A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens, adapted for RSC by David Edgar

This early in December I’m still a bit bah humbug about Christmas so I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to book tickets for A Christmas Carol on 2nd December but I’m so pleased I did.

The play starts with Charles Dickens and his friend and editor, John Forster discussing a tract Dickens has written on the iniquities of child labour.  Forster is telling Dickens that sugar-coated pills work better as a way to bring social injustices to people’s attention at Christmas.  So, begins the telling of the famous story.

I thought Phil Davis was an excellent Scrooge and, as he travelled back in time with the Ghost of Christmas Past, I loved the was he and younger versions of Scrooge interchanged with each other.

The plot moved along at a good pace without being too fast and bits of the story that often get missed out, like the Fezziwigs, got included.  There was also time to add in extra bits about the horrible plight of child labourers.

I thought the costumes were amazing; Jacob Marley’s ghost was particularly effective and I loved the garish, exuberant checks worn by most of the men in the cast.

The set overall was effective; it created an impression of the edges of poverty in London.  However, it didn’t quite hang together for me.  The towering backdrop of the warehouse front distracted from the human sized props on the stage, especially during the complicated door sequences in Mr Scrooge’s office.  It could almost have done with the top half being covered to focus the viewpoint on the stage.  And the doors got in the way of the action a bit.  I understand, from the gentleman sitting next to us, that how the scenery is used has already changed from the beginning of the week. I suspect it will change again before the end of the run.

Another part I’m not sure about is the section with Ignorance and Want.  I know that the book was written, in part, as a response to child labour.  Perhaps, in our current society, rather than highlighting child labour, the focus could have been directed at child poverty or poverty in general to remind people that although we live in a different world there are still social injustices to be fought.

There was plenty of light and shade in the production –  the dark parts of Scrooge’s story interwoven with humour, song and dancing – which dissolved some of my bah humbug feeling and has left me humming Christmas Carols.  And, of course, the story has the required happy ending.

Would I go and see it again?  Yes; although I wouldn’t rush back or make a special journey, if I find myself in Stratford and it is still showing I will go again.

Click here to find out more about Dickens’ book


Whatever you think, think the opposite – Paul Arden

This is a book of sound bites about how to think to become successful.  The essential message is that to be successful you need to think your own thoughts not follow popular opinion and that rather than follow a steady trajectory you should bounce around a bit.

The secondary message is that any decision followed by an action is the right thing to do rather than making a “perfect” or “good” decision and doing nothing.  No, really?  Surprising conclusion, not!

This is essentially my problem with most self-help books, the fact that they almost all state the obvious in a generally patronising tone.

However, to be fair to the book it did make me think about whether I generate too many ideas and so end up doing nothing with them.  I’ve even gone so far as to write a list of 5 ideas I do want to do something with.  I guess the ultimate test of the book is whether any of the ideas get further than the list!

I did find it somewhat contradictory though that a book that encourages me to think differently is telling me what and how I should think!

The Middle Temple Murders – J S Fletcher

This detective novel was originally published in 1919 and recently republished.  I quite like period whodunnits as a bit of light relief after a busy day so I thought I’d give it a go.

The Middle Temple Murders

The essentials of the plot, without giving too much away, are that newspaper man Frank Spargo is on his way home late at night when someone comes out of Middle Temple shouting that a murder has been committed.  Spargo then works with Detective Sergeant Rathbury to investigate what has happened and to solve several puzzles relating to the murder; who the victim was, who his son is, who the crooked financier is and who the murderer is.

I enjoyed the period feel of the book.  It was of its period but didn’t feel too dated and the characters felt believable.  I kept reading because I wanted to know the answers to the puzzles.

Unfortunately, the ending didn’t live up to the rest of the book.  It felt abrupt, as though the author had run out of energy, ideas or time to maintain the same pace as the rest of the story.  This was a real disappointment and I felt let down.  On this basis I wouldn’t recommend the book.  I’m also reluctant to try any of the other period murder mysteries published by The Resurrected Press which is a shame.

Reflections on Goole – a film by Goole Civic Society

I was invited to a film premier on Friday evening.  Not quite a glamorous, Hollywood fancy frock job but something, in my view, much more valuable; a remembrance of things past and a reminder they are what makes our present and our futures.

The film is called “Reflections on Goole” and has been made by Goole Civic Society using a mixture of old photographs, bits of an old film made by Goole Junior Chamber, talking heads and some stunning aerial filming from Golden Media.

I got involved in the film by accident.  The date stone from a long demolished school is being returned to the town and there was an article in the local paper asking for memories and memorabilia.  My mother was the last Head at the school and taught there all her working life so I have quite a lot of photographs.  Margaret and John from the Civic Society came to see me and, after looking at the photos, stuck a video camera in front of me and asked me to reminisce about growing up in Goole.  I certainly didn’t expect to find myself in film!

The film covers lots of different aspects of the town and, with a mainly local audience, there were lots of “ooh, I remember that” and “who on earth was…” type comments during the screening.  It was definitely a nostalgia trip and I liked the fact that the purpose of the film is to celebrate what is good and interesting.  Goole sometimes gets a bad rap from the press and locals; I have to say I’m guilty of it as well.

If I was being a bit nit-picky I would say the narrative arc of the film isn’t always logical and it sometimes flits from one subject to another without finding a smooth bridge to cross.

What the film does do, extremely well, is to remind people of the history of Goole; what made it the place it is and why.  It also, I think, shows us why we should have some pride in the town and encourages us to have some ambition for it in the same way the Aire and Calder Navigation Company did when it founded the town in 1826.

The film also demonstrates the important role played by Civic Societies around the country in preserving the heritage of ordinary people living ordinary lives.  Without their work a lot of this history would be lost.

It is a privilege to have been included in this film and I’m looking forward to going to see it again with my school friends to one of the general screenings at The Junction on 25th January.

Click here for more details about The Junction screening

Click here to find out more about Goole Civic Society

Click here to find out about your local Civic Society

Gironimo! – Tim Moore

I love Tim Moore’s travelogues; they always make me laugh out loud, there are always parts that make me wince and I always learn some new expletives!

Gironimo is about Tim Moore cycling the route of the infamous 1914 Giro d’Italia on a vintage bicycles and in period costume.

The 1914 Giro is reputed to be the most gruelling and cruel bike race ever.  Of the 81 competitors who started only 8 finished!

The book starts with some of the history of the eventual winner, Alfonzo Calzolari, who caused some controversy by accepting help from a motorist, was penalised by 3 hours and whose eventual win was subject to a legal challenge.

It also describes how Moore tracked down his vintage bicycles and the lengths he went to restoring it so it would survive his journey.  This bit of the book is Moore at his world-weary, frustrated funniest and I found myself laughing out loud, even in public places.

The bulk of the book is about the journey, the trials of long distance cycling, obscure bits of Italy and the horrendous 1914 Giro.  Moore is a great writer for bringing places alive; whilst reading you can easily imagine what the places he’s travelling through must have been like in 1914 and get a good sense of the 21st century slightly seedy reality of run down towns and cities.  He also seems to have a talent for finding helpful yet slightly eccentric people to help him when, inevitably, something goes wrong.

The bit of the book I least liked was where Moore is joined by a friend who is both fitter and on a new cycle.  I found his comments uncharitable; the guy is a friend and he’s come to help you, have some gratitude.

That is, however, a minor gripe and I’d definitely recommend the book if you’re interesting in cycling, Italy, the Giro or simply want to be entertained by someone’s madcap adventure.

After reading it I loaned the book to one of the honorary nephews.  He enjoyed it so much I’m now trying to locate Tim Moore’s other books from within the book mounds dotted around my house.

Click here to find out more about the Giro d’Italia

Click here to find out more about the 1914 Giro

Click here to find out more about Tim Moore

Nijinsky – Lucy Moore

I loved this biography of Vaslav Nijinsky!  It isn’t an entirely happy book and it feels as though there is more to tell but it is a good starting point for anyone wanting to know more about this mercurial genius.

I started from the point of knowing a bit about Nijinsky and his involvement with the Ballets Russes from reading a biography of Anna Pavlova at Junior School.  That in turn led me to finding out more about Ballet Russes, modern ballet and 20th century classical music.  I hadn’t seen a biography of Nijinsky before so I was looking forward to reading this one.

To get the downsides out-of-the-way first it is a short book and, I think, an overview of a life rather than getting down to who Vaslav Nijinsky really was.  I suspect this is because Nijinsky himself didn’t really know who he was and never really had the opportunity to work it out for himself.  He seems to have been a chameleon who became what he needed to be to please the dominant person in his life at the time.

For me the best bits were about Nijinsky’s early life before Ballet Russes and after his marriage and fall out with Diaghilev.  I knew pretty well nothing about either of these periods.

I think the history of his early life helps to make sense of what came later; the strong “Please People” driver, the drive for perfection and the work ethic.  It also, I think, sews the seeds of the mental illness that blighted his later life.

The history of his life after marriage to Romola de Pulszky makes for unhappy reading.  The “car crash waiting to happen” tussle between Romola and Diaghilev over control of Nijinsky was only ever going to have one victim – Vaslav! And it was horrible to read about the “cures” Romola put him through trying to find a cure for his schizophrenia.

Reading this biography is a bit like reading a Shakespearean tragedy; a man with an immense talent who appears to have it all and then is struck down at the height of his power.

Click here to find out more about Ballet Russes

The Unwinding; An inner history of the new America by George Packer

I have no idea how I have come to own this book.  I thought it had found its way into my pile of books to read after my partner had read it – it’s more his type of book than mine – but he disclaimed all knowledge of it and has just started reading it.

The dust jacket blurb says that this is a book about “the extraordinary story of what’s happened in America over the past 30 years” and a “panorama of the relentless breakdown of the American social compact over a generation”.  I would describe it as a social history, following a number of extraordinary people from 1978 to 2012.

The main strands are rural North Carolina, Youngstown, Washington DC, Florida and Silicon Valley.  There are guest appearances from Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey.

The individual stories are a mixture of how people strove to rise about the poverty they grew up in, how they strove for political power or how they spotted n opportunity.  In some instances they succeeded and in others everything ended in abject failure.

The most powerful stories are those that follow through the whole book and for me the stand out story is that of the woman in Youngstown who after a number of struggles and set backs managed to make a difference to the city described as the capital of Rustbelt USA.

The strongest message of the book, and I think a global one, is that a lot of damage was done in the 1980s dismantling the checks and controls that held financial institutions to account.  What seemed at the time like a liberation from restrictive rules – and I worked in financial services at the time so I know – turned out to be like letting an addict loose in a chemist’s shop.  Quest for market share became a chase for greater and greater profit and led to greed, manipulation and subterfuge.

I don’t want to go back to the days when banks were austere and intimidating places but I feel they should be places where you make serious consideration of the commitment you are making when you take out a mortgage.

I don’t feel I have enough knowledge of USA to make a judgement on whether this book is accurate and/or makes sense in economic terms.  I did find it really interesting and it has made me think long and hard about what has happened in UK since 1978.  What has happened for the good and where I think we have lost something important in creating the society we have today.

I suspect a lot of the political turmoil we are seeing across the world stems back to quite a few of the topics covered in this book.

I enjoyed the book and I will search out some of George Packer’s other work.

Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe at RSC

I had no idea what to expect from this play.  I’d vaguely heard of Dido, mainly through a book by Joan Aiken I read as a child.  I knew that Carthage was in what is now Tunisia but had no idea that the Carthaginians are the same people referred to as Phoenicians. Or that Hannibal, who invaded Italy with his elephants, was a descendant of Dido’s brother.

Essentially the plot is that the goddess Venus is complaining that Jupiter is neglecting their son Aeneas who has been caught in a storm on the way from Troy to Italy.  Jupiter allows Aeneas to land on the shore of Carthage where he meets Dido, the queen.  Dido and Aeneas fall in love and Dido tries to prevent him leaving to complete his mission to Italy.  Hermes informs Aeneas that he must leave and fulfil his destiny in Italy and when he leaves Dido burns everything that reminds her of him and kills herself.

Sandy Grierson, who plays Aeneas, seems to be the go-to lead for Christopher Marlowe plays at the RSC at the moment.  He was an excellent Doctor Faustus last year and plays an interesting Aeneas this year.  He is credible as a General and as a man full of self-doubt.  He was also believable as a man in love with a beautiful Queen who can’t quite belive his luck.  A long way from the ethereal Ariel he played back in 2012.

I thought Chipo Chung was an elegant, poised and beautiful Dido.  I thought in the early part of the play she was excellent as a wise and thoughtful ruler.  The problem was that her strength of character in the early part of the play made it difficult to believe she would just crumble when Aeneas left.  This is probably my modern sensibilities but I think she would probably have made plans to follow him rather than rend and tear everything that reminded her of him! Or she might have stabbed him so he couldn’t leave rather than kill herself because he’d gone.

Overall, I enjoyed the play.  I enjoyed the intimacy you get at The Swan where you’re never too far from the action. And I’d certainly go see another production to have something to compare this one to.

Osud – Janacek – Opera North

I haven’t been to the theatre for ages and then I ended up going on consecutive nights; once to see this “Little Great” at Opera North and then down to Stratford, which I will report on next week.

I don’t know very much about Janacek and I knew nothing about this short opera but a friend asked if I was interested in going so I did.

The opera is in 3 acts and engaged my attention for the whole 1 hour 25 minutes it lasted; it is part of Opera North’s “Little Greats” season, with 2 short operas each evening.

The plot can be summarised as; the composer Zivny falls in love with Mila, Mila’s mother disapproves and separates them but Mila has a baby. Mila and Zivny meet again and marry, they are poor and looking after their son and Mila’s mother who has gone mad.  the mad mother falls and drags Mila over the balcony with her to their deaths. Zivny greaves and can’t finish the opera he has written.  He dies, as students are rehearsing for the premier of his opera, saying the last act is “in God’s hands”.

I thought the staging was very clever, using minimal scenery to create the schoolroom, a cafe, a poor lodging house and back to the schoolroom.  The small changes created the right feel for the drama at each stage and, along with the music, move the story from serious to lighthearted and back again.

The costumes also worked well.  They created a sense of a different era and country without being too specific or getting in the way of the story.

I don’t have enough experience of opera to proffer an expert opinion but I did think the principles sang their parts well and for the most part acted well.  My one disappointment was the relationship between Zivny and Mila.  I felt that the love was all one way – Mila to Zivny – and that Zivny cared more about his music.  I didn’t feel a strong connection between the two of them.  One of my friends agreed although my more opera experienced friend felt we were wrong and that Zivny was a “tortured soul”.  For me there was just something lacking in the way the Director had created the interaction between the two.  There was no sense of a passionate, unbreakable bond in the relationship.

I also think singing in English disrupted the flow of the music a bit.  There were screens set up to show what was being sung so I think keeping the opera in its original language and maintaining the rhythms of that language with its music would have been preferable.  We could have read the translation on the screens.

Overall though I enjoyed exploring some new music and I wish I’d gone earlier in the season as I might have ventured to one or two more of the “Little Greats”.

Click here to find out more about Janacek

Click here to listen to a bit of Osud



Fast Women; the drivers who changed the face of motor racing – John Bullock

I started reading about women racing drivers years ago when I was bought a book called The Woman and the Car by Dorothy Levitt, originally published in 1909 and designed to help women maintain their cars.  I was fascinated by the fact that in the early part of 20th century a woman had been a successful works team driver for the Napier team.  Dorothy Levitt has been one of my role models since reading her book.  The picture at the top of this article is of her.

Then, last year, a friend bought a pre-war MG and asked me to research it and the history of the previous owners, trying to find a racing pedigree for the car.  We haven’t quite managed to do that yet but my research has led me to find out about other women racing drivers of the early 20th century, many of whom are in this book.

The book is an odd mish-mash of fact and chatty reminiscences.  It doesn’t cover the lives of all, or even most, of the women drivers I have come across.  It doesn’t give all the drivers equal space. And, I think, the author has his favourites amongst the drivers; possibly those he knew.  In a lot of ways this reflects my experience of trying to find out about the women who raced MGs; they have disappeared into the mists of time, written out of history by the disappearance of the marques they drove for and the increasing, post-WWII of sexism in motor sport.

Anyway, soap-box moment over!

The book is an interesting read.  It starts with Camille du Gast, the French adrenaline-junkie who was the first woman to complete a parachute jump (in 1895) as well as racing cars and boats.

Much to my delight there is a chapter on Dorothy Levitt, giving me more information about her away from the race track.  I didn’t know she got into racing because she was a temporary secretary at Napier when Selwyn Edge was looking for a British woman to rival Camille du Gast!

I was also pleased to find part of a chapter covering the life of Margaret Allan; she was a member of the all-women MG Le Mans team of 1935.  She also worked at Bletchley Park during WWII, which provides a nice link to something else I’m interested in.

Another gripe about the book is that although it is supposed to a book about women racing drivers there are far too many diversions into what their menfolk were doing in the racing world.  If I was being charitable I would say these parts were to fill gaps where there is little or no information about the women.  I could also say that it is indicative of the chauvinist world of motor racing!

To summarise, you will probably have guessed that I like this book because it gives me more information about a subject I am really interested in.  I dislike it because it shows how little the racing world cares about a group of drivers who were remarkable for their achievements regardless of their gender.  As a work of literature it is poor, yet it kept me interested and engaged throughout.

Click here for an interesting article on early motoring from Sunday Times