Friday, 30 December 2016

Time will tell

The tree of life, the tables of plenty and the pleasures of friendship
The epoch of incredulity
I’ve quoted this before, and I’m going to quote it again, surely one of the best openings of any novels from any age – from Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….
Emily and Harriet in 2016
The best of times
On a personal level, 2016 has been a very happy year with some great reading, memorable theatre, excellent TV, terrific cinema. I’ve started to write an epic dystopian saga (yes, I have) and my first reader, daughter Emily, has given me astute feedback; Nick Shelton has turned pictures in my head for Rhenium Tales into some wonderful illustrations. Sally and I had a lovely time at our 30th wedding anniversary party in July and we’ve had relaxing holidays in Scotland, France, Barcelona and London and gorgeous weekends in Badby.
Will the world in The Rhenium Wars become as vivid in my imagination as Middle Earth or Westeros....?
Unbelievable times
But then two unbelievable political outcomes were, for me, very unsettling: the UK voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump won the US election to become the next President of the United States. Time will tell. Will the people who voted for Brexit and the people who voted for Trump get what they hoped for when they cast their ballot? We’ll look back in ten years and better understand the answer to that question. Time will tell.
More progress was made on LGBTQIA rights in 2016 which, according to the New Testament, would please Jesus
2016 in History
Will 2016 be known historically as the year in which more celebrities died than in any other year?
  • Writers: Richard Adams, Edward Albee, Sally Brampton, Anita Brookner, Umberto Eco, Dario Fo, AA Gill, Barry Hines, Carla Lane, Harper Lee, Peter Shaffer, William Trevor, Arnold Wesker
  • TV Performers: Caroline Aherne, Sylvia Anderson, Ronnie Corbett, Paul Daniels, Cliff Michelmore, Garry Shandling, Tony Warren, Sir Terry Wogan, Victoria Wood, Sir Jimmy Young
  • Musicians: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Sir Neville Marriner, Sir George Martin, Peter Maxwell Davies, George Michael, Rick Parfitt, Prince, Guy Woolfenden
  • Actors: Jean Alexander, Alexis Arquette, Kenny Baker, Patty Duke, Frank Finlay, Carrie Fisher, Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Kennedy, Burt Kwouk, Debbie Reynolds, Alan Rickman, Lord Brian Rix, Andrew Sachs, Sheila Sim, Liz Smith, Peter Vaughan, Robert Vaughn, Gene Wilder, Anton Yelchin
  • Cinema giants: Sir Ken Adam, Michael Cimino, Garry Marshall, Douglas Slocombe, Robert Stigwood, Michael White, Vilmos Zsigmond, 
  • Sports figures: Muhammad Ali, Johan Cruyff, Arnold Palmer
  • World stage, politicians and faith figures: Rabbi Lionel Blue, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Lord Asa Briggs, Fidel Castro, Jo Cox, Zaha Hadid, Nancy Regan, Janet Reno, Margaret Rhodes, Duke of Westminster, Elie Wiesel
Triumphs in spite of Disasters
The competitors who flew to Brazil will no doubt remember 2016 as the Rio Olympics Summer. The people of Cuba may see the year as one in which their country changed its outlook on the world. Barack Obama became the first US President to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan. Mission Juno resulted in a spacecraft being placed in a twenty month orbit around Jupiter. Solar power, virtual reality, nanotechnology in surgery and electric cars all made significant technological progress. Ebola was almost eradicated from West Africa and combating the Zika virus saw impressive international cooperation. 70,000 Muslim clerics declared a fatwa against ISIS. Strides were made in cancer treatments, Alzheimer’s research and animal conservation.
What will 2017 bring to the table?
Disasters in spite of Triumphs
Terrorists continue to attempt to disrupt civilisations across Europe, the Middle and Far Easts, Africa and America. The UK lost face (and is continuing to lose face) internationally as a result of the Brexit referendum and the inability of the government to project clarity and consistency in how to “take back control,” as if it ever could in a world of globalization and the internet. Post-truth news became a “thing” (ie making up facts and statistics and promoting lies seems now to be an acceptable strategy for political leaders, fully supported by the majority of the Media.) The Syrian crisis deepened, as did crises in Yemen, the South China Seas and the Korean peninsula. Natural disasters resulted in major death tolls in Ecuador, Italy, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, southeastern USA and Indonesia.

What is now remembered about the 16th year of each century in the past millennium? Can history help us predict which events of 2016 will be remembered in 2116? Time will tell.

  • First World War ongoing: Conscription in Britain, Paris bombings, Battle of Verdun (1 million casualties), the Great Arab Revolt, Battle of the Somme (first use of British tanks, over 1 million casualties) 
  • The Easter Rising in Ireland - republican rebellion against British rule in Ireland
  • Einstein's Theory of Relativity
  • Tristan Tzar's Dada-manifest published in Zurich leading the way to surrealism and absurdity
  • Mount Tambora erupts in Indonesia – the Year without a Summer 
  • The wreck of The Medusa (French frigate)
  • First slaves arrive in Louisiana 
  • Decree orders all Jews to be expelled from Brussels
  • Ben Jonson becomes poet laureate and in November his Collected Works are printed 
  • Spanish Inquisition delivers an injunction to Galileo 
  • Shakespeare and Cervantes both die on 23rd April 
  • Pocahontas arrives in England
  • Venice creates First Jewish ghetto 
  • Ottoman-Malmuk War
  • Alfonso V (the Magnanimous) becomes King of Aragon 
  • Jerome of Prague burned alive as a heretic by Roman Catholic church
  • The Peace of Fexhe established power sharing between many sectors of society (crown, clergy, nobility and local city governments) 
  • French king, Jan the First, rules for only four days before he inconveniently dies
  • French crown prince Louis enters England at invitation of rebellious barons 
  • King John loses the crown jewels in The Wash and dies in October
  • Henry III succeeds John and reigns for 56 years, the 4th longest English reign after Elizabeth II, Victoria and George III ("English reign" by counting from 1000 to present time since "British" or "UK" didn't exist for all that time)
  • China invents the modern stitched-together book
  • The Danes defeat the Saxons at the Battle of Ashingdon 
  • Canute (Cnut) claims the English throne after the death of Edmund Ironside
So how will 2016 be remembered?
Only Time will tell....

Thursday, 29 December 2016

See what death is doing

RIP: Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Victoria Wood, George Michael, Anton Yelchin, David Bowie, Alan Rickman

So many deaths

2016 has been notable for the large number of “celebrity deaths.” It could simply be a coincidence that the people who first became internationally famous through mass media outlets are reaching that stage of life: Fidel Castro, Ronnie Corbett, Harper Lee and Peter Vaughan all had long and fulfilling lives so their passing seems fitting. Some, though, seem untimely: Caroline Aherne, Prince and, in just the last few days, Carrie Fisher (followed within 24 hours by her mother who had been ill for some time.)
RIP: Sir Terry Wogan, Paul Daniels, Carla Lane, Harper Lee, Peter Shaffer, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Caroline Aherne, Barry Hines, Prince, Gene Wilder, Robert Vaughn, Muhammad Ali

Life goes on

The only absolute certainty of life is Death. Everything else is choice, negotiation, compromise, luck and manipulation. Death, however, no matter what other choices we make, comes to us all. And the human race carries on. Striving, mostly thriving, aspiring and living in the shadow of the certainty of death. The tinsel time of year heightens feelings about grief as we go about celebrating, eating, drinking, reflecting on the past and planning the future. The following exchange in The Winter’s Tale always strikes a chord for me, although the promised “recovery” is hard won. Hard won.
PAULINA:     This news is mortal to the queen: look down
                    And see what death is doing.

LEONTES:                                             Take her hence:
                    Her heart is but overcharged. She will recover.
Judi Dench as Paulina in The Winter's Tale - Judi is currently thriving and working still, but has an acting style that, in my opinion, gives you birth, life and death, strength and vulnerability, comedy and tragedy - all combined in a poignant and appealing personality.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Deck the Halls

Smells, Tastes, Feelings, Sights and Sounds

I always advocate (but fail to get) an artificial Christmas tree in December so my family win every year and the smell of the real tree has become, for me, the smell of Christmas. The tastes of Christmas include pigs in blankets, mince pies and Christmas pudding. The feelings are Dickensian: bonhomie to family and friends, gatherings of games and gorgeous gluttony. The sights are everywhere: gaudy, romantic, occasionally religious, red and green. And at some point on Christmas Eve, the talents of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes and Anne Whitfield in White Christmas will crystallise the sound of Christmas.
Michael Curtiz's film of White Christmas

Lyrics to White Christmas by Irving Berlin

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white
Day-glo table for the Lancelot-Barrs

Saturday, 10 December 2016

FOOM (Friends Of Ol' Marvel)

The Marvel Comics' Universe and the current film line-up of The Avengers

Oh, Mum, what did you do?

We all have childhood memories that we think leave a long-lasting effect. My brother and I were distraught when we came home from school one day to find my Mum had had a clear-out and decided to get rid of a huge pile of original Marvel comics…. Now, of course, they would probably be worth a fortune. So I credit that event with two things:
  • my loyalty to the Marvel brand and
  • my reluctance to throw anything away.
The genius of Marvel Comics’s Stan Lee was that he drew on the 1960s developing pop-psychology to present to teenagers a compelling escapist fantasy of legendary wish fulfilment. The comics spoke directly and emotionally to fans who felt marginalised, like Peter Parker in Spiderman. Stan Lee even addressed the reader from within the stories, asides just like in Shakespearean comedy. Stan Lee seemed like a childhood friend, so it’s a great joy to see him pop up in Marvel film cameos. I remember the first “club" I belonged to – Friends of Ol’ Marvel or FOOM – I wonder how many people, like me, kept hold of the club magazine….?

Arrested development?

How come I’m hooked on Shakespeare but I also love the X-Men, Spiderman, Thor, the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer and The Avengers? Is my development so arrested that I can’t distinguish between Quicksilver (in the X-Men) and Hamlet (in Hamlet)? Both Quicksilver and Hamlet have father issues…. And the underlying theme of the X-Men is the same as one of the strands in Hamlet – the outsider trying to
  • fight for personal and political justice
  • work out his own destiny and
  • control the impulse to revenge….

Searching for father

Eclectic Tastes: The Bible, Shakespeare, Marvel….

Definition of Eclectic: not following one set of principles, ideas or systems but using many parts of different ones.
An eclectic person is someone with catholic, broad-ranging and all-inclusive tastes; someone who sees no difference between “high” culture and “popular” culture, “elegant” style and “vulgar” style. I think that’s me. I think I have eclectic tastes. Yes, I love Shakespeare, but I also love the Marvel Universe and will happily watch a superhero film the same day as reading Measure for Measure. As evidenced in the image on the right I think of Shakespeare as an action hero and I see nothing incongruous about Sacha Goldberger's outfits for a few of the Marvel characters. My appreciation of Marvel characters preceded my Mum’s notorious clearout of old comics. You see, no-one, throughout my childhood, ever told me what to read or watch. Nothing was ever censored. Picking up an encyclopedia or The Bible or Shakespeare felt the same, to me, as picking up the latest edition of Fantastic or Terrific or The Mighty World of Marvel (the UK versions of Marvel comics.) (Click the links on the titles for a trip down memory lane if you remember these comics.) I’m glad I have eclectic tastes. There are so many more things to enjoy…. Excelsior!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

The grand old Duke of York

City walls of York
The walls of York began as an earthen and wooden stockade surrounding Eboracum (the Roman name for York.) Stone sections were added during the Roman occupation of Britain and a few of these remnants are still visible. During the centuries of Anglo-Saxon and Viking York (Eoferwic and Jorvik) it is likely that the walls were patched up in places but generally left to the weather’s ravages as the city focused on Christianity and Trading. During medieval times, though, when York became the York we know today, the walls were enlarged and reinforced and it is mostly these walls that have been renovated enough to walk on when you visit the city in 2016.

Barley Hall

York has a formidable distinction of being a thriving contemporary city (with its forward-thinking EU Remain-voting populace.) It is also a place that exploits its past for the tourist pound, but in a mostly respectful (and academic) fashion. Barley Hall is a prime example of the potential for forging new economic possibilities from a building that was about to be demolished – until the archaeologists realised how much of the original medieval structure was still intact under the layers of additions and alterations. In a recent visit I enjoyed a vivid display of the costumes from the BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall. Even without the headline-displays Barley Hall is evocative of a distant past that, in some ways, reveals itself to be unnervingly similar to today, even though swans and peacocks rarely feature on 21st century dining tables.

O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!

I’ve always loved York since learning at a young age that the castle nearest my childhood home in Wakefield, Sandal Castle, was the site of the nursery rhyme
Oh, the grand old Duke of York!
He had 10,000 men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again….
Tragically, of course, the grand old Duke of York also had the blood of his son, Edmund, smeared over his face by Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI and effectively the commander of the Lancastrian army at Sandal Castle during the Wars of the Roses. To add further humiliation Margaret placed a mock paper crown on the Duke of York’s head before slaughtering him and removing his head to be hoisted on a pike above Micklegate Bar in the city of York. Is all that true? It’s not in the nursery rhyme, that’s for sure, but Shakespeare has it covered in Henry VI Part Three. Ah, the good old days….
Margaret of Anjou kills the Duke of York (in Shakespeare's version) at Sandal Castle, Wakefield