06/04/2013 § Leave a comment

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Happy New Year

04/01/2013 § 2 Comments

Broadly 2012 sucked.

When I told my sister that my resolution for 2013 was that my life should stop sucking she said that I should pick something that was specific, measurable and achievable. Anyway here are my resolutions for 2013:

1. Read more
2. Drink less.
3. Write more.
4. Spend more time with people I like.
5. Get a new job.

Happy New Year to all my readers.

Checking out the ruby slippers

02/11/2012 § Leave a comment

I went to the V&A’s Hollywood Costumes exhibition and reviewed it for MostlyFilm: you can read my review here.

It takes talent to do that well

11/09/2012 § 2 Comments

I was at the Barbican on Friday to see the Opera North production of Carousel: surely the most beautiful Rogers and Hammerstein score of them all. It’s a much better piece in the theatre than on film, especially in the slightly cut version done by Opera North, where dialogue flows seamlessly into song and song flows seamlessly into dance.

What I thought was most striking thing about the show was the lack of glamour and fantasy which surrounds the setting and the characters. Even now the detail of ordinary Connecticut life is striking – Julie must return to her boarding house before the curfew, or lose her job in the factory. Billy’s aspirations for his son are decidedly unglamorous (all but the last):

I don’t give a damn what he does
As long as he does what he likes!
He can sit on his tail,
Or work on a rail
With a hammer, hammering spikes!

He can ferry a boat on a river,
Or peddle a pack on his back,
Or work up and down
The streets of a town
With a whip and a horse and a hack.

He can haul a scow along a canal,
Run a cow around a corral,
Or maybe bark for a carousel
(Of course it takes talent to do that well.)

He might be a champ of the heavyweights,
Or a feller that sells you glue,
Or President of the United States,
That’d be all right, too.

When you consider the setting of most 1930s musicals, what Rodgers and Hammerstein were doing must have come as a sharp break with the past. Oklahoma! was the revolutionary piece, the first stage musical in which the songs played an important part in both plot and characterisation, rather than the play breaking off periodically for an (at best) vaguely relevant number, but the nineteenth century cowboys and farmers of Oklahoma! seem more story-bookish than the fishermen and mill girls of turn-of-the-century Connecticut.

Both musicals are set a million miles from the mittel-European fantasy land of operetta or that smooth-edged Art Deco New York (or Paris, or London, or even Brighton) through which Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire whirled, but Carousel seems to me to be even less of a fantasy than Oklahoma!, more rooted in the ordinary lives of ordinary people. (It’s notable that the film of Carousel removes disreputable Jigger’s class-conscious explanation to Billy of the way heaven works, disabusing him of the idea that he might be judged by God himself: ‘No supreme court for the little folk –just police magistrates’.)

This rootedness is put across through the genius of Hammerstein’s lyrics, which achieve an extraordinary synthesis of poetry and talk; there’s barely a line in the entire show which would sound out of place in ordinary conversation. This effect is highlighted when you see the stage show, where the hells and goddamns that were removed for the film are kept in the script:

There’s a hell of a lot of stars in the sky,
And the sky’s so big the sea looks small,
And two little people, you and I,
We don’t count at all.

It flows, rhythmically, there’s nothing clumsy about it at all, and yet it seems both poetic and artless. It’s so far from the New York sophistication of Cole Porter, or even of Rodgers’ previous partner Lorenz Hart, that it’s easy to underrate Oscar Hammerstein, until you try and replicate that simplicity and realise just how difficult it is to achieve.

What’s most difficult to watch today, of course, is the horrible sexual politics around Billy’s violence against Julie: ‘I didn’t beat her!’ says Billy defensively, ‘I just hit her.’ Julie’s acceptance of Billy’s violence culminates at the point where Billy returns from heaven’s police court to see the daughter he has never known, loses his temper, and strikes the daughter too; the daughter wonderingly asks her mother if it’s possible for someone to ‘really hit you, mother, loud and strong so you hear it, and for it not to hurt at all?’ It’s horrific, and difficult to believe that in 1945 this was seen as an acceptable message (although it clearly was). But marriage doesn’t seem like a happy ending for anyone in Carousel; Carrie Pipperidge may think on the day of her engagement that her fiancé Mr Snow is ‘an almost perfect beau’, but it seems, sixteen years later, that she’s tied to a prude and a snob (and a disciplinarian – it’s interesting how often the figure of the whistle-blowing father, drilling his children with military precision, recurs in Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals). Marriage and love is not the answer:

Common sense may tell you
That the ending will be sad
And now’s the time to break and run away,
But what’s the use in wond’ring,
If the ending will be sad?
He’s your feller and you love him,
That’s all there is to that.

Instead what seems to be the answer is the strength of the community. Billy returns to earth from heaven to do right by his daughter, and the advice he tries to give her is to dissuade her from the path he chose of stubborn independence and seek strength among others. It’s mawkish (and I find You’ll never walk alone the least interesting song in the show) but the vivid depiction of the community earlier in the play at least make the conclusion feel as though it has been earned.

(Incidentally, from Wikipedia, about the number This was a real nice clambake:

“When the song proceeded to discuss the lobsters consumed at the feast, Hammerstein wrote the line “We slit ’em down the back/And peppered ’em good”. He was grieved to hear from a friend that lobsters are always slit down the front. The lyricist sent a researcher to a seafood restaurant and heard back that lobsters are always slit down the back. Hammerstein concluded that there is disagreement about which side of a lobster is the back.”)

Fiasco, disaster, police state: don’t talk to me about the Olympics

27/07/2012 § 1 Comment

Photo from the Guardian

I should start by saying that my objections to the Olympics are not about the enjoyment that people will get out of watching the sports, and in particular are not about the thousands of people  – including good friends of mine – who have signed up to volunteer for the Games. I have nothing but admiration for their enthusiasm and altruism in volunteering; it’s just a shame that they don’t have a Games worthy of them.

Instead the Games are a combination of corporate greed, brand control-freakery, repression of civil liberties, and thinly disguised contempt for the people who live where the games will take place. The adverts by McDonalds and Procter and Gamble (with their repellent ‘Proud Sponsors of Mums’ slogan, a whole world of sexist WTF) nakedly exploit the admirable human qualities shown by competitors, spectators and volunteers at the Olympic games in order to sell burgers and washing powder. Despite these adverts none of the sponsoring companies have much confidence in their products, insisting on draconian ‘brand protection’ measures which mean that using the wrong kind of liquid soap on an Olympic site may lead to Olympics officials covering up brand names and logos with sticky labels.

The Counter-Olympics Network have a good collection of reasons to hate the Olympics (including their Games Monitor RSS feed), from exploitative labour practices to civil liberties. Despite attempts by Tower Hamlets Council to ban it, they have organised a Counter-Olympics demonstration (Facebook link) tomorrow, marching from Mile End Park to Wennington Green.

Vanity Fair’s hilarious, but appalling investigation into how London won the bid, which will make you despise Tessa Jowell (When she hired economists to conduct a full-scale feasibility study, they too shot her down. “The quantifiable evidence to support each of the perceived benefits for mega-events is weak,” the study concluded. “They appear to be more about celebration than economic return.”), hate Tony Blair more than you already do (TB: “For a country like Britain, it’s a great thing for us to have the Olympics here. We can afford to do the Olympics. We’re Britain. We’re not some Third World country.”) and gain a sneaking respect for Gordon Brown, who warned Jowell and Blair that the Olympics games would cost more than Britain could afford.

That cost:

the $3.9 billion price tag for the entire Olympics, the figure that Tessa Jowell had used to persuade her fellow Cabinet members to come on board, was blown away. In fact, it would cost a full $8 billion just to remediate the real estate, before construction could even begin.

The Guardian’s investigation suggests a total cost of £11.3 billion; £9.3 billion of which comes from the public sector, of which approximately £1 billion (£1 billion!) has gone on security including policing and the army. When you look at those figures, note how little money the IOC itself puts in, and how small, relatively, is the amount of money that comes from corporate sponsorship – little more than the amount generated by ticket sales. Instead, central government contributes over half the money needed, in addition to agreeing to an extensive list of requirements stipulated by the IOC, most of them covered by a special Olympic Games Act covering branding, advertising, transport (including special lanes on London roads reserved for Olympics athletes and officials), ‘protection’ of the Olympic symbols and even street lighting.

It costs £0.5 billion to build a hospital. It costs approximately £0.5 million to run a local library for a year.

(It must be added that while the public spending doesn’t seem to me to be justifiable, one total waste of public money, G4S, does have an upside. So egregious is its failure that it has provoked extensive discussion about the inefficiency of the private sector. G4S’s decision not to recruit security workers until the last minute – until, as it turned out, it was too late to recruit suitable workers in sufficient numbers – was motivated purely by the bottom line. It’s not the first time that the kneejerk tendency of both this government and the last one to privatise and outsource has been exposed as deeply misguided, but every example is useful, and as a trade unionist and a  socialist I welcome every nail being hammered into this particular coffin.)

The other tragedy of the games is the way that the so-called regeneration of the Lea Valley area has been handled. Here’s Iain Sinclair in the LRB four years ago writing about the closing off of large areas of the Lea Valley to local people as the Olympics buildings went up:

On the day the blue fence went up – olympic park, road closed here from Monday 2 July, footpath closed, keep clear – I met a man called Keith Foster, one of those centaurs of the marshes: camera-head perched on bicycle. Foster, who described himself as a ‘fieldwork photographer’ for Waltham Forest, had been keeping a meticulous record of the Lower Lea Valley, the shifts in land use, narrowboats, wildlife, for more than thirty years. Until today: when he was threatened with summary arrest by private security guards, for the crime of pointing his camera at the fence – this overnight intruder who shadowed the towpath, accompanied the Greenway, stuttered through Stratford, marked out the half-abandoned estate due for demolition on Clays Lane.

When Sinclair wrote that in 2008 the full extent of the civil repression was not yet evident: surface-to-air missiles had not yet been installed on civilians’ rooves; automatic weapon-totin’ armed police were not yet patrolling Westfield shopping centre and the London Underground, the deployment of snipers in helicopters over east London had not yet been announced.

It’s some comfort that my fellow Londoners feel about the Olympics much as I do, as the New York Times reported rather wryly:

Asked “What do you feel about the Olympics?” the other day, a random sampling of people here… gave answers that included bitter laughter; the words “fiasco,” “disaster” and “police state”; and detailed explanations of how they usually get to work, how that is no longer possible and how very unhappy that makes them.

There’s a cheering example of a Coca Cola-sponsored graffiti advert being wiped out by graffiti artists in Hackney Wick (my sister lives next to that wall!) but at the same time anti-Olympics wall paintings on private space, authorised by the property owner, have been painted out by the authorities in order to prevent any tarnishing of the Olympic shine. Last week four graffiti artists were arrested by the Transport Police and then released under punitive bail conditions which prevent them from possessing spray paint or marker pens, or from coming within one mile of any Olympic venue.

The best way of considering the Olympics comes from Potlatch (who has written some excellent pieces on the pernicious aspects of the Games) who imagines the Olympics as symbolic of the pre-Lehman Bros neoliberal ideology: justifiable, if only spuriously, before the global financial crisis, but now completely without reason or explanation, stumbling on like a zombie:

An honest Olympics would be silent, offer no explanation for its wastage, its purpose, because it no longer has one. Seb Coe would take to the airwaves, and be entirely mute. This could be the symbolically-empty games, and our dwindling reserves of optimism could then be diverted where they are more needed.

Enjoy the games.


28/06/2012 § Leave a comment

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

— Billy Collins

A thing I didn’t know about Brecht

27/06/2012 § Leave a comment

…he held the ‘professional’ lyric poet, working from magazine appearance to collection to anthology inclusion, to be a figure of horror and ridicule. When asked to judge a contest once, he scrupulously excluded all the professional poets, and awarded the prize to some fanzine-style verse-making about competitive six-day cycling.

From here.

A good get-up

23/03/2012 § Leave a comment

I am wearing yellow tights today and my colleague compared me to Gudrun from Women in Love. (Actually, he called “What price the stockings?” at me.) 

But that reminded me how amazing the outfits are in Women in Love. Which is available in searchable form on Project Gutenberg, so here are the most luscious outfits described in the books (and all of them here [pdf]). Surely Gudrun is the most stylish literary figure ever written?

Gudrun was the more beautiful and attractive, she had decided again, Ursula was more physical, more womanly. She admired Gudrun’s dress more. It was of green poplin, with a loose coat above it, of broad, dark-green and dark-brown stripes. The hat was of a pale, greenish straw, the colour of new hay, and it had a plaited ribbon of black and orange, the stockings were dark green, the shoes black. It was a good get-up, at once fashionable and individual.

… all the far end of the place began booing after Gudrun’s retreating form. She was fashionably dressed in blackish-green and silver, her hat was brilliant green, like the sheen on an insect, but the brim was soft dark green, a falling edge with fine silver, her coat was dark green, lustrous, with a high collar of grey fur, and great fur cuffs, the edge of her dress showed silver and black velvet, her stockings and shoes were silver grey.

[Hermione] was a strange figure in the class-room, wearing a large, old cloak of greenish cloth, on which was a raised pattern of dull gold. The high collar, and the inside of the cloak, was lined with dark fur. Beneath she had a dress of fine lavender-coloured cloth, trimmed with fur, and her hat was close-fitting, made of fur and of the dull, green-and-gold figured stuff. She was tall and strange, she looked as if she had come out of some new, bizarre picture.

And I couldn’t agree more with this:

‘One gets the greatest joy of all out of really lovely stockings,’ said Ursula.

‘One does,’ replied Gudrun; ‘the greatest joy of all.’

If I can find it later, I will add a bit from the very amusing essay in which Angela Carter accuses D.H. Lawrence of being a stocking fetishist.

We travel like other people

13/03/2012 § Leave a comment

We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere. As if travelling
Is the way of the clouds. We have buried our loved ones in the darkness of the clouds, between the roots of the trees.
And we said to our wives: go on giving birth to people like us for hundreds of years so we can complete this journey
To the hour of a country, to a metre of the impossible.
We travel in the carriage of the psalms, sleep in the tent of the prophets and come out of the speech of the gypsies.

We measure space with a hoopoe’s beak or sing to while away the distance and cleanse the light of the moon.
Your path is long so dream of seven women to bear this long path
On you shoulders. Shake for them palm trees so as to know their names and who’ll be the mother of the boy of Galilee.
We have a country of words. Speak speak so I can put my road on the stone of a stone.
We have a country of words. Speak speak so we may know the end of this travel.

—Mahmoud Darwish, b. 13th March 1941, d. 9th August 2008

Rusalka: Royal Opera House

13/03/2012 § 5 Comments

‘Surely you’re not going to see that!,’ my grandma said, ‘The Telegraph said the music is lovely as long as you close your eyes.’ The Telegraph went further and described the production as vandalism, stretching the outrage into a further five columns.

There wasn’t any booing the night I saw it, but the Telegraph was right that the music was lovely: somewhere between Wagner and Tchaikovsky. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting was superb. I thought Camilla Nylund as Rusalka was either not quite up to the part or having an off-night, although I liked her rolling languidly over the stage in her mermaid’s tail in Act 1, but Bryan Hymel as the Prince and Alan Vodnik as Vodnik, the water goblin, were both splendid.

The plot is very similar to (possibly based on?) Hans Christian Anderson’s The little mermaid. Rusalka the water-nymph falls in love with a human Prince and trades her mermaid’s tail for feet, but in return must lose her voice; and if the Prince betrays her love, the two of them will be eternally damned. Agreeing to horrific terms in order to win the love of another is never a good idea, of course, and in the third act Rusalka has to choose between saving herself by killing the Prince, or damnation for both.

Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s production sets the underworld action in a brothel, moving to a comically tacky mittel-European court, with the courtiers in a combination of dated formal wear and Austrian Tracht (formal folk costume). The Intermezzo blog points out something I’d missed: that the rotating set dividing two worlds, half pine box, half velvet-lined underworld/brothel, has more sinister overtones in Austria, where this production was first shown, than it does in the UK.

Tucked away in the cheapest seats I possibly didn’t catch all the nuances of the production and set design, but I didn’t think it was shocking or ‘over-intellectual’; the brothel-as-underwater-world metaphor was a good idea. The water nymphs are creatures of instict, motivated by pleasure and not by convention. Rusalka’s silence when she is given feet becomes more than just her punishment; it reflects the impossibility of such a creature operating in the court world dominated by calculation and convention.

I might be soppy, though, but I do find these deliberately banal, unglamorous productions dull. All that fluorescent light and Rusalka in badly fitting stone washed jeans, with the witch in grubby popsocks and a zimmer frame; I don’t mind it, and I know it’s there as an opposition to the massively over-lush grand opera productions you get sometimes, but it’s so dreary! Last year’s Hänsel and Gretel did the same thing, with the stepmother toting shabby SPAR carrier bags. I suppose it evokes that Elfriede Jelinek-y rather sordid central European realism, which seems quite appropriate to the spirit of the production; I just don’t madly enjoy it.

I must add in conclusion that while I’ve seen chickens, donkeys and horses on stage  (Carmen and La Fanciulla del West) I’ve never seen a cat on stage and I thought the transformation of the witch’s cat, from a human in a cat costume in Act 1 to a real cat in Act 3, was absolutely marvellous. (You can see the cat here.) In fact I didn’t quite believe it was a real cat—you can’t stage train a cat!—until it leapt up and scampered off the stage. Whether that was planned or not I don’t know. It got a ripple of laughter though; if any of my readers see the same production they must comment to say whether the cat does the same then.

You can read a round-up of all the reviews—from 5 stars to 1—here.