An extra post today because I loved last night’s performance of The Car Man so much and its run at the Albert Hall ends of Sunday and I want people to go and see it.
This week I’ve been to see two narrative dance performance ie performances where the dance is used to tell a story, rather than just to be pretty. The first was The Crucible by Scottish Ballet and the second was The Car Man by Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures. I found it interesting to compare the two.
The Crucible used a generally traditional ballet approach: lots of point work, great technical skill from the company. There were more modern dance sequences as well but the overall approach was technically mainstream. However, they decided not to use traditional mime, but to carry the narrative by developing the relationships of the characters through the extension of naturalistic actions into ballet forms. For example, as the programme helpfully explains, “ If [the choreographer] wanted to work with gestures that truly showed intimacy, a caress of John’s hand on the side of Elizabeth’s thigh might then carry up to an arabesque.” Even if you believe that 55% of communication is non-verbal (almost certainly a gross over-estimate) that still leaves the audience losing 45% of the plot. You have to watch with close attention, interpreting clues as if you are solving a non-verbal Times crossword. The synopsis provided in the programme is essential if you are to have any idea what is going on.
We saw The Crucible at Sadler’s Wells, a theatre that has no really bad seats, but we were towards the back of the stalls. The stage is under-lit (the gloom is deliberate and certainly adds to the sense of menace) and simply seeing the details of expression (essential given that the big gestures of mime are deliberately not used) was a strain. (It literally gave me a headache.)
The costumes are excellent but the minimalist scenery adds little to help carry a complex narrative. When one character, according to the synopsis, “flees Salem” she simply travels from one side of the stage to the other before vanishing into the wings, the only clue that she is leaving the village being the canvas bag she carries which presumably contains all her belongings.
That just leaves the music to draw the audience in and carry them along. Peter Salem’s score (nominative determinism gone mad here), the programme notes tell us, “draws on 17th century psalms, and evocative sounds such as the courtroom gavel or a church bell but also embraces the electro beat of rave music which heightens the repressed sexuality of the teenage girls.” It is fair to say that it is not a high-energy audience pleaser.
The Crucible may not have been a particularly fun night out but critics loved it, in part, I suspect, because it takes on the challenge of telling a complex story through dance and surely that must make considerable demands of its audience.
And so to Exhibit Two: The Car Man.
Matthew Bourne is committed to telling stories through dance. Many of his works pay homage to cinema (most notably The Red Shoes, which is a re-telling of the famous film). His work seeks to tell stories, sometimes complex stories, in an accessible way. So how does he do it?
In the Albert Hall production we saw last night, the huge performance area is inhabited by the boys and girls of Harmony (we know it’s called Harmony because there’s a huge town sign telling us it is) as they gather around the diner. The set is beautiful and it tells us a lot before the dance even starts. We’re in America, probably the mid-West, and it’s the late fifties or early sixties. The style of the diner and the clothes (costumes are brilliant) tells us that. (Later we learn it’s 1957, but you’d have to pay attention to pick that up.)
The music starts. It’s a rearrangement of Bizet’s Carmen and the powerful rhythm pulls you immediately into the action as the young people start with a performance that gives more than a nod to West Side Story. It’s bright and cheerful, well-lit and upbeat. Even in the vastness of the Albert Hall it’s easy to watch. (It goes without saying that, this being New Adventures, the quality of the dance is stunning.)
The Car Man is not a cheery crowd pleaser. The story, of lust, infidelity, rape and murder ends in tragedy. Harmony, once a peaceful town of happy young people has descended into a hellish place where bare-knuckle boxing and drag racing have replaced the fiestas that used to characterise it. Tough though the story is (and when it was first produced bits were truly shocking) it’s never difficult to watch. Emotionally draining, yes, but in a good way.
Narrative dance can be accessible and entertaining, though Matthew Bourne is one of the very few choreographers still around who can consistently make it work on the scale that he does. But if you can’t make this form work, it’s maybe better to stick with the pretty stuff. Done well, narrative dance is thrilling; done badly, it might impress some critics, but it does audiences no favours and that, ultimately, drives people away from the theatre, which is, I think we can agree, A Bad Thing.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen that Tammy and I spent a couple of days in Shrewsbury last week. It’s somewhere that we have been meaning to visit for years and we have finally got round to it.
Like so many people, I was attracted to the place by reading about the medieval town in Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael stories. She describes the abbey at the foot of the town and the castle at the top so well that I wanted to see them for myself. There are still bits of the abbey and the castle standing but, to be honest, not much, though both are worth a visit. We started with the castle. Apart from a tiny bit of wall at the entrance, all that is left of the medieval castle is the Great Hall built by Henry III in the 13th century.
It’s been chopped and changed a fair bit since, with an extra floor added and internal partitions put in and taken away. It was, for a while, a private residence but the 20th century saw it purchased by the Shropshire Horticultural Society who tried to restore the Great Hall to its original appearance. This included putting in not one but two minstrels’ galleries, because everybody knows that 13th century Great Halls had minstrels’ galleries. (They didn’t.) Overall, though, the building is in remarkably good shape.
As you can just about see in the photo the ground floor (where all the light is) is now a museum celebrating the history of the Shropshire regiments. It’s an unfashionably unashamed celebration of the Army with more red coats than I have seen in a while, plus some unusual exhibits like a lock of Napoleon’s hair. (A Shropshire regiment guarded him at St Helena.)
Otherwise little is left of the castle. Even the Norman motte — the artificial high point that is usually the last thing to be lost in ancient fortifications — is but a shadow of its former glory as much of it slipped into the river below back in 1271, taking with it the wooden tower on its summit. The romantic tower that you see today is a 19th century folly.
At the other end of town the abbey, too, is a shadow of the building it once was. Henry VIII’s Reformation saw the destruction of almost all the Abbey buildings and even the great abbey church itself, once 302 feet (over 90 metres) long was truncated to serve as a parish church. What remains, though is splendid. The two lower arches in this photo are original Norman. (The top storey was added later.)
The only other parts of the Abbey to survive were a pulpit which had been part of the refectory so that monks could have the gospels read to them as they ate (and which was saved as it made an attractive garden ornament for the man who bought the land to build on) and a hall for sheltering travellers. The hall features a lot in the Cadfael stories as travellers often drive the plots, so I had to photograph it, however unimpressive it looks.
The Abbey and the castle may be shadows of their former selves, but the town in between is astonishing. Built in the loop of the river there has been no room for urban sprawl or even any major redevelopment and much of the original mediaeval street system and a remarkable number of the buildings still survive. What distinguishes Shrewsbury from many other historic towns is that the ancient buildings have been pressed into use for the 21st century. So the beautiful old market hall (pictured below) contains a cinema upstairs in the late 16th century building.
The public library is housed in Shrewsbury School, which was founded in 1550. (That’s it at the top of the page.) As a school it, of course, had its own library and the idea that people are still using the building for at least part of its original purpose seems to me to demonstrate a much better understanding of “heritage” then all those buildings that we have carefully sealed away so they can be enjoyed as museums. Some of the library’s rooms are spectacular.
In Shrewsbury, most of the buildings aren’t museums unless, of course, they are the local Museum and Art Gallery, which incorporates 13th-century Vaughan’s Mansion, one of only a handful of early medieval defensive hall houses remaining in the UK and a 19th century music hall.
Besides the Norman, medieval and 17th century buildings, the town has a number of remarkable 19th century buildings. This hospital, now developed as residential apartments, stood out for me.
There was a lot to see in just two days and we took time to visit Wroxeter Roman city as well. Once the fourth largest city in Britain, it’s now basically a single wall (known as ‘The Old Works’) in a field but the archaeologists have worked their magic and the place was definitely impressive. As the Romans would have said, though, Sic transit gloria mundi.
So there we are: several decades after I first said, “We ought to visit Shrewsbury,” we did and it was very, very good. I can recommend it. We stayed in The Old Post Office, itself an amazing old building in the centre of the town. If you have a couple of days to spare, you could do a lot worse.
My beloved’s journal continues, though how long we’ll keep up these weekly posts is uncertain. It’s a difficult time to catch the mood of. On the one hand, we are enjoying long country walks with our son and his new bubble but, on the other, friends trapped abroad and older relatives cut off from everything that defines their normal lives are all struggling.And she continues (rightly as it turns out) to worry about what winter will bring.
Sunday 14 June 2020
Just as I was finishing yesterday’s entry, I got a call from Mike. His plans had changed. Why didn’t we come over for a long walk/picnic/BBQ? So I rushed home, made cream cheese bagels and dragged Tom through the shower. We were there by 1pm, to meet Mike, Morley, G and S, leaving the house, clutching an OS map.
Mike had mentioned a footpath through meadows a few minutes walk from his door, but I hadn’t believed him. This is London – within the M25. Surely, if there was open space, people would know about it? The secret was a horrible entrance – right by the A40 roundabout – which looked like a track to a fly tip. But 100 yards later, around the corner, the meadows of Middlesex opened up. Long grass, buttercups, clover, the lot, with a very excited Morley, leaping up like a little puppy. Eventually we were balancing over a lock on the Fray, admiring long boats. S was keen to make elderflower champagne, so we picked elderflowers along the towpath, and decided which boat we would buy in a possible alternative universe.
G talked about her family. Her sister is struggling with three children at home, including a teenager chaffing at the restraints. Her stepfather is still shielding and getting get fed up. How much more of the time left to him can be spent in not singing in the choir or seeing friends? S is now installed for the duration with M & G — be careful of house guests these days because once they are in they can never leave. She talked about the good old days working in adventure training for kids (obviously not happening now) and her new job in the Post Office sorting office.
At 3.30 Mike relented to Tom’s increasingly pointed remarks about lunch, and we sat on the green in Uxbridge eating his pasta salad and my bagels. And back by more streams and reed beds and ponds, looking increasingly like Wind in the Willows, with water lilies and flag irises and a terrapin sunning itself on a rock. When we returned after 5 hours and 10 miles, I didn’t want to admit how much my legs didn’t work.
We sat in the garden eating the (melted, gooey) chocolate biscuits I had brought, while Mike made pizzas to cook in his new expensive BBQ contraption. In the end we had 3 pizzas (one burnt, one underdone and one perfect) huddled under a tarpaulin Mike had fixed to the drainpipe and windowsill, while rain poured down and lightening appeared in the sky. I stayed warm under a blanket as we got closer and closer, and life felt better and better. Truly a night to remember.
Friday 19 June 2020
After Saturday’s excitement, it’s been a quiet week. I’ve been trying to help with V with her employment problems. V has been unable to return from India, though her manager keeps looking at Sky Scanners, to find possible fights to bring her home, routed via Delhi, Dubai, Istanbul etc. Most of these are aspirations, or phantoms. Reports in the Indian press say that no commercial flights have taken off from India. There are only been repatriation flights, organised by Governments and, because V is not a UK citizen, she has been at the very bottom of the priority list.
But it is difficult to prove that they are all phantoms. Eventually V snapped that she wasn’t going to consider a flight through Delhi, with multiple stopovers, taking up to 44 hours and liable to dump her in random airports. The risk was too great.
The manager pointed to V’s official risk assessment, which put her in the “low risk” category. The NHS (her employer) required her to consider alternative routes. And if she was not considering these (probably non-existent) alternatives, her pay would be stopped. V has now booked a place on an Air India repatriation flight and is due back next week. She faces a three-person panel to consider recouping her pay for April and May, even though she has been working from India.
Low risk? V is older than she looks. If the latest research is true, as someone with a South Asian background she has an equivalent Covid risk profile as a white woman in her eighties. How can an NHS trust assess her as low risk? I’ve been practising my employment lawyer skills and trying to write “reasonable and not really legalistic” emails on her behalf.
I stopped work at 4pm on Wednesday to wander into Richmond to re-engage with the shopping experience. There were a lot of sales, at huge discounts, for products that no-one wants any more. No worry about queues outside – the places were empty. I wandered into H&M, which had a few people, and bought a black T shirt for £5. Was this the T shirt that would make me look slim and beautiful? When I got home and tried it on, I realised it wasn’t, but it hardly seems worth the hassle of taking it back. I’ve now got the urge to splurge out of my system.
I’m now working on the basis that coronavirus goes away in the summer when everyone is outside. I shall spend the next three months having as much fun as possible. The second wave seems scheduled for October. In November, we will all be back indoors, cowering, as the economy collapses.
Every Thursday I post an excerpt from my wife’s journal written two years earlier. Two years ago this week, there were signs of life returning to normal, but also intense nervousness amongst those who thought it was too soon. The Second Wave was just a vague hypothesis for most people. My beloved’s conclusion at the end of this week’s entry was to prove prescient but, of course, we didn’t know that at the time.
Friday 12 June 2020
I’m sat at the tables in York House Gardens with a take-away flat white, pretending it’s a real café. The coffee is not a self-indulgence: it’s doing my bit for economic revival. Shop staff are working on their displays, ready to open. They gather in intense discussions about social distancing.
Just overheard in Iceland. “It’s my first time out for 12 weeks”. “Is it how you remember it?” “No. it’s all closed”. Bloody hell – 12 whole weeks of not leaving the house??
Mike had been sceptical about my plans to cycle to the Albert Memorial to see D. (“You realise that cycling in central London is one of the most dangerous things you can do, right?”). But it worked just fine: 58 minutes there and 54 minutes back. I went over Putney Bridge and along the King’s Road, a compromise between Google’s two offers of the Great West Road (too scary) and back roads (too slow).
D talked a lot about her family and her garden: important stuff. And about feeling guilty for not writing: “All this empty time and nothing to show for it.” But what do any of us have to show for our lives except healthy and happy kids and (if we are lucky) memories of a beautiful garden? We spent a long time admiring the Albert Memorial, especially the four continents – elephant, camel, bison and cow (though the cow is a bit sad). “It’s part cliche and part creativity,” D remarked. I’ve had mixed feelings about the Albert Memorial over the years: Victorian monstrosity – waste of restoration cash – central landmark – and part of the furniture of my life, after years of street hockey and skater picnics and speed skate courses. I felt a sudden rush of love for the thing, warts and all, as part of our history and lives and heritage.
My aim was to get home before rush hour. I planned to be away at 3.30, and left at 3.40, which was not quite quick enough for London traffic these days. Putney Bridge was three lanes of congested cars, with more cycles, motorbikes and e-scooters weaving in and out than I have ever seen before. Is this the future?
Lockdown is always a roller-coaster, and Tom has been going through a bad patch. A few overcast and drizzly days, coupled with an assault on 19th century history. Tom has written about the White Rajah, and the Indian Mutiny and General Havelock – all pretty much banned terms. There is discussion about renaming Havelock Street.
Saturday 13 June
The sun is out, which makes such a difference these days. We bounce from optimism in the sun to gloom in the drizzle. Right now, Richmond Riverside is picture postcard perfect, with paddle boarders out in force. You have to be optimistic to trust such a precarious contraption. Tom’s rights issues are resolved and Burke in the Land of Silver is on Amazon, ready for pre-order. Tom switched from existential despair to happy and productive with a single email.
But we still can’t trust our Government. I realise, re-reading my diaries, that by 28 February, Covid was front of mind. But I still did what the Government told me, which was to carry as normal. I went to the theatre and milongas and cafes and restaurants and took long journeys by train. We now know this was a mistake. I personally might have been part of a chain of causation that caused someone’s death. This time around, should I be more cautious than the Government? Perhaps, if things get bad, but … but. London is looking good right now and maybe it can’t spread outside in the summer.
With all this spinning around in my brain, I spend too long checking figures. By the time problems show up in the death figures, it’s too late. And you can’t trust testing figures. The most reliable figures are hospital admissions, which are going down overall, but overall won’t do. And local figures aren’t available. Last week a Minister flashed a clip of what appeared to be local graphs on The Daily Numbers, which were too small to see. But when I looked them up, they weren’t hospital admissions: they were people in hospital, which isn’t the same thing. The radio talks about R, which is a bit too close to 1 for comfort. Apparently, the latest Government idea is to stop worrying about R, and to rely on whatever stats the Test and Track scheme throw at us. We’re fucked.
Finally we are allowed to sit down for a meal with our family — provided we eat it outside. The other big news of the week was the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite (or maybe because of) the restrictions, the killing of George Floyd became something that looked as if it might actually change something.
Saturday 6 June 2020
Big event of the week: driving over to Mike’s for a BBQ (now that two households of up to 6 people can meet in a private garden). I skived off work early, took the champagne out of the freezer and piled into the car, wearing a summer dress and floppy hat. Even the drive over seemed interesting: what a lot of people these days have bushy beards. The greetings were a bit awkward – no approaching or hugging. But once we had settled into our suitably distanced seats, life seemed almost normal. We watched kites and squirrels as the sun sank behind the neighbour’s sycamore. I added two cardigans to the summer dress.
Mike served four courses, over a long, long time. Mike and G now have S staying with then, after her plans to travel the world fell apart. S had cooked lager chicken while Mike had baked a swiss roll. Conversation flowed with the Pimms, mainly about house buying, and house prices and how much mortgage to take out. We took Morley (the dog) for a walk around the park in the dark. At 10pm I noticed it was past my bedtime, but it was 12.30 before I got to bed. I’m not used to these late nights anymore.
On Thursday I was invited to a big online civil service meeting about Black Lives Matter. It was huge – up to the full 250 participants the system allows. Black civil servants talked about how they felt after watching the George Floyd video. Answer – emotional: anxious and angry and shocked. And, in lockdown, the “mask” has gone. Civil servants no longer dress up and do their hair and put on their work personas. “This is the first time I’ve shown myself at work with my natural hair”, one woman said. “I’m being my authentic self at last,” said another, “and that self is an angry black woman.” Work is less present, and children are more present. There was a lot of talk about how you explain George Floyd to your kids.
This was followed by a work meeting in which no-one had read the papers. Working from home is starting to fall apart.
I think this is the longest of my beloved’s posts so far. The rules were being relaxed but everyone was trying to work out exactly what was and wasn’t allowed. Our son stuck strictly by the letter of the law, refusing to see both of his parents at once, which did not go down well. And then, while most of the country struggled to do the right thing, came Dom Cumming’s infamous trip to Barnard Castle. The journal gives a fair idea of just how angry that made people.
Saturday 23 May 2020
Big event of the week: Mike came over. The plan was for the three of us to have a picnic in the park, I went to M&S for tubs and made a rice salad. Mike would bring a plate and cutlery and a salad of his own.
Then a phone call from Mike. He had just been given a presentation from his colonel that the Army really had to stick to the rules. Mike was responsible for disciplining any soldier who broke them. The rules say that you may only see one of your parents at a time. So he would come over, but see us sequentially, not together. Tom was cross: “I’ve spent enough time doing what this Government says. I’ve had it with rules.” If Mike felt like that, he could just see me.
So Mike took a long lunch hour from his working day and drove over. Which gave us an hour together, walking over to Orleans House Gardens, sitting on a bench and eating pastries. I took a flask of tea. We talked about his friends’ wedding plans, and the Army, and work, as conversation flowed easily. I tried not to point out the large family group having a picnic right in front of us. I was suddenly aware of how central family meals are to a sense of belonging. One parent at a time is a particularly stupid rule.
Mike and Tom then got the car started, with jump leads, and sort of forgave each other by doing manly stuff. And we drove over to Aldi to replenish our stockpile of tins, just in case our economic system lets us down.
Tom has now put a video of our tango waltz on you tube. It’s Flor de Lino (Linseed Flower) and was our attempt to be light and carefree – though, looking at it, there is a lot more tension than I’d hoped. It was good to dress up (with a beret because of lockdown hair). We went through the same dance, over and over again, and then painfully watched our faults, until we finally decide it would have to do. At least we had to concentrate and work on it.
I’ve now finished marking. The stragglers weren’t as good as the students who submitted on time, but they weren’t bad. I’ve decided that feedback has to be clearer, even blunter. “Do more reading”; “Write more clearly”, with examples. I’ve written more, as this seems to be the only thing the students are getting for their money.
The big question is whether I’m actually going to retire from the civil service at the end of June, or whether I will try to postpone it once again. Part-time work, and the contact work brings (if only virtual) has been essential to getting through the last few months.
Friday 29 May 2020:
“Are you noticing any difference?” J. asked on the phone yesterday, “For me it’s just the same. Work is OK, but I’m still not seeing anyone or doing anything”.
J summed up the experience of so-called lockdown easing. And explains why I’ve been bad-tempered and fractious all week. Going into lockdown, we phoned up loads of people and cackled uncontrollably at ridiculous skype meetings and no showers. But now jokes about loo paper and the work top/pyjama bottom combo aren’t funny anymore. Nor is the 60,000 death toll. Instead, there are a lot of non-conversations. “How are you? – fine. And you? – fine. What are you up to? – nothing much” etc etc.
Some stuff is coming back. I’m sitting in York House gardens with my first flat white since 14 March. Ahhh: the deep coffee bitterness and cream counterweight. I feel more positive already. And Johnson has announced that as from Monday, two households of up to 6 people can meet in a private garden, which means that we are going over to Mike’s for a BBQ on Tuesday. I’ll take my birthday champagne. A trip around the park shows that the groups of teenagers are now getting closer. I saw 3 lads put their arms around each other. Girls now gather in huddles.
Where to start on the week? Let’s go for the big story – Dominic Cummings – a lightening rod for all that frustration with arbitrary rules, uncaring Government decisions and a society which allows cleaners and estate agents into your house, but not lovers or parents. On Saturday, I woke to the news and remembered my resolution not to judge. By evening, though, I was cross. All those Government ministers gaslighting us about the rules, with not a hint of remorse. By Sunday, both Tom and I were furious: “I took a 60 mile trip to test my eyesight”? Are we meant to take this seriously?
On Bank Holiday Monday we cycled along a crowded tow path to the Ham Gate. Locked our bikes, took books, and found new places, including Sidmouth Wood. Hot, hot, hot, but plenty of shade under the oaks. It’s birthing season for deer. Didn’t see any fawns, but noticed hinds, by themselves, hiding in the long grass. Kept our distance and talked about Cummings.
I’m worried about A. who lives alone following a stroke. I phoned him last weekend. “How are you?” “Fine”. Then “No, actually, I’m not fine.” He is drinking too much, and his flat still has bed bugs, and he can’t use his front room, and he’s stuck in the kitchen, watching TV. “I just want to drink and die. I’d kill myself but I can’t bring myself to do it.”
I phoned again yesterday, suggesting we might meet in a park, but the mechanics didn’t work. He seemed more upbeat and talked about a programme he had enjoyed. But the underlying issues remain. Pre-lockdown, A kept going by occasional meals with friends, a bit of gossip, and interest in what other people are doing. Now that’s all stopped. How many other people are sitting at home, drinking and waiting to die?
PS. I’ve just phoned D. “I’m so angry” she started. “Bloody Cummings. Rewriting the rules for one unelected adviser”. “How was your writing group?” I asked. “OK, but I haven’t done any writing. I’m too cross”. D continued: “When we first went into lockdown, I felt really calm and surprisingly happy, but that’s all gone. And it’s making me even crosser”. I’m meeting D on Friday at the Albert Memorial, God willing. We will both cycle there.
Sunday 31 May 2020
It’s a glorious day, and I’m by Richmond riverside with a flat white. It is still early enough to sit in the sun, though midday threatens to be too hot. It’s busy – cyclists, a kayak, boat hire, and a queue for take aways. Richmond Council are still playing around with one-way signs [for pedestrians] on Richmond Bridge, not wholly successfully. They are building wider pavements on Richmond Road.
I swing wildly between zen calm, irritation and outright anger. The scene in front of me is beautiful – the stuff of a thousand tourist paintings – the ripples on the water, willows, geese, a heron. How hard can it be to just relax and enjoy it? Harder than you might think.
Yesterday, Tom vetoed my plans to rollerblade (irritation). Instead he cut branches off the buddleia, which I snipped into small pieces (satisfying). And we sat out in our front garden, reading, drinking coffee and admiring our roses (isn’t this lovely?). We chatted to neighbours, now that the British prohibition on using front gardens (surely only funny foreigners have always enjoyed life on the street?) has gone. We went to Syon Park to buy bedding plants, but it was shut. Cycled on to B&Q (queues too long), Waitrose (too little choice) and Twickenham Green (too late). Irritated.
Came back to catch up on news. Still over 350 deaths a day. A lot of SAGE scientists saying it is too early to ease lockdown. But keeping lockdown going was always going to be difficult with a bored and fractious public. And now, since Cummings, it has become impossible. Angry now. If I hear another politician say “following the science”, we may be in a broken radio situation.