Sweat and Sequins

In 1982 I was awarded a travel grant by Arts Council England which I converted into three months researching the workings of the carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, possibly the biggest piece of street theatre in the world. I managed to include several of my mates in the escapade, and my diary, by the wonders of that fantastic new invention, the fax machine, was published in installments in Out West magazine, the forerunner of Venue.

The art deco hotel is still there, now converted into a corporate HQ and apartments

Here are some diary excerpts:

Roll Dat Bumbulum!

Today I am able to reveal that Somerset Maugham is alive and well and staying at the Queen’s Park Hotel, Port of Spain. At least, what looked like Maugham in drag just stepped out of the creaking lift, ordered a Milk of Magnesia and wobbled off towards the bar.

I am here courtesy of the Arts Council to study that extraordinary phenomenon, the Trinidad Carnival. Not that there’s much sign of the festivities in this huge 1930’s pile, even though it overlooks the Savannah Park where the million-strong crowd of revellers will roll their bumbulums and wine their bodies on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday to the rhythm of a hundred steel bands.

Behind its moss and cactus shrouded Art Deco façade this once gracious establishment is quietly crumbling, a last resort for those of a colonial bent. It’s a vast place, even though much of it is closed and derelict. In its enormous public rooms, large numbers of uniformed geriatric staff tend to the needs of a minute number of even older and exclusively white guests. Tables in the echoing dining room are laid daily for a hundred at least. Five is a crowd at breakfast, and even fewer (just me once) at lunch.

My room is along a veritable runway of a corridor, straight out of The Shining. 307, 308, 309-not a sound or a light from behind the louvered doors. Mine, 310, is furnished with a complete set of chrome 1930’s bedroom furniture. The thought that there might be 309 matching sets in the building is enough to give a Walcot Street dealer a coronary.

My air conditioner, The Elite, sounds like a bulldozer, so I turned it off for fear of waking the bird-like crones I occasionally see flitting girlishly across the distant ends of corridors. Floral prints and white pumps seem to be de rigueur and although they look the epitome of English ladies, when I caught some at tea I was surprised to hear them speaking in exaggerated West Indian accents. Posh patois I dubbed it, as they referred to the ancient waiter as ‘dat fellah dere’. Later I read in a V.S. Naipaul novel (yes, I have all the right literature with me) that this is an affectation left over from plantation times.

Somewhere a long way away there is the constant clatter of monogrammed dinner plates even though there are usually only half a dozen guests at dinner. Or maybe it’s the sound of those antique dealers loading valuable retro crockery into their vans?

Bizarrely, a leaking roof-top water tank constantly leaks, sending a permanent cascade down one of the wooden staircases, causing the laminated planks to fan out like a pack of cards. Rather than repair the leak, moisture-loving ferns have been strategically placed on the steps, resulting in a tropical display worthy of the palm house in Kew.

Nobody seems to use the rather Hockneyesque pool on the terrace, possibly put off by the sign which reads ‘Notice: when pool-side lights are on, guests swim at own risk due danger of electrocution’. At midday in brilliant sunshine the coloured bulbs were glowing merrily and the pool deserted.

The dinner menu bears the government stamp 13th October 1980. It’s the same choice every night, chicken or steak with Calaloo soup on Sundays a lone nod towards local cuisine). I’m not sure if this proves tedious or reassuring to the small group of guests who actually live here.

 Several Colonel Blimps, left over from something great and exciting that happened here a long time ago, e.g. the British Empire, regularly frequent the basement bar. I spotted Norman Parkinson, one-time royal photographer, now the proprietor of Parkinson’s Bangers, an exclusive range of pork sausages (I swear!) holding court amongst a bevy of ex-colonial ghastlies (white moustache, stiff tanned upper lip and a rather camp chain belt holding up his linen chinos). One of the chaps declared it must be Carnival soon as it always followed the cricket.

Meanwhile, outside nobody has the least doubt as to when Carnival takes place. Teams of men are erecting endless avenues of ramshackle shed that will house the snackettes, roti stalls and shark sandwich shops surrounding the grandstands that have gone up on the carnival route. On the door of the nearby Ministry of Health, closed for the duration, an official notice orders stallholders not to post stool samples through the letterbox as no more hygiene certificates can be issued.

On the streets, every car is a mobile disco as people play the latest sounds over and over again in an attempt to decide which song will become this year’s ‘Road March’, carrying the dancing crowd along for two whole days of ‘jumpin’ up’. It’s a process of natural elimination, and on the day, almost everyone will be playing the same tune, more often than not a rude or controversial calypso banned by the government radio station!

Banners everywhere proclaim a plethora of pre-Carnival events. Every possible venue from old barracks to multi-storey car parks has been commandeered for fund raising fetes with titles such as ‘Fixed Deposit Jam’ presented by the Bank of Nova Scotia,’Subway Jam’, ‘Soca Fever!’ and Carnival With Tears’ at the St John Ambulance H.Q.. Even the government departments get into the act: I’ve seen both the Regimental Carnival Party and the Customs Chix Count Down widely advertised (Not sure which one I’ll go for yet).

The city squares resound at lunchtimes with free soca and calypso (very loud, Bath City Council take note) sponsored by various cigarette companies. The police calypso band is also in evidence, and really hot stuff it is too, right outside the courthouse. Court is in session, by the way, windows open with the occasional bewigged barrister seen jigging to the rhythms.

The calypsonians have exotic pseudonyms. Most honkies have heard of Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener, but Scrunter, Chalkdust, Relator, Short-Pants and Black Stalin are household names here. Many songs contain words of social protest: ‘A man who could rape a woman 90 years old kyar have a heart’. Many others contain words that are simply rude: ‘My bamboo is harder than yours!’

Vacant lots have been taken over as Pan Yards where masters and aspiring masters of the art of pan prepare for the national steel band competition or ’Panorama’ which precedes Carnival. The sounds of pan can be heard on many street corners as the instruments are painstakingly tuned. On Sundays, a stroll round the ramshackle downtown area is a musical treat, especially if you come across one of the 100-strong steel orchestras polishing up their rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as I did.

The main event of Carnival however is the Parade of the Bands. Almost everybody takes part, the parade taking up to eight hours to pass a given spot. Around the town, Mas’-camps have been set up by the band committees. Here, the costume designs are displayed. You choose your outfit, pays your money and dozens of paid and unpaid workers set about making it. Each group has an overall theme, with various ever more elaborate and expensive sections to choose from, depending on your budget. I’ve spotted Dance, Zulu Dance (witch-doctor section sold out), Cosmic Legends of the Ancient Maya, The Barbaric Age and Victory of Trafalgar. The latter promises to be quite a spectacle, as it has over 4000 members, which is, I think, more than took place in the actual battle!

Some of the costumes it is claimed have over 200,000 sequins, which puts ‘Come Dancing’ to shame, and are over 15 feet high. Another band Papillion also has several thousand members and is depicting all walks of life seen as different kinds of butterflies. A sparkling Mohammed Ali naturally features, but extraordinarily, so does a sequinned Ayatollah Khomeini.

Perhaps it sounds kitsch, but here kitsch is a fine art. In a country the buses tend to break down, there are frequent power outages and places go without water for days on end, Carnival is a triumphant success. Everything is beautifully made and breathtakingly colourful. There are costumes to suit all pockets, rich or poor. Carnival is a way of life and the rest of the year is simply an interruption. Politicians and press constantly argue for the ‘Carnival mentality’ to be applied to other facts of life. In fact, in his recent gloomy budget speech the Prime Minister said ‘The Fete is over…’ No harm in trying I suppose.

Next week I’m going to visit some of the people who have been sewing, sticking, pleating and wire-bending so frantically since last March. One of this year’s creations is said to have 1900 plumes, which is a lot of ostriches. How do they fix all those onto one lady? Where do all the tons of glitter, millions of sequins and miles of stretchy leopard skin fabric come from I wonder? And how did the rather sedate 18th century Fete Champetres brought here by the French colonists grow into what is now the world’s biggest fancy dress party (and piss-up)? This is what my project is all about (hic).

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Someone had to do it

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the 10th Anniversary of Billy’s Book Club, an august institution which meets monthly at the excellent King William pub in Bath

My chums and I graduated in Theatre Design in 1968. Everyone disappeared in different directions, some to work at the acclaimed Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester; others to Sadler’s Wells Opera, one even to become Shirley Bassey’s dress designer (blame him for all those sparkly fishtail gowns!). Me? I got a job in a hospital mortuary.

I’d done hospital work before. One Christmas I was briefly employed as a waiter in the staff dining room of a vast mental institution in Brentwood. This scary-looking turreted Gothic pile is now an equally scary-looking luxury apartment complex. At the time the institution was situated at the end of a long rhododendron-shaded drive. Heading for the bus stop along this dripping tunnel of dark shrubbery after the evening shift, I would quicken my pace on hearing the siren which I supposed signalled that one of the mad serial killers incarcerated within the secure wing had escaped.  I later found out that most of the patients were harmless sufferers of nervous breakdowns and the terrifying banshee wail was in fact the steam being released from the giant potato boiler in the basement kitchens. 

I say ‘briefly ’ as my employ was sadly terminated when, on one of the silver service days that were inexplicably and randomly inserted into our work programme, I managed to lose control of the three bowls of steaming tomato soup balanced on my arm (we weren’t allowed trays on these ‘posh’ days) and deposited the contents over a senior matron. I remember noting that, what with it being Heinz, the effect of bright orange soup on starched white apron was particularly vivid. Jackson Pollock’s ‘57 Varieties’!

At the second hospital I wasn’t immediately put on ‘death duties’ as we called it. I had more menial tasks meted out to me, like the regular collection of poo samples to take to the path lab. Not the most fragrant of tasks on a hot June day! Or loading sacks of wee-soaked sheets onto the same electric truck that shortly afterwards would be delivering dinners to the wards.

The thing was, the largely Italian night porters refused to go to the mortuary after dark. There was a kind of tacit agreement. If I did night time death duty, they would hump the pissy sheets.

True to form, the grim little mortuary was also situated down an avenue of dripping rhododendrons. Contributing no end to its Hammer Horror ambience was the faltering neon cross over the door, the intermittent flashing of which was made even more atmospheric when viewed through the billowing clouds of steam caused by drizzle falling on the piles of hot ash from the adjacent central heating furnaces.

Not to criticise the hospital catering, but people always seemed to die at supper time, when the endless corridors of the converted army camp would be redolent with the smell of over-boiled cabbage and cheap mince (leaving me with an unfortunate association of elements that would last a lifetime).

When the bleeper went it was inevitably during our evening break. The Italians would stare resolutely at their shepherd’s pie until, with a sigh, Muggins here would push his plate back and head off to collect what was euphemistically referred to as The D Trolley. This particular piece of equipment was basically a large aluminium box feebly disguised with a white sheet. The box reverberated ominously as it trundled along, and being fitted with those annoying castors often found on errant supermarket trolleys, it was very difficult to keep hold of, especially when squeezing through the crowds assembling at visiting time or negotiating the steep concrete paths that criss-crossed the hospital grounds. I fully admit to once losing control and depositing the occupant in a rose bed. Luckily no one witnessed this disaster. And obviously, he/she was in no position to complain.

In the mortuary it was no mean task to single-handedly transfer the deceased from the D Trolley to one of the sliding drawers in the giant fridge. Usually the bodies were fully wrapped and mummy-like (they did not use body bags) but sometimes the face was exposed. They looked very peaceful. And yes, the name tag was always tied to their big toe. I always looked at the tag and would give them a cheery ‘Good night Mr So-and-so’ as I slid the drawer into the cooler.

And then it would be back to my now congealed plate of shepherd’s pie in the canteen.

One day I was summoned to Matron’s office. Our mortuary was just a holding bay, not for public view. Seriously suited undertakers from the Co-op would whisk the deceased away to lie in state in the more salubrious surroundings of the chapel of rest in town. But, Matron explained, on this occasion the guy’s sister was emigrating to Australia of immediate effect and she wanted to view the body before she went.  ‘I hear you’re artistic. Can you make the place presentable?’

I had all of two hours. I whipped my Italian cohorts into action. Out came the mops and buckets and disinfectant. In came milk bottles containing flowers hurriedly picked from the ash heaps outside. Out went the piles of dusty X-rays and the stack of broken chairs stored in the place. The stray cat and its recently born kittens that had set up home in the lobby were banished to a back room. One kitten got stuck behind a large filing cabinet, from where, after a great deal of manoeuvring, we managed to safely extricate it with the use of a bent wire coat hanger.

I started to really get into it. I discovered a damp purple brocade curtain in a cupboard and draped it artistically over the slab. Then, joy of joys, I opened a drawer and found not only a rusty can of lavender air freshener with which to disguise the smell of Jeye’s Fluid, but also an elaborate paper collar, not unlike those used by chefs to decorate a crown roast. This I arrange around the neck of the corpse. It was the piece de resistance. One of the lads whacked the stuttering neon cross above the door with his broom, bringing it splendidly back to full operation and we stood back to admire our work.

Down the steamy drive came the veiled mourner. As she stepped across the threshold, the sun came out, sending celestial beams of light slanting through the dust motes our activities had stirred up.  What she saw was not weeds shoved into bottles and jam jars, the crumpled curtain and the cracked tiles, but a heavenly vision, her dear departed brother lying peacefully on his catafalque bathed in glory. A vision only slightly marred by the sound of mewing cats coming from behind the steel door in the corner.

Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Theresa it was not, but I had found that you can create theatre out of nothing, a discovery that would keep me in good stead for the next forty five years.

And what’s more, the grieving lady tipped us all twenty quid each, which was a blinking fortune in those days!

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Suffering for one’s art

Last week I came across an old photograph of myself from the 1970’s. Apart from sporting a fine pair of sideburns, I look fairly similar to today. Except I have a magnificent crop of blond curls. Ah, one of your many wigs I hear you surmise. But no, this is your genuine peroxide job.

The Natural Theatre Company had accepted a booking to perform on the campus of Leicester University. Thinking we’d done our trademark Flowerpot People, Conehead Aliens and Yellow Suitcases routines to death, we set about devising something new in the way of street theatre.

The date of travel loomed and nary an idea had surfaced. And then we had a brainwave. We’d become an archetypal experimental theatre group, dead serious agit-prop style. So we donned matching white dungarees and in an effort to give visual cohesion to the team, we decided to bleach our fashionably long hair.

So, such was our dedication to our art, we found ourselves at Natural HQ bent over the sink applying liberal quantities of pungent chemicals to our luxuriant locks. At first it didn’t seem to work, so in for a penny we lathered on even more bleach and eventually emerged with horrific straw-coloured barnets.

We hardly dare show ourselves in daylight, let alone travel all the way to Leicester. What’s more we smelt like a pub toilet on a good day. On the way to the motorway a lorry full of squaddies gave us the once-over. We pulled into a layby and waited until they disappeared over the horizon.

By the time we got to Leicester we had gained confidence. We had ourselves announced at the railway station (despite having travelled by van) and made a fuss of ‘arriving’ complete with an array of highly theatrical looking but completely empty trunks. 

We spent the next two days shifting these trunks around the campus, talking loudly in the student union bar and generally being a gang of luvvies. We even got up insanely early, installed ourselves in sleeping bags on the steps of the maths building as if to say we’d slept out all night, and then arose and went through a hideous warm-up routine.

It worked! We became the main topic of conversation as we blocked the Paternoster lift with yet another pile of trunks and an intriguing rail of randomly selected costumes, including if I remember rightly a gorilla suit. As we toyed with our matching salads in the refectory we heard things like ‘What’s all this about?’ ‘It’s the Natural Theatre Company. I haven’t seen them, but apparently they’re really good!’

Thus we spent the whole gig not actually doing a gig. Clever eh? But back home there was a mad rush to the sink to restore those blond locks to something resembling the original. In my case I’d gone a bleach too far and no amount of chestnut dye would do the business. I had to spend the next six weeks looking like a Diana Dors with sidies until my hair grew out.

First published 2019 in Bath Chronicle

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I have a friend who hates peanut butter and says bananas are the food of the devil. Oddly, these are two of my all-time favourite foods. How can someone be repulsed by something I find delicious? You only have to look at me to know there are not many foodstuffs I wouldn’t at least have a go at. My theory is that if something is liked by someone in the world, I’ll give it a second try.

For example, the first time I went to New York I felt I had to try a bagel in a proper Jewish deli. Well, I loved the salt beef and haimisha cucumber, but how boring was the bready thing with the hole in the middle? Similarly, on the same trip I went to a clambake and was deeply disappointed with the chewy tasteless mollusc. Not worth the effort, Elvis.*

However, I gave both items another chance and I must say these days a bag of bagels lasts about a day in my house. As for mussels, clams, scallops and the like, I love ’em!

Similar culinary choices I thought I would never fancy after just one taste include beef tartare (first attempted in a motorway services in the DDR) with its raw egg languishing on top , Bombay duck (now banned in most Indian restaurants for being too smelly) and kippers (on the bone of course). Now, having worked on my repulsion, all three are in my top twenty delicacies!

One item that I really did have to spend time on was the bizarre German product called Farmer’s Wife Cheese. Having had all the dairy content beaten out of it, it looks not unlike a lump of Pears transparent soap. In one particular down to earth café it was listed as ‘kase mit musik’, or cheese with music. When I asked why, the proprietor said I’d find out later and laughed uproariously. And indeed I did.

I thought if the farmer’s wife liked it, so should I and gave it a second go. And a third. However, on my last visit much to my chagrin I couldn’t find it anywhere. No stamina those Germans.

I must admit there are one or two dining experiences in my world travels I probably would seek to avoid. Once, my Caribbean host was of the opinion that I needed more lead in my pencil. When serving fish soup, he made sure which special bits I got. I found one and hid it in my serviette. Then it dawned on me that barracudas have two eyes. Big bulging ones.  I must have inadvertently swallowed the other one.

I can report no apparent improvement in my libido.

In Japan we persuaded our assistant he didn’t need to laboriously translate every restaurant menu. We’re English we said, we’ll eat anything. Next night, we enquired as to what exactly were the strong tasting postage stamp sized slivers of slimy dark substance atop our sashimi.

‘Raw horse!’ he answered with a chuckle.

*’Mama’s little baby loves clambake, clambake!’ by Elvis Presley

First published in 2019 in Bath Chronicle

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Please excuse any typos in this column! I’m sitting at my desk in agony. Why? Well, I’ve got a trapped nerve in my back and boy, does it hurt! X-rays reveal that I’ve got a sort of slipped disc, probably due to years of wearing unsuitable shoes on behalf of the Natural Theatre Company.

It’s not the sort of slipped disc that slips back into place, so basically I’m lumbered with it. There’s a seventeen week wait for the pain control clinic at the RUH so I’ve kept the pain at bay with several very expensive epidurals and the liberal consumption of Cocodomol. But today, not wishing to rely on pills, which we are now told are the food of the devil, I’m testing my pain barrier by attempting a medication-free day. So if my spelling goes haywire further down this article, you will know that barrier has been reached!

There is, I’m told, a whole range of mind over matter techniques that one can employ. One is giving your pain a name with which one can address it man to man as it were. I’ve called mine Boris.

Recently I went on a short break to Sardinia. Miraculously my back lasted out all the way there, despite all the stairs, ramps, suitcase lugging and queues associated with air travel.

My crisis came when I was stepping up into a pizza restaurant. At that point the arthritis that has been lurking in my one real knee decided to manifest itself and as it gave way I felt a knife stabbing me in my lower back. ‘Boris!’ I cried loudly, to no avail. I could hardly move but nothing keeps me from a genuine rustic Sardinian hand crafted wood oven baked pizza. Goodness knows what the innocent family parties dining in the establishment thought as I proceeded to join my friends at their table, bent double and hissing ‘Boris, Boris, Boris!’ through clenched teeth and bearing a wild-eyed expression.

Anyway, it’s amazing what a liberal application of melting mozzarella and a couple of glasses of Sardinian plonk can do for one and I left the premises in a reasonably upright position.

However, the pain soon came back with a vengeance and there seemed to be no way I would be able to get on the homeward flight. We called a doctor and I can tell you, steroid injections in Sardinia are a darn sight cheaper than here in Bath. In fact a friend has pointed out, one could have a fortnight in Sardinia, pizzas, epidurals and all for what they charge for one jab round here.

Suffice to say, with the help of my budget airline’s special assistance arrangements (red carpet, no queues and just a light frisking) I got home.

Another thing they tell you is to concentrate on a task rather than on the pain.  Indeed I have found that pushing a shopping trolley round Morrison’s works wonders. And maybe writing this column. A click on my spellcheck reveals no misspellings. For the moment Boris is at bay.

First published 2019 in Bath Chronicle as Ralph Oswick’s Column

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Thumbs Up

Do young people still hitchhike these days or has the practice become yet another victim of the health and safety brigade?

When I was a student (and beyond) we used to thumb lifts on a daily basis. I can barely remember ever getting on a bus, let alone buying a railway ticket.

One of my best lifts was when my college pal’s girlfriend and I decided to go and visit him in Wales during the summer break. Having been dropped off on a bleak, unpromising and increasingly rainy kerbside by a simply ghastly family in a dreadful old banger just outside London, I observed a rather flash Jaguar saloon heading our way. Now that’s the kind of lift we need I commented wryly, thinking we were far too scruffy to be picked up by such a smart vehicle.

To our surprise, the sheepskin-coated driver pulled up and ushered us into the comfy leather-lined interior. Not only was this fellow driving all the way to Wales, but it turned out he was none other than our friend’s mother’s GP!  What’s more, he took us on a side trip to the Cotswolds, bought us lunch in a quaint country pub, delivered us to mum’s door and offered to take us back to London a week or so later should we wish to take up the offer.

Which of course we did, taking our surprised pal with us.

Not all lifts were as fortuitous as that one. The same pal was hitching to Bath one day and a car pootled into sight, stopped and picked him up, but then drove off at breakneck speed.

Wishing to make conversation whilst hanging on for dear life, my friend enquired about the antique sword poking out from under a blanket on the back seat. The driver in no uncertain terms intimated that this was none of my mate’s business and pressed his foot ever harder on the accelerator. And then aimed the car directly at an oncoming double decker bus.

Why anyone who had decided to end it all would stop to give someone a lift is a mystery. Suffice to say, the bus driver took evasive action, the car crashed through a hedge, skidded across a field and overturned. The kindly driver leapt out and proceeded to run amok with said sword until the police arrived.

On medical advice, my pal remained in bed in a darkened room for a few days while we administered copious amounts of hot sweet tea!

I myself had a weird one when, late at night in thick fog the very nervous driver refused to take his hands  off the wheel and asked me to feed him a cheese sandwich which I would find in the glove compartment. I made my excuses and disembarked ASAP.

Not all hitched lifts were quite as miraculously coincidental or as dramatic as these examples. Most journeys passed without incident, one met with some great people and above all the impoverished youth of the day traveled the world absolutely gratis.

First published in Bath Chronicle as Ralph Oswick’s Column (now in its 15th year)

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Followers of this column will know that nothing annoys me more than excessive verbiage on notices, instructions and packaging.

They will recall how, on getting hot under the collar about an overhead sign advising one to  use the handrail provided (as opposed to the one not provided) at Temple Meads station , I then fell down the stairs.

Last week I bought a bar of soap. The label suggested one should apply it to wet skin, lather then rinse. I looked in vain for guidance on the subject of grandmothers and eggs, the sucking thereof. But I did find ‘Warning: Slippery when wet!’ Phew, was I glad to see that timely advice. Now I know not to grip the soap too tightly while lathering, causing it to shoot out of my hand onto my new bathroom tiles and thereby create a slip hazard all of my own!

How different my life would have been if this advice had been proffered in my formative years. How many bars of wonderful pink Camay could I have saved and how many embarrassing visits to A&E would have been avoided?

And so to my other new bathroom accessory: a shiny set of scales. Complete with instructions in at least fifteen languages explaining how to get on the thing. One foot at a time apparently. With a diagram too, just in case the lingo of your obscure Brazilian rain forest tribe isn’t featured. I don’t know about you, but I usually mount my scales both feet at a time, after taking a run-up akin to an Olympic long jump champion. Well, I shan’t be doing that again, not now I know the proper technique!

Related closely to the scales purchase is my current weight loss scheme. A month’s supply of calorie controlled ready meals arrived and I swear the box was so heavy I lost a stone carrying the thing up to my flat. The accompanying instructions were pretty minimal for a change. Number of calories and length of time required in the microwave was all.

Deciding to consume the most boring dishes first, thus saving the treats (chocolate milkshake meal replacement, yay!), I went for the just-add-hot-water dried couscous mini-pot.  Instructions on the lid simply said ‘PULL’. So I did. It might have been a mini-pot but it contained an unfeasible amount of gritty cereal. Dried couscous everywhere, including in my shoes, in the cutlery drawer, and in some personal places I discovered later and not to be discussed in a family newspaper.

The online receipt had a ‘How did we do?’ box so I told. Give them their due, they actually sent me a new mini-pot by same day courier. One little pot in bubble wrap on the back of a motorbike!

Same curt instructions.  For once there should have been a health and safety alert on the lid:

‘Warning: this product can get in your nooks and crannies if opened incorrectly’

First published 2019 as Ralph Oswick’s Column in Bath Chronicle

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Past Perfect?

The Museum of Bath at Work is staging a display all about that amazingly creative organisation of yore, the Bath Arts Workshop.

One of the most enjoyable activities back then was the house clearing service offered by the hard working workshop members.

People were very generous with their donations of jumble and bric-a-brac to our colourful fund-raising shop at the top of Walcot Street.

Stuff that would probably go to a car boot sale or be offered on Shpock these days was sold at rock bottom prices, often to households less well off than those further ‘up the hill’. We could spot an antique dealer a mile off, and I was always ready with my trusty felt pen to adjust price labels in an upward direction when we saw someone closely eying our finer examples of brown furniture.

Jumble donations were all very well, but it was the full house clearances that got our pulses racing. When we got the call, often from a grieving relative who couldn’t face going through all great Aunt Ethel’s stuff at that juncture, we would drop what we were doing and dash off in the van. I do declare that clearing houses was much more fun than creating art!

With a totter’s eye we would suss out all the best items and stash them in the truck. We knew from experience that Ethel’s nephew or niece would sooner or later pull themselves together and arrive to declare ‘Actually, that Welsh dresser is mine’ or ‘I meant to take that Ming vase home with me’ and leaving us the dross. Not that we ever got any Ming vases…we were thrilled if we found a coronation mug or an unused electric carving knife still in its Argos box. Rest assured, Aunt Ethel very rarely had any art deco diamond earrings hidden away in a drawer. But give us an art deco plywood tea tray (50p) or a pokerwork Radio Times cover (£1) and we were over the moon!

After a lightning trawl through auntie’s treasures, we would set to, removing everything else that might raise a penny or five. I think I wrote before how we would stop off in a layby and affix price labels to everything saleable before we flung the van doors open in Walcot Street for the delectation of the general public who would circle like vultures if it was rumoured that our famous pink and green van, known fondly as King Kong Transport, was about to hove into view.

Our last load would be all the rubbish, broken chairs, old mattresses and rusty bikes destined for landfill, whilst old clothes and bedding could be sold in bulk to the rag man in Milk Street. We would then clean the kitchen, polish the bathroom and leave the house spick and span, the way Aunt Ethel would have liked.

It was a really useful service and an early example of recycling, all done for a good cause. Though secretly, I enjoyed doing it so much I called it ‘Greed by proxy’.  

First published in 2019 in Bath Chronicle to mark 50th Anniversary of the bonkers Bath Arts Workshop

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Art School remembered

I recently complained that parliamentary candidates rarely mention the arts in their manifestos. This was somewhat redressed recently when I attended a seminar organised by our local MP.

This featured the launch of the new Arts Council strategy. To me, it seemed much the same as the old strategy in that it stressed that art was for all and everybody deserves a chance to explore their own creative potential. All the art I have produced over the years has had that premise in mind, so it was nothing new to me. But good to have it laid out in black and white as a definite ongoing policy.

Also included was a very jolly film showing the strategy in action. A veritable rainbow nation creating away like billy-oh, drumming, painting, dancing and generally being artistic. A paean of diversity. It’s going to be great. And why not, thought I, start with the here and now? Looking round at the hundreds of delegates representing every possible arts organisation in the city and beyond, one couldn’t help noticing they were 99% white.

For me the venue was the star. The new Bath Spa University Arts Faculty Locksbrook Campus is wondrous to behold. Like the Lidl building across the river, this is a rare thing in our heritage obsessed city: a listed modern building. Both structures were former furniture factories developed by the remarkably forward looking Herman Miller Company. Both now have a new lease of life.

The facilities in this huge building with its distinctive modular panels (with a wry nod to Bath stone in their cream colouring) are fabulous. Included within the exterior skin are technical workshops, flexible studios, a spectacular open social space, a bookshop and a truly inspirational ambiance for budding artists and designers.

So unlike my dear Wimbledon School of Arts in the 1960’s. The theatre design department where I spent my formative years was housed in two crumbling Edwardian houses. One, with its creaking floorboards and leaky loo contained what we laughably referred to as design studios but which were just old bedrooms fitted with desks and Anglepoise lamps. Opposite, the second mansion contained the costume department, fiercely guarded by the sewing tutor’s Pekinese dog.

This also housed the hat making studio where you may recall we wicked students nearly asphyxiated our hated millinery tutor by locking her in the room with a hat steamer filled with eau de cologne!

The ‘facility’ I really loathed was the glue boiling room where we learnt how stick one thing to another.  That room stank, the sink being permanently blocked with the glutinous remains of failed experiments. Here we also studied a process known as ‘breaking down’: I remember a particularly glamorous student shuffling round for a whole day sporting a huge pair of miner’s boots covered in glue in order to attract a patina of age.

I think if I attempted to enter the glossy new arts campus in a pair of sticky boots, the security guys would be down on me in an instant!

First published in Bath Chronicle as Ralph Oswick’s Weekly Column

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Corona Free

Even I can’t find anything funny about the last couple of weeks. Strained bonhomie delivered from my balcony to acquaintances passing by, endlessly repeated gallows humour scraped off the internet. Yes, I have seen that. No it’s not hilarious.

Rather than squeezing a few laughs out of what was until recently just another fizzy drink (Corona? Geddit? See, not really funny), I’m going to trawl up some amusing stories about my time with the Natural Theatre Company which are normally included in my popular after dinner talk entitled for obvious reasons ‘Travels as my Aunt’ the delivery of which is currently curtailed.

During my time with the company, we performed in over eighty countries, mostly in shopping centres (Benetton in Marrakech is much the same as Benetton in Maidstone) but also in castles, palaces, airport concourses, on cruise liners, on the top of mountains, at Buckingham Palace, on the Orient Express, on a submarine, at the Great Pyramid of Giza, on a station in Islamabad, in a Munich circus (complete with elephants) and even on a flight to Malaga.

This last one was a hoot. We (I say ‘we’ but sometimes I simply helped dispatch the teams around the globe, like at theatrical Amazon.com) The company was booked for a hen party, an entire airliner full of shrieking ladies knocking back the Prosecco like it was going out of fashion. Imagine the crescendo registered on the shriek meter when shortly after take-off instead of the smartly uniformed attendants, the Naturals emerged from the galley completely starkers. Well, not really naked but sporting their realistic nude suits with the rude bits sewn on and set off by a natty cabin crew scarves.

More Prosecco was distributed, seat belts adjusted and of course the safety drill had to be repeated and this time the passengers really did pay attention. As did the guys in air traffic control when the team posed on the steps of the plane with the real crew.

Disasters came thick and fast. One of the performers was bitten by a performing monkey in Pakistan, I myself was arrested in Brighton, Bath and Vienna and we were all poisoned in Ashgabat where we found out too late that the kindly young man from the Turkmenistan National Orchestra looking after us was filling the kettle for our daily afternoon tea from a pond in the yard of the opera house, the theatre’s plumbing having given up.

In my time we were kidnapped twice, had bricks thrown at our heads in Newcastle and had a television set dropped on us from the top floor of a block of flats in Sheffield*. We misjudged the undertow on Ipanema beach and were nearly drowned, got caught up in an illegal Basque independence demo in Spain and caused a riot in Bogota.

These and other stories I hope to be able to share with you over the next few weeks. And if you’ve heard any of them before (i.e. if you’ve ever stood next to me in a pub) I apologise.

*The show went on regardless!

First published in Bath Chronicle as Ralph Oswick’s Weekly Column (now in its 15th year)

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