Monday, 12 September 2011

An Everyday Story of Bindle Stiffs: Of Mice and Men at the Brockley Jack Studio.

As a teenager, I read Steinbeck's 1939 American novel, The Grapes of Wrath , for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, with astonishment. Steinbeck's empathy with an 'underclass' was almost unknown in English novels, where working class characters were used for comic relief or appeared as villains. There were plenty of servants, of course, since most novels were set in middle or upper-class households.

George Orwell was about the nearest English equivalent to Steinbeck, but there was something inauthentic about an old Etonian pretending to be down and out. In novels empathy with workers was almost nonexistent; failure to make it up the class ladder was generally ascribed to personal moral decrepitude. It's a view that's recently become popular again, but it only began to be challenged in English novels in the late 1950s.

The story of the Joad family's epic journey across the American dust-bowl derives from an era when few authors dared suggest that human institutions might be faulty. The recognition, let alone celebration, of humanity among ordinary working people was a literary novelty in England in the 1950s, although DH Lawrence's 1913 autobiographical 'Sons and Lovers' and some of his short stories had come close.

Of Mice and Men, as the title suggests, works on a smaller scale. Seemingly a portrait of two men locked into a toxic co-dependency, the theme of the sustaining power of dreams and their fragility is reflected in the setting: a rural workplace.It's a far cry from The Archers.

I enjoyed this production at The Brockley Jack Studio. It seemed superior to the 1939 film classic starring Lon Chaney and the 1992 Gary Sinese-directed version with John Malkovitch.

I appreciated the ten minute drive to the Brockley Jack and the easy on-road parking. What I didn't like was not hearing the starting bell or any announcement in the bar, which extends to a room round the back. As a result my companion and I crept into into the back row of the crowded 50-seater theatre after stumbling up creaky steps. I've never been so glad of an interval to stretch my legs.

The play continues until September 24th and my review appears on the Remotegoat website.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Homeswaps and Holiday Humour

As a teacher, I was blessed with plenty of holiday time but not much money, so homeswaps were the ideal solution. I registered online every year with a company called Intervac and browsed their international catalogue.

I never initiated a request, because so many people wanted to come to London and responded to my entry. So for years we swanned all over Europe and Scandinavia, and even the UK - anything from a long weekend to a fortnight. I didn't go to America because somehow a tiny flat in Lewisham, even with a Peugeot 6 thrown in, wasn't fair exchange for the usual American offer of a vast ranch and a Chevrolet.

I'd recommend homeswaps to anyone who needs a nudge to keep their place up to scratch. Another advantage is you get to investigate a range of reading matter that's in situ, so to speak.

My recent homeswap with my nephew and his family in my home town of Preston can roughly be summed up as: 'We got the rain; they got the riots'.

Although the wet weather put paid to visions of basking in a suburban garden, I did a lot of reading. From ten-year old Alfie's bookshelf, in his Liverpool F.C.-themed bedroom, I selected Diary of a Wimpy Kid, complete with tiny cartoon drawings dotted among the paragraphs - a sort of cross between Adrian Mole and EE Molesworth for younger children, with a touch of Dennis the Menace thrown in.It was unputdownable.

Only the week before, during an ill-starred drive to Whitstable on a hot afternoon, we'd decided to travel north by any means except car. On the five-hour coach journey I chuckled and laughed through Mrs Fry's Diary, the funniest book I've read in a while.

The premise is that it's written by a fictional Mrs Fry, completely ignorant that husband is a 'celebrity'. Since the real Stepehen Fry is quite open about being gay, it adds to the humour that she has so many children that she can't count them and is constantly pestered by her randy partner. She thinks he has an ordinary job - until a friend tells her she's spotted someone who looks like her husband on TV. Apart from the comic situations, the double-entendres and misunderstandings made me laugh on every page.

The third humorous book I read, Ian Sansoms Mr Dixon Disappears, was much more low-key. When I picked it up in a charity shop before I left I was attracted by its theme, the disapearance of a department store owner, It's self-deprecating mobile librarian narrator and the Irish setting also appealed. It's just the thing for a wet holiday, although some of the eccentic characters in the peripatetic plot began to pall towards the end.

One tip about homeswaps, though: after you've dismantled your workspace and made up the spare beds, don't do as I did and mix your library books in sacks identical to ones containing books for charity shops and then take them to store in the garage.

Friday, 24 June 2011

The Art of Serendipity: Vermilion Ink by David Su Li-Qun and Diana Gore

Earlier in the year, I was asked to review a book about an Italian Jesuit, Guiseppe Castiglione, who was a court artist in eighteenth century China. I was a bit daunted, because my recent reviewing had been restricted to short story collections and plays. However, I really liked the book, so I enjoyed reading and summarising the chapters, until I was interrupted by a hospital investigation that went wrong. It took weeks for me to recover enough to write the review. (I wasn't to know when I signed the consent form, but it wasn't a good idea to be in the middle of anything)

One link for me was having seen Castiglione's portraits and depictions of animals and birds, in Edinburgh and London galleries. I'd even bought the catalogue at the first one. The three emperors the artist worked for were Manchus, whose cultural influence was evident in the part of northern China where I worked in 2003-4, another link. I was fascinated to read about Castiglione's sometimes gruesome experiences at the hands of the moody rulers, against a backdrop of China in troubled times. Not much was known about him except that he had a profound influence on Chinese painting and met a lot of opposition, partly for religious reasons.

I was struggling to give the review some contemporary relevance, and conscious that the date of the book launch was at hand. Then, by chance, I visited an exhibition at Somerset House, about contemporary artist Ai Weiwei and found a link: not only is Ai WeiWei also an artist who's fallen foul of Chinese authorities, but his Circle of Animals installation at Somerset House is based on an original design by Castiglione.

I posted the finished review to Dimsum, the website for Chinese in the UK, happy, and relieved, to be able to report this to the authors.

You can read the review here.

It was good to read yesterday that Ai WeiWei has been released from detention.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Comfort Reading

A Monday hospital admission last month made me reach for something to distract me over the weekend. Nothing on my shelves promised an instant solution, but a Saturday afternoon trawl of Penge charity shops did the trick.

I'm a great fan of Stephen King, especially since I read his autobiographical On Writing. The blurb of Gerald's Game leapt out at me- a woman is manacled to a bed in a woodland cabin five miles from the nearest neighbour. Why? How is she going to escape? Suspense, surprise and the usual admix of gruesome detail kept me riveted until Sunday night. I sent it off to my sister yesterday, because I know she likes thrillers.

I knew I needed something for the inevitable hours of waiting once I was in there. I'd aready spent two half days in prelimary visits, where four hours waiting was fitted around ten minutes or so with consultants and check-up nurses. With an arrival time fixed for 7.30 on 18th April, there was no knowing the order in which I'd go down to theatre.

Luckily, I had a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger's classic study of teenage angst, presented to me by my English teacher when I was fourteen. Troubled protagonist Holden Caulfield is expelled fron boarding school for 'flunking' everything except English and the book charts his meanderings as he delays arriving home before his parents receive the news. It's hard not to empathise with his irritation at the 'phoniness' of the people he meets and with his own sense of helplessness. And yet it's so funny it makes me laugh at every page.

I'm wondering what my grandson thought of it.

If you've read the previous blog entry you'll know I woke to hear a surgeon tell me things hadn't gone to plan and I'd have to stay in longer than expected - for at least another night.

The after-effects of the anaesthetic meant I couldn't read, but I'd brought a walkman with me. I'd found a boxed set of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads for £3 in the Cancer Research shop. Again, very poignant and yet funny studies of the human predicament, read by excellent actors including Alan Bennett himself. My favourite is Patricia Routledge as the busybody who finds a sense of purpose only when she's sent to prison.

I'm saving it as a present to my friend who lives in Hull but works abroad. You obviously don't have to be a Yorkshire person to appreciate the stories - I read recently that Alan Bennett is a 'national treasure'. For once, I could agree.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Literary Links: Orozco at the Tate Modern

It came as no surprise to learn that Mexico-born Gabriel Orozco studied for a while in Madrid. Transforming ‘found’ objects in an often surreal way that echoes Picasso, from an elliptical billiard table to a sliced-up Citroen, Orozco has all the master’s playful inventiveness without the macho posturing and sexual obsessions. At the same time Orozco’s very Latin-American religious sensibility is signaled in the iconic skull that appears on the exhibition poster, and in his fascination with decay and detritus. His sense of transience comes out particularly in works that include vehicles.

The show is well-curated, starting in a low-key style and leading up to the more complex pieces. The captions and displayed introductions are clear and helpful. Entertainingly bizarre items encouraged laughter, as in a tangle of bicycles, welded together and upended, photos of paired yellow scooters and tins of cat-food perched on water melons, the cut-in-half car and the displaced lift. I loved the chessboard and the quirky obituary headlines, also the interactive billiard table, although I sympathized with gallery staff’s anxiety about possible injury from a red billiard ball suspended on a wire.

The photos and money bills overlaid with harlequin circles were seemingly elegant comments on the mainly sporting subject matter, while similar patterns isolated and presented against differently coloured background conveyed a Paul Klee-like grace. They had the surprising quality of seeming both controlled and random.

Hanging sheets of dryer-fluff in the installation called ‘Sills’ I took at first glance to echo back-street washing lines but at closer range they are creepy, like dusty remnants of shrouds. Walking beneath them is a powerfully sinister experience, as is viewing the complete floor space of another room littered with discarded shreds of car-tyres, some big enough to have come from tractors.

Orozco’s art celebrates the man-made in gritty urban life and his transforming ‘interventions’ emphasize the symbolic in everyday objects. There’s a clear sense of the world as a system of signs that links Orozco to medieval symbolist art. His genius lies in perceiving and performing the tweaks that make deeper meanings emerge, a touch of the ‘magic realism’ that informs Latin American Literature.

The Gabriel Orozco Exhibition is at the Tate Modern until April 29th

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

What makes them Modern? Guy de Maupassant: The Best Short Stories

I was delighted when a book of short stories was the month's choice for my local reading group. For a while now I've been reviewing books for The Short Review Website and this seemed an ideal candidate.

'one of the fathers of the modern short story and one of the form's finest exponents' says Wikipedia, but I'm not sure what makes a short story modern.

Is it length? Many of these are quite long by today's standards, enough for the protagonists to take journeys through the countryside by horse-drawn carriages, to refresh themselves at country inns and maybe fall in love. Many, if not most, too, have a distinct moral messages, where more recent examples tend to ambiguity. The characters are individuals rather than types, sometimes said to mark a change from traditional tales. Sometimes, though, the line between portraying a bullying military type and a believable person doing his duty is not clearly drawn.

Perhaps it's the existential pessimism of the stories that mark them as modern. The cruel tricks of fate and the futility of human efforts to avoid them is a dominant theme. A modern outlook discards the certainties of faith and a confidence that virtue will be rewarded. In 1880 that was a shocking realisation that marked out Maupassant for criticism. In 1893, after a very troubled life, he committed suicide in a mental asylum.

My review appears in the March 2011 Short Review website.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

New Technologies and the Reinvention of the Author at the LSE Literary Festival Feb 16th -19th 20011

In 1987 my husband complained about changes in his work place - his employers,BT, had plonked computers on the desks of its office staff, part of a plan, according to him, to cut clerical support for the sales force. I got him to bring home the beastly machine because I had a dissertation on the go. Thus started my fascination with writing-related technology.

I'd attended the LSE Festival last year: an event called, 'How would a Robot Read a Novel' about a computer programme designed to to analyse a text. It was useless for detecting literary merit, but it could generate word strings and clusters from a text fed into it to indicate main themes and authorial attitudes. A novel which the author thought was mainly about football turned out to be about friendship and romance.

Ironically, I arrived at the Sheihk Sheikh Zayed Theatre on Kingsway disgruntled, because my local reading group was cancelled that morning: the staff had gone to protest about five libraries to be closed in the borough.

The panel were writers and publishers: Lionel Shriver, bestselling author and journalist; Sam Leith former Literary Editor at the Telegraph, whose first novel The Coincidence Engine, will be published in April 2011; Nigel Warburton, Senior Lecturer at the Open University,journalist and popular blogger; Tom Chatfield, journalist, Arts and Books Editor at Prospect magazine and author of Fun Inc.

The emphasis was on the relationship between author and reader. With rapid developments in communication and publication technologies, traditional borders between writers and readers have been blurred, creating a new relationship within a new, often interactive, space. The question raised was 'What does technology mean for the future of the author?'

Appropriately for an event in the London School of Economics, a burning issue was how to make a living from writing. With desk-top publishing so cheap, publishers so unaccommodating to new writers and books available to download for pennies onto a Kindle, it looks as if future authors will require a private income. Plus ça change, I thought.

One of the obvious facts about the Eng Lit 'Canon' is that with few exceptions books were written by members of the upper classes. Where you found a published author you found an existing income and the world depicted, along with its concerns, quite alien to those of ordinary people.

And that's how they liked it. The days may be gone when Muriel Spark was asked , 'Why are you even applying for a job in publishing if you don't have private means?', but there's still every sign that not much has changed. The literary shelves groan with Julians and Sebastians.

On the bright side, it looks as if traditional publishers will soon be about as relevant as blacksmiths.

'Is it a good time to be a new author?' asked a member of the audience, and the answer was yes. What with blogs, e-zines and email attachments, plus the ability to self-publicise through tweets and websites, a readership that wasn't possible before becomes accessible. Authors no longer rely on publishers getting their books into shops, after surviving the gatekeeping and cultural vetting process, but can be masters of their own publicity.

There was some regret about loss of bookshops and of books themselves as collectible artefacts but the reading experience between a Kindle and a printed page is not so different.

I thought this was a fascinating topic and one, no doubt, that will change with yet newer developments.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

A Writer and his Notebook: The Forging of a Rebel

For four Friday evenings in January I was at the Instituto Cervantes watching 'La Forja de Un Rebelde' (The Forging of a Rebel). It's a very well-made, inspirational Spanish TV series set for the most part in Madrid from 1900 to 1940. The central character, writer and journalist Arturo Barea, was born into a family impoverished by the death of the father. Adopted into the home of a childless aunt and uncle of better means, he was educated at a Catholic school run by priests. Later, disillusioned by hypocrisy and the church's suppression of dissent, he served as an intern bank clerk at a time of high unemployment, but fell foul of his bosses when he became a union organiser. He joined the army and witnessed the embezzling of funds by officers and their incompetence during the occupation of Morocco.

It was in Morocco, forced on account of his book-keeping skills to collaborate in diversting public money into officers' pockets, that he began keeping a record. He was typically seen, whether in a tent or a bar, scribbling in a small notebook.

During the seige of Madrid he worked to counteract propaganda accounts by Franco and the fascists, and made morale-boosting radio broadcasts to supporters of the Republican government. This horrific episode showed citizens enduring blitz conditions as well as international soldiers and visitors keen to support the resistance.

Eventually Barea came to England, where he continued broadcasting for the BBC for twenty years. The film ends, though, with Barea, by then in his forties, telling his wife that he has at last found his way in life, after searching for years. He realises, of course, that he must continue to record and report on the world around him.

There were many emotional parts in the film, but for me this was the most affecting moment. Nobody advised Barea to keep a notebook, but he seems to have realised that in the face of so much repression and contradictory accounts, writing reinforced his sense of reality; it became a touchstone for truth.

Barea's continual note-taking seemed to illustrate Aristotle's 'mimesis', the imitation and perfection of nature. It incidentally supported Barea's humanitarian impulses and, for me, added to the inspirational aspects of this excellent film.

The Instituto Cervantes has a programme of free cultural events.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Footnotes essential : The Warden by Anthony Trollope

'Oh no! It'd be like reading a set text at school', was one reaction when I announced at the reading group that I'd found a copy with an introduction and footnotes.

The book was Anthony Trollope's The Warden , written in 1850 and dependent on a reader's knowledge of contemporary political characters and events.

The eponymous hero is Septimus Harding, warden of an estate that includes medieval alms house set up to provide food and shelter for a dozen deserving old paupers. Harding lives well in a seperate big house with servants and even keeps a horse for his daughter. Luckily for him, the Church of England manages the estate to ensure he pockets three quarters of the annual income, in addition to his earnings from light preaching in the parish.

More of an old bumbler than a villain, he's outed partly because similar abuses have been scandalised by the national press. Harding's clerical superiors tell him to hang on, and not set a dangerous precedent, but the elderly cleric shrinks at being vilified in the neighbourhood. To add more drama, the champion threatening to sue on the old men's behalf is a young doctor who hopes to marry Harding's daughter.

I wasn't the only one to find this a tedious read. Meandering sentences and a thin plot were the main failings. Restricted to a a very narrow social stratum - the old paupers don't get much of a look-in - there's too much sitting around chatting over glasses of port. Some relief, but not much, is provided by scenes where father and daughter fall on each other's necks, weeping over their predicament. The classical allusions just add to the general air of cant and hypocrisy.

There's some irony, but for me the book only really catches fire around page 200, when Trollope mounts an attack on his rival Charles Dickens, thinly disguised as 'Mr Popular Sentiment'.

A conversation about a fictitious novel, called The Almshouse, criticises the author's style whilst admitting its effectiveness:

'The artist who paints for the million must use glaring colours, as no one knew better than Mr Sentiment when he described the inhabitants of his alms-house'

The trouble with Trollope, is that he obviously sympathises with the exploiting classes, underlined in the irritating 'we' point-of-view he uses to addresses the reader:

'As John Bold will occupy much of our attention, we must endeavour to explain who he is, and why he takes the part of John Hiram's bedesmen'

I believe that the sequence of novels , the so-called Barsetshire Chronicles , of which this is the first, have more substance. As I'm told they are even more political, though, I'd definitely recommend footnotes. I suspect they may turn out to be the best parts.