When answering the question of why so many dramatic writers are fans of Test cricket all sorts of theories come up. Five days allows the stakes to ratchet ever higher. Narratives can ebb and flow like a Homeric epic. There’s even a theory that the supposed longeurs of Test cricket are the birthplace of the Pinter pause.
I think it’s simpler than that. A sport that lasts five days – what better vehicle for procrastination? You can tell yourself all of the above is true (and all of the above is true) while getting absolutely nothing done whatsoever. It’s as tactical as chess - played out in a series of explosive athletic bursts! It’s a team game – played in a series of individual battles! The richness, the complexity, how Shakespearean! Oh look, it’s Thursday. Oh well, might as well tune in for the final day, then I’ll have three days to catch up on work before the next Test.
When Pinter and Beckett were writing a lot less cricket was played. Now games of cricket come not as single spies but in batallions. It would be so much more convenient if they could start at 5am, and clock up a couple of hours’ play before the kids get up.
This Arts Council application will have to wait until tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. The script will still be there after a pause. How did I get to 87 without meeting a single deadline, sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything?
On Thursday 8th June at 8pm I'll be premiering two new short films.
The event will be online and you can book via Eventbrite here.
Attendees will get to see both films, followed by a Q&A with me and filmmaker Bevis Bowden.
If you're unable to get to the premiere, the films will be on YouTube from that same evening. You can watch them below if you like.
Here's a bit of blurb for the curious:
Bevis Bowden and Daniel Bye present world premieres of two new films.
AS IF OUR LIVES DEPENDED ON IT. A group of fell runners play out a thrilling game that brings centuries-old manhunting adventures into the climate crisis era.
LEARNING TO FLY (AGAIN). In this meditation on illness and recovery, writer Daniel Bye returns to run a favourite hill after a long period on the sidelines.
They are both really gorgeous things. I hope you can come.
On Saturday 1st April I'm making a film. Wanna be in it?
In the film a mixed-ability team of runners will run up High Cup Nick, in the north Pennines. There'll be a game format to the chase up the hill. The film is being shot by the brilliant Bevis Bowden. It'll be an absolute blast.
What's it all about? In Edwardian times, and even now, runners have played 'fox and hounds' type manhunting games in the fells. Academic Jonathan Westaway has written extensively about these, thinking of them (among other things) as rituals of post-imperial anxiety. 'What if', he said to me one day, 'we were to devise a comparable game that got people to engage with anxieties about climate breakdown?'
So that's what our game will aim to do. We'll have some fun running up and down the hill. We'll also play out a scenario that pushes us into confrontation with the consequences of man-made climate change. Fun, and meaning.
The finished film will be shot to very high standards, and beautifully scored. We intend to enter it into festivals such as Kendal. For examples of two other (very different) films I've made with Bevis in the past, see below.
We'll gather in the morning of Saturday 1st, to film through the day. It being film-making, there'll be a certain amount of stopping and starting and retaking, and an inevitable amount of waiting around in the cold. We will look after you, though! We'll confirm exact times with people as they express interest, but we anticipate needing people roughly 10-5. More on the details of this, and what to bring and wear, to follow for those who express an interest.
We can cover people's travel expenses and will also provide some food.
To express an interest, send me an email.
For what may be the final time, These Hills Are Ours is back out on tour for one week only, at the beginning of December.
6 December - Greenwich Theatre, LONDON
7 December - West End Centre, ALDERSHOT
8 December - Ventor Exchange, ISLE OF WIGHT
9 December - Forest Arts Centre, NEW MILTON
10 December - Guildhall Studio, PORTSMOUTH
“What you see is what you get with me.”
Liz Truss has no hidden depths, and proud of it. Drop a stone in her and you’ll hear nothing but the faint thunk of pebble on pavement. There the stone will sit, having made neither ripple nor splash. Liz Truss is a moral and intellectual puddle. She’s the dialectical equivalent of a brick wall, countenance unchanged by facts, counterargument or the complete reconstitution of her own opinions and beliefs. Abolish the monarchy! Lavish the monarchy! Bring the Bank of England under control! Don’t even express an opinion on inflation: that’s a matter for the Importantly Independent Bank of England! Do nothing about the cost of living crisis! Do something about the cost of living crisis! LibDem! Tory! Remain! Leave! May! Johnson! Me!
Except it’s wrong to talk of “beliefs” with Liz Truss. She has no such thing. She is an ideological revolving door, attached to no buildings, all exit and no entrance. She barks about cheese and VAT, supremely uninterested in pretending she means or understands even half of what she’s saying. Liz Truss is the epitome and culmination of the Oxford PPE graduate, motivated not by the content or import of any argument, only by whether this is the argument that will get her a good grade. Then she can be happy again, like she was once, as a girl, just after getting her GCSE results, being told by the teacher how clever she is.
In May 2021 Boff Whalley and I set off to run 120 miles across Devon, performing These Hills Are Ours half a dozen times along the way. It's one way to premiere a show.
Like everyone else's, our plan had been different: the show was scheduled to open at the end of March 2020. Obviously that didn't happen. So when we finally got the green light to meet an audience for the first time in over a year, we knew we needed a comeback tour with a difference: the Wild Tour.
The weather wasn't quite what we'd hoped for.
Now Bevis Bowden's beautiful film of our adventure is itself nearing its premiere. We have screenings at Hinterlands Festival and back where it started, in Devon. The online premiere takes place here at 8pm on Saturday May 28th.
We have an album out!
No Masters records have released this beautiful limited edition booklet and 8-song CD and we couldn't be more pleased with it.
The CD features all eight songs from These Hills Are Ours, specially recorded and mastered for this release. But if you no longer have a CD player and any CD will essentially be a shiny coaster, this release is still worth getting for the book.
We didn't want to just release a half-arsed version of the text from the show, with gaps where there's usually audience interaction and a series of jokes that don't work on the page. So we've created a brand new version of the text for book form, including a fair bit of new material that will never be seen on stage.
It's beautifully designed and put together and I hope you love it too.
You can buy it here.
There was never anything cool about Meat Loaf. He was a beacon to those of us who were always, whatever we did, just a little bit naff. Twelve-year-old boys attempting to grow their hair while playing Dungeons and Dragons. Girls with T-shirts showing wolves and full moons in forests. But yeah, mostly the boys. Before Peter Jackson made it ok for grown-ups to like elves and orcs, Meat Loaf was there living a life full of leather jackets, loudly revving motorbikes, B-movie horror and flames. To all of us geeks, nerds, dorks and misfits, he brought the bombastic revelation that feelings are always bigger than their containers, that you can be sincere and preposterous at the same time, that alpha masculinity isn't the only kind. He seemed at ease with his contradictions in a way I wanted to be.
To twelve-year-old me listening to Bat Out of Hell II, Meat Loaf offered a way of being a man that didn’t fit in in some of the same ways I didn't. He was straight, but not in the usual ways. You can paint your nails, and have feelings, and wear velvet trousers and seventeenth-century shirts, and still be a man. Let’s not pretend Meat Loaf’s material, or his life, is a model of anti-patriarchy, but for me he did enough to point the direction.
I didn’t listen to him much after the age of twelve or thirteen. From fourteen to sixteen I listened entirely (I'm not kidding) to either heavy metal or showtunes, when I could have got both at once by just continuing to listen to Meat Loaf. The monsters and posturing of Iron Maiden were just as daft as Meat Loaf’s wolves and strut, but the New Wave of British Heavy Metal wasn’t complicated by anything so troubling as real human emotion. Cats and Starlight Express, on the other hand, boil down emotion to the size of a sweet so that it doesn’t ever have to touch the sides. Both these things filled a need in me that they couldn't on their own. I was sixteen before I got into anything I'd still listen to, but before that point everything was just variations on Meat Loaf (and Queen, I suppose, but that's another story).
From his obituaries I learn that Meat Loaf was in about seventy movies. Somehow every time I saw him in one I thought it was quite a coup for them to have got him. In the same way as Tom Waits gets cast by directors who want to signify a kind of hardboiled drunken rapscallionism, hoping (usually forlornly] that Waits’ unrelenting wit and invention will somehow wash off on the movie, so Meat Loaf’s job on screen was simply to signify himself. He represented, and represents, a particular kind of technicolour masculinity. Somehow he was always playing a bouncer, even when he wasn’t. He was operatic, yet reassuringly beery. He might not quite fit the normative behavioural categories of cishet masculinity, but in the end you couldn't say he really disrupted them that much.
My move away from him (and from a lot of other heavy rock) coincided with starting to paint my nails and experiment with eyeliner. The Manic Street Preachers were as swaggeringly preposterous as Metallica or Guns N Roses, but instead of beer they had glitter; instead of monsters they had politics. Meanwhile, Meat Loaf’s politics were awful. He endorsed McCain and Romney, he praised Trump. He was an anti-masker and reportedly an anti-vaxxer. The world he performed in his songs was a 1950s WASP world of drive-in movies and endless highways, Friday night dances without Bruce Springsteen's working week, a male-gaze world where women always offer their throat to the wolf with the red roses. I can't deny that world formed me. But I don't want to live in it.
Still, this morning, for old time's sake, we put on “Bat Out of Hell” and danced to it with the kids. It’s even more dizzyingly ridiculous and propulsive than you remember. Longer, too. It spends the first two minutes introducing four separate musical themes, all of them foaming with adrenaline, before the vocal even comes in. A decade earlier (unbelievably, this is only nine years after "Hey Jude"), pop songs were mostly done inside three minutes; three minutes into "Bat Out of Hell" we’re not even at the first chorus. Five minutes in, the structure can't bear any more weight, it starts to crack open, it grinds to a halt. In any normal song this would be the end. At this point "Bat Out of Hell" erupts, spewing out testosterone and lava for another five minutes of motorbikes guitar solos, and keening laments where even the slow bits are unnervingly uptempo, revving up, screeching to a halt, revving up, then slamming through another wall. LIKE A BAT OUT OF HELL. Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock operas are relatively restrained; this is Wile E Coyote's Acme rock opera, on heroin, standing on the seat of a motorbike, hurtling the wrong way down Route 66. LIKE A BAT OUT OF HELL.
Lots of bands and artists have that one song they do that's immensely long. "Bohemian Rhapsody" (a mere six minutes), "Stairway to Heaven", "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", "Hey Jude". With Meat Loaf outlandishly long songs aren't statements, they're the norm: "I Would do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" is eight minutes, as is "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", though some versions are as long as twelve. "Dead Ringer for Love" and "Two Outta Three Ain't Bad" are unusually short at a mere six and five respectively, but they still seem amped up on steroids, out of proportion with normal songs. There's nothing of restraint here. It's all far too much. The Hammer nonsense, the melodrama, the nerve. It’s in absolutely terrible taste. Despite everything I find I still love it.
Do you love me? Will you love me forever? Do you need me? Will you never leave me? I’ll probably never listen to Meat Loaf again, but I don’t need to. It'll make me so happy for the rest of my life just for having been there thirty years ago when I needed it. The music you get into at twelve stays part of you: I don’t ever need to listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “You Give Love a Bad Name” or “Summer of ‘69” again either. There’s nothing cool about any of this, but fuck cool. Music is a way of learning how to be yourself, if you let it, and Meat Loaf was an important stage of that for me.
In this beautifully-made short film, the painter Bill Blaine laments his failure to become a “great” artist. His work is often brilliant, across a bewildering array of styles, but he’s not content. Working on a chiaroscuro portrait, he second-guesses himself – turban or no turban? how do I render the coat? – until impatiently relegating all these confounding details to the shadows. His work is figurative, abstract, classical, modernist, lavish, minimalist; he seems equally at home in all forms and thoroughly ill at ease in himself. “I suppose I never could land on anything I could stick with long enough to create something that was, you know, personal style”.
In the film’s opening scenes he contends that “great” artists are defined by their “obsession”. They get stuck on something like a dog with a bone. They don’t go to the beach with their grandchildren, and they yell at their families when invited. They sound, to me, unhappy. Blaine is unhappy that he hasn’t been more like them.
“Greatness” is such a damaging chimera. In its pursuit we make ourselves miserable, but what is it? And who decides? Insert your own sentence about Van Gogh here, or about the seventeenth-century view of Shakespeare, or about Poussin before Blunt’s rehabilitation, or after his unmasking. Or read this recent article about Leni Riefenstahl, whose “greatness” succeeded in unmooring her from her embeddedness in Nazism, until her embededdness in Nazism unmoored her from greatness. Greatness is historically contingent. So what is Blaine after?
I’m putting words in his mouth here, or thoughts in his head, but it seems to me that what he’s after, if not greatness, is unequivocal success. A huge hit exhibition, a million-dollar painting, a commission for the Guggenheim. A definitive endorsement that what he’s doing is worthwhile. But would that be enough? Or would someone remain unconvinced, would almost any artist then zero in on that one outlying critic rather than on the yay-sayers? I learned long ago that I can’t stop myself caring about what people think, but I can choose to focus on what’s useful to me about those thoughts. I might still be galled by what isn’t useful, but I don’t let it get in the way, and it passes.
Grayson Perry describes the process of self-discovery as an artist in terms of the bus routes in (iirc) Helsinki. For the first few stops from the central bus station all routes are travelled by many buses. As the journeys continue the routes bifurcate until finally yours is the only bus on this route. As a young artist, Perry says, it can be easy to feel you’re on the wrong bus. There are too many other people here, it all feels too familiar, too well-trodden. You jump off, you head back to the depot, you start again, and you never get anywhere new. Stay on the bus, says Perry. It’s the only way to discover anything. Stay on long enough and they’ll have to let you drive it.
I’ve always found the bus metaphor illustrative, and no-one’s a better example of it than Perry - who’d have thought acerbic pots would be such primetime? In my case, doing a series of modestly experimental solo storytelling shows, I thought of myself as sticking on the bus, doing my thing. But I also knew that this wasn't the whole truth, and nor is it for many of us. I made those shows because those were the shows available to me to make: that particular structure of feeling was a meeting place between my skills and desires, and the economics of the industry in which I work. Ten years ago I was on entirely different buses, directing political clown shows and contemporary new writing. And this year my bus has been mostly all-singing all-dancing family entertainment adapted from well-known fairy stories. And retrospectively, to me all these things feel, in ways I can’t always describe, part of the same project. The body of work might look confusing to you, but it makes sense to me.
Then a couple of weeks ago the always-inspiring Steve Lawson, in passing, said that he liked looking at his whole career as building up to the work he would make after the age of fifty or sixty. Everything before then is apprenticeship. Develop a range of approaches, styles, forms, genres, hell, even artforms. Ride a few buses. You don’t have to decide everything about your life and work by thirty-five, any more than your GCSE choices determine everything about your future career.
Bill Blaine is constantly bus-hopping, and what's more, he seems to get an impressive distance from the station: none of his works are anything other than highly accomplished. There’s an argument that Blaine is too good to be great, has too much easy facility to need to pursue something difficult. Does greatness inhere in struggle? I’m not sure about that either, but, it’s clearly true that Blaine hasn’t developed anything that’s distinctively his. His term for the work his facility produces is “surfacey”. I think it’s often more penetrative than that. What it isn’t is distinctive, and this is a pursuit with which I’m in sympathy. Not greatness, which requires some kind of extrinsic endorsement and is so contingent as to be basically meaningless. Distinctiveness. But even the way Blaine signs his paintings seems to him unsatisfactory, as though there ought to be a way of, Whitman-like, singing himself more clearly.
I feel a failed pursuit of distinctiveness much more keenly than a failed pursuit of greatness, and I wonder why. I’d like to say something about our capitalist individualistic culture, but my heart’s not really in it. Anarchism also celebrates individual difference. Communism desires individual flourishing. The argument that capitalism promotes the individual while the alternatives flatten it is an argument only made by capitalists. The problem with capitalism isn’t its celebration of the individual or the idiosyncratic, it’s what it does after. Capitalism fetishizes the pioneer, in order to commodify and constrain the territory of discovery. It turns distinctiveness into greatness, which is not a meaningful term, it’s just marketing. Capitalism insists you either stay on the bus long enough to make a discovery you can monetise, or (more common) jump off regularly when you spot one going somewhere more currently marketable. Neither of these attitudes is conducive to individual flourishing. Or, for that matter, to great work - whatever that means.
Blaine goes to the beach with his grandchildren. He has a beautiful home. He works when he wants to and he’s happy when he works, but he doesn’t feel he has to. Still, he feels guilt whenever he doesn’t, and he feels a failure for his want of greatness, and he wishes he were on every bus at once. His whole life, our whole lives, are prodigiously fat with fomo. That’s the problem with capitalism.
I write this sitting in the café at Manchester Art Gallery, where I’ve just visited the Derek Jarman retrospective. Painting, film, music video, memoir, activism, even gardening, Jarman was not constrained by a sense of which bus he was or was not on. He pursued the same idea across multiple forms simultaneously, rather than worrying whether or not the turban should be in the shadows, or what bus he was on, or whether he would achieve greatness, or whether he already had, or anything other than the enquiry posed by the work itself, and its relation to the world.
Running with an idea
Running commentary on: