John Hurt, the first Chancellor of the Norwich University of the Arts, was a talented, versatile and prolific character actor. His superb portrayals of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, Max in Midnight Express and Caligula in the BBC’s I, Claudius immediately spring to mind. There are many, many others in a career spanning six decades. But for me, it was his role as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant which resonated the most. It was 1975 and I was 15 and fretful. The film was a revelation. Not because I wanted to do a Crisp by slapping on, dragging up and renting myself out for a few shillings. No, because I suddenly realised that if Quentin could live an unabashed life during the most hostile of times, then my own coming out might not be so traumatic. Apparently, John Hurt was strongly advised against taking the part. It would be career suicide, he was told. Hurt ignored the doomsayers and I’m so glad he did. And despite a few initial wobbles, my step from the closet turned out just fine.
Our flat is like a weather chamber. When Mother Nature decides to throw a wobbly, we hear every eruption. So last month when Storm Doris (Doris?) huffed and puffed with 90 mph winds, we feared she’d blow the house down. We decided to abandon the microloft and seek refuge elsewhere. Usually this would be the pub but on this occasion we choose the Bridewell Museum. The Bridewell charts the civic and social history of Norwich – from its modest beginnings as a few Anglo-Saxon huts on the muddy banks of the river to the pillaging Vikings, conquering Normans, religious glory days of spires and steeples, economic salvation by Flemish refugees, a spectacular rise to become England’s second city, a slow industrial decline and the city’s renaissance as a financial centre, cultural hub and UNESCO City of Literature. It’s a ripping yarn of churches and chapels, friaries and priories, martyrs and merchants, weavers and cobblers, chocolatiers and mustard makers, fire and flood, black death and blitzkrieg. Norwich was the first British city to build social houses and the first to have them flattened by the Luftwaffe – two of the many things catching my attention as we meandered through the exhibits. And what fun we had dressing up.
If you’d like to know more, check out Norwich Museum at the Bridewell.
Afterwards we did make it to a local hostelry for a few jars. Well who am I to argue with the lady?
And so we survived Doris’ rage in one piece. Which is more than I can say for the roof.
If Christmas was sedate and tranquil, January was an exploding glitter ball. The month began with the high flying Cinderella at the London Palladium, the middle featured La La Land, the bookie’s favourite at the Oscars, and the grand finale was a splendid performance of ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ at Norwich’s very own Theatre Royal. Literally meaning ‘the cage of crazy women’ – in fact ‘folles’ is French slang for screaming ladies of an entirely different gender. ‘Cage’ enjoys a glorious pedigree – the original 1973 French play, the 1978 (my coming out year) Franco-Italian film, ‘The Birdcage’, a 1996 Hollywood remake starring the late, great Robin Williams and a multi-gonged stage musical. The latest revival is now doing the rounds in the provinces. After Trump’s depressing God’s own country speech at his inauguration, it certainly revived me with its delicious ‘I am what I am’ bugger the bigots message. John Partridge’s performance as Albin, the ageing drag queen, was a revelation – totally OTT one minute, delicately poignant the next. The Norwich crowd gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.
Lauded as a return to the great Hollywood musicals of yesteryear, the very thought of ‘La La Land’ made Liam go weak at the knees. Must be the gay gene. Either that or arthritis. So we sank into our comfy seats at Cinema City, big drinks in hand and surrounded by the wealthy wrinklies of the county for a grey hair-raising, foot-tapping, old school show. Sadly, for me, the hype didn’t quite live up to the reality. The plot – a love affair between a failed actress and her down at heel jazz player – was engaging enough. I’m partial to a simple boy meets girl romance (or boy meets boy, girl meets girl for that matter). But the ambitious and much-praised opening danceathon at a traffic jam on a LA freeway was underwhelming and the other song and dance routines peppering the film seemed a bit random. Emma Stone was dazzling in the lead but Ryan Gosling as her beau, while very nice to look at and not at all bad on his feet, was well, flat, acting-wise. The film was atmospheric and partially redeemed by the closing ‘what if?’ scene so I suppose the moral of the story is that love doesn’t always conquer all.
With a full chorus of rave reviews and gongs galore, the film will undoubtedly conquer all at the Oscars so what do I know? And Liam loved it.
Here’s the official trailer. It’s better than the movie.
2016 has provided a bumper crop of depressing man-made disasters: war, terrorism, ISIS, Brexit, Trump, ugly nationalism, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I don’t know about you, but a lurch to the hard right or hard left is not what I signed up for. You could be forgiven for thinking we’re all off to hell in a handcart. But then the smallest of kindnesses can restore your faith in humanity. Recently, Annie of Back to Bodrum reminded me of this when a dolly* driver went the final mile to get her home. Around the same time, I was having my afternoon cuppa in a local café when a man approached a woman sitting at an adjacent table. He smiled.
“No,” she said. “I don’t. Sorry.”
“Yesterday. You helped me. Remember?”
“Yes, yes. Now I remember.”
“Well these are for you,” he said, handing her a bunch of flowers.
The man had gone before the startled woman had a chance to respond but it brought the broadest smile to her face, as it did to mine and to everyone around us.
The flower man was elderly, white and local. The woman was elderly too and Asian, perhaps Filipino judging from her Imelda Marcos inflection and fabulous shoes. I mention their ethnicity and age only because I hear petty racism is on the march again, particularly amongst older generations. I never did find out what the good Samaritan had done to help the old man in need. Typically British, I didn’t like to ask. But it gave me a little hope.
Wishing us all a kinder and brighter 2017.
*Dolly is what I called a Dolmuş, a minibus used for public transport in Turkey.
You’ve got to hand it to former Labour Party heavyweight, Ed Balls. After losing his seat to the Tories at the last general election, he’s been busy re-inventing himself in the most unexpected ways. Ed became something of a comic sensation on Strictly Come Dancing this year. His salsa to Gangnam Style is now legendary. The question of whether we were laughing with him or at him is a tad ungenerous. Balls had a ball and it was infectious. God knows, we could all do with a laugh right now. As a politician, he was rather dour, but Strictly had a definite humanising affect. There’s a lesson there somewhere.
Few people here realised Ed was a local boy until he became the Chairman of Norwich Football Club. ‘The Canaries’ are something of an obsession in this town, a devotion little rewarded on the pitch recently. Naturally, the newly-improved Balls was asked to switch on this year’s Christmas lights in front of the Art Déco finery of City Hall, and naturally, he couldn’t resist a salsa reprise with Santa. We also had the obligatory reverend wheeled out to remind us all that Christmas without Christ was just Marks and Spencer. As Norwich is one of the least religious cities in the land, I’m afraid the sermon flew over the heads of the kirk, literally as well as spiritually. Still, like many others, we’ll be hitting M&S for all our festive fancies.
When Ed pushed the button, we got something quite unexpected. My own snaps of the extravaganza turned out to be mostly rubbish, as usual. But I do like the one that makes it look like someone succeeded in doing what the Luftwaffe conspicuously failed to do.
I’ll leave it to the BBC to show you properly. (click below)…
Hardly breaking news is it? But it’s the title of a little something I wrote back in the summer of 2014 for the Visit Norwich City of Stories website. I was chuffed at the time when it was chosen as the opening piece in a series showcasing different aspects of Norwich life. I even pitched up at the red carpet launch and helped myself to one too many cocktails. The website has recently gone from literary showcase to shop window and content has been updated to feature the best the city has to offer. My article still stacks up I think, so I’m posting it here for posterity, with a few images to give it life.
Jack and Liam move to Norwich
Jack and Liam took up pole position outside a coffee shop to sup their lattes and people watch. The passing footfall was a bumper crop. A warm summer’s afternoon had delivered coaches of North Folk and charabancs of tourists to Norwich’s cobbled streets. Dutch lowlanders in sensible shoes mingled with happy snapping Koreans; local gentry in waxed jackets weaved through the hipsters in vintage garb; busy bees in smart suits hurried past, glued to their smart phone and a jester-hatted Big Issue seller competed with a line of smiley charity workers collecting direct debits for the cause. In the middle of the rainbow crowd, two men with well-fed midriffs and trendy whiskers paused to take in a busker crooning for his supper. They grinned as the Frank Sinatra tribute segued from New York, New York to a local interpretation of My Kind of Town (‘Naaridge is’) and when the final chords faded to nothing, they tossed some coins into a trilby perched on a Fender amp and vanished into the throng holding hands. Like everyone else in the surprising city, they were doing it their way.
Jack ran his fingers along the cartoon tourist map. The tapestry of streets was weaved with familiar names of old London Town like Charing Cross, Blackfriars Bridge, Bishopsgate, Spitalfields, Haymarket, and Pudding Lane, threaded with roads of goats, cattle, dogs and a rampant horse, and stitched with more holy places than a mitred man could shake his crook at. But clearly this was not London. What the boys from the Old Smoke heard was an altogether different soundscape, just distant enough to escape the orbit of the great metropolis and the relentless surge of Estuary English. Somehow, Norwich had preserved a unique linguistic heritage, a melodic sweep of bouncing vowels and dropped consonants pickled down the centuries.
The inquisitive strangers downed their coffees to roam the streets. Their meandering took them to the Assembly House, a gorgeous pile of Georgian elegance and the perfect stage for Regency debutantes in ribboned bonnets to chase Mr Darcy and his magnificent britches around the courtyard fountain. Next door, the architectural show continued with the Theatre Royal, its modern overcoat disguising 250 years of board treading. A quick circuit of the front-of-house posters revealed an eclectic tradition of new and old, high-brow and kitchen sink, top hats and tutus, laughter and tears.
Back down the hill and along Gentlemen’s Walk, they passed neat rows of multi-coloured market stalls lined up like beach huts marooned at low tide. The vast City Hall, looking down on the medieval guildhall it replaced, provided an over-imposing backdrop.
Jack and Liam scampered down a maze of lanes and alleyways, a treasure trove of independents – shops, pubs and cafés. Norwich had bucked the national trend of sameness. Maybe the city’s relative seclusion had bubble-wrapped it from the commercial onslaught of identikit chains or perhaps wise burghers had protected the endangered. Whether by accident or design, it was a window shopper’s dream.
The most complete medieval city in Britain boasted the guide book, and as they pounded the streets up Saint This, down Saint That and along the lazy winding river that caressed the city like a feather-leafed boa, Norwich oozed the ages from every brick, paving stone and stained glass window. The city, it seemed, was triple dipped in history.
Finally, Jack and Liam came to rest on the far side of a handsome stone bridge and sat under the shade of a sprawling tree outside the Playhouse, the Theatre Royal’s little sister. A tree-top teapot in vivid yellow wafted in the breeze. The walk-weary old Londoners rested with a bottle of Merlot in the Playhouse beer garden. Close to the newly elevated University of the Arts, the bustling bar was the trough of choice for young fashionistas and their arty mentors. Jack and Liam took their seats in the refectory and imbibe an ambience that overflowed with naive optimism.
And that’s how it happened. One heady afternoon in the garden of the Playhouse Theatre Bar, Jack and Liam found somewhere new to lay their hats. An offbeat, theatrical, cosmopolitan, romantic, open-minded and open-hearted place set beneath the true-blue skies of Norfolk. Norwich, a surprising city. A place to live and a place to start living.
A random sample of Norwich’s medieval churches…