The Almighty Sometimes

 

Norah Lopez Holden as Anna and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Renee in The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Fever (Royal Exchange publicity photo)

Anna is bright, gifted and angry. Like many 18 year olds she thinks she knows everything. But she also suffers from bipolar disorder. For the past 7 years, with the support of her mother and psychologist, and a lot of medication, she’s been stable. But now she’s discovered that if she stop taking the pills a whole world of creativity opens up to her and she feels wonderful…for a while.

The problem of lack of support for children facing mental illness and their families has rightly had a lot of publicity recently. What is perhaps less well known is that when those children reach the age of 18, they become adults in the eyes of the law and are expected to transition smoothly from child to adults’ support services, taking responsibility for their own condition and therapeutic pathways. Anyone who has lived with an 18 year old will recognise some of the dangers of that approach.

Julie Hesmondhalgh plays Anna’s mother, desperately worried by her daughter’s escalating mood-swings but barred by Anna’s hostility and rules on confidentiality from accessing the help her daughter so clearly needs. It sounds like a grim story and in some ways it is. This play pulls no punches about the agonies of mental illness and the social stigma that those who suffer it have to cope with. It’s also extremely honest about the monstrous self-centredness of someone in the throes of mental instability, and how that can combine with the natural wish for independence to push vulnerable young adults over a precipice. Renee, Anna’s mother, is no saint, and there’s a lot of warmth and black humour in this play, but ultimately it’s about a mother and daughter having to negotiate a devastating situation with no easy answers.

It’s brilliantly written and beautifully acted. Hesmondhalgh rightly has caught the headlines – she’s brilliant – but Norah Lopez Holden is also remarkable in the very demanding role of Anna – swinging from feeling that the universe is in the palm of her hand to a crippling depression so severe that she’s too exhausted to pick up a hairbrush. Glorying in her uniqueness yet desperate to be accepted as an ordinary person, she is impossible to live with, challenging and alienating all those who care for her, yet  invokes our deepest pity. Her creative potential is clear, but it the cost unacceptable – to herself, her loved ones, and society in general?

This is everything new drama should be – entertaining, thought-provoking, challenging and completely involving. With the epidemic of mental distress now facing young people, it is also highly topical.

The Almighty Sometimes is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 24 February. Box Office 0161 833 9833

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All’s Well?

 

Image: Ellora Torchia (Helena) and Will Merrick (Bertram) in All’s Well That Ends Well, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, 2018

All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare’s tricky mid-career plays, is performed less frequently than the crowd-pleasing As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. Despite its upbeat title and just-about-happy ending, it’s one of the Bard’s most cynical takes on romantic relationships.

I saw it last week in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s recreated Jacobean indoor theatre. It’s tiny, you feel you’re almost sitting on the stage, and completely candlelit. Here, language is forced to do the heavy lifting. It’s hard to be naturalistic when you’re carrying around a candelabra to light your own face. Elaborate 17th Century costumes add a further layer of formality. Watching a performance in these surrounding is making a journey into the past – if done well, it unlocks some remarkable new insights into Shakespeare’s craft.

The play takes place, nominally at least, at the court of France, which is at war with Florence and filled with young bloods eager to prove themselves on the battlefield. Shakespeare does not hold back in his lampooning of male bravado, particularly through the ridiculous braggart Parolles, who is a comic creation almost the equal of Falstaff.

There are certainly strong women in All’s Well. But for feminists, there’s a problem. What on earth does Helena see in Bertram, surely one of Shakespeare’s least likeable leads? Unlike Hero in Much Ado, who’s basically set up by the patriarchy to wed the nasty Claudio, Helena has as much agency, wit and cunning as Rosalind. Is she just interested in upward social mobility? There’s clear evidence in the text that she’s besotted by Bertram, who treats her appallingly. And she goes to extreme lengths to get him back. This is no Mariana moping in her moated grange. This woman goes on a dangerous pilgrimage into a war zone and schemes with the locals to claim her conjugal rights.

A candlelit space is by its very nature intimate. It’s very likely that these very constraints, plus the opportunity to create sophisticated special effects, led to the spectacular other-worldly quality of the late romances. I’ve seen two of these, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, at the Wanamaker, and in both cases the indoor world was powerfully evoked. Imagining the contrasting outdoor one was more of a stretch. Probably the Jacobean audience were more accepting of the limitations of the venue. Naturalistic acting wasn’t a familiar concept – they went to the theatre to be wowed by poety pyrotechnics. In those days, hearing a good sermon was a day out.

This production seemed to approach the challenge of All’s Well by classing it as an early draft of these late plays, and staging it accordingly. There is much use of ritual and incantation, and a twist at the end that pushes the envelope of familiar Shakespearian improbability into something resembling magical realism. The shadowy theatre becomes a womb-like space, not simply because Helena ultimately gives birth but through repeated use of bathing, candlelight and deeply feminine ritual. It is no coincidence that the dominant colour of the women’s costumes changes to a bright red as the play draws to its close.

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Michelle Terry as Helena and Oliver Ford Davies as the King in the 2009 National Theatre production

Michelle Terry’s Helena at the National a few years ago was more clearly a traditional fairy-tale heroine, with her basket and red cloak. And the Tobacco Factory production I saw last year at the Lowry really revelled in the broad comedy of the Parolles plot, providing another manifestation of toxic masculinity that enriched the main story line. In the Wanamaker production, Imogen Doel makes a fine job of playing Parolles, bringing out the pathos of his humiliation, but I wasn’t sure that making him effeminate was the right approach, at least all the way through. Parolles isn’t a drag queen relishing his gender fluidity. He desperately wants to be one of the boys. A bit more swagger in the early acts would have made his exposure later on more interesting.

In the final scene, Bertram apparently is moved to accept Helena as his mate by the sight of their child. Is this a happy ending? Shakespeare leaves that to the audience, or perhaps the director. Is it enough that Helena decides what she wants, and grabs it, and succeeds against all the odds? Would the fact that she makes a marriage into the nobility be considered as a happy ending by a Jacobean audience? If there was any clear takeaway from this production, it was that we’ve left ordinary life behind by now and we’re operating on an archetypal level, with Helena as the Goddess in control, empowered through childbearing. We, and Bertram, can only look and marvel. As Paulina says at the end of The Winter’s Tale, “It is required you do awake your faith.”

Review of this production, The Stage

 

 

I’m back, but no longer a librarian

Working in school librarianship had been part of my identity for so long that leaving it behind has been traumatic, particularly as the break came suddenly and not in circumstances I would have chosen. After a period of depression and anxiety, I sought counselling and am now at the point of putting together the next stage of my life.

I am not rushing into any major commitments at the moment. If this is selfishness, so be it. I would rather be accused of selfish behaviour for a while than make decisions affecting myself and other, more vulnerable people, without knowing enough about my ability to sustain them and carry them through. I’ve found the last few months very healing and, rather surprisingly, enjoyable.

For a while my previous employer kept inviting me to come back in and tell other people how to do the job – well, on one site anyway. On another I was more or less marched out Lehmann Bros style, on the grounds that I was mentally unstable and a potential danger to children. That was immensely hurtful; I’d worked many hours to build that library up and I never even got the chance to pick up my things and explain the situation to work colleagues. With suspicious speed, an in-house replacement took over. I’m glad that someone who appears to be competent and enthusiastic is doing the job.

After a miserable Christmas “do”, when I was rather perfunctorily thanked and presented with some money in an envelope (a great contrast to the beautifully drawn tribute one little boy gave me), I was left alone and able to move on with my life. I still see the Executive Head of the Trust from time to time; he was a good friend and I thought I could trust him, but dealing with conflict was never his strong point and when others flexed their muscles, he threw me under the proverbial bus. I’m genuinely sorry to lose his support. In some respects, he was just too nice to be a manager. He was, I will always maintain, a terrific headmaster who had time for every child in his care. I feel sad that developments in the Trust pushed him so far out of his comfort zone.

But enough of all that. Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. Or other keyboards. I’ve changed the look of this corner, made it somewhat more generic and removed the header image of a school library that I no longer represent (Of the three, it’s the one I feel has been left in the best shape going forward. They begged me to return but I felt it would put them, and myself, in a difficult position, so it is now in the hands of a lovely lady who knows the school intimately and was a great help to me).

And I can’t absolutely promise to keep off the subject of politics, but I’ll give it my best shot. I’m growing personally and intellectually, I’m healthier and happier than I have been for quite a while, and I have a lot to look forward to. I’ll write about some of the things I’m up to here.

 

I am unwell. I have succumbed to that occupational hazard of the modern educational professional, depression, and been sent home on sick leave. Gradually, I am beginning to recognise the warning signs I dismissed or denied at the time. My inability to keep track of keys, ID cards, etc. My moments of disassociation. Saturdays spent entirely either in bed or wishing I was there. Friendships neglected. Weight creeping upwards due to snatched meals.

So here we are. I have no idea when, or even if, I shall return to work. At the moment I would rather jump in front of a tram. I am getting help. I am finding it very hard to get off the sofa and do anything at all, but hopefully that will pass in good time. It’s early days yet.

I feel that one or two people at work have not helped the situation, though the vast majority have been kind and supportive. And the couple that have not, I feel that they are basically decent souls who are being forced by the shameful underfunding of education to make decisions that they would rather not have to make, and would even less rather discuss with me. I have had a gratifying amount of support from parents, children and staff – but none of that means that I am immune from becoming a luxury that my employer can no longer afford.

I have held the line for as long as I could. The cost in terms of my quality of life has been significant. I am blessed by a supportive family and community, and if the worst came to the worst we could manage without the money I make. Many are not so fortunate, and my heart truly bleeds for anyone who has to force themselves back to work in the kind of state I am in at the moment.

Meanwhile, I am beginning to come across some public acknowledgement of the number of teachers going through this kind of thing, and I suspect it is the tip of an iceberg. If anyone knows of any burnt-out and despairing school librarians who are happy to talk, please get in touch. Because the worst possible thing I could do right now is try and get through this alone.

 

The Curse of Peppa Pig – why kids crave brands, not books

It’s almost as if children need these characters to navigate the unfamiliar landscape of a library and reassure them that they are safe there.

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There’s been quite an outcry against the celebrity-author dominated list of giveaway titles for next year’s World Book Day. It’s a big deal, because for many people bookshops are unknown territory (they may only see books on sale occasionally in supermarkets in their neigbourhood). This is the only book their kids will own all year and if you think that isn’t a big deal come and watch the scrummage when they’re handed out on the day.

So does the celebrity issue really matter or are a few luvvie writers just crying foul?

I’ve always been able to see both sides of this argument but the tectonic plates of my attitude are starting to shift. On the plus side, some celebrities really are good at connecting with children and writing excellent books. Others can certainly turn in a competent job as part of their personal brand, with or without editorial assistance (a hornets’ nest I’d rather not dig into here).

So I’m not declaring war on all children’s books by people who started off being famous for something else. And anyone who grew up reading Enid Blyton or The Hardy Boys will know that the endless, formulaic series has been a staple of the sector for a long time. But the intellectual property of huge corporations is so deeply interwoven into children’s cultural landscape these days that I think some questioning of this trend is legitimate.

Robert McFarlane, writing this week in the Guardian, points out that a recent survey showed that many children are far more confident naming fictional Pokèmon than native wildlife. What bothers me even more in my own work is seeing how magnetic the effect of a well-exposed franchise is on children. Sit them down for a story and they cannot concentrate – their eyes are drawn hypnotically to the Star Wars book behind you, so much so that I actually put such titles out of sight. And don’t get me started on Peppa Pig.

It’s almost as if children need these characters to navigate the unfamiliar landscape of a library and reassure them that they are safe there. For some, I suspect that sitting unsupervised watching Peppa on a screen has taken the place of the comfort of sharing a story with a loved grown-up. There are all sorts of reasons for this, some political, some economic, and just blaming parents isn’t fair when libraries are closing , work is more scrappy and casualised than it’s ever been and books are unaffordable for many. Nor should we overlook the reality that for children whose first language is not English an international franchise can be a useful bridge.

The problem is that professional children’s library provision is in such terminal decline that in many cases the gateway drug has become a substitute for the whole experience of reading for pleasure. To persuade a child to try something new takes time. I am responsible for 18 classes a week in the three school libraries I manage. Sometimes all 30 kids come in together without adult support. With the best will in the world, if kids are clamouring to know where the Star Wars books are I will end up, at least sometimes, shoving one into their hands and moving on. I have had class teachers clamouring to know why the entire class isn’t back in the classroom after less than 10 minutes.

This is the climate in which we need to understand the prevalence of branding, which is now ubiquitous in the numerous literacy initiatives that exist. Running a book club on top of your duties as a class teacher and literacy co-ordinator? Thank God, you can download some colouring in sheets from the latest heavily promoted bestseller. You may long to start a discussion group for literature in translation, using the wonderful Pushkin Press list, but it simply isn’t going to happen.

I’ve seen it in book shops too. I’ve wanted to scream, “Don’t you know those books are written by an anonymous syndicate, that your child just likes the glittery cover or the superhero franchise, that they will be consuming the McNuggets of literature – £4.99 gobbled up in five minutes – when over here there’s real nourishment?” But you’d need someone sitting there all day to really make a difference.

Hence my conflicted relationship with any book or series that is described as a “phenomenon.” I’m certainly not going to stand between kids and their desire to read Marvel origin stories or Tom Gates. It’s not my place to undermine their genuine reading preferences and force classics on them against their will. But I wish there was time for more children to enjoy having that conversation. Letting big corporations have the last word on something as important as a child’s literacy is never ideal.

 

 

Wimpy Kids or British values – the great school library money grab

 

“it’s just simpler to buy your own than fight for basics”.

The recently reported survey results that teachers are increasingly paying for school resources out of their own pockets comes as no surprise to me. It’s not simply a matter of funds not being there. As one respondent points out,  “it’s just simpler to buy your own than fight for basics”.

Schools have discovered that one way to save money is to make it so exhausting and frustrating for teachers to get hold of the basic materials they need that many of them will just pick them up on the way home. Of course, that’s by far the most expensive course, but nobody said the teachers had to do it did they? If the teachers can’t be arsed to go through the right channels, then that’s their problem.

I can’t believe this hasn’t spread to what is left of school libraries. I’m already seeing its depressing, and entirely deniable, fallout. It’ll soon be time for the new Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid books. Last year I picked them up at rock bottom prices from the supermarket, which meant I could afford three copies, no small matter when you have a waiting list of 20 or more. Last year, when a teacher asked me for a book, I could order it when I got home on Amazon Prime and have it in her hands the following morning. And when the dinosaur craze hit Reception yet again, I could pick up five or six books at Oxfam on the way home, thus delighting not only a bunch of five year olds but a valuable charity as well. (At least that made me feel better about buying from the corporate monsters destroying independent bookshops).

Not any more. From now on, I have to put in a requisition and if we don’t have an account with that supplier, tough. Suddenly the books kids actually want to read have to compete with the school’s need for more stuff about British Values or the Ancient Romans in their classrooms. I have to find the time and the energy to make the case that kids deserve control over what they read for pleasure, and that the stuff they choose won’t always impress educational professionals.

I have been in this job for almost 20 years. I have never felt so powerless and frustrated as I do right now. And it’s not even as if this is the school’s money, at least not entirely. It was raised by the PTA, who have faithfully handed it over into my care for years, trusting me to provide the books children actually want to read. They spend hours organising fund-raising events. But they were never consulted about the school subsuming the proceeds into their own budget and, thereby, overruling their right to specify what it is used for.

I am sure the school would justify their new policy by pointing to a spate of recent high profile cases involving financial irregularities in schools. What is wrong with greater transparency? It’s like safeguarding – any new policy, no matter how batty, small-minded or illogical, is hard to question if to do so implies that you’re anti-safeguarding. Of course, I don’t want the right to make off with the proceeds of the cake sale. But for the last 20 years I have never submitted an expenses claim that didn’t include carefully collated receipts. And everyone seemed perfectly happy, particularly the children reading the books they enjoyed.

In the end, I just don’t have the bloody energy to argue in favour of Tom Gates or Minecraft books. People will probably wonder why it’s such a big deal to want the latest one when months later it will trickle down as a second-hand, well-meaning donation. The answer to that is simple – if the last release of something is just as good, why did anyone ever queue up outside a store?

So, I shall swallow hard, pay £8.99 and fill in forms galore for something I could once have got at Tesco for £5.00, and watch as my 90% pupil engagement drops week on week. I shall tell children they have to learn to wait for what they want and that it’s character building, and meanwhile have they tried The Wind In The Willows?  And eventually I’ll have had enough, and I’ll retire. I suppose I’ve had a good run.

 

Why I Love Manchester

manchester-vigil-9-1495564396I am Manchester born and bred. My ties with this amazing place go back several generations and I have always been deeply proud of them. The way Manchester people have responded to the appalling events of this week has made me even more so. Briefly, since so much has been said elsewhere on this theme, I’d like to mention a few reasons why:

  • Community. Guy Garvey said once that we have it in our DNA. It really does feel that way. No big city is perfect, and it would be wrong to idealise, but there is a reason why Manchester people are known for their down-to-earth, practical kindness.
  • Diversity. It’s nothing new in Manchester. Elizabeth Gaskell was writing about globalisation in her novel North and South in the 1850s. We have established, flourishing, tolerated communities from all over the world. When my kids both lived at home it was like the United Nations on a Saturday afternoon in this house. We learned so much together. We continue to do so.
  • Solidarity. It boils down to a healthy defiance. Tony Walsh got it exactly right in his wonderful poem: We won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity. Manchester people don’t expect life to be a walk in the park. Our city was forged in an ethic of hard work. We recognise oppression and injustice and there’s a radicalism that fights back. In the American Civil War cotton workers here went hungry in solidarity with slaves.
  • Scepticism. Throw as much mud as you like, Westminster bubble – we know a thing or two about terrorism up here. The IRA blew up our city centre. Nobody condones that, but we’ve had a strong Irish community here since the 1840s so we’ve had to listen to both sides of that argument. It’s never simple. You can try to reduce it to slogans, but up here we have built-in shit detectors.

And finally, perhaps most important of all:

  • Culture.  Here in Manchester, a new entrepreneurial class forged the Industrial Revolution. They worked bloody hard and many of them came from humble origins. They took on the Establishment and looked them in the eye as equals. And they wanted the things that had been the preserve of the elite – a world-class  university, fine libraries, an international orchestra, culture. So they didn’t whine and say people had had enough of experts. They moved, and shook, and built those things. Today when you walk down Deansgate you see the neo-Gothic splendour of the John Rylands Library. Five minutes walk away from the Arena is the oldest public library in Britain. Manchester has always valued culture. We know the value of poetry, of music, of things that make the soul sing, whether it’s a great goal or Wonderwall.

Hate will not tear us apart. We’ve not idiots, and you can shut up now, Mrs May, because you’re wasting your breath.