The Promise of a Garden

SO HERE we are in high summer. A baking hot July day, with the neighbourhood children going wild with excitement, as they launch themselves madly into a paddling pool – and even my resident frog is finding it a wee bit too warm to sun himself, as he usually does, on the little tiles at the side of his pond. Today he sits wisely in the shade, and occasionally dives into the water, leaving just his little beaky head peeking out, to see what’s going on in his immediate surrounds. The glorious poppies in the picture above, bloomed briefly and magically in late May, then were blown to smithereens by rain and wind and cold. Well, this is England. Full of weird contradictions – in government, in the people, and even in the weather itself. But on we go.

T’ai Chi and the path of peace

I never would have thought, in spring 2020, when we first went into lockdown because of Covid19, that I would be teaching all my T’ai Chi and Chi Kung classes online within a few months – and that a hitherto unknown and uninteresting (to me) platform called Zoom, would be my only means of connecting with all the students who longed, like me, to continue stepping quietly through the world, via the flowing sequences of this lovely Chinese movement practise. It was, however, a life line, and I have only just finished a long few months of Zoom teaching, that started properly in September 2020, and ended in mid July 2021.

Judging by the new wave of Covid infections sweeping the UK, I feel it will not be the last of these curious – but strangely peaceful – online sessions. And I have already booked in some dates for the autumn. (See my Breathing Space page)

Finding our way back to each other

Teaching T’ai Chi/Chi Kung at Slung Low’s Wild Conference, Temple Newsam, Leeds, Summer 2019

Still, how I long to be in a big group of people – outdoors or indoors – and teaching them the magic of T’ai Chi, stepping with them quietly and steadily, feeling the sense of communal power and connection. The last time this happened on a large scale was at the Wild Conference in 2019, organised by the mighty Slung Low Theatre company in Leeds: a big celebration of the arts, of conversation, of movement, dance, music, theatre. (And with lots of colourful waving flags!) Moving as one body, on a high green hillside on the Temple Newsam Estate, in the early morning, is a joyful memory that stays with me still.

And yes, slowly, we are finding our way back to one another. I made my first tentative steps into the studio at the beginning of July. Masks on, hand sanitisers at the ready. But nonetheless, a physical connection. Real people. In real time. In a three dimensional space. Strangely disorientating, and tiring. But deeply reassuring.

And the beat goes on

Outside Leeds Playhouse, July 2021. Standing between posters for the new show.

Tomorrow sees another big leap forward. Rehearsals begin at Leeds Playhouse for The Promise of a Garden, directed by Alan Lyddiard and devised and performed by the Performance Ensemble. How I love this maverick company – made up exclusively of older performers, story tellers, dancers, writers, space scientists, teachers and much, much more… This large scale, new production – twice cancelled because of Covid – is, as its title suggests, all about the garden, and everything that it means to people, on a physical and metaphorical level. Yes, there will be T’ai Chi in it! And dance. And deeply personal human stories, soulful music, and a big colourful set.

The Performance Ensemble celebrates all life, the dark and the light, from beginning to end. As the Chinese saying has it: “When a human being is born, there is a ripple on a still pond. We go on our journey and when our life is over, there is another ripple on the pond, and the spirit returns.”

Live theatre has had it particularly tough during the pandemic. It is still in a precarious state. And who knows whether Covid will leave our company completely alone, to bring our magical dream of a garden to full fruition this time? But we must step forward somehow. And, as a garden lover and maker myself, I can think of no better way of doing so, than through the medium of flowers and trees, through the seasons of winter, and on into spring and summer and new growth. From night into the light. Nature has all the answers: if we listen, tread carefully, and dare to be bright and bold as those poppies; to flourish again – and again, despite all the odds. This, after all, is the promise of a garden.

The Promise of a Garden will be performed at Leeds Playhouse, from 18- 21 August 2021. Tickets can be booked here.

Silence is Golden

IMG_1859(Back Garden at Reiki in Leeds)

“Silence is golden

But my eyes still see”

The Tremeloes

Early in the morning

THIS MORNING I took my wake-up cup of tea out into the back garden with me, and sat, with just the birds for company, in the quiet of the new day. I live on an urban estate in North Leeds, so in the summer, things are rarely completely quiet. There are small children all over the neighbourhood, just raring to kick their footballs into my raspberry bushes at the front. And adolescent boys keen to intimidate, chugging about the roads on their motorised trikes, and revving their souped-up tin-can cars. But peace can always be found somewhere. It settles, in silky meditative layers, in my Reiki Room at the back of the house. And if I sneak out early enough in the day, before everyone is awake, then the entire garden is an oasis of calm. Silence for the ears. Rich colours for the eyes. Just me on my chair – and the birds, flying from tree to tree, unbothered by the somnabulant human, perched in the corner, and dreaming, dreaming, dreaming.

The spaces in-between

Absolute silence, nonetheless, is a rare and precious commodity. Even when alone and tranquil, as I was this morning at 6.30, there were layers of sound all around me – birdsong, the wind, the distant clatter of a kitchen pan; and sounds inside me too – the constant internal narrative of my chattering thoughts, and the high-frequency tones of my pesky tinnitus! But we can, nevertheless, move towards the spaces in between these sounds; and remove ourselves, now and again, from the relentless layers of noise in our high octane contemporary lives. The relief, when we do so, is palpable, and profoundly rejuvenating.

Just like stillness (The Art of Stillness) and solitude ( The Uses of Solitude ), silence is a beautiful resource. A deep well of energy can spring up from within its contours.

IMG_1853(Listening to Penny Greenland speak at #WildConference. Photo Malcolm Johnson)

Alone in a crowd

I have just returned from a wonderful open air Wild Conference organised by the mighty Slung Low theatre company here in Leeds, West Yorkshire. Set in the rolling hills and woodland of the Temple Newsam Estate, the gathering of 450 people – artists, public policy makers, theatre creators and political activists – met, to discuss ideas, to dream of a better future, and to vow to help that happen, to implement change: with the maxim “be useful, be kind” at its root. Everyone wore headphones and moved from tent to tent, gathering inspiration from the many fine speakers. With the headphones switched on, you could tune in to any of the speakers at any given moment, by switching channels as you wished. You were also free to move – away from the crowds, to sit under a distant tree, maybe, or to lie on a cushion and gaze at the sky. All the while listening to a stream of lovely, intelligent talk. Easily overwhelmed by crowds, this was a perfect set up for me. Even better: I got to feel the wind on my face and the sun on my head. Outside, unchained.

img_1857.jpg(T’ai Chi in the wind at #WildConference. Photo Malcolm Johnson)

Moving together – in silence

There was much to put fire in my belly from this fine endeavour – like a mini Glastonbury, without the music (although there was that, too, at the evening cabaret.) Perhaps closest to my heart was the energy of Penny Greenland, founder of JABADEO , speaking passionately about living an embodied life (rather than retreating, as adults so often do, into our minds and our armchairs, or locking ourselves away behind desks.)

But one of my favourite moments, was away from the campfire hubbub, up on a green hill, where I led a morning T’ai Chi session ( See also Classes with Barney ) for anyone who was willing to abandon their croissant, and come up under the trees, to move with me. I suspected no one would come at all. But they did. And the wind blew cool. But we stood firm, performing the ancient Taoist movements – Wild Goose Flying, Separate the Clouds, Pushing the Wave – in exactly the kind of setting from where those movements’ inspiration came: on the green grass, under a blue sky, in nature. Moving silently together. In peace.

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The Silent Eloquence of Touch

T’ai Chi and Chi Kung gain their greatest power when performed in silence – when the instructor’s voice drops away, and it is just a body of people, moving quietly together, in a stream of flowing energy.

Reiki – the other body-based practice I love – seems quite a different activity from T’ai Chi, to the outside eye: one person lying, perfectly still, on the practise table; with the practitioner laying  hands upon her at various places along the body – head, heart, solar plexus, knees, feet – and simply leaving them there, as if planted, for what can seem like an eternity. Time stops still in the Reiki Room. But all the time, an energetic flow is being released – between hands and bodies, between bodies and minds. It is a quiet summons to life itself. A tuning in, to the hum and pulse of our living, breathing bodies. With stillness, movement. An embodied moment.

All of this takes place in silence. Although music may play softly in the background – though often people elect for none – words are rarely exchanged, once the Reiki session has begun. And this time of silence is curiously intimate, touching and profound.

How badly we need to communicate with each other more openly and optimistically, as patterned by the Wild Conference. How crucially important it is – for  our brain health, as well as our whole being – to live Penny Greenland’s “embodied life” of movement. And how golden it is, to be silent from time to time, whether alone or together; whether in the flow of a T’ai chi class, or the deep rest of a Reiki session… Or maybe, just sitting quietly outside – or in a church – or in your own room. Just being. And leaving the world to its own devices, just a for a little while. To quote another fine sixties pop group, The Hollies: “Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe.”  The sound of silence is calling to you now – listen in.

If you would like to book a Reiki session or T’ai Chi/Chi Kung session with me, take a look at Reiki in Leeds  and Classes with Barney for more details. Or drop me a line at barney.bardsley@icloud.com.

The pictures of the Slung Low Wild Conference were taken by Malcom Johnson. Take a look at his website here: https://www.malcijphotography.co.uk

 

 

Hungarian Love Letters 5

Queen of the Castle

Haiku

the oil lamp flickers

soon the shutters will come down

see the shadows fall

SHE SITS by the window and gazes at the street below. Nothing has really changed in this area, in all the years she has lived here. Certainly, there are more tourists. The world has opened up, the walls are down. And the old cobbles have been replaced with concrete. But otherwise, all is much as it was. After sunset, once the visitors have traipsed away, and the castle district returns to the people who live there – that is the time she loves best.  Then, the very air she breathes seems precious and still and old. The privileged few, like her, who have inherited one of these narrow stone and timber houses,  can perch, high above the city, like regal birds of prey – far away from the brutal politics of the modern city beneath. Serene and entitled.

The actress’s flat is a jumble of furniture and clothes. Old mahogany pieces, that belonged to her mother. A certain fin-de-siecle feel to the whole place. Always in shadow, even on the brightest summer day. A smell of dust and velvet in the air. Costumes – racks of them – hanging disconsolately in corners. Waiting for the character who once inhabited them to return and bring them back to life. On the wall – photographs of curtain calls and publicity shots – and on the sideboard – awards and prizes, gathered through her long and illustrious career. Csilla Nagy is at the top of her profession. Everyone in Hungary knows who she is, and admires her, even if they have never set foot in a theatre. For she is hardly off their television screens, starring in some film or other – or popping up on childrens’ television and in  adult soap operas. She is used to being stopped in the street for autographs, stared at in restaurants, fawned over by waiters and bartenders. She knows she is revered, just for being who she is. The queen of her profession.

But Csilla also knows that this is  worth very little, when it comes to the night. After the oil lamp that she keeps lit, for sentimental reasons, on her window ledge, is snuffed out, and Magda comes bustling in with her huge bunch of keys, and closes the shutters, locking her mistress in until the morning, safe against strangers and the dark,  Csilla feels the weight of loneliness press in on her. And each time she climbs the stairs, to the bed – which is elegantly covered in lace, and scented with lavender – that she has slept in, alone, for the past forty odd years, she feels her legs growing a little heavier, the pain in her heart a little more piercing. Csilla knows she is loved by many. But what is the use of that, when you really only need to be held by one?

Today, in particular, she is troubled. She has received an email that has stirred old memories, and she isn’t quite sure what to do about it. The message is from an English woman she knew, thirty years ago, when she worked  out in the countryside in one of Hungary’s renowned state theatres. Oh, what a time it had been. She was in her prime then, still young and vibrant, and already rising to the top of her profession. Then there was real love, at least the promise of it. Stolen moments – of intoxicating conversation, of insinuation and pleasure. Gillian’s little note – so unexpected and sudden – brings back a flood of sensation.  She feels the blood rising to her head, heat flushing through her body. Why this? Why now? When she was so sure she had put the past  firmly behind her.

She has a restless night, with lurid dreams, from which she wakes several times in a sweat, heart thumping wildly. In the end, she rises early and stumbles downstairs to make herself a tisane of chamomile and lemon to settle her frayed nerves. It is only 6.30 a.m. The birds outside in the little courtyard are fussing and chirruping in the old fig tree. It is spring and the sap is rising. Csilla’s head aches. Her joints feel stiff and sore. She checks in her desk diary. When is the personal trainer coming next? Tomorrow evening. Good. She needs his warm hands to keep her in working order. Such a handsome young man too… She smiles to herself. One of the perks of her wealth and fame, and why not? Sitting down with her tea, she scrolls idly through the messages on her phone, and re-reads the email sent yesterday by Gillian. What is she to make of this, and how should she respond?

*****

Gillian sent the email in a rush of nostalgia. She hardly expects a response, is not even sure that the address she dug out from some internet profile or other, is up-to-date or accurate. But she doesn’t regret it. Too many people have disappeared now from her life. She feels the circle turning. Feels, too, a sudden yearning to find lost souls. Csilla was never really her friend, but  Anna’s. But Gillian always liked her, with her soft voice, her gently regal manners, the self conscious way she held herself – ever the actress, always on show. Poor Anna. So long dead. A whole era gone with her. At least Csilla – who must be in her sixties now – is thriving. And by all accounts, is still in Budapest. How convenient, then, that this is where Gillian is travelling to, next. Who knows?  Maybe they might meet again.

*****

Before she has time to change her mind, Csilla presses “send”, and the deed is done. She has arranged for Gillian to come for afternoon coffee the following Saturday. Csilla  has an evening presentation to attend at the Opera House, but that still leaves them plenty of time. Besides, it might be a convenient excuse to get rid of her visitor, if the meeting proves awkward or too intense. Csilla sits for a long time at her messy kitchen table, after sending the message. The remains of coffee – Csilla likes it strong and sweet – sit in her small china cup, and there is a half-eaten kifli on the patterned plate beside it. Csilla doesn’t concern herself too much with food – she is tall and  thin, her long pepper-and-salt hair coiled high on her head, face long and bony, with its own kind of austere beauty – but Magda, her housekeeper, insists. Food is presented to her at regular intervals, and Csilla does her best to comply. Frankly, deep down, she doesn’t much care if she lives or dies. But other people do. So she keeps going, for her public, for the ever-devoted Magda, for the theatre, by which she lives and breathes. Ah yes, there is always her art to fall back on. Otherwise: the abyss.

*****

Gillian cannot believe she is back in Budapest. It was all so long ago. And the longer she left it, the harder it got to return. But she has seen her friends at home becoming older, settled, scared.  Gillian cannot let that happen to her. She is always booking last minute weekend flights to cities she has never seen. The countryside doesn’t really attract her. It is people, theatre – busy streets and late nights – that pull her in. Since she lives on her own, she can do what she likes – and she likes to travel. So now,  why not go back to somewhere she knows for a change? Risky, but thrilling.  She still has shrapnel in her heart from thirty years ago. But no matter. She has come back. And as she wanders through the Castle District, dodging the tourists and gazing at the old buildings, the shutters and the heavy wooden doors, she marvels at  the familiarity of it all. Nothing is quite as it was – yet everything feels just the same.

She arrives, a little early, at Csilla’s  front door, hesitates, heart beating, and rings the buzzer. A disembodied voice speaks through the intercom. Gillian announces herself, and with a heavy click the door opens, into a dark and shadowy corridor. Someone switches on the hall light – is standing at the top of the stairs. Gillian looks up. Csilla looks down. And then, with small cries of recognition, they advance towards each other. The years fall away, and they  take each other’s arm,  and retreat into the actress’s chaotic kitchen. The scent of perfume and coffee grounds hits Gillian’s nostrils like a tidal wave, and she suddenly feels that she might cry. But she laughs instead, sits down on the nearest empty chair and takes a breath.

Before she knows it, they are deep in conversation. Gillian’s Hungarian was always rudimentary, and has rusted over still further, by years of disuse. Yet when Csilla speaks, in her rapid, mellifluous tones, it is as if Gillian understands every word. And she can respond too. The spirit of St Jerome is in the room, translating everything for the two women, wiping away the years, re-setting the dials, making them young again.

“You haven’t changed a bit”, says Csilla, and she means it. Gillian was always elfin in her appearance, small and slight, running through the corridors of her life, whilst Csilla moved slowly, as if there were a full entourage behind her, holding her train.

“Nor you,” replies Gillian, but that is hardly the case. She sees someone careworn, though elegant, sitting in front of her now. A woman with the weight of age – and experience – deep in her bones. She had never understood what made Csilla tick, and she is a mystery to her still, surrounded by glamour, her whole life a performance, well rehearsed and beautifully executed. But with an emptiness at its heart, somehow. Sorrow.

Theirs is a labyrinth of shared memories. And the names of the people they both knew – all members of a mighty theatre company, now dispersed, or retired, or dead – come tripping from Csilla’s tongue in a torrent of affection and regret.

“What a time it was,” says Gillian, with pictures of the subterannean theatre bar now vivid in her mind’s eye: full of smoke, and noise, and animated drinkers, arguing deep into the night.

“Indeed,” replies Csilla. “The red star was over us then. Walls all around us,  to keep us locked in. Now our prime minister builds another wall – this time to keep everyone else out. We Hungarians never learn,” she sighs. It is her only mention of politics. It is enough.

On they go, through the gentle spring afternoon, chatting, remembering, laughing and questioning. And then Csilla suddenly says, “You never married, Gillian? No children?”  “No”, says Gillian. “You neither?” Csilla just shakes her head, presses her lips together. And Gillian continues. “I did love someone once –someone here in Hungary – and I would have stayed. If he had asked me, I would have done it. Defected. Come over the wall to join him. But he never asked. And then he met someone else. You’ll remember him, I’m sure.” The name is spoken. And the room grows cold.

Csilla feels her heart lurch, and she feels faint – might even fall – but recovers her equilibrium just in time. Of course she knows the name. It’s carved, like a curse, on her heart. And she remembers Gillian sitting with him, not long after she had arrived – and he had just come off stage: was glowing with sweat and careless charisma. Remembers the stab of jealousy she felt. How happy he was, to be seen with this English girl, share her whiskey, covet her Levis! Csilla, meanwhile, was already too familiar to him.  Already too old.

Slipping from her reach, before she had so much as touched his long fingers, kissed his lips. But there would be no one else. Not in her lifetime. Even then, she knew that. And now this stupid woman is saying the exact same thing. Stirring it all up. A knife in both their wounds. She sits bolt upright now, and draws her shoulders up by her ears, looking theatrically at the big clock on the wall, as if she has just noticed how late it has become.

“Oh!” she says, with fake surprise. “I had no idea it was that time already. I’m sorry, Gillian, I have an engagement this evening, and I simply must get ready for it now.”

She stands abruptly, and offers Gillian her hand. Gillian is flabbergasted. She has no idea what she has done, why the atmosphere in the room has suddenly changed, from summer sun to the deep frosts of winter – and she doesn’t get a chance to find out. Before she knows it, she feels the heavy wooden door in the downstairs corridor clang behind her – and she is back outside, on the street, on her own. The sun is already beginning to set, and it’s getting darker. There is no one around now. The tourists have all disappeared. Gillian crosses to the steep stone steps which will  lead her back down to the river. She pauses at the top, and turns to look up at Csilla’s window. For a moment, she sees the actress standing motionless, looking back down at her: with a gaze that is unflinching and unforgiving. Then Csilla bends slightly, and strikes a match, to light the oil lamp on the window sill, before retreating, slowly, into the deepening shadows of her room.

– ENDS –

This is the fifth short story in a series loosely entitled Hungarian Love Letters. This is fiction based on my experiences, memories of – and long standing love affair with – Hungary, since first visiting and working there in 1988. You can read the other four stories here on the website, by scrolling through the blogs. There are also some non-fiction blogs about this fascinating country, on this website  too.

 

 

 

Ordinary people, extraordinary lives

“I AM HERE. This is me. And I am fine.” Theatre director Alan Lyddiard offers up this mantra as a way of explaining the ethos of his work. With his company, the Performance Ensemble – inspired by the example of Yukio Ninagawa’s Saitama Gold Theatre in Japan – he explores the lives of older people in intricate, loving detail. Bringing to the stage their stories, songs, dances and desires, is his great, unfolding project . These may be professional performers, or not. He blurs the distinction between the two. What matters to him is the integrity of the story being told. And with each production, he moves a little closer to the heart, to the soul, of the people he is working with – and the audience he is speaking to. On Sunday, September 16th, the latest phase in this work will be performed at the Queens Hotel, Leeds. Called ‘Bus Ride’, it is a kaleidoscope of experiences lived – and bus rides taken! – by a diverse range of older people, living in and around Leeds, in the north of England. The piece will abound in humour and sadness: in the fullness of life as it lived, beyond the age of 55/60.

One of those stories will be my own. And here is the written version in full… If you can, come to the performance on Sunday, or look at the website http://theperformanceensemble.com  for details of future adventures.

Tickets available here: https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/bus-ride/

 

BEFORE I could walk – or even talk much – my mother would sit me on a blanket in the back garden, and put a little book in my hands. ‘Progress and Poverty’ it was called. A Victorian treatise on social conditions and political economy by Henry George. I couldn’t read a word, of course, but that was beside the point. I loved the book itself: small enough to fit my hands – the gentle turning of the pages was an act of contemplation; the holding of the book, an entry into another world, far away from the noisy squabbling family I belonged to. When my mother came to gather me up, book, blanket and baby, some time later, I was always in the exact place she had left me, perfectly still, utterly content. Like the Buddha under the Bodhi tree. I have been searching for that stillness ever since.

*****

When I was 29, I got very sick with glandular fever. Pale and weak, I started yoga, as a physical rehabilitation. Slowly my strength returned, and I began to take dance classes at Brixton Recreation Centre. Never one to take any exercise, I suddenly fell in love, hook, line and sinker, with contemporary dance. I left my work as a journalist and trained full-time at the Laban Centre in London. Everything speeded up. Even in my dreams I was moving – fast.

Into this maelstrom walked a tall, elegant Greek man called Andreas Demetriou, who was known then – and still is – as the T’ai Chi guru of South London. Like the child on the blanket, with that little book in her hands, I was drawn to this man and the movements that he made, without having a clue what they signified, or how to do them. Peaceful, calm, contemplative: T’ai Chi was everything that my dance training lacked. Gradually, the world slowed down, into an elegant twenty minute sequence. From the opening movement, “The Rising Sun”, to its inward-focussed conclusion,*“Carry Tiger, Return to theMountain”, I learned to rehearse my whole life in miniature. Each of the three parts represented, in allegorical movement, the three stages of life: Childhood, Adulthood, Old Age and Death. And when the sequence finished, the whole cycle began all over again – **“No Beginning, No End”. Finally I learned to control my body, in a flow of energy and power. T’ai Chi means peace and vitality. Stillness in movement. My troubled and chaotic young adult self had – in endless flow – come to rest.

*****

Death came late to stalk me, after a childhood and adolescence where all the adults around me stayed healthy and robust. It was my own generation who learned about loss, on an epic scale. This was the eighties. And AIDs came knocking at our door. By the time I was 35, I had watched three young men die an agonising death. Fear stalked the corridors of our lives. Stigma followed our every footstep. Cure, or at least containment, was still a long way in the future. A whole generation of young gay men believed they would never grow old. And many of them never did.

When I met Tim, the man who would become my husband, I believed that he, at least would never leave me. He was six foot five, physically strong, mentally stable. Yet, by the time he was 37, he had contracted a rare and incurable cancer. Our daughter was not yet two. Our life together had just begun. Ten years later, at 47, Tim was dead.

One day, when the cancer was already very advanced, and my mind was tearing itself into shreds at the thought of what was to come, I took a book from the shelf and began to read. It was ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, by buddhist monk Sogyal Rinpoche. The book had been there for years and I had never even opened it. Perhaps I had never felt the need, until this moment. The words inside were simple, calm and lucid. Life is transient. Everything passes. Learn to let go, to breathe in, to breathe out, and be still – and everything will be alright.

T’ai Chi, my faithful friend in movement, was still beside me. But I needed something else as well. I had to learn to stop moving: to train the mad and frightened monkey in my mind to settle down, and to make my peace with death. I began to meditate, haltingly, inexpertly, and without companion or guide. And as the days and weeks and years went by, I continued to do so, as frequently as I could. I still do. The worst still happened. Tim died. Then my mother, my beloved aunt and father. Friends grew ill and left me. I had periods of ill health and sorrow myself. But somehow I managed just to sit down, here and now; to breathe; to be still. No book, no movement to hold me. Just the earth beneath, the sky above, and the space, passing around and between us all. Keeping us separate, holding us together. Forever.

Carry Tiger, Return to Mountain means bringing your own aggressive energy (the tiger) into stillness (the mountain).

** No Beginning, No End, also known as Waving Arms Like Clouds,is a short repetitive sequence of gentle arm movements, which recurs several times in the T’ai Chi Long Form: a sign of its perceived importance. It refers to Taoism, on which T’ai Chi is founded, and honours the importance of nature, and of the necessity for human beings to be as transparent as possible within nature – like the passing clouds – to allow the flow of life and energy to be unimpeded.

 

Hungarian Love Letters 1

NOTHING TO DECLARE

by Barney Bardsley

SONNET

You tell me that my voice is rich and warm,

although we do not share a common tongue.

A longing, sweet and foreign, starts to form,

for dances we might dance – and songs unsung.

Your black eyes flash with promises not kept,

and rendezvous in restaurants never made.

Snowfall on village roads – my heart, unswept:

old, vivid scenes that slowly burn to fade.

When postcards from a far-off place arrive,

the years of absence worry at my mind.

I walk the tightrope back – what will survive?

A country boy – and country – still to find.

I try to block my senses, but in vain.

You touch my back – it all begins again.

JANUARY 1988. The cold hits Rosa between the eyes as she walks down the plane steps and onto the deserted tarmac. A bashed-up old bus takes them to the terminal. A single red star hangs above the entrance. It’s hushed inside – and gloomy. The footsteps of the soldiers – dressed in khaki, guns on open view – echo down the corridors. Suddenly hot, she sweats beneath the borrowed fake fur. Too many layers. And she’s anxious too. Contraband in her battered case.  More than twice the legal amount. Don’t worry, Magda had written, they never check. Walk straight through the green channel in customs. I’ll meet you at the other end.  You must bring whiskey with you. We can’t get it here and the actors love it.  At  passport control  the officer stares at her for a long time. He takes in her razor short hair. Her foreign face. Her English passport. Westerner.  He makes her wait. But he lets her pass eventually. Nothing to declare. Her battered case trundles along behind her: and then she is through.

*****

She sits with Magda beside her, near the window, on the old green leather seat, gazing at the snow, as the train pulls out of Budapest and into the surrounding countryside. Icicles, gnarled and long, like witches’ fingers, hang from the trees. The freezing mist sinks ever lower. She blows on the window to get a better view. But there is little to see. Except a deep, deep winter white, casting its spell over  the flat, peasant landscape. Tiny cottages, half-submerged, reveal  a flash of Hungarian ochre here and there. Otherwise there is no one. And nothing. Already a spell is being cast and she feels drowsy, enchanted. Magda makes her pull one of the illicit whiskeys down  from her case and  they take it in turns to have long swigs, straight from the bottle.  Their only other companion in the small carriage – a young off-duty squaddie, hunched in the corner – tries hard not to look at the prized liquor, as it passes between the two women. When he stands up to leave, at a small village somewhere in the middle of nowhere, he flashes them a  glance. His eyes are hungry, full of reproach. Not a drop has been sent his way. Magda gloats. He’s never seen the like, she says. Rosa feels a vague sense of shame, but she buries it deep. By the time they arrive in Kaposvár, she is reeling with alcohol and fatigue. This is another world, she thinks. And she is lost to it now.

*****

The actors’ club hides in the bowels of the building, below the stage door, down three flights of stone stairs. It is dark, hardly lit at all. And the room is arranged into intimate booths, each partitioned off to give an air of gossip and intrigue. A small bar is at the far end, where a weary woman, carrying the weight of the world on her capable shoulders, serves coffee, pálinka, red and white wine– and whatever snacks, hot and cold – the actors fancy, morning, noon and night. Smoke hangs heavy in the air. Young actors race in and out, excited and self important. The older ones slump over their drinks, cynical, disgusted. But this is a disguise. Everyone cleaves to their weird, dysfunctional theatre family. Hate it, love it: they belong to each other.

She saw him on the first day she came. And he saw her. Now, János sits at the table, and starts to talk. His elegant hands sweep through the air, as he makes some seditious point or other, about the dying regime. Eyes black as coals. Hair  black, too, gipsy curls around a long bony face. She has no idea what he is saying – she speaks no word of Hungarian – but it doesn’t matter. The words flow like a river, rhythmical, musical, deeply strange. Sometimes Magda translates. Often she doesn’t bother. They drink and smoke deep into the night. Occasionally he darts a look in her direction. His smile is knowing. But his secrets are hidden – even from himself.

The theatre is closing for renovation.  So the maverick players are temporarily homeless. In the deepest snow, they go on tour through the countryside, in a coach that belches black fumes and rattles at alarming speed down dangerous, icy, ill-lit, narrow roads. He sits next to Magda on the seat in front. Sometimes Magda turns to speak to Rosa in  English and Rosa replies. He gazes at her then, with a fascinated fury. Taps Magda’s shoulder and says something in hushed Hungarian.  She laughs. He says you have a voice like Laurie Anderson, she says. Rosa is amazed. How can this Hungarian boy, stuck behind the Iron Curtain, know about New York  – the avant garde? Then she blushes with shame. Of course he understands. It is she who knows nothing.

They end up in Budapest for the last shows of the tour. She stays in an actress’s flat in old Buda – beautiful fin-de-siecle furniture inside a  functional  grey apparatchik block. Every night she is at the theatre. The company is famous, brings down the house with standing ovations. But she is impatient for the curtain to fall, for the rhythmic, ritual clapping to stop. Because that’s when the party really starts.  Will he come? Will he find her, talk to her again? White rabbit, disappearing down yet another hole. She doesn’t know who she is anymore. Or where she stands. With the enigmatic boy – and this puzzle of a country. Little socialist barrack, where liberty is the language of the night – and everyone’s a poet, when the wine of the Balaton Boglár, velvet and purple, starts to flow. Lonely little English girl, held fast in a magyar embrace.  Gyere vissza, he whispers in her ear on the final night. Come back soon, as he clasps her hands and draws her closer.  But she knows that she won’t. He knows it too.

*****

OCTOBER 2009. She steps off the plane and feels the sweet heat of the earth rise up to meet her. The smell of Budapest. And her stomach lurches. It was winter then, but the same  aroma lingers: thick black coffee, flaky pastry,  a faint memory of sweat and blood in the dusty soil. Every country has its aroma. This is Hungary’s –  and it feels like hers too. Her friend József, faithful down all the years, with christmas cards and steadfast greetings,  will meet her at the airport. But she worries she won’t know him after  such a long time away. No need. There he stands, bang on time.  A thrill of recognition: bald head and round glasses, big broad simian smile. Twenty one years have left him quite untouched.  She wishes the same were true for her.

When they climb into his sleek American car, she feels a shock. Gone, the tiny Trabant he used to roar around in.  For we are all westerners now. Down the soulless motorway from the airport they glide – advertising hoardings screaming from every building – into town. Traffic, people, noise. This is not the place she left, silent, in the deep winter cold. Sleeping Beauty has finally woken up.  He drives on, towards the river, over Liberty Bridge, and up to the Statue of Freedom. Night has fallen, and from the dark Buda hills, they gaze down at the neon, that flashes on all the bridges of Budapest and over the mighty river. She left a place of lies and secrets. She comes back to a city of lights. It is the anniversary of the 1956 Uprising. The fascists are likely to make trouble, says József, so we’ll stay out of the city centre tonight.Our revolution has been stolen from us. Like so much else. He sighs. Back in his flat they eat duck with cherry sauce. He toasts her return with pálinka and red wine. She has brought him whiskey – for old times’ sake.

They drive to Kaposvár the next morning. On roads wide and fast – through villages small, quaint. The yellow cottages close their eyes against the passing cars: flash of modernity, danger.  We are as we were, they murmur. All is just the same. But her eyes see difference, everywhere she goes. And she feels disorientated, unaccountably sad.

Kaposvár greets them, bigger and brighter than before. Though in her mind it is still an enticing misty grey. The old theatre stands tall, if a little dishevelled, in the small town park: an Edwardian wedding cake left out in the rain. They make their way to the actors’ bar. It’s lunchtime and sunny, but the striplights are already glaring in the subterannean cavern. Gone the private booths. The smoke. The layers of intrigue. We have no secrets now, the message goes. Though no one is fooled. Half remembered faces pass before her: older, wearier, lined with trouble. Some of them smile in recognition. Some have forgotten. And some, like Magda, are long since dead, spectral memories from a vanished past. The younger actors  who brush past her could scarcely have been born, when last she was here –  she feels their disdain, their frank disinterest. Stranger. Why have you come? She loses her nerve as she sits with József at the bar. Why has she come, indeed? She feels the panic rise, and forces herself to be still. Breathes in. Breathes out. Hand clammy against the stem of her glass.

At first, she mistakes it for another ghost – this shimmer and rustle at her back, the hint of a touch on her shoulder. Then she feels a hand, slipping into the pocket of her jacket  –  and something falls, cool and dark, to the bottom. A stone. Wordless totem.  Objects always more potent than the language they have never shared. He blows softly in her ear, chuckles a little. And then she turns – and János looks her straight in the eyes. Close up, uncomfortable. His own eyes: black coals turned to dust; hair coarse and greying, face lined, pouchy. Middle aged. A faint memory of fire in his gaze. And it is hard to keep the shock from her face, as she stumbles over a simple Hungarian greeting – her accent making him laugh.  Suddenly, two dark haired girls run into the bar, and  come straight to their father, giggling and chattery. Oh, she says, you are a family man now?  And he just shrugs and smiles and touches her hand, misinterpreting her regret, the way he always did. Those children could have been hers, she thinks, if the world had turned another way.  But she is glad that they are not. Glad also that he is not.  The stone feels too heavy in her pocket, as she takes her hand away from him and turns towards József, who has sensed her unease, and is ready to leave. The lights in the overheated bar are far  too bright for comfort. How she longs for snow, and the dimly remembered distant dark.  ENDS

This is the first of a proposed series of short stories and essays about Hungary, a place that long ago stole my heart, and which steadfastly refuses to give it back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flights of Freedom

“I love trees. They are so solid. They give me strength and support. There they stand, surviving for years and years and years – roots going deep down, right to the centre of the earth… What kind of tree would I be, I wonder? I know. An oak tree. The strength of it. The power.”

(Rosa Peterson)

SIX MONTHS AGO, I sat down next to Rosa Peterson and we started to write a play together. A short piece – just fifteen minutes long – to be performed, alongside two others written in the same way – at West Yorkshire Playhouse’s ‘Every Third Minute’ Festival. The festival (brainchild of the formidable Nicky Taylor), was so-named, because every three minutes in the UK, somebody gets diagnosed with dementia, and was a groundbreaking theatrical investigation into, and celebration of, people’s lived experiences of dementia. More than that. Their creativity and resilience. Each person’s story: unique and special. Life after such a diagnosis. What can that be like?

Well, surprising and strange and different, reports Rosa, who spent three months sharing with me her own particular story. She has lived with dementia for the past three years. Her life – both prior to her diagnosis, and after – has thrown up many challenges. Indeed, they come on a daily basis. The lows can knock her down into a dark place. But what I didn’t expect, when I first began to write with her, was her wit, her strength of mind, her charm. And her wild and wonderful imagination.

Certainly we talked about the bad times: the hallucinations that come at night; the strange visual tricks her mind plays upon her – making the simple act of walking down the street, or crossing a threshold, sometimes difficult, even frightening; the disorientation and memory loss; the flashes of frustration and the real core of anger at her situation.

But, just as powerful, was the clear eyed wonder that Rosa takes, in the simple, natural joys of the world around her. She is someone who has never written a word in her life. Yet with a little gentle coaxing from me, the poetry soon began to flow. And she taught me to see with fresh eyes, just what beauty there is, in everyday life. How we must never take that for granted. Not for a second.

Images – of clouds, of trees, of waves, of horses – came unbidden to her mind. And very soon, a play began to emerge, shaped and moulded by me, but the words – entirely Rosa’s own.

We called it ‘A Horse Called Freedom’, and a woman called Ruth was its central narrator.

Often, it is the things that happen early in our lives – in childhood, or adolescence – that imprint themselves most strongly in our imagination. And if the memory is good, then we can return to it in our minds: catch it, like a talisman, to help us through the more complex pathways of adulthood.

So it was for Rosa. “When I was about fourteen,” she told me, “I used to go riding. I loved those horses. They said I was a natural. Sometimes we went bareback, too. No saddle, nothing. We just took them to the field and climbed on. What a lovely feeling it was. The freedom of it. Being out in the open, with the air on your face, the wind in your hair – just you and the horse beneath you, and nothing else mattered. Nothing.”

Rosa walks with a stick, after surviving a stroke fifteen years ago. These days, she has the vicissitudes of vascular dementia to deal with, too. So it’s not hard to see how magical this remembered feeling of freedom – the reality of the horses, with their power and animal vitality –  remains in her mind. Better than that – her favourite horse, Jet, “black and fierce and strong”, once set off like thunder, with her still on his back, clinging on for dear life. “It was so thrilling,” she remembers, “galloping away like that!”

In the final scene of the play, after Ruth has described the predicaments she faces in her ordinary daily life, the struggles, the barriers and the disappointments, it is – appropriately enough – Jet himself who takes centre stage. He carries  his rider Ruth off through the woods, faster and faster, till he sprouts wings, as wide and feathered and beautiful, as any mythical Pegasus, and flies high above the clouds, deep into the vault of the sky, into the wide blue yonder. To freedom.

And now, although the play is finished, and our weekly scribblings have come to a halt (like the runaway horse, back home in its field), I am still held in thrall to the power of Rosa’s imagination – her courage and her indomitable strength. She is an oak tree, indeed. And her wise words – and wicked laugh – resound loud in my mind and in my heart.

“It’s cool and clear

In the deepest night

There’s a handful of stars

Glittering – bright

Although they are really

So far away

If I reach, I can touch them

And here’s what they say.

It’s a message of hope

They are shining on me

‘Hang on’, they are saying

‘Soon  you’ll be free.’

‘A Horse Called Freedom’ was first performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Theatre, on March 9th, 2018, alongside ‘I See Land Ahead’ by Bob Fulcher and Dominic Gately, and ‘Hamaari Yaadain/Our Memories’ by Hamari Yaadain Memory Cafe and Ming Ho, as part of the THREE trilogy of plays in the ‘Every Third Minute Festival’, Festival Director Nicky Taylor.

https://www.wyp.org.uk/events/every-third-minute/

 

 

Wave

MUCH of my professional writing and thinking is based on memory: a meditation on how to integrate a complex past with the puzzling challenges of the present day. It is the work of a memoirist, to excavate love and loss, at a deeply personal level – and those are the kinds of books and features I have been writing over the past ten years. But I am struck right now by this challenging quote from André Gide:

“Through loyalty to the past, our mind refuses to realise that tomorrow’s joy is possible only if today’s makes way for it; that each wave owes the beauty of its line only to the withdrawal of the preceding one.”

Maybe it is time to write and live in a different way – more tuned into the present tense, less concerned with the echoing chambers of an ever-increasing yesterday?

The end of each adult decade, for me, has seen turbulent change: at 29, a total change of direction, from journalism into contemporary dance and theatre; at 39, a flight – with a terminally ill spouse and a young child under my wing – away from the urban chaos of South London, to the green Northern hills of Leeds; at 49,a bruising, but vibrant, re-entry into the workplace, after my husband’s death from a vicious cancer: with the digging of a garden and an allotment there in the background, to steady my shaky boots. And now, at 59, after two years of my own poor health – the inevitable final ebbing of a personal wave of energy – it’s time to take stock again. A new decade beckons.What will it bring?

With a country divided and bitter, after the disastrous European Union Referendum, and Brexit, two things seem critical in this moment: finding small ways to be kind and constructive to each other, whether it is to smile at the face of a stranger, or take a warm blanket to a drop-off point for refugees in Calais; and – starting to live, quietly and positively, in the immediacy of each day, exactly as it unfolds. Looking back with bitterness won’t change a thing. Catastrophising about the future makes us nothing but prisoners.There is a more subtle way to break free.

I have just read, for the second time, Simon Fitzmaurice’s extraordinary memoir, ‘It is not yet dark’. A young Irish film maker and writer, Fitzmaurice writes of his unexpected and cataclysmic diagnosis with Motor Neurone Disease. And he does this with candour, poetic clarity, and a total lack of self pity or recrimination. He also, with an acute awareness of a new and constant companion – death – on his young shoulders, chooses to write, as he lives, in the imperative of the present tense. Even his memories are written as contemporary accounts. There is no time to lose, for any of us. Fitzmaurice knows this, reminds us, urges us on. And, oh, the wonder he conveys, the beauty of simply being here, now, in the world. “I’m burning with this life” he writes.

And I realise that I am too. Burning with it all. So let the tide of energy – my strange, half-looking-back,struggling-to-catch-up,ever-changing fifties – go out fully now. A summer of rest and play. And at the autumnal turn of that tide, I shall be sixty. Ready, as the buddhist philosophers would have it, to “be more curious than afraid”. Ready to meditate more, dance more, garden more, write more, teach more, sing and travel more. And all in the beautiful, ever-vital, ever-changing present. I hope to see you there.

‘It’s Not Yet Dark’ by Simon Fitzmaurice (Hatchette Books Ireland)
‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley (John Murray)
‘Old Dog’ by Barney Bardsley (Simon and Schuster)

Wave Haiku

deep winter darkness

winds howl – the bare earth deafened

still waves rise like hope

IT HAS BEEN impossible to find adequate words to deal with the atrocities in Paris – and now the UK government’s decision to drop bombs in Syria. But always it is nature that leads me back towards the essentials – and back to a sense of possibility, of stability and peace. Hence this haiku. The wind is whipping around our house right now, and our lights burn against the darkness. The seasons turn. We will see the sun  again.

I wrote something recently in the Guardian theatre pages about work done at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, to support refugees in our city. Here is the link –  the hand of friendship 

Meanwhile, the waves rising gently in the photograph are from the Northumberland coastline. It is the mighty Bamburgh beach in winter time.

A Little Light

THE LEAVES are now almost gone from even the sturdiest bush in the back garden –   dropped, all of a sudden, in the day’s gusty winds, from branch to bare earth. The hour has gone back. We are in the darkest moment of the year. This is when I start burning candles. A pumpkin sits on the window sill – uncarved, giving off its natural orange glow. My energy draws deeper and deeper in, towards the core. I should be hibernating: as should we all. And in some ways, I am. My limbs are getting heavier, eyelids drooping earlier and earlier in the day. I make my soups and stews. I wrap my feet in soft blankets and my neck in fleecy scarves. Natural nesting instincts, to assist and soothe, as the year drops away towards the shortest day. Then step by step towards spring.

Despite these sleepy instincts, my working life at the theatre – West Yorkshire Playhouse – has recently been busier than ever. Many workshops to run on the creative engagement programme – much plotting and collaborating with clever artists, musicians and drama practitioners – to take theatre, dance, poetry and music, out to communities of local people. And to bring them home to us.

The human imagination is a wonderful and mysterious thing. Through these busy weeks I have seen over and over again, how inventive and creative even the most challenged of people are, if they are just given a little nudge in the right direction. I have watched an older woman fall in love with a harp – handling it for the first time during an arts session, and almost falling inside it, as she coaxed the sounds of flowing water from its gently yielding strings. I saw, at the UK Dementia Congress, how vital sensory stimulus is, to someone coping with dementia, when a delighted delegate stopped by our stall, picked up pebbles and shells and driftwood and talked of her need to feel her way, through a world grown strange and different, in so many ways. Just yesterday I noticed the puzzled looks on the faces of my Wednesday Creative Writing group, as I set them the impossible challenge of writing a two-minute play in three acts (“That’s 40 seconds an act!” someone protested); then watched them just as quickly pick up the mantle, and set to work – pens flying across the page in conscientious endeavour. The results will be magic. I know it.

I  inwardly bemoan my failures too. There was the man with learning difficulties whose distress at a particular misunderstanding I just couldn’t decipher or mitigate; the woman with dementia, whose feet failed to really connect with the ground  in one of my movement sessions – because I couldn’t find the right words to connect her with the earth; and there are the colleagues whose astonishing skills I cannot always harness to my own, as we go about our work together. It is always a shot in the dark, this creative work… And what is it that we do, after all, in theatre – both on stage and off? We encourage ourselves, and the people who come to us, to soar a little, out of everyday life, into a different world. A world of possibility, of struggle overcome – of fleeting, occasional, palpable wonder.

One dear colleague, John, sent through a poem  which puts the whole endeavour beautifully into words.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.
Christopher Logue

If we achieve anything in the world of the arts, then this would be the aim, after all. A little light in the darkness. A little light.

John Mee is one of the creative directors of Alive and Kicking, a dynamic, fun and sparky theatre company working in schools in and around Leeds, and bringing delight to many a child’s mind and heart. Their new show The Museum of Untold Stories, is booking now. Find them here

Our Time is a programme that I work on with John and with our wonderful colleague and manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Nicky Taylor, to inspire creativity in people with dementia. Read more about us here

Poppies

Poppies are probably my favourite flower. I love the technicolour brightness of them. I love their furry, sexy, serrated leaves. I love the way the fat buds lurk in a mass of foliage, waiting, waiting, waiting…. for their moment to BURST out, in full technicolour, one lucky and glamorous day in May. Perhaps most of all, I love that they are both powerful and fragile, all at the same time. It seems, every year, that the minute my poppies come into bloom, they are savaged by sudden winds and rains, and resort to bending their gorgeous heads – bloodied, unbowed – as long as they possibly can, before shedding, dropping, disappearing for another year, sometimes after just a few days of flowering. They are a wonder.

I still wait for this year’s beauties to appear. Spring has been slow in its dawning. I stalk them in the garden, day by day, inspecting for buds, stroking their camouflage greenery, willing them to come out and join in the party, to break suddenly and stridently into song. The picture here is from last year’s crop. They are Tim’s poppies: grown and then transplanted from my old house, to the allotment, to my new house, all from a small plant given to me years ago by my husband, as a present for Mothers’ Day. So they hold a special place in my heart. They live on, though he couldn’t. They seem to shine in his honour, his memory, holding his curious mix of shyness and belligerence. And aren’t they bonny, with their red-orange skirts, their bold black hearts? Real warrior flowers.

This Bank Holiday weekend I have hardly been in my garden at all – though I feel fingers and toes itching to do so, the minute I finish writing this – because I have been up to my neck in a theatre festival, TRANSFORM 2015, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was a wonderful event – full of international artists and cross-cultural conversations – which will form the seedbed (gardening term unintended, but entirely appropriate) for future collaborations between Leeds and the cities and countries of the world. The thing about theatre folk, however, is their tendency to talk. To be LOUD – if not onstage, then certainly off it. So now I want to be silent for a while. Now I am turning, once again, to the quieter form of theatre right outside my kitchen window: the green stage and sweet scenery of my own city back garden.

Everything is looking very lush and verdant now: the acid greens of the euphorbia, the sharp sword leaves of Crocosmia Firebird – which will, come July, rival the poppies with its sharp, scarlet, trumpeting blooms. The birds are going crazy for the birdseed: hungrier than ever, now that they are making their nests and raising their young. Swarms of warring sparrows swoop and squabble over my birdbath every morning; blue tits and coal tits swing insouciantly from the fat-filled coconut shells; and my favourites – the blackbirds – hop and bounce across the grass, in search of the juiciest grub, the fattest, sleepiest worm.

Every week I go walking in Roundhay Park, north east Leeds, with my dog friend Badger, whom I borrow for the day each Thursday. Last week we suddenly found ourselves caught inside a great shaggy circle of shining black crows, all intent on their foraging, down at ground level, on a large open slope above the glittering lake – and quite oblivious to the hapless dog and human trapped momentarily in the middle of them all. What would they be, this gathering of satanic masters: a convention, a concatenation, a coven? Whatever the word, they had a certain pleasing menace about them: and a natural dramatic presence. Theatre in the round. Black crows in Roundhay Park. Theatre, said Augusto Boal, quoted by a Lebanese activist at the TRANSFORM festival this last weekend, must be a “rehearsal for the revolution”. I just wonder what those birds – never mind the humans – are plotting to overthrow first?