Friday, 9 August 2019

USA by train - New York to San Francisco

July 30th 2019 – my crossing of the States by train.
(Began 29th July – fly into New York City)
(30th – afternoon in New York)

29th/30th July - New York:

Sporty girl in track suit laughs as I bash my head as I get out my train seat and I suggest I should be on the stage - such was the comic potential.  Twenty minutes of a Pennebaker-like ride into the City, a few hundred metres down the hot summer sidewalk and I'm at the Holiday Inn - 30th floor with massive air conditioning and a great view.  Friendly place in the middle of it all. 

The Groove - 125 MacDougal St
Groove Bar on MacDougal was up to its usual standard of well- played R+B, but it all got a bit expensive, self-indulgent and loud, so into the warm oven-like air of Washington Park and gatherings of young people around the late night fountain, encircled by street musicians with their own audiences.  A silver light shimmers in the warmth and I pace on through to 5th avenue and on up to 44th to try and find my old wine bar – no longer.  Barmaids in the Pod Hotel declare they’ve not worked here long (just like London) so no knowing what happened to it.  So in an Uber and back to the Holiday Inn on Times Square – back up to the 30th floor and the Late Show, the Colbert Show, The Late Late show and the Jimmy Kimmel show.  It’s like a Youtube fest of talk shows – but all are live.  Look out on the Hudson and feel the pressure to survive and earn a living in this Mayfair priced pressure cooker.  Casey Neisdat has just left – for LA.  He says NYC is full of misfits just trying to survive. No one settles in New York.  Interesting point.

Next day I've all day to shop and head back down the street to Penn Station and go to the rather plush Amtrak lounge for 4pm and we're herded down the escalator to our hidden train under the City - love it - where I board and there's my guard ready to show me my roomette and I find a convenient toilet and foldaway wash-basin right next to my seat - in my roomette!  Fantastic - as a Colitis sufferer it's worth the trip just for this convenience alone. 

We head into the night with wifi and a cafeteria style buffet service in the dining car with an excellent attendant ready to chat and he lets you hang out and have a chat if you want. 

A bit cold in my cabin - the air conditioner is too good on a hot evening - but once I pull the bunk down and get into bed I note it's warmer at the top of the cabin - hot air rises.  I fall asleep to the soothing trundle of the carriage.  

31st  July Chicago and onward

I awake to see four wheel drive cars earnestly heading along farm roads on their way to work, and note the wonderful absurdity of my glancing from my bed as I hurtle into the very town they're trying to get to - I'll be there long before them and decide to grab a Muffin, porridge and coffee breakfast that Peter has carefully laid out for all of us.  


Was it because it was new territory?  I had a distinct sense of Euphoria, so much so that I had to take my phone and do a panoramic sweep of the street and the Willis tower.  $25 and up I go 1400 feet to re-enact the Ferris Bueller scene and experience once again a sense of having missed the boat 34 years ago… and off into the city – that’s where Ferris led the parade, parked the Ferrari and went round the art gallery – all with the aim of telling us to let go and live a little.  Well here I am, having carefully timed, planned and spent a lot of hard-earned money – doing anything but living a little.

Back street Chicago - stairway to Heaven
Chicago – the smell of barbecue ribs mixes with the intensely clean avenues of skyscrapers that reflect the white sunlight and then reveals momentous back-alleys of brown and foul-smelling bins. The elevated rail trundles through the centre like a museum exhibit.  There’s a sense of the coast – a breeze - which we all know is Lake Michigan – but it’s big enough to give a sense of the eternal presence of a natural barrier akin to the sea and thereby makes you think differently.  Makes me think of that dream town – is this the town from my dreams?   Flowing grass and seaside Condos with several floors and some-how I’m living amongst them?  Maybe this is the dream – me on a double-decker train in first class accommodation travelling and yet amidst such beautiful scrapers. 
Bueller... Bueller... 

Hard to find a place I want to eat though – settle for Pret a Manger (sell-out!) for sake of price and convenience.  

All aboard The California Zephyr...

Here I sit, sleeper carriage on the California Zephyr without wifi and en-route between Chicago and San Francisco, wondering whether my illness is in fact brought on by nervous energy after eating a perfectly decent salmon and runner beans plus New York cheesecake with Dave from New York and his young family – all funny, sharp witted and friendly – the white linen table cloths and iron cutlery suddenly place this way above the friendly commuter atmosphere of the Chicago sleeper out of New York to Chicago, but now I have groups of travellers with large lensed cameras sitting in groups checking out the passing fields of maize.  Okay, that’s enough maize surely, surely that’s enough to feed the world three times over?  Nope, more maize keeps coming and it’s now 7:17 pm and my Amtrak tracker map on my phone tells me we’re on our way into Ottumwa – Iowa. 

I pull my own bed down and decide it's better to sleep on the lower level - the seats fold into a bed as well. That way I can watch the stars out the window.  The great thing about this train - you feel if it broke down you'd really be in the wilderness, because next to the rail is nothing.  Unlike a road or highway where there's always gas stations or passing stores, signposts and general humanity.  Here, slicing through the fields, the plains, the stars above...  great feeling.  Once again, the gentle trundling of the train quickly sends me off to a real deep sleep complete with dreams of a ideal city that looks very much like Chicago...   

August 1st Thursday

Breakfast with Chinese girl and her Mother.

The usual story of what feels most uncomfortable becomes most enlightening; I’m sat with a bright Chinese student and her mother – who speaks no English but they’re travelling through the USA down to Phoenix to visit a relative.  After answering their request that I take a photo of them, I let her ask the questions and introduce myself, she studies anthropology and is interested in the relationship between England and the USA – the fact that we had a fight all those years ago and isn’t there any animosity remaining?  I smile and liken us to two kids in a playground who had a scrap and then realise we’re both very alike and become the best of bosom pals for the rest of our lives.  She compares this to China and Japan and how the animosity hasn’t subsided.

‘China’s becoming very successful and powerful now’ I throw in by way of an entrance.
‘Yes, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing – very threatening’. She adds.  ‘But England – very good history – very successful – Empire’.
‘Ah yes, well, I nod the apologetic smile of the new-found liberal tendency; ‘I’m not sure we’re too proud of that anymore either’.

For a student of anthropology she certainly cuts to the core of the matter.  Fluent English, well read and versed in our cultural exports (Sherlock), all I can recommend of San Francisco is the jazz bars, the range of fresh food on Columbus and a one hour yacht trip under the Golden Gate Bridge.  Yet my mind is thinking ‘there’s some great dodgy bars down near skid row’.  An enthusiastic engager – she heads off with her Mum - I’m beginning to think this dining together thing isn’t so bad.   

1st August - Dinner

Ralston has a straw hat and play-fights with the waiter before asking politely if he could join us – I’m with a retired New Zealand couple who are on their way to San Francisco after sailing up to New York from the Panama Canal via Guatemala and Mexico; but Ralston has the ease of someone who knows his craft and proceeds to listen before briefly explaining that he’s surrounded by his wife and children and grandchildren – he tries to guess our accents and gets mine right but his easy Michigan accent seems to suggest he’s spoken to audiences many times before – he’s a guitarist and speaks of Big Bill Brooming and visiting Pete Seeger, then of writing a piece about James Dean that ended up being about losing his Mother to Cancer.  ‘Car Crash Conversations’ and (something) ‘at the Texas Hotel’.  I need to find this.    

Incredible – my friends Julian and Kayla appear at Salt Lake City (1:15am) with a cream cake after they got married in Vegas.  Kinda cool.  I step down and we stand about for ten minutes on the platform before the whilst blows and I have to head off again.  Great effort guys!  Something very atmospheric with the train whistle and lack of platform - they just wander up and there they are outside my cabin!  The lack of platform makes me feel like I’m in the wild west.

2nd August – Lunch

I thought I wouldn’t bother, the vibe was reticent and happy within their own spheres, so I introduced myself to the black lady next to me who looked at my hand momentarily as if I was making a rude sign; she gently shook and said she’d got on at Reno headed for Union City – somewhere south of San Fran; the two opposite were interested in me – and in my usual way I told my life history piecemeal – prompting the usual response ‘you don’t seem military in any way’.  Her eyes lit up with mention of my having met the great Lawrence Ferlinghetti last year, and we moved on to the future of Britain with Boris Johnson – they felt it was like another Trump and I agreed.  I give him until Nov.  I hope he succeeds – I’ll give him a chance and be ready to laugh at myself if I’m wrong.  But I won’t be buying any property just yet.
Tired of the lack of internet, nothing to read other than Martin Amis and I cannot do anything more with my screenplay until I start plotting it out again with post-it notes.

Reno comes and goes with a mere walk on the platform, those almost memories of lap-dancers…
Still awaiting the internet as I try to book a second night in San Francisco for tomorrow. 

What have I got from this trip?
Difficult to say really, I like the feeling of being a bubble moving through the wilderness, I love there being no platform as we wander into small towns and step out onto shingle.  I like dining as the Colorado river passes by the right-hand side – one girl moons her buttocks – the rest are far too bashful. I also like my own personal space and sleeping with a sense of progress, because without a doubt - everything here has a sense of progress. 

But I also find myself thinking this is not enough – that heading back to teaching after this is nowhere near recompense for what I’ve been through this past year.  That’s not the fault of the railway, that’s the fault of my choices. 

August 3rd – San Franciscan morning

Resort 'tax' - at the Zephyr
Columbus Street - San Francisco
After the evening’s altercation where I refused to pay the $75 deposit and questioned the 'resort' tax, (not every hotel charges it) summoned the manager - and he waived the deposit fee, I wander out at 8am to Caffe Greco, where the two Mexicans take the piss out of each other and with real easy-going charm effortlessly serve you stale okay pain au chocolat and almond unheated croissants – shit I am so ‘raw’ in my lifestyle.  But the coffee – and just the mere ambiance of the place made me tip them immediately (to insure promptness – according to my blues guitar mate Ralston from the train).  I sit and look up at the poster of some art exhibition somewhere in the past, somewhere in town several years ago I was far to unhip to know about – and realise it’s Ferlinghetti – Moriarty!  I was lucky enough to have met him last year (see below)  and so I experience something that only age can do – a close proximity to what I once considered unattainable – talent.  That it is right next to us, graspable, fleeting, like Verdine White in The band of Earth, Wind and Fire – it’s just a silver suit.  Nevertheless, he chose that silver suit in the late seventies when no one would dare – and boy, could he play guitar!     

City Lights Bookshop - Ferlinghetti turns 100

San Francisco:

Caffe Greco
Easy transition from Emeryville onto the Amtrak bus (it's waiting outside the station) and thirty minutes later you're dropped off in the centre of San Francisco.  Hop on a tram - I only have a twenty dollar bill - kind lady driver takes one look at me and nods to the back seats ' pay double next time' v. cool lady.  Thanks. 

And my 24 hours in San Francisco results in a love of Mozzarella and Tomato Paninis, there's blokes in here with cravats and berets - and why not?  By their age they were probably here during the fifties so they're probably the real thing, whatever that is.  Going into a restaurant as a single bloke is a little bit of a stigma in the roaring tourist trade at night, the Italian restaurant has to be reminded by me to provide bread and a menu - but the couple next door are looked after like proper guests - thank you Pinnochio's - I pay my bill and get the hell out. 

Don't even think about it...
Waiters in cafes; so next day I sweep down the mock marble floor of Caffe Greco, with the sunlight streaming in and the Hispanic guitar in the background, past those two old men in berets and cravats, another sat in the corner scribbling away, briefcase by his side, and ponder being mistaken for an ageing waiter as a young couple wander in; and it feels good – something to aspire to – like there’s suddenly no disgrace in merely serving coffee if you’re in the midst of a sunny morning in a place like this. A fire engine wanders past – even the sirens here sound a poetic wail that suggests a timeless awareness of their status – yes there’s a fire – but we all die sometime…

City/village mix - wonderful
Sit on the edge of Washington Square eating Mozzarellla and Tomato and served by a student from Tuscany just doing her summer job - what a life - before I wander to the BART subway for a swift half hour zap to the airport - and off for my evening flight back to Heathrow.

So what did I do?   Very little.  Loved it.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Bowie, Mother. Three years on.

I picked up a dollar left in the dressing room by Mos Def when I turned up to be a background actor for the play that followed 'Top Dog/Underdog' at the Royal Court - that's pretty random close to one of Bowie's confidantes.  I had a drink in a bar with Charles Shaar Murray - a trusted journalist who gained Bowie's respect (I just helped direct him in a reading of a play) - random working close which is always much better than just seeking out someone at a stage door and not knowing what to say.  All this after buying the 'Gene Jeanie' at eleven years old.  Just glancing off the surface - but Bowie's been there for 46 of my 57 years on the planet, as Carlos Alomar says, how many artists have done that?  I'm talking in the present tense - because there's clearly more to come for me as I work my way through his lyrics, oh so slowly, revealing an inner-vision for the rest of my life. 

At the end he even teaches/performs a possible way for us to approach death; all he can do is show us his own response - yet it resonates - as if able to comment post shutting down 'Yeah, I've gone back in the cupboard'  - makes sense now huh?  So?  The thought process ceases - doesn't matter, mark made and you're not 'Tears in Rain'.  Not to me.  I celebrate you like I celebrate my incredibly influential Mother who went the same year. Three years is nothing.  Thanks for the ability to listen to the world - both of you.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

A meeting with Robert Scheer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Robert Scheer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Teachers don't get to meet great people; we don't move in the same circles - but I was lucky enough to have a friend who does, one that was making a documentary on the great Robert Scheer and with an added chance to meet the famous poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Did I want to fly out and perhaps meet these people - maybe ask a few questions? Hell yes, I booked my tickets and was on my way.

The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who at 99 is still razor sharp, an ideological and artistic hero of mine, the writer of 'Two Scavengers', a poem which I've taught for a good few years, was sitting at his desk with the blinds guarding us from the heat of a San Franciscan noon on a Friday. My burning question of a man that has met and hung out with Castro, Dylan, Ginsberg and Kerouac? What was the reason for his layout in the poem 'Two Scavengers' - across the page - and the possible metre in the poem? Yes, I know, I could have been more broad, but I wanted to show him that I knew of his work... his reasoning was that it reflected the paintings of the time - the use of a divided page; when I mentioned 'beat' poetry with regard to the rhythm, he corrected me and said that was all really Alan Ginsberg, no more. But he agreed his metre had a definite internal, subtle rhythm (well at least I'd been teaching that bit right); still focused on poetry I mentioned how the final lines of the poem finished with the ironic 'of this democracy' and how this hard-edged ending that commented on the USA had stirred unrest in the classroom with a fellow American teacher; he smiled and said that the original line had been 'demi-democracy'; we agreed 'democracy' worked better, but before I could start bombarding him with further poetry questions and thinking I was right there in the 1960s (well, I was but about four), I was quite rightly reminded by Lawrence as to the reason we were here - to talk of his days with Robert Scheer, the acclaimed political journalist and the subject of a forthcoming documentary. Robert gracefully led the discussion and kept me on track, speaking of his being given a job by Ferlinghetti in the early 1960s at the famous City Lights bookstore in the town. It's still open until 10pm, now a national treasure and a wonderful source of literature from around the world. Robert and Lawrence talked of old times and how Lawrence had served in D Day, become a pacifist after flying into Nagasaki and shared their memories of a world in which political debate, in my view centred on San Francisco, was beginning to have world-changing repercussions for Vietnam, Nixon and Human Rights. These two individuals had given the Black Panthers a chance to speak, chatted with Fidel Castro and allowed the Cuban plight to be aired via the literature in City Lights. Whether you agree with the politics wasn't really the point, the aim was to let you decide by reading what all sides had to say.

Lawrence spent a good hour chatting to myself and Robert, but really I just wanted to let these two influential gentlemen talk and hopefully let something of their drive rub off on me. I was clearly out of my depth when Kenneth Rexroth was mentioned as a major influence, but with impeccable manners, both would listen to what I had to blurt out, neither dismissing my somewhat naïve and hurried questioning; but both had the good grace and patience to answer in detail before we descended into downtown San Francisco with Robert for a guided tour of iconic venues that still stand, such as Caffe Trieste, Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope restaurant and bar Vesuvio.
Stephen French and Mike Poore (DP) interview Robert Scheer

But I'll leave all that for the Documentary. Needless to say, it was a memorable time as a motorcyclist stopped and pulled over to tell Bob what a great job he did - and still does, shouting across the traffic ‘Thank God for you Bob’ reset the visor and roared away. A couple of kids in a playground would call out 'are you making a film - can we be in it?' My teacherly caution cut in and I prepared to brush them off, but Robert would immediately stop mid-filming and ask them about the school, how they were doing, interact and engage. I know it sounds obvious, but his approach and openness was a lesson to me.

I left Lawrence's flat with a firm shake of the hand in the muted colours of the room, down the dark, wooden corridor and out into the searing sunlight of the North Bay area of San Francisco. It was all so modest, quiet, considered and peaceful. Yet I was fully aware that my time with these two great men was a once in a lifetime experience for me, something that will inform my teaching - and my approach to people for the rest of my life. Openness, generosity, debate.

Robert Scheer and Stephen French of CodeFrench in conversation

Wednesday, 17 May 2017


                                                                                             Response given to 'Stage RAW':

I wandered into the Bootleg theatre on the recommendation of a friend and discovered a powerful combination of excellent writing, several hard-hitting performances and a couple of superb vignettes on the subject of this all too present issue. The 90 minutes flew by. I not only saw a well-observed relationship (tightly acted - auto-pilot clearly disengaged) which subtly revealed all the realistic awkwardness of a couple on the last legs of a relationship, but it was the accuracy of the friendship observed between the two female leads that blew me away - here we see all the tension, cut-throat competitiveness and surprise compassion between two female actors faced with an industry masterfully personified by a man in a Chesterfield.  To sum up that scene as 'fun' is a little simplistic in my view; in fact to say these issues have been addressed before is also a little reductive; so no more plays and films on 'the industry' and it's tribulations? 

It would be all too easy to create a play that focuses far too earnestly on its chosen issue, and I've seen plenty that do; but this doesn't at all. This is a story told with purpose, but what made it special for me was how it mixed this with humour, pace and a genuine subtlety of observation for the way people react in a competitive world.  I've no idea how such chemistry was created, but you really should witness this.


Thursday, 3 September 2015

New posts - my Acting stories - see below and the page to the right...

I'm going to post my acting stories online - feel free to comment - unless you're a h8ter...