Recording Britain – Edited by Gill Saunders

A couple of years ago we went to visit friends in Eastbourne.  One of the things we went to look at was an art gallery that had an exhibition of some of the Recording Britain watercolours.

I enjoyed looking around the exhibition so much I bought a book to find out more about the Recording Britain project.  Typically for me the book got buried in the pile of books waiting to be read and has finally surfaced as part of my “reading the coffee-table books” drive.

The Recording Britain project was set up in 1940 with the dual aims of recording typical English and Welsh scenes (Scotland and Northern Ireland weren’t included in the scheme) that were likely to disappear either through Luftwaffe bombing or modernisation and to provide employment for watercolour, landscape artists who were struggling to find work because of the war.  The project was sponsored by the Pilgrim Trust and subject to a lot of political wrangling behind the scenes.

The book explains various aspects of the project and its subsequent history.  It explains the variable quality of the paintings, the very randomness of the subject matter and the overall lack of interest in the paintings once the project was completed.  It is a mixture of text and reproductions of some of the paintings.

I enjoyed reading about the project and the paintings but I found the layout of the book quite frustrating.  The chapters started with a chunk of text and were followed by the paintings.  This meant a lot of flicking back and forth when trying to see what the editor was talking about.  It would have been much better if the picture was close to the text.  I also found it a bit annoying that some double pages had a picture on each page whilst others had 1 picture and a blank page.  No rhyme or reason and it felt like wasted space, which could have been used to show another of the paintings.

I wouldn’t recommend buying this book to find out about the Recording Britain project; I think you can out about it much more easily online.  I am, however, pleased I bought it.  It has such a wide variety of pictures in it, well reproduced and I expect I will leaf through it and day-dream, curled up in front of a nice fire, when it’s raining and cold outside.

Click here to find out more about Recording Britain


Fast Ladies: female racing drivers 1888-1970 – Jean-Francois Bouzanquet

I knew I was going to enjoy this book from the first section when it talks about Bertha Benz, wife of Karl, packing the two children into the car early one morning, in 1888,  and driving from Mannheim to Pforzheim (111 miles) to visit her  mother, without telling Karl!  Legend has it that Karl was verging on hysterics from worry when he received a telegram telling him where his family were and that they were all safe.

This is another of the “coffee table” books from my pile.  There are lots of great photos of women racing drivers through the decades and potted histories of the various women drivers.  The histories are of varying lengths depending on how much is know about them.  I have said before, and am going to repeat myself, that the motor racing fraternity seems to be doing its best to write women drivers out of the history books.  There is a scandalous lack of information about some of the drivers.

I really liked the fact that unlike my previous books about women drivers this one covered post-WWII and I found out about more drivers that I didn’t know about.  I think for me by the time it gets to the 1950s the dangerous glamour has gone out of motor racing.  Yes, it’s still dangerous.  Yes, there is still an element of glamour. But it just doesn’t seem to have the raw energy, the sense of an elemental fight between human, machine and the track.

From a practical point of view this is a great reference book.  it is written in chronological order of when people were competing and their year of birth.  There is also an alphabetical list at the back so if I’m reading another book that references someone and I want to check back I can easily find them.  I suspect this book will come in very useful for that reason.

The book has also prompted me to widen my reading about motor racing in the inter-war years.  It tells lots of stories about women who raced in partnership with their husbands and, sometimes, other, male, racing drivers.  I’d like to find out more about these partnerships and the levels of equality that existed.

As a book to read it has its limitations.  If you like pictures of motor racing you’ll like this book.  As a book to dip in and out of, filled with anecdotes it’s an enjoyable browse.

1971 never a dull moment; rock’s golden year – David Hepworth

This book was my partners and he read it in two sittings, which is unusual, so I thought I would give it a go.  It is a history of 1971 told via 12 albums that were released during the year and is written by a music journalist and former presented of The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Hepworth goes through the year month by month telling anecdotes about the making of the albums he chooses, the music scene and the way pop-royalty was learning to live its new millionnaire lifestyle.

This is definitely a book for music lovers of a certain age; mainly, I think, blokes in their 60s who lived through the period and were into prog rock.  I enjoyed reading it and recognising things I lived through but I was only 6 in 1971 and didn’t recognise a lot of the things Hepworth talks about.

What the book did make me do though was think and wonder about a couple of things.  Firstly, does the current fad for “kidulthood” start with the rebellion of “not growing up” in young men in the US in the 60s and 70s, trying to avoid thinking about the Vietnam draft?  Secondly, why do most of us live our lives as affluent zombies, drifting along without thinking what is going on beneath the surface of our lives?  And have both of these things led to the Western world floating complacently along to the point where extreme politics and isolationism are increasing?

For a book I found “ok” it has certainly provoked some deep thoughts!

And, chaps of a certain age, I’d recommend it to you as a good read about music.

The Merry Wives of Windsor – Fiona Laird for RSC

Shakespeare twice in one week! And both of them laugh-out-loud funny, leaving me with an aching face.

We haven’t seen Merry Wives for ages – December 2012 in fact – and whilst I usually enjoy it I didn’t expect this version to be as funny as it was.  Think of it as a 17th century pantomime with great word-play, plenty of slapstick and lots of fun being had by the actors.

I certainly never expected audience participation singing Guide Me Oh Thou Great Redeemer!

The stand out performances were, for me, Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingley as the titular Merry Wives, David Troughton, who was a brilliant Falstaff and Katy Brittain as the Hostess of the Garter.  Their exaggerated, stereotype characters were much more believable than the 2-dimensional figures they can sometimes be.

There were nice subtle touches too; Charlotte Josephine’s transformation from rough, loutish Bardolph to a polished young woman with a career in particular.

The staging was a bit faffy in some ways with the skeleton outlines of Dr Caius’ house and The Garter dominating the stage, rotating periodically and bit sliding out.  There also seemed to be  a lot of furniture moving.  I think some of it was unnecessary and the idea of moving from place to place could have been suggested in other ways.

That said, there were some really nice touches like the Visit Britain sign in the window of The Garter and the parking sign outside Dr Caius’ house.

The costumes were excellent; a mix of modern and Elizabethan dress.  The “types” were easily identifiable by their clothes.  David Troughton in his tennis whites and then striped blazer were particularly funny, especially once the whites had been through the wheely bin.

Some of the visual humour and gags based on what’s happening in the world were very funny but, I think, don’t translate to the written page.

I also really liked the way this version of the play ends.  Sometimes the ending feels spiteful and is an uncomfortable end to a comedy.  In this version Falstaff gets his comeuppance but it is done with sympathy and not spite, leaving everyone in a jolly mood to go home.

I thoroughly enjoyed this play and I’d recommend going to see it.

Click here to find out more about RSC and to book tickets

Click here to find out more about the plot of the play

Twelfth Night – The Handlbards at Howsham Mill

Earlier this year some friends told us about a theatre group who cycle up the country to the Edinburgh Festival delivering plays at a variety of venues on the way.  We thought that sounded a bit bats, lots of fun and that we ought to go.  Which is how, on the coldest evening of the summer so far, we ended up picnicking in front of the gorgeous Howsham Mill followed by a fabulously funny version of Twelfth Night.

There are two groups of Handlebards on their way up to Edinburgh; four women who are performing Romeo and Juliet and four men performing Twelfth Night.  Having seen Twelfth Night I’m very tempted to find the nearest performance of Romeo and Juliet.

I enjoyed the informality of going to an open air venue.  We arrived quite early, not really knowing where we were going, and so got an excellent spot and no one came to sit in front of us.  Best seats in the house.  The actors and their Tour Manager were wandering around chatting to people, there were picnics, groups of friends meeting up, the smell of delicious food cooking and lots of laughter.  Whilst the evening wasn’t particularly warm it wasn’t cold enough to distract from the performance and at least it stayed dry.

I’m not really sure how to describe the performance.  I think it’s one of those “you had to be there” bouts of silliness that lose in the retelling.  The actors were good, they managed to become the various parts they were playing – not an easy feat when your characters are all on stage together! – and they told the story in an engaging way.

I loved the way the costumes were constructed so characters could be represented even when their actor was delivering another part.  The inventiveness of the props and the way the audience and their picnics were incorporated into the action added to the fun of the evening.  Note to potential audience members – make sure you have spare food and drink, yours might become part of the performance!

I think the best compliment I can pay The Handlebards is to say my face still aches from smiling and laughing and I’m chuckling whilst writing this remembering things that happened.

This is probably Shakespeare as it was performed when new, it is fun, entertaining and a brilliant way to introduce people to some fabulous plays.

I can’t wait until we can see them again.

Click here to find out more about The Handlebards

Click here to find out more about Howsham Mill

Wonders of Life – Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen

I’ve been having a bit of a tidy up of the pile of books that sits at the side of the sofa waiting to be read and came across this in a pile of “coffee table books”.  I don’t remember buying any of them but decided that I would actually read them rather than just leaf through looking at the pictures.

This book was written to accompany Brian Cox’s TV series from 2013.  It has lots of lovely pictures in it and quite a bit od text.

The chapters cover “Home” – essentially how our planet sustains life – “What is life”, “Size Matters”, “Expending Universe” and “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”.  As you would expect from Brian Cox there is quite a lot of science although I found it reasonably easy to understand.  It certainly held my interest more than “Why E=mc2 and why you care”, which is the only other Brian Cox book I have read.  That one nearly made my not-very-scientific head explode!

The book looks at everything from different angles, ideas and possibilities and I enjoyed finding out a bit more about the science behind things like the size of a species or the delicate balance of eco-systems.

There were two things that were difficult about it.

The first was the size and weight of the book.  It isn’t easy to hold a large, heavy book for long periods when you’re trying to curl up on the sofa and read.  I understand that these types of book aren’t really meant to be read but…

The second was the chapter on DNA and how elements form and mutate.  I found this hard to understand, not helped by the fact it was the last chapter, it was late and I wanted to finish the book before going to bed.  Probably I should ahve just saved the final chapter for another day when I was more alert and able to understand.  However, I didn’t and I’m left will the overall feeling that the science bits were hard.

That said, I would definitely recommend actually having a go at reading the next coffee table book someone buys you for Christmas.