Saturday, 21 August 2010

Myths of work and money

I can't recall exactly where in our flat the saying was. I think there was a paperweight – perhaps in a multi-sided geometrical shape – with a number of catch-phrases and sayings. When I first read it, I was too young to work out what it meant. I spent ages puzzling over the words: “Work is the curse of the drinking class.” Apparently it was a joke that I couldn't understand.

I suppose the joke played on too many assumptions: that work is a good thing, that the working class are seen (especially by the rich) as idlers, that drunkenness is a working-class problem and that the working class live feckless lives dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. If someone had explained all that to me then, I'd have been politely incredulous. I could see that my parents worked hard and that they put the interests of others (including their children) first. They didn't even drink. My mother was fearful of pubs and drinkers and, although my father enjoyed beer, he gave it up for years for my mother's sake and, even now, finds a single can of lager turns a meal or an evening into a special occasion.

But there's one way in which the group of assumptions did chime with my parents' attitudes. They worked hard at their jobs and often found them rewarding. But they hadn't fallen for the idea so ingrained into many middle-class minds: that work is what gives meaning to people's lives. My parents put other things first: family, friends, neighbours, duty, social responsibility – and pleasure. They handed those values on to me.

Quite a lot came under that heading of “pleasure.” It could be a walk in Richmond Park, a trip to the theatre, a jazz concert, a TV programme, drawing, a maths puzzle, a cryptic crossword, a visit to a museum or a good book. We didn't make the usual distinction between high-brow and low-brow. I watched the London Transport Players perform Ivor Novello or Rogers & Hammerstein in a “proper” theatre and amateur Shakespeare in the London parks. I picked up whatever reading material was lying around: Tit-Bits magazine with its intriguing advertisements for Joan the Wad, poetry anthologies, Plato in translation. I learnt by watching that the aim of work was to live a good and enjoyable life.

My parents encouraged us to work hard at school but they didn't pretend that the aim of education was a career. Education was a means of expanding opportunities for pleasure – and might give us the chance to choose a job that was more enjoyable than those our parents did. I could see the point of that. In my early years my mum was a cleaner and a kitchen assistant. I didn't think I'd be much good at either and, given my incompetence in tidying my room, I didn't think I'd be much good at being a cleaner. I liked reading books and learning poems and plays by heart but I wasn't sure that many jobs would draw upon those skills. And I realised that I might want money so that I could buy books, travel to museums, go to the theatre and so on.

There's nothing in my parents' approach that seems wrong. The idea of devoting a life to work for its own sake seems ungenerous and mean-spirited. I'm lucky enough to enjoy much of my work – but not the bits involving form-filling, managerial jargon, the distress of others, or tidying my office. It's a good job but does it really shock you to learn that I do it for the money? After I've paid for the usual necessities of life, I spend that money on family, friends, duty, responsibility and – of course – on pleasure.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Groundling afternoon

I knew my place. I learned to love theatre from the gods. I can still conjure up the smell of those side entrances to theatres and the plain, uncarpeted stairways that seemed to go on for ever. My early theatrical experiences included a panoramic view of the more-expensively seated audience, comfortable on red plush. But my favourite performers seemed to reach over the permed and lacquered hair of the wealthy to speak directly to the longing, needy hearts of the poor on their benches. I was convinced that shows were aimed directly at the inhabitants of the gods. The rich clapped politely but we yearned, cried, gasped and almost swooned in rapture. How could the actors not love us?

Later I began to criticise and analyse. But I still cherished the moments of awe and hope before the play began, as members of the audience shuffled into their seats, waiting for the lights to dim. The audience – at least, its richer members – was part of the spectacle and the actors shouted or whispered their words over the heads of the rich.

Of course, I knew that things had once been different. It was, I think, the Victorians who placed a distance between the actors and the poorer members of the audience. It's hard to generalise - I don't know enough about the difference between patent houses (the few theatres permitted by law to perform the plays of Shakespeare) and minor theatres (the home of musical theatre and burlesque), let alone the details of such wonderfully-named popular theatres as the blood-tubs and the penny gaffs. I suspect it was the posh theatres that pushed the poor up the bleak side stairs to the gods and turned the rich theatre-goers into part of the spectacle. There have probably always been small theatres charging a single price for all tickets. It took me a while to discover the joys of what were, in my youth, called “studio theatres.” I've been to many and enjoyed their intimacy.

But, having finally visited the reconstructed Globe, I realise that I'd never really imagined what it would have been like to attend an Elizabethan or Jacobean theatre – or to be part of what Alexander Pope calls, with contempt, “the many-headed monster of the pit.” Of course, I had to be a groundling - I didn't feel I'd belong in any other part of the theatre. So, clutching my £5 ticket, I joined the groundlings' queue – a friend had advised me to arrive early to be sure of a good space.

I'd always planned to see Shakespeare at the Globe – it seemed an obvious decision. But it had taken me so many years to organise a ticket and an afternoon that I ended up booking for a new play with an early Tudor setting – Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn. I was a little embarrassed about this until a fellow groundling pointed out the sense of my decision – the original Globe had, after all, been a place where new plays had been performed.

My fellow groundlings were a welcoming crowd. I've always found a great deal of comradeship among people who queue for cheap seats at plays, operas and concerts. I was lucky to be among regulars, who assured me that watching as a groundling was the best experience the theatre had to offer. They also compared experiences of bad weather. The worst had been a hailstorm during a performance of Macbeth – groundlings are hardy folk and few left. The play also achieved more humour than is customary as the playgoers roared their approval at the repeated greeting “All hail.”

As advised, I found myself a space near the stage – something to lean on should I need it and a good opportunity to be close to the action – and the actors' feet. This could have been disconcerting but the play was written for the Globe and the actors knew how to use the theatre. Before the show started, some of them knelt down to engage the groundlings in conversation. Then, as the play started, in broad daylight (as in Shakespeare's time), the actors ensured that the audience was involved, sometimes pausing to share a joke or addressing us directly. While I didn't suspend my critical faculties (and it would be hard to do so from such a position) I also knew that I was part of the experience – even part of the performance.

At the same time, the play was literally over my head. While the audience seated in the stalls of a modern theatre occupy a position of power, much like the interviewer who sits watching the performance of a succession of nervous candidates, the groundlings stand at the feet of the actors and below the level of the audience in the galleries behind them. While I followed the plot with interest, particularly enjoying the discussion of Tyndale's theology and the problems of Bible translation from the Greek, I had a sneaking suspicion that I was not supposed to follow this from where I was standing – that the theatre building itself assumed my ignorance and inferiority.

Looking back, I'm surprised that I didn't mind this. But I slipped more happily into the role of poor, ignorant theatre-goer than I would have expected. I didn't feel half the discomfort I still experience when, by chance or luck, I find myself in the posh seats surrounded by people who seem to take wealth and privilege. I belong with the groundlings.

And I really liked the play.