Friday, 20 November 2015

Judi Dench shines in a disappointing Winter's Tale

Judi Dench – a Shakespearean masterclass
The Winter’s Tale might not be one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, but it holds a very special place in my personal canon.

As an A’ level text, it became as familiar as a lover. And in 1982, our English teacher at Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School took our class to Stratford to see the RSC perform it on stage.

The cast included Gemma Jones – who I knew from BBC’s The Duchess of Duke Street – Sheila Hancock and one Patrick Stewart, who was an associate artist with the company, but relatively unknown beyond that sphere.

Thinking back inn the last couple of weeks, I’ve realised just what a seminal piece of theatre it was for me. It was the first time that I had seen a straight play and been left jaw-on-floor shattered, tears streaming down my face.

This was as Paulina led Leontes from the stage at the end of what we know as the first part of the play. My god – it was staggering!

And it was the moment I decided that Patrick Stewart was a personal god. He turned in an absolutely superb performance. Even now, over 30 years later, I can still close my eyes and see parts of that production in my mental movie house.

At various drama school and polytechnic auditions, I’d used one of Paulina’s big speeches as my classical offering.

A few short years later, I was in a very high-quality non-pro production – as Dorcas, one of the shepherdesses. These were the days when I was cast quite regularly as some variation or other of a tart with a heart of gold (or not).

But since then, I have not seen a production.

So when it was announced, last spring, that Kenneth Branagh’s new company would open a year-long residency at The Garrick with just this play, I leapt into ticket-buying mode.

The added bonuses were that I’d never seen Sir Ken live, so would rectify that, while Judi Dench was slated to play Paulina.

Memory is a fascinating thing.

I was astonished at how much huge chunks of the script has such a deep sense of familiarity as it was spoken.

Christopher Oram’s design is very good – simple staging, with an early 20th century look.

But some of the acting was odd to say the least – very shouty. And into that category comes Branagh, in a performance that never caught the melodic beauty of the Bard’s verse, but is broken and staccato.

Was this Leontes done Method style? I don’t know the answer, but it was disappointing.

Not that he was alone: Polixenes (Hadley Fraser) and Florizel (Tom Bateman in an eternally thankless role) were shouty too, adding to the sense that this was a directorial decision.

Which is a shame on many levels.

The pastoral scenes – and getting the correct balance and pace between the bookending scenes in Sicily and the those in Bohemia is not easy – seemed somewhat hysterically played, with Mopsa and Dorcas, for instance, engaged in a really rather OTT cat fight.

Thank the theatrical gods, then, for Dame Judi, who illustrated – once again – just how good she is. Paulina is a gem of a role. Dench didn’t shout: even when she rails at Leontes, her voice never sounds strained.

She conveys sense and great emotional depth, but never, ever without also giving us the poetry – the music – of Shakespeare.

She can flounce with simply an intonation. She can convey power and rage and desperate sadness and irony with the slightest of inflections.

In all the ‘national treasure’ stuff, it’s easy to forget just how good – no: how great – Judi Dench really is.

As others seemed flummoxed, she gave us a masterclass. Frankly, her Paulina was worth the ticket price alone.

There were other compensations: Michael Pennington was excellent in the unfortunately rather small role of Antigonus (‘exit, pursued by a bear’), while John Shrapnel turns in a very good Camilo.

Jimmy Yuill has a couple of moments where he rises above the pastoral shtick to convey real tragedy as the shepherd, while Miranda Raison is a dignified Hermione, if rather lacking in any of the sort of guts that I remember of Jones.

Interestingly, at least one critic has praised Branagh’s fall into jealousy. I found it unconvincing. More than three decades after seeing that Stratford production, I remember Stewart’s descent starting with him joking about Polixines and Hermione. Then his own joke backfires and the seed of real jealousy takes root.

It’s possible that, in the few days between the late preview I saw and the opening night the playing was vastly improved, but I find that difficult to believe.

Rob Ashford is co-director with Branagh and perhaps here lies the heart of the problems: with one director on stage and one off, confusion was always a possibility.

So it’s a sadly unsatisfactory evening – except for a true great who can still light up a theatre. 

Thursday, 27 August 2015

The books are sorted

Every year it’s the same: as the beach hoves into view, there’s a tower of books somewhere in the flat that, like a form of literary jenga, has items removed and others added as the days pass.

This is the holiday reading list and the compilation of it has become a tradition.

There are people who look askance at me and ask why on earth I don’t read on some form of electronic device and thus remove the need to carry books at all.

There are a number of reasons – including my lack of interest in exposing electronic gadgets to the sea, salt, sand etc.

There’s the point that, while I am far from being a luddite when it comes to technology and while I do have a tablet, I actually like books – not just for what they hold within their pages, but for the sheer physical feel and smell and look of them.

And it is most certainly true that, since I spend most of my working days in front of a computer screen, not to spend recreational time reading on another screen!

This year’s reading list is topped – or bottomed, given how the pile is currently constructed – by a collection of the translated works of Spanish poet Antonio Machado.

Machado had to flee Franco’s fascists and made his way over the border into southern France, where he died in Collioure. He was buried in the village cemetery.

It seems like the time to get to grips with such a figure.

Next up, was going to have been Stephen King’s Under the Dome, an 880-page epic.

I ‘discovered’ King back in the early to mid-’80s: I’d injured my back at polytechnic as a result of the actions of someone running a ‘voluntary’ workshop, and some months later been thrown off the course after my family GP signed me off for a week extra at Easter because of the state I was in.

Over the next year or so, I found I could barely read. I’d pick up a book – sometimes something new, sometimes an old favourite – but could rarely get more than a few pages in.

One day, I was browsing a little local bookshop in Lancaster, when I came across some of King’s novels.

I don’t think I’d ever read any horror before – and if you’d asked at the time, I suspect I would have declared that it didn’t appeal to me. But something made me pull Christine off the shelf and decide to buy it.

It was finished in days. The Stand followed. And many more.

When I need a reading boost, I still turn to King.

Last year, I’d had such a need and had bought myself Revival, which I enjoyed. As a result, my parents decided to get me Under the Dome for Christmas. For various reasons, I only got my hands on it just under a fortnight ago – and thought how apt that timing was, as it would make marvelous holiday reading.

It won’t be seeing Collioure.

A couple of days later, going through another slow-reading phase, I picked it up. It was finished in eight days – a rollercoaster of a tale. King really is a master storyteller: he makes it seem impossibly simple, but his stories have complexity and great subtlety and they catch a great deal of truth about the condition of being human.

With that now off the list, I’ve picked up Duma Key to give me another dose of King.

Every year, I try to give myself some ‘serious’ literature to read. I’ve been saying for some time that this would be The Year of Proust – except that it won’t. I need easy reading.

With that in mind, Jonathon Meades’s Museum Without Walls has also now fallen off the list.

What are still there are Anno Dracula Cha Cha Cha and Moriarty The Hound of the D’Ubervilles, both by Kim Newman.

I’ve read his first two Dracula books – and thoroughly enjoyed them – so decided to take the third, plus the Moriarty book, which promises more cultural mash-up fun, and already has me thinking of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (The book. Not the film).

The second volume of Paul O’Grady’s autobiography, The Devil Rides Out, is present on the pile, as is John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids.

And then there’s the book I’ve just started, but won’t get anywhere near through before departure later this week.

Back in 1987, I picked up a copy of Frank Herbert’s Dune. I was impressed enough that I bought Dune Messiah, but not impressed by that (I no longer even have it).

On the 50th anniversary of its publication, it seemed the perfect time to give it a re-read – and already I’m seeing and appreciating things I didn’t first time around. It's also possible that the film has managed to remove any sense of the themes of the book from my mind.

Finally, the most recent tome to join the stack is Redemption Ark, the second part of Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space trilogy. I don’t mind a bit of space opera and read the first part a few years ago. Since it’s part of The Other Half’s extensive sci-fi collection, it was an easy pick.

And with just over 24 hours to go, that’s the holiday reading sorted. Perhaps …

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The language of demonisation – and the language of change

Makeshift Ethiopian Orthodox church at Calais migrants' camp
It’s not often that the media has much actual meat to get its teeth into during the annual silly season, but this summer has been an exception.

There has, of course, been the ongoing issue of many thousands of people attempting to flee into Europe from war and poverty.

That some have then made it to Calais, where they have attempted – and are still attempting – to circumvent security and make it to the UK via the Chunnel, however dangerous the journey, has given rise to a particular strand of coverage in the last couple of months.

The lurid, sensationalist language of invasion and of insects – yes, Mr Cameron, I am looking at you, with your use of “swarm” – has again indicated the piss-poor nature of British public and political discourse.

For some in the right-wing media, it brought with it the equally wonderful opportunity to bash the BBC as Auntie filmed an edition of Songs of Praise from a makeshift chapel in the Calais camps where migrants are staying.

Many are the same sort of people who waste no opportunity to intone how ‘we are still a Christian country,’ but either their knowledge of actual Christianity is sadly lacking or they simply don’t mind being steaming hypocrites who have no intention of actually acting and thinking on the basis of that religion.

The idea that showing human compassion – never mind the variety recommended by Jesus (according to the Good Book) – is automatically a synonym for ‘let them all in’ would be ridiculous were it not for the way that it has been taken up by substantial numbers of people who appear incapable of rational thought.

The vicious hate to be seen on newspaper forums, on social media etc about the issue can make you despair. It’s yet another example of how easy the demonisation of ‘others’ is – and it’s a salutary reminder of how what happened in Germany in the 1930s did happen.

Always easier, of course, when many in the population are struggling, have little security and see little hope for improvement.

Anyone claiming that ‘we’ can easily accommodate a few more thousand etc would apparently be oblivious to the reality that, at present, ‘we’ cannot provide work or a home for all those currently in the UK. And see the previous paragraph.

Mass immigration is also problematic in terms of economics quite simply because, in increasing the size of the available labour market, it helps depress wages: there is a reason that the likes of the CBI do not want restrictions on immigration and even persuaded then Conservative leader Michael Howard out of making manifesto pledges on reducing and restricting immigration.

It’s also worth noting that this used to be the mainstream left-wing view on the subject – before that metamorphosed into Tony Blair and his fellow neo-liberals.

And there is a reason that Margaret Thatcher declared New Labour/Blair to be her “greatest achievement”.

The long-term solution to the migrant situation need to be global and need to involve the sort of peace and prosperity for all that will obviate the need or desire for hundreds of thousands of human beings to take great risks to improve their lives or even to survive. Anything else is mere sticking plasters.

Which brings us rather adroitly to the summer’s second media circus – but one where, unlike the issue of would-be migrants, the right-wing media is failing to control the terms of discussion and use it as a means of further controlling the populace.

The Labour Party’s leadership election has seen the astonishing rise of Jeremy Corbyn – “astonishing”, that is, if you dont pay any attention to anything much at all.

In case you missed it, things started getting messy when Corbyn got just enough nominations to be included on the ballot – partly as a result of people nominating him in order to expand the nature of the discussion that would occur during the election process.

In addition to this, the election process has been changed, with people able to register with the Labour Party as a ‘supporter’ for £3, and then vote.

It’s a clunky (to put it politely) mechanism – and unfair on activists who have spent years in the party working for it on a voluntary basis – but the aim, of opening up the process and encouraging engagement, is a valid one.

And it is one that has been achieved.

But now we’ve got the horror of loads of Trotskyist entryists trying to vote (for Corbyn, of course), plus loads of Tories doing the same – as openly encouraged by the Telegraph, in an example of why it’s days as a class newspaper are behind it.

For the latter, the idea is that Corbyn as Labour leader would finish the party for decades.

It’s good to know how much some care about democracy.

The Labour hierarchy is in meltdown, running around like headless chickens, while New Labour grandees such as Blair himself and Peter Voldemort Mandelson warn that it would be the end of life as we know it and they should stop the election itself.

Jackboot Jack Straw has weighed in, and even Charles Clarke has popped up to leave most scratching their heads and wondering who he was.

Blair in particular managed to be particularly snide, asserting that, “if your heart’s with Jeremy Corbyn, get a transplant”.

Packin' 'em in in Middlesbrough
Which, given the way the Islington MP has been packin’ ’em in at rallies across the country, and appears to be gaining support from across the spectrum of age, gender, race etc, is a large number of people requiring radical cardio surgery.

One cannot help but wonder how an NHS that was helped on the path to privatisation by Blair will cope.

Behind all this is the belief that a Labour Party headed by Corbyn cannot not possibly win a general election.

Brits don’t want a lefty – look what happened to Michael Foot etc. Actually, what happened to Foot was that he was doing fine in the polls until Margaret Thatcher had a little war that she was able to garner support from. It has not been known, for years, as the ‘Falklands Factor’ for nothing.

But let’s not allow facts to get in the way, eh?

Various right-wing papers have been trying smears.

Having already spoken to the market trader who sells him his vests (when it was all still funny), and then failed to make allegations of anti-semitism stick, the Daily Mail ran out of material for attempted smears and last week turned to an epic piece of fantasy fiction titled “Prime Minister Corbyn … and the 1,000 days that destroyed Britain”.

Alternative histories are a popular sub-genre: perhaps it’ll be nominated for a Hugo.

So a simple question, folks: if Corbyn is ‘unelectable’, why has the right-wing media suddenly gone from pointing and laughter to desperate attempts to smear?

And why are the neo-liberal Blairites running so scared?

Well, the reasons should be clear to anyone.

The right is perfectly well aware that he could actually win (in an interview with the Huffington Post, Conservative grandee Ken Clarke stated this quite clearly) – because the right knows that people actually want an alternative to the neo-liberal hegemony of the last 30 years and it knows that Corbyn presents the possibility of a Labour Party that offers one.

The general public show no sign of currently wanting a Labour Party that, quite frankly, is little different from the present government.

They are sick of career politicians who are smooth and slick – and never give a straight answer.

Corbyn’s campaign has been gracious and he has refused to stoop to the negative (there has been negativity and nastiness from some supporters on all sides).

His policies – far from being the “hard left” that so many are claiming: in that previously-mentioned interview, Ken Clarke described him as not as left-wing as Foot, and Clarke is no fool – are being welcomed widely.

And given the continuing housing crisis in the UK, who can be surprised that the idea of building more council housing would be welcomed?

Who can be surprised that it’s popular to talk of renationalisation of the railways – just as we learn that rail fares are rising by three times the rate of pay increases?

Corbyn’s economic ideas have received backing from 30-plus economists – and even a blog from the Financial Times that explained that his idea of ‘quantitative easing for the people’ is not actually nonsense and could actually work (nor is it wildly radical).

Even some on the right are noting that, while they might disagree with his ideas, it’s refreshing to see a conviction politician again.

Earlier this year, Scottish voters rejected the idea that austerity is the only way – and dumped a party that had treated the country as a sinecure for years.

The idea that Labour can win an outright majority at a future general election by winning some Conservative votes south of the border, at the same time as not losing more core votes in the heartlands (it also lost an estimated five million core voters between 1997 and 2010) and all the while without winning back Scottish voters, is barking.

The idea that the Ed Miliband election manifesto was too anti-business (as former Chancellor and shadow chancellor Ed Balls claimed at the end of July) and too left-wing to win in May is nonsense.

When Miliband announced the idea of a crackdown on non doms, his and the party’s ratings increased. And promising to tackle corporate tax evasion is not a synonym for being anti-business – or if you think it is, then you have a problem.

The right-wing press got lucky in the spring: they latched onto something that caused swing voters the real horrors: the idea of a coalition between Labour and the SNP. There was a reason that, having once spotted the impact of that message, they hammered it home for the final fortnight of campaigning.

To reiterate: the idea that Labour can win a general election on the basis of winning those same potential swing voters, without returning to winning ways in Scotland, and without losing even more core voters elsewhere, is illogical nonsense – at best.

This is not about saying that Jeremy Corbyn is some sort of messiah: it is about pointing out that people want an alternative to the busted flush of austerity – even the IMF has warned the UK that the cuts are too much – and they do not want a party that is interested only in winning for power’s sake.

They want Labour to be an actual opposition – not limply abstaining on Bills that are set to hurt many thousands of ordinary people. And claiming – as some have – that such things would make Labour just a ‘protest party’ is an avoidance of what ordinary people are facing.

People want alternatives – that’s why smaller parties, from the Greens to UKIP, have been gaining support.

This entire process also suggests the possible end of Blairism in the Labour Party – Liz Kendall, the Blairite candidate for the leadership, was absolutely mullered in the constituency nominations, securing just 18 as opposed to Yvette Cooper’s 109, Andy Burnham’s 111 and Corbyn’s 152.

All this the neo-liberals and right-wing know.

And that is why they’re not laughing at Corbyn any more.

Whether he wins the election or not, he has changed the nature of the debate and triggered a reinvigoration of political discourse reminiscent of what was seen during the Scottish referendum campaign a year ago.

If you like hegemonies, that’s not good.

So, in the remaining days of the campaign, the best that could happen would be for Kendall, Cooper and Burnham to stop condemning Corbyn and his supporters – and to concentrate on suggesting some policies that show that they do believe in something; indeed, that they believe that there is a meaningful alternative to the policies of the current government.

Because, if they do not believe even that simple little thing – then what is the point of their being in opposition?

• For the record, I am not registered to vote in the Labour leadership election and did not apply to do so.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Making sure your diet has gotta lotta bottle

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to have you looking again at your diet and wondering if it’s nurturing you or killing you, then it’s something such as a heart attack in the family.

The Other Half is now attending rehab sessions after his recent Event and these include a weekly talk.

Recently, one on nutrition provided the news that no, locally-produced honey does not render you immune to local pollen. It also included a call for those present to drink more milk, since there’s a risk of an osteoporosis timebomb and they need their calcium.

It’s probably already far more of a problem than most of us realise.

According to Guidelines for diagnosis and management ofosteoporosis (1997) by JA Kanis, P Delmas, P Burckhardt and others, which was published by the European Foundation for Osteoporosis and Bone Disease, in “women over 45 years of age, osteoporosis accounts for more days spent in hospital than many other diseases, including diabetes, myocardial infarction and breast cancer”.

And that’s just women – osteoporosis affects men too.

Of course, the milk-drinking advice included stating that the milk should be skimmed or semi skimmed, and noting that, while calcium can also be found in cheese, you should only to eat a matchbox-sized amount of that in a single day because of the mortal threat of fat.

Look away now – this could be the death of you
Bad luck: today’s lunchtime salad – made at home – included about two Swan Vesta-sized matchboxes worth of feta (together with chick peas, broad beans, sultanas, a little couscous and a ‘dressing’ of plain, Greek-style yogurt).

Having had a small glass of apple juice before leaving home, my breakfast had consisted of a hard-boiled egg, a little poached salmon, some edamame beans and a squirt of teriyaki sauce, with an espresso on the side.

Thank you Itsu: tasty, healthy food, and actually cheaper than the far more conventional breakfast fodder I’ve been having recently.

There was a mid-morning snack of a few dates.

Oh dear – never mind the cheese, am I in danger of eating too much fruit, given how it all sugars?

The point, though, is that my rule-shattering amount of feta for lunch should be considered within a wider context of a fairly healthy diet as a whole.

But back to osteoporosis and calcium intake.

I recall reading, approximately 15 years ago, that women on a  diet had a bone density deficit of 22%.

This should surprise nobody, given that one of the first things that goes out of the window when you start dieting is dairy produce.

And on this subject, let’s take a little look at figures for osteoporosis in France and the UK, since the French notoriously eat more cream, cheese and butter than any other nation on planet Earth.

In 2010, there were approximately 377,000 new fragility fractures in France. The number of people aged 50 plus, with osteoporosis, was approximately 3,480,000.

Bone – healthy and not-so healthy
The economic cost of new and prior fractures was estimated as €4,853m each year and it is further estimated that, by 2025, that figure will have increased to €6,111m.

In 2010 in the UK, there were approximately 536,000 new fragility fractures. The number of people aged 50+ with osteoporosis stood at approximately 3.21m. The economic cost of new and prior fractures was £3,496m (€5,408m) each year; by 2025 burden will increase by 24% to £5,465m (€6,723m).

These statistics are from A Svedbom, E Hernlund, M Ivergard, et al, Osteoporosis in the European Union: A compendium of country-specific reports, 2013.

It’s worth noting that calcium deficiency is not the only cause of osteoporosis, but that alcohol consumption and smoking both also increase bone fragility.

In which case, given levels of smoking and alcohol consumption in France (and given that it has a higher population), the lower number of fragility fractures is even more remarkable.

But then again, the French have not – thus far – lost any sense of a national cuisine; of the traditional and largely seasonal food that has sustained them down the centuries.

We have. We expect asparagus and strawberries in December, and are faced with a dizzying array of culinary styles in shops and restaurants.

And in a way, the culinary snapshot from our recent trip to Rye is indicative of that: poor versions of a ‘national’ dish – fish and chips – cooked on the basis of pre-prepped, largely-frozen ingredients, while local gems such as Cromer crab were noticeable primarily by their absence.

That’s not to say that there is no place for culinary evolution and global influences – or that the French don’t have these (see couscous as an example of the latter), but merely that we have gone to an extreme.

Subject to the whims of British culinary fashion
We fall out of love with genuine British ingredients – and then it takes a celebrity chef to bring them back into fashion. See cooking apples and cauliflowers as but two recent examples.

Sainsburys summer TV advertising campaign, “tigers don’t eat quesadillas”, also illustrates the current climate, starting from the perspective of a family where the children get to say what they will and will not eat.

I know it’s not hip parenting these days, but what was actually wrong with ‘Dinner time! Come and sit down!’ followed by (if required) ‘that’s what’s on the table – if you don’t like it, there’s nothing else’?

The idea of giving small children a choice about what they eat is nonsense: they need to be able to make an educated choice before being given a choice – and that means a food education first.

Nor is that an education where you make pronouncements on what’s good or bad for health. It’s a question of educating the taste buds.

Okay, it’s still probably going to be something of a battle, given the amount of high-processed, industrialised junk around the place for children to be tempted by. And Big Food spends an awful lot of money working out precisely how to get children hooked on that junk, so it’s not an evenly-matched battle: this is classic David and Goliath.

But getting home in the evening and asking your pre-primary school child what they want for dinner – and then responding with “you can’t have dippy chips every night” because they regularly have that because you don’t want to cook a fresh meal after a day at work, is not the answer and not the way to a healthy diet.

And why quesadillas? What’s wrong with a salad? It doesn’t have to be limp, tasteless lettuce and cucumber, with flavourless tomatoes.

Take some broad beans (in season at present). Pod and cook for 3-4 minutes, in unsalted water, depending on size. Allow to cool before popping the little green gems out of their skins.

Hull and halve some strawberries (also in season).

Broad beans. In season now. Yummy
Pop on a plate together with some feta – the natural saltiness of the cheese is a fabulous foil for the beans, and works well with the fruit too.

Dress with some Balsamic vinegar.

If it’s a main meal, have some good bread on the side or a few new potatoes (also in season).

Colourful, tasty and healthy – and not complicated.

The media doesn’t help – producing scare stories about health and further confusion about diet.

I freely admit that I find myself wondering if I’ve got it basically right: am I getting enough calcium, for instance, or do I need to start guzzling a pint of skimmed milk every day?

Indeed, am I really getting it all so badly wrong that today’s second matchbox of cheese will ensure that I won’t live long enough to get osteoporosis?