Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Bin-sifters of the world, unite and take over!

You might have seen on TV or in the paper last week this story, about dustman Bob Smethurst, who rescued 5000 photos of World War One from the rubbish over the course of 30 years. I think Mr Smethurst is a bit of a hero, and should be given a medal.

Anyway I thought this was a good time to put my hand up and admit I too sometimes take things from dustbins and skips, without even having the excuse of doing it for a job. Things I have found include handknitted sweaters, dresses, tins and sewing stuff; books and sheet music, including these 1940s songsheets.

I also buy a lot of things from the cheap, tatty ends of charity shops (this is where the good stuff always is, incidentally). This 1926 London Tourist Guide was in a charity shop's pulping pile because the spine is damaged. Inside, it is full of fold-out maps, and pristine. The adverts in it are quite fascinating, and is startling to remember how Britain once prospered on millions of small businesses, rather than corporations.

I hate to see things of historical interest being chucked out, and I have a particular liking for things from the first half of the 20th Century, their solidity, the industrial chunkiness and ingenuity of them. I like to think of it as a kind of contemporary archaeology, (though some of my friends just think it's weird).

Often the things being chucked out are things to do with women's lives, like this outsize sewing pattern, in a bag put out for the recycling. I think there is a particular tendency to say 'what's the importance of that?' when faced with something domestic that no longer has appeal or relevance. But that is when the object is faced on its own: put six of them together from progressive decades and suddenly what you have is not a bunch of old crap, but a social history in progress.

1950s Mills & Boon
This social history can be represented by the smallest things: in a jar of buttons there is progress in industrial manufacture and chemistry, changes in fashion, changes in prosperity, wars fought, weddings made and funerals attended.

One of the reasons I like all this stuff is that I feel there is something subversive about it. We are often sold a narrative (The Village, anyone?) in which our working class past is seen as something grim and oppressive, and thank God for the shopping mall. But the things I have rescued, scrounged and bought for pence tell a different sort of story: of skilled labour and communal pride, good Sunday suits, cherished china, trips to the seaside, nights at the music hall. People were not then ashamed of their lives: they treasured and loved these things which had been earned with hard work. Likely as not they had lives as full of meaning and narrative as anyone's. I feel that these items bely a truth which is inconvenient to our current lords and masters, which is about a history that belongs to and is made up of ordinary people, not one that looks down its nose.

So I just wanted to write this blogpost to say Hurrah for Bob Smethurst, but also - if you feel a temptation to hoik that photo album or old tin out of a skip in your neighbourhood, don't be ashamed! Consider it your duty.


All these items came from one clearout that was on its way to landfill. There were eight handknitted sweaters, five handmade dresses, and various other items including the tin and postcard in a frame. I found this christening dress, and the photo, amongst table linen.  I think, given the age of the items, that the baby may have grown up to be the knitter.

Everyone who sees this christening dress says:
'That dress makes me feel sad.'
But nobody exactly knows why.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Review: Jane Eyre, Bristol Old Vic

I love Jane Eyre, it's one of my favourite books. I love film adaptations of it. Nonetheless, I'd have thought it a hard book to put on the stage, not least because it's quite long and complex, but also because lots of the action takes place in open, bleak locations.

This new production at Bristol Old Vic gets round the first issue by dividing the novel into two parts. It gets round the second by having almost no scenery at all, just a structure that the actors work round. When the play began I looked at this dubiously. I was even more dubious about the first five minutes, in which the infant Jane Eyre is born and orphaned. Fortunately, my doubts were swiftly dismissed as the play got into the swing of things. I was pleased they hadn't tried to modernise Charlotte Bronte's magnificent dialogue, instead picking judiciously from her words, adding a few new where necessary. But the stirring speeches in which Jane Eyre stakes her claim to justice, humanity and dignity are present and correct, and as moving as they should be.

Photo: Simon Annand
I was also really pleased that the costumes were undistracting, and era-appropriate. The plain set worked well, matched with the simple costumes and - though this might seem a strange thing to praise - absolutely brilliant lighting design. A number of lanterns did multiple duty as the stars, the windows of Thornfield, and also as the fires that the characters huddle over. It made for a very atmospheric production, in which there was often darkness or half-light on the stage. You really feel yourself clinging to the little warmth which warms poor frozen Jane, as she arrives at Thornfield for the very first time. In the scenes at Lowood School, they threw up the giant, terrifying shadow of the proprietor, making you feel you'd shrunk to the size of a child.

One thing which marked this version out from others I'd seen was that it was very much interested in the journey of Jane, and that Mr Rochester was only a part of this. In other versions the affair with Rochester is the story, with all else thrown into the background, whereas in this I felt that Jane Eyre herself, not Jane Eyre the romance, was really the item of interest. Whether this was because the production was directed by a woman, and so came out with a slightly different emphasis, I can't say. But I liked it. It's a subtle difference, but it's a difference between a story in which love wins the day, or one in which integrity and courage wins the day. This version, I think, was the latter.

Any actor who plays Jane Eyre has a challenge on her hands, as she needs to be both small physically and yet great as a person, and rather mousy, yet have enough attractive about her to drive a man to distraction. Madeleine Worral, as Jane Eyre, was absolutely and entirely perfect, being both dwarfed by the emptiness of the stage, and yet quite able to command it. As for Mr Rochester, played by Felix Hayes, he was fine, though a bit shouty for my tastes. But he had a hipster beard and I'm sorry, Mr Rochester should not have a hipster beard. Also, he was sometimes upstaged by his dog. The dog, played by Craig Edwards, was one of the highlights of the production. Another highlight was Melanie Marshall, whose beautiful, haunting singing was worth the ticket price alone. It's such a relief and a pleasure to see female performers who are not interchangeably blonde, and who have a bit of presence and force to offer.

My only quibble is that I'm not totally convinced they had to stretch it to two separate plays, and do think a bit of judicious cutting could have seen it off as one (maybe a three-act?) play. Nonetheless, a thoroughly excellent production, and one of the best things I've seen at Bristol Old Vic in a long time. I really hope it makes it beyond Bristol, as it definitely deserves more than a short run.

Jane Eyre Parts 1 and 2 is on till 29th march.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Greetings from the sodden, soggy South-West.

You may have noticed we are having a little problem with water here at the moment. Don't worry about me, I live up a hill, the only way I'll come to harm is if the mould in the bathroom gains sentience and mugs me. Nonetheless I'm really pissed off.

This is the second bout of really bad flooding in 7 years (2007 was the last one). I grew up the region and in the first 21 years of my life can't remember flooding anywhere. I do remember first reading about global warming, I think in 1989, so that would be 25 years ago. I thought it seemed scary and disturbing, but what I didn't do, like lots of people who were older and better paid and more expensively-educated than me, was assume it must be rubbish just because I didn't like the implications.

I do understand a prediction is not the same as a fait accompli. However I am quite sure that one of the things that the scientists who predicted global warning warned was that there would be more storms and erratic weather. So far, so correct.

Nonetheless, even as people bail shitty water out of their homes, some people, like environment secretary Owen Patterson, are still going round saying it's all just a coincidence. Even the Prime Minister, who clearly does believe the flooding is related to climate change, is too hamstrung by nutters in his own party to come out and say it.

However, this isn't what makes me really cross. What makes me cross is that all the things we need to do to take on global warming are the things we need to do anyway. Because even if climate change is a myth, the oil is still going to run out. Because we only have a limited amount of fossil fuels, and we keep having to invade other people's countries, and/or cosy up to disgusting religious dictatorships to ensure a supply of it. Because we once used to be the engineering and manufacturing capital of the world, and we now have millions of unemployed while we ship nastily-made crap from sweatshops in China. Because we have a housing crisis while spivvy property developers cover the floodplains of Southern England with overpriced Barrett homes, while perfectly habitable terraces in the North go empty, since there isn't any work.

Tackling global warming would make everyone's lives better in so many ways. More insulated houses? Great, lower heating bills, more pleasant homes, less old people admitted to A&E. More railway stations? Watch those rural economies pick up, and businesses relocate outside London. Less dependency on oil? A massive reduction in exploded squaddies, plus those foreign interventions are really expensive. Build some wind turbines and train carriages, we could site the manufacturing plants in Liverpool or Birmingham and cut that benefits bill they're always banging on about.

Now, clearly I'm not expecting the government to do any of these things. Firstly, doing something would require them to toss aside their sustaining ideology, which is that the free market will solve everything. Secondly, there are so many incentives for them to do nothing. Many people make money out of the industries that perpetuate global warming. I'm sure there might be people who could make money out of tackling it too, but a guy in a garret with a brilliant idea is no match for a petrol corporation with a team of paid lobbyists. And politicians need money from the people who make money out of politicans doing nothing.

Thirdly, the last thing politicians like is a challenge. And if we are going to actually start dealing with climate change there are so very many things that need to be done. Rerouting railway lines. Planting trees to catch water before it floods; encouraging a transport system that doesn't guzzle petrol; generating electricity through a renewable method, an agricultural system that doesn't ship food from one end of the country and back again, an economic policy that means workers don't travel for hours to get to work. It's not one tweak, like pumping more money into the nhs to reduce waiting times. It requires engineering, both social and actual, and plans years ahead, and dealing with difficult, intractable problems, and conflicts of interest, and unpleasantness. It's so much easier to spin a bit, and get rewarded with a headline.

But I'm really sure that them being unlikely to do anything about it, isn't the same as it being impossible to do anything about it.

Recently, for unrelated reasons, I've been reading a lot about World War Two. It's very apparent how everyone understood that collective effort was the only chance of survival. It's shocking, when you're used to the glacial pace of official action in 2014, to realise how fast things got turned over from one purpose to another when everyone put their minds to it. It really is possible to turn things round quite quickly, just as long as you admit there's an emergency. And don't just stand around looking blank, muttering how you 'suspect' that the Nazis might have something to do with the blitz.