Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Seeing the naked youth

Just as I succumbed to a horror of a cold – combined, inevitably, with a busy period at work – the East Midlands offered a cultural cornucopia of events. I missed too many, some because they clashed with work or other events and some because I feared to interrupt a reading or performance with a hacking cough. At least I made it to a recital by Trevor Pinnock, which included works by Couperin, Bach and Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and to a range of poetry events including a small but well-attended celebration of National Poetry Day in Leicester and the first reading in the Nottingham Poetry Series.

I also attended a reading at the first Beeston International Poetry Festival. I hope it's the first of many. The festival, organised by poet, professor and jazz-man John Lucas, offers bargain-price (£3!) and free events at small venues including shops, libraries and the splendid Flying Goose café which also hosts a series of literary events through the year. I hope to attend further Beeston poetry events and will blog about them later. This paragraph should be seen as a taster and an advertisement for the rest of the festival – details can be found by clicking here.

However the major event of the cultural calendar – at least as far as the national press is concerned – must be the arrival of the British Art Show, In The Days of the Comet. It's a quinquennial event and this year it opened in Nottingham, taking over four venues: Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham Castle, the New Art Exchange and One Thoresby Street. By luck, I found myself invited to the preview and finally well enough to take advantage of the invitation.

Previews are strange events, half party and half excitable tour of art. There are speeches too and, as I walked up the stairs towards the Long Gallery at Nottingham Castle I realised that listening to speeches would be the first part of my duty. At first the combination of microphone and echo so distorted the sound that I was reminded of the opening of Chaplin's City Lights. Perhaps they aren't speeches at all but an installation, I reflected. But they were speeches and, as I moved round the gallery, the sound became clearer. There were several references to the cuts and quite a few to “bonking bunnies”. “In the Days of the Comet” seemed an apt title for the show – if the Comet was a metaphorical reference to George Osborne's hacksaw.

There was something strange about the roughness of the art in the 19th century grandeur of Nottingham Castle. But hints of destruction also seemed apt both for the castle's past - the locals set it alight and watched it burn in the Reform Bill riots of 1831 - and for current anxieties. "It feels like the end of days," a colleague remarked a week or so ago, and her words chimed so well with my own feelings that they have haunted me ever since.

While some works were carefully wrought - sometimes for wealthy patrons - others spoke of change, anger and destruction. I couldn't see all the art clearly for the crowds at the preview and have decided to go back and see the exhibitions again when they were less crowded. I certainly couldn't give the video installations the time they demanded. But I was mesmerised by a mysterious monochrome work with people and peacocks that turned out by a tapestry. And I gazed at what appeared to be a cross between a bombed and deserted house and the kind of cart tugged through battlefields by Mother Courage. It was fragile, dilapidated and strangely beautiful.

Downstairs in the castle café there was free champagne, provided by the exhibition's sponsors, for any visitor with the patience to get through the crush. I met my friend Katie there and we savoured a moment of cool luxury on the castle balcony before returning to look once more at the art.

We were both tired - Katie had come straight from teaching - so decided to leave our visit to the New Art Exchange for another day. Instead we made our way to the Nottingham Contemporary which was also so packed that it was sometimes hard to view the exhibits. I was pleased to find work by the remarkable Alasdair Gray on show - I'm so fond of his fiction that I often forget that he's an artist and designer as well. I hoped to spot him among the hordes but, if he was there, I didn't see him.

Tiredness induced frivolity. Katie looked at what appeared to be a giant teddy-bear's head made out of canvas and wondered if it would be possible to use it for camping. We inspected the guy ropes and looked for tent flaps before sadly concluding that there was no useful entrance to the main space. Then I saw the fire.

It was plainly meant to be there. As I approached I could see that the flame occupied part of a metal park bench. Perched next to it was an extraordinarily accurate life-size model of a bearded young man wearing only a pair of blue y-fronts. As I got closer, I realised that it was not a model at all but a young man, sitting very still and gazing at the flame beside him. There's something strange about being invited to stare at a semi-nude man in an art gallery. I became aware of textures, flesh tones, the unnevenness of toes, softness, imperfection, vulnerability.

Katie and I read the notice together. It informed us that the flame would be lit once a day and that, once a week, it would be tended by "a naked youth." "But he isn't naked," I whispered to Katie. She instantly urged me to complain. But how could I complain to a still youth who was involved in a work of art?

Katie considered other grounds for complaint. He wasn't tending the flame, merely watching it. As if to reinforce her comments, the flame extinguished itself and went out. We wandered back in the direction of the youth, who had started engaging in conversation with visitors. But we were too late. Just as we arrived at his bench, a curator appeared holding a dressing gown which the youth put on before departing round a corner.

We saw the youth later, in the bar. By this time he was wearing a check shirt and looking cheerful. Frivolity was taking over. Katie drew my attention to the visitors' shoes and fashion sense. Then she suggested we were too tired for more art - and indeed we were. We headed, briefly, to a cocktail bar before going home.

It's comforting to know that the exhibitions continue till January. That should give me the opportunity for several visits. I may even attempt a more serious review. In the meantime, the first newspaper reviews are being published, and they're good.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Dolly in the downturn

Wherever I go, I find myself wondering what will survive. Announcements of cuts have speeded up and I feel battered already, though the axe is still poised to fall. These months are a reversal of the norm, as if convalescence came before serious illness. Everyone seems to be waiting for things to get much, much worse.

It's hard to make culture a priority when so much else is under threat. How can I value a trip to the theatre or art gallery – even a book borrowed from a library – above the local day centre for people with mental health problems (under threat of closure)? Yet I notice that many of the activities offered by that day centre depend on what are broadly termed "the arts". The people whose lives are improved by help and friendship at the day centre also improve their lives by sculpting, painting, writing and singing. They share their skills with one another – and arrange local trips to take in the exhibitions which I also enjoy.

Millionaires never have to do without the arts. As patrons they commanded poets, painters, sculptors and musicians - they could buy whatever entertainment they fancied. I'll always be grateful to those millionaires who gave money to build theatres and public libraries. But my sympathies are with those who lived on the fringes of culture, grabbing whatever they saw and desired, without any sense of entitlement. I've always grabbed at culture.

Now the wealthy men in our government are snatching back. Education in arts and humanities will be restricted to the very rich and those prepared to embrace enormous debt. Were I young now, I'd have to give up my dreams of a good education. Meanwhile opportunities for self-education are being snatched away. Library hours are being cut. Soon galleries and concert halls will close and theatres will darken – though I suppose millionaires will continue to enjoy their holidays abroad and whatever command performances they choose to buy.

Until then, I'm grabbing as much culture as I can fit round work and a heavy cold. I've seen two shows at Nottingham Playhouse (She Stoops to Conquer and Twelfth Night – both excellent fun) and, most recently, a new play, Dolly by Andy Barrett, which is touring the region. I caught it at the Darwin Rooms in Derby.

The Darwin Rooms aren't a typical venue for New Perspectives, the theatre company behind the production. It's one of those small, regional touring companies which rarely get noticed in the national press touring the region. Mostly performances are in village halls and sports centres - the actors move around the region, setting up temporary stages, lighting rigs and sound systems for a night at the time.

I haven't seen the company before but they seem to take rural settings as their starting point. This play was set in Rosslyn near Edinburgh - according to the play a small farming community where any outsider was instantly identified as a visitor to the research laboratory. It picked up themes of ambition, success and failure. Farmer's daughter, Bettina, longed to be a country and western singer like her idol Dolly Parton. Her story was told in parallel to the story of the first cloned sheep, created at the Rosslyn Institute.

To my surprise, I found myself warming to the enthusiasm of the researchers as they explained what they were doing and why it was so difficult. Ethical questions lurked in the background - as did the desire of mourners to use cloning to bring back the dead. But the playwright and production trusted the audience to think through the questions - they weren't hammered out but left for thought and discussion later. The play was more interested in celebrating human achievement, whether the success of scientists in an improbable project or the ability of Dolly Parton to write and sing songs about triumph in the face of difficulty.

When I say that my favourite performer was Dolly the sheep, this is not a criticism of the cast. They almost convinced me that the two puppets - Dolly the new-born lamb and Dolly the adult sheep - were real and I held my breath for a moment when Dolly was born and presented to the waiting scientists. It still seems unlikely that messing around with theories, formulae and test tubes can produce a warm and breathing creature, let alone a sheep of character.

But even if ambitious and imaginative scientific research escapes, I don't suppose the idea of science will warm people through the cold isolation of the cuts. Dolly Parton, for all her artifice, may be a better source of warmth. She can, on occasion, be very funny - and she has a clear sense of what it's like to go without.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

No to the Kindle

British friends have occasionally asked me why I visit Paris in August. “There's no-one there,” they assure me. “The real Parisiens are all on holiday and everything's shut.”

It's a simplification. Some Parisiens – those who can afford it – try to take holidays in August. Some shops, businesses – even museums – are closed. Last year I was sorry to miss the municipal museum of Montreuil, which I still hope to visit one day. The Comedie Francaise and the Paris Opera are on holiday. Friends I would have liked to see were away – as was the owner of the splendid apartment I sublet.

Yet I enjoy Paris in August. It has a leisurely air. The discovery that a local shop or restaurant is shut for “les vacances” is not a disaster. It's a reminder that workers need holidays and there's more to life than making money.

In previous Augusts I did little to look for live events in Paris. Paris Plage was fun – and full of locals – but I missed it by a day this year. I wondered if my British friends were right in saying nothing else was on. I decided to investigate. I paused at a kiosk and invested in a copy of Pariscope – not a huge gamble at 40 eurocents – to see what was going on.
Leafing through the pages I read of theatres, cinemas, concerts, spectacles and markets.

At first I was baffled by the choice, then began to make decisions. The Lucernaire looked worth a visit, and quite near where I was staying. The second and third Millennium films were showing at the Cinema Chaplin, not too far away. There was a fund-raising piano festival at the Armenian Cathedral in the Marais – and much more.

I began at the Lucernaire. The list of theatre shows made me hesitate. I'd missed Cooking with Elvis at the local amateur theatre and was prepared to miss the French version as well. But I wondered about a one-man show of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, well-reviewed in a number of French national papers. The price – 22 euros – is more than I usually pay for theatre tickets. But when I thought about seeing Wilde in French, there was a pleasant logic too it.
De Profundis is Wilde's long letter to his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, written from Reading Gaol. Some years ago I would have said I knew the English text reasonably well, although it has faded in my mind since. I recalled that, after leaving prison, Wilde went to Paris, where he died, and was buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery. And while I hesitated about seeing a work in translation, I recalled that I had twice seen Wilde's play Salomé, which he wrote in French for Sarah Bernhardt, in the translation by Lord Alfred Douglas. The idea of Wilde in French translation was almost symmetrical. I bought my ticket.

The set up at the Lucernaire wasn't quite like a theatre in England. Notices on the wall told us that the “ouvrieuses” (specifically female workers) showing us to our seats were unpaid and dependent on tips. The ouvrieuses were charming and had a neat way of sliding the proffered tips into a purse – but I felt uncomfortable about the procedure. Workers are often required to display charm as part of their jobs but I didn't want to measure and reward that charm directly with a tip – it felt too intimate a purchase. However as they were, according to the notices, dependent on the audience's generosity, it was plain that generosity was my responsibility. I handed over the tip as I was shown to my seat and wondered if I'd bought the bright smile that followed.

The theatre was small – a studio space without the formal grandeur of a proscenium arch. The actor playing Wilde was already on the stage, perched on a step-ladder and half-covered by a blanket. The audience leaned forward expectantly, displaying a quality of intense concentration that is rare in English theatre audiences – and this continued throughout the performance.

Occasionally I found the use of French distancing and at times my understanding flickered out - I probably grasped 80 to 85% of the text. Despite the strangeness, a French Wilde seemed a convincing possibility. I even found his mispronunciation of Reading (to resemble the activity rather than the town ir the gaol – endearing).
It was an intense and moving performance. I was surprised to find that, towards the end, I felt sympathy not just for Wilde but also for Lord Alfred Douglas – Bosie. De Profundis chronicles instances of Bosie's selfishness but, listed by Wilde, they seem like the follies of a very young man faced by an adoration he could not quite reciprocate and an intelligence he could not match. Even his cruel statements seemed like a dull attempt to match Wilde's wit while his neglect of Wilde's feelings could be forgiven as the uncertainty of a young man suffering from an appalling upbringing and unsure how to respond across the barriers of age and c lass. The young often do run from suffering – and how was Bosie to respond to Wilde's imprisonment and agony? Biographies suggest that Bosie was unpleasant throughout his long life but the pictures reveal a startling beauty which may also have been a disadvantage.

A week was not enough for all the events listed in Pariscope. I saw Millennium 2 – subtitled in French, which I find far easier than dubbing – and enjoyed a riveting performance of piano music by Chopin and Rachmaninov. That was as much cultural performance as I could take. I also haunted the bookshops, trying to add to my small collection of books in French.

There were two books I aimed to buy: Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris and Eugene Sue's Les Mysteres de Paris. Both have been on my list of books I need to read for some time. But I was confronted by something unfamiliar from my life in the East Midlands – a wealth of bookshops. There were big shops like the many branches of Gibert Joseph in the Boul' Mich and the art chain Mona Lisait. Then there were many small independent shops – far more than in London, I think – where the stock seemed to reflect either the manager's taste or the surprises that often delight and infuriate in secondhand volumes.

I browsed contentedly and puzzled over what to buy.
I find nineteenth century French literature easier to read than modern light fiction; lengthy paragraphs allow unfamiliar words to become clear from the context and puzzles can be resolved with the aid of a dictionary. Recent thrillers, for all their popular appeal, are harder because they use so much contemporary slang. I have a further interest. I've noticed that, for generations, working-class readers in particular were absorbed by popular French fiction from the mid-19th century. Stories like The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Miserables are mentioned in working-class writing from the 1850s to the 1950s. And I knew that writers for the working class drew on French writers. For instance, G.W.M. Reynolds' terrific and popular serial, The Mysteries of London – which makes Dickens seem restrained in style and detail – was directly influenced by Sue's Mysteries of Paris. So far as I can see, no-one has gone into much detail chronicling this influence. While the effort necessary for a wide-ranging survey is beyond me – I imagine I'd need a year or so in French archives with no guarantee of success as well as another year combing comparable English publications - I could at least see what popular fiction of the period was available in paperback.

One of the joys of reading in French is the vast and largely unknown library of possible titles which spreads before me. Looking at Paul Feval's Le Bossu – which was the source for a couple of terrific swashbuckling films - I discovered that the same author had written his own Mysteres de Londres – quite different from Reynolds' serial. I haven't read it yet but, according to the back of the book jacket, it tells the story of an Irish plot against the British government and is set in exotically English locations. I had to buy a copy. There was a fine multi-volume edition of Les Mysteres de Paris, with illustrations, but in the end I concluded that it was too heavy.

I was also tempted by Eugene Sue's last book, Les Mysteres du Peuple, apparently a fictional account of working-class revolution from the time of Jesus to the era of Napoleon III. I wondered why so startling a book was so little known. Until I stumbled across a copy in Gibert Joseph, I hadn't heard of its existence. I nearly bought it but once again I hesitated, feeling the weight of the book. I could delay, I thought, and order it from amazon.fr when I had time to read it.

In the end, I succumbed to ten or twelve books, including a fine hardback edition of Notre Dame de Paris from one of the second hand shops set up by Abbé Pierre's Emmaus charity. A friend tipped me off that these were a great place for bargains and the shop I visited gave me an excuse for travel on the voguéo - I find it hard to resist river travel. My reading of French is still slow and I have less free time than I would like so my purchases will last me a long time. But I still regret the two books by Sue – perhaps I need to go to Paris again, very soon.

The chief problem was one of space – and what I reckoned I could carry home in my suitcase. Eurostar may not have a weight allowance but travellers still have to heave their cases onto the conveyor belt for scanning and manoeuvre them into the luggage areas of trains.

Briefly I thought of the solution suggested by a couple of friends: if I purchased a kindle or e-reader I could carry a whole library with me, unworried by weight. But I like the weight of books. I like the smell and texture of paper, the designs of covers. I like turning the pages with my fingers. I love the sensation of opening a new book for the first time – and I adore books with history, which carry a sense of their past readers. I can see the logic of an electronic reader but not the pleasure.

Nor would there be opportunities for communication. I discovered the novels of Michael Chabon after seeing a taxi driver was reading one. It was the beginning of a good conversation about books, which would never have been sparked by the anonymous cover of an e-reader. I like seeing what my fellow travellers are reading.

Then think of the hazards. I couldn't read an e-book in the bath – at least not safely. Amazon has been known to withdraw a text from the kindle, regardless of readers who were half-way through. An equipment failure or expired battery could put an entire library beyond my reach.

My books may occupy too much space. It's also true I don't always know where a particular title is. But I know my books by their shape, size, colours and texture. I could never gain so much affection for an electronic index.
Perhaps this simply marks me as a member of a dying generation, to be as much pitied or mocked as those who could not adjust from the scroll to the book. Wandering through the market of old and antique books in the Parc Georges Brassens (on the site of a former abattoir), I was unable to imagine surrendering my love for the book in favour of a screen called into grey and white life at the flick of a button.

Mind you, I didn't buy any of the book on sale in the Parc George Brassens. It was the last day of my holiday – and another book would have made my suitcase too heavy.