Friday, 17 April 2015


Barbican Silk Street Theatre
Cheek by Jowl / Pushkin Theatre Moscow
Directed by Declan Donnellan

16 April 2015

Present: Mr Ben Macintyre, Mr Robert McCrum, Mr Neil Mendoza, Mr Roland Walters & Poppy, Mr Rupert Walters, Mrs Sian Wheldon Line, Mr Wynn Wheldon

The last time a couple of us attempted a foreign language production of Shakespeare at the Barbican, it was Cymbeline in Japanese and Mr Mendoza and myself were in seats that precluded us from seeing the surtitles. Mr Mendoza cleverly left at half-time.
         Measure for Measure is not so obscure a play as Cymbeline, and many of us had seen Michael Attenborough’s brilliant production at the Almeida five years ago, with Rory Kinnear and Anna Maxwell Martin and Ben Miles as the Duke (with whom we had a very good supper afterwards). However, it is not a play one knows in the sense that one knows Hamlet or Henry IV or The Tempest.  It is a complicated play that throws up all sorts of questions about morality; very probably it is the nearest Shakespeare gets to a play governed by New Testament ethics.  Seeing it in English requires concentration.  Seeing it in Russian?  Well, as I brushed my teeth before leaving home, I thought, this is one for the piety check box.
         Quite wrong.  A real pleasure.  It featured “nudity and smoking” as plays used to do without warning signs in the 1970s, and ran without an interval, the length of a movie, 105 minutes.  So obviously there were major extractions. Most sadly missed were the rude mechanical scenes with Pompey and Froth, but it was a minor sadness, and very likely they would have been difficult to properly translate into Russian.  The principles, especially the delicate Anna Khalilulina as Isabella, were first class.  Isabella is one of Shakespeare’s best roles for women, played here as more vulnerable than Anna Maxwell Martin’s, but nonetheless the very heart of the play (for it is she, after all, who learns the most).
         The real star was the production itself. The set comprised five red cubes, and an occasional odd chair or two and a desk (behind which a terrifically Sovietesque provost, Alexander Matrosov, sat smoking).  Around these the cast moved, sometimes in a close cohort, picking up characters at the end of a scene, depositing new ones, somehow softly, sometimes separately walking with tremendous purpose around and across the stage as though late for an important meeting or looking for an elusive friend.  The choreography of the thing was, in itself, a pleasure to watch. Occasionally there was music, a sort of Russian-inflected waltz (the play is set in Vienna). 
         This music, and the freer movement of the cohort signal the intrusion into Angelo’s grim puritanical world of the forgiving Duke, disguised as the Friar.  As his plans begin to unfold the play becomes lighter: the set itself seems less bloodily red. We are heading towards one of those Shakespeare resolutions in which everyone ends up married, as being the only way of maintaining sanity and order in a seriously messy world.
         There were surtitles.  Some of them were not Shakespeare – “fun-house” had both Mr Mendoza and myself baffled – but on the whole they were.  So it was hard to avert one’s eyes from these, but then it was equally hard to divert one’s attention from the stage, so enjoyable were these actors to watch.
         Speaking personally this was one of the Club’s most enjoyable outings.  I rather liked not having to keep up with spoken Shakespeare, given that I cannot hear very well these days.  I liked it too because – I know this is heretical – it was short.  I liked not having an interval.
It also seemed pertinent in its rejection of the puritan ethics that are enveloping us from both left and right..

         Here’s to nudity and smoking.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015


Delighted to say that my odd little story, 'Sharing', has found a home on the splendid Black Sheep Journal site.  Here is is.

Monday, 13 April 2015


Calling out around the world.... I am within calling distance (84%) of the target the publishers Unbound set me to raise in order to publish my book about my father. If you have had even the merest inkling of a thought about pledging, please do so now. Thank you very much.

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Disappeared by Roger Scruton

This extremely affecting novel will be described as being about grooming, sexual abuse, human trafficking, multiculturalism's vices, political correctness and similar issues.  It will be accused of all sorts of things, not least of which will be that it is by the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, bete noire of all right-thinking leftists.

Actually, fundamentally,  it is about one of the philosopher's great subjects, love. One of the jobs the book seeks to do is to distinguish between secular and religious forms. Indeed, it is the rubbing of one against the other that creates the sparks that propel the plot.  It is a book that almost certainly requires two or three readings, for its subtleties and nuances are hidden by a clarity of prose and a directness of storytelling that keeps the pages turning a little too fast for proper reflection.  As I think Nabokov said, "there's no such thing as reading a good book once".

The Disappeared
Julie Bindel on The Disappeared

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Tuesday, 31 March 2015


Delighted to say that I have two poems in the new Lunar Poetry, and no less than four poems in South Bank Poetry.  One of the pomes in Lunar is the subject of 'A Poem in Detail', a discussion involving three other poets of a single poem that is a regular feature of the magazine.  I was rather dreading it, but I have been dealt with tenderly and fairly, to the extent that I think the poem actually worked in the way it was supposed to.  Launch of Lunar was this evening in Lambeth.  South Bank Poetry, Issue 20, launches at the Poetry Cafe on April 17th.

Paul Johnson on Nye Bevan

Terrific paragraph taken from Paul Johnson's review of a new biography of Nye Bevan.

"Bevan was a big man, with a miner’s build: strong thighs, powerful upper back and neck muscles, and thick biceps. His head was noble, and he flourished it, when roused, with angry thrusts of his neck muscles. His silver hair was thick and floppy, like the plumage of an angry cockerel, and that too was part of his oratorical display. He was in every way an aristocrat of the mining valleys, a regal figure who challenged the world to commit lèse-majesté at its peril. He wove around himself an atmosphere of noli me tangere, and he drew intellectual men and women to him like a magnet." 

Find the rest here

Jennie Lee (Mrs Nye Bevan) with another impressive Welshman, my Dad.
The hand on the left belongs to Henry Moore.

Thursday, 26 March 2015


On Wednesday evening several hundred people turned up to King's College Grand Hall - a very elegant space - to hear friends, family and poets remember Dannie Abse.  There was a good deal about Cardiff City FC. There was the news (to me) that Dannie loved playing games - I mean actual games, like Monopoly and chess. That seemed somehow right, though, because games, to be enjoyable, have to be played properly.  You must be serious about them.  This was like Dannie - serious and enjoyable.  As Elaine Feinstein (I think) said: Dannie, despite the tragedy of his wife Joan's death, was lucky, because he loved life.  I think that's why he and my father, another life-celebrating Welshman, got on so well. "Abse, you Welsh Jew, come and have lunch with me", were the first words Dad directed at Dannie, and went on to introduce the poet to his first avocado pear (Dannie told me this story at least twice).  A consequence of that friendship was that I joined that select band at whose wedding Dannie read his surely ageless Epithalamium.   Owen Sheers read another poem that will last, In the Theatre, with its haunting refrain, "leave my soul alone".

Most moving was Dannie's daughter Susanna's euology and particular her memory of her father's taps on his children's hands, the day before he died.  baffled, ti was only when they were hom that they remembered the lines from Last Words:
And how would I wish to go? 
Not as in opera - that would offend 
-nor like a blue-eyed cowboy shot and short of words, 
but finger-tapping still our private morse,' you,' 
before the last flowers and flies descend. 

Please go to Dannie's Home Page to hear him read the whole poem.

Jeremy Robson, one of Dannie's oldest friends, read his own poem, Poet in the Park, a really quite lovely and loving thing. Daughter Keren read Last Words and then we heard Dannie speaking from The Presence, and we were left with his own, which was wry and melancholic in contemplation of man's idiocy, but overwhelmingly companionable,and somehow sweet. He probably wouldn't have liked that, though it is meant not in any saccharine way; I mean rather the sweetness of the celebrator, of gladioli.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Hamlets I've seen

I've seen the following Hamlets in the thetare:

David Tennant
Rory Kinnear
Albert Finney
Simon Russell Beale
Ben Whishaw
Michael Sheen
Kenneth Branagh

Paul Rhys

Paul Rhys was the nearest to my own understanding.

I very much regret not having seen Jacobi, Kingsley or Pryce when i really ought to have done.  I also rather wish I'd seen Jude Law, because Michael Grandage is a terrific director.

Monday, 23 March 2015


Everyman Cinema
Filmed production of the Manchester Royal Exchange Hamlet
Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Hamlet - Maxine Peake
Claudius - John Shrapnel

Really excellent production with absolute minimum of props and set.  Clarity of delivery was exemplary: heard almost every single word. No Fortinbras, as is the fashion these days (a vital ingredient missed, while at the same time an understandable exclusion), and for some reason To be or not to be was shifted to Act IV.

 Peake was a convincing if not particularly attractive Hamlet - hardly a sweet prince with his sardonic scowls and easy superiority. But she was wholly Hamlet, thoroughly inside the part. Occasionally a passing resemblance to the young Leonardo di Caprio scittered into my mind's eye, but soon passed out again.  The supporting cast was very good indeed.  Shrapnel may have given the best Claudius I've ever seen, and turning Polonius into Polonia (Gillian Bevan) made that character less stock, rather fresh and very funny.  Laertes (Ashley Zhanghaza) was tremendously Laertes-like - honest and upset and loving.

But as always with Hamlet, whatever it is that surrounds the character is dominated by the part.  There have been great Hamlets in so-so productions.  I don't know if Peake is a great Hamlet - it is a performance that has to mature in the memory  (Paul Rhys's remains my first choice), but the production was first class.

Sunday, 22 March 2015


I have just been informed that Barry John has not been inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame.  What madness is this?  Hamlet without the Prince.  Australia without Bradman.  The selection committee must be made up exclusively of forwards.


OK, here are some dates at which I will get to read poems for five minutes or so.

30 March - Brioche (Locally Sourced), 238 West End Ln, London NW6 1LG.  An open mic session will follow Chrys Salt reading from her new collection, Dancing on a Rock.

31 March - i'klectik, in Lambeth, launch of Lunar Poetry 6/7, in which I have a couple of poems

10 April - Just the one poem, probably, at Ruth Callaghan's Indigo Dream poets evening in Camden (Trinity United Reform Church, 1 Buck Street)

17 April - South Bank Poetry launch of new issue (in which I have, I think, four poems) at the Poetry Society, Betterton Street in Covent Garden.

Photo by Anne Philpott.
Self probably reading my own biog in 'Meet the Brondesbury Poets'
shortly before launch
at North London Tavern


Sensational day, that wouldn't have been had Wales not planted that huge score on Italy. It meant that Ireland and England had to play at the top of their game, with attack rather than defence the order of the day.  And so although it seemed incredible that Wales did not do enough to win the Championship, what they did do was make it memorable.  Ireland thoroughly deserved the win.  They are the best team in the Northern hemisphere, and I wouldn't put it past them to win the World Cup.  My favourite try of the day - not necessarily the best - was Warburton's.  Love seeing him in full flight.


Not sure you can get much uncooler than The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and a new Mark Knopfler album, but there it is. Two intelligent. enjoyable offerings to set against the harum-scarum of the rugby this weekend.  The first is of course not quite up to its predecessor, but Dev Patel is as irresistible as Richard Gere is to the elderly hotel residents.  There are perhaps too many threads; it seems to me that the important relationship is that between Dev Patel and Maggie Smith.  I'd have happily dropped Gere (not that he was bad, just his story superfluous) for more Smith and Patel.  Funny and touching, and utterly gorgeous to look at.

Mark Knopfler keeps making albums that last.  They are almost as rich lyrically as musically. They are modest, understated, and almost all MK's songs are about the world rather than himself - extremely rare in a form that loves its egos and fan-worship. When was the last time that Beryl Bainbridge and Basil Bunting had songs written for them on a pop album?

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Launch of SPRING by Jenni

Jenny Gould - or 'Jenni' - has released a first EP, entitled 'Spring'. I think really it is an EEP, being 31 mins, only just short of the acknowledged 40 min album length.  It was launched last night at the Poetry Cafe, following some first class poetry from Amy Neilson Smith, among others, and a couple of wry reflections on kale and barbecues by Chris Sav.

Jenny's music is a melodious fusion of jazz, folk, blues and singer-songwriter, and though obviously the work of an exceptionally musically accomplished artist (which goes also for her accompanist, Richard Carter), has immediate appeal.  I smiled from the first note, not having known quite what to expect.  A bonus encore was a faultless cover of the Chillies' 'Under the Bridge'.

Thursday, 19 March 2015


Launched tonight at the North London Tavern in Kilburn, this handsome anthology of poetry, by members of the Brondesbury Group, owes much of its existence to our member, Steph Harvey.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015


I shall be reading for, ooh, at least 5 mins at the launch of the new issue of Lunar Poetry (in which I have a couple of things, plus a review of Alwyn Marriage's latest) -  at the iklekticartlab, on March 31st.  Purty darn groovesome, I'm sure you'll agree.