Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Train to Jane Austen's Bath

Early morning train
After the moving tributes in St Ann’s Square to the Manchester arena victims, and the exuberant production of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Sally and I boarded a very early morning train at the reopened Manchester Victoria rail station and trundled down the country to Bath. This was a pre-booked birthday present – having a fancy meal on a fancy train.

Belmond Northern Belle
Shiny cutlery, starched linen, elegant crockery, roomy seats, inlaid-wood panelling, attentive staff and a feeling that we were in for an Agatha Christie train ride. Ideally there would be no murders on the Belmond Northern Belle but there would be time to scoff and quaff and watch the world go by – hedges, fields, livestock, towns, roads, stations, counties. England went by.

"I do like it so very much...."
Jane Austen had, at best, an ambiguous relationship with Bath; but she recognised its primacy as a place of display, of mating rituals, of society gossip and an embodiment of the tension between society’s hypocritical constraints and the potential joy of social and romantic interaction. The Jane Austen Centre is not an ex-residency of the impeccable writer but, as an entertaining museum, it conjures an excellent account of her life and times, as does the refurbished Royal Crescent Number One. We’ve been to Bath before, staggering round the cobbles on a spa/walking tour/fun-filled mid-week break. And this trip was a short one, a bonus sandwich in the middle of the luxury of an old-fashioned train ride. But it is easy to understand why Catherine Morland is moved to say in Chapter 10 of Northanger Abbey:
“I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath, when I am at home again – I do like it so very much.”

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Half agony, half hope

Foam party
Attending a production of Jane Austen’s Persuasion at Manchester’s Royal Exchange I didn’t anticipate foam falling from the gantry, Louisa Musgrave in a bikini and Captain Wentworth in swimming shorts and the pair of them doing body slides through the foam. And who’s this strutting in speedos? None other than Mr William Walter Elliot. This was the scene at Lyme Regis. Anne Elliot, naturally, kept her top clothes on. To be fair to the director/designer, the original text refers to swimming so there is purist justification. But what the production did, I think, was capture the spirit of the scene by the seaside – unbridled joy ending in the famous fall from The Cobb by the impetuous Louisa.
Much needed injection of Austen
It was after being moved at the floral/balloon tribute to the Manchester arena victims in St Ann’s Square (blog here) that we had a meal at one of my favourite places, the Royal Exchange, and attended press night for this visually updated but linguistically intact adaptation of Jane Austen’s final novel, the title of which was provided by her loving brother, Henry. The adaptation by James Yeatman and all the performances captured the novel intelligently and exuberantly in my opinion. The satire of romantic attitudes was present, the economic brutality of the position for women was in-built into the plot, the feminist anchor of the differences between women and men was laid bare by the interactions. And through it all Lara Rossi as Anne ploughed a road, a lonely road, a fierce road, a determined road towards a final resolution standing together with Frederick Wentworth, their future road not necessarily happy but hopeful and honest. Great companion piece in my theatrical memories of the production we saw at Bolton Octagon of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which may have been less theatrically inventive but was definitely in the same vein of hard-won love conquering all.

Jeff James – Director
Alex Lowde – Designer
Lucy Carter – Lighting Design
Ben and Max Ringham – Music and Sound Design
Dramaturg – James Yeatman

Geraldine Alexander – Lady Russell/Mrs Croft
Antony Bunsee – Sir Walter Elliot/Admiral Croft
Helen Cripps – Mary Musgrove (née Elliot)
Samuel Edward-Cook – Captain Frederick Wentworth
Cassie Layton – Elizabeth Elliot/Louisa Musgrove
Caroline Moroney – Mrs Clay/Henrietta Musgrove
Lara Rossi – Anne Elliot
Dorian Simpson – Charles Musgrove
Arthur Wilson – Edmund Hayter/Captain Benwick/Mr WW Elliot

Rehearsal photographer: Johan Persson; all photographs in collages from the website of The Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester

Friday, 23 June 2017

Summer of discontent

Time will tell
And so one year on from the (dishonest) EU referendum:
  • the Brexit negotiations have begun with a weakened Tory PM who has yet to agree a “confidence and supply” deal with the DUP
  • traumatic terrorist events in Manchester and London have tested the stretched NHS and the cut police forces and depleted emergency services
  • the burnt tomb of the Grenfell Tower stands as a metaphorical testament to government and council priorities
  • the gulf between rich and poor in the UK remains wide and is getting wider

Déjà Vu
These days feel like the late 1970s and the “winter of discontent” and I have an abiding feeling that we are heading towards social riots like the ones in the early 1980s. The government needs to restore all the public services to a positive footing where they are not constantly pressured by overwork and diminishing resources. Otherwise, even the heroic emergency services and police forces will struggle if the country descends into riotous anarchy. England has a long history of outbreaks of anarchy. This (potential) summer of discontent contains all the requisite ingredients. Maybe everything will settle down….

Nil desperandum (don’t despair)
I’m finding it hard to maintain my Glass Half Full approach to life at the moment. I need to remember that the sun (sometimes) shines, gardens grow, water runs, food is delicious, wine beckons at the weekend, beer goes well with barbecues, books can be read, pianos can be played, culture continues to entertain and provoke…. I’ll write some non-political blogs after this one…. for a while at least…. Nil desperandum.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Strong and stable

It's very hard to make sense of Tory leaders over the years - holding elections or referenda thinking they know exactly what the outcome will be. I remember as a teenager being very muddled in 1974 with three day weeks, IRA bombings, a general strike in Northern Ireland and in February Ted Heath called a "Who Governs?" General Election. Mind you, Ringo Starr and Barbara Streisand had been at Number One (You're Sixteen and The Way We Were) so no wonder I was muddled (Terry Jacks's Seasons in the Sun, anyone?)
Wouldja believe the turnout was nearly 79%? I don't know if that was a record but it certainly felt like all the adults around me were engaged in the arguments, eventually concluding that Ted Heath had asked the wrong question. And duly gave Harold Wilson the Labour keys to Number Ten, albeit with a minority but firmed up the following October with a majority. Wrong question, Ted: the people want you to lead, invest, care and secure not to play party-boosting games. You can't use the electorate to shore up your popularity within the party! The same mistake made by diddy David Cameron, friend of the porcine population, when he called the EU referendum; he hadn't a clue what the British people were thinking. Just as evil clown, Theresa May did, believing the country had only one thing on their mind - Brexit and "strong and stable" leadership. Never mind Education, Health - Physical and Mental, Social Care, Austerity, Cuts to Public Services like Police, Fire Stations and Ambulance Crews. There may not be a money tree, but that money comes flying out of somewhere when the banks need bailing out....and isn't it time someone took tax evasion seriously? And explained the true meaning of tax and what it does for a civilised country....
I'm worried about Theresa May's ability to hold it together with the DUP, particularly when I drill down to their policies, many of their members' attitudes to universal human rights and their approach to the border with Ireland. I've read about their robust negotiating tactics. At least Cameron's answer to a hung parliament was to climb under the covers with the benign Liberal Democrats. And May's weak and wobbly record (no matter how often you pretend to be strong and stable) reveals she is likely to cave in as soon as The Daily Mail says "Boo!". Maybe not. Time will tell.
Another General Election, anyone? Those pesky kids might turn out in even more force next time - and maybe we could get to the level of 1974 - 78.7% turnout! What a wonderful world that would be.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Solidarity, determination and love

Love beats hate
Last night there was another series of pointless murders on and around London Bridge in the capital city, following hard upon the recent murders in Manchester. These types of cowardly attack can in no way be attributed to mainstream religious belief. The brainwashed simpleton who perpetrated the brainless atrocity at the Ariana Grande show – and the chicken-hearted imbeciles who were shot last night in Borough Market – did not believe in the Islam that the majority of peaceful Muslims do.

Muslims for Manchester

One young Muslim guy stood in Manchester city centre with a sign saying “I’m Muslim and I trust you. Do you trust me enough for a hug?” (Video click here.) And guess what? He got plenty of hugs. Muslims for Manchester quickly raised over £25,000 for the victims, and the total is still growing. North Manchester Jamia Mosque in Cheetham Hill organised a We Love Manchester march, which included over 500 children, to walk from the Woodlands Road mosque to the Manchester arena. The Media finally seem to be waking up to covering the Muslim opposition to terrororism and hopefully this will go some way to counteract the rise in hate crime that inevitably follows a terrorist attack.

Astonishing reminder of love

We were in Manchester last Thursday to see a play and catch a train and we didn’t expect to spend so long in St Ann’s Square reading the tributes and admiring the quiet strength of feeling. Outpourings of personal poetry in poignant testimonials captured honest and raw feelings. The fragrance of thousands of flowers filled the air. Balloons dreamily hovered, fluttering and crackling gently in the breeze.  Everything in unison spoke of love and potential, togetherness and solidarity, memory and homage. Homage to love, not hate. All ages, creeds, colours, professions and types of people were there. As we ate our dinner at a window table overlooking St Ann’s Square, we heard and saw the crowd applaud and welcome the latest procession of Muslims arriving and laying flowers and carrying We Love Mcr signs.
Tributes to Manchester's unity and love in St Ann's Square, including Rob Lewis's statue

22 remembered

And what struck me again and again was how pointless the bomber’s actions had been and how unintelligent he must have been because the outpouring of love for mankind and determination to unite against evil has been the outcome. A few blogs ago I wrote about keeping the fear of terrorism in perspective and, despite the horrors unleashed into the lives of the relatives and all who knew the victims in Manchester, the message in St Ann’s Square is powerful and supports my perspective – these were 22 good humans who will be remembered and loved forever and their deaths have not advanced the cause of the bomber one speck. We should fear many things, but not dwell on the fear of terrorism. Focus on the victims. Focus on the solidarity, determination and love.

John Atkinson, Courtney Boyle, Kelly Brewster, Georgina Callander, Olivia Campbell, Liam Curry, Wendy Fawell, Martyn Hett, Alison Howe, Megan Hurley, Nell Jones, Michelle Kiss, Angelika Klis, Marcin Klis, Sorrell Leczkowski, Lisa Lees, Eilidh MacLeod, Elaine McIver, Saffie Rose Roussos, Chloe Rutherford, Philip Tron, Jayne Tweddle-Taylor