Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch I; Leaf IV

Gotta travel on…

Removing his eyeglasses momentarily, and taking out the Badger’s old, almost transparent, red cotton handkerchief to wipe away both his tears and the resulting mist on his dark lenses, the Mole, heavy-hearted with an absence of everything that was important – to him, to his now small life (“Selfish? Me?” he exclaimed, abruptly); but, he also knew, to the wider, past world of river-bankers – grasped, like a bolt out of the brightening sky, why the Rat had so needed to leave.

“Why! What is a water rat without water! Not just the SIGHT of it – the sun twinkling, cheekily, as it ripples and splashes – nor the SOUND of it – the ‘plop’, as Ratty tumbles from his hole for a swim – not just the FEEL of it – for me, a drenching; for Ratty, floating and bobbing like the confident cork that he is – or the TASTE – so fresh, so cool, on a fine summer’s afternoon….” His voice, at first crescendoing with vigour and remembered contentment, suddenly faded to a muted susurration: as if the Mole had run out of words, as well as of steam, as well as of happiness itself. “No,” he intimated – if only to the gentle, ebbing breeze – “a water rat must always be able to SMELL the water; sense it with every breath, whether awake or asleep. It must scent the atmosphere; tug at your very whiskers; pull at your heartstrings. Wherever he went, Ratty was always drawn back to the river; always knew how far away it was with just one simple sniff. No river; no Ratty. What IS a water rat without water…?”

As his trembling voice whispered to the emptiness he felt so deeply, the thumping resumed without warning: shaking the ground the Mole stood on; and harshly pulling him back from his nostalgia.

“Nothing!” he yelled, remonstrating with the continuing disturbance: shaking his kerchief wildly – not in capitulation, but in challenge. “A water rat is NOTHING without water. And NOTHING is what you shall become, too: you, you, you….” Again, his words paled; his exasperation – both at this desecration and its rude habit of interrupting his thoughts – overcoming his ability to deliberate. And, just as the right words came to him; just as he bellowed them for anyone, for anything, to hear – as he summoned all his strength and rage – at that very moment, another pounding of the earth drowned out his voice; beating in time to the roar of blood in the Mole’s sensitive ears, more insistent even than before: “You MONSTER, you WRECKER, you TRAITOR, you DEVIL, you DESPOILER, you TRESPASSER… you FIEND…!”

For a second, his oath hung in the still air: a warning not to mess with THIS mole. Not the goodnatured, simple Mole who tickled the toes, and gently rocked the cradles of baby mice; who told fond stories that eased them off to sleep – but (and he grew visibly taller and stronger, as he remembered the belt of cutlass, sword, pair of pistols, and his favourite truncheon, strapped to the place where his waist had been…) the Mole Who Humbled Stoats and Weasels at the Great Battle of Toad Hall. MIGHTY MOLE was back; and, again, he would not be vanquished. Onion-sauce to their plans! Clever Mole had plans of his own, thank you very much. All he needed, now, was some help.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch I; Leaf III

Where teardrops fall…

Knowing he would not, COULD not get back to sleep – that now-distant land of physical and mental comfort: where, usually, for him, happiness ruled over the sadder elements of his rememberings, his imaginings – the Mole clambered down from his habitual resting place; stretched his sleepery and resisting limbs; moved the simmering porridge pan from the heat; donned his hat, dark glasses, mackintosh and galoshes (the scent of promising, fresh rain was beginning to creep in subtly even here: where warmth always ruled); selected a suitably stout stick from the large collection waiting patiently at hand, gathered like stocky stalks of corn in an old kibble by the armchair; and set off, climbing imperceptibly along one of the many curving corridors, towards the doorway he knew was nearest to the source of his annoyance.

The damp wrestled languorously with the promise of the coming season, as he quietly left his home behind: dew intermixing with rain; and, soon, too, to commingle with the Mole’s salty tears. Although he had pored over those damnable plans so many times in what he still thought of as Badger’s Study (where the large expanses of blue-printed sheets still lay about, piled high on desk, chair and floor, gathering well-deserved dust – he did not want the mice frightened by what they might not quite understand); and the trail he followed of regular, ever-increasing vibrations, then shakes and thuds, and finally booms – as if some humungous automaton’s heart beat harder and harder, deep within the earth: threatening, momentarily, repeatedly, to lift him from the ground… – SHOULD have been adequate warning; what he saw before him was unfailingly more stupendous in scale than his waking mind could grasp.

Not many days had passed since he was last here – as part of the regular challenging of his aging muscles to retain at least SOME of their past vigour – but the transformation, this time, was beyond even HIS experience. This wasn’t just a SMALL change in the landscape he HAD known and loved – and he was struggling to convince himself that its spirit was still, here, SOMEWHERE – this was DEVASTATION, an ERADICATION: programmed DETERIORATION, rather than PROGRESS, or the supposed DEVELOPMENT that had been forced on them. (Positive words, these last two, he deemed, for extremely negative actions.)

He had known that this would happen. He had not known when: how soon, how quickly. The many battles they had mounted – and gained; then lost; and then squandered: not just because of the chicanery and rapacious greed of the Wide World; the arrogance of the stouts and weasels; the uliginose, empty undertakings of the foxes – the war they had so nearly won – these had achieved nothing but the pausing of the inevitable; and it now appeared that, helter-skelter, the harrying had gathered pace: rushing fast-forward to catch up.

The Mole stood, moved terribly, but unmoving: shaken both physically and mentally by what he witnessed. He could not leave. He could not think. All he could do was sob, silently, until both he and the clouds ran dry; and the pounding finally ceased – pausing for breath, he thought: as if anthropomorphism would somehow help him comprehend… – but, as he would learn, soon to resume its inexorable battering.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Shall fill with laughter our small theatre…

In the prologue to The Roaring Girl – currently running in the RSC’s Swan Theatre, ‘Mad’ Moll, the heroine (if that’s the right description), dares only promise laughter – as “Tragic passion, And such grave stuff, is this day so out of fashion”.

She – or rather, the Thomases Dekker and Middleton, who co-authored the play – could have a point. Henry IV, part II was on in the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre, whilst we were filling the “small theatre”; however, when I went to see Shakespeare’s history (certainly nowhere near as comedic as part I…), a few weeks ago, there were many, many empty seats – and tonight did not appear, from the size of the crowds, to be any different. Even though the Swan was not quite sold out, last night, there weren’t that many seats free; and the stalls and circle were full – of people, as well as laughter!

Although there is a strong, central theme of female independence – feminism, even (amazing, when you consider the play was written, and first produced, over 400 years ago – and by two men… – although based on the very real Mary Frith…) – this does not mean that all the expected riotous ingredients of lewdness, debauchery and wicked punning of Elizabethan and Jacobean ‘city comedies’ (as also demonstrated by Falstaff, of course, in Eastcheap…) disappear behind the sexual and social politics; nor the (oft-criticized) Victorian setting. As director Jo Davies says, in her introduction to the RSC’s prompt book for the play: “The exuberant materialism of [the Victorian] era seems to fit well… and there’s a stark dramatic contrast between remarkable wealth and the lawlessness of the streets” – especially when you remember Dickens’s notion of “slumming”, and of “the attraction of revulsion”.

Nevertheless, nothing is to be taken too seriously: as is obvious from the first scene onwards; although you may be slightly misdirected by the permanent cross-dressing of Moll, if you are used to such shenanigans – in, say, As You Like It – being a vehicle for romance and comedic misunderstandings: as these are of only of passing interest in the tangle of plots and continually weaving interactions of Moll and the other characters (whose lives she often facilitates).

Yet, in a way, our protagonist takes the idea of Rosalind – especially in her ‘protection’ of Celia, and her transformation into Ganymede… – to its ultimate conclusion: making it a life-choice; showing her command of the stage, her world, and the other characters. It signals her independence; her difference; her refusal to be seen as ‘the weaker sex’.

I have no humour to marry: I love to lie on both sides of the bed myself; and again on the other side. A wife, you know, ought to be obedient, – but I fear me I am too headstrong to obey, therefore I’ll never go about it…. I have the head now of myself and am man enough for a woman: marriage is but a chopping and changing, where a maiden loses one head and has a worse one in its place.

If you take the play as it is, though – a recipe of Shakesperean-era farce, social observation (erring on the side of ridicule), and pantomime – albeit with the added condiments of wantonness and jazz (oh, yes!) – then you will not be disappointed. This is pure entertainment; and to look for anything much deeper – despite Moll’s cleverness; and insistence on being blatant, not latent, in every aspect of her dealings – will probably lead to disappointment.

Lisa Dillon is astounding as Moll; and – although she dominates the stage; and takes the majority of the lines – the rest of the cast (including the creative team and musicians) are wonderful in support: especially in the final scene, which will ensure you have a huge stupid grin on your face (if you’re like me), and maybe a tear (from the jollity, as well as sadness that the night has ended…) in your eye, as you leave the theatre.

Quite possibly the best thing on at the RSC, at the moment.

The journey home was marvellous, too: with a barn owl flying by me, as I left Stratford; a repeat performance of last night’s ‘honey moon’ rising over the Edge Hills; and a muntjac deer investigating the car, as I drove through – and then stopped in, of course – Lower Tysoe. I’m still buzzing, four hours later…!

Friday, 13 June 2014

Paradise regained…

When my health was a little better, I used to spend a lot of time walking along the banks of the Avon: usually starting from the Stratford Greenway car park; but, sadly, it’s been a while since I was last there.

However, with the weather so utterly glorious and warming, I could not resist my old stomping ground, today: so parked up, and set off, expecting the footpaths and cycleway to be crowded with like-minded souls. On the whole of my two-hour walk, though, I encountered no more than half-a-dozen people – and two of these were navigating a narrowboat through Anonymous – or Gordon Gray – Lock!

In fact, the whole atmosphere tended toward the indolent and balmy. The breeze was gentle (although extremely welcome, when it appeared, sporadically); the river lazy (with the ducks just drifting along as it flowed south-west, treacle-like and unhurried); even the birds in the trees were content to stay hidden – although their various songs (including my first cuckoo for many a year!) provided a wonderful, permanent accompaniment to my wanderings.

The only creature – and they were plentiful, but camera-shy: always perching just out of reach of my lens; or flitting away from me, just as I thought I had one in focus… – busying itself – and in large numbers, too – was the banded demoiselle, calopteryx splendens, with its dark thumb-printed wings: mostly shimmering turquoise males; but occasional coppery-green females appearing briefly, before returning, camouflaged perfectly, to the wonderful proliferation of grasses, shrubs and flowers. (When I was little, knowing only of the fruit, and associated jam, I called these stunning insects “damson-flies” – only realizing my verbal misstep many years later!)

I don’t think I have ever seen the banks of the Avon so verdant. The pathways currently show little evidence of human passage: with cow parsley and nettle leaning in across the barely-defined tracks, rendering the mixture of cracked, dried earth, and occasional muddy trap, almost invisible. Somehow, this made my walk all the more exciting: feeling – because of the absence of other folk – like a lone explorer, finding my way in the green wilderness, under perfect wispy feather-clouded skies.

Starting from the car park, I traversed the river just south of Lucy’s Mill, using the footbridge; then followed Shakespeare’s Avon Way to the lock, near Weir Brake; crossing back over at the increasingly rust-ridden Stannals Bridge, before heading back to Stratford on the Monarch’s Way.

Even in deepest winter (and deepest snow) I have encountered more dog walkers, joggers, and fellow travellers. But today, it felt as if I had the river and banks to myself: my own personal paradise.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch I; Leaf II

Never gonna be the same again…

The Badger had died content with the small world he had made for himself – his close band of chums; his guardianship of the Wild Wood, and all the various animals who lived in and close by it – but intensely angry at the Wide World, and its gradual, mechanical incursion into the countryside he so loved: where he was familiar with the name and place of every creature, every tree, every flower; and where, he was sure, they knew, and looked up to him, with equal reverence.

“I’ve become such an everyday part of the landscape, since you two young ruffians dragged me from my solitude,” he once said sternly to the Rat and the Mole; wagging his finger at them, but with a wry grin spreading across his aging, grizzled face: “that I don’t believe even the youngsters are convinced anymore by the warnings their parents tell them about my FEROCIOUS FANGS, and my TERRIBLE TEMPER. In fact, I seem to be ‘Uncle Badger’ to every tiny pipsqueak from here to the river!”

As he had gotten older, though, the less time he had spent outside, the more reclusive he had become – not just because of his declining health or his grand age, though; or his innate dislike of Society; but because the world he loved was narrowing, tightening around him; constricting and diminishing his circles of friends, acquaintances and familiar faces.

Then, when the Water Rat had decided to leave – having hung on for far longer than was comfortable: “The River will never be the same again: what’s left of it, that is. And soon, there’ll be none of that, neither…” – it was the final straw for the Badger: and he retreated forever to his snugly-fitting armchair, in front of the kitchen fire, with only the Mole for companionship. “You might as well stay here, now that your hole has gone, my little man. Pick any room you want, and make it yours; and we can while our time away nattering about our Daring Exploits, and moaning about What’s to Come.”

And talk they did. All day, and everyday. Of Toad. Of stoats and weasels. Of how much they missed their co-conspirator, Ratty. And what they would do to those who would disrupt their peaceful existence – if only they had the energy (and knees) of their younger selves! And then they would both drift off to sleep, sated by their stories and a surfeit of chilled beer in summer, and mulled ale in winter; with occasional snores, and mutterings of “Onion-sauce” or “The hour is come!” or, sometimes, sadly, “It’s all over…”.

And, then, one morning, woken by a faintly smoking log, falling from the fireplace, with a gentle fizz and a whispered hiss, onto the hearth, the Mole awoke to find himself alone. The body of his best friend, his mentor, his only real family, was cold – even though a thick woollen blanket lay on his lap, and his finest dressing-gown and his down-at-heel carpet slippers enveloped him. “Goodbye, my good fellow,” said the Mole, to himself – hoping that the Badger could still hear him, wherever he was gone to – “and thank you. My life would not have been the same without you, you know. Toodle-pip.”

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch I; Leaf I

Blowin’ in the wind…

The Mole was old. And alone. All his pals were dead or long gone: the last being the Badger, who slept forever, now, cradled by a long, strong root of the old oak, under a deep blanket of warming leaf mould. As he had requested, nothing marked his resting place except the memories he and his friends had shared there, in better days; and the whispered “Toodle-pip” the Mole uttered conscientiously – with a hazy regret; a heart full of love; and a tear forming in each eye, like a dab of morning dew – every time he passed by.

Although he KNEW the air was changing, and dreamt of hazy green meadows and deep blue waters, it would be a while before spring penetrated this deep into the Wild Wood; and the Mole’s once-twitching whiskers now needed a far, far stronger beckoning to rouse him from his reveries. Where once had been deep, dark, glossy velvet, now the Mole was tinged from top to tail-end with silver: glistening in the sputtering candlelight like the first deep hoar-frost of autumn at sunrise. Gentle breaths could just be heard, rising and falling in time with the crocheted blanket tucked cosily around his expanding middle; and all around the familiar over-large armchair where the Mole, propped up with soft, fluffy cushions, spent most of his days – and nights, if truth be told: “Just forty winks, before bed…” – were scattered the remains of last night’s supper.

Before he awoke, though, a sylvan magic of sorts would happen: and the kitchen where he lay would be cleaned, ready for the new day, the new season. The extended family of mice who brought him his food, who made sure his socks were darned, his rarely-slept-in bed turned, would silently tidy it all away, replace the dying candles, stoke up the glowing embers, and prepare a small but sufficient breakfast, before vanishing back to their holes, at the end of distant, paved passageways. They knew the Mole’s hearing was not what it had been – once keener than theirs – and the eyeglasses that usually perched precariously on his inquisitive nose were pointer enough to the clouding of eyes that had never been the sharpest – and yet, still, the mice were careful never to make a sound louder than their master’s soothing suspirations.

If the Wild Wood was now tame for these little fellows – no longer holding dark, frightening, threatening secrets – then it still held powers over those who had been enemies of the Badger; or at least refused to shake him by the paw on acquaintance: which is why he knew he was only being a sensible Mole, keeping the small brass door-plate well-polished, and thus preventing any unwanted disturbance. MR. BADGER was as good a name as any to live under, after all – “the best indeed”, he had reasoned – and only those that he trusted would know otherwise and be welcome. And, anyway, grey as he was, he quite resembled a small, wise old badger – or so he had told himself, pulling his shoulders back with pride in front of the bedroom mirror!

When he was wakened, pulled harshly from his deep, misty slumbers, it was due to a faculty that was still as sharp as it ever was: due to an innate sense being alerted, switched on, by something more distant, yet, than the warm days of summer; but as dark, to the Mole’s mind, as a moonless winter’s night. He could FEEL it. It was not NATURAL. It was not, therefore, RIGHT. And, as he blinked open his tired eyes, and reached for the spectacles hanging from his neck, he muttered angrily under his breath. “Damn and blast it. They’re back.”