Exit the Rat

brush sketch of a rat on gold background
What’s not to love?

The new lunar year is almost upon us, and the doughty Ox is about to take over. But what of the year that was? I happen to be a Rat, and the year that is ebbing was supposed to be ours. I hesitate to attempt a word to describe this past year, but one I would not be inclined to select is ‘auspicious’. So how should we rats feel about our birthday year being the one to bring calamity on so many? Should we feel grateful that this particular plague had nothing to do with rats, specifically? Or do we have the right to lament, “who moved our cheese?”

The glory of the Rat was to win the race to the heavenly gate, and we congratulate ourselves on our noted ability to think outside the Ox. However, the story to reach for this time around feels less like the victory of a leap to solid ground ahead of the other animals, and more like something to do with sinking ships or Pied Pipers. In any case, we are certainly the ones who are being chased out of the dry comfort of a ship’s hold or men’s Sunday hat and into a large body of turbulent water.

Living side by side with humans of all nations and eras, the rat’s presence in literature, folklore and art is secure. Cast out like a low-rent version of the scapegoat, the rat can never be expelled forever. Not while it still has lessons to teach. Please watch this exquisite animation of Robert Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin poem, because there could not be a better point in history to revisit a fable designed to make us confront the question of what we value, and the imperative to commit ourselves to offering what they are worth to those who help us keep those things. Look how useful the rats were for ensuring the villagers did that.

Fellow rats, what kind of rat were you this year? Winner against all odds and likelihood? Plague? Ship, Riverbank? Or Piped to an ignominious yet oddly festive doom? Rats are survivors, and perhaps our virtues will become apparent over the course of our next cycle. As we watch the tail of the rat disappear, please be kind, and dwell more on tenacity than pestilence.

Further Away from the Fourteenth Century

“One of the nice things about Time, Crowley always said, was that it was steadily taking him further away from the Fourteenth Century.” – Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Perspective: it is the thing we need, and the thing most commonly offered by arbitrary markers like the end of a calendar year. Just as it is always Martini Hour somewhere in the world, there is always someone for whom the year that was has been the worst year. If this past year is genuinely distinctive in that it has torn away the insulation from more people than any other individual year before now, that is now something that can be used to build things in a better way. That does make this year remarkable, perhaps unprecedented.

Being, above all other things, a live theatre person, I hope that everything we have learned this year about accessibility, digital screening and so many other exciting and valuable aspects to recording, archiving and disseminating live performance around the world and on demand will not mean losing sight of what makes performance in a shared moment of time and space so special. Like the broader issues of valuing the arts and higher education, that remains to be seen.

One thing that makes this year exactly the same as every one, is that it’s time to look after each other.

The other nice thing about Time is that it is always taking me a bit closer to the next Martini Hour. Happy New Year!

The Delicate Balance of Christmas

Every Christmas is a snow fairy ballerina poised on one pointed toe atop a weather vane. The form it takes is conventional, and yet precarious. We share a palette of images scavenged from art and ritual, but as far as direction goes, we may as well just throw them all up into the wind and see what pattern they form in falling. Despite a wealth of cultural models, as well as more local and family-generated traditions, there is no checklist to consult to know whether we are carrying out the occasion in the manner of a good person.

Ever bought a bunch of stuff for Christmas and then wondered if you’ve made yourself part of the crass commercialisation that has ripped the meaning out of familial rituals in order to line the pockets of the already wealthy? Ever decided to have a pared-back Christmas because you were trying not to be crassly commercialised, or were just a bit broke, and then missed stuff? Ever decided to do the latter, and then ended up doing the former?

This year is forcing every one of use to reassess which parts of the holiday season (even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you are always obliged to make adjustments around the cluster of public holidays and changes in availability of both services and companionship) are necessary, valuable, desirable, possible. No action performed automatically, no choice to be made unthinkingly. Making substitutions (Zoom calls for visits, cheaper pressies, carols or the panto online instead of live) causes us to distinguish between the surface form and the inherent meaning of what we do each year. Some things have been forcibly taken away, and some are things that we must make choices about, and these are now making us aware that we have always made choices at Christmas. Much of this relates to how much we can do for others. How many charity donations? How much time with dreadful relatives who upset us? Will anyone actually care if the gingerbread is home baked? Plenty of people, even more than usual this year, have to make a choice about whether to seek the help of charities, or find ways to get by without. This year we all, additionally, have to make decisions about what is safe, and we have to consciously avoid putting others at risk. OK, so, a shrink once told me I have an excessively dominant superego, and we can add one more thing to 2020’s naughty list that it has lit the touch paper on that particular cherry bomb.

quality cousin time

We bought a real, cut pine tree that turned out to be more vast than we realised, once we got it inside. Grabbing the chance to make home feel a bit special and magical seemed disproportionately important, given we are spending so much time here. We didn’t get it from a charity this year, but we did buy it from a small, independent, local nursery. So – succumbing to the commercial or creating memorable family time? It was a huge indulgence, but I’m getting such delight from looking at it every day, and who can say what that is worth?

Special thoughts, this year, are going out to those who are isolated by circumstance. May everyone find a place of safety and companionship. Hugs and gingerbread to all.

On what is easy, and what is hard

When I’m having a bad day, and finding it difficult to make myself do anything purposeful, I have a system of breaking down the things that need dong into smaller and simpler tasks, until I get to something so basic that I can do it. The level at which ‘I can’ kicks in varies depending on the day. There have been days when I actually wrote down a list that had ‘brush teeth’ on it. I have not yet made a list that includes ‘put on pants’. but I have thought it. If you break things into more and more basic pieces, eventually you are going to find a thing you can do. So if you can pick up that pair of knickers and put it in the laundry hamper you have just done a Thing, and you have cleared a space for you to follow it with the next Thing.

There are some days when answering emails, hanging out the laundry (what’s the point? It will only have to be brought in again, and that puts you in a position where you have to put it away) are too overwhelming, but if you do any of the other things that need doing, that is one less thing that will be there later, needing to be done. Triage by capability, rather than priority. Eventually, of course, the bigger things on the list will stay there demanding to be looked at, and some of those have the discourtesy to have deadlines. You can break these down into smaller tasks, and that can help. At present, for instance, the spreadsheet with my tax information on it is open on this very laptop. I’m not doing anything with it, but I got as far as “open tax file”, and completed that task.

black tick mark

You know what is easy for me? Marking up scansion in verse drama. If you hand me a page and a pencil at any time, I will merrily mark up the metre without putting it off or getting distracted. Which is not at all to say that I don’t make mistakes or come up against difficult bits when doing this. I find plenty of struggles in the process, but it’s such a satisfying process. And I will never not want to be doing it. I will never look around for excuses to avoid it. What a shame this is never a thing that needs doing.

At the moment, for me, the hard thing within the easy thing is imagining what is the purpose and effect of the way a short passage from Twelfth Night is constructed.

Twelfth Night Act III scene 4 lines 376-381

He named Sebastian. I my brother know
Yet living in my glass. Even such and so
In favour was my brother, and he went
Still in this fashion, colour, ornament,
For him I imitate. O, if it prove,
Tempests are kind and salt waves rich in love!

These are enjambed lines, that is, the thoughts, phrases or sentences don’t conclude at the end of the verse lines. Rather they run on, and finish somewhere in the middle of a subsequent line. (Conversely, with end-stopped lines the end of phrases synchronise with the end of the verse line.) Reading these lines as un-versified sentences would go:

“I my brother know yet living in my glass. Even such and so in favour was my brother, and he went still in this fashion colour, ornament, for him I imitate.”

Enjambed lines speed you up as you speak them; they increase the sense of urgency, and drive you onward. End-stopped lines slow you down, and make you sound thoughtful and measured. To speak lines like the ones above, I believe, you would most commonly lean into the enjambment, running smoothly from one line of verse, creating a flow of thoughts. However, in this peculiar instance we are not looking at blank verse, but at rhyme. Why should that matter? Because speaking rhyme in such a way that it will be heard requires a pause or emphasis at the end of the verse line. In fact, it can be quite hard not to pause, once you notice the rhyme is there (try it yourself). I think an actor used to speaking verse in a company like Shakespeare’s would actually find it a bit of a struggle not to pause on the rhyme. So why set up the rhyme and the enjambment to ‘fight’ each other like this? Would we hear in the voice of the actor playing Viola, not something as simple as excitement at discovering her brother may be alive (enjambment) or measured certainty of her feeling of joy at Sebastian’s name being spoken by someone who has seen him (end-stopping), but something more ambivalent, in the most precise sense of the word?

Give me your ideas in the comments. It might make you feel that you are doing something productive, even if you’re not doing your tax.