Monday, 28 September 2015

A canal (or two) runs through it…

The construction of the Abbeys is a marvel to behold, for in a day when fresh water was a concern, the Cistercians had plenty. They always sought out locations that were secluded and on a running river or stream. The monks would dam sections to create enough flow to carry water to every portion of the Abbey. Water would flow through kitchens, to basins for washing and they even had indoor plumbing where waste would drop into the river and be carried away from the Abbey.
– The Cistercians

I remember the venerable (and much-missed) Mick Aston once, during an episode of Time Team, describing the Cistercians as “God’s plumbers”: due to the way they so perfectly tamed their surroundings…

…clearing woodland and scrub, draining marshes and building canals, mills and fishponds. Even though such activities by Cistercians may have been over-emphasized by researchers in the past, and such landscape changes were in any case widespread by the twelfth century, [knowledge of engineering skills in building and water control, together with the means to use it] was nevertheless a major aspect of early Cistercian monasteries to modify dramatically the landscape in which they were built.

His soubriquet came to mind whilst pootling along the short section of the Heart of England Way between Baddesley Clinton and the junction, at Kingswood, of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal with the Grand Union Canal (the latter, one of the pinnacles of mankind’s “hydrological innovation”; and – one could say, with ironic tongue in sardonic cheek – the HS2 of its day… – although I will always prefer the Leeds and Liverpool for its infinite variety, and the cherished memories formed walking along many, many miles of its towpaths during my youth).

There may be no obvious Cistercian-required “running river or stream” in this Warwickshire locale – but I believe that the monks would be impressed, looking down from their quiet version of heaven upon these now-generally-peaceful “motorways of the 1700s”, to see their “knowledge of engineering skills” (evolved from those of the Romans, of course) put to such elegant use (and so very well‑maintained).

Back at Baddesley, survey work carried out for the National Trust in late 1994 confirms just how much “water control” has been instituted during its long and engrossing existence:

A wooden sluice was exposed near the south-east corner of the moat. This is probably the finest example of its kind recorded systematically in the United Kingdom. Survival of such features in wood is extremely rare, and the author knows of no other intact example archaeologically recorded….
     The sluice structure appears to be a very well-preserved example of a sluice type commonly in use today, and known as a ‘monk’. The name implies monastic invention, but the association between monasteries and hydrological innovation is not now so readily supported by more recent research than was once considered. The slotted area in front of the back wall was probably intended to take removable wooden boards, which were inserted to hold the water in the moat, and removed when the moat needed draining. These wooden boards would be fitted loosely initially, but on swelling from contact with water would have made a waterproof fit. The ‘monk’ sluice is extremely efficient when used on water features that require regular draining and maintenance. They are the most popular sluice type in use today amongst fish-farmers, and are of an ancient design that probably dates back, in its simplistic form, to at least Roman times…. It is not possible to give a date on present evidence, but there is no reason why such structures should not be medieval in origin. The present example, however, has probably been replaced on a number of occasions, and is probably the latest example of a long succession of similarly designed sluices used to control water in this particular moat.

Poring over the Ordnance Survey map for the area, as is my wont, it is readily apparent that the Baddesley Clinton estate is as much defined by the amount of light-blue ink – despite that lack of a major indigenous waterway (although the water table appears to be quite close to the surface, in places…) – on the page, as by its remarkable, beautiful, historical and welcoming architecture. In fact, a comparison with neighbouring Wroxall Abbey – “In medieval times… a small Benedictine Convent” – although this is probably due to the manor-house’s more recent and continual habitation – demonstrates just how “dramatically” the local landscape has been sculpted. (The Poor Clare Community – their convent still visible on the road to Baddesley – was a much more modern establishment.)

For instance, there is an apparent leat – or, at least, a diverted and enlarged brook – heading down a hollow towards the manor from the direction of Hay Wood; and a well, not far off, in Church Field – although this may have been part of “a small village, possibly never very large”: as there are evident remains of ridge-and-furrow, despite several centuries of grazing and hoof-trampling. And then there is, of course, the famous “Moate” (originally one of a pair): connected to the Great Pool (with its twin islands), Long Ditch, and brace of “stew ponds”.

There are also other notable (but relatively diminutive) bodies of water between the aptly-named Mill Meadow and New Wood; as well as a more obvious pair (probably also fishponds) feeding towards this, at the junction of Lime, Barn and Little Church Fields. As Aston writes: “often fishponds were linked to systems of water supply, drainage and mill complexes in elaborate water control and management operations”; and it is nigh impossible, therefore, to believe that the coincidence of the supplying streams and ditches with the unbending field boundaries that join these bodies of water together is natural – a suspicion confirmed by the National Trust’s earlier appraisal (also quoted above):

One of the most interesting items in the medieval deeds, relate[s] to the recording of a mill associated with a fishery in the 1440s. Roberts records three demesne ponds in Baddesley Clinton between 1443 and 1448. These are called Lydgate Pool, Black Pool, and Milne Pool. It is probable that the Milne Pool is the fishpond recorded associated with a mill. The 1699 map records two fields adjacent to the Great Pond west of the moated site, as Mill Meadow and Mill Field, thus seeming to establish this pond as the site of the medieval mill. The mill is recorded in a number of later documents extending from 1531 through to 1668, after which date it is not recorded again….
     There are at least a dozen ponds of reasonable size shown on the 1699 map. Any one of these could have existed in the medieval period, either as a purpose built pond similar to the Mill Pond, or as quarries that later filled with water, and were subsequently used as fishponds.
– Christopher K Currie

There are many fascinating and picturesque (as well as beautiful and sublime) walks in the area around Baddesley Clinton, Hay Wood and Rowington Green – as well as nearby Packwood House. But simply ambling around the grounds can be its own reward – especially as the sun can be observed, through the day, streaming around the three extant wings of the manor, glinting in the moat and pools, during the generous opening hours – time easily occupied in admiring the wonderful gardens (the Walled Garden’s dahlia border – despite my dislike of the individual blooms – is stunning at this time of year; and it was sad to see some of their ‘dead heads’ discarded on the array of Vegetable Garden compost heaps); resting on the many surprisingly secluded seats (where the lesser-spotted Bard may be found: gazing at some drama’s text; or into the distance, chortling quietly at the squabbling ducks); meandering along the winding, easily-traversed, paths – and, of course, savouring the superb, freshly-cooked food and -brewed coffee (Bard-fuel) in the airy Barn Restaurant.

You could even – should the fancy take you – wander across some of Warwickshire’s most pleasant green fields and byways (including alongside both canals) to Packwood itself; and there are many local hostelries in the area at which to quench any resultant thirst (including the wonderfully-named, slightly quaint, The Case is Altered – also, coincidentally the title of a play (partly?) by Ben Jonson…).

You don’t even need to take the car: as Lapworth Station is a mere thirty-minute walk away (from both National Trust properties); and only nineteen minutes travel from Stratford-upon-Avon on the rare-as-hen’s-teeth direct London Midland service (although the more frequent London Midland/Chiltern Railways journey is around fifty minutes – with around half of that time spent sitting on the platform at Dorridge Station, waiting for the all-of-three-minutes second leg…). And even the railway line is as scenic as one could ever hope for….

By now the sun of afternoon
Showed ridge and furrow shadows
And shallow unfamiliar lakes
Stood shivering in the meadows.
Is Woodford church or Hinton church
The one I ought to see?
Or were they both too much restored
In 1883?
I do not know. Towards the west
A trail of glory runs
And we leave the old Great Central line
For Banbury and buns.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

No human heart could be so hardened…

The past was now a space where it was possible to seek out clues about where we had come from. And the truth? Well, the truth was now far more hazy; far less certain; and much more difficult to get a grip on. And this brought up a fundamental question: Was the past something that was just out there, waiting to be discovered; or was it a faint canvas on which we wrote down our own versions of history? In other words: Was the past something that controlled us – or did we control the past?

Derbhle Crotty (Hecuba) – photo by Paul Stuart/Design by RSC Visual Communications

Why do Thracians wear yellow pyjamas…?
Saturday, 19 September 2015
Sitting down to voice my immediately reactive thoughts, following my first viewing (of three) of Hecuba, it suddenly seemed unfair (even though/especially as my relationship with the RSC’s press office is only currently at the wooing stage) to publish an appraisal of a play still, then, in preview – however utterly wonderful it may be; and however fully-rehearsed the RSC’s companies always appear to be – particularly given the furore over what I have come to think of as Cucumberpatchdollgate. So, by the time you read this review, I will have been to see this gripping new drama twice.

And, because the ‘purpose’ of this blog is more to do with me musing aloud to myself, whilst a few discerning folk (“the two or three unfortunate wretches who may eventually read me”) accidentally eavesdrop; rather than promoting the sales of theatre tickets (a useful side-effect, perchance) – hopefully, analysing and portraying performances for posterity; rather than producing apt, pithy, poster-appropriate soundbites – I see no harm in delaying such gratification: even when a production only runs – as does this one, regrettably… – for one teensy-weensy, miniature month.

Derbhle Crotty (Hecuba) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

For a change, I shall begin with the tightly-knit and outstanding cast. Derbhle Crotty is immensely powerful in the title rôle – the snout cocked, the straight back, three thousand years of breeding in that pose – welcoming us inside her head and heart with conspiratorial ease; and presenting both her power and its loss (and the resulting perceived frailty) in a performance that is both enthralling and perturbing. Sometimes, though – and a second reading may confirm whether this is, as I suspect, a deliberate trait: forming the cement that binds her whole; immersed, as she is, deep in a traumatic mass of familial loss – Eighteen children I’m told – you sense, as a character, that she is holding back some of the emotions that are churning deep within her: despite her apparent forthrightness. The same, I feel, is true of cursed Cassandra – the mad daughter, the oracle – played by Nadia Albina: who, during the summer season, repeatedly proved how strong and forthright she could be (in Othello and The Merchant of Venice). As Hecuba’s disowned daughter, and, eventually, only surviving child – I am no one’s mother. No one’s – she seems somehow repressed, withheld… – although her line, They will lie about what happened this day is the pivot on which the play both hangs and revolves.

Amy McAllister looks – and perfectly acts – half her age as courageous Polyxena (sister to Cassandra; but both physically and emotionally closer to her mother): demonstrating a youthful self-possession and sad stoicism in the face of impending (and agonizing) sacrifice – we’re butchering her, she won’t die, a bad omen. Sadly, David Ajao – as Achilles’ son, Nepetolemus – is somewhat underused in helping evidence her coming of age; and feels a little emblematic. Chu Omambala, though, constantly brings to the stage a charismatic chill – as the egocentric Odysseus only really, I think, hinted at by Euripides, in his Hecabe – and is the manipulative manifestation of evil; a persuasive devil personified – he slinks off, sly islander that he is, bandy-legged mountain man, invisible, indispensable, the men love him – his every action dismaying; his every word damnatory. (Did Homer know?) It is he who is truly responsible for Polyxena’s death. It is he who truly wields the knife he symbolically holds aloft so steadily.

In contrast, Lara Stubbs – both as ‘Hecuba’s woman’ and ‘singer’ (forcefully marking each episodic change with brilliant and thrilling music – by Isobel Waller-Bridge – earthly, appositely, almost-wordlessly redolent of the Mediterranean and Middle East) – brings a powerful, serene presence to the proceedings: the calm eye at the centre of a whirlwind of despair and insinuated brutality. “Insinuated”, because, truly, all of the bloodshed is implied. The warning on the tickets that this is a spectacle suitable only for those “aged 12+ as contains some violence and distressing scenes” applies more, I feel, to Carr’s intense use of graphic representations than the majority of the action: verbalizing that makes you experience the destruction of Troy and the individual Trojans with visceral intensity – My grandson, intact except for his head, smashed off a wall, like an eggshell. This is not a play that will have you leaving the Swan with a smile on your face – may the gods be near you when you look on this sight – but it will make a mark, long to fade, on your soul – such as only the best theatre can.

Amy McAllister (Polyxena) and David Ajao (Nepotolemus) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

In an interview (separate to the one quoted below – this one features in the programme notes), Marina Carr, the play’s writer (or ‘wright’), states that she wants the audience “to be heartbroken” when they leave the auditorium: and I would think, given the reception I witnessed tonight (apart from the two pestiferous sweet-bag-botherers directly in front of me), she would be mighty pleased. This spectator, indeed, had his “hardest-working muscle” stretched to breaking point several times: suffering soaring sorrow upon serial sadness. (It still aches, several days later….)

This is not to say that any vein of humour is completely absent – but what runs through it all is perhaps more of the dark kind (and therefore harder to find): tinged with occasional moments of irony, whimsy, recognition… and relief. This is tragedy topped with a capital ‘T’ – rather than a Corinthian, Doric, or Ionic one: the stage design (by Soutra Gilmour) being appositely, mesmerisingly, bare and reflective… – and with capital performances, to boot. And it is such glorious moments of adversity that reinforce each representation’s remembrance: particularly the startlingly calm, but forceful, Luca Saraceni-Gunner as young Polydorus. (I too – like Ray Fearon’s potent, pensive, persuasive – a mountain of a manAgamemnonwouldn’t care to meet him on the battlefield, head of his army, sixteen – such is this small boy’s innate maturity and undoubted mettle.)

Ray Fearon (Agamemnon) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Hecuba brings to life private thoughts, making the play resonate for a modern audience. Above that, the story also helps us understand what it means to live within a society, in much the same way the Greek playwrights themselves were trying to invent an idea of the world.
     “In a way we’ve come full circle as we’re also trying to define a series of narratives and powerful codes by which we live.”
     These huge plays, Marina believes, are about “powerful emotion that we all carry around, even though we try to sift through it because our passions are so huge. But I think they were onto something trying to define and contain the immensity of what it is to be alive.”
– Dan Hutton: Interview with Marina Carr

If I have one small criticism, it is of (equally small) portions of the play’s language. Firstly, much of the early dialogue – and the device returns later (or seems to), albeit less noticeably, less intensely – consists of characters fluidly describing what they believe the others to have said (and done) – overlapping; cross-delivering; ventriloquizing each other’s speech, in effect – alongside their subjective interpretation of motive and message; whilst reciting the minutiae of the monumental, monstrous carnage – perhaps each also characterizing, in turn, therefore, the rôle of the traditional ‘chorus’ (as featured in Henry V, currently playing next door, in the Jam Factory – and with which there are other pertinent parallels).

Although intensely enlightening – and one of the wonderful ways Carr demonstrates both the fragility of meaning and the shifting, coloured readings we all constantly employ – the rapid repetition of “he says” and “she says” quickly grates. It is a tic which, as the play gathers pace, and its richness of vocabulary expands and deepens – although then gradually, apparently, decreasing both in frequency and impact – is, to my mind, over-employed: never quite attaining the necessary unobtrusiveness that would render it more musical motif than contrived punctuation. My belief is that the number of incidences and reiterations – especially of “I say” – could be rigorously pruned; the frequency of such grammatical, prosaic thorns amongst the blossoming discourse decreased – and so much sooner. Their interpolation becomes a barrier to instant, initial immersion: as if you can hear the musical box still being wound whilst the melody begins to sing, struggling for the fluency and volume with which to drown out the rude mechanism below….

Secondly, the infrequent expletives seem superficial, and out of style – “time out of joint” – modern, shocking superimpositions on a developed, formalistic (and singing) tenor that Carr herself states is “maybe best described as Trojan English”. It is not that I am in any way perturbed by bad language (I use it myself all-too frequently – especially for the momentary relief of pain…) – just that, again, such words felt, to me, unnecessary interruptions in, and obstacles to, the flow of poetry; and I am not sure, put simply, such temporary stoppages achieve anything effective or meaningful. (Strangely enough, these profanities read well in the script; and are so much less noticeable….)

Finally, there are dull – albeit brief, transitory – episodes of mundanity (such as the discussion of systems of law): which, similarly, temporarily slow the momentum, as well as risk losing, interrupting, impeding our interest. Perhaps these hiatuses are to give us chance to regain our collective breath; wipe our cumulative tears…? But such breaks in intensity, I am sure, are not really required; they could easily be excised – the effortless effusion of emotion is what pulls us on eagerly to the end (although please, please do not applaud until several extended moments of ruminative silence have passed – and slowly… – there are no awards for thinking (foolishly) that you are the first to realize the play has finished…); and there are already more ‘natural’ ebbs amongst the torrents of passion and pain that achieve these aims more readily.

Ray Fearon (Agamemnon) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

In conclusion, this is great drama – a great drama – though, certainly, whatever my writerly quibbles; and it is directed with great aplomb by RSC Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman. I would even go so far as to say that Hecuba has the overt potential to be as perfect as such contrivances ever can be. This is a thing of great, profound, knowing, harrowing humanity, and accompanying bleak beauty; mixed with many subtle, but relevant, contemporary resonances – There are laws around the conduct of war. And, as much as it is tempting (almost) to say it is something of a ‘feminist’ play (no bad thing, from my perspective) – Society can’t run if the women are unhappy – such an utterance may far too artlessly disentangle its complexities.

However, there are positive clues, pointers, elements, leading directly to such a conclusion: including the text’s balancing of the past masculine mastery of myth with its fresh womanly, motherly, female perspective. Even the butch warriors, previously renowned mainly for their feats (and fates) in battle, now have hearts (and minds): they love, as well as lust; cry tears, as well as havoc. The heroines are no longer sketchily, sweepingly “mad, bad and dangerous to know” – which, usually, of course, in classical Greece, means dangerous for men to know – but are fully-painted, fully-sculpted, fully-animated beings: at least equal to those who would use and usurp them. They know – and comprehend it keenly – the pain of both blood-line and blood-letting.

As a result, the almost-two hours (no interval: as is the “classical” Greek way) runs quickly: gripping you by the throat; squeezing your chest hard; pushing you back into your seat…. Which is, of course, why I will return for more pummelling in a week’s time (and then yet again, just before it closes: once more, with captions…).

Derbhle Crotty (Hecuba) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Why you should see some productions more than once…
Saturday, 26 September 2015
I realized, after my initial (re)viewing, that this was the first play I had seen in a very long time where I had not read – or been able to read – the text in advance. I had perused Philip Vellacott’s beautiful, moving, intelligent 1963 translation of Euripides’ original Hecabe (see above) – from where this post’s main title originates… – but that was really all I knew. With no surtitles to guide me, I was therefore reliant on my rebuilt hearing aids and prolonged, surprisingly simply-achieved, concentration….

Re-reading what I now know was one of Carr’s sources (for inspiration) persuaded me, though, that my initial interpretation, nay, accusation, of ancient misogyny could not apply to Euripides himself (“the most intensely tragic of all the poets”). As one reviewer of Vellacott’s book writes:

What makes Euripides so brilliant is his very human portrayal of the characters. You feel for them, you empathize with them, and you can anticipate their every emotional decision and thoughts of self-reflection. Hecabe… deals with the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War and the death of the Trojans… and her agony at the merciless hands of the Greeks (including Odysseus, whom we see here as very severe and inhumane, in contrast to his central heroic role in The Odyssey) make her suffering tragic beyond words….
     I would suggest this book simply for the mastery of Euripides and his psychological dimension in human tragedy. Just because it is ‘ancient’ literature and a translation of the old Greek, does not in any way detract it from being so relevant and significant to the modern world. Raw human emotions….

I then moved on to the script itself (also available from the RSC shop, as part of Marina Carr: Plays Three) – hence all the inserted quotations.

In her introduction, Carr writes:

I always thought Hecuba got an extremely bad press. Rightly or wrongly I never agreed with the verdict on her. This play is an attempt to reexamine and, in part, redeem a great and tragic queen. History, as they say, is written by the winners. Sometimes I think myths are too…. This is my attempt to show her in another light, how she suffered, what she might have felt and how she may have reacted.

And I’m sure she’s succeeded. However, my earlier reservations about the famed Queen of Troy – from a second viewing – “that she is holding back some of the emotions that are churning deep within her” – were confirmed. This, I am also sure, though – this is deliberate. She is accused of arrogance many times – the haughty sheen – but such a mien, I believe, is the portrayed consequence of royalty; and all that such a word means for those who bear it. There are expectations to be fulfilled; as well as expectations to hold – Did no one think to bring provisions? Must I think of everything? And, even after finally discovering that her son, Polydorus, is dead – as Agamemnon says – She’s nerve and bone but still carries about her a kind of horrific grace. There’s still that sense of entitlement. You thought Troy was untouchable. You thought your gilded life would go on for ever – says Cassandra: Nadia Albina now unleashed; at full tilt – and all the better for it.

Nadia Albina (Cassandra) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Agamemnon – this terror of the Aegean, this monster from Mycenae – is also trapped by the greatness thrust upon him. He was not born to this – to rule – but to fight. He is a warrior; and he is trapped by this ‘new’ greatness and its accompanying expectations – I’m… don’t know what I am. He is the one, therefore, who bares his heart completely – Ray Fearon also stronger, even more intense, more fluent. There is no shield, no mask, can stifle that great roar – Only three things matter, Odysseus. Food. Sex. Winning Wars.

Chu Omambala (Odysseus) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

And perhaps I was too cruel about that man, Odysseus. Less “devil”, perhaps; more Machevill. Even he has a heart in there: under that grey tunic. Somewhere. This is hard. I’m not made of stone. I want to go home, never to have set eyes on Troy.

And I didn’t mention Edmund Kingsley’s tragic, subtle, soul-rending, pleading Polymestor at all. He is simply another pawn on a predestined board of chess – You played the double game, Polymestor, and your sons paid the price. And he knows it. He knows that whatever he does will come back to hurt him – but this is war.

Ray Fearon (Agamemnon) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.

In my initial review, I stated that “the stage design [is] appositely, mesmerisingly, bare and reflective” – but didn’t expand on this. (To be honest, I think you need to experience it ‘in the flesh’ to appreciate the cohesive and sculptural qualities of Soutra Gilmour’s design; its dynamic hints of landscape and fortification; what lies beyond and beneath….) What did occur to me, though – during this “pummelling”, this immersion – was that this reflectiveness can be seen in the tensions, the divisions that so quietly delineate the play: whether it is the deceptively-simple mirrored set itself, with its evidently-plain, scene-stealing, crucial, matt cathedraThe great sea god himself made this throne… dragged it up from the sea floor on his shoulders. Placed it on the founding stone and Troy began – and the partitions, the ruptures which emerge in the rear, evocative, mountain-like ‘wall’ – the colour-conscious casting; the rich dark-sea to pale-sky turquoise dress of the (Turkish) royal Trojan women, versus the monochrome, utilitarian, battle-ready outfits of the Grecian warriors; the intrigue of the almost whispered sentiment, followed by the sonorous declamatory anger – or even the Caravaggio-like use of highlight and negative space (“putting the oscuro into chiaroscuro” – the lighting – designed by Charles Balfour – and choreography – movement by Ayse Tashkiran – come together as something balletic, and yet sculptural). Ancient plays against modern; the tribes of as-yet-unformed Greece squabble amongst themselves; and the complex, descriptive, speech and machinations contrast forcefully with the dearth of props, costume and scenic changes. The words and actions are simply enough… – “this is all that is needed”.

Derbhle Crotty (Hecuba) and Ray Fearon (Agamemnon) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

So, to finish: whether you get more from “an act of theatre”, the second time, depends, I suppose, on what it means to you – entertainment; a simple way to pass the time; or as a work of art. To me, drama is the latter. The longer I stand in front of a Rembrandt: the more I see; the more it speaks to me. Repeated hearings of Elgar’s Violin Concerto have the same effect – it drills even further into my soul. I can read the score and cry a small tear or two. To hear it, though, will make me sob with my entire being. I will be heartbroken….

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Triangulation points…

In the mid 1980s Dr Martin Barnes created the Triangle of Objectives. The triangle demonstrates that quality, cost and time are interrelated. Focussing or fixing one point of the triangle impacts the other two.

I first came across the above ‘project management triangle’ or ‘triple constraint’ – sometimes also known as the ‘scope’ or ‘cost-quality tradeoff triangle’; and “one of the most well known and well respected mechanisms for signifying the interaction of the key attributes of a project” – when working for a software development company, over a quarter of a century ago: it being stressed, at the time, that “You can optimise for two at the expense of the third, but you can’t maximise all three at once”; or, as one colleague put it to me, a few years later (and a little more bluntly): “Time, cost or quality – which two do you want?”

I only raise this device, because, in a recent post – prompted by a problem with (actually a failure of) my hearing aids that was, at the time, (shall we say) dealt with less than satisfactorily by the NHS – I made a plea to those in power, those that (should) care for us: writing that…

We did not choose to be born or become deaf…. Do not treat us, therefore, as if we are the deserved lowest of the low. Instead, please offer us the hand we need… – your hand.

…and yet – call me an old cynic (which I am: on both counts) – to my amazement, my supplication was answered. Not at first, natch – although I did receive one of the better attempts at a response to my list of criticisms: even if, as with all such ‘standard flea letters’, it either deliberately or unintentionally ignored some of those most salient… – but then, the writer was the person at who I had singularly aimed my vehement reproof; and therefore very much on the back foot. But I was then – once spleen had been vented (albeit inaccurately and incompletely); and satisfaction was (sort of) seen to have been had… – referred to the care (and that is certainly the correct term) of someone who obviously gave a damn. And then some.

It would – as a qualified grump – be all too simple to infer that this apparently newly-enlightened customer service (not ‘patient care’: we are all “customers” now – even in an healthcare delivery environment) was an act; a performance simply to quell (or satisfy) my grumblings: motivated solely by my complaint (not that one should need to complain, to receive good service – especially as there is an associated risk of revenge…). But it was actually astoundingly obvious – and from the moment I entered this lady’s “care” (I won’t embarrass her by publishing her name…) – that here was someone who actually, continually, sincerely, and consistently, innately, was interested in my perspective, needs and wants; was bothered; gave so much more than a monkey’s. And had obviously made a career of combining her expertise with a deep desire to help. Someone who was not only interested in those “needs and wants”; but was willing to take the time (and the time-consuming steps) to deliver what I, as a consultant, would once have called a ‘quality outcome’ – no conditions attached.

By the way: you could, of course, moot that no element of cost was involved in such a transaction – but the scheduled forty-five minute appointment started a quarter-of-an-hour early; and then ran over by not quite an hour: and there is, of course, a financial outlay associated with the provision of both the ministration of compassionate co-operation (by way of salary, office use, etc.); as well as that of the replacement equipment required to solve the problems I had suffered and therefore raised.

Never before had my hearing been so thoroughly deconstructed – and then rebuilt, tiny piece by tiny piece! And, therefore, never – or, at least, not since I was first issued with hearing ‘instruments’, over six years ago – has my digitally-reinforced soundscape been so clear, so strong… indeed, so bloody wonderful! Such amazing customer service, needless to say, should be the norm, though, not the exception. But, of course, the NHS has been stressed by successive governments into shrinking all components of that ‘tradeoff triangle’ – with not-so-surprising results (well, not to those with hearts and brains). Not that this “stress” should be an excuse for contracting compassion; attenuating attention. In some ways, these ‘qualities’ should be increased – to compensate for the shortening of appointment times; and the diminishing economic investment. They are the reason those who can afford such care, use private medicine; and those who can’t, migrate to ‘alternative’ healthcare: where attention and treatment is holistic and personalized; and time is taken to understand the individual.

I could, of course, go into a prolonged rant, now, about the creeping privatization of the NHS; the decimation (and beyond) of all public sector support of “the individual” – whether childcare; education; transport; or social care, etc.. But this is not (yet?) the time or the place. This is just to say a big thank you to the lovely, attentive, understanding, remarkable, adept audiologist who went several giant steps beyond the norm. And to whom I therefore owe a great deal – for the improvement she has made, not just to my hearing; but, consequently, all aspects of social interaction and enjoyment of the world around me.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Horas non numero nisi serenas…

There are not many moments quite as thrilling as that when you realize you are the only soul in a garden such as Hidcote on a rainy day… imagining that, however fleetingly, this is yours, and only yours; that this is your domain; your backyard (and not just in it…). Living in close proximity, we have that luxury: that we can indulge ourselves… seeing [the] place anew again and again – and not just for [its] innate, crafted beauty; or [its] extensive historical context; but for the rich, relevant relaxation and deserved, diversionary depth [it] can bring to our restive lives.

I have been visiting “somewhat wind-sweptHidcote – “the greatest garden I know – with such wonderful rooms and blooms… – which is why I return so frequently” – for nigh on twenty years. And, every time I am there, I do “see the place anew”: such is its genius.

Find a quiet spot and sit on one of the ornate benches and watch green woodpeckers search for their lunch or listen to the calls from the buzzards circling overhead. Time it right and you might catch a glimpse of the elusive hummingbird moth.
– National Trust: Hidcote

Returning, last week, early on a day that initially threatened bursting clouds – the ground was spongy beneath my heavy boots; and the trees hung low: pendulous with the downpours that had preceded me; many weighted, as well, with the season’s rich fruits – new perspectives were forced on me simply through the act of dodging, weaving and bobbing between the burdened branches. As I looked down, trying to avoid the short, chortle-inducing, tickling, localized showers precipitated by my clumsy head flicking the dripping leaves, my concentration was on the paths and the fresh marks I left behind – occasionally straying from the paths to find safer passage on grass and, infrequently, the “damp peaty soil”.

At this time of year, the garden is as dramatically colourful as it can be: the ripening berries; bright crops of diverse apples and pears; summer’s final blossoms (especially the delicate cyclamen, ostentatious dahlias, dark fuchsias, and filigreed lacecap hydrangeas); a hint of fading warmth as the trees prepare for winter (acers at their thrilling, neck-twisting best) – all heightened by the amplified verdancy that only recent rains can bring. (As Vita Sackville-West wrote: Lawrence Johnston, whose creation this paradise was – and is – “realised how many different shades of green there are in Nature… and has made use of all these greens in a way that would have delighted Andrew Marvell.”) And the Red Borders (“a bonfire of colour”) were certainly at their fiery peak; a glowing introduction, under brightening skies, to that most famous view.

By the time I reached my favourite ‘room’, Mrs Winthrop’s Garden (generously named after Johnston’s curmudgeonly mother), the sky was sunny and blue (to match the flowers); and the sundial told its time with a crisp, strong shadow. There were still few other visitors around, though – of the human kind, anyway.

Heading back through the Kitchen Garden to the Rose Walk, I was lucky enough to enjoy the slightly frantic comings and goings of one of those “elusive hummingbird moths” – a display of great grazing aerobatics – Hidcote being one of the few places I have witnessed these amazing creatures. And yet more red admirals: tipsily enjoying the fermenting windfalls.

Overhead, a pair of those buzzards, too – unusually silent – surfed the growing thermals, basking in the stirring sun; most other birds absent both in song and presence – apart from, of course, the archetypal “gardener’s friend”, the robin: bringing yet more welcome flashing splashes of colour (and close by its paler namesake, Robinia ambigua ‘Decaisneana’).

As I departed, the café and car park were beginning to fill. I had timed my visit well; and was rewarded with wonderful Cotswold vistas on my return home.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Go, be melancholic…

Annette McLaughlin (Lady Politic Would-Be) and Henry Goodman (Volpone) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

Volpone, childless, rich, feigns sick, despairs,
Offers his state to hopes of several heirs,
Lies languishing; his parasite receives
Presents of all, assures, deludes; then weaves
Other cross-plots, which ope’ themselves, are told.
New tricks for safety are sought; they thrive; when, bold,
Each tempts th’other again, and all are sold.

There was a lovely moment, at the end of Saturday’s rousing, rumbustious matinée (and sadly penultimate) performance of Volpone, when Henry Goodman (above) – who was even more wonderful in the title rôle than you could ever have expected – struggled to silence the rightfully fervent “seasoning of a play” applause; and, raising a red bucket, into which he dropped a coin from his own shirt pocket, announced that his fellow players (especially all the leading “thugs”!) would be positioned at the exits of the Swan Theatre similarly equipped: collecting donations on behalf of refugees in Calais, and elsewhere. What was particularly gracious – on this closing day of the season – was both his earnest appreciation of the superbly accomplished and cohesive company that has so entertained us for the last six months; and his explanation that there would be no pressure whatsoever to donate: just that we should, if we could, give as much as we saw fit. This was no empty gesture, either; but a heartfelt plea – and it was a wonderful way to leave the building: affording us all the opportunity to mix with, and thank, the individual actors (in our case, Miles Richardson: who had given a wonderful, spiralling, vulturine performance as archetypal advocate Voltore: giving “scandal” to “all worthy men of thy profession” (insert lawyer joke here)) – to appreciate them for all they have given; as well as bask in their modest, reflected brilliance…. [If I had to nominate just one person from this remarkable company for their outstanding consistency and sterling support throughout: it would be Julian Hoult – primus inter pares – authoritative and strong as ‘Officer’ in The Jew of Malta and ‘Courtier/Guard/Friar’ in Love’s Sacrifice; and “terrific value”, here, as a wonderfully gentle, sympathetic Castrone. “I claim for myself.”]

This act of urgent charity also seemed apposite for a production that included pertinent and pointed references (seamlessly interposed by Ranjit Bolt) both topographical (chancing upon Shakespeare debating whether “to buy or not to buy” – badum tish – the mock mountebank’s Oglio del Scoto in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon) and topical (claiming that “this precious liquor” was not only responsible for those “thirty-seven plays”; but also our Queen’s record-breaking reign; and, of course, Jeremy Corbyn’s astounding, outstanding 59% winning share of the Labour leadership vote – the latter only announced a couple of hours before the curtain metaphorically rose; and, miraculously, somehow simultaneously appearing on the captions…) – and whose contemporary atmosphere (and applicability) was well to the fore (including a deliciously technological set designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis; with video by Nina Dunn; and cleverly lit by Tim Mitchell). Greed, of course – and as confirmed by Gillian Tett’s programme note, Made of Money – is very much still the order of the day: viciously promulgated not only by Cameron, Osborne, Duncan Smith and their cronies; but by allied bankers who live “in a world marked by tribalism and tunnel vision.” And yet – as Dr David Modic’s accompanying The Art of the Con confirms – “Nothing much has changed since the 16th century” (and, almost certainly, a long time before that, too…).

And yet, by the time the audience – a full house – had dispersed, those buckets looked very heavy indeed.

CORBACCIO: See, Mosca, look,
Here, I have brought a bag of bright chequins,
Will quite weigh down his plate.
MOSCA: Yea, marry, sir.
This is true physic, this your sacred medicine….

Fittingly, given Goodman’s utterly unfoxlike plea for altruism and sympathy – but shifting playwrights for a moment, if I may… – I must thank Sylvia Morris, at The Shakespeare Blog, for very recently bringing the following speech to my attention: from Sir Thomas More. This – which I cannot read without being intensely moved (and I only write here about things that move me: a beautiful sunrise; my gammy legs…) – I believe, is Shakespeare at his most habitually humane: proving that – yet again – his words also forever ring true; and are also permanently relevant, as with Ben Jonson’s.

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

…Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England, –
Why, you must needs be strangers. Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

Returning to Volpone, I must admit that I had approached the play with some trepidation: firstly, because we had to cancel our initial scheduled booking, because of my crummy health; and secondly, because, even after two readings – initially, with my eyes and fingers deeply entrenched in Robert N Watson’s inspirationally detailed notes; then, having absorbed everything I could, straight through – I struggled to see the dramatic potential in what I felt was a large cumulus of dense, obtuse, prolixious verbalizing.

After the recent ease, for me, of Marlowe and Shakespeare, I felt as if I were trying to wade through a stagnant word-ocean of torpid black treacle: making little progress, but at the cost of immense effort. Of course, there were cunning jokes, witty turns of phrase, a graspable ‘beast fable’ of a plot (predicting the downfall of capitalism?) – albeit accompanied by a subplot which seemed to have leaked in from a slightly different (albeit parallel) dimension…. But even I, knowing all too well how a drama’s text is only a list of ingredients to be conjured into a wonderful dessert of tasty, textured delights by director, actor and creatives, struggled to see any obvious redemption.

And yet, there were extremely good reviews to be had – especially amongst those popping into the RSC’s cosy Riverside Café for a post-show coffee or cup of tea: delighted and positively fizzing with feedback that consistently raved about the humour and the involving quality of the show. So what was I missing?

In some ways, reading a script (again, for me) is like reading a musical score. For instance, the lines of the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach are simple to both read and play. However, presented with a full orchestral score of, say, The St Matthew Passion – and all may not be so readily apparent; certainly not so readily performable. And, even if it is – through either familiarity, or a prodigious talent for sight-reading and interpretation (which I do not have) – a volume of more modern music (e.g. Cage, Ligeti, Stockhausen) will probably stop you in your tracks. It is only when such a work is enacted – and after much experimentation, imagination, intelligence, application, design, groupwork, interpretation, direction – that the words (or music) will ignite; come alive; transform into something both meaningful, and, hopefully, exciting, educational, enlightening; something successful and harmoniously whole. Reading the text may therefore (unless, of course, you are as deafened as I…) be about as useful as reading a 140-character description of a Rodin sculpture; or, perhaps, a similar set of instructions as to how to produce one….

Thus it was – mostly – with Trevor Nunn’s production of Ben Jonson at the RSC – especially, I have to say, the first half: during which I hardly stopped laughing! Returning after an interval of Swan-tortured limb stretching, the twin court scenes, in contrast to what had gone before, were sudden, almost pace-stopping, markedly-diffuse longueurs: especially after the previous extended, concentrated sugar-rush of action, humour, costume (and wig) changes – verging on farce; but, thankfully, saved by great acting, directing, and more of an emphasis on humanity than I had envisaged. Abruptly, the timing, the urgency, the layers of action, all collided… – producing not just a contrasting cessation of movement, but, almost, temporarily, sadly of interest. (Having said that, the play did feel a lot shorter than its scheduled three hours.)

This change, this crashing of tempo, was not helped by that confusing Sir Politic Would-be “parallel dimension” subplot – although, Steven Pacey, fresh from his imposing, authoritative Ferneze in The Jew of Malta, was almost unrecognizable (and fantastically and admirably so) as the embodiment of that all-too-distinct breed of self-opinionated, peculiarly overly-confident Englishman (and not just abroad), who Jonson captures so very well.

Sir Politic considers himself wise and learned, and wants everyone to see him that way; he speaks confidently of knowing the ways of Venetians, even though he has only lived in Venice a short while. His name gives us the central indication of his vice, that he “would be politic,” or knowledgeable, if he could; his desire to appear so at all costs makes him agree to anything anyone says as if he knew it already, before trying to add his own bit of (usually incorrect) insight to the statement. His situation is ironic (situationally) because in trying so hard to appear knowledgeable, he in fact appears gullible and stupid to anyone who meets him for even the briefest period of time….
– SparkNotes: Volpone

And, of course, the rest of the cast were also obviously relishing both the joy of performing permanently on the verge of madness, breakdown, caricature, even – and, therefore, special mention must go to the fantastic Jon Key (the small man with the wonderful big voice); Ankur Bahl (camp as Butlins; but at least twice as glam); the season’s great double act, Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly (in this case, playing deaf and glum… – although they would be perfect, I feel, as Abbott and Costello); and, finally, Annette McLaughlin (see photo, top), again unrecognizably, stunningly ‘sleb’.

As we left the theatre, though, it suddenly felt (to me) as if something – not just the dramatic season – was ending. And all too soon. An air of passing seemed encompassed in the breeze. And, at Compton Verney, the following afternoon, this was underlined by ragged red admirals and late painted ladies sucking on the last remaining colour of blown-over buddleia; swallows gathering lethargically over the lake (under looming, autumnal clouds); and common blue butterflies skitting between the fading clover as if their lives depended on it (which they probably do). All as the sun faded away – muting Dan Pearson’s William Morris Wild Flower Meadow for the final time – as if shy of its sovereignty.

And, inside the house itself, it was the last day of both accompanying, wondrous summer exhibitions – The Hart Silversmiths: A Living Tradition and The Arts & Crafts House: Then and Now – tangible celebrations of the apogee of craftsmanship and creativity….

Not to worry, though (oh, these bards, and their shifts and changes of mood…) – Henry V has just started its run… – “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…”!

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Now I know why they’re called drones…

Until yesterday, I had not visited Upper Tysoe’s windmill to say hello to its shiny new prosthetic sails (‘prails’?) at close quarters (an addition that warms me with a feeling of quite some empathy). But, ‘encouraged’ outdoors by a clingy migraine, I decided This Was The Time. As I climbed Windmill Hill, I could see, in the far distance, what looked like a buzzard circling the summit – but it appeared to be flying backwards (perhaps for Christmas). It soon disappeared, though: and – momentarily forgotten – the only animate beings remaining were me, and the young cows in the next field: utterly accomplished in the disdain they demonstrated for their latest passer-by.

I had joked, before I set off, about our most significant landmark (since the sad bygone erasure of the sequence of Red Horses) now resembling the first obstacle on a Brobdingnagian crazy-golf course: with its stubby, fixed-lattice blades – perhaps locked deliberately in the ‘celebration’ position (which would seem appropriate). Although the sails are reasonably faithful to the design shown in the 1930s (after the tower mill went out of use, around 1914), they are considerably, disproportionately smaller; oh, and appear to be set to sweep in the wrong direction….

However, after so much time – first, with rotting stocks (below); and then completely armless (as above) – I am immensely grateful that the time and money has been spent (I presume by Lord Northampton) putting ‘our’ Grade II listed guardian monument on a par with the likes of Napton-on-the-Hill; – although, not yet, perhaps, attaining the high standards of beautiful Berkswell; the chef d’œuvre that is Chesterton (coincidentally, open to the public, this coming weekend); heavenly Heckington; or wonderful Wheatley.

We are just so very fortunate that our remaining mill has not gone the way of so many others: such as Edgehill or Warmington. Although it would be good, of course, to see it open its doors again; and for Kineton’s mill – a bigger sister to Upper Tysoe’s – to receive similar treatment.

What I had witnessed on my ascent – I then first heard, on my descent, before its swooping presence made itself irritatingly known – was some sort of remote-controlled annoyance: emitting the same sound (I imagine) as a freshly-castrated hornet; or possibly Iain Duncan Smith slandering the disabled. Thankfully, it soon disappeared, after its circuit of me and the hill; but my ears – and hearing aids – were ringing for long after.

I am sure, in the right hands, such gadgets are capable of great utility (although their larger “remotely piloted aircraft” cousins strike me as utterly horrific and inhumane…). These devices can also be used for good – for instance, in the production of awe-inspiring photography – if the top and tail of the RSC’s 2016 Summer Season launch video is anything to go by. But they are, improperly controlled – or used deliberately to provoke and intrude – an embuggerance too far: especially in not only disturbing, but completely eradicating, the peace of a beautiful, breezy, autumnal, rural idyll. (It did nothing to help my migraine, either….)

On my return, struggling to complete my circuit home (even on the flat), I espied a van from the Warwickshire Wheelchair Repair Service. This is provided by Invacare: whose slogan – which was just what I needed at the time – is “Yes, you can.” So, I did.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Now Autumn time is here…

I’m sure most families have them – customs that originated somewhere, somehow: but that no-one can really remember when or why. In the Bardic household, we have a small cupboard, at eye level, that features a blackboard on the front. Inside, as well as the multitudinous keys – which also hang from hooks beneath it – this armoire à clés also conceals a box of coloured chalks. And, as the seasons change, one of us (often on a whim) will wipe clean the period’s previous illustration, and sketch out a new one. Currently, therefore – magically appearing one morning, in the last few days, in parallel with the cooling conditions – we have a deciduous tree, beginning to shed its leaves: accompanied by the phrase “The nights are drawing in!” (reflecting the Lady Bard’s annual discomfort at the shortening days); replacing (my slightly pretentious, perhaps) “Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu!” (You will be pleased to know that I have so far not capitulated to the compulsion of superimposing an image of either curtains, or a punning pencil, on aforesaid tree….)

It’s not really a longstanding tradition: the cabinet was purchased on a whim from Pillerton’s Shabby Shack only three or four years ago. But I can’t see it ever ending – and, although, it’s not ‘officially’ autumn until the day of my mum’s birthday (coincidentally, International Day of Peace), meteorologically (as well as being marked by the number of fleeces I needed, walking through Tysoe at two o’clock, a couple of nights ago – three, if you’re interested…), the ‘fall of the year’ began on the first of the month.

Additionally, the horse chestnuts on the Banbury Road, towards Stratford, have been bronzing for some time, through what little August sun we sustained; and are now losing their sadly-sickened, once-impressive, charred‑brown palms – a premonition of the new season – caused either by the leaf-mining moth, Cameraria ohridella, or perhaps leaf blotch, Guignardia aesculi. (It’s hard to tell without stopping and having a closer look – not advisable, when cars and vans are whizzing by at well over the speed limit; and often on the verge of control, on the wrong side of the road….)

Every time I pass the cupboard, unbidden, therefore, comes to mind (and mouth) the music I sang, as a four-year-old, for my cathedral choir audition: the eleventh of fourteen Round the Year Hymns for Small Children (and I was very small), Autumn Leaves (professedly written for November) – comforting words and music by Marie Cleeve Dainton. The inch-wide Sellotape that was eventually required, from frequent use, to hold the score together in many places, has turned the same hue as the chestnut leaves, and started similarly to fragment and fail – but the melody bursts forth from the page as “Brightly” as ever!

Leaves in glory tumble down
On the countryside and town,
Golden, crimson, russet brown,
Now Autumn time is here.

God will send His trees to sleep,
While the snow falls fast and deep,
Over all His watch He’ll keep
When Winter time is here.

God will send His sun and rain
On woodland meadow, hill and plain,
Trees He’ll wake to live again
When lovely Spring is here.

September marks the beginning of what is for many people the most beautiful time of the year.
– Ron Wilson: A Year in the Countryside

I adore autumn – and always have (hence my choice of song, I think): possibly because of the time of year I was born. But, as Wilson states, above, I’m not the only one – for instance, I had an American friend, a couple of decades ago, who, at a moment’s notice, used to (and may well still) hop on a plane to visit his folks’ farm in Vermont, every single year, as soon as the leaves started rusting: just so, for a few weeks, he could hike his youthful trails, yet again, bathed in the same boyhood glow.

But I love it not only for those spectacular colour changes – there’s something instinctive, almost primordial, induced in me by the cooling of the weather; the increased transparency of trees; the mists and mellow fruit crumbles – especially apple and blackberry – and the extensive, tranformative, easing down of nature. Things, generally, just feel less frantic (well, until shop windows are decked out in Christmas apparel in a couple of weeks time…).

Of course, nearly half a century of autumns later, I shall still start to miss the birds who have so enriched summer – especially the swifts, swallows (twittering in the skies) and housemartins – but know they will return. And, as the zephyrs crispen, I begin to hanker for the occasional heavy snowfall of my childhood, as we later will fade into winter – the sudden, almost monochrome, repainting of the landscape; the grinding crunch of each footstep; the sheer, shocking freshness of the bright, blasting breaths entering our lungs.

And yet, with the cold and damp, for me, comes increased pain: as these dyadic pests insinuate themselves into my creaking arthritic bones. But it is a supplemental discomfort that I am both prepared for, and prepared to bear – compensated as I am by the rich increase in edifying delight; and a glorious visceral feeling that I am more closely connected to, and immersed in, the world around me – as yet another twelvemonth passes by.

A twelvemonth? Well, befall what will befall….
– William Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost