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Saturday, 21 October 2017

Philip Pullman in conversation with Cerys Matthews, London Literature Festival, 20/10/2017

Twenty-two years ago Northern Lights, the first book in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, was published. Yesterday, the first book in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage was published, transporting readers back to the world of Lyra Belacqua, to the great joy of his many fans. When asked how this new series fits into the world of Lyra he claims it could be thought of as a prequel, but he is more inclined to think of it as an equal. After the publication of the final book in His Dark Materials Pullman publicly said the story had ended there and there would be no more. The conversation started with this tonight, asking what changed his mind. He answered that the seed was lodged in his mind with the publication of Lyra’s Oxford in 2003. He knew the story would involve Lyra, but not how. It stayed with him, and finally the world is ready to embrace her return.

Speaking about his writing practice, he told of the importance of poetry, that this was how he first came to writing, in writing bad imitations of Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan in his youth. He may now have turned his attention to prose but the rhythm of it remains central. He claims to sometimes know the rhythm of the next sentence before he knows what it’s going to say. This is why he cannot write with music on as it disturbs the rhythm of the writing. He spoke also of the many voices that go into making a novel. The voice of the narrator is not that of the author, and the book also has an expected reader, which often of course turns out not to be the actual reader. Pullman describes writing as being a dictator, in control of the characters’ fates, but once it’s out in the world you no longer have control. You don’t know who will read it or how they will respond, and that there is no right or wrong way to read a text. He was adamant that children should be introduced to the magic of reading and not forced to share their responses as is so often the case in primary schools, but to let it stay with them.

Inevitably the conversation turned to religion. His Dark Materials has caused outrage among some religious groups who believe it is about killing God. Pullman is very open about his beliefs, and thinks that ‘the original sin’ is really painting curiosity as a sin. That the Fall happens in everybody’s life during adolescence, this knowledge of good and evil, and it’s important and should be encouraged. He was also asked about his opinions on some of the most well known Christian novelists – C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein. He has said before that he doesn’t agree with how Lewis concludes the Narnia series, however, today he cited the idea that his books seem more genuine than Tolkein’s in that they have the struggle of faith in them, and that in Tolkein’s there’s never any wavering of intent. This he believes is because Tolkein was a Catholic whereby he had everything theologically sorted, whereas Lewis, as an Irish Protestant, had experience all the associated tumult. He ends with the thought that Tolkein’s works therefore end up feeling somewhat trivial, an unpopular opinion with the audience.

Finally, during the Q&A session there were lots of questions coming in from Twitter regarding the films that never quite made it to the end. Pullman’s explanation for this was that books don’t translate well into films, that if you go to see a film of a book you enjoyed you almost expect to be disappointed. Inevitably huge amounts of detail from the books will be cut to fit into 120 minutes or so, and this is why he believes that long running TV serials such Game of Thrones are a much better way of translating books to screen. To the great delight of the audience he revealed that this kind of project is currently in progress for His Dark Materials.

Monday, 16 October 2017

In Touch, Dorfman Theatre, 14th October 2017

In Touch is a co-production of An Inclusion Theatre Company and Theatre of Nations in association with Graeae Theatre Company, National Theatre, the British Council, and Sense. The cast is made up of deafblind, blind, visually impaired, D/deaf, hard-of-hearing, sighted and hearing people sharing their stories. They are accompanied by Jenny Agutter and Yevgeny Mironov telling of the lives of Olga Skorokhodova and Professor Suvorov, pioneering deafblind academics.

We are told about the actors’ lives, experiences of blindness and deafness, and their hopes and dreams. The most heart-wrenching part for me was hearing what the last thing they remember seeing was. The show is not designed to induce pity, quite the opposite, it challenges any misconceptions that deafblind people are different, showing that they have the same hobbies, hopes and dreams as anyone else. It is saddening to realise just how hard it is for them to engage with the rest of the world with such a pitiful lack of inclusive opportunities.

The mix of spoken, signed, and physical theatre made for an eclectic, engaging show. Parts were in Russian, leaving me reliant on the surtitles. This, and the way the focus jumped around from actor to actor, from one theme and style of performance to another, gave a sense of disorientation, which I assume was intentional. This was probably the most inclusive event I’ve ever been to – there was audio description, surtitles, and live BSL interpretation. May this be an example of what can be achieved and its lead followed by other theatres.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

The first book in the Gormenghast series introduces us to a strange world peopled with eccentric and curious characters. Gormenghast castle itself is sprawling, all consuming, and with an air of neglect about it. Many of the characters are reclusive and there seems something of a dusty, forgotten feel to the lives there. The 76th Earl of Gormenghast, Lord Sepulchrave, spends his days carrying out antiquated rituals, the meaning behind many of which seems to have passed out of living memory. The book opens with two events that will prove catalysts for more dramatic occurrences – the birth of an heir, the eponymous Titus Groan, who makes few appearances, and the arrival of a new kitchen boy, Steerpike.

The birth of a younger brother displeases Fuschia Groan, the spoilt first child of Sepulchrave, who is nonetheless never allowed to forget her inferior position due to her sex. For Nannie Slagg however, this is a wonderful opportunity to feel increasingly self-important with a new little charge to nurture. Although Titus opens and closes the book, and whose story will undoubtedly become more of a central focus in the later books, it is Steerpike’s actions who shape this novel.

He is charming and manipulative and engineers his rise through underhand methods. He takes advantage of Sepulchrave’s twin sisters, Cora and Clarice, who are generally excluded from activities in the castle. This solitutde is the perfect environment for their resentment toward their sister-in-law Gertrude to fester. The power hungry twins have suffered ill health, and appear to have low intelligence, having a childish strain to their behaviour, yet maintaining an eerie lack of expression for the most part. They are intriguing figures who don’t seem to think highly of each other. Steerpike convinces them to commit arson and then proceeds to terrorise them to ensure their silence, allowing the reader to feel a tug of sympathy for the neglected pair.

A strange and meticulously imagined novel. I have heard it said that not much happens in it, and although it may not be action packed it focuses instead on building depth into its world and characters with enough dramatic events to keep the story moving. It certainly leaves you eager to dive into the next instalment.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

How To Stop Time, Matt Haig

Haig’s latest offering focuses on the life of Tom Hazard, a seemingly middle aged man who has in fact been alive since 1581. He has returned now to London as a history teacher and walks the streets remembering how they used to look, where his times with Rose, his only love, were spent. During her life he was forced to part from her, fearing that his barely perceptible aging would put her at risk as it had done his mother. He has spent the intervening years searching for their daughter Marion who also has anageria, a condition that makes them age fifteen times slower than your average human. You would be forgiven for thinking that they would not need to hide in the modern world. We don’t drown innocent women to test if they are witches after all, but you only have to turn on the news to see that anybody different, other, is still vilified. This makes the novel feel relevant rather than just a far-fetched story.

Tom fends for himself for centuries before discovering the Albatross Society in the late nineteenth century. This discovery follows him finally finding a doctor who believes in his condition and does not want him institutionalized. Much to Tom’s horror the doctor mysteriously dies shortly after their meeting. The Albatross Society is for people with anageria, the Albas, as they are known, a group suspicious of the rest of the world. In order to ensure their safety they kill anyone they consider to pose a risk to their anonymity. The Society is headed by Hendrich, who is unwavering in his belief that the rules – never to fall in love, and to create a new life every eight years (the price the Albas pay for him to arrange this for them is the occasional assassination job), is for the best. Tom begins to question the truth of this, but were he to leave he would become a target. There’s also the belief that if anyone can find Marion it will be Hendrich. Whether or not he can be trusted is another matter. The reader is made to feel for Tom, stuck in a seemingly impossible situation, unable to tell anyone outside the Society the truth. His loneliness is heartbreaking.

The storyline may sound a touch convoluted when laid out like this, but it reads easily and although the narrative hops around in time it is not difficult to follow. There’s also the odd light-hearted cameo from the likes of Shakespeare. It’s a novel that has a good balance between the humorous and serious. One theme which also appeared in Haig’s bestseller The Humans is the importance of our mortality in giving our lives meaning and a sense of urgency. This combined with musings on what makes life really worth living, and the need for love no matter the potential for pain, means his books always pull on the heartstrings and make you think. Not my favourite of his works, but worth a read (and I’ll certainly be reading the follow-up I’ve heard rumours of).

Monday, 11 September 2017

Australian Travels Part One: Sydney to Canberra

Not long after having arrived in Australia I found myself learning how to handle an automatic and navigating Sydney city centre. This is one thing that amazed me until the day I left – everybody seems to have a car, and drive through the centre of Sydney without a second thought. How different to London where most feel driving to be unnecessary, and for those that do, venturing into the heart of the capital by road is almost unthinkable. A brief drive to pick up my fellow road trippers and we were heading out of the city to make our leisurely way to Canberra.

Gumnut Patisserie
Barely had we left when the roads began to empty and the houses became infrequent. We stopped in historic Berrima for some lunch. At first it felt as though the town was closed, the first few eateries we tried either being shut entirely or having stopped serving. This turned out to be fortuitous however as we ended up in Gumnut Patisserie. We hadn’t expected to find more than a few pies on offer but were greeted with a wide range of beautifully crafted patisserie that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a French patisserie. Having sampled some of their delicious savouries and sweet offerings we went happily on our way. Leaving with pleasant opinions of the place, on further inspection I fear we may have done the town a disservice. It is widely recognized as Australia’s best preserved example of a Georgian village on the mainland, and had we lingered longer I’m sure we would have discovered many more treasures.

The Big Merino
Our next stop was the Big Merino, a 50ft concrete construct, and one of over 150 ‘big things’ dotted around the country as eccentric quirks standing out from the landscape. Originally opened in 1985 but moved in 2007 to capture the attention of more tourists it now sits beside a petrol station and McDonalds. Within there is an exhibition on the history and uses of merino wool and you can climb to the top to look out of the eyes of Rambo, as he is affectionately known. The rest of the structure is taken up with a gift shop selling you average souvenirs, merino clothing, and some merino wool yarn and knitting patterns, which naturally I couldn’t resist.

The final landmark before entering Canberra was Lake George, which admittedly did challenge my idea of a lake, being completely devoid of water. This, in part, is what makes it famous, its constantly shifting water level as well as its location making it one of the most studied lakes in Australia. It may not have had the vast expanse of water I was expecting, but a lookout point on its perimeter proved the perfect spot for some stargazing.

Remains of a telescope at Mount Stromlo
A refurbished telescope at Mount Stromlo
We arrived in Canberra after dark so didn’t see much of it on our way in, however, we did dine by the water, which wasn’t a bad introduction. With the rising sun we went to experience the city by daylight. I had heard that it’s a very green city, but nothing had prepared me for the surrounding mountains, and how much it just didn’t feel like a city. In fairness, we didn’t really explore the centre, but I’m reliably informed that there isn’t really one. Instead, we headed for the mountains and Mount Stromlo Observatory. The original observatory was destroyed in the bush fires of 2003, and as you approach you pass the burnt out shells of the previous buildings. It makes you stop in your tracks and ruminate on the haunting remains. It’s not otherwise somewhere that you’d spend a long time, although I imagine in summer it would make a beautiful picnic spot, and I believe there are a number of walking and cycle tracks in the surrounding area. Inside the visitor centre is a small exhibition and a café with gorgeous views, which seemed to be why most people were there.

Our next stop was Canberra’s Deep Space Communication Complex, part of NASA’s Deep Space Network. The exhibition space here is larger and has several interactive displays to keep visitors of all ages entertained. You can see the large antennas across the site and there are boards in the exhibition with details of what they are tracking. We were even lucky enough to see one of them move.

After a short time we were back on the road again and heading for Corin Forest, a mountain recreation resort. There was no natural snow on the mountains but they have a snow play area so icy fun can be had even when the weather doesn’t oblige. After a snowball fight or two it’s pleasant to warm up again next to the open fire in the visitor centre. It wasn’t as forest like as the name suggests but a great place for a family outing. This is also where we saw our first kangaroos of the trip, which definitely made it worth it. Slightly further down the road was a short walking track leading to a waterfall which is well worth a look.

Our trip to Canberra was short but sweet and far more scenic than I had previously imagined.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

I Hate the Internet, Jarett Kobek

Kobek’s satire of modern life rests loosely on the story of two women dealing with the fall out of their images appearing online without their consent. Adeline, a middle-aged comic book writer who resides in San Francisco, who commits ‘the only unforgivable sin of the 21st century’ – giving a lecture in which she expresses unpopular opinion and failing to notice someone filming her. The video goes viral and Adeline is forced onto Twitter to give herself a voice, much to the horror of her son. It doesn’t all work against her however, as the exposure increases sales of her previous comic books. Ellen Flitcraft, a twenty year old from a much smaller town, has no such silver lining when photographs of her performing oral sex on her now ex-boyfriend are spread online. For her, it turns her life into a living hell, she is ostracised from her community and suffers great mental torment.

Interesting and sad as these tales are, they feel sidelined by the larger focus on the problems of social media and certain other specific aspects of the Internet. Kobek explains things in a cutting style as if for someone not from this time. For example, he describes Amazon as ‘an unprofitable website dedicated to the destruction of the publishing industry’, and Instagram as ‘the first social media platform to which the only sane reaction was hate’. Some of what he writes has been redacted in the UK edition. He comments on the proliferation of entirely unimportant things that people obsess over, and the loss of privacy.

One of his main bugbears is over intellectual property and the way in which big companies exploit creators. Admittedly this is not purely a digital age problem – he cites the creation of some of the most popular superheroes and the way in which the artists who created them were shut out from reaping the rewards of their phenomenal popularity. He sees social media doing this on a much larger scale. People mistakenly view is as a great outlet for freedom of expression when really they’re just making more money for the companies with every post. The becomes even more disturbing when he points out that the death and rape threats people send online benefit the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

Overall a brazen, unapologetic criticism of the modern world. The narrative is split into small chunks, the way content is often absorbed online. This may not be to everyone’s taste but it is incredibly easy to read and oddly addictive. If you have your doubts about the impact of social media this is a book to sink your teeth into that will also keep you well entertained.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson

Bryson is known for his humorous yet informative books detailing his travels. Down Under is no exception as he explores Australia’s vast emptiness by foot, road, and rail, going on detours to find locations of events of interest, even when the locals seem to have lost all memory of them. He is baffled by the attraction of creating oversized models (giant lobsters, big apples, you name it, they’ve made it) alongside roads, yet finds that after hours of seemingly endless driving they become all the more appealing, and enjoys the quirks of the culture that find such things worth creating.

He is constantly alarmed by the many dangerous creatures lurking in the sea and on-land, and the blasé attitude the Australians have toward them. He notes their eagerness to reassure, and the almost inevitable following gruesome or disastrous story. Reluctant as he is to come face to face with many of the native species, he does make clear quite how remarkable the wildlife is. Undisturbed by humans, organisms have had the freedom to evolve in ways not possible in other parts of the world. Australia is unique in the volume of species only known to reside there (and the many still undoubtedly left to discover). One of the overarching feelings of the country gleaned from the book is the power of nature, and humans’ vulnerability to it. Whether it be tales of the many lives lost in trying to find routes through the desert, or of the most experienced of divers vanishing in its waters, it is abundantly clear the humans are at the mercy of nature.

Bryson enjoys engaging with Australians, finding them generally friendly and with a wicked sense of humour (he found it particularly telling of their character that they named a swimming pool after a Prime Minister who met his end through drowning). One aspect of the attitudes he meets there that he struggles to get his head around is the treatment and opinions directed toward the Aborigines. After being startled on numerous occasions by the popularity of such views he finds himself sitting in a café watching the world go by, feeling a sense of injustice for the disheveled Aborigines who seem all but invisible to the rest of the population. Eventually, he reaches the sad realisation that he begins not to notice them either. That is not to say that he does not care however, detailing the wrongs inflicted on them by past generations.

He seems to think fondly of this oft-neglected country, and leaves with a sense of sadness that he will not hear much of their current affairs once he is outside of it. A highly enjoyable read that brings the diversity, vastness, and character of Australia to life.