Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Spotted this in the Guardian this morning:

Europeans fear US attack on Iran as nuclear row intensifies


Now I know I'm usually quite strict about this being a theatre blog, but it's at times like this that I wonder whether I shouldn't have gone into something else entirely.

Just after I graduated (almost a decade ago now) I had a long conversation with a good friend, who had also just completed a Drama degree, about what difference we could possibly make in the world. We went round in circles for a while trying to find examples of when Theatre had had a political impact that History had actually acknowledged, and couldn't come up with very much. My friend was more of an idealist and less of a pessimist than me (and had done a slightly more leftfield degree) and he kept banging on about Augusto Boal and all that grass roots type stuff. That's all well and good; I've read some of his books and admire some of his ideas, but the bottom line is that he achieved more through writing political literature and eventually standing for election than he ever did as a writer or director. I know there are such a thing as 'soft outcomes' and working as I do in education I do value those personal changes in individuals, such as increased confidence in young people, that involvement in theatre can bring about. But when it comes to the big political stuff, I feel powerlss, and more than a little frustrated.

I wondered at the time whether I was just a fresh-faced graduate without the facts at my disposal. But ten years on, five of which I've spent as a playwright, I still struggle to point to a single play or season of plays which Unequivocally Changed Something - such as stopping one country bombing another.

Maybe that's asking too much. Maybe theatre's political effect can only ever be a drip-drip one, carving a small but steady fissure down the cliff face of society's perceptions. There are the cliches: we hold a mirror up, we are one of the few remaining spaces for collective consideration of aspects of ourselves. I value all that, and I acknowledge that this in itself can indeed slowly bring about change in small ways. But when I see headlines like the one above and just feel that sudden yearning that This Isn't Right, and Will The Idiots Never Learn?! then that the next feeling is always I Have To Stop This. But I can't.

I know there are people who have tried. Harold Pinter springs to mind. I've just (belatedly) finished reading Billington's biography of him. Alright, he speaks his mind and has a platform and is taken as seriously a playwright probably ever will be in political circles. And he got kicked out of the US embassy in Turkey, along with Arthur Miller, for asking the ambassador if he'd like to have his bollocks electrocuted. Big up. But what difference did it make in terms of preventing torture in that country?

Could we as theatre-makers make more of a difference if we didn't waste so much energy making theatre? I know that might sound like a stupid question, but think about the amount of time and extraordinary mental effort that goes into writing a play - for me, 3 months or more of full-time research, plus another 3 of full-time original creative thought to make the play (and that's just the first draft, then there's everyone else's efforts to get it to the stage) - and then think about the outcome. It makes me rather depressed. All that work, which stretches me to the very limits of my capabilities, and for what? A round of applause, a few people nodding and going 'Hmm yes, how interesting'? Then going home feeling entertained and mildly better informed. Sometimes this doesn't feel like enough, and I wonder whether this energy couldn't be better spent. If I put in the same level of exertion into, I don't know, working for the UN, or Amnesty, or The Red Cross, or as an investigative journalist - wouldn't the actual net result in terms of lives changed be so much greater?

Obviously, I'm a bit stuck now. To do that stuff I'd have to go and re-train and start over and throw away years spent working towards where I am today. Or is that just an excuse? I could do it if I really wanted to. Maybe not in time to stop America bombing Iran, but there might be plenty of other future events which my efforts could be put towards avoiding, which writing a play about them would never prevent.

But I'm stuck wasting my time with this indulgent middle-class career-hobby. Sometimes I wonder why.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

I went to see Carmen at the Royal Opera House last night. It's only the second opera I've ever been to. (I don't count Jerry Springer The Opera.) The other one was The Magic Flute at the ENO, which I absolutely hated, even though it was directed by Nick Hytner and had got good reviews.

I'd heard good things about Carmen too and had high hopes that maybe this would be the one where I finally managed to understand what all the fuss was about. Unfortunately, I was again disappointed. It wasn't awful, just boring.

I did try. After the lessons learned on these very pages, I went along in a spirit of warm smiling generosity. Oh yes. I really wanted to like it. I liked the idea of opening myself up to other forms of performance, and seeing what their tricks were. I wanted to be able to sound all clever now and again by dropping in conversational references like "Of course in the 2007 Carmen at the ROH..." when talking to directors. (I've noticed directors seem to like opera.)

I was even in good company. I went with a very good friend who loves his opera, in a genuinely impassioned rather than ostentatious way. So I suppose apart from anything else I sort of didn't want to let him down, a bit like when my Dad used to take me to classical recitals. But I can't hide it when I don't like something. And if I'd lied he knows me well enough to tell.

We discussed it afterwards in the pub, and my main objection was that the story was simply rubbish. Apart from being rather a well-worn love triangle setup, the characters were little more than archetypes (and I'd argue that even that was crediting them with a complexity which wasn't really in evidence). Character development was so thin that at no point was there any chance to feel particularly strongly about any of them, nor care what happened to them. And to top it all, in a three-and-a-half hour evening there was really only enough material to justify perhaps one hour of plot. The rest of the time was taken up by everyone singing the same line to each other four or five times in a row. Sometimes, I wondered whether the surtitles had got stuck.

"But what about the music?!" I know, I know, it's all very impressive and they're highly skilled and world famous and train very hard and earn more per second than I do in a year. I could tell they were good at what they did, but that didn't make me like it. Again, I did try. It's partly a taste thing; I just find the sound of opera rather pompous and self-important. But I also found it difficult to concentrate on the music because I was so distracted by all the onstage comings and goings, like a real live donkey and a child doing backflips. All very impressive but no amount of smoke and mirrors can make up for a deficient plot.

"But it isn't about the PLOT!" Well, why have one then? If it's just a reason to write some songs and play them, why not just hold a concert? In fact, the few classical concerts I have been to I've actually preferred, and been able to concentrate on, precisely because there aren't any livestock or acrobats to distract me. I just don't feel that opera as a genre very successfully integrates stagecraft and musicianship. For me, they somehow seem to both detract from one another.

My friend and I eventually realised that perhaps my background as a playwright somehow precludes me from getting into the spirit of it all. He plays the piano to Grade 8 and so was coming to it from a different angle. Whilst he was floating on a blissful cloud of treble clefs and arias, I was down a dramaturgical pit fuming at the slow pace and poor characterisation.

Still, it was better than The Magic Flute, which was like a really patronising panto, replete with god-awful gags, huge chunks of appallingly bad dialogue, and a 'hilarious' man in a bird suit. Perhaps it is just a matter of taste. I don't like musicals either. But I can't help feeling that perhaps I'm a terrible philistine, or that I'm missing out on something amazing. But I'm not sure what else I can do.

That said, it's not a massive priority for the coming year. But if anyone else out there likes opera, I'd be interested to hear why.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Lyn Gardner has made reference to the (now rather infamous) row which kicked off on this blog after the 05 Jan entry below. I think she has missed the point. You can read her whole post here, though the bit relating to us is reproduced below.

I have left the following Comment for her on her Guardian blog, but some of you may well want to contribute too. But please play nicely - remember we're representing our profession here. I don't want the whole world to think we're like Jade Goody ok?

My Comment to Lynn:

"Those theatre-makers who sincerely believe that it's easy being a critic as well as a friend and colleague have only to take a peek at the row that erupted on playwright Fin Kennedy's website just before Christmas to see what happens when the boundaries blur."

Whilst this point may be true, the row which erupted on my blog was not about this. It was started by an Anonymous commenter making a below the belt remark about another blogging playwright's girth, and drawing a catty analogy with 'flabby plays'. This playwright rightly saw red and responded in kind. He was then vilified for (wrongly) being perceived to have responded with violence to a criticism of his work.

Whilst the resulting furore was indeed gruesome reading at times, in amongst it all was an interesting and important debate about how playwrights in particular are writtten off as oversensitive 'difficult' old buggers the moment they take issue with something someone has said, even if it isn't about their work. We are always in a position of weakness because once we have written our plays and had them performed, everyone else has the last word. For a writer to take part in any ensuing debate is seen as defensiveness.

The traditional balance of power between theatre-makers, critics and audiences has always served to effectively neuter the theatre-makers. The internet and particularly blogs are changing all that, and it is making some critics very uncomfortable. But surely the more people that take part in debates about plays, and the more numerous their views, the more likely we are to get to the truth of a piece of work through being able to see it from all sides, and thereby reach a more accurate (or at least democratic) consensus on its value or otherwise?

Of course, this does mean a bit more work on the part of audiences. They will have to read through comments boxes in more detail to get to the heart of the matter, rather than rely on one critics opinion. But we already consult comments when we buy electrical equipment from Amazon, or Tripadvisor before we book a hotel, or decide whteher or not to trust an eBay seller - why not plays too? One man's Royal Hunt Of The Sun is another man's Love And Money...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sorry for the gap. I've been a bit swamped because I've started as writer-in-residence at Mulberry School this week. Although it's part-time, it's full-time this first week as I have to recruit a whole ton of kids into various after-school clubs I'm setting up.

One of the things they've asked me to do is to devise a new show through wokshops, script it, rehearse it, and take it to the Edinburgh festival this summer. I've never done this before, so I'm afraid this is rather a selfish blog entry to ask for your help. That's right - yours. It's the least you can do after your recent misbehaviour.

Does anyone have any insider's tips for Dos and Don'ts at the Edinburgh Festival? My brief is to take a group of perhaps 10 Bangladeshi girls aged between 14 and 18, for about a week, in a one-act show maybe 40 mins long.

Here's some of the questions I'm pondering:
  • What kinds of shows sell? I know that in Edinburgh you need a USP (often gimmicky) to stand out from the crowd, but I don't really do that kind of work. Would a more serious show about what it's like to be a Muslim teenager in east London get us anywhere, or should i just bite the bullet and do an all-singing all-dancing Bengali extravaganza?
  • Where's good to stay, especially for large groups of minors? (That's children, not coal.) It would have to be fairly near the centre.
  • Any tips on friendly supportive venues who'd help us with marketing etc? Again, nothing too far-out or low profile. What I don't want is a 9am slot on the outskirts of town and the whole experience to be thoroughly miserable for everyone.
  • Any other good contacts you have - friendly press people in particular.
  • A good reliable (cheap) firm for printing flyers and posters?
That's probably not everything, so don't feel restricted. All pearls of wisdom gratefully received.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

More and more theatres are announcing their 2007 seasons. Hot Tips continued:

Angels In America Parts 1 & 2 Headlong Theatre Company (formerly Oxford Stage Co.)
Called To Account at the Tricycle
Family at Stratford East (ok I don't normally do family dramas but this is Cosh Omar whose Battle Of Green Lanes I loved).

The Bush hasn't announced further than 3rd Feb yet so watch this space. God I'm good to you.

***

Just been sent late news of a special ticket offer to the first production at Theatre 503 under the new artistic team there:

The Atheist at Theatre 503

The 16th January sees the launch of the first season from the new team at Theatre 503 with the European Premiere of The Atheist by Ronan Noone.

Special ticket offers are available for the first week of the production on 16th January (Pay What You Can), 19th, 20th and 21st (£7 tickets). Call the box office on 020 7978 7040 and quote "Special Offer".

For more info visit the mini-site: www.theatheist.info

The Atheist by Ronan Noone
Theatre 503
16 January – 3 February

Every good news story needs a good storyteller.

Meet the decadently delicious Augustine Early, one of the world’s most crooked journalists. Supremely sardonic and sordid, his nihilistic intentions make an exquisite art of clawing one's way up the professional ladder. A searing and hilarious new play by one of America's most insightful voices about catching the perfect front-page headline, whatever the cost...

Written by Ronan Noone
Performed by Ben Porter
Directed by Ari Edelson

Monday, January 08, 2007

What a lesson.

It's strange, I spend half my time teaching playwrighting, most often to teenagers, and acting as an ambassador of sorts for my profession in schools. It makes me feel like a much more senior writer than I actually am. Then something like this happens and leaves me with a curious feeling that perhaps I don't know this business as well as I'd assumed, that I'd naively misjudged it's darker edges, and that perhaps, after all, the teenagers have the edge on us. At least Respect is their big thing.

I don't know quite what I unleashed with my last post. It was never my intention for this to descend into personal attacks. I've had to set Comments to moderation, which maybe I should have done in the first place, but it's depressed me all the same that I've had to do that. It's certainly shaken my confidence in the belief that an Anonymous feedback system is a constructive way to move things forward. Any more like that and I'll set this site to Members Only, with full names displayed ... so be warned.

I feel particularly bad that it was David who copped it. His work is in no way part of my moan about plays with nothing to say. Actually, he is one of the most down-to-earth, least up themselves playwrights working today and it's really unfair that he got caught up in this. As for his blog, that's his business alone. I would never criticise anyone's blog; my discussion was about the sort of writing that gets public money spent on it, and that alone. Just this once, for what it's worth, I enjoy David's blog a lot and I think the main thing that comes through is his essentially kind nature. (Though I do admire his spirit when provoked.) With hindsight, his positive editorial policy seems much more mature than mine.

In amongst the muck-slinging there were some interesting points made. I'm particularly pleased that someone from outside the industry popped in to give us a piece of her mind, I'm only sorry, and slightly embarrassed, that it was prompted by such childish behaviour. But overall I feel too disheartened to really continue this debate at all.

I was re-watching Ken loach's Land And Freedom last night, one of my favourite films of all time, and one that always reduces me to helpless tears. As the tragedy unfolded and the Communists turned on the Anarchists at the expense of allowing the Fascists to win the war, I couldn't help but think of this blog. Call me sentimental, but maybe we're better off as comrades rather than enemies despite our differences. (And that's not an invitation to speculate, anonymously or otherwise, about who the 'Fascists' are in our industry ok?)

So what now? Well, I'll certainly think twice before blogging critically in future. I don't want to be seen to incite anything like this again. Whilst I know who some of you are, there's plenty I don't, though I do broadly know the worlds you are drawn from. Suffice to say that undergraduate fight-picking with successful figures is not conducive to moving things forward. I've been there in fierier days, and I've always regretted it.

I'd like to end on a positive note. There's an old Chinese proverb, which an old skool hip hop dancer from New York once told me (I'm not making this up). It was in relation to gangsta rap having hijacked hip hop, an essentially democratic grass roots community movement in its early days. I asked what we could do about arseholes like 50 Cent, and with great dignity he took a breath and replied: 'Why tell a man his glass of water is dirty when you can hold a clean one up alongside it?'

In that spirit, here is my list of Hot Tips, the forthcoming shows of 2007 which I am really excited about.

LONDON:
Attempts On Her Life at the National
Someone Else's Shoes at Soho
Gone Too Far at Royal Court
Nothing But The Truth at Hampstead
Big White Fog at the Almeida
John Gabriel Borkman at the Donmar
Fanny and Faggot at the Finborough
I Wish To Die Singing at the Finborough
Brecht Double Bills 1 and 2 at the Young Vic
Vernon God Little at Young Vic

OUTSIDE LONDON:
Pretend You Have Big Buildings at Manchester Royal Exchange
24 Hour City at Manchester Royal Exchange
The May Queen at Liverpool Everyman
Days of Significance at the RSC Stratford
Bulletproof Soul at Birmingham Door

TOURS:
Risk by Company of Angels

EVENTS & READINGS:
Talawa debate at Soho on black writing and the legacy of slavery (can't find this online but its 15-17 Feb in the brochure)
New Writing Debate at the Royal Court (try being anonymous here!)
Syrian new writing at Royal Court

You can add your own in the comments box if you think I've missed any.

Think of it as a penance.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Right then. That’s quite enough cryptic randomness to see in the new year. I like to keep you on your toes.

How the devil are you all? Anonymous as ever? I hope so. We have some unfinished business from the Comments section of 14th December don’t we?

Some of the points that were put to me were quite interesting. I thought I’d take each of them in turn.

1. The Metaphysicalist/Literalist distinction is a red herring for people who like breaking things down into simplistic categories. Perhaps this last bit is true, it may be a bit simplistic to say that all new plays fall into one or the other. But I think there must be two broadly recognisable tendencies out there, otherwise why would so many people be agreeing to frame the debate in these shared terms? Most recently I have read Aleks Sierz allude to it in his excellent book on Martin Crimp; he bemoans ‘British realism’ and the hostility of most of his critical peers towards work with a more abstract European aesthetic. It’s an interesting starting point for a discussion if nothing else, and therefore of some merit for that alone. But I think it’s a tag that should refer to plays rather than writers. Surely if we’re worth our salt we should be able to encompass both, and more. Being able to select the most appropriate form for one’s content is an important skill, and part of the reason we get paid to do what we do.

But I do agree that perhaps a preoccupation with form misses the most important point, which is that the content should be of standalone value for its originality, no matter how it’s packaged. More on this later.

2. I should maintain my refusal to name plays that annoy me. Well, we’ll see about that. I have to admit that I am still finding my feet with this blog, and testing the water to some extent. My recent reticence was down to having come under pressure from certain quarters in the past to write diplomatically, during my occasional forays into the pages of the Guardian. But I surely flatter myself if I pretend that this blog is anywhere near the same league.

I do remember getting annoyed during David Edgar’s Playing With Fire and Steve Waters' World Music (both of which I otherwise loved – your can pour your scorn into the Comments receptacle below) when they refused to name the BNP and Rwanda respectively as their subjects, and came up with a made-up name. If you give everyone enough information to get what you mean then what’s the point of holding back at all?

I would like to think that readers of blogs do so for the personal opinions of the writer, and that the writers are able to write in a way they wouldn’t elsewhere, free of legal implications and other tricky business. But then, as I noted before, it’s so easy to get a bad reputation in this industry, as the string of Anonymous comments I get will attest. But could saying you don’t like someone else’s play ever affect one’s own career? Surely ultimately we’ll be judged on our work and our work alone? If we were to live or die by what we said about other people then I can think of several highly successful people in this business who shouldn’t by rights be working at all. Maybe I should stop being such a wimp. Presumably you come here to see what I think and if that turns out to be a bit controversial then so much the better, eh? It passes the working day.

3. Plays don’t need to have a point. Hmmm. To be fair to the Commenter I think this was said in relation to the clunking moral messages of Hare and Edgar, though they did ask in the same breath whether plays needed something to say at all. I’d reframe the question: why do you go to the theatre? I can tell you why I don’t go. I don’t pay £15 and give up my evening and run the gauntlet of British weather and public transport and sit in the dark for two hours and risk getting stabbed to death on the way home (where I live anyway) to be told something I knew already. I’ve got better things to spend my time and money on.

There’s a very definite deal about going to the theatre as far as I’m concerned, and I’d sum it up with another question: why are you telling me this? It’s a question I ask of every play I read or see, or indeed write. Why have you taken the trouble to spend 6 to 12 months of your life telling this story? Why do you think it deserves thousands and thousands of pounds of public money to be staged? Why should hundreds of people pay further money and trek through the dark to see it? The pay-off would have to be pretty special.

And that’s the clincher for me. You’re not writing a novel where you have a one-to-one relationship with an indulgent reader, where the literary form is the end product, which will tolerate all manner of flights of fancy, and where a private profit-making publishing house will foot the bill to produce it. No. If you’re working in the subsidised theatre sector, the entire country is paying you. Why? I would argue that what we’re paying for is an individual writer’s quality of mind. I think that involves a duty to go away and investigate and give considered time for original thought to subjects of importance to us all. Or at least, a sizeable chunk of us. This for me is ‘the point’. It doesn’t have to result in clunking moral message, but I do expect at least a kernel of originality; some aspect of humanity I hadn’t considered before, some phenomenon or area of human experience I didn’t know went on, or hadn’t seen in that way before. Plays that lack this, for me at least, lack any reason to go and see them.

True, a large part of the problem is in what gets commissioned, and I’ve written at length about that elsewhere. But what I didn’t say in that piece was that in a time of threatened funding cuts we writers, as the progenitors of the stock of new theatrical stories, need to raise our game too. No-one owes us a living. Vanity-plays about ‘me and my mates’ or ‘me and my love affairs’ have their days numbered if we are going to continue to convince the ordinary taxpayer to fund our activities. I see theatre as having a social role to play in that it should examine issues of collective importance. But that seems to make a lot of people very angry when I say that, and I’ve never been sure why. Maybe you can tell me.

4. One of the plays under discussion failed because the playwright was blinded by political anger at the expense of her drama. Interesting. I think I would agree. I once went to see Pinter at the National read his anti-war poems during the build up to Iraq and was gobsmacked at how crass they were. The man was absolutely blinded by rage to the point where he wasn’t capable of anything other than the literary equivalent of a howl. This is understandable given the circumstances, I have written similar howls after relationship break-ups and the like, but you don’t show it anybody. I think poor Pinter was suckered by a newspaper editor who had told him ‘I’ll print anything you write’. And he did. Write anything. And they printed it. I suppose when you get to his level, or Caryl Churchill’s (oops) it doesn’t really matter. Everyone will admire your beautifully woven birthday suit. But it is galling when you know that writers like me or you couldn’t get away with it.

5. Writers should support each other and, by implication, this entails being less critical of each other’s work than a non-writer might be. This might be true when we’re looking over each other’s work in certain contexts, such as script development or rehearsed readings, because the vision isn’t yet realised and the point of those exercises is to help it along the way until it’s the best it can be. Perhaps we should be a bit more friendly to work that’s been developed under certain budgetary restraints too, such as fringe shows. But once its in full production at a subsidised venue and been through a development process I think the gloves are off. I’d certainly want to know if I was writing drivel, and as the next point says:

6. If we pussyfoot around and fail to criticise inferior quality work then mediocrity becomes the norm, which ultimately drives away audiences. I couldn’t agree more. There’s an extraordinary amount of politeness that surrounds peer responses to new work (less so in the press of course, but then, rightly or wrongly, that’s why they’re there). Maybe the Anonymous comments box is the way forward. During developmental readings I’ve had of my work, the responses in the after-show discussion have been all warm and fluffy and ultimately unhelpful. But stick an anonymous comments sheet on people’s chairs and you get all sorts back.

The most honest audiences of course, are children, especially teenagers. If they don’t like it they’ll shout and throw things at the stage. The last adult audiences to do that lived 400 years ago. That was Shakespeare’s only “development process” and look how it turned out. A lesson for us all.

7. The New Statesman magazine has become crap. I agree. I’m thinking of not renewing my current subscription. But I will miss it. Does anyone have any suggestions for a replacement leftie political weekly?

8. We should be generous when criticising others’ work because someone has put a lot of time into it. Well this isn’t very helpful is it? By that rationale we’d never be allowed to criticise anything. All creative endeavours take time. Ah, but I hear you say – be generous not uncritical. I’m afraid I’ve never been very good at that when it comes to theatre. Scripts in development, yes. They are there to be improved with constructive criticism. Plays in full production – what’s left to be improved? It’s too late by then, and I just can’t see past the thousands of pounds of public money that’s been wasted, and respond accordingly.

9. Sometimes you can only tell a play doesn’t work when it opens, and then its too late to do anything about it, so we may as well be nice about it. Again, I’m not sure this is true. There’s plenty of ways of telling if a script works before it gets to a full production, and even if something only comes to light in front of a full audience then that’s what previews are for, and any writer worth their money will attend every single one and make tweaks. If the problem is too big to be sorted by that stage then someone along the line hasn’t done their job properly, so it’s hard to sympathise if they then get it in the neck.

10. An honest, but generous response is more useful than one that papers over what you think. Useful’ to what end? It certainly wouldn’t be useful in raising the overall quality of our theatrical output. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being generous where generosity is deserved. I admired many shows which got panned – Tim Supple’s adaptation of Midnight’s Children springs to mind – because for all their failings I could tell they were grasping at something huge and important and unique. But it’s hard to be generous when so many shows simply seem to be so impoverished in their quality of mind. I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here; we need to train our new writers to be original thinkers alongside teaching them the craft of playwrighting. It’s a unique job in the modern world in that it’s the nearest we have (in this country at least) to fully paid up philosophers. It’s not enough just to write well-made plays. I want to be intellectually stimulated too. These aren’t mutually exclusive, nor does their combination result in dry work. It’s a question of stretching fledgling writers by giving them access to others who will broaden their horizons; communities beyond their own, social theorists, academics, scientists, theologians, leaders in their fields.

I go to the theatre to see original thought about the world around me skilfully mounted in an enlightened dramatic form. What other reason is there?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Some Middle Eastern proverbs

I have been collecting these as part of my research for BABYLON, my play about the looting of the Iraq Museum for the Tricycle Theatre. They are from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Berber and Bedouin tribes. It's interesting how proverbs give you an insight into a society in very few words. These are some of my favourites:

An army of sheep led by a lion would defeat an army of lions led by a sheep.

Sometimes you need to sacrifice your beard in order to save your head.

Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.

A stone thrown at the right time is better than gold given at the wrong time.

Experience is a comb which nature gives to men when they are bald.

A drowning man is not troubled by rain.

Doubt is the key to knowledge.

One pound of learning requires ten pounds of common sense to apply it.

The night hides a world, but reveals a universe.

When the cat and mouse agree, the grocer is ruined.

At the narrow passage, there is no brother and no friend.

I against my brother, I and my brother against our cousin, I, my brother and our cousin against the neighbours, All of us against the foreigner.

Except for my father and my mother everybody lies.

Exile is the brother of death.

If you open the eyes of a blind man he wants to go back to the darkness.

Who is brave enough to tell the lion that his breath smells?

A man's servant can live for a hundred years; the slave of a woman dies in six months.

Knowledge without patience is like a candle with no light.

As soon as a man gets new trousers, he thinks about a new wife.

Everyone thinks his own spit tastes good.

Fear those who do not fear God.

He is still alive because he cannot afford a funeral.

He who has only one enemy, meets him everywhere.

If a man would live in peace, he should be blind, deaf, and dumb.

If you enter the city of the blind, cover your eyes.

If you really have to sin, then choose a sin that you enjoy.

In the hotel of decisions the guests sleep well.

Injustice all round is justice.

It is better to be in chains with friends, than to be in a garden with strangers.

It takes two days to learn everything about a man; to know animals you will need more time.

Write kindness in marble and write injuries in the dust.

The bigger a man's head, the worse his headache.

The earth is a host who kills his guests.

The mediator in a fight gets all the blows.

The wise man sits on the hole in his carpet.

There are four things every person has more of than they know; sins, debt, years, and foes.

When a lion is old, he becomes the plaything of jackals.

I am a prince and you are a prince; who will lead the donkeys?

Better a handful of dry dates and content therewith than to own the Gate of Peacocks and be kicked in the eye by a broody camel.

He who eats alone chokes alone.

If power is for sale, sell your mother to buy it. You can always buy her back again.

One is better off seated than standing. lying than seated, asleep than awake, and dead than alive.

Seek counsel of he who makes you weep, and not of he who makes you laugh

There is no greater misfortune than your own.

Trust makes way for treachery.

Kiss any arm you cannot break, and pray to God to break it.

He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool, shun him. He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a child, teach him. He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep, wake him.
He who knows, and knows that he knows, is wise, follow him.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A Strange Relationship

We have been together since childhood, you and I. We met in a temple, where your proxies performed your rituals. Ancient stories, bright and loud, dark and terrifying. You captivated me, and I loved you with the stomach churning excitement of recognition. Here was someone to be. You were huge and frightening, like a technicolour thunderstorm. Back then, I could not see you behind your magic, but I knew you were there. My dark spirit. My conjuror. You gave me nightmares, but also dreams. Dreams of a future.

Our relationship, of course, has since matured. Others have come to take your place. But they are all you, part of your magic. You have a thousand faces. So we grew together, all of us. My hunger to know your tricks grew fast around your trunk, like ivy on oak. As I grew, the stories you told me became stranger. I loved you most when you showed me places I never knew existed, yards from my front door. The strangeness of people half-familiar but never known. You brought them to me. You revealed poetry in the everyday, through tiny truths you opened up eternity. My obsession grew.

I unquestioningly devoured your every word. You became my window onto adulthood. Sometimes you told me of your love affairs and, insane with the jealousy of recognition, I emulated you in my own. The time I wasted over you. How you fed the narcissism of adolescence. (Luckily, there was no-one else around.)

One day, I asked you to teach me, and when you refused, I stalked you. I watched your nightly ceremonies, stole your sacred texts, forced myself onto those who had met you, and paid others to divulge your secrets. I picked through your trash in search of you, dedicated my life to knowing you, your uninvited student. As the years passed, so I began to unpick your spells, and little by little your magic unravelled. My obsession had made me strong, and in time, I had you where I wanted you, helpless before me. I took my sharpest knife, prised open your chest and plunged in my hands. I held your heart, and watched it shudder between my fingers. It was then that I knew. You were just like me. We had become one.

Now we are the same, and I judge you harshly. For now I know your ways. I too am paid to summon magic in front of crowds, in temples erected from the shared gold of a nation. You and your craft are no longer an enigma. You are human, and fallible, as am I. Now I know your duties and responsibilities, and no longer will my impressionable naïvety allow you to shirk them. No longer do I listen unquestioningly to your stories of tortured heartbreak. For there are greater things in the world. With the wisdom of hindsight I mourn the time lost on the paths you led me down.

There are others out there now, listening to us both. They are our eager confidantes, the missing links which complete the circuits we build. They are the reason we do what we do; sometimes our fans, always our patrons. They are the reason we exist.

They will take risks for us, our beloved congregation. They will follow us to dark places. For through us they gain the power to learn about themselves. In this isolated interconnected world, we bring them together. We are their poets, their journalists, their philosophers and their oracle. We can take their pulse and tell their fortunes. Our greatest works define the contours of our shared shores. Cartographers of the carnival of life.

But for all our protestations, we will always need them more than they need us. We are a peculiar anachronistic order, which should never really have survived modernity. Yet in a world largely devoid of the time and space for considered original thought, a shared pot is set aside to send we lucky few on lonely journeys of discovery, so long as we return to tell the tale. For we must pay for this privilege with kernels of originality we have gathered along the way. Seeds of truth, paid for by the shared pot, to be planted in the shared plot.

But it is easy for this privilege to corrupt. The sense of elevation can fatally inflate a human ego. Beware. For when the interior landscape seems the only one worth exploring, your time is probably up, and you should give way to another of your thousand faces. Narcissism is the enemy of art.

Sometimes, when I rejoin the congregation and watch you at work, you remind me of why I first fell for you. When you uncover a spectacular new truth, the old magic suddenly returns, and rays of delight dazzle us all.

For a few hours, you send us off into the night feeling the world is a better place for you being in it.