Monday, 29 April 2013

cards on the table

In March I read Cards On The Table by Agatha Christie. I'm continuing to read through, more or less in date order, the Agatha Christies I haven't yet read. I actually enjoyed this one - from 1936 - quite a lot, certainly the best of hers I'd read for a while, working with a multiple set of detectives and a multiple set of people who had possibly/probably previously got away with murder.

She's generally more witty than people give her credit for, and what would be considered postmodern in other writers, regularly referring to what would happen in detective fiction. I can't remember if I've noted down before the one in which thre was supposedly some supernatural activity/curse going on and someone said - quite early on - that in novels it always turned out to be actually poison, and that's in fact what it turned out to be, which shows a high degree of nerve.

Ariadne Oliver, her detective author character, who's always regretting having lumbered herself with a Finnish detective, is in this one, and has this good exchange (from p113 of my 1981 Fontana edition with a bit edited out) with the friend of a suspect, the end of which is excellent:

'Oh, Mrs Oliver, it must be marvellous to write.'
Mrs Oliver rubbed her forehead with a carbonny finger and said: 
'Why?'
'Oh,' said Rhoda, a little taken aback. 'Because it must. It must be wonderful just to sit down and write off a whole book.'
'It doesn't happen exactly like that,' said Mrs Oliver. 'One actually has to *think*, you know. And thinking is always a bore. And you have to plan things. And then one gets stuck every now and then, and you feel you'll never get out of the mess - but you do! Writing's not particularly enjoyable. It's hard work like everything else.'
'It doesn't seem like work,' said Rhoda.
'Not to *you*,' said Mrs Oliver, 'because you don't have to do it! It feels very like work to me. Some days I can only keep going by repeating over and over to myself the amount of money I might get for my next serial rights.
....
'It must be so wonderful to be able to think of things,' said Rhoda.
'I can always think of things,' said Mrs Oliver happily. 'What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I've finished, and then when I count up I find I've only written thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. It's all very boring.'

'he must be nearly finished by now'

One of Danny Baker's Saturday morning shows, presumably the topic was odd things people did as children man rang in to tell of school friend - forty years ago - who was writing down all the numbers in order. He remembered him as having got up in the four hundred thousands, and that he set aside an hour each evening to do it. That's great enough, but when they were talking about it, Danny must have said something like wondering if he was still doing it, and the man said, in a perfect tone, as if it was reasonable and achievable, 'He must be nearly finished by now.'

Saturday, 27 April 2013

kid's logic: the tooth fairy; monster or puppy in box

Two things, I think both from the same podcast, I think This American Life rather than Radiolab, which was on the theme of kid's logic.

I don't remember the names, but let's say the two little girls are Emily and Jane. Emily has found out who it is who takes the tooth from under the pillow and puts money there: her dad. She tells this to Jane. Jane goes to her mum and says, I know who the tooth fairy is. Who? Jane says, Emily's dad. For some time thereafter she continues to believe this. Striking thing, of course, that she didn't think it was everyone's dad doing the honours in their own house. When you're learning so much about the world, no reason to be surprised by something new which to adults might seem ridiculous, especially when you're told so many other things which are true which to a child may seem magical or inexplicable.

The other thing, a psychology experiment. Experimenter in room with child. There is a box, which at some point the child is shown is empty; the experimenter plays a game with the child and together they imagine that there is either a monster or a puppy in the box. In due course the experimenter goes out of the room. When the child is left in the room with the box, one of two things happen: if they imagined there was a monster in the box, the child will edge away from it; if they imagined a puppy, the child will look in the box.

bartimaeus: the amulet of samarkand

In February I finished reading the first Bartimaeus novel by Jonathan Stroud, The Amulet of Samarkand. I enjoyed it enough that I picked up the second one in the Upper Street Oxfam bookshop before I'd finished reading it. It was Douglas who gave it to me, as he'd read it after James and enjoyed it. It is, I suppose, a book aimed at teenagers really, but nothing in the writing to make it not feel like an adult fantasy novel (apart from lack of any particularly adult material). The scenario is alternative reality in which demons exist and can be controlled by magicians - genie in the lamp style. I wasn't sure about the concept, but didn't find it troubling in execution - not really about good and evil, more dangerous magical powers harnessed (carefully, one slip and they'll turn against you) and used for good or ill. Well written.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

just william; wimpy kid

Of the children's books I've been newly introduced to through parenthood, the first volume of Diary of a Wimpy Kid made me laugh a couple of times. It also pulled off the trick, which is less often achieved than you might think, of writing a novel in diary form where you don't constantly think 'no one would really write that in their diary, it's only there because it's funny to the reader', and furthermore the trick of having a narrator who unselfconsciously makes you see why he's less likeable and admirable than he thinks he is. Sadly, it was very much diminishing returns on subsequent volumes (though I have read them all, still).

Definitely the best, however, has been Just William by Richmal Crompton. My perception of these books was coloured by the tv series from you youth, which I never saw but was aware of, and seemed populated with tedious and annoying characters. But actually reading the first volume (or at least, first volume in modern reprint series - I'm not clear on whether they reflect original publication), which I was doing at bedtimes, was a revelation. The best comparison I can make is that it was like PG Wodehouse for children; dry, witty, adult tone and vocabulary (reminded me in that regard somewhat of A Wizard of Earthsea, which felt like a book written as if for adults but with a deliberately limited vocabulary being what made it a children's book, rather than a childish tone). I'd happily read more of them.

Of course Richmal, like Harper (Lee), is one of those female authors often mistakenly thought to be male; I certainly thought that as a boy.

Friday, 19 April 2013

hamlet - harry kerr, drayton arms

Looking on the Time Out website for somewhere for my possible evening out on Tuesday, I found a Hamlet on in a theatre new to me. I didn't buy online as there seemed to be plenty tickets left, and so after work I made my way to the Drayton Theatre, a room upstairs in the Drayton Arms on Old Brompton Road.

Before I went, the only review hits I got were from The Public Review and Studioclubmag (new to me), which also had a pre-announcement article. (I didn't mind only getting two: I don't like to read too many reviews before I see something, and I tried not to read them too closely; reading them now, they both rather over-egg it, I think.)

The Time Out listing, and other listings, indicated that it was by a Strasberg Method-influenced company, Ouroboros; I'm not sure what difference that should make, but I didn't notice anything obvious.

The Studioclubmag article also had a line, which I think I might have seen in other listings so may have been in their press release, saying 'With the exception of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who are cast as women) the script stays absolutely true to text yet manages to present an interpretation which might just make you revaluate just how much you really knew about this play' - so I wondered what that might mean, but in fact it didn't mean anything for me, although I wasn't disappointed since I didn't really think they could live up to that overstatement. I don't imagine it would have meant that for anyone who was familiar with Hamlet, really, but I may just be overfamiliar. They had the currently fashionable approach that Ophelia is pregnant, with the added twists that she communicates this to Hamlet in the corridor scene (hence his nunnery talk) and that she seems to be inducing an abortion with the rue in her mad scene. Hamlet makes the 'to be or not to be' speech while he is getting ready to shoot up some heroin which R&G have brought for him, but doesn't when he spots Ophelia (not sure how 'true to text' that is...).

All in all, I thought it was pretty good, though a little variable in performance. There was some gabbling of lines, where remembering them and getting them out at speed were achieved but perhaps less so communicating meaning and nuance. But they did start at 8, rather than 7.30, which seemed an odd decision with a play that's long and to be cut down anyway; it finished about twenty to eleven. There was a degree of over-reacting listening too (I think when people are listening their expressions don't change much, but sometimes actors seem to change expression with every clause in a sentence).

Hamlet (Harry Kerr) was fairly good, but a bit too much eye-popping intensity at times. Polonius was pretty good; not too pompous and quite likeable. Gravedigger/Osric (and also Francisco and Reynaldo) was good (Barnaby Ferris); very natural, and I wouldn't be surprised if I saw more of him; very tall, and broad; when I read the biog I saw that he'd been doing stand-up, which perhaps went some way to explaining his relaxed presence. The pre-Hamlet gravedigger scene was interesting; often if there's only one gravedigger they cut the first/second digger dialogue, but here (and they could have had a second digger, so this was obviously a deliberate choice rather than making the best of it - in fact, just noticed in the programme that another actor is also listed as a gravedigger, so there was a change somewhere along the line), the digger was talking to himself, using a skull popped on top of a spade to mouth the second digger's lines, moving the jaw with his hand and saying the lines; it worked well, but took a bit of getting into; I don't often think of ways I think would stage things better, but I think it would have worked better, and got more laughs quicker, if we had seen him picking up the skull in the first place and putting it on top of the spade, bored and amusing himself. Horatio was pretty good, straightforward. Claudius was pretty good, and made a good change in being rather gentle and charming rather than ruthlessly charming, sucked in and further in to sin by love and weakness and desperation. The final line from a ruthless Fortinbras, 'Bid the soldiers shoot' was followed by Horatio and Osric being taken off stage and then clearly it was them being shot. Making R&G female worked fairly well and gave a different dynamic to their relationship with Hamlet, bringing seductive charms; it also - and not sure why it had to wait for them to be women for this to happen - drew out the fact that when they were sent to fetch him after he'd killed Polonius, it was perfectly reasonable for them to be scared taht he might kill them too (which, of course, he did in the end). It was set in the Sixties, but beyond costume and relevant pop music at the start of each half didn't impact significantly. Some of the actors looked a little familiar, but I didn't recognise any of the credits, so probably just making connections through similarities rather than actual recognition.

When you've seen it so often it's easy to focus on the different details of interpretation and staging, and forget to think about what it's like as a whole. If it was your first Hamlet, it wouldn't have been too bad - it was pretty straightforward interpretation, without any major wild punts - but you might have been disappointed with the quality of some of the performances (although less so if you were realistic and remembered you'd paid £13 to see it done above a pub).

It was the night before Mrs Thatcher's funeral. On the way there, going along the Old Brompton Road, I saw two policemen across the road, standing outside a house just off the main road, and when I was on my way home they - or others - were still there, now sitting in a van outside. It was in Rosary Gardens, the only house in the block before Brechin Place. I had a go at it on Google later, but didn't find anything. Who knows whose house it was, or why they were there.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

rango; fellowship of the ring

On Saturday 23 Feb two of us went to the cheap kids club showing at the Screen on the Green - our first time there. I do't remember how cheap it was, but they're always pretty cheap and we usually beat the system by bringing our own snacks and drink, which would be where they usually make their money (though also not drinking a lot means we avoid any mid-film toilet stops, which we were struck by when we watched Hotel Transylvania in the Shortwave Cinema (we had waited outside a long time, and there were only so many stalls in the farmers market there to keep us interested; the guy who turned up eventually didn't seem to know much about the kids screening, there was a kids party going on in the cafe area when we came out (there had been only maybe three or four family groups in the cinema), and they seem to have dropped their morning kids screenings since)). We didn't beat the system this time, though, because the back row or two in Screen on the Green are two-seater sofas with little tables and footstools, and the bar is in the room, along the back wall, so the great novelty of sitting in the comfy sofas with food and drink was not resisted. As often with these cheap showings, there was hardly anyone there; again, about four or five family groups.

The film was Rango, and we really enjoyed it. I had the impression that it wasn't that good, although it did win the 2011 Best Animated Film Oscar (I notice from looking up the list just now that I've now seen all the winners of that Oscar, since it was introduced in 2001, except Happy Feet and Toy Story 3 - cherub has also seen those two, so has now seen them all). A lot of it, especially at the start, seemed quite sophisticated and adult, so I was worried it might not hold younger interest, but it certainly did.

It was good to add a new cinema to our Saturday circuit. Although more often now, like today, we have a look and there's nothing on we fancy (increasingly we've seen them already, of course; some are for younger children; and often cinemas in the same chain are showing the same film). The Hobbit we went to when it was noew but the price difference is so great that you don't want to do it often.

In the afternoon we finished watching The Fellowship Of The Ring, which we'd started watching a long time ago but had begun watching from the start again on the Thursday. I've seen it before, of course, but other interest was greater now since seeing the first part of The Hobbit; it was enjoyed, and wasn't too gory, but there hasn't been a clamour to watch The Two Towers since.

(Later edit: when I reported this interesting fact in the house, cherub said she hadn't in fact seen Happy Feet yet.)

windsor

On Friday 22 February, in half term, cherub and I got the train from Waterloo to Windsor, to go to the Castle. The website advised us to arrive after half eleven; we got there about eleven and saw the queue and decided we'd have a wander in town first then come back. We went in to the small local Windsor Museum - which is in the old Guildhall - for a while, which I didn't do justice to, but we did get a special bonus of being taken upstairs to view the council offices on the first floor, which were architecturally interesting but which included the local court room and therefore the local registry office for Windsor Castle, so we were in the rather unassuming room where Charles and Camilla got married (which was not the main, fancier room as that was overlooked by buildings across the road which were full of photographers) - not that many people can say that.

We went to Nando's, then back to the Castle and in without queueing. It certainly took the pressure off knowing that we could use the ticket for a year and so come back. We whizzed round it, without the free audio guides, which we chose not to take, as there were very few info panels (an increasingly common approach, I think, achieved by giving free audio guides or having informed attendants in every room, but also a reminder that Windsor is a working residence so must save removing and replacing tourist-related material all the time). It was very cold, with snowflakes in the air; we had a little wander around the town after, but there wasn't much to interest us and the cold disinclined us to do it for too long.

the captain of kopenick

On Saturday 16 February we got day seats for The Captain of Kopenick at the NT Olivier, starring Anthony Sher. Written by Carl Zuckmayer (German, most famous as author of Blue Angel; this written the year after the release of that film, 1931), in a new English version by Ron Hutchinson. Bethan liked it more than I did, but I found it rather disappointing, an insubstantial comedy unable to bear the weight of pre-Nazi political import which was being placed upon it. It was interesting that the programme notes referred to it being considered as not very political at the time, and you did wonder how much of the import was as a result of the modern translation, and much more in fact the feeling that even in the modern translation the import was not in the text at all but in the inter-scene stuff, the music and the staging. The publicity did lead you to expect something much more about how the main character puts on this uniform and then people believe him and do his bidding in an unthinking way (this bit based on a real pre-WWI story), but the uniform came quite late in proceedings, and just seemed to be part of the farce rather than the central idea or theme (the quest for papers to prove he existed seemed the bigger theme). It was perfectly well acted, though I don't remember any especially good performances, but I just felt like it had been puffed up and didn't merit such a revival. I certainly don't remember it being particularly funny, or insightful.

The first page of reviews. Telegraph (3/5 stars, says similar things to me - in face so do most of the subsequent ones). Guardian. Standard. Independent. Economist. Londonist. West End Whingers (which reminds me that Ron Hutchinson wrote Moonlight and Magnolias, about the writing of Gone With The Wind, which I enjoyed at the Tricycle). What's On Stage. FT.

tyburn and king's scholars passage

A post on the London My London blog, by Vic Keegan, about the Tyburn river being exposed by the works going on near Victoria, across the road from Bethan's work, with an aerial photo showing it. Among the interesting things mentioned in the article is the reference to 'King’s Scholars’ Passage so called because the privileged scholars of Westminster School were allowed to bathe there hundreds of years ago'; the Passage is an alley behind the backs of buildings between Vauxhall Bridge Road and Carlisle Place, which we sometimes walk along to the Queen Mother sports centre.