Monday, 19 July 2010

A good day but don't bother with the play

Receive a magazine from “Ovarian Cancer Action.” They wonder if I would like to become “an ovarian cancer voice.” Wonder what that sounds like – very quiet and unheard or screaming in terror! Something in between perhaps.

I am now part of the “cancer community,” which never fails to surprise me. I could once have pictured myself as part of the bassoon playing community, or the polo playing community before that.

Apart from the small issue of cancer, my new life often sometimes seems strangely happy. Because of my illness I no longer beat myself up for not going to an office every day and my life has acquired a perfect shape, not much money, but I have got time and space for painting and writing, with no boss to scare the wits out of me or undermine my slender confidence.

Saturday 17th of July, made my way to the Southbank to meet my friend June. Strolling along in the sun with an ice-cream, what could be better?

Stopped off at the vast second- hand book store opposite the British Film Institute. Didn’t intend to buy as they are too pricey and mainly sell to foreign students, but I saw a book called, “The Secret Garden of Eileen Soper.”

She was the woman who illustrated “The Famous Five,” for Enid Blyton and became a well known naturalist even working on Animal Magic on TV in the 1960s.

Beautiful illustrations, especially of badgers and foxes.

I couldn’t help being amused by the first chapter which described how in 1989 when she was eighty four, she was admitted to hospital in Welwyn after bursting a blood vessel in her leg.

She was unhappy there as she “hated the routines –and the food.” She asked to be discharged but they refused to let her go for a month.

She would have been much happier in hospital these days – no nursing routines are allowed as this is deemed to be “ritualised nursing,” and demeaning to the dignity of nurses. She probably wouldn’t have been fed, and they would have booted her out after three days.

Also bought a copy of “William The Good,” a collection of William Stories, published in 1941, with great illustrations showing middle class people in the 1920s. I really need light hearted, witty books to entertain me at the moment.

At the theatre June greeted me with a new sun hat. I was already wearing one of the scarves she’d given me. "Well you always wanted to be an egg head," she says cheerfully.

Feeling too hot I took the head-gear off to go to the loo. When I caught sight of myself in the mirror over the sinks I was shocked. My remaining hair in thin straggles across the top of my head, I looked ghastly. I made my way back through the foyer past the long bar wishing I'd kept covered up. I’m already getting the burqa habit.

We were there to see The Habit of Art, by Alan Bennett. Earlier this year this was the hottest ticket in town. Even a filmed version also sold out before I could get there. In summer it’s easier to get in and I bought good ones, to thank June for her lavish kindness to me over the last few months. However, as sometimes happens when you try to please, it led to disappointment.

The acting was good, although Desmond Barrit playing WH Auden, taking over from Richard Griffiths, waded through the first half apparently impersonating Frankie Howerd. I loved old Frankie but this was a distraction.

It was one red-herring among many and I never worked out what was going on – where was what we on tabloid papers used to call, “the angle?” What made Bennett angry or interested enough to make him write it?

He seemed to want to make the point that many famous artists are unpleasant curs.

This modern compulsion to show only the dirt on people meant that almost the whole first half of the play was about fellatio.

I often detest west- end audiences, but I really felt sorry for this one. There were coach parties of white haired ladies in Swiss Dirndle skirts and flat sandals. Some resembled Thora Hird and were perhaps hoping to see her or some other wholesome, hearty northern actress. They must have been increasingly uneasy sitting through a long play containing no dramatic tension whilst listening to men joking about “sucking each other off.”

It’s really not what you want to hear with your egg and cress sandwiches.

I have seen this play advertised in my mother’s magazine for members of the Towns Women’s Guild!

The play’s title was also a theme of sorts but wasn’t developed, it was a phrase that the author liked and toyed with a bit, but didn’t really get round to dramatising.

A lot of us have “the habit of art”, we get up and paint or write as a natural course of things, give up jobs and people who get in the way of doing this, and want a life chiefly centred on art. Bennett didn’t show why this makes life difficult or doomed to sordid sex and an unusually early death. The characters in the play with the habit had all done very well on it, showered with honours including an Order of Merit, and lovely houses.

Auden once said that artistic people fail if they don’t know what they want, or “gib at the price.” What this price was for him wasn’t described in this play.

Perhaps people who have the habit but fail to do anything successful would have been more interesting, people like Eileen Soper.

I was disturbed to read that Eileen was definitely not a member of the “cancer community,” in fact she was an enemy of it.

She and her sister who lived together and never parted, inherited from their father a morbid obsession with cancer. They referred to this only as, “the dread disease.”

Although they increasingly lived in squalor, with a house full of wild birds and field mice, they became so afraid of cancer, believing it was passed by germs in the air, that they became utterly reclusive, avoiding human contact and opening letters with tongs. When a letter came from a relation with cancer they got a neighbour who was expendable to open it, then boiled the mat where it fell. They even rejected their beloved pet terrier when he got a tumour.

Despite all this horror, Soper was a brilliant, instinctive artist, who never stopped working, a nine carat genius and an absolute nutter, gradually subsumed by her art. She never “gibbed” because she never knew there was a price.

Perhaps I’d better try writing a radio play about Soper as it seems to me that her peculiar life takes us nearer to understanding “the habit of art,” than the high achieving, self-regarding bum boys presented in The Habit of Art.

“You can get away with a lot if you’re famous,” said June. She could have meant the characters on stage, but I think she meant Alan Bennett.

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