Friday, 19 September 2014

Life Goes On

It’s been some time since Edinburgh emptied, and the sound of suitcases trundled along the cobbled streets is a distant memory of Festivity. Sometimes in September I feel as deflated as the purple cow that stood with its legs in the air on Bristo Square. But there is still much to recall from epicurean August.

There was one person whose work made a big impact on me during this Fringe. A brilliant actor, Helen Duff, successfully flyered me a few years ago, and coincidentally was performing in the same venue as me this year. Her show was a solo piece about anorexia, combining drama, clown, and improvisation.

I was apprehensive about going. I have had more than one relationship with someone with an eating disorder history, and have been personally affected by the effects of this serious mental health condition. The way Helen tackled the subject with humour and drama was incredibly moving. Had I reviewed the show, I would have given it five stars without hesitation. So here is my take.


Vanity Bites Back  ✭✭✭✭✭


As a self-confessed exploration of anorexia, this show is not an easy sell. Yet from the start we are lured into empathy with the solo performer. Offering Digestive biscuits to every member of the audience, Duff immediately develops a jovial rapport, and then takes us into the contrivance of the show. We are watching a Television Pilot of a Cookery Show hosted by a slightly crazy 1950’s cookery presenter-cum-Home Economics teacher.

The recipe of the day is cheesecake. Realising that she has given the chief ingredient to the audience, Duff proceeds to collect the biscuits back. However, most have been eaten. One person complains that they saved it for later, to which Duff retorts, “Well now is later – that’s how time works.” In ‘real time’ we are given an absurd cookery demonstration, involving an attempt to melt butter by placing the pack between two close-sat audience-members.

But through ‘flash-back’ we get serious food for thought.

The hilarity, clowning, and quick humour disguise a carefully devised script. While our TV host mixes ingredients or spreads butter up her arms (the relationship with food, demonstrably complex and distressing) we get insights into the back-story of her eating disorder, and a horrific, life-changing incident. At these points the audience falls into rapt silence.

Duff is completely in control of her craft at every stage of her performance. But then, ‘control’ is often an underlying factor in this disorder. Some of the ‘clowning’ with food might be viewed as distasteful, yet we are quickly snapped out of our reaction as Duff apologises, “We’re not in the business of making people uncomfortable!”

Regarding her cheesecake demonstration, the completed creation is clearly inedible, although our host points out “We’ve had fun.” But have we? Having been subtly led through a narrative of trauma disguised as a funny, anarchic Fringe-show in a dank cave on Niddrie Street, some may feel that Duff is either taking the biscuit, or the piss.

But when she comes out of character and speaks as Helen, the real person who has made this show – not the cookery pilot but this Fringe-show – the work turns into a powerful, emotional and thoroughly honest piece of theatre. Art, as we know, is a lie that helps us to understand the truth. “This is what I have,” says Helen Duff: “Me. Hello?”

There may have been more than one person in the audience fighting back tears then. Helen’s performance was produced in association with B-eat, the UK's leading support network dedicated to beating eating disorders. Through her honesty, integrity, and artistic prowess, Helen Duff is a powerful ambassador whose work deserves a bigger audience. Art may lie, but truth will tell.

On this day, of all days, I am conscious that, when faced with pain and confusion, we have to embrace life. Giving life to others is all very well, but we have to celebrate the gift we ourselves have been given. And never give in.

Here, then, is the next in my series of stories for this year.

from Charlotte & The Charlatan – and other cautionary tales


Charlotte & The Potato



Lottie liked potatoes. She liked them quite a lot. She cooked them by the plateful; she cooked them by the pot. She loved the musical ones – Chopin, Mozart, Vivaldi; savoured Harmony and Melody well; Nicola, Nadine and Annabelle. Oval, long, or round, she’d buy them by the pound. Fluffy, smooth, firm to the bite, she’d purchase every type: King Edward, Maris Piper, or the nutty ones called Anya that you get in M-&-S or Tesco. But her favourite was the Charlotte Potato.

            Lottie cooked potatoes in every conceivable style. Boiled, baked, roasted; steamed, mashed, chipped, even toasted. Once in a while she’d try something fancy: Dauphinoise, Parmentier; or she’d boil them ’til al dente for Salade Niçoise; chop them with chives and add mayonnaise. Bangers and Mash was a staple for Charlotte, and swordfish went best with sweet potato lightly crushed; while for Kippers, Roosters were always a must, tossed with sea-salt, or in their jackets, perhaps.

            Sauté, wedges, crisps, or gratin; Bombay, Cajun; Spanish Omelette, or Corned Beef Hash: Charlotte prepared a potato in any way a human humanly can. Except for one thing. Although Charlotte loved potatoes, she couldn’t stomach them. She could only bear to eat them adorned with little more than butter and pepper. Those who knew who her better knew that, for all her dabbling with the culinarily experimental, she couldn’t eat a potato in any other form than elemental.

            This, she claimed, was for a simple but spurious reason. It was due to the taste.

            But ‘taste’ as we know comes from ‘gusto’ – or in French, dégoûté. If potatoes fill you with disgust, you must vomit them out straightaway. And this is what Charlotte did. She kept this hidden, but when she met the Charlatan her secret was discovered. By then, recovered from her purging, Lottie was healthy again, so the Charlatan introduced cuisine that Charlotte had never seen.

            With dishes Italians call farinaceous, he thought gnocchi would be a sensible start (he wanted to win her stomach before her heart) then every variety of pasta-and-sauce, which he put, of course, before pastry. Salads more tasty than she’d ever tried, and vegetables, roots, tubers, fruits and legumes; from mundane to exotic, prickly to passionate, even erotic.

            Meat he presented in joints, cuts, casseroles, stews; and of fruits-of-the-sea there was much to choose: Charlotte adopted a Sea-food diet. As soon as she saw it, she wanted to try it, attacking mussels with nymphomaniacal fervour, she ignored oysters’ aphrodisiacal claim.

            All the same, the Wizard considered her hooked. There was, however, something he’d overlooked. Charlotte was intelligent, wise, but her mind was academic; her body was ruled by a controlling condition. Lottie was bulimic. Her stomach was full but her heart was an open sore. When the Charlatan told her he loved her, Charlotte wanted no more.

            Of the Charlatan’s love, Charlotte was in no doubt. But she hated herself, and bloated by his affection, she stuck her fingers down her throat. And puked him out.

(ADDED, September 24TH)

from Charlotte & The Charlatan – and other cautionary tales


Polly the Pilferer



Polly was witty, intelligent, wise, so why she loved to plagiarise was anybody’s guess. She had money and means and plenty of friends; a fiancé and a wedding dress; she had beauty and talent and suffered little emotional pain; she had a fertile body and an equally fertile brain. Was she greedy or needy or envious? Her life was hardly bereft of material acquisitions, so why the serial compulsion for theft of other people’s possessions?

            Her husband-to-be was well-endowed (at least, financially) and could give Polly (almost) anything: she only had to ask. Perhaps she was hiding behind an invisible mask; Polly craved a different sort of satisfaction that required deceit. She devised an elaborate plan, and steadily put it into action.

            She set up a fraudulent Facebook page with photos purloined from the internet. Whatever she wanted Polly would get: her Youtube channel had videos filched from other users’ shows – she’d paste over the captions and pass them off as her own. Her twitter was mainly re-tweets – she never gave her opinions away – and her Tumblr and Pinterest profiles attracted attention, although they were frauds through and through.

            Her cuckoo-nest blog gained a hundred daily views: nobody thought it absurd or knew that Polly had written not a single word. Her Curriculum Vitae was peppered with qualifications – most of them fake or invented – and her entire work-history was only a mystery to Polly, for no prospective employer suspected her life was not her own, but rented. She went through every job like a vulture, picking off posts as if they were carrion; usurping positions, jumping the queue. If anyone dared to challenge her she would carry on with a different department.

            Polly had not the slightest care for what ‘affairs-of-the-heart’ meant. She’d found herself a suitably older man to marry. He had a couple of grown-up offspring – for Polly this wasn’t a worry. There was, however, one thing of which he was incapable. Due to a small operation called a vasectomy. No matter, he had money, and as he slid the engagement ring on her finger, Polly created another scheme.

            She joined a dating website where she posed as a rich business-women. Her few photos were real, her profile, alluring, her appeal soon created a stir. Polly was pretty particular about her Perfect Partner, and found the ideal sort: sensitive, intelligent, a good sense of humour and friendly smile. And most important: virile. By night, she said she loved him but, by daylight, she robbed him. ‘Whether a lover, husband, best friend, acquaintance or even, enemy,’ she told him: ‘I want you in my life in any capacity.’

            She lured him like a honey-pot; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter. She didn’t really want him; what she wanted was a daughter. And much as Polly loved her fiancé (especially his money) he couldn’t provide her with her greatest need. All the same, reader, she married him. Then she dumped her part-time lover, having plagiarised his seed.