Sunday, 12 November 2017

Short, Grumpy post

Mostly I post about things which are enjoyable or interesting, but this time, as the title suggests, I'm just feeling grumpy.

I have had a cold-in-the-head for about 2 weeks now, and I am fed up with it. Not least because it is a sneaky bugger and keeps fooling me into thinking it's gone, then sneaks back.

And it seems to have come with an extra load of insomnia, so for the past few nights, I've been so tired I could cry, but still ended up waking up multiple times through the night and getting less than 5 hours sleep, which is definitely no fun at all.

So, I'm feeling tired. And grumpy. And don't have any fun stuff going on this weekend.


Thursday, 9 November 2017

Philip Pullman - Daemon Voices

I am glad that I am on the mailing list for Topping of Bath, otherwise I would not have known that Philip Pullman was going to be in Bath, as part of the publicity for his new book, Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling.

As it was, I got  to go along to listen as Philip Pullman talked with John McLay, about story-telling, and writing - Pullman said that he thought about telling stories, not about being a writer or a story teller - he started telling stories to others, including his younger brother, when he was very young, sometimes retelling things he had read or heard, other times making stuff up, and that at some point he then realised that people who write books get paid to do so...



He talked about the idea of a story as a path through the woods, which is one used on several of his essays; the path may interact with many other paths, other stories and other versions of the same story. He gave the example of his story I was a rat! which is a path which touches the 'path' of cinderella . . but went on to say that you can't give people a required reading list before they read your work, so you can't be sure whether or not people will recognise the 'paths' which cross with yours.  

He also lauded the benefits of habit for a writer. His ow practice is to write 2 pages a day - if your sentance ends on the top of page three you've 'won' for the day, and if you make it a habit it gets harder *not* to write. His comment was that more books are written out of habit than talent, and that if you work, ad work, and try, and fail, and try and work more, you get somewhere, and then the reward is to be described as a 'born story teller'!

He spoke, a little later, about how writing is a dictatorship, but reading is a democracy - each reader has their own talents, understanding and expectations, and that the writer's view about what it means is no more or less valid than that of any reader.



He talked about research, and how the knowledge and familiarity with the writing of others feeds into his own, commenting on how surprised he always is when teaching writing courses, and finding how little (some) of the students read, and how many don't have much familiarity with (for instance) poetry.He spoke about how important this had been to him, and what a deep impression poems heard and learned early in life had on him, and that he felt that one has to know in order to create - he was passionate about the benefits of knowing stories, or poems well, and being able to tell, rather than simply to read, them, to children.

The question of religion came up. Pullman described himself as a 'Cultural Christian', having been brought up with regular churchgoing (his maternal grandfather was an Anglican priest). He spoke about how religion is about asking big, important questions, about where we come from, whether there is anything after death and so forth, and that those questions are an important part of being human. 

He was also very clear that he doesn't dislike or disapprove of or disparage people who are religious: But what he is wary of is religious bodies or organisations gaining political power - it always ends badly, whether it results in the Spanish Inquisition, Blasphemy trials and witch hunts, or whether it results in the Taliban (Or the current situation in Rohingya)


In the Q and A section of the event he was asked about the proposed cuts to libraries in Bath, and gave a passionate response, saying that it is a National disgrace that libraries are being defunded. "Libraries are such a gift from a nation to its citizens, and politicians who allow it to be taken away should be pilloried..A nation which provides free books is one not afraid of its citizens".

It was a very interesting event, and at the end, I did wait and got my copy of 'L Belle Sauvage' signed.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre


The Bridge Theatre is a brand new theatre, immediately next to Tower Bridge, which opened on 26th October. It's run by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, both of whom used to run the National Theatre, and it opened with a new play, Young Marx by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, starring Rory Kinnear.



I went to see Young Marx a  few days into the run. As the name suggests, it features a young(ish) Karl Marx. The play is set in London, in 1849-50, when he, with his wife Jenny (Nancy Carroll), and their children, were living in poverty in London together with their friend and housekeeper, Helene 'Nym' Demuth (Laura Elphinstone), with Friedrich Engels (Oliver Chris) popping in on a regular basis. Marx is not having an easy time - he is broke, having marital troubles, suffering from writers block and trying to cope with splits in the nascent communist party...


Rory Kinnear as Karl Marx (C) Bridge Theatre
It's got lots of very funny moments - I particularly enjoyed Marx's statement to the police following his arrest, which was a commentary on property and theft, and the comments from the various police officers (focused on how they were not really sure of their powers or rights, what with everything being so new).


Cast (photo from gallery on theatre website)
The play has a young, sexy, Friedrich Engels making a decision to return to work in his father's cotton mills in Manchester in order to ensure he can support Marx financially to allow him to write, and whole sub-plots about an illegitimate child, and a duel. 

It's a lot of fun, - there are a lot of farcical elements (Marx hiding in cupboards, lots of personalised knocks on the door to identify welcome, and unwelcome, guests, and is apparently based almost entirely on genuine historical events. (although I have my doubts about Engels and Marx as a kind of music hall double act...) 

The play is on until 31st December and is being broadcast via NTLive on 7th December (in the UK). Its well worth seeing, if you get the chance.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Scythians - British Museum Exhibition

I have to admit, that before the British Museum started to advertise their exhibition about the Scythians, I knew next to nothing about them.For these who are similarly uninformed, 'Scythians' seems to be a blanket terms for the various tribes of nomadic peoples, or Iranian origin,  who lived in and around what is now Siberia, around 2,500 years ago. 




They didn't leave any writings, and until comparatively recently, were known mainly from the writings of Herodotus (who was often somewhat unreliable). They are, apparently, the likely inspiration for ancient legends about the Amazons, and possibly also for legends about centaurs, as they were among the wolds earliest horseback warriors.

More recently (for 'recently, read, starting in the reign of Peter the Great, 1682-1725) archaeological finds began to emerge, including amazing gold artefacts and, due to the permafrost, burials in which wood, leather, textiles, bodies and other organic matter were preserved, astonishingly well preserved. And it turns out that Herodotus may have been rather less unreliable than we thought.


Deer-shaped gold plaque. Second half of the 7th century BC.
© The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
The exhibition includes a lot of beautiful gold artefacts - many featuring animals from big cats wolves, boar and eagles, to deer, elk and of course horses. However, there are also other artefacts - clothing, human remains, textiles and wood, all of which have been preserved by the ice. 


Felt swan figure, third century BC.
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
It's astonishing to think this swan, for instance, is over 2,000 years old. And its a very appealing swan.

As well as the more showy gold and textiles, there are other gems - the felt bag containing cheese, (sadly, the museum has been unable to determine whether this was made from sheep, goat or horses milk), the hemp-smoking kit, and the coriander seeds...

The exhibition also includes some human remains; there is one display showing a man's skin, and his tattoos, and there are also two skulls, with their death-masks.

There are personal items too - a woman's felt stockings, a child's jacket, a flat-pack table, and a false beard. And the lack of written records leave intriguing questions - was the beard due to funeral rituals (apparently contemporary sources describe the Scythians as generally having beards, but the men in burials found are all clean shaven), was it perhaps related to the fact that women may have been warriors too. Maybe they simply enjoyed dressing up!


The Scythians were very reliant on their horses, so there are also lots of horse-related items - beautifully decorated saddles and bridles, and even head-dresses for horses, decorated with other birds and animals.

It was very interesting, and some of the things on display were incredibly beautiful.



Also - have a gratuitous picture of the Great Court at the museum. Just because I love that roof. 

The exhibition continues until 14th January, so plenty of time to see it, if you haven't already done so. 

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

'Christmas Eve' at the Ustinov Studio

Earlier this year I saw a play at the Ustinov studio called The Mentor. It was by a German playwright, Daniel Kehlmann, and was very good. So when I saw that they were putting on another of his plays, Christmas Eve, I decided to book a ticket and see that, too.


Despite the title, this is not a cheery festive play. It's set entirely in a police interview room, somewhere in Germany, on Christmas Eve. It premiered in Vienna earlier this year, and this production is the UK premiere.

Anti-terror police officer Thomas (Patrick Baladi) is interviewing Philosophy professor Judith (Niamh Cusack) who is suspected of involvement in a planned terrorist incident. 



We get to watch as Judith is questioned, learning that she was in a taxi when she was stopped, and brought to be questioned, about... what, exactly? 

Writings saved on her laptop, which may or may not be preparation for a philosophy seminar? Her left-wing views, and past travels in South America? Her relationship with her former husband?

The audience is kept guessing as to whether this is an example of state paranoia, and oppression, as Judith argues, or whether there is a genuine terror threat. 

Despite the subject matter, there are comic moments - Thomas explaining to Judith that while she is entitled to have a written record of her right, it will be  terrible hassle to get a copy as it's christmas and all the typists are off (and she eventually gets an illegible, handwritten copy)

It's very well done. See it if you can.

It's on at Bath until 19th November.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Portchester Castle

When I went to Chichester to see King Lear last weekend, I was able to tale the opportunity to stay with my sister and brother in law, and, as well as lots of catching up and a certain amount of rather nice food, I also paid a flying visit to Portchester Castle.

Portchester Castle from the shore
The previous evening had been very stormy (both inside and outside the theatre, for me!) but by Sunday morning the wind had a dropped a bit, and the sun was out.


K and I strolled along the shoreline, and then I took a quick look around the castle (hurrah for English Heritage membership!)
View from the castle towards Portsmouth

It has a particularly long history as a fortification - originally, there was a Roman Fort, (and parts of the walls are the original Roman ones) then a Saxon community, then a medieval castle was built in one corner of the original fort. Various Kings of England used the castle as a stopping off point when travelling, Richard II had a set of new Royal apartments built there, and Henry V used it before departing to invade France. (It's probably also where the traitors plotting against him,  were executed) 

In 1632 Charles I sold the castle (apparently by this time, Portsmouth had become a more important port, so presumably he felt it was less important to keep the castle in Royal hands.

It had rather less glamorous roles after that - it was used as a prison for Dutch prisoners of war in the 1660s, and for French (and French colonial) prisoners during the Napoleonic wars. Inside the castle there was a display about its use as a prison, including information about around 2,000 black and mixed race prisoners from the Caribbean (the French Revolutionary government declared the abolition of slavery in 1794, and recruited large numbers of former slaves into their armed forces, many of whom were then taken prisoner when the French garrison on St Lucia surrendered to the British, (the French having negotiated to ensure that these soldiers would be treated as prisoners of war, and not as slaves)

They ended up in Portchester Castle, although they were later moved to prison ships in the harbour, partly to protect them from the European prisoners kept in the castle, who were in the habit of stealing the warmer clothes provided to them.

Very interesting, and according to the information, it was common practice for the Navy to actively recruit prisoners of war, so it's quite likely that some of these men ended up serving in the British  Navy.


There were several pieces of art on display - I particularly enjoyed this ship, on the crest of a wave formed from one corner of a chart, showing (a little depressingly) British Prisoner of War 'depots' across the war during the later 18th C.

It would have been interesting to spend a little longer there, but we had Sunday Lunch to cook, so I didn't. Maybe next time.!

Sunday, 22 October 2017

King Lear at Chichester

I saw, back in March, the Sir Ian McKellen would be appearing as King Lear, in Chichester, this autumn, so of course as soon as tickets went on sale I booked, as it seemed to me to be an opportunity not to be missed. I've seen him previously, in The Syndicate,  Waiting for Godot, and more recently in No Man's Land, as well as seeing his one man show earlier this year, but I've never previously seen him live in any Shakespeare.

It was a long wait between booking and seeing the play, but on Saturday evening we finally got to see it!

It was my first visit to the Minerva Theatre in Chichester - it's small, seating around 280 people, and for this production at least, the stage is a red-carpeted circle, out in the auditorium.

Our seats were in the front row, right at one end, which meant we had an excellent, close up view of the action, albeit sometimes at a bit of on angle!

The play opens in Lear's palace, as King Lear (Ian McKellen) announces his plan to divide his kingdom. He stands at a flag-decked lectern, in full uniform, in front of a massive portrait of himself.



Initially jovial, cheerily cutting the map of the country up to pass to his daughters, he then, of course,  quickly turns on his daughter, Cordelia, (Tamara Lawrence) for her honesty. It's interesting to note that in this production, Lear then hands the additional sections of the map, not to Regan (Kirsty Bushell) and Goneril (Dervla Kirwan), but to their respective husbands...
Credit: MANUEL HARLAN
The cast over all is very strong - I particularly enjoyed Damien Molony's Edmund, whose scheming and dastardly behaviour was a pleasure to watch.

Sinead Cusack was Kent, and in disguising herself to follow Lear, disguised herself as a man (which makes the whole 'Neither King Lear or his daughters recognise someone who has been his trusted counsellor for years' thing, marginally more believable).

Lear's '100' knights were bread-roll throwing, tweed and Burberry-clad hooray Henries, and it was easy to sympathise with Regan and Goneril's wish to be rid of them, despite the terms agreed with their father. 

The size of the theatre mean that this production was very intimate, and allowed the soliloquies to be incredibly conversational.

The storm scene was ... damp - and very effective. Vast quantities of rain falling, drenching Lear, Gloucester, the fool, and Edgar, and leaving those of us in the front rows a little damp, as mist drifted our way, and trickles of water overflowing from the stage became streams...

It really emphasised Lear's vulnerability, but also the beginnings of his own humanity, as he tried to cover Edgar/Poor Tom with his coat, and in turn, Kent's care of Lear. (although I have to admit that I was slightly distracted by wondering whether being drenched with cold water for such an extended period could really be good for poor Ian McKellen; he's not as young as he was!) 



In the second half, the red carpet was gone from the stage, leaving it white concrete (all the better for stamping on eyeballs in a squelchy way)and of course things go rapidly downhill for almost everyone.

McKellen's Lear was increasingly vulnerable and human, as his mind and body fail. The closing scenes, as he was reunited with, then mourned for, Cordelia, were very moving. 

In short, it was pretty damn good. I've seen the Ian McKellen has now said this may be his last major Shakespearean role. I hope it isn't, but I am very glad I had the chance to see it - not only for McKellen himself, but also because it was a such a strong cast, I don't think there was a single weak link. 

The run has now ended (and was sold out, in any case) - otherwise I'd be urging everyone to go to see it. But I shall be looking out for Tamara Lawrence and Damien Molony in future....

Saturday, 21 October 2017

People, Places, Things

On Friday evening I was in Bath to see Headlong Theatre's production, People, Places, Things which is on tour following a National Theatre run.




I didn't know anything at all about the play in advance, other than that it has had reviews.

It follows the progress of Emma (or Nina, or Sarah, or Lucy), (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) as she checks herself into a clinic for treatment for her drug and alcohol abuse.

It's fairly intense, with scenes giving a physical presence to the hallucinations which Emma experiences as she starts to withdraw. 

It's not a cheerful or optimistic play - Emma does make progress, but it's clear that her sobriety and survival will always be a work in progress and not a finished thing, and there are some very painful scenes, particularly at the end of the play.

It feels like a very convincing look at addiction and treatment, and the small victories and many failures involved.

Lisa Dwyer Hogg is protagonist Emma, and does an excellent job, her character is not always likeable, in fact at times she is downright nasty, but she is also deeply vulnerable and often engaging.

It's not a upbeat play, but it is worth seeing.(although I suspect that if you have experience of alcoholism or addition it may cut rather too close to the bone)

On tour until 25th November.

Friday, 20 October 2017

A Grand Day out in Salisbury

As you'll have seen from Monday's post, I went to Salisbury on Sunday.  My main purpose in visiting was to go to the Terry Pratchett exhibition but since I was there, I also visited the rest of the museum, and the Cathedral. (I've been before, but I like cathedrals!)

The museum is not large, but it has some rather nice bits and pieces, including a Royal Charter from 1461, with lovely illumination, and the seal of Edward IV, a Roman mosaic, and various artefacts from Stonehenge and the surrounding area.



Then I went into the cathedral, which happens to be hosting an exhibition at present, called Threads Through Revelation, which is an exhibition of embroidery and other textile art, by an artist named Jacqui Parkinson, based on the Book of Revelation.



I enjoyed the art. 





This is part of a panel featuring the four horsemen of the apocalypse. (which made a nice contrast to the Paul Kidby Horsemen, in the Terry Pratchett exhibition)



And a lovely seven headed dragon (part of the same larger panel). I assume that it is a Hellbeast of some kind, but I found it rather appealing...



The cathedral has a beautiful modern font, which acts like a reflecting pool for the nave.

There are also some gorgeous carvings - below is a section of the ceiling of the chantry chapel, which seems to have escaped the worst excesses of the puritans!


There is also a lot of fairly modern stained glass, including this, the 'prisoners of conscience' window (although the photos doesn't really do justice to the colours)


I didn't, on this occasion, visit their copy of Magna Carta, but if you are planning to visit Salisbury, you might wish to know that they have one, which lives in the Chapter House.

After all this culture I took myself to a nice pub for a belated lunch. It was the Haunch of Venison,  which bills itself as the oldest hostelry in Salisbury - the building is mentioned as having been used to house men working on the building of the cathedral spire, in 1320, although I think there have been a few alterations since then! It does have a mummified hand in the snug and some rare Victorian beer pumps, and it served some very nice food!

I enjoyed my day out.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Weird Weather - Hurricane Ophelia


Hurricane Ophelia has been in the news (although technically it has been downgraded to a storm), and this morning (Monday) we were seeing the early effects. 

Unlike Ireland, we were not in the main path of the storm, but it was showing its influence - the sky was a strange yellowish-grey this morning, with an ominous red sun. It was so dark that I had to keep the  lights on in the house, and was definitely  very strange, and more than a little eerie.



Later in the day, it became sunny and bright, but the wind got more powerful. I haven't been out, and while we were forecast gusts of up to 50 mph, I think we are past the worst, and, at least in my immediate vicinity, without any significant damage. 

I hope that those of my fiends who are in Ireland, or in the parts of this country closer to the heart of the storm, are all safe and with their property undamaged.

Inevitably, there has been a lot of discussion of the Great Storm of 1987, which was exactly 30 years before the current storm.

I remember that storm: We lost a couple if trees from the garden in that storm (including the Victoria Plum, which was a shame- we had several trees which bore unappetising damsons, but the Victoria Plum was pretty much the only one we had which had edible fruit) and I am fairly sure that that was when the back garden wall came down and we found a cow wandering in the garden in the morning!

We were without power for about a week, which was not fun, as we had no heating other than a smoky fireplace in the living room, and no cooking facilities other than a tiny, camping gas  single ring. I remember making arrangements to go and shower at a friend's house, as we were one of the last in the area to get our power back.

No doubt to those living in regions where hurricanes are common it all seems fairly minor, but we only get these events once every 30 years or so, and it's neither expected or familiar to us. 

I hope those affected will be back to normal soon. 

Monday, 16 October 2017

Terry Pratchett - His World

On Sunday, I took a day trip to Salisbury, to visit the Terry Pratchett exhibition at Salisbury Museum.

It's not huge, but there are a lot of interesting things.

There is a recreation of PTerry's study, with many  of his possessions on display - his desk (complete with cat-bed), the Luggage, lots of art..



 and a very interesting library book (spot the banananana book mark!) 




There are some of Terry's original sketches, showing his ideas of what Rincewind and Granny Weatherwax look like.


The exhibition also has lots of Terry's personal items - including the sword which he made, himself, from metal mined on his own land, and including some thunderbolt iron (meteor rock) 

Other items include Terry's Blue Peter badge, his Carnegie Medal, and of course, one of his iconic black hats.

There were also some of the rarer writings - a short story written for his school magazine, and a hand-coloured copy of 'The Carpet People', for instance.

And of course, lots of artwork. Some very familiar, such as original cover art for some of the books, and others that are less familiar.


I enjoyed the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. And 'Discworld Gothic', (with Miss Flitwick and Good Old Bill Door), which I do not recall having seen before!

The notes (or footnotes)  for each exhibit are fascinating - some are quotes from the man himself, others from people (such as Rob Wilkins, Paul Kidby and Neil Gaiman, who knew him well.



And one or two other little touches, like the label on the Mona Lisa sketch...

Towards the end of the exhibition is a section including  a long quote from Terry about the embuggerance, and some incredibly poignant examples of the tests he was taking to measure the progression of his disease.




Generously, however, the curators didn't leave us there - there is a also a small section with things which have happened since Terry's death - details of the Order of the Honey Bee, a copy of the script for 'Good Omens' (tantalisingly showing only the cover page!), cover art for 'The Shepherd's Crown', and what looks suspiciously like a hard draft which has has a run in with a steam-roller.

Upstairs, there is a small, separate exhibit of Paul Kidby's work.

And as you leave that, there is a wall for memories of Terry, on which a number from people who knew him well, as well as those of fans and visitors to the exhibit, are posted. And you're encouraged to post your own, so the Ankh-Morpork Post Office has kindly provided sheets of paper, and a pillar-box, into which  memories can be placed..



I also took the opportunity to look around the rest of the museum, and I noticed that the Nac Mac Feegles seem to have found their way in...


The exhibition is open until 13th January 2018. There are a fewmore pictures on Flickr

GNU, PTerry.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Stephanie Burgis and Claire Fayers at the Bath Kids Lit Festival

I didn't book as many events as I often do, at this year's Bath Festival of Children's Literature, but one I was determined not to miss was the one with Stephanie Burgis and Claire Fayers, discussing Dragons.

I've been familiar with Stephanie's work for a while, since meeting her a BristolCon a few years back, and have enjoyed her work, which includes the 'Kat' trilogy (Regency romance with magic), Historical novels with Opera and Politics, and most recently, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart , which is set in a place and time which (other than the dragons) has a certain similarity to an 18th C Germanic principality, so I wanted to go and say hello, and hear her talking about the newest book.



I haven't previously heard of Claire or her books, but having heard her read an extract and talk about her newest book, The Accidental Pirates -Journey to Dragon Island, which is the second in a series, I want to read them, and bought the first in the series after the event. 

Claire and Stephanie both talked about the earliest dragons which inspired them - Tolkien's Smaug, for Stephanie, and the Dragons in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea for Claire (which I can identify with. Orm Embar was, and is, a favourite of mine, too.


Claire Fayers and Stephanie Burgis

There was some discussion about research. Stephanie selflessly researched chocolate-making and the finer points of chilli infused hot chocolate. Claire did not (she claims) go so far as to become a pirate, but did re-read 'Treasure Island', and watch lots of 1930's pirate / adventure movies in order to recognise and subvert their tropes (leading to sand vines - the kind of vines which, when you grab them to haul yourself out of quicksand, attack you)

There was also discussion about the next books each author is writing; coincidentally both involve fairies. Stephanie's next is set in the same world as The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, but will be told from the perspective of Silke, Aventurine's friend. Claire's next is not part of the 'Accidental Pirates' series, but is instead set in a Victorian England, where one small town on the Welsh border is the last place in England where magic still works, and which is twinned with a similar town in Faerie. 

I like the sound of both, and look forward to reading them.

After the event, I was able to say hello to Steph and CLaire, and get both books signed, before heading home.

And, as it was Bookshop Day today, I also called in at one of my favourite bookshops, Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights,  before the event, where I was able to pick up a copy of Fraces Hardinge's A Skinful of Shadows, together with this year's 'Books are my Bag' bag, and where I bumped into a friend of mine, which was lovely. 


So, all in all it was a very pleasant afternoon!

Also, you should all buy these books :)