Saturday, 8 June 2013

Heat and dust

This is Salem. He drove us across the desert in southern Jordan in his jeep. Like a laid-back, twinkly-eyed Arab light entertainer, he was something of a character. 

He is Bedouin, and has lived in this sun-baked part of Jordan, Wadi Rum, all his life. Immense granite and sandstone mountains, like islands in a bone dry sea, rise up from the desert floor. They take many different forms, from sheer vertical flanks to curved, bulging rocks filled with craggy ravines, weathered by sea water and wind over the millenia. 

Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in Wadi Rum – indeed it was one of TE Lawrence's favourite places. The midday heat is so intense it's hard to describe: it melts your scalp and sears your soles. 

You stumble across rock carvings, many by nomadic Thamudic tribes, who predate the Romans. Like most graffiti, it is not deeply meaningful – just simple, stylised images of humans, animals, symbols and footprints (see below). 

In the early 1990s Salem and his fellow desert dwellers formed co-operatives to organise tourism in the area, and with the proceeds built a small town of squat, humous-coloured houses where they now live, instead of tents, so their children can go to school (he never did). Are they better off? "He laughs. "Not happier! But I'm glad my children will have an education." His eldest daughter teaches him English. 

He was a first-rate storyteller. He once accompanied a group of Japanese into the desert for a two-day camp. They spoke no English. They drew him a picture of a camel with a man on top, and the following morning Salem fixed them up with a ride each, tapped his watch, held up three fingers and waved them off. 

Three hours later, there was no sign of them. After five he began to panic. By nightfall, he was starting to wonder if they had accidently wandered across the Saudi Arabian border. At dawn he set off with a local policeman and finally found them, relaxing at a Bedouin camp, wondering what all the fuss was about. 

Then there was the time a pair of Italian honeymooners setting up camp for the night had a bust-up after the man confessed to having recently slept with his new wife's best friend. His timing couldn't have been worse. "She was so angry I had to find her a separate tent to sleep in." Understandably. "These people..." he tails off, shaking his head in bafflement. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Luke Treadaway: almost famous

I had the same tingling feeling - no, not that one - watching 28-year-old Luke Treadaway play the lead in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time this afternoon as I did watching an unknown James McAvoy in Privates on Parade in 2001. The play was a little silly, but McAvoy exuded charisma and talent from every pore. When I later saw him in Shameless, I remember thinking: Oh. It's him

Watching Treadaway was the same: it's an extraordinary role – his character, Christopher, has Asperger Syndrome. And he was remarkable: spirited, funny and moving. 

Against the odds – and against McAvoy, among others – Treadaway won best actor at the Oliver Awards on Sunday for his role (presented by Kim Cattrall, above). "I feel like someone's going to call and tell me it's all a big mistake," he says, which is what all actors say. But he seemed genuine.  

I interviewed him yesterday, not about his win – which was just good timing – but about a new scheme that aims to get autistic kids and their parents into theatres, something they usually find intimidating and nerve-wracking. Playing someone with autism, he is particularly passionate about the project. 

We met in a windowless corner of the Apollo Theatre on the sunniest afternoon of the year. So Treadaway – slim, barefoot, clutching coconut water and a packet of tobacco – suggested we sit outside the stage door in the sun, perched on the kerb. 

He was all of the following: friendly, intelligent, sparky, confident. And, of course, a thespian, kissing co-stars, calling them darling. He didn't kiss me, I'm glad to say: just two good handshakes. 

He is nice-looking but not drop dead gorgeous. The photograph, top, best resembles him in real life: a young Damian Lewis with a nicely imperfect face. Below he's all pout and hairspray, the perfect casting shot. Either way, he's one to watch: almost famous, and you read about him here almost first. 

Monday, 29 April 2013

Björn at the right time

Small, neat and a little orange, Abba's Björn Ulvaeus (right) – he married the blonde one – slips into our group, unannounced. We are visiting the soon-to-open Abba Museum in Stockholm and he is here to say hello. Serious but warm, and not at all starry (impressive, given that he is the second most famous Björn to come out of Sweden), he answers our questions happily but succinctly. 

How does it feel to be opening a museum about yourself? "Like looking at another person's life. And extremely narcissistic! Ha, ha!" 

I downloaded Abba's Greatest Hits last week in the name of journalistic research, and was reminded of the sublime craftsmanship of their songs: joyful, innocent, glossy, addictive and universally appealing. A friend told me last week that mountain rescue workers in Wales listen to Abba in the rescue vehicle to cheer themselves up. I'm not surprised: their tunes are musical anti-depressants. 

Benny Andersson actually wrote more of the songs – Ulvaeus the lyrics – but perhaps they were like Lennon and McCartney: better as two than one. "We never took ourselves too seriously," he says. "Everything was tongue in cheek. Except the music: we took that dead seriously." 

Photographs: top, Bengt H Malmqvist; bottom, err, me. Apologies for quality. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

"Once it gets you, you're besotted"

Peter Layton’s glassblowing studio operates something of an open door policy. On a warm spring afternoon its glass doors, cathedral-like in their proportions, are indeed propped open and passersby breeze in, drawn by the psychedelic glassware on display and, beyond, the workshop with the “blowers” themselves.

Soon a crowd is gathered. Layton, 75, urges them to sit: the more people who see this extraordinary work, he reasons, the better it is for business. Some remain for an hour, hypnotised by its theatre. More than any other craft, glassblowing has an air of alchemy about it: in the space of a few hours, an unpromising nugget of brown glass, dipped in powder, will be transformed into a shimmering, painterly vessel. If – and it’s a big if – it turns out okay, it could fetch £4,000.

At 35, this is the oldest glassblowing studio in the UK. Located near London Bridge, it is a collective of freelance artists headed by Layton. Chatty, avuncular and twinkly-eyed – and youthfully dressed for a septuagenarian – he offers hands-on design advice to the other artists. His mug says "The Boss". 

Without warning he will leap up and consult with a blower on how his piece is taking shape. There’s no room for dithering: molton glass doesn’t stay molton for long. Across the workshop is a minor emergency: a crease has appeared in a piece that’s destined for an exhibition. The blower is experienced and Layton stays seated, but pulls a worried face. “As if he didn’t have enough to contend with.”

It’s this collaborative approach that has kept them going so long, he says. “Glass is labour and cost intensive. So sharing overheads really helps. Gas prices and raw materials have gone up astronomically. China is sitting on all the selenium stocks and prices have risen 700%.” Selenium provides the red in glass – can’t he just make fewer red pieces? “No! I can’t tie my inspiration to the selenium market.” He points to his most recent pieces as proof: exquisite scarlet poppy heads half a metre in diameter.

Layton is self-taught, and started out as a potter. But he fell in love with glass. “Once it gets you, you’re besotted. Even the heat on your face from the furnaces is addictive.”

And it is hot, sweaty work. Layne Rowe, one of the studio’s most experienced artists, is making the final piece in a series of large-scale vessels started by Layton called The Arrival of Spring – inspired by David Hockney’s giant canvas of the same name (Layton and Hockney were childhood friends in Bradford). 

The process has a simple rhythm to it. Rowe, above in white, alternately fires the glass, which is on the end of a rod, in a small furnace, and coats it in powder or shards of thin coloured glass, which will add a striped effect. Occasionally, he dips the rod into another oven, which coats it in a gloopy layer of transluscent glass. He rolls the glass on a metal surface or massages it with a thick wedge of newspaper to change its shape.

Two hours on, the glass is as large as a bowling ball and Rowe staggers under its weight, sweat pouring off his forehead. A pair of assistants are now helping him, opening secondary oven doors to accomodate the larger piece. “I’m worried about his shoulder,” says Layton. “He did it in recently, and it put him out for months. I don’t want him to overdo it.”

He is constantly nurturing young talent. Today, the workshop is buzzing with bright young things who manage the shop, design the website, package up parcels. “I had a call today from a young chap wanting a job. I know him, he’s brilliant. We’re going to try to fit him in.” He adds, brightly: “I think glass is on the up. It’s sheer good luck for us.” I expect luck only plays a small part. 

Photographs: Anna Huix 

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Friends and countrymen

They entertained, liked a drink, and filled their homes with beautiful objects. They loved jewellery, carved graffiti onto walls, and idolised literary figures from the past. 

And, naturally, they got into fights down the pub. These exquisite lines are from a fresco dedicated to "tavern life", translated from Latin – the men in question are arguing about a game of dice: "That's not a three, it's a two". "Now look here, you cocksucker, it was me who won." Latin, for me, always has lofty religious connotations, so it's enlightening to see it reclaimed for the streets. Cocksucker, in case you're wondering, is "fellator". 

I hadn't realised how like the Romans we are today until I visited the British Museum's awe-inspiring exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which opens tomorrow. It charts the domestic lives of ordinary Romans – as opposed to emperors and gladiators – living in these ill-fated cities, painting a technicolour picture of everyday life in AD79. Roman society was changing: women and freed slaves were growing in importance. 

There was an overpowering sense, walking round the show, of a direct line from these sociable, humorous people to you and I today, and how we live our lives. These Romans, living on the coast, built elegant cabinets to house their plates, glasses and jugs, and lit oil lamps perfumed with exotic scents. They shopped, and they loved gardening, hanging wind chimes outside to tinkle in the sea breeze. Wind chime in Latin is "tintinnabulum" – now one of my favourite words.  

They indulged in sentimental rituals, such as placing ornamental silver skeletons among their serving dishes to remind them to enjoy life, because death is always coming. If only they knew how close it was: the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius, as if from nowhere (they believed the volcano was extinct) wiped out Pompeii and its neighbouring seaside town, Herculaneum in one terrifying day.  

Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness, described the darkness that engulfed the towns – the cloud of ash and rock – "as if the light had gone out... You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men." 

Yet in their destruction, these cities were, of course, preserved. That darkness actually shone a light onto these ordinary Roman lives. Prepare to be moved.  

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Bunny ears and hairy arses

"I never win anything!" said the fabulous production designer, Eve Stewart, when I interviewed her a few weeks ago. She lied: on Sunday night, she won a Bafta for her sumptuous sets for Les Misérables – her first Bafta, at her third attempt. 

Stewart wore a pair of black lace bunny ears and a jacket with a faux fur leopard collar to collect her award. And she used the words "hairy arses" in her acceptance speech. Having met her – she is funny, warm and outspoken – I would have expected nothing less. 

Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian