Oscars: Bravo, Oscar, Romeo, India, November, Golf!

As a recent nominee at an incredibly low-profile awards ceremony, (being involved in the creation of a product that was nominated for an Innovation in Education Award at the BETT Awards which was held in the dizzily glamorous setting of a 3-star hotel in London Bridge) I feel eminently qualified to offer insider insight to the goings on at awards ceremonies. Whilst I suspect that nominees for Brits, BAFTAs and Oscars may not actually have to nominate and pay for their own nominations, it might stop some of the cringe-inducing feign modesty and overt surprise if they did.

Obviously, most people enjoy a bit of escapism and the occasional opportunity to put on a best frock and have a nice swank about but, and I don’t wish to come across as some kind of Amish-in-training, the extravagance of the Oscars swanking is frightening; attendees sporting outfits that most of us wouldn’t even dream of looking at the price label of, let alone buying and wearing, the majority of whom get given them free anyway (ah the irony). All kudos to Helen Hunt, as ever, but in this particular instance for trying to break the cycle by wearing an H&M dress.

There’s also the hideous in-crowdness of it all; the same old faces being wheeled out to present, attend or just hang out. Perhaps it’s naive to think the invitation list is compiled with something other than column inches in mind but surely if Elton John and his latest fashion accessory baby Zak’s bank balance were lesser, their late night high-fiving around a room of drunken strangers might have been heralded as tantamount to child abuse.
Actors and directors always maintain that they don’t do what they do for the awards, in which case why not adopt a New Year’s Honours list approach? A few people gather in a room, have a think about it, publish a list in a broadsheet and then have a small private ceremony maintaining the dignity of all involved? Instead, Tinseltown has televised and shared globally its own self-referential fishbowl of an event purely to perpetuate the interest in and subsequent desire to be a part of the movie industry.

For me, most of what Hollywood spews forth is superficial, formulaic and lacking in either realism or enjoyable escapism, and therefore watching a ceremony that celebrates those films and the people involved in their creation holds little interest even if it does involve that romcom runaway successful set of ingredients: the most handsome, best-dressed, star-studded cast of the moment, a couple of grand masters/mistresses, a few lame jokes, a fully contained element of suspense, the odd quirky surprise (Anne Hathaway’s nips), a catchy tune, a few tears, maybe a drunken moment of hilarity/disappointment or two and finally an attempt at authenticity (sound design, editing awards).

Perhaps though, I’m not setting up the situation correctly: Me in front of the TV with an enormous tub of ice-cream, hair in curlers, a box of tissues for the weepy moments and my fave galpal on the other end of the phone, just wishing that level of glamour were within reach of my dour, humdrum existence….except of course for the fact that I am NOT a character in [Insert latest Jennifer Aniston film title here]!

Workshop Notes to Self

After 20-years of running workshops, you’d think I’d pretty much have a blue-print plan indelibly outlined in my brain, but perhaps my recent experiences with school groups have given me a false sense of security from the joyful unpredictability of inter-generational work?

Whilst it is sometimes hard to remember that it is enjoyable when staring down the barrel of a situation you hadn’t quite planned for, it is the nature of the work and one of the main reasons why the itchy-blood syndrome of desk-sitting no longer became manageable and the shift to freelance was imperative for me. However, with future project possibilities starting to take shape, it’s worth reminding oneself of a few of the golden rules of working with mixed age groups and if it’s useful to anybody just starting out in this game then all the better:

1. Numbers will never be as expected: People don’t turn up (especially if it’s a freebie) and extras will always try and squeeze in – don’t take this personally, just have enough energy to compensate for small numbers and enough voice power to control the masses.

2. Check age-appropriateness of your activities: Even if you recommend suitability for 7 years and above, even if it is clearly labelled as a Shakespeare drama workshop, know that families don’t come in nicely formed packages with cut off limits – if parents are expected to join in, they will also sneak in the odd apparently incredibly high achieving 4 year old plus, for convenience sake, a terrible two year old or two – apparently the inability to walk and talk are no barrier to some darlings!

These two points lead me onto…

3. Have a back-up plan: In true A-Team style, make sure it comes together by checking off the list of ‘what-ifs’ in your head and having a solution ready, that way, at the end of the workshop you don’t spend the next few hours thinking about what you might have done differently and giving yourself a good mental kicking for not having had it up your sleeve just in case.

4. Less is more in terms of ‘stuff’: Props, bits of paper, exciting gizmos etc – a good family drama workshop should be able to run on a minimalist basis; it’s the granting of the ‘permission to play’ together that is the important element. It’s good to have morsels of inspirational magic but mostly it’s just more tidying, more to carry back at the tired-end of the day, and more to think about in ensuring the safety of those aforementioned turning-up toddlers – bamboo canes make especially great eye gougers in small fists!

5. Enjoy yourself! Remember what the alternatives are; stop stressing about every minor detail and that grumpy-faced teenager who doesn’t seem to be joining in very well; the more fun you have and control you relinquish, the better the atmosphere, the more exciting the outcomes, the more positive the feedback, the more likely the work offers in future, the less stressful the looming end of the month with no fixed salary coming in! It’s a win-win-win-win situation!

Lest we forget

I’ve put off writing about my recent trip to Auschvitz and Birkenau camps because I know that whatever I say will not be enough; everyone has their own personal associations with that time and place and there are images burnt onto our memories that capture the evil of what occurred (although let’s be right about this, it didn’t just happen, it was a series of deliberate actions by a large group of incredibly ‘civilised’ people inflicted upon millions and millions of other people).

It’s difficult to conceive of what four million people looks like – the fact that it’s more than the population of Birmingham and Greater Manchester put together doesn’t really help me to imagine that number of living people being treated like insects, starved, beaten, humiliated, broken, killed and then burnt at the whim of others.

I guess, like most people, I have always associated myself with the survivor role, the hero who fights the odds and escapes. For the first time in my life, standing on the train platform at Birkenau in the exact spot where Nazi ‘soldiers’ and ‘doctors’ made the life and death decision with the flick of a thumb as to whether you should go left to the indescribably cruel conditions of the work camp for a prolonged existence of, on average, two months, or straight ahead to the smoking chimneys of the gas chambers and crematorium, I felt that there was absolutely no reason for me to have survived, to have been chosen to be kept alive.

I would almost certainly have been sent on the terrifying walk clutching my carefully selected belongings that I had meticulously packed up and kept close to me for the whole stinking, starving train journey from my home. Personal possessions taken, I’d have been stripped, shaven and sent to be gassed, where, if I was ‘lucky’ I would be positioned near to an outlet and die instantly rather than last the extra excruciating 20 minutes whilst my organs corroded and burnt within. Dependent on the back-log of bodies, I might then have been piled up with the other naked bodies and eventually my ashes and remnants of bones scattered across this vilest of places for eternity.

It’s impossible to think that would be the preferable option to being given the flick of the thumb left into the concentration camp. But perhaps it was?

It sucked the very life force out of me knowing this, like a pack of JK Rowling’s deatheaters was all around drawing all hope, happiness and positivity out of my brain, bones and consciousness.

The camp opened my eyes to a whole series of petty nastiness that I probably could have happily lived my whole life never knowing about. Tortures such as the standing cell: a 3mx3m square cell, cemented on all sides with a small low entrance to crawl through, where four people would, before and after their hard days labour, be made to stand up in all night.

Why? The vastness of the camp clearly shows there is no shortage of space, this was purely an additional invention of the sick mentality that pervades that whole area; an extra torture created to break the spirits and bodies of those most unfortunate of people to have been born in that time, in that place, with that heritage.

There are atrocities much worse that occurred and it’s a bleak experience of horrors that I am privileged enough to find difficult to even imagine but I would recommend that everybody goes to visit it at some point in their life: How else can we ensure that intolerance of others never gets to that uncontrollable state ever again?
Or perhaps in some corners of the earth it has…?

This is England

Some people have made a career out of thinking up brilliant puns for their business names, it’s an easy way to bring a little joy to the world (I can’t help but smile every time I go past the Shirley Temple Chinese restaurant in Shirley) but it struck me when walking around Stratford-upon-Avon, just how many shops were trying to cash in on their most famous son’s reflected glory sometimes in a really crap way. The unexpectedly large Much Ado About Toys has a certain sense of it’s own frivolity, Iago’s the jewellers is a little more confusing but it’s such a glorious hotchpotch of stuffed animals, creaky staircases and draped chunky chains that we’ll forgive it most things, the most-tenuous award should go to the flabelos studio – an odd facing-the-wall experience of having your wobbly bits vibrated to such excess that they simply melt away presumably – which is called Shake-speare, Stratford residents are however, still mourning the loss of the ill-fated Shakesperience (a cod job of bardolatry that lasted less than 2 years in the town). I’m not in anyway suggesting that just because it’s a bit of a rubbish link, people shouldn’t do it, it just set me thinking about other places where this making the most of its famous inhabitants might happen.

I grew up in the small market town of Uttoxeter, which has a domed stone monument in the middle, erected either by or for Dr Samuel Johnson (of dictionary writing fame) who stood in the pouring rain one day in penance for refusing to help his father out on the family market stall. It’s known as the kiosk. It’s right in the centre of town and whilst it’s not the most inspiring building ever – Johnson didn’t even live there! He was based 16 miles down the road at Lichfield. I’m not suggesting they get rid of it but I do think the town might do better if local businesses started to really make the most of the connection with their actual most famous childhood inhabitant: Shane Meadows.

If I still lived there and owned a convenience shop there’s no way it would have a big 7/11 sign, it would be a 24/7, equally if I had a hotel, it would be called “A Room for Romeo Brass (and anybody else who wants a bed for the night)”, my charity shop, whilst not to everybody’s taste wouldn’t be able to resist the chance of being called Dead Man’s Shoes. There’s more that I’m missing I’m sure…?

If more small towns could capitalise on their even slightly famous passers-by, and local councils celebrated this by giving support and cheaper rates, I’m sure there’d be less room for the chainstores to take over and homogenise every single high street in the country and that’s a double bonus in my books

Snow joke – it brings out the worst in us

Finding myself without car (it’s dying battery season along with everything else apparently), bike (are you freaking crazy?) or knowledge of local bus networks, I found myself facing a 45-minute walk to my destination last night. There’s been a lot of attention focussed on grit or lack of it on the roads but the compacted ice, uneven surface, ludicrously parked vehicle combination made the footpath the choice of fools. Even in proper attire – I wasn’t prepared to risk it.

I therefore took to the road. Not the middle of the road as you might have thought from the outraged reactions from some motorists, but occupying about the same amount of gutter space as a cyclist might. Whilst I have previously experienced the aggressive actions that having the audacity to move from a-b in anything other than a metal box on 4-wheels incurs, I figured that with our new-found spirit of snow-days at home, relaxed response to timings brought on by irregular public transport and spirit of the blitz approach to supermarket shopping we seem to have adopted, motorists might have connected with their inner calm and given me due space.

On reflection, they may well have been sounding their horns as a safety precaution fearing that I was a stray care-in-the-community casualty waiting to happen and, if that’s the case I am duly grateful, but surely everybody could see that choosing not to slip slide away on the pavements was the smart choice? But then having observed some of the clothing choices being made during this excessively-cold-for-England snap, smartness is not a prevalent trait currently.

Orignally I thought poverty might be to blame for the flimsy array of footwear being sported (like an enthusiastic twitcher I have spotted everything from stilleto-heeled boots to Converse including a special prize spot of a lady in a knee-high skirt, streaky fake tan and a pair of ballet slippers) but it seems it doesn’t stop with the feet, in the game of inappropriate attire bingo I’ve been playing in my head, I’ve got a full house of people with no gloves, hats, scarves or even coats in some cases. These are not the lunatics who insist on wandering around in shorts in the snow in some kind of bravado-blazing unfunny in-joke, I’m talking about real people, doing proper jobs and a daily commute! The rise and rise of the success of the pound shop model however discredits penury as a theory.

The final option struck me as I arrived at my destination with a twinkle of incredulity and a sinking disappointing feeling in my fellow humans – maybe it’s a style choice? At risk of sounding like my mum, in my opinion everybody looks far more of a dick flat on their back, covered in snow, with blue extremities than ever they would in any amount of woollen goods!

Dryathlon? For me it’s cultural heresy

I recently celebrated a friend’s 40th birthday on a barge with five other females: The celebratee was the only one I’d met before and she introduced us to each other, just as we entered our 3-day confined space experience, with a short sentence about our mental health status. A pattern quickly formed that the others were all taking a variety of prescribed drugs to abate their specific symptoms. For me she said: ‘This is Melanie – I don’t think she’s on anything, although I suspect she self-medicates with alcohol’. I took this in the spirit intended of being welcomed into the ‘suppressants r us’ club but it set me reflecting on my relationship with alcohol and to what extent I might be using rather than enjoying.
During my adolescent and adult life, alcohol has been the common factor that punctuates the passing of every significant moment:18th birthday; first official drink in a pub, holidays abroad without parents; licence to get trashed on sangria, weddings; toast the bride and groom, new job; celebratory drink, leave old job; farewell drinks, christenings; wet the baby’s head etc etc
Recognising the role of booze in my own cultural make-up, I have, at times, challenged myself to abstain. Whether that’s the two-months before a half marathon, during the 6-weeks of lent, as a pre-Christmas fast or a post-festivities detox period, I figure it’s a good thing to do every now and then.
Apparently, it has recently become a January ‘thing’ now being named the dryathlon – this is good marketing except when you try and incorporate it into everyday speech; it’s a disappointing ensuing conversation when you inevitably have to explain it’s not a triathlon you’re doing just a fairly feeble exercise in self-restraint.
This public campaign has resulted in me gaining moral support for my efforts from randomers I went to school with via facebook, but what about the people I actually socialise with? Here’s the crux of my problem; in order to maintain temperance, I have avoided all social situations. I find it almost unbearable to be in a public house, a building designed solely for the purpose of selling alcohol, if I’m not consuming the stuff. Add to that the likelihood of being surrounded by people who will be getting progressively fuzzier round the edges and, even acknowledging the fact that my social imagination would definitely benefit from some severe development, it’s simply more enjoyable to stay at home cleaning out my tins cupboard.
My fasting will probably result in better health and greater consideration of the ‘just because it’s Tuesday’ bottles of wine, perhaps the desire to fuzz the edges of being at home watching TV does constitute self-medication, but after powering-through the ennui of an anti-social, solid lines existence, I feel fully vindicated by my own social heritage to look forward to the evening of January 31st when I leave my job – well it would be rude not to!

The creation (and subsequent encouragement) of a monster?

January 2013 is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice and certain empire-lined corners of the female ‘chatterati’ are using this to celebrate Mr Darcy as the ultimate male; the man that females hanker for in their deepest darkest inner sanctums.

A quick precis for anyone who didn’t spent their adolescence swooning over Ms Austen’s witty observations of polite society: Heroine meets the very rich and handsome Mr Darcy at a ball – he remains aloof all night – she overhears him saying she’s not good enough to lick his boots (I’m paraphrasing) – heroine’s sister falls in love with his best friend – all meet up in a range of awkward social situations – heroine and Darcy blank each other – he starts to enjoy her feistiness – he persuades best friend not to marry sister – he proposes to the heroine – she blows him out in a ‘not if you were the last man on earth’ kind of way – he rescues one of her lesser sisters from certain reputational ruin – he wishes to be an anonymous saviour – heroine finds out and starts to think she might have misjudged him and possibly he’s the nicest man she’s ever met and they resolve to live happily ever after together.

Now we’ve all spent a certain amount of time hankering after a silencer to the cravings of our own deepest darkest inner sanctums and had drought periods when it’s easy to be seduced by the concept of Hollywood-style relationships: Those periods when we might tell ourselves that the man (or woman) who we thought was a complete cock on first meeting probably deserves another chance, was perhaps the victim of an overly-critical state of mind and almost certainly has hidden depths that we didn’t take time to find.

The majority of the time, it turns out though, that without an omnipotent and sympathetic author who can overwrite such deeply entrenched character flaws as arrogance, snobbery and cruelty with the fuzzy hues of shyness, misplaced loyalty and social awkwardness, your average dick-at-first-sight remains exactly that at every sight.

It is easy to blame the blockbuster film industry for the current unrealistic ideology for partnerships and the superficial basis of relationships and their inevitable subsequent breakdown, the truth is though that it has, just like a younger sibling, followed in the footsteps of an older mentor. Hollywood has simply observed the success of monsters such as Mr Darcy, removed some of the subtleties, updated the setting and given us a whole new generation of unrealistic partner patterns to follow, The formula may well be compelling but surely when the hormonal mists have cleared, we can come up with a better ultimate male partner role model than Mr Darcy can’t we?