Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Bringing home the Ashes

They made me play cricket at school. Looking back, I approve. Cricket was widely seen as a boys' game and it was good to have the opportunity. I didn't even mind too much at the time.

Like every sport, cricket had its dangers. There was the hard ball hurtling in my direction and the scorn of the games mistress - and fellow players - every time I ducked or missed a catch. But I soon developed a strategy that made the game a source of pleasure. I made sure I had a book in my pocket and volunteered to field on the boundary line. Very few teenage players - boys or girls - can hit a cricket ball to the boundary and there was a convenient hedge nearby. I and my book would adjourn to the other side of the hedge where I would read in the sunshine. Books I enjoyed at the time included Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise. I quite like fictional cricket matches.

This probably doesn't make me the ideal audience for Michael Pinchbeck's new play, The Ashes, which I saw at its final preview performance - it runs till late September. I wasn't really in the mood for theatre when I headed to Nottingham Playhouse. It didn't help that the lovely Cast bar, where, as a Backstage Pass member I have a discount, told me there was a 45-minute wait for food - even cold nibbles. It was only 50 minutes to curtain up. I settled down with a beer and surveyed the crowds. They were mainly male, which had a definite and unusual advantage - no queue for the ladies' loo.

It looks as though The Ashes will be a popular play. Harold Larwood, the cricketer at its centre was a Nottinghamshire lad who played for the county. The crowds in the bar included more cricketers and cricket fans than I usually observe at the theatre - but perhaps I was just more aware of conversations about cricket. It could be a tricky audience, I reflected, picking out flaws in details or cricketing stance. Looking at the length of the two parts of the play, I was further concerned. The first half was a mere 45 minutes and the second 75 - against the usual logic which makes the second act shorter than the first. I was full of doubts as I settled down to watch.

I already knew something of the subject of the play. The Bodyline tour, as the 1932-3 Ashes tour of Australia is known, is still discussed, often in relation to class as well as sporting ethics. In the 1930s the distinction between "gentlemen" (upper-class amateurs) and "players" (working-class professionals) remained an important one, although the national team drew from both groups. Discussions of the bodyline strategy, in which batsmen risked serious injury from fast bowling, often focus on the contrast between the public-school and Oxford-educated team captain, Douglas Jardine, and the two Nottinghamshire ex-miners, Harold Larwood and Bill Voce. This, as a friend pointed out, set up the risk that the play would be worthy and obvious. I settled in my seat without great hopes.

Within the first five minutes I realised that the play was going to work. It doesn't aim at naturalism - just as well, since the Playhouse stage isn't big enough for a cricket pitch - so all the actors, including the leads, took other roles as required, changing both attitudes and accents. However the actors convinced within each role they took. The cricketers in the audience plainly approved too. They were quickly receptive to references I found obscure and their appreciative laughter made the theatre a comfortable place. It was plain that the play was not going to be dully worthy.

Pinchbeck's play places the emphasis precisely where it needs to be: on character and events. There are ethical dilemmas but they are explored through the complex characters at the centre of the drama: Harold Larwood, played by Karl Haynes and Douglas Jardine played by Jamie de Courcey. The performances in these roles were stunning, even within an excellent ensemble cast. When I think of Larwood and Jardine in future, I suspect they'll always be embodied by Hayes' slight and determined figure and de Courcey's humourless intensity. Class mattered, of course, but these characters weren't cardboard cut-outs but people for whom class was one part of their complex individual experiences. The only slight problem came from the inevitable passivity of Lois Larwood (Sarah Churm) whose role was largely limited to staying in Mansfield, following the match at the cinema and expressing an admiration for Gracie Fields. But her final speech conveyed a depth of feeling that went far beyond the words she was given to say.

As a viewer, I was caught up in the English team's determination to win at all costs. This tour came, after all, in the wake of the Great War and members of the team must have spent part of their youth anticipating battle for king and country. But I winced when I saw film footage from the tour, showing the impact of bodyline (or "leg theory") bowling on the batsmen. And the longer part of the play didn't seem long at all as I was riveted by the tensions within the story.

I emerged from the play with a much greater respect for cricketers. As I stood in the bus queue afterwards, some of the cricketers from the audience were still discussing the ethics of bodyline as well as explaining theories of bowling or small aspects of the story omitted from the play. And that, I think, is how it should be.

Please note that the play has an undeservedly short run - you need to see it before 17th September. And apologies for my long absence from blogging. I was simply tired and needed a break. I'm back now.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Bread and circuses

After a busy period at work when I haven't found time to blog, I'm experiencing the delights of bread and circuses.

The bread is literally bread. I've finally explored one of the Polish shops near work and discovered a range of central European breads: heavy rye bread, bread with sunflower seeds and so on, reflecting the cuisine of various countries - not just Poland but also Latvia and Lithuania. They seem to me better than the supermarket "specialty" brands - and cheaper too.

I went to a circus as well - the Moscow State Circus which was touring near me on the day of the Royal Wedding. It was a good counter-balance to that other circus. It had a story too. If I grasped the moral correctly, it was something about taking money from the rich and spending it sensibly so that everyone could enjoy the arts. Just now that seems a pretty good idea.

All round me there's anxiety. Friends find their jobs at risk. (I seem to be safe - at least till next year, and that's ages in the present economic climate.) Health and social care are in the news. The Financial Times has picked up a story about health authorities and hospitals at risk. In many cases the risk has been caused or worsened by the involvement of private companies, who were quick to enter into Private Finance Initiative agreements that safeguarded profits at the expense of the ill, the injured and the dying. Meanwhile the big companies that make money out of caring for frail elderly people and those with disabilities have in their turn been brought close to collapse by private equity companies. From the point of view of profiteers, it seemed a neat arrangement: sell the homes to other companies, agree an ever-rising rent, trust the market - and get out quickly when the economy falters.

Obviously I should have arranged a better pension for myself, according to the right-wingers. That's the same right-wingers who object that my public-sector pension will be too generous (if I ever get there) and who tell me I should find ever more to spend on my children, my parents and every cause and charity near to my heart. But if I do my best, it's never quite enough. According to them, I should also spend more on insurance and save more - but in the present economic climate insurance companies can go bust. Even banks, which may be bailed out, seem a bit of a gamble. They depend on the markets, which depend on an ever-increasing chain of gambles and exploitation.

So besides bread, I comfort myself with circuses. I may have visited only one actual circus in the past month, but I've been making up for it by enjoying other activities which give me pleasure. They remind me that life is more than a dragged-out existence. Life isn't just about duty - we need pleasure too. For some people that means getting out into a new place, whether it's roaming the countryside or strolling through towns. Others enjoy dancing or sport - and my regular experience of wielding an epée makes me understand that these can be sources of intense pleasure. For other people it's watching sport going to gigs that's important. My circuses involve engagement with the arts.

I headed to London to see my parents, travelling as lightly as I could so that I could sandwich my visit with artistic pleasures. I was a groundling for a matinée of All's Well That Ends Well at the Globe - a difficult play that's rarely performed. It's not just its unfamiliarity that makes it one of my favourites. There's a pair of determined, assertive young women - even though the times mean that the best either can hope is an attractive, wealthy husband to lord it over them.

I've seen All's Well twice before - and in both productions the focus was on the central relationship between Helena and Bertram. The comedy was played either as abstruse courtly wit, at a distance from the audience, or a cue for over-emphasis with lots of "isn't this funny?" expressions in the hope that the audience would laugh. The revelation of this production was that, for the groundlings at least, the comedy worked and was genuinely funny. It comes, I think, from the shape of the theatre which encourages the actors to establish a relationship with the audience. Comic lines were played with the clarity of the successful stand-up - and were irresistible. I engaged with the play as a whole - how could I do otherwise with my forearms leaning on the front of the stage? - and, when the final scene of reconciliation came, my eyes filled with unexpected tears.

I stayed overnight with my parents, still in their own flat so less immediately threatened by the private profits of the market. We had supper and a quiet evening. In the morning I left with them when they headed out to the shops but my aim was a further exploration of London.

I was unsure of my destination but eventually decided on the Guildhall Museum, which I hadn't visited before, followed by the London Museum, which I hadn't seen for many years. Walking between and around the two, I found myself in a many-layered city, where modern structures of glass and metal loomed high above small Wren churches. There are traces of an even older city. I glimpsed the old London Wall through a museum window and saw what's left of the Roman amphitheatre in the Guildhall Museum basement.

That's the kind of structure Juvenal meant when he talked about bread and circuses: a place where shows of all kinds were put on, including gladiatorial combat and public execution. Being in some ways a typical Roman of his class, I don't suppose he minded the gladiators or the executions. But he was concerned that the citizens of Rome, once the source of democratic power, had been diverted from their proper concerns for the state to making demands for bread and circuses.

I agree with Juvenal that people should recognize and exert their democratic power. But I think he's wrong to dismiss bread and circuses. We all need food to live - not just food for the body but something that nourishes the imagination and tells us that life is worthwhile. It's also the circuses, whether we find them in physical activity, travel, music or the arts, that open us to a wider imaginative understanding of the world. They nourish curiosity and sympathy. They offer laughter, tears and reconciliation.

Yes, Juvenal - I want democratic involvement and responsibility. But I'll take the bread and circuses as well.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Hidden stories and imagined worlds

It seems that there are demonstrations and protests in several European countries. Every so often there's a brief mention in the press - but it's usually an aside or footnote to another story. A fellow-blogger, travelling to Madrid on business was startled to find every square in the city under occupation by protesters - and it seems that other Spanish cities have been occupied as well. The Barcelona occupation did get a mention in the British press - in the football reports. Apparently there were fears that Barca would be unable to celebrate in the usual square, as it was occupied. A search on the internet quickly brought up video of the Spanish police trying to disperse the protesters with considerable force.

It seems that Greece has large protests too. Syntagma Square in Athens may still be under occupation and I found mention (in Greek papers in English) of further protests in Thessaloniki and Patra. Then there were references to protests and occupations in France - not just in the Place de la Bastille in Paris but in other cities as well. Struggling through information from a variety of courses and a variety of languages, I discovered that people in each square came from a variety of political and non-political background - but were almost always outside the mainstream - and that they worked co-operatively and consensually to write their own agendas for change.

This may all fade away. People may just accept the poverty and exploitation which comes with finding their country "bailed out" from a crisis caused by their government, bankers, and multi-national countries. But I find it far more interesting than the sex-life of bankers or the dresses worn by the wives of a president, a prime minister and the heir to the heir to the throne. And I wonder why the British press is ignoring it while similar actions in some Middle Eastern countries merit front page coverage. I have, however, noted that protests in some Middle Eastern countries get more publicity than others - the press now has little to say about Syria, Tunisia, Morocco Bahrain - and last Friday's protests in Egypt were barely mentioned.

When so much is happening abroad - and when there are plenty of political struggles at home - it seems slightly bizarre to spend time at a theatre festival. But NEAT11, Nottingham's new international arts and theatre festival is practically on my doorstep. If I wished, I could walk to some of the events. And while some are rather expensive (Opera North still offers too few cheap tickets), others are cheap or even free. I made a few extravagant bookings and promised myself hours of indulgence away from the anxieties of the Age of Austerity.

It didn't quite work out like that. Who would have thought that Henrik Ibsen wasn't always a gloomy Scandinavian but a writer of political comedy? The League of Youth, receiving its professional premiere in Britain nearly 150 years after it was written, was one of Ibsen's most popular plays in his native Norway, at least during his lifetime. And, more surprisingly, it turns out to be a satire on Nick Clegg. I came away from the Playhouse both cheered and musing on the effects empty rhetoric still has on voters who are fed up with the current system and desperate for something better - and a chance to be heard. The League of Youth runs till Wednesday so there's still a chance to get tickets.

I also made it to a free play-reading of Anna Yablonskaya's play The Irons. Yabolnskaya is one of two people associated with NEAT11 to be killed in an act of terrorism this year. (The other is Juliano Mer Khamis.) She was killed in a random and barely-explained bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport. I thought the knowledge of her death might affect my response to the reading but it was so complex, even in a semi-staged reading, that I was caught up in the characters and events. But again it led me back to the world of politics. At the centre of the play was a young man collecting irons and ironing the flags of countries that no longer exist - and this wasn't just some intellectual metaphor but part of the characters' experience, reflecting a world that was both known and imaginary.

The reading I attended was a shortened version of the full play (which is being read in full next week) and was followed by a discussion of theatre in Central Europe, with representatives of a Hungarian theatre company, a Kosovan theatre festival and Natalia Koliada of the Free Theatre of Belarus. While theatre in Hungary has experienced cuts and press attacks - and may suffer in the future under a recent Media Law - it is in a far stronger position than Kosovan theatre, which is desperately under-funded and suffering the effects of war, poverty and unemployment. But the problems in Belarus made others seem insignificant.

Natalia Koliada is living in exile; she has been warned not to return since her arrest and imprisonment last year. Her country is a dictatorship, torture is routine and her theatre company is prevented from giving public performances. Requests to perform plays by British playwrights including Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Edward Bond were turned down. One of the reasons given was that the plays show homosexuality, suicide and mental illness, which "don't exist in Belarus". So I was back to politics again, marvelling at the power of the arts and fictional worlds to upset those who rule and administer totalitarian regimes. I marvelled too at the courage of those who continue to make art in difficult circumstances, finding something within them that will not bow to the demands of authority.

These theatrical experiences were shared with other members of the audience and quite easy to discuss. I also chose two solitary theatre experiences. For one I had to download tracks to my MP3 player; for the other I was provided with a mobile phone.

Threads by Andy Barrett is the more conventional drama. It's also free for anyone with access to a computer and MP3 player. In a way, following Threads round Nottingham's Lacemarket is like listening to a radio play. But there's something different about following a play which asks you to look intently at your surroundings while listening - it requires an acuteness of visual observation and risks being interrupted by external factors such as a crowd of clubbers or loud conversation in a bar. While the events of the play are fairly slight, it's the accompanying visual intensity that stays with me - and the play itself demands that the listener look at people and places anew.

More disturbing is Ulrike and Eamon Compliant which was devised for Venice but has been rethought for Nottingham. As the solitary audience member, I picked up a mobile phone, turned it on and listened attentively. I was asked to choose one of two identities from the real (historical) terrorists Ulrike Meinhof and Eamon Collins. Clutching the phone to my ear I walked through streets that were suddenly unfamiliar, made choices, followed orders and heard snatches of Ulrike Meinhof's experience until my identity began to blur into hers. I did not entirely stop being myself and a pacifist but for half an hour or so I saw Nottingham - and the wider world - as a terrorist might see it: angry at the injustice and cruelty of the world, prepared to sacrifice myself and others for the dream of a better world.

Sometimes - often at its best - theatre challenges its audiences to imagine things they do not want to understand. I felt at times that being Ulrike, even for half an hour, had messed up my brain and my identity. But I also knew that I undertook the experience voluntarily - and paid for it too. In a world as complex as ours it may help to understand. Just at the moment, theatre seems closer to world events and dilemmas than anything I find in the British press.

As I made my way to the bus-stop after a day of theatre, I passed the Old Market Square. No-one was demonstrating. If anything it seemed slightly emptier than usual at that time of night. But suppose it had been occupied by a peaceful protest camp of people wanting to change the world, I wondered if I'd have been able to read about it in the next day's papers. I'm glad I don't live under the kind of totalitarian regime that people experience in Belarus. But perhaps in Britain too there are some things that aren't mentioned in the press because they don't happen here. And who knows what anger that press silence would evoke?

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Pina and the stereoscope

I decided to give myself an Easter treat. Having found suitable eggs for my parents, who like milk chocolate; my son, who is a vegan and my daughter, who doesn't like chocolate very much, it seemed time to give myself a present. I determined on an Easter Day trip to the cinema and resolutely ignored the demands of house, garden and work.

My first idea was to see the film Oranges and Sunshine by Jim Loach. I still hope to see that some time. The scandal of children shipped from Britain to Australia, where many were abused and exploited, has particular resonance in the East Midlands, where the story was first brought to public attention. Jim Loach's film, which tells that story, is well-cast and has received excellent reviews. But I wasn't sure I wanted to be distressed on Easter Sunday, which is supposed to be a day of rejoicing.

A glimpse of a good review turned my attention to Wim Wenders' film, Pina. My daughter studied Pina Bausch's work at university and her views shifted from mild dislike to enthusiastic appreciation. It isn't easy to shift my daughter's views and I thought I would like to learn more about the choreographer who achieved that. While dance isn't one of my greatest interests, every so often a dance work does excite me and Pina Bausch, who used the term Tanztheater (dance-theatre) for her work, seemed the kind of creator who would at least be interesting. And when I heard of Wim Wenders' enthusiasm for 3D, my choice was settled.

I've never taken 3D cinema seriously before. I've enjoyed a couple of 3D cinema experiences – at least, I think I have – but while they were probably exciting at the time they had the quality of theme-park rides: intense at the time but ultimately unmemorable. Yet 3D is a logical development of cinema which includes the stereoscope among its origins.

I like stereoscopes. I've peered through them in museums and seen two similar, apparently-faded sepia prints spring into something resembling solidity. They recapture an unalterable past and give it a brief air of tangibility. The images shimmer into solidity before my uncertain gaze. I wasn't sure how 3D would work for dance but it seemed an appropriately elegaic mode for this subject – Pina Bausch died just as Wenders was starting work on a film about her.

The film Wenders has made is an elegy. Dancers' words recalling Pina are heard as they gaze silently into camera. There are also clips which show Pina dancing. These are, of course, in 2D but the stereoscopic effect is achieved by the use of an on-screen audience, reminding us that what we watch belongs to the past and cannot be recreated. The inclusion of 2D footage also has the effect of ensuring that the 3D effects remain vivid and startling – the brain isn't allowed to become acclimatised to the novelty of the experience.

I'm not sure I understand Pina Bausch's work. Even if I did, it resists being put into words. As she says during the film (so far as I can recollect), dance is an ideal medium for things which can be hinted but not spoken directly. Once I start describing what the dancers do and how they move, I know I'm diminishing their work. More than for most art-forms, the meaning of dance is unsayable.

Moreover the dances Pina Bausch created work, like most dance, by repetition of movement. A sequence which is initially startling – often because of the skill employed by the dancers – ceases to astonish and appeals to the emotions as it is performed again and again. My brain can't unscramble the effects but I can feel them.

At times, of course, my concentration flagged. Sometimes all I saw were the startling 3D effects as dancers moved towards me and away. That may have been because I was tired, because I'm insufficiently familiar with the vocabulary of dance or even because Wim Wenders is not yet sufficiently in command of 3D cinema and its effects. But my interest never fell away and I emerged from the darkened cinema feeling that I'd seen something that isn't usually available away from the screen.

“After all,” I reflected on the train home, “3D is never quite so intensive and exciting in the real world. The 3D of reality is flatter than that.” And then, when I left the station, I looked up and was suddenly aware of distance – between sky, houses, trees, road and lamp-posts. It seems that the film has re-educated my brain. The world I see now has sprung back into its real, 3D perspective.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Enduring freedom

I took another look at the peace-camp on Saturday. It's been shifted to the pavement in Parliament Square while the grass, which London mayor Boris Johnson said he wanted to preserve for the people of London, is closed off with tall fences and patrolled by security guards.

The peace-campers' tents are neat and there's plenty of space for pedestrians on the pavement. I was one of many people visiting to read the banners. But it's still hard to reach the traffic island – I've yet to find a set of traffic lights that enable the public to reach the island. I had to employ my usual technique of a quick dash as the third lane of traffic slowed.

I suspect there will be an attempt, on some pretext or other, to remove the peace-campers before Friday's Royal Wedding, even though they offer no more risk than a fairly quiet protest on a range of issues, most – but not all – related to war. One man's banners announce that he is undertaking a hunger strike because he has been unjustly imprisoned. If he were in Tripoli the British press would probably declare him a hero. As it was, none of the campers even offered me a leaflet. I read their hand-made banners without interruption. Theirs is a quiet, enduring protest.

If the peace-camp is cleared, it will make the streets more home-like and welcoming for the despots and their representatives who are attending Prince William's wedding. The Crown Prince of Bahrain has finally pulled out, citing troubles at home – these could include the brutality his own and Saudi troops are showing to unarmed demonstrators and the doctors who treat them. But London and the Royal Family will still welcome representatives of Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland.

Looking at summaries of the Guantanamo files, I can't help thinking that these tyrants have much in common with our other allies – and perhaps with our own, more secretive activities elsewhere in the world. Apparently the United States military didn't just take people to Guantanamo because they thought they were terrorists. They also kidnapped and imprisoned people who they thought might have useful information. A taxi-driver, for instance, was reckoned to have good knowledge of a particular region because his work took him through it. One man – a British citizen – was held because he had been imprisoned by the Taliban and was therefore likely to have good knowledge of their interrogation techniques. A 14-year-old who had been kidnapped and was known to be innocent of all terrorist activities was kidnapped again – this time by the Americans – because he might have knowledge of the Taliban and local leaders.

As for evidence of terrorist activities – the U.S. military didn't need much ground for arrest, deportation and torture. Visiting Afghanistan after 9/11 was enough. So was possession of a Casio watch, although the models the U.S. found suspicious are cheap and widely available.

I expect the United States ambassador will be at the Royal Wedding. After all, the North Korean ambassador has been invited – as have kings, queens, princes and princesses from several countries that have been republics for a long time. I hope that none of them – and none of the “ordinary” people invited – are wearing Casio watches. That could set off some serious security alarms.

More than that, I hope the peace-camp survives Will and Kate's special day. It would be good to think there's still a small patch of pavement in London where freedom survives, despite the actions of the state.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Harrods of the ancient world

How could something so fragile last so long?

I gazed at the remains of brittle gold bowls and goblets. I could see where the stem of the goblet should be. The amazing thing is not that it has vanished but the thin, ridged bowl should have survived. I peered closer to make out the outlines of bulls on part of a bowl. A craftsman scored them gently into the gold around four thousand years ago. They are evidence of a vanished civilization of which little else is known. They come from Afghanistan.

I was hesitant about visiting the Afghan Treasures exhibition at the British Museum. I thought uncomfortably of conquerors, loot and triumphal processions. Exhibitions often arrive with an agenda, especially when they have been negotiated by diplomats. But this exhibition seems to have a gentler and more laudable cause. The British Museum has been restoring ivories that were stolen in the looting of Kabul Museum and recovered by an unnamed philanthropists. The British Museum staff have been working with the staff of Kabul Museum and the exhibition, however dependent on diplomatic goodwill and corporate sponsors, comes out of their joint work. The exhibition tells another story too – of museum staff who hid the treasures so that the history of their country could be preserved.

The history of Afghanistan is not well known. There is much that has not yet been recovered or understood. Western history books have tended to simplify the region as a place of romantic barbarism which briefly encountered civilization with the arrival of Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great, who married an Afghan wife and adopted local customs, may have viewed it differently.

So far as I can gather and recollect, the region had two reasons for importance in the world. It was a source of lapis lazuli, which was rare and much in demand. And although its terrain is difficult by contemporary vehicles, it stood on major trade routes, bordering India, China and the Persian Empire. Traders went as far as Greece and Rome, although the journey each way would have taken a year. The treasures they brought back, particularly to Begram, are protected in glass cases in the exhibition.

Captions show the uncertainty of the curators about the exhibits on view. There is a head of Silenus, clearly recognizable, but did the Afghans really know who Silenus was? Its unclear whether the owners of valuable items purchased deities or just attractive statues – rather as a modern mantlepiece may bear statues of Ganesh or the Buddha without necessarily demonstrating any religious allegiance or knowledge.

There's glass, too – Roman glass most probably or perhaps made in Egypt - the curators cannot be sure how it reached Begram from Rome since the way was blocked by war with Parthia. One piece is enamelled with full-length figures which even I can see are Roman in style. Another's delicately ornamented with vines made from the glass itself. But beside these are statues carved in turned ivory – chair-legs, the inscription suggests – each with a swaying female figure in what seems to me an Indian style. There are glass fish, a face that resembles a Greek or Chinese theatrical mask. There are Corinthian columns and finials. Some items must have been made in Afghanistan by craftsmen who had learnt skills from crafts practised elsewhere. But many items are imports, suggesting a place like Britain today where beautiful objects from all over the world can be prized and owned.

Half-way round the exhibition, I realised something else that was troubling me, though it's not unusual. I had little sense of the lives of the people who owned these objects, other than that they were very rich and could afford goods imported from far-off places. It was as if, one day far in the future, someone were to excavate Harrods and, finding only a few of the goods on show, tried to understand life today on that basis. Perhaps that is what has survived. Perhaps these expensive, traded goods represent the Harrods of the ancient world.

As I wandered through the exhibition, the past seemed both more distant and more familiar. I couldn't grasp past Afghan cultures but then, if asked, I couldn't give a simple account that took in the whole of west European culture today. Artefacts left by Afghan trading centres, which drew goods and influence from across the world, speak of a complex, varied society. This shouldn't be surprising or unusual. But I began to realise that many exhibitions treat the past as a collection of small, separate societies. They don't just assume that societies are culturally pure – they often treat cultural purity as something good in itself. The textbooks I studied at school were wary of cultural mixing. Rome's interest in things Greek was regarded with disdain although the Renaissance interest in Greek art and sculpture was excused as a means of regaining artistic purity after the confused muddle of the Middle Ages.

Looking at the wide range of objects on display and marvelling at their variety, I realised how much ancient history has been filtered through subjective and questionable value judgements. I suppose curators have to simplify – just as their displays provide the kind of neat, comforting pattern humans are trained to prefer. But in real life I like variety and complexity – and am glad that human existence resists a neatly moral narrative arc.

At last I neared the object I recognized from the posters for the exhibition: the gold crown once worn, so the captions assured me, by a nomad princess. I expected something bright and golden but I hadn't realised the tiny golden discs would tremble continuously, as though there were a breeze or breath inside the glass case. I read that the crown could be packed away and folded – and that all the nomad treasures, buried two thousand years ago, could be carried easily on horseback. In my imagination an Afghan princess rode through wild landscapes, the trembling crown on her head and a gold-studded cloak behind her. It's an improbable fantasy. I have no idea what the concept “princess” means in terms of nomadic people two thousand years ago - I wonder if the women were princesses in any way we can understand.

Little seems to be known of Afghan nomadic life beyond the six graves in Tilya Tepe. But the adornments found in the tombs of five women and one man link the items closely to the humans who wore them. It's not just the photos showing how the bodies lay when the tombs were opened or the glass case where the golden items mark out the shape of a human form. It's more to do with the sense that these items once touched living flesh and the the gold was caught on wisps of cloth the tombs were found. I peered as directed to see that the bracelets show signs of wear – in contact with an arm over time, gold diminishes.

The exhibition isn't big or cheap (I got in for half price – £5 – with my Art Fund membership). Space inside is limited because items are small and, when I visited on Saturday, that meant queuing briefly before reaching most cabinets. I haven't carried away a neat package of knowledge about an obscure culture. Instead I have grounds for wonder and wondering – more than enough.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Berkoff and Dionysos

Last week, I realised I'd never seen Sophocles' King Oedipus on stage.

Few people would be surprised by that, but I was. These days I don't get to the theatre as often as I'd like but I still think of myself as a theatre-goer. In the past, I've sought out obscure productions of Greek plays – in Greek as well as in English – because of the challenge they pose to today's theatre.

I'm not an expert but, when I struggled through two happy years to achieve a weak pass in Greek A-level, I supplemented my tussles with verbs and syntax with reading everything I could find on Greek history and culture. According to the curriculum, my school didn't offer Greek. Greek, like writing Latin verse, tended to be the preserve of boys' grammar and public schools. But somehow I wangled my way into Greek A-level, which was taught intensively from scratch in the Latin teacher's spare time. I've been grateful to her ever since. I was an unpromising prospect with nothing except a desire to learn to recommend me. There must have been considerable doubt whether I would pass. But the teacher – her name was Miss Blench – did her very best for me, setting plenty of work and urging me to read as much as I could. I think there were four shelves of books about Ancient and Classical Greece in the school library. I probably read every one.

I don't suppose any school would let a pupil take that risk nowadays, what with league tables and so on. But I'm more proud of the grade D I attained (a clear pass!) than any other academic achievement.

My teenage passion for things Greek has subsided now but I still turn to Greek texts from time to time – often in translation with the original Greek beside me, if I can find it, so that I can have some idea of the sound and the way meaning is made. But heading to Steven Berkoff's production of Oedipus at Nottingham Playhouse, I couldn't find a Greek text. I had to make do with a few extracts in The Oxford Book of Greek Verse, which were far too difficult for me.

Instead I thought of the problems posed by staging Greek tragedy today. It's never going to be the same for us as the Greeks. A director could offer a singing, dancing chorus and principle actors in masks and elevated shoes, but it wouldn't have the same effect. The Greeks were as familiar with that convention as we are with drawing-room comedies or Shakespeare framed by a proscenium arch.

Nor does theatre have the same role in society. These days there's a debate about the purpose of theatre and whether it should be funded. There's always someone to say it's superfluous and that, if people want theatre, they should pay for it, however high the prices and however limited their means. The defenders of theatre talk of heritage and culture. They even act like economists and produce charts showing how much money theatres bring into their towns and cities. Meanwhile the government imposes cuts which are made at one remove, leaving the lovers of theatre and custodians of culture to decide whose potential will be stifled and whose lives they will impoverish

None of that would have made sense in Athens, when Sophocles' play was first produced at the Great Dionysia. Performing plays and going to the theatre was a religious duty. Citizens attended to honour the god Dionysos. There was a fund to ensure that those who couldn't afford the tickets could still join the audience. And it was an honour to be the wealthy citizen who sponsored a playwright's work.

As I remember – it's a long time since I worked through those books – the Great Dionysia was also a theatrical competition. A small jury would vote for the best set of plays (three from each playwright and a satyr play). However not all the votes were counted, giving the god a chance to intervene. And the plays were all on familiar topics so the question was not what the story was but always how it was told – and how it honoured the god - in the vast Athenian auditorium.

There was no way Steve Berkoff could offer that experience for an audience seeing a single play from the comfortable seats of the Playhouse. I did wonder whether he would try to bring the audience to a state of catharsis – the state of purification from emotions which King Oedipus achieves, according to Aristotle. But I'm not convinced such a state is possible today. We see the world differently.

One of the main differences is the set of questions we can't help asking about Oedipus: what did he do wrong? what could he have done differently? does he deserve his punishment? But these aren't, I think, the questions Sophocles' original audience would have askes. (These aren't my own ideas. I'm following classical scholars. I don't have my books to hand but I believe I encountered the arguments in essays by E.R. Dodds and Erich Segal.)

Sophocles' first audience believed in curses and prophecies. They probably didn't think about it all the time but the question could even enter politics. When things were going badly, citizens would mutter that there was a curse on the family of Pericles and Alcibiades – not because they thought there must be but because the curse was a matter of historical fact. Electing a leader from a cursed family could cause problems for the city as a whole.

The baby Oedipus was no more than three days old when the prophecy was pronounced – and it derived from a curse on his family. From the time of his birth it was inevitable that he would kill his father and marry his mother. The Christian idea of sin doesn't come into it because his fate was always inescapable. So is the punishment he and his family must endure for his actions – not because Oedipus has committed any conscious or willed wrong but because father-murder and incest are punished by divine law, even if they occur accidentally. What the play shows is not the way we should live but the way the power of the gods and prophecies work out. If it has a moral – and I think it does – it is simply that humans should believe in oracles and honour the gods.

I can see those views at a distance and understand logically that people held them but, like most people, I'm too wrapped up in a world that believes in personal guilt, human responsibility and the innocence of babies to feel what such views mean. Although people today often suffer for the actions of their rulers, few would find it just that a whole city should suffer from plague because its king has acted in the way the gods or Fate ordained. Because our understanding of the world has changed, ideas like this don't work in the theatre of today. Actors need characters they can inhabit and audiences need to sense a world that isn't too distant from their own.

In Steven Berkoff's production (after Oedipus rather than an exact translation) it's surprising how little this difference matters and how much of Sophocles' play survives. Berkoff may have created an Oedipus who is something of a mobster or mafioso rather than a king but Stephen Merrells' arrogant boss fits the play – he is the sort of man who, unfortunately for him, is bound to attract the notice of the gods.

I admired Louise Jameson's Jocasta too. She seemed softer than I would have expected – sympathetic and believable. I don't shudder in the way the original audience would have done when she repeatedly denies the power of oracles – to the watching Athenians this was the kind of blasphemy that could threaten the city as well as the speaker. For a modern audience this is more understandable. She's a mother who has lost her child and her husband and whose love for Oedipus is, in consequence, tender and protective.

What interested me above all was how the play itself would work. After all, telling a well-known story can mean there's little suspense. But just as children like to repeat the same suspense-filled journey, grown-ups can be interested in how a familiar story is told – and knowing the ending doesn't necessarily spoil the excitement.

I was surprised how well the tension builds. As members of the audience we observe the unfolding of events, alert to every little irony and clue. When Oedipus promises, with an oath as binding as an oracle, that he will punish the murderer of Laius with exile, we already know that he is promising to punish himself. And when we're told of his similarity to Laius, we know this is because he is Laius's son. Yet the inevitability enthralls the audience, as I suppose it enthralls the audience of a slasher-movie. And I found that, whereas I would watch Hamlet, which I've seen many times, for how the play is staged and acted, with Oedipus most of my attentions was given to the way in which the story unfolds. I suppose in that respect the modern audience is very like the Greek audience, who would have seen a number of plays on the Oedipus theme.

There were two points where I was less certain of the production, though this may suggest I'm something of a purist when it comes to Greek theatre. While at times the stylised mime of the chorus worked well – when performing clear emotions or recognizable actions, as, for instance, when a member of the ensemble suddenly became a horseback messenger – at other times I found the movements too vague in intent, though performed with complete conviction. But what a pleasure it was to see such a range of faces. Each chorus-member was both part of an ensemble and a human individual, whose face could at times be transformed into the fixed pain and astonishment of a Greek tragedian's mask.

For me one of the highlights of Greek or French classical drama is the messenger's speech when an actor tells the story of horrors that happen offstage. I'll never forget Robert Edison in the Phedre of Racine, holding a full theatre still and on edge as his mellifluous voice painted a succession of cruel catastrophes. The horror that occurs in my imagination is always more terrible than any that can be shown on stage.

I was unhappy, therefore, at the decision to show Jocasta's suicide and Oedipus's eye-gouging on stage. Even a simple dumb-show distracts from the power of language to shock. The conclusion did allow a moment that moved me deeply: when Oedipus gently embraced and kissed his dead mother-wife. But that gentleness somehow made the ending less bleak and powerful. The play moved me but not to the extent that I felt purged and purified by having seen it. Good as the production was, it offered me no catharsis.

But then, I didn't go to Nottingham Playhouse to worship Dionysos. I'm not sure I believe in him.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Against the dark times

I have succumbed to temptation again.

The Flying Goose café hosted one of its regular poetry readings and I returned with books by the three poets who read - Ann Atkinson, Alan Baker and Wayne Burrows - as well as books by the Australian Andrew Sant and the Dutch poet and children's writer Toon Tellegen.

As I carried my shiny treasures home I reflected that these are not the kind of books you see in Waterstone's. They come from small presses - Shoestring, Skysill and Smith/Doorstop - and are, like so many books from small presses, lovingly made. While mass market paperbacks can seem impersonal - made to fit in with a marketing officer's idea of what "brand" each book fits - small press books often show the personal care of the tiny teams that put them together. The smallest presses are run by people who make no money from them but work for pay elsewhere. The books small presses produce have a personality which seems to come from their close link with both publisher and author.

These carefully-crafted books and the skilfully-managed poems within them cannot compensate for the horrors on the news. The optimistic and peaceful protests in the Middle East seem to be ending in bloody repression and torture by regimes to whom the British government has been - and in most cases still is - selling military equipment. The threats and massacres that silence dissent have been knocked off the front page by the pain of Japan for which I have no words.

I can't look at the television for long - it's not just the sense of helplessness I experience that prevents me but the fear that if I look too long I'll be a mere voyeur - or worse, be hardened to ignore the devastation and anguish of others.

But literature (and art and music and many other sources of beauty and pleasure) still have their place in the world. I was reminded of this by a short blog message to her Japanese readers from the science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, who posted at the request of her translator and friend. Reading this - and the first comment that followed - made me feel reassured that there is nothing wrong in the refuge I seek in words, art and music. These have many roles. They deepen understanding and cause us to question. They also nourish and console, in part because of the care with which they are wrought.

So I feel less bad about the joy I take in music on Radio 3, in sunshine, in books, in poetry. These good things exist in the same world in which humans and nature cause great damage. I'll campaign and write letters and even march against great wrongs. I'll try to work out how the world might be better and say what I think. I'll never have most of the answers but can try to contribute to debate and trains of thought - the more people share ideas and work together, the better hope for humanity. And I'll pay attention to things that are quite small and made with love.

This Saturday Leicester hosts States of Independence II, an independent press fair where small and independent publishers will display their wares and writers will read, talk and answer questions. It's a free, all-day event to which members of the public are welcome. It's a chance to celebrate words and the makers of books. However dark the world, these remain worthy of celebration.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The problem with patrons

I was almost impossibly tired when I arrived at the National Gallery. I'd had a good but busy week and was still recovering from the amazing and absorbing experience of hearing Alan Moore, the Magus of Northampton, read aloud from his novel-in-process. [Note to anyone who hasn't come across Alan Moore: he is not only a remarkable writer but also one of the kindest and most courteous authors I have encountered. His reading held everyone in a huge lecture theatre spellbound for nearly an hour and he spent a further hour and a half speaking to everyone who had queued to have their books signed.]

The day after Alan Moore, I was on my way to visit my parents, unsure I was sufficiently awake to take in the Gossaert exhibition but knowing that I was unlikely to find another opportunity to see it. I also had my new Art Fund card with me - at last I've fulfilled my resolution to join, not just for the very welcome benefits but also because I have benefited from the Art Fund through a lifetime of gallery visits.

The route to the exhibition took me past many familiar paintings. On one side I spotted a favourite Titian. Through the entrance to another room I thought I glimpsed a Vermeer. There was Murillo, staring out of his frame like a competent marketer of his own paintings.

In my susceptible state of mind, even Rubens seemed set to lure me from my path toward Gossaert. After all, Rubens was not only free but there were comfortable padded benches from which his work could be admired. (I don't usually admire Rubens that much.)

I forced myself to make the long trek to the basement of the Sainsbury wing where the Gossaerts were displayed. It was worth it. I realised that I had seen and admired individual paintings by Gossaert in the past but I'd never seen them in relation to one another before. I hadn't even registered the artist's name.

There are six rooms in the exhibition. Gossaert's drawings and paintings are complemented by the work of artists who influenced him - a startling range from Northern European artists like Durer to the classical tradition of the Italian Renaissance. Although he's only mentioned in the timeline at the start of this exhibition, it's easy to see Holbein as the heir of this remarkable combination of influences.

There's more to Gossaert than his portraits but these are the most obviously remarkable part of his work. The people he paints in portraits convince as human beings, simultaneously familiar and unknowable. This isn't just true of his secular portraits. There's a lavishly clad Mary Magdalen with sly glance and dirty fingernails. But he also paints relationships, including erotic relationships. There are various works showing Adam and Eve, including some copies of lost originals, but all convey an astonishing blend of tenderness and desire.

The work that stunned me most - and nearly moved me to tears - was a painting of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It's a dark painting - even the red robes of the flying angel and the sleeping St John are barely lit. An elderly figure - St Peter, perhaps, lies on his back, asleep in the foreground. He has the pallor of exhaustion. But at the centre is the kneeling figure of a youthful Christ, beardless, confused and close to despair. It's not an attractive figure but terrifyingly recognizable. It's the expression of any child confronting an incomprehensible horror. It could be Libya or Afghanistan - or, too often, the U.K.

At the end of the exhibition I couldn't give an account of Gossaert. I had no sense of the man who painted the pictures, except that he could see and reproduce with pencil on paper or paint on canvas. He had, it seems, some human understanding that didn't take a verbal form. And he had the luck to be taken up by a succession of patrons who took him within reach of the influences he needed to develop his art.

It was luck. That's the problem with patrons. While Gossaert had the right patrons for his development as an artist, he was limited to painting what they required: a portrait of a marriageable daughter, erotic works for a private collection, an altar piece, a sketch for a tomb. There is no way of knowing what Gossaert would have liked to paint. It's lucky that some of his patrons' requirements suited a style that we can now appreciate.

It's luck too that has made me so familiar with the works in the National Gallery - the luck of living near a free art gallery and being encouraged by my parents to look inside. I was brought up to take advantage of free and cheap culture - to see culture as a good that should be shared.

It was shocking, therefore, to read, the day after my visit to the National Gallery, of a Labour MP calling for the introduction of admission charges to London's museums. He's not just any Labour MP. The Hon. Tristram Hunt, son of a life peer and a historian with a proclaimed interest in radicalism and the working class, has written an introduction to a recent edition of Robert Tressell's The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. In this book, Robert Tressell, through his main socialist characters, argues that culture is one of the necessities of life and should be available to all. I assume Tristram Hunt read the book before writing the introduction. It's a shame he didn't take in its arguments.

It's fair to say that Tristram Hunt wants free admission to the museums in his own constituency of Stoke-on-Trent and, by extension, to other regional museums. I think they should be free too. But I don't think the country's great art galleries and museums should become the preserve of the wealthy. And I'm not interested in any party that can consider excluding the poor from culture, which is not just an education but a means to nourish imagination.

Had there been a charge for the National Gallery, I might have visited once or twice when I was growing up. I know I wouldn't have gone there often - and I wouldn't have learnt much about the history of art. I remember when Mrs Thatcher introduced admission charges for museums and galleries in the 1980s. I was poor then and on many occasions I was stuck outside, wishing I could afford to go in.

Now I've joined the Art Fund. I make donations because museums and galleries were free in my childhood and it's time to say thank-you. If there had been a charge, I wouldn't have bothered. I'd have known museums and galleries weren't for the likes of me.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Banishing the mouse

I'm in danger of succumbing to a new addiction. In the past few weeks I don't just come downstairs desperate to ignite the gas beneath the espresso-maker. I also tune feverishly to Radio 3.

It began with Buchner. I read his plays years ago and have twice seen excellent productions of Berg's opera Wozzeck. But I've never seen the original plays performed. So when, by chance, I noticed that Danton's Death was being broadcast on Radio 3, I tuned to the station - and didn't tune away.

In the past Radio 4 has been my default station. But the new and views have weighed on me, as has the immense wordiness of it all. I spend so much of my life with words that every so often, I need a break - and the music on Radio 3, at its best, provides that.

But this week started unfortunately. Paul Dukas is composer of the week - and that should have been excellent, because I know so little about him or his work. It was a shame that, early on, the compiler of the programmes felt compelled to play his most famous work, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." I'd have liked to consider it in relation to the Goethe poem on which it was based but I couldn't. I've seen Fantasia. My mind was flooded with images of Mickey Mouse.

It was a relief, therefore, to find a piece of music which I could experience simply as music - which didn't crowd my mind with words and images but existed in sound and space, on its own terms.

I was at De Montfort University's Cultural eXchanges festival - an annual event that offers a range of cultural events, talks and debates - mostly for free - to locals in Leicester and the wider East Midlands. I've managed to attend a number of sessions but the one that stands out for me is the one that's hardest to describe and explain. Its resistance to description and explanation is one of the things I liked best about it.

Simon Emmerson's Memory Machine is an installation. I didn't know what to expect. What I found was a darkened studio - there were coloured lights and bean-bags. We entered in small groups, advised to walk carefully andlet our eyes adjust. Some people chose to sit or lie on the floor. I remained standing and, from time to time, walked around. My interest was in the sound.

When sound doesn't conform to the normal expectations of music - when it isn't in a definable strict form and doesn't include words - the only thing to do is to experience it and either succumb or not succumb. There were occasional sounds that seemed familiar - the fall of water, for instance - that conjured up ideas and past experiences. But other sounds I seemed to feel physically - in my body as much as through my ears. The sound came from different directions at once - the balance changed as I moved (as quietly as I could) across the studio. I felt at times excited - and at others intensely relaxed.

I couldn't stay as long as I wished. Perhaps that is as well. If I'd stayed too long I might have felt I was floating. As it was I had found, briefly, something I craved - a way of being that was neither speech nor image.

I suppose some people would dismiss such work as "avant-garde" or label it "difficult." I found it neither - but I know little about music. All I know is that sometimes, when I choose to experience a new work and am ready to accept what it has to offer, I discover new and unexpected sources of delight.

Note: The photograph is not associated with Simon Emmerson's composition. It was taken during a performance of Ligeti's Poeme Symphonique for a hundred metronomes at Covent Garden last year.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Freakshow frolics

I haven't quite given up watching TV but I'm nearly there.

It wasn't something I planned to do. Given the right mood, I can enjoy an evening with the television. I don't just watch serious shows. I can sink into programmes that are merely pleasant and those that counterfeit an undemanding friendship between presenter and viewer. When real friends aren't on hand, fakery will do.

These days, while I still sit down to enjoy the occasional film or music programme, I try to avoid much of what TV offers. That skews my criticism - I ought to know more about the subjects of my discomfort. But there's a limit on how long I can endure some of the latest trends. Sometimes that limit allows me to watch for two or three minutes. Occasionally I last nearly half an hour. Often I reach for the remote or the off switch in a matter of seconds.

My discomfort began many years ago. The council estate on which I grew up was a popular haunt for TV documentary-makers, eager to present all of us who lived there as feral creatures, alienated from society by whatever the bogey-man of the moment was, from modern architecture to the innate stupidity and violence of the working classes. We gradually learned their methods. They would move in smilingly, ingratiating themselves with the locals, praising anyone who would embody the director's views in a speech direct to camera.

There's always someone who wants to be TV. It's easy to find someone with a grievance – or genuine anguish – who can be treated as typical of a whole community. Teenage youths with a sense of bravado are prepared to declare their involvement in gangs, threats, mugging – anything the pretty young interviewer wants – because it's better to gain her smiling approval than to admit the uncomfortable truth that they're only 12 or 14 and their mum won't let them out after 7.00 p.m.

Television lies. It doesn't often tell direct untruths but it lies by selection and omission, by choosing a single person, a small group or a set of episodes to stand for a class, a racial group or a community. This is not governed by the laws of libel – and TV companies usually know how to stay within the guidelines laid down by those who control broadcast media.

Besides, TV offers what the audience and the tabloids demand. It feeds into prejudice, hatred and contempt. I can't talk with authority about My Big Fat Gipsy Wedding because I knew from the advance publicity that the programmes would drip with contempt for the people they persuaded to take part – and that it would add to the daily contempt and hatred which too many members of the Romany and Traveller communities have to endure. I didn't watch. After transmission I listened to anguished voices of a number of intelligent travelling people and their descendants. I noted that they didn't even sound angry – the misrepresentation and the attitudes that programme-makers encouraged in the viewers were too familiar to cause anything but resignation to pain.

Freakshows used to be a staple of travelling fairs but they're dying out now. I've mixed feelings about them. No-one wants to be defined as a freak but the people who toured the country, exhibiting themselves in booths, seem to have found some kind of camaraderie as well as a regular income. Some – like the fat man Daniel Lambert – achieved respect for their courtesy and intelligence. It's hard to think that the freakshows on television offer such an opportunity.

TV freakshows want two things: outlandishness and suffering. The ideal freak-star should have an agonising past with a few ex-friends or embarrassing relations who are prepared to sell their stories to the tabloids. It helps if the freak-star is working-class and lacks the means or confidence to question or challenge the freakshow system. Then the freak-star should have outbursts of unacceptable behaviour – the sort of outbursts any of us might have if watched round the clock and required to perform for cameras that follow every move. The more polite freak-star will recognize the outburst as misconduct, subside into tears and apologise. The badly-behaved freak-star defends her or his conduct and can be held up for further contempt.

Any freak-star who attacks the system is blamed. Good, pliant, commendable freak-stars talks of their “journey” and praise the system. The reward is more TV exposure. Occasionally the freak-star achieves financial gain, though this is usually short-term.

Sometimes a freak-star tries to trick the system – or is incited to trick the system – by falsely representing a past as tragic or impoverished. You can't become a freak-star without overcoming illness, grief, abuse or addiction. You have to make your exploiters cry for the cameras – so long as they don't smudge their carefully-applied make-up.

But if you lie to elicit those much-needed tears, the tabloids and public will turn on you. They want authentic suffering, a real journey – and you mustn't deceive them. If you do, they'll turn away from you at once. There's always another outlandish figure or group to hate, despise or pity. The trickster who tries to exploit the freakshow system is condemned to isolation. The TV companies and their bosses rake in their millions.

And the audience stays smug in a contempt which provides warm insulation from most of the pain in the world.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Imagined journeys

I'm not really about to travel on the trans-Siberian railway - or even on the Moscow metro. But when I attend my weekly Russian class, the tutor assumes we will all go to Russia one day.

She seems rather worried about this, especially as most of us fail to make the rapid progress she would like. My studies are hampered by my failure to find sufficient time for homework and my inability to pronounce words with long strings of consonants.

I've spent some time this evening writing out numbers, days and months in my neatest Russian script in the hope that I'll start to remember them. But somehow they fail to lodge properly in my brain. I really need 20 or 30 minutes a night on Russian to make any progress - an hour or so at the weekend, when lucky, doesn't have the same effect. So when the next lesson comes round, I'll feel like a dunce again.

But when I look back, I have made some small progress. I no longer struggle with Cyrillic script and have acquired a few useful phrases: I can say извините (excuse me) я не знаю (I don't know) and employ the useful word можно (our tutor's very keen on можно) which means something like "May I ...?" and can be used in a variety of situations.

At times we enact situations. Some are guided by the text book while others are invented by the tutor. The text book has a fine sense of exotic scenarios. I particularly enjoyed the conversation between the delegates to a conference for amateur accordianists, who enthusiastically introduced themselves to one another, giving details of their nationality and job - in Russian of course.

Then there was the keen but inexpert student of Russian (always asking Russian friends to speak slowly until they pronounced the words one careful syllable at a time). His evident lack of competence didn't stop him heading for a large bookshop (дом книги) where he asked the assistant for the book of his choice - not a simple reader or a Chekhov short story but Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Later he set out to buy a balalaika as well - there's an enthusiasm for music running through the text book.

But we move away from the book to practise other scenarios. We have arrived at customs and are interrogated by an official who demands to see passport and visa, asks questions about nationality and profession and which bag belongs to which traveller. We buy tickets for the train at the main rail station (a word derived from Vauxhall, after the much-admired London station), and enquire about train times (numbers again). We learn how to navigate the metro in Moscow or Novosibirsk.

But again our tutor is anxious. "Don't go to Russia alone. You should go in a group or with a guide - unless you know Russian people." She's worried we'll be mugged or cheated - that we won't be able to cope with crowds or pickpockets. She also warns us about the high prices in Moscow and the risk of taking an unlicensed taxi. At the same time she wants us to understand that Russian people are hospitable and good friends who will, when we know them, welcome us into their homes.

I suspect she would be a little less worried were we more competent in the language. I would worry about any friend who arrived in London alone with little English and attempted to navigate the city. But the language, while fascinating, remains strange.

Of course, it's the strangeness that attracts me. I've reached the stage where I can notice the way Russian words have different boundaries to English words. For instance, there are different words for going somewhere on foot and going somewhere in a vehicle. There are other oddities. Numbers ending in 2-4 take the genitive singular while higher numbers that don't end in 2-4 take the genitive plural. And the sane word means both "world" and "peace".

That, for me, is one of the most exciting things about learning a language. As I discover the different concepts that are taken for granted in other languages, I feel my mind expanding to accommodate additional possibilities. At the same time, certainties I'd taken for granted become unstable. It's worth struggling with the numbers and the strings of consonants for that alone.

Of course, I'd rather become so expert that I could read Pushkin or Akhmatova in the original. It doesn't seem likely. Next week we learn how to book hotel rooms. I expect we'll be asking questions about bedding, showers and when breakfast is served. It's not quite the vocabulary of Eugene Onegin.

I don't suppose I'll even get to Moscow either, so I shan't use my expert knowledge on travelling by Metro or booking a hard or soft seat to Novosibirsk. I'd rather like to cross Russia alone, for all my tutor's anxieties. Perhaps, if I did, I'd find myself managing the language a little better.

But that's enough reflection. It's time to return to my Russian homework. I have to work out how to buy a samovar and some Russian chocolate. I might buy a bottle of vodka as well and a few postcards - or even a large, red piano. It doesn't really matter what I buy since I won't really be paying for it or bringing it home.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Chaplin's world

I've almost lost count of the number of times I've planned - and failed - to get to a "coffee-time" concert at St Peter's church in Nottingham. I almost always see the notice at the wrong time or discover the concert I'd like has been scheduled for a weekend when I have other plans.

I nearly forgot the Chaplin/Keaton double bill with live organ accompaniment. But I saw the sign again as I paid a brief visit to Light Night and determined not to miss the concert. The sound tracks added later to accompany silent movies leave them seeming incomplete. A live accompaniment, whether by soloist or full orchestra, brings early films to life - somehow when the music is live it more than takes the place of speech.

The concert offered two films: Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street and Buster Keaton in One Week. Donald MacKenzie, the organist, announced his preference for Keaton but I can't agree with him. Keaton may be as physically brilliant as Chaplin - even as good an actor - but I never care about his characters as I do about the various manifestations of the Little Tramp. Keaton's character seems all about expressionless cleverness - although it masquerades as incompetence - and I'm never convinced he really belongs to the societies which provide a backdrop for his escapades.

But I can't help believing in Charlie Chaplin's world. He inhabits the fringes of a complex, recognizable society. Work is possible but gruellingly difficult - bosses employ and sack people for no evident reason. Some people exploit or tyrannise over others. Worklessness, hunger and beggary are regular dangers. This world offers no consistent reward for virtue or hard work but luck and optimism may just pay off. Charlie copes with a mixture of slyness and sympathy. He is also capable of imitating the ruling classes, even in an ill-fitting suit and big shoes.

I find Charlie's imitations of the aristocracy and those in power particularly attractive. They suggest that the easy confidence of the wealthy is no more than a mannerism which can be acquired. It has nothing to do with class superiority. In these days when too many of our rulers are graduates of the Bullingdon Club, this is something worth remembering.

Easy Street isn't my favourite early Chaplin but I like the way it both records working-class life and parodies the contradictory middle-class views of the "dangerous" working class.
There are bullies, thieves, families with too many children and - a staple of the time - a drug den supplied by an evil foreigner. Charlie, by the beautiful young woman at the Hope Mission, gives up his life as a tramp and petty thief and volunteers for the police force. But he continues to behave in his familiar way, avoiding bullies unless compelled to fight and easily swayed by sympathy for the poor, pretty and desperate. He may have joined the police but the audience knows that he's not really an agent of the law. He's taken the job and the uniform for the pay and so that he can get the girl.

As a character, Charlie never sets out to change the world. Any difference he makes it accidental. (The real Charlie Chaplin was more politically engaged and kept under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover's agents at the FBI.) But Chaplin's films remind me constantly that I live in an unjust society where worklessness and desperation still lurk threateningly for many people.
At the end of the screening I suddenly remembered I'd meant to attend a rally and march against the privatisation of the Post Office. My mood plummeted as I decided I'd probably missed it. I went to another short concert (by the pianist Alexandra Diarescu, including an outstanding performance of Ravel's "Ondine") and did some shopping before heading for the railway station.

As I got off the train I could hear drums and whistles in the distance. After what seemed a long time I saw the marchers, banners held high. The front of the march passed me and I still couldn't see where it ended. Laden with shopping as I was, I slipped into the march and headed onward. After a while my son greeted me and friends called "hello." "How many do you think there are?" one asked. "I thought there would only be twenty or thirty. I couldn't offer a guess. Later the local paper estimated the turn-out at a thousand - not bad for a suburban town.

I didn't walk far - just as well given the cans of baked beans in my shopping bag. It was plain there wouldn't be room for everyone in the hall booked for the rally. I left the marchers who had walked the whole distance to the chairs provided and headed home. My back hurt and I wanted to sit in a comfortable chair. But I was cheered by the combination of Charlie Chaplin, Ravel and a community of marchers prepared to carry banners on a cold, grey day to defend something of value.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Mud and fog

It took a long while to recover from the ice. Gradually I noticed that the cold had become less acute, the pavements were mostly safe to walk on and that muddly brown and a dull, dark green had been added to the dominant outdoor colours of grey and white. There's still mud in the garden where there should be a small patch of lawn. Every so often obscurity returned.

The fog seemed to echo a more general confusion. I don't know how to protest at the cuts with sufficient force. It's not just the loss of public services that puzzles me but the government's willingness to borrow more money so that services can be cut. Raising tuition fees will cost £13 billion in extra government debt - but apparently that goes in a special column in the accounts so no-one need worry. The re-organisation of the health service will cost £1 billion in redundancy payments. Every so often I hear a government spokesman explaining that there won't be any savings till 2015. I thought the economic crisis was supposed to be an emergency.

Meanwhile uncertainty stalks many of us who are neither millionaires nor members of the government. Some people are doing well. The luxury goods market is flourishing. Tesco continues its expansion; its vast retail hangars are no longer consigned to waste land but are intruding in city centres and suburban high streets. Small outposts of supermarkets move into once-friendly streets and undercut the local traders. I'm used to empty shops and office spaces now. Every so often I try to remember what used to be behind the blank glass or below the "To Let" sign but the memory seems to have moved on with the prosperity or extravagances of past times.

I went to rejoin my local library. I haven't been a member for years. Demands of work left me paying too much in fines. I tried using a library near my office instead - I liked the elegant curves of the walls and the helpful librarians ordered books from the County Reserve. But they're turning the building into a Job Centre, cramming the collection into another building and selling off all the books they can't fit neatly onto the public shelves - that includes the entire County Reserve.

Across the country libraries are being closed. Our local library is merely threatened with cuts in hours - and I think it's large and popular enough to avoid the most drastic cuts, at least this year. I missed the campaign meeting so I don't know all the details. But I know the cuts in opening hours, mobile library services and librarians risk won't just wreck a service - they'll wreck lives.

Council spokesmen, whatever their original allegiance, have become passionate advocates of the cuts. Every so often they take a step backward and insist that they don't want to do this - they are acting this way because the government makes them. Every council is fulfilling the government's demands - none is prepared to emulate the councillors of Poplar in the 1920s or Clay Cross in the 1970s and resist and risk imprisonment or bankruptcy. Instead they ask protesters "Do you want us to cut social services instead? Should we take money from children or the elderly to pay for libraries?"

It's not easy to answer those questions - until you look at the children, elderly people and social services who also depend on their local libraries. A library isn't just a place for borrowing books. The crude calculation which assesses the cost of a library at so much per book borrowed ignores the library's full value.

When I consult books in a library I don't always take them away with me. Quite often I look for ideas or information in several books and then return them to their shelves. I use the library as a source of local knowledge. I can consult maps and directories there, find out about clubs and evening classes, see what is happening, enjoy whatever exhibition is on at the time (I particularly like the work of local artists), use a computer if my internet connection is down. Members don't just arrive, choose a few books and then leave. Schoolchildren use the library for homework or just to sit and read for a while. Many locals settle in a comfortable chair for a quiet time with a book or journal. Parents and carers bring their children to special events - storytime for the very young is a particular favourite. I've been to talks, poetry readings, book launches and evening classes in my library - and that's only part of what happens there.

I suppose those who don't use libraries can't imagine that a quiet place with large quantities of books could be at the heart of a community. And those who want measurable results for statistical analysis won't find what they want in by counting loans and library users. Nonetheless public libraries seem as precise an image as I can achieve of what is good and valuable in our culture. They represent what I understand by the word "civilisation."

I'm not a councillor. If I were, I don't know whether I'd have the nerve to face prison or bankruptcy. But the defence of Britain's public libraries, from which I gained so much as a child, is pretty high on my list of priorities - and I'll do what I can to save them. In this government's age of austerity we need our libraries more than ever.