Thursday, 17 April 2014


When Julia Fischer walked on stage at the Stadthalle in Heidelberg a week or so ago, I was struck first by her air of utter authority, and secondly by a marvellously callipygous behind, sheathed in what looked like spray-on velour but was probably a far more sophisticated material. What happened next was that she started to play the violin, and my eyes pricked with the very first note.  I am no expert in music but I had no doubt that what I was hearing was performance of the very first order.  Fischer’s petite, willowy body moves with the music as in a gusty breeze; she arches backwards and lunges forwards.  She takes the bow from the strings with a flourish.  And I mention her behind because it seems to provide a perfect metaphor for her playing: both taut and sensuous.

Accompanying on the piano was Milana Chernyavaska, who must be very good.

The programme was: Sonatas by Tartini and Mendelssohn, 4 pieces by Sarasate and Ravel’s ‘Tzigane’.  I liked them all, but my wide middle brow enjoyed the Sarasate best.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

CAPITAL by John Lanchester

A big satire about the state of the nation - or rather the capital of the nation - 2008.  Lanchester is a first rate journalist, with a great eye for the nuances of social hierarchy, and in this he is akin to Tom Wolfe.  Capital is Tom Wolfe Mild, or perhaps - and there's a kind of irony in this, given the novel's emphasis on the cosmopolitan nature of London's population (unmatched anywhere in the world, NY included) - Tom Wolfe Englished.  He follows the line Wolfe takes in his masterpiece Back to Blood, about Miami, in weaving his book out of multiple narrative strands. Lanchester does not take on the big boys, as Wolfe does, instead concentrating on discreeter lives (although that perhaps does not include a vague representation of Banksy or the narrative that includes being arrested under suspicion of complicity of a terrorist plot to blow up the Channel Tunnel).  It is an enjoyable book, but what begins as a piece of social commentary becomes chained to its unlikely plots, and for Wolfe-o-philes it is frustrating that Lanchester's cartoon characters (meant in the best possible, Wolfian,way) are not quite funny or engaging enough to make the book as greed-inducing as the Master's.  A good 7 out of 10, and may well be of use 100 years hence, to social historians if not to literary critics (if such persons still exist of course).

Wednesday, 9 April 2014


Is it wrong to say that funerals may sometimes be enjoyable?  I don’t think so.  Obviously the funerals of the young or the tragic are likely to be traumatic affairs, although even these should bring some kind of consolation.  The funerals of those who die because they are old and have earned the love of their families may, if properly conceived and executed, be enjoyable, even for the mourners, perhaps especially for the mourners.  Perhaps that is their point.

I do not mean enjoyable in the sense of celebration – that can be left to the memorial or the wake – but rather in the sense that a good funeral heightens one’s own sense of being alive.  This past weekend I was at the funeral of the father of two of my closest friends.  At the interment, as the congregation stood among the stones of the gently sloping graveyard, slightly hung back from the principals, the coffin was lowered into its plot to the plaintive strains of a Royal Marines bugler blowing the Last Post.  Warwickshire and England rolled away around us in the light Spring rain.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  The words are almost comical in their familiarity, but it is the comedy of mortality.  This has been going on a long time. 

Ritual is important.  Repetition is important. The church was full, many standing.  The hymns were familiar and sung with gusto.  Corinthians was King James, as it always should be.  Shakespeare, Tennyson, Elgar.  There are traditions which live because they flex and accommodate.  The Church of England is very good at this.  It may not turn pagans like myself into believers, but somehow the touching of those familiar nerves, and the genius of so many of the words used draws one into a communion.

But the Church is dependent on a family’s determination and willingness to do things right.  As it was, here the deceased had made it clear almost twenty years ago what kind of a service he wanted.  He’d done that in a funny, unaffected, tremendously characteristic letter to his daughter just before boarding a flight on a questionable carrier.  Her ability, and the ability of those similarly affected, to pull off so perfect – so good, so enjoyable – a funeral, spoke well for all parties: the church, the deceased and the bereaved.

Monday, 7 April 2014


Peaches Geldof was a good sort and her death is very sad.  This message sent to me from a young friend speaks very well for her goodheartedness : “I didn't know her well at all but I liked her a lot. First time I met her I was in the Groucho club singing a song from Hercules under my breath and she heard me and I think could sense I was a bit nervous so just started belting it out with me. I remember having one of those stupid grins you can’t shake afterwards, where your cheeks start to feel numb. You would have liked her. She was fun and always keen for a real conversation.”

Saturday, 5 April 2014


To Smithfield on Thursday 3rd, to hear a concert of French sacred music performed by the choir of St Bartholomew the Great

Durufle, Dupre, Laloux - not exactly General Knowledge quiz answers, but nonetheless Top Composers of 20th century sacred music.  Perhaps not in the Poulenc rank, but pretty good.  Made all the better of course by the setting of St Bartholomew's.  The true reason for my attending, apart from the company - an assemblage of distinguished, convivial sorts - was for Faure's Requiem, which I had not heard live before.  This was, of course, a non-orchestral version - just organ and choir - so different but perhaps more pertinent in some strange sacred way.


Very excited to be seeing Julia Fischer, arguably the world's greatest violinist, playing the Mendelssohn Violin Sonata a week today, in Heidelberg.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

New Collective Noun

The phrase "the brothel of packaged sightseeing" struck me as brilliant.  It is from Patrick McGuinness's intriguing poetical portrait of the Belgian town of Bouillon, Other People's Countries.  Although not strictly speaking a term of venery, "a brothel" of tourist outlets should surely join "a murder of crows" and "a smack of jellyfish" among the most vivid of collective nouns.  How well it would apply, for exmple, to Coventry Street.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

MUSEUM PIECES by Wendy Pratt

My review of Wendy Pratt's rather good first full collection of poems, Museum Pieces, is online now at Ink, Sweat and Tears.  I'll put the review up here in full in a month's time. I wrote about her pamphlet 'Nan Hardwicke' here. To be going on with, here is one of my favourite poems from Museum Pieces

Shoe Trap
In the dark I grope across the bedroom
floor, feel for the shape of the wall, the door
and half trip, half step over your work shoes.
Shoe trap. Your favourite trick, four
shoes, haphazardly strewn,
your habit. My habit is the stumble, the meeting
of floor and face, the standard bruise
to the knee. Your shoe trap has held me captive
for thirteen years, swearing in the dark on my way
to the bathroom. Your habits and mine; a dance,
a meeting of selves over and over. The day
after my sister loses her husband to cancer,
I trip on your shoes in the dark, holding their scrubby,
battered shape, I’ve never felt so blessed or lucky.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

INVINCIBLE by Torben Betts

Orange Tree Theatre
24 March 2014

Director: Ellie Jones
Cast: Laura Howard, Darren Strange, Samantha Seager, Daniel Copeland

Playwright Torben Betts has the unusual ability to mix the banal with the sharp, to mine the quotidian for those moments in which life is lived fully, whether in pleasure but more often in despair. I forgot to take a notebook last night, so I can’t give you specific examples – except that they might not have worked out of context anyway, which is the beauty of the writing. Betts is also a clever plotter; and he is funny.

Invincible is about the clash of civilizations: middle class Guardianista south, full of liberal piety made easy by the probability of inherited wealth, comes up against intellectually stifled working class Ukippish north.  Needless to say nobody wins.  It is a perfect sit com sit, and to begin with one sits comfortably amused as the opening shots are fired.  Darkness falls during the interval, and although the com is not abandoned, the sit gets hairy.

That’s as much as I’ll say.  The performances are first class, utterly convincing. Laura Howard as an obsessive Marxist twitches and writhes and hurls stares of incomprehension with exhausting vigour, pulverising her ineffectual public school-educated husband Oliver, played by Darren Strange as suffering with Hugh Grantish ummings and ahhings of social embarrassment.  Daniel Copeland as the football-loving postie with verbal diarrhoea, Alan, manages to extrude from us both laughter and pity; his wife, Dawn, as played by Samantha Seager, is wound up tight as her miniskirt and her anger and frustration at her life steams throughout.

Betts plays with stereotypes here, which is a dangerous business, but he pulls it off, just, because there are surprises and because he writes so well, almost managing to disguise his own liberal sympathies. Invincible is not a great play, but it is an engaging one, and especially so in the degree of commitment by the company performing it. Recommended.

And look out for Downhill, Betts' first movie script and due out any time soon.

Monday, 17 March 2014

IRISH by Maurice Riordan

Earlier today I had to google "spelling by sound" because I could not bring to mind - it was "snagged up some boreen of memory on a dozen / rusty neurons" I daresay - the word "phonetic".  This evening, after a poetry reading around the corner I came home and read 'Irish' by Maurice Riordan.  It comes from his T.S.Eliot prize-nominated collection, The Water Stealer, published by Faber. I regret to say that it is presented here without permission.  But we are a private group, are we not?  And anyway it is a rather wonderful - and characteristic - poem.  You'll see why it is pertinent to my forgetfulness in a moment. I hope it is readable.


Springsteen absolutely hated this "Finally London is ready..." shtick, and reportedly went about the place tearing down the posters that bore the boast.  In fact he was still pissed off when he played the first show on 18 November, 1975.  He returned on the 24th (after gigs in Sweden and Holland) to play a second concert.

For years I understood that the first show was a disappointment and the second was the one at which to have been.  I couldn't reconcile this with my experience. In the all-seater Hammersmith Odeon the crowd had been dancing in the aisles almost from the beginning.  Then again, I was 17 years old, and Born to Run, released earlier that year, had hit me in heart, mind, solar plexus.  I assumed that I had been at that first show, and so when the DVD came out 30 years later, and was hailed as the recording of a classic performance, I was relieved.  But there was something odd, not quite right about it. A degree of cognitive dissonance prevailed. I was doubly perturbed because this remains my touchstone gig. None - by anyone - has ever been better.

And then the other day one of the two friends with whom I had gone asked me why 'Twist & Shout' didn't feature on the DVD.  He was sure Bruce had covered it.  Not only does he know his Beatles, he has a better memory than I.  I started looking into things, with the aid of the recently discovered Brucebase, an excellent research website, and lo and behold, there was 'Twist & Shout' on the setlist for the second show. What's more the site reconfirmed all those rumours - it was "a quite different affair" from the November 18 gig.  And now I recalled him playing an epic 'Pretty Flamingo', and cognitive dissonance dissolved into delight. We'd been at the second show, and we'd seen the future of rock and roll at his very best.


Friday, 14 March 2014


My review of Alex Monroe's wonderful 'Memoir of Making Things', Two Turtle Doves is in this week's Spectator. Not sure how much you can read of it here:  You may have to go so far as to buy the mag - which is well worth it. My other reviews can be found here:

Wednesday, 12 March 2014


First rate joke brought to my attention by my wife.
A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day. "In English," he said, "A double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative."

A voice from the back of the room piped up, "Yeah, right."


National Theatre, Olivier
Tuesday 11 March 2014

Director: Sam Mendes
Talent: SRB, Kate Fleetwood, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Troughton

Has there ever been a wholly successful Lear?  In the last fifteen or so years I have seen several productions - Oliver Ford Davies, Ian McKellan, Jonathan Pryce, Derek Jacobi, Pete Postlethwaite, but missed the most highly-regarded, Ian Holm's - none of which can be said to rank among the best productions of Shakespeare I've seen.  Perhaps it is the play's fault: too extreme, too full, "unplayable", as has often been suggested, dealing as it does, in Jan Kott's words with  "this journey, into the existence or non-existence of Heaven and Hell."  Except that it isn't particularly baroque in its construction - it doesn't require too much interpretation. Once we accept Cordelia's "nothing", the action unfolds with a rightful logic, albeit in huge bounds.

So what were the obvious faults in this production?  Despite the best seats in the house, I couldn't hear much of what was being said. This is possibly due to advancing senility, but not entirely. I'd except Stanley Townsend (Kent) and Tom Brooke (Edgar) entirely from the charge. They were excellent throughout. The usually excellent Anna Maxwell Martin was a bit on the shouty side (so not volume so much as enunciation being the problem). Stephen Boxer, whom I saw not so long ago as an aged Hamlet, occasionally became so softly spoken (overcome, I suppose, with the pathos of, well - everything) as to be inaudible. Sam Troughton as Edmund (this is a really high-grade cast) lacked both malevolence and the necessary libidinous allure.

But the central fault lay with the great Simon Russell Beale (surely the pre-eminent Shakespearian of the decade).  His adoption, in the first half of the play, of a kind of monotonous yet speeded-up dalek-voice, was grating, and there were times when his posture - a kind of limp with shoulders hunched and a continuous scratching of the right buttock - put me in mind of Danny DeVito in 'Romancing the Stone'.

The acting wasn't helped by a somewhat incoherent design and direction, mixing realism - cluttered desks and so on - with more abstract sets, which lead in turn to unnecessary confusions.  At one point we are in Gloucester's study, which from the entrances and exits of the players would appear to have three doors. And quite where we were supposed to be or when or why was never very clear.  Shakespeare is incredibly resilient, thank god.

These criticisms apply chiefly to the first half of the production.  The play itself works this way, almost as if all the action of the first half is really a set-up for the astounding second.  We have moved from the formality of the first scene, through the courts of Goneril and Regan, Lear and his men becoming increasingly unruly, to the heath and the hurricanoes, eventually arriving in a world without kings, where the smell is "of mortality".  SRB's matchless ability to play pity and tenderness comes now to the fore and his scenes with both Gloucester ("I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester") and Cordelia are as moving as I have ever seen them played. His "she's gone for ever" broke me entirely, as he makes the hairsbreadth pause after 'gone', and turns 'for ever' into the more modern 'forever'.  The audience was utterly still and silent in this final scene, early Spring's coughs and splutters caught in held breath.

And so a production that had been disappointing at the interval became very nearly a triumph by the end, which is because SRB does understanding better than he does rage (noticeably true, too, of his great Hamlet).

Oh, but what a play!

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Interpreter's House

The Interpreter's House lives on.  Erstwhile editor Simon Curtis, who sadly died in December, has been succeeded by Martin Malone, and Martin has caused the website to be made-over:  I am delighted to say that in the archive you will find my poem 'The Glove', which audiences seem to like.  Go here: and go to page 53.  Of course I have posted this poem on this here blog, not so long ago, but I thought I might tempt readers to look at some of the other poems in The Interpreter's House.  They're purty darn good.