Sunday, 3 May 2015

What I Did on My Holidays - Versailles

I got home yesterday after spending long weekend in Paris, accompanied by my parents (OK, not the most romantic option, but fun!)

We travelled by train, including the Eurostar, which I haven't been on before. It was, if I am honest, a little underwhelming - the train was comfortable, but a great deal of the track runs through cuttings so  you don't see as much of the landscape as I had hoped.

On the other hand, it is less stressful than flying, and brings you into the heart of Paris, which is nice.

Once we arrived, our first day was spent visiting Versailles, as I'd never been, and have wanted to see it for a long time

It is extraordinary.

It would, I think, be fair to say that it is not marred by any touch of restraint. 

Chapel, Palais de Versaille
The Bourbons may have been aware of the concept of understatement, but if so, it can only have been in order to avoid it at all costs.

It is not difficult to understand, wandering around the palace, why the French Revolution happened...

I have never seen so much gilt in one place.

I am not a big fan of the rococo or baroque styles, but it has to be admitted that this place is impressive!

As well as the main palace, we also visited the Grand and the Petit Trianon (giving us a chance to see the Napoleon's taste in furnishings was no better than that of the Bourbons) 

Also Marie-Antoinette's little Hamlet, where there are half a dozen 'cottages', all almost painfully picturesque - it isn't possible to go inside any of them, so I cannot say with absolute certainty that nothing there is gilded, but they are a little less blingy from the outside, at least! 

I had not previously appreciated that the Petit Trianon had been built for Madame de Pompadour,(although she died before it was finished).

It was occupied by her successor as Louis XV's mistress, Madame du Barry, before being passed on to Queen Marie Antoinette..

We ended the trip with a visit to parts of the gardens. If  I happened to have several acres of garden I might be tempted to add a parterre or two, with lots of little yew trees clipped into perfect cone shapes..

But Louis and his friends can keep the gilding.

We spent the entire day at Versailles, and could have spent longer - we didn't spend much time in the park and only visited parts of the gardens.  It was a very interesting day.
Hall of Mirrors

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Magna Carta Again

After my night at the theatre, I had the morning free before heading home, so took the opportunity to go to the British Library, to see their Magna Carta :Law, Liberty, Legacy Exhibition, which opened on 13th March.
The exhibition is, of course, part of the celebrations of the 800th Anniversary of the Charter, and it is both fascinating and comprehensive.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically, starting with some background reading - a beautifully illuminated scroll setting out King John's genealogy, Henry I's coronation charter, and the Laws of King Cnut, reminding us that Magna Carta didn't emerge from a vacuum, but built on previous ideas and legal agreements. There were contemporary accounts of John's first forays into warfare (in Ireland) and of his murder of his nephew Arthur, and documents relating to the political and financial issues which led up to Magna Carta (the Papal Interdict, documents relating to the treatment of Jewish moneylenders, and so on.) The Papal Bull which put England under the Pope's overlordship is also displayed, as the the Statute of Pamiers, which was a charter issued by Simon de Montfort to his French subjects in 1212, guaranteeing rights similar to those in Magna Carta.

Thomas Cromwells's remembrances:
Photo British Library
Then there were documents relating to the Charter and its implementation,such as the Articles of the Barons, (effectively a first draft of Magna Carta), documents relting to the dissemination of the Charter,  the Papal Bull annulling it, King John's will, (and his finger bone, 2 teeth, and a fragment of his shroud, all taken from his tomb when it was opened in 1797).

There were also copies of the later Charters, reissued in 2017, and by Henry III.

The next stage of the exhibition moves on and looks at how Magna Carta was used and invoked, including a handwritten note by Thomas Cromwell (believed to relate to Sir Thomas More's trial), The Petition of Right of 1628, to King Charles I, (and printed details of his trial) and the Bill of Rights of 1688, (which invited William and Mary of Orange to take the throne, and set lmits to their power if they did)
Declaration of  Independence :
Photo from NY Public Library 

And then moved on to the Colonies, starting with transcripts of the trial of William Penn (at which the Judge notoriously imprisoned the jury for failing to give the guilty verdict he felt appropriate!),and including Thomas Jefferson's handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence, and contemporary printed copies, together with material relating to the laws of various of the original States, some of which, such as Massachusetts and Virginia specifically invoked Magna Carta.

There are also political cartoons relating to the French Revolution, and to to the Chartist movement in this country.

The remaining section of the exhibition relates to more recent developments - documents relating to the East India Company, and, later, the Colonies. There are also documents relating to Churchill's suggestion to give the Lincoln Magna Carta to the USA, in the hopes this would encourage the US to join the War, and modern political cartoons, as well as, on a lighter note, Magna Carta themed jigsaws, games, a Ladybird Book, and of course Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 and All That which notes that John was a Bad King,  but that Magna Carta was a Good Thing (which, now I come to think of it, is srguably the message of this exhibition, too!)

Right at the end of the exhibition are the British Library's two copies of Magna Carta, the 'London'and 'Lincoln' copies.
The 'London' Magna Carta - British Library
It is a very interesting exhibition. Many of the items on display have been loaned by other institutions, from the NY Library, to the French National Archives, Parliament, several Oxford and Cambridge Colleges and any number of Cathedrals, so the chances of seeing them all together again seems slim!  

The exhibition continues until September, so I am hoping that I shall have a chance to go back, perhaps when the exhibition is a little less crowded (well, a girl can hope!). If you are in or near London between now and September, I'd strongly recommend going.

Monday, 6 April 2015

In Which There are Museums, and an Atom Bomb

I impulse bought a theatre ticket about a month ago, for the RSC's production of 'Oppenheimer', which has just transferred from Stratford to London.Tickets for the first few nights were half price, and I was tempted. (of course, the cost of tickets is relatively low to start with, compared to the cost of trains and accommodation, but one doesn't always think of that!)

Which  meant that last Saturday I caught a train to London, for a weekend of exhibitions and theatre.

I started with a quick visit to the Wallace Collection , which was a little disappointing, as unfortunately several of the rooms were closed to visitors, including the majority of their collection of arms and armour, which I would have liked to see, so I quickly moved on.

I went on  to the Petrie Museum, which was founded under a bequest to University College London by Amelia Edwards, an early Egyptologist, and co-founder of the Egypt Exploration Society.

It is a small but interesting museum, dedicated to ancient Egyptian archaeology and  artifacts. I admit that my enthusiasm for potsherds is rather limited, but I loved seeing the fragments of stone and plaster, some of which still show the original colours. The museum also has a number of portraits from (later period) coffins, amazingly well preserved after 2,000 years or so! 

I also enjoyed seeing the collections of jewellery, ranging from gold to glass and ceramic beads.

After leaving the museum, I had time for a leisurely meal before heading out to the theatre for the evening.

I have very impressed indeed with the cast. The play starts in around 1937 and follows J Robert Oppenheimer ('Oppie') in his progress towards the creation of the Atomic bomb, with the play ending just after Nagasaki. 

Oppenheimer is played by John Heffernan,who I last saw in 'The HotHouse', about two years ago. I thought then he was worth watching, and I stand by that opinion! His Oppenheimer is not a particularly likeable man, sacrificing his own political principals, and his Communist friends and colleagues in order to achieve his own ambitions, and not, it would appear a natural husband or father, but he is a very human man, tormented by the weight of the work he is doing.

The play is almost 3 hours long, (which at the Vaudeville Theatre is no joke!) but it is gripping, and well worth seeing.

I'm not entirely sure about the part of the play where the atom bomb is exploded - there is a large model bomb which is winched up above the stage, and there is then a blackout as the 'bomb' goes off - I admit that I think it might have been more effective had the 'bomb' remained offstage, but over all it is a gripping production, and does address the moral issues raised by the building, and dropping of the bomb.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Grumble Grumble Grumble

This is just me having a bit of a rant. Feel free to scroll past if you are not in the mood ;)

I moved house in April last year, which meant registering with a new GP. Registering was fine. All seemed good. The practice has a surgery in my village, which *is* good, and they have a small dispensary there, so if necessary you can get your prescription at the surgery.All good.


Ever since moving, I have had trouble with my prescriptions. Initially, the problem was that my registration with the online ordering system wasn't working. After about 4 phone calls and 3 in-person visits to the surgery it turned out that they had mis-transcribed my email address. 

Which I would mind less had it not been for the fact that I had suspected, the first time I had a problem, that they might have done exactly that, and had specifically asked them to double check, and had been assured, multiple times, that it was correct.

Then, when I finally got access to the online ordering system, I found that it would not let me order one of my repeat prescription.

Another phone call plus visit to the surgery and I worked out that this was because the dosage was wrong, so the system thinks I use 25% of my actual dosage, so of course it thinks I only need to reorder a quarter as often as I *actually* need to reorder.

So I made an appointment to see my new GP, who I'd never previously met, and explained the issue (and also that this time, the problem seems to be too accurate transcribing - I think the error was actually made by my old GP, but no one there ever checked it against the actual prescriptions I was requesting, or noticed that the numbers didn't add up.)

And I thought he had corrected it. Except - I ordered a prescription, and it didn't get sent to the pharmacy requested, and as I found when I called in at the surgery to enquire, and it was wrong. So I reiterated what I had requested, and they promised to correct it and get it sent to the right pharmacy.

I went to pick up my medication from the chemist yesterday, and found that the prescription they sent to be filled included both my medications (so ended up paying a prescription charge for something I hadn't ordered, and don't currently need.) That's not the end of the world. It doesn't go off, and I can stockpile it. 

But it is a little worrying that they can't get it right.

But. I checked the copy of the prescription and the dosage is *still* not right. It's improving. We're up to 75% of the correct dosage. 

*Sigh* So now I shall have to write another letter to them, and hope they can get it right.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Terry Pratchett : 1948 - 2015

I was updating our company's twitter feed on Thursday afternoon, saw retweets of posts from Terry Pratchett's account and realised, after some frantic googling, that it was true, that PTerry, Sir Terry Pratchett, had died.

I kept googling, hoping against hope that I'd find the site, the news story, that said it was a lie, or a malicious hoax, or that Terry's family had checked, and discovered that he was actually clasping a little sign saying "I aten't' dead" but of course I couldn't find one, because it wasn't.

Later, when I got home from work, I was able to turn on the news, and there could be no more doubt, (or hope). The story was a leading headline on the national news , and as Terry lived here in the West Country, it was also the lead on the local news, with soundbites from the Doctors at RICE, in Bath, where Terry's embuggerance was researched and treated. 

And it feels like losing an old friend.

I first encountered Terry over 25 years ago, in an English Literature lesson. Of course, they were not teaching us his work. We were supposed to be studying Oliver Twist, but were in fact not studying it, so much as reading it aloud, V.E.R.Y.     V.E.R.Y.    S.L.O.W.L.Y. and with absolutely no expression. I was very bored (and lost all interest in Dickens for a decade or so). And a friend offered to lend me a paperback book, small enough to read discreetly inside my copy of Oliver Twist (It is easier to get away with this stuff when you have the reputation of being quiet and studious). 

I wasn't immediately taken by the book. The cover was a bit garish, and had wizards, and big muscly men with double-headed axes, which made me think it was likely to be a sub-Tolkien swords-and-sorcery story - not my favourite thing. But  still, anything seemed better than slow motion Dickens, so I started to read The Colour of Magic... And realised that it was not, after all, quite what I expected. And that I wanted more.

I think I borrowed the next two or three books over the following weeks, and then (because this was 1988 or '89, and there were only 5 or 6 paperbacks) I ran out, and the wait for each new book began.

I think Wyrd Sisters was the first Discworld book I bought rather than borrowing, when it first came out in paperback, and I spent the next 10 years buying each new novel as it came out in paperback (I could not afford the hardcovers). Good Omens  is how I found out about Neil Gaiman, so I have Terry to thank for that, as well.

I got to meet Terry in 1999. I was newly qualified, and living in Manchester, and not terribly happy. I had been in Manchester city centre, for a court hearing, and decided to go and spend a little whole browsing in Waterstones, and perhaps having a coffee in their cafe, to avoid having to drive home in heavy traffic, as there had been a road closure on my route home. 

I got to the cafe, and discovered that all of the seating had been rearranged in neat rows, and learned that this was because Terry Pratchett would be coming, for a signing of his new book, The Fifth Elephant. 

So of course, I had to stay. I bought a copy of The Fifth Elephant  (my first hardback Pratchett) and a copy of Eric as mine had filed to return from a loan to a friend. And over the next hour or so, I started to read, the room filled up, and the Terry arrived, and spoke briefly, and signed. And signed, and signed. I am pretty sure that his minder had brought a packet of frozen peas along for him to rest his wrist on, knowing how much signing would be necessary.

I told Terry why I was buying a new copy of Eric, so he wrote 'Give it Back' in the new copy. (Of course, I didn't lend out *that* copy, after that!)  And he he was kind, and friendly, when I babbled about how much I enjoyed his books, just as if he hadn't heard exactly the same thing from hundreds of other people.

I had been near the front of the queue, and as I left I realised that the queue was not simply the 150 or so people sitting in the cafe, nor those winding their way around the whole of the 3rd floor. The queue continued down the stairs, around the 2nd floor, down a second flight of stairs, around the 1st floor, down another flight of stairs, and around the ground floor. It did not stretch out of the door into the street, but only because they had closed the doors. . . 

It was the first time I had ever been to a signing, for anyone. It was around the same time, I think, that I discovered that that 'Neil Gaiman' bloke, who Terry had written Good Omens with had also written some other stuff, ensuring that I found The Sandman and was properly hooked by the time American Gods came out.

The second time I met Terry was nearly 10 years later, in 2008. Terry was to be featured on a BBC Radio 4 program, 'With Great Pleasure', which was broadcast on Christmas Day 2008. The program featured him talking about books and writers which were important to him, and was recorded at the Forum, in Bath. 

I wrote about it at the time - it was a fascinating evening in which Terry talked about pieces of writing which had interested or inspired him.

This was, of course, about a year  after Terry had gone public about his Embuggarance, and the script from the evening was auctioned off for Alzheimer's, and Terry himself explained, at the end of the evening, that while he would be happy to sign things for people, he would not be able to personalise them, as while he could sign his name, adding other details 'derailed' his hand/eye coordination, and slowed him down.

I continued to buy and read Terry's books (buying them in hardback on publication day, by this time: one of a very small number of authors I will do that for) and continued to be frequently moved to laughter, and to tears (and sometimes to tears of laughter) by his work.

It is almost impossible to pick a favourite Pratchett book - I have a very soft spot for Reaper Man, for all of the Sam Vimes books, perhaps particularly the later ones as Sam deals with marriage and fatherhood. Nation stands as perhaps one of the most thoughtful, and The Unadulterated Cat is, of course, unmatched as a truthful reflection of life with cats. 

I can think of only one or two other authors who have been such close and constant companions to me in my reading life. 

I didn't know Terry in person. I loved the stories he lived, as well as those he wrote. It is deeply satisfying to know that he chose to mine the ore for, and help to forge, his own sword when he was knighted, for instance. And I suspect that many of his thousands of fans will, like me, be smiling through our tears as we re-read he work, and remember.

R.I.P. Terry. 
Thank you for everything

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Bath Festival of Literature Part #3 - Aspects of WWII

The final events I attended at the Bath Literature Festival were both based on books about WWII, but couldn't have been more different.

The first event was Rick Stroud, speaking about the events around the kidnap of General Kreipe on Crete during WWII, by a team led by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Stroud gave a summary of the incident. Originally planned as a kidnap of General Müller 'the butcher of Crete', the target changed when Müller was replaced by Kreipe.

Stroud described the (often bizarre) group of young SOE men who planned the kidnap, and the extraordinary Cretans who assisted them, risking everything.

It's a fascinating story - famously made into a film 'Ill met by Moonlight' . 

It wasn't, ultimately, particularly useful in terms of the war effort, but it was a heroic effort, with a very interesting cast of characters. I  didn't buy Stroud's book, although I think I may borrow it from the library, and perhaps also look for Leigh-Fermor's own account, too.

The second event was about a very different element of the War - the women who worked at Bletchley Park. The event was withTessa Dunlop,who has tracked down many of the women of Bletchley Park who are still alive, and persuaded them to tell their stories, and the resulting book, The Bletchley Girls has now been published.

Tessa Dunlop has a wonderful enthusiasm for the women she met, and she brought them vividly to life as she spoke about the work they did, and  their post-war lives.

The women undertook a range of jobs at Bletchley, from transcribing intercepts, to working as a messenger, to working on the 'Bombe' machines, and came from a variety of backgrounds: in the beginning, the majority of the women were the wives and daughters (and wives and daughters of friends) of the men who were working at, or who knew about, Bletchley Park, and so were mainly middle or upper class, but over time, as the number of people working there increased, a wider range of girls and women were recruited.

As well as speaking about the women and their roles, Dunlop played  recordings of several of the women themselves, and showed us a number of photos of them, then and now. She also pointed out that as the work was secret, none of the women told anyone what they had done until maybe 30 years after the end of the war, and that many of them had, in the mean time, married and had husbands who were not particularly interested in what they may have done in the war!

I was already broadly familiar with the work of Bletchley Park, but Dunlop's enthusiasm and knowledge of her subject made me want to read the book and learn more about this particular aspect of work there.

By a happy coincidence, the event was held a a venue I have not been to before - the former chapel (now a small museum) at the Mineral Hospital (Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases). It is rather nice, and has some lovely stained glass, including the delightful gentleman on the right, in the fez! 

I shall have to go back to look around the museum when I have time.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Bath Festival of Literature Part #2

There were  a couple of events which I should have liked to see, as part of the festival, but could not as they clashed with my London trip (it's  hard life!).

However, on Friday evening I was back in Bath, at the Guildhall,to see Kazuo Ishiguro interviewed about his new novel, The Buried Giant. 

It was an interesting evening. Ishiguro began by reading the first few pages of the novel, and was  then interviewed by Alex Clark.

He explained that he had been thinking about writing a novel about the issues covered in The Buried Giant for about 15 years, and that he had wanted to write a book which , unlike most of his earlier novels, which are written in the first person and address issues of individual memories, and that he has always been interested in how nations remember and forget.

He talked about the issue of when is it (is it ever?) the right thing to do, for a nation to bury dark memories. 

This book is, he explained, an exploration of that process of remembering and forgetting applied to a marriage and to a nation.

He decided to set the book in a distant and mythical time and place, despite thinking about lots of modern examples, such as the situations in Rwanda, in Kosovo, in France during and after WW2 in part because he is not a journalistic novelist, and does not do lots of factual research in a way that would be necessary if the novel were set in a specific, recent time and place, but also because "that is not the kind of truth I am trying to create" - he was thinking of patterns that recur over and over, and did not want to be nailed down to one specific point in history.

He was then asked about whether the book was fantasy, bearing in mind that it has ogres and pixies in. I was a little disappointed at his response. It would have been nice to hear him say, yes, it's fantasy, and it is also a literary novel. But he didn't. Instead, he spoke of his surprise that the issue had got much attention, that he felt that boundaries between genres are shifting and that he had 'felt free' to do this - he even went so far as to say that if there were sides, he was on the side of the ogres, and did not want "the imagination police" leaning over his shoulder to tell him what he could or could not write. .  .but only after carefully identifying himself as a 'literary novelist', using fantasy as a tool. It would have been nice had he simply said "Yes, it's fantasy".

Be that as it may, it was an interesting discussion, and I am looking forward to reading the novel.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

The rest of my trip to London

The main reason for going to London (this time) were to meet up with N and A, and to see Neil give his lecture, but happily there was also time for other fun things.

When I first got to London, I met up with N and we had a delightful lunch at Nopi, Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurant. 

I did not know before that yogurt could be caramalised, but it seems that it can... ! 

 (the restaurant also has the most disconcerting bathrooms ever - they have infinitely reflecting mirrors, a  little like an unusually refined funfair...

 Very elegant to have around the basins, but I am not wholly convinced that having multiple, full-length mirrors, in a lavatory cubicle is entirely appealing...)

After lunch we went to Foyles, for some book shopping. They had a delightful display of penguins in the window  (the artist was Chloe Spicer) . The penguins were made from, and celebrating the Penguin 'Little Black Classics'

I was a little sad that perfectly good little books had died to make the little penguins, but they do seem to be happy, book-loving penguins, so I shall get over it!

I had not intended to buy any books, as they are heavy to carry, and I do have several lovely local bookshops, but I was unable to resist temptation. I have never found it easy to leave a bookshop without buying books, or indeed to pass a bookshop without going in.

 Only two of the books I bought were full size, though. . . I did bring some little black penguin classics home with me, although I have not the skill to turn them into actual penguins after reading them..

We had time for some tea and cake before heading to Neil's lecture, and also to admire the beautiful Burmese cat living at N's BandB, which was very nice!

On the Wednesday, I had most of the day to myself, as my train was not until late afternoon.

I started off with a visit to Leighton House Museum, the former home of Frederic, Lord Leighton, who had the house built in 1866, and then extended a few years later to house Leighton's collection of tiles and other artifacts collected in the Middle East, and it is an amazing building. 

(photo of 'The Roses of Heliogabulus from exhibition website)
It is also, currently, housing an exhibition of Victorian artwork owned by Mexican collector Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, and featuring in particular, Alma Tadema's  The Roses of Heliogabalus, which was displayed in a rose-scented room!

For me, the highlight was not the artwork, but the building itself. 

(photo of Arab Hall from museum website)
The house features the wonderful 'Arab Hall',a beautiful space, decorated with  Iznik (Turkish) and Syrian tiles, and modern tiles made by William de Morgan  to compliment the originals, and fill in the gaps. 

The hall is topped by a glorious golden dome, and contains a fountain.

I had arrived just as the museum opened and was lucky enough to have the hall to myself for a time, to enjoy the tranquility and the beautiful details. 

The entrance hall is also lovely, with the most glorious peacock-blue tiles on the walls, although frustratingly, you are not allowed to take pictures, (and the selection of postcards was very limited :( )

The exhibition is ending at the end of this month, but the house is open all year round, and is more than worth visiting!

After leaving Leighton House, I moved on to another exhibition (also close to ending!) - the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London.   

The museum have the outside of the museum in an appropriate manner, and inside are all sorts of interesting things - after entering through a 'secret' door, there is a lot of information about Victorian London, including maps (some showing the routes taken by Holmes and Watson in specific stories, and the method of travel ( foot, cab, rail etc) 

There was art, both contemporary art and photographs of London (Including a slightly unexpected Monet!), original illustrations from the stories, and a selection of posters and other artwork relating to various other iterations of the stories, including the Robert Downey Jnr. film, and a french pornographic film.. 

Further into the exhibition were some of Conan Doyle's original manuscripts, and information and artifacts related to criminal investigation in the Holmes era, plus examples of clothing, accessories etc. of the period. (including theatrical make up and props)

And, of course, props from some of the dramatisations, including Benedict Cumberatch's coat from the BBC's Sherlock.

I found it entertaining, but not quite the 'must see' which some of the reviews I have read suggested. 

I finished up by wandering around the rest of the museum, including the parts devoted to Roman and Medieval London, before heading back to the station (and a *very* crowded train home. 

Now to start planning what I shall do with my next visit to London, when I shall have another couple of days . . .

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The 13th Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture

I heard, back in October, that Neil Gaiman would be giving the 13th Annual Douglas Adams Memorial lecture, at the Royal Geographical Society in London, so I booked tickets for myself and a friend, and then mostly forgot about it, until last week when we started planning. 
(And  happily another friend was able to get a ticket, late on, so there were 3 of us, in the evening)

We arrived just after 6:30 and were met, outside the venue, by a Rhino. (The event was to support the charity, Save the Rhino, of which Douglas Adams was a supporter and patron), so the Rhino was not out of place!

Once inside, we found seats, (and found several other friends, too, although there wasn't much opportunity to catch up) and waited for Neil, while a film about the work of Save the Rhino, and its sister organisation, The Environmental Investigation Agency, (EIA) played on a big screen.

The lecture was worth the wait.
Dirk Maggs introducing Neil

Douglas Adams' (half) brother, James Thrift gave a brief introduction, Julian Newman of EIA explained the work of both organisations, and then Dirk Maggs (who of course was very involved in both the original HHGTTG radio shows, and with the more recent Good Omens radio drama, and with the HHGTTG live stage show) introduced Neil.

The speech was live-streamed, and the full lecture is available on YouTube, and I would recommend watching it.

I won't, therefore, try to report everything which was said, but have to mention a few favourite points. 

Neil's explanation that when thinking about the lecture, he had asked himself "what would Douglas do?"  ... as a result of which he was writing the lecture at 4:30 p.m ... and hoped to finish it at the weekend!

Neil talked about Adams' influence on him, and then moved on to talk about immortality and stories as lifeforms, and books as sharks.. all of which made perfect sense as he was saying it...

He talked about the immortality of stories - the oldest plants we know of are 5,000 years old, the oldest animals around 300 years old, but we have stories which can be traced back 8,000 years (a Native American story of forbidden love and volcanoes), and others which have survived from ancient Egypt (the Tale of the two Brothers) 

He spoke too, of his cousin Helen, a survivor of the Warsaw and Rodomsko ghettos, was, quite literally prepared to risk her life for stories, hiding and reading a copy of 'Gone with the Wind' which had been smuggled in, and retelling the story to her friends. He made the point that while fiction is often criticised for being 'escapist',escapism is not always a bad thing. There are places, and situations, from which it is good to escape.

At the end of the lecture there was time for  few questions, and as these had been collected before hand on index cards, it avoided the whole problem of the  endless question..

Neil was asked whether Douglas would have used twitter, and he confirmed thast Douglas would, no doubt, have used twitter to avoid writing two, maybe three further books (Neil described the internet as like his personal Tamagotchi: there are all those people on twitter, and you feel that if you don't give the a little love and attention, they will wither and die!)

He was asked which of his works he would like to be remembered for (Answer: Any of them) and speculated about how AA Milne, and JM Barrie would have felt had they know what they would be remembered for. It is, he said, so easy to be forgotten, so he would pick "any of them" 

Then there was a question about whether he felt things more, or less, than when he was younger. His answer was that you feel things differently but that he was not sure that he could kill people with the same joyous abandon as he did in the early days. . . 

But these are just my highlights. You should absolutely watch, and listen to the whole thing.

We none of us won any of the raffle prizes, but after the lecture finished and the raffle was drawn, Neil hung around for a little while and we were able to say hello,  and to give him hugs and cake, both of which are good things in almost every situation, and certainly in this one!

We (or rather my friend A, who is more observant than me) also got a little thrill by recognizing Arthur Darvill (AKA Rory-the-Roman-Williams) who had been in the audience,as we left!

A most delightful evening!

Sunday, 1 March 2015

An Excellent start to the Bath Festival of Literature

The Bath Festival of Literature  started yesterday evening, and I went to the first of the events I have booked, today. They were very different - one an interview with Mark Bostridge, who is the biographer of Vera Brittain, was an advisor on the film 'Testament of Youth' and who has just written a new book, Vera Brittain and the First World War. The second event was Austentatious, an improvised Jane Austen play...

I enjoyed both events.

Mark Bostridge was interviewed by Elizabeth Day, who is herself a novelist and a journalist for the Observer. Bostridge explained that he felt Brittain's story was a compelling one, particularly in being one of the first to address and explore the grief of the war, rather than its heroism, but also to show how it was possible to move on.

He spoke about the difficulty of writing a biography of someone with a living family; the family will say they want truth, but may not want it when they hear it.. he gave a couple of examples. 

One was a letter which Brittain wrote to her friend after her marriage, saying extremely uncomplimentary things about her husband on their wedding night, and the other, later, about an unpublished memoir written by her brother Edward's Commanding Officer, in which he disclosed that Edward had been warned by his CO that his letters to another officer were being read. Bostridge linked this to an incident in Brittain's novel 'Honourable Estate' in which a character caught having sex with another man deliberately got himself killed by going over the top. Bostridge explained the social and legal consequences of homosexual behaviour, at the time. 

He did explain that of course it is impossible know with any certainty whether Edward was gay(although he did attend Uppingham school, which was apparently exposed as being notorious for bullying and "filthy behaviour" . . 

He also spoke about the importance of realizing that Testament of Youth was written some 15 years after the event, and that having also read Brittain's letters and diary, it was fascinating to see the change to her attitude. For instance, her diaries show a very patriotic, almost Jingoistic enthusiasm at the start of the war, and was enthusiastic about her brother joining up, which is not reflected in the finished work.

Bostridge said that he was, on the whole, happy with the film - other than the scene where Brittoai learns about Leighton's death. He also pointed out that the film is somewhat misleading in how Brittain's parents treated her wish to attend University - he sad that Brittain's mother was very enthusiastic and supportive, and that Britton herself had reservations, fearing that going to Oxford would make it harder for her to marry well! 

All in all, very interesting. I haven't yet seen the Testament of Youth film but do want to do so. 

I then headed over to the Forum, for Austentatious. 

Which was a complete change of pace, and a whole lot of fun. 

It is an improvised performance of a 'lost' Austen(esque) novel based on a title suggested by the audience - in this case,'Who cares what colour *that* dress is', beating 'Maids in Waiting' (Described by the cast as 'the Made in Essex of its day) and described as one of Austen's 700+ lost novels..

The play was performed by a cast of 5, masquerading as a cast of thousands (well, 10s, anyway) and included a ball, an elopement, some jam, many references to what happened 'last time', and a happy ending for at least one couple! 

Photo from @Viv Groskop's twitter feed and (C) Viv Groskop
It was a whole lot of fun. Austentatious are currently touring - well worth seeing if you can (dates on their website, here)

I am looking forward to several ore Bath Lit Fest events next weekend including seeing Kazuo Ishiguro, and Celia Imrie.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

*Sigh* The perils of living with little furry killing machines

I love my cats, but there are times when I could do without being reminded of their instincts..

Up til now, they have been fairly restrained - Loki brings in earthworms, which I can live with (although I feel sorry for them when he leaves them too near the radiator, and they dry out before I find them), and I have had to deal with one or two sad little sets of remains (which I would mind less if they didn't leave them on the living room carpet)

I came downstairs this morning to find both cats very intent on *something* in the fireplace. 

I moved the pictures to see if they had lost something, but couldn't find anything, but then 10 minutes later, as I was making toast, I heard squeaking, and Loki came running out of the living room (Coraline closely behind him) with a small furry squeaky thing in his mouth, and went out into the garden. (which on the whole I am glad about. I do not want small rodents in the house, alive *or* dead)

I did follow them out to see whether I could liberate the victim, but they were not prepared to give it up (Loki just ran away, but Coraline, dear, sweet Coraline, who is snuggly even with the vet, actually growled when I tried to get her to give it up.)  

I did manage to get it under a flower pot but fear that it had no sense of self preservation, as it burrowed out from underneath and got itself caught again. :(

I wish it was possible to teach them not to hunt, or at least not to play with their food. 

(although it is a reminder of just how strong instinct is. They have not been taught any of this - they left their mother pretty young and were brought up indoors, with no opportunity or need to hunt. )

I don't know, for certain, how the small sad squeaky thing got *into* the house, but I strongly suspect that one of them caught it and brought it in - I think it was a shrew, not a house, and I  don't think they come into houses on their own, much.

Monday, 23 February 2015

An Evening with Tom Hiddleston (and about 450 others)

Back in the New Year, I heard that Tom Hiddleston, who I was fortunate enough to see live in Coriolanus at the Donmar theatre just over a year ago (as well, of course, as enjoying his performances on screen, including his wonderfully insane Loki in the Avengers film) was going to be appearing for a one-off 'in conversation with' evening at the Nuffield Theatre  in Southampton.

The prospect of having to drive the (nearly) 2 hours home after the event was a little daunting, but not daunting enough to put me off booking, so last night, after a fun weekend with my sister and her husband, I arrived at the Nuffield ready to watch, listen and enjoy!

The theatre is a relatively small one (I think it seats around 450) and was almost full. I was fortunate enough to have tickets for Row D, which was the third row back, so had an excellent view.

Tom was interviewed by Sam Hodges, the theatre's director / CEO, who proved to be a good interviewer, willing to let his interviewee talk without interruption, and letting the interview develop as a conversation rather than a rigid set of questions, which was nice.

The event started a little late -it was closer to 7.15 than 7 when Tom came onto the stage, wearing a beautiful 3 piece suit and red tie. He immediately told  us that he would be taking his jacket off, "if we didn't mind" (there was a round of applause which I think could be interpreted to mean that no-one would mind in the slightest)

Tom spoke about his passion for the theatre, and how important to him the connection between the actors and the audience is, and how he first felt how powerful this could be when he attended a performance of Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman starring Paul Schofield, when he was about 14 years old. He described seeing how before the play, all of the audience members were talking and worrying about babysitters and work, and there came a point in the show where the whole audience were united, and forgetting those preconceptions. He also mentioned that on a personal level he doesn't really understand why people chose to drink before attending at the theatre, as why would you not want to be completely alert and focused on what is happening?

He described how he sees acting - quoting a mentor, he said that it is about telling the truth in imaginary situations. Tom was very clear that he feels he has an obligation (he used the word duty) to try to be as truthful as possible in portraying characters and their emotions, and that he would never want to look back on a performance and feel he could have done it better.

This led on to discussions as to favourite performance spaces, and the pleasure of spaces with good acoustics and the ability to feel that connection with the audience. Tom explained that this was particularly true in Coriolanus, when he could hear the gasps from the audience, and see people shrinking back lest they were spattered with his blood! 

(He also explained that with a long run, there is always a challenge of trying to keep performances fresh, and that in Coriolanus, he would pick one of three possible entrances each night for his first entrance, so that the 3 actors playing the commons would be genuinely surprised,each night, not knowing where he would come from! )

Tom also talked about the process of acting - explaining that for his role as Loki, he spent days being filmed in ultra violet light by 160 cameras totally surrounding him, to register every different emotion, in order that this could then be used to put those expressions onto Loki's face in scenes (such as the Hulk smash ones) where Loki has to be created by CGI.

He confirmed that while he has great admiration for Daniel Day Lewis he doesn't consider himself to be a Method actor, he finds it more helpful to be able to discuss a character with the director, and to ask for input and make suggestions. (Although he did admit to staying in character to the extent of retaining the same voice/accent, when filming 'I Saw the Light' ).  Did I mention that when Tom quotes what other people have said he uses their voices? 

When Tom is quoting other people he uses their voices, so we heard Sir Anthony Hopkins (speaking about the way that people love dark and dangerous characters, even though they would run in terror were they to met those characters in real life, with reference to both Loki and Hannibal Lecter), and Rodney Crowell (who mentored Tom for 'I Saw the Light'  . My words cannot do justice to the sight and sound of Tom Hiddleston, in his beautiful waistcoat and lovely natural accent,suddenly coming out with a pitch-perfect Southern accent! You will just have to imagine it (at least until the film comes out)

The interview also covered the issue of education and equality of access - Tom explained that when he attended Cambridge, and then RADA, he paid around £1,100 per year for tuition fees, but now the fees are around £10,000 per year. He did stress that there are various bursaries and scholarships available, and that he believes that actors and other people in the industry are very welcoming and egalitarian (which I guess is good for young actors once they have managed to get one foot in the door!)

The topic of Tom's support for 'He for She' came up, and he dealt with it very simply by explaining that for him, it is inconceivable, anathema, to think that women and men are not equally capable, and should not be equally treated, so there was every reason to lend his support, and no reason not to.

Tom talked about the various roles he has played, and why and how he chooses them. He explained that he feels there is a part of him in in each role, 
his determination and self-motivation in Coriolanus,for example, and his sense of mischief in Loki, and also the roles follow on from one another - the goodness and decency of Captain Nicholls in War Horse came as a contrast with the dark and 'damaged' character of Loki (and of course there was also the opportunity to lead a cavalry charge, which is not an opportunity which comes up every day!)

The majority of the evening was in the form of the interview / conversation between Tom and Sam, including some questions which had been sent in in advance by audience members. 

At the very end there was about 10 minutes for audience questions. Sadly the first was someone trying to circumvent the very clear information about Tom being unable to stay to provide autographs, photos or a meet and greet, and to ask for an autograph but after that there were a couple of interesting questions. 

One woman asked whether, following on from various women playing male roles, there were any female roles he would like to play, and mentioned her own wish to play Iago (he told her to go for it!) His response was to say he thought there needed to be more women taking on traditional male roles.

It was a fascinating evening, and gave a lot of insight into Tom's approach to his craft, which he clearly takes very seriously, and works extremely hard at, to be the very best he can be. I would love to know whether there were many drama students or aspiring actors in the audience, as I think that they would have found it illuminating, and helpful.  

Oh, and did I mention the part where he offered one of the bottled of water from the stage to someone in the front row who seemed a bit hot and thirsty?  (It was very hot in the theatre). Such a thoughtful chap! 

We were not permitted to take photographs during the event, so I didn't, so here is a copy of one of the press pictures for 'Coriolanus' instead,  because why not?
I shall be looking forward to seeing I Saw the Light when it comes out (Apparently, all of the singing and playing is Tom himself) and will keep my fingers crossed that he comes back to live theatre (and that I can get tickets) sooner rather than later.

I got home very late, but very happy!