Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Being a tourist - Westminster Abbey

I was in London at the weekend, primarily to see 'Apologia' at Trafalgar Studios. However, I arrived early, I decided to be a proper tourist and visit Westminster Abbey.

I was probably taken there as a child, but I haven't visited it as an Adult (not least because of the eye-watering entry fee - £22 - and the fact that there are often long queues to get in. )

It was rather crowded, and I was a little disappointed that there were more signs warning of CCTV than there were giving information about the church or the various tombs. However, those things don't detract from the fact that it's a very interesting, and in parts, stunningly beautiful building.

They had, of course, rather cornered the market in dead monarchs, from Edward the Confessor, to Richard II, Henry V,  Queens Elizabeth I and Mary I (and Mary Queen of Scots), up to George III (they don't, of Course, have Richard III, although they do have his wife.

You are not allowed to go into the shrine of Edward the Confessor,  but the chapel where Elizabeth I and Mary are both buried is open - Elizabeth has a very fancy tomb (and a not-entirely-flattering effigy)
Window and ceiling of side chapel and Queen Elizabeth I's tomb
The ceiling of the chapel is beautiful. It seems a little odd that Elizabeth and Mary should be buried together, all things considered... 

There are also, of course, lots of other famous people buried or commemorated in the Abbey (which, for my fellow pedants, isn't actually, technically, an Abbey or Cathedral anymore, but is a 'royal peculiar'.)

Isaac Newton has a colossal, rather baroque tomb, and there are some positively dreadful  (from the point of view of my personal artistic taste) Charles Fox, for instance, whose tomb presents him as a rather dissolute Roman (which , thinking about it, might not be entirely inappropriate, if Fox is the one I think he is) 
Ceiling of Henry VII's Lady Chapel
One of the most stunning parts of the Abbey is the Henry VII Lady Chapel, at the East End of the church - it has an absolutely exquisite fan vaulted ceiling. It really is impressive. I rather suspect that Henry VII was a bit of a bastard, but I will give him credit for having employed a very good architect and builders!

There is also some lovely modern stained glass (I believe the original was destroyed in the blitz - the end of the lady chapel is now the RAF chapel) 

Then there is poets' corner - Geoffrey Chaucer was buried there (although not, it seems, on his merits as a poet, but simply because he was at one time Clerk of Works. The current tomb was erected in the 16th C. 

However, since his time others have been buried there - Jonson, Dickens, Hardy, with many others having memorials there, including Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis and a number of the War poets. 

The other thing Westminster Abbey has, of course,  is the Coronation Chair, which they have had, and have been crowning monarchs on, since 1308....   

And they have the rather nice portrait of Richard II (which dates back to around 1390, and is apparently the earliest contemporary  portrait of an English monarch)

As well as the church itself, one may visit the Chapter House (nice, but not a patch on Wells, in my partial opinion!)  
Chapter House
And cloisters, where, among less memorable memorials, there is a rather nice (modern) memorial to Sir Edmond Halley, for instance.
I did enjoy my visit. 

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.