Sunday, 31 March 2013

Fun and Fiends!

My friend Wendy has been visiting England, and we'd arranged to meet up and for her to vist me for the first 2 days of her trip, so last Sunday I met her at Heathrow, and we drove back to Wiltshire via Stonehenge and Avebury.

It was very, very cold - there was snow on the ground when I got up, and it kept trying to snow on us all day.

We had a bracing walk around some of the stones at Avebury, then visited the Manor,which has recently been done up by the National Trust, by reproducing (rather than preserving) furniture and fittings, and have arranged different rooms as they may have been at different periods, ranging from a Tudor Hall and Bedroom, to a 1939 living room (complete with zebra-skin chair, and cocktail-shakers.)

Tudor Bedroom, Avebury Manor
Because almost everything is reproduction rather than  original (things like the fireplaces, the ceilings and plasterwork etc are original), visitors are encouraged to touch and try - I didn't lie on the Tudor style four-poster because it has a feather mattress, and I am allergic to feathers, but I could have done, had I wished!

They have a tea-shop in the library, too, where Wendy was able to sample her first English cream tea :-) And we were both able to warm up enough to escape hypothermia. There were some very *bracing* breezes going on out among the stones..

And then, after visiting the Avebury museum (small; contains a lot of flint axes) back to my house, to defrost ourselves a little more.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Peter and Alice

Saturday evening, after our day spent mainly in the British Library, found us at the Noel Coward theatre, to see  Peter and Alice, a new play by John Logan.

I booked the tickets last summer, as the premise sounded interesting, and I wanted to see both Judi Dench (who plays Alice) and Ben Whishaw (Peter). (I've had bad luck before - last time I had tickets to see Judi Dench she sprained her ankle the day before we saw the show, and her understudy was on instead..)

The starting point for 'Peter and Alice' is a real-life meeting between the 80 year old Alice Lidell Hargreaves (who was Lewis Carrol's inspiration and audience for 'Alice in Wonderland') and 35 year old Peter Llewelyn-Davies (who, with his brothers, inspired J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan). There's no record of what they said to one another, so Logan was free to speculate.

We begin by seeing Peter (a publisher) trying to convince Alice to publish her memoires, revealing, in the course of their conversation, that he 'is' "Peter Pan" just as she 'is' "Alice in Wonderland". things get odder from there, as we meet not only Carroll and Barrie, but also the  Alice and Peter from the books. The set becomes fantastical - like a toy theatre decorated with images from both books, and both characters reveal more and more about their lives.

Whishaw is particularly strong; resentful of his borrowed notoriety, deeply scarred by his war-time experience and the loss of two of his brothers, and ultimately deeply pessimistic.

There are many entertaining moments in the play - Peter and Alice arguing with their literary alter-egos, Alice's imperious put downs, and the casual arrogance of the fictional Alice and Peter, too young and fearless to have learned to be afraid.

Olly Alexander made an excellent Peter Pan, capturing just the right feel of the boy who never grew up, and to me, it seemed that the play was far more about Peter Davies than anyone else.

Ultimately, however, the play was slightly disappointing - I enjoyed it, but the players outshone the play; there was rather too much telling, and not quite enough showing, and I suspect that without the superb Whishaw and Dench, the play (which at less than 90 minutes  is pretty short) would drag)

The play is a new one one, and only opened on 9th March, so perhaps the author will consider some re-writes to tighten it up a little... or perhaps not.

I'd give it 5 out of 5 stars, I think - 5/5 for the acting, a little less for the production. But I'm very glad I went, and frankly I'd go to see Judi Dench if she were reading the phone book!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Emperors, Murder and Brains

It's been a busy few days.

On Friday I drove up to London, to visit relations, and to go to the theatre on Saturday. It wasn't a fun drive, lots of rain, sleet and spray, so I was very glad to arrive.

On Saturday, we woke to find it was snowing. Which is not usual, here, at the end of March. And which made the prospect of going Out rather less appealing. But we did.

My cousin J and I went into London - we started off with a trip to the British Library, so see their exhibition about the Mughal Empire, which was fascinating. Being the British Library, the majority of the exhibits were books and other documents, although they did have a rather splendid armoured horse, and a very fancy crown  (which they borrowed from the Queen, who apparently has enough to spare one for a bit).

The exhibition showed how the culture of the Mughal Empire influenced and was influenced by western european visitors, and gave the opportunity to see some lovely pieces of art, and illuminated manuscripts which are not normally on display. Towards the end of the exhibition there were some early photographs, too, taken after the Indian 'Mutiny' of 1857 and showing deserted and looted palaces.

It was well worth seeing, and seemed to be very popular.

While we were at the Library, we also saw their mini exhibition 'Murder in the Library: and A-Z of Crime Fiction', which was entertaining, even if they had to stretch a little for one or two of the letters of the alphabet.

I learned that Baroness Orczy wrote crime fiction (as well as the Scarlet Pimpernel) - stories featuring a plucky female detective, written in around 1910.

We then went on, to visit the Hunterian Museum, which is part of the Royal College of Surgeons.It grew from an original collection begun by John Hunter, and bought by the government in 1799. It's full of bottled body-parts (animal and human) including half of the brain of Charles Babbage, and other medical curiosities. Interestingly, although it seems that many of the specimens were bought, or (in the case of the earlier ones in particular) acquired from 'resurrection men') others were acquired with the donor's full knowledge and consent - a sort of 'celebrity body parts...'

As well ass the human remains, there are various fossils, and zoological specimens, including delicate examples of dissected insects, some of them 200 years old. (This is all the more remarkable when you learn that the museum suffered significant bomb damage during WWII: firebombs and 1000s or specimens pickled in alcohol are not a good combination)

While we were there, there was a 'Promenade performance' by first year drama/design students from the Rose Bruford college of performing arts. The students were moving around among the visitors wearing costumes, and giving a performance both inspired by the collection. It was .. odd.

All of this took us well into the afternoon, so we decided to finish up with a nice cup of tea, and a visit to Foyles, before we went to the theatre. (Yes, of course I ended up buying several books. Was there really any question?)

It carried on snowing the whole time, but wasn't settling ion the roads or pavements, so other than the cold it didn't really effect us.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Short holding post

Lots of fun stuff to blog about - my visit to London, which included exhibitions and museums and random drama students, and Dame Judi Dench, then there's  my friend Wendy's visit, not to mention snow and Alarming noises.

I'll blog it all soon, but we're still doing stuff right now.

See you later.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Family and Work and Things

It's been a busy week. We had a Partner's meeting on Wednesday, which means a late night, and one of our partners is retiring, with Friday as her final day in the office, so we have sticky buns and champagne at lunchtime, which I'm not sure amounts to a balanced diet, but which is not bad, as an occasional thing.

Then on Friday night I visited my second cousin, M, who lives about 40 minutes drive from here, for dinner. It was an enjoyable evening - we talked about all sorts of things, travel, and gardening, and the inanity of banks, and I learned about a few things from M which I'd never hear of before -  including the time that Aristotle and Jackie Onassis  gatecrashed a picnic M was attending, and her memories of meeting [Sir] Peter Scott back in 1948, not long after he established Slimbridge.

Saturday was quiet - I have been doing various bits and pieces around the house, and spent an hour listening to the 1st Episode of 'Neverwhere', on Radio 4 - I was concerned that it wouldn't (couldn't) live up to my expectations, but I thought it was excellent - I particularly enjoyed Mr Gaiman's cameo role as The Fop With No Name, and we've still got Benedict Cumberbatch's Angel Islington to look forward to in future episodes...

And I found out on Saturday that Neil Gaiman is coming to Bath, through the machinations of  Topping and Co. Bookshop, in June, which is definitely something to look forward to. (and having checked my diary, it's the same week as I am going to see The Cripple of Inishmaan and Bill Bailey which I think you'll agree is going to be a pretty good week! 

This weekend is that last I've got for about 4 weeks when I'm not doing anything - next week I'm going to London, and then bringing a friend back for a visit, then it is Easter weekend, when I shall be seeing my parents, then the following weekend I'm getting together with my oldest friend and her partner. Lots of good things to look forward to. 

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Cold and Car Troubles

It's turned very cold again. It snowed a little on Sunday night, and again today (although none of it settled) and it all proved too much for my car battery, which gave up the ghost overnight, and could summon up only a tiny, pathetic cough this morning, rather that, y'know, actually starting the car.

Fortunately, I do have breakdown cover (including Home Start) and it must be admitted that if you are going to have a non-working car, the best place to have it must be at home. At least I was able to wait inside, in the warm, and to get on with some work while I waited.

I would not have been impressed with a wait of almost 3 hours had I been sitting miserably at the side of the road!

On the plus side, I have a new car battery, so I shouldn't have the trouble again.

But I am so very ready for it to start being properly Spring-like, now.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Psychopaths and Swearing

This year's Bath Literature Festival ends tonight, and the last event I attended (possibly the last event of the Festival) was a talk by  Jon Ronson, about his most recent book, 'Lost at Sea', and the one before that, 'The Psychopath Test'.

I've long enjoyed Jon Ronson's work - he used to have a column in the weekend Guardian, and is the author of 'The Men Who Stare at Goats' and 'Them'. In fact, I blogged about his last Bath Literature Festival appearance, 4 years ago.

Having heard him speak before, I was confident that I was in for an entertaining evening, and I was not disappointed.

Jon started with reading a story which hasn't (yet) made it into a book, about his son, Joel, at the age of 8, wanting to know whether there was a worse swear-word than 'fuck', and if so, what it was., which rapidly caused Ronson, in an attempt to avoid teaching his son anything inappropriate,  to become mired in a swamp of lies, an 8-year old temporarily convinced he has learned the Worst Swear Word in the World, and, increasing guilt "I'd rather he was foul mouthed and accurate than this" 

After this light-hearted anecdote Ronson spoke about the starting point for his book, 'The Psychopath Test'.

He described started out by leafing through the DSM ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and determining that he has 12 different mental disorders, including general anxiety and malingering, which led to thoughts about the dangers of self-diagnoses, and then, by a series of steps which all sounded very logical when described, via Scientologists to a prisoner names Tony, who spent 14 years in Broadmoor after faking madness in the hope of avoiding a prison sentence (of 5-7 years) for assault, to the worrying knowledge that around 1% of the population is believed to be a psychopath, but the figure rises to around 4% if you look at CEOs and other people in positions of power...

We also learned that if you have been on a course to become a certified psychopath spotter, and wish to interview important  people to work out whether they are psychopaths, it's best not to write and ask them whether you can interview them to test for psychopathic traits. Asking if you can interview them to ascertain whether they have a specific brain anomaly which may be linked to business success, works rather better..

Ronson then moved on to talk about some of the articles in 'Lost at Sea', such as what happens when you borrow a car from Aston Martin in order to recreate James Bond's drive in 'Goldfinger' (flatulence and dislike, mostly), about debt and credit cards, and who they are offered to, and about rich and poor in America.

The evening ended with a Q and A session, and discussion about the NHS and differences between US and UK attitudes, after which I was able to get my copy of 'Lost at Sea' signed, and to have a quick word with Jon. He's a nice man.

It was a very entertaining evening. Despite the cold, and the snow.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

In which There is A Booker Prize Winner

After Friday night's soiree with J.K. Rowling, last night's treat was an event with Hilary Mantel, author of 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring up the Bodies' and twice winner of the booker Prize.

I have to confess that I have only read a couple of her books, but they (particularly the historical ones) are high on my reading list, and I was also interested to hear her speak, based on her reputation.

It was an interesting interview, once an initial problem with her microphone was fixed. She confirmed that while journalists love to write stories about 'overnight success', she has of course been having books published since 1974, and has been writing all her life. She described herself as having loved stories from before she could read, and having had a book about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table which she demanded any adult she came across read her, so she learned many of the stories before learning to read, so started school with a baroque vocabulary of 'base seneshals' and 'varlets'.

She then discovered Shakespeare through an extract from Julius Caesar and became a "distressing child, wandering around the house muttering 'if you have tears, prepare to shed them now'" She described Shakespeare as being, for her, more of a "principal of life, or a Demi-god", than anything else, and commented that when writing the books she has to remember that she is writing pre-Shakespeare, and try not to be too influenced by his vocabulary.

Hilay Mantel, Bath, 09.03.13

She described her early education from Catholic nuns as being a study in superstition rather than religion, and described herself as being a 16th C peasant, rather than a theologian.

Although the main focus of the evening was on the Tudor books, Mantel also talked about her other work. She revealed that she started writing Historical fiction as she saw it as needing less imagination, as the characters make the story, and described herself as being "little miss card-index, with a filing cabinet for a heart". In researching Beyond Black,her novel featuring a psychic, she saw a palm-reader whose initial comment was "Oh dear, you don't have much imagination, do you?" I think it is fair to say that the audience did not agree!

She also made the point that if you talk to dead people you get sectioned, but if you get paid for it, whether as a novelist or as a psychic or medium, you're fine!

In answering questions at the end of the interview, Mantel made it clear that she has never seen her novels as satire on, or comments about, current politics. As she said - they are political, but they are about the people they are about, not an allegory of anyone else.

After the interview, Mantel signed books, so I was able to get my copy of Wolf Hall signed, and was able to ask her how it felt to have the books 
adapted for the stage for the RSC - she told me she was very excited, particularly that it was the RSC at Stratford.

All in all, a highly enjoyable evening. 

Saturday, 9 March 2013

In Which There is A Very Famous Writer

As you'll have seen from my last post, I wasn't very efficient in booking tickets for this years Bath Festival of Literature, and ended up missing some events I'd like to have seen. One I didn't miss, however, was last night's interview with J.K. Rowling.

Rowling was being interviewed by James Runcie, who, as well as being a novelist in his own right, is Artistic Director of the Bath Literature Festival and also a long-standing friend of Rowling's, which came through in the interview, as they laughed and joked together.

The event was held in the Forum, which seats around 1,600 people, and which was pretty full - I think the event was sold out, or pretty close. Having booked late, I was seated in the very back row of the circle. This may have been a good thing. There were some pretty intense fans nearer the front, from what I can gather!

The event was primarily an opportunity to talk about Rowling's recent adult novel, The Casual Vacancy but also covered aspects of the writers life and, inevitably, Harry Potter.

'The Casual Vacancy' has some very troubled teenage characters, and Rowling was asked about her own teenage years, and specifically, her first French kiss (She was 12. He tasted of cheese and onion crisps). She counter attacked, asking Runcie about his, and he revealed he was 17, pointing out that as a ginger with glasses he was at a disadvantage!

She explained her wish to write realistic teenagers, and that she felt that all of the characters in the novel were real, in that they are not exaggerated - she had known people like that, when growing up, and while working as a teacher (but also stressed that she does not put actual people into the books), and that without seeking to claim to be a 'modern Trollope or Gaskell' that she did the novel as being in a similar tradition of parochial,  fiction, looking at a small and limited group of people. She also mentioned that she drew on aspects of herself in writing Hermione, and was very clear that she wanted Hermione to be, not 'the pretty girl' or 'the tomboy' but a clever girl, and for that to be OK, and to be someone whom she would have identified with as a child.

Rowling described how liberating she had found it, after finishing the Harry Potter series, to be writing without a deadline, and knowing that nothing would ever be the same as Potter - she described having been on a train at Kings Cross organised by her publishers in around 2000, thinking "you will never top this" and feeling, now, that she could either dwell on knowing she'll never top Potter, or that she can see how lucky she is to be free to write whatever she, knowing she can pay the bills even if only 5 people like the new book!
J.K. Rowling at the Bath Literature Festival
Those hoping for the possibility of new stories set in the Potterverse were doomed to disappointment - while she admitted one can never say never, she has no plans for any new books; she commented that prequels are, in her view, rarely successful, and that in adding the Epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows she had made it very clear how things turned out, and that there was a happy ending. "A lot of people didn't like it, but. . .My Characters, My Rules"

However, she did disclose that is she is currently writing a new children's book, but nothing further - the conversation was;
     -"Would you like to tell us anything about it?"
     - "No."

During the QandA session at the end of the interview there were more questions about Harry Potter. Asked whether she felt that Grindelwald loved Dumbledore back, she said no, that she'd always felt he manipulated Albus, and that he was never able to fully trust or love another after that. She went on to say that one of her proudest moments had been when, after her disclosure that Dumbledore was gay, a young man at the signing told her had just come out, as a direct result!

In response to a question about Harry Potter gaming she said her first experience of them was seeing one of her children playing the Harry Potter Lego game, and repeatedly running Ron over...!

Rowling was very articulate about her love of books and reading, and reported that she'd been asked by one of the children whether she would chose them or books, if she had to chose. Her reply? "You. But I'd be really grumpy"

It was an interesting evening. I came away liking the lady, as well as her books.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Maps and Philosophy

It's March, which means that the Bath Literature Festival is on. I was not very organised this year, and left it late to book tickets, so there were some events, such as Sandi Toksvig's, which I didn't get to go to because they sold out too fast.

However, all was not lost.

The first event I went to this year was on Saturday, to hear Prof. Jerry Brotton, speak about his recent book, A History of the World in Twelve Maps. I had not read the book, but it sounded as if it could be interesting, and it was.

Saturday was also the day of the Bath 1/2 Marathon, which meant that a lot of roads were closed, so I travelled in early, by train, and treated myself to a pub lunch and a pint before heading to the Guildhall for the talk. The marathon had mostly finished by the time I arrived in Bath, but there were still an awful lot of people wandering round wrapped in tin-foil. Fortunately the pub I  picked wasn't too crowded - maybe people who run (half) marathons are not very pub-orientated?

Jerry Brotton

Brotton explained that he is not a geographer,he is a professor of Renaissance Studies, and that his interest is in looking at the philosophy of map making. He then took us through his 12 maps, starting with a 7th C. Babylonian map (showing Babylon and the centre, and the wild places outside), an Islamic map from the 11th C (with South at the top) a Ptolemiac map, (noting that Ptolemy, in 150 BC, was writing about the difficulty of representing a globe, on a flat piece of paper) before moving on to speak about a Korean Map of 1409 (based on Chinese maps, and the first of the maps shown to be orientated with North at the top), the Hereford Mappa Mundi, which includes the Garden of Eden, and is orientated to the East,  and a then a 1492 Globe (unfortunately produced before Columbus came home, and therefore completely blank so far as the Americas are concerned)

All of these maps are what he described as 'egocentric mapping'; centred upon, and giving greatest prominence to, the nation where  it was produced.

He then moved on to speak about different projections, pointing out that Mercator's projection, and maps (1569) work very well for the purpose for which they were created; i.e. sailing the trade routes. He made the point that the earlier maps were not created with a view to helping you to get from A to B, and that once you start wanting to use maps for that purpose, your needs, and the way in which you design the maps, has to change.

Which led on to talking about more recent maps, including the Peters Projection (aimed to get away from  egocentric mapping to equal representation) and right up to Google maps, and the issue of whether it is a good thing to monetise geography in this way.

Brotton finished by explaining that he is a also involved in a project for the 2015 Venice Biennale, where a 3D map of the world is being created, using hydrographic maps to accurately represent the seabed and depth, as well as a relief map of the land surface. The finished map will be around the size of a football pitch, and will then be flooded to show the correct sea level.

It's a fascinating subject, and I'm glad I went, although there wasn't much in the talk itself which was completely new to me - I think Prof. Brotton may have slightly underestimated the level of general knowledge about the subject (People mostly know that the Greeks and Egyptians etc. knew the world was a globe, don't they?) but it was, nevertheless, an interesting overview.

Sunday, 3 March 2013


Last night I was in Bath, to see August Wilson's  Fences, starring Lenny Henry.

The play is set in Pittsburgh, starting in 1957, and concluding some 7 or 8 years later. Lenny Henry plays the lead character, Troy Maxson, a garbage-man, whose hopes of a professional baseball career were unfulfilled due to segregation.

He's not a lovable character; the play gets darker as it progresses, and we learn that despite Troy's strengths - his close friendship with Jim Bono (Colin McFarlane), his love for his wife, Rose (Tanya Moodie) and his apparent care for his brain injured brother, Gabe (Terence Maynard), he  has very deep flaws, too.

He prevents his son, Cory (Ashley Zhanghaza) from trying for a football scholarship, and we learn that he has been having an affair (resulting in the birth of a child). We also learn, as the play progresses, of his own very bleak past, which goes some way towards explaining, if not excusing, his conduct.

Despite this, the play has a lot of lighter moments, and ends on a hopeful note, with Cory having made a career for himself in the US Marine Corps. Rose gives a very moving description of Troy, and of her life with him, after his death.. "Sometimes where he touched, he bruised".... and of their relationship " I didn't know that to keep his strength I had to give up little pieces of mine" - a portrait of a hard life, creating a hard man.

I freely admit that I booked my ticket on the strength of Lenny Henry's name; having seen his performance as Othello and I wasn't disappointed; he made the character totally believable, but he wasn't alone. The rest of the cast were equally strong, and particular praise has to go to Tanya Moodie, and to Ashley Zhanghaza who gave terrific performances as Troy's wife and son.

The performance I saw was the last one in Bath, but the production is transferring to the Richmond Theatre in London, and to Milton Keynes, so there is still time to see it. It's well worth it.