Wednesday, 30 November 2016

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Sweet though in sadness

I’ve already recorded that I love Autumn (birthday, sense of new start with the new school year, colours of nature.) Of course I also love Winter, Spring and Summer – each season generates distinctive features that I appreciate but I feel unfeasibly cockle-warmed when walking through the “Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red” of Autumn woodland. The quotation is from Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, one of the most famous poems about Autumn, a hymn to the wind, “thou breath of Autumn’s being.”

Only Connect

In the poem Shelley imagines all the seeds buried beneath the earth like corpses now, waiting to burst into life again and break through the soil in a few months’ time. He imagines the dead leaves blowing and falling like thoughts, carrying messages across the world. The West Wind is “Destroyer and preserver.” Currently he feels earth bound, trapped in Autumn, but witnessing the maelstrom of nature preparing for its next phase and wishing his words could travel through the air like leaves. Only connect cries the poem, as EM Forster was to write in Howard’s End. Listen! Hear the voices! Hear the spring of human consciousness! Winter is coming…. And then…?

Stanza V from Ode to the West Wind

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (published 1820) – written in a wood near the River Arno in Florence
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Out of the sky

Up The Shard, as you do....

Saltaire to London

Yorkshire is the bees’ knees to me! Stratford-upon-Avon, Badby, Northumbria, Scotland and Manchester are the bees’ knees’ best friends. So I suppose London can be seen as the bees’ knees’ mother. There are other places that could shiver my timbers and tickle my fancy that I haven’t yet visited: I suspect there are places in Ireland and Wales that will do it and I have abiding memories of English Heritage and National Trust properties throughout the land, not to mention formative times in Bath, Plymouth, Winchester, the Peak District, Cornwall, Devon and Kent. Dorset and the Isle of Harris are on my bucket list and I want to know more about East Anglia and Northern Ireland. And that’s without even leaving the British Isles. It’s a big planet, a huge continent, an enormous country, a gigantic city and visiting London gives me the feeling of the human race’s capacity for imagination, creativity, survival and endeavour, as well as the same capacity for greed, ruthlessness, destruction and conquest. London is the best of worlds and the worst of worlds. I sometimes feel like a frightened country mouse when I’m there and I sometimes feel like I own the place. Samuel Johnson was famously quoted by his biographer, Boswell:
Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
New and old, London brashness and London antiquity - the Monument, the Shard, a coffee house

Glenda and friends

I’ve blogged about the prime reason for going to London earlier this month (to see Glenda Jackson in Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Old Vic.) It was also a good time to catch up with friends: Dud, John, Mary, Michele and Meera in different venues on different days. We were evacuated from the British Library by a fire alarm, gawped at the spoils of Empire at the British Museum, ate like royalty in the Oxo brasserie overlooking the Thames, visited Christopher Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire of London, witnessed artisan glass blowing in Bermondsey, went Up The Shard (mind-boggling and something to do again, I hope) and generally pounded the pavements admiring the soaring, tumbling, peculiar mix of architecture, slum, luxury, confusion, hope, culture, history, grief and joy. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by London so the friendly and calming oases in cafés, pubs and in London homes were a welcome relief from the onslaught of the city’s dynamism.

The 606 Club

In a dingy basement club, packed to the rafters with appreciative punters, we were privileged to hear John Etheridge play with singer Vimala Rowe, accompanied by old pal, Dudley Phillips on bass and Mark Fletcher on drums. Our proximity to the performers was sometimes a bit un-nerving but the evening contained some extraordinary and evocative sounds, rhythms and songs. Catch them by searching for the albums in the collages below.
Dud's first album, Life Without Trousers and Rowe/Etheridge album (featuring Dud) Out of the Sky contains tracks we heard that night in the 606 Club

Stephen Fry riff

One of my favourite books about poetry is Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled and he explains London as similar in a way to the English Language:
The English language is like London: proudly barbaric yet deeply civilised, too, common yet royal, vulgar yet processional, sacred yet profane. Each sentence we produce, whether we know it or not, is a mongrel mouthful of Chaucerian, Shakespearean, Miltonic, Johnsonian, Dickensian and American. Military, naval, legal, corporate, criminal, jazz, rap and ghetto discourses are mingled at every turn. The French language, like Paris, has attempted, through its Academy, to retain its purity, to fight the advancing tides of Franglais and international prefabrication. English, by comparison, is a shameless whore.
That’s “shameless whore” in a positive sense. Like London.

Top left is a mushroom starter by Betti and rest are at the Oxo tower

Friday, 25 November 2016

Like a scurvy politician


Recently returned from five days in London (which I’ll blog about soon) but the prime motivation for going at this time of year was to witness Glenda Jackson in Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Old Vic Theatre. I saw her last onstage in Peter Brook’s production of Antony and Cleopatra in Stratford-upon-Avon at the RSC in 1978 (aware that she was a double-Oscar winner for 1969’s Women in Love and 1973’s A Touch of Class. Since retiring from acting at the top of her game, she has been a member of the UK Parliament from 1992 to 2015 (23 years of honorably serving Hampstead and Highgate/Kilburn.) I am a fan of her film performances. As well as her Oscar-winning films and the TV series Elizabeth R, I thought she was equally brilliant in Hedda, Stevie, Triple Echo, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Rainbow, The Music Lovers, Mary Queen of Scots {with Vanessa Redgrave} and The Patricia Neal Story.
Glenda Jackson from parliament to King Lear with Rhys Ifans as The Fool, Sargon Yelda as Kent and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia. Production photo credits: Manuel Harlan

Script as blueprint

Having seen King Lear with Sir Antony Sher recently, and blogged about it here, it was with some trepidation that I approached the play again so soon. I needn’t have worried – it was like a different play entirely, shorn of sentimentality, riven with intellectual decisions and riddled with disturbing and upsetting truths. Both productions were well worth seeing, in my view, though felt like entirely divergent works of art (as per Shakespeare’s genius and the way that any drama script is only a blueprint for theatrical interpretation.)
Lear: Glenda Jackson, Edmund: Simon Manyonda, Edgar: Harry Melling, Regan: Jane Horrocks, Cornwall: Danny Webb, Albany: William Chubb, Goneril: Celia Imrie, The Fool: Rhys Ifans, Ensemble/France: Matt Gavan, Gloucester: Karl Johnson. Production photo credits: Manuel Harlan

Like a scurvy politician

Any line in King Lear about power, ruling and politics had an extra resonance, given Glenda Jackson’s recent parliamentary career:
    Get thee glass eyes;    
And like a scurvy politician, seem    
To see the things thou dost not.
And the play’s devastating critique of the gap between rich and poor was fully potent in the mouths of actors like Glenda Jackson and Karl Johnson who played Gloucester:
So distribution should undo excess
And each man have enough.
Through tattered clothes great vices do appear;
Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks:
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.
Harry Melling and Karl Johnson as Edgar and Gloucester; "I stumbled when I saw." Production photo credits: Manuel Harlan

Rage rage against the dying of the light

The Greg Doran production probably moved me more than this one by Deborah Warner, but this production made me think more angrily about the issues in the play. There were some theatrical and design decisions that were unsettling (probably intentionally so) and some performance moments that challenged my ideas about the play but as an experience it remained compelling to watch, probably intensified by sitting on the front row! The rest of the company all had their moments of stage glory but the abiding memory is of the towering performance by Glenda Jackson. This was a father raging against the dying of the light; a man who was frustrated that he was not being afforded the luxuries he expected to receive in his retirement; a king who discovered, alas too late, that his wilful rule had led to the most abject poverty (literal and metaphorical) in his kingdom. Glenda’s voice soared, swooped, growled, howled and machine-gunned every Shakespearean image and still left room for the soft caress of lines like
We two alone will sing like birds in the cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness; so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we'll talk with them too –
Who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out
And take upon us the mystery of things
As if we were God's spies….
Rhys Ifans as The Fool and Glenda Jackson as Lear. Production photo credits: Manuel Harl

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Now I am in a holiday humour

Sally, Emily, Alex, Janet, Harriet and Michael, the Shakespeare Birthday Boy, in Autumn

Elton Old Hall

Soft padded luxury beds, piping hot showers, stairs, levels, space to spread, a bright conservatory and a walled garden – these were some of the treats at Elton Old Hall where we went to celebrate Michael’s birthday. Michael is my “Shakespeare buddy” and the man with whom I can be a Royal Shakespeare Company nerd without irony or embarrassment. We met in 1986 (soon after I married Sally) on the RSC summer school in Stratford-upon-Avon, the year The Swan theatre opened and we’ve seen just about every RSC production since then (and, separately, a fair few before that year too.)

Michael, Harriet, Tony, Sally, Alex, Joyce, Emily and the two Shakespeare "anoraks," me with Michael

Then and Now

Back in 1986 Michael and I were young whippersnappers on the Summer School, mixing with venerable folk who had seen Paul Robeson, Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh on the RSC stage. Now, in the approaching Autumn of our lives, we are the venerable ones who witnessed Sean Bean as a “teenage” Romeo….
Bright conservatory, atmospheric dining kitchen....

Surprise! Surprise!

All the guests had done a sterling job of managing to keep various elements of the weekend secret from Michael, but of course Shakespeare featured heavily in terms of a cake, some games and puns on the menu based on Michael’s favourite play, As You Like It. It has to be said we ate like medieval monarchs on gorgeously-decorated tables.

Haddon Hall

We also made a memorable visit to Haddon Hall on the Sunday. Haddon Hall is still a family home to Lord Edward Manners but the public areas are sympathetically restored and curated by enthusiastic guides. Haddon is a medieval/Jacobean house with brilliantly-preserved 14th century kitchens, working log fires and chimneys, ancient tapestries and wood carvings, a Banqueting Hall with a minstrel’s gallery, an inspiring Long Gallery, a Great Chamber with a Renaissance frieze and intricate plasterwork ceilings.
I think the big picture here looks like Haddon: the TV series coming soon to BBC

Boar and Peacock

Crossing the River Wye to get into the amazingly preserved courtyard, you have to pass topiary in the form of a boar and a peacock, two symbols that keep recurring through the house on furniture, plasterwork and ironwork. A wall section built towards the end of the 12th century is on display (King John’s Wall) and you can also see the interior of a chapel with a Norman stone font, 16th century oak pews and extraordinary frescoes of St Christopher, skeletons and St Nicholas calming the storm.

These trees shall be my books

Michael’s birthday, like mine, is in the Autumn season so I always associate the reds, golds and browns of Autumn with regeneration and renewal – a starting again of another year. New Year is of course New Year and Spring is Spring and both times contain Rebirth and Beginning concepts – but, in my imagination, Autumn also has a sense of Fresh Dawn because I was born then – and yes, I know the leaves are falling and the trees are dying – but the trees will grow again. Winter is coming….so is Spring….so is Summer….and so to next Autumn when Michael and I will be another year older….

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Enemies of the People?

Check out this link and this film

The Donald

It is easy to see why Donald (in my opinion hateful, ignorant, bullying, manipulative, deceptive) Trump has so much support in America. He, like the right-wing press in Britain, presses buttons that tap into the fears of people who have suffered as a result of the current capitalist system, a system which is increasingly widening the gap between haves and have-nots. Trump triggers fear and discontent in disaffected groups. But I am 100% convinced that he will do nothing, if elected, to help the plight of the working classes of America; on the contrary he will continue to be the person he has always been and, as President of the “richest” country on Planet Earth, he will be a very dangerous role model for the future of civilised humanity. This 11-minute link (here) is an effective piece of rhetoric that sums him up, I think, and well worth watching if you have a vote in the forthcoming American election.

The (in my opinion hate-mongering, thuggish) Daily Mail

I wish my own country was immune from the “Donald effect.” Sadly the right-wing press have shown what a pervasive and twisted bunch they can be. History tells us that parliament SHOULD have collective responsibility for major decisions that affect the UK and our standing in the world. I had reconciled myself to being one of the 48% Remainers after “losing” the EU referendum vote on 23rd June 2016 and have waited (patiently) to see what would happen next – and when…. So I waited…. And waited…. Over four months later there is still little clarity and much uncertainty about what will happen. So I welcomed the high court judges ruling that parliament should debate the details prior to triggering Article 50. After all, isn’t that what the Brexit vote was about? Taking back control! We took back control to…. The cabinet? Rather than parliament? Surely what the judges have done is absolutely what the Bexiters voted for…. Brought sovereignty back to the UK parliament….

Delicious Irony and Warning from Recent History

Wouldn’t it be a delicious irony if the Supreme Court rejects the government’s appeal and Theresa May has to go the European Court to appeal? In the meantime, here is an extract from a very recent cross-party interview following up the Chilcot report and the criticisms against Tony Blair for taking the country to war in Iraq:
Laurence Robertson, a Conservative, to Chilcot, Chair of the Enquiry Report: “What is your single most important finding?”
Chilcot: “….it was a failure to exercise collective responsibility for a very big decision.”
It’s worth remembering that the biggest accusation against Tony Blair is that he acted without consulting parliament. It would be a dangerous precedent to allow government to act unilaterally without a robust debate amongst our elected representatives in parliament. All the high court judges have asked for is that Brexit is debated and confirmed by parliament.

(Wilfully) Muddled Media

There are flaws in much of the right-wing press coverage of the high court judges’ ruling:
  • The Daily Telegraph (who should know better) states “This is a political dispute to be settled in parliament, not by judges,” seemingly misunderstanding that that is the whole point of the ruling, that parliament debates the Brexit terms…. 
  • The Daily Express (who is generally hysterical on its best days) compared the judges’ decision to “dark days when Churchill vowed we would fight them on the beaches” – a gross insult to all soldiers who fought in the world wars, I think 
  • The Sun (who I shouldn’t really give blog space but….) complained about one of the judges being a “foreign-born millionaire,” seemingly forgetting that The Sun itself is ruthlessly run by a foreign-born multi-millionaire   
  • But The Daily Mail had the headline that most infuriated me – Enemies of the People because the judges are in fact Friends of the People; their judgement stops authoritarian tyranny and puts elected MPs at the heart of negotiating the terms of Brexit i.e. representatives of ALL the people, not just the self-selected government ministers (chosen by a non-elected Prime Minister) who are all obfuscating what is going to happen, desperately hoping people are too stupid to notice and banking on the (right-wing) Media to inflame false claims.
Take back control into the UK parliament, said the Brexiters – and that’s what the judges have ruled.

Dr Thomas Stockmann

The main inspiration for this blog, though, is that the heinous Daily Mail bastardised and misunderstood the phrase Enemy of the People, made famous by a writer who is my Number Two (after Shakespeare.) If the journalists, copy editors or editors had half a brain they should know that the great Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People refers to Stockmann who is an anti-hero in the great tradition of an individual who stands up to the baying mob and speaks truth to power. He exposes the environmental disaster that is about to engulf his town in opposition to the authorities and the moneyed classes. Stockmann is the opposite of an Enemy of the People. A key theme of the play is how the town is manipulated by those in power – just as, I think, the readers are manipulated by these dangerous headlines and just as the Brexiteers are trying to hide their lack of plans in the face of the complicated realities of “taking back control.”
Great hero of mine: Henrik Ibsen