Inherit the Wind at The Old Vic

Originally posted on November 26, 2009.


He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind:
and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.
— Proverbs 11:29

A play at the Old Vic — is there a more enjoyable way to spend a Tuesday night? If it is watching Trevor Nunn’s new production of Inherit the Wind, then not many. Although the play, based on the Scopes monkey trial of 1925, is slightly rusty, old-fashioned and preachy, the current production is absolutely first class entertainment. Despite still being topical (the debate between evolution and religion continues to this date), Robert E Lee and Jerome Lawrence’s play shows its age and limitations — the love story is really forced, the townspeople are ciphers and the whole thing has a slightly Hollywood feel to it. But the production is terrific, playing to all the play’s strengths. Nunn’s direction is smart and energetic. We feel that we are part of the town, Hillsboro (the fictional Southern town in which the play is set), feeling its passion and the sweltering Summer heat. The scene changes are particularly strong. Between each scene, the town’s people break into excellent gospel singing, a technique which both serves to highlight the religious sentiment in the community as well as entertaining the audience. The set design is impeccable. Rob Howell’s creations are fluid and sleek — and the stage transforms from a town to a train station to a court-house with remarkable grace and ease. When the stage is set up as Hillsboro, it seems to go back forever, adding a great sense of depth to the play. It was also perhaps reminiscent of the perspective in a Renaissance painting which meets at a point in the distance.

But it is the performances which really make the show. Kevin Spacey is extremely good as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow’s fictional representation). Hunched over and wearing a white wig, he steals the scene from the moment he appears in the almost abandoned town late in the evening. During the court room scenes, he is charismatic and witty, devastatingly believable in his mocking attack of the Creationists’ arguments. His opponent, however, is no shrinking violet and David Troughton is top-notch as Matthew Harrison Brady (the fictional William Jennings Bryan of the play). When Brady arrives in town to a hero’s welcome, Troughton beautifully captures the character’s easy charm and common touch of an experienced politician. However, as the court case progresses, his hubris gets the better of him and he succumbs to Drummond’s cross-examinations. We should also mention Mark Dexter’s turn as  E. K. Hornbeck (an exaggerated version of H. L. Mencken) as well as Ken Bones’s powerful performance as the town’s deranged preacher. However, the star of the show might just be an organ grinder’s monkey who appears in the first act, a reminder of man’s origin. On the night we were there, when Hornbeck gave the monkey a coin, the entire audience let out an audible awwwwwwwwww.

Clearly timed to co-ordinate with the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the production manages to accomplish its goal: to remind us that even though it has been more than 80 years since the Scopes monkey trial, our conversations have not evolved that much.

Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre


Jerusalem, the Olivier- and Tony-award winning play written and directed by Jez Butterworth and Ian Rickson respectively, was arguably the best play I have seen in London: wickedly funny, timely and featuring a great performance by Mark Rylance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, whose character drives the play. Once again, the play began at the Royal Court but we missed it there and had to catch the West End transfer. Unlike Enron, however, Jerusalem‘s rapturous reviews were deserved this time.

Byron is a drug dealer who has lived for twenty years in a caravan in a wood on the edge of a Wiltshire village. His life consists of liberal partying with teenagers and local outcasts, all of whom are welcome to his domain. Perhaps because of this setting and of its mythological overtones, several critics have commented that the play is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What makes Byron such an interesting character, however, is that he is also the embodiment of both tradition and subversion, the voice of Britain’s pagan past railing against modern development and hypocrisy. Byron is also a charming story-spinner, who on several occasions completely spellbinds the audience and the other characters with fantastical stories which would have been ridiculous if delivered by a less capable narrator. One of these tales describes his encounter with a 90-foot giant who claims to have built Stonehenge and gives Byron a drum which he can use to summon the giants of England when in trouble. Byron is a physically broken man (he is a former stuntman) and Rylance plays him beautifully, stiffly moving around the stage. His performance is enthralling from beginning to end and he captures all the contradictions of the character: his rage, glamour and melancholy.
At the beginning of the play, we see one of Byron’s allegedly famous parties in full force. The scene, however, is interrupted quickly by the next morning when we see two officials from the county giving Byron notice of his imminent eviction. After they leave, Byron emerges from his trailer to a breakfast of a raw egg, milk, vodka and speed. Soon, he is joined by a team of other characters including a senile retired professor, several teenagers who come out from under his caravan and sofa as well as a few friends who visit him (I thought Mackenzie Crook, from the British Office, as Byron’s friend Ginger, is especially memorable). The topic of discussion focuses primarily on the previous night’s party and the upcoming St. George’s Day fair in the village. The scene is terrifically funny and subversive, as the characters take the piss out of each other and complain about the world.
The beginning of the second act continues in this comic mode but slowly turns more mythological and Shakespearean as Byron’s situation becomes more serious. Although he does his best to pretend that the threat of eviction doesn’t bother him, there is one scene in which he rallies his gang in a mock revolt against the authorities which shows he is actually haunted by what is to come. At one point when he has been left alone, Byron slips on his glasses to read the eviction notice, a pointed reminder for all his bluster, he is after all a vulnerable man. On top of all this, we also learn that Byron has a son who is being bullied because of his father’s gypsy-like lifestyle. But the most dangerous threat to Byron comes from an angry father in search of his missing 15-year-old daughter. She has been known to hang around his caravan with the other teenagers. Byron claims he is oblivious to her whereabouts, but neither the audience or the father quite believe him. Also, the lost girl reminds us that despite his charms, there is something fishy about an aging man who throws parties for young people. Is Byron Jack Falstaff, a charming drunk, or is he something else? Perhaps he is a Peter Pan-type character, perpetually stuck in youthful irresponsibility. Or is he more sinister, like the Pied Piper, seducing the youth of the town to ruin with drugs and easy charm? At the end of the second act, it is revealed that the missing girl has indeed been living in Byron’s caravan, but the nature of their relationship is never made clear.
Everything comes to a head in the third and final act. Having been abandoned by all his friends (who we learn earlier betrayed Byron in the cruellest way), Byron is left with just the missing girl. The girl’s father, however, arrives to enact vengeance against Byron, beating him to half-death. Bloodied and with the county’s bulldozers at the edge of the wood, our main character picks up the drum and begins to heroically beat it, claiming his right to the land by evoking a long list of ancestors and characters from England’s pagan past. This scene is extremely powerful and my heartbeat was replaced by Byron’s drumbeat. In the ending, we hear several loud thuds and the trees begin to shake: are the giants coming to rescue Byron, or is it simply the noise of the bulldozers coming closer? The stage goes black before we have a chance to see what is actually happening. I choose the former as I suspect most audience members will, although some might think that it is equally likely that Byron is conflating his desire for the giants with the sound of the oncoming bulldozers.

***

The title of the play reminded me of William Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient time”, a short poem from the preface to Milton a Poem (1804-1810).


A shorter version of this review appears here

Cucumber sandwiches

‘Cucumber sandwiches’ — often a simplistic avatar of the English upper class in literature. I have never had one, have you?
  • ‎’[P]oems are worth all the cucumber-sandwiches in the world […] the perfect green circles — oh the delicate hint of salt — oh the fresh pale butter — oh, above all, the soft white crumbs and golden crust of the new bread’. –R. H. Ash, Possession, p. 157
  • ‘Hallo! Why all these cups? Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young? Who is coming for Cha?’ — Jack, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act I
  • Cucumber Sandwiches in the Andes by John Ure

*Picture of cucumber sandwiches from here. * Oh yes, of course that wasn’t ‘Cha’. That was ‘tea’.

UPDATED: There was a very interesting discussion about the ingredients for a good cucumber sandwich on Facebook. I hope the discussants don’t mind my sharing it here:
[Click image to enlarge]


The speech that is guaranteed to get the girl

From Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (1978):

You’re lovely. I’m crazy about you. All these words I’m using, don’t you see, they’ve never been said before. Can’t you see? I’m crazy about you. It’s a whirlwind. Have you ever been to the Sahara Desert? Listen to me. It’s true. Listen. You overwhelm me. You’re so lovely.  

You’re so beautiful. Look at the way you’re looking at me.

Look at the way you’re looking at me. I can’t wait for you. I’m bowled over, I’m totally knocked out, you dazzle me, you jewel, my jewel, I can’t ever sleep again, no, listen, it’s the truth, I won’t walk, I’ll be a cripple, I’ll descend, I’ll diminish, into total paralysis, my life is in your hands, that’s what you’re banishing me to, a state of catatonia, do you know the state of catatonia? Do you? Do you? The state of … where the reigning prince is the prince of emptiness, the prince of absence, the prince of desolation. I love you.

Everyone knows. The world knows. It knows. But they’ll never know, they’ll never know, they’re in a different world. I adore you. I’m madly in love with you. I can’t believe that what anyone is at this moment saying has ever happened has ever happened. Nothing has ever happened. Nothing. This is the only thing that has ever happened. Your eyes kill me. I’m lost. You’re wonderful.  

"[O]nly you and I in all that garden"

Quote of the day 


8

“You never seem to be waiting for me, but we kept meeting at every turn of the paths. Behind every bush, at the foot of each statue, near every pond. It is as if it had been only you and I in all that garden.”

==============
8 Responses  →
JM: 
Sounds like a love that won’t last.
t:
That’s too pessimistic, J. But anyway they are all “holographs”.
Oscar:
If it is a good one, who cares.
If it is a bad love, then good luck with that if it lasts.
Shadowy figure:
To me it seems like a matter of perception: one person seeing the other everywhere, despite their bumping into each other being mostly random. Or, perhaps she/he is subconsciously seeking out the other. That’s the kind of silly thing that people in love tend to do.
JM:
Shadowy figure, you are oh-so secretly a love sick kitten, aren’t ya?
JM:
Tammy, a prof of mine once said that Romeo and Juliet wasn’t a literal tale in the sense that the young lovers don’t literally die at the end, but that rather this is the symbol of the death of romantic love. It’s a rather bold interpretation, I know, but I found it most interesting. I do, in my very old age, tend to agree: that the love that sustains a long, adult relationship is different from the kind that often sustains much poetry, pop music and, dare I admit, novel writing.
JM:
I knew you wouldn’t like my first comment, but there it is.
Shadowy figure:
Love sick, sick of love, whatever. I regret using the word at all, it having so many meanings that would have driven Wittgenstein mad (or who knows, maybe it did).

Arcadia at Duke of York’s

This post was written on September 12, 2009

On Friday, we went to the Duke of York’s Theatre to watch Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. It was the first time we had been to this theatre and it was an interesting experience. The theatre seemed smaller and narrower than others. Even though we were in the first balcony, we seemed to be quite close to the stage. Duke of York’s opened on 10 September 1892, so we were almost there for its 116thbirthday. The contrast between the Victorian theatre and its modern audience and technology was appropriate for Stoppard’s play, in which there are dual timelines.
I was interested to see the play because it shares many similarities with the novels I am currently researching. The story takes place in a country house called Sidney Park in the years 1809-1812 and 1989. The modern-day characters, a literature professor and a writer, are researching the history and the inhabitants of the house from the earlier period. Academics researching the past is a common trope in neo-Victorian novels, the most well-known example being A. S. Byatt‘s Booker-Prize winning Possession (1990). The contemporary characters in Arcadia rely heavily on documents left behind by the nineteenth-century characters to piece together history. Because of their arrogance, romanticism for the past and desire for recognition, they make conclusions which are not necessarily true. The audience is aware of their mistakes as they can see the real events as they occurred in the other timeline. This discrepancy between history and interpretation creates much of the tension and humour in the play. Through the portrayal of these misdirected characters, Stoppard critiques both the impossibility of reconstructing the past and the often misguided attempt of those who try to do so. That having been said, the play also has a great deal of sympathy for the people who have genuine interest in the search for knowledge. Although the present characters make many mistakes, they are able to correctly decipher most of what happened in the nineteenth century in the end. Despite its postmodern themes about the uncertainty of history, the play may ultimately suggest a belief in our ability to accurately reconstruct the past.
I was also rather intrigued by the treatment of Lord Byron within the play. Although much of the action (both in the modern and the historic timelines) revolves around him, Byron does not make a physical appearance in the play; he is only referred to offstage. In fact, the contemporary literary professor is only interested in the country house and the documents that it holds as he imagines they relate to Byron’s disappearance from England. He constructs a drama out of some fragmentary documentation, which turns out to be completely wrong. Byron is one of the nineteenth-century literary celebrities who hold immense interest for contemporary writers, a fact illustrated by the many novels that use him as a central figure. In a number of neo-Victorian novels, the lives of nineteenth-century famous people are used as selling points and to make the narratives interesting. However, here, the placement of Byron offstage and the overenthusiastic and ultimately wrong conclusions that the modern characters draw about his life provide a criticism of this practice. If, for example, the literature professor was not so interested in using Byron’s celebrity to further his own career, he may not have pushed the documentary evidence beyond what could be reasonably concluded. But then, if he wasn’t taking the initiative to do the research, the truth about what had happened in the past may never have been recovered.

London Assurance

Last May, we went to the National Theatre for a revival of London Assurance, an early Victorian comedy by Dion Boucicault (1841). The play received consistently good notices and we can see why. Although far from a perfect play, the revival was terrifically funny from start to finish.
I am not going to give too many details of the convoluted plot, suffice to say the play has many elements of classic comedy including mistaken identities, elaborate deceptions, vanity, over-the-top characters and a slightly contrived happy ending which manages to tie up all the loose ends. If formulaic, however, the play is also very witty (see some quotes below) and comparing the original to the revival, we can see that the director has made some well judged contemporary updates, which accentuate the humour for modern audience.
Still, it was the cast that brought the jokes to life. The two stars of the show, Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw (the latter we have also watched in Mother Courage and Her Children), were both extremely funny. Beale, playing a vain yet aging London socialite Lord Harcourt Courtly, was captivating (as you can see, the characters’ names mirror their personality). He imbued Courtly with an exaggerated effeminacy, which would fall completely flat with a less skilled actor. Yet, with Beale, Harcourt’s every gesture was hilarious. Shaw was no slouch herself. She brought her characteristic vitality and energy to Lady Gay Spanker. The moments between the two were some of the strongest in the play, especially a scene in which Lord Harcourt proposed to Lady Gay, by comically throwing a pillow onto the ground so he could kneel on it without hurting himself. Some of the other stand-outs included Nick Sampson as Cool, the sardonic valet and Richard Briers as Mr Adolphus Spanker, Lady Gay’s aged husband. Briers was so well-cast as an old man completely under his wife’s thumb that from the second of his first entrance the audience was already laughing (true story!). Finally, there was Paul Ready as Charles Courtly, Lord Courtly’s son. He was strong throughout but really shone in several wonderfully awkward love scenes between him and Grace Harkaway (played by Michelle Terry, whom we watched in All Well’s That Ends Well).
The rest of the cast was less memorable, although I think part of the problem lied with their characters. For example, the meddling lawyer, Mark Meddle (played by Tony Jayawardena), fell flat, probably because it is an overdrawn stereotype of Victorian attitudes towards solicitors. We have heard a million lawyer jokes and they are just not funny anymore. Likewise, we found the scoundrel Richard Dazzle (played by Matt Cross) less than dazzling. By the end of the play, one was left annoyed every time the character appeared.
The set was cleverly put together, switching between the façade and breakfast room of a London house and the exterior and interior of a country estate. The outside of the country estate was particularly convincing, complete with tree tops and misty background. There was also live music in the play, and musicians filled the scene changes and provided the soundtrack to a country dance. During this scene, the audience began clapping in rhythm as the characters danced to the tune. At the end of the curtain call, the musicians reprised an earlier tune, and the audience automatically switched from applause to rhythmic beat-keeping. This instance of community was one of the most enjoyable theatre moments I have had.

Below are quotes from Dion Boucicault’s play London Assurance (1841). 

  • A valet is as difficult a post to fill properly as that of prime minister. (p. 8 )
  • [Max:] I’m a plain man and always speak my mind. What’s in a face or figure? Does a Grecian nose entail a good temper? Does a waspish waist indicate a good heart? Or do oily, perfumed locks necessarily thatch a well-furnished brain? [Sir Harcourt:] It’s an undeniable fact; plain people always praise the beauties of the mind. (p. 14)
  • No; she lived fourteen months with me and then eloped with an intimate friend. Etiquette compelled me to challenge the seducer. So I received satisfaction — and a bullet in my shoulder at the same time. However, I had the consolation of knowing that he was the handsomest man of the age. She did not insult me by running away with a damned ill-looking scoundrel. (p. 14)
  • So, a man must therefore lose his wife and his money with a smile — in fact, everything he possesses but his temper. (p. 15)
  • Oh, a most intimate friend, a friend of years, distantly related to the family, one of my ancestors married one of his. (Aside.) Adam and Eve. (p. 18)
  • The bottle, that lends a lustre to the soul. When the world puts on its nightcap and extinguishes the sun, then comes the bottle. Oh, mighty wine! Don’t ask me to apostrophise. Wine and love are the only two indescribable things in nature; but I prefer the wine, because its consequences are not entailed, and are more easily got rid of. (p. 20)
  • Love is a pleasant scapegoat for a little epidemic madness. (p. 27)
  • [Grace:] Pert, remember, this as a maximum; a woman is always in love with one of two things. [Pert:] What are they, miss? [Grace:] A man, or herself — and I know which is the most profitable. (p. 27)
  • [Pert, speaking to Meddle, a solicitor:] Vulgar! You talk of vulgarity to me; you, whose sole employment is to sneak about like a pig snouting out the dust-hole of society and feeding upon the bad ends of vice; you, who live upon the world’s iniquity; you miserable specimen of a bad six and eightpence. (p. 29)
  • It strikes me, sir, that you are a stray bee from the hive of fashion. If so, reserve your honey for its proper cell. (p. 33)
  • [Courtly:] How can you manage to kill time? [Grace:] I can’t. Men talk of killing time, while time quietly kills them. (p. 34)
  • Love! Why, the very word is a breathing satire upon man’s reason, a mania, indigenous to humanity, nature’s jester, who plays off tricks upon the world and trips up common sense. When I’m in love I’ll write an almanac for very lack of wit, prognosticate the sighing season, when to beware of tears: ‘about this time, expect matrimony to be prevalent!’ Ha! ha! Why should I lay out my life in love’s bonds upon the bare security of a man’s word? (p. 35)
  • Sir, you are very good. The honour is undeserved, but I am only in the habit of receiving compliments from the fair sex. Men’s admiration is so damnably insipid. (p. 40)
  • I love to watch the first tear that glistens in the opening eye of morning, the silent song the flowers breathe, the thrilly choir of the woodland minstrels, to which the modest brook trickles applause; these, swelling out the sweetest chord of sweet creation’s matins, seem to pour some soft and merry tale into the daylight’s ear, as if the waking world had dreamed a happy thing and now smiled o’er the telling of it. (pp. 52-53)
  • I have a husband somewhere, though I can’t find him just now. (p. 55)
  • You shall be king, and I’ll be your prime minister. That is, I will rule and you shall have the honour of taking the consequences. (p. 56)
  • Have your own way. It is the only thing we women ought to be allowed. (p. 56)
  • Ah, my dear, philosophers say that man is the creature of an hour — it is the dinner hour, I suppose. (p. 68)
  • [Lady Gay:] Am I not married? [Sir Harcourt:] What a horrible state of existence! (p. 79)
  • Dictate the oath. May I grow wrinkled, may two inches be added to the circumstances of my waist, may I lose the fall in my back, may I be old and ugly the instant I forego one tithe of adoration! (p. 82)
  • Veni, vidi, vici! Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, Alexander never completed so fair a conquest in so short a time. She dropped fascinated. This is an unprecedented example of the irresistible force of personal appearance combined with polish address. (p. 83)
  • No, hesitation destroys the romance of a faux pas and reduces it to the level of a mere mercantile calculation. (p. 88)
  • [W]oman is at best but weak, and weeds become me. (p. 96)
  • Nature made me a gentleman, that is, I live on the best that can be procured for credit. I never spend my own money when I can oblige a friend. (p. 109)
  • The title of gentleman is the only one out of any monarch’s gift, yet within the reach of every peasant. It should be engrossed by Truth, stamped with Honour, sealed with Good feeling, signed Man and enrolled in every true young English heart. (p. 109)


What is the closest thing one can do to imitate a bird wing?

Kyoko Mori answers in One Bird (1995):

I raise my left arm and begin to wave as the birds disappear over the neighbor’s houses, and my eyes ache from staring into the sky. I know they will be back among the flocks of sparrows in Dr. Mizutani’s yard–eating the seeds from the feeders, splashing noisily in the birdbath. Only I will never again be able to tell them apart from all the other young sparrows, the hundreds of this spring’s babies with their streaky breasts and pinkish legs. So even after I can no longer see my sparrows, I keep waving in the direction of their flight. If they could look back, they would see the blurred motion of my arm–a rough, repeated outline in the air, the closest thing I can manage to a wing. 

-pp. 243-44

Thank you, Dr. Eri Hitotsuyanagi, for introducing me to this text.


The Line of Beauty

The title of Allan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty (2004) is a reference to William Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty (1801):
the wavering line, which is a line more productive of beauty […], as in flowers, and other forms of ornamental kind: for which reason we shall call it the line of beauty.

Nick, the protagonist of Hollinghurt’s book, uses the expression to describe the body of a lover at one point:
The double curve was Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’, the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement. He ran his hand down Wani’s back. He didn’t think Hogarth had illustrated this best example of it, the dip and swell — he had chosen harps and branches, bones rather than flesh. Really it was time for a new Analysis of Beauty. (p. 200)

In the article “Writing the Gay ’80s with Henry James: David Leavitt’s A Place I’ve Never Been and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2005), published in Henry James Review, Julie Rivkin says some more about ‘the line of beauty’:
The title The Line of Beauty, which refers to William Hogarth’s theory that visual beauty inheres in a particular S-shaped curve, comprehends a narrative line that links aesthetic experience to all that enables it. The term has many referents, from the curves of the beautiful male bodies that arouse Nick’s desire to the architectural turns that fill the spaces he inhabits to the turns of phrase he rather portentously cites from James. (p. 289)

I picked up The Line of Beauty again because its main character, Nick Guest, is a gay PhD student writing a thesis on Henry James (James’s own sexuality is a topic alluded to in Colm Tóibín’s The Master (2004)). As some of you might know, I am interested in the representation of all things Victorian in contemporary fiction.

It turns out that in The Line of Beauty, references to James and his works are plenty, so are descriptions of penises. Different states of arousal. The angles of their jutting out illusively or decisively under the trousers: horizontal, diagonal. A passage I rather admired:
He [Nick] felt deliciously brainwashed by sex, when he closed his eyes phallus chased phallus like a wallpaper across the dark, and at any moment the imagery of anal intercourse, his new triumph and skill, could gallop in surreal montage across the street or classroom or dining table. (p. 155)
The novel is set in the 1980s (to be precise, 1983-1987) when Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister (‘The Lady herself … Mrs T!’) and homosexuality was not normally discussed openly. 
Nick Guest, who lives in his rich friend Toby Fedden’s house in Kensington (Nicholas and Tobias went to Oxford together), reminded me of The Great Gatsby‘s famous ‘unreliable’ narrator Nick Carraway (they even share the same first name), The Secret History‘s Richard Papen and even Special Topics in Calamity Science‘s Blue van Meer. Far from a servant (but like a governess or perhaps, a butler) and not quite a family member, Nick never really belongs and he is conscious and insecure about that. Interestingly, Nick occupies the attic room – a meaningful space in literature. Nick’s surname tellingly describes his status: he is only a ‘guest’. Gerald Fedden, Toby’s father and a Tory MP, sums up Nick’s position at the end of the book:
[I]t’s an old homo trick. You can’t have a real family, so you attach yourself to someone else’s. And I suppose after a while you just couldn’t bear it, you must have been very envious I think of everything we have, and coming from your background too perhaps … and you’ve wreaked some pretty awful revenge on us as a result […] I mean — I ask you again, who are you? What the fuck are you doing here? (pp. 481, 482)
One clarification: Nick does have a ‘real family’ but his humble parents (Don and Dot Guest) are just not as glamorous as the Feddens and he seems to be constantly ashamed of them — Don is an antique dealer in Barwick; one of his areas of expertise is winding clocks. And Gerald’s reproach about ‘awful revenge on us’ is not an exaggeration — Nick snorts coke and of course, engage in sexual activities, in the house.
Gerald’s question is good. What is Nick doing in the house? He is there partly to provide an outsider’s view of the life of the rich, surely. He is the reader’s stand-in. He is us. This is a classic narrative device which I am slightly wary and bored of now. Think of the books I already mentioned, and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-61) and Evelyn Waugh’s Bridehead Revisited (1945), among others. Some of the characters in these books manage to transform others and some are forcefully transformed. The peril of the social other. (Of course one can also argue that all books are about transformation.)
There is one moment in the book which I quite liked. Towards the end, we are told that Nick’s first lover, Leo, dies (of Aids; quite a few characters die of it in the book and it is strongly hinted at that Nick himself is HIV positive), and when Leo’s sister breaks the news to Nick (the lovers have split at this point), she shows him the first letter he wrote to Leo:

He only glanced at what he’d written, on the Feddens’ embossed letter-head — the small size, meant for social thank-yous, because he hadn’t much to say. The writing itself looked quaint and studied, though he remembered Leo had praised it: ‘Hello!’ he’d begun, since of course he hadn’t yet known Leo’s name. The cross-stroke of the H curled back under the uprights like a dog’s tail. He saw he’d mentioned Bruckner, Henry James, all his Interests — very artlessly, but it hadn’t mattered, and indeed they had never been mentioned again, when the two of them were together. At the top there was Leo’s annotations in pencil: Pretty. Rich? Too young? This had been struck through later by a firm red tick. (p. 400)
How romantic. Who write letters these days? Wouldn’t it be nice to have some sort of physical mementos to remember one’s association with another person with? We send emails, facebook messages, text messages today. And tomorrow there’s nothing substantial, tangible that you can touch and hold. And… what an imposter Nick is, using the Feddens’s letterhead.
The drug, the alcohol, the sex and the money of high society reminded me of Katie Rophie’s article “The Allure of Messiness”, which is about a recent season of Mad Men.

The Line of Beauty is divided into three parts: “The love chord”, “To whom do you beautifully belong” and “The end of the street”. The structure made it easy for Andrew Davies to adapt it for a three-part TV series: ‘Andrew found the novel lent itself well to adaptation. Nick’s story fitted neatly into three parts, and the detail with which Alan had drawn his characters meant that there was loads of brilliant dramatic material that Andrew could distil and shape.’ (via.)
“To whom do you beautifully belong” is from a line in James’s play The High Bid (1907). To whom do you beautifully belong? To the highest bidder, of course. But is one still beautiful, if one can be bought?

Leo and Nick from the BBC adaptation of The Line of Beauty, 2006
  • Nick, in his secret innocence, felt a certain respect for her [Catherine Fedden, Toby’s sister] experience with men: to have so many failures required a high rate of preliminary success. p. 8
  • A shared passion for a subject, large or small, could quickly put two strangers into a special state of subdued rapture and rivalry, distantly resembling love; but you had to hit on the subject. p. 27
  • Nick loved the upper-class economy of her talk, her way of saying nothing except by hinted shades of agreement and disagreement; he longed to master it himself. p. 47
  • Sometimes his memory of books he pretended to have read became almost as vivid as that of books he had read and half-forgotten, by some fertile process of auto-suggestion. p. 53
  • He wondered if he could have a crush on this waiter too — it only needed a couple of sightings, the current mood of frustration, and a single half-conscious decision, and then the boy’s shape would be stamped on his mind and make his pulse race whenever he appeared. p. 77
  • He wanted pure compliments, just as he wanted unconditional love. p. 102
  • Don’t say, “Jesus fucking bullocks.” p. 152
  • [Nick:] ‘I’m just doing something on style in the — oh, in the English novel!’ ‘Aaah yes,’ said Mrs Charles [Leo’s mother], with a nod, as if to say that this was something infinitely superior but also of course fairly foolish. pp. 158-159
  • The thing about the cinema was that they seemed to share in the long common history of happy snoggers and gropers, and Nick liked that. p. 167
  • To apologize for what you most wanted to do, to concede that it was obnoxious, boring, ‘vulgar and unsafe’ — that was the worst thing. p. 174
  • [Talking about Harrods] the mother of all bloody food halls in the whole world!
  • And then, god, how would a pretty little poof with an Oxford accent survive in prison? They’d all after his arse. p. 233
  • The pursuit of love seemed to need the cultivation of indifference. p. 240
  • Perhaps being old friends didn’t mean very much, they shared assumptions rather than lives. p. 292
  • I know people take it very personally when they find they’ve been kept out of a secret. But really secrets are sort of impersonal. They’ve simply things that can’t be told, irrespective of who they can’t be told to. p. 469
  • [Last sentence in the book] It wasn’t just this street corner but the fact of a street corner at all that seemed, in the light of the moment, so beautiful. p. 501

Postscript: Howard Jacobson, whose novel The Finkler Question won the Booker Prize 2010, says: ‘I thought I’m two or three years away from my 40th birthday and it [writing a novel] hasn’t happened. And the reason was I was trying to write like Henry James. Novels were about country houses, for fuck’s sake. The only pity was I’d never been in one. It took me a long time to realise my material could be the world that I’d grown up in.’ (via.) (Also see “The Country House and the English Novel”.)

The World’s Wife

The partner bought me Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife in 2009. The collection features works ostensibly narrated by the wives of well-known historical and fictional men, famous men reimagined as women, or women who were well-known in their own right.
Some of the subjects include Mrs Midas, Mrs Aesop, Mrs Darwin, Mrs Faust, Anne Hathaway, Queen Kong, Pygmalion’s Bride, Mrs Icarus, Frau Freud, Salome, Eurydice, Penelope, Mrs Beast and Demeter. I found the poems largely amusing but thought one can’t read them all in one sitting or the poems become repetitive and lose their effect. All the same, when the partner once again surprised me with tickets to Linda Marlowe‘s dramatic interpretation of selected poems from the book, I was thrilled.
The reading was at Trafalgar Studios, located predictably enough just off Trafalgar Square. In the theatre, there are two studios and our performance was in the smaller one, a cosy fringe-style venue.
Marlowe turned out to be a potent and versatile performer, able to switch easily from young maiden (e.g. “Little Red Cap”) to cynical wive (e.g. “Mrs Faust”, “Mrs Beast” and “Mrs Darwin”) to emotionally vulnerable  hunchback (“Mrs Quasimodo”) to love-struck ape (“Queen Kong”). For me, her turn as “Mrs Quasimodo”, a hunchback who thought she had found her love in Quasimodo only to discover that he was more attracted to normal-looking women was particularly heart-breaking:
Because it’s better, isn’t it, to be well formed.
better to be slim, be slight,
our slender neck quoted between two thumbs;
and beautiful, with creamy skin,
and tumbling auburn hair,
those devastating eyes;
and have each lovely foot
held in a bigger hand
and kissed;
then be watched till morning as you sleep,
so perfect, vulnerable and young
you hurt his blood.
(from “Mrs Quasimodo”, Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, p. 37)
But the night was not all so serious and many of the selected poems highlighted Duffy’s unique brand of humour. The poem that got the most laughs was “Mrs Faust”, which ends with the lines: “I keep Faust’s secret still — / the clever, cunning, callous bastard / didn’t have a soul to sell” (p. 27).
Of course, much of the power and humour of the night came from the poet’s sharp writing and strong language. Hearing the poems read out loud, I was particularly struck by their rhythm, a reminder that sometimes literature needs to be read out loud to be fully appreciated. I could only imagine what it would have been like to hear Dickens the master perform his work.
On the train back home, I was re-reading the poems, and I could almost hear Marlowe reading them; it was as if she were lending me her voice, and thus giving me an understanding of rhythm that I am not sure I had before. This reminded me that a male poet living in Hong Kong, who I shall not identify except to say that his ego is so big it needs its own chair, told me that my poetry was completely lacking in rhythm. After the evening, I am still not sure if my poetry will scant perfectly, but at least I will be able to read other people’s work with a keener ear.

The performance was on 16 January, 2010.

Gontran wrote: “I know Mrs Darwin’s poem, which is very funny. But it originally comes from another collection, doesn’t it? Do you know Eliana Tomkins’s CD jazz adaptation of Duffy’s collection “Rapture”? You might like it. Here’s the place where you can buy it: http://www.jazzcds.co.uk/artist_id_638/cd_id_658
(I’m afraid I’ve never found a place, on the Internet, where you could listen to it… sorry… but maybe you’ll find something).
t wrote: “Dear Gontran, you are great. Yes some of the poems first appeared elsewhere before they were collected in The World’s Wife. I am a big fan of the poem “Mrs Darwin” and the audience absolutely loved it too. I will look at Eliana’s jazz adaptation of the award-winning collection Rapture. I read some poems in it; I should get a copy, actually.”


Demolish

[Click image to enlarge]
“Here we are in old Shanghai. But many of the buildings here have a kind of symbol stamped on them. This means simply one word — DEMOLISH.”

DEMOLISH. DEMOLISH. DEMOLISH. DEMOLISH. And so on.

“The massive rebuilding programme ordered by the government authorities requires the residence of Shanghai’s old town to be relocated — by order.”

“These houses may look grim … but they are homes.”

(Image from a BBC documentary in which Andrew Marr looks at five of the world’s biggest megacities. You know them: London, Dhaka, Tokyo, Mexico City and Shanghai.)

POSTSCRIPT

Andrew Marr thinks that London is the best world megacity: ‘Tokyo with its Japanese conformity. Shanghai – still under the thumb of Communist bosses. Dhaka – mired in corruption. Mexico City with its exuberant extremes of colour and violence. So here’s the good news: London, the nearest we have to a megacity, has lord knows plenty of problems. It’s got terrible housing, huge inequalities, transport nightmares. But compared to many of its rivals, it does feel more open, more mixed. More of a genuinely *world* city. Sometimes, you have to go pretty far away to realise how lucky you are back home.’

‘Sometimes, you have to go pretty far away to realise how lucky you are back home.’ –This is true for me, too.


I have personally experienced all of these, except the deleted line, of course.

‘If Bob Dylan from the 60s took a look at stand-up comedy today, I think it would be a little bit like this’ –the comedian Stewart Lee:

There’s a bus that never comes, except in threes.
There’s a train that never runs, because of leaves.
[an extremely offensive line deleted]
And there’s a toaster that always burns the bread.*

In a town North-east of England, the weather’s always freezing.
And the girls parade around in inappropriate clothing.

[…]

– 
*Earlier in the show, Lee makes fun of jokes such as “I hate my toaster. It’s only got two settings: Black burned charcol or only warm bread.”
-*-

[Royal Wedding Hyper Excited Edition] from Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time Newsletter 28/04/2011

Text by Melvyn Bragg. Images and [insertions] by yours truly.

‘Union Jack’ or ‘Union Flag’ – say ‘Union Flag’ if you want to sound upper class.
I saw London en fete.  Union Jacks, five abreast, went from Upper Regent Street, down Regent Street, to Lower Regent Street.  They are a splendid sight.  They are so much better than the Christmas decorations.  I called this the Union Jack.  Various persons, when I grew older, called it the Union Flag and are very disparaging about those who call it the Union Jack.  Still, in the Scouts I called it the Union Jack.  As far as I can remember, my Dad called it the Union Jack.  I’m sure the Union Flag is more accurate; it is certainly more upper class to call it the Union Flag, but, damn it, it is the Union Jack and, oddly enough, it looked magnificent, in its glory, right the way down the curve of Regent Street. [See here for the full effect.]
.
London – ‘people teeming over pavements come to see the marriage’
London was full of people selling brochures about the marriage, of people teeming over pavements come to see the marriage, of people lining up about the marriage.  It would be churlish not to be caught up in that and I was caught up in it.  In London it is an event.  It is an event when royalty is married at our great royal abbey.
.
Westminster Abbey – ‘one of the great fulcrums of the world in terms of its composite character’
Westminster Abbey is one of the great fulcrums of the world in terms of its composite character.  A place of monarchy.  A place of worship.  A place of reverence for the great dead, from those who believed in God to those who did not believe in God.  A place of great choral Evensongs.  A place of chapels and the Jerusalem Chamber and nooks and crannies.  Nothing like the crepuscular magnificence of Notre Dame or the extraordinary glory of Chartres, or the cornucopia of cathedrals of the Vatican and St Paul’s, nor does it have the tawny splendour of Wells or the total, perfect magnificence of Durham, but Westminster Abbey is something different.  It is where the nation binds itself together on national occasions, it seems to me, and even non-monarchists (I may be wrong, there may be some non-monarchists reading this) must surely feel that here is the symbol of much of our history, for better and for worse, for the rich and for the poor alike. [No, we are not talking about the two nations.]
Wills – ‘do I say God willing? – William will be king’
Kate – ‘came from humble stock’
And it will all happen tomorrow, when the fairytale prince, son of the fairytale princess, marries the fairytale girl who, a couple of generations ago, came from humble stock to become a figure on the London scene, snapped up by the prince and – I can’t help laughing as I’m dictating this – they will be coupled in the place where Harold Godwinson was declared king in 1066 in the English language, and it took 333 years before the next king was declared king in the English language.  Eventually – do I say God willing? – William will be king there too and … well, enough of that.  Good luck to both of them.  We all feel that, don’t we?  Well, I hope we do.  If we don’t, we’re a pretty poor lot. – Melvyn Bragg
[Want to read the whole thing? Well, the full newsletter is here. It begins with ‘Hello, I think this newsletter is quite phoney.’ No, not really, it is rather jolly!]
‘Love’ is not mentioned, not once, in this long passage.
‘The English Language’, repeated two times, is very important

A subversive Chinese connection

[click image to enlarge]

John Everett Millais’s Esther (1865) | Handmade oil painting

The story might be that of a Jewish queen from the Old Testament, but it is the swathe of yellow silk that immediately strikes the viewers. Millais is said to have borrowed the garment from General Gordon, who had been given it by the Chinese emperor following his suppression of the Taiping Rebellion. Turned inside out, the wrong side of the weave creates an abstract pattern.

The painting is now on display at the V&A’s Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 exhibition.


怎樣才算好人?

Originally written on March 30, 2009


星期六那晚看了賈樟河的 <<三崍好人 Still Life>>. 一氣連續看了兩次. 電影淡淡的繪出兩個主角三明及沈红由山西往奉節縣尋親的故事, 背景為消失中的三崍. 一個尋十六年不見的妻子及女兒, 一個尋兩年沒見的丈夫. 故事有點相似, 但結局大不相同.

在這裡不詳細解讀電影, 但有少許感受想說. 很多人認為中國現代化了, 富了, 事實只是一細小部份的人先富起來. 政治領袖也許覺得一小部份人富好過人人都不富. 在光彩的背後有無數貧民的故事, 有多少是外人知曉的? 當中國人不易, 當中國窮人更不易. 話說回來, 當甚麼國的窮人都不易, 當甚麼人都不易.

電影結尾其中一個鏡頭是空中人在遠處江上走鋼絲, 賈樟柯解釋道: “最後走鋼絲, 雲中漫步, 我覺得雖然前路坎坷渺茫, 或者說雖然前路很危險, 但是不管什麼樣的人, 我們必須走下去, 我覺得雖然很危險, 但是要走下去, 所以同時也很浪漫.”

浪漫嗎? 鏡頭的確是浪漫超現實的. 其實, 我們誰不在走這人生的鋼絲, 看似無盡郤有盡? 是回不了頭? 還是要繼續走, 偶時看兩岸的風光.

=====

Swift said: 其實絕路也是有一種走法的…
今天上課跟嚴浩對談,他說中國是一個很超現實的地方.呵呵.

I said: 是啊,有時我也想中國是超現實的,甚至是科幻的. 真羨慕你們可跟嚴浩對談呢!是比較文學課嗎

Holy said: 我是好人!

Oscar said: 有些路,走了就回不了,亦不用想回去。

Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In is a vampire story set in the suburbs of Stockholm in the early 1980s.

The film centres on Oskar, a 12-year-old loner from a dysfunctional family. Frail and androgynous, Oskar is unable to stand up for himself and is often bullied at school. He slowly befriends a mysterious neighgbour, Eli, who has recently moved into the same apartment block. We learn that Eli has been twelve years old for a long long time, and that she lives on blood which she gets either through a man who kills people and collects their blood or by attacking victims herself. Only slowly does Oskar realise the truth about his new friend. But before this realisation, they have already developed a deep friendship.
The film is beautifully shot. Almost every frame of the picture is immaculately constructed and the director lets his camera linger on these images, turning them into slowly moving postcards. Here, the film departs dramatically from the style of recent American horror films which generally feature a dizzingly-paced cutting. Alfredson’s picture, like Sweden’s winter landscape, seems frozen, punctuated by a few scenes of horror.
However, the true heart of the film lies in the tender relationship of the two lonely misfits, which is nicely presented in the final scene of the film. The story ends on a train where Oskar taps a morse code kiss (in response to Eli’s) through a suitcase in which Eli is hiding from the sunlight. We don’t know where they are going, but it does not seem to matter.
=======
Jeff said: The movie is indeed beautifully made, especially visually. The movie moves slowly, perhaps reflecting the freezing environment of Stockholm. However, I found the movie has a strange mix in tone, at times poetic and at other times it plays almost like a parody of the horror genre, reveling in dark humor.

I said: I was a bit dismayed to learn, just now, that Oskar maybe the new Håkan. When Oskar grows old (unless Eli turns him into a vampire), Eli will remain ‘young’ (in the book she’s said to be at least 200 years old) – and at that time, she may look for a new companion. This is chilling.

Gontran said: You hadn’t thought of it when watching the movie? That’s the thing I most readily noticed. The ambiguity, I mean: “Best Friends Forever” or “Find Me Some Blood, Slave”? that is the question.
(for example: didn’t you notice that when, finally, Eli decides to have a nap in Oskar’s bed, it’s… the night just after Håkan’s death?) 

"and as a day is not really a day because each day is like another day and they begin to have nothing"

The artist who created the pictured artwork: Juliette Blightman
Lamp, net curtain (courtesy the artist and Hotel, London)

From the exhibition guide: Juliette Blightman ‘has introduced an arrangement of objects, including a vase [which I didn’t see], a lamp and a net curtain, into a window space in the [Hayward] [G]allery.’

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

| This is art. | Art, this is. | Is this art? | Art? Is this? |


The above were the responses I had towards different pieces of artwork displayed at the British Art Show.

We saw Charles Avery’s one-armed snake observing a female explorer on the cusp of finding Truth while uncanny creatures roam the port of Onomatopoeia. We saw a Picasso-esque sculpture; it has a wine glass out of which wine doesn’t flow for its silver-coloured mouth is completely sealed. Most impressive of all, we watched 1.5 hours of Christian Marclay’s monumental project, THE CLOCK. One day, I’ll watch the remaining 22.5 hours.

Did you watch the film, too? Which hour(s) did you watch? Can we swap hours? How?


The clock project reminded me of Borges’s story “On Exactitude in Science” (an expansion of an idea in 
Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded ).

I liked Robert Wood‘s comment about the snake: “In the country of the serpents the one armed snake is king.”

Reverse déjà vu (alert: contains strong language)

The poem alluded to in this post is now published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.

There are two squirrels in a recent poem I wrote roaming in the garden outside the kitchen. I put them in the work not because I have actually seen them in the garden. If authenticity was my goal I could put two black-and-white cats, for they are the frequenters of that area and in fact I think they think the place is theirs, judging from the extremely defiant looks they give me whenever I catch sight of them. Or foxes. In the past two years, I have seen foxes in the garden twice. Both times, it was snowing gently and the garden was serene with a sense of expectation. The foxes stirred the quietude and stillness when they trotted from one spot to another, displaying their golden fur. They did not stay long. I would like to think that they had a secret schedule and that they had to be seen by a particular number of good people (e.g. me) before the city disowned the snow and everywhere turned ash-grey.
Back to the squirrels — living in London, of course I have seen many of them, especially in parks big and small. The squirrels here are genuinely fat and they move leisurely. It is hard to imagine that the city is doing poorly if you gauge its economy by the largeness of the squirrels’ tummies. I put two squirrels in the poem, however, not to evoke a sense of place. I remember reading some writing advice about putting ‘insignificant’ details in a piece of fiction in order to strengthen its mimesis (i.e. l’effet de réel). I admit I do that every now and then. But I cannot in all conscience dismiss the squirrels as merely some unimportant information.
To tell the truth, in my poem, the squirrels are sharers of the lonely persona’s secrets. Confined in the kitchen that she cannot really call her own (read another Kitchen poem by me here and oh for God’s sake, I know real rabbits don’t lay eggs but my rabbits weren’t real, were they?), my persona projects some of her psyche onto the squirrels outside of her window. They are futilely digging some shallow holes for some non-existent nuts. I did not think that anyone else had discussed squirrels and secrets in literature. Otherwise, I would not have put the animals in my work. This is supposed to be a secret between me and my poem. 
Consider my shock then when I read the following lines in Emily Dickinson’s poem one evening when I was really already half asleep (it must be around 4:00am), drool on both the corner of my mouth and the page:
The Pleading of the Summer—
That other Prank—of Snow—
That Cushions Mystery with Tulle,
For fear the Squirrels—know.
I sat up. I read those lines again and again and again and again. OH MY FUCKING GOD (excuse my language). DICKINSON STOLE MY SQUIRRELS. SHE TOTALLY DID!
I assure you, I have calmed down now. My using the squirrels in my own poem, I think, is a case of reverse déjà vu. I know very well this is imprecise terminology. It is okay not to correct me.

(And yes, I know I will be informed of my ignorance very soon after this blog post has been uploaded. People will send me a list of literary works with ‘squirrels’ and ‘secrets’ in them. Go on.)

ADDED in December 2011: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence” (George Eliot’s Middlemarch, chap. 20).

How is love like watercolour?

Paolo and Francesca da Rimini  (1855) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 

Yesterday, when I was reading the following description of watercolour by Laura Cumming  in “New Review” (pp. 32-33), ‘love’ came to my mind, and I am still thinking about it:

Watercolour has a life of its own. You make your mark on the page and very soon it’s not entirely yours. The paint sinks into the surface, seeping, running, spreading disastrously or drying too fast, forming suggestive blots or stains. No matter how quick you are – or how slow – it does not stay put, or remain stable. The colour comes, and it goes, drying unpredictably by evaporation.
Too wet and watercolour will pool, buckling the page. Too dry and it will stop the brush in mid-flow. It reacts badly to a drop of rain or too much heat, to the artist’s impatience or aggression. Although it accommodates happy accidents, it is also disaster-prone right to the last-minute mishap of the water jar farcically overturned.
It cannot be displayed in direct sunlight without fading like Tinkerbell. So it is to some extent a hidden art, preserved behind veils or between the covers of portfolios and albums, languishing under wraps in stately homes and museums. Everyone knows that watercolour gradually weakens. Indigo can age to brown or even pink. The brightest green may dwindle to grey.
So romantic and melancholy, don’t you think? Cumming is reviewing the exhibition “Watercolour” at Tate Britain, London (until 21 August).

The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art

Every now and then it is very nice to go to a quiet museum that is not swamped with visitors, especially one that does not oppress you with one thousand pieces of art or more to see. Today, as part of our Saturday out we went to the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, a pleasant, understated museum that is located in north London. Often, we were the only viewers in the room (there are six in total) and for that reason, we could appreciate and meditate on each piece of work carefully.

Note-taking
Five of the pieces that I liked:

1. “Landscape with Swan” (1947) by Filippo de Paris, Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 73.5 cm.
I couldn’t find an image of this painting online. It is a painting presumably of a park and on the left front of the canvas is a big man-made pool on which a swan is proudly present and its posture at first sight unmistakeably pronounces that it is the eponymous bird of the title. What captured my attention is the appearance of another swan further away – more meek, it is not as attention-seeking, and yet its existence calls the title into question. Jeff, however, argued that the smaller bird is not a swan at all. If you ever go to the museum, do take a look  at this image for me, and let me know your thought.
2. “Mushrooms by the Sea” (1931) by Filippo de Paris, Oil on canvas, 53 x 63 cm.
I spent a long time looking at this painting, below, which has been compared to works by Salvador Dali. I was particularly interested in the large sky and beach in comparison to the relatively small sandwiched sea — an ungenerous darkened sliver of blue. The family of mushrooms (three adults and two children?) of the title are surreally gigantic, even monstrous with some large phallus-like stems. While the ‘adults’ are painted in earthly brown and green, colours that remind one of soil, roots and slight decay, the ‘children’ are painted in a mixture of yellow and orange, as if they are caught in mid-transformation. We know soon they will also turn dark, shedding their more joyous tone. I felt that the mushrooms yearn for the sea and sadly it is not meant for them (affective fallacy).

Mushrooms by the Sea

3. “Little Man in a Street” (1948) by Ottone Rosai, Oil on canvas, 53 x 38cm.
Again, I couldn’t find this painting online. It is an image of a small man in a big coat walking, alone, on a village lane. We only see this man’s back: his hands are crossed behind his back and his head is lowered, his hat in place. What was captivating about this painting, for me, was that the ‘street’ with its high concrete wall on one side adds a catastrophic feel to the scene and appears to be a segment of a large labyrinth. In that confined space, the walker is completely sealed off from the outside world. If the walker is trying to find his way out, he does not seem to be in a hurry or in any agony. Perhaps there is nothing outside of that labyrinth to inspire him to enthusiastically solve the puzzle. That, for a moment, made me very sad.

4. “Ashtray” (1958) by Renato Guttuso, Oil on canvas, 58 x 67cm.
I am drawn to paintings of ashtrays partly because my father is a smoker; he has started smoking since his teenage years, a fact that worries me constantly (read my poem “Cigarette Butts”). In Guttuso’s painting, part of which you can see below, there is a collocation of a dozen or so cigarette butts, and strangely, although there is only one can (or glass?) left on the table, three of the butts are still lit; their orange spots signifying life. Together, they leave curvy Aladdin-style smoke reaching the upper end of the canvas. Who were the smokers? Why did they leave the room? Was the departure intended to be temporary only? I kept trying to see some kind of pattern in the smoke: a fading face, a random letter. But in the end I got nothing. The smokers have left the room, leaving the viewers a mystery. And the smoke is complicit.

Ashtray

5. “Landscape with Lovers” (year?) by Renato Guttuso, Pastel on papers, 48.5 x 68cm.
This is an image of a narrow road between a stone wall and a row of olive trees (see below). The stone side is brown and black and the trees side is yellow, almost glorious, and the dark distinct branches echo the cracks of the opposite wall. At first, I couldn’t spot the lovers, since they are perfectly blended into the stone side of the painting. Their clothes are of a similar tone to the darker stone making up the wall, suggesting their working-class background. Once they are ‘found’, however, it is hard not to see them in the painting. The lovers, obviously in love, are kissing intensely and are perfectly oblivious to their surrounding and any potential voyeurs. Their oblivion causes the viewer to be aware of and feel guilty for his/her intrusion. The onlooker wants to be discreet, look away, and leave the young couple alone. But at the same time he/she is drawn to them one more time, focusing on their lustful interlocked mouths, the woman’s fleshly buttocks, the concave and convex of the lovers’ bodies down the waist. The hidden erection and wetness. Then he/she reluctantly moves on.

Landscape with Lovers

A shorter version of this appears here.

Highgate Cemetery without Karl Marx

On Saturday, we went to Highgate Cemetery where we took a guided tour of the West side. Highgate Cemetery is divided into two sections: the West and East sides. Most visitors go to the East side to see the graves of famous people, most notably Karl Marx. Our guide told us that tour buses full of people from former Communist countries often go to see Karl Marx’s grave (and they like smoking a cigarette next to it too) and no one else.

Highgate Cemetery is perhaps also known for being the setting of Audrey Niffenegger‘s second and new book, Her Fearful Symmetry (2009). Niffenegger’s first was the massively popular The Time Traveler’s Wife, published in 2003 and turned into a motion picture this year. The setting is also used by Neil Gaiman in his critically-acclaimed The Graveyard Book (read my post on it here).

However, we decided to take a tour of the less-visited West side (Karl Marx, George Eliot, William Foyle, Douglas Adams and more will have to wait for another time…). There were only five people on our tour and we learnt a great deal from our young voluntary guide. Some of the things we learnt are summarised below:

1) The cemetery began as a private venture run by the London Cemetery Company. It opened in 1839 as one of many new commercial cemeteries designed to make money and solve the growing problems associated with London’s overcrowded public burial grounds. For example, many corpses were stolen by body snatchers who sold the bodies to hospitals for medical research. The idea was that the cemetery, which was at that time located outside of the city, would be a quiet oasis for people to spend the afterlife. It was also an attraction that people came to visit during the weekends. They could admire the view of London from Highgate and hopefully be convinced to buy a plot. The company originally did well, but as spaces filled, the maintenance exceeded the profits. By the 1970s, the cemetery was in disrepair and was being vandalised.

The front gate to the West side of Highgate Cemetery

2) Since the 1970s, the cemetery has been run by a charity, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust (FoHCT). Especially on the West side, their policy is called ‘managed neglect’. The effect is that the cemetery is largely overrun but still free of garbage. The organisation takes relative little initiative to restore the graves but it does trim back the trees and plants. This all gives the cemetery a rather Romantic feel, as if you were walking into a lost world.


3) The guide told us a lot about the symbolism and fashion statements associated with the graves. For example, on their graves, many people chose to have a Roman column which was severed at the top to symbolise a life cut short. This was then topped by a wreath to represent the triumph of the afterlife over our worldly existence.


4) The highlight of the tour may have been the Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon. The Egyptian Avenue was originally designed to impress visitors and to exploit the interest in things Egyptian of the time.

Egyptian Avenue
Bat holes

As we walked along the Avenue, we saw many crypts which had holes in the doors for bats to come out in the evening. The Avenue led to the Circle of Lebanon, which must have been the centrepiece of the entire cemetery. They built the Circle around a huge tree which has only grown larger in the 150 years or so since it was built. Today, the Circle feels like a village of the dead:



5) One of the people buried in the Circle was the lesbian author Radclyffe Hall, who incidentally also went to King’s College London. Hall is most well-known for her controversial novel, The Well of Loneliness, which has overt lesbian themes and was banned in both the UK and the US. She is buried with one of her lovers.

6) Above the Circle, we saw the grave of George Wombwell, who founded Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie, a kind of travelling zoo. He began his career when he bought two boa constrictors from the London Docks. He then began touring pubs with the snakes, a business which made him a good profit. From there he expanded to other animals. He had two lions, one of which was called Nero. Nero, famous for his docility, is featured on Wombwell’s grave:


7) Also above the Circle, we were introduced to Julius Beer, a German investor in the nineteenth century. His mausoleum is the biggest and tallest in the cemetery. The guide seemed to think Beer, a self-made man and proprietor of The Observer, built such a large monument to make up for the fact that in his life time, he had not been well received in Victorian English society.

Julius Beer’s Mausoleum

8) Another stop we made in the main part of the cemetery was at the grave of Thomas Sayers, the famous nineteenth-century bareknuckle boxer. His funeral was believed to have been attended by thousands of fans, an impressive feat for a time in which boxing was officially illegal. Sayers’s most famous fight was against the American John C. Heenan; the fight was advertised as the championship of the English-speaking world. The fight went on for two hours and twenty minutes (37 rounds) before it was finally broken up by police and called a draw. After the fight, Sayers’s fans raised money for him to retire from boxing. He spent his last days going from pub to pub with his dog, Lion, buying drinks and being bought drinks. Lion is featured on his grave as a loyal friend and guardian.

Thomas Sayers, guarded by his faithful friend, Lion

9) Although we couldn’t see them because they are in an overgrown section of the cemetery, Dickens’s parents are buried in the West side of Highgate Cemetery. I tried to test the guide’s knowledge but he didn’t seem to know a great deal about the rest of the family. Still, he was a very good guide, who seemed to have great passion for the place. Because he only volunteered once a month, he was genuinely excited to be there and shared with us what he knows.


After visiting Highgate Cemetery, we went to the fashionable and hip Camdan Town. Surprise! I bought two clothing items, one of which was a discounted funky small jacket for cross-dressing purposes (kidding!). It’s quite dashing.

Blue Valentine

On Tuesday I saw the excellent Blue Valentine in the West End. A lot has already been written about Derek Cianfrance’s film and its unconventional structure, which cuts between the beginning and the end of the central love story. I don’t want to go too much into the film right now (perhaps three months later I’ll be able to write about it, like this) (I don’t want to spoil it for you, yo.), but it did remind me of Godard‘s famous line: “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end… but not necessarily in that order.” The interesting thing about Blue Valentine is that it doesn’t have a middle. Or, perhaps it does, but we are never shown it and have to figure it out ourselves.
You must go see this film and buy the soundtrack. (Here’s one of the widely-circulated songs.)

 “Give me a chance, Dean.”

The King’s Speech

Last night, we went to watch The King’s Speech in the local cinema. The house was full, even for the ten-o’clock showing. I have liked Colin Firth since his charming turn as Darcy in Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.1 And while he excels as the grief-stricken college professor in last year’s A Single Man, his performance as the stammering King George VI (known in his family as “Bertie”) overcoming his speech impediment with the support of an Australian therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) is even more impressive.
From the first moments of The King’s Speech, I was both engaged with the story and deeply sympathetic to Bertie’s plight as a stammerer forced to do public speaking. The opening scene, for example, when he is required to give a radio address in front of a packed Wembley Stadium audience for the closing of the 1925 Empire Exhibition, is tense and heartbreaking. “Let the microphone do the work” is easier said than done. Tom Hooper’s direction is particularly strong at capturing the reaction of the audience whose disappointment and embarrassment makes this speech almost painful to watch.

Throughout the film, we get to see more of Bertie’s stammering, although he seems more at ease talking to his wife and daughters than he does speaking in an official capacity. Of course, his condition slowly improves through his treatment by Lionel, which is equal parts physical therapy and psychoanalysis. Interestingly, in the first therapy session, Bertie (who is still “Duke of York”) is able to recite Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy without stammering, and this recitation is recorded while he is listening to loud music and cannot hear himself (a technique called ‘masking’). The script-writer makes use of this moment to give new meaning to the great question and foreshadow what will happen in the film: in this case, the answer ‘To be’ is perhaps more like ‘To be King’.
The relationship between Bertie and Lionel is complicated by class, personality and nationality, especially since the Australian Lionel insists on equality and familiarity with the eventual King. The script exploits these themes nicely and gets a lot of humour and empathy out of the differences in the men’s social status. Despite his position, Bertie is portrayed as profoundly self-conscious and lacking in confidence. However, he is also very funny and oftentimes makes jokes about his condition. For me, one of the funniest scenes is when Bertie is asked by Lionel to swear to express his frustration. At first, Bertie, so used to social propriety, is only willing to express a handful of relatively innocuous profanities, but eventually lets go with an eloquent barrage of fucks and shits, after he is challenged by Lionel to be less of a schoolboy. Bertie finishes his tirade by rhyming ‘shits’ with ‘tits’, a moment that got an uproarious laugh from the audience.
The rest of the film does a good job of portraying Bertie’s battle to overcome his stammer, especially in relation to his difficult father (played by Michael Gambon) and brother (played by Guy Pearce), and the fraught politics of his brother’s abdication and the prospects of war. The climax of the film centres on Bertie’s radio speech in which he tries to inspire the nation to be united against the threat of Nazi Germany, a goal which he reaches with the help of Lionel conducting throughout the address.2 (While previously Logue addresses the King as Bertie, after this broadcast, he finally calls him “Your Majesty”.) The speech is intercut with shots of people from different walks of life, listening attentively to their King, in their living rooms, in the pubs and factories, in the open fields, outside Buckingham Palace, etc. The scene is quite moving, which is of course the point. Republicans might see this as Royalist propaganda, although for me it is as much about overcoming one’s challenges as it is a triumphal representation of the Royal family. Surely, using this inspirational message of individual achievement to hide the Royalist message means that this is very good propaganda indeed. But nevermind when it is this enjoyable.
Every one brings their A game to the film and the direction, cinematography, script and art direction are all top-notch. Likewise, the performances are all excellent. Carter is sympathetic and noble as the Queen, which is particularly effective when played alongside Firth and it is easy to believe them as a loving couple. Guy Pearce is terrifically (when is Pearce not terrific?) immature, arrogant and cruel as George’s brother, David (King Edward VIII). One heart-breaking scene stands out in which David mercilessly mocks Bertie’s stammer to his face: “B-B-B-Bertie”. That David is oblivious to his own failures and irresponsibilities adds to the power of the scene. Gambon as George V only appears twice, but his presence is strongly felt in both, as one would expect.

Also read this moving article about the man.

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1Firth reunites with his Pride and Prejudice co-star Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth Bennet) in The King’s Speech; Ehle plays Logue’s wife.
2Firth is extremely good in this speech. You can compare his with the real King VI’s here. You can also read extracts from Logue’s diary and his correspondence with the King and Queen.