The man who broke into Auschwitz – Denis Avey with Rob Broomby

Who would be crazy enough to break into one of the most notorious Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany…twice!

Despite its very specific title this book isn’t just about Auschwitz.  It is a wider story of Denis Avey’s life and his experiences in World War II.  The largest part is about his war experiences although it does cover a bit about his childhood in Essex and his life after the War.

I didn’t find the Denis Avey who comes through in the narrative a particularly likeable person.  I suspect he is entertaining in small doses and a class one pain if you see him regularly; an opinionated, cocky man who demands to be the centre of attention.

For me the most interesting part was learning about his active service in North Africa.  I have a personal interest in this campaign as my Grandfather fought there and I know very little about what it must have been like for him; he was killed in Italy later in the war and all that survives are sanitised letters to his family at home.  I knew the desert could be cold but had no idea about just how awful conditions could be.  In my naivety I hadn’t considered the brutal combination of the topographical conditions and warfare.

It was also interesting learning about the life of a POW in Italian hands.  Most of the books I’ve read have been about POWs in Nazi Germany so this was a different story as well.

Oddly, I found the Auschwitz part of the narrative the least interesting; if you want to know about life inside the IG Farben complex Primo Levi is a much better guide.  And I found the use of “Stripeys” to describe the concentration camp prisoners distasteful, whether or not it was the term used at the time.

For me the character of the man, as he is revealed in the book, makes it possible that he was foolhardy enough to break into the KL part of Auschwitz but I feel that if it did happen the noble motive of “bearing witness” he ascribes to it probably came later and it started off as an act of “derring do”.

At the end of this book, and in the couple of weeks since I finished reading it, I keep coming back to the central conflict within it; Denis Avey had a challenging War.  He fought in difficult conditions in Africa, he was a prisoner of war in Italian hands for a period of time and he was a prisoner of war near one of the most notorious prison camps in the world and yet…  And yet I am not sure how much of the story I believe, not sure what is truth and what is embroidery and not sure that I care enough to find out more.

The science of everyday life; why teapots dribble, toast burns and light bulbs shine – Marty Jopson

This book is a great example of why I regularly splurge 99p on an Amazon daily deal!  Every so often a book pops up on my daily email and, almost as a reflex action, I buy it.  Sometimes the book stays on my Kindle for months until I’m away with nothing else to read.  Other times I delve straight in.  Mostly my reviews could be summed up as “well it was only 99p”; occasionally I land a gem.  This was one of those gems.

I never buy this type of book – popular science and the type of book you dip in and out of when you have a spare 5 minutes – but this one might make me change my mind.  It was fun to read, about things I use and see every day and it made me laugh out loud on several occasions (much to the consternation of the other people in the dentist waiting room!)

The book explains, in an easy to understand way, the science behind gadgets we use without thinking, how taste works, how my house functions and why I should use plastic tongs to get at the bagel stuck in my toaster!

I thought this book would be one where a month after reading it I had forgotten the science and just retained the sense of pleasure associated with reading a good book; I was surprised that some of it has actually stuck – well sort of; I could remember that the fact Washington felt cooler than New York when both registered the same temperature had something to do with there being more trees around at street level.

A real scientist would probably be bored witless with a book like this but if you’re a non-scientist and curious about the world I would highly recommend it.  Don’t read in one chunk; you’ll be so swamped with facts you won’t appreciate them.  This book is best read in short chunks 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there as you’re waiting to do something else; just don’t blame me when you get funny looks as you laugh out loud.

Cymbeline – Directed by Melly Still for Royal Shakespeare Company

I’m not quite sure where to start with this review.  Possibly to say this isn’t a production I enjoyed although it wasn’t so bad I wanted to leave at the interval as the lady in the next seat did.

Like pretty well everything about this production the staging was a mixed bag.  I really liked the towers at the back of the stage, which revolved to create different places.  I thought it was a good use of the space at the back of the stage and was effective.

I was much less convinced by the tree stump enclosed in glass.  I understand the symbolism of the tree being lopped of it’s branches but I thought it got in the way of the actors and action.  It was better when it rose up to reveal a pit/cave, although it did keep expecting an actor to topple over into it.

The actors! Hmm, where to start.  None of them were dreadful.  I’ve seen several of them in other productions. But…  My overwhelming impression of them is that the majority need to go and visit their voice coaches.  Their diction and projection was horrible; mumbled and indistinct.  They also gave the impression of mid-run boredom acting the characters rather than inhabiting them.  I know this sounds harsh but I go to the theatre to immerse myself and that didn’t happen with this production.

There were some bright spots:

At the beginning, when Posthumous is being banished, the attraction between him and Innogen was totally believable.  Like many relationships they had clearly got a bit bored of one another later on.

Natalie Simpson, who played Polydore/Guideria, had presence and was credible as the heir to the throne.  I will be interested to see her in King Lear later in the year.

I also thought Oliver Johnstone was a suitably treacherous Iachimo; plausible and attractive enough to gain the trust of both Posthumous and Innogen.

I liked the fact that the Italians spoke Italian, the French spoke French and diplomacy was carried out in Latin.  It could have been distracting having to read the translations projected onto the wall but it cleverly separated Britain from mainland Europe.

There was a lot of re-gendering of parts in this production; King Cymbeline becomes the queen, his wife becomes the duke, Polydor/Guiderius becomes Cymbelines daughter rather than son.  I thought this added to rather than detracted from the play as it made it less “blokey”.  The more traditionalists, as represented by my neighbour who left at the interval, declared it appalling.

Overall, I feel let down by this production.  I’m not sure how much of this is down to the play, which is a mishmash of narrative stands, and how much to the direction.  I’m not familiar enough with this play to disentangle the two elements.  But I won’t rush back to see the play again.  I may, however, go see the next play Melly Still directs to help me make my mind up about her.

My final, and lasting, thought is concern that we are taking some friends who are not regular theatre goers to see King Lear in a few weeks time – and most of this cast are in it!  I hope they have rediscovered their joie de vivre and their voices by then!


The Lonely City; adventures in the art of being alone – Olivia Laing

This isn’t a book I would have chosen and bought in a bookshop.  I would have passed it by as “not being my sort of book” so I’m really pleased my friend Mike bought it for me and widened my horizons.

The book is set in New York and I read in the week after I visited the city for the first time and whilst still travelling in the USA.  I think being able to visualise some of the places Laing is talking about helped me to understand what she was writing about.

The premise of the book is that Laing has moved to NY to be with her new love and arrives only to find the relationship has collapsed and she is alone in a new city, succumbing to a deep bout of loneliness amongst the crowds of people.  Her reaction to this, to get away from staring at the walls of her apartment, is to explore art that depicts loneliness or isolation and to uncover the lives of the artists who created it.

She starts with the fairly obvious to ease the reader in with something familiar; Hopper and the way he uses glass to compartmentalise and isolate people from one another.  I’m familiar with Hopper’s more famous paintings but her descriptions still made me head for Google Images to relook at Nighthawk; I had never noticed before that there is no door into the café.

After Hopper came Andy Warhol.  I had never considered him as someone who epitomises loneliness and isolation but the author puts forward a good case as to how he used the crowds at his Factory, his wigs and his gadgets to create a barrier around himself.  She still hasn’t convinced me that his art is worth a closer look but it was interesting to learn more about the man behind the image.

The other artists Laing writes about I had never come across before, although I had come across odd bits of some of their work.  I found these sections of the book most engaging, I think because I was coming to them with no preconceptions.  I also feel that at this point, when Laing is fully immersed in her research to find out more about the people behind the art, she becomes more engaging, more human and less a whiney, pretentiously arty person playing at loneliness.

The main people she writes about are Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger.  I really enjoyed finding out about these artists and their life stories.  I loved the depths Laing went to uncovering archives, unpacking dusty boxes and following up clues to delve into their troubles backgrounds.  And I loved having some new “names” to discover and explore.

This book made me think about how we see art; does understanding the context of a painting help us to appreciate what we see or does it hinder?  Do I really want keep looking at Hopper paintings knowing he deliberately curtailed his wife’s career as an artist?  Do Darger’s pictures become more or less disturbing knowing about his childhood and mental health?  Should I admire Wojnarowicz’ work for celebrating a more real New York or does it make me appreciate a safer, Disneyfied city?

This wasn’t one of the books that leaves you bereft and anting more when you finish it but I’m still thinking about what it said a week after finishing it – and I suspect I will be for some time – and I think that says how well it has done its job.