One more thing

Dear lovely subscribers and RSS feed followers,

Thank you for following along with The Good Stuff.  Sadly your subscription/RSS feed won’t automatically change to my new blog, so if you’d like to keep reading my stories and reflections you’ll have to visit the new site and enter your email address again, or update your RSS feed.

Sorry for the hassle, but hope you stay on board…


PS there are already new posts up on the new blog…


Old school kindness

Last week I went to my tenth Tearfund UK project to do a final day of filming for the epic Ten Keys Project.

We were in Ilford, and we interviewed a man from the council.  I asked him to jot down his job description for me and it took 8 lines of my notebook.  (It wasn’t a large notebook, but still).  I asked him why he’s worked in the Housing Department of Redbridge council for twenty odd years.  And he said, self-deprecatingly, that it was because he was “old school”, meaning that he wanted to work to improve services in his community and make things better.  And stick at it.

We spoke to another guy in the Housing Department, because they were queuing up to praise the project we were filming, known as The Welcome Centre.  He said that there are a bunch of services working with people who are homeless, but what marks out this project is their persistent kindness, no matter how often people fall back into bad choices.  Rough sleepers are a hard group to work with, a fragile and often entrenched community who frequently resist support and certainly have no time for the bureaucracy of council services.

(To access help from the Housing Department you need ID and proof of eviction to get past reception.  It’s hard to get a nice letter from your wife explaining why she threw you out).

The Housing Department couldn’t get these people to come to them, so the department staff went to The Welcome Centre (which was set up by a local church).  They knew that the town’s rough sleepers felt safe and welcome there, so it was the only place they could go and talk to them and find ways to help them.  Having been to both of their buildings I can honestly say that I would choose the Welcome Centre every time as well.

The new Welcome Centre, funded by the government’s ‘Places of Change’ initiative

The project itself was brilliantly inspiring (staffed by some amazing women with fiery compassion and great wisdom) but I keep returning to those two men from the council.  They weren’t especially prepossessing or charismatic, probably just what you might imagine civil servants to look like.  But they were faithful.  They were in it for the long haul. They hadn’t been neutered by the bureaucracy of local government.  They were working away in overheated, decaying, depressing office blocks, amidst ever-increasing cuts, and they were keeping going, eager to find news ways to support people who are hard to help.  And they were championing this brilliant ray of light that is The Welcome Centre, trying to find them funding and to look for news ways to partner with them.

It reminds me David Hare’s play, Skylark, and some impassioned, angry words from the main character, Kyra (with some expletives removed):

You only have to say the words ‘social worker’…’probation officer’… ‘counsellor’… for everyone in this country to sneer.  Do you know what social workers do?  Every day?  They try and clear out society’s drains.  They clear out the rubbish.  They do what no-one else is doing, what no-one else is willing to do.  And for that, oh *****, do we thank them? No, we take our own rotten consciences wipe them all over the social worker’s face, and say, ‘If –‘****! – ‘if I did the job, then of course if I did it…oh no, excuse me, I wouldn’t do it like that…’

I’m not owning up to being that angry on a regular basis, but there’s something ugly about the contempt we show for these kinds of jobs, how quick we are to dismiss, or critique. And there’s something tragic about how society is moving further away from valuing them (kids only want to be glamour models and footballers now, apparently).  I don’t remember ever having the first clue what a social worker did or how you might become one.

So today’s post it talking up the people who work for good in the council.  The people who sit on committees.  The people who work in local government to make things better.  The social workers and support workers.  What honourable work you do.

There’s something to be said for old school kindness.

A Ruby by any other name…

Do any of you remember a campaign run by the Body Shop in 1998 featuring the “Ruby” doll?  In case you don’t, here she is:

She was swiftly shut down by Mattel, the owners of Barbie, who felt she was making them look bad.  (Or just obscenely thin).

You could argue that producing another plastic doll wasn’t the best way to challenge stereotypes of women in the media.  The very concept of reducing femininity (or even masculinity) to an inanimate ideal is flawed and unhelpful.  But it got a lot of people’s attention and, in Anita Roddick’s words,  “[exposed] the cruel irony of the myth that a company must make a woman feel inferior in order to win her loyalty.”

I stumbled across her voluptuous form only a year or so ago while googling on behalf of my theatre company, The Ruby Dolls.  I enjoy the coincidence of our names.

And I’ve thought about her again this past month, while The Ruby Dolls have spent August performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.  We’ve had a fair amount of press attention, most of it really positive.  And during our very first interview, we were grilled on our feminist credentials.

How could we claim to be intelligent women telling important stories with a name that made us sound like “a strip-tease act” (asked Fest Magazine)?  Why had we chosen such a pejorative name, seemingly contradicting our more sophisticated ideals?

Read the rest of my blog over at The Sophia Network.

I heart humdrum

The Edinburgh adventure is over.  I am back at home.  I am back at the office (craving cake).   And it’s really good.

So this week’s blog is an ode to the humdrum of home, and I have collected some photos of my favourite humdrum corners.

Here is husband playing guitar outside our block. Admittedly not a daily occurrence, but one which is quintessentially home-flavoured.

And here is a building I pass every day on my walk to the station, and I’ve always liked it.  I salute you with my wonky photo, green and brick housing block!

This was my desk yesterday on my return to work.  Typically chaotic.

…but look how many things are already crossed off!

And then of course there is nature.  I left my fruit and veg planter in my husband’s hands during my absence, and here is the state of our tomato plant now.  Miraculously still producing tomatoes despite being brown and shrivelled.  Apparently he had no idea I meant watering it *every day*.

It’s really good to feel like you belong somewhere.

I’m reading a beautiful poem of a book at the moment, a gift from a friend, called One Thousand Gifts.  The title refers to the author’s journey (struggle maybe, but only at first) to list a thousand blessings she has received from God.  Things to make her more grateful.

117. Washing the warm eggs

118. Crackle in fireplace

119. Still warm cookies

783. Forgiveness of a sister

882. Toothless smiles

891. Earthy aroma of the woods

I don’t have a list, but I feel very grateful at the moment, and I’m trying to stay that way.  Grateful for late summer sun, for family, for space, for expected babies (not mine!), for my local park (oops, that’s the start of list).

What do you love most about your home?

Taking Edinburgh home with me (but leaving the rain)

Last night I made a list of the theatre shows I have seen in Edinburgh this month, as this adventure draws to a close.  Tomorrow it is home time.

I’ve counted 19, 11 of which were free.  And I’m going to try and squeeze in one more freebie this afternoon.  I think I have the smallest total of all the dolls, but it is still A LOT. I don’t think I usually see that many in a year.  What a treat.

I’ve been trying to think what I should say about it all.  Is it too much?  Is it economically unjust? Is it self-indulgent?  It feels too soon to be able to have processed any of it.  Instead I’m going to offer you a taste of the best things I am taking away with me, the things that have enriched me this past month:

Ali McGregor has made me want to be a better singer and Camille O’Sullivan convinced me to be braver in telling stories through songs.  Mark Thomas has made me want to work on my articulation and, together with Tony Benn, has stirred back to life certain political convictions.  All the plays I have seen about war (A Solder’s Song, Soldiers’ Wives, Captain Ferguson’s Balloon Warfare) have cemented a visceral hatred of violence and the lack of imagination that drives it. The poet Harry Baker has impressed me by being so young and brilliant and entirely himself.  The three Dutch boys clowning and slapsticking their way through 3 shows a day of Nothing is Really Difficult  have brought joy to my soul with their mad flyering techniques and amazing accents.  The two girls known as RashDash theatre company have resurrected my optimism for emerging theatre, with their raw energy and creativity, and loud commitment to things that matter (this I echo).  Their production of Ugly Sisters (Cinderella told by the underdogs) was a highlight.  I am grateful for the simple beauty of Waiting for Stanley, the adrenalin-party that was Rhythmic Circus, the sustained strength and whimsical intentionality of Mess, and I think I’m going to love the ukulele playing in Formby later.

Those crazy Dutch boys

(I also blogged in more depth about Mark Thomas and Camille O’Sullivan earlier).

So there’s a month of talking up some good theatre.  I’m looking forward to re-engaging with the rest of life now.

What’s the point? Practical musings on art and economics

In the midst of festival mania, yesterday I went and heard Tony Benn speak.   There’s a film being made about his life and they were previewing some of it and then Mark Thomas was interviewing him. (The film is excellent and I hereby recommend it).

So I joined hundreds of radical lefties (bringing down the average age) to go listen.

Amongst all the more straightforward lefty political questions, a lady stood up and talked about the fringe.  She said she was increasingly frustrated by the enslavement of artists at the festival (referring I think to the fact that artists don’t make any kind of money up here, and in fact usually end up paying for the privilege of performing), and how all the money is instead going to the landlords of Edinburgh (who hike up rents in August to mind-boggling levels) and, presumably, some of the big producing companies.  She then asked a very generic question – “So what gives you hope?”.

This is our little paper man, Chaim, from our show. He has had to take up busking to survive financially.

I reckon it’s easier to answer that question than to speak into the complexities of the Edinburgh Fringe economy.  I find it easier, anyway. Tony Benn talked about having spent a lifetime working for change and then having seen some things change, and so that makes him think they can.  But what would he have said about the fringe?

Today, as I was flyering and trying to persuade the public to come and see our show, I met a couple who had seen The Ruby Dolls yesterday.  They loved the show, but wanted to know, as festival virgins, what bringing a show here achieved – what are we hoping will happen?

I was on the spot.  (Do I mention wild fantasies of being handpicked for stardom?). No Ruby Dolls were at hand to rescue me.

It all makes me ponder what the point of being here is, one show in 2695, especially given the ridiculous money involved that rarely comes back to you. My answer to the lovely couple was about reaching a big new audience with your show and getting press attention all of which will open doors for future work and tours and the like.

But why is it so flipping hard to make art work economically? Answers on a postcard please.

On the one hand, I look at lots of actor friends who struggle and work hard and have their sense of self-worth eroded year after year by crappy jobs and lack of progress and instability.  And I want to shout ‘ENOUGH!’ Why do something that makes everyone so miserable?

And at the same time, I believe passionately that art and creativity are crucial, at the very core of who we are.  Wonderful art enlarges us all, takes us places nothing else can, makes news ways of living and thinking possible.  I don’t want people to give up.  I don’t want to give up (most days).

So the only answer I have at the moment is to engage our imaginations and creativity in finding ways to make it work that are weird and wonderful and unlikely – involving combining different kinds of work and ways of living.  (Hence I shall continue to search out people who do this and write about them in my blog). Like this bloke said:

“I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living.” ~Robert Henri


A film showing there is more to Buxton than the water

To break up the theatrical reflections, here’s a little film I made a month or so ago about some beautiful, wonderful people I met who run a project in Buxton.  Before I went, I knew nothing about Buxton except the water they bottle. Now I am planning my next trip… The couple who lead it have live in their main care home with their family for more than a decade, totally sharing their lives with the people they’re trying to serve.  So inspiring. Enjoy.

(You can find out more in my other blog about my visit here)

Good News Family Care from Integral Mission on Vimeo.

On Courage

Performing at the Edinburgh Fringe can be experienced in many different ways.  This is my third time.  It can be a bit of a laugh (usually if you’re young and unburdened by budgets); a glorious cultural adventure; a masochistic, tortuous endurance test; or simply a tiring alternative to burning a few thousand pounds. But I think that in many cases it involves courage.

I went to hear a singer a couple of nights ago called Camille O’Sullivan and I was gobsmacked.

The show wasn’t perfect from end to end but there were moments of totally transcendental beauty as she told stories through songs, and something in me hasn’t been able to forget it.

She has an interesting story.  The Telegraph profiled her recently (apparently I am turning into my parents and sourcing all current information from The Telegraph. This is partly because they just gave our own show 4*s and so I like them).  She used to be an architect, but then following a serious car crash in which she nearly died, she decided to do what she really wanted.  Which was to sing.

She had been “afraid of criticism, afraid of the audience, afraid of putting myself out there, but life is for living, and if you’re scared of something, maybe you should head towards it, because it might be what you need to shake you into being alive.”

I seem to be attracting reflections on courage right now.  A few blogs I follow have been themed in that way.  And frankly the whole experience of being at the Fringe makes me think about it even more.

When you get rubbish reviews or have small audiences and yet 3 weeks stretch ahead of you in which you will keep putting your show in front of people, it is a test of courage.  Yesterday I saw a show called A Soldier’s Song in which a man recounts the true story of his time fighting in the Falklands.  I went because war horrifies me and yet my brother fights in one, and my dad and grandfather before him. It’s a brutal, angry account of war, but what hit hardest are the moments he reflects on the shame he feels coming to terms with what he has been part of.  The man is not a professional actor by trade; he is a writer.  But his courage in standing on a bare set every night, recounting his tale and confessing his fears and doubts, strikes me as one of the more courageous outings at the Fringe.

Doing something for a one off isn’t too scary.  I went to a comedy show the other night and I was late, and the ushers told me that the only way latecomers were admitted was if you walked in, and declared to everybody (including the comedienne), very loudly “Darling, your show was so marvellous last night, I just had to come back.”  And I did it.  1o seconds of embarrassment don’t frighten me.  But continuing to dare to put something personal and hard-fought-for in front of an audience every night for 26 nights…that takes more.  I don’t mean just going through the motions, but continuing to put your heart and soul into something. Because there’s the risk that nothing comes back, or, worse, your offering is rejected, discredited.

Am I a courageous person? It feels like it’s taking courage to be here and do this, to join so actively in the conversation (even though the biggest risk of all is getting totally lost in the scale of this festival, so no-one actually hears you…).  But when I think about the future, I think I have a large capacity to be a scaredy-cat.  Maybe the trick is not to think so far ahead.  Camille said in her recent interview:

“I’m not saying every day is a joy. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing my mind, but then I remember everything is a choice, and this is my choice.”

Here’s to small, brave choices.  And for a treat, here’s Camille singing:

Camille O Sullivan – The Ship Song from Feenish Productions on Vimeo.

Who else has made you who you are?

So here I am at the Edinburgh Fringe.  The topic of my first Edinburgh blog is confronting who and what has come before you in your family histories, and how that has made you who you are.  It’s what our show tries to ask you to do, and I found another amazing show doing the same kind of thing that I want to tell you about.

[If you hadn’t guessed already, it’s likely that my August posts will have more of a theatrical flavour than is usual in a single month, although there are some other films on the way that will burst you (and me) out of the Edinburgh bubble.]

I have been sick, which is a terrible way to begin the fringe, as you need an enormous dollop of energy just to keep doing your show every day, let alone flyering the general public for hours, or taking in anyone else’s artistic endeavours. But yesterday I made it out of the flat and actually saw *another show* which was just beautiful, so I need to tell you about it.

Mark Thomas is an alternative comedian best known for his political campaigns – for example he has written a book and done stand-up shows exposing Coca Cola’s involvement in the arms trade.  I like his blend of humour, heart and justice-seeking.  So I was a little surprised to find he was doing a show up here called Bravo Figaro, about opera.  It turns out the piece is really about his dad – a violent, Methodist-Thatcherite workaholic builder known for his colourful language – and his surprising passion for a traditionally upper-class art-form.

He is brilliant storyteller in so many ways.  Technically, he’s a pro: I was in awe of his articulation.  But more than that, there is such a powerful combination of honesty, humour, and real clarity about the story he wants to tell you. That’s one of the my favourite things about the show actually – he felt like he really wanted to tell me this story, like it mattered.  But how do you tell a personal story for 70 minutes and not make it feel self-indulgent?  You give people opportunities to laugh at you.  You give them a wider context so they can connect with your very personal story.  You give them quirky details.  And you chose very carefully the magical moments when things become quiet and important.  (It worked, I cried).

Mark Thomas was very clear that this is not a story about redemption and healing and forgiveness – they might be part of the bigger story or they might not.  This story is about a gift, a beautiful and unique gift that he was able to give to his dad at a point in his dad’s life when he had almost ceased to be contactable.  His dad developed Progressive Supranuclear Palsy and was increasingly unable to respond to the outside world or to control his own muscles.  During the show we hear his dad’s real, barely articulated voice for ourselves, as recorded by Mark Thomas a years ago.   And yet it is into the context of increasing alienation in terms of their human relationships that something truthful and beautiful and pure is given as a gift which stirs life and connection.

It wasn’t wholly intentional that the first show I saw in Edinburgh was so close in theme to our own show, which is also about family stories, ancestors who have gone before us.  But maybe it meant that Mark Thomas’ show landed with particular force for the four of us (it was a group outing).

I think that in different ways both shows are probing something deep and important. If we let them, they make us ask questions about what has gone before us, and what is has deposited in us – for good and for bad. For me this has been part the personal journey I’ve gone on (and I think the other girls have gone in) in creating our show. It’s not about neat endings and full reconciliation, but the honesty of confronting what came first and what its legacy has been.  Then, from that place we are able to choose our response, to choose how to live. Mark Thomas’ act of generosity towards his father is not given from a place of blindness to his dad’s brutality; it is not offered as a symmetrical or reciprocal gesture.  But the beauty of it lies in the fact that it is instead a generous choice to celebrate something unique and wonderful; to draw a line after the bad and perpetuate what was special.

What are the good things you want to carry forward from your family history?

Finding people to go on adventures with

Tomorrow I’m embarking on an adventure.  The Ruby Dolls are off to Edinburgh for a month to perform our show, Rubies in the Attic, at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Rubies in the Attic – at Assembly Roxy for the Fringe

It has made me think about the huge adventure of the last three and a half years, and about teams and when you can’t do things on your own.

I was reading Michael Hyatt’s book, Platform, recently, about how to use social media to get noticed in a noisy world. There was an interesting chapter about building your team (or your “pit crew”) which looked at things like admin support, personal management, agents etc.  And as I read the chapter, I thought, “irrelevant!”.  Not just because those particular roles seem unimportant right now, but more importantly, how can you build a team you can’t pay?! How can you persuade people to join you on a journey when you don’t really now where it’s headed?!

And then I remembered The Ruby Dolls.

We started meeting up together three and a half years ago to sing some close harmony songs from the 1940s, thinking we’d get gigging and making some money.  Only a while later we decided we were much more excited about being a theatre company than a band, and so we started making theatre.  We have ploughed hours, days and weeks of our lives into this company, around other jobs which enable us to pay our rent.  It’s a serious level of commitment, week in, week out, for hardly any money, for so long.

Jess shows the graft behind the glamour…

And we’re all quite different. Which is a way of saying we don’t always get on.  There are tensions, recurring disagreements, moments you want to shake each other.  I once spent a whole week of full-time rehearsal seething with unspoken rage (learning: this is never helpful).

We had some help this last year, in the form of an amazing coach called Martin Howden, who took us through Myers-Briggs profiles and team dynamics and strategic planning.

And then we’ve assembled other people, seriously talented people, who have joined in, for similarly minuscule financial rewards.  A virtuoso Musical Director! A shrewd & experienced Producer! A gorgeous & gifted Director! And now a Company Manager! (This is no mean feat given that working with four passionate and headstrong Ruby Dolls is no walk in the park).  How have we done it?  We found them through mining our friends and contacts and advertising in Arts Jobs. But I’ve no idea how we persuaded them to join the adventure.

There is no team I have ever worked so intensely with, or who know so fully what I am like to work with (apart from the husband).  And I am totally convinced that what we have produced together is miles better than what any of us could have achieved alone. My husband always says that the deepest friendships are often forged through a shared task.  Turns out he’s onto something.

There’s no way of knowing where things go from here, but before we head up north I am just pausing to celebrate our brilliant (unpaid) team.  This would be a rubbish adventure alone.