Monday, 9 November 2015

Henry V

I was in London for the day on Saturday. I had booked to see 'Photograph 51', a play about Dr Rosalind Franklin and her role in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, but I arrived early enough to have time to go first to the Guildhall Gallery where there is a temporary display commemorating the 600th Anniversary of the battle of Agincourt.

There is the Great Chronicle of London, displaying an account of Henry V's entry into London following his victory. 

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the Crystal Sceptre (also known as the Crystal Mace) which was a gift from Henry V to the City of London, in thanks for their having loaned him the money (around £4M in modern terms) to finance his campaign.

Crystal Sceptre - head showing Henry V's coat of Arms

The sceptre is made of rock crystal and gold, and apparently (and with a touch of irony) the crystal parts were, almost certainly made in France! 

The whole thing is beautiful, and I found it amazing that it has, apparently, never been put on display before (it is used each time a new Lord Mayor is installed, but apparently they only hold the box, and it does get an airing when it is carried by the Lord Mayor during coronations, so I suppose people may have caught a glimpse of it in 1953)

Hedon Mace

The second item on display is the Hedon Mace - it belongs to the town council of Hedon, in East Yorkshire, and is believed to be a mace used at the battle of Agincourt, which was then coated in silver gilt, and was given to the town by Henry V when he granted a charter to the town in 1415. 

It is believed to be the oldest surviving ceremonial mace in the country, and looking at it, one of the things which stands out is that despite the gilding and engraving it is still, very obviously, a weapon. You can imagine a medieval Brian Blessed wielding it to lethal effect!

Its on display until 3rd December.

Entirely gratuitous picture of Tom Hiddleston as Henry V, because
 when am I likely to get a better excuse?

Sunday, 8 November 2015


I'm very lucky to live close to Bath, which has two lovely independent bookshops, Mr B's and Topping and Co Books, both of which regularly arrange events and signings.

One of the most recent was an event organized by Toppings, featuring Professor Mary Beard, who was in Bath to talk about her new book, S.P.Q.R.

Prof. Beard is a very interesting speaker: she spoke about how questions may be raised about whether there is a need for more books about the Romans, and a lot of what she spoke about were the new developments in archaeology which have produced new information and new insights into the past, but also made the point that historians in each age ask different questions, so of course what they discover, and how they interpret information, varies.

One example she gave was that in the past, (male) historians have tended to assume that Roman barracks were very masculine spaces , but the number of children's shoes

Beard spoke about a number of recent developments and discoveries which have provided new information, for instance:

 - Analysis of ice core samples from Greenland which show signs of pollutions from Roman mining operation in Spain

- Analysis of teeth from Roman burials which show the climate (and therefore, to an extent) the region, in which people spent their childhood (or at least that part of it during the period their 2nd teeth were growing in). This has been particularly interesting in looking at the teeth of Roman Britons. It seems that around 20% of the Roman population grew up in significantly warmer climates,which suggests a much greater degree of movement within the Roman world than previously thought.

- Analysis of the material found in cess-pits in Herculaneum, which gives information about the diet of ordinary people, whereas in the past, the main evidence has been from Roman writing, where descriptions of food have tended to be about the banquets of the rich, not about normal, every day food. The new evidence shows that ordinary people in Herculaneum were eating a lot of fish, chicken, eggs, figs, sea-urchins, pork, and pepper (which would have been imported, and presumably, expensive)

As well as new scientific evidence, she explained the there are also, still, new literary discoveries to be made - around 10 years ago a new essay of Galen's was discovered in the library of a monastery in Greece.

She explained that she Chose S.P.Q.R. as title as she wanted to include and focus on the 'Populi' - the people of Rome, not just the senate or aristocracy - and in particular to think about women and their role.

I would like to read the book, but admit that I shall wait until it comes out in paperback - the hardback is vast and heavy! But I may be re-reading her book about Pompeii in the mean time! 

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Hamlet : On Screen

Last Thursday, the Barbican Hamlet was broadcast live to cinemas, and I went to see it.

As you know, I saw it live back in August (see here) and I was really interested to see it again, and to see what had changed, and how different the play appeared on film. There are a few of the other NT Broadcasts which I've both on stage an screen, and it's never the same.  (Not necessarily worse or better, just different)

I think that this production, being so big, and with such a cinematic set, worked well as a broadcast.

Some of the things which I have found annoying about some of the other broadcasts, such as the habit of zooming in on primary characters and missing much of the subtle background action, were still present here, but I found it less irritating in this production than in others, as it cut out some of the things I found irritating about the live show, such as the excessive use of over-elaborate props. It did however also mean that there were some subtleties lost - the gradual disintegration of Elsinore was far less obvious, for instance.

I did think that the production has improved as the actors have settled into it - the friendship between Horatio and Hamlet seemed closer and more plausible (although I am still not a fan of nerdy backpacker Horatio) and I thought Ophelia's scenes, particularly after Polonius's death, were stronger, although as a character (though not the actor) is not, in my view, one of Shakespeare's better creations!

I enjoyed seeing it again.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Sculpture and Russian Romance

On my second day in London, I had arranged to meet up with some friends, and to see 'Three Days in the Country' with them at the National Theatre.

But as they were all coming up for the day, and I was already in town, I had time to visit the Barbara Hepworth exhibition at the Tate, before joining them for lunch.

I love Hepworth's work. I was lucky that, at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning,and 3 months into the exhibition's run, the exhibition was not too crowded.

I particularly loved the big, Guarea wood pieces.They have the same rich colour and tactile appeal as perfect conkers do (although you are not allowed to touch them, which is sad, as they cry out to be touched, as well as viewed)

After leaving the exhibit I had time for a quick look at some of the other rooms in the gallery - it's a long time since I've been to the Tate.

After lunch, and some catching up with lovely friends, we went in for the matinee of 'Three Days in the Country' it is a re-working by Patrick Marber of Turgenev's play 'Three Months in the Country', set in pre-revolutionary Russia, and depicting the explosive effect of new tutor, Belyaev (Royce Pierreson) upon the household.

John Simm is Rakitin, long term friend of Arkady, in love, equally long term, with Arkady's wife, Natalya (Amanda Drew) - she takes him for granted, to the extent of confiding in him, and seeking his help, about her attraction to Belyaev. Simm gives a beautifully restrained performance, cynical and long suffering, but eventually revealing his real pain.

Mark Gatiss has a superficially much more entertaining role, as Shpigelsky, the doctor - the scene in which he proposes marriage is comedy gold, but he too has hidden depths, in his insecurity and overcompensation for it.

Then of course there is the new tutor himself, a little uncertain of himself,   falling in love with the household, but wreaking havoc as Natalya, her ward Vera,and the maid Katya all fall for him.

It is very funny but also full of little tragedies. And there isn't a weak link in the entire cast.

The run is very nearly over so you can't see this production, unless you can get to the National Theatre in the next three days. So you'll just have to take my word for it that it is well worth seeing.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Farinelli and the King

In the evening, after the 'Platform' at the National, I headed straight over to the Duke of York's Theatre for Claire Van Kampen's new play, 'Farinelli and the King'. I booked this back in March, so it has been a long wait, but it did not disappoint! 

The theatre's interior has been changed for the production  - with seating on stage, steps up to the stage and, most impressively, 6 hanging candelabras, with actual candles.(the first 3 rows were all warned that they would have to leave their seats during the interval, so that the candles could be changed) There are also candles for the footlights, and onstage (although they have used electric spotlights, too!)

The play itself was excellent - Mark Rylance was undoubtedly the star of the show as King Philip, from the opening scenes as he discourses to a goldfish, through  return to active rule, but he was surrounded by a very strong cast - Edward Peel as de la Cuadra (Prime Minister), disapproving strongly of, well, practically everything, Melody Grove as the Queen, Huss Garbiya as the Doctor, and Sam Crane as Farinelli (with singing by Rupert Enticknap)

The size of the theatre, and the way it has been set up, meant that the experience was a very intimate one - as at the Globe, there were lots of entrances and exits through the auditorium (which is fun, if you have a seat on the aisle!), there were also moments when the actors spoke to us directly (we were, temporarily, local residents, farmers and poachers) 
And the music was lovely. The plot revolves about the decision of the queen, acting upon her doctor's advice, to bring superstar (Castrati) singer, Farinelli, to Court on the  hope that hopes music will cure the King's 'madness' and melancholia. The idea works, on the whole.

Crane, as Farinelli, is beautifully subtle, reacting and responding, frequently in silence, to the more showy performances of the other actors. Farinelli is billed as the world's greatest singer, and when he sings, Crane is replaced by opera singer Rupert Enticknap, who performs the arias. This takes a little getting used to, but is very effective, distinguishing between Farinelli the performer, and Farinelli the person.

I am so glad that I went, and now I really want to see Mark Rylance in more live stuff. In fact, I'd really like to see this production again. Although I don't think that will be possible, as it is sold out and in any case the run is fairly short and I don't think I'd be able to get to London again in the right time scale.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Celts and Art and Poems and Beautiful Things

On Friday I had a day off work to go to London - back in March, I booked to see 'Farnelli and the King', as I missed the original production at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse, and then was able to organise some other interesting things to do while I was up in London.

I started with a visit to the British Museum to see their exhibition 'Celts : Art and Identity' which I found very interesting.

Hunterston Brooch - AD 700-800 (c) National Museums of Scotland
The exhibition is broadly chronological, and makes the point that 'Celt' has had different meanings and implications at different periods, and did not originally include the countries or regions, such as Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany or Cornwall which we think of, today, as the Celtic countries!

It includes exhibits illustrating the exchanges of ideas and influences between different cultures - Roman flagons found in Celtic burials, Torcs showing different styles, including those with Roman and other influences, Roman monuments and jewelry showing Celtic influences, and also information about how the styles varied between those part of the British Islands which were conquered by Rome, and those which were not.

St Chad gospels Vellum AD 700–800. (c)  Lichfield Cathedral
Later, there are the Monastic and Viking contributions and influences - including some glorious illuminated manuscripts, and replicas of a number of  early Celtic crosses.

One of the most dramatic exhibits is the Gundestrup Cauldron, loaned by the National Museum of Denmark, which has amazing scenes inside and out, of gods and hunters and animals and faces - it is truly stunning, and it is astonishing to think it is over 2,000 years old!

Gundestrup Cauldron : Denmark 150 BC(c) National Museum of Denmark

After visiting the exhibition,  (which I strongly recommend), my next event was at the National Theatre - they are holding a series of 'Platforms' with various politicians, actors, directors and others speaking about their work.

The one attended was hosted by Andrew Marr,publicising his book, 'We British : The Poetry of a People' , following on from National Poetry Day on Thursday.

Marr explained that he had looked at the British Islands, not simply England, in order to be able to look at the different facets of the current country's history. He introduced each poem, and stated that he had chosen the poems for the evening to try to include some which might not be familiar, by poets who were perhaps not the best known (so nothing from Shakespeare, for instance).

The poems were read by Mark Gatiss and Fenella Woolgar, with additional, occasional comments. (John Donne, for instance? "Absolutely Filthy") Which, as he was reading 'To his Mistress going to bed', is fair comment! Other poems included Aphra Behn's 'The Disappointmentt' ("Probably the first poem in English about premature ejaculation - unsuitable for Radio 4") and poems of protest such as Walter Raleigh's 'The Lie' and A E Housman's gay protest poem 'The Colour of His Hair'.

As one would expect, the readings were excellent, and the comments were entertaining!

I had to rush off afterwards in order to get to the Theatre for Farinelli and the King, but it was a very enjoyable 45 minutes. And *very* reasonably priced - tickets were just £4 - I was surprised there weren't more people there, and if I lived in London and could get to the National more easily, there are several more Platforms I would be interested to attend.

Edited to Add: The National Theatre has now put a recording of the poetry event on soundcloud - here

Tuesday, 6 October 2015


This post is a little out of order, as I saw 1984 on Friday night, before the Kids Lit stuff on Saturday, but it seems a little out of place among the cheery fun stuff!

This production is, like the original book, very far from being cheery or fun.

It incorporates the appendix to the original book, which is written as from a historian looking back at the events - in the play, this is used to frame the events of the story - the play starts with a group, perhaps students, or a book club, discussing Winston's diary.

We then see the events in Winston (Matthew Spencer)'s life - with on-going uncertainty about what was real, and what was not, or was simply memories (and if so, whose), with occasional 

It's deeply unsettling - the production makes a lot of use of cameras and lighting - cast members disappear off stage and appear on camera on the screen above the stage, the characters unconscious that they remain under observation, blackouts spare us the worst of the scenes of violence and torture (or perhaps give us the opportunity to imagine the worst), and it's never entirely certain what is fact, what fear, what memory.

There is no interval so there isn't any respite.

It must be an exhausting play to perform.It's not a cheerful evening out but it is terrifyingly well done. I think it is going on an international tour, next..

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Welcome to Night Vale

Saturday was a very good day - as well as seeing Chris Riddell and Michael Rosen, I got to see, and hear, Jason Webley, and a live Welcome to Night Vale show. 

Jason Webley
I admit, I'm not very familiar with Night Vale - I originally booked because I like Jason Webley, and it's been a long time since he has been in this country. But I'd heard good things about Night Vale, so I thought it would be fun. And it was.

Weird, faintly disturbing, but totally accessible and understanding to a newcomer.

I won't mention details, as we were asked not to make recordings or post spoilers, and while the UK tour has now finished, I don't know whether the same (or similar) versions for the live show are showing elsewhere, and in any case, there will be a podcast or recording made in due time.

I will say, however, that I particularly enjoyed the Sheriff's Secret Police and the Intern. 

And now, if you will excuse me, I have some podcasts to download..

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Pugs and Ukuleles and Doctor Who

Saturday means more Bath Kids Lit Festivals events.

The first today was to see Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve  who were in Bath as part of their #PugsRoadshow tour.

I admit that I am just a little bit older than the target audience for 'Pugs of the Frozen North' but it's a lot of fun.

I haven't yet read the book but I understand that it follows the adventures of friends on a race to the North Pole, in a dog-sled pulled by 66 pugs (in warm woolly jumpers) competing with various other characters (all with splendid names, such as Sir Basil Sprout-Dumpling, and his butler Sideplate)

The event included a musical interlude with added 'Yip's from the audience, the creation and playing of a game  and a quick lesson in how to draw a pug.

I also got a lot of fun from eavesdropping on some of the conversations which various small children were having with their parents... (particularly the small boy behind me, explaining excitedly how Sarah got her Yeti Hands!

And it was very nice to meet Philip again, and to meet Sarah in person after following her blog and having  the occasional exchange on twitter.

Pugs of the Frozen North is the 3rd book these two have created together, and they are all well worth checking out, particularly if you have children!

 Then I had to dash across Bath city centre to get to the 'Writing Doctor Who' panel.

As advertised, the panel was supposed to include A.L. Kennedy, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Mark Gatiss, but it turned out that Gatiss was unavilable, so James Goss (who has written both Doctor Who and Torchwood novels, including Summer Falls) took his place. A L Kennedy has also written a Doctor WHo novel (featuring the 4th Doctor) and Cottrell Boyce wrote the Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'

A.L. Kennedy talked about being a lifelong Doctor Who fan, and about a habit of wearing sensible flat shoes due to noticing at an early age that women wearing high heeled shoes tend to tip, or break their heels, and get killed by Daleks or other monsters..

Cottrell Boyce made the point that one of the effects of the show's longevity is that it is now written and produced and run by fans - it's basically its own fanfiction. He also said that when he was asked to write an episode, his immediate response (like everyone's, he says) was to ask whether his children could visit the TARDIS, and to accept when told they could - no questions about fees or deadlines or anything else..

There was a lot of love for Romana, and for City of  Death, and discussions about different Doctors. And of course, as soon as the panel noticed that someone had brought K9 along, the entire panel ground to a halt as K9 came up on stage...

Oh, and when you hear about a movement to have the Doctor Who theme music adapted as the new National Anthem - this is where it started..!

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Poems and Pictures

My next Bath Kids Lit Festival event took place on Saturday afternoon, and featured Children's Laureate Chris Riddell, and Michael Rosen (who have recently collaborated on a book of poems for very young children).

I admit that I mostly booked it because I like Chris Riddell's work, and I could not make it to his solo 'Goth Girl' event, and I did feel a little bit conspicuous because I was not accompanied by a child, but despite that it was fun.

Chris was live-drawing to the poems as Michael read them. The Poems are mostly very simple rhymes, playing with words and actions, and eminently suitable for small children and Michael was encouraging the audience to join in, (which they did - with great enthusiasm) but adding his own little touches.

The pictures were projected onto a big screen on the stage behind Mr Rosen, who could not, therefore, see exactly how Chris was representing his poems..!

Michael Rosen:26.09.2015
 For instance, a poem about (among other things) dancing fruit, resulted first in a picture of orris dancing mangoes, followed by  sneaky picture of a Morris Dancing Micheal Rosen...!
It was a lot of fun, and quite a few lucky people from the signing line went home with original Chris Riddell drawings!

(I went home with a signature in my copy of 'The Sleeper and the Spindle' and a signed copy of the latest 'Goth Girl' book, so I was happy!)

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Judith Kerr and Other Heroes

A highlight of last week was the encore broadcast performance of Coriolanus - the Donmar Warehouse production, featuring Tom Hiddleston, Mark Gatiss and Hadley Fraser. I was fortunate enough to see the production live, back in January 2014, and I really enjoyed being able to see it again, and to realise once more what stunning actors Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss are.

Then on Friday, came the start of the Bath Children's Literature Festival, now in its 9th year. The first event, and the first I booked when the brochure came out, was with Judith Kerr.

Her 'Mog' books are some of the earliest books I remember reading, as a child, and then when I was older, her book 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' was an early introduction to the history of Nazi Germany, and experience of Jewish refugees, and I then read the other 2 books in the trilogy when I was rather older.

This is the third time that Kerr has been booked to appear at the Festival, but on each of the previous occasions she had to cancel due to poor health.

So, I was particularly keen to see her this time, and really pleased that was able to make it (she turned 92 this summer, so its hardly surprising that she's not always able to make it to events!)

She was interviewed by Julia Eccleshare (former Children's Book Editor of the Guardian), and it was an interesting evening. She was officially publicising her most recent book,  'Mister Cleghorn's Seal'  which is a short novel for older children, abut a man who adopts a seal. She explained that had wanted to do a book with lots of pencil drawings, and to suit the age where children can read. in her words "they are too old for picture books but a 250 novel is a bit daunting - the gap between Dr Seuss and Sherlock Holmes". 

Judith Kerr : 25.09.2015
She went on to explain that the book was inspired by an incident in her father's life - he ended up with a baby seal after it's mother was killed in a cull, and he decided to take it home rather than allow it to be killed. She described how he took it by train from Normandy to Berlin, attempting to feed it on a mixture of milk and cod liver oil, before arriving in Berlin and taking a taxi to a restaurant, as he had run out of his milk mixture! 

In real life, things didn't end well for the seal,I think the fictional one probably does better!

Kerr's love and admiration for her father and his skills as a story teller came through loud and clear. Moving on, she spoke about Mog - who was a real cat, the first that she had, when she and her husband first had a home with a garden, and gave us a number of anecdotes about various cats, including the current one who has trained Kerr to open the door for her (after looking out through the cat flap)!

Which led on to The Tiger Who Came to Tea . Julia Eccleshare raised the fact that Michael Rosen has suggested that the Tiger represents Kerr's memory of, and fear of the Nazis - Kerr immediately responded that she loves Rosen and is happy for him to say anything he likes, but that the Tiger was a story for her daughter incorporating all of her daughter's favourite things, and was made up when her husband was, unusually working away from home so she and her children were lonely and wanted someone, anyone, to visit. She also explained that she was able to then make the story into a book once both of the children were in school and she had time.

Kerr than answered questions from the audience. She explained that she considered herself to be an illustrator first, and writer second, and that she felt she had learned a lot about writing from her husband (Scriptwriter Nigel Kneale) and her son (novelist Matthew Kneale). She also explained that she thinks in English, and that while she does speak French and German can only write (books) in English. She wrote When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit because she wanted to tell her children about her own childhood, and that she was surprised when it was published, in part because it did not conform with what might be expected; that normally in children's books (at least at that time) parents were remote but could do anything, but her own parents were not like that, and that despite everything, she had a happy childhood. She also spoke at some length about her experience of being a refugee, her feeling of gratitude to Britain for letting her family in and saving their lives, and commenting that even during the London Blitz, with people dying every night, no one was cruel or offensive to her parents (who both had strong, and obvious German accents). She was asked about the current refugee crisis and simply said that she did not think that the scenarios were the same, as the sheer numbers of people now involved are so much greater, and she doesn't see there being an easy or obvious answer.

Finally, she was asked by a young girl whether there really was a Pink Rabbit, and whether it was left behind. And she confirmed that yes, there was, and it was left behind. But, she added, "I've got over it".

Over all, she came across as a wonderful, witty and optimistic person - I would have loved to have had the opportunity to say hello but (understandably) she did not do a signing, but I'm very glad that I had the opportunity to hear her speak. It was a fun evening.

Monday, 28 September 2015

What I Did on My Holidays

I have had some time off, and while I didn't go away on holiday, per se, I did go down to Devon and spent several days at my parents' house.

On one day, when it stopped raining, I went down to Woolacombe and to Barracane Bay.

The sea was flat as a pancake (which didn't stop some hopeful surfers from going in!) and from time to time the sun came out, briefly.

I was able to go for a short walk and enjoyed a picnic sitting on the cliff overlooking the bay. It was a very pleasant, restful day.

My parents came home on Monday, and as it was a grey and drizzly day I wasn't tempted out, so instead I stayed home, and baked, and made dinner, and read.

It was good to catch up with my parents, and we decided, a day or two later, to go to Exmoor Zoo,which is just down the road, and which they'd never visited!

It is small, for a zoo, but seems well kept, and the animals seem content. They have 3 cheetahs, who were fed during our visit.

They also have some penguins, and pelicans (and ducks and seagulls, but I think those are simply opportunistic and not part of the zoo's own complement!

And otters. I do love the otters.

There were also some very dramatic Scarlet Ibises, and a rather bedraggled peacock (I think he had been moulting. His head was beautiful, but he had no tail to speak of. 

There was also a peahen (well, there were several) but one with a single chick; we met them several times as we were walking around, they are not confined at all.

We had an an enjoyable day wandering around, and with it being a greyish weekday there were not too many other people around.

And as well as the days out, I also spent a lot of time pottering around my parents home, reading some of their books, watching their TV and picking runner beans in their garden.

It was a pleasant, low-key way to spend an extended weekend!