Sunday, January 20, 2008

Edward Bond's THE SEA ... and memory

Edward Bond's THE SEA is being revived at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. I first saw his work as a sixteen year-old, a production of SAVED in which a baby was battered to death in a pram in a Leicester Haymarket studio production, and came away so affected that the police pulled my moped in on the journey home for going through a red light.
THE SEA has long been a favourite play of mine. My personal 'truth' of Shakespeare is that he explores the nature of growing up on an island, and needing to break free of its shores in order to lose native prejudices. Our island, our 'Albion', is viewed as a stage which is used as a metaphor for all of life ... 'all the world's a stage'. Such characters as Cordelia are true to themselves and so are forced into exile, and returning to these shores and straitened human values means they die. Lear too dies, howling on the shore, yearning to escape. Blind Gloucester marches toward a cliff, longing to step from the island and out of his life. I explore such island themes in my own writings, and Bond's THE SEA is our best exploration 20th century of it. (It's quite telling that Bond also reworked King Lear, as his LEAR.) So I jumped to Saturday's performance (watch out for the 35 pound seats on the front row of the upper circle, from where you can't see a thing unless you grab the rail and lean over the balcony). The performance is in previews it seems and is still coming up to speed. David Haig is the highlight, terrific as Hatch, the mad draper. Eileen Atkins somehow lags behind the pace as Mrs Raffi, remembering the lines and striking the attitudes but hardly commanding.
I studied the play years ago. Had I read it so well that I remembered a wondrous production? I was beginning to think so, till my sister reminded me we had seen Judi Dench play the splendid Mrs Raffi role. That was in a Sam Mendes 1990 production at the National Theatre, so 18 years ago. 18 years seems to render me forgetful but that's maybe not so drastic since it's a lifetime for some - today was the family celebration of my nephew Max's 18th birthday.
I best remember the play for two great characters and three great scenes (the rehearsing of an amateur dramatic production; the draper flashing shears around rolls of cloth; the magnificent scattering of the ashes as hymns are played by the shore). The long speech of the hermit Evens at the end, fine as it is, rather knocks the dramatic stuffing out of the piece. Evens knows what he says may sound grand but amounts to nothing more than a hill of beans, and the production snaps shut as our putative young lovers make plans for running away.

I remembered not much liking the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. I tried years ago, but the humour passed me by. I also have an old aversion to fiction that purports to be a character's autobiography. It seems along with forgetting memories of play productions, I should shove aside all my old prejudices. I've just finished Robertson Davies's Fifth Business, a fictional autobiography that begins his Deptford Trilogy. It is terrific, lusciously written, smartly paced, nimbly structured and stocked with terrific characters, and laced with pages of intriguing viewpoints. I particularly enjoyed a young business tyro's appreciation of Jesus, recounting the saviour's life story to prove him a man born to great wealth preaching an economic message.

It's been quite a cultural weekend. Friday night took in the opening Judith Weir event at the Barbican, the latest in their weekends given to contemporary composers. Last year's was a revelation, with the work of Sofia Gubaidulina. Judith Weir sadly fell short of that mark. She seems to write in the school of Malcolm Arnold, way too many notes and noise as though chasing a film score. She sets Taoist texts, but could do with slowing down, opening up, and letting a little silence illuminate her work. Her pieces wilt at the end, scuttling off into silence as though exhausted.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Some wisdom of J. S. Haldane

I've just spotted a few notes on Haldane at the side of my desk, taken from a talk he gave to Staffordshire Mining Students in 1921 (found in the National Library of Scotland and not included in my Suffer & Survive). They offer a fine taste of the man, and as snatches of wisdom go there's ample room for them in our twenty-first century:

"We live and exist, not as mere individuals who endure for a short time and then perish, but also as identified with the lives, suffering, struggles and aspirations of our fellow men."

"God is with us everywhere, and often nearest to those who are furthest from religion and churches. It is in single-hearted devotion top any kind of work which takes us beyond our individual selves that the vision of God appears to us."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


My favourite 'Bushism' has the remarkable GW saying, "The trouble with the French is that they have no word for entrepreneur."
That fostered a long-running family joke; eg 'The trouble with the French is they have no word for menu / restaurant / bon mot' etc.
Last night I tried the word out in its English context, joining session one of ten of an entrepreneurs' workshop here at Plymouth University. I walked into an eager room of 24 people keen on starting up a business, and noted I was twenty plus years older than most of them. I guess I'll never learn when to stop starting over.
The big idea? I know of too many wonderful books that are too edgy to get through the commercial publishing system. Times myself a book has found favour with editors and managing directors even, only for some marketing director to spike it, corporate culture having a stranglehold on 'raw' talent in that edgy sense of 'raw'. James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, D.H.Lawrence, so much of our canon came into being because some spunky little independent dared get behind them. So I aim to set up a publishing house to bring great yet edgy books through to readers, using the best of viral marketing, new publishing techniques etc.
First, I realize, I need to establish my own 'elevator pitch', my one-minute sales job when I've trapped someone in a lift (last night's session was on networking skills). Then on to marketing next week, led by a guy who spins the perfume elements of washing powders. Walking home I thought, 'Why bother? You've got your writing career and teaching career, who needs another one?'
Then I thought of the writers with great books who can't get them out, and who wilt through lack of validation. I thought of the readers (me included) who thrill to the margins of life conjured through great writing, who know life comes in more vibrant ways than is usually packaged for us, but struggle to find those books in the regular imprints. I do know we need this publishing house of mine.
SO I'll be back at my entrepreneurs' course next Tuesday night, and see if 2008 can be the year in which this long-held dream takes shape. More anon.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Genocides and the cheeriness of scifi

Happy New Year ...

I've started in apocalyptic mode. Novels can seem tame and bloated. What about a brisk one, aliens farming the earth, the last remaining humans delving down through the root system of plants that have displaced all other life forms? It's Thomas M. Disch's The Genocides. At 3am I was awake and realizing this was not the time to grade papers fairly, so read through to Genocides' end. Grand stuff.

Disch is a fine guide to the world of scifi - especially in his The Dreams our Stuff is made of. This is fine writing.

The Guardian has a blog up just now considering the non-role take my scifi in the critical realm. It considers Alfred Bester's THE DEMOLISHED MAN, a superb novel, and one of my best-ever audio reads. I grew up on a diet of John Wyndham, and like it when my writing shoots off in scifi directions ... sadly too scifi for the mainstream and not genre enough for scifi editors as it happens, who each recommend me to the other in a dispiriting cycle. The scifi sections of bookstores often leave me cold ... but the secondhand stores scifi sections nearly always deliver a gem, often classic work from the fifties. New work does seem bloated by comparison, meeting the commercial need for 80,000+ words.

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