Author Archives: Joy L. Martin

'Spot of Tea' by Dolly Mohr

Serendipity Story #3: The Joke

6 December 2017…

During my stay in Branscombe, Devon in August 2016, serendipity delivered the idea for how my life might shape up as a wandering pilgrim. I had secured a four-month house sit for the coming winter: from November to March I would be staying in a closed-for-the-winter Bn’B, looking after a border collie in England’s Lake District. With this large chunk of upcoming time now allotted, I could fill in the rest of my schedule with visits to friends around the country and other short Workaway and house-sitting assignments. It could work, and I would write my novel, at this point just begun, from a moveable desk.

But it was still only August, and I needed to find somewhere to go until November. At this point, the many hands that had reached out to cushion my recent fall started proffering invitations for me to stay, and I gratefully began to accept them. I reflected that this situation was pressing on a withered internal psychological muscle, and I was being put through the paces of a new, specific strength: ask for help/accept help/ask for help/accept help/ask for help/accept help. This felt terrible to me. Both asking for and accepting help made me feel sick, green, low and wrong. I could starkly see the big slab of unworthiness lying underneath these feelings – the core belief that gave rise to them.

It was interesting to me that crashing and breaking apart like this allowed me to see the constituent parts of myself so much more clearly. It brought to light things that had been down in my depths, unseen and unconscious. It had been very painful to break apart, but I was beginning to see that I had also broken open, and that in this there was a beautiful chance for healing – that now these formerly closed spaces were open to the sweet breath of the universe, to light, air, warmth and sight. I could more clearly discern two separate parts of myself: a suffering, confused, human part, and a clear, bright, loving, observing part of me that adored the truth, no matter what shape it took. The truth-adoring part of me didn’t actually mind any of this new homeless wandering, grieving for a relationship, or uncertainty about how I would support myself – the truth-adoring part of me was eager for the darkened spaces in myself to be cleared and brightened, and delighted, exhilarated even, about the potential in this situation for turning darkness into light.

The place I wanted to go first, and most, was to visit Jane and her husband Maxwell in Kent. They live in the countryside next to a huge commercial apple orchard, in a tiny hamlet just inland from the white cliffs and seaside towns of Deal and Dover. Jane is the mother of one of my best friends in Cambridge, and I have been generously welcomed into her family as a sort of extra daughter for years, as she knows I am on the other side of the ocean from my American family. She was watching over me closely as the situation with the Frenchman developed, and then dive-bombed. She is one of the wisest and most loving people I have ever met. She emits love at an unusually powerful magnitude, like a star, and simply being in her presence is a healing experience. I have thought for many years that she is an example of ‘everyday enlightenment’. She draws love from a powerful connection to the divine Source and beams this outward, lighting up her daily circles of family, friends, students and colleagues. She teaches horse riding.

The day I left Devon to travel to Jane in Kent, my kind host Debbie dropped me off in the town of Seaton. I would catch the countryside bus from Seaton to Axminster, and there I would get on a train to Kent. At the beginning of my journey, after Debbie dropped me off in Seaton, I went to the cash machine around the corner from the bus stop.

It was raining, and I hurried, worried about catching the bus in time, with my umbrella in one hand and pulling my big red suitcase in the other. At the cash machine, I noticed that there was something a bit strange about my account balance as it appeared on the screen – there should have been more money there – but I was able to withdraw the £10 I needed for my bus fare, and I figured it was probably just a technical glitch of some sort. I had already bought my train ticket, so all I needed was this £10 for the bus, the first leg of my journey.

I caught the bus in time, after a short wait in the plexiglass-covered bus stop in front of the grey, rainy sea. Shortly after I got on the bus, my phone rang, and it turned out to be my bank. The woman on the other end of the phone explained that a hacker had breached their security, and a batch of accounts, mine included, had had their money stolen. The first thought that flashed across my mind was, ‘I have always been so afraid of that happening, and now it IS happening, while I am traveling and technically homeless.’

I didn’t handle this situation gracefully. At first, I was able to speak in a controlled manner to the woman from the bank. But after she told me she had cancelled my bank card, and asked me where to send a new card, my frustration and fear about my entire situation – the recent overnight loss of my home, job and relationship – culminated, crested and broke in a wave of emotion, and I said, ‘I don’t HAVE an address. I don’t have a home! I don’t know where I am going to be in 7 – 10 working days. Oh God!’ And then I started sobbing uncontrollably. The people on the bus were all British and politely looked away. The lady from the bank was a kind woman and said soothing things patiently until I calmed down, and then we slowly worked through the details. Of course I would get all the stolen funds back, after speaking to the fraud team and signing and posting a form to them, but for now, all I had was the £3 change from my bus fare, and my ticket to Jane’s.

I mulled this situation pensively for the rest of the bus journey to Axminster, where I caught my train to Kent. The train was more comfortable than the bus had been, warm with luxurious seats, and I had a table area all to myself, with a big window showing the rainy, green West Country flash by. When the porter came through the carriage with the tea trolley, I felt that nothing would help me at this moment as much as a cup of tea, and I asked for hot water in a cup, which the porter kindly gave me for free, and I rummaged in my backpack for the stash of teabags I carried.

I pulled out an individually-wrapped Yogi Licorice Tea bag, unwrapped it, and dropped it into the cardboard cup of steaming water. Yogi brand teabags always have a pithy spiritual message inscribed on the little dark red label attached to the string. This one said, ‘Prosperity is within us’. I sensed the Universe all around me, loving, conscious, poised and watching to see if I would laugh at this divine joke.

Reader, I did. Of course, I did…my name is Joy, after all, and joy is the very deepest and truest layer of my being. I let the joke carry me away, and as the ripples of comedy washed through me, and eventually soothed me, they led me to the calm thought that I was currently living through one of the fears sitting crouched at the bottom of my psyche, but I was okay. It was happening, but it was okay. I didn’t know where I was going to live until November, but that was okay, too. I knew where I was going to live for the next week, which was at Jane’s house in Kent. I had £3, but that was okay, because I would have all my meals for the next week with Jane and Maxwell. While I was at their house, the next step would be revealed, and eventually the stolen money would be returned to me, and everything was okay.

Hugging Jane in her kitchen when I arrived was one of the best hugs of my life. She embodied and radiated this spiritual message of unconditional okay-ness: You are okay, deeply okay. Life is safe, life is okay. Anything that happens, is okay. During the next week, we had many cups of tea, talks and walks in the orchard, where the trees were heavy with their crop of new apples. Jane’s vision of me as beloved and valuable shone upon the unworthiness that was revealed when I was forced to ask for help, and for a while they were two competing forces inside me, one light, one dark. But I kept seeing all around me Jane’s love, acceptance and warmth, and I trusted her more than I trusted the dark thoughts whispered by the unworthiness. I began to realise that although the unworthiness felt potent, and real, that it wasn’t necessarily true. Jane was demonstrating in each moment that I was worthy of care, attention, assistance and love. The clear, bright observer inside me, my soul, told me to trust the light, love and warmth, and distrust the dark whispers of unworthiness. Jane’s love shone on me all week like the sun, showing me how to use love as a power to dismantle the untrue darkness inside myself. And when I told her about my moment on the train with the tea, we laughed and laughed and laughed.

Serendipity Story #4 coming soon…

The featured image is ‘Spot of Tea’ by Dolly Mohr. Visit her website here.

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'Aquamarine Cobb', Used Courtesy of Artist Hilary Buckley

Serendipity Story #2: The List of Dreams

10 October 2017…

It was early August 2016, a few days after I put all my worldly possessions in a storage unit at Cambridge’s Newmarket Road industrial estate and watched the Frenchman drive away in his vintage Citroen station wagon, hauling a now-empty trailer and bound for the ferry at Newhaven, alone.

I was at Peter and Rafael’s flat in Cambridge, wondering what to do, where to go next. I had with me one big, red suitcase (‘Big Red’) and a blue backpack (‘Little Blue’). I had a good pair of brown leather Timberland hiking boots, only two months old. My urge to leave Cambridge was strong. The urge was composed of embarrassment, a sense of failure, a desire to hide and a longing for somewhere quiet, beautiful and solitary. The streets of Cambridge felt too full of memories, associations and people. It also felt like I was still being propelled by the course I had been following so eagerly: go, start a new life in a different place. This was like a tatter, still active, still readable, from the old story I had been living, recently thrown into a fireplace and slowly burning up.

The Frenchman owned an eco-house and smallholding in South West France, and he often hosted people who were traveling on the Workaway programme. This is a low-budget way of traveling, where travellers stay with a host and are provided with food and board in exchange for a few hours of work every day. It seemed like a good way to go somewhere, and I knew God was looking after me. I knew wherever I went, it would be okay.

Sitting at Peter and Rafa’s kitchen table, I logged onto the Workaway website, created a profile, thought to myself, I want to go somewhere in the UK by a beach, and applied for four different situation postings in coastal towns. Only a few hours later, I heard from Deborah in Branscombe, Devon, offering for me to come and stay with her for two weeks.

I started to breathe more easily as soon as I was on the train west from Cambridge, and my solar plexus was humming with a vibration of rightness. I enjoyed seeing the big, green, round hills of the West Country appear after a couple hours of traveling due west. Past Teignmouth, there are sea views from the train. Deborah, Debbie, met me when I got off the train, and we loaded my bags into her station wagon with the seagulls screeching around us in the parking lot and the sea in the distance. She exuded a nearly palpable aura of love and kindness. She was a similar age to me, but a couple of years older, and petite, with gently curling brown hair and a very beautiful face. She told me that she had turned down something like 15 applications for her Workaway advertisement, but knew right away that I was the right person when she saw my message and profile.

I was in two minds about telling Debbie what had just happened in my life, but my instinct urged me to tell her in the car, on the way to her house. This only caused a deeper outpouring of kindness from her. She made a delicious, healthy meal for dinner, and as she handed a laden plate to me on that first night, she said Feed your soul with love, Joy. And I knew I was in the right place, doing the right thing, with the right person.

She lived in a huge, rambling old stone house on a hill that was an eight-minute walk from Branscombe Beach.  She showed me to a self-contained room with its own door and key set into the hill just below the main house. It had a big double bed, pretty views from the windows and floor space for yoga. The job she had for me to do was to scrape, sand and paint a black iron staircase winding up the outside of the house, which had been weathering the salty sea air and south coast storms for too long. There were white, fluffy sheep grazing on the green hills on either side of the house, and from the top of the staircase, I could see the sea.

I was ready for the hard work. I learned on the first day that the rusty old paint scrapings from the staircase would land on my hair and skin and become fused to the layer of sunscreen I wore, forming a black, dusty paste, so that I looked like a coal miner, or some creature from the bowels of the earth. This felt good, correct, satisfying. Like I had shed my old Cambridge skin, pretty clothes, culture job and persona. I was something primal, raw and earthy now. It also felt good to begin working the tragedy out of my system using my muscles. It took a full 40 minutes and an actual scrub brush to clean myself at the end of each morning of work. After lunch, I would spend time weeping in my bedroom and talking to God about everything, and then I would go to the beach in the late afternoon. I was still in a state of shock and turbulence, and the work each morning, beach and Debbie’s love were the healing agents at play during this first painful stage of the pilgrimage.

On the fifth day after I arrived at Debbie’s, I got an email from the Frenchman saying that he had made a mistake and wanted me back. Going through the fire of losing everything had burned my vision into a state of greater clarity, although I was still shocked and emotional. I wanted a relationship built on the rock of truth, and although it was painful to sift through the broken illusions of my relationship with him, I could begin to see now that maybe I had been a salve for his loneliness. I began to wonder whether he had loved ME or just loved my presence in his life, attentive and female, but not necessarily specific. I wondered if I were just a somebody to him, rather than Joy. I began to wonder What is love, anyway? What is a relationship? What did we have, and what did we lose, for real? I was suspicious, in a good way, a new way…I felt awakened to a deeper interrogation of the true nature of love. I felt that the Frenchman, having arrived back in France and realising that now he was single again, wanted to be un-single. It was impossible to imagine getting back together with someone who had bombed my life to rubble so thoroughly. I said no, with many questions in my heart and mind about what had happened, about him, myself and love in general.

My pilgrim path was still glittering with serendipity and magic, all around me and ahead of me. One afternoon at Debbie’s, I had said to the Universe, Please show me the way. If it is best for me to keep going like this, show me how and where… The Universe answered through the Workaway website again, immediately: I saw an advertisement for a four-month situation, house and dog-sitting in the Lake District of England, from November to March. It would be just me and the dog, in peaceful, beautiful surroundings. Perfect for writing. I applied and was immediately accepted. I knew this was the answer, the path, the way to go forwards.

The Universe had another helping of magic for me in Devon. I learned on the first day that Branscombe is only a couple of harbours along the south coast of England from Lyme Regis. I did my Masters’ degree research on Jane Austen, totally adore her writing and have read all her books multiple times. There is a passage in Persuasion where she, very unusually, pauses for a moment in her authorial narration to describe a place of natural beauty and exhorts the reader to visit it. This place is Lyme Regis. I have written about the scenes in Persuasion which are set on the seafront at Lyme Regis, called ‘The Cobb’, in my research. When I learned how close I was to Lyme Regis, I reflected that on the list of things I have always wanted to do, visiting Lyme Regis was right at the top, the first thing. And then it occurred to me that this list had been sitting dusty in the far archive rooms of my mind, for years. I couldn’t remember the last time I had checked in with my List of Dreams.

I had forgotten entirely that a person should have a List of Dreams and be working their way down it, making the dreams come true, small ones and big ones. I had lots of lovely experiences during my time living in Cambridge, but I realised that I was often tagging along with other people on their lists of dreams.

So it was exhilarating to catch the double-decker countryside bus from Branscombe to Lyme Regis the next Saturday and to be living out one of my dreams. Amusingly, I climbed aboard, and the bus was totally occupied by men and women in 18th century clothing, as there was a Town Crier competition afoot in nearby Axminster. It was a beautiful day, with blue sky and sunshine, and hot enough for a sleeveless dress. I felt like I was traveling into the novel Persuasion as the bus drove into Lyme Regis. I walked the Cobb on the seafront, looked around the town, had fish and chips for lunch, then sat on the beach and basked in the sun during the afternoon, before catching the bus back to Branscombe.

I marvelled at the loving way the Universe had brought me to Devon, given me Debbie for two weeks, an Earth Angel if ever I saw one, and shown me the path forwards. I was glad my illusions about love with the Frenchman had been shattered, because the truth is so precious to me. And even though I felt raw in body and spirit, I could feel God’s love shining everywhere around: in the rocks, trees, streams and sea, in Debbie, in the serendipity of running away in pain totally at random and finding that I had run back to myself in some crucial and temporarily forgotten way…back to my list of dreams.

Featured Image: ‘Aquamarine Cobb’ by Hilary Buckley. Please visit her website here.

Serendipity Story #3 Coming Soon…

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Serendipity Story #1: The Sign of the Pilgrim

31 Oct 2017.

When I visited St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, in July 2016, I didn’t know that I was visiting as a pilgrim-to-be. My tall, wild French boyfriend drove me there in his vintage Citroën Mehari. Holding hands (not able not to hold hands), we walked through the hilly, winding, cobbled streets, and he explained to me that St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, this small town in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, is the famous starting place for spiritual pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail, which ends in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

We saw many people in serious hiking clothes carrying rucksacks. They were in small groups and pairs, mostly, and there was the occasional lone pilgrim. We walked past the open door of the pilgrimage registration office, where pilgrims clustered, speaking to the administrators inside who would record the beginning of each pilgrim’s journey and give them the information they needed. On the wall of the office was a giant map showing the trail, curving from this little French village down through the mountains of northern Spain, and ending at the sea on Spain’s northwest coast. I stepped inside to take a picture of the map.

Everywhere we looked in the town we saw seashells: scallop shells, to be more precise. There were paving stones under our feet carved in the shape of scallop shells, scallop shells on restaurant awnings stretching out over the sidewalks, and scallop shells in every shop window. My Frenchman explained that this was the symbol of the pilgrimage trail. Then I noticed that the pilgrims all wore the scallop shell symbol somewhere on their person: as a patch sewn onto their rucksacks or coats, or hanging around their necks on a lanyard. I was laughing and laughing about seeing all of these shells, because later that night we were going to a costume party in our campsite, and I was dressing up as a mermaid and had a scallop-shell bra to wear.

My mermaid bra was made out of real scallop shells. When I assembled my mermaid costume in preparation for my upcoming camping trip in France with the Frenchman, I was living in Cambridge and having a long-distance relationship with him. I worked at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is across the street from the Loch Fyne seafood restaurant. I stepped across the street one day during my lunch break to ask the restaurant if they had any scallop shells I could use for a mermaid bra. The young man I spoke to said they no longer had a dish with scallop shells on the menu. He was standing behind a brightly-lit, refrigerated display case holding fresh seafood on ice. Both our eyes travelled down to the selection of oysters there, whose shells were the right shape. He said I could give you some oyster shells, and then he paused, genuinely intent on helping me with my quest, then said, but they’re [looking at my chest analytically] not big enough. Then he realised what he had said, and we both burst out laughing. Then he went to the kitchen to ask the chefs, and he came back with two scallop shells which they had kept for display.

At the Fitzwilliam I worked with the conservators and technicians who handle and display the precious objects in the museum, so I knew girls with drills and delicate skills. My friend Charis kindly drilled three small holes in each shell, so I could lace some string through them, and voilà, I had my mermaid bra.

I didn’t plan my pilgrimage ahead of time, like the well-equipped pilgrims I had seen in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The Frenchman had said, I love you. Come live with me. I will build a room for you to write in. Something has happened in my heart that has never happened before. Something had happened in my heart that had never happened before, too. Being with the Frenchman was like having magic injected into my blood. It was like being gently on fire at all times.

The cross-Channel ferry was booked for 5 August 2016, one month after our camping trip in the Pyrenees. The Frenchman arrived in Cambridge a few days before this to help me pack up my things, this time driving a vintage Citroën CX station wagon hauling a trailer. I had trained my replacement at the museum and said goodbye to my colleagues there. I had a big party to say goodbye to all my friends, and everybody came to hug me, wish me luck in my new life in France and have one final disco in my kitchen. I remember that the Frenchman and I both wore red to the party – I wore a red dress, and he wore a red shirt.

The plan was to hand over the keys of the rented shared house I had lived in for 11 years on the morning on 5 August, and then we would drive to Newhaven and take the evening ferry to Dieppe.

But [dear Reader…you have been able to sense where this story is going, haven’t you?] we had a catastrophic argument on the evening of 4 August, and broke up. The next morning, instead of driving to Newhaven to catch the ferry to France, we drove his car and trailer, loaded with all my possessions, to a storage box unit in an industrial estate around the corner from my former home in Cambridge.

I kept one big, red suitcase and a small backpack with me, and there I was, no home, no job, no relationship – all gone in one night.

This first part felt fiery, like a violent blood-letting, like falling and crashing. But… But… How can I describe to you how deeply I felt the hand of God on my life at this time? And how this felt beautiful? The falling and then the crashing, with my losses scattered and burning on the ground around me, showed me more deeply than anything before ever had, that all those burning things are not ME, and then I felt ME in a new way, as an intangible something that was indestructible and deeply connected to God. I knew right away that I was being ushered into a radical spiritual transformation. I saw how deeply I had nestled into my little burrow-life in Cambridge in a way that had changed from safe and stable to stagnant. I had been like a seed, still alive, but so…still. And so afraid…so unconsciously afraid of life.

All of my friends know that I have been on a deep and conscious spiritual path for years. For fifteen years, as this little seed, I soaked in theory and drank words, concepts, and ideas from spiritual writers from many different mystical traditions: Christian, Native American, Buddhist, Hindu, Yogic, New Age. And then on 5 August 2016, the great clock of the universe rang its bell, and suddenly it was time for pilgrimage, experience, practice, doing, transformation. It was time for me to be tossed out into the rich soil, water and sunlight of the outside world.

One of the most beautiful things that happened was discovering how many loving hands reached out to cushion my fall, to hold me afterwards when I cried, to offer me beds and sofas, to feed me, and just be near me, in quiet support. I hadn’t realised how loved I was. I hadn’t been particularly good at asking for help before.

From that moment, I started the deep learning of my pilgrim lessons. The first lesson was ‘Trust’. Trust God. Trust intuition. Trust friends. Trust that the path will appear, and you will be guided by what your heart tells you. Trust your own path, and don’t look over at anyone else’s. I knew that the right thing for me to do was to start traveling.

It is over a year later now, and I have had many beautiful spiritual experiences, and my faith and trust in this loving universe have been rewarded again and again, so that now I trust trust.

I know that discovering and deepening my connection to God was worth every single painful, burning moment of loss, fear and loneliness that I went through. I learned by going through this fire that those things are not really true things, and that when you realise God is inside you as you, and also everywhere around us, then we learn that we are never alone, and everything is okay, and we are all simply on a path of discovery each day, towards a deeper understanding of love, the nature of reality and God.

As I drop more and more deeply into my own understanding, I sense that the universe is conscious, attentive, loving and quietly waiting for us to wake up and notice this. It is sending us love notes in the form of little daily magics: serendipities, things that look like coincidences, or a mermaid bra made of scallop shells, but which are really a wink, hug, guide, a blessing from divine love, which say, ‘I’m here. I’m watching. I’m listening. I love you, Pilgrim. Everything is okay, no matter what your path looks like today.’

Serendipity Story #2 Coming Soon…

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Meow Meow performs ‘The Little Mermaid’. Photo: Pia Johnson

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Siren and Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (Sparkling, Comedic Shallows…Poignant Depths)

23 August 2017.

It just so happened that my last day of seeing shows in Edinburgh this year was entirely mermaid-themed. My middle name is Lorelei, which is the name of the siren who enchants sailors on the Rhine in 19th-century German songs and poetry, so siren stories have always held an extra allure for me.

The first was Siren, the debut musical play written by award-winning comedian David Elms, and directed by Thomas Martin. It’s a song-sprinkled two-hander with serious, poignant depths and sparkling, comedic shallows. It also has a dark edge – it is an exploration of the siren archetype, complete with the murderous elements from the ancient Greek tales and the sorrow of the Romantic-era mermaid’s longing for an immortal soul.

Rosa Robson is wonderful in the title role, as a siren cursed by fate to inhabit her little island alone: ‘we’re usually in pairs’ she explains sadly to one of her sailors. Styled as a 1950s, Esther Williams-type synchronised swimming pin-up, she oscillates between bright gaiety and the slowly-revealed cracking of her mind, caused by the heartbreaking loneliness of her island. ‘I’ve built a mound’, she tells us in one of her monologues, ‘that almost looks like another person from the right angle’. Her beautiful voice brought the show’s bright array of songs to life. Nicholas Masters also gives a strong performance as Robson’s counterpoint in this pas de deux, playing the variety of sailors who are pulled into her song’s compelling aura, as the show deftly and subtly unpacks various forms of attraction, desire, and love.

This is a beautifully-written show. Its bright and dark tones, its shallows and depths, are swirled in a story that feels particular and modern, but also universal and ancient. It unearthed psychological currents running powerfully underneath the siren archetype, exploring the sadness of broken forms of attraction and loving, longing and loneliness…and also, off in the distance, perhaps redemption and hope. I loved it.

After the enchanting Siren, it was time for Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid at the Edinburgh International FestivalI walked from Pleasance Dome, where Siren took place in a humble, tiny black box theatre, to a ballroom inside The Hub, which had a huge stage draped in streams of silver glitter, luxurious booths upholstered in crushed purple velvet, two bars, a live band with strings playing sexy bossa nova, and a packed, murmuring crowd.

This show is a cabaret performance in which Meow Meow is the immortal mermaid drenched in loneliness, singing and searching for true love…and the truth about love. Meow Meow, the Australian creator and performer of the show, is described variously as a singer, actress, dancer, cabaret performer and ‘international, kamikaze, post-punk superstar’. I would describe her as an artist, above all, for the brilliance of the show’s script. It has a story arc that, like Siren, is sourced from the deeper psychological octaves of the siren story, and which dropped, non-stop, beat by exhilarating beat, words that were gilded and diamond-encrusted with poetic meaning, falling perfectly within the grandiose, comedic style of cabaret, and the show’s poignant theme – like a fountain, or rain at sea.

The show starts with a riotous thunderstorm, and then Meow Meow comes on-stage sobbing.  She starts singing throatily, through her sobs, a lurching, slow rendition of Black’s ‘Wonderful Life’ (‘Here I go out to sea again/The sunshine fills my hair/And dreams hang in the air/You know it feels unfair/There’s magic everywhere/Look at me standing/Here on my own again…’).  She is accompanied by a mournful brass-heavy band. Then she gradually transitions from sobbing and singing into her first, sweet, skittering, chatty monologue filled with glittering wordplay, in which she finally snaps: ‘I feel like I’ve been travelling everywhere for 300 years looking for true love, but I can’t fucking find it!’…though, she tells us later, sometimes finding ‘Faux Love…Flove’.

She conjures the ocean onstage, telling us, as she looks upwards from the depths of the ocean floor, that ‘many church steeples piled upon each other would not reach the surface’. This is imagery that beautifully evokes the quiet, vast depths of the ocean, but also the Hans Christian Andersen mermaid’s longing to reach upwards to heaven, to become human, to find love, to have a soul.

Her most delightful theatrical magic trick is to conjure her subconscious on stage and rummage around in it in search of catharsis, which resonates grandly with the metaphor of the mysterious watery depths of the ocean…but which also feels resolutely practical, as if this is a mermaid ready to transcend her despair and loneliness, ready to break the spell.

Published in Exeunt Magazine 23 August 2017

Wild Bore image

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Wild Bore (Oh My God, Look At Her Butt)

20 August 2017.

Wild Bore, the new show created and performed by Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott, is creating a bit of a stir at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. I felt an intriguing, ironic frisson personally as I took my seat and pulled out my pen and notebook to take notes for this review, knowing that the show was about theatre critics. The music playing as the audience settled in was ass-themed club music: ‘Anaconda’ by Nicki Minaj (‘oh my god, look at her butt/oh my god, look at her butt/oh my god, look-at-her-butt).  That song’s riotous energy and lyrics were a perfectly thoughtful precursor to the precisely orchestrated, deliciously sarcastic, intelligent and entertaining feminist study of theatre criticism that then unfolded.

The stage was set with a long table and three chairs, and at the start of the show, one by one, the artists’ bare asses appear at the table, and they talk, um, out of them, in rumbling, low-throated blusters, repeating excerpts from bad reviews that each of the three artists’ have received for their work, their hands reaching up to gesticulate, asses turning towards each other to nod and jiggle, animatedly mimicking the talking heads of critics.

During the show, the three artists work their way thoroughly through of the concept of theatrical criticism, exploring its facets via the theatrical language of performance art, including abundant, thematically-ringing gestures, comic soliloquy, vignettes, dance and meta-moments. The text for the show is based on a patchwork of actual, badly-written theatrical reviews, which are mined both for significant philosophical points and straight-up comedy.

The use of the talking ass by artists to represent (bad) theatre critics is a brilliant symbolic gesture. It expresses the anger of the artist when the critic has failed to understand the point of the artist’s work and then derided the work and artist, publicly. It is a fast, funny and obvious skewer, spoken in the non-traditional artistic language that the critics being skewered seemingly struggled to comprehend: the shocking, female, nude, comic, gestural language of performance art. It’s a nuanced and blunt way to represent bluster: getting it wrong, but thinking you’ve got it right, and pronouncing judgement from a platform of power. The words of the misguided critic are blustery and muffled, because they are coming from the wrong place inside them, from error, from ego. It’s also a provocatively feminist symbol.  The three naked asses and genitalia on prominent display are female, which to me felt like a like a deeply feminist symbolic rebellion against the broken elements of a traditional style of theatre response that we have inherited from the patriarchy, which is struggling to see, accept and understand the unfolding edges of theatre, and which defaults to superiority and derision as a response to anything it doesn’t get.  Which is, aside from anything else, dishonest, and a misuse of the critic’s power.

Each of the three artists told the true story of a particular review they have received in the past that rubbished their work, in which the critic displayed an obvious lack of comprehension of the particular theatrical language they were using.  Ursula Martinez told the story of a critic reviewing a show of hers who said in his review that she began to build a breeze block wall between herself and the audience ‘for no apparent reason.’ Considering the blindingly obvious significance of the boundary and relationship between performer/stage and audience, the famous book by Peter Brook about it called The Fourth Wall, and the common adoption of this phrase to discuss this conceptual space, that is just really fucking lazy theatrical critique. This phrase, ‘for no apparent reason’ is picked up by the show and shouted as a refrain again and again, most memorably in the brilliant Shakespearean-style soliloquy performed by Martinez, dressed in a jester suit, which had the audience rolling in the aisles. The repetition of this phrase was always accompanied by a fierce glare out at the audience from Coombs Marr, Martinez and Truscott, which I read as a direct challenge to everyone in the audience to really think about what they were trying to tell us in, as they put it, ‘the secret coded language of theatre’.

I loved this show for many reasons.  It is beautifully tuned so that every detail and creative decision works in harmony with its themes.  But also, it is just hilarious, and expresses a joyous, earthy, healthy, don’t-give-a-fuck freedom, which I found totally exhilarating, and inspiring [fist raised, sisters, and brothers-becoming-sisters-or-brothers-who-also-seek-to-topple-the-goddamned-patriarchy].  Thank you, Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott.  And yes, I worked very hard on this review, because I took what you said to me via your asses really, really seriously.

P.S. The day before I saw Wild Bore, I heard an older, white, male critic begin to talk about it, and when I said, ‘I’m also writing about it and seeing it tomorrow, would you mind not talking about it in front of me?’, he didn’t register me as a) a person making a request desiring a response, or b) a fellow writer, and he carried on talking about it as if no one had spoken. I felt a little socially awkward about this and had to decide between getting up and leaving the pub table or putting my fingers in my ears, because it was important to me to encounter the show afresh, with no preconceived ideas.  I put my fingers in my ears, which I saw him dimly register, but to which he made no response.

The next day, two hours after I saw Wild Bore, a different, older, white, male critic decided to man-splain the concept of the avant-garde to me, having met me briefly the night before, and knowing nothing about me, my background, education or knowledge of theatre, culture, or the avant-garde…but obviously perceiving that I am female, blonde, and that I appear younger than him in the physical form that is my avatar in this life, though I suspect we are of a similar age (40s).  

Now that I have seen Wild Bore, the memories of their two voices has merged into a muffled, low, babbling, beyond words, having no sense or meaning, as if coming out of their asses from amidst a crumbling paradigm of outdated thinking about art, theatre and appearances…

Published in Exeunt Magazine 20 August 2017

P.S. Here are further thoughts of mine about this show, written for a feature dialogue piece amongst Exeunt critics, which didn’t end up being published in the magazine:

I thought Wild Bore was a wholly appropriate and timely theatrical bomb thrown at an already crumbling paradigm, which I have never personally identified with.  I don’t think the act of criticism, or my preferred word, ‘response’, is on its way out – just a particular style of it, that yes, has been adopted by many female writers working within an old, male-dominated and created paradigm: fairly short reviews published in newspapers and magazines that attempt to describe and give a quality rating to a piece of theatre, interpreting the work using a small numbers of words, for a specific readership, in an entertaining style.

I don’t think we are ever going to be able to restrain ourselves from describing, classifying and valuing the jewels of art/theatre, but I think Wild Bore was setting fire to the way it has been done by some: a tradition of a sort of journalism that sometimes doesn’t work very hard to discover the meaning or craft behind a work of art, especially something new and abstract, a tradition which has corseted the act of exploration and valuation with word-counts and a particular journalistic style. To me, this feels uncomfortable, restrictive, old, male.  It is a tradition that allows a critic who doesn’t understand or naturally resonate with something to dismiss it simply as bad quality, or nonsense, rather than saying, ‘I don’t understand or resonate with this. Maybe I am not the right person to act as interpreter for the wider public in a journalistic context.’  Which reminds me of values held by insecure teenage boys until they learn better: bluster and compete, bluster and compete. To me it just feels…dishonest. And there is a deep tradition of emotional remove and cynicism in this old style, which to me also feels dishonest.  Emotionally dishonest. It is not fashionable in the patriarchy-created style of criticism to love or resonate with a work of art in a warm, passionate, and well, female way.

I felt that the fuel for the wild energy underneath Wild Bore was a simmering rage about the moments of critical dismissals of the three artists’ work which were based on laziness, or an inability to peer into the meaning, depths, and the (relatively) new theatrical techniques and materials of performance art.  Remember the show’s emphatic, deliciously sarcastic repetition of a quote from one of Ursula Martinez’ critics, who wrote in his review that she built a breeze-block wall between herself and the audience, ‘FOR NO APPARENT REASON’? As I write in my published review of this show, and considering the resounding, obvious significance of The Fourth Wall in theatre, that is just totally fucking lazy thinking, which is acceptable, and normal even, in the old paradigm of criticism.  It seemed to me that they are calling bullshit on that. I don’t think they were having a pop at all criticism/response – just bad criticism, old criticism, and (with hand-on-heart, deep respect for my male colleagues who are thoughtful, clear-eyed explorers in the new style) it is a type of criticism that has been passed down to us from the patriarchy, from blustering, competitive teenage boys (and sometimes girls acting like the boys) who haven’t grown up, but who have blustered and competed their way into theatre critic jobs.


Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Frankie Vah by Luke Wright (Lush, Transporting, Poetic)

18 August 2017.

I felt as if, having come to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to drink from the magic fountain of Art, that at the end of my second day I was still en route to the metaphorical fountain at the centre of the festival, and still thirsty… Then I walked into a small black room at the Underbelly for Luke Wright’s new verse play Frankie Vah, which lit my heart on fire and gave me a good, long drink of what I came for. This is a mature, lyrical and politically relevant piece of poetic writing and, as a one-hour solo show, beautifully performed.

Frankie Vah is the performance poet’s second verse play. It is set among the dark, sticky-floored, hash smoke-pervaded ‘skuzzy indie venues and politics’ of 1980s Britain. Audiences are told the story of a vicar’s son, Simon Mortimer – politicised, disaffected, unhappy – and his transformation into a new self-created identity, Frankie Vah, flame-tongued performance poet extraordinaire, with rolled cuffs, Doc Martens, a platform opening for punk bands and the heady power to influence political debate.

His first transformation happens via love, with a woman named Eve. One of the most powerful aspects of this show is the way Frankie and Eve’s love story winds into and around its other narrative threads: the first steps that Frankie and Eve take as young artists; their resistance to Thatcherism in the run-up to the 1987 general election; Frankie’s rebellion against his father’s values and his confrontation with his personal demons and self-destructive behaviour.

The personal, political, social and philosophical dimensions of the show spin into each other in a moment of theatre that is lushly, transportingly poetic. It is also delicately nuanced, capturing with sensitivity the moments of tension in Frankie’s life that send his story down increasingly charged pathways, culminating in a finale that broke my heart wider open. the pacing of the unfolding story is effortlessly managed to create a smooth narrative ride, and the skill with which it comes together allows the listening mind the freedom to hear the deeper philosophical resonances of the work: how art dialogues with politics, how the personal dialogues with the political, how we are young, stupid, wonderful and broken, but learning and constantly turning into truer versions of ourselves. I watched and listened in awe and pleasure, just drinking, drinking, drinking in the beauty of this show.

Published in Exeunt Magazine on 18 August 2017


Edinburgh Fringe Festival: The Portable Dorothy Parker (Beautiful Homage)

14 August 2017.  When I walk into the small room where the play is showing, the stage is set with period furniture from the 1940s: an armchair, a desk holding a neat pile of white paper, a small, black manual typewriter, a liquor glass half-filled with amber liquid, hardback books, and a black rotary-dial telephone. The venue room is lit by daylight from large windows, but the stage lighting is a warm, antique yellow. The merging of the two areas of light felt symbolic of the way this show felt like a portal, back into Dorothy Parker’s life in 1943, the year the play is set.

The Portable Dorothy Parker is an import from America, a solo show written by Annie Lux, directed by Lee Costello and performed by Margot Avery. As soon as Avery comes on stage, the quality of her performance made me feel like we were in a fine, velvet-upholstered theatre, instead of sitting in folding chairs in an upstairs function room. One of the interesting things about Dorothy Parker’s literary voice is that it contains so much of herself in it – her identity and personality are not elided or vanished in order to become an ambiguous authorial presence. This play is a beautifully constructed and performed theatrical homage to her, and her words.

One of the great pleasures of the show is that Margot Avery does vanish herself completely into Dorothy Parker, and the script is a thoughtful lace-work of Parker’s writing and famous bon mots, in the shape of an encounter between Parker and an (unseen) young female editor from her publishing house. In fact the construction materials of theatre, in general, are vanished out of sight in this production, and it just feels like an effortless creation, whole and correct, as it is. Parker muses upon her own work, while sorting through it, selecting pieces to be included in the publishing house’s upcoming The Portable Dorothy Parker. She recalls the famous literary figures who circled around her in New York and Paris’ early twentieth century, like the Fitzgeralds (‘the gilt wore off those Easter Lilies before Pentecost’) and Somerset Maugham (‘such an old lady’).

The deepest and most interesting moments in the show for me were the ones depicting Parker’s admiration for Ernest Hemingway and her longing to be valued by him as a writer in the face of his disdain for her – it is here that the sharp steel of her wit armour gives way to a still clear-eyed, but wistful vulnerability, as she recalls the poem by Hemingway said to be about her after one of her suicide attempts: ‘To a Tragic Poetess. Life will never become her so much as almost leaving it’.

Everything merges by the end of this entrancing hour into a sensitive and nuanced biographical portrait of Parker, which reflects, via her reflections, a wider pool of ideas about literature, the lives of writers, and the creative process.

Published in Exeunt Magazine on 14 August 2017


Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Hammerhead by Joseph Morpurgo (A Fan Letter)

13 August 2017.  A part of me would like to structure my review of Hammerhead by Joseph Morpurgo as a fan letter to him, such are the grateful, admiring and affectionate feelings fluttering around in my heart after seeing his solo hour of character comedy. ‘Dear Joseph Morpurgo, I just want to tell you that I’m so happy that out of all the shows in Edinburgh that I had to choose from, I picked yours’, is perhaps how it would begin. But, Exeunt Reader, this review is really for you, so…[wink, blowing you a kiss].

Hammerhead takes place in the little black box of Pleasance 2, and when I walk in, a giant screen behind the stage says ‘THE END’ with blood dripping off the letters, in white on a black background. The screen would turn out to figure heavily in this lovable, intelligent and hilarious multi-media meditation on the creative process. The show is structured as a post-show Q&A with Morpurgo’s character, the writer-director-actor of the show under (fictional) discussion. He bounds onto stage, cheerful, suave, commanding, in heavy horror-esque stage make-up and torn clothing, still sweaty, breathless, made-up and costumed. He’s just finished performing his avant-garde, 9-hour re-mix of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The layers of irony and meaning in this piece are stacked, flowing and structured like a futuristic utopian travel system, including hovercraft, swirling tubes and inter-dimensional rips in the space-time continuum between Shelley’s work, the fictional 9-hour re-working of it, and the show I’m talking about. As Morpurgo’s character takes questions from both the real audience and a fictional audience chiming in via Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, etc, the themes of the show emerge: the questioning vulnerability at the heart of the creative process, the price art asks you to pay, the fears that cluster around the artist…am I making something beautiful, or monstrous? Who decides which it is, and why? And will my big brother come to see what I made?

But the way these questions are explored is to me the deeper beauty and fascination of this show: it is art talking about art, with a high-concept and comic voice, tripping lightly through time and layers of multi-media materials. Its bright pace or humour doesn’t diminish the power of the descents it makes into philosophic questions and the shadowy parts of the artist’s heart. It is like a painter brightly laughing while quickly dabbing brushstrokes onto a work that in its finished form gives you joy, but shows you sorrow, too, and makes you want to just sit in front of it for a while, thinking and feeling, and to come back to it again another day.  [Grateful sigh] And… ‘Dear Joe, I really loved it.  Kind regards, Joy.’

Published in Exeunt Magazine 12 August 2017


Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Ancient Shrines and Half Truths by Binge Culture (Interactive Whimsy)

13 August 2017. The rise of technology as an artistic material in performance has facilitated a new sort of kaleidoscopic theatre in which each individual audience member, via an interactive format similar to a video game, has a different and unique shake of the show. Ancient Shrines and Half Truths by New Zealand performance art collective Binge Culture is quite a lovable example of this kind of show, with a deliciously twisted vision.

It uses a smart phone and headphones to gives each audience member a Choose Your Own Adventure-style solo journey, creating a sweet and interesting intimacy between you and the voice coming through the headphones, your own personal local guide, who wants to show you around a new place. This relationship, however, is not at all predictable, and it was the moments when this relationship delivers psychological electric shocks that revealed interesting depths underneath the show’s otherwise easy whimsy.

The show turns The Meadows near Summerhall into an interactive, outdoor theatre, and throws wild, unpredictable fairy dust over the mundane and material fixtures it finds there. A statue, a bench, a lamp-post, a bare patch of grass are transformed through the voice’s spiky and whimsical artistic perspective, as it led me towards mysterious beings and trees who wanted to sell me their leaves.

The show contemplates the ideas of home and belonging and explores the different states of being you experience relative to your knowledge of the place you are in, as either a traveller, a tourist, or a local. Its insights into the invisible social inequalities involved sometimes stung a little, but in a good way – a way that pierced some unconscious complacency in me – and it was extremely fun, to boot.

The one slightly disjointed aspect of the show, in my opinion, was that the voice in the headphones is supposed to be a local guide to the place around us, Edinburgh, but it was a New Zealand artist’s voice with a New Zealand accent. The voice assured me that she had been living in Edinburgh for five years and was now a local.

This element distracted me, and kept bumping my mind up and out of the theatrical tapestry being spun around me. And, knowing that the show is an import from New Zealand, this one element gave the impression that the show was simply lifted entire from New Zealand and shoe-horned into a different country’s local setting. I can see that the show’s overarching theme is the movement of people around the globe, the relationship you feel to the spaces around you, and the process by which you create or discover a sense of belonging to them. In that sense, the accent of your guide shouldn’t matter.

But to me, it did – like a transposition in a piece of music, all its harmonies changed slightly. However, it is a testament to the overall quality of the show and its artists that despite this, its texture was still rich, sparkly, deep, intricate, and the show captured and delighted me, anyway.

Photo of Illustration by Igor Oleynikov

The Emperor and the Nightingale at Theatre by the Lake

2 December 2016.  The Theatre on the Lake in Keswick, Cumbria sits on the shore of Derwentwater, encircled by the snowy peaks of the Lake District National Park. On Saturday night I went to see their new Christmas show, The Emperor and the Nightingale, written by award-winning playwright Neil Duffield and directed by the theatre’s Artistic Director, Ian Forrest. Among the children’s shows I have seen the past few years, there appears to be a fascination with the non-material: with bare stages, stories conjured from empty air, deconstructed fourth walls, and backstage transparency, with propboxes, costume racks and musical instruments strewn about in plain view. In our current theatrical moment, there is a lot of conscious play with audience expectation and the traditions of the theatrical contract between performers and audience, and this is a delicious sort of fashion in theatre… but we live in a relative universe, where black allows us to know white, and The Emperor and the Nightingale is like an enjoyable trip back to solid ground, with a lushly realised material world and all the traditions of theatre firmly intact.

The Emperor and the Nightingale is based on the Hans Christensen Andersen story The Nightingale, and gives longstanding Theatre on the Lake Designer Martin Johns the opportunity to revel in the expressive aesthetic of ancient China. The production design is a bright, visual harmony of Chinese architecture and art-inspired backdrops, props and costumes. It gave me a simple and childlike sense of enjoyment to watch richly painted sheets drop down from the fly loft: an Imperial Palace, a hand drawn map of Ancient China, a sacred and magical mountaintop.

Against these, the ensemble cast sing, dance, play music, and tell the story of Emperor Wu, a young boy kept ensconced in the Palace in The Forbidden City by the baddie regent Li. That is, until Wu rebels and leaves the Palace to search for the most valuable treasure in the Empire: the humble, little brown bird with the most beautiful song. Wu is led on his quest by a servant girl called Xiao, and the dramatic tension comes from their unfolding friendship and Wu’s lessons about power, freedom and the real treasures of nature.

The script is engaging, thoughtful and faithful to the gentle spirit of the original tale, and Duffield weaves in many vivid threads that beautify this strong and elegant main story. I enjoyed his expansions and innovations, for example when Wu is challenged by a fierce peasant woman who gives him a piece of her mind about laws and taxes (not knowing he is the Emperor), and who, although she is barely able to feed her own family and has exchanged angry words with him, gives the hungry Wu a fish. Duffield sets up a dichotomy between two different styles of power with the backstory of the Tiger King and the Dragon King: the Tiger King loves war, and the Dragon King loves art, music and nature. Wu, played ably by Martin Sarreal, is the son of the Tiger King, and Xiao, played by Sally Cheng, turns out to be the daughter of the Dragon King.

Sally Cheng’s performance is one of the standout beauties of the show. She brings grace and intelligence to her performance, inhabiting her role with a real sense of effortlessness, and she creates a gentle, strong and interesting character. Added to this, of course, is music and the song of the Nightingale, as one of the most important elements of the show. Amy Gardyne, who sings the part of the Nightingale and performs puppetry and movement with the little bird in her hands, sings rich and true, and performs her movement with mature skill. The music is evocatively pentatonic and well-composed to curve sweetly around the story, and the ensemble cast play all of the musical instruments and sing, ably.

In the story, Wu falls in love with the Nightingale’s song and tries to keep her locked in the Palace, but she begins to sing a sad song instead of a song of happiness. The evil Li-Si sees this as his chance to regain power over Wu, and he has a clockmaker construct a beautiful, bejewelled clockwork nightingale who always, always, only sings a happy (though mechanical) song. Wu becomes fascinated with the mechanical bird, and the real bird flies back to her home on the sacred mountain of Tai-Shan. But the mechanical bird can bring no lasting happiness to Wu, and when he realises he has lost the real treasure of the Nightingale’s natural and beautiful song he falls very ill. The Nightingale hears he is ill, and flies as fast as she can to the tree outside his window, where her song heals him.

One of the rather important but melancholy echoes of the production occurred to me the day after seeing the show, when I was walking around Hope Park in Keswick, listening to the birds singing there. I remembered recently overhearing a conversation between my friend Sheila, 84 years old and a local resident of Keswick, and her best friend Meg. They were talking about the birds that used to visit their gardens, who they never see anymore. A page in the show’s programme is devoted to describing the gradual vanishing of the nightingale from the world and cites a survey from 2012 that showed their numbers fell by 57% between 1995 and 2009. It was sad to think that this is children’s theatre, but it’s the innocent young ones in the audience who might lose the sound of songbirds in their lifetime.

Sigh. But this show is visually delicious, with elegant storytelling and strong performances – it is a delicate evocation of a wonderful children’s tale, on solid theatrical ground.