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. 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.

Friday, 7 March 2014


So there I am on this delightful spring day, walking the rather handsome mutt, a Catalan sheepdog (or Gos d'Atura as I call it when I cross the road into NW3), when into the cherry-blossomed cemetery stroll two disreputable looking people with their even more disreputable looking dog.  I hang back, restraining Messi, who wants to cavort with the stud-collared, red-eyed beastie.  I wait and then turn the corner. They have not moved on.  I cannot turn back.  My dog pulls and pulls; their beastie is let off his lead.  I can't hold mine.  They're off and away. They have a very good time.  I fall into conversation with the disreputable pair (even more disreputable close up), but she is happy that someone is letting his dog play with hers.  And he is interested in my dog.   He wants to know about his strength and so on.  I quite like this odd couple.  She is small and skinny and has few teeth.  He has a delicate moustache but a wary look.  In their twenties? And what's my dog's age, he wants to know. Well, my dog is not much over a year. Our last dog died a year or so ago, I say.  He asks what kind of dog it was. A terrier, I say.  A terrier? says he.  And she says: "We had a Ridgeback.  He got stabbed to death at Christmas".


In company with and at the suggestion of Sirpa Moghissi, I saw yesterday this wonderful painting, among several other wonderful paintings by Jock McFadyen, at the Marsden Woo Gallery. It is called 'Dagenham'.

Thursday, 6 March 2014


I don't know what the clever critics are saying, but I'm not sure I've ever watched anything quite as gripping as this. The writer, Jed Mercurio, really has to take every plaudit, prize, award available.  The tight plotting is Wodehouse-like in its cleverness.  The characters are recognisably like us, with faults and virtues, and fleshed out with acting that brings together pathos, shock, anger, confusion in just the right measure.  Superb.  Two more episodes!  Christ, and I thought 4 was going to be the last.  To those who have not seen it yet - do not 'pick it up', please.  Go from the beginning, and treat yourself.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014


from 'A Life with Books' by Julian Barnes, a lovely short essay published by Jonathan Cape, proceeds of which go to 'Freedom from Torture'.

"how weird it would be to have around you only as many books as you have time to read in the rest of your life"
 "When you read a great book, you don't escape from life, you plunge deeper into it."