Brushes with Culture

This is a space where I can reflect on the many fascinating things that I experience. Some of the things I brush with are Culture with a capital C. Others are just intriguing moments. Sometimes I am brushing with these moments in a hurry. This is a chance to relive those moments in tranquility. These are the stories I tell myself in those quieter moments.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Over for another Year

The Jewish festival of lights, Chanukah, and Christmas coincided on 25th December this year - something which happens every 19 years, apparently. While Chanukah has another seven days to run before all the candles are lit, Christmas has given way today to The Sales, even more quickly than it used to. Already the glitter has been pulled off the shelves of a hundred thousand shops.

I note the shift from alcohol and perfume adverts that seemed integral to ITV films on Christmas Eve, as overnight they are replaced by exotic holiday and half-price sofa slots: I note it with pleasure as a sign of the passing year. (I don't like winter much.)

Sometime between 21st and 23rd of December I read Donne's poem A Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day, being the Shortest Day. This year it is on the 23rd because I forgot to do it on the shortest day. And having forgotten, I don''t fill the house with greenery from the garden - it seems a bit belated.

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

That's the first verse of three. I love this poem for the language, for the ideas, for the number of times I have read it out loud over the years.

I do a bit of research. I learn that St Lucy is celebrated on December 13th, a hangover from the Gregorian calendar when the 13th was the shortest day. And this saint of light (lucia, luce, lussi) is still important to the Swedes and the Sicilians, according to Diana Farrell Serbe, who has chronicled the intersection between Lucy, light and returning day on a site about seasonal foods.

So, I have been celebrating my own festival of light all these years. How apt.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Note to Self

I don't like ballet. I never have. And yet every five years or so, I forget again and off I go. So, let's get a couple of positions clear once and for all.

1) I do not like ballet and I will not take up other people's tickets, even if they only cost £7 each.
2) I do not like Coriolanus. I will never go and see Coriolanus again. Regardless of who is in it.

I have seen Corionlanus three times and each time I recognise that I didn't like it last time, that I don't like it now and that I never want to see it again. And it would be fair to say that I gave it every chance: I caught both Ian McKellen and Ralph Fiennes playing the title role. Separately, of course.

Perhaps, now I've got a blog, I will remember these things.

Ballerinas, Dolls and other Automata

Hugging the Thames again this week for my more diverting activities and in the run-up to Christmas (or, perhaps more importantly to me, the point where the year hinges and the days start to grow imperceptibly longer), it's magic, music and those evocative moments when we reconnect with childhood that carry the day.

I'd been given tickets to The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House. I'd not have ordered them myself, but, as I didn't have to on this occasion, off I went. A side benefit of going to the ROH is the free copies of the Financial Times, so on the way home I read an interview with Mariah Carey on being a self-marketing commodity, but that's another story...

So, ballet. This production offers one of the most beautiful pieces of Christmas styling I've seen. The Independent called it '19th century Nuremberg' ('with snow lying thick on pointed roofs, lace on the dresses and gilt on the gingerbread'), which is funny, because it may well be that the inspiration for Julia Trevelyan Oman's nostalgic designs was indeed Nuremberg, (especially given the original tale comes from E.T.A. Hoffmann, via Tchaikowsky's Russia), but for me all true Christmases echo back to Nuremberg anyway, so I wouldn't really be able to tell. If it felt like a magical world, complete with biting air, clean snow, red ribbon, wooden toys and the smell of real pine and beeswax candles, then it was probably because they managed to capture something that I experienced as a child with my great-aunt... in Nuremberg. It was only later that I learnt there are few places in the world for which Christmas was designed and that Nuremberg is one of them.

A magician with secrets, an enchanted gift, a battle with the Mouse King, a guiding angel and a visit to the Kingdom of Sweets : it is of course the perennial Christmas favourite, The Nutcracker.The ballet draws on all the imagination and fantasy of of supernatural adventures on Christmas Eve, with Lev Ivanov's choreography reinterpreted by Peter Wright in what has become a favourite Royal Ballet production.

So says the Opera House blurb, but all one really needs to know is that it is a story of dolls coming to life. In this production, there is an ingenious moment when the toymaker waves his hands at the bedecked tree at the back of the stage and it starts to grow. As it rises, it widens and all the baubles, the candles and the presents on the tree grow larger and, by the time it has come to a stop, we have shrunk to be the same size as the marauding mouse army that appears next.

So there were things that I truly loved about being there, quite apart from the thrill I get from visiting the ROH and riding up and down on the escalator that looks out at the Design Council across the road. And that's not to mention the fine view of Covent Garden - itself not doing badly at the Christmas spirit, with mulled wine booths, a carousel and a late market - that one gets from the terrace by the top bar.

But, the ballet... How did dance - that raw form of expression which precedes indiscriminate coupling in many cultures; which throbs along with the percussion; which captures the flirtiousness of whole nations - how did dance get so perfected and so lame? What a cul-de-sac! Here were some of the world's finest ballerinas and their partners doing what they were supposed to, meticulously. And it was mechanistic and boring. It reminded me why I only go to modern dance. The only points that had me sitting forward were the Arabian, the Chinese and the Russian dances when everything had a little more gusto. (The points without points.) It got me reflecting that those days of Empire - middle class, white, anodyne Western Europe and its imitators - had nurtured ballet, like they had spawned the cigarette: yet another attempt to make life respectable and tidy. At least ballet isn't bad for your lungs. But it was clearly turning people into dolls.

Several days later, I found the next incarnation of childhood magic at the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. The OXO Gallery was hosting a display of automata. These are toys that do something when you crank a handle. They don't look real at all, but they are usually designed with wit, based on characteristic movements of humans and animals, and some of them are very funny. In this respect, they beat ballerinas.

When I first saw an exhibition like this, I was enchanted. A friend waved a flier at me for a course in designing "Moving Toys" and that was one week in summer taken care of. At the South Bank last week, it was the second time I'd seen a whole roomful of them and the first time since I'd parted from the friends I made in making them. (See Rod Mantell's Flying Doctor, left.) Whether it was that some of the exhibits were broken - the cat didn't lick the milk; the ball had fallen out of the washing machine; the man and woman stood resolutely still, so I don't know what they normally did to each other - or whether I'd crossed the line from admirer to engineer, but I didn't find it magical in a Christmas-y way at all. I looked at the cams, the cranks and pulleys and speculated. I also thought about the half-finished toy I'd put down in the cellar when I got back from the course and realised I had itchy fingers to have another go at it for the first time in 18 months. Well, it's Christmas - time to call out the toymaker.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

What not to Keep

Colliers Wood has long been off the map. Dwarfed by neighbouring Tooting, home, according The Evening Standard, of the singleton, and Wimbledon, home of all things good with strawberries, CW is just as the man on Channel 4's Demolition said, 'unfashionable'. And yet, while I live in CW, I feel a grudging loyalty. (Though one day I shall post a link to my article on the London bombings, where I commit acts of gross belittling... so, not much loyalty.)

Anyway, we, the residents of Colliers Wood, are suddenly famous for something. Even if that something happens to be the 9th most hideous building in the UK. And the only one that nobody could be found to say a kind word about. All the programme's editorial was concerned with the cost of knocking it down and the loss of revenue to the owner that a lower building might bring.

'Demolition' is a public-spirited programme: useful reality TV for town centres. The premiss here, a bit like What not to Wear though less immediate, is 'What to (list to) get rid of'; a fitting accompaniment to a heritage policy of listing buildings to keep. Copied from the Channel 4 website were these comments on our building with the leastest:

The Tower, Colliers Wood, South West London
Located in what is principally a little town of Victorian terraces, where few buildings are more than two storeys high, The Tower, completed in the late 1960s, is 19 storeys of offices in black concrete, glass and steel. When the local council asked residents, 86% described it as the worst thing about living in Colliers Wood.
What it doesn't tell you - and nor did the programme - is that in the 10 years that I've lived in this area, almost everything around The Tower has been pulled down and turned into airhangar-like shopping outlets. That includes a deliciously eccentric water tower that used to rise behind the local church and lend class to the neighbourhood. Long before that, the area that is now the biggest Sainsburys in south London, was occupied by a polluting but colourful paper works through which the River Wandle ran, carrying strips of paper and goodness knows what kinds of chemical. I used to love going past it as a child. Even longer ago, there was a Priory on that spot, of sufficient importance to have housed kings' remains and have a medieval statute named after it, and the ruins are preserved below one of the roads built to sort out the increasing congestion that the shoppers have brought. (You can see them if you take the pedestrian undercut between Sainsburys and Merton Abbey Mills.) We now have trout in the Wandle and new flats boasting 'Life on the River' at the Mills. But has this to say:
Places of Interest near Colliers Wood
No places of interest were found near Colliers Wood, if you know some, please let us know.
Ahhh, Colliers Wood. Perhaps, after its new found celebrity, The Tower, formerly the 'Brown and Root' building to those of us with long memories, would be missed.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Theatre about Women, by Women, for Women

Last week was a good week for me and theatre. Or maybe it was just a good week for theatre and I was lucky enough to catch some of it. Or maybe it's always good out there, but I don't usually notice. Anyway, in the space of a weekend I caught the last night of Shared Experience (left) doing "Brontë" and of Split Britches doing "Dress Suits to Hire" and they were both great.

Saturday night was the Lyric Hammersmith for a version of the Brontë story, written and directed by Polly Teale and using hauntingly dark images from Paula Rego. It opened with the three main actresses donning their 19th century costumes as they explained just how much is and isn't known about the women on whom the piece is based ...fine framing for exploring the fictionalisation of real people. Charlotte left a diary and perhaps this is why she is best fleshed out; perhaps also her relative longevity (she lasted into her 30s and saw off all three siblings - though dying before her father) and the quality of internal conflicts - between properness and the passions that seemed to have run closer to the surface for Branwell and Emily, between a desire for a place in posterity and a normal family life, and so on - contributed to making her the most interesting character. And she describes herself as exceptionally plain: the actress did her best.

Branwell is tiresome; as ill-disciplined as the others are applied in their own ways. The adored one and the great hope for the family, he is the constant disappointment to all. As a whole, the story is a comment on ambition, competition, families and particularly the constraints that women were - and still are, to some extent - operating within. But, I reflected, life has got so much better. As Charlotte dies in childbirth, another voice on stage comments that her complaint of acute morning sickness would be treated easily now. (And, as usual, I was sitting there being grateful for central heating.)

The other thing that struck me were the narrow environs of their world - stressed in the text - and how much they made of what they did experience. Ann asks to revisit the sea when she is dying; she's seen it when she had to take a job as governess and it makes an overwhelming impression. Charlotte talks of her tongue-tied bewilderment in the parties of London when she is starting to make a name for herself. Emily never leaves the parsonage except for an ill-fated few months at boarding school. Boredom, routine and closeness seem to have led to a fantastic mix of observation and imagination. I, rushing from one experience to another, hardly have time to think my thoughts, let alone record them or allow them to mellow into something more interesting. (Which is not to say that I could write something with the structural and romantic genius of "Wuthering Heights", only to say that even if I could, I'd probably never find out...)

"Dress Suits to Hire" was delightful in a totally different way. Written by Holly Hughes with the two actresses who created the roles in 1984, it was performed by Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw (left) again now as part of celebrating 25 years of their company. I saw it at the Drill Hall on the Sunday afternoon. It was noticeably well attended and well enjoyed by women. And, I guess, that is as it should be. The piece is a celebration of lesbian love that goes from surreal to stand-up to night club and back and it's very funny. I may have missed some of the jokes. There were things so heartily roared over in the central column of seating that it was possible to feel that that section of the audience was part of the show from my seat at the side. But with lines like: 'Someone could have an accident and lose a finger in there. ...And it won't be mine.'? It was a very wicked and flirtatious performance. (Men, you missed a great show, but perhaps that is as it should be.)

Structurally, the story is circular. We learn more about the two characters as time passes and we enjoy their games, but both style and form celebrate the locked-in quality of the lovers in the hire agency. Even the bored narration of one character: 'Suddenly a naked light bulb swings into the room.' (and it does) seems unsurprising in a world they define as madly as they choose. This the company's words on it:
A heady mixture of erotic fantasy and hard-boiled pulp drama, two "sisters" who live in a rental clothing shop use the merchandise to try on various facets of their personalities.
It is the opposite of the Brontës' reality in so many ways, though sharing themes: a comedy about passion and sexuality rather than a tragedy; a small world chosen to look in upon rather than a confined existence endlessly looking out. A wonderful point to arrive at. It brought out the woman-in-the-ostrich-feather-negligee in me that I didn't know I possessed.