The Art of Performance

Michael Jackson’s dramatic death last week has, quite rightly, induced people across the world to dig out the recordings and the video footage that he made when he was at the height of his popularity. When he was at the top of his game, he was spectacular, which makes it terribly sad to think of where he ended up: a frail 8 stone, a virtual recluse, a curiously childlike man, dislocated from reality and seeming so isolated and alone, despite that legendary status and the supposed loyalty of his fans. It was like the wave of adulation that crashed over him in the 80s really did leave him all washed up.

Funnily enough I’ve been reading up on Britney Spears over the weekend for my motherhood project and it’s the same plot, even if the details are different. Let’s leave aside the question of respective musical ability; both became famous in part, at least, for being outstanding performers. It’s been the strain of conforming so rigorously to the image the public fall in love with, and the tension created when they’ve tried to alter it, that’s caused them such devastating problems. The more famous you become, the more suffocating the restrictions on your personality. The usual run of mistakes people make – get drunk, yell at friends or partners, fall into ill-advised marriages, trust the wrong people, have a soul-destroying haircut, get seduced for a while by a cult philosophy, all these silly, foolish, usual things get blown out of proportion by a gossip-hungry media into the storylines of mental, physical and emotional breakdown. It’s not surprising that real breakdown follows hot on its heels. Think what it would be like never to be able to make a mistake without the critical, judgmental eyes of the whole world upon you, stories circulating that sell the worst speculation as truth, every tiny thing blown out of proportion and no benefit of the doubt given, ever.

And we just can’t imagine what it’s like to be followed by the paparazzi. In the Britney biography I’ve been reading, the author suggests that readers picture themselves on the tube train at rush hour, only everyone crowding into the carriage is holding a camera, pointed at you. And you have to walk through this, even to get a newspaper from the shop. If you’re in a car, there are thirty cars tailing you, racing you at the lights to get a photo, completely lawless because the cost of a ticket is so negligible compared to the value of a photo. You are a prisoner in your expensive home or on lock-down in a smart hotel, and who you are, not to mention what you have to do every minute of every day, is not a decision under your control. Fame has become a very ugly Faustian pact. I find it extraordinary that anyone would choose this or consider it an achievement.

So to become a performer, and particularly a famous one, you need tremendous emotional resources and, ideally, a remarkably rock-solid strength of character. And, alas, the very character that makes for a magical performer, is the same character that’s vulnerable to the worst side of show biz. I was reading a book entitled Secrets of Performing Confidence by Andrew Evans, an ex-professional musician and Director of an arts psychology consultants, who help performers of all kinds overcome their difficulties. Evans begins his book with a detailed profile of the performing type, drawing on the Myers-Briggs personality profile and the 16 personality traits identified by Raymond Cattell. What would you expect to find in the profile of an artistic person who’s attracted to performance? The trio of high sensitivity, high suspicion and high imagination is wholly typical, often lending a melodramatic quality to their interactions, and a hint of paranoia or hypochondria. But they are also forthright and lack shrewdness (being more interested in truth and self-expression). They are mostly spontaneous and impulsive (only classical musicians and dancers proving themselves exceptions, due to all that dogged practice), which means they hone into the feeling of the moment and react beautifully on stage, but are often disorganized and chaotic once outside the performing arena. They are weak at living in the present or following step-by-step routines, something that the majority of the population can do perfectly well, and so they are regularly criticized for being impractical, unrealistic and flaky. And, endowed with a certain internal distance from themselves, often more introverted than one might expect, they are often their own harshest critics. All in all, a highly performative personality is a sensitive, guileless, unworldly one, that is often prone to anxieties and highly vulnerable to both criticism and self-criticism.

Then there’s the urge to perform that often comes from having been witness to a moment of artistic magic in early youth. Touched by the powerful emotions that a performance can evoke – especially that harmonizing quality that moves a whole watching community, and the belief in the possibility of transcending the normal human condition of flawed, grounded ordinariness – the would-be performer is ready to give everything they have in the service of a transient dream. Anybody who’s ever had any artistic aspirations, or indeed anyone who’s ever had to perform on a more everyday stage, like an interview or a work presentation, or any kind of mediating role, knows the urge that grips you at the point where you have to step up and be better, brighter, sparklier than your usual self. It’s strong medicine, with unexpected side effects. I was particularly interested in the section on the different kinds of life scripts that can come and derail people and prevent them from performing their best. I think these have a relevance for anyone who has ever wondered what holds them back from doing their best:

a)    The ‘Unfulfilled Greatness’ model – if a child has been given too much indiscriminate praise a moment of reckoning with reality will inevitably come. It can cause a vacillation between the ‘grandiose’ and the ‘inadequate’ which may result in the performer blaming the audience for failing to be sufficiently appreciative. Evans suggests we deal with this by accepting that we all have superior and inferior feelings, and then attempting to separate out the fantasy content from reality. From that point on, we may be able to identify and work towards a realistic level of achievement.

b)    ‘If Only’ and ‘Yes But’ – describes the construction of plausible arguments that defer achievement – if only I could lose ten pounds, etc. It avoids the unpleasant anxiety of having to expose ourselves to reality and judgement. The antidote is to ‘make a start somewhere, and then judge one’s progress from there.’

c)    The ‘Rebel’ script – rebellious behaviour is often associated with creative, eccentric individuals who want to change the state of popular thinking. But rebellion also alienates people, often the parents and authorities whom the individual has secretly been wanting to please. Performers need to be loved by at least somebody, Evans says, but often the people their rebellious actions end up enchanting, are not actually the people they wanted to be loved and seen by, and so emptiness and frustration result. Seek some emotional maturity, this guide suggests, grow beyond the need for the approval of others less and be discerning with regard to irrelevant criticism.

d)    The ‘I’m a Fraud’ script – the province of late starters, who were scarred by childhood memories of others always being better, more able, or somehow magically more praised than they ever were. They find it hard to think of themselves as high achievers and are simply waiting to be unmasked. Sometimes this script is like a ‘fear of success’, but that’s a shame, as such people are often rather talented and able.

e)    The Guilt and Punishment script – memories of being criticized in childhood for showing off or having too much fun, or being insufficiently serious can result in the individual feeling the need in later life, in the absence of regulating parents, to punish themselves with stress and anxiety. Self-sabotage can creep in. The answer Evans proposes is to identify the voice of guilt, get it out into the open, own it and consciously, deliberately discard it.

f)    Approach-Avoidance – the closer you get to your goal, the more it holds you up, like footballers who shoot wide at the goal mouth, or actors who plan to do an audition weeks ahead but back out at the last minute. Evans seems to be suggesting that everyone comes a cropper on this at some point or another. His advice is to take some conscious decisions. Treat yourself like a parachutist, who feels worst in the moment before getting into the plane. After that tough decision has been made, the drill takes over. A positive commitment to action helps taut, anxious emotions to relax their stranglehold.

What all of this shows us, is that performing puts us in touch with some of our deepest fears and anxieties, and fears about really fundamental and important things – our sense of self-worth, our ability to act effectively, the nature of our deepest desires. I think that’s why it’s such an emotional experience to witness someone in performance who’s soaring, who’s managed the extraordinary trick of unclipping all the harnesses that keep us regularly earthbound. But it also means that performers who crash do so with profound consequences. It makes me think very sadly about the structure in our culture that artistic performers have to contend with – the brutal criticism they encounter, the big business dominating all artistic endeavour that would wring fragile creativity dry in order to reap rich rewards, the intrusive, unjust, unkind world of the media. Well, I guess we get the creativity and the entertainment we deserve. But just imagine for a moment how the careers of Michael Jackson and Britney Spears might have gone, had they had compassionate, sensitive handling. Had they been allowed to work and create in ideal environments, rested and free, and given the context they required. Why do we brutalise the people we are supposed to love and admire? What music might Jackson have made, properly supported and helped? How might Britney have grown into a mature performance artist, producing spectacular shows that developed her talents as a singer and dancer? And why would we be so interested in seeing them instead broken, dishonoured, debased? I don’t understand all the forces at work, but reading this book is an insight into why we should all preserve and nurture our inner performers, and treat them with the gentleness and spaciousness they require to flourish.


It’s been one of those days when I haven’t managed to get done any of the things I needed to do. We had a half-hearted thunderstorm over the middle part of the day; the skies were black and a premature twilight fell, but the rumbles of thunder and the steady, drilling rain seemed insufficient somehow, as if the storm couldn’t quite work itself up to top gear. I love thunderstorms, but the lowering pressure always affects me disproportionately, and I felt sluggish and headachy and dull-witted. We’ve got a busy weekend ahead (hence the post now) and I ought to have been getting on with lots of other things, but I found myself curled up in the armchair, reading Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock. I very rarely read young adult books, although I have nothing against them in principle. It’s just that there’s so much to read. But on the few occasions that I have – Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now being a particular case in point – I’ve found them to be far better than that teen-friendly label suggests. I’d read Diana Wynne Jones before with my son when he was younger and absolutely loved The Ogre Downstairs and Archer’s Goon, so when Fire and Hemlock seemed to keep cropping up across the blogworld as a favourite novel, I was most intrigued to try it.

Wynne Jones always has highly complex plots involving magic and shifting time zones, but to try to keep things simple, the story concerns 19-year-old Polly, looking back at her 10-year-old self when she made an unusual friend, in the form of Thomas Lynne, a grown-up who is able to join her in making up extraordinary tales of adventure. Polly needs a break from reality as her parents are involved in a messy divorce, and Thomas provides her not only with excitement and friendship, but the kind of gentle, altruistic attention that children so crave. I haven’t got further than the first 100 pages or so, but already this is a beautifully written and gripping read that I am sure Wynne Jones is about to layer with complexity.

But I do ask myself, where was this sort of book when I was a Young Adult? I can remember a tremendously sticky patch between the ages of about 10 and 13 when it was hard to find anything good to read. Back then we used to go as a family to the library every Monday night. The library had recently moved from a large red brick building that looked like a rather nice, posh house to a much bigger, much uglier concrete building that screamed allegiance to words like ‘municipal’ and ‘civic’. I recall the big escalator we rode up, the moment we had passed through the double glass doors. It struck me as so odd that the library was situated on the first floor – what happened on the ground floor? And when you left to get your books stamped, you had to walk down several flights of municipally carpeted stairs. Why have an escalator up and not an escalator down? Well, these were the sorts of questions that preoccupied me and for which there seemed to be no answers. The other big question was why there were so few books that looked any good. At the end of the children’s section was a wire rack that held a printed note covered in clear sticky backed plastic: Young Adult. What a terrible selection that was. There were no less than three copies of Catcher in the Rye, which I never did read on the grounds that the cover was enough to bore a person to tears, there were some school-type books like Carrie’s War and Charlotte’s Web. Then there was a great deal of Alan Garner, who I completely failed to appreciate and refused to countenance as an option. On a good day one of the Judy Blumes had been recycled, and I might check that out. But really, dreary was not the word.

And so I would spend my time wandering in confusion around the adult books. My main impression of the adult hardback world was that no one wanted you to have the first idea what the books were about. I found it baffling that the publishers printed the author’s name in the largest font, with a much smaller, more discreet title. What good was the name to me when I knew who none of these people were? There were endless shelves of books displaying their spines to the reader, each one more meaningless than the last. Covers didn’t give me much more of a clue, probably because I couldn’t read the messages that were implicit in their images, and if you wanted a synopsis of the story, well, you had to get that book off the shelf, open it up and read the inside flap of the jacket. I used to go to the paperback stands of crime, where the covers were at least on display and there was a useful blurb on the back. I kept myself going with Agatha Christie, and the occasional foray outwards, to P. G. Wodehouse, to Patricia Wentworth, to Ruth Rendell (whom I didn’t like then), to Georgette Heyer’s crime novels. It was all most frustrating. It’s funny to think that a mere ten years later, I would be running the fiction section of a large bookstore, five three-sided bays, five tables, and I knew every single book on those shelves and the names of pretty much every author currently in print in the UK. It’s amazing what you can learn when you put your back into it.

Teenagers today are fortunate in having such an amazing selection of books to choose from. What was missing when I was a child was the fun stuff. There were good authors, I’m sure, but I was strongly resistant to worthy literature like Rosemary Sutcliffe or disquieting authors like Roald Dahl or Jill Paton Walsh. I wanted something comic and entertaining, or edge-of-the-seat novels. I wanted romance and intrigue and excitement. I would have loved Wynne Jones, or Stephenie Meyer or Eva Ibbotson, I’m sure. I needed the experience of literature as a safe zone, a meaningful, comforting, thrilling world, to be able to branch out into the serious and demanding literature of later life and trust that I could bear what it had to tell me. Still, I guess I can catch up now, even if it is a bit late, and there really are a lot of other books I ought to be reading – and writing – about.

Voyaging Out

As you may recall, I’ve been attending a writers’ group in the city where I live which has afforded me all kinds of pleasures. Not least among these is the newsletter that drops through my letterbox once a month. It’s usually a round up of the various groups that have met (short prose, long prose, poetry and travel writing), synopses of passages that have been read (so that we can keep up with the progress of novels) and a whole list of competitions (mostly for poetry, absolutely never for non-fiction) that we could enter if we chose. Recently we were asked to signal our readiness to accept it over the email, thus saving wear and tear on the newsletter editor, but actually I stuck out for my printed version. There’s something about its photocopied format that just tickles me and it wouldn’t be the same as a pdf. Anyhow, in the miscellaneous news items last month was a cry for support from the small, independent publisher, Salt Publishing, who specializes in poetry. They’ve been feeling the pinch, apparently, and are encouraging readers to buy ‘just one book’ to prevent them from going under. Well, ever willing to do my bit, I had a good look around their website, which usefully offers extracts from all the books they offer, and settled on a copy of Voyaging Out by Peter Abbs.

Well, this arrived last week and I have been delighted with it. I’m horribly fussy about poetry; I’m sure it’s a weakness on my part but there is so much of it that doesn’t speak to me. For some reason I have a much broader tolerance for quality in prose, and I’ll struggle to the end of a moderately interesting novel without complaint. In poetry, however, I’ll put the book down and never return to it again if a skim through of a couple of poems doesn’t immediately please me. I chose Voyaging Out on the strength of my curiosity about its second part, which features a contemporary return to the poetry of Rumi, Dante and Rilke. The cover says: ‘These poems are not literal translations but work in the manner of metamorphoses. […] Their purpose is to keep faith with the encompassing spirit of these writers, to bring them forcibly into the modern imagination and, in so doing, to keep alive a conversation with the past.’ Well, whatever; there’s also the fact that these are gorgeous poems in their own right. Here’s one in the spirit of Rumi:

When I heard my first love story
I rushed out looking for you.
How blind!

Lovers never meet.
They’ve always been contemplating each other –
from the beginning of time.

As you know, I am a big fan of Rilke, so I wasn’t sure that any other poet could pull off a poetic tribute that worked. But here’s a little something I thought was marvelous:


Silent friend,
your breath expands our world
and your existence rings out like a bronze bell

and the night wind blows stronger
from the very touch of you.

All life’s transformation:
lift up whatever pulls you down.

If vinegar tastes bitter turn it into wine!

In this immeasurable night, stand calm
at the congested cross-roads of your senses –

for this is the tryst of life
and you are its dark center.

And should the world ever forget your name; whisper to the
dumb earth: I exist.
And to the running water say: I am.

There’s much to admire in the first half of the collection too, beautiful meditations on art by Hopper and Bonnard that enter imaginatively into the painter’s experience at the genesis of a work of art, some delicately but piercingly evocative scenes of childhood, ruminations on the art of poetry and, true to the title, several affirmations of the power and the insight of travel. It’s wonderful stuff. Seamus Heaney seems to like him, too, as he’s provided one of the endorsements. If you like poetry, I’d certainly suggest you try him, and Salt Publishing, too.

Daphne and Rebecca

Yes, I’m back again. After missing a post or two last week I’m falling behind in my reviews and I hate that, because I write better about a book when I’ve just read it, than ten days later when I’ve forgotten the names of the characters. And the book in question was a very good one: Justine Picardie’s Daphne, which was a cunning interweaving of fact and fiction around a period in the life of novelist Daphne du Maurier. The era Picardie chooses is the late 1950s, when du Maurier was struggling with both personal and professional crises. Her husband had just had a nervous breakdown, brought on by overwork and the strain of having a serious love affair with a woman Daphne privately refers to as the ‘Snow Queen’. Always a trooper, Daphne rises to the occasion, accepting that her precious solitude in Menabilly is disrupted by a resentful, depressed, impossible Tommy, whilst strenuously repressing her own devastation at his infidelity. But it hasn’t been an easy marriage; Daphne herself has known infatuation, in the form of another man, many years ago, and her father’s former lover, Gertrude Lawrence, in the not-so-distant past. As she clings on to the shreds of her relationship with her husband, the ghosts of past loves rise relentlessly to the surface of her mind.

Then there’s work, which isn’t going so well either. Determined to be taken seriously as a writer, Daphne envisages a long-cherished project: a proper, scholarly biography of Bramwell Bronte, whom she believes has been wrongfully neglected and overlooked. To aid her in her researches, she enters into correspondence with bibliophile and ex-curator, J. Alex Symington, a man who has devoted his life to sourcing and protecting the manuscripts of the Bronte family. Symington lends her his qualified support; initially he is jealous of her project, wanting the revelation of Bramwell’s genius to be all his. But he needs Daphne too. Unbeknownst to her, his career collapsed in scandal when he was asked to resign as curator and librarian at the Bronte Parsonage, having taken various books and documents into his possession and not returned them. For Symington, this was an act of loving salvage on his part, as well as an obsessive need to possess, but he is not the kind of character to acknowledge wrong-doing on his own part. His whole sorry ageing life is dedicated to the internal pursuit of recognition and absolution and the fact that a famous lady novelist, even if a popular one, should turn to him for help, represents a vestige of glory that he cannot forgo, and that must be balanced with his desires to hoard his collection and his knowledge to himself.

The narrative splits into three voices, then: Daphne’s, as she tries to put her biography together, despite Tommy, despite the ambivalent help of Symington, and despite the ghost of Rebecca, who haunts her still as her most successful creation; secondly, Symington, engaged in his own internal warfare still, with the ghosts of authority who dismissed and humiliated him; and thirdly, a young nameless girl who is researching Daphne du Maurier and her connection to the Brontes in the present day. This final thread of the narrative appeals to the legend of Rebecca herself, as she is married to a much older lecturer whose first wife, Rachel, exerts a powerful hold over the couple. Left on her own too much, scorned by her distant husband for her interest in such a critically unexciting figure as du Maurier, she starts to feel her personality dissolve in her fascination with the life of du Maurier and her fantasies about the enigmatic Rachel. As you can tell this is a narrative structured by multiple hauntings and full of porous, uncertain states of mind. I felt this was the strongest part of the novel – Picardie is particularly good at showing people on the crumbling edge of madness, and the scenes where Daphne, overwrought with the strain of pretence and stoicism, starts to collapse into paranoia are especially striking.

Before I read this book, it just so happened that I had reread du Maurier’s Rebecca, the first time I had done so since reading it and being completely swept away by it in my early teens. It felt very odd indeed to read it with my 40-year-old critic’s mind. What struck me was the brilliant balance that du Maurier manages to strike between her characters. The book would be all wrong if Mrs Danvers’ chillingly obsessive love for Rebecca, her machiavellian darkness, weren’t balanced out by Frank Crawley’s honest, awkward goodness. And Maxim, suffocating as a character in the binds of his impenetrable masculinity, needs his tweedy, careless-tongued sister, Beatrice to demonstrate a female version of that particular, emotionally constipated upper-classness. The novel’s mad people, the hints of horror that lurk beneath the beautiful surfaces of Manderlay, are equally well chosen; the inarticulate idiot, Ben, who guards Rebecca’s boathouse, and the vulgar and louche Jack Favell, who stands as a clue to Rebecca’s ugly side. I hadn’t remembered them all, had thought of the book as a kind of three-hander, between the narrator, the housekeeper and the ghost of Rebecca herself, but of course it isn’t. It’s the mosaic of those characters, the different sides to the story that they suggest, that makes the narrative so very satisfying. But the other story they have to tell is one that the narrator cannot at first see, blinded as she is by her imaginings.

And here’s the interesting thing: in du Maurier’s novel, the narrator loses her self, loses her confidence and her self-esteem because of her idealization of a ghost, and what the story works to do is give them back to her again by gradually but relentless destroying that perfect image. Rebecca is a kind of manifestation of the narrator’s harsh inner critic; she represents the perfect woman that the narrator thinks she can’t be – dramatic, beautiful, sociable, lovable, all in excessive ways. The destruction of Rebecca is in fact the destruction of the images that haunt most women’s heads, the ones that suggest we are never good enough as we are. The process of watching that ideal image being torn to pieces is one that thrills and terrifies women and it’s no wonder that a fierce price is exacted, in the form of the narrator’s exile from England. We tamper with the bullies in our minds at severe, personal risk. I’ve read critics sneering at the novel for having a dubious morality, but they just don’t see that Maxim is far more lovable once it turns out he’s a murderer, than when he was a man in thrall to a dead woman. He’s avenged the narrator by despising that perfection we’re all supposed to emulate, he’s destroyed it and all it represents. Who wouldn’t love that?

So, in Rebecca, the narrative works to undo those unhealthy attachments to fantasy images. The image of Rebecca in the narrator’s head needs to be expunged, as it’s doing her damage. By contrast, the fantasies and the hauntings in Justine Picardie’s novel are used to shore up uncertain states of mind. Daphne du Maurier, for instance, isn’t whole unless she is creating some fictional life. Her appropriation of characters from the past and her creative imaginings are what hold her in a state of relative sanity. Symington’s projections, too, keep his fragile sense of self alive. It’s only the young girl who, at the very end, frees herself from her literary entanglements with others, and finds a better, brighter future for herself by doing so. Picardie’s novel is extremely easy to read, stylish, clever and compelling, but it does keep to a one-note tone throughout. It isn’t the thriller that du Maurier’s Rebecca was, because the demons her characters want to vanquish are equally the props that keep them going. But that’s an observation, not a criticism. There aren’t enough novels out there about the perils and triumphs of literary creativity and the strange business of criticism, both reverential and destructive, that rises up around it. This is a very good one.