Sunday, 14 August 2011

An Interesting Week

First an apology.  I did mean to get round and visit this past week, but as I expect most of you are aware, we are living in interesting times in the UK at the moment and let me tell you it is truly the curse that Confucius said it was.  After what might be called 'a close encounter of the Hoodie kind' on Tuesday, I'm afraid my mind has been on things other than blogging.  In fact for most of the week there have been three bags by my front door, one full of necessary paperwork, one with a change of clothes and the third ready to throw The Bears into so that we could be out with the essentials at a moment's notice.  (Some of you don't know about The Bears, but those that do will understand - I am going nowhere without them!)  For the moment, things seem to have become more peaceful and I'm hoping that I will be able to unpack, but we all know about chickens and hatching and counting, so maybe I should wait awhile longer.

In the meantime, life has had to go on.  We had a very successful Music Summer School and I now know a lot more about the concerto than I did before.  Donna, I hope you're reading this and very glad that you chose to 'crawl out of the woodwork'.  I don't know of a book, but there is an excellent set of lectures published by The Teaching Company on the concerto.  I can't recommend them too highly.  In fact all their music series are superb.  They can be a bit pricey, but if you wait until they come round on sale you can often get a real bargain.

What has suffered this week has been the reading for the Literature Summer School.  I have managed to read The House on the Strand and do the background work on the historical novel in general (although I still have that to write up) but the other two books remain untouched and I absolutely must get down to them.  I did watch a really fascinating interview with Daphne du Maurier made for the BBC in the very early seventies, just after The House on the Strand  had been published.  Television has definitely changed!  She chain smoked throughout.  That wouldn't stand a chance of getting on screen these days.  What I found most interesting was that the only moment her eyes really sparkled was when she was asked how she felt about being the main breadwinner once her novels started selling.  "I loved it," she said.  "It gave one the power."  Very telling, especially in the light of the particular book we've been reading, which in many respects is about power and the way in which it is abused.  If any of you want to see the programme just put Daphne du Maurier BBC interview into google and it should be the first item that comes up.

Other than that it's been a relatively quiet week.  This afternoon I'm going to a garden party one of my goddaughters is organising to say goodbye to us all before she goes off on her gap year next week.  She's off to a remote area of Guyana to teach science and maths in a newly established school for girls of eleven to fourteen.  I am inordinately proud of her.  The Bears have a special invite and will be going in their Sunday best.  They say you should see a picture of them, so here they are looking as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths.  Don't you believe it.

Have a good week.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Here I Am

Well, here I am again!  Still a bit wobbly, but definitely better than I was.  My current plan is to try and write just at weekends until I'm through rather a busy teaching period and perhaps stronger health wise.  Fingers crossed.

Next week is the first of our Summer Schools and so I shall be spending most of the forthcoming seven days listening to and discussing the development of the piano concerto.  I love music but am no musician, so I've had to do a lot of research to be able to organise this one.  We're focussing particularly on Beethoven, Schumann and Shostakovich, but of course we have to fill in round the edges as well and so the house has been resounding to the music of Corelli, Vivaldi and Mozart as preparation for Monday's opening session.  Not that Corelli and Vivaldi wrote for the piano, but you do need to know where the concerto started to be able to follow the later developments

Once that's underway then I really must get down to the reading for the Literature Summer School, two weeks later.  I have read the three books (Du Maurier's The House on the Strand, Emma Darwin's A Secret Alchemy and Rebecca Stott's Ghostwalk) before, but I do need to refresh my memory and organise the line through the discussions.  What I'm really interested in is why the historical novel has suddenly become fashionable again and I hope we can explore that as well as the books themselves.

And then, of course, there is the 1485 programme to begin to pull together.  A number of people have asked if there is any way that this could be opened up as an internet discussion.  I'll have to think how this might be possible and also ask the other people in the group what they think, but the very basic website that I'm slowly building is open to all, so if you're interested you can see what we're planning at

Integrated Studies ~ 1485

I'll try and come visiting this week.  I hope you're all well.

Monday, 18 July 2011

I Am Still Here

This is just to say that I am still here.  As some of you know, I have various health problems and life is a bit on the difficult side at the moment, but when this bout is over, I will be back.

Take care of yourselves.

Sunday, 3 July 2011


So, I have this problem.  I have a basic understanding of the timelines of each of the individual arts.  I know how Shakespeare relates to John Donne, I can place Mozart in relation to Bizet, at a pinch I can even put most of the major artists in some sort of accurate order.  But, when it comes to integrating those timelines, or, even worse, tying them up with what was going on historically or in the worlds of philosophy and religion, forget it, I'm hopeless.

When I first came back home after training to be a teacher there was an extra mural course at the local university that took a period in history and, drawing from all of the relevant departments, explored the social and political events along with the prevalent religious and philosophical movements and scientific discoveries.  It then placed the arts within that framework and asked how they had been influenced by the cultural climate in which they were created.  I really wanted to do that course but it ran during the day and of course I was working and couldn't get there.  So, I promised myself that when I retired I would beg the extra mural department to put on something similar, if necessary, just for me.  What I hadn't anticipated was that by the time I retired there would be no extra mural department.  In fact, no community education programme of any sort.  (I could wax lyrical about this abdication of civic responsibility, but that's for another day.)  Thwarted again!

Well, some of you will remember that this time last year I was getting extremely het-up about another education problem, namely the cost of Summer Schools.  My answer then was to stop grumbling and organise one of my own and not only did it go extremely well, this Summer we have expanded and have two Summer Schools running.    (Bromsgrove U3A Summer School)  Perhaps I could do the same thing again?  So, starting after the summer break I am going to bring together a group of like-minded people to see if we can't do something about this.  The idea at the moment is that we will take a pivotal year in British history and explore what was going on in as many areas of academic interest as we can, not only in Britain but across the world as it was known and understood at the time.  We aren't going to confine ourselves just to that year; if something vital happened a couple of years earlier, or a dozen years later, then of course that will be covered as well.  The one stipulation will be that we can't go beyond the date we have chosen for the next set of meetings, the ones that hopefully will begin in September 2012.  (Ever the optimist!)

At the moment the putative schedule looks like this:

September ~ General Meeting

October ~ Historical Events

November ~ Philosophical Movements

January ~ Religious Thought

February ~ Scientific and Medical Discoveries

March ~ Art and Architecture

May ~ Music

June ~ Literature

July ~ Review and Forward Planning

The basic idea is that one or more members of the group will research each month's area and then come back and present a paper to the rest of us.  Gradually, over the year, we will garner more and more understanding not only of the different topics but, more importantly, of how they interrelate one with another and this will then be the subject of discussion over the substantial pot of tea and gargantuan plate of biscuits that will be provided half way through the afternoon.  (Gillian, if you're reading this and panicking, don't worry, I'll bring the biscuits!!!) What this means for those of us involved is that no one will have to research and present more than once a year, which I hope will make it easier for those members of the group who, unlike me, are not far too fond of the sound of their own voice and lack confidence to speak out loud.  We shall see.

Of course, it may not work.  It is going to depend on our having people who are interested in covering each of the areas.  We are having a preliminary meeting a week tomorrow to see where we stand on this.  But it certainly won't work if we don't try.  As you will have seen the year we've chosen as a starting point is 1485, the year of the Battle of Bosworth and the beginning of the Tudor monarchy.  Not the happiest of years in the life of a Yorkist like myself, but one that I think will provide everyone with interesting material to research.  I'm thinking at the moment that we might set the upper limit at 1534, the year of the Act of Supremacy, when Henry VIII broke from Rome, but that will be up for discussion when we meet next week.

If we do get off the ground then two further ideas I'm playing with are building a website and possibly putting together a pamphlet at the end of the year containing all the contributions.  If I do get those established and anyone is interested in having access then let me know.

What really worries is me, of course, is after the Summer Schools last year and now this, what bright idea am I going to come up with next year.  If you see one beginning to burgeon, nip it in the bud straight away, will you?  There are only so many hours in the day!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Making Connections ~ The Time Line

Having managed to get as far as London once there is now absolutely no holding me.  The National Gallery last month and now, this month, the Courtauld Gallery, tucked away amongst the buildings of Somerset House, just off the Strand.

The Courtauld is one of those small galleries, of which there are several dotted around the capital, where you turn a corner and suddenly come across one of the world's great paintings, like this one by Manet.  If you'd asked me where I thought this was I would have hazarded the National or the Louvre or the Prada.  I wouldn't have expected to find it tucked away down a London side alley.

I had actually gone to see the Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril exhibition.  Jane Avril was one of the dancers at the Folies-Bergeres who Toulouse-Lautrec used as models for the posters and pictures he created for the theatre.  We normally see her dressed in bright colours, legs flying, as she entertains the punters in the can-can.  This was the picture that took my attention, though, showing the dancer in a much more somber mood as she leaves the theatre in the early hours of the morning almost unnoticed in her classic blue suit.  There is something so contained about her in comparison with the abandon she displays in the more well known paintings.  She looks separate, lonely.  This is the canvas I could live with.

I had as much pleasure though from looking around the rest of the gallery.  As well as the Manet they have some wonderful Van Gogh and Degas as well as an interesting collection of paintings by Rubens and it was the Rubens which brought home to me gaps in my knowledge that I know I have to do something about.

Where each of the individual creative arts is concerned I have a reasonably good understanding of the time line through from the medieval to the modern day.  I know where Rubens comes in relation to Degas or when Mozart was composing in relation to Brahms.  What I don't know is how they relate across the artistic boundaries.  So, I find it amazing that Rubens was painting this picture of Moses and the Brazen Serpent at the same time and in the same place as Shakespeare was writing The Tempest.  It isn't that I thought they were from different time periods, I just have no real understanding of how they relate at all.

Well, there is no point in simply bewailing my lack of understanding, is there?  I need to do something about it and I'm going to, but that is for another post.

Oh, and before any of you ask, yes, of course I went to Fortnum and Mason for afternoon tea.  This time I replaced the scones with a slice of Raspberry Yoghurt Cake but unfortunately I can't find a picture of this magnificent confection.  I should have taken one before I demolished it.  Anyway, I can definitely recommend you treat yourself, just be prepared to explain the bill to your bank manager next time you see him!

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Torso ~ Helene Tursten

Thank goodness!  I really enjoyed Helene Tursten's first crime novel, Detective Inspector Huss, but you know what it's like, you get a first novel that is absolutely wonderful and then the second disappoints and the author just never seems to manage to push those same successful buttons again.  Not Helene Tursten, who is without a doubt the best of the Scandinavian crime writers I've discovered over the past couple of years.  Her second book, The Torso, is every bit as good as her debut and my frustration at discovering that the library only has one copy of her third novel and that there is a long queue is immense, although not entirely unexpected.

Irene Huss and the other members of her investigative team are called in when the torso of a body is discovered on the Swedish coast line wrapped in a black plastic bag.  Not only has the body been dismembered, but it is clear from the obscenities inflicted on the remains that the victim has been horrendously tortured and mutilated.  Searching across Europe to try and identify the corpse, Huss discovers a similar crime in Denmark and so is sent by her Superintendent to Copenhagen to see if there is any evidence there as to who the body parts may have belonged to.  The information that Irene is able to pull together suggests that a necrosadist is operating in both countries, killing in order to get sexual satisfaction from the desecration of the bodies.

Very quickly, it becomes apparent that the killer is aware of the police's interest in him and that he appears to have some level of access to the investigation.  A succession of people identified as having likely connections with the murderer turn up dead or are viciously attacked and the fear grows that he will target members of the team themselves.  There is also the possibility to be faced that it may be one of their own who is the perpetrator.

One of the things that I find admirable in Tursten's work is that she doesn't glory in the horrors that she has to describe.  She doesn't hold back, but there is no sense of her using the terrible scenes that are involved to draw the reader in.  And believe me, in this book she could well have fallen prey to that temptation.  The point is made on several occasions that necrosadism is extremely unusual and for that we should all be extremely thankful.  Nevertheless, while she leaves us in no doubt that the actual murderer is a monster, Tursten is also careful to explore the manner in which more 'normal' humans can find themselves drawn into the environs of such appalling practices and, for the most part, these people she depicts with a welcome level of sympathy and understanding.  It would be all too easy to judge.

As before, there are certain things about Tursten's work that don't necessarily translate well in either the literal or figurative sense of the word.  I'm fairly sure that only one translation has been commissioned and it is definitely an American one.  Even so, I think something audacious takes 'the biscuit' rather than 'the cake' in both versions of the English language and there are several other incidents of such infelicitous renditions.  And then there is the detective set up.  Do the Scandinavian police really not ring each other up after five o'clock because everyone would have gone home?  I find that rather scary.  And do they really turn a blind eye to some of the excessive drinking on duty that goes on and the behaviour towards colleagues that results.  There are a couple of Tursten's detectives who, if Quintin Jardine's Bob Skinner was to ever to have them under him, would find themselves back pounding the beat before they could blink.  That is if he didn't throw them out of the force altogether.

However, these are relatively minor points and I wouldn't want anyone to be put off this series, which I think is one of the best to come out of Scandinavia in recent years and certainly one I hope continues through many more volumes.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Summer Time

There are certain sure signs that Summer is here.  For each of us they are probably very different.  It used to be the sound of the first ice cream van jingle, but round here they were still trying to ply their trade when I couldn't get the car out of the garage because of mounds and mounds of snow, so I've had to ditch that as one my sure fire indications.  Sadly, these days I complete the statement

I know that has Summer has come when.....

with the words

I can drive onto campus at 11.00am and find a parking space.  

Usually you have to be there well before nine.  The pleasure of not having to fight for a place is immense.

One universal signal, however, is the appearance in the Sunday papers of the lists of Summer Reading and this morning, the first really warm day we've had this year, The Sunday Times has provided fifty fiction and fifty non-fiction choices along with a handful of audio and children's suggestions.

I always pour over these lists with real interest.  The New Year equivalent, when people are asked for their 'books of the year', are terribly 'worthy' and I don't believe for a moment that half of them have ever really been read.  They have just been chosen to make the people recommending them sound good.  These Summer recommendations are different.  Oh, very few people actually come out with the real 'beach reads', but what you do get are suggestions of good, solid readable fiction; the sort that will see you through the next six months or so whatever the weather.

Amongst this morning's list there are several books that I have earmarked for any free days that I might discover hidden in my diary, including Ann Patchett's new novel, State of Wonder and Jane Harris's story of an English spinster who attaches herself to the family of a painter in the Glasgow of 1888, Gillespie and I.  There are also a couple that I seem to have missed when they came out, but which look very interesting.  I've enjoyed Justin Cartwright's earlier books, so I shall definitely see if I can find a copy of Other People's Money and Cynthia Ozick's Foreign Bodies set in post-war Paris sounds fascinating as well.

Reading through the list made me think, however, about all the plans I have made for Summer Reading over the years and about how rarely I have been able to stick to them.  When I was studying or teaching there was always a reading list for the following term that needed attention and each year I promised myself that I would get started early and make sure that I didn't end up having to rush.  After all, how many people had the privilege of a working life where reading fiction was a central activity?  How many would have killed for such a life?  But it never worked out like that.  There was always something on the library shelf, or something I'd been storing up all year that found its way into my hands instead.  And I don't suppose this year will be any different.  I might state my intention of reading certain books, but I strongly suspect that the same thing will happen as in the past.  I have eight books that have to be read for one reason or another before the second weekend in September, all excellent novels in their own right, but I don't mind betting that I shall be desperately trying to finish them at the last moment just as in previous years.

Am I alone in this?  Or are you all far better at meeting your objectives than me.  If so, what is your secret?  Please, do share it.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Back Again!

Look, if I ever commit myself up to that level again, will you all please take me out and shoot me!  How stupid can you get?  All I feel like doing now is precisely what is going on in the picture on the left.  In fact, I'm not even certain I've got the strength to read.  It might have to be a decent audiobook and someone else reading to me.

However, I do have one thing to be grateful for in as much as I had a request earlier in the week from a local university to see if I would do a year's cover work for them from September and I said no.  At any other time I might have been tempted to help them out only to have regretted it later when all the preparation and marking started to mount up.  But, coming as it did, just as I was really experiencing the consequences of saying yes too often, I turned them down without a second thought.  Come cold winter mornings, when I would have been dragging myself out to catch an early train, I shall be so glad about that.

Anyway, now I'm taking a breather before turning my mind towards the two Summer Schools I'm organising this year.  The first is the second week in August and is based round three piano concertos, one each by Beethoven, Schumann and Shostakovich.  We're going to place each one in the context of other music being written at the same time, by both those composers and others and I'm really looking forward to it because, although I've done all the organisation, I'm not leading any of the sessions so I can just sit back and enjoy the music.

The other, two weeks later, is our annual literature Summer School and this year the people coming have chosen to read three books each of which is set in two different time periods: Daphne du Maurier's The House on the Strand, Emma Darwin's A Secret Alchemy and Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott.  I have to do rather more where that week is concerned, because as well as leading the final discussion I also have to pull the whole week together and I want to get people thinking about why historical fiction seems to be making a comeback at the moment.  I happened to catch a radio discussion some weeks back suggesting that more recent historical research, which has concentrated on the everyday life of ordinary people, as opposed to the political events, was responsible and I shall be interested to see what the others think about that idea.  If any of you have any thoughts that would add to the discussion then please do let me know.

Now I'm off to put my feet up and listen to Wimbledon.  I might even pick up a book and read.  But then again, I might not.  Have a good weekend.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Call Me Stupid!

I don't know what's wrong with me.  I do it every single time.  I resolve solemnly that never again will I say that fatal little word, "Yes" without checking every diary I possess and then promptly start saying "Yes" as if my life depended on it.  Consequently, sitting quietly reading in the garden is precisely not what I am doing at the moment.  A picture of a dog chasing its own tail would be infinitely more appropriate.

I am thoroughly over committed for the next ten days or so and as a result my presence round the blogging sphere is going to be very limited.  Apologies to all those whose blogs I don't get to read and comment on, I will be back when I have a spare moment.

Be good while I'm not there to keep an eye on you!

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Room ~ Emma Donoghue

I have to say that if I'm honest I've been avoiding Emma Donoghue's book Room ever since it first came out and there was so much publicity about its links with real life cases of abduction and imprisonment.  I thought it was one of those books that I would simply be unable to read because its subject matter would hurt so much.  That may be cowardly of me.  Perhaps it would be better for me to read books that cause me empathetic pain and force me into accepting the very real evil that does exist and which I have been so lucky as to avoid.  However, the truth is that I don't find such books easy reading and am therefore likely to put them to one side and they remain unfinished.

So, when Room turned up on one of my book group lists I wasn't quite certain how I was going to approach it.  I decided in the end that I would set myself a goal of fifty pages a day in the hope that I would never have to spend so much time in the world of abuse that I would be unable to continue with the reading.

The first day didn't go too badly at all.  There is no way that an adult can ignore the fact that what is being described is a situation so horrific as to be most women's worst nightmare but, because the narrator is five year old Jack, we are cushioned from that.  The one room in which he and his mother are confined is the only world that he knows and for him it is security.  His days are filled with creativity and love and he is content.  Oh, he'd like a bit more in the way of Sunday treats, but for the most part he is a happy child.  It's almost the extreme possible argument for a child being better off if they have clear cut boundaries.  Jack certainly has boundaries and they define his life in a way which at five make him feel safe.  How's that for irony?

So, the first day didn't go too badly.  I did have an argument with Donoghue on the very first page because I wasn't convinced and I'm still not convinced that a child of five would be able to handle the concept of minus numbers.  I've come across a good number of undergraduates who still have a problem with the idea.  But, I was willing to let that go if only because so far the book hadn't been the painful read I'd been anticipating.  I was beginning to think that this was going to be one of those books that I would be glad that I'd read even though I would never be able to read again.

Then came day two - remember, fifty pages!  It was a Sunday, so I thought I'd knock them off first thing in the morning and have the remainder of the day for more pleasant reading.  Four hours later I climbed out of the mental wringer that the rest of the book had put me through not having been able to put it down until I'd finished it and I knew that this was a book to which I would return time and time again.

I am not going to go into the story because I'm sure most people will already know what this novel is about and neither am I going to wax lyrical about the way in which Donoghue controls the narrative voice because I know that my obsession with the way in which the narrative voice is used is not universally shared.  (I once heard Philip Pullman say that the most important decision a writer had to make about a book was the nature of the narrative voice and I had to be forcibly stopped from standing up and cheering!)  But I do just want to mention the, to me at least, very interesting comments the author seems to be making about what are and what are not universal truths and philosophical dilemmas that are actually native to our human way of thinking.

I almost passed the first of these by without noting it.  Jack has just learnt that the world he sees on the television is a representation of something that is real and he is forced to reflect on what this means for his own reality.

Outside has everything.  When ever I think of a thing now like skis or fireworks or islands or elevators or yo-yos, I have to remember they're real, they're actually happening in Outside all together.  It makes my head tired.  And people too, firefighters teachers burglars babies saints soccer players and all sorts, they're all really in Outside.  I'm not there, though, me and Ma, we're the only ones not there.  Are we still real?

But, I had to go back to it when I hit the Schrodinger's Cat problem.  During the moments of his escape from Room, wrapped in a rug that threatens to smother him, Jack realises that for the first time ever he has left the security of the only home he has ever known and in a panic asks himself.

I'm not in Room.  Am I still me?

Only later, when he and his mother are safe to turn that around to

Is Room still there when we're not in it?

How do we know who we are?  How do we understand our own reality in relation to that of those around us?

There are echoes of towering truths from literature as well;  understandings that our greatest writers have come to and passed down, but which Jack discovers for himself.  As he considers the implication of growing older he comments

Before I didn't even know to be mad that we can't open Door, my head was too small to have Outside in it.  When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I'm five I know everything.

And later, as he begins to comprehend the enormity of Outside and the people it contains he echoes Shylock's great speech on the universality of humanity.

I think about all the kids in the world, how they're not TV they're real, they eat and sleep and pee and poo like me.  If I had something sharp and pricked them they'd bleed, if I tickled them they'd laugh.

There are several other examples of Jack trying to come to terms with the nature of of the world he eventually finds himself in and especially of the vexing question as to what is real and what is not, what is a valid response to any situation and what is either not acceptable or simply false.  I will simply finish with what I think is most telling.  Jack is indulging in a new game at the home of his grandparents, namely channel surfing, and he hears his own name not in real but in TV.

"...need to listen to Jack."

"We're all Jack, in a sense," says another man sitting at the big table.

"Obviously," says another one.

Are they called Jack too, are they some of the million?

"The inner child, trapped in our personal Room one oh one," says another of the men, nodding.

I don't think I was ever in that room.

"But then perversely, on release, finding ourselves alone in a crowd..."

"Reeling from the sensory overload of modernity,"says the first one.


There's a woman too.  "But surely, at a symbolic level, Jack's the child sacrifice," she says, "cemented into the foundations to placate the spirits."


Huh, indeed.  This is just so much psychobabble -and that is being polite.  Jack knows what is real in this world, what matters, far better than any of these so-called experts.  When he asks why he can't see Ma, now sick in hospital she tells him

"They're still fiddling with my dosage, trying to figure out what I need."

To which Jack's response is

Ma, she needs me.  Can't she figure that out.

All you need is love.

Please read this book.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

I am not a Passive Reader.

As Erica Wagner said in yesterday's Times, I don't like disagreeing with Kate Atkinson, who is one of my favourite authors and a writer whose intelligence I respect, but when she says as she did in that selfsame publication that reading is a passive activity I simply have to take issue.  The actual quote, taken from a piece marking the move of Jackson Brodie to the television screen this evening was this,

People like to think that there’s some synergy between reading and writing but there isn’t. Writing is a very active act and reading is passive and that’s seen as a negative thing: people don’t want to be seen to be passive. They want to feel engaged and involved in the process but they’re not. They’re reading something that would exist even if the reader didn’t.

Don't worry, I'm not going to get into the whole reader-response question here.  I know that the book sitting by my side at the moment would still exist even if I didn't.  But, even without wandering into the realms of literary theory, I'm afraid I think she is just plain wrong.  Whatever else reading is it isn't passive.  Or if it is then it has stopped being a worthwhile occupation because all you are doing is letting the words pass through your mind without engaging with them in any way and you might just as well fill the space up with so much cotton wool.

Any child in the process of learning how to read will tell you that reading is damned hard work.  The fact that so many of us manage to master the art to the point where we no longer notice that fact is a tribute to a lot more hard work put in by teachers of one sort or another all over the world.  But once you've reached that point and you don't notice the work you're putting in any more what you're doing is still not passive; what is more it is perfectly possible for it to be active in a different way every single time you pick a book up.

This past week I've read four books each of which has asked me to engage actively with it in an entirely different way.  One has an extremely complex plot located in a slightly off kilter world which demands that I follow every twist and turn in an unfamiliar setting without letting a single ball drop if I want to have a hope of understanding how the final denouement fits logically with what has gone before.

A second has engaged me in an emotional manner that has demanded that I empathise with characters I might not normally respond to and come to some understanding of why they have behaved as they have and why I might possibly be able to follow their reasoning if not ever applaud their choices.

The third and fourth are both books where I have been struck immediately by the fact that the writers are women of tremendous intelligence and I have struggled, as I read their novels, to keep up with the ideas that their minds have woven into extremely readable books.  But even here what I have been working at has been different.  In one of these it has been the ideas themselves that have kept me on my toes, the writers that this author has assumed I would know and the way in which their concepts have fed into the story she is telling.  In the other is has been the style that has had me thinking, deceptively simply and yet expressed in language so distilled that unpacking all the layers of meaning has been a tremendous challenge.  Working out how she has managed it would be another task in itself.

So, I'm afraid I have to disagree with Kate Atkinson.  For me the very essence of the pleasure that is reading is the fact that it isn't passive, that I have to work at it if I want to get anything out of it.  And the day it becomes a passive, time filling activity is the day I will burn my library cards and go out and shot myself.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Don't Rain on my Parade!

A couple of weeks ago I went down to London for the day.  Now, unless you know me very well, you won't realise the enormity of that sentence.  Due to a chronic condition that forced me into early retirement I haven't been able to travel any great distance for the last five or six years without disastrous consequences that laid me low for days.  For the first three years I had a fifteen mile limit and could only be glad that there was so much that I could do locally within such a small area.  Gradually, I've been able to push my boundaries further afield, getting to Stratford two years ago and Oxford last summer.  Now I've managed the two hundred mile round trip to London and although I'm not going to be able to do it very often, I feel as if I've been given the world.  As I walked down Baker Street on my way from Marylebone Station to Trafalgar Square I looked up at the first storm clouds the capital had seen in weeks and bellowed out the Streisand song defying the weather to rain on my parade.  It's a good job people are used to eccentrics in London.  No one paid a blind bit of notice!

I had, in fact, gone specifically to see the Jan Gossaert exhibition at the National Gallery.  I love the Flemish artists of this period (early sixteenth century), especially the wonderful portraits that they painted of both their aristocratic patrons and some of the more mercantile burghers who employed them.  This chap, keeping very careful note of all the financial comings and goings in his business, is a banker.  I would love to know what his filing system was like.  Could he just reach up and find the appropriate note that told you by how much you were overdrawn without even looking.  I bet he could.  Look at that face.  You weren't going to put anything over that gentleman, were you?

But the whole expedition had clearly gone to my head because I kept seeing all sorts of things that I suspect a serious minded art critic would not have agreed with nor approved of.  For example, there is a wonderful cartoon of Adam and Eve in which it is absolutely obvious from the way in which Eve is supporting him that Adam has taken all the apples from the Tree of Knowledge and turned them into high octane cider.  What's more, he's drunk it all!

Then there is a canvas of St Luke painting his vision of the Virgin and Child and I am seriously worried about what one little cherub sitting at Mary's feet is up to.  What need has he to have his hands up Mary's skirt, I ask myself.  Actually, I probably don't want to know the answer.

Anyway, giggling is clearly not the done thing in the National Gallery, so eventually I took myself off down Piccadilly to Fortnum and Mason and indulged in that most decadent of English customs, afternoon tea.

If you ever have the chance to go to Fortnum and Mason for afternoon tea then do take out a mortgage and partake.  (And you definitely do 'partake', any other verb simply wouldn't meet the circumstances.)  Nothing else rivals one of their own individual blends served in a silver plated tea-pot and accompanied by homemade scones, jam and clotted cream.  I was very good and stuck at that.  But if you want to you can go the whole way and add sandwiches and a slice of one of their wonderful cakes.  You won't want to face either your bank manager or the bathroom scales in the immediate future but believe me it will be worth it.

I hope this isn't going to be a one off visit to London.  I just woke up that morning and knew that I could try and I suspect that for the moment that is going to have to be the way I do it.  Planning in advance is likely to hype up my adrenaline levels and undermine me before I start.  But it's a beginning and I intend to build on it.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Detective Inspector Huss ~ Helene Tursten

Hard on the heels of the Martin Beck novels I've come across another Scandinavian Crime writer whose first book, at least, I've really enjoyed.  Detective Inspector Huss is the initial novel by Swedish writer, Helene Tursten, in a growing series about her eponymous heroine, Irene Huss.  The copy I have  says on the jacket that she is Sweden's Prime Suspect.  I can only say that whoever wrote that has either not read the book or not seen the British TV programme because Irene Huss, happy in her home life with husband and twin daughters, is about as far from Jane Tennison as it is possible to be.  Neither does the book glory in violence in the way that the television series can seem to.  Yes there is violence in this story, but for the most part it is kept at a distance.  We see its after effects, but there are no long drawn out descriptions of the attacks to which various members of the force are subjected.  In fact, if the book made me think of any English writer it was P D James.  Tursten's insistence on the day to day routine that is behind most police work and the need to follow through with all the necessary legwork is reminiscent of Dalgliesh at his best.

Irene Huss is called in to help investigate when an apparent suicide turns out to have been something more sinister.  The victim, Richard von Knecht, rather than jumping from his balcony appears to have been helped on his way and the case only becomes more complex when there is a bomb blast at von Knecht's office and an explosion in the car of one of the chief suspects.  When it becomes apparent that there is also a link through drugs to roaming gangs of Hells Angels the police team have to ask whether there is some wider criminal conspiracy going on, especially as all the family members who might have had reason to want von Knecht out of the way have what appear to be cast iron alibis.

I suspect that the reason I enjoyed this book so much more than many of the other Scandinavian novels I've tried is because it concentrates on the police rather than the victims or suspects.  I felt I really got to know the officers concerned in a way that has not been the case with several other writers.  In that respect, this is much more like a British crime novel.  However, one thing that it does have in common with many other swedish novelists is an exploration of some of the social and political problems that beset the country.  In particular this book considers the rise of the Nazi Party among Swedish youth and their denial of the Holocaust.  It doesn't impinge on the case - it is one of Irene's daughters who becomes involved - but nevertheless, Tursten makes it clear that any impression we may have in the UK of Sweden as a haven of political neutrality and liberal minded thinking is little more than a fantasy.

As far as I can see there are two more Irene Huss books available with a fourth due later this year.  If you want to try Swedish crime fiction without straying too far in style from what you're used to then I very strongly recommend you start here.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

To Prepare or Not To Prepare.......

Well, I don't know what it was that hit me last weekend, but I'm very glad it seems to be on its way out, helped, I'm sure, by all your good wishes.  I haven't even felt up to any decent convalescent reading, so I can't make myself feel better by making the rest of you jealous with the tales of all the good reading time I've had.  Still, showing off would not be good for my soul, I'm sure, so maybe it's better that way.  To be perfectly honest, I still feel as if I am a Bear of very little brain, so excuse me if what I write over the next few days makes very little sense indeed.  And the first person who says, "So what's different?" gets knocked straight off my Christmas card list.

Something which caught my attention in last weekend"s papers, and which I had intended to raise then, was an article about the need to prepare, to do your homework, as it were, before you take yourself off to any sort of cultural event.  I should have made a note of it at the time, but I was rushing out to go to Stratford and thought I would come back to it on the Sunday.  Of course, I didn't, so I may not be quoting the opinions with any accuracy but it was quite simply because I was going over to Stratford that it caught my attention and I thought I would ask what you thought about it.

As far as I remember, the gist of the argument was that if you were going to a play or an art exhibition or a concert it was pretty much your duty to have done some preparation before you went so that you could fully appreciate the work being laid before you.  So, if you were on your way to a concert you should have listened to the music beforehand so that you could judge the quality and interpretation of the specific performance you heard.  If going to an exhibition you should have researched the artist's portfolio and the context in which s/he was painting.  And, if you were going to the theatre you should have attempted to read the play before you went.

As I say, this struck a chord with me at the time, because I was just on my way to see the RSC's production of Philip Massinger's play of 1632, The City Madam and earlier in the week I had picked up a copy of the programme precisely so that I could read the scholarly articles which the Company always commissions over a pre-preformance lunch.  These articles don't give away the story, but they do cast light on the particular aspects of the play and its original context that the director has seen as important.  I find that they help to focus my mind on the world in which I am going to spend the next three hours before I ever take my seat and I do feel as if I enjoy the whole experience the more for having put some effort into it.  However, a couple of weeks prior to that I had been at a discussion with the director of another of this season's offerings, the 're-imagined' Cardenio, where the director, Greg Doran, had specifically asked that we shouldn't read the play itself before we saw it.  I probably respect Greg Doran more than any other theatre director around, so I hastily stuffed my newly purchased copy in my bag and haven't taken it out since.  I don't see the production for another month or so.

I can't really comment on the concert aspect because I've been going to classical performances now on a regular basis for over fifty years and it is very rare indeed that I go to hear a piece of music I don't already know.  If I do, it's likely to be something new that isn't available to listen to beforehand anyway.  I have, however, recently been to see the Jan Gossaert exhibition at the National Gallery (post to follow) and for various reasons wasn't able to read up about the artist's work or life beforehand.  I did pop into the Gallery prior to going to the exhibition itself with the intention of picking up the catalogue to read through over an early lunch but it was so vast that I couldn't even face the thought of lugging it round the exhibition with me and so ended up not buying it until I was ready to come home.  And I'm sorry about that because I'm certain that if I had had more context into which I could have placed Gossaert's work I would have got a lot more out of the paintings themselves.  Preparation would have helped.

So, where do you stand?  Do you prefer to go to these things 'blind'?  Do you feel the need, or the duty, to have done some preparatory homework?  Or do you laugh at the very idea of having the time to research before you experience a great cultural event?  I'm interested to know.

Sunday, 22 May 2011


Driving back from Stratford yesterday I realised that I was beginning to ache all over.  This morning it's worse.  It looks like summer flu.  I don't want to infect anyone, so I will see you all next week.


Friday, 20 May 2011

The Merchant of Las Vegas

Two or three weeks ago I went over to Stratford to hear Patrick Stewart talk about playing Shylock.  In many respects the discussion was general, partly because he is coming to the role this year for the fifth time, but also because the current production, which had its press night earlier this week, has been shrouded in mystery and the director, Rupert Goold, was very keen that the overall concept of the production shouldn't get out too soon.  As you can imagine that set all of us off trying to find out what we were going to be watching and it wasn't long before someone managed to discover that shock horror the central setting was a casino in Las Vegas.  I'll pause while you all recoil in dismay.

Certainly, all the members of my two Shakespeare classes took several deep breaths before letting me know in no uncertain terms what they thought of the idea.  I have to admit that I wasn't exactly cheering from the gallery myself, although I could see certain similarities between the financial situations explored in the play and the careless way in which money is won and lost in the world of the multimillion Las Vegas gambler.  However, on Monday one of class went to see a preview and the following morning I got an e-mail quite simply raving about it, saying it was the best production of the play she had ever seen and that once she'd got used to the idea she thought the concept was sheer brilliance.

So, it was with a great deal of interest that I went over to Stratford on Wednesday to hear Rupert Goold talk about the play and explain why he'd taken the decision not only to set it in America, but also to play it in American accents.  Of course, there is the argument that East Coast American vowels are closer to those of the Elizabethans than are current English ones and that such a decision makes the speech more authentic, but what was more interesting was what he had to say about the stress patterns involved and how the American speech rhythms emphasise the verse forms far more than the British rhythms do.  I have to admit that I hadn't thought about that before, but once he demonstrated it was easy to see what he was talking about, especially where there is some form of antithesis being evoked.  Try doing 'to be or not to be' in an American accent and you'll see what I mean.  Goold also cited other highly successful productions of the play that have been set in very specific places.  There was one situated in Weimar Germany and another located in the time and location of the early Rothschilds.  In siting the play in the gambling capital of the world he has been able to emphasise the risks that both our own society and that of many of Shakespeare's contemporaries have been prepared to take with money - often, it should be said, with other people's money.

And of course, there is that other great financial parallel - rising inflation and its social consequences.  In medieval England prices had remained pretty much stable for three hundred years, but in the sixteenth century inflation was rampant and by the time this play was written the cost of living had doubled in a matter of years.  Lacking twenty-four hour news programmes to analyse the situation for them, the English were understandably annoyed (actually they would probably have been even more annoyed if they had had twenty-four hour analysis) and their answer was all too often to blame the problem on the foreigners coming into the country, who were, as they saw it, taking their jobs and their wages.  If you think the cry of 'British jobs for British workers' is a twenty-first century slogan, think again.  In the early 1590s the pamphleteers were doing great business raising feelings against Flemish workers in London in just the same way as voices are raised about EU immigration today.  It's easy to see both where the impulse behind the Shylock situation came from and its modern day parallels.

By the time Goold had got this far, and with Val's ringing endorsements in my ear, I was beginning to be won over and the next point he made tipped the scales completely in his favour.  He noted that this is a play that has no character in it that you can actually like and this is the first time that I have come across someone else who has the same problems that I do with Portia.  Now, I know that Portia gets a raw deal from her father.  In this production the whole business with the caskets is turned into a game show.  Choose the right box and get the beautiful girl - and, of course, the money that goes with her!  That's a production choice which seems to me to sum up the whole situation nicely.  However, her bad luck in the matter of fathers can't hide the fact that Portia is as ardent a racist as any of them.  Look at the trial scene closely some time.  She knows Shylock's name and yet she refers to him all the time as 'Jew', you can hear the contempt not simply for the individual, but for his entire race, and it is Portia who, having 'deprived' Shylock of his pound of flesh, suddenly ratchets proceedings up a notch with her 'Tarry Jew, the law hath yet another hold on you'.  She is enjoying this.  There were whispers of discontent in the audience on Wednesday at this point, but I was silently cheering.  I have always avoided directing The Merchant not because of Shylock and the antisemitic issues, but because I have never known what to do with Portia or, perhaps it would be truer to say, because I have never had the courage to play her as I have wanted to and has Goold clearly has taken the risk of doing.

So, all in all this looks set fair to be a very interesting theatrical experience indeed.  Press night was Thursday and the only review I've seen was very positive.  Unfortunately, I'm not seeing it until August, so it will be sometime before I can come back and report here on what I find.  If anyone else is going sooner then I would be fascinated to hear what you think.  

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Trick of the Dark ~ Val McDermid

For some reason I simply can't imagine I missed the publication of Val McDermid's latest stand alone novel, Trick of the Dark and consequently I've only just got round to reading it.  Never mind, If I'd read it on publication I wouldn't have had the pleasure of curling up over it during the past few evenings although, as usual where McDermid is concerned, now that I've finished it I feel completely bereft.  I don't know any other writer of crime fiction who is as good in her one off fiction as she is in her series work.  Much as I look forward to a new Tony Hill novel this autumn, McDermid is the one writer who doesn't elicit a groan with the announcement of a non-series publication.  Her last novel, A Darker Domain, which recalled memories all too vivid of the social devastation of the Miners' Strike, was brilliant and this latest is just as good.

Charlie Flint is a senior lecturer in Clinical Psychology and Psychological Profiling accredited by the Home Office to work with the police as a profiler.  Or rather she was.  All that is now in limbo as her suitability is called into question following a trial that has gone spectacularly wrong.  Brought in to give her opinion as to whether or not the accused had committed the crime for which he was indicted, she (correctly as it turns out) states that she thinks he was not.  However, despite her warning that while he may not have killed on this occasion he is likely to in future, the accused is set free and goes on to kill four times before he is brought up before the courts again.  In as spectacular piece of unfairness as you could imagine, Charlie is publicly held to blame for this and while the General Medical Council considers her position she is banned from practising.

Going stir crazy, Charlie is almost relieved to receive a mysterious package in her morning post containing cuttings about the murder of a man on his wedding day and the subsequent trial and conviction of two of his business associates.  The case is especially intriguing as it involves people she knew during her student days in Oxford and so, encouraged by her partner, Maria, she decides to follow up the case simply to give her something else to occupy her mind.

Gradually it becomes apparent that the package has been sent to her by the mother of the bride, her old Oxford tutor, Corinna, and when Charlie challenges her about this she confesses that she has indeed deliberately set out to involve Charlie because she is convinced that the wrong people have been convicted.  Her daughter, Magda, far from being the traditional grieving widow, has taken up very rapidly with another ex-student, Jennifer (Jay) Stewart and is now living with her.   Corinna, although uncomfortable with her daughter's apparently overnight conversion to lesbianism, is actually far more concerned because she claims she has reason to believe that Jay has committed murder in the past in order to get something she desperately desires and is certain that she has done so again in this instance.  She challenges Charlie to find out the truth of the situation, throwing out the bait that by proving there has been a miscarriage of justice in this case, Charlie will be able to redeem herself in the eyes of the public, the police and her academic peers.

As much to get the persistent Corinna off her back,  Charlie agrees to at least look at the evidence, the more so because it allows her to be in Oxford and near to the enigmatic Lisa Kirk, a woman she has recently met and who is exercising a hold over her that even she realises is too strong to be healthy.  And from there everything else unfolds.  But I am saying not a word more.  You need to read this for yourself.  But I strongly suggest you don't pick it up unless you have a couple of days when you don't have to meet any other commitments.  While there were one or two plot points I was a bit sceptical about, the characters are fascinatingly drawn and I was throughly involved from the first page.  This is vintage Mcdermid and I can't recommend it too strongly.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

To Believe or not To Believe...........

First an apology.  There was some sort of blip in the Blogger world at the back end of last week and as a consequence a number of comments were wiped out.  That really annoys me, as I would hate to think that anyone believed I had deleted their comment as unacceptable.  I do do that from time to time, but not with any of these.  I have no way of knowing just how many people were involved, but if one of them was YOU, then please accept my apologies.

Secondly, a blowing of my own trumpet.  I did what I said I would do last Sunday and cancelled one of my library tickets.  As a result my bookshelves are slightly less bowed in the middle and I am feeling a little less guilty about the number of library books that appeared to have taken up permanent residence here.  I have also reduced the number of reservations I have on my other two tickets to the number of books I could actually take out at any one time.  It is so embarrassing when ten books turn up at once and you only have space for eight of them on your ticket.  Which do you leave behind?  Quite how long I will be able to maintain this part of the resolution I don't know, but at the moment I am being really good.  (And also, really smug, but we won't go there for the moment.)

There were a number of things that I wanted to write about this morning but if I try to rattle them all off I will end up saying very little about nothing. So, a relatively short post about one of them and then I'll pick up on the others later in the week.  Over breakfast this morning I was reading a review of a new book by Harold Bloom, called The Anatomy of Influence.  In it the reviewer, John Carey, a distinguish British scholar, writes:

He regards Shakespearian characters as real people, who exist outside the plays. Hamlet, for example, has a will of his own and “rebels against apprenticeship to Shakespeare”. Those who object that Hamlet is just a figment of Shakespeare’s imagination are quickly dismissed: “I brush aside all academic critics — dryasdusts and moldyfigs.” As real people, the characters are free to become quite different from anything Shakespeare wrote. Bloom’s Falstaff is “an incessant and powerful thinker” and his Hamlet “knows everything”.
Apparently Bloom once wrote a fantasy novel, and in these creative misreadings he becomes a fantasist rather than a critic. His imagination also gives him access to secrets of the characters’ sex lives omitted from the plays. He knows that the marriage of Othello and Desdemona was never consummated, and that Macbeth was prone to premature ejaculation (at least, that is what he seems to mean when he discloses that Macbeth is “sexually baffled in his enormous desire for his wife”).

I have read very little of Bloom's work; he is not as feted on this side of the Atlantic as I believe he is in the US, and if this is representative of his views, then I can't see me reading very much more.  It is, of course, possible that there has been an editorial slip and that what he really intended to say was that Falstaff is “an incessant and powerful drinker” but given the other examples I suspect not.  I'm not denying that Falstaff did a fair bit of thinking, but let's face it, it did him no good at all given the way that he completely misread the situation between himself and Prince Hal.  And, if it is true that Hamlet knows everything, how come we have the perpetual question of to be or not to be hanging around in our heads?  However, should it be the case that Macbeth was indeed prone to premature ejaculation, then I suppose that does at least give us an answer to the worrying dilemma of how many children had Lady Macbeth.  We should be grateful for small mercies.

But, oh yes, there is a 'but' hidden away in here.  There is an issue here.  If we are going to believe in a character and the way in which they behave within the novel concerned, then they do have to have a reality to them that allows that belief.  They have to be three dimensional enough for the reader to accept that they could do what they do within the confines of a human life.  If a writer plies their craft well enough for us to laud a book with praise then surely one of the things they must have achieved is the creation of a set of characters that behave in a consistent and recognisably human way?  So, if a writer does his or her job supremely well is there not a chance that caught up within the power of the reading experience we might not, just for a moment, forget that there is no such person as Elizabeth Bennett, or that annoying as he is in his worst excesses, I am not going to be able to take Dickens' Pip and bash his head against a wall to knock some sense into it?

It's a fine line.  And it is the reader's line to draw.  If John Carey's reading of Harold Bloom's work is correct then Mr Bloom seems to draw it a lot further over than I do.  But you may feel differently and it would be interesting to hear your opinions.  Is it acceptable to project a life beyond the page for a character or should we confine our discussions to those facts that the author gives us?  And, I suppose, a second question could be should that be just the 'original' author, given how many characters find a second existence in the pages of writers' works.

As a postscript I should tell you the story of a discussion my Mom and I had before she died.  We had both been reading the Harry Potter series and she was as big a fan as I am.  However, I must have been waxing too lyrical on this particular occasion, because I distinctly remember her saying to me in a very concerned voice, "Annie, they're not actually real, you know."  Perhaps she thought I was going to leave my car parked outside her house and try and fly home on her kitchen broom.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Every Breath You Take ~ Michelle Spring

I've had a number of false starts this week with books by crime writers I hadn't encountered before.  As an article in last weekend's Sunday Times pointed out, everyone and his dog is writing crime fiction these days and, in the case of some of the books I've tried over the past few days, the authors would have been best advised to leave their dogs to get on with it.

A good crime novel is not easy to write.  It has to excel in terms of both plot and character.  The former has to be believable while at the same time having enough suspense to keep the reader turning the pages and the latter have to have psychological reality despite the fact that some of them at least will, of necessity, eventually have to be shown to be distinctly flawed human beings.  It isn't enough to excel in one area.  To write even readable crime fiction you have to be good at both.  To write outstanding crime fiction you have to be a master at both.

Well, Michelle Spring isn't exactly a master as yet, but at least her first novel featuring the private investigator, Laura Principal, Every Breath You Take, kept me reading until the end and was satisfying enough to send me back for a second helping.  Running for Shelter is on the shelf waiting.

Laura Principal, once an academic herself, now shares a weekend cottage with her friend Helen, a librarian at Eastern University.  When financial considerations force them into taking a third into their arrangement Monica Harcourt, the art lecturer who applies, leaves Laura feeling uneasy.  However, as Helen does not seem concerned by Monica's jumpy behaviour, Laura decides to go ahead with the arrangement and calls in to Monica's Cambridge home to finalise the agreement.  Glancing in through a lighted window she sees the artist tied up and brutally assaulted.  It seems that whatever Monica had been so concerned about has finally caught up with her.  In the days that follow Laura is forced to track down Monica's assailant not only in an attempt to bring about justice but also to protect herself, Helen and Helen's daughter, Ginny, as they receive threats that they may become targets of the attacker themselves.  Tracing back Monica's time at the University, Laura discovers that there have been several lecturers who appear to have been targeted in ways that have left them at best uncomfortable and at worst, unable to continue in the profession they had loved.  The misconduct that she eventually uncovers is unpalatable to say the least, but is it what lies at the heart of the mystery, or is there something else behind the attacks?  As all the best summaries say - now read on.

In terms of plot and character Spring doesn't do too badly.  I felt the plot was brought together very well.  I thought I knew who the killer was and was wrong, but even so I didn't feel as if the plot that was eventually revealed was misleading or in anyway implausible.  Indeed as an ex-acadmic myself, I'm afraid I knew that given the right characters it was all too credible.  However, I did have some qualms not so much about who the assailant turned out to be, but about the depth of characterisation that that person had been given.  (I'm having to be careful here, because I got the gender wrong, so I don't want to use singular pronouns.)  They had been so lightly sketched in that they didn't seem to have anything other than a supernumerary role until the very end of the book.  I don't think this is fair on the reader.  To pull an unexpected rabbit out of the hat at the end of a story is all very well and good, but it does have to be a rabbit that has at least been hopping about in full view for a reasonable amount of time.   I hope that that is a failing which will have been corrected in later books because otherwise I did enjoy this and it would be comforting to be able to think that some good had eventually come out of an otherwise rather substandard week's reading.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Sir Thomas More ~ By Just About Every Jacobethan Writer Going.

I went over to Stratford last week to hear John Jowett, one of the Professors at the Shakespeare Institute, talk about his new edition of the Jacobethan play Sir Thomas More.  Jacobethan because in this instance the most recent dating evidence suggests that while it was originally written around 1599 in Elizabeth's reign, it was then completely revised in 1604 after James had come to the throne.

For all sorts of technical reasons (such as there are large chunks of the original version missing!) it is the revised text that John has been working with.  And anyway, it is the revised text that is the really interesting one.  There is evidence in it of the hands (quite literally, the only existing copy is a hand-written manuscript) of at least four playwrights we can identify, plus A N Other whom we cannot, but who is probably not a recognised playwright, who is coyly know as Hand C.  And of course, the truly remarkable fact is that one of those playwrights is William Shakespeare.

Have you worked out what that means?  The manuscript is hand-written.  Shakespeare's scenes are in his own hand.  He touched those very pages.  Which is more than you or I can do, because this treasure of English Literature is stored in the British Library never to be seen by the likes of you or me and even if you're the likes of John, you only get to see a bit of it at a time and you definitely don't get to touch it at all. John likened working with it to being in the presence of a holy relic.  Oh yes!

As far as I can gather the story goes something like this.  The play must have been commissioned by one of the Elizabethan theatre companies.  We don't have any evidence as to which one it was, although there is no reference to it in Henslowe's diaries so it most likely wasn't The Admiral's Men.  It was probably written in the first instance by Anthony Munday, one of those contemporaries of Shakespeare you don't come across very often.  However, like all plays at this time, before it could be played or printed it had to be licensed by The Master of the Revels, the Sixteenth Century equivalent of the modern day censure.

From what evidence we have Sir Edmund Tilney was good at his job.  He doesn't appear to have taken the red pencil to scripts willy-nilly.  He would ask for a couple of lines to be altered rather than cutting whole scenes.  So, there must have been real problems with this text for him to have demanded the wholesale re-write that appears to have taken place.

Leave out the insurrection wholly and the cause thereof, he writes at the beginning of the copy that was sent to him, and begin with Sir Thomas More at the Mayor's sessions, with a report afterwards of his good service done being Sheriff of London upon a mutiny against the Lombards - only a short report, and not otherwise, at your own perils.

Sections of the play were parcelled out to different writers, possibly by Hand C, whoever he may have been.  Those people who are really good at this sort of thing can detect the work of Henry Chettle, Thomas Haywood, Thomas Dekker and, of course, William Shakespeare.  They appear to have worked independently of each other, which causes problems when you try and put the whole thing together, problems that Hand C seems to have tried to eliminate by adding his own occasional links.  The whole thing must have been a nightmare to edit and it would take someone of John's patience and scholarship to come anywhere near a satisfactory text.

His edition has just been published by Arden and I for one am going to put a weekend aside as soon as possible to get really into all the intricacies of the play and its history.  I am also going to try and access the on-line facsimile of the manuscript, although at the moment I'm having difficulty locating it.  I want to see Shakespeare's hand for myself.

Eureka!  I found it, or at least part of it.  You can access a 'pop-up' of one of the pages Shakespeare wrote here

and get access to a facsimile of parts of the manuscript in an edition prepared in 1911 by W W Greg here.  

You can actually download the Greg edition onto your Kindle, but if you do be prepared for the fact that the images of the original manuscript give a whole new meaning to the word illegible!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Eyes Bigger Than......

I have just come in from a long walk during which I have taken a momentous decision;  I am going to give up one of my library tickets.  I am going to go into my local library tomorrow morning, surrender my card and ask them to delete it from the system.

No, I haven't had a brainstorm, nor have I taken leave of my senses.  What I am trying to do is curb the habit I have of ordering far more books through the library system than I could ever hope to read in the time I'm allowed to keep them.  Actually, I shouldn't call it a habit, it's far worse than that; it's an addiction.  Not only do said books weigh down my book shelves until they are at breaking point, but while those books are sitting on my shelves they're not on the library's shelves available for other people who do have the time and the desire to read them.  It has to stop.

Because of the way our library system works I have three different tickets which in total allow me to borrow forty books, most of them for up to three months at a time.  Forty books, and that's not counting the ones that I can have on reserve.  You can see the problem, can't you?  The Booker long list comes out - I order the lot.  One of the papers does a 'books of the year' or 'summer reading' article - another dozen or so join the list.  And blogging!  Oh don't get me onto the effects blogging has on this.  Oh yes, you're the ones who are really to blame.  None of this is my fault.  It's you lot out there, leading me into bad habits, that are at the root of the problem.  You're a bad influence, that's what you are.  I should have known better than to keep company with any of you.

There is another side to this as well.  I'm not really being discriminating enough in what I reserve.  Instead of taking the time to browse through a book or really read the reviews thoroughly I'm ordering things on a whim and then finding that I've spent time trying to get into a book that was never going to appeal to me in the first place, time that could have been better spent with books I had taken the trouble to find out more about.  Of course, some times there is a wonderful, serendipitous find, but not often enough to justify the continuation of my present approach.

So, I'm clearing the decks.  The ticket and the books associated with it go back to the library tomorrow.  I won't need more than one journey provided I pack the car boot carefully. And the new policy of keeping a wish list and only reserving book from it as I finish one in the pile begins.  One book finished, one book ordered and no more than a dozen in the house at anyone time.  I have the will power, I can do this.  If I repeat that often enough I might even begin to believe it.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Bell ~ Iris Murdoch

For reasons it's far too complicated to go into, our Monday Reading Group this month discussed Iris Murdoch's 1958 novel The Bell.  I went through a Murdoch phase a couple of decades ago and read her first three novels, but got distracted at that point and so never reached this, her fourth novel, described to me on Monday as 'the first one with real people in it'.  Perhaps that is a clue as to why I gave up on her previously.  I really can't remember.  For most of the group, however, this was at least a second and in one case, a fourth read and having spent last weekend in Murdoch's enclosed lay community at Imber, I can see why.

After a couple of false starts last week with novels where the writing was either so ordinary or so sloppy that I simply couldn't go any further, to enter a world so precisely and so effective described as the one we are introduced to here was a sheer joy.  I don't think you would ever call Murdoch a poetic writer, but there is an almost mathematical definitiveness in the way in which she lays out her setting and her characters before the reader.  As someone remarked, you could walk the paths around the lake which is central to the novel without any fear of getting lost and if you ran into one of the characters in the course of your walk you would know exactly who it was you had met before you even spoke to them.

Imber is an enclosed lay community attached to an Abbey of Medieval foundation and it is towards this claustrophobic environment that Dora, one of the two protagonists, is travelling as the book opens.  Dora, a young woman in her early twenties, is returning to her estranged husband, Paul, several years her senior, who is researching in the Abbey's archives.  Dora is young not only in years but in maturity - witness the fact that she is returning to Paul rather than ditching him completely.  Dora may be a blunderer who does wrong things even if for the right reasons, but she does not deserve Paul who is manipulative and in many ways an inadequate human being.  The word that is used most often in relation to him is 'violent' and although he is never physically so, mentally and emotionally he is a bully.

If Dora is always acting before really thinking, then the other chief protagonist, Michael is the exact opposite.  Many of the disasters that occur during the course of the novel might have been avoided if only Michael, the putative leader of this group, had acted rather than thought so protractedly about whether or not he ought to act.  In a weekend spent considering the role of equivocation in Macbeth, Michael was yet another character who was persistently saying one thing while meaning something else, although in the main the person he was trying to fool was himself.

One of the questions we inevitably found ourselves posing on Monday was whether or not the book had dated and while I think that would be too harsh a criticism, it is true that Michael's dilemma must have been viewed in a very different way by the original 1958 readers to that which is likely to pertain today.  At the time the book was written both the social and legal attitude towards homosexuals was different to today, even if we may not have progressed as far along the road in terms of rebuffing any prejudice as we might like.  Michael's sexual orientation torments him, especially as his greatest desire is to enter the priesthood.  As far as we are aware he has done nothing about fulfilling his sexuality until he is trapped by a fourteen year old boy in the school where he is teaching.  There is no doubt that Nick is the one who does the seducing and who then, seemingly for the pure pleasure of destroying another human being, denounces Michael as his lover.  Ten years on, Nick, who now seems bent on destroying himself through drink, is sent to the community in an attempt to save him from his inner demons and Michael is now forced to face again the reality of who he is in the midst of a world that will condemn what lies at the core of his identity out of hand.

During the few summer weeks that the novel's plot spans both Michael and Dora have to learn certain harsh truths about themselves and, like the bell which gives the book its title, they have to recognise that brilliantly projected new starts are rarely able in reality to live up to the promise of the dream.  I can certainly see why some of the other members of the group had returned to this book more than once and I'm very glad that I have been reintroduced to Murdoch's work.  I shall definitely be going back for more.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Macbeth ~ Royal Shakespeare Company

The new RSC season has started and all is once again well with my world.  I am never completely happy unless I have a parcel of theatre tickets sitting in my bureau waiting to be used and if they are tickets for the theatres in Stratford well then all the better.  I started off this season's theatregoing last Saturday with a visit to the new Main House to see Macbeth.

Those of you who read my piece last week about Michael Boyd's current production of Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company will recall that I was concerned that this performance might not hold together as a coherent whole, given that Boyd had said he was only playing the Shakespearian elements of the text and cutting out the passages by Thomas Middleton.  Well, I needn't have worried, the production is one of the best I've seen of this play and certainly hangs together as well as Macbeth ever can.  This is in part because, despite what he said, Boyd has still left in certain lines from the Middleton scenes.

Thus, we still have the prophecies that set the whole play in motion.  After all, if no one tells Macbeth that he is destined to be King then we might as well all head for the bar before curtain up and stay there.  But, there are no witches.  Instead Boyd gives us three ghostly children, a direct result of his production some years ago of a dramatised version of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.  Talking about this Boyd said that he had found those children more scary than any representation of the witches that he had ever seen and more appropriate as an image of terror for a modern audience.  And I would have to say that I agree with him, especially as those children then become the MacDuff babes who are later brutally slaughtered.  Believe me, no one was tempted to laugh.

And, we still have some of the Porter's lines, although they are assigned to Seyton and there is no indication of the Porter in the programme.  At first glance it might appear that these lines are kept just as an opportunity to remind the audience that this play was initially performed only months after the failed gunpowder plot and indeed we all came away having had the lesson that you should never return to a firework once lit hammered forcefully home.  However, there is a far more important reason why Boyd has to keep some of the Porter's speech and that is because he needs retain the reference to the equivocator.

There is a really interesting article in the programme by James Shapiro, one of our leading Shakespearian scholars, about the nature of equivocation and the way in which the use of the word changed as a result of the activities of Father Henry Garnet, the foremost Jesuit in England and a man who instructed Catholics how to mislead the authorities not by lying, but by evading the truth.  Garnet was hanged, disembowelled and cut into pieces on May 2nd 1606, the year in which this play was written and so the concept of equivocation would have been very much in the minds of that first audience.  As Shapiro says:

Before this time the word 'equivocation' had only been used by English writers to describe what happened when a word could be understood in more than one way, when its meaning was ambiguous or uncertain.  There was no sense of equivocating as deliberately misleading others in  sinister way or...of using a mixed proposition to express one part of a man's mind, and retain another.

That was not the case after Garnet's activities became well known.

Equivocation is at the heart of this production.  Macbeth tells only part of what has occurred in his letter to Lady Macbeth and they both then equivocate with their guests.  Macduff's wife tells her young son partial truths and Malcolm equivocates with the Thane of Fife himself.  Who is telling the truth? Who dares to tell the truth?  The other aspect of Jacobean England that is forceable brought home, especially through the set, is the fact that the country is still riven by the religious 'civil wars' of the Tudor period.  For the past sixty years it has been unsafe for one faction or another to make known their religious allegiance and who knew who could be trusted and who could not.  Neighbour could turn on neighbour, brother on brother.  The need for equivocation was something Shakespeare's audience would have understood only too well.

As far as it is possible, I thought Jonathan Slinger and Aislin McGuckin handled the main roles well.  I'm not certain that there is ever enough in the early part of the play to account for Macbeth's turn from loyal follower to traitorous renegade.  Those first scenes are appallingly underwritten and my own belief is that we don't have the full Shakespeare text.  I suspect that when the Middleton additions were tacked on it was to bring coherence to a version that had been cut down to fit the 'two hour traffic of our stage'.  Remember that they had to be off stage by five (by-laws were by-laws even in Shakespeare's day) and all the great tragedies would have had to be cut substantially to fit in with this requirement.  Luckily, we have managed to retain the complete Hamlet, Othello and (with certain caveats) Lear, but Macbeth, I think, is another matter.  Slinger came through the early scenes as well as any actor I've seen other than Ian McKellen and McGurkin's descent into madness was well defined.  I also liked the very bluff MacDuff of Aidan Kelly; I would have trusted him with my life any day of the week.

So, all in all, a success, which is more than you can say for most productions of Macbeth.  It's had very good press reviews as well, so if you live within reach of Stratford and feel you might want to see it, I would book quickly.  I think this may be one of those shows where tickets are hard to come by.