Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Lakes: There is no wealth but life

Every time we go to the Lake District we ask ourselves why we don't go there more often.

Not much more than an hour's drive from Manchester, to take the ferry across Windermere is to enter a foreign country, a beautiful peaceful land settled long ago by the Vikings, who have given it Norse names such as tarn, beck and fell, unknown in other parts of the UK. It is said that US President Woodrow Wilson fell in love with the place and wanted to retire there, and one can understand why.

Probably our favourite place, alongside the very different, awe-inspiring, untamed and untameable natural beauty of Wastwater, is Brantwood, the home and gardens that John Ruskin (1819-1920) created, perched above Lake Coniston, with it is said the most beautiful view in the Lakes.

Art critic, poet, painter, social critic, philanthropist, keen student of landscape, rocks, plants and architecture, Ruskin had a range of creative talents that can rarely if ever have been equalled. Influential in his own time, his reputation faded after the first World War. It is amazing to me that I completed many years of formal education without as far as I recall ever hearing his name mentioned. As we have become more aware of issues of the environment and sustainability, and with a wider appreciation of the importance of beauty and craftmanship to our everyday life, so his reputation has revived. Some 30,000 people a year now find their way to Brantwood.

Here John Ruskin spent the last 25 or so years of his life, seeking peace from his inner torments, away from the black smoking chimneys, symbols of an industrialisation, borne of greed for money, which he saw as destroying all that it touched.

For Ruskin wealth and "well being" were associated concepts whose antithesis was "ill being" or, the term he coined, "ilth".
There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest, who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.

Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion,

I don't think we will ever tire of visiting Brantwood. We particularly love the view over the lakes from the turret Ruskin had constructed from his small bedroom, but have yet to explore the Brantwood gardens properly. I rather like the sound of the Ziggy Zaggy:
The Zig-Zaggy is based upon designs first sketched by Ruskin 130 years ago, and is said to represent Dante's Purgatorial Mount. Fully realised today in contemporary form, it allows you to begin your tour of the gardens by making an allegorical journey to Paradise!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Manchester - After Sebald

I can no longer say exactly what thoughts the sight of Manchester prompted in me then, but I believe I felt I had found my destiny.

.. Manchester has taken possession of me for good. I cannot leave, I do not want to leave, I must not.

- Max Ferber, in W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants

Having grown up after the second world war in a Germany in which the Jews had disappeared and nobody wanted to talk about them, W.G. Sebald arrived in Manchester in 1966 to take up a post at the University. Here for the first time he realised that the holocaust had happened to "real people", and The Emigrants, published over a quarter century later, initially in German ( Die Ausgewanderten), long after his short stay had ended, was based in part on the story of his Mancunian landlord, a Jewish refugee.

The image of mid to late twentieth century Manchester conveyed by Sebald is unlikely to do much for tourism in the city! Anyone who knows only modern day Manchester would certainly be surprised to read that on Saturday evening .. there was no sign of life in the city centre.

On his first journey from the airport to the centre of Manchester Sebald, assuming he is the narrator, noticed the contrast between the not unhandsome suburbs of Gatley, Northenden and Didsbury and the inner city areas of Moss Side and Hulme, whole blocks where the doors and windows were boarded up and then the city centre itself, the hub of one of the nineteenth century's miracle cities .. now almost hollow to the core.

Returning from a visit to Max Ferber in Withington Hospital in 1990-1991, the narrator described a dreary walk back to the city centre, along nondescript streets, through the Hulme estates, regenerated in the 1960's but already decayed again, past derelict warehouses with broken windows, to the once celebrated Midland Hotel, on the brink of ruin, where he felt as if I were in a hotel somewhere in Poland. Clearly after a quarter of a century the decline had not been arrested.

That Max Ferber was happy to remain in such a place tells us about the horror of the Germany he had left, in which Sebald himself could never again settle, although he at least was to find purer air in East Anglia close to the North Sea which, as he reminds us in The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Saturn:Eine englische Wallfahrt ), used to be known as the German Ocean. It is in East Anglia where The Emigrants begins, and it ends in Manchester, a reversal of Sebald's own journey, but a return to the place which had a profound influence on him, to a city which for generations had provided a home for many of his fellow countrymen.
Throughout the nineteenth century the German and Jewish influence was stronger in Manchester than in any other European city.. when I arrived in Manchester I had come home in a sense ..- Max Ferber

Palatine Road : Wittgenstein's Lodgings

It was in the autumn of 1943, at the age of eighteen, that Ferber, then a student of art, first went to Manchester. Within months, in early 1944, he was called up. The only point of note concerning that first brief stay in Manchester, says Ferber, was the fact that he had lodged at 104, Palatine Road, the selfsame house where Ludwig Wittgenstein, then a twenty-year-old engineering student, had lived in 1908. Doubtless any retrospective connection with Wittgenstein was purely illusory, but it meant no less to him on that account, said Ferber.

I have for some time been trying to figure out exactly which house Sebald photographed presumably to represent Wittgenstein's lodgings and those of his character, the German Jewish painter, Max Ferber. Despite Sebald's best efforts to disguise it, I am pretty certain that this is it.

It is of course not number 104, which appears not to exist.

Withington Hospital: From Workhouse to Luxury Dwellings

Sebald provides no grainy photograph to illustrate Withington Hospital, but the verbal picture of the one-time Victorian workhouse, where the homeless and unemployed had been subjected to a strict regime, does the job well enough. Ferber was in a men's ward with 20 people, where much muttering and groaning went on, and doubtless a good deal of dying.

A neighbour of mine tells me that during the war he and other final year medical students were sent to work in the hospital, because most of the qualified doctors were serving with the forces. He and his colleagues used bicycles to travel up and down its long corridors. In 1944, around the time when Rosa Sebald was giving birth to her son Winfried Georg Maximilian in southern Bavaria, all the patients were cleared out to make way for the large number of casualties anticipated from the Normandy invasion. In the event there were far fewer than expected, but among them some German prisoners of war.

Since Sebald's fictitious? 1990-1991 visit the old hospital has closed and a modern community hospital has been built a few hundred yards down the road; it employs no doctors and houses no in-patients, a bit like 1944.

The old buildings have found a new function as a luxurious housing development, parts of them are listed, but the Withington name has been jettisoned,

replaced by more fashionable locations dreamed up by estate agents, "Didsbury Gate" and "Didsbury Point" .

In 2009 during development a workman exploded a gas mains, and a section of the old hospital was destroyed.

Luckily its occupants were at work, but they returned to find a large gaping hole where their appartments had been when they left. The section of the building that was demolished has now been carefully restored so that it looks as if nothing untoward ever happened.

Closer to the city centre the derelict warehouses Sebald spotted on his walk into the city have, along with many new buildings been turned into accommodation for what has seemingly and somewhat improbably become Manchester's main industry, Higher Education.

Finally the Midland Hotel, where the Beatles were reputedly once turned away from the restaurant for being inappropriately dressed, has been refurbished under new ownership, and has the prized 5 stars. Other modern luxurious hotels have also been built in the city centre, and quite a few Poles and other Central and Eastern Europeans doubtless work in them.

How well post industrial Manchester will survive the current global crisis remains to be seen. For Max Ferber and presumably for Sebald its decline was irreversible.

Friday, 29 July 2011

On Fire in Perth: Iris Dement July 23rd 2011

Most of the music you hear on the radio today is developed for making money. It doesn't feel true or honest. You can feel it in the music. - Iris DeMent
An idle google search two or three weeks ago was the first I had heard that Iris Dement was making one of her rare trips to Europe, on this occasion to Perth in Scotland. I had never had the chance to see her on stage before, and despite the long distance I knew I had to go

Normally when I tell people I like Iris Dement they say "Iris who?", so I was very surprised that my neighbours had not only heard of her, but were keen to accompany me.

So, early in the morning, the awful events in Norway from where I had returned a few days before still playing on my mind, the three of us set off on the 260 mile journey across the beautiful countryside in northern England and the Scottish borders to arrive in time for the afternoon concert.

We were not disappointed. After what seemed a rather diffident start, almost hiding behind the piano on what she pointed out was a sloping stage, Iris seemed to gain confidence and composure, took up her guitar, came to the front of the stage and sang as only she can, her songs interspersed with amusing comments about her family and her life. The audience loved her and was reluctant to let her leave.

It lifted me in a way I had not expected, and I wondered how my wife, unavoidably absent in Norway, who finds Iris "too depressing", would have felt had she been there, as she loyally informed me she would have been had she been at home!

The concert included Iris's emblematic, "Our Town" and the first song I had heard her sing on the radio a long time ago, "Let The Mystery Be", here shown in a recording made some years ago:

Apparently Iris originally thought that this was, by her standards at least, a happy song, until a number of people told her that they would like to have it played at their funeral.

I appreciate that Iris Dement is an acquired taste, and I have tried to analyse why I respond to her in the way I do. Firstly I note the influence she ascribes to Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, two of the all time greats that are among my favourites. I also understand and very much relate to the deep and enduring influence of her now rejected evangelical Christian childood, which has been a part of my own life's experience.

But the words that immediately spring to mind are vulnerability, intensity and honesty. I imagine that she is not one of those people who have to be the centre of attention. When she sings she bares a little of herself, but remains a very private person. She is not I think a natural performer, and to my mind all the better for that. I realise now that when she refused to go on stage in March 2003 she was not primarily making a political point about the Iraq war, she was simply so upset that she felt unable to perform. Splitting hairs perhaps, but a truly political performer would have taken to the stage and used the occasion to her advantage.

Maybe I spent more time dwelling on emotions than some people, and maybe that's why I ended up writing. - Iris Dement

This selection of quotations attributed to her somehow confirmed the impression I had formed from listening to her music. I hope she soon returns to the United Kingdom or, "Haste ye back" as the Scots might say.


Iris Dement obviously sent me to bed happy. Soundly asleep in my hotel, I was awakened at 1.00 a.m. by voices outside my room and a knock on the door. I soon realised that my pyjamas were wet, and further inspection revealed a large very wet patch on the unused side of the double bed and water dripping down from the ceiling in a number of places. Apparently there had been a fire in the room above, the alarm had gone off at 12.20, the firemen had put the fire out, and I had slept through it all! I wonder how I would have reacted had I been sleeping on the other side of the bed! A memorable first visit to the fine city of Perth in every way.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Norway: Oslo and Utoeya (Utøya) Island, July 22nd 2011

The Scream (1893)

Edvard Munch, Norwegian Symbolist Painter (1863 – 1944)

Sometimes words seem inadequate

Monday, 11 July 2011

"I call my cancer Rupert"

"The Dirty Digger"
Rupert Murdoch (Media Mogul, born Australia 1931)

As a writer you will know that one of the favourite fantasy plots is where a character's told you've got three months to live, and who would you kill? I call my cancer Rupert. Because that man Murdoch is the one who, if I had the time (I've got too much writing to do)... I would shoot the bugger if I could. - Dennis Potter, 1994

As the events surrounding the hacking scandal at the News of the World, News International and Rupert Murdoch have unfolded in the past week, I have thought often about that last painful interview that playwright Dennis Potter gave to Melvyn Bragg shortly before his death in 1994.

In it Potter spoke passionately about Murdoch's responsibility for the pollution of the British press and political life.

Just exactly what Potter was warning us of has now become clear, perhaps even to our politicians who have cravenly allowed an American citizen who pays no UK taxes to become the most powerful person in the land.

Throughout the Blair years there were regular, usually secret meetings between Prime Minister and Media Mogul.

In 2003, when Tony Blair was agonising over the decision to take the UK into a war in Iraq, without a UN reolution, and against the wishes of the majority of the UK population, he spoke on the phone to Murdoch three times in the ten days before the invasion. Murdoch's news organisation, and particularly Fox News in the US, was of course the major cheerleader for the Iraq invasion.

If anything the Murdoch Cameron relationship has been even closer, based on social relationships, particularly with Rebekah Brooks, former Editor of the News of the World, and the appointment of her predecessor, the now disgraced Andy Coulson, as Cameron's communications director. Their efforts were crowned by the announcement in 2009 that after 12 years of supporting Labour, the Sun was switching allegiance.

In 2010 when David Cameron was elected Prime MInister lo and behold one of his first visitors at No 10 Downing Street was Rupert Murdoch, admitted through the back door, away from the public gaze. What did they talk about one wonders?

For a long time one doubted if it would ever be possible to elect a Prime Minister who did not meet Mr Murdoch's approval. The events of the past week now give some hope that his power at last is on the wane.

Congratulations to the Guardian who over the years has made most of the running on this story. C.P. Scott would I think be proud of it. The photo and caption at the top comes from the Financial Times.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Sri Lanka's Killing Fields

A young Tamil woman appealing to the UN not to leave as the Sri Lankan army approaches.

In the last twenty four hours I have watched Channel 4's disturbing documentary Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, on the bloody ending of the civil war in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed, and hospitals were apparently deliberately targeted by the Sri Lankan army. It has made me realise how trivial are most of the things about which I normally write blogs.

I have visited Sri Lanka many times on business and as a tourist, and witnessed the suffering of many of its people in the aftermath of the Tsunami, but this is on a scale beyond my imagining. Civil Wars are always bloody affairs, but one might have hoped that the Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka would behave rather differently to those whose religions have a more bellicose tradition.

My wife has for some time indicated that she would like to make another perhaps final visit to this beautiful, sad country, but this film has confirmed my extreme reluctance to do so. It simply does not seem to me to be an appropriate place to take a holiday.

For the sake of Sri Lanka's reputation these war crimes need proper investigation, and those responsible brought to justice.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Lord High Admiral

A neighbour, only slightly younger than the Duke of Edinburgh, and a firm supporter of the monarchy on the rational basis that the alternatives look worse, was very surprised when I told him of the Duke's appointment as Lord High Admiral. We both agreed that to make a 90 year old the head of a once great navy in which there are presently more Admirals than ships smacks of "Ruritania", and seems particularly inappropriate at a time when the monarchy is trying to create a more modern image, with a Royal Prince and presumably future King, marrying a commoner and working as a helicopter pilot.

I think I would struggle to explain the appointment to my grandsons.

Some lines from Gilbert & Sullivan spring to mind:

.. now I am the Ruler of the Queen's Navy

Now, landsmen all, whoever you may be
If you want to rise to the top of the tree
If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool
Be careful to be guided by this golden rule
Be careful to be guided by this golden rule
Stick close to your desks and never go to sea
And you all may be Rulers of the Queen's Navy
Stick close to your desks and never go to sea
And you all may be Rulers of the Queen's Navy

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Norway: May 17th 2011

Norway is a neighbouring country with which the inhabitants of the western part of the British Isles have been entangled since Viking times, but about which they know little.

Rich in oil and gas, with one of the highest standards of living in the world, increasingly multi-ethnic, a transformation which is bringing its own strains, it has long outgrown its roots as a country of simple farmers and fishermen, and its buoyant service orientated economy now offers employment to many Swedes, who were formerly the dominant people of Scandinavia.

Although I feel, probably mistakenly, that I know the country well, this was my first experience of Constitution Day.

I had expected the procession of brass bands, school children and traditional regional costumes, but I was surprised by the large number of spectators wearing suits and ties.

I cannot conceive of any national celebration in the UK in which people would turn out on the streets wearing what used to be known in my youth as "Sunday best."

So what's this May 17th all about?

In 1814 Norway was ceded to the Swedish crown by Denmark, which had been on the losing side in the Napoleonic wars. In an effort to avoid the loss of Norway, the Crown Prince of Denmark-Norway, Christian Frederik, the resident viceroy in Norway, called a national assembly. This assembly produced a constitution, a very liberal document for its time, which was signed on 17th May 1814.

The constitution eschewed the republicanism of the United States and created a constitutional monarchy, with Christian Frederik as the first King. The lack of international backing, particularly from Great Britain, sealed Norway's fate, and after a very short military campaign it bowed to the inevitable: Christian Frederik abdicated, and the Storting unanimously elected Charles XIII of Sweden as King Charles II of Norway.

With minor amendment only the constitution remained in place after the acceptance of the Swedish King, and so it remained after the attainment of full independence in 1905, accomplished by the deposition of the Swedish monarchy and the election of a new King and Queen, Haakon VII, formerly Prince Carl of Denmark and Iceland, and his wife, formerly Princess Maud of Wales, grand daughter of Queen Victoria, cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm and sister of King George V. It is then the oldest single document constitution in Europe, second only to that of the United States in the world as a whole. I can understand why, in a fast changing and often bewildering world, it means so much to Norwegians.

For anyone interested The Foreigner , an English language web site for non-Norwegians living in Norway, provides an interesting perspective on the country, and an excellent account of the historical background and meaning of the 17th May celebrations.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

That Wedding: Britain at its battiest

As a non royalist, and one of the majority of the people in the UK who neither watched the Royal Wedding on television nor attended a street party, I was interested to read an account of the event in Britain's best newspaper.

Dominating the front page was a rather mocking article by Matthew Engel:

Royal theatre captivates the world
and, in smaller type,

Sealed with a kiss A near perfect day as globe tunes in to see Britain at its battiest - and best.

"On one level, the event was absurd: yet another wedding in a family whose marital failure rate has lately been much worse than the national average. But it was also a demonstration of what Britain - and only Britain - can do. Only these royals can turn a domestic rite of passage into a piece of global theatre."

"The service was rather more God-centred than is now generally the case at British weddings, and at an hour and a bit, a touch long for modern tastes, especially for the early birds inside the abbey, some of whom had been there for nearly three hours before the ceremony began."

and, after the ceremony,
"Then half-a-dozen planes flew overhead ("That's the whole RAF," said someone). "

and speaking of the crowds who thronged the route to Westminster Abbey:
"They might just as easily have been here to celebrate a sporting triumph or protest against the Government. But though the British are a touch short of bread, they have been granted a most glittering performance by the glorious and long-running circus that is royalty."

In the middle of the same newspaper Simon Schama put the event in historical context: after the first world war and the fall of the Berlin and Petrograd autocracies, their relatives in London, newly renamed as the thoroughly English "House of Windsor", reinvented themselves and embraced the new world of mass entertainment. Royal celebrations became far grander than before, and "Royal Weddings, unseen in Westminster since the 14th century, became a feature of the calendar." So the young Prince and his bride never had any chance of the small wedding in an Oxfordshire village which was apparently their first choice.

Finally on the back page of the newspaper the Lex Column provided a wonderful tongue in cheek article extolling the business acumen of the mother of the bride: a descendant of labourers, messengers and clerks, she got her foot on the first rung of the ladder of business success by marrying into the minor gentry; she then invested heavily in public school fees (Marlborough) and a flat in Chelsea, sent her daugher to the same University as the Royal Prince, and even sent her beforehand to Chile, which the Prince himself had visited a few months earlier, "to give them something to talk about".

The article concludes, "This is a union of souls made possible by textbook planning: spotting an opening, then pursuing it with resourcefulness and determination. It belongs in the McKinsey Quarterly as much as in the pages of Debrett's."

The family internet business has not surprisingly flourished in the wake of its Royal connections. So, whatever the future holds for the House of Windsor, that of the House of Middleton looks assured.

And what is Britain's best newspaper? The Guardian perhaps, with its tradition of nonconformity and anti-establishment liberalism? The Independent, whose stance on major issues so often chimes with its title? Whilst these are indeed fine newspapers, the one of which I speak is none other than the Financial Times. I found it interesting also that Bagehot, writing in that other bastion of free market orthodoxy, The Economist, declares himself a compassionate republican, and thinks it is time to set the Royal Family free .

Anyway, all the best to the happy couple in the strange lives on which they are embarked.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Sospiri or Sigh of Love

This short intense piece of music, one of Sir Edward Elgar's lesser known works, here beautifully played by Sol Gabetta, an Argentinian of Russian and French parentage, never fails to calm me down in times of anxiety and stress.

It was first conducted by Sir Henry Wood in August 1914 at the Queen's Hall in London, just two weeks before the beginning of the First World War.

Elgar's wife said it was "like a breath of peace on a perturbed world."

David Mellor, playing it on the radio on Remembrance Sunday in 2010, placed it in the context of Elgar's sadness at the coming of war, particularly because of the popularity of his music in Germany. In fact this appears to be a misreading: in 1914 more patriotic music was in vogue; this is more a reflection of the mood of 1918. The more likely explanation is that Elgar wrote this out of love for a lady not his wife, reflecting sadness at their mutual decision to stay with their respective spouses, and significantly the provisional title of the work was Soupir d'Amour .

The technically proficient might like to read this brief description by Phillip Cooke. I just like to listen to it. With his eye for the ladies I think Sir Edward would have appreciated this video too!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Dig by John Preston

This novel must surely be the only one ever written in which the author is also the nephew of one of the main characters! It is of course a blend of fact and fiction, telling the story of the excavation of the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo in 1939 and the discovery of the priceless Anglo-Saxon treasures now exhibited in the British Museum, which radically altered our view of what used to be called the "Dark Ages".

In my youth I must have passed the Sutton Hoo site over a thousand times, probably without giving it a second thought, although I knew from local history at school that some important find had been made there some years earlier. More interesting for me as a child was to see whether there were men standing guard on the nearby bridge over the Deben, a relatively common occurrence indicating that borstal boys had escaped from Hollesley Bay. I often wondered though whether this served any purpose other than to frighten local residents, which it certainly did me, for all the escapees had to do was make a detour and cross the Deben at a narrower point further upstream!

The novel itself is highly evocative of time and place: sleepy class conscious Suffolk in the 1930's, with the sense of the impending war hanging over the excavation and giving it an urgency and a poignancy it otherwise would not have had. Peggy Piggot (the author's aunt) comments that "it seemed an especially cruel joke that we should be unearthing the remains of one civilization just as our own appeared to be on the brink of annihilation."

Preston provides no single narrator, the excavation at Sutton Hoo is explored through the eyes of its principal characters: the landowner Edith Pretty, a Lancastrian, marrying late after the death of her father, surprisingly giving birth at the age of 47 to her only child, Robert, and now trying to get in touch with her dead husband through a spiritualist; Basil Brown, the local archaeologist recommended to Mrs Pretty by Ipswich Museum, without the right letters after his name as his wife comments, he is inevitably pushed aside by academic archaeologists when the importance of the discovery becomes apparent; Peggy Piggott, a young archaeologist recently married to a Professor, she is taken by her husband from a passionless honeymoon to participate in the dig at the request of the Cambridge archaeologist, Charles Phillips.

The novel forces us to confront the meaning of an existence in which even the body of a Saxon King, Raedwald, may have decayed, teeth and all, becoming virtually indistinguishable from the soil in which it was long ago buried. So also Edith Pretty's photographer nephew points out that Victorian street scenes appeared devoid of people because the photographic plates needed long exposure: "All those ghostly, transparent people making no lasting impression." Peggy Piggott says that she wanted to be an archaeologist because "so much of life just slips by and with so little to show for it. I suppose I wanted to make sense of what does endure." Mrs Pretty of course finds the treasure she had always thought was there, but never manages to make contact wth her dead husband. "There were no voices to be heard, no messages coming from some unimagineable beyond. That surely was the truth. Everything else was a delusion. Crumbs of comfort to keep the pangs at bay."

Inevitably in a work of this nature one wonders what is true and what is fiction. It appears that the main liberty taken is the compression of the dig into the hot summer of 1939, when in fact it took place over 1938 and 1939.

I was intrigued to find a picture of Mrs Pretty on the web, and to find that she lived with her father, a Manchester industrialist, for a number of years at Vale Royal House in Winsford, Cheshire, where she is remembered for giving the Dempster Challenge Cup (her maiden name) which is still awarded annually for the best local allotment. So her name will always be associated with digging.

Anyway I found this a delightful read: one of a pile of books taken away with me on a recent holiday; as soon as it was finished I read it again. I can pay a book no greater compliment.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


A powerful end to what has been a great winter season at the Royal Exchange: Dr Faustus, The Lady From the Sea, The Bacchae, Zach and now the world premiere of Vivienne Franzmann's Bruntwood Award winning play, Mogadishu. Set in an inner city London school, the play is performed throughout within a somewhat battered rusty wire cage. It is fast moving, well directed and superbly acted by a young cast.

It is now nearing the end of its run at the Royal Exchange, but is transferring to the Lyric, Hammersmith. Anyway, even if you have no wish to read the rest of this blog, I strongly recommend that you look at this rehearsal video.

I was struck by the different modes of discourse that take place within the cage - the fast and at times incomprehensible language of the street in which every other sentence seems to end with "innit", the angry exchanges between children and adults, and the bureaucratic discourse used by the school authorities in their efforts to protect children and maybe their own backs.

The audience was white, middle class and predominantly grey haired! Regrettably that is not untypical of theatre audiences, unless a GCSE set text is being performed. The following advert from the theatre programme maybe gives the game away!
There were perhaps some young people there: at any rate two of the young male black actors received wolf whistles! The disconnect between subject of the play and audience is probably even better illustrated by the programme's usual advertisement for Manchester Grammar School, where I am sure the multi ethnic children who largely commute in from the outer parts of Greater Manchester still communicate using the language of Burke and Gibbon.

Anyway a powerful, gripping play. I cannot recommend it too highly, and I urge anyone who lives near London to go and see it at the Hammersmith Lyric.

Why Mogadishu? As is noted in the play , it is a place, although none of the kids can locate it. In a piece headed "Battleground", the programme associates the word with chaos and danger. In trawling the net I found the following comment written by an angry man who like most of us has probably never been there but is an expert nevertheless:
Mogadishu is a shithole because the people who live there is genetically inclined to be violent and criminal.
I’m not racist, but this is the historical truth.
We should throw a nuke bomb on that den of fanatics.
They don’t deserve any help from western countries. 
Within 20 or 30 years they will extinguish.

Finally, back to the Royal Exchange. I noticed that the seat in front of me had a small plaque bearing the name of Joyce Grenfell. The inner city school portrayed in Mogadishu seems on a different planet from her and the genteel world of"George Don't Do That".

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The King's Speech

It is urprising how many people I know went to see the much heralded King's Speech as soon as it was released. Even non-Royalists, in whose number I count myself, could not be failed to be moved by the performance of Colin Firth as the painfully stammering future King.

The film did nothing for the reputation of the Prince of Wales/Edward VIII, who came over as a rather cruel cad. He and Mrs Simpson were clearly the bad guys in this story.

The one complaint I had was the role of Winston Churchill, played by the ubiquitous Timothy (Wickes: It's got our name on it) Spall. Anyone who saw the film and knew nothing about the history of the period would assume that Winston Churchill was a great supporter of the Duke of York during the abdication crisis. In fact this was the reverse of the truth. One of the greatest misjudgements of his political career was to speak in support of his friend the Prince of Wales in the House of Commons at the height of the crisis. It would I suppose have been bad for the American market had Churchill been portrayed as being on the wrong side!

A few weeks before seeing the film I picked up a Souvenir of the 1937 Coronation of Our only lawful liege, George the Sixth (picture above). In it there is much mention of The Empire, including a map showing India, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and all points in between. I was surprised though that in his speech on becoming King, George VI used the more modern British Commonwealth of Nations rather than British Empire. He also used the quaint biblical word my helpmeet to refer to his wife, played in the film incidentally by the delightful Helena Bonham Carter.

The inhabitants of the Empire were listed as follows: 365 million Indians, 70 million whites, 42 million blacks, 7 million Arabs, 7 million Malays, 1 million Chinese, 1 million Polynesians and 2 million others! One gets the impression that relatively few of the non-whites would have been at the Abbey to witness the Coronation. The United States though sent a special mission, which included General Pershing, who had led US Expeditionary Forces in the Great War.

I particularly loved the advertisements:

for Ovaltine, The National Beverage for Health: May this year of rejoicing take us appreciably nearer the national ideal of a Fitter Britain;

for Mansion Polish, Brilliance for the Happy Occasion: In the home, also, the housewife will desire to maintain a spirit of brightness befitting the happy occasion ..;

for Marconi, Only All-Wave Radio can bring you this year's great exchange of Empire Broadcasts ..;

for Cadbury's Bournville Cocoa a more demotic appeal,the Food Drink of the People, suitably positioned on the back page;

a page showing wholesome women wearing the unrevealing underwear that was the order of the day and that one could imagine was worn by the new Queen herself:

and from Drages of Oxford Street an advertisement extolling the virtue of buying furniture on installments : Miss Everyman: I had somehow thought that Payment-out-of-Income was associated with the cheaper, shoddier kinds of furniture.

Overall a fascinating glimpse into what now seems an archaic world.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Tractor Roy: The Final Chapter

I don't feel comfortable writing about football. I have neither the technical knowledge of the game nor perhaps the passion, but I admire good football writing when I see it.

One of the best pieces I have seen for some time is on a blog written by an Ipswich born Arsenal supporter, Nick Ames. Eschewing the seemingly obligatory analysis of Roy Keane's "hamartia" - a word I had to look up! - he concentrates on the footballing decisons that Roy Keane made, particularly in the transfer market ("Roy Keane’s 7.5 million fatal flaws"), which ultimately led to his downfall.

For my own part I am a little sad that Roy Keane has gone. For Ipswich Town supporters it has been a bad decade, perhaps a bad quarter century. Since Bobby Robson left in 1982 there has been little to cheer about. George Burley flattered to deceive. 5th place in the premiership and European football was swifly followed by relegation, administration and near oblivion, until the club was rescued by the mysterious Marcus Evans, who is more reclusive than Greta Garbo. So the coming of Roy Keane in 2009 seemed too good to be true, and indeed it was.

Often over the past 20 months I have reflected on the fact that the only other great player that has managed Ipswich was Jackie Milburn, and his short period as manager was far more traumatic. As far as I recall he was on the way to a nervous breakdown when relieved of his job. Roy Keane is made of sterner stuff, and is far wealthier than players of that era could ever hope to become.

I have also often reflected on the fact that the only other previous Ipswich Manager with Manchester United connections was Scott Duncan. In 1937 he left his job as Manager of Manchester United for Ipswich, who were then in the Southern League. I seem to remember reading that his wife wanted to leave the smoke of Manchester for the clean, healthy air of Suffolk! Anyway Scott Duncan took Ipswich into the Football League and remained in charge until 1955. Even then the club kept him on another three years as Secretary until he finally retired at the age of 70. Those were indeed the days.

Anyway I wish Roy Keane well. Anyone who has followed his press conferences over the past two years cannot fail to recognise his honesty, his intelligence, and his fortitude in adversity. I do not think we have heard the last of him.