Torchure

Only the British could greet a child, enjoying the a once-in-a-lifetime chance to carry the Olympic Torch, with the heckle “Can’t you slow down a bit?”

Yesterday I joined the millions who have stood diligently in line at the side of roads across the nation waiting for an elaborate lighter to pass by in a convoy of corporate vans. It was brilliant.

The denizens of North London’s middle-class values happily waved their sponsor flags and glugged down ‘fun-size’ bottles of Coke Zero (they don’t waste the good stuff on freebies). LOGOC’s enforcers sternly removed all non-official bunting and balloons – Olympic fun is a strictly defined concept with very distinct boundaries. These definitely do not extend to cycling shops making the Olympic Rings out of five inner tubes, no matter how well Bradley Wiggins and co have done over in France.

Yet more well-wishers perched on balconies and rooftops, while the pub on the corner overflowed from every window as the crowds jostled for a better vantage point. Everyone knew what we were waiting for – the Torch has been on the news every day and you can even monitor its progress online as it travels the length and breadth of Britain like a very unfunny Eddie Izzard. But still, people waved at every passing van and a girl on a bike got a sizeable cheer as she passed with her Whole Foods Market shopping.

The idiosyncrasies of Britain’s particular take on the Torch procession reached a new high when the traffic lights stopped a Range Rover blaring out Jay-Z and Alicia Keys ode to their hometown, Empire State of Mind. More people joined in to celebrate that other “concrete jungle where dreams are made true” and “there’s nothing you can’t do” than did when an overenthusiastic guy in a Team GB vest atop a bus urged everyone to “make some noise”.

A youngster to my left mistakenly believed he was waiting for David Beckham himself to jog up Green Lanes carrying the flame. No such luck. It was actually a young lad who was, as the aforementioned heckler suggested, going at quite a lick.

Grumbles abounded: we had waited for the best part of an hour and the thrill only lasted the lesser part of a minute. It was how I imagine waiting for a ride at Alton Towers would be, if I ever had the inclination. Another kid was unimpressed. “I could do that. I could make a flame, and make a fire, and run down the road and everyone would see, and it would be cool, and I would be the best at it.” His bored dad sank some more Olympic Spirit (5.2%) and nodded in agreement.

At the gates of Clissold Park, two ladies were dressed as giant butterflies. They looked relatively subtle in comparison to the Olympic juggernaut that had just passed. Now all eyes turn to the Opening Ceremony on Friday, and a unique opportunity to be underwhelmed again, and revel in it. Can’t wait.

Image by davehighbury on Flickr

The longest day of the year – Gatz

“Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it?” Not when it is spent in the company of Gatz.

As someone who has often pondered how much of his life is spent “seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game”, The Great Gatsby was a formative text. From it’s sprawling summation of an age to its pinpoint characterisation, it is simultaneously concise and all-encompassing, a blueprint for that mythical beast: the Great American Novel.

So how could New York’s Elevator Repair Service theatre group dare to capture – not just catalogue but encapsulate – its entire text in the course of a play? By making it last all damn day. Gatz, which is running for another week at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End, featured every word of The Great Gatsby. And not a syllable was wasted.

Those present had shunned the lure of Great British Heroic Failure with Andy Murray to take their seats in early afternoon, and were eager to understand how a plain office setting could be transformed into the shimmering world of West Egg. A few IT mishaps to get everyone onside only softened the tastebuds for the meat of the novel. Soon a bored white collar man became transfixed by the book he disinterestedly discovered, and within hours he was metamorphosed into its protagonist.

The slide from harddrives to highballs was so subtly done you had time to move with it. This was a deliciously intelligent production, weaving in peripheral characters in lighter moments while acutely positioning the duality of the modern world with the inner existence of the novel. It was not without problems though (its incomprehensible length aside).

As Baz Luhrmann will discover with his upcoming Gatsby film, fighting the preconceptions of an audience that is overwhelmingly familiar with the source text is tough. Although nobody acted completely as Fitzgerald’s characters – they inhabit them while remaining office staff, which did lend itself to light relief occasionally - Jim Fletcher as Jim Gatz didn’t have the quiet, muscular charisma my mind’s eye saw in Gatsby. Tom Buchanan was too coarse to be rounded. Some lines floundered, others stole too much limelight. My neck ached.

But Scott Shepherd became Nick, the narrator and vague moral compass of the piece. His performance was as much endurance as flair, but he was so engrossed in his part that you couldn’t help follow him into the shallows of excess and snippets of insight Fitzgerald knitted so long ago. Each time he announced a break (there were three) the leap into present consciousness was palpable. It was as complete a display of acting as I’ve witnessed in the flesh.

The ending at times felt like “a single green light, minute and faraway” itself, not least when Gatsby’s doddering dad spent a wistful half-hour tittering onstage. With the time reaching 10.30, the first real signs of seat-shifting impatience set in on the balcony. But most were engrossed enough to be carried to the ending’s sad triumph.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Afterwards, on the Piccadilly Line with a carriage full of Rihanna-wannabes wasted and wet from Wireless Festival, Gatz already felt far away. But it is going to linger, in rich half-sleeps and exaggerated recollections, as a thing of beauty worthy of its weighty inspiration.

The easiest thing to do on earth is not to write

“The easiest thing to do on earth is not to write.” Fine for William Goldman to say: he penned the “follow the money” line in All The President’s Men. But he was right on both counts, the talented swine.

Getting started is the hardest part. Taking the formula of the big guy in the blurry snap above (two parts leather bottle rioja, four parts absinthe, a sprinkle of womanising and a dash of bar room brawling) wouldn’t work for someone like me who gets a two-day hangover after four pints of Aspall. Yet even Hemingway called a blank sheet of paper the scariest thing he had ever encountered – and he traversed several wars, bulls on the rampage and the Fitzgeralds on drunks.

Lots of people can’t find the time to write. I spend the vast majority of my waking hours engaged in that very activity so this isn’t a valid excuse. Especially considering much of it is highly unrestricted and hugely rewarding. However, there is a vast canyon between creatively crafting the ideas of others and conjuring up – and writing down – original thought.

The other category I am reluctantly squatting in is people who tell themselves they want to write, but don’t have the guts to get on and do it. To be a real writer, you must compose your own thoughts. Even if they happen to be, for the moment, tired and tiresome. I keep waiting for a perfect idea to begin a blog, let alone a book, when the trick is in repetition.

Excuse the cliched comparison, but when training for the London Marathon this year (3:35:14 if you’re asking, which you’re not), unsurprisingly I got quicker and stronger the more I worked. The same is true with a pen or a keyboard, and your toenails are far less likely to fall off (seven and counting, and I don’t care if you’re asking, they bloody hurt).

Every writer you have ever loved has struggled in exactly the same fashion. Gabriel Garcia Marquez spends months on his opening paragraphs. Hazily, Bukowski admitted writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all. Nobody sits at a desk and prints off their masterpiece an hour later. Sit there 100 times, 1000 times, and something worthwhile might turn up. Or maybe it won’t, but at least you’re not sat in front of a re-run of a show you didn’t particularly care for the first time around.

So this is where my fledgling ideas are going to live. There’s always an excuse, the trick is not to find it. There’s a million reasons not to write and only one reason to write. But if you believe in that single reason, write it down.