a play by Thomas Bloor
19th - 26th July 2013
24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester
a NEAR RUN THING production
There are - regrettably
in many cases it must be said – probably thousands of Christmas songs, and hundreds
of Christmas films. If you count Nativities and Christmas card designs,
there are also many thousands of Christmas paintings. Books, however – prose
fiction, novels and short stories that is – are perhaps less likely to become
known for their festive associations. I
can think of very few apart from the obvious Dickens pieces; A Christmas Carole
and a chapter from The Pickwick Papers. Perhaps it is the uniqueness of the Scrooge
story that has somehow helped spread a blanket of Christmassy connotations over
all things Dickensian – Victorian England, snow, urchins, unchecked
sentimentality – all seem quintessentially seasonal to us now.
Perhaps the curious association of ghost stories with Christmas
deserves a mention. A TV adaptation of a ghostly Dickens short story (thus
ticking all the Christmas boxes) called I think, The Signalman, was broadcast over
a number of years, always at Christmas, when I was a child back in the 70s. I recall
finding it deeply chilling with its mysterious, doom-laden atmosphere and the repeated and, to my ears, distinctly odd cry of 'Hello below!' But although ghost stories may be told or retold at
Christmas their content is not, generally speaking, specifically relevant to
The reason why novels aren't often viewed as a thoroughbred Christmas experience may be down to the length of time it takes to get through one. Although
some page-turners may be devoured at a sitting, and some people are phenomenally
fast readers (not me, I lumber through at talking pace), it seems to me that
songs (over in minutes) films (a couple of hours) and paintings (up to the
viewer, but usually minutes again) are brief enough for any seasonal flavour to last the distance (for
good or bad), whereas a novel, ven one centred around Christmastime, might have so much more
going on alongside the turkey and the tinsel that any festive element gets
subsumed in the mix.
One notable exception, perhaps, is The Lion, the Witch and
the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. For all that can be said, both for and against, about the first book in the Narnia series, there’s no doubting that
it is a deeply Christmassy read. Father Christmas even appears in it! Here he
is depicted as a rather serious soul, and the presents he brings for the
children (assorted weapons and military equipment) are not the usual
stocking-fillers, but he is essentially Santa Claus nonetheless. His appearance,
as part of a pick and mix ensemble that includes creatures from both Greek and
Norse mythology, various talking animals, and a secret police force of wolves, who
are a lot like the Gestapo, is part of what, together with its deep strand of Christian
allegory, opens the book up to some serious criticism from many quarters.
But I wonder if this may also, by dint of its very oddness,
be a part of what gives the story its peculiar power? To be honest, I find it
difficult to be objective about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, probably because
my reaction to it is based very firmly in my own childhood. The religious allegory,
which I was certainly aware of as a boy, has never really troubled me too much. I do remember
being surprised, when looking at the book again as an adult, at how old-fashioned the
overall tone is, particularly in the opening pages. So I think it must be the images
that stick. The lamppost in the snow-filled wood (and the illustration I recall
from the edition I read as a boy showed a distinctly Dickensian looking lamppost,
too). The cold, smashed ruins of Mr Tumnus’s home following his arrest. And
Edmund, stumbling through the snow, willing to betray all he believes in for
another taste of the White Witch’s Turkish Delight; a depiction of the irresistible
allure of sweet, evil things that must have introduced many readers of my
generation to the notion of hopeless addiction to forbidden fruits. And then there’s Father Christmas in Narnia, giving out his parcels
containing a sword, a shield, a bow, and so on; gifts that have a distinct flavour
of Blake’s Jerusalem about them. I wonder if this early appearance of the man
with the white beard and red costume in a fantasy novel had any influence on
Terry Pratchett’s Hog Father? Now there’s another Christmas book…
PAPER CINEMA - THE ODYSSEY
A stage. Some pine
benches, lap tops and electrical equipment. A collection of musical
instruments. Over the P.A. there is the sound of waves, lapping. Five
people - they have the air of art technicians about them - make their
way to their places on the stage. It is August the 12th
2012 at the Criterion Theatre in London, and this is Paper Cinema
presenting their adaptation of The Odyssey. The story is told without
words. Hand-inked cut-out figures and sets, dawn with the graphic
sensibility of a Herge, are skilfully passed before the lenses of two
video cameras and projected onto a big screen behind the puppeteers
and the musicians who provide a live soundtrack. They all sit in
full-view of the audience.
We gaze at the
screen, following the story. We also watch the puppeteers, Imogen
Charleston and artistic director Nic Rawling, as they select the
correct cut-outs, move them in and out of the camera’s field of
view, or deftly flick them across the lens to create a startlingly
effective sensation of movement. The overall result combines the
intimacy and directness of having a loved-one tell you a story with a
robust sense of the cinematic and the epic.
The opening boar
hunt is wonderfully realised, the depiction of Odysseus’ domestic
idyll is moving in its simplicity, his son’s restless youth subtly
portrays the passing of the years, and so it continues. Each new set
piece moves the story on, delighting viewer with visual and also
musical inventiveness, for the live sounds from composer Chris Reed,
accompanied by Ed Dowie and Quinta, provides an essential part of
what makes Shadow Cinema so emotionally and atmospherically
satisfying. Between them, the three musicians play an impressive
array of instruments, including guitar, violin, drums, keyboards,
melodica and, at one memorable point, a bowed saw. I find it hard to
resist a bowed saw.
Paper Cinema offer a
perfect blending of simplicity and finesse, of the intimate and the
technically sophisticated, creating a spellbinding live performance.
Their name neatly describes the sum of their parts. Go see them if
you get the chance.
BOOK REVIEW- THE TALE OF EUAN REDCAP by David Turnbull
This rollicking adventure follows thirteen-year-old Euan Redcap on a fantasy quest that begins with him being hoisted feet first into the air. He soon finds himself press-ganged into service as ‘fetcher’ aboard The Drunken Molly
, a dragon hunter’s airship peopled by a cast of scurvy crewmen, depicted with considerable warts-and-all relish. There’s shades of Melville’s Moby Dick
here, with a crazed lady captain, Mrs Zachariah, unhinged by the loss of her husband and child and driven by desire for revenge against the White Sow, a hug albino dragon that she blames for her bereavement. The setting shifts from the green fields of the lowlands, based on the author’s own childhood home on the Scottish borders, to the skies above the barren tundra, which according to dragon-hunter legend is home to tribes of inhuman cannibals. It’s here that Euan encounters the cruelties of dragon hunting, which prick his conscience and help to foreshadow the coming change in our hero’s attitudes.
When at last The Drunken Molly
encounters their long-sought prey, Euan finds himself hanging from a rope once more, this time required to serve as dragon-bait. In a scene reminiscent of Sinbad’s encounter with the Roc, Euan ends up carried on the dragon’s back to the mountain lair of the White Sow herself. Here he encounters a mysterious hooded figure and the story takes another twist. At this point an element of environmental parable enters into proceedings, with the over-harvesting of dragon-fire standing in for fossil fuels and the impending drought a reference to peak oil. The message is handled with a light touch, however, and with enough dark humour to avoid preachiness.
The tale ends as it should, with the reader’s hopes for Euan’s future satisfied, while the narrative door is left ajar just enough to allow for a sequel, which the author is currently at work on. As well as Moby Dick
, The Tale of Euan Redcap
also draws on past classics like Stevenson’s Treasure Island,
and it stands as an enjoyable addition to a certain sub-genre in children’s fiction, one currently inhabited by sagas such as Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines,
not to mention the steam punk-stylings of Studio Ghibli animation.
Labels: Books Euan Redcap review David Turnbull
MAGIC BEAN COUNTER
Melvyn Bragg’s recent radio series on the story of writing (In Our Time on R4) explained that writing was, in its earliest origins, an accountancy tool. As the new technology of its day, this complex invention was perhaps even more revolutionary than recent transformations wrought by the development of the internet and the arrival of digital formatting. I lack the knowledge to do more than guess at the impact early writing made on the daily lives of the accountants, store-keepers, farmers, royal treasury assistants etc. of the ancient world. The economics of the publishing industry over the past thirty years however have shifted and transmogrified before my eyes. Change has been so rapid that even to the casual observer this has been quite easy to track. When I was a youth, back in the 1970s, bookshops were not that common. There was only one that I knew of in the London
borough where I grew up, and that was a bus ride away from my home. If I wanted any kind of serious browsing at all I had to go in to central London
, to Foyles, which, with its multiple floors packed with shelves, all groaning with books on every conceivable subject, seemed then to be quite unique. There was also the Net Book Agreement, which meant that all retailers agreed to sell books at the recommended retail price. The abandonment of this agreement, plus the rise of the giant bookstore chains such as Borders, Hammicks, Waterstones etc. led the way for a new world of three-for-two offers, heavy discounting and, eventually to stories of beleaguered independent bookshop owners stocking their shelves by popping in to Tesco to buy up copies of the new Harry Potter, which they could get cheaper in the supermarket than from their usual supplier. The changes didn’t end there. Of the chains mentioned above, now only Waterstones remains. The publishing world, having released perhaps too many books, has now drawn in its horns. A worldwide financial crisis, coupled with huge uncertainty over the possible effects of the seemingly inevitable digitization of the printed word, has made the current climate an uncomfortable one for many publishers, authors and agents. And more change is on its way that much is clear. The one constant, as far as I can see, is that people’s appetite for reading matter, for the stories, information and knowledge contained within what was once a tool for creating a tally of jars of grain, remains undiminished.
Labels: books, change, history, writing
I’ve admired the work of Joseph Beuys for many years, ever since seeing an exhibition of his drawings at the Whitechapel Gallery in the early 80s. An art student at the time, I found these works on paper enthralling; scratchy pencil marks, dense, organic forms in brown ink, curious signs and notations scribbled over the paper surface, with titles like Nights in the Rafters
and The Shaman’s Hat
. I always find I stop and look whenever I come across one of his pieces, be that a felt suit, a battery filled with fat, or video footage of the artist sharing a cage with a wary-looking coyote.
Beuys is widely admired as an artist. I remember seeing a television programme in which Arthur Scargil, fiery leader of the miner’s union during the disputes of the 1980s, spoke in hushed, reverent tones about visiting one of Beuys’ installations.
Beuys cut a charismatic figure. He was known for his wide-brimmed hats and cadaverous features, for his reputation-making performance, ‘Telling Stories to a Dead Hare’ (in which he did just that), and for the tale he told of his wartime experience as a Luftwaffe pilot on the Eastern front. Shot down and left for dead in sub-zero temperatures he was rescued by wandering Tarter tribesmen, who saved him from exposure by coating his body in fat and wrapping him in felt, materials he came to see as having life-giving properties.
I was at the Tate Modern a few weeks ago and there I saw a vast room-sized installation by Beuys, called ‘Lightening with Stag in its Glare’. The piece includes a huge triangle of puckered bronze suspended from a beam, an ironing board cast in aluminium, hanks of turd-like brown metal scattered about the floor, and, on top of a box on a tall stand, a small compass.
DOWN WITH POSITIVE THINKING! (Part 1)
I watched a television documentary about Thin Lizzy, the legendary 70s Irish rock band. Hidden amongst the bombast and excess relived by the various survivors came my favourite moment. Midge Ure (now more comfortably proportioned than in his cool, stick-thin youth) rather bizarrely perhaps once toured America with Thin Lizzy late on in their career. Here he was cheerfully describing himself as ‘the worst guitarist Lizzy ever had.’ He went on to demonstrate this by fluffing the twin guitar harmony line on ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’.
This reminded me of one of the curses of our time; the cult of positive thinking. Positivism, applied generally, for instance to inform policy or direction in governments and organisations etc, may well make fine practical sense. And cheery good-humour can be pleasant enough in the right context. But all too often the insistence on positive thinking goes far beyond cheerfulness, and is used as a whip to crack over the backs of individuals, forcing onto them a harsh, relentless sense of perpetual external judgement. I fear for anyone I hear saying something like ‘I know I can win/do/achieve this, all I have to do is believe!’ If they really mean that, then what happens to their world if they don’t succeed?
I prefer to take the advice of Quentin Crisp, who said, rather wonderfully, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.’ What’s wrong with understanding your own limitations - we all have them, after all - and then choosing to make a strength of them? There’s a sort of relaxed kindness in that approach that seems much more humane. Midge Ure certainly seemed to be one of the happier individuals featured in that Thin Lizzy documentary.
Labels: Failure, positive thinking, Quentin Crisp, Thin Lizzy