I started this blog in 2011 to report back on shows I have attended, mainly theatre but also some concerts and sporting events.
It has also become a vehicle for some film, television (current and archive), book reviews, and some more personal pieces.
On a professional level I worked for twenty-five years as a librarian, and also am a published writer – academic articles, poetry, popular culture – and spent five years editing a journal for a major publisher. If you would like to know more, see my LinkedIn profile.
As of 2019 writing and editing has become my main job, and I am very keen to engage with productions, outlets, and arts organisations to expand my coverage and my reviews.
Last month, after a lot of stress, frustration and unhappiness, I decided to make a decision that would take me out of 25 years of secure, full-time employment and into the great unknown: I said goodbye to my well-paid job and to the profession I have been working in all my life.
I am now classing myself as a blogger and a writer, a freelance for eventual hire, and a semi-retired lady of leisure. My former industry – libraries – has changed so much since I started.
Do more with less has been the mantra across all aspects of service, while expectations continue to grow from what we now call ‘customers’ rather than ‘readers’ or ‘users’.
I cared so much about my profession. I contributed so much to it: building teams, changing strategy, giving presentations, writing articles, serving on committees.
I built a national and international reputation for being tough but fair, for wanting the very best for any service for which I was a part. I worked in every area of the business from unpacking boxes to supporting and advising executive staff.
But – my health was suffering underneath for years. I have crippling social anxiety so networking became more and more of a chore. And although I never doubted myself once as a professional, things started to change so fast and make me so worried I fell into depression, anxiety and insomnia.
I knew what it was, and I also knew that support in any business is still sorely lacking. Eventually with the help of my GP, a Harley Street psychologist, doctors at Occupational Health, my lovely husband, and the wisdom of friends who had also strugged to cope, I steadily improved, realised that getting well = getting out, and so here I am.
It’s by far the best decision I have ever made. I retain my column in Serisls Review. I am stepping up my blog. I hope to get some guest slots or invitations to write elsewhere. I’m planning a third poetry book.
In terms of eventually making money I want to get my proofreading and copyediting qualifications (so if you’re reading this and can put any work my way which I could use to build my portfolio, please contact me via the About page here).
I want to be out and about reviewing theatre, film, archive television, books. So if you would like me to engage with your work, send me an email.
Most importantly, now I don’t have a day job where I have to watch what I say, I can now be more political, more activist, more honest in how I engage on social media. Of course as an ex-librarian I retain their code of ethics, but if I want to call something out I will do it.
Being constrained and squashed was making me ill. I’m still tired, rundown, and sometimes have bad ‘crawl under the duvet’ days.
But I sleep better, and don’t have the knot in my chest or the pain in my stomach that are physical manifestations of stress. At least not as much as before.
I’m hopeful. I’m contented. I was absolutely right to say ‘so long’ to Louise the librarian and ‘hello’ to Lou, the brave.
In honour of the 40th anniversary of the publication of the Raymond Briggs book of The Snowman, this new “experience” has been created by Backyard Cinema. It claims to be a fully immersive experience in which fans of both book and the 1982 television film can enjoy the story in a “3-D” setting, as “if you are flying with the Snowman”. In short, it claims something special: but is it?
The attraction begins with the now obligatory photographs which you can buy later in the gift shop. Then to a waiting area where a trailer promises great things ahead, before you are ushered into a screening room to watch the first part of the film.
This area is dressed with sets of both the living room and the kitchen, plus windows leading to the outside. A snowball hits the kitchen window in virtual form when the little boy throws it. The Christmas tree lights and the TV come on and off in synch with what we see on the screen. When the Snowman turns on the hot tap, steam comes out of the one on the set.
But sadly no magic feeling when the Snowman comes to life at midnight, other than the spotlighting of a grandfather clock.
Then to room two, which you reach through a forest of branches and crunchy ground, to stand and watch the bike ride and the Walking in the Air flying sequence. At the point the Snowman and the boy take off, the 4:3 ratio film is zoomed in and stretched to widescreen, and I’m sorry to say the quality suffered, spoiling many of the sequences such as the man with the bottle, and the appearance of the whale.
Finally, the North Pole party is viewed (back to original ratio, happily) in a set dressed with a party table, lights, and a brief appearance of the Snowman himself.
This experience is an interesting idea, but to me it was a three-star experience showcasing a five-star film. The power is in Briggs’s story and how it was adapted for the small screen. That does come across – just – but the extras just aren’t magical or special enough for me, and I left a little disappointed. Immersive experiences are thriving in the theatre and this needs to up its game to compete with them.
In the gift shop the best value items are a small Snowman for £9, one of the photos from the start for £10 (or four for £25), and small badge pins. You can splash out on a beautiful Stieff Snowman for £69, or a large cuddly version for £26. Or if you would like the anniversary editions of the book or film, these are here too.
Tickets for The Snowman Experience are £13, and the experience takes 45 minutes to complete, with shows starting every 20 minutes. Entry to Winter Wonderland itself is free.
Regular readers will know that currently I am living with anxiety, stress and depression, which had restricted my ability to engage in my working life and left me taking each day at a time until I get back to my full strength again. I have written about it here and here.
However, I am also a blogger and one of my primary interests is the theatre.
From my first trips with school to the Oldham Coliseum, through years living in Yorkshire and taking advantage of theatres across the North, I have always loved the escapism of the footlights (but as an observer, never a performer).
I’m lucky enough to live in London, which has over two hundred theatres, West End, off-West End, fringe and pop-up. Whether your taste is the big, tourist-trap musical or the above-the-pub experimental, the huge organisations (National, Old Vic, Barbican) or the exciting stuff in the smaller houses, there is something here for you. London is also home to several suburban theatres in its surrounding towns, which host travelling tours.
This is not the post where I will discuss theatre pricing, although that may be something I return to at a later date.
No, this is about how going to the theatre has had a positive effect on my mental health. How seeing others performing in something created for the masses lifts my spirits and keeps me calm and relaxed. How having an hour, two, three, to think about something else other than the triggers that make me jumpy and unhappy, is the best non-medical intervention money can buy.
For me, live performance – and I will stretch this to concerts to some extent, although sometimes they are too crowded and noisy for me – is an escape, and in building this blog over the past few years I have been able to concentrate for short periods to review and reflect on what I have seen. Even shows which are dark and challenging can offer something to a brain which is slightly off-kilter; it doesn’t have to be something silly which brings nothing but laughter.
I do plan my visits, though. I usually attend theatres I have been to before, or stick to the centre of the city. If I do venture further out I plan my journey, make sure I know where I am going, and always get there at least half an hour before so I can get my bearings, take a deep breath, and get settled.
If I can, and I’m on my own, I try to talk to people around me in the auditorium, although being in London that’s not always an option, and I have become acutely aware that there may be other people in attendance who are just as anxious as me. So sitting in silence and just looking around the place is fine. Now and again my lovely husband comes along with me, and then I’m a bit braver, maybe going to somewhere without all that double-checking, and just purely enjoying myself.
I love the atmosphere of a theatre. What the outside looks like, how the show is promoted on the frontage. The lights in the evening, the bustle outside in the day. The foyers, the staff, the pictures, the programme. How people act before the house is open. How everyone always grumbles about the loos even when they are fairly palatial (ENO Coliseum, take a bow). The nooks and crannies of larger venues – the thrill of finding a new corner of a new level at the National, the weird little rooms around the basement stalls of Victorian buildings.
Once you’re in the auditorium: sneaking a peak at the set on stage, watching as the levels fill up, the scents and sounds and sights of a unique new audience, checking out the seat and the leg-room, the arm-rests, the strangers who will be neighbours for however long the magic lasts, the busy ushers who have eyes like hawks. The half-darkness in many houses well before the show gets going.
What’s the stage like? A traditional proscenium? A thrust stage? In the round? What props are visible? What’s the lighting like? Is anyone on the stage already, and what are they doing? Is there music playing before the show starts? Working out the sight-line (especially if a larger head is directly in front!). Putting the baggage of life out in the real world away under the seat, working out where to put the programme, having a quick check for the nearest exit at the end of the show.
All this helps to calm the anxious mind and push any difficult thoughts away. For the next hour, two, three, my reality is what’s showing on that stage in front of me, and those people who are performing are not the people who are listed in the programme, but characters who are taking this journey with us and for us. I have always been fascinated by actors and that ability to inhabit another body and soul. Actors I have followed for years across different roles and shows, or those I am seeing for the first time, and there is always the chance that one of them will settle in the memory forever, for what they do on the stage, now.
Some shows leave you laughing, some leave you crying, and some have a touch of both. When you’re unwell, and your emotions have been squashed a bit by medication or by something that really doesn’t feel quite right, being able to connect on whatever level with the theatre is invaluable. Thinking, talking, reading and writing about it later helps that feeling even more.
If something is rattling around in my mind, the best way to stop it for me is watching a play or musical on the stage (I also watch lots of films too, and they have the advantage of being able to revisit as often as you want, for far less than the outlay for two visits to the theatre), but the theatre has an immediacy and is being shared, just that one time, by those who are present at that time, on that day.
Without the escape and cocoon of the stage I would be far further back along the road to recovery. Even if I have to take that two steps back now and again, the show pulls me back and gives me strength. And that’s why it is special, and valuable, and essential, for me.
It was my attempt to make sense of a crisis point in my mind and in my life which has led to my being off work since April, and to hopefully return in October. The expectation is clearly when I return to work I will be “well” and all will be as it was before, although after periods of physical illness caused by stress even before anxiety and depression kicked in, I knew that things had changed.
I want to engage with work in some degree, but I also want to be “well”. For me, that means my health has now taken a significant leapfrog over my career, and I wish to find a work-life balance that will help me progress through my recovery over the next few years; I believe strongly it will take as long as that to get back to the point where I was, in summer 2016, before I started worrying, not sleeping, crying at a drop of a hat, and feeling sick at heart at the prospect of heading out of the house and engaging with others.
While I’ve been off, the physical symptoms I experienced with IBS (painful cramps) and migraine, have diminished – not altogether gone, because a bad day can pitch me back – and my levels of anxiety and self-worth have slowly started to readjust to a more “normal” level.
Well, normal for me. I’ve been experimenting with mindfulness, CBT (on my own, as the local mental health unit’s phone support was poor), and seeing a private psychologist on the advice of occupational health. All this calms me. I’ve also been lucky that I can still find some pleasure in activities like films and theatre, our local zoo, music. I even found the original ms. of the poetry book I had published in 2000. This original version is good. I was a good writer. One of these days I will share this book with you.
My confidence, though, and drive, will never get to the same level again, and I have to accept this. I am still struggling with retaining information and finding the right word, and for someone who has always traded in words (writing, presenting) that scares me. I play word-games, I blog, I make sure each and every day I am out and about I talk to at least two or three people; it doesn’t matter who or why, the most mundane interaction helps a lot.
While being off, I have tried to get out of the door most days. Stay engaged with what’s going on in the world. I still feel shattered but not weepy or angry anymore. I have reconnected with “me” since stepping back from work. I have engaged with my husband more, my parents, my house. Health is everything, work is not the be all and end all of my life, nor are the financial compensations that come from it.
Occupational health felt it may be more that six months before I am fully able to engage with work on a full-time basis; I want to pre-empt this, and to stop any possibility of causing problems to the business from short-term (or worse) when I return, so I am exploring flexible working and reduced hours. There are no guarantees of course, which leads me to worry about what may happen if I return full-time too soon.
Now I know myself a lot better, now my medication has changed, now I know that I am not responsible for the failings of everyone else in my organisation. I still have high standards, I still care, but I have to balance that black dog which sometimes makes me whine, or bark, or want to curl up in a corner. I have to conquer it. And I will, but now I accept that time needs to be taken to do so.
Many friends have been very supportive and caring during this process: I thank them all here. You’re terrific, especially those of you who have been through similar feelings and situations. The support network out there is immense. Within organisations, though, and within the NHS, there is a mountain to climb when it comes to understanding, empathy, and basic levels of support.
Mental health is not “like breaking a leg”. It is feeling so much pressure you feel caged, or want to break and run. It is feeling so frustrated you lash out in anger at yourself and others. It is feeling sad and hopeless, sometimes to the point of looking at a train track, a knife, or pills, and thinking “what if”. It is feeling terrified at the thoughts that come and go, which plague you in the dark or needle you in the light.
Most of all it is finding one’s inner strength, and recognising the best and most appropriate path to recovery. Wish me luck.
Twitter will be sympathetic this week, even empathetic.
Tips will be shared, there will be discussions about ‘stigma’ and how in these more enlightened days, mental health issues are treated in the same way as physical ones.
Except that’s still not the case. Why is that? Are people frightened that their own minds might be as fragile as those around them? Are people embarrassed, irritated, inconvenienced? Do they see it as yet another modern ‘trend’?
I wrote about my own engagement with the black dog recently. The more of us who do this, who say, ‘this is me’, in just the same way one discusses a broken arm, a dicky heart, or a chest infection, the more we will break through the awkward silence, the suspicion, the blatant disregard of situations which need our help.
This is me. Get over it.
Follow the #mentalhealthawarenessweek tags on Twitter. Read around the links and articles which will be shared. Take a look at the cartoons and photographs.
Don’t say people ‘confess’ to a mental health condition. Don’t treat them as something shameful – if a colleague of yours is ill, then treat them the same way you would with a physical ailment. Send them a get well card. Say you hope they’ll feel better soon. You know, ‘normal’ stuff.
Because these are ‘normal’ people. I hope this week makes that clear, and gets the dialogue moving, continuing, and progressing.
Lou’s Top Tips:
Put yourself first. Not anyone else.
Fight for what is right for you, whether that is in work or personal life.
Engage where you feel up to doing so, disengage where you need to.
Don’t feel guilty is you can’t do something. It doesn’t matter.
Find something you enjoy, as that will lift you up.
Forgive ignorance, however well meant.
Value yourself. If you don’t why should anyone else?
Go out and listen to the birds sing.
Look back to those you loved, and situations which made you happy.
Be mindful. Meditate.
If you believe in something, don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong.
I’m forty-six years old this year. And all through my life I’ve been hard to get to, hard to define. I was a hard child to understand, says my mother.
At school I had little or no confidence and my friendships tended to be more intense than others. I didn’t make friends easily, I never thrived in a group. I still don’t. I was easy to push around and laugh at.
I struggle with my thoughts and my confidence. Right now I am coping (not always that well!) with anxiety, depression, and frustration. But I have a good job. I have a great husband. I still have my parents. I’m in a good place financially.
It’s never quite ‘right’ but I can’t define why. I feel sometimes that work peers don’t care or respect my professional skills. I sometimes feel like a fish out of water. I wake up in a sweat. I get cramps. I shake. I can’t concentrate or even sometimes find the right word. I forget things. I don’t have the strength to be strong.
So getting out of the door is not easy. Staying engaged and interested in what’s going on around me is not easy. Even getting my point across when I know I have something real and genuine to say is not easy. Not crying is easy because really I can’t but if I could, I would. When you look at yourself and feel like you’re letting yourself down. Letting everyone else down.
I can’t push myself. I’ve done well in my career but right now I don’t feel it. I’ve pushed myself to do presentations, to join committees, to engage in professional spaces. I love nurturing and helping others achieve their potential.
But this black dog has me right now. It will get better, but it hurts me physically as well as messing with my mind. I ache. I feel pain. I feel shattered. I feel weepy. I feel angry. And this time it’s been this way for a year, up and down. Last time it was nearly two. I pushed through that but sometimes you can’t. You can’t. You have to say stop.
So I’m not using this post to complain, just to explain. You can’t stand in my shoes but now and again, just ask me if I’m OK. Send me happy thoughts. Be nice if you see me. Don’t push away my concerns just because they are not yours. I can even make you laugh if you let me (even if I’m churning up inside). Because I sometimes even make myself laugh.
I’m determined. I’ll be back. I’ll be whatever kind of ‘normal’ it is appropriate for me to be. That’s the joy of being unique.
Credit: Romp Roll Rockies
I’m still doing my reviews. I’m still reading, watching, enjoying.
Born in 1943, and named Victor, this artist, musician and unique personification of the English dandy, free spirit and eccentric, proves hard to pin down.
His widow, Ki Longfellow, has had this book in planning for a long time. Her history. His history. That of friends and collaborators, family and fans, and more.
From the early days as a member of the Bonzo Dog Dada Band – the quirky mix of Studdy drawing and creative canvas – the renamed Vivian excuded a virile and dangerous charm in the most simple of songs. If his Intro was via affectionate spoofs of old 78s, it would be the route to a drunken Viking flame, all consuming much of his legacy in his Muswell Hill flat.
This book is not a biography. Not a memoir. Some of it we’ve seen before (Vivian and Ki’s first date, with him in green with his beard tied with a ribbon, and her, the American who had no clue who he was, regarding him so closely they clicked and understood each other; notes on his solo albums Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead and Teddy Boys Don’t Knit), some is new – the drinking, the chemical experimentation leaving to a broken, brilliant brain and a sensual sensitivity alongside the behaviour one might charitably describe as quirky, but those who lived with it might have felt they were screaming into the void.
The book, which runs to 320 pages of beautiful perfect-bound paperback (and did I say it smells great? Well, it smells great), is, as promised by the title, illustrated, lavishly so with drawings by Ben Wickey, personal photographs from many aspects of Vivian’s life, and writings and paintings by the man himself – he threw his torment and his sense of fun into his art, and wrote love notes to his wife on single sheets of toilet paper – musing while straining?
There’s love on each page. Frustration, too. Loss. Admiration. Regret. It’s a happy book. It’s a sad book. It’s an honest book. There are lyrics – Strange Tongues, Arc of a Diver – which belie the mad and odd image many carry of Stanshall, if they remember him at all. They speak of a perceptive visionary who looked at life and the world so askance that it probably gleamed crystal clear.
Keith Moon, Who drummer, fellow imbiber, partner in frivolities, dead just past thirty. Vivian Stanshall, at thirty out of the Bonzos, creating Sir Henry at Rawlinson End for radio, album, movie. Hubert the hurt who lost his shirt.
Ki opening herself wide open to pull his into that world, sticky, tricky, prickly – the boats, the art, the exploitation, the obsession with cock which made the artist honest and unabashed as addictions removed inhibitions and lifted the Crank into something wider.
Sadness. When Vivian Stanshall died, he was still only young but in that physical shell there was so much strength. That beauty on page 22 (and he was, however curio-bat-crazee that sounds) became the genius, the push me pull me which came apart and reassembled in a shape which couldn’t operate within the normal.
This book is a triumph. It’s pricey for sure, and will cost you the same as a decent West End theatre ticket, or all of the recorded oeuvre of VS put together, but if you are any kind of fan – and it is squarely aimed at the fan – you will feel a connection to the man, or as close as you can get through one woman’s reality of his reality of himself. Or something.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a circus. It’s possible there were animals involved, very likely at the Tower in Blackpool.
Moscow State Circus – which has Russian and Eastern Bloc performers who are largely based in the West – has a lot of the spectacular routines we have become accustomed to through the likes of Cirque du Soleil.
There are clowns, a contortionist, a trapeze artist, an aerial hoop duo, a group of tumblers, a unicyclist, skipping bell boys, and more. There may be a few cheesy moments and a few clown routines which don’t quite click, but the stunts are clever and often breathtaking.
See some highlights in the photos below. The Circus continues at Ealing until January 7th, after which ‘Miracles’ tours around Britain.