Sunday, October 25, 2009

Opera and small things



Years ago I was invited into the metal postal carriage of a train speeding from Turin to Vercelli. The postal worker sprang into full operatic voice (out to wow the two young women travelling with me). Verdi and Puccini in a postal carriage was opera at some of its most fabulous and thrilling.
When I lived in Scotland, and later worked for Scottish Opera (part of a touring troupe getting schoolkids to perform), I always headed to performances of Scottish Opera-Go-Round, singers plus a piano in the confines of Scotland's village halls. The acting was vivid, the power of the singing utterly intense in the narrow confines.
I've seen three opera productions these past weeks. Ligeti's La Grande Macabre at English National Opera, Janacek's The Adventures of Mr Broucek by Opera North in Leeds, and Les Arts Florissant's Dido and Aeneas.
One joy of seeing an opera for the first time is to have dramatic sense made of music I'm familiar with. Both the Janacek and Ligeti were entirely new to me - in effect, my own world premieres. The music was good, the singing fine, the choruses and the thrilling brass of Janacek's orchestrations particular highpoints. La Grande Macabre included a vast kneeling woman, singers reeling from her orifices, lighting and projection effects rendering remarkable transformations of her body. With Janacek we watched Mr Broucek visit the moon, and travel through sewers into 14th century Prague.
Yet in staging terms, Dido and Aeneas pleased me most. It was semi-staged, 'the best parts' of a Deborah Warner production. I tend to avoid shows she's directed - women bent at angles steeped in gloom - but loved this production. A uniformly wonderful cast, William Christie directing the orchestra from behind the singers, and seeing the show made sense of a work I have known for decades. It terrified me to realize what malignant magic is at work in the show. And as Dido died with her lament, and I sat just five feet away, I stored up real grief. My face was wet with tears as I applauded.
It was all so simple - singers relating to each other, and superb music. I kept finding in the bigger shows that the action was distracting me from the beauty of what was there to be heard.
One more lesson in the primacy of keeping it simple.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Prof Denny Mitchison - and the Haldane gene at work

Writing my biography of J.S.Haldane, I waited a fair while before contacting the living relatives. A sounder game is to rush in there early, while their health holds good, but it seems there's no need of that with the Haldane clan. Denny Mitchison has just been featured in The Guardian as the world's oldest working professor, at 90
When I arrived for our interview, he and his wife were just leaving the house for a regular route along the edge of Richmond Park. I marched off with them. Beside the memories (Denny grew up in his grandfather's house and practised his early science in the Haldane home laboratory at Cherwell in Oxford, now the site of Wolfson College), what was special for me was catching that twinkle in his eye, seeing signs of the grandfather stil vital in the man.
His wife speculated that Professor Denny's groundbreaking research into TB stemmed from his experience of his brother's death - which fitted in neatly with my speculation about J.S.Haldane, who moved to a career in medicine and lung specialism after witnessing his own beloved brother's death from diphtheria.
Denny was having nothing to do with the coincidence. Fair enugh. I still follow Haldane's dictum, that nothing can be truly seen outside of its environment.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

John Daido Loori Roshi


Four weeks ago I was visiting with John Daido Loori Roshi in his abbot's home, at the end of a trail through the woods that leads from the Zen Mountain Monastery he established in upstate New York. He was very sick, but graced me with an interview in which he gave remarkably lucid teachings. I asked him about his sense of his teacher Maezumi Roshi's presence after his death, and he said how he felt him to be present every day. 'He is in the air now.'
Daido Roshi passed away yesterday, 9th October. His center has posted some fine pages of tribute. I trust that his community continues to find their Daido Roshi 'in the air' for them.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Conor O'Callaghan and Robert Gray


Last night was a cheery launch of the Philip Larkin Centre's Autumn programme, my first at the helm. Wine flowed freely as we made a social occasion of it, welcoming folk to the new year on campus.
Conor O'Callaghan, over from Ireland by way of Manchester, spoke to my Creative Writing MA students before the reading. Adlestrop by Edward Thomas was his choice of a formative poem to lead us through, conjuring its hidden background (the poem set in June 1914, written from wartime a year later). As Conor works to break the tyranny of the poetic line, hidden elements give his own work structure: a poem without the use of the letter 'l', to keep its liquid nature out of a tone that invokes dryness; the visual play of the X in 'an Xmas present', being the ribbon on the present and the box itself.
His reading was playful and wry. I laughed at the quiet start: 'I'm going to read for three and a half hours.' A very engaging opening act for the series.
And then Robert Gray (on a world tour from Australia: yesterday Berlin, today Hull, tomorrow Edinburgh), looking like a leaner Alan Bennett but with a fuller crop of blond hair, with a couple of narrative poems (the wanderings of a Chinese monk focused on writing; the twistings and abstract wisdoms of his mother's Alzheimer's) wrapped around a bawdy limerick.
Robert's recent memoir featured his friendship with Patrick White, perhaps my own all-time favourite novelist, so my mentioning meant we hit it off well from the start. Patrick White joined other esoterica that bound us over the post-reading dinner: Dogen and Soto Zen; Arunachala and sacred mountains; the town of Gloucester in New South Wales; Carlos Castaneda etc. It's fun when those secret references all connect.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

Hilary Mantel and 'Wolf Hall'


This has been my summer of reading Hilary Mantel. I have long loved her writing without thoroughly appreciating the extent of her oeuvre (ie that she got started before I did). A favourite among all novels till now has been her Beyond Black. Showbiz mediums are a staple of British culture even though English Literature might tend to deride such beings. The psychic in Beyond Black, and her brittle sidekick, are wondrously real creations.
Her essays in the London Review of Books are a staple of my life-writing teaching. If you want to learn to write, any Hilary Mantel page has loads to feed you. I like, for example, to show how narrative drive is maintained by varying the openings of sentences from the basic subject + word + object structure, and nobody illustrates this better. I marvel at the wit and precision with which she introduces characters. An example? Ok - here's Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall. 'When he is admitted she is pacing, hands clasped, and she looks small and tense, as if someone has knitted her and drawn the stitches too tight.' It's a perfect image, and the idea of someone knitting a queen - delicious.
My summer reading started with The Place of Greater Safety, a monumental novel of the French Revolution that saw me through two train rides the length of France and a couple of weeks' writing retreat. This was her first written novel, quite brazenly bold.
My reading's been spurred through Hilary Mantel coming to be a guest at the Philip Larkin Centre here in Hull on December 9th, the crowning of my first events programme. She was my first 'pick', the writer who seems the best that I can present to any audience. The aim is for writers to be 'in conversation' about writing and their career rather than simply pitching their latest book, though looking at the publishers' lists her latest,Wolf Hall, was my best guess at a Booker winner. (For a model short essay, try Hilary Mantel's account of being Booker shortlisted.)
I finished Wolf Hall last night. It is a truly vital recreation of a Tudor world, one you step into and live yourself. Her characters shift, enemies are to be both vilified and admired, heroes to be marvelled at and damned, but Thomas Cromwell sails through triumph and disaster with as much gusto as anyone in fiction. Mantel's dialogue is so fine she's often been tempted in the past to switch novels into playscript mode for a while. None of that here - much is still told through story, but this mammoth novel is under thorough and complete control.
Sometimes the Booker goes to a novel that is an early foothill in a writer's career, even if it is the height. Wolf Hall is a mighty summit. The announcement is tomorrow. Let it win!

Later ... and it DID win! Hooray!
Here's a delightful video of Hilary Mantel reading from, and discussing, Wolf Hall. A taster for anyone caring to come along to Hull University to engage in our Philip Larkin Centre conversation on December 9th!

Friday, October 02, 2009

China at 60


China's celebrating 60 years of Communist rule, the radio tells me as I awake.
Surely not? I counted back. I was in the stands on Tien an Men Square, Deng Xiao Peng over to my right, for the 35th anniversary celebrations in 1984. It seemed like witnessing history at the time. Now I learn 25 years have passed, which makes me feel like a historical figure myself.
I was teaching at Beijing Forestry College at the time, a government backed programme which got me my prime invitation. The day was astonishing, a half million march past in the daytime stacked with military hardware and goosestepping soldiers. Then in the evening half a million people danced in unison, their bodies forming shifting patterns across the square, before we all gazed up into a nighttime ablaze with fireworks that made little kids of us it was so sustained and wondrous.
That was a Beijing of bicycles rather than cars, most without lights so a body of bikers moved at night like a whale pushing through blackness. The country was heaving itself toward 'progress'. The current smog cleared for the 60th anniversary procession, I heard, and the day shone bright. I'm glad. We all need good days to remember.