Category: Activities (page 4 of 37)

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Jekyll and HydeThose long road journeys enabled me to shift from one literary genius to another. I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella  The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde once in my youth, mainly I suspect for its worth as a renowned ‘horror story’. But listening to this re-‘reading’ (by Ian Holm), I realised just how sophisticated the story and how far-sighted Stevenson were. Although popular and with many friends, Dr Jekyll was not, by the standards of contemporary society, a particularly good man and in his testament confesses to his frequent struggle with the strong evil impulses within him. The serum he develops is designed to suppress and veil those impulses, not concentrate them and simultaneously transform him. And, in the end, the impulses are so strong that Jekyll becomes Hyde anyway. The story is part allegory and part an early portrayal of a split personality (or what would now go under the scientific term of ‘dissociative identity disorder’). But surely what also gave the novella its huge initial sales (over 250,000 copies by 1901!) was its raciness. For Hyde goes out on nightly forays, and though the reader learns only about the violent episodes that ultimately occur we are left to understand that the others are evil and lustful. The rest was left, brilliantly, to Victorian gentlemen’s imaginations, which is where the allegory kicks in. Dr Jekyll and his friends may be debonair sophisticates but Stevenson lets us know that they all – Utterson, Enfield, Lanyon – have dark secrets. Thus, the story is not just about the dualism of human nature but also the hypocrisy of Victorian society. It can surely not be by chance that Hyde felt more at ease with himself than Jekyll did, nor that whilst others recoiled from him, he did not recoil from them. In effect, Hyde/Stevenson was holding up a mirror to polite society. To add to the fascination, like Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn, the inspiration and writing of the piece provides a story in itself. This may or may not have involved drugs, but the more mundane explanations of  high fever, a period of enforced rest and convalescence in Bournemouth provide their own charm.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Keep the Aspidistra FlyingI took advantage of several long drives to re-‘read’ George Orwell’s 1936 social commentary, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, very well read by Richard E. Grant. Orwell was later dismissive of this work, describing it as a potboiler written (ironically) for money and declaring himself to be ashamed of it. Yet Norman Mailer – no literary diplomat – described it as being ‘perfect from the first page to the last’. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. As I listened, I wondered at the rich observation and detail, and so was not surprised to discover that the miserable life of the novel’s protagonist, Gordon Comstock, was a thinly-veiled autobiographical portrait of Orwell at a time when he was odd-jobbing (including time at a book shop), living deliberately cheek-by-jowl, and setting off on tramping expeditions as research for his social and political commentary. I wonder what Orwell’s real-life wealthy patron, Sir Richard Rees, thought when he found himself depicted as Comstock’s faithful patron, Ravelston. Though the portrait is a not unsympathetic one, Comstock/Orwell’s resentment about his unearned comfortable living is increasingly fierce. Pace Mailer, the plotting is at times too obvious and the ending sits awkwardly with the dystopian tenor of much of the work. (Nowadays, I suspect Orwell would have let Comstock opt for his principles over his progeny.) But Orwell’s extraordinary descriptive skills are much to the fore and though the vocabulary may be dated the dialogue is very well done. The way Comstock resentfully bites the hands that feed him is particularly convincing. And Orwell’s presentiments of impending war were, alas, all too accurate.

Derek Jarman’s War Requiem

War RequiemThis evening, together with composer friend Nigel Clarke, I watched Derek Jarman’s film, War Requiem, which draws together the music of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and the character and experiences of First World War poet, Wilfred Owen. The old soldier character played by Laurence Olivier, who dovetails the beginning and the end of the film, could safely have been dropped. On the other hand, Tilda Swinton, who plays a young nurse and whose voice we never hear, provides an intensely moving and expressive central performance. Nathaniel Parker is good as Owen, though a shade too polished for a man who swam in the mud of the trenches. Slightly bizarrely (given that I have just watched them both in Game of Thrones playing Lord Eddard Stark and Ser Alliser Thorne respectively), Sean Bean plays a young German soldier engaged in a futile dance of death with a young British soldier, played by Owen Teale. Nigel and I are about to embark on a fresh collaborative project. It will once again involve music and words, but the exciting ambition is to go much further and to involve images and lighting and theatre as well. Of course, this is what Jarman did so brilliantly well with his War Requiem. Jarman also used archival images and footage and the film cleverly switches from the charnel houses of the Western Front’s trenches to other ghastly wars of the past one hundred years. “If in some smothering dreams you too could pace/Behind the wagon that we flung him in,/And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,/ His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;/If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,/Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,/My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory,/The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est/Pro patria mori.”

Langston Moffett

Langston MoffettI have just finished Langston Moffett’s Devil By The Tail. The book is a thinly-disguised autobiographical account of an alcoholic’s decline and ultimate rehabilitation. The book is richly comic but also painfully honest (a modern blurb would say ‘searingly honest’) and so authentic that it became renowned among reforming and reformed alcoholics and was even translated into Italian by three times Nobel-nominated poet Maria Luisa Spaziani. Langston Moffett was the father of my friend and fellow author and writers’ workshop member, Cleve Moffett. Today, Cleve and I had lunch and he reminisced from a child’s point of view about the experiences described in the book. Langston Moffett, himself the son of a well-known playwright and journalist, Cleveland Moffett, ultimately settled in St Augustine, Florida, where he took up painting seriously, becoming part of  a flourishing local artistic community that included his sister, Mary Hackett. His first work was purchased by the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection and he had a one-man show in a New York gallery in 1947. Cleve, his son, has several of his paintings and brought them down for me to see. Moffett’s pictures (I have used one to illustrate this post) clearly owed more than a little to the surrealist movement, but he developed several trade mark traits of his own. Don Quichotte is rarely absent and there are always references to the places where he had once lived (Florence, in this case). Two quotations from his book sum up his art: ‘painting, complete in itself, provided the escape from and the return to reality’; and ‘Thackeray said no man knows what is in his heart until he begins to write. The same is certainly true of painting.’

Military wisdom

soldierI was at a dinner table recently when two Belgians began to reminisce about their time in the Army, doing their military service. They each recounted anecdotes about their sergeants which may well be apocryphal but are well worth repeating here. The first was teaching his charges French (this is Belgium, remember). ‘All plurals in the French language,’ declared the sergeant, end with the letter s.’ One of his pupils put up his hand. ‘Are you sure, sir?’ he asked. ‘What about chou/choux?’ The sergeant thought for a few seconds. ‘You are right,’ he said. ‘All plurals in the French language end with the letter s – with the exception of vegetables.’ The second was teaching his charges science. ‘Water,’ the sergeant declared, ‘boils at 90°.’ One of his pupils put up his hand. ‘Are you sure, sir? I thought it was 100°.’ The sergeant shook his head sorrowfully. ‘Now, now. Just because you’ve been to university. But, all right, I’ll check over the lunch break.’ After the lunch break the class reassembled. ‘You were right,’ admitted the sergeant; ‘water boils at 100°. I was getting confused; it’s a right angle that’s at 90°.’

Anatoly Lyadov

LyadovAt a recent piano teacher’s concert (or, rather, the concert given by his pupils) I discovered Anatoly Lyadov (Russian, 1855-1914) through one of his preludes. I have since gorged on his complete piano works (played by Marco Rapetti) and his complete orchestral works and have thus had the thrill of discovering somebody who, though not himself a front-rank musical figure, was nevertheless an accomplished composer and an artist of great influence, belonging to the so-called ‘Mighty Handful’ of composers (which included Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin) and a teacher of, among others, Prokofiev. In terms of style, Lyadov’s orchestral music is somewhere between Tchaikovsky, Dvorjak and Elgar. (Indeed, his symphonic poem Kikimora is strongly reminiscent of Dvorjak’s New World symphony.) Among other orchestral works, I discovered his tone poem, Baba-Yaga, and thought immediately of Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The two pieces are roughly contemporaneous. Lyadov had his idea in 1894 but didn’t finish it until 1904. Dukas, meanwhile, wrote his piece in 1896-97. Lyadov influenced as much as he was influenced. Here is how James Leonard describes the piece: ‘The archetypal Russian witch, Baba-Yaga is a small, gnomish creature whom Mussorgsky had previously depicted in music in “The Hut on Hen’s Legs” from his Pictures at an Exhibition. Lyadov‘s “Picture from a Russian Folk-Tale” is set for large, late Romantic orchestra with numerous winds, brass, strings, a vast percussion section, and of course, the contrabassoon taking the witch’s part. A pseudo-spooky evocation of the supernatural à la Dukas‘ contemporaneous Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Lyadov‘s Baba-Yaga is clearly the basis of many of Hollywood’s witches, but especially the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz with its shrieks in the woodwinds, its glissandos in the trombones, its chromatic runs in the strings, and its xylophone and bass drum.’

Diplomatic Incidents

Diplomatic IncidentsCherry Denman is the artist wife of a diplomat husband, Charlie, who in the course of his career has been posted to China and Cyprus and Libya and Afghanistan among other places. She describes herself as ‘a diplomatic disaster zone.’ This book, Diplomatic Incidents, subtitled Memoirs of an (Un)diplomatic Wife, is her irreverent and at times bawdy and scatological account of what it is to be a diplomat’s wife whilst also bringing up two children. It is, essentially, a collection of amusing – and at times hilarious – anecdotes, illustrated by the author. It’s an easy read, well-written, in bite-size morsels, the sort of thing you can read by the pool and leave in the rented holiday home afterwards for the next tenants. I read the book avidly and I definitely won’t be leaving it for anybody else. The thing is, when I was Secretary of my Oxford college Junior Common Room, the Charlie who features occasionally in this book was President. He and I had a lot of fun in our year in office. There were our team of racing tortoises* (sponsored, of course, by Shell), our newsletter and a series of events perhaps best left dawdling happily in the mists of time (though many faithfully recorded in my minutes). I sometimes rode on the back of Charlie’s tandem bicycle, taking Cherry’s traditional place, and lived to tell the tale (though apparently even Charlie recognised the limitations of this form of transport in Tripoli). And how could I not recognise the man described in these pages as having ‘asked for his thirtieth birthday present never to have to dance again; a man with a sense of rhythm of a mushroom; a man whose stiff upper lip is spread over the rest of his body’? 

* Yes, tortoises. They can move surprisingly fast when they want to. The team captain, Dennis, was a particularly fast mover. Unfortunately, he tended to move more towards female distractions than the finishing line.

Writers and families and drink

LowryI have recently read two articles on the theme of writers and families and writers and drink. In Sins of the Father in The New Yorker, James Wood asks the basic question ‘Do great novelists make bad parents?’ Put another way, ‘Can a man or a woman fulfil a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art, or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?’ However, as Wood’s article describes, one of the frequent reasons why authors make bad parents is because they get into dependent relationships with the demon drink. The relationship between (certain) authors and drink is the subject of Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, extracts of which were published in today’s Observer. I am not convinced by these writers’ respective theses, although they are of course onto something. Artists frequently put so much into their art that they neglect their families. But the argument could be put the other way around: egoistical people of artistic bent might tend to do better because they are so self-centred. As to drink, Laing has deliberately chosen drinkers, so her theory is self-fulfilling. But there are great authors who have never drank and authors who once drank but stopped (Cormac McCarthy springs to mind). At least one of her subjects, Ernest Hemingway, drank like a fish but argued that he worked best when sober. And what to make of Malcolm Lowry, who was both a stupendous (indeed, suicidal) drinker and an author (Laing doesn’t mention his case)? Indeed, a distinction should be made between drinkers who wrote (Lowry, surely) and writers who drak (Hemingway, just as surely). These articles caught my eye because I am currently reading Langston Moffett’s Devil By The Tail, which is a largely autobiographical literary of the travails of an alcoholic would-be writer. According to his son, Langston Moffett was everything that he himself describes with such brutal veracity in his book: a self-indulgent fantasist; a dangerously dependent alcoholic; and a would-be writer whose best literary work, ironically, was his own written description of why he never wrote.

The megaliths of Wéris

WerisA long, long time ago I bought a pamphlet entitled ‘Itinéraires des megaliths en Wallonie’, published by the Société Royale Belge de Géographie in the series Hommes et Paysages. It proposes two tours, one of 142 kilometres and the other of 221 kilometres, taking in various sites of Neolithic man. I have long had those tours on my ‘to do’ list. Today, having realised I would probably never find the time to do a complete tour, I cut to the quick and visited one of the best sites in Belgium, the dolmens and menhirs of Wéris. Among the first human constructions in what is now Belgium, these structures are massive and deeply moving. The dolmens were built between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago as burial chambers. The bodies have long since disappeared, but the spaces they occupied are still there. A prevalent theory holds that the constructions mimic the female body. Neolithic civilisation was sedentary, having discovered and developed agriculture, and I find the theory convincing  – not just because of the forms, but also because it is easy to imagine primitive religious beliefs in which man returns to the womb of the earth. Another prevalent theory, based on the alignments of the various sites, posits that, taken together, the various stones were earth-bound representations of constellations above and even early calendars. In any case, it is difficult to imagine that the location of the sites was a matter of pure chance, especially given the massive effort and huge amount of manpower that would have been necessary to haul and manhandle the stones into position. They may not, by our standards, have been very sophisticated civilisations, but they surely knew something that we no longer do.

Joni Mitchell

Joni MitchellI consoled myself today with a box set of Joni Mitchell’s songs: The Studio Albums, 1968-1979. They are all in there: Both Sides Now, Big Yellow Taxi, Woodstock …  – ten albums altogether, from the earliest folk, through the seminal Blue to the jazz period. The twentieth century was surely the century of the American singer/songer-writer (Mitchell is Canadian). Nowadays, Mitchell would like to consider herself first and foremost as an artist (painter), she is nevertheless a towering figure in a pantheon that would include Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen, to name just a few. I hadn’t realised just how prolific she had been in that decade. Nor had I realised how much she owed her style to a childhood bout of polio. I am not sure whether ‘owed’ is the right term, but as a result of her illness Mitchell had reduced mobility in her left hand and therefore opted for open chords and picking (with her right hand) rather than fretting and chords (with her left) which, when combined with her voice and lyrics, gave her her initial distinctive style. Indeed, she reminds me of another singer/songwriter/troubador who preferred to be known primarily as an artist and had a very distinctive playing style. Kevin Coyne opted for (I quote) ‘an open tuning to the guitar… And … my tiny hands had trouble making proper chords so I started using my thumb. …’ Listening to Joni Mitchell’s songs today brought back memories of listening under the covers to the John Peel show on my older brother’s crystal radio set and later on, on the television, on the Old Grey Whistle Test.

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