Thursday, 26 February 2015

A small love letter to the Royal Exchange Theatre.

I watched the film Cloud Atlas for the first time recently. And found that a particular scene from the film stayed with me, and resonated deeply.
(Please note - the following contains spoilers.)

One of the intertwined threads of the tale follows Ben Whishaw's genius composer Robert Frobisher - whose story is told in flashback, through a series of letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith. 
Frobisher endures a blackmail attempt - and after an accidental shooting,  eludes the police and eventually goes into forced hiding and lives in poverty  - his physical health rapidly deteriorating. But not before completing his musical masterpiece. He eventually takes his own life - while first writing his farewell in a last letter to Rufus. 

On the morning of his death, Frobisher first climbs to the top of Edinburgh's Scott Monument, and sits in silence, smoking a cigarette, watching the dawn and the light grow across the city.

Sixsmith. 
I climb the steps of the Scott monument every morning and all becomes clear. 
Wish I could make you see this brightness. 
Don't worry, all is well. All is so perfectly, damnably well.

Finished in a frenzy that reminded me of our last night in Cambridge. Watched my final sunrise. Enjoyed a last cigarette. 
Didn't think the view could be any more perfect.

(Still from Cloud Atlas found here.)

I found this surprising, reflective moment to be deeply moving. 
Sadness and serenity and acceptance all in one instant. How everything suddenly stops moving and rushing and becomes still. And how all weariness falls away at the sight of such profound and uncomplicated beauty. 

It instantly transported me to the Royal Exchange Theatre - my most treasured place on earth. 
That stillness. And Frobisher's expression. 
Which is exactly how I feel each time I walk into the Royal Exchange's outer hall.

Aside from the gorgeous alchemy, connections and creativity that exists inside the actual theatre pod itself - (where stories are spun and audience and players join together to make entrancing illusions) - the hall is a remarkable space of such beauty and character in its own right. And something quite extraordinary.

Rose-coloured marbled pillars soar to the roof, adorned with gilded gold tips that curl and blossom. Domes of blue-purple arch across the ceiling, cathedral-like in their grandeur. Rainbow-hued panels set amongst the walls cast a playful, delightful, soft sheen across the foyer. And in spite of the grand, imposing theatre pod that stretches out from the centre, there is a refreshing sense of air and space and freedom.

Tables and chairs scattered unobtrusively around the hall allow for informal gatherings, for individuals to sit and sip coffee, to read, to rest, to draw, to write - or simply to sit and be.
 There is no obligation to purchase a ticket to see a play or buy refreshments from the cafe - in the hours before and after performances take place, one can come and simply sit, undisturbed and unquestioned. As I have done many times.

The hall is rarely noisy - the high ceilings echo and bounce voices, but seem to soften them in the process. 
There is a an enduring sense of utter calm, of serenity, of right-ness. Everything running with smooth efficency and unhurried quiet. 

(They also have a resident bear.)

Like Frobisher's tower, this is a place where man-made design and the natural elements elegantly, effortlessly intersect. Where angular architecture catches and disperses shafts and beams of light. Where the natural world - with its ever-changeable sunbeams, light and air - and the fixed consistency of the solid structure - complement each other perfectly. Where you can sit and observe the world from above, with gentle detachment - like Frobisher, climbing the many steps to the peak of the Scott monument - you can wander along the balcony gallery that runs around one side of the Exchange hall.



I always think of Holly Golightly's observation from Breakfast at Tiffany's, when I am there. Whenever the 'mean reds' kick in, Holly finds reassurance and stability in an unusual and unique space: 

...the blues are because you're getting fat and maybe it's been raining too long, you're just sad that's all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you're afraid and you don't know what you're afraid of...  What I found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany's. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there.
~Truman Capote

The Royal Exchange provides me with that same reassurance. The quiet, proud, inviting, unquestioning welcome of the place. Everything else falls away.

Find me beneath the Corsican stars where we first kissed - writes Frobisher. 

And so you will often find me contentedly sitting quietly at the Exchange - my very own Tiffany's, my own Scott Monument.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

A conversation.

Hallo, Nick Cave.
Hallo, Cate.

Would you do me the honour of keeping me company while I draw and stitch this evening?
Yes, Cate. 
I have a fine selection of sweeping songs on love and death and regret and hope. 
I can offer you a music video in which I dance while computer generated rabbits gambol round my ankles. 
And a ballad that includes echidnas and koalas in one of its many verses. 
I even have a rather splendid audiobook. (I do all the voices.)

Thankyou, Nick Cave, that will do nicely.
You're welcome, Cate.

Just don't ask me for advice. 

(N.B. The beautiful photo used above was found here.) 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Three Ravens: In the Glass Mountain

This picture (and the one that precedes it) are the illustrations for the first stories in a collection of folk and fairy tales I'm writing and illustrating (see the previous blog post for a full explanation!). I'm part-way through the process of writing the full story that will accompany these pictures in the final book - but am still tinkering with it and refining it - so, for now, this is just a snippet.

The story is based closely on the old traditional version of the tale - which follows the fate of three brothers and their younger sister. The sister falls ill, and the boys are sent out to draw water from a nearby Holy Well, in order to revive her. They have an accident while they're travelling, are unable to bring back any water, and return home empty-handed. The furious father curses the boys, who are promptly transformed into ravens, and fly out of the window and away, never to be seen again. 
Years later, the sister is grown, and sets off on an epic quest to rescue her brothers. She travels first to seek assistance from the sun, the moon and the stars, before finally gaining entry to the Glass Mountain, where her brothers are held - able to transform back into human shape only in the confines of the palisade. She befriends a dwarf, who instructs her to place her ring into one of the goblets the boys drink from each evening - if they recognise the ring, the spell will be broken, and they can return to human form permanently. Which they do, of course, and all is well :)

I noticed a woman whose face was a sea voyage I had not the courage to attempt. 
~ Jeanette Winterson

This second picture was particularly sparked by the always-marvellous, always-illuminating writings of Jeanette Winterson - who writes complex, passionate, bold women characters - those whose lives are a veritable patchwork of loves, losses, conflicts, joys and complexities. And by Samantha Ellis - her gorgeously warm, funny, heartfelt re-exploration of her most treasured-heroines and novels is an absolute joy to read. 
And it was drawn for myself - as a child I longed for more daring, adventurous girls in the stories I read, rather than those who were relegated to a back seat, leaving the boys to climb trees, ride horses, and lead the adventures. 
Epic stories and great quests don't have to be left only to men and boys. And so the Sister in this tale gets to be the heroine I always wanted to read - and still seek out now - bold, brave, kind and determined. 

......................



The nearest of the miners - his deep brown eyes sharp and wise beneath the craggy creases and the dust-tracks of his face - observed her for some time. He looked upon her tattered seaman's coat, her too-large boots, and the pack of sundries and collected treasures strung across her back. He observed the weariness in her eyes, the long-trudged slight stoop of the traveller, the premature shots of grey across her hair. 
And the fire in her eyes, diamond-bright, rivaling even the phosphorescence of the cave. Fire that spoke of love, of loyalty, of bravery in spite of all, of a fierce protectiveness, and of a determination. 
It was her. She'd come for her brothers.
He rummaged in the battered bag at his feet, shifting glass shards and crystals, until his grip finally found the smooth curve of the cup. He'd carried it each day with him, since the ravens first arrived, and remarkably transformed into a trio of disheveled boys. He'd seen them settle at the table to eat or drink - always melancholy and disconsolate. He'd heard them speak with deep sadness about their sister. So the miner stole the cup, hoping against hope that one day their sibling might arrive. And now she was here.
These were deep magics - and its rituals must be observed. If she'd blundered in and disturbed the boys, the spell would be locked forever. It must be subtle. They must know her for themselves.
A token, a necklace - a ring! She wore a ring about her neck - it had belonged to their mother. The ring must be placed in the cup, and left for the boys to drink from. Surely then, they would know... 

The Three Ravens: The Transformation

Beginning as I must, at the beginning - and starting, as I must, at the start....
~ The Storyteller.

I've always loved folk and fairy tales. I think it all more or less began for me with Jim Henson's Storyteller series. I can remember with great clarity the experience, as a child of sitting in my Grandparent's front room, their big heavy deep blue curtains drawn, and watching recorded episodes of these fabulous stories. John Hurt's knarly-faced, gravelly-voiced, gnome-like weaver of tales - with his faded patchwork overcoat and sharp twinkly eyes and bright white teeth - brought them vividly to life.

As I grew older, writers such as Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Madhur Jaffrey and Brian Froud fuelled my love of re-told and re-imagined folk and fairy tales and mythology. And more recently, the likes of the brilliant Emily Carroll and Laura Makabresku allowed me to re-explore them all over again.

So it seemed about time for me to write and illustrate my own book of folk and fairy tales - something I've been wanting to do for a long time. It'll be a long and slow project, but a greatly enjoyable one all the same :) 

This picture (and the one that follows it) are the illustrations for the first of the stories in my collection - The Three Ravens. I'm part-way through the process of writing the full story that will accompany these pictures in the final book - but am still tinkering with it and refining it - so, for now, this is just a snippet.



The story is based closely on the old traditional version of the tale - which follows the fate of three brothers and their younger sister. The sister falls ill, and the boys are sent out to draw water from a nearby Holy Well, in order to revive her. They have an accident while they're travelling, are unable to bring back any water, and return home empty-handed. The furious father curses the boys, who are promptly transformed into ravens, and fly out of the window and away, never to be seen again. 
Years later, the sister is grown, and sets off on an epic quest to rescue her brothers. She travels first to seek assistance from the sun, the moon and the stars, before finally gaining entry to the Glass Mountain, where her brothers are held - able to transform back into human shape only in the confines of the palisade. She befriends a dwarf, who instructs her to place her ring into one of the goblets the boys drink from each evening - if they recognise the ring, the spell will be broken, and they can return to human form permanently. Which they do, of course, and all is well :)

Interestingly, this tale seems to sometimes merge in detail with other tales of the time, involving birds, children and transformation - such as The Six Wild Swans, the Twelve Wild Ducks, and the Magic Swan Geese - and in some versions of this tale, it is seven brothers that are transformed - not three. 
I love the inherent fluidity of the stories, how they merge and change with each telling. It keeps them wild and untamed. 

......................................................

An arena of yellow eyes
Watched the changing shape he cut,
Saw hoof harden from foot, saw sprout
Goat-horns. Marked how god rose
And galloped woodward in that guise.
~ Sylvia Plath

... There was a moment or two of silence after the angry words were hurled at the boys - a breath or two was taken, but no more. And then, before the eyes of the startled Father and Daughter, the three boys began to change.... 
Their warm soft skin began to grey and pucker, eyes darkened, down began to sprout on arms, on legs.
Books and toys fell from hands as finger became feather, boots and stockings peeled swiftly away to reveal talons curled beneath. 
And feathers - everywhere feathers - jet back and glinting in the fading evening light, shining like oiled gems.
A ragged cloud of wild birds swooped into the room, wheeling and curling around the boys as they morphed - their many wings creating a whirl of wind that swirled about the small room.
Until nothing remained yet three large ravens, circling and cawing. They flew to the open window.
And they were gone. 
All that remained was a startled silence. The wide, wide eyes of Father and Daughter... and a scattering of ebony feathers, which curled and spun their way lazily to the floor.