Posts Tagged ‘Eldest Son’

Yes, much has happened since I wrote last – all of it good, I think.

There will be time for that in good time, but I must write now (as so often) of Fiona Shaw.

By way of gentle introduction to the celebration of that finest of actors, let me first take you (protesting and looking in a panicked fashion over your shoulder to see if anyone has witnessed your abduction) back to my school days. Worse than that, I am going to take you to Rugby training.

Rain seemed to be a constant, as was mud and (of course) our coach: a MASSIVE (or, as Eldest Son has recently discovered, to my chagrin: “mahoosive”) block of a man with an Easter Island face, shaved head and a tendency to see anything other than death as a below par reason for not training for the next game. Anyway, in spite of this decidely Fotherington-Thomas-sounding description, I loved Rugby – still do – and found the playing of that great game exhilarating and energising. What I could never get excited about was the training: the running with your knees as high as you could, star-jumps and press-ups that had fuck all to do with how the game was played. I could see the point of a couple of laps of the field to warm up, but most of it was utterly pointless – and nothing was more pointless than the piece of apparatus called “The Scrum Machine”. This was a piece of machinery that looked like a slatted wooden bed-base, swaddled in horsehair and rough cotton, mounted on springs and held by a metal framework. The scrum (including myself) wood scrum down, push heads through the gaps in the bed-base and push like hell in order to drive the thing back against its springs, replicating the effect of the opposing team’s scrum. It didn’t, of course: the opposing team’s scrum (being made of people) had a habit of moving in different directions, dipping up and down and pushing with unequal force, rather than standing its ground and being driven back stoically.

I was reminded of this fruitless, exhausting task when we went to see Fiona Shaw in Howard Barker’s “Scenes from an Execution” at the National Theatre last week.

Howard Barker was, when I was first a student, THE modish paperback to have – far more impressive than the standard (and SIGNIFICANTLY better, of course) Beckett/Barthes/Lodge alternatives that suggested that one was a little too ensnared by things such as thought, quality and artistry. PAH! Barker was IT, man. I thought it was shit then, and I think it’s little more than shit now.

I have to say that I was very nervous when the play started. A magnificent set by Hildegaard Bechtler was good news, but a nude male, arse in the air on a rocky outcrop was less easy-making: here was our first “Barker-esque” subversion – the artist (Shaw) is female, and the model is male. Oooh: challenging.

The first half was fuck awful: turgid and lifeless and only fitfully funny (and I see no reason not to level that as a criticism), with the ideas (and Barker’s admiration for them) proving to be too heavy for him to lift into drama. The second half, it must be said, was immeasurably better, with the narrative finding its rhythm and moving forward more convincingly, with the central theme of art and patronage coming into focus with less panting and straining than had been seen in the first half.

Fiona Shaw was (perhaps against the odds) utterly magnificent. I have only been massively embarrassed by Shaw once on stage – in ThePower.Book, the collaboration between Deborah Warner, Jeanette Winterstone and Saffron Burrowes, where the earnestness and energy of all those very talented women was so similar as to create something utterly still-born. Let me just add, as (depressingly), I fear I must, that this is not a comment on their gender: I have seen equally deadly pieces of theatre where the strutting male energy has been so one-noted as to rob the piece of any life too. That piece, like this, wrestled with ideas, with a deadening seriousness that suffocated all vitality – and as I sat watching “Scenes from an Execution” I thought “Oh no: it’s going to be ThePower.Book all over again – oh well, at least she won’t dance to Blondie. Probably.”

I was wrong: Shaw created a fantastically engaging character in Galactia. She was vain and self-assured, yet vulnerable; over-bearing and bullying, yet soft – quite something. The greatest piece was to observe this wilful rebel (whom one felt defined herself as an outsider as much out of a sense of expectation as out of a genuine desire to challenge) become part of the establishment, robbed of her power by the forces that professed to support and champion her. She was brilliant, and, when she took her bow, she was exhausted.

This is hardly surprising: Fiona Shaw is an actor who tends to give 100% or nothing, tearing up convention and expectation as she tackles roles from Medea to Hedda to Winnie to Katharina – so it’s hard to think back over the twenty-five years that I’ve been watching her to a performance when she hasn’t been absolutely exhausted by the end of the play. Maybe I’m “projecting”, as make-believe psychotherapists would say, but this time seemed different. She reminded me of how I felt, running at that great scrum machine: moving it back through sheer power and energy, but knowing that it would return to its original position, leaving me feeling as though – whatever I did – there was never going to be anything achieved.

Cleopatra next, please – Barker is just not good enough to deserve you – and Cleopatra is a part worth getting exhausted by.

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The last time that I had my children (Half-Term: brilliant), one of the things that I promised Youngest Son was that we would play football on Sunday. After Church, and after “I’ve bought a few things for lunch” and after “I’ve got the lunch under way.”.

In readiness for this, we went off to Argos and chose him the football of his dreams (bright orange, covered in Nike swooshes and Premiership endorsements), which came what I can only describe as “flat-packed” – or, I suppose, a better descriptor would be “uninflated”. It was the work of but forty minutes to get in the car, drive to Richmond (where my parents live), borrow their pump, get back in the car, and get back to Chiswick – so that was GREAT. By the time we had a workable (playable?) football with us, there was only going to be an hour and a half for the football itself, it seemed.

Never mind: he’s only seven and even he’s not up for a full ninety minutes.

Daughter put the brakes on: “What am I going to do?”

“What would you like to do, darling? You’re very welcome to play football too.”

“I don’t like football.”

“Well… what would you LIKE to do?”

(The likelihood of her saying “Play on my DSi” had already been addressed through a previously negotiated, adhered to and mandated “Electronics Embargo” for Sunday – so that wasn’t going to be a problem.)

“Can I bring Baby in her Push-A-Chair?” (This is Daughter’s phrase for her doll’s pushchair, which, it has been decreed, will go EVERYWHERE that we do).

“Of course you can, Darling – but we need to go now.”

With this, Daughter responded with a look of horrified urgency (as though she’d just been informed that the house was on fire and we needed to get DOWN these four flight, through that locked door, and out into the streets, carrying only what we most valued) and bolted up to her bedroom. She came bumping back down, with Baby, Push A Chair, Umbrella, Changing Bag, Changing Mat and Travel blanket. Baby had enough kit to see her through a month on a cruise liner, rather than an hour in the park. However: we were ready, and so we left the house, with Youngest Son jumping along like Zebedee with his new ball.

Daughter was not ready for the trip to go slowly. In fact, it soon became clear, that Daughter had envisioned this trip as the sort of excursion that would make Shackleton blench and think twice.


(The men all wait)

“Her blanket has come loose. She’ll get a cold.”

We pause and look on as she re-arranges the covers with a fair bit of clucking and tutting – ensuring that Baby is toasty warm and safe. Eventually, the caravan moves off again.


Another break: I turn around to see her, feigning anxiety and resignation.

“The sun is in her eyes.”

It becomes clear, relatively quickly, that Daughter does not have a plan on this one. It’s simply a statement of fact and one that she is looking to her father to solve for her.

“Could she close her eyes until she gets to the end of this road? Then the sun won’t be in them.”

“She’s not tired.” (This is said with all the dreadful finality of a hanging judge passing sentence.)

“Why don’t you turn the chair around and walk backwards until we get to the end of the road?”

She’s dubious: she has to confess that this MIGHT work, but I don’t think that she was necessarily really looking for a solution. She gives it a go.

Our progress is now slowed to the rate where we would have packed a light meal “for the journey”, had we only had the fore-warning and Youngest Son’s Zebedee bounces are getting more like Eeyore’s; but with the critical end of the road in sight, we are ready to re-manoeuvre Baby around until she’s facing the front and Daughter is pushing her once again. We’re almost at the park now.


There’s no disguising the boys’ frustration now. Indeed, Eldest Son (who likes to paint things in as emotive a way as possible) does all but fall to his knees, crying out “WHY??????????????????” at this next interruption.

I do my best to keep my voice concerned and level.

“What is it now, Darling?”

“She’s cold.”

“But her blanket’s wrapped around her.”

“This is her Summer blanket. I need her Winter blanket. Can we go back?”

We don’t go back, of course. Instead, I persuade Daughter of the health risks of Baby over-heating, and we plough on to our final destination.

The football was great, by the way. Friends of Eldest Son were all in the park and we rotated who went in goal and every single person scored (yes: including me – I’m pretty nifty when pitted against players with an average age of eight and a half) – so that was great.

And yes: Baby made it back alive.

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After I turned the lights off in Eldest Son’s bedroom, I lay down next to him and stroked his head and chatted with him.

He started to rub his eyes.

“Don’t rub your eyes, darling. It’s bad for them.”

“I’m just wiping the tears away, Daddy.”

“Why are you sad, darling?”

“Because sometimes I think of the happy memories of when you and Mama were still married to cheer me up, and it makes me sad that you aren’t.”

And then, my heart broke all over again.

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Some years ago now, my children were all having a bath together – and having a great time.

I had just gone to get their pyjamas, when I heard an appalling scream from Daughter: “Noooooooooooo!” – so I raced back in, seeing the boys’ giggling faces and Daughter’s face scrunched up in pain.

“What’s wrong?” I demanded.

Daughter’s tear-stained face tilted up at me and she wailed in agonised tones: “They’re saying I don’t have a willy!”

Freud would have been delighted that the absence of a penis was causing this much angst, but that wasn’t my concern. And so it was that “The Billy” was born: equal, but different and used to describe what Daughter had instead of the much-missed willy.

Much more recently (this week, in fact) I was with Nephew and Niece as they both bounced on the trampoline, and (with it being a hot day), they were both wearing their swimming costumes. At least, they WERE wearing their swimming costumes, but they were very soon removed, as children seem to have an almost pathological hatred of wearing swimming costumes, and so it was that my two year-old niece announced, just to clear things up:-

“I haven’t got a willy.”

My mother and I agreed with her that she hadn’t.

“Brother has got a willy. Daddy has got a willy. I haven’t got a willy. Mummy hasn’t got a willy.”

Again, it was confirmed by the adults present that this was the case.

She considered the situation and then proclaimed:-

“I want a willy.”

She also wants another Banana Muffin, a Baby Annabelle feeding chair, a dress with dogs on and a Paddington Bear – so I think this is just one more in a litany of things she has seen and (thus) believes that she has a claim on.

She’ll soon work out that a willy is much more the sort of thing that has you, rather than vice versa: then she’ll be happy that she’s a non-owner…

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Me: “How is it that you seem to get away with so much more than everyone else, Eldest Son?”

Eldest Son: “Because you told me that if I work hard at something, and because I am clever, I will manage to do it brilliantly, and I have worked really hard at getting away with more, Daddy.” (This said with the earnest air of one doing his best to answer a genuine concern.)

I remember that children, as a rule, don’t “get” irony (at least, not when it suits them not to) and let it go…

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I was driving the children to school on Monday morning, and Eldest Son was advising me of his perspective on the current Royal house.

He has been (as all English children seem to – certainly I did, back in the mists of time), learning about Henry VIII and the Tudors. This has given me the opportunity to drag all of the children off to Hampton Court Palace and The National Portrait Gallery, in order to “bring it to life”.

Hampton Court was a triumph. We were very lucky in that (on the day we went) they were staging a re-enactment of Henry and his Council. Fully costumed actors (no doubt sourly reflecting that they didn’t spend three years at RADA, and give a definitive Edward II in Sheffield, to spend their lives shouting in silly hats in front of baffled Chinese tourists) played a convincing (and properly engrossing) session, at which we, the visitors were also sitting amongst the Council and thus able to ask questions of the King. This, Eldest Son duly did: his face and voice alive with urgency, he raised his hand and put the question that the whole room was REALLY waiting to have answered on the issue of the impending war with France: “Will there be beheadings?” I must give “The King” his due: he handled it brilliantly (and suitably bloodily), making the whole trip a huge success.

We followed that up with a trip to The National Portrait Gallery, to see the portraits and see if that added another dimension. The dimension it appeared to add was a keen urgency to get into the gift shop and buy notebooks (his latest craze), while Youngest Son expressed his desire for five postcards of Samuel Beckett “who looks like a parrot” (which you can’t really argue with)…

Anyway, it seems to have done some good, as in the car, Eldest Son was asking me if our current Queen was a Tudor. I tried to explain the principles of hereditary monarchy and primogeniture, and was making a bit of a hash of it, but was saved by Eldest Son’s own trenchant analysis of the situation:

“Daddy. What I think is that if Edward VI had done his duty and made his Daddy proud by getting married and having a son – WHICH IS WHAT HIS DADDY REALLY WANTED – we would still have Tudors and that would be great. But sadly, he couldn’t be bothered to make his Daddy proud.”

Needless to say, the tears that started to run down my face sprang as much from the comedy as they did from feeling very moved by the way he saw and described the Father/Son bond. I felt like a king: he is certainly a prince.

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I was playing a game with Eldest Son this weekend: a game which he has created. This means that he has drawn the playing cards that are used (some very impressive dragons, monsters and “creatures of deep evil”, to quote his evocative and sinister phrase) to which he has accorded various powers. It’s “Top Trumps” for mythical creatures of destruction, essentially.

Or rather: it would be great if it were. Top Trumps has much to recommend it, and chief amongst its virtues is the fact that it is very easy to get the hang on: pick an attribute and off you go. The same cannot be said of Eldest Son’s game, which made “Inception” look childishly straightforward and focused.

“Are you putting that guy into Attack or Defence, Daddy?”


“That guy can only go into Defence.”

“Oh. OK, darling. How can I tell?”

“Because his fire doesn’t touch the edge of the page.” (This is delivered, needless to say, in the tone of voice that Jeremy Paxman might use to a “University Challenge” contestant who had guessed that the Shakespearean play starting with “M” was “Middlemarch”.)

“OK. Well I’ll put this one into Attack, then. Is that OK?”

“Yes, but he’s only got a low life.”

“How do I know that?”

“Because it’s lower than his anger level.”

“Ah. I see.” (Not true.)

We played for about half an hour. You may not be surprised to learn that one of the effects of Eldest Son’s game creation is that it’s impossible for anyone else to win (my confusion must have been how Alice felt when confronted with The Red Queen and her bracingly singular take on logic), and so he cleaned up in round after round, although always with a gentlemanly and sporting “Never mind Daddy. You played very well.”.

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