those people are frauds; quite the opposite, in fact – they’re simply very skilled at speaking the truth.

His visits became gradually less frequent, and I last spoke to him about a year before he died. As he left, he handed me a sticker (as he often did), which read ‘To remove this label, take it off’.

To most of my colleagues he was ‘that weird Scottish poet guy’. To me, he was…well, that weird Scottish poet guy. But he brightened up my days anyway. There’s certainly a lot less dreich in the world now he’s gone. (Or a lot more, depending on how you look at it.)

ivor-sunflower

I was always touched by how protective he was of his own books, which is why it maddens me how little of his stuff remains available today. Most of his poetry and prose is long out of print, for a start, the tiny volumes he signed in Foyles now commanding colossal sums. The albums have fared slightly better, although not all of them are available – the material’s all owned by several different labels, so even an Essential Ivor Cutler compilation may be a problematic endeavour. The Peel sessions, however, are surely long-overdue the boxset treatment.

What really puzzles me is why nobody’s ever commissioned a proper Ivor Cutler anthology. Not necessarily the collected works (which would be a glorious doorstop) , but a ‘Selected Poems’ volume at the very least. This goes back to what I was saying before about me being unsure of Cutler’s status. Is he considered a ‘proper’ poet? How is he viewed by the gatekeepers of the literary canon? It’s hard to get any real frame of reference, but his absence on the bookshelves remains scandalous.

With this in mind, I advocate that every January 26th we should celebrate Cutler Night. We toast Rabbie Burns on the 25th as usual, but the next day we raise a class to Scotland’s other national poet. And instead of haggis, neeps and tatties, we tuck into egg meat, gruts and pickled knees.

All within the limits of British decency, of course.

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If you know what I mean.

 

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How to Cook Eggs

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Eggs. Yes, eggs.

About ten years ago, my wife and I were big fans of the UKTV Food series Market Kitchen – a sort of low-rent version of the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen – hosted by the twinkly (and very posh) Matthew Fort. Discovering that they shot the series down the road from us in Camden, we applied for tickets to be in the ‘audience’.

I say audience, but in reality we were more like stooges: during the ad breaks, we were endlessly shuffled around the tiny studio like ballroom-dancing extras in a costume drama, the production team trying in vain to disguise the fact that there were only nine of us. But we were more than happy to comply, whether an item required us to lounge about on sofas tucking into jam roly-poly or to sit awkwardly on patio chairs and prod at bits of quiche.

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Matthew Fort (left) and Tom Parker Bowles, about to prepare daffodil surprise

I was initially asked to sit at the ‘breakfast bar’, where Brian Turner was later to be cooking duck. Around us were rustic crates groaning with fruit – all real, but covered in so much furniture polish that the crew issued a heath and safety warning saying we should on no account attempt to scrump anything. I tried to adopt a casual elbow-on-the-worktop pose. If anybody gave me a lemon pie, I was more than more than ready to say ‘Mmm, you can really taste the lemon’ with appropriate feeling.

Matthew Fort was buzzing about the studio, convivially chatting to everyone, and eventually he came over to us. His opening line was about cheese – specifically whether one should refrigerate it or not. Fearful that I was being tested, I said that I did indeed refrigerate cheese, but always brought it to room temperature an hour or so before serving. This was a lie. Fort seemed impressed, though, which gave me a gust of confidence. I then heard this come out of my mouth:

‘But do you put your eggs in the fridge?’, I asked, my carefully-positioned elbow wobbling slightly. ‘That’s the big debate.’

Yes, ‘That’s the big debate’. Only ten minutes on a daytime TV show and already I’d perfected the lingo. Maybe later I would ‘go on a mission’ to find out what ‘the people of Britain’ thought.

Fort said he didn’t put his eggs in the fridge. If I’d been quicker, I would have said ‘Does your butler do it for you?’, but my dalliance with razor-sharp media bantz was over. He started to mingle elsewhere and I wondered if I’d touched a nerve. After all, cooking always comes back to eggs. When Delia Smith devoted three whole episodes of her 1998 series How To Cook to the subject, she was roundly condemned. Come on, Delia, everyone knows how to cook an egg, they said. What next – how to boil water, huh huh huh.

Well, a lot of people don’t know how to cook eggs. More to the point, knowing how to cook eggs is essentially about knowing how to cook full-stop: if you can master eggs, you can master anything. Well, maybe not Brian Turner’s duck.

So the purpose of this blog is to give you my foolproof methods for cooking eggs the four basic (or, to quote Basil Fawlty, extremely different) ways: boiled, fried, scrambled and poached. You may have other methods, and you may disagree violently with mine (perhaps you may even throw eggs in protest), but they’re my methods and they’ve generally served me well.

BOILED EGGS

Boiling has one disadvantage over other egg-cooking techniques: without x-ray vision, you can’t monitor how well they’re doing. There are, after all, few things grimmer than cracking open the shell only to find a rock-hard yolk or (far worse) gloopy uncooked white. As with baking, timing is everything – you can’t just wing it. But the following usually works.

For a hard-boiled egg, put the eggs in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil, then take the pan off the heat and leave for eight minutes. When the eight minutes are up, put them in an ice bath or run them under very cold water. This will set everything nicely, but won’t produce the pebble-like powdery yolk that UKIP voters probably get nostalgic for; the yolk will have a slight squidge, meaning that it’s perfect in things like caesar salads but will also be firm enough to slice or chop.

For a soft-boiled egg, bring the water to a boil first, then add the eggs. Leave them boiling for five minutes, and then it’s cold shower time. This will produce a solid white with a creamy yolk tailor-made for dipping.

And if you’re doing the latter, do it properly, with the appropriate ‘theatre’ – ie, make some buttered soldiers. Get some decent bread, as well – I’m no snob when it comes to the cheap stuff, but floppy soldiers are a bit…well, I’m reminded of Malcolm Tucker’s line about the marzipan dildo.

You’ll need salt, too. Just a pinch at the top and it’s nom city.

egg soldiers.jpg

FRIED EGGS

There are three main methods here: sunny side up, over-easy, and exploded.

The exploded method (intentionally breaking the yolk and cooking it on both sides – a bit like an unmixed omelette) is fine if the egg’s going in a sandwich or will be otherwise disguised by other foodstuffs, but it’s not pretty. I knew a hipster food stall which would break the yolk at the end of the frying process, after which it would be poured onto hamburgers and bacon butties as a kind of sauce. Whoever came up with that method clearly remembered this revolting shot from Withnail and I:

withnail-egg

Sunny side up (where the egg is only fried on one side and the yolk sits proudly naked on the top) is difficult to get right. Lots of otherwise excellent eateries do it badly because it’s a tricky balancing act: the white has to be fully set on the top without being overcooked on the base, while the yolk must remain not only runny but piping hot as well. A disastrous sunny side up egg has a burnt bottom and slimy raw white surrounding a tepid yolk.

So how do you do it? The best method is to baste the top with the oil as it’s cooking. But do so gently – spooning huge amounts of boiling fat directly onto the yolk will not only cook it far too quickly, it’ll also lose that lovely orangey-yellow glow. Take a teaspoon and slowly baste the outside of the yolk rather than the yolk itself. Keep the temperature at medium too, so the process is nice and steady. (In order to spoon up the oil easily, you’ll inevitably have to add more oil than you really need, but that’s life.)

Sunny side up is tricky, but worth it. After all, few savoury dishes aren’t cheered up by sticking an egg on top.

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Over-easy is when the yolk is covered with a thin film of ‘white’ (it’s not actually egg-white, the surface of the yolk just turns that colour) while the yolk itself remains soft. This can be achieved by flipping the egg and cooking it for a  few seconds, but there’s obviously a strong chance here that the yolk will break – a better method is to use the basting technique again, but with oil gently applied to the yolk itself. The advantage with this method is that you can be sure that all of the white is cooked; the disadvantage is that it doesn’t look quite as attractive on the plate, although you do of course have the delayed pleasure of breaking into it.

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A quick word about oil. Sunflower’s the best, I think. I never think olive oil works that well with eggs, unless you’re having a huevos rancheros party. Butter’s no good either – it burns too easily, and the nutty flavour isn’t really what you want.

Oh, and frying pans. There’s no real getting away from the fact that you can’t successfully fry eggs in a crap pan. It’s a miserable experience, the eggs will fall to bits, and the bloody thing will take an eternity to scrub clean. So if you really love fried eggs, you need to invest in a decent non-stick pan. They’re pricey, yes, but they’re also essential for:

SCRAMBLED EGGS

There are countless methods for scrambling eggs. The Australians tend to do them in a very omelettey way, folding together the mixture into a sort of egg duvet, whereas Delia Smith (working from an old Savoy recipe) famously caused mass nausea with this tribute to Salvador Dalí:

delia-eggs

I’m not keen on either, to be honest. I’d say perfect scrambled eggs ought to be somewhere between those two extremes, and ideally look like this:

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(Yes, including the bacon.)

There are two basic rules: keep the heat low and don’t stop stirring. But as with all rules, these come with footnotes: I find, in order to avoid the Dalí experience, the low heat needs a quick boot up the arse every so often and the spoon needs an occasional rest; this means the eggs firm up slightly, allowing them to be broken up and stirred again. And go easy on the butter too: yes, you need a generous knob (forget my fried egg advice – butter is an essential here), but too much and you end up with babysick. On no account use milk or cream.

The important thing to remember – and this is something chefs endlessly wag their fingers about – is that scrambled eggs continue cooking after you take them off the heat. So get them to the point where they’re not quite as firm as you like them, then remove the pan and continue stirring. (You can always return it to the heat if you’ve removed it too soon.)

This is the point where I add the salt and pepper. Some chefs warn that adding salt to the egg mixture before (or during) cooking can make the eggs watery – I’m not sure if this is actually true, but I tend to add it afterwards anyway. You should be tasting the eggs for seasoning at that point anyway.

You need robust, well-toasted bread with scrambled eggs, I think – it certainly needs to withstand the wetness of the mixture. So again, no Mother’s Pride.

POACHED EGGS

This is the trickiest of all. I thought for years I couldn’t do them, until I hit upon the three basic rules. And none of them involve those annoying silicone pouch things.

Firstly, always use fresh eggs. Older ones don’t poach well. I mean, don’t stress out giving your eggs the witch-dunking treatment with bowls of water or anything – just avoid using eggs that have been hanging around in Matthew Fort’s larder for ages. Buy some new ones.

Secondly, use simmering water. If you dump an egg into a raging boil, it’ll break up immediately and you’ll be fishing annoying strings of white out of your saucepan for hours. Poaching isn’t the same as boiling – it’s meant to be a gentle method.

Thirdly, use the ‘whirlpool’ technique. Stir the simmering water in a brisk circular motion and then immediately drop the egg into the centre. (I usually crack it into a cup first, which is slightly quicker and easier.) At first, it’ll look a bit of a mess, but you’ll quickly see the egg shape forming – there’s something particularly pleasing about the final moment, when the last few strands of white wrap themselves snugly around the yolk. Leave this for about four minutes, and you’ll have the perfect poached egg – here’s one I made earlier (on the day Donald Trump was elected, actually):

Some people recommend adding vinegar in order to stop the egg breaking up, but I’m not so keen. Mainly because it makes the egg taste of vinegar.

So there we are. That’s eggs for you.

Next time on cookery corner: Brian Turner’s duck. Because that’s the really big debate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breathless for Beckett

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I first encountered Samuel Beckett in my school library when I was 15. I knew his name from a joke I’d recently heard a comedian make following his death (one I’m sure was recycled when Harold Pinter passed away): ‘I hear Samuel Beckett died, after a long battle with a pause.’

The collection I found was Faber and Faber’s Collected Shorter Plays, the title of which made me snigger slightly. ‘Don’t worry, these ones aren’t too bad’ it seemed to be saying. Maybe they’d brought out another anthology called Chaucer: The Slightly More Bearable Stuff.

I flicked through it, and the plays were indeed short. Some were very short. They mostly had neat one-word titles, sounding more like albums than theatrical works: Endgame, Embers, Footfalls, Catastrophe, Rockaby. One was simply called Play.

Some of them didn’t have dialogue. Some didn’t even seem to have characters. They all appeared to have stage directions of some sort, but even these were written in a slightly strange tone: both pedantically complex and enigmatically vague. Some plays looked like pages of algebra. One seemed to be instructions for a square dance.

As a slightly precocious – but very naïve – GCSE student, I understood playwrights sometimes penned weird fare. I was fully aware theatre didn’t have to involve a proscenium arch; I knew it wasn’t solely women in ruffs saying ‘Aye my lord’ and posh men shouting ‘They’ll be here any minute, darling’ through French windows. But this was something else entirely. I mean…were they even plays?

The work which made my jaw drop the most was a piece called Breath. I’ll reproduce it here, because – as shorter plays go – they surely don’t come much shorter:

BREATH

Curtain.

  1. Faint light on stage littered with miscellaneous rubbish. Hold for about five seconds.
  2. Faint brief cry and immediately inspiration and slow increase of light together reaching maximum together in about ten seconds. Silence and hold about five seconds.
  3. Expiration and slow decrease of light together reaching minimum together (light as in I) in about ten seconds and immediately cry as before. Silence and hold for about five seconds.

And that’s it, apart from the following notes:

  • Rubbish.  No verticals, all scattered and lying.
  • Cry. Instant of recorded vagitus. Important that two cries be identical, switching on and off strictly synchronized light and breath.
  • Breath. Amplified recording.
  • Maximum light.  Not bright. If 0 = dark and 10 = bright, light should move from about 3 to 6 and back.

Try as I might, I simply couldn’t picture what on earth the play looked like. Not only visually, but as a theatrical experience. How can a play be 25 seconds long? How can it have no characters, plot, dialogue or movement? Did audience members demand their money back? When was the interval? What was it about? Was it a joke?

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The answer to the last question is ‘Yes and no’. (Which sounds a bit like the title of a shorter Beckett play.) Breath, the anthology informed me, was written in 1969 for inclusion in Kenneth Tynan’s New York revue Oh! Calcutta!, although I later heard Tynan decided the piece would be improved immeasurably if it featured a few naked women lying amidst the rubbish.

Beckett appeared to present Breath as a serious work, but then nothing in Beckett’s world is quite what it seems. It appears to be an exercise in extreme minimalism, yet there’s an awful lot going on. And how self-parodic are those stage instructions? The stipulation ‘No verticals’ always makes me smile, reminding me of Van Halen’s famous instruction that their rider should be free of brown M&M’s.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but my Beckett epiphany in the school library was actually my second encounter with the great man. One of my earliest TV memories occurred one Sunday morning, where I chanced upon a strange group of characters in tatty clothing playing silly buggers around a tree. It resembled a sort of chilling post-apocalyptic circus routine, and it was perhaps my first experience of what some people of my generation call ‘hauntology’.

Over the years, I gradually worked out that this must have been Waiting for Godot I’d seen – or at least an extract from it, presumably shown as part of an Open University module. But the memory freaked me out for years, and it was a huge privilege some 40 years later to see the Sydney Theatre Company’s production starring Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving. (Never mind teachers pretending to laugh at Shakespeare – Vladamir’s ‘Well, THAT passed the time’ produced one of the biggest bellylaughs I’ve ever heard in a theatre.)

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I’ve become a bit of a Beckett groupie over the years, seeking out performances whenever I can. Everything from Juliet Stevenson’s Happy Days at the Young Vic to a Tower Hamlets performance of the radio play All That Fall where the audience were required to don blindfolds. (I must admit I kept peeking.) I was also lucky to see Lisa Dwan’s superb trilogy of Footfalls, Rockaby and Not I – very much a Beckett party bucket, that one.

I’ll also make a beeline to see archive screenings. I remember attending a double bill at the BFI Southbank a few years ago: the first half was Alan Clarke’s 1982 production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (starring David Bowie), and the second was a Beckett miscellany. There was inevitably a mass exodus of Bowie fans after Baal finished, and audience members gradually started to drift away even more as the Beckett offerings continued. By the end, it was pretty much me and one other bloke watching a black and white production of Ghost Trio: a work which opens with a very long static shot of a room. Eventually the camera started to slowly zoom in, to which the other bloke emitted a slight sigh of disappointment, like he’d just seen Dylan go electric.

Included in the Beckett miscellany was Billie Whitelaw’s performance of Not I, which I’d first seen during BBC2’s cutely-titled A Wake for Sam season in 1990. This had been another work which had haunted me in the Faber and Faber collection, and again it was a work I struggled hard to visualise. The stage is pitch black except for a single beam of light which illuminates a human mouth hovering several feet above the stage. Whitelaw’s performance (a television adaptation directed by Beckett himself in 1975 and broadcast by the BBC two years later) is mesmerising enough, although it – unavoidably – breaks all the rules laid down in the theatre script. The mouth is in extreme close-up, for a start, with the vulva symbolism being somewhat on the nose. I remember a university lecturer of mine saying she was unsettled by the production, largely due to the volume of spittle.

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It also omits the other character from the piece – a cowled figure who periodically shrugs at the dialogue ‘with helpless compassion’. This character (‘The Auditor’) had always intrigued me, because I couldn’t work out how the figure could ever be seen by the audience. If the light was only meant to illuminate the mouth, how could they be seen without the effect being spoilt? Was this, I wondered, another joke? Had Beckett created a character who couldn’t possibly exist? A theatrical version of a tree falling in  a deserted forest? Beckett later conceded that the Auditor character was optional, so take that how you will. I was, however, thrilled to hear that, during his Royal Court days, the role was once played by Mel Smith.

It was exciting to see Lisa Dwan’s performance in 2014. The cowled figure was absent, but what struck me was how small the mouth was on stage. I don’t know why I was taken aback by this – after all, I know full-well how big mouths are. But it was a surprise, having been used to Whitelaw’s visceral gob in 16mm monochrome, to encounter Dwan’s glittery lips flickering restlessly about the stage like a tormented butterfly. She wasn’t better or worse than Whitelaw – she was just different, and certainly faster.

I was also intrigued by the techniques necessary to pull off the effect. In order for the mouth, and mouth alone, to be illuminated, Dwan had to be made up like this:

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and, to ensure the mouth never veered out of the spotlight’s beam, she had to be strapped into this contraption:

dwan-board

The second photo, of course, could well be another Beckett character…

What is it I love about Beckett? I’m not entirely sure, and that’s probably why I love him. People say he’s ‘bleak’, which he is, but I also find his work oddly restful. Like Bach, the near-mathematical clarity of his work is often strangely soothing. But Beckett’s world is also a frightening one: it’s a world of shadows and silences; of panic and pain; of black drapes and creaky chairs; of sunken eyes and frozen faces. A world between sleeping and waking, often on stained mattresses. It’s M.R. James taken up to eleven, but without all the guff about ghosts. I think what I admire about Beckett is the integrity of his voice – there are ambiguities, yes, but no fakery or party tricks. He means it, man.

Back to that book for a second:

beckett-shorter

What had also attracted me was the picture of Beckett himself. ‘Striking’ would be a rather insufficient and banal word for describing his extraordinary features. Try typing his name into Google Images and you’ll get endless photographs of The World’s Coolest Man: with deep-drilling eyes and skin like bark, nobody could pull off the rock-and-roll ‘sitting in a café’ pose better than Sam:

beckett-cafe

(I don’t know about you, but I think the effect would have been ruined if Beckett had actually ordered one of their ice-creams. Then again, I think he could just about pull it off.)

Beckett himself, you see, is an enigma. He was never publicly interviewed, and film footage of him is almost non-existent; only in 1987, during preparations for a television adaptation of What Where, did someone finally manage (with his permission) to capture a few slivers of him talking on camcorder. It’s often said of fiercely private celebrities that ‘it’s impossible to imagine them going to the supermarket’ etc, but with Beckett it really is. When I picture his life at home, I find it hard not to imagine him sitting silently at a bare table (with no verticals), pausing only to open and shut the curtains every five minutes. But this perception of Beckett is obviously nonsense: those who met him speak of a warm and convivial man, always happy to talk about his work to fans and scholars alike.

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He was a contradiction, and that’s what we see in his plays. What are they ‘about’? Everything and nothing. There’s no shortage of musicians, writers and comedians I admire, but Beckett takes me to a unique and special place. He’s my church.

Theatre keeps his body of work in rude health, although television has treated him very poorly in recent years. The  Beckett On Film project in 2000, an RTÉ/Channel 4 collaboration which saw 19 of his plays broadcast in primetime, was a noble endeavour (Penelope Wilton’s performance of Rockaby being a terrifying highlight), although it’s unimaginable that it would happen now. It was with some dismay, but little surprise, that I saw BBC4 totally ignore his centenary in 2006.

His  TV and radio work doesn’t enjoy the respect it should, much of it unavailable or contained within expensively long-deleted boxsets. I sometimes think Beckett’s the wrong kind of ‘highbrow’; a figure that the likes of Will Gompertz and Alan Yentob are keen to doff their caps towards, but whose work isn’t coffee-table enough to actually repeat. This is maddeningly ironic, since the people who really keep Beckett alive on TV are often mainstream comedy writers: Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson of course (check out ‘Contest’, the pilot episode of Bottom), and later David Renwick with One Foot in the Grave. In fact, most sitcoms – whether they know it or not – owe a huge debt to Beckett.

The dearth of Beckett on the small screen is sad, because Alan Yentob had once, as editor of Arena, acquired the German production of Quad (the square dance I mentioned earlier) and considered it suitable fare for BBC2. And it wasn’t broadcast particularly late at night either – it was just one item lined up in the Thursday night schedule alongside Yes Minister and Russell Harty. An image from it forms the banner at the top of this blog, and I also use it as my Twitter avatar. For me, it’s symbolic of ‘old-school BBC’ – something which, like a Beckett spotlight, is gradually fading.

beckett-quad

Anyway, that’s my personal Beckett ‘journey’ (to use current BBC2 parlance). I very much hope it passed the time.