Category Archives: Travel

Prisoners of Pompeii (May 2015)

Somehow we had ended up in the cemetery. It was the last thing I wanted to see – as well as the painted house, the sauna, the dog mosaic, the brothel with sex graffiti, and the room full of broken pots. Just a few more things on the map! Only now it was dark, the tombstones, as tall as houses, were looming over out heads, and we couldn’t get out.

“Gates close at 7.30pm,” a sign had said in Italian, but the only Italian we knew was “ciao” (hello) and “ciao” (goodbye), so we hadn’t seen that. As the sky turned to black, Pompeii, a skeletal city immortalised in ash, opened its burnt-out eyes, and we realised something: we were the only people still here.

We ran past the graves, along the bubbling stone of never-ending streets – which a few hours earlier had been drenched in the hot, dripping sun. The cold, quiet city glowed, blue-grey in the moonlight. Gone was the chitter-chatter of tourists and the pseudo-military guards keeping fascinating artefacts and tormented spirits behind well-bolted doors. Now the real residents were in charge.

Face-after-face on the tombs – the carved alter egos of the dead, their unblinking eyes watching us stumble; finally able to make their presence felt after the souvenir hunters, ice-creams and selfie sticks had been spat out. As we sped past people’s former homes and possessions, down the now deserted paths of daily lives, under untrimmed trees and bushes, bats flew in front of our faces, swooping and screaming: “Go back, go back”.

In the shadows, the map faded from sight. It had shown us what the guided tours hadn’t; that there were miles of streets no one was looking at; whole houses and temples not deemed worthy of a pithy description; palatial mansions almost completely intact; an amphitheatre empty, too far away for most people to walk to – or just not as quite big as the Colosseum. And then there was the cemetery.

Nobody comes to Pompeii to see an actual cemetery. The dead people they are interested in aren’t buried in the ground; they are covered in plaster, their faces curled into horrific grimaces, illuminated by the continual flash of cameras on their glass box prisons. Bodies destined to be forever incarcerated, highlighted on the map with a big red star. Maybe one day you’ll go and stare at them. But perhaps afterwards you’ll visit the real Pompeii, like we did.

Crackling stone; the stretched fingers of backstreets; gardens once played in, now quiet and still; small pots where food was served hot and spicy, now cold and empty, the paraphernalia of daily life made special by the way its owners died. The bats, the rats and the bugs are the only life here now, along with us – and whatever else lurks around the corner.

Eventually: a small metal turnstile. And a man. A man! Apologies. We didn’t realise the time…. We thought we’d got locked in…We didn’t know where to go…He shrugs: “This is Italy. You go where you like.” Apparently it happens a lot; people getting lost. They – we – are all the same. None of us can read a map. But at least he was there to save us. “A pleasant surprise, yes?”

And yet, as we leave and go back to the train, to a world of tourists, tickets and timetables, we can’t help but be disappointed. Holidaymakers chat loudly, while locals chat louder. We miss Pompeii and cold silky quiet of those who once walked its streets. Next time, we must try and stay longer. Next time, we must stay all night.

Finalist in the Bradt/ Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Awards 

My trip to UCLA, California

When I was 21 I was pretty sure that I would win an Oscar, probably by the time I was 25. This never happened. However, it does still sometimes lead to conversations with people I haven’t seen for a while where they – having also half-bought into my dreams and the idea that someone, even if it’s not them, is ‘Following their Heart’ – tentatively ask whether I’m “still writing”. And I tell them about the things I write, usually starting with stuff for newspapers and elsewhere, or my blogs for the BBC Writersroom, because I know they’ll find these the most exciting, before moving on to copywriting (“I’m basically Peggy from Mad Men”), script reading (“I’ve written over 5000 reports, you know…”) and this blog (“No, I don’t get paid, but I can write about whatever I like and that is worth more than money – isn’t it?”).

“But are you still writing scripts?” is what they really want to know. And I’ll eventually have to tell them, no – when I failed to instantly win an Oscar in my early-twenties, I got demoralised and stopped. If they look upset by that, like I’ve mis-sold them payment protection insurance or something, I’ll explain that there are other things that you can do with your life that aren’t scriptwriting – and that, in my experience, these are often more enjoyable than sitting alone in an empty room and staring at a blank screen. Sometimes they will agree and it will be like I’ve freed them from the millstone of aspiration hanging around their neck. At other times they will look bereft, as if by shattering my own dreams I’ve inadvertently done the same to theirs. “But you went to Hollywood?” they’ll say, desperate for any evidence that I’ve achieved the kind of success that they and my younger self had hoped for. Yes, I’ll say, and to cheer them up I’ll tell them a bit about what happened there:

When I was at university in Bournemouth (which, having grown up in a small village in North Yorkshire, might as well have been Ibiza), there was a competition to go and study screenwriting at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television in in Los Angeles. Even though I was pretty sure I would become a rich and famous scriptwriter, almost certainly by the end of the year, I thought, “If I want to win an Oscar I should probably go to the place that makes the things.” And so I wrote a TV drama about unemployed people in Scarborough, which, against the odds, won – the trip to UCLA that is, not an Oscar, strangely.

And so, in 2001, 10 days after the attack on the World Trade Center (a place I was previously only dimly aware of), I took my new laptop, trainers, passport and swimming costume on our first ever trip in an aeroplane. It was exciting, scary and took what seemed like three weeks to get anywhere. While my mother had given me a step-by-step list of instructions on ‘what to do at the airport’, everything after I stepped out of LAX and into a taxi was unknown.

UCLA is located in a part of Los Angeles called Westwood. It was here that I had arranged to stay, in the University Cooperative Housing Association (known as ‘The Co-op’). Having only a vague idea of what a housing cooperative was, I was hoping for a cross between something from Beverly Hills 90210 and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Instead, I was dropped off outside what appeared to be a multi-storey car park. “I’m looking for the housing cooperative,” I said to a sullen man behind a desk. “You’re here,” he replied. Dear god, I thought, but I was tired and fell asleep on a bare mattress in the tiny room I was shown to. It was only when I woke up that I noticed how closely that the place resembled a prison cell – and that my roommates had arrived.

Sharing a room for three months with two other people you’ve never met before perhaps isn’t for everyone, but the roommates I was lucky enough to get turned out to be great. And apart from having to do a four-hour work shift sweeping leaves in the driveway once a week (which I decided was preferable to working in the industrial-sized kitchen or cleaning bathrooms), life in The Co-op was actually great fun. The students (and odd non-student) staying there were from places ranging from India to Germany to Hawaii, there was endless food (including a quite spectacular breakfast buffet which could be eaten on a roof terrace overlooking the city), cinema nights and lots of staying up late, drinking wine and trying to play an old piano. Yes, the place could have done with a good clean, but it was like nowhere else I’d ever been and cost only $500 a month – including four meals a day!

There was also something called ‘bump’, which involved everyone swapping rooms. Those who had been there longest got first choice of a few so-called ‘penthouse’ apartments, while the rest of us scrabbled over any remaining private bathrooms in an atmosphere somewhere between moving house and attending a baseball match. It was the evening of ‘bump’ that I realised the whole place was not only inhabited by students but run by them – and finally discovered that this is what a housing cooperative actually was (you can read more from people who have stayed in my one, here).

A short walk down Landfair Avenue, through an underpass everyone at The Co-op recommended I only attempt brandishing a full can of pepper spray, and there was UCLA – the most spectacularly kitsch university ever. It’s full of faux historical buildings, like Oxford reimagined by Steven Spielberg. The first time I walked through it cheerleaders were practicing marching, a band was playing, the sun had never seemed so bright and I was half-expecting John Travolta from Grease to strut by drinking a bottle of Snapple. Here Bruin-wear (the kit of the university sports team) was the equivalent of a school uniform, and since attending a course costs a small fortune there were endless swanky gyms, outdoor pools and restaurants on campus to help everyone feel they’re getting their money’s worth.

So what about screenwriting? Oh yeah, between having a great time in The Co-op and trying not to step in the fermenting food pouring down my street (because everyone had so much of it), I did actually do some. Screenwriting students at UCLA are expected to write a finished feature film every quarter (term). They can also take classes in all kinds of other things – from script reading to producing to film criticism. One of the best things I learnt is how useful it is to watch a good film twice; once for enjoyment and once to really understand how it works. Then there were guest lectures from people I loved, such as Baz Luhrmann, as well as test screenings of films from the studios before they were released. And everyone seemed to be making these films – actually making them, rather than just saying they wanted to, or they might do, or they could have done. Whether they really were, I’m not sure, but it almost didn’t matter. It felt like the Hollywood dream was happening and just being in a place where everyone fed into it was exciting enough in itself.

I stood outside weekly film premieres in Westwood, watched DVDs in Beverly Hills, stayed in a motel in Hollywood and walked along the beach where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds. But all too soon it was time for me to get rid of the giant picture of a sunset I’d found by a bin, abandon the comfy desk chair a girl I met at a baseball match had given me, cancel my overpriced phone contract with Verizon and come home. Even though I was only in LA for three months, everyone was so kind and welcoming – not at all cold and anonymous in the way I’ve since heard people describe the city – it felt like I lived there. The stuff I remember most about my trip wasn’t to do with scripts at all – it was life at The Co-op, being in a new country, meeting people and travelling to interesting places. And while I had managed to write a feature film script there – about a teenage disco dancer from Wakefield – when I got home people didn’t like it as much as the one that had got me to LA in the first place. But perhaps that was because I was having too much fun for writing. However, I did get an Oscar – a plastic one with my name sellotaped on it, bought from a gift shop outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Prophets with Red Noses: What happened when I went to the Subcase Circus Festival in Sweden

Pretty much everyone has, at some point, gone to the circus. However, I imagine relatively few people from the UK have gone to the circus in Sweden. In Britain, Scandinavia has become increasingly known for crime dramas such as Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge. The city of Stockholm has been redefined by Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. You can visit the 7-Eleven convenience store where Lisbeth Salander buys Billy’s Pan Pizzas. However, if you’re looking to programme a Nordic circus show, you can also go to Subcase – one of the few performing arts festivals open solely to industry professionals and producers.

It takes place in Alby, an industrial looking out-of-town area in Botkyrka, half an hour’s bus ride from
Stockholm. It’s one of the poorest parts of Sweden. Subcase’s Artistic Programming Director Kiki Muukkonen describes it as “the ghetto”. This is where Subtopia, the organisation hosting the festival, has  its home and provides year-round performance and rehearsal spaces for artists, filmmakers, musicians, and circus companies including Sweden’s popular Cirkus Cirkör.

I’m here with a group of European journalists to find out what contemporary circus is all about. One thing it isn’t about, apparently, is Cirque Du Soleil. Whenever the multi-million pound phenomenon is mentioned it’s by someone who seems to hate it. It quickly becomes clear the majority of the performers at the festival want to do more than simply dazzle us with visual extravagance and money they don’t have. They want to challenge our expectations and show us something other then red nosed clowns and acrobats ‘flying through the air with the greatest of ease’. They want to make us laugh, gasp and cheer – but also think.

For anyone who’s seen large amounts of political theatre, this might be a chilling prospect. Monologues about why we should never have gone to war in Iraq and endless court case transcripts read out verbatim style aren’t the best advert for performances with ‘things to say’. But circus has something that many small-scale fringe theatre shows don’t – the ability to attract an audience far bigger than a few liberal minded friends who already believe whatever right-on message is being peddled.

“All art is quite useless,” Oscar Wilde once said. But many artists seem to disagree. Pop band Pulp asked us to ‘Help the Aged,’ Bob Geldof to ‘Feed the World’ and the cast of 1980s children’s TV series Grange Hill to ‘Just Say No’ to drugs. Last year’s Festival of the World, at London’s Southbank Centre, even had the tagline ‘Art Will Change the World’. If this is possible, what better way of doing it than through circus – a style of performance that can be seen and understood by audiences all around the globe?

At Subcase, Ruby Rose’s EAT IT! is the show most obviously trying to question the way we think and behave – for me, a bit too obviously. In it, the all-female cast use clowning and other circus disciplines to satirise the way women are encouraged to dislike their bodies. A talk show host does a DIY facelift with gaffer tape, a aerial hoop artist deadpans seductive poses described as the ‘pain au chocolat’ and ‘pomme frite’, and a woman runs around the stage topless in an attempt to break free of it all.

The idea that you can achieve empowerment by stripping off feels about as feminist as a Carry On film – particularly as it’s only one of two options given for escaping the nightmarish universe presented. The other comes via a performer who shakes her body in order to emphasise its fat. Only
she isn’t really fat. She’s thin and fit like the rest of the cast.

While the company are fun and likeable, at times they can feel quite judgemental – like they see us,the audience, as empty vessels in need of educating and politicising. Who doesn’t know that magazines put pressure on women to be thin? Or that trying to live up to other people’s expectations of ‘hotness’ is less important than, say, becoming prime minister or going hang gliding?

The majority of the women depicted in the show are victims of the media or defined purely by their reactions against it. Rarely does anyone appear unaffected by the pressure. When we meet creator/ performer Rebecca Westholm, it becomes clear why.

Rebecca explains how she interviewed 150 women and girls and couldn’t find anyone who liked their body. She also tells me that she read somewhere that one third of Swedish women have had Botox. I question this, but she is adamant the same is also true in London. It isn’t. But for the last two and a half years Rebecca seems to have immersed herself in a world of women who have image and/or eating problems. As a result, this is the perspective she wants to depict on stage.

I ask her what the solution is. “There is no solution,” she replies, raising the question why create a show about the problem at all? Why not just do some clever tightrope tricks and juggling instead? “You as a woman should not hit other women,” she says. I presume she means metaphorically rather than literally – and people generally, rather than me specifically.

The camaraderie between EAT IT!’s performers is ultimately stronger than the hotchpotch of familiar messages that comprise the show. But the company’s ambition to depict women in circus as something other than spangly, featherweight, smiley things in leotards being tossed about by big, strong men is admirable and refreshing.

In the 1970s and 80s, circus began tackling social and political issues. While traditional acts involved sad looking lions jumping through hoops of fire or men with oiled moustaches being shot from cannons, contemporary groups such as Cirque Plume, Cirque Invisible and Archaos challenged audiences and their expectations. Many of the artists at Subcase want to do the same.

Chipmunk Forge’s Phågel is another all-female show at the festival which wants to redefine how
women are portrayed in circus. Unfortunately, the way it does this is so obscure it’s difficult to understand. Dressed in furry cat and bird costumes, performers Klara Mossberg and Lisa Angberg take part in an absurdist cartoon-like caper. There is the odd bit of tightrope walking, mysterious references to “hiding the animal within” and a whole scene that revolves around litter trays. Cirque Du Soleil this certainly isn’t. Quite who is going to buy it at a circus trade fair is unclear. After some painful attempts at stand-up and about ten false endings, I’m intrigued to find out what was going on.

“As female performers it’s often all about being beautiful and doing things you are good at,” Klara explains. “We wanted to break away from this kind of thing.” Sometimes, it seems, by being deliberately bad – not that this makes it any easier to watch. There are some nice moments, such as when the cat and bird swap fighting for friendship, but mostly it’s a disparate and confusing piece.

“I would love a normal audience to enjoy our show – something more experimental,” Klara says, “but that’s not easy.” It’s not, as the infuriated reactions of the majority of our group proves when we discuss it later on over dinner. However, despite Phågel’s problems, it does feel a shame that ideas which sound compelling in a post-show discussion are so difficult to enjoy on stage. Does circus with ‘something to say’ have to be anti-mainstream? If so, it seems unlikely that anyone other than those visiting a trade fair will ever see it.

Cirkus Cirkör’s Knitting Peace is one of the biggest, most high-profile shows at the festival. War is one of its themes – along with the struggle of the artist, the meaning of life, and pretty much anything else you happen to think of. It’s a sumptuous, epic production that includes a terrific musical score, spectacular set, and numerous circus disciplines – often performed simultaneously. It’s a real spectacle and very evocative, but in trying to tackle so many issues it ends up exploring none.

It’s only through talking to director Tilde Björfors afterwards that what we’re supposed to take from it all becomes clear – and even then this is a mixture of abstract, intangible ideas. It’s a beautiful production, but one that can’t change or even highlight the topics it sets out to explore since it’s not sufficiently clear, purely from watching it, what these are.

Slick double act Patrik & Wes aren’t trying to take on politicians, make you boycott Israel, or wear a badge saying ‘I’m a feminist’. The only thing they want to subvert is your preconceptions of throwing clubs in the air. Their show, Between Someonesons, is a stripped back, deceptively simple piece in which they create their own unique rhythm through juggling and dance. Their work is
artistic but accessible. They are one of the few acts at the festival that doesn’t rely upon funding to get by and they can make extra money by selling how-to DVDs to their fans.

‘Commercial’ can seem like a dirty word when it’s used by artists doing more thematically driven or political work. But for Patrik & Wes it’s a way of making more shows that more people can see – which is surely desirable whatever they’re about. Art certainly can’t change the world if it’s being performed to rows of empty seats.

In order to get round the problem that audiences tend to like safe stuff they’re already familiar with, filmmakers sometimes create genre movies that challenge the status quo. Thelma & Louise is a road trip, but also a critique of a male dominated world. Team America: World Police is a musical that makes fun of musicals. Both are entertaining and have plenty to say. Both are very successful. There is no reason why circus can’t also be challenging and commercial.

Maiurta is the one performance we see at Subcase that is quietly subversive, polished,
entertaining and non-patronising. The visiting Catalonian company’s name, Los Galindos, and the trapeze that hangs from the centre of the little wooden tent where it all takes place leads you to expect some kind of death defying flying act. Instead, solo performer Marcel Escolano delivers a wonderfully lo-fi clown show which involves elaborate leaps, jumps and tumbles from the safety of the floor.

He tells us afterwards that the piece was part-inspired by his time as a trapeze artist when he was younger, which he hated. “I was afraid,always, for twelve years,” he says. “I’m not a natural acrobat.” While the show’s not the most provocative thing in the world, it does depict an older clown parodying the high-risk acts of the young in a way that is playfully satirical and not at all preachy.

“I don’t want to be more important than you because I’m in the spotlight,” Marcel says. It’s easier to listen to someone who treats you as an equal, particularly when they’re so talented. It’s the ultimate flattery – and I imagine could lead you to buy into whatever their show had to say, however radical it might otherwise seem. “The revolution is going to be the day when everyone does what they love,” he concludes. This, he explains, will mean that no one will have any power over anyone else. It’s an appealing thought – one that you can’t help thinking would make a great idea for his next production.

As we leave Subcase for the last time, and wade though the blue white snow back to the bus, life in ‘the ghetto’ goes on as normal. Has anything changed? The lively, enthusiastic crowd coming out of Maiurta are certainly different to the sleepy, subdued bunch that went in. Maybe they’ll join Marcel’s revolution, quit the mind-numbing office jobs we might like to imagine they have, and set up high wires in their living rooms? Who knows whether art can change the world, but at its best it makes us believe it can.

Written for Unpack the Arts