Wild Comfort


“What will Earth lose, when it loses human beings?” he challenged me. The question was genuine, and I took it seriously. I thought of joy first, but he wouldn’t give me that, arguing that animals feel joy, and I think that’s right, as anyone would who has watched young crows play in updrafts. Then I thought of music. But Earth is full of music, he said; and if I’m thinking of Bach, which I was, then the fugues are still there in vibrations sailing away from Earth, as they will sail forever, along with everything the Beatles sang and every baseball game.

It’s the awareness of these, I thought then. Not just joy, but the awareness of joy. Not just music, but that swelling response to music, the way it opens the heart. Humans are Earth’s way of knowing itself. With the tongue of a human being, Earth tastes itself. In a human’s search for meaning, it comes to know its own mysteries. In a human’s loving attention, Earth rejoices in its own beauty. It’s one thing to be. It’s quite another to know that and to pronounce it good. This is what a human brings to the world – the ability to take notice, to be grateful and glad, glad for the river swinging by, for the sun warming my shoulders, for the breeze lifting the hairs on a butterfly’s back.

Wild Comfort; The Solace of Nature, Kathleen Dean Moore.

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Reading: The Art of Asking

amandaI figured Amanda Palmer would prefer it if I bought her book from Stroud Bookshop rather than Amazon, so I did, claiming it as a birthday present to myself. To be fair, it took the best part of two weeks for it to arrive but I think that was the distributor’s fault rather than the bookshop. Anyway, it arrived at the perfect time, when I was feeling wounded and vulnerable due to the whole getting divorced experience. Here’s a fact; when you buy from Amazon you don’t get involved in a conversation with complete strangers at the till at the bookshop who are peering over your shoulder to see what book you’re buying, reading the title out loud and announcing “Ooh, that looks interesting.” Amanda would be proud.

Being in the middle of a rather shit day, I decided to treat myself to tea and cake in a local cafe. Well okay, my local Costa. Much as I love Stroud’s little cafes, a lot of them have very worthy cakes. You can only take a cake so far down the whole gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free road before it stops being a cake and becomes something else entirely. Something rather heavy and a bit chew-tastic. Anyway – tea, cake and a good book; the triptych of bliss.

The book details Amanda’s career journey, from her discovery that she could earn money from being a living statue to eventually forming her own bands and making a living from music. Moreover it’s a book about being an artist, and the tricky relationship artists have with money. About learning how to ask for money, having first created a relationship with the people who get you. Money and other stuff, like a bed to sleep in while touring, or a piano to practise on. It’s about building community and the exchange that takes place between artist and audience. Part-inspired by her TED talk on the same subject, and also by the controversy that erupted over her hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, it’s a frank description of what it means to be an artist, what it means to hold onto your beliefs and integrity, and what it’s like when the haters start hating.

I devoured the book. There are moments when the right book finds you at exactly the right time, and this was one of them. It made me hungry for the kind of community she describes – a close knit tribe of strangers united by their appreciation of her music. So often the exchange that takes place around art is distant and commercial – you buy your ticket, you see the art, whether an exhibition of paintings, a concert, a play – you may or may not be able to queue at the stage door for signings, but that’s it. Home time. The conversation which Amanda describes is entirely missing. The exchange takes place at a distant, the art becomes rarefied, it’s never up close and personal. Layers of intermediaries start filling the increasing space between artist and audience, and even between artist and the actual art. Having to jump through hoops to please a record label, a curator, a literary manager can in fact distance you from the creative impulse, from the very art you’re trying to create, as well as from your intended audience.

The book is now on my recommended reading list for anyone who is trying to make a living as an artist. As well as plenty of people who aren’t trying to make a living as an artist. Oh just bloody read it, it’s good. I’m left with several questions to ponder:

  • How as artists can we create a sense of connection with our audience and build a feeling of community around our work? This is particularly pertinent to playwrights as you’re not necessarily even present when your work is shown, everything is delivered through other people in a space you generally have little control over.
  • How as artists can we take back control of our art so that we can deliver it directly to our audiences without relying on the permission of intermediaries? This becomes more complicated in the light of the Low Pay, No Pay campaign and I’ll Show You Mine debate – theatre is relatively expensive to produce at professional rates, but is it right to ask people to risk working for a profit-share or no pay? Is that an act of entrepeneurship or exploitation? How as a playwright can you take your work directly to the people when you need actors, a venue, or even a set and props and money for all of the above?
  • How comfortable are we with asking for what we need, whether as artists or just as people? To what extent are we putting up with shit because we’re just too embarrassed to ask for what we really want/need?

Too often in life we don’t ask – we hope that it will be offered without us having to ask, or we accept that we’ll have to go without, or battle with our feelings of who am I to dare to want this unworthiness. The image that comes to mind is Oliver standing with his bowl outstretched while the Beadle screeches MORE? at him.  A curious mixture of both shame and fear of being arrogant is attached to the notion of asking. Back when I was a member of Bristol Freecycle, I found myself asking who do these people think they are when the one request per day rule was blatantly ignored by people asking for widescreen TVs, laptops, cars and other such stuff I would never have dared to ask for. It felt greedy to me, and against the spirit of the list, which was to prevent items from going into landfill by providing a forum for people to offer things they no longer needed. I was wary of those who seemed to be takers rather than givers – yet in order to give, someone else needs to receive. A man called around to collect the mattress we were replacing – the exchange was mutual. Our mattress meant he no longer had to sleep on the floor, while he was doing us a favour by taking it away. Should there be a moral difference between offering a mattress and asking for one? Between asking for a mattress and asking for a television? How come something so straightforward as asking can bring up such awkwardness and push so many buttons?

This book encouraged me to question what I want my artistic practice to look like. It also made me examine aspects of my life that were unfolding in ways that I really didn’t want, that felt entirely out of kilter, and helped me to hold up my hands and say No. Actually, I want thisTo start asking for help when I need it, to allow myself to accept help when it’s offered. Ach, it’s late, I’m tired. Just go read the book.

Those who can ask without shame are viewing themselves in collaboration with – rather than in competition with – the world.

Asking for help with shame says: You have the power over me.

Asking with condescension says: I have the power over you.

But asking for help with gratitude says: We have the power to help each other.

(Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking.)

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How to Get Started in Theatre

2015! Woo! Let’s get this party started. And this one’s going out to anyone and everyone who has dreams of being a playwright. Have you made a vow to yourself that 2015 will be the year you turn pro? The year that you finally make it as a playwright? Are you looking ahead with excitement, but some trepidation as to how you’re going to actually achieve it?

I know what it’s like to passionately want to see your work on stage, but not have a clue how to go about achieving it. Having been fortunate enough – and worked hard enough – to have had my plays produced, including hearing my work broadcast on BBC Radio 3&4, the question I get asked most often by would-be writers is “How do I get my work performed?”

In answer to that question, I sat down and started writing everything I’ve learned over the last few years about how to get started in theatre. I thought it might be a blog post, but it grew and grew until it was clear that it needed to be an entire ebook in itself. Words and wisdom poured out onto the pages until I had myself an ebook I felt proud of and was looking forward to launching.

And then came VATMOSS.


Suddenly, self-publishing ebooks was about to become a bureaucratic nightmare. As a freelancing single parent, there was no way I could cope with the new rules, which involve filing quarterly accounts, and holding 2 pieces of evidence as to customers’ addresses for 10 years, if you could manage to decipher their actual place of residence from their email address, that is. Sadly, I resigned myself to accepting that the book was just going to have to wait until the red tape had cleared up.

But then, as I journalled out my plans for 2015, I had a new idea. Why not turn the book into an e-course? After all, writing can feel like a lonely business and in the early days of trying to make a name for yourself, it would be amazing to feel as if there was someone out there reaching out to hold your hand and guide you through the process. It would mean I could take what I had learned and tailor it to help individual writers, including offering dramaturgical support to really get their scripts into shape. That would end up being even more useful than the book on its own.


If you’ve ever sat in the audience and thought to yourself “I could do better.”

If you’ve got story ideas burning a hole in your brain…

If you’re just not sure how to make the leap from page to stage…

If you’re confused as to why your scripts aren’t being chosen…

If you don’t know what a dramaturg is and are too shy to admit it…

If you’d like someone to guide you through the whole process…

The Getting Started in Theatre course will take you by the hand and gently but firmly lead you through what you need to know and more importantly what you need to do to get your work on stage.


  • Finding the right home for your work, and how to spot suitable opportunities.
  • Getting yourself up to speed in the theatre industry.
  • How to choose subject matter and what to avoid in your scripts.
  • The deadly playwriting sins that you need to steer clear of.
  • Hints and tips for improving your chances in competitions.
  • What is voice and how do you get it?
  • Where to find inspiration for a new short play, which you will write during the course.
  • Feedback on your play to give yourself the best chance in the next competition you enter. Not just on one, but on the two drafts that you’ll write and submit by the end of the course.
  • Turning professional – how to handle criticism, what to do in rehearsals, how to tackle a Q&A and other vital skills to stop you looking like a muppet in front of an audience.
  • The Getting Started in Theatre ebook – all 178 pages of it!

 Numbers will be strictly limited because of the high-level of feedback included on the course, so if you’re interested then don’t delay in signing up. The course lasts for 10 weeks and starts on Monday 19th January and costs £55 which includes 2 sets of feedback on your script. £55 is an introductory price – that’s only just over £5 per week, or £1 per day of playwriting goodness and if I repeat the course later in the year then it will be at a higher cost. Let 2015 be the year that your dreams started to come true – I’d love to be part of making that happen.

Getting Started in Theatre E-course £55

Buy Now

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How was it for you?

medium_2041206281So 2014 has been a bit of a doozy. Writing-wise, it feels as if I not only fell off the wagon, but the wagon then reversed back over me before then continuing off into the sunset, leaving me lying in the gutter covered with horse-shoe prints and wheel ruts. In terms of my career, it has not been a great year. I created several pieces of street theatre for Bristol Bright Night. Otherwise it’s been lots of emails along the lines of yeah, we think your play is really really good but we’re not going to do anything with it. Or, yeah, you sound really really interesting but we’re going with someone else. Apparently I’m “too experienced” to be considered for most development schemes, while still being too unknown to actually get commissioned. A paranoia is developing that I’m not going to be hired because I’m over the age of 35, which is evidently a heinous sin in creative terms. I’ve also discovered that it’s really hard to think creatively when you’re panicking about money. Yet I’ve still managed to write a few cracking stories that have had an incredibly positive reaction from readers/listeners. And I’ve discovered a love of storytelling, and the inkling that it might be something I can actually do.

Here’s the thing; doing what I think I should do hasn’t got me anywhere. I feel completely and utterly stuck. I’m not in this game for money, but the reality is that I need to start earning some. I can’t afford to try to work in theatre any more. More than money though, the reality is that I can’t put myself through the despair of writing another play which isn’t going to be produced. I simply can’t do it to myself. My mind, body and soul have basically gone into rebellion and are now saying No. No, we’re not going to sweat it out for months, years on end trying to get a play into shape only for it to die a quiet, sad death on your laptop. No. I’m probably kidding myself though. It’s not as if I could ever really stop writing. More that I need to take back control of it.

I’ve met a lot of bitter playwrights over the years and I’ve always been determined not to go down that road. Let’s just say that this year I’ve got a much better understanding of how those playwrights became bitter. However, I’m not unhappy. I feel fairly strong in myself, and a recent conversation with an Artistic Director has left me a bit more optimistic that I might still find a home for my writing. Plus, despite the massive changes and challenges that have come my way this year, I’ve generally been happier than I have in a long time. Or at least I was until my Ex suddenly slashed my maintenance payment this month leaving me  really not knowing how I’m going to get by (yeah, Happy Christmas to you too.) Maybe it’s this strength-in-adversity that’s feeding my spirit of rebellion.

“Bitterness is taboo in this world. In the same way the ruling caste will accuse the disenfranchised of envy, without considering their own privilege, writers are often accused of self-pity or ego if they complain about the poor hand they have been dealt. Shame is heaped upon you if you dare to ask for payment for your work. You are supposed to do this for free!

However bitterness is a quality of the shadow heart. The heart demands we make a good deal. It is the superlative judge in all things that matter. The Earth is a complex matrix of exchange, and if our exchanges are not fair, then something is amiss. If you are bitter it is because your heart is telling you have been been tricked in some way.

The deal is not straight for writers or artists in this culture: the culture depends on our ability to see, feed back, transform, delight, inform, question, honour, celebrate and berate the world that is all around us, to transmit a hundred messages that arise from the deep void as colourful sentences at dawn. It depends on our feeling the urgency to create. If we can’t tell the real stories of our lives, it means there is no story. And a culture without a story is on its way out.”

Charlotte du Cann


Doing what I should be doing isn’t working. It hasn’t worked in terms of my career, my finances, even my love life. I’m ditching that approach. As an experiment, next year I’m doing what I want. More specifically, doing what my Soul wants. Big word, Soul. No doubt there’ll be some people reading this who scoff at the very notion of its existence. Well, as we were told at the beginning of the Schumacher course, be willing to entertain the notion that you possess a soul. We’ll maybe have that conversation about whether or not it exists this time next year, depending on how it goes. In the meantime, that’s what I’ll be doing – whatever my Soul tells me. I’ve still got no idea what my career is going to look like or how to make it happen, or how to make money at anything, but at least this way I’ve got half a chance of being happy.

How about you? How was 2014? Did it meet your expectations? Exceed them? Shit on them from a great height? How do you want 2015 to look? To feel? How would it be to push to one side all notion of what you should be doing, and focus on what you want to be doing instead? Ridiculous? Irresponsible? Amazing? Like coming home? It’s just a thought. Allow yourself to think it. And while you’re thinking it, think also of what your word of the year will be. It’s a much better concept than resolutions. Pick a word that embodies a quality you want/need in your life over the next year and hold on tight to it for the next 12 months. Remind yourself of it daily and focus on acting that way, pulling it into your daily life.

By the time these last few weary days of December roll around, it feels as if we’re ready for a new year. The old one has been used up, we’ve generally had enough of it by now. A new year brings new possibilities in a shiny, exciting package, ready to be brought into the house as you trail the sagging binbag of 2014 to the kerb. Who knows what the next twelve months will bring? My plans for 2015 have had to be crumpled and tossed, given the new EU rulings on VAT. At any rate, this blog will likely be changing format. I’ve booked myself onto the School of Myth course, so there’ll likely be more about storytelling, archetypes and Dr Martin Shaw. The word Soul will maybe get repeated fairly often. I might post less frequently, or every day. I imagine I’ll still bang on about writing and creativity. I might resort to putting in more pictures of my cats. Or recipes. Or photos of my dinner. But probably not. Who knows? I’m not going to abandon my blog – I’ve enjoyed writing it, posting twice a week for most of the year and it’s kept me writing in some shape or another during a time of massive challenge, when my usual creative writing was too far a stretch. But it’s now time to focus on actually getting the real stuff written.

This video seems apt. Whatever else happens, let’s go make good art.

photo credit: quinn.anya via photopin cc

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Guide to Surviving Christmas

if it's not fun then you're doing itIt’s ridiculous, isn’t it? But that’s the kind of headline you see all over the place – How to Survive Christmas/Thanksgiving/Half term. Newsflash – it’s a holiday! A celebration! There is nothing to survive. Christmas doesn’t involve crawling flat on your belly under barbed wire across a mine-strewn muddy field. It’s supposed to be fun. If it’s not fun then you’re doing it wrong. Same deal goes for weddings, by the way.

So I realised this week that I’ve basically not bought anything for my daughter yet. The only things she’s put down on her wishlist are a Furby (not going to happen) and a Kindle Fire (not going to happen.) Plus some clothes (okay) and the Twilight series of books (not going to happen.) Which meant I drove down to Glastonbury at the weekend to search out hippy shit for her. She loves crystals and it seemed likely that there would be clothes available and books that didn’t involve overly-controlling slut-shaming bloodsuckers. While there I got into conversation about Christmas with a shop owner in which I confessed that last year I didn’t send any cards. I ran out of time, I was knackered and the whole thing felt like a chore rather than something I was doing with genuine affection. If you can’t send them with genuine affection then why are you doing it? I had already ruthlessly culled the Christmas card list year by year – no cards to people I’m actually going to see over the festive season, no cards sent just to be polite to people who I’m not really that close to. This came about after realising that I was writing out a card to a friend of my husband who he hadn’t seen in fifteen years and had no intention of seeing at any point in the future – knowing that this guy’s wife was doing exactly the same. Umm… if the men want to send cards to each other then that’s one thing, but why are we doing it for them? Anyway, if you’ve got a close friend/relative who runs a certain shop in Glastonbury then I should probably apologize because I think I converted her. You ain’t getting a card this year.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Christmas. I love it enough to do it my way though, rather than blindly following tradition. Christmas doesn’t have to look like a filmed Dickens novel or a Martha Stewart special. This year the tree went up for a few days without decorations to see whether the cats would attack it. When they showed no signs of interest, the kids decorated it. Despite me going out to buy another set of fairylights, there’s still no lights on the bottom third of the tree. I could take all the decorations off and fiddle with it to get it looking perfect, but I’d sooner embrace the imperfection of it. There are no glass ornaments on the tree because they’d definitely get broken, and the cats seem to think that anything hanging on the lower branches is fair game so the decorations are gradually working their way upwards. My tree would not be repinned to anyone’s Pinterest Board of Christmas Ideas, but it’s right for us and that’s what matters.

When the kids were small, neither of them particularly liked roast dinners. With the tiredness that accompanies having small children, Christmas dinner was looking like a lot of hard work. One of us looking after the kids while the other cooked, only to end up sitting at the table while the kids complained that they didn’t like it and have I eaten enough for pudding now? Screw that. After a brief discussion, we decided the only sensible solution was to head to Iceland for several boxes of party food, which on the day needed nothing more than to be taken from the freezer and lobbed into the oven for 20 mins. Job done and the kids loved it. That’s why Mum goes to Iceland. It worked so well  that we did that for several years, until we all liked the idea of a proper roast once more (chicken, not turkey. Seriously, unless you’re cooking for 10, stick with a chicken. Unless you’re veggie, in which case you’re on your own at this point. Happy Nut Roast.)

No doubt there will be some people out there who think I’m being half-assed about it. Not making enough effort. Christmas isn’t Christmas unless you’ve folded your napkins into neat star shapes that colour co-ordinate with the baubles on the tree and this year’s wrapping paper theme. Well, there’s been years in which I’ve handmade all my cards and knitted up a storm of gifts, made my mincemeat and mulled wine and invited all the neighbours round for drinks on Christmas Eve. And there’s years when I haven’t. Point being – do what works for you, in the present moment, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it. Nobody is going to die if you buy your Christmas cake instead of making it. Or even if you decide you don’t really like Christmas cake and buy a tiramisu instead. Whack a sprig of holly in it and drown out their complaints by playing Slade extra loud.

Mabel the Christmas fairy

Mabel the Christmas fairy

Make your own traditions. Don’t allow yourself to be dictated to by other people’s expectations. Think about how you’d like Christmas to be, and then follow your vision as far as possible. If that means scouring the internet for flights to Bahrain so as to get out of dinner with the inlaws and extended family, do it. Compromise when you can, stick to your guns if you know it’s going to make you miserable. If that means making apologies and not trekking 300 miles on Christmas Eve for the family get together, then so be it. They’ll get over it. Don’t argue that you have no choice but to do whatever it is – it’s always a choice. You could choose to do the letting everyone down option, as you see it, or you could choose to do the going along with what everyone else wants option, or you could choose the sod it, I’m doing it my way option. Know that they are choices, and whichever one you go with, do it with gladness or not at all.

See? Sometimes I make an effort...

See? Sometimes I make an effort…

Top Christmas tips;

  • Eat what you want to eat at the time that works for you. As far as I’m concerned, I’d rather have beans on toast served with love, than a 5 course meal that’s taken tears, arguments and gritted teeth to get on the table.
  • Have grown up conversations with your friends and relatives about cutting back on the number of gifts you have to buy. It’s ridiculous. Swap it for a secret Santa within the family, give token gifts such as homemade cookies, or agree to all save your pennies because it would be more fun to have some money left to spend on yourself in the sales.
  • Generally I avoid the sales like the plague, but it really does make sense to buy cards and wrapping paper at this point. Especially if you like feeling smug.
  • Don’t bother making Christmas cake unless everyone in the family really really loves Christmas cake and would rather eat Christmas cake than anything else. Personally I’m thinking after a big meal, the last thing you need is a cake so heavy that if you chucked it out the window you’d likely kill someone. Plus… you need more dried fruit? Mince pies not enough for you?
  • Also, don’t bother making Christmas cake unless you really enjoy making Christmas cake. Ditto mince pies, crackers, cards, gifts, all of it. The shops are there for a reason and will be glad of your custom. I love home made but if you’re a craftster, it can all get a bit out of hand and you wind up putting yourself under a ridiculous amount of pressure.
  • If you’re making things instead of buying them in order to save money then it’s not a bad idea to check whether it’s actually saving you money. Regrettably, sometimes it’s not. Just saying.
  • One tradition I’ve adopted is to buy, or more usually make a tree ornament for each of the kids every year. This gets opened on Christmas Eve, which helps with that desperate urge they’ve got to open presents once they’ve put their stockings out. It’s always themed according to what they’re into that year – so far we’ve had Christmas owls, cats, ballerinas, rainbows, daleks, and even a Medusa. I plan to keep going until they’re 18, at which point they’ll be handed a shoebox of special decorations to go on their own tree when they’ve left home. Probably with a note saying It’s time to leave home now. Love Mum.
Christmas Dalek. I wasn't kidding.

Christmas Dalek. I wasn’t kidding.

  • Stockings don’t get opened at 5am. They just don’t. I don’t care if it is only once a year, I’m not getting up and making merry at 5am. Back to bed until Mummy’s actually conscious.
  • You don’t have to put all the decorations out every year. I seem to have accumulated a ridiculous amount of decorations, which probably need a bit of a cull. This year, most of them are staying in a box in the loft. Do what feels good to you right now.
  • Having lit candles on your tree is a beautiful idea. The reality is that your house will burn down on Christmas Eve. Don’t go there.
  • Be honest with yourself and with others. This doesn’t mean yelling I fucking hate you at an ageing relative after a few glasses of eggnog. It means acknowledging that going to Grandma’s for the big family get together is going to make you utterly miserable and so not doing it. It means taking a nap to get some time alone if that’s what you need, or going for a solo walk. It means having the guts to explain to others that you’re not staying as long as they expected because the kids can’t manage it. Honesty doesn’t mean unkindness, but rather going gently with yourself and everyone else and doing what you need to do rather than over-compromising. Over-compromising is the root of all evil.
  • Inviting people round for a bring-and-share/mulled wine/mince pies on Christmas Eve isn’t as much work as you might think, and is a lovely way of building community. It’s the kind of thing that everyone would like to do but nobody actually does. Be the person who does it, at least once in your life.
  • If you’re a vicar, I really would like to come and sing carols at the midnight service, but have learned from bitter experience that you’re going to spend a good half hour trying to convert me. Give up and play Hark the Herald and O Little Town of Bethlehem and preferably a bit of White Christmas as well.
  • If you can remember Band Aid first time round, you don’t have to buy the single again. Just give your money directly to the charitable cause, it’s fine.
  • Christmas crackers are a waste of money. You knew that already. If you can bear it, crackers are one thing that are worth making yourself. Think outside the box and put together a paper-hat making kit inside the cracker. I had fairy-making kits in mine one year, with the resulting peg dolls making an appearance on the tree ever since. Or some after-dinner sweets might be an idea for a filling. Otherwise, John Lewis had the best range last time round, with cracker sets that formed a game or were generally less rubbish than the usual plastic tat.
  • If there’s nothing major gracing the wishlists of you and your significant other, spend the money on a big ticket item for the house instead and get each other a small, token gift. By big ticket item, I don’t mean a hoover, unless that really rocks your boat. Something that’s going to bring you both pleasure, like speakers for your Ipod, or a new TV. Or put it towards a holiday. Or a cleaner. Just don’t waste your money buying stuff for the sake of it when it’s not what you need/want.
  • Experiences can often make better gifts. Buy an evening class or workshop for someone, a massage, or tickets to see something.
  • If you must buy him socks, go with bamboo.
  • Nativity plays shouldn’t be longer than 30 minutes. Surprisingly, UKIP don’t seem to have put that on their manifesto yet, but I’d consider voting if they went with it.
  • I said “consider.” I was being facetious. I AM NOT GOING TO VOTE UKIP. Sheez.

[edited to add, coz hell let’s just keep going;]

  • If carol singers come to your door, you have every right to demand requests, especially if they interrupted dinner. I also ask them to give themselves marks out of 10. I get very few carol singers these days. I guess word gets around.
  • Elf. Elf. Elf. Elf. Just watch it. ELF. I wrote a post on how Elf is actually an insider’s guide to Aspergers, but I’m guessing it was on a former blog as I can’t find it. Maybe I’ll write it again.
  • Bin men are still contractually obliged to take your rubbish away even if you don’t give them a Christmas bonus.
Posted in Making, Real life | Tagged , | 3 Comments


Feel free to use this image just link to www.rentvine.com

I’m an artist. Please don’t make me do numbers.

So there’s this thing that’s about to happen, and we’re calling it #VATMOSS. Or #VATMESS if you’re a bit more annoyed about it. Hint – you should probably be annoyed. It involves changes to the VAT laws across Europe, which probably shouldn’t affect any of us, except that the whole thing is a big fat unworkable mess. This article runs through it all better than I could. But basically, whereas before if you were selling ebooks or ecourses through your website you only needed to worry about VAT once you’d reached the UK VAT threshold, now you’ll be liable for all kinds of accountancy hassle and record-keeping if you make one sale outside the UK. Oh, and it’s up to you to prove where the buyer lives, even if you don’t have that information. And to keep the records for 10 years. And make quarterly VAT returns, as far as I can gather. All because one Belgian decided to pay 99p for your ebook.

Ostensibly this has been set up to try to prevent VAT-evasion by the big firms. It’s been put together by people who seem to have no idea of the scale of e-trading by solo writers/entrepeneurs, who are the ones who are really going to suffer as a result. Not only those within the UK, or even the EU, but worldwide. If you sell to Europe, you’re affected by this. And if you get it wrong, you can apparently be sued, fined or otherwise bollocksed. Ridiculously, it seems to have been set up around the area of automation; if you buy my ebook and it gets sent automatically via the click of a button, then I’m liable. If I’m crap at technology and therefore have to individually email each ebook to each customer, that seems to get around the issue. Duh?

If you’re happily thinking Nope, still doesn’t apply to me, I’m not selling anything, think again. Because this will undoubtedly affect people who you might want to buy from. A lot of e-courses and books are going to disappear or at least be put on hold until the mess is sorted out. There’s a lot of fear around the issue as the advice is confusing and contradictory in places. Some of it just isn’t possible, for example keeping records for 10 years to prove that your customer isn’t within the EU (you don’t necessarily have that info.) So, if there’s an e-product that you’ve been thinking about buying, now would be a very good time to do it. Ironically, it will drive a lot of independents towards Amazon and the like, as if you sell via a third party then it’s their responsibility, not yours. Whereas before you might buy a pdf direct from its creator, now it might only be available via Kindle.

In other words, if there’s an online course/program  you’ve been thinking of signing up to, you’d best get around to it quick. Put it on your Christmas list. I’m tempted by Lotte Lane’s book, personally. Having only just figured out the tech behind putting my own pdf up for sale (as well as plucking up the courage to do it,) I’m going to have to take it down from my site before 1st Jan unless I can get some kind of guarantee that I won’t be eligible. Independents don’t just live on the High St or on Etsy, there are countless individuals trying to create a business online, some small, some major. I’ve heard people complaining that they don’t know what they want for Christmas – firstly, stop bitching about it, you over-privileged Western dullard, and secondly, consider investing in an experience rather than a thing. There are some amazing e-courses out there, whether you want to learn how to draw, take better photographs, design websites, build a business or discover your inner Goddess. Whether as a gift for yourself or someone else, you’ll be supporting a creative independent and spreading the love, as well as trying out something new and potentially life-changing. For The Win, basically.

There’s a petition here, if you’d like to take 30 seconds to sign it. To clarify – this isn’t about tax-dodging, but about making the system fair for small businesses and individuals, who really shouldn’t be expected to rustle up the same kind of accountancy voodoo as major corporations. Some kind of threshold would be appropriate here.

photo credit: Dave Dugdale via photopin cc

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Illness and the art of asking

IMG_20140822_165831Lordy, I’ve been ill this week. Not only ill but without a car too. Being an ill single parent with a car… not great, but doable. Being an ill single parent without a car… well, in the style of the Royal Court Young Writers; It. Has. Been. A. Challenge. Fucking challenge, sorry. Obvs.

Still I’ve finally made it through the box set of The Office that a friend lent to me months ago. I’ve caught up on a lot of podcasts/audio courses that I’ve been meaning to listen to for ages. The hat that I started knitting so long ago that I can’t remember when it was, is finally taking shape. Or at least, it would be taking shape if one of my cats wasn’t quite so intent on destroying it as I go. And friends have kindly stepped in; my daughter’s piano teacher offering to pick her up and bring her back so I wouldn’t have to cancel her lesson, my neighbour taking her down to school on a morning when I’d spent all night coughing my lungs up and was exhausted. My daughter decided to heat me up some soup when I said I hadn’t eaten anything that day – there’s a joy in realising that your beloved offspring are now actually useful. The AA man who rescued me from my son’s school car park on Friday gave me a free bulb as my headlights had decided to conk out at the same time. The Ex promised to fit me a new starter motor. Small mercies can make a big difference.

Illness can bring a strange kind of clarity. Suddenly the superfluous is easily cut away. The thing you were supposed to be going to, you know, the thing you didn’t really want to go to but felt you should – nope, cancel it. Meals – well, we’re having this because it’s easy and/or it’s the only thing in the fridge right now. Priorities become easier to identify – okay, I’ve still got to do this, but screw that, I’m not up to it. Even things that you previously wanted to do, but now realise aren’t in your current best interests – the plan at the weekend was to go round to a friend’s with a bottle of wine, until I admitted that what I most needed was to give up on the idea of getting dressed and just go back to bed. It begs the question; what would life look like if we acted with this kind of clarity all the time, instead of waiting to be ill? Or, to go against the current O2 ads, if we decided to be more cat?

Think about it. Be more dog? Dogs are entirely at the mercy of their owners. We train dogs. They’re fed at certain times, taken for walks at certain times, taught to be as obedient and convenient as we can possibly make them. Cats come and go as they please, spend most of the day asleep, will find a way of sitting on you even though you’re frantically typing away on your laptop, and will walk past your carefully positioned scratching post in order to hone their claws on the sofa. Nobody even thinks of attempting to train a cat, other than by suggesting they might like to use a litter tray, which they will occasionally deign to do as long as it’s the right tray, with the right litter, in the right place and preferably freshly changed. Fail to meet any of these criteria and they will enact their divine feline right to shit in your airing cupboard. You would not find a cat getting up at 6 to make it into a much-hated job on time even though it’s sick and has been up half the night. A cat would not drag its weary ass across town to go to a rehearsed reading of a friend of a friend of a friend just to be polite. A cat fully expects its needs to be met and will let you know if it’s not happy. Generally by whacking you across the face with its paw. We could all learn a lot from cats.

Even in terms of asking for our needs to be met, we struggle. Needs isn’t exactly a trendy word. No one wants to be thought of as needy. Yet needs exist, we all have them. The basic Maslov criteria; shelter, food, warmth. Affection. Beyond that; meaningful work/role in life, respect, work/life balance, adequate rest. Keep going and we get to the personal particulars; one woman’s needs might be another’s mere wants. Honesty is important here, what do you truly need rather than just want? Start talking about designer shoes at this point and I’m going to walk away in disgust, but in truth a holiday can be a real need. The course I took last month was a need, albeit not necessarily one that Maslov would recognise. Creatively though, it fulfilled a deep yearning. Getting to it wasn’t easy, with concerns over the cost and about childcare, I had to make the decision to spend that money and then to ask my Ex to take care of the kids that week. Ask. Not cajole, or manipulate, or persuade, or threaten, or demand… ask. Sometimes it can be easier to give up before we’ve even started, convince ourselves that it’s fine as it is because we just can’t bring ourselves to ask. We’ve convinced ourselves that asking feels like begging, too demeaning, or asking will indebt us, or we’re not worth it, or what we want would be too good to be true…

Be clear about what your needs are. What do you need – right now/ in order to create/ in an ideal world? Once you know what you need, how/who can you ask? Think about reciprocity and exchange. Know that in order to give, someone has to receive. Life should be a blend of both. Become the hat as Amanda Palmer says in the clip below. Start asking for what you need. Stop thinking that you have to meet all of your needs yourself.

There was more here about artists, asking and the current economy, but WordPress has wiped the slate clean. Another time perhaps. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this. I may have linked to this before, I don’t remember. It’s worth watching twice, anyway.

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Does sharing your work make you a desperate egotist?

If you don't use a vintage typewriter then you're not a real writer. Sorry but there it is.

If you don’t use a vintage typewriter then you’re not a real writer. Sorry but there it is.

Firstly, this post by Tom Hirons. I should probably put in some kind of disclaimer at this point; no, I’m not stalking them. But listen to this:

Why do we tell stories? Why do we love them so much? Ach, we could go to the shelves and read the words of the clever people, and they are good words, full of one kind of truth, but I think we human beings tell stories and love them not for a reason, but because they are part of our essential nature. They are not maps; they are territory. They are not fingers pointing at the moon; they are moons, and planets, and stars. In the way that water flows, lovers love and children laugh and cry, we humans love stories. Integral, essential, woven into us, as much as breathing air or dreaming.

This is what I think. Stories are the way that the land talks to itself and its creatures: storytellers or story-carriers, whether they call themselves anything like that or not, are the agents by which these tendrils or tongues of rich magic move from one place to another, from one sacredly enchanted landscape to another, carrying the news of the wild and the soul of the world. When I think of stories like this, I see mycelia, the collection of fungal tendrils in the earth whose function is not entirely known but which seem essential to the rich life of the forest above and below the ground. All things that live, dream. Stories are to dreaming-life as mycelia are to the Earth. Both an essential part, and a message and messenger and a power of transformation. Without stories, communities die, just as we die somehow when we stop dreaming.

It’s tempting to end this post here, he’s said it far more poetically than I could. But I’d add that I think we’ve evolved to respond to stories, it’s encoded into our DNA somehow. Think of our Stone Age ancestors gathered around the fire. Stories would be told not only as entertainment but as history, as geography, as biological lineage. Stories would be told of the lands the tribe wandered and settled in, of the things that had happened in the past both to commemorate and to warn, to map the familial bonds and taboos of the people listening. We recognise when someone is about to tell us a story, whether a real life anecdote or fiction and settle in for the ride. And if the story is long and dull, a little part of us dies inside while a voice in our heads whispers fly! fly away my pretty!

The best stories stay with us though, whether it’s a book we’ve read, film or play we’ve sat through, or something we’ve been told. Stories are absorbed into our cells and carried around with us, the very best managing to somehow rearrange our internal landscapes. They give us wisdom, they give us understanding, they tell us about ourselves. They can give us a new metaphorical language with which to approach our lives. Ah, that’s why my marriage ended, he wasn’t willing to enter the forest. I have vivid memories of reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time and feeling the world around me change irrevocably. Of listening to Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword being read aloud by our teacher and being gripped by the adventures of the children in the middle of a brutal war. Do teachers still do that? We often ended the day with being read to, but I don’t think it happens much any more beyond the earliest years. Watching Star Wars at my Aunt’s house when it premiered on TV – she was the only one to have a colour set at the time – and recognising something archetypal about the characters and story, although I was too young to know what archetypal meant.

Meeting up with the play-reading group I attend, I felt gratified when a friend greeted me with “Yes, I hated that play too, for exactly the same reasons.” The discussion moved on to how we were fed up with the notion that women being terrified, tortured, raped, mutilated, killed, was considered to be entertainment on a nightly basis. Hello The Fall, I’m looking at you. Whether its CSI in its various settings, Ripper Street, Trial and Retribution, Above Suspicion… okay, I’m not going to list them all, the point being that at least 8 times out of 10, the murder victim is an attractive young woman and there’s usually a sexual element involved. Last year while working on attachment at Bristol Old Vic, one of my writing sessions coincided with fellow attachee, playwright Chino Odimba. We both admitted that neither of us could face turning the TV on at the time, as the News was full of celebrity rape trials, the trial of April Jones’s killer and various other cases which all involved violence against women, quickly followed by their fictional counterparts. Our psyches were being battered by it. Here’s the worrying thought; by showing so much violence against women in our fictional stories, are we not normalising it? Violence, killing, abuse, rape – it seems like they’ve lost their shock value (and hello soap operas, I’m now looking at you) and so writers and producers seek out ever more twisted and disturbing material in order to be original.

If you’re reading this, I suspect that writing and stories are part of who you are. Whether a paid profession or a hobby, it’s not something you can stop doing, not unless you want to run the equivalent psychic risk of chopping off an arm.  Not writing means not being yourself. Which is why it’s all the more frustrating when it feels like you’re not getting anywhere with it. What use is a story if it stays on your laptop? Over the last year or so, I’ve written several short pieces, most of which lived quiet lives on my laptop. A couple managed to burst out into public, at Come to Where I’m From, or Stroud Short Stories. But somehow it seemed egotistical to start pushing them on people. Increasingly though, when I’ve been part of a group in which someone has recited their poetry or performed one of their songs, I’ve felt like kicking myself for not bringing any of my stories to share while simultaneously telling myself that people would think I was a show-off. Then earlier this year I took my stories down to the women’s weekend I was going to and offered to read Holding On to the group when we were gathered in the lounge and not quite sure of how the evening should go. When I got to the end, half of the room was sobbing. That’s not something I’ve faced before and it was difficult to know quite how to hold that energy. I found myself apologising profusely, while everyone else dabbed their eyes and told me that no, it was good and you absolutely must do something with it.

Then at the Schumacher course we were required to write five minute poems (a poem written in five minutes, not one that lasts five minutes!) and asked to share them with the group. Martin Shaw insisted that sharing your work was an act of generosity. Hearing it in those terms helped to shift something within me. Whenever somebody else had performed their work, I didn’t think they were egotistical but enjoyed listening to them – so why was I being so shy about sharing my own work? And when I had performed my work, it had got a really positive reception. So, I’ve gathered my stories together into a pdf and I’m offering them for sale in my shop. I’ve decided I like the idea of having my own shop, it makes me feel like Emily in Bagpuss. But over the years I’ve met so many people (mainly women, it has to be said) who have whispered in a confessional tone that they quite enjoy writing but would never show it to anyone and I’ve done my best to urge them to keep writing and to share their work. If you’re someone with a pile of stories living in your laptop, or with notebooks crammed with words and hidden under the bed then maybe start to consider letting them out into the world as an act of generosity. Why else do we call it sharing our work? And as Shaw tells it, nobody ever said “The one thing I really can’t stand is a bloody good story.” Let’s get those stories out there, people. They can’t be worse than what’s currently passing for entertainment.

photo credit: Lívia Cristina via photopin cc

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The Handless Maiden, the Dead Baby and the Eyeball; is it time we all grew up?

medium_3447916581A week down the line from my course at Schumacher and I’m still deep in the land of story. We were warned that we would be bitten by particular stories and that images would keep welling up for a long time after our return. While there was one story that seemed to claim me during the listening, another seems to be resonating more strongly as I settle back into daily life, that of the Handless Maiden. I’ve searched for a link to the story, but all I can find are bloodless, Christianized versions or the barest bones of the story, or re-tellings packed full of their own psychology, none of which is what I want to say. The story I heard was vivid and earthy; I’m not going to insult it by attempting to set it down here, so I’ll stick with the relevant facts. A girl unwittingly sold to the devil by her father, who must then chop off her hands for the devil to be able to claim her. The girl evades the devil but chooses to leave the home where she was betrayed and sets out into the deep dark forest. After a series of adventures, including finding love and having a child, she must return to the forest, but this time she is sheltered and before her lover can find her again, she has found her own peace and grown back her hands. If you chase the story online, there’ll be much talk of God and angels whereas in the version I heard (more likely to be closer to its roots) we’re dealing with magic and one’s own innate powers. She grows her own hands back, dammit – get that image into your mind and keep it there.

I’m finding that I’m falling out of love with theatre. I’m falling out of love because I’m sick of leaping fifty feet into the air and turning three somersaults topped off with a double reverse pike to try and please somebody who is just not interested. I’m falling out of love because I’m tired of sitting through plays that just don’t speak to me. Plays that are clever or cool or violent or shocking or obscene but which have an echoing void where their heart should be. Plays that hold up the dark mirror and loudly announce Look how shit the world is, and leave it at that. Or worse, plays that shout Look how clever I am as if that’s worth the ticket price.

At this point in the proceedings, I’m struggling. I don’t normally tend to call out the names of plays I haven’t enjoyed, so I won’t give the title here, but if you saw it, you’ll recognise the description. It’s not my intention to offend the writer or anyone involved with the production; I’m using it as an example as I happened to see it, and I haven’t seen much this year. Firstly, it’s entirely subjective. My worst night out at the theatre might be the production that you’re praising to your grandchildren, years down the line.  But that particular production has niggled and niggled at my brain as an example of everything that I’m not loving about theatre at the moment. It has a well-known, well-respected writer behind it and was performed by an accomplished actress. Technically, it was brilliant, memorable writing and an incredible delivery.

I hated it.

Everyone else seemed to love it. So it’s perhaps just me. But. Where everyone else saw originality, I saw the same old story – what I’m coming to call the one-man Child Called It school of theatre. You know, the play in which the solo actor tells you how terrible their life has been in appallingly graphic detail. The End. And given that this was a girl’s story, I knew within seconds where we were going – why hello there sexual exploitation, I didn’t see you coming (NOT.) To sum up the bare facts of the story in the manner of the Handless Maiden – girl is emotionally neglected, cast out from the home too early, falls in love with the wrong man who then drugs her and pimps her out to his friends before abandoning her, pregnant and her mental/emotional state deteriorating rapidly. She lies her way into a family caring for a comatose, paraplegic soldier, performs sexual acts on him while everyone is out and convinces herself that he’s the father of her child. Once found out, she’s thrown out, ends up giving birth in the woods before ending the play with the baby having disappeared and claiming it was the foxes what done it. Cheery, huh?

To be honest, by the time we got to the foxes I was biting down on my hand to stop myself from laughing. I’m fairly sure that this was not the expected response. And to re-iterate, everyone else thought it was brilliant, so very probably it’s just me. Got to be said though, I found it melodramatic and more than a little insulting. Having spent a large portion of last year working on a project that involved speaking to women that had been victims of domestic violence, including a young girl who had been abused in much the same way as the character in the play, it felt as if I had no choice but to reject the play’s premise. In real life, rape and abuse are depressingly mundane. I know a ridiculous number of women who have experienced it. None of them have wound up finger-fucking comatose paraplegics or screaming that the foxes ate their baby. Perhaps I’m being too literal, perhaps I’m failing to understand the metaphor, perhaps I’ve got no real understanding of what a play should look like, but I spent most of the performance wanting to shout FUCK OFF, mainly because I’ve spent a a good couple of hours talking to a woman whose husband put an axe through her head and who told me her story without the merest hint of melodrama or self pity or baby-eating foxes.

The play annoyed me but it was nothing to do with the quality of the writing, the direction or the acting. The story of the Handless Maiden gave me a clearer picture as to why. It’s basically the same story. A young girl betrayed by those who should protect her, staggering out into the world maimed and alone. Here’s the rub – the Handless Maiden matures, evolves and learns to grow back her hands. In the play, the girl is left wandering the deep dark forest, entirely mad. There is no chance of redemption, no hope, no healing, only despair.

I don’t think this is healthy.

Equally, I’m not suggesting that all plays must have a happy ending.

Dr Martin Shaw talks about looking at whether stories have protein, whether they will sustain you through the Winter. So much of what passes for entertainment or even culture is merely candyfloss, a few wispy bites of sugar that will give you a quick high but will be instantly forgotten. Some stories however will be presented as a hearty bowl of stew… and yet the meat is rotten. Rather than sustaining you, it will slowly poison your soul. We have far too many stories like this, whether created with a deliberate urge to shock and provoke, or whether poured out in a confessional rush without too much thought about where it might be heading. I imagine the aim is to show that terrible things are taking place under our noses, to make us more aware. Thing is, I think we’re already pretty aware, aren’t we? I think we know that plenty of kids are served neglect rather than love, plenty of girls are groomed into the sex trade, hell we’re even aware about fossil fuels and climate change and the links between corporations and government, but not much is happening about any of it. Plays aren’t documentaries. They’re stories. And stories slip inside us and stay inside us and affect our thinking and our feeling. So we might want to check whether those stories are in fact toxic before we swallow them down.

Perhaps, most of all, this is why I’m falling out of love with theatre – that we seem to have lost sight of what is good for us. That the stories that are being told are ending in the wrong place, the characters still maimed and hurting and lost in the forest. That nobody is learning how to grow back their hands. Growing back her hands does not lessen the Maiden’s previous ordeal. It does not weaken the story, although I suspect that the arbiters of taste sitting in judgement as gatekeepers of the Literary Departments have been taught to believe that it does. Rather it shows a deepening of both story and character, and a natural conclusion. It shows the evolution of the psyche. Leaving the character lost in the forest does not create a more authentic experience, but rather an incomplete one; incompleteness is a hungry ghost in terms of the psyche.

Artistically, it’s a difficult quandary to solve – obviously we don’t want to sit through the same production of Pollyanna over and over again. But this is an industry in which happy ending is a dirty word, aesthetically displeasing to the powers that be, where domestic is seen as disgusting. An industry in which shock value or difficult subject matter will always win out over heart. An industry which increasingly feels like a bad case of The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which audience members stagger out into the night, wide-eyed and tormented while no one dares to ask Yes but what’s this about? Or even Yes, but is this helping? An industry in which, as with much of the world, youth is emphasized as a god in itself and writers are groomed for fame before they’ve ever truly lived in this world. It is difficult to be wise at twenty three. Perhaps this focus on youth is part of the problem – you can’t bring the Maiden out of the forest until you’re out of the forest yourself. And a lot of our writers have never even had the chance to enter the forest yet.

It seems that deep within myself sits a wrinkled old storyteller in a multi-coloured coat, sniffing at stories to see how they will taste to the soul. An instinctive understanding that something is not quite right with the food in the bowl that I’m being offered. And a feeling that as artists we maybe need to move on from the Dead Baby and the Eyeball* school of writing. A lot of the stories that we’re serving up are heartless, empty and unfulfilling. Or perhaps merely incomplete. There is room for tragedy, for shock, for questions that can’t be answered – but I for one am looking at the world outside my window and wondering how my work impacts it. Am I part of the problem or part of the solution? It’s a question I think we all need to ask.

photo credit: Medieval Karl via photopin cc

* I have a theory that it’s not New Writing unless it involves a dead baby and somebody loses an eye. And yes, the play in question had a dead/missing baby and the stated desire to gouge out a toddler’s eyeball. CAN WE PLEASE GET OVER THIS, WRITERS?

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(artwork by Rima Staines)

I’ve been following Rima Staines’s beautiful blog The Hermitage for what seems like forever. A few of her prints have made it into my home, and a couple of years back I was lucky enough to see her and partner Tom Hirons storytelling at a festival, him masked and wild as he told the story while she provided the musical accompaniment. Despite it being after 10pm, and an event for adults rather than children, my kids sat and listened throughout, rapt.

Hedgespoken is the travelling puppet show/storytelling theatre they have devised and are trying to bring to fruition through crowdfunding.

It’s a beautiful idea, one that resonates somewhere deep within and recalls a long ago dream of being part of an itinerant vagabond theatre company that would travel around in its own hippy commune, delivering theatre and stories to places where theatre and stories don’t tend to go. Seeing someone else trying to bring to life a dream you once had is an odd thing – it could create toxic wells of jealousy and frustration, but in this case has brought merely a yearning to see it happen. Rima and Tom seem like the right people to pull this one off, and if you’re able to support them in any way – by pledging money (they’ve got some fantastic rewards listed) or by spreading the word, then please help them with the last push to achieving it. As Rima says in the Hedgespoken blog,

this is a word-of-mouth fundraiser, and A People’s Arts Council! By supporting us, you are choosing the kinds of arts you want to be brought to life!

Which makes me wonder what a crowd-funded Arts Council would look like, or at least what projects would emerge from an Arts Council that was a crowd-governed, grass roots organisation rather than a top-down establishment institution. Anyway – for entirely selfish reasons (I really want to turn up and watch one of their shows) – send them your best wishes and topmost luck, send them your money or be sweetly persuasive with your richest friends to support them. They are genuinely lovely people and this feels like something the world needs. Anything which inspires more imagination and creativity into our culture is a Very Good Thing.

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