Thursday, 29 January 2015

H is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald

Congratulations to Helen Macdonald for the prizes she has won (e.g. Samuel Johnson non-fiction, Costa book of the year) for H is for Hawk. Not to everyone’s taste (it seems from some nit-picking commentators) but the memoir’s success has revived interest in TH White, a writer from my own childhood that I’ve mentioned beforeI am looking forward to reading Macdonald’s book when it is out in paperback but for now I’ve enjoyed the thought of it and reveled in the tangled muddle people get into whilst trying to fathom her use of the biography of TH White.
A Grief Observed
H is for Hawk concerns three strands: the grief Macdonald felt when her father died, her decision to train a goshawk named Mabel and the biography of TH White, the author of The Goshawk. The success of whether or not she succeeds in integrating these three strands is what the reviewers want to analyse. But as a fanboy reader I’m (oddly) looking forward to reading about grief; having retired it seems that bereavement is one of the most significant experiences in life – looking back and looking forward. I’d like to see how Macdonald expresses the earthquake of losing her father. The best account I’ve ever read, thus far, of grief is in CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a book I read soon after my Mum died.  I’m open to other suggestions….

Taming the Wild

I imagine that taming Mabel (the goshawk in the memoir) is equated with taming the self, taming the emotions, taming the grief. I might be wrong but taming has a long history in culture and literature from Taming of the Shrew (which I’ve seen and directed) to Barry Hines's Kestrel for a Knave (which I’ve read and taught) to 50 Shades of Grey (only a guess here since I haven’t read it – will I see the film?  Probably not.) In 1486 The Book of St Albans listed a falconry hierarchy so Golden Eagles were for Emperors, Falcons for Princes, Merlins for Milady, Sparrowhawks for a Priest and a Kestrel for a Knave. A Goshawk was for a Yeoman, a word surviving now for the Yeoman of the Guard at the Tower of London, but in medieval times probably meaning an employee of a noble household.
 The Goshawk

Helen Macdonald cites her reading of TH White’s The Goshawk as an event that inspired her in her teenage years. I read a copy borrowed from Wakefield Library in the summer before I was fifteen. Why did I choose it to read? My older brother had been interested in birds of prey and the film of Kes had made a permanent and formative impact. I knew that TH White had written The Sword in the Stone, the book on which the Disney film was based but I hadn’t read that, just enjoyed the cartoon. So it seemed to fit the creed of my charismatic English teacher, Mary Cohen, a book that “called” to me instinctively. Don’t choose books because you feel you should read them, she taught. Choose books that choose you. Don’t read a book you are not enjoying; stop it and choose another. Reading is for pleasure, for escapism, for opening your heart, mind and soul.  

Violence and War

The Goshawk completely floored me. I ought to re-read it since I am only remembering the impressions it left on me. It felt like a book about the sadness and tragedy of the human race, an account of White’s dread of the effects of violence and war. I remember crying in a central section (no spoilers) and at the end feeling a wild sense of optimism. It took me on an imaginary rollercoaster of emotions. It revealed allegory to me in a powerful way.This book that contained diagrams and instructions about hawking also posed questions about man’s inhumanity to man, through the interactions the narrator had with the natural world. I suppose I’m hoping Helen Macdonald’s memoir is going to do something similar for me. Should I be even writing about a book that I haven’t read yet? Sometimes anticipating a book can cause flights of fantasy.... and The Goshawk led directly to the book that changed my life.... 
One thing leads to another....

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Bohemian Rhapsody

Q for Queen
I'm gonna have myself a real good time
I feel ali - i - i - ive
And the world is turning inside out, yeah!
I'm floating around in ecstasy
So, Don't Stop Me Now!
Don't Stop Me -
'Cause I'm having a good time
Having a good time....

Half of Queen (Brian May and Roger Taylor) and all of Adam Lambert came to Leeds Arena on Tuesday 20th January and my daughters treated the family to tickets for the show as a Christmas present.  This seemed a fitting concert to attend after enjoying the groups’ appearance on the TV at New Year and also after We Will Rock You was the last musical I directed as a full time teacher (some pics in the collage here.)
More significantly we have been absorbed by documentaries about the group’s genesis, their writing methods, their ups and downs and the challenges caused by Freddie Mercury’s final illness.  As a story for a rock group the narrative contains all the ingredients you might make up if you were writing a stonking melodrama – the sarcasm and disdain of music critics, the amazing set at Live Aid, the technological, musical and presentational breakthroughs, the studio sessions and the pressures of the period in Munich, the undemonstrative John Deacon with his lucky beggar hit Another One Bites The Dust, and the inconceivably camp Freddie blasting his way through all expectations and conventions to become the lead singer of legend, a globally recognised and beloved figure, flawed and talented, ambitious and shy, wild and whirling.  Guaranteed to blow your mind.
Can you believe Freddie died over 20 years ago?  Can you believe his presence in the concert (both in speeches by Adam Lambert and Brian May and singing on a high-definition screen at well-chosen moments within songs) caused an outpouring of emotion at the Leeds Arena?  The glimpses of Freddie were very moving and spoke of rises and falls, the vanity of youth, the glory of talent, the excesses of extravagance, energy and death – but mostly they reminded you of Mercury’s blazing talent.  And so it was moving to remember his personality, his legacy and his voice.
And Freddie’s occasional presence also meant you could be independently amazed at the vigour, bounciness and vocal fireworks of Adam Lambert.  The show started with Brian May silhouetted behind a massive Night at the Opera logo and throbbed into One Vision, Stone Cold Crazy and Another One Bites the Dust.  These were followed by the joyous Fat Bottomed Girls and In the Lap of the Gods... Revisited.  Seven Seas of Rhye brought the opening run of songs to an end with Adam Lambert thoroughly warmed up and having revealed his extraordinary vocal range.

Lambert then came into his own with stunning versions of Killer Queen and I Want To Break Free, two songs which are indubitably “Freddie” but now became completely “Adam.”  The tough-to-sing-live Don’t Stop Me Now sent the audience (including us) wild – lots of memories of that song in our family history - and Somebody To Love brought the house down before a change of pace and one of the highlights with May singing Love of My Life acoustically.  “Years and years and years ago,” May eulogised, “some of you will remember and some of you were not even born yet—there was a man named Freddie Mercury.  And he was extraordinary.”  May, Taylor and the band gave Lambert a rest with ’39 and These Are The Days Of Our Lives (the latter very moving) and the Adam-free sequence ended with a Bass Solo and a Drum Battle with Roger Taylor’s son (Rufus Tiger) rivalling his dad in stamina and style.

Under Pressure was the song that brought Adam Lambert out again – and Save Me and Who Wants To Live Forever soared, the latter number with an insanely effective mirror ball dazzling the stadium.  Brian May’s Last Horizon was then followed by a Guitar Solo and the homeward stretch of classic concert numbers: Who Wants to Live Forever, Tie Your Mother Down, I Want It All, Radio Ga Ga, Crazy Little Thing Called Love and, of course, Bohemian Rhapsody, complete with some Freddie singing skilfully integrated.  The encore was We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions.

An exhausting but thoroughly enjoyable two and a quarter hours.  The set, lighting and special effects were massively impressive and, naturally, the sound was poundingly gleaming, clear and bright.  Brian May’s playing was at times astonishing.

How would Freddie have felt?  Adam Lambert’s showmanship is certainly as vivid as Freddie’s and it was a great touch that the Monarch’s Crown that Freddie used to parade in at the end of concerts was substituted by a diamond-encrusted Prince’s Coronet for Adam Lambert.  Prince not Monarch.  He wasn’t Freddie, but he was about as good as it could get, given time’s ravages.  Great experience and great memories.

Roger Taylor, (Prince) Adam Lambert and the incomparable Brian May

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

I Am West Side Story

Although Olivia NJ looks adorable in the picture that advertises the "Which Movie Musical Are You" questionnaire on Playbuzz, it turns out I am West Side Story - Jets, Sharks, Tony, Maria, Anita, Riff and Bernardo etc.
Scenes from stage and film versions of West Side Story
"You are brave and dramatic. You stand up for your family and friends, no matter what the cost. You also know how to be independent and stand up for yourself."

Clearly a scientific questionnaire based on deep and clear biological/psychological/neurological criteria....

I inevitably think about West Side Story  on Christmas Eve when my family and I always watch White Christmas. George Chakiris (Bernardo) appears as one of the dancers, both at the Inn in Vermont (must be beautiful this time of year, all that Snow, snow, snow, snow) as well as appearing with George Clooney's auntie singing Love You Didn't Do Right By Me in New York. 
Rosemary Clooney as Betty Haines and George Chakiris as unnamed stalker
Apart from wondering how he managed to get there too (did he have a secret crush on Betty Haines? and followed her to the Carousel Club?) we always enjoy Betty's magnificent diamond-encrusted marigolds, the most unflattering gloves in show business.
Betty Haines at the Carousel with her top-of-the-range gloves
West Side Story, of course, was inspired by one of Shakespeare's tales and an excellent job Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents and Robbins did.
Natalie Wood as Maria and Rita Moreno as Anita in the film of West Side Story