November 2019 Summary

November has not been the best month for a happy reading frame of mind. Budgets and hassles and events to put on at work. French exchange student to host and ferry around. Court case stress, a settlement that leaves me teetering on the edge of poverty and a growing realisation that a financial settlement does not mean an end to bullying by the ex. So I might be excused for finishing just five books this month, of which only one was a #GermanLitMonth (or Germans in November) read, and abandoning a couple of others.

I needed a change from my usual rather dark reading fare and escaped in the pages of two ‘feel-good’ reads: The Star of Lancaster from Jean Plaidy’s series on the Plantagenets (featuring mostly Henry IV and V) and the sly irony of The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao by Martha Batalha (review to follow imminently).

For German Lit Month, I read the moving blend of History and herstory which is Julia Franck’s Mittagsfrau. I then got a chance to see the author in a lively event at the British Library celebrating the launch of the Riveting Germans magazine and 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The remaining two books were by the same author; I read them with a professional editorial eye, to see which might be most suitable for translating and publishing in the UK and the US. Two very different books by the talented and versatile author Bogdan Teodorescu: a domestic noir entitled Liberty and a political thriller about the sudden death of an investigative journalist Nearly Good Lads (English titles to be confirmed).

There was one further literary event this month, which filled me with a rosy glow of contentment for at least a few days, namely the charity Write-A-Thon in Windsor, which allowed me to spend a whole day reminding myself just why I love writing so much, in the company of other passionate writers.

Finally, in the last two days of the month, I managed to squeeze in two plays. Stray Dogs at the Park Theatre is a drama about the choices faced by Anna Akhmatova during Stalinist times – will she collaborate with the ruthless autocrat in order to save her son? Sadly, Akhmatova’s son never forgave her, believing that she cared more about her poetry than for him and that she had not worked hard enough for his release.

The poster for the 1979 Maximilian Schell film rather predicts the finale…

The second play is another not so cheery but reliable stalwart from my Viennese life: Tales from the Vienna Woods by Horvath, performed by this year’s final year students at RADA. The jaunty background music and farcical moments contrast with the rather stark messages around women trying to survive in a patriarchal, Catholic world.

Five Things to Sing About

Really struggling to find enough things to be positive about this past week, which has been marred by headaches and insomnia. But as long as I have books, plays and music, it cannot be all bad, right?

  1. I tidied up my bedside tables and bookshelves, as the new purchases were interfering with my geographical shelving.
My Russians are now next to Persephone, for some reason…
This is the bedside table I use on a daily basis. It usually looks a lot more cluttered than this, but I tidied it up for the photo. It contains my current reading and library loans, my journal and my all-time favourite authors (Tove, Jane, Virginia, Shirley, Jean)

2. I donated a massive bag full of books to the local library, but I also bought books this week, so my balance is probably zero.

The Malorie Blackman is for my younger son, and I wonder if my older son might be interested in Jean Plaidy – he is currently on a bit of a medieval history reading spree.
You might spot Kaggsy’s nefarious influence here… plus a highly-regarded Greek author about a mother/son relationship (currently a bit of an obsession of mine)

3. Speaking of mother/son relationships, I watched yet another emotionally gruelling play Mother of Him by Evan Placey at the Park Theatre. A play to make the audience think, laugh, cry and gasp out loud! It’s about a family (and especially the mother, who is being judged by everyone) going to pieces when the older son is accused of raping three girls in one night. It should come with a flashing red warning for single mothers of teenage boys – especially when the actor who plays the 17 year old son has the skinny body type of my own 16 year old!

4. ROH Live Encore at my local culture centre: Mozart’s Don Giovanni. One of my favourite operas, can never get enough of it and have watched many a wacky production. This beautiful Jack Furness revival of the Kasper Holten production featured a charismatic Erwin Schrott in the title role, a Don Ottavio I could finally empathise with (Daniel Behle) and an amazing if rather discombobulating set with video projections. It hasn’t quite dethroned my current favourite version: this ‘hipster edition’ live recording from the Festival international d’Art lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence in July 2017.

5. Sadly, I didn’t make it to this month’s writing group meeting, but I’ll be taking part in the Charity Write-a-thon we are organising in Windsor on the 16th of November. All the money we raise will go to Mind. If you do feel inspired to sponsor me, please visit my fundraising page here.

Friday Fun: 5 Things to Sing About

It took some deep digging these past two exhausting weeks, but I finally found five things to rejoice about.

On a Poetry Roll

I’ve been working hard at editing and in some cases rewriting my poems. Maybe I’m regaining my groove!

Unexpected Fleabag Treat

A friend of mine couldn’t make it to the NTLive screening of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag theatre performance, so I was the lucky recipient of her ticket. I loved the TV series, but I thought the stage show demonstrated the range of her acting talent, as well as her writing talent. She is far more moving, able to switch (you as an audience) from laughter to tears in a few seconds.

A Painting I Thought About for a Year

I visited local artist (and friend of a friend) Inge du Plessis last year at the local art trail and open house. I bought a small portrait of one of my heroines Sophie Scholl, but I couldn’t forget another picture that grabbed my attention that time. It was entitled The Suburbs and reminded me of the books of Richard Yates – the everyday blandness but also darkness and loneliness of life there. This year, I visited again and there were plenty of new paintings, but no sign of The Suburbs. So I asked about it – and it turns out it hadn’t been sold and Inge was thinking of painting over it! Luckily, I rescued it from its ignoble fate and am now the proud owner of it. Taking pictures of painting is very tricky – but I hope you can catch a glimpse of why I fell in love with it.

Discovering Norwich and UEA

I was utterly charmed by the town and the university, despite the grey concrete of the latter. I’m trying not to influence my son, but wouldn’t mind if he went there to study. And, if I do stay in the UK after they leave home, I’m seriously considering moving there!

Iconic architecture, the Ziggurat accommodation seems to be the party hub of the campus.
The Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts is not just a gallery but also Avengers HQ (especially in the earlier films).
Norwich Cathedral is just so beautiful and full of friendly people… and a cathedral cat.
Less Gothic, more Norman – a very interesting interior
Strangers Court, so-called because Norwich provided shelter for refugees from the Low Countries in the 16th century. By the late 1570s, one person in four in Norwich was a refugee who had come into the city within the previous ten years.

Going to the Gym with My Son

My older son and I have signed up with the local gym and are egging each other on. A much-needed break from hunching over books and computers!

5 Things to Laugh About 5th August

Here’s my occasional self-booster post, to remind me that life can be fun as well as educational.

  1. Catching up on box sets. I never have the time or patience to watch a full series, but I did the impossible these past couple of weeks and watched a few. Chernobyl with the boys: we were all fascinated, if somewhat shaken. Great attention to detail to give you the flavour of living in Soviet Russia in the mid 1980s, but no, people did not address each other as comrade the whole time, except in very official circumstances or in political meetings. The Patrick Melrose series (by myself, I hasten to add), which made me reconsider reading the novels (I’d read the third one but without the context of the others, I was not enthralled), although there’s only so much I can take of a destructive personality. Just started watching Fosse/Verdon as well on BBC2, which promises to be rather heartbreaking though glamorous.
LOS ANGELES – JUNE 5: The Garry Moore Show, a CBS television comedy variety show. Pictured are guests, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Episode originally broadcast June 5, 1962. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Ok, so my choice of subject matter is not the most cheerful, but it’s just nice to be able to follow a story arc from end to end without interruptions.

2. Going to the theatre, of course. My other great passion, beside reading, is seeing words come to live on the stage, as in the production of Europe at the Donmar Warehouse. This is a really moving play about displacement, refugees and the rise of intolerance and Fortress Europe by David Greig. Written in 1994 and clearly inspired by the war in former Yugoslavia, it is once more extremely topical. Two moments in particular had me in tears: 1) when the refugee father says his daughter blames him for not leaving earlier, but ‘you can’t just leave the country to the wolves’; 2) the feeling of suffocation in this small town without any jobs, without any trains, without a future, and the desperate desire to feel part of Europe. I’ve experienced both of those feelings, and still occasionally feel a traitor for leaving my country when it needed me most… until I remember that it decided it didn’t need me. Despite the tears, it was a riveting performance and I’m really glad I saw it. A powerful start for the new artistic director at the Donmar.

Production picture, photo credit Marc Brenner.

On a more cheery note, I also attended an off-stage performance, in an industrial estate beside woodland, with the really fun immersive experience of The Tempest.

3. Hosting a writing retreat at my house

The founder of our writing group severely said to me, as she entered the house and I was showing everyone where the coffee, tea, food was: ‘I hope you are not going to use your duties as a host to excuse your lack of writing.’ Touché! But I didn’t, and managed to edit all of the poems that I’d received feedback on, as well as select (and slightly edit) a new batch to send. Also, it was lovely catching up with what other people were working on. Last but not least, I was most impressed with one of our members, who had rescued and fostered a kitten this weekend. Someone had dumped the sweet little thing out of a car near his workplace, he caught her, looked after her and managed to find an adopted mother for her all within less than 72 hours. Bravo!

4. Older son. While he is on holiday in Greece, we’ve been chatting nearly every day. He’s taken a ton of books with him, has even done some homework (in preparation for the start of his Maths A Level course). I’ve tried to talk to the younger son too, you mustn’t think I neglect him, but he is usually playing computer games and doesn’t want to be disturbed. But what made me really proud of the older son is that he called me last night indignantly and told me that his brother hadn’t brushed his teeth in four days. Normally, I don’t like tattle-tales, but the next bit of his rant amused and reassured me (at least about him, not about his brother): ‘When you’re young, you do things because your parents tell you to, but at this age, it’s high time you realised yourself how important it is for you to be doing certain things. That it’s for your own good, not to shut up Mama’s nagging, that you do it.’

5. Japanese neighbour. A former neighbour, whom I had befriended back in 2009-2011 during my interlude in the UK between our two stays in France, rang my doorbell unexpectedly yesterday. She had returned to Japan with her family while I was away in France but was over for a short visit, revisiting some of her favourite English places, and wanted to see what had happened to her neighbours. It was so nice to see her again and to tell her about our plans to visit Japan in two year’s time! I hate losing touch with people and am always grateful when I can meet up with them again.

Theatres, universities and exhibitions: a busy week

Are you sure a week is only seven days long? This past week must have included at least ten or eleven days… I am completely exhausted, even though there have been quite a few pleasurable activities.

It all started off with a trip to the theatre. The Omnibus Theatre in Clapham is located in the converted local library (which I hope still exists somewhere, but has merely moved to another building). I saw a hugely energetic and entertaining production of Othello set in contemporary London. Not all ‘modernising of Shakespeare’ works well, but this one certainly did for me. You can find my review here.

The following day my older son and I set off for a mother/son road trip to visit universities in the north of England. He is planning to study Law and it certainly helps that Law Schools seem to be housed in spanking new, purpose-built shiny buildings, rather than the poky cellars or attics to which Anthropology or Modern Languages departments seem to be relegated. (She said not at all enviously). Leeds was vibrant and lively, but perhaps a little too much of a big city for my boy. At first, York was not a big hit with him: the original West Campus with the brutalist architecture of the 1960s disappointed him. However, then we went to the newer East Campus, where the Law School is located.

University of York’s sustainable, edible and wildlife friendly campus utterly charmed me
In the foreground you can see the floating meeting room pods, where I could quite happily sit and write for hours…

Of course we spent some time in York itself, and I foolishly agreed to race my son up to the top of the tower of the York Minster. I’m still living with the breathless consequences of that!

Even half-dead, I could still admire the glorious view from the top!
And the view towards the Minster from the City Walls is just unforgettable – and so green!
This bird-like structure is Durham Law School. This was my son’s favourite from this trip.
Another beautiful city, another magnificent cathedral, but this time I was wise enough not to go up to the top of the tower.

Durham was the only proper Open Day that we attended – us and a few tens of thousands of other prospective students and pupils. It was busy and sunny and hot, but then quietened down considerably in the evening. I was somewhat annoyed that my son ‘chose’ his college by name alone (ironically, a prime example of 60s/70s architecture that he had pooh-pooed in York).

Last but not least, we stopped in Nottingham on the way back. Another beautifully green and calm campus, it went straight up into third place on my son’s wishlist of universities.

The famous Tower which is part of the University of Nottingham’s logo.

What about the mother/son bonding on the road trip? In terms of intellectual pursuits and rational questions, I really enjoyed discussing things with him. However, even though I’ve tried hard to emphasise heart as well as head, create a safe space to discuss and display emotions, there is not much going on in that department. Is it a boy thing? Is it a teenage thing? Is it a ‘boring old out of touch mother’ thing?

Back in the office, I not only encountered the deluge of emails and tasks to complete, but also one enjoyable appointment: the launch of the latest exhibition at Senate House Library. Writing in times of conflict will be open from the 15th of July to the 14th of December at the library (entrance is free). Small but perfectly formed for piquing your interest to explore further, it is divided into four main themes: Writing for Peace, Writing in Wartime, Writing from Exile and Writing in Protest. There is something for everyone here: starting from the League of Nations through to pacifists, a letter from Virginia Woolf describing the bombing of Sussex, pictures of bomb damage to Senate House itself (which was notoriously the Ministry of Information during the Second World War and inspire Orwell’s 1984), a short film about Anne Frank, the Greenham Common protesters, right up to the present day, including Extinction Rebellion flyers.

The Nazi Black Book for England includes over 3000 names of people deemed ‘dangerous’ by the Nazis, whom they would have imprisoned or exterminated at once if they’d invaded.
More recent protests such as the Occupy Movement or anti-Brexit and anti-Trump campaigns by the Left Unity group.

This was the week that was…

Despite a very busy week at work (this is going to be my refrain over the next month or so), I managed to cram in a few extracurricular activities. I took my older son (or should that be: he took me?) to the Manga exhibition at the British Museum and this time it was not quite as busy as when I went with the younger one, so I managed to take some pictures.

Pikachu and Pokemon is what most of us know in the West, but there was so much more on offer…
My boys are rather partial to Josuke from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventures. He is so vain about his hair that he will pick a fight with anyone who comments about it.
Personally, I am more interested in exploring the Saint Young Men manga, which features Jesus Christ and Buddha as flatmates.
Scultpture made out of onomatopeia appearing in manga in Japanese katakana script

With more than 5000 manga artists active in Japan today, and with hundreds if not thousands of series appearing in weekly or monthly formats, it was impossible to cover all of my children’s favourites, so they were inevitably somewhat disappointed. However, as an exhibition exploring the origins of the manga (in the Heian scrolls, for instance) and showing the breadth of manga topics (from sports to adventure to love to classic novels or non-fiction), it was an excellent introduction to a Japanese art and literary form that has conquered the world.

After a short stop in Portsmouth for a conference…

The first time I saw the City Hall tower instead of the Spinnaker Tower…

… I warmed up for my birthday weekend with a trip to the theatre, to watch the charismatic Andrew Scott (aka Sexy Priest in Fleabag) in a Noel Coward play Present Laughter at the Old Vic. This was actually a preview performance, but the cast seemed to slip effortlessly into that blend of physical farce and caustic wit which is signature Coward. It is about an ageing matinee idol who seems unable to let go of his selfish ways and giant-sized ego. A stylish and very funny production, with one significant change to the original: a gender inversion, so that the main character Garry Essendine’s business partner is a woman and he finds himself having a one-night stand with her husband (in the original play the business partner is a man and he slips up with the wife). It felt quite natural and perhaps closer to what we know of Noel Coward and his entourage.

The play was written in 1939 and meant to provide a little light relief from the sombre storm clouds gathering over Europe. It went into rehearsals but the war broke out, so it wasn’t performed until 1942. At a time of not quite as severe uncertainty and gloom, it still provides a wonderful evening of escapist entertainment and belly laughs.

Andrew Scott proves himself a master of comic timing and exaggeration, but also imbues the character with a fundamental sense of loneliness. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan, Evening Standard.

In terms of reading this week, I’ve been cracking on with my selection of American authors: David Vann’s Aquarium very nearly broke me (I just cannot cope with sad children). Cara Black’s Murder in Bel Air was suitably entertaining, although I think of it as more French than American. I am also currently reading Sam Shepard’s miniature pieces in Cruising Paradise, which is very Dakota -American Midwest. By way of contrast, I had a craving to reread Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley – where American penchant for action and the self-made man meet European lifestyle and indolence.

Theatre Review: White Pearl

This play at the Royal Court Theatre, written, directed and produced by women and featuring a virtually all-women cast, has been receiving mixed reviews, so I was not quite sure what to expect. Timeout and The Guardian thought it was a ‘bracing’ (seems to be their favourite word) satire, while blogger Victoria Sadler (whose opinions I usually trust) was angered by it. I went – let me be perfectly transparent – because the son of a good friend of mine was in it, and I was prepared to like him even if I hated the play. But actually I thought the play had its merits, even though it doesn’t quite live up to its own ambitions. I am analysing it below as a social anthropologist and intercultural facilitator who studied Japanese and worked with multinationals in China and Japan (which often included Thai, Korean, Filipino and Indonesian colleagues).

Written by Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King and directed by Thai-American director Nana Dakin, with a colourful, sparky set and lighting that perfectly encapsulates the artificial corporate world of Singapore, it was refreshing to see women talking about things other than men and relationships (definitely passing the Bechdel test). Yes, there is one manipulative stalker ex-boyfriend on the scene (played with cringingly-suitable aplomb by Arty Froushan, whom I’d come to see), but as a Frenchman with a Thai girlfriend, he also represents a former colonial power. I liked the fact that he never became the main focus of the show, and that in the end he is shown as a pathetic figure who gets his come-uppance, rather than the suave artist he would like to be. The Empire strikes back, in a sense.

The premise of the show is quite an interesting one, although some of the motivations are thin or implausible. Clear Day is a Singapore-based cosmetics start-up selling whitening creams to the Asian market. One of their ads – not yet authorised – is leaked online and slammed for being outrageously racist. As social media goes into a baying frenzy, heads must roll and the women turn on each other in an effort to preserve their own careers.

One of the criticisms of the show is that it becomes a bitch fight, but I think this is a little too simplistic. It certainly replicates the competitiveness and ‘blame the other at all costs’ mentality of the corporate world, regardless of whether the characters were men or women. Perhaps in a longer play more male characters could have been introduced and more made of the interplay between them and the power dominance in organisations. But what I thought it also depicted really well was the ‘divide and conquer’ mentality of multinationals when they expand into new markets (Asia or Eastern Europe): pit the locals against each other, while setting up the Western model as the one to aspire to. The speech of the Mumbai-born but UCL-educated director about lateral thinking shows her disdain for the other Asians. The reticence of the Chinese and Japanese workers to engage with each other because of their countries’ historical hostility was another example. The fact that the Japanese woman is ironically the most junior and bullied member of staff (to set this in the European context: imagine Czechs, Poles and Dutch bossing a German around). And of course the shockingly casual racism of some of these women towards black women, whom they don’t even bother to think about because they have never encountered any – an uncomfortable but accurate reminder that it’s not just white people who are racist.

Another criticism of the show is that it is a little too hyper or shrieky – and at some point I had to agree that the shrill voices arguing over each other made it difficult to catch what they were all saying. But from personal experience, I can see two sides of the coin to this shrillness: a) the idea of calm, low, measured tones is more of a Western construct and we need to become more comfortable with a non Euro-centric view of the world and what is acceptable; b) it is very common in all women groups in East Asian countries, where high-pitched tones are perceived as feminine and desirable, so it reinforces the idea that these women are caught up in the cycle of ‘selling unrealistic beauty ideals’.

In conclusion, I thought that the play does a good job in terms of beginning to show Western audiences the differences between ‘Asians’, whom we tend to lump altogether in one big pot, as well as revealing to Asian theatre-goers some of the tensions and contradictions in their own cultures between aspiring to be Occidental but accusing those who do so of losing their authenticity. While it could have done with more well-rounded characters and subtler motivations, I found it thought-provoking. I think this is just the beginning and I hope this playwright will go on to write more nuanced and longer pieces, perhaps TV scripts.