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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.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

What Would Mary Berry Do?, Claire Sandy

Marie Dunwoody tries to do it all – maintain a happy marriage, raise three children, and run her own dental practice, a vocation to which she is devoted. She manages an impressive juggling act of her responsibilities, but when she is told at the last minute by her twins that she’s meant to be baking a showstopper for their school fair she feels she has failed, having to resort to Mr. Kipling Fondant Fancies. Her humiliation is reinforced by her seemingly perfect neighbour Lucy’s beautiful creations outshining her meagre offerings.  The fair proves to be transformative, however, when Marie happens upon a copy of Mary Berry’s Complete Baking Bible. She vows to become more like Mary, and in consequence, to her mind, a better mother.

Her ambition soon becomes something of an obsession as she battles her way through simple sponges, the threat of the challenging croquembouche, which she has promised to make for a friend’s wedding, constantly hanging over her. Keen bakers will feel a sense of familiarity in the frustrations and satisfaction in attempting to produce a perfect bake, and relish in the humour of Marie and her husband Robert’s split allegiance when he becomes a devotee of Paul Hollywood. The book is not all light-hearted Bake-Off references and collapsing cakes however, dealing with the pressures of marriage and parenthood, and the contrast between appearances and reality. It is this which makes the book unforgettable and drags you into the lives of the inhabitants of a small suburban street.

Marie’s son Angus is besotted with a girl he has only ever met online while completely ignoring the affections of his neighbour Chloe, the future of the dental practice is threatened by the opening of a rival across the road, more concerned with aesthetics than quality dental care, Robert’s job is hanging in the balance, and Lucy’s perfect life is a constant frustration. It all feels very real and relevant.

Through her baking endeavours Marie’s perspective begins to change and neighbourhood scandals are discovered. All the revelations may not be a total shock to the reader, but it is the journey that matters, and you find yourself becoming quite attached to the characters. A feel-good book accurately portraying the day-to-day challenges and triumphs of a modern family. This was something of a diversion from my normal reading habits, but one that I’m very glad I took. 

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux

Gaston Leroux’s most well known title is nonetheless known more for its musical adaptation than the novel itself. Often dismissed as confused, not know quite what it’s trying to be, I feel, however, that you’d be missing out on a novel of great intrigue and atmosphere were you to cast it aside so easily. The tale of Erik/the Phantom is haunting, his genius and twisted spirit apparent as he roams the secret passageways of the Opera house he helped to create. His love of Christine is obsessive, his desperation to be loved all too obvious when one of the narrators reveals Christine allowed him to kiss her forehead, something not even his mother would. He forces the reader to question their judgment – can he so easily be condemned when he has been rejected and starved of affection his whole life? Should we not feel some pity for this man forced to live an invisible life?

Christine’s story is not without its own tragedy – her father’s death in her youth wounding her deeply and stripping her of the joy of music, making her once enchanting voice little more than average. Raoul, who had known her before her father died, understands the pain of loss, having been brought up by his brother in the absence of a parent. His love for Christine is of a very different nature to that of the Phantom. Raoul loves her and wants to protect her from the Phantom, who takes advantage of her grief to manipulate her to his will. Raoul’s feeling are changeable, often flicking between devotion and suspicion, fearing she is having an affair with another man and behaving loosely.

The format is not untypical of the time, Leroux using a common technique of addressing the reader in the prologue, speaking of the truth of the tale. The three central characters are reminiscent of those from another great Gothic revival novel  - Wuthering Heights. Erik reflects Heathcliff – treated with violence and rejection at a young age, creating a manipulative, some would say evil, man with an otherworldly feel. They both desire love and are motivated by an unhealthy obsession with a woman. Catherine is a fiercer heroine by far but faces a similar dilemma – letting go of the past or holding on to a destructive force. Edgar is a more loyal counterpart to Raoul and struggles in a relationship with a woman whose heart belongs, at least in part, to another. It is a tried and tested formula with an anti-hero that inspires sympathy.

The gradual revealing of information about Erik’s past makes him feel more real than the ghoulish tales of fiery eyes and an ever-present smell of death. He is cunning both in his exploitation of the secrets of the Opera but also in his more sinister intentions, creating a torture chamber of great ingenuity. If you want a tale of passion and mystery, drama and crime, then The Phantom of the Opera contains all that you could want.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France, Evelyne Lever

Lever’s easy-to-read account of the infamous French Queen, Marie Antoinette, brings her story to life almost as a novel might. The reader is led into sympathy for the young Queen, having been sent to a foreign country at a tender age and being forced to survive in the trying environment of Versailles in such a public marriage. Lever details how trying Antoinette found her situation and how she longed for some sense of normality, creating a haven for herself at Trianon. She disliked the constant rituals of royalty and found public duties tiresome, leading her to break with some traditions. Surprisingly, however, she did not push against one of the more invasive customs – that French queens had to give birth publicly in order to prove the legitimacy of their child.

In all other senses when it came to her children she does not seem to have wished to follow in the distant relationship expected from royals. Lever paints her as maternal, with a desire to be active in her children’s life, and even wished to breastfeed them herself. Her apparent motherly instincts seem at odds with those of her own mother, who is depicted as manipulative, using emotion against her children in order to manoeuvre them into positions of influence. Political dominance seems to have been a greater concern to her than her own children’s happiness, not uncommon at this time, but exaggerated in her family. Indeed, Marie Antoinette seems to have received very little affection from her family at large; her tragic figure imprisoned near the end of her life, believing her family would save her when in fact they had no intention to help.

Marie Antoinette is often vilified for her excesses and political ineptitude, but this biography paints a softer picture – one of a young woman thrust into court life without sufficient training to succeed. A woman whose intuition about the views of the people of France was severely lacking, but a woman of heart. One can’t help but think she would have thrived in a more domestic situation. Lever’s biography is unlikely to satisfy many academics, and the wider political and social context of events is all but absent, resulting in a somewhat misleading, half-formed version of events. The storming of Versailles especially reads more like a novel than an historical study, but the book is accessible and gives a sense of life as experienced by her. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Les Misérables, Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s epic Les Misérables is a broad examination of the lives of struggling citizens of France in the early nineteen century, and a polemic against a society where people are so carelessly abandoned by the State. Jean Valjean, the unifying character, is a complex man whose good intentions were forced out of him during his harsh and intolerable captivity. His crime was little more than desperation to relieve the suffering of his loved ones, and his ever present determination to escape, however slim the chance of success and however high the penalty. Readers will easily be led into sympathy, and feel the hopelessness, the injustice of the legal system. He emerges with a broken soul, all ability to love seemingly crushed. His encounter with the Bishop of Digne stuns him, his kindness a sudden bright light that dazes Valjean after so many years of darkness. It is this which allows a return to empathy and encourages what becomes a life led selflessly.

Fantine, an innocent girl who places her heart with the wrong man ends her life tragically when she finds herself pregnant and abandoned. On meeting Madame Thenardier she sees a solution to her troubles, thinking she has found a loving family to care for her beloved child, Cosette, while she works hard to support her. She suffers a double misfortune as the Thernardiers prove to be of deplorable character, only interested in what they can gain. Her workmates also prove to be unkind, causing her problems for the sake of it. She soon finds herself destitute, relying on her body to provide for the ever increasing demands of the Thernardiers. It is heartbreaking to see her resolve to suffer so much with the only comfort that her sacrifices are granting Cosette health and happiness when we see how despicably she is in truth being treated.

Valjean, now in a position of some power and wealth, comes to hear of Fantine’s story and takes on the responsibility of care for Cosette. He sees the Thernardier’s for what they are and takes Cosette away from them, making enemies in the process. Without ever explaining the reason to her, he and Cosette hide from the law, and most especially Inspector Javert, who seems incapable of understanding life beyond the confines on the law.

A whole host of characters are introduced in relation to the events surrounding Valjean and his adopted daughter. The benign Marius whose morals lead him into a life of struggle, reluctant to accept financial help, and bent on finding Monsieur Thernardier with the aim of repaying the kindness he believes was shown to his father when injured at the Battle of Waterloo. Valjean is suspicious of the young man, both for his constant fear of being followed and watched, but also for the risk of Cosette falling in love. His past life haunts him to the end.

The Thernardiers reappear many times throughout, sometimes under different guises, and we see how they treat their own beloved daughters when hard times hit. The contrast between Cosette’s life and that of the once more privileged family is stark, a fact that enrages Madame Thernardier. This contrast is made even more apparent when you realise the street urchin Gavroche is also a Thernardier, although he is left to fend for himself and seems to have avoided the undesirable family traits. He is a shining example of generosity and wisdom far beyond his years. There are few scenes more heart wrenching than his demise, and the following treatise on how easily lost children can be sucked into the city and made invisible, struggling to survive in a world that only punishes them for their attempts to be fed and sheltered.

It is impossible to do justice to the breadth of this novel in so short a space. The characters may be a little exaggerated, which can be frustrating at times, and there are many lengthy digressions (some of which have mercifully been moved to appendices in this in this edition) but it is a powerful story with characters you can’t help but feel for. The sheer length allows the characters to age and develop, experiencing the upheavals of attempts to revolutionise France. An historical novel when it was published, its message is no less relevant today.

Friday, 6 January 2017

A Time to Reflect and Look Forward

As is true for most, the end of the year is a busy time. 2016 proved even more so than usual for me and I couldn’t find the time to squeeze in any writing. I hope you’ll forgive this bumper post which will be both a look back at 2016 and a look ahead.

First off, theatre highlights from the past year. An early performance that certainly left its mark was Dinosaur Park, a quirky show by a talented trio that weaves a re-telling of Jurassic Park with a moving family story. Even for someone who isn’t an avid Jurassic Park fan this is a fantastic show – funny, clever, and with a real emotional kick.

Another highlight, also associated with a film – The Rocky Horror Show. Not having seen the film I didn’t know exactly what to expect – I knew it was a cult classic, was familiar with some of the costumes, and of course, knew the Time Warp. What ensued was one of the most fun shows I’ve been to. The performance itself was brilliant but the atmosphere in the theatre certainly added to the experience.

Finally, a comedy show – Randy Writes a Novel. A purple Australian puppet may not be your average weeknight entertainment but this was well worth it. He had the audience in fits of laughter, and dealt well with the general reluctance to participate, but there were plenty of more serious moments where he spoke about more difficult issues. A comedian that can make you laugh and think all at the same time.

It’s difficult to choose highlights of days out both in the UK and further afield, but here are a few that stand out. Portmeirion had a full post for me to gush about it in but it deserves a mention here too. This decorative Italianate village in north Wales will transport you to a different world. Colourful, slightly eccentric, and beautifully peaceful, a happy afternoon can be spent exploring this gem.

The Historic Dockyards at Chatham proved a surprisingly fun day out. I was originally there for a Call the Midwife locations tour (highly recommended for any fans) but the dockyards themselves proved plentiful entertainment. There are ships from broad periods, a submarine to board, and a Victorian ropery.

Sticking with the history theme, Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s home in Kent is in beautiful surroundings and has plenty to keep all the family entertained. They had a Winnie the Pooh trail when I was there, swings are dotted around the estate, and the café had some simply delicious chocolate cake. Even on what turned into a rainy day, this was a brilliant trip.

The most recent jaunt abroad took in Copenhagen at Christmas. Activity-wise the highlight was probably Tivoli Gardens. Bedecked in festive lights, it felt truly magical. Bustling Christmas markets, a light show to music from The Nutcracker, and an impressive firework display – if you find yourself in Denmark’s capital during the festive season this is a must-see. I can’t write about Copenhagen without a nod to their incredible cycling infrastructure which truly puts the UK to shame.

Another major highlight from the year’s travels was Paris. I can’t choose just one thing, there’s so much it has to offer. The Louvre is just incredible, the view from Notre Dame breathtaking, and you can easily imagine Claude Frollo or Quasimodo lurking just beyond the staircase on the descent. I fell utterly in love with the small town feel of Montmartre with its bustling markets, creative vibe, and quirky side streets. You feel the culture and history as you wander the streets of this remarkable city, take in the sights, or enjoy a peaceful amble on the banks of the Seine - I hope to spend many more happy days exploring. The only downside is that the delicious pastries available in their many boulangeries has utterly ruined the British alternatives (aim for the year – learn to make pastry the French way).

Finally, to books, of which many more have been consumed than have made an appearance on here. A Little Life continues to haunt many months after embarking. See the full post for further details of its power, but I’ll just say that it is a remarkable character study that becomes all consuming. Heartbreaking and illuminating.

Another highlight is a short gem of a book – Doctor Glas by Hjalmer Söderberg. Using the narrative form of a journal the reader is privy to our protagonist’s thought processes as he carries out his duties as a doctor and ruminates on topics such as assisted suicide and abortion. Published in 1905, his views were considered shocking and the author suffered a harsh backlash for their inclusion. For the modern reader it is a wonderfully realised deconstruction of Glas’s mental state and tackles issues that although not as shocking today, continue to cause debate.

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo also deserves a mention. Hugo is infamous for his penchant for lengthy tangents that are mostly irrelevant to the story, but Notre-Dame is not so bogged down in these digressions as Les Miserables, and it is a far smoother read because of it. The story moves at ample speed and has a marvellously constructed villain who is infuriating in his determination and wickedness. The characters are all three-dimensional, their stories cleverly woven together. It’ll certainly tug on your heartstrings but there’s also humour to be found. At its core is a gripping story handled masterfully by one of France’s national treasures.

I also discovered this excellent open source journal in 2016. It’s run by the Department of Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College and I have been happily making my way through their issue archive.

As for the year ahead, well, hopefully it’ll include making some headway with the serious backlog of book posts currently taunting me. After finishing reading The Saga of Gösta Berling I intend to move on to What Would Mary Berry Do?, which should be something of a gear change to my recent reading fodder. It may then finally be time to finish the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness with Monsters of Men. I hear it’s a bit of a tear-jerker so better stock up on the tissues! I’ll then likely scuttle back to the nineteenth century but have no set reading plan (though do have an ever-increasing to-read list/pile). Any recommendations always welcome.

A while back I saw a blog of someone who had baked their way through an entire Mary Berry cookbook and blogged their efforts. Ever since reading their blog I’ve been keen to try out every recipe in a cookbook myself. This being a very Mary Berry Christmas, I received My Kitchen: 100 Cakes and Bakes, which may well be the one, though I’ll give myself more than a year, there is such a thing as too much cake…

I’m also entering the year with a satisfying stash of tickets, starting with The Red Shoes this evening. I’ve heard only good things about it so have high hopes. There’ll also be a few old favourites including The Phantom of the Opera and Woolf Works. Wayne McGregor’s take on a selection of Virginia Woolf’s writings almost had me in tears last time, and I’m hoping it won’t have lost any of its power. There’s also, finally, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the horizon (and, I hear, an exhibition at the British Library later in the year which will doubtless be one to see). I admit I have read the script so the story won’t be a surprise, but from reading it I could just imagine how incredible the production value will be and can’t wait to see it brought to life on stage.

It looks set to be another busy year and hope it’ll be a good one. Happy new year one and all, may it bring peace and happiness.