Thursday, 29 May 2014

Review: The Libertine, Bristol Old Vic

I am always a sucker for a few ruffles and double-entendres, so theoretically The Libertine, the latest thing at Bristol Old Vic's main house, should be right up my street.

Photo: Eoin Carey
This production, by Glasgow's Citizen's Theatre has lots to recommend it, from excellent sets and costumes to great acting and a witty script. It follows the fate of the real-life John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who was a famous rake and poet at the court of Charles II. Rochester, who points out at the beginning of the play that he is quite unlikeable, then proceeds to drink, shag, and provoke other people until he finally ensures his own destruction.

I couldn't find anything to fault in any of the performances, and it was great to see a play with a whole bunch of functional female characters, who have personalities and motivations in their own right. There was certainly plenty of ruffles, and double-entendres, and I did genuinely laugh.

Nonetheless, I just couldn't get caught up in the earl's #seventeenthcenturyproblems enough to feel involved. The Earl is rich, he is privileged, he commands the love of several women, to whom he is routinely unfaithful. He might be a genius, but can't be arsed to write a play to prove it. It's true that the character says you will not like him, but at the end, I couldn't help wondering, really, is he an iconoclast, or just a bit of a self-indulgent bore? I mean this as no disrespect to the actor that played the part, since this is a question for the playwright.

The play the Libertine was written by Stephen Jeffreys 20 years ago, and the odd thing for me is not how much it whiffs of the Restoration, which it is supposed to evoke, but of the cultural mores of the baby-boomer generation, with their veneration of rock stars, and the cult of the drunken genius rebelling against conformity. Twenty years later, amidst the massive and unshifting corruption of politics, the unravelling of the ghastly sex offences of the rich and famous in a series of almost-televised trials, and the omnipresent lurk of pornography on the internet, the poor Earl's attempts at debauchery look positively mild.

To put it bluntly, if you find Russell Brand dangerous and edgy, you'll like this. If you don't, you won't. Personally, I find myself caring less and less for anti-heroes in any story I'm exposed to. I'm so cynical about cynicism, these days. Perhaps when one lives in harder times there seems less romance in self-destruction, and more in the simple act of surviving.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Welcome to Uglyville

Exceedingly annoyed this week to find out this old Chapel near where I live is scheduled for demolition. It has, for years, been happily minding its own business as an antique store. The business has not gone bust, it has moved elsewhere, since the landlord, claiming a 'sagging roof' applied for demolition. Built in 1849 as a Methodist Chapel, it would originally have served communities in the working class areas East of Bristol city centre. Until about four days ago, it still contained all the original fittings, including stairs, balconies, and pulpit. These have now been ripped out by a reclamation company.

Now, this building has had a 'sagging roof' ever since I can remember, so I suspect the demolition has very little to do with that and a lot more to do with that more modern malaise, property prices. Especially since the area behind Temple Meads station, just a hundred or so yards away, is currently being extensively redeveloped. An empty site on which a dozen nasty, undersized flats can be squeezed is worth far more than one saggy-roofed chapel housing a local business.

I lived in Bristol during the Blair boom years and it was dispiriting to see acres of the city being covered in nasty flats by property developers, with the ready encouragement of the City Council. While I am all in favour of conversions of existing buildings, many of the new developments, like the hideous Benidorm-style blocks in the docks, are just vile. Also, despite knowing many people from various walks of life across the city, no-one I know has ever lived in one of these new-build flats. One or two live in conversions of old warehouses, but mostly anyone who intends to stay more than a few months in the city plumps for housing stock that has been there since before the 1980s.

Recently, I have noticed that onslaught has resumed. Except that while in previous building frenzies developers took on many genuinely unused or derelict sites, these have now mostly gone, and they are scouring the city looking for easy targets. More or less the last area of the docks which was peacefully run-down, rather than disused, has attracted the eye of the council, who smell the whiff of property developer's money. This area houses several run down historic structures, as well as, until recently, a traditional shipwright that built beautiful, beautiful wooden boats. The shipwrights, which took up a good deal of space and employed traditional craftsmen, has also mysteriously gone. Again, a thriving business, but there is no business, it seems, which thrives as much as property.

(Incidentally, when I took this photo, the area was in use by a TV/film shoot, which it often is. Presumably they will have to make way for the property developers, as well.)

No-one has asked for this, no-one has been offered a chance to talk about it or to say what they want. The only logic in it money. And not even the money-as-a-means-to-get-people's-basic-needs-met kind of money, but just the pure mathematical multiplication of money. It is as if the residents of the city have become completely, utterly irrelevant. Not only that but they are completely demoralised and apathetic: even the smallest local decision, let alone the big national ones, seems beyond their power - or even their right - to influence. Local councillors and even MPs may also oppose some of these things - but money has lawyers, and usually wins.

This is what bothers me more than the loss of one run-down chapel: the fact that we seem to lack the way of thinking to challenge this endless logic of money. We might look at something and say: 'but I like it, it's pretty'; or 'it's a bit of history', or 'that's a local independent business, and people need jobs', or 'nobody asked us, and they should', or 'tourism relies on the character of the neighbourhood'. All of which would be perfectly valid objections, but in the face of those there is only one, impenetrable argument: MONEY.

I feel that we live in ideological times, in which we are all subjected to the reign of one overwhelming, official truth, that money trumps all other things. In the same way that in, say, the political life of Iran, religion trumps all other arguments. Politicians and those involved in public life may be hardline or reformist, softer or harder in their views, but what no-one who wants to have a career, or even to show their face in public, can say, is, 'I reject religion entirely'. Similarly politicians and people in public life in the UK can claim that it makes more sense economically to support the NHS or privatise it, or to pay for museums or not pay for museums, but what they can't really do - what no-one in public life can do, and be taken seriously, is to say that these things are bloody expensive, actually, but they're important because they make us feel safe, or because they make us feel at home, or inspire us to greatness. All these things, which would not have seemed odd to politicians of any shade or colour in earlier decades, have become somehow embarrassing, since only money, like only the holy book, is real.

One result of this, since ugly things are cheap, and beautiful things are expensive, is a great tide of public ugliness, made up of tinny, badly made-buildings and endlessly repeating corporate shopfronts. The maximum amount of money must be wrung from the minimum of space.

Recently, I saw a documentary on TV about the first world war, which featured men marching off through - I think - Preston, in Lancashire. I have only been to Preston once, for a couple of hours, but do remember thinking it ugly. I was astonished by this footage, from 1914, at the graceful buildings, the trams, and the handsome civic buildings which must have been proudly put up by the Victorian industrialists.

I even feel that subconsciously, there is something ideological in this ugliness. When you look at a beautiful building, made with great solidity as well as functionality - say, the front of Temple Meads Station - and stand still and think about it, you think, the people who built that had confidence in themselves. They were proud of their achievements. They wanted it to last, and they wanted at once to suggest a proud history by harking back to medieval castle-building, and to suggest that it formed a gateway to the future, in which you could leave town and explore the world at a previously unheard of 100mph. Even to look at this building is to suggest other priorities in life - pride, Englishness, history, exploration - than the simple exploitation of minimum space for maximum profit.

That is why I think that the ideology of money and cheapness is keen to demolish old things. They were built with other beliefs in mind, and as such, provide a direct, ideological challenge.

I think that one day we will find it very odd that we all believed that economics was a force that we couldn't alter, like God, or the weather. Economics is, in the end, just what people decide to do with their money, and what people do with their money is, in the end, decided by what people think is important. The money is inert, and has no preferences: if you leave a five pound note on the table, it will still be there in the morning. You, on the other hand, will have slept and breathed and dreamed.

I find it very awful that we so easily destroy the places where people before us slept and breathed and dreamed, and worked and worshipped, simply to do the fiver a favour. I am fairly sure in future decades it will look vile and short-sighted and stupid, like the Taliban blowing up Buddhas.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Constance Who?

Few weeks ago I found this book in a local charity shop. I always find old recipe books interesting so I bought it. When I got home I googled the author, Constance Spry, and was surprised to find she wasn't a cook but a florist and floral designer, and something of a celebrity.

It might seem odd to think of a celebrity flower arranger these days, but then a lot of decades would find the idea of a celebrity chef pretty odd too. That she had such name-recognition was why her name is on the cookbook, which she actually wrote with a friend, Rosemary Hume (the woman who invented coronation chicken).

That given, I was a bit surprised I had never heard of her. She sounds absolutely fascinating: from a humble background, she was an educated, working woman prior to World War One, during which she left her unhappy marriage and got a job as head of women's welfare in the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Later, she was a headmistress, and left that in 1929 to set up a flower shop. By 1934, she had a shop in Mayfair that employed 70 people. She was commissioned to do the flowers for various royal weddings, including the coronation in 1953. She'd married again in 1926, to the man whose surname she took - Henry Spry - except she hadn't, since he was technically still married to his first wife. She also had a lesbian relationship with the artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein).

Even her flower arranging was controversial. It included everyday objects and non-flowery things like cabbage leaves, and was inspired by Dutch Old Masters. When the Design Museum in London ran a retrospective of her work in 2004, board member James Dyson threw a wobbly and resigned. Presumably he thought that arranging flowers was women's stuff, and therefore not real design.

We think of the mid-20th Century as a time of domestic servitude for women, but very often I think the women who didn't fit this mould just get airbrushed out, and I wonder if sometimes feminists are as guilty as anyone on this. We think of flower-arranging as a kind of symptom of women's oppression, but as far as I'm concerned any way anyone wants to express their creativity is good. Besides, Spry spent much of her life committed to educating women in various ways, and offering them a chance to gain skills. Is it ok to say that Constance Spry, flower-arranger, educator, bon viveur, barbecue fan and businesswoman, seems like an absolute legend?

Quite apart from anything else, she just sounds like she knew how to live. Here she is, discoursing on train dinners:

"The primary qualification about such food is that it shall taste fresh and never bear the faintest trace of paper flavouring. I asked RH to recall a train meal that she thought good, and she gave me this one she remembered: 'Very good chicken, salad, and not too much bread.' A small spring chicken, cooked in a pan with butter, white wine and tarragon, was split in four and covered in lettuce leaves. With this there were bread and butter sandwiches, (French bread) lettuce and carefully picked watercress, salted water-biscuits, Camembert, ripe pears, and a bottle of claret."

I honestly can't be responsible for any acts of violence that might take place in the Virgin Intercity buffet if you just read that. But seriously, they sound so much fun, Constance and Rosemary reminiscing about boozy train picnics, and so much better than the godawful diet-tips and guilt-trips that fill women's magazines now.

You can buy a recent biography of Constance Spry, by Sue Shepherd, here. I haven't read it, so don't know if it's any good, but would love to know if anyone else has?

I'm glad somebody has written a new book about such a fascinating life. It bothers me that women who don't fit the narrative of the time just seem to get lost, and all these pioneering woman risk disappearing from history. Quite often when I read an old book, and some interesting woman pops up, I go to find more information, only to find there's not even a wikipedia page. I've promised myself that I will at least get round to putting up a couple of wikipedia pages for people who deserve it, so if anyone fancies sitting down with me for a wikipedia session, please let me know.