Thursday, July 26, 2007
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Advice to aspiring writers. A speech at the awards ceremony for the Libros International Children’s Writing Competition. 20 July 2007
Sunday, July 15, 2007
An orchestral concert 14 July 2007, Festival – Nits de la Mediterrania, La Nucia - Twentieth Century Ballets
Saturday, July 14, 2007
Friday, July 13, 2007
Just occasionally – in fact pretty rarely these days – something utterly surprising emerges from an evening in a concert hall. Almost forty years into an interest in music which has focused on every style of western music from Gothic to minimalism (perhaps not such a great leap!), real surprises are now quite rare and often come about on hearing a work by a young composer, someone just starting to seek a voice. But Xavier Montsalvatge died aged ninety in 2002 after a lifetime longer than most as an active composer, but few outside his native Catalunya were then familiar with his music. Since moving to Spain I have actively sought programmes that featured his increasingly popular output and have been impressed with the eclecticism of his style, usually neo-classical, but often laced with popular tunes, folk song and jazz, and sometimes even giving more than a hint of Bartokian toughness. But nothing from the piano works and pieces for strings I have heard up to now could have prepared me for the experience that was Montsalvatge’s opera, El Gato con Botas, Puss in Boots.
Obviously an opera for children and with a text by Charles Perrault which faithfully follows the familiar pantomime version of the tale, we know from the first rhythmic string figures, with their shifting harmonies and ambiguous keys, that we are to experience a work which exists simultaneously on different levels, similar in some ways to Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen, but lighter in its touch, a Miro to Janacek’s Dadd.
The work lasts just an hour and has five scenes. In the first our Puss is lazing on a cushion in front of the television, occasionally offering her skin-tight costume with its hanging baubles in languorous lines to the audience. The children were captivated from first to last, mesmerised by this wonderful engaging character, elegantly and excitingly portrayed and sung by Marisa Martins. Older members of the audience might have had other things in mind, such is the nature of pantomime. It is in this first scene that her new sequinned, high heeled and pointed boots are presented, along with a cloak to emphasise her pinkness. The king and princess lament the state of the kingdom. Apparently it’s a boring life when there are no wars or civil strife. Neither are there husbands, it seems. Puss with boots appears and is hired. The miller, a suitor for the king’s daughter, strips to his shorts and takes a swim in the river and immediately gets into difficulty. Puss summons her trusty white rabbits who, until now have balletically moved props and rearranged the kindergarten’s alphabetic furniture. They don snorkels and goggles and rescue the lad. The king is overjoyed and the princess’s eyes are seen to bulge a little. And then the ogre appears to rough things up a bit. In his lair, he laments the fact that the high life might have rendered his nose the colour of an aubergine. Puss sorts everything out, of course, whimsically avoiding the lion into which he transforms himself, then wooing the canary which is his next trick and finally, of course, dealing (offstage) with the radio-controlled orange mouse which was the form she requested him to take. Are all ogres that stupid? Anyway there’s a wedding and clearly all live happily ever after, including Puss who gets her television back.
So that’s the story. It’s pantomime, but it is superbly done and it’s filled with wonderful imagery. Marisa Martins as the Puss is quite outstanding in the role. She has a dancer’s use of the body alongside coquettish expressions and interpretive gestures which seem to draw the music rather than follow it. And she also has that unmistakable talent to sing beautifully and act apparently effortlessly at the same time. Enric Martinez-Castignani as the king gives an excellent portrayal of a bumbling idiot whose deafness perhaps hides his wisdom. Miguel Zapater as the ogre is outstanding. He becomes a real pantomime character who admits he has had a few too many glasses of wine. Maria Luz Matrinez as the princess carries off the apparent naiveté of the character with aplomb and her voice shines in a role that has to bear the sledgehammer imagery of a wedding dress of pure white hung with bright red balls. How’s that for subtlety! And if David Menendez had stripped down to his swimming trunks to take his dip in the river in an older-style opera house, no doubt a section of the audience would have called for a diversion of the glasses otherwise permanently trained on Pussy’s pinkness. His playing of the role was a superb blend of clown and suitor and his singing was excellent.
But underpinning all of this was the music, which was brilliantly expressive, a deceptively simple yet eclectic mix of recitative, full orchestra and inventive ensembles. The trombone and tuba figures that accompanied the ogre were a touch of genius. The recitatives were superbly cast as not quite Mozartian, whilst the neo-classicism was always delving into interesting harmonic shifts. And there was always the hint of a cat’s paw flick in the strings to allow Puss to draw us all in with that playful flick of the hand and wrist. In the pit the World Youth Orchestra played flawlessly and Josep Vincent, who is surely one of the brightest and most accomplished of young conductors, is surely destined for global recognition.
This was music and performance of the very highest standard – and all happening in this increasingly sophisticated little town of La Nucia, just outside Benidorm. What a wonderful place to live!
This is not a review of Losing Nelson or England, England, or a record of visits to Chester. As the title claims, it’s a reflection, a few observations on culture and identity seen through Englishness. The trips to Chester are offered by the way, as a start and a finish.
I don’t recall the year when my dad’s Electricity Board Sports Club decided on Chester as its destination for the kids’ outing. I do remember many of those annual events vividly, however, perhaps because of the unearthly hour at which we had to set off. Britain had no motorways then and dual carriageways were rare. Roads went through town centres, the concept of the by-pass having just reached the drawing board – at least in the north – and adults could still smoke on the bus, despite the fact that potted meat sandwiches were probably being consumed in the next seat. The sandwich filling has a bearing on the tale, since the price of the trip included a packed lunch, usually passed around in bulk, the sandwiches cut in triangles, not the rectangles of home, and set in Toblerone ranges on a teacloth-draped tray. There was an apple or an orange, perhaps, to finish. I don’t know why I didn’t like potted meat, but I can remember persuading my mother to do me a round of bacon sandwiches as an adjunct to the standard fare. Perhaps I was just being greedy, but they did come in handy, if in a rather unexpected way. I can remember visiting Chester’s historic town centre, all those half-timbered buildings provoking discussions about the Tudors, who they were, how they fit into history, who came before and who followed. The predecessors interested all of us on the trip, because we were from Yorkshire and we could never accept that the Lancastrians had won the war. At least we were in Cheshire! And then there were the city’s Roman origins to consider, leading to my learning my first Latin word when we were told that Chester was but a corruption of “castra”, Latin for camp (the military variety).
And so to the zoo. Yes, there were real zoos in those days. I was a fan of Zoo Time on TV, where Dr Desmond Morris, before his higher primate fame, did live experiments with chimpanzees and rewards, all encased in a Prokofiev theme tune. At Chester I remember I liked the sea lions, found the camels oppressively smelly and learnt that elephants really like cold bacon sandwiches.
When an infant, I used to wiggle the ridges off my candlewick bedspread. I don’t know whether it was a search for solace in the tactile, but it used to exasperate my mother, because I used to pick things into holes. Charles Cleasby, the Horatio Nelson worshipping main character of Barry Unsworth’s Losing Nelson, often sleeps under a holed and worn blanket of his mother’s whenever he needs reassurance. It’s a covering of peace for him, a way of shutting out the complications of the world and operates physically in the same way that his need to wrap himself in the myth of Nelson protects him mentally. Thus he is perhaps more a worshipper than a scholar. But the myth has become part of his psyche, part of his identity. Nelson’s greatness, Nelson’s genius, are parts of the nation’s greatness and genius and thus, by association, part of Cleasby’s own moral and personal identity. But, wanting to find out more, Cleasby researches Nelson’s history, expecting to confirm greatness and therefore bolster myth. To his increasing dismay and reluctantly admitted disbelief, what he uncovers are the complications of history, the messy realities of war and the personal limitations of the historical figure, who is often revealed as less than competent, certainly less than diplomatic, but also, and more importantly, as a self-seeking, ruthless individual, certainly not a team player. The myth dissolves little by little and so does Charles Cleasby’s hold on reality. As Nelson loses his mythical status, Cleasby’s world simply falls apart. He is no longer able to interpret experience nor relate to his surroundings. The blanket cocoon offered by myth generates an intellectual and mental solace that can both justify and reinforce identity and, once the protecting wrap has been holed for Charles, at least and perhaps for a nation, it is identity itself that is challenged. Losing Nelson is a serious and moving study of the essential role of myth in defining identity and creating psyche, citing its power and its limitations, these derived from its essence of simply being myth.
In England, England, Julian Barnes inhabits similar territory, but humorously. One character lists quintessences (there are more than five) of Englishness and many, perhaps most, are myth, by nature or association. And the purpose of identifying these icons of Englishness is to facilitate the construction, by Sir Jack Pitman on an eventually independent Isle of Wight, of an England Theme Park, packed with imitation and reproduction experience, collected together to take the strain out of tourism. Theme Park England becomes, itself, the quintessence (just one) of corporate identity and presence, with the products on offer being seen and marketed as “better” than the originals. It’s all a great success until, that is, the imitations begin to adopt their assigned identities. Smugglers become a problem when they start smuggling. Dr. Samuel Johnson changes his name to – guess what? – Dr. Samuel Johnson and begins emulating the behaviour of the historical figure, along with a few of his own improvisations for added effect. The King thinks he’s a king and Robin Hood and his Merrie Men yearn to be real outlaws. They are all in breach of contract. Through humour, the book asks questions about what is essential in national personal identity. The project identifies myths and reproduces them as second order experience which themselves become as capable of fulfilling the role of identity creation, definition and perpetuation as the real thing. So, by extension, the book questions how we create, assume and sustain cultures and their associated values.
The existence of myth and its potential to influence identity and culture are highly relevant to my second day out in Chester. This time as an adult I revisited the half timbering and Roman roots, the zoo having been transformed by changed notions of the animal. And a new reality asserted itself, redrafting the assumed permanence of my childhood memories. Unbeknown to the child, the half-timbering is largely nineteenth century reproduction and imitation. If it prompts discussion on Tudor England, it does so only by assumed association learned elsewhere. And the extant Roman elements of Chester are miniscule, reduced to a few piles of stone. The town’s official guide book, which I bought to help interpret the visit, pictured a Roman Centurion on its cover. He carried a shield with the words “Tetley Bitterman” emblazoned where one might have expected “SPQR”. At the end of the visit a myth I hade grown up with had been largely exploded. The history, itself, is not the myth. It’s the evidence that’s claimed on its behalf that is the problem. No wonder Sir Jack’s Theme Park attractions were as good as the real thing when the original was originally a theme park. The myth may survive the reality, I suppose, if the individual still wants to believe it. And, by the way, I have never managed to ask elephants if they really do like cold bacon sandwiches.View this book on amazon Losing Nelson England, England
For about 34 years I have kept a commonplace book. It’s not a diary, not a place to record mundane reactions to the prosaic, but a kind of mental scrapbook where raw snippets of interest are jotted to be, perhaps, reworked later. When I was asked to contribute to the school’s history, I thought I would have a rich vein to mine.
I spent 11 years in the school, starting in 1976. I taught maths and computer studies, as it was then called. I was the rogue who drilled through the walls of the school one summer holiday to install a kilometre of coaxial cable to network the whole building at a time when IT teachers coveted their empires. Jack Cates, the school keeper, turned a blind eye or two as each day I arrived brandishing an 18-inch drill bit. And so we had a computer network based in the library, but linked to several other classrooms. My efforts were undermined by a talented student who wrote a BASIC program that mimicked the 480Z start-up screen and then issued witty but bogus error messages when you tried to log on. It fooled all of us for weeks.
But back to my archive. What was amazing was to realise that over the 11 years I worked there, the school appeared in my notes only half a dozen times. A student asked what Ethiopia had to do with Hitler because he had heard people say, “Heill Isolase!” I was reading Bertrand Russell one day when a student asked me what it was. I read him a short passage and his answer was, “Is that in English, sir?” The fire, which removed the roof of the old building and sent the maths department into a wandering exile for a year, happened during a half term holiday late in 1982. And then there was the whole school re-discovery week-end with Rod Usher and Douglas Hamblin. I’m sure it did some good.
But it’s not the events that count; it’s the people. I have not lived in Britain for 15 years and not worked in Balham for 20. And yet, on a recent visit, I met one of my personal tutees in a building society queue. One of my A level maths students was sitting in an Indian take-away when I went for my chana aloo and chapati. And another tutee was on the tills in the supermarket. The last of these was still as small and slight as she was at thirteen, but she reminded me that she is in her forties now.
But two characters in particular stir memories, Richard Simmons and Kathleen Collyer. The latter, always known as Mrs. Collyer, was the lady who did the staff refreshments. She used to line up the rolls – soft or hard, ham or cheese – on ranks of pale green plates on the staffroom bar. The hot water urn had to be filled and turned on at precisely 9:30 each morning. Failure to do so would receive Mrs. Collyer’s continued recrimination for about a month after her arrival at 10. So important was this “switching on” task that a member of the staff association committee was assigned each term with the job of checking that it had been done. Woe betide a slacker! A levels to invigilate? Half a mo, I have to dash and switch on the urn first.
Mrs. Collyer’s hard rolls were inedible unless you flattened them, an act which would cause most of the upper crust to disintegrate into a pale brown snowstorm of flakes, with an associated, if dull crunch. Fred Morley’s dog, which always accompanied him wherever he went, including into class, used to lick them off the carpet whilst his master waited for his tea. And Mrs. Collyer also greeted everyone by name, often wrongly, as they ordered, so we had staff members called Tingly, Hildebrick, Car, Candy and one day, I swear it, we had a Mr. Gonad.
And then came the frightful day of “the decision”. I can still remember the sense of trepidation that suffused through the members of the staff association when the words, “Action: Ask Mrs. Collyer if we can have salad in the rolls” were written into the minutes. Who would undertake such a mission? And would they survive? Well, we got the salad, but it took Mrs. Collyer years to get used to the idea. Her words, “Oh, so they want salad in their rolls now” became a catch phrase amongst the staff and was employed to refer to any obviously impossible task, of which in our school there were always many, or so it seemed. But she was always there and she always delivered.
And so to Richard Simmons, the Media Resources Officer whose centrally-located den was very much the hub of the school. He was a “guaranteed-to-break-the-ice-at-parties” “can-do” scuba-diving jazz musician who kept spirits up with his manner and wit. But one day his enthusiasm got the better of him and he accepted a bet that he could and would jump off the back of the Thames pleasure boat that the staff association had rented for the end of term do. Yes, he did it. The police were called. The pleasure boat did boring circles for an hour looking for him. The police launch ran aground off Barnes Reach and had to be towed off the bank. Frank Thorn, marooned on board, was embarrassed beyond recall and didn’t speak to any of the staff association committee for months.
But what happened to Richard? Well, he swam ashore and, resplendent in only socks and underpants, padded up the mud to a landfall in Hammersmith. It was a fair way back to Balham, where he had left the car and where, if lucky, he might be reunited with his clothes. In such a predicament, in socks and underpants, wet though and covered in mud, what might one do in Hammersmith, or Putney, for that matter, to avoid unwanted attention or even arrest? Answer – jog. Naked, wet and dirty? Just jog and the world will ignore you. Again Richard was ever present and gave his all to the school.
And I have hardly mentioned the students, the thousands of them that passed by in those eleven years. But I remember many of them clearly and when I meet them along Balham High Road I can still put a name to a face. I hope, as I do so, that I have contributed just a little, as an educator, to their well being, their memories, their jogging, their salad.
Philip Spires Author of “Mission” http://www.philipspires.co.uk