Thursday, 28 August 2014

No Moore Rodin (part two…)

Yesterday, I went back to say (what turned out to be a tearful) goodbye to the Moore Rodin exhibition at Compton Verney – a sort of last-minute bittersweet birthday present to myself.

Even after half-a-dozen visits, and a growing familiarity, I still find the works immensely moving: especially the maquettes and drawings displayed inside the house. There is no photography allowed, there – nor can you touch the sculptures, of course – but so obvious are the deft mouldings and impressions of the sculptors’ fingers on the smaller pieces that it is effortless to hold them in your mind, and experience their tactile attraction at a distance. (I still wish I could photograph them, though: to remember them all the better.)

It is probably for this reason that my favourite work – the one I covet most of all – is Moore’s ‘self-portrait’ of his intertwined fingers – The Artist’s Hands, c.1974 – almost scribbled, it is so dynamic (and yet utterly skilful – Moore was, as are so many great artists, an accomplished and insightful draughtsman): in a mixture of media, including charcoal and ballpoint pen. This is the centrepiece, to me, of a room filled with pieces all based on an interlocking motif – including a working model for one of my favourites of his outdoor works: the 1963-64 Locking Piece that was featured at Kew.

Even though the two artists never met, there are so many parallels in their work – some made explicit by Moore himself (who was serving in France, as a young man, when Rodin died); some expressed in the wonderfully curated juxtapositions both inside and outside the building – that not only is it obvious that Moore is Rodin’s natural heir; but that, in some ways, he can be seen as the earlier artist’s autodidactic student: learning from him, but utilizing his own methodologies and innate vision to expand the capabilities, subjects and shapes of their shared craft. It is almost as if one soul shared two lifetimes of marvellous interlocking creativity.

…when seen side by side, Moore and Rodin’s work reveals many shared concerns. Their deeply felt humanism impelled them to seek the universal and the primal through the distillation of the human form down to its essence. A shared interest in ideas of metamorphosis underpins their desire to fuse the human figure with nature, which they achieved by dissolving the boundaries between anthropomorphic and geological forms.
– Richard Calvocoressi and Steven Parissien: Foreword to Moore Rodin

As with Kew, the grounds will initially seem desolate when the large sculptures are removed: they fit the landscape so well; are elevated by it; and enhance it, in return. As the worn paths and returfed squares of earth where they have stood, and their viewers have circled, will leave fading marks on the Compton Verney parkland, so will there be a slow-to-vanish mark on my heart: such is the impression they have made. I shall just have to make a long-desired pilgrimage to Perry Green to get my next fix.

I have said it before – and I will no doubt repeat it unremittingly… – but we are immensely fortunate to have so many wonderful cultural resources on our doorstep. Tourists are driven to visit our home county because of a sometimes ineffable (what Shakespeare himself might describe as ‘termless’) relationship with a centuries-old playwright and poet who they may, sometimes, only half-understand. But there is so much more to experience; and lucky are we who were born here, or stumbled into staying.

Monday, 25 August 2014

A desert island biography…

Picture, in the not-too-distant future, Windmill Hill as an island – quite likely, I guess; and probably as part of an Avon-Stour archipelago: with the Edge Hills becoming the local ‘Mainland’ – and imagine I retreat there, to live out my days, hermit-like, listening – loudly – to Roy Plomley’s sanctioned eight discs (more likely to be on my battered iPod Classic than a wind-up gramophone – providing Tysoe’s community-funded wind-turbines are still operating), with my head deeply buried in either Shakespeare or my formidably strugglesome chosen book. What would be on my playlist?

The food of love
1. Kinderszenen
Playing the piano (from a very early age) – most often my mum’s ebony Model 10 Bechstein upright: gifted to her by Blackburn Cathedral’s then retiring (but always generous and avuncular) Master of Choristers, Tommy ‘TLD’ Duerden – and singing (in the cathedral choir), were my two favourite occupations, when I was little: and my first choice, therefore (Kirsty!) has to be Chopin’s Mazurkas – probably as played by Maurizio Pollini: one of the most captivating pianists I’ve ever had the thrill of experiencing live.

I inherited my mother’s large collection of sheet music – and a small portion of her incredible musical skill – along with the piano (which now belongs, fully restored, to my son); and my copy of the Mazurkas soon became the most thumbed and Sellotaped, as I discovered how beautifully the music fit my fingers, and varying moods. They seemed written just for me to play.

2. Adolescent angst
Before my voice broke (much, much too soon and suddenly), I was often called on to be the choir’s treble soloist, and loved performing the soaring lines of Allegri’s Miserere (often managing to sing that top C just a little bit sharp…!). Even now – as the Chopin takes me back to a chilly front room in Blackburn – the Allegri kits me out in a cassock, surplice and uncomfortable Eton Collar, or starched (rough) ruff. The Sixteen perform this – and the revised (possibly more authentic) version – as beautifully as anyone; and their limited number of voices ensures that each part is heard clearly, with perfect diction and balance. Heaven on earth (which is what all religious music aspires to be).

3. Teenage kicks
Growing up in a house always filled with classical music; having piano lessons every Monday evening with the wonderfully talented, thoughtful and forgiving Arthur Bury; singing psalms, hymns, anthems, responses, five or six days a week; I suppose discovering ‘popular’ music – mainly through my older sister watching Top of the Pops on a Thursday evening – was as much a shock to me as the emergence of rock ’n’ roll was to most of civilization in the 1950s. My preference, though, has always been for musicians with skill – and often, of course, piano-based: e.g. Elton John, Carole King, even Queen (who I was lucky enough to see live, whilst at university). But the idol – of the whole family – was Neil Sedaka: and I used to belt out Solitaire on Mum’s Bechstein far, far too often, and far, far too loud! (Due to a quirky family tradition, say “Neil Sedaka” to me, and I will be instantly transported to a motor caravan in a Scottish field: with rain marking insistent percussive rhythms on its roof….)

4. Individualization
During my teenage years, I also began to develop my own taste in classical music: sharing some of them, obviously, with my parents; but also breaking away from their core loves of choral and operatic scores. Initially, it was the emotion of music that grabbed me: and no-one, perhaps, wears their heart on their sleeve quite as thoroughly as Sir Edward Elgar (actually – at the time of writing – the seventh most popular composer on Desert Island Discs; with the seventh most chosen piece of music, in ‘Nimrod’).

The ‘Enigma’ Variations also happened to be my first real immersion in his rich and skilful orchestrations, his remarkable gift for melody and counterpoint – explored through his own piano transcription (on almost permanent loan from the local library) – but this soon expanded, through the genius of the two symphonies; The Dream of Gerontius (with Janet Baker, of course); ’Cello and lesser-known Violin Concerto; to his later – to me, greatest – works: the Violin Sonata, String Quartet, hauntingly beautiful Piano Quintet, and Falstaff – where his technical skills combine perfectly with his erudition and understanding of (if not empathy with) Shakespeare’s flawed anti-hero. It is a work I can listen to again and again: but no-one interpreted it better, I think, than Vernon Handley.

5. I must go down
Staying with English music, one of my abiding memories is seeing Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes for the first time: on a grammar school trip. The superb use of orchestration to pull you in to the maritime setting – the humours of the changeable weather; the tempers of the tides – and the wonderful word-setting – captivated me utterly. What greater combination can there be than the best music and the best theatre?

The Turn of the Screw may be more accomplished in some ways – especially in its use of smaller forces – but it is the power of the earlier work that overwhelms.

I cannot hear any Britten without thinking of the late (there is no better word than ‘lamented’) Philip Langridge – the perfect inheritor of the works written for Peter Pears. No-one understands the rôles as well as he; enunciates or pitches their interpretation as meaningfully. He always found the soul at the centre of the music: and involved you in its interpretation and delivery.

6. So what?
As far as I can recollect, there was no jazz in my life, as I grew up – my parents often bemoaning Radio 3 straying occasionally into such terrible territory! But modern classical composers – especially Messaien and his stupendous Turangalîla-Symphonie – pointed the way to a medium that, to me, was certainly worth exploring.

I started with the easy stuff – helped on by Alan Plater’s fantastic The Beiderbecke Trilogy – and found my tastes moving inexorably later, until Miles Davis (with a little help from John Coltrane) almost took over my life. The trumpet’s entry at the beginning of Kind of Blue will always make my heart stop; but it is Birth of the Cool that I find rewards repeated listenings: again, with a combination of technique and emotion.

7. When God created the coffeebreak
I cannot imagine trimming my record collection down, though, without including some (all, please!) E.S.T.. Esbjörn Svensson was a nice, ordinary bloke who just happened to have a magical way with music; and two good friends who understood, and knew implicitly, how best to make this sorcery come together and alive.

Just writing about them brings a tear to my eye; and makes me realize there is no one track that would suffice to represent the range of their accomplishments. Instead, the record that Esbjörn told me inspired his musical venturings, will have to suffice: Jazz på svenska by Jan Johansson. Esbjörn built on this with the trombonist Nils Landgren – producing two ethereal volumes of Swedish Folk Modern – but I find them hard to listen to, without wondering what great music the world has missed out on: so it is to the source of all that inspiration that I will turn.

8. The end
For many years, Beethoven’s Drei Equali for four trombones seemed the perfect music to accompany my departure from this world. I am not a major fan of this supposed giant of a composer, normally – apart from the piano sonatas, obviously! – although I admit that, occasionally, he produces extended moments of true brilliance (the opening of his fifth symphony, of course…); but these three short pieces – for a combination of instruments rarely heard together (which, in itself, is sublime: demonstrating that music for brass can be as heartrending as that for strings) – grabbed me by the solar plexus the first time I heard them; and have never let go.

However, here I must cheat a little, and return to the instrument that will always remain ‘mine’, the piano, for my final selection; and a composer that, not only have I met on a few occasions, but that I hope, and believe, will emerge as one of the towering monuments of the last century: Peter Maxwell Davies. Always as lucid in his words as his notes, this is what Max – a preternaturally modest and insightful man (and a Lancastrian, like myself, who, too, fell in love with the more isolated parts of Scotland – but then made it his home…) – had to say, recently, on the subject – and on the piece that fits my fingers (and predilections) better than almost any other – even Chopin:

My little piano piece Farewell to Stromness has almost become a folk tune. People just say, ‘I like that piece,’ and they don’t know who wrote it. It gets played an awful lot at funerals these days. And that’s very unusual, for a so-called serious composer, to write a piece that people like so much, and they don’t care who it’s by.

Reading matters
As I presume most people – especially those with a musical bent – rapidly discover, it is nigh impossible to limit your choice to eight records; and, no doubt, on another day, my selection would be quite different. After all, I have over 20,000 tracks on my music server: dishing up jazz, punk, chamber music, heavy metal, modern opera, folk, rap, even works for organ. My tastes are wide, eclectic, sometimes bizarre, span seven centuries, and most of the globe.

The same can be said – just about – of my taste in literature; and my thousands of volumes of poetry, biography, science fiction, modern European literature…. As I have never got on with the immensely popular operas of Verdi, Puccini, etc. (although I love earlier operatic works, up to Mozart; and more modern ones, such as by Britten, Tippett, etc.), I have never gotten into those books that many seem to imply are essential classics: e.g. Jane Austen, the Brontës, Dickens (although I adore Wilkie Collins).

My love of Shakespeare is obviously satisfied by its standard pairing with the Bible (although I would rather explore the Hindu epic Mahabharata or the many sutras of Buddhism). But the book I have finally chosen – and I know this is immensely specific – is the green pocket 1923 The World’s Classics edition of Moby-Dick or The Whale that I picked up, on the spur of the moment, in 1997, in a second-hand bookshop on my first ever visit to Hay-on-Wye, for the princely sum of £1.50! (It even comes with an integral red, silk, woven bookmark.)

I have read this many times – and with each reading comes fresh discoveries, greater understanding, and a yet deeper admiration for the skill of the storytelling; the use of words to conquer up complex images; and the vein of sheer awfulness and brutality that Melville works into nearly every page. There is a big heart at the centre of the book: and, as with music, it is this that always pulls me in – along with its technical accomplishments. I just cannot get enough of it; and know of no better tutor in syntactic craftsmanship. The print is small, though: so I will have to blag a magnifying glass outside of my chosen luxury.

Life’s little one
I haven’t played, or owned, a piano for quite some time – not since my hearing began to fade. However, this will not stop me from banging away, like the dying Beethoven, at the keys of, hopefully, a Bechstein concert grand – if it can be made to fit inside the windmill!

Re-learning the instrument (providing it comes equipped with a couple of centuries’ worth of music; and a comfortable, adjustable stool) would keep me occupied for most of each day, I think; and, being surrounded by water, there would be no-one to drive away, apart from the gulls! Maybe I would attract a chorus of dolphins or seals…?

But riddle-like lives sweetly
As to narrowing down my eight discs, I may as well stick a pin blindfold in my entire music collection. I think, though – which will leave my parents despairing! – it has to be the Miles Davis. Brass band music with a lilt.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Taking arms against a sea of troubles…

As most villagers will know by now, Gladman Developments’ (13/02515/OUT) planning appeal, re their proposed desecration of Oxhill Road, will be heard at a local inquiry: which will be held on 16 September 2014 starting at 10:00. This will take place at Ettington Community Centre; and is expected to last up to five days.

In the light of SHAPE’s recent victory (in battle, if not in war) – partly because of the need for a five-year housing supply finally being met by Stratford-on-Avon District Council… –

At April 2014 [albeit announced on 12 August 2014] there is considered to be a supply of 3,951 new homes in the pipeline. This is the equivalent of 5.4 years’ supply.

…does this render the inquiry moot – even without the Core Strategy (which will be submitted for consideration in September or October: which will, of course, be too late for us…) in place?

Or do we still need to rely on the NPPF – especially with regards to the heritage aspects of the Parish Council and Tysoe Residents (Neighbourhood Planning) Group’s original objections?

Section 12 of the NPPF – at paragraph 128 – states that…

In determining applications, local planning authorities should require an applicant to describe the significance of any heritage assets affected, including any contribution made by their setting. The level of detail should be proportionate to the assets’ importance and no more than is sufficient to understand the potential impact of the proposal on their significance.

…although it has never been clear – to me, anyway – who decides on “the assets’ importance” or “their significance”: despite, of course, English Heritage – as the relevant statutory body – having made their views very clear with regards to the ridge-and-furrow adjacent to Tysoe Manor.

However, a landmark ruling in February – now widely considered an NPPF test case – may have helped clarify this: when deputy high court judge Robin Purchas QC ruled against an application for an 86.5 metre/284 feet-high wind-turbine at Pond Farm, Bodham, Norfolk. He stated that the consideration of “setting” needed to be set at a high threshold, due to the desirability of preserving the context of local listed buildings – including “the Grade I listed Barningham Hall, which is of Jacobean origin; Baconsthorpe Castle, also Grade I; and a number of Grade II* churches” – in the local landscape; and this had not been correctly assessed by the inquiry inspector who had given the go-ahead for the turbine. According to The Guardian

Judge Purchas ruled the inspector did not comply with section 66(1) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act, which required him to have special regard to the desirability of preserving the settings of listed buildings.

With such decisions being made, it does seem that legislation – and I am a strong believer in the NPPF, when applied correctly… – may yet come to our aid: although I am still unsure how we ensure this; or if it is even practicable. FORSE “is working with a planning expert and a specialist Barrister” in contesting the possible (probable?) GLH development of thousands of houses. But all this demonstrates to me is that to fight on an equal footing with the developers – and a government that appears to have vested interests in the harrowing of the shires (despite our MP’s lone protestations) – requires digging deep for resources (both time and money) that are probably beyond Tysoe’s means.

Even with the district council’s supposed/stated support, this still feels like a version of David and Goliath where the little guy has no rocks for his sling. Outrageous fortune, indeed.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

My dull deaf ears a little use to hear…

Season your admiration for a while
With an attent ear, till I may deliver,
Upon the witness of these gentlemen,
This marvel to you.
– William Shakespeare: Hamlet

As my deafness worsened over the years, I started to avoid the theatre-, opera- and concert-going that had filled so much of my life with joy. Music can still be a bit of a struggle, live, even with the best audiological marvels – especially if I am not familiar with the works being performed (although I will sometimes take my iPad with me: pre-loaded with the orchestral scores to follow…) – as, accompanying the loss of acuity, is a variable alteration of pitch (a form of diplacusis): where instruments that produce a plethora of harmonics (particularly string instruments; and, even worse, my own instrument, the piano) can result in conflicting timbres that may render even my favourites, such as Brahms and Elgar, akin to modern dissonance.

Where technology has come to my aid, though, is at the RSC. (In fact, the building, the productions, the facilities, the staff, have all brought a great deal of pleasure into my life, and continue to do so – as my addiction to the theatre is re-ignited….) As you lose your hearing, you soon realize that, behind all the signs indicating that hearing loops have been installed, usually lies nothing but utter disappointment. Not only are these systems often set up incorrectly; but the majority are either then poorly maintained or forgotten and inactive.

However, wherever you sit at the RSC – in both the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan (as well as at the ticket desk, etc.) – the induction loops provide clear sound: even when an actor delivering their lines has their back to you (because of the placement of the microphones). There is also no noticeable lag between live and sampled sound – something I discovered when I had my latest hearing aids programmed to be able to access both sources at once. This is now my preferred way of watching: as it gives more ‘presence’ and depth to the action (akin to the difference between monaural and binaural sound; or black-and-white and colour television); and my untrained lip-reading isn’t good enough to keep up with torrents of Jacobethan iambs!

The RSC also offer a couple of captioned performances for each production (as well as audio-described ones, and ‘touch tours’, for the visually impaired); and, when booking your seat, the ticket office – always immensely helpful and patient in matters of accessibility – will do their very best to find you a place where the captions are easily read, without impeding your view of the play. (As I am also physically disabled, they have on record that I am what my grandad would call an ‘okkerd bugga’ and prefer a seat at the left-hand end of a row!) In a week where “British tourist venues are being urged to provide better access for disabled visitors”, the RSC can be seen leading the way – with such access made an integral part of the transformation the theatre underwent a few years ago: not only designed into the building, but in the staff’s training and customer-facing ethos.

Returning to see The Two Gentlemen of Verona, this afternoon: instead of my usual seat in the stalls, I was upstairs in the circle (in another full house) – all the better to see the ‘surtitles’ on the balcony opposite. And I must admit, these added greatly to the enjoyment of the production: especially with some of the more laboured of Shakespeare’s youthful punning; or where the dialogue came thick and fast, with overlapping voices – and where, therefore, I had missed some of the subtlety, before. I had to be careful, though, not to get fixated on them. However, after years of practice with television subtitles – which the theatre captions were infinitely superior in accuracy to, of course…! – I soon adapted, and developed a knack for keeping them in the corner of my eye, whilst watching the action below.

Although, at one point, I realized that – as in previous visits – I did not actually need them to fully experience the drama, I know that I will return for other captioned performances: as they are that touch of seasoning that renders a tasty dish even more toothsome!

Cast photograph by Simon Annand/RSC

On second viewing, some of the threads and leitmotifs that Shakespeare weaves into the play become more apparent – the repeat tearing up of delivered love-letters, for example; and the riffs on what love means… – and I now believe that it deserves as much praise as some of his later work. It may not have as satisfying a conclusion as many of the more famous plays; but the exploration of human (particularly male) fallibility, desire, and (eventual) forgiveness – weaving together all the trademark strands of humour and emotion – is accomplished with ease; and demonstrates how well young Will understood the demands of his audience (even those whose hearing is fading…).

Postscript: 11 September 2014
Attending an ‘open set changeover’ at the Swan Theatre – from The White Devil to The Roaring Girl – the guide (who was wonderful, by the way!) must have noticed either my hearing aids or my not-too-subtle international deaf symbol badge: because she ensured that I sat next to her, throughout her commentary, so that I could hear everything she said. (It was also nice that the other tour members left me a seat free, of course, as a result of her pronouncement!)

The crew of ten or so stage-hands (plus the rarely visible lighting and sound technicians, and immensely thorough cleaners) transformed the theatre easily and efficiently in the allotted time (of ninety minutes): making it look oh-so-very-simple – a tribute both to their sometimes mute teamwork and the skill of the set-designers and craftsmen who built what appear to be complex designs: but which can be assembled and disassembled almost easier than an IKEA flatpack (and without any instructions, either)! Very impressive; and yet another sign of the quality and thought that can (and should?) remain invisible to the audience, and yet which we expect and take for granted.

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch I; Leaf VI

Cold irons bound…

That change had arrived; and looked set to stay. Where the Mole stood, shaking, was once the meadow where he had lived for most of his previous life. What he should have seen, in the distance, therefore, through hedges, past copses, was the silver, twinkling, snaking river where he had first chanced upon the Water Rat; where they had shared so much fun – happy days filled with hampers of lemonade, ginger beer, gherkins and cold meats; where the Mole had learned, eventually, to row the Rat’s boat. But the river had first faded to a trickle, when, somewhere upstream, faraway, it had been damned; then its dwindling remains had been confined in harsh concrete pipes; and, finally, these were themselves buried beneath an expanding, featureless, flat wasteland. The soil underneath the Mole’s aching feet, as a result, was dry and powdery as sand, even after the morning’s showers (no dull roots stirred with the spring rain); the view – apart from the Wild Wood a long way behind him: almost invisible through the dust griming the air – bland, fuscous, parched, lifeless, flat: apart from one monstrous, overwhelming Thing.

Seeing it, looming above him, appearing so all-conquering, so savage, the Mole, as he moved forwards, instantly lost all hope. In its presence, he felt so very insignificant; his previous bravura escaping from him with each ragged breath.

A colossus of a machine – taller than an old oak tree, wide as the Mole’s tunnels had been long, planted on the dirt, harsh and yellow, sharp edges gleaming against the filth – glowered down at him, stomping hard, pushing thick metal columns deep into the ground; deeper than the Mole could imagine, or had known; to where he was conscious moisture still had reign – even if only in the clays where he could, would never have dug, would never have made his home. The water table was much, much lower now, he knew; but it still made building laborious: these piles the toll necessary in subduing treacherous nature; in stamping greedy desires on the unwilling land; in making marks that would take centuries to erase – if ever.

With each descending elephantine beat arose another cloud of arid grit, along with belching smoke, thickening in the Mole’s throat and chest: only stopping, briefly, to position another beam, before resuming its demonic, insatiable lust to overpower all in its path: hammering spikes through the Mole’s heart, as well as deep into the earth.

Wrapping the Badger’s old handkin over his mouth and snout, the Mole turned his back on the monster, and began to head wearily back, trying to rebuild his crumbling thoughts: mulling over, and rehearsing, what he had previously been sure needed to be done to try and put things right; who he needed to talk to; who he needed to convince; what he needed to say, and how. But it all felt so tenuous. “I wish Badger and Ratty were here. They would know INSTANTLY.” And thus the tears returned: his anger fading with his earlier confidence. “Hang being alone. I was ALWAYS on my own, before, and managed quite happily in my own small world; but I know now that a mole is NOTHING in the Wide World without such good pals; without their sensible thoughts to share; their cunning stratagems to put in place. Hang being alone. Hang… being… lonely…. Hang. It. ALL.”

As the Mole stomped slowly back to the wood – his stick thudding into the diminishing dryness with each step, with each word, and with deep heartfelt pain – leaving the wilderness and his crumbling footprints behind, he remembered his prior ideas; how much sense they made; and how much hard work had gone into formulating them; and – although he knew their success would depend on the actions of others, as well as what little cunning he now possessed – his pace began to increase, little by little, as he started to see familiar landmarks, make out companion trees, and therefore regain his self-belief. “I need to do what Badger would have done. It’s no good just shouting and boasting. I need to stand my ground and take control. We did it once before; and we can do it again. But this time, it’s on my head; and my head alone.”

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Is there anybody there…?

My car, at nearly thirteen years old, is now due for its 100,000-mile service – plus a couple of other little jobs. Because I am substantially hard of hearing, I looked up the details of a few local garages on the Web, and either filled in their online contact forms, or clicked on their resultant email addresses. Of the three I tried, not one of them replied.

However, in the name of research (and justice!), I thought I would pop into one of them – as I was nearby – to see if my email had actually made it through. “Oh yes, I saw that,” said the surly woman on reception.

There then followed a long silence, whilst my inner voice was screaming “So why the fudge didn’t you respond to it, then?!” – but I received no reply. She did, eventually, say the owner of the business (her husband) would email me later that day, though. But, of course, he didn’t.

I even got The Lady Bard (TLB; or, perhaps, SWBMO – She Whom the Bard Must Objectivate) to call one of the garages, to see if the email I had just sent had made it through – having obtained a bounce-back message from their supplier’s email servers. “No: we haven’t used that address in years. Try this one.” Firstly, why is that address still on your website, then; and, secondly, now you’re expecting an email on this ‘new’ address, can’t you be bothered to respond? I’m still waiting for a reply, a month on.

The third garage had a contact form – which wouldn’t let me send my message: as their systems weren’t expecting “this type of content”. Admittedly, I can be a little verbose: but they were only words. (Honest.) I did find an alternate email address on another website. But that only elicited silence, too.

[Even my 85-year-old technophobic father can use email. It’s not difficult. In fact, I’ve had the same personal(ized) email address for a quarter of a century; and, when my income depended on it, would respond probably too quickly…!]

So, yesterday morning, fed up to my back teeth with people raising digital fronts for their businesses – probably only because everyone else is doing so… – and then neglecting them, I called into Pillerton Garage: for two reasons. Principally, because they have been (accidentally?) wise enough not to have a website: their details are simply available from lots of other sources – but only an address and telephone number; no email address. And, secondly, because I go past them nearly every day – and they probably rely on such passing trade… – and I believe in doing my best to support local businesses. The guy who I booked the car in with was friendly, helpful and knowledgeable – and it reminded me of garages I’ve used in other areas, in the dim-distant past, that were both truly customer-facing and somewhat old-fashioned. This is fine, though – they do not pretend to be anything that they’re not; and I value such honesty. What is important, in this situation, is the quality of the work they carry out. (I shall report back!)

It is all well and good – and I write as one of the authors and architects of one of the first ever UK websites to be launched, over twenty years ago – to have a presence on the Internet; but it may not be as simple, in some ways, to habitually deal with as face-to-face or telephone contact. (It can be – it can even be highly profitable, if you are both efficiently reactive and proactive.)

You may see your website, and any allied contact point, as promoting your business (like a billboard): but proper, efficient communication is two-way; and any prospective customers will be – as I have been – utterly dischuffed not to receive an answer: and you are therefore driving such people into the arms of your competitors. Yes: you may believe you are marketing yourself – but this must be a continuous process involving a frequent investment in time; not just a one-off-let’s-pay-someone-to-build-us-a-website-which-we-can-then-forget-about idea that momentarily flits across your grey matter, and then gathers dust in a dark corner of the Web. It is as fundamental as doing – and part of doing (if you have elected to do so) – a good job. You must pay as much attention to the clicks as you do to the mortar.

Additionally, you may actually be infringing the Equality Act 2010: in not allowing disabled people (especially the deaf) access to your business on a commensurate footing (and don’t forget the ramps!) with everyone else. Perception is everything, supposedly; but reception and response may actually be even more important, if you are to attract and retain business.

By the way, I did contact the main dealer for my make of car – Grays Garage – who, as always, responded in detail, and with great thought, within a couple of hours. However, they are too far away, for me; obtaining a courtesy car from them was a little too complicated (and they do not provide an automatic – which I need); and their prices were simply too much for my pocket to bear.

This could show, I suppose, that there is a correlation between cost and service. However, they are actually unusual, in their sector, in being an independent, family-owned company, with few staff. I actually think that their high charges bear no relation to their customer-facing and customer-pleasing stance.

From experience, I know that they really care; and it shows. They have also adapted to the demands of modern business and communication – without losing their original friendliness – and it shows and tells. (For instance, last week, I emailed them about the cost of a replacement part for The Lady Bard’s car – which turned out to be disproportionately expensive: which they obviously knew; but the price was set by the manufacturer. I therefore went hunting, and obtained the part, second-hand, at a small fraction of the new price; and, as a matter of courtesy, let them know. They were obviously delighted; thanked me for getting in touch; and described it as a “good result!” – not for them, of course, but for me; and this obviously matters to them – it is core to their business ethos, and their success.) Such concrete examples are few and far-between, though. True, caring, thoughtful customer service is a rare commodity – although I hope it is not doomed for extinction in a world where selfishness and arrogance appear to be the norms, both individually and corporately.

Finally, in response to my complaint to Waitrose, I was basically told to just put up with the situation, even though the company (said it) cared – but obviously couldn’t see what the problems were (i.e. weren’t remotely interested in putting themselves in my shoes) – and that they would get back to me about their Web-based contact issues. Which they never did, of course!

So it isn’t just the one-man bands, the small companies, who propagate this problem. The larger companies – the ones who “protest too much, methinks” in their advertising, literature, store notices, etc. about how very good they (obviously believe they) are at serving their customers – are equally guilty: just on a much larger scale. No wonder we spend so much time and money in Bart’s!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The devil was in your dream…

Sitting in the Swan Reading Room, a couple of hours before The White Devil began – with a wonderfully edited copy of the text on my lap (and a forgotten Americano in my hand…) – I was struck by the major stylistic differences of Webster and Shakespeare. John Webster’s writing, in some ways, is more direct, and somehow less ‘even’ or poetic; and the references to both ancient myths and current fashions seem to come thicker and faster. What can appear dense, lumpy and convoluted on the page springs to life on the stage, though!

Utilizing the wonderful company currently presenting both The Roaring Girl and Arden of Faversham, it is a neat trick by director Maria Aberg – as part of this ‘Roaring Girls’ season; and in a play that has misogyny at its centre: “Trust a woman? Never, never…” – to cast Laura Elphinstone as (male) plotter-in-chief Flaminio: emerging (especially in the second half) as the crux, perhaps the chief “White Devil” of the title (although almost no-one here can escape the accusation that there is a deeper, baser reality at their heart than the generally good – pure or white – way they depict themselves; although the term may also “illuminate the impossible position of the female character in tragedy”).

As the complex story emerges in the first half, it is David Rintoul, as Cardinal Monticelso – and later Pope (a nice echo of last year’s stunning production of A Life of Galileo) – who dominates proceedings. Natural and potent – particularly in the trial of Vittoria – he struts the stage menacingly; although Kirsty Bushell, as the accused, gives as good as she gets: “personate[s] masculine virtue”; and stands resolutely in defence of both her sexuality, and any involvement in the preceding murders.

These deaths are enacted as ‘dumb shows’ – a powerful way of involving the audience in the action: yet keeping both on- and off-stage witnesses complicit (as in Hamlet…), but, apparently, impotent. And the continual use of such ‘split stages’ – both vertically, using the Swan’s balconies; and horizontally, stepping back, behind a glass screen under a virtual proscenium arch – both by Webster, in his directions; and Maria Aberg, in her directing – convincingly brings greater meaning: demonstrating both correlations and differences in the separate groups of characters.

The night I saw it, Edward Buckley played the child role of Giovanni, making his RSC debut – and with great feeling – often as emotive, mute witness; but also revealed as a quiet, driven force of revenge (and developing the power to enact it): a small, still centre in the mayhem that surrounds him. As always, with this generous troupe – confirmed by repeat viewings of both The Roaring Girl and Arden of Faversham – there is no-one letting the side down, however small their part – all lending equal skill and credence to their characters; all equally committed; all accomplished and proficient in their stage presence.

The play is on at the Swan Theatre until the end of November. If you don’t mind a bit of “violence and scenes of a sexual nature”, then I would heartily recommend it!

Love, and a bit with a dog…

It’s difficult to write about The Two Gentlemen of Verona (currently on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 4 September – far too short a run for a play that’s not been on the RSC’s main stage for 45 years; and is actually rollickingly good – but more of that, anon…!) without smashing into scholars discussing its date of origin; crossing swords with critics cogitating about the quality of writing and plotting; encountering Shakespeare enthusiasts wondering why there are nearly always only two or three talking characters on the stage at any one time (and often explaining in detail what is happening – in “exposture” – rather than letting the storylines emerge, as in later works); and why there aren’t others of his plays featuring a scene-stealing dog:

You see – comedy. Love, and a bit with a dog. That’s what they want.

In a way, that sums the play up pretty well! However, it wouldn’t be Will, if it didn’t occasionally plunge into real depths of emotion, periodic despair and tragedy. (Even in the great comedies, such as As You Like It – and what a wonderful production that was, last year: so good, indeed, that I saw it thrice…! – there are moments of heartbreaking sadness; with my hero Jaques providing a melodic thread of melancholy, throughout.)

Cast photograph by Simon Annand/RSC

The cast is uniformly excellent; and, yes, Mossup, cross-dressing as Crab the dog, receives repeated ahs and applause for her paw-fect timing (and even one word of dialogue)! But we mustn’t forget the humans – the young principals all subtly developing and learning, as the play moves on.

My particular favourite was Pearl Chanda as Julia (a full dress-rehearsal for Shakespeare’s future girls-dressed-as-boys; and a definite precursor to Rosalind) – perhaps because she, most of all, travels across an emotionally-challenging arc towards the somewhat subdued conclusion: emerging more mature from her travails. Nicholas Gerard-Martin is an excellent foil to Mark Arends’ Proteus; and his rendition of Who is Silvia? is one of the evening’s highlights.

Cast photograph by Simon Annand/RSC

As seems all the rage at the moment, at the RSC, the action begins before the audience arrives: although I missed out on the free gelato being handed out to select attendees invited into Antonio’s Veronese trattoria – the on-stage musicians were highly entertaining, though; and the score supports the action perfectly and appositely throughout.

As is also a current trend, some of the action takes place on an evolving balcony, high above the stage: lending a more commanding presence to certain characters, and differentiating them from – raising them above – the others.

Altogether, a highly entertaining evening – and a full house! Although Shakespeare’s dramatical skills don’t appear fully developed, here, they are still significant, and more than worthy of exploration – just not quite as subtle or with that constant touch of genius that would become his trademark. (Compare early Beethoven piano sonatas with the later ones, and they appear immature. However, they still have a ‘specialness’ beyond that of many of his contemporaries: demonstrating obvious signs of what was to come. I think the same came be said of this play….) Just a shame that there won’t be that many performances.