Friday, 31 December 2010

Festive Quizzes

Briefly, as today is one long, joyful round of visitors.

This morning my friend Judith arrived with a music Christmas quiz that she and her family had been trying to complete all holiday. They had been given anagrams of composers and compositions and they had to sort out the correct spellings and match the two groups up. Inevitably, there were those that everyone could do and those that defeated us all. We were left with Debussy and a word none of us could unscramble, even though we went through all the CDs we had of his works to try and find a clue. Grrrr! Much gnashing of teeth.

This reminded me, though, of a book quiz I was presented with at a library meeting some Christmases ago where we were given the initials of an author and the initials of the title of one of their books and had to identify both. I managed all the really tricky ones but came completely unstuck with the combination 'W.H.' by 'E.B'. For the life of me I couldn't think of anything Enid Blyton had ever written with a two word 'W.H.' title :)

Happy New Year.


Thursday, 30 December 2010


I just missed out on Kenneth Clark's iconic series, Civilisation, when it was first shown in 1969. I was a student at the time and the digs I was in couldn't run to the expense of a television that could receive BBC 2. And, if I'm brutally honest, I don't remember being that concerned about the fact. I suspect that my mind was far too occupied with live theatre to be really concerned with what I probably then classified as 'dead' art.

So, it was a real joy this Christmas to find that one of the presents under the tree was a box set of the DVDs and over the last couple of days I've watched the first two episodes, the first discussing the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest and the second focusing on what he calls the sudden re-awakening of European civilisation in the 12th century, particularly the building of the great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals.

However (you could hear that coming, I'm sure) while I certainly haven't been disappointed in the programmes I have been struck forcibly by the way in which they have dated both in respect of documentary techniques and in terms of the approach adopted towards the historical periods discussed. Compared with a twenty-first century documentary they are so slow. A programme made now would cover two or three times as much material and there would be far fewer of the long, lingering, panning shots, especially those of fields of rape flowers which seem to have no bearing on the contents at all. What I found even more unsettling was the way in which Lord Clark dismissed the period after the Roman Empire as one with little or no art worth discussing other than such well known examples as The Book of Kells. Definitely for him, The Dark Ages.

Our understanding of this period has changed enormously over the intervening period. Just yesterday, when I was in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, I was looking at pieces of beautiful jewellery taken from the Anglo-Saxon hoard found locally a couple of years ago. Almost entirely made of gold set with stunning garnets they are examples of exquisite workmanship and no one seeing those could possible claim today that they came from a time when beauty and art were not appreciated. It made me go on line to see if the television series that was made on The Dark Ages quite recently was available, but it doesn't seem to have been released, mores the pity.

I shall go on watching the Kenneth Clark programmes but with as much of an eye towards the ways in which they have become history themselves as to what I can learn about history from them.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Nativity Trail

At this time of year the plans of mice and men are probably best not laid at all. Last week everything came unstuck because of the weather and this week the cause of the disruption is an outbreak of flu which is apparently gathering momentum apace and threatening to reach epidemic proportions. One of the casualties is my friend Margaret, with whom I should have been spending today, and so I filled the space in the diary by going into Birmingham to see the Nativity Trail organised by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Just before Christmas a friend and ex-colleague came to the University to give a lecture on the nativity as painted by Jan de Beer. In one sense this was another example of the best laid plans because the painting, which is part of the Barber Collection, has been away for conservation and the lecture was intended to celebrate its return to the gallery. However, the work needed proved to be more extensive than had first been thought and so Martin had to speak to slides rather than the original. One of the points that he made was that nativity paintings can normally be pinned down to one gospel version or another. Extremely obvious when you think about it - I'd simply never thought about it. Interestingly, the de Beer is a St John nativity. And yes, there is no account of the nativity in St John, but what Martin was picking up on was the centrality in this painting of the light sources and the recurring idea in John's gospel of Jesus as the light of the world.

Walking around the Birmingham exhibition this afternoon it was clear that his thesis was correct. Even though I am no biblical scholar I could place each of the works in respect of the version of the nativity story it was exploring. What was perhaps more fascinating was the way in which the paintings also reflected the times in which they had been created. The Burne-Jones kings could have walked straight out of one of his Arthurian tapestries and the shepherds in the stained glass window created as a memorial to the fallen of the First World War were clearly men who had known the horror of the trenches.

Perhaps the painting I liked the most was Gentileschi's account of The Rest in the Flight into Egypt. Not the topic you think of most immediately when looking for nativity subjects, perhaps, but still very definitely part of the story. What I love about this, apart of course from the donkey, is the very human face he has given to Mary. I'm not sure how well it's going to reproduce here, but there is nothing saintly or ethereal about this young woman. She is tired and frightened, but still determined to look after the child. I will give Joseph the benefit of the doubt and assume that he has been walking while Mary has been on the donkey. Otherwise I might have 'thoughts' about his lack of concern for his family. He looks as though he might never get up again. Some of the reproductions I've seen have no donkey and looking at the Birmingham version it does appear as if he was a bit of an after thought. Perhaps Gentileschi discovered that the could paint donkeys' heads but not their bodies and so blanked out his efforts with a slab of rock. Now that really would be human.


Tuesday, 28 December 2010


The twelve inches of snow that has covered the English Midlands for the past ten days has melted overnight and as a result we are now enveloped in a blanket of dense fog.  Admittedly, UK fog, in this age of smokeless fuels, is nothing like the fogs of my youth, when cities could be smothered in dirty, lung-chocking smog for days on end.  Nevertheless, having cursed the snow vociferously for over a week, I would now give a great deal to have it back and to be rid of the grey nightmare that clings to my clothes and my hair as soon as I step out of my door.

However, if there is an upside to this unwelcome weather, it is that it immediately brings to mind my favourite passage from Dickens, that wonderful second paragraph from one of his greatest novels, Bleak House.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

As a linguist I know that this is a masterful piece of writing, its form and substance working together to draw his audience into not only the subject of his novel but also the emotional heart of what he was concerned with.  Did you realise, for example, that the syntax of this passage is such that there is not a single completed sentence?  Oh there are fullstops all right.  But, there is not a single finite verb.  Every clause is subordinate, waiting on something else for its completion, just like the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  Like the fog it describes and the justice it represents, the paragraph lacks a sense of limit and boundary.

But, I didn't first come to this passage as a linguist, nor was it analysis that made me love it as I do.  No, it was simply as a reader that I reacted to the beauty of the words and the exactitude with which Dickens has caught that cold and chill and damp that I still experience on a day like today and stored this paragraph away in my memory to make the fogs of the twenty-first century just that bit more bearable. 

Monday, 27 December 2010

Returning to Titus

The snow we've had here in the English Midlands has played havoc with our Shakespeare classes and so until something else comes up to bring the two groups back into line I'm going to have to find ways of juggling different topics and the preparation that has to go into putting together the material for what have turned out to be two very different sets of students. At the moment that means that I have to revise the input for the thematic session on Titus Andronicus for the more philosophical group, while putting together the data on the same play's performance history for the set with the more literary and theatrical backgrounds.

Diving back into a text like Titus is never a particularly easy thing to do, the more so when the work we've already done has convinced most of us that rather than being so over the top as to be unbelievable the play is actually one that has striking relevance to the world in which we live; a world where violence and revenge are common place to far too many people. So, I've chosen to take the 'easy' way out and started up again by beginning Woza Shakespeare, Greg Doran and Antony Sher's account of the production they did with the Market Theatre in Johannesburg just after South Africa's first free elections.

Many years ago now, I bought Antony Sher's Richard III book, The Year of the King, as a present for a friend and then had to get another copy to give to him, having dipped into the original and discovered that there was no way I was ever going to be able to live without it. This account of the staging of an equally dark play is, if anything, even more gripping, in part because it has insights from two very different people, but also because inevitably there are tremendous personal reverberations for Sher, coming home for the first time to a new regime in South Africa just as Titus is returning to a new regime in Rome. Already it's clear that the book is going to be concerned as much with the damage that has been done to the country and its people as it is with the play, especially in the realm of violence and what personal experience has meant many of the actors concerned accept as normal.

But, that doesn't mean that there aren't insights into the text as well and this morning I found myself arguing fiercely against one of the cuts that they had decided to make in the notoriously difficult first act.

It's generally accepted these days that the first act was most likely written not by Shakespeare but by George Peele. Of course, this is very useful for scholars, who can now breathe a sigh of relief and stop trying to defend the Bard's reputation. However, if you're trying to the stage the play, who actually wrote the damn thing doesn't really matter a hoot, you've still got to find a way of putting all its twists and turns in front of an audience. The best production I've ever seen (Deborah Warner's for the RSC) played the text without a single cut, but Doran and Sher decided not to go down that route and one of the things to go was Titus's killing of his son, Martius. Their reasoning was that this makes Titus appear mad too early  and doesn't give the actor playing him anywhere to go in the later scenes.

The more I think about this the more uneasy I feel. For me it is essential that we are made aware of just what Titus is prepared to do for the state if we are to understand the enormity of what he feels when he realises that the very institution he has fought for has not only turned against him but was never worth defending in the first place. I also think that it is a signal to the audience that in terms that most of us would understand, at least, his mind is already unbalanced. It prepares us for the storm that is to come when he has to face what happens to the rest of his family at the hands (sorry, no pun intended) of the very regime for which he has sacrificed so much.

For me this is the beauty of a discursive book like this. I can argue away with it for hours and then I can put the argument in the hands of the groups I'm working with. I shall be really interested to see what those with psychology backgrounds think about the way in which Titus behaves and whether they think the Sher/Doran cut justified. What I do know is that the discussion will be lively and I shall come away from it with even more food for thought and more material for further debate.


Sunday, 26 December 2010

Approaching George Eliot

For what, I am sure, seemed a very good reason at the time, I suggested as my next book club choice George Eliot's novel, Daniel Deronda. I'm fairly certain it was because I wanted the group to have to consider the position of the Jews in Victorian England, but why I should have thought that was either appropriate or desirable I can't for the life of me remember.

Well, that must have been at least twelve months ago and now that I'm within six weeks of the event and have started to turn my mind towards preparing for the discussion I've suddenly realised that I know almost nothing of any substance about Eliot nor have I read any of her works for at least thirty years. When I first discovered the author I worked my way through most of the major novels, although I'm fairly certain I've never read Adam Bede, but that was decades ago and the memories I'm left with are of the stories without any recollection of the social and political concerns that inhabit the narratives.

So, perhaps rather recklessly, given that I must also get back to my Titus Andronicus studies and start to tackle the new biography of Andrew Marvel, I've set myself the task of reading at least one critical work and rereading Middlemarch, before I take up Deronda itself. Too much, perhaps, but I've let my mind wallow in nothing but detective novels for the past couple of weeks and I'm beginning to feel mentally as fuggy as I feel physically after too much Christmas fare and I need something to get my literary teeth into. If I can do it it will be good preparation for the Books on the Nightstand discussion of War and Peace, for which I have ambitiously enrolled. I'd better look for some critical background on Tolstoy as well.