Saturday 29 August 2015

More recycling

A long weekend here - August Bank Holiday. So here are some more TLS blogs for your reading pleasure.

Love letters on Objectophilia

Al-Mutannabi Street Starts Here on a good cause

Dylan Thomas. Heil! Heil! on Dylan Thomas and Hitler

Saving Spiegelhalter's on a plucky East End survivor

Glottal adventures on 'vocal fry'

Spiegelhalter's, Norton Folgate and The Water Poet on architectural campaigns

Man with a Movie Camera restored on the greatest documentary of all time

Wednesday 26 August 2015


I'm unlikely to have the time to blog again for a while, so below are some links to half a dozen recent blogs I wrote for the Times Literary Supplement, and which you may well have missed. Here they are gathered into one eclectic bundle - something for everyone, I hope. Or at least anyone. Our sole concern is all for your delight.

Epidermal doodles: on literary tattoos

Cellar door and other euphonies on linguistic aesthetics

Knocking on heaven's door: on Ian McEwan's evangelical howlers

Against Unremembering on The Henningham Family Press

Sunday 23 August 2015

Lanarky in the UK

Alasdair Gray's magnificent novel Lanark consists of four sections arranged in the order Three, One, Two, Four, bracketed by a Prologue and Epilogue (appearing long before the end of the book) in which the author himself explains the thinking behind this structural device:

"I want Lanark to be read in one order but eventually thought of in another"

This he achieved and much else besides. Lanark took Gray some thirty years to write and, when it was eventually published in 1982, was immediately recognised as a masterpiece. It has never been out of print and remains this prolific author's best-known work, a canonical 20th century novel and, if you insist, a 'classic'. I read it and re-read it when it was first published and have more or less kept up with Gray's monumental oeuvre ever since. He's a great writer.

Lanark has now been adapted for the stage by the Scottish playwright David Greig and director Graham Eatough in a co-production by the Glasgow Citizen's Theatre and the Edinburgh International Festival. "Please note this performance contains adult themes" warns the EIF website. It certainly does: birth and death, love and politics, philosophy, art and science. This is a big book, and a correspondingly big play, and the production is faithful to the spirit of the novel but not slavishly so. In a recent interview the director said "our aim is to do in theatre what Lanark does to the novel – to play with the form." I'll come back to this later.

There is playfulness in abundance on stage, and wholesale artistic larceny. Among the multiple plagiarisms  (cheerfully admitted and listed in the programme, an approach which itself plagiarises Gray's own list of plagiarisms in chapter 40 of the original novel), the director cites the mechanical wings worn by Sam Lowry, the hero of Terry Gilliam's dystopian film fantasy Brazil. There are also acknowledged debts to Lou Reed, Pina Bausch, Phillip Glass, The Beatles, Samuel Beckett, Robert Wilson, Flanagan & Allen, Sarah Kane, Bill Viola, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Xenophon, among many others. This sounds like a mish-nash of conflicting ideas (and what's wrong with that?), but the production is persuasive and coherent, not least thanks to wonderful set and costume designs by Laura Hopkins (whose previous work with the company was the award-winning and internationally-acclaimed Black Watch).

She has created five distinct realms: the hellish nocturnal city of Unthank (in its early and late incarnations), the heavenly Provan (which resembles a Commonwealth Games opening ceremony), the Intercalendrical Zone (some brilliant if under-powered visual trickery), the sinister subterranean Institute and a realist mid-century Glasgow. Each realm is fully-realised with many deft - and sometimes breathtaking - theatrical illusions. Lighting by Nigel Edwards and video sequences by Simon Wainwright add to a spectacle that is visually and aurally ravishing. Music is by Nick Powell with contributions from a starry cohort of indie musicians (all, needless to say, unknown to me).

Sandy Grierson plays the title role of Lanark (aka Duncan Thaw) - a marvellous, fully rounded characterisation - and he works with a strong cast of well-known Scottish actors. There's some terrific ensemble acting, especially in the second part (which is Act 1) when they speak as an oracular chorus introducing elements of Lanark's childhood and adolescence.

I attended the final preview performance last night (it opens officially tonight) and was very impressed. The overall design is deliberately pre-digital, as it were - there's a strong 1970s look and feel to the soundtrack, and to the low-tech video projections, and to the costumes. Gray's drawings are cleverly incorporated, some of them animated at the opening of each act (though appearing too briefly to be fully appreciated). An elaborately engineered scaffolding set is trundled around by hard-working stage hands (more engaging low-techery), and there's an adroit Pirandellian moment in the last act that went down well with an enthralled audience. A standing ovation at the first curtain call - whoops and cheers. This was all clearly very special.

A quibble. Gray took enormous risks with the form and content of his novel but at times this stage version seems less confident, the script less sure of its audience. There seems to be an imposed upbeat ending that I don't recall in the original (in which Lanark's lover Rima says "I always loved you" to the dying hero). She doesn't, and didn't, and that's part of the point. Art offers some consolation to Lanark/Thaw in the novel, but love is more problematic. It's something he can never fully give or receive. That is his tragedy.

Gray is 80 this year, ten years older than the venerable Glasgow Citizens' Theatre. He was hospitalised in June following a serious fall at his home and was unfortunately not well enough to attend the opening night. The production comes with the author's blessing and should be seen. 

Lanark runs until 31st August at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Lanark cover mage © Canongate

                           G O O D B Y E

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

An anonymous widower ('Dad' throughout) and his young twin sons together mourn the death of his wife and their mother. Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar, working on a book about the poet for a dodgy-sounding Mancunian publisher. A crow arrives, taking up residence in their home and their lives. It's no ordinary crow - it's Ted Hughes' Crow. 

On this premise the author builds a mesmerising polyphonic text (it could be a radio play without much in the way of alteration), a dazzling and richly rewarding debut that fits no existing category. It's hugely original, wayward and heartfelt - a terrific first book. It's bound to annoy Hughes purists and Plath devotees, and that's a welcome bonus. I don't want to give too much away so will - with apologies to the author - use this blog to bang on about a favourite subject.

Writing in Modern First Editions: Their Value to Collectors (1984), Joseph Connolly  (who would later become a Faber author) lamented the steep decline in the appearance of Faber & Faber books over the previous two decades. To make his case (and it seems to me an irrefutable one) he compared consecutive volumes in Lawrence Durrell's five-novel sequence known as the Avignon Quintet:

All the vibrancy has gone; no more two coloured cloth cases with labels, lozenges and rich gold blocking. No more   textured, unlaminated brightly coloured d/ws bearing sweeping Berthold Wolpe graphics. Just plain  plain paper boards and water coloured dust-wrappers.

At the time Connolly was writing - thirty years ago now - Faber designers seemed to lack vision, confidence and innovation, as any Google image search of Berthold Wolpe's magnificent dust wrappers will confirm. His wrappers are timelessly modern, reassuringly confident and sexy in the way (say) Bernard Herrmann's credit sequences for Hitchcock movies are. They are unquestionably among the best dust-jackets ever designed - and the books they embellish are pretty good also.

The last Faber book that looked that like a proper Faber book - to me, at any rate - was  the volume of Jarvis Cocker's Mother, Brother, Lover (2011). At the author's insistence the main colour of the dust-wrapper had to correspond with a particular brand of Bourneville chocolate. You'll note the use of something close to Wolpe's Albertus typeface which, by the way, is used for street signs in the City of London, and  can also be seen in colossal upper case decorating the lintel (if that's what you call it) of Centre Point, the 33-story office tower designed by George Marsh of Richard Seifert and Partners and built between 1961 and 1966. If it suddenly  toppled in a north-easterly direction the rubble would just about reach the doorway of the Faber offices in Great Russell Street.

I'm a great admirer of Jarvis Cocker, as it happens, but it rankles that he gets this kind of treatment while the rest of Faber's magnificent poetry backlist doesn't appear in a similar format (stable, durable, dignified, timeless). Did Cocker (famously a graduate of St Martin's College) insist on this treatment? Do other writers not have his savvy, his clout? The book contains his selected lyrics, which are accorded the same respect as Crow and Wodwo. Cocker isn't much of a poet, but then Ted Hughes couldn't have delivered a blistering performance of Common People to a huge crowd at Glastonbury. Watch that here and marvel.

I have many Faber books from the 1930s which are still fresh and bright and have a pleasant smell, whereas paperbacks (not only from Faber) published ten years ago fall apart in my hands (so-called 'perfect' binding), and the nasty cheap paper is brown and crackly. Bad value, I'd say.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is one of the most beautiful Faber editions I've ever seen. A return to form? Faber's in-house designers have revived the look and feel of the company's books in their heyday: stately Wolpe lettering, a memorable illustration by the aptly-named Eleanor Crow, matt wrappers. And it's proof that you really can tell a book by its cover - this is a  covetably lovely first edition of a sensationally original debut. 

Cover images © Faber and Faber

Monday 10 August 2015

Beckett and cricket

Wisden's obituary for Samuel Beckett got its priorities right, and so did he.

Samuel Barclay Beckett, who died in Paris on December 22, 1989, aged 83, had two first-class games for Dublin University against Northamptonshire in 1925 and 1926, scoring 35 runs in his four innings and conceding 64 runs without taking a wicket. A left-hand opening batsman, possessing what he himself called a gritty defense, and a useful left-arm medium-pace bowler, he had enjoyed a distinguished all-round sporting as well as academic record at Portora Royal School, near Enniskillen, and maintained his interest in games while at Trinity College, Dublin. Indeed, Beckett, whose novels and plays established him as one of the important literary figures of the twentieth century, bringing him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, never lost his affection for and interest in cricket.

Sunday 9 August 2015

Utopia at the Roundhouse

To the Roundhouse arts centre in Camden, there to see the installation UTOPIA, by tha artist and film-maker Penny Woolcock.

Except that we didn't see it. Arrinving shorly before the timed entry on our tickets we learned from font-of-house staff that there was a 'technical hitch' and there would be 'a few minutes' wait before the doors opened. Ten minutes later and I was told we might like to have a drink while we were  waiting, and were directed to something called The Camden Beach, a summer attraction sponsored by a vodka company and situated on a veranda space outside the building.

Before accessing the open-air space (with its beach huts and deck chairs and piped reggae-lite and bars and pop-up eateries) we had our bags searched and then paused to study the lengthy list of restrictions and prohibitions (couched in a jocular and dispiriting register: 'No Obvious Letching', 'No Heavy Petting' and so on). Absolutely everything you'd expect to be able to do on a beach was prohibited, apart from swimming, which wasn't possible because there was no water. This wasn't so much a beach as a sanitised desert.

But there were 150 tonnes of sand! And five private beach huts available for hire! And three different eateries! And dozens of deck chairs!

What we had was a heavily-policed and intensely commodified private space, everything was branded with the vodka maker's logo. It wasn't (as fliers claimed) an authentic if nostalgic British beach experience (no slap 'n' tickle or kiss me quick, no Reg Dixon at the Mighty Wurlitzer or winkles and whelks) but something closer to a bowdlerised Ibiza or Aya Napa. It was perfectly horrible.

Blinking at the price of the drinks (which included a 'Sex on the Beach cocktail) and unsettled by the sight of male and female citizens in pallid states of exposure we went back to the lobby where I glanced at the Utopia programme. The installation appeared to share certain values with the Camden Beach:

2 years in the making
3km of audio cable
33,265 cardboard boxes
15 tonnes of rubble
1,200 props.
2 cars
90 speakers
Over 6,000 hours of work

I'm tempted to add exclamation marks to each of these Barnham and Bailey huckster phrases. They seemed to me to set the wrong tone - logistics are one thing, but we were after an aesthetic experience, and possibly illumination. Who cares how many kilometres of audio cable went into the blasted space? What's that got to do with anything? A few other aspiring (and perspiring) Utopians had by now congregated outside the closed entrance. We'd now been waiting for about an hour and I spent a while gazing at an informative and well-designed wall display showing the history of the building since its origins in the 1830s as an engine shed for the London to Birmingham railway. It was later a bonded booze warehouse. It has had mixed fortunes over the past half century, skirting and sometimes embracing the radical.

As a 1960s concert venue it staged gigs by Jim Morrison and the Doors, and Jim Hendrix, and the Soft Machine and Genesis. As a theatre venue it hosted performances from Stephen Berkoff, Ginsberg and Ken Campbell. In the punk years Blondie and Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Buzzcocks and Patti Smith all passed through the doors currently shut to us. I recall visiting the Roundhouse for a brilliant production of Hamlet in modern dress (quite a rare thing back then) with Ben Kingsley as the Prince and the late Bob Peck as the First Gravedigger. It was (I learned today) the playwright Arnold Wesker who, in the 1960s, led the revival of the Roundhouse as 'Centre 42' (after the Trades Union resolution that urged the improvement of arts provisionthroughout the country. It became (according to the Roundhouse's erratically literate website) it became 'one of the most cutting-edge performing arts venue  [sic] in the country.

The most recent refurbishment - and the most successful - followed acquisition of the site in 2006 by the philanthropist Torquil Norman, after whom an upstairs bar is named. He was reportedly aghast, being a low-key chap, at such recognition and agreed only if a plaque were erected recording his distaste at the honour. This, amusingly, appears. He also insisted that he have a single free martini whenever he went to the bar, which seems fair enough given the many millions he has invested in the site. I like the cut of Torquil Norman's jib, and you might like to look him up on Google.   

Back in the lobby again. There were now about fifty people milling around and the next wave of 'timed entry' punters had started to drift in to be told that the doors would open 'in about five minutes'.  I noticed a printed sign on one of the entrance doors:

This instillation [sic] contains flashing lights and images. Patrons with photosensitivity are asked make [sic] themselves known to a member of staff.

Another friendly young member of the front of house staff then took me to one side to explain that some elements of the installation were unsuitable for children because there was a 'very explicit' description of a murder and of a couple screwing (not her phrase). We had a ten-year-old boy with us who perked up at the prospect but I felt uneasy as this was the first suggestion that the installation content was likely to be unsuitable for children. 
Being told by another very patient Roundhouse person that it would still be 'only about five minutes'  because of 'a minor technical hitch' I rather rudely asked the person at the box office if they'd tried switching it off and switching it on again. And our boy Frank said, with comic gravity 'You can't switch off Utopia".

But of course you can - and that's how you get a Dystopia. I haven't seen the installation but suspect it's more about the latter. The statement by Penny Woolcock in the programme says in part:

      I'm utterly complicit, typing this out on my laptop, stabbing at my smartphone, wearing my
      hundred and ten pound trainers, but I don't believe any of us is really comfortable stuffing
      ourselves while others scavenge on rubbish dumps, even if we prefer not to think about it.

She has a point, of course, but she seems to be confusing Utopianism (which is about society) with consumerism (which is about the individual). Feeling uncomfortable about the vast gap between the haves and have nots is a First World Problem of course, and if she's really so unhappy about splashing out a hundred quid on a  pair of fancy plimsolls I can suggest an easy way out of that particular ethical dilemma.

After a 90-minute wait we were offered tokens to get free drinks at the ghastly beach bar, but I didn't want to go back there and being told again that everything would be running 'in five to ten minutes' failed to convince. It was now 2:30. We'd had enough 'all gong and no dinner' by now and began the lengthy process of negotiating a refund from the friendly staff before leaving the building in search of a very late lunch. I reflected, on the way home, that Utopias, being social constructs, cannot accommodate the individual and that they always, always go wrong. I also reflected that, as a conceptual experience exploring thwarted desires and the hollow aspirations of late capitalist consumer culture, the afternoon had been a howling success.

The installation has been widely reviewed and mostly praised. I expect it's terrific but reserve judgement. On 5th August the comedian Russell Brand staged a one-off performance using the set, and I suspect his dazzling loquacity (not to be confused with eloquence) found an apt counterpoint in the overwhelming accumulation of 'stuff' making up Woolcock's Utopia.

'Bloomberg Philanthropics' are the show's corporate sponsors.