StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

A Man of No Importance

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 3, 2010

Crapper's Valveless Waste Preventer - Hazlitt's Hotel, London

This is how the name on the water basin above our toilet at the Hazlitt’s read.

It about summed up how I was feeling on Saturday morning. I’d just found out I’d lost a writing competition. I won’t even say which one, it’s too embarrassing. The story I submitted didn’t even make the second round! The panel didn’t even read it! For the first round, all they do is skim the synopsis to see if it’s anything that might interest them. From there, 1,000 entries are chosen for the second round. How can you go about envisioning a future for yourself when you don’t even make the top 1,000!

The night before, Julius and I had gone to our friends Neil and Matthew’s house in Islington. Rachael joined us. We were celebrating Neil and Matthew’s engagement. They’ve been together six years. They’re having a civil union in South London on July 3rd.

Matthew is a lawyer at the Bailey like Rumpole. The only thing I envy about lawyers is that, unlike me, they picked a sensible profession. And Matthew does good work defending juvenile offenders and negotiating more humane sentences for them. Even so, Matthew is welcome to his job.

But Neil, I envy. He doesn’t even know I envy him. He’s too humble and lovely a guy to think anyone would ever envy him. But I do. Besides being able to hold down a job as deputy editor of a top design mag, he writes and sells many of his own TV and radio scripts to the BBC. Alan Cumming acted in one of the short films he wrote. Unlike me, he’s temperamentally suited to succeeding in the regular workforce while steadily making his name as a creative writer. Yet his modesty and overall graciousness keep me from wishing him dead.

Which was pretty much what I wished for myself the next morning when the email came, announcing the contest results. I stood back, stared at Crapper’s water basin and compared myself unfavorably to Neil.

Julius and I had big plans for the day. My friend Rose, a writer whom I first met through Rachael, was hosting The Book Club Boutique, a writer’s salon at Black’s Members’ Club on Dean Street. By now, I wanted to back out of it. Most days, it’s just me and my laptop or notebook and I get to thinking I’m the only one in the free world doing what I’m doing. Then I go to some place like Black’s and see I’m, as the Brits would put it, “ten a penny.” But Julius did an admirable job of talking me down from my wounded-diva dirge, so I forged ahead with our plans.

First we had to go buy our tickets to The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters at the Royal Academy of the Arts, though, and then we were going to walk over to Somerset House on the Strand to see Michelangelo’s Dream, a series of drawings from the Renaissance master. Nothing like Michelangelo to make you feel like even more of a nano than you already do!

As ever, Michelangelo proved himself incomparable. I was just about to sink into a corner and go from comparing myself to Neil to comparing myself to Michelangelo, but some angel must have tapped my shoulder. For a minute, instead of beholding all the humbling sketches, I turned around and looked at the other onlookers. They looked like nice people. Some were old and weary. Some were young and healthy. But nobody looked exceptional. I asked myself if I would wish on them the grief I was giving myself. Would I have wanted each and every one of them to go home – especially the parents with the teenage boy with Down Syndrome – and rip themselves to shreds for not being Michelangelo, or anyone else for that matter? Well, no. I’d be horrified to see anyone do that to themselves. So why was I doing it to myself?

This brief meditation made all the difference. I stood back and appreciated Michelangelo’s drawings and then moved on to the other rooms and appreciated the Degas collection and the handful of Van Goghs.

We went to Black’s. We didn’t get there until the afternoon readings were over. Probably another blessing. I didn’t want to revert to my old Neil-and-Michelangelo pattern with the other writers grabbing the mic. Instead, we just went upstairs and each had a Foster’s Lager. The vibe of the place felt mod with a beatnik twist. Lots of Northern Soul playing and Mississippi blues. The walls were black and sometimes a white wall frame would make an appearance, Tudor-style. 45’s were nailed to the wall and used paperback poetry books from authors as diverse as Baudelaire and Bukowski were laying all around the mantlepieces and ledges. Julius and I sank back into one of the couches and all around the room, people were lounging on beds or sofas or sitting on toadstools. I ended up talking for a couple hours with a guy named Nolan, who manages images for an art library. He wanted the inside scoop on what Obama’s up against and of course I had loads to say – and I told him about how I have non-sexual crushes on Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Kirsten Gillibrand and Nancy Pelosi, none of whom he knew, and how I dream of having a non-sexual five-way with them. Julius was talking to a writer named Vivian, a young London author who’s co-writing a book about the current Americanization of England. She remarked on how lucky I am to have a partner who is so supportive of my writing endeavors, and I couldn’t agree more.

We could have gone all night talking to the two of them but we had to head out to our show. We had tickets for A Man of No Importance at the Arts Theatre. I remembered when the movie came out in the early 1990s but I didn’t go see it. I knew it was about a bus driver in early Sixties Dublin who wants to stage an Oscar Wilde play. I’d also read in a review that he’s having a gay identity crisis. One would think a movie like that would have had my name all over it, but at the time I was so repulsed by how so many Irish had sacrificed so much of their happiness on the altars of the Catholic church. I’ve seen it happen a million times over and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all for nothing! But Stephen Fry, whom I love, gave this musical-theater version of A Man of No Importance his seal of approval and I’d since been to Dublin and found it to be a dynamic, cosmopolitan city, so we got tickets.

Unfortunately, the play showed us the old Dublin (1963) up close and personal. Everyone goes to church and says rosaries. Vanity was an even bigger sin than blasphemy (the Irish do more than their share of that, mostly by accident), so everyone dressed in tweed and chintz, fashion being a byword.

The lyrics are packed with obscure saints’ names. Everybody in town is putting everybody else (except the clergy) down, which just goes to show the old culture’s level of self-esteem. The bus driver, in his fifties, lives with his spinster sister who is driving heaven batty with her prayers that a good lassie will come along so she can marry her brother off. Lo and behold, not a single lady turns his head! And since his kind of love dare not speak its name, he holes up in his room reading poetry and occasionally making up for the gloom by staging miserable short-runs of Oscar Wilde plays in St. Imelda’s basement. This is what Irish families expected – and many still expect – their gays to do. Happiness is for the afterlife.

It brought back too much of the paradigm that blighted my own clan of origin. The production did an exceptional job of underlining the drabness of the locale, though, not to mention its artistic offerings. The acting wasn’t bad either. Still, I’d like to someday see a piece where Ireland shuffles off the old yoke.

The next day we went to see the Van Gogh exhibit, which I’m covering for WhiteHot. I’ve been reading lots of biographies on Van Gogh. It’s amazing when you put his output up against his reputation in his living years. Before he left for Arles, he was producing a large body of work in Paris alongside his friends Paul Signac, Henri de Toulous-Lautrec, and Emile Bernard, none of whom thought Van Gogh had any potential for greatness. In Arles alone, he produced over 200 paintings. He’d worked himself into exhaustion. He went mad.

Two months before his suicide, Van Gogh wrote to his younger brother Theo, an art dealer who supported him financially and with whom he had a regular correspondence, and said he felt like an utter failure. Yet he’d painted over 70 canvasses in his last nine weeks of life alone when he lived in the Yellow House in Arles with Gauguin. Yet Theo could sell Gauguin’s work. At most, collectors winced at his own brother’s achievements.

The exhibition is radiant. You can see why Barbara Ueland summed up Van Gogh’s life as follows:

During [Van Gogh’s] life, he made only 109 dollars in all on his paintings…He had a terribly hard life – loneliness, poverty, and starvation that led to insanity. And yet it was one of the greatest lives that was ever lived – the happiest, the most burningly incandescent.

But his suicide casts a pall over all the hope that beams off his canvasses. Would things have turned out differently if he’d stuck around longer? I don’t know. There is a story of an out-of-work actress in the 1930s who became so discouraged over not getting parts that she hurled herself off the Hollywood Sign’s H. Two days later, her uncle received word from the Beverley Hills Playhouse that they were offering her the lead in their biggest play ever. Van Gogh paintings are of incalculable worth today, but it took until about ten years after his death for the pot to start boiling.

So I guess the point is to keep going.

We saw Un Prophete after Van Gogh. It’s nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards this year.

Good mafia/jail movie. I wish it didn’t end with no karmic retribution for the killer, but I guess I’m just unsophisticated. I wondered why the film is called “A Prophet,” other than for its Islamic overtones. Julius says that a prophet typically emerges as a leader after a period of isolation. I won’t give too much away but this isolation is what the character Malik experiences to varying degrees in jail.

It’s what Van Gogh experienced in Arles. It’s what I’ve experienced any number of times in my life. So I guess the message, once again, is to keep going.

(Not that I have aspirations of being a prophet. But a fan base would be nice some day! In the meantime, I’ll keep my eyes on the prize and off the Crapper.)