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!
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!
Here’s my occasional self-booster post, to remind me that life can be fun as well as educational.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…
… 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.
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.
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.
The book haul was the best part, but still only a part of my lovely afternoon in London yesterday. I went to watch Betrayal at the Harold Pinter Theatre and, like most of the people there, I went because it starred Tom Hiddleston. But I got so much more from the play, which is about adultery and friendship and, of course, betrayal (although it did feel very ‘Hampstead set complaining about their woes’). Hiddleston not only cuts a dashing figure in a well-cut suit, but is very good as a man whose world is coming apart, and nevertheless tries to stay aloof and in control. There was an enormous (and remarkably well-behaved) queue afterwards to get autographs and take selfies with him (which I watched from a distance with anthropological detachment). I was more impressed with the very minimal staging and subtle lighting effects, which really pared down this production to the dialogue and the universal feeling of hurt.
It was a summery day, Piccadilly Circus was full of tourists, so I decided to take a little walk and search for the bookshop The Second Shelf, which I’d supported via Kickstarter before it opened. You’ll have heard other book bloggers raving about it, and sure enough, I met Eric of Lonesome Reader fame there, who fortunately looks exactly the way he does in his videos and his Twitter profile picture.
I was shown Sylvia Plath’s purse with her lucky coin still inside, a three-volume early edition of Sense and Sensibility that belonged to Jane Austen’s friend and confidante Martha Lloyd and so many other treasures. At the more affordable level, I did not leave the shop unscathed, despite my hitherto reasonably well-enforced book-buying ban (I had a slip-up at the British Library, but that was the only time I bought books since January).
I could not resist a pristine Folio edition of the Ripley trilogy (yes, there were two novels published later, cashing in on the popularity of the series, but these are the original three). I still think Patricia Highsmith is one of the top writers of psychological thrillers ever. I’m also a fan of Stevie Smith and May Sarton, and you don’t often find them nowadays, especially not uncollected writings (including short stories and essays) and letters. Last, but not least, I am a huge fan of ballet and Allison Devers (the bookshop owner) has done such a fantastic job of tracing four volumes of this little mini-series of ballets (published in 1945), introduced and retold by Marion Robertson and Sandy Posner, with illustrations by Joyce Millen. You not only have obvious suspects such as Swan Lake and Giselle, but also two that are rarely performed nowadays: Petrouchka and La Boutique Fantasque.
I have to admit that this visit – and the thought that such a bookstore exists – has made me happier than I’ve ever been over the past 2-4 months. I’ve been without the boys this Easter holiday, but instead of focusing on what I am missing, I am having great fun reading all day! Books are my therapy, my indulgence, my luxury, my necessity. Have a lovely Easter break, everyone!
I’ve only just done a quick summary of recently read books, so this time my round-up for February will involve not only books, but also films and theatre.
Another month of reading aimlessly (and freely). 11 books, of which 2 books about poets and poetry (Charles Simic and Louise Glück), 3 that qualify for #EU27Project (Menasse for Austria – and Belgium?, Sebastian for Romania and Georgi Tenev for Bulgaria). Then there were some easy reads (perhaps slightly too many): Emil, John Boyne, Penelope Lively and Horowitz. There was one disappointment: The Farm had such an interesting premise (surrogate mothers being ‘farmed’ for rich clients) but took far too long to get started and ended rather too abruptly. And there was one that really stood out: Milkman.
Two quite political plays this month. The first was The War of the Worlds performed by the Rhum and Clay company at the New Diorama Theatre – a retelling of the H.G. Wells’ novel and the infamous Orson Welles’ radio adaptiation set in the present-day, when a podcaster decides to explore just why people believe all sorts of fake news. Funny, thoughtful and with a bewildering array of accents and characters from a very talented cast.
The second was a National Theatre Live showing at my local arts centre of the new David Hare play I’m Not Running – about political infighting, spin doctors, male sense of entitlement and single-issue campaigning. Sian Brooke as the main character Pauline was vulnerable and touching but a bit shrill at times, while Alex Hassell as her former lover and now political rival Jack was very well cast, appearing at times to be plausible and handsome, and at other times downright ugly and evil.
In preparation for the Oscars night, I caught up on some films, not all of them nominated, and made the most of my Mubi subscription. I saw Roma, which was moving, but a bit too long and self-indulgent (or do I mean self-exculpatory, sentimental?). I reminded myself of the greatness of Spike Lee and his film Do the Right Thing. I was bemused by the arty-fartiness of Livia Ungur’s Hotel Dallas (great concept, poor execution). I was irritated by Vincent Cassel in Black Tide and amused by Hong Sang-Soo’s send-up of the Cannes world in Claire’s Camera. I had a happy reunion with Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities and a troubled encounter with Beautiful Boy, which makes me worry about parenting with just the right amount of support, love and kick in the back. A film that seems to focus more on the beautiful surroundings and house, oddly enough (perhaps in order to show nobody is immune to addiction?), than on the heartbreak, although Timothee Chalamet is absolutely riveting.
So a busy month of cultural events, which somewhat reduced the pain of migraines and ex-spousal bullying. With spring now in the air, perhaps March will prove kinder in all regards.