Friday, 29 April 2011

I will be with you on your wedding-night. . .

I found a copy of this poster for Frankenstein in Love in an envelope when I was going through my father's stuff. It comes from early in my career when I still sent things back to my parents to show what their son was up to in London.

It's not a great poster. I am not, and never have been, a real graphic designer. That rose is pretty awful, too - like some fat red cabbage. But it does have great sentimental value.

I had a short-lived career as a designer of theatre posters back in the early 1980s. I say career advisedly, because it could never have provided a living. The posters I did for Clive Barker's Dog Company I did for free, as he was a friend, and the ones I subsequently did were so poorly paid, I may as well have done them for nothing.

The Dog Company posters were where it began really. They spawned other posters at the Cockpit Theatre and at the Drill Hall. Eventually I ended up doing posters for the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs (of which Danny Boyle was director at the time). Which brings me back to Frankenstein. . .

As an antidote to today's giddiness surrounding a certain royal wedding, we went to see a filmed performance of Frankenstein currently wowing crowds at the National Theatre. The play is an adaptation (by Nick Dear) of Mary Shelley's novel, directed by that same Danny Boyle.

The two stars of the play swap roles nightly. One night Benedict Cumberbatch is Victor Frankenstein and Johnny Lee Miller is the Creature (the version we saw), the next Cumberbatch is the Creature and Miller is Frankenstein.

I'm a bit of a fan of Johnny Lee Miller. I like the way he looks for one thing: both modern and somehow also perfect for the Romantic period - he was easily the best thing about the BBC's most recent adaptation of Jane Austin's Emma (a book, incidentally, that was published the same year as Mary Shelley came up with the notion of Frankenstein). And he has charisma, which is a magical thing. He is not exactly intimidating, height-wise, but it was a really physical performance. Cumberbatch was good too - a nice combination of naivety and arrogance. And its easy to imagine that they would be just as good (though very different) in each other's roles.

I have been immersed in the world of Frankenstein for months now, (I am still correcting proofs on Mister Creecher) and it has been a passion for decades, so I was always going to be a difficult audience. I'm not sure the script lived up to the performances or the staging, both of which were superb. And I could have done without the silly tableau of the Industrial Revolution that rolled by at the beginning.

But it was a really good bit of theatre and it won't be the last of these 'live' feeds from the National we go to see. It is not the same as seeing it at the theatre, but there are added benefits - like the close-ups for instance - that make the experience compelling in its own right.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011


We went to the rather wonderful Ickworth House near Bury St Edmunds yesterday. I found myself wondering what the previous occupants would have made of the likes of me wandering through their rooms.

Hounds would have been released I'm sure.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The great north road

Memory is a kind of hard core lucky dip: you reach into that tub of sawdust and you don't know whether you are going to bring out a shiny new penny or a handful of razor blades.

I drove up and down the A1 - four or five hours each trip. The A1 is not a pleasant road for much of its length, the older sections suffering from narrow lanes and poor road surface, the building of newer sections causing miles of contraflow and hold-ups. Going up I got caught up in a queue trailing back from an accident. On the way back I saw a car engulfed in flames on the hard shoulder, a huge column of smoke rising up like a twister. The heat was incredible even from a lane away.

And yet the A1 is full of memories for me.

I remember long (oh, so very long) National Express coach journeys that would take the whole of a day (or night). Going down to London to see my brother, maybe. And it always did feel as though I really was going downhill, as though the land of Britain is tilted vertically with Scotland at the head.

Living in Newcastle, we always seemed to be on the A1. It used to go right through the centre of the city and over the Tyne Bridge. It was the way north to the Northumberland coast and to Edinburgh. It was the way south to Yorkshire, to the moors, to the coast. It was the quickest way to to start a journey.

I remember my brother-in-law driving me up the A1 in his Ford Zephyr and touching 100 mph. I remember sitting in the back of an army lorry when I worked one holiday as a removal man shifting furniture and crockery in and out of service accommodation.

I was working in effect for my dad. He had become a civil servant on leaving the army and worked for the Ministry. It was his job to oversee the provision of housing and contents to serving soldiers. He had left the army but he still worked in an army barracks and drove back and forth to the various army bases in his area.

I thought about that - among many other things - as I drove down the A1 past Catterick army base. Every hour or so I would be surprised by tears and by the suddenness of the emotion. Tears would spring to my eyes and my throat would tighten as though held in a firm grip.

The Great North Road. It does feel part of my life. I've spent more of my life in the south, and yet I do feel an affinity with the north country. We moved around so much when I was a child that nowhere really feels like home. But I think I am a northerner at heart. If I come from anywhere, I come from the North.

And maybe I wasn't sure of that until I had my back to it on the way home to Cambridge.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

The house that built me

Or at least this was one of the houses that built me. Me moved to this place when I was twelve or so. Previously we had lived in another council estate not too far away, but my father decided that this estate would be better for us. He had no social circle at all, so he was not remotely influenced by the issue of the friends my mother and I would leave behind. In fact, he was sure that I was mixing with the wrong sort altogether and that the move would do me good.

So we moved to Kenton. My sister was already living on the estate so that was a plus. And, as my parents got older, it would become more and more of an advantage. They got to see their grandchildren growing up and my sister was able to look after them in later life - first my mother and then, when she died, my father. Anyway - I've been helping my sister clear the house.

I always hated that house. Our previous estate - Newbiggin Hall - had been tough, in its own way. But my brother Paul had gained sufficient reputation among the local hard nuts before he went into the army, that the mere mention of his name gave me all the protection I needed. I had a little gang of friends and we played out on long summer evenings and cycled out into the country in the holidays. I went to a good primary school a walk away and subsequently caught an old red Routemaster double decker to the grammar school in Gosforth.

It was far from idyllic. There were some scary people living on that estate. But Kenton Bar Estate came to seem far, far worse. I used to visit my sister on Saturdays before we moved and Kenton Bar had seemed bright and cheerful, helped by the cycle route through cornfields.

But our house was one of the flat-roofed bungalows at the North Kenton end of the estate and darkness turned it into a badly lit maze of concrete and brick. I never felt safe walking back there after dark. I never felt like I belonged there.

Over the years I have swayed from a vague embarrassment about it, to a kind of pride that I came from such inauspicious beginnings, to a resentment of those who had a softer nest, and back again in no particular order. Sometimes I can feel all three in one day. But I feel horribly guilty that my parents - whose only aim was to keep me fed and clothed and safe - were ever caught up in that embarrassment or resentment, and could not benefit from a pride that was perverse. They had - I had - so much more than they had when they were children. They had a right to expect much more from me than they ever got by way of thanks or appreciation.

It was in the lounge of that house that I watched Lawrence Gordon Clark's M R James adaptations at Christmas in the 70s. It was here that I watched the Monster Movies on Tyne Tees television - back to back horror films from the thirties to the glory days of Hammer. It was here I would watch Top of the Pops and revel in how disturbed my father was by Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Bryan Ferry. It was here that I would stack my records on the Dansette Bermuda and sit in my bedroom reading comics or sci-fi novels. It was here that I first read Frankenstein. It was here that I watched Monty Python and Morecombe and Wise and Dave Allen and The World at War. It was here that I sketched and drew and doodled in notebooks and typed up my first attempts at short stories on my dad's portable typewriter. It was here that I cycled back to from my girlfriend's house, the dynamo light blazing on the tarmac as I freewheeled down the hill at night. It was here that I started to became me.

Do we need something to push against? Do we need to have some grit in our gizzards? If so, then that house in Kenton Bar Estate had such a function in my life. The house you leave when you leave home will always have a special significance. For some it will remain a symbol of home that they will try and recreate. For me it was the embodiment of everything I wanted to shed when I started my new life at college.

But you never do shed it of course.

Friday, 22 April 2011

The big sleep

My father died a few weeks ago. Apologies for those of you who have tuned into the blog and found it deserted, but whereas writing about my mini stroke seemed to help deal with it, my father's death seemed to leave me oddly wordless.

My father died not long after his decision to have any unnecessary meds halted. The lack of drugs obviously played a part, but it was probably as much the final acceptance that he was not going home. His last years had seen his visits to hospital become more frequent and long-lasting. The grim outpost of the NHS he spent his last few months in would not have been anyone's choice of last resting place, but increasingly this is what awaits us: a dull, municipal end. We can extend life, but we cannot extend the enjoyment of life it seems.

I went to see The Big Sleep at the cinema with my wife and son just before he died. It was great to actually see it on a big(gish) screen. My dad had a soft spot for Humphrey Bogart - or Humpty Go-cart as he used to say when I was a kid - and we would always watch To Have and Have Not or The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep if it was on TV. Watching old movies was something we both enjoyed and was a rare meeting point for us.

My father had been a cinema projectionist for a short spell when he was younger, in the 1930s, and particularly liked the gangster movies of that era. Cagney was a favourite, as was George Raft. My father's sense of style - a moustache and centre-parted slicked down hair was straight from the 30s and 40s and remained that way for decades.

Although he he left school at fourteen to work in the local steelworks in Middlesbrough, he took the familiar escape route of applying to join the army at sixteen. WWII broke out when he was eighteen and at nineteen he was at Dunkirk. Though he left the Royal Artillery in his late forties, he remained a soldier in his own mind and in ours. It was as though it was in his DNA.

He was a difficult man and the only emotion he ever seemed to be able to express unreservedly was anger. Whole days would be ruined by his black moods and his frequent explosions of temper could be terrifying. I spent a lot of my time in that house resenting him, angry with him, fearful of him.

When I left home to go to art school, it always seemed to be my mother who drew me back. I don't think it was until my mother died that I made any effort to understand my father as a person. It is one of the qualities of growing old - or should be - that we do not see things in quite the same black and white way as we did when we were seventeen.

My father was inevitably the punitive part of the good cop/bad cop routine so many parents played at that time. My mother was a warm and affectionate person, but she was allowed to be. She rarely had to raise her voice or punish me. 'I'll tell dad,' was always enough to stop me in my tracks. I'm not saying he was forced into this role against his will, but it can't have been a very satisfying or enjoyable.

I had a strange relationship with my father. I think we baffled each other most of the time. Often he would look at me as though I had landed from outer space.

The last big row we had was when my mother died. I was determined that my mother's funeral would not be some bland, formulaic affair, with some vicar mouthing platitudes about a person he or she had never met. My brother's funeral had been like that and it only served to sharpen the pain of his dying.

My dad had yelled at me as he used to in days gone by, but we were all a bit older. I wrote him a long letter explaining that I thought we could do better for my mother and he, with time to reflect, agreed. I found the letter among his things when we cleared his house. I was genuinely surprised he'd kept it.

I was determined to do right by my dad too, when he died. I wanted to speak about his life as I had spoken about my mother. I arranged for a bugler from the Royal Artillery to come and play the last post, although sadly he was ill on the day and could not make it. But for all the vicar's effort to the contrary, the funeral was at least about my father - Tom Priestley, the man. Or at least the fragment of himself he allowed us to see.