24 Italian Songs and Arias

Brian Lobel with Gweneth-Ann Rand

Failure is often marked in numbers: 1 point off the entry requirements, 2 minors on a driving test, 3 inches too short for a rollercoaster. In 24 Italian Songs and Arias, Brian Lobel reflects on lack of success through the songs that failed to get him into the state choir: 4 points under. With musical accompaniment by Gweneth-Ann Rand and Naomi Felix, 24 Arias is both a celebration of failure and a reminder of the pleasure of doing something you don’t compete in – and how easy that is to love.

Lobel invites several opera singers to perform while their failures and rejections are listed like a recital programme. It’s utterly transformative; by allowing us to laugh with them, it rids the rejections of any shame, instead pinning them up as a mark of pride for having tried. 

It’s a naturally warm and generous atmosphere. Lobel ushers people in when they’re late and beams at the others as they sing. When he gets the piano accompaniment wrong, Rand sighs loudly, her exasperation quickly creeping into a grin. There is a total absence of pity or bitterness. It doesn’t fetishise suffering for your art, but accepts weakness as simply human, acknowledging that what doesn’t kill you often doesn’t make you stronger. 

Naomi Felix sits beside Lobel at the piano, silently turning pages as he plays. Finally she gets her chance to speak. After a hurtful rejection and illness, she steered clear of music, only to be nudged back into it by performing in a scratch of this show a few years ago. When I think of this play in the future, I will think of her.

24 Arias is sweet and affirming. It may be a little twee but the world is tough and gentleness can sooth some wounds. The attempt to be good enough is exhausting, and 24 Arias lets us bask in our glorious mishaps, offering a rare opportunity to experience failure collectively. As Lobel says: in failure, you’re in good company.

 

Diana is Dead

Fk Alexander with Andy Brown

22 years after Princess Diana’s death, the media’s obsession unsatiated. Articles are written about her daily – including several supposedly advised from beyond the grave – and Kensington Palace is currently advertising for the exhibition Diana: Her Fashion Story. It’s too much. In a eulogy pumped with rage, Fk Alexander smashes the consumerist feeding tube and finally puts Princess Diana’s ghost to bed.

All sharp edges and loud noise, this is a twisted fairytale. In Diana’s wedding dress, Fk stares at us with a dead-eyed grin. She munches on an apple open-mouthed, letting the juice dribble down her chin; Snow White sucking out her poison. Behind her, images flash of paparazzi photos and magazine covers. With skin red, eyes blue and screen glitching, Fk as Diana is the nation’s zombie princess.

Honing in on the intensifying media pressure towards the end of Diana’s life, a voiceover of an interview plays over and over. Diana refers to herself in third person, thinking about how others look at her. “Diana is unstable,” she says, “so what do we do with her?” The word “unstable” repeats and hangs there, in the empty space next to Fk’s hammer.

A trail of destruction is left in Fk’s wake. First it’s crockery – tea with the Queen shattered into tiny shards – then video tapes, chucked against the wall (her backhand is stronger), and finally TVs. It’s all thwacked, torn, dropped and thrown; broken and broken again just to be sure. Onscreen, the images mutate and melt into each other, snapping and fracturing, their colours reversing and the life sucked out of them. They become ghoulish, unreal, overwhelming. It’s useless: however much of Diana Fk destroys, more appears. The images keep coming, the words repeat louder. Clones of the princess run at us armed with hammers, their arms raised and ready to fight.

Like Fk’s previous performance, I Could Go On Singing (Over The Rainbow), noise levels are utilised to overwhelm. There, the sound was pumped with warmth – it wasn’t unusual for audience members to cry as the artist held their hands and sang to them – but here, it’s a different kind of intensity. Here, it is fuelled by rage.

Diana is dead. Long live Diana.

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I spent September-December on a travel-research trip funded by WCMT, learning how sexual consent is taught around the world. I’m writing about it atm. For now, here are some in-between moments.

 

KENYA

The sky tips open. The students scramble, the chairs they lift above their heads almost but not quite forming a barricade secure enough to block the rain. They pack into an assembly hall too small for them all and we squeeze in behind, everyone shuffling up to fit one more person in. Some people stand on tiptoes outside, peering through the windows while the drips from the roof slip down their backs. Almost everyone’s got a line of sight. The show begins.

*

The women squat by round tables piled high with dried fish. Each silvery sliver has great chunks cut out of its side. The skins are folded over the wooden slats behind to dry? roast? The air is brown and walls somehow slimy. The slits in the sides of the fish make them look like drooping feathers.

*

She sits the girls in a circle and hands round a bunny rabbit. She encourages them to share how they’re feeling today. She says there’s no right way to feel and they’re welcome to pass if they’d rather not share. The bunny gets passed from hand to hand. Happy. Excited. Sad. Happy. Worried. Hungry. Pass.

*

A police officer takes a seat at my table. There’s a large gun propped between his thighs. His colleagues are sitting to the left surrounded by empty spaces.

I’ve just started a new book. I stay fixed on the page and ignore the gun that he’s now plopped his hat on top of. After three pages he starts talking to me. It’s a dull but vaguely polite conversation. I go back to the book.

We’re in a grubby cafe with unappetising photos of the food pasted on the walls. I’ve got chapati grease and bean sauce on my fingers, and when I drink, the coffee covers my tongue with a layer of milky film. I wipe my hand before each turn of the page. He keeps interrupting so I don’t get very far.

His friends leave and I’m only on page nine. He asks for my number. I say no and go onto page ten. He says it’s good to have friends who can protect you if you get in trouble. He’s drinking black coffee and soft folded sandwiches.

I gather my stuff. He reminds me to pray.

*

There are four of us on the motorbike. The fields rush past on either side. We slow only for a herd of cows. The driver plays reggae music, the sound catching farmers’ attention as we pass. A man stands on top of a grassy bank by a rice field and raises his hand to say hello.

*

A woman I haven’t met before barges in. I start to say hi in the local language and reach out to shake her hand but she stops me. She drops the basket she’s midway through weaving and holds her hands together. “Let us pray.” I wait for her to look up. The last flake of wood she wove slowly pops out of its frame.

*

The pool is too shallow to dive; I’d crack my head on the steps or the wall, so I slip in slowly. I’m not wearing suncream and when I shower afterwards, my thighs and shoulders will be stained pink. I use my sunglasses as goggles and melt into the ripples.

*

The woman on the coach next to me had missed her stop. She ended up hours from where she was meant to be, so this morning she had a coffee and a mojito in preparation for the journey back. She draws a pink scarf out of her bags, drapes it over her head and leans against the window. She remains in her private den for the rest of the journey.

*

The lights remind me of Soho. Shop signs hang so low I have to duck my head not to get knocked out. They’re great hulking bricks. Beside the shops, squished between the flowing traffic lanes of cars and people, fruit sellers call out. I cover my shoulders with my jumper even though I’m sweating. I reach the crossroads and see the first set of traffic lights in the city. They go green and count down from sixty.

 

UGANDA

 

The locker room has that familar smell of old kit. I can almost hear the squeaking trainers from my old team. Shoes and shirts are bundled up in box shelves and each panel is painted in chunks of dried mud. In the doorway, a boy taps a coach on the arm. He bends down and the boy leaps up in a piggyback.

*

We’re sat on the roof, stuffed from Lebanese takeaway. We’re laughing about how many chicken nuggets we could stuff into our bodies while we sip drinks and watch a fire be put out across the rooftops.

*

The ball goes off the pitch and a dog – golden retriever? – appears and careens towards it. She leaps, landing with the ball beneath her stomach and rolling around it, yapping, waiting for someone else to join her game.

*

We go for a drink. It’s the first time I’ve been on a date in a country where that’s not allowed. It makes it very hard to read signals because you’re not allowed to be obvious about anything. She tells me a story about a sex ed class where they wore goggles greased with vaseline and were spun round ten times before being instructed to put a condom on a wooden penis. She had low blood sugar levels so passed out immediately and thwacked her head on the penis.

*

It’s 9am and they’re waiting for the office to open. Their circle expands and contracts to the beat of the music. They drop my bag at the side and pull me in. One boy is pushed into the middle, his moves easy and slightly off beat. I find out later that he’s deaf. He tugs the hand of a woman on the opposite side and they slip into salsa. He does a half spin and her arm rests on his shoulder, spin again and they’re back in their embrace.

*

It’s a beautiful square pool, deep enough that I have to wriggle down to touch the bottom. The sun favours the side on the right – 2 o’clock if you’re sitting where I am now. By 5pm you need a jumper as well as a towel wrapped around your legs. There’s a little girl climbing out of the water again and again so she can have the pleasure of jumping back in.

*

The girls pull their socks up so high they tuck under their shorts like woolly tights. One flaps her shorts side to side as the coach talks. Another puts her braid in her mouth absent mindedly. They’re itching to play. There are ten of them, all refugees. Most had never played a team sport before. The whistle blows and they scatter.

 

RWANDA

 

I lie back on the hospital bed so I don’t have to see the bit of my leg they’re operating on. They inject me until I can’t feel anything, then slice it open. Afterwards you can peer into it, a gaping hole like the mouth of a dead fish. I send my family a photo and my brothers send back pictures of the wound turned into famous paintings- the best one is Munch’s The Scream. The doctor tries to distract me by asking me what my book is about. It doesn’t help: it’s about the Rwandan genocide.

*

When I arrive, the guard is sleeping under a tree and we wait for half an hour for the guide to arrive. At the top, it’s just me and him. He’s about thirty-five. I don’t ask directly but he tells me he’s a survivor. I want to know his story but to ask specifics feels like it would be pushing something intangible. What would I do with it? Nod and say ah, yes, I’m so sorry you went through that, please give me the juicy details.

*

She’s speaking to a group of fifteen girls. They’re quick and kind, eager to listen. She talks to them about strength. You can see it seeping into them. A boy comes in to pick up his rucksack and quickly shuffles out again. Every day when you wake, up you decide to be confident, she says. One girl writes it down. Flip flops dangle off toes. Legs cross and uncross with shifts in thought.

*

We’ve exchanged emails. We meet for coffee. There are two places with the same name and we both go to different ones. It’s my last day. I’m tired. I wasn’t able to get the form she wanted, so instead of learning about her organisation I spend half an hour listening to how I should be doing my research. I try to pretend this is helpful. The mutual frustration is heavy.

*

The city is beautiful at night. It’s like the view from the top of Brandon hill in Bristol, where you can see the lights all around you. Because the whole place is built on hills, the view is stunning however far you walk. I take a motorbike taxi home when it’s nearly pitch black and put my headphones in. It’s hard not to feel like I’m in a movie.

*

Near the end of Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Museum, there’s a section listing facts about some of the children who were slaughtered.

David dreamed of becoming a doctor. Ariane’s favourite food was cake. Fidele’s favourite sport was football. Irene and Uwamwezi were sisters and the doll they shared was their favourite toy. Aurore liked playing hide and seek with her brother. Fabrice’s favourite animal was a cat.

Tortured to death. Stabbed in the eyes and head. Shot in the head. Grenade thrown in their shower. Burnt alive at Gikondi Church. Killed at Muhoro Church.

10. 4. 9. 6 and 7. 2. 15 months.

 

INDIA

 

The landscape changes every few minutes. Fallen trees give way to giant boulders which in turn are replaced by baby waterfalls. We ask to stop, hop out of the car and run back a dozen or so metres. We climb back in with our arms bundled with pine cones.

*

An elderly couple ask us in for tea. Their room is rimmed with photographs and piled high with heavy blankets. We ask about Diwali. Someone mentions dancing. The woman beams and points to her husband. He gets up, starts beatboxing and spinning round the room. Everyone’s cheering and laughing. The woman’s face crinkles like crumpled paper as she smiles.

*

The washing line is too high so she whips the wet top back behind her and flips it up so it catches. She doesn’t bother to ring it out and the sun illuminates the drops as they fall. Even though it’s the hottest point of the day, and I’m sweating slightly, she’s dressed for the cold. She’s got a traditional sari on, layered with a woolly jumper and knitted hat on top. The line is tied up on tree branches next to a log pile. Behind is a huge oak tree. Beyond, snowy peaks.

*

Her parents have given her until the age of 27 to find a partner. Then they’ll start looking for her. She says that’s fine. “Anyway, it’s just like Tinder.” She’ll get photos and their income, then have six months to get to know him. She says she can change her mind during that period, but it’s frowned upon.

*

Mum joins me for the last fortnight. By now I’ve been away two and a half months. It’s the longest I’ve been away from home, and by far the longest by myself. We’re lying in our camp beds at the top of a mountain. We’ve never really done camping as a family, even though both of us love it. It’s cold and the air is thin. We both have two jumpers, two trousers, thick socks, a hat and gloves on, each with one thumb slipped out to turn the pages of our books. With her head-torch and dark woolly hat, she looks like a burglar taking a break. I look up from my book. We are in a totally unfamiliar environment, but she holds home in her. She flicks a page over and looks up at me. I feel very lucky to be here.

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By Sophie Abramovici for Noises Off

I was honoured to edit National Student Drama Festival’s magazine Noises Off this year. We had a team of 13 and I’m very grateful for each and every one of them. [I will come back to this at some point to detail my favourite articles from the week.]

***

My editorials:

#1 (on using words bravely)

#2 (on reaching out a hand)

#3 (on communication, written in binary)

#4 (on critics as light catchers)

#5 (on Speed Death and endings)

And my final piece on the awards ceremony.

***

To see all content, click here. PDFs also available of all the magazines, including the zine we handmade at the end of the week, each of which had a tiny paper aeroplane tucked inside.

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Over Christmas, my grandma knitted baubles to hang on the tree in her communal front garden. As people walked past, they’d look up and notice the woollen snow drops. Kids especially, they’re far better at spotting things than adults. They’d grab a sleeve, point upwards and giggle at the tree’s winter gear.

One morning someone dropped a package through grandma’s door. It was filled with chocolate and on the envelope was written: to the neighbour with balls. Every time grandma picked up the envelope she laughed again. She loves that this funny new tradition makes strangers smile, that it can brighten someone’s day. And her neighbour reaching out with that little gesture made a big difference to her too.

Two fifths of older people say TV is their main form of company, roughly two million adults say they can go a week without having any contact with anyone, and nine million adults in the UK say they are often or always lonely. I’m currently working in a bookshop and occasionally I’ll speak to a customer and wonder if that’s the only conversation they’ve had all day.

Social contact can reduce physical pain and loneliness can enhance it. It guts us mentally and physically, and it’s not just the elderly who are suffering from it. Dozens of reports demonstrate that those in their twenties are more likely to suffer from loneliness than those in the fifties, predominantly brought on by lack of stability through the housing crisis, the economy and the job market (social media is at the centre of many of these conversations too). The government’s recent installation of Tracey Crouch as the Minister for Loneliness suggests intent to take this modern disease seriously and to create platforms of support.

In the period immediately after University it is hard not to feel a bit lonely. After the bustle of being busy every day, being part of multiple clubs and communities and different groups of friends, all fifteen minutes apart, you suddenly feel thrown into the ether with nothing to grab onto. It’s hard not to feel a little bit emptier.

If you haven’t got a job lined up you might move back home but your friends might be doing a course a year longer than yours or a year abroad. You might one day google how to make friends as an adult and it might not seem like anyone has the answers. Your family might largely cook and clean for you so you might revert back to an ungrateful, complacent teenager. You might worry constantly about finding a job, get 43 rejections and then give up. You might take up running for a week and then decide you’re doing a marathon so that you have purpose. Then you might get a job in catering and learn that you should only ever love someone who is kind to customer service staff and that you’re too tired to train for that marathon.

Everyone might try to give you advice and you might write a lot of lists and watch a lot of Netflix and half-heartedly fill in more job applications for things so far from anything you’re interested in that you might almost kid yourself that you want to go into data analysis.

Somehow, eventually, it might start to get better and you might get a job in a bookshop that you really like and the job might come with people you really like too and it might feel like a lucky package deal to have stumbled into.

And eventually you might realise that everyone still feels lonely, every so often, some far more so than others. So when you’re working in your new job you might remind yourself every so often that each little chat you have can matter. And in a bookshop, talking about your favourite stories, it almost feels like you’re sharing new friends.

Forgive me. During university it’s easy to fall out of love with reading because you have to do it. There are deadlines and essays with print too small and PDFs you can’t turn round so you have to read holding your laptop upside down, and there are some really dull books that you have to pretend to have read, and you feel guilty if you pick up something for fun when you have so many unread pages for your seminar tomorrow morning. When the freedom of reading whatever and whenever you like returns, and when you’re surrounded by miles of books every day, it’s tricky not to feel romantic about stories.

It’s the tilting pile of books on the bedside table, mutating and growing like ravenous weeds taking over the room. It’s stuffing a book inside a jumper to protect it from the rain. It’s rolling through the tunnels of the tube looking up just enough not to trip as you turn a page. It’s putting a book on the edge of a table at dinner in the place of a phone. It’s the scraps of paper spilling out of pockets from recommendations to read. It’s walking through the shop and knocking over a pile of books and picking them up and feeling that hunger for words and thinking yes these are the ones I want next.

One of the reasons we love stories is that they take us into other people’s lives, so that for a while we can control who we are spending our time with and what kind of characters they are and we can then get lost in their words. If you’re struggling with a new move, or a loss, or somehow a lack of self, those characters can help you feel a bit less lonely. Just like walking past my grandma’s garden and seeing the damp woolly baubles hanging cheerfully from her tree.

Last year Louis Menard wrote an article in The New Yorker about why we read and why we write. He wrote this about poetry, but I reckon it stands for most stories:

“Maybe it will change your life. If it does, the change will be very, very tiny, but most change comes in increments. Don’t expect too much out of any one thing. For although the world is hard, words matter. Rock beats scissors. It may take a while, but paper beats rock. At least we hope so.”

– In Defense of Poetry, Louis Menard, The New Yorker, 31 July 2017

 

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