All Around My Shed

Angelica and honeysuckle by Molly McGee

A room of my own…  The allotment shed from 2010. How such places save us, during lockdown.

Six weeks and counting

Six full weeks have now gone by, of our Corona Virus lockdown. I, along with many colleagues, stopped running our theatre, movement and writing classes on 16th March 2020.  The British government – disastrously late and negligent in so many ways – imposed official restrictions only from 23rd March. But the people themselves, especially those working in theatre, saw the dangers of such intense face to face contact somewhat earlier than that. In a game of whispers and anxious uncertainty, we retreated behind our individual doors and waited. Twenty thousand hospital deaths later, and still we wait – for a vaccine, for the rate of infections to fall, for the tide of events to turn in our favour, and, in the face of all this death, for life to begin again.

Strange days and sweet consolations

The days, I notice, are passing quickly in our isolation. One minute it is breakfast – my favourite time, for nothing in the world is better than a fried egg sandwich and a strong fresh coffee – and then, suddenly, it’s 6pm, and a glass of cold white wine is calling. (Food and drink has become a national obsession, judging by my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and I am certainly no exception.) Yes, the days are fast – and kind of blurry, in their constrained similarity, one to the other – but the weeks are slow. And the months are slower still.

Are we really still in April? The warm dry weather, under clear blue skies – the blueness more intense, they say, because the pollution levels have dropped so steeply – is suggestive of early summer, rather than mid spring. But the calendar confirms it. Sunday 26th April. And on we go. Maybe for many weeks to come.

Taking a leave of absence

There is always so much, in the realm of the mind, that I could be attending to, in all this enforced free time. There is a new book, that I am meant to be working on. Hungarian grammar to be studying. All those long-neglected classics from Tolstoy and Dickens, Austen and Eliot, that I could be reading. And some of this is happening, I promise. But my diligence is scant, my attention span short. My brain has taken temporary leave of absence, and thought patterns are vague and inconsequential. I keep connected to the groups that I run – send T’ai Chi videos, meditation audios, writing exercises, and messages of support. But all, of course, from afar, when physical presence has been the very touchstone of my teaching and performing, for the past thirty years.

But going through a global pandemic is perhaps not the best time to be productive. Indeed, it feels like an achievement of sorts, just to stay on a reasonably even keel. To cook, to garden, to tend to the domestic domain, seems so trifling a thing, compared to the frontline work of doctors and nurses, and the struggles among those who are ill with the virus, who are doing their best to recover. But there is something to be said, for just getting through this, I hope. To quote Kurt Vonnegut “If you can do no good, at least do no harm.”

Something I noticed, right at the beginning of this crisis, was the power of the small, to relieve tension and settle the mind. Noticing tiny changes in the garden. Watching the birds. Savouring the taste of a simple meal. And smallness continues to be the key – at least for me. Little and tangible achievements in the present moment, are genuinely keeping me well. Weeding a small patch of overgrown border in the garden. Planting pea seeds in a pot. Washing the bathroom floor. Clearing a space in the corner of the bedroom, to place a pleasing display of candles and nightlights, where there was once just an abandoned muddle of  stuff.

Busying the body, settling the mind

When the mind could simply explode with the enormity of what we face – the body takes over to soothe us: hands get busy with practical household tasks; and legs take us walking, through the woods, round the block, up and down the stairs, out into the garden. Shakespeare may indeed  have written King Lear during the plague years – and the subsequent theatre lockdowns –  of the seventeenth century, but I remain content with a quieter, more humble ambition. To simply survive these days – and to see the people I love and care about, do the same.

 

 

How the virus is changing our world

Strange things are happening all over the world. A jellyfish swims serenely through the clear and empty canals of Venice. A bear stalks the city streets in Spain. A coyote is photographed peacefully dozing  in broad daylight by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Jackals howl in Tel Aviv. Elephants in India cross a normally busy road junction – the whole herd safe in the knowledge that not a single car will hit them.

Humans, meanwhile, find solace in the virtual world they have created, when the real world has slammed shut its doors. Even my older brother, a confirmed technophobe of many decades standing, has taken to Facebook with alacrity, to name his Top Ten albums and favourite films. The choices have caused consternation and fierce debate.

Lockdown brings surprises of all sorts. When ringing a local government office over a Council Tax query, I expected the usual polite coolness. But I am greeted, unexpectedly, by a sudden friendly laugh at the end of the phone. The man, when he recovers himself, is, he assures me, the right one to speak to, it’s just that he’s working from home, and his dog – just as my call was re-directed to him – had burst his new bean bag, and scattered the contents all over himself and the rest of the room. Like that bean bag, we are all undone. Nothing is as it was. There is no business as usual. The world is upside down. And, inside the huge human tragedy which has caused this upending, there is, quietly, much to celebrate and enjoy.

 

All around my shed(s)

Ten years ago, I tended a rough old allotment plot. It saw me through the illness and death of my husband (and I wrote about it in A Handful of Earth). I learned that digging the land could be a deep and sustaining cure for sadness, and for grief. When I gave up the allotment, I also had to relinquish the ramshackle, but magnificent old shed, which had come with the smallholding. How I loved that shed, and would sit on its step for many a happy hour, gazing at the peas and beans and wild flowers around the frog-filled pond in front of me.

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A room with a view. Door step dreaming on my allotment, many years ago…

I have a shed in my own back garden, too. But I’ve never used it, or enjoyed it, the way I did the one on my allotment. Through the years it has become a dumping ground for old pots, rusty shears, abandoned netting, and half used bags of compost. But one day, during lockdown, I peered in the doorway. Before I knew it, I went into a minor frenzy of clearing and sorting. For the first time in a decade, I can step inside now. There are photographs. There is bunting. There is a certain jaunty, shambolic cheerfulness in the air. And the making of this space, the simple making do, with what I have, and where I am, has left me more peaceful, more content. The book has not been written. My reading list is long, and untouched. The future is uncertain. I miss my travelling – my colleagues and my friends. But at least I have this little shed, and it feels like some kind of marker of hope and happiness and fun. My daughter has ordered fairy lights. The first toast, after lockdown, with the first visitors who come, will be, of course, all around my shed. And how sweet that taste will be.

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The Solace of Small Things

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SOMETIMES WHEN I wake in the middle of the night – which I invariably do – I go through a calming repertoire, to try and coax myself back to sleep. Breathing meditations. Reiki hand positions – one hand on the heart, the other on the solar plexus – to settle my nervous system. (See Reiki and the Anxious Mind) I conjure memories of mountains and the sea. The faces of beloved family and friends.

But last night, I simply asked for one word, to help me through these difficult days and nights. The word that came – unprompted and immediate – was DELICACY. What? I shrugged my shoulders and fell back asleep.

It is rare that I remember any of my nocturnal adventures, my wild dreams and waking ramblings, by the time the morning comes. But today was different. Delicacy. There it was again. A message from the ether. But what could it mean?

Times of Crisis and Extremity

There have been times in my life before, when the pressure has built over time, and become extreme and constant. There were crisis points in my husband Tim’s ten year struggle with cancer, when I felt my body and spirit ready to crack open with the strain. And then there was the terrible fear and stigma of the AIDs era, when I watched three young men die in quick succession, after trying, along with a valiant bunch of close friends, to nurse our stricken pals at home, through raging fevers, night sweats, skin eruptions, opportunistic cancers and pneumonia. How hopelessly inadequate we all felt, locked in a culture that both ostracised and demonised the people dear to us, in the hour of their deepest need. How ill equipped were the hospitals (!) And how frightened we all were, of becoming infected ourselves, as well as losing those we loved.

Together, Alone

The Corona Virus is different. When my husband got sick, and died in 2004, I felt lonely, isolated, and out of step with all my contemporaries, as they built their careers, their relationships, their families, with healthy and unsullied ambitions for the future. My only ambition was to get through each day, somehow intact. And when my friends were dying in the 1990s, we all felt outside the culture, betrayed by the country we lived in. Those were the days of anti-gay propaganda, of scaremongering public notices on television, with images of icebergs, swirling mists, and doom laden voiceovers. But the Corona Virus is no bigot. It picks on any and all of us. And in this strange new world, we are all vulnerable, all scared and alone. Together.

Week Three of my own self imposed lockdown is over. A pattern begins to  emerge, of good days, followed by bad; of energetic mornings, leading to deadened afternoons; of a constant underlying fatigue, which has nothing at all to do with work achieved, or energy expended, and everything to do with Fight or Flight – because what do you do, when you can’t run from the threat, or beat it? You collapse a little inside, and you surrender. Sleepiness as a constant companion, feels natural to me, in an unnatural context.

Wise Words and a Helping Hand

Like everyone else, I am reaching for mechanisms to cope, when my usual weekly rhythm of teaching and theatre work – which is such an extravert and people-friendly endeavour – has skidded to a halt. But as a writer, too, solitude comes easily to me. By nature an introvert, staying at home is hardly a problem. Until staying at home stretches into the foreseeable future that is, with no option of breaking the quarantine, without putting myself – and others – in danger.

It is memory and previous experience which comes to my aid now. I remember one particular encounter at traffic lights, nearly twenty years ago. The woman standing next to me was pushing a pram with a new born baby inside. The baby was very sick – there were oxygen bottles and tubes, tucked in among the soft toys and the fleecy blankets. I knew this woman slightly, and had heard about her baby. And I knew, too, that the baby was not expected to survive much longer.

At the time, my husband was coming to the end of his life too, and I was tense, exhausted, near despair. As can happen at times like this, two near strangers, with nothing to lose, and no thought of the usual self protective conventions, reached out and revealed their inner selves, by way of consolation.

I found myself confiding in this woman, who listened, kindly and calmly, before offering me a piece of advice. ” This is what I have found in my situation. The thing to do is to notice and appreciate the smallest details of your life. What is it that brings you pleasure? The bigger picture is impossible right now.  But you can enjoy a brief ray of sunshine, the sound of a bird, the smile on a friend’s face. All you have is what you have right now, in this moment, with each passing breath. And it’s precious.”

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The things she was saying are commonplace now, with the growth of the mindfulness movement, and the increasing use of meditation as a tool for calming the over-anxious mind. But at the time, the way she spoke felt rare. I have never forgotten our brief encounter, and – yes – the delicacy of her words. There was real wisdom in her philosophy, which had been learned and practised in extremis.

The Delicacy of Small Delights

The baby did die, not longer afterwards. My husband died too. But this woman’s words live on in my mind. And now, in domestic lockdown, I find myself practising what she preached: being grateful for the taste of good, simple food; enjoying the way the sunlight catches the acid green of new spring growth in my garden and in the nearby wood; finding time to study and to read; discovering the delicacy of small delights, in a world where anything bigger than my own house and back garden, feels overwhelming and out of control. I am learning to honour the breaths that I take. In such troubled times, it is not selfish or frivolous to take pleasure in the everyday beauty of our lives: instead, it feels more urgent, more compelling than ever before.

 

 

Just One Voice

“Just one voice

Singing in the darkness

All it takes is one voice

And everyone will sing”

(Barry Manilow)

Blackbird singing

A FEW YEARS ago, I was in a state of quiet panic. My beloved dog had just died – not long after my father, who was, again, a precious presence in my life, now gone. My daughter had been very ill. I held things together, day to day, but in my mind, everything was falling apart. Early morning, just before dawn, was the worst. I would wake, all of a sudden, heart thumping, still trapped in thunderous nightmares, not sure who I was – or where.

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But all through those lonely summer days, I had one feathered companion. Through the open bedroom window, a blackbird sang to me, every single morning. One of the first of the dawn chorus to give voice, his beautiful melodies soothed and settled me, made me ready to face the day. He seemed to sing, not for his sake, but for mine, and it was a deeply healing experience.

Ever since those strange panic days, I continue to wake early. I have learned to settle myself better, and my need of the blackbird’s song is less urgent, more celebratory than medicinal, though always a gift.

Small comforts in times of crisis

One week into domestic lockdown, as we move inexorably deeper into national and global crisis, I find myself consoled by the smallest of details. After waking, there is the quiet panoply of birdsong – not just Mr Blackbird, but the squabbling sparrows who nest in my hedges, the warble of the wood pigeons in the nearby wood. At 7 a.m. our ancient boiler kicks in, and hot water flushes through the radiators to warm our day. Then the builder across the road arrives in his van: loud rock music blaring from the open window. And with that – I am up. The new day has begun.

Builders’ rubble

I find that the things which once irritated me, are now curiously consoling. Take that noisy builder, for example, with his loud conversations on the street, his endless house repairs – and the constant deliveries of concrete slabs, huge bags of cement, fluted roof tiles and wooden beams and struts.

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The intricacies of this renovation, which has been going on for months now, are beginning to fascinate me. Hemmed in by the need to stay confined to the house, the soap opera occurring across the street, and clearly visible in every detail through the front window, has become a regular source of free entertainment.

Green, green grass of home

Meanwhile, out the back, the scene is a very different one: and balm for the soul. I love my garden. It is a little wild, often somewhat unkempt, but full of green promise. And never more so than now. Just past the Spring Equinox, everything is springing into growth. Scrambling clematis. The uncurling of ferns. Flowering currant bushes – their acrid scent, strangely invigorating. Clumps of narcissus. The sharp blades of iris and monbretia. Snake’s head fritillaries, hanging their pretty heads in shy celebration.

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To stand on the grass and simply breathe deeply, is such a privilege: watching the blue vault of the sky above, and feeling the solid earth beneath, and knowing that we will, collectively, survive this terrible time, and that nature itself will help us do so.

It is not just the birds that are singing, of course. On balconies in Italy, the people sing their arias of hope and resilience. On council estates in Scotland, they are belting out ‘Sunshine on Leith’. And in Northern Ireland, the bingo teller perches on a roof top, to call out the numbers to an attentive but quarantined estate.

Sound of silence

Yes, everyone will sing. But now, more than ever, we also have a chance, maybe even a deep need, to be quiet. No airplanes. No traffic. Just our own hearts beating. The great poet Pablo Neruda understood this, and articulated it in his poem, ‘Keeping Quiet’:

“Now we will count to twelve

and we will all keep still

for once on the face of the earth,

let’s not speak in any language;

let’s stop for a second,

and not move our arms so much.

***

It would be an exotic moment

without rush, without engines;

we would all be together

in a sudden strangeness.

…..

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with death.

***

Now I’ll count up to twelve

and you keep quiet and I will go.

 from Extravagaria by Pablo Neruda, translated by Alastair Reid (Noonday Press)

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Crossing Borders, Human Stories

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The Performance Ensemble, September 2019. Photo: Mike Pinches

Theatre of Dreams

For many years I have worked at Leeds Playhouse, on its flagship creative engagement programme called Heydays, designed specifically for older participants. It happens every Wednesday, when the elders of Leeds descend, mob handed, on the theatre, and proceed to take it over for the day, with art classes, creative writing, drama, singing and dance.

Often, my classes in creative writing used to take place in a downstairs space. We would finish on the dot of noon, and, always waiting outside the door, patient and polite, was a man called Alan Lyddiard.  It turned out that he was a theatre director and was running the drama session that followed on immediately from mine. Week after week this happened. We were friendly but reserved. There was work to do, and as I retreated, he would advance.

Then I went to see a theatre piece that he had directed, called ‘Dancehall of Dreams’, in which a non-professional cast sang and spoke and danced the personal stories of their lives. It was moving and compelling. My interest was piqued. Soon after, Alan picked up an anthology of writing that I had produced with my Heydays writers, called ‘Being Human’. Ordinary lives reflected in words – everyday people, writing exceptional things. “You are doing the same work as me,” he pronounced, and our friendship began.

Year on year, our paths continued to cross. He would disappear, to pursue his international theatre connections, and then re-appear for the summer term, to bring some of his maverick magic back to the Playhouse. A loose-layered company began to form, called the Performance Ensemble. The productions became more polished and frequent.

Alan had run a company of actors in Newcastle upon Tyne, from 1992 to 2005, called Northern Stage. He believed in the East European method of working: a close knit community of players forging ever closer links of trust and expertise. Now he was bringing this ethos to Leeds, and, as an older artist himself, his current passion was to champion the voice and presence of the older performer.

Art with the Experience of Age

To be in the Performance Ensemble, you had to be over 60. Not necessarily a professional actor – but someone with something to say, and the commitment with which to say it well. Art with the experience of age – this was his heartfelt manifesto. I remembered a theatre I had worked in, years ago, in the heart of the Hungarian countryside, where a group of people lived, worked, played together, to make theatre of great honesty and power.

I had been looking for that kind of experience ever since – but had found only the fractured freelance world of the western market economy, ubiquitous, not just in the world of commerce, but in the theatre world too. Everything for profit –  and everything contingent on Arts Council funding, or private sponsorship: keeping the performers themselves permanently disconnected from each other, and insecure in themselves. How can good art be made, when cash itself is king? I admired Alan for swimming against the tide. And I felt myself, increasingly, swimming that way too.

Paying Attention, Staying Curious

One morning, in summer 2019, the phone rang. It was Alan. I had done some work for him the previous year, for a production called ‘Bus Ride’, which celebrated the journeys of older performers – in life, and on busses too – and this was the opening salvo for a five year project, leading up to a city-wide arts extravaganza in 2023. He had been given some funding to proceed. He wanted new people to join the Ensemble, and he wanted me to be one of them. Was I interested? I was.

There is a remarkable nineteenth century artist called Hokusai. He is famous world wide for his print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a magnificent rendering of the sea in movement. But he was much more prodigious and diverse in his talent than this one – startlingly beautiful – image might suggest. He worked at his art from youth to old age (he died several months after he turned ninety), and his art continued to deepen and evolve, year on year, decade after decade.

At the beginning, his interest was in people, and he drew them with a fierce and tender honesty: focussing his attention on working people’s lives, for he came from humble origins, and he never forgot his roots. The tumbling array of portraits flowed from his pen as freely as ink – and are thought to be the origin of the modern day Japanese Manga comic books.

But, as time went by, Hokusai turned more and more towards the natural world. The immutable power of sky and sea, and the prevailing grandeur of Mount Fuji, consumed him in his later years.

His art became ever more sophisticated, ever more lively, the older he became. It was as if the spirit of life itself – the animus that drives the universe – were channelling itself through his tireless hand and brush. I love Hokusai’s paintings very much. But more than that, I am inspired by his philosophy.

Roger Keyes, an art historian and curator of Japanese art, has devoted much time and effort into archiving Hokusai’s great body of work. He has written poetically about it, too, in a striking piece called ‘Hokusai Says’. This poem is like a call to attention to all those who are growing older, and who – like me – sometimes falter and lose heart. Here are the opening lines:

“Hokusai says look carefully.

He says pay attention, notice.

He says keep looking, stay curious.

He says there is no end to seeing.

He says look forward to getting old.

He says keep changing,

you just get more who you really are.

He says don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid.

Love, feel, let life take you by the hand

Let life live through you.”

(Hokusai says/Roger Keyes)

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David Hamilton rehearses with the Performance Ensemble, February 2020.

One Week in September

So, one strange, intense week in September 2019, a wraggle taggle group of men and women came together in a large warehouse-style room, where loose wires hung from the ceiling, and old tiles hung loose and abandoned, and started to form a theatre group. No mean task.

Whilst some of us worked professionally, as writers, dancers, musicians or choreographers, most of the people present were none of those things. They may never have done a dance class, never sung a note, except in the bath, never written creatively since they left school to start their long and varied lives of work. Each of us came carrying legacies of  injury or illness: this was a group of older players, and there were certainly wounds and scars, both physical, and of the mind and heart, engraved upon us all.

Two people walked with sticks – a third came through the door bearing a huge boot on one leg, to protect a recently broken ankle. We were not the usual crowd, to be found on Day One of rehearsals. But still, we set to work. In a full-on schedule of dance, movement, speech and song, we started to gather material for a final day’s sharing with people from the theatre industry. The raw material was us. No playscript, or list of prescribed criteria. But real lives, re-examined in the context of a theatre space. Art with the experience of age.

Breathless Whirl of Movement and Music

With customary lack of restraint or self preservation, I threw myself into the process, right from the start. It was all or nothing, as far as I was concerned. I chose all. We took a dance class every morning – and it was the first time I had danced like this for a long, long time. The exhilaration it sparked was immediate. It threw me back to dance college days, thirty years before: the breathless whirl of movement and music, exhorting the spirit – and the body – to climb higher and higher.

The Performance Ensemble successfully completed its inaugural week. Nobody fell over. Nobody died. Everybody became increasingly animated, confident and committed, as the project progressed. There is now a regular company, increased funding, and rehearsals are in full flow for a new and bigger production. Hope over adversity. Tenacity. And the courage to have a dream.

Slow Walking into the Future

Every morning, during company class, director Alan Lyddiard leads something called Slow Walking. Meditative and solemn, silent and composed, the walking prepares each participant for work . It builds confidence and calm and determination. “This is me. I am here. I am fine.”

We sit on a long row of chairs, eyes closed, hands folded over our thighs, head held high, body in balance. The music begins. Slowly, our eyes open. We stand, one by one, walk forwards, pause, look back to where we started. We turn, step back towards the chair – to safety and to stillness. But no. We can’t go back. No one can go back, because time takes us ever onwards.

So we turn again to the future, and continue to travel forward. One arm lifts. We watch it, with a kind of dispassionate curiosity, then we let it fall. Why? Who knows? Not everything happens for a reason. The music stops. Silence. Whispered words echo around the room. “I wish” and “I remember”. And so it begins.

Searching for Profound Harmony

In the 1930s, a remarkable and reclusive woman called Nan Shepherd started walking through the Cairngorms, close to where she lived. Unlike the ego driven male mountaineers, she had no wish to dominate or conquer the landscape: she merely wished to live in it, and to learn the secrets of nature and the wild living world. She wrote notes about her experiences, which, years after her death, were published, in a beautiful book called ‘The Living Mountain’.

The transcendent feelings she describes, of being at one with her surroundings – and with herself – come close to evoking the sense of communion that Slow Walking, at its best, can provide. She writes: “It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony, deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain.   (The Living Mountain, page 106/Nan Shepherd/Canongate).

Crossing the Borders of our Imagination

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The Performance Ensemble rises again on February 21st, 2020, with a performance in Leeds, England, called ‘Crossing’. Here is some of the production’s content – and here, too, our manifesto. If you are able to join us – as audience member, or potential future participant, you would be very welcome indeed.

‘Crossing’: a work in progress

A man crosses the mountains from Afghanistan to Pakistan. He leaves behind everything he loves in order to be free. “Take a last look at your country…” A woman travels from Hong Kong to England: her whole life becomes the food she cooks and sells in her take away cafe in Leeds. A boy steals a toy car from the local shop. Consumed by guilt, he goes back the next day, and returns it to the shelf. An English girl falls in love with a Hungarian boy. There is a wall between them – the Berlin Wall. When the wall falls, their love is finished. Difficult births. Divorce. Heartbreak. Death. New beginnings. Always another chance. Many languages, countries, cultures: and in the middle of it all – ordinary people, with extraordinary tales to tell. These are the moments of our lives: moments of meaning and change. Come with us, in Crossing, across the border, to explore in music, dance, words and silence, what it means to be human in our  troubled contemporary world.

The Performance Ensemble: Towards a Manifesto

We are a company of older performers. Some of us are writers, dancers, musicians, actors; others are teachers, scientists, social workers, probation officers. We bring to this work a wide range of skills and expertise, and lives that are full of meaning and intent. We aim to share these rich lives with our audiences, through dance, song, and the spoken word. Everyone has a story to tell – and here are some of ours. The Ensemble collaborates closely together, through weekly classes and intensive rehearsals, to create multi-layered performances, based on the authentic, lived experiences of each individual member. All are equal, and equally valued. It is our aim and ambition to work together long into the future, building trust and confidence: making a community of players, in which everyone has a respected and honoured place. Our current project, ‘Bus Pass’, is a series of different performances, culminating in an epic outdoor happening, featuring one thousand older performers, as part of the Leeds 2023 celebrations. Whilst there is a core group of committed ensemble members, we constantly spread our net more widely, too, both in and around the communities of Leeds, to include as many older people as possible in the projects we are building. We also invite international artists to join us in our work. All of us – older or not – remain full of vibrant energy, reflection and insight. Full of generous ambition, full of hope.

You can book tickets here:

Visit our website here:

Some of the material in this blog has been taken from a manuscript in progress for my new book about the body: ‘Wild Goose Flying’. Watch this space for more extracts.

The information about ‘Crossing’ at the end is included in the programme notes for the performance.

 

 

 

Passport to Freedom

18FE677C-3F24-438E-BC8F-DAF158E25AAFSzabadság Híd – Liberty Bridge – Budapest.

Snowfall on Budapest, 1988

THE SNOW was thick on the ground, and the airport terminus lay hidden in grey fog. There was no one around, except for the occasional soldier, gun bulging at his hip, an inscrutable expression on his face. She went through customs without being stopped. Just as well, because her suitcase was full of Irish whiskey, which the Hungarians loved, but couldn’t get their hands on, behind the Iron Curtain.

Budapest was empty too, except for faded yellow trams – and the jaded glow of a red star on top of the government buildings. When they got on the train to go south, perching in tiny carriages, on cold seats of green leather, she could see nothing out of the window, except for  fat icicles, hanging from trees, half submerged in the deepening mist. Already she loved this place. It felt strange. It felt like home.

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The actors were so friendly. None of them spoke English, and she spoke no Hungarian, but they got by with sign language. And the whiskey and pálinka soon loosened their tongues. The company had worked together for years. They lived in a tight knit community – the actors’ flats just across the road from the theatre – and they spent all their free time in the subterranean bar, playing cards, gossiping and drinking.

The work they did on stage was astonishing. Such courage. Such physical bravura. And in every play, a hidden subversion, reaching out to their audience to give a message of liberty, when open dissent was completely forbidden. Hungary: the happiest barracks in the Eastern Bloc. That’s what they said. But it wasn’t true. The sorrow was palpable. And ran deep.

Passport of privilege

“We aren’t allowed to travel abroad”, explained her friend, with the help of an interpreter. “Except every three years. And only to somewhere approved by the regime. Once we were invited to a theatre festival in France, but the apparatchiks said no, because the French actors were clearly Maoist insurgents, and would be a bad influence on us. If it’s so great over here, why don’t they let us go and tell the whole world about the joys of our communist state?” He laughed. But it was a laugh without humour. More of a sob, really. And a shrug of the shoulders in defeat.

As for her, she had such privilege. A British passport. She could travel where she liked, and knew she would always have the freedom to go back home. It gave her an air of authority and mystique, and people wanted to talk to her, wherever she went. As for her, Hungary felt like a secret garden, full of passion and delight.

Suitcase stuffed with whiskey and teabags

The company kept inviting her back, to teach the company movement skills and physical theatre. But the main appeal, she knew, was her Britishness. A fresh breeze blowing in from London from time to time – with a suitcase stuffed with whiskey and tea bags.

When she finally went home for good, after a three months stint, during which she got really sick, and longed to be in England, it was summer 1989. The Berlin Wall fell  four months later. The red stars were dragged from the roofs, and a new era began. And in the end, Hungary even joined the European Union. Her British passport and their Hungarian passports became united under a single blue flag with hopeful gold stars all across it.

Farewell to freedom

Now it’s her own passport that is changing. The UK is leaving the EU. The freedom of movement that her Hungarian friends so envied, and that she took so much for granted, is over. Oh, they can still travel where they like. But what about her? Will her government maybe let her out, every three years or so, to a country whose views are sufficiently in line with theirs?

She feels like a fraud now, and such a fool. She once believed she was free. She felt her status like a magic cloak, wrapped around her ignorant young shoulders, breezing through Eastern Europe with an air of entitlement and superiority. Now she knows the truth. That she is simply a prisoner of a tiny, spiteful island, slowly sinking under the weight of its own post-colonial delusions. And how she longs for that slow train out of Budapest now, with snow piling at the window, illegal contraband in her case, and a sense of something beautiful and foreign and free, just ahead of her, on the country railroad track.

This piece was written as a response to a question from theatre director Alan Lyddiard, whose company, the Performance Ensemble, I am a member of: “If anybody in the world was allowed to travel anywhere in the world, would this be a good thing?” The Ensemble’s current work in progress concerns itself deeply with freedom of movement, and you can read more about this on their website.

I have written extensively about my deep love affair with Hungary, and some of the links to articles and short stories available on this website can be found on my page entitled Blog and Features Archive.

T’ai Chi and Reiki in 2020

ADA9F6C8-054E-4145-84B2-B86BD9211B98This is Roundhay Park, Leeds, on a cold and moody winter’s morning. This is the time of maximum “Yin”, when all energy is directed inwards, for survival, and renewal in spring.

T’ai Chi stokes the inner fires

My classes in T’ai Chi and Chi Kung begin again on Tuesday 7 January 2020 at the Quaker Meeting House, Roundhay, Leeds. This wonderful, gentle, flowing technique, is a useful way to support the body and mind, during a time of winter depletion. It builds energy, without over-stoking the fire. There is a rhythm to nature, and to the changing seasons. And this season is primarily one of rest. But we need to guard against illness and weakness, brought on by the winter cold. T’ai Chi is one tool in our armoury, helping us stay strong, calm and flexible.

If you are interested in the deeper intricacies of the T’ai Chi Form itself, then my workshops at Leeds Buddhist Centre are an ideal way to practise. The next session takes  place on Sunday 19 January and further details can be found on my Classes with Barney page.

My own links to T’ai Chi go right back to the wonderful Gerda Geddes, who was the first westerner to learn in China, in the 1950s, and to bring back her knowledge to the UK, where she practised and taught for many decades. A whole generation of dancers and T’ai Chi practitioners – including myself – owe their roots and branches to her. She wrote eloquently about her journey through the T’ai Chi in  a little book called ‘Looking for the Golden Needle’.

In it, she was most insistent that T’ai Chi is directly connected to the natural world. We must move with the seasons and learn from the animals who belong inside that natural world, as she says here:

“Many of the movements of the T’ai Chi Ch’uan stem from men observing, and enacting, scenes in the lives of animals and birds. These movements were adapted by martial arts experts, making the T’ai Chi Ch’uan into an intricate system of self defence, and by philosophers who were interested in longevity, good health and peace of mind. If, in trying to understand the different aspects of the T’ai Chi Ch’uan, one points to this background, one cannot be wrong; one can only make it richer and give it deeper meaning.”

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Here are the roots of my favourite beech tree in Gipton Wood, the little wood that stands at the end of my road. This is close to where you will find the Reiki Room in Oakwood.

Reiki for balance and calm

Reiki is a hands-on practise, bringing renewed balance and calm to the body. It is very gentle, but goes deep. Its principles are entirely compatible with those of T’ai Chi and Chi Kung, but with Reiki, one receives the treatment through the warm hands of the practitioner, rather than through movement and breath. If you would like to read more about this lovely Japanese healing art, take a look at my Reiki in Leeds page. The Reiki Room is open again from 7 January 2020 and you can make bookings with me via my email or mobile number.

barney.bardsley@icloud.com

07400 396231

“After we have set our intent and the energy starts to fall down we must make no judgements at all, just like the rain. The client will absorb the energy according to his or her needs and ability to do so, just like the tall trees, shrubs, flowers and grass…”

(The Inner Heart of Reiki by Frans Stiene)

Read more about my T’ai Chi and Reiki practise in these blogs:

Reiki and the Sea Inside

Silence is Golden

The Use of Solitude

Work Ethic?

Walking on Air

 

Looking for the Golden Needle by Gerda Geddes is published by Manna Media

The Inner Heart of Reiki by Frans Steine is published by Ayni Books