Friday, 3 April 2015

Overheard on the Heath

One of the many joys of my year of maternity leave – now drawing to a close – has been trundling my daughter around Hampstead Heath. And with that has come an unlikely pleasure: overhearing snatched conversations as people pass by. 

Most are unremarkable. But some are so funny, eye-rolling or intriguing, I wish I could be privy to the rest of the conversation. Your imagination runs wild. These are short films in the making, all. 

In my experience, the Heath's vast open spaces – such a contrast to the city, where you're never far from another person – and the fact of walking side by side with someone, allow your conversations to be that much more intimate. 

So I took to carrying a pen and paper with me to jot down the good ones. This simple task somehow kept my creative side alive during those early, foggy weeks and months. And it reminded me of an exercise we did on our journalism post-grad: perching at a bar and writing down overheard conversations, to practice our reported speech. 

Here are a few favourites. 

A 60-something man and woman
She: "...a selfish, ill old man."
He: "A selfish, ill old man. And the reason I'm selfish..."

Attractive 20-something pair
She: "Do you have an idea how that makes me feel?"
He: "Yes, I do have an idea."
She: "Well, it doesn't seem like you do..."

Late-40s woman with an East End accent, in a leopard skin coat
"I just have this fear that if it's gonna go wrong, it's gonna go really wrong..."

Two girls in school uniform, one quite upset
"So he like texted me yesterday and I texted him back and he never texted back. I'm like, what the fuck? So I'm gonna fuckin..." 

Two posh 40-something women
One: "It's quinoa... and mixed grains."

Well-spoken young girl with her mum (overheard today, after the leaders' debate last night. A future UKIP supporter?) 
"Yah, but they have to be from Britain."

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Wild thing

When I was asked to interview Cheryl Strayed over a year ago and her book, Wild, landed on my desk, I rolled my eyes. Here, I presumed, was another Oprah-endorsed, Elizabeth Gilbert-esque redemptive, emotional travel memoir. Sigh. 

I couldn't have been more wrong. The book was an intelligent, entertaining and honest page-turner. If Eat, Pray, Love was an indulgent story written (well) by a privileged writer, Wild was an unglamorous account of a tough, life-changing few months in a working-class woman's life. Strayed was modest and warm, and I liked her enormously. 

The interview never ran, for PR-related reasons too dull to recount here. So, as a film of her book opens in the UK, I thought I'd briefly tell her story. 

When she was 22, setting out in the world after a difficult childhood with a violent father, her loving mother Bobbie died, rapidly, of cancer. The family, pinned together by Bobbie, disintegrated. For Strayed, going through that rocky transition into adulthood, it was too much to bear. For the next four years she drank, her young marriage collapsed, and she discovered the numbing pleasure of heroin. By the time she picked up a book called "The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California" she was at rock bottom. 

"I knew I had to save myself," she told me. "The greatest dishonour to my mother would have been to ruin myself." The book gave her an idea. "The wilderness always made me feel gathered, and walking and physical exertion made me feel good. I knew [if I walked this trail] I would emerge altered in some way, and I was right." 

A few months later she sold her belongings, packed an unwieldy backpack and headed for the starting point of her hike: Mojave, CA. 

The following three months are documented in vivid, thrilling, terrifying and often very funny detail: searing heat and treacherous snowdrifts; freezing nights in her tent; run-ins with animals and snakes; happy encounters with fellow trekkers; and above all, hunger and thirst. She was impressively under-prepared. She dreamed deliriously of Snapple lemonade and pizza. When she finds food, you salivate with her. 

But she developed a reputation among the smattering of (mostly male) hikers on the trail as a toughie, accruing awe and admiration (and they probably fancied her, too). "Day after day I was in this wild landscape, moving forward," she says. "Even on my miserable days I was growing stronger, step by step. I had to tone down the metaphors it was so literal." 

Her story ends well. She finally put pen to paper aged 40 – she is now 46 – and the book benefits from that hindsight. The New York Times described it as "loose and sexy and dark" and named it one of its ten best books of 2012. 

Why has it been so successful? Kathryn Schulz, writing in New York magazine – a long piece but worth a read – puts it well. "It is the basic bootstrapping from poverty to self-sufficiency that we observe in Wild, and that makes its story so automatically appealing."

"So many people dismiss memoirs as narcissistic – and they are, [Strayed] says if they stop at the surface truth," writes Schulz. "But if you go into that deep truth, you aren't talking about yourself. You are talking about what it is to be human." 

Friday, 23 May 2014

Cranking back to life

It's been, shamefully, nearly a year since I wrote on here – a magical encounter with Salem in Jordan – and since then a new life has arrived. The birth of a baby is the most ordinary, everyday thing in the world, except when it's yours. And then... well, extraordinary barely covers it. Here she is now, six weeks, and just starting to smile. 

As for the birth... I was reminded of one of my earliest encounters on Lives Less Ordinary, with mountaineer Bill Goodland. Pregnancy and childbirth are, I'm sure, not dissimilar to climbing Everest, which he did almost five years ago this month. Lots of preparation, mental and physical, and one big push. When I asked him how it felt to stand on top of the world, he replied: "You get to stop walking. It's that simple." 

That's how I felt when she was born: I got to stop pushing. The euphoria, joy and tears came later. 

I won't be writing much about my daughter on here – it's still a blog about all the amazing people I meet. But I will be writing it regularly again, so do drop by. 

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Heat and dust

This is Salem. He drove us across the desert in southern Jordan in his jeep. Like a laid-back, twinkly-eyed Arab light entertainer, he was something of a character. 

He is Bedouin, and has lived in this sun-baked part of Jordan, Wadi Rum, all his life. Immense granite and sandstone mountains, like islands in a bone dry sea, rise up from the desert floor. They take many different forms, from sheer vertical flanks to curved, bulging rocks filled with craggy ravines, weathered by sea water and wind over the millenia. 

Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in Wadi Rum – indeed it was one of TE Lawrence's favourite places. The midday heat is so intense it's hard to describe: it melts your scalp and sears your soles. 

You stumble across rock carvings, many by nomadic Thamudic tribes, who predate the Romans. Like most graffiti, it is not deeply meaningful – just simple, stylised images of humans, animals, symbols and footprints (see below). 

In the early 1990s Salem and his fellow desert dwellers formed co-operatives to organise tourism in the area, and with the proceeds built a small town of squat, humous-coloured houses where they now live, instead of tents, so their children can go to school (he never did). Are they better off? "He laughs. "Not happier! But I'm glad my children will have an education." His eldest daughter teaches him English. 

He was a first-rate storyteller. He once accompanied a group of Japanese into the desert for a two-day camp. They spoke no English. They drew him a picture of a camel with a man on top, and the following morning Salem fixed them up with a ride each, tapped his watch, held up three fingers and waved them off. 

Three hours later, there was no sign of them. After five he began to panic. By nightfall, he was starting to wonder if they had accidently wandered across the Saudi Arabian border. At dawn he set off with a local policeman and finally found them, relaxing at a Bedouin camp, wondering what all the fuss was about. 

Then there was the time a pair of Italian honeymooners setting up camp for the night had a bust-up after the man confessed to having recently slept with his new wife's best friend. His timing couldn't have been worse. "She was so angry I had to find her a separate tent to sleep in." Understandably. "These people..." he tails off, shaking his head in bafflement. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Luke Treadaway: almost famous

I had the same tingling feeling - no, not that one - watching 28-year-old Luke Treadaway play the lead in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time this afternoon as I did watching an unknown James McAvoy in Privates on Parade in 2001. The play was a little silly, but McAvoy exuded charisma and talent from every pore. When I later saw him in Shameless, I remember thinking: Oh. It's him

Watching Treadaway was the same: it's an extraordinary role – his character, Christopher, has Asperger Syndrome. And he was remarkable: spirited, funny and moving. 

Against the odds – and against McAvoy, among others – Treadaway won best actor at the Oliver Awards on Sunday for his role (presented by Kim Cattrall, above). "I feel like someone's going to call and tell me it's all a big mistake," he says, which is what all actors say. But he seemed genuine.  

I interviewed him yesterday, not about his win – which was just good timing – but about a new scheme that aims to get autistic kids and their parents into theatres, something they usually find intimidating and nerve-wracking. Playing someone with autism, he is particularly passionate about the project. 

We met in a windowless corner of the Apollo Theatre on the sunniest afternoon of the year. So Treadaway – slim, barefoot, clutching coconut water and a packet of tobacco – suggested we sit outside the stage door in the sun, perched on the kerb. 

He was all of the following: friendly, intelligent, sparky, confident. And, of course, a thespian, kissing co-stars, calling them darling. He didn't kiss me, I'm glad to say: just two good handshakes. 

He is nice-looking but not drop dead gorgeous. The photograph, top, best resembles him in real life: a young Damian Lewis with a nicely imperfect face. Below he's all pout and hairspray, the perfect casting shot. Either way, he's one to watch: almost famous, and you read about him here almost first. 

Monday, 29 April 2013

Björn at the right time

Small, neat and a little orange, Abba's Björn Ulvaeus (right) – he married the blonde one – slips into our group, unannounced. We are visiting the soon-to-open Abba Museum in Stockholm and he is here to say hello. Serious but warm, and not at all starry (impressive, given that he is the second most famous Björn to come out of Sweden), he answers our questions happily but succinctly. 

How does it feel to be opening a museum about yourself? "Like looking at another person's life. And extremely narcissistic! Ha, ha!" 

I downloaded Abba's Greatest Hits last week in the name of journalistic research, and was reminded of the sublime craftsmanship of their songs: joyful, innocent, glossy, addictive and universally appealing. A friend told me last week that mountain rescue workers in Wales listen to Abba in the rescue vehicle to cheer themselves up. I'm not surprised: their tunes are musical anti-depressants. 

Benny Andersson actually wrote more of the songs – Ulvaeus the lyrics – but perhaps they were like Lennon and McCartney: better as two than one. "We never took ourselves too seriously," he says. "Everything was tongue in cheek. Except the music: we took that dead seriously." 

Photographs: top, Bengt H Malmqvist; bottom, err, me. Apologies for quality. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

"Once it gets you, you're besotted"

Peter Layton’s glassblowing studio operates something of an open door policy. On a warm spring afternoon its glass doors, cathedral-like in their proportions, are indeed propped open and passersby breeze in, drawn by the psychedelic glassware on display and, beyond, the workshop with the “blowers” themselves.

Soon a crowd is gathered. Layton, 75, urges them to sit: the more people who see this extraordinary work, he reasons, the better it is for business. Some remain for an hour, hypnotised by its theatre. More than any other craft, glassblowing has an air of alchemy about it: in the space of a few hours, an unpromising nugget of brown glass, dipped in powder, will be transformed into a shimmering, painterly vessel. If – and it’s a big if – it turns out okay, it could fetch £4,000.

At 35, this is the oldest glassblowing studio in the UK. Located near London Bridge, it is a collective of freelance artists headed by Layton. Chatty, avuncular and twinkly-eyed – and youthfully dressed for a septuagenarian – he offers hands-on design advice to the other artists. His mug says "The Boss". 

Without warning he will leap up and consult with a blower on how his piece is taking shape. There’s no room for dithering: molton glass doesn’t stay molton for long. Across the workshop is a minor emergency: a crease has appeared in a piece that’s destined for an exhibition. The blower is experienced and Layton stays seated, but pulls a worried face. “As if he didn’t have enough to contend with.”

It’s this collaborative approach that has kept them going so long, he says. “Glass is labour and cost intensive. So sharing overheads really helps. Gas prices and raw materials have gone up astronomically. China is sitting on all the selenium stocks and prices have risen 700%.” Selenium provides the red in glass – can’t he just make fewer red pieces? “No! I can’t tie my inspiration to the selenium market.” He points to his most recent pieces as proof: exquisite scarlet poppy heads half a metre in diameter.

Layton is self-taught, and started out as a potter. But he fell in love with glass. “Once it gets you, you’re besotted. Even the heat on your face from the furnaces is addictive.”

And it is hot, sweaty work. Layne Rowe, one of the studio’s most experienced artists, is making the final piece in a series of large-scale vessels started by Layton called The Arrival of Spring – inspired by David Hockney’s giant canvas of the same name (Layton and Hockney were childhood friends in Bradford). 

The process has a simple rhythm to it. Rowe, above in white, alternately fires the glass, which is on the end of a rod, in a small furnace, and coats it in powder or shards of thin coloured glass, which will add a striped effect. Occasionally, he dips the rod into another oven, which coats it in a gloopy layer of transluscent glass. He rolls the glass on a metal surface or massages it with a thick wedge of newspaper to change its shape.

Two hours on, the glass is as large as a bowling ball and Rowe staggers under its weight, sweat pouring off his forehead. A pair of assistants are now helping him, opening secondary oven doors to accomodate the larger piece. “I’m worried about his shoulder,” says Layton. “He did it in recently, and it put him out for months. I don’t want him to overdo it.”

He is constantly nurturing young talent. Today, the workshop is buzzing with bright young things who manage the shop, design the website, package up parcels. “I had a call today from a young chap wanting a job. I know him, he’s brilliant. We’re going to try to fit him in.” He adds, brightly: “I think glass is on the up. It’s sheer good luck for us.” I expect luck only plays a small part. 

Photographs: Anna Huix