Saturday 28 June 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

The novel starts with our narrator having just left a funeral. He finds himself going back to his childhood home and the farm at the end of the lane with a duckpond that was always referred to as an ocean by the youngest inhabitant, Lettie. She is a Hempstock, and there’s something special about them, they’ve been around for hundreds of years, and have powers over people’s minds amongst other things. While he is at the pond our narrator remembers a time when he was seven and their lodger was found dead in their car. This was the start of a series of strange events that involves trying to send an evil spirit back to where it came from.

The story itself feels fairly inconsequential, though there are moments that get your heart racing. It’s the bigger themes that stick with you once you reach the end. One of the main themes is the interrelation and transition between childhood and adulthood. In this it’s interesting because for the majority of the book the narrator is a child, but it is his adult self telling us about his childhood. The fragility of memory is commented on which brings in to question the reliability of his narrative, especially as we know the Hempstocks can alter memory. His maturity at the time of recounting the story will also colour the narrative, as well as leading him to ponder how events would have turned out if he’d been older.

It is interesting to see what is focused on in his memories. He seems mostly unconcerned by the suicide of their lodger, and yet gives vivid description of the food he was given by the Hempstocks. The rich, delicious food is described in great detail throughout suggesting the comforting nature of being at their farm. Perhaps this is partly why he finds himself back there again. He comments later in the story that he doesn’t miss childhood but that he does miss taking pleasure in the simple things, noticing and acknowledging when he experiences something for the first time, however seemingly insignificant. The descriptions of the food seem to reinforce this, as well as serving to contrast the welcoming atmosphere at the farm to his own home.

It seems that there’s a lack of understanding between him and his parents, and not a lot of compassion is shown to him. When his kitten dies he decides not to show how sad he is because he thinks his parents will find it bizarre, an upsetting view of the emotional environment he is being brought up in. Lettie tells him later that humans do not grow up inside, it is only their exteriors that change, but inside they are still children. They are fragile, and yearn for love and acceptance just as much as children do, a fact that would suggest there should be more empathy.

Even Ursula Monkton, the embodiment of the evil spirit that he accidentally transported home with him is alone and scared, even though she has a tough exterior. She causes his father to almost drown him and threatens him herself, but her initial concern was with trying to make people happy. The way she attempts this is by giving them money, but this only results in more problems – one husband thinking his wife has turned to prostitution when he finds a wodge of cash in her bag. A suggestion perhaps that money doesn’t solve problems but often creates more, and that humans generally don’t know what’s best for them. His father is entranced with her, and our narrator, ever conscious of the different perspectives age gives wonders whether, as an adult, he would have been intoxicated by Ursula rather than seeing her as a terrifying monster. Sometimes children are less easily fooled than adults. Before her exit he sees her vulnerability and her desire to give people what they want, teaching him a great deal about good and evil.

This is an interesting story which deals with some big issues despite feeling like a children’s book in parts, due mainly to the narrative voice being that of a child for the majority. The ancient Hempstocks have such far-reaching experience that they have a lot of wisdom to pass on, and a deep understanding of human nature. Their choice to give up some of their knowledge in order to experience humanity is a thought-provoking one. For such a slim book there’s a lot to think on – the nature of memory and the construction of personality, the battle between the child within and the expectations placed on adults, and, perhaps most poignant of all, the nature of sacrifice and the impossibility of trying to live a life worthy of it.

Friday 20 June 2014

Hobson's Choice (dir. Nadia Fall)

Written in 1915, set in the late nineteenth century, Hobson’s Choice is now transposed to the 1960s. It works perfectly in its new setting, which says a lot about many of the themes and issues it examines. Henry Horatio Hobson is the owner of a successful boot shop, and on the brink of alcoholism. Leaving his three daughters to run the shop he spends his days in the pub, but doesn’t see fit to pay them for their labours.

His eldest, Maggie, is thirty, the younger two in their twenties, and yet with the domineering way in which he treats them you’d be forgiven for thinking them much younger. He discounts Maggie from his considerations of finding husbands for his daughters, but Alice and Vickey are still young enough for childbearing (although this thought process is short lived when he realizes the expense he would be put to).

Maggie is pushy and capable and strong in her conviction that she isn’t too old to marry, has the right to choose for herself, and may yet escape her father’s shop. She decides she’ll marry Willie Mossop, the endearingly timid bootmaker who works in their basement. He doesn’t have much choice in the matter. Although Maggie breaks the chains of convention and show she is intelligent and independent she is markedly less feminine than her sisters and is exaggerated in her bossiness. Harold Brighouse was perhaps making a judgement on the type of women who could take control of their own lives, or making a point about how society perceives women who are proactive and not content with their role of mere vessels for childbearing.

Vickey and Alice are concerned mostly with making themselves look pretty and living in fine surroundings. They never accept Willie for his lower social standing and judge Maggie for the shabby home she’s willing to live in. They are selfish and ungrateful, quickly forgetting that it was Maggie who engineered it so that they could marry their chosen men. When their father descends deeper in to alcoholism and needs someone to look after him they shun the responsibility. They are fairly shallow and their characters are sparsely drawn. Hobson, Maggie, and Willie are well-drawn enough for this not to matter.

Mark Benton is brilliant as Hobson with all the confidence and harshness needed at the start of the play through to the broken man we see at the end. There’s great chemistry between Maggie (Jodie McNee) and Willie (Karl Davies) alternating between scenes that had us all laughing to genuinely touching moments. This is an excellent, humorous production dealing with the themes of gender equality, class tensions, and family loyalty which is all the more powerful for its sense of transgressing time. The cast is fantastic, and were utterly unfazed when parts of the set fell apart, incorporating it in to the dialogue, and leaving the audience enrapt.

Hobson’s Choice is playing at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 12th July.

Sunday 15 June 2014

The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber

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The Crimson Petal and the White is the story of a group of people from opposite ends of the social scale who inhabit Victorian London. There’s William Rackham, reluctant heir to Rackham Perfumeries and his fragile wife Agnes, who spends most of her time in her darkened bedroom. William’s pious brother Henry who has rejected his claim to their father’s fortune, and his close friend, widow and member of the Rescue Society, Mrs. Emmeline Fox. And then there’s Sugar, teenaged prostitute who is the height of popularity with the men of London. Our narrator leads us through this complex world, advising us which characters to follow.

Although this novel is set in Victorian London it makes a point of not merely regurgitating the Jack the Ripper induced stereotype that is so often portrayed. There are moments near the beginning where it feels like the author is trying to squeeze in as many facts as he can from his research superfluously, but this is rare and overall it’s a very clear picture of the nineteenth century capital. It’s so well researched with detail nestled in to the narrative that you almost forget that you’re not reading a book written at the time, even if some of the scenes definitely wouldn’t have been considered appropriate.

The first character we meet is Caroline, a prostitute with a lower class clientele than Sugar, who lives in a poverty stricken area of London. Despite her position she is remarkably content, and grateful that she doesn’t have to start the day with all the labourers desperately trying to secure a day’s work every morning. Her job brings her a strange sense of financial security – waking up broke every morning but knowing she’ll be able to earn enough, a luxury shared by few of the labourers.

As we follow her through the streets there's a profusion of people trying to sell something in the crowded thoroughfares, using anything they can to make some money, even scavenging the remains of a carriage shortly after an accident. Rich and poor live practically next to each other and yet remain entirely separate. Oxford Street creates a parting between two streets at polar opposites on the scale of wealth and poverty. There’s a stark contrast between the people we’ve met so far and William Rackham. When we first meet him he is in a state of panic as he tries to dispose of his out of fashion hat and purchase one that won’t cause him great anxiety to be seen in. He appears foppish and shallow, his problems laughable compared to those struggling for enough money to stay alive. It does, however, also plant the idea that the middle classes aspiring to move upwards are trapped in their own gilt cages, unable to freely do as they wish for fear of being shunned. The theme of social sensibilities and the problems and misery they induce recurs throughout the novel.

The differences are not only obvious between characters with very different lives, but when Sugar and Caroline are first seen together they could not seem more different. Physically they are nothing alike, but their minds are also contrasted. Caroline is seemingly content, easily amused by simple activities, and does not think too deeply. Sugar is seething with hatred and sees the injustice of the world clearly. The cause for this outlook, beyond her profession, is not explained at this point, but her psychological history is revealed gradually throughout. It also gives a sense of her intelligence, a blessing and a curse in a world where she is unable to make use of a brilliant mind. It is commented what a pity it is that her mind was born in to a female body, what a difference she could have made if only she were male.

Her intelligence marks her apart from Rackham’s wife Agnes, who, despite being sent to top schools was taught not how to think and be accomplished, except of course at being seen in public and looking beautiful. When William meets Sugar he is impressed by her intelligent, active mind and enjoys talking to her about his business affairs and literature. Eventually, however, this becomes evidence in his mind of her mental instability – it is unnatural for a woman to have a mind such as Sugar’s.

According to William’s clownish friends Bodley and Ashwell, half the wives in London are mad. It shouldn’t therefore distress him too much that his wife is among them, it is no great social shame when so many others are dealing with the same problem. Women are, after all, exceedingly prone to madness. Their bodies are closely linked with madness, and Doctor Curlew regularly examines Agnes to find her ‘wandering womb’. There’s also a distinct lack of understanding of the adult body from both the male and female characters which contributes to the problem. Agnes has no concept of what menstruation is and so regards it with fear. It is also remarked upon several times that William has a dislike of it, arising from ignorance. Although the reproductive function of the female is not itself an indicator of madness, the lack of understanding of it leads both to abuse and distress. Agnes does not even understand her own pregnancy and refuses to acknowledge her daughter Sophie as a result.

There aren’t many likable characters in this novel. Agnes and William are both very much of their time and class – terribly concerned with their status in society (though William likes to pretend he is not) and relying on their servants for the simplest of tasks, not even opening a window for themselves. Agnes also comes across as selfish, complaining about being in mourning to those who are grieving more than she is. The mix of perspectives make it difficult to form a decisive opinion on some characters – are we to believe Agnes’s interpretation and despise Rackham? She is, after all, supposedly mentally unsound. Do we, then, believe Rackham’s memories and thoughts to be trusted over hers, even with Sugar loathing him at times? Although he behaves badly much of the time, he seems more of a fool, often not knowing what to do rather than being intentionally cruel. He does redeem himself somewhat by resisting sending Agnes to an asylum despite constant pressure from her doctor.

For all her strength Sugar has a vulnerability and need for affection. On becoming Sophie’s governess we begin to learn more about her history, of her mother forcing her in to prostitution and teaching her nothing but hatred. She fears that she is like her mother when flashes of potential cruelty cross her mind with Sophie. She manages to resist, proving that it is possible to throw off the chains of abuse and express love.

This is a brilliantly evocative novel that brings nineteenth century London to life. The array of characters are interesting for their contradictions and psychological complexities. Most are miserable and seemingly trapped in situations they have little control over. Lovers of eighteenth and nineteenth century literature will revel in the allusions that are used to reveal more about the personalities of the characters. It also considers subjects of debate such as the role of women and the moral and social issues around prostitution, science as opposed to religion, and the benefits and shortcomings of mechanisation, fixing it firmly in the latter part of the century. There’s a lot left unresolved, and although it leaves you wanting more it’s ultimately more satisfying, serving to make the story feel more real, as if you’ve just seen a snapshot of life. The characters had a life before you started watching, and they’ll continue with their lives after you reach the final page.

Pick up a copy:

Saturday 7 June 2014

The Dream/Connectome/The Concert - The Royal Ballet, 6th June, 2014

Amid the celebrations of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday that have been taking place across the country this year, it seems like the perfect time for the Royal Ballet to be resurrecting The Dream – Frederick Ashton’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The costuming is reminiscent of the Victorian era – the fairies could be straight out of a nineteenth century artwork. The set and costume design transport you to a magical forest, and the ballet that ensues is light-hearted and playful with beautiful choreography. A sumptuous feast for the eyes.

Matthew Golding plays a confident Oberon whose strength and poise captures your attention. Natalia Osipova is a strong yet graceful Titania showing that technical ability and athleticism don’t have to be to the exclusion of character. Valentino Zucchetti is an energetic, amusing Puck, and the Fairies are gorgeous flitting around the stage, not merely part of the background but very much integral to the quality of the production. One of the highlights for me, however, was Jonathan Howells as Bottom. Some great acting really brought the part alive, and having him on pointe was a stroke of genius.

Connectome is a very different kind of ballet. When Alistair Marriott came across Dr. Sebastian Seung’s Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are in which he argues that it isn’t our genes that give us our identity, but the connections between our brain cells, our own ‘connectome’, his new ballet began to take shape. A number of white poles cover the stage, the lighting and movement creating a very distinct atmosphere as the dancers move around the stage, partly obscured by the set. As the poles rise upward the stage becomes an open space on which the emotions and experiences of life are portrayed. The only female on stage, Sarah Lamb demonstrates her strength and ability to convey emotion without an elaborate narrative. In parts deeply sad, this is an affecting piece. The visuals, music, and movement of the dancers come together to leave the audience feeling almost in a trance – looking beyond mere aesthetics to the core of what it is to be human.

Sarah Lamb returns to the stage for the final piece showing her versatility by taking up a role far removed from that of Connectome. The Concert is the most overtly comedic ballet I’ve seen with a strong thread of farce running throughout. From the moment Robert Clark strides across the stage, settling at his piano, wiping off a thick layer of dust the audience is full of mirth. He’s followed on stage by a collection of characters come to watch the concert. They are caricatures – amongst them the dreamy romantic who clings to the piano, the bored husband with his over-eager wife (who he later tries to kill with a rubber dagger), the aggressively arty devotee, and a gaggle of others who go on to play a sort of musical chairs while the pianist remains focused on the music.

The juxtaposition between the serene music and dancers adds to the bizarre world that unfolds on stage. My favourite section has to be the ‘Mistake Waltz’ – the female dancers having been inelegantly carried around the stage like stiff mannequins they suddenly spring to life as an under-prepared corps de ballet. Bumping in to each other, out of formation, getting their arms wrong, and leaving one poor dancer behind still absorbed in the previous move while the rest of the group move on, this causes hysterics in the audience. The Concert proves a humorous end to an enjoyable triple bill that’s not without its thoughtful moments. It’s great seeing the dancers having so much fun on stage.

Thursday 5 June 2014

In defence of cycling

I'm not a cyclist. I mean, I can ride a bike, but the number of times I've done so in the past year could be counted on the fingers of one hand. I just thought I'd put that out there to start with as I know the common misconception is that people don't care about making cycling safer unless they are themselves regularly travelling by bike. Having spoken to a number of people on the topic I think it's fair to say there'd be a lot more of us out there on bikes if we felt safer doing so. And let's be honest, this would be a good thing, not just for our personal health and fitness, but also for the environment as well as for those using the roads as there'd be less congestion. 

The news of yet another cyclist's death in London on Monday made me sad, but then it made me angry, really angry. Why is it that so many people lose their lives just because they've chosen to travel by bike? It isn't right, and it isn't necessary. It's not like it's a disease that we can't find a cure for. It's no secret as to how to make it safer for cyclists (Holland being an excellent example), it's just a case of apathy and reluctance to commit to carrying out the necessary changes. It's getting that the deaths of cyclists are such a regular occurrence in the news that there's a danger that the lives lost will disappear in a haze of statistics. These aren't just numbers, they are real people innocently going about their day whose lives are being stolen from them. It takes mere seconds for their futures to disappear, and for their loved ones to be left with a gaping hole in their lives that cannot be re-filled, a wound that won't ever fully heal. People are not replaceable, and it disgusts me that this is allowed to keep happening with no real efforts to make a change by those with the power to do so. More despicable, however, if the oft heard suggestion that it is somehow the cyclist's fault, that they shouldn't be on the road, and, by implication, deserve what they get (seriously?!).

London Cycling Campaign ran an excellent campaign in the run-up to the recent local elections called Space for Cycling (for some brilliant images from the ride through the capital they organised see here). This really highlighted the fact that there isn't really any space for cycling. Those on bikes are forced to share the road with cars, buses, and lorries where they have to deal with aggression and danger most every time they go out for a ride. I'm always horrified when talking to regular cyclists by how they all seem to have multiple tales of being knocked off their bikes, of sustaining injuries of varying degrees of severity. I'm not sure why this is generally deemed acceptable; that if you choose to go by bike you just have to accept the risk. I don't feel afraid to use other forms of transport, why should cycling be any different? If people of all ages are to consider cycling to be a viable option, serious changes need to be made.

Useful websites:
- For information on campaigns worldwide
- Brake - a road safety charity, campaigning for safer roads as well as providing support for those injured or bereaved