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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Munchies

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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Ouch!

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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Verbiage

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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