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.

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.


29/02/2012 § 2 Comments

It is 220 years today since the birth of Gioachino Rossini (although, since he was born on a leap year, it is only his 55th birthday). He wrote one of the most famous tunes in the whole world ever, and also this:

(annoyingly, the aria is interrupted by a load of chat, but Cecilia Bartoli’s facial expressions are just so wonderfully over-the-top)

and this:

and this:

(Generally one has to choose between reasonable sound and proper videos on Youtube.)


Gunta Stölzl: Bauhaus weaver

06/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Beautiful wall hangings and weavings from Gunta Stölzl, the only woman Bauhausmeister. You can read more about her here (and see many more examples of her work).

'Cows in a landscape' wall hanging

Design for a carpet

'See' wall hanging detail

'Rhythm' wall hanging

'Spuren im Winterwald' tapestry

Clothes are a dirty trade

04/02/2012 § 4 Comments

“Work — work — work!
From weary chime to chime,                       
Work — work — work,
As prisoners work for crime!
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumbed,
As well as the weary hand. 
(Thomas Hood, Song of the shirt, 1843)

In many rooms of the cotton and flax-spinning mills, the air is filled with fibrous dust, which produces chest affections, especially among workers in the carding and combing-rooms. Some constitutions can bear it, some cannot; but the operative has no choice. He must take the room in which he finds work, whether his chest is sound or not. The most common effects of this breathing of dust are blood-spitting, hard, noisy breathing, pains in the chest, coughs, sleeplessness – in short, all the symptoms of asthma ending in the worst cases in consumption. Especially unwholesome is the wet spinning of linen-yarn which is carried on by young girls and boys. The water spurts over them from the spindle, so that the front of their clothing is constantly wet through to the skin; and there is always water standing on the floor. This is the case to a less degree in the doubling-rooms of the cotton mills, and the result is a constant succession of colds and affections of the chest. (Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1844)

For nine long years Yong Li (not her real name) has worked in the garment trade, sewing jeans, T-shirts and other basics… ‘I have a lot of feelings about where I work,’ she says. ‘Lots of bad feelings, really. I feel like we suffer a lot, particularly if we can’t meet the targets we are set.’ At the moment she has to finish two hundred pieces a day. ‘It’s really hard to do that, although I think I am a quick worker.’ And what’s the penalty if she doesn’t achieve it? ‘It is very bad,’ she says. ‘This factory has very low standards, and supervisors think nothing of abusing you with very rude words.’ (Lucy Siegle, To die for, 2011)

A friend lent me Lucy Siegle’s To die for,  an account of the social and ecological costs of ‘fast fashion’. It’s a journalistic book, quite breezy and lightweight but very readable and a good starting point for understanding the way the fashion industry works today. Refreshingly, Siegle starts from the idea that fashion and style are worthwhile and that it’s a reasonable desire to want to wear nice clothes and express yourself through fashion, which makes a nice contrast to some of the more puritanical attitudes you occasionally encounter when it comes to green and ‘ethical’ issues.

The most fascinating aspect of this book is the careful step-by-step tracing of the supply chain of every aspect of clothes production. The amount of labour and resources that go into producing a kilo of dyed, woven cotton–even before it has been cut and stitched to make a garment–is unimaginable. (So much for thinking that making much of my own clothing is a way of avoiding the ethical issues with the fashion industry.) The labour process behind garment production is fairly widely publicised, but the ecological and social impact of fabric production is even more astonishing. « Read the rest of this entry »


20/01/2012 § Leave a comment

Today I have a post at MostlyFilm previewing the forthcoming BBC adaptation of Birdsong. I’m not actually mad about the novel, but I think there’s scope in it for a more interesting adaptation than this one:

[Philip] Martin and [Abi] Morgan have spoken about their intention to get away from highly politicised interpretations of the First World War such as Richard Attenborough’s film of Joan Littlewood’s revue Oh! What a Lovely War. Setting aside the question of whether it’s even possible to ‘depoliticise’ a historical disaster in which over 35 million people died, there’s certainly space for a more nuanced take on the conflict than Oh! What a Lovely War – which is, let us not forget, a Brechtian musical satire rather than a realistic depiction of war – but Morgan and Martin’s Birdsong is not it. In depoliticising the war, in trying to avoid the clichés of beautiful and doomed youth, lions led by donkeys, Birdsong adopts other clichés: the one about the Edenic pre-1914 world, lost forever in the horror of the trenches; another of the highly strung officer, muscle twitching in his jaw, unable to bear the horrors that rougher men take for granted. Even the relationship between Isabelle and René is crashingly unsubtle: he is the strike-breaking capitalist whose impotence makes him beat his wife; she’s the angelic innocent who secretly takes bread to his striking workers.

Old Year’s Night 2011

31/12/2011 § 3 Comments

Here are the things I enjoyed most in 2012:


1. My Bernina sewing machine. I used to have a cute little retro Singer given to me by a friend which I used a lot, but this year my grandma passed on to me her nearly new Bernina and it’s a wonderful, wonderful machine. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as sewing on a  really good sewing machine; I keep it permanently set up and probably three days don’t go by without my using it.

2. Wagner. I listen to the opera from the Met on Radio 3 fairly religiously on Saturday evenings, but I’ve never really been able to get my head round Wagner on the radio. This year I realised that watching it live makes all the difference: I saw Der fliegende Holländer and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Royal Opera House and was utterly gripped all the way through both operas. Something about the theatrical experience made it suddenly work for me. My other favourite opera experience of the year was seeing Don Giovanni in the Theatre of the Estates in Prague – the theatre in which Mozart himself first conducted that opera, which was like a gorgeous eighteenth century chocolate box, all blue and gold and dainty.

3. Union work. My UNISON branch elected me branch secretary (I was unopposed; the position is not hotly contested) earlier in the year and although it’s sometimes stressful, I’ve found it very fulfilling; I’ve been doing my job for seven years now and having something new to do has made work so much more enjoyable and satisfying. My union colleagues are all such fun and admirable people; being around them and working with them is great. It’s been an interesting year to be in a union, too.

4. Gardening. Well, sort of. I’ve been living in a house with a proper garden for a year now and last year I never really made much headway with it. But thinking about it and reading about it and working out what I wanted to do has been all-absorbing and I have great plans for next year.

5. Economics. My dad once said he learned geography – or at least, where places were –  from the news. This year I have done the same with economics. Not that I am anything like an expert, but just following the news has taught me a lot I never knew before about how economies work and why. Particularly useful: the FT and John  Lanchester’s pieces in the LRB.

6. Twitter. Such a lot of news has happened this year and Twitter has been both useful and fun as a way of keeping up with it. Some of the people on Twitter I find most interesting and funny (excluding people I actually know in real life, who are also very interesting and funny):  Chris Brooke, infamy_infamy, bat020, Agata Pyzik, Mark FisherMaud NewtonBloomsbury Fightback, and the late DSG.

7. MostlyFilm. I’ve really enjoyed reading and writing for the MostlyFilm blog this year, after it rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Guardian Film Talkboards. What I like about it is what a collection of people’s different enthusiasms it is: I’ve read lots of pieces on things I wouldn’t have thought I’d find interesting but which I enjoyed because the interest of the writer shone through.

8. London. I ended up reading quite a few books about the history of London this year, of which the most fascinating of all was Jerry White’s London in the 19th century. I learned so much about London, it’s given me an appetite for more.

9. Ingeborg Bachmann. Of all the authors I read for the first time this year, the best and my favourite was Austrian poet and novelist Ingeborg Bachmann, who I’ve actually been managing to read in German, which is a reflection of the clarity and elegance of her style, I think. I will try and write more about her later in the year.

I could make it ten things but the last would be a push, I think. Instead, here are my resolutions for next year. I always make lots of portentous resolutions to improve myself and become a nicer, better-educated person, but this year I think I’m going to give myself a break. So my resolutions for 2012 are:

1. Don’t get so stressed out about stuff.

2. Don’t run up library fines.

3. Write more.

4. Garden more.

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